The sun is shining. The air is soft and warm, sweetly scented with jasmine and the first roses, heavily laden with the industry of bees. Swallows are printing rapid arrowheads against the sky and the cuckoo is chiming his two clear notes across the valley. The world is buzzing with colour and life and new growth. I am happy.
It is almost three years now since we moved to Asturias and, as passionate gardeners, adjusting to a new climate has been one of our most important journeys of discovery; after all, a large proportion of our food depends on it! The climate here suits us both so well: it’s much milder than the UK but without the searing summer heat or penetrating winter cold of other parts of Spain; winter frosts roll up the valley, often after dawn, but rarely reach the garden; there is enough regular rainfall to keep everything green and lush, but prolonged periods of wet weather or heavy grey skies are a rarity; winter storms can wreak havoc but they are few and far between and – despite living on the side of a mountain near the coast – windy days are unusual.
In short, it’s about as perfect as it can be, especially from a gardening perspective. Naturally, it’s not all rosy- tomatoes collapse with blight, Brussels sprouts are a non-starter, potatoes are still banned – but we can still grow much that is familiar as well as many plants that wouldn’t have stood a chance in our Shropshire and Welsh gardens.
For our first couple of years here, the house renovation and creation of a productive vegetable garden were key priorities which saw flowers very much taking a back seat. It was so wonderful last year to finally start raising new plants from seed, splitting established plants to spread around and popping in little treasures I had been given. Now spring is flaunting herself around the garden in higgeldy-piggeldy rainbow riots. Lovely!
Clematis is a plant we hardly ever see in other gardens here which is strange as they grow so well; in fact; I planted several new tiny ones last year on the strength of the two we had already established. Montana ‘Elizabeth’ is a pale beauty, currently draping herself nonchalantly along the fence and sporting more blooms than seems physically possible.
I have never, ever grown tulips like the ones we have this year; they have been flowering for weeks and their vibrant, zingy colours make me want to skip with joy every time I see them. It doesn’t matter that the large-cupped pink ‘Don Quichotte’ and white ‘Wilhof’ have shed their petals as ‘Purple Flag’, ‘Holland Beauty’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ (I think!) have waltzed on to centre stage like stately duchesses, decorously draped in gowns of silk, satin and taffeta against a silvery backdrop of sage. So elegant. So sophisticated.
Here come the first of the late-flowering doubles, too; no sophistication here – my goodness, what flirts they are! ‘Creme Upstar’ is a gorgeously ruffled confection in peaches and cream, all flouncy and blousy and frivolous beneath those graceful ladies.
Meanwhile, ‘Blue Spectacle’ is shamelessly kicking up her frilly can-can skirts (admittedly very much purple) to the rapturous applause of a Californian poppy audience. How I’m going to miss these beauties when they’ve gone . . . but more are definitely planned for next spring.
Common sense says that if something is growing happily in local gardens then it is obviously disposed to thrive in the climate here and is a good choice for planting. Honesty is one of those flowers I noticed in abundance last year so raised a few plants from seed. Like wallflowers, it’s something I haven’t grown for years and I’d forgotten what an unassumingly pretty thing it is.
I love the way it has stitched itself into colourful little tapestries with other flowers. Here, in a sunny patch of calendula and ‘Mission Bells’ Californian poppies, softened with the mauve haze of verbena bonariensis.
On the opposite side of the lane, it’s mingling rather beautifully with a pink butterfly gladiolus. Lovely flower . . . and of course, those papery, silver seed pods are an anticipated delight.
Pansies are also modest little troopers; I didn’t have a huge success with raising them from seed (that was the story of last year, of which more later) but the few plants I scattered around have flowered non-stop and are making bold splashes of colour with those bright open faces.
Ah, enough of my indulgent little flowerfest for now . . . but before I move on to the important subject of food production, one final thought: never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the aforementioned verbena would gain official weed status in the garden! What a difference climate makes.
So to the business end of things and it’s been a complete pleasure to be busy in the patch this week, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the burgeoning growth and raucous birdsong. Not only are we adjusting to a new climate here but to changes within that climate, like wheels within wheels. Last spring and early summer were disappointing at best, at times completely dire. Once storms Felix, Gisela and Hugo had finished with us an uncharacteristic gloom set in that seemed to last for months, as though – rather unfairly, I must say – Asturias had been singled out for its own private cloud. Nothing was easy; everything struggled; many things simply chose not to bother. How different it has been this year! We had a couple of weeks of winter in January but since then the weather has been blissfully benevolent, like a kind and loving friend wrapping us in a cosy blanket, brewing a warming cup of tea and running a hot, bubbly bath. Hell, this weather is so generous it would probably do the ironing and fill out our tax returns if we asked nicely.
Isn’t it just truly amazing how everything responds to such benign warmth and luxurious light levels? Last year, I sowed fresh parsnip seed four times before a tiny pinch deigned to germinate; this year, a single planting has produced enough parsnips to feed the entire village, and it’s the same story with carrots and beetroot. The peas, which have been a struggle every year but particularly last season, are so loaded in pods it’s frankly ridiculous. Where tender plants are concerned, I almost wept with frustration last year at having to resow many times; the cucumbers were fairly robust but it’s a miracle we ended up with anything else. The aubergines, which played that classic ‘we’re very fragile and want to die’ act until August (yes, August) are currently greeting me at the polytunnel door like a gaggle of giggling cheerleaders, pompoms aloft in glee. They will have to go into the ground very soon, a fact that prompted me to clear the spent winter salad leaves out of the tunnel this week in readiness. Shifting a pile of manure kept to one side especially for feeding that hungry patch, I found two squash plants that have pushed up (I assume) from the layer of homemade compost beneath the muck. They are, I hope, a happy symbol of things to come: this year, there will be no stopping the growth.
There are other signs, too, so much promise of better things to look forward to. Our walnut harvest last year was a relatively poor one; now, as the trees unfurl their graceful bronze fingers, they are revealing a mass of fat green catkins; a bumper crop of nuts in the making, I’d like to think.
Of the Jerusalem artichokes we planted last year, not a single one survived. Oh come on, how could we possibly not succeed with those renowned thugs? Have no fear: new tubers have been planted and there’s a definite flourish of exuberant activity which suggests a more successful crop this year.
Our neighbours were keen to check we hadn’t missed the official onion planting date this week; I’m not sure how it works, but on certain days in spring suddenly the whole village is out planting something or other and this week it was las cebollas. Thankfully, we were able to show we hadn’t let the side down (actually, we planted them some weeks ago but please don’t tell); we have several rows of onions grown from sets that have trebled in size this week and the smaller specimens raised from seed seem committed to closing the gap as rapidly as possible.
I read this week the somewhat controversial assertion by Matthew Appleby that we should metaphorically “hug a slug” in order to become “super organic gardeners.” Furthermore, it would be better to let fruit and vegetable plants die or even choose not to garden at all than to have to kill anything (which for me begs the question of what exactly we are going to eat). Well, each to their own, I say; everyone is entitled to their opinion but personally I have no intention of putting slug hugging or snail snuggling activities into practice any time soon. I am a huge fan and champion of wildlife and not a single fibre of my being is predisposed to inflicting hurt or death on other living creatures. In fact, I can honestly say I am happy to share what we grow in the garden with other things as long as there is plenty to go round. That said, I am not prepared to sit back and see several months’ worth of food destroyed without doing something about it. Our garden is a totally organic, slightly chaotic, hugely productive, wildlife-friendly patch . . . but fast-food outlet for gastropods it is not. It’s a question of balance and the point is that it’s perfectly possible to grow good crops of wholesome foods without the need to commit garden pest genocide – and we are the living proof of that.
When we moved here, there were snails everywhere. Zillions and zillions of them, like some weird sci-fi horror film. I had never seen anything like it. We assumed it had something to do with the warm, damp climate but also decided there were two further overwhelming reasons. First, the building technique employed by former residents who had constructed walls using bricks laid on their sides which meant the holes ran horizontally rather than vertically. Every hole created a perfect snail home so whole walls were like some towering highrise hotel . . . and believe me, they were full to capacity.
The vegetable garden was surrounded by just such a wall so removing it was one of our first jobs; not only did it drastically reduce snail habitat but it opened up the fantastic view and allowed us to create the sitting area which is now our most-used and favourite ‘room.’ Win-win.
Second, beyond that wall the vegetable patch was a mess comprising a huge pile of manure covered in bracken and a riotous jungle of mustard and cabbages – in short, snail and slug heaven. (I’d forgotten about all those plastic bottles, too, but that’s another story.)
Clearing the vegetation and spreading the muck had an instant impact on snail and slug numbers; building a drystone wall to form a terrace created the perfect habitat for lizards and toads who have a tremendous appetite for the slimy ones. Bit by bit, the balance was being tipped towards a more stable and sustainable food chain.
Manual extraction of pests is another method we use; yes, it’s hard and not overly pleasant work picking buckets of slugs, snails and caterpillars off plants and ‘relocating’ them but it’s worth the effort if it means a crop is saved and it certainly beats throwing toxic chemicals or slug pellets around (both of which I abhor). Drastically increasing the numbers of flowering plants has not only helped to attract a far wider range of insects including essential pollinators, but also the likes of hoverflies, ladybirds and parasitic wasps whose larvae are voracious predators. The recent Guardian report of global insect collapse and possible extinction within 100 years – 100 years!!!!!!!! – is the single most chilling thing I have read in a long time. Instead of choosing not to garden, I passionately believe now is the time we desperately need to be doing all the gardening we can.
So, what is our situation now? Do we still have problems with slugs, snails and other destructive beasties? Yes, of course we do. No matter what the climate throws at us this year – cruel or kind – there will be battles ahead, I have no doubt. Do we have enough vegetables to eat? Yes, we certainly have. A couple of weeks ago, I planted out 26 mixed summer and autumn calabrese plants, of which five were chomped. Having some spare plants, I replaced them and so far all 26 are still there and thriving without a single slug pellet, cabbage collar or pigeon net in sight. Let’s put that into perspective for a moment. There are only two of us and even if all our promised visitors this year (what a busy and exciting time we’ve got to come!) were to arrive en masse, there would still be at least 20 plants of calabrese too many. If we lose three-quarters of the plants, we will still have more calabrese than we could ever really need. ‘Plant plenty’ is a great motto for garden survival.
Variety, too, is a brilliant strategy. Forget monoculture, small amounts of lots of different things are a much better idea; not only does it give us a far more interesting diet but it helps to spread the risk of pest attacks through the year. It’s amazing just what you can do with modest pickings. Favourite veggie dish of the week here was shredded kale quickly braised in olive oil and a splash of wine, topped with lightly steamed purple-sprouting broccoli and asparagus and a handful of raw baby peas . . . and I’m proud to report that not a single slug died in the making of that dish. Still don’t want to hug them, though. 🙂