Friday, 30 May 2008


The air is strangely humid, there are clouds in the sky which we're not used to seeing here in May, and the recent rain has encouraged far too many weeds to grow. But at lunchtime today the garden was peaceful - the only sounds were the bumbling of bees, the 'hooping' of hoopoes and the 'get real' call of golden orioles.

As one of our neighbours said the other day as she walked past on the way to her garden, 'C'est un paradis' (it's a paradise). After a morning's work at my desk it's a place for unwinding, relaxing, contemplating the growing cycle of plants and enjoying the excitement of each season's produce. We feel lucky all the time to be living in Gabian, and in the garden we feel luckier still.

another rose ...

and the Cardinale (table grape) vine flowering

Monday, 26 May 2008


We’ve had several days of very heavy rain and thunderstorms, there's been rain on the leaves of the plants on the windowsill ...

there's been rain in the gutters ...

and rain pouring off the roofs ...

so our concerns about keeping the garden well watered over the summer seem like a bit of a joke at the moment. But the hot dry weather will come and then the earth will need some help to conserve the water we give it, and we have to think about that now while we’re planting the beds.

When we were in southern Spain, from the train we saw whole fields of fruit trees and olive trees being flooded to water them, with a ridge of earth built up around the field to hold in the water until it had time to soak into the soil.

Our neighbours’ gardens here in Gabian have similar ridges and channels, around their tomato beds especially. Last year we were advised by one of them that we were not watering the plants properly – they should be planted in a dip and watered through this depression underneath the leaves. Tomato leaves, we found, do not react well to having drops of water on them – they get dead spots on the leaves where the water has touched them. Having grown tomatoes only in the greenhouse when we lived in Wales and England and used the ring system of watering into gravel beds beneath the pots, we didn’t realise this. Our tomato plants never had drops of water on them there!

And in the Orb valley recently we saw quite complicated patterns of irrigation channels formed around gardens to distribute water that was pumped up from the river.

A garden at Vieussan in the Orb valley.

In our garden we’ve been trying to recreate the watering ideas we’ve seen, although on a smaller scale. Last year we bought a watering kit – some metres of hosepipe, connections and small sprinklers to be inserted in the pipe in the right place for each of the plants. We tried out enough to water one bed of tomatoes – about a dozen plants – and it worked well, that bed produced our best tomatoes. The slow drip of water from the sprinkler soaks in more effectively than a spray from a hose, and it’s good to be able to sit with a drink enjoying the view of the garden while the tomatoes are being watered! So this year we’ve decided to extend this system so that it will now cover the cucumbers and haricot beans, which are in last year’s tomato bed, and one of the beds of tomatoes – with about 20 plants and the cherry tomatoes.

For the aubergines, peppers and courgettes we’ve made irrigation channels along the centre of the beds or radiating out from the centre. So far we’ve found these channels need a lot of attention to keep the water running freely through them to the end of the row, but we’re hoping it will get easier to manage.

keeping the water running to the pepper plants

getting water to four plants at once

And now the passion flowers are out

so, despite the rain, life is a bowl of cherries

Monday, 19 May 2008


broom-covered hillside, with an almost overwhelming scent

The garrigue which covers most uncultivated areas of land around the Mediterranean looks at its best in spring. This is the time of year when the plants flower, before dying back and 'hibernating' during the dry summer. There is another burst of flowering after the first rain in the autumn, but April and May is the time when rosemary, thyme, broom and cistus - the most dominant flowering plants - are at their most colourful.

The word 'garrigue' is a French word which comes from the Occitan 'garriga', land where only the oak - 'garric' - will grow. This is also said to link back to Celtic languages and the word for rock ('caer' in Welsh). Other parts of the Mediterranean have different names for the same vegetation - 'tomillares' (from the Spanish for thyme, 'tomillo', I suppose) in Spain, 'phrygana' in Greece, 'batha' in Palestine.

Areas of garrigue symbolise these rocky hillsides so much that you might think they were natural but in fact they are the result of human activity over thousands of years. From the time of the earliest settlements around the Mediterranean, people have cut down trees for firewood and cultivated the fruit trees and herbs which they found. Their sheep and goats have grazed the land for centuries, too. The loss of the forests has led to erosion of slopes leaving only the lower, hardier, less water-demanding plants which make up the garrigue.

The result is a mix of plants, most of which are evergreen: holm oak (evergreen oak), olivettes (small wild olive trees), broom, arbutus, rosemary, thyme and other herbs, and a colourful display of flowers in spring from asphodel, orchids and numerous small plants which grow wherever they find space.


wild olive tree and cistus

Extensive fires have been in the news around the Mediterranean in recent years, in France, Greece, Portugal and elsewhere. These are frightening and dangerous, and often caused by people's carelessness (cigarette ends thrown from cars, picnic barbecues, and so on) and their colonising of previously wild areas, but some fire is also a natural part of the life-cycle of Mediterranean plants. Small areas of fire can be beneficial, clearing land for new growth. It is said here that the best places to find wild asparagus are where there have been fires in the past year or so.

Some other spring wild flowers:

wild gladiolus

thyme, cistus and Aphyllanthes monspeliensis

Galactites (I think)


Flowers of the Mediterranean by Oleg Polunin and Anthony Huxley (Chatto and Windus, 1967) is the book I use for identifying Mediterranean plants - It's an excellent book with colour photos and good descriptions. I think there are newer editions and that it is still available.

There is a good article in French about the garrigue here as well as other interesting nature articles about the Languedoc on the same website.

And a short article in English here on the history of the garrigue.

And in autumn and winter ....

The arbutus bears its edible fruits at the same time as its flowers
(this picture was taken at the end of November)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Sustainable fish

Kate's post 'Fishing for facts' on got me thinking about sustainable fish. We almost always buy our fish from a stall in the market here in Gabian. It is all caught from the family boat which comes into Valras-plage, less than 40 km from here, and is brought here fresh, sometimes still alive. This seems to be a good way to buy fish. I do still have questions about sustainability though, and it seems hard to find answers to them. You can find lists of fish to eat and fish to avoid at but this site is centred on the UK and its advice applies to fish available in the UK. I haven't been able to find a similar list for Mediterranean fish.

Apparently the Mediterranean represents 1 per cent of the world's sea, but about 9 per cent of marine biodiversity. This makes it vulnerable to exploitation, but also a wonderful source of seafood.

Some facts are available - tuna should be line-caught only, stocks of hake are dropping dramatically. But sardines are sustainable, which is good news for me as it's one of my favourite fish. We don't buy red mullet any more because they look too small to be sustainable.

Mussels and oysters from Bouzigues - again less than 40 km from here - are sustainable, so we can carry on eating those without guilty feelings.

I'm uncertain about mackerel - they seem to be plentiful and quite big … and I like them. What about the cuttlefish I bought today? And I like squid too.

I'll keep trying to find out what is sustainable and what we shouldn't be eating.

Kate's post seems to have set off quite a stream of arguments for and against food choices, especially vegetarianism. Like Kate, I don't want to be a vegetarian. I think everyone has to make their own choices about their diet and the environment. Most of the food I eat comes from within about 100 km of Gabian, in summer, spring and autumn most of the vegetables we eat are organic and grown in our garden, we eat free-range eggs and poultry, mostly local cheeses and fish from local boats. Of course I have my guilty pleasures - I like Italian ground coffee, which must add to the food miles or kilometres of my diet, and the occasional steak. Maybe I'll just have to accept that perfection is unattainable!

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Beginning to win the battle with weeds

At last we seem to be catching up with the weeding after our holidays last month ... there's still a lot to do though.

Another cistus flower, a white one, lasted just for the day as they all do.

Yes, I know I'm obsessed with artichokes, but I'm pleased with today's crop.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Planting summer

The chard has had to go, the first sowing of peas too. They've both been productive - and this year we've had the best crops ever of broad beans and peas, perhaps because the spring has been relatively wet. But the chard is about to bolt, the peas are all eaten or in the freezer and we need the space for the summer planting.

We've planted 40 tomato plants so far, a mix of Carmelo, Montecarlo, Coeur de Boeuf, ananas (a new variety for us, but an old traditional one which is popular here), and Roma, which we found last year was very good for preserving. We've also planted 18 pepper plants of different varieties, some cucumber plants and courgettes. We've still got to find space for chilli peppers and cherry tomatoes. We've had to buy a lot of these plants as the ones we sowed grew so slowly in the cold spring we've had. We've planted the tomatoes and peppers in long beds with a raised dyke around them to keep the water in, and support frames made from the bamboo which grows at the edge of the garden.

This iris flower was opening as we ate our lunch in the garden today.

The lemon tree is covered in flower.

This cistus flower lasted a day ... it was there yesterday, petals like crumpled tissue paper, today the petals lay on the ground around the plant. There'll be more soon.