Fruit salad

It’s been a strange couple of weeks with far too many necessary chores distracting us from projects in the garden and a rollercoaster of good news, bad news, sad news . . . I’ve spent several days in a flat spin, chasing my tail, juggling too many balls and running the whole gamut of emotions. That said, I’m not given to wearing my heart on my sleeve too much or making dramas out of situations – it’s simply life, after all. They say life’s a peach, but personally I’ve always considered it to be more of a fruit salad: sometimes you get the sweet strawberry and other times, the slimy banana. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: what I need in moments like these is a sense of balance, of perspective and calm. Where better to find those than in the garden?

Although I’ve not spent anywhere near as much time outside as I would have liked recently, I’m pleased at how suddenly it is starting to feel like the space we imagined when we moved here. Everything is going full tilt, the trees heavy with their fullest, deepest summer foliage and other plants stretching, blooming, jostling for elbow room; it’s a time of exuberant fullness and plump plenty. The stark canvas we started with now flaunts shameless curves and hidden places in a cheerful kaleidoscope of colour and an energetic buzz of life. Slowly, slowly, a garden is emerging . . .

I’ve been piling layers onto the mandala bed, the latest being a thick blanket of hay cut from one of the meadow areas. It’s a big job, but there’s no rush and I can potter away at it in snatched moments. With any luck, this time next year it will be a joyful expression of all that is good in the summer garden.

Adding height to the garden is a long term project – trees take time to grow, pergolas to build and cover – but desperate for at least some vertical interest (and to screen that ugly shed), earlier this year we made a basic and very rustic ‘thing’ from hazel poles. It has looked a bit odd, although a rescued clematis has done a decent job of prettying it up with deep purple velvety blooms, and sweet peas (sooooo slow this year) and climbing nasturtiums have now joined the scramble. Suddenly, there seems to have been a huge surge in growth upwards, not least from the sunflowers. Just over a week ago, I was soaked to the skin trying to tether them as they flailed about in a brutal storm; several were snapped off, a couple blown out of the ground – little surprise, the soil was saturated – but the survivors are well above my head now and really going for it. Well, it is sunflower country after all, despite the rough weather of late.

One of the saddest things about this week is that Sarah and her family should be here with us, enjoying a long-awaited summer holiday, but that was cancelled in light of the ongoing Covid situation. It’s eighteen months since we last saw them – saw any of our family, in fact – and that is starting to feel like an unhealthily long time, especially with our little grandchildren growing up so quickly. It’s so easy to dwell on what we should be doing: planning picnics, barbecues and camping nights in the garden, playing tag and hide-and-seek, building dens and houses for unicorns, splashing in the paddling pool, building stone domes and bug hotels, doing art and craftwork on the picnic table or a quilt thrown on the grass, telling stories, singing silly songs, making muffins and ice cream . . . I should be feeling the impatient tug of little hands eager to explore the garden, to wander and sniff and poke and pick and nibble, to hunt for squirrels and ladybirds, to collect pebbles and feathers, stroke petals, pick posies, steal strawberries. There is no substitute for this, no consolation to be had: this is most definitely a horrible slimy banana moment. Yet in spending time with the flowers, bright and cheery as a child’s paintbox and buzzing with as much noise and boundless energy as those little monkeys I’m missing, there is a certain peace and solace to be found. We are all safe and well, and for that I am truly grateful. We will see our loved ones again, we just need to be patient. Hush now and wait. Smell the flowers. Watch the bees and butterflies. Breathe.

There are flowers in the vegetable garden, too, which is just how I like it to be. After a slow and seriously unpromising start, the Bean Circle is now thickly abundant, the Asturian fabas spiralling to the tops of their poles, cucumbers clambering up their tripods and trailing chaotically through everything else, thick clumps of coriander and dill scenting the air and bright flashes of calendula and cosmos pulling in the pollinators, with the fire of sunny rudbeckia to follow.

Then there’s the squash. If ever I needed any proof that hügelkultur works, then I need look no further than the squash plants that have tumbled down the sides of their hill and are now zipping enthusiastically across the grass in every direction. They are covered in yellow flower trumpets, full of pollen-dusted bees, and are setting a grand amount of fruit. Our Spanish specials – five seeds saved from the same squash last year – have done their usual trick of forming totally different fruits to each other, a process that never fails to fascinate me. Good old ‘Crown Prince’ and butternut ‘Hunter’ are hard on their heels and it looks like we’re in for a decent harvest. We have to move that seat on a regular basis for fear of being ‘squashed,’ as it were!

As the squash looked far from pleased when they first went out, I put a couple of butternuts – always the most diffident of the lot – in the tunnel as a sort of insurance policy. I think it’s fair to say they’re very happy in all that heat and they are certainly doing what’s expected of them.

Creating a productive vegetable garden from what was in essence a barren field has been – and continues to be – a big task, what the locals would call a boulot. The Potager certainly lacks any sense of maturity and there is still so much work to be done, but it’s wonderful to be at the point once again that all our vegetables are home grown; wandering around in the sunshine one evening, filling my trug with goodies for the table, I recalled the day we planted potatoes in a forlornly empty patch of earth, wrapped up against a bitter northerly wind.

Well, we’re tucking into those (delicious!) new potatoes now and the rest of the patch looks a little different to say the least; I’m glad to report it feels a lot warmer, too.

It’s hard to believe those thuggish courgette plants needed so much pampering in the early days; we’re keeping on top of the harvest for now . . . but only just.

We’ve had a good crop of broad beans and peas with surplus left for the freezer but in the last couple of weeks, the French beans have shimmied into the limelight. We’re eating the beautiful waxy purple ones daily and the next crop (a green variety) is following on closely behind.

I’ve just planted a third row of mixed plants grown in a tray of compost; this method of pre-sowing seems to have worked a treat in beating the bean seed fly problem we’ve had and the plants never look back. If we have a ‘normal’ run of weather now (do I even dare think that after the year so far?) then we could easily be cropping beans well into the autumn. They’re not alone; in what has become a bit of a nursery bed are rows of chard, carrots and leeks, a block of celery, winter cabbages to transplant, a selection of young brassicas and a newly sown row of Florence fennel. I’ve had to hazard a bit of a guess with the right planting time for the fennel, it hates the heat but needs enough time to grow and develop. It’s all a bit of a learning curve this year, but fingers crossed at least some of these young crops will be successful.

On which subject, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the permaculture principle of ‘observe and interact.’ I believe gardening should always be about observation but this first year in particular is crucial; we’ve gardened together for well over 30 years so yes, we have a lot of experience but that doesn’t automatically mean that what we know or do are the best things for this particular patch of land. There are many adjustments to make, much trial and error going on and a lot of considerations to take on board. We’ve been up against terrible weather, terrible soil and a rush to put enough land into cultivation to suit our needs this year but it’s vitally important that we watch and learn, accept feedback from what’s happening and adapt our approach and plans accordingly. So, for example, I’ve come up with a new plan for strawberries this week.

Early last spring, we bought the most unpromising bundle of bare-rooted strawberry plants from the farmers’ co-op; they were tiny, pathetic little things and quite honestly, I thought if any of them grew it would be a bonus. Grow they did, flowered and fruited too (photo above); I know I probably wasn’t supposed to let that happen but I have no patience with all that plant control stuff. We planted some in pots and left them in Asturias when we moved, collecting them on a trip back there in February. Poor things! They’d had a mild winter and were happily flowering and setting fruit, only to be plunged into the shock of icy northern weather. They suffered a fair bit of neglect, too, drying out in their pots several times – my fault completely, but things were a bit hectic at the time. With nowhere ideal to plant them, I stuffed them into a hastily cleared bed of rubbish soil, little expecting them to do much apart from maybe die. Well, how wrong was I? They have romped away and we have been eating the fruit for weeks, such sweet and flavoursome berries, some of which are enormous.

Even better, they have sent out runners in all directions (I think they’ve been watching those squash) and as I love a bit of easy propogation, I’ve been pegging them down into pots of compost and wow! Not only have the new plants already formed healthy rootballs, but they’ve started flowering too. I’ve decided that such enthusiastic troopers really need a bit of proper love and recognition, so enter the idea of a designated Strawberry Circle; Roger has cut another swathe of hay to make room and once I’ve fetched my next load of cardboard from the déchetterie (the lovely, lovely, lovely Monsieur in charge there says I can go back as often as I need and take away as much as I want every time 😊 ), I shall start sheet mulching in preparation for a gorgeous circle of strawberries next year. I know curves cause a bit of chaos when the grass needs cutting around them but I don’t like straight lines much and this is going to look so pretty – especially when I’ve added that best of all companions, beautiful blue borage – and the plants can send their runners out without bothering anything else and we will have strawberries for ever and ever.

I’ve always thought gardening to be a great metaphor for life so it’s only to be expected that not all is rosy all of the time. We have had many frustrations and several failed crops but without doubt, the most ongoing and maddening of those is what I’ve come to think of as the Battle of the Evil Weevil. I knew from living in the area before that brassicas were going to be high maintenance – well worth the effort, but up against it all the same. I was totally prepared for flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, pigeons and heat to be an issue but nothing had prepared me for the horror that is the cabbage stem weevil. We’ve never had them in the garden before and given that most of the available information about them refers to infestations in oilseed rape and other cruciferous crops, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a price we’re paying for gardening in an arable landscape. Whilst there are no OSR crops close by, it is definitely part of the local crop rotation system and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has been grown in the neighbouring fields in recent years. The weevils are like a rash; I can pick them off every brassica plant (there’s 110 of those so you can imagine that’s a boulot all on its own) only for them to be back the next day. It’s a bit like the Sorceror’s Apprentice with ugly brown snouty-faced insects in place of brooms and, much as I love wildlife and understand they are part of a natural system, I have to confess I’m getting very tired of them now. They are devastating our crop and it’s no exaggeration to say I’m not hopeful about harvesting a single plant. I’m desperately scrabbling to keep them going in the assumption that surely we must soon reach ‘peak weevil’ but whereas neighbouring vegetables are thriving, the poor little things are really, really struggling.

Back to permaculture once again, not just ‘observe and interact’ this time but also ‘the problem is the solution.’ What do we do about weevils? For starters, we’d already been discussing the possibility of some large moveable net tunnels for brassicas even before Weevilgate began; I can’t find any information about whether they would be effective against weevils, but they would at least help keep the butterflies away – the plants are weakened so of course, everything else is now piling in. Learning from our experience with French beans and sweetcorn this year, I’m planning to pre-sow lots of things into modules next year, brassicas now included; if they can go into the ground as strong established plants, they might withstand attack more easily. An holistic approach is definitely called for and soil improvement is top of that list; all our plants have been up against it this year but a richer, more nourishing soil should help them build resilience and resistance. I probably spend about 70% of my gardening time spreading mulch around all our fruit and vegetable plants and it’s a job I love; there’s something very nurturing about it, it’s a good excuse to get down and personal with every plant and check their health and progress and of course, it’s helping to build good soil all the time. I’ve done what I can to support the brassicas this year: filled their planting holes with compost, planted them between rows of beans, carrots and beetroot to afford them a bit of shade from the most intense heat, let naturally-occurring white clover run between them as a green manure and fed them regularly with comfrey and nettle tea. Given the general poor state of the soil and the scale of the weevil population it might not be enough this year. I can but try.

Something else to try and find out is what eats weevils: is there a natural predator I can encourage to come and fill their boots? Blackfly are another scourge of the garden at present, but my goodness, do we have some ladybirds tucking in! Breeding, too; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many larvae. Such welcome allies, but sadly I don’t think weevils are on their menu.

Sitting in a shady spot and enjoying the beauty and warmth of the evening several times this week, we have been captivated by the antics of a young red squirrel, one of the brood born in the eaves of the stone outhouse. It is so small and fragile, nothing more than a streak of fiery fur with a white bib and oversized bottlebrush tail but what it lacks in staure, it certainly makes up for in attitude. It has no fear of us, gambolling about the grass, rummaging in piles of mulch and shooting up the myrobalan to check for plums (mmm, cheeky), casually passing so close we could reach out and touch it. I find myself almost holding my breath and smiling from ear to ear; we might be missing Annie and Matthew this week but we can still enjoy the unrestrained energy and high jinks of other youngsters. Ups and downs, smiles and tears, worry and relief: it’s the great fruit salad of life . . . and everybody deserves the sweet strawberry sometimes!

Medieval musings

We’ve had happy associations with Lassay-les-Châteaux for more than twenty years so perhaps I am a bit biased when I suggest it must surely be one of the prettiest towns in Mayenne. Small, friendly and charming, there are many attractions including the imposing medieval castle set above a small lake, a pleasant walk in the surrounding countryside to discover the other two (ruined) castles, a beautiful medieval garden, cafe terraces where you can sit and watch the world go by, and a bustling Wednesday morning market where at least one of our offspring loved to go for the treat of a galette saucisse. At this time of year, though, there is no doubt that the rosaraie is the jewel in the town. A public rose garden just a few steps from the town centre, it is a peaceful place bursting with colour and scent, somewhere for all to enjoy; there are picnic tables, a children’s playground, and many benches and paths in a space that is small enough to feel intimate, large enough to spend time wandering and discovering. Surrounded by old buildings of honey-coloured stone, their productive vegetable gardens running down to a stream and swifts looping and calling overhead, it is a pleasant spot to linger and I am never surprised to see people sitting and enjoying the tranquility – some reading, others just quietly soaking up the beauty of the place.

The roses are gorgeous, so many different varieties all at their very best in a rainbow of colours: climbers, ramblers, bush, miniature, groundcover, tea, floribunda, grandiflora, polyantha, English, Gallica, China, Damask, Bourbon, moss, noisette, rugosa . . . whatever takes your fancy, they are here. I’ve never been a fan of formal planting schemes, always preferring something wilder and unconstrained, but even I find these colours and scents irresistible!

I also love the fact that the garden is being managed organically: the beds are deeply mulched with chopped straw to suppress weeds and there are a number of lacewing boxes and a bug hotel to encourage natural aphid predators. There is a beehive set on a wall and the relatively new addition of possibly the most impressive chicken palace run I have ever seen. Chickens in a public garden? Reading the information board, I was impressed with what an inspired idea this is, a community solution to the problem of rubbish. Several years ago, in an attempt to reduce the amount of household waste going into landfill and to encourage more recycling, the local council introduced a charge-by-weight scheme for bags deposited in household rubbish containers. However, this posed a problem for people living in town who have no facilities or space for making compost; the solution was to install the chicken run fitted with wooden bins where locals can deposit their kitchen waste for the chickens to eat and scratch down into compost. It’s been a huge success, not just from a waste disposal angle but also as something of an attraction; I’ve always found chickens to be good company and it seems plenty of others do, too, spending a few moments just watching the birds go about their business. Perhaps this is something that could catch on in similar situations?

A short walk from the rosaraie is a charming garden opened in 2001, based on a medieval design – very fitting, with the round towers and turrets of the castle as a dramatic backdrop.

It’s a while since we’ve visited and it was amazing just how mature it has become, a reminder of how quickly trees and plants will grow and fill spaces given the right conditions. I love the fact that the plants chosen are those known to have existed at least from medieval times, and I feel a certain comfort in that essence of history and continuity. I particularly like the jardin des simples, crammed as it is with aromatic and medicinal plants: there is so much inspiration there!

The previous owners of our house left an everlasting sweet pea in a large pot which I feel it is far more suited to being in the ground. I’ve been wondering exactly what to do with it and here was the answer: let it scramble unfettered among golden yarrow, what a fabulous colour combination they make.

The potager also draws me with its espaliered fruit trees, soft fruit bushes and ‘medieval’ vegetables. Like parts of the rose garden, it’s a little too formal for my liking but fascinating, none the same.

I have just planted a hedge of cardoons and I’m hoping it won’t be too long until they are also taller than Roger! I loved the underplanting with alpine strawberries, left to scramble freely and covered in tiny fruits – that’s definitely one to try at home.

The mix of planting appeals to me and there is definitely something of permaculture here with single vegetables side by side in heavily mulched beds. It’s the sort of thing I’m planning for the mandala bed we’ve started making, a colourful and joyful explosion of food plants in the middle of a flower garden.

Below the medieval garden is a lavoir, an old wash house which is one of many in Lassay, the evocative wooden carving serving as a reminder of a life in tougher times.

From there, it is just a few steps to the lake and a fine view of the castle reflected in the still water.

Looping back through the town to the rose garden, we passed several municipal planting schemes and patches of garden, full of colour and life and making Lassay very much a ville fleurie to be savoured. No matter how many times I have been there and in whatever season, it is a place that never fails to delight.

I certainly came home inspired, too. I’m not one to romanticise history – let’s be honest, life in the Middle Ages was short and harsh for many people – but there was much in the medieval garden to set me thinking. I’m all for a simple life but I have to admit I’m grateful not to have to do our laundry in a lavoir; however, the wooden washerwoman and huge bed of soapwort in the jardin des simples reminded me once more that it is time to get back on track with all things herbal. I started my exploration of soapwort last year in Asturias, growing a good sized plant from the gift of a root which I was able to lift and move here with us in December. I split the plant and settled it into two places; the bigger of the two has already made a decent show of things and I think there would be no harm in harvesting some stems and leaves now for my first soapy trial. Eventually, I’m planning to let it run amok in as big a space as it wants so that we have enough to use for laundry, dishwashing and in the bathroom but to start things off, I’ve decided to combine it with sage and rosemary to make a herbal shampoo. I’m hoping this will be the start of something great.

Soapwort growing well between Californian poppies and calendula. Note the baby cardoons behind!
Soapwort flowering in our Asturian garden last summer.

Looking to expand my knowledge and use of plants domestically and therapeutically, I’ve treated myself to a copy of A Modern Herbal by Alys Fowler which I’ve bought from World of Books, an ethical secondhand book company. (As an aside, I’ve always been very pleased with the books I’ve bought from them and I’m happy to continue supporting them – especially at only £2 for international shipping). I already have a herbal, but it is very dated and a peep at the preview of this new one suggests the far wider scope and coverage I’m looking for; for example, there is a section about using globe artichokes and cardoons, both of which I’ve recently planted and would like to make full use of once established. Once the book arrives, Roger will have a quiet life while I devour every page . . . while most probably making a very long wishlist for the garden.

I don’t have a medieval stillroom but rose petals dry well on a sunny windowsill.

I also know that there is a copy of The Hedgrow Handbook by Adele Nozedar of Breacon Beacons Foraging waiting for me at Vicky’s house for collection when we are finally allowed to travel and visit once again (please let it be soon). I bought a gift voucher for Adele’s foraging workshop for Vicky’s 30th birthday which we had planned to celebrate with her last year; unfortunately, Covid put paid to that, but realising how frustrated and sad I was, Adele swung into action. Living near Vicky, she offered to deliver the voucher by hand (in a Covid secure way, of course), taking a posy of June flowers from her garden and singing a hearty rendition of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ on the doorstep! I’ve never met Adele and I’m not being paid to advertise her business or books but she is most definitely one of life’s lovely people and I think it’s important to give credit where it is due. Having found so much enjoyment in foraging for elderflowers and nettles in recent weeks, I can’t wait to get my hands on her book!

Having put woolly things on hold for several months, I’ve started to think about natural dyes again, spurred on by the fact that Roger was kind (or daft?) enough to find room for my box of Dark Art materials on his last trip to Asturias (there’s even a faint whisper about my spinning wheel coming next time, oh happy day). Like soapwort, I started to grow some plants for dyes last year; woad and weld being biennial, I had to leave them in the ground but dyer’s chamomile and madder both came with us. To be honest, I thought I’d lost the madder, it struggled so badly with the cold spring and died right back to ground level; however, it’s back and growing like stink – another thug in the making. It’s related to coffee and I can’t believe how abrasive the leaves are, apparently they can be used as pan scourers which is another thing to try once the plants are big enough to pick at. The dyer’s chamomile loves it here and is ten times bigger than the little slip I planted; the flowers, a magnet to insects, are like vivid sunshine and it’s easy to see they will yield a bright yellow dye. I’ve raised more woad from seed and planted it in the same bed, so with any luck I should be able to overdye the yellow with blue to obtain a beautiful green, ironically not an easy colour to achieve from natural materials.

Dyer’s chamomile plus admirer

My wander round Lassay also has me picking up the permaculture reins once again and wishing I hadn’t left all my study notes in Spain! I’m very excited that we’ve started talking about having chickens again, I have missed them so much. We only need a couple of laying hens but their contribution will be immense: providing beautiful fresh eggs for us, manure for the garden / compost heap, eating kitchen scraps and scratching others down into compost, turning the soil over, eating pests and generally being good company. We plan to design and make moveable housing so they can range freely in the orchard or be contained in an area for a bit of chicken tractoring so I need to be patient while we get that organised. In the meantime, we’ve started making the mandala bed using the lasagne (sheet mulching) technique which means no digging, the idea being – in keeping with permaculture principles – that we create a bed of rich soil using only materials we already have. It’s a large circle and I’ve fallen at the first hurdle, having run out of cardboard for the base layer, so I’m going to have to cadge some from the local supermarket or recycling depot! Ah well, my intentions were sound.

Humble beginnings: a few sheets of soaked cardboard and a pile of grass clippings.
Growing steadily outwards . . .

After that, the layers of green and brown materials shouldn’t be too hard; we’ve started with grass clippings and there’s a pile of woodchips, sawdust, dead leaves and twiggy material waiting to go on next. For the (eventual) final layer of topsoil, I’m collecting molehills on a large tarpaulin in the Oak Tree Shed and there will be more when we dig the pond. As we have a long run of hazel hedge in need of laying, we’re planning to use the young whips to weave a low edging around the mandala, another idea borrowed from the medieval garden. It’s a long term project and, within the circle, still very much a blank canvas – but one I’m very excited about filling.

I’ve marked the outer edge with white stones, now we need to find enough cardboard to fill the space and get building some layers.

A couple of posts back, I wrote about us putting up a red squirrel nesting box in the hope of our resident pair having kittens in it next year. The box itself has a special story. For many years now, Roger and I have refused to ‘buy in’ to Christmas (aaargh, it feels horrible even writing the word at the beginning of July!) so when we last lived in this area, we set ourselves the challenge of making a gift for each other using only what we already had around the place, absolutely nothing new could be bought. We were obviously permaculturists then, just didn’t know it. 😉 Anyway, Roger made the box for me from scraps of timber and drew a very artistic squirrel on the side of it but because we have since moved several times, the box never actually went up anywhere. It seems fitting that it has finally come home and I have my fingers crossed that it will be used in the years to come. In the meantime, the squirrels are obviously coping without our help if the little kit scrambling about in the herb pots by the kitchen door this week is anything to go by. Visits to places like Lassay are an inspiring treat but in truth, I love the fact that the most wonderful things in life are literally right outside our back door!

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. 😊

Poppies and permaculture

In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different.

John Steinbeck

As we move through the seasons, we are gathering many ideas for our garden and, given that we plan to leave a good deal of the space to nature, there is much inspiration to be found in the wilder places around us. It’s incredible how quickly everything has changed in the last couple of weeks: the air is scented with elderflower, honeysuckle and hay, the verges are bright with oxeye daisies, buttercups and poppies and the hedges above them are embroidered with trails of pink and white wild roses. What a garden that would all make!

The weather here has shifted from the sublime to the ridiculous: following a colder than normal April and May, the temperatures now are much higher than expected and still climbing – it’s ‘flaming’ June, for sure. As we’re not given to too much exertion once the thermometer climbs above 30 degrees, we decided to grab a bike ride before the high heat arrives and set off with a picnic on a 20-mile loop to St-Léonard-des-Bois. Our route from home took us along lanes through farmland and woodland and gave us some spectacular views of the Mayenne countryside; now that the maize fields have lost the brown of their bare earth, it is all wonderfully, deeply, sumptuously, summery green.

I love the way the mix of flowers in the verges has changed through spring and even now, when the grasses are tall and the carpets of bluebells and orchids have faded, there is still much to enjoy. The deep indigo of granny’s bonnets, white stars of campion, pink bursts of ragged robin and delicate mauve bells of campanula would all be welcome treasures in the garden.

There is no question, though, that poppies are the absolute star of the moment; whether drifting along field edges or in bolder swathes across entire meadows, they are utterly stunning.

As we stopped to admire and photograph one particular field, a friendly chap delivering bread around the hamlets stopped to ask if we were enjoying les coquelicots; we were in complete agreement that the beauty of the sunlit flowers under an intensely blue sky was certainly worth savouring – how could we not stop and stare? I was particularly taken with a planting mix of poppies and white and crimson clover, so pretty together, a good green manure and great for insects; that is definitely one that has been noted for next summer’s garden.

Then, of course, there is that classic cornfield mix of poppies with cornflowers. So gorgeous. Who could resist?

With distractions like these, it’s a wonder I ever arrive anywhere on my bike, but happily we did eventually make it to our destination. St-Léonard-des-Bois is a small town in the Alpes Mancelles, close to St-Céneri-le-Gérei which I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s a pretty place, a classic French ville fleurie on the Sarthe river and an understandably popular spot for holiday makers, but it wasn’t the town we had come for. About a kilometre away, and a steep climb out of the town, is the Domaine du Gasseau. Our first stop was at the pretty orchard picnic site where we sat in the shade of an apple tree and enjoyed our lunch: homemade pasties stuffed with goat’s cheese, walnuts, red sorrel and thyme and a salad of young perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, land cress, radish, mint, marjoram, chives and chive flowers – our first official garden harvest! (We could have taken a pot of strawberries, too, but they don’t tend to travel very happily in a rucksack.) There are several attractions at Gasseau: an attractive stone hotel with pale green shutters and a courtyard cafe, a small art gallery, a riding school and an adventure park where braver souls than me can connect with their inner ape by swinging about in the treetops. For me, though, the main attraction is the potager, open free of charge to the public all year round.

We have been going there for years and it has been fascinating to watch it develop and mature over time. It has always been organic but has now moved very much into the sphere of permaculture so there were plenty of new things to see, including a couple of mandala beds. I have to admit I did feel slightly ashamed at the state of our garden in comparison to this beauty, but then it is a walled garden in a sheltered spot so probably hasn’t had to cope with the same winds and heavy frosts and certainly, that lush soil has been built over decades. No wonder it is already so full of food, colour and life. I could easily spend a whole day there, wandering about, looking and musing; there are so many ideas, so much inspiration – where do I start? Perhaps with more poppies . . .

One of the main issues our visit to the potager really brought home to us was the need to feed our soil. We are trying to create a garden from possibly the worst starting point, grassland – formerly a field – that has been mowed with a heavy tractor for the last thirteen years; the soil is compacted, full of wireworm and chafer grubs and very, very tired. The lack of goodness in the soil is reflected in the unenthusiastic growth of much of what we have planted and who can blame the plants? No-one thrives on a poor diet, after all. It would be easy to feel frustrated and pessimistic but it’s not all bad news; the soil is deep and stone free, there is a lot we can do to improve it and some things are trying their best, despite everything.

So, although we are still creating and extending planting spaces, the focus this week has been very much on building and improving soil. First, Roger repurposed pallets and sheets of corrugated iron to build a three-bay compost system. The third bay is currently taken up with a turf walled enclosure filled with a mix of green and brown materials; once it has broken down into compost, we will move it and finish building the last bay. In the other two bays, we turned a broken blackthorn bough into a chopped base layer and then covered it in grass clippings. The first bay has become our new compost heap with materials added daily from the kitchen, the second one kept me busy for a while . . .

. . . time to shift the old compost heap out of the Secret Garden at last! I can’t say how happy I am to see the back of those ugly concrete slabs and rusted metal poles but to fair, the system has yielded a decent amount of black stuff; I love that whole cross-section thing, the layers becoming darker, crumblier and more and more deliciously composty from top to bottom. I’ve inverted most of the heap into the second bay and that will be left untouched now to complete the wonderful alchemy (sorry, I do get a bit excited around the whole compost thing); the very bottom layer was used to fill the black bin where the worms will carry on with their good work until we put that beautiful stuff to use.

Once cleared, I realised what I had left was probably the most fertile patch of land in the entire garden . . . mmm, now there was an opportunity not to be missed. Yes, it’s also very shady but there are plants that will go a long way to tolerating that so I transplanted a few rainbow chard and lettuce into the space; at least they won’t be short of nutrition.

When it comes to nourishing the soil, I know what it really needs is a good deep layer of well-rotted manure but we don’t have a ready supply of that at the moment and anyway, autumn is the best time to apply it so that the weather and worms can work it down over winter. Remembering Mary Reynold’s advice that anything organic coming from a patch of land should be returned to it and the goal within permaculture to strive for as many closed loops as possible, the leading question must be what have we already got that we can use? I was really thrilled that my bottles of comfrey tea and two more good roots to plant were on the load Roger brought back from Asturias last week; for me, it’s the most important plant in the garden and although the single root I brought here in December is romping away, it isn’t enough for this year. We do have an abundance of nettles, though, and so I’ve set a bucket of them to brew into a nutrient-rich tea that when diluted, will make an excellent plant food. Meanwhile – in a bit of a lightbulb moment – it occurred to us that we have a ready supply of wonderful rich soil packed with organic matter in the coppice.

An hour with a spade and couple of buckets yielded a decent trailer load lifted carefully from deep pockets of woodland floor soil with the minimal disturbance – we have pledged to care for and protect the coppice, after all! Not only is it fantastically rich but also abundant in the microscopic life we can’t see, the mycelium and bacteria that should be hugely beneficial to the garden. One day, I hope all our soil looks that dark.

The terrible spring weather wreaked some havoc in the garden, particularly where the beans were concerned; it was simply too cold and too wet, perfect conditions for bean seed flies to do their worst (and they did) and dismal for plants already struggling in poor soil. The climbing beans (borlotti and Asturian) were so badly hammered that as soon as the tunnel was up, I planted replacements in a very crammed tray and what a difference – within three days they were up, as green and healthy as you like! I fed the bean circle soil with an organic fertiliser, replanted with a dollop of our compost in the bottom of each hole, watered well and mulched. The weather is now perfect for them, the soil beneath their roots much healthier, their companion plants (calendula, coriander dill and cucumbers) filling out and they are off up their poles at long last. Phew, that’s better.

The dwarf beans have been a similar nightmare, with a row of ‘Purple Teepee’ and handful of ‘Stanley’ desperately struggling to survive, although they have pulled through better than the climbers. What has really frustrated us is the row we have sown twice now with no sign of a single bean . . . literally, digging down it seems they all completely disappeared. I’ve come to the conclusion that trench warfare is the only way forward with planting for the rest of this summer and starting beans in trays is the best practice to adopt. I dug out the bean trench and lined the bottom with shredded comfrey leaves and a dollop of compost; that will be topped with grass clippings and soil so that when I transplant the plants currently racing up in their trays, they will have plenty underneath them and – fingers crossed – with regular doses of comfrey and nettle tea, this time they might even grow!

We’ve taken this idea a step forward in creating a lasagne bed for the ‘Green Globe’artichokes I’ve raised from seed, half a dozen plants which are perennial and therefore will be in the ground for many years. The concept of lasagne beds is one that was illustrated in theory and practice at the Gasseau potager so, fully inspired, we decided to have a go.

First down was a layer of cardboard. The plants have had enough of their pots and I’d like to get them planted soon rather than first build the bed over several months, so Roger marked spaces with them using inverted plant pots.

Next, a layer of the long meadow grass cut from the strip behind the bed to allow the artichokes some growing room.

Then came a woody layer from the compost heap, one that had been created by the oak leaves I collected and added to the pile some months ago.

This is just the beginning; I shall plant the artichokes, then continue to build green and brown layers around them. Not quite the orthodox approach, but with luck it will result in a bed of rich soil and perhaps a first harvest this time next year. I hope our little garden companion approves!

Back to that bike ride, and the last hill took us past our coppice, now in full leaf, ringing with birdsong and lit with the creamy lace of elder flowers. We returned the next day to pick enough heads to make a cordial; it’s a simple process (I use this recipe from River Cottage) and makes a light, refreshing drink that surely must be the very taste of the season.

We are working hard to build soil and heal the land, to create a patch that is healthy, vital and productive but I realise that will take time; however, it’s good to know that even if we lack produce from the garden, we can still forage for wild food and enjoy with gratitude the bounty that nature has to offer. This surely must be one of the very best ways of connecting with the earth and celebrating this most beautiful of seasons. Flaming June is blessing us with flowers. How lovely is that? 😊

A design for life

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

Sunny evening, stormy sky.

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

Self-set phacelia and hungry visitor.

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

View from my castle ramparts . . .

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

. . . and in Downward Dog!

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

Beauty in bloom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad classroom!

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

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

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

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

Fair weather February

Strictly speaking, we are in the middle of winter and yet, here in this pretty corner of Asturias, it feels like anything but. Somehow it seems that November and January changed places this time round; even the oldest locals say they can never remember a November so wet, with weeks of grey gloom punctuated by violent storms, a complete contrast to the sort of extended ‘summer melting into autumn’ we have experienced in previous years. It might be a bit topsy-turvy but we have been making up for the lack of sunshine and warmth in recent weeks and I am not complaining. The mornings are gorgeous and I find myself drawn outside, pyjama-clad and clutching my first mug of tea, to watch the sunrise; tiny bats whirr through the garden on their last rounds as the nocturnal beeping midwife toads hand over to a raucous chorus of birds. The air smells of sweet grass and spring flowers. It is completely beautiful.

Backtracking a little and the second week of January saw us with fingers tightly crossed for a spell of good weather for Sam and Adrienne’s visit from Norway, both to give us all the chance to get out and do some walking and to allow them to top up their light and vitamin D levels. We weren’t disappointed! It was a pleasure to pack up a picnic and head off on several walking adventures. I loved the Ruta de las Xanas where we climbed a steep and stunning – if vertiginous! – gorge, emerging at the top into sweeping, sunlit meadows. The dog behind us in the photo is a mastín, traditionally raised with sheep from puppyhood and living with them in the fields to guard against wolves. This one had tried to persuade us to part with our picnic and, having failed, decided to sleep off her imaginary lunch in the shade rather than go back to watching over her flock.

A little further on, we passed through Pedrovaya, such a typically peaceful Asturian village with its narrow streets, ancient horreos and assorted cats.

The circular walk took us back to our starting point through beautiful rolling countryside; with the warmth of the sun on our faces and the verges studded with primroses and violets, it was hard to believe this was January – the only thing missing were swallows!

The lovely weather has continued into February and we find ourselves living an almost complete outdoor life once again. The garden has recovered from the bashing it took in the November storms and it is good to see some colour back again – how I have missed those flowers! The Japanese quince, stripped totally bare of every leaf and flower bud, are now blooming in their full glory; we have two pink ones and a deep red, stunning against the blue sky and literally buzzing with bumble bees.

There is a wonderful sense of everything waking up and stretching in a joyful salute to the sun. The banks and verges are spangled with daisies and celandines, violets, primroses and starry wild strawberry flowers; narcissi are unfurling their fat buds, some revealing dainty white flowers with a heavenly scent, others far less subtle in a froth of yellow frills. There is every chance we will have a dose of winter yet but for now, spring is very definitely in the air.

It’s always a job at this time of year to sit on my hands and not rush into planting everything in the garden but at least there have been plenty of things to keep me out of mischief. Roger has been back on logging duty and – brave man that he is – pruning the kiwi. Oh my goodness, what a job that is! In keeping with our policy of returning everything organic to the land, we are chopping the prunings and piling them up for compost but there seems to be no end to them and there are still several more days’ worth of chopping to come. Away from Kiwi World, it has been a joy to have my hands in the earth once again.

I have been planting out ‘Barletta’ onions, the big silverskinned variety so popular here, and also a row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ first early peas to follow on from the ‘Douce Provence’ peas sown last autumn; the latter are doing that strange thing of flowering before they’ve put on much height but if past years are anything to go by, they will shoot up suddenly and produce a heavy crop – the bees are certainly doing their bit to help on that score.

We’ve dusted off the propagator and planted aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies, and started off trays of tomatoes, lettuce and summer cabbage in the polytunnel. I’ve also sown a pot of New Zealand spinach, it failed to germinate in the ground last year so I’m trying Plan B now; I’ve been told by those in the know that once it’s established, we’ll have it forever so I’m hoping for good things. The salad and oriental leaves in the tunnel have reached jungle proportions and we’ve had the first picking of baby spring onions from there this week, too. Who says winter salads are boring?

On the same subject, the clever idea I had of sowing a patch of outdoor salad leaves in the autumn all went to pot when my poor seedlings were completely vaporised in the mother of all hailstorms (this is where a polytunnel has a distinct advantage . . . as long as it doesn’t get blown off down the valley, of course. 🙂 ). What a happy, happy moment, then, to discover this week that some of the brave little troopers have fought back: to date, half a dozen winter lettuce (‘Arctic King’, I think) and a modest patch of mustards and mizunas. What little stars they are.

Happiness has also come in the shape of oodles and oodles of purple sprouting broccoli. Forgive me if I repeat myself every year but I adore the stuff and will be in PSB heaven for the next few weeks, eating it daily in as many ways as is humanly possible. I think this is the best crop we have ever had and personally I’m putting it down to the snug blanket of green manure planted underneath it.

Well okay, maybe it has nothing at all to do with green manure but I rate the whole ‘no bare earth’ thing so much that I am planning another season of the same. Not that it will require too much thought as nature seems to be doing a pretty good job without any help and a drift of soft blue phacelia flowers to drive the bees to distraction is imminent. The feathery leaves of volunteers are popping up all over, even squeezing themselves into tight spaces like the patch of beetroot below. Other people may see it as mess, I only see beauty.

I am currently reading Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I am completely engrossed in his take on permaculture in a temperate climate. Here is a book I shall be dipping into for the rest of my life and I am already feeling inspired to try many new things in the coming months and years as well as revisit or simply revel in old ones. For instance, this week I was inspired by my reading to wear my glasses in the garden. That might sound slightly ridiculous but I honestly resent my specs; I know I’m lucky to have them and they are essential for reading and fine work but otherwise I hate every moment they spend perched on my nose so I never wear them unless I have to. However, what a fascinating time I had looking at things close up and properly: the tiny particles and minute life forms in our soil, the golden ratio spiral in a snail’s shell, the intricate network of veins in petal and leaf, the woody wrinkles of a peach stone, the tiny hairs on stems and roots, the infinite shades of colour and nuance of pattern all around me. All this wonder already and I still have 300 pages to go . . .

For us, good weather and lighter evenings can only mean one thing: time to dust off the barbecue. Cooking outside is one of our favourite things to do and it frustrates me that barbecues are so often seen as a summer-only activity, when they can be immensely enjoyable all the year round. In fact, some of the best barbecues we have ever enjoyed have been in the middle of winter. Well, why not? Apart from anything else, it’s a great way of cooking our food on ‘free’ heat as we always use wood from prunings, coupled with walnut shells and a few bits of eucalyptus for sweet-scented smoke. Also, with the provenance of charcoal being an important environmental issue, we can be sure that we are not contributing to the destruction of precious tropical forests whilst cooking our dinner.

Cooking over wood is slightly trickier than charcoal as it doesn’t hold its heat for as long but it doesn’t take much to get used to and certainly doesn’t limit the culinary possibilities. For our first barbecue of the year we opted for local pork which we marinated in olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs before cooking as kebabs and serving with homemade bread and a selection of salads. As ‘flexitarians’ we often have a veggie barbie, too, especially in summer when a rack of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes really hits the spot and with plenty of homemade hummus, breads, salads and dips we don’t ever miss the meat. One of our favourite tricks – learnt from a Cypriot friend – is to barbecue foil parcels of feta cheese, sliced tomato (homegrown and sun-drenched, preferably), fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, fabulous as a starter to nibble at while everything else cooks. Go on, try it. It’s amazing. Just be careful not to burn your mouth! 🙂

Messing about

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.

Jane Goodall https://youtu.be/48mxaQtbUdU (This is a beautiful, inspirational video – please watch if you have a few minutes to spare.)

Those are such wise words in the above quotation and without doubt, the very maxim by which I try to live. In these uncertain times, it is the uncomplicated thinking and optimism expressed and shared by people like Dr Jane Goodall and David Attenborough that encourage me more than ever to keep doing my bit for the planet, no matter how small. I am no expert, happily: I hate the thought of losing my capacity to learn or to be open to new ideas, not because they are fashionable but rather thought-provoking, inspirational and based on good practical advice. I was thrilled to be introduced recently (thank you, Maria!) to the work and philosophy of ‘reformed’ landscape gardener, Mary Reynolds; in her assertion that we should be ‘guardians’ rather than ‘gardeners’ and her commitment to rewilding, I have found a kindred spirit.

Reading about Mary’s work and the We Are The Ark movement (http://wearetheark.org/) had me wondering just how possible is it to create and maintain a patch that allows us to produce the bulk of our fruit and vegetables organically, that provides us with a pleasant space in which to spend much of our life, that offers a haven for wildlife and contains a wide and healthy biodiversity all within an ethos of sustainable living, reduced consumerism and waste and a small carbon footprint. Phew, it seems quite a big ask . . . but I think we’re getting there slowly.

Permaculture sets a lot of store by margins and they are certainly an area I’ve given much thought to since we moved here, working on deliberately blurring the boundaries between the garden and the landscape beyond and creating wildlife-friendly edges. From a practical point of view, some fences are necessary to keep the cows in their meadow and the wild boar out of our parsnips; having replaced the former ugly ones (built from rusty bedsteads and hung with hundreds of plastic bottles) with stock fencing or post and rail fences, we have since let nature have a free run. I love stretches like this, where morning glory has woven itself through the wire netting, underplanted with Californian poppies – both self-set, both buzzing with insect life.

This patch is particularly popular with tiny butterflies at the moment; dazzling with their electric blue bodies and shimmering bronze wings, they sit on the leaves like delicate jewelled brooches. So beautiful.

This colour combination is beautiful, too; I couldn’t have planned anything more lovely so I’m especially thrilled that it’s repeated itself in another random intertwining around the fence in front of the polytunnel.

Round-leaved (apple?) mint is a widespread native here and has wasted no time in sprawling along all our fence lines in great silvery carpets, releasing a delicious herbal scent from its fuzzy leaves whenever disturbed. Bees and butterflies go completely mad for it.

The same can be said for knapweed . . .

. . . even after the flowers have gone!

Living on the side of a mountain as we do, the house and horreo are backed by a steep bank above which is a meadow and, further up, woodland. It would be very easy to cut this ‘messy’ area right back or even replace it with some kind of ground cover plants in the name of keeping it tidy. Well, we don’t want to do that so we have simply left it for nature to sort out.

It is impossible to capture the sheer diversity of plants that have colonised this area. The heathers dominate at present in their gorgeous purples but there is such a wonderful mix of species, including young holly trees which are an endangered -and therefore protected – species in Asturias. I’m not completely sure, but I think this is exactly what rewilding is all about.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Year of the Spider; they are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes and colours and our world feels like it is completely encased in their silk. One even managed the beginnings of a web between Roger’s feet in the time it took him to sit and drink a mug of coffee in the sunshine! I’ve been cheered to find tiny ones living in complex webs on the underside of the brassica leaves from where I hope they will be practising some natural pest control that will be to the plants’ benefit. Prize for the most striking has to be awarded to the one below which I think is a wasp spider; it has been living for some weeks on a most spectacular web amongst the French marigolds.

I love those quiet moments of contemplation spent observing the fascinating creatures whose space we share and I have found myself drawn back to this spider many times. Whilst trying to work out where the lower section of the web had been anchored, my gaze was drawn down to something hiding beneath the foliage . . . this from a plant that had popped up randomly on its own some weeks ago. Treasure indeed!

Inspired by my reading of Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution earlier this year, I have thoroughly enjoyed my mission of banishing bare earth in the garden as much as possible. In part, I’ve achieved this using green manure in a trial that is ongoing. As well as sowing seeds in many locations, I’ve left clover and yellow trefoil to grow wherever they appear; in addition to forming luscious green mats, suppressing weeds and fixing nitrogen, I love the way the clover in particular buzzes with insect life. We change the path layouts each year, simply treading new ones where we want them but we’ve decided next year to sow them with clover; it’s tough enough to take the wear and tear and should be perfect for the job.

Such is my passion for this project that any bits of earth that remain bare for more than a few days have me well and truly fretting. When we lifted the last of the onions, I planted a few rainbow chard leaves to see us through winter then filled the rest of the space with crimson clover. As soon as the latest plantings of French beans, cannellini beans and Florence fennel were big enough to fend for themselves, I found myself sprinkling yellow trefoil seed between the rows. Yes, it’s an addiction.

I’m very happy to let the garden do the job for me where possible, too. Here, a recently cleared patch has greened up in no time with a welcome mix of coriander, calendula, pansies and Californian poppies.

I’m so encouraged by what I’m reading about changing perspectives and attitudes towards gardening and the strong movement towards dropping the notion of ‘messy.’ I know there are plenty of people who would certainly have pulled out the spent summer calabrese plants by now on the grounds that they are a long way from being aesthetically pleasing. I’ve left them for several reasons. First, even though they are pretty much over, they are still sending up heads which may be small but are perfectly edible; second, the flowers are a wonderful source of nectar for insects; third, I want them to set seed; fourth, as they are the only brassicas in the garden where I’ve found cabbage white caterpillars, they seem to be doing a grand job as sacrificial plants. Unsightly? I really don’t care.

I’ve let one of our Witloof chicory plants flower; I know I’m probably not supposed to do this seeing as I’m growing them for chicons- and they most definitely shouldn’t be allowed to go to seed – but I couldn’t resist the temptation of that perfect baby blue.

Our second vegetable patch probably wouldn’t win any prizes for beauty just now, either; standing in the middle of the jumbled jungle, it would be easy to think a little more care and control wouldn’t go amiss but look below the dishevelled chaos and as far as I’m concerned, all’s well with the world.

I have to confess that higgeldy-piggeldy patches have become my absolute favourite garden thing. They are about as far removed from monoculture and controlled, manicured order as you can get but that’s the very point. Here in a space no more than a couple of metres square are thyme, hyssop, cucumbers, chillies, lettuce, courgettes, French marigolds, buckwheat, trefoil and pansies.

The latter have become the new self-set thug, popping up all over in a crazy, motley, mongrel mix of colours and shades; I love their cheerful, whiskered faces and it seems I’m not alone.

The bare earth beneath the grapevine is now a sumptuous jostle of marjoram, basil and pelargoniums, all good companion plants. There’s buckwheat; too; I’ve pulled it, chopped it and wilted it once as a green manure but here comes the next batch of volunteers. The self-perpetuating gardening. I love it.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as saying we have a forest garden, I do like the philosophy, the significant importance of trees and the layers of growth beneath. I have a soft spot for this shady tangle, where pear trees, a fig tree and a kiwi vine, all heavily laden with fruit, meet and intermingle. A fragrant honeysuckle has garlanded itself through the lower reaches and the underplanting of comfrey – surely the most important plant in an organic garden? – is a bee-rich wilderness.

Wander further into the orchard area and here the mighty walnut dominates with the promise of a good harvest this year.

The row of straggly hazels which Roger laid into a hedge last year has really come into its own, thickening out and providing what has been a very popular nesting site for several species of bird this year. Beneath it, we planted fennel amongst the carpet of wild strawberries (which, incidentally, are still fruiting!); all wild natives, all food plants. This is good.

We are starting to benefit from the fruit trees we planted here a couple of years ago. Frustratingly, the first ever apples have been targeted by marauding jays which seems a bit unfair when there are orchards in the village heaving with fruit that have remained untouched! They aren’t the most beautiful looking crop but they are utterly delicious with that sharp fragrance and sweet juiciness that only comes with an apple straight from the tree.

We are at the height of peach season and picking daily, only too happy to fulfil Mr Fukuoka’s plea to use what is available locally and seasonally. The freezer is stuffed to the brim, we have made jam and relish, we are eating them fresh and sun-warmed from the tree and we’ve even indulged in a pudding or two!

Of course, it’s not all good news. We have been suffering from a plague of giant Asian hornets who have a taste for rotten peaches; they’ve never been a problem before but, although we can’t find it, there must be a huge papery ball of a nest hanging high up in a tree nearby. Apparently, their stings can be fatal even to those who are not allergic and although they haven’t been aggressive, I’ve been pulling on wellies to pick courgettes as the drunken hornets lurk in any peaches that have fallen and rolled under those huge leaves.

We’ve been collecting as many fallen fruits as possible at each end of the day when the hornets aren’t active but it’s impossible to find them all. I’ve been very glad that the clover I planted around the broccoli plants is suppressing weeds and the patches of salad leaves have spread to cover their end of the terrace as any kind of maintenance in that area has been definitely no-go. The shade of the peach trees is just perfect for growing these plants in but the risk of a hornet-laden peach falling on my head is more than off-putting!

The weather has mostly been very benign of late but a recent afternoon of high winds brought some problems, shaking far too many peaches off the trees and playing havoc with the beans. The tripods were so heavy it took both of us to lift and stake them with Roger wobbling around on top of a stepladder and the continuing gale doing its best to make things difficult. By some kind of miracle, the plants survived and recovered and are now yielding a massive crop of creamy fat beans for our winter store.

How the towering sunflowers survived the lashing I have no idea but I really had to hand it to that bumble bee, clinging on for dear life! The shorter yellow sunflowers finished flowering some time ago and their heads are ripening nicely; I will save some seed to scatter along the margins next year then leave the rest for the flocks of assorted finches who will arrive very shortly to tuck in.

On the subject of seed saving, I have been doing some research using the excellent Real Seeds website (http://www.realseeds.co.uk/) as this is something I certainly want to do more of. In particular, I like the idea of developing our own variety of perfect squash by selecting and hand-pollinating over several seasons. The seeds we planted from a fabulous squash that grew out of the compost heap last year have so far thrown up at least four different fruits (since taking the pictures, the first one has developed a distinctly pink tinge reminiscent of the Russian Pink Fairy squash we grew last year). It’s a fascinating exercise!

We’ve had a bit of a self-set surprise this week, too, in the shape of a ‘mystery’ plant that has popped out of the side of a path. We’re pretty convinced it’s a tomatillo and it looks like it’s hoping to fruit.

We have never grown tomatillo plants here and there has never been any evidence of them being here previously; I’ve never seen one in any garden locally and since it’s at least twelve years since we grew them anywhere, we can’t have inadvertently carried the seed here ourselves. It’s all a bit of a puzzle but if this is another benefit of letting the garden go wild, I’m not about to grumble.

There is still so much I would love to do here but I’m pleased with the progress so far and as far as a messy, unkempt, barely controlled garden is concerned, all I can say is that it is heaving with colour and scent and life . . . and, what’s more, we are certainly not starving. 🙂