Solar power

A couple of weeks ago, finding myself wide awake at 4.45am, I pulled on my dressing gown and wellies (how chic am I?), grabbed a blanket and headed out into the garden. The moon and Venus were still bright in the southern sky as I settled myself into a chair to watch the sun rise and the world around me waken. I’m often dozily aware of the growing light and dawn chorus drifting in through the bedroom window but to be outside in the thick of it was truly magical. It’s not just the birdsong, the different species flowing in and out of the chorus like a well-directed choir, but all the movement that goes with it – the rustle and bustle, the flitting and flying and feeding – that is quite astonishing. The sun rose in a bright fire, blushing a few wispy clouds and sending long fingers of shadow whispering across the garden; the grey shapes of tree and flower came into sharp focus as colour seeped into everything around me. It was beautiful, an hour of stillness and peace that left me feeling alive and invigorated for the rest of the day.

I had planned to repeat the experience on the summer solstice, excited by the fact that for the first time ever, we are living somewhere where the lie of the land means we can see both sunrise and sunset on that pivotal day; I’d wanted to take photos, to be able to pinpoint the sun’s journey precisely at the high point of its year. Ha ha, how the weather gods laughed. Cloud and thunderstorms were the order of the day; all was green and fresh and sparkling but there wasn’t a hope of seeing the sun do its stuff above the bank of glowering grey. The best I could manage was an indifferent, moody cloudscape in the evening. Ah well, there’s always next year . . .

. . . and that’s the point, really. I can’t feel downhearted. I love midsummer and think it is worthy of celebration, it is such a joyful time of year with so much light and warmth and growth. I know it’s not the same for everyone and there are those who feel wistful – mournful, even – at the thought of shorter days and everything being ‘downhill’ from here. Well, I’ve never been one to race ahead of the season and it frustrates me the way in which modern society encourages that. In a blink of an eye, it will be the summer sales bonanza; as children prepare to break up for their summer holiday, the shops will be full of ‘Back to School’ stuff; far too soon after their return to the classroom, the shelves will be cleared in preparation for that gross consumerfest in December. Why be miserable about dark nights and cold weather when it’s still warm and light and there is so much yet to come, not least most of our harvest? We’re only halfway through the year . . . let’s enjoy ourselves and celebrate the moment!

I think this moment as the sun briefly stands still is the perfect point for a pause; it’s a time to look back over the waxing half of the year and reflect on what I have – or haven’t – accomplished and look forward to the next six months with optimism and a fresh sense of purpose. For us this year it is particularly pertinent since this week marks six months since we moved to our new home here . . . wow, that time seems to have flown by! There have been ups and downs, steps forward and back, much hard work and a fair amount of play, too; at times, our progress has seemed painfully slow but we have achieved much and some time spent in reflection also helps us to see more clearly what our next steps need to be.

The garden, as ever, has been our main priority, and at last there is a feeling that we are actually getting somewhere. The summer harvest has started in earnest and it’s a wonderful feeling to be shelling peas and broad beans and picking cherries daily; we eat vast quantities of fruit and vegetables and it has been a strange experience for us having to buy them since December. No more! I love the way that a sense of abundance is creeping into various patches; I am happy to admit that I am a terrible crammer when it comes to sowing and planting but I love that sense of everything hugged together, jostling for elbow room. Out of necessity this year, the larger veg patches look more formal than I like with most things in tidy rows but in the Secret Garden, I have managed to indulge my own brand of chaos with bits and bobs stuffed in here and there, a crazy patchwork quilt of food and flowers.

The other patches look starker, lacking any real sense of height or structure as yet, but after several days of warm rain everything seems to have shifted up a gear. The climbing beans are at last spiralling upwards and the squash have tumbled down their hügel bed and set off across the grass. The ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans (my absolute favourite variety) are flaunting their gorgeous flowers, and the ‘Charlotte’ potatoes have added their mauve and white blooms to the purple of ‘Blue Danube.’ Throw in the sunny yellow starbursts of courgette and squash and it’s all looking rather pretty.

Saving seeds, roots and tubers for replanting is something we’ve practised for a long time and an area that I’m committed to developing more each year. Growing heirloom varieties is an obvious way to help this along and offers the added possibility of creating our own varieties; we’ve had a lot of fun with saving squash seed in the last few years and it has come as no great surprise that the Casa Victorio Specials are leading the chase across our French garden! As well as actively saving seed, I like to let plants do their own thing and regenerate as they like; self-set seedlings often thrive, even if they do pop up in the craziest of places. Rocket is very much a spring crop here and has been flowering in the Secret Garden for a couple of weeks now, the creamy white blooms being a dainty but peppery addition to salads. In no time at all, it will be setting seed and then hopefully spreading itself about along with the neighbouring land cress, coriander, parsley, calendula and borage. There are already little red sorrel seedlings appearing of their own accord and chard and New Zealand spinach are likely to join in . . . a self-perpetuating salad bowl in the making!

Rocket flowers in a salad

It’s not just about seeds, either. I’ve been transplanting small lettuce plants into any available spaces for several weeks now and we have a good crop to choose from. Trying to persuade more to germinate at this time of year can be tricky as they don’t like the heat very much and to be honest, it makes more sense to save the seed and plant it in the tunnel later in the year as an overwintering crop. In the meantime, I’m cutting them as we need them and leaving the root in the ground: it’s amazing how quickly they regrow into perfectly pickable leaves. Two lettuce for the price of one – can’t be bad.

Blond romaine lettuce: the two in the foreground have been cut and eaten once!

Herbalism is something that has interested me for as long as I can remember and I think the study of the therapeutic applications of plants is a fascinating and joyful lifetime’s work. Each year, I try to focus on different plants and add new knowledge, awareness and application in our daily lives, both of cultivated and garden species. Midsummer feels like the perfect time to begin harvesting and processing aromatic herbs, now in the full flush of growth before flowering, their leaves bursting with heady scent. I’ve been thrilled to discover a reasonable selection of established plants already here – including several varieties of mint – and I’ve been raising more from seed to add to the mix. I must confess, I’ve let things slide a bit since we’ve moved, too busy with many, many things to be exploring new possibilites of herbal teas, medicines, toiletries and the like; however, I sense a shift in the wind and the strong draw of the plant kingdom once again. Even the simplest activity can be hugely enjoyable and beneficial. After a day of planting out hundreds of brassicas and leeks, a soak in a warm bath (such a luxury after five years of shower only) was a temptation I couldn’t resist; I picked lemon balm, lavender and rose petals, tied them in a linen square and tossed them into the water. Bliss, pure and simple.

As a Briton, it’s hard to think of the summer solstice without summoning the evocative image of Stonehenge so it seems apt that we have been having another standing stone moment here ourselves this week. Having planted an arc of cardoons to mark the last boundary of the flower garden, I could at last see exactly how much space was left for the third planting area and was thrilled to find there is room for my longed-for mandala bed. I don’t want anything too complicated – simple concentric rings will do – but when Roger found a huge lump of quartz lurking in a corner, we both agreed it would make a perfect focal point at the centre. It would have been interesting to move it over rolling logs but in the end a sack trolley did the job; well, times change, after all! On sunny days, it has acted as a perfect sundial, its shadow shrinking and growing across the grass through the day; now comes the job of creating what I hope will be a beautiful, thriving mandala bed by this time next year, something which will keep me busy in the coming months.

The smaller stone we placed in the hügel bed has disappeared into the undergrowth and I’m very delighted about that; not because I want the stone hidden, but I’ve been doubting whether anything would grow there successfully this year. Making hügel beds is a new experience for us, a game of patience which should pay dividends long term; certainly the squash seem happy enough on their high mound, but this flatter bed has bothered me a bit, especially as the topsoil is very thin. I’ve been adding to it from molehills but those little tunnellers seem to have shaken spring out of their system now and aren’t quite as busy about the place as they were. I knew that only annual seeds stood any chance this year, so I scattered a couple of flower mixes and put the rest down to green manure, mostly phacelia and buckwheat, with a late sowing of crimson clover to fill the gaps. In the hot, dry weather this bed really suffered and, with the water butts rapidly emptying, I saved every scrap of grey water from the house to try and keep things alive. After rain, though, it is literally blooming and fills me with optimism that the bed will work and we will have something resembling a flower garden in time.

We are still in the early days of learning and listening to this land and one of the best ways of doing that is to look at the pioneer plants. In a stubbornly empty patch of the hügel flower bed, a swathe of yarrow has established itself which pleases me very much. Like the elder I wrote about last time, yarrow is a crucially important healing plant; together, their dried flowers make effective remedies for winter colds and fevers, especially when combined with peppermint whilst yarrow alone has a wide range of applications. I’m happy that it’s here and it’s welcome to stay where it’s growing; far from wanting a formal flower garden, I see this space being a mix of cultivated and wild, of flowers and food, of things deliberately planted and others wandering in of their own accord. Close by, it has appeared in deep pink, too, making a pretty palette amongst the other ‘weeds’. . . how I love this wild gardening!

Permaculture places an emphasis on margins and edges, seeing them as fertile places offering much in the way of growth and possibility. I love the way that where we have left nature to its own devices, more and more species are creeping in from the edges, including the St John’s wort in my third photo – a midsummer flower if ever there was one. The verges are currently full of pale mauve campanula, indigo vetch and the rich magenta of knapweed, all flowers that I’m happy to have found in the garden, too. Looking back over the last six months, we have made changes here in order to create a garden but there is a distinct feeling that we are doing it within and alongside the wilder nature of the space and I’m happy with that. I like the blurring of boundaries and the sense of an holistic, inclusive approach; of course, the cultivated areas are contrived and not what nature would do on its own but they are not being made in a ‘beat back nature at all costs’ sort of way.

There’s a lot to be said for (re)wilding and it’s another area that interests me greatly, but things don’t have to be black and white on either side of a deep divide; the shades of grey, that mingling and mixing and merging, can be so very rich and mutually beneficial if done properly. The flower garden, now gaining in leaf, colour and height is at last starting to look more like a garden and less like a carved up field; this morning, I watched with delight as a family of young thrushes bounced their way across the mown grass and picked juicy bits out of a solitary molehill; a robin sat on top of the new standing stone and sang; a redstart perched on the edge of the new (and very full) water butt, dipping in and out to drink while a spotted flycatcher used the sweet pea wigwams as a launch pad for its aerial acrobatics. There is infinite room and opportunity for us all to share this precious place and our plans for the garden in the second half of the year are firmly rooted in that premise. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

It all comes down to a question of vision and focus, something that was brought home to me in a lovely way this week as I was trying to capture some new blooms with the camera. It was set to autofocus so all I had to do was press the shutter button; there was me, totally absorbed by the beauty of the flowers, but the camera chose to capture other life I hadn’t even noticed. Another lesson from the Small Things. I had to smile.

This made me smile, too. Checking some newly transplanted purple sprouting broccoli plants, I glanced at the neighbouring row of carrots and saw a fabulous swallowtail caterpillar, so vivid and vibrant in its smart colours which indicate that it’s close to pupation. Living life cycles, right under my nose. Incredible.

We have so much more to do here but I’m looking at our plans with a sense of optimism and excitement; we’re not afraid of the work, we know there will be downs as well as ups and our ideas may well have to be changed or even binned as we move forwards and come to know this beautiful space better. In the meantime, the sunshine has returned after a week of cloud and rain and I am feeling the pull of the warmth and light, the power of the sun at its height. It’s time to be outside again, basking in the comfort and joy of the season. Summer. Yes, I’m celebrating. 😊

Midsummer meanderings

With our holiday plans scuppered and the Asturian borders opened, along with the rest of Spain, to visitors once again (she says wearing very worried eyebrows) we decided this would be a good time to get out and do a few walks before the main tourist season takes off. Not that it’s ever really that busy here, but we are generally very spoilt in having trails and beaches pretty much to ourselves for most of the year and it’s all relative. Once August arrives, we are happy simply to stay at home.

Midsummer garden

Our first idea was to go back to walk the Ruta de las Xanas which we did with Sam and Adrienne back in January, but instead of risking a possible mugging by the huge mountain hound at the top of the gorge, we thought we would forgo the picnic and treat ourselves to lunch in the village bar ~ and as that is something we rarely do, it really would be a treat indeed. However, having checked online we discovered that it was closed for the festival of San Juan. Ah, okay.

We had a fantastic day out on the Ruta de las Xanas with Adrienne and Sam earlier this year.

Unlike in neighbouring Galicia, June 24th is not a public holiday in Asturias but obviously, as in this case, individuals can choose to mark it if they wish. In many parts of Spain, the night of the 23rd sees huge celebrations where people come together to dance, light bonfires on beaches and party throughout the night. Although as the Feast of Saint John it’s nominally a Christian festival, the celebrations themselves are based on much older pagan ways and share many similarities with other cultural acknowledgements of the summer solstice around the globe.

Time for Plan B and we decided to try a new walk in the neighbouring municipality of Tineo, one we’ve been meaning to do for some time now. As the crow flies, it’s not that far from home but there is no easy or direct route to the starting point so we suspected the journey on twisty mountain roads could end up being as interesting as the walk itself. It certainly was, and the scenery was spectacular, especially a valley filled with white, fluffy cloud; I hope I never become immune to natural beauty such as this.

There was no cloud at the start of our walk, just bright sunshine and a brilliant blue sky that suggested the day would be much hotter than forecast. The scenery was stunning, the trees all decked out in their full summer foliage and the dusky mountains rolling away into the distance.

The path soon turned down a greener than green lane which looked like it was going to develop into a really pleasant hike until some way down, we hit a major snag: the path was completely overgrown. Now, I realise that I might sound very hypocritical having recently moaned about the verges being cut (on which note, the morning’s journey through verges full of wild flowers and insect life had restored my faith a good deal, the strimming obsession seems to be very local to our valley)! One of the results of the COVID-19 situation is that many trails and picnic sites haven’t been maintained as they normally would have been and this left us with a problem. As country people we are prepared to wade through vegetation, squelch through mud, paddle across rivers or clamber over or under fallen trees, but waist-high nettles in shorts? Nope, not doing it . . . especially as it was early on in an eleven-kilometre circular walk and who knows what the rest might be like?

The path didn’t stay this clear for long!

Back to the car and on to Plan C. By this point of our days out, things often start to get a little needy and this one was no exception. Roger, who had been up since cockerel o’clock and run a half marathon distance before I’d even started my breakfast, was ready for his lunch; I, on the other hand, having lounged about drinking far too many mugs of tea and coffee was jiggling from foot to foot in need of a secluded spot for a ‘wild wee.’ We decided the best course of action was to head to nearby Navelgas and have our picnic in a shady woodland site next to the river. I love spots like these, for me they are pure Asturias ~ especially with the sound of cowbells ringing from the meadow beyond.

Navelgas is a lovely little town in a very pretty spot; in certain parts of the UK, it’s the sort of place that would be heaving with visitors, full of tea shops, arty boutiques and hiking and camping outlets. Instead, it’s full of friendly people quietly living their lives in the midst of beautiful scenery . . . and not a postcard or cream tea in sight!

It’s also the starting point for several good walks, some of which we’d already done so opting to try a new one, the Senda Verde de Brezo, we headed out of town along the river.

The route climbed steeply through woodland carpeted with wild strawberries, where the evocative spicy scent of warm pine took me straight back to the Canadian Rockies, albeit without the added excitiment of meeting a black bear around the corner!

There is something so special about woodland at this time of year, with the shafts of high sunlight piercing the leaf canopy and the air ringing with the incessant sound of birdsong. It was truly magical.

Further on, and we emerged from the trees to more open country and another path where nature was doing its own thing but thankfully not in a jungle of nettles this time. There were drifts of cheery yellow St John’s wort everywhere; very fitting given the date, I thought.

The path was still obviously quite passable but the issue with places like this is ticks, which seem to be especially bad this year. I find the best solution is to let another warm-blooded animal (preferably with hairy legs) go on ahead, after which it’s only fair to do some mutual tick-picking in true monkey grooming style!

On reaching the top of the climb, we stood and drank in the wide-reaching views. It never fails to amaze me how we can be looking at mountains higher than Ben Nevis and see farms or even whole village communities perched on top.

Someone with a lot of foresight had placed a bench there so we sat and enjoyed a drink of water, surrounded by the bustling busyness of bees and soporific fluttering of butterflies. Blimey, it was hot!

Given the heat and how much of the day it had taken us to reach this point, we decided not to go right to the end of the walk. Like not climbing to the top of a mountain, this sort of thing never bothers me because it’s about the journey, not the arriving; in fact, sometimes I think doing part of a set trail rather than the whole thing can be more pleasurable and rewarding, especially if a slower pace gives me the chance to really immerse myself and indulge my senses in the surroundings. Retracing our steps through the relative cool of the woodland, I lost myself in awe and wonder at the dancing silhouettes of ancient chestnut trees and the leafy elegance of it all.

Arriving back in Navelgas, we spent a little time looking at the beautiful seventeenth century panera de San Nicolás, draped with dried corn cobs in the traditional fashion. On our way back through the woods, we had collected some huge pine cones to add to the collection of natural ‘finds’ we are incoroporating into the enchanted garden part of our orchard. At first glance, there appeared to be a couple of giant carved ones beneath the panera . . .

. . . but on closer inspection, they turned out to be something quite different! Maybe we should have a go at carving one of these for the garden, too?

Home again, and what seemed to have begun as a bit of a scrappy, stop-go day had turned out to be very enjoyable in a gentle and satisfying way ~ no whizz-bang-pops, no great dramas or challenging paths, just a good walk in a beautiful spot and fabulous weather. Well, I say fabulous but nature had other ideas; no sooner were we home, than the blue sky disappeared in a tumult of storm clouds, the darkened valley became moody and atmospheric and the thunder rolled in. As the first fat spots of rain darkened the terrace slates, I reflected on the incredible range of midsummer skies we had experienced all in the space of one day. So fickle. So beautiful. So Asturias. 🙂

Just enough time to enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace before the heavens opened!