An apple a day . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A life of luxury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bowl of delights, fresh from the tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yarrow, a great compost accelerator.

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

Home from home

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

Time to wander.

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

Bonus New Zealand spinach amongst the nasturtiums.

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

Breakfast!

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

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

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

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

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

Following in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims.

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

Hah! The wild boar didn’t get these beauties.

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

The path winds around rocky outcrops with spectacular views.

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

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

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

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

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

Food and flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowlydays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to play Hunt The Cucumber.

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

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

Not a happy sight.

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

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

Weevils 0 Dogged gardening 1: result!

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

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

In praise of small things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This had me asking a number of questions:

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

Logic then led me on to asking more:

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought

I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my food every day but at this time of year, when we are surrounded by such abundance, it seems even more pertinent. It isn’t just that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh foods from the garden but also the fact that we are able to process and store so much of nature’s bounty to sustain us through the colder, darker months ~ and that is a very wonderful thing.

As soon as the squash plants start climbing through the walnut trees and endangering the local sheep by hurling themselves down the mountainside at great speed, we know it must be time to start the annual harvest. It’s not easy to capture the steepness of the orchard on camera but Operation Squash Salvage is definitely a two-person job which generally sees Roger slithering and sliding about on the slope, wielding a knife and trying to stop the squash from escaping once cut while I meet him halfway down the slope to collect the prizes and pile them into the wheelbarrow (oh, and do useful things like take photos, too).

Squash plants climbing the walnut tree: time to start the harvest.
The bemused harvester wonders where to start on the terrace . . . you’d have thought he would be used to my excessive squash habits by now!
Meanwhile, the first barrowload is ready to go.

I love cleaning the squash up and laying them out in the yard for their first drying session; in a few days’ time, I will carry them up to the horreo balcony where they can ripen slowly in the autumn sunshine over the next few weeks before moving into their winter store. This is just the beginning: there are still plenty more to come but already I find myself enthralled by this year’s array.

The three blue-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ ( at the front of the photo) and all the butternuts were grown from commercial F1 seed but the rest all came from seed saved from a single squash we grew last year . . . and that in turn had been grown from seed saved in the same way from the year before. I find it endlessly fascinating that so many different types can come from the same fruit, such an incredible diversity of genes from the open-pollinated varieties we have grown in recent years. Last year, every single squash had firm, orange flesh, great flavour and made excellent eating; they kept brilliantly, too (we ate the last one in May) so fingers crossed, those traits have been passed down to their mongrel offspring.

The squash will form a large part of our winter diet but there will be plenty of other things on offer, too. We have a terrace full of Jerusalem artichokes and a good row of parsnips, both of which make great starchy comfort food, while in the main patch a selection of different kales will provide a reliable source of greens.

Rainbow chard (or leaf beet) grows pretty much as a perpetual crop here; the stalks and mature leaves giving us a useful and versatile vegetable and we can pick the baby leaves all through winter for salads. The plants suffered a bit in the last hot dry spell of weather but I’ve cut back the tired foliage and they are already putting on vigorous new growth.

Actually, despite the season and the shortening of the days as we head towards the equinox, there is still a tremendous feeling of growth and abundance everywhere around our patch and it never fails to amaze me just how much food it is possible to yield from a relatively small space. The terrace in the main garden would probably amuse many ‘expert’ gardeners, given that its shallow width only allows for the shortest of rows . . . but currently there are several varieties of lettuce, land cress, rocket, spring onions, purslane, calendula, nasturtiums, Florence fennel, cabbages and leeks all flourishing cheek by jowl and promising good food for several months to come.

Earlier this year, we created a mini hugel bed for the tomatoes in their blight-free shelter and we have certainly enjoyed the best ever crop this season; all that chopping of wood and carting of compost was well worth the effort and once the plants have finished this year, I shall be topping it up with another dollop of good organic matter.

The tomato crop is slowing down now but we are still enjoying plenty of summer on our plate. The tunnel is literally heaving with peppers and aubergines and also the best melon crop ever (their fruity perfume greets us at the door), while outside the globe artichokes have produced a bonus crop.

We are not self-sufficient by any means (and we’re not trying to be); in order to produce all our own food, we would need to keep livestock and grow grains to mill for flour, as well as find homegrown alternatives for the luxuries like tea, coffee and olive oil that we enjoy. However, there is something very satisfying and downright joyful about gathering the bulk of every meal from the garden. I’m still enjoying my ‘fruit burst’ breakfast; the figs are cropping very early this year and so heavily that we can’t hope to keep on top of them, but we’re trying our best. I feel like a monkey in a David Attenborough documentary, reaching up with expectant paws to pluck sweet fruits from the heavily laden branches.

For lunch, there are plenty of goodies on offer from the ‘salad bar’: romaine, cos and oak-leaved lettuce, baby chard and beet leaves, land cress, rocket, baby nasturtium leaves, purslane, spring onions, celery, peppers and cucumbers along with a wide range of herbs and edible flowers.

We’re not vegetarians but we eat (and love!) a lot of vegetarian meals; it makes perfect sense when we have so many wonderful ingredients to hand. One of our favourite dishes is roasted aubergines stuffed with quinoa (or bulgar wheat, pearl barley, rice or whatever grain is to hand), lentils, garlic, chilli and preserved lemons with natural yogurt. To accompany that this week, we made a vegetable ‘hash’ from courgette, peppers, French beans and New Zealand spinach. The courgette in the picture was really verging on the baby marrow but the beauty of ‘Black Beauty’ is that it stays firm and flavoursome even at that size. The beans are the fifth crop we’ve grown this year and are as tender and delicious as the first one, while the New Zealand spinach is creating a wonderful sprawl of succulent groundcover and proving itself a real winner in the kitchen. Mmm, not missing the meat! 🙂

I do enjoy a bit of foraging for wild food, too, and we’ve recently had a real treat in the shape of a bowl of blackberries. I realise that probably sounds a tad tame but the fact is, this is not berry country and despite having oodles of brambles with pink flowers full of pollinators every year, the fruits are either tiny and dry or non-existent. This season, though, has brought us treasure, and while I realise they don’t look too spectacular in the photo, they were totally scrummy cooked with pears and topped with an oaty, walnutty crumble. The polite way to eat that, of course, is as a hot pudding but I prefer it cold for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt. Well, why not? It’s a tasty, nutritious and sustaining start to the day . . . there is most definitely life beyond cornflakes!

It would be easy to become complacent with all this wonderful food to hand but we have been doing a fair bit of experimenting lately, both in the garden and kitchen. We usually sow a row of overwintering peas in November and then make further sowings in spring but beyond June, mildew becomes too much of an issue to make it worth growing more. This year, we’ve decided to try a very late sowing out of interest and there is a promising little row of new plants bombing up their sticks. We’ve also planted pointy (summer) cabbage to try for an autumn crop and they are looking very fine and beginning to heart up nicely. I noticed a while ago that where I have cut lettuce and (very lazily) left the stalks in the ground, lots of new lush growth has sprung up so I’m wondering if this would be a more sustainable approach in future, rather than growing endless successions throughout the summer?

It’s early days in my fermentation career and so far the results have been mixed. The sauerkraut was a complete revelation and instantly converted me from someone who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole to a crazy woman now willing those cabbage to get going so I can make some more. On the flipside, fermented cucumbers and courgettes made a promising start but quickly deteriorated into a foul-smelling, slimy mess fit only for the compost heap. However, I am not a quitter by nature and having been encouraged by my fermentation guru (you know who you are! 🙂 ) to try with grated courgettes rather than sticks, I’m having another crack at it. So, far, so good; the jar is bubbling away like an Icelandic mudpool and smells very fresh and fragrant. Just a few more days to go before the moment of truth . . .

Something else I’ve been experimenting with is making cottage cheese to go with those lunchtime salads. I would love to be able to buy fresh milk for making yogurt and cheese straight from the producer in refillable bulk containers but unfortunately, I haven’t managed to crack that one yet. We usually buy whole milk but having read in several places that any fat from the cream would end up in the whey, I plumped for a litre of semi-skimmed; the only other ingredient was the juice from one lemon. The process couldn’t have been simpler: I warmed the milk and lemon juice slowly over a low heat, stirring occasionally, and turned the heat off once it boiled. I left it to stand for a few minutes, then poured the whole lot into muslin over a bowl to separate the curds and whey, squeezing the muslin ‘bag’ to remove as much moisture as possible. Job done! In truth, this isn’t really what I know as cottage cheese (which is made using rennet) but more like a ricotta or paneer; I had read several criticisms of it being dry and tasteless, requiring the addition of cream and lots of flavourings to make it palatable, but I didn’t find that at all. It had a very fresh, clean, slightly lemony flavour and needed just a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, although I can see that some chopped fresh herbs would make a tasty addition. One litre of milk yielded 150g of cheese and 850ml of whey, a nutrient-rich liquid which is perfect for bread making. It was a lovely exercise . . . maybe we should have a house cow, after all? 🙂

Next experiment in the kitchen laboratory: fig jam! Of course, having a productive veggie patch isn’t just all about the harvesting, we do have to spend a certain amount of time looking after everything, not least the soil. I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to feeding the soil and the circle of the year sees well-rotted manure, homemade compost, green manures and green mulches being used on a rolling basis. I’ve been clearing a patch for winter salads in the tunnel this week where I’ve been trying a no-dig approach for the last couple of years, simply piling manure and compost on to the surface. I used a hand fork to lift a few oxalis seeds but otherwise just pulled the other weeds plus lemon balm and nasturtium volunteers and chopped them to use as a mulch between plants elsewhere, then sowed with a mix of lettuce, oriental leaves, chard and rocket. I’ve been making good use of the very prolific beds of comfrey scattered around the patch, too.

I regularly add chopped leaves to my comfrey tea bucket ~ this patch has been cut five times this year and seems to grow back overnight! The resulting potion is foul-smelling but to me it’s a black gold, making a wonderful feed when for everything in the garden when diluted in water, whether growing in pots or in the ground.

I also use comfrey leaves as a mulch, chopped and placed in a thick layer directly on the soil and this week, I’ve been tucking a decent blanket of it around the purple sprouting broccoli plants on the terrace above the squash garden. Broccoli is one of our favourite staple crops and we usually enjoy a prolonged harvest stretching from January to May, but I have to admit it is a bit of a high maintenance character in our little corner of Asturias. It doesn’t enjoy hot, dry spells so we have been hauling cans of water a fair bit over the summer to keep it happy. It also attracts a plethora of pests and a constant bombardment from flea beetle, whitefly, slugs, snails and caterpillars means we have to be very vigilant gardeners, checking every single leaf every couple of days to remove the little critters. By this time of year, the worst is over and the plants have started to romp away; as they spend a long time in the ground ~ almost twelve months, in fact ~ I felt it was time to give them a bit of a boost. The terrace was planted with a green manure cover crop of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch last winter, then topped with well-rotted manure. I’m hoping the comfrey mulch will provide a natural slow-release fertiliser to see the plants through the autumn . . . now the only problem I have is the blackbird population scratching it and scattering it in their morning hunt for food!

Finally ~ and just to prove it’s not all about food ~ an interesting little story from the world of flowers. For reasons I have never been able to pin down, I have struggled to grow French marigolds every year here which is disappointing because they are such an excellent and beneficial companion plant as well as very pretty, a great food source for pollinators and a useful natural dyestuff. I love them but they just don’t want to grow; germination is scanty to say the least, even using fresh seed, and most of the seedlings fail to thrive. Given how I used to end up in trouble for the jungle of volunteers that popped up in our less-than-tropical tunnel in upland Wales, I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t self-set readily around the patch. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Anyway, thankful for the tiniest crumb, I was thrilled to find a single late volunteer hiding beneath the cucumbers which has grown to bush proportions in recent weeks and has just started to bloom.

Here’s the incredible thing: it has produced four totally different blooms all on one plant in a way I have never seen on French marigolds before. Maybe it’s taking those mongrel squash on at their own game? I don’t know, but it was certainly well worth the wait! 🙂

Contrasts

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?

John Steinbeck

The rain came. After a day of humidity so high we could almost lick the moisture from the air, a storm broke and water fell on the parched garden. A brief respite the next morning meant I could take my breakfast outside as usual and feel the tantalising difference in the air; the sky was bruised and turbulent, swollen with the promise of more rain to come (several hours’ worth, as it turned out), but beneath it there was a bright freshness to the garden. It felt as though everything had let out a huge sigh, a deep, delicious exhalation of relief; plants had shaken off the dust, lifted their heads and stretched limbs upwards again. After many days of langourous lethargy, there was energy once more, a new optimism embracing the will to go on.

Clouds were forming in the valley, rising and looping from the woods like plumes of shape-shifting dragon’s breath; no matter how many times I watch this happening, it never fails to feel magical.

I love the change the rainy weather brings, the stark contrast and different feel to those cloudless, sunlit mornings. The water paints everything in deeper hues, so that beneath my feet the chestnut leaves, dropped in drought, shone like scales of burnished copper against the green. It’s a while since I’ve needed to wear wellies, too!

The leafy canopy so slick with rain, all shining and drippy, and the froth of wild carrot both had a palpably altered air seen against duller skies.

Lizards ~ those irrepressible hedonists ~ are two a penny here, scuttling about in busy flurries or simply sitting and soaking up the sunshine. The rain, however, brought out a more shadowy character, mooching across the yard with an exaggerated swagger. Fire salamanders are curious creatures, secretive, hidden amphibians that emerge under the cover of darkness to hunt . . . unless it’s raining, when they are happy to endure the daylight, too. They are poisonous and can be incredibly long-lived (almost as old as me, in fact): a small animal worthy of the greatest respect.

While so many things in the garden welcomed the rain, it wasn’t all good news. I love to grow sunflowers but have to admit it is nothing but a struggle here; the seedlings are usually decimated by slugs and snails, although this year most of the seeds were eaten by mice before they even had the chance to germinate. The survivors grow tall and top heavy and that is often ~ quite literally ~ their downfall; it’s impossible for them to put down deep roots on our slopes and any hint of strong winds or heavy rain can send them toppling over like fallen giants.

Of the three beauties flowering, two were lost and a plant in heavy bud lost its head; it’s an unwanted change but all part of gardening life and at least there is still one stunning plant for the bees to enjoy. I’m enjoying the salvaged flowers on the kitchen table, too, and the chance to study their intricate structures and fascinating beauty close up. It’s a vivid reminder of the pleasure there is to be found in small things.

The winds of change have blown through the vegetable patch this week, dancing to the steady rhythm of the seasons and bringing subtle contrasts of colour and flavour in their wake. We have moved from purple to green beans, cherry to plum tomatoes, from spearmint to apple mint, from sweet peas to sunflowers. The carrots and calabrese are finished, the aubergines and Asturian beans begun, the melons and squash whisper in the wings. Where onions have been lifted, cabbages are planted. The benign climate gives us permission to keep on sowing and nature shows us how: amongst the young spring onions and lettuce plants, self-set rocket, land cress and succulent purslane seedlings proliferate, with their promise of tasty salads for weeks to come.

Our meals begin with what is good in the garden; there is such choice and abundance now, we barely need anything else. What a blessing!

Further afield, and regular readers will know that one of the things we love to do is walk. It’s always exciting to explore new routes but I love to revisit old ones, too, especially to map the changes through the year. Not wanting to stray too far from home this week (the combination of holiday season and a public holiday making everything a bit busy out there), we opted to go back to the Ruta Vueltas del Gato. This is a circular walk of roughly 13 kilometres / 8 miles through a beautiful and changing landscape which I first wrote about in an earlier post; having only done it in winter, I was keen to visit again now and hear its summer song. Well, certainly we were going to be walking under a very different sky this time!

December
August

The trail leads across what feels like a wide expanse of moorland; it is in fact a large area of former eucalyptus forest that is being regenerated under a managed scheme that is pretty much letting nature take its course. It was much easier to appreciate how things are developing in the height of summer growth compared to the bare bones of winter.

December
August

For me, there was a tremendous sense of the land being healed here, of a brave new ecosystem and raft of life emerging from the ashes of monoculture. I can’t begin to describe the butterflies any more than I could capture them with the camera; there were literally clouds and clouds of them, like confetti in so many sizes and colours. Tiny blues rose from the path with every step we took while others shimmered above the undergrowth like a heat haze. The insect life in general was stunning, the heather and gorse alive with their activity and noise.

There are many, many reasons why I love birch trees, one of which is their pioneer spirit: give them a patch of land and they will be there in no time. Beneath the protective layer of shrubby undergrowth, shiny new tree seedlings were emerging, the birch most definitely leading the charge . . . and when they are given permission to reach for the skies, what beautiful trees they make.

There were other, more unexpected treasures to be discovered, too.

From this wide and open country, the path begins its long and sinuous descent to the bottom of a steep-sided gorge; it’s not called the ‘Cat Bends’ for nothing! It’s a difficult path, littered with boulders and deep gullies that make walking difficult. I must admit, I found it much easier under foot in the drier conditions of summer than the slipperiness of winter, so much so that I was even able to lift my eyes from the path and drink in the view.

That said, summer brings its own problems, it seems . . . so much growth in places, the path literally disappeared. Roger is in front of me somewhere, honest.

In winter, the mountainsides had seemed somehow metallic, the trees bare in silver and pewter or clinging to autumn colours in fiery flashes of copper and gold. Now, all was green upon green, lush and verdant in the higher light with not even the slightest hint of summer’s end in sight.

December
August

Down and down we went (170 metres in 500 metres of walking, to be precise), with the sound of the river growing ever louder until at last we caught the first glimpse of water through the trees.

Like our walk last week, we had arrived at a watersmeet, the place where the serene río Navelgas-Barcena meets the busy, chattering río Naraval before they continue their journey together as the beautiful río Esva. In December, the rivers had been full, stretching wide to their tree-flanked banks.

December

Now, everything was softer and slower. Sunlight strobed through the leaves and sparked off the water in scattered explosions, forming exquisite constellations of tiny diamonds on the surface. Pond skaters sought sunny patches, edging ever forwards against the current, whilst turquoise damsel flies flitted in twos and threes on indigo wings as dark as midnight.

This is a magical place: in contrast to all the movement and sound, the peace and serenity are so strong that they are almost tangible. You can breathe in pure, raw nature through every pore here. It is the sort of place I find hard to leave.

December
August

Leave, of course, we must ~ there were still many miles to go. There is no bridge across the río Naraval so wading is the only option. I love this sort of fun element to a walk but I have to say it’s a lot more enjoyable in summer temperatures!

December
August

The climb back to the top of the gorge is a long and steep one but the beauty of the woodland in its summer colours was a happy distraction from the hard work my legs were doing.

Emerging once more into open country, we could look back at where we had been walking earlier. That’s one of the things I love about a circular walk like this, the real sense of a journey, of distance travelled and landscape experienced and explored from different angles and perspectives. I loved the contrast of the dusty track punctuated with fresh puddles, too.

More contrasts in the colours and textures of the landscape again and reflecting on the pictures, I’m reminded of how every season holds its own unique forms of interest and beauty.

December
August

Just before our path turned into woodland once more, we had a sweeping view across the valley and the rocky path along which we’d walked. In the centre of the photo is a traditional feature of the Asturian landscape, a circular stone wall built to protect beehives from the attention of bears. It was a timely reminder of the fact that, although we were only a short drive from home and we could see farms and hamlets scattered across the landscape, it is very much still wilderness; humans might have been making their mark here for millennia but there remains an untamed, unfettered spirit of freedom to this land.

Home once more and we are likely to spend the rest of August pottering about at home while the holiday month runs its course. The weather remains changeable, playing a constantly fluctuating game of ‘Blue Sky, Grey Sky’ but I’m not complaining; it’s a little bit of variety and uncertainty, of changes and contrasts that surely makes life more interesting! 🙂

Fair weather February

Strictly speaking, we are in the middle of winter and yet, here in this pretty corner of Asturias, it feels like anything but. Somehow it seems that November and January changed places this time round; even the oldest locals say they can never remember a November so wet, with weeks of grey gloom punctuated by violent storms, a complete contrast to the sort of extended ‘summer melting into autumn’ we have experienced in previous years. It might be a bit topsy-turvy but we have been making up for the lack of sunshine and warmth in recent weeks and I am not complaining. The mornings are gorgeous and I find myself drawn outside, pyjama-clad and clutching my first mug of tea, to watch the sunrise; tiny bats whirr through the garden on their last rounds as the nocturnal beeping midwife toads hand over to a raucous chorus of birds. The air smells of sweet grass and spring flowers. It is completely beautiful.

Backtracking a little and the second week of January saw us with fingers tightly crossed for a spell of good weather for Sam and Adrienne’s visit from Norway, both to give us all the chance to get out and do some walking and to allow them to top up their light and vitamin D levels. We weren’t disappointed! It was a pleasure to pack up a picnic and head off on several walking adventures. I loved the Ruta de las Xanas where we climbed a steep and stunning – if vertiginous! – gorge, emerging at the top into sweeping, sunlit meadows. The dog behind us in the photo is a mastín, traditionally raised with sheep from puppyhood and living with them in the fields to guard against wolves. This one had tried to persuade us to part with our picnic and, having failed, decided to sleep off her imaginary lunch in the shade rather than go back to watching over her flock.

A little further on, we passed through Pedrovaya, such a typically peaceful Asturian village with its narrow streets, ancient horreos and assorted cats.

The circular walk took us back to our starting point through beautiful rolling countryside; with the warmth of the sun on our faces and the verges studded with primroses and violets, it was hard to believe this was January – the only thing missing were swallows!

The lovely weather has continued into February and we find ourselves living an almost complete outdoor life once again. The garden has recovered from the bashing it took in the November storms and it is good to see some colour back again – how I have missed those flowers! The Japanese quince, stripped totally bare of every leaf and flower bud, are now blooming in their full glory; we have two pink ones and a deep red, stunning against the blue sky and literally buzzing with bumble bees.

There is a wonderful sense of everything waking up and stretching in a joyful salute to the sun. The banks and verges are spangled with daisies and celandines, violets, primroses and starry wild strawberry flowers; narcissi are unfurling their fat buds, some revealing dainty white flowers with a heavenly scent, others far less subtle in a froth of yellow frills. There is every chance we will have a dose of winter yet but for now, spring is very definitely in the air.

It’s always a job at this time of year to sit on my hands and not rush into planting everything in the garden but at least there have been plenty of things to keep me out of mischief. Roger has been back on logging duty and – brave man that he is – pruning the kiwi. Oh my goodness, what a job that is! In keeping with our policy of returning everything organic to the land, we are chopping the prunings and piling them up for compost but there seems to be no end to them and there are still several more days’ worth of chopping to come. Away from Kiwi World, it has been a joy to have my hands in the earth once again.

I have been planting out ‘Barletta’ onions, the big silverskinned variety so popular here, and also a row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ first early peas to follow on from the ‘Douce Provence’ peas sown last autumn; the latter are doing that strange thing of flowering before they’ve put on much height but if past years are anything to go by, they will shoot up suddenly and produce a heavy crop – the bees are certainly doing their bit to help on that score.

We’ve dusted off the propagator and planted aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies, and started off trays of tomatoes, lettuce and summer cabbage in the polytunnel. I’ve also sown a pot of New Zealand spinach, it failed to germinate in the ground last year so I’m trying Plan B now; I’ve been told by those in the know that once it’s established, we’ll have it forever so I’m hoping for good things. The salad and oriental leaves in the tunnel have reached jungle proportions and we’ve had the first picking of baby spring onions from there this week, too. Who says winter salads are boring?

On the same subject, the clever idea I had of sowing a patch of outdoor salad leaves in the autumn all went to pot when my poor seedlings were completely vaporised in the mother of all hailstorms (this is where a polytunnel has a distinct advantage . . . as long as it doesn’t get blown off down the valley, of course. 🙂 ). What a happy, happy moment, then, to discover this week that some of the brave little troopers have fought back: to date, half a dozen winter lettuce (‘Arctic King’, I think) and a modest patch of mustards and mizunas. What little stars they are.

Happiness has also come in the shape of oodles and oodles of purple sprouting broccoli. Forgive me if I repeat myself every year but I adore the stuff and will be in PSB heaven for the next few weeks, eating it daily in as many ways as is humanly possible. I think this is the best crop we have ever had and personally I’m putting it down to the snug blanket of green manure planted underneath it.

Well okay, maybe it has nothing at all to do with green manure but I rate the whole ‘no bare earth’ thing so much that I am planning another season of the same. Not that it will require too much thought as nature seems to be doing a pretty good job without any help and a drift of soft blue phacelia flowers to drive the bees to distraction is imminent. The feathery leaves of volunteers are popping up all over, even squeezing themselves into tight spaces like the patch of beetroot below. Other people may see it as mess, I only see beauty.

I am currently reading Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I am completely engrossed in his take on permaculture in a temperate climate. Here is a book I shall be dipping into for the rest of my life and I am already feeling inspired to try many new things in the coming months and years as well as revisit or simply revel in old ones. For instance, this week I was inspired by my reading to wear my glasses in the garden. That might sound slightly ridiculous but I honestly resent my specs; I know I’m lucky to have them and they are essential for reading and fine work but otherwise I hate every moment they spend perched on my nose so I never wear them unless I have to. However, what a fascinating time I had looking at things close up and properly: the tiny particles and minute life forms in our soil, the golden ratio spiral in a snail’s shell, the intricate network of veins in petal and leaf, the woody wrinkles of a peach stone, the tiny hairs on stems and roots, the infinite shades of colour and nuance of pattern all around me. All this wonder already and I still have 300 pages to go . . .

For us, good weather and lighter evenings can only mean one thing: time to dust off the barbecue. Cooking outside is one of our favourite things to do and it frustrates me that barbecues are so often seen as a summer-only activity, when they can be immensely enjoyable all the year round. In fact, some of the best barbecues we have ever enjoyed have been in the middle of winter. Well, why not? Apart from anything else, it’s a great way of cooking our food on ‘free’ heat as we always use wood from prunings, coupled with walnut shells and a few bits of eucalyptus for sweet-scented smoke. Also, with the provenance of charcoal being an important environmental issue, we can be sure that we are not contributing to the destruction of precious tropical forests whilst cooking our dinner.

Cooking over wood is slightly trickier than charcoal as it doesn’t hold its heat for as long but it doesn’t take much to get used to and certainly doesn’t limit the culinary possibilities. For our first barbecue of the year we opted for local pork which we marinated in olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs before cooking as kebabs and serving with homemade bread and a selection of salads. As ‘flexitarians’ we often have a veggie barbie, too, especially in summer when a rack of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes really hits the spot and with plenty of homemade hummus, breads, salads and dips we don’t ever miss the meat. One of our favourite tricks – learnt from a Cypriot friend – is to barbecue foil parcels of feta cheese, sliced tomato (homegrown and sun-drenched, preferably), fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, fabulous as a starter to nibble at while everything else cooks. Go on, try it. It’s amazing. Just be careful not to burn your mouth! 🙂

The joys of January

After what seemed like endless weeks of wind and torrential rain, culminating in a solstice storm so severe a ‘violet’ weather warning was issued in our neighbouring municipality, the weather has been all smiles. Mornings are dreamily atmospheric, the mountains pink-tipped above cloud-filled dips and silvery frost rippling up the valley sides until the sun clears the horizon and turns the tide. The days bloom under wide porcelain skies of flawless blue and there is a warmth in the sun that makes everything feel hopeful.

Now I am not naive enough to be thinking spring thoughts just yet, although there are subtle hints in the air: dusty yellow hazel catkins in the hedge and the haze of new buds in the woodland; a confetti of primroses, violets, celandines and daisies scattered through the orchard and verges; the fragile cries of our neighbours’ first lambs and an energetic bustling and busyness amongst the birds as they find their voices once again. Most of winter is still in front of us, the worst of the weather likely still to come . . . but for now, what life-affirming glee it is to be outside in the fresh air, breathing deeply, turning my face to the sun and connecting completely with this precious little patch of earth.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but certainly one of my intentions this year is to continue building on the new things I was inspired to try in the garden last year. After reading (twice!) Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution I went green manure crazy with tremendous results. I’ve just turned the overwintering mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares on the terraces; it might seem a bit early but our neighbours are already planting their patches so I thought it was time to get stuck in to allow the green stuff to die back before potato time – hooray, the two-year ban has been lifted! What amazed me more than anything else was the amount of worms beneath the green, the soil was literally alive with them which has to be a wonderful sign. Elsewhere, white clover has remained a rich green carpet under and around perennial plants like the row of globe artichokes I planted down a fence line last year. You can see the silvery new growth emerging in the right of the photo, while to the left, the space between the artichokes and kale is filled with the deep green foliage of crimson clover.

I planted a few pockets of crimson clover around the patch in the hope it would go through the winter (it’s not hardy and we do get the occasional frost) and so provide an early nectar source; it has never looked back, forming dense mats wherever I planted it and yes, here come the flowers.

Other flowers, too, are making bright little pops of colour now that many plants have recovered from the ravages of that mighty hail storm in November; good news indeed, as the afternoon air is full of insects in search of a food source. The Japanese quince is a bold splash of red, supported by calendula, borage, cerinthe, osteospermum, pansies, coriander, rosemary and a scattering of roses while in addition to the wilder flowers mentioned earlier, there are dandelions, chickweed, fumitory, clover and red deadnettles a-plenty. A patch of rocket is also in full flower, its delicate sunlit petals a constant source of attraction to bumble bees.

Back to green manure, and although I have more seed to scatter in spring, I’m interested to see just how far the varieties spread themselves this year. Already, there are phacelia volunteers popping up all over the place, some of them even on the verge of flowering; I will let the first bunch bloom as they are such a great food source for bees but there is going to have to be some ‘chop and drop’ business later on. I underplanted the purple sprouting broccoli with white clover last summer but now it also nestles in a sumptuous bed of phacelia and poached-egg plant, all self-set. There’s celeriac in there somewhere, too. No need to fret about bare earth, then.

I also put Mr Fukuoka’s teaching into practice when planting the garlic a few weeks ago in a patch that was formerly home to our late harvest of French beans. Instead of pulling the bean plants and carting them off to the compost heap, I scattered them over the surface of the soil and left them as a weed suppressant while the garlic had a blast of winter in the fridge, then scraped them to one side, planted the the plump purple cloves and re-scattered the bean straw over the top. The fresh green shoots have pushed up through the mulch which continues to hold the weeds back and should – I hope – have rotted down completely into the soil by the time the garlic is pulled. I love this kind of approach; it might look untidy but mess doesn’t bother me one bit – nature is inherently messy, after all – and there is something very wholesome about seeing the garden this way. Every scrap of earth that isn’t planted with a crop or green manure is covered in a thick mulch of compost, comfrey leaves or manure; nothing has been dug or disturbed, just fed. It’s as if the entire patch has been metaphorically tucked up in a cosy quilt and given a comforting bowl of steaming soup! It’s nurturing and nourishing, a large helping of hygge for our winter garden.

Mary Reynolds was also inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, so it’s little surprise that there is much in her book, The Garden Awakening, that has struck a chord with me. One of my ambitions is to plant a forest garden, something that’s very much at the thinking stage at present but which I hope will develop and flourish into the real thing at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken on board Mary’s recommendation that everything organic that comes from our land should be returned to it. Of course, done properly and completely that would involve having a compost toilet which is something else to be thinking about for the future. What we have been doing now, though, as a new approach is creating a small hügelkultur-type bed for this year’s tomatoes and this has been a fascinating and satisfying little project so far. It began a few weeks ago when we were left with a huge pile of brush after removing a couple of small peach and apricot trees which had come to the end of their lives; bearing the idea of ‘returning’ them to the earth in mind, making them into a bonfire just wasn’t on the cards so instead I spent several days chopping every branch and twig into small lengths. It might seem a bit simple but I have to admit it was a very therapeutic and rewarding activity, especially in the sunshine. Once done, I piled the thicker pieces (those that had required loppers) onto the rotting log pile in our wildlife patch which I hope has made the resident slow-worms very happy!

It has taken us four summers to find the only spot in the garden where we can grow blight-free tomatoes so now, taking a leaf out of our neighbours’ book, it was time to make it a permanent planting spot beneath the polythene shelter. Roger built an edge using some spare bricks and we began by filling the base with the smaller woody pieces, the ones that required only secateurs to cut them. A standard hügelkultur bed is built with logs but we’re going for something on a slightly smaller and finer scale here.

Next, we added a thick layer of compost (spent and fresh from the heap) and well-rotted manure.

On to this we are now regularly piling any biomass we can, including a heap of rotted meadow grass cut from the orchard in autumn, huge piles of leaf mould and moss scraped from the yard; the idea is that by the time we’re ready to plant the tomatoes, there will be a raised bed of rich organic planting matter sitting over the slow-release woody fertiliser. It’s already teeming with worms so here’s to an even better tomato crop this summer.

Compost has been a bit of an obsession with me for some time and I have to confess I love any excuse to mess about in the heap (as I said, I’m a simple soul). I spent a very happy day last week scraping the top layer off, digging out trugs and trugs of the stuff and piling it into two mountains in the tunnel; here it will stay dry and any annual seedlings that emerge can be turned over before we use it.

I then set about rebuilding the heap in what John Seymour in The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency describes as a ‘countryman’s stack’ (levelled rather than a pile), first chopping everything big – like a huge pile of woody pepper plants from the tunnel that I’d lazily thrown on whole – into smaller pieces and then layering brown stuff and green stuff with the addition of dollops of manure. We don’t have many nettles here but a persistent plant that grows out of a terrace wall was cut and chopped to add as an activator. I am determined not to buy any commercial compost at all this year as we have been increasingly disappointed in the general quality, the lack of nutritional goodness and the worrying amount of plastic particles that even the more expensive stuff seems to contain. The plastic bags it comes in are another environmental nightmare to deal with so from here on in, it’s home-produced all the way; yes, there will be invasive seedlings but that’s a small price to pay, and if the amount of fungi that has popped up in the tunnel piles is an indicator of vibrant compost health, then we’re onto a winner.

Compared to the verdant jungle of summer, the garden at this time of year always looks a bit bare and yet we still have a plentiful supply and good variety of vegetables to choose from; they just take a little more finding!

We are enjoying Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, leeks, several different types of cabbage and kale, chard, celeriac, chicory, beetroot, carrots, rocket and land cress from outside. There are more treats to come imminently: the broccoli is unfurling its first tender purple florets and in the dark cave beneath the house, fat yellow chicons are emerging from the chicory roots. There is still no shortage of squash and beans in storage and possibly enough chillies to last us several winters, even using them every day as we do. Where fruit is concerned, the kiwi has come up trumps once again and we are enjoying them fresh from the vine when we can persuade the territorial blackbirds and blackcaps to share.

In the tunnel, we have a good range of salad leaves and oriental greens to choose from, including the best crop of lamb’s lettuce we’ve grown in a while. I never fail to be thrilled by picking a fresh, zingy, peppery salad at this time of year, it’s the perfect foil to all those starchy winter vegetables.

In contrast to the abundance of salad leaves, we’ve had a few lone stars of late, too. There is a single spear of asparagus ready to cut which is surely ridiculous at this time of year? After much deliberation over how to best use our very first lemon, we decided to put it into a batch of peach marmalade last week so that it is spread through several jars; the flavour is beautifully intense, it has been well worth the wait. Finally, after nine months of precisely nothing happening in our mushroom logs, a single pioneer shitake decided to put in an appearance. I’m hoping others will follow suit although so far, there’s no sign. Patience, patience.

One thing I am determined to do this year is to finally get a grip on understanding permaculture at a deeper level rather than just dipping in and out or nibbling at the edges as I have been doing for some time. There’s a wealth of material available but I’ve decided I can do no better than go to the founding father himself so I have begun reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual which I’m enjoying immensely. At 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and dense with new, and often quite technical, information to absorb but I’m finding that half an hour’s study in the morning followed by a long run to reflect on what I’ve read is doing wonders for my mind and body (and maybe soul, too). Waiting in the wings is The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield which I’m also very eager to start. There’s several months’ worth of reading material here but possibly a lifetime of inspiration; who knows, I might even get that forest garden planted after all. Happy New Year, everyone! 🙂