Cordial relations

Cordial: a sweet, fruit-flavoured drink. Originating from Middle English (‘belonging to the heart’), from medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin corcord- ‘heart’.

From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of my life to see if there are things I could be doing better or differently, habits that could be dropped or new ideas pursued. Change is the only constant in life and I’m a firm believer in a little shake up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about re-reading a favourite herbal and that inspired me to take a long, hard look at my current herb-growing status. Herbs have been a part of my gardening life for ever; in fact, if I were only allowed to grow a handful of plants, they would all be herbs. They are just have so many uses: culinary, medicinal, domestic, cosmetic, creative, aesthetic . . . and of course, many of them are fantastic for wildlife and suit the chaotic informal gardening style I prefer.

Rosemary and friend

Poring over my book (plus another couple of treasured herbals I naturally felt the need to consult), I realised that I’ve been guilty of complacency since moving here; happy that at last I’m able to grow varieties that I’ve previously struggled with, I’ve lost sight of the characters that are missing from the cast or the understudies waiting patiently in the wings that I continue to ignore. Time to go forth and make an inventory. Yippee ~ I do love a list! First, the herbs we have growing here and use on a regular basis. The items marked with an asterisk are ones which grow better here than in our previous gardens.

Flat-leaved parsley ~ volunteers appear all over the garden.

Herbs

  • Rosemary*
  • Sage*
  • Thyme (common and lemon)*
  • Mint (spearmint and apple mint)
  • Fennel
  • Dill*
  • Parsley *(flat-leaf)
  • Coriander*
  • Chives
  • Basil*
  • Comfrey
  • Lemon balm*
  • Lavender*
  • Hyssop*
  • Marjoram
  • Chervil
Thyme

Flowers:

  • Sweet violet
  • Pansies
  • Rose*
  • Primrose
  • Wild strawberries*
  • Pot marigold (calendula)*
  • Nasturtium*
  • Feverfew
Wild strawberry

Trees

  • Walnut*
  • Eucalyptus*
  • Bay*

Well, that didn’t seem a bad list until I realised how many old favourites are missing. As soon as we are able to visit a nursery or seed supplier, then I need to start gathering some new stars.

Wish list

  • Tarragon
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon verbena
  • Purple sage
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea)
  • Chamomile
  • Angelica
  • Peppermint
  • Salad burnet
  • Savory
  • Myrtle
  • Sweet cicely
Borage

Bergamot is one of my favourite plants and I’ve never been without it: how on earth have I let this happen? I struggled to grow lemon verbena until we lived in France where it revelled in the heat of a Mayennais summer and made the best lemonade ever; I think it will be happy here in the Spanish sunshine. I’ve always failed with sweet cicely and purple coneflower but it’s time to try again. I’m conscious of limited growing space and I don’t want any more pots to water so it’s going to be a case of balance, careful planning and sensible choices. In the past, I’ve gone overboard with growing as many different mints as I could lay my mitts on and a wealth of fancy-flavoured basils but really, there’s no need. Variety, yes. Overkill, no.

Marjoram

This led me on to a scrappy little list of plants I’ve tried to grow here and failed, or species I have no intention of ever growing again.

Bits and pieces

  • Cumin and anise ~ sowed seed, nothing happened.
  • Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) ~ another great favourite, it just won’t grow here. 😦
  • Soapwort ~ sowed seeds three times with no luck . . . but now I think I might be there having been gifted a slip of root (thanks, Sonja!).
  • Lovage ~ I find the flavour too overpowering. Give me celery leaves any day.
  • Santolina, artemesia and rue ~ silver-leaved herbs I’ve grown in the past as foils for more colourful things but the truth is, I don’t actually like any of them.
  • Tansy ~ yuk! Sorry, I know it’s quite a pretty thing and is supposed to be a great fly repellent but I can’t stand the smell, to my nose it is pure Eau de Dog Mess. There’s just no need for that in the garden.
Honeysuckle ~ so much kinder on the nose than tansy!

The jury is out on on catmint: what to do? It’s a herb I love, pretty and fuss-free, but the problem is the package that comes with it: the attention of cats hell-bent on hitting a feline high and trashing it in the process. We don’t have any cats ourselves but the neighbourhood boasts a raggle-taggle bunch of wanderers who drift through the garden and I’m not about to waste time and money feeding their drug-crazed habits. However . . . I have now discovered that it’s good at deterring flea beetle which is a real nuisance in the tunnel, so I’m wondering whether a couple of pots in there might be a plan. Would they be safe or am I courting trouble from desperate moggies trying to break in and steal a sneaky fix?

Calendula and sage

Finally, I turned to a list of herbs I should be making more use of. It’s interesting that most of them are considered to be weeds, which had me wondering a bit. At what point did plants that had been valued for thousands of years as food or for their therapeutic qualities fall from grace? Who decreed, ‘Thou shalt be a weed?’ Why have they become the target of derision and eradication when they have so much to offer? There is a wealth of goodness here and I believe they all have a certain beauty and charm, too ~ but that’s just me.

Wild things

  • Dandelion
  • Nettle
  • Chickweed
  • Self-heal
  • Cleavers
  • Shepherd’s purse
  • Red clover
  • Daisy
  • Honeysuckle
  • Passionflower – not ‘wild’ as such but one I know I could be using
Plantain

I didn’t know that crushed red clover flowers are an excellent treatment for bites and stings (useful, since mozzie season is upon us) or that you can sprinkle daisies onto salads or turn honeysuckle blooms into a cough syrup. It’s time to get a grip and start giving these modest little plants the attention and kudos they deserve.

Daisies, red clover and buttercups

On which note, I’ve made a start and without wishing to big myself up too much, I’m actually feeling quite proud. Here is the woman who just a short time ago wouldn’t touch herbal teas with a barge pole yet last week I found myself on a foraging mission which resulted in (drumroll, please) . . . fennel and goosegrass tea. Yes, goosegrass ~ or cleavers, sticky grass, bedstraw, beggar lice, bur head, catch weed, cling rascal, sticky weed, sticky willy, sticky bob, stickybud, bobby buttons, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyjack, scratchweed, coach tongue or whatever else you wish to call it.

How was it? Well, the honest answer is it probably wins more prizes for the abundance of names it has than flavour but it was very palatable in an earthy sort of way and I enjoyed it (truly!) hot and cold. The important thing is, it’s a great natural system ‘cleanser’ and spring tonic; the tea was fine and I’d happily drink it again but that said, I’d pass on eating goosegrass as a pulp which I have seen recommended. Slowly, slowly . . . it’s early days yet. Don’t want to rush these things.

Apple mint

I have been trying out a few other new things herb-wise in the kitchen; having a forest of self-set dill, I used a pile of it to turn a couple of plump local trout into gravlax and I’m deliberately letting some plants go to seed so I can use the heads to make pickled gherkins ~ we’re growing a little Spanish pepinillo this year just for that purpose.

Dill

The extra mild winter has left us with more nasturtiums than we can shake a stick at so I’ve picked their crunchy green seeds to make ‘poor man’s capers’ and I’m also planning to experiment with nasturtium flower butter and leaf pesto, and maybe even stuffing the bigger leaves to make a version of dolmades, one of my favourite Greek dishes. Top of my list, though, with the weather hot and summery was to have a go at making a herb cordial.

Nasturtium

Much as I enjoy experimenting with herbal teas, I felt slightly nervous at the idea of going one step further and attempting a cordial as we have something of a family history of disasters where homemade beverages are concerned. The most famous was Sam’s ginger beer, which started off innocently enough as one of those ‘plants’ in a jar that needs daily care and feeding ~ a bit like a hamster, but less smelly and more useful. The resultant ginger beer was decidedly good and an apparent all-round success . . . until a bottle of it exploded in spectacular fashion (think Grand Prix drivers and champagne here), spray-painting the entire kitchen and leaving several indelible works of abstract art spattered across the ceiling. Despite numerous coats of fresh paint, the marks were still there when we sold the house several years later; on reflection, maybe the hamster wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Spearmint

My own disaster was slightly less dramatic but equally as alarming. I set out to make a batch of elderflower cordial, something I’d made previously without any problems. Ah, that summery smell of muscadet flowers and lemons wafting through the kitchen. Wonderful! I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think probably it was a hectic weekend sandwiched between two busy weeks, the elderflowers were at their best and I was impatient to get on with it; the problem was, I had no citric acid to act as a preservative. No problem, I thought, having a clever little lightbulb moment: I’ll freeze it in ice cube trays then everyone can help themselves to a portion from the freezer as and when they want. Blimey, that’s brilliant, I hear you say!

Double feverfew and nasturtiums

Well, it very much wasn’t brilliant and if I hadn’t been such a fool rushing in and had stopped for just a couple of seconds to think about it scientifically, I’d have realised it was never, ever going to work. There are hundreds of websites out there happily reassuring unsuspecting souls that elderflower cordial freezes like a dream. Please trust me on this one, my friends ~ it doesn’t! For ‘dream’, read ‘nightmare.’ The sugar content is far too high so that in the same way a sorbet is always slightly soft, it will never freeze solid.

Passionflower

Instead of handy little ice cube-shaped blocks to be popped out into a glass, I ended up with a pile of tacky slush; what’s more, it was a pile of tacky slush with a mind of its own which inexplicably travelled throughout the entire freezer (and we’re talking a big family-sized chest job here), coating absolutely everything in a fine film of sticky gunk. How this happened, I will never know but some dark and mysterious forces were at work once the lid was down. The business of visiting the freezer for, say, a bag of chicken stock or a loaf of bread and ending up with hands covered in a persistent, sugary ectoplasm became very tiresome, very quickly. It took months to eradicate the stuff. Never again!

Coriander flourishes outside all year round.

Anyway, I digress. It’s a given that things don’t always go right in life and that’s no reason to give up so, nothing daunted, I embarked on Project Herb Cordial, vowing that this time I would take time and do it properly. First, I considered a wealth of flavour combinations and tried them out as both hot and chilled teas, in the end plumping for lemon balm and rosemary which struck my tastebuds as a perfect pairing. Then, I researched zillions of recipes and methods ~ everything from adding sugar to a simple infusion to steeping piles of leaves, fruits and spices in a clay pot for several days to dancing round a cauldron in the garden under a full moon on the third Tuesday of the month. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly with the last one but honestly, the more I read the more mind-boggling it became. Truly, how hard could this be?

Hyssop

In the end, I just decided to do my own thing: put a big bunch of lemon balm and a couple of rosemary sprigs in a pan of water, added the juice from two lemons plus the squeezed lemon halves, brought it up to the boil, switched off the heat and let the whole lot sit and infuse for a good hour or so. I strained the liquid through muslin into a milk pan, added the minimum amount of sugar I thought I could get away with (I don’t like sweet drinks), dissolved it in the liquid over heat and brought it back to the boil. We had saved a couple of screw-top glass bottles we were given after a race last year (it was a very yummy Asturian yogurt drink), so I stood them in the sink, filled them and covered the lids with boiling water to sterilise them, emptied them and, holding them in a tea towel, poured the hot cordial in and screwed the lids on tightly. Job done with the minimum of fuss, time, work and ingredients.

Lemon balm and rosemary cordial ~ disaster free!

I’m happy to report two things. One, the cordial is utterly delicious and particularly refreshing diluted with sparkling mineral water over ice. Two, the bottles have sat in the fridge in a very well-behaved manner and the contents have so far managed to remain locked down inside them, except for the portions we’ve drunk, obviously. Actually, now that I’ve successfully grappled with my cordial demons, I really need to get on and make another batch; the question is, do I stick with the same formula or try a different herbal pairing or maybe even another method? To be honest, it would make a lot of sense to play safe . . . but then I do quite fancy that moonlit dance! 🙂

Dare to be different

One of the many things I like about writing this blog is that it serves as a sort of vague gardening diary which I can use to refer back to what we were doing in previous seasons. I know this means I tend to repeat myself – and I have apologised for that in an earlier post – but it can be both useful and interesting to see how things were going in the garden at different times of the year as well as being a handy reminder that it’s time to be planting such-and-such once again.

What I really wish, however, is that I had been organised enough to make a note of the precise dates on which there have been major gardening events in the village over the last four years in the hope of finding a pattern. When we lived in France, it puzzled me that absolutely nothing happened in the vegetable gardens until the first week of May, then within the space of two or three days the entire patch was dug and everything (potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and courgettes) was planted at once. Our neighbours thought we were très excentrique for pottering about the winter garden doing various jobs and being busy with preparations and plantings as early in the year as possible (mind you, they thought we were very strange for eating parsnips, too!).

Our pickle of a French potager raised a few Gallic eyebrows . . .

Perhaps it’s a quintessentially British thing, that urge to shake off the ennui of long, dark days and revel in even the slightest hint of warmth and seedtime? To be planning and planting and sowing as soon as the robins mark the lengthening days with their sweet song and the velvety bumblebees emerge from their winter caves. I don’t know. Here in Asturias, things are a little different to northern France; the winters are blissfully mild, there is a quiet level of garden activity pretty much all of the time and planting is certainly staggered. What fascinates me, though, is the way in which it all appears to be guided by a mysterious and invisible calendar, as if everyone is dancing in step to a familiar but silent tune, to ripples of invisible notes floating imperceptibly through the air.

I know some gardeners here work to the lunar calendar; indeed, we have bought from several seed outlets where the current one is displayed above the shelves of seed packets and boxes for easy reference. Last September, our neighbour Antonio told me that las berzas (winter cabbages and turnip greens) should be planted out on the day of the autumn equinox. I’m not sure of the relevance but it did at least seem to make a lot more sense than the old adage (which is not followed locally) about planting potatoes on Good Friday, seeing that is a date that can shift by a month and the equinox at least will only move by a couple of days. Recent weeks have seen several days with nothing much happening in village gardens followed by a huge burst of activity with everyone out and working like crazy, then disappearing as if by clockwork until the next big gardening day. It’s as if everyone wakes up one morning and thinks,’Ah yes, today is Bean Planting Day’ and that is why I regret not having kept a note because I’d love to know how they know!

Planting a block of celery . . . possibly on the wrong day?

As I have said before, our neighbours are all wonderfully tolerant, friendly people so our very different gardening style doesn’t seem to bother them one bit – or at least if it does, they’re far too polite to say. Yes, our garden is a bit alternative (well, a lot alternative) with it’s chaotic jumble of flowers and food and our piecemeal patchwork of planting but I celebrate the fact that it is a riotous mix of knowledge and ideas we have gleaned from our neighbours and our own eclectic approach. I’m not sure whether it makes us eccentric or exotic but to me, it’s a wonderful fusion of cultures and a living expression of our love for this exquisitely beautiful place.

The flowers in recent weeks have been bursting into bloom in a paintbox of colours, from broad sweeping swathes to surprising pointillist pops, and filling the air with their heady perfumes. I’ve spent precious moments knitting socks in the garden and seeing the gorgeous dye palettes reflected in the world around me.

The roses scrambling up the house wall have been indescribably stunning this year, dripping with blooms so heavy we have had to tie the plants with rope to stop them collapsing into the lane. There are four varieties in this mix; each has its own unique beauty and character but together they create a pot-pourri of astonishing allure.

Although there is much to be said for agreeable colour combinations, the kind garden designers classically choose to be easy on the eye, I have to admit to a sneaking admiration of those wild and startling combinations that nature throws into the mix. Phacelia has self-set all over the garden, flaunting its gauzy mauve prettiness in the kinds of soft Monet-esque pastel alliances that would happily grace an English cottage garden. That’s fine . . . but how I love its radical flirting with the stunning crimson of poppies!

I love the way things appear in the garden as if from nowhere, too. Rising unexpectedly from the froth of phacelia and poppies, scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ is a single spire of delicate stars; my goodness, here is a summer bulb I planted last year – or was it the year before? – and totally forgot about. It’s taken it’s time but it’s been worth the wait. Nasturtiums are two a penny here and with a very mild winter, they have flowered for twelve months with no break in as many shades of yellow and orange imaginable; now, from nowhere, on the terrace of summer brassicas, a flower of the deepest, richest red has emerged. In the ‘enchanted garden’ of the orchard, a mystery plant has proved to be a linaria which grows readily in the verges and wild places here and is more than welcome; its common name is Three Birds Flying which makes me think of origami or tai chi. It’s totally charming. Sweet Williams are a favourite of mine with their spicy clove scent and jewelled colours and they have set themselves all over the place, popping up in bright bursts in the most unexpected of places. How I love this business of gardening without so much as lifting a finger!

It seems that the insect world is enjoying all this unbridled floral chaos as much as me. We are used to the garden buzzing and fluttering with a healthy population of bees and butterflies and their supporting cast of gentle hoverflies, rowdy crickets, scurrying ladybirds and beetles of all shapes and sizes. There have a been a few new and unusual characters centre stage this week, though. Feeling the need to capture another riotous colour combination with the camera, I ended up with more than I bargained for in my picture. Look closely at that poppy . . .

The length of those antennae was outrageous! Meanwhile, it seemed a knapweed flower was the perfect setting to show off a smart metallic green jacket to great effect.

There’s nothing unusual about yellow butterflies, the garden is full of their buttery flutterings, but catching this one feeding on deadnettle was another reminder of how important it is that we leave plenty of ‘weeds’ to thrive amongst the ‘formal’ flowers. It’s a garden shared rather than a garden controlled.

Ah, but enough of this floral frivolity; ’tis time to turn to the business end of things and seek the food amongst the flowers. It’s an interesting time of cross-over where food from the patch is concerned. We finished eating some of the winter staples like parsnips and leeks several weeks ago, leaving the last plants to flower and set seed for planting next year; meanwhile, this year’s new seedlings are going strong. Otherwise, there are still dribs and drabs of overwintered foods left and we try to eke them out as much as possible at the same time as enjoying fresh pickings from the new season’s collection. It does create a bit of a juggling challenge in the garden, sowing and planting new things around the old which is partly why everything is so higgeldy-piggeldy; I know clearing the lot and starting with a wide open space of bare earth as the locals do would be so much easier, but where’s the fun in that? I love the fact that we have to fight our way through swathes of bee-ridden flowers to find the vegetables, for me it’s all part of the charm of our crazy little corner.

There’s plenty of vegetables to be found in there . . . honest!

So, what have we been eating lately? Well, the purple sprouting broccoli which we’ve been picking since January has gone on and on . . . and on. It’s been blooming in a froth of pale yellow for weeks and although we purposely leave the flowers for a bit (bees love them), it has felt like time to remove the plants to the compost heap for a while now, except they keep producing very edible stalks. Added to a picking of summer calabrese – this is an extra early plant which self-set last year – and we have a decent helping each time.

Last autumn, I planted a patch of beetroot with the intention of pulling a few baby beets but leaving most in the ground to pick the leaves for winter salads, a method which worked brilliantly. With the plants gone to seed, it was time to lift them and I was pleasantly surprised by how many tender, perfectly edible roots were left; roasted in olive oil then blitzed with walnuts, spices and Greek-style natural yogurt, they made a delicious dip of sweet, earthy gorgeousness.

One of our favourite default dinners is a meal that is comprised of several small dishes in a tapas / meze / smörgåsbord sort of way. I think this is a delightful way of eating, first because there is something infinitely pleasing and appetising about a spread of colourful, flavoursome dishes that appeals to all the senses at once but also because it is an excellent way of using up tiny quantities of ingredients in a meaningful way. Half a dozen olives bobbing about at the bottom of a briny jar might look like something that desperately needs hiding in the depths of a cooked dish . . . but marinade them for a few hours in a glug of olive oil with a sliced garlic clove and sprig of thyme, then lay them lovingly on a tiny saucer and you have a dish to be completely savoured. That beetroot dip was perfect for just such a meal, along with a hummus made from roasted squash (our penultimate one in storage) combined with tahini, oilve oil, garlic, spices and pomegranate molasses. A couple of globe artichokes and three spears of asparagus might not really present themselves as much of a helping but lightly steamed and sliced along with raw courgette – or perhaps a few peas or baby broad beans – dressed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with chive flowers, they become a delicate dish that is a celebration of the season.

Our salads have shifted to something new and different with the season, too. Gone are the oriental leaves from the tunnel (aubergine plants now fill that space), the beetroot and chard leaves and the outdoor rocket and land cress which have been left to go to seed. Now we are enjoying the first of the lettuce, pulled young and mixed with an abundance of fresh herbs and flowers, perhaps topped with artichoke, asparagus, peas and broad beans for a little more sophistication. Later in the season, when we have a glut of them, we will use them as a cooked vegetable but for now there is something wonderfully fresh and crisp about those tender raw leaves.

It won’t be too long before we are eating our own cucumbers, either; we’re growing a small Spanish variety this year which seems deliriously happy in the garden and is doubling in size each day. I love the way that a forest of self-set dill has appeared around the plants as if to remind me what a perfect pairing they are, that sort of classic combination like tomatoes and basil that shouts happy summer greetings from the rooftops.

On the subject of tomatoes, it took us four seasons of living here to finally crack the blight problem, much of last year’s success coming down to the wisdom of our gardening neighbours. This year we have kept things very simple with just three varieties planted in the hugel bed under their anti-blight shelter: beefsteak ‘Marmande’, cherry ‘Rosella’ and plum ‘San Marzano.’ Roger is being totally scrupulous in checking them daily, tying them in and pinching out the sideshoots; each plant will only be allowed to set a few trusses. This is very organised by our standards but we’ve learned the hard way with these beauties and it would be lovely to enjoy a truly abundant harvest this year. I have basil plants waiting in the wings, after all.

We are still eating celeriac, carrots, chard and kale although all four are almost finished now and the very last scraps will be used to make vegetable stock if nothing else. We’ve also eaten the last of our pears bottled in spiced cider and red wine; what an amazing success they have been, we will be preserving as many as we possibly can this year.

Where fruit is concerned our favourite forage at the moment is for wild strawberries that grow in such abundance here; it’s very exciting, though, that for the first time since moving here, we will soon have our own cultivated varieties to enjoy, too.

Our top priority in the garden is to produce sufficient fresh foods for our needs whilst having a minimal impact on the environment. Our choice of plants and varieties to grow has been honed over years of experience and while it might seem boring or predictable to opt for, say, ‘Musselburgh’ leeks or ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, the point is we know that such tried and tested varieties will grow successfully. We simply don’t have the space for too many wild cards, especially as leaving patches deliberately uncultivated or planted specifically for wildlife is important to us. However, I think there should always be room in the garden for at least a little bit of experimentation to keep things interesting. Something new for us this year is a patch of ‘Barletta’ onions, the silverskin variety that is so popular here. As a dual purpose onion, it can be harvested young as a spring onion or left to develop fat white globes as the locals do to use as a cooking onion. Our crop is almost ready to start pulling and should see us through until the maincrop varieties grown from sets and seeds are ready for harvesting.

Sticking with the allium family, and last autumn we decided to have another crack at growing garlic; it’s never been happy here, struggling to thrive through the mild, damp winter. We opted for a Spanish purple variety ‘Spring Violeta’ this time and gave it a vernalisation spell in the fridge before planting; it has never looked back and promises a good yield, despite the fact it is currently providing a foil for a jungle of self-set Californian poppies!

One unexpected benefit of the garlic crop is the picking of scapes that have sprouted from the tops; these are perfectly edible and completely delicious, having a sweet, citrussy flavour followed by a garlic hit, perfect chopped into all sorts of dishes both raw or cooked.

I’m also trying some celery here for the first time, the self-blanching ‘Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin’, some tubers of oca (thank you, Sonja!) which is a completely new one for us, plus some Spanish varieties of lettuce, sweet peppers and French beans in amongst all our usual crowd . . . and yes, a crowd it certainly is. It’s already standing room only in some places and there is still so much growing to be done. It’s a crazy, jumbly tangle. Many would probably call it a mess. Perhaps they have a point, but I love it; there’s food in there, more than enough once you really stop and look, and a wealth of wildlife, too. What more could we ask from our garden, even if it isn’t likely to win any prizes? 🙂

From lockdown, with love

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Alexander Pope

We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.

However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.

The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.

The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.

Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.

That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.

I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can we do with this land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)

First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.

As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .

Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.

With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!

I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.

Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!

The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.

There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.

Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.

Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.

To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.

Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.

Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.

Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.

Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.

My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂

Fair weather February

Strictly speaking, we are in the middle of winter and yet, here in this pretty corner of Asturias, it feels like anything but. Somehow it seems that November and January changed places this time round; even the oldest locals say they can never remember a November so wet, with weeks of grey gloom punctuated by violent storms, a complete contrast to the sort of extended ‘summer melting into autumn’ we have experienced in previous years. It might be a bit topsy-turvy but we have been making up for the lack of sunshine and warmth in recent weeks and I am not complaining. The mornings are gorgeous and I find myself drawn outside, pyjama-clad and clutching my first mug of tea, to watch the sunrise; tiny bats whirr through the garden on their last rounds as the nocturnal beeping midwife toads hand over to a raucous chorus of birds. The air smells of sweet grass and spring flowers. It is completely beautiful.

Backtracking a little and the second week of January saw us with fingers tightly crossed for a spell of good weather for Sam and Adrienne’s visit from Norway, both to give us all the chance to get out and do some walking and to allow them to top up their light and vitamin D levels. We weren’t disappointed! It was a pleasure to pack up a picnic and head off on several walking adventures. I loved the Ruta de las Xanas where we climbed a steep and stunning – if vertiginous! – gorge, emerging at the top into sweeping, sunlit meadows. The dog behind us in the photo is a mastín, traditionally raised with sheep from puppyhood and living with them in the fields to guard against wolves. This one had tried to persuade us to part with our picnic and, having failed, decided to sleep off her imaginary lunch in the shade rather than go back to watching over her flock.

A little further on, we passed through Pedrovaya, such a typically peaceful Asturian village with its narrow streets, ancient horreos and assorted cats.

The circular walk took us back to our starting point through beautiful rolling countryside; with the warmth of the sun on our faces and the verges studded with primroses and violets, it was hard to believe this was January – the only thing missing were swallows!

The lovely weather has continued into February and we find ourselves living an almost complete outdoor life once again. The garden has recovered from the bashing it took in the November storms and it is good to see some colour back again – how I have missed those flowers! The Japanese quince, stripped totally bare of every leaf and flower bud, are now blooming in their full glory; we have two pink ones and a deep red, stunning against the blue sky and literally buzzing with bumble bees.

There is a wonderful sense of everything waking up and stretching in a joyful salute to the sun. The banks and verges are spangled with daisies and celandines, violets, primroses and starry wild strawberry flowers; narcissi are unfurling their fat buds, some revealing dainty white flowers with a heavenly scent, others far less subtle in a froth of yellow frills. There is every chance we will have a dose of winter yet but for now, spring is very definitely in the air.

It’s always a job at this time of year to sit on my hands and not rush into planting everything in the garden but at least there have been plenty of things to keep me out of mischief. Roger has been back on logging duty and – brave man that he is – pruning the kiwi. Oh my goodness, what a job that is! In keeping with our policy of returning everything organic to the land, we are chopping the prunings and piling them up for compost but there seems to be no end to them and there are still several more days’ worth of chopping to come. Away from Kiwi World, it has been a joy to have my hands in the earth once again.

I have been planting out ‘Barletta’ onions, the big silverskinned variety so popular here, and also a row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ first early peas to follow on from the ‘Douce Provence’ peas sown last autumn; the latter are doing that strange thing of flowering before they’ve put on much height but if past years are anything to go by, they will shoot up suddenly and produce a heavy crop – the bees are certainly doing their bit to help on that score.

We’ve dusted off the propagator and planted aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies, and started off trays of tomatoes, lettuce and summer cabbage in the polytunnel. I’ve also sown a pot of New Zealand spinach, it failed to germinate in the ground last year so I’m trying Plan B now; I’ve been told by those in the know that once it’s established, we’ll have it forever so I’m hoping for good things. The salad and oriental leaves in the tunnel have reached jungle proportions and we’ve had the first picking of baby spring onions from there this week, too. Who says winter salads are boring?

On the same subject, the clever idea I had of sowing a patch of outdoor salad leaves in the autumn all went to pot when my poor seedlings were completely vaporised in the mother of all hailstorms (this is where a polytunnel has a distinct advantage . . . as long as it doesn’t get blown off down the valley, of course. 🙂 ). What a happy, happy moment, then, to discover this week that some of the brave little troopers have fought back: to date, half a dozen winter lettuce (‘Arctic King’, I think) and a modest patch of mustards and mizunas. What little stars they are.

Happiness has also come in the shape of oodles and oodles of purple sprouting broccoli. Forgive me if I repeat myself every year but I adore the stuff and will be in PSB heaven for the next few weeks, eating it daily in as many ways as is humanly possible. I think this is the best crop we have ever had and personally I’m putting it down to the snug blanket of green manure planted underneath it.

Well okay, maybe it has nothing at all to do with green manure but I rate the whole ‘no bare earth’ thing so much that I am planning another season of the same. Not that it will require too much thought as nature seems to be doing a pretty good job without any help and a drift of soft blue phacelia flowers to drive the bees to distraction is imminent. The feathery leaves of volunteers are popping up all over, even squeezing themselves into tight spaces like the patch of beetroot below. Other people may see it as mess, I only see beauty.

I am currently reading Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I am completely engrossed in his take on permaculture in a temperate climate. Here is a book I shall be dipping into for the rest of my life and I am already feeling inspired to try many new things in the coming months and years as well as revisit or simply revel in old ones. For instance, this week I was inspired by my reading to wear my glasses in the garden. That might sound slightly ridiculous but I honestly resent my specs; I know I’m lucky to have them and they are essential for reading and fine work but otherwise I hate every moment they spend perched on my nose so I never wear them unless I have to. However, what a fascinating time I had looking at things close up and properly: the tiny particles and minute life forms in our soil, the golden ratio spiral in a snail’s shell, the intricate network of veins in petal and leaf, the woody wrinkles of a peach stone, the tiny hairs on stems and roots, the infinite shades of colour and nuance of pattern all around me. All this wonder already and I still have 300 pages to go . . .

For us, good weather and lighter evenings can only mean one thing: time to dust off the barbecue. Cooking outside is one of our favourite things to do and it frustrates me that barbecues are so often seen as a summer-only activity, when they can be immensely enjoyable all the year round. In fact, some of the best barbecues we have ever enjoyed have been in the middle of winter. Well, why not? Apart from anything else, it’s a great way of cooking our food on ‘free’ heat as we always use wood from prunings, coupled with walnut shells and a few bits of eucalyptus for sweet-scented smoke. Also, with the provenance of charcoal being an important environmental issue, we can be sure that we are not contributing to the destruction of precious tropical forests whilst cooking our dinner.

Cooking over wood is slightly trickier than charcoal as it doesn’t hold its heat for as long but it doesn’t take much to get used to and certainly doesn’t limit the culinary possibilities. For our first barbecue of the year we opted for local pork which we marinated in olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs before cooking as kebabs and serving with homemade bread and a selection of salads. As ‘flexitarians’ we often have a veggie barbie, too, especially in summer when a rack of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes really hits the spot and with plenty of homemade hummus, breads, salads and dips we don’t ever miss the meat. One of our favourite tricks – learnt from a Cypriot friend – is to barbecue foil parcels of feta cheese, sliced tomato (homegrown and sun-drenched, preferably), fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, fabulous as a starter to nibble at while everything else cooks. Go on, try it. It’s amazing. Just be careful not to burn your mouth! 🙂

The joys of January

After what seemed like endless weeks of wind and torrential rain, culminating in a solstice storm so severe a ‘violet’ weather warning was issued in our neighbouring municipality, the weather has been all smiles. Mornings are dreamily atmospheric, the mountains pink-tipped above cloud-filled dips and silvery frost rippling up the valley sides until the sun clears the horizon and turns the tide. The days bloom under wide porcelain skies of flawless blue and there is a warmth in the sun that makes everything feel hopeful.

Now I am not naive enough to be thinking spring thoughts just yet, although there are subtle hints in the air: dusty yellow hazel catkins in the hedge and the haze of new buds in the woodland; a confetti of primroses, violets, celandines and daisies scattered through the orchard and verges; the fragile cries of our neighbours’ first lambs and an energetic bustling and busyness amongst the birds as they find their voices once again. Most of winter is still in front of us, the worst of the weather likely still to come . . . but for now, what life-affirming glee it is to be outside in the fresh air, breathing deeply, turning my face to the sun and connecting completely with this precious little patch of earth.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but certainly one of my intentions this year is to continue building on the new things I was inspired to try in the garden last year. After reading (twice!) Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution I went green manure crazy with tremendous results. I’ve just turned the overwintering mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares on the terraces; it might seem a bit early but our neighbours are already planting their patches so I thought it was time to get stuck in to allow the green stuff to die back before potato time – hooray, the two-year ban has been lifted! What amazed me more than anything else was the amount of worms beneath the green, the soil was literally alive with them which has to be a wonderful sign. Elsewhere, white clover has remained a rich green carpet under and around perennial plants like the row of globe artichokes I planted down a fence line last year. You can see the silvery new growth emerging in the right of the photo, while to the left, the space between the artichokes and kale is filled with the deep green foliage of crimson clover.

I planted a few pockets of crimson clover around the patch in the hope it would go through the winter (it’s not hardy and we do get the occasional frost) and so provide an early nectar source; it has never looked back, forming dense mats wherever I planted it and yes, here come the flowers.

Other flowers, too, are making bright little pops of colour now that many plants have recovered from the ravages of that mighty hail storm in November; good news indeed, as the afternoon air is full of insects in search of a food source. The Japanese quince is a bold splash of red, supported by calendula, borage, cerinthe, osteospermum, pansies, coriander, rosemary and a scattering of roses while in addition to the wilder flowers mentioned earlier, there are dandelions, chickweed, fumitory, clover and red deadnettles a-plenty. A patch of rocket is also in full flower, its delicate sunlit petals a constant source of attraction to bumble bees.

Back to green manure, and although I have more seed to scatter in spring, I’m interested to see just how far the varieties spread themselves this year. Already, there are phacelia volunteers popping up all over the place, some of them even on the verge of flowering; I will let the first bunch bloom as they are such a great food source for bees but there is going to have to be some ‘chop and drop’ business later on. I underplanted the purple sprouting broccoli with white clover last summer but now it also nestles in a sumptuous bed of phacelia and poached-egg plant, all self-set. There’s celeriac in there somewhere, too. No need to fret about bare earth, then.

I also put Mr Fukuoka’s teaching into practice when planting the garlic a few weeks ago in a patch that was formerly home to our late harvest of French beans. Instead of pulling the bean plants and carting them off to the compost heap, I scattered them over the surface of the soil and left them as a weed suppressant while the garlic had a blast of winter in the fridge, then scraped them to one side, planted the the plump purple cloves and re-scattered the bean straw over the top. The fresh green shoots have pushed up through the mulch which continues to hold the weeds back and should – I hope – have rotted down completely into the soil by the time the garlic is pulled. I love this kind of approach; it might look untidy but mess doesn’t bother me one bit – nature is inherently messy, after all – and there is something very wholesome about seeing the garden this way. Every scrap of earth that isn’t planted with a crop or green manure is covered in a thick mulch of compost, comfrey leaves or manure; nothing has been dug or disturbed, just fed. It’s as if the entire patch has been metaphorically tucked up in a cosy quilt and given a comforting bowl of steaming soup! It’s nurturing and nourishing, a large helping of hygge for our winter garden.

Mary Reynolds was also inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, so it’s little surprise that there is much in her book, The Garden Awakening, that has struck a chord with me. One of my ambitions is to plant a forest garden, something that’s very much at the thinking stage at present but which I hope will develop and flourish into the real thing at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken on board Mary’s recommendation that everything organic that comes from our land should be returned to it. Of course, done properly and completely that would involve having a compost toilet which is something else to be thinking about for the future. What we have been doing now, though, as a new approach is creating a small hügelkultur-type bed for this year’s tomatoes and this has been a fascinating and satisfying little project so far. It began a few weeks ago when we were left with a huge pile of brush after removing a couple of small peach and apricot trees which had come to the end of their lives; bearing the idea of ‘returning’ them to the earth in mind, making them into a bonfire just wasn’t on the cards so instead I spent several days chopping every branch and twig into small lengths. It might seem a bit simple but I have to admit it was a very therapeutic and rewarding activity, especially in the sunshine. Once done, I piled the thicker pieces (those that had required loppers) onto the rotting log pile in our wildlife patch which I hope has made the resident slow-worms very happy!

It has taken us four summers to find the only spot in the garden where we can grow blight-free tomatoes so now, taking a leaf out of our neighbours’ book, it was time to make it a permanent planting spot beneath the polythene shelter. Roger built an edge using some spare bricks and we began by filling the base with the smaller woody pieces, the ones that required only secateurs to cut them. A standard hügelkultur bed is built with logs but we’re going for something on a slightly smaller and finer scale here.

Next, we added a thick layer of compost (spent and fresh from the heap) and well-rotted manure.

On to this we are now regularly piling any biomass we can, including a heap of rotted meadow grass cut from the orchard in autumn, huge piles of leaf mould and moss scraped from the yard; the idea is that by the time we’re ready to plant the tomatoes, there will be a raised bed of rich organic planting matter sitting over the slow-release woody fertiliser. It’s already teeming with worms so here’s to an even better tomato crop this summer.

Compost has been a bit of an obsession with me for some time and I have to confess I love any excuse to mess about in the heap (as I said, I’m a simple soul). I spent a very happy day last week scraping the top layer off, digging out trugs and trugs of the stuff and piling it into two mountains in the tunnel; here it will stay dry and any annual seedlings that emerge can be turned over before we use it.

I then set about rebuilding the heap in what John Seymour in The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency describes as a ‘countryman’s stack’ (levelled rather than a pile), first chopping everything big – like a huge pile of woody pepper plants from the tunnel that I’d lazily thrown on whole – into smaller pieces and then layering brown stuff and green stuff with the addition of dollops of manure. We don’t have many nettles here but a persistent plant that grows out of a terrace wall was cut and chopped to add as an activator. I am determined not to buy any commercial compost at all this year as we have been increasingly disappointed in the general quality, the lack of nutritional goodness and the worrying amount of plastic particles that even the more expensive stuff seems to contain. The plastic bags it comes in are another environmental nightmare to deal with so from here on in, it’s home-produced all the way; yes, there will be invasive seedlings but that’s a small price to pay, and if the amount of fungi that has popped up in the tunnel piles is an indicator of vibrant compost health, then we’re onto a winner.

Compared to the verdant jungle of summer, the garden at this time of year always looks a bit bare and yet we still have a plentiful supply and good variety of vegetables to choose from; they just take a little more finding!

We are enjoying Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, leeks, several different types of cabbage and kale, chard, celeriac, chicory, beetroot, carrots, rocket and land cress from outside. There are more treats to come imminently: the broccoli is unfurling its first tender purple florets and in the dark cave beneath the house, fat yellow chicons are emerging from the chicory roots. There is still no shortage of squash and beans in storage and possibly enough chillies to last us several winters, even using them every day as we do. Where fruit is concerned, the kiwi has come up trumps once again and we are enjoying them fresh from the vine when we can persuade the territorial blackbirds and blackcaps to share.

In the tunnel, we have a good range of salad leaves and oriental greens to choose from, including the best crop of lamb’s lettuce we’ve grown in a while. I never fail to be thrilled by picking a fresh, zingy, peppery salad at this time of year, it’s the perfect foil to all those starchy winter vegetables.

In contrast to the abundance of salad leaves, we’ve had a few lone stars of late, too. There is a single spear of asparagus ready to cut which is surely ridiculous at this time of year? After much deliberation over how to best use our very first lemon, we decided to put it into a batch of peach marmalade last week so that it is spread through several jars; the flavour is beautifully intense, it has been well worth the wait. Finally, after nine months of precisely nothing happening in our mushroom logs, a single pioneer shitake decided to put in an appearance. I’m hoping others will follow suit although so far, there’s no sign. Patience, patience.

One thing I am determined to do this year is to finally get a grip on understanding permaculture at a deeper level rather than just dipping in and out or nibbling at the edges as I have been doing for some time. There’s a wealth of material available but I’ve decided I can do no better than go to the founding father himself so I have begun reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual which I’m enjoying immensely. At 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and dense with new, and often quite technical, information to absorb but I’m finding that half an hour’s study in the morning followed by a long run to reflect on what I’ve read is doing wonders for my mind and body (and maybe soul, too). Waiting in the wings is The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield which I’m also very eager to start. There’s several months’ worth of reading material here but possibly a lifetime of inspiration; who knows, I might even get that forest garden planted after all. Happy New Year, everyone! 🙂

Muck and magic

Sitting in Gatwick airport last week, impatient to board our flight home, I came to the conclusion that I am simply not made for modern living. There was too much hustle and bustle, too many people, too much noise, too much dry air, too many strong pongs, too much focus on fashion and image, too many shops, too many handheld screens and too much junk food. I felt like a complete alien, desperate to be back on our little patch of mountainside where life is simple, the air is fresh and sweet, the noises and smells are natural, the food is wholesome (and still growing . . !) and in place of screens, we stare at fabulous skies.

Luckily, I could at least bury myself in a book and escape to a magical world of natural gardens in the shape of Mary Reynolds’ The Garden Awakening. As a brand new book with that crisp evocative scent of pristine paper, this is an absolute treat for me; probably 99% of the books we buy are secondhand but I was unable to find it in any of my usual used book sources and, as I suspected it would be a book I return to time and again, I decided to push the boat out just this once.

Now I accept that Mary’s Irish magic might prove a tad too woo-woo for many people but I’ve always been comfortable with a bit of pagan mysticism and rustic folklore so it bothers me not one jot. I smiled to read how she had been so inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka (me too, Mary!) and what I truly love about the book is the complete surrender to working with nature and the idea of being ‘guardians’ rather than gardeners. There is so much here to think about, many ideas that I can adopt and put into practice; deep in the fascinating realms of forest gardening, our flight was called and my heart raced with the joy and expectation of being back in that special place where outdoor spaces call to me and rainbows tumble from the morning sky.

Good grief, but the weather in our absence had been so savage that in part, I’m thankful we weren’t here to witness it. Anything that hasn’t been flattened has been shredded, everything from low-lying beetroot – now nothing more than a collection of forlorn purple stalks – to the high hazel hedge, whose leaves have been turned to a grim sort of lace.

Even the roughty toughty kale and cabbages are looking well and truly mauled and my patch of outdoor young winter lettuce and oriental leaves has been obliterated; thank goodness for the others, safe under the protection of the tunnel. What weather could be so violent as to strip the blue bench of its paint? I can only imagine the ferocity of storms, the icy torrent of hailstones, the surprising grip of cold. Poor, battered garden.

Well, of course, this is all part of the dynamics of life and there is still plenty to celebrate in the wake of chaos, many gems to be found amongst the debris. The kiwi, usually such an overwhelming cascade of green even this late in the year, is tattered beyond belief . . . but that only serves to help us see the dripping jewels of fruit more easily.

Despite their tender youth, the peas I planted before we left have hung on cheekily to their fresh bluey green foliage; the leeks are sturdy sentinels, standing tall and proud, oblivious to the carnage around them; the cannellini plants I forgot to pick before our trip have yielded a huge harvest of sleek, creamy beans and – what a surprise! – for the first year ever, several celeriac plants are swelling fat roots beneath a froth of ferny foliage.

I am so used to having a garden full of flowers right into January that the sight of ripped flower heads and shredded petals is slightly heartbreaking, even more so watching bees bumble around in search of a food source that should still be there. The bright crimson cups of Japanese quince, which bloom reliably from October to April, have gone – every last one of them. The delicate white and purple flowers of the sweet-scented peacock lily have been left in tatters, trails of nasturtiums reduced to piles of slimy mush and there isn’t a single leaf (let alone flower) left on any of the usually bright and bold pelargoniums. I am grateful for at least one or two hardy little survivors.

However, should I honestly feel frustrated or sad when it is still possible to gather dinner from the garden? The very final picking of peppers and chillies from the tunnel signalled the official end of summer veg and a seasonal step into the world of things denser and more sustaining, those hefty, starchy characters which will see us safely through winter. How can I resist the honeyed crunch of carrots, the herbal sweetness of parsnips, the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes, the strident onion hit of leeks, the subtle aniseed of fennel? Add melting orange squash and the meaty pops of beans from our store and I’m in foodie heaven.

This is one of our very favourite meals, so straightforward from a culinary point of view but one we go back to time and again throughout the year. Simply wash, trim, peel, chop (or whatever) the vegetables and roast them gently in a little olive oil in a baking dish or tray, adding seasonings as desired. Meanwhile, make a tomato sauce by frying chopped garlic and onion in oil, then adding chopped tomatoes (we used tinned ones as we have eaten all our homegrown toms from the freezer), a splash of red wine and seasoning, then simmer long and slow to create a rich, sumptuous sauce. Stir the sauce into the vegetables ten minutes before serving and you’re done! Just add some really good bread to mop up the juices. The beauty of this dish is that it is so versatile and your imagination is the limit: it works just as well with crisp, green, summer vegetables as it does with winter heavyweights; you can season to taste – we added chillies, coriander seed and cumin seed for a blast of heat but fresh or dried herbs or alternative spices will give a totally different slant; if you don’t want to do the vegetarian thing, it’s easy to pop in meaty additions like chorizo or cooked chicken, pieces of firm white fish (we use hake) or even pork fillets snuggled on top of the veg (I’d go for a couple of good eggs broken in, too, but Roger definitely wouldn’t ); melting pools of cheese take it to a new level! The basic dish reheats like a dream but is also delicious cold, alternatively it can be recycled into fabulous soups and curries. Comfort cooking from the garden at its absolute best.

So, back to a bit of practical ‘guardianship’ and one of my first jobs was to sweep up the piles of leaves that had been ripped ferociously from branches and swirled into soggy heaps in every corner. Now this has nothing to do with tidiness. I’ve never minded fallen leaves or considered them to be unsightly; in my experience, if they’re left alone, nature generally takes care of them with some good, drying winds without any fuss or bother (don’t even get me started on leaf blowers). Alternatively, gathered up and left to rot, they offer a very beneficial free food for the soil so it’s well worth the effort with broom and shovel – and blowing the cobwebs and travel dust in the fresh air was exactly what I needed.

Feeding the soil in the tunnel was high on my agenda, too. The extended growing season we enjoy under cover is a boon to our lifestyle but it leaves a very short turn around: no sooner are the last plants removed in late autumn than we’re planning the planting for early spring, which – apart from anything else – will involve replacing the removable staging down one side. Speed is of the essence if I’m to get the soil fed and rested properly before the demands of the new season begin and luckily, this is just the sort of job I love!

Mary Reynolds likens caring for a garden to raising children and I have to agree, especially when it comes to nutrition. Our sproglets were raised on good, fresh, wholesome home-cooked food, much of which they had been involved in growing, picking and preparing since they were able to totter about and ‘help’ and I have the same obsession with feeding and nurturing the soil as I did for our babies. I’m fascinated with the concept of ‘no dig’ and although Roger isn’t completely convinced by the idea, I think the tunnel is the perfect place to explore the possibilities. It’s a relatively small planting area (we simply don’t have the mountains of required mulch for the whole garden) within easy lugging distance of the muck pile and compost heap and the beds have defined sides which make piling on the good stuff easier. I removed the spent pepper plants, lifted a couple of perennial weeds but left the annual ones on the surface, then slathered all the unplanted parts in several centimetres of well-rotted cow manure and homemade compost. Mmm, it’s gorgeous, worm-laden stuff!

The salad leaves I planted some weeks ago had suffered a bit from lack of light thanks to a couple of Scotch bonnet plants that had reached tree proportions and cast way too much shade. I gave them a good drenching with comfrey tea and just three days of higher light levels later, they had perked up no end.

Where the rest of the garden is concerned, I’ve been shifting vast quantities of muck and compost in a continuing crusade against bare earth; basically, any area that isn’t planted with food crops or green manure (deliberately planted, self-set or spread varieties or soft annual weeds) gets a good old mulching with the brown stuff. In some places, this looks a bit like medieval strip farming: on the bottom terrace, from front to back, there are parsnips, leeks, carrots, former squash patch plus the beginnings of a manure cover, green manure (crimson clover) and comfrey. The terraces above are planted with a green manure winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares.

Due to the higgeldy-piggeldy nature of the main veg patch, things are a bit more slapdash there but the same principle applies. On the terrace, for instance, there is a patch of celeriac surrounded by a self-set green manure of poached egg plants and phacelia, a good stand of purple sprouting broccoli undersown with white clover and several short rows of salad leaves including rocket and land cress. One end, however, was a jumble of dead basil, a couple of summer cabbages that didn’t come to anything and a spaghetti of dead nasturtiums so I pulled out the woody stuff and covered the rest in muck.

I’ve repeated the process everywhere I feel the soil needs covering, even between and around the stand of winter cabbages so I can be sure that every piece of available planting space has been fed. It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt affair, but so what? This is the process of creating a healthy, nutritious soil teeming with essential life and the foundation for next year’s food: no job is more important than this one! One of Mary Reynolds’ key pieces of advice is to observe nature closely in the garden in order to work successfully and compassionately with it. One of the things I have certainly been observing with interest this year is the effects (or not) of my green manure experiment and I am truly delighted with the results. As far as I can tell, there have been no adverse effects whatsoever, no reduction in plant health, quality or yield of crops and no increase in pests. Where the soil has been covered by one or several green manures through the year, it has retained moisture and is rich and friable and full of life. It carpets the earth just as nature will do left to its own devices and plants grow quite happily through it.

Beetroot in the trefoil!

One of the most significant factors is the way in which all the green manures I planted in spring and summer (white clover, crimson clover, buckwheat, yellow trefoil, phacelia) have acted as incredible weed suppressants; the only nuisance weed anywhere now is grass which I’ve been lifting with a hand fork and composting, otherwise it’s mainly clumps of chickweed.

Now this in itself is actually a very beneficial plant: not only can it be eaten in salads as a good source of minerals and vitamins, but it attracts pollinators, provides a food source for birds and accumulates potassium and phosphorous making it a perfect green mulch. Rather than consign its bright green carpets to the compost heap, my Garden Awakening self has simply pulled it, left it on the surface of the soil and then thrown manure and compost all over it.

Chickweed pulled, bring on the muck!

One of the crops that was shredded in the bad weather was the Witloof chicory, something I’ve grown for the first time in years. Fortunately, it didn’t really matter as the time had come to harvest the first few roots, anyway. It’s a funny old carry on: lift the plant, chop the leaves off, bury the roots in a pot of compost, cover so that not even the tiniest chink of light can get in, put in a sheltered place (the underhouse barn in our case) and forget for at least a month. It might sound like a dark art but the crisp, blanched chicons which should develop from those roots will give us a fresh, bitter leaf hit just perfect for the season. Now the waiting begins . . .

There’s another bitter leaf ready to eat now, its frilled leaves a deep burgundy gloss nestled in a bed of clover. Ruffled but not wrecked by the weather, this raddichio ‘Palla Rossa’ is a welcome, vibrant sight that is heading for a special meal (maybe for my birthday next week? 🙂 ).

While I have been zipping about the garden literally like a happy little pig in muck, Roger has been busy in the woods with the annual task of fetching, cutting, splitting and stacking logs. These will heat our home, cook our dinners, boil water and dry laundry in future winters – they are worth their weight in gold. It’s hard work but so rewarding to see the stack of split logs growing against the horreo wall where they will be left to season before being stored inside. I love their soft muted colours, their tactile textures and above all, the sharp, spicy scent of them that whispers of forest floors and leaf mould and mushrooms. I adore trees; I am not ashamed to be a happy hugger and never fail to give thanks for this wonderful gift. We always plant far more trees than we cut. That’s how it should be.

On the subject of planting, we came home from a little foray into our local farmers’ co-op with garlic and onions for the garden. We’ve had limited success with garlic here, the warm climate and humidity tend to see overwintered crops rotting in the ground but, nothing daunted, it’s worth another go. We have nothing to lose, after all: two euros for seven fat bulbs is a relatively low investment, there’s plenty of space in the patch and I’m hoping a pre-planting ‘winter holiday’ of vernalisation in the fridge (the garlic, not me) will help things along a bit. The variety we chose is the classic Spanish ‘Spring Violeta’ – it’s supposed to be a a good doer but it’s not the best of keepers. Well, quite honestly, we haven’t scored well so far on that front anyway so let’s see what happens. The ‘Barletta’ onions are an Italian heirloom variety which are massively popular locally; they are a small, silverskin onion which look like extremely fat spring onions and give a good early crop. Our neighbours raise trays from seed overwinter and plant them out very early in spring so that’s exactly what we’re planning to do, although as always I will probably get the date all wrong! There is a lot of gardening done here according to the lunar calendar, and whilst I don’t mind a dash of biodynamics in the garden, I have a tendency to completely overlook the crucial dates in my rush to just be outside with my hands in the earth.

Yes, what a lovely, busy time I’ve been having outdoors; the housework and laundry (and probably a trillion other things) are suffering from severe neglect, but who cares when the garden beckons and wraps its gentle warmth around me? Black Friday . . . what’s that all about, then? Christmas . . . haven’t even given it a second thought. The sun is shining, the robins are singing, the garden is mucked and all’s well with the world. How magical! 🙂

A solitary supper

What a beautiful day. After a week of wet and gloomy weather, it was the kind of golden day that makes my heart sing with the sheer joy of simply being alive. Such a pleasure and treat to be outdoors again, basking in the warmth and peace of a sunny Asturian autumn day. Bliss, in fact.

I love the way each week brings changes, small and subtle and understated, others banging and crashing in, all fanfares and fireworks. How did the autumn crocus, dotted and spotted through the meadow grass suddenly become great swathes, a tide of soft lilac rippling through the green?

They are things of great beauty, delicate faerie cups bearing saffron candles; I’m hoping the cows don’t return to trample them under hoof too soon.

The chestnut trees, ever the tardiest to green up in spring, don’t rush into autumn, either, but suddenly they are lit up in shining bronze and gold against the dusky eucalyptus.

I wasn’t the only one relishing the return of the sunshine. The garden bustled with butterflies – mostly red admirals, peacocks and fritillaries in their painted splendour – and a sudden outbreak of the biggest bumble bees I’ve ever seen. There were baby lizards everywhere, too, almost impossibly tiny but completely perfect and full of life and curiosity.

This was a day for activity in the garden, time to clear a space and start planting for next year. I can’t believe what a difference using green manure and keeping bare earth covered has made to the soil this year, so that a patch that formerly housed summer brassicas with white clover and yellow trefoil carpeted below yielded a deep, loamy, moist, warm, luscious area just crying out for planting. In went ‘Imperial Green’ broad beans and ‘Douce Provence’ peas; these will germinate in no time then sit quietly over winter ready to give an early crop next spring. I also put in a few small purple kale plants left over from the main planting weeks ago. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about them but they’ve soldiered on, rootbound in their section trays, unwatered and unloved – well, they really deserve every chance now and in my opinion, you can’t have too much kale in the garden.

Returning to green manure, and I’m beginning to wonder if I will really need the seed I have for next year since volunteers are popping up all over in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle. On the squash terraces, the winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares is going well; I love that fresh green muddle of bright grassy blades and ferny tendrilled vetch but hadn’t quite planned for the nasturtiums deciding to join in of their own accord. Mmm.

Eating an evening meal on my own is a very rare occurrence these days; planning, preparing and enjoying our main meal of the day together is a large part of our life and something that brings us great satisfaction, especially when most of the ingredients come from the garden. It felt a bit strange, with Roger away at a race, to be thinking about dinner just for myself. Cooking for one is not always easy; apart from missing the social side, I find it hard to work in tiny quantities and also to muster much enthusiasm – in the past, and especially when I was working, I tended to default to a jacket potato or mushroom omelette. Even worse, eggs on toast or cheese on toast. Or just toast. There’s such a difference between eating to live and living to eat, so with this in mind -and trying to avoid the lonely toast option as much as possible- I cooked a bit of buckwheat in the morning and left it to cool with a vague notion of turning it into some kind of salad. I’m a great fan of buckwheat, that humble little seed packed with phytonutrients; I far prefer it to its fashionable friend quinoa as it’s chunkier and more substantial somehow, with a pronounced nutty flavour. I’ve grown it for the first time this year and I have to admit I am completely under its spell: green manure, companion plant, weed suppressant, perfect food source for bees and a hoverfly attractant as well as being a handsome plant with pretty flowers . . . buckwheat really cuts the mustard. My only disappointment is that after conducting a bit of research, I discovered the variety I’m growing is no good for human consumption as it has a very bitter flavour. Shame.

Anyway, back to my salad plan. We still have a good selection of salad leaves and herbs in the garden, baby carrots and young Florence fennel, the occasional late courgette and although the aubergines have finally given up the ghost, the sweet peppers are still going strong in the tunnel. Possibilities, then.

As I pootled about the garden, though, I started to think that maybe this would be a golden opportunity to see if I could create something different, a recipe new to me that used as much home-grown produce as possible and gave me the chance to further explore the ingredients we buy in terms of economy and environmental impact (something I started investigating closely a few weeks ago). As the soft afternoon light played across the vegetable patch, my eye was constantly drawn to the bright fire of beetroot leaves; ah, here was a good place to start!

Roger is not a huge fan of beetroot but I love it and this year I’ve made successive sowings to keep me supplied for many months. I threw this last lot of mixed seed in as a random patch rather than formal rows and it’s bursting with plump baby beets; the leaves are a bit ropy but the roots are sweet and succulent. I usually grate them raw as a salad or roast them to eat hot or cold but this solitary supper called for something new, so I decided it was time to sit down for a mug of tea and a quick blast of sock knitting with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Well, obviously not the man himself but two of his books, River Cottage Veg Every Day and Much More Veg; we were given both as gifts and they are fantastic, much used and well thumbed. It’s handy to have a good supply of recipes that make vegetables the star of a dish; we’ve made many of them from both books, and often return to old favourites simply because they are just so delicious. Time for a bit of beetroot love, then.

I really liked the sound of Beetroot and Chard Stir Fry with Chilli, Ginger and Lime and quite fancied the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat, too; the problem for me was that even with my open-minded attitude to food, I felt Chinese meets Moroccan (or maybe Indian?) was definitely up there on the confusion cooking scale. In the end, Moroccan won the toss, not least because we didn’t have any lime but we did have a jar of preserved lemons just ready to eat. We’ve been making our own preserved lemons for years; it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, simply pouring salt into the split fruits and packing them into jars with extra lemon juice (although Roger has now branched out into slightly cheffier ideas which incorporate things like rosemary, too).

They are utterly divine (I could quite happily eat them straight from the jar which would be pretty disgraceful behaviour) and are such a fantastic ingredient to use. It’s a shame that unless we are lucky enough to be given some lemons, we do have to buy them as when we moved here, ours was the only house in the village without any citrus trees. Two lots of good news, though: first, Spanish lemons are superb quality, cheap and plentiful and we can buy them loose without any packaging; second, the lemon tree we planted three years ago is bearing fruit – not quite enough for a jar of preserved ones yet, but where there’s fruit and flowers, there’s hope.

One of the many things I like about Mr F-W’s cooking is that he encourages changes and swaps, seeing his recipes as starting points or guidelines rather than rigid prescriptions. For that I am truly thankful because I’m not sure he would have recognised his works of cheffery by the time I’d finished with them. First things first, the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat which I decided was crying out for the addition of walnuts . . . and what lovelier pastime on a sunny afternoon than doing a bit of outdoor food prep?

Next, a sally forth into the garden to source some veg: beetroot obviously, some yellow chard (the youngest, most tender stems), a small bulb of fennel as the row really needs thinning, a handful of purple kale, a green chilli, red and green sweet peppers and some fresh coriander and mint. Not a bad little haul (and yes, already looking like far more food than one person needs).

It’s true that for a meal like this, the preparation takes way longer than the actual cooking (and eating) but then, that’s part of the fun. I love the sensory pleasure of prepping ingredients, all those yummy colours, textures, scents and flavours mingling before the cooking proper has even begun. Using the wickedly sharp paring knife made by my cutler nephew Harry always reminds me of the joy and satisfaction of crafstmanship, of using fingers and thumbs to do more than just press buttons or touch screens. This is what I ended up with (excuse the onion being obliterated by sunlight in the photo, the late October light brings us a blast of rays straight through the kitchen window at around 6:30pm):

Top board. clockwise from top left: Florence fennel, chard stalks, chard leaves, purple kale, beetroot leaves, red and green peppers. Bottom board, clockwise from top left: garlic, green chilli, green olives, mint and coriander, preserved lemon, beetroot, onion.

The only bought ingredients were garlic and green olives. It’s frustrating that we can’t grow garlic here given how well the allium family thrives but it doesn’t get the blast of winter it needs and rots in the ground; any that manages to grow doesn’t keep so we’ve stopped trying and buy Spanish stuff in loose bulbs instead. Olives are one of our store cupboard essentials, we use them in so many dishes. We can’t grow them here – the Asturian climate is not Mediterranean enough – but there are plenty of good Spanish varieties available and we buy them in large jars which we reuse for storage or making big preserves. Other bought ingredients I used to cook the meal were olive oil (Spanish, bought in five litre bottles to reduce packaging), sea salt (Spanish, bought in large containers), cumin and peppercorns (both large packs bought during a UK trip as we’ve failed to find anything other than small packs here . . . and cumin just won’t grow in the tunnel, despite my best efforts) and a squeeze of lemon juice (see note about lemons above).

With all the prep done, cooking the meal took literally minutes. I heated some olive oil in a frying pan and stir fried the garlic, chilli, onion and beetroot with coriander seed (saved from the garden) and cumin for a couple of minutes, added the peppers and fennel and cooked for another couple of minutes, then stirred in the olives and preserved lemons to heat through. After seasoning with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, I scattered the greens over the top and covered the lot with a lid to let the leaves steam gently. Meanwhile, in another frying pan, I dry toasted more coriander seed, cumin seed and the chopped walnuts from earlier then stirred in the previously cooked buckwheat; I added a glug of olive oil to loosen everything, heated until piping hot then finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and scattered the chopped fresh coriander and mint over the top. Job done. Fast food indeed!

Having tasted the veg, it transpired that the little green chilli was a bit on the lip-tingling, ear-steaming side so I added a dollop of cooling Greek-style yogurt (bought stuff sadly, I discovered the hard way that the house is too cool for making my own without The Beast lit) and headed outside for an al fresco supper. The dish was totally delicious and very substantial; needless to say, I had made far too much so there was enough left over for lunch the next day (it turned out to be great cold, too). It was lovely to reflect on the fact that we can create interesting, nutritious and tasty meals based on what’s good in the garden and that more and more, our awareness of what we buy is leading to a focus on local / Spanish ingredients with reduced food miles and packaging. As the sun sank, treating me to another of those beautiful light shows across the sky, and the first tiny bats came out to play in the twilight, I also had to admit that when it comes to a solitary supper, there really is no excuse for toast! 🙂

Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂

Green and gold

The Autumn Equinox has passed, the days are shortening and most of the swallows have departed but in every other sense, it still feels very much like summer here. We bask in exquisite days of green and gold beneath flawless cerulean skies, blanketed in a delectable warmth and seasoned with the buzz and flutter of a myriad insects.

There is still a potent atmosphere of growth and busyness, as if nature is having a long, last workout and stretch before the season truly shifts. A good soaking of warm rain has freshened the faded landscape, restoring it to intense shades of verdant green in a single, sweeping brushstroke. My goodness, how the green stuff is growing once again.

The passion flower has known no bounds this year, shamelessly threading itself along the whole fence, then scrambling to the very top of a peach tree and tumbling down in a fountain of floral Catherine wheels.

I’ve warned it that I really must cut it back this autumn and try to instil at least a modicum of control, but with a nonchalant shrug of its shoulders, it’s simply decided to start a new game. What can I say?

Along another fence line, a new beauty has appeared. This was one of those neglected little supermarket bargain buys, not much more than a stick on a root when I planted it last year. The poor thing was completely swamped by the poppy hedge for many months and quite honestly, I’d forgotten it was there so what a fine surprise to find an outburst of velvety blooms this week. Another surprise is the colour. I swear it was supposed to be magenta. Oh, well.

The squash plants need no lessons in how to exert their authority; they totally refuse to stay politely on their terraces and tumble down the hillside in a relentless tide, joined in the rush by several hoodlums we didn’t even plant.

Unlike previous years, though, when the plants have all died back simultaneously and the harvest has been a concentrated day of furious activity, this year they are ripening a few at a time in gentle waves. The first few are curing in the sunshine on the horreo balcony but there are still many, many more to come.

Having let the self-setters do their own thing as well as planting seeds from a mongrel we grew and ate last year, I am fascinated by the sheer range of shapes, colours, sizes and textures that have emerged from the mix so far.

We did, of course, plant several official varieties, just to be sure of a fail safe supply: ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Speckled Hound’, ‘Speckled Pup’ and a couple of Hubbards. What has really captured my imagination, however, are the characteristics being flaunted by those of lesser pedigree: we’ve never grown a variety here with that classic Turk’s Turban belly button, so where on earth did it spring from? The magic of open pollination is completely spellbinding.

Bewitching, too, is the play of light through the trees. Walking through the woods, I sense just the merest sigh of autumn, the faintest whisper of things to come.

The verges and wild patches are still a vibrant embroidery of wild flowers, each dainty head spun with a filigree of spider silk.

Ah, ’tis time to stop wandering and settle down to a more serious business. The ‘eco’ day I planned in my previous post proved to be every bit as revealing and inspiring as I had hoped, leaving me with much food for thought and a wealth of new ideas to put into practice. Let me start with a tough one: life without tea or coffee is a challenge! However, I can see that reducing my consumption even a small bit each day would make a difference to electricity usage, food miles and also possibly my health. I’m persevering with trying to drink more herbal concoctions, lemon balm and lavender being my favourite so far with fragrant apple mint (of which we have several acres) a close second.

Now, as part of the effort to make fuller use of our produce, I am drying Japanese quince to use in a herbal tea blend over winter. We have three large bushes close to the house, covered in striking, bee-filled flowers for many months and now literally dripping with golden, aromatic fruits; I like to put a couple in the fruit bowl to scent the house with their tantalising perfume but using them for tea is a whole new escapade.

Actually, making full use of our produce has been quite a theme for the week let alone a single day. It’s so easy at a time of ample harvest not to pick as much as we can because the amounts seem overwhelming or there’s a limit on how much we can preserve. After last year’s disappointing walnut harvest, this year we have collected buckets and buckets of them and there are still several trees’ worth to come. Dried on trays in the sunshine, they will keep for the next year in the horreo and will play a major role in our diet.

To us, figs are such a luxury food and I am happy to tuck into piles of fresh ones, either with yogurt and walnuts for my breakfast or as a snack; no need to try and do clever culinary things with them, they are perfect just as they come. They keep for such a short time, though, and we have such an enormous crop this year that we have been experimenting with drying them to keep and use later. A wet day saw us light The Beast for the first time since spring so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get preserving. I’d like to say at this point, it might have been wet outside but it certainly wasn’t cold so the house was like a sauna; talk about sweltering and suffering for our art!

Anyway, we set whole and half figs to dry on racks above the hob, slices of pear (another bumper crop) to dry in the warming drawer and boiled up a huge vat of peach jam, as well as cooking dinner and baking bread. How I love that stove! I’ve never quite understood how I can be a glutton for fresh figs but can’t bear them dried (it’s something to do with Fig Roll biscuits, I think) so I wasn’t sure about this idea; what a revelation, then, to find myself tucking into something akin to soft, fruity toffees. Sublime. The problem is, I’m eating them now which wasn’t really the point. We need another wet day, pronto.

Backtracking to pears, we have put plenty into storage in the cool and dark of the underhouse barn to be eaten whole and those dried slices turned out to be totally delicious. Trying a different strategy, we’ve also bottled some in mulled cider, one of the top local products in Asturias; as Roger had been given a bottle in a post-race goody bag, it seemed perfect for the job. These are not meant to be sweet treats but rather served as accompaniments to savoury dishes and foods like cheese; I can already see them being a great base for a dish in a tapas meal. It all went so well, Roger decided to do a second batch, this time in mulled red wine; well, you have to do these things, don’t you?

Looking further afield, I have been making plans for using some wild foods, too. The coming weeks should see a proliferation of parasol mushrooms in our meadows and as the cows have been and gone on their regular circuit of the valley, we should be able to get in there and pick some without them being trampled. They are supposed to make excellent eating so I’ve been studying recipes to try. At the same time, I’ve been researching ways in which we can use chestnuts, a huge harvest that is desperately underused. Obviously, they have a wide range of culinary applications but I’m interested in the Italian tradition of making them into flour; they don’t contain gluten so they are no good for bread flour, but are perfect for flat breads (which we love) and pasta. A walk into the woods told me they’re not quite ready but very close . . .

One of the many things I did on my ‘eco’ day was spend some time leafing through our cook books, not in a random way but with the intention of finding and listing new recipes that we can try with the foods I know we will be harvesting through the coming months. I love the idea of baked fennel agrodolce and kale with oats; why not have a go at making a walnut dukka or beetroot kimchi? The garden is still so full of food: aubergines, courgettes, peppers, French beans, kale, summer cabbage, chard, beetroot and salad crops.

Waiting in the wings are Florence fennel, autumn carrots, more chard, more beetroot, more beans, parsnips, leeks, winter cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory and broccoli, along with those things in store – squash, onions, podding beans and chillies. I need to plant some overwintering crops in the polytunnel but it is still full to the rafters.

Having spent time riffling through our food cupboards to check on countries of origin and packaging, I realised more than ever that what we must do is persist with a totally holistic approach. How badly do we need a plastic package of prunes from Chile? What can we use instead? Figs, pears, kiwis . . ? How on earth did we manage to buy a packet of white beans – one of the biggest products of Asturias – that had come from Argentina? Why don’t we grow more of our own, enough to last all year? Why don’t we pay more attention when we’re shopping?! I think the message to self is clear: every meal, every dish, every mouthful we can produce here reduces our consumption in a positive way so we must, must, must make the most of everything we have.

This will mean very careful planning for the garden next year; there is plenty of time to organise that, but in the meantime the spaces that open up need some loving care and – bottom line – a good feed. I don’t want to go the whole Masanonbu Fukuoka hog and leave the ground untouched, mostly because we are still battling oxalis and I welcome any opportunity to knock it back. Where spaces have begun to appear such as the climbing bean and cucumber patches, green manure (whether sown deliberately or naturally-occurring clovers and trefoil that I left to spread) has done a wonderful job in suppressing weeds and creating a soil beneath that is to die for, such a rich, friable loam.

I’ve lifted the plants, extracted those infuriating oxalis seeds, relocated a few pansies and then left the green stuff to wilt on the surface. In a while, I’ll tickle it in with a fork, throw on a pile of muck and let winter and the worms do the rest.

In other places, I will leave patches of crimson clover in the hope it goes through the winter and provides an early nectar source whilst on the squash terraces I plan to broadcast a mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares as a winter green manure. I love the fact that even through the quietest months, the garden will be far from bare and thoroughly nourished for next year’s planting.

So what else did I learn? Well, the whole business of heating a bucket of water in the sunshine for my shower has already led to a complete change to my body washing approach. I took the bucket into our shower cubicle and had a ‘scoop and slosh’ wash which worked brilliantly and felt lovely: solar heated water free from a mountain spring – just perfect. This got me thinking that, apart from days where I’ve had a very hard, hot run, I am filthy dirty from gardening or I need to wash my hair (which I only do every four days or so anyway), there is really no need for me to shower; a good old-fashioned stand up all-over wash using just a couple of litres of hot water in the basin will suffice. . . and in the cooler months, that water can be heated on The Beast. I will be clean and I will not smell nasty but it will certainly reduce my carbon footprint and our electricity bill. Modern living sucks us into so many activities that are really not necessary. Having regular showers or baths is a habit – like so many others – I developed to satisfy the demands of my working life. How refreshing to step away from it now. 🙂

My shower bucket warming in the September sunshine.

Assessing our progress on the environmentally friendly personal hygiene front, I decided we aren’t doing too badly in general. I need to make a new batch of soap and, having made and tested several different varieties in the last few months, I have come down to a single recipe of olive, castor, coconut and avocado oils enriched with shea butter and scented with tea tree, rosemary and lavender essential oils which works well as a solid shampoo and soap. We don’t need anything else. I’d like to try rye flour as a shampoo if I can find a supplier here where we can buy bulk quantities; it’s not easy to find, is only sold in small volumes and is relatively expensive – none of which would matter if we weren’t feeding a sourdough starter, I just worry about running out as we shop so infrequently. It’s one to work on, as is tracking down bamboo toothbrushes with firmer bristles; I like the ones we have now but Roger finds them too soft. No surprise, I came out of my ‘eco’ day with a very long to-do list.

When it comes to leisure pursuits, I treasure the simplicity of my old wooden spinning wheel that needs nothing more than a little mechanical effort on my part in order to work and I am enjoying my evening spinning moments so very much. With a large box of natural white fleece to be spun, you would think I would leave my two coloured batches until later to alleviate the boredom of white, white and yet more white. Well, no. A coil of commercially dyed Merino left over from a project some years ago caught my eye and that was it; I couldn’t help myself, there was something of the season about those luscious colours.

Merino is the finest fleece in the world, beautifully soft and silky, lofty and warm. Not much good for socks that have to do some work but this is not all about socks; there is enough here for gloves, mittens, a hat, or to be used as an accent yarn in something bigger. Ah, the pure pleasure of seeing those colours twist around each other on the bobbin . . .

. . . and then plied into the finished yarn in gorgeous ripples of berry shades. Yum.

So, on to the white stuff now? Um, not exactly because what else should I have lurking in that box but a pile of ‘rescue’ fleece that had been thrown into an inexhaustible dyepot a couple of years ago in my frantic efforts to use up a purple and turquoise mix that just would not disappear. Poor unloved thing. I owed it some attention.

This is Kent Romney, my number one choice for sock yarn: soft enough to hug next to the skin but strong enough to wear in boots, fairly dense but elastic, medium staple so easy-peasy to spin – in brief, an all-round good egg. The slight problem with this batch is as a result of the dye session chaos, I took my eye off it for a while and it felted ever so slightly. Well, I spun it anyway; it won’t make socks but has turned out to be the perfect yarn for a little bag project (and I know a small person with a passion for purple). The beauty of this for me was having to card lovely, fluffy rolags, something I haven’t done for a while. I’m a simple soul but things like this just make me so happy.

So yes, now I’m on the white and settling into some really serious skeins for dyeing and sock knitting, starting with more Kent Romney blended with kid mohair, which adds as much strength as nylon does in commercial yarns and also an antibacterial quality for healthy toes. It’s a gentle thing to be doing, sitting outside in the evening light, treadling and drawing and watching the bobbin gradually fill. At the same time, I’ve found the loveliest and most peaceful of pastimes: collecting skies. Those colours . . . if only I could spin clouds.

Who needs television? 🙂

Lessons from nature

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken .

Leo Tolstoy

I decided a long time ago that there is much I can learn from nature and that working closely with it, observing it and communing with it would provide some of the best and most valuable lessons of my life. I don’t mean this in any romantic, dewy-eyed way: nature isn’t all soft and fluffy and cute – anyone who has watched a predator at work or suffered the effects of violent weather can attest to that. It’s about awareness and connection, understanding and acceptance, tuning in to the environment and that complex worldwide web of life of which I am a tiny part. It’s about relinquishing any notions of superiority and control, any feelings of disapproval or disappointment and developing an open, pragmatic attitude instead. Where roses bloom so greenfly will follow . . . but is that a reason not to enjoy the exquisite beauty of the flowers?

I’m genuinely thrilled by the sheer quantity of insects in the garden this year, not just in terms of absolute numbers but the wider range of species we are seeing, too – bees (bumbles and solitary types), butterflies, hoverflies and a wealth of beetles of every shape, size and hue to name but a few. I’m hoping that at least part of the reason is the ongoing efforts we are making to encourage them in by creating diverse habitats and wilder patches. Earlier in the year – after much head scratching- we decided to turn the eyesore of a former chicken run / rubble patch into a planted area, shifting soil from the field and scattering a box of Spanish flower seed along with some old bits and pieces of wildflower seed, things like ragged robin and knapweed which thrive here.

So far the annuals are dominating and I love the glimpse of their cheerful colours in the afternoon sunlight; they remind me so much of the cottage garden seeds I used to plant with our children when they were small. There’s clarkia, candytuft, gypsophila, borage, poppies, Virginian stocks . . . and of course, the ubiquitous nasturtium.

This little patch teems with life: newts rummaging about in the tiny pond, a slow-worm curled beneath the logpile, lizards sunning themselves lazily in front of the tomatoes and a myriad insects in the flowers. It’s a wonderful spot for a little quiet contemplation and observation and I marvel at all the bustle and busyness. Butterflies make straight for the candytuft whilst bumble bees love the clarkia but seem to prefer the flowers when they are going over. Interesting.

There’s much activity, too, in the areas of orchard we have purposely left uncut, trying to develop a meadow area using what is already there. Close inspection reveals an array of flower species, a whole rainbow of wild beauty.

It’s not all rosy, though. Several parts of Asturias, including ours, are in the second year of a potato-growing ban designed to try and eradicate the Guatemalan potato moth which arrived here from South America via the Canaries. Meanwhile, the ‘hornet man’ is extremely busy travelling round the local area in his van, putting up plastic bottle traps to catch Asian hornets, voracious predators which wipe out colonies of honey bees every summer. Of course, in the web of life, both insects have a valued role but not in this particular ecosystem; they are not indigenous, they cause complete devastation and – most sobering of all – they did not arrive here unaided.

On a much brighter note, it’s been a fantastic week for mammal spotting. Pole cats are a regular visitor to the garden, slinking along the margins in dusky light but this is the first time we have seen a weasel – and what a character, literally dancing between Roger’s feet without a care in the world! A pair of bright-eyed foxes appears each evening to check out the compost heap and young deer graze in the meadow behind the house before melting silently into the wood. In the depths of the night, Iberian wolves are calling from higher up the mountain, their evocative, spine-tingling howls spooking the neighbourhood dogs into a raucous cacophony. They were once almost hunted into extinction, and their protected status causes some controversy within the farming community but for me, there is magic in their mournful song. What a privilege to listen.

When it’s a struggle to open the polytunnel door and impossible to travel the length of its path, even I have to admit it’s time to act. I don’t usually like plants standing tall in serried ranks but when they start to collapse into chaos it is definitely time to impose a little parade ground discipline. It’s hard to believe how rapidly these once young plants, firmly tied to their stakes and shyly revealing their first dainty flowers, have completely filled the space and are toppling over thanks to the sheer weight of fruit on their branches.

I love jobs like this, a couple of hours immersed in greenery, caring and nurturing and observing; it’s a great opportunity to check each individual plant, assess their general health, check for disease and pests and take account of the fruits they are producing. With the foliage canopy lifted and reined in and the bigger weeds cleared from between, it was obvious that a real soaking was required: this is one thirsty jungle! Cue carrying a 14-litre can of water up several metres of steep lane sixteen times. By my reckoning that’s 224 kilos of water (plus the weight of the can) or almost four times my body weight in all and under time pressure, too – I leave the hose from our spring running into a bucket ready for the next fill and refuse to let it reach overflowing before I’m back so speed is of the essence. Well, I think that counts as a decent session of strength training!

As part of the polytunnel clear up, I decided to remove several basil plants that had become quite thuggish. Not all of them, though, as they have been doing such a great job as companion plants, attracting pollinators into that strange, plastic-coated world. I watched a vibrant ladybird beetling along a stem, the daintiest of hoverflies alight on a leaf and a velvety ginger bumble bee come in straight to those tiny white flowers, then move on to working through the aubergine flowers. That’s precisely what it’s all about. Moments like these are so precious to me and timely reminders of the gratitude I feel to all those small creatures for the part they play in producing the bountiful harvest we enjoy.

The garden looks impossibly full at this time of year and such is the mild climate we enjoy, as soon as something is finished there is still plenty of time to plant other things for later crops. I love filling spaces in this way and seeing that promise of good food roll on and on through the seasons, so what a pleasure to be sowing ‘Autumn King’ carrots and Florence fennel – two crops that usually do so well for us right into December – along with random patches of loose-leaf lettuce, mizuna, rocket, summer purslane, land cress, New Zealand spinach and spring onions. I really can’t fault the recently planted French beans for their enthusiasm, either; these are ‘Faraday’ and ‘Stanley’ – I haven’t decided yet whether they are a music hall act or firm of solicitors, but they certainly haven’t wasted any time in germinating.

Another space became vacant this week as the first two rows of onions were lifted out to dry; these were grown from sets and haven’t performed quite as well as the others raised from seed which we’re leaving in the ground a little longer.

When Roger suggested it might be a good spot for another row of autumn carrots, I had to apply my best Wallace and Gromit smile and cutest eyebrows before admitting that I’d already planted some more beetroot there, something he doesn’t even really like. Oops! Luckily, given the general haphazard nature of my gardening style, I had lazily thrown the seed into a patch at the top of the slope rather than a row so there was room to squeeze in some carrots, too. I think I’m forgiven, but where nabbing bare earth is concerned here, it’s definitely a case of you snooze, you lose.

For me, one of the fascinating aspects of gardening is the way that everything follows cycles; true, this can be a frustrating rollercoaster ride at times but I think it also delivers valuable lessons in life. Nothing is perfect or predictable and we can choose to fight that fact or shrug it off and go with the flow. I would far rather be a happy gardener smiling at all that is good rather than stomping and scowling around the patch because things haven’t quite gone as planned. Let’s face it, even in the very worst of years there is still much to celebrate.

Last year, spring storms ripped the blossom from our peach trees and our harvest amounted to a single fruit; this year, the trees are so heavy that Roger has been cutting chestnut poles from the wood this week to prop up their brittle branches.

These delicious fruits were sorely missed last season but this year we are blessed with a bountiful crop and will value them all the more after last year’s dearth.

I’m sure somewhere in the world there is someone who has a soft spot for flea beetles but I have to admit I’m struggling to feel the love at the moment; in fact, I’m sick of the sight of them massed on the brassicas, flaunting their shiny metallic jackets and kangaroo legs. We’ve never had a problem with them before but my word, are they making up for lost time this year. Having previously gone all out to annihilate the aubergines in the tunnel, they now seem set on a path of total destruction of anything brassica-related outside.

The good news (please look away now if you are of a squeamish nature) is that instead of doing that usual manic flea jump thing whenever we go near, they are very dopey which renders them easily squishable; I’ve read this happens once they become well-fed adults – ha, well they’re certainly that alright if the state of our plants is anything to go by.

Obviously, I haven’t set out to eradicate them, just knock the numbers back a bit to give the plants a chance. I am having to check every leaf of every brassica every day, quite an undertaking when at last count we had over 70 young plants but it will be worth the short term pain; cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale are all such fantastic foods that I hate the thought of being without them. Mind you, there’s still the worst of caterpillar season to come . . .

There has been a slight sense of nature running away with things this week and much of my time in the garden seems to have been spent on some kind of rescue mission or damage limitation. The ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans have gone berserk; we grow them up stout hazel poles cut from the hedge and I have to admit I did think I was winging it a bit using the same poles for the third year in a row.

Big mistake! The plants have climbed well above the tops of the poles and are so heavy with beans that the pole tops have snapped, leaving the whole structure on a lean that makes a certain tower in Italy look positively vertical. As we are growing these purely as podding beans they will be in the ground a long time yet so it’s time for some emergency staking and guy ropes.

The ‘Latino’ courgettes are also getting away from me at every turn and despite my efforts to be vigilant, they are hiding fat marrows under their huge leaves on a regular basis. These have to be cut off if the plants are to continue fruiting and I confess they go straight onto the compost heap. I don’t feel too guilty about this; preserving is an excellent age-old method of using up gluts of seasonal produce but I think it can go too far. Preserving requires expenditure on other ingredients and energy for the heating process; this is fine if what is produced is definitely going to be eaten but there is little point in filling cupboards with jars and jars of gooseberry jam, marrow chutney, pickled beetroot and the like if it doesn’t get eaten because it isn’t wanted, needed or – in many cases – not even liked. We will freeze excess peaches and every single fruit will be used but the marrows will be recycled by nature into compost. On which subject . . .

One of the things we have decided this year is to stop buying commercial compost. Obviously, peat-based compost has been a big no-no for some time but I’m beginning to wonder exactly what the peatless stuff is made from these days, even some of the more expensive types. Am I missing something when I believe compost should be made from biodegradable, organic matter? I’m tired of finding bits of plastic, chopped rubber and a whole host of other dubious materials that shouldn’t be there: in one bag we bought recently, there was an entire length of plastic tubing! (By the way, this isn’t a Spanish thing, either – we’ve had the same experience with compost bought in the UK and France.) We’ve had far too many trays of seeds that have germinated and then sat refusing to develop their first true leaves or young plants and cuttings failing to grow because there is simply little or no nutrition in the compost, so really what is the point? Compost should be dark and rich and crumbly and packed with a wealth of nutrients that give seeds and plants the best chance to grow strongly and healthily.

Our compost area is more of a stack than a heap, tucked into a trench at the back of an old shed where we can add material in layers and keep it more or less flat, which I feel helps it to rot down more quickly. Every single scrap of biodegradable material from the house is collected in a large mixing bowl and added each evening; at the moment, this involves trying to find the compost pile first given how several nasturtiums and a squash are growing out of it.

I love this daily compost ritual; it’s hardly the prettiest of places but what comes from the depths is as precious as gold and we are going to need it more than ever now. Of course, it will be full of weedlings and seedlings which will mean much vigilance when we use it as seed compost but that is a tiny price to pay if it means at least they get the best of starts. Oh, and there’ll be none of those horrible big plastic bags to dispose of, either. 🙂

Seed saving is something I think we should be doing far more of so this year I’m experimenting with a few new ideas. It’s so easy as gardeners to succumb to the siren call of seed catalogues (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!) whilst forgetting that collecting our own seed brings many benefits, not just the financial ones. The nature of commercial production means that varieties can disappear unless someone saves them as an ‘heirloom’, so saving our own seed can help mitigate against that. Perhaps the biggest boon, though, is being able to select for varieties that thrive in our particular patch of land, in the way that people have done for millennia. It’s fun to try new varieties but there’s no sense in swapping a really good doer for something that fails to perform if there’s no need. For years, we’ve saved our own parsnip seed: just letting a single root go to flower produces more than enough papery seeds for the following year and this is especially useful since parsnip seed needs to be truly fresh.

There is quite an art to seed collecting and not everything is a viable prospect, F1 hybrids being the obvious example, but otherwise there’s much fun to be had. I’ve already saved enough buckwheat and phacelia seed to fuel next year’s green manure moments and I’ve let lettuce and chard flower in the hope of collecting their seed, too. Something else I am definitely going to collect this year is the French bean ‘Purple Teepee’; we’ve grown this for two years now and I think it’s the best variety ever, producing a mass of long, crisp, delicious beans which are so easy to see and pick.

Open-pollinated plants are a bit of an adventure, especially where the curcubit family is concerned as they readily cross-pollinate and you can end up with some interesting specimens! The best squash we ate from last year’s harvest came from a plant that emerged unbidden from the compost heap and trailed off down the orchard, producing large fruits whose blue skin and dense orange flesh suggested a dose of ‘Guatemalan Blue’ genes were in its make up somewhere along the way. We saved some seed to see what would happen this time, bearing in mind there could well have been more cross-pollination at work last year; so far, the plants have been without doubt the strongest growers of the season and are already forming some promising looking fruits.

I might well be tempted to have a go at saving some tomato seeds, too. I don’t want to jump the gun here but this is the latest we’ve ever gone without the plants falling foul of blight; we’ve even had a picking of ripe cherry tomatoes which equals our best ever previous crop. It’s just possible that this year’s approach – I think we’re on plan D now – is working and I have all my fingers crossed that the fabulously loaded vines of green cherry, plum and beefsteak fruits will have their chance to ripen. Knowing this was hailed as our last ever attempt, my Finnish friend Anja sent us some ‘Voyage’ seeds to try and what a species it is! An heirloom variety from central America, the name comes from the fact that it is a handy food for travelling with since the segments can be peeled off and eaten separately like grapes. It’s a very bizarre looking thing but I’m so excited about the prospect of tackling a ripe one, I have all my toes crossed as well.

There are plenty of seeds I don’t bother collecting because they successfully sow themselves every year. Coriander (we do collect a pile of seed for the kitchen), dill, flat-leafed parsley, chervil, wild rocket, komatsuna and mizuna pop up on a regular basis and given my laissez-faire approach to the garden, I’m happy for them to grow wherever they choose. The same is true of many flowers, to the point that most of the colour we have enjoyed so far this year has been self-set and yet not entirely predictable. Nasturtiums are a master of the game but this rather sweet double feverfew has come as a complete surprise. Hope it stays!

Calendula is such a reliable and widespread self-setter that it almost single-handedly fulfils my mission to do away with bare earth. It’s a brilliant companion plant and has useful medicinal properties, too, which is why earlier this year I captured some of its golden sunshine by infusing petals in almond oil. I’ve made my own lip balm for many years using a simple recipe of beeswax, almond oil and honey but having been inspired to try something different (thanks, Sonja and Jim!), I’ve just made a new batch using beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter and some of the infused calendula oil. It’s smooth and creamy and a great example of the good things nature has to offer.

We’re between seasons where calendula is concerned in the garden; the first flush of plants has flowered, seeded and died but the next generation of eager new seedlings is already carpeting the earth and will grow into plants that will flower throughout winter. In the meantime, French marigolds are hogging the limelight instead and I just have to smile; having tried and failed miserably several times this spring to raise a tray of seedlings, we have several enormous plants that appeared all on their own and are bristling with bright, frilly blooms.

Nature wins again . . . maybe I should stop trying, just do nothing and let it all happen around me! 🙂