Back to normal? (399)

by Max Akroyd


As I write this there’s a faint pitter-patter of rain on the skylight above me. Maybe the strange summer-spring is over and the cooler, damper normality of Spring in Brittany is here.

During autumn and winter this part of France is very like a lot of the west of the British Isles, familiar texures in a different arrangement. But Spring and Summer are different. They even smell different! It’s hard to explain, but there’s a dizzying force of nature inhabiting every part of the local landscape. Summer can be fuggy with it, but the sharper contrasts in the Spring light can take your breath away.

After the dry restraint of the last few weeks, I suspect we’re really going to cop for it now! The weeds and the predators will be making up for lost time and the grass will grow so fast around you, you’ll think you’re dead. Time for a review of the fruit and vegetables.

Unlike the animals, whose vitality is a cause of habitual concern, I have to force myself to regularly assess things growing in the field. Attempting self-sufficiency is a strict task-master. Spontaneity isn’t everything it used to be and you tend to dwell on crop failures. There’s been a few already: the hard frosts – remember those weeks under ice? – destroyed half my nascent November-sown broad beans. Lesson learnt: sow them in early October instead. Only 50% of my parsnips are showing. Lesson: put more than one chitted seed at each station, stupid. Apart from that things are doing ok (technical horticultural measure, that) but would benefit from a good soaking for a week or two, even if the gardener wouldn’t.

A rare visit to the positive side of things would reveal success so far with all three methods of potato planting. The ones in trenches are poking through the straw mulch and it’s particularly pleasing to see those green leaves emerging from the lazy beds. I’m going to try and capture the benefit of today’s meagre rainfall and finally plant the rest of the second earlies this afternoon.


Fresh from the Kervéguen salon... coping with climate change, boar style...


If the new climate* means long spells of high pressure (weeks of ice in winter, weeks of sun in spring) then it’ll pay to have tested coping strategies. I’ve discovered – completely by accident I hasten to add – that keeping the trenches filled with organic matter open to the rain over winter kept them plantable in the subsequent dry spell. Similarly, the smaller transplants have all been placed in mini trenches – even in the raised beds. This has shaded them a bit, pooled the hard-won water delivered from the watering can and provided shelter from the wind to boot. It didn’t stop a pigeon pulling out all my onion seedlings, however, and thus ending another year’s foray into bulb onions from seed…   

Planting through plastic has been a revelation. It’s kept the potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and strawberries going through the drought. The dilpidated fruit bushes are reborn now they’re surrounded by a sea of black plastic. I really must do that gooseberry bed tomorrow! The cutting of endless holes in the fabric with a stanley knife is a bore, but less so than seeing your plants consumed by a tide of weeds.

I say this even after a morning spent transplanting endless stawberries from a weedy, non-mulched bed into a sterile, black one. I’ve trained our five year old to pinch off any flowers he sees on the hundreds of plants – without informing him that this will mean great root structure but no strawberries this year. That kind of delayed gratification isn’t really his thing!

(*I’m an agnostic regarding climate change, being generally wary of certainty. I’m sure one should be wary of certainty)