Peas, preserves and planting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soft fruit is already setting: these are redcurrants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the potatoes are coping with the drought.

Something from nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down to earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fade to grey

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since we moved here. We’re usually fairly cool customers but this time last year, the stress levels were running pretty high as we headed into the final days of negotiating the obstacle course of lockdowns and travel restrictions in the scramble for that magical pre-Brexit deadline date. I still feel nothing but complete gratitude that we made it, even if it was by the skin of our teeth! Things are certainly calmer this year and that extends to the weather; gone are the winds that stripped the last of the leaves from trees and hedges, gone are the rainstorms and the spiteful flurries of sleet that drove us indoors, gone are the frosty mornings that turned everything to a rimey crisp. This is what I think of as ‘nothing’ weather: quiet, still, dry . . . and very, very grey.

Flocks of bramblings silhouetted in the oak trees at sunset.

In an effort to persuade my pupils to use imaginative language in their writing, I made a series of ‘colour clouds’ for my classroom wall to help them choose more descriptive words than just plain old red or blue. I don’t remember the list I had for alternatives to grey but I swear we have seen the lot in the sky and landscape over the last couple of weeks: gunmetal, slate, pewter, dove, smoke, mushroom, ash, silver, pearl . . . how is it possible to have so many nuances of something that barely qualifies as a colour? Some days, the cloud has been down to the ground, creating an eerie, drippy stillness in the garden and an almost claustrophobic sense of oppression and gloom; on others, the sky has been blanketed in higher, billowy mounds, soft as a pigeon’s breast and shot through with ripples and blushes of palest blues and pinks as the sun sinks towards the unseen horizon. It might not be as uplifting as sunshine in a blue sky, but there is a certain seasonal beauty to it, nonetheless, and it is definitely no excuse to be stuck indoors. Hedging, logging and gardening continue undaunted!

Stripped back to basics: the winter garden under grey skies.

What a surprise, then, to wake in the middle of this pervasive grey to a clear sky and day of brilliant sunshine. It was like one of those children’s magic painting books where a sweep of water transforms a white page into soft rainbows; suddenly, the blues and greens are back and pops of colour seem to shine from every corner. The birds are no longer black silhouettes against a grey canvas but bright in their winter plumage: yellows and blues of tits, red of robins and bramblings, rose of chaffinches and linnets. Squadrons of starlings fly fast and low through the garden then alight, chattering and whistling, in the top of an oak tree, their sleek metallic plumage dappled like oil on water. Jays, raucous and ever more daring it seems, move in flashes of pink and blue mischief whilst green woodpeckers shimmy up trunks and branches in coiffered caps of startling scarlet. There are still colourful beads of berries strung through the hedges and even here and there, a little burst of floral sunshine, too.

This ancient cider apple tree was the first to drop its leaves but has held on to plenty of fruit. The birds are feasting well!
Calendula living up to its name . . . they have flowered every month in the last year.
Spindleberries in a bare hedge.

Despite all this, the garden suddenly seems so bare, stripped back to its skeletal framework in complete contrast to the fecund fullness and colour of summer. It’s not totally devoid of interest and beauty, though, and above all, this is the perfect time to assess what we have done so far and make plans to add to the structure during these dormant months. Roger has finished laying the long run of hazel hedge and now we are planning to plant new ones to break up the spaces and create shelter for the potager. Several weeks ago, we spent a morning lifting young tree seedlings which had self-set around the patch and potted them up in the polytunnel to use as part of a native hedge: oak, hazel, holly, hawthorn, ash, honeysuckle and spindleberry made for a very good start. I’ve also taken hardwood cuttings of red dogwood and flowering currant which will be worthy additions to a hedge or stand alone as shrubs depending on how we feel. I love creating gardens in this way, using what is to hand and spreading it around; one of the smaller lasagne beds I made has been planted up with blackcurrant seedlings lifted from beneath the parent bush and a clump of chives split into several decent roots. That said, at this early stage of the garden’s construction we need to buy in plants to help things along, too, so we are waiting for a delivery of bare-rooted plants in early January as well as the replacement rugosa roses which hopefully this time will be red.

Red dogwood makes a brilliant splash of winter colour; soon we will be planting yellow and orange varieties, too.
Cuttings and young plants overwintering in the tunnel ‘nursery.’

Extending the range of fruit here is a top priority and we’ve made good progress with that over the last few weeks. We’ve planted two cherry trees, both bigarreau varieties and highly recommended for their flavour: ‘Tardif de Vignola’ is an Italian variety, late flowering so hopefully frost-resistant and ‘Coeur de Pigeon’ is a French heirloom variety dating back to1540 with heart-shaped fruits that give it its name. We’d like to add a couple more to the collection and after that, our priority will be plums. The neglected soft fruit bushes and raspberry canes have recovered well with lots of loving care through this year and I’m hopeful of a good crop next season. I’ve planted a jostaberry (a cross between a blackcurrant and gooseberry) for a bit of fun and also a ‘Fall Gold’ raspberry which I’m very excited about as it is apparently capable of producing two crops of yellow fruits in a year. Roger has started to make a plant support structure by the mandala bed using stout hazel poles from the hedge laying; we’ve planted a rescued grapevine at one end and a thornless blackberry ‘Black Satin’ at the other in the hope that between them they will make an attractive and edible hedge. I also have several honeyberries, a goji berry and a self-fertile sea buckthorn to go in, all new plants for us and interesting additions to our food plants, as is a Sichuan pepper already planted.

Young jostaberry

We have quite a reputation now of being the crazy couple who arrive at the déchetterie with an empty trailer and take away other people’s rubbish – namely piles of cardboard, which the attendants are only too pleased to help us load from the grand carton skip. This week we have been using it to extend several beds in the vegetable patch by sheet mulching and I have to admit, I’ve found the change in the box contents a fascinating study in human behaviour: where previously, the cardboard had wrapped barbecues, patio sets and metal-framed paddling pools, now it’s all heat pumps, woodburners and oversized televisions. Cardboard boxes have clearly-defined seasons, it seems (or perhaps I just need to get out more)!

Removing staples and tape from a pile of cardboard.
Laying and watering sheets to extend a soft fruit patch . . .
. . . then piling on the organic layers to build soil.

Having plenty of piles of organic matter to hand, we soon managed to build several lasagne layers on top of the cardboard, but changed our plans in a couple of places after having chewed over our ideas a bit. I’d marked out a fairly huge bed in one place but given we plan to plant a curve of hedge near one end of it, Roger suggested we left an area to keep as grass as it will make the perfect sheltered, sun-drenched spot for a seat. I love the way our garden designs evolve like this, it’s partly why I never feel inclined to draw a proper design . . . which is a terrible confession for someone studying permaculture, I know. 😆 We often come up with our best ideas spontaneously and I like the fluid nature of this, the fact that nothing is set in stone and we can change our plans if that’s what feels right. I read a timely reminder this week that gardeners are an integral part of their ecosystem and whilst it’s all too easy to focus on the practicalities of producing food or supporting wildlife, we need to bear in mind that a little ornamental planting simply for the sake of beauty or some scattered seats and hammocks for rest and relaxation are not sinful indulgences. Ah well, a seat in the sun it is, then!

The garden is constantly changing and evolving.

Although this can feel such a dead and empty time of year, we are still enjoying a decent fresh harvest from the garden, namely cabbage, kale, chard, leeks, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes along with rocket from the tunnel. Digging a few bits and pieces for a tray of mixed roast veg this week, we lifted what must be the biggest crop we’ve ever had from a single Jerusalem artichoke tuber, incredible when I remember how we literally just shoved them in the ground last winter and forgot all about them. Talk about thriving on neglect! The white garlic I planted a few weeks ago has sent up rows of glossy green shoots; there is something wonderful about that brave new growth and the promise of food to come next summer.

Garlic shoot
There’s still a colourful jumble of fresh veggies to enjoy.
The biggest, most productive Jerusalem artichokes ever. For a sense of scale, the knife is 20cm (8″) long.

The wind might be as light as thistledown but it’s a north-easterly, sharp as honed steel, the kind that makes our nose and eyes stream and nips at fingers and toes even when they’re snuggly wrapped in many layers. It has a brittle, metallic tang that makes me think of pine forests and snowfields so many miles to the north, places where the land is deeply frozen and daylight scant and scarce. I think, too, of Sam and Adrienne in Norway and our shared sadness and disappointment that their long hoped-for visit has been cancelled as a result of the Covid situation. How many more times must we go through this? 😪 I can take or leave Christmas at the best times but now I have no stomach for it at all; my healing will come – as it always does – from immersing myself in the garden and local landscape, no matter how grey and drear it might look. I will bring in some greenery and light a few candles to celebrate the passing of the solstice; we will cook a lovely meal together and raise a toast to our loved ones, wherever they may be, in the hope that 2022 will bring us the time together we crave. On a kitchen shelf sits a Kilner jar of sloe gin I made specially for Sam and Adrienne and I shall keep it as a gift until we are finally able to see them. For me, the rich jewelled magenta of the macerating fruits, a celebration of nature’s autumnal bounty, is now a symbol of hope and optimism, something to bring smiles and banish sadness. The days might be dark and the landscape bleached but there is still joy and comfort to be found in colour, light and love. To everyone kind enough to read my ramblings, whether you are celebrating this festive season or not, I wish you a healthy, happy and peaceful time. Until next year, my friends . . ! 😊

How typical that the only clear night in weeks coincided with a full moon: not much good for looking at the stars so I did some holly gazing instead!

An apple a day . . .

We have been blessed with a spell of weather so gorgeous it feels like a blast of summer, mild nights and days so warm and sunny we are back in t-shirts and shorts: this is the Mayenne I remember! The sunshine is golden, the garden full of spider silk and butterflies and heady with the fragrance of apples; the air trills with the songs of woodlarks and is so soft and soapy, you could bathe it in. It is pure bliss and I don’t want to miss a minute. I’ve been spending my days zipping about the garden getting lots done, then picking a trugload or more of beans (Asturian and French) and sitting on the seat in the vegetable patch, shelling them in the late afternoon sunshine and enjoying the moment. I’m not the only one.

The weather is perfect for harvesting apples and we have been filling at least one large crate every day. It’s definitely a two-person job but I’m not sure which role is the more dangerous: wobbling about on top of the ladder and reaching high into the branches to pick the fruit (why are the best ones all at the top?) or standing underneath to catch the dropped apples and transfer them to the barrow, whilst avoiding the inevitable free-fallers. Well, Roger is much braver than me when it comes to heights so just call me Isaac Newton! 😆

It’s certainly worth the work, we have already picked many kilos and there are plenty more to come; from what seemed like a disappointing start flavourwise, we are actually blessed with several trees that produce delicious apples . . . what to do with them all now?

Obviously, we are eating them daily as raw fruit and we will be putting plenty into store and observing how well they keep. They are fine for tarts and the like but don’t cook down into a fluffy pulp like cooking varieties so there’s no point in making compote to freeze. I’m planning to dry as many as I can once the weather turns and drives me indoors but for now, the big story is juice. Our wooden press arrived last week and after a happy hour constructing it, we were keen to try it out. Before pressing, the apples need washing then chopping and mashing into small bits in order to release maximum juice; sane people buy a scratter to sit on top of the press so the apples can be chopped and fed in directly but we didn’t want to rush to buy a whole lot of new equipment before we’d explored just how viable the apple juice project is. So, how to mash? We’re quartering the apples, coring them (not essential but we’ve found it helps), cutting them crossways as chunks seem to mash better than slices then putting them in a food-grade bucket and pounding them with a (new) pickaxe handle. It takes a while but I like this hands-on connection with the whole process and it’s very therapeutic in a vandalistic sort of way.

It’s really not a bad way to spend an hour or so, especially taking it in turns to chop and mash. Our press takes 12 litres of apple pulp so we keep going until it’s full to the top.

The press is a pretty nifty and solid piece of kit engineered from metal and beech wood. Roger was very quick to see that it would need to be bolted down to a board and firmly clamped to the table to stop it dancing about under pressure; he also added several extra wooden blocks on top to raise the height of the handle which gives us more pressing power. So, fully charged, turn the crank and . . .

. . . wow! Juice comes flowing out at great speed into the receptacles below. A full press gives us three to four litres each time which we filter through doubled muslin and then bottle. We’re experimenting with two methods: sterilised plastic bottles to go into the freezer and glass bottles pasteurised in a pan of water to keep in dry storage. We think this year we should yield enough to last us six months which makes us self-sufficient in yet another food for half a year; now we know what we’re doing, we’ll aim for a whole year’s worth next autumn. It might not be the prettiest looking juice in the world, but the flavour is truly amazing. Cheers!

I’m not sure why, but our to-do list just seems to keep on growing – needless to say the poor old kitchen has been abandoned once again, we really will finish the revamp one day. That said, weather like this is such a joy that it would be rude not to make the most of it; after all, cold, wet, dark days will come soon enough so it’s good to grab the chance to get out and about a bit on two wheels or two feet and make the most of this gift. Staying with the theme of apples, it seemed like the perfect chance this week to revisit the apple arboretum at Sainte-Anne, not only to enjoy the trees at their bountiful best, but in the hope of perhaps identifying some of the apple varieties we have in our orchard.

I am always struck by what a beautiful and peaceful place this is, we are so lucky to have it on our doorstep. It is very typical of the shared, respected community spaces that are so abundant in Mayenne and France in general, a welcoming place that can be enjoyed by everyone. The lake is open to fisherfolk in the summer months and there are wooden shelters, benches and plenty of picnic tables; it’s a great spot for families and definitely one on the list for when our little grandmunchkins come to visit. It’s also a popular venue for school fieldtrips, giving children the chance to broaden understanding and experience of their environment and nature at large, as well as local history and culture. I love the fact that several new information boards scattered throughout the arboretum have been based on what the children have written; what a wonderful way to acknowledge, celebrate and encourage them as the future guardians of their locality and the natural world.

Roger sometimes runs this way on his morning outings and I was keen to see the small apiary which he told me had been added since my last visit; as former – and hopefully, future – beekeepers this sort of thing is always interesting and for me, the three hives sited in a fenced area, complete with wooden observation shelter, have made a perfect addition to the arboretum. The bees were boiling out of their hives in the morning sunshine, not to visit fruit blossom, obviously, but it didn’t take too long to see that their flight paths were leading to banks of ivy flowers which make such valuable forage at this time of year.

The arboretum was created in 1992 by grafting donated scions, in an effort to preserve as many local apple varieties as possible; there are currently over 250 mature trees, mostly apples but with the more recent addition of 30 or so pear trees. Seeing the apples in ‘full fruit’ brings home just what an incredible variety there is, the branches dripping with fruits in many shades of green, yellow, orange and red: truly beautiful.

At the entrance to the orchard there is a board and numbered map showing the position of each variety, their musical names creating a rich, linguistic tapestry. I could have spent the whole day simply wandering from tree to tree, appreciating their autumnal beauty but the apple press was calling from home so I had to make do with a quick whizz up and down the rows in search of something that matched the two main varieties we are juicing. I’m not entirely sure I struck gold – needles and haystacks spring to mind – but I think what we have are ‘Binet Rouge’ which is a classic sweet cider apple and ‘De Fer’ which is all good news: late flowering (so unlikely to be frosted), reliable cropper, multi-use fruit with excellent keeping qualities. Can’t say fairer than that.

For our second little wander this week we went back to Saint-Léonard-des-Bois, a pretty town in the nearby Alpes Mancelles which I wrote about earlier in the year. We planned to do a marked 10k / 6 mile walk in two loops, following the fascinating ‘Histoires Géologiques’ route which climbs 275 metres and spans a mere 600 million years! We started at the Domaine du Gasseau picnic site with a flask of coffee and patisserie (a treat we haven’t had for some time) then headed down into Saint-Léonard; the town is built in a loop of the Sarthe river and crossing the first of two bridges, we stopped to enjoy the view.

The town itself is pretty and welcoming, a popular attraction for campers and canoeists in summer and the sort of quiet place where you can just sit outside a cafe and watch the world go by. Passing the mairie and church square, we wandered through narrow streets of ancient houses still boasting colourful floral displays, then climbed steeply out of the town and into leafy woodland.

The woodland was a tranquil place to wander, still green and full of dappled sunlight but in times gone by it was a very different story. This was the site of a flourishing nineteenth-century slate quarry and although it was difficult to imagine the bustle and noise in what is such a peaceful spot today, there were plenty of deep water-filled holes and slate cliffs hinting at the industrial heritage.

Here we found the first of many information boards (in French and English) which were to take us on a fascinating tour through geology and time during our walk, accompanied by samples of various rocks which we could observe and handle. The slates from these quarries were traditionally used for roofs but apparently being high in iron levels as seen in the colour of the rocks – and, I would add, the rich red of the local soil – they had a shorter lifespan than other slates.

The path led us along a ridge above the Vallée de Misère, where in times gone by the trees had been felled for timber and the land heavily grazed; today, it is restored to a wide expanse of mixed woodland full of deciduous trees just on the turn, suggesting that in a couple of weeks’ time the autumn colours will be gorgeous. A little further on at the Butte de Narbonne Sud, the information board told us we were standing on the edge of an ancient volcanic crater an incredible 20 kilometres wide; no volcanic activity today, but the views are beautiful.

We walked along the top of the gorge, the drop below us so precipitous that the local sapeurs-pompiers were using it as a rescue training area, clambering up and down on ropes; we declined their tongue in cheek suggestion of trying the little path they were using down to the river! The views beyond were so typical of Mayenne and Sarthe, a rolling landscape of farmland and woodland dotted with stone houses and barns. We read that the manoir below us was roofed in local slate . . .

. . . and further on, that the ancient cross had been hewn from local stone.

Walking back down into the town to close our first loop, Roger pointed out that the second one would take us to the top of that wooded ridge opposite. Oh good, not done with climbing yet, then!

This time we headed out of town in the opposite direction, crossing the second river bridge; those flowers were a real show.

After a steep climb through woodland on what felt like an ancient trackway, the path opened out into farmland for a while and gave us some more lovely views. The hedgerows were beautiful, still very full and tinged with soft autumn shades, bright with scarlet splashes of hips and haws; bryony and honeysuckle berries were threaded through like brilliant necklaces while spindle berries hung in pink spatters, not yet ready to reveal the vibrant shock of orange seeds hidden inside. This was the oldest part of our geological tour, walking on rocks formed aeons ago in the depths of a southern hemisphere ocean; I always find such information completely mind-blowing. What an incredible planet we live on.

Having reached the summit, we traversed the ridge on a path that felt like a wide woodland ride with bright sunlit clearings along its length. The trees were tall but not dense, giving us tantalising glimpses of the landscape until suddenly everything opened out and there was Saint-Léonard-des-Bois nestling in the valley below us, pretty as a picture.

Following a trail down, we arrived back at our starting point with time for a diversion to the Domaine du Gasseau potager and a quick peep to see how it is faring at this end of the year. There was still plenty of interest and colour thanks to the likes of nasturtiums, borage, Chinese lanterns, amaranth and an abundance of cherry tomatoes still fruiting this late in the season. The kiwi vines were flaunting small fruits and the whole garden was fragrant with the soporific scent of hops trailing over the pergolas. It was as charming as ever, but noticing how the beds were in the process of being mulched with compost and fallen leaves, I realised it was time to stop galavanting and get home to do the same . . . oh, and press another crate of apples in the sunshine, of course. 😊

A life of luxury

I love this time of year, when the weather is kind; there is such a wonderful, gentle, subtle sense of the seasons changing, of sliding softly into autumn without any great jolt or shock to the system. I love the cooler, misty, cobwebby mornings leading to balmy, sun-drenched afternoons. I love how the still-green landscape starts to fade at the edges, leaves mellowing into artistic tinges of yellow and orange that hint at the bright fire to come. I feel wistful to see the last of the swallows leave but amused by the chattering of goldfinch flocks feasting on the sunflower seeds (I’d planned to harvest those heavy heads for the bird table but it seems I’ve been beaten to it). I love the straggly mingling of rudbeckia and Michaelmas daisies and the shameless colour of the red admiral and peacock butterflies who sip nectar from their depths. I love the scent of apples and mushrooms and wet leaves and wood smoke.

What I don’t love is an overnight forecast of 5°C, which at 7°C below normal on 30th September seemed very unnecessary. I don’t need to be waking to frost-encrusted grass yet, no matter how pretty it might look in the morning sunshine: there’s all winter to enjoy that kind of parky malarkey. Thankfully, it was just a blip; the temperature recovered rapidly and nothing seemed to have suffered, except for the squash plants. To be fair, they had been dying back naturally for some time anyway but that chilly night left the leaves limp and blackened – just the prod I needed to get on and harvest them. Now, those of you who have followed my blog for some time will know what a chaotic event the squash harvest always was in our Asturian garden: it was definitely a two-person job, one sliding up and down the slopes rescuing heavy squash before they barrelled off down the mountainside, the other ferrying them about in a wheelbarrow under a very worrying pull of gravity. Once cleaned, they then all needed hauling up many steps to the horreo for seasoning and storage: all in all, quite a workout. What a difference it was this week on the flat, managing the whole thing on my own without a single escapee. Here’s the result . . . from outside, 14 ‘Crown Prince’, 6 butternut ‘Hunter’ and 15 Casa Victorio Specials and from the tunnel,15 butternut ‘Hunter.’

Six butternuts from two outdoor plants, fifteen (plus two more to come) from two indoor plants. Note the size difference, too. That’s the benefit of a polytunnel!

There are a couple of butternuts still ripening in the tunnel but the total so far is 50 squash. Should be enough! 🤣 Okay, probably far too many, but they represent an important staple food for us and will keep until next May: eight months of delicious, nutritious sustenance – who can argue with that? I love the fact that they have grown so prolifically on their hügel bed: for me it’s the perfect recycling of an ugly ornamental conifer that had outlived its usefulness. I also love what happens with our Specials, that crazy mix of different fruits grown from the seed of a single squash. ‘Crown Prince’ and ‘Hunter’ are commercial F1 varieties; we grow them because they make good eating and they do exactly what it says on the packet. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing. The open-pollinated varieties are far more fun, though, and have the benefit of a wider genetic biodiversity which it is so important to sustain. In the middle row below, you can see five distinct types of squash all from the same ‘parent’ (which is usually the final squash to be eaten last season so I suppose, if nothing else, we are selecting for good keeping qualities); if we continued to grow selectively over a number of years by closing the flowers to pollinators and doing the job ourselves, we could eventually create our own variety – something I’d like a crack at in the future.

In the meantime, having been wiped clean and dry, the beauties are now seasoning in the shelter of the outhouse before going into the barn for winter storage. Mmm, the comforting luxury of lunchtime squash, bean and chilli soup beckons . . .

Talking of luxuries, we are enjoying what can only be described as a glut of aubergines from the tunnel; no matter how many we harvest, there always seems to be at least another twenty to pick, so much so that I’m even looking into spicy aubergine chutney and pickle recipes in an attempt to make the most of such bounty. We’re having a lot of fun using them and I can happily report that grilled slices over crème fraîche and mozzarella make a great homemade pizza topping; in fact, drizzled with pesto made from the last of the outdoor basil and stored garlic and walnuts, scattered with a handful of peppery rocket from the tunnel and served with a chunky slaw of autumn cabbage and carrots, aubergine pizzas are a wonderful celebration of the changing of the seasons. Then there’s the sweetcorn, something we haven’t managed to grow in any great quantity for many years; boy, are we making up for it now! The cobs are huge and covered in sweet, succulent kernels, to be honest a meal in themselves.

Like other seasonal luxuries such as asparagus, globe artichokes and strawberries, I think sweetcorn is best cooked and eaten as simply as possible and for us, the absolute favourite treatment is to cook whole cobs on the barbecue. If you’ve never tried it then trust me, it’s the food of kings, a true culinary delight we learned about in our years spent living in Cyprus. The merest whiff takes me straight back to Limassol seafront where, under bright moth-circled lanterns, the corn sellers wafted air across their charcoal braziers sending the appetising scent of caramelising corn to mingle with those of jasmine and sea breezes. Delicious, definitely my kind of takeaway food – and isn’t it incredible how evocative simple scents can be?

Not quite seasonal: one of the globe artichoke plants raised from seed this year has decided to have a bit of an October moment.

Having enjoyed plentiful harvests of peaches, figs and kiwis in recent years it might seem a bit mundane to be excited about an abundant apple harvest but I am, I really am. Apples are, after all, a fundamental part of my heritage and culture as well as being an incredibly versatile and reliable food source. Picking a sun-kissed apple straight from the tree, running a fingernail across its smooth skin, inhaling the unique scent and then taking a bite is a world away from any experience on offer from a supermarket. I love all the folklore and mythology that surrounds this humble fruit but more than anything, the wonderful variety and charming names: Keswick Codlin, Pitmaston Pineapple, Cornish Gilliflower, Peasgood’s Nonsuch and King of the Pippins trip off the English tongue like a spellbinding fairy tale whilst the French Orleans Reinette, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Bonne Hotture, Binet Rouge and Franc Rambour sound completely delightful.

For us, this year is a voyage of Discovery (aargh, I’ve just realised what I did there – no pun intended) as we sample the fruit from the nine exceedingly mature trees that came with the property; I am spending many happy moments picking and wandering and munching. One is most definitely a cider apple, another has large yellow fruits that are almost completely tasteless; there are three varieties grafted onto a single tree, of which one is an acceptable russet type and the others fair to middling. The rest are a pretty mixed bunch but in general, the further up the tree we go, the bigger the fruit and better the flavour. By far the best is the old tree in the Secret Garden; it was the first to bloom in spring and the apples are small but delicious, very juicy and without question up there with a Cox’s Orange Pippin for flavour.

A bowl of delights, fresh from the tree.

Now we need to decide where to go from here: we will pick and store the better fruit as dessert apples but there are no cookers (which comes as no surprise) so one or two of those are on the top of our late autumn tree planting list. This is apple territory and much of the local orchard harvest goes to making three big regional products: cider, pommeau and calvados. We would prefer to use ours for fresh juice – another local speciality – but that comes with problems, not least the lack of a press. The local country store offers days where we could take our bulk harvest along to be pressed, but then how could we keep the juice? Without being pasteurised it would go off or ferment and freezing would require a lot of space. Perhaps the better bet would be to store the apples as long as possible and juice them as we go along – but how? We had an electric juicer once but it was hopeless for apples, we spent more time cleaning it and removing the pulp than drinking the juice. Decisions, decisions . . . in the end, I’ve ordered a traditional wooden 12 litre press to be delivered this week and we’ve decided the time has come to put the chest freezer (left here by the previous owners) to use, no bad thing really since the upright freezer is rapidly filling with produce anyway. Time to pick apples, then!

Harvesting and preserving food aside, there are other things we have turned our attention to this week in preparation for the colder months to come. Where laundry is concerned, I’ve always preferred to line-dry outdoors but a run of short, cold, wet days makes that impossible. We don’t have (or want) a dryer and I’m sad to have waved goodbye to my trusty wooden airer as there simply isn’t any practical way of mounting it over the kitchen woodstove, so a Plan C has been called for. We rigged a temporary zigzag of a line in the outhouse earlier in the year but it’s far from ideal for several reasons; first, it’s too small to take a full load of washing and no good for things like bed sheets; second, until we get the barn sorted – another winter project – this space is being used as a sheltered workshop and washing just gets in the way; third, it’s the only place we have to season the squash haul and they make access to the line very tricky. In any case, we don’t really want a washing line there as our eventual plan is to use the space as a practical outdoor area for activities such as soapmaking and, most definitely, a sheltered dining area so we can eat out and barbecue in all weathers.

The solution we hit on in the end was to relocate to the Oak Shed where there is ample room for a long stretch of line and two wide, open doorways allow a good breeze to blow through without letting the rain in. It’s much further from the house but that really doesn’t bother me; at least the laundry can start its drying process if nothing else and will come in smelling of fresh air to finish drying on a stand-up airer in a warm room. Job done . . . well, not quite that quickly: as with so many other tasks here, there was a bit of a knock-on effect and the line couldn’t go up until a pile of huge seasoned tree sections had been split and stacked out of the way. Which brings me on to the next autumnal preparation . . .

. . . logs! Our house is heated with wood and hauling, chopping and stacking enough logs to see us through a winter is hard, ongoing work; ideally, they need to be seasoned for two years before burning so we are always working well ahead of ourselves. We have stacks at various stages scattered about the property; those below are the latest to be collected from the coppice, birch logs split and stacked to dry in the fresh air.

Their final resting place is a store in the barn, along with several bags of chopped dry morning sticks. There’s every chance we don’t have enough to see us through our first complete winter here, in which case we will buy in a ready-seasoned load if stocks start to run low. It might be work, but the beauty is it boosts our self-reliance; we aren’t depending on energy companies to keep us warm (and isn’t that a topic of conversation at the moment?) and with careful management of the coppice, we should have the best, renewable ‘solar’ power for years to come.

In terms of stoves, there has been a bit of work to be done there, too. The kitchen stove works well as a space heater and runs two radiators comfortably but struggles with all four; to that end, we’ve installed a woodburner in the sitting room which will tick over nicely on minimum logs, heating that room and the open upstairs room which means we can turn two radiators off. With reduced pressure on the kitchen stove, it should be a lot better to cook on, too; the hob is brilliant but the oven temperature was disappointing last year – giving the internal workings a good clean has helped matters, so fingers crossed for roast dinners as well as casseroles this winter! One of the problems with the system is that there was no thermostat and the pump switch is outside in the cave, meaning we either had to get up in the night and go outside to switch it off or waste electricity letting it pump cold water round the system for several hours. We’ve just fitted a flue thermostat, it’s not the prettiest of things but it does mean we can control the pump from inside now. The other major concern was that the way the system is set up, if there is a power cut then the water could boil and the tank explode unless we put the fire out quickly (not easy!); to that end, we’ve set the pump on an uninterrupted power supply which will keep going for 24 hours in the event of a power cut, giving us time to get things under control and the option of continuing to be able to cook hot meals without electricity. Phew! With power cuts in mind, I’ve also been putting candles and lamps in strategic positions ‘just in case’ as it’s a bit frustrating trying to find the things once the lights have all gone out. I think we’re ready; cue the mildest, power cut-free winter on record . . .

Overhauled and ready to go: the woodstove with candles and lamp on the mantel (plus a tiny sneak preview of the new-look kitchen for those readers who are impatient to see it: more pics soon, I promise!)

Lack of insulation was a problem when we moved in last December so putting up new wood panel ceilings and packing a deep layer of insulation behind was a priority and one that made a noticeable difference to the temperature of the house. The windows are large and the south-facing aspect means we can benefit from passive solar heating all year round but unlike many local properties, we don’t have wooden shutters to help with night-time insulation. Instead, I’ve hung heavy lined curtains wherever possible which should help to keep things cosy. In the two upstairs rooms, the windows on the back of the house are in fact full-length glass doors; they let in plenty of light and as they face north, overheating in summer isn’t an issue. The previous owners left single full-length curtains in colourful Indian batik patterns which I’m happy to keep but they are so very thin that I definitely need to make some linings for them (luckily, I’ve just discovered a very handy local fabric and wool shop – oh happy, happy days!). The other problem with the door-windows is that they opened onto a long drop into thin air . . . aaargh, who ever thought that was a good idea? We decided the best way of making things safer was to add a balcony and the result is beautifully crafted, the kind of skilled workmanship in natural materials I love. The carpenter suggested Douglas fir as it has so much natural resin that it only requires a couple of coats of linseed oil a year; it feels like something of a luxury, the perfect spot to greet the morning or sit in the evening, but at least I’m no longer worrying about either of us taking up sleepwalking. It also happens to be the perfect size for my yoga mat . . . 😊

I’m not a great fan of seasonal bedding plants as they are an environmental nightmare, but craving some colour in early spring I succumbed to buying a few trays of pansies and planted up three window boxes. I have to admit they were worth every centime; they flowered for months and months in a cheery mix of bright colours and scattered plenty of seeds which have spent all summer popping up as new plants in the gravel below. I’ve refreshed the troughs this week, scraping back the top layer of soil and compost, filling the trench with shredded comfrey leaves for a slow-release fertiliser and replacing the top layer with added homemade compost, then planting little self-set pansies lifted from the gravel. Hopefully, they will give us months of floral colour which haven’t cost a thing – or the planet.

For the summer months, I replaced the pansy troughs with ivy-leaved geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer), another bought indulgence which proved unexpectedly popular with hummingbird hawkmoths. In fairness, they have been amazing, tumbling enthusiastically down the front of the house and coping admirably with whatever the weather has thrown at them. They are still going strong but my plan is to cut them back soon, give them a good feed and move them to the polytunnel where I can coddle them all through winter in the hope of a repeat performance next year. Flowers aside, looking at the photo below I had two thoughts. One, those beautifully colour co-ordinated trainers were not a result of deliberate set-dressing, they were simply drying in the sunshine after a dismally wet morning run. Two, that inherited ‘welcome’ sign really has to go; I’m not keen on such things at the best of times but at the very least it should be written in French!

On our recent trip to Asturias, I remembered to collect our copy of John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency which I’m now enjoying reading for the umpteenth time. The regular references to the ‘Law of Returns’ are very apt for what I’ve been up to in the garden this week, returning every scrap of organic matter to the land being a key part of our organic husbandry. Having harvested the squash, I pulled up what felt like miles of spent vines and deposited them on top of the hügel bed along with the impossibly long grass that had grown between them; this should all rot down over winter, along with any extra organic matter I might add, and feed the soil for next year’s crop. I’ve chopped and dropped the crimson clover sown between the soft fruit bushes, leaving the nitrogen-fixing roots in place and scattering the ‘straw’ as a fertilising mulch. I’ve gathered up barrows of bruised windfall apples and sawdust from the logging sessions to add alternate green and brown layers to the current compost heap. I’ve turned the resting compost heap, adding water as it seemed rather dry despite the plentiful rainfall of late plus a scattering of yarrow leaves to act as a natural accelerator; I know ‘cold’ heaps are usually left to rest but giving them a tickle like this helps to kickstart the heating process again and anyway, I have my own approach to these things – I’m impatient and I have to check what’s going on (lots of worms, hoorah!). I’ve started planting the Perennial Thugs bed with a couple of slips of soapwort and a few roots of comfrey brought back from Asturias; the latter are already sending up new shoots, is there any stopping that amazing, beneficial plant?

Yarrow, a great compost accelerator.

To finish where I started, the gentle journey through early autumn. I feel my body clock responding naturally to the changing light, sleeping in a little longer in the mornings (and what a luxury that is!) and needing to be out and busy in the brighter hours of daylight. Taking the compost bucket down to the veggie patch to empty each evening, I can mark the passage of the sun ever southwards, breathe in the deep, earthy autumnal scents and watch dark crows flapping languorously across the sunset, homewards to roost. Time for me to turn ‘homewards’ with my empty bucket, too. . . but I might linger just a few minutes more and enjoy the beauty of this October moment.

Home from home

No sooner had we returned home from our first trip to the UK in almost two years than our thoughts turned to continuing southwards to Asturias; not because we felt the desire for an easing-of-Covid- restrictions travelfest (far from it, in fact) but because we needed to check the state of house and land before hunkering down in Mayenne again and tackling some major projects in the coming months. I hadn’t been back to Asturias since February and I must admit it felt like a slightly surreal home from home, waking in our old bed to the sound of village cockerels once more, almost as if we’d never left. Mind you, there was so much I had forgotten in the intervening months: how even on the gloomiest, wettest, cloud-shrouded day the air remains blissfully warm; how steep the mountain roads are, giddy with hairpins; how the air is pungent with the smell of eucalyptus and rings with the music of cowbells; what a luxury it is to pluck fresh figs from the tree for breakfast; what a pest mosquitoes are in the night; that forgetting to carry a brolly is downright daft; how mesmerising the skyscapes and sunsets can be; how everything grows so ridiculously quickly and how it is all so verdantly, lusciously, eye-wateringly green. I was slightly perturbed to find I had lost far too much Spanish, although in truth my grasp of the language had only ever been tenuous at best and obviously I’ve been operating in French for the last nine months (my excuse!). Even worse, my mountain legs had gone, too, so that walking about seemed far more difficult than it used to be. That said, the sight of a heavy moon hanging over the morning valley was enough to set me climbing the steep lane to wander through the woods in the same way it always used to. Ah, Asturias. Still special.

Time to wander.

I’m not naïve enough to expect the garden to have benefited from neglect but it was still bittersweet to see the jungle it had become and the sad lack of vegetables in what previously had been such a productive patch. No need to feel too downhearted, though, as there was still plenty of colour to enjoy with roses, geraniums, Californian poppies, calendula, cerinthe, pansies, dahlias, verbena bonariensis, hydrangeas, hibiscus, hollyhocks and nasturtiums still giving it their all. We had taken a huge box of fresh veggies from our French garden but there were a few little edible surprises in the jungle, too: some self-set parsnips (how ironic, given they were a nightmare to grow when we lived there), rocket, landcress, oca, New Zealand spinach and, judging by the row of bright sunburst flowers on the terrace, a good crop of Jerusalem artichokes.

Bonus New Zealand spinach amongst the nasturtiums.

I was surprised that no squash had emerged from the compost heap (there’s a first time for everything, I suppose) but there is one in the polytunnel and the less said about that, the better – just don’t try opening the door! The kiwi, ever the thug, was dripping with unripe fruit beneath its dense canopy and both fig trees were loaded with huge crops of soft, sweet fruit, sending the blackbirds and blackcaps into a frenzy of clacking and fighting. I’d forgotten how numerous and aggressive they are in fruit season but can’t say I blame them, those figs are fabulous.

Breakfast!

Having spent so many of our final months in Asturias living in virtual isolation, it was lovely to have a brief chance to catch up with friends and neighbours and make up a little bit for the lack of ‘normal’ socialising during that difficult time. Beyond that, we’d expected to have a fair bit of work to do but had hoped to grab something of a mini holiday, too, perhaps doing a couple of long hikes to stretch our travel-weary legs. No such luck; it quickly became very obvious that there was more to be done than we had bargained for so much of the week felt just like the good old days, working hard up and down those merciless slopes – no wonder we were so fit when we lived there! – then collapsing with a glass of Rioja on the terrace, enjoying the evening warmth, the sweet scent of honeysuckle and Japanese quince and revelling again in that beautiful view. Mmm, it could be worse . . . we didn’t really need a holiday, anyway, did we?

We had at least made sure of a brief respite from work by booking a night away in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela and there is a rather lovely story behind that little excursion. Several weeks ago, I was contacted out of the blue by Emma, a former primary school pupil of mine, who was walking the Camino del Norte and wondered if I fancied meeting her for a coffee as she passed through Luarca. I felt very sorry to say we no longer lived there and definitely wouldn’t be around when she trekked though the area. However . . . we were planning to be in Asturias a couple of weeks later so maybe we could catch up with her somewhere else? In the end, we decided to head to Santiago and be there in the Praza do Obradoiro when she arrived at the end of her incredible solo walk of almost 500 miles. I’ve written about visiting Santiago before and how the atmosphere in that huge square literally crackles with emotion as sore-footed pilgrims finally reach their destination and stop in front of the magnificent cathedral.

The reasons for walking the Camino are as diverse as the people doing it and their responses to arriving in the plaza make for some fascinating people-watching. Some sink to their knees in prayer or sit cross-legged in quiet contemplation; some throw their arms into the air and cheer while others collapse in a heap on top of their rucksacks; some rush in to be greeted by family or friends or other pilgrims, others wander around in stunned silence. There is so much chatter, a babel of different languages joined together in celebration, so much laughter, singing and tears; it is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Emma and I hadn’t met for twenty years yet we recognised each other instantly and it felt like a complete privilege to be with her once again and helping to celebrate her wonderful achievement (actually, walking the Camino had been peanuts compared to some of the things she has done since I last saw her, I am in utter awe of the interesting and adventurous life she leads!).

Still smiling after all those miles . . . bravo, Emma!

I love continental cafe culture, so it was no hardship sitting over coffees for a couple of hours and catching up on news as the world bustled by, a joyful carnival of colour and life moving through the beautiful streets of the old city. We agreed to meet later for dinner and left Emma to grab some well-earned rest while we checked in to our hotel, several kilometres out of town. By a complete coincidence, we discovered it was on the Camino so decided to walk back into the city that evening, following the iconic blue and yellow signs and brass scallop shells set into the pavements. Compared to the pilgrims, we only did a fraction of the walk but it felt right somehow to be following in their footsteps and I could only imagine the range of emotions they must feel winding through the cobbled streets past ancient buildings (there is a wealth of history here!), drawn by the sight of the cathedral’s spires to journey’s end. I still don’t feel any desire to walk the Camino myself but it was lovely to be in Santiago once again and share another tiny chapter in the story of this fascinating city . . . and spend time with a very inspirational young lady, too!

On arriving home, we did a quick review of all the tasks that still needed to be done ahead of our impending return to France and then had one of our famous ‘soddit’ moments: did we really want to spend the afternoon beavering away at jobs when the sun was shining and the great Asturian outdoors beckoned? It didn’t take long to answer that one! As a brief nod to us both doing at least something useful, I stuffed a load of laundry into the washing machine while Roger promised to go walnut hunting before we got to boar o’ clock later. (On our recent UK trip, I spent several hours playing a complicated game invented by our little grandsons, part of which involved escaping from imaginary sneaky creatures called Pigsnozzles. Trust me, that is the perfect name to describe a family of wild boar discovering a carpet of fallen walnuts at dusk, they hoover up the lot in a trice. We know from experience that the even sneakier two-legged Snozzles need to head out early with a collecting bucket and outwit the pigs if any kind of walnut harvest is going to be enjoyed!).

We brewed a flask of strong Spanish coffee, packed a modest picnic of bread, local cheese, olives marinated in lemon, garlic and rosemary (which I’d made for our Galician trip and promptly forgot to pack) and a decadent slice of caramel-crusted homemade tarte tatin, then set out on our favourite local walk of all time: Las Hoces del Esva.

The path winds around rocky outcrops with spectacular views.

I’ve written about this walk many, many times not only because we’ve done it many, many times, but because it simply never fails to delight; as Roger remarked, you just can’t help but smile along the route. The first couple of miles are pretty enough, passing through apple orchards, a small village and long tract of mixed woodland but then you arrive at the head of a stunning gorge and the real adventure begins. From there on in, it is challenging enough to keep me on my toes – literally, at times – but not so unrelenting that I can’t lift my eyes from the path and drink in the incredible landscape.

The boardwalks are the easiest part of the route, despite some missing and wobbly planks in places.

It’s not just the natural beauty of the surroundings or the incredible peace of the place that I love (the vast majority of times we’ve walked this route, we’ve never seen another soul) but also the sense I always have of it being somehow a showcase for the elements. Earth is the ancient mineral solidity of the fascinating rock formations and the path beneath my feet; air, the soft breezes soughing through green branches, spiced with heady scents of woodland and sun-kissed heather; the fire of sunlight breaks through the clouds and sends down bright long fingers to set the river sparkling; water, water everywhere – dripping from the leafy canopy, oozing and trickling from mossy rocks and the crystalline waters of the beautiful Esva itself, babbling and chattering through the deep gorge, rushing ever onwards to the sea. It is completely magical.

We’ve never seen the otters that are known to live there, but there is no shortage of wildlife to enjoy: bright green lizards basking on rocks and scurrying along the boardwalk handrails, clouds of butterflies of every size and hue, damsel flies decked out in electrifying blue, so dainty compared to the huge stiff-winged dragonflies coursing the river’s surface for prey. We stopped to watch a busy dipper, bobbing on a rock mid-stream then diving into the water and reappearing elsewhere, its underwater activity leaving a stream of silver ripples on the surface. As we ate our picnic beneath the spreading branches of a chestnut tree, a robin serenaded us with its sweet autumn song and I felt a deep sense of contentment and peace suffuse my entire body. Santiago was fascinating with all its buzz and bustle but I will always be a child of the wilds; to quote a favourite line from W.H Davies’s poem ‘The Kingfisher’, “I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.” Enough said.

I don’t have a single regret about leaving Asturias, for us it was absolutely the right decision and I am deliriously happy to be living in Mayenne once again. The year so far has been full of the kind of busyness I love as we settle into our new home and start to create an outdoor environment to sustain ourselves and the rich biodiversity of life with which we share this precious patch. We will hang up our travelling trews for a while now and let the car sit and collect cobwebs; I shall press my trusty bike back into service, wander up the lane to check on the coppice now and again and get busy once more in the garden. I’m happy to be a homebird – always! – and rarely feel the desire to go anywhere unless I really have to. However, we will need to return to Asturias at some point so instead of digging in my heels and looking for excuses not to go, I shall try and remember that when all is said and done, it’s only a case of going home. I am so very lucky.

Food and flowers

The kitchen makeover is in full swing. Gone are the red walls and cupboards, the wobbly worktops, the unwanted dishwasher, the low sink sticking out at a crazy angle into the room with its taps plumbed in the wrong way round. Instead a light, airy space in cream and soft pistachio is emerging with doors repainted, homemade wooden shelves and units installed, dishwasher sold and the sink – now under the window – raised to a level that doesn’t challenge my back and boasting hot and cold in the right places. Slowly, slowly, it is becoming the room we’d envisaged, an organised space to cook in together, pleasantly eclectic, comfy and flooded with light. Despite being a long way from finished, we sat round the table with friends last week sharing coffee, cake and laughter. I dug out a tablecloth and picked a vase of sunny rudbeckia from the garden; it felt very civilised, wonderfully human. We’re getting there, bit by bit.

I have to confess that it’s Roger who is doing the bulk of the work; I’ve been painting walls and cupboard doors, stripping the horrible ‘distressed’ paint job from the wooden fire surround and doing my bit as builder’s / carpenter’s / plumber’s mate as required but he has been the one cutting and drilling and soldering, measuring and levelling, hefting heavy materials, taking things apart and rebuilding them elsewhere. There’s been a steady stream of tools in and out of his Man Cave, of shopping lists for things I didn’t even know existed, of mutterings and cursings from the depths of cupboard carcasses and the top of ladders. He said he didn’t want to do another house renovation but here he is, creating yet another beautiful kitchen. I’m very proud! 🥰 (Oh, and this one really will be the last. Honest.)

Happy as I am to help, there is still a garden to care for and despite the indifferent weather (are we going to have a summer at all this year?), it’s been a delight to be busy in the fresh air. We’ve been here eight months now and, like the kitchen, there’s a feeling of the garden we’d first imagined slowly evolving from the blank canvas. Having initially struggled with the fact we had no food coming from the garden, we are so snowed under with vegetables now it is unbelievable. Every meal begins with what is good and ready . . . which means piles and piles of fresh deliciousness in a rainbow of colours on our plates. It’s been hard work up against poor soil, unpredictable weather and a host of pesky pests but this is what it’s all about, the joy of picking dinner. Today’s choices: potatoes, carrots, beetroot, onions, garlic, courgettes (compulsory – who thought six plants were a good idea?🤣 ), aubergines, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, calabrese, French beans (green and purple), cucumbers, chard, perpetual spinach, New Zealand spinach, lettuce, strawberries and an array of herbs. Still to come: sweetcorn, climbing borlotti and Asturian beans, leeks, parsnips, oca, squash, celery, more carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, winter cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, Florence fennel, radicchio, winter salads in the tunnel and apples.

In the midst of such a bountiful harvest, I find it’s a good time to stop and assess how things have gone so far in our first year here and to start making plans for next year. What has been a success or a failure, what we need to change, add or scrap, different crops, different approaches . . . there’s much to consider. I’m kicking myself for having abandoned my gardening diary weeks ago – too busy gardening, what can I say? – as it’s so useful to have something to refer back to. I can see, for instance, that there would have been time to squeeze in yet another sowing of French beans to crop well into autumn, but I can’t remember when I planted this year’s final one (which we’ve just started picking this week) so I’m missing a handy benchmark. More diary discipline required next season! On that score, apologies to those readers who find this kind of thing a bit dull but I’m going to share my thoughts and observations in the knowledge that in the absence of a well-kept gardening log, I can at least rely on the occasional blog post to fill the gaps.

Where failure and disappointment are concerned, tomatoes are top of the list. For 25 years or so in the UK we grew tomatoes without ever having a problem with blight; in fact, I used to spend several weeks of the summer school holidays processing huge gluts to keep through winter. Since then, our tomato-growing escapades have been literally well and truly blighted; after a five-year battle in Asturias which resulted in a modest harvest, I’d really hoped we’d be blight-free here where I know the most fantastic tomatoes can be grown outdoors. Well, it wasn’t to be and I was very sad to see my hoped-for tomato rainbow collapse overnight, the promise of sweet cherries, soft plums and hearty beefsteaks wiped out in a flash. We need to think long and hard about next year (yes, of course I’ll try again, I don’t give up that easily!), looking at varieties, timing and location above all else. The good news is that two pot-grown plants by the kitchen door have managed to prevail and we are picking tomatoes daily; in fact, they are starting to mount up into quite a pile which has me (reluctantly) admitting that perhaps the 30 plants I had going originally were 28 too many.

Brassicas, too, have been difficult, although to see them now you’d never believe the battle I’ve had with the Evil Weevil brigade. There’s a bit of a caterpillar issue at the moment but they are much easier to deal with and on the whole, everything is looking incredibly healthy – I can’t remember the last time we grew such enormous cabbages. They’ve definitely benefited from a cooler, wetter summer than usual so I can’t get too complacent about that one next year. I was far too late sowing spring cabbage (in my defence, all the gardening kit including seeds was still in Asturias), there’s no sign of any romanesco broccoli even though I swear some plants went in and the Brussels sprouts thing just didn’t happen. On the whole, though, it could have been far worse; just the potential weevil threat to address next year.

The first sowings of beans were a complete disaster thanks to a combination of unseasonably cold wet weather and attacks by bean seed fly; next year, I shall sit on my hands a bit longer and pre-sow everything into trays. Once French beans get going there is no stopping them and we have such a huge crop now that I have left the first sowings to form fat pods; we will pod them and freeze the beans for winter dishes, drying others for sowing next spring (we have grown them successfully from saved seed for many years). In Asturias last summer, we ended up with a disappointing single climbing borlotti plant so saved all the seed from it to bring here; this year, the story is a much happier one and I love the splash of unashamed colour the pods bring to the garden, although they’d be even more stunning in a bit of sunshine. Ha ha! The Asturian beans are a bit tardy but gathering strength at last, I’m not sure whether again it’s down to soil and weather or maybe they’re simply missing the Costa Verde?

Our sandy loam is ideal for root crops and despite the quality of the soil being decidedly poor this year, we have managed a good crop of potatoes and carrots. Having found the beginnings of some pest infestation this week, we’ve lifted both and put them into storage in the cave: two crates of ‘Charlotte’ potatoes, one of ‘Blue Danube’ and another of summer carrots. I’ve left the beetroot to tough it out in the ground as nothing much bothers them (Roger would probably say there’s a good reason for that 😆) and I’m hoping the harvest so far bodes well for autumn carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and oca later in the year.

I’ve also been lifting onions and garlic as the tops had all died back and I want to dry them while there’s still enough hours of sunlight and warmth in the day to do the job properly. It’s a long way from the best crop we’ve ever had which is not surprising given they were planted in a ‘needs must’ way in rubbish soil and a less than ideal location, but their flavour is good and they will keep us going in the kitchen for several weeks. Next year, I will be more organised and start the onions from seed in trays, I far prefer that to buying sets as they seem to grow into bigger and more robust onions. We need to find some autumn-planted garlic, too, and I fancy some overwintering yellow onions to go in at the same time. I’ve lost count of the number of times I re-sowed spring onions this season, they just wouldn’t grow (despite being new seed) and we ended up with a sum total of two! Definitely need to think about that one for next year.

Having lightly forked in a good layer of rich loam from the coppice, I’ve sown several short rows of winter leaves in the tunnel: mixed lettuce varieties, rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mizuna, land cress, rainbow chard, coriander and flat-leaved parsley should provide us with regular pickings of fresh and flavoursome salad leaves in the colder months of the year. I’ve had great success in chopping outdoor lettuce and leaving the roots and stem in situ to regrow this year, so much so that next year I shan’t bother with sowing too many successional crops. We’ve enjoyed a wide assortment of baby leaves and herbs, flat-leaved parsley being the only disappointing crop so I need to find a better spot for that one. At this time of year, our salads tend to be built from chunkier things and there’s no shortage of possibilities to choose from. The gherkin cucumbers have finally got away from me but I have to say I do prefer them to the longer types; the courgettes are also doing their own thing and I’m on marrow hunting duty daily. ‘Black Beauty’ is such a reliable cropper and it was the only seed I had to hand this year but next season it would be good to grow another type, too, just to ring the changes. Talking of black beauties, the five tunnel aubergines have suddenly found top gear and gone berserk – 25 ready for picking at the last count!

They’re sharing the space with a couple of butternut squashes currently boasting 12 ripe fruits; we might have lost the tomatoes in there and never got any peppers going this year, but there is plenty of food to come and the winter crops are always a bonus. The outdoor squash have yet to run out of steam – in fact, I’ve had to curb their thuggery a little bit this week to stop them climbing the bean poles. There are 26 visible mature squash with some inevitably lurking unseen in the long grass so we will not be short of one of our favourite winter staples. The range of different specimens thrown up by last year’s mongrel seed is as fascinating as ever: there’s one with green and white reptilian skin a bit like a watermelon, a lemon yellow rugby ball, a pale green beauty with almost luminescent white patches, several blue/grey deeply-ridged giants, a couple with definite turban genes and a bright pinky-orange pumpkin affair that would have Cinderella in rhapsodies (I’m sure there’s a touch of the Russian Pink Fairy in that one). I’ve been studying genetic biodiversity this week and the crucial role to be played by gardeners in helping to reverse the loss of so many seed varieties; this is certainly an area I intend to pursue more and more in the future and just looking at these happy, quirky, diverse squash – every last one the progeny of a single fruit – is all the encouragement I need.

Fruit is another area where we need a bit of a plan for the future. The rescued rhubarb plant has made an excellent recovery and I’m planning to split it into several crowns in the autumn and plant them in a designated Perennial Thugs bed, probably the last lasagne bed to be made this year. The soft fruit bushes have also responded to a lot of loving care; we had a very small harvest of gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants which should be massively increased next year, especially as I have planted out six healthy new plants from found seedlings. It was impossible to know what kind of raspberries we had since they had all been chopped to ground level before we moved here, but I am confident now that all but one are summer varieties and the vigorous growth of new canes promises a bounty of fruit next season. As autumn raspberries are my favourite, though, I need to do something about correcting the imbalance. The Spanish strawberry plants we brought with us have been fantastic, we are still picking the fruit every day – even several of the new plants I raised from pegged runners and planted around the edge of the Strawberry Circle are fruiting big time. Experts would probably tell me I really shouldn’t be letting them do that, but honestly, try stopping them.

On the down side, with the exception of cherries, the orchard fruits have been disappointing. The myrobalan plums were inedible so we left them to the birds and the bullaces in the hedge which I’d hoped might have a hint of damson about them are totally tasteless. We need to plant plums! We have planted a pear which is a good thing as the one already here has struggled to produce a miserly two fruit. The abundant peach trees have done nothing which is hardly surprising given this really isn’t peach country; apple country it most definitely is, though, and the next few weeks should give us a better idea of exactly what we have here. There’s certainly no shortage, and with our hedges dripping with ripening blackberries, there is the promise of autumn pies and crumbles in the air.

I’ve written before about the importance of building resilience in the garden and planting perennial foods is certainly one step in the right direction. Our first experimental lasagne bed was made to accommodate six small green globe artichoke plants raised from seed; they were targeted a bit by blackfly earlier in the summer but are romping away now and next year I shall grow some purple ones to complement them. The cardoons, too, are growing strongly and the asparagus plants have more than doubled in size since going into the ground.

The same is true of the perennial herbs planted around the edge of the emerging mandala bed and I love the way they are already making an impact in defining the circle’s circumference (not to mention the hyssop is flowering and driving the bees to distraction). Now here is a story, the kind of which makes me smile. The herbs I grew were lavender, hyssop, Welsh onion, sage and thyme but try as I might, I couldn’t persuade rosemary to join the germination party, even with fresh seed. To that end, I took lots of cuttings from an existing plant, left them to develop roots in a bottle of water then potted up half a dozen small plants this week, willing them to grow. When we moved here, I found a miserable rosemary plant barely growing in cold, waterlogged mud inside a rotting basket; I moved it into a big pot of rich compost and it has graced a space outside the front door ever since, luxuriating in the warmth and looking a hundred times happier. Getting down on my hands and knees a couple of days ago to look at the pansies that have self-set in gravel from the spring window boxes (that’s exactly what I’d hoped they would do – lazy gardening once again) I noticed there was a forest of rosemary seedlings, too. They all look strong and robust, far healthier than my rather sappy cuttings: nature, once again, has done the job properly!

There isn’t room to squeeze rosemary plants around the edge of the mandala now but I shall give them pride of place in the centre, making a circle around the centre where the paths meet the standing stone. Having changed my mind several times about the design, in the end I’ve decided to keep it very simple with paths to mark the cross quarters and diagonals, creating eight large segments for planting. I’ve roughly orientated it to the compass so the standing stone should act as a very basic sundial which I thought would be fun. I’m already using it to help track the sun’s path, the eastern flank now bathed in honey-coloured morning light; not quite Stonehenge, but I love it all the same.

Of course, the garden isn’t just about food; I love flowers and I’ve been really chuffed at how much colour there has been this year considering it is all pretty much thanks to scattered annuals. I’ve never been a huge fan of those floral seed mixes, they tend to be relatively expensive and the promised 25 different varieties often turn out to deliver only poppies, marigolds and cornflowers – all of which I love, but you know what I’m saying. Anyway, I’ve had to change my opinion this year as a couple of packets of different mixes have produced a wealth of interesting varieties and a stunning show of colour and scent which seems to go on and on. The main flower border is a riot of frenetic insect activity and I find myself totally engrossed in all the busyness and buzz. The butterflies and bumble bees aren’t fussy but the latter mostly float between the sunflowers and a pink dahlia (bonus plant, I rescued the tuber from the compost heap when we moved here).

Carpenter bees, decked out in shiny metallic black and blue, are drawn like a magnet to the clump of peacock lilies where they do a fascinating thing: instead of feeding inside the flowers, they climb like a tightrope walker up the long delicate flower stems, flip themselves underneath, pierce the tiny tube and feed from there. I’m wondering if that’s why the flowers are so unusually short-lived?

I’ve never grown zinnias so it’s interesting to see how well they do here, standing tall on strong stems in pale pastel pinks, bright coral and deepest red; they are a fascinating plant to study closely with their architectural buds, starburst of yellow stamens and silky petals expanding and curling a little more each day . . . and yet, the insects really aren’t bothered with them at all.

Queen Anne’s thimbles are a different matter and I was delighted to see them in the mix. The honey bees love them and collect pollen of the most beautiful cobalt blue from their depths. In fact, although I’ve missed out on my tomato rainbow, I’m enjoying the incredible range of pollen colours to be spied on the bees’ hindlegs, a complete spectrum from the palest ivory of cornflowers to the deep cinnamon of mignonette ( well, I think that’s what it is – another flower to emerge from the mix and one I’ve never grown, it really is a ‘little darling’).

I’m beginning to wonder if I will need to plant flowers at all next year; perhaps I should simply leave things to take their course and see what comes back naturally. After all, these flowers have needed no attention whatsoever and I couldn’t have improved on the (admittedly chaotic) beauty of the borders if I’d tried. I struggled for weeks to persuade sweet peas to (a) germinate (b) grow (c) climb – even a bit – up their poles and yet the spare seed I threw in randomly produced by far the best plants and flowers, scrambling up other things for support. Yes, maybe I’ll focus on my plans for the food garden next year and let nature take care of the rest. 😉

Slowlydays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to play Hunt The Cucumber.

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

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

Not a happy sight.

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

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

Weevils 0 Dogged gardening 1: result!

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

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

In praise of small things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This had me asking a number of questions:

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

Logic then led me on to asking more:

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

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

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

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

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