October odds and ends

Following on from ‘Autumn Breezes In’ last time, part of me felt I should call this post ‘October Blasts In’ given the run of stormy weather that has heralded the start of the new month. There’s nothing unusual here about several days of autumnal storms bringing high winds, torrential rain (sometimes hail) and lively thunderstorms; what is odd is that they have arrived a month earlier than normal, catching us a little by surprise. This is generally an early November thing, a cold and soggy spell sandwiched between weeks of warm, mellow, sunkissed weather.

It would be easy to feel fed up with this sudden dip but we know from past experience it’s a temporary thing, nothing more than a meteorological hiccup. It’s a change, not an ending, and I must admit I quite enjoy the atmospheric shift it brings in its wake. There is something cleansing and scouring about those heavy downpours, washing away summer’s dusty debris and shaking the tree canopies open in a way that makes everything look fresh and scrubbed, if a little tossed and jumbled, too. Where gentle summer petals fell and lizards basked in quiet corners, suddenly, there are flurries of fallen leaves.

The fig trees have been well stirred, their leaves flipped inside out and hanging at jaunty angles where before there was ordered calm. Happily, there is still much sweetness to be found amid the chaos.

The poor courgettes have taken a bashing, their huge leaves shredded to lace. They are still producing the occasional fruit but are nearing the end of their season now.

The sunflowers have definitely reached the end of the line, victims of their own success in a way; they had grown so tall and are so heavy that they really didn’t stand a chance in the face of strong winds and wet earth. I usually save some seed to plant next year and leave the rest for the birds to eat at their leisure ~ this year, I am going to have to cut the heads and hang them on the fence to make access easier.

Close cousins to the sunflowers, the Jerusalem artichokes have been making a gorgeous splash of yellow on the terrace for many weeks; now, petals gone, they have collapsed in spectacular fashion, narrowly avoiding a young cardoon. It’s not a problem: hidden deep in the soil will be piles of starchy tubers that make wonderful comfort eating all through winter.

I love all this seasonal jiggling and shifting in the garden, the way old troopers bow out as the new crew appears. There are still some brave old souls clinging on, though: the squash patch is looking rather flattened and forlorn after the boisterous growth of summer, but there’s still a flamboyant little finale to come.

Oca is a new experiment for us this year and it’s been an interesting plant to watch. The attractive trefoiled foliage grew quickly from tiny pink tubers in the spring, but then really struggled as the temperature climbed; flattened and panting through the summer afternoons, it cried out for daily watering and there were many times I doubted it would survive. It’s a plant that needs falling light levels to form tubers and it certainly seems much happier now ~ in fact, it’s positively blooming where other plants are giving up for the year.

Another new plant for us is the New Zealand spinach which just seems to go from strength to strength, sprawling merrily over a wide area on succulent stems and producing masses of fresh green growth. I love it, it’s such a cheery, unassuming yet versatile vegetable, with none of the high maintenance issues that can come with true spinach. I’m hoping it will carry on right through the winter.

There’s nothing new about ‘Greyhound’ cabbages, we’ve been growing them for years but we are playing around a bit with their season this time. They are officially a summer cabbage, usually ready in early June, but we decided to see how they would fare as an autumn vegetable; given the mild climate here, we thought it was surely worth a punt. Mmm, looks like we might have backed a winner!

Leeks, too, are an old favourite and the idea of not having a reliable patch to crop through winter is too terrible to contemplate. They’re looking grand and the stormy weather has barely ruffled their glaucous leaves . . . but they are more than ready to eat now, which I suppose makes them officially an autumn vegetable. The same is true of those other great staples ~ parsnips ~ along with the first of the autumn carrots and Florence fennel; it’s as though a big seasonal dietary adjustment has blown in with the storms. Well, we’re not complaining.

Something else which may be a bit earlier than usual this year are the kiwis; they normally start in early November but are looking to be slightly ahead of the game. There is less of a crop than we’ve enjoyed in previous years, but it’s all relative. Let’s just say, we won’t be going short.

There will be no shortage of squash, either, as phase two of the harvest has boosted the number to 44 with yet more still to come. I don’t think we’ve ever grown such huge butternuts, most of them weigh several kilos each.

Washed and dried, they are all lounging on their sun balcony ~ despite the distinct lack of sun ~ seasoning away nicely before being moved into the horreo for storage. Squash is very much back on the menu, diced and roasted with onions, garlic and chestnuts being a current favourite, both hot and cold.

It might be difficult to muster the enthusiasm during a torrential downpour, but I think it’s vitally important to celebrate the gift of water. Certainly, it’s not something Asturias lacks ~ in fact, it’s very much a defining part of the landscape here and the rich, all-pervading verdancy stands testament to the generous rainfall we receive. The water cycle has always fascinated me, in so many ways it’s something all too easily taken for granted and yet I think it is the most incredible, mind-blowing thing. We have an unlimited supply of chemical-free spring water here which we can use to water the garden in times of need, but old habits die hard and the idea of not capturing the abundance of rainwater sliding down the roof is unthinkable. I smiled to see the butt full to overflowing, a single hibiscus leaf floating on the surface of the cool, clear water like a lonely boat. Such a precious resource, indeed.

Another precious resource ~ well, to my mind, anyway ~ is compost. I understand that plenty of people may struggle to share my delight at the sight of a pile of decomposing vegetation, but for me this stuff is worth its weight in gold. Our compost heap swells to great proportions over the summer and as it had started to meet me as I came round the corner to the squash patch, I thought it was probably time to turn it once again.

The first job was to lift off the top layers and place them to one side. This is easier said than done, especially as we seemed to have a lot of branching things that had tied themselves in knots. Also, there was a bit of a self-set nasturtium thing going on . . .

It was welll worth the effort, though, as beneath all that mess was a wonderful layer of dark compost: it was hard to get the camera angle right, but the compost layer was about 30cm deep (or a foot in old money if you prefer). Down the whole length of the heap, that adds up to a lot of compost!

To say it was full of worms would be an understatement. This is the sort of sight that gladdens my gardening heart; it’s also no exaggeration to say I was literally mobbed by robins who lost no time in spying an easy meal.

I lifted the compost and built a heap between the pile of rotting farmyard manure and the comfrey potion bucket. Once it was all there, I covered it to keep the rain (and robins!) off until we spread it around the patch and in the tunnel, the perfect autumn feed for our soil.

Spending most of our lives outdoors as we do, it comes as a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves confined indoors because of terrible weather (thankfully, it rarely lasts more than a day or two). With an unusual drop in temperature, we decided to light our stove ~ aka The Beast ~ for the first time in months. I love this ritual of the first fire, there is something so reassurring and life-affirming about the sweet scent of woodsmoke curling from the chimney and the flicker of flames behind glass. Like a line of washing blowing in the breeze or a pot of herbs by the kitchen door, for me there’s a strong sense of ‘home’ about it and certainly the wrap-around warmth it creates in the house is pure seasonal hygge. The kettle sits there ready for coffee, the bread dough revels in the warmth and we often pull a bag of peaches from the freezer and set the jam kettle to bubble. Lovely.

This is a great time to catch up on a few indoor tasks. It’s walnut harvest time at the moment and the wind has helped to hurry things along a bit, although beating the wild boar and polecats to the fallen treasure is as much a race as ever; luckily, there’s more than enough to go round. Walnuts are a huge crop for us here and we eat them every day; no food miles, no packaging, highly nutritious and delicious and all for free, they are a perfect food. We have just reached the final basket of last year’s harvest so sitting by the fire and cracking a pile of them ready to use was a satisfying pastime.

I haven’t done any knitting for ages but there’s something about the onset of autumn that has me reaching for my needles and starting a new sock project, and this week has been no exception. I’ve opted for ‘Drops Delight’ yarn in gorgeous jewel colours that work up in wide colourwashed bands; I’m a simple soul, but things like this make me very happy!

I’ve also been finishing a birthday card, the second one I’ve made recently as we have two little grandsons celebrating their third birthday within a short time. Making cards for The Littlies has become a bit of a tradition and I love spending the time reflecting on the joy they bring to our lives and how wonderful it is to watch them grow and develop their own fascinating personalities. I wanted to create something seasonal, so opted for the idea of autumn hedgehogs looking for somwhere in the leaf litter to hibernate. I set up an art ‘studio’ outside (pre-storm, obviously) and used children’s watercolour paints to make colourwashes ~ this is the absolute extent of my talent with paint! 🙂 I then spent a very happy hour traipsing about the woods, collecting leaves of all shapes and sizes to use as templates. For the hedgehogs, I returned to my yarny comfort zone and used scraps of spun fleece: natural brown Manx Loaghtan for the body and French marigold -dyed Merino for the face and feet. Well, as ever, the result was a bit quirky but if nothing else, there’s a lot of love in it!

The same can be said for something I am making for a very special family, a summery blanket to grace a new garden bench. I have loved every minute of this project so far, from choosing the colours together ~ nine shades of blue and three yellows ~ to the postman delivering the parcel of wool and with it, that wonderful anticipation of starting on a new journey of simple creativity.

I’m not following any pattern, just working the rows in blocks of twelve so that each colour is distributed evenly across the blanket, pulling out whichever colour I feel like using next as I go along. It’s a blissfully relaxed approach.

I’d forgotten what a lovely thing this ripple stitch is, there is something so gently therapeutic about working up and down those waves; it’s the perfect pick-up, put-down activity on wet days and it’s exciting to see it growing steadily into a blanket.

Those colours certainly help to brighten the grey gloom, they feel like the essence of an Asturian beach day in summer. They also serve as a reminder that of one thing we can be sure: the winds will drop, the rain will stop, the temperature will rise again and we will soon be basking in the benign warmth of a soft, sweet autumn once again. We won’t be packing the shorts and sandals away just yet. There’s nothing like a bit of blue sky thinking in my book! 🙂

Dye another day

Mere colour can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

Oscar Wilde

I love colour. I love bold blocks of brights and paler ribbons of pastels; I love wide, sweeping brushstrokes and precise pointillist dots; I love the way harmonious shades melt together with heart-aching beauty and others clash in eye-opening shock; I love colours smudged and blurred like hazy rainbows or making strong statements in sharp outlines. I believe colour really does speak to the soul in a thousand different ways and for me, there is no greater source of this sumptuous soul food than in nature. Even grey skies have a singular beauty.

What a delight, then, to have the chance to spend a couple of nights recently on the Galician coast and drink in the colour and character of that wild landscape. I have to come clean and admit that I’m always left feeling a bit undecided about Galicia whenever we visit. Much of it is picturesque rolling green countryside clothed in densely wooded hillsides and draped with vineyards currently aflame in the glory of their autumn colours. The Atlantic coast is a gem, all wide estuaries and squiggly islands fringed in white-sanded beaches and studded with intriguing rock formations.

So, why do I struggle to love it? Well, after Asturias it just always seems so very busy, so full of buildings and traffic and people, the coastal roads snaking through miles and miles of built-up areas with only rare glimpses of the countryside beyond. Understandably, tourism is huge; there is a plethora of campsites, hotels, restaurants, bars and the like, many closed or looking slightly forlorn now the tourist season is over, all serving what must be an immense influx of holiday makers over the summer months. I’m not being critical, just saying all this busyness is not for me . . . and happily – as in so many other places – once you leave the hustle and bustle and impact of human activity behind, there are many stunning wild spaces that really hit the sweet spot. Even when it’s pouring with rain.

Yes, the weather was spiteful with blustery, heavy showers becoming more organised into almost 24 hours of torrential downpours as glowering skies dumped what felt like much of the Atlantic Ocean on our heads. Still, nothing daunted, we set out to make the most of it; it’s the first time in many, many months my hiking trousers and jacket have been out for an airing but they’re wonderfully waterproof so I was as dry and warm as toast – still looking skywards for enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, though! Well, a little optimism never hurt anyone.

This was the Playa Con Negro near O Grove, billed on a wooden signpost as ‘nature’s art park’ and there was no arguing with that; it was like landing in a surreal Henry Moore -inspired landscape or – to my rather overactive imagination – a giants’ battlefield from some ancient folk tale. Certainly, the geology hinted at past times of terrible turbulence and violence, immense granite boulders hurled into precarious positions and sculpted into spellbinding shapes. What an extraordinary place.

Between the dominant monoliths were veins of a different darker rock, tortured and twisted and shattered into sinuous strata, all sharp edges and angles in complete contrast to the smooth curves of the lighter, speckled granite.

Caught in hollows and gullies were rock pools, the crystal clear water revealing a captivating spectrum of colours in the rock. Reds, greens, oranges, yellows . . . now this is definitely my thing.

What isn’t my thing is litter and it was sad to find several plastic drinks bottles (and, rather bizarrely, a Fairy Liquid bottle), glass bottles, cartons and other plastic detritus scattered across the otherwise pristine sandy beaches. It’s likely they had been washed up by the tide rather than discarded in situ but either way, they shouldn’t be there. We gathered them up and placed them in recycling bins provided in the car park but given the whole issue of plastic in the oceans, it felt like the tip of an enormous iceberg. The area, quite rightly, has protected status as a special natural environment; there is no charge to park or to visit and you can wander wherever you like to enjoy and appreciate the raw beauty of the place. It is a privilege to do so and there should be no question of a single piece of rubbish being there. Ever.

On a happier note, though, I am always amazed and comforted by nature’s resilience and the sheer adaptability and determination of living things to thrive, even against all odds. From a distance, this landscape might seem barren, almost lunar in character, but on close inspection the rocks were carpeted in lichen and even the tiniest cracks boasted a variety of courageous plants making little wild gardens full of colour.

We wandered up the coast a short way and the sun decided to put in a welcome appearance, albeit very briefly. Incredible how that shift in light altered the colour in the landscape, filling the rockpools with fragments of blue sky.

Mmm, look at those beautiful blues and greens now, that creamy pink sand. Where’s my spinning wheel? 🙂

We crossed the sweeping curve of a bridge from the mainland to the Illa de Arousa and spent several hours wandering along the coastpath and beaches there. Once again, this was just our sort of place, much of it a special nature reserve with protected nesting sites for the multitude of wading birds scurrying and stabbing along the tideline and regeneration projects focused on the dunes, wetlands and native woodland.

The beaches were breathtakingly beautiful and literally carpeted with shells. My goodness, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many in one place.

Isn’t beachcombing a joy? We found ourselves totally absorbed, heads down, sifting through the piles for beauties that caught our eye. The shapes, structures, colours and patterns were exquisite and some of them were so tiny, I could sit several on a fingernail. If I were an artist I would have felt inspired to create something with such an engaging medium, a sort of impulsive, indulgent Andy Goldsworthy moment on the beach; as it was, I simply looked and touched and enjoyed . . . and thought of wool.

Where inspiration was concerned, the beaches hadn’t quite finished with me yet; there was so much colour and texture in the seaweed and plant life amongst the dunes. Forget the tourist attractions, this is all I need. Grazas, Galicia!

Home to Asturias, my head reeling with possibilities and a need to play with more natural dyes; this desperate urge has far outstripped my ability to spin white skeins quickly so I’ve been dipping lengths of wool top instead. The simple pleasure of gathering plant material from the garden and turning it into a dye is just perfect, although I’m going to have to address the mordant issue eventually. My latest little experiment has been with the French marigolds that have been blooming for months, two self-set plants that have mushroomed through the summer to shrub proportions and are covered in literally hundreds of blooms; there’s plenty to go round so I felt the bumbles could spare me a few.

I’m getting quite lazy with this process already, simmering a pile of flower heads for a while then throwing in the wool without straining the plant material off first. The flowers produced a gorgeous ruby colour in the dyepot . . .

. . . and turned the wool a pale, creamy, ‘barely there’ yellow. Out of idle interest, I snipped a small piece and dunked it in an alkali bath. Wowzer, now we’re talking! What a shade. In went half the wool. I’m already planning projects for these two, and as overdyeing yellow with indigo is a good way to get greens, I decided to dry another pile of those marigolds for further forays into the world of yellow. It’s good to plan ahead, don’t you think?

When Roger wandered into the kitchen and observed in his patiently resigned way that ‘the woolly stuff goes on and on and on‘ I had to admit – after a cursory glance around – that he had a point. Various bits and skeins of dyed fleece and silk were hanging from the overhead airer, going through the final drying process; a further batch was simmering on top of The Beast in a pot of marigold soup; the exploded body parts of a half-crocheted teddy were scattered across the coffee table, which itself was thrust out into the room to make space for my spinning wheel (sporting a bobbin partly spun) by the sofa; almost an entire work surface, save for the bit where flower heads were spread out to dry, was covered in lengths of fleece and silk being carded into fluffy rolags whilst numerous baskets and bags of projects started or projects-in-waiting were scattered across the floor. This is not to mention the growing pile of knitted jumpers and crocheted teddies mounting up in the bedroom so that I don’t forget to pack them for our UK trip next month. Even by my lackadaisical standards, I realised that something had to be done: much as I love wool, drowning in a sea of it is probably not how I’d choose to take my last gasp. Death-by-flowers neither, for that matter.

I started by finishing the teddy so it could join its friends in preparation for the journey. Along with a patchwork crochet blanket and some knitted finger puppets, these colourful bears have helped me to finish up a huge pile of yarn scraps this year, something I’m feeling very chuffed about. I’m hoping they will bring some smiles to little faces and the packets of sunflower seeds saved from our patch and hidden in their bags will help to spread the gardening love.

Next, I made a concerted effort to tidy up the finished dyeing projects and put them into safe storage until required. I couldn’t resist a little photo call first, a sort of ‘madder three ways’ moment – it’s a bit like a trio of desserts but better for the waistline.

I’m normally very slapdash with finished skeins but given that I’m hoping to build a reasonable collection over time, I appreciate the need for careful labelling so I can identify everything in the future: type(s) of fibre, yardage, weight (by which I really mean mass in grams) and ‘weight’ as in thickness, as well as information about the dyeing process. I find to my surprise that it’s actually quite a satisfying thing to do.

Putting them carefully into storage in the attic, I was congratulating myself on how I’d managed to start turning a box of plain fleece into more useful supplies and used up most of my spare yarn when a little bag of forgotten bits caught my eye: several ends of balls left over from previous sock knitting projects. On their own, they don’t amount to much but together weighed in at a couple of hundred grams which is enough for two pairs of adult socks. I sorted them into two vague colour schemes, one based on greens, the other on blues and purples and decided to launch into a brand new project (oh come on, I’d finished the teddies . . .): introducing Operation Scrappy Socks.

Now I am the first to admit that these are probably going to look pretty ridiculous knitted in large bands of totally mismatched self-patterning yarn but then, does it really matter? (By the way, I’m finding it a really fun way of working, but maybe that’s just my warped sense of humour.) As far as I’m aware, not too many people go round studying my socks and to be honest, if it’s cold enough to be wearing them then they’re going to be hidden under long trousers and inside slippers or boots most of the time. I’m not overly happy with the idea of knots but then plenty of sock patterns use more than one yarn colour so it’s not like I’m committing some dreadful crime and at the end of the day, I’d rather use the yarn than waste it. Anyway, there’s something about the season in these greens that pleases me. Whether the finished articles are funky, freaky or just downright daft they will keep my feet snug and give me a few more Brownie points on the waste not, want not scale. That’s a win-win, I’d say.

Now it’s time for a bit of a confession – well, quite a lot of one, in truth – on the subject of my attempt not to buy any new yarn this year. I’ve tried so hard to stay on the yarn wagon and I managed nearly ten months but I’m afraid to say, I’ve taken a bit of a tumble and bought a new blanket project. I do feel a wee bit guilty BUT in my defence, there is a very good reason for it, namely that I wanted to order a yarn kit from the UK and with Brexit looming with all the uncertainties regarding tariffs, international postage and the like I thought it better to buy now rather than wait until January and run into possible problems. It’s a sad fact that several small family businesses I use for things like seeds have postponed all orders from outside the UK until they know what’s happening so I feel slightly justified in my decision. Of course, what I really, really should do is hide the yarn away and promise not to start the blanket until the New Year. Yep . . . and pigs might fly! 🙂