Tag Archives: snow

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.

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The Salad Challenge – February’s progress

My original enthusiasm for the 52 Week Salad Challenge seems to have diminished a little, which is a shame. I have been distracted by the problems we have been experiencing with the snow and cold, but I think also I am frustrated at what feels like just tinkering with putting food on a plate rather than getting outside and ‘really’ growing it.

I have continued to experiment with sprouting other things than my staple chickpeas, mung beans and alfalfa. The big success has been Puy or green lentils, which taste very similar to mung beans and grow as quickly. They have an advantage over mung in that they do not shed their outer skin. This skin tastes papery and can distract from the overall satisfaction of eating mung sprouts and I often remove as many as I can. To have an easily available alternative without that inconvenience is good news.

I have also tried quinoa (pronounced keenwa), which, for anyone who is not familiar with it, is a grain of the amaranthus family. It is popular with people with a gluten intolerance since it contains no gluten. I was warned to rinse them very well because the outer casing is high in saponins, which are a mild gastrointestinal irritant. What I noticed was that the water I rinsed them in was cloudy. The grains were quick to germinate but then reached about one cm in length and stopped growing. Sprouts need either to come from large seeds like chickpeas or to grow a good sized sprout (alfalfa, for example), otherwise they are a pretty disappointing mouthful. Quinoa failed that test and, worse still, was virtually tasteless. I left them several days hoping for more growth that just didn’t come, during which time the cloudiness of the rinsing water worsened, which put me off them completely. I tried growing them twice and threw them away both times.

The only other observation I have to make on sprouts is a failure of one batch of chickpeas. I have known chickpeas to start sprouting while I am still soaking them. They are the sprinters of the sprouting world. But during the recent very cold weather one batch barely sprouted at all. Other people on the salad challenge noted the same thing although we disagreed as to whether it was the cold or the low light levels that caused it. I am pretty convinced that in my case it was primarily lack of light, a second batch, started when it was still as cold but the days were sunny, germinated well.

Coriander micro greens

I had a bit of a disaster with my first attempt at micro greens (see here) but I tried again. This time I grew peas, coriander and parsley and instead of leaving them under the north-facing roof light each day I brought them into the kitchen in as much light as I could find. In a small kitchen this is, frankly, a nuisance. The results have certainly been better, the pea sprouts grew well and were not at all leggy, the coriander germinated very well, albeit a little leggy. Mark Diacono (@markdoc) of Otter Farm suggests eating the coriander as soon as the seed leaves have formed for the most intense flavour. He is not wrong – the flavour is immense. The pea sprouts have a wonderful ‘mange-tout in a leaf’ taste. Disappointingly, having pick the tops from the peas, rather than regrowing about half of them keeled over and died.

The parsley, which I am not treating just as a micro green, I shall grow on some of the better seedlings, germinated very well but were, once again, horrendously leggy. With these I followed the advice of Alys Fowler (@alysfowler) on Twitter and spread more compost on top to cover the long spindly stems. I damaged one or two in the process but the rest really responded well and are now growing slowly but strongly. What excellent advice.

One comment I would make about micro greens is that the amount you can harvest from one tray is very small, you still need fully grown salad leaves to make a proper sized plateful. This just makes me all the more determined to over-winter salads successfully this year.

My apologies for the paucity of photographs, I have definitely been distracted by this stuff:

The potager is under here somewhere

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!

Snow in May – surveying the damage

The snow disappeared last week faster than it had arrived. In the space of four hours it was gone, leaving sodden ground, a rivulet running down the drive and the garden a depressing mess. But, to put my little drama in perspective , the weight of snow plus a gusty wind had brought down a large number of trees and electricity cables; a friend who lives at a higher altitude than us, at the end of a forest track, was unable to get out until the Womble arrived with trusty chainsaw and cleared the trees fallen across his track; another friend lost a large magnolia tree which spilt from top to bottom under the weight of snow. It was the worst May snow experienced here for 20 years.

The depth of snow which fell last week, about ten inches, is not unusual, we had far more than that during the winter and it stayed on the ground for much longer. Fallen branches and trees are a regular occurrence, but damage to the garden is not. The difference this time was that the plants were not dormant as in winter, in fact the unusually high temperatures in April meant that there was more growth than normal, the lupins, for example, already had flower heads forming. This made the plants more vulnerable. In addition the snow was very wet because the temperature was hovering around zero and this seemed to weigh the plants down badly.

So having first ranted then cheered myself up with a little ditty it was time to take stock. The good news was that nothing was dead. On first sight that seemed to be the only good news – it was a mess, a very flat mess. The worst hit were those things with hollow stems or plenty of soft foliage. Lupins, sedums and nepeta in particular looked dreadful and the garden is full of all three. The nepeta was absolutely flat on the ground, my gardener’s eye may have been horrified but the photographer’s eye, looking straight down, found it strangely beautiful.

Poor Dicentra spectabilis got her second shock of the week. Only a few days after learning she is now to be known by one of the ugliest horticultural names –Lamprocapnos spectabilis – this happens to her:

Dicentra no more and not quite so spectabilis now either.

In the orchard the only damage was to one of the pear trees, probably Poire William (lost label, again) which lost the only branch that had blossom on it. In truth its shape was poor due to the wind and my poor pruning so I cut the only other long branch off and it looks better for it. In the soft fruit area the current bushes had been knocked flat but were already starting to spring back. The raspberries were less lucky, probably 30% of the stems were snapped in half. Annoying, but both strawberries and raspberries fruit twice here, so we will probably just have less early fruit and more late.

In tbe central part of the Herb Circle are three young willow trees, grown from whips given to me three years ago. They are now nearly four metres tall but the trunks are still thin. The snow bent them over until their tips touched the ground. We expected them to spring back, but they didn’t. They are now pulled back into position by ropes, which we will release in a few days by which time they will hopefully be able to hold themselves up.

It is now several days since the snow disappeared and the damaged plants are showing an ability to bounce back that I didn’t expect. The nepeta started very quickly to turn its shoots upwards again, but only around the edges so that it formed a coronet rather than a mound. I have cut it back and must wait for it to regrow. The lupins recovery is mixed, some are still a mess,

others have grown so much new leaf that you can barely see there had been a problem.

The plant that surprised me the most was the sedums, whose stems are clearly much sturdier than they look. They have gone from this:

To this:

In conclusion, what have I learnt? That the weather will always throw rocks under the gardener’s feet and that the plants have a greater resilience than I have. Or put more simply: Don’t Panic.

Incidentally, while all of this was going on my apricots continued to grow and the kiwi has set its first ever fruit. Don’t you just love being a gardener.
🙂

Snow in May – a little ditty

The sun is out, the snow is starting to melt and I am feeling slightly calmer. So here is a little ditty based optimistically and possibly a little prematurely on the final verse of Allan Sherman’s song ‘Camp Grenada’:

Wait a minute,
Snow is going,
Plants are living,
Plants are growing,
Making new shoots
Without my aid,
Blogosphere chums
Kindly disregard that tirade.

NB. If you don’t know the song you will find it on Last.fm on this link (I hope) – http://tiny.cc/rmvo9

No! No! No more snow!

Not so much a blog post as a tirade. I have tried to write a rational, reasonable post about recent weather, but, since the weather is being neither rational nor reasonable, why should I be? Thanks also to the weather, there will be no photographs (see note 1 below). If you don’t like rants I suggest you leave now.

Q1: Have I worked in the garden nearly all day, nearly every day for nearly five weeks without a complaint?
A1: Yes, yes, yes … and no.

Q2: Have I cleared all the weeds from Wisley (see note 2)?
A2: Indeed you have.

Q3: Did I split the phlomis into lots of bits and plant it in drifts in the aforementioned Wisley and did it look a treat?
A3: Yes and yes … and yes.

Q4: Did I move loads of lupins from the nursery, even though they were getting a bit big, to self-same Wisley, without killing a single one?
A4: You did indeed, O Wondrous One, although that one on the right doesn’t look too happy.

Q5: Were the honesty, astilbe, verbena bonariensis (AKA as Argentina by The Womble), verbascum, clematis Ernest Markham, flag irises, aquilegia and two rose bushes that I planted growing well or were they not?
A5: Get to the point, woman!

Q6: Did I not drag wheelbarrowsful of manure from the orchard track to give them a good start?
A6: It was only just the other side of the hedge, but yes you did.

Q7: And did I not plant innumerable artemesia babies in drifts throughout the Herb Circle (see Note 3)?
A7: Yup.

Q8: … And water them every evening for days and days and …
A8: Yes!!!

Q9: Which reminds me: didn’t I carry water from the water butt, all through the herb circle and up those steps to Wisley umpteen times for the new plants?
A9: S’pose so. (yawns)

Q10: And didn’t I weed the southern sector of the Herb Circle to within an inch of its chickweedy life then tastefully plant up with swathes of artemesia, solidago, bouillon blanc (verbascum), saponaria, bronze fennel, nepeta, angeli…..
A10: You did, you did, you did. It all looks lovely. What IS your point?

Rant 1: My point, Sir, is that, while I was doing all this work, the weather was getting hotter and hotter and drier and drier and the plants were growing faster and faster in the sun and drooping faster and faster in the drought and the water butts were getting emptier and emptier and it was only blasted April, for crying out loud!

Q11: And do you know what happened then?
A11: Earthquake? Volcanic ash cloud? You broke a nail polishing your halo?

Rant 2: Watch it, Smarty Pants! What happened next was – it snowed. It’s May and it snowed! Ten inches of the horrible stuff. I did all that work in Wisley and the herb circle, and bits in the kitchen terrace, not to mention the potager and all those strawberry plants I transplanted. I’ve got asparagus freezing their tips off, I had lilac blossom for the very first time, my very first apricots just forming, pears ditto, Victoria and Quetsche d’Alsace plums likewise, I have a greenhouse full of plants bursting to be planted. I could go on …
Rantee: (aside) I thought you were.
Ranter: It is just so unfair.
Rantee: No-one …
Ranter: Do not tell me that no-one said life was going to be fair. I know that. I know snow is an insulator. I know most things will be fine, next year if not this year. I know that by July I won’t be able to tell the difference….
Rantee: That’s good …
Ranter: SHUT UP! This is MY blog, MY garden, MY rant and it’s NOT BLOODY FAIR!

End of rant. You can all come out from behind the sofa now.

Epilogue:
Ranter: That was quite cathartic.
Rantee: You’ve gone a funny colour.
Ranter: Put the kettle on, there’s a love.
Rantee: There’s some of those custard creams left that Jane sent you, the ones she calls ‘those awful biscuits’.
Ranter: She’s Irish, she doesn’t understand these things.
Rantee: Here’s your tea.
Ranter: Aaa…rrr…hhh.

Notes:
1. Thanks to the dreadful weather the phone reception is awful and I can’t upload photos.
2. Wisley is an 18m by 12m rectangular garden inspired by, but unfortunately looking nothing like, the long walk at RHS Wisley, the one that goes up the hill to the statue. In reality it is a lawn surrounded by herbaceous borders, but it does look very pretty in summer when it overflows with colour.
3. The Herb Circle is 16m in diameter, comprising a 6m inner circle, a circular path and an outer ring. It is predominantly herbs, although I do cheat a bit occasionally.

4. Please note that no ear-drums were perforated in the making of this blog.

Wordless Wednesday: New dawn, new snow 31 March 2010