Poppies and permaculture

In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different.

John Steinbeck

As we move through the seasons, we are gathering many ideas for our garden and, given that we plan to leave a good deal of the space to nature, there is much inspiration to be found in the wilder places around us. It’s incredible how quickly everything has changed in the last couple of weeks: the air is scented with elderflower, honeysuckle and hay, the verges are bright with oxeye daisies, buttercups and poppies and the hedges above them are embroidered with trails of pink and white wild roses. What a garden that would all make!

The weather here has shifted from the sublime to the ridiculous: following a colder than normal April and May, the temperatures now are much higher than expected and still climbing – it’s ‘flaming’ June, for sure. As we’re not given to too much exertion once the thermometer climbs above 30 degrees, we decided to grab a bike ride before the high heat arrives and set off with a picnic on a 20-mile loop to St-Léonard-des-Bois. Our route from home took us along lanes through farmland and woodland and gave us some spectacular views of the Mayenne countryside; now that the maize fields have lost the brown of their bare earth, it is all wonderfully, deeply, sumptuously, summery green.

I love the way the mix of flowers in the verges has changed through spring and even now, when the grasses are tall and the carpets of bluebells and orchids have faded, there is still much to enjoy. The deep indigo of granny’s bonnets, white stars of campion, pink bursts of ragged robin and delicate mauve bells of campanula would all be welcome treasures in the garden.

There is no question, though, that poppies are the absolute star of the moment; whether drifting along field edges or in bolder swathes across entire meadows, they are utterly stunning.

As we stopped to admire and photograph one particular field, a friendly chap delivering bread around the hamlets stopped to ask if we were enjoying les coquelicots; we were in complete agreement that the beauty of the sunlit flowers under an intensely blue sky was certainly worth savouring – how could we not stop and stare? I was particularly taken with a planting mix of poppies and white and crimson clover, so pretty together, a good green manure and great for insects; that is definitely one that has been noted for next summer’s garden.

Then, of course, there is that classic cornfield mix of poppies with cornflowers. So gorgeous. Who could resist?

With distractions like these, it’s a wonder I ever arrive anywhere on my bike, but happily we did eventually make it to our destination. St-Léonard-des-Bois is a small town in the Alpes Mancelles, close to St-Céneri-le-Gérei which I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s a pretty place, a classic French ville fleurie on the Sarthe river and an understandably popular spot for holiday makers, but it wasn’t the town we had come for. About a kilometre away, and a steep climb out of the town, is the Domaine du Gasseau. Our first stop was at the pretty orchard picnic site where we sat in the shade of an apple tree and enjoyed our lunch: homemade pasties stuffed with goat’s cheese, walnuts, red sorrel and thyme and a salad of young perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, land cress, radish, mint, marjoram, chives and chive flowers – our first official garden harvest! (We could have taken a pot of strawberries, too, but they don’t tend to travel very happily in a rucksack.) There are several attractions at Gasseau: an attractive stone hotel with pale green shutters and a courtyard cafe, a small art gallery, a riding school and an adventure park where braver souls than me can connect with their inner ape by swinging about in the treetops. For me, though, the main attraction is the potager, open free of charge to the public all year round.

We have been going there for years and it has been fascinating to watch it develop and mature over time. It has always been organic but has now moved very much into the sphere of permaculture so there were plenty of new things to see, including a couple of mandala beds. I have to admit I did feel slightly ashamed at the state of our garden in comparison to this beauty, but then it is a walled garden in a sheltered spot so probably hasn’t had to cope with the same winds and heavy frosts and certainly, that lush soil has been built over decades. No wonder it is already so full of food, colour and life. I could easily spend a whole day there, wandering about, looking and musing; there are so many ideas, so much inspiration – where do I start? Perhaps with more poppies . . .

One of the main issues our visit to the potager really brought home to us was the need to feed our soil. We are trying to create a garden from possibly the worst starting point, grassland – formerly a field – that has been mowed with a heavy tractor for the last thirteen years; the soil is compacted, full of wireworm and chafer grubs and very, very tired. The lack of goodness in the soil is reflected in the unenthusiastic growth of much of what we have planted and who can blame the plants? No-one thrives on a poor diet, after all. It would be easy to feel frustrated and pessimistic but it’s not all bad news; the soil is deep and stone free, there is a lot we can do to improve it and some things are trying their best, despite everything.

So, although we are still creating and extending planting spaces, the focus this week has been very much on building and improving soil. First, Roger repurposed pallets and sheets of corrugated iron to build a three-bay compost system. The third bay is currently taken up with a turf walled enclosure filled with a mix of green and brown materials; once it has broken down into compost, we will move it and finish building the last bay. In the other two bays, we turned a broken blackthorn bough into a chopped base layer and then covered it in grass clippings. The first bay has become our new compost heap with materials added daily from the kitchen, the second one kept me busy for a while . . .

. . . time to shift the old compost heap out of the Secret Garden at last! I can’t say how happy I am to see the back of those ugly concrete slabs and rusted metal poles but to fair, the system has yielded a decent amount of black stuff; I love that whole cross-section thing, the layers becoming darker, crumblier and more and more deliciously composty from top to bottom. I’ve inverted most of the heap into the second bay and that will be left untouched now to complete the wonderful alchemy (sorry, I do get a bit excited around the whole compost thing); the very bottom layer was used to fill the black bin where the worms will carry on with their good work until we put that beautiful stuff to use.

Once cleared, I realised what I had left was probably the most fertile patch of land in the entire garden . . . mmm, now there was an opportunity not to be missed. Yes, it’s also very shady but there are plants that will go a long way to tolerating that so I transplanted a few rainbow chard and lettuce into the space; at least they won’t be short of nutrition.

When it comes to nourishing the soil, I know what it really needs is a good deep layer of well-rotted manure but we don’t have a ready supply of that at the moment and anyway, autumn is the best time to apply it so that the weather and worms can work it down over winter. Remembering Mary Reynold’s advice that anything organic coming from a patch of land should be returned to it and the goal within permaculture to strive for as many closed loops as possible, the leading question must be what have we already got that we can use? I was really thrilled that my bottles of comfrey tea and two more good roots to plant were on the load Roger brought back from Asturias last week; for me, it’s the most important plant in the garden and although the single root I brought here in December is romping away, it isn’t enough for this year. We do have an abundance of nettles, though, and so I’ve set a bucket of them to brew into a nutrient-rich tea that when diluted, will make an excellent plant food. Meanwhile – in a bit of a lightbulb moment – it occurred to us that we have a ready supply of wonderful rich soil packed with organic matter in the coppice.

An hour with a spade and couple of buckets yielded a decent trailer load lifted carefully from deep pockets of woodland floor soil with the minimal disturbance – we have pledged to care for and protect the coppice, after all! Not only is it fantastically rich but also abundant in the microscopic life we can’t see, the mycelium and bacteria that should be hugely beneficial to the garden. One day, I hope all our soil looks that dark.

The terrible spring weather wreaked some havoc in the garden, particularly where the beans were concerned; it was simply too cold and too wet, perfect conditions for bean seed flies to do their worst (and they did) and dismal for plants already struggling in poor soil. The climbing beans (borlotti and Asturian) were so badly hammered that as soon as the tunnel was up, I planted replacements in a very crammed tray and what a difference – within three days they were up, as green and healthy as you like! I fed the bean circle soil with an organic fertiliser, replanted with a dollop of our compost in the bottom of each hole, watered well and mulched. The weather is now perfect for them, the soil beneath their roots much healthier, their companion plants (calendula, coriander dill and cucumbers) filling out and they are off up their poles at long last. Phew, that’s better.

The dwarf beans have been a similar nightmare, with a row of ‘Purple Teepee’ and handful of ‘Stanley’ desperately struggling to survive, although they have pulled through better than the climbers. What has really frustrated us is the row we have sown twice now with no sign of a single bean . . . literally, digging down it seems they all completely disappeared. I’ve come to the conclusion that trench warfare is the only way forward with planting for the rest of this summer and starting beans in trays is the best practice to adopt. I dug out the bean trench and lined the bottom with shredded comfrey leaves and a dollop of compost; that will be topped with grass clippings and soil so that when I transplant the plants currently racing up in their trays, they will have plenty underneath them and – fingers crossed – with regular doses of comfrey and nettle tea, this time they might even grow!

We’ve taken this idea a step forward in creating a lasagne bed for the ‘Green Globe’artichokes I’ve raised from seed, half a dozen plants which are perennial and therefore will be in the ground for many years. The concept of lasagne beds is one that was illustrated in theory and practice at the Gasseau potager so, fully inspired, we decided to have a go.

First down was a layer of cardboard. The plants have had enough of their pots and I’d like to get them planted soon rather than first build the bed over several months, so Roger marked spaces with them using inverted plant pots.

Next, a layer of the long meadow grass cut from the strip behind the bed to allow the artichokes some growing room.

Then came a woody layer from the compost heap, one that had been created by the oak leaves I collected and added to the pile some months ago.

This is just the beginning; I shall plant the artichokes, then continue to build green and brown layers around them. Not quite the orthodox approach, but with luck it will result in a bed of rich soil and perhaps a first harvest this time next year. I hope our little garden companion approves!

Back to that bike ride, and the last hill took us past our coppice, now in full leaf, ringing with birdsong and lit with the creamy lace of elder flowers. We returned the next day to pick enough heads to make a cordial; it’s a simple process (I use this recipe from River Cottage) and makes a light, refreshing drink that surely must be the very taste of the season.

We are working hard to build soil and heal the land, to create a patch that is healthy, vital and productive but I realise that will take time; however, it’s good to know that even if we lack produce from the garden, we can still forage for wild food and enjoy with gratitude the bounty that nature has to offer. This surely must be one of the very best ways of connecting with the earth and celebrating this most beautiful of seasons. Flaming June is blessing us with flowers. How lovely is that? 😊

Six on Saturday 29th May 2021

It feels like a long, long time since I took part in The Propagator’s Six on Saturday as in -ahem- July 2019 😮 and so much has happened in the interim, including us moving to a new home in a different country (not an easy one to pull off given the Covid-19 situation – talk about stress). Anyway, we have left our vertiginous mountainside in northern Spain to return to Mayenne in northern France where we are trying to carve a new and interesting garden out of a flat field. After five winters in the blissfully mild Asturian climate, we have been battling through one of the coldest, driest, wettest (not at the same time, obviously), stormiest springs on record . . . but then I do enjoy a good challenge and on the bright side, I no longer need wellies fitted with crampons, we can use wheelbarrows once more, the soil stays put and the squash won’t go rolling off down the mountainside. Thanks for having me back, here are my six offerings of the week:

I love a wild garden which is probably a good thing as there’s very little other than wild flowers in bloom here at the moment, mostly because that’s pretty much all there is in the garden full stop. There’s much planting to be done and I’d like to say, I’ve made a more than enthusiastic start in supporting local nurseries! The exquisite yellow flag iris have unfurled their radiant silky petals this week just in time to welcome the sun back. Spot the red and black froghopper lurking under a petal, they seem to be everywhere at present.

One ‘formal’ plant we have inherited is this glorious peony, it’s loaded with blooms and the scent is mind-blowing. I have no idea which variety, but it’s a beauty for sure.

I won’t bore you with the saga of our polytunnel but suffice to say, we ordered it at the beginning of March and several replacement parts and weeks of far-too-windy weather later, we only managed to finish installing it this week. What a happy bunny I was to finally have 32 square metres of warm, covered ground after months of carting tender plants in and out of the house twice a day to protect them from frost; in a normal Mayenne spring they could have gone into the ground outside some time ago, but that’s another story. After five years of fighting and cursing blight, I may have gone a little OTT with the tomatoes: 27 in the tunnel and 9 outside for insurance purposes. Oh, and another 3 in pots by the kitchen door. Think I’ve got it covered. 😉

Unlike the pampered toms, the courgettes got to the point of no return and really had to go into the ground last week, do or die. We’re sticking with tried and tested varieties of everything this year while we get the veg patch established so these are ‘Black Beauty’ which are usually pretty reliable if not very exciting. Given that the strong gusts of wind had morphed into gales threatening to rip them out of the ground, I decided to repurpose a pile of abandoned slates into protective sheepfolds for them – think Andy Goldsworthy, but a thousand times less talented. As for the grass clippings and chopped leaves, mulch mulch mulch is definitely mantra of the month.

We’ve done a fair bit of fruit tree planting since we arrived in December but there were already a few mature specimens here including this whopper. I shall miss the abundance of peaches we enjoyed in Asturias but this is cherry country and despite the shocking spring, they’re promising good things to come. Will they be red, yellow or black, sour or sweet? Half the excitement of a new garden is seeing what happens in the first year, which at least makes up for the war on weeds and lack of flowers.

Gardening for wildlife is a top priority and we are sharing this space with a wide range of characters including red squirrels that sit under our picnic table scoffing acorns, a huge hare that visits daily to ‘fertilise’ my sweet peas (why them, I wonder?) and more species of bird than we’ve ever had in a garden. We’re planning to create or enhance as many different environments and habitats within the patch as we can to support the wildlife already here and encourage a wider range to visit. Didn’t quite expect to find this on the postbox a couple of days ago but it beats a letter from the tax office, I suppose.

Time to stroll over to The Propagator’s site and be inspired by what other blogging gardeners (or is it gardening bloggers?) have been up to this week – why not come too? Happy gardening, all! 😊

Whether the weather be fine

Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!

W.H. Gibson

Is it possible to have four seasons in one day? That’s certainly what it has felt like at times this past week. I’m not sure about April being the cruellest month but it’s most definitely been an interesting and restless one so far and our days in the garden have been unpredictable, to say the least. One moment we’ve been wrapped up in hats and gloves, eyes streaming in a bitterly cold wind carrying the iron scent of winter, the type that goes straight through you because it’s too lazy to go round; the next, we’ve been stripped to t-shirts and shorts, searching for the suncream and organising a barbecue for our evening meal. We’ve enjoyed skies of pure unbroken blue and those studded with soft billowy clouds like little children draw; we’ve worked under sheets of sullen steely grey and watched curtains of snow drift from clouds of deeply bruised purple; we’ve woken to heavy frosts that have set the world sparkling and the softest, gentlest of mornings showered with warm sunshine and birdsong. We’ve had the first rainfall in weeks. Capricious nature has been at its fickle best, that’s for sure.

Weather or not, ’tis the season to be planting and I have to admit, we haven’t been holding back on that score. This year we are taking a pragmatic – boring? – approach and sticking very much to tried and tested varieties, the reliable good doers which promise us a decent harvest in our first year here while there is so much to do. The time for experiment, indulgence and frivolity will come in due course, although I do have one little exception that I’m very excited about: a pack of nine new tomato varieties (of which more in a later post) that has winged its way to Mayenne from my lovely gardening friend in Finland: thank you, Anja! They are a colourful bunch, the idea being I should be able to create a tomato rainbow which, of course, is something that appeals greatly to my imagination and sense of fun; this is serious tomato country, so fingers crossed we will be blight-free and I can really do them justice. They’ve travelled a long way, after all!

We’re picking flowers and fresh herbs from the garden for salads but it will be so much better when all the ingredients are home grown.

So, in an attempt to keep things simple and also create a bit of a reference for next year, here is our planting diary:

  • 26th March Outdoors: Jerusalem artichoke tubers (8).
  • 27th March Outdoors: Potatoes – Charlotte 43, Blue Danube 11, Mystery Spud 3. Onions Stuttgarter Riesin 139 (sets). Peas Kelvedon Wonder (or Merveille de Kelvedon as they are here!). Comfrey (plant). Outdoors in trays: Summer cabbage Greyhound. Lettuce – White Romaine, Little Gem & Red Salad Bowl. Indoors: Tomatoes – Super Marmande, Rosella, Gardener’s Delight & San Marzano. Anja’s 9 tomatoes. Peppers – Long Red Marconi, Mini Red and Del Piquello. Chillies – Scotch Bonnet, Early Jalapeño, Long Slim Cayenne and Hotscotch (mix).
  • 28th March Indoors: sage, thyme, lavender, hyssop, Good King Henry, rudbeckia, cosmos mixed and pink, marshmallow, basil, Black-Eyed Susan.
  • 29th March Indoors: Aubergines- Black Beauty and Long Purple. Asparagus, globe artichoke, cardoon, French marigold, moss-leaved parsley. Outdoors: Carrots – Nantes, Chantenay Red Cored and Autumn King. Spring onions – White Lisbon. Spanish cebollitas – Barletta. Radish – French Breakfast. Freesias (corms), sweet peas, lupins and sweet rocket.
  • 7th April Indoors: Cucumbers – Marketmore and Conil (gherkin). Courgette – Black Beauty. Squash- Hunter, Crown Prince and seed saved from one of our mongrels. Outdoors: Calendula and yellow trefoil between rows in Shed Patch.
  • 8th April Outdoors: Peas – Kelvedon Wonder (2nd sowing, first crop in The Potager Patch). Secret Garden: Beetroot -Bona, Solist and Multicoloured Mix. Leaf beet – Bright Lights, Ruby Red and perpetual spinach. Celery – Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin. Leeks- Musselburgh (160). Kale – Scarlet Curled and Thousandhead. Dill, coriander, flat-leaf parsley, rocket, American landcress, fennel, borage and calendula. Broccoli in trays – Green Autumn Calabrese, Romanesco, Apollo, Purple Summer, Early Purple Sprouting and Late Purple Sprouting. Long strip of annual flower mix (26 varieties).
Our new picnic table is the perfect place for sorting through the seed basket!

Of course, it’s all about food first and we’re fast approaching that point of the year where we know we will be scrabbling for planting space if we don’t keep digging; it’s so easy to see a large patch and think it’s enough but by the time several rows of peas and beans alone have gone in, the space will diminish rapidly. We don’t want to be left scratching our heads and wondering where exactly the leeks and winter greens can go . . . so we haven’t finished with the spade yet. Roger has been cutting a wealth of paths which will become ever more tempting as the grass grows longer and the meadow appears and I love the way that we are now curving the vegetable beds to fit snugly into their bends; life is simply too short for straight lines!

I like the way our ideas and plans are already shifting and changing like the April weather: we’ve relocated a garden shed and planned another planting patch in The Potager in our mind’s eye, as well as talked about creating an area between The Orchard and Flower Garden with some hard surfacing (slate?) as an outdoor eating space. We love to use the materials that are already to hand so several large piles of stones are slowly morphing into a drystone wall and stout hazel poles have become a rustic trellis and sweet pea / climbing bean supports. We’ve moved two clematis that were pot-bound in wooden planters and growing in an unsuitable place; I’ve given the planters a makeover in ‘Vert de Provence’ paint and moved a rescued grapevine into one so it can scramble up the front of the house. A Christmas rose and three lavenders have also been moved to happier spots and I’ve introduced verbena bonariensis, granny’s bonnets, madder, dyer’s chamomile, mint, chives, parsley and soapwort from my Asturian collection. Things are happening . . . and it has been a joy to be outside.

Wrapped up against the icy wind . . . but it was good to be planting potatoes.

Although we’ve been blessed to have always lived in beautiful rural areas, I don’t think we’ve ever had a garden where we are so surrounded by wildlife. It’s as if everything that was already here has shrugged off our arrival, accepted us unconditionally and carried on as normal without being at all fazed by us sharing their space. We are completely immersed and I love it, this chance to be up close and personal, to be able to look at creatures so closely I can discover fresh new things about them. Bumble bees, honey bees, mortar bees, solitary wasps, ladybirds, shield bugs, butterflies and a whole host of other insects I don’t recognise have all landed on me at some point during the week; I’ve watched with fascination as a lizard scurried in and out of the kitchen without a care in the world, a treecreeper shimmied up the wall outside the kitchen door, a blue tit sat nonchalently in a windowbox of pansies and a red squirrel nosed about under the solar panels as if it belonged there. Unlike their Asturian cousins which are richly sabled in dark chocolate coats, these squirrels are firebright streaks of foxy fur, all tufted ears, white bib and important tails. They are so busy now, zipping up and down tree trunks, dancing along branches like acrobatic tightrope walkers and leapfrogging across the grass in a vivid flash of russet.

It’s the birdlife, however, that is centre stage. Two male blackcaps have taken up residence on opposite sides of the front gateway, one in the coppery foliage of the cherry plum, the other in the dainty white blooms of the cherry. They spend their days trying to outsing each other, their mellifluous melodies rising in a tumultuous crescendo to a point where it’s hard to hear yourself think. Once they’ve exhausted their repertoire (and possibly their vocal chords, too), they move to hurling loud clacking curses at each other, like harsh pebbles shaken in a sack. Finally, they resort to gladatorial violence, rolling and wrestling one another in the gravelled arena before retreating to their personal castles and starting the whole process all over again. They are not the only songsters, of course; robins, blackbirds, wrens, song thrushes, dunnocks and a variety of warblers are all flaunting their considerable musical ranges against the more percussive performances of cuckoo and chaffinch, house sparrow and great tit, chiffchaff and wagtail; redstarts gargle, green woodpeckers chortle and swallows stitch the air with their babbling chatter. It would be easy to romanticise it all but let’s face it, this is a war zone, a battle that has raged every spring down the millenia; it’s about territory, dominance, superiority, survival and the impelling urge to procreate and it is only me with my non-avian ears that imagines it’s set to a beautiful, musical theme tune.

The Secret Garden is full of birdsong; it’s time to eat that rhubarb, too!

Working in the Secret Garden, I have been keeping company with a pair of blue tits who are nesting in a hole in the wall of our stone outbuilding; it’s a canny choice, as few predators are likely to threaten their young tucked away in such a safe house. Apart from the occasional mild chivvying, they seem quite tolerant of my presence and entertain me greatly with their acrobatic antics as they search for insect delicacies among the blossomed boughs. I’m hoping it’s a habit they will shift to the vegetables later in the season, knocking back the aphid and caterpillar populations to feed their demanding family. In the poplar trees across the lane, the wood pigeons take a break from building their untidy nest, cooing at me softly and entreating me to, ‘Sow peeeeas pleeeese, Lizzie!’ Ah yes, my little friends; brassicas, too, no doubt, given your thieving, gluttonous ways. I suspect we will need to invest in some netting before the spring is out.

Blue tit in the blossom.

At the back of the house, the new flower borders have become the happy haunt of pied wagtails and redstarts who are plucking a wealth of good food from the bare earth. They seem to tolerate each other quite amicably, strutting and circling in solemn fashion, stepping out in a strange bobbing dance like guests at a masked ball; one decked out in simple, sober monochrome, the other in glorious technicolour, they make a perfectly balanced pair. Beyond them, a bevvy of ground feeders is enjoying the mown grass and this, I think, is excellent evidence in the the argument for balance. Meadows are quite rightly esteemed as wonderful environments for hundreds of species but I think it’s important not to dismiss cut grass, either. Please don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no time for those perfectly manicured bowling green lawns, where everything that is not grass has been eliminated – physically, chemically, brutally – to leave an expanse of sterile and supremely boring space. Areas of short sward where mixed species have been allowed to grow are, however, a different matter, allowing an even wider range of flora and fauna to thrive. I think there’s room for both; after all, in my opinion, you cannot have too many ecosystems or too much biodiversity in one garden. Roger thinks you can have too many dandelions in the grass, mind you, but of course I can’t bring myself to agree.

A lawn full of sunshine!

I love their cheery, sunny faces and I’m not alone in that: they are full of honey bees wiggling around their centres, sultry belly dancers, their pollen baskets like silken harem pants laden with an astonishingly orange pollen. ‘Dandelion’, from the French dents de lion describing their ragged lion’s teeth leaves; the French, however, call them pissenlit – literally ‘wet-the-bed’ – in recognition of their diuretic properties. Doctors here recommend eating their fresh young leaves as a spring tonic, the perfect antidote to winter’s sluggishness, straight from nature’s medicine chest.

One of the most inspiring gardens I’ve ever visited was created by Gertrude Jekyll on Holy Island in 1911, from a former vegetable garden tucked behind a stone wall below the castle at Lindisfarne. It’s a wild, windswept landscape, beautiful in a somewhat bleak and forlorn way; it struck me as being a place on the edge of things, somehow, with its mist-shrouded, seaweed-strewn margins haunted by the plaintive whistle of oystercatchers and the mournful songs of seals.

I’ve been thinking about it again this week on the days when that wintry wind has been blowing down from the north-east. We visited one bitterly cold April when the sea was troubled and hostile, the landscape grey, scoured, foreboding. Spring seemed a long way off and the little garden with its geometrical patterns, wooden obelisks and quirky shed was stripped back to the barest bones yet still bright with spots and splashes of colour. What an unlikely backdrop for a quintessential English country garden it is, yet by the time Miss Jekyll had worked her magic, that is precisely what it became: a riot of summer colour and scent, of hollyhocks and marigolds and sweet peas, like a bright patchwork quilt spread incongruously in the middle of a barren moorland. The owner, Edward Hudson, had fancied a water garden and tennis court: the lady had other ideas!

I loved the cheery optimism of it all, the spirited can-do attitude; as gardeners, we are fools not to work with the seasons and weather, the stones and the soil, the ebb and flow of nature as it shifts to the pull its own tide, but that doesn’t mean we musn’t experiment or can’t dream. April days may be fickle, but if that sense of fidgety change and restlessness encourages me to be more imaginative, courageous and creative in the garden we are making here, then so be it . . . although I’d be very happy if we could skip the snow from now on. 😉

Heaven scent: the garden is full of these beauties at the moment.

The mole whisperer

Having spent much of another week on hard, physical work outside, I’ve found myself recalling Einstein’s famous take on insanity. How many times in our lives together have Roger and I left a beautiful and highly productive garden to start all over again from scratch, carving a new one out of a field . . . and why am I surprised that it doesn’t get any easier? Well, Albert knew a thing or two and perhaps we really are mad but I have to admit that, despite the aching muscles, the sore hands and the need to be tucked up asleep by nine o’clock every night, I still get a huge buzz from this kind of thing. It’s hard-going and progress can seem very slow: our ideas and plans twist and change and there’s a certain impatience in wanting to do everything at once, but gradually some sort of framework – a garden skeleton, if you like – is beginning to emerge. It’s fresh and new and exciting, like the spring growth unfurling so rapidly around us.

Without doubt, one of the hardest parts of our move is that we have gone from being almost self sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables to having nothing to harvest except a few herbs. It feels strange having to buy them all but in a way, it’s an interesting experience which has given me the opportunity to reflect on how central the kitchen garden is to our lives and what an enormous proportion of our shopping the fruit and veg haul now is! It’s pretty expensive here (not that I mind that, I don’t believe food should be cheap) but there is a great range to choose from, the quality is excellent and I’m impressed by how much things have swung towards organic in recent years in France. Still, it’s just not the same as wandering around our own patch, foraging bits and pieces for dinner, so the race is on to get prepared and start planting . . . and if I seem a bit over-excited about the prospect of that first crop of fresh rhubarb (all mine, Roger doesn’t like it) then that’s because I truly am!

Although digging beds is still the predominant activity, there have been several other key jobs to be done this week and I’ve finally got round to tackling a couple of monstrous things that have been bugging me ever since we moved here. First, the compost heap, a bit of a Heath Robinson affair which looked to be a mess in need of sorting out. We have plans for a bigger and more organised system of (hopefully) three bays; anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a compost monster and I do love a good heap so I’m very excited at the prospect of eventually having an all singing, all dancing set-up on the flat. Like everything else that will take time, so for now we will carry on with what was already here, albeit after a bit of a makeover. The left bay was full of oak leaves so I shifted them onto a hügel bed, then set about moving the compost pile across from the other side. Now I don’t mind jobs like this; partly-rotted vegetation really doesn’t bother me, it’s all part of a wonderful natural cycle, but I do have an issue when it’s all wrapped up in plastic, piles and piles of cellophane-type stuff plus various bits of metal and other non-biodegradable rubbish. Cue a lot of Muttleyesque muttering and cursing: this is not what composting is about! As with so many other things, what had seemed a fairly straightforward job took much longer than expected but the good news is I did find some decent compost at the bottom – enough to almost fill a dustbin, in fact – so it was well worth the effort. I’ve covered the heap in thick cardboard to allow nature to work its magic and started a new plastic-free pile on the right.

The second big task to be tackled was the bonfire site at the north end of the Potager area. Given it was a large circle of bare earth, this promised to be an almost ready-made planting bed once the pile of unburnt leaves and bits of wood had been removed but I hadn’t reckoned on the mess I’d find on closer inspection. The area had obviously been used to burn household rubbish and bits of furniture (illegal in France, and totally unnecessary given the highly efficient and accessible local rubbish and recycling facilities) and was full of plastic and metal detritus. Even worse, an old unburnt tarpaulin had been dumped on top and had shattered into thousands of tiny blue plastic strands which were everywhere; to say picking them all out of the soil was painstaking would be an understatement but it had to be done. Still, with the warm sun on my back and the air full of joyful bird noise and the sweet smell of spring, I did at least have lovelier things to focus on.

Back to the digging, and although it feels like we’re making progress in creating planting spaces, when we stop to consider everything we’re intending to grow, it still seems woefully inadequate. The original Shed Bed already has garlic, broad beans and parsnips in it and once we’ve added onions it will be full. The Secret Garden will be the shadiest patch through summer so perfect for lettuce and other salad leaves, beetroot, chard, celery, parsley, radicchio and overwintering brassicas like kale and broccoli which we know will flag in the full heat of summer.

The Bonfire Circle will be just the place for climbing beans with perhaps some cucumbers for company, underplanted with salad crops and (of course) some floral beauties to tempt the pollinators in. The potatoes get their own super-mulched patch and the squash will go on the hügelkultur hump from where they can scramble to their hearts’ content all over the grass; oh my, what a treat it’s going to be this year not having to chase them off down a mountainside! It doesn’t sound too bad until we think about all the crops that still need somewhere to grow and then it’s obvious the remaining bed isn’t going to cut the mustard, despite the fact we are extending it daily. I think the Flower Garden hügel (of which more in a moment) will have to house courgettes this year, the potatoes will have to accept some close neighbours in an extension to their bed and we will need to tackle the space currently covered for the eventual polytunnel sooner than expected if there is going to be anywhere for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. Phew! Maybe it would be easier to carry on buying veggies after all . . .

Given the pressure to organise the Potager, it might seem an indulgence to be busy creating the Flower Garden, too, but knowing from experience how long it can take for things to become established, it’s important to at least make a start. I have to say that ‘flower garden’ is a bit misleading in some ways; the ‘flower’ bit simply implies they will be the predominant feature but there will be no shortage of vegetables and herbs in there, too. Although I’m capitalising the various areas for ease of description we don’t see the patch as separate gardens but something more holistic, so the Flower Garden is somewhere that should sit comfortably behind the house, morphing into a Wild Patch on one side and Orchard on the other. The fly in the ointment is the shed on the north side which is something of an eyesore; we know from old photos that originally it was much smaller – just the part on the right with the guttering – but it has been extended greatly in recent years and yes, that poor oak tree really is now ‘growing’ from inside it! In the long term we’d like to shrink it again and at the very least I’m planning to paint it a gentle green and grow plants up it to soften the impact.

I wrote last time about starting to dig the first bed (where that tarpaulin was) and this week Roger has been cutting stout hazel poles from the hedge to create a rustic trellis-type structure along the back of it; covered in climbers, it should help to screen the shed even more and give a sense of height and a colourful backdrop. I’ve made a bit of progress in digging the bed and plan to use some finer hazel poles to make support structures for sweet peas and the like; the rest will almost certainly be scattered with annual flower seeds for a cheap and cheerful whack of colour and insect heaven in this first season.

I’m very aware that in a perfect world, we would be creating all the planting spaces without digging but there are a couple of problems with that one. For starters, we would need vast amounts of cardboard, manure and compost which we just don’t have; also, the ground here has been mown for the last thirteen years with a heavy tractor like the kind used in town parks and has become horrendously compacted. I understand the whole no-dig thing, and after the initial preparation we will be using a minimal disturbance approach but I think there has to be an acceptance that just occasionally, digging is the right thing to do. In order to maintain a semblance of balance, though, (and not totally shred my permaculture credentials) we decided to start a second bed in the Flower Garden using the hügel principle; after all, there’s not so much of a rush to create immediate planting space there. Rather than the classic arched profile, this is much flatter – less German hügel, more Welsh twmp. I’m not quite sure what we’ve created, maybe an Anglo-French-hügel-lasagne-pancake bed, which sounds either like a delightful cultural co-operation or diabolical confusion, depending on your outlook! We started by breaking up a stack of rotten hazel poles that had been left leaning against a tree and used them to make the base.

Next, we added the chopped remains of a couple of sacrificial ornamental conifers; please don’t mourn for them, they were nasty things and we’ve already more than replaced everything we’ve removed with native species better suited to the ecosystem. A thick blanket of grass clippings and dead leaves went on next, and finally a covering of inverted turf. I’ve read a couple of interesting articles suggesting that if the final layers of compost and topsoil are in short supply, then it’s possible to just keep adding organic matter – like a slow-burn compost heap – and simply plant into deep pockets of compost in the first season. I’d decided this would be the best approach; we could find enough topsoil but as that would mean digging a very big hole, it would sort of defeat the object, and perhaps courgettes planted in plenty of that retrieved compost is a good plan for this summer. However . . . I would, of course, love to have a few flowers in there too, and it occurred to me that I might be able to sow at least part of the bed this summer thanks to our very active population of moles. I must confess, I have a bit of a soft spot for moles with their velvety coats and outrageous paws but I know I’m the only member of the household who feels that way, especially when the evidence of their activity sweeps across the entire garden like chains of volcanic islands. The soil they throw up is amazing stuff, however, and I reckoned that a few minutes spent with spade and barrow scraping off the hills (or ‘oonty tumps’ as they’re charmingly called in Shropshire dialect) might render a bit of topsoil for a corner of the bed. A few minutes? Try well over an hour! In the end, there was enough soil to cover a good quarter of the bed to a depth that will readily allow me to scatter annual seed. Scraping each hill, I whispered my thanks down into the darkness of those secret tunnels and encouraged the little diggories to keep up their good work; well, for the time being at least – I probably won’t be feeling the love quite so much when they’re ploughing up the onions.

To an outsider, what is going on in the garden at the moment might well seem a chaotic puzzle but eventually some sort of shape will emerge and I’m hoping that by summer, it will all look very different – even if it’s currently hard to imagine. Looking at the stark layout of the Potager with its different shaped beds, hügel mound and mown avenues, I’m reminded of one of those computer- simulated models of Avebury Ring or Stonehenge and wonder if we should be incorporating some standing stones somewhere?

From front right: potato patch, general patch, hügel bed, bonfire circle. From front left: soft fruit patch, polytunnel patch (covered).

On a slightly smaller geological scale, and certainly more Hansel and Gretel than Neolithic Man, Roger has used a bag of white mulching pebbles left by the previous occupants to mark paths through what we’re planning as a Woodland Edge. The hedge against the lane is in a poor state but the row of mature trees is lovely and adding native planting to create a mini woodland below them seems just the right thing to do. Like our other projects, it will take time, especially as we’re planning to raise a lot of plants from seed, but in the meantime I’m enjoying following those moonlit pebbles on night rambles around the garden, whilst surrounded by the urgently romantic calls of barn owls and tawnies; ah, spring is definitely in the night air!

So, back to digging and although it’s hard, repetitive work, the one blessing for us is that this is the first of seven gardens spanning 24 years where we haven’t been digging up piles of other people’s rubbish. Yes, the compost heap and bonfire patch were pretty disgusting, but elsewhere the soil is blissfully deep, rich and remarkably free of stones. It is also full of the biggest worms you can imagine; no exaggeration, I’ve seen smaller grass snakes – no wonder the moles are so happy. I’m working as gently as possible so as not to disturb them too much and remembering the last French garden we created just a stone’s throw from here; there, instead of beautiful worms, every forkful turned up rubbish, mostly huge pieces of black plastic silage wrap and baler twine that wrapped itself around our tools and was a complete nightmare to deal with. It seemed to take forever to clear and yet we ended up with a very productive patch buzzing with life and colour, and crammed with food and flowers, in a relatively short time.

Mayenne potager #1: fingers crossed the second will be as good.

I know we will manage the same here, I just need to be patient and keep on digging. When my aching back suggests it’s time for a break, it’s lovely simply to wander about and see how things are changing with the season, the fattening leaf buds and first fresh green burst of willow and hawthorn, the delicate haze of plum blossom, the busyness of bees and butterflies and territorial posturing of birds. I can stand in the garden and watch roe deer grazing in a neighbouring field, red squirrels scuttling about in the oak trees and skylarks singing high above me. It’s all truly wonderful but – simple soul that I am – I find myself drawn time and time again to the Shed Bed where the glossy green spears of garlic push a little higher each day. Here is the wonder of nature, the miracle of springtime, the joy of growing vegetables. Here is our food of the future . . . and that makes me very happy. 😊

Food for thought

I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my food every day but at this time of year, when we are surrounded by such abundance, it seems even more pertinent. It isn’t just that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh foods from the garden but also the fact that we are able to process and store so much of nature’s bounty to sustain us through the colder, darker months ~ and that is a very wonderful thing.

As soon as the squash plants start climbing through the walnut trees and endangering the local sheep by hurling themselves down the mountainside at great speed, we know it must be time to start the annual harvest. It’s not easy to capture the steepness of the orchard on camera but Operation Squash Salvage is definitely a two-person job which generally sees Roger slithering and sliding about on the slope, wielding a knife and trying to stop the squash from escaping once cut while I meet him halfway down the slope to collect the prizes and pile them into the wheelbarrow (oh, and do useful things like take photos, too).

Squash plants climbing the walnut tree: time to start the harvest.
The bemused harvester wonders where to start on the terrace . . . you’d have thought he would be used to my excessive squash habits by now!
Meanwhile, the first barrowload is ready to go.

I love cleaning the squash up and laying them out in the yard for their first drying session; in a few days’ time, I will carry them up to the horreo balcony where they can ripen slowly in the autumn sunshine over the next few weeks before moving into their winter store. This is just the beginning: there are still plenty more to come but already I find myself enthralled by this year’s array.

The three blue-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ ( at the front of the photo) and all the butternuts were grown from commercial F1 seed but the rest all came from seed saved from a single squash we grew last year . . . and that in turn had been grown from seed saved in the same way from the year before. I find it endlessly fascinating that so many different types can come from the same fruit, such an incredible diversity of genes from the open-pollinated varieties we have grown in recent years. Last year, every single squash had firm, orange flesh, great flavour and made excellent eating; they kept brilliantly, too (we ate the last one in May) so fingers crossed, those traits have been passed down to their mongrel offspring.

The squash will form a large part of our winter diet but there will be plenty of other things on offer, too. We have a terrace full of Jerusalem artichokes and a good row of parsnips, both of which make great starchy comfort food, while in the main patch a selection of different kales will provide a reliable source of greens.

Rainbow chard (or leaf beet) grows pretty much as a perpetual crop here; the stalks and mature leaves giving us a useful and versatile vegetable and we can pick the baby leaves all through winter for salads. The plants suffered a bit in the last hot dry spell of weather but I’ve cut back the tired foliage and they are already putting on vigorous new growth.

Actually, despite the season and the shortening of the days as we head towards the equinox, there is still a tremendous feeling of growth and abundance everywhere around our patch and it never fails to amaze me just how much food it is possible to yield from a relatively small space. The terrace in the main garden would probably amuse many ‘expert’ gardeners, given that its shallow width only allows for the shortest of rows . . . but currently there are several varieties of lettuce, land cress, rocket, spring onions, purslane, calendula, nasturtiums, Florence fennel, cabbages and leeks all flourishing cheek by jowl and promising good food for several months to come.

Earlier this year, we created a mini hugel bed for the tomatoes in their blight-free shelter and we have certainly enjoyed the best ever crop this season; all that chopping of wood and carting of compost was well worth the effort and once the plants have finished this year, I shall be topping it up with another dollop of good organic matter.

The tomato crop is slowing down now but we are still enjoying plenty of summer on our plate. The tunnel is literally heaving with peppers and aubergines and also the best melon crop ever (their fruity perfume greets us at the door), while outside the globe artichokes have produced a bonus crop.

We are not self-sufficient by any means (and we’re not trying to be); in order to produce all our own food, we would need to keep livestock and grow grains to mill for flour, as well as find homegrown alternatives for the luxuries like tea, coffee and olive oil that we enjoy. However, there is something very satisfying and downright joyful about gathering the bulk of every meal from the garden. I’m still enjoying my ‘fruit burst’ breakfast; the figs are cropping very early this year and so heavily that we can’t hope to keep on top of them, but we’re trying our best. I feel like a monkey in a David Attenborough documentary, reaching up with expectant paws to pluck sweet fruits from the heavily laden branches.

For lunch, there are plenty of goodies on offer from the ‘salad bar’: romaine, cos and oak-leaved lettuce, baby chard and beet leaves, land cress, rocket, baby nasturtium leaves, purslane, spring onions, celery, peppers and cucumbers along with a wide range of herbs and edible flowers.

We’re not vegetarians but we eat (and love!) a lot of vegetarian meals; it makes perfect sense when we have so many wonderful ingredients to hand. One of our favourite dishes is roasted aubergines stuffed with quinoa (or bulgar wheat, pearl barley, rice or whatever grain is to hand), lentils, garlic, chilli and preserved lemons with natural yogurt. To accompany that this week, we made a vegetable ‘hash’ from courgette, peppers, French beans and New Zealand spinach. The courgette in the picture was really verging on the baby marrow but the beauty of ‘Black Beauty’ is that it stays firm and flavoursome even at that size. The beans are the fifth crop we’ve grown this year and are as tender and delicious as the first one, while the New Zealand spinach is creating a wonderful sprawl of succulent groundcover and proving itself a real winner in the kitchen. Mmm, not missing the meat! 🙂

I do enjoy a bit of foraging for wild food, too, and we’ve recently had a real treat in the shape of a bowl of blackberries. I realise that probably sounds a tad tame but the fact is, this is not berry country and despite having oodles of brambles with pink flowers full of pollinators every year, the fruits are either tiny and dry or non-existent. This season, though, has brought us treasure, and while I realise they don’t look too spectacular in the photo, they were totally scrummy cooked with pears and topped with an oaty, walnutty crumble. The polite way to eat that, of course, is as a hot pudding but I prefer it cold for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt. Well, why not? It’s a tasty, nutritious and sustaining start to the day . . . there is most definitely life beyond cornflakes!

It would be easy to become complacent with all this wonderful food to hand but we have been doing a fair bit of experimenting lately, both in the garden and kitchen. We usually sow a row of overwintering peas in November and then make further sowings in spring but beyond June, mildew becomes too much of an issue to make it worth growing more. This year, we’ve decided to try a very late sowing out of interest and there is a promising little row of new plants bombing up their sticks. We’ve also planted pointy (summer) cabbage to try for an autumn crop and they are looking very fine and beginning to heart up nicely. I noticed a while ago that where I have cut lettuce and (very lazily) left the stalks in the ground, lots of new lush growth has sprung up so I’m wondering if this would be a more sustainable approach in future, rather than growing endless successions throughout the summer?

It’s early days in my fermentation career and so far the results have been mixed. The sauerkraut was a complete revelation and instantly converted me from someone who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole to a crazy woman now willing those cabbage to get going so I can make some more. On the flipside, fermented cucumbers and courgettes made a promising start but quickly deteriorated into a foul-smelling, slimy mess fit only for the compost heap. However, I am not a quitter by nature and having been encouraged by my fermentation guru (you know who you are! 🙂 ) to try with grated courgettes rather than sticks, I’m having another crack at it. So, far, so good; the jar is bubbling away like an Icelandic mudpool and smells very fresh and fragrant. Just a few more days to go before the moment of truth . . .

Something else I’ve been experimenting with is making cottage cheese to go with those lunchtime salads. I would love to be able to buy fresh milk for making yogurt and cheese straight from the producer in refillable bulk containers but unfortunately, I haven’t managed to crack that one yet. We usually buy whole milk but having read in several places that any fat from the cream would end up in the whey, I plumped for a litre of semi-skimmed; the only other ingredient was the juice from one lemon. The process couldn’t have been simpler: I warmed the milk and lemon juice slowly over a low heat, stirring occasionally, and turned the heat off once it boiled. I left it to stand for a few minutes, then poured the whole lot into muslin over a bowl to separate the curds and whey, squeezing the muslin ‘bag’ to remove as much moisture as possible. Job done! In truth, this isn’t really what I know as cottage cheese (which is made using rennet) but more like a ricotta or paneer; I had read several criticisms of it being dry and tasteless, requiring the addition of cream and lots of flavourings to make it palatable, but I didn’t find that at all. It had a very fresh, clean, slightly lemony flavour and needed just a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, although I can see that some chopped fresh herbs would make a tasty addition. One litre of milk yielded 150g of cheese and 850ml of whey, a nutrient-rich liquid which is perfect for bread making. It was a lovely exercise . . . maybe we should have a house cow, after all? 🙂

Next experiment in the kitchen laboratory: fig jam! Of course, having a productive veggie patch isn’t just all about the harvesting, we do have to spend a certain amount of time looking after everything, not least the soil. I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to feeding the soil and the circle of the year sees well-rotted manure, homemade compost, green manures and green mulches being used on a rolling basis. I’ve been clearing a patch for winter salads in the tunnel this week where I’ve been trying a no-dig approach for the last couple of years, simply piling manure and compost on to the surface. I used a hand fork to lift a few oxalis seeds but otherwise just pulled the other weeds plus lemon balm and nasturtium volunteers and chopped them to use as a mulch between plants elsewhere, then sowed with a mix of lettuce, oriental leaves, chard and rocket. I’ve been making good use of the very prolific beds of comfrey scattered around the patch, too.

I regularly add chopped leaves to my comfrey tea bucket ~ this patch has been cut five times this year and seems to grow back overnight! The resulting potion is foul-smelling but to me it’s a black gold, making a wonderful feed when for everything in the garden when diluted in water, whether growing in pots or in the ground.

I also use comfrey leaves as a mulch, chopped and placed in a thick layer directly on the soil and this week, I’ve been tucking a decent blanket of it around the purple sprouting broccoli plants on the terrace above the squash garden. Broccoli is one of our favourite staple crops and we usually enjoy a prolonged harvest stretching from January to May, but I have to admit it is a bit of a high maintenance character in our little corner of Asturias. It doesn’t enjoy hot, dry spells so we have been hauling cans of water a fair bit over the summer to keep it happy. It also attracts a plethora of pests and a constant bombardment from flea beetle, whitefly, slugs, snails and caterpillars means we have to be very vigilant gardeners, checking every single leaf every couple of days to remove the little critters. By this time of year, the worst is over and the plants have started to romp away; as they spend a long time in the ground ~ almost twelve months, in fact ~ I felt it was time to give them a bit of a boost. The terrace was planted with a green manure cover crop of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch last winter, then topped with well-rotted manure. I’m hoping the comfrey mulch will provide a natural slow-release fertiliser to see the plants through the autumn . . . now the only problem I have is the blackbird population scratching it and scattering it in their morning hunt for food!

Finally ~ and just to prove it’s not all about food ~ an interesting little story from the world of flowers. For reasons I have never been able to pin down, I have struggled to grow French marigolds every year here which is disappointing because they are such an excellent and beneficial companion plant as well as very pretty, a great food source for pollinators and a useful natural dyestuff. I love them but they just don’t want to grow; germination is scanty to say the least, even using fresh seed, and most of the seedlings fail to thrive. Given how I used to end up in trouble for the jungle of volunteers that popped up in our less-than-tropical tunnel in upland Wales, I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t self-set readily around the patch. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Anyway, thankful for the tiniest crumb, I was thrilled to find a single late volunteer hiding beneath the cucumbers which has grown to bush proportions in recent weeks and has just started to bloom.

Here’s the incredible thing: it has produced four totally different blooms all on one plant in a way I have never seen on French marigolds before. Maybe it’s taking those mongrel squash on at their own game? I don’t know, but it was certainly well worth the wait! 🙂

Loving Lammas

The true harvest of my life is intangible – a little stardust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

At the halfway point between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, the beginning of August marks the festival of Lammas, which takes its name from the Saxon hlaf – mas or ‘loaf mass.’ Although at one level it is a Christian festival celebrated in some northern hemisphere countries, it is based on much older origins and coincides with the ancient Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh. It is a celebration of the first fruits of harvest and, in particular, the first cut of grain. Traditionally, harvest thanksgiving tends to fall later in the year, I suppose because then all harvests have been gathered ~ fruits from the orchard, roots from the earth, nuts and berries from the hedgerows, honey from the hives ~ but I believe it is very important to acknowledge the beginning of this season, too, as people have since ancient times. It’s the celebration and overwhelming relief that after so much growth and effort, nature has provided: there will be food on the table.

In France, we lived in an area of mixed farming where our home was surrounded by apple orchards and fields of maize, sunflowers and wheat. Coming from a land where hay and wool were the biggest harvests, it was fascinating to watch the seasonal changes in the wheat fields, from the first tentative green blades emerging from the dark soil in late winter or early spring to the standing corn, ripened ears popping and crackling in the summer heat. The rumble of combines left us in no doubt that the grain harvest had begun.

To celebrate the season, I learned how to make simple corn dollies and plaited a bridal horseshoe to give to Sarah on her wedding day, a seasonal gift from mother to daughter to mark such a joyful milestone in her life. It seemed very fitting for a country bride who gathered most of her bouquet from a hedgerow!

Here in Asturias, we are back to grass and the farmers, for the most part, are ganaderos who raise cows, not grain. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the importance of the grain harvest ~ in fact, we do it several times a week. Baking our own bread is a way of life for us and involves a little co-operative teamwork. I take responsibility for our sourdough starter which lives in a Kilner jar in the fridge and is fondly known as Yeasty Beastie. On baking days, I love my morning ritual of opening the lid and breathing in that sharp, beery scent of natural yeasts at work before gently stirring in a warm paste of water and rye flour to ‘feed’ it. Several hours later, after it has sat at room temperature and developed a lively covering of new bubbles, Roger uses some of it to make a dough.

There is something very special about the yeasty, floury smell in the kitchen and the silent miracle of the dough rising beneath a clean tea towel, the wonderful appetising scent of the bread as it bakes and the thrill of that first taste, straight from the oven and almost too hot to touch. It’s like a special little Lammas every time.

We are blessed to enjoy a good harvest of fruit and vegetables from our garden all the year round thanks to the mild climate, but this time of year signals the greatest productivity with a shift from enough to abundance. Now we can pick and eat almost a whole day’s meals from the garden ~ peaches, strawberries and walnuts for breakfast, soups or salads for lunch, hearty vegetable bakes or curries or stir fries for dinner. There is so much to choose from!

This week has also seen a flurry of preserving activity, as we have been processing gluts of fresh produce to enjoy in leaner times; we are so very lucky to have the technology and ingredients that allow us to do this. We would be lost without our freezer but space now is at a premium so there is an immense juggling game in progress as we try to use up foods such as roast squash and homemade stock to make room for new things. We are enjoying possibly the best harvest of French beans ever, but despite staggering the planting, the rows are all fruiting at once and we are literally picking kilos at a time.

I’ve been brewing up vats of chutney, with a sort of ‘half the garden’ recipe going on ~ beans, courgettes, onions, peaches, garlic, chillies, coriander seed, bay and anything else that comes to hand ~ all cooked down to a rich, spicy preserve; I’ve also pickled more cucumbers and nasturtium seeds.

A trugload of courgettes and cabbages suggested it was time at long last to have a go at lacto-fermenting some vegetables, something I know is a very beneficial thing to do but keep wriggling out of. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve never been a fan of sauerkraut but then I’ve never tried a homemade version; Roger, on the other hand, loves it so there really is no excuse. Well, in for a penny and all that . . . I decided at the same time to have a go at fermenting a jar of courgettes, too. Like the chutney, I used flavourings I could pick ~ garlic, chillies, coriander and bay ~ and the two jars sat bubbling away happily in the corner of the kitchen for several days. I can’t say they looked too appetising but appearances aren’t everything, although I did need to muster some courage to taste the results . . . Opinion? Well, I have to admit to being nicely surprised; it’s definitely the first time I’ve enjoyed sauerkraut (it’s really good!) and the courgettes are like a crunchy, tasty pickle. Think I might try some cucumbers next . . .

Something I have no problem eating is peaches and this week has seen many hours spent in picking and processing these most luxurious of fruits. They ripen so quickly that we can’t afford to ignore them, they demand instant (and what feels like constant) attention if they aren’t to fall off the trees and be wasted; Roger has spent much of his time up a ladder filling the trug and then processing each batch before returning to pick the next one. Jams and chutneys, bottling and freezing . . . there has been a busy peach-centred buzz about the kitchen in recent days.

Spending hours each day peeling, stoning and slicing kilos of peaches might not sound too appealing but for me, there is something very sensuous about the whole thing: the soft velvet nap and sunset blush of their skins, the pink starburst of the wrinkled stone hidden inside, the soft melting flesh, the juice running down my arms . . . it’s all a complete connection with the gift of food, a joyful celebration of this wonderful fruit. We have watched the story of this harvest unfold: nervous days in February where the delicate blossoms run the gauntlet with uncertain weather yet sunny days bring the busy and essential attention of pollinators; the velvety nubs of tiny developing fruit, swelling amongst the leaves; branches drooping under the weight of ripening fruits, tantalisingly close to being ready to eat. Arriving at that long-awaited moment of picking the first sun-warmed fruit, feeling its weight in our hand and breathing in its sweet fragrance, knowing there is a harvest to be had, is surely the perfect essence of Lammas.

Of course, it’s not all about gluts and an almost overwhelming abundance; after all, a couple of years ago, our entire peach harvest ran to a single fruit. I think it’s every bit as important to do honour to the tiniest crops, too. We’re enjoying tasty little pickings of cape gooseberries from a self-set plant that suddenly appeared from nowhere last year and I savoured every second of the three ~ yep, three ~ unexpected autumn raspberries. Earlier in the year, we planted strawberries in a trough Roger had made from scrap timber; we didn’t really expect much in this first season, but those little plants have surprised us with a slow and steady stream of delicious fruits. They tend to ripen a few at a time, usually no more than three or four in a week and often just one at a time, but they are truly wonderful. Is there a lovelier thing than sharing a strawberry? 🙂

Precious harvests like this call for special treatment; we seldom eat puddings of any kind but everyone needs a little indulgence now and then!

I’ve read two very contrasting reports in the British press this week which I felt were both very pertinent to my reflections on Lammas and harvest in general. The first reported that the amount of food waste in the UK, which dropped significantly during lockdown, is now rising rapidly once more towards its previous (and, in my opinion, appalling) level. I wish that someone could explain it to me: how did we arrive at this place in society, where food has become such an unvalued, disrespected, throw-away commodity? Why is it apparently ‘alright’ to throw away millions of tonnes of food every year, 70% of which is food that could have been eaten (according to latest WRAP research) ? It makes me very, very sad. 😦 On a more positive note, the second report, written by a doctor, suggested that an answer to tackling the problem of obesity could well lie in gardening, and in particular, in developing community gardens where people of all ages can come together to grow vegetables and fruit to eat. What a wonderfully positive and hopeful idea that is.

I think that much of it comes down to making changes in habits and that’s not always an easy thing to address: change might be the only constant in life, but it’s not always a comfortable thing. Take, for instance, my current tea situation. Cancellation of our UK trips has meant I am running dangerously low on the good quality, loose-leaf Assam tea I love; along with a pile of secondhand books, topping up my tea supply is top of the shopping list and I love to take my (well-travelled!) reusable brown bags back to the Broad Bean deli in Ludlow for refills. I am now having to limit myself to one mug a day to eke out my remaining tea for as long as possible, but really, I think this is a situation which is doing me a lot of good because I am having to look for viable alternatives. (I should say that of course, I could buy black tea here but it tends to come in boxes of individually wrapped teabags and I’m not happy buying into that kind of packaging nightmare.)

I still don’t love green tea ~ which I can buy here loose in paper bags ~ but I’m persevering with it and find that mixed with mint, it’s reasonably palatable; I’ve been drying bunches of mint to use through the winter months. I’m getting along much better with fresh herbal teas from the garden, especially a blend of lemon balm, lavender and thyme and I know that from a health and environmental perspective, it is far better to wander outside and pick my tea rather than buy something that has been processed, packaged and carted around the world. It’s another little ritual I’ve come to love.

I’ve also replaced one of my daily cuppas with a smoothie, something that presented itself as an answer to what you do when life deals you cucumbers. I’m not the world’s greatest smoothie fan as I tend to prefer eating my fruit and veg whole but one of the biggest issues I’ve always had is that so many recipes call for imported or expensive (or both) ingredients like bananas, avocados, blueberries, pineapples, lime, coconut water, almond butter and a whole load of other things I’ve never even heard of. Quite simply, if I can’t pick it from the garden, I’m not doing it.

So . . . chard, romaine lettuce, celery, cucumbers, mint and coriander from the patch, plus a piece of ginger and a squeeze of lemon juice (which are both bought foods but ones we always have to hand anyway). Given we have a basic food processor rather than a high speed blender, the results are always a ‘less-than-smoothie’ but I’m enjoying them and they exude a great air of healthy living. At this rate, I might never go back to tea . . .

Food is not the only harvest I am grateful for. In the recent hot, dry spell of weather we have needed to water the vegetable patches as well as the tunnel, and the constant and reliable supply of sweet, chemical-free water from a mountain spring is something we never take for granted. Our woodland provides us with all the fuel we need for warmth and cooking in the winter months and now is the time we start moving the seasoned logs into the woodstore, stacked and ready for the woodstove in autumn.

We have cut stout hazel props to support heavy branches on several peach and fig trees, used finer branches as supports for pepper, aubergine and cucumber plants in the tunnel and twiggier sticks in the pea rows; once they become too brittle to use again, we chop them and cook over them on the barbecue. Everything is valued, nothing is wasted.

I am thankful, too, for the wide variety of plantstuffs I can collect and use as herbal remedies, in toiletries and for natural dyeing.

I am very excited to see my new soapwort plant flowering, how have I never had such a pretty thing in the garden before? Grown from a slip of root given as a gift, this holds the future promise of household soap and I can’t wait to start using it.

The garden has been alive with clouds of butterflies this week, including some new additions like the huge and beautiful green-washed fritillary, which refuses to stay still long enough for a photo! In fact, there are insects everywhere, and I am reminded of our dependence on them for so much food, the importance of connection once again.

In many ways, our harvest has barely begun; in the tunnel, vegetable patches, orchard, nuttery, fields and woodland there are still so many treasures to come, so much of nature’s bounty to enjoy. In the meantime, it’s back to the kitchen . . ! 🙂

Dog Days

The dog days are here. In the dark, moonless sky Sirius lopes along brightly at Orion’s heel while under the cloudless blue of day, the land pants in the shimmering heat. Not that it’s anywhere near as hot here as even a short distance south but the increased warmth and prolonged dry spell have brought a palpable shift in perspective, a breath of change across the langourous landscape. South-facing slopes are crisping from green to brown and the high sunlight flattens leaves and bleaches colour from the meadow; not that the crickets and butterflies seem remotely bothered, going about their usual business in the rippling heat of afternoon when others are seeking shade.

No matter how settled the weather might seem, however, we can always be surprised by a sudden wet day that tumbles clouds down over the mountains and brings a soothing freshness to the air. It’s the reason Asturias is so green . . . and the garden revels in it.

In the vegetable patch there is a sense of things just ‘getting on’ with it and yes, in some cases, getting away from us, too. Every fresh, flavoursome, crisp and crunchy mouthful comes from this space now and I love the rough and tumble of it all, the jostling for elbow room in every direction. Our current harvest includes cabbage, calabrese, chard, celery, New Zealand spinach, beetroot, carrots, French beans, onions, spring onions, garlic, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and rocket.

Note the self-proclaimed ‘Under Gardener’ hard at work on the terrace.

Enjoying a smooth succession of lettuce crops has been a game of trial and error in our time here but this year we have most definitely cracked it, with little patches squeezed into every available nook and cranny. A quick recce recently revealed six different varieties growing in fourteen separate locations: salad days as well as dog days, then.

Oak-leaved and blond romaine lettuce nestled between beans, courgettes and New Zealand spinach (and self-set coriander and Californian poppies, too).

The ‘Purple Teepee’ French beans grown from saved seed are every bit as prolific as they were last year; after a cloud of gorgeous mauve flowers, the plants literally droop under the weight of those purple beans. We are eating them daily hot or cold and I have made several jars of dark, deeply-spiced chutney.

The ‘Latino’ and ‘Black Beauty’ courgette plants have grown to elephantine proportions and the stems and leaves are so tough and prickly that playing Hunt The Courgette has to be done in wellies ~ very glam with shorts! 🙂

With the cucumbers, it’s a case of turn our backs for five minutes and there’s yet another picking. They are officially a gherkin variety so the bigger ones are perfect for a chilled yogurt soup, the smaller ones are being pickled with dill, garlic and chillies.

The tunnel is heaving with plants and is starting to take on a jungly feel; stand still long enough and there’s a danger of being wrapped around by melon plants whose tendrils literally meet us at the door. The afternoon temperature soars in there and it’s a full-time job watering; we’re wishing it had some kind of retractable roof we could peel off for a while!

Not that I’m grumbling when we are already enjoying a tremendous harvest of peppers with aubergines following closely behind. There is also a lush forest of basil which I’ve been freezing in ice cubes so we can enjoy a wack of summer in winter sauces.

We haven’t grown melons for a couple of years so it’s very exciting to have several plump fruit fattening daily; we’re going to have to organise some supports for them very soon.

On the subject of fruit, one of my very favourite seasons has just begun . . .

We had a worse than usual muddle with plant labels in the spring so somehow we’ve ended up with a courgette in the squash patch and a ‘cucumber’ and ‘courgette’ that have both magically transformed into butternut squashes. We have a good crop of the latter and ‘Crown Prince’ coming along plus a tribe of mongrels grown from saved seed in various colourways and patterns ~ blue skinned, yellow and orange smooth and wrinkled, green striped . . . it’s all part of the fun. As for the state of the squash patch, probably the least said, the better. There is a garden under there somewhere.

It’s not all about food, of course, and I’m really thrilled that at long last the sweet peas are flowering. They have been so unbelievably slow this year, it feels like they’ve been in the ground for ever, but they are promising to be the best we’ve grown here and the garden and house are both full of their wonderful perfume.

To wilder things and one of the natural dyes I’ve been planning to try for a while is Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot (daucus carota) and with the verges, orchard and meadow full of the white froth of its lacy caps, the time seemed to have arrived. I’ve seen it described by many people as an invasive weed but I’m not keen on either word, to be honest; in my opinion, it’s merely a survivior or a good doer, and I happen to love the plant in all its various stages of growth wherever it happens to pop up.

Queen Anne’s lace is perfectly edible; the flowers, for instance, can be sprinkled over summer salads as a good source of potassium. However, it looks very like its close cousin, hemlock (conium maculatum), which is highly toxic even in small quantities, so let’s face it, muddling the two could have pretty dire consequences! I wasn’t intending to ingest the contents of my dye pot but even so, I had no desire to be handling anything poisonous; although I was 99% sure that I had the right plant, I spent some time on research before I went out foraging.

This was a timely reminder about the nature of Nature. I know it might seem that I wax lyrical about all that beauty and wonder and bounty but I’m not naive; my attitude towards the natural world is most definitely not some airbrushed, Disneyfied, fluffy bunny love-in. Nature can kill as well as cure, delight and destroy, bring happiness and heartache: there is a very good reason why I chose to put the word respect under the heading of ‘Nature’ in my post about core values! One of several ways to distinguish between these two plants is that Queen Ann’s lace can have a tiny dark red flower nestling in its centre; it isn’t always there so it’s not a foolproof method, but it’s a pretty little find when it is, like a tiny hidden jewel.

At this point, I should come clean and admit that this whole project could really have been called Messing About With Stuff. I have done a lot of reading about natural dyeing techniques and I’m always very grateful to be able to tap into the expertise of others, particularly where that means not making huge mistakes or wasting time and precious resources. That said, I think it’s also important for me to do a certain amount of my own exploring and learning; after all, if I never have a go at breaking a few rules such as using an adjective dye (one that requires a mordant) without a mordant, then what benchmarks do I have to work from? You can read about things until the cows come home but nothing actually beats the experience of doing. So my plan was to start by seeing what sort of colour (if any) I could extract from Queen Ann’s lace without pre-soaking the fibre in a mordant.

At the same time, I decided to play around a bit with heating techniques, too. It’s all well and good spouting about using natural dyestuffs but in the spirit of a truly holistic approach, I need to pay attention to how I use resources like water and energy, too. During the winter months, I can make free with the woodstove heat but using electricity is another matter, so my intention with this little escapade was to use minimal hob time and make the most of the weather by sitting the dye pot out in full sun. Lesson 1: never underestimate solar heat ~ I needed an oven glove to lift the lid after a couple of hours of dye pot sunbathing! The resultant liquid was a pale brown colour, smelling crisply of lemony carrots but not really promising the sorts of yellows I had been reading about.

The fleece I chose to use is a length of Southdown which I bought after seeing flocks of the delightful mop-headed sheep when hiking with Adrienne and Sam across the South Downs (strangely enough). I’ve had it for ages, trying to pluck up the courage to actually get on and do something with it. It’s a soft wool and very elastic which gives a lovely springy bounce to yarns, it doesn’t wet-felt easily and is one of the best fleeces for dyeing so everything about it should be screaming,”Socks, socks, socks, yippee!” but ~ and it’s a big BUT ~ it has a very short staple and is notoriously difficult to spin. There is no point in me fantasising about a fine, consistent, high-twist yarn of the type I’m spinning with ease from the indigo-dyed Kent Romney and silk; given my total lack of confidence and skill in the long-draw technique this fleece demands, I’m expecting a thick, uneven rope full of nepps and slubs which I will (tongue in cheek) label as an ‘art yarn.’ Socks it won’t be, but there will be a future for it somehow, somewhere . . . I hope!

Anyway, back to the dye and a simmer and overnight steep yielded the palest of creams, not exactly disappointing (there is a place in the world for cream yarns, after all) but a bit underwhelming all the same.

Onward and upward into the next stage of messing: bring on the onion skins. This was a bit of an impulse move, to be honest; we had lifted the first crop of onions several days previously and laid them out to dry in the sun and when the time came to start cleaning them up for storage, it seemed a pity to consign the outer skins to the compost heap straight away. Another simmer and suddenly the dye pot was looking a lot more exciting!

Ah, the colour this yielded in the fleece was completely gorgeous. I know it isn’t fast and will fade like summer snow but there’s no harm in enjoying it for the time being. There’s a good chance it will end up having a dip in my next indigo pot, anyway (if you’re messing about, then really mess about, I say) so the future will be bright in blues and greens, if not orange.

On the subject of blues and greens, I had so much fun and enjoyment from sewing a nightie from a fabric remnant recently that I’ve pushed the boat out and bought my first length of proper dressmaking material in twelve years. It might seem a bit odd for someone who lives in Spain but I only have one sundress to my name, partly because I tend to wear shorts and partly because I like to wear clothes until they fall apart before replacing them. My old faithful hippy-style tie-dyed crushed cotton number is seriously on its last legs, breaking out in little holes that just can’t be mended because the fabric is so thin. I used it to make a bodice pattern for the nightie so its spirit will go on and although I’m still wearing it, I know its days are numbered.

My ancient dress: the bodice is pulled in by ties at the back when I wear it, but the width was just perfect for a loose-fitting nightie pattern.

Playing with indigo had me thinking about all things batik, so I couldn’t resist a 100% quality cotton in fresh blues and greens; mmm, the colours are yummy. I don’t have a pattern and I’m not feeling brave enough to draft my own for this project so I’m planning to have a crack at a no-pattern kaftan. https://www.thestitchsisters.co.uk/diy-kaftan-free-tutorial-no-pattern/ I love the idea of creating a garment so simply constructed from rectangles without any zips, buttons or other fiddly fastenings, cool and flowing yet looking shaped and fitted.

So with the garden happily doing its own thing, I can set up my sewing machine in the shade of the sunbrella once again and indulge in a little summertime sewing. Dog days? Happy days! 🙂

Notes from a simple gardener

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

Ryōkan Taigu

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

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

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

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

Sweet peas

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

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

Grow what you enjoy eating

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

Prioritise

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

Be realistic . . .

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

Last year’s peas knew how to behave.

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

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

. . . but don’t be afraid to be bold

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

Cram it

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

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

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

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

Colour it

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

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

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

Love it

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

Enjoy it – the most important bit of all

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

Staying put

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

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

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

Our friendly village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

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

Where do we start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair weather February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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