Muck and magic

Sitting in Gatwick airport last week, impatient to board our flight home, I came to the conclusion that I am simply not made for modern living. There was too much hustle and bustle, too many people, too much noise, too much dry air, too many strong pongs, too much focus on fashion and image, too many shops, too many handheld screens and too much junk food. I felt like a complete alien, desperate to be back on our little patch of mountainside where life is simple, the air is fresh and sweet, the noises and smells are natural, the food is wholesome (and still growing . . !) and in place of screens, we stare at fabulous skies.

Luckily, I could at least bury myself in a book and escape to a magical world of natural gardens in the shape of Mary Reynolds’ The Garden Awakening. As a brand new book with that crisp evocative scent of pristine paper, this is an absolute treat for me; probably 99% of the books we buy are secondhand but I was unable to find it in any of my usual used book sources and, as I suspected it would be a book I return to time and again, I decided to push the boat out just this once.

Now I accept that Mary’s Irish magic might prove a tad too woo-woo for many people but I’ve always been comfortable with a bit of pagan mysticism and rustic folklore so it bothers me not one jot. I smiled to read how she had been so inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka (me too, Mary!) and what I truly love about the book is the complete surrender to working with nature and the idea of being ‘guardians’ rather than gardeners. There is so much here to think about, many ideas that I can adopt and put into practice; deep in the fascinating realms of forest gardening, our flight was called and my heart raced with the joy and expectation of being back in that special place where outdoor spaces call to me and rainbows tumble from the morning sky.

Good grief, but the weather in our absence had been so savage that in part, I’m thankful we weren’t here to witness it. Anything that hasn’t been flattened has been shredded, everything from low-lying beetroot – now nothing more than a collection of forlorn purple stalks – to the high hazel hedge, whose leaves have been turned to a grim sort of lace.

Even the roughty toughty kale and cabbages are looking well and truly mauled and my patch of outdoor young winter lettuce and oriental leaves has been obliterated; thank goodness for the others, safe under the protection of the tunnel. What weather could be so violent as to strip the blue bench of its paint? I can only imagine the ferocity of storms, the icy torrent of hailstones, the surprising grip of cold. Poor, battered garden.

Well, of course, this is all part of the dynamics of life and there is still plenty to celebrate in the wake of chaos, many gems to be found amongst the debris. The kiwi, usually such an overwhelming cascade of green even this late in the year, is tattered beyond belief . . . but that only serves to help us see the dripping jewels of fruit more easily.

Despite their tender youth, the peas I planted before we left have hung on cheekily to their fresh bluey green foliage; the leeks are sturdy sentinels, standing tall and proud, oblivious to the carnage around them; the cannellini plants I forgot to pick before our trip have yielded a huge harvest of sleek, creamy beans and – what a surprise! – for the first year ever, several celeriac plants are swelling fat roots beneath a froth of ferny foliage.

I am so used to having a garden full of flowers right into January that the sight of ripped flower heads and shredded petals is slightly heartbreaking, even more so watching bees bumble around in search of a food source that should still be there. The bright crimson cups of Japanese quince, which bloom reliably from October to April, have gone – every last one of them. The delicate white and purple flowers of the sweet-scented peacock lily have been left in tatters, trails of nasturtiums reduced to piles of slimy mush and there isn’t a single leaf (let alone flower) left on any of the usually bright and bold pelargoniums. I am grateful for at least one or two hardy little survivors.

However, should I honestly feel frustrated or sad when it is still possible to gather dinner from the garden? The very final picking of peppers and chillies from the tunnel signalled the official end of summer veg and a seasonal step into the world of things denser and more sustaining, those hefty, starchy characters which will see us safely through winter. How can I resist the honeyed crunch of carrots, the herbal sweetness of parsnips, the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes, the strident onion hit of leeks, the subtle aniseed of fennel? Add melting orange squash and the meaty pops of beans from our store and I’m in foodie heaven.

This is one of our very favourite meals, so straightforward from a culinary point of view but one we go back to time and again throughout the year. Simply wash, trim, peel, chop (or whatever) the vegetables and roast them gently in a little olive oil in a baking dish or tray, adding seasonings as desired. Meanwhile, make a tomato sauce by frying chopped garlic and onion in oil, then adding chopped tomatoes (we used tinned ones as we have eaten all our homegrown toms from the freezer), a splash of red wine and seasoning, then simmer long and slow to create a rich, sumptuous sauce. Stir the sauce into the vegetables ten minutes before serving and you’re done! Just add some really good bread to mop up the juices. The beauty of this dish is that it is so versatile and your imagination is the limit: it works just as well with crisp, green, summer vegetables as it does with winter heavyweights; you can season to taste – we added chillies, coriander seed and cumin seed for a blast of heat but fresh or dried herbs or alternative spices will give a totally different slant; if you don’t want to do the vegetarian thing, it’s easy to pop in meaty additions like chorizo or cooked chicken, pieces of firm white fish (we use hake) or even pork fillets snuggled on top of the veg (I’d go for a couple of good eggs broken in, too, but Roger definitely wouldn’t ); melting pools of cheese take it to a new level! The basic dish reheats like a dream but is also delicious cold, alternatively it can be recycled into fabulous soups and curries. Comfort cooking from the garden at its absolute best.

So, back to a bit of practical ‘guardianship’ and one of my first jobs was to sweep up the piles of leaves that had been ripped ferociously from branches and swirled into soggy heaps in every corner. Now this has nothing to do with tidiness. I’ve never minded fallen leaves or considered them to be unsightly; in my experience, if they’re left alone, nature generally takes care of them with some good, drying winds without any fuss or bother (don’t even get me started on leaf blowers). Alternatively, gathered up and left to rot, they offer a very beneficial free food for the soil so it’s well worth the effort with broom and shovel – and blowing the cobwebs and travel dust in the fresh air was exactly what I needed.

Feeding the soil in the tunnel was high on my agenda, too. The extended growing season we enjoy under cover is a boon to our lifestyle but it leaves a very short turn around: no sooner are the last plants removed in late autumn than we’re planning the planting for early spring, which – apart from anything else – will involve replacing the removable staging down one side. Speed is of the essence if I’m to get the soil fed and rested properly before the demands of the new season begin and luckily, this is just the sort of job I love!

Mary Reynolds likens caring for a garden to raising children and I have to agree, especially when it comes to nutrition. Our sproglets were raised on good, fresh, wholesome home-cooked food, much of which they had been involved in growing, picking and preparing since they were able to totter about and ‘help’ and I have the same obsession with feeding and nurturing the soil as I did for our babies. I’m fascinated with the concept of ‘no dig’ and although Roger isn’t completely convinced by the idea, I think the tunnel is the perfect place to explore the possibilities. It’s a relatively small planting area (we simply don’t have the mountains of required mulch for the whole garden) within easy lugging distance of the muck pile and compost heap and the beds have defined sides which make piling on the good stuff easier. I removed the spent pepper plants, lifted a couple of perennial weeds but left the annual ones on the surface, then slathered all the unplanted parts in several centimetres of well-rotted cow manure and homemade compost. Mmm, it’s gorgeous, worm-laden stuff!

The salad leaves I planted some weeks ago had suffered a bit from lack of light thanks to a couple of Scotch bonnet plants that had reached tree proportions and cast way too much shade. I gave them a good drenching with comfrey tea and just three days of higher light levels later, they had perked up no end.

Where the rest of the garden is concerned, I’ve been shifting vast quantities of muck and compost in a continuing crusade against bare earth; basically, any area that isn’t planted with food crops or green manure (deliberately planted, self-set or spread varieties or soft annual weeds) gets a good old mulching with the brown stuff. In some places, this looks a bit like medieval strip farming: on the bottom terrace, from front to back, there are parsnips, leeks, carrots, former squash patch plus the beginnings of a manure cover, green manure (crimson clover) and comfrey. The terraces above are planted with a green manure winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares.

Due to the higgeldy-piggeldy nature of the main veg patch, things are a bit more slapdash there but the same principle applies. On the terrace, for instance, there is a patch of celeriac surrounded by a self-set green manure of poached egg plants and phacelia, a good stand of purple sprouting broccoli undersown with white clover and several short rows of salad leaves including rocket and land cress. One end, however, was a jumble of dead basil, a couple of summer cabbages that didn’t come to anything and a spaghetti of dead nasturtiums so I pulled out the woody stuff and covered the rest in muck.

I’ve repeated the process everywhere I feel the soil needs covering, even between and around the stand of winter cabbages so I can be sure that every piece of available planting space has been fed. It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt affair, but so what? This is the process of creating a healthy, nutritious soil teeming with essential life and the foundation for next year’s food: no job is more important than this one! One of Mary Reynolds’ key pieces of advice is to observe nature closely in the garden in order to work successfully and compassionately with it. One of the things I have certainly been observing with interest this year is the effects (or not) of my green manure experiment and I am truly delighted with the results. As far as I can tell, there have been no adverse effects whatsoever, no reduction in plant health, quality or yield of crops and no increase in pests. Where the soil has been covered by one or several green manures through the year, it has retained moisture and is rich and friable and full of life. It carpets the earth just as nature will do left to its own devices and plants grow quite happily through it.

Beetroot in the trefoil!

One of the most significant factors is the way in which all the green manures I planted in spring and summer (white clover, crimson clover, buckwheat, yellow trefoil, phacelia) have acted as incredible weed suppressants; the only nuisance weed anywhere now is grass which I’ve been lifting with a hand fork and composting, otherwise it’s mainly clumps of chickweed.

Now this in itself is actually a very beneficial plant: not only can it be eaten in salads as a good source of minerals and vitamins, but it attracts pollinators, provides a food source for birds and accumulates potassium and phosphorous making it a perfect green mulch. Rather than consign its bright green carpets to the compost heap, my Garden Awakening self has simply pulled it, left it on the surface of the soil and then thrown manure and compost all over it.

Chickweed pulled, bring on the muck!

One of the crops that was shredded in the bad weather was the Witloof chicory, something I’ve grown for the first time in years. Fortunately, it didn’t really matter as the time had come to harvest the first few roots, anyway. It’s a funny old carry on: lift the plant, chop the leaves off, bury the roots in a pot of compost, cover so that not even the tiniest chink of light can get in, put in a sheltered place (the underhouse barn in our case) and forget for at least a month. It might sound like a dark art but the crisp, blanched chicons which should develop from those roots will give us a fresh, bitter leaf hit just perfect for the season. Now the waiting begins . . .

There’s another bitter leaf ready to eat now, its frilled leaves a deep burgundy gloss nestled in a bed of clover. Ruffled but not wrecked by the weather, this raddichio ‘Palla Rossa’ is a welcome, vibrant sight that is heading for a special meal (maybe for my birthday next week? 🙂 ).

While I have been zipping about the garden literally like a happy little pig in muck, Roger has been busy in the woods with the annual task of fetching, cutting, splitting and stacking logs. These will heat our home, cook our dinners, boil water and dry laundry in future winters – they are worth their weight in gold. It’s hard work but so rewarding to see the stack of split logs growing against the horreo wall where they will be left to season before being stored inside. I love their soft muted colours, their tactile textures and above all, the sharp, spicy scent of them that whispers of forest floors and leaf mould and mushrooms. I adore trees; I am not ashamed to be a happy hugger and never fail to give thanks for this wonderful gift. We always plant far more trees than we cut. That’s how it should be.

On the subject of planting, we came home from a little foray into our local farmers’ co-op with garlic and onions for the garden. We’ve had limited success with garlic here, the warm climate and humidity tend to see overwintered crops rotting in the ground but, nothing daunted, it’s worth another go. We have nothing to lose, after all: two euros for seven fat bulbs is a relatively low investment, there’s plenty of space in the patch and I’m hoping a pre-planting ‘winter holiday’ of vernalisation in the fridge (the garlic, not me) will help things along a bit. The variety we chose is the classic Spanish ‘Spring Violeta’ – it’s supposed to be a a good doer but it’s not the best of keepers. Well, quite honestly, we haven’t scored well so far on that front anyway so let’s see what happens. The ‘Barletta’ onions are an Italian heirloom variety which are massively popular locally; they are a small, silverskin onion which look like extremely fat spring onions and give a good early crop. Our neighbours raise trays from seed overwinter and plant them out very early in spring so that’s exactly what we’re planning to do, although as always I will probably get the date all wrong! There is a lot of gardening done here according to the lunar calendar, and whilst I don’t mind a dash of biodynamics in the garden, I have a tendency to completely overlook the crucial dates in my rush to just be outside with my hands in the earth.

Yes, what a lovely, busy time I’ve been having outdoors; the housework and laundry (and probably a trillion other things) are suffering from severe neglect, but who cares when the garden beckons and wraps its gentle warmth around me? Black Friday . . . what’s that all about, then? Christmas . . . haven’t even given it a second thought. The sun is shining, the robins are singing, the garden is mucked and all’s well with the world. How magical! 🙂

Cave days and colourways

It’s not often we have a day of weather so terrible here that we can’t spend at least a good portion of it outside, but this week has thrown us more than one such to contend with. Thick sulking ribbons of cloud have streamed in from the coast, riding the kind of gusts that send confused crows skittering sideways across the bruised sky. The mountains melt away as the valley is enveloped in rain, each violent squall hammering out its persistent percussion on the roof and hurling raindrops at the windows like fistsful of pebbles.

I always think of these downpours as brutally cleansing; they are not gentle dampenings, soft refreshings or joyful waterings but storms that scour and scrub viciously at the landscape, cascading in curtains from gable ends, filling the river with a menacing voice and casting mirrored puddles in the iron-rich soil of the empty maize fields. In nooks and crannies around the windswept garden, the mounds of tumbled, jumbled leaves tell their own forlorn story.

Confined indoors, I’m happy to potter away at household chores for a while at least but, inevitably, the fidgeting begins once realisation dawns that there will be no outside activity in the fresh air I love and crave; I’ll always consider pulling on waterproofs and setting off through the woods with a brolly but when thunder rumbles its throaty complaints above and blasts of icy hail hammer down, even I have to admit defeat. To things woolly, then. I set a pile of Merino to simmer in a dyepot of dried French marigold flowers, worked a few more rounds of a Scrappy Sock, plied a skein of Jacobs on the spinning wheel. Fidget. Sigh. I balled a skein of walnut-dyed Merino and tussah silk and launched into a new project: this was more like it. I love this yarn, the subtle blend of soft, autumnal colours and silk running through in sleek twists and ripples.

No surprise that I’ve chickened out of lace knitting and opted for crochet instead, a simple narrow scarf using a picot trellis stitch. The yarn is beautifully elastic so should stretch cooperatively with blocking and, depending on yardage, I might work something a little more elaborate at each end. I realised this would the perfect project to tuck into my bag on our travels next week . . . which meant not getting too carried away with it now.

A quick digression into the world of books. Roger and I are both avid readers and English language books are like gold dust to us, being in short supply locally. Rummaging about in the dwindling pile we bought from UK charity shops earlier this year, I came across Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, something I’d picked up in a hurry, hoping the mention of half a million puffins on the front cover might make it readable. What a gem of a read it has turned out to be, a colourful mix of geography, geology, history, linguistics, culture, character, spirituality, wildlife and nature expertly woven into a rich tapestry of descriptive language. I don’t want to put it down. I don’t want to finish it.

So, in my ‘searching for something interesting to do with wool because it’s raining’ mode, a couple of totally unconnected passages from the book wormed their way into my consciousness. The first, a description of how the daughters of the Campbell family – the only resident household on the Shiant Islands at the end of the nineteenth century – spent the long, dark winters knitting woollen socks to sell or give away to welcome summer visitors. As shepherd’s daughters, I suspect there was nothing about wool they didn’t know, the entire act of processing fleece from sheep to sock coming as second nature. The second, an intriguing journey through language, the twists and turns and textures of Gaelic and Norse, as complex and changing and knotted as any cabled pattern, revealing that the Isle of Man had once been called Ellan Shiant, the Holy Isle. Well, I suddenly recalled that somehere – where? – I had some raw Manx Loaghtan fleece, that ancient and endangered breed of sheep from the Isle of Man, descended from primitive ancestors which once roamed the Scottish islands. Serendipity? Time to get down to the full sheep experience.

This Manx Loaghtan was my first (and to date, last!) experience of dealing with a whole, raw fleece and I’m not sure I made a very great job of it. The fleece itself was beautiful, a shearling cut with soft brown underwool and golden tips; the breeder suggested I spin straight from the fleece to preserve the integrity of the different colours and through various painful learning curves, I managed to spin enough wool to make a rather curious looking (but subsequently much-loved) knitted teddy bear for Ben. Through a process of elimination, I deduced that the remaining fleece must be lurking in the dark and mysterious depths of Roger’s Man Cave, so whilst hunting it out I cadged a few rusty nails from the cave dweller himself which are now steeping in a jar of vinegar and water to make an iron mordant for future dyeing projects. Back in the house with the fleece and it was time to sort, tease, card, make fluffy rolags and -panic stations!- start some long draw spinning.

Watch an expert spinning long draw and it is a thing of infinite grace and beauty, the fibre bundle pulled back to arm’s length then the twisted yarn, so fine and consistent, running quickly onto the bobbin in a steady, mesmerising ebb and flow. Watch me doing it and it’s like a Bear of Very Little Brain trying to win a world chess championship; honestly, I’m clueless. All fingers and thumbs, too, which, of course is a large part of the problem; as a dyed-in-the-wool (sorry!) short draw spinner, letting go of the pinch feels as unnatural as trying to write with my left hand. Forget that elegant elastic thread, mine is more like a stringy washing line of lumps and bumps achieved through much muttering and grinding of teeth and there really is only so much pull-pull-pull-break-curse-rejoin-repeat that I can handle at a time. It’s like learning to spin all over again and I suppose that I need to remember that I eventually moved on from those early days of frustration and lumpy ropes of yarn to being able to spin fine and consistent yarns from a range of fibres. I would love some proper tuition one day as I suspect part of the problem is sloppy rolag preparation and the fickle nature of my wonky wheel and much of it is my lack of technique, but in the end, it all comes down to perseverance and practice. Where the Manx Loaghtan is concerned, I hit on a compromise of shorter draw, less pinch and finally managed a bobbin of something.

In the murky depths of the fleece bag, I found something rather strange: a sort of grubby marshmallow of white fleece with a texture like mauled cottonwool mixed with badly mashed potato. It took me a while (and an inspirational mug of tea) to remember it had appeared as an unexplained extra with my gift wheel, stuffed in a clear plastic bag and simply labelled ‘Shetland.’

I’ve puzzled over what exactly it is: certainly not locks of raw fleece, very definitely processed somehow but to no state I recognise. Drum carded, perhaps? It gives the impression of being something that could be spun as it is if it weren’t for the fact that it is completely peppered with field detritus of the kind sheep are so expert in gathering – twigs, stems, dried grass, seeds of all shapes and sizes not to mention several insect life forms. Carding would at least give me the chance to remove some of this clingy rubbish so I made a couple of rolags, did a test spin on the wheel . . . and decided to abandon that idea and do something far more interesting with it. Braving the weather (see, I am prepared to suffer for my art even if it means death by giant hailstones), I ventured out to collect a pile of very soggy walnut leaves and start a dyepot brewing. I chopped the leaves, stuffed in the fleece whole, simmered it for a bit then left it to stand overnight. I love the unfolding magic of this colour transformation!

Mmm, what a delicious chestnut brown. My plan for Shetland Marshmallow Rescue Phase 2 is to spin it and ply it with the Manx Loaghtan for possibly another bear-themed creation. Meanwhile, I’ve skeined and washed the Jacobs, that most reliable and easiest of spinners’ fleece, and started a second in the hope of actually getting back to building a stash of ready-to-dye skeins. Note to self: try not to get sidetracked with new dyepot ideas for a while . . .

I’ve messed about with madder, this time producing a pinker shade than before, and had a great result on Merino from dried French marigolds and an alkali modifier. I’d thought to use this in an indigo vat to produce something green, but that yellow is so yummy I’m tempted to use it as it is – and heaven knows, I need a streak of brightness under these gloomy skies.

Dodging the weather, we’ve managed to harvest the last of the squash. Now here’s a bunch of self-set mongrels if ever I saw one, but I love those textures and colours, the nuanced shades of blue and green, the deep ridges and shallow freckles. Completely delicious in every sense of the word.

The polytunnel offers gardening for wimps in extreme weathers and although there isn’t a great deal to be done at this time of year, it was a joy to pick the last of the Scotch bonnet chillies. We only had two plants and they lagged behind the other varieties from the word go but have certainly made up for lost time. There were a few bonus cayenne chillies, too. Just look at those bold colours, the perfect antidote to grim, grey days.

No matter how dire the weather, when we roll into a second or – horror of horrors – third day of being stuck in the cave, I reach a point where it feels imperative to crawl out from under the bearskins and stretch my legs outside. Swathed from top to toe in waterproofs and clutching our battered old brolly against the snatching wind, I ventured up the lane and into the woods for a short wander. The air was fresh and invigorating, spiced with the scent of wet leaves and sweet woodsmoke, the landscape around me tousled and rearranged by the lashing it was taking. The path was littered with whippy branches from the teetering tops of eucalyptus, nature’s pruning at its most magnificent. I carried a few stems home, charmed by those chunky seedpods that always make me think of wooden buttons on a grandfatherly tweed jacket or aran cardigan.

There is much of the season in these branches, their gunmetal leaves an exact reflection of the skies, their windswept form an echo of the wind’s relentless energy. I’ve put them in a vase close to the stove so that their fortifying, herbal scent wafts sweetly around the kitchen and when they’ve had their day, I shall recycle them through my dyepot.

Eucalyptus is another natural substantive dye. No need for a mordant, simply add fibre. I might just have a handy skein of Jacobs about my person. Mmm, perfect. It seems every cloud really does have a silver lining. 🙂