Easter Morning – Treasure, Lambs (Chocolate) And Seeds

I was up at the crack of dawn – well, OK, 7 o’clock but it felt like the crack of dawn – laying out the clues for the Ruadhri’s Easter Egg treasure hunt and Caiti’s Easter geocache trail. It’s our Easter tradition to make the kids work for their chocolate.

One of Ruadhri's clues

A cuckoo was calling and I caught a glimpse of it flying between trees.

A geocache for Caiti

There were some deer in Dog Leg Field which I saw and the cats saw, but Nessie the dog didn’t!

Unobservant dog in foreground, deer in background

Dog Leg is a huge field, currently with cereals in but we’re thinking of grassing it for next year.

Wendy and Voltaire tagged along too in case food was involved somewhere. They went on strike part of the way round.

Can has rest pliz? (I'm speaking Lolcat here btw)

Rors was soon up and completed his trail successfully, without any help at all. He demanded harder clues for next year! They weren’t that easy, but I learnt not to be too cryptic with our Benj. He’d get into such a sulk if he couldn’t work out a clue. So, Rors got his reward – possibly the only lamb we will see today. No. 27 is still holding out but her belly is practically dragging along the ground so surely it can’t be much longer now!

Easter chocolate lamb

I did Easter boxes for everyone this year, including Chris. He got a garden gnome for the polytunnel and coriander seeds in his.

Talking of seeds, we’ve found a good way to get seeds germinating. One lot of tomatoes and my anis (aniseed) and pepper seeds were staying soundly asleep, so we sprinkled some more onto damp tissue which we rolled up and put in a plastic bag in a warm spot – on top of the fridge just above the heat displacement thingy. Lo and behold, they’ve sprung into life.

Sprouting anis seeds

I’ve also been making some recycled seed pots out of toilet roll inners. Very easy. Cut five slits  a couple of cms long at roughly even intervals around one end and then tuck those in and you have a little pot. They tend to be a bit wobbly so you’ll need to put them in a container of some sort or tie them together with string for stability in the greenhouse. But once the seedling is growing well, dig a hole and shove them out as they are into the garden. The cardboard will soon rot away and you’re left with your healthy plant.

That's my homemade egg rack in the background, courtesy of Rors and Chris

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All that remains is to say is Happy Easter!

Rors and his Easter box of surprises





A Seedy Way Of Life

I have developed a seed habit. Now that we have the polytunnel with its raised beds, at long last we have the space and a suitable environment to get plants started. Up to now we’d fill every windowsill or other exposed flat surface in the house with seedtrays and collections of yogurt pots to grow them in. Invariably at least one lot would get knocked down and there’d be potting compost over computers or printers or books, and another lot shoved in a corner would get forgotten about … but no more. I can plant seeds to my heart’s content now. And Ruadhri’s. He announced not long ago that he’s going to be a naturalist when he grows up. I think he’ll be tending towards the botanical end of that specialty as he really does enjoy growing plants.

So if there’s a display of plant seeds in a shop somewhere, that’s where I’ll be. Today we hit Bricomarché for yet more copper piping and a hedgetrimmer – the old one literally fell apart last autumn. Oh yes, and large sacks of tenor allegro for our disappointingly non-reproductive sheep (so far …), and maize and basse cour (farmyard) mix for the carp. Chris was looking for something or other useful and boring, so I sidled off to the seeds.There was a good selection. Three or four varieties of pumpkins, tomatoes, haricots, beetroot, peas, lettuces and so on, and twelve varieties of radish. I kid you not. There were a dozen different sorts. They take their radishes very seriously here in France. Rors has them at least once a week at school, usually with butter and salt. I haven’t quite got into that, but I like a radish in a sandwich with ham or cheese. It would be fun to try all twelve sorts, but since a single pack contains about a zillion radish seeds, it could take a while to work through all of them!

Here’s what I bought today, each pack costing about a euro, apart from the sweetcorn which was a whopping fiver. And none of these are things I’d have dreamt of trying to grow in Ireland, apart perhaps from courgettes. But not courgettes like these – they’re top left in the photo. I got them because they were so peculiar looking. It was only when I got home I noticed it said that they ‘taste like artichokes’. Now, this is stange. Why would I want courgettes that taste like artichokes? Wouldn’t I just rather buy artichokes? If I want to grow courgettes, then presumably that’s because I like courgettes with their courgetty taste? Never mind, they’ll be fun to try. Melons, celeriac and gherkins – not only would I not have grown them in Ireland, I don’t think we ever ate them there. They were too luxurious.

Seed packets vary enormously in helpfulness. Some have long descriptions of the plant in question and how you should grow it, what you can do with afterwards and how you can become a better gardener. They’re the exception though. The norm seems to be a series of unintelligible pictures like these ones that I think are telling you how to plant the seeds, but a lot of the time have angry red crosses over them i.e. telling you how not to do things. Totally puzzling!

So the polytunnel is filling up with plants in the beds and recycled seedtrays on the potting table. I’m also using a wobbly set of plastic storage drawers as incubators and they’re working very well. My intention is to knit some reusable, appropriately shaped vegetable row markers but by the time I sit down in the evenings these days, I’m too tired to pick up my needles. There’s a lot going on outside. I’m making do with scribbled on stickers for now, not as classy but practical.

On Yer Bike!

At last the cycling season has started for us. We were a bit late this year. We’d meant to start a fortnight ago once the ice sheet had receded, but Benj coming home at the last minute for a short visit plunged us into chaos – very nice chaos though. And then last week we got swamped with broken down cars, trying to sort out the plumbing in the gîte and various other minor crises so the bikes didn’t get an airing. But at long last we’re back in the saddle.

I couldn’t find my cycling shorts anywhere. I have a vague memory that they fell apart towards the end of November. They are at least 20 years old and have had a lot of wear. So that explains my strange attire today. This cycling bib (I think that’s what the outfit is called) was the only suitable item I could find. It’s hotpants for cyclists basically! They’re not woman friendly since there’s the problem of knowing what to do with the straps at the front. Do you tuck them between boobs or loop them around the outside? Hmm. Quite a dilemma!

We didn’t go far, just round one of our shorter circuits since we had a few hours’ worth of tree lugging ahead of us, but it was brilliant. It was warm and sunny, the birds were singing, the roads were deserted, and it was the perfect first ride of the year.

It’s been a pretty perfect day all round really. We did our farm jobs first thing, nipped into Boussac to run some essential errands which involved getting red diesel for the tractor and ordering plaster board, which always means business. Then Rors and I got cracking in the polytunnel, planting mainly flower seeds today, while Chris carried on with repairs in the anglers’ shower room. After dinner we had our bike ride and then carried on with clearing away all the trees and branches we lopped off around the big lake last month. We used Rusty Deux the tractor today, loading the wood onto the hay spikes at the back. That’s a much quicker way of doing things. We finished up with a very satisfying bonfire.

Gigi our pseudo-Siamese cat with disastrously bad eyesight nearly had a completely perfect day. I don’t know when she’d managed to sneak past our usually vigilant defences and stash herself away at the back of the food cupboard where I keep our bread supply, but there she was. I spotted her just as we were about to lock up the house before going down to do our wood work. She’d have been one fat kitty by the time we got back if we hadn’t seen her!

And I must give Cynthia, our new Sussex hen, a mention. She’s out of the Eglu now (we keep all new poultry in there for a few days while they settle in) and pottering around. But not very far. She’s fixated on Rusty Deux and never ventures far from it! We call her the tractor chicken.

And to prove it was a good day I also got not one, but two free books through the post to review today. It’s a long time since I’ve had a dead tree book in my hands. I’m almost exclusively an ebook reader generally.  (The only downer of the day was not having any Internet for most of the day 🙁 which is why this post is a day late going up.)

And talking of books, I’ve finally fixed a launch date for my travel memoir Heads Above Water. It will be 17th April, the same day as Caiti’s 18th birthday, an auspicious day if ever there was one. So if any of my blogging buddies out there could be persuaded to host a guest blog from me in the second half of April to help with publicity, I’d be eternally grateful …

Guinea-Pig Gardeners of Les Fragnes

The gite garden has never been so well maintained as it has been this year – thanks to our guinea-pig gardeners! It wasn’t intentional. Back in the spring, the male guinea-pigs bust out of their run on their lawn and evaded capture for a few days. Once we were certain that the cats weren’t interested in them, we decided to leave them running loose, since the weather was warm and it meant less cage cleaning out, a very important consideration. And they’ve been there ever since. After a few weeks every single weed had gone from the garden. The only thing they won’t touch are dock leaves, and sometimes nettles, but all the grass, dandelions and various unidentified weeds that used to flourish there have been demolished and kept down. The pigs have moved out onto the lawn and are keeping it beautifully manicured!

We put the girls out into the run during the summer. Owing to our lawn being a bit on the bumpy side, thanks to the zillions of campagnole (vole) burrows beneath it, there are a few escapes as someone manages to squeeze under the wooden side of the pen. The gardening boys soon cotton on to the fact that female company is to be had, with the result of very sweet but worryingly inbred cutenesses like these latest arrivals!

That's not mum in the background but auntie/sister/cousin/granny ...

There’s one permanent slacker, though. Chocolate lives contentedly, if frustratedly, under the girls’ cages most of the time. He’s occasionally flushed out by Nessie but he ‘s soon back at his post. He’s not one for gardening, obviously!

We’ll round them up once it starts to get cold and move them into cosy hutches for the winter. They’ll have deserved a few months off for all their hard work.

Nuts and Little Pumpkins

I’ve already talked about walnuts and chestnuts in recent blogs. Suffice it to say that we’re still gathering walnuts like crazy and I’m spending about an hour a day cracking them. I’m leaving Chris in charge of the chestnuts.

So – two different sort of nuts today – hazelnuts and peanuts.

I noticed this afternoon that a couple of my small hazelnut trees were producing another flush of catkins and buds. I don’t think this is normal for this time of year. The trees are taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to produce more fruit.

I decided it was time to find out how my peanut crop has done. From the top the plants don’t look up to much. They were rather overtaken by thistles which thrive in our vegetable patch. We shall continue to battle against them though.

The first peanut plant I dug up had nothing to show, but here’s the second one.

A definite crop of peanuts, but they’re not mature. I shall leave my other four plants for another month or so before I harvest them. And next year I shall certainly grow a pot of peanuts in the polytunnel.

Our pumpkins are pathetic this year. There could be several reasons for that. 1 – the dry summer. 2 – the soil. Last year we grow them on an old llama poo compost heap and they did brilliant. This year we moved them to a new area and didn’t dig much manure in. 3 – the fact we grew them from seed we saved from last year’s pumpkins. However, they’re a lovely, bright orange which will bring some nice colour to Hallow’een, and anyway, smaller pumpkins are said to have a better flavour than larger ones. This year’s soup will be even tastier than last.

Maybe the kids will eat it this time round. For some strange reason, they’re not pumpkin soup fans …

(Apologies if you called by the blog yesterday and found it gone. Blue Host, server providers, claimed they were down for maintenance for a big chunk of the day.)

Polytunnel Progress

Chris has been beavering away on the polytunnel on and off for a few weeks, putting brackets and braces up, and getting rails and frames put together. Today we were ready to put the plastic over.  Chris first taped over any sharp bits with powertape, and over the aluminium framework itself with hotspot tape. That seemed a bit pointless, but it was in the directions so we did it. I usefully held the ladder! I’m good at holding things.

We spread out the huge bit of thick polythene on the field, and then man and woman handled it over the frame. It wasn’t as bad as we’d feared. We tugged and heaved it roughly into the right place. The polytunnel is in a lovely sunny spot so we were doing all this today in 30 degrees of roasting sunshine. But better than in rain and a strong wind! (On the subject of hot weather, our pool is up to 24 degrees and Rors and I having several swims a day again. It’s summer all over again.)

Chris battened the plastic onto the top of each door frame (there’s one each end). It was traumatic to make holes in it, having been so careful for so long to treat it really, really carefully to prevent any tears or punctures.

Then it was time to attach the plastic to the metal rails at the bottom of the frame with long some plastic clips. There were two sorts of these – U shaped ones and T shaped ones. It took a few puzzled moments and false starts before we sussed this out. But soon we were cracking on. Chris did the skilled labour while I held the plastic under tension. The sides were relatively straightforward, although the plastic clips took a fair bit of force to get into place correctly. However, the two door ends were more of a challenge. You’re left with a lot of excess plastic that has to be pleated neatly and battened into place on the door frames. My sewing background came in useful here and for once I could offer helpful advice, as well as helpfully hold things. We made our best stab at it. It’s not brilliant and we’re a bit disappointed that it’s actually meant to be as crude as that. But that’s what it says to do.

Finally Chris whacked the T shaped clips into the U shaped clips. I provided bracing from the inside of the polytunnel with my feet and had a sauna at the same time. It was boiling in there. We’ll be able to grow bananas in it. The aluminium frame was too hot to touch. I take back my earlier disparaging remarks about the hotspot insulating tape not being necessary!


DIY Seed Growing

A lot of our seed growing this year is going to be a very DIY affair. For a start, we collected a LOT of seeds last autumn. We gleaned apples, plums, pears, cherries and walnuts for eating from the trees along the roadsides. We also picked up conkers, sweet chestnuts and wild sweet peas to grow, and saved seeds from our biggest pumpkins.

I cleaned and dried them, and packaged them up in clearly labelled old envelopes – recycling and reusing in action! They seeds spent the winter in a mouse-proof container in the barn to vernalise them, so hopefully they’ll be keen to burst into life now that it’s spring.

Recycling appears again when growing the seeds. I reuse plastic containers of every size and shape. In particular, these large, croissant and pain au chocolat nasty plastic packaging boxes are brilliant as seed incubators. I use zillions of yogurt and other dessert pots too.

And we produce our own DIY compost. Our small black wormery produces lovely compost. This photo shows the top layer with the raw ingredients showing. The worms will process that into rich, smooth, peaty compost over a few months. Everything that rots can go into the wormery, apart from meat and citrus fruit. Dust, hair, paper, cigarette butts, coffee grounds – they’re all brilliant, as well as the usual food scraps.

I shall make a start on germinating my seeds tomorrow. I was going to wait for the polytunnel but it’s so sunny and warm at the moment, it’s a shame to waste the weather. We have plenty of wide windowsills so that’s where the seed nurseries will be going for the time being. Let’s hope my fingers will be green this year!



Electric Gardening

I often leaf through the some of the old magazines we inherited when we bought Les Fragnes. La Prosperité à la Campagne is one of my favourites. We have issues dating from 1932 and 1933.

In the July 1932 issue, I came across an article on electroculture – electric gardening basically! It looked very persuasive. The article explained how large metal aerials pick up magnetic and electric currents from the air and channel them into the soil where, by transforming the elements in the soil, they accelerate plant growth and development. Electroculture became popular in the 18th century, but the idea behind it goes back a long way. In the 9th and 10th centuries, people stuck metal poles in their fields, possibly as some kind of protection against lightning strikes. Better crop production was a lucky side-effect. Anyway, it developed from there, and had a lot of support in the past. In 1912 there was a huge conference about it at Reims, attended by Belgians, Hungarians, Russians and Mexicans, to name a few of the nationalities represented. The future of electroculture looked bright, so much so that fertiliser merchants were beginning to get worried. But for whatever reason, it didn’t take off to the extent anticipated.

I googled ‘electroculture’ and discovered that it is still practised today. There are companies that will supply you with everything you need to get going (such as www.agriculturecosmotellurique.org/). The ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos on that page are very impressive.

The main equipment is the aerial. Here’s a picture of one from the website – my magazines didn’t include any illustrations sadly:

Am I tempted? I think I’ll wait and see how my gardening with the moon turns out first …

Polytunnel Update

Look at my polytunnel now! It wasn’t even that windy! And we positioned the tunnel next to the barn for extra protection. We wired the tunnel framework to two very heavy iron bars. They held it down fine, but the flimsy metal framework sheared or bent at all the joints. Very disappointing indeed.

If you were thinking of buying  a polytunnel, then do go for a good, sturdy one. We got ours through ebay. We’ve started a dispute since clearly the thing isn’t fit for purpose. The vendor has replied saying that he never said it was windproof! He never said it wasn’t either. If he had, we wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole.

Maybe we should have erected it indoors…

Polytunnels and potatoes

We put our polytunnel up Monday afternoon. Given the number of bits of framework and the unhelpfulness of the instructions, we did it surprisingly quickly. We’ve chosen a south-facing spot behind the barn. It’s in the girls’ field (the ‘girls’ being our female llamas). They’re delighted. They had a very interesting time watching us grapple with poles and plastic. Llamas are so wonderfully inquisitive. They seem very pleased with the new addition to their field and inspect it every now and again. We’ll have to make sure we keep it closed, or they’ll be in like a shot.

We’ve started to organise the inside. I put some plants in straight away to benefit from this wonderful sunny weather we’re having at the moment, but they were just plonked on the floor. So yesterday we got to work constructing some workbenches from recycled building materials. I’ve had a potting session this afternoon – it’s starting to look a very purposeful polytunnel. We’ve taken the precaution of wiring the framework to two very heavy iron bars that came with the farm. We have no idea what their original purpose was, but we knew they’d come in handy one day and they have. It was worth falling over them for three years!

I put a thermometer in the tunnel. Yesterday it registered 35 degrees! Today, a cloudy, breezy day, it got up to a toasty 20 degrees, and already some long-dormant seeds Ruadhri and I planted ages ago are showing signs of life.

Our friends Corinne and Christophe promised us some bamboo cuttings a while ago. They were ready to pick up a few days’ ago. The ‘cuttings’ turned out to be large clumps of 7-foot-tall bamboo in about a dozen different varieties. Fantastic! We’ll be busy digging holes for a while. We’re watering them frantically as apparently bamboo needs a lot of water, about 20 litres a day, when it is first transplanted. I’m rather hoping it will rain soon.

The next gardening project will be raised beds. The vegetable patch has struggled the last couple of years. The soil is remarkably poor, except for where we’ve been putting llama manure. That’s good stuff! So raised beds seem the best way to go. We have plenty of wood, lots of space and a bottomless supply of manure – we just need to find the time and energy to get building!

Next Monday to Wednesday are root days in the lunar gardening calendar, so we’ll be getting the spuds in. Chris is wondering if it’s worth it since potatoes are 23 cents a kilo in the supermarket at the moment, but we’ve brought the seed potatoes so we might as well get them planted. And they do make nice chips!