The silly season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May moments #1

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

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

Sichuan pepper
Bladder senna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner cooking itself while we carried on with the gardening.

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

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

Sweetcorn: happy to be in the ground at last.

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

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