Grey days

January has rolled itself across the landscape like a thick grey blanket, leaching colour from the countryside and paring everything back to bare bones. It is eerily quiet outside, as if the glowering sky muffles all sound and yet, there is a strange amplification to the noises coming from places unseen: the persistent percussion of a woodpecker, the rigid flap of a rook’s black wing, the spine-tingling call of a lonely vixen. The weather ricochets from bitterly cold when the glacial north wind makes eyes run and toes tingle to mild and damp, the precipitation so fine it leaves a silver haze on my woollen gardening hat. Always grey skies, though; how I crave sunshine and blue skies in this weirdly wrapped world. It’s all part of the natural wheel of the year, of course, this chilly washed-out nothingness, and I can’t be downhearted since there is always colour to be found if I search for it, along with those little treasures that whisper of spring. There are snowdrops in abundance and the first buttery primroses scattered in sheltered places, soft green buds fattening and hazel catkins powdering the air with pollen, while the robin’s sweet song wakes me ever earlier each morning. There is still so much of winter yet to come and I won’t wish the time away but I love the gentle subtle shift that is underway.

I also love the fact that I have been granted official permission to get back outside and busy in the garden once again after seven long months of pain and frustration. The orthopaedic surgeon has confirmed this week that my body is making a grand (if slow) job of healing itself without any need for intervention which is good news and a huge relief all round. Next came those magic words, that it’s time to recommence le jardinage. No need for physiotherapy or a formal exercise regimen because everything I do in my gardening day will help to restore strength and flexibility in my spine. Thank you, you lovely man! Needless to say, I didn’t need telling twice; I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since hearing those words and if I could turn a cartwheel I would, although it’s perhaps still a little early for that sort of behaviour. 😉

To the garden, then, and at last the chance to start putting right what has felt like months of sad neglect. That said, I have been very encouraged at how well everything has held up without me (should I feel insulted? 😆) and is in fact the living proof that our no-dig, organic, permaculture approach is paying dividends. Last year was a tough one in terms of severe weather conditions so I’m relieved that this winter has seen a return to more normal levels of rainfall, the ground welcoming the soaking it so badly needs, the water butts overflowing and ~ after nine long months of waiting ~ the new pond finally full to the brim. Regular rainfall percolating down through the layers of the lasagne beds is a much-needed final ingredient in our soil-building efforts; where last year the brown layers stayed too crisp and dry, now everything is bedding down nicely and I can almost smell the alchemy of compost formation. The areas of mown grass are an ocean of muddy wormcasts, so worryingly absent when we moved here, and as I rummage about in the beds with my hand fork lifting the occasional perennial weed, I am astounded by the thriving worm population in the soil. The garden is still full of fungi, too, with fruiting blooms of all shapes, sizes and colours revealing the secrets of their hidden mycelium trails. Mmm, good things are happening.

Creating a garden like this is a long, slow process and two years in there seems to be as much to do as ever. I’m happy, though, that we are making real progress where soft fruit is concerned. The raspberry bed we inherited has always bothered me, it’s in a daft place so little wonder the plants fail to thrive. We’ve decided to do away with it completely, moving a handful of healthy summer-fruiting canes into a designated area of the large perennial bed where they can keep the rhubarb company, and scattering the rest to fill holes along the hedges. Last autumn, we extended the lasagne bed in front of the polytunnel and what for me were the two greatest treasures in the raspberry patch ~ a single autumn fruiter and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ we planted last year ~ have now been relocated to their new home. We’ve added a couple of small bare-rooted newbies, too, a tayberry and a Japanese wineberry, the latter being something we’ve never grown before. Along with blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, jostaberry, goji berry and honeyberry, we now have a fine eclectic mix in this patch which should keep us well-supplied with berry fruits.

The blackcurrant bushes I raised from seedlings have made incredibly strong plants and we should enjoy our first harvest from them this summer. When I was mulching around them, I noticed a large branch had broken off one but since it was covered in promising buds, I chopped it into pieces and potted them up as cuttings in the shelter of the tunnel. I’m not sure we need any more bushes but at the very least, they can be used to fill some holes like the spare raspberries; I’ve said before that we haven’t set out to plant a food forest as such but I love the idea of grazing along edible hedges and I’m pretty sure the blackbirds will agree.

Sticking with the fruit theme, one of my priorities this week has been to tidy the Strawberry Circle up a bit. Planting a ring of annual flowers around the edge last year turned it into a pretty patch and certainly ensured plentiful pollinator attention but things did get a bit out of hand at ground level. The strawberry plants didn’t enjoy the hot, dry summer very much and certainly our harvest was down on the previous year; I’d planned to peg down a few runners to generate new plants and then keep on top of any more the plants sent out but my back problem put paid to all that and the strawbs ended up doing their own thing. I’ve lifted a few perennial weeds and spare runners, planted up a few gaps, sprinkled in some donkey dung and given the lot a light mulching of chopped dead leaves and grass. Fingers crossed this summer I can keep a closer eye on things and we’ll enjoy a bumper harvest again.

The mandala bed was one of last year’s big successes; despite looking burnt-up and sad in the worst of the heat and drought it found a second wind in September and much of the foliage has only recently died back. It produced an incredible amount of food and became a much-used vegetable patch in the middle of the flower garden which was exactly what I’d hoped for. Like the Strawberry Circle, it was in desperate need of some attention so I started by chopping and dropping the remaining foliage, leaving it on the surface as a new layer of organic material. I then set about replacing the paths that had completely disappeared under the jungle of growth. In itself that’s not a problem as the whole idea of using shredded woody material for the paths is that it eventually becomes another brown layer to feed the soil and as Roger has been busy shredding the brush from his hedging and tree-pruning activities this week, it seemed as good a time as any to get cracking. Another benefit of this approach is that I can experiment with designs and change the configuration of the paths every year if I want although I’ve decided to stick with the ‘compass points’ wheel this year simply for ease. Perhaps next spring I will be brave enough to be a bit more artistic. With the paths back in place, I’m now concentrating on one planting section at a time ~ lifting the occasional weed (mostly small clumps of grass), spreading some more donkey dung about, sprinkling over molehill soil and wormcasts from the orchard floor and topping with a leaf mulch. Hidden beneath the chaotic tomatoes, a couple of small strawberry plants went berserk and have practically colonised an entire section and red sorrel has popped up in several places along with salad burnet which has come from who-knows-where but is a welcome addition to our edible leaf collection. I love it when the garden starts to evolve on its own in this way, plants turning up to grow where they are happy.

When the weather is spiteful, the polytunnel is the place to be and there is plenty to keep me busy in there. First job was to pull up the spent pepper and chilli plants which had fruited right into December before finally calling it a day when the temperature plummeted. The plants had stayed very healthy and disease-free so I chopped the foliage and spread it as a green layer on the newest Hügel bed outside; as we’d kept the ground under the plants mulched there were no weeds to deal with so it was just a case of spreading some manure and chopped comfrey leaves across the surface. Roger has been carrying in buckets of rainwater to soak the ground on a regular basis; not for the first time, I wish there was a way of peeling back the roof and letting nature do all the hard work but that’s a price we pay for having a warm, sheltered growing space. Extending the seasons and enjoying early (and late) crops is one of the main reasons we have a tunnel and it’s good to see a few rows of peas and broad beans bombing up to give us a first harvest well in advance of the one outside.

The warmer temperatures inside the tunnel can bring their own problems occasionally and it’s frustrating to see many of our winter salad crops being hammered by fat green caterpillars; it’s not a normal state of affairs but I suspect the unusually mild autumn had something to do with it. Luckily, we’re not short of salad leaves, both in the tunnel and outside, and there will be plenty to make up for the losses once the temperature and light levels pick up if the number of self-set lettuce and red sorrel plants are anything to go by.

One salad leaf that stays blissfully problem-free is radicchio and I never fail to be amazed at how something that beautiful can be so tough. Throw any kind of winter weather at the plants but, whether deep glossy red or speckled with green, they just keep on growing and add a vibrant splash of colour to the food garden and plate at this time of year. I love them both cooked and raw, their fresh bitterness bringing a balance to the heavy, starchy foods so typical of winter.

Another reliable leaf for us this month is kale and both the bold leafy ‘Cottager’s’ and daintier frilly ‘Russian Red’ varieties are keeping us well-supplied in the kitchen. It’s not to everyone’s taste but there are plenty of imaginative and interesting ways to cook it and I always think it’s one of those vegetables that oozes health and well-being; it’s also a ‘clean’ vegetable to gather even on the grimmest of winter days when wrestling parsnips and leeks out of frozen ground or a muddy quagmire isn’t so attractive. I’ve just been given some kale cuttings and this is the kind of gift that makes my heart jump for joy because it represents (hopefully) years of good, nutritious food to come . . . plus there’s always something reassuring about growing a plant that has been tried, tested and recommended by someone who knows their onions (thank you, my friend ~ you know who you are! 😊). The reason I’m so excited about these three different varieties ~ Purple Tree collard, Taunton Deane and Daubenton’s ~ is that they are perennial which makes them a great addition to the garden in terms of building resilience which regular readers will know is a big thing for me. There’s also a Vietnamese coriander in the mix, something I’ve never grown before but I’m already intrigued by its unusual scent so can’t wait to introduce that into the kitchen. The cuttings are currently sitting in water on the kitchen windowsill, growing a mass of rootlets and unfurling new foliage; in a few days’ time I shall pot them up and continue to nurture them until they have formed decent rootballs at which point they will take their place in the perennial bed.

Another new gift this week is a ‘pre-loved’ bird feeding station which has allowed me to organise things so much better . . . gone are the days of a mishmash of random feeders dangling from trees! It didn’t take the feathered squadrons long to discover their new breakfast table and I’m delighted by the fact that the big triple feeder means I don’t have to be running around topping up feed so often: even they can’t clear that much food in a day. What has been interesting ~ and of course, it may simply be coincidence ~ is how many more finches are now coming to feed, mainly goldfinches but also the occasional greenfinch (how sad they have become such a rarity). I haven’t changed the foods on offer so perhaps there’s just something about the feeder set-up that suits them better.

Garden aside, the fact that I can stand and sit more comfortably now has meant an indulgence in pastimes I have missed so desperately since last June. I’ve been busy with language study, daily French in many forms of course, but also having a lot of fun with learning some basic Norwegian. I’m wondering if the fact that I can now order two coffees and two ice creams means I’m ready to visit Sam and Adrienne once again? 😉

I’ve also dug out my recorder and started to rediscover my love of making music. In a moment of uncharacteristic indulgence, along with some new music books I bought myself a treble recorder; I had one as a youngster but was too idle at the time to learn to play it properly, so I’ve set myself the challenge to put that right after all these years. The fingering is totally different to that of a descant recorder so I am having to literally retrain my brain in how to read music: let’s say there’s a lot of laughter and restarts going on as I fluff note after note . . . but I can’t help feeling it’s a great workout for my grey cells, not to mention I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been wonderful to get back to my favourite woolly crafts, too. Christmas presents of money for our grandchildren might not seem too imaginative but it was a case of needs must this time (and in truth, they were all pretty chuffed!). I like to personalise gifts whenever I can so I set out to make some colourful origami envelopes for them all . . . and ended up completely underwhelmed with the results. There was nothing for it but to resort to my comfort zone, dig out some scraps of yarn and explore the possibilities of crocheting some little purses. Yep, that beats folding paper every time.

I’ve also managed to finish the ‘Fireside’ blanket I’ve been working on for a couple of months and I have to say it’s most definitely one of my favourite blanket projects ever ~ the pattern and yarn are both delightful and the finished article is just perfect for snuggling under in these chilly times.

What next? Well, needless to say I have another project waiting in the wings, a gift blanket this time so every stitch will be worked with much mindfulness and love. My wool basket is fully charged and I’m ready to dive in although I’m also happy to simply enjoy those yummy colours, guaranteed to brighten my day no matter how grey the skies might be. 😊

November notes

Poor old November. It attracts such a bad press at times, given that on the face of it there is so little to recommend it by. Darkness wraps itself increasingly round each end of the day, the weather cools and deteriorates rapidly, gloom and fog descend oppressively and the leaves that so recently painted a pageant of autumn glory across the landscape now lie in a mucky slush. It’s little wonder that our ancient forebears, having brought in the last harvest and celebrated the end of the old year, saw this as a natural time of rest; there’s nothing but winter ahead, after all. I have to confess that after all the busyness and brightness of previous months, when a November day brings howling gales and lashing rain, I am happy to stay in the warmth of the house and turn my attention to cooking and crafting, studying, reading, making music . . . and yet, I can’t bring myself to write the month off completely when there is still so much to embrace and enjoy.

It’s not all grey and gloom!

For starters, October’s unusually mild and calm weather means the leaves are still very much on the trees and the main fall is yet to come; certainly, a more turbulent trend this week has brought a ripple of restlessness and more in the way of leaf dance, but it’s far from the sort of blast that that can strip the trees to bare bones overnight. The local countryside, heavily cloaked in deciduous woodland, is still full and beautiful and it’s a joy to be out and about wandering along the lanes from home, albeit at my current frustrating snail’s pace. Sunshine and warmth are wonderful but I’m not a fair weather walker, so I was encouraged to read a newspaper article this week extolling the virtues of walking in bad weather and all the benefits to physical and mental health that it can bring. I would most definitely agree, although with the caveat that setting off in dangerously high winds, thunderstorms or blizzards wouldn’t be anyone’s best idea! It’s so easy to find excuses not to venture out in bad weather and to hunker down in our ‘caves’ instead but I know that even a short walk in wind or rain, fog or frost will always make me feel better. It’s a great way to boost Vitamin D and immunity levels which are so important at this time of year and to release the endorphins that make us feel good ~ plus I always think there’s something incredibly life-affirming and smile-inducing about being outdoors and getting wet or wind-blown (or maybe I’m just a crazy woman?). Good clothes are key and one of the best things I ever bought was a a pair of waterproof trousers, light enough to fold into a deep coat pocket or rucksack and roomy enough to pull on over my trousers without being unduly baggy. I’ve had them for over 20 years now and they are still going strong, keeping me dry as dry on even the wettest of days. I’ve blown the cobwebs off my warm winter waterproof coat this week and dug out a woolly hat and gloves to keep me snug when the temperature starts to nip, so I’m all set. Let November do its worst . . .

A bright and breezy November afternoon . . . perfect for a wander.

I love my walking boots but I’m in a somewhat embarrassing situation that they and my wellies are the only waterproof winter boots I have at the moment. For 99% of the time that worries me not one jot as they are all I need but on the rare occasion I have to be semi-civilised somewhere, it leaves me with a bit of a problem. Six years ago, I bought a pair of green ankle boots which turned out to be the most comfortable footwear I’d ever owned; I practically lived in them and literally wore them to death. Earlier this year, in very wet weather, they simultaneously fell to pieces, leaving me with two soggy socks and a pair of boots beyond resuscitation by even the most talented of cobblers. On our recent UK trip, I called in at the Welsh country store where I bought them on the admittedly slim off-chance they were still available; no such luck ~ the manufacturer no longer makes that design ~ but it wasn’t the lack of replacement boots that left me feeling hollow. It was the 21st of October. We were greeted in the shop foyer by a life-sized model of Father Christmas and a large tree decorated in coloured fairy lights and in order to reach the footwear department, we had to pass aisles of Christmas items ~ mostly of the plastic, sparkly tat kind ~ and shelves piled high with over-packaged tiny amounts of festive foods at extortionate prices, the whole place heaving with eager shoppers. Regular readers will know that I am not exactly the world’s greatest fan of Christmas and its ingrained consumerism so a rant at some point in the year is inevitable, but for me this situation really took the (overpriced) biscuit. Outside, nature was putting on a dazzling display: it was blissfully mild, the sky was blue and the sun was illuminating the landscape in a bright fire of seasonal beauty, the sort of stunning day that makes me glad to be alive and desperate to be outdoors. Yet, looking around at the other customers all piling their baskets high with purchases, I wondered if we were the only ones to have noticed. I know and accept that we’re all different, and that shopping and Christmas both bring much pleasure to many people; it’s not for me to preach and indeed, I agree with author Isabel Losada that as an environmentalist, it’s better to ditch the soapbox and focus on making meaningful changes to my own life in an optimistic and joyful way rather than being a crabby, outspoken critic. My point here is the degree of sadness I felt that the accumulation of so much artificial ‘stuff’ for an occasion over two months away was taking obvious precedence over the seasonal gifts of the moment. You might not agree (and that’s fine) but I think it’s a terrible shame.

Okay, so maybe a little indulgent soapbox moment coming up because what struck me about the shopping behaviour was that it wasn’t so much presents that were being chosen but rather piles and piles of decorations, most of which I didn’t even know existed yet alone thought I needed. This had me wondering how much tinsel a person needs to buy in a lifetime? Perhaps we were strange, but in the days when we had children at home and a tree to decorate, our family tradition always began with fetching a dusty box of decorations from the attic and rummaging through to rediscover all the little treasures it held, year after year. Many of the bits and pieces were homemade and a bit moth-eaten if I’m honest but there was never any question of replacing them. Other things were faintly ridiculous, such as the fat robin which refused to perch politely on the tree and repeatedly ended up hanging upside down from a branch before nosediving to the floor in a shower of pine needles. Christmas just wouldn’t have been the same without it. It was quite an eye opener, then, to be told by one of my pupils that her family bought new decorations every year because they chose a different colour scheme ~ that particular Christmas was going to be white and purple, starting with a white artificial tree festooned in purple tinsel and baubles and spreading through the entire house and across the festive dinner table. Save me from this madness, please. The clothing industry thrives on perceived obsolescence (I mean, who in their right mind would want to buy the same kind of boots they bought six years ago?) but when it filters through to Christmas and other festivals and celebrations, I do start to lose my hope for the future of the planet. How much plastic rubbish was generated for Hallowe’en last week, I wonder? How many of those decorations being bought were truly needed? What about the so-called cost of living crisis? Whether late December’s celebration is about the birth of a Son in a stable, the rebirth of the Sun at midwinter or simply a jolly old secular knees-up with friends and family, I fail to see how all this dubious, artificial frippery is necessary or relevant. Purple Christmas? No thanks, I think I’d rather have dull November with its honest grey gloom!

To prove that I’m not a complete humbug, I’ve been making mincemeat this week, a task I always enjoy. Mince pies are our one festive essential and I like to give the mincemeat a month or so to mature before baking the first batch to celebrate my birthday in early December (this is strictly for quality control purposes, of course 😆 ). My recipe is ever-changing depending on what we have to hand so for instance, last year we still had Asturian walnuts in store but this year I’ve used chestnuts from the garden instead. Mincemeat is the easiest thing on earth to make but I like to complicate it a tad by making my own candied peel first and I was astounded to realise that the oranges and lemons were the first fruit I’d bought since a crate of peaches and apricots when Sarah and her family came to stay in July. I never imagined that we could come even close to being self-sufficient in fruit, especially given how much I like to eat it, but on reflection we really haven’t done too badly at all this year. We’ve enjoyed rhubarb (well, I did!), cherries, gooseberries, strawberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, blackberries, whimberries (foraged locally), melons, grapes, pears, apples and figs, some in modest amounts and others in gluts that allowed us to preserve stores for future use. I’m very encouraged by this, especially as things should get better each year, as our young trees start to fruit and new additions to the fruit list become established. The pathetic bare-rooted twigs I potted up last winter have flourished into healthy, robust honeyberry, gojiberry, yellow raspberry and jostaberry plants; the blackcurrant seedlings lifted last year and nurtured through a tough summer are promising great things next season; relocating raspberry canes and a young grapevine should encourage better crops, as will cutting back hedging around a mature vine and fig tree to let in more light, air and sunshine. I have seeds to grow Cape gooseberries in the spring and plenty of strawberry runners to spread around the patch; I haven’t made proper use of elderberries, rosehips and sloes this year but hopefully a fully fit back will allow me to do that next autumn. Some cooler days this week have meant we could light the stove without cooking ourselves and this has seen a mad scramble to dry as many apple rings as we can; our apples aren’t keepers and even the handpicked ones are fading fast so speed is of the essence. I’m also experimenting with making scrap apple cider (thanks to Marita for this idea in her wonderful blog) and if it’s successful, then I’m planning to turn some of it into fire cider. Let’s see what happens . . .

Chopped apples, filtered water and lots of lovely microbes to do the work . . . what could be simpler?

Roger also has a fermentation experiment going on, one of those totally unplanned things that seem to be a regular feature of our life. He has been busy with lots of outdoor projects this week, including planting a serpentine Hügel bed with grass and wildflowers to make a screen and ‘living’ seat next to the pond. We packed all sorts of organic matter into the bed last year and obviously a stray Jerusalem artichoke was in the mix somewhere, a single unexpected plant that yielded several kilos of creamy tubers when Roger pulled it out a few days ago. They are such a great food, so versatile in the kitchen and packed with prebiotic goodies, but we’ve never tried fermenting them so cue a bubbling jar of grated artichoke mixed with horseradish and chilli ~ possibly a serious blow-your-socks-off experience to come, but these things have to be done. Meanwhile, back at the pond and at long last it is filling with water; considering the liner went down in April, it has certainly taken some time. It’s not completely full yet but we can at least see how the levels fall now and where we are going to need some extra turfs to cover the exposed liner. We’ve planted marshmallow and purple loosestrife grown from seed around the edges so next we need to add some pond plants, starting with a yellow flag iris rescued from our ditch and currently living in a bucket. It all looks a bit stark at the moment but give it a year and it should be transformed into an abundant habitat for a wide range of wildlife; it’s already teeming with great diving beetles, water boatmen and pond skaters, living proof that if we provide the right sort of conditions, nature soon rushes in with the rest.

Roger has also made a good start on the next phase of hedge sorting and laying, one of our biggest projects for this time of year. He has been making informal ‘dead hedges’ with the brush in various places but I particularly like the brush dome he has created; these are such great wildlife habitats and a big part of me is hoping that little hedgehog is tucked up safe and snug deep inside.

Joël has been cracking on with his work in the barn, producing an ever-growing heap of stones and a pile of dry earth which was packed round them in the traditional way of building here. As ‘make no waste’ is one of our defining principles, Roger has been using both to create a feature that reminds me a little of an Andy Goldsworthy sheepfold, a circular drystone wall packed with layers of organic matter including that packed earth. Our plan is to fetch a large quartz rock from the quarry in the coppice to stand in the centre, then surround it with native wildflowers at the entrance to what will eventually be a small woodland. Our garden needs to be a productive, practical and sustainable ecosystem but that doesn’t mean it has to be totally utilitarian and a few quirky features here and there that raise eyebrows or smiles are all part of the fun.

As the dark evenings tighten their grip, my mind naturally turns to all things woolly and since knitting and spinning are out of the question until I can sit properly upright again, crochet is my current craft of choice. I’ve finished the ‘Harmony’ blanket at long last, it must have been the most drawn-out project ever, but I’m pleased with the final result and I’m planning to team it with the ripple ‘Cottage’ blanket (which is a similar palette of colours) as pretty bedcovers in the family guestroom we’re in the throes of creating.

While I was working the border, I found myself mulling over the possibility of a new blanket project, something smaller and bulkier which can live on the sofa for those times in winter when a little bit of extra cosiness is required. I fancied working with soft earthy tones to complement the colours in our sitting room ~ predominantly cream, terracotta and sea green ~ in another patchwork of squares but with a more limited colour palette than the ‘Harmony’ blanket. As my ideas started to take shape, I realised I hadn’t checked the ever-inspirational Attic 24 website for months and quite unbelievably, I discovered that Lucy was launching her new ‘Fireside’ blanket, which couldn’t have been closer to my thoughts if she’d tried, on that very same day. Talk about serendipity! Much as I enjoy the process of design and colour selection, I don’t see the point in reinventing the wheel so I jumped straight in and ordered a pack. It seems like ages since I embarked on a new blanket project and looking back, I see it was this time last year when I started a cotton rainbow blanket for the arrival of our new baby grandson Celyn (his name means ‘holly’ in Welsh and I love that). There is something so joyful about the anticipation of being creative with such gorgeous colours: I couldn’t wait to start.

The squares themselves are a simple enough design but the pattern is a little complicated and has to be worked in a specific order ~ no chance of going off-piste with this one! It’s unusual in that it mixes large and small squares which is a new one for me but I already love how it looks and feels. It’s not going to be a rushed job but I already find myself torn between wanting the pleasure of the crafting to last as long as possible and the desire to have the blanket finished and ready for use. Mind you, we do have two sofas . . . 😉 The evenings might be long and dark but mine are filled with colour: who says November has to be dull?

The silly season

A local friend remarked this week that Mayenne seems to be moving from having four seasons in a year to just two: summer and winter. I understand what he means. Spring can be pitifully slow to arrive, especially if April is dominated by glacial drying winds blasting down from the north-east whilst come October ~ and particularly this year ~ it seems that summer is extremely reluctant to slip away. With a current daytime temperature of 23°C falling only to 16°C over night, we are enjoying a soft, wrap-around warmth that feels anything but autumnal. The ash trees have made some sort of seasonal effort, fading to yellow and dropping their leaves, but apart from the cherries, nothing else is hurrying to join them; in fact, the mature oaks which form the greater part of our boundaries are still sporting a deep summer green. The single chestnut tree has made no move towards its beautiful coppery autumn tones but it is at least dropping a bounty of fat nuts onto the carpet of ash leaves which makes for very lazy foraging. Halved and peeled, drizzled with a little olive oil and seasoning, tucked through with sprigs of rosemary then roasted, they make a simple but fabulous dish ~ truly seasonal, even if the weather is anything but.

The garden is looking so lush and green that it reminds me of Asturias; even the squash and courgette plants that were caught by a frost a couple of weeks ago have put on lots of new growth and the globe artichokes and cardoons have grown so much new silvery foliage that I fear for their survival should the winter be hard. The Not Garden which I partly cleared some weeks ago, scattering rocket and landcress seed as I went, is a carpet of growth, with plants like New Zealand spinach and oca which really should be winding down now looking more enthusiastic and abundant than they have all year. Even the little fig tree is giving a second crop of sweet fruits. It’s complete madness, if I’m honest.

In the main potager, Roger has been planting white garlic and broad beans this week, the main problem being trying to find appropriate spaces for them amongst all the vegetation. There are already several volunteer broad bean plants where the crop was grown this year, plus peas, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, coriander and lettuce (which are literally everywhere) and I’m pretty sure that those tender individuals are in for a very rude awakening as soon as the weather turns. There’s also a mass of self-set buckwheat and I can’t even begin to describe what is going on with phacelia, which really should have had a growth check by now to hold it as a sensible winter cover crop but it’s romping away so quickly that it’s in danger of flowering. I’ve had to chop it with a hoe from around the young Savoy cabbage plants for the second time in a month as it was threatening to completely engulf them: part of me suspects I may have to do it again before we’re finished.

Then there’s the polytunnel. We’ve just spent a week in the UK and on our return, I couldn’t quite believe what had happened in our absence. The winter salad crops have exploded into a mass of colourful peppery leaves, punctuated by enough self-set lettuce to feed an army but more astoundingly, the sweet pepper and aubergine plants have all decided to have another go and are literally dripping with heavy fruits. No chance of clearing the plants out and prepping the soil for next year just yet, then! The tomatoes have finally given up the ghost in the mandala bed but there are peppers and aubergines still for the picking plus a bonus crop of borlotti beans that have appeared on plants I almost pulled out last month. At this time of year, we really should be starting on the starchier winter vegetables along with leeks and kale but it seems there is still much of summer to be had on our plates.

Wonderful though this might be from a culinary point of view, there is a more sobering side to this unseasonal weather. In the UK, which like mainland Europe is experiencing unusually mild weather, environmental experts are expressing concern about the effect on fragile ecosystems such as chalk downs and the future of the rare and seriously endangered dormouse. Certainly, there is still an unusually high level of animal activity on our patch of land. Normally by now I would be setting up bird-feeding stations but there remains an abundance of natural foods for the avian population to tuck into so no need for fat balls just yet; the garden is still full of flowers which in turn are heaving with insect visitors; lizards continue to skitter about the stone walls and I almost tripped over an enormous grass snake winding its way through the grass earlier in the week. Arriving home from our UK trip late at night, we were unable to park the car in its usual place because a very large hedgehog was busy snuffling through the gravel! What a complete treat to see this beautiful nocturnal creature going about its business, and a poignant reminder of why we don’t use slug pellets (or any other toxic substances, for that matter) in the garden. On a sadder note, the next day we found a small juvenile hedgehog dead in the garden, quickly followed by a live one the same size ~ a sibling? ~ bumbling about near the Oak Shed. It looks like, in keeping with many pairs of birds this year, the hedgehogs had a late brood and I can’t imagine that seeing a young hedgepig like this out and about in broad daylight at the end of October is a good thing. That said, I don’t like interfering with the way of nature unless absolutely necessary as it’s possible to end up causing serious problems and distress. A little research told me that this youngster was above the critical size and weight deemed necessary for survival and as it wasn’t apparently ailing, I only hope it has the maturity and fat reserves to make it through the winter. I haven’t seen any trace of it since ~ dead or alive ~ and I have my fingers crossed that’s a good sign.

I’ve recently treated myself to a copy of Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, an esteemed permaculture bible, and I love the way he talks about an ‘ecological garden’ because I think it sums up exactly the approach we practise. There is no shortage of places for creatures great and small to overwinter here as we make a conscious effort to leave plentiful piles of natural materials such as logs, brushwood, stone, hay, leaves and grass clippings in every corner of the patch and no official autumn ‘tidy up’ means there is a jungle of dried stems favoured by so many insects. Roger has been catching up with some mowing this week ~ the grass is growing at a phenomenal rate! ~ and the clippings are truly lush, full of clover and wormcasts and mixed with chopped dead leaves which makes for an excellent soil improver, mulch and compost ingredient. Under normal circumstances, I would be cutting things like the French beans off at ground level now, chopping the spent plant material over the soil surface and then mulching the lot but as I can’t get down down to the soil thanks to my dratted back problem, I’m gently trampling the plants under my wellies instead and then raking a thick pile of mulch over the top. We’re also piling the mulch straight on top of the courgette and squash plants in the lasagne and Hügel beds; it’s a bit rough and ready but will have to do for this year and as long as winter and the worms do their job, it should all help with building good soil for next season.

I smile to see how the master mower leaves large swathes of uncut grass where fungi are blooming; it’s quite a job avoiding them and I tread carefully on the grass paths so as not to crush any. It has certainly been an incredible year for them and their varied colours and often strange forms continue to fascinate me.

One light gardening job that I managed (and thoroughly enjoyed) this week was planting a few pots of spring bulbs and revamping the window boxes to bring some colour and interest to the front of the house. Roger emptied and shifted the large plastic pots of spent tomato plants, leaving a few glazed ones that I’ve planted with mixed tulips and a double narcissus called ‘Cheerfulness’ which we’ve placed right by the front door ~ beats a ‘welcome’ mat in my book any day. I’m not a fan of bought bedding plants but with circumstances having prevented me raising my own winter-flowering pansies this summer, we bought a few trays from the tiny nursery in St P; Monsieur Verraquin, who is very friendly and chatty, sells a good selection of quality plants quite literally from his front yard and I’m happy to support a local business like this that serves the community so well. The pansies look lovely and should flourish, no doubt seeding themselves all around the gravel and still going strong next May when I’m champing at the bit to put some summer colour in the boxes. This year, I decided to experiment with some different ideas in an attempt to get away from the ubiquitous and somewhat sterile pelargoniums, and planted the boxes with zinnias and violas raised from seed with a few nasturtiums poked in amongst them. The result was a bit underwhelming, in all truth. The violas made a lovely early show but faded away rapidly as soon as the hot weather arrived; the nasturtiums hated the heat and never really got going, producing a few pathetic leaves at best before promptly dying. The zinnias were the definite stars, they have flowered for many months and have been a-buzz with insect attention, but they grew way too tall and so looked more than a little odd without the underplanting I had hoped would balance their height. Well, nothing ventured and all that. There are still many zinnias flowering in the garden and I have collected and dried plenty of seed for next year; they might not be perfect candidates for window displays but they are worth their weight in gold when it comes to colour, resilience and sheer cheerfulness ~ the narcissi definitely don’t hold a monopoly on that one.

No sooner were we back from our travels this week but Joël the stonemason arrived to start his bit of the upper barn renovation. It’s an exciting time, since once he has worked his magic, we will have the shell of a large family guestroom at last; there will be much for us to do, all the fiddly finishing bits that take so much time plus laying a floor and applying numerous coats of paint, not to mention sourcing some furniture (Depot Vente, here we come again . . . ). That’s fine, we have all winter and I’ll share more about this project in a later post when the days are dark, cold and miserable. I’m assuming we’ll have a winter, of course, but in the meantime it’s far too warm and pleasant to be indoors. We’re squeezing every last minute out of this incredible weather while it lasts and it’s a joy to be busy in the garden ~ even if it does feel ridiculously unseasonal. 😊

Indian summer

It has been the most beautiful week in this little corner of Mayenne, the sort that makes my heart sing with joy. The weather has been stunning and unbelievably warm ~ hot, in fact; I have spent several afternoons stretched out on a lounger in shorts, vest and suncream, indulging unashamedly in some solar therapy, and enjoying the very best of this lovely season. I must confess, this is a benefit of being out of action (well, there has to be something, doesn’t there?) . . . the normally fit and active me wouldn’t dream of lazy sunbathing like that at such a busy time of year. Mmm, but it’s truly idyllic. 😊 The trees are just on the turn, painting warm autumnal colours against the clear blue sky, and there is an abundance of nuts and bright berries woven through the hedgerows. It is perfectly still and calm, the air as soporific as the sleepy butterflies floating through the flowers or the leisurely wingbeats of the grey heron heading sedately to fish in a neighbouring pond. Days like this are such a bonus, a bright memory to be stored and visited in the dark, miserable months of winter.

The warm weather is not the only bonus: many things in the garden are having another crack at summer, too, and it is a riot of lush green and colour. A friend commented in August how sad it was that the garden looked so different compared to the same time last year, so brown and burnt up and lacking the floral rainbows I love. He was absolutely right . . . but my goodness, it’s a different story now.

Many of the perennials are having a second flush ~ the roses in particular are putting on quite a show ~ but a large amount of the colour comes from annuals that have self-set; they might have been over in a flash and run to dry seedheads far too quickly in summer, but the second generation of plants is more than making up for lost time. We have mallow and borage, calendula and cornflowers, poppies and cosmos in broad drifts and bright pops, as well as a few newbies like coreopsis that have suddenly appeared for the first time. It’s a crazy, chaotic jungle buzzing with insects, lizards and bird life and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

We know we live in a bit of a frost pocket but we weren’t quite expecting a frost sharp enough to take some squash and courgette plants just yet ~ one of the prices we’ve paid for such gorgeous afternoons, I suppose. Not that it matters, the courgettes had finished fruiting and the squash are ready for harvesting so there’s no harm done. In more sheltered spots, tender plants are still thriving and producing; in the jumble of growth that is the mandala bed, the bright crimson of sweet peppers makes an eye-catching palette above trailing orange nasturtiums, blue borage and magenta mallow.

We’re still picking oodles of tomatoes out of that bed and the climbing borlotti beans have decided to have a second crop, their speckled red pods adding to the celebration of colour. The rainbow chard, which we almost lost to a plague of aphids in spring, has been a real trooper all summer and goes from strength to strength, so pretty in the autumn light. Here it nestles happily with Welsh onions, flat-leaved parsley and Asturian beans in the kind of exuberant and productive polyculture I love.

I’ve managed to do a few more units of study from my permaculture course, including one about preserving food: well, there’s no problem putting that one into practice at the moment! The biggest issue for us is finding enough space in appropriate places to store everything because despite having plenty of outbuildings, they don’t all tick the frost-free, dry and beastie-proof boxes, so much of this week has been spent getting more organised. As much of our harvest ends up in the freezer, we have been using up what we can to free up space for new things such as eating frozen peas alongside fresh veggies from the garden and turning several bags of cherries into jam. It’s very easy to get sucked into the classic storeman’s mentality and keep preserved food that would be better off being used; sweet summer peas (especially with gravy, I think) are lovely with a winter meal but we will have leeks, cabbages, chard and kale for greens then, so what are we saving the peas for? In the same way, I’ve been making a pile of cabbages into sauerkraut this week but we will eat it sooner rather than later, as we already have a good store of pickles and chutneys . . . and there will be plenty more cabbages to come for future sauerkraut moments.

One of our best storage spaces is the cave that adjoins the kitchen and Roger has been busy this week giving it a much-needed spring clean, evicting things that don’t need to be in there (like my dyeing equipment) and freeing up shelves and floor space for more important things. It’s a great place for jars of preserves and the bottles of apple juice that have been pasteurised, for crates of potatoes, carrots, oca, onions and garlic, strings of dried chillies and of course, the squash. Mmm, they are going to need some room; we haven’t even harvested half of them yet . . .

Our apple harvest just goes on and on, but again we are making sensible decisions about what to do with them as it is a pointless waste to spend time and energy (plus the cost of any additional ingredients) processing, preserving and storing food we will never get round to eating. Where the permaculture principle of ‘produce no waste’ is concerned, I think this is an important consideration; we need to stand back and look at our waste stream in a completely holistic way. We’re making as much apple juice as we can but 50 or so litres will do us for a year; we’re freezing pots of compote but I’m also keeping a large bowl of fresh stuff going in the fridge, perfect for my cold ‘porridge’ breakfasts. If the weather ever cools enough to light the stove ~ and I’m not wishing that on us just yet ~ we will dry several jars of apple rings and I will make a few trays of apple and cinnamon leather. We will store as many of the best hand-picked fruits for as long as they will keep but we have to accept that we simply can’t use them all and the last of the windfalls will feed the birds and the compost heap. I don’t see that as waste, just natural recycling.

In my last post I mentioned the tremendous amount of self-setting that is going on around the patch and this week has seen the trend continuing, with peas being the seed of the moment; there’s even a very healthy plant that’s popped up between the paving setts outside the kitchen door and I have no idea quite how it got there. The first row of outdoor peas I sowed in spring were a disaster and needed replanting several times due to patchy germination and the fact that something (small and furry, I suspect) dug them up and scoffed them. It seems nothing short of ironic that we now seem to have a far more enthusiastic row that have self-set in their place! More and more, I find myself thinking that it makes increasing sense to let nature get on with these things and we’ll just harvest bits and pieces whenever and wherever they decide to grow. I do have a cunning plan where next year’s early outdoor peas are concerned, though, and I’m collecting the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to do a bit of pre-sowing; given that we buy eco-rolls, recycled and compacted so that one goes a long, long way, I doubt I’ll have enough even by spring but it’s a start. I’ll be planting some early peas in the tunnel again as they were highly successful (despite the mice transplanting them), and I’m also going to put in a few broad beans this time which will crop ahead of the outdoor ones, which by all accounts were pretty disappointing this year. Belt and braces all the way . . .

April peas ~ the benefit of growing under cover.

Another plan we have for next year is to extend the existing Hügel beds as well as create at least one new one. It’s been interesting so see just how successfully they retain moisture and support growth even in their first season and next year I intend to branch out from planting squash on them and experiment with other food plants as well. As the ‘Crown Prince’ foliage dies back to reveal a bumper crop of blue-skinned squash, an unexpected and very welcome bonus has appeared in the shape of some huge and very beautiful field mushrooms growing beneath them.

It is a tremendous year for fungi and every morning sees more and more blooms around the garden and in the verges along the lanes; the local woodlands are always brimming at this time of year and Roger tells me that amongst other things, there are parasol mushrooms in our coppice ~ interesting, as I have only ever seen them growing in pasture land before. They are every bit as edible as field mushrooms, although slightly different in texture, and along with the current abundance of chestnuts they offer an opportunity for some satisfying seasonal foraging. Mushroom hunting is a very popular pastime here and one day in the future, I’d like to head into the woods on an organised foraging session with an expert and learn to identify more of the kinds that grow locally. Anyone feeling unsure about fungi they have collected can take them to the pharmacy for accurate identification but personally I prefer to leave them well alone unless I know for sure they are safe to eat (and touch). It’s an interesting exercise trying to put names to the fungi around the garden, but even using comprehensive and detailed guides, I end up with many labelled ‘No Idea’ ~ and they are definitely best left to do their thing undisturbed.

A huge blessing of the current weather is that we have not wanted or needed to light a fire in the house yet. There has been no question of lighting the kitchen stove since because of the way the system was installed, it means having the radiators on upstairs and the house is so warm, we would cook in bed! With sunshine streaming in through the windows for several hours each day, we are still enjoying passive solar heating so that even when it goes dark, we haven’t felt the need to light the sitting room woodburner either. All this will change soon enough but in the meantime, every day where we are not burning logs is a bonus and helps to keep our log store looking healthy. Roger has spent some time in the coppice this week, cutting fallen deadwood to season for future winters; it’s an ongoing task, but there are enough fallen trees to last us several years and although burning wood is currently being much maligned by certain governments, we like the independence it gives us, especially in the light of the current energy crisis.

We have just changed electricity providers and had quite a time of it trying to persuade them that our consumption is next to nothing; despite the proof being there loud and clear in nearly two years of bills, no-one seems to want to accept that we can survive on so little! In some ways, we are a bit of an anomaly as our electricity consumption falls over the winter months when we use the stove for cooking and heating water as well as a space heater. The French government has capped electricity price rises to 4% and strategies are being put in place to safeguard supplies but to be honest, if there are power cuts over winter they won’t bother us too much. Keeping the freezer functioning is our biggest priority and we have a generator to hand for that should it become necessary, otherwise we are well-provisioned with logs, candles and matches and dab hands at rustling up hot meals over wood. It pays to be prepared for all eventualities but at the moment, it’s hard to imagine those long, dark days of howling wind and lashing rain or snow and ice and winter storms . . . for now, I am more than happy basking in this rather beautiful last blast of summer living.

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. 😊