“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.”
Henry Van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck
One of my biggest concerns about writing a blog for any great length of time – especially one which revolves around our daily life here – is the danger of recycling the same old stuff over and over. I believe writing should be fresh and original, not stuck in a ‘yes, folks, here’s our squash harvest for the umpteenth time’ sort of rut. So, as the peach blossom paints its gorgeous pink tracery against the bluest of skies in keeping with the season, I’ve had to ask myself if anyone really wants to hear about it once again?
I’ve been giving the ‘same old, same old’ conundrum a lot of thought this week while zipping about outside in full gardening mode (isn’t the garden just the best place to muse on all things philosophical?) and have come to the conclusion that some amount of annual repetition is surely inevitable when we lead an outdoor life that is very attuned to the seasons. The peach trees are flowering, the verges are jewelled with carpets of primroses, violets and wild strawberries, the garden is a-flutter with yellow butterflies and heavy with the heady scent of narcissi, the pied wagtails and redstarts are posturing on top of the barn and the midwife toads are beeping their staccato rhythm from the stone walls . . . because that’s what happens at this time of year.
In all honesty, there’s a certain reassurance in the familiar, isn’t there? Winter passes, spring comes. Seeds are planted, harvest follows. Look closely, though, and it’s clear that not everything dances to the same inevitable tune; nature never fails to play an interesting hand and often leaves us guessing as to its next move. This time last year, Storm Felix was viciously stripping the delicate peach blossoms from their branches before they had even opened; the result was one single, lonely (and very precious) fruit in the summer. This year, the trees are buzzing with the attention of industrious pollinators, the spent petals drifting dreamily on the soft, sunlit air like confetti. We aren’t counting our chickens but there is hope for a good peach harvest this year.
The harder I look, the more I realise just how much change there is around me; caught in the circles and spirals of time and engrossed in the familiar it’s all too easy to lose sight of things that are different. With the final recycled slates fixed in place, we now have a proper terrace for our outdoor furniture: what a novelty to have everything flat and level! Newly oiled (an annual treatment that has kept them perfectly serviceable for over twenty years now), the table and chairs have already been pressed into regular use, the beautiful weather allowing us to eat our meals outside once again and indulge in a barbecue or two.
I love the business of planting seeds, it is such a simple yet satisfying thing to do so it has been a happy, happy week in my little gardening world. I am endlessly fascinated by the immense potential stored in each tiny little powerhouse. How is it possible that the papery teardrops of parsnip, the chunky rubble of beetroot and finely ground pepper of carrots can lead to crops of such satisfying and sustaining vegetables? What an incredible thing it is that those tiny fragile seedlings taking their first tentative steps in the warmth of the propagator will morph into a summer jungle of aubergines, peppers and chillies. What will be this year’s successes and frustrations, I wonder? It’s not all about food, either; I’ve planted a somewhat rustic tripod of sweet peas at the top of the garden in the hope of enjoying their gentle colours and sweet scent from the terrace. Seed packets are a mine of information and instructions but never mention eternal optimism – surely the most essential tool of the gardener who plants them!
I’ve been planting freesia corms, too, popping them in amongst other plants in pots and borders. The first handful I planted a couple of years ago seemed thoroughly confused by the climate: forget ‘plant in March, flowers in June’ – this was a serious case of ‘plant in March, do nothing for months then finally flower the following January’ (by which time I’d forgotten all about them). Those originals are happily flowering again now and smell so delightful that the temptation to plant more was too overwhelming to ignore . . . and they can flower whenever they’re ready as far as I’m concerned. I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the dainty butterfly gladioli which – in a copycat crime – are threatening to flower any day now instead of last summer when expected but really, why worry? Predictability is a bit overrated, I’ve decided. What will happen, will happen: just go with the flow.
Whilst on the subject, let me talk about peas which have been, rather surprisingly, one of the least predictable vegetables we have grown here. True, we’ve enjoyed reasonable crops each year- even frozen a few bags – but only after much muttering and several re-plantings every time. No germination, sporadic germination, seedlings munched from above and below: you name it, our poor beleaguered pea rows have had it. This year looks to buck the trend (I’m whispering tentatively here) as the autumn-planted ‘Douce Provence’ are in abundant rude health and covered in flowers whilst a row of the same planted earlier this year are bombing up behind them. At last!
Even better, the neighbouring broad beans are also in full bloom and wafting their delicious scent all over the garden; here is the promise of good food in a few weeks’ time. I love the nearby sunny patch of self-set poached eggs plants which expands with every year, drawing in those essential pollinators with their cheery little faces.
More sunshine, too, from another shameless self-setter: the first Californian poppies of the year have unfurled their radiant petals. If previous years are anything to go by, they will flower for months and pop up literally everywhere around the garden.
Last year, we finally cracked the correct timings for planting winter brassicas; although I then seemed to spend weeks pulling off armies of snails and caterpillars as the weather veered from warm and wet to hot and dry, in the end it all paid off. We are still eating an abundance of chard and several varieties of kale but centre stage now definitely belongs to purple sprouting broccoli. I can happily eat mounds of this stuff and we are doing so quite literally every day, experimenting with some new ingredients we have recently acquired. Lightly steamed PSB dressed in pomegranate molasses? Oh, man!
This time last year, my first plantings of tulips were gathering strength in gorgeously vibrant hues of purple and magenta which brought colour and charm to the garden for many weeks. I opted for a wider palette in the autumn and this year it is ‘Don Quichotte’ who is first off the blocks, such a beautiful deep rose bloom with silky petals subtly patterned like feather icing.
Also new this year are wallflowers which, along with lupins and damson trees, remind me so much of my Granny’s Shropshire garden. She used to call them gillyflowers which I’ve always thought to be a far prettier name for them. I haven’t grown them for years but having seen a fantastic bed of them in a coastal garden here last year, I decided to raise a basic mix from seed in keeping with my ‘when in Rome’ approach to new plantings. They grew fast and strong and are scattered along the top of a stone wall, currently creating a bee frenzy with their rich velvety petals and clove-spiced fragrance; I counted no fewer than five different bee species on one plant. I’m hoping they will spread themselves about but I’ll raise a few more plants from seed again this year just to be sure. Nothing like a bit of floral belt and braces.
It’s not just in the garden where we have been enjoying new things. The inspired gift of a box of artisan flours has seen us pushing the bounds of sourdough bread making further than before; it’s like a culinary historical world tour, travelling from ancient golden khorasan wheat to darkest Scandinavian rye. I love the nutty malthouse loaves and rolls we’ve been baking this week, just perfect for a gardener’s lunch with a salad of freshly foraged leaves, herbs and flowers and a couple of kiwis straight from the vine.
Another new culinary delight we are trying this year is mushrooms – our own homegrown ones. This is something I’ve been keen to try for a while so I was very excited to finally get things organised this week and a rather damp, cool morning seemed somehow appropriate to set up an outdoor workshop and get stuck in. (As an aside, by lunchtime we were in shorts and t-shirts in brilliant sunshine . . . such is the Asturian climate!) We are growing three kinds of mushroom – shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane – using the inoculated log method. First, the chestnut logs cut from our wood a couple of weeks ago needed drilling with evenly spaced holes.
Next, a spawn dowel was tapped into each hole, about fifteen of the same variety per log.
We set up our camping stove to melt a tablet of cheese wax; on hindsight, we missed a trick – should have put a coffee pot on there, too! Using a special applicator, each hole was then sealed with wax to prevent wild fungi spore from colonising the log; any scars or cuts in the bark were given the same treatment.
Finally, I marked the top of each log with a dot of paint so that we can identify them. It’s apparently possible to shock the shiitake into fruiting by dunking the logs in cold water so it occurred to me it would be helpful to know which was which.
We stacked the logs against a cool, damp, north-facing wall under the kiwi. This is an area that receives no direct sunlight and in a few weeks’ time, the logs will be completely shaded by the kiwi leaves but still exposed to rainfall. If the logs look like drying out, they will need to be soaked in water so we have an empty water butt and endless supply of spring water at the ready. Otherwise, it’s a waiting game. It will be several months before anything happens – if indeed anything does happen – but it’s a fascinating activity and another reminder that the seasons can still bring new and exciting ideas to try.
In contrast, the biggest project of the week has brought with it a definite sense of Groundhog Day: re-covering the polytunnel. Now I have written about this nightmare before and if ever there was a purchase we shouldn’t have made, it was this one. Over the years in several gardens, we have always opted for a sturdy polytunnel with a heavy duty translucent polythene cover buried very deeply on all sides. Given the minimal flat area we have here and the difficulty of digging trenches in such a tight space, we persuaded ourselves to stray from the tried and trusted and to buy a tunnel with a flimsy white cover, barely long enough to bury. It has been bad news from the start. As Storm Felix was busy doing for the peach harvest, it also wreaked havoc with the tunnel, lifting the entire thing out of the ground at 6am one morning and blowing it over trees and fences down the valley a good 300 metres in a rather surreal Mary Poppins moment. We had to retrieve it in high winds and torrential rain (thankfully by some miracle it had landed on a track rather than in the middle of a field), rebuild it and lash it down with guy ropes. It sounds funny now but believe me, it really wasn’t at the time, especially as the staging and several trays of young seedlings all ended up trashed at the bottom of the orchard.
Since then, the polythene has gradually shredded and wriggled away from the frame so that the entire thing ended up being more holes and gaffer tape than anything else. To be fair (and believe me, that really sticks in my throat) it has held out over winter and given us a great crop of salad leaves and spring onions, with chard, beetroot and kohl rabi following on to help fill the hungry gap. However, something had to be done as we couldn’t face another year of this leaking-like-a-sieve nonsense; time for Operation Revamp. The first job was to strip off the old cover and dig out trenches as deep as possible all the way round.
Roger then built sturdy wooden frames at each end to give us something to stretch the new polythene round. The flimsy doors are welded on so we are stuck with them but he was able to fashion new wooden frames, polythene covers and stronger catches; already, it was starting to look much sturdier.
One thing we have learnt from previous polytunnel construction is that – along with a good sense of humour, a supply of strong coffee and three pairs of extendable arms each – a warm, still day is the very best asset when it comes to putting on the polythene. Wind, obviously, adds an element of chaos to the process and is to be avoided at all costs; the warmth of the sun, on the other hand, helps to soften the polythene and makes it easier to stretch tightly over the frame. In fact, the trick is to drape it over the frame (actually, grapple or wrestle might be better verbs here) then take a tea break while the polythene sunbathes for a while and hey presto, job done.
Okay, it’s never quite that easy, especially in a situation like ours where we were literally clinging to a precipice above the steep fall below the kiwi along that right-hand side. However, several hours of stretching and pleating and burying later, it was finished; not the most professional job, perhaps, but a hundred times better than before and certainly many times warmer. The first bumble bee was in after the yellow mizuna flowers before we’d even finished!
With the ground forked over and the staging back in, all that’s left to do now is grab seed trays and compost and start spreading some seedtime love. Ah, well – it’s not all peach blossom, then. 🙂