A time of balance

I love this time of year, the balance of light around the equinox suiting me so much better than the extremes of the solstices. I know many people find it a slightly depressing time here in the northern hemisphere as we swing into the dark half of the year, but why be miserable? There is still so much to look forward to in the coming weeks even if it is darker and cooler, and it is a shame not to enjoy every moment of what can be a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring season. I’ve noticed several people this week already focused on discussions about Christmas. Pleeeeeeeease, no!

As much as anything, for me this is a time of gratitude and as our abundant harvest continues to roll in, I feel an immense sense of thankfulness that we have such a wealth of delicious and nutritious food to sustain us over the coming months. It’s something I never take for granted but in a way, the extreme heat and drought this year have felt like grave warning shots across our bows that it would be foolish to ignore. In the face of an increasingly unstable climate, however that might manifest itself in the future, we simply can’t assume that bountiful harvests will be a given each year. So yes, gratitude by the bucket load . . . but also an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking and doing things, the changes that we might need to make in order to guarantee not only our own food security, but the future of a thriving biodiversity on our precious patch.

In the cold, dark months of December and January, when hibernation strikes me as the most sensible of ideas, I love to dig out the seed basket and start hatching plans for a new season’s planting. However, with our garden still in its infancy and much to think about this year, I’ve decided that a period of reflection now is beneficial, sketching out some plans and jotting down a few ideas while everything is still fresh in my mind. Some decisions have already been made, not least the fact that the number of aubergine, pepper and tomato plants can be significantly reduced now we have seen what a ‘proper’ harvest can deliver. The disappointing ‘Delinel’ dwarf beans will be replaced by a yellow wax pod variety and we will shift the balance of climbing beans towards more borlotti and fewer Asturian; the latter really didn’t enjoy the lack of moisture and humidity this summer and although they still have a few growing and ripening weeks left, most of the pods are unnaturally tiny with only a single bean in each ~ not an efficient use of the ground they are growing in or the time they will take to harvest.

In complete contrast, carrots grow very happily here and a single thickly-sown row of a Nantes variety has kept us well-provisioned for several months. They’re still going strong ~ Roger dug one this week which was the best part of thirty centimetres long! ~ and the truly excellent news is that even in our second season, there is no hint of the dreaded carrot root fly. I’m going to indulge in a bit of whimsy next year and sow some yellow, red, white and purple varieties alongside the orange ones for a carrot rainbow on a plate. Well, sometimes you have to have a bit of fun in this serious business of growing food. 😊 Regular readers will know that tomatoes have been a big story for us this year and mulling over cherry varieties, I suddenly remembered the tiny (but relatively speaking, huge) success we had in Asturias with ‘Rosella’, the beautiful deep pink tomato which I reckoned was every bit as good as the ever-popular ‘Sungold’ in terms of flavour and sweetness. They’re both on the list for next year so that I can carry out a true comparison, along with some red and yellow ‘Tumbling Toms’ which I’m planning to grow in hanging baskets and window boxes.

Fruit bowl!

Increasing the number and range of perennial food plants is a high priority in terms of building resilience and a regenerative food garden and, like wildlife homes and habitats, we are trying to add a few new things each year. The large lasagne bed we made adjoining the asparagus bed last year still has masses of room in it, despite the emergence of a rhubarb forest from the five puny little roots I planted; I’ve grown courgettes in it this year, but my plan is to eventually fill it with perennial plants. Some of the new things on the list are Turkish rocket (which is actually a brassica, a bit like broccoli raab), holy basil or tulsi, red Welsh onions to complement the white ones we already have, wild garlic and Cape gooseberry. Roger has been very busy this week spreading manure, compost and other organic matter and I’m pleased at how these beds are starting to shape up; fingers crossed, we should end up with a good stock of productive perennial food plants growing in a wonderfully rich, healthy soil. Well, that’s the plan, anyway!

Obviously, the quickest way to source and establish perennials is to buy plants but I’m actually a huge fan of growing them from seed for several reasons. For a start, in the horticultural industry seed production (especially by the small and responsible businesses I prefer to support) tends to be far kinder to the planet than plant production which requires huge amounts of heat, water, compost, plastic, chemicals and transport. Second, a packet of seeds usually costs less than a single plant but offers the chance of growing many, the strongest of which can be selected as keepers; any spare seeds can be given away or swapped and I am a great advocate of spreading the gardening love in this way. Third, by raising my own plants from seed, I can be 100% sure that they have not received chemical treatments of any kind. Fourth, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take that long to grow decent perennial plants from seed, a fact borne out by the already apparent maturity of the perennial herbs, cardoons, asparagus and globe artichokes I raised from seed last year. Lastly . . . well, it’s always fun to sow seeds, watch the magic of germination, prick out seedlings and nurture them into something big and beautiful. 🥰 On which subject, I have been wondering whether planting so many ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes this year was actually my best idea; honestly, they are so ridiculously spiny that preparing them is like grappling with purple porcupines. Their flavour, though, is incredible and so I am hoping for a good crop next year. Might have to invest in some stout leather handling gloves, mind you . . .

I don’t want to harp on about my herniated disc as I’m not by nature a ‘poor me’ hypochondriac wallowing in self-pity or trying to elicit sympathy and I am doing everything within my power to help the healing process along, but I am finding the situation ever more frustrating. I have to maintain a balance of rest and movement which is fine but the ‘resting’ bit is tricky: the only way I can be totally comfortable is by lying down but too much bedrest is a big no-no, and as it’s impossible for me to sit, I have to recline on a sofa supported by a nest of quilts and pillows. The inactivity drives me nuts! I know I should be grateful for the opportunity to rest, but there’s only so much reading I can do; I can balance a laptop on my knee for a short time but I’m not an enthusiastic internet surfer and once I’ve caught up with messages from friends and family and maybe read a few blog posts, I’ve had more than enough screen time. Writing an email, yet alone a blog post, seems to take me forever these days. So, it was a moment of utter joy this week discovering that, with a lot of organisation and patience, I am actually able to manage some crochet in my reclined position. Even better, if I set everything up on an old sun-lounger that tilts backwards into the perfect position, I can do it outside, too. Happy, happy me! 😊

Creative projects are usually a big part of my life but it seems like ages since I found the time to do anything apart from knit some gift socks to take to Norway in June. I started this ‘Harmony’ blanket months years ago in Asturias and with all the busyness of our move to France and creating a new garden, it’s been very much neglected so it’s lovely to be reunited once again. My progress is slower than if I were sitting upright but I find myself working with greater focus and attention, each colourful stitch a sort of gentle woolly meditation. I’m also much distracted by what is going on around me in these soft, golden afternoons full of dancing butterflies and spider silk, and spending time in the sunshine and fresh air, immersed in all the activity and beauty of nature around me feels like good medicine indeed. I’m not short of company, either: two young willow tits, totally unfazed by my presence, hang upside down from the nearby sunflower heads, taking the seeds one at a time and tapping out the kernels in the apple tree behind me. It’s a truly lovely thing to watch, although I am astounded that these very small birds seem to have such mighty appetites!

From the relative comfort of my garden nest, I look down to the western edge of our plot where Roger has started to plant a new area of native woodland. Like perennials grown from seed, we know that young trees like this raised from found seedlings will bomb up in no time and will soon be taller than the peach tree in the centre, a rather scabby thing that produces a mass of pretty pink blossom in early spring but not a lot else. In the foreground, you can see part of the patch where we grew potatoes this year – mmm, just look at those clods of soil.

Roger has been digging the spuds this week and to say the harvest is disappointing would be an understatement; well, let’s be frank here ~ 124 plants, barely worth the bother. Shortly after planting, the soil turned to something close to concrete, which is curious given that it is a sandy loam and it is a patch that was under cultivation when we moved here, but that was the end of any decent crop. We worked in some organic matter and added several layers of mulch last year but something was obviously very wrong and so we have set about rectifying matters (well, I say we but you know exactly who’s doing all the hard work and who is yapping away in a supervisory role from her reclining chair 😂). We’ve had some rain since the photo was taken so the earth is damp and more workable now, those lumps can be broken down, manure raked in followed by a mix of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves and then a sowing of vetch seed to act as a nitrogen-fixing green manure over winter. Since creating the sitting area where the old shed used to be, we’ve used it a lot as it enjoys unbroken afternoon and evening sunshine so the plan for next year is to keep the patch under cultivation but to create something less utilitarian and more aesthetically-pleasing, with a mix of food and flowers along the lines of the mandala bed.

To the south of the potato bed is the raspberry patch which I’ve decided just has to go; we’ve given it every chance but really, it’s in a daft place and the plants have failed to thrive or produce much fruit. Despite my best efforts with feeding, mulching and careful pruning, I think the poor things are up against serious overcrowding in tired soil and far too much shade, so it’s time for a complete change. My plan is to extend the soft fruit bed we made in front of the polytunnel (we have plenty of organic matter to hand, just need to find some sheets of cardboard) and then later in autumn, transplant some strong summer-fruiting canes, the single autumn-fruiting plant which I’m hoping will split and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ that I planted as a tiny bare-rooted twig in the spring and which has bravely hung on through summer, despite trying to die several times. The other bare-rooted fruiting newbies ~ a jostaberry, three honeyberries and a goji berry ~ have also come through relatively unscathed and have all put on some promising growth. In fact, the latter is covered in pretty mauve flowers at the moment, I’m not sure if that’s right at this time of year but I’m happy for it to do what it wants as long as it continues to grow.

As medical advice is not to stay in the same position for too long, I’ve agreed with myself that for every two blanket squares completed, I have a walk round the garden. Moving oh-so-slowly, I can at least take the time to truly enjoy the moment and all the sights, sounds, scents, textures and tastes of the season. Having felt a few weeks ago that we were being catapulted into an early autumn, the rain and cooler weather seem to have put a brake on everything; the landscape is lush again, the trees no longer shedding their leaves but looking fuller and greener than they have for some time, while the flowering plants, previously so dry and dusty, are giving a second colourful flush their all. I love the lower, softer light, the air spiced with the scent of leaves and apples, and the prevailing sense of peace and contentment the gentle weather brings.

The sky is still full of swallows, eerily silent now after a summer of chatter and babble; they are focused completely on their long journey south and in six months’ time, as the spring equinox rolls round, I shall be watching the skies with expectant eyes for the return of their welcome silhouettes. The squirrels are back from their summer business, little streaks of rusty fur looping speedily across the grass, their mouths stuffed with acorns; they are being cursed loudly by the ever-garrulous jays, who have also homed in after the acorn crop ~ as if there’s any shortage in such a heavy mast year! The garden is full of dragonflies, swooping and weaving on rigid, shimmering wings whilst below them, fungi in every shape and hue dance and spiral through the grass, including a decent crop of field mushrooms which we have been enjoying in seasonal breakfasts. Yes, I accept the days are getting shorter and cooler weather is on its way . . . but there is still so much to celebrate, so many things to enjoy. It’s all a question of balance, really.

Seasonal treasures

It’s apple time once again and the soft air is laced with their redolent, cidery perfume. In the orchard, the trees are heavy with ripe, rosy orbs whilst beneath them, butterflies and wasps seek sweetness in fallen fruits. As we head towards the equinox with shortening days and lower light, I love the sense of balance, the way in which the delicate drifting beauty of April’s blossom has given way to a treasure trove of precious fruit. It’s one of nature’s miracles and a true celebration of the season.

We are picking them by the crateful and trying to process one lot into juice every other day. It’s a slow job, even with both of us working together, but we know from last year that all that washing, chopping, mashing, pressing, filtering, bottling and pasteurising is well worth the effort as the juice is sublime; despite my earlier reservations about the extent of the harvest, it looks like we should be able to press enough juice to last us a year. The apples aren’t bad eaters straight from the tree, either, and we’ve also been enjoying them cooked with the last hedgerow blackberries, topped with an oaty, nutty crumble mix; with a dollop of crème fraîche d’Isigny, it is the food of the gods, the flavoursome, comforting essence of September. Once we’ve juiced enough, I shall turn my attention to making compote to freeze for future use and we will dry as many trays of apple rings as we can once the stove goes in (despite the fresher mornings, it’s still far too warm to light it). Yes, I think we have several weeks of serious apple business ahead!

Then there’s the small matter of the tomatoes. It feels like we are making up for ten virtually barren years in one fell swoop, picking several kilos of ripe fruits every day ~ they just keep on coming. The kitchen has become something of a tomato processing plant as we try to preserve them in every way possible. We’re using as many fresh as we can, then turning the rest into something we can store: we’re cooking vats of them, often with onion, garlic and red wine, to make rich and flavoursome sauces to bottle or freeze; we’re bottling them whole; we’re cooking them and pushing them through a sieve to make juice, again bottled or frozen; we’re turning them into spicy chutneys. With so much pressure on the freezer, we are trying to use up things like last year’s roast squash combined with tomatoes to make a delicious, creamy soup and not a single day goes by without ‘tomatoes with something’ being on the menu. It is an incredible harvest and after such a dearth, I am truly grateful; nothing shop-bought comes even close in terms of flavour and it will certainly be a long, long time before we need to put tinned tomatoes on the shopping list again. As the weather cools, there will inevitably be a harvest of green tomatoes to follow but we’ll worry about that when the time comes . . .

The whole tomato thing was one big experiment this year so knowing now that we can beat blight, I won’t be planting anywhere near as many next year and they can all go into the ground rather than being scattered about in pots that take so much nurturing. The beefsteak varieties have all done us proud but ‘Black from Tula’ remains the firm favourite, its soft and juicy flesh bursting with flavour ~ the perfect cooking tomato, definitely top of next year’s planting list (I have seeds saved and ready to go). In contrast, the cherry ‘Glossy Rose Blue’ is extraordinarily pretty with its shiny blue fruits ripening to a deep rose colour but they are sadly lacking in flavour; in fact, if anything, they have a slight bitter tang which for me is all wrong in cherry tomatoes which surely should ooze sweetness? They’ve been fun and interesting but given that flavour comes a lot higher up the list than aesthetics for me, I’m not sure I’ll be growing them again.

Like the tomatoes, the sunflowers have had an incredible year and are presently putting on a stunning display in the garden. The prolonged drought and severe heat didn’t bother them one jot but after a decent dollop of rain, they seem to have gathered a second wind, not to mention climbing to ever more dizzying heights.

Where there are petals, the flowers still bristle with bumble bees busy in their spiralled centres, but once the seed heads form, the birds move in to feast. The plants literally bustle and sway with their attention all day long, but particularly first thing in the morning; it’s like nature’s own bird table, wonderfully colourful and entertaining with no need to top up the feeders . . . which is a good thing, seeing as I have no hope of reaching that high!

I sense a definite drift towards autumn amongst the flowers now, but that isn’t to say the garden is lacking in colour. In the gravel garden we planted earlier this year, verbena bonariensis, golden yarrow and sedum make a pretty combination that the butterflies find irresistible; heleniums and Michaelmas daisies are making their presence known whilst those reliable summer troopers ~ cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia and zinnias – are still providing splashes of colour and interest, albeit it in a more muted end-of-season sort of way.

As usual, I’ve lost track of what I planted earlier in the year so it’s always a delight to find little surprises lurking amongst the chaotic growth.

Another delight is to see the garden looking green again after so many weeks of scorched grass and earth. We haven’t had a huge amount of rain and even saw a couple of days with temperatures nudging 30°C again but it’s incredible how lush everything has become in a short time and how much happier so many of the plants are looking.

Two weeks ago . . .
. . . and now. Note the hosepipe has gone away at last!

We’ve been discussing plans for our next wave of projects and Roger has already started on one, planting some of the native trees we potted up from seedlings in the spring to create an area of woodland at the western end of the narrower strip of garden. We’ve opted for species like birch, rowan, hazel and wild cherry that have light and airy habits as we don’t want the area to become too dark and dense; there is no shortage of heavyweights like oak and holly around the margins so with any luck, there will be a feeling of balance to the space. Creating a no-dig mandala bed was one of my favourite pet projects last year and it’s been interesting to watch how it has developed and fared through the summer months.

May
June
July
August
September

Well, it’s currently a long way from the tidy, well-ordered patch it was in May but I still feel very positive about what has been achieved this year and particularly at how well it held up through the drought. As far as food is concerned, there has been a plentiful harvest: lettuces, pointy cabbages (now sporting fresh new growth from where they were cut), strawberries, courgettes, borlotti beans, purple French beans, cucumbers, aubergines, sweet peppers, chillies, rainbow chard and an unbelievable forest of flat-leaved parsley to complement the perennial herbs around the edge. There are still Asturian beans to come but the story of the moment is ~ surprise, surprise ~ an overwhelming amount of tomatoes from four spare plants that went in as an afterthought and which have created their own little rainforest event. There have only been three disappointments: it looks like one or two of the perennial herbs succumbed to the drought, the melons failed to thrive and the rogue phacelia created total chaos, collapsing over everything around it and proving impossible to tackle because it was so full of bees! In the two sections where it grew, there is now a carpet of volunteer seedlings once again, along with those of a pretty magenta mallow (one of the few annual flowers that deigned to grow). That’s fine for now; I’m calling it green manure and it will be chopped and dropped well before flowering to nourish the soil but most definitely under control from here on in. As the vegetable plants come to the end of the road, I’ll chop and drop them, too, ~ hopefully recovering the hidden paths in the process ~ spread some of that wonderful horse manure about and then make plans for next year’s planting.

The outdoor melons were a bit of an experiment and I’m not too bothered about their failure because we have enjoyed an excellent crop from the tunnel. In July we harvested 25 fruit, twelve of them on the same day, which makes me inclined to try staggering the planting a bit next year to try and spread the load. The plants are currently enjoying a second flush, unexpected but very welcome; the fruits are a good size, not quite as sweet as the first crop but delicious all the same and a real bonus in the fruit bowl.

‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons ~ one of this year’s stars.

Roger has been planting seeds in the tunnel this week, an assortment of leaves, herbs and other salad ingredients to see us through winter along with the black radish and radicchio which are growing well outside. I’ve started off a tray of ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ lettuce, tough little customers which will grow happily outdoors all winter, but my biggest smile this week came when I wandered past the Not Garden (scene of last week’s lazy smart gardening) to see a green carpet of rocket and landcress seedlings where I had thrown seed pods about between the leeks and oca. Something tells me we’re sorted for salads this winter.

It saddens me to feel that summer pretty much passed me by this year: I was so taken up with the frustration of dealing with constant pain and immobility that I missed out on far too many wonderful things. Not necessarily big things, either; I love to pack a simple picnic and flask of coffee then head off walking or on our bikes, exploring the locality and enjoying all that is good about the season. We just haven’t been able to do those things and as three months later, I’m being told by those who are caring for me that my condition is still un boulot (a big job), it seems I’m not going to be jumping on my bike or lacing up my walking boots any time soon. However, I love this time of year and I’m determined not to miss out completely, so I’m steeling myself to wander a little from home every morning. If I make it to the end of the lane and back that’s a mile, which I feel is a decent effort under the circumstances, but it’s really not about distance at all ~ if I only manage a couple of hundred metres, so be it. I can only walk very slowly but that gives me the chance to observe properly all that is going on around me and to connect with the spirit of nature which I know is so important for my well-being.

What strikes me more than anything is how after so much heat, dryness and dust, water is now a dominant element and I love the atmospheric effects of mist and low cloud moving and morphing across the landscape.

There have been some fairly artistic skies to revel in, too.

Thankfully, no-one has been along to cut the hedges yet which is a blessing as they are still full of food, colour and interest . . . and it’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that they are bustling with birdlife.

I liked the startling contrast between the colours of these oak leaves . . .

. . . and the new catkins appearing on the hazels as they shed their leaves.

Most of the swallows have gone now save for a few stragglers swooping and chatting above me, ready for their long trek south. The woodlarks, quiet over the summer months, are now filling the air with their melodic trilling whilst kestrels cruise on silent wings, hunting for prey in the maize stubble. The weather is still warm and sunny but the wind has a fresher edge to it; the ground remains packed and dry yet exudes a damp, earthy scent and throws up necklaces of fungi in the cool of morning; the shifting angle of the sun throws intricate patterns of light and shadow across the landscape, the colours softer and more muted as we slide into autumn. Yes, it truly is a beautiful time of year. I really can’t let this one pass me by.😊

August . . . or autumn?

It’s been a week of noisy nights. In no small part, this has been down to tawny owls (the delightful sounding chouette hulotte in French) who seem to be going through a particularly busy and vocal phase at the moment. I love to hear them, the shrill female ‘kew-ick’ and softer male ‘hoo-hoo’ performed in a perfect call-and-response duet, but it’s no exaggeration to say that some nights they have been so loud, I’ve honestly thought they were perched on the bedroom balcony. There also seem to be one or two who haven’t quite got it together yet ~ youngsters perhaps? ~ and so have decided that our oak trees are just the place for prolonged choir practice as they sort out their twits from their twoos. Then there’s the acorns. It’s a heavy mast year and the oaks are literally dripping, but as a result of the drought they are shedding acorns by the bucketload. It has become almost impossible to walk along some of our boundary paths as the carpet of fallen nuts is less than comfortable on the feet! Not for the first time since moving here, I am driven to wonder why anyone would choose to build a shed around a mature oak tree, especially one with a tin roof: the clatter of falling acorns is a noisy percussion that continues all through the night, becoming faster and louder if the wind picks up . . . or the owl choir alights. Perhaps it’s time for earplugs at bedtime?

As well as acorns, there are wild fruits and berries in abundance, not surprising after the spring blossom was so prolific. The hedgerows are dripping with elderberries and blackberries, and where so many leaves (especially hazel) have already been shed, the hawthorn is setting the unusually bare branches alight in plumes of crimson fire. It’s time to forage and add some seasonal goodies to our winter stores. I’ve already started to collect rosehips, plump as little tomatoes, from the rugosa bushes. Last year, I made the mistake of following the guidance on a foraging website, drying the hips whole, grinding them to a powder and shaking them in a sieve to separate out the tiny irritating hairs. Bad plan: it only took a couple of brews to realise I was being left with a very unpleasant tickle around my tonsils ~ despite rigorous and repeated sieving, the hairs were very definitely still in the mix. This year, I’m being less lazy, halving the hips and meticulously scraping out the innards before drying the fruit. It’s a bit of a faff but with any luck, it should make for a more comfortable tea.

The heat and drought have hit our young fruit trees hard and we are doing everything we can to nurse them through; it would be sad to lose them just as they are getting established. The more mature trees have looked stressed at times, too, and it remains to be seen just what sort of a harvest we enjoy this autumn. The pear trees are covered in fruit but both have already lost many of their leaves so I think it’s unlikely that we will have anything worth eating from them.

A couple of the apples are obviously biennial bearers and have no fruit at all this year, the rest have a good crop but have been dumping fruit on the orchard floor for some time. We had been hoping to press enough juice to last us a year but in reality it will be a case of being grateful for whatever we can salvage.

There have been a few surprises, though. The poor fig tree, which looked so miserable last year, has enjoyed the hotter, drier conditions and responded well to having more light and air around it where we had cut back undergrowth and laid hedges; we are currently enjoying modest but utterly delicious pickings of luscious fruit, such an unexpected luxury. One of the rescued grapevines is also looking far happier and thick bunches of green grapes are steadily ripening to purple, although it’s a bit of a game beating the birds to them, and despite the drought really doing for the summer raspberries, the autumn ones are having a go. All is not lost.

I love colour and I have to admit I’ve found it hard seeing the garden so burnt up and bleached in recent weeks, not to mention the speed at which the hoped-for rainbow of flowers faded away. Still, there have been a few bright spots to make me smile this week. Of all the annual flowers I planted, the zinnias have shown themselves to be the toughest and cheeriest of survivors . . . and the bumble bees adore them.

The heavy crop of sweet peppers in many colours continues in the tunnel and now outdoors, too, the ‘Sweet Banana’ in particular making eye-catching splashes of yellow, orange and red to brighten dusty corners.

I’ve been harvesting piles of chillies for some time now, the long and skinny cayenne and the fatter but equally as warming Padrón, but this week saw the first bulk picking from our fish pepper plants. Buying a tiny pinch of seeds to grow these plants was nothing more than an indulgence on my part; after all, we already had more than enough chillies in the pipeline . . . but I loved the idea of the variegated plants with their attractive green and white leaves, the crazy array of coloured fruits and the fascinating history behind them. They haven’t disappointed, they really are quite beautiful and I just love those stripes!

The maize harvest usually takes place here in October, but the crops are looking so poor that many local farmers are cutting their losses and harvesting the fields already; given that it’s usually a pretty drought-tolerant plant, it just goes to show just what a tough year it has been. Thankfully, our sweetcorn has fared rather better and we have been tucking into the first fat cobs this week. In my (humble) opinion, there are two secrets to enjoying sweetcorn at its very best: having minimum time from picking to plate, so those wonderful sugars don’t have chance to turn to starch, and keeping the cobs well away from water. Why boil when you can grill or bake? Our favourite trick is to cook them over charcoal or wood, simply turning occasionally until the corn literally starts to caramelise; leaving a decent stalk makes them easy to eat ~ perfect finger food ~ and smeared in rich, creamy Normandy butter, they are a truly decadent delight. Sunshine on a plate.

The borlotti beans just keep on giving and I have been picking and processing a full trug of purple pods every other day, some set aside to dry for next year’s seed as well as eating, and the rest stored in the freezer. I’ve also been dealing with the fattened and dried pods from the first row of ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans; they are a fiddle to shell, especially compared to the beefy borlotti, but it would be a crime not to harvest them. They are such a good food, packed with fibre and vegetable protein and a perfect addition to winter soups and stews. One row down, three to go.

Sticking with the purple theme and the ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes I raised from seed earlier this year have coped well with the weather, which is a valid reason for ensuring we grow as many perennial food crops as we can. One of them has gone a step too far, though, and produced a few artichokes already. Well, I’ve been told the purple varieties have a better flavour than the green ones so it looks like we’ll be finding out for ourselves a bit sooner than expected.

Although there is much to be celebrated in the garden, it’s a time of immense frustration, too. Having waited so long for rain, it was a relief to have an afternoon of storms last week which dampened everything down and put some precious stores back in the butts . . . but that was it. Despite numerous forecasts for rain ever since, we’ve had nothing, even when other people living locally have reported torrential downpours. Some days of cooler temperatures and cloudier skies have at least slowed down the rate of evaporation but we are still having to water on a regular basis to keep things alive ~ hard to believe under such glowering skies. At least we can use the captured rainwater for the time being which means we aren’t restricted to the ‘after 8pm’ watering rule and we live in hope of more rainfall, but the hosepipe still snakes across the garden just in case: this year, it doesn’t do to assume anything.

How can skies like this NOT bring us any rain?

My limited mobility is also starting to drive me nuts, worse now in a way that I am on the mend and able to do a bit more so therefore eager to return to my normal zipping-about state. There is so much I want to be doing and not all in the garden; it’s over two months now since I rode my beautiful new bike and it grieves me to see it gathering cobwebs in the barn. I have managed a few sessions of light gardening and the benefits to my wellbeing have far outweighed the inevitable discomfort, it has felt wonderful to be out in the fresh air enjoying and nurturing our patch once again. It’s easy to wax lyrical about ‘connecting with nature’ but for me it’s a fundamental part of my life; if you want to punish me, shut me indoors! I’ve dragged a sun-lounger into the shade of the Love Shack veranda so I can take breaks when I need and simply watch all the life going on around me. Bliss. Observing quietly, I realise once again just how important the green manure flowers ~ both intentionally planted and random volunteers ~ continue to be a reliable food source for so many insects, along with several ‘weeds’ that have survived the drought whilst all around has shrivelled and died. It’s not just about insects, either; I had an incredible moment watching a huge hare lolloping about the potager, seemingly oblivious to my presence and happy to tuck into white clover and the buds from the tips of the tall cat’s ear stems while I watched, mesmerised.

Buckwheat . . . not just a green manure.

In terms of gardening, I’ve managed to transplant a few lettuce seedlings and sow the autumn/winter seeds that really needed to go in much earlier, but they’ve all germinated, so let’s see what happens. I’ve also been pulling out a forest of dead phacelia plants, initially intended to be chopped and dropped well before flowering but which somehow (yet again) got the better of me. I’m spreading the plants on top of the bigger lasagne beds, partly as another layer of organic matter to help build soil but also because I know the seed will set and produce a useful green manure covering over winter without me having to lift a finger; all I need to remember to do is cut them back early in spring.

Phacelia volunteers in a squash bed.

I did at least remember to cut back a short-term mix of phacelia, crimson clover and linseed before planting purple sprouting broccoli and red kale a few weeks ago but I’m delighted to see that new young plants plus white clover have grown back in their place. The brassicas will be in the ground for many months so it’s of benefit having the clovers fixing nitrogen at their feet (the crimson clover won’t survive the winter but the white clover is made of sterner stuff) and also the soil between them covered in growth to help retain moisture and prevent erosion. Bare earth rarely occurs in nature and doesn’t happen in our garden very often, either!

We’ve collected another load of free horse manure this week. Well, I say we but my contribution was to put together a veggie box to say thank you, Roger of course did all the hard graft. It’s wonderful stuff and will help improve the soil greatly over winter, as will the pile of compost that is ready to shift from the ‘finished’ bay. I desperately want to be getting on with that now so the overflowing current bay can be turned and we can start a new one; my physiotherapist has told me I can start doing some gentle yoga again but I doubt he’d be very happy about me taking a pitchfork to the compost heap just yet. At the very least, I can sort out the rogue squash that have popped their heads up and decided to trail in every direction. Honestly, they are unstoppable.

Speaking of squash, it’s been interesting once again to see what our Asturian Specials have thrown up. The seed we saved was from the last two we ate, so if nothing else we should have selected for good keeping qualities. They were both pale blue skinned and barely ribbed with dense orange flesh ~ becoming more and more like ‘Crown Prince’, in fact ~ and, although it’s fun to have the variety, I’m really chuffed that most of this year’s fruits have come back the same, simply because they make such good eating.

An Asturian Special nestling up against the heavyweight ‘Musquée de Provence’.

There’s always one, though. When a couple of volunteers appeared in the tunnel I should have nipped them in the bud but like so many other things, I never seemed to get round to it and once a couple of those beautiful blue fruits appeared, well, I didn’t have the heart. What I hadn’t noticed until Roger showed me this week is the one that got away under the potting bench; I really should have tidied up the chaos under there but it’s been too hot, I can’t bend and I hate disturbing the toad that lives very happily in the jumble of pots and trays (my excuse, anyway 😉). What a surprise squash. Cinderella would be proud.

I’ve never been a fan of rushing through the seasons so it’s frustrating to feel that we are hurtling headlong into autumn far too early ~ I’m not ready for bronzed bracken and leaf fall just yet. Nothing I can do about it, though, so it’s simply a case of enjoying the moment and appreciating all the gifts of late summer while they last: beautiful mornings and golden evenings, another flush of roses, clouds of butterflies, sharing good food and laughter with friends, melodious robins and acrobatic swallows, nature’s bounty on our plates . . . and yes, even the sound of those raucous owls (although the occasional night off would be very welcome). 😊

Parched

The weather is breaking all sorts of records here. Last month was the driest July and the second driest month ever recorded in France; this time last year, precipitation was up by 50%, now it’s down by 85%. To say we are desperate for rain would be something of an understatement . . . but at least the sunflowers are loving it.

The drought is now undeniably severe and prolonged: Mayenne is in a state of red alert and officially in a ‘crisis’ situation, the prefecture having imposed understandably strict rules where water use is concerned. Our rain butts ran dry some time ago but thankfully, we are allowed to carry out essential watering with mains water in the potager to keep our food crops alive ~ but only between 8pm and 8am when evaporation is at its lowest. It goes without saying that every salvageable drop of grey water is being used, mainly to try and save our young trees; sadly, it’s too late for some but it would be tragic to lose the lot having planted so many over winter. The most frustrating part is that we are not without stormy skies, even the occasional splash of raindrops, but nothing that materialises into anything useful. The garden is parched and crispy, the air dry and crackling, certain trees are having an early autumn and the earth is as hard and unforgiving as concrete . . . and still, no rain in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

Stormy skies but not a drop of rain.

We are, of course, discussing options and solutions. We’ve already increased the rain capture capacity to over 2000 litres but there are still available downspouts from a large roof area, so installing more butts is an easy enough project in the short term. Following my success in finding a supply of manure, I’m now trying to hunt down a second hand bowser which would allow us to shift collected rainwater efficiently to where it’s most needed. We’re looking at the possibility of creating a switchable system which would allow us to send the grey water from the bathroom into a tank, rather than having to bail out and carry buckets down the stairs. Adding organic matter to the soil, using mulches, sowing green manures and selecting drought-tolerant plants are all ongoing activities in the garden which should help to retain moisture in the soil. In the tunnel, which is obviously the hottest and driest of all our growing areas, we are also going to experiment with sinking bottles around plants to help carry water directly down to the root systems.

The tunnel is producing a prolific harvest but watering it is a full-time job.

My continued back problem isn’t helping my mood very much and it pains me to see Roger having to do so much on his own, especially with guests to feed, the garden to water and crops to harvest and process. I’m managing to potter at this and that in more comfortable moments, but my contribution to the cause remains largely superficial. As for the state of the garden, I am trying not to dwell too much on the consequences of my forced neglect and just hope everything can hang on and muddle through until I’m fighting fit again. I hate to see caterpillars beating up the brassicas but there is no way I can bend and twist to pick them off so the plants will have to take their chance and I have to keep my fingers crossed that things go the right way. I’m certainly not holding out too much hope for the cauliflowers which are tricky enough at the best of times, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. We’ll see.

Hot and bothered: it’s not the best of weathers for these sad cauliflowers.

It’s not just about plants, either. The local wildlife is struggling with the drought and larger species such as deer and boar are more in evidence as they move between watering holes. Our poor pond is still waiting to be filled and what water hasn’t already evaporated is a rather unsavoury green colour . . . and yet it is teeming with great diving beetles and pond skaters and constantly busy with birds who visit to drink and bathe. We had a temporary and very basic bird bath by the house made from a couple of plastic trays normally used under plant pots, so I was thrilled when Roger collected a large blue glazed pot of ours on his recent UK trip. It has no drainage holes in the bottom and for many years we had it as a mini-pond ~ complete with several aquatic plants ~ to add interest to an outdoor seating area. I’ve filled it with a few large stones and the last of our saved rainwater to make a permanent and more attractive birdbath; the feathered ones wasted no time in finding it, especially a group of sociable young sparrows who love to wallow about in it like Romans in a bath! There are other visitors, too, including a constant stream of honey bees sipping daintily round the margins and several lizards who zip in and out to drink in darting flashes of silvery green. Elsewhere, the garden is alive with dragonflies, damselflies and clouds of butterflies who don’t seem too fazed by the heat.

It would be easy to wallow in despondency as the garden suffers but we have to use the current situation as a learning opportunity; after all, this could well be the future and if we want to build resilience into the patch and improve our food security, we have to take on board the lessons, no matter how difficult. It’s important to look at the positives and see how we can expand upon them whilst finding solutions to the problems. For instance, I’ve been very impressed at how well the hügel beds are standing up (literally and metaphorically) to the drought; the idea is that in the long-term they shouldn’t need watering at all but even in their first and second season, they require minimal attention. Yes, the squash plants flatten their leaves in the heat of the day to preserve water, but they are romping away and it looks like we’re set for another bumper harvest. With an autumn project of hedging planned, there will be a good supply of hügel-building material available so I think more will definitely be on the cards.

The squash plants wilt in the heat of the day but perk up again overnight.
Musquée de Provence squash ripening from green to orange.

The allium family, apart from leeks, has struggled right from the start. Our garlic harvest was disappointing, particularly the spring-planted rose garlic which failed to thrive while the spring onions have taken forever to grow. The maincrop onions, both yellow and white varieties, have hardly set the world alight with their enthusiasm and I’m wishing I’d planted a few sets as well as seeds this year; perhaps they’d have got off to a better start. That said, they’ve suddenly found a bit of oomph this week so we will have a harvest, albeit a smaller one than hoped for.

The climbing beans have grown well and reached the top of their poles but they are desperate for water and it’s impossible to give them enough. The Asturian beans are struggling the most which I suppose makes sense, given they thrive in a climate which is warm and wet rather than hot and dry; they are only just coming into flower but I’m hoping that since our warm weather should stretch well into October and surely there will be rain at some point, there is still time for a crop to set. In contrast, the borlotti beans are dripping with vibrant red pods and we have already started harvesting the delicious speckled beans; given that the crop is the result of saving a tiny handful of beans from our Asturian garden, I’m really thrilled and next year I think I shall be planting even more.

With concerns about food shortages in mind, we planted masses of potatoes this year and I’m glad we did as the yield really isn’t great. What’s worse, we’ve pretty much given up trying to dig them at the moment as it’s more of a job for a pickaxe than a garden fork. We’ve eaten the last of the summer cabbage and I’m not holding my breath where the next wave plus summer calabrese and kale is concerned although I am pleased that the red kale and purple sprouting broccoli ~ both such important spring crops for us ~ are holding their own. So, too, are leeks and Swiss chard but the beetroot are rubbish, the Florence fennel has bolted, oca and New Zealand spinach have both collapsed completely and whether the swedes will pull through is anyone’s guess. It’s all a game of trial and error.

Young purple sprouting broccoli with lemon bergamot, coriander and some very dead phacelia I should have chopped and dropped weeks ago!

So where’s the silver lining? Well, for a start we had the most incredible melon harvest, 25 from the tunnel so far with a couple more to come and a few setting outside, too. The only problem was when twelve ripened all at once and there was no way we could eat that little lot on our own! Luckily, we had visitors on the horizon so stored as many as we could in the fridge and gave a few away; Roger made a melon and mint sorbet which was delicious and I froze chunks to eat straight from the freezer as a snack in hot weather (or you can toss them into a smoothie if that’s your thing). Next year, I’ll experiment with staggering the planting in the hope that we can spread the harvest out a little bit. We still have an abundance of courgettes, aubergines and peppers, all of which feature in our daily meals in a variety of ways. Roger has been making a spiced aubergine pickle and I’ve been messing about with sweet pepper relish recipes, both designed as condiments to eat quickly rather than keep as long-term preserves; they’re totally delicious for lunch with fresh bread and cheeses. I’ve been threading red cayenne peppers to air-dry in the cave and soon we will start putting sliced peppers in the freezer to use in winter dishes.

The French beans have also been cropping well but my carefully calculated successional sowings have all gone to pot thanks to the weather as the third row went over too quickly and the fourth row is yet to flower. Still, there are plenty of pods left to fatten for the beans inside and as the ‘Delinel’ variety has gone unusually tough and stringy, next year I will stick with ‘Stanley’ for green beans and look for a yellow wax pod variety instead. Now for the really good news ~ and I think I’m safe with this one at last~ we have tomatoes! Lots of them, in fact, and yes, they are ripening . . . if the plants in the ground do as well as those in pots, we’re even in danger of having a glut for the first time since we left our Welsh garden ten years ago. I can’t even begin to describe how much joy that brings me and I’m already planning some seed saving for next year’s crop . . .

Word is that this year’s local maize harvest is set to be a poor one which comes as no surprise given the seed was planted in dust, there has been hardly any rain since and irrigation is prohibited. Certainly, the huge neighbouring fields are looking pretty sick and it’s a reminder that small-scale production is so much easier. We may only have twenty or so sweetcorn plants but the ground they are in was given a lot of love (a lasagne bed with masses of organic material added along with comfrey tea, coffee grounds, diluted urine and soaked with saved rainwater) and I pre-sowed in the tunnel so that we started with strong, healthy plants. Having survived a bit of early rabbit / hare nibbling, the plants never looked back and have needed minimal watering ever since; now they stand tall and glossy green, woven through with beans and volunteer squash, and promising a delicious harvest very soon.

I’ve been watching the progress of the mandala bed with interest, particularly as it’s been left very much to its own devices in recent weeks, and like the hügel beds, I’m pleased at how well it’s held up. It has needed some water of course, but hasn’t been anywhere near as thirsty as the dug beds and everything growing in it has thrived. In fact, it’s become a bit of a jungle if I’m honest and trying to find the paths is something of a challenge.

On the downside, I wish I hadn’t bothered trying to plant two sections with annual flowers as although a few bits and pieces eventually germinated, the phacelia volunteers have dominated and been nothing but a nuisance, collapsing on top of everything around them and now looking very dead and brown. There has been plenty of colour from the herbs, edible flowers, vegetable flowers and now the veggies themselves so next year I shan’t bother sowing annual flowers in there at all. On the upside, it’s proving to be a very productive patch with lettuce, summer cabbage and French beans over, current crops of peppers, cucumbers, courgettes, borlotti beans and probably the best Swiss chard and flat-leaved parsley I’ve ever grown, with aubergines, Asturian beans, tomatoes and melons not far behind. It’s also become our first port of call for fresh herbs so I want to look at increasing the varieties next year.

It’s a chaotic jungle but there’s plenty of food and insect life in there.

The flower garden has suffered hugely in the heat but can’t be a priority for water so things just have to take their chance. The sunflowers are certainly better growing at the back of the border (although there are a few escapees elsewhere that came out of seed mixes) and are putting on a good show. The bulk of the colourful annuals are long over but there is still plenty of interest and I think that seedheads add their own brand of beauty to the mix, too.

On the subject of beauty, I have been trying to track down and identify a bird which has been frequenting the garden and surrounding area for some weeks, announcing its presence with its persistent and unfamiliar calls. It’s restless, always on the move and as frustratingly elusive as the turtle doves when it comes to actually spotting one. With Roger and I sleeping in the tent while Sarah and her family were here, I became even more aware of it calling around us from daybreak until, wandering round the garden early one morning, I finally saw it in the flesh ~ a golden oriole! There is a pair, in fact, the female a muted greeny-yellow, the male very showy in bright yellow and black; later that same day, Roger saw them both drinking from the pond across the lane. We’ve never seen them before but hope they will appear every summer now, they are such a special visitor and encouraging the widest diversity of life possible into our patch is a top priority. To that end, Roger finished making our ‘bug hotel’ with a couple of little helpers last week and sited it under a hedge where we hope it will attract plenty of residents. Walking past it the next morning, I saw a young robin perched on top of it, all pale breast and bright eyes, as happy as you like. I’m not sure whether it was looking for its breakfast or simply enjoying the view but either way, it was lovely to see what in essence is a pile of scrap wood stuffed with organic matter already attracting life . . . even if not the kind it was designed for! 😊

Back to basics

It never does to assume anything. There I was in my previous post, cheerily looking forward to our trip to the UK and a long-awaited get together with family; lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t realise that a herniated lumbar disc was waiting in the wings to rain on my parade. No UK trip, no catch ups with family, no cuddles with our new baby grandson: instead, disappointment, frustration and a shed load of pain. There’s never a good time for these things to happen but honestly, this couldn’t have been worse. If nothing else, why not in the depths of winter when the dark and cold season seems far more conducive to enforced rest instead of these gorgeous days, flooded with sunlight and warmth, the garden a riot of colour and activity?

Well, such is life, and the only thing to do was accept the situation and get on with making the best of it. The trip couldn’t be postponed ~ there were imperative reasons for travelling ~so Roger stuck to Plan A and I stayed at home alone. I don’t mind solitude, even when I’m not feeling well, but I hate inactivity and the inability to move and be busy, especially when I’m used to spending my life outdoors. Permaculturists believe that ‘the problem is the solution’ and I realised that this possibly held some truth for me now: instead of resenting and raging against the situation, how could I turn it to my advantage?

Unable to sit comfortably for more than a couple of minutes, I made a ‘nest’ on a sofa where I could half-lie and prop up a book or laptop, then set about stretching my mind with a wealth of interesting stuff. I did another week’s permaculture study, appropriately on the subject of growing and preserving medicinal plants, which in turn had me rummaging through my herbals once again and making notes for future projects. The room was full of the almond scent of meadowsweet drying on the windowsills; containing salicylic acid (like aspirin, which takes its name from the plant’s scientific name, spiraea), it is one of nature’s painkillers and I’ve been enjoying it combined with lavender and lemon balm in a soothing tea. I’m drying piles of lavender, too, its floral perfume wafting through the house like some sort of calming aromatherapy, but no lemon balm this year as we had plenty of fresh stems all through winter. One top medicinal plant I have failed in spectacular fashion to grow for decades is echinacea (purple coneflower) so I’m very excited to have a dozen or so healthy young plants raised from seed and ready to go into the ground once things are cooler and wetter; carrying small cans of water to keep these little treasures alive has been top of the list when it comes to my ‘gentle exercise’ moments.

I’ve also been listening to podcasts and watching a wide variety of online videos about everything from seed saving to syntropic farming. As this is something I rarely do, it’s felt like a bit of a media binge but it has certainly helped to broaden and deepen my understanding of many things as well as give me a long list of new projects and ideas to try; making a JADAM liquid fertiliser from grass clippings should be quick and simple, building a cob oven may take a little longer to achieve! I think it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the weight of the serious issues facing the planet and the awareness of being a miniscule drop in the ocean when it comes to making a difference so it was uplifting and reassuring to listen to the wise words of so many like-minded people. The knowledge, skills, expertise, technology, wherewithal and enthusiasm to turn things round are out there in abundance. There is hope for healing and I am comforted by that.

Much as I would have preferred none of this to have happened, it has been an interesting exploration of resilience, not only of the garden but of our lifestyle as well. Having left the decision not to travel as late as I possibly could, there was no time to shop for supplies and as I was obviously going to be without a car and unable to ride my bike, I had to manage for six days with whatever we already had at home. Not a problem; as we cook everything from scratch, we keep a good supply of basic ingredients in our store cupboard and fridge and ~ let’s face it ~ my meals were basically going to come out of the garden anyway. Broad beans, peas, French beans, new potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, chard, cabbage, lettuce, New Zealand spinach, courgettes, cucumbers, chillies, peppers and aubergines gave me plenty of choice, along with fruit options of strawberries and melon. I knew that picking and preparing would probably take me several attempts with rests between, but what did that matter? There is such pleasure in harvesting and eating food so fresh and nutritious, especially seasoned with an abundance of homegrown herbs and spices and sprinkled with edible flowers. I ate well: chilled cucumber soup, ratatouille, tabbouleh, veggie tagine, herby omelettes and bowls of colourful salads, all so simple yet utterly delicious.

I have to admit, I have been feeling a profound sense of gratitude for the fact that I am generally fit, healthy and flexible; under normal circumstances, I don’t tend to register just how much bending and stretching is required for harvesting produce, yet alone the more energetic tasks round the garden. In more comfortable moments, I did manage to carry out some essential chores such as feeding the tomato plants, lifting the garlic to dry and planting out a tray of French beans that really couldn’t wait any longer to go into the ground. The most frustrating moment, though, was hobbling down to the potager and catching the unmistakable whiff of a ripe melon wafting out of the tunnel . . . and being unable to bend down and rummage through the foliage to check which one of the little beauties was the first to be ready. It’s not a difficult test, feeling for a slight softness at the blossom end and checking for that pungent fruity aroma, but it took several attempts through gritted teeth and some slightly fruity Anglo-Saxon. Thank goodness no-one could see (or hear) me! Ah, but it was worth the pain; these ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons have been an experiment this year and my goodness, they are wonderfully sweet and juicy with a deep orange flesh; I’ve seen them described as the champagne of melons and can safely say they are heaven on a plate. Our little grandson Matthew is a great lover of all things melon, so when he comes to stay with us next week, I’m going to appoint him official Melon Hound and encourage him to go forth and sniff out the treasure on my behalf. Something tells me he won’t need asking twice.

With the continued drought and temperatures soaring well into the 30s, our absence as hands-on gardeners has been quite a test for the garden. Roger soaked the tunnel before he left but within a couple of days, more water was desperately needed as the temperature in there was Sahara-esque. Although we’ve gone a long way to organising a more practical rainwater supply in the potager this year, we can see that more collection systems are needed, even if it’s just extra butts that we fill from the overflowing ones elsewhere during winter; it might also be worthwhile looking at a guttering system on the tunnel itself. Elsewhere, apart from the newly planted French beans and very young brassicas, I only watered things in pots and everything else just had to cope. Roger stood the potted tomatoes in buckets and moved them out of the tunnel to give them a greater chance of survival and to make the watering easier for me; the good news is that they are covered in fruits and so far (shhhhh!), no sign of blight.

It’s always better to encourage plants to send their roots deep into the soil in search of water, making them more resilient in times of drought and in fact, too much watering can cause problems by provoking the development of shallow root systems. However, there are times when some intervention becomes necessary simply to nurse vulnerable things through to the next rainfall and it has been interesting to observe what and where in the garden has been struggling the most or, alternatively, thriving through the crisis. We made a lot of lasagne beds last year which I certainly don’t regret, but the significant lack of rainfall since last September has meant they have stayed very light and airy and haven’t started to break down anywhere near fast enough. Smaller plants in some of these beds have really struggled, particularly a few butternut squashes that have needed far too much attention, and one or two spare pepper and aubergine plants that have practically given up the ghost. In other places though, things are doing well and growing strongly without any watering. I’m particularly pleased with the huge perennial bed where asparagus, rhubarb and comfrey are looking good and the new violet globe artichokes haven’t missed a beat. There’s soapwort in there, too, all pretty in pink, and I’m thinking it might be just the place to plant some of those purple coneflowers for next year.

The sweetcorn went into a lasagne bed, but one which had lots of extra amendments in the spring in preparation for the plants’ greedy feeding habits. They are looking very healthy in deep glossy green, and the promise of some tasty cobs later in the year is already in the air.

I’ve never deliberately planted a traditional Three Sisters bed but it’s fun to see a bit of that vibe going on anyway. I admit to stuffing a few spare climbing beans amongst the corn just out of interest to see if they would climb (yes, they are) but the squashes are nothing to do with me, they are volunteers that must have popped up out of the garden compost I added to the bed. Well, let them have their way and let’s see what happens; in fact, I decided I might as well go the whole hog and I added a few sunflowers for good measure.

On both hügel beds, the squash are doing what they do and proving that this is such an effective cultivation strategy, I really think we should build more. I’ve counted 20 ‘Crown Prince’ fruits alone already and they don’t need a minute’s attention: lazy gardening at its very best, although they do cause the mower a few headaches!

Towards the end of last summer, I threw together the roughest of lasagne beds on the way to, rather than in, the potager; I love the idea of being able to wander all over the garden and find food in unexpected places, so this was the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing campaign. I wanted this border in the first instance as somewhere to plant a few young blackcurrant bushes and clumps of chives but through the spring I’ve stuffed all sorts of other bits and pieces in there with them, including sweet peas, cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia, zinnias, sage, chard, cucumbers and basil. It took a bit of a bashing from strong winds and a few things struggled initially in the dry conditions, but I’m really rather pleased with how it’s looking (and producing) now. I’ve been reading this week about ‘plant guilds’ and ‘stacking functions’ but quite honestly, these are things I do intuitively: to me, it has always made sense to cram plants together so they can benefit from each other’s company and make use of both the horizontal and vertical space. No need for fancy ideas really, I reckon it’s nothing more complicated than good old-fashioned common sense.

Seed saving is also common sense and ~ thankfully ~ an old tradition that is becoming more and more popular and, without question, increasingly necessary in the face of drastically reduced genetic diversity. Goodbye F1, hello heirloom varieties! We have always saved some seed each year but I set out some time ago to increase the range and variety with each season. Some seeds are easier than others, but generally it involves little more than letting a plant flower or fruit, then collecting and drying the ripened seeds. The garden is littered with random plants that have been left just for that purpose ~ parsnip and leek here, fennel and rocket there ~ and the beauty of many of them is that their flowers are attractive to beneficial insects, bringing an extra dimension of ‘help’ to the garden.

Most definitely on this year’s list are some of those melons and also tomatoes if we stay blight-free. I’d love to save some pepper seeds, too, but they readily cross-pollinate and really I should grow varieties in isolation; there’s terrific heat in the cayenne chillies and the idea of that being transferred into a sweet pepper doesn’t bear thinking about! I’ve never had much luck saving lettuce seed because their fluffy heads have a tendency to go soggy or else disperse on the breeze when my back is turned. This year I’ve left some to set seed in the tunnel where the air is hot and dry and there is neither wind or rain to interfere; this week I have been gathering the first seeds from plants as tall as me, a gentle little job just right for me at the minute. An added bonus is that the sunny flowers have an unexpectedly sweet perfume and I’m wondering why I’ve never noticed this before.

There will be no shortage of annual flower seeds to collect either, the hot dry weather causing the plants to run to seed all too soon. There is such a carnival of colour but it is parched and panting, long bleached stems toppling into their neighbours and shedding petals like so much sad confetti; they will fade away all too quickly unless rain comes soon so we must enjoy them while we can.

Improving the structure and content of our soil, and in particular, incorporating as much organic matter as we can, is a top priority in terms of promoting long-term health and strength in the plants we grow, but also in the soil’s ability to retain water. Eventually, I’d like all our amendments to come from on site but in these initial seasons ~ and certainly seeing the garden under stress this year ~ I have to admit we need a big organic input. In a moment of back-resting boredom, I happened to strike gold on the internet . . . a local supply of well-rotted horse manure, as much as we want and totally free of charge. It needs to be collected in the trailer, which wouldn’t normally be an issue except of course I’m not really in a fit state to do anything other than supervise. My poor shovel-wielding beloved! I suspect he will be rather pleased to see me up and about properly again, nose out of the laptop and firmly back in the flowers. Me too, actually . . . even if it does mean barrowing several tonnes of muck around the patch! 😁

Thriving on neglect

Our recent trip to Norway marked the beginning of several very busy and exciting weeks for us, with family coming to stay here through July and a quick flit to the UK to ~ amongst other delights ~ hold our new little grandson for the first time. I’m probably going to be hanging up my blogging boots for a while, so this is a somewhat hastily scribbled garden update; by the end of July, things will have moved on again and my photos will be ancient history!

We left for Norway in 35°C with the temperature set to spiral upwards for most of the time we were away; for a garden (and gardener) already stressed by a prolonged drought, it was the worst scenario possible, but what could we do? We moved pots, troughs and seedling trays into the shade, watered as much as we could, soaked the tunnel and propped both doors open . . . and just hoped perhaps la météo was wrong. It wasn’t. On our return, it was clear the heat had been searing with everything wearing that parched and yellow look, but the good news was that we arrived home in a torrential downpour. Never have I been so happy to end a holiday on a soaking wet note! The water butts were soon full to overflowing and within a couple of days, everything responded. No, actually, everything exploded.

In truth, I had pretty much written off any hope of a colourful show of annual flowers earlier this year when I found myself sowing seeds for the third time; it was too dry, too hot or cold and nothing would germinate. My hoped-for mass of rainbow blooms in the mandala bed certainly hasn’t happened, but the ever-reliable thuggish phacelia is doing its bit and looks pretty in drifts of soft mauve mingling with the sunny yellow of dyer’s chamomile. Once the bees have finished with the flowers, I shall chop it and drop it in situ and try for my rainbow again next year. Such is gardening life.

In the other beds, though, there is a riotous carnival of colour, and I find myself drawn to them as much as the industrious insects who visit to seek food.

Despite the lack of floral variety and the fact that the blackbirds have rummaged in the grass mulch so much that it’s hard to see the woodchip paths any more, the mandala bed is looking pretty good. What interests me is that several things are actually outperforming their counterparts in the potager: the borlotti beans and aubergines (outdoor) were the first to flower, it has produced the first lettuce and French bean harvest, the best chard plants and the most productive cucumbers. I’m not sure why this should be, but something is obviously working well.

Not that we are exactly short of fruit and vegetables elsewhere: our first day back was almost entirely spent getting on top of the harvest. The courgettes and cucumbers had gone mad as they always do, but suddenly there were several rows of peas in need of picking, a crowd of summer cabbage all hearted up and ready to go, lettuces threatening to bolt left, right and centre and the first spring onions and baby carrots ready to pull. Oh, broad beans and French beans, too.

Then there was the tunnel . . . I was very relieved that nothing had collapsed and given up the ghost in the heat; quite the opposite, in fact. Where there had been a smattering of flowers, now there was a picking of aubergines and more peppers than I could shake a stick at. I’ve forgotten how much they love this climate, it will certainly be the best crop we’ve enjoyed since we last lived in Mayenne.

My greatest tunnel joy, though, had to be saved for the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which had gone slightly berserk in our absence. (I’d like to say at this point that if we have a successful crop from these plants, I really can’t take any credit as quite frankly, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I started out with good intentions to follow expert guidance in terms of pinching out after so many leaves and so many young fruit but soon lost the plot with that one. Now they’re just doing their own thing. Sorry, melon pundits.) They were a little thirsty but, nestled beneath their abundant foliage, I have counted at least twenty fruits swelling to a good size at an alarming rate. I can’t wait for the day when their heady perfume greets me at the door to let me know they are ready for eating . . .

In the meantime, we are not short of fruit. Having picked kilos of red cherries for preserving and enjoyed several helpings of yellow ones which are not good keepers and best eaten straight from the tree, we were delighted to find that the two trees which didn’t produce anything last year were not only fruiting heavily but also just happen to be another two completely different varieties. The first, which I think is a Rainier, has pretty pink and yellow marbled fruit which are good as a dessert cherry and for cooking; the other ~ oh happy days! ~ is a black cherry, with fruit so big, sweet and juicy that it’s impossible to resist the temptation of tucking in. Roger is having to fiercely guard (or hide) any he has picked, washed and put aside for a bit of dessert cheffery. 😁 The fact that the harvest has been spread out over several weeks is a real bonus, too, so let there be many more bountiful cherry years, please! We also have redcurrants and blackcurrants coming out of our ears, and at last, a good crop of raspberries, which are a bit small thanks to the drought but so plentiful it doesn’t really matter. Even the tiny ‘Fall Gold’ I planted as a bare-rooted twig in winter has produced some pretty amber fruits, sweet and flavoursome. Theoretically, it should crop twice a year. I hope so.

‘Fall Gold’ raspberry

I’ve written several times about how I try not to present a picture of a falsely ‘perfect’ garden and of course, there were one or two things ~ namely some of the smaller squash plants ~ that suffered because we weren’t here to water when they most needed it. On the whole, though, I have to admit I’m quietly chuffed at how it all held up. Building resilience into the garden is something we have been working on and certainly the week away in such extreme weather conditions was a great test. Having learned from the potato mistake that mulch needs to go on damp earth, I’m really pleased with how moist the soil had stayed under its protective layer and also at how few weeds had appeared. Clearing a patch of ground cover green manure (phacelia, crimson clover and linseed) to make space for purple sprouting broccoli and red kale, it was clear what a fantastic job it had done in terms of moisture retention, weed suppression and soil improvement; the young brassicas have gone happily into the ground and not looked back. The ‘cleared’ crimson clover has already popped back up, the irrepressible little darlin’ that it is.

I was concerned about not being here to keep an eye on pests, especially as my old adversaries, the cabbage stem weevils, were back in numbers before we left; the idea of returning to find cauliflowers, cabbage and calabrese plants wiped out filled me with a certain dread, but I needn’t have fretted. Yes, the outer leaves look fairly ropey but the young growth in the centre is fine and, although it pains me to admit it, they were probably a lot better off for not having me faff about with them every day. I think this is part of the resilience thing once again: encourage a wider biodiversity and the beneficial creatures move in. Certainly, we have very healthy populations of garden spiders and ground beetles, two of the biggest weevil predators, so perhaps it’s best just to let them get on with the job. Everywhere I look, in fact, there are droves of helpful little things doing great work on our behalf and it is definitely worthwhile doing all we can to encourage them to stay. I think introducing far more flowers into the potager this year has made a big difference . . . but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉

Actually, on that subject, we’ve been enjoying a few evenings sitting in the sunshine where the old shed used to be. Regular readers might remember that we spent Christmas Day demolishing the dilapidated thing before rebuilding it in the potager and turning the area into somewhere pleasant to sit. The laid hedge has grown back strongly and the ‘bulge’ in that poor old cherry tree on the right that had to be felled has been re-purposed into a handy table. The annual flowers have been a bit slow but they’re starting to make an impact, with lots more colour to come. We still have ideas for more changes and developments to this space but it already feels like something of an improvement.

The twirly-whirly metal poles behind the furthest chair aren’t some modern art installation, but a couple of tomato supports that are very common here. they are a brilliant design: simply encourage the new growth upwards through the spirals, no need for any tying-in. They might seem an odd addition to a patch of annual flowers but this is all part of our ‘Hide the Tomato’ game aka trying to beat blight. There are tomatoes dotted about everywhere, some in the ground and others in pots, and I am only going to whisper this in the quietest tones possible but so far, they are all growing very strongly and some have set fruit. Sssssh, I really don’t want to tempt fate: the garden thrived in our absence, can the tomatoes pull through this time, too? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! 😊

Northern (de)lights

On our final approach to Stavanger airport, I was trying to remember the last time I had travelled to a new country. Answer? Iceland, sixteen years ago: obviously, there’s a reason why I’m not a travel blogger! 😁 This was ~ finally ~ the trip to visit Sam and Adrienne that we had to cancel two years ago because of the pandemic. They have lived in Norway for almost three years now, but it was our first trip there and we were their first visitors, so it was definitely a cause for celebration! How exciting, too, to be spending the week of the summer solstice at a latitude of roughly 59° north, the days flooded with light, darkness almost non-existent and everything in full bloom.

Dwarf cornel flowering on the slopes of Gloppenuten.

In my mind’s eye, I had imagined the landscape to be similar to that of Iceland but this south-western corner of Norway is green and lush and full of trees, leafed up and lovely in their fresh green foliage; there are farms with patchwork fields of grass and potatoes, and gardens brimming with blooms, so many of my favourites in a chaotic, cottagey tumble of colour and scent. Totally charming.

Sam and Adrienne were fantastic tour guides; they had planned thoughtful trips out in every direction from Stavanger to give us a real taste of the local area and some of the places they love to walk. Obviously, we didn’t go there for the weather but we were blessed with some beautiful warm and sunny days between the damper, cooler ones, and although we had to alter our plans here and there to avoid getting very wet, it really didn’t matter because it felt like we did it all anyway.

Island hopping . . .

Klosterøy 
Fjørløy
Rennesøy
Jørpeland

Hill walking . . .

Gloppenuten
So happy to be here . . . a rare picture of us together as one of us is usually behind the camera.

Fjord bagging . . .

Hatten: not a bad view for our cinnamon bun breakfast stop.
Lysefjord: ‘fjord of light’.
It was a rocky scramble to the top but worth the effort for those stunning views . . . and unlike nearby iconic but oh-so-busy Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), there wasn’t another soul in sight.

Sightseeing . . .

Hafrsfjord: the Sverd i fyell (Swords in Rock) monument commemorating the 9th century battle that unified Norway under King Harald Fairhair.
Mosterøy: replica of a boat that carried pilgrims to America.
Jørpelandholmen: Solspeilet (Sun Mirror) ~ the ‘Stonehenge of Norway’ created in 2016.

Beachcombing . . .

Borestranden under moody skies.

Ah, such beautiful landscapes . . . Now for the city. As a dyed-in-the-wool bumpkin, I don’t tend to feel very comfortable in urban settings but Stavanger was full of surprises. Blessed with many open spaces and green places, it didn’t feel like a city somehow; the streets were quiet and the centre was vibrant and lively in an accommodating, self-contained sort of way. That wild landscape beyond was never far away.

The only fly in the ointment were the cruise ships; on our first foray to the harbour, two had just docked and were in the process of disgorging literally thousands of passengers onto the quayside. I can’t find the words to describe the size of those things, they were grotesquely monstrous, dwarfing everything around them and totally dominating the landscape.

Wandering around the winding streets of Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger), I wondered how the original inhabitants ~ local fisherman and artisans ~ would have felt to see such an intrusive backdrop to their pretty white wooden houses and gorgeous cottage gardens.

We went back a few days later when the ships had gone and the entire atmosphere of the place had completely changed. (As a brief aside, the cruise ships are a very controversial issue at many levels and there is a push to have them banned from the port within the next two years.) People were sitting outside restaurants and bars, enjoying the sunshine in a relaxed and uncluttered environment, and the true character of the place seemed to be shining through.

I loved Fargegate (Colour Street) with its joyfully unapologetic celebration of life . . .

.

. . and the old town, now free of cruise ships, was delightful.

When trying to find a sense of place, I like to anchor myself in the natural world and, with us being northern Europeans ourselves, there was much about the flora and fauna that was familiar. There were wild flowers everywhere that I recognised ~ elder, honeysuckle, roses, clover, valerian, buttercups, vetch, trefoil, flag iris and lupins to name just a few ~ and the swathes of fluffy white gossamer of bog cotton on our hillier hikes reminded me of Wales. There were plenty of new plants to see, too, like dwarf cornel, cloudberry and oysterplant which were not things I remember coming across before; I took many photos of unknown flowers and now need to get busy identifying them!

Bog cotton
Oysterplant

Most of the resident birds were also familiar and there was a good range of migrant visitors, too, with cuckoos, chiffchaffs, warblers, swallows, swifts and martins all enjoying a Nordic summer. It’s some years since I’ve seen hooded crows in their smart grey waistcoats or heard the evocative call of curlews, and it’s most definitely the first time I’ve ever experienced a dawn chorus delivered by city-dwelling oystercatchers! They were literally everywhere, those little black and white clowns with bright red beaks . . . yet suddenly and frustratingly elusive when it came to posing for a close-up photo.

Along with wild places and walking, good food and cooking are a love we share with Sam and Adrienne and they thoroughly spoilt us with their delicious home cooking. Norwegians have a penchant for hot dogs and pick-and-mix sweets but thankfully we managed to sidestep both those culinary delights and enjoyed some of the best food Norway has to offer instead. Staying in what was very obviously a productive agricultural region, there was a wealth of local seasonal produce to enjoy and the generous (and hugely appreciated!) treat of a meal in the Söl restaurant in Stavanger proved to be a delight to the senses. I came away completely inspired, not just by the innovative and inspired use of local ingredients but also by some fascinating flavour combinations such as rhubarb with chervil which I will definitely be trying at home. Another treat were kanelsnurrer, mouth-watering twisted cinnamon pastries that we ate for breakfast in a local coffee shop and I have to confess I fell head over heels in love with brunost at first taste. This is a brown cheese made from caramelised whey which looks like a block of fudge and is traditionally cut with a special cheese slicer (ostehøvel); it’s something of an acquired taste but I liked it so much that I’ve brought a block of it home to France with me ~ better than a piece of souvenir shop tat any day.

Cloudberry flower: the amber coloured berries which follow are a much sought-after delicacy.

The sharing of good food with loved ones must be one of the most fundamental and life-affirming human activities there is and after all the separation and disappointments that the pandemic has thrown at us over the last couple of years, it felt truly wonderful to be breaking bread (and let me tell you, that seeded rye bread is the cat’s pyjamas!) with Sam and Adrienne once again. At last I am able to picture clearly the life they have made for themselves in Norway and I can understand why they are so happy in the beautiful country they now call home. What a privilege to have spent such a precious week with them. Tusen hjertelig takk, you two! 😊

Never too old for iskrem!

A matter of principle

I’ve just come to the end of my French course; the fact that 30 days morphed into almost three months shows just how challenging and resource-rich it was and I’ve enjoyed every minute (well, okay ~ maybe not grappling with the subjunctive). Now I’m going to give myself time to absorb everything, read back through my copious notes and then start again right from the beginning, this time spending more time dipping in and out of the incredible range of linked resources; that should keep me busy for another year, at least!

Having re-established a fairly disciplined study habit, it’s time to get stuck once more into the 52-week permaculture course I started almost two years ago. I must be the slowest student on earth, but in my defence I have been a bit busy moving home and countries and at least I’ve spent a good deal of the last 18 months actually putting what I’ve been learning into practice. One of the many things I like about Heather Jo Flores’s teaching is her reminder that permaculture isn’t it; there are many different approaches to living an ecologically-sound, regenerative, abundant lifestyle and it’s important and enriching to consider a broad mix. However, I do feel that the principles of permaculture provide a pretty good framework for life so, as I pick up the course once again, it seems a good point to do a quick assessment of how we’re doing in our new home so far. I did this when we had been living in Asturias for several years using David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles, so I’m going to use the same idea but keep it fairly brief and choose just one current example to illustrate each point. If nothing else, this should give me something to refer back to and build on in the future.

Red longhorn beetle (as you can see, the male isn’t red at all!)

Observe and interact Last year was a nightmare where growing beans was concerned; having initially planted directly into the ground, I ended up replanting several times and then finally resorting to planting in trays as each successive crop failed. Close observation of the beans’ attempts to germinate and (in very rare cases) grow beyond their cotyledons suggested that there were undesirable creatures tucking in ~ bean seed fly and wireworm being the worst culprits ~ and given the less-than-great condition of the soil, they were really up against it. This year I have pre-sown everything in trays of good compost, starting them off in the warmth of the tunnel; this has meant nearly 100% germination, no pests and trays of plants that are strong and healthy when they go into the ground. I’ve been working hard on soil improvement and every planting hole has been carefully prepared; that’s been quite a task in itself as so far I’ve planted 40 climbing borlotti beans, 84 Asturian climbing fabas, and between 40 and 50 each of Dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’, ‘Stanley’ and ‘Delinel’ with more to come as we go through the summer. To date, I’ve lost just one plant, which suggests this is a principle well worth spending time on.

Capture and store energy When he hasn’t been picking cherries, Roger has been busy fetching logs from the coppice this week. This is all dead, fallen wood; we haven’t cut any live trees, and in fact there is so much wood already down that I doubt we ever will (we prefer to plant trees where we can!). For us, the coppice is a precious environment to be cherished and preserved so we take the minimum from it and leave plenty of dead wood in place for the wildlife. Logs need to be properly seasoned before they are burnt, so we are always working on a supply for a couple of years’ time, splitting the logs and stacking them outside to air dry before eventually moving them into the barn. This store of captured ‘solar’ energy will heat the whole house through the colder months as well as provide us with heat for cooking and water.

Obtain a yield Permaculture isn’t just about gardening so a ‘yield’ can mean many things, but since being as self-sufficient as we can be in fruit and vegetables is a top priority for us, then obviously garden produce is high up the list. This week has seen us eating globe artichokes, broad beans, peas, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and chillies (from the tunnel), lettuce, chard, radish, a wide range of fresh herbs and edible flowers, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries and raspberries all fresh from the garden.

Gherkin cucumber: perfect for eating while small and sweet or for pickling with dill.
Cardoons reaching for the sky.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback When I was teaching, I used to encourage my pupils to be brave about making mistakes as that is the best way to learn and, as a learner myself, I’ve been relieved to hear the same advice being shared in both the French and permaculture courses. I love the challenge of learning new skills or exploring different ways of doing things but life isn’t perfect, and inevitably some things will go wrong along the way. Using mulches of organic materials in the garden is a practice we have embraced more and more and there are many benefits: weed suppression, moisture retention, topsoil protection, improvement of soil structure, creation of worm heaven . . . however, this week has seen me removing all the mulch from around the potato plants in what has been something of a cautionary lesson. Common sense should have told me that the ground needs to be full of moisture before applying a generous layer of mulch; with the significant reduction in winter and spring rainfall plus a period of prolonged drought through April and May, the ground remains very dry despite some recent rain, and scratching our heads as to why the potatoes aren’t exactly flourishing, our thoughts turned to the mulch. Scraping back revealed earth that was damp in some places but dry as toast in others ~ where rain had fallen, the mulch had absorbed the moisture but prevented it from passing through. Feedback accepted: I need to be more mindful of mulch and moisture in the future.

Unmulched: ‘Blue Danube’ potatoes.

Use and value renewable resources and services Hanging washing out on the line beneath a beautiful blue sky this week, I have been thinking what a blessing sunshine and warm breezes are, free and natural renewable resources that have the laundry dry and smelling sweet in no time. That said, it’s flowers I want to talk about under this heading. I have always loved flowers, preferring those of a wilder nature than what I tend to think of as more formal ‘florists’ flowers’, and our garden has always burst with colour and scent in a fairly chaotic scramble of blooms. I’ve grown them for aesthetic reasons and for the benefit of wildlife but increasingly now, I also see flowers as an essential and precious resource in other ways. Herbalism has long been an interest of mine and the strengthening, healing and balancing nature of using flowers as gentle home medicine has become something of a priority in recent years. This week I’ve been drying elderflowers, yarrow, rose petals, clover, daisies, thyme, calendula and honeysuckle to use in infusions to take as tea, to steep in oil and use in salves and soaps or simply to float in a soothing bath.

Next will be lavender which has so many applications, then meadowsweet and soapwort to follow. Flowers have much to give in the kitchen, too, and a salad without a sprinkling of delectable floral edibles just isn’t a salad in my book! I haven’t had any time for spinning or dyeing lately but I will get back to it, and flowers will play an important part in making natural dyestuffs then. What a wonderful resource ~ and the real beauty lies in the fact that they will be there again for more of the same next year.

Produce no waste Moving towards zero waste is an ongoing activity both in terms of applying the ‘refuse, reduce, re-use’ mantra and at the same time tapping into our waste streams to (in permaculture terms) turn pollutants into resources. Making compost has long been hailed as a positive and beneficial activity yet I am puzzled by the amount of local people ~ especially in such a rural area ~ who trail off to the local recycling centre every week with piles of green waste; it’s no exaggeration to say that last time we were there, the green waste bay was like a huge towering cliff face. I contacted the council out of interest to ask what they do with it all, as I know some councils in Mayenne turn it into compost and offer it back to local people; apparently in our council, it’s all chopped periodically and given to farmers. When I started the permaculture course, I had to sketch designs for three systems I wanted to put into place and, knowing we were soon to be moving here to a flat garden with plenty of space, a decent three-bay compost system was top of my list. We made it from found materials (other people’s waste) and it’s now in full swing, packed with compost at various stages of production.

Ugly but functional: we’ve since added another bay to the right and corrugated tin fronts which allow us to pile the bays to the top. The large left hand bay is used for breaking turfs down into loam and tough stuff like brassica stems left to rot under a very hot pile of grass clippings.

Every scrap of biodegradable waste goes in to the current pile; I ‘feed’ it daily with a compost bucket we keep in the kitchen and when each nitrogen-rich green layer is sufficient, I cover it with a carbon-rich brown layer of sawdust, dead leaves, shredded cardboard and the like. I also throw in small amounts of comfrey and yarrow leaves from time to time, natural activators growing in the garden that help to speed the decomposition process along. It’s a closed loop which is exactly what this principle aims for. Last autumn, I spread a thick layer of compost in the tunnel and let the worms work it down before spring planting; this week, we have harvested the first peppers grown in that compost and the trimmings from them have gone back into the compost heap. No waste. Not a scrap!

A bit prettier than the compost heap!

Design from pattern to detail This is a principle I wasn’t very sure about at first but now I see it as meaning to start with the big picture, an overall (vague?) plan for a project and then work it down to the finer details, using patterns found in nature wherever possible. I’ve written a lot about my mandala bed (sorry about that, I’m just a teeny bit pleased with it) which, following on from the composting system above, was the second design project I sketched out so I’m going to use it here, although I would argue we worked along the same lines when designing the Utility Cabin and Love Shack and also renovating the kitchen. I started with a plain circle and having fiddled around with several pattern ideas for paths and beds, decided to keep it simple with a radiating pattern, the kind that can be seen in snowflakes, starfish and many types of flower.

Radiating pattern in nature . . .

I’ve added each element one at a time and the planting has evolved slowly, working with intuition as much as anything. It wouldn’t win a Chelsea gold, but it’s brimming with food and life (although I’m not sure the blackbirds scratching the mulch onto the paths every morning is much of a bonus) and the beauty of it is that, if in the final analysis I feel things could be improved, it’s simple enough to go back to the starter circle and find inspiration in a different pattern for next year.

. . . reflected in the mandala bed.

Use slow, small solutions If we had to name just one priority for the garden, then soil improvement would probably be it. Making a productive garden from grassland was always going to take time: on the one hand, the soil here is a very deep and stone-free sandy loam; on the other, it is sadly lacking in nutrients and organic matter and also riddled with pests. We have been working at it from day one but there is no rushing this process; good soil takes time and we have to go patiently, step by step. I’ve been looking at the work of Ian ‘Tolly’ Tolhurst who, for several decades, has run a vibrant and productive organic market garden without any animal inputs. This interests me greatly as we currently have no livestock in our system here and, as I have written before, there can be serious drawbacks in importing manure from other sources. If we can manage to improve the soil using only inputs from our land then that would not only be desirable, but another no-waste, closed loop. So, how can we do it? Obviously, the aforementioned compost is an important element but since we can’t produce enough for the whole garden quickly, then when a finished bay is ready for emptying, we have to prioritise where it goes. Another very beneficial addition is soil from the coppice which we collect in modest amounts from time to time; this is such a valuable and nutrient-rich material that it can be used in tiny amounts ~ it is said that even a single trowel of woodland soil stirred into a bucket of water and then watered onto the soil brings huge benefits.

Mulches are helpful, too (putting aside the potato experience). As we have a large amount of mature trees, grass clippings tend to come mixed through with chopped leaves which is an excellent mulch mixture. Having established seven large comfrey plants, I am regularly chopping the leaves and laying them on the soil surface (I did the same with nettles before they flowered) as a natural fertiliser, and I also make comfrey and nettle tea to water on for the same purpose. Where we’ve needed to really boost planting areas, such as the lasagne beds for courgettes and sweetcorn, I kept coffee grounds separate from the compost bucket and sprinkled them over the surface. Dilute urine went on, too; I know this can evoke a ‘yuk!’ response even from many hardened gardeners but honestly, it’s one of nature’s finest fertilisers, it’s plentiful and free so why waste it? The Love Shack has lent itself to yet another function ~ the perfect place for a ‘wild wee’! 😂 Tolly is a huge advocate of green manure and that’s another area I’ve been exploring and expanding over several years now.

Phacelia left to flower around a bed of young summer brassicas: it’s literally buzzing with insect life.

Phacelia is a great favourite and certainly the most enthusiastic, freely setting itself over and over if left to seed. I grow swathes of it in places to cut very young when the nutrients are at their highest ~ I’m about to cut a mix of phacelia and crimson clover in a patch for planting winter brassicas ~ and in other spaces, I let it bloom as it is one of the top flowers for bees. I’m hoping that by introducing it to all areas of the garden, I shall never have to buy seed again! Buckwheat and crimson clover are also successful and I’m planning to sow vetch along with phacelia as an overwintering cover crop this year. I let nitrogen-fixing white clover run wherever I can and where we grow peas and beans, the roots are left to rot away underground after the plants have finished. I haven’t been able to source trefoil seeds to undersow the summer brassicas so I’ve pushed a few nasturtium seeds in between them to do the job instead. It’s a slow and steady process, but we will get there.

Buckwheat flower plus admirers.

Integrate, don’t segregate Our property is surrounded by monoculture: to the west, a huge field of maize, to the north and east what seems like a prairie of wheat. The view to the south is green and leafy, a pretty pond surrounded by grass and trees . . . but look beyond the few oaks and silver birches and in fact, it’s really a conifer plantation. Inside our boundaries (please let those hedges grow quickly!) it is polyculture all the way: the greater diversity of plant species and varieties we grow, the greater our potential yield and the most diverse ecosystem possible. When it comes to planting, I’m a bit of a crammer and I love a fairly chaotic jumble so this principle suits me just fine. I haven’t tried planting an ‘official’ plant guild yet but that’s something I might dabble in a bit next year.

In the potager: lettuce, summer cabbage, broad beans, peas, parsnips, flat-leaved parsley, borage, heartsease, dill, sweet peas, celeriac, French beans, cauliflowers, calabrese, summer broccoli, tomatoes and calendula all crammed into in one bed.
In the mandala bed: lettuce, rainbow chard, strawberries, tomatoes, flat-leaved parsley, lemon bergamot, summer cabbages, French beans, calendula, Welsh onions, hyssop, lavender, sage and thyme growing in two sections.

Value diversity This follows on from the last principle and diversity is certainly something we embrace and encourage. When it comes to planting, several different varieties of things makes more sense than one and in fact, doing a quick mental assessment, there are very few vegetables of a single variety that we are growing this year (and those are mostly the ‘wild cards’ like swedes, cauliflowers and melons: if they’re successful in this first season, I’ll extend the range next year.) What has truly thrilled us this year is the noticeable increase in the diversity of wildlife and wild flowers on our patch; I’m hoping at some point in the future to have time to catalogue everything I see here but for the time being, it’s a pleasure to wander round and observe ~ then very often, head to some reference materials to identify the latest ‘new’ arrival, especially where insects are concerned. It’s very exciting and we have plenty of ideas for increasing the range of habitats in the future; the pond is filling at snail’s pace (it would help if it rained occasionally, ha ha!) but there are other things we can be doing in the meantime. For example, Roger has been using some scrap materials to make a base for a bug hotel which we’re hoping Annie and Matthew will help us fill when they visit next month.

These wildflowers arrived of their own accord.
Bug hotel-to-be.
Blister beetle: very beautiful but not to be touched!

Use edges and margins Permaculture is very big on using edges and margins as places that are often extremely fertile; in abstract terms, that also means stretching ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone and thought processes to encourage innovation. In the garden, we see the boundaries both as sources of food and natural materials for ourselves and also as important habitats for wildlife. Tackling that enormous hazel hedge last year was a huge job but it was definitely the right decision; it has let in more light which in turn has encouraged a wider diversity of wildflowers to grow below it, and as it thickens out it is creating a perfect habitat for birds. We leave the grass uncut inside every boundary, several metres deep in some places, and these margins create their own little ecosystems bursting with life and all-important wildlife corridors for useful predators which theoretically then feast on the beasties that love to tuck into the veggie plants. It’s fascinating to see how each ‘edge’ is currently frequented by a different array of wildlife: butterflies and burnet moths here, damsel flies and ground beetles there, grass snakes in one corner, toads in another.

The hazel hedge Roger laid last winter is filling out well.

Respond positively to change Unexpected changes aren’t always welcome or easy to deal with, but since change is a constant in life, I appreciate that developing a positive attitude towards it makes for a more balanced and sustainable approach. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had to admit that my Purple Peril, the bike I’ve had for almost 20 years, had reached the end of the road (actually, it was no longer capable of getting to the end of the road which is the very point). It is a rust bucket, bent and buckled with gears that are totally shot; Roger has fixed it and patched it more times than I can remember but there are limits, even with his super engineering abilities. Please don’t get me wrong and think me a spoilt thing, I appreciate how blessed I am to be able to go out and buy a shiny new bike. My reluctance in replacing it stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t convinced I would be able to find a worthy replacement: everything on offer seemed to be either a roughty-toughty mountain bike or a genteel Dutch (town) bike and I need something in between. Ta-dah . . . enter New Blue (I haven’t come up with a proper name yet so that will have to do for now)! This is just perfect, designed for riding on our rural lanes, zipping about town and going off down forest trails and the like when I fancy a bit of off-roading. There’s a fair bit to adjust to: the gear controls are all on one side and involve flicking levers to and fro; the handlebars have a sort of flat paddle shape to them which seems a bit strange; the seat isn’t as comfy as my old bike but the riding position is much better; the pedals are ~ well ~ a bit weird, if I’m honest. On the plus side, the gears are incredibly smooth and the chain doesn’t jump off and jam every time I change up, there are good lights, my basket fits and, joy of joys, without rear suspension there’s room for a luggage rack and panniers. Hopefully, this is the start of a beautiful relationship that sees us notching up many a happy mile together and cutting car use to the very barest of minimums. Before we moved here, I promised I would ride my bike whenever I could, not using bad weather or mechanical unreliability as an excuse. Well, there shouldn’t be any of the latter now. Time to stick to my principles. 😊

The 3 Cs

Roger has spent days harvesting cherries and the amount of fruit coming from one single tree is astounding.

It’s not the easiest of jobs, balancing at the top of a high ladder and being scolded soundly by a pair of redstarts who have built a nest in an old woodpecker hole in one of the bigger boughs; they really aren’t too happy to be sharing ‘their’ tree with the cherry picker and the angry flick of their scarlet underskirts matches the colour of the fruit perfectly. Nothing daunted, the cherries are coming down in kilos, with plenty of breaks to give the birds time to feed their babies, and the kitchen has become Cherry Processing Central.

Spot the cherry picker. I swear he wears that old Welsh rugby shirt for camouflage but the redstarts still know he’s there.

We’re eating plenty of them raw and I’m wondering if there is another fresh fruit quite so moreish ~ mmm, just one (two, three, four . . . ) more, then I’ll stop! With so much fruit to deal with, the simplest thing would be to wash it and stick it straight into the freezer, but we think it’s worth the effort of de-stoning first; not only does it mean more freezer space, but it makes things easier when we come to use the cherries in the future. We’re not too precious about the preparation, though, we simply squeeze the fruit and the stone pops out. We’re freezing most of them raw but stewing some, too, and these will be perfect for my breakfast bowl when we run out of seasonal fruit options. We’re making clafoutis, the traditional French batter pudding which has replaced squash tarte tatin as our gardener’s treat, and we’ve also made a few jars of spiced cherry jam. Roger is experimenting with bottling some fruit, too, packing them into jars with a hot, deeply-spiced red wine syrup, the fragrant aroma of which has me thinking that the darkest, bitterest chocolate could be a perfect partner in future dishes.

While Roger shimmies up and down the ladder, I’ve been tackling the gooseberry harvest; it’s by far the easier shout, but not all plain sailing as I think we must have the thorniest bushes on the planet and I rip my fingers to shreds every time I pick. It’s worth it, though. I know gooseberries (like rhubarb) can be an acquired taste and many people aren’t fans but I love them, they have such a unique flavour. I like the way they combine so well with other seasonal foods: they make a sharp sauce that cuts perfectly through the oiliness of fresh mackerel (their French name is groseille à maquereau) and a head of elderflowers tossed into the simmering water raises their flavour to a whole new level. I keep a bowl of stewed goosegogs in the fridge for a seasonal breakfast treat; stirred through with oats, a drizzle of honey, a dollop of Greek yogurt and some sliced strawberries ~ our other current heavy fruit harvest ~ it’s a wonderful way to start the day. We also love cooked gooseberries blended with a thick, creamy homemade custard to make gooseberry fool which, when frozen, also makes a fabulous summery ice cream.

Like the cherries, I am packing as many gooseberries into the freezer as possible; the bushes are dripping with fruit and it’s a pleasant task to sit and prepare them outside at the picnic table, nipping off the tops and tails with my fingers. In the same way as people talk of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repeated physical movements, I like to cultivate a ‘senses memory’ by doing simple tasks like these outdoors. Visually, I can appreciate the pearly green translucence and pale filigree of veins in each berry, or lift my eyes to the lushness of the landscape around me. I can listen to the contented afternoon warbling of a blackbird, the incessant squeaking of the latest brood of blue tit fledglings, the deep hum of insects in the oak tree canopy above me. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, the soft breeze on my face and breathe in the sweet scent of honeysuckle that it carries. Then, come a dark and dreary day in November, when I set a pot of frozen gooseberries on the stove to cook, all those memories will come flooding back and infuse the kitchen with a little blast of early June. I always prefer to eat foods in season but there is something quite special about these memory moments ~ opening a bottle of sweet apple juice or a jar of spiced chutney, enjoying the crunch of a dill-pickled cucumber or the buttery softness of a dried apple ring, spooning a floral, herbal mix into a warm teapot, tossing a basil ice cube into a sauce ~ no, not seasonal . . . but a world away from Spanish strawberries in December, that’s for sure.

Summer herbs for winter teas: several mints, thyme, lemon verbena, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover, daisies and rose petals ready to be dried.

I love reading, and although I’m happy to lose myself in a good novel, I have to admit I’d rather read non-fiction most of the time. When it comes to inspiration, I am spoilt for choice whether looking for books or internet resources to devour, and find myself returning time and again to writers whose work has struck a chord with me: Mary Reynolds, Patrick Whitefield, Donald Norfolk, Masanobu Fukuoka, David Holmgren, Heather Jo Flores, Alys Fowler, Sepp Holzer, Dana O’Driscoll, John Seymour, Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, Robin Harford . . . the list is almost endless, to be honest, and that’s before I start on the wealth of interesting blogs I follow. Although I accept that the somewhat esoteric approach of some of these authors wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, for me there is a salient theme that runs through their work, that of connection or relationship with the land and the life it supports. Now, this doesn’t need to mean it involves magic, religion or spirituality (although for those who want it that way, why not?) and for me, it can be summed up by what I think of as the ‘3Cs’ ~ concentration, curiosity and care. (A less alliterative interpretation might be focus / mindfulness, learning / wonder and nurture / responsibility.) In practical terms, it means I don’t just swan about the garden planting, controlling, harvesting or whatever, wrapped up in my own little world, tunnel vision to the fore. Neither do I imagine myself to be the greatest or most important life form out there; there are many trees bigger, older and unquestionably wiser than me, a countless number of microscopic creatures whose role is essential for life and an abundance of incredible living things of every shape, size and hue which form an intricate and many-faceted web of life.

I rarely use long-handled garden tools these days, preferring to work at ground level with perhaps a small hand fork but more often than not, just my bare hands. It’s a slow and gentle approach that allows me to check on the health of every plant and make any adjustments or corrections as necessary, as well as observe the state of the soil. I apply the same philosophy to harvesting, so that gathering herbs and flowers for drying this week has been as much about watching and learning as picking and collecting. For instance, in the mandala bed I noticed that the thyme is full of honey bees . . .

. . . whilst the bumbles and black carpenter bees are favouring sage and phacelia.

The yarrow is covered in ladybirds ~ so many different kinds! ~ and also large brown shield bugs.

Meanwhile, in the shadier spots, the mint leaves are full of the metallic shine of the rather predictably-named mint leaf beetle. Honestly, it’s like being on safari out there.

You can imagine, I’m sure, that with this sort of attitude, even simple garden tasks can take me a while to complete, and I often get lost in other things along the way. Roger has appeared at my side many times without me even noticing (he swears blind anyone could wander into the garden and I wouldn’t have a clue ~ he’s right) or else comes in search of me to find out what has happened to the ingredients I went to fetch for him to use in his role of Head Chef. I think it was J.R.R Tolkien who wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost” and I reckon the man knew what he was talking about (although he possibly wasn’t trying to prepare a meal from absent vegetables at the time 😆 ).

The chef’s trug finally arrives at the kitchen door . . . 😁

Roger has floated the idea this week that perhaps there’s a little bit too much plant love going on in my life at times and that it might be a good idea to let things just get on with growing, maybe even thrive on a little abuse. I know he’s right on this one, too . . . although I hate to admit it! Take the squash, for instance. I’ve planted more than 20 of them in the garden and if they all produce just two fruits each, that will be more than enough for us. The problem is, some of the butternuts aren’t looking too enthusiastic: one has already succumbed to ant undermining and another couple seem determined to fade away. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are the aubergines of the squash world, poor fragile little things that need a lot of mollycoddling, but is it really a sensible use of my time? Let’s face it, the more robust varieties we grow produce orange flesh that is every bit as dense and full of flavour and what’s more, they keep a darn sight longer. We built a new hügel bed a couple of months ago and although I hadn’t been planning to use it this year, it seemed silly not to when faced with so many squashes to plant. Good call ~ it’s looking great, and I’m already impressed with ‘Musquée de Provence’, the French heirloom variety we’re growing for the first time, which is bombing down the hügel slopes, covered in promising female flowers.

Even more impressive is the Japanese hubbard squash ‘Tetsukabuto’ which is another first for us, grown from seeds given by my Finnish gardening friend, Anja, who said it went straight to the top of her favourites list last year. Well, Anja knows a thing or three about squash so I trust her judgement on this one completely, especially as the plants are not only thriving but setting fruit already.

The polytunnel is another source of constant angst and again, I’m probably definitely guilty of spending far too much time faffing about in there. The merest hint of a curled leaf or drooping stem has me fussing and fretting: too wet? too dry? too hot? too cold? over-fed? under-fed? I think I’m overcompensating for the fact that last year wasn’t the best ~ the tunnel went up late, the soil was rubbish, germination was poor, pests were voracious ~ so I just want everything to thrive. Well, it is; with the exception of a single cayenne chilli which looks a bit feeble (but hasn’t actually died yet), everything is doing pretty well. Last year, only one pepper and chilli plant survived; the former produced a few small fruits, the latter zilch. This year, in terms of plants we have 12 chillies, 12 sweet peppers, 9 aubergines and 9 melons which are filling one side of the tunnel, along with basil, flat-leaved parsley and French marigolds; on the other side (which will be planted in late summer for winter crops) a giant ‘Latino’ courgette, coriander and lettuce left for a seed harvest and a smattering of self-set peas, calendula, red sorrel, squash and sunflowers. Down the middle, 8 tomatoes in pots as part of this year’s experiment to scatter them around in the hope of beating blight (I’ve planted 35 altogether, another ridiculous overreaction, surely?😬 ).

What a difference three weeks make: mid-May . . .
. . . and early June.
Flower on a ‘Black Beauty’ aubergine.
‘Petit Marseillais’ pepper which should ripen to a light orange colour.
The French marigolds are all grown from volunteer seedlings this year (this one appears to have come with bonus parsley, too).
‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melon ~ I’m very excited about these!

Mmm. On reflection, perhaps I need to stop fretting quite so much and start thinking in terms of 4Cs rather than three: concentration, curiosity, care and CALM. Relax. Let nature get on with the job. Sit back and watch the flowers grow ~ with a bowl of cherries to hand, of course. 😊

It’s not all a bed of roses . . .

The rose season has begun and the garden is heavy with their gorgeous perfume and showy blooms; we have planted several new ones since moving here and it’s good to see them becoming established and making splashes of colour in different corners of the garden. There are more wild roses here this year, too, and I love the simple, delicate beauty of their soft pink and white flowers, such a poignant symbol of the season. Rose petals turned out to be a surprise favourite ingredient in herbal teas through the winter so I have them drying all over the windowsills and the house currently smells every bit as delicious as the garden!

Let’s not get too carried away, though. I’ve written before about my thoughts on the ‘rosy-coloured spectacles’ of social media and whilst I appreciate that in a world that seems dominated by doom and gloom, it’s uplifting to see joyful and beautiful things, the stark reality is that life is not all smiley faces and happy pictures. I love to blog about pleasant things and upload (you may have noticed) far too many pretty photographs but I would hate anyone to imagine that we float about here in some fairy-dusted, unicorn-infested, perfect paradise: we don’t! So, in pursuit of balance, here is the warts ‘n’ all news from the garden this week.

The garden is full of rose chafer beetles, their iridescent green and gold bodies shining in the sun. They’re feasting on anything but the roses, though!

First of all, I found a Colorado beetle on a rogue potato plant that had appeared where we grew them last year. The beetles have been present in France since 1945 are are not a notifiable species here but that doesn’t make them any less potentially devastating to our crop, and the fact that we have purposely planted far more potatoes this year makes it doubly frustrating. We checked every leaf of every plant ~ all 124 of them ~ straight away, and didn’t find a single beetle or any signs of eggs or larvae. Thankfully, that situation hasn’t changed, although we continue to be vigilant; I planted linseed alongside the spuds as a beetle deterrent and we have a very healthy population of ladybirds and shield bugs (both voracious predators) so who knows, maybe that’s all playing a part? The potatoes themselves suffered in the drought but many are now flowering and bringing their own kind of beauty to the patch; even so, I find I can’t quite relax and enjoy them whilst constantly scanning for the merest hint of those humbug-striped invaders.

‘Acoustic’ potato flowers
‘Blue Danube’ potato flower
Lurking in the potato patch . . . but this is a red and black leafhopper, not a Colorado beetle.

I made a note to self not to sound too complacent in future blog posts since just after writing last time that our young trees were looking fine, Roger discovered that two of them had been stripped of their bark during the night: an alder buckthorn, which suffered the worst damage, but also ~ and more frustrating ~ a pear tree we planted last year and which was looking wonderful. Our first thought was roe deer, as they are very common in the area and the damage seems typical of deer nibbling; that said, we’ve never had them in the garden before and I’d have expected to see further damage to more trees and the garden in general. Perhaps it was a one-off thing?

However, the next evening a huge hare came lolloping through the garden and had us wondering if it was the culprit. I know hares will eat bark, although I thought that was more of a winter trick when grasses weren’t so available, and we’re not sure even standing on those long hind legs that a hare could have reached so high. There is no way we can fence the garden against these visitors so the only thing to do in this situation is protect what we can; Roger wrapped the damage trees in twine in the hope they will heal (the bark wasn’t completely stripped so there is a slim chance of recovery) and built wire guards for several other trees which we thought might be potential targets. So far ~ touch wood ~ there has been no further damage.

Could things get worse? Yes, they could, in the shape of a visiting rabbit that took it upon itself to prune the sweetcorn plants. Now, in complete contrast to the UK, rabbits are a very rare occurrence here; we are in fact far more likely to see hares, and this one is the first we have seen anywhere near ~ yet alone in ~ the garden. It seems to be living in one of the uncut meadow areas and, in a way, I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of ‘wilding’ our patch: if we create something of an animal ark, we can’t really grumble when the wildlife moves in! The really frustrating part is that one of our huge neighbouring fields is planted with maize; the young plants are at the same stage as our sweetcorn and there are hundreds of thousands of them . . . so why pick on our few measly plants? Maybe it’s a fan of ‘Rustler’ corn or perhaps it just feels happier surrounded by chaotic polyculture but whatever the reason, it’s not to be encouraged, because the sweetcorn will likely be just the start of bunny’s menu du jour. Roger has rigged up a temporary netting around the corn patch and so far there has been no damage to anything else, so perhaps the rabbit has got the message. I hope so.

With the rocket having formed copious seed pods and the mesclun leaves all eaten, I decided it was time to clear the tunnel bed and add soil improvers and mulch ready for planting overwintering crops in the autumn. That meant lifting those poor sickly potatoes and in doing so, had a couple of surprises. The first was that there were far more potatoes than expected and we have enjoyed them in several meals; the first new potatoes of the year must be one of the biggest garden treats! The second is that although I had been maligning wireworm, it turned out that the problem was actually ants ~ there was a huge ants’ nest under every single root! I have read several gardening experts claiming that ants don’t really cause any problems in the garden and I’m afraid I have to disagree; not only do they farm aphids ~and boy, are they having a great time with that particular hobby this year ~ but their mining exploits can create havoc for young plants. Noticing that one of the butternut squashes on the hügel bed had gone into a state of collapse, I lifted it to find a horrendous amount of ant business going on underneath; last year, we lost aubergine plants in this way and I’m not holding out too much hope for the rescued squash.

Healthy, happy butternut squash plant . . .
. . . and the one the ants have probably done for.

We were very relieved when the rain finally arrived and gave everything a good soaking but of course, that meant the slugs and snails were in their element, too, and needless to say, they haven’t been holding back where the vegetables are concerned. I’m presowing all our beans this year in an attempt to outwit the bean seed fly and wireworm that caused such problems last year; so far, dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’ and ‘Stanley’ have been planted out, along with the climbing borlotti ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ and Asturian fabas. The slimy ones appear to have a preference for Italian cuisine this year as it’s the borlotti beans that are taking the worst hammering.

What can I do? Well, one of the beauties of starting these plants off in trays is that I can sow plenty of extras so there are always spares should I need to replace any. The real blessing with beans, though, is that we have an abundance of plants: 96 climbing beans in the potager, plus another 24 in the mandala bed. If we lose one or two, we probably aren’t going to suffer too much.

Climbing borlotti beans and Asturian beans (with the darker foliage) behind.
I planted 16 spare Asturian bean plants in the mandala garden, too . . . just in case.

Brassicas are probably one of the most difficult family of plants to grow well here; just the mere hint of a young cabbage plant going into the ground, and you can almost see the problems lining up in wait: flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, weevils, pigeons, heat . . . I’ve planted a few cauliflowers this year as a bit of a wild card (Brussels sprouts and swedes are the others) and quite frankly, given how tricky they are to grow at the best of times, I must need my bumps reading. Aphids ~ not usually a problem ~ have been a nightmare in the summer cabbages already and as for flea beetle, what can I say? I planted a sacrificial row of radishes next to a nursery row of brassicas in the hope of tempting the flea beetles away. Oh yes, they were tempted alright.

Unfortunately, not enough to keep them away from the brassicas, though. The purple sprouting broccoli seedlings are a miserable sight; I’ve covered them in the hope they will recover and have some extras sown in pots in the tunnel as back-up: PSB is one spring vegetable we can’t manage without!

Ever since we moved here, we’ve been sharing the garden with a feral cat. Black as night and sporting only half a tail, we nicknamed her ‘Slink’ after the way she moved, low-bellied and furtively, like a jaguar. She just about tolerated us ~ she was here first, after all! ~ and we respected her presence, never trying to befriend or feed her but happy to let her patrol the space. She never bothered the birds, voles were her speciality, and she particularly loved the log seat, sitting as still as a statue for hours on end and listening for the rustle of her next meal in the long grass. A few days ago, she was run over and killed along the lane and, despite the fact that she wasn’t ‘our’ cat, I feel a deep sadness at her loss. I miss her shadowy presence in the garden, her daily checking of the compost heap and her strident, undemanding independence. I also think it’s no coincidence that we suddenly have a rabbit in the garden . . .

Slink’s seat (minus Slink 😥)

Well, enough of the bad news: I mentioned balance earlier on and for every niggle there’s usually more than enough smiles to compensate. This must officially be the Week of the Baby Bird as the garden is full of them: blackbirds, song thrushes, mistle thrushes, robins, redstarts, blue tits, chaffinches and goldfinches have all hatched, and the fluffy fledglings are all over the place, trying to find their feet and wings. There are plenty more to follow, too, including cirl buntings in the hedge (a new one for us), spotted flycatchers in a stone wall niche and swallows in the Oak Shed. I’m particularly thrilled about the latter as they didn’t nest on our property at all last year; it does mean I’ll have to forego my wet weather washing line for a bit, but I’m happy to forgive them, they are so beautiful.

The cherry tree is full of young birds learning the art of PYO.

The garden is literally smiling in flowers and not just roses; there are drifts of colour in many places and the first cosmos and sweet peas are bringing a touch of soft pinks and purples to the vegetable garden. The passionflower that I brought here from Asturias as a less-than-promising twig has decided that it’s very happy in its new home. Those flowers are exquisite.

In keeping with the trend of incredible blossom this spring, the elderflowers are making a fantastic show and, unlike last year, I haven’t needed to go any further than our own hedgerows to forage for their foamy flowers. I’ve been making cordial and freezing it in batches to share with our summer visitors and also setting plenty of flowers to dry for winter teas ~ they are an excellent medicinal herb, especially if winter colds come calling. Naturally, I’ve left plenty to become autumn berries when there will be more foraging to be done and I suspect, a lot of birds tucking in, too.

Elderflowers and mints ready for drying.

On the food front, the harvest has started to come thick and fast: it’s amazing how quickly things take off once we reach a certain point in spring. Courgettes, artichokes, peas, broad beans, lettuce, chard, sorrel, gooseberries, strawberries, cherries . . . the season of plenty has begun.

As we start to set down stores of this year’s crops, it’s the perfect time to be using up anything left from last year. I’ve finished nearly all the dried herbs and flowers for tea and we have just eaten the last bag of beans from the freezer. We’ve also started working our way through the last (enormous) squash, one of our Asturian ‘specials’ which was harvested in October and has kept brilliantly, its dense orange flesh still firm and sweet. As we don’t tend to use the oven much this time of year, we’re making more summery dishes than roast tray bakes ~ squash soup, seed-encrusted squash patties, a squash dip with tahini and squash foldovers (a spicy squash and new potato filling stuffed inside garlic wraps) are some firm favourites. We love to try new things, though, and I have to say that squash tarte tatin has been a complete revelation with its buttery rough-puff pastry, soft, mallowy squash and bitter caramel; a small slice with our afternoon break (coffee for Roger, lemon verbena and lavender tea for me) is the perfect gardener’s treat . . . and on hot days, I’m beginning to wonder how we ever managed without the shade of the Love Shack! 😊