Sunday 26 July 2009

Alas, poor Allium

The end of the onions

This is what happens to onions when they suffer an uncontrolled attack of downy mildew. I've been so caught up in worrying about blight on the tomatoes and potatoes it never occurred to me that I should be worrying about the onions as well. They look even worse now than when I took this picture a week ago and the whole crop is toast.

With hindsight, it's partly my fault. I had them a little bit too close together and the shelter provided by the huge hedge of potato foliage behind them created just the right micro climate for the fungus to get a hold. We'll probably be able to use a few of the onions when they've dried off but they won't keep well and will need to be kept away from any seed bulbs being saved for next year.


These are the shallots that were growing next to the onions. Because they were started late they're not very big, and they also had a dose of mildew so I won't be saving any for next year's planting although one or two of the best ones look as if they have some potential. I bought these from a garden centre in the UK this spring but they aren't a traditional variety although I forget what they were called. They were probably seed raised as you might guess from the flowering heads of one of the groups. Good shallots don't waste energy on seed.


As mentioned, I bought my leek seedlings a few weeks ago and planted them out. Because they're in the ground for such a long time I always have problems keeping them weeded. This year my strategy is to plant them closely together in wide spaced rows to make it easier to get in with a hoe. This may make it difficult to protect them from the deer later in the year. Another no win situation.

walking onions

The egyptian walking onions have had a hard year fighting with the weeds but have formed their heads quite well. They are a funny novelty onion and although I've grown them many times I've probably never used them in any sort of cooking, we just look at them and marvel. Apparently there are varieties even within the subspecies but I've never seen any particularly distinctive ones, well no more distinctive than they are already.

babington leek flower

Babington leeks, wilder but closely related to the elephant garlic also produce bulbils on their flowering heads. These are a good means of propagation as the underground bulbs are slow to divide and multiply. When the flowers come the leafy parts almost disappear but will sprout again over the winter to form new clumps the following spring.

blog welsh onion

Seedling welsh onions. These are seeds from Realseeds, but they don't seem to be listed this year and I can't remember the name which was something like 'somebody's' selected. They are doing quite well if a little slowly and seem to have avoided the mildew for the time being.

blog shallots string

These are the good shallots, grown in a different part of the garden to the other shallots and onion sets. The variety is a French one, that's all I can tell you. Maybe I should start being a bit more organised. I have 20 of these put aside for planting next spring.


Garlic, never quite as magnificent a crop as I would like. These were late planted in the first week of March this year and have done well considering that. The variety or varieties is unknown because they were supermarket sourced but I particularly like the crimson red skin on some of them. I find it hard to understand some of the hyperbole spouted about different garlic varieties and their taste and cooking characteristics. There are, in my opinion at the moment, hard necked and soft necked types in a variety of skin colours but they all taste of garlic and like most other plants the quality comes down to how well adapted they are to the local growing conditions.

Anyway, in the spirit of science, I hope to put some of this to the test in the next growing season by selecting some particularly toothsome sounding cultivars and growing them on for a taste test next summer. I also want to get a stock of soft necked garlic in hand because they plait and I do love a garlic plait but I'll keep a few of these pretty crimson hardnecks as the control.

blog elephant

Finally the elephant garlic, swamped by tomatoes. I think it will be o.k. It was late going in and I don't expect it to do much more than make single bulbs this year which should produce good sized bulbs of cloves next year.

Must go and tie up those toms.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Butterflies on the farm today

This pretty little thing is the summer form of the Map butterfly. This has two broods a year like many butterflies but unusually the two generations are different. You can see the spring form here in Paul's flickr stream. I'd never seen this butterfly before we started living here and I'm not sure if it ever visits the UK.

The Meadow Brown isn't a very spectacular butterfly but there are loads of them and they're very shy about having their pictures taken. Luckily the taste of the bramble flowers was sufficiently enticing to keep it still while I caught the picture, probably the best I've ever managed of one.

It's a bumper year for Painted Ladies, the first ones blew in with the spring storms and they are now abundant everywhere. Which is nice. If you want to see a close up of the body look here. It's a huge picture which might be slow to download if your link isn't good.

The Small White is just as pernicious as the Large 'Cabbage' White but I'm pleased to see a few nonetheless. This is a female one, she's got two spots on her forewings. There was a Large White flitting around as well but it wouldn't stop still long enough for me to get the picture.

The Gatekeeper is another shy butterfly that I'm rarely successful in snapping. We have lots of these too as the caterpillars feed on grasses.

Today I also saw a battered Red Admiral and one solitary Peacock, normally perfectly commonplace around here. I don't think we've seen a small Tortoiseshell all year.

But we have seen, we think, a White Admiral (the one that got away of course), Commas, Fritillaries of various sorts and some of those small blue butterflies that are so very quick flying and so very difficult to identify because of it. In the spring we also had Orange Tips and Brimstones but the season for those is past now.

The hunt continues.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Kitten Diary #8

kittens hunting
Kittens hunt in single file

The weather's been pretty poor for the last few days and I've been huddled up indoors by the computer wasting time while the kittens have been going stir crazy. The doors are left open for them but the unpredictability of the showers and occasional presence of Jack has left them less than keen to go outside without an escort. Grumpy and plump little cats have resulted.

This evening the wind dropped, the rain dispersed and we took a turn around the farm buildings.

demon rook
Rook in demon mode

They run like little racehorses around me, bounding over the lawns and into the vegetable patches, paws thundering and tails flying to drop instantly into positions of repose where they can catch their breath until I reach them again.

the black shadow
Raven poses with her fluffy shadow

Then they're off once more, up trees, under foliage, stalking me through the long grass. I walk with slow measured steps so that they have time to do double, triple my distance in sprints and flurries, kissing each other's noses to make sure they're still friends then pouncing from behind when attention is diverted.

crow sharpens
Crow sharpens his claws in readiness

A final investigation around the pond and it's indoors for kitten breakfast, a ritual meal taken any time of the day I need them indoors, but at the moment this is usually about ten o'clock at night. A little bit of exercise should mean we all get a better night's sleep.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Space for Oddities

I picked the first blackberries of the year today. Not bad at all and enough there to make me think I'll go back tomorrow and get some for a pudding.

Earlier in the year I did a post on the plants I'd received in last year's seed swap. It seems about time to do an update on how they're doing.

This is the sorghum. Looks just like sweetcorn doesn't it, and I've tucked this single example in alongside the sweetcorn on the vegetable patch. I'm interested in sorghum which has quite a number of types and uses but really needs slightly warmer conditions than Normandy to be a reliable crop. If this comes to anything I might try to source some commercial varieties of seed next year for a trial.

The Mayflower beans had a bad start, all the first sowing failed. The second batch germinated well but they are slow growing and have only just started to reach out for their poles. Still, they look healthy enough and I hope they will make a crop.

I was a bit afraid of the Madeira vine ( Anredera cordifolia )as it's considered a noxious weed in many countries, overwhelming and swamping native plants but it's been reasonably well behaved so far. You are supposed to be able to eat the roots although PFAF doesn't have much good to say about it. You can also eat the leaves and this might be the best way of keeping the plant under control.

The tuberous sweet pea had a poor beginning too. It was so slow growing that I kept it in its pot a little too long and it began to be starved. It's in the ground now and showing some recovery but I think you'd need to grow an awful lot of them to get a meal. I'm still researching these, which were once a market crop, but keep forgetting where I've seen sources to follow up. I'm hoping these will flower this year for a few more seeds and because they appear to be a really pretty crimson scarlet.

And so to the American ground nut, not a peanut in any shape or form. Rhizowen at Radix has written a nice article here which quite plausibly sets out the case for calling them Hopniss, and so I'm going to adopt that from now on. I've no idea of the provenance of my plant so haven't a clue if it will make quality tubers but I believe that Derek who gave it to me lives in Somerset so conditions should be much the same as for his parent plant. Doesn't look like much at the moment, this is another plant that has attractive flowers when it's happy so I'm hoping to see those later in the year.

The other swaps, ulluco, a blue potato, elephant garlic and Yin Yang beans are going along nicely. The beans have just started to form pods, the garlic looks well, the blue potato and ulluco are ensconced in Peru Corner. The potato is getting regularly sprayed with Bordeaux mixture and is beginning to flower so that will be harvested soon. We're going to have to wait for the ulluco but after last year's issues with heavy ground frost I'm cogitating on plans to put a deep mulch on in November. The only problem with that is that it will provide cosy cover for rodents. Sometimes I think I can't win.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Bastille Day

the forest

It's the fifth anniversary of our first official view of the farm. We'd had a sneak preview by climbing the gate a few days before but the 14th was our last day before leaving France. Despite it being a public holiday the agent was prepared to take us around in the hope of making the sale.

It was a blazingly hot day and we walked the boundaries of the land and explored the buildings with amazement and excitement, me babbling on in poor French about how much it reminded me of the place I was born, Paul being much more sensibly silent on how much we liked it but struck by the beauty and the wildness and all the birds and insects. We had to wait a while before our offer was accepted, the scattered and mutually antagonistic family that had inherited were mostly away on holiday but we'd already lost our hearts. It was a tremendous relief when we heard they'd finally sorted it out amongst themselves.

mixed leek flowers

Each year I buy our leek plants from the market in St. Lo. 5€ gets 100 seedling plants ready to pop into their final growing on spot. The variety is always stated to be Carentan, the local (and famous) strain that is grown widely all across Normandy. Carentan the town is about 40 km from here. The insects love the flowers so I always leave the last of the patch to go to seed although I don't save them.

As you can see from the picture, this is very much an open pollinated and somewhat diverse strain with flower colours of all shades from white to purple and quite a number of umbel forms too. In fact, I suspect that what we have is just home saved seed of no particular variety with the appellation being provided from the location. No matter, they are locally grown and make a fine crop, maturing across the season and standing up well to the prevailing weather conditions.

This year I've planted our plot a little earlier than last. We were just too late last year to get full sized leeks by Yule, this year they should be a better size.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Shallots and Strays


Today I harvested the shallots planted in March. They've done really well. The parent bulbs were saved from last year's crop and strung up in the cold outside store over the winter. Each bulb has produced about six large new bulbs so I can save 15 or 20 for next year and still have a useful amount for the kitchen, which is what it's all about of course. Probably our best year for shallots all the same. We have another variety, bought in this year, on the other plot. These aren't doing so well and will probably make the sort of tiddlers that are only good for pickling. That's o.k. but less gratifying.

peru corner

This is a selection of South American plants, oca, ulluco, potatoes and the Magentaspreen (Chenopodium giganteum). The oca and ulluco are doing fairly well although the very hot weather has caused them to stop growing for a while. Plants of the high Andes aren't used to such elevated temperatures. The New Zealand blue potato that I received in a plant swap seems to be about to flower, making it a little later than the Vitelotte noire although this may be due to nothing more than cultural differences. The NZ spud was a tiny tuber and I grew it on in a pot for a few weeks before setting it out in the garden. The Magentaspreen is another self sown weed and I really should get rid of it now before it steals the goodness away from the tubers.

Behind the ulluco you can see the other shallots and the onions which are beginning to form bulbs at last. The long row of potatoes are the Pink Fir Apple which are looking good. Fingers crossed that the change in weather won't precipitate any attacks of blight.


This naughty black cat is no relation at all to the gang of three. It's a feral that has been living in the yard. The first time I saw it I did a double take and had to count the kits milling about my ankles because he or she does look so much like them. This evening there was a standoff between our three and the intruder, who might claim prior occupation I suppose. Not a fight but the sort of staring match cats are so fond of when staking out territory.

The obvious name - Jack short for Jackdaw.

Windmills of your mind


It's been a week and I said I'd write more about truthfulness and honesty in blogging. To be honest, I'm not sure what I'm going to say so I'll just let my fingers do the walking and see where we end up.

Last week I wasn't feeling entirely stable, it's very hard living here entirely alone for a lot of the time. The isolation leads you to trying to make connections that aren't there and human pattern making skills are exceptionally clever at extrapolating entire scenarios from a single word or lack of it. This leads to whole philosophies being built of straw.

I think people need truthfulness at a very basic level. We may be so many quanta swirling in a maelstrom of possibilities but our animal selves require some solid touchstones.

And how does this relate to blogging, exactly? I don't know in any incontrovertible way because it is a very free form medium. I'm drawn to blogs that are, or appear to be, real journals from real people even though I know from my own blogging that what is portrayed is often slanted or altered for all sorts of reasons, few of them to do with deliberate untruthfulness but usually to protect family or friends who might be reading. Where the line between that necessary censorship and total invention lies is always going to be hard to determine but it is uncomfortable for readers who relate to situations described by a blogger to realise that they have been empathising with someone's work of fantasy. Who wants to be taken for a sucker?

So it comes back to self knowledge and managing one's own expectations. After about 15 years of experiencing large parts of my life online, I should be better able to do this. Sadly, it looks like I still haven't quite got the knack.

Anyway, although I've not even broached the writing issues touched on in the comments the shrink in my head suggests I should wrap this up now because it feels just a tad self indulgent. Bring on the cling film because that's all folks.


Wednesday 1 July 2009

July already!

the first cornichon

It's been so wonderfully hot, and dry and simply summery here. I'm really enjoying it although it's also making me miss Paul rather a lot. He's working and a long way away and I want someone to share all this beauty and wonderfulness with.

Anyway, I was thrilled this morning to discover the pickling cucumbers have started to flower and form fruit. I'm going to have to get a brine tub going for them pretty damn quick. I've only just finished (by throwing away the last few jars) the 2005 pickles mainly because the cukes got so big so quickly I had many more jars full than we needed. Tiny cornichons are much more refined and if I can just keep up with the picking we shouldn't end up with more than we can eat. There will still be some that pass under the radar of course but some big dill pickles and a batch of our favourite cucumber and celery seed relish should see to those.

bush bean yin yang flower

It's also good to see that the beans have started to flower. These are the first flowers of the Yin Yang bean, planted on 1st May. Most of the other plants are way behind because they were sown two weeks later after the first sowing all but failed apart from our friend above.

The delay in getting the beans in may have further repercussions if the weather goes on being as hot as this as the plants are almost stopping growing in the heat. I've been trying to avoid watering as long as possible but with little or no rain forecast for the next ten days I had to start bringing watering cans to the plot today. Any plants stunted by drought aren't going to be very productive.

Still I'm not really grumbling, I've been waiting for a proper summer for years now. I'm going to enjoy it while I can.

quiet sunset