a handmade peasant life

January Journey

by Max Akroyd

In case airports aren’t confusing enough, they put a man in the way of their signs. In a parallel world where toothpaste is definitely a liquid, sir and your multiple metal crowns earn you a brisk rub down by a complete stranger, you need a sign – something to point you in the right direction. There it is – the multicoloured oracle. People look to it for guidance, and even the godless pray that the words ‘flight delayed by x hours’ don’t appear next to their final destination. I approach the departures board with due reverence, trying to pick out Nantes from a hundred other names. Before I can even start looking: can I help you sir? asks a man dressed like a funeral attendee. I now have two competing sources of information where I barely wanted one. I mumble something untrue (the truth being: I just want to go home now please) and walk away confidently in completely the wrong direction. Fortunately he’s facing the other way snaring other folk as I sneak past him and find another sign free of human intermediary.

Later, on the plane, I discover my hand luggage has become too engorged with duty-free Jelly Babies for the kids and the jumper that still smelt too much of the farm. A strange sight greets my fellow passenger upon entering the plane as I wrestle with the bloody thing. They grumble as I block their way, on four – maybe even five – separate, increasingly desperate, forays into overhead compartment hell. At least this spectacle makes the air stewardess smile momentarily, before she has to wearily resume the pre-flight ritual for the fourth time that day.

Living in the middle of nowhere, you end up a kind of weathered residue of your former self which makes normality appear very strange.  The early-morning shopping precincts had been transactionless but people showed up anyway. Why does a sign need a man to explain the sign? I’m sure he just wants to go home too. Why does the lady squeezed into the red nylon suit designed by a misogynist have to dispense instructions to an unheeding collection of grumpy travellers who care not which toggle to pull in the unlikely event the plane should land on water… I don’t any more know why we do this to each other.

It’s a relief to be in the car on the final stretch. Despite a thick sea mist hanging around the motorway near Vannes, it’s all so straightforward. And then the fog is gone. I can now see the big bridges crossing the big rivers which seem to hold a memory of the daylight on the surface of the water. French roads are very quiet at this time of night and I only have to dip my lights a few times between Lorient and home. After a few hours the driver and the road and the travel and the music from the car stereo have become one substance.

I stop to pee by the roadside (well, when in Rome…). The car is just a tiny pulse of light and sound in the afforested night. The moonlit beyond is constant, unperturbed by human trajectory.

A long post for the shortest day

by Max Akroyd

Sorry for the slight delay in posting! It’s been a befuddling time on the farm since we last spoke. Big changes have taken place in this household, most of them positive but all of them very distracting.

Readers of longstanding will recall that I aimed to feed myself from my field. Am I succeeding? The short is answer is: “no. I failed.” The long answer might be of interest to anyone interested in living off the land as a viable alternative to a distinctly non-viable, mainstream economy.

What went wrong/right

It’s difficult to discern success and failure when every endeavour seems to contain elements of both. As soon as October, however, it was apparent that my project wasn’t going to work out. ‘Real life’ (whatever that is) had intervened and disrupted the uninterrupted effort required to grow, cook and eat our own produce.

I can’t overstate, however, how well it had all been going up to that point. The generous weather, and the related abundance of soft fruit was a real help of course. It didn’t seem to matter if things like beans and sweetcorn were frazzling in the hot, dry summer when there were strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries aplenty! This glut of fruit attracted the interest of our children who were soon grazing on the field for snacks and eating gooseberry ice cream for pudding. The best outcome of all was their realisation why we are doing what we are doing and their full participation in the processes of harvesting, processing and eating. They even did some weeding!

Distanced by recent events, it feels like a golden time. The dream came true and now stands in our collective memory as an ideal to be recaptured. We fitted seamlessly into a happy landscape populated by other happy animals working and living the land. What started as a solitary undertaking soon became a familial purpose (which is another way of saying they ate all my strawberries!). The tastes and textures of life became subtle and robust all at once. I soon discovered that it doesn’t matter if you only have a bit of meat and some potatoes and something green to eat as long as they are the best. This way you can enjoy pretty much the same thing every day if you have to  – many peasant cultures do. Now I understand how and why. Contrast this with eating devitalised supermarket fare which makes you crave endless variety. Or just plain more.

It’s a lot of hard work though – exhausting actually. The comforting idea of preserving the harvest loses its aura if you’ve already been on your feet all day growing it. Ideally, you’d inherit land worked by previous generations and have an extended family to share the baby, and other pressing commitments, around. In these (and many other) respects we were just not ready. By its nature, the Rural Idiocy? project was a simulation, a self-imposed test. It proved difficult to maintain this illusion while the rest of the world continued with real life (for now). Bills still needed paying and the kids kept growing out of their clothes… I suspect neither of those things were so significant for the real peasants of yore.

Reality bites

By midsummer the money ran out. Very early one summer morning, Emma – who finds poverty infuriating – baked a range of things, got in the car, got out of the car to jump start it and then set off to a local market. She’s been doing this – selling baked things and sewn things to French people in French – ever since. She’s kept the wolf from the door – and I’ve been kept behind that door trying to contain our toddler turbocharged by homegrown produce! It’s been a pleasure making his acquaintance properly, but the garden did soon suffer.

This neglect was compounded when I became embroiled in a complex legal dispute. I can’t say much more about it except I’m owed money. I’ve had to do a lot of learning about French language and French law in the the last six months and this distraction above all others killed an already tattered project stone dead. C’est la vie, as we used to say in Keighley. But when your new old life is invaded by responsibilities from your old new one, it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated.

Making eggs out of an omelette 

If you want to “go back to the land”, it’s useful to acknowledge why so many people left the land in the first place and continue to do so in poorer parts of the world.

Fact is, the idiocy of rural life remains a dour struggle. At times the work can be back-breaking and lonely and boring. Freedom from wage slavery can also mean freedom from cash and new shoes for the kids. The muddy path to self-sufficiency seems to always stretch out in the opposite direction to the neon-signposted one which says “money this way”. It’s either cash or carrots: two incompatible goals in life, it seems. Smallholders with fewer than two surnames have to add a business venture to their rural escapade to make ends meet. Almost invariably this involves selling something homely, but non-essential, to fellow human beings who remain wage-slaves. In other words you’re still reliant upon the health of the wider economy.

Oh dear. Not going so well in the real world, is it? Sometimes it’s been hard to ascertain which version of living represents a reckless, Utopian, delusion. Back in 2008, brave politicians should have ignored the bleatings of donors and lobbyists and declared this international bankruptcy, defaulted and reset. Instead we are confronted with an undeclared insolvency magnified every day by cowardly things like quantative easing. Unresolved insolvency isn’t a static thing, something that happened in 2008: it’s dynamic – like a vortex – pulling in more and more things of value until the fabric of modern life collapses. No, we’re not ready for that either!

I felt all marginal and peculiar responding to a notion of economic collapse a few years back. Now you can read all about it in the mainstream media. I don’t feel vindicated if the sky still can fall on my head. To paraphrase an ancient Chinese proverb: “The best time to prepare for global economic collapse is ten years ago. The next best time is now.”

The return

Not very uplifting is it? Crashing out of the encapsulated safety of suburban existence back into the sweating, bleeding core of normal human experience was never going to be a barrel of laughs. And that’s certainly been our experience here at the end of world (aka Finistère). That concludes the report from the advance party down the slippery slope.

But there is, I believe, a glimmer of hope. Most people know that food you grow yourself tastes better – the true texture and flavour of things rediscovered through hard graft. As everything from nurseries to nursing homes close down, and families are forced back together, perhaps we’ll also regain some thing similar, something invigorating we didn’t know we’d lost. The true and difficult quality of life will be restored. Maybe a safe, sanitised and moneyed existence wasn’t that secure, salubrious or rich after all. The alternative is messy, labourious and unglamorous – just like people are really. Welcome home.

Rural Idiocy? 2.0

I’ll be resuming proper blogging on 12th January 2012. There’ll be a new Rural Idiocy? website by then too – but the blog will continue right here. The general aim remains the same: to find a safe mooring for my family as the storm approaches. Thanks to my M.A. in subsistence setbacks awarded by the University of Rural Life, I think I’ve finally got the measure of this growing food malarkey. I’ll be recording everything I do, whilst trying to consolidate that fragmented knowledge into a coherent whole. Who knows? It might be useful to others. But no big plans or promises this time. I learnt that too.

I almost forgot to mention the garden. It’s now in the best shape it’s ever been. The overwintering peas and beans are in. I’ve dug a dozen big new beds for roots and the pigs and plough have prepared a huge area for spuds and for everything else which will go in a trench. The polytunnel and greenhouse stand ready for the season to come. And so do we.

Just space left to wish a happy solstice to anyone and everyone who is reading this. Who knows what the next year will bring? But at least, from today, the light is returning and that cannot be stopped.

The Last Post ( 1 day to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Time’s up!

The countdown is complete. Thanks to a big push over the last couple of weeks, there are now bottles and bottles of elderflower cordial in the fridge and jar upon jar of strawberry jam on the shelves. The early potatoes have been dug up and the paltry beans and peas podded and frozen. Each day starts with bread-making and ends with – well, nothing! – the last (commercial) wine having been supped and the last coffee drunk.

A pig is sleeping in the barn, unaware that today is the last day for him too…

The transition to home-made and garden-grown has been accomplished. Not completely, and far from perfectly. And we’re still waiting for rain of any significance here. The garden has been frozen by drought. Progress out there is faltering in the staring face of a yellowing and slightly sickly-looking reality. Without the abundance in the polytunnel and the glut of early fruit we’d be pretty hungry peasants, pretty soon…

But at least the relationship between the garden and eating is now direct and intelligible to all here. To put bowls full of delicious food from the garden in front of the family is the best job I’ve ever had. This does mean, however, a complete commitment to food production and food processing. Easy words to write, but a wholly different reality to the work-life balance we were brought up to consider as normality. The new (as in non-industrial) normal is invaded by uncivilised responsibilities – ranging from digging to killing – previously devolved to hidden, less fortunate others. It’s thus a return to what and how we are, with all the discomfort and difficulties that entails.

This blog has attempted to record this mental and physical shift (backwards, forwards, sideways..?) I hope the 325 previous posts at least give a sense of the efforts involved, as well as the available rewards. I maintain this transition could happen to anyone, at any time. Beneath that strange, calm surface, the world economy is a turbulent and wild place right now. It may be hard this peasanthood thing – almost impossible for an office body like mine – but it is safer than the alternative. After all, every increment of self-sufficiency is a step back from the ever-encroaching fire of debt slavery. It’s the only reasonable defence.

*

This chapter is over. We will be starting a new Rural Idiocy? blog soon – Emma and I – but the emphasis will be a bit more on the food itself rather than the growing of it. I’ll post the details here as soon as the kids, the animals and the weather give us the opportunity to finalise things… We may be some time! If it ever does rain, I’m sure you’ll understand that our priority will be to teem over the field with soggy seed packets to try and recoup some lost harvests.

Lastly but not leastly, I’d like to thank warmly all the fellow travellers who took the time to comment here or email me or even visit us. Your support and encouragement have been the difference between perseverence and despair on numerous occasions!

I hope to see you at the new place some day soon.

Max, Finistère, May 2011

Retrospective (12 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I became 44 the other day. It’s surprisingly hard to take a day off when every day is a day off from doing things you don’t like. To achieve a complete contrast to the norm, I suppose I could have done my tax return… Instead, I made the pigs wait for breakfast a bit longer than usual, and I chatted to Emma slightly longer over coffee. But I spent a lot of my birthday happy in the shade of the tool shed, fixing my strimmer.

This mainly involved whacking the thing with a hammer and chisel (don’t ask) and thus represented the latest expression of our make do and mend philosophy. A few years ago I’d have taken it to an Authorised Person to service. The transformation of attitude and circumstance pleased me – along with a bit of annoyance about the amount of money I’d given to people in the past to do stuff I should have taken responsibility for…

Reverie about how much things had changed soon got me thinking (in a very middle-aged way) about how I’d ended up having a ragged, happy birthday in a toolshed in Brittany rather than the pre-ordained one: dejected in a suit in a bar in West Yorkshire. Why had my official life plan unravelled so absolutely?

At about 4 years old – my earliest memory – I fell into a bramble-filled ditch in Ireland. That’s a certain proximity to nature, I suppose, but not really the thread I’m trying to pick up! At 14 I was living in my parents’ dream house in Cumbria. It had a big garden and a little wood and, I think, woke up the notion of rural living as the highest form of existence. 24 marked the start of a decade lost to an accidental career. At 34 life was suddenly re-illuminated by the arrival of my first child. The jolting discrepancy between parental values and those of my job caused me to trade my coupé for a purple saloon and drive off into a sallow Yorkshire sunset.

A bit later, somewhere between and the nappy bucket and the allotment, the plan to come here was born. A confluence of instinctual rediscoveries – or something. It’s hard to know where purpose ends and retrospective justification begins, isn’t it? But I do know that strimmer is working just fine now.

I am a peasant (19 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

My promise to eat from our land from June 1st has worked wonders.

On countless occasions it’s got me outside when I was too tired, uninspired or downright lethargic to contemplate it under any other circumstances. Every bed on that ocean-sized field has now been cultivated (to some extent) and, despite May’s rampant efforts, I’m still afloat. Which is a novel feeling at this time of year and entirely attributable to the commitment I made here.

Moreover, I have convinced my biggest critic – myself – that I really couldn’t have worked any harder. Other people would have done it differently and, most probably, better. The field still looks like a field to me – although more nice people are saying more nice things about it now. After a couple of years of effort, the soil is, in places, doing more smiling than snarling!

If you pick a task which has an absolute relationship with the effort you put in, it’s very rewarding to stagger towards the conclusion of the first chapter… But before getting any further into this dry subject matter, here’s some nice things I probably won’t be eating:

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If you want to give nature a good laugh, show her your plans: none of this proud progress means that I’m where I hoped to be. I’ve failed in part due to circumstances beyond my intelligence to control – mainly lack of money and rainfall. I have no cow, no goats in kid and a dearth of early crops – all of which impairs the possibility of self-sufficiency. The all-encompassing effort required to roll out a year’s worth of eating has been almost too much for this man on this scale and has baffled any attempt to get off to a particularly flying start.

Sometimes I wish I’d never used the term self-sufficiency. That fundamentalist creed belongs to those hearty people who thresh their own grain, make their own soap and make underwear out of nettle fibre. Instead, I am a peasant who – along with my family, the love of a good woman and comfortable pants – realises he only cares about growing and eating the best food. The fact that this gastronomic pleasure is only available to the poor man at his gate, rather than the rich man in his castle, makes it an even more beautiful concept to me. I always think of this (re)discovery as like stumbling upon a neglected, overgrown, but golden road.

(As well as association with the nicest people, it’s no exaggeration to state that this blog has allowed a humble life purpose to be distilled out from all the other noisy and confusing fractions of modern life).

Anyway, what is to be done? Under my own terms, I was always allowed a shortlist of essentials; flour, olive oil, salt and sugar. I kind of assumed the continued ability to eat my good woman’s cakes and buy in spices and such to make chutneys and other preserves. Reference was also made to bartering for goods produced by other rural types.

With just over two weeks to go, it’s high time to tidy up the rules and put them before the committee of commenters!

In addition to sticking to the aforementioned rules, I’m proposing that any money I make from my land, from the sale of food grown on it to the proceeds from working holidays, can be used to buy in things I can’t grow (over and above the aforementioned shortlist). Such revenues (net of tax) would be calculated a month in arrears – so I’ll have May’s money to spend in June and so on… Expenditure in this regard will be accounted for, not out of some odd need to confess, but because it might be interesting to see what food products rise to the top of the list of priorities and to invite discussion of alternatives.

In time, I hope this amendment will allow the project to become a family-wide experience and mean that I won’t be eating nettle soup on my own indefinitely. I think this way of organising household income would be recognisable to my peasant forbears, too. Anyway, let me know what you think.

So, the struggle is almost over and the next chapter can begin. I’ll be announcing the final fate of this blog soon. In the meantime, anyone want to buy some strawberries?

Strawberry season (22 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Some things didn’t like August in April. I planted hundreds of broad beans in October for nothing. And the peas sown at the same time are looking pallid and weedy. But, for some reason, none of this seems to matter today!

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Anyone for dock pudding? (25 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I’ve not even started yet and it’s apparent this subsistence thing is like crossing a big, hungry river on wobbly stepping stones.

I’m sure it’s all the same flow in reality, but it helps my brain to organise edibles into conventional categories of animals, vegetables, fruit and wild foods. The organisation – chronologically and otherwise – of the first three things has been an obsession of this blog over the last couple of years: when to sow seed to get cabbage in June and that sort of thing. And, as the ultimatum draws closer, the animals become less and less like pets and more and more like starvation insurance. (I found myself seriously contemplating eating a goat today, but she had broken her tether again).

But even more profoundly peasanty is deciphering the back-story that is the hedgerow harvest. Could there be an unbroken, three-season narrative to uncover, starting with the wild garlic and ending with wild mushrooms? I’ve already discovered that the main attraction of this food sauvage is to take the pressure off the cultivated stock. Poignant when your peas are piddling and your first potatoes paltry.

But, after being plundered these last six weeks, the wild garlic is now looking a bit glum and the nettles… well, despite several attempts, I’m still waiting for the right recipe. So, what’s the next dish on nature’s menu? The elder is about to flower and plans for cordial and other concoctions are afoot. Less familiar to me, however, is dock pudding – this despite our shared provenance. Not that dock, by the way, but common bistort, polygonum bistorta. Here’s the Yorkshire version. The last time I saw something like that, the dog hadn’t been very well at all. But needs must.

Back in the mainstream, and this book has become increasingly referred to, splashed with sauces and generally loved. If you want to know how to make a rhubarb dumpling or chestnut soup – both could become regulars around here – look no further.

Coincidentally, after spending two years trying to define the difference between this and that, I find the perfect definition in the introduction to a cookbook of all places:

” … it’s an attitude of mind: the peasantry can be defined as those for whom agriculture is a livelihood and a way of life, not a business for profit.”

Et voila!

A breather (32 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

A peek in the greenhouse would confirm it. We’ve arrived at another of those watershed moments in the peasant’s gardening calendar.

The kales, cabbages, brussels and cauliflowers are either planted out in the field or are waiting impatiently on the hardening off shelves. Also evicted from those hot confines, to grow on in cooler spaces, are the herbs, chards, spring onions, leeks and so on. Hours of sowing, potting on and plant-particular pampering has culminated in an end-of-April flurry of movement.

With those old work horses out of the way, the decrepit tables that act as staging in the greenhouse are now home to a more foppish array: tomatoes, peppers, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers, melons and courgettes, all at various stages of development.  And this weather doesn’t fool me. I’ll get les Saints de Glaces well out of the way before moving that lot anywhere else.

The polytunnel is loaded up with quick-growing edibles, mainly salad and oriental thingies, in an effort to give me something to eat come June if all else fails.

Which it won’t! Rain is promised by the big thunderhead clouds towering above the field. A downpour would revive the potato trenches, and our ten-year old will finally get his bedroom floor back after I shift all the seed potatoes out of there.

The animals have new pasture which should reach as far as Summer too. Quite a moment this: the piglets’ new enclosure defines the final area which I’ll be bringing into cultivation on the field. That’s not the same as saying the job is nearly done, but it’s very encouraging to see what the final shape of things might be…

So the big push that started at the beginning of February to dovetail with Nature’s awakening  is over. And I have to say I’m glad. It’s been an exhausting process. My hands are rougher and blacker than ever, and I could number the parts of me that don’t ache on the fingers of just one of them! The drought has made things very laborious in many ways, but – I concede – has kept the mowing and weeding to a minimum. So far.

I’ve no problem with busy times. But for a bit of joy to creep in there have to be quiet times too. So, before the next phase begins – beans, pumpkins et al – I’m taking a breather. I’m going to let the rain come down and the grass and weeds come up. The family deserve attention undivided by cabbages. Until next week, anyway…

Stop gap solution (36 days to go..)

by Max Akroyd

Sometimes it feels like water, time and cash are the same substance. They all flow (generally in one direction – away!). They’re easy to take for granted, until scarcity requires you to be more resourceful. And a severe deficit in any defeats self-sufficiency.

Even the farmer from down the road looked worried. His normally keen and shrewd presence seemed dulled by a painful realisation: if there’s no rain within the next fortnight his farming year is effectively over, he declared. The recently-sown crops on his vast acres would wither and die, beyond the reach of irrigation, and his dairy herd would have to be scaled back accordingly.

On my small-scale, there’s still some hope. I’ve just spent 100€ I didn’t have on hose pipe and various other bits and pieces. I thus cobbled together the delivery end of an irrigation system comprising a couple of hoses that sweat water attached to very long, regular hoses. I can just about manouevre this two-headed, serpentine monster across my hillside without it uprooting all my raspberry bushes. After a couple of hours of snaking over a dusty bed, a track of moisture can be detected, sufficient to plant something into… Then I drag it on to the next bed… and the next…

Of course this expenditure of time and money represents only a fraction of the whole. The supply-side of this ‘solution’ equals a metered outside tap, open all night. Not sustainable: I’ll be in no rush to open that bill when it arrives! Clearly, if the new weather pattern means it only rains in winter we’ll have to recover rainwater then, store it and pump it around the same shoddy network of hoses. A much more significant capital investment!

But almost anything is worth it to avoid the debacle of last year when most things died in their pots. The backbone of the year’s planting is getting rolled out, albeit painfully slowly. Even yet, I’m not exempt from comprehensive failure. Half of my potato trenches still lack that vital ingredient – seed potatoes – as they remain open to receive rain that never comes. The baby roots I anticipated eating come June 1st – beetroot, turnips, carrots, kohl rabi – are still at the embryo stage. My peas and broad beans are a sparse shadow of even last year’s efforts.

I’m going to keep plodding on, not least because the effort laid down in previous months requires it. And I’m getting a great tan out there! But the chances of success seem a little slim right now…

Bean pole challenge (40 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Brought to you with the help of Ben Short, frequent commenter on this blog – who has been staying in the gite with his lovely family this week – I humbly present our interpretation of the patented McCarthy™ Bean Structure:

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Although I’ll be using it for runner beans too, the main attraction for me is for the production of French beans for drying. I’m thinking that the way this construction encourages pods to hang away from the foliage will encourage thorough drying of this key winter ingredient for the hungry peasant. Thanks Joy!

3 things to do in the garden when it’s dry (41 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

There’s no time to stand around inside:

1. Dig a trench or three. In recent days I easily shifted 100 metres-worth of dusty soil thus. (I asked Emma to capture this scene of impressive toil on camera, but in these conditions it just looked like a fat bloke digging on the moon).

And then promise yourself that’s it. No more potato trenches… it’s time to finish the bean trenches instead! Talking of which, there’s an engineer on site at the moment so tomorrow we’re going to build one of these genius things – the beans hang away from the foliage for ease of collection. An idea (and picture) stolen from an excellent blog, here.

2. Enjoy the flowers. I realise that – close up – I prefer the look of just about every wild flower to just about every garden flower. This probably makes me a Philistine:

3. Look forward to the fruit – it looks like it could be a year of abundance in this respect. But I keep telling myself it’s only April. The ice saints could still pay us a visit next month:

4. Try and forget about those withered early sowings. Leave the garden behind and go for a nice, quiet, meditative walk.

Maybe one day.

Things preserved (42 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Most of this process is spread over months. Sometimes you sow a seed and have to wait until the following year to enjoy the harvest. Which reminds me, it’s broccoli sowing time isn’t it?

But preserving is a much more compact process. A posse of reluctant children or other underemployed outlaws can be dispatched to collect unpromising eatables, the whole lot can be processed, a thousand pots and pans washed up and your feet can get a bit sore from standing in front of the hob: all in the space of a day…

And we are devoting a lot of waking hours to this ritual now. The house – perhaps the whole commune – is permeated with vinegary vapours. Strange things are packed into containers and buried away to to be discovered by that mysterious (and probably hungry) entity which is the future you. I suppose that kind of kindness to yourself unites preserving with growing your own fruit and vegetables. It’s certainly not a connection based on healthy eating! So much sugar goes into those preserves I reckon I could make a palatable lawn chutney or maybe a molehill pickle?

But whatever the wretched dentist or the wretched sugar plantation worker might say, I say long-live the W.I.!

Rhubarb & co. also giveth most generously when your turnips are scorched and and peas are wilting in the August April sun. Sunday bottled comprised: Rhubarb and Sultana chutney, Pickled Rhubarb, Rhubarb and Orange jam, Leftover chutney and Wild Garlic pesto.

The relative gloom of the kitchen provided a relief from the unrelentingly cheerful sunniness of the field. I won’t go on about it. It’s not right to crave dreary weather.

But we need rain.

With just a few weeks left before I start eating my field, it’s flatter than flat out here on the farm. By the end of the day, my old brain feels as parched and concrete-like as the field. Therefore, I’m reverting to shorter – but almost daily – posts for a little while. 

Best laid plans (54 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Cruising at 18000 feet, you could almost believe in a solution. It’s not like being in a proper jet aeroplane where you’re so high up you get lost in a dreamscape of clouds, or any visible land is so far away as to be slightly ridiculous. From the windows of this little propeller-powered plane, England is mainly green.

Seen from up here the villages and towns are diminished, almost trivial in scale. Commerce, work and other hustle is silenced. Equally unhindered by the reality of peoples’ present lives and expectations, you are able to imagine that when cars and planes and supermarkets are defunct, things could carry on. Look at all that productive land! From this height there’s no sense that the soil has been crushed by tractors or tortured by man-made chemicals. Instead, like a benign, cloud-dwelling despot, you can re-apportion the fields to the people in the nucleated villages and towns and, somehow, shuttle them out to work the land.

Before too long, though, we lose the perspective of height and descend back to ground level. The fields are out of sight and the confusion of normality returns.

*

Back home and there’s been a development. The white duck has hatched a chick!

Don’t worry, she’s confused too! Since my hens don’t know how to roost, eat corn or go broody like everybody else’s chickens, I had the bright(ish) idea of putting a couple of hens eggs under our sitting duck.

As usual, nature doesn’t welcome improvisation unreservedly. One of the hens’ eggs hatched before the duck’s own and now Mummy duck shares her precarious nest in the top of the haystack with a puzzling and slightly mischievous impostor. The chick climbs all over the duck’s back, pecks her nostrils and puts little holes in the other eggs. (The one’s that haven’t already rolled off the haystack thanks to the duck’s big, scrobbly feet).

In the old cow shed below, the goose has also been busy nesting and laying. Unfortunately the new gander only arrived yesterday – after she had laid six eggs. So it’s extra-nice cakes and quiche for us today and back to the drawing board for her tomorrow. Scant reward for a building a perfect nest, but at least she’s got a big, ungainly partner to help make perfect sense of it all next time.

A paradox (60 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Most weeks this life is good. Very good. Bird song, trees bedecked with blossom, the play of sunlight on the hillside and all the other things that make spring an illuminating place to be. However, although I’ve still been dimly aware of these things, this particular week has been more mundane: a robotic plod through a task list which, against all the rules of fair play, is longer at the end of each day than at the start of it!

I’m not yet familiar with the territory of a successful year of subsistence. Maybe these tight contours of unceasing activity are confined to, say, April and May? And by June I’ll be sitting at the top of the hill drinking elderflower wine in the shade of the chestnut tree. I’ll watch the children doing the weeding, the goats hanging out the washing and the pigs flying by…

I want this to be a paean to rural contentment. I don’t want to pee on anybody’s fire of enthusiasm. But right now it’s wall-to-wall grind on the farm. It seems if you want a semblance of unsophisticated man-made order – won from the natural sort – it unavoidably requires ten hours of physical labour. Each and every day, at this time of year. If we’d inherited our patch from soil-toiling ancestors it might have meant a lighter burden, but this back to the land generation has to break theirs on marginal ground. By midweek, for example, I was so tired I even forgot my PIN number. I was parked outside the bank needing cash for grain and … nothing!

Perhaps aware of my slow-witted state the animals have been full of mischief. I’ve had goats in the hen house and a goose in the pig house and then goats in the hen house again. Moving the Daddy pigs to their spring pasture turned into an eight hour face-off. It might have been the coffee grounds I accidentally tipped into their leftovers bucket, but they were tireless and cunning adversaries. Or that’s how it seemed. It was only upon completion of the task that I realised they are now down-wind of the (female) piglets. Uncharacteristically for their gender, they look less than impressed by their new, clean and tidy environs and just stand around gawping in the direction of the girl pigs instead.

In the greenhouse I’ve sown kale, calabrese, broccoli, brussel sprouts, bush tomatoes, chillies, peppers, basil, hyssop, lovage, chervil, parsley, beetroot, okra, spring onions, leeks, cucumbers, gherkins, lettuces, chicories and courgettes. In the soil, I’ve planted out: parsnips, collards, kales, cabbages, parsley, burdock, mitsuba, broad beans, peas, turnips, beetroot and spinach. The first potatoes have appeared and I’m planting more daily. I’m down to my last 50 unplanted Jerusalem artichoke tubers and might just throw them to the pigs tomorrow so I can at least tick one thing off the list for this year. I’ve also renovated the polytunnel beds and sown some catch crops in them. I even got a big patch of lucerne raked in. The rest of the time I dig, mow, strim, hoe and weed things. The rest of the rest of the time I spend with the family, either complaining or asleep!

To be honest, the sheer scale of the commitment to growing most of your own food has a spiritually deadening effect. It’s like being a dreary fundamentalist adhering only to the word and accepting no intermediary. It means I’m a slave to the garden. But that’s ok. After all, it’s the only road to freedom I know.

Vegetables in mind (66 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

This gardening monster delight I’ve created relies upon the smooth operation of three distinct parts. During the spring rush, the greenhouse, the polytunnel and the field together should form a production line which smoothly and efficiently takes seeds in at one end and, some time later, gobs out perfect vegetables at the other.

I’ve thought about little else for the last three years and I now feel to understand most of this process and, more importantly, how to pre-empt any messy snarl-ups. From bitter experience, I know it only takes one un-dug bed on the field to cause a horrible pile up of all sorts of potted things in the greenhouse. Orchestrating all these different plants, moving them from greenhouse to hardening-off table and on to to field or polytunnel at just the right moment is a fascinating but exacting business. Too soon and things wither during a frosty March night; too late and nice green things turn yellow and sour – either way the thread gets lost and the plan unravels.

If you could open my brain and peer inside, it would probably look a bit like this:

The myriad needs of all these potential edibles nag at me constantly, a bit like my sciatic nerve! Mainly because, where possible, I’m attempting to grow each vegetable all year round. With onions, for example, you could just grow one huge crop and store it. That could be alliums sorted for a whole year. Not for me, I prefer to diversify into shallots, salad onions, bunching onions, welsh onions: I have all the seeds and I’m not afraid to use them! Similarly, I want to grow a different variety of cabbage and cauliflower for each month of the year, not embalm their spring incarnations in pots of vinegar, or bury them in the freezer. I want to find out first hand what makes a lettuce crisphead, looseleaf, cos or even Batavian.

There are probably good gastronomic and nutritional reasons for this ‘fresh from the garden, all year round’ approach. It probably also insures a bit against total crop failure too. Although these are important considerations, I can’t claim any of them as my main motivation. Instead, I confess that I just love the complex patterning of it all. It’s a giant puzzle, a lost map rediscovered and re-read. Unlike, say, the French tax system and many other things supposedly essential to civilised existence, I’ll die happier having mastered it. And it might take that long..!

*

In contrast to the world under cover, the field seems a lot simpler, for now. Big beds and long trenches being dug in dry soil. I must be retaining some semblance of control out there because a fair amount of time is being spent readying ground for things I won’t even eat, unless I get really desperate. Mangels, Jerusalem artichokes and lucerne all have substantial areas ready for them now just waiting for a bit of rain to trigger a mass sowing/planting.

Between starting and finishing this post the rain has finally come. For the first time in ages, the slugs are out and the goats are in. And I’m looking for that piece of paper that told me where precisely to plant that kohl rabi…

“…and then the grass turned into soil!” (70 days to go)

by Max Akroyd

It’s been all quiet busyness at Kervéguen this week. Just plodding progress constrained by the limitations of one slightly old, slightly fat and ever-so-weary man.

The stasis caused by all this spring sunshine has extended the period available to try and get control of things. If this carries on all year I might ascend to the nirvana only known by the slightly competent gardener. What a slog though! Making a living was never this hard. But the exertion of recent years seems to be accumulating into something coherent – at last. Although the last 300 metres of raised beds still to be weeded might provide evidence to the contrary.

Even the uncultivated areas in the upper part of the big field are now parcelled neatly into large squares, each bordered by a closely mown path. These areas are ear-marked for porcine intervention later in the season. Above them, a swathe of what might become grass, recovered from the tangle of last year’s overgrowth. It’ll make a great football pitch for the kids and we can sit in the shade of the chestnut tree and look at the view.

Out of sight from that vantage point, and notably absent from my plans thus far, has been the large area the pigs dug over last autumn. I meant to put it down to green manure – I really did – but somehow that never happened and it naturally reverted to a dreary tract of nothing much. Except where big pig’s toilet used to be – where now supercharged weeds sway in the breeze. My plan bears the gentle euphemism ‘hay’ for this neglected set up…

Now look at it!!

Hitherto, I’ve been proud of the absence of mechanical interference on my field. Won it by the sweat of my brow, I did. In fact, after a rotavator almost wrecked things, I was positively averse to anything which couldn’t be swung by the human arm, or didn’t form part of the front end of a farm animal.

Funny though how such principles were nowhere to be seen when a friendly local farmer showed up out of the blue in a big, blue tractor. He wondered if there was anything he could plough for me while he had the thing attached to his machine.

Fortunately, I didn’t know the French for ” Are you kidding? Plough the bloody lot, mate!” Instead I pointed out the aforementioned area and ten minutes later it was done. Ten minutes to do 1000 square metres! It had taken me since Christmas to trench an adjacent area half-the-size. The wonder in my five-year old’s eyes as the noisy monster/tractor folded the turf into neat brown ridges of soil: c’est incroyable! He now mentions it at every mealtime.

In retrospect, I’m glad there was only this peripheral area to offer up to the tractor’s might. I saw the world/my field bend and twist under it’s huge tyres in a way that would never happen under a pig’s trotter, or even my big boots. And the suddenness of the change has left me struggling to comprehend what to with all that soil…

But that was yesterday. Today I picked up my azada, walked down the far end and started trenching.

Spring forward? (73 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

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By any measure, spring has arrived. Typically, the demarcation “on the ground” is less certain. Beautiful, but frosty, mornings give way to sunny, but dry, day times and none of that is particularly conducive to rampant growth. Underneath a dusty exterior, the soil retains its winter stock of moisture for now – but we definitely need rain soon…

Oh well, it keeps the weeds in abeyance. And the working conditions are nothing short of glorious. Unimpeded by soggy ground, the days uncover a repetitive formula: a couple of hours digging, a couple of hours maintenance (mowing and/or strimming), an hour’s potting on or sowing in the greenhouse… add in an hour tending the animals, plus a bit of daydreaming – and that’s what a day’s work looks like. A steady cadence pervades every activity. You could be lulled into just going through these motions all year and not planting a single thing in the ground!

*

I didn’t fancy my beer and chocolate budget disappearing on something as dull as bamboo canes. My present stock is all bleached and brittle from being stuck in a field in Brittany. But some of my scattered thoughts are already turning to planting out sweet peas and, later, climbing beans. If that seems a bit premature it’s only because I’m conscious that the season for cutting bean poles and pea sticks from our hedgerow is coming to an end. Instead of a defined silhouette of poles in the low spring sunshine, the coppiced hazel will soon be an amorphous, leafy mass.

It’s not just the money-saving aspect that makes this particular job a pleasure. Hazel seems designed for the purpose of supporting beany things. Having cut down a decent size pole, I cut off the side branches to make pea sticks and then all but one of the bits where it divides at the top – here I preserve the one that curves in a way that will help form the top of my bean structure. I then sharpen the other, thick end by hacking at it with a billhook. If you’re lucky you even end up with a the vestige of a side shoot in just the right place to assist in forming the apex of the edifice, and another one further down the pole that you can stand on to drive the thing into the ground.

When I do remember to put something potentially edible in the soil, it’s usually a potato. All tucked up snugly in a bed of grass cuttings. I’m tentatively filling the trenches thus, mindful of the wreckage that the May frost caused last year. Back-filling said trenches proved there’s heat in the sun alright – it was the first hot work of the year – but the wind is still too cold and withering to chance transplanted seedlings…

*

The calm can’t last much longer. Soon the assault will begin. The tinpot plans of the gardening dictator will be flattened by nature’s show of overwhelming force. An inexorable tide of weeds and other shock troops of the wilderness will flow in and all we can do is hang on the best we can.

But hanging out the washing very early yesterday and I’m still believing it’s a beautiful world, despite everything. After all, the mean and dismaying plans of politicians and the like are slight and ineffective when compared to the seasonal change taking place right now.

Last of the winter salad (78 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

This post is simply a retrospective tribute to some humble salad crops which have been significant contributors to our diet since New Year. Thanks to their existence within the weedy ranks of the polytunnel beds, the first three months of the calendar year aren’t such a fearsome prospect any more.

No one cares about lambs lettuce in July. But in February it’s a godsend. I’ve discovered a few others too, which I’d strongly recommend for sowing in October and cherishing as the Hungry Gap opens up.

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Miner’s lettuce, leaf chicory and various mustards…you couldn’t claim gourmet prizes for any of them (although Amsoi/Indian mustard is very nice indeed) – but that’s not the point. They are friendly, winter stalwarts. Like all good friends they are there when the going is tough.

After a hectic summer it’s tempting to forget about such things. But fiddling around with obscure salad seed as the days start to draw in ensures something green and healthy to eat at the start of spring – which isn’t a nettle!

Vegetables for pigs scheme (80 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Welcome to the Mummy pigs’ field!

It’s a small, scruffy survivor: a little corner of a prairie which used to be lots of other, human-scale fields like ours. These rented two acres lie immediately below our house but, until yesterday, had been a vegetable-free zone and the exclusive domain of the Mummy pigs. While their daughters and I work the big field together over there, these bristly, barrel-shaped matriarchs have been methodically turning the clay car park of soil down there.

Their peace was disturbed yesterday when I rolled up with a barrow full of kit. They grunted disapprovingly through the electric fence as I unpacked inedibles such as plastic mulch, big staples and a mallet. Although appreciative of the new ground I’d given them access to the day before, they didn’t feel the same way about this strange plan unfolding on their old patch. He isn’t even stopping to scratch our ears, they said (maybe).

Since last October, when the animals’ grain went up to 35€ per 100 kg, I’ve been brewing a plan to restrain this overhead. Once upon a time I’d been attracted to the cosy idea that a patch of land could support entirely the animal and human population living upon it. I then read that this was not, in fact, at all desirable because it would merely amplify the deficiencies of the soil and all present would end up in a dietary spiral.

So some grain imported from somewhere else is a necessary thing. But so is the need to keep costs to a minimum. Around the same time as the grain price went up 15%, the Jerusalem artichoke harvest came in. Then throw into the mix a fuddled memory of the strip grazing I’ve seen the local farmers do with their cows hereabouts and leave to ferment for a few months…

The resulting plan which emerged from this mental soup actually only took an hour to execute.

I pegged down the plastic at one end and laid it out on the floor. I then inserted plant labels through holes I’d cut in the fabric (for last years’ cauliflowers) and rolled the plastic back up again. At each point marked by a label, I loosened the soil. I then unfurled the sheet of mulch again and secured it with some rocks and a few staples. (Don’t worry, by this point the pigs had also gone to sleep due to the tedium of it all!). I then selected 25 of my biggest, ugliest tubers from last year and planted them through the mulch.

A similarly constructed, 20 metre bed of pampered artichokes on the big field gave me 50kg of tubers last year. I’m going to plant three times as many this season. And, when the pigs have completed the cultivation of the next strip I’ll be doing the same thing again, but with mangel-wurzels instead. And so on. The pigs being followed across the field by archaic vegetables and the plastic holding back the weeds which – on this newly-turned Breton soil – could throttle even a Jerusalem artichoke at birth. It’s a lot of fuss for a fodder crop, I suppose. But the only expense is my time and that’s a small price to pay if I can dilute that grain bill by 50% using home grown rooty things…

But that’s enough time and thought devoted to growing stuff for non-humans for today… the production line of more edible vegetables seems to have seized up somewhere around the greenhouse stage. Better go and sort it out…

ADDENDUM: After the mangel-sowing season is completed, I could plant out some of those big, stalky kales you see outside the houses of old people around here. A succession of fodder crops – how exciting is that! Hello? Hello??

Something else to read, part one (84 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

My latest article for Guide 2 Brittany has appeared today. I hope you like it.

It’s a plan (85 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

If you have Excel you might be able to see this:

GARDEN 2011

Otherwise, feel free to peer at this (clicking on it once, or even twice, might help):

Whether you’d want to is a different matter, after all it’s only my finalised cropping plan for the coming year. Just completed in time for nature to laugh her head off..!

Everything shown on there that should be in place by now generally is, including fruit trees, perennials – and piglets. Beds for things yet to be sown are somewhere between ready and completely not ready, mainly the latter. But all 145 beds exist in some form or other.

I’ve not included catch crops, green manures and other opportunist thingies because I genuinely feared my head would explode. I’m undecided if a plan makes things less or more likely to happen. But at least that’s something else to think about it as I lie down in a darkened room.

A kind of giving (87 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

The other morning I was filling a bean trench with a mixture of straw and manure. As usual the piglets came to see what I was up to and, particularly, if there might be any food on offer. After all, breakfast had taken place at least ten minutes earlier. Nothing doing, they decided and went off to have a nap or catch up on a bit of sunbathing.

Apart from one. The most intelligent-faced and hardest working of all the piggies. She assessed the situation carefully and decided to contribute to my effort by disappearing into the barn and reappearing moments later with a generous mouthful of her straw bedding.

Now I’m sure this was merely an instinctual response. She thought I must be making a nest – a very serious matter for pigs, second only to food in importance – and decided to help out. But I found this a completely disarming thing to do regardless of motivation. Due to her other attributes I’d already determined that she would be a breeding sow, but this act definitely secured her bacon!

Ok, so it missed the kids’ holiday. I concede it is freezing at night. My hands are chapped and sore from exposure to the east wind. And I’m praying it doesn’t stay parched for months like last year. But a dry and sunny spell in March is a very nice gift indeed. A blessing, almost. It feels especially poignant after the grey deficit of winter has been experienced to the full.

I’m not confusing transient control over the garden with personal merit, by the way: it’s as easy to be master of all you survey in March as to be hopelessly down and out in June. Nature determines all. But my present, paltry efforts are greatly assisted by the drying effect of the wind and these rainless days. It means I can do the first complete mowing without battling a soggy tangle of resistance. Even better, I can hoe. The long beds of shrivelled broad beans and peas have been cleared of their tiny but burgeoning foes. The hoe’s blade is also the perfect antidote to the sallow pan covering my clay soil.

I can’t offer the words or the images to capture the invigorating revelation constituted by nature waking up. That joyful energy permeates everything – and even if you’ve hard slog in a trench to do – it surfaces in happy moments. A new, gentle light on the woodland floor. Goats resting on newly-mown grass. Buds appearing on newly-planted fruit trees.

It’s probably not possible, though, to live on beauty alone. I have a very prosaic interest in what can be eaten as we head into the jaws of the Hungry Gap. Even with all the ingenuity in the world the new year’s sowings are only just being potted on. Thanks to the gift of dry weather that kept on giving last year, there’s a gap where my purple sprouting broccoli should be and my cabbage collection is distinctly on the small side. Only salsify is presenting an edible opportunity in the formal beds at present. I’m assured the leaves can be eaten like spinach, but with enough heat, salt and butter I suspect that would apply to most green things.

The polytunnel is still reliably offering up its November sown salads however. And eggs and pork aplenty keep the prospect of next March from being too daunting. But it’s the sheer abundance of wild garlic and nettles pushing through everywhere all around the field that give a welcome foretaste of the generous abundance to come. Hopefully.

A night time (90 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

It’s just before midnight. Everybody in this house is sleeping apart from me.

I’m listening to that strange east wind scouring the darkness. When we first arrived here the space was so big it felt like we were simply cast adrift. Even now, at night, the hinterland of the farm seems vast in my imagination. I try and compress it within the bounds of my mind’s eye but in the gloom it escapes my grasp. Instead I think of a remote, reverse world beyond the window teeming with night creatures, the boundaries of the daylight hours now porous, meaningless.

I fix on my farm animals and wonder what their experience of night might be like. No doubt the pigs will be oblivious, snug like broad beans in their straw nests. An enviable kind of composite, snoring warmth. I’m not sure about the goats – they are a bit tense at the best of times and I fear the long night might be a bit of an ordeal for them.

Of all the birds, I’m absolutely certain about the nocturnal status of one of them. The oldest of the female ducks will be perched upon the apex of the old barn. By day, you’ll find her in the enclosure, hanging around the drinker with the other ducks. But without fail, around dusk, she’ll use those unclipped to wings to take flight and adopt her lonely position. Not for her the questionable ratio of safety in numbers. She forgoes the proximity of her kind when the fear fox is about, just to be certain of the new dawn.

She’s up there like a living sign. The duck and I will be awake a while yet.

A strange encounter (92 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

March has arrived colder and greyer than a lot of January: a prickly customer for those of us wanting a bit of spring softness.

It’s a question of pressing on with trenching, digging, mulching – safe in the knowledge that there are gentler days ahead. The resolute monotony of these tasks was broken yesterday by the appearance – just an inch away from my spade’s edge – of this colourful character:

It’s a fire salamander, I think. Not uncommon, but not exactly expected in the bottom of a bean trench either! After a few moments of looking at each other like we were the strangest thing on earth, he went back into his hole. I resumed digging, unsure who was hosting who, but glad of his strange presence in my/his garden.

Listening (94 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

It’s the wrong end of the half term holiday and I’m sitting in the departure lounge of Manchester airport. It’s as low and grey in here as the clouds out there. Between the ranks of uncomfortable seats, and away from his Mum, there’s a toddler attempting to walk, but he’s being thwarted by the difficult angles and textures of this desolate space.

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My French magazine is trying to tell me about the findings of a Danish study. It claims a 14% increase in heart failure among the over 65’s per 10 decibels of nuisance noise.

The night before a drunken Geordie was shouting outside my hotel room door at 2 a.m. His nocturnal rant was slightly quieter than that of the teething baby I’m used to at home, so my heart barely missed a beat. But sitting here for hours is definitely not good for your health. And what is that constant humming noise in the background? Maybe, like the dreary walls and ceilings, as interminable as the hours they capture, it’s designed to drive you into the retail outlets.

Only a madman or a martyr would attempt to relate to the sea of faces washed up in the global village. Safer just to zone out, switch off to survive.

I think of home and the opposite relationship with the space we’re in. Back there the experience of the senses is the only reward: no wage, just sunrise, great food, bird song. If you couldn’t enjoy these it would be a life of poverty indeed. And, after exactly three years of field work, I find myself listening constantly, intently. Any wrinkle in the fabric of the farm’s normal sounds instantly attracts my attention. If any of the animals makes a non-ordinary noise I investigate immediately for fear of fox, stray dog or other walking calamity.

Back in the public place, I put my headphones on and sink further into a private space.

*

Catching up on reading is the best aspect of the journey. I finally finished Twenty Years A-Growing. Latterly I’d had to ration my consumption of the chapters because I knew I was going to be sad when it was all over. It’s not often you can share in such a vivid experience of a pre-industrial life. I’m always sorry to leave.

More recommended reading! Our friends at Small Potatoes had linked me in to this report. I read it on the train as the weirdly unfamiliar Pennine landscape slipped by unheeded. I’d suggest that anyone else tempted to go back to the land should look at it closely.

Among the accounts of businesses based on small acreage there are some familiar names: Charles Dowding and Real Seeds are people I’ve given money to before now! Nothing in the report changed my conviction that subsistence and barter are the natural affiliates of this way of life, rather than profit. I wasn’t completely convinced that viability achieved by propping up a venture with private funds is necessarily more worthy or sensible than accepting a state handout, like Big Ag does. But until the tax man accepts payment in the form of Jerusalem artichokes, I guess it might pay to take note.

Time for an alternative (96 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

At the time of writing a barrel of Brent crude would cost you $111.69.

That the product of oil and related energy sources pervades every aspect of modern life is well-known. That the economies of China and India now keep the price of oil high even when the West is in the economic doldrums is the new reality we’re just waking up to. But I’m now wondering what price level of oil kills profit stone dead. Seriously: apart from oil companies, worried oligarchs and other gangsters, who makes any money at all making things, transporting things – almost any things – when energy and fuel costs this much?

While the fig leaves of house prices, share values and pension funds remain in place, I suppose no one really notices or cares too much if they’re making less than nothing. But if those mutually-dependent fantasy assets return to their true, intrinsic values (paper, bricks, mortar) what then?

Sometimes the long, rickety bridge back to a bit of land-based certainty feels like it’s breaking right behind us…!

By comparison, potato blight might not seem a big deal. But I don’t like uncertainty about a staple crop and the blight goes with the territory around here. One hot, dry and relatively blight-free summer last year shouldn’t distract from the mouldy norm. I will be ready with the sprayer full of Bordeaux mixture, of course. But if there’s an obscure alternative route to walk then count me in.

I’d have to be pretty desperate to fight the pigs for the Jerusalem artichokes, so I’m hoping that these unusual tubers (to a Westerner) will offer a palatable alternative to the good old spud. From the left: jicama, yacon, taro and oca.

Unfortunately, I discover (after purchase) that the lovely-looking oca is susceptible to the same lurgies as the potato. Yacon is an edible dahlia. I don’t know anything about flowers so that sounds to me akin to eating an Aspidistra… And jicama claims to be a good alternative to a water chestnut – so presumably will also spoil an otherwise nice meal. I may never discover the delights of taro-eating because, I read, it requires a warm, 200 day growing season.

Can you sense my lack of optimism? Well, I might be a little less sniffy if my spuds are reduced to blackened wreckage by phytophthora infestans. So any practical experience of these or other alternative tubers would be most welcome.

More good advice (99 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I think the last week in February is one of the turning points of the gardening calendar. These are just moments in the year when an instinctive watershed is crossed and it feels timely to sow certain things. In this instance, lots and lots of things.

Nothing is lost yet and everything remains to be gained. The greenhouse is packed to the gunwales with germinating things. And I’m turning soil for fun now, any spare minute I’m out there. Beds which were cultivated last year yield easily to the fork or spade but I don’t credit the labours of that brave but hapless last-year-me though, I just assume I’m magically much more excellent this time around. Occasionally I exhume one of last season’s plant labels, little memorials to hopes dashed… “I don’t remember eating that” I say to myself. And I shrug and put it in my pocket, ignoring the old lessons of already burgeoning grass and weeds.

I am trying to show a bit of restraint by resisting the urge to fill all my beds straight away. Instead of sowing 100 metres of early peas, I’m trying to ready the space for a succession of three or four crops – those second early, early main, and main crop harvests everyone in the books seem to achieve. Similarly against the grain of habit, the broad bean sowing is on hold: many metres of Aquadulce sown last October will suffice. For now. (I did buy a Spanish variety that you can sow in Summer, though. Just in case.)

Not for me a huge sowing of beetroot in February this year either. It only meant a listless search for ruby red leaves in a forest of weeds last time. Instead they’re in 3″ pots in the greenhouse and there’s a smug, short but nicely cultivated bed waiting for them out there. Same goes for turnips, spinach, kohl rabi and chard. There’s more bed space ready for the earliest brassicas already being potted on under cover and a home for some extra onion sets next the autumn-sown ones which are already romping away.

The mammoth strim-a-thon is almost complete too. I’ve found corners of the field I never knew existed…

If there weren’t just 99 days to go, I’d be be having a slightly self-satisfied week off this half term. Instead the feeling of urgency pervades all. I wake up thinking about which cauliflower crops in June (It’s Patriot). I’m persuading the oldest of the kids to help me on the field. We planted twelve trees today and I’ve got stacks of other tasks lined up for us, all noted down and everything. He’ll be glad to get back to school! Meanwhile, I’m peering anxiously through the thicket of early sowings and trying to see the big picture of the harvests beyond, the gardening year in the round.

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The journey just completed mainly saw me bent over a yellowing organic gardening text from 1971 and finding gems of information readily available since I was four years old. It’s there in black and white. Advice to sow less, more often. And to sow less in Spring to leave room, and some of the gardener’s energy, for the later sowings which fill the winter table. How come I can only accept advice once I’ve already learnt the lesson the hard way?

Late winter scenes (102 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

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Hyperstagflation and pork pies (104 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

The latest article on peasanty productivity is here. Includes a photo seemingly taken from the author’s Interpol file..?

New arrivals – an animal update (105 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Sunday was a sneak preview of Spring. Doors of barns and other animal accommodation were thrown wide-open to let the warmish air reach into their foisty interiors. Working on the field, I felt humble and (even after the rigours of winter) a bit unworthy in the presence of the aching vernal beauty all around.

Yesterday was different. If you’ve ever spent time in the Lake District you develop a dread of rain setting in. I fed the pigs and, by the doleful look in their gentle eyes, it seemed like they were reluctantly planning a day indoors too. I opened their doors a bit – just in case – and happily a watery sun emerged and we could all set off for work in the field after all. While I planted trees and prepared the beetroot bed, they worked dutifully, turning the new turf in their enclosure.

The pigs are split into three teams and work three different locations. They are all one family, though, and I don’t see any prospect of introducing new blood this year. The ‘piglets’ – now strapping adolescents really – will keep us in pork all year and when they’re gone the other two teams will be reunited and Mummy pigs and Daddy pigs can live up to their names again!

It’s all change on the fowl front. I acquired six new ducks last week. They are presently encamped with my surviving goose, all learning to love their fox-proof home. I’m going to buy a drake and a gander very soon so the farm’s reputation for feathered fecundity can be restored – and the record for longevity improved!

No such luck for the goats, sadly. They will remain as maidens until their next season arrives in the autumn. They are going to be re-housed, though, to make way for a much-postponed influx of meat hens and some additional layers. I can only face the prospect of a year of self-sufficiency with equanimity because plenty of eggs means lots of cakes!

Oh, and I’m going to get some more guinea fowl too. If nothing else, this will ensure that the average I.Q. of the farm animals will be dragged down below my own again…

It’s comforting to realise that the animal aspect of this project will amount to just more of the same really. A good continuation. As opposed to the fruit and vegetable production which always feels like starting from scratch. Again. I’ll be recording progress so far in these areas in my next post.

Old habits die hard (110 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

After leaving the supermarket yesterday, I found myself behind an old guy who was driving a very battered and very ancient Renault van. It was so dented that it looked like a pig had been trying to fight its way out. Or in. Or both.

He signalled left and turned right. Such things are not unusual on the highways and byways of Carhaix-Plouguer. Everyone around gave him a wide berth, including me. It was when he entered a roundabout that his driving became downright bizarre. Until, that is, I realised he was giving way to the right – on a roundabout! I don’t think priorities on roundabouts have worked like that for decades in France, but he was going to stick to the old way of doing things regardless.

I can identify with the old man’s attitude. Moving out of your comfort zone even in the face of new rules is an uncomfortable business. I’m presently trying to reform my gardening habits. I’m taking a new broom to the field (metaphorically): sowing in straight lines, strimming away untidiness, keeping bang up to speed with bed preparation. I’ve even started hoe-ing off the weeds before they become all-conquering giants.

It’s sensible and very grown up. And it hurts! When confronted with the ten precision-engineered potato trenches I’ve joylessly created, I feel a bit wistful for the sagging lines of last year. My brain aches as much as my upper-body. But reality has changed, and that’s that.

Sometimes, I’m not even sure where my mind ends and the garden begins. The scene out there always reflects my mental state. If I’m distracted and lax, there’s weeds everywhere. If I’m focussed and determined, everything horticultural is ship-shape and orderly. Those statements could just as well be reversed. The untamed bits are like a niggling conscience. It’s almost like we’re made of the same substance, the field and I.

Later the same day and I was hurrying to plant out some broad beans. I looked back at the row I’d hastily created and noticed its striking resemblance to a dog’s hind leg. I shrugged and walked away.

Tatty (112 days to go)

by Max Akroyd

That was the week that wasn’t really. Baby got la grippe and his sunny nature was sunk in a sea of gunk. When not worrying about him getting ill-er in doctors’ waiting rooms, we observed his symptoms and listened to his tugging breath in the dark, small hours.

That was clearly that for long working days and short, but restful, nights. Mundane things loomed up in stature and came down hard on authentic progress, which became a fractured, ad hoc affair.

But there’s a rumour going around. Just subtle hints, the merest suggestion that the growing season is about to commence. A flurry of birds disrupts the library-quiet winter air. Their song is more ambitious now and adorns the bare trees with spring’s allure. And affirms conclusively that light always means hope.

Been poorly (119 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I’m writing in the fog of a cold. It came rolling in on Thursday and is still hanging around glumly at the start of the new month. I read somewhere that the difference between a cold and the ‘flu is the ability to chase a £50 note wafting in the breeze. Since – as a Yorkshireman – I would have to be clinically dead not to chase a bank note of any denomination, I will only ever have colds according to this definition!

Funny how the moment the propagators were full, the trenches dug and the wind turned all easterly and bitter that the opportunity to be poorly was taken. On a reluctant trip to town last week, I swung gracefully into a parking place between two other cars and hit one of them fair and square on the back end. What with all the fresh air and exercise, I hardly ever get ill these days so it took a few hours (and a few hundred euros) to work out that I had a fever.

As it is with many other ordinary things, my attitude to being poorly has changed somewhat since becoming a peasant. After a bit of token fretting about a beetroot bed I was meant to be preparing, I didn’t attempt to work through it. Recognising the privilege of my position, I surrendered. Like a poorly dog, I curled up and waited for the thing to pass. Emma fed the animals and I listened to the boys read their French library books. During the colder months I don’t see my school-going sons much more than any old 9 to 5-er, so this was fun for all of us. I noticed a change in the texture of their character not just arising from their fluency in the language. Two of my boys have turned French! And this means what once could have been done in other places, can now probably only be done here.

This small reconnection more than compensated for the small disconnection from nature caused by my absence over the last few days. For, when finally I emerged from under my stone yesterday evening, blinking eyes fixed on the ground, I noticed the turf was thicker. It’s a bit like losing your place in a good novel and finding yourself reading the wrong paragraph.

I could do with the announcement of a new month to intervene between January and February. I’m not quite ready for a real gardening month, one which isn’t largely an exercise in wishful thinking. It’s light here to 6:30 pm and everyone has one packet in their seed box which reads “sow from February…” Thus the side stream reaches the mainstream and we’ll flow out into the sea of the new season together. Well, once I get rid of this damn cold!

Les Indispensables (124 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

The new imperative has attached itself to the sowings. In previous years I’d sow lots of things – far more than my old allotment of ground could support – out of an ill-defined sense of necessity. A similar instinct drove me to accumulate books about pigs even though I wore a suit and worked in an office all day.

This year, there’s a more assertive inner voice to be heard, saying: “grow this or go hungry come June”. As a direct result, things that can’t be put in the soil now must get growing out of it. This week it’s the potatoes getting the chitting kick start: Amandine, Bintje and Mona Lisa. You’ll note reliability of yield rather than arcane splendour guided my choice this year!

I’ve dug trenches sufficient for about 200 seed potatoes thus far. I reckon this family could comfortably eat about 3000 spuds in a year. So, clearly, I’m not done yet… It’s that kind of scary arithmetic which compels me to treat the working day a lot more methodically too. This would have been a very dull thought once upon a time, but I’ve discovered nothing in gardening is as dreary as failure.

Between the animals’ morning and evening meals (they’re getting appreciably further apart now) I am committed to hour-and-a-half stints of trenching, strimming and cultivating. Once the time allocated to walking in an out of the tool shed collecting things I’ve forgotten, and occasionally subsiding into an exhausted heap, is taken into account, the whole day is almost done. No matter: steady progress is where it’s at and the field and the gardener are starting to shed some of their autumnal flab.

Of course, the approaching need for grass to be mowed and weeds to be hoed will soak up much of the advantage of the longer days. But retaining a semblance of January’s firm grip on Nature’s leash is my aim for this year. If I can only hold on tight while she’s tugging away like crazy in April, I’ll deem the back spasms which shout at me in the middle of the night a small price to pay.

So a little onion which you can sow now and eat on June 1st is the very definition of indispensable around here. Food’s overgrowth of complexity – commodities, supply chains, packaging, RPI etc. – is irrelevant. Each coal-black seed will hopefully form the basis of a meal. Quite clear and simple, at last.

More effort required? (127 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I know it’s a day of rest but this is ridiculous. Around breakfast time the cry went up from our five year old: “Mom! I need help getting dressed” When his progress was checked, he was wearing one item of clothing: a back-to-front sock. I went outside to get the eggs.

Having said that, some freedoms are there to be enjoyed when you’re adrift on an island of your own land. There’s the freedom to dress like a tramp. There’s the freedom to hear the fanfare of sunrise and the requiem of sunset. Best of all, there’s the freedom to urinate in your garden. (I accept this may apply more to male peasants…)

But the freedom from the restrictions of the 9 to 5 are different, puzzling. Not so much a comfort zone challenge as a startling ejection. I had no idea – until I retreated by a few centuries – that my brain is shackled in the dungeon of the industrial day. Don’t you find it illuminating that a pig is tirelessly busy when there’s something interesting in front of it and sleeps when there isn’t? It has no concept of work or leisure. Imagine a day with its artificial boundaries dissolved.

Potato trenches: Monday to Saturday

I wish I could.

(Exit, pursued by “the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.” )

My self-sufficiency (130 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

With the start of my year of self-sufficiency now visible on the horizon, I thought it was probably high time to define some things – to set out what this thing will be and what it probably won’t. Watching loose ends get tied up probably isn’t the most interesting spectacle, so you might want to skip this post if you’re (very sensibly) wanting to read about pigs and pak choi etc.

The main purpose of this blog has always been to get my lazy backside outside. That small promise to the world, to be self-sufficient starting 1/6/11, has got me out there on days when I would otherwise gone back to bed. The prospect of dismal and public failure has been a very effective weapon against my inner idleness. Not that the field could be described as remotely ready yet – but it would have been irretrievable without this undertaking spurring me on.

Moreover, the opportunity to frame this experience in words – to throw some stuff into the void and have it picked up by kind fellow travellers – has proven remarkably therapeutic. Cheap wine and costly isolation can make the expat experience an absolute minefield, but the unexpected support attracted by the blog has kept me on the straight and narrow and meant that despair has never even come close. Well, rarely.

The rules as envisaged at the tentative beginnings of this project will be honoured to the best of my ability. With the exceptions mentioned at the start, a bit of barter here and a lot of Emma’s cakes there, I will feed myself from this garden. Or die… fail! If anything, the idea has expanded in scope and has now become the bedrock of our family budget. After June we will only have 100€ a month to spend on food and toiletries from anywhere else. Which will act as a constraint or an encouragement, depending on how you look at it. But it’s interesting to note how the pipe dream has turned to stony assumption.

Inevitably, circumstances of the last year dictate the form of the self-sufficiency of this one. For example, money ran so short last autumn that not only was the idea of buying a cow absurd, we couldn’t even afford to rent a Billy to get our goats in kid. With the lesson of the geese learnt, and gite deposits coming in, such embarrassing circumstances are a thing of the past. But it does mean a year ahead without dairy. For those of us that are fat as a barrel – namely, me – this will probably be no bad thing.

My commitment to ferrying my oldest two backwards and forwards to the UK a dozen times each year is complete and absolute. So if you see me scoffing a month’s-worth of shop-bought sandwiches in Kings Cross station, you’ll know what I’m up to!

Finally, there was some talk from me about writing a book about all this. I can say with certainty now that this won’t be happening. I’m completely disenchanted with gardening as commodity. I’ve come to think that selling that knowledge is the very essence of not fully understanding the implications of it. Conversely, the nature of a blog – free, organic, rambling, open to comment and discussion – seems entirely consistent with the meaning of the experience. I’m also convinced that every book we need to read has already been written – and 98% of those were written over seventy years ago. My own humble take on this experience will, therefore, be right here for as long as you want it, and a bit longer besides!

I ♥ January (133 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I was waiting for the weather to turn filthy. Wall-to-wall rain means pigs stay in bed and the peasant of very little brain can make overdue alterations to their electrical enclosures…

… But the rain/snow/sleet hasn’t set in during this January in Brittany. Instead, it’s been a scruffy, two-faced month, always perched on the cusp of Atlantic low and Continental high. Just mild and blustery days allow you to savour the new season’s incremental return: each higher gradation of sunlight reaching further through our windows and spotlighting certain objects; a ball of wool in the studio or a dog snoring in her basket. You can even detect the faintest hint of spring’s green in the air and hear a paltry dawn chorus, lines fluffed by an over-enthusiastic early bird.

So we had to build and install a gate to keep those Mummy pigs in their barn. The latter part of this much-postponed operation is particularly tricky when you’re being nudged and nibbled by those big sisters. But it got done one way or another. The multiple bolts on the new gate were bolted and a load of new straw thrown in with the newly-penned pigs. That stuff keeps them happy for hours: they strip it of any tasty seeds and then build and rebuild their nest like the couple of old fusspots they are… Meanwhile, I was shrinking their outdoor area to a degree which means they’ll dig it over thoroughly – and just in time for me to plant those Jerusalem artichoke tubers. Which I’ll dig up next November and feed to the pigs. You know it’s right when it’s circular.

Good job the place is awash with spring-like sun. Because the securing of the gate caused a cascade of other jobs to occur. The fence posts liberated from the Mummy pigs’ field were used to redesign their daughters’ outdoor area on the main field. This now occupies a big area in the centre of things and the rough and lanky turf will keep them happy well into spring. It also ties together, somehow, the two halves of the field which have felt a bit disjointed thus far. In turn, the area earmarked for potatoes was liberated from the piglets’ dominion and trenching could begin.

The soil is very heavy, but I can’t delay. The garlic has pierced it’s cold, damp cover and, amazingly, those November-sown peas I’d given up on are now showing too. The hens are laying properly and the cockerel is wearing all his finery again. It seems the increasing power of the sun suffuses all. But even after the purgatory of December I suspect we can’t just ascend happily into Spring. Inevitably, February frosts or March’s weeds will tarnish the sentiment. But just now I’m in raptures in the presence of rebirth.

Further reading (137 days to go)

by Max Akroyd

The second of my articles on doing whatever it is I’m doing has appeared on the Guide 2 Brittany website. Why not take a look? After all, it’s too wet for digging!

Unlondoning (139 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

We all have our crosses to bear. Mine is a regular return with my oldest offspring to their Mum’s house in Yorkshire. A stake in the old country, nailed on. Like our collie-cross, I prefer my significant others gathered together and my own bed made to lie in, and the return leg of The Journey – twelve times a year – isn’t that at all.

I visited my sister’s new field. Under an anaemic, London-brick sky, we stood there with our sociology degrees speaking of pigs and mangel-wurzels. I heard of family friends exchanging high finance for horticulture. I saw deer hiding in the railway cutting and dark brambles massing around the suburbs.

Don’t watch your deeds and your notes turn to paper in some bad alchemy. Don’t rely on luck or merit, which were puffed up anyway by the sooty bellows of cheap energy. The clever money is going to ride two horses. Uncomfortable, but better than no horse at all, probably.

Colour on a grey day (145 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

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At some point – while I was filling pots of compost or strimming away the mortal remains of last summer or messing about for ages trying to perfect a stake for an insane goat’s tether – the post lady deposited a copy of this year’s Baumaux catalogue in our post box.

At nearly seven hundred pages, it’s as big as an unpopular town’s phone book. And it’s a welcome injection of inspiring colour on a mild but wild Breton day. You’d have to be even odder than I am to buy all fourteen varieties of lamb’s lettuce. But it’s good to know they’re there.

My January day (146 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Certainly the weather can be grim. The contrast with the wide lapels and medallions of Christmas can be stark and January easily feels like a gloomy straightjacket.

But it’s really not. Because, for anything that grows, light – not temperature – is what counts most. For the first time since October I was working outside in the light at 6pm yesterday. According to GMT+1, dark stretches long into the morning. What’s wrong with that? Sure, if you’re trapped in the industrial day it means stumbling around the farm in the dark to attach machines to your animals, or something. Let sleeping pigs lie I say. No one’s looking so, if the baby and his siblings allow, we make like porkers and stay in our nest until after 8!

5 am is the best part of the day in July – a privilege to experience. 5 am in January is for insomniacs. I hereby declare that January is properly the month of the lie-in! The short hop to school is our only concession to ‘real life’. I’ll make the bread while Emma’s doing that and wander off to feed the animals when she returns. It’s much better to see your extremities being frozen off in daylight and the worst days seem much less fearsome when you’re actually out there, rather than watching them mournfully through the office window.

The pigs are always pleased to see their breakfast, of course, and the shut door of their pen, in combination with the late start, means an abundant supply of fertility just waiting to be collected. And fertility is the next best thing after light. Much to and fro-ing between the animal accommodation ensues, as things are forgotten or need fixing. Time for a coffee break!

Once essentials like sitting around chatting, changing nappies and watching Bargain Hunt are taken into account, the time to do other specific jobs at this time of year is probably compressed into just four hours a day. Hard life, eh? I try and mix the tasks into hour long stints, the variety breaks monotony and saves my back. And I hope, once things are properly established around here, that the working day becomes second nature – and nothing like work-for-work’s-sake deafens the gentle narrative uttered by the farm.

In conclusion, I stick two fingers up to my forefathers, and their nasty work ethic. This isn’t a production line and I’ve swapped thrift and freedom for their factory clock. Nature is the boss now and she determines what my days are for.

Sowing plans (147 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

With the greenshed now showing signs of readiness, and my head full of hope for luminous summer things like aubergines and chillies, it’s time to buckle down and review the preparedness of the open field.

And open is just how it feels at the moment, along with a good measure of rank and sour. Any wild excess in the scene has been depleted – to an unprecedented degree – by all that snow and ice. If it wasn’t for the sound beatings Mother Nature had been handing out to me in recent years, I’d feel sorry for her wretched state as presently manifested in our garden. Instead, in a display of callous opportunism, I’ve been thrashing the yellow and surly-looking margins with the strimmer to conquer previously uncharted territory.

Back in the supposedly productive centre things are looking uninspiring without her animating presence. Which means, of course, another opportunity to tidy the house while she sleeps. My resolution for the coming season is to have a place in the field for everything I sow, at least a month in advance. No more lingering things losing their vitality standing around in pots. This means anticipating precisely what’s going to take off under cover and land in the field between here and the vernal equinox. In no particular order:

  1. Early peas (My Autumn sowing fell victim to the November frosts/my sheer laziness in not getting them sown in October)
  2. Parsnips (chitted, like last year)
  3. Beetroot
  4. Jerusalem Artichokes
  5. First Brassicas  (kales, collards & other green barely edibles)
  6. Onions from sets & seed
  7. First carrots
  8. Broad beans
  9. Spinach
  10. Parsley
  11. Radishes
  12. Turnips
  13. Potatoes
  14. Chards
  15. Rhubarb
  16. Oddities (Bulbous chervil, Burdock, Salsify, Scorzonera, Hamburg Parsley, Seakale)

Eek. That doesn’t even include all the salad things which will need a place in the polytunnel. I’ve stumped around the field this morning allocating spaces in my head, whilst wrestling the urge to panic and just get digging. I did those things this afternoon instead.

Really focuses the mind knowing these efforts might make what we’ll be eating come June…

Where to begin? (148 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

At the beginning?? Garden-wise that would be like finding the beginning of a spinning roundabout so you could jump on. When drunk.

Having limbered up by mucking out the piglets, I noted the weather was set unfair. Organising the greenshed it was, then. And in some ways that’s only right and proper because the seeds get sown in there and that could be the start of things – if you believe the egg comes before the chicken.

Itself only part of an old barn with extra plastic windows, the greenshed is a temple to make do and mend. Almost everything in there used to something else.

Only the propagators were ridiculously expensive purchases. (I bet an old electric blanket would have done just as well for a fraction of the cost. Electric shocks can be invigorating, you know…). But I must admit they have given good service over many years – now they’re held together with sticky tape it’s a great relief when their gentle heat permeates through the Sainsbury’s extra strong tin foil and onto my expectant hand. This annual ritual of laying on of hands and feeling the aura marks the start of the sowing season.

But this year I needed to find something to defend the seedlings a bit from that heat. For some reason, probably crappiness, the seed compost available here seems prone to baking rock hard on the propagators. I don’t even know what the green racks used to be part of (I hope it wasn’t Emma’s) but they’ll work a treat by holding the pots a couple of centimetres above the heat. Now for something to water the seedlings in. Bottom watering is where it’s at in my opinion. A bespoke greenhouse watering trough? No a manky old cat litter tray will do just fine… the cats will never know…

Good advice (149 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I’m still treading water in the warm shallows of family life. Tomorrow sees the dreaded return to school, for those with a French school to go to anyway. And then I need to immerse myself fully in some proper “man’s work” – like strimming – which will be much quieter than spending time with the kids!

I stumbled across an extract from Tom Hodgkinson’s “Idle Parent” this morning:

“I deliberately avoid reading any of the modern childcare gurus, since it is precisely the modern orthodoxy that I think is causing the problems.

I’m sure there’s lots of compelling intersections between gardening and childcare practices. I’ve noticed that every text that really illuminates this rural living task comes from non-modern sources too. Hessayon is alright for planting distances and Monty was a guru-class gardening writer before the TV producers got hold of him. But you need a William Cobbett or even a Flora Thompson to orientate yourself properly in this timeless landscape.

I’m beachcombing for other rural tomes too. Just started this:

Will report back in due course. I’m the world’s slowest reader so it won’t be for a while.

How to sharpen tools is another bit of useful information in this line. I’ve tried reading up on it and glazed over within minutes, in exactly the same way as I did in Maths lessons thirty years ago. But five minutes spent with someone who knows about this stuff this afternoon and I think I finally get it.

A Happy New Year (150 days to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Well I’m looking forward to it!

It is a bit daunting stepping out of that short time of excess and into a cold, sparse and exacting morning. But if that brave first step leads to a simpler relationship with things, so be it.

Everyone’s had fair notice. I’m going to let others mourn the disintegration of the fake normal. The transition won’t be easy but most people will adapt. If, in the long term, it frees them from distorted and disorientating rewards derived from obscure activity and replaces them with simple abundance won from their hard work and ingenuity, then why not embrace it? Imagine a world, for example, where people just grew their food and loved their food. It’s not some strange utopia. Supermarkets, a dieting industry, corn syrup: I think the future will be better off without them.

At a personal level, the self-sufficiency I dreamed of through this blog is now a common sense expectation woven into the fabric of this family, not least in its budget! It’s moved from abstract theory and been restored to the practical core. We need to make the family’s food out of a field. The simplicity of this configuration defeats all that tenuous complexity. It can’t be bought or sold, just spoken – a garden based on hope, not design.

Just for the record, our humble take on this universal human endeavour will continue to be reported here. I hope you’ll pop in from time to time.

Wishing you an abundant 2011,

Max & family.

23 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Like a lot of Seventies families, we used to flee the suburbs and go on a holiday abroad once a year. For a fortnight, under the influence of French sun or Greek hospitality (and plenty of the local grog) the grown-ups suddenly seemed a lot less tense. I remember, even then, wondering why the ratio of happiness to ugly work was so unfavourable. From my naive perspective, it seemed very puzzling to slave for those other fifty weeks, to be indifferent to that flowing out of time. Especially since the best bits about the holiday – rock pools, the smell of wild herbs, the curve of the world visible on the long horizon – seemed to be freely available to local people who didn’t have the big house or the big car.

Thirty odd years later, and despite a lucky life free of that toad of a job, the duality persists. At any time, appointments, shopping, tax returns and other paraphernalia of modern life can conspire to deflect and distract. Opportunities to work outside, just trying to subsist you know, can feel like mere stepping stones in a big, swirling river of … stuff. This polarisation feels particularly intense at Christmas when the complex currents of rampant commercialism run strong and deep. Depletion is dressed up as abundance and made to dance to a soundtrack of cacky muzak. Families required to work apart for the rest of the year are suddenly forced to simulate a togetherness which should never have been subjugated in the first place. Fortunately there’s always a challenge: a reminder offered by snow or some other primal, natural force which can soon mangle the fragile machinery of modern life.

Just in time, here’s my virtual present to you.

Yes, lots of mucky Jerusalem Artichokes. Don’t worry, I’ve got loads more in sacks too. And anyway, it’s just the clumsy notion I’m giving away: that I planted maybe 4 kg of tubers and got at least 40 kg back. Plain, simple and abundant. I did nothing much to earn that abundance, I just planted the things and then dug more things up later. Under the auspices of February or December sun, both activities were a pleasure, unfettered by a commute or a boss. I’ll replant them all in spring and next winter’s animal food bill – if not the farm’s methane emissions – will be drastically reduced.

I’ve recently been handed a copy of Cobbett’s smallholding bible. His affirmation of the happy wealth available to a large family from a small patch of land is undiminished by time. Contrast this with the complex dependencies enshrined in the way of doing things two hundred year later. His assertions of independence and self-reliance blaspheme in the church of consumerism. Mind you, along with potatoes and tea, Cobbett hated Jerusalem Artichokes: “a very poor, insipid vegetable”. But I hope their use as an abundant animal food will contribute significantly to my humble take on a cottage economy.

In fact, if I could offer something tangible and worth having this Christmas and into the New Year, it would be a piece of Cobbett’s “smiling land” to everyone here. See you there in 2011!

24 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

The period from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice (I’d call it Autumn, but I know that’s not a majority view) is probably the least popular gardening-wise, or any-wise. After an active life in spring and summer, the gardener traditionally subsides and retires as the garden retreats under her feet, and sits out the final dismal tract of time indoors.

This year I was highly motivated to try and eke something out of the dying season. After a sprightly start in spring, the garden and I had languished in the heat of summer and we were left with no option than scramble for hope against the grain of the dwindling days. I can now report decisively that October and November are best spent outside. I realise this is counter-intuitive, the allure of the wood burner, and Inside generally, is very strong. Outside feels like stepping into a harsh alternative reality.

But way out there the time has sped by – even a short measure of autumn sunlight is better for the spirits than dragging days indoors. Much easier to dig in the freezing cold than sweat it out in the spring. I’d tell myself. I discovered you can get up to half a dozen layers on your top half and it doesn’t matter what the weather throws at you. Well, apart from eighteen inches of snow, of course. I almost got buried alongside rows and rows of onions, garlic and shallots. The only clue to my identity would have been pockets stuffed with plant labels, and the name on my death certificate might have ended up as Monsieur All the Year Round, or something.

But otherwise it’s been a revelation of slightly wind burnt activity. If the soil was frozen hard (which it was – often) I could unveil some softer stuff from under a sheet of plastic mulch and dig that instead. Eventually the pigs would emerge all frowsty and draped in their bedding and enquire what I was up to. Their companionship was rewarded with an old cabbage or something to crunch on…

… then, when my back was turned, they would sneak off back to bed. Lucy Dog would also pay me a loyal but reluctant visit occasionally. But most of the time it was just me and it. At this difficult time, the bare trees are devoid of any life and the whole scene is almost lunar in its exposure to what’s above. But despite this, everything that likes a cold start got in the ground in quantity and thereby the workload is much reduced for when the next window of outdoor sowing opportunity comes around in February. Every month should have a gardening flavour and I think I’ve found one for October/November, albeit one to file under ‘obscure, acquired taste’.

That outdoor addiction hasn’t done much for my greenhouse progress. The nature of that adapted barn is very amenable in the other three quarters of the year, but it seems to magnify the damp and cold in autumn. They start at your feet and work upwards until you’re drinking hot coffee just to maintain basic brain function. If there’s a spirit of Breton damp, he resides in my greenshed. But I’ll have to defy him next week and get sowing in earnest: those shrubby herbs, onions (from seed – I never want to see a set again!) and some brassicas can all get going around the solstice and again free up precious time for more precious sowings later on.

The dying in this season thus engenders life in the next. Which is as good as it gets. That happy time is coming soon. That thing which makes December special. Happy solstice, in case I forget!

Viking head, Celtic heart (25 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

The hunt were out this morning, their hounds hither and thither over the fields; their baleful, echoing cries turning the frozen valley into a big, empty room. That control menace fox in mind.

I’m sure man dreams in diagrams and, given the motive power of oil, his fantasies find straight-lined expression on the landscape. Most of my beds first took shape under the Philistine cut of a rotavator but have since been twisted and turned to accommodate nature’s non-linear master plan: a weary spade being the blunt palette knife of choice. The whole ethos of smallholding, it transpires, is contrary to straight-line thinking and the adjustment of my mental processes to this non-industrial mindset has been surprisingly difficult. Since my first born arrived home I’ve been following clues on this twisty path to the nappy bucket of enlightenment. Not straightforward in a world where complex derivatives of truth are the currency of normality.

But even an illusion of control can still be a comfort when the thought of the field unfurls in my mind like the horticultural equivalent of a chimp’s tea party. Using the swanky garden design tool called Excel 2003, this is what I think will exist in my corner of the world by the end of next year.

There are some concessions to reality even in the flat earth diagram. The idea of separate, named areas arranged lengthways (The Upper Beds, The Lower Beds etc.) has been abandoned. I’m thinking laterally now, in tiers, which is more in accord with how the sun and irrigation work. That’s my Celtic heart talking. My inner Viking (Dad’s side, Halifax, West Yorks) will be very pleased, however, to declare to the unheeding scramble of family “I’ll be in Bed 106 planting garlic this morning!”… Of course the actual outcome will be different: like the difference between servicing a BMW and tending to a baby.

For some reason, this morning’s work started as a garlic bed and turned into a carrot bed. I don’t think they’ll ever get that fox neither…

*

Cruel coincidence? Look what our six year old brought back from school for his reading book this week end:

"Emily and the Lost Goose"

Smallholding in Brittany (25 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

The nice folk at Guide 2 Brittany asked me to write a series of articles about smallholding in Brittany. (I know, me!). You can read the first one here, if you like.

25 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

So savage winter catches
The breath of limber things,
And what I love he snatches,
And what I love not, brings.”

Thomas Hardy

By Saturday afternoon the back lanes around Kervéguen were navigable and by Sunday most of the sea of snow had gone. Constantly being leant on by the Atlantic winds gives the landscape of Finistère a hungry look at the best of times but after the snow it has a bitter, famished aspect. Purpose, sunk in the snow, dissipates completely in its soggy aftermath. I retreated inside and distracted myself with suddenly important paperwork.

After all, also revealed by removal of the white shroud were the few mortal remains of our geese, just a flurry of feathers and a smear of blood apiece really. Emma thought she had seen her earlier in the week, lurking in a local coppice, dark and hunt savvy. The fox had exploited the breach in the fence created by drifting snow and fed her unborn family before we could feed ours – a parity of purpose which defeats blame, I suppose.

Further down our lane there’s a hamlet in a sharp bend. Proud still, but a bit neglected. It must comprise a dozen buildings, but only a few are occupied these days. I imagine the sons of Quenech Cadec have moved to the smart new farms around and about. But there’s an old couple still living there. I saw the old man out feeding his chickens yesterday. He was wearing clogs of the sort they used to make in the forests around Huelgoat a hundred years ago.

This enduring landscape seems littered with messages sometimes. I found the thought of the resilience of the old man and his clogs through all those previous winters a real inspiration. I also derived an important lesson from the loss of the geese: of the “counting chickens before they’re hatched” variety. Pride in a flock is misplaced until they are banked in the freezer or multiplied into another generation. Like spending the promise of money, it’s an inappropriate form of optimism – debt as the opposite of self-sufficiency. This realisation transformed my attitude to the dead zone before the shortest day and the urgency of sowing seed and turning soil has returned redoubled.

Snow Geese (26 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “

Samuel Beckett

Last night I lost my geese. I heard nothing of what was going on outside because the house was insulated from external sound by a thick topping of snow, the same snow which had drifted over the geese’s enclosure and turned them loose into the world. My nocturnal ear could only pick up the amplified murmurings of the sleeping kids – nothing of the anserine chaos outside.

It’s possible the goose family will emerge again tomorrow from out of the miles hedgerow which I scoured all day, but I doubt it. I found one of the ganders on a flat ribbon of snow that used to be the lane, tattered and exhausted, and l led him into the safety of the hangar to recuperate. Thus a bit of the genetic material my flock represented has been preserved. Because, once the usual stages of anger, blame and a bit of despair had been got out of the way, I’m left with a feeling of loss concerning my goose dynasty. The prospect of creating three new families out of one and a brilliant Christmas dinner has been lost for this year.

I postponed bringing them off the field last week because I wanted to prepare their new winter quarters in the hangar first. Now I have a new enclosure, only one goose and a renewed determination to do things just right next time.

26 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

I once had a goldfish called Fred. (Warning: longer suffering readers will have heard this tiresome allegory before). He lived in a bowl for years. We then decided to dig a pond and it seemed only right that Fred should stretch his, erm … fins and enjoy the wide open spaces of that pond. Only thing is, after we released him from the confinement of his bowl and into the pond, he continued to swim in the same tight little circles he’d always done.  

It was the same thing for us when we moved to Brittany. After being shoe-horned into a terrace for years prior, it was almost impossible for this family to comprehend the amount of space we now owned, let alone set about using it properly. I can vividly remember walking around the field in the beginning feeling like a flea on a giant’s back.

Eventually – slightly more slowly than Fred did – you start to adapt and start to wonder how such a big farm ended up with such a small amount of land. The rather tedious answer is a clause in the conveyancing process here in France which ensures that real farmers get first call on agricultural land before it falls into the hands of enthusiastic, but clueless, amateurs – like me! Thus the French countryside is protected, land holding is consolidated and rationalised, hedgerows grubbed up and ancient field systems turned into prairies. That kind of protective progress thing. The outcome for the unlucky farm, thus denuded of its land, is an interesting proposition financially, if you stop and think about it (I didn’t!): a big old farm with very little land… Many of them stand unwanted and unloved by sensible locals, until someone comes along from a place where a few acres costs a million… 

Fortunately for him, there’s always someone on the look out for disorientated new arrivals and our outbuildings were soon full of other peoples’ stuff. However, after your bank balance has been similarly cared for, there comes a point when even the most determined dreamer has to realise that this abundance of outbuildings has to pay its way. In their very different ways the gite, the greenhouse, the goat house, the hen house and the pig barns have all performed this necessary transformation.

But the conundrum presented by the imperative to float a titanic collection of buildings on a tiny pond of land remains partially unsolved. In our case it’s The Hangar which is the epitome of the challenge at hand. Built to store enough hay and straw for a hundred cattle, I haven’t got the grazing land to support a single cow (yet). I’ve got six pigs, a vagrant duck, two cars, a trampoline, a tool shed, two rondes of hay, two wood piles, a ton of junk and a manure pile in there and it’s still at least half empty. I guess that’s inevitable when the thing occupies over 215 square metres!

I’ve known for some time what the hangar really needs, and what this family is going to need next year: a lot more poultry and fowl. Now I have to put my money where my mouth is. Ideally suited to a big, airy, old building – another outstanding advantage of winged animal protein is that you can kill and butcher it yourself. (The very nice lady down the road does this with her pigs, but she’s made of sterner stuff than I am…). Geese and hens and I get on very well. My track record with guinea fowl and ducks is a little less proud but I’m determined to keep and breed them again.

So, the plan is to use the back of the hangar to accommodate all these new birds. The wooden structure of the building provides me with at least half the supports I need for the internal enclosures and there’s lots of spare material from roofing the place still lying around to help construct the walls. With the assistance of a lump hammer I’ll be able to break through the back wall and afford the birds access to the field and their external enclosures.

It must have been cold so far this week,  I’ve even drawn a plan:

 

So this week will be spent tidying up in the hangar and setting posts. Although it seems unlikely this farm will ever regain its former stature, I hope we can at least come up with enough creative plans to keep it – and us – chugging along for a few more generations.

What price a lettuce? (27 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Yesterday evening, with snow falling all around, I picked a bowl of salad for the family from the polytunnel. This made me very happy. That lettuce and stuff cost me over 100€.

If I factor in the capital cost of the polytunnel, the seed, the delivery cost of that seed, the seed compost and the module I raised the seedling in, the organic slug pellets, the mains water I watered it with … You can see how I get a little less smug and arrive at a tidy three figure estimate – and that’s without any consideration at all for my labour. Fortunately, I’m very cheap! And it’s not as if winter salad is exceptionally expensive. I suspect a well-grown, heritage aubergine would cost considerably more. In other words, there’s no way you could sell that baby and recoup your true costs. Ever.

Is there something else you could do with your land which makes economic sense? Well, we can forget ‘gardening’ in the form which has evolved in my lifetime. Seen the Gardener’s World garden these days? You’d need a platinum credit card to fund one like that. Every planting scheme seems to rely on a dozen potted plants hot from the garden centre. You can’t blame people for feeling disappointed with the yield from their plot if they’ve been lured into spending a king’s ransom thus…

What about farming? Big agriculture – the thing that puts a bag of salad on the supermarket shelf for a couple of €s and makes my product look exorbitant and ridiculous. A picture of mechanised efficiency and completely reliant on cheap fuel. I haven’t seen any of that since 1972. If you stripped out the state subsidies and other sleights of hand the whole industrial agricultural enterprise would crash. (And if every watercourse could sue for being violated with nitrates and the soil could claim for the depradations of modern farming practice – it would burn).

Moreover, the same strains on Big Ag. are fundamentally challenging the wider economy. The costs of raw materials are rocketing up and meeting the ability of the consumer to pay on its way down. State subsidy of our way of life, using money borrowed from countries who don’t bother with welfare, is almost over and done with (see Ireland). Which might please those ‘wealth creators’ who claim to provide all that tax revenue in the first place – until they realise that no one can afford their fees any more or wants to buy an i-Toaster next Christmas. Like a thief in the night, historical reality – or karma – is stealing the props from under the edifice of industrial civilisation.

What a mess. If all we’re left with is a bunch of raw resources and our own energy, no easy profit, no unearned wealth and added value stripped out – how will we fare? The economy of Finistère is in the vanguard of this new reality! It’s not pretty. But any suggestion that growing your own is inherently too expensive is patently absurd. We are all evidence that subsistence can be achieved without heaps of capital expenditure because our ancestors didn’t have our sort of money. Unfortunately, after all their grinding efforts, they probably looked like this (well mine did, anyway):

It’s not what we’re doing, then, but how we’re doing it. Manure is free, commercial bullshit very expensive. Maybe grab what you can from the sinking ship of abundance and make the coming peasant makeover a bit easier on yourself? Growing your own should liberate you from the market: a pig as cornerstone of the household economy subverts the market economy. With that market in tatters, it’s not the viability of growing your own that’s in question. It’s everything else.

Winter of content labour (27 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

After spending most of this month dodging downpours and light frost, the wind has now turned to the east. Whereas the west wind smells of the sea and possibility, that old east wind smells of nothing at all and submission to winter’s decree is now just a matter of time. The layering of jobs just has to change accordingly.

On our south-facing slope the grip of even the frostiest morning usually lets go by afternoon, so digging – the season’s no. 1 task- is usually a pm possibility. Before weeding becomes the be-all and end-all in March, the order of priority accommodation-wise is as follows (bullet point alert):

  • Overwintering broad beans (Done rows totalling 40 metres- but I might add to them next month)
  • Overwintering peas (Done 48 metres)
  • Shallots (Done maybe 24 metres, might do more)
  • Garlic (Beds ready – sowing this week – about 30 metres)
  • Overwintering onions (Beds mostly ready – sowing next week – about 40 metres)
  • Potatoes (Pigs have weeded the appointed area – 100 metres+ of trenches still to dig! December?)
  • February sown broad beans, onions (Beds to prepare in January)
  • February planted out brassicas (ahem – not even sown yet!)

That’s about as far as I can see from here. What to do with those frost-bound mornings? Well, working inside fits the the bill nicely! I’m going to convert the spare space in our hangar into a poultry and fowl emporium. More on this when I can afford the chicken wire. Don’t hold your breath, it’s 100€ a roll these days! Although I’m sure we’ll be paying that much for an egg next year…

There’s also a heap of cellulose-heavy salady things to plant out from the greenhouse into the poytunnel. Once the decks are finally cleared of last season’s efforts, and to fill the gap between January’s onion, cabbage and tomato sowing, I thought I’d have a crack at starting bulbous chervil, burdock and some other odd stuff under cover.

If I get all of the above done by the 1st February 2011 I’ll be very happy momentarily – and then get digging a celery trench, or something.

27 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

To have a rubbish-looking wood pile around here would be like not washing your car on Sunday if you lived on Acacia Avenue. Presumably a bit rankled about the disorder everywhere else, men (it’s always men) build perfectly formed stacks and park them front-of-house. It is a surprisingly enjoyable task, this stacking wood lark. Like lego for grown ups… and all of that potential warmth merits careful treatment. But I get bored after a couple of hours and, instead of an immaculate cuboid structure, I end up with a Ponzi pyramid of logs which could present a mortal danger to unsuspecting passers-by.

*

Drudgery has had a bad press in recent years. We’ve done our best to hide it. We export the really dreadful tasks to distant lands. Or we import people to push cleaning contraptions around the place – fishing them out of a seemingly endless sea of labour willing to exchange rural idiocy for a wage. If any of us have had the misfortune to experience drudgery in our jobs we certainly expect enough in return to live equal to a prince or princess of a few generations before in our leisure . And if that’s not enough then there’s always the X Factor, shopping, the cult of celebrity and a thousand and one other ways to polish the turd of progress.

Conversely, in the crash landing known as the Good Life, all this unravels. You even witness the life and death of what you eat. To see your beloved pig bleeding out is, among other less noble emotions, a stark moment of reconnection with responsibility. A less spectacular, but no less important aspect of this up-ended life is a re-acquaintance with drudgery. The end of choice is a slow shock to the system: an acceptance of the inexorable need to commit fork to soil on every damn damp and dreary November day rather than watching Bargain Hunt in front of the fire. I can’t decide whether success in this regard makes one akin to a zen master or a pig.

But the need to plant beans, prepare allium beds and dig potato beds before the end of the year is only as optional as eating is. An obligation fulfilled; it’s you, the soil and the weather with no intermediates; and gratification in the form of a crop is deferred until late next spring, and then only if you’re lucky! In the interim you have to be content with fresh air, the last warmth in the sun: being in the moment. Oh, and no swinish boss. It’s an epic uphill plod, though, things being as they are…

Maybe that’s selling it short? Your life can be aligned closely with natural processes of birth, growth and dying. No more, no less. The zeal attached to going back to the land was never going to outlast the realisation that the land doesn’t care. It ends up a pared down kind of life, and nothing as ersatz as status attaches to it… it’s like walking your dogs in the rain or tending to your crying baby in the dark night. Or like building the world’s best wood pile, but keeping it hidden.

28 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself 300 kilometres from home in a car with hardly any petrol in it. The pension protests had left the petrol stations around Caen ferryport without supply and I had about 30 kilometres worth of fuel left in the tank. At first light, the foggy Norman villages around Ouistreham seemed an appropriate venue to give up all hope – only the unacceptable irony of finally getting washed up in a bad Peak Oil metaphor spurred me on.

Similarly, there is an inexorable certainty that the small reserves of unearned wealth that allowed us to exchange an end terrace in North Yorkshire for a small farm in Brittany have almost evaporated too. We stumped up in the poorest part of France with a head full of ideas and no real experience of farming and expected to thrive. It’s not a new phenomenon. (It’s worth hunting out ‘The Long Story’ here). Which is reassuring and annoying at the same time!

The lessons have come hard and fast since we arrived and, after a rainy week spent crunching numbers, it is now crystal clear that this project is not just a mildly interesting examination of how the post-industrial fits with the peasant life – its success is key to our continuance in smallholding at all. Something has to spring the trap of food price inflation and this is it. Which, when you look at the state of the field, means I better get digging!

*

Once upon a time I would have considered eating out of the garden in mid-November a nonsense. Not that I would have considered it at all back then: I was too busy fighting against the tide of dazzling rush hour headlights…

It remains a surprise to find green things and purple things to cut and eat in the semi-dark and battering rain of the penultimate month, that dark and distant satellite of the growing season. The salad things earn pride of place. Mustards, chicories, endives: each little leaf, precious as a jewel, is carefully washed and presented. Even stuff that would probably be chucked to the hens in July is cherished instead. They watch in outraged disbelief as I scuttle past them with the last outsized courgette of the year tucked under my arm and back to the shelter of the house.

The so-called oriental vegetables have proven to be a very mixed bag. Truly the hostas of the vegetable world, a lot of them got slugged to death, but the pak choi survived the onslaught. Pork and pak choi a meal make and I’ve got plenty of both suddenly.

The other productive thing which November was made for is bed preparation. A perfect remedy to the inevitable week of autumnal deluge is spending the occasional sunny November day readying the soil: I’m still trying to get all the peas sown but I’ve been working on the onion family’s beds too. Suddenly lifting a few acres isn’t as heavy as it used to be…

Come Wind, Come Rain (29 weeks to go)

by Max Akroyd

Some days the weather in Brittany does something particular  – it’s like being hugged by the Atlantic; endlessly wet. Listen, I’ve lived in the Lake District and I know what real rain is like, but this is of a different, maritime order.

It’s not confined to the dark months – the heavy curtains of rain can hang around summer weeks too. But it’s at its most poignant at this time of year because it enhances the general feeling of turning inward – hibernation almost – which pervades our part of Finistère around now. I suppose anywhere without street lights for miles and any malls at all is going to be more attuned to the true character of the season – but even the little towns become introverted and a bit desolate. It’s in the nature of the place to retreat in the face of nature’s overwhelming odds.

I know people who find this fearsome. Indeed, the whole experience of living at the end of the world can be a real reckoning for the persona. Many of us suburban exiles end up skint here, or drunk, or depressed or all three. Because all this sea, sky, forest represent a tabula rasa. There’s no privilege. No inside line. Throw your CV into the waves if you want to find out what you’re worth.

Those of us raised under Northern Skies do have one slight advantage, however. As early as the end of January shows real promise of Spring and the extent of the dark, although profound, also feels very contained.

*

Out here, very wet weather options are similar to anywhere else: either a. hide in the greenhouse or b. hide in the polytunnel. 

I thought I’d discovered another one yesterday. A fiendishly clever scheme which took advantage of the tendency of even the cleverest pigs to sleep off hopelessly wet days. Snoring in a big warm, porcine pile they are… it would be so easy to adjust their electrical enclosure while they slumbered wouldn’t it? As long as I didn’t make any noise louder than the lashing rain on their barn’s metal roof.

All went well for the first minute and a half. Shortly after that, tied up in a tangled knot formed by yards and yards of wire and already soaked to the skin things were looking less promising. I found myself in the strange position of being completely in need of Emma’s help but also realising that even the slightest murmur of human communication would invoke the terrible sight of two emancipated Mummy Pigs galloping around the corner.

What a pisser. I had to sort this out independently, stealthily and speedily. I generally tend to leave those sorts of attributes to others, but somehow in the ensuing couple of hours I managed to create – undetected – a new area for the ladies in slighly different position than the one it started in. The wires now click satisfyingly with their frazzling electrical charge. My wellies are still drying out on top of a radiator. And the rest of my waterproofs needed the rest of the day off in front of the woodburner. Next to me. 

29 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Hands up who loves November.

The unlikeable month. Single digit celsius days. Air full of dead leaves. The weather gets too interesting and that October cold gets all flu-like.

At any other time of year being poorly is a minor disaster on the family farm. Last week, though, it merely provided an unusual opportunity to plan. Despite being conscious of the rigours of self-sufficiency, my natural tendency is to take a pitchfork to planning. I confess it’s really only a happy accident that I’ve planted lots of soft fruit on the field. All that animal protein out there with a leg at each corner? Acquired on a whim! 

However, I must now formally concede that improvisation isn’t the mother of reliable eating. Boringly, one man with six acres, a box or two of seeds, and that deadline approaching fast, needs a meticulously prepared strategy. It was, therefore, high time to gather up the sporadic, half-remembered vegetable growing success stories and to knock up a rudimentary menu for next year’s eating.

Whereas most normal vegetable gardeners would focus on what they like to eat, my task is significantly different. The priority is eating at all! That is not usually a difficulty between June and now when the distance between sowing and eating is measured in days. It’s those long, late winter months before much shoots or leafs that are the scariest prospect. As a result, the league table of priority vegetables I’ve compiled has some surprising contenders. Lurking among the obvious staples such as potatoes and tomatoes are unlovely oddities such as winter radishes. 

I’ve been very rude about this particular vegetable in the past. But now I must eat my words (probably a bit tastier than the radish). It falls into an important category of winter roots which won’t grow much in the dead season but will sit quite happily in the frozen ground until you’re desperate enough to eat them. I grew them very successfully last year and fed them to a friend’s horse. Next winter I might not be feeling so sharing. (I might even eat the horse…).

Another marginal edible that a self-respecting allotmenteer wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, but which might prove central to my dreary pantheon of wintry vegetables is – the dandelion. No really. France still remembers her peasant roots and accordingly you can still buy seeds for an improved dandelion. Named variety and everything. It’s a precious source of new growth when all else is dormant – you force it like a chicory, apparently:

So, in the brave old world of self-sufficiency, I’ll be growing giant dandelions before I even look at a packet of aubergine seeds. I’ll be nurturing cabbages and cauliflowers which crop in February but disdaining the same brassicas that come in summer.

Strange, isn’t it?

30 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Sorry I’m late. 

Monday evening usually finds me perched over my computer, completing the main blog post of the week. But this Monday, it being the end of half term, I was sitting in Waterloo station next to a couple of giant (we’re talking six foot high here) cuddly toys. The fact that they were in the charge of two well-heeled looking Chinese gentlemen only added to the oddness of the scene. If you ever find yourself in London wearing old work shoes with mis-matching laces, a hand-me down shirt and other slightly fraying items of clothing I strongly recommend sitting next to a leopard and a zebra. No one notices you.

Our house was almost as busy as the concourse of a London station last week. My brother – the Great Provider of said shirts – and his family came to stay. No one told the cousins about the lifestyle disparities of a futures trader and a peasant farmer – they were too busy having fun anyway. Instantly thick as thieves, despite only meeting once in the last seven years.

The same glorious rule of family affinity creaked more slowly, mechanically into life with the wise grown-ups. I’d decided the best way to celebrate this rare gathering was to kill a pig. Made perfect sense to me. Even the butcher described her as the perfect pig. Strangely Big Pig’s demise didn’t strike everyone else present as a fitting culmination, a generous tribute and all the other nonsense my head is full of. Instead, she struck a chord about the difference of perceptions between us and that sound was flat as ‘owt. Oh well, at least we could all agree she tasted good.

When the end of preparations of one meal only signal the start of the next one, it’s tempting to look forward to the post-holiday calm. Now it’s here, I’m less convinced that easier is better, or even more productive. Seven kids around the place was great. School starts today and it’ll just be me, Emma and the baby again. Without big pig in it, the farm feels reduced too. She was visible and audible from most points of the land and that land is also rapidly shrinking back to its winter core. 

These autumn colours are all very well, but long live spring – I’m off to sow some peas. 

31 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

By noon on Saturday I was standing in the gardening section of Waterstones. Despite the efforts of the grévistes (blockaded bridge over the Loire, missed flight) I’d made it to Leeds with an hour to kill.

During the couple of years I’ve been making this trip to be reunited with my oldest two children, I’ve noticed a remarkable resurgence of interest in the growing of food in the UK. For example, within the crumpled newspapers I find discarded on trains, next to the half-finished crossword puzzles, there are now special sections devoted to vegetable growing. Similarly, the book shelves in front of me were groaning under the weight of gardening knowledge (printed in China). Perhaps, one day, historians will trace our future back to such minor cultural artefacts.

Perhaps. It does seem there’s an instinctual awakening afoot: there’s a whole shelf of beekeeping books and at least half a dozen tomes with ‘self sufficiency’ in the title. As I flicked through the latter it was apparent that – sensibly enough – they were essentially just compilations of the gardening and animal-related knowledge spread out on all the other shelves.

Although I’m sure all their information was present and correct, these guidebooks from suburbia to the good life didn’t hit the mark for me. Disappointingly for the weary traveller wanting a self-gratifying hit of glossy reading matter, I left the book shop empty-handed. This happens all the time these days. I already had that information stuff three times over on our book shelves at home… Sometimes you need to know the planting distance for broad beans. Other times you just plant them. In fact, truth be told, I conclude that the perfect self-sufficiency manual would be devoid of any pages at all. You’d open up the the shiny cover and inside there would just be a little mirror… 

Fortunately, somewhere in the depths of my bag, I’d packed a copy of this book rediscovered by a fellow blogger:

I read it once, and then I read it again! Because, if you want to learn about growing to subsist it seems sensible to swat up on how our peasant forbears did it for all of recorded human history, and probably more besides. The only problem is their experience wasn’t much recorded. Instead, you usually have to rely upon the disdainful accounts of peasant life written by sneering modernists – which, by the way, pretty much typified all the social history we were taught in school. Like an old soviet propaganda piece about life in the West, I’m sure the official take on peasantdom contains recognisable facts, just organised in a very unreliable way.

Instead, without much useful historical record to go on, Segalen has to coax the truth of peasant life from regional French proverbs and other found objects washed up on the shore of real history. Her main purpose is to prove that peasant life might not, in fact, have been all that patriarchal and revolting. But, for a revolting rural patriarch like me, the invaluable insights are found in the mundane structural organisation of ye olde family farm: room plans of peasant houses and the timetables of their days. The book also explains why, one day, having a cow or two in our living room might again be a good idea.

Like raising a child, you can read all the manuals you like, but eventually you give up on all that expensive advice and just trust your instincts. Simulation will never match the intelligible intensity of the act itself: you can buy a book about pigs, go on a course about raising pigs or you can simply obtain a pig. If you keep them clean, dry and well-fed, farm animals are easy to look after. The mutual understanding which arises naturally between a peasant and his or her animals represents a direct challenge to knowledge as something to be bought and sold. 

So, unless you want to sell something – like a book – it’s also good news that you don’t need a degree in horticulture or a tractor-driving licence to feed yourself.  Jump into the river of self-sufficiency wherever you like. Often despite yourself, you’ll always end up drawn into the deep water of human experience. 

32 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 

 
“Oh suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright and sunny weather.”

Helen Hunt Jackson, 1884

I’m also a big fan of October. Which is odd, given the dying down going on all around. But there’s something much more human-scale about the task before us at the beginning of autumn. The boisterous growth rate of  spring and summer is all very well, and very necessary of course, but the turn of the gardening treadmill is now manageable – albeit at a steady canter.

This year’s mild conceit that we were good fruit growers afforded by a sunny summer can now be reconfigured as what tidy gardeners we are by nature’s ebbing into dormancy. I took my chance with both hands and mowed and strimmed like there was no tomorrow. If only I could maintain this order during the growing months. Instead the weedy wreckage of last season was erased from memory and new plans immediately took its place.

The lack of any irrigation on the field was the major defeat of 2010: having no water caused the collapse of my successional plantings. Instead of summer edibles, only rank weeds followed on from the potatoes, the alliums and the broad beans. This particular nettle must be grasped. I’m proposing a two pond solution whereby a small reservoir of rainwater fed from the hangar roof can be pumped up to another smaller pond at the top of the field and then gravity-fed to the beds below. These ponds will also double as suitable places for the ducks and geese to congregate.

Grandiose engineering schemes aside, the need to service the food requirements of June 2011 – the start of self-sufficiency – are foremost in my mind. I’ve prepared and sown some big broad bean beds:

Similarly, the over-wintering pea beds are underway too. The hybrid variety Sima gave us more peas than we could be bothered podding last year. Something tells me we’ll be glad of every petit pois next year. The garlic bed is ready too. But I’ve yet to find any cloves for autumn-planting in the shops… I could use my own from last year but I’m too fond of cooking with them!

Other than completing the list of things that need doing before November pulls the rug from under all this optimism, we’ve been trying to get out and about a bit as a family, walking here and there and soaking up the warm but ever-lower sun. This instinctive activity is mirrored by the animals: the goats are often to be seen lying down in the sun contentedly chewing the cud and the pigs seem extra busy between the narrowing limits of the day. For one of them, Big Pig, there won’t that be many more days left, I’m afraid. So I hope she can have one or two more sunny ones.

33 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

As I was saying, these animals are wonderful. In my mind’s eye this small farm is, in waking hours, a Gaugin-vivid picture of animal industry.

The surrounding hedgerows are kept in check by the goats. The land is patrolled by our dogs to keep the foxes and other undesirables out, and a similar relationship pertains to the ducks and slugs and the cats and mice. As I relax prematurely with a cup of tea, the pigs keep digging the soil contentedly, the hens dutifully scratch away the thatch, and the geese ready the next bit of ground for mulching. If this system is qaint – archaic, even – I’d hate to dream of efficiency and progress.

Of course no reality is that idyllic. Goats always want to do the exact opposite of the thing on offer. I’ve had my gooseberries exfoliated by a goat recently – and I can tell you – it’s a painful experience. Injecting that much mischief into the heart of your fruit and vegetable production is fraught with risk. Same with pigs: their respect for the kick of an electric fence can be borderline if another pig of the opposite sex is calling…

Sometimes, other mishaps occur. Up very early the other morning I let Lucy Dog out for her morning constitutional. Someone forgot to tell her that the daddy pigs’ electric fence had been re-configured. A few hours later, vaguely wondering where on earth she’d got to, I eventually found her on the wrong side of the wires being sniffed and oinked at by two very puzzled pigs. The look on her face resembled that of a nun who had wandered into the footballers’ changing room…

But generally speaking, thanks entirely to the animals, the rotovator is redundant, the hedgetrimmer rusts on a shelf…

However, the one piece of machine tyranny I still can’t shake off decisively is that of the lawnmower. This despite the fact that I don’t even need lawns, I need hay. So what’s the point? If there is a logic to a nice ride-on mower, one that would cost more than our car (and bind me to hydrocarbons and the bank manager’s whim) it would be to recoup some of the many hours wasted mowing instead of sowing. The issue is pressing because, like its owner, my present little mower has given great service to the garden but is, well, a bit knackered as a result.

So, gentle reader, help me decide. Do I exchange freedom for order? Or is it possible to have access and visual acceptability in a garden without the sharp cut of the mower, to have a field without short grass? Is there an animal which could do the job for me??

To the left of the buildings is the area where the fruit and vegetable beds are now, although they only occupy three-fifths of the space. The rest comprises grass paths and plenty of rough meadow either being tamed by our animals or left to make hay.

If Google’s drone should pass overhead today it would record an unruly maze of beds, docks as tall as giraffes and a prematurely-geriatric tramp lying in the long grass pondering this and that and hoping for ingenious, time/money-saving suggestions…

(Only one dog was slightly electrocuted in the making of this post.

Inspiring reflections on evil machinery here

This time last year…)

34 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Off we go again! A (very watery) watershed has been crossed and a new gardening year has begun.

I can state this with confidence because just about everything that can be sown now will crop in 2011. Indeed, a few good pieces should be placed decisively into next year’s cropping jigsaw around now.

Firstly, there’s the green things to get in for January’s thin pickings from the polytunnel. There’s also the cauliflowers (and some other less interesting brassicas) to sow and hold indoors until they go out in February.  As you can probably detect, the recent deluge has inspired an unusual bang-up-to-dateness in the greenshed: it’s been so monsoon-like that I’ve even got half of my sweet peas sown. I even cleared out the toolshed! But the number of rainy day jobs dried up very quickly. 

Conversely, progress in the field got rapidly mired down.The rain went from absurd to merely soaking yesterday, so I finally transplanted a load of chinese cabbages and kales.  I could almost hear the slugs sniggering… But getting that job out of the way means the renovation of lots of beds for the direct sowings can proceed – those piles of broad beans and peas and garlic waiting to go in the ground are always on my mind…. Accordingly, there are yards and yards of manured soil to tackle, all of which have sprouted an interesting range of meadow weeds!

I’m also earmarking which additional areas to bring into production next year. Having animals happily doing the hard work all summer means there’s plenty of new soil to go at. I identified fairly early in our relationship the benefits of pigs as rotovators and this tribute has been paid regularly since. Their only deficiencies in this regard are their tendency to fertilise their outdoor areas in just one place and, after the recent rain, the finely sorted tilth they’d kindly created has already turned into a gloop into which big pig sinks up to the gunnels.

Even worse, there exists a challenger to her gardening crown and it comes in the hungry, noisy and low IQ-ed form of a gaggle of geese. With the goslings approaching maturity this large goose family demolishes voraciously any turf that comes their way. Every couple of days now I’m obliged to shuffle their electric enclosure across the top of the field to encompass a bit of pastures new and to lay down a bit of plastic mulch to preserve their bare and well-manured wake.

All in all a busy month in prospect. But it means the various calamities and wall-to-wall shortcomings of last season can be put down to experience and generally filed and forgotten. The toil resumes and represents a (slightly sweaty) offering to the future. Which, all things considered, must mean gardeners are the most rain-soaked and stubbornly optimistic of beings…

This time last year…

Quote (35 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Gaugin's "The Swineherd, Brittany"

“I love Brittany. I find a certain wildness and primitiveness here. When my clogs resound on this granite soil, I hear the dull, matt, powerful tone I seek in my painting.”

Paul Gaugin (1848 – 1903)

Gardeners and home bakers of all the world unite! (35 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

I think it’s more difficult being a gardener than a baker.  We don’t have temperature control! And the only pest liable to eat the baker’s produce before s/he does is… well, me.

But we are united in a conviction that working with raw ingredients is a good thing. It’s also a quality and a control thing. Home bakers will also be asked the question: why bother? We may even ask ourselves that from time to time…

But the synthetic compounds masquerading as cakes and vegetables in supermarkets are only less expensive and more efficient (whatever that means) so long as oil and emiserated labour flows cheaply. And, anyway, our stuff tastes much better.

Now, purely in an act of symbolic solidarity, I’m going to eat some home-made cake.

35 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

I’m scribbling this post in the doctor’s waiting room. There’s a woman with the cough from hell ahead of me, – then in a minute, or forty – I’ll be in front of le docteur.

I’ll try to explain that I’ve done something ominous-feeling to my back. Once he’s got his head around my comedy French, the good doctor will then have to decipher exactly what it is I do for a living. It’ll be one of those awkward moments that will make me feel like a visitor from another world – despite only doing something most of the human race always did. That’s civilisation, I suppose: where toiling over a few acres to feed yourself and wreck your spine is a mainly forgotten memory. Unfortunately, my muscle tone and posture were defined during the TV age – and I’m now experiencing the payback! I don’t want that dreaded diagnosis or a sick note. I want to be somehow wound up like a clockwork toy and allowed to resume the struggle – we’ll see. 

With the digging on hold, that dichotomy of the modern and the peasant is the theme in my head at the moment. Around the time my back gave in, the autumn solstice came and went. A big, telling harvest moon illuminated the evenings. These things mean nothing to someone trying to get through rush hour to see their family or even to a farmer with an array of spotlights on the front of his combine. But I felt it must be saying something to that mish-mash construct, the blogging peasant! Some actions should surely flow from the start of the year’s darkest quarter..?

Commercial gardening will presently be prescribing hyacinth bulbs and, so soon,  dancing electronic Santas will appear in the garden centres. Unless I want to weed my ancestors’ graves there isn’t much guidance in the textbooks of peasant tradition either. After getting the harvest in perhaps the peasant farmers of yore were all too knackered, or drunk, to care. Seems like I’ll have to invent my own ritual. So far my only response has been to grow ingredients for the world’s largest Chinese take away! Pork, spring onions and oriental greens are on the autumnal menu – enough for the whole commune. I’m not sure this represents an authentic reaction but it should taste pretty good. And I’m sure I can master eating it while lying on the floor.

36 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

I was sorting through the seed packets yesterday morning. After weeding out anything stating “sow by September” – all sown now – the remnants were pretty thin: a  few chicories, some obscure salad greens and a couple of collard-type brassicas… The small window of the False Spring is closing. And everything swift enough is on its marks, ready to make the finish line before the gloom and doom of November. Although forced on us by a scorched summer, it’s been a real pleasure discovering this opportunity, this chink of light in the impending dark. 

The endives and quasi-endive lettuces are quivering improbably on the field, little flickers of coloured light in the early-setting sun. The brassica battallions have been divided into things big enough to repel the autumnal onslaught and the pretty Oriental things which have been billetted in the polytunnel. I’ve spent many a happy evening in there recently, eking out drills for another row of rocket in the dwindling light, the dusktime mutterings of the animals all around me.

One of the many benefits of this project has been to force me to focus on these marginal times. I would have neglected them for sure in the normal course of things. Even now, any normal summer – that is, with some rain in it – would probably obviate this last minute charge. But I’d like to think that, in future, I’d do it anyway: maximise what the land can give you, I say… Necessity is definitely the mother of invention and that spirit is deeply ingrained in the peasant-kitchen gardener!

Talking of which, please meet the Hardening off Trolley (Patent Pending):

Left here by the previous owners – original function unknown – Emma has given the old thing a lick of paint and hoped for a fine floral display to put on top of it. Instead, I’ve now discovered that I can fit a lot of things on it which need hardening off. I can wheel them all under cover at night. Saves on carrying separate trays and pots around, hitherto a scandalously neglected task around here. And it presents a moving target for the slugs to hit! 

Soon the focus will be on things pre-fixed “over-wintering”: beans, peas, onions, garlic, shallots. This will mark the first full lap for this blog. I’m pretty sure I was thinking about which beds to prepare for my beans this time last year. In some ways that knowledge is the highlight of a fine week.

And ducks might fly… (37 weeks to go)

by Max Akroyd

I’m starting to think my affinity for pigs is largely founded upon their inability to fly. Here’s photographic evidence of our latest duck debacle:

Seascape in blue

by Emma Akroyd

While Max was digging over the polytunnel I set about finishing off this painting that I started before the Summer holidays. We had gone up to St Pol de Leon on what looked like a rather unpromising day, but by the time we arrived a storm was blowing in from out at sea. It created the most beautiful dramatic cloud colours and forms and I thought I just had to paint it!

‘Seascape in blue’ isn’t quite finished yet, but I thought I’d show it anyway!

Here’s a shot of the studio. ‘Light grey’ Farrow and Ball paint is on the walls, which does make the colours in the paintings pop out but it can be a bit dark to work in on a rainy day. I’ll keep the colour for now as I am in two minds as to whether to paint it lighter.

Observation (37 weeks to go)

by Max Akroyd

With a certain deadline looming there doesn’t seem too much time for stopping and looking. More the province of the experienced gardener, that.

Me? I prefer to just get on. Meditating on things doesn’t get the washing hung out or the tea made. But certain truths gradually dawn despite all that doing. Today’s lesson was the relationship between the vigour of soil and things planted in it. Doesn’t matter if it’s docks or fancy vegetables: the soil around and about the roots of living things is moist and alive with soil life. Conversely, any area kept ‘clean’/unplanted turns to dust.

I’ve noticed this effect in the raised beds of the Kitchen Garden and in the polytunnel too. The soil in the latter was pitiful last year and I was dreading its renovation – that clang of spade on iron-hard ground. But a deep mulch of pig manure and the action of tomatoes’ roots have converted that old desert into a yielding medium just waiting for the salad transplants presently massing in their trays and pots. 

Back on the field, the supreme reassurance as I work down the potato beds that these spaces are also now fit for purpose. One day, they can be passed on to whichever of my children is interested and they won’t have to repeat the mistakes I made on new ground. 

Observing me as they gather on the wires, are the swallows. They have plans of their own.

37 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 

The end of the growing season is almost here. I may have lots of bonny green things ready to plant out – quick-growing beneficiaries of the dwindling light and warmth – but it’s a minor act of defiance. The shrinking back to winter’s quiet core is underway. The rich, seductive light at dawn and dusk will soon be replaced by something altogether less compromising…

But in the circle of growing the end is just another word for the beginning. On our clay soil, I’m convinced that September and October are the digging months. I’m spurred on by the possibility of ordering the beds for next year before the wet or the cold makes messing with the soil ill-advised. There’s also an October deadline: what were potato beds have to transformed by the end of next month into fertile ground for over-wintering broad beans, peas, garlic and onions. 

It doesn’t stop there. Recent converts to green manure have to get their expensive seeds in the ground before October’s out. That means a mass unveiling of all the beds under plastic mulch and much raking and forking about. Accordingly, most of sunny last week was spent in the Kitchen Garden trying to knock some sense into the straggly remanants of the old season’s mixed lot.

Likewise, we hacked our way through the jungle in the polytunnel and ruthlessly stripped the vines of any fruit, whatever the colour. This will seem premature to anyone who doesn’t have to hide their tunnel in a dingy corner away from the ravages of our autumn west wind. Six barrowfuls of slightly blighted vines were carted off to the burning pile and the fruits of all hues, shapes and sizes set out to dry: summer’s vivid palette remembered.

Duck egg on ochre pot

by Emma Akroyd

Today’s painting is one of the eggs our duck laid before her untimely departure, resting on an ochre coloured pot that was excavated by Max’s Dad in his orchard in the Lake District. His parents’ kitchen garden was the inspiration behind our move to France, as by the time we had realised the importance of growing our own food they had moved and the beautiful Victorian walled garden of his childhood home was now in someone else’s hands. It’s wonderful to have some of the pottery though, nestling on my shelf in the studio, waiting for the right occasion to show themselves off.

Green manures (38 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Organic gardening? I’m a believer. There’s no greater waste of money or the earth’s finite resources than herbicides. It’s enough to bring out anybody’s inner Yorkshireman! However, beyond the rejection of pesticides and herbicides, and the concomitant emphasis on building soil fertility, I suppose I’m a bit of a heretic.

For example, I don’t think that a mega-field monoculture of organic carrots is much better the conventionally farmed alternative. I suspect organic farming on an industrial scale might be a contradictory endeavour: after all, once you factor in the tractor, the transport, the processing and the packaging, you might as well nuke the land with some other hydrocarbon-derived compound for good measure.

Predictably, I think all the synergies on offer in an organic system are best exploited in a small family farm. But even this bucolic bliss presents challenges to organic orthodoxy. For example, that sacred cow of the organic garden – the compost heap – is ousted by a nice, fat pig – or five.

 

Moreover – on a grander, theological scale – I confess I’m dubious about that ‘working with nature’ mantra. It feels like a suburban conceit to me. Round here, working with nature would be a bit like flying a kite in a tornado. I know my place.

Hitherto, I’ve always eyed green manures with similar scepticism. They only seem suited to the aforementioned, large-scale monoculture. Surely no self-respecting peasant is going to shell out £20 for field bean seed? Why not grow something edible and nitrogen fixing over winter, like Aquadulce broad beans instead? Two other candidates get the chop as well: phacelia and winter tares. These two, apparently, exude a germination inhibitor which hampers follow-on crops, particularly carrots and parsnips. Great! As if getting parnips to sprout wasn’t hard enough! Of the remaining green manures, a lot are brassicas. No sale: I only want edible brassicas complicating my rotation.

Recently, however, I think I’ve seen the light. I’ve a number of areas of pannage (ground dug over by pigs) or under plastic mulch which I’d like to bring into cultivation in spring. If I can preserve and enrich these with a covering of green manure, well… amen to that.

Finally, after scouring the sacred texts, I’ve found the green manures for me: a mixture of red clover with English rye grass. Buying enough seed to cover these areas certainly wasn’t cheap, but cost is a question for another time…

Yellow tomato

by Emma Akroyd

While Max was out weeding the beds of the Kitchen Garden, the baby and I were working in the studio! Today’s subject was one of the heirloom tomatoes from the polytunnel. I’ll have to double check the name of this one, but it was very tasty in a cheese and rhubarb chutney sandwich. The colour was so vivid that it inspired me to do this small oil painting (it’s postcard size).

Strange fruit (38 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Someone once told me that rare breed pigs were rare for a reason. Meaning, I think, that they weren’t very good. He was wrong – they’re just not very good in an industrial system. So it is with vegetables. As the summer softies start to moulder in the autumnal dankness, the weirdos of the kitchen garden come to the fore.

Some, like the cardoons, are too much fuss to be economically viable in a big way. Others, like salsify, are probably impossible to harvest mechanically. And it would take a marketing genius to flog a fruit best eaten half-rotten:

Like with the pigs, I’m always inclined to champion the edible underdog. But with my latest eccentric offering, even I concede it’s probably a lost cause. It’s called cerfeuil tubéreux around here, bulbous-rooted chervil in English. When it comes to cultivation, though, it’s all Dutch:

“Bulbous-rooted chervil achenes do not show any inhibition of tegumentry nature; their dormancy is of an embryonary type. It sets up at the time of dessication and disappears only under the effect of wet cold (at least 8 weeks at 5°C). The numerous trials : anoxy, various regulators have not provoked any breaking of dormancy.”

Hope that’s clearer to you than it is to me! Upshot is: the seed requires vernalisation – a period sub-zero before it’ll germinate. The text book says sow in the open ground and it’ll appear in spring. I’m unconvinced (see previous post). So I’ll be sowing mine in big pots and crossing my fingers something happens next year. Well, if nothing else, it fills the time before the autumn-planting onions and garlic come along… 

Direct sowing (38 weeks to go)

by Max Akroyd

Yesterday I sowed lots of spinach and even more cima di rapa seeds. Directly into the soil. When there’s a perfectly good bin in the corner of the kitchen it seems odd to surrender expensive seeds to the weeds, the slugs and the birds in the open field.

Having looked on in dismay as my mass chicory sowing partied with a host of uninvited guests, my latest organisational obsession concerns determining which vegetables really must go straight to soil and which can be started off inside before suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous Breton environment.

I suppose with enough patience and money just about anything could be started indoors. I’m usually short of both so I keep trying the direct method, despite results a politician would describe as ‘mixed’. Beetroot direct? There goes a tenner. Carrots direct? They even survived the drought.

For those of us who have flouted the “one year’s weeds, seven years’ seeds” rule direct sowing represents horticultural Russian roulette. This time of year presents a particular temptation to take a shot at it – it certainly helps if you think the annual weeds are in abeyance – even if they aren’t. But will the seedling be distinctive enough? It’s easier to distinguish something beetroot red amidst the engulfing green tide…

Indoor sowings have their drawbacks too. The faff being a big one. The cost of the seed compost is another. And anyway, even if you could transplant a turnip, would you bother? But I conclude that transplanting generally ensures a meal. The stubborn exceptions lurking in the seed box being carrots, radishes, turnips and Witloof chicory.

I can live without turnips…

38 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Only the three of us now. The reluctant end-of-holiday diaspora has taken place and the four older children have returned to school. After seven weeks of teasing out time for gardening from the knot of family things, suddenly there’s yards of the stuff – all in the subtle, slightly sombre colours of autumn.

Charting a course between here and edible abundance is now uppermost in my mind. Once this would have had me reaching for the spade and digging maniacally. I’m a bit wiser now and have spent some of this strange, free time planning for next year- with one foot gently doinging the baby’s chair because even he needs to get off to sleep sometimes. 

My spreadsheet comprises a list of the 99 types of vegetables I’m planning to grow, how best to germinate each one, what type of bed it likes and where it’s going to grow. This season, I intend to have all my beds ready by the shortest day so it’s important to know whether I’m digging trenches, weeding the raised beds or laying down mulches. Turns out the first priority is clearing the old potato beds in readiness for the direct, September sowing of spinach and the October one of peas and broad beans. Then it’s on to the raised beds which will get a green manuring this month.

If it’s raining too hard (the novelty wears off quickly) I’ve plenty of potting on to do in the greenshed. I spent a happy three hours in there this afternoon – each plant label written by the kids was a cheerful little memento of the summer just gone.

*

A chunk of last week was bitten out by one of my regular trips to the UK with my oldest two children. After the careful accord won over the long summer holiday, delivering them back to their other home in Yorkshire represented a pretty dismal prospect.

Trying a new route meant that, within only a few hours, we were back in the sooty suburbs of my past: Yeadon, Rawdon, Shipley. The road to our destination was a dreary travelogue of “Roundabouts I have Queued At”. Nothing else much has changed in the intervening twenty years: just more enlardment with new estates of pumped-up muscle houses on postage stamp size gardens. Lots of ‘For Sale’ signs. 

And yet, a sense that everything has changed since our suburban seventies heyday. That way of life made some sense in a cheap oil economy. In a wretched, debt-laden and spindly service economy where mortgages are big and pensions pointless – what on earth will all these good people do? I got the distinct and sudden impression that the ready-meal life was the true experiment and that my project is merely an attempt to re-engage with the underlying, constant reality of subsistence.

Like the taste of farewell tears in my first-born’s long eye lashes, truth is salutary. I readily concede that if there was a button marked “Return to previous life” I would have gladly hit it on a good few occasions in the last two years.  Thing is, I’m not sure my old life even exists any more…

*

39 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Stubbornly, September 23rd must be the start of autumn in my world. I can’t be doing with this mangling of the seasons into other forms. But the new week’s clear skies dispute this, they’re slightly but definitely tinged with winter’s metallic hue. At dusk, a cold wind sneaks through the deep shadows…

Out on the field, the old year takes on the form of a rapidly receeding hairline. You’ve got to take advantage if Nature suffers any sort of compromise. Up and down with the mower. The strimmer soon dealt with summer’s dodgy comb-over and left things looking military sharp. It’s comforting to see the structure of the beds still in place once all the dross is removed, a necessary precursor for the new season’s efforts.

*

Away from the garden, it was a week of unremitting crappiness. An ugly monster of a week, hard to tame into words. And the rain came down harder than the hard-baked soil could could cope with. All our outbuildings flooded and made the animals miserable too.  

But when things are so reduced by circumstances at least you can see clearly what you do have. It’s hard to feel poor with a big pig in the barn. If I had lots of money I would have no idea where to put it safely at this moment in history. Pork futures suit me fine! The apparent dereliction that is peasant life has taken some adjusting to, I can tell you, and its value is conferred in some mischievous ways, often catching you unawares.

Monday morning, for example. A time of dread and despond traditionally, had me hanging out washing at dawn. The heat of the sun was making the clothes steam gently, the cockerel was crowing in the background and the air smelt like the sea. Distant, but distinct, the children’s voices in the house, excited again about the prospect of a new day.

 

40 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

I’m sure it’s been the nature of the weather that has made this year feel interminable. Like text with no paragraphs or punctuation, spring and summer became one long, dry mass. If the weather in Brittany is anything, it’s diverse thanks to the procession of fronts fresh from the Atlantic.  This year they didn’t come – well, until Sunday. Then the grey slumber finally erupted into downpour – siling down it was – a late, late reanimation of everything hitherto dusty, dessicated and dying.

The present, unfamiliar growing season – neither summer not autumn – feels like a bit of a bonus for the aspiring peasant. Normally at this time of year the wealth of the harvest makes you deservedly a bit lazy about available sowing opportunities. Not this year! There’s a real and pressing need to recoup and I’ve discovered a whole load more stuff in the seed box that can assist. Previously neglected things like Chinese kale, Chinese cabbage, Texel greens, cima di rapa … and there’s also versions of more familiar things like broccolis and cauliflowers which can be sown now. This journey of discovery is cheered along by the coo-ing six week old who likes nothing better, it seems, than sitting in his bouncy chair in the greenshed, listening to music and to the rain hammering down on the plastic roof.

In the coming year of self-sufficiency I’ll obviously need to win a generous summer bounty. But I’m (almost) grateful for the necessity to discover the August/September sowing window. After all, the constraints of ‘the growing season’ need to be  loosened considerably if I’m to eke out a diet – the luxury of packing up for the year around now belongs to another, modern era.

*

It’s approximately a year since the idea of Rural Idiocy got pressed into words. Reality draws ever closer! 

After much strimming and mowing in the last few days, the field has returned to the becalmed order of early spring. In some ways not much happened between then and now!  It might seem strange, then, to report that I’m quietly confident that this thing can be done. My knowledge, sufficient to achieve self-sufficiency, only exists in fragments but there’s enough of them now to believe that they could be knocked together into a sustaining whole. Perhaps healthy pigs and healthy brassicas instill confidence, or at least diminish the significance of an inability to grow beetroot.

Typically, there are plenty of bad things in the larger world which could yet derail the project. To some extent, I’ve always been spurred on by that hot breath proximity of financial crisis and marginal family finances. In addition, we’re now in the final scene of an epic struggle with French bureaucracy which has sapped our collective energies for weeks now.

It would be unfortunate to fail because of paperwork. Hopefully that won’t be the case. Fingers crossed!

   

Sketches

by Emma Akroyd

Firstly I should mention that this is Emma posting to the Rural Idocy blog, so I’ll explain a little bit about what I’ve been up to. I’m currently on an ‘arrêt de travail’ or official maternity leave so I haven’t been getting any of my usual painting work done over here. What I thought I would do instead is to show some of the sketches and other bits and bobs that I’ve been trying to squeeze in, stuff that generally doesn’t take quite as much concentration as the oil painting.

I’ve been drawing Daddy pig in preparation for a dry point print. The starting point for this is the beautiful photo that Garth took.

One sunny morning, we sat on the field by the geese enclosure and spent a blissful 30 minutes in the sunshine drawing away quietly.

Whilst out for a walk,  I was presented with this lovely thistle from one of my little ones. I don’t know what type this is other than to say it is very much like a miniature thistle but the plant is not prickly!

41 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Firstly, apologies. Another new look. But the blog is just about a year old around now and we think this theme has all the emphasis in the right places. But this may be the aesthetics of the chronically sleep-deprived, so please speak if you feel differently…

So far it’s only grey today. None of the promised rain bedding in the seeds which are presently rattling around in their drills… I’ve dug over most of the former cauliflower bed which, in itself, is space enough to make the contents of even the most generous seed packet look a bit laughable. Space fills up better with transplants from modules…

The intended crop is the chicory family. You’re on the stranger shores of vegetable gardening with this lot: even the name is a mix up. I understand they’re endives in France and the US, but I’m not talking about those tough, green lettuce-y things you have to blanch, or the witloof chicons which supermarkets sell in plastic pouches, or the cutting/leaf chicories you can sow in January – think radicchio and we’re in the right area. There’s a whole range of heading chicories in an array of colours designed to be illuminated in low, autumn sun. They make a perfect counterpoint to a vinaigrette too…

Their big, dandelion roots necessitate a direct sowing. Beyond this cultivation of heading chicories becomes a bit foggy. Even the seed company doesn’t care to tell you that the older varieties require cutting back to encourage the head to form, like a witloof but in the open air. So, in the past, I’ve had a mystifying range of results compounded by my perennial failure to take proper notes!  With space aplenty, I’m going to effect an organised sowing on a big scale in an effort to finally solve the chicory mystery…

*

Away from the garden, it’s a case of sweating it out on crowded beaches… Hard times!

*

It’s been a year of strange harvests and this week has been no exception. The first of the parsnips were pulled and provided a good helping for six:

But the eating was disappointing, too floury, which I’m attributing to the dry weather.

Despite being flattened by frosts and dessicated by drought, the potato yield has been pretty good – albeit comprising lots of small tubers. The top growth on the specimens grown through plastic suggested the pattern would be repeated therein. Today was the moment of unveiling and a surprise awaited the many little hands delving into the soil – fewer but bigger spuds!

Chips for tea! 

*

Finally they’ve arrived:

Factoring in the cost of the polytunnel, they probably cost about 250€ each. Never mind that, or the fact that the dreaded blight is now taking hold under plastic: the texture and taste, and the potential for eating so well when I cultivate them better next year, is compensation enough. What price hope?

  

42 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 

Animals come and go on the smallholding.

Some changes I feel quite neutral about. For example, Mummy cat has decided that we’re a soft touch, delivered another kitten to our door and decided to stick around herself. Being hissed at in my own home by a fleabag, stump-tailed old moggy isn’t completely my cup of tea, but if she helps to keep the rodent population down I’ll put up with her, and her progeny.

Other personnel changes are necessary to the project and our nutrition so, it has now been decided: bye-bye Big Pig in October. Sob.

Yet more outcomes are downright embarassing to the blogging “hobby farmer”. It’s high time I confessed that, a couple of weeks ago, I lost all but one of my ducks. Not ‘lost’ as in some euphemism for something eating them (although I suspect they aren’t bobbing happily on some nearby pond right now) but actually lost them. I was professionally adjusting their enclosure when the vast majority just waddled off – exit stage left into the undergrowth. I can’t decide whether the remaining, lonely specimen deserves a dip in the gene pool or not, but I’ll probably weaken and buy him some playmates for next week. 

Anyway, the duck debacle made me more than a little apprehensive about renewing the geese’s enclosure yesterday. The ducks were lovely creatures but, to be frank, a bit useless. Too slender to provide good eating and seemingly too busy having fun in their pond to make inroads into the local snail population. Their replacements will be an altogether meatier variety. Conversely, geese are great: tough as ‘owt, grass-eaters extraordanaire, plus it’s difficult not to drool impolitely in their presence when sizing them up for the pot.

You can imagine my dismay then, when executing a complex choreography with the electric fence in order to channel them into their new area, they escaped. Fearing a fowl-free confessional this morning I manfully legged it to the house to summon Emma who was probably half way through a feed or a nappy change. Fortunately, around this time, we discovered another of the goose’s many virtues. I’d often wondered if they could be ‘driven’ i.e. moved from A to B in an orderly fashion. After failing miserably with guinea fowl and ducks, I’m pleased extremely relieved to report that the geese didn’t get away and are now safe in their new home. Phew.

Here they are looking a bit rattled, but contained:

*

Although Daddy pigs are waiting for their enclosure upgrade, thoughts can now, finally, return to vegetable matters. The ruination of the drought looks to be finally ending: we were awoken by the exotic sound of falling rain this morning and this week’s forecast has two days of precipitation in it… No matter if it’s only more drizzle, I see this as the harbinger of the last significant episode of sowings of the year.

If you regard October as the start of next year gardening-wise (and increasingly I do) this batch represents last chance saloon 2010. As the leisure gardeners happily scrub their seed trays and wind down for the autumn, the slightly mad-eyed survivalist type must sift through the old seed packets again and discover what can be eked out of the dwindling days. There’s a surprising range of things, particularly if you like questionable salady stuff and obscure Oriental brassicas. From Abyssinian cabbage to Yu Choy, I’ll be sowing them all in a vain effort to paper over the deficiencies of those long, hot months.

As I’ve identified before, to be self-sufficient, sowings should be a seamless transition from one season to the next. This state of perfection represents the nirvana of the productive gardener, peopled by wise (but possibly childless) allotment buddhas. Instead, the result is always a confused, staccato chaos for me. Even the requirement to feed myself from these acres might not be enough to reform my erratic ways. But if I live to tell the tale, I suppose the style won’t matter.

*

Here we are in the Upper Beds, shoe-horning some late sowings into the growing season. Things like chard, coriander, mizuna and even some carrots … a full list will appear in the usual place before the end of the month. The soil was as dry as it looks, but the prospect is still firmly set for rain, so here’s hoping.

Another recurrent theme this year has been encouraging the whole family to get involved out on the field. The two youngest follow us out there quite happily – in this instance baby is asleep in his pram and his four year old brother is lying on the floor for some good reason – but I regret to say the older lot do need a bit of bribery. Usually in the form of “do this weeding or no Playstation for you today”… It’s not quite the Amish ideal I saw on that documentary, but it’s a start.

The garden as foundation of the household economy is, however, established irrevocably. Shiva-like, Emma has an increasing role in the running of things garden-wise (although she still can’t get me to sow in straight lines) and increasingly draws inspiration for her artistic endeavours from the landscape.

Moreover, the smallholding, and particularly the animals, seem to be making a significant impression on our gite guests – and not just because they’re smelly.

It seems a natural progression, then, to merge all the different parts of the Kervéguen enterprise under the Rural Idiocy?™ banner. So, in future, Emma will also be posting on the blog, and some other things will appear here, there and everywhere.  I hope you’ll like the changes to our virtual home and thank you again for spending some time here.

*

It’s a cool and misty early morning. I’ve let the dogs out into the light gloom and the door is still open so I can appreciate the cool draught in the stuffy house.

The sense of bereavement which comes with autumn is still only slight, but motivation enough to get things in order. There’s been much cleaning of the animals’ barns in the last few days. Surely rain will come with the dark and their time inside will increase comensurately.

The late, direct sowings have reminded me of the need for a nice, crumbly soil additive which can be scattered on hungry soil. This requirement was particularly evident once I’d removed the cauliflower stumps: what lay beneath the plastic had all the texture and potential of a car park. In response, I’ve created a mountain of straw-y manure in a distant corner of the hangar, soaked it with water and covered it with a tarp. It may seem a bit eccentric to house the dung heap indoors, a corner of the bedroom was out of the question apparently, but I’ve found if you put the thing outside the rotting down stuff soon gets engulfed by the weeds which it turbo-charges around it.

Lawrence D. Hills assures me I’ll have just the thing I’m looking for in a matter of weeks. I bought a few of his books secondhand and have come to rely on them more and more – they seem to know your questions before you ask them. A remarkable man: I’ve no problem with mortality but it seems unjust that a mind like his isn’t in the world any more.

 

43 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Finally a change is afoot. The expanse of undifferentiated, cloudless days has been replaced with interesting skies, deeper shadows, showers. You can enjoy the privilege which is participation in dawn and dusk again.

Although wet-wellied winter me would strongly disagree, I feel a lot more at home with a diverse climate – only a scary fundamentalist could appreciate a simplistic relationship with the sun in the long term.

Further existential order is imposed by the chaos of the kids: it’s an exhausted elevenses by the time they’re all washed, clothes ironed, dressed, beds made, breakfasted and dogs walked, animals fed… all to the various coos, squeaks and squawks of the baby. It’s great.

And I can recoup lots of gardening time by deploying the army of child labour: so far we’ve re-located the tool shed, cleaned out the greenshed and pulled up the rest of the ragwort:

At their eye-level it’s easier to spot a decent creepy-crawly too:

There was an inspiring sight on Gardener’s World this week. No, not Alys Fowler in a swimsuit, but the garden of this place. It seemed to be on a similar scale to our field. They had 25 volunteers keeping it in order. Without the cachet of a National Trust property we’re unlikely to attract that level of voluntary support. Accordingly, I’ll inform Emma of our need for 20 more children – as soon as she’s finished changing that nappy…

The hot, dry weather did confer one advantage over last season: a red tomato or two before the blight comes. This is Santa – my fancy heirloom tomatoes are still resolutely green. It was a real battle of wills to photograph these before they got eaten!

*

Despite the clamour in my head of seeds needing sowing and weeds needing weeding, the animals are always, always first priority.

Late spring and summer are the relatively easy times for the keeper of the free range animal, mainly because pigs do their poos outside if it’s not dark or raining incessantly. This mundane fact cuts down the workload by at least two-thirds. Of course there’s lots of baby animals to watch out for but, compared to mucking out, this is hardly work at all.

After a peacable few months of lolling about in the sun, the shortening days seem to put the pigs in a mischievous mood. They’re naughty by nature these semi-wild pigs you know, not like the placcid, pink porkers most sensible peasants have… Last week the piglets, now rowdy adolescents, broke into the cockerel’s house just for the fun of it and trashed the place – luckily said cock had already escaped and joined the hens – lucky lad.

I’ve discovered the antidote to pigly restlessness is to give them new pasture to chew on. Yesterday, I carried baby and put in electric fence posts while Emma made good the sty’s defences once more.  

This morning, at feeding time, the usual slathering chorus of porcine punters were nowhere to be seen. The pighouse was strangely deserted. No need to worry, they were out there – munching contentedly on the horizon. Job well done, but that only ever means there’s someone else waiting for a pastoral upgrade:

(Thanks to my friend Garth for this splendid photo of  Daddy pig).

*

Happens every year doesn’t it? This year we’ve been so well-served by the courgettes in the polytunnel that I’d forgotten about the half-dozen I’d planted out in the field somewhere. And anyway, last time I looked, they were dessicated and miserable like everything else out there. Well, the recent drizzle seems to have revived them and each plant was now attached to a ridiculously big marrow. With pigs and hens to feed, a marrow is an untypically welcome sight. I threw five into their enclosures and watched with interest as they figured out how to tackle this alien object in their midst.

The sixth was such an attractive colour that I decided to record it for posterity – with a couple of apples for purposes of recording scale, of course.

44 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Trains, ferries, Gok Wan

Apologies for the slightly late post this week. The last of the big three summer hurdles needed jumping at the weekend: thirty hours of perpetual motion from here to Leeds and back again. After the parched ordeal of the recent drought, the Journey to pick up my oldest two kids proved surprisingly restorative. Geography streamed by and induced that change-as-better-than-rest phenomenon.

I know by now where all the allotment sites are between here and there and peer eccentrically out of train windows to see how they’re getting on… I look aghast at set-aside fields which are now yellow seas of ragwort. I read an astonishing book written by a Breton peasant and listened to Clarissa Dickson Wright’s life story. The former taught me that scratching an existence out in this part of the world has always had its nightmarish aspect. The latter that just having every advantage doesn’t spare you from some living nightmares. Like I said at the start, it’s all very confusing.

(I would have sought Gok Wan’s guidance, but he looked very flustered. At least he provided me with a new addition for my collection of “Z-listers I have seen in London” joining Pete Burns and Mike from Mike’s Carpets…)

More and more, the reality of this way of life is unhinging us from the mainstream. The field is a weedy expression of this shift in the psyche – completely misinterpreted and (I think) underated by most visitors. I’m also finding books about nineteenth century peasants speak far more vividly than present day garden manicurists. That slightly derelict and retrograde realisation came to me somewhere around Godalming (the second time, heading south) and made me even more grateful to be back and part of my own, big family.

   

Gardening with baby, and others…

It’s in the nature of summer holidays that getting on in the garden has to go hand in hand with containing – sorry – entertaining the kids. Emma had things to do in town, so all five were left in my hands. The alarm that would go off in most people’s head when faced with this chaotic prospect burnt out in mine years ago. A dull sense of acceptance has replaced it.

I’d pitched a tent on the field yesterday. This acts as base for their games and adventures, means they can retreat under cover from too much rain or shine and they can throw all their clobber in there at the end of the day.

Biscuits and drinks are packed into their bags, baby into his papoose… and off we go. Having a sleeping baby strapped to your chest does place some limitations on gardening: using a chainsaw or strimmer is probably out of the question. But jobs like hoeing are pretty easy. I’ve had beer bellies heavier than him!

He even let me cut a cut a couple of cabbages. The ranks of green ones I planted in spring have got horribly disfigured by baking sun and no rain, but Red Drumhead would survive a nuclear strike:

A walk in Botmeur

Botmeur is a lovely village in the otherwise wonderfully bleak – and sometimes downright spooky – Yuen Elez. The latter is the place your soul goes to haunt if you’re really bad, apparently. It’s one of our favourite haunts. There’s some beautiful old houses and some very tidy potagers too:

Oh, and a mystery road side flower – anyone know? Update! It’s betony – thank you ejo!

A word of thanks

Some lovely children’s books have arrived from distant parts of the world – places where we have no (known) friends or relatives. I’m guessing that someone has read this blog and decided, anonymously, to send gifts to our newborn. Emma and I agree it takes a special generosity to do something like that. So, whoever you are, thank you very much.

That water problem

Yesterday the many-handed Akroyd army was deployed in clearing hundreds of greenshed pots and trays of their useless, withered contents. This efficient but dispiriting exercise is seemingly an annual event. Due to some plague, pestilence or other unfortunate mishap the droves of spring sowings never make it into the open ground. This year’s killer setback – other than an escapee goat which nibbled the tops of my seedling kales – has been a drought which rendered plantings out into soil ‘comme béton’ completely futile .

One day – soon preferably – these acres will return a bounty of vegetable plenty you will not believe. In the meantime, I’m sure it is out-yielded by some inner-city balconies. Although grateful I will never have to look up hubris in the dictionary again, this regular summer calamity is becoming as unpalatable as my other cabbages are looking. I can’t make it rain any more than I can improve French driving standards, but clearly to lose everything to drought next year would be careless.

While suburban gardeners happily water their plots from the mains, this would cause bankruptcy almost overnight in this metered household. And thus the bigger the plot the bigger the problem. Serves me right for trying to do this thing without a big tractor and chemical weapons.  However, a conversation with my farmer friend has presented another option. There’s a patch of grass at the top of our field which is forever green and usually damp. Another neighbouring farmer is – I learn – an acclaimed practitioner in the art of divination. You can guess where I’m going with this… Funny how scepticism surrenders in the face of despair!

With the harvest from early spring plantings dwindling, I’m faced with the interesting prospect of August as a new start. I bloody hate new starts. But devising a diet from late summer sowings will be a good discipline to acquire for next year, even if my abundant spring water supply obviates the traditional summer crash and burn.  

45 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Paternity leave

I’ve finally emerged unshaven and slightly sleep-deprived from a week of baby-centric living. I must have spent hours just watching his eyes turn a clear, light blue. Thanks to Emma’s maternal magnificence (yes, I’m hopelessly biased) and the continued influence of this book, it took just 24 hours for new baby to tuck in to his place in the farm’s heirarchy. Which is somewhere above big pig and me.

In that time the garden became just a dessicated and weedy memory. Helpful friends and relatives were dispatched to dig potatoes and cut cabbages for much-delayed meals – a service I miss now they’ve all packed up and gone! In the interim my hands have gone all soft and my body softer still.

But a well-adjusted baby and his poignant presence in this project, combined with a strategically placed boot up the backside courtesy of Mme A., means I’m back in business. I must ignore the fact that the survival manual for next year will have May and June missing – largely thanks to drought – and set about discovering what a fresh start in July can achieve.

In an effort to record this data and compensate for deficiencies in recent weeks, I’ll be posting a bit more regularly henceforth. Probably with a baby being burped over one shoulder…

Green fruit gallery

I got my first chance in ages to stroll around the garden on Monday evening. Keeping my eyes carefully averted from the weed-strewn soil, I noticed the fruit forming everywhere…

Some flowers are evil

With an influx of willing hands, and me temporarily promoted to caterer-in-chief, I was in the unusual position of being able to delegate some horrible garden task to any passing aunty or nephew. The weather was dreadful all last week so my fiendish plan to get all the weeding done while I hid behind the nappy bucket was foiled.

But I did manage to get the rest of the ragwort pulled. A uniquely strenuous and tedious task to remove this toxic scumbag of a plant – but my goats will have much more hay to go at next year now it’s gone. And I won’t get fined by the mayor for having too much of la jacobée. Which I’m sure is a comfort to the relatives concerned who are presently nursing strained shoulder joints.

On the way to the airport it was almost tempting to stop the car and start pulling the stuff out of the hard shoulder, but we resisted…

 

*

Delivery for Mrs Akroyd…

Look what showed up in our porch this morning:

 

The neighbourhood cats bring us their cast-offs from time-to-time!

46 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

That is all.

47 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 I’m drafting this post under the shade of the big chestnut tree at the top of the field. The weather is still beautifully sunny but more lenient due to a cool breeze. With enough sunblock and antihistamines physical work is possible once again for the majority of the day.

Still, it’s nice to stop. Emma is taking long sleeps during the day – there are signs the birth is very close now – and I jump at the chance to sit down somewhere cool and look after the boys. At present one of them is drawing a picture of the goslings and the other is running around with a stick fighting baddies. Behind them, the prospect of rolling fields all the way to the distant Montagnes Noires/Meneziou Du. It’s such an  idyllic scene that it’s difficult to regard it as real – more like looking at a painting.

*

The foreground of the view is a bit more troublesome from my perspective. I can see things in the garden that should be bigger by now and things that should have been cut down by now. I’ve been concentrating on the Upper Beds this week, removing the remnants of the beans and peas. Many weeds have been taken out too and left to dry in the sun for a day or two before being offered to the fussy goats, who seem to prefer their weeds sun-dried for some reason. I then arranged the newly-clean soil into long drills, about a hundred metres in total. And now I’m waiting for rain again…

We did get a day’s rain – maybe two inches in total. This perked up the existing plantings considerably, but left little impact on uncleared soil. Another dose of rain, though, and I can quickly administer  extensive, direct sowings of anything  and everything which can swallow a July sowing. This act might atone for the self-inflicted wound of failing to water the greenhouse-dwellers for a couple of days. Maybe it was too much sun on the gardener’s brain but this neglect of an obvious and fundamental duty destroyed ranks of pumpkins and brassicas – shrivelled to a crisp on the hottest days of the year.  Only the chillies survived the cull.

*

 

A happier note has been the harvest of some big crops. The freezer is now home to a large stash of frozen cauliflower. I also pulled the first shallots and garlic of the season. Loads more to come when I can face the prospect of even more empty beds!

Talking of which, the potatoes are now coming in too… despite frost, drought and a range of experimental growing techniques, the jackpot of spudly abundance has been hit. I’m pleased to declare one of the aforementioned as the best method of cultivation I tried. The tubers are biggest and sweetest when exhumed from the manure-rich depths of the lazy beds. Given the weirdness of this year’s weather and the complete mix up of seed varieties and planting times I don’t make any scientific claim for these results. Suffice it to say that I’ll be expanding the provision of lazy beds this winter.

Of the other methods planting through plastic was probably the worst: the plants haven’t flourished particularly in this heat with a black plastic blanket around their roots. Unless you want pre-baked spuds, it might not be the way to go… Similarly flawed were the conventional sowings with added straw mulch. Surprisingly perhaps, the straw didn’t protect the plants from that late blast of frost and gave safe-harbour to slugs and snails which obliterated any plants the frost didn’t…

*

I suspect next week’s harvest might be a slightly different proposition! I wish I had the words to express the profound consistency between the prospect of a new child and all the other things that happen on our disorderly little farm. But I might end up accidentally equating my wife to a breeding sow, or something equally unwise.

But that irresitable growing force is everywhere: seeding, flowering, fruiting. Rebirth and renewal. Fingers-crossed.    

48 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 

It’s been a non-descript kind of week: this hot, dry weather every bit as sterile as the weeks of frosty, dry weather we had earlier in the year.

Water is the only thing that makes my clay soil sing – albeit quietly – so no rain and hot sun mean my gardening options wither rapidly. Direct sowing would be absurd before the rain comes and, according to the forecast, that prospect keeps evaporating. The choice regarding things ready for planting out is keeping them well-watered in their pots or having them bake in some inaccessible piece of  ground. I choose the former.  Days pass.

The daily needs of the animals can’t be ignored, of course, and are augmented by the endless need to keep water topped up. The pigs regularly take the decision to knock their drinking water over to create a wallow. Like me, they spend the hottest hours inside. But without the paperwork. The hens find a dusty spot (not difficult) and half bury themselves in it until the goats return from their stint on the field and stand on them.  It’s hard work being a goose or gosling too. In fact, they’ve finally deigned to use the shelter we built them all that time ago, just to give themselves a bit of shade.

It has been excellent haymaking weather though, and I’ve pressed ahead with this task as quickly as possible. Not only does it save a lot of money to make your own but the goats – ever fussy – seem to approve of it far more than the mechanically generated stuff. Rather than picking at it disdainfully, they scoff it down in a mad-eyed sort of way.

The rough ground remaining after the hay has been raked up seems to cry out for a hen’s scratching or a pig’s foraging, so next week I’ll be reconfiguring  enclosures to meet the land’s need…

 

 

To be honest, I’ll be glad when June is over. The apex of the growing season is very steep for the solitary gardener and I arrived there pretty knackered after Spring’s endeavours.

The afternoon of the year has a different character. More containable. From July the sowings are more esoteric, but I’m happier with a limited palette to work from: infinite possibilities make me uncomfortable.  

This hot spell has imposed the reverse of the industrial day: work is only realistically done any other time than 9 to 5. Those stifling hours are best spent lolling on the settee (most unnatural) or trying to lighten the load of a wife on the brink of childbirth/meltdown!

It takes a sort of bravery to march out into the garden long before breakfast or after tea, but it is lovely when you make it… a parallel world of  birdsong and long-shadows.

 

49 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 Spring maintenance

During last week’s efforts with the scythe, I managed to fool myself into an olde worlde comfort zone which conveniently ignored the disgraceful state the beds and paths were getting into. The weeds were getting bigger than the fruit trees. 

As any self-respecting, hypocritical Peal Oil peasant would, I reached for the noisy machines intent on blasting the lot to kingdom come. Two days of strimming, mowing and weeding doesn’t inspire much narrative but at least the place ended up looking much more managed. Which is a good thing – I think.

The gaps left by the failed March sowings were looking more obvious too. It’s a bit odd to have swathes of empty soil in June and they had me reaching for my seed boxes. I’ve never made it to the far side of the longest day in control of my acres before and my lack of experience is telling… I just don’t have enough stuff to plant out! 

With the last early pea finally podded and the early potatoes looking almost ready to flower, even more space will soon come available. I’m certainly trying to make the most of the seedlings I do have. Anaemic-looking courgettes have been forced into service and French beans lashed hurriedly to cane structures. All in that race against that returning dark we euphemistically refer to as summer.  

Le Coq

 

Another new arrival on the farm – no, not that one yet – but a fine cockerel to add an air of authenticity to the place with his early morning wake up call. (With the baby imminent, I’m not sure this service was really necessary…)

He’s been shut in one of the old cow stalls in the hangar until his new flock of (meat) hens arrives on Monday of next week. He’s a feisty chap – apt to dive-bomb you with his spurs foremost if you get too close. I hate to break it to him but, after you’ve been bear-hugged by a sixteen stone boar, his machismo doesn’t seem that scary! 

(I feel I should award myself a prize for ignoring all the pun potential presented by the presence of this creature. Please be assured that all the bawdy possiblilities have been considered, and sniggered at, but I’ve resisted every temptation, so far…)

Cauliflowers and other edibles

It was arrogant to come here expecting to be able to grow every vegetable, especially when the local farmers only grow cows and fodder crops.

But, more and more, I’m realising each crop has an ideal planting arrangement within the windy, weak-soiled context of this hillside in Brittany… I feel confident I’ve cracked the code regarding brassicas. It’s probably inappropriate to feel smug about my cauliflowers when I can’t get a decent spring-sown crop of broad beans going – but caulis are a definite challenge organically and there’s something very rewarding about seeing the white curds appear amidst the swirl of leaves…

 

 

All the brassicas seem suited by their set up: I plant the seedlings through plastic and over-arch them with netting supported on homemade hoops. Yesterday it was time to remove the October planted couves and collards. It proved relatively easy to relocate the whole shooting match of plastic and supports to another position on the field, ready to receive the Brussel sprouts which are presently turning a bit sour in their pots.

Elsewhere gooseberries are starting to come in… regular readers might recall the agonies of retro-mulching those so and so’s… well I’m happy to report the gastronomic delight of Emma’s gooseberry crumble more than atones for that miserable experience! Currants of various shades have also been sighted, but probably by the birds too… and we’re now approaching that decadent moment where strawberries and cream is no longer exciting and we’ll use them for jam instead. 

Happy days: first fruit is also appearing in the polytunnel at last:

 

An Apology

Lastly this week, a sincere apology for my failure to visit anybody else’s blog recently.

I despise heirarchy – especially in gardening – and don’t want you to think that because I can grow an outstanding, organic cauliflower that I’m getting too big for my boots. I may be planning a cauliflower boutique at Chelsea next year, but this isn’t the reason for my absence. I’d hoped that moving to a weekly post would free up lots of time to lavish on commentary elsewhere. Instead the vacuum has been filled by weeds to be weeded, peas to be podded and a cot to be constructed.

Normal service will resume as soon as possible!

 

   

50 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Hay-making

As I mentioned last week, the sight of all those lovely grasses in the uncultivated parts of the garden had me reaching for my scythe. This week I actually put the thing to use, cutting and stacking a small amount of my own hay. Unfortunately it’s now raining quite hard, my stook has collapsed and the whole exercise might not result in a usable product! Moreover, I can’t seem to get my scythe razor-sharp and my action feels more than imperfect.

But there’s something strangely addictive about the whole process which makes me want to resume as soon as possible. I can only offer a partial explanation: unlike the noisy introspection of strimming or some other mechanical cutting, hay-making with a scythe can be a sociable experience. I could talk to Emma, tell the boys off and hear the goat’s bell. Not for the first time this week I was reminded that progress usually prejudices togetherness.

 

Goslings!

We’d almost given up and assumed it was a phantom incubation … but Mother goose sat dutifully on her clutch of eggs with no regard to our logic, through rain and shine. She stitched her nest together with her own feathers and shivered when the wind turned to the east. And now she has her reward: five lovely, fluffy goslings. When we go to check on the brood, the new family is usually doing a proud promenade – with Father Goose leading the parade. It’s tempting to reach in and touch the goslings – until a big, hissing parent advises you otherwise! 

 

Harvest continues…

Spurred on by a dwindling supermarket budget, we’re now defaulting to the garden to feed us. This is an important and necessary step for this family as, for too long, we’ve used homegrown produce to simply augment the bought stuff.

I’m wrestling now with the correct provision of what the family eats. Already it’s clear I probably couldn’t grow enough peas or brocolli. I probably could plant fewer kales, although the dark greening of our diet is definitely a good thing – and the animals enjoy any leftovers. Salad has become the cornerstone of one meal a day, usually topped with just-shelled egg or bean. Simple fare, made gourmet by being so fresh.

A lot of what we’re eating now was sown last October. The failure of the March-sown peas and broad beans (due to drought) means no succession there. And a bit of a wait yet until the climbing beans appear… The harvest highlight of the week would be shared between the first cauliflower of the season and a glut of peas. Pea-podding is now a regular feature of each day and will occupy a whole afternoon later this week as we get the majority frozen. 

 

 

Under cover

Much as I love the outcome, I’m sick of potting on brassica seedlings. It really does take a lot of patience to do it for a whole afternoon, even a rainy one. But at least the throng of brocollis and cauliflowers and cabbages and kales are moving along the production line. And I’ll be glad of them early next year. But it is a chore. Almost all sowing now is outdoors – I got lots of carrots sown this week – and the greenhouse looks a bit forlorn. The propagators are packed away and the benches cleared of things now hardening-off outside. Only the peppers and the melons remain to be hot-housed over the summer… 

More fun is on offer in the polytunnel where the tomatoes are bounding forward and need regular tying-in to their canes and side-shooting. The aubergines were finally deemed big enough to plant out in the border and that final act saw plantings in the polytunnel concluded until November. I wonder if the blight will hold off long enough to taste a ripe tomato this year? I hope so.

Lost & found

Illness, half term and generalised anxiety have now all been conquered. But not before an unexpectedly large chunk was bitten out of this working week by travelling. A seemingly innocuous hop by plane from Luton to Brest became a giant leap for mankind encompassing a visit to Dinard and Nantes airports along the way. After ten hours unanticipated extra travelling on Thursday, I finally arrived at a dark, wet and windy economy car park at Brest. Only to discover that one of the kids had left a door slightly open which ensured the car’s battery was extinct.

The existence of a helpful Frenchman at 1 a.m. in possession of a special red box and willing to get the car started wasn’t the only miracle of the day. Earlier in the ordeal I also met other French people, an Irishman, an Iraqi and a Slovenian who, despite the unique torture of  listless hours spent in airport terminals, remained positive, helpful and generally restorative of one’s faith in humanity. It was a day worth living after all. Well, almost… but there’s definitely a special feeling of hope attached to kindness given and received among people you’ll never see again.

51 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

 

 

Half term holiday weeks like this usually require an improbable combination of excellent peasantry and olympian parenting. I fell short of the ideal again and wasted time feeling disconsolate as the field reverted with alarming speed to that thing it does best: being a field.

But there have been golden moments too, when the elusive synthesis of family and garden has been stumbled upon. In my humble experience, following the long, raggedy line of my children into the beds to find dinner is as good as it gets.

*   

After being measly for the first five calendar months, the growth rate is  now exponential. Everywhere the jostling and striving of greenery, the shooting and leafing of plants which are the best adapted to local conditions… they gang up on the artificial order of the cultivated areas. Those long winter months of wishing for progress are rewarded in June by an avalanche of the stuff.

But the crops are also coming in despite their problem neighbours. The kale is doing me proud. The coarser-leaved collards so valued in April are now disdained and consigned to grateful goats and hens. Older humans are now enjoying the reptillian fleur de lys of cavolo palmizio: each leaf folded in half, stalk removed and the remainder sliced for boiling quickly. Meanwhile the children (who’ve had it with spring greens already) can be persuaded by the dainty heads of brocolli Santee. I confess I didn’t know this variety was meant to put up heads in its first season but we cheerfully decapitated it anyway. 

Another succession is apparent in the lettuce bed – the doughty barba di frate was cut each day and came again for a second cut by the end of the week. Even the broad beans have come good and the Aquadulce crop – cruelly evicted from its cotton wool wrapping by children’s hands of various sizes – has been added to just about everything. Oh and strawberries – not the sweetest yet, but still enough for six hunter-gatherers every other day.

Slowly the jigswaw is getting more pieces in it. Self-sufficiency is a 20,000 piece one, full of sea and sky… but a corner is definitely taking shape.

*

But mainly take, take, take this week with only the essential maintenance done in return. Weeds grew skywards and the swards of hay in the field have finally put on some length too. I understand from a friend who knows about these things that decent hay will be at a premium this year due to the late cold and drought. Consequently I’m now eyeing my handsome rough areas – all bobbing purple grassheads – with a sharpened scythe in mind. After the cut hay had dried in the weeks of imagined sun ahead, I would somehow – the vision gets a bit fuzzy here and unhaunted by stray canines – relocate the hens onto the stubble to keep it in check…

A rare time to sit back in the sun and speculation about such things has been forced upon me by illness. A bit lost is not an entirely comfortable place to be with 51 weeks to go, but you have to try and accept setbacks and instead watch your offspring being sickeningly energetic around the place, closely followed – in their enclosure – by stampeding piglets.

Thanks to this weeks’ bounty from the field I’m getting the impression that any fool of a peasant can feed himself from June to November (although I may be the exception…). More importantly my family are getting the confidence in that former notion too. It’s those other six months which will take military-scale planning and those ponderings may at least be undertaken if your wheels are otherwise a bit come off … 

 

One year to go ..!

by Max Akroyd

Well, that was the preamble. The next year will be dedicated wholeheartedly to ensuring I survive the one after that.

If I could find a vantage point with a year-long view, I could look back 365 days and see myself nervously preparing for the arrival our first hens. (The upkeep of pigs, goats, guinea fowl, ducks and geese was unknown to us then). Emma had just come out of hospital after a back operation and looked like she’d been turned into glass. The field was all rack and ruin and the reasons for moving here in tatters.

I built a space big enough for a hundred hens, but just six were enough to transform everything. Somehow the animals’ arrival lifted us out of despondency. They fought back against the encroaching wilderness – in the mind and in the field – and their routines structured our working day. They ate our waste and enriched our soil.

By October of last year I felt an unusual desire (for me) to share this experience. Thanks to the blog and the people who comment upon it, I could see different people in different places doing the same things in their gardens, according to the season. People with pigs told me theirs escaped too. Which made me feel much better. Their experience has also fortified me when tough times came, as they always will. 

If I could look a year forward, I probably wouldn’t. I can’t believe another year’s economic peace can be bought with printed money and, at some point, there’s going to be an uncomfortable reckoning. I think we’ll see big changes as a result of this, a move from the market value of things to the intrinsic value of things. A house will be bricks and mortar. A share certificate more like a piece of paper. Productive land is the only asset which survives this transition.

 

 

Going forward, there’s going to be a couple of changes to the blog which I need to tell you about now. Firstly I’m going to move to a once-weekly post. I really enjoy my daily blog time but feel the presence of a new baby and the increased seriousness of the gardening task in hand won’t allow me to do it justice. It’ll also give me more time back to comment on other people’s blogs, an overdue reciprocation. So it’ll be round at my place every Tuesday morning from now on, if you like.

Second thing: this blog will end on 1 June 2011. The year of self-sufficiency itself will be the basis of a book. I realise this is probably a bit of a surprise but it’s something I thought I’d better mention now so I don’t keep anyone here on false pretences. I promise that, assuming I survive long enough to sell tell the tale, everyone who has commented on the blog (or tweeted supportive words) to date will get a free copy!

Thank you, as always, for reading this.

Busy as a stump-tailed cow in fly time (367)

by Max Akroyd

So many sayings are applicable to gardening you could probably give up growing plants and just cultivate annoying dictums instead.

That one about having too many pots on the boil is on my mind at the moment. With a poorly wife, four kids to entertain and a big pig with a limp it’s tempting to give up on gardening and write country and western songs instead!

A whistling woman and a crowing hen never comes to a very good end… Clearly, you can’t have it all and some projects will not come to fruition. Before today, the Perennial Beds were starting to look a bit like this year’s losers. I’ve advocated the perennial vegetable to self-sufficient types before and I’m still convinced of all this. But an aspect of their wild and unreformed nature is the difficulty getting the seeds to germinate: good king Henry, patience dock and Turkish Rocket have all failed to materialise. I’m presently awaiting results of sorrel, Witloof and seakale sowings. Hopefully they will join the rhubarb and Welsh onions which have made it through the drought and keep the theme of this area alive.

 

Unproductive.

 

But after giving the area a good haircut with the strimmer and the mower this morning it’s apparent there will be plenty of vacant bed space – some of it even cultivated – to accommodate non-perennial things. Enter stage left the host of May sowings which are sprouting within hours of hitting that nice warm compost. Just goes to show even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.

This afternoon I have to explain to my nine year old that he can’t watch the England friendly but has to help me shift rocks instead. That will not be as easy as sliding off a greasy log backward.

A dark stranger returns (368)

by Max Akroyd

 

Apparently it rained here while I was in England. And thanks to this contribution we cut our first outdoor lettuce of the season yesterday and pulled our first radishes too. The latter were very small – just thinnings really – but very welcome. However, the soil itself was unchanged from the dusty state I left it in. 

 

 

 

The actual sight of rain as I opened the shutters this morning caused me to stop and ponder how strange this season has been. The pigs and goats and I have all grown accustomed to day after day in the field under more or less clear skies. For months. To see, hear, smell grey skies and rain was like stumbling across a familiar scene in a strange landscape.

The main effect of the drought garden-wise has been to delay the big outdoor sowings. Namely, main crop peas, carrots and beetroot. It simply wasn’t rational to put this expensive seed into lunar-dry soil. The return of the rain will enable this to happen before the longest day and I want every bed full by the end of June. Equally important is the fillip provided to the parched plants already in the field. Hopefully this intervention will swell the autumn-sown broad beans and peas – a harvest which becomes more appealing every day. 

The final benefit of the rain is to allow me to soft-peddle for another day. Incipient old age and rustic tendencies means the journey takes a day or two to get over, mentally and physically. I did complete May’s indoor sowings this morning though, an unprecedented achievement hereabouts, which I’m very pleased about. Now I’m going to make like big pig and sleep this cloud off.  

Back home (369 days to go)

by Max Akroyd

 

I’ve just returned from a trip to the UK. The almost instant transition from field to civilisation – from tying-in sweet peas to sitting out a three-hour delay in an airport departure lounge – is always a challenge. Before setting off, I try and scrub off the ingrained muck from my rough hands and put a thin veneer of polish on my old shoes, but I have to accept that I’m now irrevocably changed by living and working as I do.

These days, being in a plane seems a reckless and precarious position to be in.  Spending £5 on a magazine an absurdity when there’s chicken wire to buy.  

Conversely, having listened attentively to fellow passengers’ life histories, there don’t seem too many human problems that couldn’t be alleviated by proximity to soil and pigs. I got off the plane late yesterday and within an hour was feeding the pigs and asking Big Pig if she’d missed me. She seemed to be saying “Oh shut up and give me that food” and I couldn’t help but envy her big, vacant acceptance of her world. 

My lettuces have doubled in size thanks to some decent rain, but this has also caused the weed bomb to go off… which means I will spend this day of recuperation weeding and hoeing. Which is ok.

(And I found some fruit!)

 

A non-wordy Wednesday

by Max Akroyd

Instead of wittering on today I thought I’d offer up a few pictures of nice things growing in the field right now and – just for the heck of it – a nice song to listen to. Have a good Wednesday.

 

First sweet peas (373)

by Max Akroyd

No gardening today by order of the family. But a bit of emergency tying-in of sweet peas was permissable this morning, and I harvested the first blooms while I was at it. These sweet pea plants on the field have been pretty dismal-looking of late, somehow managing to get attacked by slugs and withered by drought simultaneously. There are signs, though, that some of the plants are reasserting themselves, which makes these first flowers even more precious.

I gave the mini-bouquet to the ninety-year old lady who is staying in the gite. This is partly because old age is venerable in itself, but also because her son-in-law has very kindly given me some blight-beating Sarpo potato seed. He also appreciated some of our pork for his barbecue, so everyone’s happy! 

Just mowing (374)

by Max Akroyd

 

Today is La Pentecôte, one of a few jours fériés – bank holdays – in May. And what a day for it – wall to wall hot sun and blue skies. There isn’t a half term holiday in May here, so this is a good option for a rest before the long haul to the long summer holiday.

Unfortunately for a gardener with a sore everything, tomorrow’s forecast gets more extreme every time I look at it. Storms automatically mean that any mowing which needs doing in the next two days needs to be done today instead, not least because tomorrow might be a bad day to be a tall object on a hillside. Which means a bit of time off tomorrow hopefully celebrating some rain at last. And I’ll be finally excused from watering everything all the time – including the animals.

Right, I’m off to mow a bit more of a meadow…

Been busy (375)

by Max Akroyd

 

First thing this morning I let the dogs out. Outside was pretty much the same temperature as inside. It was impossible not to spend a moment listening to the birds and breathing in the sweet-scented air. There’s a lot of grind keeping this place ticking over, but moments like that are the reward.

They also help enthuse me sufficiently to tackle the deluge of tasks. The impression that any sowing project would succeed right now is irresistable. Be it the polytunnel, the greenhouse or the herb garden, I’m possessed with an urge to plant stuff.

Having spent the brief morning cool planting more herbs out, I was determined to increase the pressure on myself of even more new plants – by setting up a sowing production line: outdoors! No use having wife and children sitting around enjoying themselves in the sun when they could be press-ganged into a horticultural sweat shop. 

Never mind that the polytunnel was approximately the temperature of Venus this afternoon, I was going to dig 21 holes to plant my tomatoes in… quick! pass me those courgette and cucumber plants… Pak choi will certainly bolt at these temperatures. Not a problem, we’ll eat the flowers.

 

The sauna

 

Previously, I’d tried everything  to get the polytunnel properly watered. I even filled it full of snow in that other dimension commonly known as January. Later, backwards and forwards with watering cans full from the water butt keeping the salad crops going.  All to no avail, it was still bone dry in there. So this week I weakened and bought a sprinkler. Two days with that baby running and the soil has been transformed into a yielding, vital thing. I could also experiment with working in the polytunnnel with the sprinkler on – surely guaranteed to keep me pleasantly cooled? No, I was just still hot, just lashed occasionally with a freezing-cold whip of cold water. 

After much ferrying to and fro of pots and compost, plus not a little chatting in the shade as we worked, the family managed to get the sowing schedule almost up to date. Hundreds of beans and pumpkins done and dusted. Very satisfactory, but there’s always someone busier than you are…

 

Building a herb garden (376 days to go)

by Max Akroyd

Summer can be a bit over-rated – appearance-wise it’s the gone-over time. The reward for those long winter months spent trying to kindle spring’s awakening is this. Warm, warm sun and cool sea-breeze by day, evenings full of colour but defined by deep shadow. Being inside feels like an offence against your mud-caked winter self.

Since I’m not allowed to just sit in the long grass on the field all day contemplating the view, the next best thing I can think of to honour the season is construction of our herb garden. Until today this area was merely a large ‘L’ shape of plastic mulch punctuated by the ten lavender plants I got in yesterday. There also a fork, with a broken tine, lying in the grass.

Today saw the introduction of some more herbs grown from seed. Dill and valerian found places behind the lavender and chives and chamomile in front. It still looks terrible, but there’s borage, hyssop, parsley, rosemary, summer savory, achillea and foxgloves in the offing – so one day, maybe next spring, a fragrant but eminently usable scene will be set. Once the plants are established we intend to edge the area with some old roof slates and cover the plastic with gravel.

In the meantime, it’s always nice to stand back from your work in the garden and see how you’ve improved things. Unfortunately, right now my herb garden looks like an explosion at a bargain-basement garden centre. Fortunately there were some other interesting things around the place to post here instead.

 

"Look at that strange looking human"

 

On days like this even the mowing – which will occupy much of the afternoon – seems purposeful; a useful enhancement of a fine picture of Spring.