April showers? I wish!

There has been such a bursting of leaf and life this week, I can almost hear the crackle and pop of burgeoning growth all around me as I work. Trees are suddenly clothed in fresh new growth, the woods are a soft haze of greens and yellows and the verges are bursting with cowslips, bluebells and orchids. At the front of the house, the double lilac is in full scented bloom and, together with a cascade of bright laburnum flowers above it, makes a gorgeous palette against the blue sky. There are baby birds squeaking in every corner and the whole garden is fragrant with the sweet perfume of apple blossom. It feels more like the middle of May and I’m loving every moment.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week wandering about the patch at all times of day, or simply just sitting and absorbing the bustle of springtime around me; an early morning breakfast on the Love Shack ‘veranda’ catches the sunrise now and is a magical thing to do. We’ve also been talking a lot about our plans for this piece of land and how we would like it to develop in the coming years. In The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds states that gardens belong to nature, not the other way round, and it’s a philosophy that resonates very strongly with me; we’re seeking a balance between being able to produce the greater part of our fresh food whilst maintaining and improving the environment and ecosystem(s) for all who share it. It’s not always easy, but something we are both very much committed to and leaving space for nature to do its own thing is key. The hazel hedge that Roger laid over winter is bursting with fresh new growth, whilst beneath it there is a riot of wild flowers – stitchwort, celandines, violets, wild strawberries, ground ivy, pignut, speedwell – which in turn are buzzing with insect attention. These ‘wild’ areas are fundamental to our vision and a precious asset in this space.

Although there are many simple ways in which we can encourage wildlife such as leaving areas of grass unmown or making piles of organic materials in various places, other projects need a bit more work. One of the most important habitats which we are missing is a pond but Roger has been working to rectify that situation. He has dug a hole out by hand at the lowest point of the garden and used the turfs to cover a snaking hügel bed which will help to ‘hide’ the pond within a wilder patch we have planted with young dogwoods and willows and should eventually make a turf seat where we can sit and watch the pondlife. Unfortunately, the pond liner we had ordered went astray and was delivered several weeks late so wasn’t in place for the last bout of decent rainfall; now we’re in a prolonged dry spell so we just have to be patient.

Thankfully, we know from experience that it doesn’t take long for the wildlife to appear once a pond is established, especially one that is surrounded by vegetation; we have yellow flag iris waiting in a bucket and I’ve raised purple loosestrife and marshmallow plants from seed so those should give us a good start. There’s no shortage of potential customers in the area, either . . .

Amphibians are an important and welcome part of our ecosystems; they’re always wonderful to see and a strong reminder of why we don’t use chemicals anywhere. There’s a small toad that seems to live very happily amongst the plant pots under the bench in the tunnel and is possibly the reason we don’t have a slug problem in there. I’ve been watching the golden ground beetles in there, too; they’re incredibly smart creatures decked out in metallic green with red legs that scuttle out from under the plant trays when I move them. The insect highlight of the week, however, was spotting a female long-horned bee – the red-listed species I wrote about last time – among the strawberry flowers.

Having recently read a long and detailed permaculture article, it seems that if there is one topic that divides opinion within the community, it’s mandala beds. Permies either love them or loathe them – there’s a definite ‘Marmite moment’ going on! I like them (and just for the record, I like Marmite, too 😊) and I’m very excited to watch ours evolve this year despite the fact that an expert would be quick to point out that I’ve fallen short of the mark in doing things properly. For starters, I should really have opted for looping keyhole beds rather than straight paths and triangular wedges; instead of a pointless rock in the middle, there ought to be a geodome chicken home and somewhere in the vicinity, a hot composting system. Well, I’m not trying to do it perfectly so I shan’t be losing too much sleep over my shortcomings and after all, the whole project is so much more than ticking a permaculture box . . . so why am I doing it?

  • I’ve fancied making a garden feature based on a large circle for a long time. For many years, I had a vague notion of a spiral maze floating about in my mind, but never actually got round to making it for many reasons, not least the fact that most of our gardens have either been too small or too steep. Now at last I have plenty of flat space to play with and a mandala bed rather than a maze feels like the better option.
  • I wanted to create something a little bit different in our ‘flower’ garden, a feature that would perhaps become a bit of a talking point and capture people’s attention and interest. It’s not the most elaborate of patterns but I like the sunburst of paths radiating out from the centre and the play of light across it at different times of the day and, although it’s not a maze as such, I’m hoping our little visitors in the summer will have fun running in and out of it along the paths. For me, it’s like a giant compass and a useful anchor point for tracking the sun’s path through the year but I want it to be completely open to interpretation. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk talks about seeing a garden feature as the centre of the universe since space stretches out infinitely in every direction from one point and I like that idea, too. Some might see fractions or pie charts or those of a more religious or spiritual bent might think of a Dharma Wheel or a Wheel of the Year. I have a friend who calls it my ‘yoga garden’ and Sam said it reminded him of playing Trivial Pursuit. Good, it’s already capturing imaginations!
  • On a less whimsical note, I’m trying to make a case for blurring the boundaries between flowers and food in the garden. Obviously, flowers are traditionally grown alongside vegetables in the sort of potager we are making at the other end of the patch but I think there’s an argument for having plenty of food plants in the flower garden, too. It’s not a new idea but so often consists of highly predictable suggestions (ruby chard, anyone?) which are based totally on aesthetics rather than usefulness. My argument is simple: why grow things like ornamental cabbages and gourds when you can grow equally interesting plants in the same space and eat them, too?
  • Finally – and I suppose this is the proper permaculture bit – I’m interested to explore just what is possible when creating a planting area using a no-dig approach and only the materials we have to hand. Apart from some of the cardboard which we scrounged (and which was, after all, other people’s waste), everything else including several layers of organic materials, the standing stone, the wood mulch for paths and the plants have all come from our patch of land and apart from two sections where I have sown annual flower seeds, the beds will be filled with our spare plants. So far, it has definitely been another case of something from nothing.

Like many other things going on in our garden, the mandala bed is a bit of an experiment and as such, I’m prepared for things to go horribly wrong. I’ve covered two sections with soil rescued from molehills plus a bit of compost and sown a mix of nectar-rich annual flowers on them . . . but whether the soil will be deep enough to sustain the growth, especially in hot dry spells, is questionable. I was encouraged to find a couple of phacelia volunteers had appeared there already (what a trooper that plant is!) but even so, I’m a bit doubtful. It hasn’t been all plain sailing with the food plants, either: strawberries, summer cabbages and a ‘Courcourzelle’ courgette are looking fine, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to replant lettuces thanks to the destructive presence of wireworms. I’m a bit frustrated that the little orange pests seem capable of working their way up through all the lasagne layers to munch away at roots but I’ve got hundreds of lettuce plants and I’m nothing if not determined so the battle continues. I’m hopeful that by the time the tender plants like peppers, aubergines, melons and cucumbers go out, the beasties (who apparently don’t like warm soil) will have beaten a retreat. We’ll see.

The state of the other two beds in the flower garden has been an interesting situation to consider. One was created by stripping turf and digging, the other was a sort of flat hügel bed experiment and both were mostly planted with annual flowers last year and deeply mulched with leaves and dead plant material over winter. When I stripped back the mulch ready for planting, there were two very different stories underneath. The dug bed was a carpet of perennial weeds (mostly creeping buttercup), so densely matted that I’ve had to dig it all again, and some of the perennial plants in there had taken a real bashing from various pests. In complete contrast, in the ‘pancake lasagne hügel’ bed there were hardly any weeds and the native plants that have appeared and decided to stay such as knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisy, mallow, yarrow and a lone teasel are looking incredibly healthy.

There was also a good crop of young oak trees from the acorns that went in with a brown layer, so we’ve lifted several to add to the tree nursery. I want to keep this border on the wild side so I’ve sown it with all sorts of annual seed for an unapologetic splash of summer colour and wealth of wildlife busyness. The dug border will make the transition to a mostly perennial one this year which, apart from anything else, will allow me to keep it mulched to help improve the soil; I’ve sown a narrow strip along the front with annuals and added a few dahlias but otherwise my plan is to fill it with perennial plants as I go along. I’m raising lots in the tunnel, favourites like scabious, aquilegia, globe thistle, gaillardia and echinacea, but they won’t be big enough to plant until later in the year. On the bright side, the soapwort, Michaelmas daisies, madder and cardoons are all going great guns so I’m wondering if maybe this needs to be a bed for thugs? When we visited the medieval garden in Lassay-les-Châteaux last summer, I liked the way the cardoons there had been underplanted with wild strawberries so I’ve done the same with ours and hope it will look as effective once the little plants are established. Whatever happens, we should at least be guaranteed a bit of summer colour once again.

Shifting to the vegetable garden and, given the wireworm issue in the mandala bed, I’ve been fretting a bit about the asparagus. I must admit to having had severe reservations about sheet mulching an asparagus bed, knowing how perennial weeds (and grass in particular) can be a major problem but several leading authorities on the matter convinced me it was possible so the lasagne bed was built, the plants raised from seed and 30 of them planted in deep pockets of rich compost. The apparent lack of life this spring has been bothering me, and I’ve been wondering if maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all; it takes three years to establish plants big enough to harvest, so a year’s setback is the last thing we need. Well, I should know by now to be a little more patient and have more faith: this week, tiny purplish spears of asparagus have shot up from all but one planting hole (and I have spare plants in reserve) and I am so happy. I’ve lifted the few weeds – mostly sorrel – from around them, mulched them heavily with grass clippings and told them what beautiful plants they are: a little encouragement and flattery goes a long way.

Where the weather is concerned, it’s a tricky time of year as the wind has a habit of going into the cold east and a frost is still possible; it’s still too early to plant out tender things but this is where the tunnel comes into its own. Having nurtured far too many young plants on windowsills and then in the tunnel, the time came to get them in the ground so I spent a very happy (and incredibly hot!) afternoon planting the whole of one side with peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. I’ve got plenty of spares in case they’re needed, and if not, they can go outside next month. I shift all the plants-in-waiting and trays of seedlings out every day as the tunnel is hot and they need to harden off, then tuck them up safely back inside at night. Some of the courgettes had grown so big that they really had to go into the ground this week so I’ve made some windbreaks from slates again and if there’s a hint of frost, I’m covering them overnight with buckets; it’s a bit of a gamble but I think they’ll be OK. The squash are desperate, too, but they really do have to wait a bit longer. No such problems with onions, the seedlings seemed big enough to go out so I’ve planted three rows (about 75) so far with more to come. Now what we really, really need is some rain.

The protective climate of the tunnel is a good reminder now of how the whole garden should look later in the year. I love the way that baby mesclun leaves are nestled next to radish under peas, all one big jostling jungle. I’ve just watched our neighbours making an incredibly impressive and precise job of their potato patch, digging in muck, rotovating twice, raking down to a very fine tilth and then using a tape measure to ensure the exact distance between each plant. I wonder what on earth they must think of my wayward, messy ways? 😬

I was just about to publish this post when we had a freak storm. It was nothing really, a few rumbles of thunder, barely enough rain to dampen the seed beds yet alone start filling the pond and a single ferocious crack of lightning which tripped the power and fried the phoneline. End of internet, end of blogging! It’s taken several very frustrating days trying to report the fault and get it fixed but we’re there at last, back on air and I can hit the ‘Publish’ button bearing in mind my photos are all well out of date now. I wouldn’t have minded if the storm had at least delivered the rain we so desperately need. I’m just off to bail out the bath water in the hope of keeping some seedlings alive. Time for a rain dance, perhaps? 😉

Down to earth

As human beings, we can sometimes find it hard to say goodbye, often clinging to people, places, things and ideals when the time has really come to let go. I’m not sure whether this hanging on and hoarding is some kind of atavistic survival mechanism, a symptom of modern society or something else altogether but I have to admit that when it comes to houses, I’ve never had a problem literally or metaphorically in moving on. For me, ‘home’ has never been about bricks and mortar but rather wherever we happen to have made our lives together as a couple or family; we have only ever been a tiny part of the history of all the houses we have lived in (and crikey, we’ve lived in a lot) and, once the decision has been made to leave, I have never looked back no matter how many happy memories have been made there. So, it was something of a relief to hear that at last we had sold our former home in Asturias; it is a house that needs constant love and care so we were delighted to be finally handing the reins over to someone else. There was much to be done before completion, however – especially when it was brought forward out of the blue – so we have just spent several weeks there packing, cleaning and dealing with the administrative stuff as well as building in time to enjoy a little holiday while we were at it. What a wonderful way to say goodbye: enjoying some of our favourite walks in beautiful places, treating ourselves to a couple of meals out, luxuriating in the the bliss of winter sunshine, laughing and chatting with friends, sitting on the terrace and drinking in the view and those stunning sunsets. Arriving home exhausted but happy to have it all behind us at last, it was good to see a little bit of spring had sprung in our absence.

We’ve done a fair bit since we arrived here at the end of December 2020 but finally it feels like we have permission to really knuckle down and concentrate on being here properly, to completely immerse ourselves in all the projects we have planned and put some strong roots down in this rich Mayenne soil. It’s not just about what happens on the homestead: I’ve started walking regularly as a way to explore our neighbourhood and connect with neighbours in this scattered, rural community and Roger has entered several races and is planning to join the local running club; we are both committed to French courses to keep pushing our language skills forward and (hopefully) become increasingly confident and fluent speakers. That said, since our return home, it’s the garden that has exerted the strongest pull on me and I haven’t been able to resist. Forget unpacking: the sun is shining, the sap rising and I need – yes, need – to thrust my hands into the earth.

Creating a no-dig garden from a field is a long term project and perhaps initially ‘low-dig’ is a better description while we get to grips with the two biggest problems: perennial weeds and grassland soil dwellers such as chafer bugs, wireworm and leather jackets, which between them can devastate a vegetable garden. Last year, we made some planting beds by either inverting or stripping turf and forking the soil over so we had a few areas to plant straight away and then subsequent beds were created (or at least started) by sheet mulching. The soil was in a pretty poor state; thirteen years of mowing by a too-heavy tractor had left it seriously compacted, short of nutrition, full of beasties and worryingly devoid of worms. Applying mulches of organic matter and natural fertilisers such as comfrey, nettle and yarrow was a constant activity throughout the year so, heading out to start preparing for spring planting, I was eager to assess what (if any) impact our approach has had so far.

No patch of cultivated earth was left bare over winter; everything was heavily mulched and in a couple of places I experimented with a late-sown cover crop of phacelia which absolutely thrived through autumn and winter – there will be more of that this year, for sure. Where we’d mulched with hay, I’ve stripped it back to allow the soil to warm up in direct sunshine and set it to rot down in an empty compost bay which I’ve nicknamed our Gentleman’s Pissoir in the hope that resident and visiting chaps will give it the occasional ‘watering’ to help things along! 😆 To prepare the soil beneath, I haven’t had a spade or fork near it or turned the surface over at all, just used a small hand fork to gently lift perennial weeds (mostly buttercup) and tickle the soil to aerate it. It’s all very low level work which I love because it gives me the chance to literally be down at soil level and really connect with what’s going on . . . and I’m pleased to report, there’s a lot that’s good on that score. For starters, the compaction has gone, the soil structure feels so much lighter and airier and, despite there obviously having been some heavy rain in our absence, it is very friable. The colour is darker than last year, not the deep shade we would eventually like to see, but it feels like we’re on the right track. I found far fewer pests than this time last year, which isn’t to say they aren’t lurking deeper down waiting for the soil to warm up but I do feel encouraged by the reduced numbers. What I did find, though, is earthworms – hundreds and hundreds of them. Their precious casts are everywhere and the soil is heaving with their pink bodies; if ever proof were needed that surface mulching with organic matter activates the worm population, then we have it in bucket loads. They are our greatest allies and what a job they are doing, that poor soil is being transformed into something wonderful . . . and that alone is a good enough reason to banish the spade for evermore.

Where the lasagne beds we started building last year are concerned, the Strawberry Circle is probably the best example of what I’m hoping for from them all. It had nine layers of alternate green and brown materials plus a light sprinkling of phacelia as a cover crop which I have just chopped and dropped. There are hardly any weeds, just a few small roots of sorrel which is edible and easily lifted; otherwise, rummaging down through the layers and worms, there is a lot of good stuff going on – wonderful rich soil in the making. The strawberry plants have kept leaves over winter and the new growth has started so I’m hopeful for a decent crop this year; I shall sprinkle borage seed as a companion between the plants and that will almost certainly self-set around the patch for years to come. The other lasagne beds are lagging behind in terms of how many layers they have been given so far, but there is still plenty of time to keep adding to them over the next few months. Everything going into them will be pre-sown in pots so should make good, strong plants with decent rootballs that can be popped into pockets of compost; it’s a strategy that worked well last year for perennial plants so I’m extending it to some annuals (beans, sweetcorn, peppers, aubergines and the like) this season. In the official perennial lasagne bed, the comfrey has started throwing up new green spears of growth and – hooray, hooray! – the roots I took from an ancient rhubarb crown last year are suggesting they’re pretty happy with the whole sheet mulching thing.

The existing soft fruit bushes were given a lot of love last year which with any luck should pay dividends this summer and if the bright new leafburst on the raspberries and young blackcurrants I lifted as found seedlings are anything to go by, we could be in for a bounty. It’s getting towards the end of the bare-rooted planting season but we’ve managed to put in three more trees, a ‘Doyenné du Comice’ pear, ‘Reine Claude doré’ plum and ‘hâtif Burlat’ cherry and it’s good to see our young orchard slowly taking shape. The little bare-rooted josta berry is covered in promising fat buds whilst in the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the honeyberries and goji berry that arrived as doubtful tiny twigs are covered in fresh new foliage. Our fruit options for the future are increasing all the time.

Back to the tunnel, and it’s good to see the beginnings of a new year’s harvest. The soil outside is too cold for sowing anything but parsnips and broad beans (both of which have gone in, along with a several bulbs of hardneck rose garlic) but the tunnel is a different matter altogether. The dozen ‘Charlotte’ potatoes are through the ground and there’s a decent row of radish, too; I’d like to say the same about the ‘Douce Provence’ peas but unfortunately the mice have been feasting on the seed and left us with – so far – the sum total of six plants. Mmm. I’ve replanted after much muttering but had to smile when, whilst tickling and watering the soil throughout the tunnel, I found several little caches of germinating peas hidden under the mulch; the mice are doing their own bit of gardening, it seems! Our local country store advises sowing linseed between rows of potatoes to help repel troublesome beetles so I’m trialling that in the tunnel; if nothing else, the flowers will make a pretty splash of blue and an early draw for pollinators. There has already been an explosion of ladybirds in there, the whole place is teeming with them which is great news indeed, hopefully that means any potential aphid situation is covered. It’s so good to have somewhere to start our plants off this year, to date some pointy summer cabbage, lettuce, onions, spare broad beans and sweet peas . . . but give it a few weeks and the bench will be heaving.

Adding structure to the garden is an ongoing activity, so as well as the new fruit trees, we have been planting out the seedling trees we potted up in autumn to finish creating a curving hedge between the orchard and veggie patch. They are mostly native species we found on site but we’ve also added a few rugosa roses and buddleia grown from cuttings and there will be flowering currant, too, once my hardwood cuttings have rooted properly (they’re currently blooming away madly in the tunnel, not sure if that is a good thing or not!). We’ve also planted a drift of trees along the edge which we’re planning to keep wild and Roger has made great progress in digging (by hand) a wildlife pond in the wettest corner – I just knew the mini-digger hire thing would never happen! It will be a couple of years before the real impact of these projects will start to be felt but it’s good to see the big flat spaces being broken up and the landscape becoming more interesting and developing the promise of new ecosystems. If everything grows at the same rate as the willows we planted a few weeks ago, then we won’t be waiting too long for our new hedge.

I never fail to feel a sense of wonder and optimism when the time for planting seeds arrives. It’s seems incredible that the tender little seedlings tucked up in the tropical atmosphere of the propagator will (we hope) be tall, strong plants producing a bumper harvest of aubergines, peppers and chillies in the summer months. It’s always a tricky time booting them out to make space for the next crowd – tomatoes, courgettes, squash and melons – but this year I have a plan which I hope will keep them happy and, most importantly, warm. I don’t like single-use plastic and avoid it as much as possible but this winter, the only way I’ve been able to bulk buy eco-friendly fat balls with no plastic netting, no palm oil and made from sustainable ingredients is in big rigid lidded containers. (If anyone is wondering why I don’t make them myself, it’s because solid fats such as lard are very high quality here and consequently expensive; I also read on a French wildlife site that we shouldn’t actually feed animal fats to wild birds anyway.) It strikes me that the empty containers could be very useful and for starters I’m going to invert them over tender plants as mini unheated propagators which on our sunny south-facing windowsills might even stop the aubergines sulking.

Winter veg are of course made of far tougher stuff and, although the hungry gap beckons, we are still enjoying a good crop from the garden. After months of harvesting, the leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips are winding down slowly but we are enjoying regular pickings of greens which have found a second wind – cottager’s kale and frilly purple kale, rainbow chard, perpetual spinach and young beetroot leaves – and purple sprouting broccoli, the star of the season, has just begun. We had none last year because of our move so this year calls for total overindulgence. I’m definitely not complaining.

The weather over the last week has been lovely so we carried the garden bench out from in front of the shed (which incidentally, Roger has started calling the ‘Love Shack’ for no other reason than I am so thrilled with it – he has pointed out yet again that it is supposed to be a shed, not an art installation 😆) and put it where we can take a tea break in the sunshine and enjoy the sights and sounds of spring. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the idea of putting a little bistro set in front of the shed for when we are seeking shade or shelter from the rain and, having dragged a couple of folding chairs back from Spain, I decided the time had come to leave the soil alone for a bit and get on the case. It feels like we have had those chairs forever, they were originally plain wood which I painted years ago and they were looking very bashed and shabby again. The previous owners had left a small folding table here which had been painted white and then decorated with a couple of butterfly stickers, it’s nothing we would ever use in the house but seemed to fit the bill for outside. Pieces of junk? Definitely, but it’s incredible what can be achieved with a bit of effort and a tin of paint. I fancied a shade of blue that would sit prettily with the green of the shed and opted for one called Bleu Orage (storm blue), set up a little painting workshop outside and got busy.

We’re planning to put gravel down as permanent hardstanding in front of the shed to stop everything becoming a mudbath in winter but for now the furniture can sit on the grass; as it’s all folding, it’s easy to pop it away in the shed and although it’s not exactly designed for comfort, I have a feeling it will be getting a lot of use through the year. I’m really pleased with the makeover, it’s very in keeping with the whole shed-building project and permaculture principles of creating no waste and making use of what we have to hand . . . and yes, that is bunting you can see. Just couldn’t help myself. 😉

That bunting was crocheted from yarn scraps and has been hanging in our spare bedroom in Asturias so it seemed fitting somehow to be finishing another crochet project in between the madness of moving preparations. I started a rainbow colourwash baby blanket months ago but progress had been pitifully slow so it felt like a good opportunity to get on and finish it before the baby arrives, even managing to sit on the terrace and work a few squares in blissful sunshine just like old times. The cotton yarn has been a delight to work with and the finished blanket it soft and light enough to tuck round a tiny body yet weighty enough to spread on the floor as a playmat. It was a lovely project and I have enough yarn left to make a string of rainbow bunting to match. After all the disappointment of the last two years, we haven’t dared book a trip to greet our new grandchild yet but it will most certainly happen; I might not have a problem with goodbyes, but that is most definitely one very important ‘hello’ to look forward to. 😊

Changing rooms #2

Gardening is a game of patience at the best of times but several weeks of delay in the delivery of a pile of bare-rooted plants has been a bit frustating; I know these things happen – it’s life, after all – but I was eager to get on with the planting. We know from past experience that getting growing structure in place early in a new garden is a good idea and despite looking like rather hopeless little sticks, young bare-rooted trees, shrubs and hedging plants will grow quickly and strongly. Once they’re in the ground, that is! Not that we’ve exactly been short of jobs to be getting on with in the meantime . . .

In many ways, this post follows on from my previous one about the kitchen makeover. The garden has always been the most important ‘room’ for us and much of the work we are currently doing is in its own way a sort of renovation, making structural changes which will lay the foundation for the eventual garden we have planned. (Not that it will ever be finished as such, that never happens.) When we first came to view the property, the so-called Secret Garden was bigged up as quite a horticultural feature. I believe that gardens should have lots of hidden little nooks and crannies and part-glimpsed views that make you want to go forth and explore; it’s possible to achieve even in the tiniest of spaces with a bit of ingenuity, and finding a hidden seat, unexpected feature or surprise planting is surely one of the great joys of wandering around someone else’s garden for the first time. To be honest, the Secret Garden has failed to deliver in the time we’ve been here, partly because there really isn’t anything remarkable to see when you get there – there’s no real obvious point to it – but mostly because it’s such a dark, shady spot that nothing grows well . . . and I do love a garden where things at least stand a chance of thriving and being happy.

Winter is the only time a hint of sunlight reaches the Secret Garden.

I managed to grow a few vegetables in there last year, things like lettuce, oca and New Zealand spinach which didn’t seem to mind the limited sunlight but nothing else was very enthusiastic and the flowers I planted were hopeless. We decided to do an honest assessment and agreed that it was time for a big change, starting with removing the old and seriously abused cherry tree which saddened me every time I looked at it and then taking out the hedge of kerria japonica which had promised much last year but was in fact mostly dead.

Opening up the view to the south-west.

With the ugly shed gone, too, the vista has opened up and the Not-So-Secret-Garden is suddenly filled with far more light and a less oppressive feeling. I’m hoping things will stand a better chance this summer, including the poor fig tree that is planted in completely the wrong place but is far too big to risk moving. The miserable fruits it produced last year really said it all but perhaps with more light, air and warmth around it, this year will be more encouraging. We shall see.

As we’re not given to wanton destruction, we left the growing arch but set about rescuing the wisteria that was climbing through the other plants in a huge tangle; its few flowers were very underwhelming last year which is hardly surprising given its position. Ideally, it should be growing splendidly up the front of the house but like the fig, it’s well beyond moving so we’re trying Plan B. I’ve mentioned before how the internal garden hedges all run the wrong way (east-west) so we’re adding lots of our own on a north-south axis to carve up the spaces across the width of the garden and provide breaks from the prevailing winds. Roger made a post and wire fence and built a pergola to create a gap through, then untangled the wisteria spaghetti from the hedge and dragged it up and over in the hope it will be a happier plant for being in more light.

The pergola and fence look a bit stark now but will be very different when covered in foliage and flowers.

We will plant a climbing rose to meet it over the pergola and another at the end of the fence which between them should create a living, colourful, scented barrier with a view glimpsed through the archway to tempt us beyond. Having taken delivery (at last!) of the replacement rosa rugosa plants, we planted a few to finish the new ‘hedge’ and will continue to add a mass of scented roses in the newly enclosed grassy space which will be the perfect place for a table in summer. We quite fancy a crocus lawn, too.

By the way, when I went out with the camera to take those photos, I was mobbed by great tits once again. This has now become the norm: I step outside and they fly in like a squadron of winged monkeys, then sit as close as possible and watch me or else follow me wherever I go. It’s nothing to have a following of a dozen birds or more accompanying me all the way down to the compost heap (which they immediately fly into and start inspecting as soon as I’ve emptied the bucket) and back again. The instant I even hint at moving towards their feeders, it becomes something like the red kite feeding frenzies I’ve seen so often in mid-Wales – it would be a complete nightmare for anyone with a bird phobia. It’s a good job I love them, although even I will be very pleased when their thoughts and attention turn towards nests and eggs!

I’ve been spotted . . . cue the squadron.

Back to work and Roger seems more than a little bit amused by my infatuation with our new shed. He has even asked me if I’m planning to move in there (possibly wishful thinking on his part 🤣); I’m not, but to be honest, it’s probably in better shape than the hovel house we first moved to in Asturias. He says it looks a bit like a cricket pavillion which is a slight worry as the logical progression from that kind of thinking will be installing a beer cooler and (please, NO!) a radio for the cricket commentary. The reason for his amusement is that, having had good enough weather to finish the exterior painting, I moved inside and started on a bit of interior decorating, too. Now if at this point your thoughts are running along the lines of, “But it’s a shed!” I completely understand so bear with me, there is a certain method in my madness.

When we moved here, we found a large hoard of paint had been left in the barn; every tin had been opened and part-used and many of them had gone off and needed to be taken for safe disposal. There are some, though, that are still perfectly serviceable and although none are the colours we would choose ourselves, it seems silly not to use them if we can. Rummaging through the collection, I found a couple of tins of identical ivory white emulsion which I decided would be ideal for the enclosed bit of the shed; both tins (weirdly) had been opened and used, one was totally shot and the other very separated but I managed to revive it with a lot of aggressive stirring. Why anyone would pay a premium to have five litres of white paint specially blended on one of those customised mixing machine thingummies (and then not use it) I have no idea but it’s done the job and has rendered the shed so bright and light that I think it will be the perfect place for sheltering young, tender plants when we get to that ‘lift them out in the daytime, tuck them up at night’ stage of things. On a roll, I decided the rest of the internal walls in the covered shelter bit also deserved a facelift and for that I chose something described as a ‘vintage look’ bluewash. According to the label it is ideal for garden fences – although why you’d want to go round ‘antique-ing’ your fences in pale duck egg, I’m not sure. That said, why would anyone want to colourwash a shed, either?😆 I have to confess, the effect is totally lost on me, it just looks like someone forgot to apply the top coat but each to their own.

Welcome to my shed . . . cream tea, anyone? 😉

If nothing else, it’s all looking a lot cleaner and fresher now and I’m happy that I’ve added to the weatherproofing which hopefully will increase the longevity of the shed, I’ve banished every last trace of that horrible orange-brown and it’s kept several litres of paint out of the waste stream. I’m now thinking it would be lovely to have something a bit more attractive than basic garden seats at the front, maybe a little bistro set, and I’m trying very hard not to investigate the possibility of waterproofing some pretty fabric bunting to hang along the front. After all, if I start doing frivolous girlie things like that, I won’t be able to hold out against the cricket commentary . . . and there are some things I really don’t need disturbing the peace and beauty of the vegetable garden.

Isn’t it funny how as soon as one part of the house or garden has been tidied up, other bits can start to look a bit daggy? Looking down the garden towards the shed, I’ve been finding the compost system a bit of an eyesore these past few days. Don’t get me wrong: I love this system, it’s the best we’ve ever had and, like the shed, was made from reclaimed materials. The problem is, rusty corrugated iron has its own brand of ugly which doesn’t really bring much to the surroundings. I was mulling over the idea of planting a living screen when the rugosa roses arrived and there, suddenly, was the perfect answer; we planted a row of five in front of the compost bays, leaving plenty of room behind to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow in and out and turn the heaps. Forget the Secret Garden; give the roses a couple of years and we’ll have a Secret Compost Station instead . . . although no doubt the great tits will still be able to find me down there with my bucket.

Honestly, there’s no escape!

Imagining the rose hedge in full bloom in front of the compost bays had me thinking it would be a good idea to create a bit of a border opposite along the side of the shed. We’re planning to put a climbing rose up the trellis, so why not make room for a few other lovelies to keep it company? Eventually, it will stretch the whole length of the shed but initially I’ve gone as far as I can until the water butt moves round the back. Creating lasagne beds has become second nature to us now and we’ve got ourselves pretty organised with various piles of green and brown materials ready to hand; for instance, there’s a space in the Oak Shed dedicated to dry storage of sawdust, bark chips, dead leaves and cardboard to collect in a barrow when needed. To start this new bed, I laid the cardboard that our new plants had been delivered in (no waste here), then topped with layers of hay, dead leaves and twiggy branches, sawdust, greenery from a chopped conifer, yarrow leaves and compost from the trunk of the old apple tree we cut a couple of weeks ago. I’ll keep adding to it, then pop sturdy plants into pockets of compost in spring.

Something that has already started to make an attractive ‘hedge’ are the cardoons I raised from seed last year. Undaunted by the season, they have continued to grow and make a lovely metallic silvery splash with their huge leafy fronds and already have small flower heads nestled deep in their centres. Like their close cousins the globe artichokes, the leaves make a wonderful cleansing tea, perfect for this time of year and particularly refreshing combined with lemon verbena and lemon balm. I’m amazed at how quickly I’m getting through some of the herbs I dried last summer, things like the peppermint are nearly all gone, so I’m making notes of what I need to dry far more of this year. My favourite blend at the moment is hawthorn, lemon balm, lemon verbena, blackcurrant leaf, lavender and rose petal; it’s looks like pot pourri and is the taste of a summer’s day in a cup. The rose petals, however, do a great job of clogging my teapot spout so I’m beginning to think I might need to invest in one with an insert strainer – either that or a packet of pipe cleaners.

Something else I need to organise this year is a far better range of overwintering food crops in the tunnel. Last year it all got away from me thanks to failed germination, soil pests and ten days away in early September during which the longest, hottest, driest spell of the whole summer cooked the seedlings to a crisp. Only the rocket survived, although a few coriander seedlings have popped up in the last couple of weeks which promise a good picking of tasty leaves months ahead of the outdoor stuff (which is the idea of the tunnel, after all). The rocket has been a reliable cropper for months and is now looking to flower which I shall let it do in the hope of never needing to plant it again once the seedheads burst. To go with it, I shall be sowing several kinds of cut-and-come-again lettuce, land cress, lamb’s lettuce, pak choi, mizuna, red mustard, mesclun, radicchio, chicory, winter purslane, flat-leaved parsley, chervil, chard, beetroot and spring onions, all of which should give us plentiful and varied salad dishes through winter. That said, I was really thrilled to pick a lovely lunchtime salad this week: rocket from the tunnel combined with outdoor baby chard and beetroot leaves (their new growth is incredible), land cress, perpetual spinach and very young dandelion leaves which are such a nutrient-rich food at this time of year. Sprinkled with a few pickled nasturtium seeds and calendula petals, it was a deliciously fresh and tangy dish, lighter than a winter slaw but bursting with colour and flavour.

When the long-awaited plants finally appeared, we spent a happy afternoon adding almost 50 new trees to the patch. Some stand alone in splendid solitude, others nestle shoulder to shoulder in strips of hedging; all will bring something special to our garden and the ecosystems within it. Willow is probably one of the best trees we can plant: it’s fantastic for wildlife, an unfussy and speedy grower, propagates like a dream, provides great winter colour and has a hundred and one uses around the garden. We’ve planted a long, snaking hedge between the end of the veggie patch and the (eventual) pond, mostly basket willow and golden willow but also a smattering of the less common ear willow (the lovely-sounding saule à oreillettes in French). Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, with its delicate yellow spring blooms and glossy red edible fruits should make quite an impact as will the autumn fire of maples and red oaks. Alder buckthorn is the main food source for brimstone butterflies and offers a crop of fruits for the birds to pick at, as does the crab apple (although I shall be after a few of those, too, for making into jelly). Bladder senna is not something we’ve ever grown but I’m taken with its pretty yellow pea-type flowers and fascinating balloon seed pods and what’s more it’s a nitrogen fixer.

Mixed willow hedge in the making.

With the rest of the rugosa roses planted, too, we can suddenly see a new structure emerging from the blank canvas we started with, and by the time we’ve added the pile of plants waiting in the tunnel – those young tree seedlings from around the patch we potted up in the autumn – then the lines and curves of new spaces should be more clearly defined. I particularly love the meandering hedge we’re planting to separate the vegetable garden from the orchard; we’re doing it piecemeal, dotting different plants along a curving line and gradually filling in between so that eventually there will be a thick, eclectic hedge giving shelter from the north-easterly winds, providing food and habitat for a wealth of wildlife and adding shape, structure and colour where previously there was none. We’re leaving several paths through so we can wander from one garden ‘room’ to another or simply graze the edibles from along the hedge. It’s like sketching charcoal lines on a blank canvas to start giving shape to the finished picture, a glimspe of what (hopefully) the eventual painting will look like. Probably not a masterpiece, but – like the kitchen – somewhere colourful, comfortable and quirky where we can work or relax and share happy moments. Worth the wait, surely?

Red oaks should make mighty trees with fabulous autumn foliage.

I must apologise for squeezing in two posts so close together this week but this one will actually be the last for a while. We have a very hectic few weeks ahead and I need to concentrate on all that must be done; also, most of that time – starting on Monday – will be spent without internet which means an ‘obligatory blogging break beckons’ (try saying that little lot quickly!). I shall miss the writing and reading other bloggers’ posts, too, so there will be much catching up to do come mid-March by which time, the swallows will be on their way back and spring will definitely be in the air. Now there’s a wonderful thought! Until then . . . 😊

Changing rooms #1

I’ve finally managed to drag myself out of the garden and sort out a few ‘before and after’ photos of the kitchen renovation. 😀

I’ve been promising to share them for ages but it’s taken me this long because I couldn’t finish the decorating until the porch had been built and the coat hooks and wellies shifted out there plus I wanted to wait until we had replaced our temporary table and chairs with something a bit heftier and more suited to the room. A trip to the depot vente this week saw us buying a solid wooden table with snazzy tiled surface and four wooden chairs with basket weave seats for a fraction of the price they would have been new; I love the idea of giving old furniture a new lease of life and as the chairs have been newly ‘upholstered’, they should last us for years. The temporary set has gone upstairs where it now gives us a useful computer desk and a space for studying, crafting, sewing and the like: at last, somewhere to set up my sewing machine! Anyway, back to the story of the kitchen . . . and the realisation that I didn’t even bother taking any photos of it until we started the main renovation in the summer (six months after arriving here) so by the time the first of each pair of photos below was taken, we had already made a few changes.

View from the back (north-west) to the front (south-east).
Looking from the front (south-east) to the back (north-west). We bought that tub armchair from the local charity shop for 25 euros and it was our only comfy seat here for the first six months!

When we first viewed the house, the kitchen struck us as a pleasant room. It’s a good size and very light and airy thanks to large windows at each end, two glazed doors and an open archway through to the (equally light) sitting room. The renovation work had been done to a high standard, leaving some exposed stone, lined and insulated walls, hardwood window and door frames and a lovely tiled floor as well as a woodstove which is exactly what we had hoped for. On closer inspection, though, and having lived with it all for a while, it became clear that a serious overhaul was needed in order to mould the room more to our lifestyle: the kitchen has always been the heart of our home and cooking meals together every day is a big part of our life so some things needed to change. The biggest issues for us were as follows:

  • The stove had no thermostat control and the pump switch was outside in the cave. This meant having to go outside to switch the pump on and off or leave it permanently on, pumping cold water around the radiators and wasting electricity in the process. In the event of a power cut, we would be faced with the possibility of water boiling in the tank if we couldn’t put the fire out quickly.
  • The previous owners had never used the stove for cooking; being raised on a high plinth with a decorative brick feature above it, there was barely room for pans or a kettle – our stock pot was too tall to use.
  • The wooden fire surround had been the subject of a paint ‘stressing’ technique which really didn’t do it for us!
The woodstove: we had already removed the original low line of bricks above it by the time this photo was taken. Kitchen Ted was looking forward to a makeover!
We have used the stove for cooking every day during the cooler months. The terracotta potato baker was one of the more useful things that was left here.
  • The light fittings had been removed (as they had throughout the house), leaving just bare wires in some cases. That should never have happened, and replacing them with a pendant light over the table and a set of spots at the business end of things was the first thing we did for safety’s sake as much as anything else.
Who does this when they move house?
  • The cupboards were all old and many doors were hanging off broken hinges. One missing door had been replaced with a totally different colour and design; when it fell off for the umpteenth time, we decided to live without it.
  • The wall cupboards were all so low that it was impossible to use the work surfaces below them without banging our heads. The extractor fan above the cooker was a nightmare and we both suffered several painful cracks to the head from its sharp corners.
  • The sink was turned at 90 degrees from the window and faced into the sitting room, making a narrow entrance to the kitchen from the front door. We were puzzled by this set-up but thought it was possibly because the previous owners had wanted a dishwasher which was free-standing at the end of the sink, with a wobbly work surface sitting on top of it. The sink was unnaturally low and very uncomfortable to work at.
View from the sitting room into the kitchen. The extractor fan above the cooker had already been removed.
  • The work surfaces were solid wood which is a good thing but many of them were unfixed and slid around on top of the base units. Only the one on top of the dishwasher was any good for food preparation – a bit limiting, to say the least. They had been treated with some kind of varnish which was peeling badly.
  • The wall tiles were good quality but not well done; there were some very dubious attempts at ‘level,’ a complete mess around the sockets and random holes that had been filled with strips of mosaic tiles.
  • The ceiling and walls were in desperate need of paint. The walls were mostly an off white / grey colour, apart from one which was yellow with more of that ‘stressing’ in dark grey and another which was partly red. Some of them had holes where fittings had been removed.

When it came to deciding what changes to make, we gave a lot of thought to the principles of permaculture since they offer a design for all areas of life, not just the garden. We wanted to create a kitchen that suited our practical needs, was more organised, efficient and aesthetically pleasing and better designed for ‘sociable’ cooking whilst reusing as many resources as possible. We also wanted to avoid the uniformity and predictability of a completely fitted kitchen by including open shelving and free-standing furniture in an eclectic mix of styles. We don’t have (or want) a dining room so this more relaxed approach adds some character and a feel of homeliness where we can sit and enjoy meals as well as prepare them. The depot vente in Alençon is a wonderful emporium of secondhand furniture and household effects, the perfect place to pick up the sort of bits and pieces we were looking for. I really don’t care if things are a bit scarred and worn in places – after all, so am I! 😆 As far as I’m concerned, it’s evidence of an interesting life lived and far more appealing than this season’s fashion kitchen any day.

This old vitrine makes a perfect storage space for our crocks and jars of dried herbs.

Using the stove for cooking was a key priority for us so Roger removed the chunky brick decoration above it and replaced it using small tiles found in the barn; we had to keep something there to cover the metal beam, but by raising the level at least the hob became fully useable. He also ran a cable through to the cave and fitted a flue thermostat which works like a dream, and installed an uninterrupted power supply so that in the event of a power failure, the pump will continue to work for 24 hours. Once that was all done, I stripped the layers of paint from the wooden surround which was quite a job even with a blowtorch, and repainted it in a soft sage green.

The paint job before I started stripping it.

The key to redesigning the cupboards lay in shifting the washing machine into the utility cabin once we had built that and the appropriate drainage and power had been organised. We were then able to swing the sink back round under the window; Roger built a new (higher) base from pine boards and we opted for curtains rather than cupboard doors to cover what has become our recycling and compost collection system underneath. I had bought a piece of waxed cotton for a couple of euros from the charity shop, thinking it would make a good tablecloth but it turned out to be the perfect size for making into curtains instead. We didn’t want the dishwasher so I advertised it locally and sold it in under 24 hours, whilst that savage extractor fan was taken to the electrical goods recycling depot. Ha, good riddance!

Shifting the cupboards was a big job that needed careful thought. We took down the horrid glass-fronted corner cupboard and adjoining shelf display unit which were crowding the window and moved base units around to leave a space to integrate the fridge which had been stuck out on its own for want of an under counter home. We only moved one double base unit out altogether (it’s now being used for handy storage in the barn) but used the spaces we had made to build open pine shelving. While Roger grappled with the cupboard carcasses, I set up a painting workshop outside to deal with the doors; they had previously been painted yellow with red strips, very dated but perfectly functional. When it came to colours, we wanted something that blended well with the existing tiles and woodwork and looked light and fresh whilst still feeling warm; I was also desperate to banish that red for ever. I opted for a soft cream on the walls and light pistachio for the cupboards . . . thirteen doors, three drawers and five coats later, they were done. We lifted the wall cupboards to a more sensible height so our head banging days were over and refitted the original door knobs at the bottom of the wall cupboard doors and top of the base unit doors which seems more logical and practical (to us, at least) than having them all in the middle of every door as they were before.

We stripped the varnish off the work surfaces and fitted them properly; Roger has a woodworking router tool that makes a professional-looking job of joining work surfaces together and shaping the edges – at last, everything had stopped sliding and wobbling! To create a bigger food preparation space, we added a shaped oak surface on a metal leg, a bit like a breakfast bar; this has given us ample room to prepare food together and an additional sitting spot for sociable cooking thanks to a couple of high bar chairs we’ve had for years.

Having found a box of spare matching wall tiles in the barn, we were able to sort out the messes round the sockets, get rid of the strange mosaic bits and straighten up the line under the wall cupboards. It had frustrated Roger like crazy that the tiling on either side of the front window had ended at completely different heights and luckily, there were just enough spares to allow us to put that right, too.

Phew! Quite a job in many ways and one which felt like it took a long time to complete because so many other things needed doing along the way. In the end, though, I think we’ve achieved what we set out to do: create a practical and attractive room without ripping out the old kitchen and installing a brand new bright and shiny one which would have been the preferred option for many people. We reused everything we could, saving many resources from the waste stream, and managed to do it on a very modest budget. The biggest single expense was the oak block work surface, but even counting in all the ‘new’ furniture we bought, we did the lot for a few hundred euros rather than the several thousand a new kitchen would have cost. More importantly, we’ve ended up with a space that suits us down to the ground rather than what a designer might have thought we needed and that’s part of the fun of doing jobs like this for ourselves. I’m sure what we’ve created isn’t to everyone’s taste but it’s a bit different and quirky and has a lovely feel to it. It’s a great place to cook and share food and spend happy times together and with friends; this year – all fingers crossed – it will be with family, too. Now that will be the perfect finishing touch!😊

Time, space and spirals

I enjoy waking, whenever I feel like it, to a choice of interesting creative tasks all of which I want to do; or, best of all, just stepping out into the world and responding to it: total immersion. Paradise gardening.

Joe Hollis

Window dressing is quite an art form here and I love the displays that appear in the local boulangerie in particular, they are always so creative and colourful, such joyful expressions of the season. I’m thankful that there is currently no headlong rush into all things tinsel; in the windows of St P’s friendly little shops it is autumn leaves, nuts and berries, hedgehogs and squirrels that still capture the essence of the season so perfectly. The surrounding landscape is on fire with breathtaking autumnal colours and I am giving myself the time and space to revel in this transient beauty. Leaf fall is accelerating, the sun sinking a little lower every day. Soon it will all be gone. Time to enjoy it while we can.

When Roger asked me last Saturday what my plans were for the day, I smiled and said I was thinking about having a weekend for a change; this was a tongue in cheek reference to our farmer friend who grumbles that for him, it’s ‘never Saturday, always Monday.’ Looking at us from afar, I suppose others might say our life is the opposite of that – one big permanent weekend or holiday – and I will be honest, not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for the fact that we no longer dance to the tune of paid employment, timetables and deadlines. However, we are still incredibly busy people, spending most of our time on outdoor projects; in fact, apart from the occasional essential shopping trip or a walk or bike ride somewhere together, we never actually stop to draw breath. Please don’t get me wrong: this is a lifestyle choice and I am not complaining about it one little bit. Like the quote at the top of this post, I don’t regard what we do here as ‘work’ when every day is filled with the possibility of being active, creative, productive and reflective without even leaving our patch. To open the door and know I can spend the entire day immersed in the beauty of our garden, whatever the weather or season, is the greatest luxury imaginable. Paradise indeed.

My reference to fancying a ‘weekend’ really means some time where I can ignore outside jobs for a while and turn my attention to a few other activities, some which perhaps otherwise feel like a bit of an indulgence. In modern society, lives can so often be starved of time but even in a more relaxed setting, I believe we still need time and space to ourselves to use however we wish; it is often cited that hunter-gatherer peoples have a greater amount of leisure time than any others and I think there’s a valuable lesson there for all of us. Also, when you think about it, it’s quite difficult to do nothing; I’m not great at sitting still so reading a book for hours or watching television (which we don’t have anyway) are not my thing, but they are still engaging the brain at some level. Even daydreaming requires a bit of effort!

So, how did I spend my real Saturday? I did a session of yoga; I read some blog posts and replied to comments from other people on my own post; I sewed tiny buttons on to a couple of baby jumpers I’d knitted and finished making a little hat to go with them; I made a batch of solid hand lotion to get my sore hands and feet through a winter of gardening; I collected, peeled, cored and chopped another vat of windfall apples and cooked them into compote and leather, while listening to a French podcast; I blended wool and silk on my hand carders to make rolags for spinning, then set up my wheel and started the first bobbin; I wrote postcards to our grandchildren and messaged a friend who wasn’t feeling great; I sorted and packed the last batches of seeds I had drying – coriander and nigella for the kitchen, basil for next year’s garden; I looked at the next unit of my permaculture course and turned a few articles into PDF files to put on the Kindle for bedtime reading. Thinking I’d done for the day, I then started making a crochet teddy from scraps to match the baby knitting. On reflection, I had a pretty productive and very enjoyable time without setting out with any specific intentions in mind and I think that’s a healthy and rewarding thing to do occasionally – to allow ourselves to just go with the flow, not setting any goals, abandoning all ideas of a must-do list and then seeing what happens!

The current unit of permaculture I’m studying is about forest gardening and I am certainly leaving plenty of time to immerse myself completely and absorb as much information as I can. It’s arguably one of the most important topics to consider and I know there will be a wealth of additional material to absorb and enjoy. I’ve long liked the idea of planting a food forest but my personal opinion is that it must be tempered to some extent. In Miraculous Abundance, Charles Hervé-Gruyer tells of an indigenous Amazonian family he lived with who kept no breakfast in the house because they could simply walk outside and find it every morning. What a wonderful thought, to be able to harvest everything we needed by simply wandering outside! However, let’s be realistic for a moment: far from living in an equatorial rainforest, we are in sub-maritime temperate northern France and here we are very much at the mercy of the seasons with fluctuating weather patterns and light levels. The idea of planting many more food-bearing trees and shrubs and extending the list of perennial food plants is very high on our to-do list but I would be loathe to give up on our annual crops as fresh, stored or preserved, they form such a key part of our diet.

Despite this being the ninth garden we’ve created together, in many ways the first year here has been as much a learning curve as ever. Even though we have gardened in this area before, there was no certainty at the outset what we could expect from this piece of land: it takes time to understand how factors such as aspect, prevailing winds, weather patterns and soil composition affect growing conditions. In the event, despite numerous less-than-ideal situations, we’re pleased with the overall harvest we have enjoyed and, as we move into the realms of winter vegetables, it’s still interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) worked. For instance, the Florence fennel has been very disappointing and that comes down to sowing times; it’s a tricky customer, needing to be planted relatively late so as to miss the worst of the summer heat but early enough to put on plenty of growth before the season has shifted too much. I was probably a week too late in sowing the seeds and my decision to cram them between patches of leafy beans and burly Savoy cabbages actually led to them being shaded rather too much. It’s no big deal, we are eating the small bulbs and foliage anyway but next year will require a rethink. Purple sprouting broccoli is an early spring staple and the plants are looking wonderfully healthy but I’m concerned about the possible effects of savage winter winds blasting in from the west, so Roger has used some of the hedge prunings to weave a protective hurdle; obviously, the hazel leaves will die back but I’m hoping it will be enough to at least break up the wind a bit or divert the worst of it away from the plants.

The Secret Garden was always going to be a bit of an experiment this year and I feel the results were a bit mixed. I certainly won’t be planting brassicas in there again, it was just too shady and they were hammered far more badly by weevils and caterpillars than those grown in more open sites. That said, a few ‘Thousandhead’ kale plants have rallied with lots of delicious fresh growth and there is still a carpet of New Zealand spinach to tuck into. What a good trooper it is. I’m also pleased to see patches of self-set rocket and land cress, I love it when the garden starts to grow itself. There will be more light next year once we’ve finished the hedging but I think this will be the best patch for things like salad crops and leafy greens and I’ll move the needier varieties out. There is still a decent picking of beetroot and they add a splash of rich colour to what we are calling our ‘Root Downs’ (as opposed to our ‘Green Ups’) – trays of mixed root veg like parsnips, carrots, potatoes, oca and Jerusalem artichokes, such lovely sweet and starchy treats. Gone are the days of summery basil, mint and coriander, these strong earthy flavours call for something more robust in the way of herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme or savoury. Toss in some onion chunks and fat, creamy garlic cloves, and we practically have a complete meal.

A simple ‘root up’ ready for the oven.

I’m happy to admit that brassica planting registered very high on the chaos scale this year, not helped by the fact I’m a lazy labeller. I knew I’d planted out some romanesco broccoli somewhere but lack of any obvious evidence suggested they’d been a casualty of the Weevil Wars. Imagine my delight, then, to discover three large heads hidden deep within the foliage this week, their fractal patterns the living embodiment of Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, the golden ratio that spins exquisite spirals in nature. They are astonishing things, I am happy to grow them simply to look at them – although they do happen to taste pretty amazing, too!

As the leaves fall and spaces open up in the garden once again, we have a chance to assess the changes we have made here so far and to make plans for other things we would like to do. We’ve recently planted a couple of young bigarreau cherry trees in the hope of increasing the harvest in years to come, and we plan to plant more fruit trees – plums are a must! – during the dormant period. I’ve found a good online nursery in Pays de la Loire and have started putting together an order for some of those plants which will add more edible options to our ‘food forest’: sea buckthorn, autumn olive, honey berry, goumi berry, goji berry, jostaberry, yellow raspberry and the like. I don’t want to order until the bare-rooted willows are available; Roger has started to dig the pond (despite us agreeing a mini-digger hire would be the sensible plan, it comes as no surprise that he’s doing it by hand!) and I want to create a ‘wild’ area between it and the veggie patch with a mass of willows and dogwoods to add a splash of winter colour. The willows I’m after are saule des vanniers in French, literally basket makers’ willow; I’ve always had a soft spot for baskets but have never made one myself so that’s an interesting project for the future, as well as using some withies to create other features around the garden. Some of the features we already have here have become more prominant as the dense green of summer growth fades away and bring a new perspective to the garden.

Log ‘seat’ framed by hazel and blackthorn.
Stone pyramid wildlife habitat . . .
. . . and a more temporary one made from hedge prunings.

Away from the garden, the 30-day yoga programme is going well. I’m sticking to my daily practice and really enjoying it – so much so, in fact, that I started to feel a bit disappointed that the sessions come to an end far too quickly. I decided it was time to look for something else to add to my morning exercise and wondered if I could find a simple dance lesson or two. I’ve always loved dancing: contemporary dance was my thing as a teen (yep – footless tights, legwarmers, the whole Fame shebang 😆 ) but as an adult, my dancing exploits have been pretty much limited to a bit of a boogie at parties and weddings. I have mentioned before that after a rush of blood to the head, Roger and I signed up for salsa evening classes a few years ago and spent most of our time in fits of giggles as we tried to work out what on earth our feet should be doing. The tutor was unquestionably a very talented dancer but I had the impression he felt he’d drawn the short straw teaching a class of hapless beginners. He made a good fist of giving us a taste of different Latin American dance styles but for me it was all too fast and furious; we’d learn a new routine and would just get to the point where it actually felt like we were dancing then he would move us on to something new, often never to revisit anything. As soon as we were home, I would scribble down everything I could remember to help us practise but it ended up a complete jumble as there was too much to recall.

As a teacher, I am all too aware that learners need many things: clear instruction and demonstration, motivation, fun, repetition, time to practise and permission to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment but overload isn’t at all helpful. I would have loved just to focus on one routine each week so that at least we would have had twelve basic dances under our belt at the end of the term; as it was, we didn’t crack a single one. We persevered for another couple of terms without any real improvement so we put it down to experience and bowed out gracefully . . . but I’ve never lost my desire to do better. So, I was pleased to hit on the short video lessons by Oleg Astakhov, although I was highly sceptical about learning nine dances in twelve minutes: I’d be happy to suss one, to be honest! Mmm, it sounded like an interesting challenge, all the same and – all credit to the teaching – twelve minutes later I was indeed nine dances wiser. The best and most unexpected thing, though, was that suddenly everything clicked and fell into place, all the things I’d found so difficult in those dance classes suddenly became as clear as day.

I’ve always been an advocate of spiral (as opposed to linear) learning, the idea that we are not essentially programmed to learn anything first time round – or second or third, for that matter – and that it’s important to keep circling back to what we are trying to learn, perhaps in a broader or deeper sense, in a different context or from a new angle; sometimes, we don’t grasp something simply because we’re not ready to at that moment. Learning new dances is great brain gym, a brilliant workout for the mind as well as the body, and I’m suddenly having so much fun! I don’t suppose solo dancing will ever catch on but finding time and space to spend a few minutes getting my head (and feet) round waltz and polka, rumba and hustle, jive and jazz, not to mention mambo, merengue, bachata and cha cha is certainly keeping me out of mischief and making me smile! I’m not sure I’m ready for hip hop just yet but there may be a little zumba in the pipeline. Lifelong learning and laughing. I love it. 😊

Slowlydays

There’s a definite hint of change in the air. The sun’s path is shorter, the shadows morning and evening creeping ever lower and longer. The birdsong has faded, the cuckoo and hoopoe now silent, although the soft turr-turr of turtle doves still sweetens the air. The swallows are looping high and fast, feeding and fattening before their compasses swing south, and flocks of chattering goldfinches are picking fluffy seeds from the meadow. The dense hazel hedges are dripping with nuts, and dripping with red squirrels, too, feasting on the milky kernels; I doubt there will be much of a harvest left for us! The trees and hedges are heavy with dark summer growth, the rowans bright with scarlet berries, the verges sprawling with chaotic vegetation and explosions of loosestrife, valerian, mint and mallow. The days are full of butterflies and crickets, the evenings peppered with glow-worms and moths. This is, without question, summer in all its maturity.

. . . and yet, it’s not quite right somehow. We have had several weeks of unusual weather, temperatures well below average, glowering leaden skies and days and days of torrential rain which have left the landscape abnormally green and lush for the time of year. The neighbouring field of grain was cut early in a tiny window of opportunity but other farmers have not been so lucky; the combines have been standing silent, the crops blackening in the fields and the frustration locally has been palpable.

Harvest home: our neighbour was one of the lucky ones.

In the garden, the grass is growing as fast as it does in May, the dew so heavy now that I soak my feet on my morning wanders. The vegetables are loving it, there is so much growth and abundance and I have to admit, it’s a treat not having to haul cans of water in an attempt to keep things alive. In fact, with the water butts full to the brim, we’re wondering why we rushed to install another one at all. (Its time will come, of that we’re sure!)

Butthead???? 🤣
In situ and full to the brim.

There is change and movement in our life here, too. We’ve finally drawn a line under what I’ve come to think of over the last few months as the ‘Big Three’: we have our residency cards, our healthcare cards and the car is sporting shiny new French plates. Now we can turn our attention to the next tasks on the list, mainly getting the house knocked into shape and at the very least, the heating sorted out and kitchen revamped before winter. There’s much to be done. We’ve made great strides outside since moving here and the garden is slowly evolving into an organised and productive patch; I am happy to go off foraging with my trusty trug in hand each day, hauling back piles of fresh vegetables for the table. I’ve had a busy time drying jars and jars of herbs and other plant material, and now the food preserving season has begun in earnest. I’m enjoying my commitment to using my bike as much as possible, doing all the recycling and much of our shopping on two wheels now, but – like all good things in a simple life – it takes up a lot of time. The Mayenne tourist board attracts visitors through a scheme called ‘Slowlydays’ which I think applies perfectly to our own approach to life . . . although I can honestly report, that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t work hard!

Slow food

I was given an unexpected but welcome prod recently to pick up where I left off last December on the free year-long online permaculture course I started last September. I haven’t had a spare minute to think about it since but having started again, I realise just how much I’ve been missing it and also how resource rich it is – it took me several days just to read through all the notes I had taken. There are so many ideas I’d like to put into practice, but I realise there is much we are already applying here and our approach to tackling new projects has certainly taking a distinctive permaculture twist. Take, for example, the recently finished ‘utility cabin’ we have created in one end of the stone outbuilding adjacent to the house. When we first looked around the property, it was an open area with a toilet and basin at the back and a storage area for logs and various piles of garden equipment at the front.

Having moved in and lived here for a while, we felt the space could be made into something far more useful by closing the front, especially as the wind swirled round and blew rain in – we didn’t store our logs in there for that very reason – and played havoc with the modesty curtain hung to screen the toilet from view. Adding insulation would mean we could move the washing machine and freezer in there, freeing up space for better things in the kitchen and cave, and shifting some cupboards and work surfaces as part of the kitchen makeover would create a handy place for storage and various practical activities . . . I’m already planning to install my dyeing and soap making materials in there. Re-routing the water supply allowed us to add an outside tap, a useful resource missing from the property. We did the work using as many found and recycled materials as possible, such as timber posts liberated after removing a section of the huge car port, lengths of white plastic cladding (we think?) which had been draped high over the outhouse rafters and various scraps of woodstain, which is why the finished cabin is a mix of shades. Connecting the basin to a drain (novel idea!), adding a window, fresh coat of paint, homemade towel rail and a found tie-back for that crazy curtain has made the bathroom area a really useful facility, perfect for our outdoor lifestyle. Ideally, I’d like a compost toilet but for the time being, I’ve initiated a flush bucket system using grey water from the kitchen or rainwater from the butts which will save wasting mains water and keep water in our ‘system’ a little bit longer – perfect permaculture thinking.

I’ve been asked several times why I never post photos of the house; it’s partly because our focus has been very much on outdoors activities since we moved here and also, the garden has always been my favourite ‘room’ so that’s where my enthusiasm tends to lie. However, we have been tackling a few indoor projects of late and there are plenty more to come so I promise to those who are interested that I will devote a future post to the great indoors! We have made a start on sorting the kitchen out this week, so as I write it’s something of a bomb site from which (hopefully) an area far more suited to our lifestyle will emerge. Like the utility cabin, we are determined to use as many resources as are already here which will not only save waste and money but also challenge us to be innovative and inventive in our design plan. Although I am currently revamping cupboard doors with a new paint colour (yes, that red really has to go), we want to move away from a completely fitted kitchen feel so we were thrilled to find the perfect piece of freestanding furniture in a local dépôt vente, an Aladdin’s cave of secondhand furniture and household accessories. I’m not sure what exactly this piece was originally used for (it was in the bedroom furniture section), but it is already very much at home at one end of the kitchen and the amount of storage space is incredible.

So, back to the garden and the bulk of my time in recent weeks seems to have been spent barrowing piles and piles of biomass in a frenzy of lasagne bed creation. Well, it certainly beats weeding or digging, and the garden is so full of colour and life that it is a joy to be busy out there, even if I am walking miles with various loads of green and brown materials.

In truth, I have become something of a woman possessed, gathering up every scrap of organic matter and putting it to use in lasagne building, mulching or on various compost heaps. I’ve even started homing in on other people’s stuff as I cycle around the lanes – it’s very much garden hedge cutting season, so there’s plenty about – but so far I’ve resisted the temptation to accost anyone and beg a pile! To be honest, there is actually something incredibly satisfying to be tapping into our own waste stream and using what we have on the property and in the coppice; it would be much easier to buy in some bulk manure or municipal compost but there’s a growing awareness that doing so can import unwanted problems from outside. There’s little point in trying to build rich living soil if it’s full of animal antibiotics or bits of plastic and the more I do, the more convinced I am that the materials we have already will suffice. The only thing we are sourcing from outside is cardboard from the déchetterie where we are building an amusing reputation as the only people who turn up with an empty trailer to haul away other people’s waste!

From cardboard to compost to carrots and cabbages . . . satisfying recycling!

As a demonstration of what I’m doing, this is how I have built the Strawberry Circle:

  • Layer 1: cardboard laid directly on top of mown grass. I’ll admit the air (unlike the sky) was somewhat blue when the wind picked up from nowhere and blew the sheets halfway to Normandy. Once retrieved, I weighed them down with heavy stones and left the rain to soak them overnight; I’ve read this week that permaculture can be described as ‘Lazy Technology’ and I’m happy to be the living proof of that. Why haul water when so much of it is falling readily from the sky?
  • Layer 2: grass clippings from mowing the Potager paths.
  • Layer 3: huge pile of twiggy hazel sticks from two rows of finished peas plus the spent plants.
  • Layer 4: weeds that had come up through the peas.
  • Layer 5: a mix of woody stuff collected when we felled a dead tree for logs in the coppice – pieces of rotten bark, sawdust, twiggy sticks, dead leaves, etc.
  • Layer 6: hay cut from the meadow.
  • Layer 7: composty loam from a stack of turfs mixed with grass clippings and dead leaves that we put to rot down months ago.

I’m ready to start planting the young strawberry plants raised from runners, but as the mature plants (still fruiting like billy-o, are they a perpetual variety, I wonder?) can’t be lifted until autumn, I’ve sprinkled a green manure mix of phacelia, crimson clover and buckwheat in the centre of the circle for an extra chop-and-drop nutrition addition. Fingers crossed, we will be guaranteed an even better crop next year.

Not just a green manure: phacelia flowers are currently shimmering with bees throughout the garden.

We have never tried to be self-sufficient but I’ve believed for a long time that it is important to be self-reliant; more and more so, in fact, as the planet and all life on it faces so much unpredictability and uncertainty. We need to build resilience and I’m keen to explore the many ways in which we can do that, the extent to which it’s possible to shift for ourselves and weaken the hold of consumerist society on our lives. Making our own compost and plant fertilisers, growing and preserving food, saving seed, using rainwater, solar heating and logs, cycling everywhere and making and mending things are just a few ways in which we can stand on our own two feet as well as do our bit for the planet. In fact, I’ve heard such lifestyles described as ‘subversive’ and I love the idea of being a rebel! Our to-do list is fairly long, planting more trees over winter being a high priority and extending the range of perennial foods in the garden being another. To that end, I’ve been building a large lasagne bed for asparagus plants which, once established, should crop for a good twenty years. Asparagus is ridiculously easy and cheap to grow from seed, although it does mean waiting a bit longer for the first harvest than if we’d planted crowns; there are likely to be a few female plants in the mix, too, but given I’ve planted 30 of them I don’t think we’ll be short of spears. It’s a good – and delicious – investment for the future.

As well as propogating new strawberry plants from runners, I’ve been increasing the number of soft fruit bushes we have by lifting and potting up self-set seedlings which have quickly grown into healthy young plants. I’ve also raised trays of perennial herbs from seeds, 32 of which (sage, thyme, hyssop, lavender and Welsh onion) I’ve recently planted around the edge of the mandala bed as they were literally bursting out of their pots. I’m still working on building the bed but a pile of compost round the edge made for easy planting and with any luck, we should have a thriving aromatic and edible hedge for years to come.

Young herbs planted around the edge of the mandala bed (the white stones mark the positon of a path to the centre)

Preserving food is another investment for the future and something I love to do, so it’s been a slighlty chaotic week trying to get a few things processed in the chaos of Kitchen Makeover World. We have more French beans than we know what to do with, even after leaving the first row to fatten their pods for dried winter beans and seed saving. We’re eating them every day cooked in a variety of ways but last week I decided to experiment with lacto-fermentation. I had mixed results with this last year – sauerkraut was fabulous, courgettes were horrible – but that’s no reason not to try again, so I set a jar of mixed purple and green beans to ferment. The result? A crunchy, slightly salty pickle delicious with bread and cheese; they’re scrummy – we’re on our second jar already! I’ve been a bit remiss where harvesting cucumbers is concerned, my habit of crammed polyculture planting not always making it easy to pick things. The cosmos through which the cukes are trailing are so full of bees I can’t go wading into the jungly depths in search of bounty, so I have to remember to do it very early in the morning before the insects are out and about. The result is dew-soaked feet, hair full of dill and cosmos pollen and a very large haul of food.

Time to play Hunt The Cucumber.

These are a gherkin variety, perfect for making the easiest pickles in the world. I can’t be bothered with any of that ‘spices in a muslin bag’ faff, it makes far more sense to me to leave them in the jar for flavour. So, I simply wash the cucumbers, sprinkle with salt and leave overnight, then pack them into sterilised jars (chopping the bigger ones into chunks) with garlic, peppercorns, coriander seed, whole chillies, heads of dill and anything else that comes to hand before covering with hot white vinegar and sealing. Job done in a trice, even working round a muttering husband balanciing on a ladder whilst trying to move wall cupboards that have been very badly put together by previous DIYers. Where the dill pickles are concerned, the difficult bit now is trying not to open the jars for three months . . .

An important aspect of building resilience is learning to cope with (and learn from) failure and disappointment. It’s not always easy to see things going badly wrong, but the permaculture adage ‘the problem is the solution’ gives a pragmatic and optimistic reminder that these things can be overcome with the right attitude and approach. I’m not even going to describe how it felt some weeks ago to watch our potentially fantastic tomato harvest disappear before our eyes as 30 plants in the tunnel and garden went into total collapse thanks to our old enemy, blight. Within two days, we’d lost the lot, very frustrating after battling the same problem for so many years in Asturias.

Not a happy sight.

We are as sure as we can be that this was a result of the atrocious weather and airborne spores rather than infected soil so we will try again next year, adjusting our ideas based on what has happened. Perhaps we need to consider early varieties or later ones to miss the main blight period; certainly, a few spare plants that I planted in desperation after the others had died haven’t been anywhere near as vigorous but are now producing ripe fruits. Also interesting is that of the three plants growing in pots at the front of the house, ‘Orion’s Belt’ collapsed very quickly but ‘Alaska’ and ‘Black Sea Man’ have clung on and we are picking ripe and flavoursome tomatoes daily. The solution is definitely to be found here somewhere! On the bright side (and yes, we needed one of those) we were left with several kilos of green tomatoes and I’d like to sing in praise of these as a great food. Contrary to some popular belief, they are not inedible or poisonous and shouldn’t be consigned only to the chutney pan or compost heap. Blitzed with onion, garlic, fresh coriander and lime juice they make a zingy salsa that rivals any tomatillo; we love them fried in olive oil with onion, garlic, whole spices and balsamic vinegar and they also make an awesome curry. They freeze like a dream and I’ve stashed several bags ready-chopped to fling into hearty winter dishes. Nothing is wasted.

Sticking with threatened crops for a moment, and I’m delighted to announce that I think we are finally over the nightmare of the Evil Weevil. I’m still seeing the little bugrats in my sleep but the first cabbage harvested and eaten this week was sublime and felt like a huge achievement: half was simply steamed and eaten with copious amounts of rich Normandy butter, the rest shredded with carrot and onion and dressed in yogurt to make a light, summery slaw. We have to celebrate other successes, too, the crops that have just got on and grown despite everything thrown at them in this strange first year: potatoes, courgettes, carrots (the best ever, they love this sandy loam), beetroot, beans, onions, garlic, chard, spinach. salad leaves, herbs . . . we are spoilt for choice. We might be short of tomatoes, but in the tunnel is the best harvest of aubergines we have enjoyed in seven years. I’m certainly not grumbling about that.

Weevils 0 Dogged gardening 1: result!

In the last couple of days, summer has returned bringing us flawless blue skies and high heat. It’s not forecast to last very long, but there’s time enough at least to turn a few more swathes of meadow grass into hay for future chicken bedding. The combines are rolling, too, starting late in the afternoon because of the heavy dew then rumbling through the night to the wee small hours, giant nocturnal monsters bringing the harvest in at last. In the garden, it’s amazing how quickly everything has responded to the dry, sunny weather. The sunflowers, towering several feet above my head, have at last opened their shaggy blooms to the delight of the neighbourhood bumblebees; the Asturian beans and climbing borlottis have started to set pods, while the other two ‘sisters’ – squash and sweetcorn – are plumping up before our eyes. Slow, slow food, the best in the world. We are so very blessed. 🥰

One of our ‘mongrel’ squash grown from saved seed – it promises to be a good ‘un.

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? 😊