Dare to be different

One of the many things I like about writing this blog is that it serves as a sort of vague gardening diary which I can use to refer back to what we were doing in previous seasons. I know this means I tend to repeat myself – and I have apologised for that in an earlier post – but it can be both useful and interesting to see how things were going in the garden at different times of the year as well as being a handy reminder that it’s time to be planting such-and-such once again.

What I really wish, however, is that I had been organised enough to make a note of the precise dates on which there have been major gardening events in the village over the last four years in the hope of finding a pattern. When we lived in France, it puzzled me that absolutely nothing happened in the vegetable gardens until the first week of May, then within the space of two or three days the entire patch was dug and everything (potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and courgettes) was planted at once. Our neighbours thought we were très excentrique for pottering about the winter garden doing various jobs and being busy with preparations and plantings as early in the year as possible (mind you, they thought we were very strange for eating parsnips, too!).

Our pickle of a French potager raised a few Gallic eyebrows . . .

Perhaps it’s a quintessentially British thing, that urge to shake off the ennui of long, dark days and revel in even the slightest hint of warmth and seedtime? To be planning and planting and sowing as soon as the robins mark the lengthening days with their sweet song and the velvety bumblebees emerge from their winter caves. I don’t know. Here in Asturias, things are a little different to northern France; the winters are blissfully mild, there is a quiet level of garden activity pretty much all of the time and planting is certainly staggered. What fascinates me, though, is the way in which it all appears to be guided by a mysterious and invisible calendar, as if everyone is dancing in step to a familiar but silent tune, to ripples of invisible notes floating imperceptibly through the air.

I know some gardeners here work to the lunar calendar; indeed, we have bought from several seed outlets where the current one is displayed above the shelves of seed packets and boxes for easy reference. Last September, our neighbour Antonio told me that las berzas (winter cabbages and turnip greens) should be planted out on the day of the autumn equinox. I’m not sure of the relevance but it did at least seem to make a lot more sense than the old adage (which is not followed locally) about planting potatoes on Good Friday, seeing that is a date that can shift by a month and the equinox at least will only move by a couple of days. Recent weeks have seen several days with nothing much happening in village gardens followed by a huge burst of activity with everyone out and working like crazy, then disappearing as if by clockwork until the next big gardening day. It’s as if everyone wakes up one morning and thinks,’Ah yes, today is Bean Planting Day’ and that is why I regret not having kept a note because I’d love to know how they know!

Planting a block of celery . . . possibly on the wrong day?

As I have said before, our neighbours are all wonderfully tolerant, friendly people so our very different gardening style doesn’t seem to bother them one bit – or at least if it does, they’re far too polite to say. Yes, our garden is a bit alternative (well, a lot alternative) with it’s chaotic jumble of flowers and food and our piecemeal patchwork of planting but I celebrate the fact that it is a riotous mix of knowledge and ideas we have gleaned from our neighbours and our own eclectic approach. I’m not sure whether it makes us eccentric or exotic but to me, it’s a wonderful fusion of cultures and a living expression of our love for this exquisitely beautiful place.

The flowers in recent weeks have been bursting into bloom in a paintbox of colours, from broad sweeping swathes to surprising pointillist pops, and filling the air with their heady perfumes. I’ve spent precious moments knitting socks in the garden and seeing the gorgeous dye palettes reflected in the world around me.

The roses scrambling up the house wall have been indescribably stunning this year, dripping with blooms so heavy we have had to tie the plants with rope to stop them collapsing into the lane. There are four varieties in this mix; each has its own unique beauty and character but together they create a pot-pourri of astonishing allure.

Although there is much to be said for agreeable colour combinations, the kind garden designers classically choose to be easy on the eye, I have to admit to a sneaking admiration of those wild and startling combinations that nature throws into the mix. Phacelia has self-set all over the garden, flaunting its gauzy mauve prettiness in the kinds of soft Monet-esque pastel alliances that would happily grace an English cottage garden. That’s fine . . . but how I love its radical flirting with the stunning crimson of poppies!

I love the way things appear in the garden as if from nowhere, too. Rising unexpectedly from the froth of phacelia and poppies, scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ is a single spire of delicate stars; my goodness, here is a summer bulb I planted last year – or was it the year before? – and totally forgot about. It’s taken it’s time but it’s been worth the wait. Nasturtiums are two a penny here and with a very mild winter, they have flowered for twelve months with no break in as many shades of yellow and orange imaginable; now, from nowhere, on the terrace of summer brassicas, a flower of the deepest, richest red has emerged. In the ‘enchanted garden’ of the orchard, a mystery plant has proved to be a linaria which grows readily in the verges and wild places here and is more than welcome; its common name is Three Birds Flying which makes me think of origami or tai chi. It’s totally charming. Sweet Williams are a favourite of mine with their spicy clove scent and jewelled colours and they have set themselves all over the place, popping up in bright bursts in the most unexpected of places. How I love this business of gardening without so much as lifting a finger!

It seems that the insect world is enjoying all this unbridled floral chaos as much as me. We are used to the garden buzzing and fluttering with a healthy population of bees and butterflies and their supporting cast of gentle hoverflies, rowdy crickets, scurrying ladybirds and beetles of all shapes and sizes. There have a been a few new and unusual characters centre stage this week, though. Feeling the need to capture another riotous colour combination with the camera, I ended up with more than I bargained for in my picture. Look closely at that poppy . . .

The length of those antennae was outrageous! Meanwhile, it seemed a knapweed flower was the perfect setting to show off a smart metallic green jacket to great effect.

There’s nothing unusual about yellow butterflies, the garden is full of their buttery flutterings, but catching this one feeding on deadnettle was another reminder of how important it is that we leave plenty of ‘weeds’ to thrive amongst the ‘formal’ flowers. It’s a garden shared rather than a garden controlled.

Ah, but enough of this floral frivolity; ’tis time to turn to the business end of things and seek the food amongst the flowers. It’s an interesting time of cross-over where food from the patch is concerned. We finished eating some of the winter staples like parsnips and leeks several weeks ago, leaving the last plants to flower and set seed for planting next year; meanwhile, this year’s new seedlings are going strong. Otherwise, there are still dribs and drabs of overwintered foods left and we try to eke them out as much as possible at the same time as enjoying fresh pickings from the new season’s collection. It does create a bit of a juggling challenge in the garden, sowing and planting new things around the old which is partly why everything is so higgeldy-piggeldy; I know clearing the lot and starting with a wide open space of bare earth as the locals do would be so much easier, but where’s the fun in that? I love the fact that we have to fight our way through swathes of bee-ridden flowers to find the vegetables, for me it’s all part of the charm of our crazy little corner.

There’s plenty of vegetables to be found in there . . . honest!

So, what have we been eating lately? Well, the purple sprouting broccoli which we’ve been picking since January has gone on and on . . . and on. It’s been blooming in a froth of pale yellow for weeks and although we purposely leave the flowers for a bit (bees love them), it has felt like time to remove the plants to the compost heap for a while now, except they keep producing very edible stalks. Added to a picking of summer calabrese – this is an extra early plant which self-set last year – and we have a decent helping each time.

Last autumn, I planted a patch of beetroot with the intention of pulling a few baby beets but leaving most in the ground to pick the leaves for winter salads, a method which worked brilliantly. With the plants gone to seed, it was time to lift them and I was pleasantly surprised by how many tender, perfectly edible roots were left; roasted in olive oil then blitzed with walnuts, spices and Greek-style natural yogurt, they made a delicious dip of sweet, earthy gorgeousness.

One of our favourite default dinners is a meal that is comprised of several small dishes in a tapas / meze / smΓΆrgΓ₯sbord sort of way. I think this is a delightful way of eating, first because there is something infinitely pleasing and appetising about a spread of colourful, flavoursome dishes that appeals to all the senses at once but also because it is an excellent way of using up tiny quantities of ingredients in a meaningful way. Half a dozen olives bobbing about at the bottom of a briny jar might look like something that desperately needs hiding in the depths of a cooked dish . . . but marinade them for a few hours in a glug of olive oil with a sliced garlic clove and sprig of thyme, then lay them lovingly on a tiny saucer and you have a dish to be completely savoured. That beetroot dip was perfect for just such a meal, along with a hummus made from roasted squash (our penultimate one in storage) combined with tahini, oilve oil, garlic, spices and pomegranate molasses. A couple of globe artichokes and three spears of asparagus might not really present themselves as much of a helping but lightly steamed and sliced along with raw courgette – or perhaps a few peas or baby broad beans – dressed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with chive flowers, they become a delicate dish that is a celebration of the season.

Our salads have shifted to something new and different with the season, too. Gone are the oriental leaves from the tunnel (aubergine plants now fill that space), the beetroot and chard leaves and the outdoor rocket and land cress which have been left to go to seed. Now we are enjoying the first of the lettuce, pulled young and mixed with an abundance of fresh herbs and flowers, perhaps topped with artichoke, asparagus, peas and broad beans for a little more sophistication. Later in the season, when we have a glut of them, we will use them as a cooked vegetable but for now there is something wonderfully fresh and crisp about those tender raw leaves.

It won’t be too long before we are eating our own cucumbers, either; we’re growing a small Spanish variety this year which seems deliriously happy in the garden and is doubling in size each day. I love the way that a forest of self-set dill has appeared around the plants as if to remind me what a perfect pairing they are, that sort of classic combination like tomatoes and basil that shouts happy summer greetings from the rooftops.

On the subject of tomatoes, it took us four seasons of living here to finally crack the blight problem, much of last year’s success coming down to the wisdom of our gardening neighbours. This year we have kept things very simple with just three varieties planted in the hugel bed under their anti-blight shelter: beefsteak ‘Marmande’, cherry ‘Rosella’ and plum ‘San Marzano.’ Roger is being totally scrupulous in checking them daily, tying them in and pinching out the sideshoots; each plant will only be allowed to set a few trusses. This is very organised by our standards but we’ve learned the hard way with these beauties and it would be lovely to enjoy a truly abundant harvest this year. I have basil plants waiting in the wings, after all.

We are still eating celeriac, carrots, chard and kale although all four are almost finished now and the very last scraps will be used to make vegetable stock if nothing else. We’ve also eaten the last of our pears bottled in spiced cider and red wine; what an amazing success they have been, we will be preserving as many as we possibly can this year.

Where fruit is concerned our favourite forage at the moment is for wild strawberries that grow in such abundance here; it’s very exciting, though, that for the first time since moving here, we will soon have our own cultivated varieties to enjoy, too.

Our top priority in the garden is to produce sufficient fresh foods for our needs whilst having a minimal impact on the environment. Our choice of plants and varieties to grow has been honed over years of experience and while it might seem boring or predictable to opt for, say, ‘Musselburgh’ leeks or ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, the point is we know that such tried and tested varieties will grow successfully. We simply don’t have the space for too many wild cards, especially as leaving patches deliberately uncultivated or planted specifically for wildlife is important to us. However, I think there should always be room in the garden for at least a little bit of experimentation to keep things interesting. Something new for us this year is a patch of ‘Barletta’ onions, the silverskin variety that is so popular here. As a dual purpose onion, it can be harvested young as a spring onion or left to develop fat white globes as the locals do to use as a cooking onion. Our crop is almost ready to start pulling and should see us through until the maincrop varieties grown from sets and seeds are ready for harvesting.

Sticking with the allium family, and last autumn we decided to have another crack at growing garlic; it’s never been happy here, struggling to thrive through the mild, damp winter. We opted for a Spanish purple variety ‘Spring Violeta’ this time and gave it a vernalisation spell in the fridge before planting; it has never looked back and promises a good yield, despite the fact it is currently providing a foil for a jungle of self-set Californian poppies!

One unexpected benefit of the garlic crop is the picking of scapes that have sprouted from the tops; these are perfectly edible and completely delicious, having a sweet, citrussy flavour followed by a garlic hit, perfect chopped into all sorts of dishes both raw or cooked.

I’m also trying some celery here for the first time, the self-blanching ‘Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin’, some tubers of oca (thank you, Sonja!) which is a completely new one for us, plus some Spanish varieties of lettuce, sweet peppers and French beans in amongst all our usual crowd . . . and yes, a crowd it certainly is. It’s already standing room only in some places and there is still so much growing to be done. It’s a crazy, jumbly tangle. Many would probably call it a mess. Perhaps they have a point, but I love it; there’s food in there, more than enough once you really stop and look, and a wealth of wildlife, too. What more could we ask from our garden, even if it isn’t likely to win any prizes? πŸ™‚

Eco Worrier

The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.

Ernest Hemingway

It’s been a sobering week. We’ve had an all too clear view of a savage forest fire, burning just a couple of miles from home as the crow flies. On the day it started, two helicopters, supported by ground crew bomberos, flew relentless shuttles with water bombs for more than eight hours.

It’s hard to convey the sheer size of the fire but if you look carefully at the smoke plume on the right, you can see the helicopter which gives a sense of scale.

They returned again and again through the week but five days later, the fire was still burning. It is a terrible thing to witness and I can only begin to imagine how horrific the larger fires raging around the world – and especially in the Amazon rainforest – must be.

Five days on and still burning . . .

With climate and environmental issues prominent in the news this week, it seems like a good time to stop once more and reflect on our behaviour and how much more we personally could be doing to reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet. I know there are those who deny climate change or, at least, the contribution of human activity to it, and I don’t intend to become embroiled in a political or scientific discussion here – partly because that’s not what my blog is about, mostly because it’s being done so well in other places by people with far more expertise than myself. For me, it’s not just about climate change, anyway: what about the destruction of habitat, extinction of species, plastic in the oceans, loss of topsoil, air pollution, gross consumerism and the appalling amount of waste that goes with it, to name just a few things? Anything I can do – no matter how small – to try and mitigate against these disasters is, in my book, well worth doing. I don’t agree that individual efforts are a waste of time or subscribe to the view that it’s too late, so why bother? I have children and grandchildren and a deep respect and reverence for the natural world: they are all extremely precious to me and all definitely worth fighting for.

I’m not in a position to go on strike, and driving somewhere to join a protest would, in my opinion, be the greatest irony so what am I planning to do instead? Well, I have decided to spend a day next week totally committed to all things ‘eco’ whether through physical activities at home, researching or studying new things to try or lobbying the powers that be online. By the end of the day I’m hoping to have deepened my awareness of our own approach and attitude, put some new strategies in place, made plans for the future, shared ideas with other people and added my voice once again to the global concern.

In order to make sure I use the day wisely and meaningfully, I’ve been looking at several lists of key ways to reduce our carbon footprint and choosing what to focus on. I’m pleased to say that we already do most of the things suggested (switching off lights and electrical devices, line drying clothes, buying less stuff, not buying fast fashion, planting a garden, composting, reducing food waste, using reusable bags, avoiding excess packaging, etc, etc) but that doesn’t mean it’s alright to become complacent: there’s always room for improvement! In a recent discussion with my lovely daughters about how we can do our bit and encourage others to join in, the consensus was to keep reading, sharing, trying things then normalising them – and the latter, I think, is the key. It’s amazing just how quickly small changes become the norm; things we weren’t doing this time last year, such as reaching for bee wraps and cloth food bags or using homemade toiletries and cotton hankies are now second nature.

Homemade soap and solid shampoo.
Homemade cotton drawstring bags for food storage.

So as not to get too bogged down, I’ve come up with some general headings to help organise my ideas for the day.

  1. Travelling. I will commit to going nowhere other than by bike or on foot. This in itself isn’t too difficult as we use the car as little as possible anyway, always combining errands and often going nowhere for ten days or more at a time. If we don’t use the tractor or strimmer either, then no petrol or diesel will be burnt. We have booked flights to the UK in November and I have to admit this does grieve me; it’s the second time I’ve flown since moving here in May 2016 and only the third time in thirteen years but all the same, it would be better not to be doing it at all. I need to address the carbon offset and we are currently having some very serious discussions about our travel in the future; some difficult decisions loom, but then this isn’t a lightweight subject, is it?

2. Shopping. I will commit to buying nothing. Like travelling, this isn’t a huge challenge as we only ever shop when we need to (as in a depleted food cupboard or fridge, mostly!). I actually don’t like going shopping at all, even when it’s necessary, and as the only option would be to cycle several miles to the local Farmers’ Co-op, I think this one’s a safe bet. I rarely shop online these days, either; in fact, only really to send celebration gifts to family as it seems the most sensible option from here. I would like to do more research into ethical shops and I think this would be time well spent. We are avid readers, buying all our books from charity shops then returning them for resale; I have also occasionally used https://www.worldofbooks.com/en-gb for buying secondhand books online. For new gift books, though, I’ve recently started to use https://www.hive.co.uk as an ethical alternative to shops like Amazon and I think this is a worthy area to develop.

Something I have had to buy in recent weeks is a new pair of running shoes. As a pastime, running is fairly low impact, certainly in my case where I run from home, have no gadgets whatsoever and wear the same kit I’ve had for years. Shoes, though, do need replacing after several hundred miles of pounding the ground; I then relegate them to walking footwear in summer as they are lighter than boots and finally to gardening shoes if they are still in one piece. I’ve been doing some reading lately about how manufacturers are moving towards more eco-friendly designs and materials and also ways in which worn out shoes can be reused or recycled in socially and environmentally acceptable ways. This is definitely another area for further research as well as considering just how long we can go without buying anything new, clothes or otherwise. Where running is concerned, what can we do to try and make races more environmentally friendly events? They don’t tend to hand out pointless participation medals here and more and more races are giving us the option of turning down a commemorative t-shirt; it’s also great to see Roger coming down off a podium with a box of local foods rather than a trophy. It would be good to be able to hand timing chips back for re-use or proper recycling and as for all those plastic water bottles . . . there must be an alternative, surely?

3. Using energy. I commit to using the bare minimum. This one promises to be quite a challenge! Roughly a third of our electricity comes from renewable resources; it’s more expensive than in the UK but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it means the energy companies are making long-term investments in clean energy and we are encouraged to keep an eye on our meter. Where our electricity consumption is concerned we are a bit of an anomaly as our usage is much higher in summer than winter. During the cooler months, our woodburning range heats the entire house, provides hot water for drinks, washing the dishes, hand and face washing, hand laundry and house cleaning as well as an oven and hob for all our cooking. At other times, we rely far more heavily on electricity so my intention is to reduce consumption drastically for a day by using only essential appliances.

The fridge and freezer are non-negotiable for obvious reasons but beyond that, what can I manage without? Instead of boiling the kettle for tea and coffee, I’ll drink cold water – this will score some food mile points, too. I will need no persuading to leave the washing machine, iron and vacuum cleaner alone; to be honest, we don’t use them much anyway. We don’t have a television, we can manage without listening to music and appliances like my hairdryer and sewing machine are only used once in a blue moon. The laptop and internet are a lifeline, though, and we need both for online banking and organising our business and financial matters; they are also our first port of call in keeping in touch with friends and family. If I’m going to spend some time on proper research, I will need to use them but other things like blogging and my daily language study will be put aside.

September evenings are very beautiful here so we tend to stay outside until the sun has set and then go to bed early; this means our use of electric light is very small but in the spirit of my challenge, I can always light a candle or two.

I can’t turn the water heater off as we will need to wash dishes but I can do something about the shower. When we renovated the house, we chose not to install a bath; it would have been a very tight squeeze in a small space and we didn’t want to replace a perfectly modern and efficient 50-litre water heater with a bigger one. A shower is more eco-friendly anyway . . . as long as we don’t linger. Having read about someone’s ‘eleven minute shower routine’ recently, I was left with two thoughts: how have I lived so long without realising I needed a routine in the shower and what on earth could anyone be doing in there for eleven minutes? Astonishingly, a quick internet search informed me the average shower time in the UK is eight minutes, during which time 62 litres of hot water have gone down the drain – not much better than a bath, then. I have to admit we are very speedy shower dwellers but even so, heating the water tank is a big use of electricity. My plan is to spread a full hosepipe across the yard with a couple of clean buckets of water; it is still very much summer here, so by evening the sun will have warmed the water enough for me to have an outdoor shower!

The other big electricity guzzler, of course, is the cooker. We bake bread several times a week and always organise the timings so the oven can be used to cook dinner at the same time; on other days, we use the hob, barbecue or eat simply eat cold foods (we don’t have a microwave).

Not using the cooker at all for a day is perfectly possible but obviously needs some careful meal planning beforehand – there’s no point in deciding to have, say, a barbecue with homemade hummus if we then remember we need to cook some beans and chickpeas! Generally speaking, though, a barbecue needn’t cramp our style and we can still make plenty of good use of vegetables from the garden: aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes brushed with a little olive oil and cooked directly on the grill are heaven sent.

4. Eating. I commit to eating foods with the lowest food miles and least packaging. Basing our meals around what comes out of the garden is a way of life here and at this time of the year, we have enough fresh produce to feed the entire village so this shouldn’t feel like much of a challenge at all: no food miles, no packaging. Job done.

Mmm . . . but we can’t just live on fruit and vegetables so for anything we buy from elsewhere, food miles and packaging become a consideration. Since finishing the house renovation and no longer needing to trek off to distant places in search of building materials, we have been shopping very locally and paying far more attention to food provenance. I know that becoming vegetarian or even vegan is cited as a major way to reduce carbon footprints; we aren’t vegetarians but we eat far less meat than we used to – in fact, most of our meals and several days a week are completely meat-free. There is, of course, a huge debate around this issue – and I don’t want to open a can of worms here – but I would argue that there is a world of difference between the animals extensively raised on small, local, family farms and those that are raised intensively on feed lots and in factory farms around the globe. We buy high quality local meat from animals that have been reared slowly outdoors on natural foods without any antibiotics, growth hormones or other nasties pumped into their systems; yes, it’s several times more expensive than the ‘other’ stuff but as we don’t buy it often, that’s not a problem and I would prefer to support farmers in continuing with this sort of meat production where animal welfare and care of the environment are of the highest concern.

Other fresh foods we buy, namely dairy and eggs, are all produced in Asturias, and with dry goods such as flour, we opt for local where possible. I’m not about to start buying green beans from Kenya or Brazilian prawns but the main problem is with ‘world foods’ like tea, coffee and rice which can’t be produced close to home (or even to Europe in some cases). Should we be reducing our consumption of these foods? On my eco day, I shall scrutinise the origin of everything in our food cupboards then keep a rough tally of food miles associated with what we eat that day, trying to keep them to a minimum. That should be an interesting and revealing activity.

At the same time, I will assess the packaging situation. We are lucky here in that pretty much all types of food packaging can be recycled including rigid plastics and Tetra Pak, but reducing is far better than recycling and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the mark with this one. Bags for life are common practice and it’s possible to buy all sorts of foodstuffs loose in some places but only plastic bags are provided to decant them into. I’ve tried to mitigate against this by re-using them and sticking a new label over the old one at the scales but it’s far from great; ideally, I’d like to use my own containers but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone else doing the same. I don’t feel my Spanish is fluent enough to try and explain my intentions to shop assistants but that is something to work on. Buying meat and fish loose from counters means they come wrapped in paper rather than on polystyrene trays covered with clingwrap which is something, I suppose. We choose unwrapped foods like local waxed cheeses or chorizo on string, and jars and tins over plastic where possible; we never buy multi-wrapped goods – but still, there’s far too much of the stuff and we definitely need to move forward with this one.

Golden Hubbard squash comes in its own biodegradable packaging.

5. Bits and pieces. There are many other areas of our life which I would like to give further thought to. It’s been an interesting year in the garden and I’ve learnt much from using green manure, selective (minimal) weeding, self-setting and seed saving. I think it would be worthwhile now to really focus sharply on growing fewer varieties of single vegetables – the ones we know are successful here – and creating a sustainable, ‘nothing new’ garden: if we can’t raise it ourselves from seed, cuttings, roots and the like, then we don’t have it. There’s no need to be buying new plants for the sake of it.

I’d also like to consider how far we make full use of what’s available, from the garden, orchard and further afield. What wild foods could we forage? We’ve just started collecting this year’s walnuts but every autumn we also have a tremendous crop of chestnuts and barely use them. It seems like a missed opportunity so what are the options there?

I’m picking chillies from the polytunnel and garden a couple of times a week at the moment and stringing them up to dry. What other ways of preserving our produce could we be exploring? Just how self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables could we be?

We gone a long way down the green household cleaning and toiletries route but I feel there’s still a lot more we could be doing. Research needed! It’s the same with our efforts to be plastic free and achieve zero waste; it’s easy to get so far along the path, then sink into some kind of complacent smugness and I think this is where other people’s ideas, experiences and encouragement are vital to help keep the ball rolling. It should be a community thing, surely? After all, we’re all in it together. As one of our neighbours so eloquently put it (in Spanish), ‘We are all sailing in one boat and if it tips over, we all go down.’

Expanding on that idea, I believe it’s important to be active beyond our own patch, too. I’ve committed to stopping and picking up any bits of litter I see when I’m running, even if that means adding a few seconds to a timed run; actually, I also deviated in both 10k races I’ve done here to put my water bottle in a recycling bin – no wonder I can’t crack that golden hour! No matter, as far as I’m concerned, caring for the environment will always be more important than how fast I can run a few kilometres. There isn’t a huge amount of litter here but I’m not prepared to pass plastic bottles, beer cans, chocolate wrappers, cigarette packets and other discarded junk lying in the verges if I can collect it, and either recycle it or put in a bin. I did draw the line at a plastic food wrapper full of dog turds but I hope I can be allowed that one.

I keep an eye on meaningful petitions to sign and email politicians about environmental issues when I can; it might seem like a minimal impact thing to be doing but it’s a case of tiny drops making an ocean. I’m sure there’s more I could be doing in this area, too; it’s not as exciting as making soap or planting seeds but now more than ever, I think, a very valuable way of spending time.

Self-set phacelia (green manure) completes a natural cycle.

I realise that all this might sound a bit superficial, something of a game, in fact; in truth, it doesn’t look like I’m planning to do much that is different to a normal day and I am aware at how privileged I am to have so many blessings in my life and to be able to spend a day in this way. I’m very lucky to be able to choose to use less electricity or hot water or a range of foodstuffs when so many people don’t have those things . . . but that, to me, is precisely why this exercise is so important. There is no question that is totally serious and is about complete and unequivocal focus. From the moment I wake up and remember there is to be no morning mug of tea, I will be approaching every single activity with total concentration and reflection on the environmental impact it has . . . and if that leads to just one tiny improvement in helping the planet, then it will have been time very well spent. πŸ™‚

This single self-set sunflower plant has 25 flowers on it – that’s seed well worth spreading!

Summer snippets

Hot July brings cooling showers, apricots and gillyflowers.

Sara Coleridge

Our July brings sunflowers, too. The very first bloom from the seeds Ben gave me for my birthday opened it’s cheerful smile on his sixth birthday. What perfect timing! πŸ™‚

Right on cue, our beautiful ‘For Your Eyes Only’ wedding anniversary rose unfurled its peachy buds in the second flush of the year.

Early July has a long-standing tradition of throwing us red letter days in need of joyful celebration or serious attention, and often sees us having to pack our bags and take to the road. It’s a less than great time of year to leave the garden unattended but that’s all part and parcel of life.

So, we have just returned from a spell of time away and, as this was a case of far more business than pleasure, it was a relief to be home. Even after a 4am start to miss the chaos that is holiday traffic on French motorways and an exhausting 14-hour drive, I could hardly wait to jump out of the car and check what the garden had been up to in our absence. Forget unpacking for a while, there were far more important matters at hand!

It never fails to amaze me how quickly things change at this time of year; twelve days away and the garden has taken on a completely different mood. It’s as if after the spring party of youthful energy and zingy growth, everything has expanded and matured and settled into its prime. Like the trees in the surrounding landscape, it has all taken on the deep, velvety shades of summer . . . and there is so much growth! To venture into the depths on a harvesting mission is like swimming in a sea of lush, leafy, verdant green. The garden has grown up.

Abandoning the garden like this several times a year is simply something we have to accept; I can never get too precious about leaving things – if we miss the best of the sweet peas or the last of the blueberries, so be it. The problem is the danger of irreparable damage that can happen in the blink of an eye: half a dozen small broccoli plants baked to a frazzle in heat or scoffed by snails in damp weather now means a loss of three months’ food in spring time. The fear of wild boar staging a moonlit rave and trashing the lot is the stuff of nightmares, trust me. Mind you, someone has been keeping an eye on the place for us, it seems!

Happily, everything seems to have survived this time round. Of course, there will always be some collateral damage: the oldest lettuces had bolted and it came as no surprise to find a garden heaving with marrows where once there were baby courgettes. On the plus side, a few things had finally shaken their tail feathers and decided to perform. The cucumbers, so unusually reticent this year, have woken up, stretched and risen to meet the light at long last.

The ‘Greyhound’ summer cabbage, fried as seedlings in a heatwave last time we were away (in February, can you believe?), have plumped out into crisp, pointy hearts of deliciousness. We should have been eating them a month ago but never mind, they’ve caught up at last.

As for the squash? Well, they’re doing what squash do . . . honestly, I’m convinced they’d survive anything. They don’t need us at all.

What a mountain of food to return to: peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes, calabrese, cabbage, chard, carrots, beetroot, peppers, chillies, lettuce, rocket, onions, spring onions and cucumbers. Not a problem in my book as I love nothing better than to wander about foraging for bits and pieces on which to base a meal. No matter if there isn’t a huge quantity of any one thing, there is something so satisfying about the sheer variety of colour, texture and flavour on a plate. . . and there’s always tomorrow to ring the changes.

Our biggest concern about being away for so long was how the polytunnel and tomato shelter would fare without their daily watering. Leaving the tunnel shut would help to conserve moisture but it would become unbearably hot in there and bar those essential pollinators from entering; leaving it open means it dries out more quickly, but is definitely the better option. We’d been collecting plastic bottles for some time before we left to make slow drip feeders in the tunnel, along with some leaky buckets, and Roger devised a natty irrigation system for the tomatoes using old buckets and plastic pipe. Not very pretty, but extremely effective.

Despite hot, dry weather it all seemed to have worked; one pepper plant had perished and one or two toms were slightly stressed but otherwise, it’s looking good. There are fruits on the tomatoes (including the rather bizarre clustered ‘Voyage’ variety) and so far, still no blight, whilst the tunnel is already bursting with glossy green peppers and creamy yellow Bulgarian chillies.

A forest of flowering basil is tempting in the bees with its seductive scent and they are certainly doing the business.

Joy of joys, having battled with flea beetle on the aubergines for months – I’d come to the conclusion they are totally indestructible and will inherit the earth along with cockroaches – the top growth is now beetle-free, unblemished and flourishing. What’s more . . . πŸ™‚

The taller plants – climbing beans, hollyhocks, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet peas, dill – are making bold statements, standing head and shoulders above their more vertically-challenged neighbours.

There are painted spires of hollyhocks everywhere, most of them self-set, all of them towering over me. We have some doubles for the first time this year, so pretty in their flirty petticoats; the bumble bees somehow manage to riffle through the frills to feed but not surprisingly, they seem far happier with the simplicity of single flowers, emerging from the starry centres dusted in pollen like floury millers.

I love the subtle changes around the patch, too, the gentle shifts and shimmies as the season flows on. The cheerful wayward abundance of calendula has given way to the more sophisticated, elegant tagetes.

Above dusky hydrangeas, hibiscus flaunts itself against the bluest of skies.

Sweet William stands aside to let dahlias take centre stage.

Seedpods make artistic accents of interest where petals once bloomed.

The flamboyant hedge of crimson poppies has faded into something more akin to a rippling cornfield edge.

There are butterflies everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of them in dreamy clouds. They have bagged the garden for themselves in our absence, luxuriating in the purple pleasure of marjoram and verbena bonariensis.

In some ways, I think we were home just in time to stop the garden doing too much of its own thing. The climbing beans, already over the tops of their poles and down the other side, have decided to start knitting themselves into each other and the underplanted dill. A row of parsnips, usually so difficult to establish here, have put on so much enthusiastic leafy growth, they are threatening to swamp the neighbouring leeks. The prone onions are dropping huge hints that it is time to lift them and as for the squash emerging from the courgette patch on the right and trailing across the path . . . where the heck did that come from? Definitely not one we planted there.

As expected, the broad beans and peas had reached the end of their cycle and succumbed to old age. Those broad beans had been in the ground since last November and have been providing us with copious pickings for many weeks. What troopers they are! A final harvest of pods from both yielded a goodly haul of meaty specimens, just perfect slow-cooked in a spicy casserole. It always feels a little strange as spaces start to open up in the patch but this is not so much an end as a beginning, an opportunity for something else to take its turn.

The second row of violet-podded French beans is in its full glory; so pretty these, I would gladly grow them just for the splash of colour they bring but their dark waxy pods are utterly delicious. It’s not too late to sow more for a late harvest, so I’m trying a couple of new varieties – ‘Stanley’ and ‘Faraday’ – which should make good autumn picking.

The demise of those nitrogen-fixing legumes leaves the perfect place for some new stars: enter the winter brassicas. I loved kale long before it became a trendy superfood and I must confess to preferring it eaten as a leafy veg, raw or cooked, rather than blitzed to a drinkable green gloop. Cavolo nero grows well here but is consistently out-performed by its leafier cousins so this year, I’m sticking with those. I’ve planted three varieties – ‘Curly Scarlet’ (Looks purple to me. Just saying.), ‘Thousandhead’ and the heirloom ‘Cottagers’ – and they’re off with great gusto already.

We’ve had scanty success with winter cabbages so far but have decided they’re worth another punt; it’s all down to timing so fingers crossed, we’ll hit the jackpot this year. I had sown ‘Red Drumhead’, ‘January King Extra Late’ and ‘Savoy Perfection’ along with ‘All Year Round’ cauliflower (worth a try, surely?) in a seed drill directly into the ground and they were looking splendidly happy, tucked around with a green manure blanket of yellow trefoil.

It seemed cruel to disturb them, especially given the heat, but they needed to move into their own space. Time then for a lot of care and attention as caterpillar season gets underway; no prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing every day from now on!

With any luck, those cabbages will take a leaf (ouch, no pun intended) out of the purple sprouting broccoli’s book; here is a plant that grows like stink and is a staple spring time treat. This year it’s honoured with its own terrace beneath the peach trees and the first few plants have gone into their buckwheat-enriched soil. I’m really impressed with the whole green manure adventure so far, the buckwheat has rotted down completely leaving soil which feels nutritious and improved and has retained moisture close to the surface, despite the dry weather. Since taking this photo, I’ve lifted and chopped the second sowing at the end of the terrace so that will be ready for the next round of young PSB plants in a couple of weeks’ time.

I’ve left the buckwheat under the grapevine to go to seed for collecting and drying; everyone says you absolutely must not do this as volunteers will pop up everywhere for ever more. So it’s a monster of a self-setter, then? Glory be, just my thing. Bring it on!

Feeling extremely virtuous at being back on a diet consisting mostly of fresh garden produce and having embarked on a 10-week training plan which, among other torturous things, means minimal alcohol consumption and upping my running to five days a week at the hottest time of year (yikes!), I felt a little decadence was called for. I’m not usually a seeker of sweet treats but what could be better than indulging in a dose of homemade ice cream part way through a hot gardening afternoon? I’ve made ice cream for many years, usually starting with a custard base but this recipe for double chocolate ice cream https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-the-best-homemade-chocolate-ice-cream-244716 has been a revelation: it’s super easy to make and is, without doubt, the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s divine. It’s sublime. It’s heaven on a stick (or in a cone or a bowl, or – mmm, don’t tempt me – straight from the tub)!

What an amazing ingredient condensed milk is, why have I never discovered this before? It means no churning is required, so you don’t need an ice cream machine or to remember to break down ice crystals with a fork every hour as it freezes – just whack the cooled mixture into the freezer and forget about it until temptation beckons. It also helps to keep the ice cream slightly soft so you can spoon silky scoops straight from the freezer with no need to take it out early to soften or to chip it out with hammer and chisel when you forgot to do just that. Sheer wickedly, wonderful, chocolatey indulgence. Oh happy, happy summer . . . it’s so good to be home! πŸ™‚

Keeping it simple

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

Alicia Bay Laurel

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

The shared curiosity of young things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two’s company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dappled shade reveals cool beauties . . .

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

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

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

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

Climate change

The sun is shining. The air is soft and warm, sweetly scented with jasmine and the first roses, heavily laden with the industry of bees. Swallows are printing rapid arrowheads against the sky and the cuckoo is chiming his two clear notes across the valley. The world is buzzing with colour and life and new growth. I am happy.

It is almost three years now since we moved to Asturias and, as passionate gardeners, adjusting to a new climate has been one of our most important journeys of discovery; after all, a large proportion of our food depends on it! The climate here suits us both so well: it’s much milder than the UK but without the searing summer heat or penetrating winter cold of other parts of Spain; winter frosts roll up the valley, often after dawn, but rarely reach the garden; there is enough regular rainfall to keep everything green and lush, but prolonged periods of wet weather or heavy grey skies are a rarity; winter storms can wreak havoc but they are few and far between and – despite living on the side of a mountain near the coast – windy days are unusual.

In short, it’s about as perfect as it can be, especially from a gardening perspective. Naturally, it’s not all rosy- tomatoes collapse with blight, Brussels sprouts are a non-starter, potatoes are still banned – but we can still grow much that is familiar as well as many plants that wouldn’t have stood a chance in our Shropshire and Welsh gardens.

For our first couple of years here, the house renovation and creation of a productive vegetable garden were key priorities which saw flowers very much taking a back seat. It was so wonderful last year to finally start raising new plants from seed, splitting established plants to spread around and popping in little treasures I had been given. Now spring is flaunting herself around the garden in higgeldy-piggeldy rainbow riots. Lovely!

Clematis is a plant we hardly ever see in other gardens here which is strange as they grow so well; in fact; I planted several new tiny ones last year on the strength of the two we had already established. Montana ‘Elizabeth’ is a pale beauty, currently draping herself nonchalantly along the fence and sporting more blooms than seems physically possible.

I have never, ever grown tulips like the ones we have this year; they have been flowering for weeks and their vibrant, zingy colours make me want to skip with joy every time I see them. It doesn’t matter that the large-cupped pink ‘Don Quichotte’ and white ‘Wilhof’ have shed their petals as ‘Purple Flag’, ‘Holland Beauty’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ (I think!) have waltzed on to centre stage like stately duchesses, decorously draped in gowns of silk, satin and taffeta against a silvery backdrop of sage. So elegant. So sophisticated.

Here come the first of the late-flowering doubles, too; no sophistication here – my goodness, what flirts they are! ‘Creme Upstar’ is a gorgeously ruffled confection in peaches and cream, all flouncy and blousy and frivolous beneath those graceful ladies.

Meanwhile, ‘Blue Spectacle’ is shamelessly kicking up her frilly can-can skirts (admittedly very much purple) to the rapturous applause of a Californian poppy audience. How I’m going to miss these beauties when they’ve gone . . . but more are definitely planned for next spring.

Common sense says that if something is growing happily in local gardens then it is obviously disposed to thrive in the climate here and is a good choice for planting. Honesty is one of those flowers I noticed in abundance last year so raised a few plants from seed. Like wallflowers, it’s something I haven’t grown for years and I’d forgotten what an unassumingly pretty thing it is.

I love the way it has stitched itself into colourful little tapestries with other flowers. Here, in a sunny patch of calendula and ‘Mission Bells’ Californian poppies, softened with the mauve haze of verbena bonariensis.

On the opposite side of the lane, it’s mingling rather beautifully with a pink butterfly gladiolus. Lovely flower . . . and of course, those papery, silver seed pods are an anticipated delight.

Pansies are also modest little troopers; I didn’t have a huge success with raising them from seed (that was the story of last year, of which more later) but the few plants I scattered around have flowered non-stop and are making bold splashes of colour with those bright open faces.

Ah, enough of my indulgent little flowerfest for now . . . but before I move on to the important subject of food production, one final thought: never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the aforementioned verbena would gain official weed status in the garden! What a difference climate makes.

So to the business end of things and it’s been a complete pleasure to be busy in the patch this week, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the burgeoning growth and raucous birdsong. Not only are we adjusting to a new climate here but to changes within that climate, like wheels within wheels. Last spring and early summer were disappointing at best, at times completely dire. Once storms Felix, Gisela and Hugo had finished with us an uncharacteristic gloom set in that seemed to last for months, as though – rather unfairly, I must say – Asturias had been singled out for its own private cloud. Nothing was easy; everything struggled; many things simply chose not to bother. How different it has been this year! We had a couple of weeks of winter in January but since then the weather has been blissfully benevolent, like a kind and loving friend wrapping us in a cosy blanket, brewing a warming cup of tea and running a hot, bubbly bath. Hell, this weather is so generous it would probably do the ironing and fill out our tax returns if we asked nicely.

Isn’t it just truly amazing how everything responds to such benign warmth and luxurious light levels? Last year, I sowed fresh parsnip seed four times before a tiny pinch deigned to germinate; this year, a single planting has produced enough parsnips to feed the entire village, and it’s the same story with carrots and beetroot. The peas, which have been a struggle every year but particularly last season, are so loaded in pods it’s frankly ridiculous. Where tender plants are concerned, I almost wept with frustration last year at having to resow many times; the cucumbers were fairly robust but it’s a miracle we ended up with anything else. The aubergines, which played that classic ‘we’re very fragile and want to die’ act until August (yes, August) are currently greeting me at the polytunnel door like a gaggle of giggling cheerleaders, pompoms aloft in glee. They will have to go into the ground very soon, a fact that prompted me to clear the spent winter salad leaves out of the tunnel this week in readiness. Shifting a pile of manure kept to one side especially for feeding that hungry patch, I found two squash plants that have pushed up (I assume) from the layer of homemade compost beneath the muck. They are, I hope, a happy symbol of things to come: this year, there will be no stopping the growth.

There are other signs, too, so much promise of better things to look forward to. Our walnut harvest last year was a relatively poor one; now, as the trees unfurl their graceful bronze fingers, they are revealing a mass of fat green catkins; a bumper crop of nuts in the making, I’d like to think.

Of the Jerusalem artichokes we planted last year, not a single one survived. Oh come on, how could we possibly not succeed with those renowned thugs? Have no fear: new tubers have been planted and there’s a definite flourish of exuberant activity which suggests a more successful crop this year.

Our neighbours were keen to check we hadn’t missed the official onion planting date this week; I’m not sure how it works, but on certain days in spring suddenly the whole village is out planting something or other and this week it was las cebollas. Thankfully, we were able to show we hadn’t let the side down (actually, we planted them some weeks ago but please don’t tell); we have several rows of onions grown from sets that have trebled in size this week and the smaller specimens raised from seed seem committed to closing the gap as rapidly as possible.

I read this week the somewhat controversial assertion by Matthew Appleby that we should metaphorically “hug a slug” in order to become “super organic gardeners.” Furthermore, it would be better to let fruit and vegetable plants die or even choose not to garden at all than to have to kill anything (which for me begs the question of what exactly we are going to eat). Well, each to their own, I say; everyone is entitled to their opinion but personally I have no intention of putting slug hugging or snail snuggling activities into practice any time soon. I am a huge fan and champion of wildlife and not a single fibre of my being is predisposed to inflicting hurt or death on other living creatures. In fact, I can honestly say I am happy to share what we grow in the garden with other things as long as there is plenty to go round. That said, I am not prepared to sit back and see several months’ worth of food destroyed without doing something about it. Our garden is a totally organic, slightly chaotic, hugely productive, wildlife-friendly patch . . . but fast-food outlet for gastropods it is not. It’s a question of balance and the point is that it’s perfectly possible to grow good crops of wholesome foods without the need to commit garden pest genocide – and we are the living proof of that.

When we moved here, there were snails everywhere. Zillions and zillions of them, like some weird sci-fi horror film. I had never seen anything like it. We assumed it had something to do with the warm, damp climate but also decided there were two further overwhelming reasons. First, the building technique employed by former residents who had constructed walls using bricks laid on their sides which meant the holes ran horizontally rather than vertically. Every hole created a perfect snail home so whole walls were like some towering highrise hotel . . . and believe me, they were full to capacity.

The vegetable garden was surrounded by just such a wall so removing it was one of our first jobs; not only did it drastically reduce snail habitat but it opened up the fantastic view and allowed us to create the sitting area which is now our most-used and favourite ‘room.’ Win-win.

Second, beyond that wall the vegetable patch was a mess comprising a huge pile of manure covered in bracken and a riotous jungle of mustard and cabbages – in short, snail and slug heaven. (I’d forgotten about all those plastic bottles, too, but that’s another story.)

Clearing the vegetation and spreading the muck had an instant impact on snail and slug numbers; building a drystone wall to form a terrace created the perfect habitat for lizards and toads who have a tremendous appetite for the slimy ones. Bit by bit, the balance was being tipped towards a more stable and sustainable food chain.

Manual extraction of pests is another method we use; yes, it’s hard and not overly pleasant work picking buckets of slugs, snails and caterpillars off plants and ‘relocating’ them but it’s worth the effort if it means a crop is saved and it certainly beats throwing toxic chemicals or slug pellets around (both of which I abhor). Drastically increasing the numbers of flowering plants has not only helped to attract a far wider range of insects including essential pollinators, but also the likes of hoverflies, ladybirds and parasitic wasps whose larvae are voracious predators. The recent Guardian report of global insect collapse and possible extinction within 100 years – 100 years!!!!!!!! – is the single most chilling thing I have read in a long time. Instead of choosing not to garden, I passionately believe now is the time we desperately need to be doing all the gardening we can.

So, what is our situation now? Do we still have problems with slugs, snails and other destructive beasties? Yes, of course we do. No matter what the climate throws at us this year – cruel or kind – there will be battles ahead, I have no doubt. Do we have enough vegetables to eat? Yes, we certainly have. A couple of weeks ago, I planted out 26 mixed summer and autumn calabrese plants, of which five were chomped. Having some spare plants, I replaced them and so far all 26 are still there and thriving without a single slug pellet, cabbage collar or pigeon net in sight. Let’s put that into perspective for a moment. There are only two of us and even if all our promised visitors this year (what a busy and exciting time we’ve got to come!) were to arrive en masse, there would still be at least 20 plants of calabrese too many. If we lose three-quarters of the plants, we will still have more calabrese than we could ever really need. ‘Plant plenty’ is a great motto for garden survival.

Variety, too, is a brilliant strategy. Forget monoculture, small amounts of lots of different things are a much better idea; not only does it give us a far more interesting diet but it helps to spread the risk of pest attacks through the year. It’s amazing just what you can do with modest pickings. Favourite veggie dish of the week here was shredded kale quickly braised in olive oil and a splash of wine, topped with lightly steamed purple-sprouting broccoli and asparagus and a handful of raw baby peas . . . and I’m proud to report that not a single slug died in the making of that dish. Still don’t want to hug them, though. πŸ™‚