Waves, worms and witches

One of our favourite habits pre-Covid (isn’t it strange and terrible how that has become a phrase in my vocabulary?) was to combine shopping trips with a picnic and walk somewhere scenic. It worked well for us in two ways: first, by minimising car journeys and squeezing the most from a day out and second, by sweetening the dreaded shopping business with a welcome treat. All that stopped with lockdown and we’ve never really got back to it since; we avoid beaches through the summer season anyway, there doesn’t seem any point in deliberately mixing with other people given the situation and we have been doing all our shopping as locally as possible. However, the need to find a replacement battery for the tractor last week meant we had to venture further afield and so it was we ended up at the lovely Playa de Peñarronda, close to the border with Galicia.

The beach might not be as long or quite as stunning as others we know but I have a real soft spot for it, not least because the walk to it is through a wonderfully wild green space. Usually, we have to scramble down cliffs from a coastpath, climb through dunes or pick our way over rocky ridges but this is a very different experience; no plantations of maritime pines here, but leafier beauties printing autumn against the sky.

I love the atmosphere of this place, the way that it feels truly shared between humanity and the rest of nature. The wide sweeps of reed beds with their borders of frothy meadowsweet and banks of chaotic brambles and jumbled trees might not have the same appeal for many people as a beach bar or ice cream kiosk, but I am in my element. There is so much life here!

A wooden boardwalk leads through this marshy area towards the beach, the vegetation spilling over its edges. I stopped to appreciate the raucous frog chorus rising from the depths of the boggy jungle and to watch a kestrel riding the air above on arrowhead wings, coursing the ground for its next meal.

I found myself totally distracted by shape and pattern, by texture and colour; here, the explosion of grassy clumps, there the minute detail of flowering rushes. I could hear the sea but was in no great hurry to get there.

I love the way that the plant world tries to hold on to this space until the very last moment, as if not willing to concede one scrap of land to sand and sea. The river flowing sedately to the beach, all mirrored sky and frantic dragonflies, is thickly fringed with lush plant growth.

Even at the very last moment, where boardwalk morphs to soft sand, those grasses are clinging on for dear life.

Of course, there are always the show-offs, those hardy souls with their devil-may-care attitude, growing in great abundance straight out of the sand.

So – at last- the beach. This is how I like them best, empty liminal strips under wide skies, windswept and wave beaten.

It was so quiet and empty, although we didn’t quite have the beach to ourselves; there were one or two others wandering about like us and a handful of surfers enjoying themselves in those wild waves.

Despite my recent courageous (well, in my mind at least) attempts at wild swimming, I have to admit I don’t rush to get into the sea, especially this cold and lively one, so I am always impressed at the way the surf dudes handle it all with practised ease. The gulls, on the other hand, had seen it all before and had simply turned their backs on such nonsense, happy to paddle in the warmer river water as it flowed down the beach. Well, perhaps they had the right idea.

The course of the river had changed completely since our last visit, cutting a deep channel and shifting across the sand in sinuous meanders that made paddling the only option for anyone wanting to walk the entire length of the beach. Caught in focus with the prominent rock arch behind, I was reminded of the ever shifting nature of Nature, the constant change that never changes. Change was in the air for us, too. Four days after our walk, the Asturian borders were closed once more; we are not (yet) in total lockdown but a trip outside the Principality is no longer possible and it makes sense to stay close to home. How extra precious those golden beach moments now seem.

I would of course be lying if I tried to make out that staying put is a problem for us; cancelling three trips to the UK and one to Norway in 2020 and not having seen our family for the best part of a year is deeply upsetting 😥but at a local level, we are, in all honesty, both very much homebirds. We are blessed to live in such a gorgeous spot and happy to potter and pootle about in that lovely ‘draw water, chop wood, pick greens’ sort of way that defines our simple lifestyle. So, with the weather at long last back to something nearer normal for the time of year ~ sunshine and warmth~ I am very thrilled to be back outside and busy in the garden.

A beautiful October afternoon.

I love the way the light level brings changes, the gentle October sunshine lighting the lanscape in a soft, smudged way; working at ground level, I see the air full of illuminated insects, shimmering like tiny shards of glass, and the plants silvered with delicate threads of spider silk. The garden is full of posturing robins and various finches dashing in and out, raiding the seed-rich sunflower heads I have tied to the fence. It’s magical. It amazes me how full the patch still is, even this late in the season. We are eating carrots, beetroot, chard, kale (several types), cabbage, leeks, parsnips, lettuce, rocket, landcress, Florence fennel, New Zealand spinach, mustard greens, cucumbers, green peppers, nasturtiums and a wealth of fresh herbs; the last of the summer broccoli and figs keep producing little pickings, the first Jerusalem artichokes, oca, kiwi and purple sprouting broccoli are waiting in the wings. We have moved the mighty squash and walnut harvests into the horreo and both are on the daily menu.

Still plenty to pick for our plates!

That said, there are gaps opening up in the garden as crops come to the end of their productive life; this week, we have picked the last of the French beans left to grow big and fat in their pods for drying and lifted the courgette plants ~ after months and months of continual fruiting, they had finally run out of steam. So, what to do with those open spaces?

Well, there are other things we can plant now for early crops next year, including broad beans, peas and garlic; I always fancy some overwintering yellow onions, too, but experience has shown us they’re not keen on the humid climate here. There was a time I would have got stuck in merrily with my garden fork, digging the weeds out to compost and turning the whole lot over into a patch of pristine bare earth. Mmm, how things have changed! I’ve blogged in the past about how much I love digging ~ I really do ~ but, with the help of some incredibly inspiring people, I have come to realise that there is a better way . . . and as I am totally committed to saving the planet (with the help of a few other people, obviously 😉), I have adopted a very different approach. Old dogs most definitely can learn new tricks.

For starters, I don’t see ‘weeds’ any more, rather a range of brave green pioneers who pile in to fill the vacuum that nature abhors. Which species grow in different spaces can tell me much about what is going on with the soil and ‘weed reading’ has become a fascinating and enlightening activity. I adopted a very laissez-faire approach some time ago, leaving most weeds as a living mulch between food crops ~ let’s face it, bare earth isn’t tolerated in nature so as long as our veggies aren’t threatened, why insist on pulling weeds out? They help to protect and feed the soil and retain moisture, many offer excellent food sources for beneficial wildlife and if and when they need culling, they can be returned to the earth directly or indirectly as a nutrient-rich soil booster. Many of them are also useful to us as foods, teas or herbal medicines and this is an area of research and learning I’m finding hugely satisfying. I laughed as we settled ourselves at a picnic table in the green hinterland of Playa de Peñarronda, realising my first thought had been what amazing forage there was to be had there ~ just look at all that red clover, plantain, chickweed, meadowsweet, applemint, birch . . ! 😀

I’ve always been passionate about feeding soil but now my emphasis is completely on growing it. Whereas previously I was concerned about having a balance of nutrients and good structure in a growing medium, now I see soil as a living organism, a precious vital entity to be protected and nurtured at all costs. The world’s topsoil is on the Endangered Species list; it is a crucial support system for life on earth and widely regarded as one of the very best channels for carbon sequestration. It needs a lot of love. So, forget all that digging and weeding; these days, I’m all about treading as lightly as possible ~ literally and metaphorically ~ on the earth and doing as little as possible to disturb the complex web of life it holds. First, a very light hand-pulling of any weeds that needed to be removed (mostly self-set nasturtium and mustard) which I put to one side ready to be chopped and spread as a mulch under our kale plants; I left the yellow trefoil in as a nitrogen-fixing green manure. Next, I used my small garden fork to very gently make holes down a strip we’d been using as a path, to aerate the compacted soil; my goodness, the amount of worms that came to the surface was astonishing. On which subject . . .

Living compost.

. . . the next stage involved that pile of yummy compost I removed from the heap a couple of weeks ago. At this point, I realised that a true permaculture designer would have the compost pile a lot closer to the vegetable patch in the name of efficiency (be kind, I’m only on study week 12 out of 52), but I looked on all those steep climbs back and forth with a weighty trug as good exercise and all part of the Big Soil Love. I piled a deep layer over the planting area, raking it out lightly and leaving just a small patch uncovered at the bottom as it is full of dill volunteers. A couple of days in the sun to warm up a bit and then I shall plant beans and peas straight into it. There it is, the perfect-looking planting patch prepared with the absolute minimum of soil disturbance and living proof that you can do ‘no dig’ without raised beds.

Ready for planting.

I know full well that there will be two possible downsides to this approach. First, the blackbirds who are one of the biggest pea pests here but I’m planning to head them off at the pass by spreading another patch with well-rotted manure; they can’t resist a bit of early morning ‘tractoring’ in muck so I’m hoping it will prove to be a worthy distraction while the seeds germinate. The other issue is the wealth of volunteer seedlings that will pop up out of the compost; probably not cucumbers and squash at this time of year, but without doubt there will be hundreds and hundreds of nasturtiums.

Nasturtiums and New Zealand spinach . . . a perfect pairing.

They get everywhere and are totally irrepressible, especially when we have a mild winter. Still, they are easy enough to pull or chop and drop where they’re not needed but otherwise I welcome them as a free and effective living mulch. Take for example the photo below where they have created excellent ground cover beneath a rose and globe artichoke and have skirted beautifully round the oca to team up with a French marigold amongst the carrots. They’ve even climbed through the fading clematis to add a splash of sunshine on the fence. There really is no stopping them but they’re doing a grand job.

Bare earth? Not a chance!

Tonight, there will be a blue moon and today it is, of course, Hallowe’en, based on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which traditionally marked the end of the old year. Scrape away the modern plastic consumerfest of witches, ghosts, pumpkins and sugar-fuelled pranks and I believe that, whatever your persuasion, there is much value in spending time reflecting on all that has happened through the year and honouring ancestors and loved ones no longer present ~ maybe this year more than ever? The Christian festival of All Saints Day (El Día de Todos los Santos) on 1st November is a hugely important public holiday in Spain, when many people travel to pay their respects at services of remembrance with arms full of flowers and potted chrysanthemums. This year the cemeteries in Asturias are all closed: there will be no services. I can only begin to imagine what distress people must be feeling at this, another blow in such a strange and difficult year.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. . .” ~ William Shakespeare

For me, spending time in the garden with my hands in soil and compost, weeds and seeds, feels like an appropriate way to mark the season and reflect upon the cycles of life and death in a poignant yet pragmatic way. I am here thanks to my ancestors and, in treading lightly on the earth and caring for the soil, I hope to leave a beautiful and thriving planet for my descendants to enjoy long after I am gone from the world. It is the very least I can try to do, surely?

No bonfires or lanterns for us, but an evening barbecue to celebrate the season.

Bridging the gap

Spring is almost officially here and we have just eaten the final picking of leeks and the very last cabbage from the garden. It feels a bit sad in a way but we’ve been harvesting leeks since last September so they really have done us proud.

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There is still a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and small pickings of mizuna, pak choi and komatsuna fresh from the patch and we still have plenty of squash and beans in storage. We have been using fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chervil and coriander all winter and now the vigorous new growth on parsley, spearmint and chives offers additional delicious flavourings.

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That said, we are teetering on the edge of that ‘hungry gap’ when there will be very little to be had from the garden; if we want a wide diversity of veg in our diet, we have to buy a few now. The next crops won’t be too long; there are flowers on the autumn-planted broad beans and peas, and the second plantings are through the ground. In the polytunnel, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce are leafing up nicely and the first taste of radish is on its  way.

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The bottom line, though, is that it would be good to be gapless.

We were much later getting our polytunnel organised and up than planned (and we’ve had nothing but problems with it since . . . mmm, that’s another story) but next spring, it will be key to bridging the gap. There are many things that can be planted in autumn to give crops all winter or an early spring harvest and we intend to exploit that situation to the full. At the moment, there are a few bits and pieces in the ground but much of the space is either empty or housing the staging, currently heaving under trays and pots of emerging seedlings – our food (and flowers) of the future!

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The plan is to remove the staging when it’s done its job and plant the whole space with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons plus a few other bits and bobs; we’re also planting everything but tomatoes outdoors and it will be an interesting experiment to compare both lots over the summer. Now I have to admit that I love a good dig – or at least, a good rummage around in soil with my fork. It’s a simple thing, the joy of physical activity combined with that wonderful earthy smell, the sight of worms, that feeling of preparation and expectation . . . but I know there are arguments against it and I’m interested to try a bit of ‘no-dig’ gardening. Roger isn’t at all convinced of the benefits and we have enjoyed some lively discussions on the subject but I’m wondering if the tunnel might just provide an opportunity to have a go this year? To that end, I hauled what felt like several tonnes of homemade compost into the tunnel and dumped it on all the bare areas; there’s plenty of excess to spread around once the trestles have gone. It’s a deep layer of lovely, worm-riddled, crumbly gorgeousness so my idea is not to dig it in but leave it as ta thick mulch, plant directly and observe with interest.

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Back to that gap and another strategy this year is to alter the planting times of some crops; it takes a while to understand a new climate and we are still in the early stages here. This time last year, we had trays of leek plants several centimetres high but we haven’t even planted them yet this year. The truth is, we don’t need to be eating them in September when the patch is still heaving with other veg, so by pushing them back a bit with any luck we will be able to harvest them until the end of March at least. Parsnips have always been a huge winter staple for us; they are notoriously tricky to germinate but we have never had a problem, fresh seed saved from our plants and sowed with freezing fingers in cold, waterlogged February soil always yielding more than enough to feed our family of five all winter. They grow like stink here, too – enormous great roots which do several meals for two of us – but oh my goodness, the trouble we’ve had getting them started.

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Last year, we had to plant three times before anything germinated and then the harvest was not quite as big or prolonged as we would have liked. This year, we’ve started them off in the tunnel, the seeds planted in little cones of newspaper filled with compost (I had great fun making those cones, like folding tiny piping bags . . . very therapeutic!); fingers crossed for a successful germination and then we simply pop the cones into the ground outside and look forward to a winter feast of those delicious beauties.

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On the subject of adjusting to a different climate, we have been catching the tail end of the wintry weather sweeping across more northerly parts; we aren’t suffering from frosts or snow but the temperature has been pegged back and there is a certain amount of gardeners’ frustration at play. Patience, patience! That said, the signs of spring are all around, not least the delicate beauty of peach and apricot blossom.

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This is a timely reminder that the new season’s harvest is on its way and we still have a mass of fruit in the freezer from last year’s glut. No problem, I have been pulling them out in batches, stewing them lightly in their own juices on top of the woodstove and eating them for breakfast. I don’t know about other people, but sometimes when reflecting on our attempts to live a simpler, greener, more sustainable life I find myself focusing on how much we aren’t doing; it’s human nature, I suppose, but occasionally it’s good to stand back and look at the positives, too.  So, here is my breakfast: peaches picked and preserved from our trees, organic oats bought in a paper bag which will be shredded onto the compost heap, and walnuts from our woodland, stored in their shells and cracked as needed. No hint of chemicals, no plastic wrapping in sight, zero waste. (Not to mention it’s a delicious and nutritious combination to start the day!)

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One ‘gap’ we really can’t risk is that of logs; we rely on a steady supply to feed the stove and that means planning ahead. This winter we have been burning the old roof timbers, ‘recycling’ them into heat – the stove heats the entire house – as well as hot water and a hob and oven for cooking. During the autumn, we have cut the remaining timbers and stacked them to dry; this week, Roger has moved them all into the shed for storage and turned his thoughts to logs for 2020!

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We are blessed with several acres of woodland, a mix of mostly eucalyptus (planted by the former owner as a cash crop), chestnut, birch, oak, willow and holly. There is much shrubby undergrowth including Spanish heath and gorse and a wealth of wild flowers, too (there are carpets of sweet violets everywhere at present). It is a beautiful wild tangle of growth and a haven for wildlife – wild boar and deer are regular visitors and there is a tremendous population of birds. Our attitude to logging is to take just enough for our needs through careful ‘management’ rather than greed; fallen trees are always the first port of call. The chestnuts can be coppiced rather than felled – this is typical local practice – and that is what Roger has been doing, cutting selected trunks and hauling them home with the tractor to split and season.

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There’s no waste here, either: the sweet-smelling sawdust is a great addition to the compost heap and I’ve been happily sweeping it up and spreading it across the top of our greatly reduced pile.

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So . . . here’s to another year of logs and compost and  – if we play our cards right – no hungry gap at all next spring. Happy equinox, everyone! 🙂

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