The joys of January

After what seemed like endless weeks of wind and torrential rain, culminating in a solstice storm so severe a ‘violet’ weather warning was issued in our neighbouring municipality, the weather has been all smiles. Mornings are dreamily atmospheric, the mountains pink-tipped above cloud-filled dips and silvery frost rippling up the valley sides until the sun clears the horizon and turns the tide. The days bloom under wide porcelain skies of flawless blue and there is a warmth in the sun that makes everything feel hopeful.

Now I am not naive enough to be thinking spring thoughts just yet, although there are subtle hints in the air: dusty yellow hazel catkins in the hedge and the haze of new buds in the woodland; a confetti of primroses, violets, celandines and daisies scattered through the orchard and verges; the fragile cries of our neighbours’ first lambs and an energetic bustling and busyness amongst the birds as they find their voices once again. Most of winter is still in front of us, the worst of the weather likely still to come . . . but for now, what life-affirming glee it is to be outside in the fresh air, breathing deeply, turning my face to the sun and connecting completely with this precious little patch of earth.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but certainly one of my intentions this year is to continue building on the new things I was inspired to try in the garden last year. After reading (twice!) Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution I went green manure crazy with tremendous results. I’ve just turned the overwintering mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares on the terraces; it might seem a bit early but our neighbours are already planting their patches so I thought it was time to get stuck in to allow the green stuff to die back before potato time – hooray, the two-year ban has been lifted! What amazed me more than anything else was the amount of worms beneath the green, the soil was literally alive with them which has to be a wonderful sign. Elsewhere, white clover has remained a rich green carpet under and around perennial plants like the row of globe artichokes I planted down a fence line last year. You can see the silvery new growth emerging in the right of the photo, while to the left, the space between the artichokes and kale is filled with the deep green foliage of crimson clover.

I planted a few pockets of crimson clover around the patch in the hope it would go through the winter (it’s not hardy and we do get the occasional frost) and so provide an early nectar source; it has never looked back, forming dense mats wherever I planted it and yes, here come the flowers.

Other flowers, too, are making bright little pops of colour now that many plants have recovered from the ravages of that mighty hail storm in November; good news indeed, as the afternoon air is full of insects in search of a food source. The Japanese quince is a bold splash of red, supported by calendula, borage, cerinthe, osteospermum, pansies, coriander, rosemary and a scattering of roses while in addition to the wilder flowers mentioned earlier, there are dandelions, chickweed, fumitory, clover and red deadnettles a-plenty. A patch of rocket is also in full flower, its delicate sunlit petals a constant source of attraction to bumble bees.

Back to green manure, and although I have more seed to scatter in spring, I’m interested to see just how far the varieties spread themselves this year. Already, there are phacelia volunteers popping up all over the place, some of them even on the verge of flowering; I will let the first bunch bloom as they are such a great food source for bees but there is going to have to be some ‘chop and drop’ business later on. I underplanted the purple sprouting broccoli with white clover last summer but now it also nestles in a sumptuous bed of phacelia and poached-egg plant, all self-set. There’s celeriac in there somewhere, too. No need to fret about bare earth, then.

I also put Mr Fukuoka’s teaching into practice when planting the garlic a few weeks ago in a patch that was formerly home to our late harvest of French beans. Instead of pulling the bean plants and carting them off to the compost heap, I scattered them over the surface of the soil and left them as a weed suppressant while the garlic had a blast of winter in the fridge, then scraped them to one side, planted the the plump purple cloves and re-scattered the bean straw over the top. The fresh green shoots have pushed up through the mulch which continues to hold the weeds back and should – I hope – have rotted down completely into the soil by the time the garlic is pulled. I love this kind of approach; it might look untidy but mess doesn’t bother me one bit – nature is inherently messy, after all – and there is something very wholesome about seeing the garden this way. Every scrap of earth that isn’t planted with a crop or green manure is covered in a thick mulch of compost, comfrey leaves or manure; nothing has been dug or disturbed, just fed. It’s as if the entire patch has been metaphorically tucked up in a cosy quilt and given a comforting bowl of steaming soup! It’s nurturing and nourishing, a large helping of hygge for our winter garden.

Mary Reynolds was also inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, so it’s little surprise that there is much in her book, The Garden Awakening, that has struck a chord with me. One of my ambitions is to plant a forest garden, something that’s very much at the thinking stage at present but which I hope will develop and flourish into the real thing at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken on board Mary’s recommendation that everything organic that comes from our land should be returned to it. Of course, done properly and completely that would involve having a compost toilet which is something else to be thinking about for the future. What we have been doing now, though, as a new approach is creating a small hügelkultur-type bed for this year’s tomatoes and this has been a fascinating and satisfying little project so far. It began a few weeks ago when we were left with a huge pile of brush after removing a couple of small peach and apricot trees which had come to the end of their lives; bearing the idea of ‘returning’ them to the earth in mind, making them into a bonfire just wasn’t on the cards so instead I spent several days chopping every branch and twig into small lengths. It might seem a bit simple but I have to admit it was a very therapeutic and rewarding activity, especially in the sunshine. Once done, I piled the thicker pieces (those that had required loppers) onto the rotting log pile in our wildlife patch which I hope has made the resident slow-worms very happy!

It has taken us four summers to find the only spot in the garden where we can grow blight-free tomatoes so now, taking a leaf out of our neighbours’ book, it was time to make it a permanent planting spot beneath the polythene shelter. Roger built an edge using some spare bricks and we began by filling the base with the smaller woody pieces, the ones that required only secateurs to cut them. A standard hügelkultur bed is built with logs but we’re going for something on a slightly smaller and finer scale here.

Next, we added a thick layer of compost (spent and fresh from the heap) and well-rotted manure.

On to this we are now regularly piling any biomass we can, including a heap of rotted meadow grass cut from the orchard in autumn, huge piles of leaf mould and moss scraped from the yard; the idea is that by the time we’re ready to plant the tomatoes, there will be a raised bed of rich organic planting matter sitting over the slow-release woody fertiliser. It’s already teeming with worms so here’s to an even better tomato crop this summer.

Compost has been a bit of an obsession with me for some time and I have to confess I love any excuse to mess about in the heap (as I said, I’m a simple soul). I spent a very happy day last week scraping the top layer off, digging out trugs and trugs of the stuff and piling it into two mountains in the tunnel; here it will stay dry and any annual seedlings that emerge can be turned over before we use it.

I then set about rebuilding the heap in what John Seymour in The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency describes as a ‘countryman’s stack’ (levelled rather than a pile), first chopping everything big – like a huge pile of woody pepper plants from the tunnel that I’d lazily thrown on whole – into smaller pieces and then layering brown stuff and green stuff with the addition of dollops of manure. We don’t have many nettles here but a persistent plant that grows out of a terrace wall was cut and chopped to add as an activator. I am determined not to buy any commercial compost at all this year as we have been increasingly disappointed in the general quality, the lack of nutritional goodness and the worrying amount of plastic particles that even the more expensive stuff seems to contain. The plastic bags it comes in are another environmental nightmare to deal with so from here on in, it’s home-produced all the way; yes, there will be invasive seedlings but that’s a small price to pay, and if the amount of fungi that has popped up in the tunnel piles is an indicator of vibrant compost health, then we’re onto a winner.

Compared to the verdant jungle of summer, the garden at this time of year always looks a bit bare and yet we still have a plentiful supply and good variety of vegetables to choose from; they just take a little more finding!

We are enjoying Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, leeks, several different types of cabbage and kale, chard, celeriac, chicory, beetroot, carrots, rocket and land cress from outside. There are more treats to come imminently: the broccoli is unfurling its first tender purple florets and in the dark cave beneath the house, fat yellow chicons are emerging from the chicory roots. There is still no shortage of squash and beans in storage and possibly enough chillies to last us several winters, even using them every day as we do. Where fruit is concerned, the kiwi has come up trumps once again and we are enjoying them fresh from the vine when we can persuade the territorial blackbirds and blackcaps to share.

In the tunnel, we have a good range of salad leaves and oriental greens to choose from, including the best crop of lamb’s lettuce we’ve grown in a while. I never fail to be thrilled by picking a fresh, zingy, peppery salad at this time of year, it’s the perfect foil to all those starchy winter vegetables.

In contrast to the abundance of salad leaves, we’ve had a few lone stars of late, too. There is a single spear of asparagus ready to cut which is surely ridiculous at this time of year? After much deliberation over how to best use our very first lemon, we decided to put it into a batch of peach marmalade last week so that it is spread through several jars; the flavour is beautifully intense, it has been well worth the wait. Finally, after nine months of precisely nothing happening in our mushroom logs, a single pioneer shitake decided to put in an appearance. I’m hoping others will follow suit although so far, there’s no sign. Patience, patience.

One thing I am determined to do this year is to finally get a grip on understanding permaculture at a deeper level rather than just dipping in and out or nibbling at the edges as I have been doing for some time. There’s a wealth of material available but I’ve decided I can do no better than go to the founding father himself so I have begun reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual which I’m enjoying immensely. At 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and dense with new, and often quite technical, information to absorb but I’m finding that half an hour’s study in the morning followed by a long run to reflect on what I’ve read is doing wonders for my mind and body (and maybe soul, too). Waiting in the wings is The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield which I’m also very eager to start. There’s several months’ worth of reading material here but possibly a lifetime of inspiration; who knows, I might even get that forest garden planted after all. Happy New Year, everyone! 🙂

14 thoughts on “The joys of January

  1. It’s all looking a lot like spring! I was going to say, unlike here, but then the French lavender is in bloom and it’s 13C today (and blowing a hoolie). Where did you find the Bill Mollison? I had a look online but it was very expensive. The Earth Care Manual is great. A bit more relevant to the UK. While it’s interesting to read about wicking beds and swales, it’s not something we’re likely to need on the west coast of Scotland! The only disappointing thing in the Earth Care Manual was the case study of the author’s own garden and field. But otherwise a mine of inspiration. We’ve been hauling up seaweed from the beach (some workout, 1 mile uphill) to mulch as much as possible with it. We’ve done a bit in previous years and composted some, but now we’re going to use this free resource a lot more. Huegelbeds are great. Especially if you’re not in a windy area. Our underground one is still performing very well. It’s going to have alliums and roots in it this year. Totally agree with the notion that nothing organic should leave the homestead! Only seven more weeks until we harvest our first composted humanure…

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    1. Wow, 13C is a great start to the year! The seaweed sounds like a brilliant idea (and the workout has to be better than a gym subscription 🙂 ), it’s used a lot on the coastal fields here. Very exciting about the humanure, are you pretty much at the zero waste point now? Lots to learn – this year promises to be very interesting for us in many ways (more to follow . . .) – but I agree, there’s quite a lot we don’t need to worry about, including water shortages. Fantastic day today, 18C and sun, sun, sun so I’ve been planting broad beans and soaking up the warmth along with the bumble bees!


  2. What a lovely description of your land in the first month of the year! I will have to take a closer look at Mr Fukuoka’s teachings as I have only read about them briefly before. I am looking forward to seeing how your tomatoes turn out in their new cosy bed.With a start like that, they can want for nothing. 🙂

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    1. The One-Straw Revolution is a fascinating book, he was certainly someone who could see the way the world was going and his ‘do nothing’ philosophy has had a profound effect on my gardening practice ( and I thought I was doing ‘organic’ / wildlife friendly / sustainable pretty well!). The hugel bed is a new one for us, have you used them in your garden? Growing tomatoes here is a nightmare as the summer mists spread blight so rapidly – fingers crossed the plants will be happy and safe tucked into their new home! 🙂

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      1. My partner Paul has read the one straw revolution book and likes it a lot. We have made some very large hugel type beds in the forest where we started off with branches and smaller twigs and added lots of “weeds” from other parts of the garden and it all rots down pretty quick. We have grown some pumpkin in them but mostly the material will be harvested and put back as mulch on the veg no dig raised beds. Two years ago I did a bed about 1 meter tall completely out of weeds like couch grass creeping buttercups nettles etc and covered the top with cardboard, a layer of sheep’s wool and a layer of woodchips. It grew massive pumpkins and courgettes the first year without any further intervention and sunflowers the second. Now all it will need is some mulch and it will be good to go again. I cut up all the sunflower stalks and left them on top and they have prevented more weed growth. It is down to about 20 or 30 cm now. We get a lot of grass clippings from neighbours and that is fantastic mulch. It is so satisfying too keep adding layers and increase the fertility. Nothing is ever wasted! 🙂

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      2. That’s the part I like the most, the fact that everything can be useful and returned to the land and in that way, there is no such thing as a ‘problem.’ I’ve long loved many ‘weeds’ and it’s been satisfying to see how leaving them to flower and seed to benefit wildlife and use as a living mulch or natural green manure doesn’t bring gardening world to an end (others might think it’s lazy or messy but they’re welcome to their opinion). Our son and daughter-in-law are currently visiting from Norway and have loaned me ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree to read which is also proving to be very inspirational. Now I have even more new ideas to think about! 🙂

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    1. Well, I must admit I’m picking and choosing a bit as it’s the sustainable growing part I’m most interested in and that tends to get buried under all the talk of ‘design’ . . . but it’s a fascinating concept and philosophy. How is your garden research going? Hopefully you’re feeling very enthusiastic about your gardening adventure this year. Good luck with all those lovely fresh veggies! 🙂

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      1. We’re definitely getting there 🙂 I’m buying the seed potatoes on payday and we’ve got some manure from the farm to help fill the planters. I’m hedging my bets, mind you, and I’ve joined a local CSA initiative so we’ll have veg boxes from June.

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  3. I love one straw revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka I have read it many times, as it is my inspiration when my gardening is less than I hoped. I have tried Kugel bed but ended up with really good bracken coming up through it. The bracken continues to spread out and I feel I will have to resort to a bonfire now as I do not want my paddock(I was trying to put a few new beds and slow water movement down the slope. Ah well it is all a learning curve. I feel I get distracted by another book I read or a google search. And then I end up feeling envious of stunning gardens such as yours even in Your winter! ;0 It is all an adventure, and certainly working in the soil and garden is helping my mental health as long as I do not let myself get too fixated on things. Reading your lists of things you are harvesting is amazing.

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. It’s good to find some inspirational writing to go back to time and again, isn’t it? I’ve just read Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’ which was a fascinating read and now has me thinking of ways to encourage more wildlife into the garden. It is definitely an adventure and believe me, plenty of things go wrong here, too!!!! I think any time spent in the garden whatever the weather and however modest the harvest is the best medicine on earth! 🙂

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  4. the more time I spend in my garden I have to agree with you regarding the medicine and being summer here I usually go barefoot which earths me. My gardens is a hive of wild life and more and more is coming(mainly because new neighbours are fencing to keep the possums and wallabies out. My place is small but a corridor and I am delighted to have them come and share nearly all of my garden , except my veggie area.

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  5. Hola ! It has taken me a month to reply …. I really don’t know where January has gone ! Back teaching, visitors and lots of knitting! We have another new grandchild due in May ! The garden is slowly waking up but it is still a learning curve. Our home outside space is not big enough for a vegetable patch but I am getting better at sustaining herbs in pots at the door, a lemon tree which hasn’t fruited yet and plans to have Mr Barbour build me some raised beds. I have a secret compost bin hidden in a communal garden ! I love the huerto but it’s 2 miles away and at the mercy of the administration…water has been off to save money since the rain 2 weeks ago. If it was truly mine, without wasting water, I could control it more. Our kale and spring greens are delicious however and we have plans for improvements this year.
    How are you? I love your writing, real food for thought and a dash of inspiration! How is your weather? We had a week of winter, snow on nearby mountains, back to normal now and lunching out side ! We are so very lucky and grateful to still be European despite what’s happening over the channel ! Hope all is well.💕🍋🍋🍋

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    1. It’s lovely to hear your life is so full and busy, same here really – hence the lack of blog writing! Hope you had a good time post-Xmas with your family, how exciting to have another grandchild due. 🙂 The weather here is fantastic, November and January seem to have swapped places this time so I’m very happy with the sunshine (there’s a robin singing its heart out as I write, the birds are loving it , too)). We sat outside in 19C at 9pm last night, it was slightly unbelievable and too lovely to come in. Good luck with the garden, the lack of water must be an ongoing nightmare but makes your harvests so much more impressive! I’m planting potatoes today for the first time after a two-year ban which is exciting, peas and a few other bits and bobs, too. I’m trying not to be fooled by the weather into getting too carried away! I totally agree, what a great privilege it is to be a European citizen and live here in peace and friendship. I feel huge sadness and frustration about all the rest of it . . . 😦


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