Fleece is a gardening girl’s best friend!

So April is my “itchy finger” month; my French neighbours continue to chuckle when they see me out in the garden, but I just can’t resist getting started as the weather warms up and the surrounding forest turns green almost overnight.

Spring garden with beds fleeced or covered in anti-insect voile.

But my success with an early start is only possible because I use a good quality fleece to protect my plants. I start the hardening off process of my seedlings by moving them outside to an open barn where they get a little direct sun, and cover them with fleece at night for the first few days. I reduce watering at this stage too to help harden the young seedlings off before transplanting. The seeds that I plant directly into the beds (carrots. lettuce, parsnip, sweetcorn etc) I also cover with fleece to give some extra warmth to aid germination.

Once I plant out young seedlings, I cover them with fleece again, and keep them covered until the nighttime temperatures are consistency warmer. It is amazing the difference it makes! In the photo below, brassica seeds (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli) were planted at the same time. They were all hardened off together, but the ones on the right I planted out two weeks earlier and fleeced them. The ones on the left, were transplanted two weeks later and not fleeced. I find this a useful way to spread out harvesting time.

Look at the difference in size! They are now covered with anti-insect voile to protect against flea beetles.

By covering tender plants I am also able to move out peppers and chillies early. Hot chillies and peppadews are slow to ripen and need a maximum growing period, but they don’t thrive in the cold. I transplanted mine this week as we have unseasonably warm days. They get fleeced at night and I open the fleece in the day

Peppadews: the extra bit of warmth at night will encourage growth

It is a wonderful time of year as the forest and fields around us burst into spring growth and in my garden I see changes each day. Fleece over early plantings really helps push harvest times forward.

On the seeding front, I am still updating my sowing timeline to keep a record of what I plant. This month has been busy with sowings of a second batch of brassicas (cauliflower, romanesco, broccoli and cabbage) as well as sweetcorn, beans, cucumber and squash.

CCA (cut and come again) lettuce is providing more than enough lettuce for our salads already. Beetroot, spring onions and hearting lettuce coming on well too.
Peas are flowering, whilst the last kale plant provides us with useful greens for the kitchen this time of year
Broad beans are starting to flatten up – we will be harvesting them in a week.

But as always with gardening, there are some frustrations! Allium rust is now pretty much endemic in my raised beds, affecting garlic, leeks and onions. Because it only affects the leaves the bulbs are still edible but if the rust is bad bulb size is impacted.

Some signs of rust and nothing I can do except keep a careful watch on the garlic and cut away infected leaves. Hopefully I can keep it going until harvest time.

I was very excited to be given a pot of wild garlic (thanks Jackie!) It is a new plant for me – but it’s absolutely fantastic. The whole plant is edible: the pretty, tasty flowers are great scattered over any dish and the leaves or stems add a cross between a chive and garlic flavour (not too potent) to salads. Some interesting information here

Wild garlic likes damp shady conditions so it will stay in a pot tucked away from direct sun.

So far there is no rust in the Pumpkin Patch where I grow my bulb onions. I can only hope it stays this way!

Onions, seeded indoors in February, are growing well. Potatoes in the background have been hilled and are doing well too.
Sweetcorn, protected from hungry birds by netting. It was also fleeced to aid germination. I keep the plastic sheeting down in unplanted areas for as long as possible to keep the soil warm and to stop weed growth.
Very exciting to see that some cherries survived the frost. Last year we did not get a single one; now I just have to hope that the birds leave us some!

The bees are very active now that there are so many flowers. Unfortunately we lost two of our hives during the very cold winter. They had all been weakened by a late attack by Asian hornets, so we have to be grateful that at least one hive survived. It’s good to see that hive very active now and we hope to recover another swarm in spring to increase our hives.

Bumblebee on rosemary flowers
I’m sure this is the same frog I find year after year when I lift the black plastic. Poor thing, he really is unhappy to be out in the sunshine, and takes a while to adjust before he scrambles back under cover.

Sowing Timeline 2022

So this might well be a boring read for anyone not as focussed (obsessive? 😉 ) as I am about propagating my own plants, but I find it useful to have a record of when and what I sow.

I still have seedlings inside, and some have started to acclimatise under cover outside. I also have some in the garden but the vagaries of the weather mean I have to be ready to protect them at short notice, such as last week when we had a sudden frost. Awful timing for frost as many of the fruit trees are in blossom, so maybe another year with poor fruit harvests.

Under fleece to provide warmth for germination, carrot Rubrovitamina, parsnip Tender and True, lettuce Craquerelle du Midi, beetroot Cheltenham Green, spinach Cornet and rutabaga Best of All
Here broad beans, peas and brassicas fleeced. In the background the espalier pear is now fleeced too – easy to fleece this one, pity I can’t cover the other trees!

I plan to update this sowing timeline during the year. Early plantings were determined by a 10 day holiday mid March, so peppers etc planted about 2 weeks earlier than usual to have decent sized seedlings that my neighbour could look after during my absence. Potatoes planted just before we left and tomatoes the day we got home! The comment “heat not necessary” is that the heat was not required for germination, but that it did not do any harm.

27-01Onions & Shallots25°C heat mat (heat not necessary)
27-01OnionsIndoors no heat
12-02Peppers & Chillis29°C heat mat
12-02Aubergines29°C heat mat
12-02Celery, Celeriac29°C heat mat
12-02Dill, Parsley, Coriander29°C heat mat
12-02Parsley29°C heat mat
12-02Fennel29°C heat mat
12-02Brassicas29°C heat mat (heat not necessary)
24-02PeasDirect, fleeced
26-02Leek 20°C heat mat
06-03Shallot20°C heat mat
06-03Carrot, parnsipDirect, fleeced
06-03Beetroot, lettuceDirect. fleeced
26-03Tomatoes23°C heat mat
28-03SpinachDirect, fleeced
28-03RutabagaDirect, fleeced
28-03Carrot, parsnipDirect, fleeced
31-03Beetroot23°C heat mat
08-04RadishDirect, fleeced
15-04Wild garlicIndoors, no heat
15-04SweetcornDirect, fleeced
16-04Borlotti, butter beansDirect, fleeced
17-04Butternut, gem, courgette25°C heat mat
17-04Wild garlic25°C heat mat
18-04Cucumber25°C heat mat
22-04Onions -rouge de florenceDirect
22-04Brassicas25°C heat mat
27-04Butter beans25°C heat mat
28-04Green beansDirect
30-04Borlotti, runner beansDirect


As a very keen cook, I am often asked about what herbs I grow. My answer is easy: “Everything I use!”

I am appalled by the cost of the little pre-packs of herbs and the dearth of good old fashioned bunches of fresh herbs in our supermarkets.

The old ash bin from the kitchen – here with thyme, chives, rosemary, sage, oregano and tarragon.
Lavender does very well in our hot dry summers. The young buds add a lovely flavour to shortbread and other cookies.
Mint is a thug and would take over the garden, so it is planted in an old broken milk can I found, under an old tap that has a very slow drip which is a perfect growing medium for mint.
Not a great photo, but basil does very well in the old wine barrels. It likes to be well watered but also needs very free draining soil.
Rosemary is very happy on a stony incline towards the compost bins. I have just started to cut it back to keep it under control!
In a similar rocky slope, I planted a variety of thymes last year. Hopefully this year they will fill up this area more.
Under the ugly satellite dishes (looking forward to the day when we can get rid of them!) pots with hyssop, chives and leaf celery
I grow a lot of different sages as our hot dry summers and alkaline soil suit them. They all survive our harsh winters too. In the foreground is a big leaf variety I got from my sister-in-law in Italy; she deep fries it to a crisp.
I plant half rows of dill and coriander throughout the year. Here next to spring onions.
Sorrel in a pot outside the kitchen door. It is a favourite food of rabbits and snails so I keep it away from the main garden.

Bay is another staple for cooking and if left to its own devices grows into a big tree/shrub. Here is keep it under control by constant pruning and shaping. They are the three “balls” at the end of the patio.

Just outside the kitchen for easy access, pots with thyme and rosemary. Rosemary in flower this time of year (March) which is great for the bees.
An old stone trough makes a great container for parsley. Last year I replanted the pot with marjoram and grew lots of parsley in the raised beds.

My home becomes a greenhouse!

I am often asked why I don’t have a greenhouse, and at times I am tempted. However, friends who have greenhouses here seem to use them more for storage – unless they are heated they tend to be too cold in winter, and then become too hot for use in summer. Plant propagation is my real passion, so everything in my potager is grown from seed and as we still have hard frosts and temperatures below 0°C in the mornings my house becomes my greenhouse in February!

Onions and shallots on the sunny windowsill of an unheated guest bedroom (just as well we have no guests this time of year!)

I sowed onions and shallots on 27th January. I experimented with temperatures, putting some seed trays on the heat mat at 25°C and others near the fireplace where the temperatures range between 18 -23°C. Onions germinate at temperatures as low as 7°C, so the temperature makes little difference except for the length of time for germination to take place. What was interesting was that some seed germinated within 5 days and others took nearly 2 weeks, regardless of the temperature. Whilst some of these variations I can put down to freshness of seed (maybe?) it was strange how there was also variation across one variety. Could be some seeds were planted deeper?

Plants start their life with warmth – these are chillies, peppers and aubergines on a heat mat set to 29°C
Others, which require less warmth, start out near the wood stove. These are brassicas.
I then move them to a sunny windowsill – onions and basil in the laundry which is a lovely warm space.

Once the seedlings are established I move them to an open barn to finish acclimatising to the colder weather before planting them out in the garden.

Potatoes (also in a guest bedroom!) set out to chit (sprout) for planting towards the end of March.
Broad beans starting to flower already.

I opened up the broad beans today as they have grown well under a thick fleece and need to be staked. They are robust plants and can cope with frost so I will now leave them uncovered.

A note on varieties planted this year:

Onions 27-01-22Shallots 27-01-22
SpiritEchalion Cuisse de Poulet
Paille de VertusAmbition
Red Onions 27-01-22Other Onions 27-01-22
RedlanderFreddy (spring onions)
Blanc de la Reine (small white onions)
Peppers 12-02-22Chillies 12-02-22
Peppadews (for pickling)Thai Hot
RobertaBangalore whippets tail
Doux d’EspagneSuper
Ring of Fire
Aubergine 12-02-22Aromatics 12-02-22
Violette de BarbentaneCoriander Cruiser
Dill Tetra Goldkrone
Basil Nufair (27-01-22)
Parsley Commun
Brassicas 12-02-22Celery / Fennel 12-02-22
Cauliflower Snow CrownCelery Plein Blanc Lepage
Cabbage Tête de PierreCeleriac di Verona
Broccoli MarathonFennel Preludio
Romanesco Veronica
Cabbage Savoy King
Potatoes Chitting 12-02-22
Russet Burbank
Maris Piper
Sarpo Mira
Princess Amandine

Pruning, and a rather empty winter potager

My friend Baarte was here last week and came to help me with pruning the fruit trees. He is a professional pruner and is very happy to work with me trailing behind, watching intently and asking 101 questions! This is the second time he has helped me, and I realise that I still have so much to learn. I am a bit worried as we’ve had temperatures way below 0°C all this week and forecast to continue next week, so I’m not sure how happy the newly pruned trees will be.

Baarte pruning the Reine de Reinette apple – and how it looks after
The Reine Claude plum, before and after
Now the task is to collect up all the wood we cut off

I got my timings of planting seeds wrong this year and have a winter garden more empty than I would like, but maybe it is just as well as this month has been way colder than in previous years. Nonetheless, my winter staples of kale and Brussels sprouts have kept us supplied with fresh greens. Purple sprouting broccoli is just starting to form buds. Calabrese has been a good performer this year with a long harvesting period and resistant to the heavy frosts we have had too. I picked some today for dinner and it was as if I had taken them out of the deep freeze. It is amazing how they survive, they were delicious steamed

Young kale in the foreground and calabrese behind it – frozen solid, but will recover. In the bed behind the pergola, lettuce under fleece, kale and Brussels that we are harvesting now.

Broad beans planted end of October and fleeced since November are growing well. They will need to be staked soon.

A peek under the fleece shows the broad beans are growing well, and so are the weeds!

I have limited success with carrots and parsnips in my raised beds – I find it frustrating because they are not difficult to grow! I battle against carrot fly (have solved that by netting them) but more importantly I never seem to have those lovely sweet juicy carrots that I so enjoy eating raw or the long tender parsnips that are so delicious roasted. Local friends who grow superb carrots have a much sandier soil, so this year I am going to try digging sand into a trench and see if that helps.

This is along the edge of the pumpkin patch. I will do the same in one of the raised beds

Hard frost and a sprinkling of snow

So after our first early frost, we have had quite a few days of light frost, but not enough to kill off my peppers and chillies. For the first time ever, I have been harvesting both until a week ago. Granted, the raised beds in my potager are a little protected by the buildings on two sides, but I have never had peppers so late before

Red and yellow peppers, anchos, chillies and peppadews, harvested 20th November!

The garlic and broad beans planted last month have sprouted and because we have very low temperatures forecast I have covered the young broad beans in fleece. Good timing as today temperatures dropped below freezing and we had our first light sprinkling of snow.

Swiss chard in the foreground has been well picked! Broad beans covered in fleece, behind them young kale (very hardy) and broccoli.

Lettuce and coriander always amaze me in winter – they freeze in the cold weather, but defrost with no damage. I never fleece them and the best part of the cold weather is that it keeps the slugs and snails away.

Lettuce (chene blonde) with brussels and purple sprouting broccoli in the background
Coriander and leaf celery will keep going through winter. Beetroot gets a bit woody, so I harvested it all yesterday. Behind that lettuce Craquerelle and Mizuna.
Brussels ready to eat

This time of year is when I do a lot of tidying up and spreading compost and manure.

The Pumpkin Patch has all had a good layer of manure spread over it, now covered with plastic sheeting to discourage weed growth and to keep the soil warm for planting in spring.

The garden starts to look a little forlorn but I am still harvesting enough to keep us fed!

Cauliflower and broccoli, harvested 27th November
A trug-full of soup vegetables from my potager

First frost, and preparing for winter

So our strange season continues…. we had an unexpected and early frost on October 14th and October has been unusually dry with only 23mm of rain. I do wonder what winter is going to be like this year…..

October 14th

Taking out the irrigation before it gets really cold

The frost had me scrambling to get in the butternut – once again a great crop in spite of the cooler wetter summer

Butternut and walnuts curing in the garage. Some really interesting shapes this year!

Our walnut harvest was less than in previous years, possibly because of the late frosts.

I love my new walnut (and apple) collector. It makes the task of picking them up so much easier.

Much of my work in the garden is now tidying up and removing plants that have finished producing or that will not survive any further frosts. Plantings include lettuce (Chene) leaves for picking over winter, broad beans (Aquadulce) and garlic. Planted out Calvolo Nero (kale) seedlings last week.

Swiss chard will cope with the cold. White pegs marking broad beans. Green pegs for garlic.
Beautiful cauliflower!

As the planting and harvesting slows down, I begin the task of top dressing all the beds with manure. I don’t dig it in, simply lay a thick layer on top of the beds. But it is a lot of barrow-loads to cart and spread!

It’s all about timing

It’s October and we’ve had family to visit, and have been to Rotterdam again and in between the days have disappeared! Not only have I not updated the blog, but I’ve also missed crucial planting times. Usually I would have seedlings ready to transplant to over winter; this year I’ve missed that crucial early/mid September sowing time. But the joy of being able to travel within Europe and to see family and friends again overrides any regrets about my garden. There’s always another year and another season!

After a much wetter, cooler summer, everything is so green!

We are still eating well from the garden – peppers, aubergine, fennel, courgette, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Romanesco, lettuce and even some cucumbers! I’ve been really lucky to reap so many tomatoes; the plants look awful but the plum tomato, Uriburi, and the salad tomato, Maestria, in particular have produced the most wonderful crop

Maestria, suffering from late blight, but still producing.
October 10th – final picking of plum tomatoes. These will ripen indoors better than outdoors now as the nighttime temperatures have dropped rapidly

Late September sowing of lettuce Chene Blonde and Craquerelle du Midi was not great – I was away and so was unable to keep seed moist or monitor slug damage. Still it will be enough for early winter pickings. Last sowing of coriander, also late September. had similar results

Patchy lettuce seedlings next to last of early leeks. Brussels sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli looking good in the background

Snails and slugs have been a real menace this year, but less damage from cabbage moth caterpillars.

Snail damage on cabbage, but the hearts are undamaged.

Chillies and peppers have taken longer to ripen, but suddenly I have a glut. I have been disappointed by the new varieties of chillies I tried this year. Hyffae was meant to be mild and Masala hot, but both taste pretty bland. My own harvested seed fared no better: Ring of Fire (which is very hot, small chilli) turned out to be long and mild. Clearly cross pollination is a problem, so I will revert to buying fresh seed. Serrano and Ancho chillies from purchased seed were successful, so at least I have a good crop of those!

Ancho chillies (or are they considered peppers?)
The small snacking pepper, Yummy, always produces a superb crop

As winter approaches it is a rush to get butternut ripe enough to pick and store. I cut away leaves shading the ripening fruit and watch the weather forecast closely. Even the slightest frost will damage them.

Butternut ripening well. In the background the butter bean, Pienky Jas is still producing – they also need to have a final picking before any frost

We always have a lot of hornets and wasps, but in recent years France has seen an upsurge of Asiatic hornets. More aggressive than the European hornet, they are decimating honey bee colonies across Europe. We discovered a nest in one of our walnut trees and were very impressed by how quickly an expert arrived to remove it; the problem is being taken very seriously by the local communes.

The most beautiful nest, but the hornets are a real menace.

The good and the bad of a wet season

The days run away from me this time of year, though this year still has been unlike any previous year. In August we usually enjoy hosting a group of friends for a “Shakshuka breakfast” using Yotam Ottolenghi’s (my favourite cookbooks are all written by him) recipe for the inimitable North African/Middle Eastern breakfast dish of red peppers and tomatoes. This year, I have masses of green peppers, but they still have not ripened to red and orange. My estimation is that we are a month behind with the weather still way cooler than normal

The red pepper, Lamunyo, is producing 8-10 fruits per plant!  But only now starting to change colour

Sadly, fungal diseases love moisture. Many of my gardening friends here have been hard hit by blight, with tomato and potato crops, in particular, decimated by the disease. The stems and leaves blacken incredibly quickly and the plant withers and dies. So far, I have only had to deal with what I think is early blight (alternaria solani) another bacterial disease that tomatoes are prone to, though fortunately this does not kill off the plant. They look awful though – instead of the lush full plants I am used to, they are straggly and the leaves are severely affected. But I cannot complain as I am still harvesting a reasonable crop.

The crop of Previa and Maestria tomatoes is reasonable, but lots of diseased leaves
Plum tomatoes, Uriburi are also producing well. I just hope they ripen before the fungus damages the plant inexorably

I keep a close eye on them, and last week noticed the first signs of late blight on my cherry tomatoes, so I dug them out quickly! Such a pity as it was full of unripe fruit, but I did not want to risk it spreading.

Typical signs of late blight – if left the whole plant will turn black and die.
A last harvest of cherry tomatoes – they’re so pretty!

The butternut, whilst growing really vigorously, are starting to show signs of a fungal disease – anthracnose or alternaria leaf blight – I’m never sure which one it is. I generally get this on cucumbers at the end of the season, but seldom on butternut. I don’t think it will impact on my harvest with lots of butternut now ripening up well.

Butternut leaves showing damage. Borlotti beans in the background. The yellow leaves on the right show how important the manure is – I did not anticipate planting such a long row, so only manured ¾ of the row, and looks how it shows!

But all is not doom and gloom – we’ve had delicious French beans, and I have harvested a superb crop of Borlotti beans. The sweetcorn has been delicious too, though I’ve had to harvest quickly before the field mice get to it!

French beans Sansoucy in the foreground. Final picking of chard last week – it has been superb this year. This week I am planting out chard seedlings to overwinter.
Borlotti beans, shelled and ready for freezing (as fresh beans) and some for drying. I love the colour! Interesting how they change to a brown colour when cooked. They’re delicious!

My potatoes have been amazing this year – they clearly loved the higher rainfall. No blight either!

Last harvest of Sarpo potatoes
Second planting of potatoes (Maris Peer and Maris Piper) are looking good too
Aubergine de Barbetane are producing vigourously
The rounder variety, Ophelia, also doing well.

Lots of raspberries, and wonderful to have Ross here to help harvest them

As the season begins to change, I start preparing the final plantings for autumn and winter. I have seeded the last crop of parsley, coriander and leaf celery, and the seedlings for cauliflower and broccoli (to overwinter for an early spring harvest) have now germinated

Last summer planting of cauliflower should produce before the early frosts. Brussels sprouts, kale and purple sprouting broccoli will go through the winter to provide in early spring.
Chinese cabbage Wai Sai is looking good, but spring onions behind them are showing signs of rust damage. Unfortunately this seems to be endemic in the raised beds now

Now’s the time I get really busy in the kitchen. I keep a record of what I bottle – as only an obsessive cook and gardener would do 🙂 and last year I used over 70 bottles of tomatoes! I make up sauces, pickles and chutneys as well – using all the ingredients as I harvest them from the garden.

The steriliser stays out permanently this time of year – on a rack Craig designed to keep the trays of tomatoes as I pick them.
Bottles of grape juice, tomatoes and apple sauce ready to go into the cave (cellar) In the background is the dehydrator which I use to dry apple slices, chillies, tomatoes and herbs. It’s been a very useful appliance.

The orchard has remained green all summer – another first!

Good crop of apples, but not much else because of the late frosts. The green contraption in the little peach tree in the foreground is a homemade wasp and hornet trap.
Last year we had a real invasion of both local hornets and the dreaded Asian hornet, which have a big impact on our hives. This year our bees seem to be coping better though the hornets think my apples are delicious!

July, and the strange weather continues.

The first week in July, and it is still remarkably cool and enough rain to ensure that I don’t need to water. I’m not complaining – well, just a little, but don’t gardeners always grumble about the weather? 😉 – however, I do wonder what is in store for us in August which is usually our hottest, driest month. But the days are mostly sunny and the garden is growing well.

The vine on the trellis requires a lot of pruning to keep it under control, but it is very pretty! I prune off masses of bunches of grapes.

After the late frost I thought we had lost all our fruit in the orchard, but the apples are doing really well. Sadly no plums, cherries, peaches or pears this year, though the fig which was frosted very badly has a lot of small fruit on it too.

Espaliers have had their summer pruning
They look gorgeous against the stone wall!
The Golden Delicious in the orchard has too much fruit, so I’m stripping off excess to protect the tree.

My strip of meadow flowers is flourishing. Maybe I will curse it next year when they self seed everywhere, but for the moment it looks really pretty and is full of bees

Sweetcorn Alida has cobs on it now – just hope the badgers keep away!
Second plantings of beetroot, fennel, spring onions, leeks, pak choi and coriander have all germinated well. The two grey “caps” are covers over Chinese cabbage – to keep out flea beetles while the plants are small.

Second planting of cucumber ( first one succumbed to the cold wet weather) is now racing ahead, with a lot of small fruit on it already. Planted another the first week of July, but this could be a bit late – later plantings often suffer from mildew or mosaic virus, but it’s always worth a try.

Celery, celeriac, French beans, cucumber. Under cover in the background are autumn/winter brassicas

One of the quadrants of the Pumpkin Patch is always planted in red, yellow and white onions for general cooking (they store well) but I also plant rows of smaller varieties (for use as fresh onions – not sure if that is the correct term, but they do not store well) in the raised beds.

Rouge de Florence are wonderfully versatile – I use them as spring onions when they are young, then as a type of shallot as they develop.
Small white onion Blanc de Paris makes a wonderful small onion for use in casseroles or on the BBQ.

Now picking masses of yellow courgettes. This week sowed a green and another yellow courgette for a later crop. One courgette plant bearing at a time is definitely enough for us as they are incredibly productive!

The rhubarb, as usual, is a complete thug! I still don’t know what variety it is, but is is very tasty and incredibly productive.

Tomatoes are starting to produce. It’s been a difficult year for tomatoes – lots of rain can be an issue with blight, but I choose my varieties carefully for blight resistance so I hope they cope. I’ve given them one spray of bouillie bordelaise which is a copper sulphate/chalk spray used as a fungicide in organic gardening, but I really don’t like the effect it could have on the soil, so I will not use it more than once. I prune off all the lower leaves to try to reduce any splash onto the leaves which encourages disease. This year they have been invaded by aphids; I will not spray with insecticides which would kill the aphids AND the beneficial insects like ladybirds and our bees. A strong spray of water and soap does help though.

Not the greatest year for them, so I’m hoping we will still get a good crop
Butternut have grown very fast in the last fortnight. Borlotti beans starting to flower now too