Organic, regenerative gardening can be many things: fascinating, rewarding, enriching, life-affirming, illuminating, fulfilling, inspiring and of huge benefit to mind, body and soul. However, anyone who thinks that sometimes I come across as a dewy-eyed, bunny-hugging, slug-snuggling softy when it comes to all things ‘nature’ might well have been a bit shocked to observe my reaction on discovering that something ~ something! 🤬~ had eaten off three of our young tomato plants this week. Actually, not even eaten, just bitten through the stem at the bottom, killing all the top growth. My first thought was slugs, but then when Roger saw a rabbit (nooooo! ) lurking between the pea rows, I thought maybe that was the culprit; the jury is still out, but whatever is doing the damage, it’s hugely frustrating . . . and believe me, I can rant with the best of them. Nature does have a way of seeking balance, however, so rushing to the mandala bed to check on those precious Finnish tomato plants (all present, correct and growing like stink), I noticed the flutter of something rather beautiful amongst all the bee activity in the sage flowers. From frown to smile in seconds; this is the third year I’ve been trying to persuade a swallowtail to sit still long enough for me to catch a decent snap. It’s definitely been worth the wait. 😊
Permaculture talks of the problem being the solution but that isn’t so straightforward when you’re not certain what the problem is, although little diggings around the beds suggests something furry rather than slimy. A quick look at general advice on the internet wasn’t much help, focusing as it did on raised beds, pots and fencing. We don’t garden in raised beds and I have no intention of making any, for tomatoes or anything else; I’ve chosen not to put any tomato plants in pots this year as they are so demanding when it comes to water and don’t produce as many fruits as those that are planted out ~ they are better off with their feet in the ground. We fenced the sweetcorn temporarily against hare attack which was easily done because it’s planted in a block, but I’ve deliberately scattered the tomatoes to all corners of the garden as an anti-blight strategy so fencing is a non-starter.
Putting our heads together, we came up with a two-pronged solution: Roger made deep collars from a roll of thick, flexible plastic something-or-other left over from the renovation work which we fixed round each plant with a bit of duct tape, having first piled anti-slug grit at the bottom of each stem. Hopefully, this will at least give the plants time to reach a good size and be less vulnerable to attack before they outgrow their little guards. Luckily, I planted 35 in my usual overkill habit, so I shouldn’t mourn the losses too much. It’s still a tad frustrating, though, and combined with the current headache of the second drought of the year, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to throw in the trowel towel and go to the shops instead . . .
In Vivre Avec La Terre, the authors discuss how from a global perspective, Western peoples are the least able to provide for their essential needs themselves. It’s true that the structure and impetus of our society mean the vast majority of people are unlikely to be able to build their own home, grow or catch food, or make clothes and medicines, skills which it’s possible may again become crucial as the planet and humanity spiral into an uncertain and unstable future. It’s an interesting discussion and something that has touched me for a long time. As a teacher, I railed against the curriculum for upper primary children which was so overwhelmingly academic, allowing very little time for practical activities; even subjects like Design Technology saw more lesson time being spent planning, assessing, evaluating and devising marketing strategies on paper than actually creating whatever was being constructed. The justification was always along the lines of, “Well, we need doctors . . .” ~ yes, we do, but we need many other skilled people, too, and it’s misguided to dismiss manual (from the Latin word manus, meaning ‘hand’) activities as second best. When our son Sam, who is a talented, enthusiastic and innovative cook, was seriously contemplating training as a chef, there were far too many comments from people who felt it would be a ‘waste’ of his brain. What rubbish! Apart from being insulting to chefs (who most definitely use their brains), I pointed out that I would rather have a cheerful chef than a miserable mathematician for a son any day. As things turned out, Sam chose a different path but he is still a dab hand in the kitchen and those skills could well become ever more important through his lifetime.
Human hands must surely be one of the most mind-blowing pieces of engineering on the planet and yet what do we actually do with them? Press buttons, swipe screens, grip steering wheels, grab things from shelves or hangers . . . how often do we get the chance to really use our hands in practical, creative activities of the kind that are both rewarding and totally absorbing? When I researched my family tree some years ago, I came across a paternal ancestor ~ another Samuel, in fact ~ who lived in rural Cumbria in the early nineteenth century; he and his wife were basket makers who both survived well into their nineties and I’ve often wondered if their shared longevity was in part attributable to a life spent using their hands (and yes, brains) to create useful and beautiful items with simple tools and natural materials. Basket-making is something I would dearly love to learn and put into practice if our willows ever get going. In fact, my ambition is to make a new basketwork trug to replace the old wooden faithful when it gives up the ghost.
I have to confess, I love doing things with my hands and will always use the good old-fashioned way of doing something if I can get away with it. Perhaps it does make me a bit of a dinosaur but I would rather do things like whisk mayonnaise or make pastry by hand rather than using a food processor. My spinning wheel is a favourite tool, powered only by the gentle treadling of my right foot; in fact, I am fond of any such tools that are simple yet efficient, they have such a timelessness about them and of course, no need for fossil fuels of any kind.
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is an important issue where creating a regenerative and resilient garden ~ and indeed, lifestyle ~ is concerned and one which I am all too happy to embrace. I love the fact that I can produce oodles of fresh, nutritious food without any need for machines, just time, energy, a few simple tools and my hands . . . and a fair bit of help from Mother Earth, of course! It feels so right, this gentle, nurturing approach that has nothing to do with power, order or control. Sowing seeds, planting out, spreading mulch, watering, tying in . . . these are all such peaceful activities that allow me time to connect not only with the plants in question but the rest of the abundant life in the garden. I don’t need to fuss about aphids on the aubergines when, crouched down to adjust a twine tie, I notice several predatory ladybird larvae on the lower leaves; picking gooseberries is a labour of love that leaves my hands scratched to pieces, but how can I complain when the air is full of bird song and bee buzz? If it takes me all morning to pick, process and preserve by hand whatever is currently cropping, then what does that matter? I can’t think of anything more important I could be doing with my time. It feels like a wonderful privilege.
I feel a particular sense of satisfaction when the carbon footprint of our produce is zero or even negative. Take lettuce, for example, something we are eating daily at the moment as the garden is bursting with them. If I sow seeds that were saved from last year’s crop in soil that has been built using organic materials from the patch and nourished with homemade compost, green manure from self-set or saved seed and homemade fertilisers, watered naturally by rain (I wish!) or with saved rainwater, harvested just minutes before eating raw, then fossil fuel inputs are zero. I have no need to go off-site to find or fetch anything, no need to buy goods or services from others, no need to tap into energy sources for cooking or preserving. The amount of work is minimal, especially given how freely and widely the seed has sown itself this year. If I cut the stem of a lettuce but leave the root in the ground, the plant will regrow to give another harvest and if I deliberately leave some plants to bolt and flower, there should be seed to save for next year. Any outer leaves not eaten can be scattered on the surface of the soil as a mulch or added to the compost heap. The whole process is a closed loop which has provided us with a huge ongoing harvest and hasn’t cost a penny; in fact, we could be providing others in the community with fresh, organic lettuce ( and courgettes, strawberries, peas, broad beans, herbs . . . ) too, if I could find the right mechanism for making that work.
Of course, it’s not always quite that simple. I can press apples by hand until the cows come home but if I want to preserve the juice by pasteurising or freezing, then I need energy inputs. The elderflowers I’ve been picking this week will dry happily on a sunny windowsill to be stored for winter teas and medicines but to make cordial, I not only need to use the electric cooker but to buy sugar, oranges and lemons, too. I think the key as with so many things, is the goal of reduction rather than perfection and I’ve long believed that the most important of the 5 Rs (or however many are fashionable these days) is ‘reduce.’ If everyone cut back even in a small way on everything they consumed or used, then I think we would be in a much stronger and happier position to face the future. Roger and I would like to tap into solar power far more than we are currently doing and a solar oven and dehydrator are two of the projects we’re considering; in the meantime, paying attention to just how much energy (and other things) we consume and doing whatever we can to bring those figures down is a big priority . . . and the garden is a good indicator of how we’re doing.
Where flowers are concerned, it’s much the same story. For starters, our whole approach of working with nature and encouraging biodiversity means that we have every excuse for letting wild flowers proliferate and do their own abundant thing. It’s lazy gardening at its best and I’m not sure we could improve on it.
The mandala bed is probably the most formal looking in the whole garden and yet it was created totally by hand from waste materials: cardboard, grass clippings, hay, sawdust, twiggy sticks, compost, molehills, shredded hedge prunings and a large rock all from on-site, herb plants raised from saved seeds and strawberries from runners. The only annual plants to go in there are spares from the potager as I don’t grow anything specially for it. No machinery, no fossil fuels, no external inputs, no cost and minimum maintenance; in fact, picking the strawberries has seen me spending more time in there over the last few days than the whole year put together.
As perennials generally have the reputation of being better subjects in regenerative growing than annuals ~ hence the focus on forest gardens, edible hedges and perennial vegetables ~ I have been making a concerted effort to move away from annuals flowers in the bigger beds by planting perennials grown from seed such as lupins, granny’s bonnets, echinacea, gaillardias and scabious plus other bits and pieces sourced from nurseries and the plant swap. Mmm, I’m not really sure why I’m bothering because I think this is a case where volunteer annuals are merrily recreating a flower bed year after year with total disregard for my endeavours. I might just have to accept defeat on this one . . . and as we’re talking zero maintenance, maximum colour and high density insect life, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea after all.
I’m not totally redundant: a few climbers have needed a little tying in to their supports here and there . . .
. . . although in most places, they’re happy just to scramble about without any help whatsoever.
Despite the riot of floral colour around the house and in the meadow areas, one of my favourite spots at the moment is the Not Garden; here, nestled in the cooler green of semi-shade, wonderful things are happening in the potato patch. The white ‘Charlotte’ and mauve ‘Blue Danube’ have burst into flower bringing a beauty all of their own to the space but fear not, despite first appearances this is definitely not a case of monoculture! Mingled amongst and around the potatoes are the starry white flowers of horseradish and rocket, the dainty yellow of landcress, cheerful orange of calendula, soft mauve of chives, bright pops of crimson from ruby chard and sorrel, lettuce here, there and everywhere, the trefoil foliage of oca, succulent spear-shaped leaves of New Zealand spinach and the first blue borage flowers right on the cusp of opening. Oh, and a leek left to flower and set seed, too. I love patches like this: needing nothing more than an occasional mulch, they provide us with a wonderful variety of foods all produced in a chaotic jumble of vibrant and vigorous growth. It’s not quite food for free (we did buy a few new seed potatoes to add to our saved ones this year) but it’s not far off. Not a slug or bunny in sight, either. Perhaps I’ll carry on with this gardening lark for a bit longer, then. 😉
Am I the world’s worst student? I started to study the Free Yearlong Permaculture Course by Heather Jo Flores nearly ~ um ~ three years ago and I’ve still only completed 57% of it. 😮 I have to admit I do feel more than a bit ashamed at that and it is truly no reflection on the course itself, which I think is brilliant and jam-packed with resources, information and activities. It’s just that life itself seems to have got in the way somehow with an international house move, new home and garden, other studies and health issues (to mention just a few things) distracting me from the job in hand. If I’m allowed to be slightly fair to myself, I have spent an awful lot of the intervening time putting much of what I’ve learnt into practice and I do console myself that there are many aspects to my life now which reflect at least some of the principles and design approach of permaculture. I decided this week, though, that I really need to apply myself once more so I’ve done the obvious thing and started a new course. Naturally.
Bear with me, it’s not quite the complete lunacy it might seem. This is the Getting Started With Ecological Design Course, a six-week beginners’ course which Heather Jo Flores herself recommends as being useful even to those students already enrolled on other courses. For me, it seems a perfect opportunity to kickstart my studies again, refreshing what I’ve already learnt with the intention of finally getting on and finishing the longer course. As a teacher and student, I’ve always believed that learning is spiral rather than linear, so circling back to re-visit ‘old’ learning isn’t an admission of failure but an enriching activity which serves to broaden and deepen understanding, knowledge and skills. I’ve loved the first week’s classes, especially the hands-on module which has involved choosing a ‘sit spot’ in the garden, observing the life around me and focusing closely on a single non-human species each day with the intention of building connection and empathy. Well, this is right up my street ~ let’s face it, I spend much of my life doing this sort of thing anyway ~ and I’ve chosen to do it without a notebook, simply sitting, watching, thinking, absorbing, reflecting.
With the temperatures climbing here daily so that it’s vests and shorts all the way now, I’ve chosen the relative cool of early morning to carry out my observations. It’s a truly beautiful time of day and as it’s also the best hour to be watering anything that requires a drink, I need to spend time outside then anyway. There is a quality to the light, which doesn’t stay low for long this time of year, that I find totally captivating, illuminating flower and leaf alike in a soft, Monet-esque palette.
When I started the original course, one of my activities was to draw my permaculture ‘paradise’ which was a lot of fun! Then I had to focus on three elements and develop my ideas in detail, bearing in mind that permaculture isn’t about having A, B or C but as an ecological design concept (or science), it’s about connecting all the elements within a system, based on the patterns of nature. I chose to design a composting system, mandala garden and mobile chicken accommodation, two of which I have been able to create and integrate within our property (no chickens, which is a shame). Perhaps one of our best examples, though, is the Love Shack: built from ‘waste’ materials and performing many functions ~ tool store, wheelbarrow park, shelter from heat and rain, rest area, rainwater catchment system, pee bucket modesty hut, plant support structure, plant nursery, animal habitat ~ it is one of the most visited places on the patch, connecting with so many different elements and making our lives altogether easier and more pleasant. At the moment, if I catch the time just right, I can enjoy my breakfast in a patch of warm sunshine, especially lovely now that the rose has decided to bloom for the first time. When it came to choosing my sit spot, I didn’t need to think twice.
What better way to sit and watch the garden go by than tucking into the fresh produce it offers? Like our salads, I love the way my breakfast bowls reflect the seasons and allow me to make the most of the very freshest, tastiest goodies. I’ve granted the hard-working rhubarb a well-earned rest and I’m now enjoying the first of this year’s gooseberries and strawberries. We have an abundant crop of both fruits, the gooseberries are a bit on the small side (dare I say, like many other things, the bushes could do with some rain) but they are packed with flavour and their tartness is perfect when partnered with sweet, sun-warmed strawberries. I’ve already started to freeze stores of both and that in itself proved to be something of an observation and connection moment this week: going down to the barn to find a container for strawberries, I was greeted by several lizards dancing up and down the door and the sight of the incredibly long tail of an incredibly long grass snake disappearing nonchalantly under the chest freezer. Nature. You have to love it.
One of the ‘design’ aspects of our property has been the location of seating and eating areas so that we can enjoy our surroundings to the full at different times of the day and the year; this applies to the house as well as the garden so that not only do we place seats and tables for comfort, warmth, light and practicality but we also work on creating pleasant views through the windows so even in the worst weather, we can still connect with the outdoors.
The outdoor seating thing is very much a work in progress as our time and activities here lead to new observations and ideas. At this time of year, a favourite evening spot is the gravelled area we made where the old shed used to be, overlooking the very young woodland we have planted. It’s drenched with late sunshine but too many weeks of a strong wind in the north-east has led to us discussing some sort of protective structure behind it to provide a bit of shelter on our backs. We’re planning to drive in some stakes, then weave with long hazel whips from the hedges to create what in essence will be a hurdle; some might call it ‘rustic’ but as it will be made completely with natural, renewable materials from our patch and will blend sympathetically with its environment, I’m happy that it’s the right idea.
Our evenings sitting there this week have also brought home the way that nature responds to what we do. The huge swathes of uncut grass are full of the buzz of insects; when the robins have moved off, dragonflies perch on the hazel sticks that are marking the young trees, their gauzy wings backlit by sunlight and ready to dart off in search of prey; the ‘table’ that Roger made from an old cherry tree that bit the dust has become quite a hotspot for courting sawyer beetles, whose antennae are something to behold. These are an interesting visitor to the garden as they are normally associated with coniferous woodland but the dead cherry log seems to be very attractive to them; they are very busy, restless creatures both on the ground and in the air so that the only time they have stayed still long enough for the camera was when they were in the act, so to speak. Given all the mating business with the ladybirds and minstrel bugs last week, I’m wondering if my blog is turning into one of those classic David Attenborough wildlife documentaries of old. Without the off-camera commentary, of course.
My renewed studies, combined with reading Vivre Avec La Terre, have reminded me of the three permaculture ethics: people care, Earth care and fair share (the latter being very open to interpretation and debate). For me, they embody a prevailing sense of empathy, generosity and compassion, characteristics which human beings are admirably capable of but sadly, all too often can be reluctant to display. A couple of weeks ago, we went to a local plant and seed swap; I love the idea of these but having never been to one before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I gathered together a couple of boxes of plants ~ vegetables, flowers, annuals, perennials, the lot ~ and bagged up masses of seeds, mostly of reliable and/or interesting varieties I’d saved from last year. An hour spent labelling everything in two languages was a pretty interesting exercise on its own!
At the swap itself, the idea was to leave brought items on a table (or give a donation to charity) then take whatever was fancied from other people’s offerings. It was a fascinating study of human behaviour as much as anything else, particularly those people who hovered nervously around their donations like market traders and found it difficult to walk away! I had no such qualms and had a fine time nosing about and chatting to other gardeners, including an elderly French lady with a mischievous twinkle telling me all too graphically how to deal with the slugs that would inevitably attack the morning glory plants I’d picked up. I was drawn to a plant labelled menthe coq, mainly because it didn’t look remotely like any ‘mint’ I knew, although the leaves were wildly aromatic and I was assured that it makes a wonderful tisane. On getting it home, I discovered it is in fact costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), also called alecost, bible leaf and mint geranium; it’s not a mint (or geranium) at all but a herb with an interesting history which is the kind of thing I love. I’ve planted it in the potager between the rhubarb and soapwort, a sunny spot where I hope it will thrive.
I’d imagined that any plants being given needed to be properly potted with good established roots but many people had simply dug clumps of perennials out of the garden that morning and brought them along; in this way we gained a couple of iris of unknown colour and some day lily roots to add to our collection of attractive edibles. The lady organising the event had opened her nearby garden to swappers, leaving a pile of tools, pots and newspaper so people could help themselves to a root of anything they fancied (with a gentle and wholly understandable plea not to lift whole plants); she had also left bottles of sparkling wine and glasses on various tables. Such generosity and trust, I wonder how many gardeners would be prepared to do the same? Her garden was beautiful, overflowing with wisteria and drifts of perennial cornflowers and in every space, masses of a dainty but obviously thuggish white comfrey whose flowers hummed with bee life. We lifted a root so tiny, no-one could tell we’d been there, and it’s looking very happy planted in the ‘wild’ flower border, the perfect complement to the pink variety that grows so well here.
All in all, it was an interesting and enjoyable event and now I know what to expect, I shall get busy potting up more bits and pieces for next time. I think sharing in this way is so important at many levels: it brings together people who can swap not only plants and seeds but ideas and experiences, too; it offers the chance to collect plants suited to a particular bioregion whilst at the same time, dabble in new and different varieties, perhaps with an eye on climate change; it helps to fight the worrying decline in genetic diversity, safeguarding heirloom varieties and encouraging the activities of landrace gardeners; it diverts waste into a useful resource, especially packets of seeds that have not been used or plants heading to become green waste; it supports autonomy and resilience, weakening the reliance on often expensive and environmentally-unfriendly commercial plants and seeds; it teaches us how to give and receive without money changing hands, more difficult for some than others; it brings home the balance between give and take rather than take and take; more than anything else, it reminds us what it is to be human, to join together ~ however briefly ~ in a common cause which is of mutual benefit to all involved. People care, Earth care, fair share . . . it’s very simple, really.
Giving away garden bits and pieces doesn’t have to be part of an event; I have been sharing and swapping with friends and family for years and there is always something wonderful about the giving and receiving of little slips of roots or a few seeds in a paper twist, the anticipation of good things to come from someone else’s thoughtfulness and generosity. The pink comfrey in the photo above is a case in point: we currently have several large clumps around the garden, all of which came from a root given by a friend in Asturias (for which, at a later date, we gave a rhubarb crown in exchange). Sadly, Brexit means I can no longer legally exchange things cross-Channel but I have still been able to give plants and seeds to others and have a number of lovely gifts to grow this year, including some ‘special’ seed potatoes, cuttings of perennial kales and Vietnamese coriander, seeds for Majorcan pea beans, a Greek variety of aubergine and two Finnish heirloom tomato types so rare that it feels like a huge privilege (and weighty responsibility!) to be trialling them in a warmer climate. Please, please let the blight stay away.
Back to my studies and my morning observation sessions have officially come to an end as I move into the second week of lessons, yet they will continue, of course. I can’t help myself, really; there is so much out there to excite my senses, provoke curiosity and wonder and give me food for thought, so much to learn and reflect on, so much to admire and inspire me. I end up with far more questions than answers but that is surely what learning is all about? I’m very happy that the whole ethos of this course is based on getting out there and, quite literally, getting my hands dirty. Fine by me. Who knows, I might even manage to finish this one on time! 😉
Life is full of surprises and isn’t it heart-warming when they turn out to be lovely ones? I’ve been delighted to find all sorts of new volunteer seedlings popping up around the patch this week as if the garden is quietly taking responsibility for planting itself; I had to smile when I discovered nature had beaten me to it with everything from basil in the polytunnel to tomatoes in the mandala bed. A self-perpetuating garden and me redundant once again ~ perfect! Roger’s hedge-laying activities have thrown up several surprises, too, with the appearance of new wild flower species in the hedge bottom and the waxy white flowers of a medlar which is a real bonus as we had no idea it was there. One of my greatest sorrows when we moved here was the way in which so many mature trees had been abused in the past; there is a difference between pruning or coppicing carried out with care and skill, and the downright brutal chopping of large branches which in some cases has completely done for the trees in question. In a run of hazel hedge close to the house, there was a hawthorn ~ very old, given the girth of its trunk ~ that had nothing more than a bunch of twigs growing from the top; it was a sad sight and we weren’t sure it had much of a future but when he laid that section of the hedge, Roger left it to see what would happen. Well, nature has a way of healing when given even half a chance: last year, the tree put on healthy new growth but didn’t bloom, this year it is covered in flowers and what a wonderful surprise to find they are pink! For me, hawthorn is the essence of the season; it was late to flower this year but has certainly made up for it since with an incredible show of snowy blossom in our hedgerows. Now we have a pink beauty to add to the mix. It’s been well worth the wait.
Well worth the effort of laying those long runs of hedges, too. They are leafing up quickly and forming thick, dense bottoms which are precisely what all good hedges need. With the hazel no longer dominating the scene, the wider range of species is far more visible and I’m pleased to see dog roses and honeysuckles weaving themselves through the greenery. With wide margins of uncut grass left on either side, they form lush, green corridors that are full of life and offer the perfect travel routes for our resident wildlife; several times this week, we have both had to stop at a hedge gap while a huge grass snake made the crossing and continued along the hedge bottom, very likely en route to checking out the compost heap for voles and other goodies.
It’s amazing just how many flowers and grasses are flourishing beneath the hedges, the more closely I look, the more blooms there are to see . . . and some very interesting visitors, too.
It’s our aim that eventually, all the boundary hedges will be as thick and abundant as these and after all the problems of last year, it’s a relief to see the young hedging plants we put in to plug gaps finally putting in some strong and healthy growth. Even in the spaces between the awful conifers on our eastern boundary, the hawthorn, hornbeam and beech are starting to make an impact, for which I am very grateful. I shouldn’t malign the conifers too much, I know they are good places for ladybirds to overwinter and there has been a goldfinches’ nest in one of them this spring, I shall just like them more when they are diluted with deciduous natives and (hopefully) blend in as part of a mixed hedge rather than a ridiculous row of dark pillars.
Unfortunately, the internal hedges we planted to add structure, break up the spaces, protect the potager and screen the polytunnel (essential but ugly!) haven’t fared so well. They are a curving eclectic mix of native trees, flowering shrubs and ‘edibles’ which really should be making a positive impact by now but they have been struggling badly on two counts. First, last year’s heat and drought created more stress than such young plants could cope with and despite Roger’s valiant efforts with seemingly endless buckets of grey water, all struggled to grow and some died. How can it be such a battle to establish willow, it’s normally impossible to stop the stuff from growing? Added to the weather issues, the far too regular attention of visiting hares and roe deer and their frustrating habit of eating the tops out of everything ensured that even the plants that had managed to grow were pruned right back to where they started so that we’ve had to make guards for pretty much everything in the hope it will give them a fair chance. We’re also continually lifting tree seedlings that we find around the patch, putting them in as replacements when necessary and also spreading them around in the hope of creating small woodland areas. Like our former Welsh smallholding I wrote about a few posts back, my vision for this property is that eventually there will be living and growing spaces in the middle of a beautiful woodland. We just need the weather and wildlife onside!
One hedge that is certainly doing the business this spring is the white-should-be-red rosa rugosa curve around one end of the flower garden; there’s still some way to go but with the cardoons looking very enthusiastic on the other side and the little shrubbery starting to fill out, I can almost believe this will mature into the enclosed, more intimate space I had planned. From the western end, it’s impossible to see over the roses now apart from little glimpses of colour here and there and once the honeysuckle and rose have scrambled up the trellis Roger has built at the entrance, there should be an ever-growing feeling of going into a special space. All I need now is to organise a seat for quiet contemplation amongst the wild blooms and insects.
Establishing any kind of living structure in a garden is a game of patience, we just have to sit back and wait for nature to work its magic. The fruit trees we have planted are growing well and some of them even have tiny fruits on this year and several clematis and climbing roses are at last beginning to make colourful screens. Roses round the door might be a bit of a cliché but they’re a very beautiful one and look just right against the soft stone walls of the house. Roger spent hours last autumn unravelling an ancient wisteria growing in a tangle of hedge and pulling the branches out and over a trellis and a post and wire fence; it has only ever had a small handful of flowers on each spring so we weren’t sure what to expect but it has been absolutely gorgeous for several weeks and full of bees, particularly the blue-winged black carpenter bees who seem especially attracted to it. Hopefully, the wisteria will go from strength to strength now and enjoy mingling with a couple of climbing roses we’ve added for good measure.
Of course, structure isn’t just about height and hedges. Creating a pond has been one of our slowest projects ever thanks to various factors but at long last, we have just about done everything we can as finally, new season’s aquatic plants became available from a specialist nursery last week. We have planted a mix of floating, oxygenating and marginal plants, all native species including frogbit, brooklime and bogbean; they look a bit stark in their planting baskets but they should grow pretty quickly through the summer and provide an enriched habitat for a wider diversity of species. I was very excited to see what at first I thought was the silvery flash of a newt’s tail in the oxygenating weed but it turned out to be a great diving beetle larva, a voracious predator with a fierce pair of jaws which looks like something straight out of science fiction. I’d forgotten just how fascinating pondlife can be! The idea behind the location of the pond is that it sits at the far reaches of a wild patch, hidden from view by high vegetation (including a mixed willow hedge if it ever happens) and the hump of a hügel bed which creates a rise in the land. It’s something unexpected, a little gem to be discovered . . . I believe gardens should be full of surprises!
Libraries, too. I was a bit crestfallen to see the ‘natural gardening’ display in the local library had been taken down last week as there was one particular book I’d seen on my first visit but hadn’t been brave enough to borrow (is it a British thing, feeling nervous about removing items from a display, I wonder?). Accepting that I’d missed my chance ~ I think the books had all come from elsewhere ~ I started to look around and lo and behold, there was the very book sitting all alone on a table, still available for borrowing. In actual fact, it’s a very weighty three manual tome of which I am probably only likely to make it through the first book as my reading in French is a bit slower than in English. It’s ‘Vivre avec la Terre’ by Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer of the Ferme du Bec Hellouin, whose book ‘Miraculous Abundance’ is one of the most inspiring I have ever read.
One of the things I love most about these authors is their unfailing sense of optimism; they have such a positive, can-do attitude towards a future of regenerative farming and food production, sylviculture, strong local communities and abundant biodiversity in a world no longer reliant on fossil fuels. It’s the sort of uplifting read I’ve been in need of this week. Despite strong winds, the fields of wheat and maize around our property have been sprayed several times in the last couple of weeks, filling the air with the stench of noxious chemicals. Worse, when we were planting the pond plants, the farmer came round on his quad bike spraying the vegetation in the hedge bottom on his side of the shared hedge; the smell was so strong, we had to abandon planting and move away until the air had cleared. He repeated it the next day, so that every blade of grass and wildflower on his side are now dead. On Monday, I walked a short way along the lane to take pictures of the verges which were a stunning show of wild flowers, especially the carpets of various species of orchid; the next day, a tractor came through and mowed the lot off. Mmm, that was a surprise of the less welcome kind.
This I suspect is on account of the Tour de Mayenne cycle race which is passing along the lane on Friday as the same tractor has been back sweeping every inch of the road several times since. I suppose I should feel a sense of honour or excitement about the event and I have no doubt it’s all being done in the name of safety but a huge part of me is grappling with a mix of frustration and sadness at what is going on. How many more reports do we need to see about habitat loss, decline in biodiversity, endangered and extinct species, the serious and alarming fall in insect numbers, the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers and the destruction of topsoil before we apply some proper joined-up thinking and start doing the right thing for everything, not just the human species? It’s so easy to think our own efforts are futile but then, what’s the alternative? I refuse to stop trying to make at least a small difference and I know we are not alone; traditional hay meadows like the one in the picture above are disappearing locally, but where they still exist, they are full of an abundance of biodiversity and life.
My favourite cheese comes from an organic farm a few kilometres away where Montbéliarde et Normande cattle graze in fields like these and we buy pork from a similar enterprise where high animal welfare and respect for the environment are key principles. This holiday weekend will see many outdoor markets where small producers will be selling sustainably-produced local foods of the highest quality. Like Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, I don’t blame farmers per se for what they do, they are cogs in the vast machine of industrial agriculture driven by the growth mantra I’ve talked about before; they’re trying to make a living and feed the nation, after all, and it’s all too easy to paint them as the baddies when the picture is far more complex than that. The authors point out that numerous farming practices and attitudes remain based on the ideas of fifty years ago arising from the post-war Green Revolution, and that many French farmers simply don’t have the opportunity to learn about different approaches and how food could be produced in ways that are kinder to the environment (and the farmers themselves!). I’m in no way qualified to offer solutions but it is my greatest hope that things will change and that there will be the education, support, encouragement and positive attitude needed to bring that about, not just in the agricultural sector but society as a whole. Great to have cycle races, but all the fossil fuel being burned in its honour ~ we are braced for hundreds of support vehicles and several helicopters! ~ seems a bit ironic, somehow. In the meantime, we will carry on doing our bit and appreciating all the joy that our precious patch of land brings. This morning’s headline: the first courgettes are ready for eating. Now there’s the kind of surprise I like. 😊
Some of our apple trees hit peak blossom last week and gazing up into the sweet-scented branches, I’ve been wondering how it’s possible for a single tree to produce so many flowers at once! I’ve also been reflecting on the valuable lesson it teaches. As well as providing the perfect niche for nests (great tits again, who else?), each tree is currently feeding thousands of varied insects who in turn are carrying out the essential task of pollination. All being well, the autumn will see a bumper crop of fruit which fresh or stored, raw, cooked, dried, juiced and made into vinegar will offer us many months of healthy nutrition; other creatures will benefit from the windfalls, too, and those fruits that aren’t eaten will decay over winter along with the fallen leaves and help to create a nutrient-rich mulch to feed the tree itself, whilst supporting an unimaginably immense network of life within the soil. It’s nature’s perfect circular economy . . . and there isn’t a scrap of waste.
‘Produce no waste’ is a key permaculture principle and one I return to often in an attempt to reduce my impact on the Earth. There are so many things that we can waste: food, water, fuel, clothes, ‘stuff’, paper, money, time, energy, space, opportunity . . . in fact, every time we consume or use something, the potential for waste is there. Let’s face it, waste is very hard to avoid but the trick is to see it as a resource rather than a problem and what better place than a garden to really focus on trying to produce no waste when nature is very obviously there as a great and wise teacher? I know when I start talking (yet again) about working and connecting with or learning from nature, for some people there is an element of woo-woo or being away with the fairies so it always cheers me to see others far more qualified and talented than myself saying much the same thing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article this week about laid-back gardening by Alys Fowler; if this is your thing (or even if it isn’t), then it really is worth taking a few minutes to read it. There was so much in there that appealed to me that I’ve borrowed Alys’s subheadings as a framework to reflect on how things are going in our patch.
Throw out your spade
My spade has been redundant for quite some time now; in fact, the only time I ever use it is in place of a shovel for loading mulch materials into buckets and barrows. We’ve come to a no-dig system relatively recently but I am a complete convert and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else now. When we moved here at the end of December 2020 there were two small patches that had been under cultivation but weren’t nearly big enough for us to grow everything we wanted to so we hastily created two more ~ one by turning turfs and planting potatoes on top, the other by stripping turfs and forking over the soil beneath in order that we could sow seeds. It didn’t take us long to realise the ground was badly compacted, seriously deficient in organic matter and riddled with grassland beasties like wireworms and chafer grubs so when it came to preparing the soil in the polytunnel, we decided that double digging was the only strategy.
In retrospect, we could have sheet mulched everything and put a deep layer of topsoil on the seedbed but at the time there was a sad lack of available organic matter to use and serious time pressures, especially as we were still travelling back and forth to Asturias to collect our bits and pieces. Needs must and all that . . . and we did have a decent harvest.
Since then, every bed we’ve created has either been a lasagne bed or Hügel bed and the previously dug beds have been treated to a new no-dig regimen with piles of green and brown organic matter spread over the surface as a mulch, regular sowings of green manure and the lightest of touches when it comes to removing persistent perennial weeds pioneers. I no longer waste time and energy or the lives of worms by digging anywhere in the garden and although I wouldn’t dream of literally throwing away my spade (which would be the waste of a perfectly good tool), these days all I need is a trowel and bucket for mulch-moving and a small weeding fork. With the soil structure left undisturbed, the microbes and other heroes can go about their business of creating a rich, balanced soil which in turn leads to happy plants and abundant harvests. It’s a win-win situation and one I’m very happy to champion.
Ease off weeding
I wrote last time about how pleased I was that weeds were being rebranded to super heroes at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. I erased the word from my vocabulary some time ago ~ the strikethrough above was completely intentional ~ and agree totally with Alys Fowler that instead of treating them with disdain, we need to learn from what they can tell us. I like her idea of them being thought of as ‘elders’ or ‘common folk’ who arrive to help the soil out and whose wisdom we would be well-advised to tap into. From an observational point of view, it’s interesting how for us it’s the once-dug beds that have the biggest populations which suggests to me those are the areas most in need of healing; there are very few ‘common folk’ in the lasagne beds but a lot more fungi which suggests things are more in balance there. I’ve taken on board the fact that annual ‘weeds’ are a sign of bacterially-dominated soil which requires more carbon, so although I try to use alternate mulches and everywhere had a good dollop of dead leaves over winter, I’ve been sprinkling sawdust this week where chickweed and speedwell are sprawling (including in the tunnel).
I happen to think there is a lot of beauty in these ‘common folk’ which is so often shrugged off or ignored in favour of ‘garden’ flowers; if red deadnettle or scarlet pimpernel want to sit pretty amongst the lettuce, who am I to complain? The benefit they bring to wildlife also goes without saying and that alone must make them worthy of a chance to shine.
Embrace rot and death
In short, don’t bother tidying up! It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking the garden must look manicured and perfect, any quick glance at a lifestyle magazine or advertisements for all that garden stuff you simply must have is enough to prove that. How much time can be wasted on clearing dead growth, pruning this, trimming that and keeping everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion in the name of . . . what, exactly? Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for one moment that gardens need to become tangled, overgrown jungles (although such can be very beautiful places!) and it’s good to have places to walk, sit, cook, relax, sleep or whatever and to enjoy and take a pride in our precious patch. The point that Alys makes is that rotting, along with disease and pests, is part of the Earth’s natural recycling system and if we leave well alone, a balance will eventually ensue. Dead vegetation will rot and nourish the soil where it lies, mulches that harbour slugs also hide their predators, where pests proliferate something will come in to feed on them. I have a very laissez-faire attitude to dead stuff and have never been bothered with the notion of creating a ‘tidy’ garden so I’m happy for it to lie and let nature do all the work. I’m also reasonably pragmatic when it comes to pests and diseases, for example, the currant bushes that have a bit of a a red curled leaf thing going on at the moment. It’s surely down to aphids but I’m doing nothing about it because the bushes are covered in those top aphid-chomping allies, ladybirds. I can honestly say I have never seen such a huge population in one place, all different sizes, colours and spotted symmetries, and there are plenty more on the way if my observations are anything to go by (I did apologise for intruding on such intimate moments!).
All that said and done, I know just how frustrating ~ heartbreaking, even ~ it can be to watch nurtured plants collapse as a result of pests or disease (or I, might add, terrible weather) so perhaps it takes a little more courage to embrace this approach, giving it time and trusting the natural process. I’m happy to shrug off losses as part and parcel of the gardening game but just occasionally some simple mitigation is required, like this temporary netting fence to stop hares scoffing the newly-planted sweetcorn ~ certainly the right call given that two days later, we found two leverets in the garden.
Stop chasing fast growth
When we go to supermarkets, I’m always amazed at how many aisles we don’t go down because we simply never buy what they offer and country stores or garden centres are the same. Just as I avoid the domestic cleaning products aisle like the plague (and don’t even get me started on air fresheners and scented candles), I can totally ignore the shelves of noxious and equally smelly garden chemicals. Synthetic fertilisers, rich in nitrogen and high on fossil fuel use during their production, are completely unnecessary in a garden. Honestly. They contribute practically nothing to soil structure and ecosystems and in fact, may actually reduce soil fertility by overstimulating microbial activity. My plants are looking a bit under the weather, not as green or flourishing as they could be and lagging behind, so what do I do? Scenario 1: jump in the car, drive to the nearest outlet (many kilometres in our case), buy a synthetic fertiliser in granular or liquid form with all its associated production and packaging issues and add it to the soil. Repeat. Scenario 2: wander into the garden, pull a few comfrey leaves to use as a mulch OR water plants I’m worried about with homemade comfrey tea OR pee in a bucket, dilute with rain water and apply to struggling plants. On balance, there’s no choice. Our society is imbued with the mantra of growth ~growing the economy, careers, bank accounts and so forth ~ and I wonder why more people don’t question the sense of it. Pretty much everything in nature has a finite limit of growth with checks and balances to keep them in place so why must we be under pressure to do more, make more, have more and spend more? When is ‘enough’ enough? I don’t want to push my plants to grow bigger or faster than they will do naturally; I love seasonality so everything in its own time is just perfect. Ease off and give them time, space and peace to grow. Put the kettle on. Pull a cork. Relax.
Compost in situ
Compost heaps are great things and I like the way Alys states that even badly-made compost is wonderful stuff for the soil; there can be so much arrogance and angst around compost making if you start to research it and while a decent balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials is preferable, it really isn’t rocket science. Organic matter will rot into something valuable sooner or later and I think it’s far better that we have a go rather than be put off because we’re not experts. Making compost in situ takes everything one step forward where ease is concerned and it’s definitely something I like to do because lazy gardening is my thing. Quite simply, why waste time and energy carting spent plants or whatever to the compost heap when they can be chopped and dropped where they grew and scattered over the surface of the soil for the worms to take care of? Brassica stalks are something I do remove because they are so chunky and obviously anything seriously diseased like blighted tomatoes, but everything else stays put, perhaps with a bit of hand-shredding first to reduce the size and speed up the rotting process. If I want to plant something in the same space, the old foliage just acts as a mulch around it. We currently have climbing beans and sweetcorn growing in last year’s squash and courgette remains, courgettes and cucumbers where beans were grown, broad beans in the old cabbage patch . . . it’s a wonderful recycling of precious organic matter for the very least effort. Granted, it doesn’t always look very pretty: take, for example, the patch which I’ve strewn with bolted radicchio plants this week (you can see the remains of last year’s climbing bean stems in the mix, too) which some would consider a ‘mess’ but once it’s full of winter brassicas, no-one will ever know!
Cold nights with the possibility of frosts are the last thing we need this time of year with all the tender plants bar tomatoes planted in the ground outside so we have to give them what protection we can to nurse them through the cold snap. We cover whatever we can with buckets and pots but everything else is being tucked under a deep blanket of hay, grass cut and dried from our meadow areas last summer. The covering-in-the-evening-uncovering-in-the-morning is a bit of a pain but the beauty of our system is that once the temperatures lift to something nearer normal again, I can just leave much of the hay on the soil both as a mulch layer and another composting in situ material. Perfect.
Encourage plant promiscuity
If everyone grew just a little of their own food, I think there would be a much wider awareness and acceptance of just how diverse fruits and vegetables can and should be. What an indictment on modern society that anything can be labelled as ‘wonky’ vegetables! It really is time to drop these notions of perfection, of exactly what size, shape and colour a carrot or apple should be and start focusing instead on the things that truly matter such as flavour and nutrition; who cares if a parsnip has a smirk-inducing shape or a lettuce is a bit slug-nibbled when their flavour and freshness are second to none? We have just shared (!) the first strawberry of the season whilst wandering round the garden and nothing shop-bought could ever hope to match that moment of epicurean joy!
Diversity is such a key issue and resilience, too, if we are going to face a future of secure and wholesome food production so the more that gardeners can leave plants to flower and set seed, the better. We have saved seeds for ever but in recent years, I have become aware that now it is as much about helping to maintain or increase the genetic diversity in plants which is so seriously threatened as making sure we have seeds to plant next year. It’s true that some seeds are easier to save successfully than others but that’s no reason not to give it a go and to keep pushing the boundaries each season to see exactly what is possible. There’s a lot of fuss about growing parsnips which have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to germinate, something we only ever experienced in Asturias where I came to the conclusion they simply didn’t want to grow there (listen to nature, it’s telling us something). Every year, we leave a single parsnip in the ground and let it do its own thing; it produces a mass of tiny yellow flowers ~ which, like so many vegetable flowers, are a magnet for pollinators ~ then sets hundreds if not thousands of papery seeds which are easily collected. This is a huge part of the strategy: use fresh seed! We have never faffed about with germinating first on damp kitchen roll, just throw masses of seed into the ground during the coldest, wettest days of February. Job done, winter staple to look forward to. In every nook and cranny of the garden and polytunnel there are random plants left to set seed: a carrot here, an onion there and lettuce, lettuce everywhere!
Like taking a back seat with pests and diseases, allowing plants to freely cross-pollinate can take a little more nerve, especially as there tends to be warnings against certain crosses, but again I believe a healthy dose of pragmatism and common sense are needed if we are to become true landrace gardeners ~ and apart from anything else, it’s a totally fascinating activity and a lot of fun, too. Alys Fowler’s encouragement came as a breath of fresh air as I have recently read an article about the dire consequences of saving squash seed because there is a danger of curcubit poisoning or ‘toxic squash syndrome’ as curcubits freely cross-pollinate, particularly where wild ones are present. Let’s keep things in perspective: curcubit poisoning is a very unpleasant condition which can be quite serious but is also very rare. Furthermore, any curcubit likely to cause problems has a very bitter taste and as human beings who have evolved to instinctively recognise when something we’re tasting isn’t good for us, we ought to be able to recognise the fact before tucking in. We’ve been saving our own squash seed for many years now and have never had a problem, despite growing other curcubits in close proximity; quite the opposite, in fact. We have used the benefits of cross-pollination between squash varieties to develop ‘new’ strains that suit our tastebuds, culinary requirements, storage needs and grow well in our soil and weather conditions. It’s not unthinkable that in the very near future we will be able to make the leap from still growing a few plants from commercial seed ‘just in case’ to relying on our own seed one hundred percent.
Certainly, I am always very happy for plants to seed and self-set all around the patch and they are often the ones to keep, being ‘happy’ plants that are growing where they choose to their own calendar and natural rhythms and coping well with the local environmental conditions. We currently have little volunteers popping up all over the place, some of which are quite likely to be the result of cross-pollination (squash, tomatoes, peppers . . . ) and I’m curious to see what they produce. Wild flowers, too, are appearing in an ever-growing range of species; the less we do, the more they come and that suits us just fine.
Laid-back gardening has so much going for it, an invitation to ease off gently and let nature take us by the hand. At heart, I think it’s about mutual trust, compassion and generosity and when you stop and think about it, how wonderful to be excused from the stress that comes with control, hard work and the struggle for perfection. This week, I’ve had to concede that the courgette in the tunnel had truly succumbed to ant business and it looks like an aubergine has gone the same way; that slugs have done for a couple of cucumbers and dwarf beans and are doing their best to annihilate one of the squashes, too; that the germination rate of a few things I’ve planted is disappointingly poor; that nothing will stop blackbirds from scratching my carefully-laid mulch out from around plants and scattering it to the four winds; that frosts in mid-May are a nightmare. The flipside is that I’ve watched as the squirrel kittens left home and the feral honeybees swarmed; I’ve seen numerous fledglings, all spotty feathers and big beaks, taking their first tentative steps and flights in the company of anxious parents; I’ve marvelled at the exquisitely-marked soft pelt of tiny leverets and counted more species of wild bees on the comfrey than I can remember; I’ve been mesmerised by the myriad life forms already populating the pond and the dark magnificence of huge dragonflies darting about its surface. I’ve opened planting holes that are deep and rich and teeming with worms where no spade has ever been wielded, I’ve acknowledged the benefit of letting annual weeds sprawl as living mulch, I’ve loved every instance of discovering that nature has sown seeds in crazy places. More than anything, I’ve gathered an abundance of wonderful food for our meals during what is classically a ‘hungry’ time, proof if ever it was needed that lazy, laid-back, do-nothing gardening works brilliantly. All I need now is a hammock. 😉
Looking back over my blog posts, I realise just how home-centric (or perhaps garden-centric is more accurate) it has become since our trip to Norway last June. I don’t have a problem staying at home, in fact I am the sort of homebird who can take a lot of persuading at times to go elsewhere, but I have missed the opportunities to share our local ramblings on two feet or two wheels over the last few months. At the beginning of last December, I decided to have a crack at the Walk 1000 Miles challenge in the hope it would help to accelerate the natural healing of my herniated disc . . . but it only took me the first week to realise it was far too soon and that particular target would have to be put on the back burner (ah, no painful pun intended 😉) for quite some time. Five months on and at last I am able to move more comfortably; I’ve started to walk again, not too far or too fast, but at least it feels like positive progress in the right direction, and even if I still can’t ride my bike, I can at least enjoy the unparalleled beauty of May mornings and the hedonistic dance of colour along the laneside verges.
I don’t have the technology to measure my steps but I suspect they add up to several miles a day just around the garden at the moment. With the weather having taken a turn for the better and no hint of frosts in the forecast, it has been all systems go outside; this is one of the busiest times of year with much planting and the mother lode of mulch to be distributed ~ not that I’m complaining. If I could only have one month, it would be May. I love these sunlit days of eye-wateringly bright green leaves against skies the flawless blue of a robin’s eggshell (of which there are plenty scattered around the garden at present); there is such a rush of energy, of vigour and vitality, an overwhelming fizz of vibrancy and joy. The air resounds with the jubilant chorus of birdsong and is redolent with the sweet perfumes of lilac and laburnum, bluebells, clematis and apple blossom so that far from feeling like work, my time spent being busy in the garden is nothing but an unbridled pleasure.
Roger has been busy tidying the barn and outdoor shelter as that now we no longer need to light the stove, the big log merry-go-round has begun once more and he is barrowing stacks of logs at various stages of the seasoning process here, there and everywhere. He’s also been using up scraps of wood to make more bird boxes, working on several different designs to cater for a wider variety of species; however, it seems no matter what goes up, it’s great tits that move in immediately. They spend a lot of time pecking at the entrance hole of blue tit boxes to try and squeeze in and, not content with occupying the bat box, they’ve also decided that treecreeper boxes will suit them just fine . . .
Taking the hint, Roger relented and made a great tit box . . . and they were in residence in under thirty minutes of it appearing in a tree! They are one of the most numerous species on the winter feeders but last year, they all went up to the woods to nest; this year, they are obviously happy to raise their broods with us so I think a few more boxes tailored to their needs will be appearing before next spring ~ then perhaps the other birds will get a look-in, too. The greatest excitement in the last couple of weeks was seeing an adult red squirrel disappearing into the nestbox that Roger put up a couple of years ago and which has remained empty ever since; we’ve been waiting with baited breath to see if it was a sign she was raising a family in there and sure enough this week, a little gang of kittens has emerged. What a magical moment! I am wasting far too much time watching them: the first sign of scuffling and scratching noises coming from the box and I down tools and tiptoe as close as I dare. They are such little characters, taking their first brave steps in a strange arboreal world and being able to witness such an event feels like a real privilege. There is no hope of catching a decent shot without a zoom lens but at least I hope you can make out the squirrel kitten profile and its white bib in the V of the oak tree below. The tree is leafing up rapidly and the babies are growing bolder with every day so it won’t be long before we are struggling to see them . . . but there’s a good chance their mother will have a second litter in August so watch this space!
What with the distraction of baby squirrels, my continued observations of wild bees (Long-horned and Hairy-footed Flower females have joined the parade this week) and the spectacle of busy bird activity all around the patch, things have quite possibly been proceeding rather more slowly than they should where my to-do list is concerned. Thankfully, we’ve had a run of gorgeous days which means each morning I’ve been able to pick up where I left off and I can report that most of the planting has now been done: just sweetcorn and tomatoes to go outside when they are ready and the melons and a couple of butternut squash in the tunnel when there is room. It’s such a juggling act in there but I’m not grumbling; we are enjoying a tremendous harvest of peas, broad beans and lettuce and the first roots of early potatoes this week have been a real treat, especially as there were more on a single root than the whole lot put together last year. What a difference a year and a lot of soil love make.
I’m desperately trying to use the tunnel lettuce now, partly to free up space for melons but also because the outdoor ones are catching up fast. I love the way that our salads are always such a reflection of the season, changing almost weekly as old things fade and new stars step up to the mark ~ this week has seen the last small florets of purple sprouting broccoli and the first starry chive flowers.
I’d like to say the next much-anticipated treat will be the first courgettes but there has been something of a disaster on that front this week and as I believe in blogging warts and all, I’m happy to share this frustrating moment (some little bugrat has also been pruning my tomato seedlings in the tunnel each night but that’s another story . . . and at least with 40 plants, I can probably afford a few losses 😬). The ‘Latino’ courgette I planted in the tunnel was looking amazing, growing very strongly and forming the first flower buds; hooray, I thought, here we go. Mmm, cue a serious case of wilt which was obviously something more serious than heat; we lifted the plant to check the roots ~ wireworm being the prime suspect ~ only to discover that a huge ants’ nest had been built beneath it. Honestly, with 0.6 hectares (1½ acres) to choose from, why on earth did they have to decide on that exact spot? The poor plant has been replanted in an ant-free space and I’m giving it a lot of TLC in the hope it will pull through but I’m really not holding my breath. I think we’re just going to have to wait for the outdoor courgettes to deliver. It’s all part of the game.
No such worries where rhubarb is concerned, the plants struggled with the severe frosts we had earlier in spring but have certainly made up for lost time and I am pulling sticks to cook for my breakfast every couple of days. This is the first rhubarb we have had since leaving our Welsh garden in 2012 so I have been waiting a long time for this moment of joy and as Roger doesn’t like it, the delight is all mine. Not a problem!
Actually, the perennial bed is doing us proud at the moment as the asparagus (which according to the rule book we shouldn’t be eating until next spring) is producing a fantastic crop. What a luxury to be able to pick generous bundles of spears every few days, all different lengths and thicknesses in complete contrast to the scarily uniform bundles currently on sale in the shops, but with a texture and flavour so superb they need nothing more than gentle steaming and a decent knob of creamy butter. Who needs rules? 😂
On the subject of rules, I was pleased to see that ‘weeds’ ~ now rebranded as ‘resilient plants’ or ‘weed heroes’~ are set to play something of a starring role in a third of the show gardens at Chelsea this year. That said, the cynical part of me wondered why it is that things need a nod of approval from designers before they become acceptable in society but I hope that Mary Reynolds will be pleased that 21 years after she took Chelsea by storm with her wild garden (noted for its ‘subversive use of weeds’), at long last there is recognition that our wild flowers are so important. My focus this week has been on daisies; a good source of Vitamin C, I like to sprinkle leaves and flowers into salads, but I’m also drying a jar of them for winter teas as they are good for fighting catarrh and chesty coughs and I believe they are currently even being investigated for anti-tumour properties. Not bad for such a humble little flower! Looking through my botany loupe, I’ve been fascinated by their complexity, the bright yellow pincushion centres and gorgeous brushstrokes of pink on the petal backs. Little beauties . . . I hope someone plants an entire wonderfully subversive lawn of them at Chelsea. Several, in fact.
Back to the business of food and it’s been good to see our future harvest crops responding well to the warmth and regular rainfall, both of which were so lacking last spring. The outdoor broad beans are a mass of flowers, the garlic is possibly some of the best we’ve ever grown, there are three rows of staggered peas racing to catch each other up and everywhere seedlings are popping up and hurtling skywards. I pre-sow all our beans and there has been no stopping the first few trays of climbing borlotti, Asturian fabas and dwarf ‘Purple Teepee’: this is them just six days after sowing.
They are all in the ground now along with squash, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, cauliflowers, onions and red Welsh onions with (of course) some frivolous flowers in the shape of cosmos and nicotiana. I’ve planted basil in the tunnel with plenty more to go outside along with flat-leaved parsley and holy basil or tulsi which I’ve never grown before. Once planted, everything has been mulched with a good layer of grass clippings and as the ground is nicely wetted this year, it should do a grand job in helping to retain moisture. What has pleased me more than anything else on my planting travels is the number of volunteer seedlings that have appeared everywhere through the previous mulch layer: squash, cosmos, sunflowers, violas, landcress, rocket and literally hundreds of lettuce, all growing in spots they weren’t in last year. I love it that we are moving towards the sort of garden I’m after, one that keeps on planting itself and yes, it does encourage me to be lazy ~ there are so many sunflower seedlings in the potager that I shan’t bother to plant any seeds this year. In my experience, when seeds sow themselves they tend to grow strongly because they are happy and I am equally content to let them get on with it; the lettuce and sunflower below are sharing their space with climbing beans and violas so I’ll leave them to jostle for elbow room and do their own thing.
There’s plenty of self-setting going on in the potato patch, too, mostly rocket, calendula and landcress which is already flowering and close to starting the whole cycle all over again. Now that the potatoes are up and visible (they have actually doubled in size since I took the photo) I decided to have a bit of a Ruth Stout moment, broadcasting linseed between the rows and covering with mulch. Linseed is sold here as a green manure which also helps to deter potato beetles so it’s worth a try, especially as I happen to love the blue flowers anyway. In a similar vein, I’ve scattered a mix of nectar-rich annual flower seeds in the rows between the asparagus, just throwing it on top of the mulch and watering in. We’ll see what happens.
Staying with potatoes and I was very excited to see the first shoot emerging from the hay mulch in the mandala garden; this is my first foray into the world of no-dig spuds and I must admit I have been a bit concerned that they had been nobbled by frost. Clearly not, so all that remains to be seen now is just how well they grow and crop compared to the conventionally-planted ones.
I’m very pleased at how well the mandala bed is looking this year, it is starting to take on an air of maturity thanks to the herbs creating a dense and aromatic ‘hedge’ around the boundary. The self-created strawberry bed is full of flowers and the first fruits have started to set so I’ve tucked hay round all the plants this week to lift the fruit off the ground. Although it’s early days as far as growth is concerned, the bed is already looking pretty full and once again, I’m just using spare bits and bobs to plant up each section. So far that means potatoes, onions, cabbages, Cape gooseberry, lettuce, chard, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers, climbing borlotti beans, dwarf purple beans, nicotiana and larkspur with a space left for tomatoes. There’s a salad burnet that appeared from nowhere last year and is going strong, flat-leaved parsley that made it through winter and a whole host of volunteers including tomatoes, violas, calendula, something that looks like a cardoon . . . oh, and lettuce, of course. Why on earth I thought I needed to plant a tray of lettuce this year, I will never know, there isn’t a corner of the garden where they haven’t appeared; in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say in places they are like a living mulch. Who needs green manure? Incredible.
I finally got round to joining the local library last week and on the strength of the current natural gardening exhibition, I was able to borrow some books which really appealed to me. In fact, I’ve been reading about permaculture in French and English over the last few days and it’s been interesting to compare notes in both languages. The French book draws on the experiences of a lot of practitioners and I’m pleased to have found a few like-minded people in the group of what I think of as ‘pragmatic permies’, those who like me value the principles of permaculture but are happy to admit that instead of swallowing them hook, line and sinker, it’s important to add a good dose of common sense to any situation. It stands to reason that works brilliantly in the rainforests of Costa Rica isn’t necessarily going to transfer smoothly to northern Europe! The underlining message, however, is the undisputed benefit of growing our own food in a way that treads lightly on the Earth, works with and mimics nature, encourages (bio)diversity, produces no waste, drastically reduces carbon footprints and feeds both the body and soul.
In many ways, the business of growing food is a weighty one, especially if self-sufficiency is a goal, so I believe it’s vital to take a light-hearted step backwards from the soil face now and again, to seek joy, laughter, quirkiness and whimsy amongst the muck and mulch. To that end, Roger has used some scraps of wood left over from his gate-making activities to create me a ‘gate to nowhere’ at the end of a big lasagne bed; it looks a little stark at the moment but I’ve planted cucumbers behind to climb up over it, have zinnias waiting in the wings for a splash of colour in front and when the backdrop of sweetcorn and climbing beans clambers upwards and fills out in a wall of green, I’m hoping it will evolve into an eye-catching (or head-scratching?) point of interest. Just in case anyone is lost, I’ve painted a sign in my uber-naïve style to help them find their way . . . although between you and me, I’m secretly hoping the snails shuffle off in the opposite direction. 😉
I am a woman possessed. The air this week has exploded with a myriad flying insects, and with my ears tuned in for the merest suspicion of a hum or a buzz, I am darting around the garden in search of bees like a mad thing. I’m beginning to realise what a mammoth task I’ve set myself in trying to identify all the bees in the garden, there are already so many different species around and we haven’t even got to the time of year where an array of female workers and males are thrown into the mix. I think I’ve added a White-bellied or Banded mining bee (Andrena gravida), a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) and an Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) to my list but think is the operative word here since confident identification escapes me most of the time. I’m dipping into a wealth of excellent resources such as Steven Falk’s incredible collection of photographs but even then, not everything is helpful; for instance, the fact that honeybees have hairy eyeballs is an interesting one but doesn’t move me forward since that is the one species I can already identify correctly by sight and sound every time. I’ve also discovered they are one of the most accommodating species when it comes to photos, too, as demonstrated by this week’s ‘cover girl’ enjoying the newly-opened peach blossom.
A big part of the problem is that my subjects just won’t stay still long enough for me to get a good look. I spent ages one morning gazing up into a contorted willow tree where literally hundreds of small solitary bees were dancing and darting amongst the twisted branches . . . but not one would come low enough for me to see, yet alone land and sit still for a moment. Someone was kind enough to pose on a willow branch, though, as if offering me a small-but-perfectly-formed consolation prize . . .
If the bees don’t alight, then I have no chance of attempting an accurate identification. That said, even when they do give me the opportunity to snatch a photo or a good look if the camera isn’t to hand, pinning them down to the correct species is fraught with difficulty. I watched with fascination and absorption as the little bee below worked her way systematically through a dandelion flower but at no point did she present me with a view that would allow me to say with any certainty what species she was. I mean, where on earth do I start?
I’ve decided I need to keep things simple and approach this task in the same way I would have organised things for my primary school pupils: find the right level of challenge and break it down into bite-sized pieces. By the end of the summer, I would like to feel confident in identifying all the common bumblebees in the garden along with the most numerous solitary bees and beyond that, at least be aware of the main characteristics of different bee families to help me narrow things down a bit. I also need to refer to as many resources as I can and keep an open mind in the process; for instance, I was as sure as I could be that I had been watching an Orange-legged furrow bee this week until I read that they are a late bee and don’t usually emerge this early in the year. However, throwing my research net wider to include a few French sites, I read that in France it is perfectly possible to see these bees out and about now so perhaps I wasn’t mistaken. I also need to keep observing the same species as much as I can, not just in order to be sure of my identification but also to learn about their behaviours. Having spent time watching what I thought was a Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva), I now think it is actually a Red-tailed mason bee (Osmia bicolor) which is interesting as it nests in empty snail shells and I would say that of all the gardens we’ve ever had, this has to be the one most devoid of snails. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
I’ve been trying to capture a snap of the feral honeybee colony in action just to give an essence of what is going on at the end of the house. Unfortunately, the view is blocked by the large aerial we inherited, totally useless as we haven’t had a television since 2012 but yet to be removed. Still, hopefully you can see the returning bees clustered under the eaves to the right of the drainpipe from where they file upwards and left to the ‘hive’ entrance, stopping only to exchange messages with the outgoing foragers in the magical waggle dances I never tire of seeing. As a swarm, they would have arrived with a young queen last year and if the number of flying bees is anything to go by, she is certainly prolific. I can only imagine the nest of hanging wax combs secreted deep within the stone walls with their beautiful radiating patterns of brood, pollen and nectar but pressing my ear against the cool tiles on the bathroom wall, I can hear the soft susurration of thousands of tiny wings, fanning to drive water off the nectar and turn it into honey. Given the amount of activity, I’m surprised we haven’t found any lost bees in the bathroom yet but I’m wondering if perhaps nature has taken its course and the bees have plugged the hole with propolis from inside their nest? One thing I am sure of is that given the strength of the colony so early in the season, they are very likely to throw a swarm, probably in May. Many beekeepers spend much time ‘managing’ hives to prevent swarms but they are a natural and advantageous part of the honeybees’ life cycle, aiding propagation and helping to prevent disease; as with so many things, nature knows what it’s doing. We’re happy to let them get on with it.
Where my bee identification is lacking, my knowledge of birds is much greater so I can say with all certainty that a fluid warbling of rapid notes means the blackcaps are back in the garden and the dark robinesque bird flicking its tail to reveal underskirts of scarlet is a redstart, returned to nest with us for another year. The swallows have also arrived, just squeaking in at the end of the month, and as ever I am overjoyed to welcome them back. No cuckoo yet but it won’t be long and I have been listening out for that first evocative call whilst catching up on a pile of garden jobs after our week away in the UK. It’s the start of the silly season with a to-do list as long as my arm, which makes me a very happy bunny: the housework will suffer serious neglect from this point on. I was relieved to find that my tender little plants had coped with my absence but are now at a point where it benefits them to spend the day in the warmth of the tunnel before returning to the house in the evening if night-time temperatures fall into single figures; it’s a tricky time of year. I’m left wondering again how I ever managed without those fat ball buckets, they make the best windowsill cloches ever and now double as handy plant carriers, although the potting bench is now so crowded there is no room for, um, potting.
Apart from the lovely wrap-around warmth, the tunnel is currently a pleasure to visit as the broad beans are in flower and their gorgeous perfume meets me at the door. I’ve noticed that something has been piercing the flowers at their base to dip into the nectaries without actually climbing inside the flowers; clever stuff, but not very helpful where pollination is concerned. Thankfully, they are partially self-pollinating but insects do contribute to a higher yield so I’m hoping there are a few willing volunteers to crawl inside and do the business.
No problems with the indoor peas; the row isn’t particularly dense but it won’t be long before we are tucking into those little green treasures.
There’s much planting to be done at this time of year, starting with potatoes and onions which for us is always a team effort as it’s a pretty big task. I realise just how laxlazy relaxed I’ve become this season: I haven’t bothered to label the different varieties of pepper and aubergine plants and this week I decided against counting the number of potatoes going into the ground. I might be wrong, but does it really matter? I know the bulk of spuds are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ (also know as ‘Blue Sarpo’, an early maincrop potato which makes the best roasties on earth) plus a few free ‘Acoustic’ from the local country store and a handful of special Scottish gift potatoes which I’m very excited about growing. If I can recognise them as seed potatoes then I’ll know them as plants, flowers and crops so why worry about numbers or labels? We’ve opted to use the Not Garden as the main potato patch this year; we’ve worked hard at improving the soil and Roger’s hedge renovation has made a huge difference to the amount of light and air circulation so we’re hoping for a much more successful crop this year . . . and no, I won’t be tucking a layer of mulch around the emerging plants until the soil is good and wet this year, even if that means hauling lots of cans. You live and learn.
The Mandala Bed has been an exercise in experimentation right from the start and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue in the same vein. After all, if food crops fail, we have the insurance of plenty in other places and I think it’s important to keep on pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities in safeguarding our food production in the future. I’ve been planning to try some no-dig potatoes since last year, the idea being to lay down some sheets of cardboard on grass and grow them under hay; however, it occurred to me that I could grow them on the Mandala Bed without any need for cardboard, just sit the chitted potatoes on top of the mulch and cover them in a thick blanket of old hay.
In theory, they should send roots down into what is fast becoming wonderful soil, push plentiful foliage upwards and produce a mass of potatoes on the surface of the soil which can be easily harvested by lifting the hay. We’ll see. It was certainly much easier than planting in the conventional way, although I had to water the hay heavily to hold it down as high winds were forecast and I didn’t want to have to retrieve it from the other end of the garden (as happened with the rhubarb). I planted a mix of ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ so that I can compare directly in terms of growth, health and yield with what comes out of the Not Garden patch. I had a handful of tiny onion sets left over so I popped them in to fill the bed section; last year, everything went in as pre-sown plants in pockets of compost but as soil is rapidly forming, I’m interested to see how direct sowings do this year. My own little garden laboratory: I love it.
I’m definitely happy with my Pea-Off Rodent experiment, those tubes of young plants haven’t looked back and not a single one has succumbed to beastie attacks. I will certainly carry on collecting cardboard tubes for next year and I think I’ll plant the sweet peas in them, too, as they hate root disturbance. I’ve planted up a couple of wigwams made from hazel poles, one in the Bonfire Circle in the potager and the other in the Mandala Bed as these are areas I’ve earmarked for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, all of which need some pollinator attention. The sweet peas hated the hot, dry weather last year and were over all too quickly but I’ve planted them in deep pockets of compost and muck as they like plenty of nourishment underneath them and hopefully it will help with moisture retention. I know they will go into a bit of a sulk now, especially as the weather forecast is for that classic April cold (yet again) but with any luck we will have a gorgeous scented show to enjoy later this year.
Fruit has been a bit of a theme this week and as I eat my way through the last few bags of frozen gooseberries, redcurrants and cherries for breakfast, I’m looking forward to some new additions to the menu this year. I really ought to be pulling a few rhubarb sticks by now but all five plants continued to grow far too much through autumn then collapsed in a pile of mush once the first hard frosts arrived. I covered them in hay to protect them from the worst of the weather and they are coming back strongly now, I just wish they’d hurry up. I made a lasagne bed against the west wall of the Oak Shed a couple of months ago and have bought two vines to plant in it this week: a white ‘Birstaler Muscat’ and a black ‘Muscat Bleu’, both table grapes with excellent reviews. The shed wall is made from galvanised tin and enjoys maximum sunshine from now on so I’m hoping the vines will luxuriate in the warmth as well as cover what is a bit of an eyesore; as metal paint is expensive and packed with unpleasant chemicals I think living camouflage is the best bet. Like the broad beans, vines are self-pollinating but benefit from extra help so I deliberately made the border wide enough to accommodate some of my beloved frivolous flowers, too. 😊 The goji berry and three honeyberries I bought as tiny bare-rooted sticks struggled with the weather last summer but have clung on and put in a tremendous surge of growth in recent weeks; the latter are now covered in creamy tubular flowers which have been visited by Red-tailed and Early bumblebees so hopefully we will have our first crop of berries in a while.
While I was mulching their bed with grass clippings, I found stems on the goji berry and one of the gooseberry bushes which had layered themselves down on the woody winter mulch and grown some wonderful roots so I’ve potted them up to make new plants. I do love a freebie! Talking of which, all six stems from a broken blackcurrant branch that I potted up a few months ago have made healthy, sturdy plants so now I need to find some spots to plant them, possibly in gaps as part of our ‘edible hedge’ project. Roger was very chuffed to be given a saskatoon bush for a birthday gift as when he lived in Canada, saskatoons were his favourite berry; given they can survive the rigours of winter in Alberta then produce a mass of delicious fruit in summer, it’s surprising they aren’t better known in more temperate climates. The first flowers are just opening in a mass of little white stars so fingers crossed for fruit to follow; we don’t normally bother netting fruit bushes as we work on the theory that if we grow enough of everything there will be plenty to share with the birds . . . but somehow, I think this special one might need a bit of protection from gourmet blackbirds.
It’s also been a lovely week for flowers as, despite the rollercoaster weather ~ t-shirts and outdoor living one day, woolly hats and stove-hugging the next ~ spring has really started to burst forth. The front of the house is looking pretty as the windowboxes of pansies and violas have filled out and the sweet-scented species narcissi and first of the tulips in pots have opened. I’m hoping for great things from the gravel garden this year and as I’ve forgotten exactly what was planted in there last year, it’s good to find a few colourful surprises popping up.
We’re so lucky to have the space and attitude that allows us to mingle the cultivated with the wild in a chaotic abundance and I find much pleasure in both. The soft pink of the peach blossom is truly beautiful but then so are the delicate white stars of blackthorn; we have swathes of (cultivated) periwinkle flowers in stunning blue but I’m just as charmed by the carpets of red deadnettle and celandines. Interestingly, although periwinkle is cited as being a great source of early nectar, I’ve yet to see a single insect feeding on the flowers which is a shame as we have masses of them. No such problems with the flowering currant which is a-buzz with foragers and the sunny dandelions are doing a roaring trade 😂 (sorry, couldn’t resist that one . . . especially as March is going out like a lion rather than the proverbial lamb!). The air smells of pollen, leaf buds are fattening and creating a soft haze in the woods, birds are nesting and my fingers are itching to sow seeds. What a special time of year it is. 😊
For the first time in over seven months, I have just spent an entire week being busy in the garden and I can’t even begin to say how happy I feel. It’s still a case of ‘modified movement’ so I can’t zip about at my usual preferred pace and I have to be sensible when it comes to lifting and carrying but I can live with that for the simple pleasure of being back to doing what I love. The weather has been kind ~ dry, still and mostly not too cold ~ and I have enjoyed being out there and getting stuck in to all the things I should have been doing weeks ago. The joy at having to pull stray bits of leaf from my hair and scrub soil from under my fingernails once again has been exquisite!
With my hands literally back in the earth, I realise it’s what I think of as connection that I have missed the most; there’s a huge difference between wandering about the garden looking at this and that, and actually being fully and physically engaged with what is going on. I’ve never warmed to the term ‘low-maintenance garden’ for two main reasons. First, it suggests that everything in the garden is a chore, requiring us to spend time and energy on boring tasks that eat into time we could spend doing other things, so the quicker the jobs can be over and done with, the better. Also for me, there is a strong sense of disconnection, of the garden being something ‘out there’ that holds us responsible for management and maintenance, rather than an integral part of our lives and living spaces.
Of course, I understand that gardening isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and busy lives or physical impairments can make the idea of low-maintenance an attractive one; if I’m completely honest, I quite like the idea of a ‘low-maintenance’ house when it comes to cleaning! 😂 However, I just wish we could change the language a bit so that instead of focusing on the idea of work, tasks, chores and jobs we think about caring, nurturing, helping, supporting ~ in a word, love. I don’t mean it in any touchy-feely, woo-woo way either (although I have no problem with that attitude), I simply believe the world would be happier if gardens were seen as places of peace and pleasure where working with nature rather than beating it into submission or resenting its intrusion is the main thrust. After all, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the best thing to be doing in a garden is absolutely nothing!
I also believe passionately that growing and nurturing plants is an incredibly therapeutic activity, one that can help to bring a sense of balance and calm in a hectic world of push and shove. I am grateful to live in such a beautiful spot with plenty of space for creating a garden but raising and tending a few plants on a windowsill can bring just as much pleasure; our first ‘garden’ constituted a few pots on the balcony of a first-floor flat, tiny and limited . . . but a garden, nonetheless. There are, of course, many additional benefits to spending time out of doors, especially in these months of low light levels in northern Europe; what better way to boost Vitamin D, serotonin and endorphin levels than getting outside and connecting with the winter garden? At first glance, there might not be a lot to see or do but it’s amazing just how much is going on if we take the time to stop and stare. I love the fact that I can once again get down comfortably to ground level and observe all the silent busyness that is happening without any input from me whatsoever: layers of organic material being slowly but surely transformed into rich, friable soil; fresh green spears of bulbs piercing the earth and pushing skywards; brave little seedlings popping up in sheltered places; fungi trailing through the grass in snaking pathways and the muddy squiggles of thousands of wormcasts, evidence of such intensive and essential labour going on underground.
I’ve always been a bit of a laissez-faire (or do I mean lazy?) sort of gardener, preferring a chaotic abundance over manicured perfection every time so the system of no-dig gardening suits me down to the ground ~ no pun intended. We build and improve our soil from the top downwards, adding layers of organic material and natural amendments throughout the year and trusting the mind-blowing numbers and diversity of life-forms in the soil to do all the hard work for us. Beats wielding a spade any day. Mulching is a way of life and brings many well-documented benefits: it protects against soil erosion, acts as an insulator, helps to trap moisture, suppresses weed growth and itself becomes another ingredient in the soil recipe. Most importantly (in my opinion), the worms love it and happy worms are to be encouraged, dragging the top layer down into their burrows and turning them into something beautiful. Much of my week, then, has been spent lifting perennial weeds where they have appeared, distributing piles of dumped donkey dung more evenly then adding or topping up mulch wherever needed. For instance, I’d let white clover run between the red kale plants as a green manure, fixing nitrogen at the roots of the kale which has been in the ground for many months; now, after spreading a good dollop of manure around, I topped the whole bed with a mulch of grass clippings and dead leaves.
I know there is an argument against mulching with dead leaves based on the fact that they can create an environment that is temporarily deficient in nitrogen but I’m not too bothered on that score. This is because they will in effect form the filling of a nitrogen-rich sandwich: below them is a layer of green manure, chopped plant foliage, manure and compost and the next layer to go on top will undoubtedly be grass clippings. They are the carbon-rich balance and have already done much to improve the structure and friability of our soil; admittedly, I prefer to use them chopped but it’s a case of needs must at the moment. A more general drawback of any mulch is that insulating properties can work both ways so that they can actually prevent the soil from warming up quickly in spring; to this end, I’ve ensured that the beds we’ve identified for early and direct sowing have had the ‘light touch’ treatment with a thin layer of finely chopped matter scattered across the surface. Elsewhere, although the mulch is deeper, I know that very soon an army of blackbirds will be busy from dawn to dusk scratching it up in search of those precious worms so there is no chance of anything becoming too cold and compacted.
Although they’re producing well, it struck me how much smaller the kale plants are this year compared to last and I’m convinced it has everything to do with the heat and drought of last summer. Next to them, a patch of Savoy cabbages tells the same story: a complete lack of enthusiasm in germinating and growing, they went into the ground far too late and far too small with no chance of us ever eating them as the winter cabbages they are supposed to be. However, the plants have hung on and as as spring tends to be a slow-burn affair here (let’s face it, we could still be having the same bitterly cold weather well into April) then I think there’s every chance we will enjoy a decent if late harvest from them yet.
Something that hasn’t struggled in the last couple of years whatever the weather has thrown at it is comfrey, such an essential and useful plant in any organic garden. As Roger had lifted all the remaining canes from the old raspberry bed I felt it was time to have the comfrey out of there, too, and relocate it to several new homes scattered around the patch. How the two modest roots that came with us from Asturias had grown and spread! I’ve stuffed plants into a few places where nothing else has thrived and if they all continue to grow in the same vein we should have more than enough for our needs, even chopping four or more times a year. The first fresh foliage is already on its way . . . why toddle off and buy commercial NPK fertilisers with their associated synthetic ingredients, manufacturing production, packaging and air miles when it’s as simple as chopping and spreading comfrey leaves or leaving them to steep into a wonderfully rich (if smelly) liquid feed? In a similar vein, I’ve written before about that greatest of fertilisers ~ urine ~ and without going into too much detail, I’m very glad to have reinstated my P-Bucket in the Love Shack this week. If you’re having a yuk moment, bear with me because dilute urine is liquid gold when it comes to feeding plants and soil or making compost . . . and it’s readily available . . . and free. Don’t fret about digging, raking, hoeing, forking, pruning, weeding and all the rest of it: the best thing you can do for your garden and compost heap is pee on them. I mean, it’s hardly work, is it? 😉
On very cold sunny days, the tunnel is the place to be and the difference in temperature never fails to astound me. Outside, I needed several layers of clothing, a thick padded coat and woolly hat yet once in the tunnel, I stripped down to a vest under my overalls with sleeves rolled up and hat discarded. No wonder the plants are so happy in there, the soil is already warm so I decided it was time to plant a dozen potatoes; these are ‘Charlottes’ saved from last year’s crop which had made an excellent job of the chitting process all on their own in the cave and hopefully will give us an early harvest well ahead of the outdoor spuds. Basking in all that wonderful warmth, it seemed like the right time to sort the tunnel out ready for the new planting season. First, I tidied up the potting bench and stacked pots and trays underneath, then carried in water to fill the butt and two large cans. Next, I turned my attention to what at some point had been a salad patch but had since become a chickweed jungle. Chickweed (mouron des oiseaux in French) is a great early spring green that is full of beneficial nutrients and I’ve been tossing a few succulent shoots into our salads for several weeks now. I generally tolerate it in the garden but it had got totally out of hand in the tunnel so the time had come for a bit of a tidy.
I love gentle jobs like this, down at ground level using my hands or small fork; it gives me the chance to engage with what is going on, checking the health of plants, looking for any signs of disease or pest issues and gauging the state of the soil. As the chickweed carpet was rolled back, several buried treasures emerged including a wealth of coriander, rocket and lettuce seedlings, a row of rainbow chard plants that had been missing in action for some time and some rosettes of lamb’s lettuce which must be volunteers from last winter’s crop as we’ve grown a longer-leafed variety this time. Given the time of year, it’s amazing what an abundant salad we can pick: red and gold beetroot leaves, mizuna, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, ruby sorrel, rocket, baby chard leaves, landcress, flat-leaved parsley, chervil and chives along with chickweed, sorrel and young dandelion leaves as foraged foods.
Growing microgreens isn’t something I’ve done much of apart from the inevitable mustard and cress mixes when our children were little; perhaps it’s my frugal side, but I’ve always thought that if I’m planting seeds, I might as well let them grow into full-size plants and enjoy them at a macro level, albeit often nipping off young shoots and leaves to eat along the way. Of course, I’m lucky enough to have the space to do that but I think for anyone who fancies growing some fresh, nutritious food in a lowest-of-low-maintenance way, then microgreens could be a great starting point. My interest has been piqued recently when we were introduced to the activities of David and Tracey Fenner who run a market garden and permaculture teaching site at La Ferme du Moulin des Monts in the Limousin region of France. I’ve been engrossed in their beautiful website (techno-numpty that I am, I didn’t realise there was an English version so it’s been a great workout for my French, too 🤣 ) and it seems they have taken growing microgreens to enthusiastic and inspirational new heights. There’s much that I’m finding interesting and thought-provoking; for instance, I’ve been growing crimson clover as a green manure for years without ever realising it was edible. Pottering about in the tunnel and watching the pea plants responding to the blissful warmth, I decided I’d give microgreens a little go. As I don’t have any coir matting or sterile compost, I didn’t want to plant anything which would have tiny seedlings as there will undoubtedly be other things emerging from our own compost so I’ve plumped for peas, which I’ll be able to pick several times as cut-and-come-again shoots.
I’ve also sown some giant red mustard, a packet of seeds which has been in the seed basket for donkeys’ years and I haven’t dared plant for some time as it’s such a mega-thug. Perhaps it will be more manageable at a micro level but that will depend on whether the seeds germinate at all . . . when I checked the packet, the date was 2002, although a few seed pod husks suggests they are our own saved seed from a later date. Even so, it’s probably a big ask but we’ll see; I shall be checking daily for signs of germination and with any luck, within a couple of weeks I’ll be snipping the little nutrient-packed sprouts to add yet more interest and flavour to those winter salad bowls.
I’m also keeping a close eye on the 30 broad beans I planted in pots a few days ago, eager to see those first wonderful shoots unfurling with the promise of so much good food to come. I’ve decided that for the most part, pre-sowing our vegetable seeds is the best way to go here and although it might entail a bit more work initially than throwing them directly into the ground, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. Obviously, root crops like carrot, parsnip, beetroot and radish need to be sown straight into the soil but pretty much everything else can be started off in pots, modules or trays and planted out at a later date. To be honest, I’ve learned the hard way with this one: French beans wiped out by bean fly, lettuce roots destroyed by wireworm, peas decimated by mice and now the autumn-sown broad beans which germinated then disappeared (reason unknown), the tiny handful left being blackened by severe frost and struggling to survive. Forget autumn sowings in future, I shall raise broad bean plants in the tunnel as I’m doing now and they can go into the ground in spring where they will undoubtedly catch up anyway.
I’ve been collecting toilet roll tubes to use as root-training planters for peas in the hope of beating the rodents at their own game and now have ample for the first early row; all subsequent sowings were fine last year so I’m hoping we will be able to direct sow the successional crops. There’s a lot to be said for this approach, not least that it makes assessment of seed viability so much easier: if the seeds are initially raised in an environment where factors like growing medium, temperature, moisture and light are controlled and pests can be easily spotted, then sporadic germination is probably down to the quality or age of the seed. Also, young robust plants that have been given a good start and planted out in optimum conditions have a good chance of coping with extremes; we have had two completely different growing seasons here in two years so who knows what to expect this time? Our garden has to be ready for anything!
With all this in mind, I’ve been sorting through the seed basket this week and drawing up a planting calendar to try and keep on top of what needs doing in the busy coming months. I can’t believe it’s almost time to dig out the heated propagator again and start this year’s aubergine adventure. It’s wonderful to see so many of our own saved seeds in there although I must confess I still feel a bit nervous around them, fretting about what happens if they fail to germinate. All I can do is plant them and see, although I’m so worried about the amazing ‘Black from Tula’ tomatoes failing that I have bought a packet of organic ‘Noir Russe’ seeds as back-up. Just in case. (As a tongue-in-cheek aside, I’m quite relieved to be using the French name because although it translates as ‘Russian Black’ rather than ‘Black Russian’ it still brings to mind Edmund Blackadders’s infamous codpiece which is far too much of an unnecessary distraction in my peaceful gardening world. 🤣) We’ve been making a few decisions based on observation, too; for instance, the ‘Musquée de Provence’ squash which grew strongly and looked so beautiful ripening from green to orange last year have turned out to be poor keepers which is disappointing; they have an incredible deep orange-coloured flesh but a fairly average flavour and a texture which is too far on the watery side for our liking. This year, apart from a couple of butternuts (which are always high maintenance so I’m not sure why I bother) I shall be sticking with the tried and tested blue varieties ~ ‘Crown Prince’ plus our home-bred mongrels ~ which have served our purposes so well for many years.
Last summer, a swarm of honey bees decided to make a nest in the end of the house, the ‘scouts’ having found a way in through a tiny hole under the eaves and obviously what they decided was a perfect nesting space deep within the stone wall. It wasn’t an ideal situation, especially given that several bees each day all through summer found their way into the bathroom (there must be a hole along one of the roof beams which we can’t see) where they either got themselves embroiled in the roof window blinds making it a performance trying to let them out or crawled about stunned on the floor as a sting hazard for unwary bare feet. I love bees but in the nicest possible way I found myself hoping their new home would prove unsatisfactory and they would leave to find another; if they’d chosen a hole in the barn, there would be no problem! Anyway, far from slinging their hook, they set about building a strong colony which has so far survived the winter if the number of them boiling out of the sun-warmed wall this week is anything to go by.
We have kept bees in the past and it’s something we’d like to do again, especially using the French Warré hives which are kinder and a far more ‘natural’ home to bees than many other designs. It’s tempting to put a bait hive out this year and see if we can attract some occupants but a big part of me has serious reservations given the presence of Asian hornets here. They’re nowhere near as prevalent as they were in Asturias, where our friend Jairo saw ten out of his twelve colonies wiped out in one season, but I’m wondering whether morally it would be right to set up a hive of honey bees which could well become a handy feeding station for hornets at the end of the summer ~ first picking off the bees from the hive entrance, then stealing their honey stores. Perhaps it’s better to enjoy the colony that has chosen to live with us, safe within the house wall, and leading lives that are totally natural without any interference or attempt at control on our part. After all, honey bees need all the help they can get and if that means I just have to remember to wear slippers in the bathroom, so be it. It has been lovely to watch them out and about on milder days this week, foraging wherever they can find flowers. The drifts of snowdrops have been literally buzzing with their activity as they collect the bright orange pollen on offer. I couldn’t persuade one of the busy ladies to pose for a close-up but if you look carefully, you should be able to spot an orange pollen basket lurking in a snowdrop.
It has always fascinated me the way honey bees respond to temperature, forming a tight two-layered cluster in the nest to preserve heat during winter but venturing out to forage (and void their bowels) on those days when the weather is mild enough to do so. The fact that they are gathering pollen suggests the queen is laying; if I put my ear against the bathroom wall on these warmer days, I can hear the sound of their industry, hidden from view like the busy worms beneath the soil. So much work going on round the garden, so much of it not being done by me! A run of frosty mornings has been a reminder that winter is far from over; it will be some time yet before the bees can fly daily or the birds, now embarking on the beginnings of a dawn chorus, can turn their thoughts to serious nest-building.
These frosty mornings give way to days of flawless blue skies and bright sunshine, very welcome as it streams in through the windows but only giving warmth outside in sheltered spots as the wind, brittle and iron-tanged, bites savagely from the north-east. It’s fresh, cleansing sort of weather but not conducive to spending too much time outside unless we are well wrapped up and on the move. The warmth of the stove definitely beckons come evening but it has been worth venturing back outside to enjoy nature’s late show. Another moment of garden loveliness . . . and I didn’t need to lift a finger. 😊
January has rolled itself across the landscape like a thick grey blanket, leaching colour from the countryside and paring everything back to bare bones. It is eerily quiet outside, as if the glowering sky muffles all sound and yet, there is a strange amplification to the noises coming from places unseen: the persistent percussion of a woodpecker, the rigid flap of a rook’s black wing, the spine-tingling call of a lonely vixen. The weather ricochets from bitterly cold when the glacial north wind makes eyes run and toes tingle to mild and damp, the precipitation so fine it leaves a silver haze on my woollen gardening hat. Always grey skies, though; how I crave sunshine and blue skies in this weirdly wrapped world. It’s all part of the natural wheel of the year, of course, this chilly washed-out nothingness, and I can’t be downhearted since there is always colour to be found if I search for it, along with those little treasures that whisper of spring. There are snowdrops in abundance and the first buttery primroses scattered in sheltered places, soft green buds fattening and hazel catkins powdering the air with pollen, while the robin’s sweet song wakes me ever earlier each morning. There is still so much of winter yet to come and I won’t wish the time away but I love the gentle subtle shift that is underway.
I also love the fact that I have been granted official permission to get back outside and busy in the garden once again after seven long months of pain and frustration. The orthopaedic surgeon has confirmed this week that my body is making a grand (if slow) job of healing itself without any need for intervention which is good news and a huge relief all round. Next came those magic words, that it’s time to recommence le jardinage. No need for physiotherapy or a formal exercise regimen because everything I do in my gardening day will help to restore strength and flexibility in my spine. Thank you, you lovely man! Needless to say, I didn’t need telling twice; I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since hearing those words and if I could turn a cartwheel I would, although it’s perhaps still a little early for that sort of behaviour. 😉
To the garden, then, and at last the chance to start putting right what has felt like months of sad neglect. That said, I have been very encouraged at how well everything has held up without me (should I feel insulted? 😆) and is in fact the living proof that our no-dig, organic, permaculture approach is paying dividends. Last year was a tough one in terms of severe weather conditions so I’m relieved that this winter has seen a return to more normal levels of rainfall, the ground welcoming the soaking it so badly needs, the water butts overflowing and ~ after nine long months of waiting ~ the new pond finally full to the brim. Regular rainfall percolating down through the layers of the lasagne beds is a much-needed final ingredient in our soil-building efforts; where last year the brown layers stayed too crisp and dry, now everything is bedding down nicely and I can almost smell the alchemy of compost formation. The areas of mown grass are an ocean of muddy wormcasts, so worryingly absent when we moved here, and as I rummage about in the beds with my hand fork lifting the occasional perennial weed, I am astounded by the thriving worm population in the soil. The garden is still full of fungi, too, with fruiting blooms of all shapes, sizes and colours revealing the secrets of their hidden mycelium trails. Mmm, good things are happening.
Creating a garden like this is a long, slow process and two years in there seems to be as much to do as ever. I’m happy, though, that we are making real progress where soft fruit is concerned. The raspberry bed we inherited has always bothered me, it’s in a daft place so little wonder the plants fail to thrive. We’ve decided to do away with it completely, moving a handful of healthy summer-fruiting canes into a designated area of the large perennial bed where they can keep the rhubarb company, and scattering the rest to fill holes along the hedges. Last autumn, we extended the lasagne bed in front of the polytunnel and what for me were the two greatest treasures in the raspberry patch ~ a single autumn fruiter and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ we planted last year ~ have now been relocated to their new home. We’ve added a couple of small bare-rooted newbies, too, a tayberry and a Japanese wineberry, the latter being something we’ve never grown before. Along with blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, jostaberry, goji berry and honeyberry, we now have a fine eclectic mix in this patch which should keep us well-supplied with berry fruits.
The blackcurrant bushes I raised from seedlings have made incredibly strong plants and we should enjoy our first harvest from them this summer. When I was mulching around them, I noticed a large branch had broken off one but since it was covered in promising buds, I chopped it into pieces and potted them up as cuttings in the shelter of the tunnel. I’m not sure we need any more bushes but at the very least, they can be used to fill some holes like the spare raspberries; I’ve said before that we haven’t set out to plant a food forest as such but I love the idea of grazing along edible hedges and I’m pretty sure the blackbirds will agree.
Sticking with the fruit theme, one of my priorities this week has been to tidy the Strawberry Circle up a bit. Planting a ring of annual flowers around the edge last year turned it into a pretty patch and certainly ensured plentiful pollinator attention but things did get a bit out of hand at ground level. The strawberry plants didn’t enjoy the hot, dry summer very much and certainly our harvest was down on the previous year; I’d planned to peg down a few runners to generate new plants and then keep on top of any more the plants sent out but my back problem put paid to all that and the strawbs ended up doing their own thing. I’ve lifted a few perennial weeds and spare runners, planted up a few gaps, sprinkled in some donkey dung and given the lot a light mulching of chopped dead leaves and grass. Fingers crossed this summer I can keep a closer eye on things and we’ll enjoy a bumper harvest again.
The mandala bed was one of last year’s big successes; despite looking burnt-up and sad in the worst of the heat and drought it found a second wind in September and much of the foliage has only recently died back. It produced an incredible amount of food and became a much-used vegetable patch in the middle of the flower garden which was exactly what I’d hoped for. Like the Strawberry Circle, it was in desperate need of some attention so I started by chopping and dropping the remaining foliage, leaving it on the surface as a new layer of organic material. I then set about replacing the paths that had completely disappeared under the jungle of growth. In itself that’s not a problem as the whole idea of using shredded woody material for the paths is that it eventually becomes another brown layer to feed the soil and as Roger has been busy shredding the brush from his hedging and tree-pruning activities this week, it seemed as good a time as any to get cracking. Another benefit of this approach is that I can experiment with designs and change the configuration of the paths every year if I want although I’ve decided to stick with the ‘compass points’ wheel this year simply for ease. Perhaps next spring I will be brave enough to be a bit more artistic. With the paths back in place, I’m now concentrating on one planting section at a time ~ lifting the occasional weed (mostly small clumps of grass), spreading some more donkey dung about, sprinkling over molehill soil and wormcasts from the orchard floor and topping with a leaf mulch. Hidden beneath the chaotic tomatoes, a couple of small strawberry plants went berserk and have practically colonised an entire section and red sorrel has popped up in several places along with salad burnet which has come from who-knows-where but is a welcome addition to our edible leaf collection. I love it when the garden starts to evolve on its own in this way, plants turning up to grow where they are happy.
When the weather is spiteful, the polytunnel is the place to be and there is plenty to keep me busy in there. First job was to pull up the spent pepper and chilli plants which had fruited right into December before finally calling it a day when the temperature plummeted. The plants had stayed very healthy and disease-free so I chopped the foliage and spread it as a green layer on the newest Hügel bed outside; as we’d kept the ground under the plants mulched there were no weeds to deal with so it was just a case of spreading some manure and chopped comfrey leaves across the surface. Roger has been carrying in buckets of rainwater to soak the ground on a regular basis; not for the first time, I wish there was a way of peeling back the roof and letting nature do all the hard work but that’s a price we pay for having a warm, sheltered growing space. Extending the seasons and enjoying early (and late) crops is one of the main reasons we have a tunnel and it’s good to see a few rows of peas and broad beans bombing up to give us a first harvest well in advance of the one outside.
The warmer temperatures inside the tunnel can bring their own problems occasionally and it’s frustrating to see many of our winter salad crops being hammered by fat green caterpillars; it’s not a normal state of affairs but I suspect the unusually mild autumn had something to do with it. Luckily, we’re not short of salad leaves, both in the tunnel and outside, and there will be plenty to make up for the losses once the temperature and light levels pick up if the number of self-set lettuce and red sorrel plants are anything to go by.
One salad leaf that stays blissfully problem-free is radicchio and I never fail to be amazed at how something that beautiful can be so tough. Throw any kind of winter weather at the plants but, whether deep glossy red or speckled with green, they just keep on growing and add a vibrant splash of colour to the food garden and plate at this time of year. I love them both cooked and raw, their fresh bitterness bringing a balance to the heavy, starchy foods so typical of winter.
Another reliable leaf for us this month is kale and both the bold leafy ‘Cottager’s’ and daintier frilly ‘Russian Red’ varieties are keeping us well-supplied in the kitchen. It’s not to everyone’s taste but there are plenty of imaginative and interesting ways to cook it and I always think it’s one of those vegetables that oozes health and well-being; it’s also a ‘clean’ vegetable to gather even on the grimmest of winter days when wrestling parsnips and leeks out of frozen ground or a muddy quagmire isn’t so attractive. I’ve just been given some kale cuttings and this is the kind of gift that makes my heart jump for joy because it represents (hopefully) years of good, nutritious food to come . . . plus there’s always something reassuring about growing a plant that has been tried, tested and recommended by someone who knows their onions (thank you, my friend ~ you know who you are! 😊). The reason I’m so excited about these three different varieties ~ Purple Tree collard, Taunton Deane and Daubenton’s ~ is that they are perennial which makes them a great addition to the garden in terms of building resilience which regular readers will know is a big thing for me. There’s also a Vietnamese coriander in the mix, something I’ve never grown before but I’m already intrigued by its unusual scent so can’t wait to introduce that into the kitchen. The cuttings are currently sitting in water on the kitchen windowsill, growing a mass of rootlets and unfurling new foliage; in a few days’ time I shall pot them up and continue to nurture them until they have formed decent rootballs at which point they will take their place in the perennial bed.
Another new gift this week is a ‘pre-loved’ bird feeding station which has allowed me to organise things so much better . . . gone are the days of a mishmash of random feeders dangling from trees! It didn’t take the feathered squadrons long to discover their new breakfast table and I’m delighted by the fact that the big triple feeder means I don’t have to be running around topping up feed so often: even they can’t clear that much food in a day. What has been interesting ~ and of course, it may simply be coincidence ~ is how many more finches are now coming to feed, mainly goldfinches but also the occasional greenfinch (how sad they have become such a rarity). I haven’t changed the foods on offer so perhaps there’s just something about the feeder set-up that suits them better.
Garden aside, the fact that I can stand and sit more comfortably now has meant an indulgence in pastimes I have missed so desperately since last June. I’ve been busy with language study, daily French in many forms of course, but also having a lot of fun with learning some basic Norwegian. I’m wondering if the fact that I can now order two coffees and two ice creams means I’m ready to visit Sam and Adrienne once again? 😉
I’ve also dug out my recorder and started to rediscover my love of making music. In a moment of uncharacteristic indulgence, along with some new music books I bought myself a treble recorder; I had one as a youngster but was too idle at the time to learn to play it properly, so I’ve set myself the challenge to put that right after all these years. The fingering is totally different to that of a descant recorder so I am having to literally retrain my brain in how to read music: let’s say there’s a lot of laughter and restarts going on as I fluff note after note . . . but I can’t help feeling it’s a great workout for my grey cells, not to mention I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been wonderful to get back to my favourite woolly crafts, too. Christmas presents of money for our grandchildren might not seem too imaginative but it was a case of needs must this time (and in truth, they were all pretty chuffed!). I like to personalise gifts whenever I can so I set out to make some colourful origami envelopes for them all . . . and ended up completely underwhelmed with the results. There was nothing for it but to resort to my comfort zone, dig out some scraps of yarn and explore the possibilities of crocheting some little purses. Yep, that beats folding paper every time.
I’ve also managed to finish the ‘Fireside’ blanket I’ve been working on for a couple of months and I have to say it’s most definitely one of my favourite blanket projects ever ~ the pattern and yarn are both delightful and the finished article is just perfect for snuggling under in these chilly times.
What next? Well, needless to say I have another project waiting in the wings, a gift blanket this time so every stitch will be worked with much mindfulness and love. My wool basket is fully charged and I’m ready to dive in although I’m also happy to simply enjoy those yummy colours, guaranteed to brighten my day no matter how grey the skies might be. 😊
One of the many things we have always loved about Mayenne is how slowly and gently autumn creeps in; even when the days shorten and the light fades, there is often still a mellow softness that seems far removed from the winter months to follow. This year has been exceptional in that respect and it is only this week that for me, the landscape has become truly ‘autumnal’ with the trees putting on a flamboyant show of colours in contrast to the incredibly lush green of fields planted with grass and winter grain. It was a bit of a shock to the system, then, to have a day of weather so horrible it seemed we were going to have the whole of autumn in one go, a day of glowering light, torrential rain and the strongest winds we have seen in months. Our mature oaks lashed and roiled like a storm-tossed sea and leaves flew past the windows in horizontal blizzards; I had visions of everything being laid completely bare once it was pleasant enough to venture outside again . . . and yet, still those leaves are hanging on for dear life. It’s not all over by a long chalk.
In fact, that day was nothing more than a blip and generally it has been mild, sunny and still, perfect weather for getting things done outside. Roger has made a good start on laying the hedge along the lane, which is quite a major project; it’s not so much the actual hedge laying bit, but all the sorting and tidying of the spoil as he goes along that takes the time. It’s also not the greatest stretch of hedge to be working with on account of the way it has been cut in the past and there are going to be several spaces along its length where we will probably need to plant a few extra native bits and pieces to restore it to its former glory. I’ve written previously about hedge laying (plessage in French ~ anyone who claims there are no hedges in France hasn’t been to the right areas!), an ancient craft which serves to preserve and regenerate hedgerows of native plants which is a long way removed from the more typical modern approach of cutting them with mechanical flailers. Working uphill along a hedgerow, some upright stems are removed while others ~ the ‘pleachers’ ~ are cut almost all the way through at the base of the stem and then laid down at an angle between upright stakes.
Although this might appear rather brutal, it in no way damages or kills the trees but rather rejuvenates them and encourages strong new growth to shoot up from the bottom once the sap begins to rise again in spring. This in turn ensures that a deep and thick base is kept or returned to a hedge, one that will act as a barrier to keep livestock where it should be without the need for any additional stock fencing, as well as improving the hedge as a habitat for a range of wildlife. One of the real beauties of this method is that it only needs to be done once every ten years or so with minimal maintenance in between but for me, there is also something very profound about watching Roger practising a craft known to have existed for at least 2,000 years, using simple hand tools and working slowly and quietly along the hedge in the November sunshine. (For anyone interested to know more, this is a wonderful video of hedge laying in Herefordshire.)
As far as everything coming out of the hedge is concerned, it is being sorted for different uses depending on size and shape: thick straight trunks for posts and stakes and the rest for logs; long thinner poles for climbing beans and twiggy sticks for pea supports; shorter bits and pieces set aside to dry for kindling and the barbecue; bits of brush put through the shredder for mulch. Any twiggy sticks left have been spread across the surface of several lasagne beds (thanks to Sonja for this idea) where the leaves will rot down over winter and the sticks can either be gathered for compost next spring or left in situ if we’re planning to add another layer of green material over the top. I love this no-waste system of working! On which subject, the ‘sheepfold’ made from stone and earth left over from the barn renovation and several layers of spare biomass is now finished and ready for planting with wildflowers next spring. I’m really pleased at how established the young trees behind it are already looking; we’ve marked them with sticks as they are still very small but give it a few years and the sheepfold should mark the entrance to a beautiful patch of woodland.
As the hedgerow moves closer to the house, it deteriorates rapidly. In fact, one stretch of it is nothing more than a dense tangle of brambles and ivy and we’ve agonised over how best to deal with it; in the end, we’ve decided to leave it for the time being, partly because it’s great for wildlife but also because it produces the best blackberries on site! Beyond that, however, the rest is privet which is not a plant either of us particularly likes and which has been allowed to grow so much that it has swamped several (preferable) plants and is just downright ugly ~ especially combined with two monstrous ornamental conifers on either side of the entrance. We removed one of those the first spring we were here and happily repurposed it into an Hügel bed but we have been so busy with other things that it has taken until now to finally get round to sorting out this mess.
First, the second conifer which was so thick at the base, Roger decided not to try and remove the whole thing but cut it off at hedge height instead; it now acts as a popular launchpad for our resident gang of house sparrows heading to the bird table. The whole length of hedge has been dropped to a much lower height (not easy, as there is a deep ditch on the lane side making access ‘interesting’) which means it no longer dominates the outlook from the house but also has given several roses, shrubs and trees a chance to thrive now they have more light and air around them. I can’t believe what a difference it has made, we have so much more light flooding into the house now, which means our passive solar heating should increase and we can also enjoy the view of the pond and woodland beyond the lane. I’ve been watching red squirrels skittering about across there and a huge grey heron that drops in silently to hunt just before dusk each evening. Give me that over a wall of privet any day.
With the hedges sorted, Roger then turned his attention to the two entrances. This gravelled area in front of the house had been used as a drive-through car park but since there is ample parking for several vehicles if needed behind the house, we wanted to do away with any idea of vehicular access across this patch without putting up the sort of formidable fences and electronic gates (complete with flashing lights) that are so popular locally. We opted for very simple post and rail to narrow the openings and we have started to plant them with clematis and honeysuckle to form an attractive scented growing fence; Roger made a couple of simple wicket gates for pedestrian access and that was the job done. Now this area has become more of a gravelled courtyard which we will continue to plant up as garden and a table and chairs will definitely be needed as it’s such a lovely suntrap. Unfortunately, we can’t do much about the ugly solar water heater but I’m hoping once the area is bursting with colour and life it won’t seem quite such an eyesore ~ and it’s a useful one, if nothing else.
From our bedroom window, I’ve had a bird’s eye view of a flock of fieldfares feeding on the orchard floor this week; I’ve counted over 50 birds at times with more swooping in to join the feast, announcing their arrival with their familiar chattering call that is so typical of the season. They are very pretty, these colourful migratory thrushes, but oh my goodness, there is nothing subtle about them. They seem to spend more time and energy fighting than they do eating . . . and we haven’t even got close to the lean, cold times of winter yet when food supplies become scarce. Still, I love to see them and they appear to be everywhere at once, truly living up to their Anglo-Saxon name ‘fledware’ meaning ‘traveller of the fields’. There’s been brisk business at the bird feeders as well so we have stocked up on some bulk feed to keep them supplied; I’m interested to see whether we can attract a wider variety of species this year, and I’m already thrilled that nuthatches, who were occasional visitors last year, are practically living on the bird table already.
Despite the softness of the season, I still find my thoughts turning to comfort food and winter vegetables. I think it’s a Pavlovian reaction to lighting the stove: the sweet smell of wood smoke and the toasty warmth in the kitchen has me feeling the need to go forth and dig parsnips and lift leeks. It seems very incongruous, then, that I can still gather an abundance of fresh salad leaves, herbs and petals from the garden, not to mention bunches of basil and sweet peppers as big as my hand from the tunnel. Red, orange, yellow, green . . . those peppers paint more than half a rainbow on our plates. Sliced and cooked in olive oil with garlic, herbs or spices and a handful of olives when we’re feeling decadent, they make a wonderful side dish bursting with colour and packed with Vitamin C; I can’t believe that they can go on cropping for too much longer (surely not?) but it would be a criminal waste not to make the most of them while they last. Summery dishes aside, we have been dipping into things more seasonal this week. For starters, we’ve blown the dust off the terracotta diable à pommes de terre which has made my heart sing because baked potatoes, preferably with lashings of butter (I have no shame), are one of my favourite foods on earth and this is a super-efficient way of cooking them since it doesn’t involve an oven. We start by heating a little water in the pot which seasons it and means the potatoes will be partly steamed and cook quickly on the stove top, even at a relatively low temperature. We tip out the water, add a little olive oil, garlic and rosemary, lay the washed whole potatoes on top, pop on the lid and leave them to cook. They don’t have the same crispy skins of an oven-baked jacket (we do those on other occasions, maybe when baking bread) but they are completely delicious and a very simple, economical and nutritious base for a meal.
Crumbles are great comfort food and although they generally tend to be a sweet dish, savoury versions have a lot going for them through the colder months. This week we’ve made one with a squash, leek and kale base topped with an oaty, nutty, buttery (as I said, no shame) crumble mix; it’s very substantial, almost a one-pot meal in itself, although a side dish of those colourful peppers went down a treat. It’s easy enough to reheat any leftovers but also eats well cold and I think is perhaps the kind of dish that might help persuade non-believers that vegetarian dishes can be good. Not that we are vegetarians, but we do eat a lot of meatless meals and many of them are firm favourites; it makes a lot of sense to start our meal planning with what’s good and plentiful in the garden or store and take it from there. Even though there’s always a sense of things slowing down at this time of year after the abundance of summer, we are still not short of possibilities to choose from: carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, black radish, oca, celeriac, kale, cabbage, chard, New Zealand spinach, calabrese, beetroot, leeks, various lettuce varieties, rocket, landcress, mizuna. pak choi, sweet peppers and chillies plus onions, garlic, potatoes, beans, squash and tomatoes in store.
Where fruit is concerned, we have come to the end of the fresh apples so everything now comes in dried, frozen, bottled or juiced form but there is still a good selection ~ apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries. I’m hoping that next year we will have far more fruit as existing plants respond to the tender loving care they have been receiving and new ones start to produce. I’m very excited about rhubarb (yes, I probably need to get out more) because I suspect there may well be a bumper crop and it’s such an early producer. Regular readers might remember me rescuing an ancient crown when we arrived here; the poor thing had been trying to grow inside a chimney pot and was completely miserable.
After removing the pot and giving the plant a lot of love over summer, I dug up the woody and almost rotten crown in the autumn and replanted four small root pieces from it in the perennial lasagne bed next to the asparagus. By early spring this year, two new crowns had appeared to be followed a few weeks later by two more . . . and when I found an unexpected bonus little root growing in the compost heap, I stuffed that in the ground, too.
I wasn’t sure how successful the plants would be given the heat and drought of summer and the fact that they were growing in a very young and dry lasagne bed; we didn’t have enough water to squander on them ~ it’s been tough love with all the perennials from the word go, they have to be resilient ~ so I just had to trust that the deep compost pockets beneath them would do the job.
Well, all five plants have flourished and put on an unbelievable amount of healthy growth so that it’s really more of a rhubarb forest than patch now. This week, the plants have finally started to collapse and die back a little, revealing a wealth of young growth at their hearts; I’m not altogether sure whether that’s a good idea at this time of year but it’s all part and parcel of the response to climatic conditions so I will continue to observe . . . and as Roger doesn’t like rhubarb, it looks like I might be in for a serious feast next spring.
Having written in an earlier post about being prepared to walk in all weathers, it came as a bit of a shock needing to pull on full waterproofs and hat on that first seriously autumnal day this week; I didn’t intend to go very far, to be honest, but even two minutes outside would have been enough for a complete soaking. I found myself wishing I had an adult-sized utedress of the kind we had seen nursery children wearing in Norway; skipping along with their carers like little flocks of excited ducklings, they were heading off on outdoor adventures dressed in wonderfully practical all-in-one suits which would keep them warm and dry whatever the day’s weather brought. How sensible to be dressed for every eventuality, nothing was going to drive them indoors and spoil their fun! As a teacher, I spent many winter playground duties being moaned at by children who were cold because their outer clothing was woefully inadequate for the time of year; despite all being dressed in uniform, fashion still dictated far too much where coats and shoes were concerned. So, bring on the utedress and boots, I say. It’s amazing how quickly things have got mucky underfoot here but I can’t really grumble about the grassy areas in the garden because it’s mainly down to wormcasts which are everywhere in vast carpets and such a good and hopeful sign. Needless to say, the moles are being very industrious, too, but are politely pushing up their tumps all around the boundaries rather than through the middle of things. I’m happy to rub along with them but would prefer it if they didn’t go mining under the patches of garlic and broad beans which have both sent up their new growth this week. Neither crop did particularly well this year so I’m hoping for better things next season; the fact that our rainfall is something closer to normal this autumn has to be encouraging on that score.
It takes a lot to drive us indoors but even Roger declared an official Hobbies Day in light of the vile weather and promptly disappeared into the barn to do a bit of renovation work ~ granted, not everyone’s idea of a ‘hobby’ but an activity that could be done in the warm and dry. As I’ve been unable to climb a ladder since June, I haven’t seen any of the renovation work that has been done so I’m very excited about the prospect of the plasterboard being cut away on the house side to reveal a beautiful stone doorway and a bright and shiny new room beyond: our very own The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reveal! The downside of that is that I will be able to access the space again and there is an awful lot of painting to be done . . . so I was secretly quite pleased that the bad weather only lasted a day and Roger was soon back outside to finish the hedging. As the sitting-room woodburner was lit, I decided I would be happy to hunker down and do the hobby stuff for us both but it’s been so long since I’ve done much on that front, I couldn’t really settle on anything. I looked longingly at my spinning wheel but I’m still not fit enough to use it so that was a non-starter. I dug out a pair of woolly socks I had started knitting in June and haven’t looked at since; to be honest, I only looked at them this time before putting them away again, but I suppose it’s a progress of sorts. I spent a happy hour painting a house sign on an old roofing slate, something I did in Asturias where I learned a lot from the experience; as my handwriting and artistic skills are both terrible, I used stencils but soon discovered that despite appearances, slates are a long way from being smooth and the stencils didn’t sit comfortably which made it all a bit awkward. This time I decided to be brave and go for freehand, thinking I could shrug it off as naïve folk art or some such thing if any eyebrows are raised and it actually all went surprisingly well . . . until I tried to apply a coat of sealing varnish which caused big smears across my handiwork. Mmm, you live and learn. I can’t decide now whether to go back to the drawing board (literally) or just say what the heck and hang it anyway as an example of Very Naïve Folk Art; who knows, it might even catch on. 🤣 After a quick tootle on my recorder, I plumped for a bit of crochet once again; this blanket project is already one of my favourites ever, I love the bulkiness of the wool, the texture of the joins, the fun of mixing big and small squares and the combination of all those yummy colours. Although I’d rather be outside any day, I do enjoy a bit of creative woolly business now and again . . . and if nothing else, it proved for the umpteenth time in my life that I am definitely safer with a crochet hook in my hand than an artist’s paintbrush!
Although it’s not the end of the calendar year yet, it feels like an appropriate moment to stop and reflect a little on how things have gone in the garden so far and to start sketching out a few plans and ideas for the new season. Once again, I have totally failed to keep up with any kind of planting diary so thank goodness I can look back through my blog posts to remind me of events throughout the year. I also thought it might be useful to gather everything together under a few headings in the hope of perhaps helping, informing and encouraging others to give it a go. I’m no expert: I’ve been gardening one way or another for many years but my approach has changed over time and I’m always excited about learning from others, implementing new approaches and revising my own practices accordingly. One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing ideas and information with others and it has led to much lively and inspiring discussion and some enduring and valued friendships. Everything I share is built on experience and for me, that’s the best scenario; there is a wealth of helpful advice and tips out there from experts in every field which is wonderful to tap into, but I still believe the best way to learn about gardening is to get out there and do it.
In many ways, this garden project feels like a culmination of everything Roger and I have learned from gardening together over several decades and of all the gardens we have created, it is perhaps the one that allows us the most freedom to play; we’re not trying to feed a growing family while holding down jobs or adjust to an unfamiliar climate or manage challenging slopes. We have a vision of what we would like to achieve but nothing is set in stone and our plans change, grow or fade away as we go along. We haven’t deliberately set out to develop a ‘food forest’ but once the trees, shrubs, hedging and perennials we have planted mature, then that is certainly what it will feel like. Our aim is to create a garden that is productive, beautiful (it’s about feeding the soul as well as the body), interesting, sustainable, regenerative and resilient, a space bursting with ecosystems and biodiversity that provides us with many of our daily needs and enhances and enriches the local environment. Lofty ideals? Maybe, but definitely ones I am happy to stand by. Any good recipe hinges on decent ingredients, so now follows my list of what I consider to be the essentials. Feel free to disagree ~ as I said, I’m no expert. 😉
To say I’ve become a bit obsessed with soil is probably an understatement but I love the fact that there is so much new and completely fascinating research and information about soil biology to consider. I’ve never had a downer on soil, that whole ‘dirt’ thing that so many people subscribe to, because as a gardener I’ve always recognised how key soil health is to the success of cultivation and the survival of our species; I also love getting my hands dirty! However, the growth in understanding of the extent to which soil is a living, vibrant entity appeals to me greatly and I am very excited to embrace it. For anyone raised in the conventional dig-hoe-weed-clean-control mindset, the idea of ‘leave well alone’ can be a bit scary or maybe even seem a totally ridiculous notion, but if we are willing to accept that nature knows a thing or two about building healthy soil and are prepared to give it a go, then the results can be quite astonishing. I love words, so the relevant language such as mycelium, hyphae, actinomycetes, comminution and mycorrhiza is for me a source of fascination in itself, but suffice to say it’s really all about what I call ‘woodland thinking’. In a wood, organic matter falls to the floor in layers and is continually recycled by a wealth of organisms into a rich, fluffy soil; the ground is never bare and there is minimal waste of any kind. To mimic this in the garden, it’s important to protect the soil structure (and hence the all-important life it contains) by not digging, leaving roots in the ground and keeping the surface covered in organic matter, either growing or as a mulch. It goes without saying that the addition of synthetic fertilisers and soil improvers or toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides is a complete no-no. Like a good wine or cheese, it takes time for soil to mature in this way so a little patience and a lot of sitting on hands (step away from the spade, folks!) are needed . . . not always easy, I admit, but well worth it in the end. I know we still have a long way to go here, the garden is very much in its infancy, but the improvement in the soil this year has been tangible and reflected in the health, resilience and yield of the plants growing in it.
When we adopt this woodland thinking (or perhaps it’s also compost thinking?), then any spare biomass that comes to hand offers a golden opportunity to feed the soil but as with so much in life, it’s important to maintain a balance and apply a bit of common sense along with the organic matter. For us, that means spreading or sprinkling a wide range of materials, both green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) in moderation at an appropriate time; I will confess there’s no plan to any of this, we tend to just ‘feel’ our way but again, if we’re happy to be led by nature then it usually works. This year, we have added grass clippings, chopped dead leaves, chopped spent plants, annual weeds, seasoned sawdust, old hay, leaves and liquid feed of comfrey and nettles, coffee grounds and ‘liquid gold’ aka dilute urine, as well as home-produced compost and well-rotted horse manure, the only imported element which actually turned out to be donkey dung, but hey, it’s all good stuff. We’ve used a policy of close planting, no problem as I’m a crammer by nature anyway, and sown green manure and annual flowers as ground cover in uncultivated spaces. Everything has been mulched to within an inch of its life so that bare earth just doesn’t happen. I realise for anyone who likes to see their plants growing in clean, bare earth this is total anathema but I think we seriously need to distance ourselves from the idea of a ‘tidy’ garden because who does that honestly serve? Nature’s messy: let’s roll with that!
I will happily admit that in a former life, the intention of creating a new garden bed would have seen me stripping turf, banishing weeds, digging deeply, forking over, raking down . . . all set for a great first season as the newly-oxygenated soil kickstarted an abundance of activity from those precious soil microbes. It was a short-lived celebration, though, and a short-sighted approach to boot. These days, I sheet mulch without question: down goes a layer of cardboard straight onto grass, followed by alternate layers of green and brown materials, lovingly layered like a beautiful lasagne. Plants go straight into that ~ a generous pocket of compost beneath them ~ and the building of layers continues. I must be honest, I harboured severe doubts about how successful this would be, especially as the extreme heat and drought this year left some of our lasagne beds horrendously dry. The brown layers of twiggy sticks, dead leaves, sawdust and shredded cardboard, added to keep things light and airy and prevent undue slime from wet green materials, just sat there being (weirdly!) light and airy and stopped the whole lot breaking down into something close to soil. No worries though, everything planted in them seemed to thrive regardless but certainly the autumn rains have now helped it all move in a more expected direction. The mandala bed ~ my pet project ~ produced an abundance of growth and food that far outweighed any expectations but if I needed any proof that sheet mulching really works, I only need to look at the asparagus bed. I broke every rule in the book with that one (no clearing of weeds, no digging of trenches, no piling in copious quantities of compost and manure, no buying of male-only crowns . . . ) and yet the plants have romped away like there’s no tomorrow, still sending up spears this late in the year and refusing to die back so I can chop and drop the ferns.
Hügelkultur was a whole new idea for us, too, and again I was a tad dubious about just how successful growing things on a hill basically constructed from bits of tree could ever be. Let me tell you, I am in awe and a complete convert in every way. Our first mound, created from an ornamental conifer that just had to go, has seen a second season of growing the most incredible harvest of squash imaginable. Seemingly impervious to the severe drought, the plants tumbled down the slopes producing a ridiculous amount of fruits as they went; meanwhile, a bonus crop of enormous field mushrooms bloomed beneath the foliage. We made another Hügel bed this year which was also planted with squash and which we’re now in the process of extending for next year. The idea is a simple one: build a hill, starting with bigger bits of trunk or logs at the base, then add branches, twiggy bits and greenery, pack with any other organic matter to hand (we piled on grass clippings and the like) and if you want to plant straight away, cover in upturned turfs or topsoil. I spent last winter collecting the spoil from molehills and throwing it on top which seemed to do the job. Like the lasagne beds, I planted into deep pockets of compost but once they were established, the plants needed very little in the way of watering and no fertiliser whatsoever . . . which is the idea, after all, and it should stay that way for many years to come.
From January 2024, all French households must be able to recycle food waste at home by law and local authorities are responsible for providing composting bins to that end. This won’t bother us at all since composting is already a way of life for us and a hugely important element in our garden system. I would say, though, that in terms of consumable food, we never have any ‘waste’ as we use everything that we have and any leftovers are turned into another meal. What we do compost from the kitchen are fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, spent herbs from infusions along with shredded cardboard and paper, floor sweepings and anything else biodegradable. These are collected in a bucket under the sink and delivered to the compost heap at least once a day ~ one of my favourite jobs. The ‘heap’ is actually a square stack which we layer with green and brown materials as we go along, plus a few comfrey, borage and yarrow leaves and more of that liquid gold to accelerate the process. We have a three-bay system and turn the heaps regularly to keep the composting process going; once a bay is done, we store it in large bins until needed. Turning piles of organic matter into a dark, rich, friable compost perfect for planting in, mulching and enriching the soil is a magical process; it has taken nearly two years to get there but our system is now in full swing and the stuff it is producing is wonderful.
The theory behind our approach to soil building is that eventually we should reach a point where there is no need for additional fertiliser to maintain plant health as a continually improved soil should offer balanced and sufficient nutrition. That said, I think there will probably still be occasions when a boost is needed and certainly while we are in the relatively early stages, then a little extra help is a good plan. As well as applying mulches of comfrey and nettle leaves around the base of plant stems, I’ve been brewing them up into a useful liquid feed by cramming plastic containers with chopped leaves, covering with rain water and leaving to stew for a couple of weeks; a lid on the container is essential as the potions stink to high heaven and act like a fly magnet! I then strain off the liquid and store it in plastic screw-top bottles to dilute and use when necessary; the sludge goes onto the compost heap or soil and I start the process once again. Dilute urine is another excellent fertiliser, being high in nitrogen, and keeping a ‘pee bucket’ in the Love Shack makes collection straightforward. A trip to the coppice lets me collect some woodland soil which is a hugely beneficial organic material: just a single trowelful stirred into rainwater and sprinkled round plants makes both a wonderful fertiliser and soil improver. Next year, I’m going to experiment with making JADAM fertilisers, too.
It’s very easy to be drawn into a ‘monoculture = bad, polyculture = good’ view of the world, but it isn’t quite as clear cut as that; despite many claims to the contrary, monocultures can occur in nature and aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Also, polyculture doesn’t automatically mean plants have to be dotted about individually, there are still good reasons for planting in rows or blocks, just perhaps in ways that differ from the conventional garden pattern. For instance, I still sow carrots in rows, but several short ones in different places alongside other kinds of plants instead of one long row or area of the same. One of the biggest drawbacks of monoculture, apart from the obvious lack of diversity, is that it offers any predators the chance to home in, fill their boots and destroy an entire crop in one fell swoop. We currently have brassicas growing amongst a range of other plants in six different locations, the theory being that even if some of them are rumbled and scoffed, the others will escape and make it to our plates. For me, polyculture is all about diversity, both in the kinds of food on offer and the life the garden can support: why settle for one kind of salad leaf or tomato or butterfly when we can enjoy something so much more exciting? It’s also about hedging our bets so that if one species or cultivar fails, we have plenty of others to fall back on. I don’t set out to arrange things deliberately in plant ‘guilds’ but tend to stick things together that seem to make sense. Carrots with onions and garlic to confuse the dreaded root fly, lettuce under tall plants to provide a living mulch and enjoy some shade, peas and beans where other plants can benefit from their nitrogen-fixing habit. Perhaps there’s an element of laziness, too; I love to wade into a mass of diverse, abundant growth and pick an entire meal virtually from one spot. Also, I think that it just looks so much better, all that variety of plant life jostling for elbow room; life is too short for bland and boring!
In many ways, this follows on from the discussion about polyculture because it’s based on the idea of maximising yields from a given space through planned diversity. I might be rubbish at keeping a diary, but I do make a sketch of all our growing areas each year to help me remember what was planted where, mainly to avoid putting the same types of crops in the same place too often which could lead to a build-up of pests and diseases. Ha! By the end of the year my sketch is usually totally illegible, even to me, as so many spots have been planted twice or even three times with different crops in the name of keeping the ground covered and squeezing every last food-production opportunity out of the season. For instance, where garlic was harvested in early summer there are now carrots, black radish and radicchio to enjoy, and the leeks and chard which cropped right into late spring were replaced with purple sprouting broccoli and red kale. Enthusiastic self-setters like lettuce, rocket, landcress, coriander and dill have popped up under and between other things and I’m happy to let them fill in the gaps in this way. I wrote in an earlier post about how this approach actually does away with some of the conventional worries about crop rotation as long as we are looking after the soil and to me, it makes a lot of sense. I do need to find a way of making less messy sketches, though!
In permaculture and other sustainable / regenerative approaches to producing food, perennial planting gets a big thumbs-up and I understand all the reasons for that; it makes sense to plant a wide range of things that can stay put for many years, producing crop after crop without any need to disturb the soil or ecosystem in which they’re growing. However, at the risk of sticking my head above the parapet, I would argue that it’s a much easier approach to apply successfully in some latitudes rather than others. Let’s be honest, if we were relying wholly on perennial crops in our cool temperate climate here then we would have a very restricted diet! I love artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb and they play an important part in our garden system but even coupled with as many berries, nuts, stems, leaves and tubers as we can muster, they quite simply aren’t enough. It’s all about balance and there is still a need for us to grow annual crops if we are to enjoy a varied and interesting diet; I don’t consider this to be a problem or failing, especially if it’s done within the sort of holistic model I’m describing. That said, I’m trying to increase the number and variety of perennial food-bearing plants in our system ~ this year it’s been mostly new fruit varieties ~ because they tick a lot of useful boxes.
Integrated pest management
One of the biggest changes in my attitude to gardening is that I no longer tend to think in terms of ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’ so the heading for this section is a borrowed one. For years, I’ve always thought of us as ‘custodians’ in our gardens, a small part of the land’s history, sharing the space with other life, leaving our mark and passing on. I feel that’s a bit arrogant now and that the reality is that we are most definitely not in charge or perched at the top of the pyramid; we are a simply a tiny part of a beautifully intricate and complex web of life on which we are totally dependent. Just considering population figures for the soil life is mind-blowing! I won’t deny that slugs and aphids struggle to ooze the same cute factor as red squirrels and hedgehogs but they play a vital role in our ecosystem and it would be wrong of me to vilify these creatures, yet alone try to annihilate them. However, I’m not naïve and since food production is a lot of what we’re about, it’s important to find ways of working with the other ‘hungry ones’ to ensure a good harvest . . . and this is where IPM comes in. Basically, we draw on a range of strategies to minimise the damage to crops caused by beasties without resorting to anything toxic or upsetting the ecological balance; it can involve a little more effort (and wiliness) than throwing or spraying poisons around but that’s a small price to pay and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly hard labour. When a hare decided to prune the young sweetcorn plants earlier this year, we built a temporary netting fence around them and later enjoyed a fantastic crop. Likewise, when flea beetles tried to wipe out my purple sprouting broccoli nursery bed, I tucked a protective blanket of horticultural fleece around them: those plants now stand over a metre high.
Even better is the idea of letting others do the work for us. Habitat and wildlife corridor creation is a key part of our garden project, encouraging predators like hedgehogs, frogs and toads, grass snakes, bats and a whole host of birds to take up residence and tuck in; others such as foxes, weasels, owls and birds of prey pass through on a regular basis and help out, particularly with the Vole Patrol. Wherever there are vegetables, we plant flowers, too, not only to attract useful pollinators but also helpful predators and the more seasons we have here, the more I can base the choices of species on observation. For example, I’ve noticed that yarrow is hugely popular with ladybirds so I’m happy to spread it around the garden, especially under plants like globe artichokes which are prone to blackfly. Dill is a favourite of mine and I’m thrilled that along with borage, calendula and phacelia, it has already reached a level of self-setting which means I’ll never have to plant it again. Apart from being a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers attract allies like hoverflies and parasitic wasps whilst at the same time their smell repels white butterflies, so it’s a good one to have growing near brassicas. Nasturtiums left to trail through the cabbage patch provide a good sacrificial crop for caterpillars should the dill not have seen off enough butterflies, as well as acting like a living mulch under the plants and attracting pollinators with their sunny flowers. I know some gardeners are wary of mulches creating hiding places for slugs and snails but we haven’t found it to be that way (perhaps it’s more of an issue in raised beds?); in fact, it provides cover for top predators such as spiders and ground beetles.
We’re always going to lose some plants to the wildlife but I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective about what is really happening in any one season. I don’t think I have ever seen such an invasion of aphids as we had last spring, they were all over everything and many plants ~ especially the young ones ~ suffered very badly. At one point, I thought we would lose all the brassicas and rainbow chard (which were more aphid than leaf!) but in fact, the damage was negligible. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated when wireworms kept destroying small lettuce plants in the mandala bed and it felt like I was constantly having to replace them but then it occurred to me that it would make more sense to pot the seedlings on and plant them out as bigger and more robust plants. Ta dah! No more wireworm issues and more lettuce than we could shake a stick at. Some of the black radish we have started pulling in the last couple of weeks have seen a bit of wireworm action but they are so huge that the impact is small, whilst in the tunnel, slugs are bashing the mizuna but there are so many alternative salad leaves, both planted and self-set, that we have more than enough for our needs. It’s also important to remember that the most disappointing crops of the year (things like potatoes and swedes) were actually casualties of the weather, so perhaps we need to look at an Integrated Climate Management system, too.
Seeds are incredible things, so small and unassuming yet without them, our species would be doomed, and the miracle of germination is one that continues to captivate me, no matter how many times I witness it. We’ve always saved seeds from the garden but living in an increasingly uncertain world and climate, I think it’s a more important activity than ever these days. It’s an interesting pastime and gives us the opportunity to select for strong plants that are well-suited to our growing conditions. We can have fun with open-pollinated varieties and develop our very own types of some plants, whilst championing heirloom varieties and helping to maintain and increase seed diversity which has seen such a lamentable decline over the last century. Seeds are a valuable currency for gardeners, and swapping or giving them away is a satisfying gesture in spreading the love! The gift of a single precious ‘Hungarian Blue’ squash seed some years ago has blessed us with several generations of offspring which have crossed with other varieties yet maintained the strong genetic imprint of blue skin, firm orange flesh and wonderful flavour. More than anything, I see saving seeds as a kind of insurance policy and a basket brimming with little packets of carefully-selected and dried treasures brings the same joy and reassurance as a well-stocked freezer or cupboards full of preserves. I still buy some seeds from commercial producers because I like to increase our pool of varieties but we are not dependent on them and that helps build the sort of resilience that I believe is essential for the future.
By this I’m not suggesting that you don a white lab coat and zip about the garden brandishing test tubes and a Bunsen burner ~ although if that’s what floats your boat, then why not? It’s more a plea to try different things and push the boundaries a bit; it’s all too easy to get hung up on doing things properly, striving for perfection or worrying about what others think but those sort of anxieties only serve to hamper discovery and shackle innovation. I think we need to be brave enough to pursue the ‘what ifs?’ not only because it makes life interesting but because I believe that, as with seed saving, it might lead to new ideas and skills that we can exploit in the face of change and adversity. Even if it’s as simple as planting seeds of something different or needy, then it’s worth a punt because who knows what might happen? Of my three ‘wild cards’ this year, the melons sprinted home to take gold, the cauliflowers deserved a pat on the back for trying and the swedes, which barely got over the start line, sloped off with the wooden spoon; all good learning experiences that I can build on next year. When I stopped to think about it, much of what we are doing here is experimental and I think that helps to keep us focused and challenged. When I decided to make the mandala bed last year, something completely different to anything I’d done before, I was well aware that I could easily fall flat on my face. Was it really possible to create a circular no-dig bed of some 28 square metres in area from materials already on site (extra cardboard was the only import) and using only spare plants or seed I already had, to investigate the yield from such a system while also setting out to prove that a vegetable patch can look beautiful in a flower garden? The answer is a resounding yes! Despite many ‘wobbly’ moments like those lettuce-munching wireworms, I think I can safely say the project so far has been a huge success and one that has far exceeded my hopes and expectations; okay, my carefully laid paths disappeared under the jungle of growth and the whole thing looked a bit sad and burned up in the heat of August, but it has produced oodles of food and flowers, supported a huge diversity of wildlife and looked very lush and attractive for most of the growing season ~ it still does, in fact. I have several new ideas up my sleeve for next year, one of which is to grow a patch of no-dig potatoes on cardboard covered in a deep layer of hay; it will go one of two ways, I’m sure, but if I don’t try it, I’ll never know.
There are, of course, plenty of other ‘ingredients’ that help to make a good garden; apart from the obvious necessities of sunlight, warmth and water, I think time, space, money, energy, enthusiasm, patience, optimism, a good sense of humour and a strong back (ha ha!😂 ) are all useful additions. Not all essential, though. It’s just as possible to apply the ideas and approaches I’ve discussed to a windowbox as to a large garden, it’s simply a matter of scale. I think that when nature is given more freedom it actually leaves us with far fewer garden tasks to do so the time element is greatly reduced. It’s also possible to grow in abundance on a tiny budget; the mandala bed cost nothing more than the price of a few seeds and yet we have harvested kilo after kilo of food from it for many months. Joking about my hobbled state aside, one of the redeeming factors has been seeing just how well the garden has coped without me for the best part of five months now; Roger has kept on top of the essential jobs such as watering during the worst of the drought and planting out winter cabbages, but otherwise it has all ticked over brilliantly without any input from me. Perhaps I should be upset about that, but when soil is building itself, ‘weeds’ are smothered in mulch or more tolerated as part of the ecosystem, the wildlife is maintaining its own balance and minimising crop damage, self-set volunteers are welcomed and left to thrive where they choose to grow . . . well, what more do I need to do, anyway? Which is why my heading for this final paragraph might seem an indulgent or arbitrary choice but I believe it is so important to have seats in favourite spots, and what’s more, to use them. Often! As gardeners, we are part of a wonderful, thriving ecosystem and it’s crucial that our needs are met as well as those of all the life we share the space with. If we can see our time outdoors as being an integral part of our life rather than a set of chores, then I think we’ve cracked it . . . so, place a seat (or hammock or whatever) somewhere appropriate and plant yourself there; breathe in the air, acknowledge the life around you, watch your carrots grow. Above all, relax and smile: the garden is taking care of itself! 😊