Freewheeling

All good things are wild and free.

Henry David Thoreau

For my bedtime reading this week I’ve been dipping into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden again; I don’t find it an easy read – in fact, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t even really enjoy it that much. The man is incredibly wordy (which I appreciate might sound a bit rich coming from me 🙂 ) and I do find some of the passages a bit heavy going; however, amongst all his lexical flourishes and literary asides, there are complete gems in the form of his observations of the natural world. Whether it be the calling of owls in the night, the fighting of black and red ants, the colour and behaviour of the fish in Walden Pond or the description of ice formation and snowmelt, his prose is exquisite. It came as no surprise to learn that other eminent naturalists including John Muir were inspired by Thoreau’s acute and perceptive observations.

It might seem like something of a jump from Massachusetts in 1846 to Asturias in 2020 but I’ve found myself reflecting on my reading whilst engaged in several activities through the week. Thoreau reasoned that the simpler life humans choose to lead, the less they need money and fewer hours in paid employment means the freedom to spend time on other things, connecting with nature being top of the list. I went out to pick a small bowlful of nasturtium seeds with the intention of pickling them in spiced vinegar to make a substitue for capers. It’s the sort of job that should have taken no more then ten minutes given that we have nasturtiums trailing everywhere and the plants are literally dripping with fat seeds that are easily harvested. In the days when I was working and raising a family, it’s the kind of thing that would be done in a flash because there was always something else to be moving on to but the joy of a simpler, quieter life now is that I can take as much time as I like. I can idle or daydream ~ or both. In fact, what happened is that I found myself completely absorbed in the busyness of honey bees working their way systematically through the jungle of nasturtium flowers, their pollen baskets so full they looked to be wearing harem pants in spicy shades of saffron, cinnibar and paprika.

We used to keep bees so it would be easy to become blasé about this kind of thing, having watched them returning to the hive laden with a spectrum of different pollens many, many times. The truth is, though, I never cease to be fascinated by their selfless, focused activity and I’m perfectly happy to spend time watching them again through fresh eyes. Actually, I love to watch bumble bees, too; they are in many ways the better pollinators, given that there are more species of them, they will fly in cooler temperatures and are faster and more efficient gatherers using ‘buzz pollination’ (vibrations that literally shake the pollen out) which enables them to loosen tightly-packed pollen and saves them from having to crawl into the depths of every flower. The honey bee, though is a specialist, fastidiously visiting only one kind of flower on every trip and spreading the news of a plentiful harvest on her return to the hive which is what makes them such an asset to fruit orchards and the like. They’ve certainly done us proud in the nasturtiums!

It’s not just the plentiful seed harvest, either; the beauty ~ literally and metaphorically ~ of growing open-pollinated varieties is that every year we find a wider range of colours and patterns amongst the flowers, which are currently ablaze in a stunning display of painted fiery tones.

Moving from my reading in English to Spanish and I am currently translating a news report about Alfredo Ojanguren, an Asturian professor of zoology in Oviedo University, whose research has led him to believe that being a ‘natural paradise’ helps to protect places like Asturias from pandemics and plagues ~ a very pertinent issue just at the moment. He argues that valuable, carefully-preserved ecosystems and a wide biodiversity have much to offer in maintaining the health and well-being of humanity. He uses the metaphor of a hen that lays golden eggs: if we ask for one egg a day, through sustainable exploitation of natural resources including the tourism which beautiful areas attract, then a healthy balance can be maintained between the needs of human beings and the welfare of the planet. Take three eggs a day and the precious hen is overloaded; at that point, we are all in serious trouble.

It’s a fascinating article and I was particularly struck with Professor Ojanguren’s observation that ecosystems are crucially important at every level; it’s natural that we tend to focus on such fragile and prominent areas as the Amazon rainforest, but in the grand scheme of things, the tiniest areas are equally important and deserving of our attention and care. We may not co-exist with exotic species in our garden but the life that thrives in the wild margins of our vegetable patch is essential to the welfare of the environment.

Further afield, and the current phase of easing lockdown restrictions has granted us the freedom to travel anywhere within Asturias whilst the borders remain firmly closed to incomers. With paths and trails re-opened, we are free to enjoy the paraíso natural once more so this week we decided to take our bikes back to the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail); the route is shaped like a capital Y and having cycled up the right-hand path from the fork last year, this time we decided to take the left turn and explore some new countryside ~ 22 miles (35 kilometres) of it, in fact.

Now, I am happy to confess that on a bike I am something of a liability for several reasons. For a start, I am very easily distracted and have an alarming tendency to weave and wobble about the road or slam on my brakes without warning in order to stop and look at something that has captured my attention, creating mayhem for anyone behind me (usually Roger, of course); for this reason, it is safest for everyone if I ride along at the back. Also, if there is going to be a mechanical drama you can bet your bottom dollar it will be my bike at the centre of things. Flat tyres, stuck gears, a wedged chain . . . you name it, I’ve had it to a point that my beloved engineer now always carries at the very least a puncture repair kit, pump and spanner in his rucksack whenever we venture out on two wheels together. Should I mention my issues with wearing a helmet? No matter how much I try to tame and flatten my hair, it is so thick and chaotic that my helmet fights me every step of the way, sticking up in ridiculous fashion like a rocket on a launch pad or necessitating my chin strap to be tightened to such a point where swallowing and breathing become very uncomfortable. Thankfully, on the Senda del Oso a helmet is only mandatory for under-16s so I don’t have to wear it, but I carry it anyway just in case (of what, I’m not sure 🙂 ).

Last but not least, I am an incredibly slow cyclist ~ honestly, sleeping things can move faster ~ and I know this can be very frustrating for others; the point is, though, if Roger wants to do a speedy, athletic sort of jaunt he can go out on his own whenever he likes but on days like this, there is no rush. If it takes us all day to ride the trail, so be it; it’s about spending a happy time together in the fresh air, moving slowly through a wondrous landscape and drinking in the beauty and enjoyment of it all.

I love this place, there is everything here that I adore about Asturias: soaring mountains, a dramatic river gorge, vast swathes of broadleaf forest, lush green meadows, higgeldy-piggeldy villages, cowbells, birdsong and that infinite canvas of green on green. Oh, and barely another soul, either.

When we walked along the coastpath a couple of weeks ago, we knew that we had missed the floral fireworks of early May but my goodness, we more than made up for that on this bike ride. The wildflowers were truly stunning, the verges like rich tapestries of colourful wonders completely a-buzz with the attention of insects. A tiny ecosystem, a monumental treasure: what a privilege to be able to share it, how vital that we care for it.

Yes, Mr Thoreau, all good things truly are wild and free ~ but please let us never lose sight of their immeasurable worth.

Notes from a simple gardener

Water to draw, brushwood to cut, greens to pick – all in moments when morning showers let up.

Ryōkan Taigu

I like a simple life. Well, of course I do; it would be very hypocritical of me, if not downright rude, to write a blog about something I didn’t believe in, practise and – most importantly – enjoy. In our modern society, perhaps the idea of spending our days fetching water, chopping wood and picking greens seems over-simplistic, naive or impossible but I think it’s a rather beautiful ideal for all that.

In recent weeks, as mankind has been grappling with the horrors of COVID- 19, I have been encouraged to read about many people who have discovered unexpected benefits from the situations they have found themselves in: couples and families enjoying their time spent together, parents and children finding home-schooling a deeply rewarding activity, people cooking and baking instead of buying ready-meals or takeaways, exploring their local areas whilst exercising outdoors, neighbours and strangers helping one another in a myriad different ways . . . so many people who say that when this is over, they will be making changes to their lifestyles that reflect the experience of doing things differently.

I’ve also read several criticisms of this viewpoint, arguing that it reflects a privileged middle-class mindset but I feel that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation that does everyone a disservice. Certainly, those talking about change appear to be people of all ages and from all walks of life, a real cross-section of society, in fact. Like so many aspects of life, perhaps it should all be about balance? No, of course not everyone can give up their job or home-educate their offspring and indeed many would prefer not to, anyway – but is there really anything wrong in people looking to change the values of society and the way it operates, to stand up for a society that is based more on human well-being and loving kindness than over-consumption and the constant drive to grow the economy?

One of the phenomena that I have been watching with great interest is the upsurge in gardening and I’m hopeful that it is something that will continue long after this terrible pandemic has gone. Now, obviously I’m biased because it’s something that I love to do (although I’ve always understood that it’s not for everyone) but I think the fact that so many people are now keen to grow their own food is a truly wonderful thing. I am happy to argue that the business of planting, harvesting and eating food – whether from a garden, allotment or window box – is one of the simplest yet fundamentally gratifying activities there is. Plant a seed, watch it grow, pick it and eat it. Perfectly simple and simply perfect.

Sweet peas

I think over the years, gardening has in some ways been a victim of its own success and this has led to a polarised view of what it’s all about. Garden centres brimming over with a tantalising array of seasonal goodies give the impression that all you need to do is buy and plant a plethora of fashionable things and that’s the job done. Meanwhile, celebrity gardeners demonstrating complicated procedures in perfectly manicured plots can lead some to believe that gardening is a work-heavy, complex business which is beyond the reaches of most. Again, I think it’s all about balance. Yes, growing a garden will require a certain amount of time and energy if a decent harvest is going to be enjoyed but it can and should be a pleasure, not a chore. It certainly doesn’t need to be complicated, either; in fact, in many cases it’s as simple as reading the instructions on the back of a seed packet.

Now, I would never profess to being an expert gardener; actually, I wouldn’t want to be one as I think ‘experts’ have a habit of losing their capacity to learn or be open to new ideas which is something I would hate. However, I’ve had a lot of fun over the last few weeks swapping garden notes and ideas with loved ones, celebrating successes and commiserating over problems, giving out little snippets of advice based on experience and trying some new things that have been suggested to me. Here, then, for anyone who is interested is my pocket-sized guide to growing a garden. Simply. With smiles.

Grow what you enjoy eating

It might seem obvious but there is no point in growing foods that no-one in your household actually likes eating. When we moved here, the garden was a jungle of only turnip greens and mustard, both of which the previous owner professed to not liking! It’s easy to feel that certain things are ‘essentials’ in a garden but it’s important to remember that times and attitudes change and people have different tastes . . . and they are allowed to. You don’t need a garden that is stuffed with marrows, runner beans and rhubarb. If you like those things, that’s great – go ahead and grow them; if you don’t, then don’t! No matter how small or ‘low maintenance’ your patch is, it will take time, work and money and there is no sense in squandering such precious resources on producing food that isn’t going to float your boat. Going out into the garden to forage should always be a pleasure, a huge, tongue-tingling smiley delight full of anticipation and joy not a resigned sigh at facing the blackcurrants, beetroot, broad beans (or whatever) once again.

Prioritise

If you only have a small space, don’t grow bulk crops such as onions, potatoes and carrots which tend to be cheap and plentiful in the shops all year round. Small amounts of young ones, yes; a root of melting, fondant, buttery new potatoes, the sweet crunch of a baby carrot or the sharp zing of spring onions are divine. Otherwise, buy them in and grow more interesting things or those fruit and vegetables that are seldom great from the shops: The Sugar Hits (peas, sweetcorn, parsnips), The Wilters (broccoli, salad leaves, spinach), The Flaccid Flops (asparagus, runner beans) and The Downright Flavourless (lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and a whole host of other tasteless friends).

Be realistic . . .

Any garden space has the potential to be a beautiful and productive patch but all are limited to a degree by factors such as climate, aspect, light and soil. It is possible to try and grow plants that are unsuited to the site with a lot of application and hard work but at the end of the day, is it really worth it? Happy plants make for happy gardeners! Look at what’s growing locally and the chances are that whatever is looking healthy and abundant in a neighbouring patch will thrive in your own. Bear in mind also that things will go wrong! That’s all part and parcel of the gardening experience and needs to be accepted and embraced as such, which is why a sense of humour is the most important gardening tool. Take heart from the fact that no-one is immune; we have grown peas every summer for over 30 years and yet the overwintered crop, as well as the current first earlies we are harvesting now, have totally refused to climb up their supports. Pea plants come with curly tendrils to help them cling and climb but this lot seem determined to sprawl across the ground which makes picking the pods somewhat interesting!

Last year’s peas knew how to behave.

Last year, I grew a vibrant patch of sunflowers from seed given to me by our grandchildren; once they’d finished flowering, I collected lots of seed from them, gave little packets of them away to help spread the love then planted a huge patch here a couple of weeks ago in the hope of another splash of summer colour. Ha ha! My precious seeds have been dug up and eaten by some wretched little pest (I suspect a small and furry rodent type) which then rudely left the husks scattered all over the soil. Ah well, that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

Last year, the sunflowers were beautiful; this year they were mouse breakfast.

. . . but don’t be afraid to be bold

There is no rule that says you must be a sheep in your garden: you neither have to be run-of-the-mill traditional nor follow the fashionable flock. Raised beds? Not compulsory. Fancy slate plant labels? Not necessary. This year’s latest must-have designer flower or vegetable? Not needed. Why not try something different or have a go at doing things your way? If you want to grow purple carrots or trombone squash, go ahead and grow them. If you fancy planting cabbages by your front door, do it. Don’t be too precious about things, either. If you’re looking for a cut-and-come-again salad selection but can’t find what you’re after amongst those pricey packets, make your own by mixing seeds for lots of different leaves and herbs together. You’re allowed to! There are no set hard and fast rules about what a garden should look like so why not personalise your patch? It’s your space and as such, an extension and reflection of your home and your personality . . . and no-one has the right to start tut-tutting simply because there’s a gnome lurking among your lettuce. Really. They don’t.

Cram it

One of the reasons I champion permaculture is the way in which it acknowledges – nay, celebrates! – the benefits of gardening in small spaces. It’s possible, and in many ways easier, to realise greater relative yields from smaller gardens than large, sprawling areas. The trick, though, is to fill it to bursting, cram it to the nth degree in every direction and let polyculture be your mantra!

The patch in the photo above is a steep triangle of somewhere between seven and eight square metres in area. Currently growing in it are a globe artichoke, rose, hyssop, thyme and lemon thyme all of which are permanent features. There are also onions, various types of lettuce, cucumbers, oca, flat-leaved parsley, dill, pansies, marigolds, nasturtiums, a sprinkling of buckwheat and a stray poppy (the only inedible!). I weeded between the onions in the early stages as they’re not keen on competition but for several weeks now the only input has been to harvest bits and pieces as and when we need them. Yes, there are weeds but they’re not bothering me or the plants. Why make work?

The cucumbers don’t seem too bothered by the weeds in their neighbourhood.

If this were our only vegetable patch, we wouldn’t have bothered with the onions; instead, I think a couple of heavy producers – perhaps a courgette and some chard – would have gone in along with a teepee or two of climbing beans; when you consider the vertical dimension too, you can grab yourself a couple of metres of sky to grow things in. Once the summer crops have gone, I’ll replace them with rainbow chard, various kales, rocket and landcress for a winter harvest. There will be far too many plants, of course . . . but between you and me, I think they quite enjoy jostling for elbow room.

Colour it

It’s a personal thing but I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘separate’ vegetable patches, those utilitarian spaces with perfect right angles and plants regimented in precise rows, hidden away from view as if the sight of vegetables is a less than desirable thing. With each successive garden that we have created together, the boundaries between the ‘vegetable garden’ and ‘flower garden’ have become increasingly blurred so that they have pretty much disappeared and become one big gorgeous, chaotic (but very productive) space. Please grow herbs and some flowers, too. Everyone needs colour and spice in their life and mixing them through with the veggies enhances the whole garden and feeds the soul as well as the stomach. More than that, I firmly believe that something as simple as snipping a few chives or sprinkling marigold petals over a salad can be a deeply transformative act. I’m currently reading – for the umpteenth time – The Complete Book of Herbs by Lesley Bremness, a book I’ve had for over thirty years and have never tired of.

I’ve been inspired to explore new recipes using the herbs from our garden, including iced lemon balm and lavender tea which I find is the perfect sipping drink on hot days.

I do, however, have to disgree a tiny bit with Lesley when it comes to choosing flowers to incorporate in salads; she argues for a restricted palette of colours that go well together and are easy on the eye – sage and borage, for example. Mmm. The point is, I don’t garden like that so I’m afraid when it comes to floral art amongst the salad leaves, it’s rainbows all the way for me.

Love it

Love your garden. Love your soil. Love your worms. Make space for wildlife, even if it does mean something munching your sunflower seeds. The patch in the photos below is a couple of square metres we gave over to nature last year, a grotty former chicken run which was ugly beyond words. Beneath all that greenery is a concrete floor with several centimetres of rubble pile on top and covered with a pathetically thin layer of soil. Nothing seems too bothered by this inauspicious base layer. Last year, I scattered a box of ‘bee and butterfly’ seed and the space was filled with annual colour; this year the biennials and perennials have surfaced, with a supporting cast of wild incomers such as violets, charlock, knapweed and ‘three birds flying.’ The tiny pond – a former water trough – squirms with the wriggling and rummaging of newts and the fattest tadpoles I’ve ever seen. Birds drink and bathe in the water daily, and lizards sip daintily from the stone-lined edge. Frogs and toads lurk in the damp shade at its fringes. The piles of rotting logs, chopped brushwood and cut grass are home to slow-worms and grass snakes, whilst the growing greenery and flowers are literally teeming with insect life. Can you spot the grasshopper?

Enjoy it – the most important bit of all

Plant a comfy seat, grab a mug or glass of something then sit and watch your garden grow. There is nothing else to say! 🙂

The flight of the bumblebee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying put

Four years ago this week, we walked out of a notary’s office in Luarca as the proud new owners of Casa Victorio, a rundown hovel and several outbuildings set in eight acres of Asturian mountain pasture and woodland. For us, it was the start of a new adventure and – in all honesty – a huge leap into the unknown. Unlike France, where we had lived previously, we weren’t very familiar with Spain or Spanish culture before moving here and the only Spanish we spoke had been snatched from a few weeks of basic evening classes. (My brain was so fried linguistically that I wrote Espagna on our change of address notifications, a word I’d completely made up by mixing Spanish and French. Of course, it should have been España. I’m glad to say my Spanish has improved hugely since then!) Our move could quite easily have been an unmitigated disaster. However, as with any major decision in our life, we had asked ourselves one question: what was the worse thing that could happen? This has always been our acid test and it’s far more encouraging and empowering than all those ‘what if . . ?’ worries. It’s so easy to let a multitude of unwarranted fears stop us from shrugging off the cosy stagnation of an existence in our comfort zone instead of grabbing the opportunity to do something different, to really live life to the full. I’m so glad we took the plunge. Our life here is wonderful; it is, as the locals would say, una vida muy rica, muy preciosa.

Smoke from the chimney, veggies in the garden, washing on the line . . . this is our home!
Casa Victorio

Why, then, have we recently been contemplating the idea of leaving and returning to the UK? What on earth were we thinking? Well, for starters, there’s Brexit. We are not naive; before coming here we carried out masses of research and did the sums many times over but sadly lacked a crystal ball to tell us what would happen in the UK referendum held just one month after we moved here in May 2016. I have never wanted to use my blog as a political platform and I have no intention of starting now but suffice to say, Brexit has brought us no joy and done us no favours; stripped of the privilege of EU citizenship, our future here is very uncertain and may be a reason to leave in a ‘jump before we’re possibly pushed’ sort of way. On reflection, though, it has actually become a reason to stay, to enjoy and honour that very privilege that allowed us to be here in the first place. There are about 1000 UK nationals living in Asturias, scattered through the principality with no obvious expat epicentre; certainly, we are the only Brits in the village but as such, we have been welcomed unreservedly by our Asturian neighbours. True, they probably find us a little ‘exotic’ and eccentric but as immigrants living in their community and country, we could not have been made more welcome. They are the friendliest and most open, honest, tolerant and generous people I have ever met. A walk or run in the locality is more an exercise in smiles, waves, greetings and conversation than anything else; one elderly chap who walks miles every morning always greets me with a hearty ‘¡Viva la inglesa!’ and gives me a high five. You cannot put a price on such moments. It’s all about cultural exchange, about friendship and acceptance and kindness and being downright human towards one another regardless of nationality, colour or creed. Why turn our backs on something so precious?

Our friendly village

Far more important than the forces of shady political ideology is the climate crisis and here we have a conundrum: if we are truly committed to doing everything we can to leave a viable planet for our children and grandchildren (which we are), then isn’t it hypocritical to be living somewhere that necessitates foreign travel if we are to spend time with them? Surely a return to the UK where we could in theory draw a line under all future trips abroad is one of the greatest gestures we could make? Well maybe, but on reflection it’s not that straightforward because it’s not just about the travelling and any balanced judgement needs to be far more holistic. I’ve written about the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator before https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/; it’s a somewhat imperfect and basic tool but it is useful in giving an idea of how our carbon footprint measures up and revisiting it every few months can be helpful in tracking improvements. Currently, we are weighing in with 7.5 tonnes of carbon in the last twelve months: that’s 72% of (or 28% less than) the UK government’s 2020 target of 10.5 tonnes per household. I’m pretty pleased with that; obviously we’re not going to be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, after all – but the fact is, this measure includes a return flight to the UK. True, take that away and we’re down to 7.1 tonnes (68%) but my point is, it’s the rest of our lifestyle that makes the biggest impact on green living . . . and ironically, much of that is down to climate.

Winters here are mild; some mornings can be a bit chilly but on the whole we don’t need much heating in the house. Like all old buildings here, the thick stone walls are designed to retain warmth in colder weather and keep the house cool in summer (although it’s never so hot as to need air conditioning). When we renovated the house, insulation was a top priority and the upshot of that is that we can heat the whole house with a single wood-burning stove. We fitted a couple of electric radiators and a heated towel rail as back-up but apart from testing them when they were installed, we have never switched them on. There is no heating at all in our bedroom; we simply don’t need it. In the run of mild weather we’ve had since Christmas, on many days we have only lit the stove in the evening and that is ample time to warm the house through as well as cook dinner, heat water and dry or air washing if necessary. The logs come from our own wood and as such are what John Seymour described as the best form of solar heating. We burn no gas or oil; we do use electricity but our consumption is a fraction of the UK and Spanish household average (in our last bill, less than a third of the cost was consumption, the rest was standing charges, tax and the like). We could not easily live like this through a British winter.

Logs seasoning against the horreo wall; once dried, they will be stacked inside the stone shed.

Climate also plays a key role in our food provenance. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and every meal is based round what’s good in the garden. Other food we source as locally as possible and much of what we eat is produced in Asturias – which has a similar area to Wales but a third of the population – or other parts of Spain. The benign climate means we can grow sufficient vegetables all year round and there is no such thing as a ‘hungry gap’; how can there be when the autumn-planted peas are dripping with pods in February?!

The vegetable garden is never empty: we are currently harvesting kale, broccoli, cabbage, Florence fennel, chard, carrots, beetroot, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, mizuna, mustards, Chinese cabbage, pak choi, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and spring onions.

The carbon footprint calculator also flags us up as lousy consumers. Our normal monthly expenditure is zero for new clothes and shoes (don’t need any), restaurant and takeaway meals (don’t want any) and pets (don’t have any). We spend a minimal amount on grooming products (mainly toothpaste) as I make most of our toiletries and the ingredients are pennies, and we never buy new gadgets, furniture or other household stuff unless something is totally broken and beyond repair . . . and we actually need to replace it. We live on a very low income but still save money each month because we simply don’t spend it. I’m not condoning travel but we usually drive to the UK rather than fly and even if we make two road trips like that a year, our annual mileage hovers around the average mark because when we’re here, we barely use the car at all. If we can reduce that to a single trip, our footprint will shrink even more. All in all, we can live the simplest of lives here, doing our best for the planet in as many ways as possible. Why leave in a hurry?

So, with the decision made to stay put we have turned our thoughts to a wave of exciting new projects which should help to improve our patch further and reduce our carbon footprint even more. Our starting point was the orchard which in many ways is an underused resource. I’m still reading and enjoying Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I particularly like his emphasis on a balance between ‘earth care’ and ‘people care’ and the need for places to work well for everyone and everything that inhabits them. Where the orchard is concerned, there is certainly more space for planting trees and possibilities for improving habitats for wildlife but also the chance to make it a more enjoyable and attractive space for ourselves. We started at the farmers’ co-op, choosing two locally grown bare-rooted trees, a greengage ‘Reina Claudia’ and cherry ‘Picota.’ (We plan to plant more citrus trees, too, but as they are all pot-grown there is no great rush). Planting two trees shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes but when Roger started to dig the second hole, an ominous clang of spade against metal suggested this wouldn’t be so easy. Buried in the bank was yet another metal bedstead. Good grief, is there no end to them?

Cue a whole afternoon of stripping the bank back to remove the offending article, then shoring it up with a stone wall to create a small planting terrace – far more work than anticipated but hopefully we will be blessed with a good crop of cherries after giving the tree all that love!

How lovely that the excavation work had to be paused briefly to relocate a fire salamander; what a vibrant reminder of the rich diversity of life with which we share this space and the responsibility we have towards caring for it.

The orchard is a peaceful spot with lovely views of the village and valley and delicious green shade under the walnut trees in summer but we seldom spend time there because the land is so steep and access is difficult. Roger dug several turf paths when we first moved here but they are constantly undermined by voles and the slopes are very slippery, especially if the grass is wet. Time, then, to really sort the access issue out once and for all by making more permanent paths and digging in flat stones to create steps.

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

One corner is a real mess to tackle, a pile of rocks on a steep slope smothered in brambles with no way through. I know brambles are brilliant for wildlife but as we leave huge tracts to scramble through the wood, we don’t feel too bad at knocking them back a bit in this area. Underneath, there is a honeysuckle binding the bank together and a smattering of wildflowers; our plan is to add more native flowers as well as a few cottage garden ones for colour, scent and insect food. The huge tree stumps and rotting logs can stay.

Where do we start?

Last year, we decided to leave a large area of the orchard grass uncut and we were really thrilled with the resulting meadow. This year, we are going to extend that by leaving another bank uncut; it means less work and a better wildlife habitat – definitely a win-win. There’s a garden seat there that desperately needs a makeover . . . and that’s an important job as I suspect it will be much used this summer! 🙂

The orchard meadow last June, full of colour. . .
. . . and life.

We have a tremendous crop of wild strawberries here every year but we’d never got round to planting larger varieties, mostly because it’s hard to find a spot where they would get plenty of sunshine without spreading like stink and being hammered by slugs and snails. The solution, we decided, was to lift them above ground so Roger has created a funky planter from bits of scrap timber and odds and ends of green and black paint; those tall legs remind me a bit of the tripods in War of the Worlds but I’m hoping the chances of fruit will be better than a million to one! It’s a great way to make use of vertical space and hopefully will keep the slimy ones away from the strawbs. We’ve filled it with bare-rooted plants and potted up the spares for hanging baskets. Mmm, get growing, you lovelies.

The ‘courtyard’ is a tricky area and how to turn it into a more attractive space has us scratching our heads for inspiration. There is a lot of concrete. It’s uneven, ugly and, in this humid climate, attracts a covering of moss which can be lethally slippery so we have to sweep it on a regular basis. It’s useful to be able to pull a vehicle into the space for loading and unloading but we never park the car there and really don’t need so much hard standing. We have a few ideas in the pipeline but whatever we do, it will be quite a task.

The wall area between the house and horreo is part of the courtyard problem; originally well-built from local stone, it has been ‘adapted’ by a previous owner (I’m being polite here, the actual word I would use to describe what they did is far ruder) by the addition of several horrendous concrete features, including a set of completely wonky steps and a totally unnecessary vent that always makes us think of a World War II pillbox. We’ve fiddled at the edges with paint and plants to try and soften the impact, but if we’re going to make it look truly lovely, we definitely need to do some more work.

The horreo itself needs a bit of TLC and at last we are planning to do something we’ve been talking about ever since we came here. The middle ‘layer’ between the stone shed and wooden granary is an area that is open to the fresh air but protected from wind and rain by high stone walls and shady in the summer. It would be the perfect place to sit and eat, either when it’s too wet to be outside or on those few very hot days in the summer when we’re seeking evening shade. There was an old kitchen table and chairs left here which we could install, we just need to do something about the floor which is decidedly dodgy and in places, more hole than wood.

Our list of things to do has over 30 items on it; we’ve prioritised them and made a start but I know from past experience we will add to it as quickly as we tick things off. Our plans range from fairly simple ideas such as extending the varieties of perennial vegetables and herbs we grow to demolishing and rebuilding the Garage From Hell, from siting a homemade nestbox for red squirrels to investigating solar power now that the so-called ‘sun tax’ has been abolished and our electricity provider is offering valuable help with installation and management of systems. There’s much to be done but we love to be busy and, most importantly, we love living here . . . so we’ll linger. A while longer living in paradise? That will be tough, then. 🙂

The first of the peach blossom is in bloom. Beautiful.

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! 🙂

Wild and woolly

By all these lovely tokens September days are here, With summer’s best of weather and autumn’s best of cheer.

Helen Hunt Jackson

This is such a beautiful time of year, one that always makes my heart sing. We have been enjoying those perfect late summer days, with cloudless skies colour-washed in blue from pale duck egg, delicate as the finest porcelain, to a deep cornflower so achingly intense and pristine, it almost hurts the eyes.

Sunset brings a cloak of rich purples . . .

. . . or something altogether different if clouds have bubbled up during the afternoon.

I love the way the shift in light illuminates plants in the garden in different ways, like swivelling the beam of nature’s spotlight to a new angle, uplighting leaves and dappling fruit.

At other times, the weather has been the kind that took me so long to get used to when we moved here, the low cloud weaving itself moodily around the mountain tops bringing a level of light that instinctively says it’s time for long trousers and socks . . . but step outdoors and it’s still most definitely shorts and sandals territory. The warm evening air is still and laced with a sweet softness, scented with the unique fragrance of Japanese quince and a subtle hint of wood smoke drifting up from the village.

The air is clotted with spirals of swooping swallows and martins, feeling their wings and filling their boots before their thoughts turn southwards. Flocks of gaudy goldfinches have returned after their summer business, chattering and flapping low-level through the meadow, greedily plucking at fluffy seedheads in their noisy charge. Butterflies flap languidly, bumble bees hum sonorously, the robins strike up their melodious fluting once more; no question that the slow pulse of late summer is wrapping itself around us now.

One of my favourite things about our home is that it sits snuggly in its own patch of land; the garden area may not be particularly large but we benefit from borrowed light and space and landscape from the meadows beyond.

This time of year is a great one to actually leave the garden and go a-wandering further afield (no pun intended). The grass practically stops growing through August so the cows have been off the fields for some weeks and in their absence, other life is thriving even more than usual.

Our meadows are about as traditional as they come. When the cattle return, it will be as a small family troupe of one bull and several cows with calves of varying ages, everything from wide-eyed tots staying close to their mothers, to nonchalant, streetwise teenagers, haring about in rowdy gangs. They will graze here for a couple of weeks at most and then be moved on; over-grazing is something that simply doesn’t happen. As the land is so steep, no tractor can work it so there is no question of making hay or spreading manure: the cows are relied on to get busy at both ends to do the business! The result is a meadow carpeted with wildflowers . . .

. . . and the closer you look, the more you find.

For us, it is a lovely place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the sheer exuberance of the life around us.

There is certainly no shortage of fascinating creatures to observe.

It’s not just the small things that are here, either. We often see deer spill like molten metal from amongst the trees to graze, then slip away silently into the woods; foxes are regular visitors, in particular a large dog fox with battle-scarred ears and a silver brush; wild boar rootle through under the cover of darkness, practising their own particular brand of ancient ploughing and the ghostly barn owl glides past, hugging the ground on its crepuscular hunting missions. For me, this is a perfect example of how it is possible to practise modern agriculture and food production on land that still retains an element of ‘wild’ and is home to a wealth of native species.

It’s incredible, too, how quickly nature moves to exert its authority once the grazing has stopped!

Back to the garden, and here we are revelling in nature’s bounty as well as beauty. Every day brings the need to harvest something (well many things, in truth) and it is pure pleasure.

Preparing our evening meal together, I sometimes look at the garden produce and wonder if maybe we should be inviting other people round for dinner? We are so blessed and it is something I never take for granted, especially considering this lot is about as wholesome and organic as you can get . . . and any leftovers make the perfect base for tomorrow’s lunch.

I love the way the season brings a new palette of floral features in the vegetable garden, too; part of me wonders if I’ll ever bother with flower borders again.

Chicory
‘Red Rosie’ lettuce
Globe artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke

There is verbena bonariensis everywhere so honestly, there’s no need to be fighting over a single flower!

This is traditionally the time of year when my thoughts turn to all things woolly; I normally have a small project or two on the go through summer but they’re always a bit haphazard and piecemeal as I’m generally just too busy to sit still for long. My first task was to finish the scraps patchwork blanket I’ve been pottering away at on and off for many months. Sewing the squares together didn’t turn out to be as arduous as I’d thought, and despite such a discrepancy in the amount of different colours I had to use, the finished piece doesn’t look too unbalanced. In fact, I quite like the jolly jumble of those simple squares.

I really enjoy working blanket borders, they pull the whole thing together and give the finished article a satisfying frame, a little weight and touch of decorum to finish the whole thing off. The composition of this blanket has been entirely dictated by the amount of yarn I had left from previous projects and the border was no exception; these certainly weren’t the colours I’d have chosen (oh, for some blues!), simply the ones I had most of.

After a lot of fiddling about with colour order, I settled on the above and worked a round in each, hoping it wouldn’t look over-pinked. It didn’t turn out too badly in the end.

So, with all my yarn scraps used up and only one ball of sock wool left it was definitely time to blow the dust off my spinning wheel again. As part of my zero waste campaign, I set out not to buy any new yarn at all this year and I’ve stuck to that so far, but now I need to get busy turning my box of fleece into skeins for future projects. Having had a good rummage through my fleece stash, I decided to start with some Blue Faced Leicester in natural shades of oatmeal and white.

Can I indulge in a little wool worship here? I love Blue Faced Leicester: of all the fleece breeds I’ve spun so far (I think it was ten at the last count plus alpaca, mohair and silk), it is by far my out and out favourite. If I could only have one kind of wool ever again, it would be this one. The sheep are not the prettiest, but the fleece is a dream. It’s one of the finest British breeds, not quite up there with the much-lauded Merino but not far behind and definitely far easier to spin. In fact, I often think that once the tension is sorted on my finicky old wheel, the BFL spins itself; I can let my gaze drift across the garden or down the valley, even turn and hold a conversation with Roger, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward is occurring between my fingers and the bobbin.

It isn’t a hugely elastic wool – more draper than hugger – but it’s soft, fairly strong and has a beautiful lustre; the oatmeal might look a dull brown but when the flyer spins, the yarn shines like deeply burnished pewter.

There is much pleasure to be derived from spinning ready-dyed fleece and watching the colours build on the bobbin, or spinning white fleece to mess about with in my dye pot later, but there is also a certain charm to working with natural shades. I liked the idea of spinning equal lengths in both colours, then plying them together to make a marled yarn with an essence of natural things – pebbles, driftwood, pine cones, mushrooms, feathers . . .

I decided to spin the white slightly thicker, so the skinnier oatmeal would twist round it and puff it up a little to create texture; I also deliberately allowed a few slubs of fleece to slip through in bumps so that the finished yarn has a slightly rustic, earthy feel to it which somehow seems to suit the season.

Putting those pebbles back in my collection, I spied a contented little snake curled up under a piece of slate, a perfect echo of the colours, texture and form of my skein of wool. Nature, as always, having the last word. I like that very much. 🙂

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! 🙂

Six on Saturday 27th July 2019

It seems like ages since I last ‘sixed’ so it’s lovely to be dipping in and catching up on what everyone is up to in their gardens again. Unlike much of Europe, we haven’t been struggling with soaring temperatures or drought conditions here. In fact, unbelievable though it might sound for Spain, we rarely do; things bob along nicely in the mid-twenties with a good drop of rain every few days, the sun is warm and humidity high so everything is growing like stink. It’s that time of year where I’m happy to surrender any pretence at having the garden under control and just pootle about foraging vast quantities of veg for dinner and sniffing the flowers. Someone has to do it.

After much teasing, agapanthus ‘Northern Star’ has finally burst into a mass of blue gorgeousness. They are all pot grown and yet another year has passed where I’ve failed to get some into the ground; maybe one day, but for now I’m enjoying them every bit as much as the bumble bees.

The cucumbers have been unusually lacking in enthusiasm this year and we are normally snowed under with them by now so it’s good to see ‘Marketmore 76’ getting its act together at last.

No such lack of enthusiasm in the polytunnel. We re-covered it earlier this year as the original polythene was, quite honestly, complete and utter rubbish and had shredded in the winter storms to create a giant sieve. What a difference it’s made: the path has disappeared in the jungle of basil, the aubergines are setting fruit like there’s no tomorrow and we have more peppers and chillies than we know what to do with. There’s also cumin lurking in there somewhere . . . and possibly a feral sloth, too.

This is the time of year where the squash start heading off down the mountainside and there’s nothing to do but give them free rein and assess the damage in October. Despite having ample space on their custom-built terraces, they’ve already started involving themselves with each other as expertly demonstrated by ‘Speckled Hound’ and ‘Butterfly’ below.

I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with green manure this year and so far, I’m a huge fan. Buckwheat grows very quickly and I’ve been sprinkling it about all over the place to dig in, also leaving some patches to flower (bees and hoverflies love it) and one patch to set seed – something many people warn against but I’m a lover of self-setters (the lemon balm, hollyhock and nasturtiums in the photo bear testament to that) so I’m happy to let it go. Anything’s better than weeds.

Quite how I can be in my fourth summer here and have previously completely missed the fact that we have a rather exotic beauty under the white hibiscus is anybody’s guess. I think it’s an angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) rather than datura but I’d be happy for an expert opinion on that one. Whichever, it’s putting on quite a show. Here’s to more startling discoveries in the future!

Time now to pop over to https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/ and see what other gardeners have been up to this week. 🙂

Summer snippets

Hot July brings cooling showers, apricots and gillyflowers.

Sara Coleridge

Our July brings sunflowers, too. The very first bloom from the seeds Ben gave me for my birthday opened it’s cheerful smile on his sixth birthday. What perfect timing! 🙂

Right on cue, our beautiful ‘For Your Eyes Only’ wedding anniversary rose unfurled its peachy buds in the second flush of the year.

Early July has a long-standing tradition of throwing us red letter days in need of joyful celebration or serious attention, and often sees us having to pack our bags and take to the road. It’s a less than great time of year to leave the garden unattended but that’s all part and parcel of life.

So, we have just returned from a spell of time away and, as this was a case of far more business than pleasure, it was a relief to be home. Even after a 4am start to miss the chaos that is holiday traffic on French motorways and an exhausting 14-hour drive, I could hardly wait to jump out of the car and check what the garden had been up to in our absence. Forget unpacking for a while, there were far more important matters at hand!

It never fails to amaze me how quickly things change at this time of year; twelve days away and the garden has taken on a completely different mood. It’s as if after the spring party of youthful energy and zingy growth, everything has expanded and matured and settled into its prime. Like the trees in the surrounding landscape, it has all taken on the deep, velvety shades of summer . . . and there is so much growth! To venture into the depths on a harvesting mission is like swimming in a sea of lush, leafy, verdant green. The garden has grown up.

Abandoning the garden like this several times a year is simply something we have to accept; I can never get too precious about leaving things – if we miss the best of the sweet peas or the last of the blueberries, so be it. The problem is the danger of irreparable damage that can happen in the blink of an eye: half a dozen small broccoli plants baked to a frazzle in heat or scoffed by snails in damp weather now means a loss of three months’ food in spring time. The fear of wild boar staging a moonlit rave and trashing the lot is the stuff of nightmares, trust me. Mind you, someone has been keeping an eye on the place for us, it seems!

Happily, everything seems to have survived this time round. Of course, there will always be some collateral damage: the oldest lettuces had bolted and it came as no surprise to find a garden heaving with marrows where once there were baby courgettes. On the plus side, a few things had finally shaken their tail feathers and decided to perform. The cucumbers, so unusually reticent this year, have woken up, stretched and risen to meet the light at long last.

The ‘Greyhound’ summer cabbage, fried as seedlings in a heatwave last time we were away (in February, can you believe?), have plumped out into crisp, pointy hearts of deliciousness. We should have been eating them a month ago but never mind, they’ve caught up at last.

As for the squash? Well, they’re doing what squash do . . . honestly, I’m convinced they’d survive anything. They don’t need us at all.

What a mountain of food to return to: peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes, calabrese, cabbage, chard, carrots, beetroot, peppers, chillies, lettuce, rocket, onions, spring onions and cucumbers. Not a problem in my book as I love nothing better than to wander about foraging for bits and pieces on which to base a meal. No matter if there isn’t a huge quantity of any one thing, there is something so satisfying about the sheer variety of colour, texture and flavour on a plate. . . and there’s always tomorrow to ring the changes.

Our biggest concern about being away for so long was how the polytunnel and tomato shelter would fare without their daily watering. Leaving the tunnel shut would help to conserve moisture but it would become unbearably hot in there and bar those essential pollinators from entering; leaving it open means it dries out more quickly, but is definitely the better option. We’d been collecting plastic bottles for some time before we left to make slow drip feeders in the tunnel, along with some leaky buckets, and Roger devised a natty irrigation system for the tomatoes using old buckets and plastic pipe. Not very pretty, but extremely effective.

Despite hot, dry weather it all seemed to have worked; one pepper plant had perished and one or two toms were slightly stressed but otherwise, it’s looking good. There are fruits on the tomatoes (including the rather bizarre clustered ‘Voyage’ variety) and so far, still no blight, whilst the tunnel is already bursting with glossy green peppers and creamy yellow Bulgarian chillies.

A forest of flowering basil is tempting in the bees with its seductive scent and they are certainly doing the business.

Joy of joys, having battled with flea beetle on the aubergines for months – I’d come to the conclusion they are totally indestructible and will inherit the earth along with cockroaches – the top growth is now beetle-free, unblemished and flourishing. What’s more . . . 🙂

The taller plants – climbing beans, hollyhocks, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet peas, dill – are making bold statements, standing head and shoulders above their more vertically-challenged neighbours.

There are painted spires of hollyhocks everywhere, most of them self-set, all of them towering over me. We have some doubles for the first time this year, so pretty in their flirty petticoats; the bumble bees somehow manage to riffle through the frills to feed but not surprisingly, they seem far happier with the simplicity of single flowers, emerging from the starry centres dusted in pollen like floury millers.

I love the subtle changes around the patch, too, the gentle shifts and shimmies as the season flows on. The cheerful wayward abundance of calendula has given way to the more sophisticated, elegant tagetes.

Above dusky hydrangeas, hibiscus flaunts itself against the bluest of skies.

Sweet William stands aside to let dahlias take centre stage.

Seedpods make artistic accents of interest where petals once bloomed.

The flamboyant hedge of crimson poppies has faded into something more akin to a rippling cornfield edge.

There are butterflies everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of them in dreamy clouds. They have bagged the garden for themselves in our absence, luxuriating in the purple pleasure of marjoram and verbena bonariensis.

In some ways, I think we were home just in time to stop the garden doing too much of its own thing. The climbing beans, already over the tops of their poles and down the other side, have decided to start knitting themselves into each other and the underplanted dill. A row of parsnips, usually so difficult to establish here, have put on so much enthusiastic leafy growth, they are threatening to swamp the neighbouring leeks. The prone onions are dropping huge hints that it is time to lift them and as for the squash emerging from the courgette patch on the right and trailing across the path . . . where the heck did that come from? Definitely not one we planted there.

As expected, the broad beans and peas had reached the end of their cycle and succumbed to old age. Those broad beans had been in the ground since last November and have been providing us with copious pickings for many weeks. What troopers they are! A final harvest of pods from both yielded a goodly haul of meaty specimens, just perfect slow-cooked in a spicy casserole. It always feels a little strange as spaces start to open up in the patch but this is not so much an end as a beginning, an opportunity for something else to take its turn.

The second row of violet-podded French beans is in its full glory; so pretty these, I would gladly grow them just for the splash of colour they bring but their dark waxy pods are utterly delicious. It’s not too late to sow more for a late harvest, so I’m trying a couple of new varieties – ‘Stanley’ and ‘Faraday’ – which should make good autumn picking.

The demise of those nitrogen-fixing legumes leaves the perfect place for some new stars: enter the winter brassicas. I loved kale long before it became a trendy superfood and I must confess to preferring it eaten as a leafy veg, raw or cooked, rather than blitzed to a drinkable green gloop. Cavolo nero grows well here but is consistently out-performed by its leafier cousins so this year, I’m sticking with those. I’ve planted three varieties – ‘Curly Scarlet’ (Looks purple to me. Just saying.), ‘Thousandhead’ and the heirloom ‘Cottagers’ – and they’re off with great gusto already.

We’ve had scanty success with winter cabbages so far but have decided they’re worth another punt; it’s all down to timing so fingers crossed, we’ll hit the jackpot this year. I had sown ‘Red Drumhead’, ‘January King Extra Late’ and ‘Savoy Perfection’ along with ‘All Year Round’ cauliflower (worth a try, surely?) in a seed drill directly into the ground and they were looking splendidly happy, tucked around with a green manure blanket of yellow trefoil.

It seemed cruel to disturb them, especially given the heat, but they needed to move into their own space. Time then for a lot of care and attention as caterpillar season gets underway; no prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing every day from now on!

With any luck, those cabbages will take a leaf (ouch, no pun intended) out of the purple sprouting broccoli’s book; here is a plant that grows like stink and is a staple spring time treat. This year it’s honoured with its own terrace beneath the peach trees and the first few plants have gone into their buckwheat-enriched soil. I’m really impressed with the whole green manure adventure so far, the buckwheat has rotted down completely leaving soil which feels nutritious and improved and has retained moisture close to the surface, despite the dry weather. Since taking this photo, I’ve lifted and chopped the second sowing at the end of the terrace so that will be ready for the next round of young PSB plants in a couple of weeks’ time.

I’ve left the buckwheat under the grapevine to go to seed for collecting and drying; everyone says you absolutely must not do this as volunteers will pop up everywhere for ever more. So it’s a monster of a self-setter, then? Glory be, just my thing. Bring it on!

Feeling extremely virtuous at being back on a diet consisting mostly of fresh garden produce and having embarked on a 10-week training plan which, among other torturous things, means minimal alcohol consumption and upping my running to five days a week at the hottest time of year (yikes!), I felt a little decadence was called for. I’m not usually a seeker of sweet treats but what could be better than indulging in a dose of homemade ice cream part way through a hot gardening afternoon? I’ve made ice cream for many years, usually starting with a custard base but this recipe for double chocolate ice cream https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-the-best-homemade-chocolate-ice-cream-244716 has been a revelation: it’s super easy to make and is, without doubt, the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s divine. It’s sublime. It’s heaven on a stick (or in a cone or a bowl, or – mmm, don’t tempt me – straight from the tub)!

What an amazing ingredient condensed milk is, why have I never discovered this before? It means no churning is required, so you don’t need an ice cream machine or to remember to break down ice crystals with a fork every hour as it freezes – just whack the cooled mixture into the freezer and forget about it until temptation beckons. It also helps to keep the ice cream slightly soft so you can spoon silky scoops straight from the freezer with no need to take it out early to soften or to chip it out with hammer and chisel when you forgot to do just that. Sheer wickedly, wonderful, chocolatey indulgence. Oh happy, happy summer . . . it’s so good to be home! 🙂