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. ¡qué 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. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Happy places, awkward spaces

  1. Wow! What a wonderful garden and beautiful place to live . I loved what you wrote about thinking on your less ‘motivated ‘ days! I used to cross the A1 north on my way to work and imagine just driving on to the dual carriage way and heading to the highlands ! Or at least Stirling for a cup of tea with my late , lovely parents! I’m just heading up to the huerto to check that it has not been washed away! Have a fabulous week in your garden . Yvonne

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    1. Well, there was something so frustrating about only having garden time at the weekend – in fact, only seeing it in daylight at the weekends for a big chunk of the year. No such problems now, just the one of dragging myself in to bed sometimes! Hope all is well in your huerto, that rain is quite something for your part of the world . . . but hopefully doing a lot of good. Hasta luego!

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  2. Fingers crossed for the final tomato trial! Had a good laugh about your garage. That is estate agent speak for sure! Is your green manure up and away already? My seeds are still sitting on the table, but this week they will be deployed, just as soon as I’ve sown the squashes and beans. The globe artichokes seem to be particularly monstrous this year. Hope the green manure will be tough enough to make it in between…

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    1. Even worse about the garage – Tino (former owner and intrepid ‘builder’) pops round occasionally and asks why we don’t park the car in it. Where to start with that one in English, yet alone Spanish? 🙂 The green manure is romping away, it’s fantastic stuff: buckwheat is the new – and much improved – oxalis! Globe artichokes are certainly having a great season here, we had some in a tagine with peas and saffron last night, truly delicious. Happy sowing!

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