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Raindrops on tulips

Yet another snowy blog post

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Living and gardening in Ariège is never boring. After five years here I don’t feel that I understand what a ‘normal’ season is. I know that it snows in winter, spring is wet, summer is hot and everyone agrees that autumn is the best season. But beyond that broad brush there is little pattern. Perhaps I need another 20 years here, perhaps global warming is messing things up or maybe mountain weather really is unpredictable.

February certainly had the most prolonged period of cold and snow that we have experienced, the worst in 25 years according to my hairdresser. Our Propane gas bottles didn’t work from late evening until the sun had warmed them next morning, but a thermos flask and a bit of ingenuity with the wood stove supplied the essential early morning cuppa. The water butts (our only on-site water source) froze solid – and I do mean solid – so we had to import water from the village, where we also collect drinking water. I did try this method too:

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A lot of snow makes a very little water!

When the thaw started two of the butts split while in another butt I found this beautiful block of ice:

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But we had lots of sunny, if cold, days and eventually the temperatures rose and the snow melted. From -17°C suddenly we had +19° but even that hasn’t managed to clear the snow in the part of the courtyard garden that doesn’t get any sun. But, when you have a nice bottle of Chardonnay and no fridge, snow can come in handy:

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It has been so nice to get out into the garden and the greenhouse this week after nearly four weeks of cabin fever. The snow has done little damage that I can see.

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The crocuses are looking so cheerful, the emerging leaves of the daffodils are all a bit bent but they will doubtless sort themselves out. The peas have flopped a bit but the broad beans in the next bed are standing erect and firm. Several evergreens have a few branches with dead leaves on them but again nothing serious.

The witch hazel has suddenly burst into flower and smells – well what does it smell of? I’m not sure if I like it or not, but I make regular detours to pass and smell again.

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The worst damage is to the lawns and grass paths and is only indirectly due to the snow:

This is mole damage. They seem to tunnel at a particular depth and don’t distinguish between soil and snow, so when the ground is covered in snow they gouge our these grooves in the grass. It happens every year but this time it is really bad. I’m just glad I’m not in charge of lawns!

Another post-thaw find was this poor rhubarb lying on the ground.

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I had read somewhere that you should dig up a rhubarb, leave it overnight in the frost (I have no idea why) then plant it in the greenhouse for a really early crop. So I dug it up, left it to get frosted, forgot it for a while, then it disappeared from view under the snow for a month. After all that mistreatment you would think it would be dead, but no, there were tiny shoots showing. I apologised profusely to it and replanted it in lots of lovely manure in the greenhouse. After three days it looks like this:

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Which just goes to show that even terrible gardeners sometimes get better than they deserve.

And the weather forecast? It’s going to snow again tonight. Oh, joy.

Come walk with me in the winter sun

What defines the difference between a British winter and a Pyrenean winter for me is sunshine. Winter here will almost certainly be longer and colder, snow will be more frequent and deeper, but, while Britain can spend weeks under morale-sapping, dank, grey skies, we often enjoy long periods of sunshine. The days are short and the sun is low and weak but the sky is often a deep, vibrant blue that nourishes the spirit.

Of course we still have periods like the last ten days, the snow almost non-stop, the sky so low and so grey that it feels like living in a cave. But today the sky is clear once more and it is time to shake off the potting shed blues.

So, let’s wrap up warmly against the biting northerly wind and take a walk and some photographs. It is still hard going trudging the first 120 metres uphill through the deep snow of the garden, but once on the road it gets easier.

These first two photographs are looking towards the Col de Catchaudégué. I love the shadows in the first picture and the oversailing roof of the hay barn, a typical feature of the barns in our commune.

This field is a favourite of mine, particularly under snow. I like to imagine that I am skiing down from the col, past the first barn, arcing gracefully around the second barn, between the two trees, another turn, a little jump over the stream and a well-executed hockey stop before the wire fence. In my dreams!

Continuing along the road I hear voices from down the bank and see the local agriculteurs tending their sheep and horses. This is the harsh reality of life in the mountains for the locals, trudging across fields in all weathers to bring food to their beasts.

A little further on and another local man is clearing the snow, as he does every day. While the local council snow ploughs clear the main routes our local roads are cleared by a tractor with a snow plough attachment. We are lucky to have this service, we have friends living at a lower altitude than us who still cannot drive their uncleared road.

The driver very kindly slows down and moves over as far as he can to avoid covering me in snow, hitting the far bank in the process and having to reverse out. I forget how the ploughs tend to polish the snow and promptly fall over.

Turning round and heading home I get superb views of la chaîne, the mountain range. The contrast between the soft undulations of the hills and valleys and the angularity of the mountains is so beautiful and a photographer’s dream.

Almost home now. The track across the middle of this picture is our drive and the tree seemingly towering above the mountains is a large ash tree at the bottom of the drive. The ‘clouds’ above the mountains on the right is, in fact, snow being blown off the ridges by the wind.

One final trudge through the deep stuff and it is back home to a warm fire, a cup of green tea and a slice of carrot cake. I hope you enjoyed the walk. And the tree picture? I seem to be seeing bottoms again. This one reminds me of Yogi Bear.

Beating the laurels with a besom.

Birches in the Winter Interest garden

The snow continues to fall and the temperatures do likewise. The road is impassable despite daily scourings by a local farmer with a snow plough attachment on his tractor. His is the only vehicle we have heard in several days. A layer of ice under the snow has turned the road into a skating rink. It is hard to see how that will change until this cold weather lets up, which France Météo predicts will not be for another week. We are cosy in the potting shed, warmed by a wood burning stove and a large stock of wood. We have enough food to see us through, unlike the poor creatures on the bird table who don’t realise that they are tucking into the last of the seed and fat balls.

Top-hatted pot by the greenhouse

The garden looks delightful under its cloak of snow, covering the bits that never got tidied before winter struck. Several parts of the garden are separated by laurel hedging, some planted nearly five years ago, others only last spring. Their large evergreen leaves hold a lot of snow which in dumps like the current one cause the branches to bow down and sometimes to break. One poor plant a couple of years ago lost every branch right down to ground level. I replaced it and shoved the headless root into the nursery ‘just in case’. It is now a very healthy plant, nearly as tall as its replacement. Laurels are true survivors! But these breakages leave gaps in the hedge which take a while to fill and hedges are all about separating spaces. So, to avoid too much damage I knock the snow off before it gets too heavy.

Picture the scene: me in as many layers as I can manage, snow boots on feet, ski gloves on hands, beret pulled down over my ears, giving the laurels a jolly good thrashing with the besom. You could, of course, simply shake the branches, but, since snow is a) very cold and b) very wet, I prefer the ‘besom at arms length’ technique.

Young laurel weighed down with snow

What I have noticed this year is that the mature plants can probably look after themselves now, their branches are thick and strong and an occasional break is not going to compromise the entire plant; it is the younger ones that really need it.

I shall be quite sorry when I don’t have to do it any more, I enjoy watching the snow dropping down from branch to branch, having to jump back when I’ve been a bit too enthusiastic. It’s fun, a bit like a solitary snowball fight for gardeners!

I had to take a few photographs of course while I was out, snow is so photogenic, then it was back to the potting shed for tea and carrot and walnut cake.

Phlomis looking very pretty

Mother nature gives the hammock a snowy duvet

Winter has arrived in Ariège

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I have been trying for days to write a post about reducing the amount of plastic packing I acquire. This may be an important issue (it is to me) and there may be people who would like to read about it (or not) but it is not terribly exciting. It is boring me and I’m writing the thing.

So it is on the back burner for a day or two while I show you some nice pictures of snow and waffle on some more about sprouts and micro greens and … what’s that you say, tell us about the plastic?

I have little that is new to add to previous 52 Week Salad Challenge posts. My sprouting is most successful when I stick to mung beans, chick peas and alfalfa; my attempts this week at beetroot, broccoli and aduki beans have been a total failure, presumably due to old seed, although in the case of aduki beans I would say that frankly they are just red mung beans with attitude, which is to say I always have trouble with them, whatever I try to do. So I’ll stick to the Gillian-friendly mungs (which, strangely, are called soja in France).

My micro greens growing under the roof light are still underperforming quite spectacularly, apart from the dead ones. I am soaking some peas today which will be sown and added to the micro greens graveyard nursery tomorrow.

Winter seems to have arrived at last, due, according to France Météo, to cold winds from Japan, which makes a change from Siberia. It snowed all day yesterday, this morning the sky was clear and the temperature was -10°C, which is ‘flipping chilly’ in anyone’s book except the Siberians. As soon as the sun was up this morning I donned every bit of warm clothing I could find, grabbed my iPhone and took a few photographs of the garden. The one at the top is the kitchen terrace and beyond it the hill called Arp.

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This is part of the area we call the Winter Interest garden and it was living nicely up to its name this morning.

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Here in the Round Garden is a beautifully whimsical seat designed and built by Alec.

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The coppiced willows look superb against the blue sky, the wavy shadows on the snow give extra interest.

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These two pictures made me smile. The laurel leaves look like spoonsful of snow and the arm of the bench on the right – well I’ll leave that one to your imagination!

The Salad Challenge: you win some, you lose some

Last week, as part of the 52 Week Salad Challenge I sowed various seeds which I left under a Velux, since the potting shed (where I live, in case you haven’t read early posts) has no window sills and little spare space to store things. I thought the Velux would throw enough light onto the seed trays but clearly it doesn’t because the first seeds to germinate, probably celery, (label things, Gillian, you never remember which is which!) are now tiny seed leaves on very tall and floppy stems. What I forgot to take into account is that the Velux is north facing, with a tall old oak tree only ten metres away. So it’s available light is not good and the poor old seedlings had gone in search of more!

Bemoaning my leggy seedlings on Twitter I received this advice from Alys Fowler:

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For anyone not used to Twitter’s succinct style that is that I could try repotting the seedlings, burying their leggy stems below the new compost level or, alternatively, just adding more compost to the tray they were in. I would never have thought of doing that. Thank you, Alys.

I would like to say I tried it and it worked, but I didn’t. By then they were so leggy and floppy and the seed leaves were so tiny I was pretty certain I would never transplant them in one piece and I couldn’t add more compost because I had sown another variety of seeds in the other half of the container (another habit I really should break) and they hadn’t germinated yet. So, a failure on the celery front, but some great advice for another time. You win some, you lose some.

Today, however, saw a success. Lunch comprised hummus made with chickpeas that I had sprouted plus a salad of pea and broad bean shoots and a few shallot leaves, all picked from the plants over-wintering outside plus a few surviving mizuna leaves. Most winters these would not be growing in January and the mizuna would be long dead, but we have had nearly three weeks of clear blue skies and temperatures most days get close to double figures for a few hours at least.

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I was delighted with the hummus and preferred it to the usual way of using cooked peas. I blitzed the chickpeas in the blender, but they were still quite coarsely chopped. I can’t give you a recipe because hummus is one of those ‘a bit of this, a bit of that, taste it, adjust’ sort of things. Well, in my kitchen it is. But, since there is no cooking liquid to moisten it with, I probably added more olive oil and tahini than usual. The conversation at lunch went like this:

Alec: What exactly am I eating?
Me: Hummus
Alec: Then why does it have sweet corn in it?

I could see what he meant, instead of the usual chickpea mush, the chunky bits did look like rather anaemic sweet corn. I found the texture more interesting than usual and the flavour was certainly more intense. I usually add quite a lot of seasoning to liven it up, this time it didn’t seem to need it. I shall certainly make it this way from now on.

Now, what on earth are we going to eat next week?

Brussels are not the only sprouts

I have signed up for the 52 Week Salad Challenge over on the Veg Plotting blog. The idea is to grow or forage salad ingredients every week of the year. This has been on my ‘Must Do’ list ever since I arrived in France, but, while during the summer it is easy, my good intentions slide quickly away as the nights grow shorter and colder. So I welcome this as an opportunity to try new things and learn what other people are doing.

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If you want to read about the challenge you will find the first explanatory post here. You can also follow our progress on Twitter via the #saladchat hash tag.

My contribution so far to the challenge is to sow seeds of mixed salad leaves, spinach and celery. These are sitting on a shelf just under a Velux where it should be both bright and warm. In addition I have restarted sprouting, something I have done intermittently for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know about sprouting there is an excellent introduction to it here on the Veg Plotting blog.

Sprouting

I have tended to be rather conservative in my choice of seeds to sprout, using mainly chick peas, mung beans and alfalfa. Chick peas are probably the easiest of all to do, being ready to eat within 2 days. At this stage the shoots are tiny but, in my opinion, at their best. The taste is like pea pods. I also prefer mung beans when the shoots are tiny, not like the Chinese bean sprouts. The sprouts of the tiny-seeded alfalfa, in contrast, need to be much longer when harvested. These are the ones in the jar closest to the camera in this picture

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and they have been growing for three days. I will probably leave them for a further two days. My favourite way to serve them is this salad, which probably came from Rose Elliot’s ‘Not Just A Load Of Old Lentils’ (which, sadly, I no longer have):

Carrot and Alfalfa Sprout Salad

Mix together equal quantities of grated carrot and alfalfa sprouts. Make a vinaigrette using grape seed oil and orange juice, add a small amount of acacia honey, mix and pour over the salad.

The other jar in the picture contains fenugreek seeds, which is a new one for me. We ate some at lunch and I found them a little underwhelming. But I do have a cold so perhaps the flavour couldn’t get through. I shall be trying other new sprouts such as lentils, beetroot and broccoli in the coming weeks. Sprouting is the simplest way to put something fresh on your plate. They are quick to reach harvest and you don’t even have to get your hands dirty. Why not try it for yourself?

Happy New Year

What better time than New Year’s Eve to dust off a dormant blog and get started again, the day when we close the door on one year and open another onto a fresh, clean landscape full of possibilities. Usually, about now I am making a long list of resolutions, which I mean to keep and know I will not.

Well, I am bored with that and bored too of quite a lot of things in my life. So, here are five resolutions that I intend to keep.

Five resolutions for 2012

1. I shall set myself realistic gardening targets and stick to them to the very best of my ability. And I shall enjoy my successes and accept my failures and (as someone once said) treat these two impostors just the same.

2. I shall start writing again. At the very least that means blogging regularly and keeping a diary. Beyond that who knows. Not me, yet.

3. By this time next year I shall speak Italian, if not fluently, then very well. I love Italy and the Italian language. What is the point of a passion if you leave it to go cold?

4. I shall reduce the amount of non-recyclable packacking that passes through my hands. This, of course, means mostly plastic and I can see that it will mean changing many of my purchasing habits. I shall blog about it during the year.

5. I shall live the coming year as if it is my last. If at the end of 2012 I am still here I shall live 2013 the same way. As Tracy Chapman sang ‘ If not today, then when?’. I shall be 65 years old in a few days time. Time is running out and I have so much still to do.

So, there you have it, my 2012. I wish you all a very happy, peaceful new year and look forward to sharing mine with you through this blog.

And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time

In the first chapter of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh Christopher Robin and Pooh are climbing the stairs to bed. Christopher Robin is dragging Pooh behind him by one leg and on each rise Pooh bangs his head on the step below. Pooh is sure that there must be a better way of going upstairs and equally sure that he could work it out if only his head didn’t hurt so much.

Like poor old Pooh I too have been banging my head against something hard and unyielding, in my case the creation of a garden from a field. Just as Pooh does eventually get upstairs to bed, I am turning more and more of the field into very attractive and interesting garden, but, just like Pooh, at a price.

I have not truly enjoyed my gardening for more than a year. There have been good periods of course, evenings sat sipping kir with the heady perfume of nicotiana wrapping itself around us, the first flowers on a young lilac, the herb circle loud with the buzzing of bees, humming bird moths on the Verbena Bonariensis and leisurely lunches with friends. But always for me there was a background pressure, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the work required.

And always too there was the feeling that all that was needed was a bit more effort and a bit of luck – the game of if’s and maybe’s: if I hadn’t broken my wrist eighteen months ago, maybe this summer won’t be so dry, if the last two winters hadn’t been so harsh, if I can just get this area clear of weeds, etc, etc, etc. So I would get up each morning, after yet another bad night, more tired and more dispirited than the day before. Bumpity, bump, bump, bump.

Who was it said that you don’t solve problems by using the same thinking that you used to create them? Possibly Albert Einstein. But before you can do some new thinking you have to stop, step back and see the wood for the trees.

One morning a few weeks ago I woke exhausted, the French have the perfect word for it – épuisé – literally the well is dry. I could barely drag myself around the garden, much less do anything. I switched off from the whole topic and finally, several days later, I could think straight again.

And what I can now see is that the problem breaks down into two fundamental errors:

1. We have tried to do too much too soon.
2. Our gardening practices are inefficient and labour-intensive.

Apart from that we are fine!

I can see why this has happened. Before we moved to France we had spent several years living in a motorhome, saving hard to buy a piece if land. We had not had a garden for a long time and never anything of this size and we understandably got caught up in the excitement of creating something that was ours and very personal. As each new garden space was developed its neighbour started to yell ‘Me now’ in a hard-to-ignore voice.

In the past my houses had had establishd gardens when I bought them so this was the first garden that I had ever designed. The first garden but the second design. The first design was based on an incomplete survey and badly underestimated the slope of the land – it was unworkable and had to be scrapped. The second design, done in a tiny office on a horrible building site near Reading, works well and I am really proud of it.

The second error was poor gardening practice and I am not beating myself over the head about this either. As I said, we had only ever had small gardens and my interest in gardening is relatively new and what I know is largely based on a handfull of books and television programmes. We had decided not to use any chemicals on the Iand, yet I knew nothing about organic gardening practices.

The land around here is a mixture of pasture and woodland. I doubt if it has ever seen pesticides or herbicides and consequently is rich in plant species. We have wonderful wild orchids, cowslips, pulmonaria, scabious and cornflowers plus more troublesome yarrow, fat hen, dandelions, chickweed, grasses of course and lots of other ‘weeds’ whose names I don’t know. The weeds grow vigourously in our climate, thanks to an annual rainfall in excess of 1 metre, hot summers and warm autumns.

The first year our neighbours kindly gave us tons of horse manure, which was great apart from the millions of seeds of a plant that became known unaffectionately as The Purple Jobby which appeared everywhere we spread the manure. We spent many hours the next year digging it out. It threatened to overwhelm the grass in a newly sown lawn and The Womble removed every bit from 100 square metres – with a screwdriver! We won that particular battle, we rarely see The Purple Jobby now.

You simply cannot clear an area, rotivate it or dig it over and then leave it, yet that is what we did. Or we filled it with young plants and/or seeds and watched them being swamped by the weeds. And still we continued to make new gardens, still thinking that we could win the battle with just a bit more effort. Gradually I learnt about mulching and green manures and no-dig gardening, and we are starting to be more efficient, but it takes time when you are already on the back foot.

The biggest lesson I feel I have learnt is that you cannot fight nature. It has been at this game longer than us and it will win. You have to work with it. Just about the time I started to go into free-fall I heard about forest gardening, a very different approach which does just that – it works with nature. I am now in the process of learning about it and seeing how I can incorporate its ideas into the garden. For the first time in a year I feel very positive about what we can achieve here.

I am now taking a break from gardening for the summer, doing as little as possible simply to keep things ticking over. The garden will not look as good as it did last year, and I don’t mind that. I am giving myself the time to do other things, the time too to just sit in the garden and look at what we have achieved and what we will achieve in the future. I’ll restart in the autumn, rested, newly enthused and with a plan. I am determined that from now on we will do things at a manageable pace. And I am going to enjoy my lovely garden once more. What other reason is there to have one?

Notes:
• Pictures (for no particular reason) are of valerian, Corsican mint and Pogo in relaxed mood

• I borrowed the title for this post from an excellent song by Gerry Rafferty.

• A big thank you to Ikea in Toulouse for the use of their WIFI – a tad faster than my usual connection!

Courgette Jam

The courgette glut is here again, at least it is for most people. My first plants succumbed to the odd weather this year and the replacements are still tiny. The Womble, not a big fan of the courgette, considers this to be A Good Thing.

In response to joking references on Twitter to courgette jam as a possible use for the surplus, I can now reveal that the humble courgette can indeed be turned into jam. Strictly speaking it is marrows (courges in French) not courgettes which are used, but given that the French tend to call them courgettes even when they are so big you need a wheelbarrow to move them and given also that little courgettes can turn into thumping great marrows at the blink of an eye, courgette jam it is.

I came across its use originally in a French translation of an English book on preserves where I found a recipe for marrow marmalade, made with a mixture of oranges and marrow. It had a very pleasant, rather softer flavour and texture than 100% orange marmalade and I liked it. The Womble was less keen, finding it not tangy enough. Unlike normal marmalade it did need added pectin to get a good set since there is none in the marrow.

My next ‘courgette jam’ was my own invention: blackcurrent and marrow. Last year was the first year I had more than a handful of fruit on my young blackcurrent bushes but it still wasn’t enough to make many jars plus we both find blackcurrent jam a bit too powerful a flavour. The addition of marrow softened the flavour a bit and padded out the precious fruit. The result was very good indeed and I would certainly repeat it. Unlike the marmalade there was no need to add pectin, the blackcurrents had more than enough to carry the marrow.

I can’t give you a recipe since I didn’t write down the proportions I used but I don’t know that it really matters. If you want to try it just make up some of the fruit weight with marrow and add sugar in proportion to the total weight as you usually do. Obviously the more marrow the milder the taste. I cut the marrow into tiny cubes about the same size as the blackcurrents and cooked the fruits seperately until soft then combined them which gave me control over cooking time for each.

And there you have it – you really can make jam from courgettes. Give it a try or invent your own combination and bon appetit.