Solar power

A couple of weeks ago, finding myself wide awake at 4.45am, I pulled on my dressing gown and wellies (how chic am I?), grabbed a blanket and headed out into the garden. The moon and Venus were still bright in the southern sky as I settled myself into a chair to watch the sun rise and the world around me waken. I’m often dozily aware of the growing light and dawn chorus drifting in through the bedroom window but to be outside in the thick of it was truly magical. It’s not just the birdsong, the different species flowing in and out of the chorus like a well-directed choir, but all the movement that goes with it – the rustle and bustle, the flitting and flying and feeding – that is quite astonishing. The sun rose in a bright fire, blushing a few wispy clouds and sending long fingers of shadow whispering across the garden; the grey shapes of tree and flower came into sharp focus as colour seeped into everything around me. It was beautiful, an hour of stillness and peace that left me feeling alive and invigorated for the rest of the day.

I had planned to repeat the experience on the summer solstice, excited by the fact that for the first time ever, we are living somewhere where the lie of the land means we can see both sunrise and sunset on that pivotal day; I’d wanted to take photos, to be able to pinpoint the sun’s journey precisely at the high point of its year. Ha ha, how the weather gods laughed. Cloud and thunderstorms were the order of the day; all was green and fresh and sparkling but there wasn’t a hope of seeing the sun do its stuff above the bank of glowering grey. The best I could manage was an indifferent, moody cloudscape in the evening. Ah well, there’s always next year . . .

. . . and that’s the point, really. I can’t feel downhearted. I love midsummer and think it is worthy of celebration, it is such a joyful time of year with so much light and warmth and growth. I know it’s not the same for everyone and there are those who feel wistful – mournful, even – at the thought of shorter days and everything being ‘downhill’ from here. Well, I’ve never been one to race ahead of the season and it frustrates me the way in which modern society encourages that. In a blink of an eye, it will be the summer sales bonanza; as children prepare to break up for their summer holiday, the shops will be full of ‘Back to School’ stuff; far too soon after their return to the classroom, the shelves will be cleared in preparation for that gross consumerfest in December. Why be miserable about dark nights and cold weather when it’s still warm and light and there is so much yet to come, not least most of our harvest? We’re only halfway through the year . . . let’s enjoy ourselves and celebrate the moment!

I think this moment as the sun briefly stands still is the perfect point for a pause; it’s a time to look back over the waxing half of the year and reflect on what I have – or haven’t – accomplished and look forward to the next six months with optimism and a fresh sense of purpose. For us this year it is particularly pertinent since this week marks six months since we moved to our new home here . . . wow, that time seems to have flown by! There have been ups and downs, steps forward and back, much hard work and a fair amount of play, too; at times, our progress has seemed painfully slow but we have achieved much and some time spent in reflection also helps us to see more clearly what our next steps need to be.

The garden, as ever, has been our main priority, and at last there is a feeling that we are actually getting somewhere. The summer harvest has started in earnest and it’s a wonderful feeling to be shelling peas and broad beans and picking cherries daily; we eat vast quantities of fruit and vegetables and it has been a strange experience for us having to buy them since December. No more! I love the way that a sense of abundance is creeping into various patches; I am happy to admit that I am a terrible crammer when it comes to sowing and planting but I love that sense of everything hugged together, jostling for elbow room. Out of necessity this year, the larger veg patches look more formal than I like with most things in tidy rows but in the Secret Garden, I have managed to indulge my own brand of chaos with bits and bobs stuffed in here and there, a crazy patchwork quilt of food and flowers.

The other patches look starker, lacking any real sense of height or structure as yet, but after several days of warm rain everything seems to have shifted up a gear. The climbing beans are at last spiralling upwards and the squash have tumbled down their hügel bed and set off across the grass. The ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans (my absolute favourite variety) are flaunting their gorgeous flowers, and the ‘Charlotte’ potatoes have added their mauve and white blooms to the purple of ‘Blue Danube.’ Throw in the sunny yellow starbursts of courgette and squash and it’s all looking rather pretty.

Saving seeds, roots and tubers for replanting is something we’ve practised for a long time and an area that I’m committed to developing more each year. Growing heirloom varieties is an obvious way to help this along and offers the added possibility of creating our own varieties; we’ve had a lot of fun with saving squash seed in the last few years and it has come as no great surprise that the Casa Victorio Specials are leading the chase across our French garden! As well as actively saving seed, I like to let plants do their own thing and regenerate as they like; self-set seedlings often thrive, even if they do pop up in the craziest of places. Rocket is very much a spring crop here and has been flowering in the Secret Garden for a couple of weeks now, the creamy white blooms being a dainty but peppery addition to salads. In no time at all, it will be setting seed and then hopefully spreading itself about along with the neighbouring land cress, coriander, parsley, calendula and borage. There are already little red sorrel seedlings appearing of their own accord and chard and New Zealand spinach are likely to join in . . . a self-perpetuating salad bowl in the making!

Rocket flowers in a salad

It’s not just about seeds, either. I’ve been transplanting small lettuce plants into any available spaces for several weeks now and we have a good crop to choose from. Trying to persuade more to germinate at this time of year can be tricky as they don’t like the heat very much and to be honest, it makes more sense to save the seed and plant it in the tunnel later in the year as an overwintering crop. In the meantime, I’m cutting them as we need them and leaving the root in the ground: it’s amazing how quickly they regrow into perfectly pickable leaves. Two lettuce for the price of one – can’t be bad.

Blond romaine lettuce: the two in the foreground have been cut and eaten once!

Herbalism is something that has interested me for as long as I can remember and I think the study of the therapeutic applications of plants is a fascinating and joyful lifetime’s work. Each year, I try to focus on different plants and add new knowledge, awareness and application in our daily lives, both of cultivated and garden species. Midsummer feels like the perfect time to begin harvesting and processing aromatic herbs, now in the full flush of growth before flowering, their leaves bursting with heady scent. I’ve been thrilled to discover a reasonable selection of established plants already here – including several varieties of mint – and I’ve been raising more from seed to add to the mix. I must confess, I’ve let things slide a bit since we’ve moved, too busy with many, many things to be exploring new possibilites of herbal teas, medicines, toiletries and the like; however, I sense a shift in the wind and the strong draw of the plant kingdom once again. Even the simplest activity can be hugely enjoyable and beneficial. After a day of planting out hundreds of brassicas and leeks, a soak in a warm bath (such a luxury after five years of shower only) was a temptation I couldn’t resist; I picked lemon balm, lavender and rose petals, tied them in a linen square and tossed them into the water. Bliss, pure and simple.

As a Briton, it’s hard to think of the summer solstice without summoning the evocative image of Stonehenge so it seems apt that we have been having another standing stone moment here ourselves this week. Having planted an arc of cardoons to mark the last boundary of the flower garden, I could at last see exactly how much space was left for the third planting area and was thrilled to find there is room for my longed-for mandala bed. I don’t want anything too complicated – simple concentric rings will do – but when Roger found a huge lump of quartz lurking in a corner, we both agreed it would make a perfect focal point at the centre. It would have been interesting to move it over rolling logs but in the end a sack trolley did the job; well, times change, after all! On sunny days, it has acted as a perfect sundial, its shadow shrinking and growing across the grass through the day; now comes the job of creating what I hope will be a beautiful, thriving mandala bed by this time next year, something which will keep me busy in the coming months.

The smaller stone we placed in the hügel bed has disappeared into the undergrowth and I’m very delighted about that; not because I want the stone hidden, but I’ve been doubting whether anything would grow there successfully this year. Making hügel beds is a new experience for us, a game of patience which should pay dividends long term; certainly the squash seem happy enough on their high mound, but this flatter bed has bothered me a bit, especially as the topsoil is very thin. I’ve been adding to it from molehills but those little tunnellers seem to have shaken spring out of their system now and aren’t quite as busy about the place as they were. I knew that only annual seeds stood any chance this year, so I scattered a couple of flower mixes and put the rest down to green manure, mostly phacelia and buckwheat, with a late sowing of crimson clover to fill the gaps. In the hot, dry weather this bed really suffered and, with the water butts rapidly emptying, I saved every scrap of grey water from the house to try and keep things alive. After rain, though, it is literally blooming and fills me with optimism that the bed will work and we will have something resembling a flower garden in time.

We are still in the early days of learning and listening to this land and one of the best ways of doing that is to look at the pioneer plants. In a stubbornly empty patch of the hügel flower bed, a swathe of yarrow has established itself which pleases me very much. Like the elder I wrote about last time, yarrow is a crucially important healing plant; together, their dried flowers make effective remedies for winter colds and fevers, especially when combined with peppermint whilst yarrow alone has a wide range of applications. I’m happy that it’s here and it’s welcome to stay where it’s growing; far from wanting a formal flower garden, I see this space being a mix of cultivated and wild, of flowers and food, of things deliberately planted and others wandering in of their own accord. Close by, it has appeared in deep pink, too, making a pretty palette amongst the other ‘weeds’. . . how I love this wild gardening!

Permaculture places an emphasis on margins and edges, seeing them as fertile places offering much in the way of growth and possibility. I love the way that where we have left nature to its own devices, more and more species are creeping in from the edges, including the St John’s wort in my third photo – a midsummer flower if ever there was one. The verges are currently full of pale mauve campanula, indigo vetch and the rich magenta of knapweed, all flowers that I’m happy to have found in the garden, too. Looking back over the last six months, we have made changes here in order to create a garden but there is a distinct feeling that we are doing it within and alongside the wilder nature of the space and I’m happy with that. I like the blurring of boundaries and the sense of an holistic, inclusive approach; of course, the cultivated areas are contrived and not what nature would do on its own but they are not being made in a ‘beat back nature at all costs’ sort of way.

There’s a lot to be said for (re)wilding and it’s another area that interests me greatly, but things don’t have to be black and white on either side of a deep divide; the shades of grey, that mingling and mixing and merging, can be so very rich and mutually beneficial if done properly. The flower garden, now gaining in leaf, colour and height is at last starting to look more like a garden and less like a carved up field; this morning, I watched with delight as a family of young thrushes bounced their way across the mown grass and picked juicy bits out of a solitary molehill; a robin sat on top of the new standing stone and sang; a redstart perched on the edge of the new (and very full) water butt, dipping in and out to drink while a spotted flycatcher used the sweet pea wigwams as a launch pad for its aerial acrobatics. There is infinite room and opportunity for us all to share this precious place and our plans for the garden in the second half of the year are firmly rooted in that premise. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

It all comes down to a question of vision and focus, something that was brought home to me in a lovely way this week as I was trying to capture some new blooms with the camera. It was set to autofocus so all I had to do was press the shutter button; there was me, totally absorbed by the beauty of the flowers, but the camera chose to capture other life I hadn’t even noticed. Another lesson from the Small Things. I had to smile.

This made me smile, too. Checking some newly transplanted purple sprouting broccoli plants, I glanced at the neighbouring row of carrots and saw a fabulous swallowtail caterpillar, so vivid and vibrant in its smart colours which indicate that it’s close to pupation. Living life cycles, right under my nose. Incredible.

We have so much more to do here but I’m looking at our plans with a sense of optimism and excitement; we’re not afraid of the work, we know there will be downs as well as ups and our ideas may well have to be changed or even binned as we move forwards and come to know this beautiful space better. In the meantime, the sunshine has returned after a week of cloud and rain and I am feeling the pull of the warmth and light, the power of the sun at its height. It’s time to be outside again, basking in the comfort and joy of the season. Summer. Yes, I’m celebrating. 😊

In praise of small things

After so many weeks of miserably cold weather through spring, I’m not going to grumble about the current heat. That said, I don’t find 33°C conducive to digging a trench for the cardoon hedge or extending the comfrey bed. Ditto going for a run. It is a complete pleasure, though, to get up early and walk many circuits round the patch, some at a brisk march in the name of exercise, others more leisurely, camera in hand. There is so much to enjoy!

The dew is heavy and my trainers and socks are soaked within minutes. It brings an exquisite freshness to everything, a deep liquid green that is so fleeting – another hour, and all will be hazed and bleached in the burgeoning heat. There is a vibrant hustle and bustle to the garden, as if every living thing is rising to the energy of midsummer light or perhaps – like me – simply enjoying the comfort of early morning before seeking solace in shade later in the day. Faces turned towards the climbing sun, the poppies seem like camera-shy, coy madamemoiselles in scarlet satin skirts, yet they are literally shaking with the frantic activity of bumble bees in their dark, secretive centres.

The play of light on colour and form is enchanting, there is a softness which contrasts completely with the bright brittle quality of midday. In the potager, the plants will look pinched and panting later on but now it is all about growth and exuberance and the promise of wonderful feasts to come.

The Secret Garden spends most of the day in dappled shade but now is its time in the spotlight, a thousand tiny illuminated insects dancing like gold dust in the sunbeams. The cultivated area looks so modest and yet a quick count reveals a fair array of food on offer: two kinds of cabbage, three of kale and chard, four of lettuce, calabrese, oca, red sorrel, leeks, perpetual spinach, beetroot, New Zealand spinach, rocket, land cress, horseradish, rhubarb, celery, parsley, dill, coriander, rosemary, basil, chives, sweet cicely, borage and calendula. There’s still room to squeeze a few more bits and pieces in, too; it’s amazing what’s possible in small spaces.

Apart from growing food, one of our top priorities is to encourage nature to run free in a large proportion of the space (for anyone who is interested in ‘wilding’ some of their garden, We Are The Ark is a great resource) and I love the way it needs little encouragement. Where we have left a wide swathe of grass unmown below a hedge of mature oak and ash, all sorts of bits and pieces have started to appear of their own accord.

It’s not just the wild things, either. Last week, I wrote about shifting the compost heap to a new three-bay system; this week, a cluster of squash (I think) seedlings has emerged totally unbidden. Nature just getting on with it. I love that!

I also wrote previously about how our hedge of bare-rooted pink rosa rugosa has turned out to be white. I sent the company we bought them from some photos, not to complain but as much as anything to check whether it was me that had made a mistake when ordering them (well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done something that daft). No, it turns out the error wasn’t mine and they have kindly promised to send a batch of pink ones in the autumn; meanwhile, the white flowers might not be what we’d planned but they smell delightful and the small things are piling in for a closer look.

We are lucky that the garden is already brimming with so much wildlife to the extent that it’s an odd day if we don’t see a red squirrel, toad or grass snake and I’ve almost bumped into a young hare on more than one occasion this week. We’re not complacent, though; the figures for the decline in species (and biodiversity in general) since 1970 are shocking and we’re determined to do what we can to help. The uncut ‘meadow’ is teeming with life and I suspect the log piles, brush piles and grass heaps are, too. We’re planning to dig a pond and have made a start on the wild landscaping for it. We’ve made and put up bird boxes and a red squirrel nesting box, too, in the hope of some habitants next spring. I’ve found several empty eggshells on my wanderings this week, blues and browns, smooth and speckled, as precious and fragile as the tiny lives they contained. Each time I walk below that nestbox, I find myself wondering just how cute squirrel kittens must be!

Inspired by a local environmental project, Roger has been turning a pile of spare stones into dome homes, designed to create habitats for a range of creatures including the endangered garden dormouse (which is unlikely to be here, but you never know). The dome building itself is a therapeutic pastime and even if they don’t appeal to many new inhabitants, they make interesting talking points in the garden. (I’ve just realised how long it is since I took this photo: the dome is now surrounded by a meadow as high as my shoulder in places and the field of green barley beyond is tall and golden. What a difference a few weeks make!)

Where reptile homes are concerned, we seem to have a very popular ready-made stone ‘dome’ in the shape of the barn attached to the house. Trotting merrily down there one morning to find some jars – the preserving season has begun – I came across a rather large inhabitant who had obviously been having a lie-in but was now very much up and about.

I tiptoed back to the house (not easy on gravel) to fetch the camera but I think it must have sensed me and decided to retreat to the barn. It’s a grass snake, totally harmless, but to my mind still worthy of great respect. The jars, I decided, could wait; time to leave the magnificent creature in peace.

It’s very easy to be enchanted by the bigger species; I can’t help but smile at the red squirrel that has taken to dancing along Roger’s stone wall, giving great entertainment through the kitchen window, even though I know the little blighter is off to raid the cherries. Strawberries, too: it has been picking them as they ripen and making a cache under the twisted willow for later. You really have to admire such innovation! However, it’s the small things that need our help, too – and lots of it. The decline in insect populations is a complex issue but one that threatens to have a potentially serious global ecological impact; the link between pollinators and food is the classic example but the unseen work of so many species in soil and water is just as crucial to the entire web of life.

Of course, they’re not all insects: what of the arachnids and annelids, gastropods and arthropods? I sometimes think that language makes loving these little creatures difficult. Latin names can sound awkward and arrogant, ‘bugs’ and ‘minibeasts’ a sad dumbing down. Ladybird, bumblebee and grasshopper roll delightfully off the English tongue but are rather generic; the UK alone has 26 different species of ladybird, 24 species of bumblebee and 11 species of grasshoppers (plus 23 of crickets) and I’m ashamed to admit, I probably couldn’t identify most of them. It’s something I’m working on; many species are also native to northern France so quite familiar, others are very new to me. However, their crucial role in the ecosystem and food web of our garden is abundantly clear: watching parent blue tits tirelessly collecting tiny green caterpillars from the oak trees, spotted flycatchers, pied wagtails and swallows sieving the air for flies and bats swooping through the dusky orchard in search of moths is all the evidence I need, whilst realising there are a myriad other feeding relationships I can’t even see.

The more I zoom in on the World of Small, the more intrigued I become. Take, for instance, what is going on in the simple seating area we have created by the rear kitchen door. It spends much of the day in shade so is the perfect spot for enjoying a morning coffee or eating lunch in this heat and we use it a lot. I’ve planted up a few pots of herbs to decorate what was originally an old bread oven but it’s in that niche in the wall with the blue glass lamp that something extraordinary is happening . . .

A solitary wasp – some sort of mud dauber, I think – is building herself a nest. I haven’t been able to catch her on camera: she spends many minutes away, I presume collecting and processing the mud she needs, then flits back for just a few seconds at a time, disappearing into one of those tubes at great speed. She is only small (we thought she was some kind of hoverfly at first) but the structures she is creating are incredible; I’ve never come across anything like it before which shows just how much there is still to learn about the world – literally outside my back door!

Even after almost six months here, we are still finding and removing unpleasant chemicals from various places (don’t get me started on the dozens of plastic anti-rodent sachets I’ve picked up around the place), including plenty designed for use in the garden. One squirty bottle contained something simply called ‘Bug Spray’ and no, it wasn’t a repellent. So what do you do, point it at something you don’t like the look of and squeeze the trigger? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an out and out slug hugger but I find the idea of annihilating anything that qualifies as a ‘bug’ by spraying poison about in that way totally abhorrent. Then there’s the huge sack of diatomaceous earth we found in a plastic dustbin. I know it’s a natural product, finely ground silica that is often used for poultry anti-mite dustbaths but given how much reading and research I’ve done around organic gardening and permaculture, I was surprised not to have come across it as a popular form of pest control in organic gardens. Many people seem to swear by it, claiming it to be effective against slugs, snails, beetles, worms, fleas, mites, spiders and many other ‘insects.’

This had me asking a number of questions:

  • #1 Why would anyone want to kill spiders in their garden? As voracious predators of many pests, I’ve always considered them to be a welcome ally. Have I missed something?
  • #2 Does this stuff kill earthworms? Many people claim not since they have soft, moist skins (the worms, not the people) and only creatures with exoskeletons are affected by the abrasive action of diatomaceous earth.

Logic then led me on to asking more:

  • #3 If that’s the case, how can it possibly be effective against slugs and snails, both pretty soft and moist last time I looked? Something doesn’t add up here.
  • #4 If anything with an exoskeleton is killed, then that surely applies to those beneficial insects – ladybirds, bees, hoverflies, lacewings, butterflies and so on – that we try to encourage in the garden. How are they protected? The answers round this are vague and fudgy to say the least, based on not puffing the stuff around too freely (or breathing it in as it’s abrasive to mammalian lung tissue, too) or maybe covering any plants that beneficial ‘bugs’ might just visit.

You know what? Natural or not, I don’t want this anywhere near our garden, and seeing as we don’t have chickens in need of de-lousing or cats in need of litter trays, we took it to the happy chaps at the déchetterie so they could add it to their sadly necessary Toxic Shed.

Small things in the garden can be a downright nuisance; after Asturias, it’s a blessing to have hardly any slugs or snails, but the wireworms are driving us to distraction and we have blackfly for France – with legions of those wily protector-farmer ants to go with them. Chemical warfare is not the answer: it might be hard to love them, but these creatures are an important part of the food web and although reducing their numbers could make the difference to our harvest, blitzing them with noxious poisons is not the way forward. Where food plants are heavily infested with blackfly, we spray with a soap solution, otherwise we leave them alone; we have a tremendous ladybird population well-equipped to helping with the problem. Where wireworms are concerned, we’re turning the soil and searching every clod to expose them, encouraging the birds to tuck in or squishing large gatherings. Over time, as we build the soil and consequently the health of our young plants, the problem should be reduced anyway.

I have to confess, I never do anything about aphids on flowers, they just have to take their chance and nine times out of ten, very little lasting damage is done. We are still in the first year of discovering what’s in the garden and rose season is producing some lovely surprises. One incredibly strong plant dripping with blooms has me totally enthralled; ignoring a few greenfly, I am fascinated by the way it changes colours from bud to full flower. It also has a beautiful and profound perfume. I have no idea what variety it is but it’s so pretty, like strawberries and cream.

Sticking with delicious things, it’s no coincidence that there has been a noticeable influx of birds into the garden as the cherries ripen! It’s just our luck that, in an area that is full of cherry trees, ours is the first one to ripen and it’s amazing how quickly news travels. The tree is bristling with feathered foragers but thankfully it is loaded and there is plenty to go round. Roger is shimmying up and down a ladder several times a day to pick the fruits which are red and sweet; we’ve made a deeply spiced jam and frozen kilos of them for future use, but it is sun-warmed and fresh from the tree that I love them best. They are such a treat, an abundant blessing resulting from the activity of so many small pollinators in a bitterly cold April . . . and for that – and to them – I am deeply grateful. 😊

A place of peace

The rain has driven me in from the garden. I don’t mind working on through showers – I quite enjoy it sometimes, in fact – but these are serious downpours from a bruised sky, heavy and laced with thunder. I’m not grumbling. Steady, warm rainfall is exactly what’s needed and I love the change it has brought: dusty red earth turned a deep, moist brown, the blackbirds’ mellifluous melodies amplified, the invigorating scent of all things fresh and green wafting in through the open window. Delicious.

In truth, it’s the first time in days I’ve been indoors for any length of time. Roger is away for a week so I have been left to my own devices and in complete charge of the patch with just my bike for transport and the wildlife for company. I’ve written before about how I don’t mind a bit of solitude now and then; naturally, I shall be very pleased to have him home 😊, but being alone has never bothered me, especially when I have so much to do. I also think it’s a good thing to be shaken out of my comfort zone once in a while, even if that does mean having to indulge in the dark arts of the Man Shed; I’m happy to report that the lawnmower and I have been getting along just fine – blimey, I even managed to put petrol in it. That said, I’m definitely pleased we have left most of the grassy areas as no-mow meadow with simple paths cut through.

I should mention before I go any further that Roger has taken the camera with him, so the photos I’m using are lagging a bit behind the times. The oak tree and hedge at the top are now dense with deep green summer foliage, the hawthorn blossom has handed over to elder and the meadow grasses reach to my shoulder in places. With maximum light and a gentle balance between warmth and wet, everything is growing at full tilt. What a truly incredible, energising time of year it is.

I’ve been so occupied with outdoor things that my gardening diary has completely fallen by the wayside; it had grown so immense that it would fill several blog posts and then some (which is why I don’t intend to publish) but I know I will be cursing this time next year when my hoped-for reference material yields a great black hole. Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. As always, the vegetable garden has been taking up most of my time and attention, not only in terms of maintenance but also in continued expansion and development. It’s been so frustrating in the five months since we arrived not to be able to harvest any produce apart from herbs and rhubarb but that is set to change. I have managed to pick a modest salad of rocket, land cress, red sorrel, baby chard, radish and herbs, so crisp, fresh and zinging with colour and flavour; it made me realise just how much I’ve been missing my garden foraging habit. The broad beans and peas are dripping with bee-ridden flowers and setting their first precious pods, the French beans at long last have shaken off their miserable hunched look and rocketed skywards and at least one courgette is flirting with the idea of opening its fat yellow flower buds. There is light – and food – at the end of the tunnel.

Although I’m happy pootling about on my own, it was lovely to have visitors one afternoon and to spend a couple of hours sharing a pot of tea and having a good natter, in the relaxed, sociable way that was taken for granted pre-Covid. They were interested to see what we have been up to in the garden and, showing them round, I was struck by how illuminating it is to see our efforts through someone else’s eyes. I realised just how stark it all seems – brutal, almost – as if digging borders and beds, still relatively bare of vegetation and colour, has made indelible scars on the original landscape. We have a vision of how we would like the garden to be eventually, not ‘in the end’ since it will keep on evolving, but at the moment it hardly looks like great progress.

At least we can argue that the vegetable garden is functional; the part-done flower garden, on the other hand, looks – well – downright weird, if I’m honest.

This is where it is so crucial to hold fast to optimism and patience, those most important of garden tools! I’ve been looking at some old photos of what was our biggest garden project, thirteen years of turning four acres of rough hill pasture in mid-Wales into a productive vegetable patch, orchard, woodland and flower garden. It was bloomin’ hard work, especially as we were raising our family and both working full-time, but it was an invaluable experience in terms of developing our gardening knowledge and skills, battling the elements and realising exactly what can be rendered possible with a positive, pragmatic attitude and plenty of energy. Please excuse the quality of the photos, they hark back to the dinosaur days of glossy prints!

I’m not going to spend a lot of time reminiscing but a couple of projects in that garden are good illustrations of how things can change, develop, improve and mature in a relatively short time. Let’s start with the pond. There was a naturally boggy area in the field (soon to be orchard) next to a defunct concrete water trough which suggested itself as the perfect site for a wildlife pond. We talked about hiring a mini-digger to do the job, but I came home from work one day to find that Roger, who must have had a day ‘off’, had done the whole lot by hand.

We lined it with a heavy-duty butyl liner, made a wooden top for the trough to form a bench seat, planted a few bits and pieces around the margins and waited for the pond to fill naturally with rainwater . . . which took a while!

Within weeks, wildlife had started to move in: pond snails, great diving beetles, water boatman, pond skaters . . . isn’t it incredible how they all appear as if from nowhere? After a couple of years, as the pond and surrounding area developed in maturity, frogs, toads and newts (smooth and palmate) appeared along with damsel flies and dragonflies; birds drank and bathed, and pathways through the undergrowth suggested larger nocturnal visitors. The pond and the life it supported became a focal point for us as a family and that basic wooden seat was probably the most used on the whole property!

Unlike our current cottage, that house was not remotely pretty; originally an 18th century half-timbered farmhouse, it had been ‘modernised’ over the years which had stripped it of most of its exterior character. (Roger thought it so ugly that he eventually painted it terracotta; I thought the colour was more akin to tangerine myself, but it certainly cheered things up a bit and gave the neighbours something to talk about.) When we arrived, the view from the back of the house constituted a scrappy area of grass in front of a solid wall of high ornamental conifers, which made everything feel dark, closed-in and thoroughly depressing. We needed light and colour – and fast; I’ll happily admit, Roger went forth with the chainsaw and had those trees felled the morning after moving day, letting light flood in through the windows. The colour took slightly longer, but with the help of my little gardening elf, there was soon a flower border in the making. Note how the bird table was the first thing to be planted.

I realise now how quickly gardens – and children! – grow; a bare stretch of earth with a few puny perennials and scattering of seeds (much as we have here now) can be transformed in the blink of an eye once nature gets to work.

When we were selling the house, one lady who came to look round was so enthralled that she said she thought we had created a ‘magical pagan paradise.’ She didn’t buy it, but that really didn’t matter because unwittingly, she had paid us the greatest compliment possible in finding such delight in that chaotic, crammed tumble and jumble of colour, scent, form and life. Our garden wasn’t to everyone’s taste, of course, but it was very much an expression of ourselves and that’s something we want to replicate here. Everyone is entitled to their own preferences and opinions but I will always wonder why anyone would choose to hide behind a black conifer hedge when in front of it was the possibility of a living rainbow singing with life . . . and beyond it, the most stunning of views.

So, back to our emerging flower garden here. What is the plan? Towards the end of my time as a primary school teacher, the concept of creating a ‘Sacred Space’ in the school grounds was very much in vogue. Break times are essential for children to enjoy some freedom, fresh air, exercise, to burn up some of their boundless energy and generally let off steam. They need those opportunities to express themselves through play. (I’ll spare you the soapbox, but I wish we could cut this current popular jargon. Children play. Enough said.) However, not every child wants to spend their playtime wellying a football or haring about capturing flags, so the idea of a Sacred Space is to provide a designated footy-free area of the playground or school field where they can go to enjoy a quiet time – a safe sanctuary, if you like. This is exactly the sort of idea I have for our flower garden, although I prefer to think of it as a Place of Peace, with all the same benefits but no religious connotations. I want it to be somewhere that draws me in, a safe and nurturing space where I can rest, contemplate or simply just be. I’ve mentioned before that I’m hopeless at meditation but to sit in quiet stillness free of intellectual thought and open my senses to the sights, sounds and scents around me must surely be halfway there, and just as restorative. I’m hoping so . . . but there is much work to be done in the meantime. Back to that photo and I’ll expain the story so far.

We’ve chosen to create the flower garden where it can be seen from the house which is to the south, with a ‘wild’ area to the east, orchard and the rest of the garden to the west and shed and hedge to the north with fields beyond. The building in the picture is a tumbledown cottage which suggests this was once a hamlet; ours is the only house here now, a poignant reminder of decades of rural depopulation in the area (although interestingly, the tide has now turned). We really don’t like those conifers but we’ve planted between them with native hedging – hawthorn, beech and hornbeam – in the hope of incorporating them into a proper hedge and softening their impact. We’re trying to create a sense of enclosure for the garden, not in the strict way of a medieval hortus conclusus but somewhere that gives the feeling of a contained and more intimate space. The front edge of the garden is straight as it is the top of a bank created when a gravelled area was dug out behind the house; the rest of the garden, however, is most definitely all about softer sweeping lines and curves, far more my cup of tea. Eventually, there will be an archway covered in scented climbers at the entrance between the stone wall and rose hedge – all in good time. A few months ago, we planted a curved hedge of bare-rooted rugosa roses, one of my favourite plants; I smiled to read a warning on the nursery website that they can be ‘wild and untameable’ which is exactly the point! They will form a sumptuous hedge of great beauty and perfume which will drive the bees mad and send up suckers which we can lift and plant elsewhere. They’ve all taken well but there is just one tiny fly in the ointment: I ordered red ones, or at least rose foncé as they were advertised.

Five out of twenty five are flowering and dark pink they ain’t! What’s a person supposed to do? I have no intention of removing them or painting them (never could stand Alice in Wonderland) and ranting and raging at the suppliers will solve nothing. There’s a chance they could be mixed and the white ones are flowering first but only time will tell. It’s not quite what I’d envisaged but already it seems the flower garden is off on its own trajectory. Mmm. I could think of it as a Yorkshire hedge, but we both have ancestry that lies in red rose country on t’other side of the Pennines so that doesn’t quite work! Better to remember that white roses are traditionally symbols of peace which, after all, is very fitting to the sort of space I’m hoping it will become.

A path inside the rose hedge curves around our experimental hügel bed; the topsoil layer is fairly thin this year so I’ve scattered lots of annual flower seeds and large patches of flowering green manure like buckwheat and crimson clover which will bring beauty and benefit insects but can then be chopped and dropped to help build and nourish the soil. I was really thrilled when Roger surprised me with a standing stone as this is something I love to have in the garden. Standing stones are a fascinating and evocative element of our British heritage but they were common in ancient Gaul, too; it’s easy to think Asterix and Obelix at this point, but in all seriousness, the Carnac (Brittany) menhir alignment sites are some of the most mind-blowing and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. Heritage and history aside, I simply love stone and think it’s something that is so easy to take for granted; how incredible to have a focal point in the garden that has come from deep within the earth and is hundreds of millions of years old.

Staying with natural materials and at the back of the second border, we have built a rustic support for climbing plants using hazel poles out of our hedges. It looks very strange and stark at the moment but given time it should look more integrated and hopefully it will help to bring height and structure to the garden as well as screen the shed. We found two clematis here that had been planted in plastic bags inside wooden containers so we have released both from captivity and one of them is currently scrambling up the structure. It has the most exquisite velvety purple flowers which I can’t photograph until my beloved returns from his travels; watch out for them in my next post! We’ve also planted a couple of climbing roses for company, and I’ve put up three wigwams of sweet peas and climbing nasturtiums to add temporary height this year. I’m quietly adding perennials to the border, including a hedge of cardoons, but again it will mostly be annual colour this summer in shamelessly bright colours – think Mondrian rather than Monet for the time being.

Over the summer, I’m planning to dig at least one more large crazy-shaped border within the space, leaving room for a seat in the centre as a reminder that this is a place to linger and be savoured. I quite fancy one of those Jack and Jill seats as I imagine this as the perfect spot to settle down with a mug of coffee (or whatever) so some sort of table would be handy. We’re also thinking about an area of shrubs to create height at the edge of the garden and I’d like another curving hedge to compliment the rose one, maybe of shrubby flowering herbs like sage, lavender, thyme and hyssop. Beyond that, we are enouraging a ‘wild area’ to flourish with long grass under trees; there is already a twisted willow and I fancy adding other light and airy specimens like silver birch. At some point in the property’s history, there has been a garden area here as amongst the grasses there are poppies, cornflowers, mallow and Californian poppies creating a splash of colour in that wild ‘nature does its own thing’ way I love. They are welcome to stay and spread and I shall certainly be collecting and scattering seed to help them along the way. (This photo is a couple of weeks old, it’s all gone a bit colour crazy out there since.)

This wild element is something I desperately want to hold within the garden space; yes, there is structure and deliberate planting but I don’t want it to feel manicured or formal in any way. It’s going to be a fine balance between a certain amount of control and a lot of letting nature get on with it. After all, I could spend vast amounts of time and money arranging fancy plants in clever colour schemes but to my mind, nothing can match the simple but vibrant allure of beauties like this one.

Coming back full circle to the only straight edge in the story where Roger has built a drystone wall to create a boundary and separate the top of the bank from the garden. That bank is a nighmare; it has been planted with what I think of as supermarket car park shrubs and whereas I accept that cotoneaster and heathers are great nectar plants, the banality and downright sterile ugliness of things like prostrate conifers leave me completely cold. There are a few herbs buried in there but the entire bank has been overrun with weeds, particularly couch grass, and is going to be a mammoth task to sort out. In the meantime, though, the daisies I included in an earlier post have been joined by pink spires of foxgloves (photo to follow, please just imagine them for now) and further along the bank, a dainty clump of ragged robin has appeared. This gives me that first tool – optimism – to believe that one day, this bare, strange-looking patch really will be the wildly beautiful Place of Peace I hope for; all I need now is the patience to go with it.

Walk, run, write.

One of the benefits of having a husband who turns out to run every day without fail, generally notching up something between 90 and 110 miles (145 to 177 km) a week, is that he comes home having explored a wide swathe of the local area and full of ideas for new walking and cycling routes we can try together. So it was we found ourselves embarking on a five-mile loop close to home one afternoon last week, a lovely wander along tracks that took us through a range of contrasting landscape, starting in a sunlit tract of ancient woodland.

There is something astonishingly beautiful about deciduous woodland in May, walking through a leafy tunnel of the most intense greens with carpets of wildflowers below and the birds singing their hearts out at the energetic, burgeoning, joyful vitality of it all. I know just how they feel: if I could only ever have one environment in my life, it would most definitely be this one!

In places, the path skirted the edge of the woodland, opening out into apple orchards, small meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and larger crop-filled fields punctuated with coppices and hedges so typical of the bocage landscape.

Leaving the fields behind, we climbed up onto a high ridge and followed the route of an old Roman road through a section of landes or moorland which is being regenerated as part of an ecological project I wrote about in an earlier post. The drystone walls and stone domes that are being built as wildlife habitats have inspired us to do the same in our own garden; sitting on a log to share a flask of coffee, we drank in the views and watched as a buzzard flew low passes across the clearing and a skylark did a vertical take-off from a dome. This will definitely be the place for a spot of whimberry (bilberry) foraging later in the year.

The path continued along the ridge – the high banks and an ancient milestone reminding us of its immense history – then turned downwards through leafy woodland once more and eventually picked up the trail we had started on. What a gorgeous walk and we didn’t see another soul: well, actually, just the one . . .

In many ways, the hare neatly brings me full circle to where I started this post: running. Regular readers will know that I am, at best, a reluctant runner; I don’t really enjoy it but I know it does me good and I like to write the occasional post about running in the hope of maybe inspiring and encouraging other plodding slowbies aspiring athletes like myself. As I have a tendency to blow hot and cold about the whole thing, running for a few weeks then stopping again (this is the only thing that is actually consistent about my approach), I find myself searching for motivation and inspiration on a pretty regular basis. Back in March, having read The Happy Running Habit, I started a running journal as a draft blog, writing a paragraph to log each run and adding an uplifting photo from my media library. So, how has that been going? Well, here are a few excerpts to set the tone . . .

Friday 23rd April: Well, 15 days between runs isn’t so bad, is it? OK, it’s shameful but I’m full of excuses as always. The weather has been horrible, very hard frosts and an icy easterly wind that has made the idea of going out for a run unpleasant, yet alone actually doing it; I’ve been a bit chesty which makes it hard and we’ve been busy in the garden with some quite hard physical work so my energy levels have been down. Also, no motivation once again. However . . . I’ve committed to making some changes for the better, and this week isn’t as bad as it looks: first session of yoga since we moved here, a couple of brisk morning walks, miles walked round the garden during the day, reduced wine consumption, increased water consumption and at last, this morning, a run. Round The Block Plus (I deviated along the woodland track a bit as Roger heard hoopoes up there earlier) 5.3k on a beautiful sunny morning, blue sky full of swallows.

Total distance for April: 9.3k 😬 (Hangs head in shame . . . 😖 )

Monday 3rd May: So, this whole running journal thing really isn’t working, is it? I seem even less motivated than usual, too idle, too many cakes, too much wine . . . time for a kick up the backside, so here goes. This week, I intend to run 3 times NO MATTER WHAT!!!!! 😮 Today is possibly the last day of sunny weather before the storm sweeps in but if I end up getting wet, so be it. It is time to get a grip so I got up early with the intention of having a run before a video chat with T. What a beautiful morning, frosty start but bright blue sky and sunshine all the way. The verges are still beautiful, bluebells, orchids, buttercups and stitchwort everywhere. Had my hair parted by a buzzard swooping down at me twice, obviously not impressed at me running past its nest, I could hear the chick calling but didn’t linger to look! Did Round The Block then decided to carry on past the house to the B junction and back – 5.7k.

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Thursday 6th May: wet, cold and miserable . . . and then there’s the weather. 🤣 To be fair to myself, I wasn’t miserable at all, just kept focusing on the birdsong and flowers, but I have discovered that my new trainers aren’t remotely waterproof. Enjoyed close encounters with a pheasant, hare and squirrel. The good thing is that I got up with the intention of going for a run whatever and on a big shopping day, too, which is unheard of. Didn’t want to venture too far from home so ran to the first B junction and back, then to Town Park Garden and back; one pass is just under 2.5k so it’s a useful route, it will be perfect if I ever feel the need to do tempo runs again (!) as it’s fairly flat. I’m going to call it Home Stretch. I did 6.4k, and I’m still on target for three runs this week.

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Saturday 8th May: I’ve downloaded the book Running Made Easy for a bit of motivational inspiration and I’ve decided to try the recommendation of recording some measurements each week to help track my progress towards fitness and better health – can’t do BMI/weight as we don’t have any scales, but body measurements and resting pulse rate are possible so here goes for the first set of four weeks:

(Editor’s note: dear readers, the table of measurements has been removed – some things simply aren’t made for sharing! 😁)

Slightly horrified at my waist measurement, that’s the middle-aged spread that definitely needs to go! 😆

So, a longer run today, out through l’A and anticlockwise round my old original run which I’m going to call the Nostalgia Route – 7.1k, ran all the way. Grey and a bit drizzly but warmer today, didn’t see a single vehicle and enjoyed the flowers – orchids and Solomon’s seal are gorgeous. Feeling far more positive this morning and my legs were definitely stronger. It’s the first time I’ve managed three runs in a week since my first few runs in Asturias back in March so I’m VERY pleased, 19.2k in total is a start. Progress has been made . . . now I need to keep it up!

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Monday 10th May: goals for this week . . .

  • Run at least 3 times
  • Increase distance, especially of longest run
  • No wine until Friday!

Opted for Home Stretch as video chat booked at 9.30 and didn’t want to be too far from home. Did three repeats, 7.3k in all, and tried the stretch between TPG and home at a higher level of effort. Glowing when I got home! Not hugely pleasant in the strong wind but the flowers are so pretty, the paler pink orchids taking over from the dark ones and the hawthorn is out. Green haze of maize emerging. Good start to the week.

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Wednesday 12th May: I didn’t feel particularly inspired this morning (and it was cold AGAIN) but had promised myself to run Round The Butte for the first time. Not too chuffed to meet R’s dog on the loose but it barked at me madly and ran away! Lovely through the wood, hard work up the hill from the crossroads, definitely the toughest run I’ve done since we moved here in terms of hills. Still, I felt comfortable when I got back round to our wood so decided to carry on down the main road and turn to do Round The Block clockwise – glad to see the buzzard chick has fledged! A figure of eight run, 6.9k, and more enjoyable than I had thought. Need to find a route close to 8k for my longer run on Friday.

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Saturday 15th May: a day later than intended (vile weather yesterday) but did Nolsatgia Route plus TPG and back – 8k. Cold and wet, had to play ‘jacket on, jacket off’ all the way round to keep dry. Flowers are still amazing, though, also I was overtaken by two hares (not at the same time) who really showed me how it is done. I doubt they were too impressed with my plod. So . . . two out of the three goals met, no prizes for guessing which one I didn’t quite manage! 🤣🍷 Ah well, another week, another try. The good news is I’ve run 22.2k this week, 3k further than last week so my distance is building. Can I try for 25k next week? Let’s see!

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Monday 17th May: goals for this week . . .

  • Run at least three times
  • Increase overall distance to 25k
  • Reduce wine consumption (memo to self: think waistline!😆)

Chose Home Stretch today as weather was wet and windy: after thunderstorms and torrential downpours yesterday, I thought it was wise not to be too far from home. Did four passes which measured 9.95k – if only I’d known that before I’d ditched my trainers, peeled off my soggy socks and caught the whiff of freshly-ground coffee beans, I’d have gone back out there and done another 50 metres – honest! Still, it’s the longest single run I’ve managed since starting this journal so that’s something to celebrate, and it’s a big step in the direction of achieving one of my original goals (being able to run 10k). Also, it’s a good chunk of my 25k target already under my belt so a pretty good start to the week. After no rain in April, it seems to have done nothing else so far in May and everything is very soggy. We’re planning a long run down the old Mayenne railway path (R running from home then down the path, me driving to the path – with flask of coffee on board! – and running from there) but things need to dry up a bit first. Plus warm up, as I’m fed up of wearing that coat.

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The one thing I’ve learned about this running lark over the years is that in many ways, it’s a metaphor for life. There’s no such thing as a perfectly smooth, problem-free, linear journey, it’s all about good days and bad days, ups and downs, smiles and frowns. For me, it feels like two steps forward and one back much of the time, I’m still not a huge fan and yet it has taught me some of the greatest lessons of my life. One of the routes I’ve started using includes the 5k loop where I originally cut my running teeth; in fact, eight years ago I was exactly halfway through a 12-week ‘0 to 5k’ training plan in preparation for a Race For Life at the end of June. It’s quite nostalgic retracing my steps and remembering just what a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride those three months were. Forget ‘walk for two minutes, run for one’ . . . I couldn’t run for 30 seconds without collapsing in a heap when I started. I constantly lagged behind the programme in terms of how long I should be running for in any session and it took me weeks to be able to run up a long hill, a stretch of the route I hated with a passion. Towards the end of the programme, hot weather (hard to believe at the moment!) meant crack of dawn runs and, try as I might, I never once managed to meet the 30-minute time challenge I had set myself (as an aside, I passionately believe that if I am asking people to sponsor me, there has to be a decent element of personal challenge involved; wearing the tutu didn’t count, it was just a frivolous extra).

On race day, I felt sick with nerves despite having an amazing support team around me; I don’t like crowds, I don’t like running and I don’t like time challenges. I clung to Roger on the start line. I wanted to go home. I really, really wished I had never agreed to put myself through the stress and pain . . . but that is where those valuable lessons started. Did I manage to run and finish? Yes. Did I beat the 30-minute time monster? Yes! Did I enjoy it? No, but I did manage to smile as I ran, smile at the fact that there I was doing the unthinkable, cheered on by my loved ones and raising £500 to help fight a disease that has touched our family and so many others. It was the first time in my 46 years that I had ever run 5k and the next day, our first beautiful grandchild, Ben, was born. Quite the weekend!

Many people say that running has changed their life; I’m not sure I could claim that, but it has definitely changed my outlook on life if nothing else. It has shown me that I am capable of doing things I never thought I could, of finding inspiration, motivation and self-discipline to apply myself to challenges (yes, I can go for weeks refusing to run but I always go back to it) and of taking a firm and active responsibility for my own health and well-being. It has taught me how to dig deep and persuade courage, grit, determination and perseverance to leave their deep hiding places, and to deal with success and failure in a balanced, pragmatic way. It has taught me that it’s absolutely fine to be slow or last. It has brought me new friendships and inspiration from some truly incredibly warm and generous people; the real value of runners isn’t measured in marathons, GPS watches or ‘personal bests’ anymore than the true worth of people is measured in money, status and material goods. Above all, it has stopped me taking myself too seriously, encouraged me to smile and feel an immense gratitude for all the positive things putting one foot in front of the other in the fresh air brings. I might have gone grey, gained a few wrinkles and another four precious grandchildren over the last eight years but I’m still out there running (well, some of the time, at least).

My first (and last) half marathon in 2017: never has a rain-drenched woman been so pleased to see the finish line . . . and a pile of chocolate brownies.

So, to end where I began: that lovely walk through the woods. I’ve told Roger I’d like to go and run it when things are a bit drier underfoot, not the whole loop but the woodland stretch at least. He wholeheartedly agrees with my plan but pointed out I will probably spend more time tripping over tree roots and rocks than running as my attention will be anywhere but where I’m putting my feet. He’s right, of course, but the benefit of being a plodder is that I can let my gaze and mind wander, taking in the beauty of nature around me, without the risk of doing myself too much damage if I stumble. I shall leave him to zip off with the hares while I trail along behind, one very happy woodland tortoise! It will be a few more kilometres to notch up in my journal . . . but then, distance is irrelevant, really. It’s the doing it and smiling that’s important. 😊

The path beckons – who could resist?

The Merry Month of May

I think that May must surely be one of the loveliest months of the year. Despite so many frustrations as gardeners in recent weeks – overnight frosts right up until a couple of days ago, no rain for almost a month, a bitterly cold wind – there is at last a feeling of heading full tilt towards summer, even if the weather remains changeable and decidely cooler than normal. We have moved through plum, peach, pear and cherry blossom to the very last of the apple; viburnum has given way to lilac, blackthorn handed over to hawthorn; the trees, including the tardy ash, are singing out in a chorus of a hundred different greens. Farmers have cut the first grass, the sharp green blades of maize stand in regimented rows against the red soil and in the field next to our garden, the breeze ripples through the grain like a sea of silver.

The verges are still a riot of colour with carpets of pale pink spotted orchids and the lacy froth of cow parsley piling into the mix, while the garden literally smiles with flowers, both cultivated and wild. Yes, it is all really rather lovely.

We have been crazily busy in the garden once again. The weather hasn’t helped, trays and trays of tender plants still having to be moved under cover every evening and far too many seeds planted a second time because of failed germination. Too cold, too dry – who can blame them?

  • Thursday 29th April: sowed sunflowers, mixed and pink Californian poppies, double red poppies and two French seed mixes in big border. Calendula, French marigold, coriander and dill in bean circle. Potted on squash (Casa V specials) and courgettes.
  • Friday April 30th: bought perennials – purple and red iris germanica (bearded iris), salvia superba rosa (flowering sage, drought resistant), echinacea (coneflower), centaurea montana (mountain cornflower), veronica gentianoides (gentian speedwell, good nectar plant). Two dried roots of alchemilla mollis.
  • Saturday May 1st: planted all six new perennials plus two verbena bonariensis from Asturias; sprinkled some mixed Californian poppies and calendula in borders; lifted daffies; potted up herbs for back door sitting area – mint, chives, lemon balm, red sorrel and coriander (seed). Potted on aubergines. Pricked out remaining squash. Just the cukes to go!
  • Monday 3rd May: seed parcel arrived! Sowed purple sprouting broccoli, romanesco broccoli, Brunswick cabbage and Russian red kale. Water butts are empty.
  • Tuesday 4th May: IT’S RAINING!!!!!!!! 🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️
  • Wednesday 5th May: put up hazel quadpod in front flower border, sowed climbing nasturtiums, red double poppies, shade-loving annual flower seed mix. Two water butts are full again.
  • Friday 7th May: planted Spanish dwarf beans (own collected seed, variety unknown) and Stanley; sweet corn (own seed); curly-leafed parsley from new seed in pot; pricked out 11 cucumbers (possibly 8 too many!); re-sowed celery, beetroot Chioggia in Secret Garden and Potager and flat-leaved parsley; planted out first lettuce.
  • Sunday 9th May: planted hanging basket with ivy-leaved geraniums and trailing lobelia; planted three large pots at front of house with determinate tomatoes – Orion’s Belt (green/purple), Alaska (semi-det, red cherry) and Black Sea Man (purple / black) – and basil; planted out cardoons, cosmos and annual rudbeckia in big border; resowed nasturtiums and black-eyed Susan; sowed Spanish onion seed; finished mulching both soft fruit beds with grass clippings. Did lots of weeding – really essential this year, next year hopefully I can do lots of mulching and get back to my laissez-faire approach.
  • Tuesday 11th May: added more small perennial plants to Oak Tree Border – astilbe Pumila, achillea Coronation Gold, catmint Six Hills Giant and sedum Brilliant plus several cosmos; planted up 3 window troughs of pink and white ivy-leaved geraniums to replace the pansies (if they ever finish flowering, they’ve loved the cool weather); mulched the onions and garlic with grass clippings.

Although growing food is always our top priority, flowers are important, too, and it’s been good to reach a point where I can spend some time starting the restoration work on the existing flower borders. I use the term ‘border’ loosely as in many cases, they are just vague areas roughly demarcated with a line of stones, many of them facing north or tight up against a hedge and all of them in need of serious attention. The memory of what was certainly once a pretty garden lingers in the shape of some truly lovely plants but years of neglect have rendered it a complete mess project-in-waiting. Time to get stuck in! I’ve started with the areas at the front of the house; one is north-facing against a hedge, the other dominated by a large oak tree, so neither makes for easy gardening. A few perennial thugs like lemon balm, rudbeckia, arabis, hardy geranium and Michaelmas daisies have run riot, their unstoppable roots creating a spaghetti of complicated tangles intermingled with brambles, nettles, ivy, couch grass, dandelions and a thick invasive mat of celandines, the like of which I’ve never seen. Progress in sorting that little lot out has been slow to say the least.

With the weeds gone, I can see just what plants are here and worth saving and that has led to a few surprises. What I had thought to be a small clump of winter aconites smothered by the celandine carpet a couple of months ago has turned out to be a rather beautiful deep blue monkshood; pulling out brambles and huge swathes of wood avens (which I’m happy to have as a woodland herb but not acres at a time!), I’ve discovered several clumps of lilies. I’ve been wondering why the butterfly bush looks so unhappy; growing in the shade of the oak tree probably doesn’t help but if there is one plant that should have responded well to the ‘prune everything in sight’ habit that prevailed here, surely it’s that one? On peeling back the mass of weeds at its base, I solved the mystery: the poor thing had been planted in its pot! It’s quite a mature shrub and has obviously managed to push a main root out through the bottom, but with the pot lying almost on its side and still very much intact, the rootball was almost non-existent and dry as dust. I cut away as much of the pot as I could, gave the exposed roots a good watering and then covered them in a deep mulch of homemade compost. Fingers crossed for a swift recovery.

Buying plants can be an expensive hobby, especially with a large garden to fill. I’ve brought a few bits and pieces grown from small roots or lifted as seedlings in our Asturian garden, things like granny’s bonnets, verbena bonariensis, pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder, which all seem to have settled well into their new home. I’ve also started raising some perennials from seed but it’s a slow process and occasionally there’s no harm in having a little spend around a nursery to help matters along – even if I do go into child-in-a-sweetshop mode! The great thing about perennial plants is that small ones grow very quickly into big ones so I’m happy to opt for the smallest (cheapest) plants and fill the gaps with annual seed while they grow.

Removing several ornamental conifers and recycling them into a hügel bed opened up the back of the Oak Tree Border, letting in light and some new planting opportunities. I decided that the clump of peonies, just on the cusp of opening their showy wine-red blooms, was crying out to be paired with the bearded iris that grow so well locally – they are one of the contenders for the original fleur de lys, after all. I chose a deep violet but then fell in love with a second one that starts with buds of deepest purple satin, unfurling into flowers of startling red with a splash of yellow in the centre. It was impossible to choose, so I bought both; maybe child in a sweetshop doesn’t come close? Anyway, I relish the business of building colour and shape in the borders and I’m hopeful of creating something beautiful that draws the eye through that gap left by the ex-conifers to the garden beyond; hidden corners, glimsped vistas, the urge to wander and discover . . . all essential ingredients in the kind of garden I love.

With the trees and hedges leafing up and creating more intimate spaces around the garden, I find myself weaving a sinuous route several times a day to check on progress in the Secret Garden and Shed Patch; those vegetables are so important to us, after all.

The Potager still remains relatively open and exposed but we hope to create more of a feel of an enclosed space there over time; at the moment, we’re still extending it with yet more digging . . . and the big job of the week will be finishing the polytunnel if the weather is kind enough to grant us a still day – large sheets of polythene and high winds really don’t mix! Although it all still looks a bit bare, the potatoes are well through the ground and too big to cover (no more frosts, pleeeeeease), the first of the dwarf beans and climbing beans have germinated, two rows of peas are romping away and a few brave carrots and spring onons have finally emerged. It’s interesting that everything planted from our own saved seed has germinated well and in some cases, faster and better than bought seeds; it’s also encouraging that at long last, there is the promise of food in the garden once again.

It’s been quite a week for wildlife in the garden. The red squirrels continue to entertain us with their antics and a hare has taken to lolloping in and doing its toilet business under the sweet pea wigwams (not quite sure what the attraction is). We watched a pair of mice moving their babies from one end of a stone wall to another while we ate our lunch on the picnic bench, and a pair of black kites wheeling over the garden one afternoon as they pulled grass snakes out of the neighbouring (cut) field. A shrew literally ran across my foot as I sat outside with a mug of tea and, shifting trays of plants out of the outhouse one morning, I found they were being guarded by a rather splendid toad. On mornings when I’m not running or don’t fancy a long walk from home, I’ve taken to walking circuits of the garden instead . . . and why not? It’s a beautiful spot to wander in and about 400 metres all round the perimeter, so four passes make a mile and it’s amazing how quickly the distance mounts up with so much to see and enjoy. Crunching through frosty grass early one morning last week, I heard what sounded like a soft and rather strange frog croaking until I realised it couldn’t possibly be, seeing as it was most definitely coming from high up in an oak tree! On closer inspection, I discovered that it was a turtle dove and stood enchanted by the sweet lullaby of its gentle purring song, the turr-turr-turr that gives it its name. Turtle doves are summer visitors whose populations are declining rapidly; little surprise, then, that they are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Wilding, Isabella Tree describes her overwhelming joy when turtle doves returned to Knepp Estate in West Sussex and I certainly share a sense of that wonder and gratitude to find there are several of these dainty, precious birds in our corner of Mayenne.

From wildlife to wild flowers, and one of our long-term goals here is to increase the number and amount of species of native wild flowers all over the garden. It’s a bit frustrating that unlike so many local verges, gardens and orchards, we are missing the Big Three – cowslips, bluebells and orchids – that are causing such a colourful splash elsewhere. Imagine how excited I was, then, to uncover two clumps of bluebells from the weedy depths of a flower border. Well, there was good news and bad news: one clump is the native ‘English’ bluebell we are after, with its dainty flowers on arching stems, white pollen and evocative scent, the other is the Spanish variety, much chunkier on straight stems with blue pollen and no perfume. It has none of the charm of the native species and is a thuggish, invasive pest – the grey squirrel of the botanical world, perhaps? So, the first clump will be moved to the Woodland Edge to make a start on what eventually we hope will become a blue haze of Maytime beauty, the other clump will, er, just disappear. The good news is that we do at least have a decent range of other species and of course, more are appearing as we move through the seasons; it was a lovely surprise to find a large clump of Solomon’s seal buried in a hedge bottom this week. Now it’s a case of encouraging them to set seed and spread whilst raising new species to add to the mix.

We love to use natural materials in the garden, so Roger has been turning a pile of stone dumped under a hedge into a drystone wall ‘folly’ which marks part of the Flower Garden boundary and offers a new habitat for wildlife. A sunburst of oxeye daisies and buttercups has appeared in front of it this week . . . nature artfully creating exactly the wild look we are aiming for. There’s still so much to do here but it feels good to be making some progress hand in hand with nature and leaving ourselves time to enjoy the beauty of this lovely month, too. 😊

Bluebells and buttercups (and maybe bears, too)

A mere stone’s throw from the Canyon des Toyères which I wrote about in my last post is Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, officially one of the prettiest villages in France. Nestled in the picturesque Alpes Mancelles, it is a gem of a place and beautiful in any season but I have a particular soft spot for it at this time of year when the wooded hillsides are bursting with fresh leaf and carpeted with a soft haze of bluebells. We haven’t visited since our return to Mayenne so it didn’t take us too long to decide where to go for our walk this week!

This is one of our favourite jaunts, a comfortable three-mile loop that starts in a pretty spot by the side of the Sarthe river. It’s a tranquil place, the river wide and lazy after so little rain, and flanked by meadows full of buttercups. There are picnic tables here, and several old buildings converted into gites; you could pick worse places for an al fresco meal or holiday, that’s for sure.

A wooden footbridge beyond a former mill took us across the river, leaving Mayenne and into the neighbouring department of Sarthe, although still in the Pays de la Loire region. The path then starts a long, slow climb with sweeping views of wooded hills on one side and a teasing glimpse of St Céneri on the other.

We had just been discussing how everything still seemed familiar to us and nothing had appeared to have changed since we last walked here (which must be seven years ago) when what we had expected to be an orchard delivered quite a surprise: it is still an orchard, but now also the home of a large herd of free-range pigs! It was lovely to stand and watch them for a while, enjoying the outdoor life as surely pigs should, some busy rootling about in the baked earth but most of them snoozing away the afternoon in the sun. Talk about chilled! I suspected they would be happy to see the rain forecast the next day, their wallows being as far removed from mud as is possible . . . but they seemed a pretty contented bunch all the same.

After passing through a small hamlet of pretty stone houses, their gardens billowing with iris, tulips and forget me nots, the path turned back downhill, meandering through woodland towards the village. Here the bluebells were at their most beautiful, dense carpets creating a colourful haze in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees; whether simply massed in deep blue, or daubed amongst white stitchwort and creamy Solomon’s seal, they were stunning. As for that heady perfume . . .

Emerging from the woods, the path levelled out a little and water meadows appeared to our left. It’s hard to believe we’ve walked here before as if along a stream bed, with water literally flowing beneath our boots; I’m not sure we’ve ever seen this path so dry. At a point just before reaching the village, we passed from Sarthe into the department of Orne and at the same time into the region of Normandy, a reminder that our little corner of Mayenne is very much border country.

At the end of this path, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves at the picturesque stone bridge that leads into the village. There is a stunning view of the 11th-century Romanesque church perched high above on a cliff, a scattering of lovely old stone houses and pretty sweeps of blossom and spring flowers. We have seen kingfishers here previously, darting close to the water in bright flashes of metallic blue; not today, but there was a lone wader-clad fisherman trying his luck on a bend in the river.

Wandering up into the village, I realised that I’d forgotten what a delightful place it is with its winding streets of higgeldy-piggeldy houses, dripping with clematis and wisteria. The only thing that seemed strange was the fact that the bars, cafes and restaurants were all shut, their terraces devoid of the usual buzz of activity; that is set to change on 19th May when the next phase of relaxing restrictions will allow them to open once more, much to the relief of owners and customers alike. It’s no surprise that St Céneri is a popular destination for visitors and is particularly bustling during the summer holidays, yet I’ve always felt it has retained a strong sense of itself. There has been no slide into the dark realms of tacky gift shops, caravan parks, double yellow lines, extortionate car park charges and the like; tourists are welcome, but it is still very much a ‘local’ village. I love the little hidden nooks and crannies, the quaint human touches coupled with unfettered nature; the wonderful informality and unashamedly wild character of this garden is exactly the sort of thing we are hoping to create in our own patch.

We climbed the street that leads to the church, knowing that a narrow path goes right around the building, the perfect spot for a beautiful bird’s eye view back down to the stone bridge. However, looking for a photo of the said view, I realised we didn’t have an ‘unadulterated’ one so the time has come for me to make an introduction (apologies for this rather ridiculous diversion): ladies and gentlemen, meet Kitchen Ted.

Who? Well, he’s a little character I knitted up in the final days before we left Asturias; you’d think navigating an international house move through the shark-infested waters of Covid-19 and Brexit would have been more than enough to be concentrating on at the time but maybe this was a little bit of self-indulgent, stress-busting madness! I contemplated a tiny skein of homespun Southdown fleece dyed with onion skins and a scrap of rather luxurious jade Merino / silk blend and before I knew it, a small bear had been born. For the best part of eighteen months now, the only contact we have had with our young grandchildren is via video calls; I am so grateful we have the technology and our weekly chats are very special, but never the same as spending time together and making simple mischief. Enter Kitchen Ted (he’s called that because he, um, lives in the kitchen) who behaves very badly on our calls, generating peals of giggles at the other end and generally bringing a lot of fun to our chats. He also gatecrashes our days out, sending photos to the littlies to show what he’s been up to and most especially, anything delicious that might have been lurking in the picnic or cake box. Perhaps we should have called him Yogi? In short, it’s one of those mad family things, totally daft but rather lovely at the same time. However, the next time he muscles in on all the panoramic photos, I shall be leaving him in the kitchen where he belongs . . .

From bears to bees, and the protected bees’ nest that is hidden deep within the church wall. The story goes that in the year 898, a colony of honey bees saw off a group of soldiers bent on sacrilegious destruction on this site, sending them packing over the steep cliff. Ever since, they have continued to protect the church and are themselves the object of special protection; they were certainly fizzing out of the hole in the sun-warmed stone and, even as former beekeepers used to being close to bees, it seemed wise to keep our distance and treat them with the complete respect they deserve.

From the church, the path leads down to a tiny chapel sitting in a wide meadow which is bounded by a loop of the river; in contrast to the dappled light and blues and whites of the woodland, it was alive with the bright sunshine of buttercups and cheerful whirring of crickets.

This is a place of utter tranquility, scattered stone benches offering the chance for visitors to sit, rest and simply drink in the beauty of the place and complete immersion in nature. We shared a flask of coffee, faces turned to the sun as a chorus of birdsong ricocheted off the wooded valley sides and butterflies floated idly by. There were a few others doing much the same thing there; no problems with social distancing and no-one wearing masks – it felt like a glimpse of the normality we used to take for granted and one we will hopefully be blessed with again.

The meadow is a hard place to leave and the temptation is certainly to linger but as it is only a few miles from home – a decent bike ride, in fact – then we will certainly be back before too long. The only decision on leaving was whether to wind our way back through the village down streets we had missed or to wander along the river to where we had started our walk.

In the end, we plumped for the river option, still hopeful for a glimpse of those elusive kingfishers; no such luck, they were definitely playing hard to get. Maybe next time? What a lovely walk it was and a gentle reminder of just what treasures we have on our doorstep; it was time to head back to jobs in the garden . . . but here’s to the next little excurson! 😊

Blue skies and bike rides

I love a good sky.

This week it has been mainly unflawed blue from dawn to dusk but one evening, cloud bubbled up as if from nowhere and treated us to a captivating light show.

Sadly, it didn’t bring us any rain, something we are completely desperate for now. Our rainwater capture system is brilliant, the three butts together holding 1100 litres which seemed like a huge amount until several weeks of dry weather came along; we are watering just to keep things going, especially the tiny vegetable seedlings which are doing their best to survive. In the end, nothing works like real rain. Please let it come soon.

I don’t want to whinge about the weather but it certainly continues to be frustrating beyond the lack of rain; we are experiencing startlingly sunny days with temperatures in the low twenties but a bitter wind to take the edge off things and we’re still seeing a touch of frost overnight. The plant nursery grows by the day, everything now sorted into three groups: the roughty-toughties that can spend the night outside, the in-betweenies that shelter in the (open-fronted) outhouse and the tender babes that huddle together inside on windowsills.

The more seedlings I prick out and pot on, the more carrying in and out there is to do at each end of the day. I’ve been filling the newspaper pots as quickly as I can make them – which I swear I can do with my eyes closed now! Tomato plants have all gone into the bigger pots: four Rosella (cherry) and eight each of San Marzano (plum) and Super Marmande (beefsteak). Twenty plants, if they all survive, really should be ample for the two of us even with plans to freeze as many as we can, but of course, there’s also the excitement of those colourful gift seeds from Finland, many of them heirloom varieties and none of which we’ve grown before. The names alone are enough to make me smile: Lava Flow, Bosque Blue Bumble Bee, Glossy Rose Blue, Malakhitovaya Shkatulka, Karkiano, Alaska, Black Sea Man and Orion’s Belt. Who could fail to be charmed? One plant each to make my ‘rainbow’ plus spares (of course) just in case. I’ve cosied them up with little pots of basil, great companions in the garden and on the plate so why not start as we mean to go on?

While I’ve been messing about with pots and seedlings, Roger has – amongst a hundred and one other things – been busy sorting out the barn to make space for a log store. This resulted in the need for yet another trip to the local household recycling centre with the trailer loaded with unusable junk that was left here; it would be good to think we won’t need too many more trips like that but I doubt it will be the last. Needless to say, we are saving anything we can since throwing useful things away goes against the grain; one of my favourite finds has been this section basket which is perfect for toting essential bits and pieces as I go from place to place in the garden. I reckon I could even squeeze a flask in there if I tried.

It’s been another busy week in the garden so here’s my usual quick round-up:

Sunday 25th April: Transplanted tomato seedlings – 8 each of San Marzano and Super Marmande, Rosella x 4. One large pot each of Anja’s 8 plus 6 extras. Pricked out basil. Seeds: replanted lupins. Courgettes, cukes (gherkin), squash Crown Prince, Hunter and Casa Victorio Special have all germinated. Sowed climbing nasturtiums, mixed ‘Autumn Colours’ sunflowers and mixed Californian poppies in shed border. Planted climbing beans: three quadpods of borlotti and eight of Asturian beans.

Monday 26th April: sowed drill of cabbage Golden Acre to follow Greyhound; lettuce Little Gem in pot; New Zealand spinach in Secret Garden. Pricked out globe artichokes, sage and some hyssop. Added third quadpod to flower border and planted black-eyed Susan and morning glory. Good progress on stone wall, put standing stone in hügelkultur flower bed.

Tuesday 27th April: transplanted 12 strawberry plants into The Potager. Roger finished digging channels for burying tunnel polythene.

Wednesday 28th April: placed seed order with EnGraineToi (purple sprouting and romanesco broccoli, winter cabbages, carrots, mizuna, lamb’s lettuce, beetroot, Russian purple kale, parsley). Potted on Crown Prince squash. Pricked out thyme, hyssop, basil, rudbeckia and marshmallow.

The Potager is still growing as we dig and is filling up bit by bit although it still looks so empty; it will be fascinating to compare how it looks now to the full months of summer. The potatoes in the big front patch are through the ground so we have earthed them up to protect them from the frost. There are carrots, radish and spring onions in there, too, and we’ll plant courgettes in the middle mulched section once the time is right. In the next patch are two rows of peas and the first of dwarf beans, the ‘Purple Teepee’ that are such good doers planted with our own saved seed. Plenty more to go in there yet! Beyond that, the hügelkultur bed is almost ready for a covering of topsoil before the squash go in and a new smaller bed has become home to a dozen strawberry plants. The bean circle is all planted up, eleven quadpods of stout hazel poles, three with fiery red borlotti and the rest with those lovely fat white Asturian beans. There’s space for something else, probably cucumbers, and I’m thinking – quietly to myself – perhaps a few small patches of frivolous flowers something colourful would be lovely.

On the subject of colour, we have a pair of green woodpeckers who seem to be trying to nest in the garden. Unlike the other birds who practically meet us at the door, they are very nervous so the male is carrying out his excavations of a cherry tree furtively when he thinks we’re not about before flying off in a loud flash of green and red when he senses we are. Given how many heavily wooded, uninhabited spots there are locally, it seems strange to have chosen this one but that old cherry is obviously perfect for their nest and we’re certainly not short of ants. I’ll be following their nesting progress with great interest.

The woodpeckers aren’t the only ones who have been busy in the trees. Pollarding is an ancient tradition and one that is still very much practised in this area; in recent weeks, a number of large oak trees, including several opposite the house, have literally been reduced to branchless trunks. It seems a cruel thing to do to a magnificent tree but I suppose it is better than felling the whole thing and in fact, research tells me it actually extends the life of the tree. A number of the oaks in our garden have obviously been treated this way in the past and they create interesting silhouettes against a clear sky; this is one we can see from the back kitchen window, the fresh new leaf growth tipped in colour by the rising sun.

We are just a few days away from the end of lockdown (3rd May) which has had so little effect on us that we forget it’s happening at all. The only mild frustration has been the local charity shop closing for a month so we haven’t been able to collect new books to read but otherwise it has been life as normal here. The French government has been heavily criticised for its handling of the pandemic; I have no intention of launching into a political discourse but what I will say is that I have been personally impressed at how an holistic approach to people’s well-being has been a major priority. Despite an ongoing curfew and current travel restrictions, there has been encouragement for us to exercise and spend time outdoors in order to benefit both physical and mental health; it is lovely to see the youngsters having fun on the outdoor tennis court and five-a-side pitch in St P, a bit of normality restored in such strange times. The 10 kilometre travel radius from home has left us with plenty of options for walking, running and cycling so a few days ago we decided to head off to the canyon des Toyères on our bikes. We started by taking the scenic route to St P as Roger wanted to show me a rare white orchid he’d seen on a run, then we stopped briefly at the boulangerie to treat ourselves to some patisserie – Paris-Brest for Roger, tartelette aux fraises for me.

It was a truly beautiful morning and cycling along the quiet lanes, I was struck at how vibrant the countryside has become. Such colours!

The canyon des Toyères is one of those places which you could easily miss if you didn’t know it was there, a simple sign at the end of a lane which turns into a gravelled track being the only clue there is anything worth visiting. It is one of my favourite places on earth and I am so thrilled to be living close to it once again. There is a viewing tower there but that is not what we are interested in at all: parking our bikes, we set off in the opposite direction down a narrow path through the woods . . .

It’s a bit of a scramble but worth doing at this time of year just to enjoy the carpets of fragrant bluebells under the trees.

Down a little further and a glimpse of sunlight on water hints at where we are: a rocky outcrop perched on granite cliffs high above a loop of the beautiful Sarthe river.

The view in both directions is stunning, the busy river far below us and the vast sweep of woodlands on the sides of the gorge. With no sight or sound of another human being, it is complete, shameless immersion in nature; the music of birdsong is somehow funnelled and amplified to an intensity that almost hurts. I love the way this landscape changes colour and character through the seasons; it’s a view I can never tire of, a place of exquisite peace and beauty.

It’s also the perfect spot for coffee and cake. Cheers!

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.