Sunday, 26 February 2012

Here Comes the Sun

It really has warmed up, and with the warmth other senses are awakened. Suddenly the garden is full of sound - birds singing their hearts out, the rustle of tiny lizards along sunny walls; and with the water finally turned back on there is the sudden rush of fountains too.  It’s a bit like Narnia after the White Witch is defeated!
However... there really is no time for mawkish fantasy - there are lots of very real, very manly jobs to be done. Like finding rocks, splitting them, hauling them across vertiginous garden slopes, driving them round the property in the pickup truck*, and mixing concrete. We’re laying paving in the new vegetable garden - the eventual idea is to pave the entire area between the beds, which keeps the amount of fiddly, difficult-to-maintain grass paths to a minimum. 
C, as our resident native Frenchman, has suggested calade, a traditional Provençal technique that involves placing pieces of local stone (here a warm honey-grey limestone) in a bed of sand and cement. Basically posh crazy paving. It’s not finished but it already looks wonderful - a statutory lesson in using local materials and matching them to the surroundings.
I did manage to escape and sow more early salads in the cold frame - rows of spinach, mesclun, oak-leaf lettuce, Early Nantes carrots, red mustard, rocket, mizuna... and the magnificent-sounding Radicchio ‘Palla Rossa Precoce’ - as cut and come again, bit of an experiment. It is described in the seeds of Italy catalogue as ‘tight compact redhead’ - sounds more like a person than a veg to me.

* another 'in at the deep end moment' - my first time driving the truck was reversing up three switchbacks with half a tonne of stone in the back.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Gardening Unplugged

Gardeners have lots of enemies. Slugs, birds, inclement weather, fungal diseases.... all manner of things physical, metaphysical or otherwise can thwart even the best laid plans. My personal hit-list now includes the cordless drill.
Someone, name unknown, unplugged my precious propagator full of tiny tomatoes to recharge the drill. It reminds me of the urban myth of a hospital in America that had what became known as ‘The Bed of Death’... 

Patients in one particular bed in the Intensive Care unit kept on dying. Nobody could figure out why. Eventually the managers became so perplexed that they installed CCTV.  Lo and behold, every time the cleaner came to polish the floor, which life support machine was unplugged to power up the hoover....? You’ve guessed it.
Tiny seedlings of tender things like tomatoes are especially vulnerable to sudden dips in temperature, so the cosseted environment of a heated propagator is perfect for them [if like most people you just get them going on a windowsill, make sure you tuck curtains or blinds behind them at night]. Looks like we were lucky, it was a warm night and my ‘Gardener’s Delight’ are coming up like cress...

Monday, 20 February 2012

Cold Comforts

The snow has finally disappeared, leaving behind a battered-looking garden and weariness on our faces. 
Ironically the one plant that is completely unscathed, flowering magnificently and unaccountably early, is the imaginatively-named Giant Orchid (Baria robertiana). I found it poking proudly from the very middle of the terrace that’s shortly to become the new vegetable garden.   
Seeing it brought back a rush of memories from the time I worked at a nature reserve in the Chilterns called Homefield Wood. It was one of only two places in Britain where the Giant Orchid’s distant cousin, the Military Orchid grew. It's a hidden world, an ancient meadow tucked into a fold in the hills, surrounded by woodland; silent and full of butterflies.  The orchids swarmed across it and provided the ultimate escape from the boredom of being cooped up revising for exams. I’m sure that madness for orchids (not to mention the ten mile bike ride to get there) cost me a few A grades, but I still love the plant more than any certificate.  
Seeing it affirmed the choice of site but also dealt us a warning: the aspect must be reasonably sunny (it’s east-facing which gave us doubts, since few vegetables relish shade) - but it also shows that the soil must be pretty infertile, as terrestrial orchids [in Europe at least] grow only where they are not out-competed by grasses and other heavy feeders.
So there is plenty to do. I marked out the design with string and canes, and raked fallen leaves into the ‘beds’ to give a picture. The design is simple, two long linear sets of beds running the entire length of the terrace, divided into a series of squares and rectangles.  Experience has taught me that a complicated design with lots of sharp angles is a nightmare - you spend longer tending the paths than the vegetables!
Having small beds (1m x 1m squares, 1 x 1.5m rectangles) is a good idea for two reasons. Firstly they’re small enough to reach from the outside, so you can avoid compacting the soil by treading on it.  Secondly they’re a good size for growing just one thing in each, so make for a much bolder design statement than would otherwise be possible.  Veg can be hugely attractive as well as tasty so it seems logical to take advantage of this.

M agreed the design so we’re busy preparing the site. But by now my biological clock has begun not just ticking but positively thundering as we hurl headlong towards the spring... [although as a single man more into plants than women this means seeds, not babies...] 

We’re still a long way off being able to sow anything in the new garden, so yesterday I made new lids for the old cold frames on the high terrace below the cliff.  Oh the relief of sowing, planting strawberries in warm soft soil, the clean peaty smell of compost! Cold comforts indeed.

Monday, 13 February 2012

A problem or an opportunity?

Much to my surprise, M wasn’t upset at all about the holm oak by the front gate, felled only by snow that fateful windless night. It was beautiful, we both agree - a stately sentinel to the beginning of the garden, reserved yet majestic. But with its sudden departure, we’re left with an unexpected view - a towering 100ft cliff of yellow limestone [the edge of the Provençal escarpment], cawing rooks and a burst of blue sky.
What to do with such an opening? I feel giddy with opportunity and suggest all manner of exotica. I’m swiftly beaten down and reminded of the wildness of the setting by M and C. OK, still a lot to learn. The old maxim ‘live with a new garden for a year, then make changes’ rings true...

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Yin and Yang

For every day in May, when the lot of a gardener is to deadhead tulips in the warm sunshine, there are days in February like this.
My boss said to me when I arrived, “You’ll be surprised, the weather here doesn’t do things by halves”. I nodded sagely and promptly forgot all about it, lulled into a false sense of security by day after day of brilliant Provençal sunshine. It hadn’t rained in two months; the lawns were parched and dry - I was gardening in a T-shirt, in January, what did I care?
Then, after a wonderful Gardeners’ Lunch on Friday [along with the ominous sounding Olive Man, who made me secretly laugh to myself by claiming that salad was a terrible poison to his system whilst excusing himself for a cigarette], the heavens opened. Opened wide indeed; it rained constantly for forty eight hours, and as we started work on Monday it turned to snow.
Snow that would make Val d’Isère proud. [shown here just as it was beginning, more here].  Our gorgeous views of the Bay of Cannes, Cap d’Antibes et al, disappeared in a swirling maelstrom of snow and fog. We were left with six inches of the white stuff. Beautiful you could say. Yes, undoubtedly. But but danger lay within. The snow just kept on coming, a silent but deadly smothering to the holm oaks and the gentle clouds of misty green olives. Their generous, wide spreading branches and broad leaves just aren’t adapted to a heavy load of snow. Try and draw an olive tree, then a Christmas tree, and try and imagine which can shed the snow more easily. You’ll see what I mean.
A statuesque holm oak by the front gate was the greatest victim. Its dense evergreen foliage must’ve quadrupled in weight under the snow. The cold harsh light of morning found it twisted, wrenched from the ground; smashed into two of The Olive Man's treasured olive trees. None of us had realised quite how huge it was. Just as we’d thought we were making progress in the woodland, a giant curve ball, another week of destruction, was thrust upon us.  
The roar of chainsaws and the crackle of burning leaves continues apace. Oh well.. plus ça change...