In France we have already got the first of our early lettuce in the ground. The planter is immediately followed by a machine which synchronously bends and implants wire hoops, before stretching over clear plastic to create a mini tunnel that prevents the tender greenhouse-raised seedlings catching a chill and wilting. These lettuces are destined for your vegboxes in March and April, while this week we will start planting turnips, cabbage and swiss chard. On these slightly hardier vegetables we use a very light (17g/m²) translucent fleece which floats on top of the crop, protecting it from the worst of the cold winds and frost. Even now, there is enough warmth in the sun by midday for the young plants to put out roots and a few shy new leaves. I’m often surprised by how well crops grow here when it’s barely warmer in winter than Devon, but it’s all down to the light quality; the Vendée even had its own impressionists.
The farm here is pretty flat, typically with 60cm of highly porous sands lying over a heavy, impervious clay; the result is that rain soaks in quickly but then sits on the clay, moving only very slowly down the slope. To get the early crops needed to bridge the ‘hungry gap’ at home (April-early June), we need to get on the land early, even in a wet year. Following the advice of neighbours we have now deepened ditches, filled in the dips and invested in drainage pipes every ten metres. It seems to be paying off; I just wish we’d done it sooner.
Nobody said it would be this hard; after six years of farming in France the best I can say is that we are losing money more slowly. Arguably it was the height of bellicose, arrogant stupidity to think I could breeze in and bend that soil and sunshine to my will. Every year we uncover a new set of problems but bizarrely I am still relishing the challenge and almost always enjoy my visits. I leave full of ideas for new crops and ways of growing them. In addition to tomatillos, cape gooseberries, sugar loaf chicory and lots of new varieties of peppers and chillies, this year we will be growing oca (a very tasty Peruvian tuber), popcorn-destined sweetcorn, endive and a small area of sunflowers.