A time of balance

I love this time of year, the balance of light around the equinox suiting me so much better than the extremes of the solstices. I know many people find it a slightly depressing time here in the northern hemisphere as we swing into the dark half of the year, but why be miserable? There is still so much to look forward to in the coming weeks even if it is darker and cooler, and it is a shame not to enjoy every moment of what can be a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring season. I’ve noticed several people this week already focused on discussions about Christmas. Pleeeeeeeease, no!

As much as anything, for me this is a time of gratitude and as our abundant harvest continues to roll in, I feel an immense sense of thankfulness that we have such a wealth of delicious and nutritious food to sustain us over the coming months. It’s something I never take for granted but in a way, the extreme heat and drought this year have felt like grave warning shots across our bows that it would be foolish to ignore. In the face of an increasingly unstable climate, however that might manifest itself in the future, we simply can’t assume that bountiful harvests will be a given each year. So yes, gratitude by the bucket load . . . but also an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking and doing things, the changes that we might need to make in order to guarantee not only our own food security, but the future of a thriving biodiversity on our precious patch.

In the cold, dark months of December and January, when hibernation strikes me as the most sensible of ideas, I love to dig out the seed basket and start hatching plans for a new season’s planting. However, with our garden still in its infancy and much to think about this year, I’ve decided that a period of reflection now is beneficial, sketching out some plans and jotting down a few ideas while everything is still fresh in my mind. Some decisions have already been made, not least the fact that the number of aubergine, pepper and tomato plants can be significantly reduced now we have seen what a ‘proper’ harvest can deliver. The disappointing ‘Delinel’ dwarf beans will be replaced by a yellow wax pod variety and we will shift the balance of climbing beans towards more borlotti and fewer Asturian; the latter really didn’t enjoy the lack of moisture and humidity this summer and although they still have a few growing and ripening weeks left, most of the pods are unnaturally tiny with only a single bean in each ~ not an efficient use of the ground they are growing in or the time they will take to harvest.

In complete contrast, carrots grow very happily here and a single thickly-sown row of a Nantes variety has kept us well-provisioned for several months. They’re still going strong ~ Roger dug one this week which was the best part of thirty centimetres long! ~ and the truly excellent news is that even in our second season, there is no hint of the dreaded carrot root fly. I’m going to indulge in a bit of whimsy next year and sow some yellow, red, white and purple varieties alongside the orange ones for a carrot rainbow on a plate. Well, sometimes you have to have a bit of fun in this serious business of growing food. 😊 Regular readers will know that tomatoes have been a big story for us this year and mulling over cherry varieties, I suddenly remembered the tiny (but relatively speaking, huge) success we had in Asturias with ‘Rosella’, the beautiful deep pink tomato which I reckoned was every bit as good as the ever-popular ‘Sungold’ in terms of flavour and sweetness. They’re both on the list for next year so that I can carry out a true comparison, along with some red and yellow ‘Tumbling Toms’ which I’m planning to grow in hanging baskets and window boxes.

Fruit bowl!

Increasing the number and range of perennial food plants is a high priority in terms of building resilience and a regenerative food garden and, like wildlife homes and habitats, we are trying to add a few new things each year. The large lasagne bed we made adjoining the asparagus bed last year still has masses of room in it, despite the emergence of a rhubarb forest from the five puny little roots I planted; I’ve grown courgettes in it this year, but my plan is to eventually fill it with perennial plants. Some of the new things on the list are Turkish rocket (which is actually a brassica, a bit like broccoli raab), holy basil or tulsi, red Welsh onions to complement the white ones we already have, wild garlic and Cape gooseberry. Roger has been very busy this week spreading manure, compost and other organic matter and I’m pleased at how these beds are starting to shape up; fingers crossed, we should end up with a good stock of productive perennial food plants growing in a wonderfully rich, healthy soil. Well, that’s the plan, anyway!

Obviously, the quickest way to source and establish perennials is to buy plants but I’m actually a huge fan of growing them from seed for several reasons. For a start, in the horticultural industry seed production (especially by the small and responsible businesses I prefer to support) tends to be far kinder to the planet than plant production which requires huge amounts of heat, water, compost, plastic, chemicals and transport. Second, a packet of seeds usually costs less than a single plant but offers the chance of growing many, the strongest of which can be selected as keepers; any spare seeds can be given away or swapped and I am a great advocate of spreading the gardening love in this way. Third, by raising my own plants from seed, I can be 100% sure that they have not received chemical treatments of any kind. Fourth, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take that long to grow decent perennial plants from seed, a fact borne out by the already apparent maturity of the perennial herbs, cardoons, asparagus and globe artichokes I raised from seed last year. Lastly . . . well, it’s always fun to sow seeds, watch the magic of germination, prick out seedlings and nurture them into something big and beautiful. 🥰 On which subject, I have been wondering whether planting so many ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes this year was actually my best idea; honestly, they are so ridiculously spiny that preparing them is like grappling with purple porcupines. Their flavour, though, is incredible and so I am hoping for a good crop next year. Might have to invest in some stout leather handling gloves, mind you . . .

I don’t want to harp on about my herniated disc as I’m not by nature a ‘poor me’ hypochondriac wallowing in self-pity or trying to elicit sympathy and I am doing everything within my power to help the healing process along, but I am finding the situation ever more frustrating. I have to maintain a balance of rest and movement which is fine but the ‘resting’ bit is tricky: the only way I can be totally comfortable is by lying down but too much bedrest is a big no-no, and as it’s impossible for me to sit, I have to recline on a sofa supported by a nest of quilts and pillows. The inactivity drives me nuts! I know I should be grateful for the opportunity to rest, but there’s only so much reading I can do; I can balance a laptop on my knee for a short time but I’m not an enthusiastic internet surfer and once I’ve caught up with messages from friends and family and maybe read a few blog posts, I’ve had more than enough screen time. Writing an email, yet alone a blog post, seems to take me forever these days. So, it was a moment of utter joy this week discovering that, with a lot of organisation and patience, I am actually able to manage some crochet in my reclined position. Even better, if I set everything up on an old sun-lounger that tilts backwards into the perfect position, I can do it outside, too. Happy, happy me! 😊

Creative projects are usually a big part of my life but it seems like ages since I found the time to do anything apart from knit some gift socks to take to Norway in June. I started this ‘Harmony’ blanket months years ago in Asturias and with all the busyness of our move to France and creating a new garden, it’s been very much neglected so it’s lovely to be reunited once again. My progress is slower than if I were sitting upright but I find myself working with greater focus and attention, each colourful stitch a sort of gentle woolly meditation. I’m also much distracted by what is going on around me in these soft, golden afternoons full of dancing butterflies and spider silk, and spending time in the sunshine and fresh air, immersed in all the activity and beauty of nature around me feels like good medicine indeed. I’m not short of company, either: two young willow tits, totally unfazed by my presence, hang upside down from the nearby sunflower heads, taking the seeds one at a time and tapping out the kernels in the apple tree behind me. It’s a truly lovely thing to watch, although I am astounded that these very small birds seem to have such mighty appetites!

From the relative comfort of my garden nest, I look down to the western edge of our plot where Roger has started to plant a new area of native woodland. Like perennials grown from seed, we know that young trees like this raised from found seedlings will bomb up in no time and will soon be taller than the peach tree in the centre, a rather scabby thing that produces a mass of pretty pink blossom in early spring but not a lot else. In the foreground, you can see part of the patch where we grew potatoes this year – mmm, just look at those clods of soil.

Roger has been digging the spuds this week and to say the harvest is disappointing would be an understatement; well, let’s be frank here ~ 124 plants, barely worth the bother. Shortly after planting, the soil turned to something close to concrete, which is curious given that it is a sandy loam and it is a patch that was under cultivation when we moved here, but that was the end of any decent crop. We worked in some organic matter and added several layers of mulch last year but something was obviously very wrong and so we have set about rectifying matters (well, I say we but you know exactly who’s doing all the hard work and who is yapping away in a supervisory role from her reclining chair 😂). We’ve had some rain since the photo was taken so the earth is damp and more workable now, those lumps can be broken down, manure raked in followed by a mix of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves and then a sowing of vetch seed to act as a nitrogen-fixing green manure over winter. Since creating the sitting area where the old shed used to be, we’ve used it a lot as it enjoys unbroken afternoon and evening sunshine so the plan for next year is to keep the patch under cultivation but to create something less utilitarian and more aesthetically-pleasing, with a mix of food and flowers along the lines of the mandala bed.

To the south of the potato bed is the raspberry patch which I’ve decided just has to go; we’ve given it every chance but really, it’s in a daft place and the plants have failed to thrive or produce much fruit. Despite my best efforts with feeding, mulching and careful pruning, I think the poor things are up against serious overcrowding in tired soil and far too much shade, so it’s time for a complete change. My plan is to extend the soft fruit bed we made in front of the polytunnel (we have plenty of organic matter to hand, just need to find some sheets of cardboard) and then later in autumn, transplant some strong summer-fruiting canes, the single autumn-fruiting plant which I’m hoping will split and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ that I planted as a tiny bare-rooted twig in the spring and which has bravely hung on through summer, despite trying to die several times. The other bare-rooted fruiting newbies ~ a jostaberry, three honeyberries and a goji berry ~ have also come through relatively unscathed and have all put on some promising growth. In fact, the latter is covered in pretty mauve flowers at the moment, I’m not sure if that’s right at this time of year but I’m happy for it to do what it wants as long as it continues to grow.

As medical advice is not to stay in the same position for too long, I’ve agreed with myself that for every two blanket squares completed, I have a walk round the garden. Moving oh-so-slowly, I can at least take the time to truly enjoy the moment and all the sights, sounds, scents, textures and tastes of the season. Having felt a few weeks ago that we were being catapulted into an early autumn, the rain and cooler weather seem to have put a brake on everything; the landscape is lush again, the trees no longer shedding their leaves but looking fuller and greener than they have for some time, while the flowering plants, previously so dry and dusty, are giving a second colourful flush their all. I love the lower, softer light, the air spiced with the scent of leaves and apples, and the prevailing sense of peace and contentment the gentle weather brings.

The sky is still full of swallows, eerily silent now after a summer of chatter and babble; they are focused completely on their long journey south and in six months’ time, as the spring equinox rolls round, I shall be watching the skies with expectant eyes for the return of their welcome silhouettes. The squirrels are back from their summer business, little streaks of rusty fur looping speedily across the grass, their mouths stuffed with acorns; they are being cursed loudly by the ever-garrulous jays, who have also homed in after the acorn crop ~ as if there’s any shortage in such a heavy mast year! The garden is full of dragonflies, swooping and weaving on rigid, shimmering wings whilst below them, fungi in every shape and hue dance and spiral through the grass, including a decent crop of field mushrooms which we have been enjoying in seasonal breakfasts. Yes, I accept the days are getting shorter and cooler weather is on its way . . . but there is still so much to celebrate, so many things to enjoy. It’s all a question of balance, really.

Seasonal treasures

It’s apple time once again and the soft air is laced with their redolent, cidery perfume. In the orchard, the trees are heavy with ripe, rosy orbs whilst beneath them, butterflies and wasps seek sweetness in fallen fruits. As we head towards the equinox with shortening days and lower light, I love the sense of balance, the way in which the delicate drifting beauty of April’s blossom has given way to a treasure trove of precious fruit. It’s one of nature’s miracles and a true celebration of the season.

We are picking them by the crateful and trying to process one lot into juice every other day. It’s a slow job, even with both of us working together, but we know from last year that all that washing, chopping, mashing, pressing, filtering, bottling and pasteurising is well worth the effort as the juice is sublime; despite my earlier reservations about the extent of the harvest, it looks like we should be able to press enough juice to last us a year. The apples aren’t bad eaters straight from the tree, either, and we’ve also been enjoying them cooked with the last hedgerow blackberries, topped with an oaty, nutty crumble mix; with a dollop of crème fraîche d’Isigny, it is the food of the gods, the flavoursome, comforting essence of September. Once we’ve juiced enough, I shall turn my attention to making compote to freeze for future use and we will dry as many trays of apple rings as we can once the stove goes in (despite the fresher mornings, it’s still far too warm to light it). Yes, I think we have several weeks of serious apple business ahead!

Then there’s the small matter of the tomatoes. It feels like we are making up for ten virtually barren years in one fell swoop, picking several kilos of ripe fruits every day ~ they just keep on coming. The kitchen has become something of a tomato processing plant as we try to preserve them in every way possible. We’re using as many fresh as we can, then turning the rest into something we can store: we’re cooking vats of them, often with onion, garlic and red wine, to make rich and flavoursome sauces to bottle or freeze; we’re bottling them whole; we’re cooking them and pushing them through a sieve to make juice, again bottled or frozen; we’re turning them into spicy chutneys. With so much pressure on the freezer, we are trying to use up things like last year’s roast squash combined with tomatoes to make a delicious, creamy soup and not a single day goes by without ‘tomatoes with something’ being on the menu. It is an incredible harvest and after such a dearth, I am truly grateful; nothing shop-bought comes even close in terms of flavour and it will certainly be a long, long time before we need to put tinned tomatoes on the shopping list again. As the weather cools, there will inevitably be a harvest of green tomatoes to follow but we’ll worry about that when the time comes . . .

The whole tomato thing was one big experiment this year so knowing now that we can beat blight, I won’t be planting anywhere near as many next year and they can all go into the ground rather than being scattered about in pots that take so much nurturing. The beefsteak varieties have all done us proud but ‘Black from Tula’ remains the firm favourite, its soft and juicy flesh bursting with flavour ~ the perfect cooking tomato, definitely top of next year’s planting list (I have seeds saved and ready to go). In contrast, the cherry ‘Glossy Rose Blue’ is extraordinarily pretty with its shiny blue fruits ripening to a deep rose colour but they are sadly lacking in flavour; in fact, if anything, they have a slight bitter tang which for me is all wrong in cherry tomatoes which surely should ooze sweetness? They’ve been fun and interesting but given that flavour comes a lot higher up the list than aesthetics for me, I’m not sure I’ll be growing them again.

Like the tomatoes, the sunflowers have had an incredible year and are presently putting on a stunning display in the garden. The prolonged drought and severe heat didn’t bother them one jot but after a decent dollop of rain, they seem to have gathered a second wind, not to mention climbing to ever more dizzying heights.

Where there are petals, the flowers still bristle with bumble bees busy in their spiralled centres, but once the seed heads form, the birds move in to feast. The plants literally bustle and sway with their attention all day long, but particularly first thing in the morning; it’s like nature’s own bird table, wonderfully colourful and entertaining with no need to top up the feeders . . . which is a good thing, seeing as I have no hope of reaching that high!

I sense a definite drift towards autumn amongst the flowers now, but that isn’t to say the garden is lacking in colour. In the gravel garden we planted earlier this year, verbena bonariensis, golden yarrow and sedum make a pretty combination that the butterflies find irresistible; heleniums and Michaelmas daisies are making their presence known whilst those reliable summer troopers ~ cosmos, rudbeckia, gaillardia and zinnias – are still providing splashes of colour and interest, albeit it in a more muted end-of-season sort of way.

As usual, I’ve lost track of what I planted earlier in the year so it’s always a delight to find little surprises lurking amongst the chaotic growth.

Another delight is to see the garden looking green again after so many weeks of scorched grass and earth. We haven’t had a huge amount of rain and even saw a couple of days with temperatures nudging 30°C again but it’s incredible how lush everything has become in a short time and how much happier so many of the plants are looking.

Two weeks ago . . .
. . . and now. Note the hosepipe has gone away at last!

We’ve been discussing plans for our next wave of projects and Roger has already started on one, planting some of the native trees we potted up from seedlings in the spring to create an area of woodland at the western end of the narrower strip of garden. We’ve opted for species like birch, rowan, hazel and wild cherry that have light and airy habits as we don’t want the area to become too dark and dense; there is no shortage of heavyweights like oak and holly around the margins so with any luck, there will be a feeling of balance to the space. Creating a no-dig mandala bed was one of my favourite pet projects last year and it’s been interesting to watch how it has developed and fared through the summer months.

May
June
July
August
September

Well, it’s currently a long way from the tidy, well-ordered patch it was in May but I still feel very positive about what has been achieved this year and particularly at how well it held up through the drought. As far as food is concerned, there has been a plentiful harvest: lettuces, pointy cabbages (now sporting fresh new growth from where they were cut), strawberries, courgettes, borlotti beans, purple French beans, cucumbers, aubergines, sweet peppers, chillies, rainbow chard and an unbelievable forest of flat-leaved parsley to complement the perennial herbs around the edge. There are still Asturian beans to come but the story of the moment is ~ surprise, surprise ~ an overwhelming amount of tomatoes from four spare plants that went in as an afterthought and which have created their own little rainforest event. There have only been three disappointments: it looks like one or two of the perennial herbs succumbed to the drought, the melons failed to thrive and the rogue phacelia created total chaos, collapsing over everything around it and proving impossible to tackle because it was so full of bees! In the two sections where it grew, there is now a carpet of volunteer seedlings once again, along with those of a pretty magenta mallow (one of the few annual flowers that deigned to grow). That’s fine for now; I’m calling it green manure and it will be chopped and dropped well before flowering to nourish the soil but most definitely under control from here on in. As the vegetable plants come to the end of the road, I’ll chop and drop them, too, ~ hopefully recovering the hidden paths in the process ~ spread some of that wonderful horse manure about and then make plans for next year’s planting.

The outdoor melons were a bit of an experiment and I’m not too bothered about their failure because we have enjoyed an excellent crop from the tunnel. In July we harvested 25 fruit, twelve of them on the same day, which makes me inclined to try staggering the planting a bit next year to try and spread the load. The plants are currently enjoying a second flush, unexpected but very welcome; the fruits are a good size, not quite as sweet as the first crop but delicious all the same and a real bonus in the fruit bowl.

‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons ~ one of this year’s stars.

Roger has been planting seeds in the tunnel this week, an assortment of leaves, herbs and other salad ingredients to see us through winter along with the black radish and radicchio which are growing well outside. I’ve started off a tray of ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ lettuce, tough little customers which will grow happily outdoors all winter, but my biggest smile this week came when I wandered past the Not Garden (scene of last week’s lazy smart gardening) to see a green carpet of rocket and landcress seedlings where I had thrown seed pods about between the leeks and oca. Something tells me we’re sorted for salads this winter.

It saddens me to feel that summer pretty much passed me by this year: I was so taken up with the frustration of dealing with constant pain and immobility that I missed out on far too many wonderful things. Not necessarily big things, either; I love to pack a simple picnic and flask of coffee then head off walking or on our bikes, exploring the locality and enjoying all that is good about the season. We just haven’t been able to do those things and as three months later, I’m being told by those who are caring for me that my condition is still un boulot (a big job), it seems I’m not going to be jumping on my bike or lacing up my walking boots any time soon. However, I love this time of year and I’m determined not to miss out completely, so I’m steeling myself to wander a little from home every morning. If I make it to the end of the lane and back that’s a mile, which I feel is a decent effort under the circumstances, but it’s really not about distance at all ~ if I only manage a couple of hundred metres, so be it. I can only walk very slowly but that gives me the chance to observe properly all that is going on around me and to connect with the spirit of nature which I know is so important for my well-being.

What strikes me more than anything is how after so much heat, dryness and dust, water is now a dominant element and I love the atmospheric effects of mist and low cloud moving and morphing across the landscape.

There have been some fairly artistic skies to revel in, too.

Thankfully, no-one has been along to cut the hedges yet which is a blessing as they are still full of food, colour and interest . . . and it’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that they are bustling with birdlife.

I liked the startling contrast between the colours of these oak leaves . . .

. . . and the new catkins appearing on the hazels as they shed their leaves.

Most of the swallows have gone now save for a few stragglers swooping and chatting above me, ready for their long trek south. The woodlarks, quiet over the summer months, are now filling the air with their melodic trilling whilst kestrels cruise on silent wings, hunting for prey in the maize stubble. The weather is still warm and sunny but the wind has a fresher edge to it; the ground remains packed and dry yet exudes a damp, earthy scent and throws up necklaces of fungi in the cool of morning; the shifting angle of the sun throws intricate patterns of light and shadow across the landscape, the colours softer and more muted as we slide into autumn. Yes, it truly is a beautiful time of year. I really can’t let this one pass me by.😊

August . . . or autumn?

It’s been a week of noisy nights. In no small part, this has been down to tawny owls (the delightful sounding chouette hulotte in French) who seem to be going through a particularly busy and vocal phase at the moment. I love to hear them, the shrill female ‘kew-ick’ and softer male ‘hoo-hoo’ performed in a perfect call-and-response duet, but it’s no exaggeration to say that some nights they have been so loud, I’ve honestly thought they were perched on the bedroom balcony. There also seem to be one or two who haven’t quite got it together yet ~ youngsters perhaps? ~ and so have decided that our oak trees are just the place for prolonged choir practice as they sort out their twits from their twoos. Then there’s the acorns. It’s a heavy mast year and the oaks are literally dripping, but as a result of the drought they are shedding acorns by the bucketload. It has become almost impossible to walk along some of our boundary paths as the carpet of fallen nuts is less than comfortable on the feet! Not for the first time since moving here, I am driven to wonder why anyone would choose to build a shed around a mature oak tree, especially one with a tin roof: the clatter of falling acorns is a noisy percussion that continues all through the night, becoming faster and louder if the wind picks up . . . or the owl choir alights. Perhaps it’s time for earplugs at bedtime?

As well as acorns, there are wild fruits and berries in abundance, not surprising after the spring blossom was so prolific. The hedgerows are dripping with elderberries and blackberries, and where so many leaves (especially hazel) have already been shed, the hawthorn is setting the unusually bare branches alight in plumes of crimson fire. It’s time to forage and add some seasonal goodies to our winter stores. I’ve already started to collect rosehips, plump as little tomatoes, from the rugosa bushes. Last year, I made the mistake of following the guidance on a foraging website, drying the hips whole, grinding them to a powder and shaking them in a sieve to separate out the tiny irritating hairs. Bad plan: it only took a couple of brews to realise I was being left with a very unpleasant tickle around my tonsils ~ despite rigorous and repeated sieving, the hairs were very definitely still in the mix. This year, I’m being less lazy, halving the hips and meticulously scraping out the innards before drying the fruit. It’s a bit of a faff but with any luck, it should make for a more comfortable tea.

The heat and drought have hit our young fruit trees hard and we are doing everything we can to nurse them through; it would be sad to lose them just as they are getting established. The more mature trees have looked stressed at times, too, and it remains to be seen just what sort of a harvest we enjoy this autumn. The pear trees are covered in fruit but both have already lost many of their leaves so I think it’s unlikely that we will have anything worth eating from them.

A couple of the apples are obviously biennial bearers and have no fruit at all this year, the rest have a good crop but have been dumping fruit on the orchard floor for some time. We had been hoping to press enough juice to last us a year but in reality it will be a case of being grateful for whatever we can salvage.

There have been a few surprises, though. The poor fig tree, which looked so miserable last year, has enjoyed the hotter, drier conditions and responded well to having more light and air around it where we had cut back undergrowth and laid hedges; we are currently enjoying modest but utterly delicious pickings of luscious fruit, such an unexpected luxury. One of the rescued grapevines is also looking far happier and thick bunches of green grapes are steadily ripening to purple, although it’s a bit of a game beating the birds to them, and despite the drought really doing for the summer raspberries, the autumn ones are having a go. All is not lost.

I love colour and I have to admit I’ve found it hard seeing the garden so burnt up and bleached in recent weeks, not to mention the speed at which the hoped-for rainbow of flowers faded away. Still, there have been a few bright spots to make me smile this week. Of all the annual flowers I planted, the zinnias have shown themselves to be the toughest and cheeriest of survivors . . . and the bumble bees adore them.

The heavy crop of sweet peppers in many colours continues in the tunnel and now outdoors, too, the ‘Sweet Banana’ in particular making eye-catching splashes of yellow, orange and red to brighten dusty corners.

I’ve been harvesting piles of chillies for some time now, the long and skinny cayenne and the fatter but equally as warming Padrón, but this week saw the first bulk picking from our fish pepper plants. Buying a tiny pinch of seeds to grow these plants was nothing more than an indulgence on my part; after all, we already had more than enough chillies in the pipeline . . . but I loved the idea of the variegated plants with their attractive green and white leaves, the crazy array of coloured fruits and the fascinating history behind them. They haven’t disappointed, they really are quite beautiful and I just love those stripes!

The maize harvest usually takes place here in October, but the crops are looking so poor that many local farmers are cutting their losses and harvesting the fields already; given that it’s usually a pretty drought-tolerant plant, it just goes to show just what a tough year it has been. Thankfully, our sweetcorn has fared rather better and we have been tucking into the first fat cobs this week. In my (humble) opinion, there are two secrets to enjoying sweetcorn at its very best: having minimum time from picking to plate, so those wonderful sugars don’t have chance to turn to starch, and keeping the cobs well away from water. Why boil when you can grill or bake? Our favourite trick is to cook them over charcoal or wood, simply turning occasionally until the corn literally starts to caramelise; leaving a decent stalk makes them easy to eat ~ perfect finger food ~ and smeared in rich, creamy Normandy butter, they are a truly decadent delight. Sunshine on a plate.

The borlotti beans just keep on giving and I have been picking and processing a full trug of purple pods every other day, some set aside to dry for next year’s seed as well as eating, and the rest stored in the freezer. I’ve also been dealing with the fattened and dried pods from the first row of ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans; they are a fiddle to shell, especially compared to the beefy borlotti, but it would be a crime not to harvest them. They are such a good food, packed with fibre and vegetable protein and a perfect addition to winter soups and stews. One row down, three to go.

Sticking with the purple theme and the ‘Violet de Provence’ globe artichokes I raised from seed earlier this year have coped well with the weather, which is a valid reason for ensuring we grow as many perennial food crops as we can. One of them has gone a step too far, though, and produced a few artichokes already. Well, I’ve been told the purple varieties have a better flavour than the green ones so it looks like we’ll be finding out for ourselves a bit sooner than expected.

Although there is much to be celebrated in the garden, it’s a time of immense frustration, too. Having waited so long for rain, it was a relief to have an afternoon of storms last week which dampened everything down and put some precious stores back in the butts . . . but that was it. Despite numerous forecasts for rain ever since, we’ve had nothing, even when other people living locally have reported torrential downpours. Some days of cooler temperatures and cloudier skies have at least slowed down the rate of evaporation but we are still having to water on a regular basis to keep things alive ~ hard to believe under such glowering skies. At least we can use the captured rainwater for the time being which means we aren’t restricted to the ‘after 8pm’ watering rule and we live in hope of more rainfall, but the hosepipe still snakes across the garden just in case: this year, it doesn’t do to assume anything.

How can skies like this NOT bring us any rain?

My limited mobility is also starting to drive me nuts, worse now in a way that I am on the mend and able to do a bit more so therefore eager to return to my normal zipping-about state. There is so much I want to be doing and not all in the garden; it’s over two months now since I rode my beautiful new bike and it grieves me to see it gathering cobwebs in the barn. I have managed a few sessions of light gardening and the benefits to my wellbeing have far outweighed the inevitable discomfort, it has felt wonderful to be out in the fresh air enjoying and nurturing our patch once again. It’s easy to wax lyrical about ‘connecting with nature’ but for me it’s a fundamental part of my life; if you want to punish me, shut me indoors! I’ve dragged a sun-lounger into the shade of the Love Shack veranda so I can take breaks when I need and simply watch all the life going on around me. Bliss. Observing quietly, I realise once again just how important the green manure flowers ~ both intentionally planted and random volunteers ~ continue to be a reliable food source for so many insects, along with several ‘weeds’ that have survived the drought whilst all around has shrivelled and died. It’s not just about insects, either; I had an incredible moment watching a huge hare lolloping about the potager, seemingly oblivious to my presence and happy to tuck into white clover and the buds from the tips of the tall cat’s ear stems while I watched, mesmerised.

Buckwheat . . . not just a green manure.

In terms of gardening, I’ve managed to transplant a few lettuce seedlings and sow the autumn/winter seeds that really needed to go in much earlier, but they’ve all germinated, so let’s see what happens. I’ve also been pulling out a forest of dead phacelia plants, initially intended to be chopped and dropped well before flowering but which somehow (yet again) got the better of me. I’m spreading the plants on top of the bigger lasagne beds, partly as another layer of organic matter to help build soil but also because I know the seed will set and produce a useful green manure covering over winter without me having to lift a finger; all I need to remember to do is cut them back early in spring.

Phacelia volunteers in a squash bed.

I did at least remember to cut back a short-term mix of phacelia, crimson clover and linseed before planting purple sprouting broccoli and red kale a few weeks ago but I’m delighted to see that new young plants plus white clover have grown back in their place. The brassicas will be in the ground for many months so it’s of benefit having the clovers fixing nitrogen at their feet (the crimson clover won’t survive the winter but the white clover is made of sterner stuff) and also the soil between them covered in growth to help retain moisture and prevent erosion. Bare earth rarely occurs in nature and doesn’t happen in our garden very often, either!

We’ve collected another load of free horse manure this week. Well, I say we but my contribution was to put together a veggie box to say thank you, Roger of course did all the hard graft. It’s wonderful stuff and will help improve the soil greatly over winter, as will the pile of compost that is ready to shift from the ‘finished’ bay. I desperately want to be getting on with that now so the overflowing current bay can be turned and we can start a new one; my physiotherapist has told me I can start doing some gentle yoga again but I doubt he’d be very happy about me taking a pitchfork to the compost heap just yet. At the very least, I can sort out the rogue squash that have popped their heads up and decided to trail in every direction. Honestly, they are unstoppable.

Speaking of squash, it’s been interesting once again to see what our Asturian Specials have thrown up. The seed we saved was from the last two we ate, so if nothing else we should have selected for good keeping qualities. They were both pale blue skinned and barely ribbed with dense orange flesh ~ becoming more and more like ‘Crown Prince’, in fact ~ and, although it’s fun to have the variety, I’m really chuffed that most of this year’s fruits have come back the same, simply because they make such good eating.

An Asturian Special nestling up against the heavyweight ‘Musquée de Provence’.

There’s always one, though. When a couple of volunteers appeared in the tunnel I should have nipped them in the bud but like so many other things, I never seemed to get round to it and once a couple of those beautiful blue fruits appeared, well, I didn’t have the heart. What I hadn’t noticed until Roger showed me this week is the one that got away under the potting bench; I really should have tidied up the chaos under there but it’s been too hot, I can’t bend and I hate disturbing the toad that lives very happily in the jumble of pots and trays (my excuse, anyway 😉). What a surprise squash. Cinderella would be proud.

I’ve never been a fan of rushing through the seasons so it’s frustrating to feel that we are hurtling headlong into autumn far too early ~ I’m not ready for bronzed bracken and leaf fall just yet. Nothing I can do about it, though, so it’s simply a case of enjoying the moment and appreciating all the gifts of late summer while they last: beautiful mornings and golden evenings, another flush of roses, clouds of butterflies, sharing good food and laughter with friends, melodious robins and acrobatic swallows, nature’s bounty on our plates . . . and yes, even the sound of those raucous owls (although the occasional night off would be very welcome). 😊

Thriving on neglect

Our recent trip to Norway marked the beginning of several very busy and exciting weeks for us, with family coming to stay here through July and a quick flit to the UK to ~ amongst other delights ~ hold our new little grandson for the first time. I’m probably going to be hanging up my blogging boots for a while, so this is a somewhat hastily scribbled garden update; by the end of July, things will have moved on again and my photos will be ancient history!

We left for Norway in 35°C with the temperature set to spiral upwards for most of the time we were away; for a garden (and gardener) already stressed by a prolonged drought, it was the worst scenario possible, but what could we do? We moved pots, troughs and seedling trays into the shade, watered as much as we could, soaked the tunnel and propped both doors open . . . and just hoped perhaps la météo was wrong. It wasn’t. On our return, it was clear the heat had been searing with everything wearing that parched and yellow look, but the good news was that we arrived home in a torrential downpour. Never have I been so happy to end a holiday on a soaking wet note! The water butts were soon full to overflowing and within a couple of days, everything responded. No, actually, everything exploded.

In truth, I had pretty much written off any hope of a colourful show of annual flowers earlier this year when I found myself sowing seeds for the third time; it was too dry, too hot or cold and nothing would germinate. My hoped-for mass of rainbow blooms in the mandala bed certainly hasn’t happened, but the ever-reliable thuggish phacelia is doing its bit and looks pretty in drifts of soft mauve mingling with the sunny yellow of dyer’s chamomile. Once the bees have finished with the flowers, I shall chop it and drop it in situ and try for my rainbow again next year. Such is gardening life.

In the other beds, though, there is a riotous carnival of colour, and I find myself drawn to them as much as the industrious insects who visit to seek food.

Despite the lack of floral variety and the fact that the blackbirds have rummaged in the grass mulch so much that it’s hard to see the woodchip paths any more, the mandala bed is looking pretty good. What interests me is that several things are actually outperforming their counterparts in the potager: the borlotti beans and aubergines (outdoor) were the first to flower, it has produced the first lettuce and French bean harvest, the best chard plants and the most productive cucumbers. I’m not sure why this should be, but something is obviously working well.

Not that we are exactly short of fruit and vegetables elsewhere: our first day back was almost entirely spent getting on top of the harvest. The courgettes and cucumbers had gone mad as they always do, but suddenly there were several rows of peas in need of picking, a crowd of summer cabbage all hearted up and ready to go, lettuces threatening to bolt left, right and centre and the first spring onions and baby carrots ready to pull. Oh, broad beans and French beans, too.

Then there was the tunnel . . . I was very relieved that nothing had collapsed and given up the ghost in the heat; quite the opposite, in fact. Where there had been a smattering of flowers, now there was a picking of aubergines and more peppers than I could shake a stick at. I’ve forgotten how much they love this climate, it will certainly be the best crop we’ve enjoyed since we last lived in Mayenne.

My greatest tunnel joy, though, had to be saved for the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which had gone slightly berserk in our absence. (I’d like to say at this point that if we have a successful crop from these plants, I really can’t take any credit as quite frankly, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I started out with good intentions to follow expert guidance in terms of pinching out after so many leaves and so many young fruit but soon lost the plot with that one. Now they’re just doing their own thing. Sorry, melon pundits.) They were a little thirsty but, nestled beneath their abundant foliage, I have counted at least twenty fruits swelling to a good size at an alarming rate. I can’t wait for the day when their heady perfume greets me at the door to let me know they are ready for eating . . .

In the meantime, we are not short of fruit. Having picked kilos of red cherries for preserving and enjoyed several helpings of yellow ones which are not good keepers and best eaten straight from the tree, we were delighted to find that the two trees which didn’t produce anything last year were not only fruiting heavily but also just happen to be another two completely different varieties. The first, which I think is a Rainier, has pretty pink and yellow marbled fruit which are good as a dessert cherry and for cooking; the other ~ oh happy days! ~ is a black cherry, with fruit so big, sweet and juicy that it’s impossible to resist the temptation of tucking in. Roger is having to fiercely guard (or hide) any he has picked, washed and put aside for a bit of dessert cheffery. 😁 The fact that the harvest has been spread out over several weeks is a real bonus, too, so let there be many more bountiful cherry years, please! We also have redcurrants and blackcurrants coming out of our ears, and at last, a good crop of raspberries, which are a bit small thanks to the drought but so plentiful it doesn’t really matter. Even the tiny ‘Fall Gold’ I planted as a bare-rooted twig in winter has produced some pretty amber fruits, sweet and flavoursome. Theoretically, it should crop twice a year. I hope so.

‘Fall Gold’ raspberry

I’ve written several times about how I try not to present a picture of a falsely ‘perfect’ garden and of course, there were one or two things ~ namely some of the smaller squash plants ~ that suffered because we weren’t here to water when they most needed it. On the whole, though, I have to admit I’m quietly chuffed at how it all held up. Building resilience into the garden is something we have been working on and certainly the week away in such extreme weather conditions was a great test. Having learned from the potato mistake that mulch needs to go on damp earth, I’m really pleased with how moist the soil had stayed under its protective layer and also at how few weeds had appeared. Clearing a patch of ground cover green manure (phacelia, crimson clover and linseed) to make space for purple sprouting broccoli and red kale, it was clear what a fantastic job it had done in terms of moisture retention, weed suppression and soil improvement; the young brassicas have gone happily into the ground and not looked back. The ‘cleared’ crimson clover has already popped back up, the irrepressible little darlin’ that it is.

I was concerned about not being here to keep an eye on pests, especially as my old adversaries, the cabbage stem weevils, were back in numbers before we left; the idea of returning to find cauliflowers, cabbage and calabrese plants wiped out filled me with a certain dread, but I needn’t have fretted. Yes, the outer leaves look fairly ropey but the young growth in the centre is fine and, although it pains me to admit it, they were probably a lot better off for not having me faff about with them every day. I think this is part of the resilience thing once again: encourage a wider biodiversity and the beneficial creatures move in. Certainly, we have very healthy populations of garden spiders and ground beetles, two of the biggest weevil predators, so perhaps it’s best just to let them get on with the job. Everywhere I look, in fact, there are droves of helpful little things doing great work on our behalf and it is definitely worthwhile doing all we can to encourage them to stay. I think introducing far more flowers into the potager this year has made a big difference . . . but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉

Actually, on that subject, we’ve been enjoying a few evenings sitting in the sunshine where the old shed used to be. Regular readers might remember that we spent Christmas Day demolishing the dilapidated thing before rebuilding it in the potager and turning the area into somewhere pleasant to sit. The laid hedge has grown back strongly and the ‘bulge’ in that poor old cherry tree on the right that had to be felled has been re-purposed into a handy table. The annual flowers have been a bit slow but they’re starting to make an impact, with lots more colour to come. We still have ideas for more changes and developments to this space but it already feels like something of an improvement.

The twirly-whirly metal poles behind the furthest chair aren’t some modern art installation, but a couple of tomato supports that are very common here. they are a brilliant design: simply encourage the new growth upwards through the spirals, no need for any tying-in. They might seem an odd addition to a patch of annual flowers but this is all part of our ‘Hide the Tomato’ game aka trying to beat blight. There are tomatoes dotted about everywhere, some in the ground and others in pots, and I am only going to whisper this in the quietest tones possible but so far, they are all growing very strongly and some have set fruit. Sssssh, I really don’t want to tempt fate: the garden thrived in our absence, can the tomatoes pull through this time, too? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! 😊

Northern (de)lights

On our final approach to Stavanger airport, I was trying to remember the last time I had travelled to a new country. Answer? Iceland, sixteen years ago: obviously, there’s a reason why I’m not a travel blogger! 😁 This was ~ finally ~ the trip to visit Sam and Adrienne that we had to cancel two years ago because of the pandemic. They have lived in Norway for almost three years now, but it was our first trip there and we were their first visitors, so it was definitely a cause for celebration! How exciting, too, to be spending the week of the summer solstice at a latitude of roughly 59° north, the days flooded with light, darkness almost non-existent and everything in full bloom.

Dwarf cornel flowering on the slopes of Gloppenuten.

In my mind’s eye, I had imagined the landscape to be similar to that of Iceland but this south-western corner of Norway is green and lush and full of trees, leafed up and lovely in their fresh green foliage; there are farms with patchwork fields of grass and potatoes, and gardens brimming with blooms, so many of my favourites in a chaotic, cottagey tumble of colour and scent. Totally charming.

Sam and Adrienne were fantastic tour guides; they had planned thoughtful trips out in every direction from Stavanger to give us a real taste of the local area and some of the places they love to walk. Obviously, we didn’t go there for the weather but we were blessed with some beautiful warm and sunny days between the damper, cooler ones, and although we had to alter our plans here and there to avoid getting very wet, it really didn’t matter because it felt like we did it all anyway.

Island hopping . . .

Klosterøy 
Fjørløy
Rennesøy
Jørpeland

Hill walking . . .

Gloppenuten
So happy to be here . . . a rare picture of us together as one of us is usually behind the camera.

Fjord bagging . . .

Hatten: not a bad view for our cinnamon bun breakfast stop.
Lysefjord: ‘fjord of light’.
It was a rocky scramble to the top but worth the effort for those stunning views . . . and unlike nearby iconic but oh-so-busy Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), there wasn’t another soul in sight.

Sightseeing . . .

Hafrsfjord: the Sverd i fyell (Swords in Rock) monument commemorating the 9th century battle that unified Norway under King Harald Fairhair.
Mosterøy: replica of a boat that carried pilgrims to America.
Jørpelandholmen: Solspeilet (Sun Mirror) ~ the ‘Stonehenge of Norway’ created in 2016.

Beachcombing . . .

Borestranden under moody skies.

Ah, such beautiful landscapes . . . Now for the city. As a dyed-in-the-wool bumpkin, I don’t tend to feel very comfortable in urban settings but Stavanger was full of surprises. Blessed with many open spaces and green places, it didn’t feel like a city somehow; the streets were quiet and the centre was vibrant and lively in an accommodating, self-contained sort of way. That wild landscape beyond was never far away.

The only fly in the ointment were the cruise ships; on our first foray to the harbour, two had just docked and were in the process of disgorging literally thousands of passengers onto the quayside. I can’t find the words to describe the size of those things, they were grotesquely monstrous, dwarfing everything around them and totally dominating the landscape.

Wandering around the winding streets of Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger), I wondered how the original inhabitants ~ local fisherman and artisans ~ would have felt to see such an intrusive backdrop to their pretty white wooden houses and gorgeous cottage gardens.

We went back a few days later when the ships had gone and the entire atmosphere of the place had completely changed. (As a brief aside, the cruise ships are a very controversial issue at many levels and there is a push to have them banned from the port within the next two years.) People were sitting outside restaurants and bars, enjoying the sunshine in a relaxed and uncluttered environment, and the true character of the place seemed to be shining through.

I loved Fargegate (Colour Street) with its joyfully unapologetic celebration of life . . .

.

. . and the old town, now free of cruise ships, was delightful.

When trying to find a sense of place, I like to anchor myself in the natural world and, with us being northern Europeans ourselves, there was much about the flora and fauna that was familiar. There were wild flowers everywhere that I recognised ~ elder, honeysuckle, roses, clover, valerian, buttercups, vetch, trefoil, flag iris and lupins to name just a few ~ and the swathes of fluffy white gossamer of bog cotton on our hillier hikes reminded me of Wales. There were plenty of new plants to see, too, like dwarf cornel, cloudberry and oysterplant which were not things I remember coming across before; I took many photos of unknown flowers and now need to get busy identifying them!

Bog cotton
Oysterplant

Most of the resident birds were also familiar and there was a good range of migrant visitors, too, with cuckoos, chiffchaffs, warblers, swallows, swifts and martins all enjoying a Nordic summer. It’s some years since I’ve seen hooded crows in their smart grey waistcoats or heard the evocative call of curlews, and it’s most definitely the first time I’ve ever experienced a dawn chorus delivered by city-dwelling oystercatchers! They were literally everywhere, those little black and white clowns with bright red beaks . . . yet suddenly and frustratingly elusive when it came to posing for a close-up photo.

Along with wild places and walking, good food and cooking are a love we share with Sam and Adrienne and they thoroughly spoilt us with their delicious home cooking. Norwegians have a penchant for hot dogs and pick-and-mix sweets but thankfully we managed to sidestep both those culinary delights and enjoyed some of the best food Norway has to offer instead. Staying in what was very obviously a productive agricultural region, there was a wealth of local seasonal produce to enjoy and the generous (and hugely appreciated!) treat of a meal in the Söl restaurant in Stavanger proved to be a delight to the senses. I came away completely inspired, not just by the innovative and inspired use of local ingredients but also by some fascinating flavour combinations such as rhubarb with chervil which I will definitely be trying at home. Another treat were kanelsnurrer, mouth-watering twisted cinnamon pastries that we ate for breakfast in a local coffee shop and I have to confess I fell head over heels in love with brunost at first taste. This is a brown cheese made from caramelised whey which looks like a block of fudge and is traditionally cut with a special cheese slicer (ostehøvel); it’s something of an acquired taste but I liked it so much that I’ve brought a block of it home to France with me ~ better than a piece of souvenir shop tat any day.

Cloudberry flower: the amber coloured berries which follow are a much sought-after delicacy.

The sharing of good food with loved ones must be one of the most fundamental and life-affirming human activities there is and after all the separation and disappointments that the pandemic has thrown at us over the last couple of years, it felt truly wonderful to be breaking bread (and let me tell you, that seeded rye bread is the cat’s pyjamas!) with Sam and Adrienne once again. At last I am able to picture clearly the life they have made for themselves in Norway and I can understand why they are so happy in the beautiful country they now call home. What a privilege to have spent such a precious week with them. Tusen hjertelig takk, you two! 😊

Never too old for iskrem!

The 3 Cs

Roger has spent days harvesting cherries and the amount of fruit coming from one single tree is astounding.

It’s not the easiest of jobs, balancing at the top of a high ladder and being scolded soundly by a pair of redstarts who have built a nest in an old woodpecker hole in one of the bigger boughs; they really aren’t too happy to be sharing ‘their’ tree with the cherry picker and the angry flick of their scarlet underskirts matches the colour of the fruit perfectly. Nothing daunted, the cherries are coming down in kilos, with plenty of breaks to give the birds time to feed their babies, and the kitchen has become Cherry Processing Central.

Spot the cherry picker. I swear he wears that old Welsh rugby shirt for camouflage but the redstarts still know he’s there.

We’re eating plenty of them raw and I’m wondering if there is another fresh fruit quite so moreish ~ mmm, just one (two, three, four . . . ) more, then I’ll stop! With so much fruit to deal with, the simplest thing would be to wash it and stick it straight into the freezer, but we think it’s worth the effort of de-stoning first; not only does it mean more freezer space, but it makes things easier when we come to use the cherries in the future. We’re not too precious about the preparation, though, we simply squeeze the fruit and the stone pops out. We’re freezing most of them raw but stewing some, too, and these will be perfect for my breakfast bowl when we run out of seasonal fruit options. We’re making clafoutis, the traditional French batter pudding which has replaced squash tarte tatin as our gardener’s treat, and we’ve also made a few jars of spiced cherry jam. Roger is experimenting with bottling some fruit, too, packing them into jars with a hot, deeply-spiced red wine syrup, the fragrant aroma of which has me thinking that the darkest, bitterest chocolate could be a perfect partner in future dishes.

While Roger shimmies up and down the ladder, I’ve been tackling the gooseberry harvest; it’s by far the easier shout, but not all plain sailing as I think we must have the thorniest bushes on the planet and I rip my fingers to shreds every time I pick. It’s worth it, though. I know gooseberries (like rhubarb) can be an acquired taste and many people aren’t fans but I love them, they have such a unique flavour. I like the way they combine so well with other seasonal foods: they make a sharp sauce that cuts perfectly through the oiliness of fresh mackerel (their French name is groseille à maquereau) and a head of elderflowers tossed into the simmering water raises their flavour to a whole new level. I keep a bowl of stewed goosegogs in the fridge for a seasonal breakfast treat; stirred through with oats, a drizzle of honey, a dollop of Greek yogurt and some sliced strawberries ~ our other current heavy fruit harvest ~ it’s a wonderful way to start the day. We also love cooked gooseberries blended with a thick, creamy homemade custard to make gooseberry fool which, when frozen, also makes a fabulous summery ice cream.

Like the cherries, I am packing as many gooseberries into the freezer as possible; the bushes are dripping with fruit and it’s a pleasant task to sit and prepare them outside at the picnic table, nipping off the tops and tails with my fingers. In the same way as people talk of developing ‘muscle memory’ through repeated physical movements, I like to cultivate a ‘senses memory’ by doing simple tasks like these outdoors. Visually, I can appreciate the pearly green translucence and pale filigree of veins in each berry, or lift my eyes to the lushness of the landscape around me. I can listen to the contented afternoon warbling of a blackbird, the incessant squeaking of the latest brood of blue tit fledglings, the deep hum of insects in the oak tree canopy above me. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, the soft breeze on my face and breathe in the sweet scent of honeysuckle that it carries. Then, come a dark and dreary day in November, when I set a pot of frozen gooseberries on the stove to cook, all those memories will come flooding back and infuse the kitchen with a little blast of early June. I always prefer to eat foods in season but there is something quite special about these memory moments ~ opening a bottle of sweet apple juice or a jar of spiced chutney, enjoying the crunch of a dill-pickled cucumber or the buttery softness of a dried apple ring, spooning a floral, herbal mix into a warm teapot, tossing a basil ice cube into a sauce ~ no, not seasonal . . . but a world away from Spanish strawberries in December, that’s for sure.

Summer herbs for winter teas: several mints, thyme, lemon verbena, ribwort plantain, yarrow, clover, daisies and rose petals ready to be dried.

I love reading, and although I’m happy to lose myself in a good novel, I have to admit I’d rather read non-fiction most of the time. When it comes to inspiration, I am spoilt for choice whether looking for books or internet resources to devour, and find myself returning time and again to writers whose work has struck a chord with me: Mary Reynolds, Patrick Whitefield, Donald Norfolk, Masanobu Fukuoka, David Holmgren, Heather Jo Flores, Alys Fowler, Sepp Holzer, Dana O’Driscoll, John Seymour, Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, Robin Harford . . . the list is almost endless, to be honest, and that’s before I start on the wealth of interesting blogs I follow. Although I accept that the somewhat esoteric approach of some of these authors wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, for me there is a salient theme that runs through their work, that of connection or relationship with the land and the life it supports. Now, this doesn’t need to mean it involves magic, religion or spirituality (although for those who want it that way, why not?) and for me, it can be summed up by what I think of as the ‘3Cs’ ~ concentration, curiosity and care. (A less alliterative interpretation might be focus / mindfulness, learning / wonder and nurture / responsibility.) In practical terms, it means I don’t just swan about the garden planting, controlling, harvesting or whatever, wrapped up in my own little world, tunnel vision to the fore. Neither do I imagine myself to be the greatest or most important life form out there; there are many trees bigger, older and unquestionably wiser than me, a countless number of microscopic creatures whose role is essential for life and an abundance of incredible living things of every shape, size and hue which form an intricate and many-faceted web of life.

I rarely use long-handled garden tools these days, preferring to work at ground level with perhaps a small hand fork but more often than not, just my bare hands. It’s a slow and gentle approach that allows me to check on the health of every plant and make any adjustments or corrections as necessary, as well as observe the state of the soil. I apply the same philosophy to harvesting, so that gathering herbs and flowers for drying this week has been as much about watching and learning as picking and collecting. For instance, in the mandala bed I noticed that the thyme is full of honey bees . . .

. . . whilst the bumbles and black carpenter bees are favouring sage and phacelia.

The yarrow is covered in ladybirds ~ so many different kinds! ~ and also large brown shield bugs.

Meanwhile, in the shadier spots, the mint leaves are full of the metallic shine of the rather predictably-named mint leaf beetle. Honestly, it’s like being on safari out there.

You can imagine, I’m sure, that with this sort of attitude, even simple garden tasks can take me a while to complete, and I often get lost in other things along the way. Roger has appeared at my side many times without me even noticing (he swears blind anyone could wander into the garden and I wouldn’t have a clue ~ he’s right) or else comes in search of me to find out what has happened to the ingredients I went to fetch for him to use in his role of Head Chef. I think it was J.R.R Tolkien who wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost” and I reckon the man knew what he was talking about (although he possibly wasn’t trying to prepare a meal from absent vegetables at the time 😆 ).

The chef’s trug finally arrives at the kitchen door . . . 😁

Roger has floated the idea this week that perhaps there’s a little bit too much plant love going on in my life at times and that it might be a good idea to let things just get on with growing, maybe even thrive on a little abuse. I know he’s right on this one, too . . . although I hate to admit it! Take the squash, for instance. I’ve planted more than 20 of them in the garden and if they all produce just two fruits each, that will be more than enough for us. The problem is, some of the butternuts aren’t looking too enthusiastic: one has already succumbed to ant undermining and another couple seem determined to fade away. I’ve come to the conclusion that they are the aubergines of the squash world, poor fragile little things that need a lot of mollycoddling, but is it really a sensible use of my time? Let’s face it, the more robust varieties we grow produce orange flesh that is every bit as dense and full of flavour and what’s more, they keep a darn sight longer. We built a new hügel bed a couple of months ago and although I hadn’t been planning to use it this year, it seemed silly not to when faced with so many squashes to plant. Good call ~ it’s looking great, and I’m already impressed with ‘Musquée de Provence’, the French heirloom variety we’re growing for the first time, which is bombing down the hügel slopes, covered in promising female flowers.

Even more impressive is the Japanese hubbard squash ‘Tetsukabuto’ which is another first for us, grown from seeds given by my Finnish gardening friend, Anja, who said it went straight to the top of her favourites list last year. Well, Anja knows a thing or three about squash so I trust her judgement on this one completely, especially as the plants are not only thriving but setting fruit already.

The polytunnel is another source of constant angst and again, I’m probably definitely guilty of spending far too much time faffing about in there. The merest hint of a curled leaf or drooping stem has me fussing and fretting: too wet? too dry? too hot? too cold? over-fed? under-fed? I think I’m overcompensating for the fact that last year wasn’t the best ~ the tunnel went up late, the soil was rubbish, germination was poor, pests were voracious ~ so I just want everything to thrive. Well, it is; with the exception of a single cayenne chilli which looks a bit feeble (but hasn’t actually died yet), everything is doing pretty well. Last year, only one pepper and chilli plant survived; the former produced a few small fruits, the latter zilch. This year, in terms of plants we have 12 chillies, 12 sweet peppers, 9 aubergines and 9 melons which are filling one side of the tunnel, along with basil, flat-leaved parsley and French marigolds; on the other side (which will be planted in late summer for winter crops) a giant ‘Latino’ courgette, coriander and lettuce left for a seed harvest and a smattering of self-set peas, calendula, red sorrel, squash and sunflowers. Down the middle, 8 tomatoes in pots as part of this year’s experiment to scatter them around in the hope of beating blight (I’ve planted 35 altogether, another ridiculous overreaction, surely?😬 ).

What a difference three weeks make: mid-May . . .
. . . and early June.
Flower on a ‘Black Beauty’ aubergine.
‘Petit Marseillais’ pepper which should ripen to a light orange colour.
The French marigolds are all grown from volunteer seedlings this year (this one appears to have come with bonus parsley, too).
‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melon ~ I’m very excited about these!

Mmm. On reflection, perhaps I need to stop fretting quite so much and start thinking in terms of 4Cs rather than three: concentration, curiosity, care and CALM. Relax. Let nature get on with the job. Sit back and watch the flowers grow ~ with a bowl of cherries to hand, of course. 😊

It’s not all a bed of roses . . .

The rose season has begun and the garden is heavy with their gorgeous perfume and showy blooms; we have planted several new ones since moving here and it’s good to see them becoming established and making splashes of colour in different corners of the garden. There are more wild roses here this year, too, and I love the simple, delicate beauty of their soft pink and white flowers, such a poignant symbol of the season. Rose petals turned out to be a surprise favourite ingredient in herbal teas through the winter so I have them drying all over the windowsills and the house currently smells every bit as delicious as the garden!

Let’s not get too carried away, though. I’ve written before about my thoughts on the ‘rosy-coloured spectacles’ of social media and whilst I appreciate that in a world that seems dominated by doom and gloom, it’s uplifting to see joyful and beautiful things, the stark reality is that life is not all smiley faces and happy pictures. I love to blog about pleasant things and upload (you may have noticed) far too many pretty photographs but I would hate anyone to imagine that we float about here in some fairy-dusted, unicorn-infested, perfect paradise: we don’t! So, in pursuit of balance, here is the warts ‘n’ all news from the garden this week.

The garden is full of rose chafer beetles, their iridescent green and gold bodies shining in the sun. They’re feasting on anything but the roses, though!

First of all, I found a Colorado beetle on a rogue potato plant that had appeared where we grew them last year. The beetles have been present in France since 1945 are are not a notifiable species here but that doesn’t make them any less potentially devastating to our crop, and the fact that we have purposely planted far more potatoes this year makes it doubly frustrating. We checked every leaf of every plant ~ all 124 of them ~ straight away, and didn’t find a single beetle or any signs of eggs or larvae. Thankfully, that situation hasn’t changed, although we continue to be vigilant; I planted linseed alongside the spuds as a beetle deterrent and we have a very healthy population of ladybirds and shield bugs (both voracious predators) so who knows, maybe that’s all playing a part? The potatoes themselves suffered in the drought but many are now flowering and bringing their own kind of beauty to the patch; even so, I find I can’t quite relax and enjoy them whilst constantly scanning for the merest hint of those humbug-striped invaders.

‘Acoustic’ potato flowers
‘Blue Danube’ potato flower
Lurking in the potato patch . . . but this is a red and black leafhopper, not a Colorado beetle.

I made a note to self not to sound too complacent in future blog posts since just after writing last time that our young trees were looking fine, Roger discovered that two of them had been stripped of their bark during the night: an alder buckthorn, which suffered the worst damage, but also ~ and more frustrating ~ a pear tree we planted last year and which was looking wonderful. Our first thought was roe deer, as they are very common in the area and the damage seems typical of deer nibbling; that said, we’ve never had them in the garden before and I’d have expected to see further damage to more trees and the garden in general. Perhaps it was a one-off thing?

However, the next evening a huge hare came lolloping through the garden and had us wondering if it was the culprit. I know hares will eat bark, although I thought that was more of a winter trick when grasses weren’t so available, and we’re not sure even standing on those long hind legs that a hare could have reached so high. There is no way we can fence the garden against these visitors so the only thing to do in this situation is protect what we can; Roger wrapped the damage trees in twine in the hope they will heal (the bark wasn’t completely stripped so there is a slim chance of recovery) and built wire guards for several other trees which we thought might be potential targets. So far ~ touch wood ~ there has been no further damage.

Could things get worse? Yes, they could, in the shape of a visiting rabbit that took it upon itself to prune the sweetcorn plants. Now, in complete contrast to the UK, rabbits are a very rare occurrence here; we are in fact far more likely to see hares, and this one is the first we have seen anywhere near ~ yet alone in ~ the garden. It seems to be living in one of the uncut meadow areas and, in a way, I suppose it’s one of the drawbacks of ‘wilding’ our patch: if we create something of an animal ark, we can’t really grumble when the wildlife moves in! The really frustrating part is that one of our huge neighbouring fields is planted with maize; the young plants are at the same stage as our sweetcorn and there are hundreds of thousands of them . . . so why pick on our few measly plants? Maybe it’s a fan of ‘Rustler’ corn or perhaps it just feels happier surrounded by chaotic polyculture but whatever the reason, it’s not to be encouraged, because the sweetcorn will likely be just the start of bunny’s menu du jour. Roger has rigged up a temporary netting around the corn patch and so far there has been no damage to anything else, so perhaps the rabbit has got the message. I hope so.

With the rocket having formed copious seed pods and the mesclun leaves all eaten, I decided it was time to clear the tunnel bed and add soil improvers and mulch ready for planting overwintering crops in the autumn. That meant lifting those poor sickly potatoes and in doing so, had a couple of surprises. The first was that there were far more potatoes than expected and we have enjoyed them in several meals; the first new potatoes of the year must be one of the biggest garden treats! The second is that although I had been maligning wireworm, it turned out that the problem was actually ants ~ there was a huge ants’ nest under every single root! I have read several gardening experts claiming that ants don’t really cause any problems in the garden and I’m afraid I have to disagree; not only do they farm aphids ~and boy, are they having a great time with that particular hobby this year ~ but their mining exploits can create havoc for young plants. Noticing that one of the butternut squashes on the hügel bed had gone into a state of collapse, I lifted it to find a horrendous amount of ant business going on underneath; last year, we lost aubergine plants in this way and I’m not holding out too much hope for the rescued squash.

Healthy, happy butternut squash plant . . .
. . . and the one the ants have probably done for.

We were very relieved when the rain finally arrived and gave everything a good soaking but of course, that meant the slugs and snails were in their element, too, and needless to say, they haven’t been holding back where the vegetables are concerned. I’m presowing all our beans this year in an attempt to outwit the bean seed fly and wireworm that caused such problems last year; so far, dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’ and ‘Stanley’ have been planted out, along with the climbing borlotti ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ and Asturian fabas. The slimy ones appear to have a preference for Italian cuisine this year as it’s the borlotti beans that are taking the worst hammering.

What can I do? Well, one of the beauties of starting these plants off in trays is that I can sow plenty of extras so there are always spares should I need to replace any. The real blessing with beans, though, is that we have an abundance of plants: 96 climbing beans in the potager, plus another 24 in the mandala bed. If we lose one or two, we probably aren’t going to suffer too much.

Climbing borlotti beans and Asturian beans (with the darker foliage) behind.
I planted 16 spare Asturian bean plants in the mandala garden, too . . . just in case.

Brassicas are probably one of the most difficult family of plants to grow well here; just the mere hint of a young cabbage plant going into the ground, and you can almost see the problems lining up in wait: flea beetle, whitefly, caterpillars, weevils, pigeons, heat . . . I’ve planted a few cauliflowers this year as a bit of a wild card (Brussels sprouts and swedes are the others) and quite frankly, given how tricky they are to grow at the best of times, I must need my bumps reading. Aphids ~ not usually a problem ~ have been a nightmare in the summer cabbages already and as for flea beetle, what can I say? I planted a sacrificial row of radishes next to a nursery row of brassicas in the hope of tempting the flea beetles away. Oh yes, they were tempted alright.

Unfortunately, not enough to keep them away from the brassicas, though. The purple sprouting broccoli seedlings are a miserable sight; I’ve covered them in the hope they will recover and have some extras sown in pots in the tunnel as back-up: PSB is one spring vegetable we can’t manage without!

Ever since we moved here, we’ve been sharing the garden with a feral cat. Black as night and sporting only half a tail, we nicknamed her ‘Slink’ after the way she moved, low-bellied and furtively, like a jaguar. She just about tolerated us ~ she was here first, after all! ~ and we respected her presence, never trying to befriend or feed her but happy to let her patrol the space. She never bothered the birds, voles were her speciality, and she particularly loved the log seat, sitting as still as a statue for hours on end and listening for the rustle of her next meal in the long grass. A few days ago, she was run over and killed along the lane and, despite the fact that she wasn’t ‘our’ cat, I feel a deep sadness at her loss. I miss her shadowy presence in the garden, her daily checking of the compost heap and her strident, undemanding independence. I also think it’s no coincidence that we suddenly have a rabbit in the garden . . .

Slink’s seat (minus Slink 😥)

Well, enough of the bad news: I mentioned balance earlier on and for every niggle there’s usually more than enough smiles to compensate. This must officially be the Week of the Baby Bird as the garden is full of them: blackbirds, song thrushes, mistle thrushes, robins, redstarts, blue tits, chaffinches and goldfinches have all hatched, and the fluffy fledglings are all over the place, trying to find their feet and wings. There are plenty more to follow, too, including cirl buntings in the hedge (a new one for us), spotted flycatchers in a stone wall niche and swallows in the Oak Shed. I’m particularly thrilled about the latter as they didn’t nest on our property at all last year; it does mean I’ll have to forego my wet weather washing line for a bit, but I’m happy to forgive them, they are so beautiful.

The cherry tree is full of young birds learning the art of PYO.

The garden is literally smiling in flowers and not just roses; there are drifts of colour in many places and the first cosmos and sweet peas are bringing a touch of soft pinks and purples to the vegetable garden. The passionflower that I brought here from Asturias as a less-than-promising twig has decided that it’s very happy in its new home. Those flowers are exquisite.

In keeping with the trend of incredible blossom this spring, the elderflowers are making a fantastic show and, unlike last year, I haven’t needed to go any further than our own hedgerows to forage for their foamy flowers. I’ve been making cordial and freezing it in batches to share with our summer visitors and also setting plenty of flowers to dry for winter teas ~ they are an excellent medicinal herb, especially if winter colds come calling. Naturally, I’ve left plenty to become autumn berries when there will be more foraging to be done and I suspect, a lot of birds tucking in, too.

Elderflowers and mints ready for drying.

On the food front, the harvest has started to come thick and fast: it’s amazing how quickly things take off once we reach a certain point in spring. Courgettes, artichokes, peas, broad beans, lettuce, chard, sorrel, gooseberries, strawberries, cherries . . . the season of plenty has begun.

As we start to set down stores of this year’s crops, it’s the perfect time to be using up anything left from last year. I’ve finished nearly all the dried herbs and flowers for tea and we have just eaten the last bag of beans from the freezer. We’ve also started working our way through the last (enormous) squash, one of our Asturian ‘specials’ which was harvested in October and has kept brilliantly, its dense orange flesh still firm and sweet. As we don’t tend to use the oven much this time of year, we’re making more summery dishes than roast tray bakes ~ squash soup, seed-encrusted squash patties, a squash dip with tahini and squash foldovers (a spicy squash and new potato filling stuffed inside garlic wraps) are some firm favourites. We love to try new things, though, and I have to say that squash tarte tatin has been a complete revelation with its buttery rough-puff pastry, soft, mallowy squash and bitter caramel; a small slice with our afternoon break (coffee for Roger, lemon verbena and lavender tea for me) is the perfect gardener’s treat . . . and on hot days, I’m beginning to wonder how we ever managed without the shade of the Love Shack! 😊

May moments #1

I’ve always been pretty hopeless when it comes to choosing ‘memorable data’ for website security purposes because I think life is too rich with possibilities to reduce everything to favourites. My favourite colour? I love blue, but then there’s green and purple, all in so many delicious shades, not to mention an entire rainbow of other choices depending on my mood. Memorable place? Favourite food? Forget it. However, I think if anyone asked me at the moment about a favourite month, I might just be tempted to say May, for it surely must be one of the most beautiful times of the year. I love the sheer energy of it, the bursting, burgeoning, buzzing life, the growth, the warmth, the light, the lushness, the softness of the air, the scent of flowers and the downright dazzling green of it all. It’s not just the beauty of the landscape, either; the hungry gap is behind us, the garden gathering strength and delivering on its promise of new seasonal goodies, fresh and inspiring. How can I feel anything other than sheer delight when gathering trugs of such green gorgeousness?

It’s not all rosy in the garden, though. The dry weather has taken its toll on a few things, even large established trees like one of our hollies which is dropping its leaves. Roger has been painstakingly watering all the small trees and hedging plants we have put in, a labour of love considering how many there are. The timing of this extraordinary and extended dry spell is just bad luck but we really don’t want to lose these plants which will bring so much to the patch in years to come. Most of them are hanging on and looking fine; it’s wonderful to have red rugosa roses at last and it’s interesting to see several new (for us) varieties bursting into life.

Sichuan pepper
Bladder senna

Sticking with my commitment to not buying bedding plants, I decided to sow a couple of baskets for the Love Shack with a mix of edible annual flowers; they are hanging on the north side, so get plenty of sun this time of year but miss the worst of the heat and they’re looking very promising so far. I’m hoping they should make a colourful splash that’s completely in keeping with the nature of a potager in a few weeks’ time.

The newly-planted window boxes are looking a bit stark, but they will get there given time and the first tiny violas (or heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fantasy, Jack-Jump-up-and-kiss-me . . . so much more fun!) have just opened their perfectly exquisite flowers. Meanwhile, in the other troughs, the lettuces are not holding back. Mmm, pelargoniums have definitely had their day.

This week’s culinary delights haven’t all been green: here is a sight to gladden the heart . . . and my breakfast bowl. 🥰

In fact, it looks like being a bumper year for fruit ~ one of the benefits of several weeks of settled, warm weather at blossom time. We are close to the first picking of gooseberries and the currant bushes are covered with trusses of green fruit. The cherry trees are loaded, including a couple that produced nothing last year, and the apple trees are looking equally as good; what they all need now is a good dollop of rain.

I’m very excited about the prospect of raspberries this year. Last season, we had a tiny handful, just enough to help identify all but one plant as summer-fruiting varieties. If the previous owners cut the canes to ground level every winter as they had done just before we moved in, they must never have had any fruit! Last year’s growth is covered in dainty white flowers which in turn are literally buzzing with honey bees; someone will be enjoying a good floral honey and we should reap the benefits of all that industrious pollination. Note the lack of poles, wires or fruit cage: I’m with Bob Flowerdew on that one, horizontal canes are far easier to pick and I’m happy to wade into the jungle when the time comes. If the birds want to tuck in a bit, I’m happy to share, too; we’ve never lost an entire soft fruit crop to them, the secret is to have plenty to go round.

Enthusiastic raspberries plus a couple of blackcurrants and (companion plant) comfrey.
A honey bee does the business.

Temperatures in the tunnel have been sweltering, meaning both doors are propped open all day and it dries out quickly . . . but rather that than losing plants to the heat. I’m pleased with how much better the soil is retaining moisture this year which means we don’t have to worry about watering so often. I’ve put a mix of chopped nettle and comfrey leaves around the base of each plant as a slow-release fertiliser and then mulched the lot with grass clippings. The first flowers have appeared on the chillies, peppers and melons and there are plenty of busy insects in there so I’m hoping this will be a far more productive space than last year.

From the far end: chillies, sweet peppers, aubergines and melons (plus bonus mouse-planted peas) with basil, flat-leaved parsley and French marigolds along the front.

The indoor courgette is enormous, and with the first outdoor ones now also cropping, they are compulsory daily eating. We’ve had a better harvest from the very short row of peas than any we ever planted in Asturias (we never understood why they wouldn’t grow well there), lots of meals and a couple of bags in the freezer; even the little Mouse Gardens have been producing. On the downside, the potatoes are not looking great and we suspect they are full of wireworm, but if they have to be a sacrificial crop to clear the pests out, so be it. The lettuce are still going strong, however; in the photo below, the middle one was cut last week and has already re-grown from the stem I left in the ground. Lazy Regenerative gardening at its best. 😆

We’re not given to doing the tourist thing very often, a local walk or bike ride from home with a picnic is as far as we ever really feel inclined to go. However, when an appointment in Falaise (about an hour’s drive away) became inevitable last week, we decided to make a day of it, treat ourselves to lunch en terrasse and have a wander round this attractive Norman town that we haven’t visited for many years.

Falaise was the birthplace of one of Normandy’s most famous figures, Guillame le Bâtard – better know to anglophones as William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King of England. William had many obstacles to overcome in his life, not least the stain of illegitimacy and inheriting the duchy from his father as a very young child, but the imposing statue of him close to Falaise castle, dressed in full battle gear and sitting astride a monstrous horse, leaves the visitor in no doubt of the burly, powerful and often-feared leader he was to become.

Britain is littered with Norman castles and, whether they are crumbling ruins or spectacularly preserved monuments, at times it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of romanticising about them. Falaise castle, for me, has always seemed like the epitome of what these buildings actually represented: power, control and military might. It’s grim and forbidding, perched high on a rocky outcrop (la falaise means ‘cliff’) and dominated the surrounding landscape in a way that left no-one in doubt as to who was in charge; forget knights in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress, this was the real formidable and authoritarian deal.

The castle keep had an inspired interior makeover some years ago and for a modest entrance fee, it’s possible to walk on glass floors and follow an illuminating audio tour; we did it a couple of times on holiday with our children some years ago, so decided instead just to enjoy the rest of the castle grounds within the walls which are freely open to all. There’s much to see and learn, helped by plenty of information boards in French and English and viewing posts where you look through ‘binoculars’ to see an artist’s impression of what different parts of the castle looked like in its heyday. It’s worth wandering about simply to enjoy the elevated views over the old town and the surrounding countryside, rolling and richly wooded ~ such a stark contrast to the wide open Norman plains just a stone’s throw to the north.

A feature that wasn’t there last time we visited is a medieval garden, small but perfectly formed, and which (of course) drew me like a magnet. It was crammed with plants and thoughtfully organised into different sections including food plants, complete with medieval recipes, and a jardin des simples for medicines, with descriptions of the ailments each was used to treat.

Given my natural fibre addiction, I loved the section containing plants like flax for linen, woad (the indigo of the north) for dyeing, teasels for carding wool and soapwort for washing textiles. It was fascinating to see just how many of the same plants we grow in our own garden today, and of the missing few, we’ve grown several in the past but don’t bother with now ~ things like tansy, which I don’t grow any more because I can’t stand the smell of it. Pathetic, I know, but it struck me how lucky I am to have that choice; no matter where people stood in the medieval feudal hierarchy, they all needed food, medicines and clothes and the ability to grow and process these plants was an essential skill for the survival of all.

Yellow woad flowers and blue flax: what a gorgeous combination.

Back home, and we had a ‘medieval moment’ of our own when we decided to cook dinner using our Dutch cauldron, something we haven’t done in ages. It’s a brilliantly simple way of cooking and perfect for creating a long, slow-cooked meal at this time of year when the stove isn’t lit and we don’t want the electric oven on for hours. We remove the hanging grill from the tripod barbecue and hang the pot from the chains over a fire of waste wood which is kept ticking over as embers rather than flames; we always save wood from pruning or logging to use for barbecues but as in this instance the food is inside the cauldron, any old scraps of wood will do. Into the pot went a piece of high welfare pork from a local farm along with garlic, onions, herbs and spices and an old bottle of Asturian cider which Roger was given at a race eons ago and we never fancied drinking. The cauldron was left to simmer away for a good three hours and the smell of cooking that drifted around the garden as we worked was completely tantalising! It’s perfectly possible to create an entire meal by adding potatoes and other vegetables to the mix or else tucking some baking potatoes into the embers along with foil packages of veggies ~ Swiss chard works very well cooked that way. We seem to be a source of endless fascination to certain local people who drive slowly along the lane with (as Roger puts it) their ‘heads on sideways’, having a good look at what The Crazies are up to now; I’m not sure whether it’s curiosity, amusement, admiration or horror but I think our bubbling cauldron scored a few extra points on the raised eyebrow front. Ah well, it’s better than being boring, I say. 😉

Dinner cooking itself while we carried on with the gardening.

Our bedroom window is, in fact, a full length glass door and I’m happy that we’ve reached the time of year when it can stay wide open all night; there’s a screen door beyond it to ensure we don’t get eaten by beasties and having added the balcony last year, there’s no danger of falling if we decide to take up sleepwalking. The nights here are blissfully quiet, the silence only punctuated by the occasional bark of a fox, the call of owls and, in the warmer months, the pulsating chirrup of crickets, so I was a bit puzzled to wake one night hours ahead of the rowdy dawn chorus to hear woodlarks singing. Woodlarks? At 2am? Really? Knowing it probably wouldn’t be appreciated if I woke Roger to ask if he could hear them, I tiptoed downstairs and went outside to listen . . . and yes, there really were woodlarks singing somewhere close to the garden. It was quite magical, even though I was still wondering if it wasn’t my ears or imagination playing tricks (or me just simply losing the plot). A quick scout on the internet reassured me that I wasn’t: apparently, it’s a fairly common phenomenon but since woodlarks tend to live in areas of wild heathland, their night song isn’t often heard by humans. Not going mad then, just very blessed. A few nights later, a cuckoo spent several hours in the trees around the garden, calling madly in the moonlight, and this time Roger heard it, too. Is there something in the May air that means the birds are too busy to sleep?

One thing I had really been hoping to hear at night was the sound of rain falling on the roof and gurgling down the gutters into the water butts below but, despite the promise of showers in the forecast, nothing transpired. We have been hauling water to keep plants alive but everything has looked so pinched and miserable and many things have failed to thrive, plus the weather conditions seem to have sparked a massive boom in the aphid population; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. The French meteorological report makes for interesting ~ if sobering ~ reading: since September 2021, France has had 20% less precipitation than normal, December being the only month in that period that delivered anything close to average rainfall and with the problem exacerbated by higher than normal temperatures, many areas including ours have been officially deemed ‘very dry’ to a degree that is more usual in August than May. Local farmers have held off planting maize and sunflowers and when they can wait no longer, they have been drilling into a dust bowl. I’ve been playing the same waiting game with the last of our pre-sown plants to go in, the sweetcorn, beans, leeks and artichokes, all bursting out of pots and trays but in desperate need of moister, softer ground.

Sweetcorn: happy to be in the ground at last.

It’s been frustrating but finally – finally! – the rain arrived in the form of an almighty thunderstorm and pelted down for twenty minutes or so; I stood on the doorstep watching it and listening to the blackbirds warbling loudly through it, as thrilled as me to be getting wet at last. The strangest thing was the smell, though: it wasn’t that lovely, fresh, earthy, herbal scent that so often comes with the first rain after a dry spell but something slightly unpleasant like a stagnant muddy pond, I think because of the sheer amount of dust everywhere. It was nowhere near enough rain, just sufficient to damp things down and put a bit back in the butts, but it was incredible how much perkier everything looked the next morning: we can water as much as we like, but there is nothing like rain! We’ve had other storms since, this time leaving everything fresh and sparkling; there’s a good chance things will survive now and I shall be very relieved not to be carrying heavy cans for a while. I even have time to enjoy the flowers . . . but that’s for another post!😊

Storm clouds over the garden . . . rain at last.

Peas, preserves and planting

It’s quite the year for blossom and the air is so heavily scented, it’s almost intoxicating. Setting my morning tea to brew, I wander outside in my pyjamas, listen to the babble of the birds and simply breathe. In France, lily-of-the-valley with its delicate waxen flowers and heavenly perfume is traditionally associated with May Day, but in the local landscape there is no doubting that the wilder, more seductive hawthorn is the May queen; the trees and hedgerows are a blizzard of come-hither white and alive with the attention of pollinators. I’ve been watching the honey bees working in the large hawthorn next to the (still very empty) pond and I’m struck by their rather agitated and feisty attitude, the kind that beekeepers expect in August when the honey stores are full and in need of protection. Is there something about the may blossom that puts them on edge, I wonder? Or maybe it’s the weather, this strange mix of hot sunshine, cold wind and air so dry it almost crackles? Whatever is going on, the little honeys certainly wouldn’t sit still for a photo.

A bit wound up – but just look at those bulging pollen baskets.

The moles are restless, too, pushing up mountainous tumps as they tunnel ever deeper in search of worms; this dry weather doesn’t seem to suit them much, either. Where the hills appear in grass, I’m gathering the soil to mix with compost and use as a planting mix for the tender outdoor vegetables but I really wish they would stop tunnelling under the garden and lifting young plants; I’ve had to tread more cabbages, lettuce, garlic and broad beans back in than I can count, but at least the deep mulch around them is doing its job and there is still moisture around their roots. That’s more than can be said for the seedlings which are struggling enough already without being pushed out of the ground on a regular basis; I just have to keep tucking them back in, watering and hoping they survive the ongoing battle.

Mulched and moled . . . hopefully we will be eating these ‘Greyhound’ cabbages in a few weeks’ time.

On the subject of battles, I was born a few miles from the site of the Battle of Shrewsbury where, in July 1403, King Henry IV fought an army of rebel barons led by Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, and English archers unleashed the deadly longbow on each other for the first time. The events of the battle are well-documented but for me, the most poignant fact is that the battle took place in a field of peas. I can’t begin to imagine the terrible carnage wrought by medieval warfare but I’ve often wondered what sort of longer term misery the destruction of that valuable crop must have brought. The pea plants would have been fixing nitrogen and so enriching the soil (centuries before the advent of synthetic agricultural fertilisers), the straw made good fodder for animals, especially cattle, and the peas themselves would have been destined to be dried and stored to be eaten as an essential source of vegetable protein during the lean months of winter and spring, with some saved for planting the following year. History tells how young Prince Hal made a miraculous recovery from an arrow wound in the face and lived to become the famous soldier-king, Henry V . . . but how many ordinary folk struggled (or failed) to survive the winter because a vital harvest was trampled beneath the hooves of destriers?

Not the field peas of Shrewsbury but an early crop of green peas in the tunnel, perfect to eat raw in salads.

These days, of course, the citizens of Shrewsbury have a wide choice of commercial outlets where they can buy a huge range of food in all seasons and from all over the globe . . . and yet food security remains a salient concern; the effects of the pandemic and events in Ukraine have highlighted just how fragile and vulnerable the ‘just in time’ food supply chain is and if we add climate change, loss of topsoil, scarcity of water and the like, the picture can seem somewhat gloomy. For me, the answer is simply to get out there and grow food; we are very lucky that we have the time, space and wherewithal and for that, I am extremely grateful. We have never set out to be self-sufficient but more and more, it makes sense to produce and use as much as we can.

The first ‘Latino’ courgette ready for harvest in the tunnel: crisp and nutty, we sliced it raw into a salad.

On a recent foray to the charity shop to buy some ‘new’ books, I was delighted to pick up a copy of Tribes of Britain by eminent archaeologist David Miles; I’m thoroughly enjoying it and I’m glad that at 450 pages long, I shouldn’t finish it too quickly. Agriculture (and by association, gardening) arrived in the British Isles relatively late and I find myself fascinated by the lives of those early peoples who hunted and gathered in my native land before they became farmers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not given to romanticising history; life was tough and brutally short and I’m not planning to take up flint knapping any time soon, although I suspect it would be an interesting activity and a skill I would struggle to perfect. I simply find that the more I read, the more I find inspiration in the innovation, resilience and above all, adaptability, that those people demonstrated; there are still valuable lessons there for us today, so many millennia later. Having spent the last year establishing a garden where we can grow food, our focus this year is on using every scrap of what we manage to produce. In many ways, it’s an exciting project and we’re busy researching a wealth of different methods of using and preserving our harvest. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks; we’re never too old to learn and the fact that things like sourdough bread, herbal teas and lacto-fermented vegetables have become a part of our everyday lives in recent years is testament to that. It’s only taken us 30 years to discover that Jerusalem artichokes are delicious raw and there is still a list of new foods I’d like to try growing. Interesting times ahead!

We don’t see globe artichokes as a veggie portion, more like an opportunity: even a single heart can be the star attraction on a homemade pizza.

We’re already researching a number of new techniques to try and different preserves to make through the summer and autumn seasons, especially using what we hope will be a bumper crop of peppers, aubergines, beans and courgettes (I don’t use the word ‘glut’ any more, we simply can’t have too much of anything!). Chutneys and pickles are top of the list and where fruit is concerned, the juice press doesn’t have to be limited to apples.

The soft fruit is already setting: these are redcurrants.

We’re planning to build a simple smoker and Roger fancies a go at home brewing, something we haven’t done for years. There’ll be lots of drying to be be done, too; dried apple rings and fruit leathers have been a hit and we’ve pretty much emptied the herbal tea jars so I have a good idea of what we need to collect more of this year – I’ve already started drying peppermint on the windowsills and as Roger has developed a taste for meadowsweet, we definitely need a few good foraging trips along the lanes once that’s in flower.

Pre-sown French beans emerging from the compost: the plants grow so quickly, they are ready to plant out within days.

I’m not a big fan of bedding plants although I recognise their usefulness and have been guilty on occasion of succumbing to their ease-of-life attractions. They are, however, something of an ecological nightmare, requiring vast quantities of heat, water, compost, plastic, chemical treatments and transportation in order to provide what amounts to a few weeks of colour before next season’s offerings arrive in the shops; they’re a sort of ‘fast fashion’ of the floral world. This time last year, having so many other things to do, I bought a tray of trailing pelargoniums in the hope of having a reliable splash of summer colour in the window boxes at the front of the house, something that wouldn’t require too much fuss and which could cope with the heat. To be fair to the plants, they did the job.

The problem for me, though, is that they are pretty sterile things and offer very little else: they have no scent, they don’t really work as cut flowers and the insects shun them, Also, despite my best nurturing efforts in the tunnel, only three of them made it through the winter. In contrast, the pansies that preceded them were far more generous. Yes, they were also bedding plants but they provided a wider range of colour and a valuable food supply for bumble bees in particular in early spring; they are an edible flower for us, too, and popped their seeds all over the gravel giving me plenty of seedlings to lift and replant. I have to admit the babies were very slow to get going – we’ve had a few slug issues – but they’ve been worth the wait. It’s has had me thinking that for this summer I’m going to do things differently: it could be a raging success or an unmitigated disaster but I won’t know until I’ve tried. I’ve planted the three pelargoniums in a hanging basket for the little courtyard outside the back door and filled the troughs they were in last year with mixed lettuce plants and a few nasturtium seeds. I’ve also planted a blue glazed pot with flat-leaved parsley and violas in the hope that, together with the pots of herbs on the wall, this area will sing out the ‘food and flowers’ thing I’ve got going on everywhere.

Mixed lettuce are an attractive feature: these in the tunnel are growing with self-set red sorrel.

For the window boxes, I’m raising some zinnias from seed, which I’m hoping will provide long-lasting pops of bright colours and a feast for butterflies and hoverflies, with violas and a few trailing nasturtiums sown between to pick for salads. It’s going to be a long way from the traditional look but I can’t help feeling it’s a better way of doing things. We’ll see . . .

The zinnias which came in a seed mix were a big hit in the garden last year.

The annual flower seedlings are struggling in this dry weather, the soil is so parched and they desperately need rain. Not surprisingly, it’s the sunflowers that are looking the happiest and nasturtium volunteers are bombing up everywhere. There is certainly no shortage of flowers to enjoy at the moment, though; I just hope we still manage a riot of summer colour. Come on, rain.

Today is officially the Big Plant-a-thon: I’ve started planting a few things out, but the next few hours are going to be spent getting everything into the ground – French, borlotti and Asturian beans, squash, aubergines, peppers, chillies, melons and the rest of the courgettes. They’ll all need watering which is going to pretty much empty the last of our rain butts but there is a tiny glimmer of hope on the horizon with a slight possibility of showers this afternoon before the temperature hikes up into the mid-twenties for the foreseeable future. There’s an old country saying that goes Be it dry or be it wet, Nature always pays the debt . . . I have all my fingers and toes crossed that it’s sooner rather than later! 😬

At least the potatoes are coping with the drought.

Something from nothing

For those of us growing food in temperate northern climes, the next few weeks tend to be the trickiest in terms of having enough fresh produce from the garden: the winter vegetables are over, our stores running low and new crops still in their infancy. As this is our first proper year of cultivation here, I’m interested to see just how far we can go in trying to close – or even eradicate? – the so-called ‘hungry gap’.

A good test of our current situation came when we were writing a short shopping list before cycling into St P to collect a few supplies; as there is a limit to how much we can carry on our bikes, we have to be very precise about what we do or don’t require. So, did we need to buy any vegetables to supplement what we already had at home? We finished our own potatoes and onions some time ago but now buy those in bulk so we have plenty to hand; we still have garlic, squash, chillies and beans in store along with the last few parsnips; in the garden, there are leeks, kale, chard, perpetual spinach, beetroot, rocket, Florence fennel, landcress and red sorrel, a variety of fresh herbs and various young ‘wild’ leaves, too. We don’t have huge quantities of anything, but when it comes to making meals, it’s amazing how we can still rustle up something from nothing. No need to buy veg, then: oh good, that leaves room in the rucksack for a bottle of wine! 😉

The ‘something from nothing’ idea has been a bit of a theme in the garden this week. Roger has been lifting and potting up birch seedlings that have appeared in the gravel to make a start on our next little tree nursery and we have planted five flowering currants and five red dogwoods grown from hardwood cuttings I took in the winter. On the strength of that success, I’ve taken softwood cuttings of viburnum tinus which has been flowering for weeks and also lilac which is just coming into bloom; this is such a great way of increasing our stock of shrubs for nothing. Last summer I sowed the last few wallflower seeds from a packet so ancient I doubted there was any chance of them germinating, yet alone making decent plants; really, I should have more faith! I stuffed the tiny plants in pots with some daffodil bulbs at the front of the house and they are making a gorgeous splash of colour at the moment. I’m particularly chuffed that every plant has different coloured flowers so I’m planning to collect a bit of seed from each of them and then let the rest scatter themselves in the hope of adding to our gravel garden.

This self-setting strategy is one that I love and it’s incredible how many little treasures are appearing and spreading themselves through the gravel – and all in such appropriate places, as if they’ve read their own planting instructions! Under the oak tree there are primroses, foxgloves, forget-me-nots and verbascum and in front of the house, Californian poppies, rosemary, pansies and wild strawberries. It’s lazy gardening but definitely to be encouraged.

We have made a commitment to only use the car when completely necessary and it’s an interesting exercise in seeing just how much we can accomplish on our bikes or on foot. Roger is currently spending a lot of time in the coppice cutting fallen wood for logs but instead of going in the car and taking the chainsaw, he is cycling there with a bow saw and cutting the wood by hand. Yes, it’s slower and more laborious in some ways but he’s enjoying himself, finding it far more pleasant to work quietly and gently without disturbing the peace of the place. Obviously, at some point we will need to take the car and trailer to collect the logs – perhaps we should look at bike trailers? – but in the meantime, the two-wheeled approach is working well.

The coppice is somewhere we plan to spend far more time this year and to that end, Roger has been cutting back brambles to make paths and has cleared a space for us to eventually site a picnic table so we have a permanent seat and somewhere to eat. At the heart of the wood there is an old quarry whose high rock walls create a natural sheltered bowl full of trees, undergrowth and moss-covered rocks; Sam and Adrienne are keen boulderers (is that the right term?) and were sizing up the possibility of scaling the quarry wall on their recent visit.

Well, I’m certainly not brave enough for that one, but I’m definitely happy to spend more time in such a pleasant spot. One morning this week saw us leaving the house before dawn, with our super lightweight portable camping chairs slung over our shoulders and a flask of coffee to hand, heading off up the lane on foot. There was no need for a torch as the moon was full and there was something rather lovely about walking the half mile or so by moonlight with the first rustlings of bird activity all around us. Once in the coppice, we settled down with our coffee and listened to the magical dawn chorus in ‘surround sound’ as light slowly seeped into the day. I know there are people who think we’re a bit crazy for doing such things but for me the alternative – not to have these simple yet wonderful experiences – would be even crazier, a life not lived to the full. Cost: nothing (we’d have made morning coffee anyway). Value: priceless.

I learnt the French word for badger – un blaireau – the last time we lived here and remembered it because at the time, Tony Blair(eau) was prime minister of the UK; as far as I can recall, the former PM bears no resemblance whatsoever to a badger, but my wiring obviously works in weird ways and the word was committed to my long-term memory. I came across it again this week, during a lesson which involved watching a French TEDx talk and learned from the speaker that to refer to someone in France as un blaireau is basically to call them a moron. Two things struck me: first, I think it’s a bit harsh on badgers, an animal I’ve always had a soft spot for, and second, as I try to be polite and well-mannered (in public, at least 😆), I doubted there would ever be an occasion for me to apply my newly-acquired knowledge. Ha, how the language gods were laughing! That same afternoon, Roger returned from the wood to find that someone had run over and killed a large grass snake on the lane outside our house. I suspect it was one of the several that live peacefully in our attached barn and which, particularly in warm weather, cross the lane to drink and hunt in Gilles’s pond. Grass snakes are totally harmless creatures: they are not poisonous and offer no danger whatsoever to human beings. They are also a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem, so we are blessed to have them on our patch; sadly, there is a fair bit of grass snake hate about but we certainly wouldn’t dream of doing anything to hurt or disturb them. It is not an animal to hurl itself from nowhere under car tyres and this was a big and very visible one so I suspect it met its end because the driver was either going too fast round the corner on the narrow lane, wasn’t concentrating or deliberately went for the kill. I’m not rude enough to put it in print, but yes, I was definitely thinking it. 🤬🦡

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not a deluded bunny hugger and I accept that nature is red in tooth and claw and death is part of the natural cycle. I know that our patch might be a haven for wildlife but that doesn’t necessarily make it a sanctuary; ecosystems are built on food webs and that means living things eating others. It’s life. What saddens me is when that life is destroyed unnecessarily, but all we can do is carry on trying to improve and create a wide diversity of habitats here and enjoy the good moments . . . of which there have been many this week. The blue tits in our nestbox have decided the entrance hole is not up to their exacting standards (despite it having been made to a very precise 25mm) so between bustling in and out with beaks full of nesting materials, they are bashing away at the hole, from inside and out, like a couple of demented mini woodpeckers. A pair of chaffinches has taken to camping on the doorstep waiting for us to sweep the breadboard crumbs through the door for them and the duelling blackcaps are back, trying to out-sing one another in ever more ear-splitting crescendos. I found a couple of delicate empty shells in the garden, the sweet blue of a robin’s egg; I don’t know where they are nesting but there are certainly blackbirds feeding young in a small hedgerow holly, cursing us soundly if we try to use the sun loungers by the Oak Shed. We had an incredible view of a male cuckoo that alighted on top of the oak tree, shouting his wares – such a rare thing to see. I literally came eyeball to eyeball with a swallow when I was sowing flower seeds in the mandala bed; it landed and started picking something from the soil which had me a bit puzzled as I thought they were insectivores, not seed eaters. On closer inspection, it wasn’t feeding but collecting small pieces of the vermiculite that were in the seed mix. Grit for shell formation? An insulating building material to add to mud? I’m not sure, but to be so close to what is one of my favourite birds was a very special moment. I’ve lost count of the number of shield bugs and butterflies that have landed on me this week; the weather has been incredibly warm so I’m wondering if my it’s my tatty, bright pink summer gardening t-shirt that’s attracting them? 😊

One insect I wasn’t expecting to see when I was checking the young plants in the tunnel was a male long-horned bee, sporting a pair of antennae to be proud of. This is eucara longicornis, a species which is in decline; it has been identified as a UK priority species and is on the European Red List, so it’s in need of all the help it can get. It has a symbiotic relationship with bee orchids, which we don’t have, but apparently prefers flowers from the pea/ vetch /clover family which is definitely something we can provide. I’m wondering if it was the pea flowers that had attracted it to the tunnel in the first place? Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand but I was at least more organised when it came to the other candidate for Insect of the Week award . . .

. . . meet meloe violaceus, the violet oil beetle (or should I say beetles) which I saw totally by chance while I was mulching our young hedging plants; I have to say it didn’t look like the most comfortable of couplings! Like the long-horned bee, this was a new species for me so thank goodness for the internet. The ‘oil’ is actually a poisonous substance which can cause painful skin blisters, hardly a problem as I’m not given to bug snuggling, but its presence here is great news indeed. Apparently, it is a good indicator species for the health of the environment; it has a symbiotic (parasitic) relationship with solitary mining bees, the larvae or ‘triungulins’ (what a great word!) hitching a ride to the bee’s nest and raiding the pollen stores until they emerge as adults. The beetles have suffered a drastic decline in the UK due to changes in countryside management and are a Biodiversity Action Plan priority species; however, in France its status as a non-protected species suggests that the picture here is a little brighter, for the time being, at least. Even so, for them to be present on our patch, there needs to be a healthy mining bee population and wildflower-rich grassland so it looks like we are doing something right.

We’ve just eaten the last cherries from the freezer and I’m hoping for a bumper crop to replace them this year. Everything certainly bodes well for that at the moment: the blossom is stunning and staggered, and the prolonged spell of warm, dry, still weather is giving the pollinators every chance to do their business. With the hedge beneath it laid, even the poor abused old tree looks better this year and with any luck will be dripping with sweet red fruits by July.

If we can preserve enough cherries this year along with soft fruit and apples, as well as have a decent early harvest from the new rhubarb patch next spring, then this time next year with any luck we won’t need to be carrying bought fruit on our bikes, either. Even more room in the rucksack for naughty things, then! 😊