Saturday 31 May 2008

Is that all for the month of May?

The last day of the month and I had to make the elderflower champagne. I've been putting it off rather, claiming that this dirty old house with its dodgy plumbing and incontinent cat would make sterile conditions impossible and also because for some reason this year the elder tree's blossoms seem a little less than, well how to say, er, generous.

There are plenty of blooms but they seem to be sere, fragile, almost old maidish and lacking any of the usual bountiful frothiness and perfume I would normally expect. Maybe it's been the weather or maybe its just that I'm projecting my own state of mind onto them, either way the need to make fizz has never been less enticing.

In the expectation that this mood will have changed in the three weeks between now and sampling the brew I started a batch today, only to discover that there was barely enough sugar in the house even if I sacrificed my particular stock of sugar cubes which are kept solely for my coffee. After some confused deliberation I decided to make up the difference with jam sugar, enriched with pectin. This may be a fatal error, we'll see.

This same mood of despondency has informed the rest of the day. A fight with the computer this morning had me reinstalling my network card yet again, I tried some original recipes for the Stripey Cat and they were barely edible and certainly not worthy of publication. In desperation I went out to hack brambles with my billhook, since any bramble killed is a blow for positive success but almost immediately I was besieged by meat eating flies anxious to share the blood that the brambles were extracting from my arms. I gave up with despair, came in and spent a hour shopping on Amazon for french swear words and escapist novels. Bad girl.

Maybe I'll try a painting next but it might lead me to drink.

Marvel of Four Seasons
The lettuce has recovered well after the hailstorm.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Oak Apple Day - 29th May

I can't believe I forgot it after having saved these pictures from earlier in the month just so that I could remind everyone in the UK about it, so I've cheated a bit and dated this post from the 29th even though it's really the 30th now.

oak apples

Naturally wikipedia has an entry but so do the BBC in Wiltshire noting a local custom on the day there.

We have a fine crop on the oak trees in the Cider House field, they really do look like out of season apples at this time of year, puffed up and rosy, but of course they are chemically induced homes created by the gall wasps Biorhiza pallida. You can read a little about these here.

a good crop

Wednesday 28 May 2008

A Big Day

The first of the crop

Yep, I dug the first potatoes!

It's been so dark and wet here for the last few days that I had to make a dash for it during a slight let up in the downpour this morning. It's warm enough but grim out there.

Straight away there seemed to be some mistake. Just a few tiny potatoes and they were red! So I tried the next plant which thankfully had slightly larger tubers that were the expected colour for Swift. All I can think is that we must have tucked a stray Stroma in at the end of the row after we'd finished the main planting. Something like that anyway.

So the picture shows the haul from one Stroma plant which isn't quite ready and two Swift. The ground was so wet and loose and I felt so sorry for the plants that I've replanted them in the hope a few of the baby tubers forming will mature. How stupid is that.

While I was out there it was pleasing to notice that the carrots, Chantenay Red Cored, and the beetroots, Egyptian have germinated. Slightly less pleasing to notice all the weeds joining the throng. If it dries up at all today I'll have to get out there with the hoe.

The Stroma will be ready soon, the main row is beginning to flower.


Sunday 25 May 2008

Found it!


I found the billhooks. Paul's was with his woodworking tools, mine was hidden on the back of a shelf next to a damp wall and had green mould growing on the handle. Whoops. Still, I've cleaned it up and used it to demolish some more brambles, this time in the back garden. The work had to be interrupted several times so that anxious blue tit parents could make food deliveries to their ravenous young. It really is a most useful tool, known as a serpette in French although I could have sworn when I bought this in the hypermarket it was labelled scierie italienne which is apparently an Italian sawmill...

Paul's is by far the more authentic, probably antique and picked up at one of those wood working and craft fairs they have from time to time in the wilder parts of the country, but I like the slim good looks of mine and the weight is right for my girly muscles.

Also today I bottled the Beech Leaf Noyau and just as before my doubts are stirred. The beech leaves simply don't add anything much, other than a slightly off colour tinge to the gin and by the time you've added the brandy and sugar one has to wonder what it's all in aid of. Still, what's not to like in fortified sweetened gin? We'd better still like it with nearly 3 litres of the stuff in the cupboard now.

sky line

The météo is promising storms for later and this looks like they might be right.

Saturday 24 May 2008

The Art of Labour


As you might have guessed I'm strongly in favour of the organic movement. It seems intrinsically correct to keep to simple human friendly and scaled processes on the land. It keeps the human footprint within safe boundaries and is better for the other species we share the earth with as well.

So it would be nice to pretend that farm is entirely organically farmed and that all our activities are traditional practices handed down from generations of peasants who have worked the fields with hand tools and the sweat of their brows but that wouldn't be as honest as I'd like to be.

The fact is that we have 9 hectares here (that's about 24 acres), tiny for a farm but far far more land than two people can work using old fashioned methods. And I don't have Paul's strength with me for very much of the year. If I'm to keep on top of the abundance of nature I need power tools and that means oil powered equipment. We have a rotavator because I can't dig the whole vegetable patch by hand, a mower, a chain saw (which I never use, it's too scary) which is essential for tree work and a brush cutter. Whatever your feelings on global warming and the greed driven energy squeeze it would be better not to use them but the choices are limited.

Even with all this to help me I can still only hope to maintain a small area around the house. The fields are cut for hay by people who have the equipment to do it and our boundaries are being sadly neglected. We're going to have to invest more money in tractors and accessories in the near future because the land and the community need these obligations to be observed. Traditional farming is people intensive and we have become a society of couples and singletons.

Today I did an hour's brush cutting. A generation of neglect at the farm has left huge piles of rubble around the place and colonising these heaps, enormous thickets of brambles. It is unpleasant work, the stems are thick and resistant to the blades and the footing is uncertain with large chunks of stone and concrete tripping the unwary and denting the ends of the cutting blades. The protective helmet, essential wear, is uncomfortable and hot and the mesh of the visor combined with the spin of the blades induces the nausea that precedes a migraine. I always mean to do more but as soon as the fuel runs out so does my enthusiasm.

There are other compromises that mean we cannot claim to be fully "organic" as the definition is currently written. I have used a small quantity of artificial fertilisers, I will use slug pellets under certain restricted circumstances and I do intend to spray my potatoes and tomatoes with Bordeaux mixture in an attempt to protect them from blight. This copper based mixture isn't pleasant, copper is highly poisonous and I do understand why authorities like the Soil Association will deprecate its use but for us and other small farmers forbidding it makes our position untenable. I've even considered seeing what the commercial chemists are offering since I can't meet the rules for organic growing and protect our crops.

Anyway, this post has all the attributes of one that will never be read - most readers want to know how to make elderflower champagne or cherry jam - but just in case there's anybody listening; if you'd like a working holiday in this rural paradise, drop me a line. Bed, breakfast and a vegan evening meal if you want it. The more people who can help, the more we can avoid the perils of oil consumption and chemical shortcuts. And I'd be very very grateful.

Friday 23 May 2008

The first flower

potato flower
Flower on Potato Swift

An encouraging sign from the potatoes. The Swift is flowering and so next week I shall try a trial dig for the first new potatoes of the season. Hurrah!

Today has a been a day of little achievement. I spent a couple of hours this morning moving a large pile of stones collected during the rotovation of the potato patch and left on the lawn from their temporary resting place to a more permanent one on the concrete apron. It was a tedious and slightly tense task. The stones had been there long enough to gather a red ant's nest beneath them, each red ant capable of a nasty nip, there were quantities of hunting spiders, not harmful particularly but quite shudder inducing to the unwary and the perfectly possible likelihood of snakes. Added to which our wheel barrow has a flat and no matter how tremulously I shook my golden locks and sighed "whatever shall I do?" Bicycle Repair Man failed to materialise and save the day. The stones were moved, half a trug's worth at a time.

I've lost my billhook. Anyone seen it?

Wednesday 21 May 2008

oh dear

the stable door

Two posts in one day? It's because I'm a bit cross. Not only have the deer trespassed near the vegetable patch, and after writing this morning's entry I noticed they'd nibbled off the tops of the Jerusalem artichokes as they passed, but this evening taking a turn around the coppice patch I noticed they have comprehensively trashed the nicest remaining eucalytus. It's snapped off about 35cm from the ground and the debris is scattered all around.

A friend who keeps goats often talks of the intelligence of the creatures. The mothers and old wives of the herd will lead the babies to poisonous and harmful plants and make an example of them, stomping and mashing them down angrily to teach the youngsters what to avoid. I wonder if the deer are training their newborns the same way.

wild medlar blossom

The wild medlars are in full bloom, not as large in flower as the cultivated one we have in Newport Pagnell but prolifically beautifying the hedgerows. I still haven't managed to take a harvest from them yet but will try harder this year if any fruit set.

Some of the oca has finally put its head above the ground. I was beginning to wonder if it had all rotted.

I've also managed to get some plants from some old climbing french bean seeds I'd saved. Years ago, I made an effort to preserve a Thompson and Morgan variety of a brown seeded purple podded bean. I grew the same variety for several years without a problem but one year decided to try at the same time some black seeded beans from a packet I'd bought in Waitrose. French beans are not supposed to cross easily. The next year all my saved seed was in a fine old state. I had green and purple pods and three colours of beans, black, tan and white!

I tried several times to sort out the muddle by separating the seeds into their colours and growing the plants on as far away from each other as I could on the allotments but never managed to stop the cross pollinating. So I have a race of multicoloured seed and podded climbing beans which I've done nothing with for several years but I came across a bag of these magic beans a few days ago and have germinated enough from the old seed for several plants from each colour. Surely with all the space available to me here I can make a start on reselecting these beans so that they can be planted with some expectation of certainty about how they'll turn out.

cider garden

Life resumes

a small pile of winter security

After the hail, the sun comes out. Most of the plants are now beginning to show signs of recovery and even the lettuces which appeared entirely crushed by the strength of the storm have perked up and may yet make hearts although they'll never be as beautiful as they were.

I told my French teacher about the hail last night. He said they'd had nothing like it in the village but that 'in the forest anything might happen'. I'm beginning to get an idea of how the locals view this place, very nearly as enchanted as we think.

There were deer prints on the vegetable patch when I went out this morning. No signs of other damage but worrying enough. They seemed to dislike the softer ground and had moved off fairly quickly but I doubt that will be enough to discourage them if they get a taste for pea plants or garlic.

Today my task, apart from mowing some more, is to finalise our draft (if that's possible) of plans for the tractor shed. We need to get that moving and if I write it down here maybe it will finally happen.

And I had an email this morning. They will be cutting for hay while the sun shines. They'd better hurry then, the BBC and the Meteo both claim it will be raining again by the weekend.

Sunday 18 May 2008

More pictures of the destruction...

storm picture
More hailstones, on the picnic table

storm picture
a newly planted out tomato plant, destroyed

storm picture
the hail gathered in the trenches between the potatoes, after battering them almost to the ground.

storm picture
sweetcorn seedling, frozen to death probably

storm picture
after the storm, the heat of the ground quickly turned the ice back into mist

Friday 16 May 2008

All Hail

We had a bit of a storm today. Pity really, it battered many of the vegetables like sweetcorn and tomatoes that I had planted out in the last week and which had been doing well. The thunder was continuous and the downpour, when it wasn't torrential rain was this:

all hail

Monday 12 May 2008

Coppicing Revisited

field view

Look at that, isn't it gorgeous? I keep meaning to start a blog entry and then I look outside and all I can think is wubbawubbawubba with a big stupid grin on my face.

Anyway, to more serious subjects. When we bought the place I had high hopes of two sorts of coppicing - a willow coppice, where my dreams were of therapeutic basket weaving and quiet evenings of crafty handiwork in front of a roaring fire - and a firewood/green woodworking coppice to provide the necessary wood to keep that fire burning and materials for Paul to use on his pole lathe and other treen.

I have to report it's not gone quite as I expected.

The willows started off well enough but ground preparation was poor and they were stranded, a deliberate decision that with hindsight was wrong, away from the house and towards the edge of the property deep within a field. The first year they hung on in there and M. Briche who kindly cut the fields for us that year was most assiduous in avoiding cutting their heads off with the hay cutter but the grass grew in over the winter and the deer ate their fill and by the next year there was nothing for the haymakers to avoid. The plot was dead, destroyed, abandoned. I still hope to restart this project now that we've got some idea what we're up against but I think the deer fencing is going to be a priority that must be in place before I spend money on more cuttings.

And then the eucalyptus grove, which should have trees five feet high this year has shrunk to three living trees and a few stumps from 20 or more seedlings planted. I'm hanging onto the stumps because eucalypts have a remarkable facility for sprouting from the lignotuber but frankly I'm not confident. In this case, as well as the deer (and the marks of rubbing and nibbling are only too clear) the fast growth and evergreen nature of the trees was against them. They got too tall for their roots and when the winter winds came they rocked back and forth until they collapsed.

I'm disappointed and still think that eucalyptus has a place in our coppice programme but in the interests of keeping things moving I've decided to fill the gaps with ash seedlings from around the farm and several trees we brought with us for hedging but which are still in their pots. They must go in the ground this year or they will never thrive and even if they're not the best for wood production they will help form a nursery grove around trees that are. I have a few eucalyptus seedlings that will also go in to replace the losses and these will have to be staked for a year or two.

Quite what we do about the deer I'm not sure. Individual deer proof tree guards are expensive but so is deer fencing. I may just have to sit out there with a shotgun all winter, firing over their heads until they get the message.


Thursday 8 May 2008

Gardening Update

merveille des 4 saisons

We've had marvellous weather for a couple of days, so good that I'm having to get up at dawn to do anything that involves heavy work or protective clothing. It's just too hot to do these things later in the day. A real jump straight into summer from chill spring.

The lettuces above, Merveille des 4 Saisons, are from plug plants bought from the Point Vert in Le Molay Littry at the beginning of April. They've come on well and I will be able to take some soon to make room for the others to mature. To replace them I have a couple of pots of seedlings started here that I must prick out and harden off before finding them a place in the plot.

Behind the lettuces you might just be able to see two rows of garlic. The tall strong garlic was planted last December and the shorter stuff just 4 weeks ago. It's clear that December planting is going to make the best plants and we'll have to try harder next year to get all the garlic planted before January.

sweet cicely

I've been clearing the bed around the Sweet Cicely, some of the heavy work referred to above. It's hard work because a year of neglect has filled it with buttercups and other noxious weeds not to mention two huge patches of mint, battling it out for space. I've rescued some of the plants and the rest will go for compost. Mint is great stuff but almost too vigorous.

I love Sweet Cicely and have brought this plant via Newport Pagnell all the way from Worthing where I had a wonderful plant that regularly set seed. I've never managed to get viable seed from any plant since although I've propagated it from root divisions of the original. I'm hoping that with a year or two to mature the plant might finally settle down to seeds. I'd like to increase my stocks and plant some around the farm as well as in the herb bed.

crimson flowered broad bean

In the heritage vegetable bed the Crimson Flowered Broad bean has just started to flower. I'm not a great seed guardian, my efforts lurch from year to year with my new best favourites until suddenly realise it's almost too late to for some treasure to be viable whereupon I spring into action on behalf of the about to be lost. The seed for these must have been three years old and very poorly stored so I'm pleased that they seem to be such healthy happy little plants now. Even so, I noticed while taking the pictures that ants were making surveys of the growing tips, presumably with an eye for aphid farming. I'll have to stay watchful over that.

two types of ulluco

The Ulluco, this year's novelty, is showing above ground finally. The Oca isn't, which is a little worrying but anyway, back to the Ulluco. When I looked at the tubers there seemed to be three types but looking at the foilage the differences seem much less marked. However, there are definitely two types. The one I have most of is the lanker less colourful of the two but there are also a couple with beautiful magenta new growth as you can see in the picture. These potted plants are the tiniest tubers which I didn't want to lose in open ground before they started to grow. The eight larger plants went straight into the ground and seem to like it there. I'll put the potted ones out as soon as I find room for them, space is beginning to run short.

Sunday 4 May 2008



Yellow Archangel; when I was young and first learning the joys of plant identification from an Observer pocket book of wild flowers the Yellow Archangel - Lamiastrum galeobdolon - represented something so exotic and rare that I longed to find one. I never did, not sure whether I was in the wrong locations for them or just unobservant but it was wonderful yesterday to find a couple of clumps hiding in the protective shelter of the stinging nettles while I was mowing. The plant has been used for garden ornament and ground cover and there are several cultivars some of which have escaped into the wild but I'm reasonably certain my plants are the real thing, as wild as the day they were born. Another box in my life's work ticked!

The year is rolling on again and today I picked the leaves for the Beech Leaf Noyau. When I'd made it last year, I wasn't terribly impressed, it was mellow and easy to drink but lacked any real character I thought. Despite that, over the year (and we finished the last drop just a couple of weeks ago) it's kind of grown on me and Paul thinks it's delicious so this year I'm making double quantities. Just to have enough to share with friends obviously, it's not our habit taking over!

Lilacs are not my favourite shrubs although the scent is lovely and the blossoms attractive, for the rest of the year they are simply boring and I think they are a waste of space in most gardens. The French beg to differ and we have at least three lilac bushes scattered around the various buildings' gardens.

An old wives' tale that I had never heard until recently is that lilac should never be brought into the house or disaster will follow. This is, apparently, connected to the old habit of laying out the dead at home before the funeral. The strong perfume was supposed to mask the smell of decay and has become associated with death and sadness. May blossom, also in abundant bloom at the moment has the same restriction although in its case the perfume itself is supposed to carry some of the odours of putrescence and so be harmful to the harmony of the household.


Thursday 1 May 2008

May Day

The first of May, Beltane, Workers' Day is a holiday in France and is traditionally marked by the giving of Muguet de Bois, the Lily of the Valley to family and friends. Happy May Day, to one and all.

Not too useless a day compared to the last few. I've planted the Fagiolo di Spagna Bianco, known to you and me as Runner Beans, Spanish White but I didn't know that before I bought them and now, well, they are a very large bean, as big as the beans in the runner bean Painted Lady but entirely white. They should make very good "Greek Beans in Sauce", as I hoped when I bought them. My favourite runner is actually White Emergo, the rough green pods have a great flavour and the seeds are useful in cooking but nothing like the size of the Spanish White. I hope the curse of the French on runner beans doesn't affect these seeds from Spain via Italy.

The frame for the beans is an interesting construction of harvested hazel poles from the hedges on the farm and bamboo canes from the bamboo plant in Ouville. I don't think the canes are very strong but I'm going to give it a go, using them in pairs. Even the string was scavenged from the debris left around the fields by the hay baler last summer.

I've also started some sweetcorn in pots and mowed about a quarter of the lawned areas before the rain started again. The weather is set to improve over the next few days, so I'll be busy won't I?