Winter’s long tail

Given that some French folk will plant nothing outside until the very last threat of frost is passed in the middle of May (the 11th, 12th and 13th if I’m not mistaken) which are called the Saints de glace – or the ice saints – you may think me a little odd to plant already. I’m a little precoce. 

Us growing peasants depend on the Saints de Glace being the last frost date and I’m way out of the starting-gate. However, since I’m in the balmy Poitou-Charentes, renowned as being the second sunniest and warmest region of France, I’ll go off the Charente Libre last frost dates. Last year, we had a frost on the 17th April which killed off some of my things, so I’m not making that mistake again. Still, that’s only 12 weeks away, and I want to get a bit of a head start.

The first things I’ve planted are things that don’t need heat, don’t mind a head start and don’t mind being replanted. Root crops, so I’ve found, don’t like being moved. No point doing anything that grows underground yet.

However, surface crops don’t mind being replanted as much. So, leeks, cauliflower, cabbage and the likes can all sit in a tray until the world gives them enough light and warmth. Other surface crops like a bit of warmth on their bones before they get going and these are the ones that get a bit of propagator help.

My running order is roughly this, for the propagator:

  • tomatoes
  • chili peppers
  • peppers
  • aubergines
  • basil
  • cucumbers
  • tender flowers

Virtually everything else will grow in its own good time outside or just in normal unheated pots. I grow five different types of tomato (apart from last year, which was a wash-out) including beefsteak, cherry, salad, plum and an heirloom or special variety of something or other. Therefore, from now until March, there’s bound to be fifteen or sixteen little tomato plugs in the balmy warmth of the propagator.

I’ve been amusing myself lately over amateur gardening advice. There are a string of threads on various French forums I follow about planting out. I smile at the people who say they are planting out in February, regardless. Notably regardless of everyone else’s advice. Last February, from 1st February to 17th February, my garden was under six inches of snow.

That’s the great thing about the internet. You can be faced with a wealth of knowledge that says one thing, and you can completely ignore it and tell everyone else they’re wrong. I love it when people who have no idea what they’re talking about try and give advice to others. I guess there’s a lot of that here in France, where people who have never had a garden are then faced with a potager. Even though I never had the chance to grow vegetables much, I did take good care of my UK garden. And… I read book after book after book on the topic. Blogs, websites, videos, Gardener’s World magazines, free ebooks, Reader’s Digest books… you name it, I’ll apprise it. Luckily, I must have soil in my blood, since my mum’s family had a smallholding in Gloucestershire, and gardening came to me as easily as the memories of feeding the goats and the smell of over-ripe plums.

It does seem a shame though that so many people just randomly ignore good internet wisdom. Life must be very frustrating for people who don’t like to research and learn, ever convinced they know what they are doing. Plus, let’s face it, seeds come with instructions. Plant now. Harvest now. How can you be happy to blithely do your own thing when it fails so very frequently?

I confess to being a bit of a devil with one woman bragging about what she was planting. I just kept saying ‘so you must have growlights or a propagator then if you’ve planted that now…’ – she didn’t reply. No point being ridiculously competitive over what you can get to grow at a certain time of year. Nature is nature. You can grow what she says you can grow, unless you’re a bit of a scientist.

I laugh, too, at the people gaily sprinkling their wood ashes on Charentais alkaline-neutral soil without any nitrogen-based fertiliser, and at the people with expensive soil-testing kits. Nature is very good at telling you what soil you have, if you have mop head hydrangeas for example. Acid soils make them blue. Alkaline soils make them pink. They’re like reverse litmus paper. Other things like acid soils, like rhodedendrons and heathers. If it’s Japanese or Chinese, it probably likes acid soil. Another way of telling is whether you are in a hard water area.

So, if I want a Japanese garden, by and large, it will be in pots. Blueberries, bilberries and other native USA fruiting bushes like an acidic soil. Potatoes like an acid soil, as do sprouts and carrots. I put some ashes on my new brassica patch, because they like it alkali. I dig lots and lots of compost and chicken manure into the potato patches to be. I also have to pay attention to drainage, although my soil is not too bad. Chicken litter, mixed with sawdust and well-composted, is perfect for my soil. Things that have nitrogen in them are very good for slightly, temporarily, lowering the ph of my soil and making it drain more easily.

I’m at the lowest point in the village and the bottom of my garden gets waterlogged when the water table rises. My vines are right up to their feet in it. The water table is almost as high as it was last May right now, and my puits is full. A puits, by the way, is a hole. A kind of aquifer or well. And mine is full. It’s only the second time in three years that I’ve seen it with any water in. If it rains any more, the garden will flood very easily. I noticed this morning that the Tardoire had broken its banks in the fields opposite.

Do you think I’m doing a good job of being a garden geek? Honestly, I try hard, but I am so very behind in things. My mother is the real garden geek. I hope that I’ll be half as garden-wise as she is in another twenty years time.

So, what’s in so far?

  • broad beans
  • a row of peas
  • cauliflower ‘merveille de toutes saisons’
  • Pepper ‘Sweet Banana’
  • Tomato ‘Alicante’
  • Leek ‘Musselburgh’

I plan on adding a couple more things every week, then when April gets here, I’ll plant everything out in a great rush of planting joy. There is definitely much more light. It’s almost light now until 18:30 on a bright day. Roll on Spring!



9 thoughts on “Winter’s long tail

  1. Why do carrots like acid soil? Do you mean because modern carrots are grown in sandy soil? Wild carrots are definitely calcaire lovers, and modern table carrots were bred from them. My guess is that carrots don’t care about soil pH very much, but modern ones are easier to grow in sandy soil than clumpy calcaire.

    I haven’t planted a thing — not even onions and garlic — and I think everything would have rotted in the wet if I had planted. I don’t so seedlings — I just don’t have the touch or the facilities, so everything has to go straight in the ground or I buy seedlings from the local horticultural college, which is a good cause I am happy to support.

    1. It’s funny because I get lots of wild carrots that grow freely, but I had a hard time getting carrots (F1) to germinate in my soil. No idea why. I tried five or six varieties, and it was only when I added a lot of leaf mould in November that I got any crop at all. Silly that Queen Anne’s lace grows so freely here.

  2. you are a natural. you study gardens year in and out. we say things did not read the book. as in when one does everything by the book and it does not work, try something else. “cause the carrots did not read the book”. walk your garden several times a day. we have competitive farmers. world record corn yield was 442 bushels an acre. 442. 300 + all over the place. around an acre is tested. some are hand planted and walked up to 4 times a day. walk it. you will become one with your garden. i wore out four hoes as a child. i have became one with the super market. lol. billy

  3. We have “smallholded for 45 years…and you never stop learning, and you never know the answers, you just meet more and more people that you admire…and, I will say,more and more completely rubbish people telling you what to do.

  4. The Swiss call mid-May the “Eisheiligen” (same in translation) – it’s the 13/14/15th, the last being St. Sophie, known as the “kalte Sophie” (cold Sophie), and then it’s considered the done thing to get your plants out. Of course, if you want anything cheap, buy it in April and then work out how to protect it till you’re “allowed” (or at least not frowned upon!) to plant it!! I only did that once with my geraniums and got totally fed up of covering/uncovering and bringing in/out trays of them. Obviously not dedicated enough.

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