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! 🙂

8 thoughts on “Muck and magic

  1. “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.”

    — I couldn’t agree more! I was in heathrow the other week – stuck for three hours longer than planned because of a cancelled flight – and I was left sitting, thinking ‘I am not the target demographic of this space’. It’s all just ‘too much’. The space is too open, too bright, too echoey – it’s just an assault on the sense and all about consumerism. I suppose I should just be thankful that there are now drinking fountains and places to refill water bottles these days!

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    1. Aaargh, flying’s bad enough without a three hour delay. I’m glad it’s not just me, though, I sometimes wonder if I’m too much of a bumpkin when I have to go to places like that. I was very alarmed to have people advancing towards me trying to spray me with various perfumes! Shopping centres – which I avoid like the plague – are just the same. You are right about the water, it should have been done years ago, although I can’t say the fountains exactly leap out at you in Gatwick. So good to be home! 🙂

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  2. reading this post made me think that Nature gave you a timely reminder that the natural world can be turbulent too, not as calm and idyllic as you imagined while waiting for your flight. I’m sorry the garden seemed wrecked, although you’ve certainly managed to set it on the right path again. The idea of a storm stripping paint from a bench is startling.

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    1. Don’t worry, I am under no illusion where the vagaries of nature are concerned! We usually have a couple of days of stormy weather at this time of year then the rest of the month is sunny and calm so whatever happened here must have been extreme in many ways. I have never seen plants (and paintwork!) damaged like they were. Still, it will all recover in time and I’m hoping perhaps December will be kinder.

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  3. Glad to read your gardening year continues to turn and look forward to next season. It must keep you fit toiling up and down those slopes. Thank you for a soothing antidote to The horrors of Gatwick and Black Friday!

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    1. Thanks for your lovely comment! It’s certainly good to be back in the soothing and healing mountain air of Asturias, ‘good medicine’ indeed. The slopes are very hard work, I’m quite glad we don’t have close neighbours to witness me sliding downhill at speed with a trug of manure in my arms. I often think wellies with crampons would be a good idea! Still, it definitely beats gym membership . . . 🙂

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  4. Love it! Your recipe for a simple supper made me hungry – and I have just had breakfast ! ( home made bread and marmalade from the glut of citrus fruit being showered on us from friends- Murcia loves lemons!) . I know how you feel about Gatwick and the South East of the UK. Scotland is still not quite as frantic although no where near as chilled out as here! We are very lucky. Enjoy December . Xxx

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    1. We’re really lucky to spend most of our UK time in rural Shropshire and mid-Wales, Gatwick is a necessary evil as flights to Asturias are so limited. Portsmouth and the ferry are never quite as bad but it takes days to get home that way! Still lovely to be back in the peace and quiet, I don’t know about Murcia but you wouldn’t know Christmas was coming here (or a big holiday next weekend, for that matter) unless you went looking for it. Bliss in my book! 🙂

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