Thursday, 4 June 2020

The weak link

Some time ago we bought a couple of long extension leads to allow us to bring mains power to all corners of the garden.   We bought cheap ones.  They quickly became a pain to use, for reasons too complicated to go into.    A couple of weeks ago while I was struggling to reel in the cable after use, I decided that I'd had enough, and that I had to replace it.  I ordered one like the one shown below from Amazon.  It arrived bent, although there was not a single mark or dent on the packaging.  I'm assuming that it was OK when packed, and that couriers are the weak link in our brave new world of internet purchases.


I can't fault Amazon.  I went on their website and it was easy to print off a returns label, re-order, and in due course the thing arrived again, in good condition this time.

But I have to say, I'm more inclined these days to buy things that are any combination of big, heavy, delicate or expensive, in a shop, even if that means paying a premium - and it often doesn't.   I have recently ordered a petrol lawn mower online on a DIY chain's website.  It will be delivered to my local DIY store, where I will collect it.   And it was the cheapest of all the options that I could find anywhere for that product - that works for me.   I can leave it with them if it's damaged, and I have somewhere to take it for after-sales service.

The frame of the old extension cable, being made of metal, is in the recycling.  As for the lead itself,  the insulation had nicks and holes in it, and was coming away from the cores at each end.  I cut it at each damaged point, ending up with 4 good cable lengths.  I bought in-line plugs and sockets and made 4 medium-length extension leads out of it.  I think you're not allowed to do that in England any more, am I right?   I think you're not allowed to buy the bits, or it has to be done by a "professional".

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Watering trees

I planted some Hornbeams in the field opposite, last Autumn.   They are supposed to like lime soil, be drought tolerant, and make good firewood.  Ideal.  I put in 25 at the far side of my 2 hectare field.

I can find 21 of them, I'm not sure what happened to the rest, I think they got dug up and eaten.  Those that remain show serious signs of having been nibbled, probably by a hare or rabbit.   The hot dry Spring didn't do them any good either, and some were showing signs of drought damage.   There are some self-seeded Walnut trees in the field too, and even they are showing some dead leaves that came out too early and dried up.

I decided to make an effort to water the new trees frequently to protect them from this hot weather.  I started out by carrying two watering cans across the field, putting half a can on each tree.  6 return trips, it took an hour and a half, and made my arms ache.   I needed a better option if I am going to be doing this all Summer.

Here is the solution.   I have a sit-on mower, 22 horsepower, with a towing ball on the back.  I have a trailer that it can pull, and a couple of plastic dustbins that I used to store Dahlia tubers in over Winter.  Put the dustbins in the trailer, fill them with water and use the mower to take them over.   When in place, use the watering can on the trees.


For the nibbling problem, I spotted an ad in the French national small ads website leboncoin.fr, for some used tree protectors: thick plastic mesh, and poles for support.  Perfect, €1.50 each.

As an aid to getting the mower over my unkempt field, I asked a neighbour to come and make a path around it (leaving the trees that are in the path; I can weave around them) using his 100hp tractor and flail mowers.  It worked a treat, and I can now get the trailer all around the field with no problem.



The trees are responding to the water, and all, or nearly all, are showing signs of new growth.   You can even see that the grass is greener where I have been watering.

My Husqvarna mower has done good service over the years.  It has needed its share of spare parts, but then I haven't been gentle with it.  Truth is, though, I should have bought a small tractor instead, a diesel, one that has a central mowing deck like the Husqvarna, but that has all the other possibilities of a tractor.   It would have cost about 7 times the mower though, and at the time I never even thought about it.



Monday, 18 May 2020

Cherry ripe

A long time ago when I was in junior school, the headmaster organised for some professional singers to come and interpret some works for us.   One of the songs that the lady of the team sang was Cherry Ripe.  For whatever reason, that song has stayed with me, and it's going through my head as I pick the ripe cherries from a tree in the garden.


The tree has been there for a good 15 years, and last year was the first time it gave any cherries.  It is covered in fruit again this year, and it's a competition between the birds and me to see who can get there first.

This afternoon I was watering the potatoes and enjoying a few stolen cherries, when I heard a bird in the tree.   In amongst the foliage near the top, it was hanging upside-down to eat the dangling fruit.  It looks to me like a great spotted woodpecker, a female since it had a red splodge on the lower belly but none on the head.  The first photo below is the best I could do before it flew off.  It's hard to spot but it's right in the middle of the picture, and the blurry red area just by the intersection of the two branches is its red behind.  its head is down and to the right.  You're looking at its back, from below.   Another masterpiece in support of my secret ambition to become a BBC wildlife photographer.





Sunday, 17 May 2020

Spuds

I don't know what to do for the best in growing potato plants.   The problem is that they sprout too early, so I feel obliged to plant them too early, and then I worry about the plants until the last frosts.

I order them online, and they arrive mid-January onwards.  I keep them in a cool, dark, frost-free place and check on them from time to time.  By April they have long stringy shoots, and are starting to shrivel, so I feel obliged to plant them as soon as possible.  I have to keep an eye on the forecast, and cover any emerging shoots with newspaper if there's any chance of frost.

We have had a very warm Winter and Spring, and my potatoes have been in the ground since early April.   I have been fretting about possible air frosts since they poked above the soil.   It doesn't help that the forecast keeps changing.   Recently we have had overnight lows of 4°C which is close to an air frost, but we have been spared frost, and now things seem to be set fair for the rest of the year.

The plants are looking good.  They're about a foot high, and the first ones are in flower.   Fingers crossed for a decent harvest.


Advice on management of potato planting gratefully received.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

More fauna

Bold as brass, a hare in the courtyard this morning.


Friday, 1 May 2020

Fauna

A rabbit in my garden.  Quite a handsome one, but I'm not sure his presence is a good thing.




Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Boiler repair

The Heizomat boiler has been pretty reliable over the 12 years it has been installed.   The manufacturer claims a working life of 35 - 40 years.   But it started playing up.  It burns wood, there is a series of electric motors that feed the wood into the boiler, and two fans that blow air to aid the combustion.  Whenever wood is being fed into the boiler, the fans blow all that time.   Their speed is set by a computer.

The problem was that the fans were only blowing intermittently instead of continuously, and were blowing less and less over a period of some days.  Eventually the boiler went out.  When I restarted it, the fans blew for a higher proportion of the time, but not for all the time that they should.

The diagnosis was most likely a problem with the controlling computer card, or a tiny possibility that it was the control panel screen.   Rather than pay for a replacement of both I opted for just the new controller card, and since we're in lockdown I agreed with the after-sales guys that I would fit it myself.

Here is a picture of the old card in place, with its protective perspex cover and some of the plugs removed.  I replaced it with the new card, and restarted the boiler.  No sparks, no bangs, which is a good start.  The boiler seemed to work well, and I shut it off after a week or so because the weather was warm.  But since the problem was intermittent, I won't really know until I run the boiler for at least a couple of months, which will be in the Autumn.



I suppose that if the boiler is going to fail, doing so when there are no customers is a good time to do it.   I wouldn't have liked to have to deal with this problem, and customers at the same time.   To follow:  The Phone Line Saga, currently a work in progress.


Tuesday, 28 April 2020

A round tuit

There have been numerous jobs around the house and garden that I've been meaning to do, when I could get around to it.   Well, now, in lockdown, I can.

One of the things that has been bugging me is the Box hedge.   It's a slow-growing hedge, it was planted 12 years ago when the individual plants were about 6 inches tall.  Some of it has at last reached the required height.  It got its first trim this week.


The second photo shows part of the near hedge in the first photo, the second hedge a bit farther away, and also on the far right, a short section of the third hedge.  The third hedge hasn't grown as well as the other two, so it will be a couple of years before I have to trim it.   There is a fourth one, even farther away, that is growing even more slowly.  


The Cotoneaster hedge continues to grow like Topsy, and I trimmed that too.   Never, ever plant a Cotoneaster hedge unless you have a mechanical, powered, means of keeping it in shape, that does all the work.    Such as a tractor with a set of trimming blades. 

The arch kind of grew itself, as one year I left the trimming too late, so the excess growth flopped over the gap.  I thought it might make a nice feature.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Rock splitting

The Mayenne département is know for the depth and fertility of its soil.  Not at my place.  Fertile yes, but deep, no.  There's about two foot of soil, then limestone rock.  Consequently, there is a lot of stone and large rocks about, some of which are too big for me to shift.

I bought some stone splitters a while ago, here is a picture of two of them.  They are made of hard steel, and comprise two outer wedges that you put into the rock, and a tapered inner wedge that you hammer between them to split the rock.   The rubber loop at the top keeps the whole lot together.


I had a chance to try them out yesterday.  I had a big rock to move, so big that it took all my weight to roll it anywhere, and was impossible for me to lift.    I used my big 1KWatt SDS hammer action drill to make some holes in the rock along a line that seemed to correspond to the grain.  I pushed the wedges in and started hammering.   Piece of cake.   The rock split into two bits, and I repeated the process until I had a number of small manageable pieces.  It took most of the afternoon, though.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Bean poles

I grew climbing Borlotto beans last year, and got a good harvest.  But the stakes and twigs I put up for them to climb on didn't work very well.  I had cut some twiggy branches off the Hazelnut trees in the garden, and stuck them into the ground, but the weight of the beans eventually made them fall over, and the whole lot dragged on the ground.

This year I am trying sterner measures.  Leo gave me 12 good stout bamboo poles last Autumn, that have been drying in the shed over Winter.  I have used them to make a stable frame based on triangles, that shouldn't fall down, assuming the knots hold.   I have been leaning Hazelnut branches and twigs against this frame, tying them on, so I hope that this year the beans will have good support.

I'll be putting down runner beans, Borlotto beans, and I'm also going to see if the sweet pea seeds I saved from 2018 are going to germinate, maybe I can grow them up the poles too.  I just love sweet peas.




Monday, 13 April 2020

Brainstem programming

So I was walking along the path in the garden, and suddenly I stopped.  Not that I intended to stop; my body just stopped of its own accord.  A moment of puzzlement, followed by understanding.  Ah, that would be because of the snake in my way.

Quite a big snake, maybe 18 inches long, brown, not much in the way of markings, no "V" on the head, no obvious zig-zag pattern.  Aha, says I, a grass snake.  I noticed that it had a very short tail.  You can't see it in the picture, but it was only about 3 or 4 inches long, quite short in relation to the rest of the snake.   I happened to have my camera with me, and took a picture.

I wandered inside to look up what kind of a grass snake it was.  I had trouble making a match.  Grass snakes have a small number of large scales on the head.  Well, mine didn't, not really; it had a lot of small scales.  Grass snakes have round pupils, and vipers have a slit.  This difference is definitive.  I couldn't see the eyes of my snake, but I enlarged the photo, and could just about make out the right eye.  Vertical slitty.  Oh.

So I look up vipers, and can't find anything that matches my snake.  But apparently the asp viper has markings, but on the male they are indistinct, or at least, less distinct that on the female.   The asp viper often has a "V" on the head.... but not necessarily.  And a notably short tail.  Ah.  Perhaps I have a male asp viper.   The bite, I read, is painful, and spreads, and is fatal in humans if untreated, in about 4% of cases.  I left it alone, and it was gone by the time I got back to it.


And the new lesson learnt today?   Just because it doesn't have a "V" on its head, doesn't mean it's not a viper.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

The artisanat

It was November when an errant driver slammed his car into our gate, knocking down one of the posts and flinging the gate a short way down the drive.  The gate lost a few panels in the process, and a bit of the wall was taken down too.


There was no problem in principle with the driver's insurance paying up, but it was, apparently, up to us to get the quote.  The first guy we contacted couldn't come around for a few weeks, so we waited.  On the appointed morning he phoned up, said he couldn't make it, and asked if we could send some photos of the problem.  We did.  He came back to say that it wasn't the sort of thing that he did.  Back to square one.

The second guy we contacted is well-known in the area for doing good work.   He came around, took a look and promised a quote, that we got after again, a few weeks, having chased him a bit.   Nearly €1,000, taking the Mick in my view, or perhaps I chose the wrong career.   Anyway we sent it off to the insurance company, who rejected it, no surprise.

It's now April, some 5 months after the accident, so on Monday I decided to fix it myself.  I painted the bottom of the post with black protector paint, and hammered the bent hinges back into their proper positions.  I dug the hole out the next day, and got the gates aligned.  I set some concrete into the hole, and had to borrow some more from Leo to make it up to the right height.  Anita ordered a new gate stop to replace the one that had been broken in the crash.

The most time-consuming part of the job was breaking up the broken part of the wall into its constituent concrete and stone parts.  The stones I put on the wall (now a dry stone wall) and the concrete bits I'll use as a hardcore foundation for some steps I will be building soon.

Today I put the slats back on the gate, by straightening out the old nails and hammering them back in.  The gate is currently leaning against the post.  In a few days when the concrete has set a bit more, I'll hang the gate again, and then I'll be able to concrete in the new gate stop, once it arrives.

Cost:  One bag concrete, say €10, some black protector paint, say €2 worth, a gate stop €50 including VAT and delivery (not here yet) and about 7 hours' labour, say €100.   Yep, I chose the wrong career if I missed out on margins like that.


Bluebells

I planted this little clump of Bluebells under the Walnut tree, several years ago.  After a bit of a slow start, they seem to have installed themselves very well.  If they spread, I will take some and dot them around about.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Bulk purchase

I wandered into the garden this morning, and noticed a big flat-bed trailer in the field next door.   It was loaded up with white bags of something that I took to be lime.   The contents were being spread onto the field by a tractor, a bit farther away.

The farmer was next to the trailer, so I said "hi", and asked him what was in the bags (maintaining a social distance, of course).  He told me that it was in fact fertiliser for the field, made from chicken manure, and formed into pellets.  It is one of the "natural" fertilisers that he can use whilst retaining the 'organic' label for the crops.

I buy a similar product for my garden from time to time, in local agricultural supplies shop, in little buckets of about 5 litres each.  It costs me about €25 per bucket, a bit less if it's on sale.   I figured these big sacks would be quite expensive so I asked him how much they cost.  He did some mental calculation and said "About 70 - 80 euros".

I told him how much I usually pay and asked him if he wouldn't mind filling up my bucket for a payment.  He filled my little bucket and wouldn't take any money.  What a nice man.


I will have to see about bulk purchase of fertiliser.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Spuds

I have planted my potatoes.  I reckon we're probably about two weeks away from the last frosts, so they should be safe from damage, with a bit of luck.  I bought a few too many; around 100 seed potatoes in 4 different varieties.   For reference: Miss Blush, Anoe, Laurette and Linzer Delikatess.  Well, I'm sure we'll find a use for them all.

This bed where I planted most of them is where I grew the squash plants last year.  I had spread sheep manure, courtesy of Louis down the road, onto the ground, covered it all with a tarpaulin, cut some holes in the tarpaulin, and planted the squash seeds through the holes directly into the manure.  I got a good squash harvest, and now the manure has rotted well down to make an excellent soil.   I hope.

However, the best potato plants that I have at the moment are these ones on the compost heap.  They seem to be surviving the light air frosts we have been having, and maybe they will present me with the earliest crop of all.  I have no idea what variety they are, though.


Monday, 23 March 2020

New tool

I got a new tool the other day, a battery-powered impact wrench in the Ryobi One+ 18 volt range.  It's one of the newer tools, with a brushless motor.   I'm not familiar with impact wrenches, not having used one before, so using it was a new experience for me.

I had to remove and replace a blunt mower blade from the sit-on mower, which is a job for which I normally use the big adjustable spanner.  With the spanner it's difficult.  I have to brace myself against the blade to stop it turning, then heave on the wrench with most of my strength. It usually comes off OK, but it's awkward.

I tried the impact wrench.  BZZZZZZT and the blade was off, didn't take one second.  I had to smile, I was impressed.


Thursday, 19 March 2020

Garden development

It's at this time that I try to put the garden into shape for the rest of the year.  I have been working on the veg patch today.

The first task is a new raised bed to add to the existing ones.  I have always found it difficult to maintain a large area of veggies, but by dividing it into well-defined smaller beds, I find I can manage things better.  It's probably psychological.

The wood for the frame needs to be protected from rot, so I paint it with two coats of a tar-based preservative paint.  This seems to have worked well on the previous installations, and I had some of the paint left over from last year.  I had to add white spirit to get it to soften up, but once I did that, there was enough for two coats.  The frame is now ready to assemble and put out.


I also bought these smaller frames in kit form when a local garden centre was shutting down.  I wouldn't normally buy anything like this - the wood is a bit feeble, and the frame usually retails at about €25, if I remember correctly.  I figure that I could knock up a better one myself for the price of the wood.   These ones were under a tenner each on sale, so I bought the remaining stock of two.   They've been in the conservatory annoying Anita all Winter, so it was time to assemble them and put them outside.


I added rough compost from the heap, and then covered it with a thinner layer of sieved compost to make a good surface for seedlings.

I will use them this year as a nursery bed for onions and leeks.   It used to be that I could plant onions in a seed tray and transplant them to their final positions once they got to about pencil thickness.  I don't know what they put in French compost, or rather what they don't, because the onions just don't grow that big in it.   So I figure to put them in a holding bed once they have germinated, and then I will plant them in their final homes a bit later.

Later on in the year I might use them as a bed for climbing beans, by putting some form of bean tent on top.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Confined to quarters

Well we might be stuck at home, but the Jasmine is filling the house with perfume.  


Well, OK, we can garden, and I'm even allowed to take a walk in the countryside around or near the house, for excercise.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Curfew

The French for curfew is "couvre-feu" so you can see the similarity of the two languages.   We have one imposed, now, in France.

I'm glad we did our shopping in Laval yesterday, because as of mid-day today, we are supposed to shop only locally, and would probably not be able to go there.   I don't know if that means locally as in the nearest small supermarket (A Carrefour Market in Vaiges, 10 minutes by car) or the much bigger Super-U in Evron (20 minutes by car).  But either way, it's unlikely to mean Laval (40 minutes by car).

You can be excused the curfew if you are travelling for certain specific purposes such as food shopping, walking dogs, going to a medical appointment, exercising near your home but not in a group, and so on.  The documentation you need is rather quaint: you can handwrite or download and print out a document that declares "on your honour" that you are travelling for one of the permitted purposes.  You have to present it along with your ID, if stopped.

Some people see a sinister purpose behind all this, but regardless of whether they're right or not, keeping everyone separate from sources of infection, that is, other people, should stop the spread of the disease in its tracks.

Not only is travel inside France severely restricted, but certain EU borders are closed too.  I wonder what they will do about the illegal immigrants coming into Greece.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Closedown

Well it's Monday 16th and many businesses in France are shut down, especially those involving getting groups of people together.  Including our gîte de groupe.

Meanwhile, life goes on, and we went to get the week's shopping today.   Many supermarkets are being raided by panic buyers, and their revenues are up.  Promocash, our supplier of food for the business is, however, experiencing a severe downturn, because no restaurants (except take-aways and the like) are buying.   They sent a text message on Sunday assuring us of their availability for professional and personal supplies, so we decided to shop there.  

I had a chat with the manager, and she explained that as a result of the downturn, she was opening the store for only only half the day from tomorrow, and putting her staff on part time working - "chomage technique".   We want the Promocash in Laval to survive; there's no other commercial "cash and carry" food provider in that town, and currently the nearest is in Le Mans, much farther away.   And by shopping there we not only help them to survive but also reduce the load on the normal supermarkets.


The shop was fairly busy, the shelves were well stocked and the trees outside were in bloom.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Garden attention

We're coming around to that time of year when the garden needs a lot of attention.  I've been occupied by a few tasks these recent days.  I have put up a trellis on the front of the wood store, planted some seeds, and chopped down a few trees.

My friend Leo up the road gave me a climbing plant, a red-flowered Jasmine, some time ago and I planted it in front of the wood store with a view to training it up the side.  It has spread along the ground by the end of the house, but not much along the front of the wood store, so I decided it was time to take action.

There were some wooden trellis panels going cheap up the local supermarket so I bought some, and with Anita's help, attached them on to the wall.  They're not especially strong, so I supported their horizontal members on blocks of thicker wood.  (2 top, 2 bottom)  We then transplanted some of the Jasmine in front of it, and tied it on.



Meanwhile, it's time to think about seed planting.  I've planted some onions, leeks and echallions, that are tolerant of mild frosts so if I run out of space I can put them outside.  I also planted some sweet peppers that will stay indoors until the frosts are over.   To follow will be the more tender things like tomatoes, and so on.   Beans and squash I will plant directly into the soil.  

It's nice to see the onions germinating - these are seeds I collected from the red onions that ran to seed last year.   Hoping for better results this time around.



Thursday, 5 March 2020

Hat o' nine tales

Or maybe the hat with 9 lives.   I can't count the number of times I've lost this thing, or left it behind somewhere, and had to go look for it or collect it.   It wasn't all that expensive to buy - in fact I think I got it thrown in with a leather coat for free, or at least seriously discounted.   It's cost me more than that in recouperation costs.


You guessed it.  I left it behind again today.  I swear it scuttles off to hide, and creeps out again once I've gone.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Stormy weather

We've been having a bit of a wet time recently, but every cloud has a silver lining.  I tried to capture the light on the raindrops hanging off the branches.  It looked better in real life.


Thursday, 27 February 2020

Valentine's lunch

It seems a long time ago, but the last Friday of of our holiday we went to the fishing village of Portopetro, with a view to having a nice Valentine's lunch there.  Our mobile phone app told us of  "one of the best restaurants on Mallorca", but we walked past it, and on retracing our steps, it was clear that it was closed, most likely for good.

We spotted a nice-looking restaurant above the local yacht club, and we chose this one, with their menu dégustation (option fish).  A fine choice; a fixed price menu with multiple small courses, and 50cc of wine (each) included.   We enjoyed the food, the sunshine, and the views.  And the relax.




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