Off to France it’s bound to be hot. Hooray!’ was the cry as we all piled into the car. Reality proved different: throughout our sojourn in the Corrèze, the weather mirrored the wet summer in England. We didn’t witness any flooding, however, despite the tempests, rain and a wind that almost blew the furniture from one end of the terrace to the other.
The Corrèze region is famed for its walnuts, peaches, strawberries and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). The latter crop is a splendid sight indeed when in flower, each plant crowned by erect pinnacles of pink, trumpet-shaped flowers on 6ft-tall stems, all of which are removed before harvest. You never see them for sale in a florist, which is somewhat surprising considering the sturdiness of the stem; perhaps they don’t last well in a vase. In the latter half of August, hot and dry weather is needed to ensure that the plants fully dry out. They are hung up whole, upside down, and suspended from wires in poly-tunnels and barns.
I find it somewhat perplexing that the EU provides about one billion Euros annually to European farmers to grow tobacco in this anti-smoking era. I’ve always maintained that, if you aren’t sure what to grow in your garden, you should look to see what your neighbours are growing, and then pick and choose. Because the surrounding area is dotted with walnut orchards, I have planted a small avenue of them leading up to the house. Before I chose which ones to plant, I did my homework. As it happened, we found a hornet’s nest in the chimney and the man who came to deal with it (dressed like an astronaut with a huge silver helmet) helpfully also knew everything there was to know about walnuts.
It is the custom these days in France to plant grafted varieties such as Juglans regia Parisienne and Franquette because of their vigour and prolificacy. After seven or eight years, they are capable of yielding about 2½ tons of nuts per hectare. However, their lifespan is limited to 50 years at the most, after which they die (of exhaustion, I presume). I purposely avoided such varieties as I wanted to plant trees that will mature to old and gnarled specimens for future generations to enjoy.
Walnut trees are best planted while still small (maximum height 2ft, whether grafted or not), and any pruning that is required should only be done in late summer, to prevent excessive bleeding of the sap. They do need to be shaped initially to establish a clean trunk to a height of, say, 6ft.
As for the two other local crops, strawberries and peaches, I have planted fraise des bois, the wild or mountain strawberry, on the terrace where it is romping away between the cracks and joins of paving stones and the lower wall of the house. Next year, I look forward to dipping the dark red fruits into molten black chocolate and putting them in the fridge for the occasional bonne bouche.
Peaches I cannot entertain as I’m not geared to spray against peach-leaf curl with a suitable fungicide in winter. So, here we are in late September with a happy-looking garden on the whole, with emerald-green lawns after all that rain. Future dendrochronological research will, I have no doubt, be made all the easier by noting the extra-fat tree ring associated with 2007. However, all is not well on the fruit front. According to one of England’s foremost fruit gurus, Dr Joan Morgan, all sorts of fruits have rotted on the bough, and, in some cases, whole trees have died, especially in the areas worst hit by floods. All this extra water, in conjunction with an extra-long season that started with an unusually hot April, has res-ulted in fruit ripening about two weeks earlier than normal.
Grapes growing under glass were particularly badly hit. Vines are very greedy feeders and all the surplus water available to them has caused them to crack. As Dr Morgan says: ‘The skins are hard, the pressure within the berry rises and bang!’ If only a few grapes have split, they can be cut out with sharp-pointed scissors. If the damage is wide-spread, the crop should be sprayed or ‘puffed’ with a sulphur preparation, to ward off fungal attack.