Waves, worms and witches

One of our favourite habits pre-Covid (isn’t it strange and terrible how that has become a phrase in my vocabulary?) was to combine shopping trips with a picnic and walk somewhere scenic. It worked well for us in two ways: first, by minimising car journeys and squeezing the most from a day out and second, by sweetening the dreaded shopping business with a welcome treat. All that stopped with lockdown and we’ve never really got back to it since; we avoid beaches through the summer season anyway, there doesn’t seem any point in deliberately mixing with other people given the situation and we have been doing all our shopping as locally as possible. However, the need to find a replacement battery for the tractor last week meant we had to venture further afield and so it was we ended up at the lovely Playa de Peñarronda, close to the border with Galicia.

The beach might not be as long or quite as stunning as others we know but I have a real soft spot for it, not least because the walk to it is through a wonderfully wild green space. Usually, we have to scramble down cliffs from a coastpath, climb through dunes or pick our way over rocky ridges but this is a very different experience; no plantations of maritime pines here, but leafier beauties printing autumn against the sky.

I love the atmosphere of this place, the way that it feels truly shared between humanity and the rest of nature. The wide sweeps of reed beds with their borders of frothy meadowsweet and banks of chaotic brambles and jumbled trees might not have the same appeal for many people as a beach bar or ice cream kiosk, but I am in my element. There is so much life here!

A wooden boardwalk leads through this marshy area towards the beach, the vegetation spilling over its edges. I stopped to appreciate the raucous frog chorus rising from the depths of the boggy jungle and to watch a kestrel riding the air above on arrowhead wings, coursing the ground for its next meal.

I found myself totally distracted by shape and pattern, by texture and colour; here, the explosion of grassy clumps, there the minute detail of flowering rushes. I could hear the sea but was in no great hurry to get there.

I love the way that the plant world tries to hold on to this space until the very last moment, as if not willing to concede one scrap of land to sand and sea. The river flowing sedately to the beach, all mirrored sky and frantic dragonflies, is thickly fringed with lush plant growth.

Even at the very last moment, where boardwalk morphs to soft sand, those grasses are clinging on for dear life.

Of course, there are always the show-offs, those hardy souls with their devil-may-care attitude, growing in great abundance straight out of the sand.

So – at last- the beach. This is how I like them best, empty liminal strips under wide skies, windswept and wave beaten.

It was so quiet and empty, although we didn’t quite have the beach to ourselves; there were one or two others wandering about like us and a handful of surfers enjoying themselves in those wild waves.

Despite my recent courageous (well, in my mind at least) attempts at wild swimming, I have to admit I don’t rush to get into the sea, especially this cold and lively one, so I am always impressed at the way the surf dudes handle it all with practised ease. The gulls, on the other hand, had seen it all before and had simply turned their backs on such nonsense, happy to paddle in the warmer river water as it flowed down the beach. Well, perhaps they had the right idea.

The course of the river had changed completely since our last visit, cutting a deep channel and shifting across the sand in sinuous meanders that made paddling the only option for anyone wanting to walk the entire length of the beach. Caught in focus with the prominent rock arch behind, I was reminded of the ever shifting nature of Nature, the constant change that never changes. Change was in the air for us, too. Four days after our walk, the Asturian borders were closed once more; we are not (yet) in total lockdown but a trip outside the Principality is no longer possible and it makes sense to stay close to home. How extra precious those golden beach moments now seem.

I would of course be lying if I tried to make out that staying put is a problem for us; cancelling three trips to the UK and one to Norway in 2020 and not having seen our family for the best part of a year is deeply upsetting 😥but at a local level, we are, in all honesty, both very much homebirds. We are blessed to live in such a gorgeous spot and happy to potter and pootle about in that lovely ‘draw water, chop wood, pick greens’ sort of way that defines our simple lifestyle. So, with the weather at long last back to something nearer normal for the time of year ~ sunshine and warmth~ I am very thrilled to be back outside and busy in the garden.

A beautiful October afternoon.

I love the way the light level brings changes, the gentle October sunshine lighting the lanscape in a soft, smudged way; working at ground level, I see the air full of illuminated insects, shimmering like tiny shards of glass, and the plants silvered with delicate threads of spider silk. The garden is full of posturing robins and various finches dashing in and out, raiding the seed-rich sunflower heads I have tied to the fence. It’s magical. It amazes me how full the patch still is, even this late in the season. We are eating carrots, beetroot, chard, kale (several types), cabbage, leeks, parsnips, lettuce, rocket, landcress, Florence fennel, New Zealand spinach, mustard greens, cucumbers, green peppers, nasturtiums and a wealth of fresh herbs; the last of the summer broccoli and figs keep producing little pickings, the first Jerusalem artichokes, oca, kiwi and purple sprouting broccoli are waiting in the wings. We have moved the mighty squash and walnut harvests into the horreo and both are on the daily menu.

Still plenty to pick for our plates!

That said, there are gaps opening up in the garden as crops come to the end of their productive life; this week, we have picked the last of the French beans left to grow big and fat in their pods for drying and lifted the courgette plants ~ after months and months of continual fruiting, they had finally run out of steam. So, what to do with those open spaces?

Well, there are other things we can plant now for early crops next year, including broad beans, peas and garlic; I always fancy some overwintering yellow onions, too, but experience has shown us they’re not keen on the humid climate here. There was a time I would have got stuck in merrily with my garden fork, digging the weeds out to compost and turning the whole lot over into a patch of pristine bare earth. Mmm, how things have changed! I’ve blogged in the past about how much I love digging ~ I really do ~ but, with the help of some incredibly inspiring people, I have come to realise that there is a better way . . . and as I am totally committed to saving the planet (with the help of a few other people, obviously 😉), I have adopted a very different approach. Old dogs most definitely can learn new tricks.

For starters, I don’t see ‘weeds’ any more, rather a range of brave green pioneers who pile in to fill the vacuum that nature abhors. Which species grow in different spaces can tell me much about what is going on with the soil and ‘weed reading’ has become a fascinating and enlightening activity. I adopted a very laissez-faire approach some time ago, leaving most weeds as a living mulch between food crops ~ let’s face it, bare earth isn’t tolerated in nature so as long as our veggies aren’t threatened, why insist on pulling weeds out? They help to protect and feed the soil and retain moisture, many offer excellent food sources for beneficial wildlife and if and when they need culling, they can be returned to the earth directly or indirectly as a nutrient-rich soil booster. Many of them are also useful to us as foods, teas or herbal medicines and this is an area of research and learning I’m finding hugely satisfying. I laughed as we settled ourselves at a picnic table in the green hinterland of Playa de Peñarronda, realising my first thought had been what amazing forage there was to be had there ~ just look at all that red clover, plantain, chickweed, meadowsweet, applemint, birch . . ! 😀

I’ve always been passionate about feeding soil but now my emphasis is completely on growing it. Whereas previously I was concerned about having a balance of nutrients and good structure in a growing medium, now I see soil as a living organism, a precious vital entity to be protected and nurtured at all costs. The world’s topsoil is on the Endangered Species list; it is a crucial support system for life on earth and widely regarded as one of the very best channels for carbon sequestration. It needs a lot of love. So, forget all that digging and weeding; these days, I’m all about treading as lightly as possible ~ literally and metaphorically ~ on the earth and doing as little as possible to disturb the complex web of life it holds. First, a very light hand-pulling of any weeds that needed to be removed (mostly self-set nasturtium and mustard) which I put to one side ready to be chopped and spread as a mulch under our kale plants; I left the yellow trefoil in as a nitrogen-fixing green manure. Next, I used my small garden fork to very gently make holes down a strip we’d been using as a path, to aerate the compacted soil; my goodness, the amount of worms that came to the surface was astonishing. On which subject . . .

Living compost.

. . . the next stage involved that pile of yummy compost I removed from the heap a couple of weeks ago. At this point, I realised that a true permaculture designer would have the compost pile a lot closer to the vegetable patch in the name of efficiency (be kind, I’m only on study week 12 out of 52), but I looked on all those steep climbs back and forth with a weighty trug as good exercise and all part of the Big Soil Love. I piled a deep layer over the planting area, raking it out lightly and leaving just a small patch uncovered at the bottom as it is full of dill volunteers. A couple of days in the sun to warm up a bit and then I shall plant beans and peas straight into it. There it is, the perfect-looking planting patch prepared with the absolute minimum of soil disturbance and living proof that you can do ‘no dig’ without raised beds.

Ready for planting.

I know full well that there will be two possible downsides to this approach. First, the blackbirds who are one of the biggest pea pests here but I’m planning to head them off at the pass by spreading another patch with well-rotted manure; they can’t resist a bit of early morning ‘tractoring’ in muck so I’m hoping it will prove to be a worthy distraction while the seeds germinate. The other issue is the wealth of volunteer seedlings that will pop up out of the compost; probably not cucumbers and squash at this time of year, but without doubt there will be hundreds and hundreds of nasturtiums.

Nasturtiums and New Zealand spinach . . . a perfect pairing.

They get everywhere and are totally irrepressible, especially when we have a mild winter. Still, they are easy enough to pull or chop and drop where they’re not needed but otherwise I welcome them as a free and effective living mulch. Take for example the photo below where they have created excellent ground cover beneath a rose and globe artichoke and have skirted beautifully round the oca to team up with a French marigold amongst the carrots. They’ve even climbed through the fading clematis to add a splash of sunshine on the fence. There really is no stopping them but they’re doing a grand job.

Bare earth? Not a chance!

Tonight, there will be a blue moon and today it is, of course, Hallowe’en, based on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which traditionally marked the end of the old year. Scrape away the modern plastic consumerfest of witches, ghosts, pumpkins and sugar-fuelled pranks and I believe that, whatever your persuasion, there is much value in spending time reflecting on all that has happened through the year and honouring ancestors and loved ones no longer present ~ maybe this year more than ever? The Christian festival of All Saints Day (El Día de Todos los Santos) on 1st November is a hugely important public holiday in Spain, when many people travel to pay their respects at services of remembrance with arms full of flowers and potted chrysanthemums. This year the cemeteries in Asturias are all closed: there will be no services. I can only begin to imagine what distress people must be feeling at this, another blow in such a strange and difficult year.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. . .” ~ William Shakespeare

For me, spending time in the garden with my hands in soil and compost, weeds and seeds, feels like an appropriate way to mark the season and reflect upon the cycles of life and death in a poignant yet pragmatic way. I am here thanks to my ancestors and, in treading lightly on the earth and caring for the soil, I hope to leave a beautiful and thriving planet for my descendants to enjoy long after I am gone from the world. It is the very least I can try to do, surely?

No bonfires or lanterns for us, but an evening barbecue to celebrate the season.

Changing rhythms

It’s sunset time of year once again and the evening sun, sliding ever southwards along the horizon, sinks below the western horizon in a flamboyant flourish of stunning colourplay. So transient, so mesmerising, so beautiful. I am happy to simply stand and watch.

It makes my heart sing every time and what a contrast that is to my previous life, when this time of year always brought with it a certain sense of foreboding. I knew that once the half term break was behind us, I would be travelling to and from work in the dark until February; apart from weekends and the chaotically crammed Christmas ‘holiday’ (I use the term loosely), I wouldn’t see our windswept Welsh smallholding in the light for the best part of four months. For someone who craves ~ no, needs ~ daylight and fresh air and outdoor activity like she needs food and drink, it was a sobering and somewhat depressing thought. The rest of autumn would practically pass me by.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’ve always thought the way we are programmed to behave at this time of year is a serious flaw in modern society. The light is failing, the temperature falling and the weather generally deteriorating as we turn the circle of the year into the dark months. Everything in nature responds by slowing down and settling into a time of rest or dormancy . . . everything, that is, except human beings doings who hurtle around at the same speed, grubbing about in the dark and foul weather and building themselves up to the frenzied consumerfest that is Christmas. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s natural. Yes, of course society needs to function and people need an income; I’m not advocating hibernation, but when do we ever allow ourselves to rest properly, to recharge, to reflect and to reconnect with the natural rhythms of life?

Fo me, being able to buck the busy trend is one of the greatest advantages and privileges of the simple lifestyle we have chosen and the difference it has made to our health and well-being is considerable. Don’t get me wrong, we are still busy ~ of course we are! ~ but it’s busyness on our terms now and there’s something immensely liberating about that. I might no longer have the status or income of a professional role, but sitting outside and processing our final harvest of peppers in the October sunshine, surrounded by the flit of butterflies and a robin’s song, was a hundred times more satisfying and meaningful in my book.

We have the freedom and permission to live according to the light, the temperature, the weather and the ways in which our bodies respond to those factors. I am naturally going to bed earlier and waking later than I did two months ago and it feels right, not lazy. The garden is still heaving with food but it has changed subtly over the last few weeks so that what we are eating now suits the season and our hunger more appropriately than the summer harvest. It’s time for different textures and flavours, for something a little starchier perhaps, but still with the freshness and zing and colour that keeps the vegetable patch and kitchen very much at the heart of things for us. Better still, we have the time to wander and pick (in the light), to prepare and share and savour. Butternut squash with garlic, onion, tomato, mustard greens, leeks and warming whole spices baked under a savoury oaty crumble topping and served with green peppers, courgettes, celery and New Zealand spinach (lightly cooked in olive oil) with fennel seed – now there is a seasonal meal to enjoy!

I have written before about how early autumn usually brings me a burst of energy and this year has been no exception apart from the fact that it has prodded me into activity rather than creativity. I have to admit that, in recent months, where any commitment to exercise is concerned (over and above working in the garden and wandering about the woods), I have been a bit lackadaisical. Actually, I’ve been a sloth. There have been several factors at play which have seen me dabbling at things rather than truly engaging: a plodding run here, a bit of half-hearted yoga there, neither with any great enthusiasm. I have revisited some different things such as tai chi, but gave up after a couple of dire sessions reminded me why I hadn’t persisted before; I honestly don’t think my brain is wired correctly for it, all sense of right and left desert me in the middle of Waving Hands In Clouds (or whatever). I’ve even been wild swimming a couple of times ~ which is pretty much unheard of ~ but it’s far too cold for that kind of malarkey now.

So, with my new-found hike in energy levels I’ve felt motivated to get a grip and get moving once again . . . but this time, very much in tune with what my body is telling me rather than what I feel I should be doing and that has brought me full circle back to yoga. I love my ‘studio’ in the horreo, there is something wonderful about passing under the squash balcony into that private, airy space. I dug out some of my old books and tried to develop a new practice which ultimately led to me signing up for a 30-day Yoga With Adriene programme called True. No matter how many different styles of yoga I try or teachers I follow, I always come back to Adriene and her vibrant yoga community; she is a slightly crazy Texan lady who promotes home yoga practice and dedication brilliantly with the help of her canine companion, Benji. Formal, stuffy yoga this ain’t ~ certainly, I’ve never had a teacher issuing the instruction ‘try not to not behead your dog’ whilst moving into a posture, but I love the fun, light-hearted element of these videos; surely this is how life should be? The yoga is fabulous (man, did I ache by Day 4!) but the emphasis is on practice rather than perfection, on exploration and curiosity, on self-awareness and, above all, self-compassion . . . and that truly suits my mood of the moment. I’ve flirted with this programme before, dipping in and out inconsistently, but this time I’m doing it properly with a commitment to turn up on my mat every day for 30 consecutive days. I’m loving it. Completely.

My happy yoga space.

Health has certainly been at the forefront of many people’s minds through this strange year and I feel more and more a growing need to take as much responsibility for my own fitness and well-being, both physical and mental, as I can. Certainly, that is something that has become easier at many levels following our lifestyle shift. Having lived since my early twenties with a chronic lung disorder that leaves me susceptible to serious chest infections and pleurisy, a GP told me several years ago that the best thing I could do for myself was walk away from teaching. How right he was! Apart from being removed from bug-ridden classrooms and the inevitable stresses and strains of the job, I now have far more time to dedicate to keeping myself well; sometimes it’s so easy to forget that there is nothing selfish about self-care. Those dark winter months are not quite so depressing if I can get outside during the day or sleep as much as I need and still have plenty of time for exercise.

A brisk climb on an October afternoon works wonders for body and soul.

Diet, of course, plays a huge part and in this I find myself shifting in new directions. It is being widely reported now that the way forward for humans (and the planet) is to adopt a more plant-based diet whilst making food choices that support local, small-scale, sustainable and regenerative agricultural and horticultural practices. We have been moving that way for some time now and meat provenance, in particular, has been central to our concerns. I’m a flexitarian; I am not a vegetarian or vegan ~ and I’m not suggesting that anyone should be ~ but I find myself eating less and less meat, not from any particular stance but simply because I just don’t really fancy it much these days. I love fruit and veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, and good quality eggs and dairy products from happy hens and happy cows; I also love the fact that vegetarian cooking has become so exciting in recent years. The squash crumble I described above is a delicious and filling vegetarian dish; quite honestly, there is no reason to miss the meat. I’m toying with the idea of trying a few meat-free weeks to see what it feels like; it will certainly cause a few logistical issues in the kitchen (I wouldn’t dream of expecting Roger to join me in this adventure) but then, what’s life without a challenge? 🙂

Where alcohol is concerned, I’m easily pleased: give me a half-decent red wine and occasional glass of celebratory bubbles and I’m a happy bunny. I don’t want to give it up as I think the old adage ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ holds much wisdom and there should be some pleasures in life! There’s even some research which suggests moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers but that, of course, is open to much debate. I am, however, making a conscious effort to reduce my wine consumption, both in order to benefit my health and the environment; I’m very proud of how we have reduced our waste to such a low level over the last couple of years but the sound of glass shattering in the recycling bin still seems very wrong to me somehow. (As an aside, is there a valid reason why wine, beer and spirit bottles couldn’t be returned and re-used like milk bottles?) Hopefully in the long term, this will be a win-win situation. Cheers to that!

Sticking with drinks and my tea habit has undergone a seismic shift, too. (At this point, I realise that people who know me well are probably starting to wonder if I’ve suffered a serious blow to the head . . . or indeed, if it is actually me writing this 🙂 ) Having cancelled trips to the UK three times this year on account of the coronavirus situation, I recently ran out of the lovely, loose-leaf Assam tea I always bring back with me; yes, for the first time in my adult life, I became totally tealess (Roger doesn’t drink tea so this was a solitary crisis). Now there was a time when this would have seemed like a disaster too terrible to contemplate ~ which probably shows how spoilt I’ve been ~ but I’ve taken the whole situation completely and calmly in my stride. In part, this is because I’ve been steadily moving towards drinking more herbal teas, experimenting with various flavour combinations straight from the garden or hedgerows. Despite the fact that I can pick fresh herbs all year round here, I’ve been inspired by The Greener Dream blog to create my own tea mixes by air-drying a variety of herbs and storing them in jars; if nothing else, it makes things much easier if Roger is on kettle duty ~ it’s kind enough to have a cuppa made for me without expecting him to go out and forage, too! Lemon balm, lavender and thyme is still my favourite brew and that jar just hums with the scent of summer. Lovely.

It’s not goodbye to black tea, though. Earlier this year I wrote about a Spanish company called Pharmadus Botanicals which produces a range of organic herbal teas in biodegradable packaging and, much as I’m not a fan, I was trying to enjoy the green tea from their range.

Well, imagine my joy to discover a couple of weeks ago that they now sell an organic, loose-leaf, black tea, too. Honestly, I would have jumped up and down shouting very loudly with joy if it hadn’t been for that dratted mask inhibiting my ability to breathe and speak, yet alone shout (and possibly because, all things considered, grannies should probably behave themselves in supermarkets). Anyway, the tea is rather pricey so I am limiting myself to a maximum of two cups a day but blimey, this is some wonderful stuff! It is completely different to any black tea I’ve ever tasted, having a slightly herbal flavour that I can’t quite pin down ~ liquorice root, maybe? The strangest thing is that I’m naturally drinking it without milk because that just feels right and the first steaming mug of the morning is a very lovely thing. It has also inspired me to make my own masala chai spice mix as I’m very partial to a warming evening cup during the darker months. I wasn’t really too bothered about any classic or authentic mix so simply went for what felt good: whole cardamon pods, cloves and black peppercorns ground using a pestle and mortar then mixed with ready-ground cinnamon, mace and ginger. I keep the jar by the kettle and add a pinch or two to a pot of the black tea. Mmm, delicious.

Finally, back to a little wildcrafting and a foraging mission in the woods to find some birch leaves, having discovered that they can be used to make a simple shampoo. Obviously, this won’t be news to my Scandinavian friends but I’d never heard of it before and was eager to try. As with so many of my bright, shiny, new discoveries, I’d made it at a wholly inappropriate time of year, given that both silver birch and downy birch are the first trees here to shed their leaves.

Well, what the heck? I went anyway, thinking that at the very least I might pick up a few more fallen eucalyptus branches (I did) and get to kick up the crunchy leaves and generally enjoy the season. What I’d forgotten is that in this mild climate, things never completely shut down; yes, the mature trees are definitely having an autumn but they are underplanted with literally hundreds of youngsters, still very much growing and in the green.

Knowing that birch readily weeps sap, I picked only a couple of leaves from each tree and soon had enough for my experiment. The idea is ridiculously simple: put the leaves in a jar of cold water, steep for 30 minutes then use as a shampoo. I love the fact that the shifts and changes in my life have brought me to this point of utter simplicity and ease. I don’t go to a hairdresser, I don’t dye my hair (never have), neither do I style it or slap any products on it; in modern terms, I’m seriously undergroomed but since I’m not aware of other people gawping or pointing and laughing when I venture out anywhere, I can’t look too much of a wild-haired freak for all this low-maintenance approach. No processing, no packaging, no synthetic colours, perfumes or other nasties: just a handful of leaves from the wood and water from the spring, both of which are returned to the earth after use. The question, of course, is does it work? Yes, it most definitely does, leaving my thick mop clean, shiny, soft and smelling faintly of summer. Thank you, nature. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

I think that everything else is working, too. Certainly, I already feel leaner, fitter and stronger. I’m sleeping well, and feel quietly calm and very happy – I’m doing a lot of smiling! My energy levels are high but not frantically buzzing; in fact, I feel completely in step with the rhythm of the season, making the most of the daylight hours but happy to embrace the dark as a natural and welcome balance. That’s after I’ve enjoyed the sunset, of course. 🙂

Wild things

I like the term wildcrafting; look for a definition and you’ll find a range of subtly different meanings and perspectives, all of which embrace the idea of collecting plant materials from the wild for eating, crafting (by which I mean things like dyeing and basket-making) or making herbal medicines. It differs slightly from foraging in as much as there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of stewardship, of knowing, observing, understanding and caring for the land, of treating it with honour and respect in the way indigenous peoples have for millennia. It’s about ethics, sustainabilty and above all, connection: yes, I like that very much.

It’s been something I’ve reflected on a good deal this week as we have been gathering and enjoying so much of nature’s bounty. Our fields are full of parasol mushrooms, dotting the green in great sweeps of creamy caps among the purple haze of autumn crocus. They seem particularly large and meaty this year and are a wild food to be treasured.

We pick them early in the day while they are curved and pristine, all sharply pleated gills and clean, lemony scent. Combined with chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes they make the very best of creamy autumn soups, a dish that sings in celebration of the season and makes a perfect lunch for hungry gardeners!

Later in the day, the mushroom caps flatten and it’s clear that something else has been tucking in, too . . . and this brings me back to the concept of wildcrafting. It would be very easy to go out and pick every mushroom for ourselves, eating what we can manage now and preserving the rest for later (and perhaps if we were starving we could be forgiven for that). However ~ thankfully ~ we’re not starving and the mushrooms aren’t there just for our culinary delight; they are an important and integral part of the biodiversity that exists within the ecosystem of the meadows and as such, it’s crucial that we take only our fair share and leave the rest.

In countries where wild edible fungi proliferate, the ancient skills and knowledge of finding, preparing, preserving and using them are passed down from one generation to another. This learning and observation aspect of wildcrafting is essential since the wrong choice or information could result, quite literally, in a fatal mistake. I’ve always applauded the fact that in France, foraged fungi can be taken to a local pharmacy for identification, yet if they are not edible, it seems wasteful and destructive to have picked them in the first place. There are plenty of good reference books and internet sites but this is a case where I believe there is no substitute for learning first-hand from an expert: a fungi foraging workshop is definitely on my wishlist! In the meantime, they are at their absolute best here now so it’s the perfect chance to get out with the camera and simply enjoy the rich visual variety on offer.

Eucalyptus is something I have no difficulty finding or identifying, being such a ubiquitous part of the western Asturias landscape, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It is an exotic, invasive alien which really shouldn’t be here and there is widespread acknowledgement and concern across the Iberian Peninsula at how the vast monocultural plantations have depleted topsoil, disturbed the water tables and offered very little to native wildlife. It’s ironic and sad when the native forests of mixed broadleaf species grow so prolifically in the benign climate and burst with a rich biodiversity of life.

As with all things, though, I like to keep a balanced view, and it’s fair to say that eucalypts are not all bad. For a start, they are proving to be a mighty weapon in regenerating areas of several countries where deforestation and desertification have caused mass ecological devastation. That so much of the commercial crop ends up as toilet paper can mask the fact that they are a very dense hardwood, excellent as a building material and fuel; during the nineteenth century, they were planted in some countries alongside railway tracks as an instant and accessible fuel for steam trains and certainly they form the bulk of our winter fuel here. The flowers are a fantastic source of nectar and provide invaluable winter forage for Asturian bees, yielding a delicious honey into the bargain. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the trees slough off old bark in twisted ropes that hang from the high branches like tropical vines or litter the woodland floor like discarded snake skins. The bark has proved useful to us as a natural hanging basket liner and a ‘brown’ addition to the compost heap.

For me, though, in wildcrafting mode, it’s the leaves that are valuable, and the days following windy weather are ideal for collecting them; the mature leaves grow so high up it’s impossible to pick them without the aid of a tame koala but a few decent gusts are enough to shake the stems down.

The younger stems are more accessible and very different with their rounded leaves and pretty blue tones. I’ve been watching these fresh stems shoot up from an old stump over the past few months but in recent weeks, they’ve been flattened ~ I’m not exactly sure by what, but as there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to wild boar activity in that area, I have my suspicions!

These seemed like the perfect branches to harvest, but of course, I didn’t cut them all; there was a timely little reminder sitting on a leaf that the trees might be aliens, but they do still have something to offer to others.

Now at this point, let me digress a little and say that it has been a terrible year for snails. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s been a truly wonderful year for snails but a terrible one for gardeners trying to grow leafy vegetables. Honestly, they are like a plague, and ~ in contrast to our first summer here when we had a similar slimeball deluge ~ it’s the tiny ones that are causing all the trouble. Bad enough that they sit about in small groups on the tops of leaves, the undersides are generally hiding twenty or thirty of the little beasties. In a way, the current boom is partly my own fault; three nights away followed by several days of wet weather where I chose to spend minimal time in the garden gave them free range to spiral out of control, doing what snails do naturally . . . scoffing our crops.

The problem, of course, is that we choose to garden in an organic, sustainable and regenerative way and this is what the frontline looks like; it’s all very well waxing lyrical about ‘working with nature’ and flooding social media with sundrenched pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect veg but this is no unicorn-infested fairytale or horticultural utopia. The reality is that such an approach to growing food is not a soft option: it can be frustrating, demoralising and downright hard work at times. I appreciate that the prospect of spending an afternoon scraping hundreds, if not thousands, of snails off leaves wouldn’t appeal to many people ~ I’m one of them ~ but if we are to remain true to our gardening values and principles, then it’s the only way. I did smile at the thought of Bill Mollison’s famous ‘duck deficit’ quotation, wondering how many legions of feathery foot soldiers we would need to win this particular battle! The alternative, though, is not an option, partly because the poisons in slug pellets could seriously harm toads, frogs and lizards who are all valuable allies in this. Also, it comes down to a very simple equation: what goes into the soil goes into our food, and what goes into our food goes into us. Metaldehyde or molluscs? No contest . . . so back to the manual extraction it is, and it’s worth the effort because we are currently enjoying an abundant harvest of delicious, leafy greens despite the snails’ best efforts.

Anyway, back to the business of harvesting eucalyptus. As the trees are evergreen, it’s possible to collect fresh leaves all year round as and when I need them but I decided it might be interesting to see how well they dried. Given how the dried leaf is widely available to buy for a herbal tea and the plethora of mouthwashes, chest rubs and other medicinal products on the market, it might be surprising to learn that eucalyptus is poisonous and can be extremely harmful to humans and animals if ingested in large quantities (koalas have evolved the ability to flush the toxins out quickly). In short, eucalyptus contains cyanide ~ but then so do apples, peaches, barley and flaxseed, among others. Once again, it’s down to learning, knowledge and ancient wisdom; in small quantities, eucalyptus leaf offers a safe and healing herb and after all, I’m not intending to sit and chew my way through a huge pile of them! I will use the mature leaves for the occasional cup of tea and steam inhalations to ease winter congestion; mashing and washing the leaves actually helps to eliminate the cyanide anyway, as it’s water-soluble. I’m also planning to macerate some in almond oil to make a rub for sore muscles, perfect for some gentle post-run therapy. The younger leaves I will simmer in water to make a household disinfectant and toilet cleaner. The bunch is currently hanging in the autumn sunshine with some indigo-dyed fleece I finally got round to plying and skeining thanks to a rainy day . . . and yes, I should have been on snail patrol instead of messing with yarn. 🙂

Regular readers will know that I need no persuading to go wandering about in the woods at the best of times, but just at the moment there is so much seasonal colour and beauty to enjoy, especially with a splash of soft sunlight on the leaves, that it is a complete delight.

Not that these walks are without their dangers; I’ve mentioned the risk of being bombed by falling chestnuts previously but things have taken on a new twist this week in the form of giant webs. Spiders are most definitely the animal of the moment (shame they don’t eat snails) and the webs are enormous affairs, stretching several metres right across the forest paths. The risk of entanglement for the unwary is supremely high but luckily, the rather plump spinners tend to sit right in the centre waiting for their next unsuspecting victim; this makes the invisible webs all the easier to spot and then they can be avoided with a little nifty limbo dancing. I’ve yet to see that noted as an important facet of wildcrafting anywhere . . .

The chestnuts really are worth the trouble, though, and this year’s crop seems to be especially good ~ fat, unblemished and maggot-free. Those spines are lethal so a thick pair of leather gloves is essential! Unlike walnuts which we store for a year, we tend to eat chestnuts as more of a seasonal food, perhaps just freezing a few peeled ones for adding to stuffings or winter stews later on. They are such a versatile and delicious ingredient; as well as the aforementioned soup, they are a great addition to sauces and casseroles, pasta and pizza toppings, crumble mixes and breakfast bowls and we particularly love them roasted in trays of mixed vegetables.

In complete contrast to the hearty, floury starch of chestnuts, one of my other favourite forage foods at the moment is applemint. It’s a boisterous native, romping energetically through the verges and meadows and for me, it is the quintessential scent of an Asturian summer, especially when the grazing cattle trample it. It has a pungent scent but I must confess that my nose tends to pick up more carbolic than apple; mind you, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ leather, chocolate or mushrooms from red wine either, despite much conscientious application, so that’s not really saying anything. The scent of applemint might be lost on me but I do like the flavour, particularly a few leaves brewed with green tea as a refreshing, relaxing drink and aid to digestion. The plant doesn’t die back completely once summer is over but I tend to have to wander a bit further afield to find a good clump once the season changes. I’m not the only one who appreciates its bounty!

Now at moments like these, I have a habit of losing all sense of what I set out to do because I become sidetracked by other things; the fragile beauty and perfect symmetry of the butterfly sipping sweetness from deep within the flowers had me totally absorbed. Well, that was until I noticed someone else perched on a neighbouring leaf . . .

Flitting from flower to leaf, the first little star at last opened its wings to give me a hoped-for glimpse of that gorgeous blue.

Well, why not be led astray by all this natural wonder for a while? Like the vivid saffron stamens cradled inside crocus cups . . .

. . . or the fleeting fire of a sunset, for me it’s the wild in wildcrafting that is so very special. 🙂

October odds and ends

Following on from ‘Autumn Breezes In’ last time, part of me felt I should call this post ‘October Blasts In’ given the run of stormy weather that has heralded the start of the new month. There’s nothing unusual here about several days of autumnal storms bringing high winds, torrential rain (sometimes hail) and lively thunderstorms; what is odd is that they have arrived a month earlier than normal, catching us a little by surprise. This is generally an early November thing, a cold and soggy spell sandwiched between weeks of warm, mellow, sunkissed weather.

It would be easy to feel fed up with this sudden dip but we know from past experience it’s a temporary thing, nothing more than a meteorological hiccup. It’s a change, not an ending, and I must admit I quite enjoy the atmospheric shift it brings in its wake. There is something cleansing and scouring about those heavy downpours, washing away summer’s dusty debris and shaking the tree canopies open in a way that makes everything look fresh and scrubbed, if a little tossed and jumbled, too. Where gentle summer petals fell and lizards basked in quiet corners, suddenly, there are flurries of fallen leaves.

The fig trees have been well stirred, their leaves flipped inside out and hanging at jaunty angles where before there was ordered calm. Happily, there is still much sweetness to be found amid the chaos.

The poor courgettes have taken a bashing, their huge leaves shredded to lace. They are still producing the occasional fruit but are nearing the end of their season now.

The sunflowers have definitely reached the end of the line, victims of their own success in a way; they had grown so tall and are so heavy that they really didn’t stand a chance in the face of strong winds and wet earth. I usually save some seed to plant next year and leave the rest for the birds to eat at their leisure ~ this year, I am going to have to cut the heads and hang them on the fence to make access easier.

Close cousins to the sunflowers, the Jerusalem artichokes have been making a gorgeous splash of yellow on the terrace for many weeks; now, petals gone, they have collapsed in spectacular fashion, narrowly avoiding a young cardoon. It’s not a problem: hidden deep in the soil will be piles of starchy tubers that make wonderful comfort eating all through winter.

I love all this seasonal jiggling and shifting in the garden, the way old troopers bow out as the new crew appears. There are still some brave old souls clinging on, though: the squash patch is looking rather flattened and forlorn after the boisterous growth of summer, but there’s still a flamboyant little finale to come.

Oca is a new experiment for us this year and it’s been an interesting plant to watch. The attractive trefoiled foliage grew quickly from tiny pink tubers in the spring, but then really struggled as the temperature climbed; flattened and panting through the summer afternoons, it cried out for daily watering and there were many times I doubted it would survive. It’s a plant that needs falling light levels to form tubers and it certainly seems much happier now ~ in fact, it’s positively blooming where other plants are giving up for the year.

Another new plant for us is the New Zealand spinach which just seems to go from strength to strength, sprawling merrily over a wide area on succulent stems and producing masses of fresh green growth. I love it, it’s such a cheery, unassuming yet versatile vegetable, with none of the high maintenance issues that can come with true spinach. I’m hoping it will carry on right through the winter.

There’s nothing new about ‘Greyhound’ cabbages, we’ve been growing them for years but we are playing around a bit with their season this time. They are officially a summer cabbage, usually ready in early June, but we decided to see how they would fare as an autumn vegetable; given the mild climate here, we thought it was surely worth a punt. Mmm, looks like we might have backed a winner!

Leeks, too, are an old favourite and the idea of not having a reliable patch to crop through winter is too terrible to contemplate. They’re looking grand and the stormy weather has barely ruffled their glaucous leaves . . . but they are more than ready to eat now, which I suppose makes them officially an autumn vegetable. The same is true of those other great staples ~ parsnips ~ along with the first of the autumn carrots and Florence fennel; it’s as though a big seasonal dietary adjustment has blown in with the storms. Well, we’re not complaining.

Something else which may be a bit earlier than usual this year are the kiwis; they normally start in early November but are looking to be slightly ahead of the game. There is less of a crop than we’ve enjoyed in previous years, but it’s all relative. Let’s just say, we won’t be going short.

There will be no shortage of squash, either, as phase two of the harvest has boosted the number to 44 with yet more still to come. I don’t think we’ve ever grown such huge butternuts, most of them weigh several kilos each.

Washed and dried, they are all lounging on their sun balcony ~ despite the distinct lack of sun ~ seasoning away nicely before being moved into the horreo for storage. Squash is very much back on the menu, diced and roasted with onions, garlic and chestnuts being a current favourite, both hot and cold.

It might be difficult to muster the enthusiasm during a torrential downpour, but I think it’s vitally important to celebrate the gift of water. Certainly, it’s not something Asturias lacks ~ in fact, it’s very much a defining part of the landscape here and the rich, all-pervading verdancy stands testament to the generous rainfall we receive. The water cycle has always fascinated me, in so many ways it’s something all too easily taken for granted and yet I think it is the most incredible, mind-blowing thing. We have an unlimited supply of chemical-free spring water here which we can use to water the garden in times of need, but old habits die hard and the idea of not capturing the abundance of rainwater sliding down the roof is unthinkable. I smiled to see the butt full to overflowing, a single hibiscus leaf floating on the surface of the cool, clear water like a lonely boat. Such a precious resource, indeed.

Another precious resource ~ well, to my mind, anyway ~ is compost. I understand that plenty of people may struggle to share my delight at the sight of a pile of decomposing vegetation, but for me this stuff is worth its weight in gold. Our compost heap swells to great proportions over the summer and as it had started to meet me as I came round the corner to the squash patch, I thought it was probably time to turn it once again.

The first job was to lift off the top layers and place them to one side. This is easier said than done, especially as we seemed to have a lot of branching things that had tied themselves in knots. Also, there was a bit of a self-set nasturtium thing going on . . .

It was welll worth the effort, though, as beneath all that mess was a wonderful layer of dark compost: it was hard to get the camera angle right, but the compost layer was about 30cm deep (or a foot in old money if you prefer). Down the whole length of the heap, that adds up to a lot of compost!

To say it was full of worms would be an understatement. This is the sort of sight that gladdens my gardening heart; it’s also no exaggeration to say I was literally mobbed by robins who lost no time in spying an easy meal.

I lifted the compost and built a heap between the pile of rotting farmyard manure and the comfrey potion bucket. Once it was all there, I covered it to keep the rain (and robins!) off until we spread it around the patch and in the tunnel, the perfect autumn feed for our soil.

Spending most of our lives outdoors as we do, it comes as a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves confined indoors because of terrible weather (thankfully, it rarely lasts more than a day or two). With an unusual drop in temperature, we decided to light our stove ~ aka The Beast ~ for the first time in months. I love this ritual of the first fire, there is something so reassurring and life-affirming about the sweet scent of woodsmoke curling from the chimney and the flicker of flames behind glass. Like a line of washing blowing in the breeze or a pot of herbs by the kitchen door, for me there’s a strong sense of ‘home’ about it and certainly the wrap-around warmth it creates in the house is pure seasonal hygge. The kettle sits there ready for coffee, the bread dough revels in the warmth and we often pull a bag of peaches from the freezer and set the jam kettle to bubble. Lovely.

This is a great time to catch up on a few indoor tasks. It’s walnut harvest time at the moment and the wind has helped to hurry things along a bit, although beating the wild boar and polecats to the fallen treasure is as much a race as ever; luckily, there’s more than enough to go round. Walnuts are a huge crop for us here and we eat them every day; no food miles, no packaging, highly nutritious and delicious and all for free, they are a perfect food. We have just reached the final basket of last year’s harvest so sitting by the fire and cracking a pile of them ready to use was a satisfying pastime.

I haven’t done any knitting for ages but there’s something about the onset of autumn that has me reaching for my needles and starting a new sock project, and this week has been no exception. I’ve opted for ‘Drops Delight’ yarn in gorgeous jewel colours that work up in wide colourwashed bands; I’m a simple soul, but things like this make me very happy!

I’ve also been finishing a birthday card, the second one I’ve made recently as we have two little grandsons celebrating their third birthday within a short time. Making cards for The Littlies has become a bit of a tradition and I love spending the time reflecting on the joy they bring to our lives and how wonderful it is to watch them grow and develop their own fascinating personalities. I wanted to create something seasonal, so opted for the idea of autumn hedgehogs looking for somwhere in the leaf litter to hibernate. I set up an art ‘studio’ outside (pre-storm, obviously) and used children’s watercolour paints to make colourwashes ~ this is the absolute extent of my talent with paint! 🙂 I then spent a very happy hour traipsing about the woods, collecting leaves of all shapes and sizes to use as templates. For the hedgehogs, I returned to my yarny comfort zone and used scraps of spun fleece: natural brown Manx Loaghtan for the body and French marigold -dyed Merino for the face and feet. Well, as ever, the result was a bit quirky but if nothing else, there’s a lot of love in it!

The same can be said for something I am making for a very special family, a summery blanket to grace a new garden bench. I have loved every minute of this project so far, from choosing the colours together ~ nine shades of blue and three yellows ~ to the postman delivering the parcel of wool and with it, that wonderful anticipation of starting on a new journey of simple creativity.

I’m not following any pattern, just working the rows in blocks of twelve so that each colour is distributed evenly across the blanket, pulling out whichever colour I feel like using next as I go along. It’s a blissfully relaxed approach.

I’d forgotten what a lovely thing this ripple stitch is, there is something so gently therapeutic about working up and down those waves; it’s the perfect pick-up, put-down activity on wet days and it’s exciting to see it growing steadily into a blanket.

Those colours certainly help to brighten the grey gloom, they feel like the essence of an Asturian beach day in summer. They also serve as a reminder that of one thing we can be sure: the winds will drop, the rain will stop, the temperature will rise again and we will soon be basking in the benign warmth of a soft, sweet autumn once again. We won’t be packing the shorts and sandals away just yet. There’s nothing like a bit of blue sky thinking in my book! 🙂