What an incredible change. One day I was sitting outside with a coffee, wearing a t-shirt and lifting my face to the sun, the next I was piling on layers of warm clothes and hugging the stove. We literally went from summer to winter overnight which has come as something of a shock after such a mild, sun-drenched autumn. It is, of course, far more seasonal despite the field behind the house having been cut for silage this week and the hollies in the garden covered in tiny white blossoms rather then berries. As the temperature plummeted, we had several days under leaden skies with a biting north-easterly wind which is fairly dismal and more typical of March here . . . but there has been sunshine, too, lighting the frozen garden and landscape both of which are still so full of colour, while overnight fog has dusted everything in a sparkling, crystalline hoar frost. Cold but magical.
Our mature oaks are still hanging on to their leaves and have looked quite spectacular against the blue sky on bright days; the time of bare branches and skeletal silhouettes will come but there is certainly no rush this year. Where Roger has finished laying the laneside hedge, sunlight has been flooding in and this bodes well for our ‘woodland edge’ planting plans as well as the poor pear trees that have been struggling to thrive in deep shade. The hedge will green up and thicken next year but we will be able to keep it down to a more sensible height in the future.
As we head towards the winter solstice, the low sun throws dappled light and shadow across the garden and the frost lingers in north-facing shade all day long. The difference in temperature between those bright and shady spots is palpable!
The garden has been full of growth and energy for so long that I have been dreading the inevitable arrival of a cold snap; certainly, it’s done for tender annuals such as nasturtiums which was to be expected and I think we can finally say goodbye to a tunnel full of peppers, too. In the perennial lasagne bed, the thugs are all now looking sad and flattened in the cold; the rhubarb and comfrey will tough it out but the globe artichokes have been tucked round with hay to protect their roots and crowns ~ they have put on far too much growth this autumn. As for the asparagus ferns, surely now they will yellow and die so that we can chop them and drop them as a mulch around the crowns?
Elsewhere, crops like kale and chard are looking a bit surprised but they are hardy little troopers and should continue to provide us with fresh pickings well into spring. Roots and tubers have come into their own in the kitchen this week, and we have been enjoying (amongst other things) grated celeriac, golden beetroot and black radish in a piquant rémoulade sauce and parsnips puréed with fresh horseradish and cream: seasonal comfort food at its best.
One of the noticeable things about the weather over the last few months is the distinct lack of wind and in particular, the absence of strong gales sweeping in from the west and wreaking havoc in the potager. The young hedging plants we put in the first spring after we moved here are growing well but it will be another couple of seasons at least before they have any impact in terms of breaking up the wind flow and helping to protect the winter garden. The most likely victims of wind damage are the purple sprouting broccoli plants which are currently looking magnificent, so Roger has built them a temporary windbreak using some of the hazel branches left over from hedge laying; we did a similar thing last year and it worked a treat so hopefully we will enjoy another bumper harvest next spring.
It’s pure coincidence, but with the change in weather I felt like I had turned a huge corner where my back problem is concerned; there’s still a long way to go and much I can’t do yet (I am so desperate to be back on my bike!) but in terms of discomfort and mobility, great progress is being made at long, long last. I’ve also experienced a huge surge in enthusiasm and energy as if all those months of supressed motivation and activity have come bubbling to the surface and suddenly I want to be properly busy again ~ not to mention useful. I can’t do much outside but I’ve been extending the bird feeding station and what a full-time job it is in this weather keeping the feathered ones fed and watered! I’ve enjoyed being busy in the kitchen, too, baking batches of mince pies and making the Christmas pudding; we celebrate the solstice and midwinter rather than Christmas as such but that pudding is always an important part of our special feast. I’ve been able to wander about with the camera to try and capture the beauty of the season in small details; I’m so grateful to be able to bend down again, something I won’t be taking for granted in a hurry.
Perhaps the craziest thing I’ve done in the name of feeling better is to sign up for Country Walking magazine’s #Walk1000miles challenge. It’s not the first time I’ve participated in this event; six years ago, I decided to do the #Walk500miles option but came upon it two months late so I ended up having to walk 500 miles in four months. It wasn’t particularly easy going in the Asturian mountains and I just remember the huge sense of relief as I literally squeaked in with the last few miles on New Year’s Eve! In comparison, 1000 miles in a year doesn’t seem so daunting, especially as the registration system has changed which means walkers can choose to start at any point during the year rather than having to wait until 1st January. That suits me very well as there is no time for procrastination or talking myself out of it and I’ve always found New Year’s resolutions dismal, soul-destroying things anyway, so as my fit of madness flash of inspiration came on 1st December, it seemed like a decent time to start. Except of course it wasn’t really, given the list of negative factors involved:
It’s the darkest time of year with months of winter weather ahead ~ not always conducive to getting out and walking, even when wrapped up in suitable clothing.
I still can’t walk properly. I have a shortened stride, a slight hobbling limp and I am painfully slow. Hills are a nightmare and it takes me forever to get anywhere.
That week was the first when I was been able to walk for more than two consecutive days without needing at least one day’s break.
On my first day, I only managed to walk 1.86 miles, woefully short of the 2.74 miles daily average I need.
There is no chance of throwing in a ten-miler to catch up any time soon!
Well, I’m starting on the back foot literally and metaphorically and maybe it isn’t the most sensible of ideas but I do enjoy a challenge.😆 Can I walk 1000 miles in a year? Under normal circumstances I would say yes, no problem; earlier this year, I established a good walking habit, going out every morning when Roger was running and building the distance to a point I could almost justify carrying a flask of coffee. I’d like to think I can get back to that again, although whether it will be in enough time to catch up on all the miles I’m missing only time will tell. For me, the most important thing is that it’s an incentive to get out there and walk, to help my body continue to heal itself, to regain the fitness and strength I’ve lost during five months of reduced mobility, to have a daily dose of fresh air and daylight, to watch the seasons unfold, and to connect with nature and the local landscape on foot once again.
As I’m not a herd animal by nature, I’m planning to tiptoe quietly around the edges of this challenge: I’m happy to promote it on my blog and encourage others to explore it but I don’t intend joining a forum or finding a walking buddy, and I certainly don’t feel the need for a badge, medal or progress tracker chart. I don’t have a smartphone, Garmin, Fitbit or any other technological gubbins so it’s all going to be very low-tech. I’m using the excellent Plotaroute.com website which allows me to map my miles and save route information, and I’m logging my distance ~ and nothing else ~ for each outing in a basic spreadsheet. I have no interest in recording the time taken for my walk, the elevation climbed, calories burned, the weather conditions, my mood . . . each to their own, but for me it’s simply about the miles. I’m not beating myself up about being behind target, either; as a realist (rather than defeatist) I know the chances of cracking this one are stacked against me but I’m determined to give it my best shot, head up, eyes open and one step at a time. Let’s see where it takes me . . . Sarah pointed out that 1000 miles would get me to all sorts of interesting places which reminded me of a wonderful line from Ellen DeGeneres: ‘My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.’ Ha, find me if you can! 😁
It’s been wonderful to finally find some motivation in getting back to my French studies, too; for months, it’s felt hard enough to function cognitively in English yet alone concentrate on the complexities of a second language so I’m delighted to be back on track. I plan to repeat the excellent course I followed earlier this year but in the meantime, I’m takingHugo’s advice to expose myself to as many different ‘points de contact‘ as I can. It doesn’t matter whether I’m reading, writing, watching, listening or chatting in French as long as I’m doing some every day so I’ve had a lot of fun organising access to a range of resources I can tap into over the coming weeks. Daily immersion makes such a difference and I was happy to be able to hold an informal chatty conversation with other customers in the boucherie at the weekend as well as a detailed and somewhat technical discussion with the butcher as to which of her cuts of local beef was best suited to my needs; I know it’s a bit of a cliché but we rosbifs have a reputation to uphold. 😉 Actually, we hardly ever eat beef but I was hankering after the full monty roast for my birthday meal. On which subject, I’m really not precious about my birthday ~ a good meal cooked together with lots of music and laughter is all I ask for. What I didn’t particularly need was snow; I know it snowed the day I was born in Shropshire but honestly, that’s a tradition I’m happy to pass on. I often think it would be fun to have a ‘half’ birthday in June with maximum daylight, sunshine, warmth and roses but I suppose it’s all part of life’s lottery. In truth, I’m just happy to be here and celebrating another wonderful year of life, even though it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster at times.
I’ve also started learning Norwegian and there is no sane explanation for that. 😂 We hope to visit Sam and Adrienne again but there is absolutely no reason to try and get my head (and tongue) around norsk as English is so widely and fluently spoken in Norway. That said, I always feel it’s interesting and polite to learn a few words and phrases when visiting a foreign country but given that I know the dialect spoken in the Stavanger region bears little resemblance to the standard written Bokmål Norwegian I’m learning, it’s a pretty pointless task. Well, what the heck? Languages fascinate me, especially where they collide; I’ve never learned another Germanic language before so my first thought was how logical it seems, there are so many similarities to English. As many words entered English via Old Norse I’m having no problems with nouns such as mann, katt, bok, hus, egg and melk . . . if only it were all that easy. I’ve learned that barn, for instance is not a useful rural outbuilding but ‘child’ and bra means ‘alright’ rather than a female undergarment! On a less flippant note, learning a new language is often cited as an excellent way to improve brain function and I’ve seen research that suggests learning two languages at once enhances the ability to absorb and retain both of them, so I’m curious to see how French and Norwegian rub along together. Apart from anything else, it’s simply a whole lot of fun.
When I was studying French A-level, my teacher often told the class that the best way to improve our understanding was to think in French as much as possible. That’s something I’m trying on my walks and if nothing else, it gives me a list of new vocabulary to check and learn as I try to put names to the things I see on my wanderings; for instance, this week I’ve learned that a kestrel is une crécerelle, coming from a Middle French word meaning ‘rattle’. I’ve also found myself repeating simple Norwegian phrases as I go along, although I’m not sure det er en glad and (it’s a happy duck) is ever going to be of much use in conversation and having cracked jeg snakker ikke norsk (I don’t speak Norwegian) is there any need to go further? Well, sometimes we just have to do mad things for the sake of it, don’t we?
On the subject of Norway, this week has also seen me getting back to knitting and finishing a pair of socks which, if everything had gone to plan, should have winged their way north with us in June. Sam and Adrienne love knitted socks and giving them as gifts has become something of a tradition so naturally I decided to make a couple of pairs to take with me when we went to visit. I hadn’t left myself a lot of time to make them so I was hopping mad when halfway down Adrienne’s second sock, I realised something was very wrong: the two balls of wool I had bought were supposed to be identical but very obviously weren’t as no green and gold bands had appeared on the cuff of the second sock. Now, I don’t mind wearing mismatched socks myself but there is no question of giving them as a gift so I abandoned the project and knitted up a different (matching) pair literally just in the nick of time. I could of course complain to the supplier and manufacturer but really, life is too short and these things happen . . . and as I now find myself with a bonus pair of snuggly woolly socks just perfect for the chilly weather, I’m not grumbling. Actually, two of my favourite pairs of socks are ones I knitted from scraps left over from other sock projects, stripes of different self-patterning yarns in similar colours that made quirky, loveable socks which I have worn and worn. Thinking I probably had enough scraps to knit another pair, I was delighted to find the leftovers will stretch to two pairs; I’m not a fan of the cold and I’m looking forward to the return of milder weather later in the month, but at least in the meantime I’m sorted for a bit of happy wool messing these cold evenings. 😊
Although it’s not the end of the calendar year yet, it feels like an appropriate moment to stop and reflect a little on how things have gone in the garden so far and to start sketching out a few plans and ideas for the new season. Once again, I have totally failed to keep up with any kind of planting diary so thank goodness I can look back through my blog posts to remind me of events throughout the year. I also thought it might be useful to gather everything together under a few headings in the hope of perhaps helping, informing and encouraging others to give it a go. I’m no expert: I’ve been gardening one way or another for many years but my approach has changed over time and I’m always excited about learning from others, implementing new approaches and revising my own practices accordingly. One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing ideas and information with others and it has led to much lively and inspiring discussion and some enduring and valued friendships. Everything I share is built on experience and for me, that’s the best scenario; there is a wealth of helpful advice and tips out there from experts in every field which is wonderful to tap into, but I still believe the best way to learn about gardening is to get out there and do it.
In many ways, this garden project feels like a culmination of everything Roger and I have learned from gardening together over several decades and of all the gardens we have created, it is perhaps the one that allows us the most freedom to play; we’re not trying to feed a growing family while holding down jobs or adjust to an unfamiliar climate or manage challenging slopes. We have a vision of what we would like to achieve but nothing is set in stone and our plans change, grow or fade away as we go along. We haven’t deliberately set out to develop a ‘food forest’ but once the trees, shrubs, hedging and perennials we have planted mature, then that is certainly what it will feel like. Our aim is to create a garden that is productive, beautiful (it’s about feeding the soul as well as the body), interesting, sustainable, regenerative and resilient, a space bursting with ecosystems and biodiversity that provides us with many of our daily needs and enhances and enriches the local environment. Lofty ideals? Maybe, but definitely ones I am happy to stand by. Any good recipe hinges on decent ingredients, so now follows my list of what I consider to be the essentials. Feel free to disagree ~ as I said, I’m no expert. 😉
To say I’ve become a bit obsessed with soil is probably an understatement but I love the fact that there is so much new and completely fascinating research and information about soil biology to consider. I’ve never had a downer on soil, that whole ‘dirt’ thing that so many people subscribe to, because as a gardener I’ve always recognised how key soil health is to the success of cultivation and the survival of our species; I also love getting my hands dirty! However, the growth in understanding of the extent to which soil is a living, vibrant entity appeals to me greatly and I am very excited to embrace it. For anyone raised in the conventional dig-hoe-weed-clean-control mindset, the idea of ‘leave well alone’ can be a bit scary or maybe even seem a totally ridiculous notion, but if we are willing to accept that nature knows a thing or two about building healthy soil and are prepared to give it a go, then the results can be quite astonishing. I love words, so the relevant language such as mycelium, hyphae, actinomycetes, comminution and mycorrhiza is for me a source of fascination in itself, but suffice to say it’s really all about what I call ‘woodland thinking’. In a wood, organic matter falls to the floor in layers and is continually recycled by a wealth of organisms into a rich, fluffy soil; the ground is never bare and there is minimal waste of any kind. To mimic this in the garden, it’s important to protect the soil structure (and hence the all-important life it contains) by not digging, leaving roots in the ground and keeping the surface covered in organic matter, either growing or as a mulch. It goes without saying that the addition of synthetic fertilisers and soil improvers or toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides is a complete no-no. Like a good wine or cheese, it takes time for soil to mature in this way so a little patience and a lot of sitting on hands (step away from the spade, folks!) are needed . . . not always easy, I admit, but well worth it in the end. I know we still have a long way to go here, the garden is very much in its infancy, but the improvement in the soil this year has been tangible and reflected in the health, resilience and yield of the plants growing in it.
When we adopt this woodland thinking (or perhaps it’s also compost thinking?), then any spare biomass that comes to hand offers a golden opportunity to feed the soil but as with so much in life, it’s important to maintain a balance and apply a bit of common sense along with the organic matter. For us, that means spreading or sprinkling a wide range of materials, both green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) in moderation at an appropriate time; I will confess there’s no plan to any of this, we tend to just ‘feel’ our way but again, if we’re happy to be led by nature then it usually works. This year, we have added grass clippings, chopped dead leaves, chopped spent plants, annual weeds, seasoned sawdust, old hay, leaves and liquid feed of comfrey and nettles, coffee grounds and ‘liquid gold’ aka dilute urine, as well as home-produced compost and well-rotted horse manure, the only imported element which actually turned out to be donkey dung, but hey, it’s all good stuff. We’ve used a policy of close planting, no problem as I’m a crammer by nature anyway, and sown green manure and annual flowers as ground cover in uncultivated spaces. Everything has been mulched to within an inch of its life so that bare earth just doesn’t happen. I realise for anyone who likes to see their plants growing in clean, bare earth this is total anathema but I think we seriously need to distance ourselves from the idea of a ‘tidy’ garden because who does that honestly serve? Nature’s messy: let’s roll with that!
I will happily admit that in a former life, the intention of creating a new garden bed would have seen me stripping turf, banishing weeds, digging deeply, forking over, raking down . . . all set for a great first season as the newly-oxygenated soil kickstarted an abundance of activity from those precious soil microbes. It was a short-lived celebration, though, and a short-sighted approach to boot. These days, I sheet mulch without question: down goes a layer of cardboard straight onto grass, followed by alternate layers of green and brown materials, lovingly layered like a beautiful lasagne. Plants go straight into that ~ a generous pocket of compost beneath them ~ and the building of layers continues. I must be honest, I harboured severe doubts about how successful this would be, especially as the extreme heat and drought this year left some of our lasagne beds horrendously dry. The brown layers of twiggy sticks, dead leaves, sawdust and shredded cardboard, added to keep things light and airy and prevent undue slime from wet green materials, just sat there being (weirdly!) light and airy and stopped the whole lot breaking down into something close to soil. No worries though, everything planted in them seemed to thrive regardless but certainly the autumn rains have now helped it all move in a more expected direction. The mandala bed ~ my pet project ~ produced an abundance of growth and food that far outweighed any expectations but if I needed any proof that sheet mulching really works, I only need to look at the asparagus bed. I broke every rule in the book with that one (no clearing of weeds, no digging of trenches, no piling in copious quantities of compost and manure, no buying of male-only crowns . . . ) and yet the plants have romped away like there’s no tomorrow, still sending up spears this late in the year and refusing to die back so I can chop and drop the ferns.
Hügelkultur was a whole new idea for us, too, and again I was a tad dubious about just how successful growing things on a hill basically constructed from bits of tree could ever be. Let me tell you, I am in awe and a complete convert in every way. Our first mound, created from an ornamental conifer that just had to go, has seen a second season of growing the most incredible harvest of squash imaginable. Seemingly impervious to the severe drought, the plants tumbled down the slopes producing a ridiculous amount of fruits as they went; meanwhile, a bonus crop of enormous field mushrooms bloomed beneath the foliage. We made another Hügel bed this year which was also planted with squash and which we’re now in the process of extending for next year. The idea is a simple one: build a hill, starting with bigger bits of trunk or logs at the base, then add branches, twiggy bits and greenery, pack with any other organic matter to hand (we piled on grass clippings and the like) and if you want to plant straight away, cover in upturned turfs or topsoil. I spent last winter collecting the spoil from molehills and throwing it on top which seemed to do the job. Like the lasagne beds, I planted into deep pockets of compost but once they were established, the plants needed very little in the way of watering and no fertiliser whatsoever . . . which is the idea, after all, and it should stay that way for many years to come.
From January 2024, all French households must be able to recycle food waste at home by law and local authorities are responsible for providing composting bins to that end. This won’t bother us at all since composting is already a way of life for us and a hugely important element in our garden system. I would say, though, that in terms of consumable food, we never have any ‘waste’ as we use everything that we have and any leftovers are turned into another meal. What we do compost from the kitchen are fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, spent herbs from infusions along with shredded cardboard and paper, floor sweepings and anything else biodegradable. These are collected in a bucket under the sink and delivered to the compost heap at least once a day ~ one of my favourite jobs. The ‘heap’ is actually a square stack which we layer with green and brown materials as we go along, plus a few comfrey, borage and yarrow leaves and more of that liquid gold to accelerate the process. We have a three-bay system and turn the heaps regularly to keep the composting process going; once a bay is done, we store it in large bins until needed. Turning piles of organic matter into a dark, rich, friable compost perfect for planting in, mulching and enriching the soil is a magical process; it has taken nearly two years to get there but our system is now in full swing and the stuff it is producing is wonderful.
The theory behind our approach to soil building is that eventually we should reach a point where there is no need for additional fertiliser to maintain plant health as a continually improved soil should offer balanced and sufficient nutrition. That said, I think there will probably still be occasions when a boost is needed and certainly while we are in the relatively early stages, then a little extra help is a good plan. As well as applying mulches of comfrey and nettle leaves around the base of plant stems, I’ve been brewing them up into a useful liquid feed by cramming plastic containers with chopped leaves, covering with rain water and leaving to stew for a couple of weeks; a lid on the container is essential as the potions stink to high heaven and act like a fly magnet! I then strain off the liquid and store it in plastic screw-top bottles to dilute and use when necessary; the sludge goes onto the compost heap or soil and I start the process once again. Dilute urine is another excellent fertiliser, being high in nitrogen, and keeping a ‘pee bucket’ in the Love Shack makes collection straightforward. A trip to the coppice lets me collect some woodland soil which is a hugely beneficial organic material: just a single trowelful stirred into rainwater and sprinkled round plants makes both a wonderful fertiliser and soil improver. Next year, I’m going to experiment with making JADAM fertilisers, too.
It’s very easy to be drawn into a ‘monoculture = bad, polyculture = good’ view of the world, but it isn’t quite as clear cut as that; despite many claims to the contrary, monocultures can occur in nature and aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Also, polyculture doesn’t automatically mean plants have to be dotted about individually, there are still good reasons for planting in rows or blocks, just perhaps in ways that differ from the conventional garden pattern. For instance, I still sow carrots in rows, but several short ones in different places alongside other kinds of plants instead of one long row or area of the same. One of the biggest drawbacks of monoculture, apart from the obvious lack of diversity, is that it offers any predators the chance to home in, fill their boots and destroy an entire crop in one fell swoop. We currently have brassicas growing amongst a range of other plants in six different locations, the theory being that even if some of them are rumbled and scoffed, the others will escape and make it to our plates. For me, polyculture is all about diversity, both in the kinds of food on offer and the life the garden can support: why settle for one kind of salad leaf or tomato or butterfly when we can enjoy something so much more exciting? It’s also about hedging our bets so that if one species or cultivar fails, we have plenty of others to fall back on. I don’t set out to arrange things deliberately in plant ‘guilds’ but tend to stick things together that seem to make sense. Carrots with onions and garlic to confuse the dreaded root fly, lettuce under tall plants to provide a living mulch and enjoy some shade, peas and beans where other plants can benefit from their nitrogen-fixing habit. Perhaps there’s an element of laziness, too; I love to wade into a mass of diverse, abundant growth and pick an entire meal virtually from one spot. Also, I think that it just looks so much better, all that variety of plant life jostling for elbow room; life is too short for bland and boring!
In many ways, this follows on from the discussion about polyculture because it’s based on the idea of maximising yields from a given space through planned diversity. I might be rubbish at keeping a diary, but I do make a sketch of all our growing areas each year to help me remember what was planted where, mainly to avoid putting the same types of crops in the same place too often which could lead to a build-up of pests and diseases. Ha! By the end of the year my sketch is usually totally illegible, even to me, as so many spots have been planted twice or even three times with different crops in the name of keeping the ground covered and squeezing every last food-production opportunity out of the season. For instance, where garlic was harvested in early summer there are now carrots, black radish and radicchio to enjoy, and the leeks and chard which cropped right into late spring were replaced with purple sprouting broccoli and red kale. Enthusiastic self-setters like lettuce, rocket, landcress, coriander and dill have popped up under and between other things and I’m happy to let them fill in the gaps in this way. I wrote in an earlier post about how this approach actually does away with some of the conventional worries about crop rotation as long as we are looking after the soil and to me, it makes a lot of sense. I do need to find a way of making less messy sketches, though!
In permaculture and other sustainable / regenerative approaches to producing food, perennial planting gets a big thumbs-up and I understand all the reasons for that; it makes sense to plant a wide range of things that can stay put for many years, producing crop after crop without any need to disturb the soil or ecosystem in which they’re growing. However, at the risk of sticking my head above the parapet, I would argue that it’s a much easier approach to apply successfully in some latitudes rather than others. Let’s be honest, if we were relying wholly on perennial crops in our cool temperate climate here then we would have a very restricted diet! I love artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb and they play an important part in our garden system but even coupled with as many berries, nuts, stems, leaves and tubers as we can muster, they quite simply aren’t enough. It’s all about balance and there is still a need for us to grow annual crops if we are to enjoy a varied and interesting diet; I don’t consider this to be a problem or failing, especially if it’s done within the sort of holistic model I’m describing. That said, I’m trying to increase the number and variety of perennial food-bearing plants in our system ~ this year it’s been mostly new fruit varieties ~ because they tick a lot of useful boxes.
Integrated pest management
One of the biggest changes in my attitude to gardening is that I no longer tend to think in terms of ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’ so the heading for this section is a borrowed one. For years, I’ve always thought of us as ‘custodians’ in our gardens, a small part of the land’s history, sharing the space with other life, leaving our mark and passing on. I feel that’s a bit arrogant now and that the reality is that we are most definitely not in charge or perched at the top of the pyramid; we are a simply a tiny part of a beautifully intricate and complex web of life on which we are totally dependent. Just considering population figures for the soil life is mind-blowing! I won’t deny that slugs and aphids struggle to ooze the same cute factor as red squirrels and hedgehogs but they play a vital role in our ecosystem and it would be wrong of me to vilify these creatures, yet alone try to annihilate them. However, I’m not naïve and since food production is a lot of what we’re about, it’s important to find ways of working with the other ‘hungry ones’ to ensure a good harvest . . . and this is where IPM comes in. Basically, we draw on a range of strategies to minimise the damage to crops caused by beasties without resorting to anything toxic or upsetting the ecological balance; it can involve a little more effort (and wiliness) than throwing or spraying poisons around but that’s a small price to pay and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly hard labour. When a hare decided to prune the young sweetcorn plants earlier this year, we built a temporary netting fence around them and later enjoyed a fantastic crop. Likewise, when flea beetles tried to wipe out my purple sprouting broccoli nursery bed, I tucked a protective blanket of horticultural fleece around them: those plants now stand over a metre high.
Even better is the idea of letting others do the work for us. Habitat and wildlife corridor creation is a key part of our garden project, encouraging predators like hedgehogs, frogs and toads, grass snakes, bats and a whole host of birds to take up residence and tuck in; others such as foxes, weasels, owls and birds of prey pass through on a regular basis and help out, particularly with the Vole Patrol. Wherever there are vegetables, we plant flowers, too, not only to attract useful pollinators but also helpful predators and the more seasons we have here, the more I can base the choices of species on observation. For example, I’ve noticed that yarrow is hugely popular with ladybirds so I’m happy to spread it around the garden, especially under plants like globe artichokes which are prone to blackfly. Dill is a favourite of mine and I’m thrilled that along with borage, calendula and phacelia, it has already reached a level of self-setting which means I’ll never have to plant it again. Apart from being a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers attract allies like hoverflies and parasitic wasps whilst at the same time their smell repels white butterflies, so it’s a good one to have growing near brassicas. Nasturtiums left to trail through the cabbage patch provide a good sacrificial crop for caterpillars should the dill not have seen off enough butterflies, as well as acting like a living mulch under the plants and attracting pollinators with their sunny flowers. I know some gardeners are wary of mulches creating hiding places for slugs and snails but we haven’t found it to be that way (perhaps it’s more of an issue in raised beds?); in fact, it provides cover for top predators such as spiders and ground beetles.
We’re always going to lose some plants to the wildlife but I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective about what is really happening in any one season. I don’t think I have ever seen such an invasion of aphids as we had last spring, they were all over everything and many plants ~ especially the young ones ~ suffered very badly. At one point, I thought we would lose all the brassicas and rainbow chard (which were more aphid than leaf!) but in fact, the damage was negligible. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated when wireworms kept destroying small lettuce plants in the mandala bed and it felt like I was constantly having to replace them but then it occurred to me that it would make more sense to pot the seedlings on and plant them out as bigger and more robust plants. Ta dah! No more wireworm issues and more lettuce than we could shake a stick at. Some of the black radish we have started pulling in the last couple of weeks have seen a bit of wireworm action but they are so huge that the impact is small, whilst in the tunnel, slugs are bashing the mizuna but there are so many alternative salad leaves, both planted and self-set, that we have more than enough for our needs. It’s also important to remember that the most disappointing crops of the year (things like potatoes and swedes) were actually casualties of the weather, so perhaps we need to look at an Integrated Climate Management system, too.
Seeds are incredible things, so small and unassuming yet without them, our species would be doomed, and the miracle of germination is one that continues to captivate me, no matter how many times I witness it. We’ve always saved seeds from the garden but living in an increasingly uncertain world and climate, I think it’s a more important activity than ever these days. It’s an interesting pastime and gives us the opportunity to select for strong plants that are well-suited to our growing conditions. We can have fun with open-pollinated varieties and develop our very own types of some plants, whilst championing heirloom varieties and helping to maintain and increase seed diversity which has seen such a lamentable decline over the last century. Seeds are a valuable currency for gardeners, and swapping or giving them away is a satisfying gesture in spreading the love! The gift of a single precious ‘Hungarian Blue’ squash seed some years ago has blessed us with several generations of offspring which have crossed with other varieties yet maintained the strong genetic imprint of blue skin, firm orange flesh and wonderful flavour. More than anything, I see saving seeds as a kind of insurance policy and a basket brimming with little packets of carefully-selected and dried treasures brings the same joy and reassurance as a well-stocked freezer or cupboards full of preserves. I still buy some seeds from commercial producers because I like to increase our pool of varieties but we are not dependent on them and that helps build the sort of resilience that I believe is essential for the future.
By this I’m not suggesting that you don a white lab coat and zip about the garden brandishing test tubes and a Bunsen burner ~ although if that’s what floats your boat, then why not? It’s more a plea to try different things and push the boundaries a bit; it’s all too easy to get hung up on doing things properly, striving for perfection or worrying about what others think but those sort of anxieties only serve to hamper discovery and shackle innovation. I think we need to be brave enough to pursue the ‘what ifs?’ not only because it makes life interesting but because I believe that, as with seed saving, it might lead to new ideas and skills that we can exploit in the face of change and adversity. Even if it’s as simple as planting seeds of something different or needy, then it’s worth a punt because who knows what might happen? Of my three ‘wild cards’ this year, the melons sprinted home to take gold, the cauliflowers deserved a pat on the back for trying and the swedes, which barely got over the start line, sloped off with the wooden spoon; all good learning experiences that I can build on next year. When I stopped to think about it, much of what we are doing here is experimental and I think that helps to keep us focused and challenged. When I decided to make the mandala bed last year, something completely different to anything I’d done before, I was well aware that I could easily fall flat on my face. Was it really possible to create a circular no-dig bed of some 28 square metres in area from materials already on site (extra cardboard was the only import) and using only spare plants or seed I already had, to investigate the yield from such a system while also setting out to prove that a vegetable patch can look beautiful in a flower garden? The answer is a resounding yes! Despite many ‘wobbly’ moments like those lettuce-munching wireworms, I think I can safely say the project so far has been a huge success and one that has far exceeded my hopes and expectations; okay, my carefully laid paths disappeared under the jungle of growth and the whole thing looked a bit sad and burned up in the heat of August, but it has produced oodles of food and flowers, supported a huge diversity of wildlife and looked very lush and attractive for most of the growing season ~ it still does, in fact. I have several new ideas up my sleeve for next year, one of which is to grow a patch of no-dig potatoes on cardboard covered in a deep layer of hay; it will go one of two ways, I’m sure, but if I don’t try it, I’ll never know.
There are, of course, plenty of other ‘ingredients’ that help to make a good garden; apart from the obvious necessities of sunlight, warmth and water, I think time, space, money, energy, enthusiasm, patience, optimism, a good sense of humour and a strong back (ha ha!😂 ) are all useful additions. Not all essential, though. It’s just as possible to apply the ideas and approaches I’ve discussed to a windowbox as to a large garden, it’s simply a matter of scale. I think that when nature is given more freedom it actually leaves us with far fewer garden tasks to do so the time element is greatly reduced. It’s also possible to grow in abundance on a tiny budget; the mandala bed cost nothing more than the price of a few seeds and yet we have harvested kilo after kilo of food from it for many months. Joking about my hobbled state aside, one of the redeeming factors has been seeing just how well the garden has coped without me for the best part of five months now; Roger has kept on top of the essential jobs such as watering during the worst of the drought and planting out winter cabbages, but otherwise it has all ticked over brilliantly without any input from me. Perhaps I should be upset about that, but when soil is building itself, ‘weeds’ are smothered in mulch or more tolerated as part of the ecosystem, the wildlife is maintaining its own balance and minimising crop damage, self-set volunteers are welcomed and left to thrive where they choose to grow . . . well, what more do I need to do, anyway? Which is why my heading for this final paragraph might seem an indulgent or arbitrary choice but I believe it is so important to have seats in favourite spots, and what’s more, to use them. Often! As gardeners, we are part of a wonderful, thriving ecosystem and it’s crucial that our needs are met as well as those of all the life we share the space with. If we can see our time outdoors as being an integral part of our life rather than a set of chores, then I think we’ve cracked it . . . so, place a seat (or hammock or whatever) somewhere appropriate and plant yourself there; breathe in the air, acknowledge the life around you, watch your carrots grow. Above all, relax and smile: the garden is taking care of itself! 😊
After a short spell of wet and gloomy weather, we have been luxuriating in a run of the most beautiful days imaginable. Early mists have dissolved quickly to leave skies of aching blue and bright, golden sunshine that sets the landscape alight. The mornings are dew-drenched, all slanting shadows and spider silk, and the afternoons are hung with a sweet softness that belies the season. Forget renovation work, the guest room will have to wait! We have been spending every moment possible outside, it is simply too good to miss. We’ve even dug out a couple of garden chairs again so we can sit and enjoy a coffee break outside, watching the birdlife and butterflies, turning our faces to the sun and generally making the most of every minute. These are such precious moments.
Warm weather aside, ’tis the season of soup and nothing brings me greater joy as lunchtime approaches than knowing there’s a bowl of steaming gorgeousness awaiting my attention. Soup is such an easy and forgiving food to make, simple, filling, comforting, delicious, nutritious . . . and when most (if not all) of the ingredients have come out of the garden, so much the better. This is food security at its best. The basic ingredients for our current mixes are garlic, onion, squash, beans and stock, and beyond that, anything can happen and no two soups are ever the same! Sometimes we use a homemade vegetable stock, others a meat stock and there’s nothing strange about that in a vegetable soup, classic French onion soup is made with a rich beef stock, after all. We might leave everything unblended so that it’s more of a broth, purée the lot into a creamy soup or ~ my favourite ~ blend everything bar the cooked beans and stir them in to finish. Flavours and extra ingredients change depending on mood or whatever comes to hand first so that it might be the addition of a rich tomato sauce from the freezer, a whack of fresh or dried chilli, some chunks of potato or carrot, parsnip or Jerusalem artichoke, sliced leeks, shredded greens or maybe some chopped celeriac leaves with their hunger-inducing herbal scent. The latter always reminds me of the delicious fasolada (bean soup) that our landlady Olga used to make when we lived in Cyprus and of which I ate huge quantities when I was expecting our first baby there. Cypriot tradition maintained that if a pregnant woman smelt food cooking, she had to eat some of it to ensure the baby’s good health, so the ever-generous Olga would send her girls knocking on our door with a plate or bowl of whatever culinary magic she was working in the kitchen. How I loved fasolada days . . . and how I didn’t end up the size of a house (pregnancy aside) I will never know! Olga used to buy and use flat-leafed parsley in gargantuan bunches and so given we still have a garden full of the stuff, I’ve been making my favourite soup topper which is a twist on Italian gremolata. Simply take a large bunch of parsley and chop finely with a couple of fat garlic cloves. Stir in a generous piece of hard cheese, finely grated (the classic recipe uses lemon zest of course, but I love a bit of cheese in my soup); in France, I use something tasty and unpasteurised like Comté or our local Tomme de Pail, in the UK a mature Cheddar is just the job. Add a glug of olive oil, bring it together into a thickish paste and that’s it: stir a dollop into hot soup, let that cheese start to melt then tuck in. Bliss in a bowl.
Happily, the fine weather has coincided with me feeling better than I have for months, not exactly pain-free yet and still a long way from normal but certainly far more mobile again at last. As standing up and moving about are now the most comfortable things I can do, I’ve been able to enjoy longer walks along the lanes, drinking in the beauty of the season and the colours of the trees now finally on the turn. There are birds everywhere, including several newly-arrived migrant species, fieldfares being without doubt the most vocal amongst them. There are huge gangs of them in the orchards, clacking away noisily and making fast work of clearing up the windfalls. The bramblings are back, too, chattering cheerfully in busy flocks mixed through with chaffinches and once again, great white egrets are striking statuesque poses in the wetter fields. Perhaps the most exciting sight, though, was a male hen harrier (busard Saint Martin in French) swooping overhead, unmistakeable in its snowy-white plumage with black wingtips and stunning against the blue sky. They are year-round residents here and the focus of a local environmental project to protect them through regeneration of the heathland habitat they prefer: something that obviously appears to be working. Closer to home, I’ve put out the bird table and feeders and it hasn’t taken long for them to become Takeaway Central once again; not that there’s any great shortage of natural food given the weather but I like to think this sort of nutritional support will be paid back next growing season when the aphids and caterpillars appear (are you listening, birds?). One thing I’ve noticed on my walks is what a tremendous crop of holly berries there is everywhere, still very much untouched but no doubt next on the menu for the fieldfares once the apples are all finished.
I’ve been managing a bit of light pottering about the garden, nothing too drastic but it’s been good to feel useful once again. I’ve been spreading mulch around the vegetable beds, tucking everything up before winter and giving the worms a lovely feast to work on in the coming months. Green manure of all kinds is flourishing, and not only in the garden; a short way up the lane, a field of phacelia has started to bloom and a little further on, a huge crop of mustard is in full flower, primrose yellow and smelling of spring. We have carpets of white clover and pockets of buckwheat, linseed and crimson clover volunteers all in flower but as ever, it’s phacelia that’s being a complete thug and I’ve had to chop it and drop it in several places where it was threatening to engulf food plants.
I’ve also started sorting things out in the mandala bed where the first proper year of cultivation has seen an unexpected abundance of growth and harvests. Of the 32 herbs I planted round the edge, only two failed to survive the summer so I’m planning to replace them with a couple of self-set rosemary plants lifted from the gravel. The others have thrived, particularly sage and hyssop, and in many places they have already closed the gaps between them to make a hedge which is what I’d hoped for. I weeded around them, leaving the weeds as a mulch and cut back some of the more enthusiastic growth where it was impinging on other plants. In places, annual flowers had collapsed on top of the herbs and those needed cutting back, too; hard to believe how much I struggled to get them to germinate looking at so much prolific and woody growth now! I worked at ground level which gave me a wonderful insect’s eye view of everything that is still flowering and the abundance of creatures still feeding ~ honeybees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies and many different kinds of butterflies, including a clouded yellow. The latter is an interesting case as it is a migratory species, following the swallows up from northern Africa in the spring, and part of me suspects it shouldn’t still be lingering in Mayenne. Is this a reaction to climate change? Will there come a time when the clouded yellow stays here all winter? Now for a cautionary tale, the moral of which is never let yourself be distracted by the wonders of nature whilst wielding a pair of wickedly sharp secateurs . . . I was so engrossed in the fragile beauty and extraordinary journey of the clouded yellow that it took me more than a few seconds lo realise I’d made a half decent job of slicing the top off a finger. Mmm, I’m not exactly in a fit state to go running for first aid at any great speed, either! As Roger patched up the damage, he wryly observed how typical it was that no sooner had I recovered enough from one thing to be let loose in the garden again than I had started trying to chop another bit off. He’s right, of course; personally, I blame my butterfly mind. 😉
There’s nothing too unusual about a November day that brings clear blue skies and unbroken sunshine except that normally it would follow a night of hard glittering frost and offer a daytime temperature in single figures at best; 18C in the second week of the month isn’t unheard of, but neither is it ‘right’ and once again I’m wondering if this isn’t yet more proof of climate change. I’m not a great fan of cold weather and I love these warm, sunlit days that are such a bonus at this time of year . . . but it would be facile to even think for one moment that they are a good idea long term. Frustratingly, I can’t find a particular report I was reading about COP27 this week so I’m unable to say who I’m paraphrasing (scientist? politician? campaigner? journalist? protester?) but the gist of their comment was that we must guard against releasing a single extra tonne of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere that isn’t strictly necessary. Call me cynical, but that comment had me immediately pondering just how much an event like COP itself contributes to the problem; according to this CNBC report from a year ago, emissions from the Glasgow COP26 summit were estimated to be about 102,500 tons (93 000 tonnes) of carbon dioxide. This figure is roughly double that of the emissions from the COP25 Madrid summit in 2019 and around 60% was accounted for by air travel. Now I am no expert, so I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the benefits of these climate summits outweigh the detrimental impact they have on the environment but am I alone in thinking there is a certain irony in thousands of people travelling from all over the globe to discuss solutions to the problems in no small part caused by, er, thousands of people travelling all over the globe? I know I’m part of the problem, even when consciously trying to tread lightly on the Earth: I put fuel in a car, use electricity and the internet, buy industrially-produced goods and foods, even if in small quantities; I rarely fly but I did climb aboard a plane to Norway in the summer. I am no environmental angel and I am the first to admit I have to do my bit if there is any hope of leaving an optimistic and viable world for my children and grandchildren. I don’t blame others or expect someone else to solve all the issues . . . but I do think, in these days of clever technology, that there has to be a better way for countries to seek a way forward than gathering together at a huge annual summit.
As I’m happy to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve been having another look at my own carbon footprint again this week. It’s something I like to do from time to time, if nothing else as a reminder of which areas of my life I need to keep tackling in order to reduce my carbon dioxide emissions. I knew that the flight to Norway would skew things a bit this year but even so, it’s always good to look for a downward trend with each analysis. As an interesting bit of research, I used several different carbon footprint calculator websites in English and French and ended up with results ranging from 3.44 tonnes to 7.94 tonnes per annum and yielding an average of 5.5 tonnes. In each case, I was well below the national or European average, but not always the global average ~ there was a surprising variation in figures for that ~ and I certainly have some way to go in reaching the global target of 2 tonnes. These calculators are useful tools as a basic guide but there’s a lot of discrepancy between them and I have to admit I found some aspects very frustrating. For starters, the information I keyed in was for our household of two, not myself personally, and I’ve been unable to clarify whether the algorithms automatically adjust to give the amount of emissions per capita. Also, I think our rural lifestyle counts against us as so many questions didn’t offer appropriate answers: one site didn’t give the option of our house being built from stone, several insisted that heating a home with wood meant burning pellets, none allowed for us growing our own food; one site automatically added figures for municipal sewage treatment when we have a private septic tank (no question of a compost toilet!), one refused to let me ride any kind of bike other than electric and several considered gardening to be a ‘hobby’ so that expenditure in that area seemed like an indulgence.
I liked the fact that in some cases I was able to select a statement that best described my behaviour (for example, that I only buy new clothes when necessary to replace old ones) rather than give a rough figure for average expenditure. I was also pleased that some sites took water usage into consideration since treated water piped to homes has a carbon footprint which is all too often overlooked. There was, however, a good deal of cherry-picking going on with detailed questions about showers, baths, laundry and dishes but nothing about toilet flushes, car washing or irrigating the garden; in a similar vein, there was a lot of focus on how much and what kinds of meat people were eating with no consideration of how many meat-eating pets they might be feeding. I think there is also a danger of making simplistic assumptions. Where diet is concerned, I believe people have to make up their own mind and if someone wishes to be a vegan, then that is their right; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean any particular individual vegan is eating a ‘better’ diet than those who choose to eat meat, especially if it is based on imported foods with questionable provenance such as soy, almonds and avocados or highly-processed and packaged plant-based junk food and fizzy drinks. Without knowing more specific details, it’s difficult to make a meaningful judgement.
This, I think, is one of the biggest drawbacks of using footprint calculators; as I said earlier, they are a great basic tool but in so many cases, the information needs to be qualified in order to give an accurate picture. So much of the assessment is dependent on consumption in a linear economy and there’s no leeway to break out of that mould; there’s much attention paid to the accumulation of ‘stuff’ but very little acknowledgement of the accompanying waste stream. For example:
Driving a medium-sized diesel car makes us instant environmental pariahs but I would point out that we bought our car second hand, it is six years old, has been regularly and well-serviced, is extremely fuel-efficient and we do so few miles annually that we only put fuel in it once in every three months or so ~ and that includes any UK trips we make. Would it honestly be better for us to scrap the car and replace it with a new electric model, or should we try to eke as much ‘life’ out of this one as we can first?
When it comes to books, I have to admit to regularly buying big piles of them . . . but they are second hand from a local charity shop so we buy, read and then return for re-sale in a simple yet satisfying and very successful example of a circular economy.
Heating water on the stove using logs from our coppice (which provide space heating and cooking heat at the same time) to make a herbal tea from plant materials collected from the garden, dried naturally then composted when used, is an example of a closed-loop system which it is impossible to describe within the set parameters of algorithms.
We have recently bought a new washing machine to replace the one that was left here by the previous owners; to be honest, it was in a pretty poor state when we moved here and I’m amazed we managed to have nearly two year’s use from it. When it finally stopped working, our first thought was to repair it; Roger is an engineer who once built a car, so a washing machine is well within his capabilities but unfortunately, it wasn’t that straightforward. For starters, the replacement parts needed were so expensive that it didn’t cost much more for a complete new machine (and what guarantee that having replaced those bits, something else wouldn’t break, given the age of the old machine?) The bearings were one of the things that needed replacing and according to the manufacturer’s guidance, in order to do this the drum and its casing had to be split and separated, but when Roger investigated it became clear that it would be totally impossible to do that without breaking them. Talk about planned obsolescence: an expensive machine with a ‘quality’ brand name and A+++ efficiency rating, deliberately designed and priced out of the repair market. What hope for anyone’s carbon footprint when this is the way of the modern world? (Even worse, when we took the dismantled machine for recycling, the site assistant decided that the drum/casing part had to go into the general waste skip ~ and ultimately landfill, I assume ~ because it was impossible to separate plastic from metal. Waste in every sense of the word.)
Overall, it’s been an interesting exercise and the upshot is that I need to keep on reading and learning from a broad spectrum of research and opinion, but I think any decisions about changes in behaviour still need to be based on pragmatism and common sense. After all, it could be argued that it would be best to ditch the car and washing machine altogether: that wouldn’t be impossible, but it would make life less comfortable and more difficult. Looking at the smaller things, should I carry on writing a blog, buying books and feeding the birds or are those all unnecessary indulgences? There’s a lot to think about and much of it isn’t easy, but in the end all I can do is try my best in practical terms and not become too weighed down by it all in the process. I’m not being flippant when I say that bright sides are important, too; that the weather is unseasonably warm could be an indication of very serious things going on but it does mean no heating needed in the house, the laundry drying on a line in the sunshine and a garden full of food . . . and in the short term at least, that’s a little silver lining on a November day.
I can’t believe it’s October already, the months seem to be slipping away far too quickly. Still, it is a gorgeous time of year as we begin to tiptoe softly through autumn; the landscape and garden are still green and full but there is a definite change in the air and subtle hints of what’s to come. The dry, sun-drenched summer could possibly herald a season of spectacular autumn colours, but not just yet. Let’s not rush. Please.
The dark mornings have hurried in far too quickly and caught us unawares, the sun not rising until 8am now although the robins start their silky serenades well before then. There is a cool freshness to the mornings, too, with everything cobwebby and drenched in dew; in the low light, the silvered garden is transformed into something quite magical.
We’ve even had the tiniest touch of frost but nothing that could do any damage, and as daytime temperatures climb quickly in the sunshine to the high teens or low twenties, the garden is still thriving. It’s all looking a bit jumbled and tumbled but I love that sense of chaotic fullness, the mad mix of food and flowers which continues to produce so much for the wildlife and the kitchen. There’s no question of an autumn ‘tidy up’ here, I’m just happy to let everything do its own thing in a way that epitomises my whole approach to gardening these days, especially in my current hobbled state. For instance, in the circular bed that had been used as a bonfire patch before we moved here, there is a lot going on. The tardy brassicas, which hated the heat and drought, are going at it full tilt, giving us plentiful helpings of calabrese and kale. Behind them, Jerusalem artichokes are a show of sunny flowers, their long stems waving at crazy angles or lying on the ground ~ but even down there, the bumble bees love them, and they are welcome to tuck in as we won’t be lifting the tubers for a long time yet. There are a few annual flowers left in the mix along with dill and coriander seedheads which will guarantee volunteer crops next year, and the whole lot is being perfectly mulched by a carpet of self-set phacelia. Some people might call it a mess but to me, it’s just perfect . . . and a million miles from the plastic-infested mound of scorched earth we inherited.
In the Strawberry Circle, it’s much the same story. The strawberry plants, which are still fruiting, have got totally away from me over the summer; my plans to peg down a few healthy runners for new plants went completely awry but needless to say, they’ve done it themselves rather too enthusiastically and I am going to have to get in there and sort things out at a later date. The annual flowers I sowed around the edge look a bit past it from a distance but seen up close, they are still quite stunning, a rainbow of mallow, cosmos, borage, calendula, French marigold, echium, cornflower, zinnia, annual chrysanthemum and dill, all a-buzz with insect life. It would be utter sacrilege to pull them out in the name of being tidy when they still have so much to offer.
It seems strange to still be eating strawberries and the last few melons when apples are so obviously the fruit of the moment. As I wander through the trees, their perfume is intoxicating and every bit as sweet and delightful as the blossom was earlier in the year. I suppose we are at a bit of a crossover point where food crops are concerned; we can still pick lettuce, baby leaves, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, spring onions, young courgettes and a wealth of fresh herbs and petals for salads . . . but this week, the call of ingredients with a more robust crunch like cabbage, carrot, onion, beetroot and black radish has seen us enjoying the first colourful slaw of the season. We are probably moving towards the last of the aubergines, courgettes and red tomatoes which have been reliable troopers for many months but that’s no problem: the indomitable squash are waiting in the wings . . .
We’ve been bagging and labelling the last of our saved seeds this week and I’m really thrilled with just how well-provisioned we are for next year. As well as drying and storing in the conventional way, I’m experimenting with a few other ideas, too, such as burying a whole leek flower head in a pot of compost to see what happens. There’s also a tremendous amount of self-set germination going on all around the patch; as well as rocket and landcress, the Not Garden now boasts a carpet of young chive plants and a drift of young lettuces. The latter, in fact, are popping up everywhere which has me smiling given how I’ve struggled for years to save lettuce seed properly; this year has suited them so well, and given that many of the volunteers are ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’, I’m interested to see if they live up to their name and survive the colder months. One of the most abundant patch of seedlings has appeared in the gravel just outside the front door: well, that could well be a talking point for visitors!
I’ve always liked it when visitors turn up on the doorstep unannounced. I know it’s lovely to welcome expected guests, making an effort to clean the house a bit, bake biscuits and bring in fresh flowers, but there is always something sweetly informal about surprise visits that I also enjoy. Anyone who pops in like that is always happy to take us as they find us and if the house is a tip bit messy and the biccy jar is empty, no-one’s bothered ~ in fact, I would say it’s a sign of a comfortable and genuine relationship. So it was that I was delighted a few days ago when my friend Rolande turned up out of the blue; a sprightly 77 year-old who lives several kilometres away, she had fancied doing a ‘petit tour‘ on her bike and called in to say hello and check on progress in our jardin anglais. I love chatting to Rolande, she has a wicked sense of humour and talks nineteen to the dozen, something which is a bit of an issue for her English neighbours who tell her she talks too fast. Did I agree? Well, I replied diplomatically, I think we all tend to rattle away in our mother tongue, and anyway keeping up with her tsunami of words is an excellent workout for my conversational French. To be fair to the Brits, there is also a marked local accent and a patois spoken by some elderly people which can take some tuning in to. When we first lived here ten years ago, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why our neighbour Daniel spent so much time talking about le bouton, pronounced ‘boot – on’ (the button) until finally the penny dropped: what he was actually saying was le beau temps (good weather) in the local accent which was totally lost on my (then) untrained ear!
Anyway, back to Rolande who usually has a little something to tut about whenever we meet and this time it was the fact that she has had an official house number imposed on her. French addresses are blissfully simple: house number and street name, postcode, then village, town or city. We country dwellers live in what is referred to as a lieu-dit (literally a ‘place’) so instead of a number and street name, the place name is the first line of our address and I love how so many of them reflect the historic busyness of these rural areas (the haberdashery, the basket weavers, the log store, the butcher’s shop), as well as the natural world (the foxes’ den, the rocky place, the hill of periwinkles). The problem with the system is that without numbers, all properties in the same lieu-dit have the same address ~ not so much an issue for the post people who are local and know where everyone lives but a bit tricky for anyone else making deliveries, something which is (sadly) becoming more frequent with the rise in online shopping. Most people have an external postbox but the name labels tend to fade which isn’t much help to delivery drivers who start their day in depots as far away as Le Mans. The upshot is that we have all recently been given a number, a state of affairs Rolande is finding totally absurd given she has lived in her house for decades and no-one has ever struggled to find her. It’s a small thing, really, and makes no odds to us whatsoever, but there is something that has left us a bit baffled: we live in splendid isolation, we are literally the only house in the lieu-dit . . . so how come we are now officially numbertwo? 😕
One visitor we are definitely expecting is Joël, a local stonemason who we have known for years and who is going to start some work for us any day now. Like Rolande, he has a wonderful sense of humour and is always on a (hopeless?) mission to have me speaking flawless French, so that our conversations tend to be part chat and banter, part grammar lesson ~ it’s certainly a great way to learn. Joël is a true artisan, a master of his craft who takes an immense pride in his projects; we have been waiting more than a year for his arrival as he is snowed under with work . . . great for business, but the reason isn’t a happy one. He has always had at least one apprentice under his wing but now he says that young people just don’t seem interested in training anymore; the work is physically hard and doesn’t hold much attraction when there are easier alternatives on offer. As the old masters retire ~ as Joël intends to do in the next couple of years ~ stonemasons are becoming scarcer all the time with no younger generation following on behind, hence the inundation of work requests. I think this is a very sad situation particularly as, along with many other people, my preferred vision for the future is of a move back towards these practical, worthy and sustainable crafts within local communities, the often ancient knowledge and skills being passed on to the next generation. I’m now wondering what the future will bring and who will care for the beautiful stone buildings that are such a part of the local heritage and landscape?
I have a friend running in the London Marathon and I shall be cheering her on in spirit as she tackles the iconic 26 miles / 42 kilometres for the very first time at the age of 61 ~ what an inspiration! It wouldn’t do for me, however: I don’t like London, I have no intention of ever running a marathon (a half-marathon five years ago was more than enough) and I hate crowds, but I know for many people it’s a huge celebration of running and humanity. Before we travelled to Norway in June, I was training to run 5k ~ far more my sort of distance ~ as Stavanger has a weekly Parkrun and Roger and I thought it would be a great thing to do while we were there. Parkrun is a brilliant concept and something we like to support when we can, and the route looked truly beautiful, going all round the lake at Mosvatnet and climbing to the viewing point at Vålandstårnet. Having not run for some time, I stuck religiously to my training plan only to find out shortly before we travelled that the Parkrun was cancelled because a weekend music festival would mean some of the paths were closed. Who’d believe such bad timing?
The situation with my back has meant I haven’t been able to even think about running since our return from Norway, and as in all honesty it’s never exactly been my best thing, I haven’t felt too sad about that. 😆 Walking, though, is another matter and I am so frustrated that for three months now, I’ve been unable to stride out and enjoy a few decent local hikes. It seems like such a waste of the season, especially as we are enjoying some beautifully warm, sunny days now and the countryside looks so very lovely. Roger came home from a run this week with a handful of meaty chestnuts, huge glossy treasures that grow in such abundance here; we reach for them often as a winter comfort food, so good roasted with vegetables and chopped into crumbles or stuffings. Last year, we had some wonderful wanders through the local woods, foraging as we went, in a way which always feels to me like a true celebration of the season. This year, I have to be content with following the fairy trails of fungi round the garden and leaving Roger to go further afield on his own ~ there will be chestnuts to store, but no thanks to me. Sigh. Things are improving, but only very slowly. I just have to be patient . . .
Unlike me, Roger has been running like a demon and, with his fitness back, he has started taking part in races again. He’s still not as fast as he’d like to be, but he’s already qualified for the French 10k championship next year on the back of his results so I’m impressed, even if he is calling himself Captain Slow. He’s joined the local running club so now has a French athletics licence, a new green club vest and, although he’s always preferred to run alone, he’s really enjoying the club training nights. They are a friendly and welcoming bunch who are meeting him halfway with language ~ it’s a great incentive to learn and improve ~ and he has entered plenty of upcoming events as part of the team. A recent evening race in Alençon followed a route through the historic centre of the town and involved running through several buildings: definitely a first for Roger, that one!
As well as running this week, Roger has been cutting the wide swathes of long grass that we purposely leave around the margins of our patch. It’s a hefty once-a-year job but as much as anything, it means we can find and check all the young trees that we planted in these wilder areas at the beginning of the year. Keeping them watered through the drought was a labour of love and, inevitably, they haven’t all survived, but we’re hoping a few of the ‘doubtfuls’ will grow back from their roots. There’s plenty to celebrate, though, and I’m particularly chuffed with the red dogwoods grown from cuttings which should make a splash of winter colour mixed through with various willows.
Elsewhere, other young trees that went in as nothing more than bare-rooted twigs are looking healthy and happy as they start to make an impact with their autumn colours.
In contrast to the wild margins, where the grass has been mown this year we have seen an explosion of fungi over the last few days; so many different species in mushroomy blooms and trails, they are completely magical. Their presence makes me want to jump for joy since all that wonderful mycelium threading and weaving its way underground is evidence of a healthy soil and ecosystem; far from being feared or maligned, they are to be welcomed with open arms and their transient beauty enjoyed every day. Well worth a morning wander ~ even if it does feel a bit late these days!
I love this time of year, the balance of light around the equinox suiting me so much better than the extremes of the solstices. I know many people find it a slightly depressing time here in the northern hemisphere as we swing into the dark half of the year, but why be miserable? There is still so much to look forward to in the coming weeks even if it is darker and cooler, and it is a shame not to enjoy every moment of what can be a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring season. I’ve noticed several people this week already focused on discussions about Christmas. Pleeeeeeeease, no!
As much as anything, for me this is a time of gratitude and as our abundant harvest continues to roll in, I feel an immense sense of thankfulness that we have such a wealth of delicious and nutritious food to sustain us over the coming months. It’s something I never take for granted but in a way, the extreme heat and drought this year have felt like grave warning shots across our bows that it would be foolish to ignore. In the face of an increasingly unstable climate, however that might manifest itself in the future, we simply can’t assume that bountiful harvests will be a given each year. So yes, gratitude by the bucket load . . . but also an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking and doing things, the changes that we might need to make in order to guarantee not only our own food security, but the future of a thriving biodiversity on our precious patch.
In the cold, dark months of December and January, when hibernation strikes me as the most sensible of ideas, I love to dig out the seed basket and start hatching plans for a new season’s planting. However, with our garden still in its infancy and much to think about this year, I’ve decided that a period of reflection now is beneficial, sketching out some plans and jotting down a few ideas while everything is still fresh in my mind. Some decisions have already been made, not least the fact that the number of aubergine, pepper and tomato plants can be significantly reduced now we have seen what a ‘proper’ harvest can deliver. The disappointing ‘Delinel’ dwarf beans will be replaced by a yellow wax pod variety and we will shift the balance of climbing beans towards more borlotti and fewer Asturian; the latter really didn’t enjoy the lack of moisture and humidity this summer and although they still have a few growing and ripening weeks left, most of the pods are unnaturally tiny with only a single bean in each ~ not an efficient use of the ground they are growing in or the time they will take to harvest.
In complete contrast, carrots grow very happily here and a single thickly-sown row of a Nantes variety has kept us well-provisioned for several months. They’re still going strong ~ Roger dug one this week which was the best part of thirty centimetres long! ~ and the truly excellent news is that even in our second season, there is no hint of the dreaded carrot root fly. I’m going to indulge in a bit of whimsy next year and sow some yellow, red, white and purple varieties alongside the orange ones for a carrot rainbow on a plate. Well, sometimes you have to have a bit of fun in this serious business of growing food. 😊 Regular readers will know that tomatoes have been a big story for us this year and mulling over cherry varieties, I suddenly remembered the tiny (but relatively speaking, huge) success we had in Asturias with ‘Rosella’, the beautiful deep pink tomato which I reckoned was every bit as good as the ever-popular ‘Sungold’ in terms of flavour and sweetness. They’re both on the list for next year so that I can carry out a true comparison, along with some red and yellow ‘Tumbling Toms’ which I’m planning to grow in hanging baskets and window boxes.
Increasing the number and range of perennial food plants is a high priority in terms of building resilience and a regenerative food garden and, like wildlife homes and habitats, we are trying to add a few new things each year. The large lasagne bed we made adjoining the asparagus bed last year still has masses of room in it, despite the emergence of a rhubarb forest from the five puny little roots I planted; I’ve grown courgettes in it this year, but my plan is to eventually fill it with perennial plants. Some of the new things on the list are Turkish rocket (which is actually a brassica, a bit like broccoli raab), holy basil or tulsi, red Welsh onions to complement the white ones we already have, wild garlic and Cape gooseberry. Roger has been very busy this week spreading manure, compost and other organic matter and I’m pleased at how these beds are starting to shape up; fingers crossed, we should end up with a good stock of productive perennial food plants growing in a wonderfully rich, healthy soil. Well, that’s the plan, anyway!
Obviously, the quickest way to source and establish perennials is to buy plants but I’m actually a huge fan of growing them from seed for several reasons. For a start, in the horticultural industry seed production (especially by the small and responsible businesses I prefer to support) tends to be far kinder to the planet than plant production which requires huge amounts of heat, water, compost, plastic, chemicals and transport. Second, a packet of seeds usually costs less than a single plant but offers the chance of growing many, the strongest of which can be selected as keepers; any spare seeds can be given away or swapped and I am a great advocate of spreading the gardening love in this way. Third, by raising my own plants from seed, I can be 100% sure that they have not received chemical treatments of any kind. Fourth, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take that long to grow decent perennial plants from seed, a fact borne out by the already apparent maturity of the perennial herbs, cardoons, asparagus and globe artichokes I raised from seed last year. Lastly . . . well, it’s always fun to sow seeds, watch the magic of germination, prick out seedlings and nurture them into something big and beautiful. 🥰 On which subject, I have been wondering whether planting so many ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes this year was actually my best idea; honestly, they are so ridiculously spiny that preparing them is like grappling with purple porcupines. Their flavour, though, is incredible and so I am hoping for a good crop next year. Might have to invest in some stout leather handling gloves, mind you . . .
I don’t want to harp on about my herniated disc as I’m not by nature a ‘poor me’ hypochondriac wallowing in self-pity or trying to elicit sympathy and I am doing everything within my power to help the healing process along, but I am finding the situation ever more frustrating. I have to maintain a balance of rest and movement which is fine but the ‘resting’ bit is tricky: the only way I can be totally comfortable is by lying down but too much bedrest is a big no-no, and as it’s impossible for me to sit, I have to recline on a sofa supported by a nest of quilts and pillows. The inactivity drives me nuts! I know I should be grateful for the opportunity to rest, but there’s only so much reading I can do; I can balance a laptop on my knee for a short time but I’m not an enthusiastic internet surfer and once I’ve caught up with messages from friends and family and maybe read a few blog posts, I’ve had more than enough screen time. Writing an email, yet alone a blog post, seems to take me forever these days. So, it was a moment of utter joy this week discovering that, with a lot of organisation and patience, I am actually able to manage some crochet in my reclined position. Even better, if I set everything up on an old sun-lounger that tilts backwards into the perfect position, I can do it outside, too. Happy, happy me! 😊
Creative projects are usually a big part of my life but it seems like ages since I found the time to do anything apart from knit some gift socks to take to Norway in June. I started this ‘Harmony’ blanket months years ago in Asturias and with all the busyness of our move to France and creating a new garden, it’s been very much neglected so it’s lovely to be reunited once again. My progress is slower than if I were sitting upright but I find myself working with greater focus and attention, each colourful stitch a sort of gentle woolly meditation. I’m also much distracted by what is going on around me in these soft, golden afternoons full of dancing butterflies and spider silk, and spending time in the sunshine and fresh air, immersed in all the activity and beauty of nature around me feels like good medicine indeed. I’m not short of company, either: two young willow tits, totally unfazed by my presence, hang upside down from the nearby sunflower heads, taking the seeds one at a time and tapping out the kernels in the apple tree behind me. It’s a truly lovely thing to watch, although I am astounded that these very small birds seem to have such mighty appetites!
From the relative comfort of my garden nest, I look down to the western edge of our plot where Roger has started to plant a new area of native woodland. Like perennials grown from seed, we know that young trees like this raised from found seedlings will bomb up in no time and will soon be taller than the peach tree in the centre, a rather scabby thing that produces a mass of pretty pink blossom in early spring but not a lot else. In the foreground, you can see part of the patch where we grew potatoes this year – mmm, just look at those clods of soil.
Roger has been digging the spuds this week and to say the harvest is disappointing would be an understatement; well, let’s be frank here ~ 124 plants, barely worth the bother. Shortly after planting, the soil turned to something close to concrete, which is curious given that it is a sandy loam and it is a patch that was under cultivation when we moved here, but that was the end of any decent crop. We worked in some organic matter and added several layers of mulch last year but something was obviously very wrong and so we have set about rectifying matters (well, I say we but you know exactly who’s doing all the hard work and who is yapping away in a supervisory role from her reclining chair 😂). We’ve had some rain since the photo was taken so the earth is damp and more workable now, those lumps can be broken down, manure raked in followed by a mix of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves and then a sowing of vetch seed to act as a nitrogen-fixing green manure over winter. Since creating the sitting area where the old shed used to be, we’ve used it a lot as it enjoys unbroken afternoon and evening sunshine so the plan for next year is to keep the patch under cultivation but to create something less utilitarian and more aesthetically-pleasing, with a mix of food and flowers along the lines of the mandala bed.
To the south of the potato bed is the raspberry patch which I’ve decided just has to go; we’ve given it every chance but really, it’s in a daft place and the plants have failed to thrive or produce much fruit. Despite my best efforts with feeding, mulching and careful pruning, I think the poor things are up against serious overcrowding in tired soil and far too much shade, so it’s time for a complete change. My plan is to extend the soft fruit bed we made in front of the polytunnel (we have plenty of organic matter to hand, just need to find some sheets of cardboard) and then later in autumn, transplant some strong summer-fruiting canes, the single autumn-fruiting plant which I’m hoping will split and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ that I planted as a tiny bare-rooted twig in the spring and which has bravely hung on through summer, despite trying to die several times. The other bare-rooted fruiting newbies ~ a jostaberry, three honeyberries and a goji berry ~ have also come through relatively unscathed and have all put on some promising growth. In fact, the latter is covered in pretty mauve flowers at the moment, I’m not sure if that’s right at this time of year but I’m happy for it to do what it wants as long as it continues to grow.
As medical advice is not to stay in the same position for too long, I’ve agreed with myself that for every two blanket squares completed, I have a walk round the garden. Moving oh-so-slowly, I can at least take the time to truly enjoy the moment and all the sights, sounds, scents, textures and tastes of the season. Having felt a few weeks ago that we were being catapulted into an early autumn, the rain and cooler weather seem to have put a brake on everything; the landscape is lush again, the trees no longer shedding their leaves but looking fuller and greener than they have for some time, while the flowering plants, previously so dry and dusty, are giving a second colourful flush their all. I love the lower, softer light, the air spiced with the scent of leaves and apples, and the prevailing sense of peace and contentment the gentle weather brings.
The sky is still full of swallows, eerily silent now after a summer of chatter and babble; they are focused completely on their long journey south and in six months’ time, as the spring equinox rolls round, I shall be watching the skies with expectant eyes for the return of their welcome silhouettes. The squirrels are back from their summer business, little streaks of rusty fur looping speedily across the grass, their mouths stuffed with acorns; they are being cursed loudly by the ever-garrulous jays, who have also homed in after the acorn crop ~ as if there’s any shortage in such a heavy mast year! The garden is full of dragonflies, swooping and weaving on rigid, shimmering wings whilst below them, fungi in every shape and hue dance and spiral through the grass, including a decent crop of field mushrooms which we have been enjoying in seasonal breakfasts. Yes, I accept the days are getting shorter and cooler weather is on its way . . . but there is still so much to celebrate, so many things to enjoy. It’s all a question of balance, really.
It’s apple time once again and the soft air is laced with their redolent, cidery perfume. In the orchard, the trees are heavy with ripe, rosy orbs whilst beneath them, butterflies and wasps seek sweetness in fallen fruits. As we head towards the equinox with shortening days and lower light, I love the sense of balance, the way in which the delicate drifting beauty of April’s blossom has given way to a treasure trove of precious fruit. It’s one of nature’s miracles and a true celebration of the season.
We are picking them by the crateful and trying to process one lot into juice every other day. It’s a slow job, even with both of us working together, but we know from last year that all that washing, chopping, mashing, pressing, filtering, bottling and pasteurising is well worth the effort as the juice is sublime; despite my earlier reservations about the extent of the harvest, it looks like we should be able to press enough juice to last us a year. The apples aren’t bad eaters straight from the tree, either, and we’ve also been enjoying them cooked with the last hedgerow blackberries, topped with an oaty, nutty crumble mix; with a dollop of crème fraîche d’Isigny, it is the food of the gods, the flavoursome, comforting essence of September. Once we’ve juiced enough, I shall turn my attention to making compote to freeze for future use and we will dry as many trays of apple rings as we can once the stove goes in (despite the fresher mornings, it’s still far too warm to light it). Yes, I think we have several weeks of serious apple business ahead!
Then there’s the small matter of the tomatoes. It feels like we are making up for ten virtually barren years in one fell swoop, picking several kilos of ripe fruits every day ~ they just keep on coming. The kitchen has become something of a tomato processing plant as we try to preserve them in every way possible. We’re using as many fresh as we can, then turning the rest into something we can store: we’re cooking vats of them, often with onion, garlic and red wine, to make rich and flavoursome sauces to bottle or freeze; we’re bottling them whole; we’re cooking them and pushing them through a sieve to make juice, again bottled or frozen; we’re turning them into spicy chutneys. With so much pressure on the freezer, we are trying to use up things like last year’s roast squash combined with tomatoes to make a delicious, creamy soup and not a single day goes by without ‘tomatoes with something’ being on the menu. It is an incredible harvest and after such a dearth, I am truly grateful; nothing shop-bought comes even close in terms of flavour and it will certainly be a long, long time before we need to put tinned tomatoes on the shopping list again. As the weather cools, there will inevitably be a harvest of green tomatoes to follow but we’ll worry about that when the time comes . . .
The whole tomato thing was one big experiment this year so knowing now that we can beat blight, I won’t be planting anywhere near as many next year and they can all go into the ground rather than being scattered about in pots that take so much nurturing. The beefsteak varieties have all done us proud but ‘Black from Tula’ remains the firm favourite, its soft and juicy flesh bursting with flavour ~ the perfect cooking tomato, definitely top of next year’s planting list (I have seeds saved and ready to go). In contrast, the cherry ‘Glossy Rose Blue’ is extraordinarily pretty with its shiny blue fruits ripening to a deep rose colour but they are sadly lacking in flavour; in fact, if anything, they have a slight bitter tang which for me is all wrong in cherry tomatoes which surely should ooze sweetness? They’ve been fun and interesting but given that flavour comes a lot higher up the list than aesthetics for me, I’m not sure I’ll be growing them again.
Like the tomatoes, the sunflowers have had an incredible year and are presently putting on a stunning display in the garden. The prolonged drought and severe heat didn’t bother them one jot but after a decent dollop of rain, they seem to have gathered a second wind, not to mention climbing to ever more dizzying heights.
Where there are petals, the flowers still bristle with bumble bees busy in their spiralled centres, but once the seed heads form, the birds move in to feast. The plants literally bustle and sway with their attention all day long, but particularly first thing in the morning; it’s like nature’s own bird table, wonderfully colourful and entertaining with no need to top up the feeders . . . which is a good thing, seeing as I have no hope of reaching that high!
I sense a definite drift towards autumn amongst the flowers now, but that isn’t to say the garden is lacking in colour. In the gravel garden we planted earlier this year, verbena bonariensis, golden yarrow and sedum make a pretty combination that the butterflies find irresistible; heleniums and Michaelmas daisies are making their presence known whilst those reliable summer troopers ~ cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia and zinnias – are still providing splashes of colour and interest, albeit it in a more muted end-of-season sort of way.
As usual, I’ve lost track of what I planted earlier in the year so it’s always a delight to find little surprises lurking amongst the chaotic growth.
Another delight is to see the garden looking green again after so many weeks of scorched grass and earth. We haven’t had a huge amount of rain and even saw a couple of days with temperatures nudging 30°C again but it’s incredible how lush everything has become in a short time and how much happier so many of the plants are looking.
We’ve been discussing plans for our next wave of projects and Roger has already started on one, planting some of the native trees we potted up from seedlings in the spring to create an area of woodland at the western end of the narrower strip of garden. We’ve opted for species like birch, rowan, hazel and wild cherry that have light and airy habits as we don’t want the area to become too dark and dense; there is no shortage of heavyweights like oak and holly around the margins so with any luck, there will be a feeling of balance to the space. Creating a no-dig mandala bed was one of my favourite pet projects last year and it’s been interesting to watch how it has developed and fared through the summer months.
Well, it’s currently a long way from the tidy, well-ordered patch it was in May but I still feel very positive about what has been achieved this year and particularly at how well it held up through the drought. As far as food is concerned, there has been a plentiful harvest: lettuces, pointy cabbages (now sporting fresh new growth from where they were cut), strawberries, courgettes, borlotti beans, purple French beans, cucumbers, aubergines, sweet peppers, chillies, rainbow chard and an unbelievable forest of flat-leaved parsley to complement the perennial herbs around the edge. There are still Asturian beans to come but the story of the moment is ~ surprise, surprise ~ an overwhelming amount of tomatoes from four spare plants that went in as an afterthought and which have created their own little rainforest event. There have only been three disappointments: it looks like one or two of the perennial herbs succumbed to the drought, the melons failed to thrive and the rogue phacelia created total chaos, collapsing over everything around it and proving impossible to tackle because it was so full of bees! In the two sections where it grew, there is now a carpet of volunteer seedlings once again, along with those of a pretty magenta mallow (one of the few annual flowers that deigned to grow). That’s fine for now; I’m calling it green manure and it will be chopped and dropped well before flowering to nourish the soil but most definitely under control from here on in. As the vegetable plants come to the end of the road, I’ll chop and drop them, too, ~ hopefully recovering the hidden paths in the process ~ spread some of that wonderful horse manure about and then make plans for next year’s planting.
The outdoor melons were a bit of an experiment and I’m not too bothered about their failure because we have enjoyed an excellent crop from the tunnel. In July we harvested 25 fruit, twelve of them on the same day, which makes me inclined to try staggering the planting a bit next year to try and spread the load. The plants are currently enjoying a second flush, unexpected but very welcome; the fruits are a good size, not quite as sweet as the first crop but delicious all the same and a real bonus in the fruit bowl.
Roger has been planting seeds in the tunnel this week, an assortment of leaves, herbs and other salad ingredients to see us through winter along with the black radish and radicchio which are growing well outside. I’ve started off a tray of ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ lettuce, tough little customers which will grow happily outdoors all winter, but my biggest smile this week came when I wandered past the Not Garden (scene of last week’s lazy smart gardening) to see a green carpet of rocket and landcress seedlings where I had thrown seed pods about between the leeks and oca. Something tells me we’re sorted for salads this winter.
It saddens me to feel that summer pretty much passed me by this year: I was so taken up with the frustration of dealing with constant pain and immobility that I missed out on far too many wonderful things. Not necessarily big things, either; I love to pack a simple picnic and flask of coffee then head off walking or on our bikes, exploring the locality and enjoying all that is good about the season. We just haven’t been able to do those things and as three months later, I’m being told by those who are caring for me that my condition is still un boulot (a big job), it seems I’m not going to be jumping on my bike or lacing up my walking boots any time soon. However, I love this time of year and I’m determined not to miss out completely, so I’m steeling myself to wander a little from home every morning. If I make it to the end of the lane and back that’s a mile, which I feel is a decent effort under the circumstances, but it’s really not about distance at all ~ if I only manage a couple of hundred metres, so be it. I can only walk very slowly but that gives me the chance to observe properly all that is going on around me and to connect with the spirit of nature which I know is so important for my well-being.
What strikes me more than anything is how after so much heat, dryness and dust, water is now a dominant element and I love the atmospheric effects of mist and low cloud moving and morphing across the landscape.
There have been some fairly artistic skies to revel in, too.
Thankfully, no-one has been along to cut the hedges yet which is a blessing as they are still full of food, colour and interest . . . and it’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that they are bustling with birdlife.
I liked the startling contrast between the colours of these oak leaves . . .
. . . and the new catkins appearing on the hazels as they shed their leaves.
Most of the swallows have gone now save for a few stragglers swooping and chatting above me, ready for their long trek south. The woodlarks, quiet over the summer months, are now filling the air with their melodic trilling whilst kestrels cruise on silent wings, hunting for prey in the maize stubble. The weather is still warm and sunny but the wind has a fresher edge to it; the ground remains packed and dry yet exudes a damp, earthy scent and throws up necklaces of fungi in the cool of morning; the shifting angle of the sun throws intricate patterns of light and shadow across the landscape, the colours softer and more muted as we slide into autumn. Yes, it truly is a beautiful time of year. I really can’t let this one pass me by.😊
It’s been a week of noisy nights. In no small part, this has been down to tawny owls (the delightful sounding chouette hulotte in French) who seem to be going through a particularly busy and vocal phase at the moment. I love to hear them, the shrill female ‘kew-ick’ and softer male ‘hoo-hoo’ performed in a perfect call-and-response duet, but it’s no exaggeration to say that some nights they have been so loud, I’ve honestly thought they were perched on the bedroom balcony. There also seem to be one or two who haven’t quite got it together yet ~ youngsters perhaps? ~ and so have decided that our oak trees are just the place for prolonged choir practice as they sort out their twits from their twoos. Then there’s the acorns. It’s a heavy mast year and the oaks are literally dripping, but as a result of the drought they are shedding acorns by the bucketload. It has become almost impossible to walk along some of our boundary paths as the carpet of fallen nuts is less than comfortable on the feet! Not for the first time since moving here, I am driven to wonder why anyone would choose to build a shed around a mature oak tree, especially one with a tin roof: the clatter of falling acorns is a noisy percussion that continues all through the night, becoming faster and louder if the wind picks up . . . or the owl choir alights. Perhaps it’s time for earplugs at bedtime?
As well as acorns, there are wild fruits and berries in abundance, not surprising after the spring blossom was so prolific. The hedgerows are dripping with elderberries and blackberries, and where so many leaves (especially hazel) have already been shed, the hawthorn is setting the unusually bare branches alight in plumes of crimson fire. It’s time to forage and add some seasonal goodies to our winter stores. I’ve already started to collect rosehips, plump as little tomatoes, from the rugosa bushes. Last year, I made the mistake of following the guidance on a foraging website, drying the hips whole, grinding them to a powder and shaking them in a sieve to separate out the tiny irritating hairs. Bad plan: it only took a couple of brews to realise I was being left with a very unpleasant tickle around my tonsils ~ despite rigorous and repeated sieving, the hairs were very definitely still in the mix. This year, I’m being less lazy, halving the hips and meticulously scraping out the innards before drying the fruit. It’s a bit of a faff but with any luck, it should make for a more comfortable tea.
The heat and drought have hit our young fruit trees hard and we are doing everything we can to nurse them through; it would be sad to lose them just as they are getting established. The more mature trees have looked stressed at times, too, and it remains to be seen just what sort of a harvest we enjoy this autumn. The pear trees are covered in fruit but both have already lost many of their leaves so I think it’s unlikely that we will have anything worth eating from them.
A couple of the apples are obviously biennial bearers and have no fruit at all this year, the rest have a good crop but have been dumping fruit on the orchard floor for some time. We had been hoping to press enough juice to last us a year but in reality it will be a case of being grateful for whatever we can salvage.
There have been a few surprises, though. The poor fig tree, which looked so miserable last year, has enjoyed the hotter, drier conditions and responded well to having more light and air around it where we had cut back undergrowth and laid hedges; we are currently enjoying modest but utterly delicious pickings of luscious fruit, such an unexpected luxury. One of the rescued grapevines is also looking far happier and thick bunches of green grapes are steadily ripening to purple, although it’s a bit of a game beating the birds to them, and despite the drought really doing for the summer raspberries, the autumn ones are having a go. All is not lost.
I love colour and I have to admit I’ve found it hard seeing the garden so burnt up and bleached in recent weeks, not to mention the speed at which the hoped-for rainbow of flowers faded away. Still, there have been a few bright spots to make me smile this week. Of all the annual flowers I planted, the zinnias have shown themselves to be the toughest and cheeriest of survivors . . . and the bumble bees adore them.
The heavy crop of sweet peppers in many colours continues in the tunnel and now outdoors, too, the ‘Sweet Banana’ in particular making eye-catching splashes of yellow, orange and red to brighten dusty corners.
I’ve been harvesting piles of chillies for some time now, the long and skinny cayenne and the fatter but equally as warming Padrón, but this week saw the first bulk picking from our fish pepper plants. Buying a tiny pinch of seeds to grow these plants was nothing more than an indulgence on my part; after all, we already had more than enough chillies in the pipeline . . . but I loved the idea of the variegated plants with their attractive green and white leaves, the crazy array of coloured fruits and the fascinating history behind them. They haven’t disappointed, they really are quite beautiful and I just love those stripes!
The maize harvest usually takes place here in October, but the crops are looking so poor that many local farmers are cutting their losses and harvesting the fields already; given that it’s usually a pretty drought-tolerant plant, it just goes to show just what a tough year it has been. Thankfully, our sweetcorn has fared rather better and we have been tucking into the first fat cobs this week. In my (humble) opinion, there are two secrets to enjoying sweetcorn at its very best: having minimum time from picking to plate, so those wonderful sugars don’t have chance to turn to starch, and keeping the cobs well away from water. Why boil when you can grill or bake? Our favourite trick is to cook them over charcoal or wood, simply turning occasionally until the corn literally starts to caramelise; leaving a decent stalk makes them easy to eat ~ perfect finger food ~ and smeared in rich, creamy Normandy butter, they are a truly decadent delight. Sunshine on a plate.
The borlotti beans just keep on giving and I have been picking and processing a full trug of purple pods every other day, some set aside to dry for next year’s seed as well as eating, and the rest stored in the freezer. I’ve also been dealing with the fattened and dried pods from the first row of ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans; they are a fiddle to shell, especially compared to the beefy borlotti, but it would be a crime not to harvest them. They are such a good food, packed with fibre and vegetable protein and a perfect addition to winter soups and stews. One row down, three to go.
Sticking with the purple theme and the ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes I raised from seed earlier this year have coped well with the weather, which is a valid reason for ensuring we grow as many perennial food crops as we can. One of them has gone a step too far, though, and produced a few artichokes already. Well, I’ve been told the purple varieties have a better flavour than the green ones so it looks like we’ll be finding out for ourselves a bit sooner than expected.
Although there is much to be celebrated in the garden, it’s a time of immense frustration, too. Having waited so long for rain, it was a relief to have an afternoon of storms last week which dampened everything down and put some precious stores back in the butts . . . but that was it. Despite numerous forecasts for rain ever since, we’ve had nothing, even when other people living locally have reported torrential downpours. Some days of cooler temperatures and cloudier skies have at least slowed down the rate of evaporation but we are still having to water on a regular basis to keep things alive ~ hard to believe under such glowering skies. At least we can use the captured rainwater for the time being which means we aren’t restricted to the ‘after 8pm’ watering rule and we live in hope of more rainfall, but the hosepipe still snakes across the garden just in case: this year, it doesn’t do to assume anything.
My limited mobility is also starting to drive me nuts, worse now in a way that I am on the mend and able to do a bit more so therefore eager to return to my normal zipping-about state. There is so much I want to be doing and not all in the garden; it’s over two months now since I rode my beautiful new bike and it grieves me to see it gathering cobwebs in the barn. I have managed a few sessions of light gardening and the benefits to my wellbeing have far outweighed the inevitable discomfort, it has felt wonderful to be out in the fresh air enjoying and nurturing our patch once again. It’s easy to wax lyrical about ‘connecting with nature’ but for me it’s a fundamental part of my life; if you want to punish me, shut me indoors! I’ve dragged a sun-lounger into the shade of the Love Shack veranda so I can take breaks when I need and simply watch all the life going on around me. Bliss. Observing quietly, I realise once again just how important the green manure flowers ~ both intentionally planted and random volunteers ~ continue to be a reliable food source for so many insects, along with several ‘weeds’ that have survived the drought whilst all around has shrivelled and died. It’s not just about insects, either; I had an incredible moment watching a huge hare lolloping about the potager, seemingly oblivious to my presence and happy to tuck into white clover and the buds from the tips of the tall cat’s ear stems while I watched, mesmerised.
In terms of gardening, I’ve managed to transplant a few lettuce seedlings and sow the autumn/winter seeds that really needed to go in much earlier, but they’ve all germinated, so let’s see what happens. I’ve also been pulling out a forest of dead phacelia plants, initially intended to be chopped and dropped well before flowering but which somehow (yet again) got the better of me. I’m spreading the plants on top of the bigger lasagne beds, partly as another layer of organic matter to help build soil but also because I know the seed will set and produce a useful green manure covering over winter without me having to lift a finger; all I need to remember to do is cut them back early in spring.
I did at least remember to cut back a short-term mix of phacelia, crimson clover and linseed before planting purple sprouting broccoli and red kale a few weeks ago but I’m delighted to see that new young plants plus white clover have grown back in their place. The brassicas will be in the ground for many months so it’s of benefit having the clovers fixing nitrogen at their feet (the crimson clover won’t survive the winter but the white clover is made of sterner stuff) and also the soil between them covered in growth to help retain moisture and prevent erosion. Bare earth rarely occurs in nature and doesn’t happen in our garden very often, either!
We’ve collected another load of free horse manure this week. Well, I say we but my contribution was to put together a veggie box to say thank you, Roger of course did all the hard graft. It’s wonderful stuff and will help improve the soil greatly over winter, as will the pile of compost that is ready to shift from the ‘finished’ bay. I desperately want to be getting on with that now so the overflowing current bay can be turned and we can start a new one; my physiotherapist has told me I can start doing some gentle yoga again but I doubt he’d be very happy about me taking a pitchfork to the compost heap just yet. At the very least, I can sort out the rogue squash that have popped their heads up and decided to trail in every direction. Honestly, they are unstoppable.
Speaking of squash, it’s been interesting once again to see what our Asturian Specials have thrown up. The seed we saved was from the last two we ate, so if nothing else we should have selected for good keeping qualities. They were both pale blue skinned and barely ribbed with dense orange flesh ~ becoming more and more like ‘Crown Prince’, in fact ~ and, although it’s fun to have the variety, I’m really chuffed that most of this year’s fruits have come back the same, simply because they make such good eating.
There’s always one, though. When a couple of volunteers appeared in the tunnel I should have nipped them in the bud but like so many other things, I never seemed to get round to it and once a couple of those beautiful blue fruits appeared, well, I didn’t have the heart. What I hadn’t noticed until Roger showed me this week is the one that got away under the potting bench; I really should have tidied up the chaos under there but it’s been too hot, I can’t bend and I hate disturbing the toad that lives very happily in the jumble of pots and trays (my excuse, anyway 😉). What a surprise squash. Cinderella would be proud.
I’ve never been a fan of rushing through the seasons so it’s frustrating to feel that we are hurtling headlong into autumn far too early ~ I’m not ready for bronzed bracken and leaf fall just yet. Nothing I can do about it, though, so it’s simply a case of enjoying the moment and appreciating all the gifts of late summer while they last: beautiful mornings and golden evenings, another flush of roses, clouds of butterflies, sharing good food and laughter with friends, melodious robins and acrobatic swallows, nature’s bounty on our plates . . . and yes, even the sound of those raucous owls (although the occasional night off would be very welcome). 😊
The weather is breaking all sorts of records here. Last month was the driest July and the second driest month ever recorded in France; this time last year, precipitation was up by 50%, now it’s down by 85%. To say we are desperate for rain would be something of an understatement . . . but at least the sunflowers are loving it.
The drought is now undeniably severe and prolonged: Mayenne is in a state of red alert and officially in a ‘crisis’ situation, the prefecture having imposed understandably strict rules where water use is concerned. Our rain butts ran dry some time ago but thankfully, we are allowed to carry out essential watering with mains water in the potager to keep our food crops alive ~ but only between 8pm and 8am when evaporation is at its lowest. It goes without saying that every salvageable drop of grey water is being used, mainly to try and save our young trees; sadly, it’s too late for some but it would be tragic to lose the lot having planted so many over winter. The most frustrating part is that we are not without stormy skies, even the occasional splash of raindrops, but nothing that materialises into anything useful. The garden is parched and crispy, the air dry and crackling, certain trees are having an early autumn and the earth is as hard and unforgiving as concrete . . . and still, no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future.
We are, of course, discussing options and solutions. We’ve already increased the rain capture capacity to over 2000 litres but there are still available downspouts from a large roof area, so installing more butts is an easy enough project in the short term. Following my success in finding a supply of manure, I’m now trying to hunt down a second hand bowser which would allow us to shift collected rainwater efficiently to where it’s most needed. We’re looking at the possibility of creating a switchable system which would allow us to send the grey water from the bathroom into a tank, rather than having to bail out and carry buckets down the stairs. Adding organic matter to the soil, using mulches, sowing green manures and selecting drought-tolerant plants are all ongoing activities in the garden which should help to retain moisture in the soil. In the tunnel, which is obviously the hottest and driest of all our growing areas, we are also going to experiment with sinking bottles around plants to help carry water directly down to the root systems.
My continued back problem isn’t helping my mood very much and it pains me to see Roger having to do so much on his own, especially with guests to feed, the garden to water and crops to harvest and process. I’m managing to potter at this and that in more comfortable moments, but my contribution to the cause remains largely superficial. As for the state of the garden, I am trying not to dwell too much on the consequences of my forced neglect and just hope everything can hang on and muddle through until I’m fighting fit again. I hate to see caterpillars beating up the brassicas but there is no way I can bend and twist to pick them off so the plants will have to take their chance and I have to keep my fingers crossed that things go the right way. I’m certainly not holding out too much hope for the cauliflowers which are tricky enough at the best of times, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’ll see.
It’s not just about plants, either. The local wildlife is struggling with the drought and larger species such as deer and boar are more in evidence as they move between watering holes. Our poor pond is still waiting to be filled and what water hasn’t already evaporated is a rather unsavoury green colour . . . and yet it is teeming with great diving beetles and pond skaters and constantly busy with birds who visit to drink and bathe. We had a temporary and very basic bird bath by the house made from a couple of plastic trays normally used under plant pots, so I was thrilled when Roger collected a large blue glazed pot of ours on his recent UK trip. It has no drainage holes in the bottom and for many years we had it as a mini-pond ~ complete with several aquatic plants ~ to add interest to an outdoor seating area. I’ve filled it with a few large stones and the last of our saved rainwater to make a permanent and more attractive birdbath; the feathered ones wasted no time in finding it, especially a group of sociable young sparrows who love to wallow about in it like Romans in a bath! There are other visitors, too, including a constant stream of honey bees sipping daintily round the margins and several lizards who zip in and out to drink in darting flashes of silvery green. Elsewhere, the garden is alive with dragonflies, damselflies and clouds of butterflies who don’t seem too fazed by the heat.
It would be easy to wallow in despondency as the garden suffers but we have to use the current situation as a learning opportunity; after all, this could well be the future and if we want to build resilience into the patch and improve our food security, we have to take on board the lessons, no matter how difficult. It’s important to look at the positives and see how we can expand upon them whilst finding solutions to the problems. For instance, I’ve been very impressed at how well the hügel beds are standing up (literally and metaphorically) to the drought; the idea is that in the long-term they shouldn’t need watering at all but even in their first and second season, they require minimal attention. Yes, the squash plants flatten their leaves in the heat of the day to preserve water, but they are romping away and it looks like we’re set for another bumper harvest. With an autumn project of hedging planned, there will be a good supply of hügel-building material available so I think more will definitely be on the cards.
The allium family, apart from leeks, has struggled right from the start. Our garlic harvest was disappointing, particularly the spring-planted rose garlic which failed to thrive while the spring onions have taken forever to grow. The maincrop onions, both yellow and white varieties, have hardly set the world alight with their enthusiasm and I’m wishing I’d planted a few sets as well as seeds this year; perhaps they’d have got off to a better start. That said, they’ve suddenly found a bit of oomph this week so we will have a harvest, albeit a smaller one than hoped for.
The climbing beans have grown well and reached the top of their poles but they are desperate for water and it’s impossible to give them enough. The Asturian beans are struggling the most which I suppose makes sense, given they thrive in a climate which is warm and wet rather than hot and dry; they are only just coming into flower but I’m hoping that since our warm weather should stretch well into October and surely there will be rain at some point, there is still time for a crop to set. In contrast, the borlotti beans are dripping with vibrant red pods and we have already started harvesting the delicious speckled beans; given that the crop is the result of saving a tiny handful of beans from our Asturian garden, I’m really thrilled and next year I think I shall be planting even more.
With concerns about food shortages in mind, we planted masses of potatoes this year and I’m glad we did as the yield really isn’t great. What’s worse, we’ve pretty much given up trying to dig them at the moment as it’s more of a job for a pickaxe than a garden fork. We’ve eaten the last of the summer cabbage and I’m not holding my breath where the next wave plus summer calabrese and kale is concerned although I am pleased that the red kale and purple sprouting broccoli ~ both such important spring crops for us ~ are holding their own. So, too, are leeks and Swiss chard but the beetroot are rubbish, the Florence fennel has bolted, oca and New Zealand spinach have both collapsed completely and whether the swedes will pull through is anyone’s guess. It’s all a game of trial and error.
So where’s the silver lining? Well, for a start we had the most incredible melon harvest, 25 from the tunnel so far with a couple more to come and a few setting outside, too. The only problem was when twelve ripened all at once and there was no way we could eat that little lot on our own! Luckily, we had visitors on the horizon so stored as many as we could in the fridge and gave a few away; Roger made a melon and mint sorbet which was delicious and I froze chunks to eat straight from the freezer as a snack in hot weather (or you can toss them into a smoothie if that’s your thing). Next year, I’ll experiment with staggering the planting in the hope that we can spread the harvest out a little bit. We still have an abundance of courgettes, aubergines and peppers, all of which feature in our daily meals in a variety of ways. Roger has been making a spiced aubergine pickle and I’ve been messing about with sweet pepper relish recipes, both designed as condiments to eat quickly rather than keep as long-term preserves; they’re totally delicious for lunch with fresh bread and cheeses. I’ve been threading red cayenne peppers to air-dry in the cave and soon we will start putting sliced peppers in the freezer to use in winter dishes.
The French beans have also been cropping well but my carefully calculated successional sowings have all gone to pot thanks to the weather as the third row went over too quickly and the fourth row is yet to flower. Still, there are plenty of pods left to fatten for the beans inside and as the ‘Delinel’ variety has gone unusually tough and stringy, next year I will stick with ‘Stanley’ for green beans and look for a yellow wax pod variety instead. Now for the really good news ~ and I think I’m safe with this one at last~ we have tomatoes! Lots of them, in fact, and yes, they are ripening . . . if the plants in the ground do as well as those in pots, we’re even in danger of having a glut for the first time since we left our Welsh garden ten years ago. I can’t even begin to describe how much joy that brings me and I’m already planning some seed saving for next year’s crop . . .
Word is that this year’s local maize harvest is set to be a poor one which comes as no surprise given the seed was planted in dust, there has been hardly any rain since and irrigation is prohibited. Certainly, the huge neighbouring fields are looking pretty sick and it’s a reminder that small-scale production is so much easier. We may only have twenty or so sweetcorn plants but the ground they are in was given a lot of love (a lasagne bed with masses of organic material added along with comfrey tea, coffee grounds, diluted urine and soaked with saved rainwater) and I pre-sowed in the tunnel so that we started with strong, healthy plants. Having survived a bit of early rabbit / hare nibbling, the plants never looked back and have needed minimal watering ever since; now they stand tall and glossy green, woven through with beans and volunteer squash, and promising a delicious harvest very soon.
I’ve been watching the progress of the mandala bed with interest, particularly as it’s been left very much to its own devices in recent weeks, and like the hügel beds, I’m pleased at how well it’s held up. It has needed some water of course, but hasn’t been anywhere near as thirsty as the dug beds and everything growing in it has thrived. In fact, it’s become a bit of a jungle if I’m honest and trying to find the paths is something of a challenge.
On the downside, I wish I hadn’t bothered trying to plant two sections with annual flowers as although a few bits and pieces eventually germinated, the phacelia volunteers have dominated and been nothing but a nuisance, collapsing on top of everything around them and now looking very dead and brown. There has been plenty of colour from the herbs, edible flowers, vegetable flowers and now the veggies themselves so next year I shan’t bother sowing annual flowers in there at all. On the upside, it’s proving to be a very productive patch with lettuce, summer cabbage and French beans over, current crops of peppers, cucumbers, courgettes, borlotti beans and probably the best Swiss chard and flat-leaved parsley I’ve ever grown, with aubergines, Asturian beans, tomatoes and melons not far behind. It’s also become our first port of call for fresh herbs so I want to look at increasing the varieties next year.
The flower garden has suffered hugely in the heat but can’t be a priority for water so things just have to take their chance. The sunflowers are certainly better growing at the back of the border (although there are a few escapees elsewhere that came out of seed mixes) and are putting on a good show. The bulk of the colourful annuals are long over but there is still plenty of interest and I think that seedheads add their own brand of beauty to the mix, too.
On the subject of beauty, I have been trying to track down and identify a bird which has been frequenting the garden and surrounding area for some weeks, announcing its presence with its persistent and unfamiliar calls. It’s restless, always on the move and as frustratingly elusive as the turtle doves when it comes to actually spotting one. With Roger and I sleeping in the tent while Sarah and her family were here, I became even more aware of it calling around us from daybreak until, wandering round the garden early one morning, I finally saw it in the flesh ~ a golden oriole! There is a pair, in fact, the female a muted greeny-yellow, the male very showy in bright yellow and black; later that same day, Roger saw them both drinking from the pond across the lane. We’ve never seen them before but hope they will appear every summer now, they are such a special visitor and encouraging the widest diversity of life possible into our patch is a top priority. To that end, Roger finished making our ‘bug hotel’ with a couple of little helpers last week and sited it under a hedge where we hope it will attract plenty of residents. Walking past it the next morning, I saw a young robin perched on top of it, all pale breast and bright eyes, as happy as you like. I’m not sure whether it was looking for its breakfast or simply enjoying the view but either way, it was lovely to see what in essence is a pile of scrap wood stuffed with organic matter already attracting life . . . even if not the kind it was designed for! 😊
It never does to assume anything. There I was in my previous post, cheerily looking forward to our trip to the UK and a long-awaited get together with family; lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t realise that a herniated lumbar disc was waiting in the wings to rain on my parade. No UK trip, no catch ups with family, no cuddles with our new baby grandson: instead, disappointment, frustration and a shed load of pain. There’s never a good time for these things to happen but honestly, this couldn’t have been worse. If nothing else, why not in the depths of winter when the dark and cold season seems far more conducive to enforced rest instead of these gorgeous days, flooded with sunlight and warmth, the garden a riot of colour and activity?
Well, such is life, and the only thing to do was accept the situation and get on with making the best of it. The trip couldn’t be postponed ~ there were imperative reasons for travelling ~so Roger stuck to Plan A and I stayed at home alone. I don’t mind solitude, even when I’m not feeling well, but I hate inactivity and the inability to move and be busy, especially when I’m used to spending my life outdoors. Permaculturists believe that ‘the problem is the solution’ and I realised that this possibly held some truth for me now: instead of resenting and raging against the situation, how could I turn it to my advantage?
Unable to sit comfortably for more than a couple of minutes, I made a ‘nest’ on a sofa where I could half-lie and prop up a book or laptop, then set about stretching my mind with a wealth of interesting stuff. I did another week’s permaculture study, appropriately on the subject of growing and preserving medicinal plants, which in turn had me rummaging through my herbals once again and making notes for future projects. The room was full of the almond scent of meadowsweet drying on the windowsills; containing salicylic acid (like aspirin, which takes its name from the plant’s scientific name, spiraea), it is one of nature’s painkillers and I’ve been enjoying it combined with lavender and lemon balm in a soothing tea. I’m drying piles of lavender, too, its floral perfume wafting through the house like some sort of calming aromatherapy, but no lemon balm this year as we had plenty of fresh stems all through winter. One top medicinal plant I have failed in spectacular fashion to grow for decades is echinacea (purple coneflower) so I’m very excited to have a dozen or so healthy young plants raised from seed and ready to go into the ground once things are cooler and wetter; carrying small cans of water to keep these little treasures alive has been top of the list when it comes to my ‘gentle exercise’ moments.
I’ve also been listening to podcasts and watching a wide variety of online videos about everything from seed saving to syntropic farming. As this is something I rarely do, it’s felt like a bit of a media binge but it has certainly helped to broaden and deepen my understanding of many things as well as give me a long list of new projects and ideas to try; making a JADAM liquid fertiliser from grass clippings should be quick and simple, building a cob oven may take a little longer to achieve! I think it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the weight of the serious issues facing the planet and the awareness of being a miniscule drop in the ocean when it comes to making a difference so it was uplifting and reassuring to listen to the wise words of so many like-minded people. The knowledge, skills, expertise, technology, wherewithal and enthusiasm to turn things round are out there in abundance. There is hope for healing and I am comforted by that.
Much as I would have preferred none of this to have happened, it has been an interesting exploration of resilience, not only of the garden but of our lifestyle as well. Having left the decision not to travel as late as I possibly could, there was no time to shop for supplies and as I was obviously going to be without a car and unable to ride my bike, I had to manage for six days with whatever we already had at home. Not a problem; as we cook everything from scratch, we keep a good supply of basic ingredients in our store cupboard and fridge and ~ let’s face it ~ my meals were basically going to come out of the garden anyway. Broad beans, peas, French beans, new potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, chard, cabbage, lettuce, New Zealand spinach, courgettes, cucumbers, chillies, peppers and aubergines gave me plenty of choice, along with fruit options of strawberries and melon. I knew that picking and preparing would probably take me several attempts with rests between, but what did that matter? There is such pleasure in harvesting and eating food so fresh and nutritious, especially seasoned with an abundance of homegrown herbs and spices and sprinkled with edible flowers. I ate well: chilled cucumber soup, ratatouille, tabbouleh, veggie tagine, herby omelettes and bowls of colourful salads, all so simple yet utterly delicious.
I have to admit, I have been feeling a profound sense of gratitude for the fact that I am generally fit, healthy and flexible; under normal circumstances, I don’t tend to register just how much bending and stretching is required for harvesting produce, yet alone the more energetic tasks round the garden. In more comfortable moments, I did manage to carry out some essential chores such as feeding the tomato plants, lifting the garlic to dry and planting out a tray of French beans that really couldn’t wait any longer to go into the ground. The most frustrating moment, though, was hobbling down to the potager and catching the unmistakable whiff of a ripe melon wafting out of the tunnel . . . and being unable to bend down and rummage through the foliage to check which one of the little beauties was the first to be ready. It’s not a difficult test, feeling for a slight softness at the blossom end and checking for that pungent fruity aroma, but it took several attempts through gritted teeth and some slightly fruity Anglo-Saxon. Thank goodness no-one could see (or hear) me! Ah, but it was worth the pain; these ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons have been an experiment this year and my goodness, they are wonderfully sweet and juicy with a deep orange flesh; I’ve seen them described as the champagne of melons and can safely say they are heaven on a plate. Our little grandson Matthew is a great lover of all things melon, so when he comes to stay with us next week, I’m going to appoint him official Melon Hound and encourage him to go forth and sniff out the treasure on my behalf. Something tells me he won’t need asking twice.
With the continued drought and temperatures soaring well into the 30s, our absence as hands-on gardeners has been quite a test for the garden. Roger soaked the tunnel before he left but within a couple of days, more water was desperately needed as the temperature in there was Sahara-esque. Although we’ve gone a long way to organising a more practical rainwater supply in the potager this year, we can see that more collection systems are needed, even if it’s just extra butts that we fill from the overflowing ones elsewhere during winter; it might also be worthwhile looking at a guttering system on the tunnel itself. Elsewhere, apart from the newly planted French beans and very young brassicas, I only watered things in pots and everything else just had to cope. Roger stood the potted tomatoes in buckets and moved them out of the tunnel to give them a greater chance of survival and to make the watering easier for me; the good news is that they are covered in fruits and so far (shhhhh!), no sign of blight.
It’s always better to encourage plants to send their roots deep into the soil in search of water, making them more resilient in times of drought and in fact, too much watering can cause problems by provoking the development of shallow root systems. However, there are times when some intervention becomes necessary simply to nurse vulnerable things through to the next rainfall and it has been interesting to observe what and where in the garden has been struggling the most or, alternatively, thriving through the crisis. We made a lot of lasagne beds last year which I certainly don’t regret, but the significant lack of rainfall since last September has meant they have stayed very light and airy and haven’t started to break down anywhere near fast enough. Smaller plants in some of these beds have really struggled, particularly a few butternut squashes that have needed far too much attention, and one or two spare pepper and aubergine plants that have practically given up the ghost. In other places though, things are doing well and growing strongly without any watering. I’m particularly pleased with the huge perennial bed where asparagus, rhubarb and comfrey are looking good and the new violet globe artichokes haven’t missed a beat. There’s soapwort in there, too, all pretty in pink, and I’m thinking it might be just the place to plant some of those purple coneflowers for next year.
The sweetcorn went into a lasagne bed, but one which had lots of extra amendments in the spring in preparation for the plants’ greedy feeding habits. They are looking very healthy in deep glossy green, and the promise of some tasty cobs later in the year is already in the air.
I’ve never deliberately planted a traditional Three Sisters bed but it’s fun to see a bit of that vibe going on anyway. I admit to stuffing a few spare climbing beans amongst the corn just out of interest to see if they would climb (yes, they are) but the squashes are nothing to do with me, they are volunteers that must have popped up out of the garden compost I added to the bed. Well, let them have their way and let’s see what happens; in fact, I decided I might as well go the whole hog and I added a few sunflowers for good measure.
On both hügel beds, the squash are doing what they do and proving that this is such an effective cultivation strategy, I really think we should build more. I’ve counted 20 ‘Crown Prince’ fruits alone already and they don’t need a minute’s attention: lazy gardening at its very best, although they do cause the mower a few headaches!
Towards the end of last summer, I threw together the roughest of lasagne beds on the way to, rather than in, the potager; I love the idea of being able to wander all over the garden and find food in unexpected places, so this was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing campaign. I wanted this border in the first instance as somewhere to plant a few young blackcurrant bushes and clumps of chives but through the spring I’ve stuffed all sorts of other bits and pieces in there with them, including sweet peas, cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia, zinnias, sage, chard, cucumbers and basil. It took a bit of a bashing from strong winds and a few things struggled initially in the dry conditions, but I’m really rather pleased with how it’s looking (and producing) now. I’ve been reading this week about ‘plant guilds’ and ‘stacking functions’ but quite honestly, these are things I do intuitively: to me, it has always made sense to cram plants together so they can benefit from each other’s company and make use of both the horizontal and vertical space. No need for fancy ideas really, I reckon it’s nothing more complicated than good old-fashioned common sense.
Seed saving is also common sense and ~ thankfully ~ an old tradition that is becoming more and more popular and, without question, increasingly necessary in the face of drastically reduced genetic diversity. Goodbye F1, hello heirloom varieties! We have always saved some seed each year but I set out some time ago to increase the range and variety with each season. Some seeds are easier than others, but generally it involves little more than letting a plant flower or fruit, then collecting and drying the ripened seeds. The garden is littered with random plants that have been left just for that purpose ~ parsnip and leek here, fennel and rocket there ~ and the beauty of many of them is that their flowers are attractive to beneficial insects, bringing an extra dimension of ‘help’ to the garden.
Most definitely on this year’s list are some of those melons and also tomatoes if we stay blight-free. I’d love to save some pepper seeds, too, but they readily cross-pollinate and really I should grow varieties in isolation; there’s terrific heat in the cayenne chillies and the idea of that being transferred into a sweet pepper doesn’t bear thinking about! I’ve never had much luck saving lettuce seed because their fluffy heads have a tendency to go soggy or else disperse on the breeze when my back is turned. This year I’ve left some to set seed in the tunnel where the air is hot and dry and there is neither wind or rain to interfere; this week I have been gathering the first seeds from plants as tall as me, a gentle little job just right for me at the minute. An added bonus is that the sunny flowers have an unexpectedly sweet perfume and I’m wondering why I’ve never noticed this before.
There will be no shortage of annual flower seeds to collect either, the hot dry weather causing the plants to run to seed all too soon. There is such a carnival of colour but it is parched and panting, long bleached stems toppling into their neighbours and shedding petals like so much sad confetti; they will fade away all too quickly unless rain comes soon so we must enjoy them while we can.
Improving the structure and content of our soil, and in particular, incorporating as much organic matter as we can, is a top priority in terms of promoting long-term health and strength in the plants we grow, but also in the soil’s ability to retain water. Eventually, I’d like all our amendments to come from on site but in these initial seasons ~ and certainly seeing the garden under stress this year ~ I have to admit we need a big organic input. In a moment of back-resting boredom, I happened to strike gold on the internet . . . a local supply of well-rotted horse manure, as much as we want and totally free of charge. It needs to be collected in the trailer, which wouldn’t normally be an issue except of course I’m not really in a fit state to do anything other than supervise. My poor shovel-wielding beloved! I suspect he will be rather pleased to see me up and about properly again, nose out of the laptop and firmly back in the flowers. Me too, actually . . . even if it does mean barrowing several tonnes of muck around the patch! 😁
Our recent trip to Norway marked the beginning of several very busy and exciting weeks for us, with family coming to stay here through July and a quick flit to the UK to ~ amongst other delights ~ hold our new little grandson for the first time. I’m probably going to be hanging up my blogging boots for a while, so this is a somewhat hastily scribbled garden update; by the end of July, things will have moved on again and my photos will be ancient history!
We left for Norway in 35°C with the temperature set to spiral upwards for most of the time we were away; for a garden (and gardener) already stressed by a prolonged drought, it was the worst scenario possible, but what could we do? We moved pots, troughs and seedling trays into the shade, watered as much as we could, soaked the tunnel and propped both doors open . . . and just hoped perhaps la météo was wrong. It wasn’t. On our return, it was clear the heat had been searing with everything wearing that parched and yellow look, but the good news was that we arrived home in a torrential downpour. Never have I been so happy to end a holiday on a soaking wet note! The water butts were soon full to overflowing and within a couple of days, everything responded. No, actually, everything exploded.
In truth, I had pretty much written off any hope of a colourful show of annual flowers earlier this year when I found myself sowing seeds for the third time; it was too dry, too hot or cold and nothing would germinate. My hoped-for mass of rainbow blooms in the mandala bed certainly hasn’t happened, but the ever-reliable thuggish phacelia is doing its bit and looks pretty in drifts of soft mauve mingling with the sunny yellow of dyer’s chamomile. Once the bees have finished with the flowers, I shall chop it and drop it in situ and try for my rainbow again next year. Such is gardening life.
In the other beds, though, there is a riotous carnival of colour, and I find myself drawn to them as much as the industrious insects who visit to seek food.
Despite the lack of floral variety and the fact that the blackbirds have rummaged in the grass mulch so much that it’s hard to see the woodchip paths any more, the mandala bed is looking pretty good. What interests me is that several things are actually outperforming their counterparts in the potager: the borlotti beans and aubergines (outdoor) were the first to flower, it has produced the first lettuce and French bean harvest, the best chard plants and the most productive cucumbers. I’m not sure why this should be, but something is obviously working well.
Not that we are exactly short of fruit and vegetables elsewhere: our first day back was almost entirely spent getting on top of the harvest. The courgettes and cucumbers had gone mad as they always do, but suddenly there were several rows of peas in need of picking, a crowd of summer cabbage all hearted up and ready to go, lettuces threatening to bolt left, right and centre and the first spring onions and baby carrots ready to pull. Oh, broad beans and French beans, too.
Then there was the tunnel . . . I was very relieved that nothing had collapsed and given up the ghost in the heat; quite the opposite, in fact. Where there had been a smattering of flowers, now there was a picking of aubergines and more peppers than I could shake a stick at. I’ve forgotten how much they love this climate, it will certainly be the best crop we’ve enjoyed since we last lived in Mayenne.
My greatest tunnel joy, though, had to be saved for the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which had gone slightly berserk in our absence. (I’d like to say at this point that if we have a successful crop from these plants, I really can’t take any credit as quite frankly, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I started out with good intentions to follow expert guidance in terms of pinching out after so many leaves and so many young fruit but soon lost the plot with that one. Now they’re just doing their own thing. Sorry, melon pundits.) They were a little thirsty but, nestled beneath their abundant foliage, I have counted at least twenty fruits swelling to a good size at an alarming rate. I can’t wait for the day when their heady perfume greets me at the door to let me know they are ready for eating . . .
In the meantime, we are not short of fruit. Having picked kilos of red cherries for preserving and enjoyed several helpings of yellow ones which are not good keepers and best eaten straight from the tree, we were delighted to find that the two trees which didn’t produce anything last year were not only fruiting heavily but also just happen to be another two completely different varieties. The first, which I think is a Rainier, has pretty pink and yellow marbled fruit which are good as a dessert cherry and for cooking; the other ~ oh happy days! ~ is a black cherry, with fruit so big, sweet and juicy that it’s impossible to resist the temptation of tucking in. Roger is having to fiercely guard (or hide) any he has picked, washed and put aside for a bit of dessert cheffery. 😁 The fact that the harvest has been spread out over several weeks is a real bonus, too, so let there be many more bountiful cherry years, please! We also have redcurrants and blackcurrants coming out of our ears, and at last, a good crop of raspberries, which are a bit small thanks to the drought but so plentiful it doesn’t really matter. Even the tiny ‘Fall Gold’ I planted as a bare-rooted twig in winter has produced some pretty amber fruits, sweet and flavoursome. Theoretically, it should crop twice a year. I hope so.
I’ve written several times about how I try not to present a picture of a falsely ‘perfect’ garden and of course, there were one or two things ~ namely some of the smaller squash plants ~ that suffered because we weren’t here to water when they most needed it. On the whole, though, I have to admit I’m quietly chuffed at how it all held up. Building resilience into the garden is something we have been working on and certainly the week away in such extreme weather conditions was a great test. Having learned from the potato mistake that mulch needs to go on damp earth, I’m really pleased with how moist the soil had stayed under its protective layer and also at how few weeds had appeared. Clearing a patch of ground cover green manure (phacelia, crimson clover and linseed) to make space for purple sprouting broccoli and red kale, it was clear what a fantastic job it had done in terms of moisture retention, weed suppression and soil improvement; the young brassicas have gone happily into the ground and not looked back. The ‘cleared’ crimson clover has already popped back up, the irrepressible little darlin’ that it is.
I was concerned about not being here to keep an eye on pests, especially as my old adversaries, the cabbage stem weevils, were back in numbers before we left; the idea of returning to find cauliflowers, cabbage and calabrese plants wiped out filled me with a certain dread, but I needn’t have fretted. Yes, the outer leaves look fairly ropey but the young growth in the centre is fine and, although it pains me to admit it, they were probably a lot better off for not having me faff about with them every day. I think this is part of the resilience thing once again: encourage a wider biodiversity and the beneficial creatures move in. Certainly, we have very healthy populations of garden spiders and ground beetles, two of the biggest weevil predators, so perhaps it’s best just to let them get on with the job. Everywhere I look, in fact, there are droves of helpful little things doing great work on our behalf and it is definitely worthwhile doing all we can to encourage them to stay. I think introducing far more flowers into the potager this year has made a big difference . . . but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉
Actually, on that subject, we’ve been enjoying a few evenings sitting in the sunshine where the old shed used to be. Regular readers might remember that we spent Christmas Day demolishing the dilapidated thing before rebuilding it in the potager and turning the area into somewhere pleasant to sit. The laid hedge has grown back strongly and the ‘bulge’ in that poor old cherry tree on the right that had to be felled has been re-purposed into a handy table. The annual flowers have been a bit slow but they’re starting to make an impact, with lots more colour to come. We still have ideas for more changes and developments to this space but it already feels like something of an improvement.
The twirly-whirly metal poles behind the furthest chair aren’t some modern art installation, but a couple of tomato supports that are very common here. they are a brilliant design: simply encourage the new growth upwards through the spirals, no need for any tying-in. They might seem an odd addition to a patch of annual flowers but this is all part of our ‘Hide the Tomato’ game aka trying to beat blight. There are tomatoes dotted about everywhere, some in the ground and others in pots, and I am only going to whisper this in the quietest tones possible but so far, they are all growing very strongly and some have set fruit. Sssssh, I really don’t want to tempt fate: the garden thrived in our absence, can the tomatoes pull through this time, too? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! 😊