I love this time of year, when the weather is kind; there is such a wonderful, gentle, subtle sense of the seasons changing, of sliding softly into autumn without any great jolt or shock to the system. I love the cooler, misty, cobwebby mornings leading to balmy, sun-drenched afternoons. I love how the still-green landscape starts to fade at the edges, leaves mellowing into artistic tinges of yellow and orange that hint at the bright fire to come. I feel wistful to see the last of the swallows leave but amused by the chattering of goldfinch flocks feasting on the sunflower seeds (I’d planned to harvest those heavy heads for the bird table but it seems I’ve been beaten to it). I love the straggly mingling of rudbeckia and Michaelmas daisies and the shameless colour of the red admiral and peacock butterflies who sip nectar from their depths. I love the scent of apples and mushrooms and wet leaves and wood smoke.
What I don’t love is an overnight forecast of 5°C, which at 7°C below normal on 30th September seemed very unnecessary. I don’t need to be waking to frost-encrusted grass yet, no matter how pretty it might look in the morning sunshine: there’s all winter to enjoy that kind of parky malarkey. Thankfully, it was just a blip; the temperature recovered rapidly and nothing seemed to have suffered, except for the squash plants. To be fair, they had been dying back naturally for some time anyway but that chilly night left the leaves limp and blackened – just the prod I needed to get on and harvest them. Now, those of you who have followed my blog for some time will know what a chaotic event the squash harvest always was in our Asturian garden: it was definitely a two-person job, one sliding up and down the slopes rescuing heavy squash before they barrelled off down the mountainside, the other ferrying them about in a wheelbarrow under a very worrying pull of gravity. Once cleaned, they then all needed hauling up many steps to the horreo for seasoning and storage: all in all, quite a workout. What a difference it was this week on the flat, managing the whole thing on my own without a single escapee. Here’s the result . . . from outside, 14 ‘Crown Prince’, 6 butternut ‘Hunter’ and 15 Casa Victorio Specials and from the tunnel,15 butternut ‘Hunter.’
There are a couple of butternuts still ripening in the tunnel but the total so far is 50 squash. Should be enough! 🤣 Okay, probably far too many, but they represent an important staple food for us and will keep until next May: eight months of delicious, nutritious sustenance – who can argue with that? I love the fact that they have grown so prolifically on their hügel bed: for me it’s the perfect recycling of an ugly ornamental conifer that had outlived its usefulness. I also love what happens with our Specials, that crazy mix of different fruits grown from the seed of a single squash. ‘Crown Prince’ and ‘Hunter’ are commercial F1 varieties; we grow them because they make good eating and they do exactly what it says on the packet. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing. The open-pollinated varieties are far more fun, though, and have the benefit of a wider genetic biodiversity which it is so important to sustain. In the middle row below, you can see five distinct types of squash all from the same ‘parent’ (which is usually the final squash to be eaten last season so I suppose, if nothing else, we are selecting for good keeping qualities); if we continued to grow selectively over a number of years by closing the flowers to pollinators and doing the job ourselves, we could eventually create our own variety – something I’d like a crack at in the future.
In the meantime, having been wiped clean and dry, the beauties are now seasoning in the shelter of the outhouse before going into the barn for winter storage. Mmm, the comforting luxury of lunchtime squash, bean and chilli soup beckons . . .
Talking of luxuries, we are enjoying what can only be described as a glut of aubergines from the tunnel; no matter how many we harvest, there always seems to be at least another twenty to pick, so much so that I’m even looking into spicy aubergine chutney and pickle recipes in an attempt to make the most of such bounty. We’re having a lot of fun using them and I can happily report that grilled slices over crème fraîche and mozzarella make a great homemade pizza topping; in fact, drizzled with pesto made from the last of the outdoor basil and stored garlic and walnuts, scattered with a handful of peppery rocket from the tunnel and served with a chunky slaw of autumn cabbage and carrots, aubergine pizzas are a wonderful celebration of the changing of the seasons. Then there’s the sweetcorn, something we haven’t managed to grow in any great quantity for many years; boy, are we making up for it now! The cobs are huge and covered in sweet, succulent kernels, to be honest a meal in themselves.
Like other seasonal luxuries such as asparagus, globe artichokes and strawberries, I think sweetcorn is best cooked and eaten as simply as possible and for us, the absolute favourite treatment is to cook whole cobs on the barbecue. If you’ve never tried it then trust me, it’s the food of kings, a true culinary delight we learned about in our years spent living in Cyprus. The merest whiff takes me straight back to Limassol seafront where, under bright moth-circled lanterns, the corn sellers wafted air across their charcoal braziers sending the appetising scent of caramelising corn to mingle with those of jasmine and sea breezes. Delicious, definitely my kind of takeaway food – and isn’t it incredible how evocative simple scents can be?
Having enjoyed plentiful harvests of peaches, figs and kiwis in recent years it might seem a bit mundane to be excited about an abundant apple harvest but I am, I really am. Apples are, after all, a fundamental part of my heritage and culture as well as being an incredibly versatile and reliable food source. Picking a sun-kissed apple straight from the tree, running a fingernail across its smooth skin, inhaling the unique scent and then taking a bite is a world away from any experience on offer from a supermarket. I love all the folklore and mythology that surrounds this humble fruit but more than anything, the wonderful variety and charming names: Keswick Codlin, Pitmaston Pineapple, Cornish Gilliflower, Peasgood’s Nonsuch and King of the Pippins trip off the English tongue like a spellbinding fairy tale whilst the French Orleans Reinette, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Bonne Hotture, Binet Rouge and Franc Rambour sound completely delightful.
For us, this year is a voyage of Discovery (aargh, I’ve just realised what I did there – no pun intended) as we sample the fruit from the nine exceedingly mature trees that came with the property; I am spending many happy moments picking and wandering and munching. One is most definitely a cider apple, another has large yellow fruits that are almost completely tasteless; there are three varieties grafted onto a single tree, of which one is an acceptable russet type and the others fair to middling. The rest are a pretty mixed bunch but in general, the further up the tree we go, the bigger the fruit and better the flavour. By far the best is the old tree in the Secret Garden; it was the first to bloom in spring and the apples are small but delicious, very juicy and without question up there with a Cox’s Orange Pippin for flavour.
Now we need to decide where to go from here: we will pick and store the better fruit as dessert apples but there are no cookers (which comes as no surprise) so one or two of those are on the top of our late autumn tree planting list. This is apple territory and much of the local orchard harvest goes to making three big regional products: cider, pommeau and calvados. We would prefer to use ours for fresh juice – another local speciality – but that comes with problems, not least the lack of a press. The local country store offers days where we could take our bulk harvest along to be pressed, but then how could we keep the juice? Without being pasteurised it would go off or ferment and freezing would require a lot of space. Perhaps the better bet would be to store the apples as long as possible and juice them as we go along – but how? We had an electric juicer once but it was hopeless for apples, we spent more time cleaning it and removing the pulp than drinking the juice. Decisions, decisions . . . in the end, I’ve ordered a traditional wooden 12 litre press to be delivered this week and we’ve decided the time has come to put the chest freezer (left here by the previous owners) to use, no bad thing really since the upright freezer is rapidly filling with produce anyway. Time to pick apples, then!
Harvesting and preserving food aside, there are other things we have turned our attention to this week in preparation for the colder months to come. Where laundry is concerned, I’ve always preferred to line-dry outdoors but a run of short, cold, wet days makes that impossible. We don’t have (or want) a dryer and I’m sad to have waved goodbye to my trusty wooden airer as there simply isn’t any practical way of mounting it over the kitchen woodstove, so a Plan C has been called for. We rigged a temporary zigzag of a line in the outhouse earlier in the year but it’s far from ideal for several reasons; first, it’s too small to take a full load of washing and no good for things like bed sheets; second, until we get the barn sorted – another winter project – this space is being used as a sheltered workshop and washing just gets in the way; third, it’s the only place we have to season the squash haul and they make access to the line very tricky. In any case, we don’t really want a washing line there as our eventual plan is to use the space as a practical outdoor area for activities such as soapmaking and, most definitely, a sheltered dining area so we can eat out and barbecue in all weathers.
The solution we hit on in the end was to relocate to the Oak Shed where there is ample room for a long stretch of line and two wide, open doorways allow a good breeze to blow through without letting the rain in. It’s much further from the house but that really doesn’t bother me; at least the laundry can start its drying process if nothing else and will come in smelling of fresh air to finish drying on a stand-up airer in a warm room. Job done . . . well, not quite that quickly: as with so many other tasks here, there was a bit of a knock-on effect and the line couldn’t go up until a pile of huge seasoned tree sections had been split and stacked out of the way. Which brings me on to the next autumnal preparation . . .
. . . logs! Our house is heated with wood and hauling, chopping and stacking enough logs to see us through a winter is hard, ongoing work; ideally, they need to be seasoned for two years before burning so we are always working well ahead of ourselves. We have stacks at various stages scattered about the property; those below are the latest to be collected from the coppice, birch logs split and stacked to dry in the fresh air.
Their final resting place is a store in the barn, along with several bags of chopped dry morning sticks. There’s every chance we don’t have enough to see us through our first complete winter here, in which case we will buy in a ready-seasoned load if stocks start to run low. It might be work, but the beauty is it boosts our self-reliance; we aren’t depending on energy companies to keep us warm (and isn’t that a topic of conversation at the moment?) and with careful management of the coppice, we should have the best, renewable ‘solar’ power for years to come.
In terms of stoves, there has been a bit of work to be done there, too. The kitchen stove works well as a space heater and runs two radiators comfortably but struggles with all four; to that end, we’ve installed a woodburner in the sitting room which will tick over nicely on minimum logs, heating that room and the open upstairs room which means we can turn two radiators off. With reduced pressure on the kitchen stove, it should be a lot better to cook on, too; the hob is brilliant but the oven temperature was disappointing last year – giving the internal workings a good clean has helped matters, so fingers crossed for roast dinners as well as casseroles this winter! One of the problems with the system is that there was no thermostat and the pump switch is outside in the cave, meaning we either had to get up in the night and go outside to switch it off or waste electricity letting it pump cold water round the system for several hours. We’ve just fitted a flue thermostat, it’s not the prettiest of things but it does mean we can control the pump from inside now. The other major concern was that the way the system is set up, if there is a power cut then the water could boil and the tank explode unless we put the fire out quickly (not easy!); to that end, we’ve set the pump on an uninterrupted power supply which will keep going for 24 hours in the event of a power cut, giving us time to get things under control and the option of continuing to be able to cook hot meals without electricity. Phew! With power cuts in mind, I’ve also been putting candles and lamps in strategic positions ‘just in case’ as it’s a bit frustrating trying to find the things once the lights have all gone out. I think we’re ready; cue the mildest, power cut-free winter on record . . .
Lack of insulation was a problem when we moved in last December so putting up new wood panel ceilings and packing a deep layer of insulation behind was a priority and one that made a noticeable difference to the temperature of the house. The windows are large and the south-facing aspect means we can benefit from passive solar heating all year round but unlike many local properties, we don’t have wooden shutters to help with night-time insulation. Instead, I’ve hung heavy lined curtains wherever possible which should help to keep things cosy. In the two upstairs rooms, the windows on the back of the house are in fact full-length glass doors; they let in plenty of light and as they face north, overheating in summer isn’t an issue. The previous owners left single full-length curtains in colourful Indian batik patterns which I’m happy to keep but they are so very thin that I definitely need to make some linings for them (luckily, I’ve just discovered a very handy local fabric and wool shop – oh happy, happy days!). The other problem with the door-windows is that they opened onto a long drop into thin air . . . aaargh, who ever thought that was a good idea? We decided the best way of making things safer was to add a balcony and the result is beautifully crafted, the kind of skilled workmanship in natural materials I love. The carpenter suggested Douglas fir as it has so much natural resin that it only requires a couple of coats of linseed oil a year; it feels like something of a luxury, the perfect spot to greet the morning or sit in the evening, but at least I’m no longer worrying about either of us taking up sleepwalking. It also happens to be the perfect size for my yoga mat . . . 😊
I’m not a great fan of seasonal bedding plants as they are an environmental nightmare, but craving some colour in early spring I succumbed to buying a few trays of pansies and planted up three window boxes. I have to admit they were worth every centime; they flowered for months and months in a cheery mix of bright colours and scattered plenty of seeds which have spent all summer popping up as new plants in the gravel below. I’ve refreshed the troughs this week, scraping back the top layer of soil and compost, filling the trench with shredded comfrey leaves for a slow-release fertiliser and replacing the top layer with added homemade compost, then planting little self-set pansies lifted from the gravel. Hopefully, they will give us months of floral colour which haven’t cost a thing – or the planet.
For the summer months, I replaced the pansy troughs with ivy-leaved geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer), another bought indulgence which proved unexpectedly popular with hummingbird hawkmoths. In fairness, they have been amazing, tumbling enthusiastically down the front of the house and coping admirably with whatever the weather has thrown at them. They are still going strong but my plan is to cut them back soon, give them a good feed and move them to the polytunnel where I can coddle them all through winter in the hope of a repeat performance next year. Flowers aside, looking at the photo below I had two thoughts. One, those beautifully colour co-ordinated trainers were not a result of deliberate set-dressing, they were simply drying in the sunshine after a dismally wet morning run. Two, that inherited ‘welcome’ sign really has to go; I’m not keen on such things at the best of times but at the very least it should be written in French!
On our recent trip to Asturias, I remembered to collect our copy of John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency which I’m now enjoying reading for the umpteenth time. The regular references to the ‘Law of Returns’ are very apt for what I’ve been up to in the garden this week, returning every scrap of organic matter to the land being a key part of our organic husbandry. Having harvested the squash, I pulled up what felt like miles of spent vines and deposited them on top of the hügel bed along with the impossibly long grass that had grown between them; this should all rot down over winter, along with any extra organic matter I might add, and feed the soil for next year’s crop. I’ve chopped and dropped the crimson clover sown between the soft fruit bushes, leaving the nitrogen-fixing roots in place and scattering the ‘straw’ as a fertilising mulch. I’ve gathered up barrows of bruised windfall apples and sawdust from the logging sessions to add alternate green and brown layers to the current compost heap. I’ve turned the resting compost heap, adding water as it seemed rather dry despite the plentiful rainfall of late plus a scattering of yarrow leaves to act as a natural accelerator; I know ‘cold’ heaps are usually left to rest but giving them a tickle like this helps to kickstart the heating process again and anyway, I have my own approach to these things – I’m impatient and I have to check what’s going on (lots of worms, hoorah!). I’ve started planting the Perennial Thugs bed with a couple of slips of soapwort and a few roots of comfrey brought back from Asturias; the latter are already sending up new shoots, is there any stopping that amazing, beneficial plant?
To finish where I started, the gentle journey through early autumn. I feel my body clock responding naturally to the changing light, sleeping in a little longer in the mornings (and what a luxury that is!) and needing to be out and busy in the brighter hours of daylight. Taking the compost bucket down to the veggie patch to empty each evening, I can mark the passage of the sun ever southwards, breathe in the deep, earthy autumnal scents and watch dark crows flapping languorously across the sunset, homewards to roost. Time for me to turn ‘homewards’ with my empty bucket, too. . . but I might linger just a few minutes more and enjoy the beauty of this October moment.