Poppies and permaculture

In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different.

John Steinbeck

As we move through the seasons, we are gathering many ideas for our garden and, given that we plan to leave a good deal of the space to nature, there is much inspiration to be found in the wilder places around us. It’s incredible how quickly everything has changed in the last couple of weeks: the air is scented with elderflower, honeysuckle and hay, the verges are bright with oxeye daisies, buttercups and poppies and the hedges above them are embroidered with trails of pink and white wild roses. What a garden that would all make!

The weather here has shifted from the sublime to the ridiculous: following a colder than normal April and May, the temperatures now are much higher than expected and still climbing – it’s ‘flaming’ June, for sure. As we’re not given to too much exertion once the thermometer climbs above 30 degrees, we decided to grab a bike ride before the high heat arrives and set off with a picnic on a 20-mile loop to St-Léonard-des-Bois. Our route from home took us along lanes through farmland and woodland and gave us some spectacular views of the Mayenne countryside; now that the maize fields have lost the brown of their bare earth, it is all wonderfully, deeply, sumptuously, summery green.

I love the way the mix of flowers in the verges has changed through spring and even now, when the grasses are tall and the carpets of bluebells and orchids have faded, there is still much to enjoy. The deep indigo of granny’s bonnets, white stars of campion, pink bursts of ragged robin and delicate mauve bells of campanula would all be welcome treasures in the garden.

There is no question, though, that poppies are the absolute star of the moment; whether drifting along field edges or in bolder swathes across entire meadows, they are utterly stunning.

As we stopped to admire and photograph one particular field, a friendly chap delivering bread around the hamlets stopped to ask if we were enjoying les coquelicots; we were in complete agreement that the beauty of the sunlit flowers under an intensely blue sky was certainly worth savouring – how could we not stop and stare? I was particularly taken with a planting mix of poppies and white and crimson clover, so pretty together, a good green manure and great for insects; that is definitely one that has been noted for next summer’s garden.

Then, of course, there is that classic cornfield mix of poppies with cornflowers. So gorgeous. Who could resist?

With distractions like these, it’s a wonder I ever arrive anywhere on my bike, but happily we did eventually make it to our destination. St-Léonard-des-Bois is a small town in the Alpes Mancelles, close to St-Céneri-le-Gérei which I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s a pretty place, a classic French ville fleurie on the Sarthe river and an understandably popular spot for holiday makers, but it wasn’t the town we had come for. About a kilometre away, and a steep climb out of the town, is the Domaine du Gasseau. Our first stop was at the pretty orchard picnic site where we sat in the shade of an apple tree and enjoyed our lunch: homemade pasties stuffed with goat’s cheese, walnuts, red sorrel and thyme and a salad of young perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, land cress, radish, mint, marjoram, chives and chive flowers – our first official garden harvest! (We could have taken a pot of strawberries, too, but they don’t tend to travel very happily in a rucksack.) There are several attractions at Gasseau: an attractive stone hotel with pale green shutters and a courtyard cafe, a small art gallery, a riding school and an adventure park where braver souls than me can connect with their inner ape by swinging about in the treetops. For me, though, the main attraction is the potager, open free of charge to the public all year round.

We have been going there for years and it has been fascinating to watch it develop and mature over time. It has always been organic but has now moved very much into the sphere of permaculture so there were plenty of new things to see, including a couple of mandala beds. I have to admit I did feel slightly ashamed at the state of our garden in comparison to this beauty, but then it is a walled garden in a sheltered spot so probably hasn’t had to cope with the same winds and heavy frosts and certainly, that lush soil has been built over decades. No wonder it is already so full of food, colour and life. I could easily spend a whole day there, wandering about, looking and musing; there are so many ideas, so much inspiration – where do I start? Perhaps with more poppies . . .

One of the main issues our visit to the potager really brought home to us was the need to feed our soil. We are trying to create a garden from possibly the worst starting point, grassland – formerly a field – that has been mowed with a heavy tractor for the last thirteen years; the soil is compacted, full of wireworm and chafer grubs and very, very tired. The lack of goodness in the soil is reflected in the unenthusiastic growth of much of what we have planted and who can blame the plants? No-one thrives on a poor diet, after all. It would be easy to feel frustrated and pessimistic but it’s not all bad news; the soil is deep and stone free, there is a lot we can do to improve it and some things are trying their best, despite everything.

So, although we are still creating and extending planting spaces, the focus this week has been very much on building and improving soil. First, Roger repurposed pallets and sheets of corrugated iron to build a three-bay compost system. The third bay is currently taken up with a turf walled enclosure filled with a mix of green and brown materials; once it has broken down into compost, we will move it and finish building the last bay. In the other two bays, we turned a broken blackthorn bough into a chopped base layer and then covered it in grass clippings. The first bay has become our new compost heap with materials added daily from the kitchen, the second one kept me busy for a while . . .

. . . time to shift the old compost heap out of the Secret Garden at last! I can’t say how happy I am to see the back of those ugly concrete slabs and rusted metal poles but to fair, the system has yielded a decent amount of black stuff; I love that whole cross-section thing, the layers becoming darker, crumblier and more and more deliciously composty from top to bottom. I’ve inverted most of the heap into the second bay and that will be left untouched now to complete the wonderful alchemy (sorry, I do get a bit excited around the whole compost thing); the very bottom layer was used to fill the black bin where the worms will carry on with their good work until we put that beautiful stuff to use.

Once cleared, I realised what I had left was probably the most fertile patch of land in the entire garden . . . mmm, now there was an opportunity not to be missed. Yes, it’s also very shady but there are plants that will go a long way to tolerating that so I transplanted a few rainbow chard and lettuce into the space; at least they won’t be short of nutrition.

When it comes to nourishing the soil, I know what it really needs is a good deep layer of well-rotted manure but we don’t have a ready supply of that at the moment and anyway, autumn is the best time to apply it so that the weather and worms can work it down over winter. Remembering Mary Reynold’s advice that anything organic coming from a patch of land should be returned to it and the goal within permaculture to strive for as many closed loops as possible, the leading question must be what have we already got that we can use? I was really thrilled that my bottles of comfrey tea and two more good roots to plant were on the load Roger brought back from Asturias last week; for me, it’s the most important plant in the garden and although the single root I brought here in December is romping away, it isn’t enough for this year. We do have an abundance of nettles, though, and so I’ve set a bucket of them to brew into a nutrient-rich tea that when diluted, will make an excellent plant food. Meanwhile – in a bit of a lightbulb moment – it occurred to us that we have a ready supply of wonderful rich soil packed with organic matter in the coppice.

An hour with a spade and couple of buckets yielded a decent trailer load lifted carefully from deep pockets of woodland floor soil with the minimal disturbance – we have pledged to care for and protect the coppice, after all! Not only is it fantastically rich but also abundant in the microscopic life we can’t see, the mycelium and bacteria that should be hugely beneficial to the garden. One day, I hope all our soil looks that dark.

The terrible spring weather wreaked some havoc in the garden, particularly where the beans were concerned; it was simply too cold and too wet, perfect conditions for bean seed flies to do their worst (and they did) and dismal for plants already struggling in poor soil. The climbing beans (borlotti and Asturian) were so badly hammered that as soon as the tunnel was up, I planted replacements in a very crammed tray and what a difference – within three days they were up, as green and healthy as you like! I fed the bean circle soil with an organic fertiliser, replanted with a dollop of our compost in the bottom of each hole, watered well and mulched. The weather is now perfect for them, the soil beneath their roots much healthier, their companion plants (calendula, coriander dill and cucumbers) filling out and they are off up their poles at long last. Phew, that’s better.

The dwarf beans have been a similar nightmare, with a row of ‘Purple Teepee’ and handful of ‘Stanley’ desperately struggling to survive, although they have pulled through better than the climbers. What has really frustrated us is the row we have sown twice now with no sign of a single bean . . . literally, digging down it seems they all completely disappeared. I’ve come to the conclusion that trench warfare is the only way forward with planting for the rest of this summer and starting beans in trays is the best practice to adopt. I dug out the bean trench and lined the bottom with shredded comfrey leaves and a dollop of compost; that will be topped with grass clippings and soil so that when I transplant the plants currently racing up in their trays, they will have plenty underneath them and – fingers crossed – with regular doses of comfrey and nettle tea, this time they might even grow!

We’ve taken this idea a step forward in creating a lasagne bed for the ‘Green Globe’artichokes I’ve raised from seed, half a dozen plants which are perennial and therefore will be in the ground for many years. The concept of lasagne beds is one that was illustrated in theory and practice at the Gasseau potager so, fully inspired, we decided to have a go.

First down was a layer of cardboard. The plants have had enough of their pots and I’d like to get them planted soon rather than first build the bed over several months, so Roger marked spaces with them using inverted plant pots.

Next, a layer of the long meadow grass cut from the strip behind the bed to allow the artichokes some growing room.

Then came a woody layer from the compost heap, one that had been created by the oak leaves I collected and added to the pile some months ago.

This is just the beginning; I shall plant the artichokes, then continue to build green and brown layers around them. Not quite the orthodox approach, but with luck it will result in a bed of rich soil and perhaps a first harvest this time next year. I hope our little garden companion approves!

Back to that bike ride, and the last hill took us past our coppice, now in full leaf, ringing with birdsong and lit with the creamy lace of elder flowers. We returned the next day to pick enough heads to make a cordial; it’s a simple process (I use this recipe from River Cottage) and makes a light, refreshing drink that surely must be the very taste of the season.

We are working hard to build soil and heal the land, to create a patch that is healthy, vital and productive but I realise that will take time; however, it’s good to know that even if we lack produce from the garden, we can still forage for wild food and enjoy with gratitude the bounty that nature has to offer. This surely must be one of the very best ways of connecting with the earth and celebrating this most beautiful of seasons. Flaming June is blessing us with flowers. How lovely is that? 😊

Every cloud . . .

No matter how chaotic it is, wild flowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.

Sheryl Crow

I am an optimist by nature. I’m not old enough to remember Monty Python but I do try to always look on the bright side of life (sorry if that’s caused anyone to have an earworm now 🙂 ). I think it’s important to greet each new day with gratitude, each experience with wonder and to smile far more than I frown. At the same time, I’m also a realist which I believe is essential in life, particularly when things don’t go according to plan. It’s so easy to rant and rage, throw our teddies out of the proverbial pram and look for someone or something to blame or else stick our fingers firmly in both ears and sing, “La la la la la la la, not listening, not listening . . .” in an act of total denial. There’s a lot of both going on at the moment around the world and whilst I appreciate people have the right to find their own ways of dealing with situations that are threatening, frightening and deeply worrying, there’s much to be said for a calm and balanced approach. Change happens whether we like it or not. Life is messy. We have to deal with that.

There is much discussion about the ways in which the experiences of COVID-19 might bring about positive changes for humanity and the planet and as an optimist, I am remaining hopeful . . . despite the queues at shopping centres and diposable gloves and masks adding to the already horrendous amounts of plastic waste. Take wild flowers, for instance. As a family, we spent many years pleading with the local councils in South Shropshire and Powys to revise their roadside management policies. Every year saw the grass verges cut just as the wildflowers were at their very best and buzzing with insect life; the hedges were flailed two, three or sometimes more times a year (and boy, did I have the punctures to prove it travelling along those lanes to work ~ five in one school term, no less!), one of those cuts in early autumn always taking the berries and nuts as well as the last of the leaves, so ushering in winter far too early.

The arguments for this approach were twofold, the first being the importance of maintaining a safe environment for road users and pedestrians alike. Now obviously we completely understood that safety must be a priority, especially on certain junctions and dangerous bends ~ but why then the need to treat all stretches of roadside the same, or to cut to a depth of more than one mower’s width where ‘safety’ obviously didn’t come into it? The answer lay in the second reason: we were told time and time again that people like to see the verges and hedges regularly cut, they like the countryside to be tidy and manicured. Really? Why? This isn’t a bowling green or someone’s lawn we’re talking about. Nature isn’t tidy, it’s messy and chaotic, that’s what creates a healthy biodiversity in different ecosystems, including the tiny ones I wrote about in my last post.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t persuade the councils to listen; in fact, if anything, things worsened to the point that over a period of thirteen years in one rural home, we saw the diversity of floral species in the verges dwindle from that gorgeous classic May mix of bluebells, red campion, stitchwort, lady’s smock, foxgloves and wild garlic and the frothy foam of meadowsweet and fiery spires of rosebay willowherb later in the year to sterile strips supporting only nettles and cow parsley. As the flowers disappeared, so too did the wildlife that benefited from them. The ecosystem was greatly impoverished.

More recently, there have been some positive moves such as the ‘bee friendly’ incentives that have seen traffic islands planted with wild flowers but I have been even more encouraged by reports of attitudes changing as a result of COVID-19 causing councils to scale back their roadside cutting regimens. This has allowed the flowers to bloom and, along with clearer skies and enhanced birdsong, it seems that many people are appreciating the true beauty and value of British wild flowers and organisations such as Plantlife are attracting much interest in their campaigns to protect these natural treasures. Perhaps this will be change for the good, a silver lining to the coronavirus cloud? I hope so.

In complete contrast, I have always welcomed the attitude to roadside maintenance here in Asturias which has seemed to be far gentler and more sensitive to the environment in general. The local council only cuts once a year, late in the season when the flowers have set seed and young birds have fledged (they also sweep up after themselves, so no punctures here!); in between times, local people scythe some areas ~ particularly the wide verges on the inside of hairpin bends ~ to make hay or feed directly to stock, but otherwise all is left well alone and the verges are stunningly beautiful.

Well, they were. I don’t know what exactly has happened but we seem to have emerged from the peace of lockdown into Strimmer World, some kind of parallel universe where anything that doesn’t move is razed to the roots by an army of buzzing machines. It’s not just people tidying up their neglected gardens or clearing overgrown paths, either; every roadside strip has been scalped along with places I’ve never seen cut, including riverbanks and even meadows that are normally left to the cows. Even worse, there seems to be a bit of an unprecedented spraying frenzy going on, too. A few weeks ago when we were granted the freedom to walk further than one kilometre from home, we did a circular hike up to the top of the mountain behind the house and back again, climbing up on forest tracks and returning down the winding mountain road. The roadside verges were a real show, full of colour and buzzing with life and we took plenty of photos. A couple of days ago I walked back up a stretch of that road . . . and things couldn’t have been more different. Someone has sprayed the verges on both sides of the road for several kilometres. Everything is dying or already dead.

Where previously there was colour, beauty and life, now there is a barren scrubland. These were the oxeye daisies before . . .

. . . and now.

The knapweed was alive and thrumming with the attentions of insect life . . .

. . . now it’s not even alive.

I’d hoped to pick some beautiful big heads of yarrow to dry for herbal teas. Not a chance.

The saddest part of my walk was the silence: not so much as a single bumble bee to be seen or heard. The heather should be full of them now.

I feel utterly sad that this has happened, partly because it is completely unnecessary but also because it is so very out of character. This is not the Asturian way. What on earth is going on? I am slightly fascinated in an armchair psychology kind of way; is this the result of seven weeks of total lockdown (bearing in mind it was far stricter here than it has been in the UK)? Has being confined en casa or the fear of a pandemic and all its unknown consequences resulted in some kind of atavistic need to go out and destroy and control, to beat nature into submission? I really don’t know but I’m hoping it’s just a one-off, one of life’s strange blips because if it’s going to be a permanent thing, then it very definitely isn’t change for the better.

Back to the bright side, though ~ I’m all for balance! For starters, when I walked out to take those photos, I was bearly a few metres from home when I saw the most beautiful fox on the track ahead of me. I stopped walking and stood absolutely still but it showed no fear of me whatsoever so we watched one another for several quiet minutes before it mosied off through the undergrowth. We don’t have a zoom lens on our camera, which is why my wildlife photos are always composed of subjects I can get close to, but hopefully you will get the idea of how close we were (note our verges had been left in peace). It was a magical moment.

Further on, I joined the mountain road and depressing though the sight of those devastated verges was, when I lifted my eyes I couldn’t help but find some kind of hope and healing in that beautiful view.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a short time after the end of two days of storms that had brought high winds, torrential rain and an unseasonal drop in temperature. In what seemed like moments, the cloud lifted and scattered across the bluest of skies and the sun blazed; the garden was suddenly bursting with life and activity again. I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the return of that blissful warmth.

We are blessed to share our space with such a wealth of wildlife and I have to remind myself that where the vegetation hasn’t been hacked back or sprayed, the verges and forest trails, meadows and wild spaces still bustle with nature’s busyness. A couple of nights ago, we stood with our heads out of the roof window watching a deer grazing in the meadow above, serene and silent amidst the raucous din of a joyful frogs’ chorus. I have spent the last few days watching a family of young redstarts take their first tentative steps and flights around the garden; the parents nested in the tiny wild patch we’ve created from an old chicken run and have raised a beautful if demanding brood, who ~ even though they fledged ten days ago ~ are still sitting about expectantly waiting for food to come to them! Again, the photo isn’t zoomed but you can make out one of the youngsters waiting on the rail in anticipation of the next beakful . . .

So, there is still much to be celebrated, much optimism to be exercised. Let me finish with a heartwarming story about a little girl living in Gijón, one of the three major cities in Asturias, which is surely one of the loveliest tales to have emerged from these strange times here. Having spent several weeks in total lockdown like all Spanish children, unable to leave her home at all, she was finally given the freedom to spend an hour outside with one adult going no further than one kilometre from her home. She chose to go to the nearby beach (Gijón is a seafront city) and spent her precious hour picking up plastic bottles and rubbish that had washed up onto the sand during the weeks of lockdown. With caring souls like that in this world, I like to feel there truly is hope for this beautiful planet we call home. 🙂