We have had a week enveloped in a haze of dandelion fluff. Finely-haired, parachuted seed borne aloft on summer updrafts, they swirl in the gentle breeze almost indefinitely, before settling in drifts. Irritating if that is in your tea or up a nostril and perhaps irritating for neighbouring conventional famers with their orderly, weed-free fields. Perhaps we should be concerned about the farming adage “one year’s seeding brings seven years’ weeding”. I suspect there might be some local tut-tutting about the unruly chaos of organic farming. Twenty years ago I might have worried. In my middle years I find myself almost celebrating it as Devon’s version of herds of migrating wildebeest; long may there be some semblance of untamed nature in our lives.
Meanwhile, back on the ground, the season is getting underway. The weeds are under control, we are up to date with the planting and are already harvesting leafy crops like spinach, cabbage, lettuce and rocket. With only an inch of rain in two months, the busiest man on the farm is Watery Tim, our irrigation man.
We finished our carrots two weeks ago and, due to the partial failure of our French crop, expected to have a break for a few weeks until the new crop starts as bunches on 7th June. In the meantime we were approached by a grower near Inverness who leaves his carrots in the ground all winter covered by a thick blanket of straw. Not only does this keep the frost out, it also delays the warming of the soil in spring and delays regrowth. Added to the cooling effect of being further north, once washed this is producing remarkably good carrots.
turnips from the French farm
This is coming to you from our farm in the French Vendée, where the sky is always blue, the cows fat and the vegetables plump. Most of the crops planned to fill our hungry gap; lettuce, spinach, cabbage, beans, navets (baby bunched turnips) and courgettes have recovered from the March gales and are lapping up the sunshine.
Fennel has suffered from a minor plague of ragondin; giant, beaver-sized rodents with six inch whiskers and a particularly French appetite for anis,
the carrots have been overtaken by the ragondin
but the carrots are this year’s disaster. Just before the seedlings emerge we like to pass over the rows with a gas-powered flame weeder, to kill any weeds unlucky enough to germinate first. But the flame weeder broke and before we could replace it the carrots were up, accompanied by a rash of a weed known locally as ravenelle. I have never encountered such an aggressive plant; like docks on steroids it clambers on top of the crop then pushes its rasping, thistle-like leaves down, crushing any competition back into the ground. It made me think of Vinnie Jones defending a corner in a Wimbledon penalty area; a real bruiser of a weed. Even after mechanically removing all the weeds between the rows, progress on hands and knees up a row is down to 30 metres an hour. First loss is best loss, so this morning, despite the valiant efforts of the work force, we abandoned and ploughed in the first half the crop, rather than watch the ravenelle triumph and potentially set seed to plague us in years to come.
batavia lettuces the size of dinner plates
Back at home the dormancy of our old-season carrots can only be enforced for so long and we will run out before the end of this month. In previous years we have imported carrots from Spain or Italy to bridge the gap between seasons but the flavour is invariably poor and we had hoped to avoid them this year by growing some in France. With this plan foiled, we are planning a few weeks of carrot-free boxes in late May or early June. I have detected a little carrot fatigue recently so perhaps that will be a relief. Are carrots a ‘must have’ staple? Should we indulge you with some well-travelled bland imports from Southern Europe? Answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.