Saturday 30 April 2011

Raising a roof

It's been a busy few days, lots happening but no time to blog. I was making use of a visitor to help me get the greenhouse erected. The actual kit of parts was dismantled from the garden in Newport Pagnell in January and brought over then for storage here until we had time to reassemble it.

Green house site

This is the site I picked out. It's sheltered on one side by the old cowshed, backed by the derelict haybarn behind and on a disused corner of land facing the main vegetable beds at the other end of the meadow we keep cut as 'lawn'. The sun (when it's out) shines on the area for most of the day but the plot can't be seen from the house and interrupts no charming views. So far, so good.

Men at work

However, when we came to prepare the area and dig out foundations for a proposed dwarf wall to lift the walls a little higher and provide some needed headroom, we hit a problem. Or several problems, in the shape of brick sized boulders of stone interspersed with golf ball sized rocks. It was impossible to get a fork in and even the mattock could do little to loosen the soil. In the end we decided to just level the site and use the fitted green house base straight onto the ground. It seems unnaturally stony here as if in times gone past hard core and rubble have been dumped here or even placed deliberately to create a hard standing. I chose the site so I'm grateful for the extreme efforts that made it possible to get the green house put up here. Nobody suggested we should move it elsewhere for a more convenient build.

Completed green house

And here it is. Three missing panes were already accounted for in damage before we took it to pieces in the UK, the actual transportation and construction was pretty much without incident. We'll get some replacement glass in the fullness of time but for now it's going to make growing fancy tomatoes a much more practical proposition than trying to grow them outside. I'm looking forward to using it.

Sunday 24 April 2011

A tale of two beans

Carters Polish Beans
Carter's Polish Beans

As usual there are too many beans for me to grow them all out this year. Found in the seed box were these Carter's Polish. I don't remember requesting them from HDRA so they must have been a lucky dip selection. Peabean shaped, they are healthy solid looking beans with a glossy coat. As usual the Heritage Seed Library is vague and imprecise with details on the variety which always annoys me. On their website the bean is described as a tall grower with purple flowers and mottled purple pods. No history, no provenance and no real explanation about why this is a variety worth preserving except that it seems to exist. It could be a modern Polish breed or a Victorian selection named for the polish of its shiny coat. Almost certainly it is grown elsewhere in the world under another name but we'll never know. It has attained nirvana, trapped forever in a fluffy hazy world of seed saving nostalgia and well meaning middle class angst.

O.k. I'm beginning to sound a bit bitter now. I'm going to grow it and see. It might make the grade for my core selection of seed saving exercises but if I don't like it I shall give away all the seeds and not bother with it again. That, ultimately, is the only valid criteria for growing anything.

striped bunch bean
Striped Bunch Beans

The Striped Bunch I did choose, not so much for the apocryphal back story that came with them that they originated in Right Beaver Creek, Knott County, Kentucky but because I wondered if the seed would resemble Tiger Eye beans, since I fancy growing them but can't really justify the difficulty of obtaining seed. They don't much but there is at least a bit more information available about them on the web.

They are described as a half-runner, something that will confuse British readers since runner beans are Phaseolus coccineus and these beans are P. vulgaris, which we call French beans. However, it simply refers to the length of the climbing vine and means that these beans will grow to a height of between 3 to 5 feet. They will apparently produce 12cm long round bean pods which are ideal for pickling. I've never pickled beans before but I'm willing to give it a go.

These beans are now planted so more news on them as it breaks. Also planted yesterday, half a dozen Giant Purple, runner bean White Emergo and Riana's climbing green french bean. I must ask her again if she can remember the name of the variety because it was great last year.

And next, I'm planting out the courgettes. No rain forecast until Thursday and that's a bit tentative.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Aide memoire

peas and beans
Peas awaiting sticks

Just some diary notes.

Planted on the 19th April two sorts of dwarf french bean, Annabel and Ice Crystal Wax. The bean poles were erected that day too, but I'm still relocating pumpkins from trays so that I can plant the climbing beans in heat.

The cabbages are up, the leeks, carrots, salsify, parsnips and scorzonera are not. This is bad. In pots, there are 7/8 Irish Preans and 10 pots of Hereward wheat. 5 rows of potatoes are now showing green tops.

All of the pumpkins etc are now individually potted, still to separate some tomatoes.

Work to do; finish back garden bed and plant out fruit bushes. Make pea sticks for Irish Preans and a teepee for some more beans there. Make beds ready for cucurbits and beetroot. Get the beans and ridge cucumbers started. And some other stuff...

sun disappearing

Sunday 17 April 2011

Digging deep

field of white

There is one flower in that picture in focus. Really. I just can't help playing with depth of field.


One of the effects of the good weather, starting so early, having all the time in world etc etc is that I have no excuse to skimp on ground preparation and doing things properly. Doing things properly is hard work.

Today I thought I'd make the climbing bean bed ready. Just rake out the weeds, dig some trenches, fill them up with compost and set the poles. Easy peasy. It's taken me hours and I'm so tired I was falling asleep in front of the fire just after dinner. Digging is hard work.

The bed is still not finished, I have to cover the compost and put up the poles yet. That nice fork in the foreground is new and a good tool. I used it to break up the subsoil before adding the compost and grass clippings. Note also the bucket of couch grass extracted from a spit down.

This is effectively just two rows of double digging per trench. At least one school of thought would have me double dig the whole plot every few years and that would improve the soil. At my rate of digging that's never going to happen so my usual half-arsed approach will persist.

I know there are many proponents of permaculture out there who would like to put me straight but please, bring wine round on a Saturday afternoon and we'll discuss it then if you must. Any form of permanent bed system would, with my lousy housekeeping, descend back to nature in no time at all, and that would be too depressing.

At least the compost bin is working well, although turning it is more of that hard work.

compost bin

Thursday 14 April 2011

Excursions and alarums


It's been a rather irritating and depressing day for any number of trivial reasons, each of which on its own should have been easy enough to shrug off. Somehow from inside my head the view has become darker.

The first thing to go wrong was just carelessness, I snapped off the top of a pumpkin as I was taking them outside for the day. I've taped and splinted it like a child playing doctors and nurses but really there's no chance and no real need to make a fuss, I still have seven more of that sort to go.

Then I found that a snail had eaten the tops from all the Hot Wax peppers. It's too late to start any more now so we'll have to resort to buying a few plants for our chilli needs this summer. The range in France is rather poor so that's a disappointment too.

crow on gate

While I was pricking out asparagus this evil cat took a bird. Probably a swallow. I chased him but he doubled back through the cat flap and disappeared. I didn't see him for five hours so he knows he was bad, but he's a cat. I've spent the time desperately hoping that somehow it wasn't a swallow or it got away but where we had four this morning, now I can only see three. I'm feeling so unhappy over this.

I did a reccy on the fruit. Of fifteen raspberry canes potted up in February it looks as if only six will make it. Only five of the strawberries came through, the other fruit bushes, although small, do seem viable but it's a poor show. I've planted the six best raspberries, three Autumn Bliss and three Octavia in the back bed. I really don't know what to do with the others, whether it's worth hanging on or if I should just ditch them now and stop agonising over it.

And the cats are covered in ticks. Tomorrow Paul will arrive with my car and supplies so they can be treated but it's just horrible to see and think about. This last couple of weeks has been rather wearing on my own. At least when I have the car again I'll feel a little less isolated.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Leeks of Babington


Reading Irish Kitchen Garden today I realised that although I've been growing Babington leeks for many years now it's been rather an academic exercise. I've planted them, tended them, distributed them and looked upon them more as novelty pets instead of seeing how best to incorporate them into a vegetable garden as a useful crop. These are my records on the subject, including today's tasting notes.

Scientific Name:

Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii

Who was Babington?

Charles Cardale Babington (1808 – 1895) was a contemporary of Darwin. He was a botanist who studied at St John's College, Cambridge. He became Chair of Botany at the University of Cambridge in 1861 and in addition to many works of botany wrote several papers on insects. In 1833 shortly after completing his M.A. he was present at the foundation of the Royal Entomological Society. He continued to study and write papers on his interests until late in life. His papers and specimens are conserved by the University of Cambridge.

I've not been able to determine exactly when his leek was named for him. In 1840 he wrote about the differences between true leeks, Allium porrum, and Allium ampeloprasum in the ANNALS OF NATURAL HISTORY, mentioning that on Guernsey he had seen Allium ampeloprasum reproducing from bulbils produced on the flower head.


Babington's Leek is a perennial sterile plant that reproduces only by means of root offsets and the bulbils formed with the flowers. Studies have indicated that all specimens found in Britain and the Channel Islands are from a single clone. The plant is also found in Ireland although opinion is divided as to whether it's native there or perhaps introduced.

It is found mainly in the S.W. of England preferring an open environment on sea cliffs, coastal heaths and woodlands. It has no particular preferences for soil type as long as it is free draining and sunny. The plant comes into growth in early spring, forms a leek like leafy top growth and follows this with a tall flower stem in July. The florets are pale purple but the main part of the head is formed from small bulbils which start green and gradually harden up with a brown skin like tiny misshapen onions. In times of drought it may miss flowering and simply die back underground until there is sufficient moisture again.

There are few indications that it has ever been domesticated or used for food by foragers but in recent times its oddity has become popular with gardeners who have kept it going by swapping material amongst themselves. It is now becoming commercialised by marketers keen to cash in on this. However, given its peculiar method of propagation it's unlikely that any improved varieties or better selections will ever become available.



Start the bulbils (or are they really topsets?) in small pots of loamy compost in the spring. They are small and slow growers to begin with and it's easier to keep a track of them in pots than the open ground. The first year they will grow up like grass, before dying back over the winter. In the second year they start to display their leeky heritage. Plant them out in good soil and allow to grow on. Keep them weed free, like all alliums they hate competition. It's at this point you might consider taking a harvest but it's tempting to let them have another year in the ground. If you're lucky they will flower giving you a new source of bulbils for the next season. Mark the row before they die back or you'll lose them. If the season is damp you might find that they also make offsets at the base, another way of increasing stocks.



I took these leeks in their third year. The previous year they did not flower and died back in June due to drought and I wondered if I'd lost them completely but they had started to show green again by January and were a good size by March. Dig them carefully with a spade as you would for leeks. I think the bulbs at the bottom of the plant were softened and depleted from over wintering and this could probably be avoided by harvesting before they flower and die back. I took just the clean white stems which were tender and not fibrous and, rather hopefully, replanted the old roots, which may or may not have been a good idea. ***UPDATE*** The replanted bulb ends have now produced shoots which look as if they will carry on as before, so if they're not fit for eating it is worth replanting them for another day.***


The raw taste is more garlicky than leeky, quite spicy hot. I used my stems in a potato soup and the flavour mellowed a bit in the cooking but I think they would work well anywhere you might use green garlic or scapes.

Tuesday 12 April 2011


cucurbits on the windowsill

I thought I'd been rather restrained with my sowing of pumpkins, squashes and gourds. Even allowing for the old ditty "one for the vole and one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow" I'd hoped to have just the right number of plants that I could find a home for them all. In fact I've had nearly 100% successful germination and it's going to be a struggle as usual.

If the plants were smaller it might be easier to discard some but they look so fresh and eager that I'll have to give them all a chance, probably damaging quality of life for the few by the needs of the many but that's the equation, for humans as well as cucurbits. Even if it does mean being swamped in courgettes again.

Work has slowed down for a few days but more seeds are planted. Irish Prean seeds and wheat (a trial) went in pots outside three days or so ago along with some borage and coriander. Yesterday I planted up Lupini beans and soya beans in the heated propagator and today some herb seeds; sorrel, parsley, sweet cicely and more coriander in pots indoors. I also put some dill seeds into a tray but there are two problems with that, one is that the seed is so old it's probably past it and the other is that dill hates being transplanted so it's almost certainly doomed whatever happens. My brain is overheating this week and mistakes are being made.

Outside sowings of cabbages, Kalibos and Asturian Tree, along with leeks Kelvedon and Solaise Bleu. Outside seed beds are unusual for me but I'm hoping they'll work and remove the need to buy in small plants in the summer which is my normal strategy.

Still little prospect of rain, so watering is becoming a regular task although the temperatures have dropped a bit which helps somewhat.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Hello flower

ornamental cherry
Flowering Cherry

Feeling rather sorry for myself today so made a bunch of flowers.

plum blossom
Plum blossom

herb robert
Herb Robert

ivy leaved toadflax
Ivy Leaved Toadflax

pink strawberry
Pink Flowered strawberry cross

three cornered garlic
Three Cornered Garlic



I've had to disable backlinks. Something strange happened overnight and suddenly all my recent posts had generated backlinks to each other. Needless to say, it wasn't me and they weren't relevant but the only way to delete them is to bosh each one individually or hide and ban the lot. I chose the option with least effort. Don't think it will have much effect on anyone's viewing pleasure but it's ruined my day.

Friday 8 April 2011

For the record

spud row

The potato planting is now finished. This morning, this lovely morning, I put in the last few rows. I was pleased to have room for a few of the Swedish variety Mandel which I brought back from my holiday there last year. These keep very well in storage and seem to be unattractive to rodents which is quite a consideration around here.

That useful tool came from the local DIY and similar ones can be found in most large French supermarkets and garden centres. They are available online in the UK but at prohibitive prices, so if you happen to be in France take one home with you.

The Swift went in on the 29th March and are just beginning to show green at ground level. They are very quick early potatoes and I expect to be able to take the first harvest by the middle of June.

The list really reads from left to right, rather than top to bottom, but I know what I mean.

spud list

Wednesday 6 April 2011

A day called Summer


Today's photos were an attempt to catch the interesting low angle early evening sun light at the full stretch of my zoom lens whilst sitting in a garden chair with a fat black cat on my lap. Never let it be said I don't suffer for my art.


It has been another stunner of a day, warm and welcoming and simply wonderful. Naturally I'm beginning to wonder if we're peaking too soon and if it continues on like this into June it'll become a burden and everything will die of thirst but ... what if it doesn't? Could I stand a summer wet and cold and miserable? Put these thoughts away. They're not helpful.


So in the last couple of days I've planted a few more rows of potatoes, just two to go now; which is relief because dragging those trenches exercises the stomach muscles like little else.

I've started clearing the concrete rimmed borders of the herb patch to be. Previously planted up with Leylandii conifers which we removed as a priority as soon as we arrived they have become overgrown with brambles and noxious weeds. As I clear I shall be planting other strong growers in their place. The solid boundaries may help keep these things under control.

Today I dug a little bit more of the back garden and I'll have to keep at that this week or it's going to bake hard in all this sunshine and become impossible. Seeds planted were salsify and carrot with a sprinkle of wild poppy under the apple tree. So much more to do.


Monday 4 April 2011

Deheading daffodils


I have a sneaking suspicion that most of my regular readers also stop by on my flickr stream from time to time but I didn't think anyone should miss this spectacular sunset from a few evenings ago. I promise not to become a sunset bore but actually the west is the only horizon around the place that isn't artificially raised by the height of the beech trees in the forest so it's natural to concentrate in that direction a bit.

In the last couple of days I've dug by hand (with a spade, natch!) about a third of the back garden bed. The soil is in wonderful friable condition and full of worms. I'm trying to train myself to bang the spadefuls of soil with the back of the blade to break them up, since it's probably easier for a worm to recover from a bang on the head than from being decapitated. Despite what you might have learnt at school most worms do die if they're cut in half. The tails never regenerate and the heads will only survive if enough of their vital internals remain attached. So that's something else to feel guilty about. Still there are plenty there and with the cats despatching moles whenever they can I feel there's a bit of symbiosis in our mutual relationships.

Planted today three more rows of potatoes, this time some more BF15, the Myatt's Ashleaf and some of the International Kidney. I have eight more rows to do but the weather is set fair for the week so that should be possible. Then I went to weed the asparagus patch and I'm pleased to report several more plants than I thought have survived the winter so there are about 16 in total. Not all very vigorous but at least they're there and if given enough tender loving care should continue to build up strength until we can harvest them.

The peas and beans are just showing above soil but none of the pumpkins have germinated yet. More swallows have arrived and two at least seem to be nesting in the old bakehouse.

Toad Hall is gaining in magnificence. I'll keep adding stones to the stately pile as it will help keep the occupant cool in the summer sun. Trouble is, I'm not sure if anyone's moved in yet.

toad hall

Friday 1 April 2011

It's in the trees

apple pear blossom
Blossom against a blue, blue sky

After a couple of miserable drizzly days the sun came back. The progression of blossoms continues, the plums and sloes are on their way out now and it's the turn of the pears. This is the apple-pear behind the old cider house, the pears are hard and not very sweet but shaped much more like an apple or an oriental pear than the usual French or British pears. I suspect conditions aren't quite right for it in Normandy as I can't believe they were planted in the expectation they'd be quite as tasteless as they are.

Contrail noughts and crosses

Despite being far enough away from everyone else to imagine ourselves back in another century, sometimes it's hard to ignore the modern world all around us. It's just an ordinary Friday afternoon, no particular holiday period or international emergency, and this is the regular traffic of jet planes from Paris, America, the UK and further still crossing the skies over the farm. Above is the view to the south west and below you can see the sky traffic from the south east. From morning to late at night, thousands of travellers pass high over us and never know we're here.

hearty choke
Globe artichokes look to heaven

In the garden today; I dug another strip to add to the plot in the back garden. Moving the covers disturbed a big toad, so I've built him a Hall of some magnificence. I hope he finds it and settles in. In the newly cleared land went some garlic potted up in the UK in February and the strawberry plants that were still alive. We're quite disappointed with the quality of the plants that we bought from Buckingham Nursery as half the strawberries appear to have been dead on delivery and it seems several of the raspberries aren't going to make it either. However, it was a very difficult season so perhaps it's not fair to be too harsh.

I repotted some more globe artichoke seedlings to add to these two in the picture. It's surprising they came through both the last very cold winters but I'm not complaining. In the main beds, spinach, lettuce and radishes have germinated, along with a lot of weeds that will need hoeing soon.

Now the tomatoes are out of the heated propagator there is space for the cucurbits. Two sorts of courgettes went in, White Trieste from Realseeds and some Long Green Bush, sold as marrows but perfectly fine taken when small. I wanted something stripy. Pumpkins were Big Max, essentially one of the sorts for carving. Whangapararoa Crown although I won't save seed from them this year to add to the breeding programme, just eat them. Kakai which is a hull-less variety for edible seed production. Vegetable Spaghetti, I've not grown these for years but if they don't get too big to cook they're quite fun for a few novelty meals. Sweet Dumpling which are a very suitable size for one or two people at a sitting and some ornamental gourds that were bought on a whim some years ago and have been languishing in the seed box ever since. I also put some Achocha in, the first time I've tried them. I'll start the pickling cucumbers in a couple of weeks time.