The self-seeded lettuce is ready to eat and the no-dig seed bed is ready to plant !

Self seeded lettuce ready to pickOur neighbour Robert gave me these lettuces and told me to let some self seed and I’d have early lettuce.
The commercial winter varieties I planted just haven’t grown at all but these ones been through frost, snow, hailstones and torrential rain and they’ve come up smiling and taste wonderful!

Alongside them is some Italian Parsley which is coming on well, and there was Coriander but it’s disappeared after a morning frost on Saturday. Behind, is my replacement patch of wild strawberries which has always grown there and I use it to re-plant where I think the strawberries will grow well or just to give away to friends.

Next to that bed is another cage that Fabrice put up for me yesterday. I normally just cover newly planted seeds with wire tents to protect them from the chickens but this little area was just asking to be cordoned off so he’s driven four or five posts in and put a chicken wire round and made me a little gate.

The ground in this little spot was used for pumpkins last year and was really well mulched – once when the pumpkins were planted and again just before the winter really started. The mulch has rotted down and the resulting earth is just beautiful, dark and crumbly and totally weed free thanks to the chickens.

I can’t wait to finish off the top of the new cage and start sowing seeds in that patch of earth but after our terrible experience of foot rot which spread through our flock of sheep and goats like wildfire I’ve had a very bad back.

After a visit to a chiropractor who seems to have cracked me all back into place, I have been ordered to do nothing for a while – which is very easy at the moment because I can hardly move ! I should be very careful over the next week or so as my back heals, so I’ll have time to devote to this rather neglected blog.

Protecting the vegetable plot from free range chickens

The weather’s getting better and we’ve had quite a few sunny, warm days. It may be because we’ve had more chickens than usual this winter or because there’s been very little growth of grass and weeds around the house
but the chickens have really pecked down every single thing that they can find to eat and the vegetable garden looks like the aftermath of an atomic attack !

If I don’t do something to protect the perennial vegetables and self seeded Parsley and Coriander coming through they’ll be destroyed, so covering everything has been the priority for the past few days. I can normally just lay a few sticks across the seedlings but the chickens aren’t finding much to eat elsewhere so they’re particularly determined and a light hand just won’t work.

To protect larger plants like Rhubarb and Artichokes I normally use old fruit boxes or make bamboo criss-cross frames but last year we cut down a lot of trees suffering from Horse Chestnut Canker and so this year we’ve loads of Chestnut whips growing from the stools. I decided to use them to make lots of plant supports and for weaving around raised beds and they’re perfect for making cages for protecting the new growth and certainly more aesthetically pleasing than old wooden boxes.

Our friend and lodger, Laetitia has started her new job just a few kilometres from here at Montagnac la Crempse just next to Villamblard. She’s hoping to start learning how to make chestnut furniture and garden supports with the association “Les Enfants du Pays de Beleyme” so she got a bit of practice at the weekend and gave me a hand into the bargain.

Update two weeks later….


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 !

Late Tomato blight strikes again this year

Green Beefheart Tomatoes, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

I’ve hardly commented on how the vegetable garden is doing this year but – apart from tomatoes – things are coming along nicely and we should have enough vegetables to eat fresh and to store to last us all year.

I say apart from tomatoes because although we’ve a had a few kilos of early tomatoes, I’ve noticed the dreaded late blight rear it’s ugly head and I’m hanging on in there hoping that the precautions I’m taking help to delay the onset of the disease just long enough for me to harvest our main crop.

Over the past couple of years we’ve had a problem with tomato blight, a fungal disease spread by spores in the atmosphere. The disease is highly contagious and although I’ve noticed that some varieties like Brandywine resist blight slightly longer all tomatoes succumb in the end and there is no cure for blight.

It’s so annoying because I plant a lot of tomatoes and really look forward to getting a good crop which we use almost every day for salads throughout the summer and have loads left over to purée into tomato sauce and add to ratatouille which I bottle and keep in the cellar for the winter.

Late blight is caused by Phytophthora infestans an oomycete or water mould. (Early blight, caused by Alternaria solani, is usually called “potato blight”.) Late blight was the major culprit in the devastating 1845 Irish and 1846 Highland potato famines.

The spread of the infection is most rapid during conditions of high moisture and moderate temperatures. It’s spread by the wind or by rain splashing the spores on to the plants. Once the blight really takes hold the leaves, stems and even the tomatoes themselves go brown and the whole plant withers and dies. It spreads rapidly, devastating a crop in a few days.

The first year I saw blight I took the brown leaves off and burned then – composting them spread the disease. That stopped it for a while and my early season tomatoes ripened well. Later into summer – with a rainy and cool August the bottom leaves of all the the plants curled and started to have brown mottled patches.

I don’t like putting anything on my plants so I decided to cut my losses and ripped them all up and burned them plus their wooden stakes in the fire and sterilised the metal electric fence posts to use again next year.

To try to prevent blight, I give my vegetables a very thick mulch to stop the earth splashing on them when it rains. I always water my tomatoes at ground level and never on the leaves. I plant tomatoes in full sun. This year we made a new raised bed using a hugelkultur bed and I decided to use it for growing tomatoes because almost all my existing garden has at some time or another had tomatoes on it and the new bed is tucked away behind trees and protected from the wind.

Last year for the first time I used Bordeaux mixture and it did help to delay the spread of the disease.

This year, I’ve sprayed the beautifully formed tomatoes once again hoping that they won’t take long to get to to the stage when they start to go even slightly red and I can pick them and ripen them indoors. The blue haze on the plant isn’t pretty and I have to forgo one of the garden’s treats of being able to take a perfect ripe warm tomato from a plant and pop it straight into my moth – but needs must.

Although Bordeaux mixture is deemed suitable for organic growers, if it’s used excessively (Hopefully once a year isn’t “excessive”!) the Copper, it’s principal ingredient, can lead to the destruction of beneficial organisms and cause an imbalance in the soil nutrients that probably reduce the ability of the organisms and the plants themselves to fight off disease naturally.

In that case, the truth of the saying “You are what you eat” leads me to believe that for the good of my own immune system, I should try to allow my vegetables to grow as naturally as possible and if they can’t grow without my interference then I should replace them with something else.

That’s very easy to say, but trying to replace tomatoes isn’t going to be easy and for the time being I’ll take my chances that nature will help me to restore the balance in the soil for the years to come.

Unbelievable colours of Autumn

The colour in the garden and in the woods around our fields is a real joy to behold at the moment. The main colour is from Virginia creeper which can spread where you don’t want it but when it’s in the trees and on the gloriette and the pergolas, it’s glorious.

I planted a Red Oak near the chicken shed three years ago. It’s never done well and I thought it was because of the nitrogen rich soil. We had to cut down a nearby Acacia because it was split in a storm and since that’s gone the Oak has really recovered and has now become a beautiful young tree which we can see from the terrace.

This jungle is my potager which is still bursting with things to gather, so I’m a bit busy getting things in and stored before the frost comes. The bottom of the garden is protected by trees and a hedge and feels warmer that up at the house. The weather’s still glorious and in this photo taken a few day ago it looks like high summer.

The borage is still seeding and growing and almost each rose is producing one or two spectacular flowers.

We’ve still got green peppers and chillis to get in, peas and beans and the celery I grew in the tent frame is really lovely and there’s lots of it. We had some tonight with a rabbit Fabrice shot – the second of the season. We still have courgettes and I grew lots of parsley this year, mostly the tasty Italian kind and it’s self-seeding everywhere.

I planted pumpkins for the pigs very late in the season after the potatoes and onions and they’re producing big healthy looking pumpkins which I have to keep training to go the way I want them to otherwise they send their roots down into the paths.

This is a lovely time of the year and it is nice to just wander around looking and soaking in the atmosphere and richness and look at some of the things we’ve done. We’ve got loads of plans and projects on the go and thankfully, we’ve a lot more energy than we had last year, so it feels as though we’ll make a bit of progress again.

The wood’s chopped and under cover near the house and the more delicate plants are being moved nearer and nearer to the back of the house where it’s warm and protected. The indoor plants are back indoors and seem to appreciate the comfort. Food’s stored and the freezer is filling up again with game and we light the fire most evenings – which is really nice.

Ready for the chop

At this time of the year I pick my vegetables quickly because they rot easily later in the season and get them eaten or chopped up and cooked as quickly as possible.
Now’s the time to get everything ready for winter so these vegetables were sterilised to conserve them.

I made five .35 litre and two .75 litre jars from 8 kilos of veg. I reduced the sauce a lot to thicken it, (That way I use fewer jars and there’s no point in storing water!) then when I open each jar I rinse it out with some water and add that to the sauce.

The smaller jars are enough for two people and make a quick meal poured on to pasta and sprinkled with cheese or used as a sauce to complement a small amount of left-over meat.

The nice thing about having loads of these jars in stock in your cellar is you know they’ll taste great, you can feed a lot of people quickly without too much stress and to prepare a good meal all you need to do is heat everything up. That saves a lot of the energy used in cooking and this is the nearest we ever get to a take-away.

I’ve posted a lot about conserving food in this way, if you click in the search function,”storing food”, you’ll see other blog posts where the process we use is described in detail.

Damp and drizzly garden update


I meant to do a posting about the Permaculture course I was on a couple of weeks ago but of course, life’s not like that. It took me ages to “reclaim” my kitchen, sort out the garden, catch up with paperwork (Did I ever tell you that I’m Fabrice’s secretary?) and just spend time with the animals. We’ve had loads of visitors and lots of late nights and laughs and spending time on the ‘net just hasn’t been possible.

I also seem to have lost the knack of taking photos, maybe it’s because by the time I feel like getting out my camera the light’s gone and this rainy weather hasn’t helped a lot either.

One of my delights when I came back was to see how fast the loofahs have grown up the tent frame and when I looked closer I realised I have about eight which are already a good usable size. My plan is to use them as scrubbers for the kitchen and bathrooms instead of buying those spongy things – one less thing we have to buy when we go out shopping ! I can even dye them different colours and if I’ve enough they’ll make lovely presents.

The other thing in the garden which is doing really well is Sweet Peppers. I bought a few plants early in the season and sowed far too many seeds all of which have been keeping us in peppers all summer and there will be enough to do quite a few jars for winter.

The Aubergines are ripe and we’ve been eating them for a while too, but they really need more heat to produce a second crop – like the tomatoes which are taking too long to ripen, although we usually manage to get a handfull every day for a salad and when there’s more I make a meal based on them.

My prettiest Peppers are these black ones which I bought as young plants – they’re so shiny and even black and unripe they taste quite sweet.

I also have two bought plants of another very early variety which must have produced at least 40 fruits per plant and they’re still growing well. (The photo below was taken in mid-July) I imagine they’re both F1 hybrids though and the seeds will be sterile – I must find that out from our neighbour Yan who sells spices on the markets and was kind enough to bring me back these very early plants as soon as he saw them for sale. I really miss my little greenhouse for starting off things – I’ll sort something out for next year I hope.

Let’s hope it stays fine for a while tomorrow…

This is an update to let you see how our Loofahs turned out.

I finally got about 13 decent sized Loofahs and gave some away to friends to let them clean the loofah out themselves – that way they get to keep the seeds.

Cleaning them out takes time and patience. It consists of cutting the ends off the loofah, then wetting it and squeezing it gently to get the fleshy insides out along with the seeds – pushing them gently to the ends until they plop out.

Some people wait until much later in the season when the loofahs are completely dry but I was very impatient and I’ve still got a few hanging on the vines which I’ll experiment with after Christmas.

After they were empty of all the stuff inside them and the seeds were all removed, I washed them well and left them to dry naturally. You can bleach them but I like the natural colour and my septic tank doesn’t like bleach!

I dyed a few but I’ve misplaced the photos and given the ones I dyed away as presents.

I’m very pleased with them and have a few around the house for wiping around the bath and washbasins and scrubbing myself with in the shower and a good few left over to last me for quite some time.

I intended to use them to do the dishes but after a couple of weeks they tend to collect bits of food and rot quite quickly so I think I’ll give up on that idea.

Mulching for garden productivity

At this time of the year our Angora goats like to sleep outside. The kids are big enough now for us not to have to worry about foxes and they sleep at the top of the hill near to the house so we can hear them bleating if there’s a problem.

We take this opportunity to clear out the goatshed which is an open airy space with a metre deep litter of straw, hay, goat and chicken droppings and goat’s hair. It’s a lovely dry clean bed for our Angora goats, it smells sweet and sitting in there on a cold winter’s evening feeling the heat on your bottom is very pleasant .

The shed is at the top of the hill where we have our main vegetable garden and we collect all the water which comes off the roof. We have two hoses connected our water containers and the water flows by gravity in the classic permaculture way down almost to the chickens shed which is at the bottom of the garden. The chicken shed roof has it’s own water barrels and they’re just high enough to water the new part of the vegetable plot at the back of the shed and all the planting around it. We use that water for cleaning and filling the containers for our chickens and the plants around the area love the regular watering and all the compost around the shed. This photo shows the shed, then the slope up to the tent frame which I use as a cage to keep the chickens away from things I really want to protect.

After I’ve planted the summer vegetables I use some of the goat’s bedding as a mulch. I know that normally you shouldn’t use animal bedding near plants but it’s clean and dry enough not to have problems with the mulch rotting the plants. I know too that people say not to use hay because it’s full of seeds, but if you have plenty of material, you can just keep adding more and more mulch and the weeds don’t stand a chance. I use sticks to protect the newly planted things from chickens and when I (or the chickens!) spread the mulch, the sticks keep it away from the base of the plants.

We empty the shed with a pitchfork and the chickens start straight away scratching though the bedding and the shed for insects. They spend about two weeks doing a fine job of clearing the inside of the wooden structure which helps it to dry out and last longer and they also scratch and clean around the shed making a superb compost which I use for potting up plants and cuttings. Fortunately, they’re too busy up at the shed to spend much time disturbing my newly planted summer vegetables.

I barrow the material down to the garden and mulch around all my plants, tucking in the mulch around the established shrubs and perennials to smother weeds and between the newly planted vegetables to retain the water in the soil and cut down the need for watering.

I couldn’t grow what I grow in such a small space if it weren’t for mulching. Our garden is on a very poor sandy soil on a south-facing slope. We’ve terraced it with raised beds to contain the soil and the regular mulches helps stop the soil and it nutrients being washed downwards.

The mulches also stop the soil compacting and promote the development of micro-organisms, encourage earthworms and help keep the soil warmer at the start of the growing season and cooler in the really hot few weeks when the plants need as much water as they can get to swell up and provide us with food.

Plants that are mulched grow a strong network of roots to search for food and water and they rely less on human intervention for their survival. They hold themselves up well and the lower leaves are less likely to be lost through soil-borne diseases and splashing after heavy rains.

The constant temperature and humidity means that the fruits rarely split and we have very few cases of blossom end rot. If long-release mulches such as wood chips are used before winter, then lighter materials are used in the spring, the results can be superb and by adding more and more mulch over a period of years, the resulting earth is dark, crumbly, easy to work with without digging and very productive without the addition of any fertilisers or bought-in compost. When I’m making a new bed from scratch I often incorporate logs of rotten wood , branches, leaves, wool – in fact anything which retains water like a sponge and attracts the numerous insects and worms who help the organic material to decompose. By doing this, then adding a good cover of grass clippings, litter from the goat shed and earth the beds are a wonderful mixture of nutriments. 

The preparation takes time and a bit of lifting and carrying but a well-prepared growing surface will retain its goodness for a very long time and I need to do lees weeding and very little watering thanks to all the water retained in the beds by the logs and branches.

…those Artichokes weren’t there yesterday !

Hmm, they weren't there yesterday

These Globe Artichoke off-sets are in front of a Virginia Creeper and Honeysuckle hedge which will provide a dark background for the Artichokes which I’m going to leave to flower. I cut back the hedge a few days ago to keep it under control and I’m sure the chickens are a bit put out by the changes!

As well as starting to plant out the vegetable plot, I’ve been clearing up the garden and Fabrice has been helping by cutting down a few trees which were past their best or taking up space between nicer trees. Two of our pals came over to give us a hand cutting and pulling out the roots of brambles – and they left with a lot of cuttings and lots of scratches!

This tree was straggly and next to a huge compost heap which was too rich for it’s roots and it had become diseased. Next to it are two Twisted Willows and the parting of the tree now means that the Willows (which I stuck into the ground as cuttings about five years ago) can now be seen from a distance coming into young adulthood.

I’ve cleared away all the weeds and brambles from under the Willows and given them a good layer of mulch and the chickens will keep the area weed-free until I’m ready to put in some suitable ground cover.

I brought these Tulips back from the UK and they’re such a wonderful colour – I do hope they like it in this spot and flower like this every year !

Pinkish orangy tulips that I’m so glad I planted, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

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