Reap what you sow

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An update from Le Guerrat in the French Pyrenees.

By Sue Morris

Hmmmm, let me see: tomatoes on toast, fried in garlic and olive oil? Baby courgettes on pasta with freshly-cracked black pepper? Aubergine lasagne with steamed potatoes? Mixed lettuce leaves with walnuts and an avocado? Grated raw beetroot salad………yes, it’s that time of year again when the harvest comes in! The work for the year starts in earnest in March, sowing, replanting, potting-on, watering, nurturing, protecting, etc…..then comes the nerve-wracking, nail-biting, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat-whilst-craning-your-neck-out-of-the-window four-month wait before the harvest comes in. Then when it does, it’s a deluge: more courgettes than I can handle, cherry tomatoes up to your knees, bunches of blackcurrants that nearly snap the bush, beans growing whilst you look at them, pumpkins climbing up and over anything that stands still long enough….

Well, not quite, but you get the picture! If there is anything that is truly worth the wait, it’s growing your own vegetables and fruit, and the phrase that runs through my mind often at this time of year (early September) is « this is getting ridiculous! ». We’ve just weighed today’s toms: 37kg; today’s potatoes: 52kg, onions a disappointment this year – very small- but more than compensated for by the variety of cocktail tomatoes coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

We acquired the land around the house a few years ago now, put in an orchard of 50+ fruit trees, 40+ soft-fruit bushes, a 34m-long polytunnel and created two large vegetable beds on the steeply-sided mountain slopes. One of these beds is 30m x 10m, and will now become the principal bed, with the other one above the tunnel used for rotation. As we had to clear 30yr-old forest in order to create these beds, the soil was quite acidic – a scary 5.5pH in one place, but we’ve given the minimum dosage of lime each winter and it has now reached a more neutral 6.5pH, which suits most vegetables a bit more.

Secrets of sowing

In the past I would spend a fortune on organic seeds, but now after much trial and error I save most of my own seeds from my own vegetables, with the obvious exception of potatoes and onions. So early Spring will see me getting out and dusting off the two window-sill sized propagators (available at most large garden centres) and sowing aubergine, sweet pepper and tomato seeds, all clearly marked with an indelible pen with variety (if known!) and date.

The heated propagator gives much-needed constant heat to small seedlings, enabling them to develop without the stress of hot/cold temperature variations. I put the lid on at night and take it off during the day, for ventilation, and keep a close eye on moisture, trying to judge exactly how much water the tiny seedlings need without over-doing it. The whole process takes about 15 minutes maximum, leaving plenty of time in the day to get on with other things.

I sow them in home-made compost, which is obviously an on-going process, adding kitchen scraps to nettles to straw, comfrey and grass, and even cardboard. I know some people like to sterilize their compost but I never do, preferring to have a soil as rich in micro-organisms as I can. Any odd seeds that also manage to sprout up (what survivors!) will get removed so that the prioritised seedling comes on – will the real Beef Heart tomato please step forward!

When they’re about 2 ” tall, in about April/May, I then pot them on into small plastic pots, most of which are recuperated by a local neighbour of mine who loves the fact that we recycle everything and goes round to cemetary dustbins in our behalf! For beginners it is this early stage which is possibly the most frustrating: many seedlings are lost and it seems impossible to get the right conditions: don’t worry, this is normal, and it will all come together with patience, and experience. Think of how much frog-spawn eventually matures to become fully-grown frogs, and you’ll get a general idea of the ratio. Making mistakes is an essential part of the learning curve, for me anyway, and I have often found myself sowing for a second, third and even fourth time (successional sowings) if I feel I have lost too many, or haven’t sown enough, etc. I never cease to be amazed that seedlings I have sown sometimes one month after the first lot, catch them up and sometimes overtake the early ones, which have had to struggle against the cold of the end of winter. I have learnt to rein in my enthusiasm and not to begin too early, as the disappointment of losing too many seedlings early on is not good for morale: with an indoor heated propagator and later sowings, the majority of these sturdy little plants will do fine.

Gradually comes hardening off, then the eventual transplanting into the ground or polytunnel (May/June/even July). Although we live in South-West France, it is at an altitude of 560m in a narrow north-south valley, so it is chilly in the mornings and evenings. You learn eventually to judge what grows well with the individual conditions that you have, and I have slowly learned not to try to compete with my neighbours on the plains for early crops.

A drip irrigation system is now in place, with a ram-pump (a cyclic water pump powered by hydropower) 25m below in the stream, continually pumping up water into 12 x 1000L tanks, thereby giving us (in theory) plenty of water for various parts of the garden. Various valves can be opened and closed to irrigate various beds, all from the main storage tanks. This is heaven, and seems ideally suited to our environment, as we are active on seven levels of old terraces!

Reaping rewards

Finally comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the first ripe tomato is spotted with a squeal of delight (and I’m 49!) and is duly noted in the lunar calendar, with others swiftly following on. The first delicious taste of a succulent cucumber pretty quickly gives way to a swollen stomach and a groan of ‘if I eat another cucumber I’ll end up looking like one’…..as a consequence, over the last few years I’ve become accustomed to giving a lot of our vegetables away: I still make sure I jar a lot of it up, so that the shelves are full of food for winter, but I also want to thank various neighbours who have variously 1) sold and given us the land to make all of this possible 2) given us lots of good quality second-hand clothes 3) who house/dog/cat sit for us if we want to go away or who are just generally good eggs.

We are lucky enough to have very close neighbours who make all manner of things that we have not yet turned our hand to: cider; apple juice; vinegar; eau de vie (!), further afield an organic wheat producer and a little further still an organic wine producer. With so much good-quality food and drink grown, transformed and swapped and sold locally, I believe this area is in good shape for any possible economic hardships. Traditionally a very poor area, the locals seem to have a collective consciousness which reminds them never to take anything for granted, and not to get lulled into a false sense of security.

A recent three and a half-hour tour of a small village in the Lot (not too far away) was a fascinating insight into how people used to live almost in autonomy up until as recently as 50 years ago. Many mechanical or hand-crafted tools enabled walnut oil to be made, plums and chestnuts to be dried, water-tight barrels to be made, trees sawn up into logs: all of these crafts and many more without a drop of oil or a unit of electricity needed. It was a fascinating tour given by a 70yr-old man who had known hard work, but was very pleased to pass on his knowledge for free. It is people like this who are indeed the salt of the earth, with a wealth and breadth of knowledge which our generation can only dream of. But we’re getting there, slowly…

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