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! 🙂

Cave days and colourways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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