Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Water, water ...

We've had an unusual amount of rain here in the past week - three whole days and nights. It's very welcome, filling the reservoirs, garden water butts and most importantly topping up the water table which is under stress due to global warming and a rapidly increasing population. The Languedoc is the area of France with the fastest growing population and even a small rural village like Gabian isn't immune to these changes. From the point of view of water the problem seems to be that many of the incomers (as well as some local people) want to have lawns in their gardens - which will need a huge amount of watering for most of the year - as well as swimming pools. Holidaymakers want golf courses, which are equally unsuitable in this climate. It's a different way of life from that of the inhabitants of small village houses with their more modest needs. There are plans to build nearly 100 houses on land next to the gardens ... we hope that this won't have too disastrous a long-term effect on the water table.

In Vailhan, a small village nearby, they still use the old irrigation system for their very neat gardens. A central reservoir overflows through pipes and ditches to the gardens and metal gates in the channels can be moved across to divert the water from one plot to another.

The water course along the path through the gardens at Vailhan.

Metal gate which can be moved to divert water along another channel.

In Gabian we have an informal version of this, with a stream flowing down from the spring at the top of the hill, the Resclauze, and gardeners using hosepipes to take water to their plots. For the last few years this stream has dried up completely for months on end and we've had to rely on the metered mains water. Recently the water has started flowing again (see the picture at the top of this post), so we hope it will continue through the summer this year.

Shelves... what have these to do with the garden?

In the garden we're always conscious of water use and future shortages. Our new shelves for the study arrived this week and we're pleased that the loose-fill packaging which Vitsoe ( used in the cartons is compostable and seems to soak up and hold a lot of water. I've put some of it straight in to trenches I've dug for broad beans and peas, watered it well and mixed it with manure, then put the soil back on top. The rest of the packaging will go on the compost heap.

This is the second sowing of broad beans and peas - the beans I sowed in November are already flowering, I was surprised to see.

We've also unwrapped our palm tree from its winter protection. Since November we've been protecting the growing point in the centre from sub-zero temperatures as it was its first winter in the ground. Its leaves unfurled slowly in the sunlight and it now looks almost back to normal, with new leaves growing well. We haven't had many frosty nights this year. If there's any more cold weather forecast we'll wrap it up again, but it seems as though winter is over now.

Palm leaf

and the radicchio which has given us salads all winter.

All the blossom seems very early this year. The almond is always the first and that's over now. Our nectarine and apricot trees are in flower already - the apricot a month earlier than a couple of years ago. One of the worries when they flower this early is that there won't be enough insects to fertilise them, but this bee seems to be doing what it should. Now we just hope that we don't get any strong winds - last year we lost a lot of small fruits that way.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Potatoes and the moon

I missed the total eclipse of the moon early on Thursday morning - I looked out at 4 a.m., but couldn't see the moon because it was covered by cloud. Just in case the moon does have its claimed influence on the garden, though,today, the day after the full moon, we planted our potatoes to give them the best chance. It gets so dry here later in the year that they have to be planted in February - 75 days till harvest for the earlies, it says on the label, so we should have new potatoes around the beginning of May. Any later and they will need too much expensive water.

Traditionally the phases of the moon have been seen as having an effect on the growth of plants and gardening planting, sowing and harvesting have been governed by the lunar calendar. The experienced gardeners here in Gabian refer to it often, although they don't always follow it. Because vegetables contain a large proportion of water, the idea is that the moon affects them as it does the tides in the seas. A new moon draws water upwards and so this is the best time for planting leaf crops like salads and cabbages. After the full moon, its waning encourages water down towards the soil and this is therefore the best time for planting root crops like potatoes, and for transplanting. Detailed lunar calendars are published which give precise dates throughout the year when particular garden tasks are recommended. I bought one last year, Le Calendrier Lunaire du bon jardinier although I didn't follow it very closely. We'll see whether the potatoes do better this year than last year when we planted them at the 'wrong' time.

I knew that in Wales the traditional day for planting potatoes has always been Good Friday, but I didn't know why until our friend Drew, who now lives in Navarra, explained that it would be the day of the pascal moon. Drew also sent me a quote about pig killing from Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy: the killing 'had to take place some time during the first two quarters of the moon; for if the pig was killed when the moon was waning, the bacon would shrink in the cooking, and they wanted it to "plimp up".'

The anemones are coming out now, too.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Signs of spring?

Almond blossom, and . . .

our apricot tree about to burst into blossom.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Artichokes and wine

I can't resist artichokes. Our plants in the garden won't produce for two or three months yet, so when I found them in the market this week at four for 2€ I had to buy some. I use my own simple version of an Italian recipe my sister taught me: cut the tops of the leaves off and the stalks, leaving the heart, choke (you can remove the choke at this stage if you have time) and bases of the leaves, put in an ovenproof dish with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, sprinkle with salt and pepper and the juice of half a lemon, add a good glassful of white wine. Cover the dish with foil and put it in the oven at 170˚ C for about an hour, depending on the size of the artichokes. Serve hot, warm or cold, with crusty sourdough bread. This method of cooking preserves all the flavour of the artichokes, some of which can be lost when you boil them.


Today we needed to buy some wine so we went to our favourite domaine at Roquessels. This village is on a south-facing hillside in the Faugères Appellation Controlée area, with its distinctive schiste terrain. Wherever vines aren't cultivated there are olive trees, arbutus, evergreen holm oak, wild rosemary and thyme - the garrigue typical of this area. The Estève family have been growing vines on these slopes and making wine for five generations. They bottle an excellent range of wines and their top-quality Cuvée Elégance Chateau des Adouzes and Plô des Figues are real special-occasion wines. This time we bought just a 10-litre bag-in-box of red - the best every-day drinking wine we've found yet. Their website is at

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Mediterranean garden

Although it's nearly four years since we took over our garden and three years since we became its legal owners, this is only our second proper growing season as until summer 2006 we were here for only part of the year. When we bought the garden it was a weed-strewn patch of rough ground which, some years ago, had been used for growing potatoes.
We're slowly learning how things grow in a Mediterranean climate and turning it into a productive vegetable garden and space for eating and relaxing all the year round. So far, we've changed it from this muddle of herbs and grasses .... in summer 2005 to a much tidier plot in late autumn 2007. Now we're beginning the new season's planning and planting and this blog will be a diary of what we learn.