Changing rhythms

It’s sunset time of year once again and the evening sun, sliding ever southwards along the horizon, sinks below the western horizon in a flamboyant flourish of stunning colourplay. So transient, so mesmerising, so beautiful. I am happy to simply stand and watch.

It makes my heart sing every time and what a contrast that is to my previous life, when this time of year always brought with it a certain sense of foreboding. I knew that once the half term break was behind us, I would be travelling to and from work in the dark until February; apart from weekends and the chaotically crammed Christmas ‘holiday’ (I use the term loosely), I wouldn’t see our windswept Welsh smallholding in the light for the best part of four months. For someone who craves ~ no, needs ~ daylight and fresh air and outdoor activity like she needs food and drink, it was a sobering and somewhat depressing thought. The rest of autumn would practically pass me by.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I’ve always thought the way we are programmed to behave at this time of year is a serious flaw in modern society. The light is failing, the temperature falling and the weather generally deteriorating as we turn the circle of the year into the dark months. Everything in nature responds by slowing down and settling into a time of rest or dormancy . . . everything, that is, except human beings doings who hurtle around at the same speed, grubbing about in the dark and foul weather and building themselves up to the frenzied consumerfest that is Christmas. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s natural. Yes, of course society needs to function and people need an income; I’m not advocating hibernation, but when do we ever allow ourselves to rest properly, to recharge, to reflect and to reconnect with the natural rhythms of life?

Fo me, being able to buck the busy trend is one of the greatest advantages and privileges of the simple lifestyle we have chosen and the difference it has made to our health and well-being is considerable. Don’t get me wrong, we are still busy ~ of course we are! ~ but it’s busyness on our terms now and there’s something immensely liberating about that. I might no longer have the status or income of a professional role, but sitting outside and processing our final harvest of peppers in the October sunshine, surrounded by the flit of butterflies and a robin’s song, was a hundred times more satisfying and meaningful in my book.

We have the freedom and permission to live according to the light, the temperature, the weather and the ways in which our bodies respond to those factors. I am naturally going to bed earlier and waking later than I did two months ago and it feels right, not lazy. The garden is still heaving with food but it has changed subtly over the last few weeks so that what we are eating now suits the season and our hunger more appropriately than the summer harvest. It’s time for different textures and flavours, for something a little starchier perhaps, but still with the freshness and zing and colour that keeps the vegetable patch and kitchen very much at the heart of things for us. Better still, we have the time to wander and pick (in the light), to prepare and share and savour. Butternut squash with garlic, onion, tomato, mustard greens, leeks and warming whole spices baked under a savoury oaty crumble topping and served with green peppers, courgettes, celery and New Zealand spinach (lightly cooked in olive oil) with fennel seed – now there is a seasonal meal to enjoy!

I have written before about how early autumn usually brings me a burst of energy and this year has been no exception apart from the fact that it has prodded me into activity rather than creativity. I have to admit that, in recent months, where any commitment to exercise is concerned (over and above working in the garden and wandering about the woods), I have been a bit lackadaisical. Actually, I’ve been a sloth. There have been several factors at play which have seen me dabbling at things rather than truly engaging: a plodding run here, a bit of half-hearted yoga there, neither with any great enthusiasm. I have revisited some different things such as tai chi, but gave up after a couple of dire sessions reminded me why I hadn’t persisted before; I honestly don’t think my brain is wired correctly for it, all sense of right and left desert me in the middle of Waving Hands In Clouds (or whatever). I’ve even been wild swimming a couple of times ~ which is pretty much unheard of ~ but it’s far too cold for that kind of malarkey now.

So, with my new-found hike in energy levels I’ve felt motivated to get a grip and get moving once again . . . but this time, very much in tune with what my body is telling me rather than what I feel I should be doing and that has brought me full circle back to yoga. I love my ‘studio’ in the horreo, there is something wonderful about passing under the squash balcony into that private, airy space. I dug out some of my old books and tried to develop a new practice which ultimately led to me signing up for a 30-day Yoga With Adriene programme called True. No matter how many different styles of yoga I try or teachers I follow, I always come back to Adriene and her vibrant yoga community; she is a slightly crazy Texan lady who promotes home yoga practice and dedication brilliantly with the help of her canine companion, Benji. Formal, stuffy yoga this ain’t ~ certainly, I’ve never had a teacher issuing the instruction ‘try not to not behead your dog’ whilst moving into a posture, but I love the fun, light-hearted element of these videos; surely this is how life should be? The yoga is fabulous (man, did I ache by Day 4!) but the emphasis is on practice rather than perfection, on exploration and curiosity, on self-awareness and, above all, self-compassion . . . and that truly suits my mood of the moment. I’ve flirted with this programme before, dipping in and out inconsistently, but this time I’m doing it properly with a commitment to turn up on my mat every day for 30 consecutive days. I’m loving it. Completely.

My happy yoga space.

Health has certainly been at the forefront of many people’s minds through this strange year and I feel more and more a growing need to take as much responsibility for my own fitness and well-being, both physical and mental, as I can. Certainly, that is something that has become easier at many levels following our lifestyle shift. Having lived since my early twenties with a chronic lung disorder that leaves me susceptible to serious chest infections and pleurisy, a GP told me several years ago that the best thing I could do for myself was walk away from teaching. How right he was! Apart from being removed from bug-ridden classrooms and the inevitable stresses and strains of the job, I now have far more time to dedicate to keeping myself well; sometimes it’s so easy to forget that there is nothing selfish about self-care. Those dark winter months are not quite so depressing if I can get outside during the day or sleep as much as I need and still have plenty of time for exercise.

A brisk climb on an October afternoon works wonders for body and soul.

Diet, of course, plays a huge part and in this I find myself shifting in new directions. It is being widely reported now that the way forward for humans (and the planet) is to adopt a more plant-based diet whilst making food choices that support local, small-scale, sustainable and regenerative agricultural and horticultural practices. We have been moving that way for some time now and meat provenance, in particular, has been central to our concerns. I’m a flexitarian; I am not a vegetarian or vegan ~ and I’m not suggesting that anyone should be ~ but I find myself eating less and less meat, not from any particular stance but simply because I just don’t really fancy it much these days. I love fruit and veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, and good quality eggs and dairy products from happy hens and happy cows; I also love the fact that vegetarian cooking has become so exciting in recent years. The squash crumble I described above is a delicious and filling vegetarian dish; quite honestly, there is no reason to miss the meat. I’m toying with the idea of trying a few meat-free weeks to see what it feels like; it will certainly cause a few logistical issues in the kitchen (I wouldn’t dream of expecting Roger to join me in this adventure) but then, what’s life without a challenge? 🙂

Where alcohol is concerned, I’m easily pleased: give me a half-decent red wine and occasional glass of celebratory bubbles and I’m a happy bunny. I don’t want to give it up as I think the old adage ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ holds much wisdom and there should be some pleasures in life! There’s even some research which suggests moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers but that, of course, is open to much debate. I am, however, making a conscious effort to reduce my wine consumption, both in order to benefit my health and the environment; I’m very proud of how we have reduced our waste to such a low level over the last couple of years but the sound of glass shattering in the recycling bin still seems very wrong to me somehow. (As an aside, is there a valid reason why wine, beer and spirit bottles couldn’t be returned and re-used like milk bottles?) Hopefully in the long term, this will be a win-win situation. Cheers to that!

Sticking with drinks and my tea habit has undergone a seismic shift, too. (At this point, I realise that people who know me well are probably starting to wonder if I’ve suffered a serious blow to the head . . . or indeed, if it is actually me writing this 🙂 ) Having cancelled trips to the UK three times this year on account of the coronavirus situation, I recently ran out of the lovely, loose-leaf Assam tea I always bring back with me; yes, for the first time in my adult life, I became totally tealess (Roger doesn’t drink tea so this was a solitary crisis). Now there was a time when this would have seemed like a disaster too terrible to contemplate ~ which probably shows how spoilt I’ve been ~ but I’ve taken the whole situation completely and calmly in my stride. In part, this is because I’ve been steadily moving towards drinking more herbal teas, experimenting with various flavour combinations straight from the garden or hedgerows. Despite the fact that I can pick fresh herbs all year round here, I’ve been inspired by The Greener Dream blog to create my own tea mixes by air-drying a variety of herbs and storing them in jars; if nothing else, it makes things much easier if Roger is on kettle duty ~ it’s kind enough to have a cuppa made for me without expecting him to go out and forage, too! Lemon balm, lavender and thyme is still my favourite brew and that jar just hums with the scent of summer. Lovely.

It’s not goodbye to black tea, though. Earlier this year I wrote about a Spanish company called Pharmadus Botanicals which produces a range of organic herbal teas in biodegradable packaging and, much as I’m not a fan, I was trying to enjoy the green tea from their range.

Well, imagine my joy to discover a couple of weeks ago that they now sell an organic, loose-leaf, black tea, too. Honestly, I would have jumped up and down shouting very loudly with joy if it hadn’t been for that dratted mask inhibiting my ability to breathe and speak, yet alone shout (and possibly because, all things considered, grannies should probably behave themselves in supermarkets). Anyway, the tea is rather pricey so I am limiting myself to a maximum of two cups a day but blimey, this is some wonderful stuff! It is completely different to any black tea I’ve ever tasted, having a slightly herbal flavour that I can’t quite pin down ~ liquorice root, maybe? The strangest thing is that I’m naturally drinking it without milk because that just feels right and the first steaming mug of the morning is a very lovely thing. It has also inspired me to make my own masala chai spice mix as I’m very partial to a warming evening cup during the darker months. I wasn’t really too bothered about any classic or authentic mix so simply went for what felt good: whole cardamon pods, cloves and black peppercorns ground using a pestle and mortar then mixed with ready-ground cinnamon, mace and ginger. I keep the jar by the kettle and add a pinch or two to a pot of the black tea. Mmm, delicious.

Finally, back to a little wildcrafting and a foraging mission in the woods to find some birch leaves, having discovered that they can be used to make a simple shampoo. Obviously, this won’t be news to my Scandinavian friends but I’d never heard of it before and was eager to try. As with so many of my bright, shiny, new discoveries, I’d made it at a wholly inappropriate time of year, given that both silver birch and downy birch are the first trees here to shed their leaves.

Well, what the heck? I went anyway, thinking that at the very least I might pick up a few more fallen eucalyptus branches (I did) and get to kick up the crunchy leaves and generally enjoy the season. What I’d forgotten is that in this mild climate, things never completely shut down; yes, the mature trees are definitely having an autumn but they are underplanted with literally hundreds of youngsters, still very much growing and in the green.

Knowing that birch readily weeps sap, I picked only a couple of leaves from each tree and soon had enough for my experiment. The idea is ridiculously simple: put the leaves in a jar of cold water, steep for 30 minutes then use as a shampoo. I love the fact that the shifts and changes in my life have brought me to this point of utter simplicity and ease. I don’t go to a hairdresser, I don’t dye my hair (never have), neither do I style it or slap any products on it; in modern terms, I’m seriously undergroomed but since I’m not aware of other people gawping or pointing and laughing when I venture out anywhere, I can’t look too much of a wild-haired freak for all this low-maintenance approach. No processing, no packaging, no synthetic colours, perfumes or other nasties: just a handful of leaves from the wood and water from the spring, both of which are returned to the earth after use. The question, of course, is does it work? Yes, it most definitely does, leaving my thick mop clean, shiny, soft and smelling faintly of summer. Thank you, nature. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

I think that everything else is working, too. Certainly, I already feel leaner, fitter and stronger. I’m sleeping well, and feel quietly calm and very happy – I’m doing a lot of smiling! My energy levels are high but not frantically buzzing; in fact, I feel completely in step with the rhythm of the season, making the most of the daylight hours but happy to embrace the dark as a natural and welcome balance. That’s after I’ve enjoyed the sunset, of course. 🙂

October odds and ends

Following on from ‘Autumn Breezes In’ last time, part of me felt I should call this post ‘October Blasts In’ given the run of stormy weather that has heralded the start of the new month. There’s nothing unusual here about several days of autumnal storms bringing high winds, torrential rain (sometimes hail) and lively thunderstorms; what is odd is that they have arrived a month earlier than normal, catching us a little by surprise. This is generally an early November thing, a cold and soggy spell sandwiched between weeks of warm, mellow, sunkissed weather.

It would be easy to feel fed up with this sudden dip but we know from past experience it’s a temporary thing, nothing more than a meteorological hiccup. It’s a change, not an ending, and I must admit I quite enjoy the atmospheric shift it brings in its wake. There is something cleansing and scouring about those heavy downpours, washing away summer’s dusty debris and shaking the tree canopies open in a way that makes everything look fresh and scrubbed, if a little tossed and jumbled, too. Where gentle summer petals fell and lizards basked in quiet corners, suddenly, there are flurries of fallen leaves.

The fig trees have been well stirred, their leaves flipped inside out and hanging at jaunty angles where before there was ordered calm. Happily, there is still much sweetness to be found amid the chaos.

The poor courgettes have taken a bashing, their huge leaves shredded to lace. They are still producing the occasional fruit but are nearing the end of their season now.

The sunflowers have definitely reached the end of the line, victims of their own success in a way; they had grown so tall and are so heavy that they really didn’t stand a chance in the face of strong winds and wet earth. I usually save some seed to plant next year and leave the rest for the birds to eat at their leisure ~ this year, I am going to have to cut the heads and hang them on the fence to make access easier.

Close cousins to the sunflowers, the Jerusalem artichokes have been making a gorgeous splash of yellow on the terrace for many weeks; now, petals gone, they have collapsed in spectacular fashion, narrowly avoiding a young cardoon. It’s not a problem: hidden deep in the soil will be piles of starchy tubers that make wonderful comfort eating all through winter.

I love all this seasonal jiggling and shifting in the garden, the way old troopers bow out as the new crew appears. There are still some brave old souls clinging on, though: the squash patch is looking rather flattened and forlorn after the boisterous growth of summer, but there’s still a flamboyant little finale to come.

Oca is a new experiment for us this year and it’s been an interesting plant to watch. The attractive trefoiled foliage grew quickly from tiny pink tubers in the spring, but then really struggled as the temperature climbed; flattened and panting through the summer afternoons, it cried out for daily watering and there were many times I doubted it would survive. It’s a plant that needs falling light levels to form tubers and it certainly seems much happier now ~ in fact, it’s positively blooming where other plants are giving up for the year.

Another new plant for us is the New Zealand spinach which just seems to go from strength to strength, sprawling merrily over a wide area on succulent stems and producing masses of fresh green growth. I love it, it’s such a cheery, unassuming yet versatile vegetable, with none of the high maintenance issues that can come with true spinach. I’m hoping it will carry on right through the winter.

There’s nothing new about ‘Greyhound’ cabbages, we’ve been growing them for years but we are playing around a bit with their season this time. They are officially a summer cabbage, usually ready in early June, but we decided to see how they would fare as an autumn vegetable; given the mild climate here, we thought it was surely worth a punt. Mmm, looks like we might have backed a winner!

Leeks, too, are an old favourite and the idea of not having a reliable patch to crop through winter is too terrible to contemplate. They’re looking grand and the stormy weather has barely ruffled their glaucous leaves . . . but they are more than ready to eat now, which I suppose makes them officially an autumn vegetable. The same is true of those other great staples ~ parsnips ~ along with the first of the autumn carrots and Florence fennel; it’s as though a big seasonal dietary adjustment has blown in with the storms. Well, we’re not complaining.

Something else which may be a bit earlier than usual this year are the kiwis; they normally start in early November but are looking to be slightly ahead of the game. There is less of a crop than we’ve enjoyed in previous years, but it’s all relative. Let’s just say, we won’t be going short.

There will be no shortage of squash, either, as phase two of the harvest has boosted the number to 44 with yet more still to come. I don’t think we’ve ever grown such huge butternuts, most of them weigh several kilos each.

Washed and dried, they are all lounging on their sun balcony ~ despite the distinct lack of sun ~ seasoning away nicely before being moved into the horreo for storage. Squash is very much back on the menu, diced and roasted with onions, garlic and chestnuts being a current favourite, both hot and cold.

It might be difficult to muster the enthusiasm during a torrential downpour, but I think it’s vitally important to celebrate the gift of water. Certainly, it’s not something Asturias lacks ~ in fact, it’s very much a defining part of the landscape here and the rich, all-pervading verdancy stands testament to the generous rainfall we receive. The water cycle has always fascinated me, in so many ways it’s something all too easily taken for granted and yet I think it is the most incredible, mind-blowing thing. We have an unlimited supply of chemical-free spring water here which we can use to water the garden in times of need, but old habits die hard and the idea of not capturing the abundance of rainwater sliding down the roof is unthinkable. I smiled to see the butt full to overflowing, a single hibiscus leaf floating on the surface of the cool, clear water like a lonely boat. Such a precious resource, indeed.

Another precious resource ~ well, to my mind, anyway ~ is compost. I understand that plenty of people may struggle to share my delight at the sight of a pile of decomposing vegetation, but for me this stuff is worth its weight in gold. Our compost heap swells to great proportions over the summer and as it had started to meet me as I came round the corner to the squash patch, I thought it was probably time to turn it once again.

The first job was to lift off the top layers and place them to one side. This is easier said than done, especially as we seemed to have a lot of branching things that had tied themselves in knots. Also, there was a bit of a self-set nasturtium thing going on . . .

It was welll worth the effort, though, as beneath all that mess was a wonderful layer of dark compost: it was hard to get the camera angle right, but the compost layer was about 30cm deep (or a foot in old money if you prefer). Down the whole length of the heap, that adds up to a lot of compost!

To say it was full of worms would be an understatement. This is the sort of sight that gladdens my gardening heart; it’s also no exaggeration to say I was literally mobbed by robins who lost no time in spying an easy meal.

I lifted the compost and built a heap between the pile of rotting farmyard manure and the comfrey potion bucket. Once it was all there, I covered it to keep the rain (and robins!) off until we spread it around the patch and in the tunnel, the perfect autumn feed for our soil.

Spending most of our lives outdoors as we do, it comes as a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves confined indoors because of terrible weather (thankfully, it rarely lasts more than a day or two). With an unusual drop in temperature, we decided to light our stove ~ aka The Beast ~ for the first time in months. I love this ritual of the first fire, there is something so reassurring and life-affirming about the sweet scent of woodsmoke curling from the chimney and the flicker of flames behind glass. Like a line of washing blowing in the breeze or a pot of herbs by the kitchen door, for me there’s a strong sense of ‘home’ about it and certainly the wrap-around warmth it creates in the house is pure seasonal hygge. The kettle sits there ready for coffee, the bread dough revels in the warmth and we often pull a bag of peaches from the freezer and set the jam kettle to bubble. Lovely.

This is a great time to catch up on a few indoor tasks. It’s walnut harvest time at the moment and the wind has helped to hurry things along a bit, although beating the wild boar and polecats to the fallen treasure is as much a race as ever; luckily, there’s more than enough to go round. Walnuts are a huge crop for us here and we eat them every day; no food miles, no packaging, highly nutritious and delicious and all for free, they are a perfect food. We have just reached the final basket of last year’s harvest so sitting by the fire and cracking a pile of them ready to use was a satisfying pastime.

I haven’t done any knitting for ages but there’s something about the onset of autumn that has me reaching for my needles and starting a new sock project, and this week has been no exception. I’ve opted for ‘Drops Delight’ yarn in gorgeous jewel colours that work up in wide colourwashed bands; I’m a simple soul, but things like this make me very happy!

I’ve also been finishing a birthday card, the second one I’ve made recently as we have two little grandsons celebrating their third birthday within a short time. Making cards for The Littlies has become a bit of a tradition and I love spending the time reflecting on the joy they bring to our lives and how wonderful it is to watch them grow and develop their own fascinating personalities. I wanted to create something seasonal, so opted for the idea of autumn hedgehogs looking for somwhere in the leaf litter to hibernate. I set up an art ‘studio’ outside (pre-storm, obviously) and used children’s watercolour paints to make colourwashes ~ this is the absolute extent of my talent with paint! 🙂 I then spent a very happy hour traipsing about the woods, collecting leaves of all shapes and sizes to use as templates. For the hedgehogs, I returned to my yarny comfort zone and used scraps of spun fleece: natural brown Manx Loaghtan for the body and French marigold -dyed Merino for the face and feet. Well, as ever, the result was a bit quirky but if nothing else, there’s a lot of love in it!

The same can be said for something I am making for a very special family, a summery blanket to grace a new garden bench. I have loved every minute of this project so far, from choosing the colours together ~ nine shades of blue and three yellows ~ to the postman delivering the parcel of wool and with it, that wonderful anticipation of starting on a new journey of simple creativity.

I’m not following any pattern, just working the rows in blocks of twelve so that each colour is distributed evenly across the blanket, pulling out whichever colour I feel like using next as I go along. It’s a blissfully relaxed approach.

I’d forgotten what a lovely thing this ripple stitch is, there is something so gently therapeutic about working up and down those waves; it’s the perfect pick-up, put-down activity on wet days and it’s exciting to see it growing steadily into a blanket.

Those colours certainly help to brighten the grey gloom, they feel like the essence of an Asturian beach day in summer. They also serve as a reminder that of one thing we can be sure: the winds will drop, the rain will stop, the temperature will rise again and we will soon be basking in the benign warmth of a soft, sweet autumn once again. We won’t be packing the shorts and sandals away just yet. There’s nothing like a bit of blue sky thinking in my book! 🙂

Autumn breezes in

I can smell autumn dancing in the breeze, the sweet chill of pumpkin and crisp sunburnt leaves.

Anon

What a surprise to wake to the sound of wind rattling around the eaves and a cool, fresh breeze blowing through the bedroom. Wind is a rarity here at the best of times but seems especially strange after the long, still, sleepy days of summer. Autumn usually creeps and sidles in so softly and slowly we barely notice but this year it has come knocking loudly on the door, all bluster and blow. Time to pull on my boots, get out there and revel in the change. 🙂

How different the morning light is already, the mountain tops in the distance sunlit as I start my walk but so much of the valley still cloaked in shadow. It’s cooler, too, with a new scent to the air: not the dank, dark mushroom smell of death and decay that will come later, but a deeper, earthier tone than of late, something that seems to reflect the subtle shift of colours in the landscape.

I’m not a fan of high winds, they can be disturbing and bring damage and destruction in their wake. A fresh breeze is another matter, though; there is something very energising about it, a sense of vitality and vibrant action that I love. There is mesmerising movement in the trees, a rippling dance shimmying through the undergrowth, a noisy, bustling, chaotic joie de vivre that makes me smile and quicken my pace. The equinox is behind us and yes, we have tipped beyond that point of balance but it is certainly not all gloom and doom and darkness: there is still plenty of joyful living to be done!

As a teacher, I was always aware that a windswept playtime would more often that not be followed by an unsettled session with fidgety, high-spirited, bright-eyed children; to be sure, it wasn’t ideal if there was serious work to be done, but in a way I used to feel there was something healthy and wholesome about the electric charge crackiling and fizzing through the classroom on windy days. It does us no harm to stir the pot occasionally, to shake everything up like a giant snowglobe and let it all settle into a different pattern. It’s what fuels creativity and innovation and stops us stagnating or becoming too predictable and set in our ways. Perhaps, childlike, we should all go out on a windy day and dance with the trees?

Autumn is generally associated with a carnival of colour but the days of bright fire are still some way off; the landscape here is still predominantly lush and green, yet walking through the woods, there are little hints and subtle touches that speak of what’s to come.

As the woodland path starts to drop towards the river, there is a more open space where I often saw roe deer grazing in late spring and early summer this year. When we first moved here, this steep slope had been recently harvested, and the landscape still bore fresh and ugly scars to show where towering eucalyptus had been felled and carted away to be pulped into toilet paper. It has been left to regenerate naturally and although the eucalyptus has come back (of course it has, try stopping it), there are plenty of young native trees in there, too, including birch, oak, cherry, holly and chestnut.

It has been a fascinating process to watch ~ proper rewilding in action, I suppose ~ and I love the eclectic colourful mix of the understorey. In spring it bristles with the white spires of asphodel, in early summer it is a sumptuous purple haze of bee-ridden foxgloves but at this time of year, the gorse is centre stage, all bright sunshine and coconut perfume.

In fact, there is still a wealth of wild flora available to those who feed on it; this season’s preferred colour combinaton is most definitely yellow and purple.

From colour to touch, and at this time of year I find I am drawn more than ever to textures with a deep, atavistic need to reach out and explore with my fingertips. From the bright, brittle symmetry of fern to the soft floaty fluff of seedheads, the jagged layers of a rock fall or perfect dome of a captured raindrop, the pompom flowers and glassy leaves of ivy and a dizzying choice of tree barks . . . I am in tactile heaven!

I’d hoped to find an interesting selection of fungi but they were very thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s still a little early but I did at least manage to spot a few, even if they weren’t the most inspiring.

One thing there is no shortage of is chestnuts. They are everywhere and it’s a dangerous business wandering about under the trees, especially in a wind, believe me; I can categorically state that being chestnut bombed is not a pleasant experience! They are a wonderful food, though, and a handful cooked with squash from the garden and a selection of warming spices makes a dish that is just perfect for the season.

So, like the circle of the seasons and the year, I came full circle back to our home, hair in a wind-teased tangle and cheeks feeling warmed and kissed by the busy breeze. The sun had climbed from behind the mountain, flooding the valley with light once again and the promise of a lovely day. There is still so much abundant growth, so much lush verdancy and it will be with us for some time to come. I’ve enjoyed my little taste of early autumn, the chance to blow the cobwebs out and waken my senses to the season, the change in the air . . . but I’m still enjoying the summery things, too, so let’s not rush! 🙂

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. 🙂