Summer is here

Suddenly, summer has arrived and it’s too hot to go out much in the afternoons – better to stay in, close the shutters and even the windows to keep the heat out and wait till evening when it’s warm enough to sit eating supper in the garden as the sun goes down. It’s my favourite time of year and one of the reasons I love living in the Midi so much.

While we eat, we gradually move the hose around the rows of vegetables filling the watering trenches with free water, while it lasts.  Some time around the end of June or, if we’re lucky, in July the stream of excess water from the village spring, La Resclauze, will stop running and we’ll have to start using mains water for the garden.  For the moment, we’re making the most of it and the reservoir at the top of the hill is still quite full.

The wall holding the water in this reservoir is ancient and may even date back to Roman times.  It is certainly built in Roman style with square-cut and chiselled stones:

A very different style from the more common higgledy-piggledy way of building walls seen elsewhere around the village:

The grasses and other wild flowers are dying back now in the hot dry weather.  Only the vines become greener and greener as their deep roots search out water in the rocky soil.

>When in Rome …..

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Over the past few years we’ve tried many different ways of watering our garden during the hot dry summers we have here. We’ve tried a drip-feed system, mulches and terracotta pots. These work in some circumstances, but we’ve come to the conclusion that the local gardeners know best about how to cope with conditions here. Our neighbour Aimé, who watered our garden while we were away last month, uses a wide-gauge pipe running from the stream to fill his water cistern and also to water the vegetables. Between the rows he has, as we do now, deep channels so that the pepper, tomato and other plants are grown on the top of a ridge and watered in between the ridges. Today he insisted that we use his pipe instead of our puny (normal garden hose size) one and we quickly flooded the watering channels.

DSC03889 DSC03936 On the left is our row of pumpkin plants with a deep channel either side to ensure that they get plenty of water over the summer. On the right are some of our pepper plants (with Roma tomatoes far right) and one of the channels filled with water. To ensure that the water runs to all the plants we use the pioch, a useful tool with a narrow blade, to build up the borders of the channel and to remove obstructions.

Obviously, this method of watering would not work for small seedlings, which can be watered with a watering can, but for the bigger stronger plants it seems to be the method that works best and we have to acknowledge that the people who know best how to garden here are those who have been gardening here for decades and whose fathers (it is still mostly the men who garden here) taught them the ways they learnt from their fathers, and so on back through the centuries. I saw similar methods used in the south of Spain, where it is even hotter and dryer than here, and where whole fields are flooded. This is what works here, but in other places, different climates, different soils, the best way to water will be different.

We’ve had a very strong north wind this week, which has made watering even more necessary as it dries out the surface of the soil. It’s also blown the olive branches about and left many small olive flowers lying on the ground. Luckily, both our olive trees still have a lot of flower on them so I don’t think the crop should be too badly affected.

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Harvesting

We’ve been eating the little Spanish habas beans, grown from seed given to us by our friend Drew in Navarra. There, he says, they are usually dried and saved for winter, but we like them fresh. They are small broad beans tightly packed into small pods, with very little waste, and they taste delicious cooked the same way as broad beans. Today I sautéed some fresh garlic in some olive oil then added the beans, a pinch of salt, a couple of sprigs of savoury and some water and cooked them until the water evaporated. There are some left over which we’ll eat cold as a salad tonight. We’ve also been picking courgette flowers – still only male flowers – to make fritters. I noticed from last year’s records that on 1 June we cooked our first courgettes on the barbecue – we’re a long way from doing that this year!

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And a summer lunch

Today we invited friends for lunch in the garden and ate: grilled sweet onions with romesco sauce (made with ground almonds, ground dried pimento peppers, sweet red peppers, garlic and olive oil); chicken pieces marinaded in paprika, cumin, oregano, olive oil and garlic, with grilled aubergine slices; the beans I mentioned above; Mont St Pierre cheese from Lacaune; strawberries and an apple tart brought by our friends; and a few glasses of rosé and red wine. Sorry, no photos – we were having too much fun – but I’ll probably photograph all these when we cook them again over the summer.

>Why won’t it rain? / Pour quoi il ne pleut pas?

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The sky over the garden this morning, but still no rain.  /  Le ciel au-dessus du jardin ce matin, mais il ne pleut pas.

We’re still having to water the aubergines, peppers, lettuces and haricot beans.  /  Il faut arroser encore les aubergines, les poivrons, les salades et les haricots verts.

The olives are ripening well, though.  /  Les olives mûrissent bien, quand mème.

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And the failure corner /  Et le coin des échecs

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Maybe these ‘courgettes’ will do for seed!  /   Peut être ces ‘courgettes’ seront bonnes pour les semences!

>First aubergine and a new watering system / La première aubergine et un nouveau système d’arrosage

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In spite of the locusts and the Colorado beetles, our aubergine plants are doing well, with a lot of small aubergines growing.  Today we ate the first one, grilled on the barbecue and garnished with thyme, oregano, olive oil and chopped garlic – it tasted wonderful.

Malgré les criquets et les scarabées, nos plants d’aubergine poussent bien avec beaucoup de petites aubergines.  Aujourd’hui nous en avons mangé la première de la saison, garnie de thym, oreganum, huile d’olive et ail haché – elle était delicieuse!

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1st aubergine and 74th courgette!

Another new watering system / un autre nouveau système d’arrosage

Throughout the summer we’re constantly thinking about better ways to water the garden.  The terracotta pot system which Kate from Hills and Plains seedsavers devised has worked really well for beans and garlic and we’ll use it for other crops – leaf vegetables like chard next, probably.

Pendant l’été nous pensons toujours des façons d’arroser le jardin.  Le système de pots en terrecuite conçu par Kate de Hills and Plains seedsavers a marché bien pour les haricots et l’ail et nous l’utiliserons pour des autres légumes – les blettes peut-être.

Now we are trying a new system for watering the tomato and pepper plants.  We bought two plastic dustbins which can be filled with water from the stream whenever it is running.  Lo Jardinièr has fixed siphon tubes from the bins which lead via taps to slow drip hoses in the rows of tomatoes and peppers.  The taps can be turned on in the evening and left so that the water in the bins slowly drips into the soil between the plants.

Maintenant nous essayons un nouveau système pour l’arrosage des tomates et des poivrons.  On a acheté deux poubelles en plastique qui on peut remplir de l’eau du ruisseau.  Lo Jardinièr a mis un tuyau pour siphonner l’eau en passant par un robinet et puis par un tuyau goutte à goutte à la terre entre les rangs.

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The leek flower is covered with insects.
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The sunflowers are blooming.
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And here is a cicada in the apricot tree.

And we’ve had so many Swallowtail butterflies in the garden this year that I couldn’t resist a few more photos of them:

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>Market day / Le jour du marché

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As usual we went to the market this morning.  This is what we bought – and it’s not all to eat today, of course!  / Comme d’habitude on est allé au marché ce matin.  On a acheté:

from the market_1_1_1 

Sheeps’ cheese from Lacaune, strawberries from Fouzilhon, sausage from Lacaune, mackerel from Valras-plage, morcillas from Spain, onions, aubergines, lemons, .  /  Fromage de brebis de Lacaune, des fraises de Fouzilhon, la saucisse fraiche de Lacaune, des mackeraux de Valras-plage, morcillas de l’Espagne, ognions, aubergines, citrons.

Cherries

We’ve picked cherries from the tree in the garden of some friends – they’ve gone away and told us we can pick them.  For the second year running this tree has a huge crop.  We picked about 10 kilos and hardly touched the total.  I’ve bottled some in Armagnac – 6 jars which should be ready to eat in a few months’ time.  Here they are served after the dessert with the coffee.  Lo Jardinièr has made jam.  And we’ve eaten them fresh, of course.

Nous avons ramasser les cerises dans le jardin de nos amis qui sont partis.  J’ai mis quelques uns à l’Armagnac – 6 bocaux qui seront prêts à manger dans quelques mois.  Lo Jardinièr a fait de la confiture.  Et nous les avons mangé fraiches.

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watering_1_1 The weather has turned dry, sunny and hot so we’re having to water the garden every day. Luckily there is still plenty of water in the stream. / Il fait chaud donc on doit arroser le jardin chaque jour.  Heureusement il y a beaucoup d’eau dans le ruisseau.

Another way of cooking artichokes / Une autre façon de cuire les artichauts

The barbecue was alight at lunchtime today to cook the mackerel, so I tried cooking the artichokes on it.  I took off most of the outer leaves and cut them in half, brushed them with olive oil and put them on the grill with some slices of aubergine.  They tasted very good.  / J’ai essayé de cuire des artichauts sur la grillade.  J’ai enlevé la plupart des feuilles externes et je les ai coupé en deux.  J’ai mis de l’huile d’olive et je les ai mis sur la grillade avec des tranches d’aubergine.  Le gout était très bon.

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>More watering . . . and passion fruit?

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One of Gabian’s fountains

Gabian is lucky in having a spring, La Resclauze, at the top of the hill above the gardens. For centuries this has been used for watering the gardens and, of course, that is why the gardens are where they are. The stream which runs down from the spring also powered mills which ground corn and wheat for flour and olives for oil. These are all in ruins now, unfortunately, although the Mairie and the municipal council talk of a restoration project. A couple of hundred years ago there were rules about when gardeners could take water from the stream,and each gardener could take water only on certain days. Nowadays there is a reservoir at the top of the hill, which provides water for the village and its three remaining fountains. The overflow from it is regulated. For the past couple of years of drought there hasnt been any overflow and the stream has been dry throughout the year. This year, after the unusually wet spring, there has been water in the stream again.

collecting water from the stream

Today we installed a pipeline from the stream down to our garden to fill our water butts and to water the plants. It needs some more work on it to feed it into the irrigation system which we put in last month, but for the moment were pleased with our primitive system which involves only a plastic bottle, 50 metres of cheap hosepipe and a couple of connectors. The water is free, unlike the metered supply to the garden, and hasnt had chemicals added to it.


We have a climbing passion flower growing on the shelter over the terrace where we eat and this year, its third, it has really taken off. Weve had lots of flowers and now there are fruit, mostly green at the moment, but one is ripe and a lovely apricot colour. As this is an ornamental plant Im not sure whether we can eat them – they certainly look edible. Does anyone know?


Passiflora


and a ripe fruit

In the rest of the garden, the tomatoes are ripening


and today we made this salad


tomato, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, basil leaves and oregano flowers all straight from the garden

>Watering system

>At last the rain seems to have stopped and the hot summer weather has started. Its getting too hot to work in the garden in the middle of the day, so this morning we were there at 8.30 a.m. Already the sun felt hot, so well have to get there even earlier tomorrow. When we left at 10.30 it was 34 degrees C. I love the heat and the dry weather, but its time to think seriously about watering.

Weve found that a slow drip watering system is much more effective than anything we can do with a hose or watering can – its also much easier as we can just turn it on and do something else while the garden is being watered. Last year we tried out a small length of pipe with sprinkler attachments for some of the tomatoes – and these were the plants which were most productive. At the moment this pipe is watering the cucumbers and two double rows of tomatoes. This year weve bought some more pipe, the same TechnO make, but this time it has drip holes already incorporated in it, 3 per metre of pipe which is about the right spacing for tomatoes and peppers. This morning we attached this to the system to extend it to another double row of tomatoes and a double row of peppers. We have plenty left over so well use it for other plants too as we need it.

This is the plan of what weve done so far (click on the plan to enlarge it):

The haricots verts, potatoes, broad beans, peas and mangetout peas are all nearly over now so they wont need it this year. We havent included the courgettes in the watering system as the drips are not well spaced for these because they are planted further apart. Courgettes here come in a huge glut between June and the end of July, after which it is too hot for them and the plants die, however much water we give them, so well water these separately for the next few weeks. We’ll water the Roma tomatoes and the chili peppers with a slow-dripping hose straight from the tap.

The drip feed pipe in the tomato bed:

The sprinkler system in another tomato bed:

As you can see, weve planted lettuces between the double row of tomatoes – a tip from our neighbour last year. Well have eaten the lettuces by time the tomato plants grow too big and in the meantime the lettuces get some much-needed shade from the tomato plants and they benefit from the water.

Kate at Hills and Plains seedsavers knows much more about watering in a dry climate than I do. Thanks for your help, Kate! Im going to try her terracotta pot system as soon as I can buy some cheap pots, so more about this later.

>Irrigation

>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

>Water, water …

>Weve had an unusual amount of rain here in the past week – three whole days and nights. Its 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 isnt 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. Its 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 wont 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 weve 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 were always conscious of water use and future shortages. Our new shelves for the study arrived this week and were pleased that the loose-fill packaging which Vitsoe (www.vitsoe.com) used in the cartons is compostable and seems to soak up and hold a lot of water. Ive put some of it straight in to trenches Ive 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.