The web of life

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.

Chief Seattle

The mornings this week have been truly stunning. Granted, they have been truly cold, too, but it has been well worth the effort of wrapping up warm and venturing out early to enjoy their beauty. As a gardener, I would much prefer to see the back of this arctic chill, the heavy frosts gone, the soil warmed, the wind in the south . . . but as ever, nature has its own ideas and I just have to accept that. Better to go with the flow instead of chafe and moan; warmer days and nights will come, I simply have to be patient.

It’s fascinating how different these frosty starts feel compared to the ones we had when we moved here, soon after the winter solstice when everything was enfolded in the deepest darkness; with the sun rising ever closer to the north and sketching a wider arc across the sky now, it is most definitely spring, despite the ice. The light is soft and eager, rosy almost, as it sweeps long shadows across the grass and backlights the fuzzy new growth in hedge and tree. It’s all about contrasts: the cold of the shade and warmth of the sun; the crystalline frost-encrusted blades of grass and pearls of shining water droplets caught in a spider’s web; the constant noise and bustle of the birds and statuesque silent stillness of the deer.

There’s a contrast in scale, too, which I am drawn to. I love the sense of space and freedom in the wide skies here, so open and arching and full of larks who seem to exult in the infinite room to breathe as much as I do. The landscape is far from flat, though; it rolls and dips into the distance, folded gently into hills and valleys that are cloaked in woodland now alight with the haze of fresh growth, sweeps of greens, yellows, reds, browns and wide brushstrokes of white blossom. It’s the small things around me that catch my eye, too: the glossy shine of new hawthorn leaves, the slow stretching of a sleepy, cold-kissed bumble bee, the first delicate buds on a young pear tree we planted several weeks ago.

I’ve recently come across the idea of ‘heartfulness’ as opposed to ‘mindfulness’ (thank you, James!) and it’s a concept that appeals to me, the thought that those quiet moments of complete focus and concentration, awareness, absorption and attention should be imbued with a sense of compassion. (As an aside, I’d like to point out that in my case, this doesn’t mean meditation: I have tried, really tried, over the years to cultivate the ability to sit in perfect focused stillness and I have failed completely. When we lived in this area before, I went to yoga classes for two years which was hugely beneficial socially and linguistically, as well as for the yoga itself, of course. I loved it except for the last 30 minutes which were spent in yoga nidra, or guided meditation; as the rest of the group lay in perfect silence and stillness, sinking into a relaxation so deep that some of them fell asleep, I would be making plans for what needed doing in the garden the next day. Hopeless. I am simply too restless.) Heartfulness for me seems like an opportunity to let the thinking brain be quiet and simply to enjoy the moment literally from the heart, the way that small children often do. To feel, rather than think about or analyse, my connection with everything around me, my own personal thread within the vast web of life. I like that very much.

This idea was still fresh in my mind when Roger suggested a walk this week, starting at the Mont des Avaloirs, the highest point in western France which I mentioned in an earlier post. He has been running to that area from home several times lately and wanted to share a few discoveries. The first was a stretch of roadside verge completely carpeted with wildflowers: primroses, cowslips, violets, stitchwort, bluebells, Solomon’s seal, selfheal, orchids . . . it was a riot of colour and scent, indescribably beautiful and impossible to capture properly with the camera.

At the summit of the Mont des Avaloirs (417m) is a viewing point which doesn’t fill me with much joy for two reasons. First, I think it’s something of an ugly concrete blot on an otherwise picturesque landscape; second, the viewing platform is eighteen metres above ground, which to my mind is at least seventeen too many. While Roger, who has no fear of heights, climbed up to enjoy the view, I was happy to wander around at ground level and read the new information boards that have appeared since my last visit several years ago.

The boards are part of an impressive makeover but also a five-year ecological project, something else Roger had wanted me to see. The idea is to remove forestry (the wood all being used locally) and swathes of bracken to restore 120 hectares of les landes (moorland) and 8 hectares of les tourbières (dark, peaty bogs) by 2023. The hope is that this will help support several threatened species whose numbers have fallen rapidly over the last few decades as their natural habitat has dwindled. These include l’engoulevent d’Europe (European nightjar), le lérot (garden dormouse) and le busard Saint-Martin (hen harrier). We have been lucky enough to see the latter a number of times – well, the male of the species at least; decked out in pale grey and white with striking black wingtips, they are easily recognised. They are an unusual bird of prey, roosting communally with other species, hunting low and nesting on the ground, so open moorland with its shrubby growth of heather and bilberries suits them perfectly.

I applaud projects like this. Where environmental issues are concerned, it is so easy for the arguments to become completely polarised, not to mention politicised. Mankind versus nature. People versus the planet. Progress versus extinction. Like the hen harrier, though, it’s not all clear-cut black and white; there are many shades of grey that call for a sense of balance from both sides. Human beings are a huge part of the problem but we can be a huge part of the solution, too, fixing and strengthening those fragile threads in the web. The regeneration of this area of land is being done sensitively and with great transparency, the information boards reassuring the public that the forest is not being ruthlessly destroyed and encouraging people to tell others about the project, to get involved with working parties and connected activities, to walk and observe, to be a part of something positive. The huge photos of local wildlife are stunning and I salute the balance of choices, so that amongst the showy headturners like hoopoe, great-crested grebe and wild boar are more modest moths and moorhens. Everything is connected, everything counts. Yes, I like that, too.

We continued our walk on the Corniche de Pail, a long ridge of Amorican sandstone which creates a rich environment said to be unique in Europe and of particular importance to migratory birds. Roger has been mixing his road running with plenty of trails and forest tracks and thought I might enjoy following one of the woodland paths; well, he’s known me long enough to get that one right! As always, there was a free (and very empty) car park and information board with several clearly marked routes, many of them interlinked so that it is possible to swap and change paths depending on how you feel. No long list of Dos and Don’ts, just a gentle reminder to respect the countryside. There was a definite need to respect the weather, too; the sunshine was lovely and had us stripping off layers later on but, blimey, that wind was bitter to start with. Definitely time for a hat and coat.

Here is a walk that will be lovely to do throughout the seasons, such a beautiful mix of trees and undergrowth and a wealth of noisy birdlife. Shadier than the verges, the bluebells were lagging a little behind, some in full bloom but many just on the cusp; what a picture they will be beneath the fresh new green of beech trees. It was fascinating to see the different stages of spring in each variety of tree, some in full leaf, others with buds still tightly furled and many in between, their new growth lit up in the sunlight like candles.

I love hawthorn at this time of year, the vibrant leaves opening so quickly to fatten out the hedges; no wonder they were traditionally the countryman’s ‘bread and cheese’, such fresh, nutrient-rich greenstuff after the thin times of winter. Hawthorn has long been associated symbolically and medicinally with the heart, very apt company for a bit of heartfulness in the spring sunshine, I think.

When the path wound its way to the edge of the woodland, glimpses of the fields beyond reminded us of the mixed nature of this landscape. Mayenne, with its rich, fertile soil, is farming country and like so many other areas of France there is – quite rightly – an immense pride in the food that is produced locally. The countryside is a patchwork of colours that changes through the seasons: pasture, plough, cereals, sunflowers, maize and now bright daubs of an almost fluorescent yellow as the oilseed rape comes into flower. Love it or loathe it, it never fails to make an impression.

Others were making an impression, too. No doubting who was king of this paddock . . .

Back into the woodlands again and we found ourselves wandering along what felt like an ancient trackway, the moss-bound trees suggesting a long history of hedging and coppicing. The myth that there are no hedges in France is simply not true; we live in a typical bocage landscape (from the Old French bosc meaning ‘wood’), classically described as mixed woodland and pasture bounded by hedgerows, a manmade landscape to be sure but one that some believe dates back to the Iron Age. In this area, hedges of mixed native trees are planted on top of an earth bank above a water-filled ditch (see the middle photo of wild flowers earlier in this post); to my mind, it creates three separate habitats inextricably woven into mile upon mile of species-rich habitat, where for example yellowhammers, yellow brimstones and yellow iris all flourish companionably in the same space. It’s a precious thing indeed.

During our walk, we followed lines of newly-planted hedging in several places, hundreds of metres and thousands of saplings each within a protective netting guard and deeply mulched with straw. Having recently planted a bundle of around 100 mixed natives to plug gaps in our hedges at home – hawthorn, hornbeam, beech, birch, ash, holly and honeysuckle – we could only imagine what a marathon job those new hedges must have been. How wonderful, though, to be creating such new habitats in an age old tradition: landes, tourbières and bocage all in safe hands, so that the generations of the future – human and otherwise – can enjoy their unique qualities, seasonal beauty and abundant gifts. It’s enough to make a heart sing.

Whether the weather be fine

Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!

W.H. Gibson

Is it possible to have four seasons in one day? That’s certainly what it has felt like at times this past week. I’m not sure about April being the cruellest month but it’s most definitely been an interesting and restless one so far and our days in the garden have been unpredictable, to say the least. One moment we’ve been wrapped up in hats and gloves, eyes streaming in a bitterly cold wind carrying the iron scent of winter, the type that goes straight through you because it’s too lazy to go round; the next, we’ve been stripped to t-shirts and shorts, searching for the suncream and organising a barbecue for our evening meal. We’ve enjoyed skies of pure unbroken blue and those studded with soft billowy clouds like little children draw; we’ve worked under sheets of sullen steely grey and watched curtains of snow drift from clouds of deeply bruised purple; we’ve woken to heavy frosts that have set the world sparkling and the softest, gentlest of mornings showered with warm sunshine and birdsong. We’ve had the first rainfall in weeks. Capricious nature has been at its fickle best, that’s for sure.

Weather or not, ’tis the season to be planting and I have to admit, we haven’t been holding back on that score. This year we are taking a pragmatic – boring? – approach and sticking very much to tried and tested varieties, the reliable good doers which promise us a decent harvest in our first year here while there is so much to do. The time for experiment, indulgence and frivolity will come in due course, although I do have one little exception that I’m very excited about: a pack of nine new tomato varieties (of which more in a later post) that has winged its way to Mayenne from my lovely gardening friend in Finland: thank you, Anja! They are a colourful bunch, the idea being I should be able to create a tomato rainbow which, of course, is something that appeals greatly to my imagination and sense of fun; this is serious tomato country, so fingers crossed we will be blight-free and I can really do them justice. They’ve travelled a long way, after all!

We’re picking flowers and fresh herbs from the garden for salads but it will be so much better when all the ingredients are home grown.

So, in an attempt to keep things simple and also create a bit of a reference for next year, here is our planting diary:

  • 26th March Outdoors: Jerusalem artichoke tubers (8).
  • 27th March Outdoors: Potatoes – Charlotte 43, Blue Danube 11, Mystery Spud 3. Onions Stuttgarter Riesin 139 (sets). Peas Kelvedon Wonder (or Merveille de Kelvedon as they are here!). Comfrey (plant). Outdoors in trays: Summer cabbage Greyhound. Lettuce – White Romaine, Little Gem & Red Salad Bowl. Indoors: Tomatoes – Super Marmande, Rosella, Gardener’s Delight & San Marzano. Anja’s 9 tomatoes. Peppers – Long Red Marconi, Mini Red and Del Piquello. Chillies – Scotch Bonnet, Early Jalapeño, Long Slim Cayenne and Hotscotch (mix).
  • 28th March Indoors: sage, thyme, lavender, hyssop, Good King Henry, rudbeckia, cosmos mixed and pink, marshmallow, basil, Black-Eyed Susan.
  • 29th March Indoors: Aubergines- Black Beauty and Long Purple. Asparagus, globe artichoke, cardoon, French marigold, moss-leaved parsley. Outdoors: Carrots – Nantes, Chantenay Red Cored and Autumn King. Spring onions – White Lisbon. Spanish cebollitas – Barletta. Radish – French Breakfast. Freesias (corms), sweet peas, lupins and sweet rocket.
  • 7th April Indoors: Cucumbers – Marketmore and Conil (gherkin). Courgette – Black Beauty. Squash- Hunter, Crown Prince and seed saved from one of our mongrels. Outdoors: Calendula and yellow trefoil between rows in Shed Patch.
  • 8th April Outdoors: Peas – Kelvedon Wonder (2nd sowing, first crop in The Potager Patch). Secret Garden: Beetroot -Bona, Solist and Multicoloured Mix. Leaf beet – Bright Lights, Ruby Red and perpetual spinach. Celery – Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin. Leeks- Musselburgh (160). Kale – Scarlet Curled and Thousandhead. Dill, coriander, flat-leaf parsley, rocket, American landcress, fennel, borage and calendula. Broccoli in trays – Green Autumn Calabrese, Romanesco, Apollo, Purple Summer, Early Purple Sprouting and Late Purple Sprouting. Long strip of annual flower mix (26 varieties).
Our new picnic table is the perfect place for sorting through the seed basket!

Of course, it’s all about food first and we’re fast approaching that point of the year where we know we will be scrabbling for planting space if we don’t keep digging; it’s so easy to see a large patch and think it’s enough but by the time several rows of peas and beans alone have gone in, the space will diminish rapidly. We don’t want to be left scratching our heads and wondering where exactly the leeks and winter greens can go . . . so we haven’t finished with the spade yet. Roger has been cutting a wealth of paths which will become ever more tempting as the grass grows longer and the meadow appears and I love the way that we are now curving the vegetable beds to fit snugly into their bends; life is simply too short for straight lines!

I like the way our ideas and plans are already shifting and changing like the April weather: we’ve relocated a garden shed and planned another planting patch in The Potager in our mind’s eye, as well as talked about creating an area between The Orchard and Flower Garden with some hard surfacing (slate?) as an outdoor eating space. We love to use the materials that are already to hand so several large piles of stones are slowly morphing into a drystone wall and stout hazel poles have become a rustic trellis and sweet pea / climbing bean supports. We’ve moved two clematis that were pot-bound in wooden planters and growing in an unsuitable place; I’ve given the planters a makeover in ‘Vert de Provence’ paint and moved a rescued grapevine into one so it can scramble up the front of the house. A Christmas rose and three lavenders have also been moved to happier spots and I’ve introduced verbena bonariensis, granny’s bonnets, madder, dyer’s chamomile, mint, chives, parsley and soapwort from my Asturian collection. Things are happening . . . and it has been a joy to be outside.

Wrapped up against the icy wind . . . but it was good to be planting potatoes.

Although we’ve been blessed to have always lived in beautiful rural areas, I don’t think we’ve ever had a garden where we are so surrounded by wildlife. It’s as if everything that was already here has shrugged off our arrival, accepted us unconditionally and carried on as normal without being at all fazed by us sharing their space. We are completely immersed and I love it, this chance to be up close and personal, to be able to look at creatures so closely I can discover fresh new things about them. Bumble bees, honey bees, mortar bees, solitary wasps, ladybirds, shield bugs, butterflies and a whole host of other insects I don’t recognise have all landed on me at some point during the week; I’ve watched with fascination as a lizard scurried in and out of the kitchen without a care in the world, a treecreeper shimmied up the wall outside the kitchen door, a blue tit sat nonchalently in a windowbox of pansies and a red squirrel nosed about under the solar panels as if it belonged there. Unlike their Asturian cousins which are richly sabled in dark chocolate coats, these squirrels are firebright streaks of foxy fur, all tufted ears, white bib and important tails. They are so busy now, zipping up and down tree trunks, dancing along branches like acrobatic tightrope walkers and leapfrogging across the grass in a vivid flash of russet.

It’s the birdlife, however, that is centre stage. Two male blackcaps have taken up residence on opposite sides of the front gateway, one in the coppery foliage of the cherry plum, the other in the dainty white blooms of the cherry. They spend their days trying to outsing each other, their mellifluous melodies rising in a tumultuous crescendo to a point where it’s hard to hear yourself think. Once they’ve exhausted their repertoire (and possibly their vocal chords, too), they move to hurling loud clacking curses at each other, like harsh pebbles shaken in a sack. Finally, they resort to gladatorial violence, rolling and wrestling one another in the gravelled arena before retreating to their personal castles and starting the whole process all over again. They are not the only songsters, of course; robins, blackbirds, wrens, song thrushes, dunnocks and a variety of warblers are all flaunting their considerable musical ranges against the more percussive performances of cuckoo and chaffinch, house sparrow and great tit, chiffchaff and wagtail; redstarts gargle, green woodpeckers chortle and swallows stitch the air with their babbling chatter. It would be easy to romanticise it all but let’s face it, this is a war zone, a battle that has raged every spring down the millenia; it’s about territory, dominance, superiority, survival and the impelling urge to procreate and it is only me with my non-avian ears that imagines it’s set to a beautiful, musical theme tune.

The Secret Garden is full of birdsong; it’s time to eat that rhubarb, too!

Working in the Secret Garden, I have been keeping company with a pair of blue tits who are nesting in a hole in the wall of our stone outbuilding; it’s a canny choice, as few predators are likely to threaten their young tucked away in such a safe house. Apart from the occasional mild chivvying, they seem quite tolerant of my presence and entertain me greatly with their acrobatic antics as they search for insect delicacies among the blossomed boughs. I’m hoping it’s a habit they will shift to the vegetables later in the season, knocking back the aphid and caterpillar populations to feed their demanding family. In the poplar trees across the lane, the wood pigeons take a break from building their untidy nest, cooing at me softly and entreating me to, ‘Sow peeeeas pleeeese, Lizzie!’ Ah yes, my little friends; brassicas, too, no doubt, given your thieving, gluttonous ways. I suspect we will need to invest in some netting before the spring is out.

Blue tit in the blossom.

At the back of the house, the new flower borders have become the happy haunt of pied wagtails and redstarts who are plucking a wealth of good food from the bare earth. They seem to tolerate each other quite amicably, strutting and circling in solemn fashion, stepping out in a strange bobbing dance like guests at a masked ball; one decked out in simple, sober monochrome, the other in glorious technicolour, they make a perfectly balanced pair. Beyond them, a bevvy of ground feeders is enjoying the mown grass and this, I think, is excellent evidence in the the argument for balance. Meadows are quite rightly esteemed as wonderful environments for hundreds of species but I think it’s important not to dismiss cut grass, either. Please don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no time for those perfectly manicured bowling green lawns, where everything that is not grass has been eliminated – physically, chemically, brutally – to leave an expanse of sterile and supremely boring space. Areas of short sward where mixed species have been allowed to grow are, however, a different matter, allowing an even wider range of flora and fauna to thrive. I think there’s room for both; after all, in my opinion, you cannot have too many ecosystems or too much biodiversity in one garden. Roger thinks you can have too many dandelions in the grass, mind you, but of course I can’t bring myself to agree.

A lawn full of sunshine!

I love their cheery, sunny faces and I’m not alone in that: they are full of honey bees wiggling around their centres, sultry belly dancers, their pollen baskets like silken harem pants laden with an astonishingly orange pollen. ‘Dandelion’, from the French dents de lion describing their ragged lion’s teeth leaves; the French, however, call them pissenlit – literally ‘wet-the-bed’ – in recognition of their diuretic properties. Doctors here recommend eating their fresh young leaves as a spring tonic, the perfect antidote to winter’s sluggishness, straight from nature’s medicine chest.

One of the most inspiring gardens I’ve ever visited was created by Gertrude Jekyll on Holy Island in 1911, from a former vegetable garden tucked behind a stone wall below the castle at Lindisfarne. It’s a wild, windswept landscape, beautiful in a somewhat bleak and forlorn way; it struck me as being a place on the edge of things, somehow, with its mist-shrouded, seaweed-strewn margins haunted by the plaintive whistle of oystercatchers and the mournful songs of seals.

I’ve been thinking about it again this week on the days when that wintry wind has been blowing down from the north-east. We visited one bitterly cold April when the sea was troubled and hostile, the landscape grey, scoured, foreboding. Spring seemed a long way off and the little garden with its geometrical patterns, wooden obelisks and quirky shed was stripped back to the barest bones yet still bright with spots and splashes of colour. What an unlikely backdrop for a quintessential English country garden it is, yet by the time Miss Jekyll had worked her magic, that is precisely what it became: a riot of summer colour and scent, of hollyhocks and marigolds and sweet peas, like a bright patchwork quilt spread incongruously in the middle of a barren moorland. The owner, Edward Hudson, had fancied a water garden and tennis court: the lady had other ideas!

I loved the cheery optimism of it all, the spirited can-do attitude; as gardeners, we are fools not to work with the seasons and weather, the stones and the soil, the ebb and flow of nature as it shifts to the pull its own tide, but that doesn’t mean we musn’t experiment or can’t dream. April days may be fickle, but if that sense of fidgety change and restlessness encourages me to be more imaginative, courageous and creative in the garden we are making here, then so be it . . . although I’d be very happy if we could skip the snow from now on. 😉

Heaven scent: the garden is full of these beauties at the moment.

Treasures

Daisies are our silver, buttercups our gold: this is all the treasure we can have or hold.

Jan Struther

I started school when I was four and, given that was half a century ago now, it’s not surprising that I can’t recall too much about those earliest years. Two things, however, stand out clearly in my memory: a Nature Table stuffed with seasonal treasures brought in by proud and eager little hands to share (pussy willow, snowdrops, sticky buds, frogspawn, seashells . . . ) and singing the children’s hymn about buttercups and daises, speedwell and roses, raindrops and dew. I’m not particulary prone to reminisence but these hazy memories have drifted back this week as the simple yet exquisite beauty of spring has unfolded around us, urged on by the flood of sunshine and unusual warmth. It is blossom time, the trees bursting into an ordered floral beauty as if in a time lapse film. First, the myrobalan or cherry plum, deep pink buds opening to palest shell, their starry copper centres echoing the rich burnished hues of the new leaves. They are perfect. I am captivated.

In the orchard, several tiny over-pruned trees that we suspected were peaches have proved to be just that, their fragile branches dotted with those candy pink flowers so familiar from our garden in Asturias; I’m not convinced they will ever be persuaded to fruit here but the blossom is a joy nonetheless.

The surrounding landscape is a flurry of white, with drifts of blackthorn and wild plum blossom in the hedges making a dainty froth against the billowing pistachio foam of pussy willow, and the cherries – so typical of the area, so very beautiful – stamping their elegant authority on the landscape. As the cherries unfurl their beguiling blossoms, the myrobalan sheds its petals in a blizzard of confetti; it is so transient, this spring enchantment, so fleeting. I don’t want to miss a moment.

It’s not just about the trees, either. The verges have erupted in a blaze of colour and are carpeted with a rich tapestry of jewelled delights: primroses and pulmonaria, cowslips and celandines, bluebells and violets, wild daffodils and windflowers, dandelions and daisies, wild strawberries and orchids. Such treasures. Their scent is sweet, heady, seductive and the bees are bewitched. Well, who could blame them?

At the end of a particularly gruelling fifteen-hour journey back from Asturias last week, the task list before collapsing into bed was blissfully short: light the stove, have a bite to eat and grab only the bare essentials from the car. Everything else could wait until morning – and yet, and yet . . . The pull of the garden was too strong, I had an urgent need to explore, to see what had changed in our absence. Egged on by the mischievous moon, almost full, and accompanied by the nocturnal calls (lazy drawling croak of barn owls, muffled hoot-and-echo of tawnies, raucous frog chorus) and rustlings of secretive night creatures, we wandered. I love the magic of a moonlit garden, the way everything is dusky, shadowed and silvered, punctuated by pointillist bursts of light: here narcissi, there arabis, the stars of the midnight garden where more deeply-coloured blooms are hidden. We must plant more light flowers, silver foliage, too. I want a garden that beckons at night, a planting of constellations to mirror those wheeling overhead: Orion striding purposefully across the eastern sky, Sirius snapping brightly at his heel; the bent handle of the Plough pointing to brittle Polaris in the north; the smudged cluster of the Pleiades like a soft swarm of bees, seen more clearly when you look away. Yes, we need to plan . . . and then plant.

We’ve started, of course. New fruit trees for new blossom: a sweet Moreau cherry, a sour Morello, a buttery Conference pear. A single redcurrant and lone raspberry, three climbing roses and a hundred hedging slips. I’ve started to find new homes for the wanderers brought from Asturias, tiny roots lifted into pots that have been growing strongly and waiting patiently – mint and chives in shady places, soapwort and comfrey in sunny ones; pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder to fill a hedge bottom with blue, verbena bonariensis for starbursts of purple, madder for roots of red. There are new surprises here, too, plants that have emerged from their winter slumbers to delight me with their promise of colour and scent: a single hyacinth, a scattering of tulips, the new burgeoning growth of Michaelmas daisies, monkshoods and peonies, fat silvery buds of clematis and grape, glossy new leaves of hidden roses. It’s already a garden of delights.

Short of something to read on our Spanish trip, I pulled The Morville Hours from our bookshelf and read it for the umpteenth time. It’s a gem of a book, one of my all-time favourites which never fails to inspire me. It’s the story of how the author, Katherine Swift, created a garden for the National Trust in my native Shropshire; her rich and mesmerising prose is quite beautiful, her eye for detail completely astonishing. I recognise her restlessness in myself, the fidgety need to be outside and busy at something, even if (in my case) it’s often a rather aimless wandering about. I, too, have a wonderfully patient husband, happy to finish for the day and start cooking dinner while I indulge my stubborn reluctance to stop: is it really that time already? Wait . . . there’s one more bucket of weeds, an extra sprinkle of seeds, a last thing to plant, another one to water. Can I beg just five minutes more? Please?

Katherine Swift was not a gardener, but over twenty years she carved a gloriously abundant creation from a field. She learned as she went, following her instincts and her nose, indulging her senses to the full; absorbing, dreaming, playing.The older I get, the more I understand that it is the child in me that gardens – the little girl at the Nature Table with her nose pressed up against a jar of tadpoles, or a silky buttercup under her chin or a fragile dandelion clock in her hand. I am in constant awe of those horticulturists who can quote Latin names verbatim, who can tell an angustifolia from a tomentosum without batting an eyelid or recognise a rose as ‘Madame Alice Garnier’ or ‘Mr Lincoln’ in one glance. It’s all very clever and grown up, but where’s the wonder? Where is the dazzle of colour, the blast of perfume, the jolt of texture, the burst of flavour? Where, oh where, is the birdsong? After all, what is the tracery of cherry blossom against a blue sky without the diving and swooping of swallows, the cobalt drift of hazy bluebells without the evocative call of the cuckoo?

The National Trust asked Katharine to submit detailed drawn plans for the garden she intended to create. She couldn’t do it, so instead she wrote a vivid description, a magical guided tour of a garden that existed only in her imagination. I love that and feel echoes of the same thing here, where we are creating a new garden in an old space. Yes, we have ideas – vegetable patches, flower borders, herb gardens, orchards, woodland edges, spinneys, climbers and scramblers, hidden nooks and crannies, interesting hints and glimpses that make you want to wander, weaving paths that help you on the way – but as yet they are somewhat vague, soft and shimmering at the periphery of our vision, blurred and shadowy, elusive yet exhilarating. It’s like an outline faintly sketched in soft charcoal, waiting for the bold sweeps of colour and fine detail to bring it to life. Who knows what we will end up with? It feels like a journey that could see us veering off in so many different directions, but whatever happens, of one thing I am certain: as long as I have time to stop and stare, to immerse myself in the wonders of nature around me, to appreciate the minutiae and vastness of the living, breathing world then I will be very, very happy. That’s treasure, indeed.

Spring in the air

The hike in temperature from minus seven to plus twenty degrees within the space of a week has been dizzying; one minute it was all thermal base layers and double welly socks, the next we were stripped down to t-shirts in the garden. The air is full of birdsong, hazel pollen and the hum of insects – industrious honey bees, fat velvety bumbles, shiny blue-black carpenter bees and huge buttery brimstone butterflies – as though everything has suddenly woken up and stretched after the long, dark days of winter, lifting grateful faces and hearts towards the kiss of the sun. Me, too. It’s a very joyful thing.

We have needed no persuading to spend all day, every day, outside and it has been a wonderful feeling to be able to make so much progress in the garden at this time of year, not to mention being able to eat our lunch and enjoy an afternoon mug of coffee or evening glass of wine outdoors. In fact, we are so busy that I really don’t have time to blog so please accept photos with captions this time, rather than my usual waffle!

We have uncovered the solar heating system, not the prettiest piece of kit but the tanks of free hot water are great. I’ve planted window boxes, pots and baskets with pansies for a cheerful splash of colour at the front of the house.
As our tractor and mower are stuck in Asturias for the forseeable future, we have bought a push lawnmower and cut a few patches and paths. Most of the grass will be meadow this summer which suits us and the wildlife just fine!
We enjoyed a 7-mile circular walk on local lanes, stopping for a picnic in a heritage apple arboretum. The sun was warm, the skies filled with trilling larks . . .
. . . and the verges spangled with the first spring flowers.
We removed an old conifer from the front hedge and recycled it into a hugelkultur bed in the vegetable garden. Underneath it, and previously completely swamped, is a beautiful flowering currant covered in buds.
The first green shoots of garlic have already appeared in this bed! I planted 60 ‘Agualdulce’ broad bean seeds next to the parsnips and extended the far side of the patch by a couple of spade widths. Onions or peas next . . .
We’re making slow but steady progress in the potager. Roger dug and turned the first bed and has covered it in a deep mulch of grass clippings and chopped leaves; we will let the potato crop do the rest of the work there this year. In the second bed, which needs slightly more refined preparation, he has been stripping the turf and I’ve been forking it over and removing perennial weed roots. The upturned turves have gone on top of the hugel bed (in the background) which should be ideal for growing squashes this year once finished.
We’ve also made a start on the flower garden behind the house, sketching out a plan for beds, seating, taller structures and planting, then getting stuck into digging the first border.
We’ve ordered a delivery of bare-rooted hedging plants: hawthorn, hornbeam and beech to fill the gaps in the boundary hedges and rosa rugosa for a hedge round part of the flower garden. We’ve been lifting young holly and honeysuckle plants from the coppice to make a start on the hedge renovation project. That woodland soil is completely lush!
I was pleased to discover a carpet of red-veined sorrel growing under the hedge in the Secret Garden. I’ve transplanted a dozen of them to make an edge along the veg patch there. They are a bitter leaf of the kind so highly rated in French kitchens and should be a useful ingredient in salads and hot dishes, as well as an attractive addition to the garden.
We’ve remembered to take the occasional tea break in the sunshine . . .
. . . and if a couple of rare treats just happened to find their way into my bike basket – well, after all that hard physical work, I don’t think we need to feel too guilty! 🥰

Serendipity

“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.”

—Thomas Fuller

We have planted trees everywhere we have lived together in a wide spectrum of circumstances from pots of avocado and citrus trees raised from pips on a Mediterranean balcony to a couple of acres of woodland and orchard on a Welsh hillside. I haven’t kept a record – I’m really not that organised – but I know they number many thousands. We have only ever lived in one home long enough (thirteen years) to watch them grow to some level of maturity, so in most cases what we have done is leave an arboreal legacy behind us as we moved on. I have no problem with this as I happen to believe that planting a tree is one of the best things any human being can do; it has saddened me so many times over the years to meet the ‘why should I bother, I’ll never see it mature?’ mentality. Life isn’t all about me, me, me; instant gratification is a plague of modern society and it’s a shame that so much of life revolves around what’s in it for us here and now rather than what we can leave for the future. We planted trees, other people and wildlife enjoy the benefits. That’s a very wonderful thing!

When we set about looking for our new home here, somewhere with a decent patch of woodland was high on the list. We wanted to be able to produce our own logs for fuel, to forage for useful materials and food and to help preserve and improve a precious environment; in the event of not finding what we were looking for, then a patch of ground big enough to plant a new wood was the next priority. Yes, we were prepared to start from scratch yet again! In the event, the property we both fell in love with had neither so we needed a Plan B which wasn’t too long in the hatching, since small tracts of woodland or rough ground are always for sale in this area. We found a couple within a few miles of the house and made an appointment to view them; neither was ideal, but the agent offered to show us an extra one that had only come on the market a couple of days previously and when she realised which house we were buying, thought maybe it could be the one. We couldn’t believe our luck to find the perfect coppice, deep within a much larger wood and a pleasant 8oo metre stroll from the house. The lovely surprise of an unexpected, happy event . . . true serendipity.

What a beautiful place this is, one that I know I will be drawn to over and over again. There is a dizzying mix of species and so much holly that even at this time of year, there is still a sense of ‘greenwood’ – although one individual certainly stands out from the crowd.

Unlike our garden, the woodland is set on a hillside and is quite steep in places. At its heart is an old quarry, the evidence of human activity long since gone, the space most definitely reclaimed by nature. For me, it is a place of wonder, of rocks and ferns and mosses; the trees are alive with birds and I can only imagine what magic there will be as their spring music reverberates around this leafy bowl. If I can’t be found at home, then Roger will know where to look for me.

There are no fences defining our coppice within this woodland which is a typical situation here but we know where the boundaries lie so we are in no danger of taking someone else’s logs. I like that there is mutual respect and honesty between neighbours and an awareness that open wildlife corridors are more important than demarcating people’s property. There are plenty of fallen trees for us to take as logs and the first to be hauled home was a large and very dense birch. By law, if we fell trees then we are duty bound to replant them and I like that, too; this is not about exploitation but careful management and preservation of a beautiful natural area. That we want it to be a haven for wildlife goes without saying and I am quite sure that there will be many happy hours of just simply sitting and observing to balance the hard work of logging.

Home again, and although much of my week has been spent painting ceiling panels, I have managed to grab some time in the garden. When we first came to view the property in early September, the flower border at the front was the only real splash of colour in the entire garden; apart from removing those horrible plastic solar lights (no offence if you’re a fan – I’m not!), everything has been left untouched. I’ve always refused to have a grand autumn tidy up of perennial plants since the stems provide shelter for a wealth of insects and other creatures over winter and also help to protect any precocious new shoots from harsh weather. In recent days, though, I had started to realise that under the old growth and deep carpet of oak leaves there were clumps of bulbs and the promise of spring flowers. Time for a bit of border action.

I have lost count of how many times I’ve started sorting out gardens like this, beginning with a framework of mature and often very lovely plants suffering from neglect and being quietly engulfed in a forest of pernicious weeds – not so obvious in the fullness of summer but their true extent now revealed to the world in winter. The brambles and ivy are horrendous, the nettles are on the rampage, the celandines are a rash. Over the years I have been advised many, many times to clear the lot and start again from scratch but that is not my way; this is partly because I’m a bit of an idle gardener who is happy to turn a blind eye to weeds wherever possible but mostly because I think it’s important to preserve a certain essence or spirit of the garden, to acknowledge that we are just a tiny part of its history and to carry some tradition forward. That said, those brambles and ivy have to be restrained and as I started to clear them, a fresh spring look started to emerge.

There are clumps of bulbs scattered all over but I was especially thrilled to find what looks to me like a patch of winter aconites that had been totally smothered. Now this is the sort of natural buried treasure I love.

A strange dichotomy of approaches has been puzzling me ever since we moved into the house. On the one hand, a vast array of cleaning products was left here, which in itself was a bit of a shock to someone whose cleaning list extends only to bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar and lemon juice. I had no idea you could buy or ever needed something called ‘daily shower clean.’ However, they are all top of the range greener than green super-eco things, many from Germany and Holland and all based on expensive essential oils; in fact, there is an orange essential oil wood treatment that is so luscious, I’m almost tempted to use it in the bath (for wallowing in, not cleaning the tub)! I can only begin to imagine how expensive they were; I shall be happy to use them up as it seems wasteful not to and there is enough to last a couple of years or more. Contrast that with the huge amounts of toxic garden chemicals that were also left here, every kind of herbicide, fungicide and pesticide imaginable including enough ant killer for the entire commune. There are sachets of rat poison scattered into every nook and cranny (given that not a single one has been nibbled, there doesn’t seem to be a rodent problem) and a dustbin full of what I had stupidly hoped might be organic fertiliser but is actually industrial strength insecticide. I was totally horrified; none of these things has any place in our garden and I am just hoping that the local déchetterie wil be happy to take them off our hands. There is a need for healing here, for getting back to working with nature rather than trying to obliterate it. Well, that sounds like my kind of challenge, doesn’t it? 🙂

On that theme, I had a lovely time doing the French garden birdwatch I mentioned in my last post. No surprise that blue tits were far and away the most numerous species, but there was a good variety to watch and count both at the feeding station and elsewhere. In order to submit my results, I had to register with the Oiseaux des Jardins organisation which means I can log observations of birds (and toads, red squirrels and hedgehogs) as many times as I want throughout the year. I’m planning to do it once a month as I think it will be fascinating to see the seasonal changes and also (I hope) an increase in numbers and varieties as we work to create and improve habitats. Although the bird count was national, the data is also collated and analysed locally and I have enjoyed a friendly exchange of emails with the Faune-Maine team who had questioned one of my observations as it seemed a bit unusual; thankfully, I managed to take a photo clear enough to confirm that it really was a cirl bunting – certainly not a bird we’ve ever had feeding in any previous garden. As our home is situated in the Normandie-Maine natural park which enjoys a protected status, these sorts of observations are important so I’m thrilled to be part of something so worthwhile. I just wish I could persuade one of those white herons to pay us a visit . . .

A blue tit waiting for me to fill that fat ball feeder . . .

No herons, but there have been plenty of other white beauties to enjoy. I’m not a fan of heathers in the garden, preferring them cloaking wild hilltops in purple, but there is a dainty white one here nestled between mauve cousins in a pretty montage; at the very least, they are excellent early sources of nectar. It’s been several years since we had a viburnum tinus in the garden and I’d forgotten how sweet the scent of those lacy white flowers can be. The snowdrops are at their very best and I am meandering around the patch several times a day simply to enjoy their drifts of fragile beauty. Primroses and periwinkle are scattered in a pastel confetti and the daffies are hard on the heels of everything but I’m willing them not to rush. I love to enjoy the seasonal wonders of nature – after all, isn’t that the whole point of seasons? Like instant gratification, I think it’s a sad indictment of modern society that everything has to be charging ahead of itself all the time and of course, much of that has to do with commerce. If people really want to be thinking about Christmas in September, summer holidays and Easter eggs at New Year and ‘back to school’ in May, well of course, that’s up to them but I prefer to let myself be carried along by the rhythms of nature in the garden and the wild. There is no competition, no race, no rush. Relax. Breathe. Enjoy the moment, the beauty and wonder of what is here and now. The rest will follow in its own time, so let it.

Another little puzzle I’ve been pondering here is a group of three random lavender plants growing in seemingly the middle of nowhere; I think that perhaps at some point, there was a suspicion of a tiny island bed there, but now it’s just an odd overgrown patch in the middle of a wide open expanse of grass. I’d made a mental note to lift the plants in spring and relocate them to somewhere more fitting, but while I was rummaging about in the grass, I found what appeared to be a few very moth-eaten and rather pathetic hellebore leaves. Now that really caught my attention as hellebores are one of my favourite plants so I have been quietly nurturing the sad little thing with the intention of moving it, too, when the time is right. Just look at what a little beauty it has turned out to be, a perfect waxy Christmas rose . . . a little late as the calendar goes but then, that’s nature for you!

I’ve been a bit tardy myself in honouring my promise to Roger of a cake to say thank you for packing my bike but finally this week, I managed to organise a trip to St P which coincided with the boulangerie being open. I was delighted to find it is still run by the same family, they are such lovely, friendly people and their patisserie is amazing. I opted for two Paris-Brest cakes, divine rings of choux pastry filled with a hazelnut cream and fashioned to represent the wheels in the famous cycle race of the same name. Very apt, I thought, since I was on my own two wheels and also they just happen to be our favourites and are the biggest and best we’ve ever had anywhere in France. The icing on the cake – if you will excuse a terrible pun – is that the pretty patisserie boxes that Madame so carefully wraps her sweet treats in are the absolute perfect size to snuggle comfortably into my shiny new bike basket. Serendipity, indeed. Oh, happy days!

Break time

We know from previous experience that once we get stuck into a renovation project, it can be all too easy to do nothing else. In part, this is because it is new and exciting and there is an enjoyable buzz to being physically busy, the perfect antedote to all the correspondence, paperwork and travelling that has gone before. Also, although we love a plan, we are not given to too much procrastination; once we’ve decided what we’re doing, we like to get on and do it, to make our new home more comfortable and organised, to start putting our own stamp on it. I realise, however, that there is another element involved: it’s that ingrained work ethic that can leave us feeling guilty if we’re not being busy, a sense that rest and relaxation are not only downright lazy but also some kind of failing. I know that simply isn’t true; there is a need for balance, for time spent away from the ‘work’ – even if we don’t see it as such – to recharge our batteries and seek wider horizons. After all, moving isn’t just about our new home but the locality and community, too. Also – let’s face it – we didn’t really expect to be putting in new ceilings and insulation this time; it’s making an incredible difference to the house but we’d both rather be outside making a start on the new garden. Sigh.

With this in mind, we decided to down tools one afternoon this week and go for a circular walk from home in what we’re hoping will become a pleasant habit. The lanes had been so icy that morning that Roger had abandoned his usual early run, but a few hours of sunshine had rendered things a little safer underfoot and it felt good to be moving in the crisp air. A few hundred metres along the lane from home, we passed through a small hamlet and reached a spot that gave a lovely open view to the north. The higher land on the horizon might seem very modest in comparison to the soaring peaks of Asturias, but the Mont des Avaloirs is not to be mocked: at 416 metres, it is the highest point in western France and often called the ‘Everest of the West.’ For those with a head for heights, it is possible to climb 108 steps up a 18.5 metre high tower (for free) and enjoy a spectacular panorama above the tree tops; on a clear day, it’s possible to see Mont Saint Michel and in fact, were it physically feasible, the Brecon Beacons too, since there is nothing higher in between. Even more extreme, there is no higher land westwards until you reach the Americas . . ! As I have a problem with high places, I prefer to leave the tower to braver souls and enjoy walking the many woodland trails which are particularly stunning in autumn and a popular spot for serious mushroom hunters. That is most definitely a treat to look forward to later in the year.

On the subject of woodland, our walk took us past the coppice which we will be signing for shortly. It’s about a hectare (or two and a half acres) of mostly native broadleaf woodland within a much bigger wood and I’m very, very excited about it. It seems a bit rude to spend too much time writing about something we don’t actually own yet so I will leave that for another day.

From this point, we left the lane and took a gravelled track through the woodland; it’s part of an official waymarked walking route so typical of this area, although we intended to veer off and do our own thing later. I was trying to remember when I had last seen Roger so bundled up for a walk, we really have got out of the winter habit. (Mind you, he has still been running in shorts in the sub-zero temperatures, which makes me feel cold just thinking about it.)

A break in the trees gave us a lovely view which really captures the essence of the area, a church, village and scattered farms nestled between woods in the rolling landscape. I have discovered that there is an organic dairy farm there with a shop selling milk, yogurt and an incredible range of cheeses from their Normandie and  Montbéliarde herd . . . now there’s one to visit on my bike as soon as I have the chance. 😊

I am a great lover of woodland and I think there is something very special about watching the changes through the seasons. Now, everything is as bare and pared back as it can be, the ground underfoot wet and muddy or frozen into puddles of ice, and yet there is a beauty to this wintry simplicity which I appreciate. The busyness of birds in the branches above us, the first tentative splashes of fresh green growth on honeysuckle vines and the pale warmth of the sun all hold the promise of spring. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way.

This is a land of traditional mixed farming and I have a particular soft spot for the scattered herds of pedigree cattle; there are many breeds, so very different to the Asturian Valley cattle we have become used to and, of course, no hint of a cowbell which seems a little strange. I think this bunch were slightly put out to have their lunch disturbed by the new neighbours!

Leaving the woodland, we turned onto lanes once again and looped back towards home, enjoying the pleasant views and abundance of birdlife. An early clump of primroses was a reminder of how in a few weeks’ time, these verges will be carpeted with wildflowers; their beauty is one of my enduring memories from when we lived here before. There will most definitely be photos to come in a springtime blog post.

Something I haven’t managed to capture with the camera yet is one of the white herons which seem ubiquitous here; they are such stately birds, standing tall and still in a streak of pure white against the winter fields. We came across one as we started to climb the hill back to ‘our’ coppice but it lifted and flapped away on casual wings before I could get a good snap. Ah well, I’ll keep on trying . . . and in the meantime, I was pretty chuffed to find I can at least still find some of my favourite skies to enjoy.

Winter has certainly been baring its teeth this week and we seem to have run the whole gamut of weather possibilities: rain, hail, sleet, snow, ice, fog and wind. The snowdrops spent several days living up to their French name of perce-neige but in the current (blissful!) milder conditions, they are more like Tennyson’s February fair-maids, sitting in pretty drifts beneath the hedges which are full of nodding hazel catkins.

I’m hoping the mild weather persists during the weekend as I’m planning to take a break from Ceiling World to take part in the LPO’s Comptage national des oiseaux des jardins, the French equivalent of the British RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. The process is the same, simply spending an hour watching the birds in the garden and recording the maximum number of any species seen at once. Roger has pointed out that trying to count all the blue tits or great tits at the feeding station at any one time is going to be nigh on impossible and he has a point; they are there in droves, it hasn’t taken long for word of free and plentiful nosh to get around and keeping the feeders topped up is a full-time job. Still, I love to see them, there is such pleasure in watching their behaviour at close quarters and there’s plenty more of the garden to survey, too. I’m looking forward to participating in such a worthwhile project – there is another one here in May to allow seasonal comparisons as the breeding season gets into full swing – and it’s going to be useful for refreshing my knowledge of bird names in French and learning some new ones, too.

Our other important engagement this weekend is to pop along to the local charity shop and stock up on some reading material. Charity shops are not overly common in France so we are blessed to have one close by, especially when it has a tremendous choice of books in English and French. Regular readers will know that running out of books was one of the biggest frustrations for us last year – we are both avid readers and always fill the car boot from various charity shops on our trips to the UK – so this feels like a little bit of heaven! At 20 cents for paperbacks and 30 cents for hardbacks, they are fantastic value and as always, we look after them, read them and return them for resale. I’ve been invited to join the team of volunteers and do a few hours in the shop or behind the scenes and it’s something I’m really looking forward to doing; it will be great to give something back to the community, to support local animal welfare, to meet new people and to improve my French. The only condition is that I am allowed time to get the vegetable patch up and running before I start; yes, it’s good to take a break now and again but I really do have to earn (and grow) my crust first! 😉

Autumn bliss

I’ve just come to the end of my 30-day yoga programme and, at the risk of sounding a bit self-congratulatory, I have to say I’m feeling pretty chuffed. This is the first time I’ve ever managed to find the discipline and motivation to follow a programme to the letter and to finish it in the allotted time, so it feels like quite an achievement. It has been a challenge and I won’t pretend that there weren’t days when I’d have preferred to leave my yoga mat well and truly rolled, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m certainly feeling stronger and more flexible as a result. I’m planning to start another 30-day programme soon, but in the meantime, I’m dipping in and out of the Yoga With Adriene November calendar of daily practices several times a week. It’s so good to stretch!

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve worked my way through the thirty days is an increasing desire to get out and have a good walk straight after breakfast. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of subconscious balancing response to the afternoon yoga practice, the effect of the beautiful weather or just a natural call to revel in the season, but it’s something I’m enjoying immensely. How can I ignore the pull of these gorgeous mornings? It would be rude not to make the most of them!

There is a magical air to the woods at present. Without so much as a breath of wind, the leaves are taking their time on their final journey, falling softly and unhurriedly in an autumnal spectrum of bright fire. Visually, it is very beautiful, but it’s the sound that has captured my imagination, the dry patter and whisper of a thousand leaves spiralling, floating or tumbling downwards through the dwindling canopy like gentle snowflakes. It is nature’s music, this crisp, tinkling timpani. I am mesmerised.

I love the way, too, that everything is opening up to let in light and space. The skeletons of trees are emerging; hidden for many months by the lush green canvas of summer, now trunk and branch take centre stage. The birch stand ramrod straight, a few hazy clouds of leaves clinging on in the topmost branches.

The chestnuts have no such discipline; they are true contortionists, metallic limbs bent and twisted at crazy angles. I am reminded of some of the more challenging yoga postures from recent practices!

Despite the lazy pace of leaf fall, I am struck at how quickly the evergreens have become prominent, the vining ivies and brooding hollies now moving to take possession of the season as is their right.

They are a long way from dominating, though; the leaves might be drifting downwards but the landscape still has a fullness to it, albeit it one that has been touched with the wide sweep of autumn’s paintbrush.

As the canopy thins, the abundant birdlife becomes more apparent, too; of course, they have been there all summer but now the trees are alive with the busyness of birds and it is a pleasure to reacquaint myself with them. Family flocks of long-tailed tits with their energetic acrobatics and incessant chatter; the vocal bullfinches with their flamboyant flash of deep pink; a myriad tiny characters – goldcrests, firecrests, assorted warblers – so busy in the highest branches; silent treecreepers scurrying up trunks like scuttling mice; shy crested tits, their perky feathered mohicans making me smile every time. What a precious thing it is to spend moments like this with nature. I lose all track of time, completely absorbed in my surroundings; for me, it is the very best kind of meditation.

I’ve written before about how I love a bit of peace and solitude and these morning walks are giving me those things; I carry the obligatory mask with me ‘just in case’ but it’s a privilege to be able to wander without any social distancing worries, to stride out or saunter, to breathe deeply, to relax, simply to be. It wouldn’t be right to claim I’ve never met met another soul, however; there is someone I see often, an early bird long-distance runner. Mad man. Wonder who he can be? 😉

Despite this prevailing sense of autumn, the spring flowers in the verges are having a second wind, as they always do at this time of year. There is no great abundance, but still plenty of forage for hungry insects in the colourful dabs and spots amongst the leaf litter. There is knapweed, Queen Anne’s lace, St John’s wort, red clover, Three Birds Flying, granny’s bonnets, honeysuckle, hawkbit and scabious and even a beautiful patch of violets just up the lane from our house.

As in the wild, so in the garden. I love the way the calendula now sweep through the patch in sunny clumps after their summer rest. They are irrepressible: I’m harvesting the petals to dry for herbal teas and for every bloom I pick, two more spring up the next day. They will continue like this all through winter now.

On the subject of marigolds, the single French marigold plant that has taken so long to do anything much is now in its full glory. I feel I ought to be collecting and drying the flowers as a dyestuff but they are making such a bold splash of colour and are so full of bumble bees that I don’t have the heart.

Another little beauty is the oca, a brand new vegetable adventure for us this year and one that has proved interesting to follow. The plants are showing no signs of dying back yet ~ they are flourishing, in fact ~ and the dainty blooms are receiving the constant attention of bees and butterflies alike.

The roses and geraniums are still going strong in bold splashes of colour, the gorgeously fragrant peacock lily has started to flower, the honeysuckle shows no signs of giving up, the verbena bonariensis is having yet another go and as for the nasturtiums? Well, they are trailing through every nook and cranny and cascading in bright waterfalls wherever they have the chance.

Athough citrus trees blossom and fruit all year round here, the main harvesting season is about to begin. The first tantalising fruits on our young orange tree are still green, but there is a gradual and subtle change to their hue which promises great things to follow.

The kiwis have started their marathon season and are bringing a juicy sweetness to our palate in place of the figs which have well and truly finished now. The tracery of the almost bare branches and the last few leaves of the fig tree caught against the bluest of skies sums up the season perfectly for me. Ah, autumn. Bliss. 😊

Wild things

I like the term wildcrafting; look for a definition and you’ll find a range of subtly different meanings and perspectives, all of which embrace the idea of collecting plant materials from the wild for eating, crafting (by which I mean things like dyeing and basket-making) or making herbal medicines. It differs slightly from foraging in as much as there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of stewardship, of knowing, observing, understanding and caring for the land, of treating it with honour and respect in the way indigenous peoples have for millennia. It’s about ethics, sustainabilty and above all, connection: yes, I like that very much.

It’s been something I’ve reflected on a good deal this week as we have been gathering and enjoying so much of nature’s bounty. Our fields are full of parasol mushrooms, dotting the green in great sweeps of creamy caps among the purple haze of autumn crocus. They seem particularly large and meaty this year and are a wild food to be treasured.

We pick them early in the day while they are curved and pristine, all sharply pleated gills and clean, lemony scent. Combined with chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes they make the very best of creamy autumn soups, a dish that sings in celebration of the season and makes a perfect lunch for hungry gardeners!

Later in the day, the mushroom caps flatten and it’s clear that something else has been tucking in, too . . . and this brings me back to the concept of wildcrafting. It would be very easy to go out and pick every mushroom for ourselves, eating what we can manage now and preserving the rest for later (and perhaps if we were starving we could be forgiven for that). However ~ thankfully ~ we’re not starving and the mushrooms aren’t there just for our culinary delight; they are an important and integral part of the biodiversity that exists within the ecosystem of the meadows and as such, it’s crucial that we take only our fair share and leave the rest.

In countries where wild edible fungi proliferate, the ancient skills and knowledge of finding, preparing, preserving and using them are passed down from one generation to another. This learning and observation aspect of wildcrafting is essential since the wrong choice or information could result, quite literally, in a fatal mistake. I’ve always applauded the fact that in France, foraged fungi can be taken to a local pharmacy for identification, yet if they are not edible, it seems wasteful and destructive to have picked them in the first place. There are plenty of good reference books and internet sites but this is a case where I believe there is no substitute for learning first-hand from an expert: a fungi foraging workshop is definitely on my wishlist! In the meantime, they are at their absolute best here now so it’s the perfect chance to get out with the camera and simply enjoy the rich visual variety on offer.

Eucalyptus is something I have no difficulty finding or identifying, being such a ubiquitous part of the western Asturias landscape, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It is an exotic, invasive alien which really shouldn’t be here and there is widespread acknowledgement and concern across the Iberian Peninsula at how the vast monocultural plantations have depleted topsoil, disturbed the water tables and offered very little to native wildlife. It’s ironic and sad when the native forests of mixed broadleaf species grow so prolifically in the benign climate and burst with a rich biodiversity of life.

As with all things, though, I like to keep a balanced view, and it’s fair to say that eucalypts are not all bad. For a start, they are proving to be a mighty weapon in regenerating areas of several countries where deforestation and desertification have caused mass ecological devastation. That so much of the commercial crop ends up as toilet paper can mask the fact that they are a very dense hardwood, excellent as a building material and fuel; during the nineteenth century, they were planted in some countries alongside railway tracks as an instant and accessible fuel for steam trains and certainly they form the bulk of our winter fuel here. The flowers are a fantastic source of nectar and provide invaluable winter forage for Asturian bees, yielding a delicious honey into the bargain. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the trees slough off old bark in twisted ropes that hang from the high branches like tropical vines or litter the woodland floor like discarded snake skins. The bark has proved useful to us as a natural hanging basket liner and a ‘brown’ addition to the compost heap.

For me, though, in wildcrafting mode, it’s the leaves that are valuable, and the days following windy weather are ideal for collecting them; the mature leaves grow so high up it’s impossible to pick them without the aid of a tame koala but a few decent gusts are enough to shake the stems down.

The younger stems are more accessible and very different with their rounded leaves and pretty blue tones. I’ve been watching these fresh stems shoot up from an old stump over the past few months but in recent weeks, they’ve been flattened ~ I’m not exactly sure by what, but as there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to wild boar activity in that area, I have my suspicions!

These seemed like the perfect branches to harvest, but of course, I didn’t cut them all; there was a timely little reminder sitting on a leaf that the trees might be aliens, but they do still have something to offer to others.

Now at this point, let me digress a little and say that it has been a terrible year for snails. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s been a truly wonderful year for snails but a terrible one for gardeners trying to grow leafy vegetables. Honestly, they are like a plague, and ~ in contrast to our first summer here when we had a similar slimeball deluge ~ it’s the tiny ones that are causing all the trouble. Bad enough that they sit about in small groups on the tops of leaves, the undersides are generally hiding twenty or thirty of the little beasties. In a way, the current boom is partly my own fault; three nights away followed by several days of wet weather where I chose to spend minimal time in the garden gave them free range to spiral out of control, doing what snails do naturally . . . scoffing our crops.

The problem, of course, is that we choose to garden in an organic, sustainable and regenerative way and this is what the frontline looks like; it’s all very well waxing lyrical about ‘working with nature’ and flooding social media with sundrenched pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect veg but this is no unicorn-infested fairytale or horticultural utopia. The reality is that such an approach to growing food is not a soft option: it can be frustrating, demoralising and downright hard work at times. I appreciate that the prospect of spending an afternoon scraping hundreds, if not thousands, of snails off leaves wouldn’t appeal to many people ~ I’m one of them ~ but if we are to remain true to our gardening values and principles, then it’s the only way. I did smile at the thought of Bill Mollison’s famous ‘duck deficit’ quotation, wondering how many legions of feathery foot soldiers we would need to win this particular battle! The alternative, though, is not an option, partly because the poisons in slug pellets could seriously harm toads, frogs and lizards who are all valuable allies in this. Also, it comes down to a very simple equation: what goes into the soil goes into our food, and what goes into our food goes into us. Metaldehyde or molluscs? No contest . . . so back to the manual extraction it is, and it’s worth the effort because we are currently enjoying an abundant harvest of delicious, leafy greens despite the snails’ best efforts.

Anyway, back to the business of harvesting eucalyptus. As the trees are evergreen, it’s possible to collect fresh leaves all year round as and when I need them but I decided it might be interesting to see how well they dried. Given how the dried leaf is widely available to buy for a herbal tea and the plethora of mouthwashes, chest rubs and other medicinal products on the market, it might be surprising to learn that eucalyptus is poisonous and can be extremely harmful to humans and animals if ingested in large quantities (koalas have evolved the ability to flush the toxins out quickly). In short, eucalyptus contains cyanide ~ but then so do apples, peaches, barley and flaxseed, among others. Once again, it’s down to learning, knowledge and ancient wisdom; in small quantities, eucalyptus leaf offers a safe and healing herb and after all, I’m not intending to sit and chew my way through a huge pile of them! I will use the mature leaves for the occasional cup of tea and steam inhalations to ease winter congestion; mashing and washing the leaves actually helps to eliminate the cyanide anyway, as it’s water-soluble. I’m also planning to macerate some in almond oil to make a rub for sore muscles, perfect for some gentle post-run therapy. The younger leaves I will simmer in water to make a household disinfectant and toilet cleaner. The bunch is currently hanging in the autumn sunshine with some indigo-dyed fleece I finally got round to plying and skeining thanks to a rainy day . . . and yes, I should have been on snail patrol instead of messing with yarn. 🙂

Regular readers will know that I need no persuading to go wandering about in the woods at the best of times, but just at the moment there is so much seasonal colour and beauty to enjoy, especially with a splash of soft sunlight on the leaves, that it is a complete delight.

Not that these walks are without their dangers; I’ve mentioned the risk of being bombed by falling chestnuts previously but things have taken on a new twist this week in the form of giant webs. Spiders are most definitely the animal of the moment (shame they don’t eat snails) and the webs are enormous affairs, stretching several metres right across the forest paths. The risk of entanglement for the unwary is supremely high but luckily, the rather plump spinners tend to sit right in the centre waiting for their next unsuspecting victim; this makes the invisible webs all the easier to spot and then they can be avoided with a little nifty limbo dancing. I’ve yet to see that noted as an important facet of wildcrafting anywhere . . .

The chestnuts really are worth the trouble, though, and this year’s crop seems to be especially good ~ fat, unblemished and maggot-free. Those spines are lethal so a thick pair of leather gloves is essential! Unlike walnuts which we store for a year, we tend to eat chestnuts as more of a seasonal food, perhaps just freezing a few peeled ones for adding to stuffings or winter stews later on. They are such a versatile and delicious ingredient; as well as the aforementioned soup, they are a great addition to sauces and casseroles, pasta and pizza toppings, crumble mixes and breakfast bowls and we particularly love them roasted in trays of mixed vegetables.

In complete contrast to the hearty, floury starch of chestnuts, one of my other favourite forage foods at the moment is applemint. It’s a boisterous native, romping energetically through the verges and meadows and for me, it is the quintessential scent of an Asturian summer, especially when the grazing cattle trample it. It has a pungent scent but I must confess that my nose tends to pick up more carbolic than apple; mind you, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ leather, chocolate or mushrooms from red wine either, despite much conscientious application, so that’s not really saying anything. The scent of applemint might be lost on me but I do like the flavour, particularly a few leaves brewed with green tea as a refreshing, relaxing drink and aid to digestion. The plant doesn’t die back completely once summer is over but I tend to have to wander a bit further afield to find a good clump once the season changes. I’m not the only one who appreciates its bounty!

Now at moments like these, I have a habit of losing all sense of what I set out to do because I become sidetracked by other things; the fragile beauty and perfect symmetry of the butterfly sipping sweetness from deep within the flowers had me totally absorbed. Well, that was until I noticed someone else perched on a neighbouring leaf . . .

Flitting from flower to leaf, the first little star at last opened its wings to give me a hoped-for glimpse of that gorgeous blue.

Well, why not be led astray by all this natural wonder for a while? Like the vivid saffron stamens cradled inside crocus cups . . .

. . . or the fleeting fire of a sunset, for me it’s the wild in wildcrafting that is so very special. 🙂

Autumn breezes in

I can smell autumn dancing in the breeze, the sweet chill of pumpkin and crisp sunburnt leaves.

Anon

What a surprise to wake to the sound of wind rattling around the eaves and a cool, fresh breeze blowing through the bedroom. Wind is a rarity here at the best of times but seems especially strange after the long, still, sleepy days of summer. Autumn usually creeps and sidles in so softly and slowly we barely notice but this year it has come knocking loudly on the door, all bluster and blow. Time to pull on my boots, get out there and revel in the change. 🙂

How different the morning light is already, the mountain tops in the distance sunlit as I start my walk but so much of the valley still cloaked in shadow. It’s cooler, too, with a new scent to the air: not the dank, dark mushroom smell of death and decay that will come later, but a deeper, earthier tone than of late, something that seems to reflect the subtle shift of colours in the landscape.

I’m not a fan of high winds, they can be disturbing and bring damage and destruction in their wake. A fresh breeze is another matter, though; there is something very energising about it, a sense of vitality and vibrant action that I love. There is mesmerising movement in the trees, a rippling dance shimmying through the undergrowth, a noisy, bustling, chaotic joie de vivre that makes me smile and quicken my pace. The equinox is behind us and yes, we have tipped beyond that point of balance but it is certainly not all gloom and doom and darkness: there is still plenty of joyful living to be done!

As a teacher, I was always aware that a windswept playtime would more often that not be followed by an unsettled session with fidgety, high-spirited, bright-eyed children; to be sure, it wasn’t ideal if there was serious work to be done, but in a way I used to feel there was something healthy and wholesome about the electric charge crackiling and fizzing through the classroom on windy days. It does us no harm to stir the pot occasionally, to shake everything up like a giant snowglobe and let it all settle into a different pattern. It’s what fuels creativity and innovation and stops us stagnating or becoming too predictable and set in our ways. Perhaps, childlike, we should all go out on a windy day and dance with the trees?

Autumn is generally associated with a carnival of colour but the days of bright fire are still some way off; the landscape here is still predominantly lush and green, yet walking through the woods, there are little hints and subtle touches that speak of what’s to come.

As the woodland path starts to drop towards the river, there is a more open space where I often saw roe deer grazing in late spring and early summer this year. When we first moved here, this steep slope had been recently harvested, and the landscape still bore fresh and ugly scars to show where towering eucalyptus had been felled and carted away to be pulped into toilet paper. It has been left to regenerate naturally and although the eucalyptus has come back (of course it has, try stopping it), there are plenty of young native trees in there, too, including birch, oak, cherry, holly and chestnut.

It has been a fascinating process to watch ~ proper rewilding in action, I suppose ~ and I love the eclectic colourful mix of the understorey. In spring it bristles with the white spires of asphodel, in early summer it is a sumptuous purple haze of bee-ridden foxgloves but at this time of year, the gorse is centre stage, all bright sunshine and coconut perfume.

In fact, there is still a wealth of wild flora available to those who feed on it; this season’s preferred colour combinaton is most definitely yellow and purple.

From colour to touch, and at this time of year I find I am drawn more than ever to textures with a deep, atavistic need to reach out and explore with my fingertips. From the bright, brittle symmetry of fern to the soft floaty fluff of seedheads, the jagged layers of a rock fall or perfect dome of a captured raindrop, the pompom flowers and glassy leaves of ivy and a dizzying choice of tree barks . . . I am in tactile heaven!

I’d hoped to find an interesting selection of fungi but they were very thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s still a little early but I did at least manage to spot a few, even if they weren’t the most inspiring.

One thing there is no shortage of is chestnuts. They are everywhere and it’s a dangerous business wandering about under the trees, especially in a wind, believe me; I can categorically state that being chestnut bombed is not a pleasant experience! They are a wonderful food, though, and a handful cooked with squash from the garden and a selection of warming spices makes a dish that is just perfect for the season.

So, like the circle of the seasons and the year, I came full circle back to our home, hair in a wind-teased tangle and cheeks feeling warmed and kissed by the busy breeze. The sun had climbed from behind the mountain, flooding the valley with light once again and the promise of a lovely day. There is still so much abundant growth, so much lush verdancy and it will be with us for some time to come. I’ve enjoyed my little taste of early autumn, the chance to blow the cobwebs out and waken my senses to the season, the change in the air . . . but I’m still enjoying the summery things, too, so let’s not rush! 🙂

A design for life

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why it should be, but this time of year always leaves me feeling slightly enervated. Perhaps it’s something to do with the weather, the sun still hot and high, the air slick with moisture and brewing storms. Maybe it’s all the busyness of harvesting and processing things from the garden; I’m not complaining ~ we are so lucky to have such an abundance of fresh produce and the means to preserve most of it ~ but it’s a pretty relentess activity at the moment. It could be some kind of circadian rhythmic response to the noticeably shortening days or just a throwback to that perennial sinking feeling that the holidays are nearly over and the new school term looms! I’m really not sure, but I’ve certainly lacked the energy that swirls in abundance through those stormy skies.

Sunny evening, stormy sky.

The irony is that I know full well as soon as we have passed the point of balance at the equinox, I shall be bursting with energy and buzzing like a fly in a bottle with ideas for new creative projects. In the meantime, I’m simply pottering about without much enthusiasm. I’ve been felting little bags to stuff with birthday goodies for Evan and Matthew, finished knitting a pair of socks which I’ve been fiddling at for weeks, made another batch of soap, done a bit of spinning here, a bit of crochet there and, at long last, finished the dress I have been sewing. All butterfly-minded, I’ve been flitting from one activity to the next, nibbling at the edges of things but with no real appetite to get stuck in.

Self-set phacelia and hungry visitor.

I’ve tried to find the discipline to go for a run a couple of times a week but I have to confess, yoga has been far better suited to my mood and, with the new horreo flooring finished, I find I have the perfect outdoor studio. I love the combination of the honey-coloured stone and wood, both old and new, in such a light, airy space; it’s totally shaded from sun and sheltered from rain but the breeze can still blow through in a soft, refreshing way; I have wonderful views over the tops of the peach trees and yet it’s completely private. It’s like being up high in my own little castle and I love it!

View from my castle ramparts . . .

One of my favourite parts of yoga practice is the inverted postures. Children turn themselves upside down at the drop of a hat but how often do we do the same as adults . . . and why not? It feels crazily liberating and, in addition to a healthy flow of blood to the brain, it encourages us to look at life ~ literally and metaphorically ~ from new angles. So it was that I was resting in Downward Dog, contemplating the mesmerising sight of the eucalyptus trees in our woodland catching a fair breeze in their silver boughs, when the random thought of ‘permaculture’ landed in my consciousness. (Apologies to serious yogis: I realise when I’m doing yoga, I should be concentrating on only that! 🙂 )

. . . and in Downward Dog!

Permaculture is something that has interested me for some time and I’ve been dabbling in it for a good while now. I’ve done a lot of reading, watched hundreds of video clips, followed permaculture blogs . . . but never really fully engaged in coming to understand it properly. I’m not in a position to sign up for studying for the Permaculture Design Certificate at the moment but I’ve been struggling to find a truly viable alternative, and I’m aware part of that is a personal thing. There’s a lot of material out there, some of it really excellent and inspirational, some of it utterly dire. I’ve found it hard to gel with certain personalities or to subscribe to elements of elitism from some quarters and I’ve also found the quality of some writing truly terrible. (I know it might sound fussy and pedantic and yes, I did hang up my teacher hat several years ago, but if I am constantly distracted from the bones of an argument by poor grammar and spelling then the course is definitely not for me!).

Beauty in bloom.

Anyway, my yoga moment had me thinking perhaps it was time to look again and I was very delighted to find the #freepermaculture site and sign up for the year long course on offer. It’s only early days but my goodness, I think I’m going to love every bit of this course! It’s very accessible and user-friendly, bright and fun without feeling dumbed down or lightweight in any way. I like the fact that it’s delivered by different voices and that disagreement and discussion are encouraged as part of the learning process; I think that is incredibly healthy and I’ve always enjoyed a good debate. I love that it’s hands-on so that all the theoretical study will be put into practice and that plenty of time has been built in to allow proper development of thought and action. The fact that it is free is amazing, although I shall certainly be making a donation in support of the good work ~ I think that might be the ethical principle of Fair Share in practice both ways?

So, why permaculture? Well, it became clear once I started reading about it that we have been applying some of the principles to our life for a long time without even realising it, so it makes a lot of sense to pursue those ideas further and see where they take us. Certainly, much of our gardening practice is already along the right lines; for example, I would argue that the time, observation, effort, thinking, building and working with nature that we have devoted over five summers to yielding a healthy tomato crop here is testament to that. I’m excited to really get to grips now with the design concepts and start playing with new ideas and strategies around the patch.

Certainly, for us the concepts of sustainability and regeneration are key to our personal philosophies. The more self-sufficient, self-reliant and resilient we can become and the more we can reduce our carbon footprint and care for everything living in our space now and in the future, the better.

Iberian grass snake: judging by the bulge halfway down its length, it had just found a living lunch in the compost heap!

It’s not just about gardening and food production, either ~ and that’s another element of this course I welcome, the fact that that is made very clear. Permaculture, based on three sets of ethics and twelve principles, is something that can be applied to all areas of life and the challenge is there for us to try and achieve that in a cohesive flow. It’s not perfect (what is?) and I’m not saying it’s the only possible design for life, but I think it’s a great peg for us to hang our future on and see what transpires.

Part of this week’s harvest from the orchard; the fig season has started, too.

In many ways, this is not so much about us as about the future. Roger and I are currently 57 and 53 respectively; we don’t consider ourselves to be ‘old’ but we are under no illusion that the larger part of our lives is behind us. What we do now is for our children and grandchildren and all the generations yet to come; I have no doubt that Planet Earth will endure, as it already has for several billion years, but I think we have a serious responsibility to hand it down in a fit, viable and valued state ~ and that certainly seems like a big ask at the moment.

However, I am nothing if not an optimist, and starting my new studies has given me a huge boost in the right direction. I suddenly feel hugely motivated again, full of energy and enthusiasm to look, listen and learn, to shake off this late August lethargy and get well and truly stuck in.

Not a bad classroom!

I even chose to do an extra optional activity in my first week, an observation and study of a significant tree in the locality. I chose one of our mighty walnuts and spent a very absorbing and happy time sitting in the shade of its wide green canopy, jotting down my ideas.

I definitely learnt many things just from this single activity, not least that my spelling brain and the word ‘mycorrhiza’ don’t get on! I also discovered to my surprise that on a mature walnut tree like this one, the leaves are larger at the ends of the stem than further in; if someone had asked me to sketch one from memory, I would have put smaller leaves at the end, as they are on the younger trees. Observation is a powerful tool, indeed!

So, I’m very eager to see what these 52 weeks of study and activity will bring ~ who knows how our lives might change in the next twelve months as a result? It feels like quite an undertaking, a bit scary in some ways, but I do love a challenge, particularly one that keeps the old grey matter busy. Life is exciting, so full of opportunity and possibility, and there is something very uplifting and exhilarating about stepping out on a new path, wherever it may lead . . . yes, even at my great age! 🙂

New dress, new path . . . the adventure begins.