Sunday, 27 February 2011

When does the gardening year start?

One of the things I like about gardening, especially in the Mediterranean climate, is that the year doesn’t seem to end, or rather the seasons merge into each other and we’re always looking forward to something.  As we take up and burn the dead tomato plants in the autumn we’re starting to sow broad beans and peas and thinking of spring, and all through winter we cut salad and other leaf vegetables from the garden.  But if I had to choose a start to the gardening year it would be now when we are sowing our tomato plants and soon will be sowing peppers and courgettes, because these Mediterranean vegetables seem to be the most important in our cooking and in most gardens in this area.  So I felt very excited this morning when we sowed seven varieties of tomato seeds:

Roma and Andean for sauces and bottling

Ananas and Coeur de Boeuf for salads

Languedoc – a local variety which is well adapted to hot dry conditions

Saint-Pierre – an all-round variety which usually crops well, although not so well last year

Marmande – a variety from the south-west of France, which didn’t do very well last time we grew it here (maybe it’s too hot and dry for it), but we’re giving it another chance this year

All these varieties of seeds are now on the seed starter box which Lo Jardinièr made two years ago.  As soon as the tomatoes have germinated we’ll start the peppers on it.

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The new gardening year has begun!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Blossom on the apricot and other signs of spring

We arrived back yesterday evening from grey, cold Wales, although with a lot of happy family memories of our holiday, to find that we’d travelled back into spring.  People here warn that we may still have cold weather but today has been glorious with bright warm sunlight and the temperature up to 18 degrees C.

The apricot tree is covered in flower buds, some of which have begun to open.

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More spring flowers

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Violets (left), aubretia just beginning to flower (centre) and daffodils (right).

And a salad for lunch


A mix of lettuce and spinach leaves picked this morning.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Sweet onions and more signs of spring

Our neighbour brought us a bunch of sweet onions from the Spanish border (not far away, a drive of an hour and a half perhaps and a frequent trip for many people here). These onions are a slightly earlier variety than the local one and so they’re useful to have before the oignons de Lézignan are ready to eat. They don’t need to be widely spaced and the ones that wouldn’t fit in this double row have been very closely spaced to be eaten as spring onions.

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Crocuses and rose buds

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The crocuses were opening in the sun this morning and the Rosa banksiae has not only leaf buds but flower buds as well.

Des arbres et des hommes’

On Friday night the Cercle Occitan organised an very interesting talk by the ethno-botanist Josiane Ubaud about the social and cultural reasons for the planting of different species of trees in the Languedoc region. She divides the trees into different groups. Social markers are those trees which were planted to show the social status of the owner of a property and foremost among these are the cedar, planted around prosperous winemaking domains from the eighteenth century onwards, and the palm, planted at seaside resorts to attract tourists and more recently in private gardens. Cultural, sacred markers are those which have been considered sacred since pre-Christian, Celtic times. Cypress trees are often planted at the entrances to cemeteries and because of this they have often been associated with death, but in fact are markers of passage, and so are planted at crossroads too. Their beautiful curving shapes, especially when they are blown by the wind, have been described by the Occitan poet Max Rouquette as flambadas sacradas, sacred flames. The bay tree (laurier noble), and specifically the female tree which bears berries, has been considered sacred since the time of the ancient Greeks and has give us the French word baccalauréat (berry of the laurier). The olive tree has also been seen as sacred throughout the ages of Mediterranean civilisation, because of its longevity and its ability to rejuvenate when apparently it has been killed. In the Languedoc, though, it has too much of an agricultural history to have been planted much in sacred places. Finally, the European hackberry tree (Celtis australis, micocoulier in French) has an Occitan name which demonstrates its sacredness: fanabreguièr which comes from the Latin word for temple (fanum) and the Celtic word for sacred wood (brogilum). We don’t see these trees often in this part of the Languedoc, as they are more likely to be planted to the east of us, near Montpellier. As well as traditionally being sacred, they are useful trees too, because they are deciduous and so give shade in summer but lose their leaves in winter to let the light through.

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Above are some of my photos of some of the trees mentioned in Josiane Ubaud’s lecture: left, an olive tree (of course!), centre, a palm in the garden of a substantial house in Roujan, definitely a marker of social status, and right, a line of cypress trees planted on the boundary of a piece of land.

Un jardin sec n’est pas un jardin pauvre’

A dry garden is not a poor garden. This was repeated a couple of times by Josiane Ubaud who feels very strongly, as I do, that in this region we should not try to reproduce the lush green gardens of wetter climates, with their lawns and colourful summer flowers. This is something we have tried to follow when growing decorative plants in our garden – we try to plant only those varieties that can survive without watering once they are established.

We're hoping that Mme Ubaud will return next year to give the second part of her lecture - about the useful, decorative and food-providing trees. If you read French, her website is very interesting.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Slavery in Europe – another reason to grow your own

Here in southern France we see the Spanish lorries racing along the motorway taking salad produce from the south of Spain to northern European supermarkets, as well as our own shops and markets in the Languedoc, using up the earth’s resources to satisfy shoppers’ need for out-of-season vegetables. There are many arguments against this industry, to do with pollution, water and energy conservation as well as humanitarian concerns. Year-round fresh salads – tomatoes, lettuces, peppers – may seem like an affordable luxury, almost a necessity even, these days, but they come at great human cost to the workers who grow them in the polythene-covered acres of once dry land in southern Spain.

On the Guardian website today there’s a report by Felicity Lawrence about the poverty, deprivation and terrible living conditions experienced by immigrant workers from Africa, who now find themselves without even the low-paid work they used to have and are unable to return home because they cannot afford it. These people, when they can find work, are paid much less than the minimum wage and cannot complain because of their unofficial status in Europe. As the activist interviewed at the end of the film puts it, we should refuse to buy produce that results from this form of exploitation.

The video lasts for over 12 minutes, but it’s worth watching to see another side of ‘holiday’ Spain. Here's the link: tp://

And then we should all avoid those plastic-packed, unnaturally perfect-looking Little Gem lettuces and eat locally grown, seasonal food.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Perfect Sunday

We know it won’t last and it will be cooler again in the next few days, so with the temperature over 20 degrees we took advantage of the glorious weather today and cooked our first lunch in the garden this year.

But first some planning for this year…

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I sat in the sun and roughed out a plan for planting this year… I hope we’ve got room for everything!  We may not follow the plan exactly but will use it as a guide.

The autumn sowing of mangetout peas seemed to have suffered from the cold, so I sowed another row, while Lo Jardinièr did some weeding and dug in some of the horse manure we collected yesterday.

an apéritif…

It was busy at the gardens this morning, with many out enjoying the sun, and one of the friends who stopped to chat joined us for an apéritif.


and then some lunch…

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Red pepper, sweet onion and oregano salad, followed by barbecued lamb chops and onions.

Birds and insects

The birds certainly thought it was spring and were flirting and nesting in the bay trees at the end of the garden.  There were a lot of bees and carpenter bees on the rosemary flowers, the blue-black wings of the carpenter bees glistening in the light.

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Carpenter bees are interesting, big, shiny and noisy. We see them in the garden all through the spring and summer, often inspecting the holes in the ends of bamboo poles, one of the places where they like to nest.  When I googled the name for more information I was shocked to find that many of the results consisted of information as to how to use pesticides to get rid of these bees, but in the garden they seem to do little damage and a lot of good, pollinating the flowers.  For more information see this link.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Leaves and light

Without the chilly north wind today would be a warm spring day (20 degrees C was forecast) and the light is clear and bright.

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Above: olive branches and a blue sky; aloe vera leaves in dappled shade; bay leaves.

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Above: left and centre, hopeful signs on our apricot tree which has plenty of flower and leaf buds.  It had the same last year but the blossom was killed off by late cold weather at the beginning of March, so we had only one fruit on the tree.  This year, I hope the crop will be better.  And, right, flower buds about to open on our neighbour’s almond tree.

This morning we collected another trailer full of well-rotted manure for the beds where we’ll grow tomatoes and peppers this summer.  We also picked two lettuces and some red cabbage leaves – that’s just about all we can eat from the garden at the moment.  The chard and spinach are beginning to grow again after a dormant few weeks in December and January, but need to be left to recover from the cold for a few days longer.