Category Archives: design ideas

Finding your purpose

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget who you are in life, or what you want out of it. In amidst the wind and cold and rain, with a few seedlings here and there, it’s easy to long for central heating. Sometimes, when I’m dripping with sweat, wondering why the hell I wanted to plant 10kg of carrots, the first thought that comes to mind is “I could buy these in the supermarket for 10€.”

And then, something happens to remind you why you do what you do.

That thing for me was the horsemeat scandal. It’s not the horsemeat per se that is the problem. It could be human for all I care.

It’s the fact that we have no idea at all about what goes into most of our food and what processes are used to make it.

And that was one of the reasons I wanted to be much more self sufficient and have myself a hard-work acre of land in France.

For many years, I was a vegetarian. I am a child of the Eighties: a teenager who hung around in radical bookshops in Brixton, a girl who was brought up in the socialist heartlands of the North, a student of Marx and Engels, a member of Greenpeace and every other reactionary agency that I could find to join as a young radical. I am little other than the product of a Thatcherite Britain, a girl brought up with a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ canvas bag that she used to cart books to and from the library. Call it middle-class white girl angst. Forget Catholicism. The Eighties did a good job of making me feel guilty about the state of the world.

In my little hometown, a couple of animal rights organisations used to leaflet outside a row of shops. I picked up a few from various agencies, opening my eyes to battery farms, intensive milk production, the fur trade. Don’t even get me started on all the hormones and chemicals pumped in to animals to keep them ‘healthy’ and fatten them up. It’s like BSE and CJD never happened – most of the food industry carry on, blithely feeding the public exactly what we ask for.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m here, trying to do just a little less damage and live a less greedy lifestyle. I was moaning about not having central heating yesterday, but today I’ve remembered one of the reasons I like wood is that it’s carbon neutral (though, okay, I burn through a few litres of petrol cutting it!) and I can be proud of my ridiculous electric bill. I was only just thinking of installing a small solar charger in the lean-to so that I can charge my laptop and camera free of charge.

And that’s why I moved here. I moved here because I want to eat better food. I want to eat crops that have been cared for and nurtured, and that care is the reason they taste good, not because I’ve pumped them full of water and fertilisers. I want to know my apples aren’t covered in pesticides, that my cucumber isn’t full of e-coli. I wanted to be able to add more of my own home-grown stuff to my diet.

If I had it all my way, and if I had the skill, I’d eat only stuff that came off my own land. Not like that family they found in Siberia who lived in a dark, smoky hut and nurtured their only blade of rye, living in isolation for 50 years. I don’t think self sufficiency should be that hard, or that total.

However, if we all ate a little less meat, if our fields weren’t needed to feed cattle, then there would be more to go around. It seems silly to me that we expect meat prices to be low when it’s really such an expensive commodity. It reminds me of the imported cherries I saw in Japan that worked out at £40 a kilo. Things should be expensive if they have a big carbon footprint or are expensive to produce.

But as the world’s population grows, it’s inevitable that there will be more famine, as land is misused for cattle fodder, and that prices should go up. It can’t go on forever, this have and have not mentality. The group of people who have access to meat and expensive foodstuffs is just going to get smaller and smaller as the group of people who are hungry grows.

That’s not how I want to be.

So, with that in mind, how does my garden grow?

My first cauliflowers have leaves, as do my first leeks. The chilis are beginning to put out leaves and my alicante tomatoes are out of the propagator, making way for more tomatoes. This week, I’ll be able to put in some more chili peppers and some more tomatoes. I’ll also put in some more brassicas to start off.

It’s going to be a long time til they’re ready to go in the garden, but I will be ready.

And this year, I want more than ever. The more I grow myself, the less I have to depend on the rest of the world to feed me.

Sure, I’m not right up there yet, Ms Holier-Than-Thou being carbon positive and completely self-sustaining. I’m lucky to be born in a place and time that affords me such ethics. An accident of birth means I can afford to be all guilty about meat and what I eat. But I won’t lie. It does feel good to eat my own stuff. I just had an omelette for tea, made with my own leeks and peas from last year. The eggs come right from my hens who are perfectly free to wander wherever they please and eat snails and worms and snakes if they like. For lunch, I had tomato soup, made with last year’s tomatoes and a handful of herbs I grew and dried. I like that about country living. You get to have days where you can live off the fatta’ the land.

Now, all I have to do is remember all of this when my arms ache from pulling weeds.

 

Perennial herbs

I’ve not been idle whilst it’s been raining. Oh no. Yesterday, I did a ton of marking and even found time to squash in a little planning.

I’ve been planning a perennial herb garden for somewhere or other. I was thinking of putting it here ↓

DSCF3129but seeing as it has been under water twice this year, I might look for a drier spot.

One place I’ve been thinking is along the edge of my vegetable garden. There’s plenty of space and it will also serve another purpose: keeping the dogs (and other things) out.

César, the resident castrato labrador of the village, likes to wander around willy-nilly. You can often hear his arrival by the barking he sets off at every other house along the road. I think, out of the 14 houses in my hamlet, at least half must have dogs. César is a very happy chappy. He stops to say hello at every house. And, at every house, he is met by barks.

He used to love to play with Molly, and he’s not sure about Heston yet, but he still comes to say hello with astounding regularity. He, however, is not always my best friend in the Littlest Hobo category on account of he once had a tug-of-war with Heston using Rita The Chicken as his rope. I blame Heston. César had done nothing but sniff up until that point, but he must have thought it was fair game.

Anyway, César has now found two other petits copains – a blond lab cross and another black dog. They sometimes make a little foursome with a chasse dog who lives at a house in Les Hautes Ecures, up the road. They do nothing but play, but they love to play.

And, recently, they’ve been getting a little closer. One day, César is going to show them how he gets in my garden (via a surprising number of entrances, I must say) and then I’ll be back to getting mad, dragging various dogs back to their various owners with a il est gentil, mais… and a fierce look.

Not that my neighbours care.

A stray pack of dogs seems to be par for the course round here.

Plus, if they get in and play tug-of-war with Rita again, I may not be responsible for my actions.

Not only that, if mighty César can get in, foxes, martens, badgers, wild boar and the likes can all get in. I even had a wild boar in my garden once. And yes, it was of the animal variety.

So… I need to replace the 100 metres of chicken wire along the edge of my property. Whilst I’m in there, I might as well put in a couple of raised beds and build myself a perennial herb garden, so I thought to myself.

This is kind of what it looks like right now. The red diagonal line is the fence line.

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So, the first thing in will be some Angelica. Angelica, the medicinal herb that grows by the wayside here and has been used for everything from curing the plague to adding to Chartreuse, is a statuesque creature and will look really good at the back of a big border. It’s biennial sometimes, unless you chop its flowers off, but it seeds happily. Also known as wild celery, you’ll definitely know its candied form – the bright green candied peel you get.

Angelica can be anywhere between 1-3 metres. It can tolerate slightly shady sites, but as you can see, this is a South-East facing site and it has sun virtually all day. It likes a slightly acid soil, but I don’t think the soil round here can deter it since it grows very well along the side of the road.

I’m not sure about the seed yet – whether I’ll buy a small plant or some seed. Apparently the seed is not viable for a long time and so I’m wary of buying a packet of it.

Then, in front of the Angelica, I’m planning on rosemary, sage and oregano. I don’t have masses of luck with rosemary or sage – but oregano likes it here. The rosemary and sage are easy enough to buy as small plants here.

I love the smell of oregano. I have one plant in the polytunnel and it perfumes the whole place. It’s one of my favourite smells – maybe it reminds me of pizza. I think I could quite happily breathe in that warm smell all day. In the early spring, when it’s still cold, I go in the polytunnel – always five or six degrees warmer and sheltered from the wind – and crush a few leaves of it. It grows right next to a thyme plant and they are very happy indeed. I’m happy because they crowd out the dreaded convolvulus.

I thought, since I got a bit carried away with just how many plants I could cram into a three-metre-squared spot last summer with my perennial flower garden, I might even indulge in a little prairie-style planting. After all, that ground is doing nothing except growing weeds and grass.

Raised beds mean that I don’t have to work it too hard, either.

DSCF2594This was my first perennial flower bed last year. It got full and busy pretty quickly!

Hopefully, like the perennial bed here (well, I put some annuals in to fill the gaps!) it will be pretty easy maintenance.

Then I can put a bed closer to the house in the courtyard. That will be more sheltered and better for annual herbs.

I’ve got other perennial herbs that I want to plant prairie-style as well, but they can wait. It’d be nice to have lots of useful AND beautiful plants.

 

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!

 

 

Do you chit?

Giddy LJ has just scored herself some potatoes to chit from her local garden centre.

You just know how much I love this time of year, despite how cold it is and despite the fact that the weather looks like it will barely scrape its way over 2 degrees in the next week. It’s been so cold today that I thought the only warm place might actually be in the fire. Even being right up next to it, even though it was roaring, wasn’t warm enough.

Mind you, this was the weather on Wednesday morning at 8:30…

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I’m also still unwell a bit. How has this happened? I got a bad cold on the 21st December, was just recovering by the 27th, got some gastric bug on the 28th December which tore the energy out of my very bones right through til just after new year, and then, joy of joys, just when I was recovering, I got another lovely cold in the first week of January. I’m still a little sickly, a little weak, a little tired. I go from being too hot to too cold. Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette, as the French say. I’m not in my plate. I’m out of sorts and a bit meh.

I’d gone to brico Leclerc to get a new collar for Heston. His old one is too small now and it is too tight, on its biggest setting. I also needed some cauliflower seeds and some soil. Then I saw the lady putting them out and I got all giddy. I bet I was the first person through with my spuds. I’m sure I could hear them laughing behind me.

I bought three packs of 1.5kgs. I might buy more, it depends. I bought a pack of Sirtema, good for chips apparently. I bought a pack of Cherie, because they sounded cute, and a pack of Charlottes. You might laugh at me for buying potatoes with a cool name, but one year I bought some called Samba, just because they sounded good. I had Sirtema last year I think, but for the life of me, I can’t find details of what they were. Oh well. As soon as Jardiland get theirs, I might go and have a root around there too. It feels like a potato kind of a year. When we first arrived here in April 2010, it was practically the first thing I did. We got this harvest that year – about 7kg.

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I’m glad I got a bit of digging in before the ground hardened up. Paying it forward. You get a bit of time and it’s just right to get the jobs in.

weather

It was 10° for the first time inside today. It’s not been that in the morning for ages. Usually, it’s 11 or 12° and when the fire has been on a couple of hours, it’s 18° or even 19°. So, I’m off to get a fire on, let the chickens out and try and not think about how warm my bed is. The bad thing about this new laptop is that I could quite easily take it back to bed and go and mark online in bed, sandwiched between two duvets and an electric blanket.

All I can think about is how glad I am that it is not (yet?) as cold as it was last year.

Preparing for summer

Most of the time I’ve spent in the garden has been in pruning the vines. I have to do it ‘Mother-Style’ (that’s not some weird Gangnam-Style thing) but the term I use for a really good hard prune. My mother prunes things brutally hard. I was always a bit of a namby-pamby pruner, but grapes always appreciate a real hard prune. Even last year when I had no fruit crops to speak of, I still had bounteous grapes. Even my neighbours were amazed. Their grape harvests were meagre.

A friend of mine, an Australian lady who has a vineyard close to me and uses both French and Australian viticulture traditions, reckons the ‘feet’ of my vines are a good 40 years old. I believe her. I have in my head the fact that the last lady moved in with her husband when her youngest daughter was married and lived here for 40 years without doing anything after the first year. All the decorations and furnishings seem to have come from that first period of their life in the house. My Australian friend would have torn all the pieds out and put in new ones. If I were to tear them out, I would maybe put three or four table grape vines in, but as I have really no use for an assortment of 150 random vines (I don’t drink wine much and I definitely am not a pineau drinker) there does not seem to be much point replanting them. As they are, I shall just keep growing them and looking after them. They are still very productive and although they’re a real assortment, I use the grape juice in lots of things, including jellies, sorbets and in with chutneys.

So far, I have pruned 42. They are already well established in a kind of T shape. I leave four shoots, two on each side. One is two buds long. The other is four buds long. French-style vines are about knee high. My Australian friend has hers at hip height. I’ve noticed some of the Pernod-Ricard vines are like this too.

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Now I’ve picked out which ones will grow, I go back over them and prune the tiny bits back as hard as I can.

I’m planning on replacing the stakes and frames as well before spring. They’re very rotted. Then I’m going to put layers of newspaper down between the rows and put stones on them. The vines are impossible to weed around and mow around. More nutrients go to the weeds than go to the grapes, I reckon.

This is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of effort for a thing I don’t care much about.

I could rip them all out and put concrete down.

Of course, I will do no such thing. I like the fact that they are part of my garden eco-system. I still have plenty of space for all the other stuff I want to do. Space is one thing I’m not short of.

The vines did not have an easy year last year. First we had the hot and cold spring, then rain. Whilst it rained, I could not mow or keep the weeds back. The rain kept on falling; the weeds kept on growing. The vines ended up under water in May.

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I’m not interested in becoming a viticulturalist or a wine geek, so they’re just a little hobby for me. I am not interested in all the load/yield/pruning science. It’s too technical and I’m just not that kind of a gardener.

I’ve got five things remaining in the vegetable plot: leeks, savoy cabbage, white cabbage, broccoli and cardoons.

Cardoons are these great, enormous dinosaur-thistle things:

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You can eat the stems, once pared and boiled, like celery. They’re very popular in North African cooking. I plan on tasting some like that. As it stands, I have no idea what will happen to them. The seed catalogue I got them from shows a picture of them with the thistle-like globe artichoke-like head, but wikipedia says that the cynara cardunculus variety is used more for braising stems like celery. If they get heads on, all well and good. If they don’t, I shall pare and braise them. Not only that, they are quite beautiful and I am perfectly happy to have them as a simple architectural flower.

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You can also see a few stalks of corn I left for the birds. I also left them some sunflowers and teasels.

Cardoons are also used in a popular Spanish dish, cocido madrileño. Most of the recipes I found for it usually say cabbage instead of cardoon. It just shows that these godzilla perennial vegetables aren’t so easy to get hold of, and that’s what I want for my garden. Rare things, unusual things, a little of lots of things. I also want to have a few more perennial vegetables, like artichokes and asparagus. I’m going to put in some rhubarb this year. I really miss a rhubarb crumble from time to time! Perennial = less faffing.

Not only that, but they have been ridiculously easy to grow. I planted them. They germinated. I put them in the garden. They grew. They’ve needed virtually no water (though that was true of most of my garden last year) and they’re growing super-healthy. They attract bees, apparently, too. Yay. There aren’t many cardoon recipes, but here are a couple. One is a Tunisian lamb casserole and this one for honeyed cardoons with pine nuts and thyme, which sounds rather Greek if you ask me.

I’m making the most of this ‘inter-cold’ weather, which is not particularly cold (vest, thin jumper and gardening ‘seed-attracter’ wool jumper, complete with seed pods… hat and scarf) to dig over the remaining plots. This one is being prepared for my peas and broad beans  The edges need some work yet to take it back to 2.5 x 5  metres.

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The broad beans will go in next week unless there is a frost. I’m a little late this year, but I’m sure they won’t mind. There is a lot of speedwell in the ground, since this has only been cultivated for two years as a vegetable plot. Each year gets a little easier. This year, I think I’m going to put some logs around the patches because they are both moveable and easy to see where the edges should be!

Summer dreams

I’ve relegated myself to the garden for the best part of today. Seems best. Plus, I have an acre of work to do. Literally. I’ve spent a couple of hours out there digging up the soil, preparing it for the first planting. Broad beans go in first. I usually plant them in situ in January (last year I planted on January 4th, so I’m a bit late this year) and then plant some in pots to fill in the gaps if any don’t germinate. I planted in succession last year. As soon as the first leaves were visible on the first crop, I planted another row. I had 60 plants in total, and I’ve got about 3kg of frozen beans in the freezer. Unfortunately, I didn’t weigh them, so I’ve no idea what that 60 plants yielded. I always leave five or six plants to dry out so I can use their seeds for next year’s crop.

broadbeans1

 

They’re my favourite crop, super-reliable with beautiful pods. I love their first flowers – and they’re always one of the first things to flower – and I love their furry pods. They’re first to put out leaves, to say spring is properly here, and the first things in the pot. Last year’s frozen crop are still going in to soups now. Broad bean and chorizo is a real favourite of mine.

This year, I’m planning on a few more. I love those broad beans. I think I could eat them at every meal.

I rotate my patches – I’ve got five. The first is the big 10m x 5m patch that was here originally. This one will host carrots, onions, garlic and beetroot, along with a few others like lettuce. I practise companion planting and that seems to really work. I use no pesticides, no feeds (other than nettle tea, rotted chicken manure or leaf mulch) and this method really seems to keep the insects off them. So far. I try to use organic seed, or heirloom seed. F1 varieties can be mighty nice, but their seed sometimes doesn’t stay true and they’re often not the most pest-resistent. On the other hand, they can be bred for resistance so if there’s something that happens in my garden, I can pick some seed that will balance out natural threats.

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The second (above, last year) is 10m x 5m too and this year will have cabbages and the likes in it. It will also have onions and garlic in it, as they keep pests off brassicas as well.

There are two smaller ones of 5m x 2.5m that will have potatoes in one and then beans and peas in the other.

The final patch will have tomatoes, ratatouille veg and so on in it. This is the one that I need  to expand, because usually I have a lot of things in it and it’s also the shadiest spot, being underneath one of the cherry trees.

Most of the time, I do a couple of hours outside and then come in to dry off. It might be cold, but I’m well-wrapped and get a little damp. Then I pore over my books and see if I’m doing everything right. Nothing like looking over books. My favourite is the Reader’s Digest ‘The Gardening Year’ which must have been massively popular because I’ve got three copies of it.

gardening books

 

This year, I’m going to have to swot up because I have a rival. No. Not Mavis. My mother. She’s just got an allotment and I suspect she will be beating me at my own game. Grrr. She is the least lazy, most productive person I know. I need to up my game.

No, I am very glad she is going to have an allotment; she’s born to grow stuff and I know she’ll be really good at it. Plus, she can send me seeds and I can send her seeds now. Yay.

I shall soon be on the lookout for potatoes to chit. I usually start that from January and then plant on Good Friday. Annoyingly, last year and the year before were not good potato years, since 2011 was too dry and hot, and 2012 was too cold and wet. 2010, I got a really good crop. It was hot, but wet. That’s perfect for me.

The source of my aching back
The source of my aching back

The potager this time last year. It looks much less tidy now. I have work to do!

Okay, I’ve got a couple more hours to do, so I’m outta here. No rest for the wicked.

Aspirations

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m a massive fan of Mavis at 100$ a Month. I love Mavis. I love her name. I love her onesies. I love her garden.

Mavis’s blog documents her life as she and her family live off 100$ a month. Not only that, but she grew over a metric tonne of her own produce in her own back garden in Seattle. That’s over 2,000 pounds of produce, or over 1,000 kilogrammes of stuff. This year, she wants to grow even more. Oh. My. Days.

As the growing season starts, I’m kind of in a period of anxiety. The garden is a mammoth task for me, especially when I work so much and when I spend already such a lot of time walking the doglets. Sometimes, I get the urge to concrete it all over and just buy a load of carrots and stuff.

But…

That defeats the purpose.

I moved here with the dream of being more self-sufficient. I love growing stuff. I love my garden. I love the whole plot-to-pot seed-to-stew thing. I wanted to live in the countryside so I could grow my own, not so I could sit in a darkened room that is either nice and warm when it’s cold outside, or nice and cool when it’s too hot outside. The aim was that if I could grow enough stuff, I wouldn’t need to work so hard.

That’s becoming even more important. The queues in the supermarket were EPIC this afternoon. The woman right in front of me had one trolley of normal stuff and it came in at just under 200€. I reckon that’s one week’s worth of shopping for a normal family in France these days. She didn’t have loads of expensive stuff, and she did have a lot of fresh produce, but even so… 800€ a month to feed a family. It’s a lot. I know it’s not just a France thing, either (though things are sometimes disproportionately expensive here) as The Telegraph had this headline today: Waitrose says food prices are going to rise sharply. Another article said: “Rising prices will take the annual food bill for the average family to over £4,000 within a decade, up from £2,766 last year, heaping further pressure on already-stretched households.”

It makes you wonder how one family can live on 1,200€ a year, that’s £738 or 910€. Of course, Mavis has it a little easier in some respects. Firstly she gets coupons, and she is mad for couponing. Second, she lives in the land of Costco. Third, she has a supermarket that will give her out of date veg that she then recuperates. Still, she is a hardcore couponer, bargainer, barterer and gardener. And she doesn’t have animals to feed as part of that, I’d guess, since my pets and chickens cost me a whopping 60€ a month.

Still, at the moment, I am living on soup from last year’s paltry crops and I guess it will see me through to the sandwich time, round about March. I have more than enough in the freezer to give me a soup a day for a good couple of months.

Anyway, recalling that I came here to garden organically, to grow enough to eat, to live more naturally and to spend less, I am fully geared up for the coming season. I’ve got my seeds sorted.

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I’d like to better Mavis, but having a full-time job kind of precludes me from doing that. Instead, I would like to set a yearly target of a quarter of what she grew last year. 250kg of stuff might not sound like an accomplishment, but we will see. Food is just going to get more and more expensive, and become more and more of a commodity. It’s also going to get more and more intensively-farmed. That’s not good for anyone. I’d like to make sure that I commit to bucking the trend, even on a personal level.

A lot depends, of course, on the winter. I got no fruit last year. Nada. Zip. No apples. No plums. No nectarines. No walnuts. Oh, I lie. I got some quinces (more quince jelly, anyone?) and some pears, since the secret garden is more sheltered than the main garden. It was a bad year for ratatouille veg. The onions went to seed. The tomatoes just had enough. The courgettes died in a late frost (not falling into THAT trap again) The aubergines never got enough year.

So, what does the contrary LJ plan to have growing in her garden this year?

  • parsnips – because even the random French fella who came to Christmas lunch liked les panais. I have just realised I’ve got three different types of parsnip. Oh well. One of the packets is well past its sell-by date; 
  • brussels sprouts – because the older I get, the more appealing these are, and I like them with butter and pine nuts;
  • salsify – because I like to be contrary and grow unusual things – I have never tasted it, and it might be vile. I planted some a couple of years ago, but it didn’t grow. Rubbish.
  • swede – because mashed swede is divine.
  • lettuce – even though I don’t much care for it.
  • kale – because I like soup. A lot.
  • sweetcorn – because this is God’s gift to the vegetable garden and despite the fact I am surrounded by maize, not a stick of it is edible. It’s so rude. I never get the French. You can buy sweetcorn in cans, but not frozen, and you can’t buy it fresh, or at least I’ve never seen it.
  • broccoli – for broccoli and St Agur soup. It’s not Stilton, but it will suffice. I’ve got purple and red and green.
  • leeks – because homegrown leeks are the most amazing things ever. It makes shop-bought leek taste like watery, tasteless nonsense
  • tomatoes. And more tomatoes. And more tomatoes.
  • tabasco peppers
  • cayenne peppers
  • chili peppers
  • pumpkins – if only because they look so damn cool in the vegetable patch!
  • butternut squash – because it makes immense soup and is great roasted
  • carrots – because last year’s carrots were great
  • beetroot – because I can’t get enough of roasted beetroot
  • aubergines – ratatouille. Just ratatouille.
  • spring onions
  • red cabbage – because there’s nothing nicer than pickled red cabbage with stew. There just isn’t.
  • cornichons (gherkins)
  • courgettes – even though I’ve still got freezer courgettes from 2 years ago
  • onions – which hopefully will not go to seed this year
  • garlic
  • savoy cabbage – cabbage with butter. Yum.
  • spring cabbage
  • cherry tomatoes
  • cauliflower – for the cauliflower cheese and for the cauliflower soup
  • artichokes – for the blue air
  • romanesco broccoli – for it is so very pretty
  • peas – pea soup. Really. And pea risotto.
  • broad beans – I’m currently working my way through last year’s frozen ones and they are soooooo good.
  • haricot beans
  • borlotti beans – for bean casseroles.

I’m sure I’ve missed some!

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I do have a whopping great selection, but as with all seed, it’s a case of use it or lose it. I’m getting better at reclaiming seed from things, or letting a few things go to seed. Still, having spent £28 on all my vegetable seeds for this year, the cost of all these seeds is not such a big deal.

Now… to get the soil ready! You just know I’m being over-keen and there’ll be a terrible freeze like there was last year.

Making hay…

Having a vegetable plot teaches you a lot about the world. I feel the weather much more than I ever did back in the UK. To be fair, that lovely Gulf Stream keeps us warm and wet. The winters seem to have been worse the last two years I was in England, including weather like this:

In fact, it was so bad the two winters before I came here that I lost almost a month’s worth of work. I wasn’t skype-friendly then. Last year, when we had a cold snap in France and I couldn’t get out, I taught by skype.

But this year has been a disaster in so many ways. First, that cold, cold snap.

I had icicles as long as trees, and no matter how much wood we burned in the day, getting up to 23 or 24 degrees inside, it was always 11 or 12 degrees by morning. I slept in the front room. My bedroom was 5 degrees.

Then the blossoms came. They were a little late, and the cold put paid to some of the early blooms.

That was okay. We had the promise of fruit. There was plenty of blossom. A long, hard cold snap is no deterrent to nature.

But then it rained. And rained. And rained. And temperatures dipped. From high twenties, it was back down to low teens in the day. And it did that pretty much all of April.

The insects disappeared. The blossom went unpollinated. The cold tricked my onions into setting seed.

But as the matron of husbandry points out, a bad year for one thing is a bumper year for something else.

Last year was terrible for potatoes. This year, less so. Last year, fantastic for tomatoes. I harvested over 30 kg. This year, I’ve not even had a kilogram. Partly that was to do with planting, but in general, any of the ratatouille crops have been a bit thin. My courgettes got hit by early cold. Then I had to plant some more. They came up and got hit by late drought. It hasn’t now rained properly since July. And it’s been hot.

So what’s been naughty?

No tomatoes. No aubergines. No courgettes. No gherkins. No lettuce. No pak choi (which bolted from two leaves… I’m leaving it til after midsummer next year, following Susan’s advice) No sweetcorn to speak of. Small onions and lots of bolting. No plums, no cherries, no apples, some pears, small quinces, no walnuts. Few grapes. No leeks. No turnips. No swedes.

And what’s been nice?

Peas. Peas and broad beans. Borlotti beans. More peas. More broad beans. Carrots. Beetroot. Oh, glorious beetroot. Lots of hazelnuts, lots of blackberries, lots of redcurrants and blackcurrants. Lots of cabbage. And weeds galore.

I’m a big fan of diversity. I practice companion planting, which works very well. My onions, carrots, beetroots and radish sets all did remarkably well, and not just because of the rain. They like being with each other and keep pests away.

And, of course, my flower garden, in the courtyard, was fine. It’s well-sheltered and well within watering grasp.

As it is, the vegetable year is over, and it’s not just on this side of the Atlantic that it’s been a bit of a hit-and-miss year. This post from Matron of Husbandry tells how it’s been in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, that place is mahoosive compared to mine. And this old Iowa guy explains why he doesn’t have crop insurance. It sounds a lot like the crops round here – corn and sunflowers almost exclusively. However, there are more and more wheat fields and colza fields and barley fields in there. It’s shame most of this is animal feed. That tells you a lot. Meat-eating is not only labour-intensive but commands almost all of the fields round here not given to grape production for cognac or pineau. Most crops for people seem to be grown up north in poly-tunnels, or in Holland and Belgium. I did see a field full of onions though. That was a nice sight. Especially since they’d gone to seed. It made me feel like less of a crap gardener.

There’s something about a crop failure that always makes me blame myself.

But what is true in the garden is true of life. Sometimes, there are crap years. Sometimes there are productive years. It’s a combination of being enough ant and enough grasshopper to both profit from them by storing for the future as well as enjoying the here and now. If I hadn’t frozen and bottled most of those tomatoes from last year, or those courgettes, I’d have none. As it is, there will be enough to take me through to next year.

This year, peas and beetroot have been my ‘pay-it-forward’ crops. That’s not so good, but if it looks like being crappy next year too, I’ll be more prepared and more wise. Such is life. You learn from this year so you can make provisions in the future. Being in tune with the weather means I’m much more at ease with what it can bring.

As Maddie said of a soap opera when told it couldn’t get any worse, she said: “well, there could be a tornado…” and she’s right of course.

There could always be a tornado…

Undiscovered treasures

I try and keep one day a week free so that I don’t have to do any teaching – that’s not always as easy as it sounds! Though I only teach between two and seven hours a day, I like to have a day off. It’s not so much as a day off, though, as Day of Sweat.  The reason for this is fairly simple: whilst most of my teaching is in the evening, I still don’t like to work myself up into a full sweat because then I’m exhausted and I don’t feel like I’m at my best.

Usually, Tuesday is my day off, but my Monday evening clients swapped til today, so I spent yesterday doing my Tuesday tasks. It might be stinky and sweaty, but it leaves me feeling virtuous. Yesterday was Day of Sweat via Vicious Pruning.

What I’m most pleased with though is the fact I’ve finally cleared out the potting shed. I say potting shed and what I really mean is this kind of old pig-sty place (literally) with a big space for straw and what-have-you at the top, which then has two walls sticking out from it which has then been roofed with something that may or may not be asbestos. Oh well.

When I signed the paperwork, the dark and dingy space looked a little like this:

Obviously, it’s not snowing right now! It seems to have been a bit of a work space, but I’ve no idea if the old couple here before me ever kept animals in the little rooms at the back. I’m half-sold on a couple of goats or a couple of sheep and they could sleep in there. Or some geese. It’s too small for cows or horses and generally a bit gloomy and dark back there. A pig would be pretty useless. Me and pigs are like Charlotte and Wilbur. There’s no way I could eat a piggie I’d raised myself. Likewise goats and sheep. Really, they’d just be pets, and I have enough of those, which is why I’m thinking ducks or geese. Not like I don’t have enough eggs from the chickens, though.

Now who lives in a house like this?

You can even see my tidy pea canes and my little pitchfork. Every country girl needs a pitch fork.

Anyway, it’s always been the wood shop, and will continue to be – so one half has all the wood stuff in – the saw horse and the chainsaw, the saws and the axes. And the other side, I have cleaned up and is now my potting station!

Now, don’t laugh.

And don’t write a comment asking me when I plan on tidying it. This is it. For now.

Despite the fact it’s south-facing, it’s very gloomy because the big barn blocks out all the light. I don’t mind. I’m never in it long. But now, all my pots are in the right places, all the sawdust has been swept up, all the tools and nets and things are tidied up and put away. It’s not like this dreamy House to Home version:

But it will do, right?

No, it’s not cute, but it’s clean and it’s practical. And that’s fine with me.

I’ve also done a little more on the ‘hedge’ outside Maddie’s Cabinet. Two more full wheel-barrows. I was going to post a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture, but they both still look like ‘before’ pictures. I don’t know why. It looks pretty different to me already. It’s a ‘hedge’ in inverted commas (or Dr Evil Air Quotes as one of my favourite students used to call them) because it really was more in keeping with … hmmm… I’d say jungle, but you can hack through those with a machete, and this was beyond that.

I stopped when I thought about getting a spirit level out. You know you’ve gone too far when you’re thinking about spirit levels. It does look pretty good though. Well, compared to what I know it looked like before…

And before you ask, this is ‘after’ as well. I’m too embarrassed to show you before. Plus, I can’t guarantee I could have stopped my mum coming over on the plane with some secateurs. And we all know that secateurs aren’t Ryanair’s idea of carry on luggage. For one thing, they poke out of overhead lockers.

See… that’s almost straight, isn’t it?!

The so-called hedge was mainly some kind of hedging shrub, two great big hollies growing out of them, and then a whole load of brambles. Next on my chop list are the conifers at the end. I can’t decide whether to go for the ‘wall’ effect (when I’ll be wanting my spirit level again!) or something a bit more natural.

Then, once that’s clear, I’ll be scraping off the paint, giving the shutters, windows and doors a coat of fire-engine red gloss, painting the exterior white and removing all the rotten wood that means it’s a death trap. Well, not exactly death trap on account of there are only two steps, but it might cause death if you sprained your ankle, fell on the holly I’ve abandoned, got tetanus and then died.

What I love most is that autumn gives you time to catch up. Spring is manic. Summer is crazy. Autumn is time to prepare and to catch up with everything Nature’s given you in the last six months, and time to nest for winter. It’s completely at odds with school life, where we gear up in autumn and slow down in the summer. That long autumn term is always an uphill slog. In real life, it’s a lazier, downhill recuperation – the polar opposite of my previous Septembers.

Speaking of nesting, I found a little nest in the hedge today. I love birds’ nests. They’re always so well-made. I put it back in the hedge just in case anyone decides they want to use it again. I don’t want some little bird to come back in the spring and wonder what the bloody hell happened to their house.

I love my busy days. They make me feel so productive. And there’s nothing like a few aching muscles to make you feel virtuous.

Saving seeds

It’s no secret that my favourite bit of the garden has been my flower patch, which has gone from this:

to this:

 

 

It’s not bad when you think that I only put the flowers in on May 15th, and some three months later, it’s all looking a little tired and ‘finished’, although that’s more to do with the heatwave we’ve been having. Most plants don’t like 36 degrees and dry.

The best bit about it is that many of the flowers are perennials and will come back next year – the rudbeckia, the sedum, the monarda, the dahlias, the achillea, the campanula, the delphiniums, the aqualegia and the dicentra. However, some of these beauties are annuals, which means it is a case of growing them each year – a little less relaxing!

My favourites were the scabious ‘Summer Sundae’ which are an annual.

These are just sensational.

 

They’ve flowered long and hard all summer and have just kept giving.

I’m going to harvest some of the seeds, which look like little badminton birdies, and plant them in September so that they’ll be ready to go out in April.

I’m also getting a bit of a scabious obsession, though. I love them with the limonium, it must be said.

So… what do I do next year?

I’m trying to harvest as many seeds from the flower heads as I got in my packet this time. Then another couple of packets next year and repeat the process. That’s the best thing about annuals. They keep on giving if you treat them right, though you have to make sure you’ve got heirloom varieties, and not hybrids, as they return to type through successive generations.

This year’s variety were ‘atropurpurea’. Thompson and Morgan do another range of the same atropurpurea called ‘Ebony and Ivory’ which are the not-so-cleverly named black and white ones. I’m planning on a ‘boudoir garden’ of frillies, and these frillies will be right at home, pink and burgundy, white and black frillies.

There’s also another perennial variety called ‘beaujolais bonnets’ and ‘Oxford Blue’. The Oxford Blue are a kind of lavender blue and would look wonderful dotted between lavender flowers, I think. The final variety that Thompson and Morgan have on sale is ‘Ace of Spades’ which I can’t help but want because of the Motorhead song.

Then they offer some true perennials which are actually a different type of flower, knautia macedonia. I’ll be throwing a few of these seeds in some soil as well, I think!

I also found a couple of different varieties at Sutton’s Seeds, including a lovely blue perennial one and a ‘chile black’ one.

Definitely my favourites!