Hands on

Organic, regenerative gardening can be many things: fascinating, rewarding, enriching, life-affirming, illuminating, fulfilling, inspiring and of huge benefit to mind, body and soul. However, anyone who thinks that sometimes I come across as a dewy-eyed, bunny-hugging, slug-snuggling softy when it comes to all things ‘nature’ might well have been a bit shocked to observe my reaction on discovering that something ~ something! 🤬~ had eaten off three of our young tomato plants this week. Actually, not even eaten, just bitten through the stem at the bottom, killing all the top growth. My first thought was slugs, but then when Roger saw a rabbit (nooooo! ) lurking between the pea rows, I thought maybe that was the culprit; the jury is still out, but whatever is doing the damage, it’s hugely frustrating . . . and believe me, I can rant with the best of them. Nature does have a way of seeking balance, however, so rushing to the mandala bed to check on those precious Finnish tomato plants (all present, correct and growing like stink), I noticed the flutter of something rather beautiful amongst all the bee activity in the sage flowers. From frown to smile in seconds; this is the third year I’ve been trying to persuade a swallowtail to sit still long enough for me to catch a decent snap. It’s definitely been worth the wait. 😊

Permaculture talks of the problem being the solution but that isn’t so straightforward when you’re not certain what the problem is, although little diggings around the beds suggests something furry rather than slimy. A quick look at general advice on the internet wasn’t much help, focusing as it did on raised beds, pots and fencing. We don’t garden in raised beds and I have no intention of making any, for tomatoes or anything else; I’ve chosen not to put any tomato plants in pots this year as they are so demanding when it comes to water and don’t produce as many fruits as those that are planted out ~ they are better off with their feet in the ground. We fenced the sweetcorn temporarily against hare attack which was easily done because it’s planted in a block, but I’ve deliberately scattered the tomatoes to all corners of the garden as an anti-blight strategy so fencing is a non-starter.

The sweetcorn ~ plus volunteer lettuce, landcress, rocket, dill and sunflowers ~ growing safely inside its protective netting fence.

Putting our heads together, we came up with a two-pronged solution: Roger made deep collars from a roll of thick, flexible plastic something-or-other left over from the renovation work which we fixed round each plant with a bit of duct tape, having first piled anti-slug grit at the bottom of each stem. Hopefully, this will at least give the plants time to reach a good size and be less vulnerable to attack before they outgrow their little guards. Luckily, I planted 35 in my usual overkill habit, so I shouldn’t mourn the losses too much. It’s still a tad frustrating, though, and combined with the current headache of the second drought of the year, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to throw in the trowel towel and go to the shops instead . . .

Finnish ‘Evakko’ safe from attack, I hope.

In Vivre Avec La Terre, the authors discuss how from a global perspective, Western peoples are the least able to provide for their essential needs themselves. It’s true that the structure and impetus of our society mean the vast majority of people are unlikely to be able to build their own home, grow or catch food, or make clothes and medicines, skills which it’s possible may again become crucial as the planet and humanity spiral into an uncertain and unstable future. It’s an interesting discussion and something that has touched me for a long time. As a teacher, I railed against the curriculum for upper primary children which was so overwhelmingly academic, allowing very little time for practical activities; even subjects like Design Technology saw more lesson time being spent planning, assessing, evaluating and devising marketing strategies on paper than actually creating whatever was being constructed. The justification was always along the lines of, “Well, we need doctors . . .” ~ yes, we do, but we need many other skilled people, too, and it’s misguided to dismiss manual (from the Latin word manus, meaning ‘hand’) activities as second best. When our son Sam, who is a talented, enthusiastic and innovative cook, was seriously contemplating training as a chef, there were far too many comments from people who felt it would be a ‘waste’ of his brain. What rubbish! Apart from being insulting to chefs (who most definitely use their brains), I pointed out that I would rather have a cheerful chef than a miserable mathematician for a son any day. As things turned out, Sam chose a different path but he is still a dab hand in the kitchen and those skills could well become ever more important through his lifetime.

Will the knowledge and skills needed to grow, cook and preserve food become more crucial in the future?

Human hands must surely be one of the most mind-blowing pieces of engineering on the planet and yet what do we actually do with them? Press buttons, swipe screens, grip steering wheels, grab things from shelves or hangers . . . how often do we get the chance to really use our hands in practical, creative activities of the kind that are both rewarding and totally absorbing? When I researched my family tree some years ago, I came across a paternal ancestor ~ another Samuel, in fact ~ who lived in rural Cumbria in the early nineteenth century; he and his wife were basket makers who both survived well into their nineties and I’ve often wondered if their shared longevity was in part attributable to a life spent using their hands (and yes, brains) to create useful and beautiful items with simple tools and natural materials. Basket-making is something I would dearly love to learn and put into practice if our willows ever get going. In fact, my ambition is to make a new basketwork trug to replace the old wooden faithful when it gives up the ghost.

I’ve been collecting elderflowers from our hedgerows in the trug this week.

I have to confess, I love doing things with my hands and will always use the good old-fashioned way of doing something if I can get away with it. Perhaps it does make me a bit of a dinosaur but I would rather do things like whisk mayonnaise or make pastry by hand rather than using a food processor. My spinning wheel is a favourite tool, powered only by the gentle treadling of my right foot; in fact, I am fond of any such tools that are simple yet efficient, they have such a timelessness about them and of course, no need for fossil fuels of any kind.

Pressing apples for juice.
Cutting meadow grass for hay with a scythe

Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is an important issue where creating a regenerative and resilient garden ~ and indeed, lifestyle ~ is concerned and one which I am all too happy to embrace. I love the fact that I can produce oodles of fresh, nutritious food without any need for machines, just time, energy, a few simple tools and my hands . . . and a fair bit of help from Mother Earth, of course! It feels so right, this gentle, nurturing approach that has nothing to do with power, order or control. Sowing seeds, planting out, spreading mulch, watering, tying in . . . these are all such peaceful activities that allow me time to connect not only with the plants in question but the rest of the abundant life in the garden. I don’t need to fuss about aphids on the aubergines when, crouched down to adjust a twine tie, I notice several predatory ladybird larvae on the lower leaves; picking gooseberries is a labour of love that leaves my hands scratched to pieces, but how can I complain when the air is full of bird song and bee buzz? If it takes me all morning to pick, process and preserve by hand whatever is currently cropping, then what does that matter? I can’t think of anything more important I could be doing with my time. It feels like a wonderful privilege.

I feel a particular sense of satisfaction when the carbon footprint of our produce is zero or even negative. Take lettuce, for example, something we are eating daily at the moment as the garden is bursting with them. If I sow seeds that were saved from last year’s crop in soil that has been built using organic materials from the patch and nourished with homemade compost, green manure from self-set or saved seed and homemade fertilisers, watered naturally by rain (I wish!) or with saved rainwater, harvested just minutes before eating raw, then fossil fuel inputs are zero. I have no need to go off-site to find or fetch anything, no need to buy goods or services from others, no need to tap into energy sources for cooking or preserving. The amount of work is minimal, especially given how freely and widely the seed has sown itself this year. If I cut the stem of a lettuce but leave the root in the ground, the plant will regrow to give another harvest and if I deliberately leave some plants to bolt and flower, there should be seed to save for next year. Any outer leaves not eaten can be scattered on the surface of the soil as a mulch or added to the compost heap. The whole process is a closed loop which has provided us with a huge ongoing harvest and hasn’t cost a penny; in fact, we could be providing others in the community with fresh, organic lettuce ( and courgettes, strawberries, peas, broad beans, herbs . . . ) too, if I could find the right mechanism for making that work.

Several lettuce varieties along with coriander, parsley and calendula deliberately left to set seed in the tunnel.

Of course, it’s not always quite that simple. I can press apples by hand until the cows come home but if I want to preserve the juice by pasteurising or freezing, then I need energy inputs. The elderflowers I’ve been picking this week will dry happily on a sunny windowsill to be stored for winter teas and medicines but to make cordial, I not only need to use the electric cooker but to buy sugar, oranges and lemons, too. I think the key as with so many things, is the goal of reduction rather than perfection and I’ve long believed that the most important of the 5 Rs (or however many are fashionable these days) is ‘reduce.’ If everyone cut back even in a small way on everything they consumed or used, then I think we would be in a much stronger and happier position to face the future. Roger and I would like to tap into solar power far more than we are currently doing and a solar oven and dehydrator are two of the projects we’re considering; in the meantime, paying attention to just how much energy (and other things) we consume and doing whatever we can to bring those figures down is a big priority . . . and the garden is a good indicator of how we’re doing.

At the end of this bed there are broad beans, rainbow chard, lettuce, red onions, summer cabbages, parsley, coriander, dill and calendula: tying up the beans and mulching everything is the only ‘work’ this polyculture has needed for weeks.

Where flowers are concerned, it’s much the same story. For starters, our whole approach of working with nature and encouraging biodiversity means that we have every excuse for letting wild flowers proliferate and do their own abundant thing. It’s lazy gardening at its best and I’m not sure we could improve on it.

The mandala bed is probably the most formal looking in the whole garden and yet it was created totally by hand from waste materials: cardboard, grass clippings, hay, sawdust, twiggy sticks, compost, molehills, shredded hedge prunings and a large rock all from on-site, herb plants raised from saved seeds and strawberries from runners. The only annual plants to go in there are spares from the potager as I don’t grow anything specially for it. No machinery, no fossil fuels, no external inputs, no cost and minimum maintenance; in fact, picking the strawberries has seen me spending more time in there over the last few days than the whole year put together.

As perennials generally have the reputation of being better subjects in regenerative growing than annuals ~ hence the focus on forest gardens, edible hedges and perennial vegetables ~ I have been making a concerted effort to move away from annuals flowers in the bigger beds by planting perennials grown from seed such as lupins, granny’s bonnets, echinacea, gaillardias and scabious plus other bits and pieces sourced from nurseries and the plant swap. Mmm, I’m not really sure why I’m bothering because I think this is a case where volunteer annuals are merrily recreating a flower bed year after year with total disregard for my endeavours. I might just have to accept defeat on this one . . . and as we’re talking zero maintenance, maximum colour and high density insect life, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea after all.

I’m not totally redundant: a few climbers have needed a little tying in to their supports here and there . . .

. . . although in most places, they’re happy just to scramble about without any help whatsoever.

Roses scrambling up a clematis.
Maybe we’ll have a grape harvest this year?

Despite the riot of floral colour around the house and in the meadow areas, one of my favourite spots at the moment is the Not Garden; here, nestled in the cooler green of semi-shade, wonderful things are happening in the potato patch. The white ‘Charlotte’ and mauve ‘Blue Danube’ have burst into flower bringing a beauty all of their own to the space but fear not, despite first appearances this is definitely not a case of monoculture! Mingled amongst and around the potatoes are the starry white flowers of horseradish and rocket, the dainty yellow of landcress, cheerful orange of calendula, soft mauve of chives, bright pops of crimson from ruby chard and sorrel, lettuce here, there and everywhere, the trefoil foliage of oca, succulent spear-shaped leaves of New Zealand spinach and the first blue borage flowers right on the cusp of opening. Oh, and a leek left to flower and set seed, too. I love patches like this: needing nothing more than an occasional mulch, they provide us with a wonderful variety of foods all produced in a chaotic jumble of vibrant and vigorous growth. It’s not quite food for free (we did buy a few new seed potatoes to add to our saved ones this year) but it’s not far off. Not a slug or bunny in sight, either. Perhaps I’ll carry on with this gardening lark for a bit longer, then. 😉


Am I the world’s worst student? I started to study the Free Yearlong Permaculture Course by Heather Jo Flores nearly ~ um ~ three years ago and I’ve still only completed 57% of it. 😮 I have to admit I do feel more than a bit ashamed at that and it is truly no reflection on the course itself, which I think is brilliant and jam-packed with resources, information and activities. It’s just that life itself seems to have got in the way somehow with an international house move, new home and garden, other studies and health issues (to mention just a few things) distracting me from the job in hand. If I’m allowed to be slightly fair to myself, I have spent an awful lot of the intervening time putting much of what I’ve learnt into practice and I do console myself that there are many aspects to my life now which reflect at least some of the principles and design approach of permaculture. I decided this week, though, that I really need to apply myself once more so I’ve done the obvious thing and started a new course. Naturally.

Bear with me, it’s not quite the complete lunacy it might seem. This is the Getting Started With Ecological Design Course, a six-week beginners’ course which Heather Jo Flores herself recommends as being useful even to those students already enrolled on other courses. For me, it seems a perfect opportunity to kickstart my studies again, refreshing what I’ve already learnt with the intention of finally getting on and finishing the longer course. As a teacher and student, I’ve always believed that learning is spiral rather than linear, so circling back to re-visit ‘old’ learning isn’t an admission of failure but an enriching activity which serves to broaden and deepen understanding, knowledge and skills. I’ve loved the first week’s classes, especially the hands-on module which has involved choosing a ‘sit spot’ in the garden, observing the life around me and focusing closely on a single non-human species each day with the intention of building connection and empathy. Well, this is right up my street ~ let’s face it, I spend much of my life doing this sort of thing anyway ~ and I’ve chosen to do it without a notebook, simply sitting, watching, thinking, absorbing, reflecting.

With the temperatures climbing here daily so that it’s vests and shorts all the way now, I’ve chosen the relative cool of early morning to carry out my observations. It’s a truly beautiful time of day and as it’s also the best hour to be watering anything that requires a drink, I need to spend time outside then anyway. There is a quality to the light, which doesn’t stay low for long this time of year, that I find totally captivating, illuminating flower and leaf alike in a soft, Monet-esque palette.

When I started the original course, one of my activities was to draw my permaculture ‘paradise’ which was a lot of fun! Then I had to focus on three elements and develop my ideas in detail, bearing in mind that permaculture isn’t about having A, B or C but as an ecological design concept (or science), it’s about connecting all the elements within a system, based on the patterns of nature. I chose to design a composting system, mandala garden and mobile chicken accommodation, two of which I have been able to create and integrate within our property (no chickens, which is a shame). Perhaps one of our best examples, though, is the Love Shack: built from ‘waste’ materials and performing many functions ~ tool store, wheelbarrow park, shelter from heat and rain, rest area, rainwater catchment system, pee bucket modesty hut, plant support structure, plant nursery, animal habitat ~ it is one of the most visited places on the patch, connecting with so many different elements and making our lives altogether easier and more pleasant. At the moment, if I catch the time just right, I can enjoy my breakfast in a patch of warm sunshine, especially lovely now that the rose has decided to bloom for the first time. When it came to choosing my sit spot, I didn’t need to think twice.

What better way to sit and watch the garden go by than tucking into the fresh produce it offers? Like our salads, I love the way my breakfast bowls reflect the seasons and allow me to make the most of the very freshest, tastiest goodies. I’ve granted the hard-working rhubarb a well-earned rest and I’m now enjoying the first of this year’s gooseberries and strawberries. We have an abundant crop of both fruits, the gooseberries are a bit on the small side (dare I say, like many other things, the bushes could do with some rain) but they are packed with flavour and their tartness is perfect when partnered with sweet, sun-warmed strawberries. I’ve already started to freeze stores of both and that in itself proved to be something of an observation and connection moment this week: going down to the barn to find a container for strawberries, I was greeted by several lizards dancing up and down the door and the sight of the incredibly long tail of an incredibly long grass snake disappearing nonchalantly under the chest freezer. Nature. You have to love it.

One of the ‘design’ aspects of our property has been the location of seating and eating areas so that we can enjoy our surroundings to the full at different times of the day and the year; this applies to the house as well as the garden so that not only do we place seats and tables for comfort, warmth, light and practicality but we also work on creating pleasant views through the windows so even in the worst weather, we can still connect with the outdoors.

View from the kitchen rear window looking north.

The outdoor seating thing is very much a work in progress as our time and activities here lead to new observations and ideas. At this time of year, a favourite evening spot is the gravelled area we made where the old shed used to be, overlooking the very young woodland we have planted. It’s drenched with late sunshine but too many weeks of a strong wind in the north-east has led to us discussing some sort of protective structure behind it to provide a bit of shelter on our backs. We’re planning to drive in some stakes, then weave with long hazel whips from the hedges to create what in essence will be a hurdle; some might call it ‘rustic’ but as it will be made completely with natural, renewable materials from our patch and will blend sympathetically with its environment, I’m happy that it’s the right idea.

Our evenings sitting there this week have also brought home the way that nature responds to what we do. The huge swathes of uncut grass are full of the buzz of insects; when the robins have moved off, dragonflies perch on the hazel sticks that are marking the young trees, their gauzy wings backlit by sunlight and ready to dart off in search of prey; the ‘table’ that Roger made from an old cherry tree that bit the dust has become quite a hotspot for courting sawyer beetles, whose antennae are something to behold. These are an interesting visitor to the garden as they are normally associated with coniferous woodland but the dead cherry log seems to be very attractive to them; they are very busy, restless creatures both on the ground and in the air so that the only time they have stayed still long enough for the camera was when they were in the act, so to speak. Given all the mating business with the ladybirds and minstrel bugs last week, I’m wondering if my blog is turning into one of those classic David Attenborough wildlife documentaries of old. Without the off-camera commentary, of course.

My renewed studies, combined with reading Vivre Avec La Terre, have reminded me of the three permaculture ethics: people care, Earth care and fair share (the latter being very open to interpretation and debate). For me, they embody a prevailing sense of empathy, generosity and compassion, characteristics which human beings are admirably capable of but sadly, all too often can be reluctant to display. A couple of weeks ago, we went to a local plant and seed swap; I love the idea of these but having never been to one before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I gathered together a couple of boxes of plants ~ vegetables, flowers, annuals, perennials, the lot ~ and bagged up masses of seeds, mostly of reliable and/or interesting varieties I’d saved from last year. An hour spent labelling everything in two languages was a pretty interesting exercise on its own!

I included packs of several varieties of saved beans in my seed offering.

At the swap itself, the idea was to leave brought items on a table (or give a donation to charity) then take whatever was fancied from other people’s offerings. It was a fascinating study of human behaviour as much as anything else, particularly those people who hovered nervously around their donations like market traders and found it difficult to walk away! I had no such qualms and had a fine time nosing about and chatting to other gardeners, including an elderly French lady with a mischievous twinkle telling me all too graphically how to deal with the slugs that would inevitably attack the morning glory plants I’d picked up. I was drawn to a plant labelled menthe coq, mainly because it didn’t look remotely like any ‘mint’ I knew, although the leaves were wildly aromatic and I was assured that it makes a wonderful tisane. On getting it home, I discovered it is in fact costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), also called alecost, bible leaf and mint geranium; it’s not a mint (or geranium) at all but a herb with an interesting history which is the kind of thing I love. I’ve planted it in the potager between the rhubarb and soapwort, a sunny spot where I hope it will thrive.

I’d imagined that any plants being given needed to be properly potted with good established roots but many people had simply dug clumps of perennials out of the garden that morning and brought them along; in this way we gained a couple of iris of unknown colour and some day lily roots to add to our collection of attractive edibles. The lady organising the event had opened her nearby garden to swappers, leaving a pile of tools, pots and newspaper so people could help themselves to a root of anything they fancied (with a gentle and wholly understandable plea not to lift whole plants); she had also left bottles of sparkling wine and glasses on various tables. Such generosity and trust, I wonder how many gardeners would be prepared to do the same? Her garden was beautiful, overflowing with wisteria and drifts of perennial cornflowers and in every space, masses of a dainty but obviously thuggish white comfrey whose flowers hummed with bee life. We lifted a root so tiny, no-one could tell we’d been there, and it’s looking very happy planted in the ‘wild’ flower border, the perfect complement to the pink variety that grows so well here.

All in all, it was an interesting and enjoyable event and now I know what to expect, I shall get busy potting up more bits and pieces for next time. I think sharing in this way is so important at many levels: it brings together people who can swap not only plants and seeds but ideas and experiences, too; it offers the chance to collect plants suited to a particular bioregion whilst at the same time, dabble in new and different varieties, perhaps with an eye on climate change; it helps to fight the worrying decline in genetic diversity, safeguarding heirloom varieties and encouraging the activities of landrace gardeners; it diverts waste into a useful resource, especially packets of seeds that have not been used or plants heading to become green waste; it supports autonomy and resilience, weakening the reliance on often expensive and environmentally-unfriendly commercial plants and seeds; it teaches us how to give and receive without money changing hands, more difficult for some than others; it brings home the balance between give and take rather than take and take; more than anything else, it reminds us what it is to be human, to join together ~ however briefly ~ in a common cause which is of mutual benefit to all involved. People care, Earth care, fair share . . . it’s very simple, really.

Welsh onion plants and cardoon seeds are two of the things I took to the swap; I hope next year they will be making a similar impact in other people’s gardens as they currently are in ours.

Giving away garden bits and pieces doesn’t have to be part of an event; I have been sharing and swapping with friends and family for years and there is always something wonderful about the giving and receiving of little slips of roots or a few seeds in a paper twist, the anticipation of good things to come from someone else’s thoughtfulness and generosity. The pink comfrey in the photo above is a case in point: we currently have several large clumps around the garden, all of which came from a root given by a friend in Asturias (for which, at a later date, we gave a rhubarb crown in exchange). Sadly, Brexit means I can no longer legally exchange things cross-Channel but I have still been able to give plants and seeds to others and have a number of lovely gifts to grow this year, including some ‘special’ seed potatoes, cuttings of perennial kales and Vietnamese coriander, seeds for Majorcan pea beans, a Greek variety of aubergine and two Finnish heirloom tomato types so rare that it feels like a huge privilege (and weighty responsibility!) to be trialling them in a warmer climate. Please, please let the blight stay away.

Back to my studies and my morning observation sessions have officially come to an end as I move into the second week of lessons, yet they will continue, of course. I can’t help myself, really; there is so much out there to excite my senses, provoke curiosity and wonder and give me food for thought, so much to learn and reflect on, so much to admire and inspire me. I end up with far more questions than answers but that is surely what learning is all about? I’m very happy that the whole ethos of this course is based on getting out there and, quite literally, getting my hands dirty. Fine by me. Who knows, I might even manage to finish this one on time! 😉

Welcome to my classroom.

Maytime mulching and meandering

Looking back over my blog posts, I realise just how home-centric (or perhaps garden-centric is more accurate) it has become since our trip to Norway last June. I don’t have a problem staying at home, in fact I am the sort of homebird who can take a lot of persuading at times to go elsewhere, but I have missed the opportunities to share our local ramblings on two feet or two wheels over the last few months. At the beginning of last December, I decided to have a crack at the Walk 1000 Miles challenge in the hope it would help to accelerate the natural healing of my herniated disc . . . but it only took me the first week to realise it was far too soon and that particular target would have to be put on the back burner (ah, no painful pun intended 😉) for quite some time. Five months on and at last I am able to move more comfortably; I’ve started to walk again, not too far or too fast, but at least it feels like positive progress in the right direction, and even if I still can’t ride my bike, I can at least enjoy the unparalleled beauty of May mornings and the hedonistic dance of colour along the laneside verges.

I don’t have the technology to measure my steps but I suspect they add up to several miles a day just around the garden at the moment. With the weather having taken a turn for the better and no hint of frosts in the forecast, it has been all systems go outside; this is one of the busiest times of year with much planting and the mother lode of mulch to be distributed ~ not that I’m complaining. If I could only have one month, it would be May. I love these sunlit days of eye-wateringly bright green leaves against skies the flawless blue of a robin’s eggshell (of which there are plenty scattered around the garden at present); there is such a rush of energy, of vigour and vitality, an overwhelming fizz of vibrancy and joy. The air resounds with the jubilant chorus of birdsong and is redolent with the sweet perfumes of lilac and laburnum, bluebells, clematis and apple blossom so that far from feeling like work, my time spent being busy in the garden is nothing but an unbridled pleasure.

Roger has been busy tidying the barn and outdoor shelter as that now we no longer need to light the stove, the big log merry-go-round has begun once more and he is barrowing stacks of logs at various stages of the seasoning process here, there and everywhere. He’s also been using up scraps of wood to make more bird boxes, working on several different designs to cater for a wider variety of species; however, it seems no matter what goes up, it’s great tits that move in immediately. They spend a lot of time pecking at the entrance hole of blue tit boxes to try and squeeze in and, not content with occupying the bat box, they’ve also decided that treecreeper boxes will suit them just fine . . .

Taking the hint, Roger relented and made a great tit box . . . and they were in residence in under thirty minutes of it appearing in a tree! They are one of the most numerous species on the winter feeders but last year, they all went up to the woods to nest; this year, they are obviously happy to raise their broods with us so I think a few more boxes tailored to their needs will be appearing before next spring ~ then perhaps the other birds will get a look-in, too. The greatest excitement in the last couple of weeks was seeing an adult red squirrel disappearing into the nestbox that Roger put up a couple of years ago and which has remained empty ever since; we’ve been waiting with baited breath to see if it was a sign she was raising a family in there and sure enough this week, a little gang of kittens has emerged. What a magical moment! I am wasting far too much time watching them: the first sign of scuffling and scratching noises coming from the box and I down tools and tiptoe as close as I dare. They are such little characters, taking their first brave steps in a strange arboreal world and being able to witness such an event feels like a real privilege. There is no hope of catching a decent shot without a zoom lens but at least I hope you can make out the squirrel kitten profile and its white bib in the V of the oak tree below. The tree is leafing up rapidly and the babies are growing bolder with every day so it won’t be long before we are struggling to see them . . . but there’s a good chance their mother will have a second litter in August so watch this space!

What with the distraction of baby squirrels, my continued observations of wild bees (Long-horned and Hairy-footed Flower females have joined the parade this week) and the spectacle of busy bird activity all around the patch, things have quite possibly been proceeding rather more slowly than they should where my to-do list is concerned. Thankfully, we’ve had a run of gorgeous days which means each morning I’ve been able to pick up where I left off and I can report that most of the planting has now been done: just sweetcorn and tomatoes to go outside when they are ready and the melons and a couple of butternut squash in the tunnel when there is room. It’s such a juggling act in there but I’m not grumbling; we are enjoying a tremendous harvest of peas, broad beans and lettuce and the first roots of early potatoes this week have been a real treat, especially as there were more on a single root than the whole lot put together last year. What a difference a year and a lot of soil love make.

I’m desperately trying to use the tunnel lettuce now, partly to free up space for melons but also because the outdoor ones are catching up fast. I love the way that our salads are always such a reflection of the season, changing almost weekly as old things fade and new stars step up to the mark ~ this week has seen the last small florets of purple sprouting broccoli and the first starry chive flowers.

I’d like to say the next much-anticipated treat will be the first courgettes but there has been something of a disaster on that front this week and as I believe in blogging warts and all, I’m happy to share this frustrating moment (some little bugrat has also been pruning my tomato seedlings in the tunnel each night but that’s another story . . . and at least with 40 plants, I can probably afford a few losses 😬). The ‘Latino’ courgette I planted in the tunnel was looking amazing, growing very strongly and forming the first flower buds; hooray, I thought, here we go. Mmm, cue a serious case of wilt which was obviously something more serious than heat; we lifted the plant to check the roots ~ wireworm being the prime suspect ~ only to discover that a huge ants’ nest had been built beneath it. Honestly, with 0.6 hectares (1½ acres) to choose from, why on earth did they have to decide on that exact spot? The poor plant has been replanted in an ant-free space and I’m giving it a lot of TLC in the hope it will pull through but I’m really not holding my breath. I think we’re just going to have to wait for the outdoor courgettes to deliver. It’s all part of the game.

No such worries where rhubarb is concerned, the plants struggled with the severe frosts we had earlier in spring but have certainly made up for lost time and I am pulling sticks to cook for my breakfast every couple of days. This is the first rhubarb we have had since leaving our Welsh garden in 2012 so I have been waiting a long time for this moment of joy and as Roger doesn’t like it, the delight is all mine. Not a problem!

Actually, the perennial bed is doing us proud at the moment as the asparagus (which according to the rule book we shouldn’t be eating until next spring) is producing a fantastic crop. What a luxury to be able to pick generous bundles of spears every few days, all different lengths and thicknesses in complete contrast to the scarily uniform bundles currently on sale in the shops, but with a texture and flavour so superb they need nothing more than gentle steaming and a decent knob of creamy butter. Who needs rules? 😂

On the subject of rules, I was pleased to see that ‘weeds’ ~ now rebranded as ‘resilient plants’ or ‘weed heroes’~ are set to play something of a starring role in a third of the show gardens at Chelsea this year. That said, the cynical part of me wondered why it is that things need a nod of approval from designers before they become acceptable in society but I hope that Mary Reynolds will be pleased that 21 years after she took Chelsea by storm with her wild garden (noted for its ‘subversive use of weeds’), at long last there is recognition that our wild flowers are so important. My focus this week has been on daisies; a good source of Vitamin C, I like to sprinkle leaves and flowers into salads, but I’m also drying a jar of them for winter teas as they are good for fighting catarrh and chesty coughs and I believe they are currently even being investigated for anti-tumour properties. Not bad for such a humble little flower! Looking through my botany loupe, I’ve been fascinated by their complexity, the bright yellow pincushion centres and gorgeous brushstrokes of pink on the petal backs. Little beauties . . . I hope someone plants an entire wonderfully subversive lawn of them at Chelsea. Several, in fact.

Back to the business of food and it’s been good to see our future harvest crops responding well to the warmth and regular rainfall, both of which were so lacking last spring. The outdoor broad beans are a mass of flowers, the garlic is possibly some of the best we’ve ever grown, there are three rows of staggered peas racing to catch each other up and everywhere seedlings are popping up and hurtling skywards. I pre-sow all our beans and there has been no stopping the first few trays of climbing borlotti, Asturian fabas and dwarf ‘Purple Teepee’: this is them just six days after sowing.

They are all in the ground now along with squash, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, cauliflowers, onions and red Welsh onions with (of course) some frivolous flowers in the shape of cosmos and nicotiana. I’ve planted basil in the tunnel with plenty more to go outside along with flat-leaved parsley and holy basil or tulsi which I’ve never grown before. Once planted, everything has been mulched with a good layer of grass clippings and as the ground is nicely wetted this year, it should do a grand job in helping to retain moisture. What has pleased me more than anything else on my planting travels is the number of volunteer seedlings that have appeared everywhere through the previous mulch layer: squash, cosmos, sunflowers, violas, landcress, rocket and literally hundreds of lettuce, all growing in spots they weren’t in last year. I love it that we are moving towards the sort of garden I’m after, one that keeps on planting itself and yes, it does encourage me to be lazy ~ there are so many sunflower seedlings in the potager that I shan’t bother to plant any seeds this year. In my experience, when seeds sow themselves they tend to grow strongly because they are happy and I am equally content to let them get on with it; the lettuce and sunflower below are sharing their space with climbing beans and violas so I’ll leave them to jostle for elbow room and do their own thing.

There’s plenty of self-setting going on in the potato patch, too, mostly rocket, calendula and landcress which is already flowering and close to starting the whole cycle all over again. Now that the potatoes are up and visible (they have actually doubled in size since I took the photo) I decided to have a bit of a Ruth Stout moment, broadcasting linseed between the rows and covering with mulch. Linseed is sold here as a green manure which also helps to deter potato beetles so it’s worth a try, especially as I happen to love the blue flowers anyway. In a similar vein, I’ve scattered a mix of nectar-rich annual flower seeds in the rows between the asparagus, just throwing it on top of the mulch and watering in. We’ll see what happens.

Staying with potatoes and I was very excited to see the first shoot emerging from the hay mulch in the mandala garden; this is my first foray into the world of no-dig spuds and I must admit I have been a bit concerned that they had been nobbled by frost. Clearly not, so all that remains to be seen now is just how well they grow and crop compared to the conventionally-planted ones.

I’m very pleased at how well the mandala bed is looking this year, it is starting to take on an air of maturity thanks to the herbs creating a dense and aromatic ‘hedge’ around the boundary. The self-created strawberry bed is full of flowers and the first fruits have started to set so I’ve tucked hay round all the plants this week to lift the fruit off the ground. Although it’s early days as far as growth is concerned, the bed is already looking pretty full and once again, I’m just using spare bits and bobs to plant up each section. So far that means potatoes, onions, cabbages, Cape gooseberry, lettuce, chard, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers, climbing borlotti beans, dwarf purple beans, nicotiana and larkspur with a space left for tomatoes. There’s a salad burnet that appeared from nowhere last year and is going strong, flat-leaved parsley that made it through winter and a whole host of volunteers including tomatoes, violas, calendula, something that looks like a cardoon . . . oh, and lettuce, of course. Why on earth I thought I needed to plant a tray of lettuce this year, I will never know, there isn’t a corner of the garden where they haven’t appeared; in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say in places they are like a living mulch. Who needs green manure? Incredible.

I finally got round to joining the local library last week and on the strength of the current natural gardening exhibition, I was able to borrow some books which really appealed to me. In fact, I’ve been reading about permaculture in French and English over the last few days and it’s been interesting to compare notes in both languages. The French book draws on the experiences of a lot of practitioners and I’m pleased to have found a few like-minded people in the group of what I think of as ‘pragmatic permies’, those who like me value the principles of permaculture but are happy to admit that instead of swallowing them hook, line and sinker, it’s important to add a good dose of common sense to any situation. It stands to reason that works brilliantly in the rainforests of Costa Rica isn’t necessarily going to transfer smoothly to northern Europe! The underlining message, however, is the undisputed benefit of growing our own food in a way that treads lightly on the Earth, works with and mimics nature, encourages (bio)diversity, produces no waste, drastically reduces carbon footprints and feeds both the body and soul.

In many ways, the business of growing food is a weighty one, especially if self-sufficiency is a goal, so I believe it’s vital to take a light-hearted step backwards from the soil face now and again, to seek joy, laughter, quirkiness and whimsy amongst the muck and mulch. To that end, Roger has used some scraps of wood left over from his gate-making activities to create me a ‘gate to nowhere’ at the end of a big lasagne bed; it looks a little stark at the moment but I’ve planted cucumbers behind to climb up over it, have zinnias waiting in the wings for a splash of colour in front and when the backdrop of sweetcorn and climbing beans clambers upwards and fills out in a wall of green, I’m hoping it will evolve into an eye-catching (or head-scratching?) point of interest. Just in case anyone is lost, I’ve painted a sign in my uber-naïve style to help them find their way . . . although between you and me, I’m secretly hoping the snails shuffle off in the opposite direction. 😉

Gardening, naturally.

Les giboulées are very much a feature of our weather forecasts at the moment; in English, I suppose we would call them April showers, short and sharp bursts of heavy rain often accompanied by strong winds and hail, with blue skies and sunshine in between. It’s definitely a case of dodging the downpours to get anything done outside as I don’t find a sudden torrent of hail down the back of my neck very conducive to happy gardening. Thankfully, there’s a lot to be done in the polytunnel so that has been my warm and dry refuge when the heavens open yet again. Fairweather gardener? You bet! 😊

The sound of heavy rain drumming on the tunnel roof reminds me of two things (above and beyond dismal camping holidays 😂 ). First, not a single drop of rain ever falls inside and so it’s essential that we keep the tunnel well-watered throughout the year; as soon as the temperature rises to a point where the door needs to be propped open during the day, evaporation rate increases rapidly and it’s all too easy for the the soil to dry out. Second, I am feeling hugely grateful and relieved that we are finally clawing back the rainfall deficit which has been an issue since September 2022. Despite the drought in February delivering a whopping 94% shortfall, we were back up to 91.8% of normal expected precipitation at the end of March and with plenty of wet weather at the moment, I am feeling cautiously optimistic about a better year ahead. With that in mind, it’s a good time to make the most of overflowing butts and carry copious cans into the tunnel to really soak the ground. Between the storms, obviously.

The cherry blossom is still beautiful against a grey sky.

First job in the tunnel was to plant a ‘Latino’ courgette; this is something we experimented with last year and it worked a treat, one plant in the tunnel to give us an early crop and the rest outside once all risk of frost has passed. It will need a fairly big space and will be producing fruits for many months so good soil preparation is essential, especially as it will be what I think of as a greedy feeder. There’s a ‘natural gardening’ event happening locally at the moment, with information in various libraries and people welcoming others to their garden to share tips and ideas, so while I prepped the soil I was mulling over exactly what natural gardening means and in what ways the approach plays out in our patch. The space earmarked for the courgette plant grew chillies last summer and once the spent plants were out, I gave the area a good mulch of chopped comfrey leaves, compost and well-rotted donkey dung and in recent weeks I’ve been adding coffee grounds and diluted urine. There were a few weeds easily lifted with my handfork; it will be impossible to reach behind the plant once it gets going so I like to start with a fairly clean slate. I then carried cans of rainwater in to give the whole area a really thorough soaking.

Digging a planting hole, I was chuffed to see how the work we’ve been putting into soil improvement is really starting to pay off now; the soil is ferrous and naturally red but examining a handful closely I could see just how much darker, organic material it now contains, thanks to the regular addition of natural amendments. I put a good dollop of compost into the bottom of the planting hole, spread chopped comfrey leaves over the entire area and then mulched the lot with grass clippings; this does mean the sweet perfume of broad bean and rocket flowers is now overpowered by the pungent aroma of rotting grass but it is worth the short-term pain for the benefits such a mulch brings. Roger had left me a pile of grass clippings after mowing that had built a good deal of heat at its centre which meant a warm blanket going down onto warm soil, just right to nudge the courgette along; the grass will not only retain heat but help to hold moisture in the soil and over the next few months, will break down along with the comfrey leaves and add its own nutritional and structural benefits to the soil.

Although I’ve been mulching the outdoor lettuce in a similar way, I haven’t bothered with the indoor ones as you can see in the photo above. The reasons for this are twofold. First, there is space between and around the lettuce to transplant seedlings of things like coriander and dill which are popping up like mushrooms in other parts of the tunnel and second, I’m interested to see what else appears on its own. There are already plenty of little chilli/pepper seedlings and although I’m not growing any chillies this year (even I had to admit last year’s abundant crop was enough to last us for several years), a big part of me is tempted to let one or two seedlings grow to maturity just to see what they produce. All the varieties I grew last year were open-pollinated so it’s possible we could have tiny sweet chillies or huge fiery peppers in a vast array of colours and the curious cat in me is interested to find out. What I do love is the fact that the seedlings have all come from fruits that dropped right at the end of the season, the seeds surviving the winter inside the rotting husks and now germinating in abundance; it makes me wonder why there can be such a fuss about seed saving at times when nature makes it all look so easy. This little patch alone epitomises some of my ideas about natural gardening: not a single synthetic element involved, just a lot of soil love and a willingness to let nature have plenty of leeway . . . and to observe and learn from what happens. Integrated pest management plays a huge role, too, so that I’m fairly confident that the two slugs I found lurking at the margins will be slurped up by the resident toad or beautifully iridescent golden ground beetles while the decent crop of broad beans and peas rapidly forming at the other end of the tunnel is testament to the busyness of various insects rummaging about in the flowers.

It’s very much a ‘between seasons’ time in the tunnel and it feels a bit like one big obstacle course with an ever-expanding trail of tender plants snaking down the path and overblown growth collapsing in all directions. With temperatures pegged back and those savage hail storms still raging, there has been no question of starting to drag everything outside to harden off during the day so I’ve had to work as best I can around the crowd of pots whilst starting to clear the ground for the indoor peppers, aubergines and melons. The only way to tackle the jungle is piecemeal so I’ve been working in strips, taking vast amounts of spent growth out to the compost heap.

As an aside, it took me days to sort those compost bays out a couple of weeks ago but now at long last they are in a logical order with bay 1 on the right being the current pile, bay 2 in the middle a maturing pile and bay 3 on the left the ‘almost done’ pile; this means in future it will be a simple job of emptying the third bay and tossing the other two one place to the left. As the lidded dustbin I was using to store finished compost has been pressed into water storage service, Roger has rigged up an old dumpy bag on the end for me to use instead; the whole system isn’t the prettiest but it’s highly functional and the rugosa roses in front are finally growing so hopefully it will be screened from view in the not-too-distant future, especially as I’m tempted to stick a few spare raspberry plants between them to plug the gaps for the time being. As the new compost pile is still relatively low, we keep the front off it so it can be trampled regularly ~ Huw Richards is a big advocate of this ~ and also used as a pissoir should we need a garden pee; for every big pile of green stuff that goes in, I add a layer of sawdust, dry dead leaves and other small woody bits to keep a balance and stop the whole lot descending into a smelly anaerobic sludge. Crumbly, rich, dark compost must surely be one of the greatest blessings of a natural garden.

Anyway, back to the Tunnel World where very slowly, a clear(er) planting patch has been emerging; I can’t truthfully say clear because I’ve been leaving all sorts of random self-set bits and pieces such as lettuce, coriander and parsley plus a few bigger radicchio, all of which will have to go eventually but have a chance to grow to useful size before the summer plants around them get too big. I’ve also been potting up a few things I’ve found in the undergrowth which is really just a bad habit of mine; why we need more rainbow chard plants when I already have enough for several gardens is beyond me but I can’t bear to see little plants go to waste. Perhaps I’ll be able to give them away to a good home, along with all the other waifs and strays I’m bound to gather in the coming weeks. I’m also rescuing as much food from the jungle as I can so that this week’s menus have been based on using as much coriander, spinach, landcress, rocket and beetroot (amongst others) as possible. We shouldn’t really have a hungry gap, just a short time with less variety than usual . . . and if I know courgettes, we will be picking the first ones from the tunnel in no time at all.

We don’t need huge quantities of seasonal vegetables to make a delicious meal: purple sprouting broccoli, fresh peas and asparagus from the garden are many times better than their shop-bought counterparts, a true luxury in themselves.

This week has seen the next wave of indoor seed propagation with ‘Crown Prince’ squash seeds planted in individual pots along with a few butternuts and our mongrel Blues; just the tomatoes, sweetcorn and beans to go now. Everything sown from saved seed has done well so far with the exception of the ‘Petit Gris de Rennes’ melons which failed totally; whereas the cucumbers I sowed alongside them bombed up and begged to be potted on within days, the melons did absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada. With nothing to lose, I dug them up to find they were all just empty husks, so ~ scratching my head in bemusement ~ I went back to the packet I’d stored them in and had a good look at the rest. Many of those were simply flat shells full of nothing, too, but I did manage to find enough plump seeds to replant and bingo! up they shot. This is definitely a lesson learned: melon seeds are hardly difficult to save but I think I just wasn’t concentrating hard enough on what I was doing (in my defence, last summer wasn’t the easiest of times so the fact I managed to save anything was a small miracle); this year, I need to be very selective and make sure all the saved seed is good and as plump as can be.

Enthusiastic cucumbers

I can’t decide whether I like tulips or not. I realise that might seem a strange statement from someone who loves colour and flowers, and to be fair they are making a bold splash at the moment but even so . . . I don’t think it helps that I usually underplant with wallflowers but never got round to raising any plants last year, so those heavy heads on long straight stems just seem too formal for me, somehow. I’m far more charmed by the chaotic carpets of primroses, now stitched through with pretty blue forget-me-not in the gravel, or the swathes of wild cowslips, bluebells and orchids in our verges. When the tulips are over, I think I’ll shift them off into a corner of the garden somewhere to do their own thing in coming years and not bother with them in pots again; certainly, the large blue glazed pot has been earmarked for a fig tree Roger was given for his birthday and with any luck, as nature has its way more and more in the gravel garden, the need for pots of planted colour will be seriously reduced.

My head tells me they’re a bright splash of colour at the front of the house . . .
. . . but heart says these are what I love.

When I really started to think about it, the idea of a ‘natural’ garden seems something of an oxymoron as once we move from foraging for wild food to cultivating an area specifically for raising crops then we are surely controlling nature? If we left our garden to its own devices then in a relatively short time it would revert to a woodland of mainly oak, birch, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry with gorse and brambles beneath; much as I admire the concept of forest gardens, the truth is there would be very little food available in comparison to what we can produce from our cultivated plot.

Our garden is a human creation . . . but we work with nature at every step.

Doing a bit of research into natural gardening, it seems to be a difficult definition to pin down, often coming back to being the same as ‘organic’ gardening ~ as in no use of synthetic fertilisers or other chemicals. Personally, I think it is something far more holistic than that, so that definitions I found referring to ‘gardening in tune with nature’ or ‘ecological gardening’ seem closer to the mark, the emphasis being on treating the garden as a complete living organism where each part is intrinsically linked to all the others and the approach to raising food crops is based on how nature goes about things. I’ve recently been given a couple of (English language) gardening magazines, one of which contains an article about ‘nature-friendly’ soil (no-dig, mulch, compost, green manure . . . ); it’s wonderful that this sort of thinking is becoming more mainstream but honestly, how as a species have we managed to get so far away from what soil naturally wants to be? At what point did it become a good idea to try and banish nature from every corner of the garden? I know not everyone would agree but I like to keep words like cherish, nurture, honour, respect, wonder, reverence and gratitude in mind every time I plant a seed, harvest a crop, water or feed plants, thrust my hands into the soil or simply sit and absorb the essence of the elements, life and biodiversity which make our garden the place it is.

The spring-planted rose garlic has been mulched with comfrey and grass clippings this week.

I was interested to see that ‘providing habitat for pollinators’ appeared in several lists of requirements for organic/natural gardening which is fine but what about providing food, too . . . and how about all the other creatures that reside in the garden? There’s no point in putting up nestboxes or creating habitats for living things if there’s nothing appropriate on hand for them to eat and likewise, a supply of food is all well and good but they need relevant places for living and breeding, too. I believe that a natural garden is as complex and multi-layered as nature itself, something that goes far beyond any simple formula or list of suggestions, but yet a very attainable and hugely rewarding undertaking if we are willing to learn through observation and practice. Polyculture is a key concept and one that flies in the face of the monoculture apparent in the fields that surround us; the farmers may be hauling in many tonnes of grass, maize and grain from their vast fields but we certainly win the prize for diversity. Obviously, we’re not running a business or feeding sheds full of cattle but we often speculate on just how many people we could feed from our patch if we really needed to.

Cramming it in: the summer garden is a celebration of polyculture.

With all the benefits of polyculture in mind, this week I’ve been sowing a range of hardy crops into a bed that is already home to pointy summer cabbages, garlic, broad beans, parsnip, lettuce and violas as well as an explosion of dill and calendula volunteers which have surfaced this week. First in were the carrots, without doubt one of our most successful crops last year despite the hot, dry weather; the sandy loam suits them so well and this might be tempting fate, but so far there has been no sign of the dreaded root fly. We had a long row of an orange ‘Nantes’ variety which cropped for many months so I’ve planted the same again plus a second row of purple, red and a rainbow mix because two people really, really need that many carrots. 😂 Next came red and golden beetroot, radish, spring onions, swede, turnips (only because I was give free seed but we’ll see how they go), coriander, two lots of cabbage and autumn calabrese; the cauliflowers went into individual pots in the tunnel as they need a bit more nurturing. I also planted a patch of mixed nectar-rich flowers and another of buckwheat to attract our insect allies and then popped in a patch of spare red onion seedlings left over from the main planting. There’s still room for a square of chard once the plants are ready to go in the ground and rows of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines plus basil which I’m planning to spread all over the garden again this year. Oh, and a row of something else where the old parsnips are, possibly some French beans; by my reckoning that’s about 25 edibles in a bed that is roughly thirty square metres in area. True, the autumn brassica plants will be transplanted elsewhere but there will be space for successional planting of other crops when things like the lettuce, summer cabbage and broad beans come out . . . and I haven’t even started on most of the other beds yet.

Young lettuce plants with self-set violas growing between and a row of newly-germinated parsnip seedlings just beyond the edge of the mulch.

The storms have been tearing blossom from the cherry trees in a blizzard of white petal confetti and I am thankful that the trees on our patch flower at slightly different times so we should be assured a harvest from at least some of them. We have a few bags of cherries left in the freezer but having just pulled the first sticks of rhubarb, I am confident now that we can get through an entire year on our own fruit. I for one am very happy to tuck into a bowl of sharp gooseberries or a sweet red berry mix or spiced apple compote rather than peel a Spanish orange or buy southern hemisphere grapes in winter and this year should be even better as our new bushes start to bear fruit ~ literally. The strawberries have their first flowers and the currants have opened tresses of blooms this week, such tiny insignificant flowers but like a delightful deli for epicurean insects if the buzz and fuss between showers is anything to go by. The currant flowers seem to be a particular favourite of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) which are regular visitors and hopefully doing the pollination business for us; the bumbles manage to keep flying despite the weather, better able to cope than the honeybees who find themselves confined to overcrowded barracks and I suspect our feral colony is busy raising new queens with the intention of swarming very soon.

The wind blew a lot of the honeyberry flowers off but I can see tiny fruits forming and I’m also keeping an eye on the saskatoon which has been a mass of starry white blooms so there might be some berries to follow. My favourite flowers, though, are those on the jostaberry, such a striking combination of red and cream and I can’t wait to sample the fruits that are a complex cross between gooseberries and blackcurrants. Roger, who isn’t fond of either fruit, is still puzzled as to why anyone would want to create such a thing yet alone eat it but I’m curious to try and as far as I’m concerned if it’s another variety to add to our fruit harvest, then it’s welcome . . . and if I end up eating them all myself, well so be it!

At the end of a busy gardening day, during a moment when the rain had finally stopped and sunshine burst through to warm the evening, I sat and contemplated the time I had spent outside. One way or another, it had added up to most of the day and I think for me that is what ‘natural gardening’ is all about: not so much me being in the garden as being part of the garden, just a single and fairly irrelevant element interwoven with a cast of many. The list of jobs I’d ticked off was a long one ~ uncovering/covering tender plants, sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting out, watering, mulching, tying in, carting stuff about in buckets and barrows ~ but my day of gardening had felt so much more than that, and compared to the industry of other life forms around me, my application to tasks wasn’t hugely impressive. I’d watched with delight as swallows swooped through the garden then alighted on rain-soaked beds to gather mud and a red squirrel did circus tricks along a grapevine support wire; my ears had been full of the sound of birdsong, the blackcaps doing their best to out-sing each other and everything else whilst they all go about the business of nest-building and chick rearing; a pair of blackbirds hopped across the cut grass and scratched up havoc in the mulched beds, heads tilted, as they hunted tirelessly for nourishment for the clutch of young I can hear in the depths of the bay tree; a mole, all snout and pink paws, pushed up chains of dark earthy eruptions across the grass. The entire patch was teeming with insects, the soil with earthworms and a myriad creatures I can’t even see and everywhere, there was the silent greening and growth of plants both cultivated and wild. I don’t think of soil as ‘dirt’ or slugs as ‘pests’ or dandelions as ‘weeds’ because whether I’m fond of things or not (and I confess, I’m not a slug hugger by any means) we’re all in it together, doing the best we can on this precious piece of land. For me, it’s not a hobby or pastime, but a way of life . . . and if we manage to produce some decent food along the way, then I’m a very happy gardener. Naturally. 😊

Bees and other busyness

I am a woman possessed. The air this week has exploded with a myriad flying insects, and with my ears tuned in for the merest suspicion of a hum or a buzz, I am darting around the garden in search of bees like a mad thing. I’m beginning to realise what a mammoth task I’ve set myself in trying to identify all the bees in the garden, there are already so many different species around and we haven’t even got to the time of year where an array of female workers and males are thrown into the mix. I think I’ve added a White-bellied or Banded mining bee (Andrena gravida), a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) and an Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) to my list but think is the operative word here since confident identification escapes me most of the time. I’m dipping into a wealth of excellent resources such as Steven Falk’s incredible collection of photographs but even then, not everything is helpful; for instance, the fact that honeybees have hairy eyeballs is an interesting one but doesn’t move me forward since that is the one species I can already identify correctly by sight and sound every time. I’ve also discovered they are one of the most accommodating species when it comes to photos, too, as demonstrated by this week’s ‘cover girl’ enjoying the newly-opened peach blossom.

A big part of the problem is that my subjects just won’t stay still long enough for me to get a good look. I spent ages one morning gazing up into a contorted willow tree where literally hundreds of small solitary bees were dancing and darting amongst the twisted branches . . . but not one would come low enough for me to see, yet alone land and sit still for a moment. Someone was kind enough to pose on a willow branch, though, as if offering me a small-but-perfectly-formed consolation prize . . .

If the bees don’t alight, then I have no chance of attempting an accurate identification. That said, even when they do give me the opportunity to snatch a photo or a good look if the camera isn’t to hand, pinning them down to the correct species is fraught with difficulty. I watched with fascination and absorption as the little bee below worked her way systematically through a dandelion flower but at no point did she present me with a view that would allow me to say with any certainty what species she was. I mean, where on earth do I start?

I just love those antennae! Possibly a White-bellied miner bee? Then again . . . 🤔

I’ve decided I need to keep things simple and approach this task in the same way I would have organised things for my primary school pupils: find the right level of challenge and break it down into bite-sized pieces. By the end of the summer, I would like to feel confident in identifying all the common bumblebees in the garden along with the most numerous solitary bees and beyond that, at least be aware of the main characteristics of different bee families to help me narrow things down a bit. I also need to refer to as many resources as I can and keep an open mind in the process; for instance, I was as sure as I could be that I had been watching an Orange-legged furrow bee this week until I read that they are a late bee and don’t usually emerge this early in the year. However, throwing my research net wider to include a few French sites, I read that in France it is perfectly possible to see these bees out and about now so perhaps I wasn’t mistaken. I also need to keep observing the same species as much as I can, not just in order to be sure of my identification but also to learn about their behaviours. Having spent time watching what I thought was a Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva), I now think it is actually a Red-tailed mason bee (Osmia bicolor) which is interesting as it nests in empty snail shells and I would say that of all the gardens we’ve ever had, this has to be the one most devoid of snails. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

I’ve been trying to capture a snap of the feral honeybee colony in action just to give an essence of what is going on at the end of the house. Unfortunately, the view is blocked by the large aerial we inherited, totally useless as we haven’t had a television since 2012 but yet to be removed. Still, hopefully you can see the returning bees clustered under the eaves to the right of the drainpipe from where they file upwards and left to the ‘hive’ entrance, stopping only to exchange messages with the outgoing foragers in the magical waggle dances I never tire of seeing. As a swarm, they would have arrived with a young queen last year and if the number of flying bees is anything to go by, she is certainly prolific. I can only imagine the nest of hanging wax combs secreted deep within the stone walls with their beautiful radiating patterns of brood, pollen and nectar but pressing my ear against the cool tiles on the bathroom wall, I can hear the soft susurration of thousands of tiny wings, fanning to drive water off the nectar and turn it into honey. Given the amount of activity, I’m surprised we haven’t found any lost bees in the bathroom yet but I’m wondering if perhaps nature has taken its course and the bees have plugged the hole with propolis from inside their nest? One thing I am sure of is that given the strength of the colony so early in the season, they are very likely to throw a swarm, probably in May. Many beekeepers spend much time ‘managing’ hives to prevent swarms but they are a natural and advantageous part of the honeybees’ life cycle, aiding propagation and helping to prevent disease; as with so many things, nature knows what it’s doing. We’re happy to let them get on with it.

Where my bee identification is lacking, my knowledge of birds is much greater so I can say with all certainty that a fluid warbling of rapid notes means the blackcaps are back in the garden and the dark robinesque bird flicking its tail to reveal underskirts of scarlet is a redstart, returned to nest with us for another year. The swallows have also arrived, just squeaking in at the end of the month, and as ever I am overjoyed to welcome them back. No cuckoo yet but it won’t be long and I have been listening out for that first evocative call whilst catching up on a pile of garden jobs after our week away in the UK. It’s the start of the silly season with a to-do list as long as my arm, which makes me a very happy bunny: the housework will suffer serious neglect from this point on. I was relieved to find that my tender little plants had coped with my absence but are now at a point where it benefits them to spend the day in the warmth of the tunnel before returning to the house in the evening if night-time temperatures fall into single figures; it’s a tricky time of year. I’m left wondering again how I ever managed without those fat ball buckets, they make the best windowsill cloches ever and now double as handy plant carriers, although the potting bench is now so crowded there is no room for, um, potting.

Sweet pepper plants basking in the free heat of the polytunnel.

Apart from the lovely wrap-around warmth, the tunnel is currently a pleasure to visit as the broad beans are in flower and their gorgeous perfume meets me at the door. I’ve noticed that something has been piercing the flowers at their base to dip into the nectaries without actually climbing inside the flowers; clever stuff, but not very helpful where pollination is concerned. Thankfully, they are partially self-pollinating but insects do contribute to a higher yield so I’m hoping there are a few willing volunteers to crawl inside and do the business.

No problems with the indoor peas; the row isn’t particularly dense but it won’t be long before we are tucking into those little green treasures.

There’s much planting to be done at this time of year, starting with potatoes and onions which for us is always a team effort as it’s a pretty big task. I realise just how lax lazy relaxed I’ve become this season: I haven’t bothered to label the different varieties of pepper and aubergine plants and this week I decided against counting the number of potatoes going into the ground. I might be wrong, but does it really matter? I know the bulk of spuds are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ (also know as ‘Blue Sarpo’, an early maincrop potato which makes the best roasties on earth) plus a few free ‘Acoustic’ from the local country store and a handful of special Scottish gift potatoes which I’m very excited about growing. If I can recognise them as seed potatoes then I’ll know them as plants, flowers and crops so why worry about numbers or labels? We’ve opted to use the Not Garden as the main potato patch this year; we’ve worked hard at improving the soil and Roger’s hedge renovation has made a huge difference to the amount of light and air circulation so we’re hoping for a much more successful crop this year . . . and no, I won’t be tucking a layer of mulch around the emerging plants until the soil is good and wet this year, even if that means hauling lots of cans. You live and learn.

It doesn’t look much of a patch in the photo but it’s crammed with enough potatoes to feed us for months.

The Mandala Bed has been an exercise in experimentation right from the start and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue in the same vein. After all, if food crops fail, we have the insurance of plenty in other places and I think it’s important to keep on pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities in safeguarding our food production in the future. I’ve been planning to try some no-dig potatoes since last year, the idea being to lay down some sheets of cardboard on grass and grow them under hay; however, it occurred to me that I could grow them on the Mandala Bed without any need for cardboard, just sit the chitted potatoes on top of the mulch and cover them in a thick blanket of old hay.

A ‘Charlotte’ seed potato saved from last year’s crop: our favourite second early variety, a fantastic waxy salad potato.

In theory, they should send roots down into what is fast becoming wonderful soil, push plentiful foliage upwards and produce a mass of potatoes on the surface of the soil which can be easily harvested by lifting the hay. We’ll see. It was certainly much easier than planting in the conventional way, although I had to water the hay heavily to hold it down as high winds were forecast and I didn’t want to have to retrieve it from the other end of the garden (as happened with the rhubarb). I planted a mix of ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ so that I can compare directly in terms of growth, health and yield with what comes out of the Not Garden patch. I had a handful of tiny onion sets left over so I popped them in to fill the bed section; last year, everything went in as pre-sown plants in pockets of compost but as soil is rapidly forming, I’m interested to see how direct sowings do this year. My own little garden laboratory: I love it.

I’m definitely happy with my Pea-Off Rodent experiment, those tubes of young plants haven’t looked back and not a single one has succumbed to beastie attacks. I will certainly carry on collecting cardboard tubes for next year and I think I’ll plant the sweet peas in them, too, as they hate root disturbance. I’ve planted up a couple of wigwams made from hazel poles, one in the Bonfire Circle in the potager and the other in the Mandala Bed as these are areas I’ve earmarked for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, all of which need some pollinator attention. The sweet peas hated the hot, dry weather last year and were over all too quickly but I’ve planted them in deep pockets of compost and muck as they like plenty of nourishment underneath them and hopefully it will help with moisture retention. I know they will go into a bit of a sulk now, especially as the weather forecast is for that classic April cold (yet again) but with any luck we will have a gorgeous scented show to enjoy later this year.

Hard luck, voles . . . I think I’ve won this round.

Fruit has been a bit of a theme this week and as I eat my way through the last few bags of frozen gooseberries, redcurrants and cherries for breakfast, I’m looking forward to some new additions to the menu this year. I really ought to be pulling a few rhubarb sticks by now but all five plants continued to grow far too much through autumn then collapsed in a pile of mush once the first hard frosts arrived. I covered them in hay to protect them from the worst of the weather and they are coming back strongly now, I just wish they’d hurry up. I made a lasagne bed against the west wall of the Oak Shed a couple of months ago and have bought two vines to plant in it this week: a white ‘Birstaler Muscat’ and a black ‘Muscat Bleu’, both table grapes with excellent reviews. The shed wall is made from galvanised tin and enjoys maximum sunshine from now on so I’m hoping the vines will luxuriate in the warmth as well as cover what is a bit of an eyesore; as metal paint is expensive and packed with unpleasant chemicals I think living camouflage is the best bet. Like the broad beans, vines are self-pollinating but benefit from extra help so I deliberately made the border wide enough to accommodate some of my beloved frivolous flowers, too. 😊 The goji berry and three honeyberries I bought as tiny bare-rooted sticks struggled with the weather last summer but have clung on and put in a tremendous surge of growth in recent weeks; the latter are now covered in creamy tubular flowers which have been visited by Red-tailed and Early bumblebees so hopefully we will have our first crop of berries in a while.

While I was mulching their bed with grass clippings, I found stems on the goji berry and one of the gooseberry bushes which had layered themselves down on the woody winter mulch and grown some wonderful roots so I’ve potted them up to make new plants. I do love a freebie! Talking of which, all six stems from a broken blackcurrant branch that I potted up a few months ago have made healthy, sturdy plants so now I need to find some spots to plant them, possibly in gaps as part of our ‘edible hedge’ project. Roger was very chuffed to be given a saskatoon bush for a birthday gift as when he lived in Canada, saskatoons were his favourite berry; given they can survive the rigours of winter in Alberta then produce a mass of delicious fruit in summer, it’s surprising they aren’t better known in more temperate climates. The first flowers are just opening in a mass of little white stars so fingers crossed for fruit to follow; we don’t normally bother netting fruit bushes as we work on the theory that if we grow enough of everything there will be plenty to share with the birds . . . but somehow, I think this special one might need a bit of protection from gourmet blackbirds.

It’s also been a lovely week for flowers as, despite the rollercoaster weather ~ t-shirts and outdoor living one day, woolly hats and stove-hugging the next ~ spring has really started to burst forth. The front of the house is looking pretty as the windowboxes of pansies and violas have filled out and the sweet-scented species narcissi and first of the tulips in pots have opened. I’m hoping for great things from the gravel garden this year and as I’ve forgotten exactly what was planted in there last year, it’s good to find a few colourful surprises popping up.

We’re so lucky to have the space and attitude that allows us to mingle the cultivated with the wild in a chaotic abundance and I find much pleasure in both. The soft pink of the peach blossom is truly beautiful but then so are the delicate white stars of blackthorn; we have swathes of (cultivated) periwinkle flowers in stunning blue but I’m just as charmed by the carpets of red deadnettle and celandines. Interestingly, although periwinkle is cited as being a great source of early nectar, I’ve yet to see a single insect feeding on the flowers which is a shame as we have masses of them. No such problems with the flowering currant which is a-buzz with foragers and the sunny dandelions are doing a roaring trade 😂 (sorry, couldn’t resist that one . . . especially as March is going out like a lion rather than the proverbial lamb!). The air smells of pollen, leaf buds are fattening and creating a soft haze in the woods, birds are nesting and my fingers are itching to sow seeds. What a special time of year it is. 😊

Fair February

 February, a form pale-vestured, wildly fair. One of the North Wind’s daughters with icicles in her hair.

-Edgar Fawcett

February. A short month and one that is often maligned but so far, ours has most definitely been wildly fair with not too many icicles. True, there have been a few grey days and frosty mornings but mostly it has been fine, bright and sun-blessed, and it has been a pleasure to be outside ~ not just busy in the garden, but enjoying al fresco coffee breaks or a few minutes of evening sunshine before cooking dinner and inevitably, the first official barbecue of the year. It never fails to make my heart sing to see a line of laundry blowing in a soft breeze and coming back into the house smelling of spring. There has definitely been a bit of a bustle in the hedgerows, too, as the birds seek partners and nesting places, or in the case of the bramblings, come and fill their boots at the feeders before heading north once again. A multitude of plump, velvety bumble bees has emerged from winter nests to feed along with carpenter bees flaunting their metallic blue wings and the first red admiral butterflies sipping nectar wherever they can find it. The first daffies have opened their frilly blooms above a carpet of primroses, celandines, daisies and crocus; it has been an exceptional year for the snowdrops which are still flowering merrily and the hazel catkins are truly spectacular, cloaking the hedges in a shower of gold and full of pollen-hungry bees.

Of course, there’s always a flip-side and in this case it is most definitely the sad lack of rain; although we’ve had far more than last winter, recent weeks have been so dry that the soil is light and friable rather than the more usual heavy mud and I am having to water everything in pots and troughs on a regular basis. According to official sources, the 21st January to 20th February marked 31 days of sécheresse ~ a period devoid of rain in France, and an overall precipitation deficit for the month of 50%. After last year’s drought, this is seriously bad news and doesn’t augur well for the new growing season. We have installed two new 210 litre butts in our overflow catchment systems but there’s no chance of them filling at the moment, especially as I am quietly emptying the existing butts through essential watering activities. It is a bit of a worry given what happened last summer and I can only hope that if February won’t fill the dyke, then maybe March or April will. We haven’t quite reached the point of saving grey water yet but I have started to save any water used to wash vegetables; it’s a tip in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and one so simple and blindingly obvious, I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it before. Veggie washing water is full of nutrients, especially in winter when seasonal produce tends to come to the kitchen covered in soil, and this makes a good feed for plants so it’s a waste to let it go down the drain.

‘Dirty’ parsnip and leeks from the garden this week. My fork is there to give an idea of scale: that parsnip was enormous!

What else can we do about the water situation? I went in optimistic search for an old well only to discover that when the original fermette was parcelled off, the well ended up in the field just the other side of our boundary. Darn it. I have been looking for a bowser which we could pull behind the garden tractor to make watering easier in the summer but the cost of them, even second-hand, is prohibitive so it looks like we’ll be hauling cans once again, although the extra butt on the Love Shack system will help where keeping the tunnel watered is concerned. Increasing moisture retention in the soil is an obvious partial solution and as I’ve been weeding, mucking and mulching the last couple of beds this week, I’ve been pleased at how much more organic matter there is in the soil than when we first arrived here. I’m hoping things are moving in the right direction.

There has at least been enough rain over winter to fill the pond at long last so Roger has been able to adjust the turfs around the edge now we can see the levels and also create a couple of areas of stones to allow wildlife to reach the water. It still looks stark as all new ponds do, and we will have to wait until later in the year for nurseries to have their full stock of aquatic plants; we’ve made a start, though, and the wonderful thing is that there is a lot of busyness in the area with birds drinking and bathing and a large population of great diving beetles and back swimmers already very much at home in the water. If we can get enough vegetation established in and around the pond over summer, then it will be fingers crossed for some amphibian spawn this time next year.

When I stumbled quite by chance on a nursery advertising bare-rooted Bramley ~ or to be completely correct ~ Bramley’s Seedling apple trees, I knew we just had to go and check it out; our sweet cider apples are wonderful for juicing and they make a very presentable compote with the help of a potato masher but there is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned British cooking apple when it comes to pie! True, they’re a sour fruit that, unlike the cider varieties, will need some sweetening but it’s the delightful fluffy pulp they cook down to that makes them perfect for so many things in the kitchen. (As an aside, although Bramleys tend to snatch the headlines, I really rate Howgate Wonder as an excellent cooker, too). To say they are a rare find in France is a bit of an understatement, so this was an opportunity not to be missed even though it was an hour’s drive away. What a complete gem of a nursery, I was in paradise! Run by an Anglo-French husband and wife team, I can honestly say it is the most immaculate nursery I’ve ever visited, the plants are so well-cared for and the choice is dizzying: cue one serious ‘child in a sweet shop’ moment . . . 😁 Needless to say, I came away with a few extra treasures and seeing as we were given a mug of excellent Italian coffee dusted with chocolate and a very generous discount on our purchases, we will definitely be going back. As rather too many of our young trees have been pruned over winter by nocturnal visitors, we invested in a top-notch anti-deer tree guard; this is one tree we really don’t want to lose. I’m already thinking of those pies . . .

Something a little bit different we bought from the nursery was a selection of sempervivum to plant in the low stone wall Roger built some time ago. I remember being fascinated by these ‘hen and chicks’ as a child but we haven’t grown any since our own children were small so it’s interesting to have another go and they already look just right planted in pockets between the stones. I hope the resident lizards will approve of their new succulent garden.

Staying with the theme of drystone walls, last autumn Roger created a circular stone feature which I called ‘The Sheepfold’ because it reminded me of an Andy Goldsworthy creation. We’ve been umming and ahhing about what to put in the centre so I was delighted when the perfect specimen presented itself at the nursery, a red witch hazel (Hamamelis ‘Ruby Glow’) which was simply too exquisite to leave there. In summer, it will provide some fairly innocuous green height above the rainbow of annual flowers I plan to plant beneath it but in winter, oh my goodness ~ what a stunner it will be, especially lit by the low sunshine and seen against a dark backdrop of holly. I went to fetch water while Roger finished planting it and by the time I arrived back with my can, there was already a honey bee in one of the flowers. What a perfect seal of approval.

With our Persephone period well and truly over, the time to get stuck into the first batch of seed sowing has arrived. The light levels are now conducive to encouraging plant growth once again but a balmy warmth takes a little longer to arrive outside! The soil is still cold but we have planted a row of parsnips from our saved seed this week; they are tough little characters and need a long growing season so we always plant them at this time of year, whatever the weather. We didn’t have a huge crop last year but the lack of quantity has certainly been made up for in quality, every parsnip being huge but still sweet and very tender. In fact, we are going to have a surplus as we will never eat what’s left in the ground before they start growing again so Roger is planning to freeze batches of parsnip, squash and preserved lemon tagine which he made this week and is absolutely delicious. The propagator is of course not bothered by cold temperatures and we already have a tray of aubergine seedlings basking in the warmth along with sweet peppers and Cape gooseberries, sown but yet to emerge. The difference the shelter of the polytunnel makes becomes startlingly obvious at this time of year: there is no way we would have potatoes through the ground outside before April.

The salad crops in the tunnel are still going well although the rocket and lamb’s lettuce are starting to flower and I will leave some of them to set and scatter seed; I’ve planted a row of radish between the leaves and they bombed up almost overnight. On the potting bench, there are trays of ‘Greyhound’ cabbage and red Welsh onion seedlings looking grand along with broad beans and ‘microgreen’ peas plus numerous pots and trays of sown flower seeds. I’ve been lifting lettuce volunteers and potting them up to give us the first batch for planting outside when the temperature lifts a bit; I saved masses of lettuce seed last year, but the hundreds that are popping up in the tunnel make me wonder if I’ll actually need to sow any of it this year!

I’ve also put Operation Pea-Off Rodents into action and sown the first batch of ‘Téléphone’ and ‘Merveille de Kelvedon’ in cardboard tubes of compost; I’ve stood them in sturdy plastic crates with wide mesh bottoms sitting in a solid tray which I hope will make watering easier and prevent the tubes from becoming soggy and collapsing. I’ve sown thirty tubes with three peas each which should give us a decent row in the garden and my plan is to simply dig a hole and pop each tube in to avoid any root disturbance once the plants have reached critical mass. Read it and weep, voles. 😆

With outdoor living mode firmly re-established, I’ve been sprucing up the Love Shack table and chairs with a fresh lick of paint in readiness for much use in the coming months. I’m also pleased at how our idea of turning the south-facing former car parking space at the front of the house into a gravelled courtyard garden is starting to take shape, as fresh new growth from the perennials we planted last year starts to make an impact. The fences and gates Roger made have certainly created a more intimate and enclosed feel and with a freshly-oiled picnic table and couple of wooden ‘coffee break’ chairs out there in the sunshine, it is becoming an ever more inviting spot. With gravel, pots and window boxes all planted up we shouldn’t lack for colour this summer but having found the dregs of some bright turquoise paint I’d used in Asturias, I finally got round to painting an old milk churn that had been left here just to brighten things up a bit and provide a colourful welcome at the front gate.

When I was reading up about microgreens a couple of weeks ago, I came across the idea of Buddha bowls for the first time. I realise I’m probably light years behind everyone else in this so maybe I should pay more attention to what’s ‘trending’ (or is it ‘on trend’?) but that really isn’t my way ~ plus I’m always a bit sceptical of anything that can seem to be there just to look pretty on social media. The first article I found left me with the impression that the food involved had to be vegan and eaten with chopsticks but wider reading soon suggested that a whole spectrum of ingredients was possible ranging from strict vegan to unapologetic omnivore and that really (and unsurprisingly) you can eat them however you want. My interest piqued, I decided that the forthcoming few days of being left to my own devices would be a perfect opportunity for a bit of culinary experimentation; I’m happy with my own company and have no problem filling long days with busyness but the evenings without Roger always feel a bit strange as that is when we spend time preparing a meal together. Cooking for one can seem a bit of a faff and it’s all too tempting to resort to something simple on toast ~ or else I usually end up with a vat of soup that’s enough to feed me for several days. I thought that perhaps setting out to make a Buddha bowl might fill the being-busy-in-the-kitchen gap and allow me to focus on creating an interesting meal for one without piles of leftovers. I don’t have an official Buddha bowl so decided to use a big pasta bowl instead with a small Japanese tea bowl in the centre to hold the dressing. Here we go . . .

Self-set lettuce, rocket and coriander . . . perfect Buddha bowl ingredients.

The concept of a Buddha bowl is very simple as each one is based on just five elements ~ whole grains, vegetables, a protein source, a dressing and ‘sprinkles’ to finish ~ within which the range of possibilities is seemingly endless. I set out to see just what I could create using as much of our own produce as possible so the bought ingredients are marked with an asterisk. (There are a couple of ingredients which don’t really fall into either camp: the honey was a gift from a beekeeper and the preserved lemons are homemade, even though obviously the lemons and salt were bought originally.)

Buddha bowl #1

  • Whole grain: brown rice*
  • Vegetables: squash and red and golden beetroot roasted in olive oil* with chilli and coriander seed; sliced black radish; sliced oca; shredded red kale; rocket leaves; radicchio heart; grated carrot.*
  • Source of protein: borlotti beans
  • Dressing: tahini paste* whisked with chopped garlic*, orange zest and juice*, honey and olive oil*.
  • Sprinkles: pumpkin seeds*, chopped preserved lemon, chopped flat-leaved parsley and fresh coriander leaves.

Buddha bowl #2

  • Whole grain: bulgar wheat*
  • Vegetables: red kale, mixed sweet peppers and baby leeks, lightly fried in olive oil*; grated beetroot; Welsh onion;, sliced black radish; radicchio, mizuna, baby beet leaves, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and ruby sorrel.
  • Source of protein: hard-boiled egg*
  • Dressing: herby vinaigrette made from olive oil*, Dijon mustard*, scrap apple cider vinegar, finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, fennel and mint.
  • Sprinkles: sunflower seeds*, primroses, rosemary flowers, chervil and chopped chives.

The verdict

Starting with the drawbacks, the preparation of so many different elements meant I needed to be very organised; for instance, I had to cook rice, bulgar wheat, borlotti beans, egg, roast and fried vegetables and allow them plenty of time to cool so it felt like the meal preparation was stretched out over a long time. It’s not something you can do in a hurry unless using bought pre-cooked pulses or grains but that said, things can be cooked ahead and stored in the fridge. I tried to be as energy-efficient as I could, too, so the roast vegetables for the first bowl were actually cooked the previous evening when the oven was on to cook our meal and I cooked the beans, rice, bulgar wheat and egg in a pan on top of the woodburner; I couldn’t help feeling that my usual ‘lone meal’ choices like a mushroom and herb omelette with salad or a vegetable risotto were far more fuel-efficient . . . not to mention a lot lighter on the washing up! That aside, I certainly had the enjoyable and engaging meal preparation activity I wanted and ended up with two nutritious bowls that looked and smelt wonderful, were completely delicious, very sustaining and which somehow oozed good health. There was also something about them that encouraged slow, mindful and appreciative eating; I even felt inspired to put on some soft music and light candles. Eating alone doesn’t have to be miserable.

I was really pleased that I managed to make two quite different bowls, especially given that we are in a relatively lean season when it comes to what’s available in the garden. The beans, squash and peppers all came out of our stores and everything else was fresh from the garden or tunnel; the only bought vegetable was the local French carrot. It’s also a great way of stretching tiny amounts of anything and using up scrappy bits and pieces in a meaningful way. For instance, we’re very much at the tail end of the black radish with only small ones left and the ‘baby leeks’ were a few straggly specimens that have never filled out into grown-ups but the scale of both was just perfect for the job.

It’s been interesting this week to see press reports of shortages of fresh foods such as broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers in UK supermarkets, especially as the supermarket shelves and market stalls here in northern France are currently heaving with produce from Morocco and Spain, so I’m not convinced about the cold Mediterranean winter being totally to blame. Whatever the reasons, it’s a good opportunity to bang the drum for eating seasonal produce once again, something I feel will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Yes, we have a polytunnel but it’s not heated and we’re not trying to grow hothouse vegetables through the cold months; if I can rustle up a couple of Buddha bowls from the garden in late February, packed with colour, flavour, texture and good nutrition whilst notching up zero packaging and air miles, then who needs ‘summer’ veggies at this time of year? Sadly, there wasn’t quite enough purple sprouting broccoli ready to use and my ‘microgreen’ pea shoots are still a couple of days away from being pickable, but even so there is still no need to resort to imported vegetables . . . I just wish the purple sprouting broccoli would hurry up because I love it!😊

Lazy gardening

For the first time in over seven months, I have just spent an entire week being busy in the garden and I can’t even begin to say how happy I feel. It’s still a case of ‘modified movement’ so I can’t zip about at my usual preferred pace and I have to be sensible when it comes to lifting and carrying but I can live with that for the simple pleasure of being back to doing what I love. The weather has been kind ~ dry, still and mostly not too cold ~ and I have enjoyed being out there and getting stuck in to all the things I should have been doing weeks ago. The joy at having to pull stray bits of leaf from my hair and scrub soil from under my fingernails once again has been exquisite!

With my hands literally back in the earth, I realise it’s what I think of as connection that I have missed the most; there’s a huge difference between wandering about the garden looking at this and that, and actually being fully and physically engaged with what is going on. I’ve never warmed to the term ‘low-maintenance garden’ for two main reasons. First, it suggests that everything in the garden is a chore, requiring us to spend time and energy on boring tasks that eat into time we could spend doing other things, so the quicker the jobs can be over and done with, the better. Also for me, there is a strong sense of disconnection, of the garden being something ‘out there’ that holds us responsible for management and maintenance, rather than an integral part of our lives and living spaces.

Of course, I understand that gardening isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and busy lives or physical impairments can make the idea of low-maintenance an attractive one; if I’m completely honest, I quite like the idea of a ‘low-maintenance’ house when it comes to cleaning! 😂 However, I just wish we could change the language a bit so that instead of focusing on the idea of work, tasks, chores and jobs we think about caring, nurturing, helping, supporting ~ in a word, love. I don’t mean it in any touchy-feely, woo-woo way either (although I have no problem with that attitude), I simply believe the world would be happier if gardens were seen as places of peace and pleasure where working with nature rather than beating it into submission or resenting its intrusion is the main thrust. After all, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the best thing to be doing in a garden is absolutely nothing!

Time to watch the grass grow . . .

I also believe passionately that growing and nurturing plants is an incredibly therapeutic activity, one that can help to bring a sense of balance and calm in a hectic world of push and shove. I am grateful to live in such a beautiful spot with plenty of space for creating a garden but raising and tending a few plants on a windowsill can bring just as much pleasure; our first ‘garden’ constituted a few pots on the balcony of a first-floor flat, tiny and limited . . . but a garden, nonetheless. There are, of course, many additional benefits to spending time out of doors, especially in these months of low light levels in northern Europe; what better way to boost Vitamin D, serotonin and endorphin levels than getting outside and connecting with the winter garden? At first glance, there might not be a lot to see or do but it’s amazing just how much is going on if we take the time to stop and stare. I love the fact that I can once again get down comfortably to ground level and observe all the silent busyness that is happening without any input from me whatsoever: layers of organic material being slowly but surely transformed into rich, friable soil; fresh green spears of bulbs piercing the earth and pushing skywards; brave little seedlings popping up in sheltered places; fungi trailing through the grass in snaking pathways and the muddy squiggles of thousands of wormcasts, evidence of such intensive and essential labour going on underground.

I’ve always been a bit of a laissez-faire (or do I mean lazy?) sort of gardener, preferring a chaotic abundance over manicured perfection every time so the system of no-dig gardening suits me down to the ground ~ no pun intended. We build and improve our soil from the top downwards, adding layers of organic material and natural amendments throughout the year and trusting the mind-blowing numbers and diversity of life-forms in the soil to do all the hard work for us. Beats wielding a spade any day. Mulching is a way of life and brings many well-documented benefits: it protects against soil erosion, acts as an insulator, helps to trap moisture, suppresses weed growth and itself becomes another ingredient in the soil recipe. Most importantly (in my opinion), the worms love it and happy worms are to be encouraged, dragging the top layer down into their burrows and turning them into something beautiful. Much of my week, then, has been spent lifting perennial weeds where they have appeared, distributing piles of dumped donkey dung more evenly then adding or topping up mulch wherever needed. For instance, I’d let white clover run between the red kale plants as a green manure, fixing nitrogen at the roots of the kale which has been in the ground for many months; now, after spreading a good dollop of manure around, I topped the whole bed with a mulch of grass clippings and dead leaves.

I know there is an argument against mulching with dead leaves based on the fact that they can create an environment that is temporarily deficient in nitrogen but I’m not too bothered on that score. This is because they will in effect form the filling of a nitrogen-rich sandwich: below them is a layer of green manure, chopped plant foliage, manure and compost and the next layer to go on top will undoubtedly be grass clippings. They are the carbon-rich balance and have already done much to improve the structure and friability of our soil; admittedly, I prefer to use them chopped but it’s a case of needs must at the moment. A more general drawback of any mulch is that insulating properties can work both ways so that they can actually prevent the soil from warming up quickly in spring; to this end, I’ve ensured that the beds we’ve identified for early and direct sowing have had the ‘light touch’ treatment with a thin layer of finely chopped matter scattered across the surface. Elsewhere, although the mulch is deeper, I know that very soon an army of blackbirds will be busy from dawn to dusk scratching it up in search of those precious worms so there is no chance of anything becoming too cold and compacted.

How long before the blackbirds start rearranging the mandala bed, I wonder?

Although they’re producing well, it struck me how much smaller the kale plants are this year compared to last and I’m convinced it has everything to do with the heat and drought of last summer. Next to them, a patch of Savoy cabbages tells the same story: a complete lack of enthusiasm in germinating and growing, they went into the ground far too late and far too small with no chance of us ever eating them as the winter cabbages they are supposed to be. However, the plants have hung on and as as spring tends to be a slow-burn affair here (let’s face it, we could still be having the same bitterly cold weather well into April) then I think there’s every chance we will enjoy a decent if late harvest from them yet.

Something that hasn’t struggled in the last couple of years whatever the weather has thrown at it is comfrey, such an essential and useful plant in any organic garden. As Roger had lifted all the remaining canes from the old raspberry bed I felt it was time to have the comfrey out of there, too, and relocate it to several new homes scattered around the patch. How the two modest roots that came with us from Asturias had grown and spread! I’ve stuffed plants into a few places where nothing else has thrived and if they all continue to grow in the same vein we should have more than enough for our needs, even chopping four or more times a year. The first fresh foliage is already on its way . . . why toddle off and buy commercial NPK fertilisers with their associated synthetic ingredients, manufacturing production, packaging and air miles when it’s as simple as chopping and spreading comfrey leaves or leaving them to steep into a wonderfully rich (if smelly) liquid feed? In a similar vein, I’ve written before about that greatest of fertilisers ~ urine ~ and without going into too much detail, I’m very glad to have reinstated my P-Bucket in the Love Shack this week. If you’re having a yuk moment, bear with me because dilute urine is liquid gold when it comes to feeding plants and soil or making compost . . . and it’s readily available . . . and free. Don’t fret about digging, raking, hoeing, forking, pruning, weeding and all the rest of it: the best thing you can do for your garden and compost heap is pee on them. I mean, it’s hardly work, is it? 😉

New growth on comfrey plants.

On very cold sunny days, the tunnel is the place to be and the difference in temperature never fails to astound me. Outside, I needed several layers of clothing, a thick padded coat and woolly hat yet once in the tunnel, I stripped down to a vest under my overalls with sleeves rolled up and hat discarded. No wonder the plants are so happy in there, the soil is already warm so I decided it was time to plant a dozen potatoes; these are ‘Charlottes’ saved from last year’s crop which had made an excellent job of the chitting process all on their own in the cave and hopefully will give us an early harvest well ahead of the outdoor spuds. Basking in all that wonderful warmth, it seemed like the right time to sort the tunnel out ready for the new planting season. First, I tidied up the potting bench and stacked pots and trays underneath, then carried in water to fill the butt and two large cans. Next, I turned my attention to what at some point had been a salad patch but had since become a chickweed jungle. Chickweed (mouron des oiseaux in French) is a great early spring green that is full of beneficial nutrients and I’ve been tossing a few succulent shoots into our salads for several weeks now. I generally tolerate it in the garden but it had got totally out of hand in the tunnel so the time had come for a bit of a tidy.

Are there any salad leaves under there?

I love gentle jobs like this, down at ground level using my hands or small fork; it gives me the chance to engage with what is going on, checking the health of plants, looking for any signs of disease or pest issues and gauging the state of the soil. As the chickweed carpet was rolled back, several buried treasures emerged including a wealth of coriander, rocket and lettuce seedlings, a row of rainbow chard plants that had been missing in action for some time and some rosettes of lamb’s lettuce which must be volunteers from last winter’s crop as we’ve grown a longer-leafed variety this time. Given the time of year, it’s amazing what an abundant salad we can pick: red and gold beetroot leaves, mizuna, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, ruby sorrel, rocket, baby chard leaves, landcress, flat-leaved parsley, chervil and chives along with chickweed, sorrel and young dandelion leaves as foraged foods.

Lamb’s lettuce (or corn salad if you prefer): la mâche is a hugely popular winter salad leaf in France.

Growing microgreens isn’t something I’ve done much of apart from the inevitable mustard and cress mixes when our children were little; perhaps it’s my frugal side, but I’ve always thought that if I’m planting seeds, I might as well let them grow into full-size plants and enjoy them at a macro level, albeit often nipping off young shoots and leaves to eat along the way. Of course, I’m lucky enough to have the space to do that but I think for anyone who fancies growing some fresh, nutritious food in a lowest-of-low-maintenance way, then microgreens could be a great starting point. My interest has been piqued recently when we were introduced to the activities of David and Tracey Fenner who run a market garden and permaculture teaching site at La Ferme du Moulin des Monts in the Limousin region of France. I’ve been engrossed in their beautiful website (techno-numpty that I am, I didn’t realise there was an English version so it’s been a great workout for my French, too 🤣 ) and it seems they have taken growing microgreens to enthusiastic and inspirational new heights. There’s much that I’m finding interesting and thought-provoking; for instance, I’ve been growing crimson clover as a green manure for years without ever realising it was edible. Pottering about in the tunnel and watching the pea plants responding to the blissful warmth, I decided I’d give microgreens a little go. As I don’t have any coir matting or sterile compost, I didn’t want to plant anything which would have tiny seedlings as there will undoubtedly be other things emerging from our own compost so I’ve plumped for peas, which I’ll be able to pick several times as cut-and-come-again shoots.

I’ve also sown some giant red mustard, a packet of seeds which has been in the seed basket for donkeys’ years and I haven’t dared plant for some time as it’s such a mega-thug. Perhaps it will be more manageable at a micro level but that will depend on whether the seeds germinate at all . . . when I checked the packet, the date was 2002, although a few seed pod husks suggests they are our own saved seed from a later date. Even so, it’s probably a big ask but we’ll see; I shall be checking daily for signs of germination and with any luck, within a couple of weeks I’ll be snipping the little nutrient-packed sprouts to add yet more interest and flavour to those winter salad bowls.

I’m also keeping a close eye on the 30 broad beans I planted in pots a few days ago, eager to see those first wonderful shoots unfurling with the promise of so much good food to come. I’ve decided that for the most part, pre-sowing our vegetable seeds is the best way to go here and although it might entail a bit more work initially than throwing them directly into the ground, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. Obviously, root crops like carrot, parsnip, beetroot and radish need to be sown straight into the soil but pretty much everything else can be started off in pots, modules or trays and planted out at a later date. To be honest, I’ve learned the hard way with this one: French beans wiped out by bean fly, lettuce roots destroyed by wireworm, peas decimated by mice and now the autumn-sown broad beans which germinated then disappeared (reason unknown), the tiny handful left being blackened by severe frost and struggling to survive. Forget autumn sowings in future, I shall raise broad bean plants in the tunnel as I’m doing now and they can go into the ground in spring where they will undoubtedly catch up anyway.

I’ve been collecting toilet roll tubes to use as root-training planters for peas in the hope of beating the rodents at their own game and now have ample for the first early row; all subsequent sowings were fine last year so I’m hoping we will be able to direct sow the successional crops. There’s a lot to be said for this approach, not least that it makes assessment of seed viability so much easier: if the seeds are initially raised in an environment where factors like growing medium, temperature, moisture and light are controlled and pests can be easily spotted, then sporadic germination is probably down to the quality or age of the seed. Also, young robust plants that have been given a good start and planted out in optimum conditions have a good chance of coping with extremes; we have had two completely different growing seasons here in two years so who knows what to expect this time? Our garden has to be ready for anything!

Sowing lettuce seeds in trays then potting them on before planting out produced a bumper crop last year.

With all this in mind, I’ve been sorting through the seed basket this week and drawing up a planting calendar to try and keep on top of what needs doing in the busy coming months. I can’t believe it’s almost time to dig out the heated propagator again and start this year’s aubergine adventure. It’s wonderful to see so many of our own saved seeds in there although I must confess I still feel a bit nervous around them, fretting about what happens if they fail to germinate. All I can do is plant them and see, although I’m so worried about the amazing ‘Black from Tula’ tomatoes failing that I have bought a packet of organic ‘Noir Russe’ seeds as back-up. Just in case. (As a tongue-in-cheek aside, I’m quite relieved to be using the French name because although it translates as ‘Russian Black’ rather than ‘Black Russian’ it still brings to mind Edmund Blackadders’s infamous codpiece which is far too much of an unnecessary distraction in my peaceful gardening world. 🤣) We’ve been making a few decisions based on observation, too; for instance, the ‘Musquée de Provence’ squash which grew strongly and looked so beautiful ripening from green to orange last year have turned out to be poor keepers which is disappointing; they have an incredible deep orange-coloured flesh but a fairly average flavour and a texture which is too far on the watery side for our liking. This year, apart from a couple of butternuts (which are always high maintenance so I’m not sure why I bother) I shall be sticking with the tried and tested blue varieties ~ ‘Crown Prince’ plus our home-bred mongrels ~ which have served our purposes so well for many years.

Allez les bleus !

Last summer, a swarm of honey bees decided to make a nest in the end of the house, the ‘scouts’ having found a way in through a tiny hole under the eaves and obviously what they decided was a perfect nesting space deep within the stone wall. It wasn’t an ideal situation, especially given that several bees each day all through summer found their way into the bathroom (there must be a hole along one of the roof beams which we can’t see) where they either got themselves embroiled in the roof window blinds making it a performance trying to let them out or crawled about stunned on the floor as a sting hazard for unwary bare feet. I love bees but in the nicest possible way I found myself hoping their new home would prove unsatisfactory and they would leave to find another; if they’d chosen a hole in the barn, there would be no problem! Anyway, far from slinging their hook, they set about building a strong colony which has so far survived the winter if the number of them boiling out of the sun-warmed wall this week is anything to go by.

We have kept bees in the past and it’s something we’d like to do again, especially using the French Warré hives which are kinder and a far more ‘natural’ home to bees than many other designs. It’s tempting to put a bait hive out this year and see if we can attract some occupants but a big part of me has serious reservations given the presence of Asian hornets here. They’re nowhere near as prevalent as they were in Asturias, where our friend Jairo saw ten out of his twelve colonies wiped out in one season, but I’m wondering whether morally it would be right to set up a hive of honey bees which could well become a handy feeding station for hornets at the end of the summer ~ first picking off the bees from the hive entrance, then stealing their honey stores. Perhaps it’s better to enjoy the colony that has chosen to live with us, safe within the house wall, and leading lives that are totally natural without any interference or attempt at control on our part. After all, honey bees need all the help they can get and if that means I just have to remember to wear slippers in the bathroom, so be it. It has been lovely to watch them out and about on milder days this week, foraging wherever they can find flowers. The drifts of snowdrops have been literally buzzing with their activity as they collect the bright orange pollen on offer. I couldn’t persuade one of the busy ladies to pose for a close-up but if you look carefully, you should be able to spot an orange pollen basket lurking in a snowdrop.

Who needs Where’s Wally? 😊

It has always fascinated me the way honey bees respond to temperature, forming a tight two-layered cluster in the nest to preserve heat during winter but venturing out to forage (and void their bowels) on those days when the weather is mild enough to do so. The fact that they are gathering pollen suggests the queen is laying; if I put my ear against the bathroom wall on these warmer days, I can hear the sound of their industry, hidden from view like the busy worms beneath the soil. So much work going on round the garden, so much of it not being done by me! A run of frosty mornings has been a reminder that winter is far from over; it will be some time yet before the bees can fly daily or the birds, now embarking on the beginnings of a dawn chorus, can turn their thoughts to serious nest-building.

These frosty mornings give way to days of flawless blue skies and bright sunshine, very welcome as it streams in through the windows but only giving warmth outside in sheltered spots as the wind, brittle and iron-tanged, bites savagely from the north-east. It’s fresh, cleansing sort of weather but not conducive to spending too much time outside unless we are well wrapped up and on the move. The warmth of the stove definitely beckons come evening but it has been worth venturing back outside to enjoy nature’s late show. Another moment of garden loveliness . . . and I didn’t need to lift a finger. 😊

Grey days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November notes

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

It’s not all grey and gloom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The silly season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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