Keeping it simple

Find a little bit of land somewhere and plant a carrot seed. Now sit down and watch it grow. When it is fully grown pull it up and eat it.

Alicia Bay Laurel

So much of what Roger and I do together is aimed at simplifying our life, at paring back all that is unnecessary in order to enjoy fully what is important. We don’t care about status or kudos, about standing or stuff, about gadgets or gizmos. We don’t crave the new and novel or rush after fashion and fad. The philosophy embraced in the quotation above is as elaborate as it gets and what better way to reflect on this aim than spending time with our small grandchildren on their recent stay here? Seeing life through children’s eyes helps to put so much into perspective and as adults, the chance to look again at the world with an unfettered sense of awe and open curiosity is a precious thing indeed.

The shared curiosity of young things.

What fun we had feeling the smoothness of a shiny pebble and the knobbles on a fir cone, smelling the sweet perfume of roses and herbal aroma of eucalyptus seeds, of watching the busyness of lizards darting about the terrace and the stealth of a pole cat coursing the hedgerow. We picked wild strawberries and sweet green peas and ate them straight from the plant, sun-warmed and delicious. Why did life ever become more complicated than this?

Simplicity is something I’m working on in the garden, not because I’m lazy (I’m not) or because I think gardening is a chore (quite the opposite!) but because I question the wisdom of spending time on activities which are fundamentally unnecessary. Gardening shouldn’t be something I ‘do’ but rather something I ‘am’; immersed in nature, bathed in fresh air, a part of the intricate whole rather than a separate controlling factor. Why waste time trying to enforce ridiculous strictures on the natural world when I could just be enjoying the beauty instead, a human being instead of a human doing? With this in mind, I’m playing with several ideas this year.

In case you’re wondering, the empty wine bottle on a stick is the local approach to deterring moles. It would be rude not to try it. First, empty your bottle . . . 🙂

The first approach I’m using is to plant things very closely together in order to suppress weed growth. I am by nature a bit of a crammer in the garden anyway so this hasn’t been too difficult to put into practice and as the wrap-around warmth and recent rainfall work their magic on all things leafy, the bare earth is rapidly disappearing under a lush carpet of green. Take for instance this spot where violet-podded dwarf beans jostle for elbow room with a range of summer and autumn calabrese plants on one side and three hefty ‘Latino’ courgettes on the other, the whole lot undersown (mostly by nature’s fair hand) with coriander, dill and nasturtiums.

Beyond there are carrots, broad beans, three rows of peas, lettuce, beetroot, sunflowers and globe artichokes all squeezed together so snugly there is barely room for daylight between.

Now I know gardeners who would hate this chaotic hotchpotch of push and shove but I love it to bits. For a start, the jungly crush helps to retain moisture which is a huge boon during hot spells, especially for plants like brassicas who aren’t the world’s greatest sun worshippers. These damp leafy corridors are perfect for our ever-growing population of very precious amphibians to move through in privacy, slurping up slugs and the like as they go. There is a hive of bird activity in there, too, especially in the evenings, as the whole patch turns into a sort of avian fast-food outlet; one rather beautiful song thrush has even organised a handy snail-bashing spot on the nearby terrace to make full use of the facilities!

Yes, I know there are many arguments against this gardening version of Sardines, not least the fact that it makes harvesting difficult, but honestly, is that such an issue? We’re adults, after all; we can manage to tiptoe between patches and rows without damaging anything and if we get a bit damp from rain-soaked vegetation, well – we’ll dry. If I wanted to select fresh produce mindlessly from wide straight aisles I’d give up gardening and go to a supermarket instead . . . and where would be the fun in that?

Actually, on the subject of harvesting let me digress a little into the World of Peas. I am currently reading John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency for the umpteenth time; it’s a book I love to devour from cover to cover – as I’m doing this week – or dip in and out of as the mood takes me. I have to agree completely with his assertion that freezing vegetables doesn’t improve them; for that reason, very little of what comes out of the garden ends up entombed in ice. In many ways, there’s simply no need now that we have achieved an unbroken supply of fresh produce from the garden and polytunnel all year round plus excellent dry storage facilities in the horreo (we’ve literally just eaten the last squash which has been stored there since October). I would far rather eat freshly-picked bits and bobs with minimum time and fuss between garden and plate than something that has taken time and energy to store, gaining nothing in terms of texture, flavour or nutritional value during the process.

The one big exception to this rule, however, is peas. Peas freeze like a dream and much as I adore seasonal produce, there is something so comforting about a blast of their sweet summery goodness in a hearty winter gravy! Mr Seymour believes freezing peas is a bore but I must disagree with him on that score. What job could be more pleasant than rummaging about a sun-drenched pea row, gathering pods of gorgeousness? Actually, is that even a job? We have experienced immense frustration and disappointment trying to grow peas here but at last, in our fourth season, everything has conspired to give us the greatest crop ever.

We have been picking the autumn-planted ‘Douce Provence’ for several weeks now; they really ought to be dying back (and part of me wishes they would – I need that nitrogen-rich space for young kale plants!) but instead, the new top growth just goes on and on producing heavy clusters of plump pods. The spring-planted row is bursting and needs picking daily whilst a later row of a Spanish variety is catching up fast. The only work this crop involved was pushing twiggy hazel sticks in amongst the young plants for support; otherwise, it’s a case now of sitting in the sun and popping the pods. Peas into the freezer, pods onto the compost heap. Convenience food, indeed.

Back to the garden jungle, and is my focus on companion planting as well as cramming at work here, too? I love the flavour and smell of coriander, dill and mint but white butterflies apparently beg to differ; there are a few about doing their dainty fluttery butter-wouldn’t-melt stuff but not a caterpillar in sight as yet. The nasturtiums are there as sacrificial plants should the butterflies feel the urge to lay eggs but they’re also drawing in valuable pollinators, with bumble bees and hover flies alike flitting from their vibrant sunny flowers to the deeper trumpets of the courgettes. The radish I sowed between lettuces, also as a sacrificial crop, are ironically some of the best I’ve ever grown; the lettuce don’t look too bad, either.

In fact, what I can say without a shadow of a doubt is that everything – everything – is growing with great gusto and it all looks disgustingly, wonderfully healthy.

(Shhhhhh . . . I’m probably tempting fate as well as blight but even the tomatoes crammed tightly into in their special shelter are looking fabulous.)

Regular readers will know that I am experimenting with green manure in the garden this year after reading the deeply inspirational book The One-Straw Revolution. Oh my, what enthusiasm those plants demonstrate in covering bare earth at speed! I am more than thrilled with the results so far. White clover sown beneath globe artichokes and raspberry canes is forming wonderful mats of trefoiled green while sprinklings of phacelia along fence and wall margins are unfurling their hazy mauve beauty, much to the delight of the bees.

The dainty pink and white flowers on the buckwheat are insect magnets, too; I really need to cut the large swathe on the top terrace so it has time to feed the soil before the purple sprouting broccoli goes in . . . but those flowers are just so pretty, and the pollinators so happy that I keep putting it off, which isn’t really the idea, is it? Oh, well. 🙂

Comfrey has been well-established in the garden for some time now but I’m on a mission to spread it about as much as I can. I mean, can you really have too much? It’s such a forgiving plant, happy to grow pretty much anywhere so I’ve been stuffing roots in along the shady edge of the terraces and the damper spots down the lane; the bumble bees are enjoying the dangly flowers and the garden and compost heap will benefit from comfrey mulch and comfrey tea. What’s more, I will benefit from not having to deal with awkward planting spaces. Perfect, I’d say!

Another strategy I’m applying is ‘selective’ weeding and this comes down to the definition of what a weed really is; traditionally, of course, it’s deemed to be a plant growing in the wrong place although I love A.A.Milne’s assertion that ‘Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.’ Please don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating no weeding. I have experienced enough to know that trying to grow a garden blighted by the thuggish behaviour of creeping buttercups, ground elder and bindweed is not a good idea. However, with the invasive perennials under relative control, how many annual ‘weeds’ are really and truly a problem? Should I impose a ban on the spires of foxgloves that sneak out of the terrace walls or the toadflax that streams and trails like delicate lilac-flowered bunting? Would it have been better to rip out the self-sown poppy hedge instead of giving it free rein?

As gardeners, we are programmed to regard a long list of plants as nuisances never to be tolerated but surely in this enlightened age of environmental awareness, we should have the freedom and courage to make our own decisions? Oxalis, with its frustrating sorcerer’s apprentice trick, is the bane of my gardening life here: hoe off a single stem and four spring up in its place. It has to be dug up carefully and removed and is shown no mercy. Otherwise, we have a lot of what I think of as ‘soft’ weeds, plants like chickweed, speedwell, scarlet pimpernel, read deadnettle and fumitory which I am happy to leave trailing between flowers and vegetables alike.

They form useful moisture mats, help to bind the soil together (pretty crucial on our steep mountainside), have tiny flowers loved by insects and when they overstep the mark are quick and easy to pull out and compost. Why waste time and energy trying to banish them from sight, especially when on balance they are actually quite beneficial? The same is true of the self-setters that pop up all over: this week, my ‘weeding’ session saw me leaving – yes, leaving – calendula, pansies, Californian poppies, verbena bonariensis, borage, parsley, dill, coriander and nasturtiums, not to mention several cucumber seedlings that had emerged from a spreading of homemade compost.

Mustard seedlings appear overnight like mushrooms; it’s not a pleasant eating variety but provides a fantastic decoy for flea beetles and friends who reduce the leaves to lace and leave other things alone. It’s also a brilliant green manure, rotting down rapidly once cut and dug in (or left on the surface for the worms to deal with). I was planning to sow yellow trefoil under the climbing beans but there is no need, it seems; the space has already been taken.

I’m leaving clover wherever I find it, too; it would be worse than ironic to have bought clover seed to sow in designated patches if I then set about pulling it out everywhere else. It’s a great nitrogen fixer and source of nectar; let’s leave it be.

Elsewhere in the garden, things move forward without any input from me whatsoever. In a tangle of green behind the polytunnel, velvety peaches swell against a backdrop of kiwi flowers.

In the orchard, heady citrus blossoms perfume the air whilst towering walnuts flaunt their glossy young fruits.

Blueberries ripen in the shade of a laden fig tree as squash plants emerge in a burst of green from neighbouring terraces clothed in self-set nasturtiums (and friends). Perhaps I should be concerned about them being smothered? No, they’re squashes. They will prevail!

In the polytunnel, aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies have all opened their first hopeful blooms.

There is a thriving community of pollinators in there; unfortunately, they’re currently absorbed in visiting the wild rocket flowers but surely at some point they’ll opt for a little variety?

The passionflower tumbles its exquisite flowers through an apricot tree whilst Californian poppies and pansies squeeze out of cracks in the concrete, their cheerful faces lifted to the sun.

Love-in-the-mist froths in pastel shades, geraniums shout out in bold colours and long-forgotten plantings of alliums and freesias burst out in little pops of gorgeousness.

Who needs a gardener? Truly, what is there for me to do? Well, I can potter about and tie things in or transplant the next batch of lettuce plants into any available spaces. I can wander around with my trug, gathering goodies for dinner. I can smell the roses. I can feast on wild strawberries and nibble baby peas. I can sit and watch the carrots grow. Simple, really. 🙂

10 thoughts on “Keeping it simple

    1. Thank you! It’s amazing how a creative spin can make things sound positive – although I’m not quite there with the ironing yet! We really benefit from the best growing climate here, even with visits from the likes of Storm Miguel. Hope it hasn’t caused too many wet and windy headaches for UK gardeners, it’s such a beautiful season in the garden, isn’t it?

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  1. You’ve developed a great philosophy about weeds and weeding, and goodness, your garden looks so amazingly lush and bountiful. I think it looks all the better with the ‘chaotic hotchpotch’ and that’s actually what I’m trying for in a floral sort of way. I love those oh so vibrant Pelargoniums. Also, I think Alice Bay Laurel has a most appropriate name. I wonder if it’s her real name or an assumed one taken because it is perfect.

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    1. Do you know, I wondered about her name, too, so did a bit of research and yes, it is an assumed name. I also discovered that she is actually Alicia, not Alice as quoted in Donald Norfolk’s ‘A Therapeutic Garden’ but I will forgive him as his book is so wonderful – do read it if you haven’t already. Anyway, I love her philosophy! You will have no problem with a floral hotchpotch, your garden is so pretty already . . .and now you have some time in winter to make plans! 🙂

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  2. Love a good hotpotch in the veg garden! I like the idea of soft weeds. Have also been leaving the fumitory, clover and some poppies. Even the hard to remove buttercups do look kind of charming. The weeds are definitely getting more interesting around here. I’ve even been wondering about potting some up (chamomile, poppies, ox eye daisies, yarrow, St John’s wort) and selling them, but there’s just no demand here. To think that some people grow foxgloves under grow lights!

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    1. First purple flowers on the beans and calabrese ready to pick so veg crush is working well! Yes, it all comes down to personal opinion with weeds, doesn’t it? I just can’t see the point in wasting time trying to eradicate things that are doing no harm, are good for the wildlife and look charming, too. Such a shame there’s no demand for your ‘weeds’, I’d be happy to give a good home to the lot. As for foxgloves and grow lights . . . what can I say? 🙂

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  3. Your garden looks so beautiful and I am sure will taste even better! We are battling pulgones at the moment, especially on the courgettes and cucumbers. I have had to dig up three plants this week! All this despite marigolds, garlic, lavender and various organic potions recommended to us! For some reason however, they do not seem to favour lettuce , chard or aubergine plants! I am travelling up to your part of Spain tomorrow for two days to meet my walking friends in Santiago de Compostela, looking forward to seeing a little bit of green Spain!

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    1. Aaaargh, there’s always something to spoil the garden party! That is not funny if you are losing plants. Have you tried blasting them with a mild soap solution? We use Ecover washing-up liquid which seems to do for the blackfly on our broad beans at least. You need an army of mariquitas! Have you been to Santiago before? I don’t have the religious faith but I found it a very moving place to visit, so much raw emotion in the main plaza. Enjoy Green Spain, I hope the weather behaves for you! 🙂

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    1. Well, I’m willing to suffer for my art! Wondering whether further research is necessary, though . . . maybe the moles have a preference for something other than Rioja? It would be careless not to investigate, don’t you think? 🙂

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