Tuesday 31 May 2011

In the garden yesterday

Green manure Phacelia flowering

Straight into the garden yesterday to get things done.

I started by scything down the green manure... this isn't best practice, I fully intended to turn it in as soon as it was verdant but the dry weather has messed a lot of things up and this was one of them. The ground was too dry and the plants too advanced on my return from away so this seemed like the best option. I've covered the plot with black plastic to encourage the scythed material to incorporate into the soil and not turn to hay. In a month (if there's rain) I'll take off the covers, turn the plot over and sow a second crop of manure for the autumn. Of course, as soon as I put the plastic down we had a drizzle of rain but it's hardly wetted the surface so it's not much loss.

The greenhouse has been sorted out a little. Most tomato plants are now residing on their substrate for ring culture - unfortunately the rings aren't here in time but I've sunk the biggish pots in and expect nature will find a way. The rings are on order and if I think I need to add them later I'll pop them over the tops of the plants and earth up around the stems. Tomatoes are obliging like that.

Finally managed to get some sweetcorn seed in B&Q on Saturday before I came back to France. I couldn't find any locally or in Italy, which surprised me a lot, although looking at the plots there, it's probably a bit late to start from their point of view. The corn was knee high already.

The variety, I forget which exactly, is an F1, not something I'd normally consider but given the lateness of the start is probably no bad thing. It's not like I'm growing any other sorts or saving for seed this year.

The soil is terribly dry. Luckily sweetcorn will germinate from a great depth, so I scraped holes until I could find a little moisture, about 15 cm. down and put two seeds in each hole, filling up with water. When the water soaked away I covered them over and watered again. Fingers crossed.

The black radish seed which I thought was dead has germinated, perhaps 30% but enough for the row, which is nice. I thinned the large rooted rose radishes and put the thinnings in my dinner. A few parsnips were up too. I'm not sure if they'll do, starting this late in the year but experience will tell.

The Babington leeks are making substantial heads, I should have bulbils to share this autumn. The Carlin peas are looking good but no flowers yet. Everything else is more or less still there and perhaps the drizzle in the last 24 hours will help. The forecast shows no more chance of rain until next Sunday.

Sunday 29 May 2011

What I did on my hols...

lake como

or, I went to Italy and all I got was this lousy Limoncello habit.

For my first properly foreign holiday in years, since France can hardly be counted as travel these days, I went to Lake Como with Paul. He was doing one of those boring academic conferences and I was swanning around sightseeing and enjoying the really rather pleasant weather.

I did quite a lot of cultural stuff interspersed with regular trips to the local supermarket to stock up on water and snacky things, also three bottles of Lagavulin malt whisky, (just don't ask). However I'm sure you don't want to see all the snaps of stuff I took so just enjoy the ducklings.

mama duck

On our last day, conferencing over, we headed for the hills or rather the mountains of Switzerland, just a hop and skip over the border. It was really rather splendid.

Although I had an intellectual understanding of alpine plants, because like everyone else I know what sort of thing grows in a rock garden, I was completely blown away by finding the plants in their natural habitat. We stopped halfway up the side of a mountain, just a pull off lay by where tourists stop for a sneaky pee and a smoke, and there were the plants.

alpine gentians

Like these gentians. I don't know how many expensive plants like this I've killed in my time, because I love gentians but here they were, growing profusely, trampled underfoot by picnickers, just doing what comes naturally. And along with them were another variety of gentian, Androsace alpina, sempervivums, alchemillas, campanulas, azaleas, pasque flowers (or at least the seed heads), alpine clovers and many others along with more mundane flowers like forget-me-nots and even some Good King Henry which surprised me a lot.

I was jumping from hillock to tussock to rocky outcrop like a mountain goat, exclaiming and pointing and just lost in wonder as Paul tried to take pictures (with a slightly inadequate camera for the job) of everything I was raving about.

As usual, it just proves the point that position is everything. Plants evolve for particular conditions and trying to entice them to grow in less congenial areas is doomed to failure eventually.

We continued our trip over the Passo della Novena at 2478 metres above sea level definitely the highest altitude I've ever been with my feet still on the ground. The views were amazing when we could see them through the clouds but the zig zag roads and terrifying plunges into nothingness just a little bit disconcerting for this traveller.

Then, after a whirlwind trip home when we nearly missed the plane to Heathrow followed by a tedious ferry journey overnight I got back to France today at about 11 a.m. to find the cats are naughty and everything in the garden has been well cared for by Alex and his partner Paul. The cats and I are very grateful.

alpine pass

Thursday 19 May 2011

Wild Life

Cream-spot Tiger Arctia villica

One of the blog posts that I keep swirling around in my head for a moment when I can get around to it is entitled House Safari. The idea is that I walk around the house taking pictures of all the wild things that have asserted their right to roam on the imposition that is my dwelling place and consequently share the space with me. It's surprising just how many different organisms are prepared to make a life in the human space.

The moth wanted to come in very much but was frustrated by the window. The slug below had no such problems, and I think must have made use of the cat flap for her ingress. When I found her she was half way up the glass door looking for the exit. I was pleased to help her on her way. Leopard slugs (Limax maximus) are omnivores and in the house she was probably cleaning up the door glass for me looking for other slugs (yes, there are some) and fungal growths but they can and do eat young plants. Even so, they are so much more attractive than the average slug it's hard to kill them, I took her to a place of safety in the bramble patch near the wood shed, well away from my vegetables.

leopard slug

The wheel barrow is on its last legs if such a thing is possible, so I thought I'd immortalise it on blogger. We bought it in Ireland years ago and it has an irritating slow leak in the tyre that has to be pumped up before each day's use but with the sentimentality of the tool user I'll be sorry to see it go.

irish workhorse

Still no rain. The French government have published maps of the areas of drought and the measures in place to help survive them. For the moment Normandy seems to be managing on a meta-scale but here on the ground it's a very sorry story. The early start is now lost as plants stubbornly refuse to grow in the dryness. Plants I've started indoors and planted out are still the same size as when they were placed, seeds have germinated but are barely hanging on.

I noticed today that the White Emergo runner beans are making an attempt to grow. Beetroot is germinating too but the parsnips aren't for the second time and the scorzonera is equally recalcitrant. The large rose radishes are up but the old black radish seed is obviously gone over which is a pity.

I've planted out half a dozen of the Carter's Polish beans and four of the Giant Purple. There is a tray of Riana's climbing bean to go in tomorrow as I'm frantically trying to get everything out of pots before I go away for a week. My catsitter will water the greenhouse for me but I can't expect him to manage a thousand baby plants at the same time.

Below the two sort of broad bean. On the left is the Ful and the right are the Martock. I sniffed the flowers for their magnificent scent (if you've never tried the perfume of broad beans flowers, you simply must, it's divine!) and think that the Ful smell slightly more attractively than the Martock but it's a close thing. There may even be some baby pods to harvest on my return.

ful (left) and martock (right) broad beans

Sunday 15 May 2011

First up

swift plant

Today, the 15th May 2011 I harvested the first new potatoes. They were planted on the 28th March making it 48 days from start to finish, just under 7 weeks. I wasn't really expecting anything for another three weeks although Swift is a wonderfully fast early potato, but there was a plant a bit too close to a pathway that was annoying me, so I thought I'd scrape down and see if it was time to move it, and it was.

I ate the last dish of the old stored crop from last year only a few days ago, the 6th, long keeping Swedish Mandel which weren't too bad at all. I don't think we've ever managed year round potatoes from the garden before, it's quite a triumph.

Swift - dug

The Swift plants are very short and don't seem to flower. I found a few buds on the plants but they were already aborting and falling off. I don't think this is because of the dry weather, I don't recall ever seeing them flower before. In a way this makes it harder to decide when to harvest as for most varieties waiting until they've flowered is a good rule of thumb. If we'd had just a touch more rain I think the smaller tubers would have bulked up too.

Of course, tiny yields are only to be expected with these earlies but that's o.k., by the time these 15 or so plants are finished, other potatoes will be ready for harvest.

I notice that the BF15 are well budded up and flowers have started to emerge so maybe I'll try some of those in a week or two.

first new spuds - swift

I ate these with a little oil and salt. They're not the best flavoured new potatoes ever, although I'm told by people who still buy them that the Jersey Royals of the last few years aren't a patch on what they used to be, but they're not a bad flavour and if you had to have a dish of potatoes ready by mid May, if the Queen was popping in for supper say, then these do very well.

Saturday 14 May 2011


the red eyed devil swallow of old Normandie

Possibly the best picture of a swallow I've ever taken, what I'd really like to capture is their swooping flights around the yard, chasing each other's tails and shrieking with swallow laughter while they do it. This monster is the one that likes to sit above us at breakfast, turning every meal into Russian roulette as we wait to see who is the lucky recipient of his gifts this time.

black locust

The black locust is flowering. It seems an unusual choice as a hedge plant here, particularly as it is alleged to be poisonous to horses but when I took this picture it was alive with the hum of bees. I'd like to plant a few nearer the house and there are some self set seedlings in the hedge but it's too late to move them this summer, I must try not to forget again in the autumn. Black locust makes a good honey apparently, if honey were vegan and we had hives.

Lots of housekeeping going on. I must tidy for the catsitter, finish up the current round of planting out, weed and above all water. Despite a few thundery showers last weekend there's still been no significant rain and as has become routine, none forecast until next week or maybe the following weekend. I try not to water more than once a week, it's exhausting and the water costs money and it's probably better to give a thoroughly good soaking now and again than dribbles frequently.

Tomatoes were potted on yesterday, leaving just 18 to find new homes for. They'll have to take their chances outdoors, perhaps I'll treat them very severely and stop them at one or two trusses. It's a management routine I've rarely tried to impose but seems appropriate under the circumstances.

The Foul (Ful) broad beans started to flower yesterday, one day before the Martock which have a flower open today. It is possible to distinguish between the plants when grown side by side, the Foul have slightly narrower leaftlets but otherwise they are very similar for height and habit. I had to pick one top from the Martock because of blackfly infestation but the plants seem largely healthy.

Deer, that devil deer probably, attacked the pumpkins a couple of days ago, nibbling off leaves and, more seriously, pulling the plants up as they did so. I think one or two plants have had it, but I've replanted the rest and hope for the best. There are now deer scarers in the form of old CDs strung up around the place. This is irritating me as they flash unexpectedly across the garden, I'm not sure what the deer make of them, with luck they're scared back into the woods but I expect they're just biding their time.

the lane

Wednesday 11 May 2011

A 10 day dash

first strawberry
The first strawberry of the season, Aromel, picked today

It seems that due to the kindness of a friend one of my more depressing problems has been solved and I will be able make a long planned trip to Italy at the end of the month. Hurrah, I have a new horizon and that provides the motivation to get things done.

Suddenly there are rather a lot of pressing tasks that need my attention. However, for today, just a few notes on what's been sown, or I shall forget.

Several oca plants were moved to the oca bed so that I could plant a row of beetroot according to the plan. Only three of the original row of scorzonera have come up so the row was weeded and some more seed popped in. Scorzonera is perennial so the variation in germination should make little difference, they are often left for two years to bulk up before harvesting.

The parsnips also failed. I've made a net for the achocha to climb up the back of the compost heap and set the plants out there instead. There is an end of row where I've tried again for a few parsnips, using home saved seed this time.

Another row of carrots was sown next to the first one. That first row has very poor germination but on the bright side, at least it won't need thinning.

Between the chard and the spinach (already starting to go to seed) two half rows of winter radish, rose and black. I know it's more usual to plant these for the autumn but since it looks like I'm going to be watering all summer I may as well give these a go since radish pickle is a staple in this house. Only trouble is the black radish seed is seven years old. Anyone know the viability times for radish?

Still to come, planting out (and netting) the cabbage seedlings, more salad vegetables, in particular orache and purslane, making the cucumber bed ready, more beans for drying, sweetcorn! I find I have no seed but may be able to pick something up in the supermarket tomorrow - Golden Bantam is the local amateur variety around here. The work never ends but stuff must get done.

And a protective spell needs to be cast against the Devil Deer of Old Normandie!


Monday 9 May 2011

Sometimes I wish...

that this was an emo blog, because just at the moment, I'm all about the emo and there's not a lot of room for anything or anyone else. But it's not, so here are some pictures of tomatoes. Badly positioned on the left is a picture of Latah, an American early bush tomato from Realseeds taken in 2009 and on the right Tondino di Manduria, a small Italian plum tomato from Kokopelli pictured in 2010. Today I've planted out a few plants of each of these, because I can. It will be interesting to find out which performs best under similar conditions. When I grew them previously I felt that neither variety offered much over my usual favourites the Salt Spring Sunrise but I think I may have damaged this year's Salt Spring by starving them in their pots. We'll see.

Now let's talk about wheat. A few years ago I bought a kilo of seed wheat from the mill at Anglesey Abbey. Foolishly I imagined that it would be a heritage variety, venerable and long stemmed, good for organic growing. I noted that the varietal name was on the packet and then, after eating a bit of it in salads (wheat berry salad is good) I put the rest away as seed for later. Some time passed, as it inevitably does, and it was nearly four years after my trip to the Abbey that I finally got around to deciding that maybe this year I'd give the wheat a trial. I knew I was late for planting winter wheat by about 5 months but I had a strategy planned.

Watermill gear

Not knowing anything about the variety, which is Hereward, I stuck a few grains in pots and waited to see if anything would germinate at all after such a long interval. Whilst I waited I thought I'd better research what I might be growing. Children, imagine my surprise when I found my 'heritage' variety was nothing of the sort. Hereward wheat is a premium high protein bread making grain, favoured by the big bakers and grown intensively up and down the country for big bucks.

The seed germinated. I studied best practice for its cultivation. It was not a pretty sight, a solid regime of spraying with fertilizers, fungicides and weedkillers is recommended for general use and I could find nothing for small scale or organic growers using it all. So not my sort of thing.

Anyway, I have 20 small pots of the stuff, so I'm going to carry on as I originally intended. The clumps will be planted out in a small bed, hand weeded and cut like lawn grass for the rest of the year. I'm hoping this will give it time to establish a strong well fed root system, then, if it survives the winter and I have little reason to imagine it will not, it can be allowed to complete its cycle next year. As a trial it's not really any worse than trying with the sort of grain I'd imagined I had. In the meantime, if anyone can recommend a source of some more appropriate wheat variety for the amateur corn farmer please leave a comment. I thank you.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Welcome to my life


This is a picture I didn't know I'd taken.

Yesterday I heard the first cuckoo here. Late, very late, but welcome. I thought that this year there might not be one at all, a little worrying and unnatural. Not that they're very nice birds I know, but the sound is so evocative of the season.


The Striped Bunch beans are looking good, pictured here on their first exposure to the wicked world. I'll have to keep an eye on them today because last night the weather broke and there was lightning, thunder and precious rain. Today may bring more of the same and these tender babies wouldn't like that one bit, even if it does make me dance naked around the yard with joy.


This pretty but rather ordinary cistus is a flower with history. I picked its first parent from a piece of civic planting in the Teville Gate arcade (is that even there any more?) and rooted it for my garden in Worthing, cuttings from that followed me to my first French house and from there to here. If we ever move on I shall want to take it with me again, even though it would be easier just to buy a new one from a shop. This plant has shared things with me that another plant has not.

dog rose

Planted two days ago, White Emergo runners beans straight into position, the new seed this time. The Salt Spring Sunrise tomatoes are planted out as well, looking rather starved and ill but some lovely thundery rain should help them perk up in no time. Yesterday, the Sweet Dumpling squash went into their bed on the compost heap in the back garden, I'm hoping they'll do much better than the Butternuts I usually grow in that position.

Amaranth and cucumbers are germinated but it looks like the Quinoa seed is dud. Maybe I didn't want to grow quinoa this year anyway.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Captain's Log

A very pretty caterpillar

Position unknown, crew disaffected, date immaterial really but it's at the bottom of the page.

Today we* did a bit of hoeing, gave up on the parsnips and blitzed the row to sow something else there, spent a bit of time locating oca in the bed assigned to them and noted how many much more healthy volunteers there were in the bed not assigned. Not quite sure what to do about that, move them or work around them. I can't bring myself to hoe them out, it just seems so wrong. Also hoed half the potatoes. Some rows rather sparse and pathetic, most significantly the Pink Fir Apples. I'm reluctant to suggest it but I think the seed potatoes were of poor quality. Even the home saved Arran Victory seem healthier.

Also planted out various flowers around the place, opium poppies in the veg. patch, weed mallow between the fruit bushes. NOTHING is growing, there still hasn't been any rain to speak of and there is NONE forecast for a week at the earliest.

Into the heated propagator went ridge cucumber seeds and some cuttings from the new lavenders and lemon verbena. I think the verbena will take, not so certain about the lavender.

In the greenhouse 46 tomato plants are jostling for position. They can't all stay there, it seems so cruel to throw them away. If it stays dry like this it might be worth trying them outside but I don't want to create a blight reservoir risk. On the other hand the tomatoes destined for outdoors are looking a bit weedy and starved. It might be better to chuck those and substitute the more tender ones BUT they are all cordon and I hate managing cordon tomatoes outdoors. Decisions, decisions.

*that's a Royal We by the way, since I am most definitely on my own for the foreseeable. Apart from cats and caterpillars that is.

And this caterpillar, I have no idea but it is rather pretty.

A very pretty caterpillar

Sunday 1 May 2011

Happy May Day

English May flowers in France

Happy May Day. Isn't time flying?

After nearly three weeks of having Paul here and even an extra visitor for a few days it's now back to just me and the cats. Today I'm feeling lonely.

The weather is neither one nor t'other, just grey, mild, dry with spits and spots of rain. We really could do with a good soaking downpour to get things growing again even if it would power the slugs and snails up.

Mixed results from the last bean sowing. The Striped Bunch are up and bouncy but the others aren't showing yet and I think the runner beans were too old. I have new seed but thought I'd try to use up some old stock from 2007. Seems this is not a good idea. Only four lupini and just two soy beans but I'm not too worried by this as they were never on the list as core crops this year.

I had a trip to the garden centre a couple of days ago, highlight of my life of course. Got some lavenders, herbs, a chilli plant, a lemon verbena to replace the one that succumbed to the winter and a scented leaved geranium. Years ago I had quite a collection of these but that was in the favourable microclimate of Worthing on Sea. Moving to the almost Midlands did for those and later attempts were thwarted by endemic whitefly that came in with the plants from the nursery. I think it's time to try again though, they are gently comforting plants that I enjoy very much and the completist in me likes the challenge of the collection.

The flowers the French favour for May