Spring in the air

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

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

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

Serendipity

“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.”

—Thomas Fuller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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