In praise of small things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This had me asking a number of questions:

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

Logic then led me on to asking more:

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

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

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

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

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