Messing about

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.

Jane Goodall https://youtu.be/48mxaQtbUdU (This is a beautiful, inspirational video – please watch if you have a few minutes to spare.)

Those are such wise words in the above quotation and without doubt, the very maxim by which I try to live. In these uncertain times, it is the uncomplicated thinking and optimism expressed and shared by people like Dr Jane Goodall and David Attenborough that encourage me more than ever to keep doing my bit for the planet, no matter how small. I am no expert, happily: I hate the thought of losing my capacity to learn or to be open to new ideas, not because they are fashionable but rather thought-provoking, inspirational and based on good practical advice. I was thrilled to be introduced recently (thank you, Maria!) to the work and philosophy of ‘reformed’ landscape gardener, Mary Reynolds; in her assertion that we should be ‘guardians’ rather than ‘gardeners’ and her commitment to rewilding, I have found a kindred spirit.

Reading about Mary’s work and the We Are The Ark movement (http://wearetheark.org/) had me wondering just how possible is it to create and maintain a patch that allows us to produce the bulk of our fruit and vegetables organically, that provides us with a pleasant space in which to spend much of our life, that offers a haven for wildlife and contains a wide and healthy biodiversity all within an ethos of sustainable living, reduced consumerism and waste and a small carbon footprint. Phew, it seems quite a big ask . . . but I think we’re getting there slowly.

Permaculture sets a lot of store by margins and they are certainly an area I’ve given much thought to since we moved here, working on deliberately blurring the boundaries between the garden and the landscape beyond and creating wildlife-friendly edges. From a practical point of view, some fences are necessary to keep the cows in their meadow and the wild boar out of our parsnips; having replaced the former ugly ones (built from rusty bedsteads and hung with hundreds of plastic bottles) with stock fencing or post and rail fences, we have since let nature have a free run. I love stretches like this, where morning glory has woven itself through the wire netting, underplanted with Californian poppies – both self-set, both buzzing with insect life.

This patch is particularly popular with tiny butterflies at the moment; dazzling with their electric blue bodies and shimmering bronze wings, they sit on the leaves like delicate jewelled brooches. So beautiful.

This colour combination is beautiful, too; I couldn’t have planned anything more lovely so I’m especially thrilled that it’s repeated itself in another random intertwining around the fence in front of the polytunnel.

Round-leaved (apple?) mint is a widespread native here and has wasted no time in sprawling along all our fence lines in great silvery carpets, releasing a delicious herbal scent from its fuzzy leaves whenever disturbed. Bees and butterflies go completely mad for it.

The same can be said for knapweed . . .

. . . even after the flowers have gone!

Living on the side of a mountain as we do, the house and horreo are backed by a steep bank above which is a meadow and, further up, woodland. It would be very easy to cut this ‘messy’ area right back or even replace it with some kind of ground cover plants in the name of keeping it tidy. Well, we don’t want to do that so we have simply left it for nature to sort out.

It is impossible to capture the sheer diversity of plants that have colonised this area. The heathers dominate at present in their gorgeous purples but there is such a wonderful mix of species, including young holly trees which are an endangered -and therefore protected – species in Asturias. I’m not completely sure, but I think this is exactly what rewilding is all about.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Year of the Spider; they are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes and colours and our world feels like it is completely encased in their silk. One even managed the beginnings of a web between Roger’s feet in the time it took him to sit and drink a mug of coffee in the sunshine! I’ve been cheered to find tiny ones living in complex webs on the underside of the brassica leaves from where I hope they will be practising some natural pest control that will be to the plants’ benefit. Prize for the most striking has to be awarded to the one below which I think is a wasp spider; it has been living for some weeks on a most spectacular web amongst the French marigolds.

I love those quiet moments of contemplation spent observing the fascinating creatures whose space we share and I have found myself drawn back to this spider many times. Whilst trying to work out where the lower section of the web had been anchored, my gaze was drawn down to something hiding beneath the foliage . . . this from a plant that had popped up randomly on its own some weeks ago. Treasure indeed!

Inspired by my reading of Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution earlier this year, I have thoroughly enjoyed my mission of banishing bare earth in the garden as much as possible. In part, I’ve achieved this using green manure in a trial that is ongoing. As well as sowing seeds in many locations, I’ve left clover and yellow trefoil to grow wherever they appear; in addition to forming luscious green mats, suppressing weeds and fixing nitrogen, I love the way the clover in particular buzzes with insect life. We change the path layouts each year, simply treading new ones where we want them but we’ve decided next year to sow them with clover; it’s tough enough to take the wear and tear and should be perfect for the job.

Such is my passion for this project that any bits of earth that remain bare for more than a few days have me well and truly fretting. When we lifted the last of the onions, I planted a few rainbow chard leaves to see us through winter then filled the rest of the space with crimson clover. As soon as the latest plantings of French beans, cannellini beans and Florence fennel were big enough to fend for themselves, I found myself sprinkling yellow trefoil seed between the rows. Yes, it’s an addiction.

I’m very happy to let the garden do the job for me where possible, too. Here, a recently cleared patch has greened up in no time with a welcome mix of coriander, calendula, pansies and Californian poppies.

I’m so encouraged by what I’m reading about changing perspectives and attitudes towards gardening and the strong movement towards dropping the notion of ‘messy.’ I know there are plenty of people who would certainly have pulled out the spent summer calabrese plants by now on the grounds that they are a long way from being aesthetically pleasing. I’ve left them for several reasons. First, even though they are pretty much over, they are still sending up heads which may be small but are perfectly edible; second, the flowers are a wonderful source of nectar for insects; third, I want them to set seed; fourth, as they are the only brassicas in the garden where I’ve found cabbage white caterpillars, they seem to be doing a grand job as sacrificial plants. Unsightly? I really don’t care.

I’ve let one of our Witloof chicory plants flower; I know I’m probably not supposed to do this seeing as I’m growing them for chicons- and they most definitely shouldn’t be allowed to go to seed – but I couldn’t resist the temptation of that perfect baby blue.

Our second vegetable patch probably wouldn’t win any prizes for beauty just now, either; standing in the middle of the jumbled jungle, it would be easy to think a little more care and control wouldn’t go amiss but look below the dishevelled chaos and as far as I’m concerned, all’s well with the world.

I have to confess that higgeldy-piggeldy patches have become my absolute favourite garden thing. They are about as far removed from monoculture and controlled, manicured order as you can get but that’s the very point. Here in a space no more than a couple of metres square are thyme, hyssop, cucumbers, chillies, lettuce, courgettes, French marigolds, buckwheat, trefoil and pansies.

The latter have become the new self-set thug, popping up all over in a crazy, motley, mongrel mix of colours and shades; I love their cheerful, whiskered faces and it seems I’m not alone.

The bare earth beneath the grapevine is now a sumptuous jostle of marjoram, basil and pelargoniums, all good companion plants. There’s buckwheat; too; I’ve pulled it, chopped it and wilted it once as a green manure but here comes the next batch of volunteers. The self-perpetuating gardening. I love it.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as saying we have a forest garden, I do like the philosophy, the significant importance of trees and the layers of growth beneath. I have a soft spot for this shady tangle, where pear trees, a fig tree and a kiwi vine, all heavily laden with fruit, meet and intermingle. A fragrant honeysuckle has garlanded itself through the lower reaches and the underplanting of comfrey – surely the most important plant in an organic garden? – is a bee-rich wilderness.

Wander further into the orchard area and here the mighty walnut dominates with the promise of a good harvest this year.

The row of straggly hazels which Roger laid into a hedge last year has really come into its own, thickening out and providing what has been a very popular nesting site for several species of bird this year. Beneath it, we planted fennel amongst the carpet of wild strawberries (which, incidentally, are still fruiting!); all wild natives, all food plants. This is good.

We are starting to benefit from the fruit trees we planted here a couple of years ago. Frustratingly, the first ever apples have been targeted by marauding jays which seems a bit unfair when there are orchards in the village heaving with fruit that have remained untouched! They aren’t the most beautiful looking crop but they are utterly delicious with that sharp fragrance and sweet juiciness that only comes with an apple straight from the tree.

We are at the height of peach season and picking daily, only too happy to fulfil Mr Fukuoka’s plea to use what is available locally and seasonally. The freezer is stuffed to the brim, we have made jam and relish, we are eating them fresh and sun-warmed from the tree and we’ve even indulged in a pudding or two!

Of course, it’s not all good news. We have been suffering from a plague of giant Asian hornets who have a taste for rotten peaches; they’ve never been a problem before but, although we can’t find it, there must be a huge papery ball of a nest hanging high up in a tree nearby. Apparently, their stings can be fatal even to those who are not allergic and although they haven’t been aggressive, I’ve been pulling on wellies to pick courgettes as the drunken hornets lurk in any peaches that have fallen and rolled under those huge leaves.

We’ve been collecting as many fallen fruits as possible at each end of the day when the hornets aren’t active but it’s impossible to find them all. I’ve been very glad that the clover I planted around the broccoli plants is suppressing weeds and the patches of salad leaves have spread to cover their end of the terrace as any kind of maintenance in that area has been definitely no-go. The shade of the peach trees is just perfect for growing these plants in but the risk of a hornet-laden peach falling on my head is more than off-putting!

The weather has mostly been very benign of late but a recent afternoon of high winds brought some problems, shaking far too many peaches off the trees and playing havoc with the beans. The tripods were so heavy it took both of us to lift and stake them with Roger wobbling around on top of a stepladder and the continuing gale doing its best to make things difficult. By some kind of miracle, the plants survived and recovered and are now yielding a massive crop of creamy fat beans for our winter store.

How the towering sunflowers survived the lashing I have no idea but I really had to hand it to that bumble bee, clinging on for dear life! The shorter yellow sunflowers finished flowering some time ago and their heads are ripening nicely; I will save some seed to scatter along the margins next year then leave the rest for the flocks of assorted finches who will arrive very shortly to tuck in.

On the subject of seed saving, I have been doing some research using the excellent Real Seeds website (http://www.realseeds.co.uk/) as this is something I certainly want to do more of. In particular, I like the idea of developing our own variety of perfect squash by selecting and hand-pollinating over several seasons. The seeds we planted from a fabulous squash that grew out of the compost heap last year have so far thrown up at least four different fruits (since taking the pictures, the first one has developed a distinctly pink tinge reminiscent of the Russian Pink Fairy squash we grew last year). It’s a fascinating exercise!

We’ve had a bit of a self-set surprise this week, too, in the shape of a ‘mystery’ plant that has popped out of the side of a path. We’re pretty convinced it’s a tomatillo and it looks like it’s hoping to fruit.

We have never grown tomatillo plants here and there has never been any evidence of them being here previously; I’ve never seen one in any garden locally and since it’s at least twelve years since we grew them anywhere, we can’t have inadvertently carried the seed here ourselves. It’s all a bit of a puzzle but if this is another benefit of letting the garden go wild, I’m not about to grumble.

There is still so much I would love to do here but I’m pleased with the progress so far and as far as a messy, unkempt, barely controlled garden is concerned, all I can say is that it is heaving with colour and scent and life . . . and, what’s more, we are certainly not starving. 🙂

A little taste of Luarca

Luarca: la Villa Blanca de la Costa Verde

Despite our resolve to stay at home for as much of August as we possibly can, there comes a point when even we have to admit it’s time to venture out to take care of business matters or stock up on food. In order to reduce journeys, we tend to leave things to mount up as long as possible then head off to Luarca, some 16 miles (26km) away, to get everything done at once. With a population of 4,800, Luarca is our nearest ‘proper’ town and the principal settlement in the municipality of Valdés . . . and we are seriously guilty of not giving it anywhere near enough attention. We go there to visit the bank or post office, do things at the town hall, have new tyres put on the car, whizz round the supermarket, see a doctor or dentist; it was there in the National Police station we were issued our residency permits and in the hospital we had medicals for our Spanish driving licences. We’ve been to the carnival and run in the annual 5K race – but when do we ever take the time to simply wander and wonder around those pretty streets?

It’s not that we aren’t interested; part of our problem is that we’ve never been town mice, so wilder, quieter spaces will always beckon first. When our car was due a service recently, we dropped it off at the garage and walked for several hours, not round the town but exploring the dramatically stunning coastline instead.

One of the places we visited was Playa de Portizuelo, a favourite haunt of Luarca’s most famous son, Severo Ochoa, who won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959. Spending time on that beach, experiencing the raw wild beauty of it and marvelling at the wealth and diversity of life contained in the simplest of rock pools, inspired his lifelong passion for science. I can understand that sentiment completely.

So, back to civilisation and this week, with a trip to Luarca necessary once again, we decided to allow ourselves time to explore a few parts – and views – of the town we have never seen. There is something quite lovely about those clusters of buildings layered on the hillside above the harbour; for me, they always bring to mind a sumptuous sugar-crusted, many-tiered wedding cake. No wonder it is known as the Villa Blanca. It’s as pretty as a picture.

Starting the climb up the steep hill to the view point of El Chano, we were afforded another wonderful view, this time looking inland. The mountains make a gorgeous backdrop in dusky greens and blues, and if you look beyond that vivid magenta bougainvillea, you can see the viaduct carrying the railway across the valley. That north coast line follows a spectacular route, and riding a small section of it is something we would like to do one day.

Higher still and the panorama opened into a wide sweep . . .

. . . and a most incredible bird’s eye view of the town. The building on the right is the ayuntamiento (town hall), standing elegantly in the recently refurbished Plaza Alfonso X el Sabio, now resplendent in pink! Those eucalyptus trees on the left dwarf everything around them; they are unbelievably tall.

There is formal tree planting throughout the town but what struck us on this wander was the sheer amount of wilder places, spaces large and small that are left to nature and are abundant in native plants and wildlife. It’s a perfect balance. Look closely at the photo below and you will see an entire stretch of stone wall (and most of a lampost!) draped in the rich indigo trumpets of morning glory. Is it a weed? Not in my book, and I’d have it over a formal bed of salvias or begonias any day.

I’ve never been a huge fan of towns set out on grid systems, all straight lines, square corners and military precision so I love the way the roads and lines of buildings follow the sinuous, serpentine curves of the río Negro (Black River) as it winds its way to the sea. In full spate after torrential rains, it’s a terrifying sight hurtling through the town but in its summer colours, it’s almost languid. Nearly there, the sea is just around the next corner . . . there’s really no need to rush.

When we reached El Chano, the view in every direction was breathtaking. Far, far below us people were setting up for the day on the beach and testing the water, some quite tentatively, others just plunging straight in. The sea may have been a bit on the chilly side but it was beautifully clear, rippling gently like a gorgeous bolt of shot silk.

There are in fact two beaches here; they aren’t the most picturesque in the area but are hugely popular and serve the town well. The harbour walls help to keep that famed Asturian surf at bay and the bright beach huts wheeled out for the summer season bring a cheerful splash of colour to the neighbourhood.

Turning to our right, there was a good view of the promontory of La Atalaya, setting for one of the most famous and most visited cemeteries in Spain. There is nothing morbid about that; the cemetery, cut from the rock by pickaxe in the 1800s and overlooked by the charming Atalaya chapel, is a place of perfect peace and tranquility where the interplay of pure white stone against the vivid blues of sea and sky is quite dazzling.

Luarca is a friendly, welcoming sort of place; it strikes me as a town that’s totally at ease with itself, completely comfortable in its own skin. Naturally, it’s a popular holiday destination and at this time of year it buzzes with tourist activity, whilst being on the Camino, there are footsore pilgrims drifting through much of the time, sticks in hand and iconic scallop shells dangling from their backpacks. What I’ve always liked, though, is the feeling that this is a town that is there for its inhabitants, not a seasonal place but one which has a healthy buzz all year round. The port is decidedly pretty but it’s still a commercial, working one; the fishermen may no longer live in the historic cobbled Barrio de la Pescadería through which we wound our way down from El Chano, but they are still upholding the proud seafaring tradition on which the town was built. The streets are packed with thriving independent businesses, their colour and quirkiness a refreshing change from the predictable monotony of chain stores, and the weekly outdoor market is a hive of activity.

Having walked back almost to our starting point, we crossed the river using the Kissing Bridge. You’d have thought there was a lovely story to accompany a name like that, but sadly it’s quite the opposite. Legend has it that a local lord, catching his daughter in the act of absconding with her pirate lover, decapitated the unfortunate pair on the spot; the bridge was built to remember the place where their final tragic kiss was exchanged. Happily, today it is a much-used crossing, a pretty setting for holiday snaps and a good place to watch the shoals of silvery fish busy in the shallows below.

A quick wander around the harbour brought our little excursion to an end; the nutty smell of freshly-ground coffee drifting out from beneath the café awnings was a tantalising temptation to linger a while longer but we still had several errands to attend to. What I know for certain is that we will go back: there is still so much to discover in this gem of a town . . . and who knows, maybe we’ll even stay for coffee next time? 🙂

High days and holidays

It is the height of the holiday season here. The village population seems to have quadrupled in recent weeks as families arrive in their droves to stay with parents and grandparents; holiday homes that have sat empty and forlorn for eleven months have their shutters thrown back, their gardens tidied; tents pop up in gardens overnight like so many brightly-coloured mushrooms. There is more traffic in the valley than the rest of the year put together. Fiesta rockets pop and crump in the distance. Excited children whizz about on bikes and splash merrily in paddling pools. The lanes are dotted with new walkers, cyclists, runners . . . the village dogs don’t know which way to turn first. There is a lively buzz about the place, busyness and chatter and laughter and music and the smell of barbecues. Summer has well and truly landed.

We know from experience that for us, August is a time to stay put. After all, we are lucky to be able to climb mountains, stroll along beaches and visit local places in quieter moments and cooler weather, so why join the crowds? Our food cupboards and freezer are well-stocked, the garden is bulging with fruit and vegetables and we want for nothing. We live in a gorgeous spot with plenty to keep us busy; there is no need to go anywhere.

Backtracking a little, and we did treat ourselves to a mini break in late July just ahead of the main holiday chaos. Having cycled up the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail) several weeks earlier, we decided to return with our tent and and camp at the very top end of the trail near the village of Entrago.

The campsite was very reminiscent of the basic rural ones we favoured when our children were little, camping in the quieter coastal spots of Pembrokeshire and Cornwall. No designated pitches, no electric hook-ups, definitely no shop or swimming pool: just a mown field with water and simple toilet and shower facilities. A captivating view from the tent door rendered the location complete!

I do have to confess, though, that unlike those Spartan days of yore that saw us sleeping on camping mats (or unreliable inflatable mattresses that inevitably went down in the night so I woke with one hip firmly embedded in the ground . . .), these days we do like a bit of comfort in the tent. To this end, several years ago we invested in a couple of canvas safari beds and with an old double futon mattress on top, a proper duvet, pillows and – yes! – crisp cotton sheets, it seems we can glamp with the best of them. A simple life doesn’t necessarily have to be uncomfortable, after all. 🙂

It might appear a bit odd camping somewhere not much more than an hour away from home but there were two good reasons for doing this. First, tempting though it is to get out and explore the entire Iberian Peninsula, we are well aware that there is still so much of Asturias we haven’t yet seen . . . and honestly, it never fails to deliver.

Also, staying for a couple of nights gave us the chance to ditch the car, pull on our rucksacks and stride out to really explore the area on foot, without having to drive home at the end of a long day.

The Bear Trail was certainly much busier than when we cycled it but once off that well-beaten track, we had the paths to ourselves. In fact, in two days of walking we literally didn’t meet another soul doing the same. The routes we took were all well-maintained and clearly marked, the scenery as ever quite stunning at each turn and the wildlife varied and abundant.

Following an ancient track which climbed a steep but blissfully green and shady valley to the medieval village of Bandujo, I wondered how many thousands of footsteps had passed that way before, how many lives and stories had been bound to that magical, leafy path.

The village itself was quite beautiful, perched on a mountainside with soaring views and, despite obvious (and necessary) modernisation, a profound sense of timelessness. We sat beneath the tower in the shade of an horreo and ate our picnic, watching a man scything grass on a slope so steep, it made our garden look like a stroll in the park. What a place this is!

Being close to the southern edge of Asturias, we decided our exploration wouldn’t be complete without climbing to Puerto de Ventana, the mountain pass at an altitude of 1,587 metres (5,206 feet) where Asturias meets the neighbouring province of León. A truly breathtaking panorama greeted us on our arrival, the majestic craggy mountains towering above a wide and open landscape, so very different to the lush, green one behind us.

In days gone by, los vaqueros from the plains below would, at the first snowfall, leave their wives to care for the children and farms in order to drive their cattle up through the pass to spend the winter months grazing in the kinder climate of Asturias. I was fascinated to read how the herd would be led by a matriarch (similar to elephants, I suppose) who would instinctively forge a safe path through snow that was often chest deep. I can’t even begin to imagine what an undertaking that journey was, how cold, difficult and fraught with danger it must have been. Right at the top of the pass, a group of several huge mountain dogs lazed in the sunshine like a pack of placid lions, totally indifferent to our presence . . . but the spiked metal collars round their necks were a reminder that even though the transhumance may no longer be so marked, the threat of wolves in the night is still very much there.

It’s funny how a short time away from home can feel like it was so much longer, perhaps because we managed to pack a lot of activities into a couple of days. It’s also the perfect way to have a holiday and know that the garden isn’t going to die of drought, neglect or wild boar visitations in our absence. Mind you, we did have visitors of another kind this week, not quite what we want to see mooching towards the vegetable patch – but maybe they felt it was time for them to have a holiday somewhere else, too?

The recent weather has been typical of the season, mostly very warm and dry with some days that hail a greater blast of heat, some that bring a dollop of rain. It’s the kind of weather that brings us beautiful skies . . .

. . . and sadly, not so beautiful ones: the plume in the middle of the photo below isn’t cloud but smoke from a huge fire. Thankfully, it’s the first wildfire we’ve seen this year but it was a massive one, taking the bomberos a whole day of fighting to bring it under control through their relentless shuttles between the fire and water reservoir in helicopters (and even an aeroplane this time).

It’s nice to think there may not be any more this year and certainly, waking to a day of steady rain yesterday brought a definite feeling of relief as the parched earth received a generous soaking.

I love the freshness such summer rain brings, the way everything responds and perks up after a good drink, the heady, spiced scents of wet earth and leaves and the renewed sweetness of raindrop-spattered flowers.

There is no more rain forecast for the next two weeks at least and with the heat set to build once more, it looks like we could be busy with the watering can in a while. In the meantime, we will continue enjoying our August staycation and all the natural blessings and beauty it brings. 🙂

Lessons from nature

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken .

Leo Tolstoy

I decided a long time ago that there is much I can learn from nature and that working closely with it, observing it and communing with it would provide some of the best and most valuable lessons of my life. I don’t mean this in any romantic, dewy-eyed way: nature isn’t all soft and fluffy and cute – anyone who has watched a predator at work or suffered the effects of violent weather can attest to that. It’s about awareness and connection, understanding and acceptance, tuning in to the environment and that complex worldwide web of life of which I am a tiny part. It’s about relinquishing any notions of superiority and control, any feelings of disapproval or disappointment and developing an open, pragmatic attitude instead. Where roses bloom so greenfly will follow . . . but is that a reason not to enjoy the exquisite beauty of the flowers?

I’m genuinely thrilled by the sheer quantity of insects in the garden this year, not just in terms of absolute numbers but the wider range of species we are seeing, too – bees (bumbles and solitary types), butterflies, hoverflies and a wealth of beetles of every shape, size and hue to name but a few. I’m hoping that at least part of the reason is the ongoing efforts we are making to encourage them in by creating diverse habitats and wilder patches. Earlier in the year – after much head scratching- we decided to turn the eyesore of a former chicken run / rubble patch into a planted area, shifting soil from the field and scattering a box of Spanish flower seed along with some old bits and pieces of wildflower seed, things like ragged robin and knapweed which thrive here.

So far the annuals are dominating and I love the glimpse of their cheerful colours in the afternoon sunlight; they remind me so much of the cottage garden seeds I used to plant with our children when they were small. There’s clarkia, candytuft, gypsophila, borage, poppies, Virginian stocks . . . and of course, the ubiquitous nasturtium.

This little patch teems with life: newts rummaging about in the tiny pond, a slow-worm curled beneath the logpile, lizards sunning themselves lazily in front of the tomatoes and a myriad insects in the flowers. It’s a wonderful spot for a little quiet contemplation and observation and I marvel at all the bustle and busyness. Butterflies make straight for the candytuft whilst bumble bees love the clarkia but seem to prefer the flowers when they are going over. Interesting.

There’s much activity, too, in the areas of orchard we have purposely left uncut, trying to develop a meadow area using what is already there. Close inspection reveals an array of flower species, a whole rainbow of wild beauty.

It’s not all rosy, though. Several parts of Asturias, including ours, are in the second year of a potato-growing ban designed to try and eradicate the Guatemalan potato moth which arrived here from South America via the Canaries. Meanwhile, the ‘hornet man’ is extremely busy travelling round the local area in his van, putting up plastic bottle traps to catch Asian hornets, voracious predators which wipe out colonies of honey bees every summer. Of course, in the web of life, both insects have a valued role but not in this particular ecosystem; they are not indigenous, they cause complete devastation and – most sobering of all – they did not arrive here unaided.

On a much brighter note, it’s been a fantastic week for mammal spotting. Pole cats are a regular visitor to the garden, slinking along the margins in dusky light but this is the first time we have seen a weasel – and what a character, literally dancing between Roger’s feet without a care in the world! A pair of bright-eyed foxes appears each evening to check out the compost heap and young deer graze in the meadow behind the house before melting silently into the wood. In the depths of the night, Iberian wolves are calling from higher up the mountain, their evocative, spine-tingling howls spooking the neighbourhood dogs into a raucous cacophony. They were once almost hunted into extinction, and their protected status causes some controversy within the farming community but for me, there is magic in their mournful song. What a privilege to listen.

When it’s a struggle to open the polytunnel door and impossible to travel the length of its path, even I have to admit it’s time to act. I don’t usually like plants standing tall in serried ranks but when they start to collapse into chaos it is definitely time to impose a little parade ground discipline. It’s hard to believe how rapidly these once young plants, firmly tied to their stakes and shyly revealing their first dainty flowers, have completely filled the space and are toppling over thanks to the sheer weight of fruit on their branches.

I love jobs like this, a couple of hours immersed in greenery, caring and nurturing and observing; it’s a great opportunity to check each individual plant, assess their general health, check for disease and pests and take account of the fruits they are producing. With the foliage canopy lifted and reined in and the bigger weeds cleared from between, it was obvious that a real soaking was required: this is one thirsty jungle! Cue carrying a 14-litre can of water up several metres of steep lane sixteen times. By my reckoning that’s 224 kilos of water (plus the weight of the can) or almost four times my body weight in all and under time pressure, too – I leave the hose from our spring running into a bucket ready for the next fill and refuse to let it reach overflowing before I’m back so speed is of the essence. Well, I think that counts as a decent session of strength training!

As part of the polytunnel clear up, I decided to remove several basil plants that had become quite thuggish. Not all of them, though, as they have been doing such a great job as companion plants, attracting pollinators into that strange, plastic-coated world. I watched a vibrant ladybird beetling along a stem, the daintiest of hoverflies alight on a leaf and a velvety ginger bumble bee come in straight to those tiny white flowers, then move on to working through the aubergine flowers. That’s precisely what it’s all about. Moments like these are so precious to me and timely reminders of the gratitude I feel to all those small creatures for the part they play in producing the bountiful harvest we enjoy.

The garden looks impossibly full at this time of year and such is the mild climate we enjoy, as soon as something is finished there is still plenty of time to plant other things for later crops. I love filling spaces in this way and seeing that promise of good food roll on and on through the seasons, so what a pleasure to be sowing ‘Autumn King’ carrots and Florence fennel – two crops that usually do so well for us right into December – along with random patches of loose-leaf lettuce, mizuna, rocket, summer purslane, land cress, New Zealand spinach and spring onions. I really can’t fault the recently planted French beans for their enthusiasm, either; these are ‘Faraday’ and ‘Stanley’ – I haven’t decided yet whether they are a music hall act or firm of solicitors, but they certainly haven’t wasted any time in germinating.

Another space became vacant this week as the first two rows of onions were lifted out to dry; these were grown from sets and haven’t performed quite as well as the others raised from seed which we’re leaving in the ground a little longer.

When Roger suggested it might be a good spot for another row of autumn carrots, I had to apply my best Wallace and Gromit smile and cutest eyebrows before admitting that I’d already planted some more beetroot there, something he doesn’t even really like. Oops! Luckily, given the general haphazard nature of my gardening style, I had lazily thrown the seed into a patch at the top of the slope rather than a row so there was room to squeeze in some carrots, too. I think I’m forgiven, but where nabbing bare earth is concerned here, it’s definitely a case of you snooze, you lose.

For me, one of the fascinating aspects of gardening is the way that everything follows cycles; true, this can be a frustrating rollercoaster ride at times but I think it also delivers valuable lessons in life. Nothing is perfect or predictable and we can choose to fight that fact or shrug it off and go with the flow. I would far rather be a happy gardener smiling at all that is good rather than stomping and scowling around the patch because things haven’t quite gone as planned. Let’s face it, even in the very worst of years there is still much to celebrate.

Last year, spring storms ripped the blossom from our peach trees and our harvest amounted to a single fruit; this year, the trees are so heavy that Roger has been cutting chestnut poles from the wood this week to prop up their brittle branches.

These delicious fruits were sorely missed last season but this year we are blessed with a bountiful crop and will value them all the more after last year’s dearth.

I’m sure somewhere in the world there is someone who has a soft spot for flea beetles but I have to admit I’m struggling to feel the love at the moment; in fact, I’m sick of the sight of them massed on the brassicas, flaunting their shiny metallic jackets and kangaroo legs. We’ve never had a problem with them before but my word, are they making up for lost time this year. Having previously gone all out to annihilate the aubergines in the tunnel, they now seem set on a path of total destruction of anything brassica-related outside.

The good news (please look away now if you are of a squeamish nature) is that instead of doing that usual manic flea jump thing whenever we go near, they are very dopey which renders them easily squishable; I’ve read this happens once they become well-fed adults – ha, well they’re certainly that alright if the state of our plants is anything to go by.

Obviously, I haven’t set out to eradicate them, just knock the numbers back a bit to give the plants a chance. I am having to check every leaf of every brassica every day, quite an undertaking when at last count we had over 70 young plants but it will be worth the short term pain; cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale are all such fantastic foods that I hate the thought of being without them. Mind you, there’s still the worst of caterpillar season to come . . .

There has been a slight sense of nature running away with things this week and much of my time in the garden seems to have been spent on some kind of rescue mission or damage limitation. The ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans have gone berserk; we grow them up stout hazel poles cut from the hedge and I have to admit I did think I was winging it a bit using the same poles for the third year in a row.

Big mistake! The plants have climbed well above the tops of the poles and are so heavy with beans that the pole tops have snapped, leaving the whole structure on a lean that makes a certain tower in Italy look positively vertical. As we are growing these purely as podding beans they will be in the ground a long time yet so it’s time for some emergency staking and guy ropes.

The ‘Latino’ courgettes are also getting away from me at every turn and despite my efforts to be vigilant, they are hiding fat marrows under their huge leaves on a regular basis. These have to be cut off if the plants are to continue fruiting and I confess they go straight onto the compost heap. I don’t feel too guilty about this; preserving is an excellent age-old method of using up gluts of seasonal produce but I think it can go too far. Preserving requires expenditure on other ingredients and energy for the heating process; this is fine if what is produced is definitely going to be eaten but there is little point in filling cupboards with jars and jars of gooseberry jam, marrow chutney, pickled beetroot and the like if it doesn’t get eaten because it isn’t wanted, needed or – in many cases – not even liked. We will freeze excess peaches and every single fruit will be used but the marrows will be recycled by nature into compost. On which subject . . .

One of the things we have decided this year is to stop buying commercial compost. Obviously, peat-based compost has been a big no-no for some time but I’m beginning to wonder exactly what the peatless stuff is made from these days, even some of the more expensive types. Am I missing something when I believe compost should be made from biodegradable, organic matter? I’m tired of finding bits of plastic, chopped rubber and a whole host of other dubious materials that shouldn’t be there: in one bag we bought recently, there was an entire length of plastic tubing! (By the way, this isn’t a Spanish thing, either – we’ve had the same experience with compost bought in the UK and France.) We’ve had far too many trays of seeds that have germinated and then sat refusing to develop their first true leaves or young plants and cuttings failing to grow because there is simply little or no nutrition in the compost, so really what is the point? Compost should be dark and rich and crumbly and packed with a wealth of nutrients that give seeds and plants the best chance to grow strongly and healthily.

Our compost area is more of a stack than a heap, tucked into a trench at the back of an old shed where we can add material in layers and keep it more or less flat, which I feel helps it to rot down more quickly. Every single scrap of biodegradable material from the house is collected in a large mixing bowl and added each evening; at the moment, this involves trying to find the compost pile first given how several nasturtiums and a squash are growing out of it.

I love this daily compost ritual; it’s hardly the prettiest of places but what comes from the depths is as precious as gold and we are going to need it more than ever now. Of course, it will be full of weedlings and seedlings which will mean much vigilance when we use it as seed compost but that is a tiny price to pay if it means at least they get the best of starts. Oh, and there’ll be none of those horrible big plastic bags to dispose of, either. 🙂

Seed saving is something I think we should be doing far more of so this year I’m experimenting with a few new ideas. It’s so easy as gardeners to succumb to the siren call of seed catalogues (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!) whilst forgetting that collecting our own seed brings many benefits, not just the financial ones. The nature of commercial production means that varieties can disappear unless someone saves them as an ‘heirloom’, so saving our own seed can help mitigate against that. Perhaps the biggest boon, though, is being able to select for varieties that thrive in our particular patch of land, in the way that people have done for millennia. It’s fun to try new varieties but there’s no sense in swapping a really good doer for something that fails to perform if there’s no need. For years, we’ve saved our own parsnip seed: just letting a single root go to flower produces more than enough papery seeds for the following year and this is especially useful since parsnip seed needs to be truly fresh.

There is quite an art to seed collecting and not everything is a viable prospect, F1 hybrids being the obvious example, but otherwise there’s much fun to be had. I’ve already saved enough buckwheat and phacelia seed to fuel next year’s green manure moments and I’ve let lettuce and chard flower in the hope of collecting their seed, too. Something else I am definitely going to collect this year is the French bean ‘Purple Teepee’; we’ve grown this for two years now and I think it’s the best variety ever, producing a mass of long, crisp, delicious beans which are so easy to see and pick.

Open-pollinated plants are a bit of an adventure, especially where the curcubit family is concerned as they readily cross-pollinate and you can end up with some interesting specimens! The best squash we ate from last year’s harvest came from a plant that emerged unbidden from the compost heap and trailed off down the orchard, producing large fruits whose blue skin and dense orange flesh suggested a dose of ‘Guatemalan Blue’ genes were in its make up somewhere along the way. We saved some seed to see what would happen this time, bearing in mind there could well have been more cross-pollination at work last year; so far, the plants have been without doubt the strongest growers of the season and are already forming some promising looking fruits.

I might well be tempted to have a go at saving some tomato seeds, too. I don’t want to jump the gun here but this is the latest we’ve ever gone without the plants falling foul of blight; we’ve even had a picking of ripe cherry tomatoes which equals our best ever previous crop. It’s just possible that this year’s approach – I think we’re on plan D now – is working and I have all my fingers crossed that the fabulously loaded vines of green cherry, plum and beefsteak fruits will have their chance to ripen. Knowing this was hailed as our last ever attempt, my Finnish friend Anja sent us some ‘Voyage’ seeds to try and what a species it is! An heirloom variety from central America, the name comes from the fact that it is a handy food for travelling with since the segments can be peeled off and eaten separately like grapes. It’s a very bizarre looking thing but I’m so excited about the prospect of tackling a ripe one, I have all my toes crossed as well.

There are plenty of seeds I don’t bother collecting because they successfully sow themselves every year. Coriander (we do collect a pile of seed for the kitchen), dill, flat-leafed parsley, chervil, wild rocket, komatsuna and mizuna pop up on a regular basis and given my laissez-faire approach to the garden, I’m happy for them to grow wherever they choose. The same is true of many flowers, to the point that most of the colour we have enjoyed so far this year has been self-set and yet not entirely predictable. Nasturtiums are a master of the game but this rather sweet double feverfew has come as a complete surprise. Hope it stays!

Calendula is such a reliable and widespread self-setter that it almost single-handedly fulfils my mission to do away with bare earth. It’s a brilliant companion plant and has useful medicinal properties, too, which is why earlier this year I captured some of its golden sunshine by infusing petals in almond oil. I’ve made my own lip balm for many years using a simple recipe of beeswax, almond oil and honey but having been inspired to try something different (thanks, Sonja and Jim!), I’ve just made a new batch using beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter and some of the infused calendula oil. It’s smooth and creamy and a great example of the good things nature has to offer.

We’re between seasons where calendula is concerned in the garden; the first flush of plants has flowered, seeded and died but the next generation of eager new seedlings is already carpeting the earth and will grow into plants that will flower throughout winter. In the meantime, French marigolds are hogging the limelight instead and I just have to smile; having tried and failed miserably several times this spring to raise a tray of seedlings, we have several enormous plants that appeared all on their own and are bristling with bright, frilly blooms.

Nature wins again . . . maybe I should stop trying, just do nothing and let it all happen around me! 🙂