Happy places, awkward spaces



Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein

Rewarding though the massive house renovation project has been, it is a huge relief to have finished. Well, just the imminent porch makeover left to go and then we really are done. Switching our attention to outside activities, we are happily spending our days tackling several jobs we have been itching to start for a long, long time. This is my perfect life: permission to spend every day outside, drinking in the fresh air, the sounds and scents of spring, the vibrant colours of the landscape, turning my face to the sun . . . oh, and doing a bit of work, too.

One of the exciting parts of going away is to see how the garden and countryside have changed in our absence, like a big time-lapse leap, but I much prefer being able to watch those changes slowly unfurling day to day. When I was working full-time, on days where I felt – shall we say – ‘less than motivated’ I used to fantasise about what I would do if I could stay at home. Invariably, it would involve immersing myself in the garden and wrapping it around me as though the whole of nature lived some secret weekday life I wasn’t party to. What a special privilege it is now to be doing just that each and every day. I am fascinated by the mystery and minutiae of garden life, the plethora of constant tiny events; how incredible to watch closed buds unfurling, leaves and stems stretching in the sunlight, minuscule life forms scuttling and hopping and slithering across the surface of the soil. What a happy, joyful, busy place this is.

It’s such a precious gift to have the time to look – really look -with fresh eyes and an open mind. Even the seemingly mundane can become something quite spectacular and awe-inspiring when observed with full attention and awareness. I have delighted in so many simple but incredible things this week.

The soft silvery fuzz of tiny developing peaches.

The plump pointed buds of granny’s bonnets unfurling to reveal the captivating beauty hidden within.

The astonishingly complex and intricate geometry of a clematis flower.

The tiniest, sweetest, bijou of a narcissus unexpectedly emerging from a clump of chives.

The pistachio pompoms of viburnum opulus set against a cerulean sky, fresh and crisp as scoops of green apple sorbet.

Silvered raindrops caught in the glaucous petals of a cerinthe flower . . .

. . . and the vivid orange pollen baskets of a bumble bee caught in the bottom of another. Pure magic.

In between my moments of musing, I have been quite busy, too – honest! It’s that time of year when there is much to be done in the vegetable garden as the growing season really gets under way and jobs jostle for attention. I’ve planted French bush beans in the garden – a mix of ‘Tendergreen’ and ‘Violet Podded’ – along with five tripods of borlotti ‘Lingua de Fuoco’ and ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans and a second patch of mixed lettuces along with sprinklings of radish, coriander and dill. Leeks, celeriac and more lettuce have gone into trays along with the first sowing of kale. In the tunnel, the staging was moved out to make planting room for aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies and I’ve been pricking out and potting on cucumbers, courgettes and squash.

This is very much what I would term ‘normal’ garden routine but the beauty of us both being outside now is that we can focus on wider projects and in particular, finally sorting out some awkward or tatty spaces in desperate need of attention. One such area is the patch of garden above the ‘garage.’ I use the latter term very loosely: we’ve never been brave enough to park the car in it – well, would you?

I’m convinced it’s only that pile of manure, maturing nicely under the plastic sheet, that’s holding the whole thing up. It’s a structure we’d dearly love to get rid of but as that would mean having to deal with a huge pile of rubble including several sheets of asbestos, it’s on the back burner for now – we’ve had enough rubble events for the time being.

Anyway, back to that bit of garden. When we moved here, it was the usual overgrown jungly mess of mustard and cabbages, so I cleared it out, dug it over and used it initially as an overspill salad patch which worked really well for a couple of seasons.

Last year, however, what had been a very small fig tree seemed to quadruple in size and started to cast a significant shade over one end of the patch. We certainly don’t want to get rid of it as it is a different variety to the bigger tree opposite the house, having succulent pink-fleshed (rather than white) fruits at a slightly different time. Time for a change of use. I popped in a couple of autumn raspberries, which have gone completely berserk, and then over winter we added three blueberry bushes which didn’t seem happy in their original spot; quietly, a soft fruit patch was emerging. This week I’ve been having fun with some green manure seed so that – hopefully – as we move into summer, this whole area will be full and productive once again. When we moved our original comfrey plant we missed a slip of root, which is no big deal as comfrey is a fantastic companion plant for asparagus; last year, I cut the resultant plants to ground level four times to make comfrey tea which is such a nutrient-rich plant food and to stop them encroaching on the asparagus (there’s companion and there’s downright over-friendly). I’m planning to do the same again this year and also to try and keep the Welsh poppies – a self-set ‘mulch’ amongst the asparagus – to a reasonable number. Beyond those luscious spears, there should be a fine show of gorgeous bluey-mauve phacelia to bring in the pollinators and a carpet of white clover beneath the fruit bushes, not to mention (all fingers crossed) a harvest of blueberries and raspberries. It might not look too spectacular at the moment but give it time . . .

I love the way our garden develops like this, evolving from season to season, year to year. I know it’s important to have some sort of underlying structure but beyond that, there is something so energising and dynamic about changes and shifts and new things, a tantalising relish in the unexpected. Famous gardens, often at stately homes, are places of real beauty and fascination – inspiration, too – but I find something unnerving about all those knot gardens and parterres that are frozen in time. I don’t want a ‘perfect’ garden set in aspic; life, after all, just isn’t like that. Give me a slightly chaotic, haphazard, unpredictable state of flux where nature has permission to mix things up and try a few tricks of her own any day.

Take for instance the ‘flower garden’ I am slowly trying to develop down the sides of the lane. Now this is one of those classic works in progress if ever there was one; snails – dead ones, possibly – have moved faster. I’m getting there bit by bit- there is definitely far more colour this year – but the further you wander down the lane, the wilder and more tangled things become.

I had to ask myself, though, whether I can (or should) really improve on what nature is doing down there with a carpet of starry wild strawberry flowers and tiny glimpses of bright jewelled fruit beneath the lush foliage?

In all truth, taking cues from nature is something I’m pursuing in the garden this year now I have a little more time to think about it. Green manure, inspired by my reading of The One Straw Revolution, is top of my list and I’ve had a happy time broadcasting seed in all sorts of spots and spaces. Having weeded the former leek terrace, I’ve sown buckwheat as a short-term ground cover to be dug in before the ever-greedy overwintering brassicas go in and once the pole beans have germinated, I’ll sow yellow trefoil between them. A couple of months ago, we replaced the fence at the end of the main garden and gained an extra strip of land where I planted half a dozen young globe artichoke plants. The idea is they will grow to form a splendid food-bearing hedge but in the meantime, the space between them and the fence is a potential weed alley. Not any more. I’ve sprinkled it with phacelia seed, which I’m hoping will make a temporary flower border and all round bee magnet that can be cut after flowering and literally left as a decomposing mulch. Between the ‘chokes I’ve scattered white clover seed to form a permanent weed-suppressing, nitrogen-fixing carpet. Will it work? Watch this space . . . or, with any luck, no space because it will all have been covered.

As a bit of an aside, our original artichoke has taken on rainforest proportions – it’s taller than me, and I’m not short! – and is starting to dominate rather more useful growing space than is polite. Once it’s done it’s stuff and died back later this year, we’ll split it and relocate it in several roomier, wilder places (like the orchard), where it can romp away to its heart’s content.

One area that’s had some much-needed attention this week is the top vegetable patch, the lower part of which spent much of last year gradually sliding away down the bank, helped along by some frustratingly industrious moles. Things had got so bad – and so steep – that it was impossible to walk, yet alone, plant along the bottom edge.

Roger had previously created a couple of terraces above by building drystone walls but this time opted for a simpler, faster solution: eucalyptus poles from the wood. They took a bit of fetching (fresh eucalyptus is full of sap and horrendously heavy) but are just perfect for the job. Once that broccoli has finished, I can clear and prep the whole area for leeks without living in constant fear of tumbling backwards down the mountainside. I don’t mind a bit of extreme gardening but there are limits even to my sense of humour (and balance) . . .

In a rather more abstract sense, there is one tricky spot we’ve certainly improved this year and that’s the ‘hungry gap’, that classic foodless hole at this time of year when the garden is between seasons. The polytunnel has certainly helped us along the way, still housing good crops of chard, kohlrabi, beetroot, wild rocket, spring onions and radish. We are still tucking in to stored squash which is an incredible thing, really, considering that’s seven months now and they still make excellent eating. Outside, several varieties of overwintered kale and the purple sprouting broccoli go on and on and have formed a cheerful overlap with the early peas, asparagus and globe artichokes. There are fresh herbs and edible flowers in abundance. The garden might not look very full but hungry we are not!

The biggest makeover project of the moment is definitely the space between the horreo and field. Roger made a good start some time ago by rebuilding an ugly brick wall with stone and adding a smart gate. It’s great to see that our new little neighbours are very impressed, they just love to peep through and see what we’re up to!

When we moved here, this area had been formerly used as a chicken run. It was built from so many layers of wire mesh, netting, barbed wire, metal poles, wooden poles, the world supply of long nails and who knows what else – all topped off with a roof featuring two old car bonnets – that it took the tractor to pull the whole construction down.

In the interim, the area has been used as a rubble dump, one of those necessary evils of ongoing renovation and building work but with the large rubble shifted and the smaller stuff flattened, we’ve been scratching our heads a bit as to what to do with the space. I had made a tiny start last year, moving the compost heap out of its strange brick and concrete bunker (former function unknown) and creating a planting area for a grapevine to train up the horreo wall.

The rest of that wall – now we can get to it – gives us a final chance to try growing tomatoes as we can mimic exactly what our neighbours do: grow them fast against one wall in a fairly enclosed space, facing west and sheltered from the fine misty rain that spreads the dreaded blight. Roger has constructed a shelter from chestnut poles and spare polythene left over from recovering the polytunnel and we’re using a growbag system of sterile compost rather than planting in pots or containers.

I’ve planted six varieties – ‘Roma’, ‘Tamina’, ‘Marmande’, ‘Rosella’, ‘Red Cherry’ and ‘Voyage’ – and only time will tell whether this approach will be successful. The young plants look enthusiastic and healthy enough now but then they always do; they have two chances and if we lose all again this year that really will be IT!

So, what to do with the rest of that awkward space? Our initial thoughts turned to spreading gravel to create some kind of courtyard though for what, we weren’t altogether sure. Then, sitting out one evening watching the swallows swoop through the garden and the general busyness of birds and insects alike, inspiration dawned: let nature take the lead here. Forget gravel, could we somehow use soil instead and make a planting area? After all, we have a whole mountainside of earth and moving it would be no harder than shifting tonnes of gravel (been there, done that far too many times). We could use stones picked from the garden to make a path to the tomatoes, then plant the rest completely. A hefty honey-coloured stone left over from wall building would make a perfect mount for Roger’s bronze sundial, a beautiful gift from his parents for his 50th birthday. For the last six years it has sat on top of an upturned terracotta pot; about time it had a proper home, don’t you think?

Beneath the field wall is a drinking trough, half buried in the ground. It’s not huge and doesn’t look very promising but I’m planning to turn it into a small wildlife pond. There is no question of anything bigger here with the land being so steep (and we don’t want to give the mosquitoes any excuse to breed, either) but we have a healthy amphibian population to encourage and it’s amazing just how much life even a tiny body of water can support. It will need a bit of tweaking with rocks or slopes to give access and some plant material for cover but I’m hoping it will be a success, especially with the logpile we’re planning to site next to it to act as an animal corridor amongst other things.

It will take a while to be ready for planting; for starters, we need the cows gone from the field so we can shift the soil without their help! This at least has given us time to ponder and do a bit of research into plant possibilities. I was really thrilled to find the perfect solution in a Spanish mix of shade-loving plants; I’m not usually a fan of seed mixes like this, having had dubious results in the past, but I’m crossing my fingers this will do the business.

There’s a lovely tale attached to this box of potential gorgeousness. I ordered my large parcel of seeds (well, it would have been rude to stop at one box . . .) from the eco website, Planeta Huerto, and was told it was due to arrive here on Tuesday or Wednesday. On Tuesday evening we received a message from Christa, who lives a mile or so away, to say the Correos Express delivery man had been very busy that day so had left her parcel at the farmers’ co-op in the next village down the valley and when she had gone to collect it, mine was there, too. She had taken it home and put it in a lidded plastic box at the end of her drive for one of us to collect when we next ran past. The light was starting to fade but it was such a beautiful evening, laden with birdsong and the heady scent of pollen and all things spring, that I decided a two-mile stroll before bedtime would be just the best thing.

Now I know plenty of people who would have been hugely annoyed with this situation, their parcel not delivered to the door but abandoned elsewhere. However, for me this is the very essence of Asturias and especially this precious little corner we live in. If Christa hadn’t collected our parcel, then someone else in the village would have done or, at the very least, let us know where it was, and it would have been perfectly safe left at the co-op until we went to fetch it. There is such a relaxed, pragmatic, friendly and honest attitude amongst our neighbours here, and such incredible generosity, too. I have returned from my little recycling jaunts with a gift from a kind neighbour- a dozen eggs, a pot of plants and the like – so often that I swear Roger now lives in fear of me appearing with something furred or feathered tucked under my arm, especially as there happens to be the most beautiful litter of border collie pups in the village right now! On Easter Sunday, Jairo popped in on his way up the mountain to check his livestock, bringing us the gift of afilada, a delicious Asturian type of brioche traditionally eaten during Semana Santa. ยกquรฉ maravillosa!

When I opened my wandering parcel, I found a couple of little unexpected gifts had been included: a lollipop and, far more my scene, a thank you card impregnated with seeds. No indication as to what they are so there’s only one way to find out. What a lovely touch. It made me smile. What a wonderful country we live in. ๐Ÿ™‚

Climate change

The sun is shining. The air is soft and warm, sweetly scented with jasmine and the first roses, heavily laden with the industry of bees. Swallows are printing rapid arrowheads against the sky and the cuckoo is chiming his two clear notes across the valley. The world is buzzing with colour and life and new growth. I am happy.

It is almost three years now since we moved to Asturias and, as passionate gardeners, adjusting to a new climate has been one of our most important journeys of discovery; after all, a large proportion of our food depends on it! The climate here suits us both so well: it’s much milder than the UK but without the searing summer heat or penetrating winter cold of other parts of Spain; winter frosts roll up the valley, often after dawn, but rarely reach the garden; there is enough regular rainfall to keep everything green and lush, but prolonged periods of wet weather or heavy grey skies are a rarity; winter storms can wreak havoc but they are few and far between and – despite living on the side of a mountain near the coast – windy days are unusual.

In short, it’s about as perfect as it can be, especially from a gardening perspective. Naturally, it’s not all rosy- tomatoes collapse with blight, Brussels sprouts are a non-starter, potatoes are still banned – but we can still grow much that is familiar as well as many plants that wouldn’t have stood a chance in our Shropshire and Welsh gardens.

For our first couple of years here, the house renovation and creation of a productive vegetable garden were key priorities which saw flowers very much taking a back seat. It was so wonderful last year to finally start raising new plants from seed, splitting established plants to spread around and popping in little treasures I had been given. Now spring is flaunting herself around the garden in higgeldy-piggeldy rainbow riots. Lovely!

Clematis is a plant we hardly ever see in other gardens here which is strange as they grow so well; in fact; I planted several new tiny ones last year on the strength of the two we had already established. Montana ‘Elizabeth’ is a pale beauty, currently draping herself nonchalantly along the fence and sporting more blooms than seems physically possible.

I have never, ever grown tulips like the ones we have this year; they have been flowering for weeks and their vibrant, zingy colours make me want to skip with joy every time I see them. It doesn’t matter that the large-cupped pink ‘Don Quichotte’ and white ‘Wilhof’ have shed their petals as ‘Purple Flag’, ‘Holland Beauty’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ (I think!) have waltzed on to centre stage like stately duchesses, decorously draped in gowns of silk, satin and taffeta against a silvery backdrop of sage. So elegant. So sophisticated.

Here come the first of the late-flowering doubles, too; no sophistication here – my goodness, what flirts they are! ‘Creme Upstar’ is a gorgeously ruffled confection in peaches and cream, all flouncy and blousy and frivolous beneath those graceful ladies.

Meanwhile, ‘Blue Spectacle’ is shamelessly kicking up her frilly can-can skirts (admittedly very much purple) to the rapturous applause of a Californian poppy audience. How I’m going to miss these beauties when they’ve gone . . . but more are definitely planned for next spring.

Common sense says that if something is growing happily in local gardens then it is obviously disposed to thrive in the climate here and is a good choice for planting. Honesty is one of those flowers I noticed in abundance last year so raised a few plants from seed. Like wallflowers, it’s something I haven’t grown for years and I’d forgotten what an unassumingly pretty thing it is.

I love the way it has stitched itself into colourful little tapestries with other flowers. Here, in a sunny patch of calendula and ‘Mission Bells’ Californian poppies, softened with the mauve haze of verbena bonariensis.

On the opposite side of the lane, it’s mingling rather beautifully with a pink butterfly gladiolus. Lovely flower . . . and of course, those papery, silver seed pods are an anticipated delight.

Pansies are also modest little troopers; I didn’t have a huge success with raising them from seed (that was the story of last year, of which more later) but the few plants I scattered around have flowered non-stop and are making bold splashes of colour with those bright open faces.

Ah, enough of my indulgent little flowerfest for now . . . but before I move on to the important subject of food production, one final thought: never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the aforementioned verbena would gain official weed status in the garden! What a difference climate makes.

So to the business end of things and it’s been a complete pleasure to be busy in the patch this week, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the burgeoning growth and raucous birdsong. Not only are we adjusting to a new climate here but to changes within that climate, like wheels within wheels. Last spring and early summer were disappointing at best, at times completely dire. Once storms Felix, Gisela and Hugo had finished with us an uncharacteristic gloom set in that seemed to last for months, as though – rather unfairly, I must say – Asturias had been singled out for its own private cloud. Nothing was easy; everything struggled; many things simply chose not to bother. How different it has been this year! We had a couple of weeks of winter in January but since then the weather has been blissfully benevolent, like a kind and loving friend wrapping us in a cosy blanket, brewing a warming cup of tea and running a hot, bubbly bath. Hell, this weather is so generous it would probably do the ironing and fill out our tax returns if we asked nicely.

Isn’t it just truly amazing how everything responds to such benign warmth and luxurious light levels? Last year, I sowed fresh parsnip seed four times before a tiny pinch deigned to germinate; this year, a single planting has produced enough parsnips to feed the entire village, and it’s the same story with carrots and beetroot. The peas, which have been a struggle every year but particularly last season, are so loaded in pods it’s frankly ridiculous. Where tender plants are concerned, I almost wept with frustration last year at having to resow many times; the cucumbers were fairly robust but it’s a miracle we ended up with anything else. The aubergines, which played that classic ‘we’re very fragile and want to die’ act until August (yes, August) are currently greeting me at the polytunnel door like a gaggle of giggling cheerleaders, pompoms aloft in glee. They will have to go into the ground very soon, a fact that prompted me to clear the spent winter salad leaves out of the tunnel this week in readiness. Shifting a pile of manure kept to one side especially for feeding that hungry patch, I found two squash plants that have pushed up (I assume) from the layer of homemade compost beneath the muck. They are, I hope, a happy symbol of things to come: this year, there will be no stopping the growth.

There are other signs, too, so much promise of better things to look forward to. Our walnut harvest last year was a relatively poor one; now, as the trees unfurl their graceful bronze fingers, they are revealing a mass of fat green catkins; a bumper crop of nuts in the making, I’d like to think.

Of the Jerusalem artichokes we planted last year, not a single one survived. Oh come on, how could we possibly not succeed with those renowned thugs? Have no fear: new tubers have been planted and there’s a definite flourish of exuberant activity which suggests a more successful crop this year.

Our neighbours were keen to check we hadn’t missed the official onion planting date this week; I’m not sure how it works, but on certain days in spring suddenly the whole village is out planting something or other and this week it was las cebollas. Thankfully, we were able to show we hadn’t let the side down (actually, we planted them some weeks ago but please don’t tell); we have several rows of onions grown from sets that have trebled in size this week and the smaller specimens raised from seed seem committed to closing the gap as rapidly as possible.

I read this week the somewhat controversial assertion by Matthew Appleby that we should metaphorically “hug a slug” in order to become “super organic gardeners.” Furthermore, it would be better to let fruit and vegetable plants die or even choose not to garden at all than to have to kill anything (which for me begs the question of what exactly we are going to eat). Well, each to their own, I say; everyone is entitled to their opinion but personally I have no intention of putting slug hugging or snail snuggling activities into practice any time soon. I am a huge fan and champion of wildlife and not a single fibre of my being is predisposed to inflicting hurt or death on other living creatures. In fact, I can honestly say I am happy to share what we grow in the garden with other things as long as there is plenty to go round. That said, I am not prepared to sit back and see several months’ worth of food destroyed without doing something about it. Our garden is a totally organic, slightly chaotic, hugely productive, wildlife-friendly patch . . . but fast-food outlet for gastropods it is not. It’s a question of balance and the point is that it’s perfectly possible to grow good crops of wholesome foods without the need to commit garden pest genocide – and we are the living proof of that.

When we moved here, there were snails everywhere. Zillions and zillions of them, like some weird sci-fi horror film. I had never seen anything like it. We assumed it had something to do with the warm, damp climate but also decided there were two further overwhelming reasons. First, the building technique employed by former residents who had constructed walls using bricks laid on their sides which meant the holes ran horizontally rather than vertically. Every hole created a perfect snail home so whole walls were like some towering highrise hotel . . . and believe me, they were full to capacity.

The vegetable garden was surrounded by just such a wall so removing it was one of our first jobs; not only did it drastically reduce snail habitat but it opened up the fantastic view and allowed us to create the sitting area which is now our most-used and favourite ‘room.’ Win-win.

Second, beyond that wall the vegetable patch was a mess comprising a huge pile of manure covered in bracken and a riotous jungle of mustard and cabbages – in short, snail and slug heaven. (I’d forgotten about all those plastic bottles, too, but that’s another story.)

Clearing the vegetation and spreading the muck had an instant impact on snail and slug numbers; building a drystone wall to form a terrace created the perfect habitat for lizards and toads who have a tremendous appetite for the slimy ones. Bit by bit, the balance was being tipped towards a more stable and sustainable food chain.

Manual extraction of pests is another method we use; yes, it’s hard and not overly pleasant work picking buckets of slugs, snails and caterpillars off plants and ‘relocating’ them but it’s worth the effort if it means a crop is saved and it certainly beats throwing toxic chemicals or slug pellets around (both of which I abhor). Drastically increasing the numbers of flowering plants has not only helped to attract a far wider range of insects including essential pollinators, but also the likes of hoverflies, ladybirds and parasitic wasps whose larvae are voracious predators. The recent Guardian report of global insect collapse and possible extinction within 100 years – 100 years!!!!!!!! – is the single most chilling thing I have read in a long time. Instead of choosing not to garden, I passionately believe now is the time we desperately need to be doing all the gardening we can.

So, what is our situation now? Do we still have problems with slugs, snails and other destructive beasties? Yes, of course we do. No matter what the climate throws at us this year – cruel or kind – there will be battles ahead, I have no doubt. Do we have enough vegetables to eat? Yes, we certainly have. A couple of weeks ago, I planted out 26 mixed summer and autumn calabrese plants, of which five were chomped. Having some spare plants, I replaced them and so far all 26 are still there and thriving without a single slug pellet, cabbage collar or pigeon net in sight. Let’s put that into perspective for a moment. There are only two of us and even if all our promised visitors this year (what a busy and exciting time we’ve got to come!) were to arrive en masse, there would still be at least 20 plants of calabrese too many. If we lose three-quarters of the plants, we will still have more calabrese than we could ever really need. ‘Plant plenty’ is a great motto for garden survival.

Variety, too, is a brilliant strategy. Forget monoculture, small amounts of lots of different things are a much better idea; not only does it give us a far more interesting diet but it helps to spread the risk of pest attacks through the year. It’s amazing just what you can do with modest pickings. Favourite veggie dish of the week here was shredded kale quickly braised in olive oil and a splash of wine, topped with lightly steamed purple-sprouting broccoli and asparagus and a handful of raw baby peas . . . and I’m proud to report that not a single slug died in the making of that dish. Still don’t want to hug them, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

Breathe


The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.

Barry Commoner

I have loved language for as long as I can remember. It’s a very simple thing, really: words fascinate me. Take the origins of ‘inspiration’ for example, a word that came into Middle English via Old French from the Latin inspirare, meaning literally ‘to breathe or blow into’ and figuratively ‘to excite or inflame’; in English, the original meaning suggested a divine being imparting a truth or idea to someone (the word ‘spirit’ comes from the same root). I love the idea of taking a deliciously deep breath of sweet fresh air and filling my very core with the excitement and challenge of a new idea to try . . . and isn’t it fascinating how inspiration can sometimes come from the most unforeseen sources or at the least expected times?

My inspiration in recent weeks has come from a book first written in 1978, The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. I’d actually read much of it in bits previously but after a long-needed nudge (thanks, Sonja!) I finally sat down and read the whole work . . . and as I did so, I felt that wonderful tingling breeze of inspiration in the air. I’m not planning to rush off and grow rice on a Japanese mountainside, but there is certainly plenty of Mr Fukuoka’s wisdom and experience that could be applied to life here on our Asturian mountain.

The first point that resounded with me was the idea of using everything we have here as much as possible; we aren’t – and won’t be – self-sufficient, but we do go a reasonable distance in that respect, and it’s important that we make full use of what we have. For example, it’s so easy at this time of year to look at the garden and think we’re short of things to eat as we’re edging towards that awkward ‘between seasons’ hungry gap and yet, looking again, we still have plenty. The salad leaves in the polytunnel seem for all the world to have gone over but setting out with open eyes to pick something to accompany a barbecue last week, I wasn’t disappointed.

There might not be huge quantities of anything but a combination of young chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, wild rocket and mizuna with spearmint, lemon balm, flat-leaved parsley, marjoram and chives, the first tender kohlrabi for some sweet crunch and a splash of colour from nasturtium, pansy, borage, rocket,violet and coriander flowers was a fresh and delicious bowlful of nutritious beauty. It didn’t need anything else, no extra bought ingredients just for the sake of it. So simple. Just perfect. (Still lovely the next day, too, the leftovers refreshed for lunch with our first spears of lightly steamed asparagus.)

I’m inspired to look further afield, too, and see what possibilities foraging for wild food might offer. If the salad leaves had been thinner on the ground, then young dandelion leaves and chickweed would have added a whack of spring goodness. It’s so easy to dismiss things as weeds when in fact they have great value; it’s time to wander through the meadow and woods and see what overlooked treasures we could be putting to good use in the coming months.

In our holistic approach to simple living, making good use of our resources extends beyond the food we grow. The days when we will be lighting The Beast, even just briefly in the cool of morning or evening, are now numbered so making the most of that free heat is essential, especially when it comes to preserving foods we have harvested. I caught a snapshot of our kitchen worktop which says it all: the jar of sourdough starter out of the fridge, fed and working on a a bubbly sponge for breadmaking later; jars of peach marmalade made from a bonus bag of fruit we found lurking in the depths of the freezer; a tray of roast squash cooling before freezing for soup (two more in the oven) and the rest of the squash ready for processing; a tray of seedy crispbreads fresh from the oven for lunch. It might be a simple life but it’s also a busy one!

Sam and Adrienne, who love all things Scandinavian, introduced us to Trine Hahnemann’s multigrain spelt crispbread recipe. It’s taken me a while to get round to making them as I couldn’t find rye flakes anywhere but a substitution of a Spanish organic five cereal mix seemed like it might work. Oh my goodness, these crispbreads are the cat’s pyjamas! They are so easy to make, in fact I loved the therapeutically tactile business of pressing the warm dough flat with my hands so much that I was quite sorry when it was done. They just ooze good health somehow, are completely delicious and I have serious plans for them this year. In the garden, the rows of carrots and beetroot have germinated, the broad beans are dripping with flowers and the first peas are literally days away from eating . . .

. . . bring on the veggie hummus. This is such a brilliant way of not only enjoying fresh garden produce but using up bits and pieces of leftovers, too. To get us started, a sultry, spicy, caramelised roast squash hummus zinging with the heat of homegrown chillies. Fantastic.

Mr Fukuoka’s words also had me reflecting on herbs. When we moved here, we gave most of our books away, just keeping one small bookcase of treasured tomes; two of those are herbals and it was with great glee and enjoyment I dug them out and pored over them again from cover to cover. We grow a good selection of herbs and I’m planning to add several new varieties this year but I’m the first to admit they are an underused resource. On the strength of using calendula successfully in my recent batch of soap, I set out to harvest more flowers while they are in their prime.

Some of these I set aside to dry, the others were packed tightly into a jar and covered in sweet almond oil. I’ve put them in the polytunnel amongst my tender seedlings; there they can bask in the warmth, creating an infused oil which I can use for making toiletries (and new lip balm recipe is next on the list).

Herbal tea is something else I know I should be pursuing; after all, relying heavily on commercial tea produced on the other side of the world is hardly good for my green credentials when I have a garden full of drinkables. Mmm, there is a slight problem here, though: I love tea. Not the slightly flirtatious green tea or the almost-there oolong but the full monty, rich and malty, tannin-laden black stuff, brewed properly in a teapot and drunk a large mugful at a time (milk in first, no sugar). I cannot begin to describe how hard reducing my tea consumption is, especially as I have tried – really tried- to like herbal teas in the past and have failed miserably every time. Leafy, flowery, fruity . . . you name it, I’ve drunk it and hated every mouthful. However, I need to get a grip, especially as bought tea is not really the best of things: highly processed, over-packaged, racking up the food miles and – horror of horrors – some teabags contain plastic which leaches out of the compost into waterways and becomes part of the terrible microplastic problem in the oceans. So, deep breath: time to try the herbal stuff again. I decided to start with one of my favourites, lemon balm. I brought one small root with us when we moved here and in typical romping away and self-setting style, we now seem to have half a dozen good clumps spread about the patch, including the one below that popped up from nowhere beneath a clump of calla lilies.

Herbal teas require a lot more fresh leaf than dried so I picked a good handful, washed it thoroughly and set it to brew. The smell emanating from the pot could only be described as lemony spinach. Yuk.

It didn’t smell any better when poured into a mug (china, please note – I was trying very hard!) and there is just something about tea which is that insipid colour that really doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, the proof of the pudding and all that . . . What can I say? Well, it tasted – um – okay. In fact, I’d go as far as admitting it was quite pleasant and very refreshing. There are many stories about this melissa tea being a source of longevity and that may be true; even if I live to be a hundred, I’m not sure I’ll ever really love herbal brews but I’m committed to keep on trying. Honest.

Eucalyptus is another resource of which we have plenty. It’s a controversial thing, introduced from Australia and grown in huge swathes of forest as a fast-growing crop. Like any monoculture, it has a dubious impact on the environment and offers very little to indigenous wildlife. About two-thirds of our 4-acre woodland has been planted with eucalyptus, no doubt with a future harvest in mind, but the saving grace for us is that there is also a good amount of mixed tree varieties in there, too – mainly chestnut, oak, birch and holly – and a healthy understorey of gorse, Spanish heath and the like. It can’t be denied, though, that the eucalyptus is useful and we keep finding more ways in which we can make the most of it. Having almost burnt all the old roof timbers now, it will be eucalyptus that forms the basis of our log pile next winter.

Roger has hauled several long poles out of the wood this week which we will use to shore up the vegetable patch below the terraces in the top garden – call it an anti-mole device in this respect! Having made eucalyptus oil from the leaves a few weeks ago, I’ve now discovered that made into a hot infusion, they create a powerful and effective household disinfectant, another useful weapon in my green clean armoury. I’ve also gathered fallen strips of bark, soaked them in water to make them pliable and used them to line hanging baskets.

The flowers sit so high in the trees that we don’t often have chance to see them close up. They look fluffy from afar but in reality, they are exquisite pompoms of filigree strands and smell of honey: little wonder the bees go so crazy for them. A single stem provided an aromatic and simply sophisticated centrepiece for the kitchen table and once the flowers had gone over, I simmered the leaves for cleaning purposes. Nothing wasted . . . and I’m sure there are plenty more uses yet to be discovered.

The second strand of Mr Fukuoka’s philosophy which appeals to me greatly is his ‘do-nothing’ approach to cultivation. Now that doesn’t mean lounging about expecting a garden (or farm) of plenty to miraculously present itself; growing food requires an element of work and that’s fine by me (actually, I’ve never regarded anything in the garden as work, it’s far too enjoyable). The idea, though, is that instead of forever creating more chores in an endless cycle of ‘What else could I / should I be doing? ‘ there is a shift to a ‘What happens if I don’t do something?’ mentality. In short, back off, stop trying to control everything and give nature free rein to get on with it. Music to my lackadaisical little gardening ears indeed. I have to confess I am some way along this path already, as the lemon balm tale above illustrates. I’m happy to let things spread and seed around the garden if that’s what they want to do; it’s no hardship to whip out anything that springs up in an awkward place but otherwise I believe self-set plants are happy plants and who cares if Californian poppies peep out from amongst the leeks or parsley settles itself beneath the roses? Last year I raised a handful of cerinthe plants from seed; this year they are everywhere, in every crack and cranny, jostling for elbow room in pots and troughs and colonising walls like there’s no tomorrow. I love them. So do the bumble bees. They can stay.

I’ve never seen the point of pulling plants out before it’s strictly necessary, either. For a start, it’s more possible than we think sometimes to gather our own seeds; of course, some things won’t come true but that’s half the fun. I also happen to admire vegetable flowers and like to leave them until the last possible moment. Could anything be more exquisite than the few remaining salsify plants now flowering?

The Tuscan kale which has fed us so well since last autumn is in full bloom; I’m hoping to gather seed but in the meantime those buttery flowers are a pollinator paradise mingling against a backdrop of clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ in a pretty colour combination I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.

Every gardener knows that when you clear a patch of ground, you’ve hardly turned your back before nature starts filling it again, as though bare earth is something that simply can’t be tolerated. Well, thinking about it, it’s not very natural, is it? A well-cultivated plot, all tidy rows with hoed bits between, might be a feast for the eyes but it’s purely an aesthetic thing: nature would not create the same left to its own devices. The ‘do-nothing’ approach advocates keeping as much ground covered as possible for as long as possible, using simple mulches, green manure and even – yes, it’s true – weeds. True, I struggle a bit with the latter idea but green manures are something I am definitely going to try. I have no problem with keeping bare earth covered, which is why I’m happy to let nasturtiums trail about the vegetable plots like jewelled carpets or turn a blind eye to the poached egg plants currently making a takeover bid on one of the terraces.

My plan is simple: to try six different green manures in various parts of the garden this year and see how we get on. Globe artichokes grow like crazy here; we are close to eating our first picking of the year and on the strength of their enthusiasm, I planted a hedge of them at the end of the garden last autumn.

My plan is to underplant them with white clover as a permanent thing; Roger is a tad nervous about the sense of this which I do understand, given how enthusiastic clover is, too, but I’m willing to take responsibility should we end up with clover chaos.

The other patch earmarked for the clover treatment is in the top garden, beneath and between fruit bushes; here we have planted three blueberry bushes and also two autumn raspberries which have currently pushed up over 40 new shoots. Yikes! Maybe the clover will meet its match up there. Note the self-set nasturtiums gathering strength in the foreground, too; something tells me bare earth will be a thing of the past in this area very soon.

I’m also planning to try sowings of buckwheat and trefoil between rows of vegetables and under the bean tripods – to be cut and left as a mulch before they seed – and a winter mix of Westerwold ryegrass and vetches to be dug in next spring. A patch of phacelia, too, but in all honesty I just know that will be left to flower for the bees! It’s interesting and exciting to be trying something new and different, to be putting a slightly different slant on how we do things . . . and why not? After all, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain and if it helps the soil, the wildlife and our harvest, that’s fantastic news. Breathe in. Be inspired. Over to you, nature! ๐Ÿ™‚