Hands on

Organic, regenerative gardening can be many things: fascinating, rewarding, enriching, life-affirming, illuminating, fulfilling, inspiring and of huge benefit to mind, body and soul. However, anyone who thinks that sometimes I come across as a dewy-eyed, bunny-hugging, slug-snuggling softy when it comes to all things ‘nature’ might well have been a bit shocked to observe my reaction on discovering that something ~ something! 🤬~ had eaten off three of our young tomato plants this week. Actually, not even eaten, just bitten through the stem at the bottom, killing all the top growth. My first thought was slugs, but then when Roger saw a rabbit (nooooo! ) lurking between the pea rows, I thought maybe that was the culprit; the jury is still out, but whatever is doing the damage, it’s hugely frustrating . . . and believe me, I can rant with the best of them. Nature does have a way of seeking balance, however, so rushing to the mandala bed to check on those precious Finnish tomato plants (all present, correct and growing like stink), I noticed the flutter of something rather beautiful amongst all the bee activity in the sage flowers. From frown to smile in seconds; this is the third year I’ve been trying to persuade a swallowtail to sit still long enough for me to catch a decent snap. It’s definitely been worth the wait. 😊

Permaculture talks of the problem being the solution but that isn’t so straightforward when you’re not certain what the problem is, although little diggings around the beds suggests something furry rather than slimy. A quick look at general advice on the internet wasn’t much help, focusing as it did on raised beds, pots and fencing. We don’t garden in raised beds and I have no intention of making any, for tomatoes or anything else; I’ve chosen not to put any tomato plants in pots this year as they are so demanding when it comes to water and don’t produce as many fruits as those that are planted out ~ they are better off with their feet in the ground. We fenced the sweetcorn temporarily against hare attack which was easily done because it’s planted in a block, but I’ve deliberately scattered the tomatoes to all corners of the garden as an anti-blight strategy so fencing is a non-starter.

The sweetcorn ~ plus volunteer lettuce, landcress, rocket, dill and sunflowers ~ growing safely inside its protective netting fence.

Putting our heads together, we came up with a two-pronged solution: Roger made deep collars from a roll of thick, flexible plastic something-or-other left over from the renovation work which we fixed round each plant with a bit of duct tape, having first piled anti-slug grit at the bottom of each stem. Hopefully, this will at least give the plants time to reach a good size and be less vulnerable to attack before they outgrow their little guards. Luckily, I planted 35 in my usual overkill habit, so I shouldn’t mourn the losses too much. It’s still a tad frustrating, though, and combined with the current headache of the second drought of the year, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to throw in the trowel towel and go to the shops instead . . .

Finnish ‘Evakko’ safe from attack, I hope.

In Vivre Avec La Terre, the authors discuss how from a global perspective, Western peoples are the least able to provide for their essential needs themselves. It’s true that the structure and impetus of our society mean the vast majority of people are unlikely to be able to build their own home, grow or catch food, or make clothes and medicines, skills which it’s possible may again become crucial as the planet and humanity spiral into an uncertain and unstable future. It’s an interesting discussion and something that has touched me for a long time. As a teacher, I railed against the curriculum for upper primary children which was so overwhelmingly academic, allowing very little time for practical activities; even subjects like Design Technology saw more lesson time being spent planning, assessing, evaluating and devising marketing strategies on paper than actually creating whatever was being constructed. The justification was always along the lines of, “Well, we need doctors . . .” ~ yes, we do, but we need many other skilled people, too, and it’s misguided to dismiss manual (from the Latin word manus, meaning ‘hand’) activities as second best. When our son Sam, who is a talented, enthusiastic and innovative cook, was seriously contemplating training as a chef, there were far too many comments from people who felt it would be a ‘waste’ of his brain. What rubbish! Apart from being insulting to chefs (who most definitely use their brains), I pointed out that I would rather have a cheerful chef than a miserable mathematician for a son any day. As things turned out, Sam chose a different path but he is still a dab hand in the kitchen and those skills could well become ever more important through his lifetime.

Will the knowledge and skills needed to grow, cook and preserve food become more crucial in the future?

Human hands must surely be one of the most mind-blowing pieces of engineering on the planet and yet what do we actually do with them? Press buttons, swipe screens, grip steering wheels, grab things from shelves or hangers . . . how often do we get the chance to really use our hands in practical, creative activities of the kind that are both rewarding and totally absorbing? When I researched my family tree some years ago, I came across a paternal ancestor ~ another Samuel, in fact ~ who lived in rural Cumbria in the early nineteenth century; he and his wife were basket makers who both survived well into their nineties and I’ve often wondered if their shared longevity was in part attributable to a life spent using their hands (and yes, brains) to create useful and beautiful items with simple tools and natural materials. Basket-making is something I would dearly love to learn and put into practice if our willows ever get going. In fact, my ambition is to make a new basketwork trug to replace the old wooden faithful when it gives up the ghost.

I’ve been collecting elderflowers from our hedgerows in the trug this week.

I have to confess, I love doing things with my hands and will always use the good old-fashioned way of doing something if I can get away with it. Perhaps it does make me a bit of a dinosaur but I would rather do things like whisk mayonnaise or make pastry by hand rather than using a food processor. My spinning wheel is a favourite tool, powered only by the gentle treadling of my right foot; in fact, I am fond of any such tools that are simple yet efficient, they have such a timelessness about them and of course, no need for fossil fuels of any kind.

Pressing apples for juice.
Cutting meadow grass for hay with a scythe

Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is an important issue where creating a regenerative and resilient garden ~ and indeed, lifestyle ~ is concerned and one which I am all too happy to embrace. I love the fact that I can produce oodles of fresh, nutritious food without any need for machines, just time, energy, a few simple tools and my hands . . . and a fair bit of help from Mother Earth, of course! It feels so right, this gentle, nurturing approach that has nothing to do with power, order or control. Sowing seeds, planting out, spreading mulch, watering, tying in . . . these are all such peaceful activities that allow me time to connect not only with the plants in question but the rest of the abundant life in the garden. I don’t need to fuss about aphids on the aubergines when, crouched down to adjust a twine tie, I notice several predatory ladybird larvae on the lower leaves; picking gooseberries is a labour of love that leaves my hands scratched to pieces, but how can I complain when the air is full of bird song and bee buzz? If it takes me all morning to pick, process and preserve by hand whatever is currently cropping, then what does that matter? I can’t think of anything more important I could be doing with my time. It feels like a wonderful privilege.

I feel a particular sense of satisfaction when the carbon footprint of our produce is zero or even negative. Take lettuce, for example, something we are eating daily at the moment as the garden is bursting with them. If I sow seeds that were saved from last year’s crop in soil that has been built using organic materials from the patch and nourished with homemade compost, green manure from self-set or saved seed and homemade fertilisers, watered naturally by rain (I wish!) or with saved rainwater, harvested just minutes before eating raw, then fossil fuel inputs are zero. I have no need to go off-site to find or fetch anything, no need to buy goods or services from others, no need to tap into energy sources for cooking or preserving. The amount of work is minimal, especially given how freely and widely the seed has sown itself this year. If I cut the stem of a lettuce but leave the root in the ground, the plant will regrow to give another harvest and if I deliberately leave some plants to bolt and flower, there should be seed to save for next year. Any outer leaves not eaten can be scattered on the surface of the soil as a mulch or added to the compost heap. The whole process is a closed loop which has provided us with a huge ongoing harvest and hasn’t cost a penny; in fact, we could be providing others in the community with fresh, organic lettuce ( and courgettes, strawberries, peas, broad beans, herbs . . . ) too, if I could find the right mechanism for making that work.

Several lettuce varieties along with coriander, parsley and calendula deliberately left to set seed in the tunnel.

Of course, it’s not always quite that simple. I can press apples by hand until the cows come home but if I want to preserve the juice by pasteurising or freezing, then I need energy inputs. The elderflowers I’ve been picking this week will dry happily on a sunny windowsill to be stored for winter teas and medicines but to make cordial, I not only need to use the electric cooker but to buy sugar, oranges and lemons, too. I think the key as with so many things, is the goal of reduction rather than perfection and I’ve long believed that the most important of the 5 Rs (or however many are fashionable these days) is ‘reduce.’ If everyone cut back even in a small way on everything they consumed or used, then I think we would be in a much stronger and happier position to face the future. Roger and I would like to tap into solar power far more than we are currently doing and a solar oven and dehydrator are two of the projects we’re considering; in the meantime, paying attention to just how much energy (and other things) we consume and doing whatever we can to bring those figures down is a big priority . . . and the garden is a good indicator of how we’re doing.

At the end of this bed there are broad beans, rainbow chard, lettuce, red onions, summer cabbages, parsley, coriander, dill and calendula: tying up the beans and mulching everything is the only ‘work’ this polyculture has needed for weeks.

Where flowers are concerned, it’s much the same story. For starters, our whole approach of working with nature and encouraging biodiversity means that we have every excuse for letting wild flowers proliferate and do their own abundant thing. It’s lazy gardening at its best and I’m not sure we could improve on it.

The mandala bed is probably the most formal looking in the whole garden and yet it was created totally by hand from waste materials: cardboard, grass clippings, hay, sawdust, twiggy sticks, compost, molehills, shredded hedge prunings and a large rock all from on-site, herb plants raised from saved seeds and strawberries from runners. The only annual plants to go in there are spares from the potager as I don’t grow anything specially for it. No machinery, no fossil fuels, no external inputs, no cost and minimum maintenance; in fact, picking the strawberries has seen me spending more time in there over the last few days than the whole year put together.

As perennials generally have the reputation of being better subjects in regenerative growing than annuals ~ hence the focus on forest gardens, edible hedges and perennial vegetables ~ I have been making a concerted effort to move away from annuals flowers in the bigger beds by planting perennials grown from seed such as lupins, granny’s bonnets, echinacea, gaillardias and scabious plus other bits and pieces sourced from nurseries and the plant swap. Mmm, I’m not really sure why I’m bothering because I think this is a case where volunteer annuals are merrily recreating a flower bed year after year with total disregard for my endeavours. I might just have to accept defeat on this one . . . and as we’re talking zero maintenance, maximum colour and high density insect life, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea after all.

I’m not totally redundant: a few climbers have needed a little tying in to their supports here and there . . .

. . . although in most places, they’re happy just to scramble about without any help whatsoever.

Roses scrambling up a clematis.
Maybe we’ll have a grape harvest this year?

Despite the riot of floral colour around the house and in the meadow areas, one of my favourite spots at the moment is the Not Garden; here, nestled in the cooler green of semi-shade, wonderful things are happening in the potato patch. The white ‘Charlotte’ and mauve ‘Blue Danube’ have burst into flower bringing a beauty all of their own to the space but fear not, despite first appearances this is definitely not a case of monoculture! Mingled amongst and around the potatoes are the starry white flowers of horseradish and rocket, the dainty yellow of landcress, cheerful orange of calendula, soft mauve of chives, bright pops of crimson from ruby chard and sorrel, lettuce here, there and everywhere, the trefoil foliage of oca, succulent spear-shaped leaves of New Zealand spinach and the first blue borage flowers right on the cusp of opening. Oh, and a leek left to flower and set seed, too. I love patches like this: needing nothing more than an occasional mulch, they provide us with a wonderful variety of foods all produced in a chaotic jumble of vibrant and vigorous growth. It’s not quite food for free (we did buy a few new seed potatoes to add to our saved ones this year) but it’s not far off. Not a slug or bunny in sight, either. Perhaps I’ll carry on with this gardening lark for a bit longer, then. 😉


Life is full of surprises and isn’t it heart-warming when they turn out to be lovely ones? I’ve been delighted to find all sorts of new volunteer seedlings popping up around the patch this week as if the garden is quietly taking responsibility for planting itself; I had to smile when I discovered nature had beaten me to it with everything from basil in the polytunnel to tomatoes in the mandala bed. A self-perpetuating garden and me redundant once again ~ perfect! Roger’s hedge-laying activities have thrown up several surprises, too, with the appearance of new wild flower species in the hedge bottom and the waxy white flowers of a medlar which is a real bonus as we had no idea it was there. One of my greatest sorrows when we moved here was the way in which so many mature trees had been abused in the past; there is a difference between pruning or coppicing carried out with care and skill, and the downright brutal chopping of large branches which in some cases has completely done for the trees in question. In a run of hazel hedge close to the house, there was a hawthorn ~ very old, given the girth of its trunk ~ that had nothing more than a bunch of twigs growing from the top; it was a sad sight and we weren’t sure it had much of a future but when he laid that section of the hedge, Roger left it to see what would happen. Well, nature has a way of healing when given even half a chance: last year, the tree put on healthy new growth but didn’t bloom, this year it is covered in flowers and what a wonderful surprise to find they are pink! For me, hawthorn is the essence of the season; it was late to flower this year but has certainly made up for it since with an incredible show of snowy blossom in our hedgerows. Now we have a pink beauty to add to the mix. It’s been well worth the wait.

Well worth the effort of laying those long runs of hedges, too. They are leafing up quickly and forming thick, dense bottoms which are precisely what all good hedges need. With the hazel no longer dominating the scene, the wider range of species is far more visible and I’m pleased to see dog roses and honeysuckles weaving themselves through the greenery. With wide margins of uncut grass left on either side, they form lush, green corridors that are full of life and offer the perfect travel routes for our resident wildlife; several times this week, we have both had to stop at a hedge gap while a huge grass snake made the crossing and continued along the hedge bottom, very likely en route to checking out the compost heap for voles and other goodies.

It’s amazing just how many flowers and grasses are flourishing beneath the hedges, the more closely I look, the more blooms there are to see . . . and some very interesting visitors, too.

Minstrel bugs are particularly fond of pignut flowers.

It’s our aim that eventually, all the boundary hedges will be as thick and abundant as these and after all the problems of last year, it’s a relief to see the young hedging plants we put in to plug gaps finally putting in some strong and healthy growth. Even in the spaces between the awful conifers on our eastern boundary, the hawthorn, hornbeam and beech are starting to make an impact, for which I am very grateful. I shouldn’t malign the conifers too much, I know they are good places for ladybirds to overwinter and there has been a goldfinches’ nest in one of them this spring, I shall just like them more when they are diluted with deciduous natives and (hopefully) blend in as part of a mixed hedge rather than a ridiculous row of dark pillars.

Unfortunately, the internal hedges we planted to add structure, break up the spaces, protect the potager and screen the polytunnel (essential but ugly!) haven’t fared so well. They are a curving eclectic mix of native trees, flowering shrubs and ‘edibles’ which really should be making a positive impact by now but they have been struggling badly on two counts. First, last year’s heat and drought created more stress than such young plants could cope with and despite Roger’s valiant efforts with seemingly endless buckets of grey water, all struggled to grow and some died. How can it be such a battle to establish willow, it’s normally impossible to stop the stuff from growing? Added to the weather issues, the far too regular attention of visiting hares and roe deer and their frustrating habit of eating the tops out of everything ensured that even the plants that had managed to grow were pruned right back to where they started so that we’ve had to make guards for pretty much everything in the hope it will give them a fair chance. We’re also continually lifting tree seedlings that we find around the patch, putting them in as replacements when necessary and also spreading them around in the hope of creating small woodland areas. Like our former Welsh smallholding I wrote about a few posts back, my vision for this property is that eventually there will be living and growing spaces in the middle of a beautiful woodland. We just need the weather and wildlife onside!

Young birch tree grown from a found seedling.

One hedge that is certainly doing the business this spring is the white-should-be-red rosa rugosa curve around one end of the flower garden; there’s still some way to go but with the cardoons looking very enthusiastic on the other side and the little shrubbery starting to fill out, I can almost believe this will mature into the enclosed, more intimate space I had planned. From the western end, it’s impossible to see over the roses now apart from little glimpses of colour here and there and once the honeysuckle and rose have scrambled up the trellis Roger has built at the entrance, there should be an ever-growing feeling of going into a special space. All I need now is to organise a seat for quiet contemplation amongst the wild blooms and insects.

Establishing any kind of living structure in a garden is a game of patience, we just have to sit back and wait for nature to work its magic. The fruit trees we have planted are growing well and some of them even have tiny fruits on this year and several clematis and climbing roses are at last beginning to make colourful screens. Roses round the door might be a bit of a cliché but they’re a very beautiful one and look just right against the soft stone walls of the house. Roger spent hours last autumn unravelling an ancient wisteria growing in a tangle of hedge and pulling the branches out and over a trellis and a post and wire fence; it has only ever had a small handful of flowers on each spring so we weren’t sure what to expect but it has been absolutely gorgeous for several weeks and full of bees, particularly the blue-winged black carpenter bees who seem especially attracted to it. Hopefully, the wisteria will go from strength to strength now and enjoy mingling with a couple of climbing roses we’ve added for good measure.

Of course, structure isn’t just about height and hedges. Creating a pond has been one of our slowest projects ever thanks to various factors but at long last, we have just about done everything we can as finally, new season’s aquatic plants became available from a specialist nursery last week. We have planted a mix of floating, oxygenating and marginal plants, all native species including frogbit, brooklime and bogbean; they look a bit stark in their planting baskets but they should grow pretty quickly through the summer and provide an enriched habitat for a wider diversity of species. I was very excited to see what at first I thought was the silvery flash of a newt’s tail in the oxygenating weed but it turned out to be a great diving beetle larva, a voracious predator with a fierce pair of jaws which looks like something straight out of science fiction. I’d forgotten just how fascinating pondlife can be! The idea behind the location of the pond is that it sits at the far reaches of a wild patch, hidden from view by high vegetation (including a mixed willow hedge if it ever happens) and the hump of a hügel bed which creates a rise in the land. It’s something unexpected, a little gem to be discovered . . . I believe gardens should be full of surprises!

Floating frogbit

Libraries, too. I was a bit crestfallen to see the ‘natural gardening’ display in the local library had been taken down last week as there was one particular book I’d seen on my first visit but hadn’t been brave enough to borrow (is it a British thing, feeling nervous about removing items from a display, I wonder?). Accepting that I’d missed my chance ~ I think the books had all come from elsewhere ~ I started to look around and lo and behold, there was the very book sitting all alone on a table, still available for borrowing. In actual fact, it’s a very weighty three manual tome of which I am probably only likely to make it through the first book as my reading in French is a bit slower than in English. It’s ‘Vivre avec la Terre’ by Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer of the Ferme du Bec Hellouin, whose book ‘Miraculous Abundance’ is one of the most inspiring I have ever read.

One of the things I love most about these authors is their unfailing sense of optimism; they have such a positive, can-do attitude towards a future of regenerative farming and food production, sylviculture, strong local communities and abundant biodiversity in a world no longer reliant on fossil fuels. It’s the sort of uplifting read I’ve been in need of this week. Despite strong winds, the fields of wheat and maize around our property have been sprayed several times in the last couple of weeks, filling the air with the stench of noxious chemicals. Worse, when we were planting the pond plants, the farmer came round on his quad bike spraying the vegetation in the hedge bottom on his side of the shared hedge; the smell was so strong, we had to abandon planting and move away until the air had cleared. He repeated it the next day, so that every blade of grass and wildflower on his side are now dead. On Monday, I walked a short way along the lane to take pictures of the verges which were a stunning show of wild flowers, especially the carpets of various species of orchid; the next day, a tractor came through and mowed the lot off. Mmm, that was a surprise of the less welcome kind.

This I suspect is on account of the Tour de Mayenne cycle race which is passing along the lane on Friday as the same tractor has been back sweeping every inch of the road several times since. I suppose I should feel a sense of honour or excitement about the event and I have no doubt it’s all being done in the name of safety but a huge part of me is grappling with a mix of frustration and sadness at what is going on. How many more reports do we need to see about habitat loss, decline in biodiversity, endangered and extinct species, the serious and alarming fall in insect numbers, the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers and the destruction of topsoil before we apply some proper joined-up thinking and start doing the right thing for everything, not just the human species? It’s so easy to think our own efforts are futile but then, what’s the alternative? I refuse to stop trying to make at least a small difference and I know we are not alone; traditional hay meadows like the one in the picture above are disappearing locally, but where they still exist, they are full of an abundance of biodiversity and life.

Our ‘wild’ garden.

My favourite cheese comes from an organic farm a few kilometres away where Montbéliarde et Normande cattle graze in fields like these and we buy pork from a similar enterprise where high animal welfare and respect for the environment are key principles. This holiday weekend will see many outdoor markets where small producers will be selling sustainably-produced local foods of the highest quality. Like Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, I don’t blame farmers per se for what they do, they are cogs in the vast machine of industrial agriculture driven by the growth mantra I’ve talked about before; they’re trying to make a living and feed the nation, after all, and it’s all too easy to paint them as the baddies when the picture is far more complex than that. The authors point out that numerous farming practices and attitudes remain based on the ideas of fifty years ago arising from the post-war Green Revolution, and that many French farmers simply don’t have the opportunity to learn about different approaches and how food could be produced in ways that are kinder to the environment (and the farmers themselves!). I’m in no way qualified to offer solutions but it is my greatest hope that things will change and that there will be the education, support, encouragement and positive attitude needed to bring that about, not just in the agricultural sector but society as a whole. Great to have cycle races, but all the fossil fuel being burned in its honour ~ we are braced for hundreds of support vehicles and several helicopters! ~ seems a bit ironic, somehow. In the meantime, we will carry on doing our bit and appreciating all the joy that our precious patch of land brings. This morning’s headline: the first courgettes are ready for eating. Now there’s the kind of surprise I like. 😊

Waste not, weed not

Some of our apple trees hit peak blossom last week and gazing up into the sweet-scented branches, I’ve been wondering how it’s possible for a single tree to produce so many flowers at once! I’ve also been reflecting on the valuable lesson it teaches. As well as providing the perfect niche for nests (great tits again, who else?), each tree is currently feeding thousands of varied insects who in turn are carrying out the essential task of pollination. All being well, the autumn will see a bumper crop of fruit which fresh or stored, raw, cooked, dried, juiced and made into vinegar will offer us many months of healthy nutrition; other creatures will benefit from the windfalls, too, and those fruits that aren’t eaten will decay over winter along with the fallen leaves and help to create a nutrient-rich mulch to feed the tree itself, whilst supporting an unimaginably immense network of life within the soil. It’s nature’s perfect circular economy . . . and there isn’t a scrap of waste.

‘Produce no waste’ is a key permaculture principle and one I return to often in an attempt to reduce my impact on the Earth. There are so many things that we can waste: food, water, fuel, clothes, ‘stuff’, paper, money, time, energy, space, opportunity . . . in fact, every time we consume or use something, the potential for waste is there. Let’s face it, waste is very hard to avoid but the trick is to see it as a resource rather than a problem and what better place than a garden to really focus on trying to produce no waste when nature is very obviously there as a great and wise teacher? I know when I start talking (yet again) about working and connecting with or learning from nature, for some people there is an element of woo-woo or being away with the fairies so it always cheers me to see others far more qualified and talented than myself saying much the same thing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article this week about laid-back gardening by Alys Fowler; if this is your thing (or even if it isn’t), then it really is worth taking a few minutes to read it. There was so much in there that appealed to me that I’ve borrowed Alys’s subheadings as a framework to reflect on how things are going in our patch.

Throw out your spade

My spade has been redundant for quite some time now; in fact, the only time I ever use it is in place of a shovel for loading mulch materials into buckets and barrows. We’ve come to a no-dig system relatively recently but I am a complete convert and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else now. When we moved here at the end of December 2020 there were two small patches that had been under cultivation but weren’t nearly big enough for us to grow everything we wanted to so we hastily created two more ~ one by turning turfs and planting potatoes on top, the other by stripping turfs and forking over the soil beneath in order that we could sow seeds. It didn’t take us long to realise the ground was badly compacted, seriously deficient in organic matter and riddled with grassland beasties like wireworms and chafer grubs so when it came to preparing the soil in the polytunnel, we decided that double digging was the only strategy.

Extending an existing bed . . . even before we went ‘no-dig’ I always preferred to use a fork. (Quick aside: those horrible conifers are now at the bottom of some very productive Hügel beds! 😆)
Planting potatoes in upturned turf.

In retrospect, we could have sheet mulched everything and put a deep layer of topsoil on the seedbed but at the time there was a sad lack of available organic matter to use and serious time pressures, especially as we were still travelling back and forth to Asturias to collect our bits and pieces. Needs must and all that . . . and we did have a decent harvest.

Since then, every bed we’ve created has either been a lasagne bed or Hügel bed and the previously dug beds have been treated to a new no-dig regimen with piles of green and brown organic matter spread over the surface as a mulch, regular sowings of green manure and the lightest of touches when it comes to removing persistent perennial weeds pioneers. I no longer waste time and energy or the lives of worms by digging anywhere in the garden and although I wouldn’t dream of literally throwing away my spade (which would be the waste of a perfectly good tool), these days all I need is a trowel and bucket for mulch-moving and a small weeding fork. With the soil structure left undisturbed, the microbes and other heroes can go about their business of creating a rich, balanced soil which in turn leads to happy plants and abundant harvests. It’s a win-win situation and one I’m very happy to champion.

Savoy cabbages and self-set chard thriving in a phacelia jungle this week: this once-dug bed hasn’t been touched for two years now.

Ease off weeding

I wrote last time about how pleased I was that weeds were being rebranded to super heroes at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. I erased the word from my vocabulary some time ago ~ the strikethrough above was completely intentional ~ and agree totally with Alys Fowler that instead of treating them with disdain, we need to learn from what they can tell us. I like her idea of them being thought of as ‘elders’ or ‘common folk’ who arrive to help the soil out and whose wisdom we would be well-advised to tap into. From an observational point of view, it’s interesting how for us it’s the once-dug beds that have the biggest populations which suggests to me those are the areas most in need of healing; there are very few ‘common folk’ in the lasagne beds but a lot more fungi which suggests things are more in balance there. I’ve taken on board the fact that annual ‘weeds’ are a sign of bacterially-dominated soil which requires more carbon, so although I try to use alternate mulches and everywhere had a good dollop of dead leaves over winter, I’ve been sprinkling sawdust this week where chickweed and speedwell are sprawling (including in the tunnel).

I happen to think there is a lot of beauty in these ‘common folk’ which is so often shrugged off or ignored in favour of ‘garden’ flowers; if red deadnettle or scarlet pimpernel want to sit pretty amongst the lettuce, who am I to complain? The benefit they bring to wildlife also goes without saying and that alone must make them worthy of a chance to shine.

Embrace rot and death

In short, don’t bother tidying up! It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking the garden must look manicured and perfect, any quick glance at a lifestyle magazine or advertisements for all that garden stuff you simply must have is enough to prove that. How much time can be wasted on clearing dead growth, pruning this, trimming that and keeping everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion in the name of . . . what, exactly? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for one moment that gardens need to become tangled, overgrown jungles (although such can be very beautiful places!) and it’s good to have places to walk, sit, cook, relax, sleep or whatever and to enjoy and take a pride in our precious patch. The point that Alys makes is that rotting, along with disease and pests, is part of the Earth’s natural recycling system and if we leave well alone, a balance will eventually ensue. Dead vegetation will rot and nourish the soil where it lies, mulches that harbour slugs also hide their predators, where pests proliferate something will come in to feed on them. I have a very laissez-faire attitude to dead stuff and have never been bothered with the notion of creating a ‘tidy’ garden so I’m happy for it to lie and let nature do all the work. I’m also reasonably pragmatic when it comes to pests and diseases, for example, the currant bushes that have a bit of a a red curled leaf thing going on at the moment. It’s surely down to aphids but I’m doing nothing about it because the bushes are covered in those top aphid-chomping allies, ladybirds. I can honestly say I have never seen such a huge population in one place, all different sizes, colours and spotted symmetries, and there are plenty more on the way if my observations are anything to go by (I did apologise for intruding on such intimate moments!).

All that said and done, I know just how frustrating ~ heartbreaking, even ~ it can be to watch nurtured plants collapse as a result of pests or disease (or I, might add, terrible weather) so perhaps it takes a little more courage to embrace this approach, giving it time and trusting the natural process. I’m happy to shrug off losses as part and parcel of the gardening game but just occasionally some simple mitigation is required, like this temporary netting fence to stop hares scoffing the newly-planted sweetcorn ~ certainly the right call given that two days later, we found two leverets in the garden.

Stop chasing fast growth

When we go to supermarkets, I’m always amazed at how many aisles we don’t go down because we simply never buy what they offer and country stores or garden centres are the same. Just as I avoid the domestic cleaning products aisle like the plague (and don’t even get me started on air fresheners and scented candles), I can totally ignore the shelves of noxious and equally smelly garden chemicals. Synthetic fertilisers, rich in nitrogen and high on fossil fuel use during their production, are completely unnecessary in a garden. Honestly. They contribute practically nothing to soil structure and ecosystems and in fact, may actually reduce soil fertility by overstimulating microbial activity. My plants are looking a bit under the weather, not as green or flourishing as they could be and lagging behind, so what do I do? Scenario 1: jump in the car, drive to the nearest outlet (many kilometres in our case), buy a synthetic fertiliser in granular or liquid form with all its associated production and packaging issues and add it to the soil. Repeat. Scenario 2: wander into the garden, pull a few comfrey leaves to use as a mulch OR water plants I’m worried about with homemade comfrey tea OR pee in a bucket, dilute with rain water and apply to struggling plants. On balance, there’s no choice. Our society is imbued with the mantra of growth ~growing the economy, careers, bank accounts and so forth ~ and I wonder why more people don’t question the sense of it. Pretty much everything in nature has a finite limit of growth with checks and balances to keep them in place so why must we be under pressure to do more, make more, have more and spend more? When is ‘enough’ enough? I don’t want to push my plants to grow bigger or faster than they will do naturally; I love seasonality so everything in its own time is just perfect. Ease off and give them time, space and peace to grow. Put the kettle on. Pull a cork. Relax.

Our comfrey is in full bloom.

Compost in situ

Compost heaps are great things and I like the way Alys states that even badly-made compost is wonderful stuff for the soil; there can be so much arrogance and angst around compost making if you start to research it and while a decent balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials is preferable, it really isn’t rocket science. Organic matter will rot into something valuable sooner or later and I think it’s far better that we have a go rather than be put off because we’re not experts. Making compost in situ takes everything one step forward where ease is concerned and it’s definitely something I like to do because lazy gardening is my thing. Quite simply, why waste time and energy carting spent plants or whatever to the compost heap when they can be chopped and dropped where they grew and scattered over the surface of the soil for the worms to take care of? Brassica stalks are something I do remove because they are so chunky and obviously anything seriously diseased like blighted tomatoes, but everything else stays put, perhaps with a bit of hand-shredding first to reduce the size and speed up the rotting process. If I want to plant something in the same space, the old foliage just acts as a mulch around it. We currently have climbing beans and sweetcorn growing in last year’s squash and courgette remains, courgettes and cucumbers where beans were grown, broad beans in the old cabbage patch . . . it’s a wonderful recycling of precious organic matter for the very least effort. Granted, it doesn’t always look very pretty: take, for example, the patch which I’ve strewn with bolted radicchio plants this week (you can see the remains of last year’s climbing bean stems in the mix, too) which some would consider a ‘mess’ but once it’s full of winter brassicas, no-one will ever know!

Cold nights with the possibility of frosts are the last thing we need this time of year with all the tender plants bar tomatoes planted in the ground outside so we have to give them what protection we can to nurse them through the cold snap. We cover whatever we can with buckets and pots but everything else is being tucked under a deep blanket of hay, grass cut and dried from our meadow areas last summer. The covering-in-the-evening-uncovering-in-the-morning is a bit of a pain but the beauty of our system is that once the temperatures lift to something nearer normal again, I can just leave much of the hay on the soil both as a mulch layer and another composting in situ material. Perfect.

The no-dig potatoes in the mandala bed are already tucked round with a deep layer of hay . . . now they have a night-time blanket to cover the foliage, too.

Encourage plant promiscuity

If everyone grew just a little of their own food, I think there would be a much wider awareness and acceptance of just how diverse fruits and vegetables can and should be. What an indictment on modern society that anything can be labelled as ‘wonky’ vegetables! It really is time to drop these notions of perfection, of exactly what size, shape and colour a carrot or apple should be and start focusing instead on the things that truly matter such as flavour and nutrition; who cares if a parsnip has a smirk-inducing shape or a lettuce is a bit slug-nibbled when their flavour and freshness are second to none? We have just shared (!) the first strawberry of the season whilst wandering round the garden and nothing shop-bought could ever hope to match that moment of epicurean joy!

Diversity is such a key issue and resilience, too, if we are going to face a future of secure and wholesome food production so the more that gardeners can leave plants to flower and set seed, the better. We have saved seeds for ever but in recent years, I have become aware that now it is as much about helping to maintain or increase the genetic diversity in plants which is so seriously threatened as making sure we have seeds to plant next year. It’s true that some seeds are easier to save successfully than others but that’s no reason not to give it a go and to keep pushing the boundaries each season to see exactly what is possible. There’s a lot of fuss about growing parsnips which have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to germinate, something we only ever experienced in Asturias where I came to the conclusion they simply didn’t want to grow there (listen to nature, it’s telling us something). Every year, we leave a single parsnip in the ground and let it do its own thing; it produces a mass of tiny yellow flowers ~ which, like so many vegetable flowers, are a magnet for pollinators ~ then sets hundreds if not thousands of papery seeds which are easily collected. This is a huge part of the strategy: use fresh seed! We have never faffed about with germinating first on damp kitchen roll, just throw masses of seed into the ground during the coldest, wettest days of February. Job done, winter staple to look forward to. In every nook and cranny of the garden and polytunnel there are random plants left to set seed: a carrot here, an onion there and lettuce, lettuce everywhere!

Self-set lettuce with volunteer coriander and rocket friends.

Like taking a back seat with pests and diseases, allowing plants to freely cross-pollinate can take a little more nerve, especially as there tends to be warnings against certain crosses, but again I believe a healthy dose of pragmatism and common sense are needed if we are to become true landrace gardeners ~ and apart from anything else, it’s a totally fascinating activity and a lot of fun, too. Alys Fowler’s encouragement came as a breath of fresh air as I have recently read an article about the dire consequences of saving squash seed because there is a danger of curcubit poisoning or ‘toxic squash syndrome’ as curcubits freely cross-pollinate, particularly where wild ones are present. Let’s keep things in perspective: curcubit poisoning is a very unpleasant condition which can be quite serious but is also very rare. Furthermore, any curcubit likely to cause problems has a very bitter taste and as human beings who have evolved to instinctively recognise when something we’re tasting isn’t good for us, we ought to be able to recognise the fact before tucking in. We’ve been saving our own squash seed for many years now and have never had a problem, despite growing other curcubits in close proximity; quite the opposite, in fact. We have used the benefits of cross-pollination between squash varieties to develop ‘new’ strains that suit our tastebuds, culinary requirements, storage needs and grow well in our soil and weather conditions. It’s not unthinkable that in the very near future we will be able to make the leap from still growing a few plants from commercial seed ‘just in case’ to relying on our own seed one hundred percent.

One of our ‘mongrel’ squash growing last summer; note the abundance of self-set phacelia around it.

Certainly, I am always very happy for plants to seed and self-set all around the patch and they are often the ones to keep, being ‘happy’ plants that are growing where they choose to their own calendar and natural rhythms and coping well with the local environmental conditions. We currently have little volunteers popping up all over the place, some of which are quite likely to be the result of cross-pollination (squash, tomatoes, peppers . . . ) and I’m curious to see what they produce. Wild flowers, too, are appearing in an ever-growing range of species; the less we do, the more they come and that suits us just fine.

Laid-back gardening has so much going for it, an invitation to ease off gently and let nature take us by the hand. At heart, I think it’s about mutual trust, compassion and generosity and when you stop and think about it, how wonderful to be excused from the stress that comes with control, hard work and the struggle for perfection. This week, I’ve had to concede that the courgette in the tunnel had truly succumbed to ant business and it looks like an aubergine has gone the same way; that slugs have done for a couple of cucumbers and dwarf beans and are doing their best to annihilate one of the squashes, too; that the germination rate of a few things I’ve planted is disappointingly poor; that nothing will stop blackbirds from scratching my carefully-laid mulch out from around plants and scattering it to the four winds; that frosts in mid-May are a nightmare. The flipside is that I’ve watched as the squirrel kittens left home and the feral honeybees swarmed; I’ve seen numerous fledglings, all spotty feathers and big beaks, taking their first tentative steps and flights in the company of anxious parents; I’ve marvelled at the exquisitely-marked soft pelt of tiny leverets and counted more species of wild bees on the comfrey than I can remember; I’ve been mesmerised by the myriad life forms already populating the pond and the dark magnificence of huge dragonflies darting about its surface. I’ve opened planting holes that are deep and rich and teeming with worms where no spade has ever been wielded, I’ve acknowledged the benefit of letting annual weeds sprawl as living mulch, I’ve loved every instance of discovering that nature has sown seeds in crazy places. More than anything, I’ve gathered an abundance of wonderful food for our meals during what is classically a ‘hungry’ time, proof if ever it was needed that lazy, laid-back, do-nothing gardening works brilliantly. All I need now is a hammock. 😉

Maytime mulching and meandering

Looking back over my blog posts, I realise just how home-centric (or perhaps garden-centric is more accurate) it has become since our trip to Norway last June. I don’t have a problem staying at home, in fact I am the sort of homebird who can take a lot of persuading at times to go elsewhere, but I have missed the opportunities to share our local ramblings on two feet or two wheels over the last few months. At the beginning of last December, I decided to have a crack at the Walk 1000 Miles challenge in the hope it would help to accelerate the natural healing of my herniated disc . . . but it only took me the first week to realise it was far too soon and that particular target would have to be put on the back burner (ah, no painful pun intended 😉) for quite some time. Five months on and at last I am able to move more comfortably; I’ve started to walk again, not too far or too fast, but at least it feels like positive progress in the right direction, and even if I still can’t ride my bike, I can at least enjoy the unparalleled beauty of May mornings and the hedonistic dance of colour along the laneside verges.

I don’t have the technology to measure my steps but I suspect they add up to several miles a day just around the garden at the moment. With the weather having taken a turn for the better and no hint of frosts in the forecast, it has been all systems go outside; this is one of the busiest times of year with much planting and the mother lode of mulch to be distributed ~ not that I’m complaining. If I could only have one month, it would be May. I love these sunlit days of eye-wateringly bright green leaves against skies the flawless blue of a robin’s eggshell (of which there are plenty scattered around the garden at present); there is such a rush of energy, of vigour and vitality, an overwhelming fizz of vibrancy and joy. The air resounds with the jubilant chorus of birdsong and is redolent with the sweet perfumes of lilac and laburnum, bluebells, clematis and apple blossom so that far from feeling like work, my time spent being busy in the garden is nothing but an unbridled pleasure.

Roger has been busy tidying the barn and outdoor shelter as that now we no longer need to light the stove, the big log merry-go-round has begun once more and he is barrowing stacks of logs at various stages of the seasoning process here, there and everywhere. He’s also been using up scraps of wood to make more bird boxes, working on several different designs to cater for a wider variety of species; however, it seems no matter what goes up, it’s great tits that move in immediately. They spend a lot of time pecking at the entrance hole of blue tit boxes to try and squeeze in and, not content with occupying the bat box, they’ve also decided that treecreeper boxes will suit them just fine . . .

Taking the hint, Roger relented and made a great tit box . . . and they were in residence in under thirty minutes of it appearing in a tree! They are one of the most numerous species on the winter feeders but last year, they all went up to the woods to nest; this year, they are obviously happy to raise their broods with us so I think a few more boxes tailored to their needs will be appearing before next spring ~ then perhaps the other birds will get a look-in, too. The greatest excitement in the last couple of weeks was seeing an adult red squirrel disappearing into the nestbox that Roger put up a couple of years ago and which has remained empty ever since; we’ve been waiting with baited breath to see if it was a sign she was raising a family in there and sure enough this week, a little gang of kittens has emerged. What a magical moment! I am wasting far too much time watching them: the first sign of scuffling and scratching noises coming from the box and I down tools and tiptoe as close as I dare. They are such little characters, taking their first brave steps in a strange arboreal world and being able to witness such an event feels like a real privilege. There is no hope of catching a decent shot without a zoom lens but at least I hope you can make out the squirrel kitten profile and its white bib in the V of the oak tree below. The tree is leafing up rapidly and the babies are growing bolder with every day so it won’t be long before we are struggling to see them . . . but there’s a good chance their mother will have a second litter in August so watch this space!

What with the distraction of baby squirrels, my continued observations of wild bees (Long-horned and Hairy-footed Flower females have joined the parade this week) and the spectacle of busy bird activity all around the patch, things have quite possibly been proceeding rather more slowly than they should where my to-do list is concerned. Thankfully, we’ve had a run of gorgeous days which means each morning I’ve been able to pick up where I left off and I can report that most of the planting has now been done: just sweetcorn and tomatoes to go outside when they are ready and the melons and a couple of butternut squash in the tunnel when there is room. It’s such a juggling act in there but I’m not grumbling; we are enjoying a tremendous harvest of peas, broad beans and lettuce and the first roots of early potatoes this week have been a real treat, especially as there were more on a single root than the whole lot put together last year. What a difference a year and a lot of soil love make.

I’m desperately trying to use the tunnel lettuce now, partly to free up space for melons but also because the outdoor ones are catching up fast. I love the way that our salads are always such a reflection of the season, changing almost weekly as old things fade and new stars step up to the mark ~ this week has seen the last small florets of purple sprouting broccoli and the first starry chive flowers.

I’d like to say the next much-anticipated treat will be the first courgettes but there has been something of a disaster on that front this week and as I believe in blogging warts and all, I’m happy to share this frustrating moment (some little bugrat has also been pruning my tomato seedlings in the tunnel each night but that’s another story . . . and at least with 40 plants, I can probably afford a few losses 😬). The ‘Latino’ courgette I planted in the tunnel was looking amazing, growing very strongly and forming the first flower buds; hooray, I thought, here we go. Mmm, cue a serious case of wilt which was obviously something more serious than heat; we lifted the plant to check the roots ~ wireworm being the prime suspect ~ only to discover that a huge ants’ nest had been built beneath it. Honestly, with 0.6 hectares (1½ acres) to choose from, why on earth did they have to decide on that exact spot? The poor plant has been replanted in an ant-free space and I’m giving it a lot of TLC in the hope it will pull through but I’m really not holding my breath. I think we’re just going to have to wait for the outdoor courgettes to deliver. It’s all part of the game.

No such worries where rhubarb is concerned, the plants struggled with the severe frosts we had earlier in spring but have certainly made up for lost time and I am pulling sticks to cook for my breakfast every couple of days. This is the first rhubarb we have had since leaving our Welsh garden in 2012 so I have been waiting a long time for this moment of joy and as Roger doesn’t like it, the delight is all mine. Not a problem!

Actually, the perennial bed is doing us proud at the moment as the asparagus (which according to the rule book we shouldn’t be eating until next spring) is producing a fantastic crop. What a luxury to be able to pick generous bundles of spears every few days, all different lengths and thicknesses in complete contrast to the scarily uniform bundles currently on sale in the shops, but with a texture and flavour so superb they need nothing more than gentle steaming and a decent knob of creamy butter. Who needs rules? 😂

On the subject of rules, I was pleased to see that ‘weeds’ ~ now rebranded as ‘resilient plants’ or ‘weed heroes’~ are set to play something of a starring role in a third of the show gardens at Chelsea this year. That said, the cynical part of me wondered why it is that things need a nod of approval from designers before they become acceptable in society but I hope that Mary Reynolds will be pleased that 21 years after she took Chelsea by storm with her wild garden (noted for its ‘subversive use of weeds’), at long last there is recognition that our wild flowers are so important. My focus this week has been on daisies; a good source of Vitamin C, I like to sprinkle leaves and flowers into salads, but I’m also drying a jar of them for winter teas as they are good for fighting catarrh and chesty coughs and I believe they are currently even being investigated for anti-tumour properties. Not bad for such a humble little flower! Looking through my botany loupe, I’ve been fascinated by their complexity, the bright yellow pincushion centres and gorgeous brushstrokes of pink on the petal backs. Little beauties . . . I hope someone plants an entire wonderfully subversive lawn of them at Chelsea. Several, in fact.

Back to the business of food and it’s been good to see our future harvest crops responding well to the warmth and regular rainfall, both of which were so lacking last spring. The outdoor broad beans are a mass of flowers, the garlic is possibly some of the best we’ve ever grown, there are three rows of staggered peas racing to catch each other up and everywhere seedlings are popping up and hurtling skywards. I pre-sow all our beans and there has been no stopping the first few trays of climbing borlotti, Asturian fabas and dwarf ‘Purple Teepee’: this is them just six days after sowing.

They are all in the ground now along with squash, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, cauliflowers, onions and red Welsh onions with (of course) some frivolous flowers in the shape of cosmos and nicotiana. I’ve planted basil in the tunnel with plenty more to go outside along with flat-leaved parsley and holy basil or tulsi which I’ve never grown before. Once planted, everything has been mulched with a good layer of grass clippings and as the ground is nicely wetted this year, it should do a grand job in helping to retain moisture. What has pleased me more than anything else on my planting travels is the number of volunteer seedlings that have appeared everywhere through the previous mulch layer: squash, cosmos, sunflowers, violas, landcress, rocket and literally hundreds of lettuce, all growing in spots they weren’t in last year. I love it that we are moving towards the sort of garden I’m after, one that keeps on planting itself and yes, it does encourage me to be lazy ~ there are so many sunflower seedlings in the potager that I shan’t bother to plant any seeds this year. In my experience, when seeds sow themselves they tend to grow strongly because they are happy and I am equally content to let them get on with it; the lettuce and sunflower below are sharing their space with climbing beans and violas so I’ll leave them to jostle for elbow room and do their own thing.

There’s plenty of self-setting going on in the potato patch, too, mostly rocket, calendula and landcress which is already flowering and close to starting the whole cycle all over again. Now that the potatoes are up and visible (they have actually doubled in size since I took the photo) I decided to have a bit of a Ruth Stout moment, broadcasting linseed between the rows and covering with mulch. Linseed is sold here as a green manure which also helps to deter potato beetles so it’s worth a try, especially as I happen to love the blue flowers anyway. In a similar vein, I’ve scattered a mix of nectar-rich annual flower seeds in the rows between the asparagus, just throwing it on top of the mulch and watering in. We’ll see what happens.

Staying with potatoes and I was very excited to see the first shoot emerging from the hay mulch in the mandala garden; this is my first foray into the world of no-dig spuds and I must admit I have been a bit concerned that they had been nobbled by frost. Clearly not, so all that remains to be seen now is just how well they grow and crop compared to the conventionally-planted ones.

I’m very pleased at how well the mandala bed is looking this year, it is starting to take on an air of maturity thanks to the herbs creating a dense and aromatic ‘hedge’ around the boundary. The self-created strawberry bed is full of flowers and the first fruits have started to set so I’ve tucked hay round all the plants this week to lift the fruit off the ground. Although it’s early days as far as growth is concerned, the bed is already looking pretty full and once again, I’m just using spare bits and bobs to plant up each section. So far that means potatoes, onions, cabbages, Cape gooseberry, lettuce, chard, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers, climbing borlotti beans, dwarf purple beans, nicotiana and larkspur with a space left for tomatoes. There’s a salad burnet that appeared from nowhere last year and is going strong, flat-leaved parsley that made it through winter and a whole host of volunteers including tomatoes, violas, calendula, something that looks like a cardoon . . . oh, and lettuce, of course. Why on earth I thought I needed to plant a tray of lettuce this year, I will never know, there isn’t a corner of the garden where they haven’t appeared; in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say in places they are like a living mulch. Who needs green manure? Incredible.

I finally got round to joining the local library last week and on the strength of the current natural gardening exhibition, I was able to borrow some books which really appealed to me. In fact, I’ve been reading about permaculture in French and English over the last few days and it’s been interesting to compare notes in both languages. The French book draws on the experiences of a lot of practitioners and I’m pleased to have found a few like-minded people in the group of what I think of as ‘pragmatic permies’, those who like me value the principles of permaculture but are happy to admit that instead of swallowing them hook, line and sinker, it’s important to add a good dose of common sense to any situation. It stands to reason that works brilliantly in the rainforests of Costa Rica isn’t necessarily going to transfer smoothly to northern Europe! The underlining message, however, is the undisputed benefit of growing our own food in a way that treads lightly on the Earth, works with and mimics nature, encourages (bio)diversity, produces no waste, drastically reduces carbon footprints and feeds both the body and soul.

In many ways, the business of growing food is a weighty one, especially if self-sufficiency is a goal, so I believe it’s vital to take a light-hearted step backwards from the soil face now and again, to seek joy, laughter, quirkiness and whimsy amongst the muck and mulch. To that end, Roger has used some scraps of wood left over from his gate-making activities to create me a ‘gate to nowhere’ at the end of a big lasagne bed; it looks a little stark at the moment but I’ve planted cucumbers behind to climb up over it, have zinnias waiting in the wings for a splash of colour in front and when the backdrop of sweetcorn and climbing beans clambers upwards and fills out in a wall of green, I’m hoping it will evolve into an eye-catching (or head-scratching?) point of interest. Just in case anyone is lost, I’ve painted a sign in my uber-naïve style to help them find their way . . . although between you and me, I’m secretly hoping the snails shuffle off in the opposite direction. 😉

The wildflower path

I’ve just renewed my WordPress subscription, not for one year but two which signals something of a commitment to my blog. The reason I mention it is that to be honest, it’s been a bit touch and go whether I bothered at all as I’ve been seriously contemplating packing up for good. I’ve struggled with motivation in recent months, not least because I seem to have had an almost constant stream of technical problems; the WordPress ‘Happiness Engineers’ are a wonderfully responsive bunch who pull out all the stops to help (if all customer service was like them, the world would be a happier place, I think) but even so it’s been frustrating to say the least. I’ve also been wondering if the time I spend blogging couldn’t be better spent on other, more useful activities: one of the things I don’t like about social media is how so much time seems to be spent talking about and sharing the minutiae of life’s events rather than just getting on and living them. Ten years in the bag. Call it a day and move on. I teetered on the edge of the precipice for a while, wobbled big time then had a change of heart . . . and so the writing goes on!

I fell into blog writing more by accident than design when I was invited by a vegetable seed company to join their blog community. At the time, I had no interest whatsoever and the reasons for that haven’t changed: I don’t ‘do’ social media, I’m not a whizz on the computer and my photography skills aren’t the best. However, on reflection it did seem to offer me something new, different, exciting and challenging, the perfect platform for keeping a diary of our first French living adventure as well as an attractive exercise in keeping my brain ticking over with new skills. The bottom line is I love writing and given that from the age of four to forty-six the bulk of my written activities focused on study and work, it suddenly felt very liberating to be able to write for pleasure and waffle away to my heart’s content on subjects of my own choice. I have no desire to be a serious author but I enjoy the creativity and craft of writing, taking an idea and forming it into a string of words with all the polishing, editing and proof-reading that entails. My blog has changed and evolved a fair bit over the last ten years but I think that’s a good thing ~ so have I, after all! One of the things I really enjoy about Blog World is being part of a vibrant and fascinating community and I love the interaction I have with other writers, the deeper engagement and discussion that is possible with people across the globe. In fact, thanks to blogging I have a number of lovely ‘penpals’ in various countries with whom I’ve developed valued friendships, like-minded people with whom I can share ideas or chew the fat independently of our blog pages. It’s an enriching and life-affirming aspect I never imagined would happen, something that brings colour to my world and for which I’m very grateful.

We’ve had some beautiful sunsets this week.

Writing isn’t always an easy or straightforward process, in fact at times it can be downright daunting; as a primary school teacher I had huge empathy for children who sat and chewed their pencil when faced with a writing task, adamant that they couldn’t even think about starting until they’d come up with a title. Talk about procrastination! I’m never really sure where my blog posts come from but I tend to think of my writing approach in terms of a peg or a pathway. The latter is pretty simple, an obvious narrative or recount that has clear signposts from start to finish (even if I have a habit of wandering off piste at times) whereas a peg is an idea or theme that requires a bit more thinking about as I try to pull what are often disparate threads into some kind of coherent whole. I can go for days or weeks without any inkling of what my next blog will be about and then suddenly something presents itself from nowhere and off I go again. This post is a case in point, triggered by a visit to the charity shop to stock up on reading material and noticing a novel with the rather lovely title of The Wildflower Path which started me thinking about ~ somewhat surprisingly ~ wild flowers.

Stitchwort and speedwell

I often talk about how one of our major aims here is to support the ecosystems within our patch and to increase the biodiversity within them but in reality, what does that mean? In essence, I think it’s about letting nature find its own balance inside our boundaries and helping as much as we can along the way, even when that actually means leaving well alone. It’s very easy to make value judgements based on personal preferences or prejudice ~ robins are sweeter than crows, peacock butterflies are beautiful whereas the white ones are nothing but a nuisance ~ but it’s so important that we stop ourselves from doing that and instead see the worth (and yes, the beauty) in everything. It’s also crucial to remember that if we invite them in, they will come, but not always necessarily quite in the way we expect. I was ridiculously excited to see activity in our new bat box this week and then hugely amused to discover that far from the occupants we had been expecting, there is a pair of enterprising great tits building themselves a nest in there; how they are managing to squeeze themselves in through the entrance I do not know but they’re doing it alright! I’ve also been having a fascinating time watching the red mason bees who have just started building nests in the solitary bee box we have put up in the outdoor shelter; they work so hard and take such care in carting pollen in and stashing it before laying an egg and sealing the cell with mud, several little nurseries skilfully built into each tube.

It occurred to me that the mud being used is much lighter in colour than our reddish soil and I had my suspicions about where it was coming from. When the stonemason created the doorway between the house and barn, along with a huge pile of stones he removed the yellow clay that had been packed between them in the traditional way of building; we have spread large quantities of it about on various beds but there is still a pile behind the house and having watched the bee in the photo above fly off in that direction, I set off to follow her. Sure enough, there were several mason bees in the area, collecting the yellow mud for their nests. Incredible.

Away from the bees’ nestbox and there are seemingly hundreds of wild bees making their nests in holes in the barn wall if the amount of busyness in the vicinity is anything to go by. We have been talking about pointing the barn to match the house but given what’s going on, it’s probably more important to leave it as a bee hotel; it’s only aesthetics, after all. What did make me smile, though, while checking on the activity was seeing one innovative bee who is building her nests not in nooks and crannies between the stones or in crumbling mortar but in holes in the wooden barn door. Yes, ask them and they will come . . . but sometimes very much on their own terms, it seems!

Anyway, back to the matter of wild flowers which are of course every bit as important as the resident fauna. Our philosophy is to encourage what is already here as much as possible rather than trying to introduce too many new species which in themselves may not be an appropriate addition to the ecosystem. It’s always lovely to see those beautiful pictures of wildflower meadows but the truth is they are difficult to establish and manage whilst importing seed or plug plants in an attempt to create a meadow can have serious drawbacks. We would rather work with what is here, encouraging different species to thrive and spread in those areas that suit them; if additional species want to arrive of their own accord, then that’s all well and good. I have raised a few natives from seed such as marshmallow and purple loosestrife to plant by the pond and in autumn I shall be sowing wild garlic in the hope of some future forage in our woodland area. Otherwise, it’s a case of recognising what we already have and what we can do to encourage them to stay and spread. With this in mind, I decided to grab the camera and set off on my very own Wildflower Path around the patch to see what I could find; there’s no missing the bold swathes of daisies, primroses and dandelions but it’s incredible just how many other beauties are here if we care to look. What follows is by no means a complete catalogue but simply a taste of what nature is doing at the moment with very little input from us.

Dandelions flourish both in the long grass and where paths have been mown.
The carpets of daisies bounce back straight after mowing, too.
Primroses and ground ivy
Bird’s eye speedwell
Dog violet
Field wood-rush, also known as Good Friday grass and Sweep’s broom, has responded enthusiastically in no-mow areas.
Common sorrel
Creeping buttercup
Ribwort plantain
Red deadnettle
Fumitory (with goosegrass)
Celandine and wild strawberry
Lady’s smock (also known as cuckoo flower)
Grasses have their own kind of beauty . . .
. . . and willows do, too.

What a lovely little wander. I was particularly thrilled to find that several new lady’s smock plants had appeared in different areas; they are one of my favourite spring flowers, so beautiful when growing en masse, so fingers crossed for some serious spreading. I was also very pleased that a couple of solitary bees (Grey-banded miner bees, possibly?) were kind enough to pose on stitchwort and buttercups long enough for me to catch a photo ~ not forgetting the grasshopper on the dandelion, of course. There is a definite sense of wild flowers blooming in greater quantities and varieties and that is certainly something to encourage in the future. I’ve just sown a large flower bed with a nectar-rich annual seed mix but only between the wild things that have turned up of their own accord and started to colonise the area: yarrow, plantain, knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisies, mullein . . . nature’s garden is managing itself very well. In my last post, I observed how quickly our garden would revert to woodland if left untouched and here is the proof if it were ever needed: on my wild flower wander, the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t a flower at all, but the deep glossy rust of oak seedlings emerging from last year’s fallen acorns.

Coming full circle to where I started, I’m looking for ways in which to move forward with my blog over the next two years, maintaining its essence and integrity whilst also rising to new challenges and embracing different ideas along the way; I’m not into trends and fashions but I think it’s important to give myself a little shake every now and then so that I don’t become a complete dinosaur. I’ve flirted with the idea of shifting to a new layout but I actually quite like this one, especially as my posts tend to be photo-heavy so I’m contenting myself with changing the background of my homepage to something seasonal on a regular basis instead (bluebells and orchids this week). I also looked into the idea of a making a podcast but came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that it really isn’t my thing; I can natter away with the best of them but it’s the writing I love ~ and when I thought about it, the peace, quiet and concentration that accompany the process of arranging words on a page, whether they’re tumbling out of my mind in a torrent or playing hard to get. It’s a little bit like following a path that twists and turns away into the distance; there’s no telling quite where it will lead me over the next couple of years . . . but as long as there are plenty of wild flowers along the way, then I shall be very happy to keep on wandering. 😊

Gardening, naturally.

Les giboulées are very much a feature of our weather forecasts at the moment; in English, I suppose we would call them April showers, short and sharp bursts of heavy rain often accompanied by strong winds and hail, with blue skies and sunshine in between. It’s definitely a case of dodging the downpours to get anything done outside as I don’t find a sudden torrent of hail down the back of my neck very conducive to happy gardening. Thankfully, there’s a lot to be done in the polytunnel so that has been my warm and dry refuge when the heavens open yet again. Fairweather gardener? You bet! 😊

The sound of heavy rain drumming on the tunnel roof reminds me of two things (above and beyond dismal camping holidays 😂 ). First, not a single drop of rain ever falls inside and so it’s essential that we keep the tunnel well-watered throughout the year; as soon as the temperature rises to a point where the door needs to be propped open during the day, evaporation rate increases rapidly and it’s all too easy for the the soil to dry out. Second, I am feeling hugely grateful and relieved that we are finally clawing back the rainfall deficit which has been an issue since September 2022. Despite the drought in February delivering a whopping 94% shortfall, we were back up to 91.8% of normal expected precipitation at the end of March and with plenty of wet weather at the moment, I am feeling cautiously optimistic about a better year ahead. With that in mind, it’s a good time to make the most of overflowing butts and carry copious cans into the tunnel to really soak the ground. Between the storms, obviously.

The cherry blossom is still beautiful against a grey sky.

First job in the tunnel was to plant a ‘Latino’ courgette; this is something we experimented with last year and it worked a treat, one plant in the tunnel to give us an early crop and the rest outside once all risk of frost has passed. It will need a fairly big space and will be producing fruits for many months so good soil preparation is essential, especially as it will be what I think of as a greedy feeder. There’s a ‘natural gardening’ event happening locally at the moment, with information in various libraries and people welcoming others to their garden to share tips and ideas, so while I prepped the soil I was mulling over exactly what natural gardening means and in what ways the approach plays out in our patch. The space earmarked for the courgette plant grew chillies last summer and once the spent plants were out, I gave the area a good mulch of chopped comfrey leaves, compost and well-rotted donkey dung and in recent weeks I’ve been adding coffee grounds and diluted urine. There were a few weeds easily lifted with my handfork; it will be impossible to reach behind the plant once it gets going so I like to start with a fairly clean slate. I then carried cans of rainwater in to give the whole area a really thorough soaking.

Digging a planting hole, I was chuffed to see how the work we’ve been putting into soil improvement is really starting to pay off now; the soil is ferrous and naturally red but examining a handful closely I could see just how much darker, organic material it now contains, thanks to the regular addition of natural amendments. I put a good dollop of compost into the bottom of the planting hole, spread chopped comfrey leaves over the entire area and then mulched the lot with grass clippings; this does mean the sweet perfume of broad bean and rocket flowers is now overpowered by the pungent aroma of rotting grass but it is worth the short-term pain for the benefits such a mulch brings. Roger had left me a pile of grass clippings after mowing that had built a good deal of heat at its centre which meant a warm blanket going down onto warm soil, just right to nudge the courgette along; the grass will not only retain heat but help to hold moisture in the soil and over the next few months, will break down along with the comfrey leaves and add its own nutritional and structural benefits to the soil.

Although I’ve been mulching the outdoor lettuce in a similar way, I haven’t bothered with the indoor ones as you can see in the photo above. The reasons for this are twofold. First, there is space between and around the lettuce to transplant seedlings of things like coriander and dill which are popping up like mushrooms in other parts of the tunnel and second, I’m interested to see what else appears on its own. There are already plenty of little chilli/pepper seedlings and although I’m not growing any chillies this year (even I had to admit last year’s abundant crop was enough to last us for several years), a big part of me is tempted to let one or two seedlings grow to maturity just to see what they produce. All the varieties I grew last year were open-pollinated so it’s possible we could have tiny sweet chillies or huge fiery peppers in a vast array of colours and the curious cat in me is interested to find out. What I do love is the fact that the seedlings have all come from fruits that dropped right at the end of the season, the seeds surviving the winter inside the rotting husks and now germinating in abundance; it makes me wonder why there can be such a fuss about seed saving at times when nature makes it all look so easy. This little patch alone epitomises some of my ideas about natural gardening: not a single synthetic element involved, just a lot of soil love and a willingness to let nature have plenty of leeway . . . and to observe and learn from what happens. Integrated pest management plays a huge role, too, so that I’m fairly confident that the two slugs I found lurking at the margins will be slurped up by the resident toad or beautifully iridescent golden ground beetles while the decent crop of broad beans and peas rapidly forming at the other end of the tunnel is testament to the busyness of various insects rummaging about in the flowers.

It’s very much a ‘between seasons’ time in the tunnel and it feels a bit like one big obstacle course with an ever-expanding trail of tender plants snaking down the path and overblown growth collapsing in all directions. With temperatures pegged back and those savage hail storms still raging, there has been no question of starting to drag everything outside to harden off during the day so I’ve had to work as best I can around the crowd of pots whilst starting to clear the ground for the indoor peppers, aubergines and melons. The only way to tackle the jungle is piecemeal so I’ve been working in strips, taking vast amounts of spent growth out to the compost heap.

As an aside, it took me days to sort those compost bays out a couple of weeks ago but now at long last they are in a logical order with bay 1 on the right being the current pile, bay 2 in the middle a maturing pile and bay 3 on the left the ‘almost done’ pile; this means in future it will be a simple job of emptying the third bay and tossing the other two one place to the left. As the lidded dustbin I was using to store finished compost has been pressed into water storage service, Roger has rigged up an old dumpy bag on the end for me to use instead; the whole system isn’t the prettiest but it’s highly functional and the rugosa roses in front are finally growing so hopefully it will be screened from view in the not-too-distant future, especially as I’m tempted to stick a few spare raspberry plants between them to plug the gaps for the time being. As the new compost pile is still relatively low, we keep the front off it so it can be trampled regularly ~ Huw Richards is a big advocate of this ~ and also used as a pissoir should we need a garden pee; for every big pile of green stuff that goes in, I add a layer of sawdust, dry dead leaves and other small woody bits to keep a balance and stop the whole lot descending into a smelly anaerobic sludge. Crumbly, rich, dark compost must surely be one of the greatest blessings of a natural garden.

Anyway, back to the Tunnel World where very slowly, a clear(er) planting patch has been emerging; I can’t truthfully say clear because I’ve been leaving all sorts of random self-set bits and pieces such as lettuce, coriander and parsley plus a few bigger radicchio, all of which will have to go eventually but have a chance to grow to useful size before the summer plants around them get too big. I’ve also been potting up a few things I’ve found in the undergrowth which is really just a bad habit of mine; why we need more rainbow chard plants when I already have enough for several gardens is beyond me but I can’t bear to see little plants go to waste. Perhaps I’ll be able to give them away to a good home, along with all the other waifs and strays I’m bound to gather in the coming weeks. I’m also rescuing as much food from the jungle as I can so that this week’s menus have been based on using as much coriander, spinach, landcress, rocket and beetroot (amongst others) as possible. We shouldn’t really have a hungry gap, just a short time with less variety than usual . . . and if I know courgettes, we will be picking the first ones from the tunnel in no time at all.

We don’t need huge quantities of seasonal vegetables to make a delicious meal: purple sprouting broccoli, fresh peas and asparagus from the garden are many times better than their shop-bought counterparts, a true luxury in themselves.

This week has seen the next wave of indoor seed propagation with ‘Crown Prince’ squash seeds planted in individual pots along with a few butternuts and our mongrel Blues; just the tomatoes, sweetcorn and beans to go now. Everything sown from saved seed has done well so far with the exception of the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which failed totally; whereas the cucumbers I sowed alongside them bombed up and begged to be potted on within days, the melons did absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada. With nothing to lose, I dug them up to find they were all just empty husks, so ~ scratching my head in bemusement ~ I went back to the packet I’d stored them in and had a good look at the rest. Many of those were simply flat shells full of nothing, too, but I did manage to find enough plump seeds to replant and bingo! up they shot. This is definitely a lesson learned: melon seeds are hardly difficult to save but I think I just wasn’t concentrating hard enough on what I was doing (in my defence, last summer wasn’t the easiest of times so the fact I managed to save anything was a small miracle); this year, I need to be very selective and make sure all the saved seed is good and as plump as can be.

Enthusiastic cucumbers

I can’t decide whether I like tulips or not. I realise that might seem a strange statement from someone who loves colour and flowers, and to be fair they are making a bold splash at the moment but even so . . . I don’t think it helps that I usually underplant with wallflowers but never got round to raising any plants last year, so those heavy heads on long straight stems just seem too formal for me, somehow. I’m far more charmed by the chaotic carpets of primroses, now stitched through with pretty blue forget-me-not in the gravel, or the swathes of wild cowslips, bluebells and orchids in our verges. When the tulips are over, I think I’ll shift them off into a corner of the garden somewhere to do their own thing in coming years and not bother with them in pots again; certainly, the large blue glazed pot has been earmarked for a fig tree Roger was given for his birthday and with any luck, as nature has its way more and more in the gravel garden, the need for pots of planted colour will be seriously reduced.

My head tells me they’re a bright splash of colour at the front of the house . . .
. . . but heart says these are what I love.

When I really started to think about it, the idea of a ‘natural’ garden seems something of an oxymoron as once we move from foraging for wild food to cultivating an area specifically for raising crops then we are surely controlling nature? If we left our garden to its own devices then in a relatively short time it would revert to a woodland of mainly oak, birch, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry with gorse and brambles beneath; much as I admire the concept of forest gardens, the truth is there would be very little food available in comparison to what we can produce from our cultivated plot.

Our garden is a human creation . . . but we work with nature at every step.

Doing a bit of research into natural gardening, it seems to be a difficult definition to pin down, often coming back to being the same as ‘organic’ gardening ~ as in no use of synthetic fertilisers or other chemicals. Personally, I think it is something far more holistic than that, so that definitions I found referring to ‘gardening in tune with nature’ or ‘ecological gardening’ seem closer to the mark, the emphasis being on treating the garden as a complete living organism where each part is intrinsically linked to all the others and the approach to raising food crops is based on how nature goes about things. I’ve recently been given a couple of (English language) gardening magazines, one of which contains an article about ‘nature-friendly’ soil (no-dig, mulch, compost, green manure . . . ); it’s wonderful that this sort of thinking is becoming more mainstream but honestly, how as a species have we managed to get so far away from what soil naturally wants to be? At what point did it become a good idea to try and banish nature from every corner of the garden? I know not everyone would agree but I like to keep words like cherish, nurture, honour, respect, wonder, reverence and gratitude in mind every time I plant a seed, harvest a crop, water or feed plants, thrust my hands into the soil or simply sit and absorb the essence of the elements, life and biodiversity which make our garden the place it is.

The spring-planted rose garlic has been mulched with comfrey and grass clippings this week.

I was interested to see that ‘providing habitat for pollinators’ appeared in several lists of requirements for organic/natural gardening which is fine but what about providing food, too . . . and how about all the other creatures that reside in the garden? There’s no point in putting up nestboxes or creating habitats for living things if there’s nothing appropriate on hand for them to eat and likewise, a supply of food is all well and good but they need relevant places for living and breeding, too. I believe that a natural garden is as complex and multi-layered as nature itself, something that goes far beyond any simple formula or list of suggestions, but yet a very attainable and hugely rewarding undertaking if we are willing to learn through observation and practice. Polyculture is a key concept and one that flies in the face of the monoculture apparent in the fields that surround us; the farmers may be hauling in many tonnes of grass, maize and grain from their vast fields but we certainly win the prize for diversity. Obviously, we’re not running a business or feeding sheds full of cattle but we often speculate on just how many people we could feed from our patch if we really needed to.

Cramming it in: the summer garden is a celebration of polyculture.

With all the benefits of polyculture in mind, this week I’ve been sowing a range of hardy crops into a bed that is already home to pointy summer cabbages, garlic, broad beans, parsnip, lettuce and violas as well as an explosion of dill and calendula volunteers which have surfaced this week. First in were the carrots, without doubt one of our most successful crops last year despite the hot, dry weather; the sandy loam suits them so well and this might be tempting fate, but so far there has been no sign of the dreaded root fly. We had a long row of an orange ‘Nantes’ variety which cropped for many months so I’ve planted the same again plus a second row of purple, red and a rainbow mix because two people really, really need that many carrots. 😂 Next came red and golden beetroot, radish, spring onions, swede, turnips (only because I was give free seed but we’ll see how they go), coriander, two lots of cabbage and autumn calabrese; the cauliflowers went into individual pots in the tunnel as they need a bit more nurturing. I also planted a patch of mixed nectar-rich flowers and another of buckwheat to attract our insect allies and then popped in a patch of spare red onion seedlings left over from the main planting. There’s still room for a square of chard once the plants are ready to go in the ground and rows of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines plus basil which I’m planning to spread all over the garden again this year. Oh, and a row of something else where the old parsnips are, possibly some French beans; by my reckoning that’s about 25 edibles in a bed that is roughly thirty square metres in area. True, the autumn brassica plants will be transplanted elsewhere but there will be space for successional planting of other crops when things like the lettuce, summer cabbage and broad beans come out . . . and I haven’t even started on most of the other beds yet.

Young lettuce plants with self-set violas growing between and a row of newly-germinated parsnip seedlings just beyond the edge of the mulch.

The storms have been tearing blossom from the cherry trees in a blizzard of white petal confetti and I am thankful that the trees on our patch flower at slightly different times so we should be assured a harvest from at least some of them. We have a few bags of cherries left in the freezer but having just pulled the first sticks of rhubarb, I am confident now that we can get through an entire year on our own fruit. I for one am very happy to tuck into a bowl of sharp gooseberries or a sweet red berry mix or spiced apple compote rather than peel a Spanish orange or buy southern hemisphere grapes in winter and this year should be even better as our new bushes start to bear fruit ~ literally. The strawberries have their first flowers and the currants have opened tresses of blooms this week, such tiny insignificant flowers but like a delightful deli for epicurean insects if the buzz and fuss between showers is anything to go by. The currant flowers seem to be a particular favourite of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) which are regular visitors and hopefully doing the pollination business for us; the bumbles manage to keep flying despite the weather, better able to cope than the honeybees who find themselves confined to overcrowded barracks and I suspect our feral colony is busy raising new queens with the intention of swarming very soon.

The wind blew a lot of the honeyberry flowers off but I can see tiny fruits forming and I’m also keeping an eye on the saskatoon which has been a mass of starry white blooms so there might be some berries to follow. My favourite flowers, though, are those on the jostaberry, such a striking combination of red and cream and I can’t wait to sample the fruits that are a complex cross between gooseberries and blackcurrants. Roger, who isn’t fond of either fruit, is still puzzled as to why anyone would want to create such a thing yet alone eat it but I’m curious to try and as far as I’m concerned if it’s another variety to add to our fruit harvest, then it’s welcome . . . and if I end up eating them all myself, well so be it!

At the end of a busy gardening day, during a moment when the rain had finally stopped and sunshine burst through to warm the evening, I sat and contemplated the time I had spent outside. One way or another, it had added up to most of the day and I think for me that is what ‘natural gardening’ is all about: not so much me being in the garden as being part of the garden, just a single and fairly irrelevant element interwoven with a cast of many. The list of jobs I’d ticked off was a long one ~ uncovering/covering tender plants, sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting out, watering, mulching, tying in, carting stuff about in buckets and barrows ~ but my day of gardening had felt so much more than that, and compared to the industry of other life forms around me, my application to tasks wasn’t hugely impressive. I’d watched with delight as swallows swooped through the garden then alighted on rain-soaked beds to gather mud and a red squirrel did circus tricks along a grapevine support wire; my ears had been full of the sound of birdsong, the blackcaps doing their best to out-sing each other and everything else whilst they all go about the business of nest-building and chick rearing; a pair of blackbirds hopped across the cut grass and scratched up havoc in the mulched beds, heads tilted, as they hunted tirelessly for nourishment for the clutch of young I can hear in the depths of the bay tree; a mole, all snout and pink paws, pushed up chains of dark earthy eruptions across the grass. The entire patch was teeming with insects, the soil with earthworms and a myriad creatures I can’t even see and everywhere, there was the silent greening and growth of plants both cultivated and wild. I don’t think of soil as ‘dirt’ or slugs as ‘pests’ or dandelions as ‘weeds’ because whether I’m fond of things or not (and I confess, I’m not a slug hugger by any means) we’re all in it together, doing the best we can on this precious piece of land. For me, it’s not a hobby or pastime, but a way of life . . . and if we manage to produce some decent food along the way, then I’m a very happy gardener. Naturally. 😊

Bees and other busyness

I am a woman possessed. The air this week has exploded with a myriad flying insects, and with my ears tuned in for the merest suspicion of a hum or a buzz, I am darting around the garden in search of bees like a mad thing. I’m beginning to realise what a mammoth task I’ve set myself in trying to identify all the bees in the garden, there are already so many different species around and we haven’t even got to the time of year where an array of female workers and males are thrown into the mix. I think I’ve added a White-bellied or Banded mining bee (Andrena gravida), a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) and an Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) to my list but think is the operative word here since confident identification escapes me most of the time. I’m dipping into a wealth of excellent resources such as Steven Falk’s incredible collection of photographs but even then, not everything is helpful; for instance, the fact that honeybees have hairy eyeballs is an interesting one but doesn’t move me forward since that is the one species I can already identify correctly by sight and sound every time. I’ve also discovered they are one of the most accommodating species when it comes to photos, too, as demonstrated by this week’s ‘cover girl’ enjoying the newly-opened peach blossom.

A big part of the problem is that my subjects just won’t stay still long enough for me to get a good look. I spent ages one morning gazing up into a contorted willow tree where literally hundreds of small solitary bees were dancing and darting amongst the twisted branches . . . but not one would come low enough for me to see, yet alone land and sit still for a moment. Someone was kind enough to pose on a willow branch, though, as if offering me a small-but-perfectly-formed consolation prize . . .

If the bees don’t alight, then I have no chance of attempting an accurate identification. That said, even when they do give me the opportunity to snatch a photo or a good look if the camera isn’t to hand, pinning them down to the correct species is fraught with difficulty. I watched with fascination and absorption as the little bee below worked her way systematically through a dandelion flower but at no point did she present me with a view that would allow me to say with any certainty what species she was. I mean, where on earth do I start?

I just love those antennae! Possibly a White-bellied miner bee? Then again . . . 🤔

I’ve decided I need to keep things simple and approach this task in the same way I would have organised things for my primary school pupils: find the right level of challenge and break it down into bite-sized pieces. By the end of the summer, I would like to feel confident in identifying all the common bumblebees in the garden along with the most numerous solitary bees and beyond that, at least be aware of the main characteristics of different bee families to help me narrow things down a bit. I also need to refer to as many resources as I can and keep an open mind in the process; for instance, I was as sure as I could be that I had been watching an Orange-legged furrow bee this week until I read that they are a late bee and don’t usually emerge this early in the year. However, throwing my research net wider to include a few French sites, I read that in France it is perfectly possible to see these bees out and about now so perhaps I wasn’t mistaken. I also need to keep observing the same species as much as I can, not just in order to be sure of my identification but also to learn about their behaviours. Having spent time watching what I thought was a Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva), I now think it is actually a Red-tailed mason bee (Osmia bicolor) which is interesting as it nests in empty snail shells and I would say that of all the gardens we’ve ever had, this has to be the one most devoid of snails. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

I’ve been trying to capture a snap of the feral honeybee colony in action just to give an essence of what is going on at the end of the house. Unfortunately, the view is blocked by the large aerial we inherited, totally useless as we haven’t had a television since 2012 but yet to be removed. Still, hopefully you can see the returning bees clustered under the eaves to the right of the drainpipe from where they file upwards and left to the ‘hive’ entrance, stopping only to exchange messages with the outgoing foragers in the magical waggle dances I never tire of seeing. As a swarm, they would have arrived with a young queen last year and if the number of flying bees is anything to go by, she is certainly prolific. I can only imagine the nest of hanging wax combs secreted deep within the stone walls with their beautiful radiating patterns of brood, pollen and nectar but pressing my ear against the cool tiles on the bathroom wall, I can hear the soft susurration of thousands of tiny wings, fanning to drive water off the nectar and turn it into honey. Given the amount of activity, I’m surprised we haven’t found any lost bees in the bathroom yet but I’m wondering if perhaps nature has taken its course and the bees have plugged the hole with propolis from inside their nest? One thing I am sure of is that given the strength of the colony so early in the season, they are very likely to throw a swarm, probably in May. Many beekeepers spend much time ‘managing’ hives to prevent swarms but they are a natural and advantageous part of the honeybees’ life cycle, aiding propagation and helping to prevent disease; as with so many things, nature knows what it’s doing. We’re happy to let them get on with it.

Where my bee identification is lacking, my knowledge of birds is much greater so I can say with all certainty that a fluid warbling of rapid notes means the blackcaps are back in the garden and the dark robinesque bird flicking its tail to reveal underskirts of scarlet is a redstart, returned to nest with us for another year. The swallows have also arrived, just squeaking in at the end of the month, and as ever I am overjoyed to welcome them back. No cuckoo yet but it won’t be long and I have been listening out for that first evocative call whilst catching up on a pile of garden jobs after our week away in the UK. It’s the start of the silly season with a to-do list as long as my arm, which makes me a very happy bunny: the housework will suffer serious neglect from this point on. I was relieved to find that my tender little plants had coped with my absence but are now at a point where it benefits them to spend the day in the warmth of the tunnel before returning to the house in the evening if night-time temperatures fall into single figures; it’s a tricky time of year. I’m left wondering again how I ever managed without those fat ball buckets, they make the best windowsill cloches ever and now double as handy plant carriers, although the potting bench is now so crowded there is no room for, um, potting.

Sweet pepper plants basking in the free heat of the polytunnel.

Apart from the lovely wrap-around warmth, the tunnel is currently a pleasure to visit as the broad beans are in flower and their gorgeous perfume meets me at the door. I’ve noticed that something has been piercing the flowers at their base to dip into the nectaries without actually climbing inside the flowers; clever stuff, but not very helpful where pollination is concerned. Thankfully, they are partially self-pollinating but insects do contribute to a higher yield so I’m hoping there are a few willing volunteers to crawl inside and do the business.

No problems with the indoor peas; the row isn’t particularly dense but it won’t be long before we are tucking into those little green treasures.

There’s much planting to be done at this time of year, starting with potatoes and onions which for us is always a team effort as it’s a pretty big task. I realise just how lax lazy relaxed I’ve become this season: I haven’t bothered to label the different varieties of pepper and aubergine plants and this week I decided against counting the number of potatoes going into the ground. I might be wrong, but does it really matter? I know the bulk of spuds are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ (also know as ‘Blue Sarpo’, an early maincrop potato which makes the best roasties on earth) plus a few free ‘Acoustic’ from the local country store and a handful of special Scottish gift potatoes which I’m very excited about growing. If I can recognise them as seed potatoes then I’ll know them as plants, flowers and crops so why worry about numbers or labels? We’ve opted to use the Not Garden as the main potato patch this year; we’ve worked hard at improving the soil and Roger’s hedge renovation has made a huge difference to the amount of light and air circulation so we’re hoping for a much more successful crop this year . . . and no, I won’t be tucking a layer of mulch around the emerging plants until the soil is good and wet this year, even if that means hauling lots of cans. You live and learn.

It doesn’t look much of a patch in the photo but it’s crammed with enough potatoes to feed us for months.

The Mandala Bed has been an exercise in experimentation right from the start and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue in the same vein. After all, if food crops fail, we have the insurance of plenty in other places and I think it’s important to keep on pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities in safeguarding our food production in the future. I’ve been planning to try some no-dig potatoes since last year, the idea being to lay down some sheets of cardboard on grass and grow them under hay; however, it occurred to me that I could grow them on the Mandala Bed without any need for cardboard, just sit the chitted potatoes on top of the mulch and cover them in a thick blanket of old hay.

A ‘Charlotte’ seed potato saved from last year’s crop: our favourite second early variety, a fantastic waxy salad potato.

In theory, they should send roots down into what is fast becoming wonderful soil, push plentiful foliage upwards and produce a mass of potatoes on the surface of the soil which can be easily harvested by lifting the hay. We’ll see. It was certainly much easier than planting in the conventional way, although I had to water the hay heavily to hold it down as high winds were forecast and I didn’t want to have to retrieve it from the other end of the garden (as happened with the rhubarb). I planted a mix of ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ so that I can compare directly in terms of growth, health and yield with what comes out of the Not Garden patch. I had a handful of tiny onion sets left over so I popped them in to fill the bed section; last year, everything went in as pre-sown plants in pockets of compost but as soil is rapidly forming, I’m interested to see how direct sowings do this year. My own little garden laboratory: I love it.

I’m definitely happy with my Pea-Off Rodent experiment, those tubes of young plants haven’t looked back and not a single one has succumbed to beastie attacks. I will certainly carry on collecting cardboard tubes for next year and I think I’ll plant the sweet peas in them, too, as they hate root disturbance. I’ve planted up a couple of wigwams made from hazel poles, one in the Bonfire Circle in the potager and the other in the Mandala Bed as these are areas I’ve earmarked for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, all of which need some pollinator attention. The sweet peas hated the hot, dry weather last year and were over all too quickly but I’ve planted them in deep pockets of compost and muck as they like plenty of nourishment underneath them and hopefully it will help with moisture retention. I know they will go into a bit of a sulk now, especially as the weather forecast is for that classic April cold (yet again) but with any luck we will have a gorgeous scented show to enjoy later this year.

Hard luck, voles . . . I think I’ve won this round.

Fruit has been a bit of a theme this week and as I eat my way through the last few bags of frozen gooseberries, redcurrants and cherries for breakfast, I’m looking forward to some new additions to the menu this year. I really ought to be pulling a few rhubarb sticks by now but all five plants continued to grow far too much through autumn then collapsed in a pile of mush once the first hard frosts arrived. I covered them in hay to protect them from the worst of the weather and they are coming back strongly now, I just wish they’d hurry up. I made a lasagne bed against the west wall of the Oak Shed a couple of months ago and have bought two vines to plant in it this week: a white ‘Birstaler Muscat’ and a black ‘Muscat Bleu’, both table grapes with excellent reviews. The shed wall is made from galvanised tin and enjoys maximum sunshine from now on so I’m hoping the vines will luxuriate in the warmth as well as cover what is a bit of an eyesore; as metal paint is expensive and packed with unpleasant chemicals I think living camouflage is the best bet. Like the broad beans, vines are self-pollinating but benefit from extra help so I deliberately made the border wide enough to accommodate some of my beloved frivolous flowers, too. 😊 The goji berry and three honeyberries I bought as tiny bare-rooted sticks struggled with the weather last summer but have clung on and put in a tremendous surge of growth in recent weeks; the latter are now covered in creamy tubular flowers which have been visited by Red-tailed and Early bumblebees so hopefully we will have our first crop of berries in a while.

While I was mulching their bed with grass clippings, I found stems on the goji berry and one of the gooseberry bushes which had layered themselves down on the woody winter mulch and grown some wonderful roots so I’ve potted them up to make new plants. I do love a freebie! Talking of which, all six stems from a broken blackcurrant branch that I potted up a few months ago have made healthy, sturdy plants so now I need to find some spots to plant them, possibly in gaps as part of our ‘edible hedge’ project. Roger was very chuffed to be given a saskatoon bush for a birthday gift as when he lived in Canada, saskatoons were his favourite berry; given they can survive the rigours of winter in Alberta then produce a mass of delicious fruit in summer, it’s surprising they aren’t better known in more temperate climates. The first flowers are just opening in a mass of little white stars so fingers crossed for fruit to follow; we don’t normally bother netting fruit bushes as we work on the theory that if we grow enough of everything there will be plenty to share with the birds . . . but somehow, I think this special one might need a bit of protection from gourmet blackbirds.

It’s also been a lovely week for flowers as, despite the rollercoaster weather ~ t-shirts and outdoor living one day, woolly hats and stove-hugging the next ~ spring has really started to burst forth. The front of the house is looking pretty as the windowboxes of pansies and violas have filled out and the sweet-scented species narcissi and first of the tulips in pots have opened. I’m hoping for great things from the gravel garden this year and as I’ve forgotten exactly what was planted in there last year, it’s good to find a few colourful surprises popping up.

We’re so lucky to have the space and attitude that allows us to mingle the cultivated with the wild in a chaotic abundance and I find much pleasure in both. The soft pink of the peach blossom is truly beautiful but then so are the delicate white stars of blackthorn; we have swathes of (cultivated) periwinkle flowers in stunning blue but I’m just as charmed by the carpets of red deadnettle and celandines. Interestingly, although periwinkle is cited as being a great source of early nectar, I’ve yet to see a single insect feeding on the flowers which is a shame as we have masses of them. No such problems with the flowering currant which is a-buzz with foragers and the sunny dandelions are doing a roaring trade 😂 (sorry, couldn’t resist that one . . . especially as March is going out like a lion rather than the proverbial lamb!). The air smells of pollen, leaf buds are fattening and creating a soft haze in the woods, birds are nesting and my fingers are itching to sow seeds. What a special time of year it is. 😊

Spring in the air

When it comes to a change of seasons, I’ve always preferred to go by the astronomical dates (solstices and equinoxes) rather than the meteorological dates; the latter are, I suppose, mathematically neater and perhaps more consumer friendly but I’m still not a huge fan. All of that said, I also think whether a new season has truly arrived or not depends very much on what is actually happening outside and a sort of intuitive feel . . . and so I would say, spring arrived for us here during the second week of March. Listening to the return of the chiffchaff’s song and watching a pair of them flitting about the garden, I suddenly realised that the fieldfares had left to spend the summer in more northern climes; we have had huge flocks locally, their garrulous clacking such a feature of the colder months here, but now it is time for the songbirds to gather strength and dominate the choral scene instead. Pied wagtails aren’t migratory but they don’t spend winter in the garden so it was lovely to see a pair back again, chirping from the rooftop and wagging their way across the grass, especially after Roger had done the first small cut. There is much interested activity around all the birdboxes ~ including the brand new one I mentioned last time ~ and a good deal of territorial behaviour, too: I watched with fascination as three robins, helping to clear the remnants of seed from beneath the feeders, held a showy stand-off, puffing up their chests and arching their heads backwards in an attempt to display the reddest breast. The plum and blackthorn blossom are fully out, the air is dancing with insects and tawny owls are calling night and day; no swallows yet, but I think we can say spring is well and truly here.

Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet where wintry weather is concerned. As a naturalist, it’s a wonderful time of celebration, seeing new life burgeoning, everything waking and stretching and responding to the lengthening days and rising temperatures; as a gardener, in some ways it’s time to sit on my hands. It’s so easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by a run of pleasant days and feel the temptation to plant, plant, plant . . . but there is no rush since we have such a mellow autumn here and I haven’t forgotten that the only snow we had last year fell on 1st April. Patience is a virtue (even if not an easy one). The good news is that it has continued to rain and the butts are all full to overflowing, including the two new ones; this means we have the best part of 3000 litres of stored water now, and as the ground is finally getting the steady soaking it needs, I’m tentatively hoping this bodes well for a less frustrating summer. Roger has been shifting buckets of water from the fast-filling butts to the slower ones to ensure they are all full and I have been carting cans from the biggest collection system near the house to give the polytunnel a good soaking; it’s a fair trek each time but I’d rather do it in 13°C now than 31°C in summer when the smaller butts nearer the tunnel are definitely more attractive! It would be very typical after all this if we end up having a dismally wet summer but I’d rather be over-provisioned than scratching around to keep things alive like we did last year. Let’s see what the season brings.

Collecting rainwater is one valuable way of tapping into the waste stream and making garden compost is another. For us it’s a way of life and I simply can’t imagine not doing it; I visit the compost heap daily, sometimes more than once, and empty the bucket of biodegradable kitchen scraps (as we eat piles of vegetables, there’s always plenty) on to the current pile, adding other ‘green’ materials like annual weeds and grass clippings layered with ‘browns’ such as dead leaves, sawdust and cardboard until the bay is full to the top. I also add the occasional handful of comfrey and yarrow leaves which are great activators and help to speed up the decomposition process and bless the pile with liquid gold (urine) whenever possible. As the current pile had reached its height limit this week, it was time to start a new one, not as straightforward as it sounds because there’s a knock-on effect here: first, the bay of ‘finished’ compost needed emptying, so that the other two could be turned and a fresh one started in an empty bay. Time to get busy and shift that pile of gorgeousness.

Although everything had rotted down well, the compost was a bit on the coarse side as a fair amount of bulky woody material had gone into this particular mix; not a problem in itself, as my intention was to spread it as a top dressing over the lasagne beds where I plan to plant greedy feeders like sweetcorn, beans and squash. The compost was heaving with tiny pink worms ~ perfect! The fact that I could even contemplate tackling this task yet alone do it is testament to how well my back is healing now and I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me feel. 😊

Given the drought earlier this year, it’s amazing how green the grass has stayed and with a rise in temperatures it has started to grow rapidly. Roger did a first cut of some grassy areas this week and that produced another of my favourite ‘waste’ materials: grass clippings mixed with chopped dead leaves, perfect for layering in lasagne beds, the compost heap or in this case, mulching the broad bean plants which haven’t looked back since going in the ground last week.

Now let’s talk about peas because the next (and most crucial) stage of Operation Pea-off Rodents had arrived. Some of the plants weren’t quite as big as I’d liked but the roots were so immense that there was no question they had to be planted out before they knitted themselves into an intricate tangled mat and, given that peas hate root disturbance, that was something that needed to be avoided at all costs. I split 30 tubes of three plants each into a double staggered row which I have to admit felt a bit weird and formal because normally we would just rake a wide row and scatter pea seed all over it. Having found a couple of random bags of pea seed knocking about in the cave (who knows when we last bought loose pea seed and why weren’t they labelled?), I had planted small trays some weeks ago to check viability and between them they yielded 20 or so extra plants which I stuffed in between the rows. Well, fingers crossed this will work, it’s all part of the fun . . . and when it came to taking a photo, I didn’t have arms telescopic enough to capture the length of the roots so apologies for a split picture!

We have a trip to the UK looming (hence this quick post trotted out sooner than normal as I shall be ‘off air’ for a while) and the question is what to do about certain plants in our absence. As gardeners trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, there is never a ‘perfect’ time to go away; certainly, it’s better now than in a month’s time or the middle of summer, but even so there are decisions to be made. Our heated propagator is one of the best investments we ever made but it’s well over 20 years old now and a possible fire hazard if left untended so I’ve potted on all the resident sweet pepper and Cape gooseberry seedlings which can now sit in mini cloches on sunny windowsills until we’re back. The tunnel is a wonderful asset but also a bit tricky at this time of year, when things can feel totally tropical during the day but tumble to slightly arctic at night: we had a frost so hard this time last year that it turned the potato plants completely black, a serious hit from which they never fully recovered. There is no question that the door has to stay closed because of overnight temperatures but I don’t want things like the summer cabbage or lettuce plants cooking during the day. What do do? It’s hard to know where best to leave trays of young plants so that they don’t dry out or get too weather-beaten although my biggest concern is something scoffing them. In the end, I decided to put half of them in the ground, even though they’re a bit wee, and chance the rest left outside in their trays; I’m beginning to think I should fashion a colourful ‘belt and braces’ to wear with my gardening togs as it seems to be the number one mantra these days.

Perhaps a special pocket for our battered old magnifying glass would also be a good idea since I now carry it around with me everywhere just in case I see something small that needs examining closely. Roger was highly amused when I whipped it out to study a green cutworm he’d found in the soil although if I’m honest, they are the sort of insect presence we could manage without especially with young plants going into the ground. Fingers crossed the robins will do their duty. With a few days of warm and sunny weather between the rain showers, I have noticed quite an increase both in the number and variety of insects out and about this week; for instance, as well as the red admiral butterflies that have been flying for a while, I have also seen brimstones, small tortoiseshells and commas. Things got very exciting when I saw two Orange-tailed mining bees, also known as the early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), exploring a patch of mud under the washing line and later feeding on the flowering currant, then doing a circuit round the flowering dandelions, I saw my first Yellow-tailed mining bee (Andrena flavipes). Note how the flower is full of tiny black beetles, too.

Something I am becoming more aware of, too, are the feeding patterns that seem to exist; for instance, on that same day, the heathers had been full of honeybees all day but mostly White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) in the morning and Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) in the afternoon, all queens. As I watched one of the latter feeding in a purple heather, she took flight and landed nearby in the wilder of our two flower beds. I was very chuffed because it had so far been impossible to follow any bumbles after take-off, they all seem to fly off too high or too quickly into the distance, so here was my chance . . . and maybe ~ just maybe ~ she would lead me to her nest site, especially as that particular bed is full of old vole holes which I know are a favourite spot. No such luck, she alighted and sat very still on a dead leaf in the sun but as I homed in with the camera and took a few shots, she started to lift a middle leg and wave it at me. In my previous bee-ignorant life, this would have been a meaningless gesture but I knew from reading Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees precisely what was going on here. Quite simply, she was indicating that she didn’t like my presence and was asking me to step away and give her some space. The next move would have been to lift other legs before turning over to show me her sting but I decided against pushing things that far, not because I was frightened of receiving a sting (highly unlikely) but because it felt rude and disrespectful to stay when she was obviously looking for some peace.

I went back to trimming old growth from the perennial plants in the Mandala Bed (which is what I had been doing before wandering off to look at the heathers) and I don’t know whether it was good karma coming round or simply coincidence, but as I snipped away, breathing in the wonderful herbal scents and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face, a huge White-tailed bumblebee queen flew down to join me. She took herself to the section which has turned itself into a strawberry bed, wriggled underneath a pile of leaf mulch and disappeared down a big black hole below. Had I found my first nest of the season? I truly hoped so. The next day, I found a second, this time by following a Buff-tailed bumblebee queen who dived down a vole hole above a stone wall below the huge bay tree near the house; this is a pretty canny spot by all accounts, well-hidden and camouflaged, and one I won’t be nosing at too much in the coming weeks since the tree will be full of nesting birds.

Busy lifting and potting up another tray of volunteer lettuce plants in the tunnel and off in my own little world as usual, I suddenly became aware of a bumble buzz amongst the salad leaves: a beautiful Buff-tailed queen rummaging through the mizuna flowers. Crouching down for a closer look, I could see that she wasn’t taking pollen but sipping nectar with the most incredibly long tongue. What a perfect partnership; she was enjoying a hearty breakfast in the warmest spot on the property and we should benefit from a crop of mizuna seeds if the dusting of pollen on her face was anything to go by. There have been butterflies and honeybees in the tunnel this week along with a host of small flying insects so I’m hoping the flowers on the peas and broad beans will appeal to some of them. Leaving a few plants to flower in this way is a great strategy as it allows us to collect and dry seed for future crops and also encourages volunteer seedlings to pop up in a self-perpetuating way; we will probably never need to sow rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mizuna, landcress, lettuce, coriander, flat-leaved parsley or calendula in here again and many of the plants in the photo appeared of their own volition.

When Roger discovered an old trough hanger (we’re still finding ‘stuff’ left by the previous owners, even after more than two years) and suggested he could fix it to the fence by the front gate, I was delighted and wasted no time finding some pansies to plant in it; I love the way that very slowly, the house is beginning to look like it’s set in a garden rather than a car park, and as the perennials and self-set annuals in the gravel start to bloom we should have a riot of colour this year. I’m not a huge fan of bedding plants but I do love winter-flowering pansies, they flower for so many months, cheering everything up and setting a bit of seed in the gravel as a bonus. What I have found interesting is that they are a flower that strongly divides opinion when it comes to the question, are they of benefit to bees? On one side, there are plenty of people advocating pansies as being one of the best flowers you can grow for bees being very attractive ~ ‘perfect’, even; on the other, those who say they are of no use whatsoever because they either have no pollen and nectar, or bees can’t access them if they do. I’ve even come across people castigating gardeners for growing them, saying they should be banned and everyone should grow primroses instead.

Such extremes . . . and who’s right? Well, as I’ve said before, observation is important and all I can say is that we have had bumblebees visiting the pansies for some time; the black carpenter bees in particular seem to like them and one actually made me jump this week when it flew up out of the hanging basket I was watering. Of the spring flowers on our patch, it’s the ‘weeds’ like dandelion, celandine, speedwell, daisy and red deadnettle that are being visited the most but I can categorically say, hand on heart, I haven’t seen a single insect in the primroses, despite us having drifts of the pale yellow native variety and a few pink crosses, too. There have even been more visitors in the daffodils which aren’t usually a first choice for foraging so I’m not altogether sure what to make of the expert advice. At the end of the day, I think we just have to keep leaving as many patches of wildflowers to flourish as we can throughout the year whilst constantly adding to the range of flowering plants in the garden . . . and no, I’m not going to apologise for those pansies! 😊

March meanderings

So many weeks have passed without rain that waking to the sound of it pelting down on the roof one night last week left me momentarily confused. What a strange time of year to experience such prolonged drought! The next morning, after setting my pot of tea to brew, I opened the kitchen door, stood on the step in my pyjamas and breathed in that wonderfully powerful smell of rain after a long spell of dry weather. It’s officially called ‘petrichlor’ but there is something about the word that I’ve never really liked, to my ear it’s just too harsh and clumpy a name for something so beautiful that it almost defies description. How can I find the right words for the rich mineral scent of wet stone, the spiciness of damp leaves and bark, the sharp herbal breath of rain-drenched grass, the mushroomy, mossy perfume of moist earth or the penetrating, dizzying freshness of rain-laden air? It’s a good job my teapot was wrapped in a thick cosy, I’d as good as forgotten about it so immersed was I in the sparkling morning. Sparkling it was, too; after weeks of everything looking so pinched and dusty, so crouched and clemmed, suddenly ~ like the sweep of a wet brush across a page in one of those children’s magic painting books ~ the bleached grey landscape was awash with vibrant colour. I wasn’t the only one to be revelling in the change, either; there is a pair of blackbirds building their nest in the bay tree and the male was singing his heart out in the way only blackbirds can after rain. What a wonderful start to the day.

Incredible how quickly everything responds, too; there is a sudden burst of blooms around the garden now, the first of the blossom opening in delicate pinks and whites, daffodils in bright drifts above celandines and violets and by the kitchen door, Vita’s dainty narcissi fill the air with their sweet perfume, reminding me of a wonderfully kind neighbour and soft Asturian springs.

It’s still too early to launch into full-scale planting as things could go horribly wrong with the weather for a while yet but it’s felt good to be able to do at least a few bits and pieces this week. For starters, I pricked out a tray of aubergine plants; given these little seedlings have so far spent their lives in the wrap-around warmth of a heated propagator, it always feels a bit cruel to turf them out but they had their first true leaves and were getting very leggy so D-Day (or Jour-J as it is in France) had arrived. I always try to be as kind as I can, taking them down to the polytunnel where the air is calm and toasty and the compost and water are both several degrees warmer than their counterparts outside. I talk to the seedlings soothingly and stroke them gently as I uproot them and place them into individual pots ~ I’m not sure it benefits them, but it makes me feel better about the whole thing. I then put them in mini- cloches (upturned former fat ball buckets) on the sunniest windowsill in the house where they now receive lots of daily love; they will do their utmost to die over the next couple of weeks but hopefully the majority will toughen up and make it to the next stage like last years’ brave little troopers.

No such Softy Walter stuff from the broad beans, I’d been hardening my pre-sown plants off outside for several days and with the ground now wetter and warmer, it was time for planting. Not a moment too soon, either; their root balls were tremendous to the point it was a struggle getting them out of their pots. Of the double row of beans planted in late autumn, only a single plant has survived; they grew too quickly in the unusually mild conditions then blackened and crumpled when the first hard frosts rolled in. It’s all part of the learning curve we’re still travelling along but we’ve decided there is absolutely no point in autumn sowing in the future, better to pre-sow under cover in February and start the spring with strong, healthy plants.

You might have spotted a few rogue lettuce plants amongst the beans, the result of using our own non-sterile compost and a bit of a bonus in my book. These are ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ or ‘Wonder of Four Seasons’ or ‘Four Seasons Wonder’ or ‘Four Seasons Marvel’ depending on where you look (and that’s just in English!) but the point is they’re robust little things that aren’t too bothered by inclement weather and can be grown as a winter variety. As we already have a tunnel full of volunteer lettuce plants and a tray of seedlings growing on for outdoors planting, I decided to stick the extras straight into the ground outside; they’ve got two chances and my hunch is they will be just fine. Next to go in were the three perennial kale plants grown from gift cuttings; I’ve been warned they need lots of space which is fine because that’s what the big perennial food bed is all about. I’ve spaced them out generously between raspberries and rhubarb and hopefully they will be providing us with a reliable crop of leafy greens at this time of year in the future. Note the phacelia seedlings bottom left, they are popping up all over this bed where I scattered dead seedheads around last autumn in a self-planting green manure sort of way. Lazy gardening once again. I love it. Mind you, I’ve made a mental note not to let phacelia out-thug the row of newly-planted Jerusalem artichokes like it did last year; of course, I’ll leave plenty to flower and set seed but certain patches are most definitely in for the chop and drop treatment sooner rather than later.

Back inside the tunnel, and all things ‘pea’ are doing well. The early planted peas are climbing their supports and, like the broad beans beside them, starting to think about flowers. I have several pots of sweet peas bombing up and a couple of trays of peas planted as microgreens which I’m picking and tossing over salads. On which subject, at this time of year the tunnel really comes into its own, offering a wealth of delicious fresh ingredients for daily salads: several varieties of lettuce, rocket and mizuna (both with flowers, too), baby beetroot and chard, radicchio, spinach, landcress, lamb’s lettuce, chickweed, pea shoots, flat-leaved parsley, coriander, chervil, spring onions, calendula petals . . . I’m spoilt for choice, and soon there will be crunchy little radish in the mix, too. Outside, the new growth on chives, mint and lemon balm in particular make for tasty herbal additions, along with edible flowers such as daisy, primrose and violet.

Microgreen peas: I’ve already had several pickings of shoots from these little plants.

I’m happy to report that Operation Pea-Off Rodents is going well. Germination rate is high and although some of the seeds have pushed themselves above the compost line, this isn’t a problem in itself. The roots are ridiculously long, already out of the bottom of the tubes and beyond; I need the plants to be bigger before they go outside but at this rate, I don’t think it will be too long.

The whole allium family struggled badly right from the start last year but things are already looking more hopeful for the new season. The autumn-planted white (soft neck) garlic is going strong and this week I planted a couple of rows of pink (hard neck) garlic to join it, plugging a few gaps in the white rows as I went. The shoots should emerge at the same time as the first decent leaves on the comfrey plants which I will chop and tuck round as a mulch. I’ve left space between the rows to sow carrots as companion plants in a bid to outsmart carrot rootfly ~ not that we’ve had any at all so far, but you can’t be too careful. In the tunnel, I already have a tray of red and white Welsh onion seedlings doing very well; these are perennial clumping onions which did better than most in last summer’s conditions so I intend to plant them all over the place this year. The white and red annual onion seeds are also germinating and I’ve bought a net of sets, too, in the hope of covering all bases. Just the leeks to go . . .

A particularly cold and wet morning a few days ago which was neither conducive to gardening (me) or foraging (bees) presented itself as the perfect opportunity to make a concrete start on Project Bee. I trawled carefully through a pile of resources making a list of plant species identified as being beneficial to wild bees, then sorted them into three groups: those we have growing here in abundance, those we have but only in small amounts and those we don’t have at all. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, more a working document to which I can add as I read more articles and research as well as from my own observations, of course. For example, the list of preferred species I’ve made for the Long-horned bee (eucera longicornis) includes bramble, bugle, comfrey, clovers, vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and everlasting peas ~ all of which we have ~ but the female I saw in the garden last year was feeding on strawberry flowers (I can’t speak for the male, he was just ‘hanging out’ in the polytunnel doing nothing in particular). Also, basil hasn’t appeared on any list and yet I would argue it’s one of the most bumblebee-visited plants we grow; I plant lots of it in the tunnel with the express purpose of tempting the furry little beauties inside in the hope they will work their buzz pollination magic on the aubergines while they’re in there.

From this . . .
. . . to this, thanks to busy pollinators.

I compiled my list from sources focused on catering for wild bees and avoided anything too generic; I have a gardening book which lists over 100 ‘food plants for bees’ but without any indication of which particular species they cater for. Also, from what I’ve already learned about solitary bees in particular, it’s not just about food forage as certain species need leaves to cut, plant hairs to collect or hollow stems to nest in, too. My finished list came to 90 plants and I was quite pleased with the initial breakdown: we have 48% in abundance, 33% to a lesser extent and 19% missing from the garden (although some of those grow in the coppice and along the lane side). It’s a decent start and gives me plenty to think about as I plan this year’s garden activities. For instance, I’ve already been dividing and moving some roots of lamb’s ear; there were two plants here when we arrived, both of which are planted in less than ideal spots ~ as a Mediterranean, drought-tolerant plant I think it will be happier in the sunny gravel garden than a very damp and cold north-facing bed. It’s a nectar-rich plant, particularly helpful for bumblebees and very important for the Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) which I am desperate to attract; I mean, if ever there was a bee designed to appeal to me, here it is (well, the female, at least). She gathers fibres from the furry leaves, takes them back to her nest and ‘felts’ them into a cosy cell lining and door plug, fills it with pollen and then lays an egg inside so that the young hatch out inside their own personal woolly blanket with food on tap. Meanwhile, the males are extremely territorial, guarding patches of flowers by wrestling, headbutting or crushing to death potential enemies against spikes on their abdomen. Wow! Given that we have an abundance of great mullein which is another furry-leaved plant, I’m very hopeful of being able to see all this fascinating activity play out in the summer. Who needs television?

Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) on a knautia flower last spring.

The warmer weather has brought a return to insect activity around the garden and I have been wandering, camera in hand, to see who’s about. I have to say, strong winds (a rarity here) are not conducive to snapping small creatures on waving stems but I have at least managed to see and identify a few things, if not capture good photos of them. We’ve been toying with the idea of investing in some extra camera lenses for a while now but having done a bit of research this week, I was left giddy by both the choice and the prices. Ouch! When it comes down to it, if I can get one decent snap in focus then it’s simple enough to crop and zoom on the laptop to help with identification; otherwise, I’ve been carrying an old hand lens around in my pocket which has helped me to observe quietly and try to commit salient features to memory. It’s an ancient thing, scratched and battered, so I’m wondering if a half-decent botanist’s loupe would be a better investment. In the meantime, my eye was drawn to movement in a patch of sunny celandines growing in the gravel, I crouched down to eye level and snapped . . .

Mmm, a honeybee. No problem identifying that one. Wait, though: there was something else, not feeding in the flowers but rummaging about in the leaf litter. A European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), sporting bright orange antennae and possibly contemplating a nesting site in the barn. They are a very common species here and given their voracious appetite for caterpillars, a welcome ally in the garden.

Celandines are definitely proving to be a popular food source this week and as we have probably more than anyone needs (they are gorgeous sunny things but a bit of a pain when they creep into cultivated patches), there has been no shortage of visitors. I tried in vain to take a decent photo of a solitary bee in the hope of identifying the species; it (she?) was so tiny, several could have easily sat on my little finger nail. Zooming hasn’t helped with this one, but for what it’s worth, here’s the photo anyway; if nothing else, it shows just how wee she was.

Roger has commented that my garden activities seem to have become very ‘scientific’ this week, but I am still trying to concentrate on the jobs in hand as much as possible; we need our fruit and vegetable crops, after all, and there’s a lot of work to be done where flowers are concerned, too. That said, could I help but be distracted from weeding the gravel garden when a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea) appeared in a potted rosemary plant? Still more brown than blue on those wings, but with a teasing little hint of that metallic brilliance this time.

Photo shoot over, I popped the camera back in through the door, only to grab it again instantly as with a squeal of excitement (yes, I really squealed ~ what is happening to me?) I spotted something different sunning itself on the stone wall next to the door frame. Needless to say, the instant I tried to take a picture she flew off but I did manage to catch her among the pansies in a nearby windowbox: not the best of snaps but enough to identify that ball of gorgeous gingery fluff as a tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva).

As an offshoot of this insect activity, I’ve realised that it would be a good idea to brush up on a bit of botany, too; if put to the test, my recognition and knowledge of plants far surpasses my insect awareness but there are still some gaps that need addressing. In my last post, I wrote that we didn’t grow viper’s bugloss which was ridiculous considering we had a mass of it growing wherever I’d sprinkled mixed flower seed . . . it’s just that I’ve always known it as ‘echium’ and wasn’t aware of the common name. Doh! Anyway, in the interests of blowing a few botanical cobwebs away, I’m doing a handy course on Memrise called ‘Common and Native Plants of Britain’ which is designed to help commit the names and pictures of over 300 plants to memory. As I’m already fairly clued up it would be easy just to zip through clicking on answers at top speed but I’m making myself take things slowly, really focusing on every detail in the photographs and illustrations: it’s amazing what tiny details come into focus, features of such well-known plants I’ve never really clocked properly. Also, there is most definitely a level of challenge in distinguishing accurately between several different types of forget-me-not or speedwell, for example.

There is so much that’s new and fascinating, too; for instance, I had no idea that scarlet pimpernel could sometimes have blue flowers. I’m also trying to absorb the Latin names correctly as I’ve always been a bit slapdash where they are concerned: if you put a Latin name in front of me, I could probably tell you what plant it is ~ or at least make a pretty good guess ~ but it’s going the other way that I always struggle with. I’ve already said that I don’t want to become a Latin-spouting know-it-all (horrible thought) but if I’m going to match the right insect with the plant(s) it needs, then I have to be accurate in my observations. At a fairly basic level, it’s a good idea to be able to identify typical features of different plant families but I’m also intrigued by some of the names, given my love of language; I never knew that the name of the ranunculus (buttercup) family comes from the Latin rana, which I recognise from Spanish to mean ‘frog’ because the plants can often be found growing in damp places.

For anyone wondering why I’m doing a refresher on British plants, the fact is that the wild flora here in Mayenne is very similar to that of Britain but where there are differences or new species to identify, there is a wealth of excellent French resources I can tap into as need be. Nothing replaces fieldwork when it comes to observation and familiarisation so I’m expecting to spend much of the summer crawling about on my hands and knees (now that I can again), getting down and personal with the native flora as well as the insects. Head down, bottom up. Probably a good job we don’t have any near neighbours. 🤣

Bring on the natives . . .

Wandering back to the house after a happy time planting beans and wondering if it was time to put the kettle on, I saw what Roger had been up to while I was busy in the potager. What a lovely surprise, another little birdbox made from offcuts and scraps of wood left over from the renovation work and coated with wildlife-friendly oil (he’s also added a smart green waterproof roof since I took the photo). It’s not difficult making this sort of box, even I have managed to make them with zero carpentry skills, and it’s wonderful to provide a safe space for birds to raise their families. Official advice tends to be to site new boxes in autumn to allow birds time to familiarise themselves with them but I think it’s easy to fuss about things like that too much; I’m not a gambling woman but if I were, I’d happily put money on there being a resident family in the new box this season. Looking round the patch for a good spot to site the box, we were aware of the grim sound of a tractor and hedgecutter flailing not too far away and not for the first time, I wondered whether the laws around hedgecutting should be reviewed, especially given climate change. The season ends here on 15th March yet I know we have birds building nests in our hedges already, particularly where there is holly, ivy and dense bramble so I can’t imagine it’s any different in field hedgerows.

We’ve also installed a new batbox in what we’re hoping is an appropriate south-facing spot, on a mature oak tree which forms part of a long hedge line and is adjacent to the orchard where we often see bats flitting through on summer evenings. The box is designed to feel like a cavern with a crawling board at the base to help them access the entrance and should be suitable for several species of bat (chauve souris in French, literally ‘bald mouse’); we’ll be watching with great interest to see if someone decides it’s their perfect des-res. In the meantime, one of the aspects of increasing biodiversity I’m working on this year is to grow a good selection of night-scented flowers which are a perfect food source for moths . . . which in turn are fairly high on the bat menu. To that end, I’ve been sowing nicotiana seeds this week in the warmth of a mini-cloche inside the tunnel; also called tobacco flowers, they are a great favourite of mine, giving tall structure to a summer flower border in a fairly underwhelming way during the day but then as evening comes, opening their colourful trumpets in shades of white, pink and purple and releasing the most incredible perfume. I stopped growing them several years ago when the standard seed became difficult to find since dwarf lime-coloured ones without any scent had become highly fashionable. Why would you, I ask? What is the use of fashion in a garden that is all about providing as many habitats and food sources as possible for a wide range of fauna? I’d far rather be a ‘so yesterday’ dinosaur with a garden that brims with life than an on-trend flower fashionista. I’m just hoping the moths (and bats) agree. 😉

To bee or not to bee

Where reading material is concerned I’ve been in the mood for fiction of late so the copy of Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s Dancing With Bees, which I picked up in a charity shop, has been completely neglected for several weeks. Not any more! This has to be the most enchanting and fascinating book I have read in a long, long time and I am enjoying it so much that I am rationing myself to a few pages at a time as I really don’t want it to end. I’m glad I paid a generous price for it, too, since it won’t be going back for re-sale; like other treasured tomes on my shelf, I suspect I will be reading this one several times over. I’m not new to the world of bee love ~ my chosen WordPress profile picture features a beautiful bumble climbing into a Japanese quince flower, after all ~ but I am beginning to look at them through very different and extra-enthusiastic eyes.

There is so much in this book that resonates deeply with me that it could almost have been written for me. It arose from Brigit’s awareness that she had somehow lost the connection with nature that had been very profound in her childhood and studying wild bees has been a way for her to renew that lapsed relationship. I haven’t lost my connection with nature (far from it, in fact) but I am the first to admit that despite spending a large part of my time outdoors and immersed in the garden or coppice, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to identifying and identifying with much of the life around me. As a teacher in a rural primary school, I was saddened to find how few children in my class could name or recognise more than a handful of garden birds; however, there are 24 (or 25 depending on who you talk to) species of bumblebee in the UK and 44 species in France . . . and I’m not sure how many of those I could identify with complete certainty. I have no problem distinguishing between honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, or telling bees apart from wasps which I know some people can find tricky; I also have a reasonable idea about their different social set-ups, nesting behaviour and foraging preferences but when I analyse my knowledge honestly, it’s all very generic. There is so much I don’t know, which is fine because I love learning. There’s certainly a lot to do.

It’s not that I’m not interested, engaged or observant. Quite the opposite, in fact; I would say it’s a rare day that I achieve everything I set out to do in the garden, such is my habit of being distracted by the life forms around me. Trust me, once that new pond is established and teeming with life, whole days will be lost! I was absurdly excited last year to find horned bees in the garden and some of my most absorbing moments were spent watching a solitary bee building tiny nests in the wooden handles of tools hanging in the Love Shack. Of course, there’s a lot more out there than bees and anything that catches my eye or imagination presents itself as a worthy excuse to down tools, grab the camera and observe.

I enjoy a bit of research so whenever I see something I don’t recognise, I’m happy to spend time identifying them and then reading up about them. The problem is retaining the information and then building on it, instead of ticking the box and moving on in a sort of mental ‘Eye Spy’ book way. Take carpenter bees, for instance, a species I came across for the first time when we moved to this area over ten years ago. I was totally captivated by their size and noise, their shiny black metallic armour and stunning bluey-purple gauzy wings, their restless habit and busy movements . . . and more than a little horrified when an initial internet search threw up far too many sites about how to destroy them. I love to see them in the garden but capturing them with the camera is always a challenge; I spent half an hour one day last summer trying to get a decent photo of a bee in the sweet peas (my inner colour nerd thought the combination was perfect). Sadly, my energetic subject had other ideas although I finally managed a shot in a patch of phacelia a few days later.

Half an hour of observations . . . but what do I know about these incredible creatures, without cheating and looking them up again? Well, what I think I know is that they are solitary bees, that the females are all black and the males have yellow on their face, that they like to nest in holes in wood hence the ‘carpenter’ bit (this is a habit which gets them a bad name as people fear their domestic wooden structures will be undermined), the female can sting but rarely does, the male can’t sting but can display aggressive behaviour in defending the nest. That’s pretty much it and I admit it’s really nowhere near enough, and even worse, might also be incorrect; even just writing this paragraph, I realise that the bee in the photo above is different to the others I’ve seen here before and in our Asturian garden because its wings are brown, not the startling blue that originally captured my attention. Have I been glibly referring to everything similar as carpenter bees without bothering to distinguish between different family members? As for what I don’t know about them, the list is a long one and I already have many questions to answer.

I don’t want to become an ‘expert’ or bee bore and I have no intention of going around quoting Latin or Greek, although binomial nomenclature is helpful in distinguishing between different species . . . and I must confess, I do quite like the word bombus (I think the photo above is of bombus lapidarius, the red-tailed bumblebee, but please don’t take my word for it). My plan is to become properly curious about the creatures we share our patch of earth with, to start with more focused observation and take it from there. No more stopping once I’ve taken a photograph and watched it for a bit, I need to climb inside the life of each one and search out the answers to many questions. Take the bee in the picture above, for example:

  • Am I right with my identification? Is it common, rare, endangered . . ?
  • Is it a queen, worker or male?
  • Where is it nesting? What are the preferred nesting sites/materials? (Follow it and see . . .)
  • How many bees are there in the colony at any particular time of year? I know bumblebee queens are the only ones to survive winter, but when does the first brood hatch? What size will the colony be at its maximum (and when)? Do all the bees live together or do the males live separately?
  • Are there interesting behaviours typical of this species?
  • What is its preferred forage? Are these leek flowers typical /a good source of food? Is it taking nectar, pollen or both?
  • What are its main predators?

Such questions are, of course, just a starting point and an example of how I’m planning to frame my investigations; I’m quite excited about spending time trailing these creatures round like some kind of zoological sleuth! More than anything else, I need to give myself time to stop and stare and wonder. I used the photo above a couple of blog posts ago and I’m as certain as I can be that it’s a buff-tailed (bombus terrestris) bumblebee queen; as I decided to focus on a single bee, what isn’t obvious from the picture is that there were at least half a dozen all feeding on that single heather plant. What a fascinating sight, those large velvety matrons, newly-emerged from their hibernation and feeding up in preparation for the busy breeding season to come. How I wish I’d taken a break from whatever I was doing in the garden to watch them ~ really watch them ~ and then perhaps follow and see where they were making their nests. One of the things I loved to do as a beekeeper was simply watch at the front of the hive, all the comings and goings, the exchange of messages at the hive entrance and the extraordinary variety of different coloured pollens being collected. My mission is to find bumblebee nests this spring, hopefully of several different species and spend time watching them throughout the year.

As a former beekeeper, I will always have a soft spot for honeybees (apis mellifera, the European honeybee pictured above) and I know a lot more about them than other bee species. I love to see them working around the garden, so industrious and focused in their foraging activities. Some afternoons last week when the sun had warmed the west wall of the house, our resident feral bees came piling out and made a beeline ~ literally ~ for the area around the front door. Puzzled as to what they were up to, I stood and watched them for a few minutes and realised they were taking water from the damp soil in the pots I had been watering and were trying to drink from the buckets of grey water waiting to be used. Bees need water in their nest for several reasons and some workers will have been assigned to water duty rather than food forage; in the current drought and dry air, it’s possible they are having to work hard to keep the young brood moist. It might seem strange, but they actually seek ‘dirty’ water from ponds, puddles, birdbaths and the like ~ it’s thought because of the nutrient value ~ so hence the attraction of wet soil. I wasn’t sure about the grey water, though, as despite the fact that our dishwashing liquid and bath products are all ‘eco’ it’s possible there could still be some harmful chemicals in there. I swapped the bucket for its lid to make a safe and shallow drinking spot for them, full of saved rainwater, and at least that meant we could use the front door again without being mobbed. Contrary to the last, they still preferred the plant pots.

Fond as I am of the little honeys, it’s sensible to keep their importance and role in perspective. There is a huge discrepancy in assertions about how much of the world’s food production is reliant on pollinators and in turn how much of that comes down to honeybees ~ a quick scout round the internet threw up figures ranging from 7% to 90%! Whatever the figure (it’s easy to forget that many plants are wind-pollinated or self-pollinating), pollinators do have an essential role to play but honeybees are a long way from being the only ones or the best ones. Perhaps it’s a result of their commercial value both as pollinators and honey producers that there has been such a spotlight on their plight in recent years, while so many other species of bees and insects have been in serious decline in the background. In the photo below, there are two insects busy in the flowers but only one is a honeybee.

To put things in perspective, of the 267 species of bee in the UK over 250 are native solitary bees (in France, there are over 800 species) and they win the brownie points every time when it comes to being the most efficient and effective pollinators. I’ve already mentioned carpenter bees but how about mason bees, miner bees, leaf-cutter bees, carder bees, blood bees, mourning bees, sharped-tailed bees, nomad bees and the delightfully-named hairy-footed flower bees to name but a few? I’m beginning to feel like this could take another lifetime. Let’s throw the net wider still: hoverflies, lacewings, wasps, beetles (including ladybirds), butterflies, spiders, moths, worms, snails, slugs and a whole host of other invertebrates, then of course reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Mmm, several lifetimes, maybe.

I’ve written more than once about how so much of our project here is about protecting and increasing biodiversity through providing a range of habitats and supporting various ecosystems: it’s not a case of ‘us and them’ but all of us together. It’s a given that we use no toxic chemicals anywhere. Ever. So far we have restored native hedgerows, planted trees, dug a pond, provided bird feeders from November to April, built stone walls and domes, made log and brush piles, left wide corridors of long grass and wild flowers around the boundaries, started to develop wildflower meadow and woodland areas, put up nestboxes for birds, bats, red squirrels and insects and planted or sown nectar- and pollen-rich flowers and shrubs. I think the time has come now to be really specific about what we do or grow in order to support as much life as we can and I’m hoping to get a better handle on that by studying a wide variety of beings more closely and tapping into advice based on research that isn’t often at the forefront of things. For example, many of the commercial ‘bee friendly’ seed mixes on sale are actually based on a list of plants favourable to honeybees and may not offer much in the way of forage for solitary bees which tend to have more specific or specialised requirements.

What, then, should we be growing and doing for the benefit of the widest range of bee species (and others)? One of the effects of media focus on the plight of the honeybee has been an upsurge in interest in beekeeping and an acknowledgement that perhaps the conventional approaches aren’t necessarily the best for the bees. I’m all in favour of this but the danger of an increased number of hives in any area is that it can have a detrimental effect on the non-honeybee populations whilst research suggests that greater numbers of honeybee colonies in itself does nothing to help them. It’s another reason for us not to have hives again, but be content with our feral wall-dwelling colony and focus on consciously supporting all the bee species and other insects with whom we share this space. In short, it’s time to welcome everyone to the garden party.

There’s certainly no shortage of advice available but finding helpful information about some species is easier than others, and often everything seems to be set out in strict, unyielding black and white so I think a pragmatic, common sense approach is essential. For instance, I respect the sentiments behind schemes such as ‘No-mow May’ which are designed to encourage people to move away from manicured, weed-free lawns towards something more wildlife-friendly. However, it must be remembered that a short sward actually suits many species, especially those bees who build underground nests and ground-feeding birds, and also encourages low-growing beneficial plants such as bugle and white clover to flower. Our mown areas will soon be covered in dandelions in the insect version of a food festival, every bright flower an ‘eat all you can’ buffet which is a crucial source of forage at this time of year. Of course, areas of long grass and wildflowers have huge benefits, too; it’s all a question of balance.

Now, I realise that where I personally see a thing of beauty in the picture above, there are many gardeners who would recoil in horror at the idea of allowing even a single dandelion into their patch. I understand completely, because if I am going to commit to doing the best I can, then I will have to get over myself and introduce plants which aren’t exactly top of my favourites list. Let’s talk about heather. I don’t mind heather per se, I’m just not a fan of it in gardens (especially mine); I have hills and moorland in my blood and that’s where I love to see the cloaks of wild purple in late summer, preferably intermingled with some very productive whimberry bushes! However . . . I can’t deny that the handful of winter-flowering heathers planted in the bank behind the house is currently Bee Central and they are undeniably an excellent source of forage at a time when flowers are few and far between. That bank has proved to be an ongoing nightmare when it comes to making it an attractive part of the property: it’s heavy clay, so steep that it’s impossible to work in organic matter to improve it and overrun with couch grass, periwinkle and a host of other things that have simply got out of hand. The heathers are surviving despite everything so perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt here: plant more and accept that although they’re not really my thing, the bees will be well catered for.

What has made me happy is that a brief look at the quick planting guide on the excellent Bumblebee Conservation Trust website shows me that of the 23 recommended plants, we are only short of three: pieris, viper’s bugloss and Californian lilac (ceanothus). Well, there’s something we can do about that but I also want to find out exactly what would help all those solitary bees, too. Watching a short video clip of 25 suggestions on the Nurturing Nature website, I realise we’re already a long way there; obviously, these are UK sites and we have to be aware of a more diverse bee population in France and tap into local resources accordingly. I’m encouraged, though. We can do this. It might just take me even longer to get anything done in the garden, mind you . . . 😊