West windbreak early evening in April

Permaculture windbreak westThis is an update on how the windbreak I’ve planted under the oaks looks now that the trees have lost most of their leaves.
This is looking south-east from the terrace, the photo is a bit dull but it looks very fresh and quite colourful in real life and it will soon be full of noisy little birds looking for somewhere to nest. The Photinia X Fraseri Red Robin is a bit of a cliché as it’s now used everywhere for hedging but it’s an amazingly easy plant and I’m lucky to have the space to let this grow into a huge shrub. The Japanese honeysuckle Lonicera japonica is quite invasive but it works here too and the birds love and I do too for its amazing perfume. The large shrub on the right is also a honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima and as its name suggests, it smells glorious for a long time (Depending on the weather) in late January and February.
I like taking shots like this because  I can easily see now where I should be adding a few more evergreen shrubs here and there to make sure that the wind is slowed down before it arrives at the west door of the house.

Seed saving and two of my favourite annual climbers

Seeds of the annual climber Cardiospermum halicacabum or Love in a Puff or Balloon VineThis is exactly the right time to collect seeds from your favourite plants from your own or other people’s gardens. That’s what I’ve been doing a lot of this week.

Aren’t these big seeds with a little heart really sweet? They’re from a lovely annual climber with an interesting name, Cardiospermum halicacabum (Sometimes called Love in a Puff or Balloon Vine).

I got my original seeds a couple of years ago from some friends who run Rose Cottage Plants. I planted four which did really well and since then I’ve gathered the best seeds to give away, to plant and to save.

climber Cardiospermum halicacabum or Love in a Puff or Balloon VineThe plant climbs to about two metres, gives a light feathery shade and the tiny white flowers produce green seed cages. I grow them in various spots around the garden especially where a dark background can show them off to their best advantage. It’s classed as a noxious weed in some parts of the United States of America but here in France the plant self seeds rarely and is very easy to keep under control.

As well as being pretty, this plant’s useful because it’s leaves are edible and I often nip off a few to add to salads and use them to decorate dishes – in the hope that the more varied our diet is, the better our bodies will be able to look after themselves. Here are some of the medicinal uses of the plant.

The whole plant is diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, laxative, refrigerant, rubefacient, stomachic and sudorific. It is used in the treatment of rheumatism, nervous diseases, stiffness of the limbs and snakebite. The leaves are rubefacient, they are applied as a poultice in the treatment of rheumatism. A tea made from them is used in the treatment of itchy skin. Salted leaves are used as a poultice on swellings. The leaf juice has been used as a treatment for earache. The root is diaphoretic, diuretic, emmenagogue, laxative and rubefacient. It is occasionally used in the treatment of rheumatism, lumbago and nervous diseases.

For more information on growing and using this plant see the Plants For A Future database.

Cheeky little Black-eyed Susan seedsAnother climbing plant which has a fascinating, cheeky little seed is the Black Eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata). It’s normally grown as an annual in northern climes but it’s a perennial native to tropical Africa where it can grow up to 20 feet.

With regular watering, the plant grows very fast in France. If it’s well supported it can climb up to two metres and one plant can easily cover a square metre, so it’s useful for quick cover. It flowers from June until the first frosts and I’ve used it for an effective screen to hide the water butts in front of our chicken shed.

The Thunbergia is also available in white and the beautiful Blushing Susie – a lovely pinky/orange colour but I’ve found that the yellow is much more vigorous and produces flowers more profusely and for much longer than the white and orange varieties.

There’s a lot more information about this plant in THIS African plant site. Where I got this information :

Medicinally it is used for skin problems, cellulitis, back and joint pains, eye inflammation, piles and rectal cancer. Gall sickness and some ear problems in cattle are also treated with this plant.

NB. Some people can get contact dermatitis from it.

Click HERE if you’d like to see a slideshow of the Black Eyed Susan growing on the screen throughout the year.

The tomato blight is under control !

Sweet peppers and tomatoesWe’ve been lucky – either the hot weather or the Bordeaux mix has stopped the blight from taking hold and we’re getting good crops of tomatoes from the plot. The capsicums and aubergines are doing well too and I’ve lifted my onions. So as well as eating lovely fresh salads and tasty Provençal dishes, every week we’ve enough veg to store in sterilised jars for the winter.

Ratatouille is often my choice because it’s quick and easy. The smell and taste of it bottled is almost as good as freshly made and it’s good for couscous, adding to a stew or to eat just on it’s own. I simply stir fry all the ingredients in batches then put them together in a huge pan and reduce the water content by simmering then put them into Kilner or Le Parfait jars and sterilise them for 30 minutes.

Rocket stove for cooking and water heatingAt this time of the year we clear out the freezer. The ice melts quickly and the freezer dries properly ready to be filled again with our own meat and winter game. I use up all last year’s meat to mix with the summer veg to make stews and curries and this week I’ve made a few batches of bolognaise sauce.

Reducing tomatoes and the long slow cooking needed to make a really good bolognaise sauce takes a lot of time and a lot of gas so we rigged up a cooking plate on the rocket stove with a simple chimney leading the flames towards our back boiler in the fireplace so while we’re cooking we also get hot water.

We normally use tree branches as fuel but at the moment, we’ve thousands of light, clean, dry corn cobs lying outside. (We grow a couple of hectares a year for animal feed.).

A dozen pots of Bolognaise sauce sterilised ready for the cellarWe’ve been using them in the rocket stove with really good results. With one bucket of cobs we slowly reduced 7 kilos of tomatoes (four hours) and now there’s enough water for a bath !

I usually to make a dozen or so jars a week of garden veg in August and September because there’s not an awful lot to do outside and it’s hot here in August !. So we can have “ready meals” two or three times a week throughout the year without having to buy veg or spend too much time cooking – which suits me just fine !

Harvesting and storing Stevia


Pinching out SteviaIan and Luis have just reminded me that I haven’t mentioned in my Stevia posts how to save the leaves for winter use. Stevia leaves can be used fresh, or dried and saved like any other herb such as one of my favourite teas Lemon Verbena (in French Verveine citronnelle).

To harvest Stevia, you can simply cut the complete branch and hang it up upside down somewhere dry and airy and within a week or so the leaves will be ready to take off the plant.

I find that method a bit messy because the leaves can get dusty and hanging herbs seem to be favourite spots for spiders to spin their webs, so I prefer to cut off a small branch now and then and remove the leaves one by one at their base with my fingernails.

Pinching out the plant in the growing season will make it bushier as two new shoots will develop at each side of the growing point. You can then use the rest of the stalk to make a cutting to pass on to someone else. Towards the end of the growing season cut down the whole plant in the same way to prepare it for overwintering.

Dryin SteviaOnce you’ve a small batch of leaves, put them into an open paper bag and hang the bag up in a basket somewhere dry and airy. From time to time – about every three or four days to begin with – shake and tumble the leaves to make sure that they’re drying evenly. If you’ve forgotten all about it and the leaves show any signs of going mouldy, throw them away.

When the leaves are completely dry they’ll be crisp and can easily be crushed by hand or ground into a fine green powder. You can use a fine mesh sieve to separate the leaf stalks if you prefer. Once you’re Stevia’s ready it can be stored in small airtight jars. Be careful not to use too much – a tiny pinch of the powder goes a very long way !

Taking cuttings, growing, harvesting and saving Stevia isn’t complicated in small quantities and for a household, just one well-grown pot plant contains a huge quantity of sweetener. It’s no wonder then, that the sugar industry with their “Roundup ready” Sugar Beet and “Almost Roundup Ready” Cane sugar is nervous about the “safety” of Stevia – despite the fact that the controversial sweetener Aspartume seems perfectly acceptable for licensing as a food additive.

Lots of different kinds of food taste good naturally and there’s no real need to add anything – but a fresh tomato with a bit of salt or new potatoes with freshly ground black pepper are real treats and adding some honey or Stevia to a cake or a rhubarb tart is a delightful ways of using nature’s bounty to the full.

The best conditions for Stevia cuttings

Stevia cuttings rooted in waterI’ve been experimenting with Stevia cuttings, using different mediums, taking them at different times of the year and at different phases of the moon. I must have taken over 100 cuttings over the past couple of years and the very best results I’ve ever had have been in rainwater, in shade, outside, in August and September.

After taking the cutting of about 12cms (4 or 5 inches) remove the bottom leaves for drying then put them immediately into water. Mist them from time to time.

This is a photo of one of the seven of my latest batch of twelve cuttings which produced roots after only 14 days in water. The photo was taken on the day of the full moon on the 6th of August. The plant is now growing well in a pot and was last seen hitching a ride to the north of France…

More raised beds and the chicken shed is completely covered in perfumed climbers

We’re making more space for food growing – there are too many flowers in the veg plot !

The perfume from the Star Jasmine around the Chicken shed is really glorious and as there’s a bit of shade, it’s a nice place to work in the heat we’ve had this week.

At the moment, the wild honeysuckle is all over the place and the Foxgloves are in full flower. There are chicks everywhere and as you walk further down under the shade of the Chestnut trees, you can hear the pigs grunting, thinking that there’s sure to be something nice to eat on it’s way. They’ve eaten well this week – all the brambles and weeds have been thrown over to them. Their favourite munch so far is Milk Thistle aka Pig Leaf! I’ve cleared this patch, made an instant fence with hemp string and Honeysuckle and planted a few more courgettes. I had a few Rose cuttings and some Cannas and I’ve popped them in here too to give a bit of colour. The earth is lovely because I mulched last year and at the top we had a huge compost heap.

The new compost heap will be further up towards the house and little by little we’ll open up this little part of the wood without too much damage to the trees and insects.

“Compost Awareness Week” and making more raised beds

Hugelkultur CompostingDid you know that it’s “Compost Awareness week ? No, neither did I until someone in the GROWVEG forum posted about it.

We’ve got several different ways of making compost, some methods work quickly and some are incredibly slow. The slow way we have of making compost is by using all the organic “waste” materials we have when we first clear a patch of land, adding more roots, weeds, branches, twigs, brambles, sheep and goat daggings and dog and human hair.

I’ve just found out from a reader of this blog that this system is called Hugelkultur.

Twiggy compost heap rotting down after five years HugelkulturThe pile then gradually becomes a home for all the insects, snakes, lizards and other animals we’ve disturbed during the clearing and gives us somewhere handy to throw organic materials. We don’t have to burn our waste – we simply walk round it and in doing so shape the paths and add form to the garden.

Hugelkultur compostingAfter about a year we cover the top with used goat litter and leave it for a few weeks to settle down then we use the pile to grow easy vegetables like pumpkins and plant some climbing plants like Ipomea and Virginia Creeper to decorate the heap. We never disturb or move the heap except to throw more and more things on top of it and despite having thrown many square metres of organic matter on it it never seems to get any higher.

Raised bed made on Hugelkultur Compost heap surrounded by tree rootsOur oldest heap had started to sink and last year we decided to leave it to rot completely to make a new raised bed.

We were going to use chestnut poles as we’ve done almost everywhere else in the garden but we were clearing roots out of the pig park after the pigs had dug round them and it seemed a shame not to use them to make something nice. So Fabrice hauled them round one of the old compost heaps and we’ll use them to retain the earth for a raised bed. We also gathered up lots of stones and used those and the remaining branches to backfill the roots to improve drainage in the hope that they’ll last a bit longer.

I’ve started planting around the outside of them already and the chickens are still “digging” the middle bit for us and getting rid of all the grubs and insects.

Linden tree with Hugelkultur Compost bedWhen we cleared the little wood at the back of the house to make a garden, we decided to keep the well-shaped trees which were too beautiful to cut down. They give us a bit of shade and interest and provide nesting sites well out of the way of our cats and the birds don’t seem to mind our presence.

Under the trees, I grow raspberries and other shade loving plants and store cuttings for potting up and they do well in those conditions. There are a few Oaks and one beautiful Aspen Populus tremula, where the Collared Doves nest each year.

The Aspen’s roots go on for metres and send up new little trees every so often but I just work around them trying to keep the planting between the roots and the veg far enough away so that they don’t suffer too much. At the south of the tree we’ve had a compost heap which we’ve also made into a new raised bed this week so there will be loads more room this year for summer veg.

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