Muck and magic

Sitting in Gatwick airport last week, impatient to board our flight home, I came to the conclusion that I am simply not made for modern living. There was too much hustle and bustle, too many people, too much noise, too much dry air, too many strong pongs, too much focus on fashion and image, too many shops, too many handheld screens and too much junk food. I felt like a complete alien, desperate to be back on our little patch of mountainside where life is simple, the air is fresh and sweet, the noises and smells are natural, the food is wholesome (and still growing . . !) and in place of screens, we stare at fabulous skies.

Luckily, I could at least bury myself in a book and escape to a magical world of natural gardens in the shape of Mary Reynolds’ The Garden Awakening. As a brand new book with that crisp evocative scent of pristine paper, this is an absolute treat for me; probably 99% of the books we buy are secondhand but I was unable to find it in any of my usual used book sources and, as I suspected it would be a book I return to time and again, I decided to push the boat out just this once.

Now I accept that Mary’s Irish magic might prove a tad too woo-woo for many people but I’ve always been comfortable with a bit of pagan mysticism and rustic folklore so it bothers me not one jot. I smiled to read how she had been so inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka (me too, Mary!) and what I truly love about the book is the complete surrender to working with nature and the idea of being ‘guardians’ rather than gardeners. There is so much here to think about, many ideas that I can adopt and put into practice; deep in the fascinating realms of forest gardening, our flight was called and my heart raced with the joy and expectation of being back in that special place where outdoor spaces call to me and rainbows tumble from the morning sky.

Good grief, but the weather in our absence had been so savage that in part, I’m thankful we weren’t here to witness it. Anything that hasn’t been flattened has been shredded, everything from low-lying beetroot – now nothing more than a collection of forlorn purple stalks – to the high hazel hedge, whose leaves have been turned to a grim sort of lace.

Even the roughty toughty kale and cabbages are looking well and truly mauled and my patch of outdoor young winter lettuce and oriental leaves has been obliterated; thank goodness for the others, safe under the protection of the tunnel. What weather could be so violent as to strip the blue bench of its paint? I can only imagine the ferocity of storms, the icy torrent of hailstones, the surprising grip of cold. Poor, battered garden.

Well, of course, this is all part of the dynamics of life and there is still plenty to celebrate in the wake of chaos, many gems to be found amongst the debris. The kiwi, usually such an overwhelming cascade of green even this late in the year, is tattered beyond belief . . . but that only serves to help us see the dripping jewels of fruit more easily.

Despite their tender youth, the peas I planted before we left have hung on cheekily to their fresh bluey green foliage; the leeks are sturdy sentinels, standing tall and proud, oblivious to the carnage around them; the cannellini plants I forgot to pick before our trip have yielded a huge harvest of sleek, creamy beans and – what a surprise! – for the first year ever, several celeriac plants are swelling fat roots beneath a froth of ferny foliage.

I am so used to having a garden full of flowers right into January that the sight of ripped flower heads and shredded petals is slightly heartbreaking, even more so watching bees bumble around in search of a food source that should still be there. The bright crimson cups of Japanese quince, which bloom reliably from October to April, have gone – every last one of them. The delicate white and purple flowers of the sweet-scented peacock lily have been left in tatters, trails of nasturtiums reduced to piles of slimy mush and there isn’t a single leaf (let alone flower) left on any of the usually bright and bold pelargoniums. I am grateful for at least one or two hardy little survivors.

However, should I honestly feel frustrated or sad when it is still possible to gather dinner from the garden? The very final picking of peppers and chillies from the tunnel signalled the official end of summer veg and a seasonal step into the world of things denser and more sustaining, those hefty, starchy characters which will see us safely through winter. How can I resist the honeyed crunch of carrots, the herbal sweetness of parsnips, the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes, the strident onion hit of leeks, the subtle aniseed of fennel? Add melting orange squash and the meaty pops of beans from our store and I’m in foodie heaven.

This is one of our very favourite meals, so straightforward from a culinary point of view but one we go back to time and again throughout the year. Simply wash, trim, peel, chop (or whatever) the vegetables and roast them gently in a little olive oil in a baking dish or tray, adding seasonings as desired. Meanwhile, make a tomato sauce by frying chopped garlic and onion in oil, then adding chopped tomatoes (we used tinned ones as we have eaten all our homegrown toms from the freezer), a splash of red wine and seasoning, then simmer long and slow to create a rich, sumptuous sauce. Stir the sauce into the vegetables ten minutes before serving and you’re done! Just add some really good bread to mop up the juices. The beauty of this dish is that it is so versatile and your imagination is the limit: it works just as well with crisp, green, summer vegetables as it does with winter heavyweights; you can season to taste – we added chillies, coriander seed and cumin seed for a blast of heat but fresh or dried herbs or alternative spices will give a totally different slant; if you don’t want to do the vegetarian thing, it’s easy to pop in meaty additions like chorizo or cooked chicken, pieces of firm white fish (we use hake) or even pork fillets snuggled on top of the veg (I’d go for a couple of good eggs broken in, too, but Roger definitely wouldn’t ); melting pools of cheese take it to a new level! The basic dish reheats like a dream but is also delicious cold, alternatively it can be recycled into fabulous soups and curries. Comfort cooking from the garden at its absolute best.

So, back to a bit of practical ‘guardianship’ and one of my first jobs was to sweep up the piles of leaves that had been ripped ferociously from branches and swirled into soggy heaps in every corner. Now this has nothing to do with tidiness. I’ve never minded fallen leaves or considered them to be unsightly; in my experience, if they’re left alone, nature generally takes care of them with some good, drying winds without any fuss or bother (don’t even get me started on leaf blowers). Alternatively, gathered up and left to rot, they offer a very beneficial free food for the soil so it’s well worth the effort with broom and shovel – and blowing the cobwebs and travel dust in the fresh air was exactly what I needed.

Feeding the soil in the tunnel was high on my agenda, too. The extended growing season we enjoy under cover is a boon to our lifestyle but it leaves a very short turn around: no sooner are the last plants removed in late autumn than we’re planning the planting for early spring, which – apart from anything else – will involve replacing the removable staging down one side. Speed is of the essence if I’m to get the soil fed and rested properly before the demands of the new season begin and luckily, this is just the sort of job I love!

Mary Reynolds likens caring for a garden to raising children and I have to agree, especially when it comes to nutrition. Our sproglets were raised on good, fresh, wholesome home-cooked food, much of which they had been involved in growing, picking and preparing since they were able to totter about and ‘help’ and I have the same obsession with feeding and nurturing the soil as I did for our babies. I’m fascinated with the concept of ‘no dig’ and although Roger isn’t completely convinced by the idea, I think the tunnel is the perfect place to explore the possibilities. It’s a relatively small planting area (we simply don’t have the mountains of required mulch for the whole garden) within easy lugging distance of the muck pile and compost heap and the beds have defined sides which make piling on the good stuff easier. I removed the spent pepper plants, lifted a couple of perennial weeds but left the annual ones on the surface, then slathered all the unplanted parts in several centimetres of well-rotted cow manure and homemade compost. Mmm, it’s gorgeous, worm-laden stuff!

The salad leaves I planted some weeks ago had suffered a bit from lack of light thanks to a couple of Scotch bonnet plants that had reached tree proportions and cast way too much shade. I gave them a good drenching with comfrey tea and just three days of higher light levels later, they had perked up no end.

Where the rest of the garden is concerned, I’ve been shifting vast quantities of muck and compost in a continuing crusade against bare earth; basically, any area that isn’t planted with food crops or green manure (deliberately planted, self-set or spread varieties or soft annual weeds) gets a good old mulching with the brown stuff. In some places, this looks a bit like medieval strip farming: on the bottom terrace, from front to back, there are parsnips, leeks, carrots, former squash patch plus the beginnings of a manure cover, green manure (crimson clover) and comfrey. The terraces above are planted with a green manure winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares.

Due to the higgeldy-piggeldy nature of the main veg patch, things are a bit more slapdash there but the same principle applies. On the terrace, for instance, there is a patch of celeriac surrounded by a self-set green manure of poached egg plants and phacelia, a good stand of purple sprouting broccoli undersown with white clover and several short rows of salad leaves including rocket and land cress. One end, however, was a jumble of dead basil, a couple of summer cabbages that didn’t come to anything and a spaghetti of dead nasturtiums so I pulled out the woody stuff and covered the rest in muck.

I’ve repeated the process everywhere I feel the soil needs covering, even between and around the stand of winter cabbages so I can be sure that every piece of available planting space has been fed. It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt affair, but so what? This is the process of creating a healthy, nutritious soil teeming with essential life and the foundation for next year’s food: no job is more important than this one! One of Mary Reynolds’ key pieces of advice is to observe nature closely in the garden in order to work successfully and compassionately with it. One of the things I have certainly been observing with interest this year is the effects (or not) of my green manure experiment and I am truly delighted with the results. As far as I can tell, there have been no adverse effects whatsoever, no reduction in plant health, quality or yield of crops and no increase in pests. Where the soil has been covered by one or several green manures through the year, it has retained moisture and is rich and friable and full of life. It carpets the earth just as nature will do left to its own devices and plants grow quite happily through it.

Beetroot in the trefoil!

One of the most significant factors is the way in which all the green manures I planted in spring and summer (white clover, crimson clover, buckwheat, yellow trefoil, phacelia) have acted as incredible weed suppressants; the only nuisance weed anywhere now is grass which I’ve been lifting with a hand fork and composting, otherwise it’s mainly clumps of chickweed.

Now this in itself is actually a very beneficial plant: not only can it be eaten in salads as a good source of minerals and vitamins, but it attracts pollinators, provides a food source for birds and accumulates potassium and phosphorous making it a perfect green mulch. Rather than consign its bright green carpets to the compost heap, my Garden Awakening self has simply pulled it, left it on the surface of the soil and then thrown manure and compost all over it.

Chickweed pulled, bring on the muck!

One of the crops that was shredded in the bad weather was the Witloof chicory, something I’ve grown for the first time in years. Fortunately, it didn’t really matter as the time had come to harvest the first few roots, anyway. It’s a funny old carry on: lift the plant, chop the leaves off, bury the roots in a pot of compost, cover so that not even the tiniest chink of light can get in, put in a sheltered place (the underhouse barn in our case) and forget for at least a month. It might sound like a dark art but the crisp, blanched chicons which should develop from those roots will give us a fresh, bitter leaf hit just perfect for the season. Now the waiting begins . . .

There’s another bitter leaf ready to eat now, its frilled leaves a deep burgundy gloss nestled in a bed of clover. Ruffled but not wrecked by the weather, this raddichio ‘Palla Rossa’ is a welcome, vibrant sight that is heading for a special meal (maybe for my birthday next week? 🙂 ).

While I have been zipping about the garden literally like a happy little pig in muck, Roger has been busy in the woods with the annual task of fetching, cutting, splitting and stacking logs. These will heat our home, cook our dinners, boil water and dry laundry in future winters – they are worth their weight in gold. It’s hard work but so rewarding to see the stack of split logs growing against the horreo wall where they will be left to season before being stored inside. I love their soft muted colours, their tactile textures and above all, the sharp, spicy scent of them that whispers of forest floors and leaf mould and mushrooms. I adore trees; I am not ashamed to be a happy hugger and never fail to give thanks for this wonderful gift. We always plant far more trees than we cut. That’s how it should be.

On the subject of planting, we came home from a little foray into our local farmers’ co-op with garlic and onions for the garden. We’ve had limited success with garlic here, the warm climate and humidity tend to see overwintered crops rotting in the ground but, nothing daunted, it’s worth another go. We have nothing to lose, after all: two euros for seven fat bulbs is a relatively low investment, there’s plenty of space in the patch and I’m hoping a pre-planting ‘winter holiday’ of vernalisation in the fridge (the garlic, not me) will help things along a bit. The variety we chose is the classic Spanish ‘Spring Violeta’ – it’s supposed to be a a good doer but it’s not the best of keepers. Well, quite honestly, we haven’t scored well so far on that front anyway so let’s see what happens. The ‘Barletta’ onions are an Italian heirloom variety which are massively popular locally; they are a small, silverskin onion which look like extremely fat spring onions and give a good early crop. Our neighbours raise trays from seed overwinter and plant them out very early in spring so that’s exactly what we’re planning to do, although as always I will probably get the date all wrong! There is a lot of gardening done here according to the lunar calendar, and whilst I don’t mind a dash of biodynamics in the garden, I have a tendency to completely overlook the crucial dates in my rush to just be outside with my hands in the earth.

Yes, what a lovely, busy time I’ve been having outdoors; the housework and laundry (and probably a trillion other things) are suffering from severe neglect, but who cares when the garden beckons and wraps its gentle warmth around me? Black Friday . . . what’s that all about, then? Christmas . . . haven’t even given it a second thought. The sun is shining, the robins are singing, the garden is mucked and all’s well with the world. How magical! 🙂

Wild and woolly

By all these lovely tokens September days are here, With summer’s best of weather and autumn’s best of cheer.

Helen Hunt Jackson

This is such a beautiful time of year, one that always makes my heart sing. We have been enjoying those perfect late summer days, with cloudless skies colour-washed in blue from pale duck egg, delicate as the finest porcelain, to a deep cornflower so achingly intense and pristine, it almost hurts the eyes.

Sunset brings a cloak of rich purples . . .

. . . or something altogether different if clouds have bubbled up during the afternoon.

I love the way the shift in light illuminates plants in the garden in different ways, like swivelling the beam of nature’s spotlight to a new angle, uplighting leaves and dappling fruit.

At other times, the weather has been the kind that took me so long to get used to when we moved here, the low cloud weaving itself moodily around the mountain tops bringing a level of light that instinctively says it’s time for long trousers and socks . . . but step outdoors and it’s still most definitely shorts and sandals territory. The warm evening air is still and laced with a sweet softness, scented with the unique fragrance of Japanese quince and a subtle hint of wood smoke drifting up from the village.

The air is clotted with spirals of swooping swallows and martins, feeling their wings and filling their boots before their thoughts turn southwards. Flocks of gaudy goldfinches have returned after their summer business, chattering and flapping low-level through the meadow, greedily plucking at fluffy seedheads in their noisy charge. Butterflies flap languidly, bumble bees hum sonorously, the robins strike up their melodious fluting once more; no question that the slow pulse of late summer is wrapping itself around us now.

One of my favourite things about our home is that it sits snuggly in its own patch of land; the garden area may not be particularly large but we benefit from borrowed light and space and landscape from the meadows beyond.

This time of year is a great one to actually leave the garden and go a-wandering further afield (no pun intended). The grass practically stops growing through August so the cows have been off the fields for some weeks and in their absence, other life is thriving even more than usual.

Our meadows are about as traditional as they come. When the cattle return, it will be as a small family troupe of one bull and several cows with calves of varying ages, everything from wide-eyed tots staying close to their mothers, to nonchalant, streetwise teenagers, haring about in rowdy gangs. They will graze here for a couple of weeks at most and then be moved on; over-grazing is something that simply doesn’t happen. As the land is so steep, no tractor can work it so there is no question of making hay or spreading manure: the cows are relied on to get busy at both ends to do the business! The result is a meadow carpeted with wildflowers . . .

. . . and the closer you look, the more you find.

For us, it is a lovely place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the sheer exuberance of the life around us.

There is certainly no shortage of fascinating creatures to observe.

It’s not just the small things that are here, either. We often see deer spill like molten metal from amongst the trees to graze, then slip away silently into the woods; foxes are regular visitors, in particular a large dog fox with battle-scarred ears and a silver brush; wild boar rootle through under the cover of darkness, practising their own particular brand of ancient ploughing and the ghostly barn owl glides past, hugging the ground on its crepuscular hunting missions. For me, this is a perfect example of how it is possible to practise modern agriculture and food production on land that still retains an element of ‘wild’ and is home to a wealth of native species.

It’s incredible, too, how quickly nature moves to exert its authority once the grazing has stopped!

Back to the garden, and here we are revelling in nature’s bounty as well as beauty. Every day brings the need to harvest something (well many things, in truth) and it is pure pleasure.

Preparing our evening meal together, I sometimes look at the garden produce and wonder if maybe we should be inviting other people round for dinner? We are so blessed and it is something I never take for granted, especially considering this lot is about as wholesome and organic as you can get . . . and any leftovers make the perfect base for tomorrow’s lunch.

I love the way the season brings a new palette of floral features in the vegetable garden, too; part of me wonders if I’ll ever bother with flower borders again.

Chicory
‘Red Rosie’ lettuce
Globe artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke

There is verbena bonariensis everywhere so honestly, there’s no need to be fighting over a single flower!

This is traditionally the time of year when my thoughts turn to all things woolly; I normally have a small project or two on the go through summer but they’re always a bit haphazard and piecemeal as I’m generally just too busy to sit still for long. My first task was to finish the scraps patchwork blanket I’ve been pottering away at on and off for many months. Sewing the squares together didn’t turn out to be as arduous as I’d thought, and despite such a discrepancy in the amount of different colours I had to use, the finished piece doesn’t look too unbalanced. In fact, I quite like the jolly jumble of those simple squares.

I really enjoy working blanket borders, they pull the whole thing together and give the finished article a satisfying frame, a little weight and touch of decorum to finish the whole thing off. The composition of this blanket has been entirely dictated by the amount of yarn I had left from previous projects and the border was no exception; these certainly weren’t the colours I’d have chosen (oh, for some blues!), simply the ones I had most of.

After a lot of fiddling about with colour order, I settled on the above and worked a round in each, hoping it wouldn’t look over-pinked. It didn’t turn out too badly in the end.

So, with all my yarn scraps used up and only one ball of sock wool left it was definitely time to blow the dust off my spinning wheel again. As part of my zero waste campaign, I set out not to buy any new yarn at all this year and I’ve stuck to that so far, but now I need to get busy turning my box of fleece into skeins for future projects. Having had a good rummage through my fleece stash, I decided to start with some Blue Faced Leicester in natural shades of oatmeal and white.

Can I indulge in a little wool worship here? I love Blue Faced Leicester: of all the fleece breeds I’ve spun so far (I think it was ten at the last count plus alpaca, mohair and silk), it is by far my out and out favourite. If I could only have one kind of wool ever again, it would be this one. The sheep are not the prettiest, but the fleece is a dream. It’s one of the finest British breeds, not quite up there with the much-lauded Merino but not far behind and definitely far easier to spin. In fact, I often think that once the tension is sorted on my finicky old wheel, the BFL spins itself; I can let my gaze drift across the garden or down the valley, even turn and hold a conversation with Roger, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward is occurring between my fingers and the bobbin.

It isn’t a hugely elastic wool – more draper than hugger – but it’s soft, fairly strong and has a beautiful lustre; the oatmeal might look a dull brown but when the flyer spins, the yarn shines like deeply burnished pewter.

There is much pleasure to be derived from spinning ready-dyed fleece and watching the colours build on the bobbin, or spinning white fleece to mess about with in my dye pot later, but there is also a certain charm to working with natural shades. I liked the idea of spinning equal lengths in both colours, then plying them together to make a marled yarn with an essence of natural things – pebbles, driftwood, pine cones, mushrooms, feathers . . .

I decided to spin the white slightly thicker, so the skinnier oatmeal would twist round it and puff it up a little to create texture; I also deliberately allowed a few slubs of fleece to slip through in bumps so that the finished yarn has a slightly rustic, earthy feel to it which somehow seems to suit the season.

Putting those pebbles back in my collection, I spied a contented little snake curled up under a piece of slate, a perfect echo of the colours, texture and form of my skein of wool. Nature, as always, having the last word. I like that very much. 🙂

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! 🙂

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 . . . 🙂

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! 🙂

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. 🙂