Sunday, July 25, 2010

sex in the garden

The girls are starting to learn about seed saving and how cross pollination of similar species can alter the outcome of the resultant seeds and how to minimise associated problems.

Many types of vegetables can be grown to produce seed without any special treatment or isolation, whilst others need to be grown away from other varieties or protected from insects to stop transfer of pollen from unwanted parents.

Whilst i was there, they needed to pollinate a specific pumpkin variety so that they can save the seed for future seasons.  The female flower was located whilst in bud, it was covered with a stocking.  This allowed the flower to open whilst restricting insect visitors.  Once the flower was completely open, pollen from a male flower was artificially transferred by hand from a couple of suitable inflorescences to the protected female flower.  

The stocking was removed and the revealed anther of the male flower wiped over the stigma within the female flower to transfer as much pollen as possible before the stocking was replaced.  The female flower will continue to grow and produce its resultant pumpkin fertilized only by the flower that was selected.  Seed taken from this pumpkin should, in theory, be true to its parent plant.

The process was carried out early in the morning to maximise the volume of pollen in the male flower and also to minimise risk of inadvertent cross pollination by transfer of pollen grains from one male flower to another before being transferred to the female. To be sure that the female parts were ready to receive the pollen, the whole process was repeated on three successive mornings.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

time out from helpX

Vanessa and Lisa had become good friends last winter as they visited Lou Rider on several occasions and had helped out there previously.  We always had a laugh when they visited the chalet and were great fun.  They had invited me to call in and stay whenever I wanted, so I took them up on their kind offer and dropped by for a few days between HelpX hosts. 

“You don’t have to work, you don’t have to cook, just relax, chill and do what you want.  If we go out, you can come with us or stay home, use the internet, play with the dog, help yourself to anything from the fridge.”  I couldn’t really go wrong with an offer like that although I did help in the garden and I did cook and I did go out with them and I did have a fabulous time. 

They are searching for the right place to buy in France and taking life at a very leisurely  pace at the moment, renting an old farmhouse about an hour south of Toulouse with a wonderful view of the Pyrenees in the distance and surrounded by farmland.  Now and again they venture out to view a property but on the whole they are just enjoying the view and a laid back way of life.

When I started to arrange how to get to my next host they stepped in and offered to take me to the door.  After studying the map, it was decided that there was an excellent walk just up the road and the whole thing was a great excuse for a day out.

sharing with Vinko

Sharing with Vinko, the Swedish helpXer of Croatian origin has been interesting.  he keeps himself to himself and does as he pleases.  I cook, he comes to eat in the summer kitchen with a headful of interesting conversations,  all of the utmost importance for the moment and deep and relevant to the workings of the world.  If there is football on the TV he takes his plate and excuses himself, explaining that he has something important to do on the internet, otherwise we try and discuss an array of topics.  Why does the western world continue to provide food aid to developing countries when it would be cheaper to teach them how to build dams and provide themselves with food.  How is it that the US won’t leave Iraq or Afghanistan even though they are not wanted there and it is costing their government billions of dollars?  How come technology is better for fighting machines and jets that with anything else, wouldn’t they make more money if they used it in civilian machines? Shouldn’t all houses be built to the highest environmental standards with solar panels and ultra efficient insulation?  Everything is a ‘huge tragedy’ or a ‘stupid big mistake’.  Dinner over, he washes up and goes back to the cottage where he is installed.  he is busy working there renovating, I have been slightly involved but he seems happier on his own and wants a young helper who will do what he is told without discussion, just as he has done in the past.  Fine by me, I have quite enough work in the garden, sanding tables , preparing food and listening to Innes’ stories.

Margot turned up a couple of days ago, to cook and clean and take over the gardening once I leave.  She is a Russian, from Latvia, with an interesting past.  Conversation is difficult as she has only been speaking english for 3 weeks.  She learned in school, some 30 years ago, but has never spoken English before.  There is a huge vocabulary but not much grammar and discussions often end up with much laughter as she ties herself in verbal knots.  A childhood spent with a grandfather who was a phytotherapist, and a soviet early life, transition into the european way of life. three ex husbands, businesses run and sold and recent losses through the financial crash that has hit Baltic states much harder than we ever get to know.  Incomes slashed by 60 - 70% whilst prices stay the same,  similar to those in Western Europe.  She bought a flat for 80000 euro and had to fore close after her income was slashed, the bank repossessed and said it was only worth 17000 and demands the remaining money back.  No Chance.  Two weeks later she is in France, speaking English and having an adventure, hopefully funded by a glossy magazine back home, though she won’t return for a while as the bank will be after her.  It would be great to catch up again in the future as her stories were so interesting but such an effort through the language barrier.

One day later, Ally arrives.  I go with Innes to Rodez airport to spot him in the crowd and make sure he doesn’t get lost.  Vinko has a helper at last.  Atwenty two year old university student, as keen as he is green and ready for a summer of hard work sunshine and a bit of French culture.  He might get most, and plenty of good food, but with a Crotian Swede, a Russian Latvian and a the most English French lady I have ever met, am not sure that the culture will be pure French.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

building stone walls

built another stone wall, a bit different to the last few, but then, they are never the same if the location changes.  I had cleared a steep bank of weeds and the soil was so steep that the first shower of rain would have washed most of it down onto the driveway below.  It needed retaining with something.  

Elsewhere on the property, banks and sloping planting areas have been shored up with small retaining walls using old roof tiles, they are in abundance as there have been three new roofs installed here during the last few years.  The tiles are set into the earth at an angle, partly to retain the soil and also to deflect any rain into the soil rather than down the slope. Properly installed, I was told, it should be possible to walk ( I guess stand would be a better description) on the top without it moving.  Additionally, there were several pieces of rock, stalagtites or ‘mites or some such calcareous formation that had been liberated at some stage and were to be incorporated into the wall.  They did not fit at all.

There are big rocks everywhere, hidden in the long grass, along the boundary, just underground or partially buried, hidden by worms, but that is another story.  These too came from demolition, renovation or reconstruction and were incorporated to make the job easier.

It started off as a fairly plain wall but evolved into more of a rustic art creation,  providing not only its retaining qualities, but a low seat and plenty of visual interest, Innes thought that it was marvelous and took several pictures of me and my creation, so, in conclusion, a job well done and just outside the summer kitchen so that it will be seen by everyone throughout the good weather.

summer kitchen

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

using weeds

Learning loads about plants with purposes, Innes always seems to be harvesting something to eat or dry or soak in oil to save.

Purslane, is commonly mistaken for a weed.  An annual, it grows all over the place in any freshly turned soil, covering the ground with its fleshy succulent stems and leaves.  excellent raw in salads, but can also be stir fried, cooked and used similarly to spinach and used to enhance stews.  It grows quickly here and freezes well.

Good King Henry, I think that is its common English name, Chenopodium, another annual weed that grows in prolific numbers in freshly turned soil.  Frequently eaten in a mixed salad or green garnish, though have yet to discover other uses.  Just take the fresh young leaves as the old ones become a little tough.  Apparently it is the most common ‘weed’ in the world and its seeds are known as Quinoa, used as a grain that is popular for those with a wheat intolerance.

St Johns Wort is everywhere in the house, hanging up to dry, lying out on tables, steeping in oil or alcohol in jars and bottles. 

Walnut wine is a local favourite.  Not a wine in the true sense of the word, rather an alcoholic infusion.  Immature nuts are harvested before their insides are completely formed and there is no hard shell.  These are dropped into a concoction of white wine, eau de vie, sugar, a few spices, perhaps an orange, depending on the local recipe that is followed, and the whole thing is left to do its thing for at least 40 days. The resultant speciality is a potent tipple with distinctive colour and flavour that is sure to bring enthusiastic discussion amongst those who have prepared their own brew.


Harvest early before the heat of the day, then leave produce in the cool and the shade until they are needed or process immediately if they are to be preserved in any way. Plants recharge themselves overnight and are full of moisture and flavour in the morning.  Exposure to the sun lessens the intensity of the flavoursome volatile oils and starts to dry out fruits and vegetables.  Many will be softer in the afternoon after a morning in the heat of a of bright sun and will be more easily damaged than something harvested plump and fresh after a cool night.

Only save as much as you need until next season, especially in the freezer.  Here there is masses of frozen garden produce to eat before the new seasons crop comes on line.  I have a horrible feeling  that I will be tiring of green beans just as the new ones become ready to pick, ditto tomatoes, though, at least the new ones will suit a salad rather than a sauce or stew.  I have absolutely no idea what the 20 bags of chestnuts will be used for and the next harvest will be in about 3 months, they really are a winter food.  A bit of creative cooking is going to be needed during the next few weeks I feel.

Friday, July 02, 2010


OMG, I just watched a whole football match, first of the World Cup.  Brazil v Holland and have been told it was one of the best matches to watch so far in the tournament.  The suggested underdogs, Holland, won.  

I only write this for those of you that know how much I love following the footy, it was for my french language appreciation, honest, and to check out the talent.  

For those of you in the US, I'm talking soccer, as well you should know.

a view of Conques, nearly

wildflower planting for the insects

no idea, but it is beautiful
looking up the property through the barns

house on the left, cottage on the right, neighbours miles away

sunrise over the valley.  Conques is behind the trees, honestly.

It was partly the great view on one of the pictures on the HelpX site that brought me here, but there were other reasons too.  A determination to find a french host and to speak more of the language was a priority, Innes, however, spent her early years in England, before during and after WWII, schooled at a private convent school and then living in the countryside near Manchester during her twenties, her english is just about perfect.  We do try to speak  french, but with the enthusiasm of the conversations it does tend to revert.  To remove myself from the Tower before I became too settled and entrenched in routine, it is a great place to be, and even through the worst weather it was still fun and enjoyable, even more so now, as other helpXers have started to arrive along with more challenges and projects.  I gave George a briefing on the garden and am hoping that he rises to the challenge.  I also need to feel as if I am in a foreign country,  being in the same familiar environment to last autumn, it almost felt as if I haven’t gone anywhere.  And also for a bit of tranquility, a bit of calm and a change of scenery.

None of my original enquiries have brought as much as a reply, let alone an invitation, not that invitations have been scarce, I could be in Ireland on a pig farm, a Normandy building site, in Spain gardening and with countless other English hosts across the region.  I took Innes’ invitation, a short journey up the valley, to get me moving again and it is wonderful here.  

The property is perched at the end of a promentory overlooking a steep valley, with the Medieval settlement of Conques on the far side.  It is tranquil and very beautiful here, at the end of a long narrow track with no visible neighbours and surrounded completely by countryside.  The main house, a cottage that is being renovated by other courageous helpXers, there is only one here at the moment, Vinco, a Croatian who has been living in Sweden for several years.  Quiet and football crazy, but interesting if you can get him to talk.  I will probably help him later on, but am primarily here to get the garden back under control and into some sort of order for the summer.

Innes is a great character, and our interests and humour overlap well.  She  has a fascination of useful plants and they are growing all over the property,  collections of jams and oils and all sorts of things drying from beams and jars of leaves and petals; a subject that is becoming more intriguing to me the more that I discover.    With buying and selling property and how to get a bargain.  So many times she has doubled her money buying and selling within a month or two, just by making a few alterations or adapting places to fit with potential buyers and no doubt had her fingers burned as well.  I grew up with all that and understand the excitement and pitfalls well.  Of good food and cooking, though, now that she is older, prefers if someone else does the work and she can arrive to enjoy the results.  The reason that she has helpers, and for long before helpX ever began, to get things done that she is unable or, in later years,has become, incapable of achieving herself.

She laughs when she tells me about past helpers, “usually the young ones.  They won’t drink my raw milk or funny bread.  They want ‘Baguette’ that is the french thing to do, not that country stuff” she refers to the lovely local brown bread full of seeds and grains.  “So I buy them baguette.” “I tried to give them my herb salt, it took hours to make, and broke my last coffee grinder.  They are almost impossible to come by now, you know.  The man in the shop said,”why on earth do you want to buy a grinder, it is much more modern to buy ready ground coffee these days”  “”I know, I told him, “but that’s no good for my dried herbs now is it?”  I ordered one of Amazon, but it never arrived.”  she shrugs her shoulders the way only the french do and goes on.  “They look with suspicion at the green mixture in the jar and demand real salt,”like the stuff you get in the supermarket” so I get them their salt and keep the good stuff for myself.  I don’t suppose you would use it if I gave you some?”  I told her that there was some downstairs in the summer kitchen and I had used it already.  She was pleased.  

“I make all this jam and wine and I never get through it.  I just don’t like to see the fruit go to waste.”  Innes was showing me around one of the cool outhouses.  “Do you like jam?” I nod. “Then you must take some, the young ones, they don’t want it, they need to have it from the supermarket with a label.”

Shopping is in the traditional way, although some essentials are purchased from the supermarket.  Then, as much as possible from the Bio (organic) section.  The local market for fresh fruit and vegetables, local bio bread, bio live milk, honey and cheese.  The local butcher for locally grown meats and more cheeses and the garden and hedgerows for most other ingredients.  Simple well cooked food is always the best, although it was a bit of a shock to unwrap a chicken and find it still its head attached. The dog enjoyed crunching at it for a while and the giblets made wonderful gravy.