The flight of the bumblebee

Our valley is a tranquil spot at the best of times but in these unusual circumstances of minimal traffic on the roads and no planes overhead, it is exceptionally and blissfully peaceful. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how in modern society, over 90% of the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives is man-made, yet for prehistoric peoples the opposite was true. Now I am not expecting to see a woolly mammoth come strolling down the lane anytine soon but – putting the current grave circumstances aside – how extraordinary it is to experience an environment overwhelmingly dominated by natural sounds.

Of course, there is the usual cacophony of cockerels and cowbells punctuated by short bursts of village activity; after all, despite most of Spanish society remaining in total lockdown, the farming and smallholding year must continue if starvation isn’t to be the next problem. Still, it is the wilder sounds that prevail with a crystal clarity, as though nature’s crackly radio has at last been fine-tuned to perfection. I am a willing audience.

The river snakes its way across the valley floor below us in a constant ripple of energy, bubbling and chattering over boulders as if it were still a youthful mountain stream, but now it is somehow amplified to a level that suggests the rush and drop of a weir or hidden waterfall where there is neither. Breezes susurrate and sigh across the mountainsides, stippling the light and ruffling the trees like a huge invisible hand pulled through soft, silvery grasses.

It is no surprise that the birds hold centre stage from dawn to dusk, their rousing symphony of harmony and counterpoint played out against the rhythmic ostinato of cuckoos and crickets. In this clear air there is a fresh magic to their music, startling surprises in the familiar like a bright new tapestry woven from old threads.

It’s not just their songs, either. How incredible to notice the rigid wingbeats of a crow flapping languorously overhead, the slick torpedo whoosh of a sparrowhawk perforating the air like a dart, the fragile sigh of a wren alighting on a tremulous twig. There’s nothing new about any of these sounds . . . but have I ever truly heard them before? By day, the stags’ guttural coughs echo across the meadows and at night, the tawny owls practise their haunting call-and-response under vaulted skies. There’s no missing those raucous renditions but who’d believe the soft patter of a lizard’s footsteps or the whispered rustle of a grass snake’s sinuous trajectory can truly be heard? Hush. Be still. We only have to listen.

The garden is alive with insects who play their part magnificently, too. I’ve recently read a report about the effects of climate change on bumblebee demographics and in particular, how a run of very warm summers here in Spain has seen populations pushed ever northwards to these green and mountainous regions. I am no biologist but I can certainly vouch for that: they are here in their thousands and the garden and meadows thrum constantly with their exuberant notes. I love them; they are so busy and yet so unfussy, zipping from place to place and feeding at whichever flower take their fancy. Nothing is too grand or too humble for their attention – weeds, garden blooms, vegetable flowers, whatever. Crimson clover is proving to be a huge success, its vibrant bottlebrush flowers are an irresistible bee magnet. The same is true of phacelia, another green manure plant which has self-set around the patch in pops and drifts of hazy mauve, bristling with the frenetic activity of bumbles, honey bees and solitary bees alike.

Something we have noted with delight and optimism is the increasing amount of wildlife drawn to our patch year on year, not only in terms of absolute numbers but in the range and variety of species, too. How exciting this week to see a carpenter bee joining the phacelia feeding frenzy; we had them in our garden in France but have never seen one here until now. I think the females are stunning creatures clad in their shiny black armour with wings of metallic bluey-purple, iridescent in the sunlight. They are bold and brash and very loud which, along with their habit of building nests by hollowing out wooden structures, apparently gets them a bad name; I was completely shocked at how many internet sites give information on how to destroy these so-called troublesome pests. How sad. At least here in our little haven (or as Mary Reynolds would call it, our ‘ark’), they are safe and welcome.

As I sit in the garden writing this on the laptop, I realise that it has been exactly six weeks since I last left our property. For 42 days I have been here without exception, watching spring unfold around me in a way never quite as before. It has been fascinating to observe the developments and events, not in steps or leaps but in the tiniest, barely perceptible shifts of change; it has almost seemed possible to watch leafbuds burst, blossoms unfurl, seeds germinate. What incredible changes have occurred in a relatively short time! Like a time-lapse film, the countryside around us has greened and filled to bursting, whilst the garden canvas has moved through an entire palette – from primroses, violets and tulips to alliums, poppies and roses – to arrive at the crazy, carefree carnival of rainbows I love so much.

Where flower gardening is concerned, I’ve given up – not for any negative reason, you understand, but because I am simply no longer needed. Having saved many things that were already here, planted perennials, sowed biennials, scattered annuals and buried bulbs in previous years, nature now does the work for me and the garden takes care of itself. We haven’t planted the new border where concrete used to be because it will plant itself in the coming months. How could I improve on the swathes of colour, here soft and billowy, there loud and shocking, that have organised their own unique compositions? Would I have thought to take crimson clover and yellow calendula then stitch them through with the dazzling magenta of vetch?

Could it have occurred to me that candy pink granny’s bonnets mingling tastefully with the glaucous blue of cerinthe and then shot through with the screaming fiery orange of nasturtiums might be something that would work? Would I sow candytuft under the grapevine, pansies among the onions, wallflowers between the peas? It’s completely outrageous and I love the whole wild, reckless, hedonistic jumble of nature’s creativity. Let’s just smile and revel in it. Why interfere?

Of course, we’ve already handed the reins over to nature in many, many areas of our patch, those margins and larger spaces left to go deliberately wild after a nudge in the right direction. We’ve recently been developing the orchard area, improving access so that we can wander up and down the steep slopes and spend more time enjoying it; how daft to have a seat there which we barely sat on! Having cleared the rougher areas, knocking back the brambles and applying a selective grass cutting regimen, it is wonderful to watch the whole space regenerating and taking on a new and tantalisingly beautiful aura.

The wildflowers that were already present have proliferated and new ones have appeared, so that beneath the fruit and nut trees – currently resplendent with fragrant blossoms or fat catkins – there are pretty carpets of scattered colour. The verges, too, are a tangle of wild beauty and a-buzz with the rapt attention of a myriad insects.

Have these past six weeks, so worrying and disruptive for much of humanity, brought positive things to the abundance of life we are so lucky to share our environment with? Could the hugely increased numbers and acrobatic energy of the swallows here be a result of a better journey northwards through cleaner air? Is the natural world in general feeling the benefit of fewer machines, less air pollution and less noise?

Has our almost constant presence outside diminished the inhibitions of the resident birds who no longer seem to notice us being here? There is currently a great tit sitting on a hanging basket close by, delicately plucking fibres from the sheep’s fleece I used as liners, without a care in the world; a few moments ago, a dunnock landed on the back of the chair opposite, its beak stuffed with moss, so close I could have reached out and stroked it. It made no rush to leave.

We have at least two more weeks of lockdown here and then, by all accounts, only a very slow lifting of restrictions to movement in small steps towards the ‘new normal.’ By then, I sincerely hope that the human situation will be improving rapidly but in the meantime, with a deep sense of gratitude I shall continue to delight in the beauties of the season and the enchantment of the bumblebees’ song.

The light fantastic

Summer has most definitely arrived here. The children have broken up for their lusciously long school holiday and the San Juan fiesta rockets have been crumping and thumping in the distance all over the weekend. We have put up the sunbrella, stacked the fridge with sparkling water and cooked our dinners outside on a wood fire every evening.

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Morning is now the time to get jobs done in the garden before the searing heat of the afternoon leaves everything  bleached of colour and soporific in the shimmering, silvered sunlight. There is no rush, though; I love nothing better than wandering out, still pyjama-clad, with my first tea mug of the day to breathe in the freshness and beauty of the moment and welcome the gift of a new day. The air is spiced with the scents of eucalyptus and lavender, sugared with roses, honeysuckles and sweet peas.

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Swallows skim the vegetable patch just above ground level, swooping and twisting like arrowheads through the plants with split-second precision (I wish I could capture them with the camera!). Even this early, the flowers are teeming with myriad insects. Lacy coriander blooms sparkle with dainty hover flies, lavender bristles with businesslike bees and everywhere – everywhere – there are butterflies, so many different varieties floating dreamily on painted wings.

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This is the time of day to truly appreciate the garden beauties; illuminated by a soft, dappled light they take on a whole new allure, a delicate elegance that is washed out by full sunlight. Here I can see every shadowed pleat and fold, every nuance of shade and texture, every mesmerising mystery of petal and sepal, stigma and style, frond and tendril, pattern and form.

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The wild ones, too, take on a fresh flush of beauty, clothing the garden’s margins in their soft hues and rowdy brights.

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There are the cheeky chancers, popping up uninvited in unexpected places: a nasturtium trailing cheerfully amongst the beetroot plants, satin Welsh poppies fluttering in the asparagus bed, a  self-set young walnut tree (they are weeds here, no question) on the edge of the patch. How can I be anything other than enchanted by their optimistic charm?

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So, to work and the main task of the week is weeding. Hoes are handy tools but I enjoy a bit of hand weeding, even more so now that I can take my time and do it with focus and attention rather than cramming it in around a hectic working week. I love the simple physical act of getting down amongst the plants and looking at them from new angles and through fresh eyes. I relish the smell of the earth, delight in the characters of the plants and cherish the work of tidying things up a bit. There is something so fundamentally satisfying about feeling the essence of all those scientific processes – germination, transpiration, pollination, photosynthesis and the like – going on all around me, not textbook descriptions but fizzing and buzzing with real in-the-flesh life. What a wondrous, miraculous thing it is! How captivating, too, are those vegetable plants caught in the teasing play of light and shadow; here even the mundane is taken to new heights.

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Working in the garden? No, we’re unashamedly tripping the light fantastic, don’t you think? 🙂

 

Nature’s garden: the sequel

I had no intention of making a series of wildflowers-and-walking posts but honestly, how could I not share another treasure chest of floral riches? In complete contrast to our coastal walk, this time we headed to the high mountains and ancient deciduous woodlands of southern Asturias: in short, serious bear country. Here lives the largest concentration of the rare Cantabrian brown bear (oso pardo) in Asturias and who could blame them?

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Roger and I last walked here in the autumn when the trees were all blazing in their flaming autumnal flamboyance; it was fascinating to return in such a different season, especially as the effect of altitude spun us backwards in time to enjoy an earlier taste of spring once again. The overwhelming star of the landscape for me, though, was the Spanish heath, swathes and swathes of gorgeous magenta draping the mountains like an opulent cloak above the greenery. Breathtaking.

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If only I could have captured the tumultuous sound of countless bees going about their business in those  purple bells. No wonder there were so many hives there, not scattered across the mountainsides higgeldy-piggeldy but organised behind electric fences or the protection of traditional stone walls circles. Bears and honey are a classic combination, after all!

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The extent of the forests is awe-inspiring, so stunning clothed in the bright greens of springtime. The oaks, however, were a little tardy with just the first hint of leaves unfurling; hung with filigree silver lichens, they made an ethereal contrast to the burgeoning glossy greens around them.

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There were flowers here, too; so many gentle splashes of colour and perfume to delight the senses. A softer palette to the coastal flowers, a pretty parade of graceful woodland beauties; once again, I was in awe of nature’s exquisite gardening prowess.

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¡Gracias, Asturias!

A Lazy Affair

I am currently reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift for the fifth (or is it the sixth?) time. It’s an exquisitely crafted book about her twenty years spent developing a National Trust garden in east Shropshire. The eloquent prose is woven with golden threads of horticulture, geography, geology, history, country lore, biography and acute, beautifully-described observations that make the book a rich tapestry of a read. It never fails to fascinate, move and inspire me. In a memorable passage, Katherine describes how long-term illness kept her out of the garden for many months; on her return, she was completely horrified to find that nature had taken over and gone completely off-plan. However, she soon realised in delight that all the bolting and seeding, rambling and scrambling, shifting and drifting had in fact created a garden of infinite magic and wonder, the plants setting up stunning partnerships of colour and form that could never have been contrived or designed.

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Our own Shropshire garden in 2015

I love this passage because this is how I garden all the time! It’s a personal thing but I have never felt the need for too much discipline and control in the garden; I’ve always been a curvy lines, wonky wigwams, daisies-in-the-lawn sort of gardener and I think there are three main reasons for that. The first is that a huge number of my favourite plants are very prone to flaunting themselves and self-seeding or running out of control: foxgloves, granny bonnets, lady’s mantle, calendula, borage, angelica, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm, forget-me-nots, mint, nasturtiums, verbena bonariensis, Welsh poppy, Californian poppy, shirley poppy . . . try keeping that bunch under control as they march their riotous pageant of colour and scent across the garden. How many times have we discovered new ‘borders’ in unexpected corners, as if planted by some unseen mischievous hand?

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Shropshire again. There was a vegetable patch in there somewhere . . .

Second, this laissez-faire approach appeals to my idle side: I love to be busy in the garden and actually relish the really hard graft, but if things want to take care of themselves and do their own thing, who am I to argue? Nature fills a vacuum so let it get busy and if the result is a semi-wilderness, so be it. Great for wildlife, great for us.

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. . . and here (2013) in our French garden, too.

Finally, I’ve always thought that bulbs and tubers that plump up, doubling and trebling, roots and rhizomes that run amok and seeds that scatter and self-set, sneaking into whatever places and spaces they can find simply want to be there. They’re happy and they’ll likely thrive, so let them be.

All this has been running through my mind this week as I’ve been trundling back and forth with my barrow, moving the compost heap slowly (very slowly – that hill is so steep!) to a new location. The Lazy Gardener Syndrome is alive and well here, it seems. Take for instance this sumptuous beauty with silken petals that shift from maroon to deepest plum to blackberry like light catching the swish of a taffeta ballgown.

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When I planted the bulbs in November, I chose to put them in glazed pots of Moroccan and malachite blue, thinking the combination would be pleasing to the eye. It is – but nothing like the stunning backdrop of acid yellow that appeared of its own accord. The fizz and bang of those colours together is like champagne bubbles up my nose,  bitter sherbert on my tongue. The yellow is a humble mizuna, self-set in a concrete crack. I left it for the insects. I’m so glad I did.

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Calendula (or pot marigold) is one of my all-time favourite plants. I love its cheerful disposition, it’s unpretentious down-to-earth attitude, it’s sharp herbal scent and tiny fingernail seeds. No need to plant, it was already here in little flashes of sunny light amidst the jungle of neglect. True to its name, it flowers all through the year but in April it is at its best, showing off in a hedonistic burst of sun-worshipping brilliance, carpeting the vegetable garden in huge swathes and exploding in pops and bangs in quiet corners. Last year, I planted a clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ to grow up the stock fencing around the vegetable patch. Poor thing, I have dragged it round several gardens in several countries but here at last it is settled. Roots down, head up, it seems to have found its spiritual home. It is about to flower for the first time in three years, the plump bauble buds on the cusp of bursting into a profusion of pink. Lovely . . . but how much more striking will it be with the self-sown calendula snuggled underneath?

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What hearty little troopers these marigolds are. Here in a clump beneath the glaucous thistle leaves of a globe artichoke, a heap of gold beneath an arching dragon’s wing; here in a shady forgotten spot beneath a Japanese quince, mingling with red deadnettle and sweet violets, a posy of weeds: I could not have planted a prettier patch if I’d tried. They can’t have it all their own way, though. I have lifted a few stray wanderers to plant in blue pots and make a splash of colour on the steps; they’re under control for now but I suspect those seeds will travel when the time is right.

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I have started to plant small flower borders where I can, a few favourite perennials mixed with bulbs and annuals. Even here, any sense of design or control has already gone with the wind. I grew lavender from seed, raised peach carnations from cuttings . . . but the forget-me-nots currently stitching them together are nature’s idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Even pottering about the polytunnel, pricking out and planting on, I am not safe. Beneath the staging, between the lettuces and in every available nook and cranny there are nasturtium seedlings lifting their shields against the metallic blue prongs of Californian poppies. Can you imagine what a riot this will be if I let it continue? I need to make an effort, exert a bit of control here . . . but not today.

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Borage needs no encouragement. It drifts up and down the garden in fuzzy waves of cerulean stars, flowering all year round which makes me happy – and the local honey bee population even happier. Just look at it nestled with the bright flowers of komatsuna. Both self-set; honestly, you’d think they’d planned it.

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The flowers are thrumming with bees, their frantic activity shaking and bending the slender stems. Here they fill their pollen baskets: dandelion yellow from the komatsuna, grubby white from the borage. I stand and watch transfixed at the whole precise busyness of it, the bees exploring the tiny throats of the yellow blooms, the whiskery black centres of the blue. I love this affirmation of life, of connection, of dependence; like that colour combination, it’s a beautiful thing.

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Emptying the final barrowload of compost and forking through the new heap, my eyes drift to the broccoli. The plants are spent, the harvest over; time to clear the terrace for sweetcorn . . . and yet, all on their own they are creating a splash of colour as beautiful as anything else in the garden. More bees here, too; the corn can wait awhile. Let’s enjoy that soft buttery yellow against the dusty purple. Opposites on the colour wheel: a marriage made in heaven.

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On the subject of marriage, I have started to make petal confetti this week. I made some several years ago for Sarah and Gwyn’s wedding when advice and guidance seemed thin on the ground; it was rose petals all the way, a bit of a problem when I had no blooms in the garden. I did have cornflowers, though; a whole prairie of them which had encroached on the vegetable patch (of course). I followed the instructions to the letter, selecting, picking, tying, hanging, drying, crumbling. It worked. It was very pretty but on the day, gone in an instant. I fancy something more substantial this time.

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Luckily, things have moved on, ideas changed and developed. How happy to find thay anything goes. Daisies? No problem. Calendula? Mmm, might have a few of those. Music to my ears. What a pleasure, picking from the great abundance around me; what a joy to simply leave them spread out to dry. By July, I shall have such a heady mix to scatter over Sam and Adrienne on their special day!

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Sarah has always had an artistic and creative talent, an eye for colour and a love of country flowers. It was no surprise, them, when on the day of her wedding with Gwyn she chose to pick her own bouquet. Literally. She bought a bunch of sunflowers from her local Co-op but everything else was foraged from her garden – flower beds, vegetable patch, hedgerows, hidden corners and wild places. The result was stunning, a beautiful creation that captivated me all day (there was even a little robin’s pincushion hidden in there!). When I started to plan the design for a blanket – a gift for their fifth anniversary in September – this was my natural starting point.

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How I agonised over my plan, though! I spent days messing about with different motifs and colour combinations, those sunflowers dominating every idea I had  . . . until I realised that was the problem. Go back, look again. Yes, the sunflowers were totally striking but for me it was the supporting act that truly made the bouquet: the foliage in so many shades and shapes, the froth of meadowsweet and curve of honeysuckle, those deep, rich purples and delicate silvers. That is where the beauty lies, a beauty I could never capture in a few shades of yellow, a couple of greens. I chose eighteen different colours.

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What a happy moment, to make a start outside in the sunshine this week. I am working squares in blocks of solid colour, each with a sunburst flower motif ( a ‘sunflower’) in the centre. My plan then is to join them in a gentle colourwash, moving through the blanket as if up the bouquet: greens of foliage, yellows and purples of flowers, blues for that clear September sky and a sense of balance in the overall scheme of things. The finished design hovers at the periphery of my imagination, I really don’t know how it will turn out. No problem. I have learnt that blankets, like gardens, are best left to their own devices at times. Pick a pattern. Choose the colours. Now let them decide how they want to be.

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I have to confess in my last blanket project, I had to exercise a little more discipline. Well, just like the garden, sometimes it’s necessary, I suppose. I wanted to create a rainbow and really there’s no arguing with the colour order of that one, is there? Science had me pinned down for sure! This was another gift blanket, for a new baby expected in August. Traditionally, we dress and wrap babies in white or the very palest of pastels. With my head brimming from the rich research and curiosity in The Morville Hours, I suddenly needed to know why. Is it historic? Religious? Cultural symbolism? Superstition? Oh sit down, my overeager imagination – the answer, I found, is far more prosaic! Babies need a lot of linen and white textiles have always been easier to bleach and launder in hot water. It’s a practical thing, nothing more. I happen to love bright colours around babies, hence my choice to make a rainbow. It might not be practical but I hope the message is as loud as that ridiculous shade of orange: a new little life – how wonderful, how exciting, how precious. What a tremendous thing to celebrate. Let me shout it out in loud and vibrant colours!  🙂

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