Rainy days

Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.

John Updike

Rain. Having spent most of my life living on the western side of the British Isles, I’m no stranger to it; after spending three years living in the parched dust of the eastern Mediterranean, I vowed never to moan about it again. Water is life and rain is the lifeblood of the garden, so essential if we are to enjoy a bountiful harvest of food and flowers. There is nothing abnormal about a good dollop of rain here at this time of year; after all, this part of the world is called ‘Green Spain’ for a reason. Combined with gentle warmth and high light levels, it creates what must be just about the perfect growing climate. In times of drought, we can irrigate the garden from a mountain spring but even that soft, unadulterated water is never quite the same as a decent downpour from the sky.

It’s interesting how the experience of rain here is different to what I grew up with. For starters, although we can have seriously heavy storms, it is very unusual to have prolonged spells of rain and it’s a rare day that we can’t spend at least some time outdoors. The sky is different, too; no low, oppressive, dark grey gloom but rather cloud the pale grey of a pigeon’s breast that enfolds the valley or white cloud that weaves around the mountains and through the forests like strands of soft fleece.

This brings a unique and haunting atmosphere to the valley, something beautifully, mystically Tolkienesque. The garden shimmers with a million scintillating diamond drops.

Perhaps the greatest thing, though, is the warmth; no cold dousings these, but something soft and benign – and when the cloud clears and the sun shines, the valley and garden steam like a rainforest.

Oh my goodness, how stuff grows! There is such energy in the garden, such a burgeoning, flourishing, skyrocketing exuberance of growth, it is quite breathtaking. Plants seem to double in size overnight.

Courgettes, their leaves like huge elephants’ ears, jostle one another for elbow room; onions march in closed ranks, brassicas open their arms skywards, beans climb and wind widdershins round their poles, ever upwards.

Young apple trees groan under the weight of their swelling fruit.

The peas are monstrous, pushing and shoving in every direction, their pods as long as my hands.

The garden balloons in jungled layers; lettuce under marigolds under dill under climbing beans; dwarf beans under calabrese under peas; nasturtiums under and over everything!

I have lost control. There are places I can no longer venture, spaces filled by swathes of flowers I did not plant. Secretly, I am in my element!

Like a secret garden, there have been little surprises hidden away just waiting to be discovered. Tucked away deeply in a dark, leafy cave, the curiously fractal head of a romenesco broccoli.

Scrambling through the floral chaos of the terraces, the first whisper of another squash harvest.

In the murky depths of the rain-filled water trough pond, a squadron of tiny newts.

Nestling beneath the hazel hedge, the first flowers on Annie’s hydrangea.

Emerging from behind the scarlet wall of poppies, a self-set morning glory. What treasure!

Now how on earth did I miss these? How can we possibly have lived here for three years and not realised this little stunner was here? I think it’s angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) rather than the more sinister devil’s trumpet (datura); I know both are highly toxic but what an amazingly exotic beauty to ‘find’. What else could we have missed, I wonder?

Of course, it goes without saying that the kiwi relishes such weather and is making its usual takeover bid, the barn quietly disappearing under those thuggish twining tendrils despite Roger’s best efforts to exert some level of control.

There are benefits, though: the last delicate flowers are exciting the bees, the first furry fruits have set and I’m hoping the damp shade beneath that dense green canopy is exactly what’s needed for the magic to begin in our inoculated mushroom logs.

The rain has contributed greatly to the ongoing green manure story, too. It has accelerated the breaking down of the first cut of buckwheat, on a terrace now ready for planting with broccoli.

New sowings in different places have germinated in three days, including yellow trefoil with its sea-green leaves shooting up between the rows of chard, beetroot, spring onions, chicory, radicchio and winter brassica seed drills. Bare earth is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Can there be a more beautiful plant after rain than lady’s mantle? It’s a plant I love with its unfussy habits and froth of yellow foamy flowers but those scalloped leaves holding raindrops like pearls in an oyster shell are exquisite. I am truly thrilled with this little plant because it came into the garden as a gift, one half of a plant swap that makes it very special to me.

I love to share things in this way; I’m currently collecting many different types of flower seeds to give away and help spread the gardening love. It’s amazing how the smallest slip of root or pinch of seeds can become something tremendous, a living reminder of the generosity, shared passion for gardening and love of other people. What a delight to wander through the garden and be greeted by these honoured guests! How incredible to have squashes from Finland stretching out beneath Jerusalem artichokes from Camarthenshire; what joy to see the nodding flowers of comfrey from friends over the mountain, the zingy lime foliage and brilliant magenta flowers of a geranium (pelargonium) from a close neighbour’s cutting.

Some years ago, during one of our regular – and very alliterative! – seed swap sessions, Sarah gave me some white sage seeds which I finally got round to planting earlier this year. Germination is notoriously sketchy so I was thrilled to watch one little seedling grow rapidly into a healthy, vigorous plant which I’ve planted out in the garden this week. It’s an interesting specimen, hailing from the south-western United States and much valued by the native peoples for its medicinal qualities and use in ritual smudging ceremonies; it should be happy in our mild climate but I’m not so sure about the rain and humidity . . . we will see.

In the far corner of the vegetable patch, below the artichoke hedge, is a stand of very special sunflowers. The seeds were collected by Ben, William and Evan and given to me as a birthday gift which made me very happy – I am never going to have sunflowers in the garden for my December birthday, but how wonderful to have this promise of sunshine in a brown paper packet! The plants are almost as tall as me now and have raised their heads high above the other vegetables so we can see them from the sun terrace. The flowers are coming. I can hardly wait!

If only we could unzip the roof of the polytunnel and let the rain soak the earth in there, too!

No such luck, here we have no choice but to haul buckets and cans to keep everything happy but it’s worth the effort: I think we might be on for the best ever crop of peppers this year.

Aubergines usually frustrate me at the seedling stage with their we-want-to-die attitude but this year they went into the ground strong and lusty and full of promise. Ha ha, there’s always something willing to rain on our parade, it seems: enter flea beetles in their droves and doggedly persistent. We have tried all we can think of to send them packing but back they come for more, constantly taking the newest leaves from the centre of the plants. I’m trying to remain optimistic; there are twenty plants in there and they have a good show of flowers so fingers crossed, at least some will prevail.

Meanwhile, there is another regular visitor to be found lurking amongst their leaves; mmm, just hope it isn’t tucking in, too.

The moisture-laden air brings an ethereal quality to the early morning that is too lovely to miss. Dawn might see the valley totally engulfed in white cloud but as the sun climbs above the mountain, this dissipates to reveal the tantalising promise of a beautiful day. Still pyjama-clad, I brew a large mug of tea, grab a blanket (for comfort rather than warmth) and head out to breathe in that sweet freshness for a few moments.

The birdsong of springtime has not yet diminished and the music rises in a melodious crescendo, reverberating across the valley like a sky-roofed cathedral. The garden is already busy with their activity: a blackbird bathes in the little pond; feisty robins vie for the best worm-hunting spot; a song thrush hammers snails against a terrace stone; shy dunnocks scuttle timidly between the plants; a yellow serin passes through, all flap and twitter like a clockwork toy; bullfinches and goldfinches crash through the peace in a blaze of colour and noise. A clutch of young blue tits, scruffy in their juvenile foliage, pick aphids from the peach tree leaves, their garrulous squeaks and comical acrobatics a complete contrast to the pair of tiny warblers that share the plunder. The garden fizzes with bumble bees about their business, too; how fascinating that they focus their initial attention on the red poppies as if they know full well how transient and fleeting those flowers are. Other beauties can wait until later!

So the wet weather has passed through and rainy days have given way to something drier, sunnier, hotter . . . not the searing heat being experienced in other parts, thankfully, but true summer nonetheless.

In the evening, I sit on the sun terrace, stitching a few more squares of my blanket together and drink in the vibrant green lushness of garden and landscape the rain has left behind.

In the warmth, the scent of freesias is divine; how I wish I could stitch a bit of that fragrance in, too!

The rain was wonderful but it’s delightful now to turn my face to the sun once again . . . and my silent little companion on the terrace feels just the same way, I think! 🙂

Keeping it simple

Find a little bit of land somewhere and plant a carrot seed. Now sit down and watch it grow. When it is fully grown pull it up and eat it.

Alicia Bay Laurel

So much of what Roger and I do together is aimed at simplifying our life, at paring back all that is unnecessary in order to enjoy fully what is important. We don’t care about status or kudos, about standing or stuff, about gadgets or gizmos. We don’t crave the new and novel or rush after fashion and fad. The philosophy embraced in the quotation above is as elaborate as it gets and what better way to reflect on this aim than spending time with our small grandchildren on their recent stay here? Seeing life through children’s eyes helps to put so much into perspective and as adults, the chance to look again at the world with an unfettered sense of awe and open curiosity is a precious thing indeed.

The shared curiosity of young things.

What fun we had feeling the smoothness of a shiny pebble and the knobbles on a fir cone, smelling the sweet perfume of roses and herbal aroma of eucalyptus seeds, of watching the busyness of lizards darting about the terrace and the stealth of a pole cat coursing the hedgerow. We picked wild strawberries and sweet green peas and ate them straight from the plant, sun-warmed and delicious. Why did life ever become more complicated than this?

Simplicity is something I’m working on in the garden, not because I’m lazy (I’m not) or because I think gardening is a chore (quite the opposite!) but because I question the wisdom of spending time on activities which are fundamentally unnecessary. Gardening shouldn’t be something I ‘do’ but rather something I ‘am’; immersed in nature, bathed in fresh air, a part of the intricate whole rather than a separate controlling factor. Why waste time trying to enforce ridiculous strictures on the natural world when I could just be enjoying the beauty instead, a human being instead of a human doing? With this in mind, I’m playing with several ideas this year.

In case you’re wondering, the empty wine bottle on a stick is the local approach to deterring moles. It would be rude not to try it. First, empty your bottle . . . 🙂

The first approach I’m using is to plant things very closely together in order to suppress weed growth. I am by nature a bit of a crammer in the garden anyway so this hasn’t been too difficult to put into practice and as the wrap-around warmth and recent rainfall work their magic on all things leafy, the bare earth is rapidly disappearing under a lush carpet of green. Take for instance this spot where violet-podded dwarf beans jostle for elbow room with a range of summer and autumn calabrese plants on one side and three hefty ‘Latino’ courgettes on the other, the whole lot undersown (mostly by nature’s fair hand) with coriander, dill and nasturtiums.

Beyond there are carrots, broad beans, three rows of peas, lettuce, beetroot, sunflowers and globe artichokes all squeezed together so snugly there is barely room for daylight between.

Now I know gardeners who would hate this chaotic hotchpotch of push and shove but I love it to bits. For a start, the jungly crush helps to retain moisture which is a huge boon during hot spells, especially for plants like brassicas who aren’t the world’s greatest sun worshippers. These damp leafy corridors are perfect for our ever-growing population of very precious amphibians to move through in privacy, slurping up slugs and the like as they go. There is a hive of bird activity in there, too, especially in the evenings, as the whole patch turns into a sort of avian fast-food outlet; one rather beautiful song thrush has even organised a handy snail-bashing spot on the nearby terrace to make full use of the facilities!

Yes, I know there are many arguments against this gardening version of Sardines, not least the fact that it makes harvesting difficult, but honestly, is that such an issue? We’re adults, after all; we can manage to tiptoe between patches and rows without damaging anything and if we get a bit damp from rain-soaked vegetation, well – we’ll dry. If I wanted to select fresh produce mindlessly from wide straight aisles I’d give up gardening and go to a supermarket instead . . . and where would be the fun in that?

Actually, on the subject of harvesting let me digress a little into the World of Peas. I am currently reading John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency for the umpteenth time; it’s a book I love to devour from cover to cover – as I’m doing this week – or dip in and out of as the mood takes me. I have to agree completely with his assertion that freezing vegetables doesn’t improve them; for that reason, very little of what comes out of the garden ends up entombed in ice. In many ways, there’s simply no need now that we have achieved an unbroken supply of fresh produce from the garden and polytunnel all year round plus excellent dry storage facilities in the horreo (we’ve literally just eaten the last squash which has been stored there since October). I would far rather eat freshly-picked bits and bobs with minimum time and fuss between garden and plate than something that has taken time and energy to store, gaining nothing in terms of texture, flavour or nutritional value during the process.

The one big exception to this rule, however, is peas. Peas freeze like a dream and much as I adore seasonal produce, there is something so comforting about a blast of their sweet summery goodness in a hearty winter gravy! Mr Seymour believes freezing peas is a bore but I must disagree with him on that score. What job could be more pleasant than rummaging about a sun-drenched pea row, gathering pods of gorgeousness? Actually, is that even a job? We have experienced immense frustration and disappointment trying to grow peas here but at last, in our fourth season, everything has conspired to give us the greatest crop ever.

We have been picking the autumn-planted ‘Douce Provence’ for several weeks now; they really ought to be dying back (and part of me wishes they would – I need that nitrogen-rich space for young kale plants!) but instead, the new top growth just goes on and on producing heavy clusters of plump pods. The spring-planted row is bursting and needs picking daily whilst a later row of a Spanish variety is catching up fast. The only work this crop involved was pushing twiggy hazel sticks in amongst the young plants for support; otherwise, it’s a case now of sitting in the sun and popping the pods. Peas into the freezer, pods onto the compost heap. Convenience food, indeed.

Back to the garden jungle, and is my focus on companion planting as well as cramming at work here, too? I love the flavour and smell of coriander, dill and mint but white butterflies apparently beg to differ; there are a few about doing their dainty fluttery butter-wouldn’t-melt stuff but not a caterpillar in sight as yet. The nasturtiums are there as sacrificial plants should the butterflies feel the urge to lay eggs but they’re also drawing in valuable pollinators, with bumble bees and hover flies alike flitting from their vibrant sunny flowers to the deeper trumpets of the courgettes. The radish I sowed between lettuces, also as a sacrificial crop, are ironically some of the best I’ve ever grown; the lettuce don’t look too bad, either.

In fact, what I can say without a shadow of a doubt is that everything – everything – is growing with great gusto and it all looks disgustingly, wonderfully healthy.

(Shhhhhh . . . I’m probably tempting fate as well as blight but even the tomatoes crammed tightly into in their special shelter are looking fabulous.)

Regular readers will know that I am experimenting with green manure in the garden this year after reading the deeply inspirational book The One-Straw Revolution. Oh my, what enthusiasm those plants demonstrate in covering bare earth at speed! I am more than thrilled with the results so far. White clover sown beneath globe artichokes and raspberry canes is forming wonderful mats of trefoiled green while sprinklings of phacelia along fence and wall margins are unfurling their hazy mauve beauty, much to the delight of the bees.

The dainty pink and white flowers on the buckwheat are insect magnets, too; I really need to cut the large swathe on the top terrace so it has time to feed the soil before the purple sprouting broccoli goes in . . . but those flowers are just so pretty, and the pollinators so happy that I keep putting it off, which isn’t really the idea, is it? Oh, well. 🙂

Comfrey has been well-established in the garden for some time now but I’m on a mission to spread it about as much as I can. I mean, can you really have too much? It’s such a forgiving plant, happy to grow pretty much anywhere so I’ve been stuffing roots in along the shady edge of the terraces and the damper spots down the lane; the bumble bees are enjoying the dangly flowers and the garden and compost heap will benefit from comfrey mulch and comfrey tea. What’s more, I will benefit from not having to deal with awkward planting spaces. Perfect, I’d say!

Another strategy I’m applying is ‘selective’ weeding and this comes down to the definition of what a weed really is; traditionally, of course, it’s deemed to be a plant growing in the wrong place although I love A.A.Milne’s assertion that ‘Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.’ Please don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating no weeding. I have experienced enough to know that trying to grow a garden blighted by the thuggish behaviour of creeping buttercups, ground elder and bindweed is not a good idea. However, with the invasive perennials under relative control, how many annual ‘weeds’ are really and truly a problem? Should I impose a ban on the spires of foxgloves that sneak out of the terrace walls or the toadflax that streams and trails like delicate lilac-flowered bunting? Would it have been better to rip out the self-sown poppy hedge instead of giving it free rein?

As gardeners, we are programmed to regard a long list of plants as nuisances never to be tolerated but surely in this enlightened age of environmental awareness, we should have the freedom and courage to make our own decisions? Oxalis, with its frustrating sorcerer’s apprentice trick, is the bane of my gardening life here: hoe off a single stem and four spring up in its place. It has to be dug up carefully and removed and is shown no mercy. Otherwise, we have a lot of what I think of as ‘soft’ weeds, plants like chickweed, speedwell, scarlet pimpernel, read deadnettle and fumitory which I am happy to leave trailing between flowers and vegetables alike.

They form useful moisture mats, help to bind the soil together (pretty crucial on our steep mountainside), have tiny flowers loved by insects and when they overstep the mark are quick and easy to pull out and compost. Why waste time and energy trying to banish them from sight, especially when on balance they are actually quite beneficial? The same is true of the self-setters that pop up all over: this week, my ‘weeding’ session saw me leaving – yes, leaving – calendula, pansies, Californian poppies, verbena bonariensis, borage, parsley, dill, coriander and nasturtiums, not to mention several cucumber seedlings that had emerged from a spreading of homemade compost.

Mustard seedlings appear overnight like mushrooms; it’s not a pleasant eating variety but provides a fantastic decoy for flea beetles and friends who reduce the leaves to lace and leave other things alone. It’s also a brilliant green manure, rotting down rapidly once cut and dug in (or left on the surface for the worms to deal with). I was planning to sow yellow trefoil under the climbing beans but there is no need, it seems; the space has already been taken.

I’m leaving clover wherever I find it, too; it would be worse than ironic to have bought clover seed to sow in designated patches if I then set about pulling it out everywhere else. It’s a great nitrogen fixer and source of nectar; let’s leave it be.

Elsewhere in the garden, things move forward without any input from me whatsoever. In a tangle of green behind the polytunnel, velvety peaches swell against a backdrop of kiwi flowers.

In the orchard, heady citrus blossoms perfume the air whilst towering walnuts flaunt their glossy young fruits.

Blueberries ripen in the shade of a laden fig tree as squash plants emerge in a burst of green from neighbouring terraces clothed in self-set nasturtiums (and friends). Perhaps I should be concerned about them being smothered? No, they’re squashes. They will prevail!

In the polytunnel, aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies have all opened their first hopeful blooms.

There is a thriving community of pollinators in there; unfortunately, they’re currently absorbed in visiting the wild rocket flowers but surely at some point they’ll opt for a little variety?

The passionflower tumbles its exquisite flowers through an apricot tree whilst Californian poppies and pansies squeeze out of cracks in the concrete, their cheerful faces lifted to the sun.

Love-in-the-mist froths in pastel shades, geraniums shout out in bold colours and long-forgotten plantings of alliums and freesias burst out in little pops of gorgeousness.

Who needs a gardener? Truly, what is there for me to do? Well, I can potter about and tie things in or transplant the next batch of lettuce plants into any available spaces. I can wander around with my trug, gathering goodies for dinner. I can smell the roses. I can feast on wild strawberries and nibble baby peas. I can sit and watch the carrots grow. Simple, really. 🙂

Two’s company

Company: Middle English from Old French compaignon, literally ‘one who breaks bread with another.’

Isn’t ‘companionship’ a wonderful word? For me, it is imbued with a sense of warmth, comfort and reassurance like a well-worn pair of hiking boots or a slice of hot buttered toast. It’s about being together without fuss or bother, without any drama or making demands; a gentle sharing of time and place that enhances and enriches all those involved.

One of the things I’m dabbling in this year is companion planting in the garden. I last tried it some years ago in our French garden, but we were there for such a short time I didn’t really get to do it justice. I realise that it’s a concept – along with permaculture, no-dig, biodynamics and the like – that has orthodox eyebrows hitching and twitching but I’m happy to embrace such things, or at least give them a go. As far as I’m concerned, this doesn’t make me a dippy hippy, fluffy bunny, tree hugging eco-nut (but if that’s the worst that critics have to say, carry on). I don’t think there is a problem giving credence to ‘alternative’ ideas even if they haven’t been wholly scientifically proven.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of time for science. I’ve recently been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Just About Everything, a well-researched and fascinating book that had my head zinging with all things scientific (and some pretty amazing word etymology, too). One of the stark realisations, though, is just how relatively recent so much accepted knowledge is; I was astounded to learn that the plate tectonic theory I lapped up for O-level geography in the early eighties was only a couple of years older than me! As for particle physics . . . it seems the more bigger brains look at tinier things, the less we can be certain of anything. Why, then, should we disregard ancient wisdom simply because we believe we can do things better? Yes, there’s a lot of superstition and misconceptions out there but also a great deal of knowledge and understanding that comes from centuries of patient observation and practical application.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, nothing. It’s possible that nothing will happen or be different or better or worse, but at the very least we should have a garden that is crammed with colour and life and food and I’m happy to go for that. The green manure I’m experimenting with is in its own way a kind of companion planting and so far all is going well. The white clover, phacelia and yellow trefoil are all bombing up and what an interesting and enthusiastic little plant buckwheat is; it’s already forming thick carpets and I love the way its lime heart-shaped leaves catch the light.

One of my key aims this year is to strive for fewer problems with our brassica crops, and in particular the damage wrought by caterpillars. To this end, I started by transplanting a couple of dill seedlings to each end of the calabrese rows where they stand like sentinels on guard for the first hint of fluttering white wings. There were already a few self-set nasturtiums in the vicinity so I added to their numbers, too. Coriander is supposed to be another good companion so I’ve sown a row between the brassicas and couldn’t resist an extra sprinkling of dill down one side. These two were both very old seed (I never replant as they set themselves so freely) so I knew they may not germinate but felt it was worth a try. Cue dill forest! Finally, I’ve been potting up roots of spearmint, partly in a bid to curb its march across the garden but also to create Mobile Mint Units that I can move about and place in strategic positions. Forget belt and braces, this is extra buttons, a new zip and probably a pair of spare trews, too . . . but if it keeps the beasties at bay, it will have been well worth the effort.

Elsewhere, I’ve been planting out basil. This is a great companion to so many things and with a hugely successful germination rate this year, I’ve been able to spread it far and wide, in the polytunnel, the garden and the fingers-crossed tomato patch. I’ve tucked some under the grapevine, along with an oregano and a couple of geraniums – just need to add hyssop and the grapevine band of friends will be complete. I goes without saying that many flowers act as companion plants by drawing in the pollinators and we are already a long way down the path with that one, especially the irrepressible self-setting crazies: calendula, nasturtium, borage, Californian poppies, field poppies, cerinthe and hollyhocks. Roger has gently suggested I might like to curb my indulgence of these rascals a tad and I have to concede, he has a point: this is the current state of the path along the bottom of the main vegetable patch and I suppose it’s not too unreasonable expecting to be able to walk along it?

As you can see, we’ve had to tread a new path above the floral chaos which eats into precious planting space . . . but just look at the vibrant gorgeousness of those graceful poppies, filling my heart with such joy! They are hosting a bumble bees’ feeding frenzy inside their silken petals so who am I to disturb them?

There’s another frenzy in action along the fence line of the top veg patch, this time in the form of the passion flower. If ever there was a successful pairing, then it must be this showy seductress and the Asturian climate; if it weren’t for the indomitable kiwi, I would say I’ve never seen anything grow faster. This year’s floral spectacular has just begun . . .

. . . but now she’s taking things literally to new heights. This flower is halfway up a peach tree!

Moving in the opposite direction down the fence, the passion flower is also mingling companionably with the pink-flowered jasmine beesianum, which in complete contrast has to be one of the most disappointing specimens I’ve planted here. The flowers are tiny and totally underwhelming; even now the plant itself is beginning to spread itself in graceful evergreen arches, the impact of colour and scent is minimal. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the sheer allure and verve of the white jasmine but there is a certain despondency about this plant; I’m really not a fan.

However, there are always two sides to a story and not everyone shares my gloomy opinion: those minuscule flowers are a bumble bee magnet, the whole plant literally thrums with their excited attentions. They visit each little pink trumpet for a nanosecond, so capturing one in a photo was a study of extreme patience and a lot of good luck.

I adore colour, crave it in my life, in fact; it’s one of the many, many reasons I love Spain so much. At this time of year, the garden and wild areas pop and explode with joyful, reckless exuberance that has me turning cartwheels. I would make a hopeless garden designer, those elegant, sophisticated borders of limited hues – so clever, so beautiful – are really not my style. I need rainbows, paintboxes, confetti cannons, everything mingling and jingling, clashing and clamouring and knitted together only by the calming influence of green. The local way of growing flowers – stuffing bits and pieces into every nook and cranny, then letting them do their own thing – suits me so well. I might not have deep borders of stylish perennials but this kaleidoscope effect makes me so happy; it’s like a giant tube of Smarties!

I also love those little dabs of unexpected colour, the wild things that have invited themselves to the party.

As the season shifts a gear and the temperature shuffles up a few notches, the geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer) really come into their own. They are such reliable doers and I love their brazen attitude, shamelessly flaunting their bright hues for months on end.

Mind you, the roses are not averse to dabbling in a bit of that pink-and-red- together nonsense, too.

Sweet William has emerged from its feathery buds to drive the butterflies to distraction with its clove-scented velvety vivaciousness.

In relatively muted tones, the globes of alliums add a modish touch with their beguiling starry globes . . .

. . . while the audacious delosperma explodes in an unapologetic fountain of shocking pink against the terracotta walls.

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing so I welcome the pointillist spots of cool whites bringing light and levity to the colour riot and spangling the moonlit garden with silvery stars. What a range of personalities we have now, from sculpted waxen rosebuds to the lacy bridal froth of coriander.

Funny how nature has a way of adding a dab of colour even here . . .

Bitter leaves are something of an acquired taste but we love them so as part of my recent seed spree, I bought a packet of radicchio ‘Palla Rosa 3’ to plant later in the season and also chicory ‘Brussels Witloof’ which I’ve already popped into the ground. We last grew chicory in the aforementioned French garden and it was a huge success; it’s a strange thing, growing magnificent leafy plants just to lift them, reduce them to roots and bury them in boxes of compost in the dark. The resulting chicons are delicious, though – we always indulge in some when we are in France so what a treat it will be to have our own. The short row of wild rocket in the polytunnel just refuses to stop growing and go to seed; it provides the perfect companion for the beetroot growing next to it in a heady colourful combination of bitter and sweet on the plate and palate.

With the porch re-roofed and newly decorated, the major house renovation work is finished at long, last. Almost three years to the day we moved here, we finally have our very own hogar, dulce hogar! After so many months as working partners, it’s lovely at last to have the time to be walking partners and enjoy a relaxed evening stroll from home. My favourite route is the two-mile wander through woodlands to the small river that cuts a deep valley beyond the house; it is particularly beautiful at this time of year when the landscape is so very, very green.

I have tried before to describe the sheer depth and scale of this verdant paradise but words always seem so inadequate. Forget the tranquil weaving harmonies of Vivaldi’s spring idyll; this is Beethoven’s 5th on steroids, a roaring, rumbustious chlorophyll-fuelled symphony of bursting life and new growth.

The chestnuts are always the last to arrive but they have tiptoed noiselessly onto stage in the past two weeks; the woodland cast is now complete.

There are plenty of supporting characters playing their parts, too. Foxgloves drift in elegant spires, their freckled bells a delirium of bee activity.

The dappled shade reveals cool beauties . . .

. . . whilst splashes of sunlight host butterflies, blue as dainty shards of sky.

There is a magic to this place: the interplay of sunlight and shadow, leaf and lichen, boulders and birdsong, moss and mountain. I lose myself in the gentle babbling of clear water on rock, the peaty scent of damp earth and sun-warmed bark, the enfolding peaceful wildness of it all. Asturias may have been the cradle of Spanish Christianity but there lingers a pagan song here, an untamed green heart beating to a more ancient rhythm.

So, home again and time to reflect on how far the last three years have brought us. What a mad journey of adventure in a new land. What a crazy, quirky, little home in a stunning landscape.

What a very special place this is to live, love and enjoy each other’s company. Who needs any more than that? 🙂

Happy places, awkward spaces



Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein

Rewarding though the massive house renovation project has been, it is a huge relief to have finished. Well, just the imminent porch makeover left to go and then we really are done. Switching our attention to outside activities, we are happily spending our days tackling several jobs we have been itching to start for a long, long time. This is my perfect life: permission to spend every day outside, drinking in the fresh air, the sounds and scents of spring, the vibrant colours of the landscape, turning my face to the sun . . . oh, and doing a bit of work, too.

One of the exciting parts of going away is to see how the garden and countryside have changed in our absence, like a big time-lapse leap, but I much prefer being able to watch those changes slowly unfurling day to day. When I was working full-time, on days where I felt – shall we say – ‘less than motivated’ I used to fantasise about what I would do if I could stay at home. Invariably, it would involve immersing myself in the garden and wrapping it around me as though the whole of nature lived some secret weekday life I wasn’t party to. What a special privilege it is now to be doing just that each and every day. I am fascinated by the mystery and minutiae of garden life, the plethora of constant tiny events; how incredible to watch closed buds unfurling, leaves and stems stretching in the sunlight, minuscule life forms scuttling and hopping and slithering across the surface of the soil. What a happy, joyful, busy place this is.

It’s such a precious gift to have the time to look – really look -with fresh eyes and an open mind. Even the seemingly mundane can become something quite spectacular and awe-inspiring when observed with full attention and awareness. I have delighted in so many simple but incredible things this week.

The soft silvery fuzz of tiny developing peaches.

The plump pointed buds of granny’s bonnets unfurling to reveal the captivating beauty hidden within.

The astonishingly complex and intricate geometry of a clematis flower.

The tiniest, sweetest, bijou of a narcissus unexpectedly emerging from a clump of chives.

The pistachio pompoms of viburnum opulus set against a cerulean sky, fresh and crisp as scoops of green apple sorbet.

Silvered raindrops caught in the glaucous petals of a cerinthe flower . . .

. . . and the vivid orange pollen baskets of a bumble bee caught in the bottom of another. Pure magic.

In between my moments of musing, I have been quite busy, too – honest! It’s that time of year when there is much to be done in the vegetable garden as the growing season really gets under way and jobs jostle for attention. I’ve planted French bush beans in the garden – a mix of ‘Tendergreen’ and ‘Violet Podded’ – along with five tripods of borlotti ‘Lingua de Fuoco’ and ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans and a second patch of mixed lettuces along with sprinklings of radish, coriander and dill. Leeks, celeriac and more lettuce have gone into trays along with the first sowing of kale. In the tunnel, the staging was moved out to make planting room for aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies and I’ve been pricking out and potting on cucumbers, courgettes and squash.

This is very much what I would term ‘normal’ garden routine but the beauty of us both being outside now is that we can focus on wider projects and in particular, finally sorting out some awkward or tatty spaces in desperate need of attention. One such area is the patch of garden above the ‘garage.’ I use the latter term very loosely: we’ve never been brave enough to park the car in it – well, would you?

I’m convinced it’s only that pile of manure, maturing nicely under the plastic sheet, that’s holding the whole thing up. It’s a structure we’d dearly love to get rid of but as that would mean having to deal with a huge pile of rubble including several sheets of asbestos, it’s on the back burner for now – we’ve had enough rubble events for the time being.

Anyway, back to that bit of garden. When we moved here, it was the usual overgrown jungly mess of mustard and cabbages, so I cleared it out, dug it over and used it initially as an overspill salad patch which worked really well for a couple of seasons.

Last year, however, what had been a very small fig tree seemed to quadruple in size and started to cast a significant shade over one end of the patch. We certainly don’t want to get rid of it as it is a different variety to the bigger tree opposite the house, having succulent pink-fleshed (rather than white) fruits at a slightly different time. Time for a change of use. I popped in a couple of autumn raspberries, which have gone completely berserk, and then over winter we added three blueberry bushes which didn’t seem happy in their original spot; quietly, a soft fruit patch was emerging. This week I’ve been having fun with some green manure seed so that – hopefully – as we move into summer, this whole area will be full and productive once again. When we moved our original comfrey plant we missed a slip of root, which is no big deal as comfrey is a fantastic companion plant for asparagus; last year, I cut the resultant plants to ground level four times to make comfrey tea which is such a nutrient-rich plant food and to stop them encroaching on the asparagus (there’s companion and there’s downright over-friendly). I’m planning to do the same again this year and also to try and keep the Welsh poppies – a self-set ‘mulch’ amongst the asparagus – to a reasonable number. Beyond those luscious spears, there should be a fine show of gorgeous bluey-mauve phacelia to bring in the pollinators and a carpet of white clover beneath the fruit bushes, not to mention (all fingers crossed) a harvest of blueberries and raspberries. It might not look too spectacular at the moment but give it time . . .

I love the way our garden develops like this, evolving from season to season, year to year. I know it’s important to have some sort of underlying structure but beyond that, there is something so energising and dynamic about changes and shifts and new things, a tantalising relish in the unexpected. Famous gardens, often at stately homes, are places of real beauty and fascination – inspiration, too – but I find something unnerving about all those knot gardens and parterres that are frozen in time. I don’t want a ‘perfect’ garden set in aspic; life, after all, just isn’t like that. Give me a slightly chaotic, haphazard, unpredictable state of flux where nature has permission to mix things up and try a few tricks of her own any day.

Take for instance the ‘flower garden’ I am slowly trying to develop down the sides of the lane. Now this is one of those classic works in progress if ever there was one; snails – dead ones, possibly – have moved faster. I’m getting there bit by bit- there is definitely far more colour this year – but the further you wander down the lane, the wilder and more tangled things become.

I had to ask myself, though, whether I can (or should) really improve on what nature is doing down there with a carpet of starry wild strawberry flowers and tiny glimpses of bright jewelled fruit beneath the lush foliage?

In all truth, taking cues from nature is something I’m pursuing in the garden this year now I have a little more time to think about it. Green manure, inspired by my reading of The One Straw Revolution, is top of my list and I’ve had a happy time broadcasting seed in all sorts of spots and spaces. Having weeded the former leek terrace, I’ve sown buckwheat as a short-term ground cover to be dug in before the ever-greedy overwintering brassicas go in and once the pole beans have germinated, I’ll sow yellow trefoil between them. A couple of months ago, we replaced the fence at the end of the main garden and gained an extra strip of land where I planted half a dozen young globe artichoke plants. The idea is they will grow to form a splendid food-bearing hedge but in the meantime, the space between them and the fence is a potential weed alley. Not any more. I’ve sprinkled it with phacelia seed, which I’m hoping will make a temporary flower border and all round bee magnet that can be cut after flowering and literally left as a decomposing mulch. Between the ‘chokes I’ve scattered white clover seed to form a permanent weed-suppressing, nitrogen-fixing carpet. Will it work? Watch this space . . . or, with any luck, no space because it will all have been covered.

As a bit of an aside, our original artichoke has taken on rainforest proportions – it’s taller than me, and I’m not short! – and is starting to dominate rather more useful growing space than is polite. Once it’s done it’s stuff and died back later this year, we’ll split it and relocate it in several roomier, wilder places (like the orchard), where it can romp away to its heart’s content.

One area that’s had some much-needed attention this week is the top vegetable patch, the lower part of which spent much of last year gradually sliding away down the bank, helped along by some frustratingly industrious moles. Things had got so bad – and so steep – that it was impossible to walk, yet alone, plant along the bottom edge.

Roger had previously created a couple of terraces above by building drystone walls but this time opted for a simpler, faster solution: eucalyptus poles from the wood. They took a bit of fetching (fresh eucalyptus is full of sap and horrendously heavy) but are just perfect for the job. Once that broccoli has finished, I can clear and prep the whole area for leeks without living in constant fear of tumbling backwards down the mountainside. I don’t mind a bit of extreme gardening but there are limits even to my sense of humour (and balance) . . .

In a rather more abstract sense, there is one tricky spot we’ve certainly improved this year and that’s the ‘hungry gap’, that classic foodless hole at this time of year when the garden is between seasons. The polytunnel has certainly helped us along the way, still housing good crops of chard, kohlrabi, beetroot, wild rocket, spring onions and radish. We are still tucking in to stored squash which is an incredible thing, really, considering that’s seven months now and they still make excellent eating. Outside, several varieties of overwintered kale and the purple sprouting broccoli go on and on and have formed a cheerful overlap with the early peas, asparagus and globe artichokes. There are fresh herbs and edible flowers in abundance. The garden might not look very full but hungry we are not!

The biggest makeover project of the moment is definitely the space between the horreo and field. Roger made a good start some time ago by rebuilding an ugly brick wall with stone and adding a smart gate. It’s great to see that our new little neighbours are very impressed, they just love to peep through and see what we’re up to!

When we moved here, this area had been formerly used as a chicken run. It was built from so many layers of wire mesh, netting, barbed wire, metal poles, wooden poles, the world supply of long nails and who knows what else – all topped off with a roof featuring two old car bonnets – that it took the tractor to pull the whole construction down.

In the interim, the area has been used as a rubble dump, one of those necessary evils of ongoing renovation and building work but with the large rubble shifted and the smaller stuff flattened, we’ve been scratching our heads a bit as to what to do with the space. I had made a tiny start last year, moving the compost heap out of its strange brick and concrete bunker (former function unknown) and creating a planting area for a grapevine to train up the horreo wall.

The rest of that wall – now we can get to it – gives us a final chance to try growing tomatoes as we can mimic exactly what our neighbours do: grow them fast against one wall in a fairly enclosed space, facing west and sheltered from the fine misty rain that spreads the dreaded blight. Roger has constructed a shelter from chestnut poles and spare polythene left over from recovering the polytunnel and we’re using a growbag system of sterile compost rather than planting in pots or containers.

I’ve planted six varieties – ‘Roma’, ‘Tamina’, ‘Marmande’, ‘Rosella’, ‘Red Cherry’ and ‘Voyage’ – and only time will tell whether this approach will be successful. The young plants look enthusiastic and healthy enough now but then they always do; they have two chances and if we lose all again this year that really will be IT!

So, what to do with the rest of that awkward space? Our initial thoughts turned to spreading gravel to create some kind of courtyard though for what, we weren’t altogether sure. Then, sitting out one evening watching the swallows swoop through the garden and the general busyness of birds and insects alike, inspiration dawned: let nature take the lead here. Forget gravel, could we somehow use soil instead and make a planting area? After all, we have a whole mountainside of earth and moving it would be no harder than shifting tonnes of gravel (been there, done that far too many times). We could use stones picked from the garden to make a path to the tomatoes, then plant the rest completely. A hefty honey-coloured stone left over from wall building would make a perfect mount for Roger’s bronze sundial, a beautiful gift from his parents for his 50th birthday. For the last six years it has sat on top of an upturned terracotta pot; about time it had a proper home, don’t you think?

Beneath the field wall is a drinking trough, half buried in the ground. It’s not huge and doesn’t look very promising but I’m planning to turn it into a small wildlife pond. There is no question of anything bigger here with the land being so steep (and we don’t want to give the mosquitoes any excuse to breed, either) but we have a healthy amphibian population to encourage and it’s amazing just how much life even a tiny body of water can support. It will need a bit of tweaking with rocks or slopes to give access and some plant material for cover but I’m hoping it will be a success, especially with the logpile we’re planning to site next to it to act as an animal corridor amongst other things.

It will take a while to be ready for planting; for starters, we need the cows gone from the field so we can shift the soil without their help! This at least has given us time to ponder and do a bit of research into plant possibilities. I was really thrilled to find the perfect solution in a Spanish mix of shade-loving plants; I’m not usually a fan of seed mixes like this, having had dubious results in the past, but I’m crossing my fingers this will do the business.

There’s a lovely tale attached to this box of potential gorgeousness. I ordered my large parcel of seeds (well, it would have been rude to stop at one box . . .) from the eco website, Planeta Huerto, and was told it was due to arrive here on Tuesday or Wednesday. On Tuesday evening we received a message from Christa, who lives a mile or so away, to say the Correos Express delivery man had been very busy that day so had left her parcel at the farmers’ co-op in the next village down the valley and when she had gone to collect it, mine was there, too. She had taken it home and put it in a lidded plastic box at the end of her drive for one of us to collect when we next ran past. The light was starting to fade but it was such a beautiful evening, laden with birdsong and the heady scent of pollen and all things spring, that I decided a two-mile stroll before bedtime would be just the best thing.

Now I know plenty of people who would have been hugely annoyed with this situation, their parcel not delivered to the door but abandoned elsewhere. However, for me this is the very essence of Asturias and especially this precious little corner we live in. If Christa hadn’t collected our parcel, then someone else in the village would have done or, at the very least, let us know where it was, and it would have been perfectly safe left at the co-op until we went to fetch it. There is such a relaxed, pragmatic, friendly and honest attitude amongst our neighbours here, and such incredible generosity, too. I have returned from my little recycling jaunts with a gift from a kind neighbour- a dozen eggs, a pot of plants and the like – so often that I swear Roger now lives in fear of me appearing with something furred or feathered tucked under my arm, especially as there happens to be the most beautiful litter of border collie pups in the village right now! On Easter Sunday, Jairo popped in on his way up the mountain to check his livestock, bringing us the gift of afilada, a delicious Asturian type of brioche traditionally eaten during Semana Santa. ¡qué maravillosa!

When I opened my wandering parcel, I found a couple of little unexpected gifts had been included: a lollipop and, far more my scene, a thank you card impregnated with seeds. No indication as to what they are so there’s only one way to find out. What a lovely touch. It made me smile. What a wonderful country we live in. 🙂

Recycling the seasons


“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.  The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.”


Henry Van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck

One of my biggest concerns about writing a blog for any great length of time – especially one which revolves around our daily life here – is the danger of recycling the same old stuff over and over. I believe writing should be fresh and original, not stuck in a ‘yes, folks, here’s our squash harvest for the umpteenth time’ sort of rut. So, as the peach blossom paints its gorgeous pink tracery against the bluest of skies in keeping with the season, I’ve had to ask myself if anyone really wants to hear about it once again?

I’ve been giving the ‘same old, same old’ conundrum a lot of thought this week while zipping about outside in full gardening mode (isn’t the garden just the best place to muse on all things philosophical?) and have come to the conclusion that some amount of annual repetition is surely inevitable when we lead an outdoor life that is very attuned to the seasons. The peach trees are flowering, the verges are jewelled with carpets of primroses, violets and wild strawberries, the garden is a-flutter with yellow butterflies and heavy with the heady scent of narcissi, the pied wagtails and redstarts are posturing on top of the barn and the midwife toads are beeping their staccato rhythm from the stone walls . . . because that’s what happens at this time of year.


In all honesty, there’s a certain reassurance in the familiar, isn’t there? Winter passes, spring comes. Seeds are planted, harvest follows. Look closely, though, and it’s clear that not everything dances to the same inevitable tune; nature never fails to play an interesting hand and often leaves us guessing as to its next move. This time last year, Storm Felix was viciously stripping the delicate peach blossoms from their branches before they had even opened; the result was one single, lonely (and very precious) fruit in the summer. This year, the trees are buzzing with the attention of industrious pollinators, the spent petals drifting dreamily on the soft, sunlit air like confetti. We aren’t counting our chickens but there is hope for a good peach harvest this year.

The harder I look, the more I realise just how much change there is around me; caught in the circles and spirals of time and engrossed in the familiar it’s all too easy to lose sight of things that are different. With the final recycled slates fixed in place, we now have a proper terrace for our outdoor furniture: what a novelty to have everything flat and level! Newly oiled (an annual treatment that has kept them perfectly serviceable for over twenty years now), the table and chairs have already been pressed into regular use, the beautiful weather allowing us to eat our meals outside once again and indulge in a barbecue or two.

I love the business of planting seeds, it is such a simple yet satisfying thing to do so it has been a happy, happy week in my little gardening world. I am endlessly fascinated by the immense potential stored in each tiny little powerhouse. How is it possible that the papery teardrops of parsnip, the chunky rubble of beetroot and finely ground pepper of carrots can lead to crops of such satisfying and sustaining vegetables? What an incredible thing it is that those tiny fragile seedlings taking their first tentative steps in the warmth of the propagator will morph into a summer jungle of aubergines, peppers and chillies. What will be this year’s successes and frustrations, I wonder? It’s not all about food, either; I’ve planted a somewhat rustic tripod of sweet peas at the top of the garden in the hope of enjoying their gentle colours and sweet scent from the terrace. Seed packets are a mine of information and instructions but never mention eternal optimism – surely the most essential tool of the gardener who plants them!

I’ve been planting freesia corms, too, popping them in amongst other plants in pots and borders. The first handful I planted a couple of years ago seemed thoroughly confused by the climate: forget ‘plant in March, flowers in June’ – this was a serious case of ‘plant in March, do nothing for months then finally flower the following January’ (by which time I’d forgotten all about them). Those originals are happily flowering again now and smell so delightful that the temptation to plant more was too overwhelming to ignore . . . and they can flower whenever they’re ready as far as I’m concerned. I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the dainty butterfly gladioli which – in a copycat crime – are threatening to flower any day now instead of last summer when expected but really, why worry? Predictability is a bit overrated, I’ve decided. What will happen, will happen: just go with the flow.


Whilst on the subject, let me talk about peas which have been, rather surprisingly, one of the least predictable vegetables we have grown here. True, we’ve enjoyed reasonable crops each year- even frozen a few bags – but only after much muttering and several re-plantings every time. No germination, sporadic germination, seedlings munched from above and below: you name it, our poor beleaguered pea rows have had it. This year looks to buck the trend (I’m whispering tentatively here) as the autumn-planted ‘Douce Provence’ are in abundant rude health and covered in flowers whilst a row of the same planted earlier this year are bombing up behind them. At last!


Even better, the neighbouring broad beans are also in full bloom and wafting their delicious scent all over the garden; here is the promise of good food in a few weeks’ time. I love the nearby sunny patch of self-set poached eggs plants which expands with every year, drawing in those essential pollinators with their cheery little faces.


More sunshine, too, from another shameless self-setter: the first Californian poppies of the year have unfurled their radiant petals. If previous years are anything to go by, they will flower for months and pop up literally everywhere around the garden.

Last year, we finally cracked the correct timings for planting winter brassicas; although I then seemed to spend weeks pulling off armies of snails and caterpillars as the weather veered from warm and wet to hot and dry, in the end it all paid off. We are still eating an abundance of chard and several varieties of kale but centre stage now definitely belongs to purple sprouting broccoli. I can happily eat mounds of this stuff and we are doing so quite literally every day, experimenting with some new ingredients we have recently acquired. Lightly steamed PSB dressed in pomegranate molasses? Oh, man!

This time last year, my first plantings of tulips were gathering strength in gorgeously vibrant hues of purple and magenta which brought colour and charm to the garden for many weeks. I opted for a wider palette in the autumn and this year it is ‘Don Quichotte’ who is first off the blocks, such a beautiful deep rose bloom with silky petals subtly patterned like feather icing.

Also new this year are wallflowers which, along with lupins and damson trees, remind me so much of my Granny’s Shropshire garden. She used to call them gillyflowers which I’ve always thought to be a far prettier name for them. I haven’t grown them for years but having seen a fantastic bed of them in a coastal garden here last year, I decided to raise a basic mix from seed in keeping with my ‘when in Rome’ approach to new plantings. They grew fast and strong and are scattered along the top of a stone wall, currently creating a bee frenzy with their rich velvety petals and clove-spiced fragrance; I counted no fewer than five different bee species on one plant. I’m hoping they will spread themselves about but I’ll raise a few more plants from seed again this year just to be sure. Nothing like a bit of floral belt and braces.

It’s not just in the garden where we have been enjoying new things. The inspired gift of a box of artisan flours has seen us pushing the bounds of sourdough bread making further than before; it’s like a culinary historical world tour, travelling from ancient golden khorasan wheat to darkest Scandinavian rye. I love the nutty malthouse loaves and rolls we’ve been baking this week, just perfect for a gardener’s lunch with a salad of freshly foraged leaves, herbs and flowers and a couple of kiwis straight from the vine.

Another new culinary delight we are trying this year is mushrooms – our own homegrown ones. This is something I’ve been keen to try for a while so I was very excited to finally get things organised this week and a rather damp, cool morning seemed somehow appropriate to set up an outdoor workshop and get stuck in. (As an aside, by lunchtime we were in shorts and t-shirts in brilliant sunshine . . . such is the Asturian climate!) We are growing three kinds of mushroom – shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane – using the inoculated log method. First, the chestnut logs cut from our wood a couple of weeks ago needed drilling with evenly spaced holes.

Next, a spawn dowel was tapped into each hole, about fifteen of the same variety per log.

We set up our camping stove to melt a tablet of cheese wax; on hindsight, we missed a trick – should have put a coffee pot on there, too! Using a special applicator, each hole was then sealed with wax to prevent wild fungi spore from colonising the log; any scars or cuts in the bark were given the same treatment.

Finally, I marked the top of each log with a dot of paint so that we can identify them. It’s apparently possible to shock the shiitake into fruiting by dunking the logs in cold water so it occurred to me it would be helpful to know which was which.

We stacked the logs against a cool, damp, north-facing wall under the kiwi. This is an area that receives no direct sunlight and in a few weeks’ time, the logs will be completely shaded by the kiwi leaves but still exposed to rainfall. If the logs look like drying out, they will need to be soaked in water so we have an empty water butt and endless supply of spring water at the ready. Otherwise, it’s a waiting game. It will be several months before anything happens – if indeed anything does happen – but it’s a fascinating activity and another reminder that the seasons can still bring new and exciting ideas to try.

In contrast, the biggest project of the week has brought with it a definite sense of Groundhog Day: re-covering the polytunnel. Now I have written about this nightmare before and if ever there was a purchase we shouldn’t have made, it was this one. Over the years in several gardens, we have always opted for a sturdy polytunnel with a heavy duty translucent polythene cover buried very deeply on all sides. Given the minimal flat area we have here and the difficulty of digging trenches in such a tight space, we persuaded ourselves to stray from the tried and trusted and to buy a tunnel with a flimsy white cover, barely long enough to bury. It has been bad news from the start. As Storm Felix was busy doing for the peach harvest, it also wreaked havoc with the tunnel, lifting the entire thing out of the ground at 6am one morning and blowing it over trees and fences down the valley a good 300 metres in a rather surreal Mary Poppins moment. We had to retrieve it in high winds and torrential rain (thankfully by some miracle it had landed on a track rather than in the middle of a field), rebuild it and lash it down with guy ropes. It sounds funny now but believe me, it really wasn’t at the time, especially as the staging and several trays of young seedlings all ended up trashed at the bottom of the orchard.

Since then, the polythene has gradually shredded and wriggled away from the frame so that the entire thing ended up being more holes and gaffer tape than anything else. To be fair (and believe me, that really sticks in my throat) it has held out over winter and given us a great crop of salad leaves and spring onions, with chard, beetroot and kohl rabi following on to help fill the hungry gap. However, something had to be done as we couldn’t face another year of this leaking-like-a-sieve nonsense; time for Operation Revamp. The first job was to strip off the old cover and dig out trenches as deep as possible all the way round.

Roger then built sturdy wooden frames at each end to give us something to stretch the new polythene round. The flimsy doors are welded on so we are stuck with them but he was able to fashion new wooden frames, polythene covers and stronger catches; already, it was starting to look much sturdier.

One thing we have learnt from previous polytunnel construction is that – along with a good sense of humour, a supply of strong coffee and three pairs of extendable arms each – a warm, still day is the very best asset when it comes to putting on the polythene. Wind, obviously, adds an element of chaos to the process and is to be avoided at all costs; the warmth of the sun, on the other hand, helps to soften the polythene and makes it easier to stretch tightly over the frame. In fact, the trick is to drape it over the frame (actually, grapple or wrestle might be better verbs here) then take a tea break while the polythene sunbathes for a while and hey presto, job done.

Okay, it’s never quite that easy, especially in a situation like ours where we were literally clinging to a precipice above the steep fall below the kiwi along that right-hand side. However, several hours of stretching and pleating and burying later, it was finished; not the most professional job, perhaps, but a hundred times better than before and certainly many times warmer. The first bumble bee was in after the yellow mizuna flowers before we’d even finished!

With the ground forked over and the staging back in, all that’s left to do now is grab seed trays and compost and start spreading some seedtime love. Ah, well – it’s not all peach blossom, then. 🙂

SOS 24th November

We’ve been away for more than three weeks and after a time of frantic busyness and many, many miles travelled, it felt so good to arrive home late on Thursday by the light of an exquisitely beautiful full moon. All things considered, this is not a bad time of year to leave the garden to its own devices but needless to say, I was impatient for daylight and the chance to explore the changes that have taken place in our absence. Autumn has certainly happened, the valley bathed in seasonal colours and carpets of leaves; that said, it has obviously been very dry and – after several days of penetrating frost and snow flurries on the back of a bitter easterly wind in northern France –  a return to the cosy Asturian wrap-around warmth is sheer bliss. In fact, I felt such excitement and contentment at being back on our little patch of mountain that in a sudden rush of blood to the head, I decided a Six On Saturday moment was called for. Unpacking, laundry and all the rest can wait: welcome back to my garden! (Apologies for the wordiness, I haven’t blogged for weeks so needed to scratch a writing itch . . . feel free to skim! :-))

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We gorged ourselves on fresh figs right up until leaving at the end of October; they are over now but in their place is the new star of the fruit world – kiwis. I spend most of the year cursing this plant for its thuggery and taking the loppers to it every month or so to save the washing line, pear trees and a barn (truly!) from being totally engulfed. Ah, all is forgiven now as the vine drips with luscious fruits, sweet and juicy and just perfect as a post-run snack. We discovered last year that there is no need to harvest and store as the fruits sit quite happily on the vine in tip-top condition (whatever the weather) until April. By then, the birds will be helping us to finish the stragglers but who could complain after five months of such bountiful PYO?

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Staying with fruit and there is great excitement in the orchard as the first baby lemon continues to survive and grow. We planted the ‘Eureka’ tree a couple of years ago and should have seen the first fruit forming last year had it not been for a savage winter storm ripping off most of the foliage. We honestly doubted its chances of survival but it has fought back, nurtured through last winter and most of the spring in a blanket of fleece. The established lemon trees growing locally fruit all the year round so fingers crossed this little pioneer will be the first of many happy citrus moments.

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I know I’ve featured our anniversary ‘For Your Eyes Only’ rose before but I make no apology for slipping it in again as we have come home to yet another mass of gorgeous blooms – it’s the fourth time this bush has flowered in 2018. We really couldn’t ask any more of it, could we? I love it to bits. Enough said.

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The rose was one of a tiny handful of precious plants we brought with us when we moved here; previous moves have seen me lifting and potting small roots of virtually everything in the garden to take with us but as we shifted our entire lives to Spain in nothing more than a transit van and trailer, space was more than limited. No worries, there was plenty to work with here and one of the things I love about restoring a neglected patch is saving established beauties to maintain a sense of the garden’s history as well as adding my own stamp. As flat planting space is so limited, plants have been crammed into every nook and cranny, leaving many of them struggling for air. One such example is a fuchsia, very old and straggly and almost totally buried under climbing roses and Japanese quince by the steps to the kitchen. It’s a sad looking specimen but this year managed to send out a few pathetic green shoots which I promptly snipped off, poked into a pot of compost, stuffed in the polytunnel and forgot about (sorry, Mr P, but propagation has never really been my strong point). Anyway, the propagation gods must have been smiling as I now have three amazingly strong plants which have flowered for months and continue to do so. I have no idea what variety it is (maybe an expert out there can help with that one?) but I’m thrilled that one old plant at least has been restored to its former glory.

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I don’t do a lot of shopping to bring home with us (although boxes of good quality Assam tea are always on the list!) but couldn’t resist the temptation of a few packs of bargain bulbs. Tulips grow well here, so I’m hoping the dusky bluey-purple of ‘Blue Spectacle’ and pink-flushed cream of ‘Crème Upstart’ will serve as perfect complements to my predominant purples. Scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ and Ornithogalum ‘Arabicum’ are both new things to try and being native to southern Europe, I’m expecting great things of them. Okay, so the allium caeruleum ‘Azureum’ is native to Siberia but I just couldn’t resist the promise of that gorgeous blue! I couldn’t find freesia corms to boost my collection anywhere but was very delighted to chance on some ranunculus; inspired by the beauty of Jane’s Mudgee Garden , I’m hoping those strange, claw-like little bulbs will provide a colourful splash of frivolous frills come summer.

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Finally, I know I’m a sad muppet who needs to get out more but I was hopping and skipping with joy at the chance to go forth with my trug and collect vegetables for our first homecoming dinner. To me, this is what it’s all about: all those weeks and months of gnashing teeth and tearing hair over bad weather, poor germination, pesky pests . . . this is why I don’t give up gardening and do something more boring instead. From garden to kitchen in foodsteps, not miles, from patch to plate in moments. Yes, they are dirty and wonky and maybe a little nibbled here and there but there is nothing – nothing! –  to compare with the flavour and texture of homegrown vegetables. Florence fennel, autumn carrots and three types of kale. Perfect.

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Time for me to pop over to The Propagator’s site and see what other gardeners are sharing from their lovely gardens this week. Why not join me? Forget Black Friday, Six On Saturday is far more interesting and definitely better for the soul. Happy gardening until next time! 🙂

Wandering and wondering

We go shopping as infrequently as possible; it’s not something either of us ever particularly enjoys but at this time of year I come to detest it as the inexorable Christmas bombardment greets us at the shop door. What is that all about? Christmas is two months away . . . are we the only people left in modern society who are actually still enjoying October? Are we unusual in not wanting to spend at least a sixth of the year focusing on one day in December? Walking into a DIY shop out of bright, warm, Spanish sunshine to be greeted by a forest of plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes and illuminated glitter-sprinkled nativity scenes was just downright weird; who wants to look at Father Christmas wrapped up in all his red, beardy finery when we are still in shorts and sandals? One of the loveliest things about our simple life is the fact that we can practise true mindfulness in the sense of enjoying all the small, special things that are happening in the present rather than waiting for the present (at Christmas or whenever). When Roger went out one evening this week to shut the sheds as it went dark, he came back with a handful of rosebuds he had picked for me; small loving gestures like that – little surprises that are totally unexpected – are more precious to me than anything he could buy and wrap and stick under a tree.

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So, how lovely to escape the Christmas consumerist madness and retreat to our little haven in the mountains once again. There has been so much to celebrate this week, not least the continued gorgeous weather that keeps us wrapped in sunshine and toasty warmth. We have been harvesting figs from both trees – one with white-fleshed fruits, the other pink – in an attempt to beat the blackbirds and blackcaps to them. They are so delicious, sweet and succulent and I love them best of all sun-warmed straight from the tree.

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Although the walnut harvest didn’t look too promising, we’ve been nicely surprised by the amount we have collected so far and there are still plenty left in their green cases on the trees; no problems with the birds there, it’s the wild boar we have to keep at bay!

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Look closely at this walnut tree and you can see there’s rather more than nuts to be picked. Yes, that is a Russian Pink Fairy squash climbing through the branches! I lifted the parent plant a few weeks ago but the stem had sent down roots in several places and this one has just kept on growing and has produced a couple of extra fruits. Madness!

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Having nurtured our little lemon tree through far too many winter storms, how exciting to find a single baby fruit on it. There is another flush of blossom, too, and still plenty of pollinators around to do the business so maybe there will be more fruits to come. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye on this brave little beauty. Picking our own lemons . . . now that’s a rather special treat to look forward to. 🙂

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I know I have said it many times, but wandering around the garden picking bits and pieces for our dinner always brings me a huge amount of pleasure and I feel enormously grateful that we can enjoy such a wealth of fresh, wholesome food every day. Although things like cucumbers and French beans are over, we are still harvesting huge amounts of peppers both outdoors and in the polytunnel, along with aubergines, Florence fennel, carrots, chard, courgettes, several types of kale, cabbage and lettuce. We treated ourselves to the first parsnip and leek this week, we don’t have a big crop of either but they are huge so we can stretch them a long way and they were truly delicious.

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The tunnel will really come into its own now, taking us through the winter with a good variety of salad leaves including red and green mizuna, mustard, rocket, wild rocket and coriander. Oh, the sheer joy of picking the freshest, greenest, zingiest salad bowl of baby leaves this week!

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As spaces open up in the garden, I have been turning the soil to clear it of weeds, preparing to spread a good mulch of manure as an autumn feed. It’s such hard work on the slopes, every forkful has to be thrown uphill to stop it all rolling down the mountainside and where the ground is slippery I tend to do a strange backwards moonwalk in my wellies! It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the moles have had a field day along the bottom of the garden (their furtive tunnelling conveniently hidden in the squash jungle) so the path is falling away; a terrace wall along there is definitely on the to-do list for next year. Little velvet-coated annoyances aside, I love turning the soil like this; it is dark and deep and there is something wonderful about that rich, earthy smell. A good rest over winter to let the worms and weather do their work then all will be set for seedtime once again.

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Autumn is very slow to arrive here, it tiptoes in so quietly and gently that we barely notice it is here. There has been a subtle shift in the light and colours playing across the landscape this week, some gentle hints of golds and browns although everything is still predominantly green.

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The fungi have popped up overnight like – well – mushrooms, marching across the meadow in perfect formation.

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I found theses in the wood; no idea what type they are but they reminded me of drop spindles!

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Between the fungi, there is a wide and wild sweep of autumn crocus with their delicate mauve petals and saffron centres. So beautiful.

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I wandered through the woods to my Contemplation Stool and my favourite leafy glade bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. There weren’t as many signs of autumn as I’d imagined although the chestnut and birch trees caught against the blue sky were doing their bit. I sat for a few moments listening to the birds and reflected on how far from all that plastic Christmas madness the moment was.

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I love this little patch of paradise and the fact that we are both so content to spend most of our time here; it’s nothing for the car to stay parked for a fortnight or more without going anywhere. That said, we enjoy travelling and visiting new places and the mind-broadening stimulation and enrichment that can bring. Now the house renovation is almost done, we have more time to look outwards so a charity race in Vigo last weekend gave us the perfect excuse to pack our running shoes and head off to somewhere different. We travelled down through Galicia into a landscape very different to this one; instead of mountains there were gently rolling hills with large arable farms set amongst great swathes of forest, reminding me very much of parts of France (although the palm trees were a bit of  giveaway!). We stopped at Santiago de Compostela, the final destination for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who follow the network of Jacobean routes across France, Spain and Portugal every year. We live close to the Camino del Norte and were interested to see where the footsore pilgrims we see walking throughout the summer end up. As well as a magnificent cathedral, the city is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and many of the historic campus buildings are very beautiful. We wandered through the ancient streets and enjoyed the quiet courtyards full of flowers.

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Every other building seemed to be a hostel or restaurant and little wonder – if I had walked all those miles then food, drink and sleep would definitely be top of my list! We passed through an archway where a busker was squeezing a jaunty tune out of traditional bagpipes and emerged into the sunlit Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It is certainly a spectacular building but it was the pilgrims who caught my eye and attention: people from all over the world drawn to this place that to them is so very special. There were groups laughing and chatting, already sharing stories and memories; couples and individuals wandered around the square drinking in the sights and sounds or simply sat in quiet contemplation; others lay with heads cushioned on their backpacks, faces turned to the sun. Someone played a guitar. I watched a group of ladies well into their seventies clinging to one another as they took the final steps into the square, melting into tears and laughter. How far had they walked to get there, I wondered? What obstacles had they overcome, what memories would they treasure? There is a lively buzz to Santiago but in that square I felt so much more, a powerful wave of human emotions – joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, achievement, wonder, relief, completeness. Every one of those people had set themselves a huge personal challenge and I suspected that the journey had changed them in a profound way. I don’t share the pilgrims’ faith and I have no desire to follow the Camino myself but I felt very touched by being a part of their journey’s end: I salute every single one of them.

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From Santiago we headed south to Vigo. To be fair to the place, our hotel was at the not-so-pretty end (close to the race start) and we didn’t see the historic bits so I don’t want to sound too negative but honestly, the traffic was beyond crazy. Roger decided it was the worst place he had ever driven through in his life (which is saying something) and he ended up using satnav for the first time ever (which is really saying something). Our hotel was comfy and the food was great but we are not naturally city people and were happy to head out of the chaos and explore further afield. We followed our noses down the coast road south with no precise plan. I love wandering about like that, just doing our own thing off the beaten track; we have always found the prettiest and best of places more by accident than design.

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We turned inland and wound our way through miles of vineyards, the vines clambering high over supports and starting to flaunt their autumn fire. A bridge carried us across the Minho river and into Portugal, where we decided to carry on down the coast. Well, why not?  We loved the pretty cobbled seaside town of Caminha where the wild Atlantic waves crashed against rocks that looked like the remnants of an ancient lava flow.

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We wandered barefoot along a wide expanse of beach, the silver sand sparkling with silica stars. Everything was so blue, it was truly beautiful and delightfully hot!

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Onwards to Viana do Castelo where we climbed up to the Santuário de Santa Luzia, an iconic mountaintop church, to enjoy the spectacular views down to the city and the coast beyond. We even ended up being part of a wedding celebration there which brought an added and unexpected moment to our day!

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On Sunday morning we both ran in the Vigo Contra el Cáncer race and what an event it was with the best part of 5 000 people taking part in a 10k run and 5k walk / run. The streets were turned into a tidal wave of pink as people from all walks of life turned out to support the local charity. Like Santiago, the atmosphere tingled with emotion, many walkers and runners sporting photos of loved ones on their t-shirts. I have run in a couple of Race For Life events but this was on a totally different scale and it felt good to be part of such an incredible thing and to give something back to this lovely country that has made us so welcome.

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Home once more and now we have turned our thoughts to our next journey, the long trek north through France to the UK next week. Oh my goodness, I think we are going to find it a little chilly and it does feel strange digging out long trousers and warm jumpers while I’m still pootling about in shorts and sockless crocs! On the bright side, I might just get to try out my new mittens, all finished and ready to go. I so enjoyed this little project, creating something from nothing; now I’m pondering the other skein of purple Merino waiting in the wings – some snuggly slipper socks, perhaps?

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I’m still very much in creative energy mode so I’ve decided to capitalise by launching into something I’ve been thinking about making for several years: a designated bag for carrying my woolly projects when we go a-travelling. At home, I keep everything close to hand in a couple of wicker baskets but they aren’t practical for packing or lugging about on a plane or ferry. I usually end up stuffing a bit of sock knitting into the top of  a rucksack or – heaven forbid – my (hand)Bag of Doom, which is far from perfect. I’ve tumbled vague ideas around my mind about spinning a heap of chunky yarn, dyeing it in a range of colours then knitting a tapestry-style tote bag . . . but it hasn’t happened; hardly surprising when you consider it has taken me over six months to spin 100g of fleece this year. (It’s finished and skeined but hasn’t made it to the dyepot yet; can’t rush these things.) In fact I could probably walk every route of the Camino in the time it would take to accomplish. So, at the risk of taking an easy way out, I’ve bought commercial yarn and opted for crochet instead.

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Not surprisingly, Attic 24 gave me the exact starting point I was looking for with Lucy’s Jolly Chunky Bag It’s possible to buy a kit but I wasn’t over fussed on the colour combinations (I used ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Fondant’ last year and I’m not a fan) so chose a different palette of colours for the yarn and buttons that are far more ‘me.’ I’ve decided to make the bag bigger than the stated pattern, hopefully roomy enough to cart blanket projects round in and I’ve also bought a couple of magnetic clasps as I think being able to close the bag is a good idea. This is the first time I’ve used chunky yarn in a crochet project and it whizzes up like a dream; in no time at all, the circular base was done . . .

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. . . and as I work round and round the sides, it’s starting to look more like a bag every minute. I am enjoying this activity so much, it’s the perfect simple, therapeutic wool messing for enjoying outside in the evening sunshine and with any luck will be finished in time to stuff with travel projects next week. Well, if I’m going to be a bag lady I might as well do it in style! 🙂

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Six on Saturday 23rd June 2018

We love to encourage wildlife into the garden but there has been a definite whiff of midsummer animal madness around the place this week. We have had to hang a small mirror on the outside of the house to stop a narcissistic blue tit from constantly hammering on the windows and car mirrors from first light. I nearly trod on a snake trying to wrestle a midwife toad into a hole (I’m not talking sausage and batter here); interestingly, the toad somehow came off best. He has now resumed his all-night call that sounds like a very loud electronic beep and has me wondering which smoke alarm battery is running low. We discovered two feral kittens that had been craftily birthed behind the freezer in our underhouse barn and have needed to shut the windows to keep out a persistent pair of swallows who seem hellbent on nesting with us inside the house. The raucous jays have started to gather in an attempt to beat us to the (as yet unripe) figs, pausing only to scream at the polecats hunting up and down the hedges and fence lines. Time to return to the relative sanity of the plant kingdom . . . here are my six for this week!

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Did I really say sanity? I’m starting with the kiwi this week and trust me, by its very nature, it would push itself to the front of the queue anyway. I have never seen anything that grows so quickly and voraciously. Less than a month ago it was a network of bare branches; now it has smothered the pergola, climbed into and over the barn and is involving itself unnecessarily with the nearby fig and pear trees. What you can see in the photo above is a mere fraction of the whole beast. We have to lop it several times a year which I suspect just encourages its rampant thuggism but still every time I hang out the washing, I live in fear of being sucked up into a triffidesque vortex. You’d think we’d be grateful for that leafy, shady canopy in the summer heat but the foliage stinks to high heaven – especially in hot weather –  and it is not a place to linger. However . . . the first flowers have opened this week and I’ve remembered how pretty they are, how sweetly scented and totally irresistible to honey bees. We will start picking fruit in November and they will stay firm on the vine right through winter; no need to harvest and store, there will be five months’ worth of fresh fruit to pick as we need. Last year, the harvest ran into thousands. Time to stop grumbling.

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All our roses took a real bashing in the recent heavy rains so there has been much sorting out and deadheading to be done this week. Happy to see some sunshine at long last (me too!), the stronger characters have lifted their heads again this week and carried on where they left off. The only variety I can name for certain is the one we brought with us so everything else is a bit of a mystery. This is my favourite of the week, not as showy as the others but very busy climbing through them and making a bright little statement of its own. ‘American Pillar,’ maybe?

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When we first arrived in May two years ago, there was barely what you would call a garden here, yet alone anywhere to scatter seeds. Feeling the need for a little bit of cottagey bling, I sprinkled the tiniest pinch of Californian poppy (eschscholzia) seed close to the house. No exaggeration now to say they are growing absolutely everywhere, thanks in a large part to the homemade compost I spread around as a mulch. On the terraces they’ve gone berserk and it’s a case of playing ‘hunt the squash.’ On the strength of their enthusiasm, this year I’ve planted the ‘Mission Bells’ variety, too, but sad to say they’re not doing a lot yet. Still, the bees aren’t complaining.

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One of our winter jobs was to relocate a huge comfrey plant which had been in the ground for a year and had grown five times faster than expected (we’re still adjusting to the climate here) and was seriously encroaching on the asparagus bed. Naturally, it had sent roots down a zillion miles so no surprise to find that we’d missed a bit. I’d allowed the escapee to grow back until the asparagus was looking nervous again this week then decided it was time to cut the lot for fertiliser. What a worryingly satisfying job all that leaf chopping was and what a lovely fresh cucumber / borage / melon scent they released. Mind you, that won’t last long now they are festering away in a bucket!

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I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of hydrangeas but they are immensely popular here and seeing them grow in huge sweeps of bright jewel colours from deepest blues and purples to bright magenta I have been swayed a little. Most of the ones already in the garden were either planted in a daft place or a very insipid washed-out whitey-blue so this week we decided to address that and introduce a splash of stronger colour with hydrangea macrophylla ‘Red Beauty’ and hydrangea macrophylla ‘Early Blue.’ Need to find the best spot for them now . . . oh, and I definitely have plans for those lime green pots once vacated.

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Finally, broad beans might be the main ingredient in the classic Spanish tapas dish habas con jamón  but here in Asturias it is the white ‘fabes’ (dried climbing beans of the ‘phaseolus vulgaris’ variety) which reign supreme. They are much prized,  commanding a high price and many are grown commercially in the valley but we seem to be the only gardeners hereabouts that bother with broad beans. Our neighbours call them ‘May’ beans but as with everything this year they are have been little tardy. Now at last they are cropping like crazy; these are ‘Imperial Green Longpod’ that were planted in the autumn, this lot destined to be lightly steamed and turned into a salad. Next will come broad bean hummus, food of the gods. Delicious.

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Time now to pop across to The Propagator  and see what other Six on Saturday gardeners have been up to this week. Happy gardening, all! 🙂

 

Six on Saturday

At the risk of sounding like a football commentator, it has been a week of two halves here. The first part was a continuation of the awful weather we’d been having for some time, torrential rain and storms that had left so many things battered, drowned, rotted or slug-eaten. Thankfully, the last few days have shown a marked improvement and I don’t want to shout too loudly but we have even had one day with NO RAIN and some SUNSHINE.

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Ups and downs, then – here are my six for today.

I lifted several self-set nasturtium seedlings from the polytunnel a couple of months ago and potted them up to sit in the top of an old milk churn I had painted turquoise – a bright splash of summery colour to brighten a dingy corner, I thought. They have been slow to get going, but last week had at last started to make a lovely colourful impact with those fiery oranges against the blue. Then it rained and rained and rained, reducing them to a soggy, see-through, slimy mess, echoed by the geraniums and petunias. Demoralising stuff.

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This vining ‘Costata Romanesco’  courgette has had a tough time of it, too.  It is such a great heirloom variety with a nutty flavour and ridges that give a pretty fluted cross-section and we should be eating the first courgettes by now. Some hope. Battered by the rain, blown inside out by the wind, buried under a huge soil slide (we garden on the steepest of slopes where gravity needs no encouragement once the rain starts) then munched by snails and slugs – leaves, stem, flowers, the lot. What a courageous little thing it has been to lift its head and have another go in the face of such adversity. Not too many passing pollinators in the pouring rain, though.

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On a happier note, here is a something that has made my heart sing this week. Last year we planted a citrus × sinensis ‘Sanguinelli’ or Spanish blood orange. It went into the ground as a two year-old pot-grown tree and spent much of the winter and early spring shrouded in horticultural fleece, not because frost bothers us here but we had a run of violent storms that shredded anything in their path (including our polytunnel). The good news is that it survived, is putting out plenty of new growth and has opened its first flush of flowers, waxy white and deeply fragrant. Will fruit follow? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Another little beauty has started to flaunt itself along the garden fence: a rather gorgeous passiflora. This was a cheap and cheerful supermarket buy that came with a label simply saying ‘passionflower’ so I have no idea about variety. It was a miserable-looking little stick when I planted it last year, planning to fan train it along a wire netting fence. It grew like crazy but this year has only sent foliage and flowers out in one direction which makes me suspect judicious pruning might be a good idea at some point? In the meantime, I’m enjoying those flowers;  they always seem so complicated and exotic and I love that bluey-purple fringe thing they do.

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Honeysuckles are one of my all-time favourite plants and in my humble opinion, you just can’t have too many of them. So, staying with the theme of supermarket specials, here is another climber that has started to make an impact this week. Lonicera, obviously, but again no information about variety (I do go to nurseries and do things properly sometimes – honest!). Last year this did a huge amount of growing up a stone wall but didn’t produce a single flower; this year it is absolutely covered in blooms and although the flowers are relatively small, they are certainly vying with the jasmine for Scent of the Week award. Gorgeous.

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Number six this week is a complete mystery but a lovely surprise. When we moved here a couple of years ago there was a lonely carnation plant growing along the lane. It was in a very sad and sorry state, but produced flowers in such a delicate peach that I thought it was worth taking a few cuttings and spreading them around the garden (which I did successfully). Bit of a surprise then this week as I went down the steps from our kitchen door in the pouring rain to see a dark red beauty that had apparently appeared from nowhere. There had been no sign of anything other than the show-off bright pink vygies (mesembrynanthemum) growing in that spot before but the new star is very much there now, exploding with blooms that are quite small but heavily scented like clove pinks. Maybe it was lying hidden beneath the Japanese quince and hibiscus waiting for its moment or maybe it was left by the dianthus fairy. Either way, it’s welcome to stay.

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Thanks to The Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday, such a great way for gardeners from all walks of life to share their trials and treasures. Why not pop across to his site now and catch up with what everyone else is up to? 🙂

Gardening: go on, give it a go!

If this post inspires just one person to plant one seed, then I shall be over the moon – and if it’s you, please leave a comment and let me know. You will have made my year! 🙂

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Bright beauty: I’m not the only thing in the garden to have turned my face to the sun this week.

For us, gardening is not so much a pastime as a way of life. We spend time in the garden every day and when that means all day, I’m a very happy bunny! We have moved several times over the years (this is our tenth home together) and when it comes to looking for somewhere to live, the garden has always been the most important ‘room’ in the house. To me, growing food and flowers seems such a fundamentally human thing to do; we are lucky to have a good-sized garden, but great things are possible even in the tiniest of spaces. It’s amazing how much can be grown in a pot alone – and what a simple but wonderful pleasure it is to raise a few fresh herbs to liven up your meals or a show of spring bulbs to brighten your day.

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Marjoram and thyme grown in pots: we have been picking these all winter.

Now I realise there are many, many people who don’t like gardening and I understand that: I feel exactly the same way about shopping! However, I often wonder if in some cases the reluctance to garden is down to misconceptions about what it’s really like?

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What is a weed? In the end, it’s all a matter of opinion.

Gardening is hard work: it doesn’t have to be, it’s as much or little work as you make it. You don’t have to create a manicured, weed-free, bowling green lawn, neatly clipped hedges and straight-edged borders full of prize dahlias or show-stopping onions . . . if time is short or enthusiasm low, keep it simple. Smile at ‘weeds’, plant a few bulbs, sprinkle a few seeds then sit back and watch them grow.

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Poke a pea into the ground and let nature do the rest (actually, this one is self-set – even better.).

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Golden pak choi: there will be no more meals for us from this plant but instead of pulling it out I shall leave it to flower –  lazy gardening, but it’s a great nectar source for insects and will set seed I can collect and plant again.

Gardening is expensive: if you go out and buy every piece of garden equipment or large pots of ‘seasonal interest’ plants from garden centres, then it will cost a pretty penny  . . . but it isn’t necessary to do those things. You only need a handful of basic tools and they don’t have to be top of the range or brand new. I have been using the same hoe and rake for 30 years and before that they were my grandfather’s, so who knows how old they are? (It’s not a case of that old ‘three new heads and five new handles’ joke either – they are the originals!) They work and that’s all that matters.

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Still going strong after all these years . . . a bit like the gardeners, really.

Plants are pricey but small plants are cheaper and they soon grow into big ones; car boot or village hall sales are great places to pick up bargains, and friendly gardeners are usually generous with handing out spares or cuttings. Seeds are relatively cheap and the the no-frills ranges offer great value for money with very little waste. I am a lazy gardener who loves to let seeds self-set around the garden; if I don’t like where they are, it’s easy enough to move them or compost them . . . otherwise as far as I’m concerned, they are plants for free and no work. Perfect.

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Annoying weeds or wonder seeds? Californian poppy and mizuna, self-set in cracked concrete: a splash of colour and a taste of salad leaves to come in my book.

Gardening is difficult: there are so many sources of advice and information about gardening that it can be pretty overwhelming, even for experienced gardeners. If you are planning to grow a camellia in a waterlogged frost-pocket of alkaline soil, you probably won’t get an easy run, but what I call basic, down-to-earth gardening isn’t hard and the best way to find out is to do it. Don’t worry about making mistakes; that’s what life is about and how we learn. So much of gardening is simple common sense: if the ground is still cold, wait a little longer before you sow seeds; if it’s very dry, water it; if plants grow tall and floppy, tie them up or support them with something; if you don’t like runner beans, don’t grow them; if your strawberries are ripe, eat them!

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Komastuna – an easy-peasy winter green. Sow, pick, eat.

Gardening is boring: when I was a teenager I’d have certainly given this one the thumbs up, but as soon as I had my own garden, my attitude changed completely. If you make a garden that is yours, a true reflection of your character, tastes and interests, then it will never, ever be boring. I have always been fascinated by nature so for me, the garden is full of wonders: the soil structure and its myriad life, the germination of a seed, the pattern on a leaf or colours in a flower, the busyness of insects and birds, the sweetness of a baby carrot . . . I love a garden of higgeldy-piggeldy chaos, vegetables grown in strangely-shaped patches with flowers sprawling between, teeming with colour and life. How could that ever be boring?

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Borage is one of my favourite plants. It pops up everywhere, flowers here all the year round and is a great source of nectar for honey bees.

Make your garden your own: if you want gladioli or purple cauliflowers or gnomes with fishing rods, have them. If you want to grow vegetables on full show in your front garden, go ahead – break a few rules and conventions, you’re allowed to. Include things that are fun and make you smile; choose things that make you glad to be outdoors and alive. Whatever you do, don’t forget a seat or hammock: gardens should never be all about work so make time and space to rest and play. Put the kettle on, pull a cork, sit back and relax . . . but please don’t be bored!

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It’s not all work: make time for tea (or your preferred tipple).

 

So, back to our little corner of Planet Earth. One of the greatest things about living in Asturias is that the climate is very mild and gentle, which means the ground is never too wet or cold to work – even in January.

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Celandines in the sunshine and lambs in the valley . . . there’s a hint of something special in the air!

It has been lovely to spend so much time outside this week doing jobs around the garden and reflecting on why it is such a huge part of our life. There are many different reasons why people like to garden, all of them equally valid and important; here is my personal list . . .

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I love the garden in all seasons.

Given the choice, I would always opt for being out of doors. I love to be out in the fresh air, come rain or shine  – for me, it beats being shut in a building or vehicle any day – and ‘things to do’ in the garden give me just the excuse I need. The benefits of fresh air and a daily dose of daylight have been well-catalogued and seem like a good bet in trying to take responsibility for my own health and well-being.

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I don’t need asking twice to be outside, especially when the sun is shining.

There’s exercise, too: admittedly, you don’t burn too many calories pruning the roses, but digging and forking, pushing heavy wheelbarrows, lugging watering cans and the like are a great physical workout. Then there are the footsteps; I’ve often thought it would be interesting to wear a pedometer during a day in the garden . . . I suspect I cover many miles. Totally immersed in nature, surrounded by the beauty of our garden, hands in the earth growing vegetables and nose in the flowers – what a wonderful way to spend my time!

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Simple beauty.

Growing our own food removes us as far as possible from the huge chain of events and processes which is the scary beast of world food production. It keeps everything very simple and (quite literally) down to earth. We know where our carrots came from, how they were grown and what has been done to produce them because we’ve done it all ourselves. We know exactly what we are eating . . .  and that is a great thing.

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Fresh new growth on rainbow chard planted last summer.

We garden organically. This is not from any particular political, ethical or moral viewpoint or because we follow any philosophical or fashionable trends but because to us, it makes perfect sense. If we truly are what we eat, then we prefer our food to be as natural, nourishing and toxin-free as possible. Our lettuces might be a bit slug-nibbled but they have not been sprayed with anything or washed in bleach. Our parsnips might be funny shapes and our cabbages different sizes but they have been grown in soil enriched only with well-rotted manure and home-produced compost. What’s more, they’re delicious!

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It’s not a perfect cabbage . . . but it’s not bad, either.

We have no problem with ‘Five a Day’ either; even at this time of year, we can choose a variety of fruit and vegetables to enjoy and the great thing is that they are all truly seasonal. The garden might not look much in the middle of winter but we are currently eating leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, squash, spinach, pak choi, komatsuna, Florence fennel, mizuna, kiwi, pears, walnuts and a range of herbs.  I would far rather go slithering about in mud to pick a few fresher-than-fresh leeks from the garden than pull a packet of green beans that have been grown halfway across the world from the fridge. Measuring food footsteps rather than food miles is a wonderful way to live and it beats shopping (remember, I’m not a fan)! It’s the same with flowers: why buy imported roses when a simple posy of seasonal flowers, leaves or even coloured twigs can be gathered from our patch to enjoy indoors?

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The January patch doesn’t look pretty . . . but there is still more veg than we can eat.

Our choice to garden organically and the methods we use (or choose not to use) are closely tied up with our great respect for and appreciation of the environment. We have always seen ourselves as stewards rather than owners, simply passing through and sharing our space with an amazing host of flora and fauna in (we hope) a balanced ecosystem. Even if we live here for the rest of our lives, it will be a mere blink of the eye in the history of the land so for us, it’s important to care for all that we have.

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This week we have been removing a fence of rusty wire and laying a row of hazels behind to make a hedge: not only will it look much better but it will also be a valuable habitat and food source for wildlife.

Something we have noticed over the last year is how much the bird population in the garden has increased from when we first moved here. In one morning, I noted down the following list (these were birds that were physically in the garden – if I’d included the ones I saw or heard in the surrounding fields, hedges and woodland or flying over, the list of species would be much longer): robin, wren, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, pied wagtail, redwing, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, chaffinch, goldfinch, bullfinch, greater spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, house sparrow, dunnock, serin. Now I know there are probably many people who could produce a much longer list from their garden but the point is that we don’t feed the birds in winter here: there is an abundance of natural food available all winter and I’ve yet to see wild bird food for sale anywhere. The birds are not coming in to visit tables or feed stations but of their own volition; we’re not sure what has made the difference, but we are very, very happy about it. I waste so much time leaning on my fork and watching their antics, even if that does include the bullfinches expertly stripping the peach trees of their buds!

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Pecking order: the kiwi vine is still dripping with fruit and several species of our feathered visitors are tucking in.

In the same way, I have been truly thrilled to see far more frogs and toads around the place – I’m currently wondering how to persuade a couple to take up residence in the polytunnel, they are such great slug-slurpers. We have a healthy population of lizards who have been happy to take up residence in the dry stone walls we have built for terraces. Last year I watched a very modest little one crunch its way through a relatively enormous snail shell and scoff the meaty meal inside in a matter of moments. A complete hero as far as I’m concerned . . . time to build a few more walls, I think.

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Insects are also very welcome visitors who have been much in evidence this week.

Our garden is not a place of work or endless list of chores that need doing; it is not only where we grow our food and flowers. We use it just as much – if not more – as a place of rest and relaxation. We cook and eat our meals outside whenever we can; we wander about simply enjoying what’s there; we sit with a mug of coffee or glass of wine, chatting, laughing, relaxing . . . it’s such a lovely place to just be, and that’s what makes it so precious. Go on, try it! 🙂

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