Six on Saturday 27th July 2019

It seems like ages since I last ‘sixed’ so it’s lovely to be dipping in and catching up on what everyone is up to in their gardens again. Unlike much of Europe, we haven’t been struggling with soaring temperatures or drought conditions here. In fact, unbelievable though it might sound for Spain, we rarely do; things bob along nicely in the mid-twenties with a good drop of rain every few days, the sun is warm and humidity high so everything is growing like stink. It’s that time of year where I’m happy to surrender any pretence at having the garden under control and just pootle about foraging vast quantities of veg for dinner and sniffing the flowers. Someone has to do it.

After much teasing, agapanthus ‘Northern Star’ has finally burst into a mass of blue gorgeousness. They are all pot grown and yet another year has passed where I’ve failed to get some into the ground; maybe one day, but for now I’m enjoying them every bit as much as the bumble bees.

The cucumbers have been unusually lacking in enthusiasm this year and we are normally snowed under with them by now so it’s good to see ‘Marketmore 76’ getting its act together at last.

No such lack of enthusiasm in the polytunnel. We re-covered it earlier this year as the original polythene was, quite honestly, complete and utter rubbish and had shredded in the winter storms to create a giant sieve. What a difference it’s made: the path has disappeared in the jungle of basil, the aubergines are setting fruit like there’s no tomorrow and we have more peppers and chillies than we know what to do with. There’s also cumin lurking in there somewhere . . . and possibly a feral sloth, too.

This is the time of year where the squash start heading off down the mountainside and there’s nothing to do but give them free rein and assess the damage in October. Despite having ample space on their custom-built terraces, they’ve already started involving themselves with each other as expertly demonstrated by ‘Speckled Hound’ and ‘Butterfly’ below.

I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with green manure this year and so far, I’m a huge fan. Buckwheat grows very quickly and I’ve been sprinkling it about all over the place to dig in, also leaving some patches to flower (bees and hoverflies love it) and one patch to set seed – something many people warn against but I’m a lover of self-setters (the lemon balm, hollyhock and nasturtiums in the photo bear testament to that) so I’m happy to let it go. Anything’s better than weeds.

Quite how I can be in my fourth summer here and have previously completely missed the fact that we have a rather exotic beauty under the white hibiscus is anybody’s guess. I think it’s an angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) rather than datura but I’d be happy for an expert opinion on that one. Whichever, it’s putting on quite a show. Here’s to more startling discoveries in the future!

Time now to pop over to https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/ and see what other gardeners have been up to this week. 🙂

Raising the running bar

The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.

Walter Bagehot

Following on from my earlier post about staying fit and active throughout life, I’ve embarked on a new fitness challenge which I’d like to share occasionally between now and the end of September for two reasons. The first is that I hope it might encourage and inspire others to have a go themselves; not necessarily at running (let’s face it, I’m not the most enthusiastic runner in the world so I’m hardly qualified to tell others it’s their thing) but at any kind of activity- be it physical, mental, practical, spiritual or whatever – that offers a new challenge and a chance to do something different, to learn new things and maybe surprise yourself (and a few other people) along the way.

It doesn’t have to be anything extreme or costly. You don’t have to trek across continents, scale Everest or swim the English Channel – although if that’s what floats your boat, why not? Something as simple as walking a daily mile or trying a new recipe or writing a blog can open up a whole new world and there’s certainly a world out there to explore. So, if you’ve always fancied learning how to kick box or dance the tango, play thrash guitar or speak Mandarin, cast a fishing line or use a potter’s wheel, go star gazing or wild swimming or bagging Munros . . . then what are you waiting for? If you’d love to walk along a midnight beach, barbecue in the snow, play in a chess championship, fly a kite, sing in a choir . . . what is truly stopping you? It’s never too late and you’re never too old; if you want to belly dance or sky dive at 70, go for it.

I have never been a sporty person, I have no running style and I’m desperately slow – any photos of me running where my feet actually look like they’re bounding off the ground enthusiastically are something of a rarity! I don’t really like running and I find it incredibly difficult but I keep at it, partly because I know it’s good for me but also because it reminds me that I’m alive. Yes, I’m a less than fit greying granny but I’m out there doing it and that makes me smile. It probably makes other people smile, too, but that’s just fine. If I can do it, anyone can. That’s a fact.

Luarca 5k in June . . . are those feet actually doing anything?

We spend too long listening to all those negative words – the couldn’ts and shouldn’ts and musn’ts – that do so much to nibble away at our self belief. Go on, do it . . . and don’t give a stuff about what others think. I have little patience for those who spend their time casting doubts or sniping and scoffing at the perceived failures of others. I might be wrong, but I think it’s better to have had the courage to try and fail, than never to have tried at all. We can’t rewind our life and start all over again so how important it is to use what time we have to the very full and cram in as much living as we possibly can. I really don’t want to get to my last gasp thinking things like, “Darn it, I never did get round to learning how to play the bagpipes.” Mind you, I know at least one person who would be eternally grateful for that missed opportunity!

The second reason for sharing is slightly more selfish: accountability. Changing habits, breaking out of old routines or developing new ones and sticking to promises and commitments is much easier if we make ourselves accountable to someone. It’s a bit of a paradox but we are far more likely to let ourselves down than let other people down so having a real live Jiminy Cricket to report to is a useful tool in sticking at something. Rather than nominate an individual, I’m using my blog as my conscience: it doesn’t matter if no-one reads it or passes comment (although it’s always lovely when someone does!), just making the appointment to write a few update posts will, I hope, be enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.

So what have I chosen for my newest running challenge? The usual route people take tends to be chasing longer and longer distances; I have nothing but admiration for those brave souls but it’s not for me. Marathon? No thank you. Ultra? Don’t even think about it. Half marathon? Nope, been there, done that and once in a life time was most definitely enough. Fell runs, trail runs and mud runs look fun but I’d rather do them at a leisurely pace in my walking boots!

After the half marathon, I did say I’d like to retain the ability to run 10k for as long as I can; it’s far enough for me (please don’t say it’s only two Parkruns!) and means an hour or so of continuous running, so remains quite a challenge. The obvious thing, then, is to shake myself out of my usual plodding pony habit and try and do it a bit faster. In my relatively short and non-illustrious running career thus far I have participated in four official chip-timed 10k races: one in France (66 minutes), one in the UK (63 minutes) and two in Spain (65 minutes and 62 minutes). My aim for number five is to try and break that elusive hour barrier and come in with a sub-60 minute time and where better than to have a go than at the Ribadesella 10k in September – the race where I ran the 62 minutes and 32 seconds last year?

Eyes closed as I came over the finish line . . .I was literally asleep on my feet.

Points in favour of Ribadesella:

  1. I’ve run the race before so I know exactly what to expect in terms of the event and the course; I know there is a tremendous atmosphere.
  2. Ribadesella is a pretty seaside town which provides a really picturesque setting for the race, part of which follows a long stretch of the seafront promenade. It’s totally beautiful.
  3. The spectator support is truly amazing every step of the way; it’s what got me to the finish line last year.
  4. The post-race victuals are a real feast, the ice-cold draught San Miguel a true life-saver.
  5. It’s flat, flat, FLAT!
What a stunning setting for a race.

Then again . . .

  1. It’s an evening race with a 6pm start. I’m more tuned to winding down for the evening at this point of the day, rather than running round a town with several hundred other people.
  2. The weather is unpredictable but it could be very hot. Last year it was nudging thirty degrees. In the shade. Which I wasn’t.
  3. The cut-off times are fairly tight. The organisers, marshals and local police do a fantastic job of closing all roads to keep runners and spectators safe and make it a true community event but the roads have to be re-opened as quickly as possible. If you don’t make certain points by certain times, you are disqualified. In this case it’s 5k in 35 minutes and 10k in 70 minutes: an irrelevance for the hares like Roger (who will probably blitz the whole thing in under 35 minutes) but an added pressure for the tortoises like myself.
  4. It’s a fast race. In my age group (Female 50) I was the last out of eight ladies, finishing in 01:02:30 – my best ever time. The winner did it in 00:42:34:50, the winner in the F55 class ran 00:52:55 and in the F65, 00:49:59 – that’s someone at least 14 years older than me running it twenty minutes faster! The Asturians have a dizzying talent for speed, so I know I’ll be flogging along somewhere near the back and that can feel a bit demoralising (if I let it).
  5. I don’t like races. I’d rather be in my garden.

Okay, time to stop whingeing, man up and get training. I’ve found an excellent training plan which I know is going to be tough but hopefully will get me there over ten weeks; actually, I didn’t really make the first two weeks as we were away from home but let’s not allow that to be an issue . . . There are plenty of new challenges to face, runs on five days a week for starters plus one cross-training day (yoga for me) and a rest day. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Two of the runs are a few miles at ‘easy’ pace (don’t make me laugh), one with an added session of strength training, one is a tempo run with a faster middle bit, one is shorter intervals at speed (now I have to laugh) with a recovery jog in between and the other is a long run, up to eight miles. Oh, and some of them require a ‘strong finish.’ Mmmm.

Salinas 6k beach race in May . . too much sand, too much wind, but the finish was in sight.

I am under no illusion whatsoever: this is going to be hard. On paper, running the whole race two and a half minutes faster than before doesn’t really look too difficult but that translates into losing 15 seconds for a kilometre (or 24 seconds for a mile) over and over and over . . . and that’s a fairly formidable mountain to climb from where I’m looking. In the end – in the grand scheme of things- it really doesn’t matter whether I get that golden sub-60 or not. The world won’t stop turning, the front pages won’t be held, my life probably won’t change that much . . . but (and it’s a big but) the process of trying will be a valuable experience, a fascinating, uplifting, frustrating, tiring journey of motivation, discipline, movement, fresh air, success and failure, tears and laughter. Above all, it will be about living and although I know there will be days when I’ve had enough and just want to throw in the towel, in my heart of hearts I know it’s the right thing to be doing. Probably a better idea than the bagpipes, anyway! 🙂

Summer snippets

Hot July brings cooling showers, apricots and gillyflowers.

Sara Coleridge

Our July brings sunflowers, too. The very first bloom from the seeds Ben gave me for my birthday opened it’s cheerful smile on his sixth birthday. What perfect timing! 🙂

Right on cue, our beautiful ‘For Your Eyes Only’ wedding anniversary rose unfurled its peachy buds in the second flush of the year.

Early July has a long-standing tradition of throwing us red letter days in need of joyful celebration or serious attention, and often sees us having to pack our bags and take to the road. It’s a less than great time of year to leave the garden unattended but that’s all part and parcel of life.

So, we have just returned from a spell of time away and, as this was a case of far more business than pleasure, it was a relief to be home. Even after a 4am start to miss the chaos that is holiday traffic on French motorways and an exhausting 14-hour drive, I could hardly wait to jump out of the car and check what the garden had been up to in our absence. Forget unpacking for a while, there were far more important matters at hand!

It never fails to amaze me how quickly things change at this time of year; twelve days away and the garden has taken on a completely different mood. It’s as if after the spring party of youthful energy and zingy growth, everything has expanded and matured and settled into its prime. Like the trees in the surrounding landscape, it has all taken on the deep, velvety shades of summer . . . and there is so much growth! To venture into the depths on a harvesting mission is like swimming in a sea of lush, leafy, verdant green. The garden has grown up.

Abandoning the garden like this several times a year is simply something we have to accept; I can never get too precious about leaving things – if we miss the best of the sweet peas or the last of the blueberries, so be it. The problem is the danger of irreparable damage that can happen in the blink of an eye: half a dozen small broccoli plants baked to a frazzle in heat or scoffed by snails in damp weather now means a loss of three months’ food in spring time. The fear of wild boar staging a moonlit rave and trashing the lot is the stuff of nightmares, trust me. Mind you, someone has been keeping an eye on the place for us, it seems!

Happily, everything seems to have survived this time round. Of course, there will always be some collateral damage: the oldest lettuces had bolted and it came as no surprise to find a garden heaving with marrows where once there were baby courgettes. On the plus side, a few things had finally shaken their tail feathers and decided to perform. The cucumbers, so unusually reticent this year, have woken up, stretched and risen to meet the light at long last.

The ‘Greyhound’ summer cabbage, fried as seedlings in a heatwave last time we were away (in February, can you believe?), have plumped out into crisp, pointy hearts of deliciousness. We should have been eating them a month ago but never mind, they’ve caught up at last.

As for the squash? Well, they’re doing what squash do . . . honestly, I’m convinced they’d survive anything. They don’t need us at all.

What a mountain of food to return to: peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes, calabrese, cabbage, chard, carrots, beetroot, peppers, chillies, lettuce, rocket, onions, spring onions and cucumbers. Not a problem in my book as I love nothing better than to wander about foraging for bits and pieces on which to base a meal. No matter if there isn’t a huge quantity of any one thing, there is something so satisfying about the sheer variety of colour, texture and flavour on a plate. . . and there’s always tomorrow to ring the changes.

Our biggest concern about being away for so long was how the polytunnel and tomato shelter would fare without their daily watering. Leaving the tunnel shut would help to conserve moisture but it would become unbearably hot in there and bar those essential pollinators from entering; leaving it open means it dries out more quickly, but is definitely the better option. We’d been collecting plastic bottles for some time before we left to make slow drip feeders in the tunnel, along with some leaky buckets, and Roger devised a natty irrigation system for the tomatoes using old buckets and plastic pipe. Not very pretty, but extremely effective.

Despite hot, dry weather it all seemed to have worked; one pepper plant had perished and one or two toms were slightly stressed but otherwise, it’s looking good. There are fruits on the tomatoes (including the rather bizarre clustered ‘Voyage’ variety) and so far, still no blight, whilst the tunnel is already bursting with glossy green peppers and creamy yellow Bulgarian chillies.

A forest of flowering basil is tempting in the bees with its seductive scent and they are certainly doing the business.

Joy of joys, having battled with flea beetle on the aubergines for months – I’d come to the conclusion they are totally indestructible and will inherit the earth along with cockroaches – the top growth is now beetle-free, unblemished and flourishing. What’s more . . . 🙂

The taller plants – climbing beans, hollyhocks, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet peas, dill – are making bold statements, standing head and shoulders above their more vertically-challenged neighbours.

There are painted spires of hollyhocks everywhere, most of them self-set, all of them towering over me. We have some doubles for the first time this year, so pretty in their flirty petticoats; the bumble bees somehow manage to riffle through the frills to feed but not surprisingly, they seem far happier with the simplicity of single flowers, emerging from the starry centres dusted in pollen like floury millers.

I love the subtle changes around the patch, too, the gentle shifts and shimmies as the season flows on. The cheerful wayward abundance of calendula has given way to the more sophisticated, elegant tagetes.

Above dusky hydrangeas, hibiscus flaunts itself against the bluest of skies.

Sweet William stands aside to let dahlias take centre stage.

Seedpods make artistic accents of interest where petals once bloomed.

The flamboyant hedge of crimson poppies has faded into something more akin to a rippling cornfield edge.

There are butterflies everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of them in dreamy clouds. They have bagged the garden for themselves in our absence, luxuriating in the purple pleasure of marjoram and verbena bonariensis.

In some ways, I think we were home just in time to stop the garden doing too much of its own thing. The climbing beans, already over the tops of their poles and down the other side, have decided to start knitting themselves into each other and the underplanted dill. A row of parsnips, usually so difficult to establish here, have put on so much enthusiastic leafy growth, they are threatening to swamp the neighbouring leeks. The prone onions are dropping huge hints that it is time to lift them and as for the squash emerging from the courgette patch on the right and trailing across the path . . . where the heck did that come from? Definitely not one we planted there.

As expected, the broad beans and peas had reached the end of their cycle and succumbed to old age. Those broad beans had been in the ground since last November and have been providing us with copious pickings for many weeks. What troopers they are! A final harvest of pods from both yielded a goodly haul of meaty specimens, just perfect slow-cooked in a spicy casserole. It always feels a little strange as spaces start to open up in the patch but this is not so much an end as a beginning, an opportunity for something else to take its turn.

The second row of violet-podded French beans is in its full glory; so pretty these, I would gladly grow them just for the splash of colour they bring but their dark waxy pods are utterly delicious. It’s not too late to sow more for a late harvest, so I’m trying a couple of new varieties – ‘Stanley’ and ‘Faraday’ – which should make good autumn picking.

The demise of those nitrogen-fixing legumes leaves the perfect place for some new stars: enter the winter brassicas. I loved kale long before it became a trendy superfood and I must confess to preferring it eaten as a leafy veg, raw or cooked, rather than blitzed to a drinkable green gloop. Cavolo nero grows well here but is consistently out-performed by its leafier cousins so this year, I’m sticking with those. I’ve planted three varieties – ‘Curly Scarlet’ (Looks purple to me. Just saying.), ‘Thousandhead’ and the heirloom ‘Cottagers’ – and they’re off with great gusto already.

We’ve had scanty success with winter cabbages so far but have decided they’re worth another punt; it’s all down to timing so fingers crossed, we’ll hit the jackpot this year. I had sown ‘Red Drumhead’, ‘January King Extra Late’ and ‘Savoy Perfection’ along with ‘All Year Round’ cauliflower (worth a try, surely?) in a seed drill directly into the ground and they were looking splendidly happy, tucked around with a green manure blanket of yellow trefoil.

It seemed cruel to disturb them, especially given the heat, but they needed to move into their own space. Time then for a lot of care and attention as caterpillar season gets underway; no prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing every day from now on!

With any luck, those cabbages will take a leaf (ouch, no pun intended) out of the purple sprouting broccoli’s book; here is a plant that grows like stink and is a staple spring time treat. This year it’s honoured with its own terrace beneath the peach trees and the first few plants have gone into their buckwheat-enriched soil. I’m really impressed with the whole green manure adventure so far, the buckwheat has rotted down completely leaving soil which feels nutritious and improved and has retained moisture close to the surface, despite the dry weather. Since taking this photo, I’ve lifted and chopped the second sowing at the end of the terrace so that will be ready for the next round of young PSB plants in a couple of weeks’ time.

I’ve left the buckwheat under the grapevine to go to seed for collecting and drying; everyone says you absolutely must not do this as volunteers will pop up everywhere for ever more. So it’s a monster of a self-setter, then? Glory be, just my thing. Bring it on!

Feeling extremely virtuous at being back on a diet consisting mostly of fresh garden produce and having embarked on a 10-week training plan which, among other torturous things, means minimal alcohol consumption and upping my running to five days a week at the hottest time of year (yikes!), I felt a little decadence was called for. I’m not usually a seeker of sweet treats but what could be better than indulging in a dose of homemade ice cream part way through a hot gardening afternoon? I’ve made ice cream for many years, usually starting with a custard base but this recipe for double chocolate ice cream https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-the-best-homemade-chocolate-ice-cream-244716 has been a revelation: it’s super easy to make and is, without doubt, the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s divine. It’s sublime. It’s heaven on a stick (or in a cone or a bowl, or – mmm, don’t tempt me – straight from the tub)!

What an amazing ingredient condensed milk is, why have I never discovered this before? It means no churning is required, so you don’t need an ice cream machine or to remember to break down ice crystals with a fork every hour as it freezes – just whack the cooled mixture into the freezer and forget about it until temptation beckons. It also helps to keep the ice cream slightly soft so you can spoon silky scoops straight from the freezer with no need to take it out early to soften or to chip it out with hammer and chisel when you forgot to do just that. Sheer wickedly, wonderful, chocolatey indulgence. Oh happy, happy summer . . . it’s so good to be home! 🙂