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! 🙂

3 thoughts on “Lessons from nature

  1. Yay, you’re getting seriously into seed saving! It has so many fringe benefits (pollinators loving the vegetable flowers, birds eating the seeds rather than berries or bought bird food, lots of self seeded vegetables over a longer period than you’d normally sow them) and some things are so easy to save seed from (peas, beans, tomatoes, chillies) that it’s a no-brainer. The biennials take quite a long time (up to 1.5 years from sowing!) and you need to know how many plants to leave for long-term sustainability (Sue Stickland, Backgarden Seed Saving is good for that, available from Real Seeds). Glad you made the lip balm! Jim needs to make another batch here. Have to say, gooseberry jam is my favourite. And once you’re seed saving you can leave the marrows for seed…

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    1. Yes, extending our seed saving repertoire is one of those things that makes a lot of sense although I guess there will be a fair bit of trial and error along the way. All part of the fun! It’s incredible just what has appeared from the compost this year, we hardly needed to plant a garden! Don’t take the gooseberry jam personally 🙂 I know you make limited amounts of preserves which to my mind is by far the most sensible approach. The peaches have started here so we will have our jam and relish supply in the freezer for winter preserving sessions. Hope all is flourishing in your part of the world.

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      1. Can’t understand the people who don’t eat up their preserves but you do have to match them with your consumption habits. All growing well here apart from the squashes. It’s a sad tale this year, lack of warmth and sunshine. A good reason to be highly diversified.

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