All of our doors lead directly into the garden and now that summer has arrived they are permanently open and the garden has become an extension of the house, a space to be enjoyed and lived in. It is in fact a series of rooms, and it occurred to me that I haven’t taken you on a tour of it for quite a long while.
It was such a strange start to the year with the incredibly mild winter and with some of our fruit trees starting to blossom in January that we all wondered how the plants would react. There were no insects or other pollinators around so early and as a result the fruit crop has been dismal across the entire Charente Maritime; we had a few cherries but nothing like the quantities of last year and with such slim pickings the birds beat us to most of them; they took up residence in the trees at dawn and got first dibs. It was a similar story with the plums; a few are ripening on the trees but again we have nowhere near as many as last year. In addition I hear the apricot harvest throughout the department is a washout as well. In contrast, however, our grapevines are already smothered with young bunches of fruit.
April was cold and May unusually chilly, so despite the early start to the gardening year things then got held back and it’s only now starting to come into it’s own. The garden was a major factor in our desire to buy the house; the moment we came through the gates into the driveway we were smitten; it was like entering another world and it drew us in. It is dominated by many ancient trees, several well over 300 years old and it’s simply nothing we could ever plant; it’s been here for generations, and for now we are just the current custodians of the garden, taking care of it in our lifetimes. It’s fascinating to imagine the people that must have left their footprints in its soil over the centuries.
The driveway is one of my favourite parts; the gates swing open and the view greets us with a smile every time we pass and say hello. It is flanked on one side by a flowering hedge. It is looking fantastic already but it gets even better once the hibiscus comes into flower; in a couple of weeks it will be spectacular and our thousands of visiting bees will be happy for several weeks – it is a huge source of nectar and pollen for them.
The other side of the driveway is bordered by a tall evergreen hedge that is smothered in honeysuckle; the scent is quite intoxicating.
Walking down the old cobbled path in the lower half of the garden can take less than a minute, but I tend to get distracted and will often stop to pull up a weed or see how things have grown. Plants and gardening have an immense capacity for repairing and enhancing our minds and bodies, and horticulture is a great healer – a fact that has been proven scientifically. Researchers have found that smelling roses and pulling up weeds can lower blood pressure, increase brain activity and produce a general upbeat feeling.
Even just looking at a garden can give you a positive boost. Horticultural therapists say gardens produce the most positive effects on mental health and gardening reduces stress levels. The evidence is so compelling that horticultural therapy is being used to treat hospital patients and even becoming part and parcel of city planning.
But we are not the only ones who enjoy the garden. It’s so exciting to feel it is being used by all kinds of creatures; it is after all their garden as much as ours. As you know we don’t use pesticides or herbicides, and so this is a totally natural space with as much ‘organic-ness’ as I can put in it, and I long ago gave up the war with the weeds, they were always going to win anyway. Instead I have decided some weeds are good, and I now let some areas remain au naturel as it encourages the butterflies and bees, and lessens my workload a little.
This is a garden perfect for wandering around in; there are no ‘hard’ edges and it’s certainly not manicured perfection. It evokes a gentle sense of softness, it’s a place to stand and stare; a place to relax and regenerate the soul.
Down in the potager the old wall is now free of ivy but the stone remains where it has fallen; dealing with it will be another job but it’s one we will take our time with over the coming months; there’s no hurry, the emerging wild flowers and self-seeded poppies are enjoying the sunny aspect and the cracks and crevices are home to many a lizard and other creepy crawlies.
The vegetables are starting to grow, and one of the first things I do each morning is run down the garden to check on them, as if willing them to get a little bigger. I can’t wait until we can start to pick tomatoes again and eat them straight from the vines, warm from the sun. We are already eating fresh salads but I am impatient for everything else to develop and ripen. We have French beans and aubergines, courgettes and peppers, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and melons, and oh so many tomatoes, we can never have enough of them and any surplus I make into sauces and ratatouille and freeze for the winter months ahead.
The chicken garden is flanked on one side by a long boundary wall between our neighbours and us, and on the other by a row of established hazel and cobb trees. I mow in here regularly along with the rest of the garden but we have deliberately left a small section of meadow grass and also the wild plants which grow amongst the trees. We haven’t seen a tick since we got our chickens for example, and I think in general they feed on anything that crawls or flies – I would hate to come back as an earthworm in a chicken-run.
Our courtyard garden has been the biggest success story as it’s quite unlike anywhere else on the property. It’s dominated by the huge old fig tree and the old stone walls are flanked by an equally old grapevine which is going to produce a significant crop of sweet white grapes this year, already the branches are showing many bunches of young fruit. It’s a favourite place for guests and friends to sit and wile away an hour or two with a good book.
Whatever the weather and whatever you are doing this weekend, I hope it’s a good one x