Les giboulées are very much a feature of our weather forecasts at the moment; in English, I suppose we would call them April showers, short and sharp bursts of heavy rain often accompanied by strong winds and hail, with blue skies and sunshine in between. It’s definitely a case of dodging the downpours to get anything done outside as I don’t find a sudden torrent of hail down the back of my neck very conducive to happy gardening. Thankfully, there’s a lot to be done in the polytunnel so that has been my warm and dry refuge when the heavens open yet again. Fairweather gardener? You bet! 😊
The sound of heavy rain drumming on the tunnel roof reminds me of two things (above and beyond dismal camping holidays 😂 ). First, not a single drop of rain ever falls inside and so it’s essential that we keep the tunnel well-watered throughout the year; as soon as the temperature rises to a point where the door needs to be propped open during the day, evaporation rate increases rapidly and it’s all too easy for the the soil to dry out. Second, I am feeling hugely grateful and relieved that we are finally clawing back the rainfall deficit which has been an issue since September 2022. Despite the drought in February delivering a whopping 94% shortfall, we were back up to 91.8% of normal expected precipitation at the end of March and with plenty of wet weather at the moment, I am feeling cautiously optimistic about a better year ahead. With that in mind, it’s a good time to make the most of overflowing butts and carry copious cans into the tunnel to really soak the ground. Between the storms, obviously.
First job in the tunnel was to plant a ‘Latino’ courgette; this is something we experimented with last year and it worked a treat, one plant in the tunnel to give us an early crop and the rest outside once all risk of frost has passed. It will need a fairly big space and will be producing fruits for many months so good soil preparation is essential, especially as it will be what I think of as a greedy feeder. There’s a ‘natural gardening’ event happening locally at the moment, with information in various libraries and people welcoming others to their garden to share tips and ideas, so while I prepped the soil I was mulling over exactly what natural gardening means and in what ways the approach plays out in our patch. The space earmarked for the courgette plant grew chillies last summer and once the spent plants were out, I gave the area a good mulch of chopped comfrey leaves, compost and well-rotted donkey dung and in recent weeks I’ve been adding coffee grounds and diluted urine. There were a few weeds easily lifted with my handfork; it will be impossible to reach behind the plant once it gets going so I like to start with a fairly clean slate. I then carried cans of rainwater in to give the whole area a really thorough soaking.
Digging a planting hole, I was chuffed to see how the work we’ve been putting into soil improvement is really starting to pay off now; the soil is ferrous and naturally red but examining a handful closely I could see just how much darker, organic material it now contains, thanks to the regular addition of natural amendments. I put a good dollop of compost into the bottom of the planting hole, spread chopped comfrey leaves over the entire area and then mulched the lot with grass clippings; this does mean the sweet perfume of broad bean and rocket flowers is now overpowered by the pungent aroma of rotting grass but it is worth the short-term pain for the benefits such a mulch brings. Roger had left me a pile of grass clippings after mowing that had built a good deal of heat at its centre which meant a warm blanket going down onto warm soil, just right to nudge the courgette along; the grass will not only retain heat but help to hold moisture in the soil and over the next few months, will break down along with the comfrey leaves and add its own nutritional and structural benefits to the soil.
Although I’ve been mulching the outdoor lettuce in a similar way, I haven’t bothered with the indoor ones as you can see in the photo above. The reasons for this are twofold. First, there is space between and around the lettuce to transplant seedlings of things like coriander and dill which are popping up like mushrooms in other parts of the tunnel and second, I’m interested to see what else appears on its own. There are already plenty of little chilli/pepper seedlings and although I’m not growing any chillies this year (even I had to admit last year’s abundant crop was enough to last us for several years), a big part of me is tempted to let one or two seedlings grow to maturity just to see what they produce. All the varieties I grew last year were open-pollinated so it’s possible we could have tiny sweet chillies or huge fiery peppers in a vast array of colours and the curious cat in me is interested to find out. What I do love is the fact that the seedlings have all come from fruits that dropped right at the end of the season, the seeds surviving the winter inside the rotting husks and now germinating in abundance; it makes me wonder why there can be such a fuss about seed saving at times when nature makes it all look so easy. This little patch alone epitomises some of my ideas about natural gardening: not a single synthetic element involved, just a lot of soil love and a willingness to let nature have plenty of leeway . . . and to observe and learn from what happens. Integrated pest management plays a huge role, too, so that I’m fairly confident that the two slugs I found lurking at the margins will be slurped up by the resident toad or beautifully iridescent golden ground beetles while the decent crop of broad beans and peas rapidly forming at the other end of the tunnel is testament to the busyness of various insects rummaging about in the flowers.
It’s very much a ‘between seasons’ time in the tunnel and it feels a bit like one big obstacle course with an ever-expanding trail of tender plants snaking down the path and overblown growth collapsing in all directions. With temperatures pegged back and those savage hail storms still raging, there has been no question of starting to drag everything outside to harden off during the day so I’ve had to work as best I can around the crowd of pots whilst starting to clear the ground for the indoor peppers, aubergines and melons. The only way to tackle the jungle is piecemeal so I’ve been working in strips, taking vast amounts of spent growth out to the compost heap.
As an aside, it took me days to sort those compost bays out a couple of weeks ago but now at long last they are in a logical order with bay 1 on the right being the current pile, bay 2 in the middle a maturing pile and bay 3 on the left the ‘almost done’ pile; this means in future it will be a simple job of emptying the third bay and tossing the other two one place to the left. As the lidded dustbin I was using to store finished compost has been pressed into water storage service, Roger has rigged up an old dumpy bag on the end for me to use instead; the whole system isn’t the prettiest but it’s highly functional and the rugosa roses in front are finally growing so hopefully it will be screened from view in the not-too-distant future, especially as I’m tempted to stick a few spare raspberry plants between them to plug the gaps for the time being. As the new compost pile is still relatively low, we keep the front off it so it can be trampled regularly ~ Huw Richards is a big advocate of this ~ and also used as a pissoir should we need a garden pee; for every big pile of green stuff that goes in, I add a layer of sawdust, dry dead leaves and other small woody bits to keep a balance and stop the whole lot descending into a smelly anaerobic sludge. Crumbly, rich, dark compost must surely be one of the greatest blessings of a natural garden.
Anyway, back to the Tunnel World where very slowly, a clear(er) planting patch has been emerging; I can’t truthfully say clear because I’ve been leaving all sorts of random self-set bits and pieces such as lettuce, coriander and parsley plus a few bigger radicchio, all of which will have to go eventually but have a chance to grow to useful size before the summer plants around them get too big. I’ve also been potting up a few things I’ve found in the undergrowth which is really just a bad habit of mine; why we need more rainbow chard plants when I already have enough for several gardens is beyond me but I can’t bear to see little plants go to waste. Perhaps I’ll be able to give them away to a good home, along with all the other waifs and strays I’m bound to gather in the coming weeks. I’m also rescuing as much food from the jungle as I can so that this week’s menus have been based on using as much coriander, spinach, landcress, rocket and beetroot (amongst others) as possible. We shouldn’t really have a hungry gap, just a short time with less variety than usual . . . and if I know courgettes, we will be picking the first ones from the tunnel in no time at all.
This week has seen the next wave of indoor seed propagation with ‘Crown Prince’ squash seeds planted in individual pots along with a few butternuts and our mongrel Blues; just the tomatoes, sweetcorn and beans to go now. Everything sown from saved seed has done well so far with the exception of the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which failed totally; whereas the cucumbers I sowed alongside them bombed up and begged to be potted on within days, the melons did absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada. With nothing to lose, I dug them up to find they were all just empty husks, so ~ scratching my head in bemusement ~ I went back to the packet I’d stored them in and had a good look at the rest. Many of those were simply flat shells full of nothing, too, but I did manage to find enough plump seeds to replant and bingo! up they shot. This is definitely a lesson learned: melon seeds are hardly difficult to save but I think I just wasn’t concentrating hard enough on what I was doing (in my defence, last summer wasn’t the easiest of times so the fact I managed to save anything was a small miracle); this year, I need to be very selective and make sure all the saved seed is good and as plump as can be.
I can’t decide whether I like tulips or not. I realise that might seem a strange statement from someone who loves colour and flowers, and to be fair they are making a bold splash at the moment but even so . . . I don’t think it helps that I usually underplant with wallflowers but never got round to raising any plants last year, so those heavy heads on long straight stems just seem too formal for me, somehow. I’m far more charmed by the chaotic carpets of primroses, now stitched through with pretty blue forget-me-not in the gravel, or the swathes of wild cowslips, bluebells and orchids in our verges. When the tulips are over, I think I’ll shift them off into a corner of the garden somewhere to do their own thing in coming years and not bother with them in pots again; certainly, the large blue glazed pot has been earmarked for a fig tree Roger was given for his birthday and with any luck, as nature has its way more and more in the gravel garden, the need for pots of planted colour will be seriously reduced.
When I really started to think about it, the idea of a ‘natural’ garden seems something of an oxymoron as once we move from foraging for wild food to cultivating an area specifically for raising crops then we are surely controlling nature? If we left our garden to its own devices then in a relatively short time it would revert to a woodland of mainly oak, birch, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry with gorse and brambles beneath; much as I admire the concept of forest gardens, the truth is there would be very little food available in comparison to what we can produce from our cultivated plot.
Doing a bit of research into natural gardening, it seems to be a difficult definition to pin down, often coming back to being the same as ‘organic’ gardening ~ as in no use of synthetic fertilisers or other chemicals. Personally, I think it is something far more holistic than that, so that definitions I found referring to ‘gardening in tune with nature’ or ‘ecological gardening’ seem closer to the mark, the emphasis being on treating the garden as a complete living organism where each part is intrinsically linked to all the others and the approach to raising food crops is based on how nature goes about things. I’ve recently been given a couple of (English language) gardening magazines, one of which contains an article about ‘nature-friendly’ soil (no-dig, mulch, compost, green manure . . . ); it’s wonderful that this sort of thinking is becoming more mainstream but honestly, how as a species have we managed to get so far away from what soil naturally wants to be? At what point did it become a good idea to try and banish nature from every corner of the garden? I know not everyone would agree but I like to keep words like cherish, nurture, honour, respect, wonder, reverence and gratitude in mind every time I plant a seed, harvest a crop, water or feed plants, thrust my hands into the soil or simply sit and absorb the essence of the elements, life and biodiversity which make our garden the place it is.
I was interested to see that ‘providing habitat for pollinators’ appeared in several lists of requirements for organic/natural gardening which is fine but what about providing food, too . . . and how about all the other creatures that reside in the garden? There’s no point in putting up nestboxes or creating habitats for living things if there’s nothing appropriate on hand for them to eat and likewise, a supply of food is all well and good but they need relevant places for living and breeding, too. I believe that a natural garden is as complex and multi-layered as nature itself, something that goes far beyond any simple formula or list of suggestions, but yet a very attainable and hugely rewarding undertaking if we are willing to learn through observation and practice. Polyculture is a key concept and one that flies in the face of the monoculture apparent in the fields that surround us; the farmers may be hauling in many tonnes of grass, maize and grain from their vast fields but we certainly win the prize for diversity. Obviously, we’re not running a business or feeding sheds full of cattle but we often speculate on just how many people we could feed from our patch if we really needed to.
With all the benefits of polyculture in mind, this week I’ve been sowing a range of hardy crops into a bed that is already home to pointy summer cabbages, garlic, broad beans, parsnip, lettuce and violas as well as an explosion of dill and calendula volunteers which have surfaced this week. First in were the carrots, without doubt one of our most successful crops last year despite the hot, dry weather; the sandy loam suits them so well and this might be tempting fate, but so far there has been no sign of the dreaded root fly. We had a long row of an orange ‘Nantes’ variety which cropped for many months so I’ve planted the same again plus a second row of purple, red and a rainbow mix because two people really, really need that many carrots. 😂 Next came red and golden beetroot, radish, spring onions, swede, turnips (only because I was give free seed but we’ll see how they go), coriander, two lots of cabbage and autumn calabrese; the cauliflowers went into individual pots in the tunnel as they need a bit more nurturing. I also planted a patch of mixed nectar-rich flowers and another of buckwheat to attract our insect allies and then popped in a patch of spare red onion seedlings left over from the main planting. There’s still room for a square of chard once the plants are ready to go in the ground and rows of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines plus basil which I’m planning to spread all over the garden again this year. Oh, and a row of something else where the old parsnips are, possibly some French beans; by my reckoning that’s about 25 edibles in a bed that is roughly thirty square metres in area. True, the autumn brassica plants will be transplanted elsewhere but there will be space for successional planting of other crops when things like the lettuce, summer cabbage and broad beans come out . . . and I haven’t even started on most of the other beds yet.
The storms have been tearing blossom from the cherry trees in a blizzard of white petal confetti and I am thankful that the trees on our patch flower at slightly different times so we should be assured a harvest from at least some of them. We have a few bags of cherries left in the freezer but having just pulled the first sticks of rhubarb, I am confident now that we can get through an entire year on our own fruit. I for one am very happy to tuck into a bowl of sharp gooseberries or a sweet red berry mix or spiced apple compote rather than peel a Spanish orange or buy southern hemisphere grapes in winter and this year should be even better as our new bushes start to bear fruit ~ literally. The strawberries have their first flowers and the currants have opened tresses of blooms this week, such tiny insignificant flowers but like a delightful deli for epicurean insects if the buzz and fuss between showers is anything to go by. The currant flowers seem to be a particular favourite of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) which are regular visitors and hopefully doing the pollination business for us; the bumbles manage to keep flying despite the weather, better able to cope than the honeybees who find themselves confined to overcrowded barracks and I suspect our feral colony is busy raising new queens with the intention of swarming very soon.
The wind blew a lot of the honeyberry flowers off but I can see tiny fruits forming and I’m also keeping an eye on the saskatoon which has been a mass of starry white blooms so there might be some berries to follow. My favourite flowers, though, are those on the jostaberry, such a striking combination of red and cream and I can’t wait to sample the fruits that are a complex cross between gooseberries and blackcurrants. Roger, who isn’t fond of either fruit, is still puzzled as to why anyone would want to create such a thing yet alone eat it but I’m curious to try and as far as I’m concerned if it’s another variety to add to our fruit harvest, then it’s welcome . . . and if I end up eating them all myself, well so be it!
At the end of a busy gardening day, during a moment when the rain had finally stopped and sunshine burst through to warm the evening, I sat and contemplated the time I had spent outside. One way or another, it had added up to most of the day and I think for me that is what ‘natural gardening’ is all about: not so much me being in the garden as being part of the garden, just a single and fairly irrelevant element interwoven with a cast of many. The list of jobs I’d ticked off was a long one ~ uncovering/covering tender plants, sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting out, watering, mulching, tying in, carting stuff about in buckets and barrows ~ but my day of gardening had felt so much more than that, and compared to the industry of other life forms around me, my application to tasks wasn’t hugely impressive. I’d watched with delight as swallows swooped through the garden then alighted on rain-soaked beds to gather mud and a red squirrel did circus tricks along a grapevine support wire; my ears had been full of the sound of birdsong, the blackcaps doing their best to out-sing each other and everything else whilst they all go about the business of nest-building and chick rearing; a pair of blackbirds hopped across the cut grass and scratched up havoc in the mulched beds, heads tilted, as they hunted tirelessly for nourishment for the clutch of young I can hear in the depths of the bay tree; a mole, all snout and pink paws, pushed up chains of dark earthy eruptions across the grass. The entire patch was teeming with insects, the soil with earthworms and a myriad creatures I can’t even see and everywhere, there was the silent greening and growth of plants both cultivated and wild. I don’t think of soil as ‘dirt’ or slugs as ‘pests’ or dandelions as ‘weeds’ because whether I’m fond of things or not (and I confess, I’m not a slug hugger by any means) we’re all in it together, doing the best we can on this precious piece of land. For me, it’s not a hobby or pastime, but a way of life . . . and if we manage to produce some decent food along the way, then I’m a very happy gardener. Naturally. 😊