The wildflower path

I’ve just renewed my WordPress subscription, not for one year but two which signals something of a commitment to my blog. The reason I mention it is that to be honest, it’s been a bit touch and go whether I bothered at all as I’ve been seriously contemplating packing up for good. I’ve struggled with motivation in recent months, not least because I seem to have had an almost constant stream of technical problems; the WordPress ‘Happiness Engineers’ are a wonderfully responsive bunch who pull out all the stops to help (if all customer service was like them, the world would be a happier place, I think) but even so it’s been frustrating to say the least. I’ve also been wondering if the time I spend blogging couldn’t be better spent on other, more useful activities: one of the things I don’t like about social media is how so much time seems to be spent talking about and sharing the minutiae of life’s events rather than just getting on and living them. Ten years in the bag. Call it a day and move on. I teetered on the edge of the precipice for a while, wobbled big time then had a change of heart . . . and so the writing goes on!

I fell into blog writing more by accident than design when I was invited by a vegetable seed company to join their blog community. At the time, I had no interest whatsoever and the reasons for that haven’t changed: I don’t ‘do’ social media, I’m not a whizz on the computer and my photography skills aren’t the best. However, on reflection it did seem to offer me something new, different, exciting and challenging, the perfect platform for keeping a diary of our first French living adventure as well as an attractive exercise in keeping my brain ticking over with new skills. The bottom line is I love writing and given that from the age of four to forty-six the bulk of my written activities focused on study and work, it suddenly felt very liberating to be able to write for pleasure and waffle away to my heart’s content on subjects of my own choice. I have no desire to be a serious author but I enjoy the creativity and craft of writing, taking an idea and forming it into a string of words with all the polishing, editing and proof-reading that entails. My blog has changed and evolved a fair bit over the last ten years but I think that’s a good thing ~ so have I, after all! One of the things I really enjoy about Blog World is being part of a vibrant and fascinating community and I love the interaction I have with other writers, the deeper engagement and discussion that is possible with people across the globe. In fact, thanks to blogging I have a number of lovely ‘penpals’ in various countries with whom I’ve developed valued friendships, like-minded people with whom I can share ideas or chew the fat independently of our blog pages. It’s an enriching and life-affirming aspect I never imagined would happen, something that brings colour to my world and for which I’m very grateful.

We’ve had some beautiful sunsets this week.

Writing isn’t always an easy or straightforward process, in fact at times it can be downright daunting; as a primary school teacher I had huge empathy for children who sat and chewed their pencil when faced with a writing task, adamant that they couldn’t even think about starting until they’d come up with a title. Talk about procrastination! I’m never really sure where my blog posts come from but I tend to think of my writing approach in terms of a peg or a pathway. The latter is pretty simple, an obvious narrative or recount that has clear signposts from start to finish (even if I have a habit of wandering off piste at times) whereas a peg is an idea or theme that requires a bit more thinking about as I try to pull what are often disparate threads into some kind of coherent whole. I can go for days or weeks without any inkling of what my next blog will be about and then suddenly something presents itself from nowhere and off I go again. This post is a case in point, triggered by a visit to the charity shop to stock up on reading material and noticing a novel with the rather lovely title of The Wildflower Path which started me thinking about ~ somewhat surprisingly ~ wild flowers.

Stitchwort and speedwell

I often talk about how one of our major aims here is to support the ecosystems within our patch and to increase the biodiversity within them but in reality, what does that mean? In essence, I think it’s about letting nature find its own balance inside our boundaries and helping as much as we can along the way, even when that actually means leaving well alone. It’s very easy to make value judgements based on personal preferences or prejudice ~ robins are sweeter than crows, peacock butterflies are beautiful whereas the white ones are nothing but a nuisance ~ but it’s so important that we stop ourselves from doing that and instead see the worth (and yes, the beauty) in everything. It’s also crucial to remember that if we invite them in, they will come, but not always necessarily quite in the way we expect. I was ridiculously excited to see activity in our new bat box this week and then hugely amused to discover that far from the occupants we had been expecting, there is a pair of enterprising great tits building themselves a nest in there; how they are managing to squeeze themselves in through the entrance I do not know but they’re doing it alright! I’ve also been having a fascinating time watching the red mason bees who have just started building nests in the solitary bee box we have put up in the outdoor shelter; they work so hard and take such care in carting pollen in and stashing it before laying an egg and sealing the cell with mud, several little nurseries skilfully built into each tube.

It occurred to me that the mud being used is much lighter in colour than our reddish soil and I had my suspicions about where it was coming from. When the stonemason created the doorway between the house and barn, along with a huge pile of stones he removed the yellow clay that had been packed between them in the traditional way of building; we have spread large quantities of it about on various beds but there is still a pile behind the house and having watched the bee in the photo above fly off in that direction, I set off to follow her. Sure enough, there were several mason bees in the area, collecting the yellow mud for their nests. Incredible.

Away from the bees’ nestbox and there are seemingly hundreds of wild bees making their nests in holes in the barn wall if the amount of busyness in the vicinity is anything to go by. We have been talking about pointing the barn to match the house but given what’s going on, it’s probably more important to leave it as a bee hotel; it’s only aesthetics, after all. What did make me smile, though, while checking on the activity was seeing one innovative bee who is building her nests not in nooks and crannies between the stones or in crumbling mortar but in holes in the wooden barn door. Yes, ask them and they will come . . . but sometimes very much on their own terms, it seems!

Anyway, back to the matter of wild flowers which are of course every bit as important as the resident fauna. Our philosophy is to encourage what is already here as much as possible rather than trying to introduce too many new species which in themselves may not be an appropriate addition to the ecosystem. It’s always lovely to see those beautiful pictures of wildflower meadows but the truth is they are difficult to establish and manage whilst importing seed or plug plants in an attempt to create a meadow can have serious drawbacks. We would rather work with what is here, encouraging different species to thrive and spread in those areas that suit them; if additional species want to arrive of their own accord, then that’s all well and good. I have raised a few natives from seed such as marshmallow and purple loosestrife to plant by the pond and in autumn I shall be sowing wild garlic in the hope of some future forage in our woodland area. Otherwise, it’s a case of recognising what we already have and what we can do to encourage them to stay and spread. With this in mind, I decided to grab the camera and set off on my very own Wildflower Path around the patch to see what I could find; there’s no missing the bold swathes of daisies, primroses and dandelions but it’s incredible just how many other beauties are here if we care to look. What follows is by no means a complete catalogue but simply a taste of what nature is doing at the moment with very little input from us.

Dandelions flourish both in the long grass and where paths have been mown.
The carpets of daisies bounce back straight after mowing, too.
Primroses and ground ivy
Bird’s eye speedwell
Dog violet
Field wood-rush, also known as Good Friday grass and Sweep’s broom, has responded enthusiastically in no-mow areas.
Common sorrel
Creeping buttercup
Ribwort plantain
Red deadnettle
Fumitory (with goosegrass)
Celandine and wild strawberry
Lady’s smock (also known as cuckoo flower)
Grasses have their own kind of beauty . . .
. . . and willows do, too.

What a lovely little wander. I was particularly thrilled to find that several new lady’s smock plants had appeared in different areas; they are one of my favourite spring flowers, so beautiful when growing en masse, so fingers crossed for some serious spreading. I was also very pleased that a couple of solitary bees (Grey-banded miner bees, possibly?) were kind enough to pose on stitchwort and buttercups long enough for me to catch a photo ~ not forgetting the grasshopper on the dandelion, of course. There is a definite sense of wild flowers blooming in greater quantities and varieties and that is certainly something to encourage in the future. I’ve just sown a large flower bed with a nectar-rich annual seed mix but only between the wild things that have turned up of their own accord and started to colonise the area: yarrow, plantain, knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisies, mullein . . . nature’s garden is managing itself very well. In my last post, I observed how quickly our garden would revert to woodland if left untouched and here is the proof if it were ever needed: on my wild flower wander, the first thing that caught my eye wasn’t a flower at all, but the deep glossy rust of oak seedlings emerging from last year’s fallen acorns.

Coming full circle to where I started, I’m looking for ways in which to move forward with my blog over the next two years, maintaining its essence and integrity whilst also rising to new challenges and embracing different ideas along the way; I’m not into trends and fashions but I think it’s important to give myself a little shake every now and then so that I don’t become a complete dinosaur. I’ve flirted with the idea of shifting to a new layout but I actually quite like this one, especially as my posts tend to be photo-heavy so I’m contenting myself with changing the background of my homepage to something seasonal on a regular basis instead (bluebells and orchids this week). I also looked into the idea of a making a podcast but came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that it really isn’t my thing; I can natter away with the best of them but it’s the writing I love ~ and when I thought about it, the peace, quiet and concentration that accompany the process of arranging words on a page, whether they’re tumbling out of my mind in a torrent or playing hard to get. It’s a little bit like following a path that twists and turns away into the distance; there’s no telling quite where it will lead me over the next couple of years . . . but as long as there are plenty of wild flowers along the way, then I shall be very happy to keep on wandering. 😊

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? 😊