Fair weather February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the same subject, the clever idea I had of sowing a patch of outdoor salad leaves in the autumn all went to pot when my poor seedlings were completely vaporised in the mother of all hailstorms (this is where a polytunnel has a distinct advantage . . . as long as it doesn’t get blown off down the valley, of course. ๐Ÿ™‚ ). What a happy, happy moment, then, to discover this week that some of the brave little troopers have fought back: to date, half a dozen winter lettuce (‘Arctic King’, I think) and a modest patch of mustards and mizunas. What little stars they are.

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

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

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

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

Cooking over wood is slightly trickier than charcoal as it doesn’t hold its heat for as long but it doesn’t take much to get used to and certainly doesn’t limit the culinary possibilities. For our first barbecue of the year we opted for local pork which we marinated in olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs before cooking as kebabs and serving with homemade bread and a selection of salads. As ‘flexitarians’ we often have a veggie barbie, too, especially in summer when a rack of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes really hits the spot and with plenty of homemade hummus, breads, salads and dips we don’t ever miss the meat. One of our favourite tricks – learnt from a Cypriot friend – is to barbecue foil parcels of feta cheese, sliced tomato (homegrown and sun-drenched, preferably), fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, fabulous as a starter to nibble at while everything else cooks. Go on, try it. It’s amazing. Just be careful not to burn your mouth! ๐Ÿ™‚

Messing about

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.

Jane Goodall https://youtu.be/48mxaQtbUdU (This is a beautiful, inspirational video – please watch if you have a few minutes to spare.)

Those are such wise words in the above quotation and without doubt, the very maxim by which I try to live. In these uncertain times, it is the uncomplicated thinking and optimism expressed and shared by people like Dr Jane Goodall and David Attenborough that encourage me more than ever to keep doing my bit for the planet, no matter how small. I am no expert, happily: I hate the thought of losing my capacity to learn or to be open to new ideas, not because they are fashionable but rather thought-provoking, inspirational and based on good practical advice. I was thrilled to be introduced recently (thank you, Maria!) to the work and philosophy of ‘reformed’ landscape gardener, Mary Reynolds; in her assertion that we should be ‘guardians’ rather than ‘gardeners’ and her commitment to rewilding, I have found a kindred spirit.

Reading about Mary’s work and the We Are The Ark movement (http://wearetheark.org/) had me wondering just how possible is it to create and maintain a patch that allows us to produce the bulk of our fruit and vegetables organically, that provides us with a pleasant space in which to spend much of our life, that offers a haven for wildlife and contains a wide and healthy biodiversity all within an ethos of sustainable living, reduced consumerism and waste and a small carbon footprint. Phew, it seems quite a big ask . . . but I think we’re getting there slowly.

Permaculture sets a lot of store by margins and they are certainly an area I’ve given much thought to since we moved here, working on deliberately blurring the boundaries between the garden and the landscape beyond and creating wildlife-friendly edges. From a practical point of view, some fences are necessary to keep the cows in their meadow and the wild boar out of our parsnips; having replaced the former ugly ones (built from rusty bedsteads and hung with hundreds of plastic bottles) with stock fencing or post and rail fences, we have since let nature have a free run. I love stretches like this, where morning glory has woven itself through the wire netting, underplanted with Californian poppies – both self-set, both buzzing with insect life.

This patch is particularly popular with tiny butterflies at the moment; dazzling with their electric blue bodies and shimmering bronze wings, they sit on the leaves like delicate jewelled brooches. So beautiful.

This colour combination is beautiful, too; I couldn’t have planned anything more lovely so I’m especially thrilled that it’s repeated itself in another random intertwining around the fence in front of the polytunnel.

Round-leaved (apple?) mint is a widespread native here and has wasted no time in sprawling along all our fence lines in great silvery carpets, releasing a delicious herbal scent from its fuzzy leaves whenever disturbed. Bees and butterflies go completely mad for it.

The same can be said for knapweed . . .

. . . even after the flowers have gone!

Living on the side of a mountain as we do, the house and horreo are backed by a steep bank above which is a meadow and, further up, woodland. It would be very easy to cut this ‘messy’ area right back or even replace it with some kind of ground cover plants in the name of keeping it tidy. Well, we don’t want to do that so we have simply left it for nature to sort out.

It is impossible to capture the sheer diversity of plants that have colonised this area. The heathers dominate at present in their gorgeous purples but there is such a wonderful mix of species, including young holly trees which are an endangered -and therefore protected – species in Asturias. I’m not completely sure, but I think this is exactly what rewilding is all about.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Year of the Spider; they are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes and colours and our world feels like it is completely encased in their silk. One even managed the beginnings of a web between Roger’s feet in the time it took him to sit and drink a mug of coffee in the sunshine! I’ve been cheered to find tiny ones living in complex webs on the underside of the brassica leaves from where I hope they will be practising some natural pest control that will be to the plants’ benefit. Prize for the most striking has to be awarded to the one below which I think is a wasp spider; it has been living for some weeks on a most spectacular web amongst the French marigolds.

I love those quiet moments of contemplation spent observing the fascinating creatures whose space we share and I have found myself drawn back to this spider many times. Whilst trying to work out where the lower section of the web had been anchored, my gaze was drawn down to something hiding beneath the foliage . . . this from a plant that had popped up randomly on its own some weeks ago. Treasure indeed!

Inspired by my reading of Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution earlier this year, I have thoroughly enjoyed my mission of banishing bare earth in the garden as much as possible. In part, I’ve achieved this using green manure in a trial that is ongoing. As well as sowing seeds in many locations, I’ve left clover and yellow trefoil to grow wherever they appear; in addition to forming luscious green mats, suppressing weeds and fixing nitrogen, I love the way the clover in particular buzzes with insect life. We change the path layouts each year, simply treading new ones where we want them but we’ve decided next year to sow them with clover; it’s tough enough to take the wear and tear and should be perfect for the job.

Such is my passion for this project that any bits of earth that remain bare for more than a few days have me well and truly fretting. When we lifted the last of the onions, I planted a few rainbow chard leaves to see us through winter then filled the rest of the space with crimson clover. As soon as the latest plantings of French beans, cannellini beans and Florence fennel were big enough to fend for themselves, I found myself sprinkling yellow trefoil seed between the rows. Yes, it’s an addiction.

I’m very happy to let the garden do the job for me where possible, too. Here, a recently cleared patch has greened up in no time with a welcome mix of coriander, calendula, pansies and Californian poppies.

I’m so encouraged by what I’m reading about changing perspectives and attitudes towards gardening and the strong movement towards dropping the notion of ‘messy.’ I know there are plenty of people who would certainly have pulled out the spent summer calabrese plants by now on the grounds that they are a long way from being aesthetically pleasing. I’ve left them for several reasons. First, even though they are pretty much over, they are still sending up heads which may be small but are perfectly edible; second, the flowers are a wonderful source of nectar for insects; third, I want them to set seed; fourth, as they are the only brassicas in the garden where I’ve found cabbage white caterpillars, they seem to be doing a grand job as sacrificial plants. Unsightly? I really don’t care.

I’ve let one of our Witloof chicory plants flower; I know I’m probably not supposed to do this seeing as I’m growing them for chicons- and they most definitely shouldn’t be allowed to go to seed – but I couldn’t resist the temptation of that perfect baby blue.

Our second vegetable patch probably wouldn’t win any prizes for beauty just now, either; standing in the middle of the jumbled jungle, it would be easy to think a little more care and control wouldn’t go amiss but look below the dishevelled chaos and as far as I’m concerned, all’s well with the world.

I have to confess that higgeldy-piggeldy patches have become my absolute favourite garden thing. They are about as far removed from monoculture and controlled, manicured order as you can get but that’s the very point. Here in a space no more than a couple of metres square are thyme, hyssop, cucumbers, chillies, lettuce, courgettes, French marigolds, buckwheat, trefoil and pansies.

The latter have become the new self-set thug, popping up all over in a crazy, motley, mongrel mix of colours and shades; I love their cheerful, whiskered faces and it seems I’m not alone.

The bare earth beneath the grapevine is now a sumptuous jostle of marjoram, basil and pelargoniums, all good companion plants. There’s buckwheat; too; I’ve pulled it, chopped it and wilted it once as a green manure but here comes the next batch of volunteers. The self-perpetuating gardening. I love it.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as saying we have a forest garden, I do like the philosophy, the significant importance of trees and the layers of growth beneath. I have a soft spot for this shady tangle, where pear trees, a fig tree and a kiwi vine, all heavily laden with fruit, meet and intermingle. A fragrant honeysuckle has garlanded itself through the lower reaches and the underplanting of comfrey – surely the most important plant in an organic garden? – is a bee-rich wilderness.

Wander further into the orchard area and here the mighty walnut dominates with the promise of a good harvest this year.

The row of straggly hazels which Roger laid into a hedge last year has really come into its own, thickening out and providing what has been a very popular nesting site for several species of bird this year. Beneath it, we planted fennel amongst the carpet of wild strawberries (which, incidentally, are still fruiting!); all wild natives, all food plants. This is good.

We are starting to benefit from the fruit trees we planted here a couple of years ago. Frustratingly, the first ever apples have been targeted by marauding jays which seems a bit unfair when there are orchards in the village heaving with fruit that have remained untouched! They aren’t the most beautiful looking crop but they are utterly delicious with that sharp fragrance and sweet juiciness that only comes with an apple straight from the tree.

We are at the height of peach season and picking daily, only too happy to fulfil Mr Fukuoka’s plea to use what is available locally and seasonally. The freezer is stuffed to the brim, we have made jam and relish, we are eating them fresh and sun-warmed from the tree and we’ve even indulged in a pudding or two!

Of course, it’s not all good news. We have been suffering from a plague of giant Asian hornets who have a taste for rotten peaches; they’ve never been a problem before but, although we can’t find it, there must be a huge papery ball of a nest hanging high up in a tree nearby. Apparently, their stings can be fatal even to those who are not allergic and although they haven’t been aggressive, I’ve been pulling on wellies to pick courgettes as the drunken hornets lurk in any peaches that have fallen and rolled under those huge leaves.

We’ve been collecting as many fallen fruits as possible at each end of the day when the hornets aren’t active but it’s impossible to find them all. I’ve been very glad that the clover I planted around the broccoli plants is suppressing weeds and the patches of salad leaves have spread to cover their end of the terrace as any kind of maintenance in that area has been definitely no-go. The shade of the peach trees is just perfect for growing these plants in but the risk of a hornet-laden peach falling on my head is more than off-putting!

The weather has mostly been very benign of late but a recent afternoon of high winds brought some problems, shaking far too many peaches off the trees and playing havoc with the beans. The tripods were so heavy it took both of us to lift and stake them with Roger wobbling around on top of a stepladder and the continuing gale doing its best to make things difficult. By some kind of miracle, the plants survived and recovered and are now yielding a massive crop of creamy fat beans for our winter store.

How the towering sunflowers survived the lashing I have no idea but I really had to hand it to that bumble bee, clinging on for dear life! The shorter yellow sunflowers finished flowering some time ago and their heads are ripening nicely; I will save some seed to scatter along the margins next year then leave the rest for the flocks of assorted finches who will arrive very shortly to tuck in.

On the subject of seed saving, I have been doing some research using the excellent Real Seeds website (http://www.realseeds.co.uk/) as this is something I certainly want to do more of. In particular, I like the idea of developing our own variety of perfect squash by selecting and hand-pollinating over several seasons. The seeds we planted from a fabulous squash that grew out of the compost heap last year have so far thrown up at least four different fruits (since taking the pictures, the first one has developed a distinctly pink tinge reminiscent of the Russian Pink Fairy squash we grew last year). It’s a fascinating exercise!

We’ve had a bit of a self-set surprise this week, too, in the shape of a ‘mystery’ plant that has popped out of the side of a path. We’re pretty convinced it’s a tomatillo and it looks like it’s hoping to fruit.

We have never grown tomatillo plants here and there has never been any evidence of them being here previously; I’ve never seen one in any garden locally and since it’s at least twelve years since we grew them anywhere, we can’t have inadvertently carried the seed here ourselves. It’s all a bit of a puzzle but if this is another benefit of letting the garden go wild, I’m not about to grumble.

There is still so much I would love to do here but I’m pleased with the progress so far and as far as a messy, unkempt, barely controlled garden is concerned, all I can say is that it is heaving with colour and scent and life . . . and, what’s more, we are certainly not starving. ๐Ÿ™‚