Food for thought

I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my food every day but at this time of year, when we are surrounded by such abundance, it seems even more pertinent. It isn’t just that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh foods from the garden but also the fact that we are able to process and store so much of nature’s bounty to sustain us through the colder, darker months ~ and that is a very wonderful thing.

As soon as the squash plants start climbing through the walnut trees and endangering the local sheep by hurling themselves down the mountainside at great speed, we know it must be time to start the annual harvest. It’s not easy to capture the steepness of the orchard on camera but Operation Squash Salvage is definitely a two-person job which generally sees Roger slithering and sliding about on the slope, wielding a knife and trying to stop the squash from escaping once cut while I meet him halfway down the slope to collect the prizes and pile them into the wheelbarrow (oh, and do useful things like take photos, too).

Squash plants climbing the walnut tree: time to start the harvest.
The bemused harvester wonders where to start on the terrace . . . you’d have thought he would be used to my excessive squash habits by now!
Meanwhile, the first barrowload is ready to go.

I love cleaning the squash up and laying them out in the yard for their first drying session; in a few days’ time, I will carry them up to the horreo balcony where they can ripen slowly in the autumn sunshine over the next few weeks before moving into their winter store. This is just the beginning: there are still plenty more to come but already I find myself enthralled by this year’s array.

The three blue-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ ( at the front of the photo) and all the butternuts were grown from commercial F1 seed but the rest all came from seed saved from a single squash we grew last year . . . and that in turn had been grown from seed saved in the same way from the year before. I find it endlessly fascinating that so many different types can come from the same fruit, such an incredible diversity of genes from the open-pollinated varieties we have grown in recent years. Last year, every single squash had firm, orange flesh, great flavour and made excellent eating; they kept brilliantly, too (we ate the last one in May) so fingers crossed, those traits have been passed down to their mongrel offspring.

The squash will form a large part of our winter diet but there will be plenty of other things on offer, too. We have a terrace full of Jerusalem artichokes and a good row of parsnips, both of which make great starchy comfort food, while in the main patch a selection of different kales will provide a reliable source of greens.

Rainbow chard (or leaf beet) grows pretty much as a perpetual crop here; the stalks and mature leaves giving us a useful and versatile vegetable and we can pick the baby leaves all through winter for salads. The plants suffered a bit in the last hot dry spell of weather but I’ve cut back the tired foliage and they are already putting on vigorous new growth.

Actually, despite the season and the shortening of the days as we head towards the equinox, there is still a tremendous feeling of growth and abundance everywhere around our patch and it never fails to amaze me just how much food it is possible to yield from a relatively small space. The terrace in the main garden would probably amuse many ‘expert’ gardeners, given that its shallow width only allows for the shortest of rows . . . but currently there are several varieties of lettuce, land cress, rocket, spring onions, purslane, calendula, nasturtiums, Florence fennel, cabbages and leeks all flourishing cheek by jowl and promising good food for several months to come.

Earlier this year, we created a mini hugel bed for the tomatoes in their blight-free shelter and we have certainly enjoyed the best ever crop this season; all that chopping of wood and carting of compost was well worth the effort and once the plants have finished this year, I shall be topping it up with another dollop of good organic matter.

The tomato crop is slowing down now but we are still enjoying plenty of summer on our plate. The tunnel is literally heaving with peppers and aubergines and also the best melon crop ever (their fruity perfume greets us at the door), while outside the globe artichokes have produced a bonus crop.

We are not self-sufficient by any means (and we’re not trying to be); in order to produce all our own food, we would need to keep livestock and grow grains to mill for flour, as well as find homegrown alternatives for the luxuries like tea, coffee and olive oil that we enjoy. However, there is something very satisfying and downright joyful about gathering the bulk of every meal from the garden. I’m still enjoying my ‘fruit burst’ breakfast; the figs are cropping very early this year and so heavily that we can’t hope to keep on top of them, but we’re trying our best. I feel like a monkey in a David Attenborough documentary, reaching up with expectant paws to pluck sweet fruits from the heavily laden branches.

For lunch, there are plenty of goodies on offer from the ‘salad bar’: romaine, cos and oak-leaved lettuce, baby chard and beet leaves, land cress, rocket, baby nasturtium leaves, purslane, spring onions, celery, peppers and cucumbers along with a wide range of herbs and edible flowers.

We’re not vegetarians but we eat (and love!) a lot of vegetarian meals; it makes perfect sense when we have so many wonderful ingredients to hand. One of our favourite dishes is roasted aubergines stuffed with quinoa (or bulgar wheat, pearl barley, rice or whatever grain is to hand), lentils, garlic, chilli and preserved lemons with natural yogurt. To accompany that this week, we made a vegetable ‘hash’ from courgette, peppers, French beans and New Zealand spinach. The courgette in the picture was really verging on the baby marrow but the beauty of ‘Black Beauty’ is that it stays firm and flavoursome even at that size. The beans are the fifth crop we’ve grown this year and are as tender and delicious as the first one, while the New Zealand spinach is creating a wonderful sprawl of succulent groundcover and proving itself a real winner in the kitchen. Mmm, not missing the meat! 🙂

I do enjoy a bit of foraging for wild food, too, and we’ve recently had a real treat in the shape of a bowl of blackberries. I realise that probably sounds a tad tame but the fact is, this is not berry country and despite having oodles of brambles with pink flowers full of pollinators every year, the fruits are either tiny and dry or non-existent. This season, though, has brought us treasure, and while I realise they don’t look too spectacular in the photo, they were totally scrummy cooked with pears and topped with an oaty, walnutty crumble. The polite way to eat that, of course, is as a hot pudding but I prefer it cold for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt. Well, why not? It’s a tasty, nutritious and sustaining start to the day . . . there is most definitely life beyond cornflakes!

It would be easy to become complacent with all this wonderful food to hand but we have been doing a fair bit of experimenting lately, both in the garden and kitchen. We usually sow a row of overwintering peas in November and then make further sowings in spring but beyond June, mildew becomes too much of an issue to make it worth growing more. This year, we’ve decided to try a very late sowing out of interest and there is a promising little row of new plants bombing up their sticks. We’ve also planted pointy (summer) cabbage to try for an autumn crop and they are looking very fine and beginning to heart up nicely. I noticed a while ago that where I have cut lettuce and (very lazily) left the stalks in the ground, lots of new lush growth has sprung up so I’m wondering if this would be a more sustainable approach in future, rather than growing endless successions throughout the summer?

It’s early days in my fermentation career and so far the results have been mixed. The sauerkraut was a complete revelation and instantly converted me from someone who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole to a crazy woman now willing those cabbage to get going so I can make some more. On the flipside, fermented cucumbers and courgettes made a promising start but quickly deteriorated into a foul-smelling, slimy mess fit only for the compost heap. However, I am not a quitter by nature and having been encouraged by my fermentation guru (you know who you are! 🙂 ) to try with grated courgettes rather than sticks, I’m having another crack at it. So, far, so good; the jar is bubbling away like an Icelandic mudpool and smells very fresh and fragrant. Just a few more days to go before the moment of truth . . .

Something else I’ve been experimenting with is making cottage cheese to go with those lunchtime salads. I would love to be able to buy fresh milk for making yogurt and cheese straight from the producer in refillable bulk containers but unfortunately, I haven’t managed to crack that one yet. We usually buy whole milk but having read in several places that any fat from the cream would end up in the whey, I plumped for a litre of semi-skimmed; the only other ingredient was the juice from one lemon. The process couldn’t have been simpler: I warmed the milk and lemon juice slowly over a low heat, stirring occasionally, and turned the heat off once it boiled. I left it to stand for a few minutes, then poured the whole lot into muslin over a bowl to separate the curds and whey, squeezing the muslin ‘bag’ to remove as much moisture as possible. Job done! In truth, this isn’t really what I know as cottage cheese (which is made using rennet) but more like a ricotta or paneer; I had read several criticisms of it being dry and tasteless, requiring the addition of cream and lots of flavourings to make it palatable, but I didn’t find that at all. It had a very fresh, clean, slightly lemony flavour and needed just a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, although I can see that some chopped fresh herbs would make a tasty addition. One litre of milk yielded 150g of cheese and 850ml of whey, a nutrient-rich liquid which is perfect for bread making. It was a lovely exercise . . . maybe we should have a house cow, after all? 🙂

Next experiment in the kitchen laboratory: fig jam! Of course, having a productive veggie patch isn’t just all about the harvesting, we do have to spend a certain amount of time looking after everything, not least the soil. I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to feeding the soil and the circle of the year sees well-rotted manure, homemade compost, green manures and green mulches being used on a rolling basis. I’ve been clearing a patch for winter salads in the tunnel this week where I’ve been trying a no-dig approach for the last couple of years, simply piling manure and compost on to the surface. I used a hand fork to lift a few oxalis seeds but otherwise just pulled the other weeds plus lemon balm and nasturtium volunteers and chopped them to use as a mulch between plants elsewhere, then sowed with a mix of lettuce, oriental leaves, chard and rocket. I’ve been making good use of the very prolific beds of comfrey scattered around the patch, too.

I regularly add chopped leaves to my comfrey tea bucket ~ this patch has been cut five times this year and seems to grow back overnight! The resulting potion is foul-smelling but to me it’s a black gold, making a wonderful feed when for everything in the garden when diluted in water, whether growing in pots or in the ground.

I also use comfrey leaves as a mulch, chopped and placed in a thick layer directly on the soil and this week, I’ve been tucking a decent blanket of it around the purple sprouting broccoli plants on the terrace above the squash garden. Broccoli is one of our favourite staple crops and we usually enjoy a prolonged harvest stretching from January to May, but I have to admit it is a bit of a high maintenance character in our little corner of Asturias. It doesn’t enjoy hot, dry spells so we have been hauling cans of water a fair bit over the summer to keep it happy. It also attracts a plethora of pests and a constant bombardment from flea beetle, whitefly, slugs, snails and caterpillars means we have to be very vigilant gardeners, checking every single leaf every couple of days to remove the little critters. By this time of year, the worst is over and the plants have started to romp away; as they spend a long time in the ground ~ almost twelve months, in fact ~ I felt it was time to give them a bit of a boost. The terrace was planted with a green manure cover crop of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch last winter, then topped with well-rotted manure. I’m hoping the comfrey mulch will provide a natural slow-release fertiliser to see the plants through the autumn . . . now the only problem I have is the blackbird population scratching it and scattering it in their morning hunt for food!

Finally ~ and just to prove it’s not all about food ~ an interesting little story from the world of flowers. For reasons I have never been able to pin down, I have struggled to grow French marigolds every year here which is disappointing because they are such an excellent and beneficial companion plant as well as very pretty, a great food source for pollinators and a useful natural dyestuff. I love them but they just don’t want to grow; germination is scanty to say the least, even using fresh seed, and most of the seedlings fail to thrive. Given how I used to end up in trouble for the jungle of volunteers that popped up in our less-than-tropical tunnel in upland Wales, I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t self-set readily around the patch. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Anyway, thankful for the tiniest crumb, I was thrilled to find a single late volunteer hiding beneath the cucumbers which has grown to bush proportions in recent weeks and has just started to bloom.

Here’s the incredible thing: it has produced four totally different blooms all on one plant in a way I have never seen on French marigolds before. Maybe it’s taking those mongrel squash on at their own game? I don’t know, but it was certainly well worth the wait! 🙂

Contrasts

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?

John Steinbeck

The rain came. After a day of humidity so high we could almost lick the moisture from the air, a storm broke and water fell on the parched garden. A brief respite the next morning meant I could take my breakfast outside as usual and feel the tantalising difference in the air; the sky was bruised and turbulent, swollen with the promise of more rain to come (several hours’ worth, as it turned out), but beneath it there was a bright freshness to the garden. It felt as though everything had let out a huge sigh, a deep, delicious exhalation of relief; plants had shaken off the dust, lifted their heads and stretched limbs upwards again. After many days of langourous lethargy, there was energy once more, a new optimism embracing the will to go on.

Clouds were forming in the valley, rising and looping from the woods like plumes of shape-shifting dragon’s breath; no matter how many times I watch this happening, it never fails to feel magical.

I love the change the rainy weather brings, the stark contrast and different feel to those cloudless, sunlit mornings. The water paints everything in deeper hues, so that beneath my feet the chestnut leaves, dropped in drought, shone like scales of burnished copper against the green. It’s a while since I’ve needed to wear wellies, too!

The leafy canopy so slick with rain, all shining and drippy, and the froth of wild carrot both had a palpably altered air seen against duller skies.

Lizards ~ those irrepressible hedonists ~ are two a penny here, scuttling about in busy flurries or simply sitting and soaking up the sunshine. The rain, however, brought out a more shadowy character, mooching across the yard with an exaggerated swagger. Fire salamanders are curious creatures, secretive, hidden amphibians that emerge under the cover of darkness to hunt . . . unless it’s raining, when they are happy to endure the daylight, too. They are poisonous and can be incredibly long-lived (almost as old as me, in fact): a small animal worthy of the greatest respect.

While so many things in the garden welcomed the rain, it wasn’t all good news. I love to grow sunflowers but have to admit it is nothing but a struggle here; the seedlings are usually decimated by slugs and snails, although this year most of the seeds were eaten by mice before they even had the chance to germinate. The survivors grow tall and top heavy and that is often ~ quite literally ~ their downfall; it’s impossible for them to put down deep roots on our slopes and any hint of strong winds or heavy rain can send them toppling over like fallen giants.

Of the three beauties flowering, two were lost and a plant in heavy bud lost its head; it’s an unwanted change but all part of gardening life and at least there is still one stunning plant for the bees to enjoy. I’m enjoying the salvaged flowers on the kitchen table, too, and the chance to study their intricate structures and fascinating beauty close up. It’s a vivid reminder of the pleasure there is to be found in small things.

The winds of change have blown through the vegetable patch this week, dancing to the steady rhythm of the seasons and bringing subtle contrasts of colour and flavour in their wake. We have moved from purple to green beans, cherry to plum tomatoes, from spearmint to apple mint, from sweet peas to sunflowers. The carrots and calabrese are finished, the aubergines and Asturian beans begun, the melons and squash whisper in the wings. Where onions have been lifted, cabbages are planted. The benign climate gives us permission to keep on sowing and nature shows us how: amongst the young spring onions and lettuce plants, self-set rocket, land cress and succulent purslane seedlings proliferate, with their promise of tasty salads for weeks to come.

Our meals begin with what is good in the garden; there is such choice and abundance now, we barely need anything else. What a blessing!

Further afield, and regular readers will know that one of the things we love to do is walk. It’s always exciting to explore new routes but I love to revisit old ones, too, especially to map the changes through the year. Not wanting to stray too far from home this week (the combination of holiday season and a public holiday making everything a bit busy out there), we opted to go back to the Ruta Vueltas del Gato. This is a circular walk of roughly 13 kilometres / 8 miles through a beautiful and changing landscape which I first wrote about in an earlier post; having only done it in winter, I was keen to visit again now and hear its summer song. Well, certainly we were going to be walking under a very different sky this time!

December
August

The trail leads across what feels like a wide expanse of moorland; it is in fact a large area of former eucalyptus forest that is being regenerated under a managed scheme that is pretty much letting nature take its course. It was much easier to appreciate how things are developing in the height of summer growth compared to the bare bones of winter.

December
August

For me, there was a tremendous sense of the land being healed here, of a brave new ecosystem and raft of life emerging from the ashes of monoculture. I can’t begin to describe the butterflies any more than I could capture them with the camera; there were literally clouds and clouds of them, like confetti in so many sizes and colours. Tiny blues rose from the path with every step we took while others shimmered above the undergrowth like a heat haze. The insect life in general was stunning, the heather and gorse alive with their activity and noise.

There are many, many reasons why I love birch trees, one of which is their pioneer spirit: give them a patch of land and they will be there in no time. Beneath the protective layer of shrubby undergrowth, shiny new tree seedlings were emerging, the birch most definitely leading the charge . . . and when they are given permission to reach for the skies, what beautiful trees they make.

There were other, more unexpected treasures to be discovered, too.

From this wide and open country, the path begins its long and sinuous descent to the bottom of a steep-sided gorge; it’s not called the ‘Cat Bends’ for nothing! It’s a difficult path, littered with boulders and deep gullies that make walking difficult. I must admit, I found it much easier under foot in the drier conditions of summer than the slipperiness of winter, so much so that I was even able to lift my eyes from the path and drink in the view.

That said, summer brings its own problems, it seems . . . so much growth in places, the path literally disappeared. Roger is in front of me somewhere, honest.

In winter, the mountainsides had seemed somehow metallic, the trees bare in silver and pewter or clinging to autumn colours in fiery flashes of copper and gold. Now, all was green upon green, lush and verdant in the higher light with not even the slightest hint of summer’s end in sight.

December
August

Down and down we went (170 metres in 500 metres of walking, to be precise), with the sound of the river growing ever louder until at last we caught the first glimpse of water through the trees.

Like our walk last week, we had arrived at a watersmeet, the place where the serene río Navelgas-Barcena meets the busy, chattering río Naraval before they continue their journey together as the beautiful río Esva. In December, the rivers had been full, stretching wide to their tree-flanked banks.

December

Now, everything was softer and slower. Sunlight strobed through the leaves and sparked off the water in scattered explosions, forming exquisite constellations of tiny diamonds on the surface. Pond skaters sought sunny patches, edging ever forwards against the current, whilst turquoise damsel flies flitted in twos and threes on indigo wings as dark as midnight.

This is a magical place: in contrast to all the movement and sound, the peace and serenity are so strong that they are almost tangible. You can breathe in pure, raw nature through every pore here. It is the sort of place I find hard to leave.

December
August

Leave, of course, we must ~ there were still many miles to go. There is no bridge across the río Naraval so wading is the only option. I love this sort of fun element to a walk but I have to say it’s a lot more enjoyable in summer temperatures!

December
August

The climb back to the top of the gorge is a long and steep one but the beauty of the woodland in its summer colours was a happy distraction from the hard work my legs were doing.

Emerging once more into open country, we could look back at where we had been walking earlier. That’s one of the things I love about a circular walk like this, the real sense of a journey, of distance travelled and landscape experienced and explored from different angles and perspectives. I loved the contrast of the dusty track punctuated with fresh puddles, too.

More contrasts in the colours and textures of the landscape again and reflecting on the pictures, I’m reminded of how every season holds its own unique forms of interest and beauty.

December
August

Just before our path turned into woodland once more, we had a sweeping view across the valley and the rocky path along which we’d walked. In the centre of the photo is a traditional feature of the Asturian landscape, a circular stone wall built to protect beehives from the attention of bears. It was a timely reminder of the fact that, although we were only a short drive from home and we could see farms and hamlets scattered across the landscape, it is very much still wilderness; humans might have been making their mark here for millennia but there remains an untamed, unfettered spirit of freedom to this land.

Home once more and we are likely to spend the rest of August pottering about at home while the holiday month runs its course. The weather remains changeable, playing a constantly fluctuating game of ‘Blue Sky, Grey Sky’ but I’m not complaining; it’s a little bit of variety and uncertainty, of changes and contrasts that surely makes life more interesting! 🙂

Fair weather February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joys of January

After what seemed like endless weeks of wind and torrential rain, culminating in a solstice storm so severe a ‘violet’ weather warning was issued in our neighbouring municipality, the weather has been all smiles. Mornings are dreamily atmospheric, the mountains pink-tipped above cloud-filled dips and silvery frost rippling up the valley sides until the sun clears the horizon and turns the tide. The days bloom under wide porcelain skies of flawless blue and there is a warmth in the sun that makes everything feel hopeful.

Now I am not naive enough to be thinking spring thoughts just yet, although there are subtle hints in the air: dusty yellow hazel catkins in the hedge and the haze of new buds in the woodland; a confetti of primroses, violets, celandines and daisies scattered through the orchard and verges; the fragile cries of our neighbours’ first lambs and an energetic bustling and busyness amongst the birds as they find their voices once again. Most of winter is still in front of us, the worst of the weather likely still to come . . . but for now, what life-affirming glee it is to be outside in the fresh air, breathing deeply, turning my face to the sun and connecting completely with this precious little patch of earth.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but certainly one of my intentions this year is to continue building on the new things I was inspired to try in the garden last year. After reading (twice!) Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution I went green manure crazy with tremendous results. I’ve just turned the overwintering mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares on the terraces; it might seem a bit early but our neighbours are already planting their patches so I thought it was time to get stuck in to allow the green stuff to die back before potato time – hooray, the two-year ban has been lifted! What amazed me more than anything else was the amount of worms beneath the green, the soil was literally alive with them which has to be a wonderful sign. Elsewhere, white clover has remained a rich green carpet under and around perennial plants like the row of globe artichokes I planted down a fence line last year. You can see the silvery new growth emerging in the right of the photo, while to the left, the space between the artichokes and kale is filled with the deep green foliage of crimson clover.

I planted a few pockets of crimson clover around the patch in the hope it would go through the winter (it’s not hardy and we do get the occasional frost) and so provide an early nectar source; it has never looked back, forming dense mats wherever I planted it and yes, here come the flowers.

Other flowers, too, are making bright little pops of colour now that many plants have recovered from the ravages of that mighty hail storm in November; good news indeed, as the afternoon air is full of insects in search of a food source. The Japanese quince is a bold splash of red, supported by calendula, borage, cerinthe, osteospermum, pansies, coriander, rosemary and a scattering of roses while in addition to the wilder flowers mentioned earlier, there are dandelions, chickweed, fumitory, clover and red deadnettles a-plenty. A patch of rocket is also in full flower, its delicate sunlit petals a constant source of attraction to bumble bees.

Back to green manure, and although I have more seed to scatter in spring, I’m interested to see just how far the varieties spread themselves this year. Already, there are phacelia volunteers popping up all over the place, some of them even on the verge of flowering; I will let the first bunch bloom as they are such a great food source for bees but there is going to have to be some ‘chop and drop’ business later on. I underplanted the purple sprouting broccoli with white clover last summer but now it also nestles in a sumptuous bed of phacelia and poached-egg plant, all self-set. There’s celeriac in there somewhere, too. No need to fret about bare earth, then.

I also put Mr Fukuoka’s teaching into practice when planting the garlic a few weeks ago in a patch that was formerly home to our late harvest of French beans. Instead of pulling the bean plants and carting them off to the compost heap, I scattered them over the surface of the soil and left them as a weed suppressant while the garlic had a blast of winter in the fridge, then scraped them to one side, planted the the plump purple cloves and re-scattered the bean straw over the top. The fresh green shoots have pushed up through the mulch which continues to hold the weeds back and should – I hope – have rotted down completely into the soil by the time the garlic is pulled. I love this kind of approach; it might look untidy but mess doesn’t bother me one bit – nature is inherently messy, after all – and there is something very wholesome about seeing the garden this way. Every scrap of earth that isn’t planted with a crop or green manure is covered in a thick mulch of compost, comfrey leaves or manure; nothing has been dug or disturbed, just fed. It’s as if the entire patch has been metaphorically tucked up in a cosy quilt and given a comforting bowl of steaming soup! It’s nurturing and nourishing, a large helping of hygge for our winter garden.

Mary Reynolds was also inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, so it’s little surprise that there is much in her book, The Garden Awakening, that has struck a chord with me. One of my ambitions is to plant a forest garden, something that’s very much at the thinking stage at present but which I hope will develop and flourish into the real thing at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken on board Mary’s recommendation that everything organic that comes from our land should be returned to it. Of course, done properly and completely that would involve having a compost toilet which is something else to be thinking about for the future. What we have been doing now, though, as a new approach is creating a small hügelkultur-type bed for this year’s tomatoes and this has been a fascinating and satisfying little project so far. It began a few weeks ago when we were left with a huge pile of brush after removing a couple of small peach and apricot trees which had come to the end of their lives; bearing the idea of ‘returning’ them to the earth in mind, making them into a bonfire just wasn’t on the cards so instead I spent several days chopping every branch and twig into small lengths. It might seem a bit simple but I have to admit it was a very therapeutic and rewarding activity, especially in the sunshine. Once done, I piled the thicker pieces (those that had required loppers) onto the rotting log pile in our wildlife patch which I hope has made the resident slow-worms very happy!

It has taken us four summers to find the only spot in the garden where we can grow blight-free tomatoes so now, taking a leaf out of our neighbours’ book, it was time to make it a permanent planting spot beneath the polythene shelter. Roger built an edge using some spare bricks and we began by filling the base with the smaller woody pieces, the ones that required only secateurs to cut them. A standard hügelkultur bed is built with logs but we’re going for something on a slightly smaller and finer scale here.

Next, we added a thick layer of compost (spent and fresh from the heap) and well-rotted manure.

On to this we are now regularly piling any biomass we can, including a heap of rotted meadow grass cut from the orchard in autumn, huge piles of leaf mould and moss scraped from the yard; the idea is that by the time we’re ready to plant the tomatoes, there will be a raised bed of rich organic planting matter sitting over the slow-release woody fertiliser. It’s already teeming with worms so here’s to an even better tomato crop this summer.

Compost has been a bit of an obsession with me for some time and I have to confess I love any excuse to mess about in the heap (as I said, I’m a simple soul). I spent a very happy day last week scraping the top layer off, digging out trugs and trugs of the stuff and piling it into two mountains in the tunnel; here it will stay dry and any annual seedlings that emerge can be turned over before we use it.

I then set about rebuilding the heap in what John Seymour in The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency describes as a ‘countryman’s stack’ (levelled rather than a pile), first chopping everything big – like a huge pile of woody pepper plants from the tunnel that I’d lazily thrown on whole – into smaller pieces and then layering brown stuff and green stuff with the addition of dollops of manure. We don’t have many nettles here but a persistent plant that grows out of a terrace wall was cut and chopped to add as an activator. I am determined not to buy any commercial compost at all this year as we have been increasingly disappointed in the general quality, the lack of nutritional goodness and the worrying amount of plastic particles that even the more expensive stuff seems to contain. The plastic bags it comes in are another environmental nightmare to deal with so from here on in, it’s home-produced all the way; yes, there will be invasive seedlings but that’s a small price to pay, and if the amount of fungi that has popped up in the tunnel piles is an indicator of vibrant compost health, then we’re onto a winner.

Compared to the verdant jungle of summer, the garden at this time of year always looks a bit bare and yet we still have a plentiful supply and good variety of vegetables to choose from; they just take a little more finding!

We are enjoying Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, leeks, several different types of cabbage and kale, chard, celeriac, chicory, beetroot, carrots, rocket and land cress from outside. There are more treats to come imminently: the broccoli is unfurling its first tender purple florets and in the dark cave beneath the house, fat yellow chicons are emerging from the chicory roots. There is still no shortage of squash and beans in storage and possibly enough chillies to last us several winters, even using them every day as we do. Where fruit is concerned, the kiwi has come up trumps once again and we are enjoying them fresh from the vine when we can persuade the territorial blackbirds and blackcaps to share.

In the tunnel, we have a good range of salad leaves and oriental greens to choose from, including the best crop of lamb’s lettuce we’ve grown in a while. I never fail to be thrilled by picking a fresh, zingy, peppery salad at this time of year, it’s the perfect foil to all those starchy winter vegetables.

In contrast to the abundance of salad leaves, we’ve had a few lone stars of late, too. There is a single spear of asparagus ready to cut which is surely ridiculous at this time of year? After much deliberation over how to best use our very first lemon, we decided to put it into a batch of peach marmalade last week so that it is spread through several jars; the flavour is beautifully intense, it has been well worth the wait. Finally, after nine months of precisely nothing happening in our mushroom logs, a single pioneer shitake decided to put in an appearance. I’m hoping others will follow suit although so far, there’s no sign. Patience, patience.

One thing I am determined to do this year is to finally get a grip on understanding permaculture at a deeper level rather than just dipping in and out or nibbling at the edges as I have been doing for some time. There’s a wealth of material available but I’ve decided I can do no better than go to the founding father himself so I have begun reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual which I’m enjoying immensely. At 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and dense with new, and often quite technical, information to absorb but I’m finding that half an hour’s study in the morning followed by a long run to reflect on what I’ve read is doing wonders for my mind and body (and maybe soul, too). Waiting in the wings is The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield which I’m also very eager to start. There’s several months’ worth of reading material here but possibly a lifetime of inspiration; who knows, I might even get that forest garden planted after all. Happy New Year, everyone! 🙂

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! 🙂

A solitary supper

What a beautiful day. After a week of wet and gloomy weather, it was the kind of golden day that makes my heart sing with the sheer joy of simply being alive. Such a pleasure and treat to be outdoors again, basking in the warmth and peace of a sunny Asturian autumn day. Bliss, in fact.

I love the way each week brings changes, small and subtle and understated, others banging and crashing in, all fanfares and fireworks. How did the autumn crocus, dotted and spotted through the meadow grass suddenly become great swathes, a tide of soft lilac rippling through the green?

They are things of great beauty, delicate faerie cups bearing saffron candles; I’m hoping the cows don’t return to trample them under hoof too soon.

The chestnut trees, ever the tardiest to green up in spring, don’t rush into autumn, either, but suddenly they are lit up in shining bronze and gold against the dusky eucalyptus.

I wasn’t the only one relishing the return of the sunshine. The garden bustled with butterflies – mostly red admirals, peacocks and fritillaries in their painted splendour – and a sudden outbreak of the biggest bumble bees I’ve ever seen. There were baby lizards everywhere, too, almost impossibly tiny but completely perfect and full of life and curiosity.

This was a day for activity in the garden, time to clear a space and start planting for next year. I can’t believe what a difference using green manure and keeping bare earth covered has made to the soil this year, so that a patch that formerly housed summer brassicas with white clover and yellow trefoil carpeted below yielded a deep, loamy, moist, warm, luscious area just crying out for planting. In went ‘Imperial Green’ broad beans and ‘Douce Provence’ peas; these will germinate in no time then sit quietly over winter ready to give an early crop next spring. I also put in a few small purple kale plants left over from the main planting weeks ago. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about them but they’ve soldiered on, rootbound in their section trays, unwatered and unloved – well, they really deserve every chance now and in my opinion, you can’t have too much kale in the garden.

Returning to green manure, and I’m beginning to wonder if I will really need the seed I have for next year since volunteers are popping up all over in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle. On the squash terraces, the winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares is going well; I love that fresh green muddle of bright grassy blades and ferny tendrilled vetch but hadn’t quite planned for the nasturtiums deciding to join in of their own accord. Mmm.

Eating an evening meal on my own is a very rare occurrence these days; planning, preparing and enjoying our main meal of the day together is a large part of our life and something that brings us great satisfaction, especially when most of the ingredients come from the garden. It felt a bit strange, with Roger away at a race, to be thinking about dinner just for myself. Cooking for one is not always easy; apart from missing the social side, I find it hard to work in tiny quantities and also to muster much enthusiasm – in the past, and especially when I was working, I tended to default to a jacket potato or mushroom omelette. Even worse, eggs on toast or cheese on toast. Or just toast. There’s such a difference between eating to live and living to eat, so with this in mind -and trying to avoid the lonely toast option as much as possible- I cooked a bit of buckwheat in the morning and left it to cool with a vague notion of turning it into some kind of salad. I’m a great fan of buckwheat, that humble little seed packed with phytonutrients; I far prefer it to its fashionable friend quinoa as it’s chunkier and more substantial somehow, with a pronounced nutty flavour. I’ve grown it for the first time this year and I have to admit I am completely under its spell: green manure, companion plant, weed suppressant, perfect food source for bees and a hoverfly attractant as well as being a handsome plant with pretty flowers . . . buckwheat really cuts the mustard. My only disappointment is that after conducting a bit of research, I discovered the variety I’m growing is no good for human consumption as it has a very bitter flavour. Shame.

Anyway, back to my salad plan. We still have a good selection of salad leaves and herbs in the garden, baby carrots and young Florence fennel, the occasional late courgette and although the aubergines have finally given up the ghost, the sweet peppers are still going strong in the tunnel. Possibilities, then.

As I pootled about the garden, though, I started to think that maybe this would be a golden opportunity to see if I could create something different, a recipe new to me that used as much home-grown produce as possible and gave me the chance to further explore the ingredients we buy in terms of economy and environmental impact (something I started investigating closely a few weeks ago). As the soft afternoon light played across the vegetable patch, my eye was constantly drawn to the bright fire of beetroot leaves; ah, here was a good place to start!

Roger is not a huge fan of beetroot but I love it and this year I’ve made successive sowings to keep me supplied for many months. I threw this last lot of mixed seed in as a random patch rather than formal rows and it’s bursting with plump baby beets; the leaves are a bit ropy but the roots are sweet and succulent. I usually grate them raw as a salad or roast them to eat hot or cold but this solitary supper called for something new, so I decided it was time to sit down for a mug of tea and a quick blast of sock knitting with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Well, obviously not the man himself but two of his books, River Cottage Veg Every Day and Much More Veg; we were given both as gifts and they are fantastic, much used and well thumbed. It’s handy to have a good supply of recipes that make vegetables the star of a dish; we’ve made many of them from both books, and often return to old favourites simply because they are just so delicious. Time for a bit of beetroot love, then.

I really liked the sound of Beetroot and Chard Stir Fry with Chilli, Ginger and Lime and quite fancied the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat, too; the problem for me was that even with my open-minded attitude to food, I felt Chinese meets Moroccan (or maybe Indian?) was definitely up there on the confusion cooking scale. In the end, Moroccan won the toss, not least because we didn’t have any lime but we did have a jar of preserved lemons just ready to eat. We’ve been making our own preserved lemons for years; it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, simply pouring salt into the split fruits and packing them into jars with extra lemon juice (although Roger has now branched out into slightly cheffier ideas which incorporate things like rosemary, too).

They are utterly divine (I could quite happily eat them straight from the jar which would be pretty disgraceful behaviour) and are such a fantastic ingredient to use. It’s a shame that unless we are lucky enough to be given some lemons, we do have to buy them as when we moved here, ours was the only house in the village without any citrus trees. Two lots of good news, though: first, Spanish lemons are superb quality, cheap and plentiful and we can buy them loose without any packaging; second, the lemon tree we planted three years ago is bearing fruit – not quite enough for a jar of preserved ones yet, but where there’s fruit and flowers, there’s hope.

One of the many things I like about Mr F-W’s cooking is that he encourages changes and swaps, seeing his recipes as starting points or guidelines rather than rigid prescriptions. For that I am truly thankful because I’m not sure he would have recognised his works of cheffery by the time I’d finished with them. First things first, the Lightly Spicy Buckwheat which I decided was crying out for the addition of walnuts . . . and what lovelier pastime on a sunny afternoon than doing a bit of outdoor food prep?

Next, a sally forth into the garden to source some veg: beetroot obviously, some yellow chard (the youngest, most tender stems), a small bulb of fennel as the row really needs thinning, a handful of purple kale, a green chilli, red and green sweet peppers and some fresh coriander and mint. Not a bad little haul (and yes, already looking like far more food than one person needs).

It’s true that for a meal like this, the preparation takes way longer than the actual cooking (and eating) but then, that’s part of the fun. I love the sensory pleasure of prepping ingredients, all those yummy colours, textures, scents and flavours mingling before the cooking proper has even begun. Using the wickedly sharp paring knife made by my cutler nephew Harry always reminds me of the joy and satisfaction of crafstmanship, of using fingers and thumbs to do more than just press buttons or touch screens. This is what I ended up with (excuse the onion being obliterated by sunlight in the photo, the late October light brings us a blast of rays straight through the kitchen window at around 6:30pm):

Top board. clockwise from top left: Florence fennel, chard stalks, chard leaves, purple kale, beetroot leaves, red and green peppers. Bottom board, clockwise from top left: garlic, green chilli, green olives, mint and coriander, preserved lemon, beetroot, onion.

The only bought ingredients were garlic and green olives. It’s frustrating that we can’t grow garlic here given how well the allium family thrives but it doesn’t get the blast of winter it needs and rots in the ground; any that manages to grow doesn’t keep so we’ve stopped trying and buy Spanish stuff in loose bulbs instead. Olives are one of our store cupboard essentials, we use them in so many dishes. We can’t grow them here – the Asturian climate is not Mediterranean enough – but there are plenty of good Spanish varieties available and we buy them in large jars which we reuse for storage or making big preserves. Other bought ingredients I used to cook the meal were olive oil (Spanish, bought in five litre bottles to reduce packaging), sea salt (Spanish, bought in large containers), cumin and peppercorns (both large packs bought during a UK trip as we’ve failed to find anything other than small packs here . . . and cumin just won’t grow in the tunnel, despite my best efforts) and a squeeze of lemon juice (see note about lemons above).

With all the prep done, cooking the meal took literally minutes. I heated some olive oil in a frying pan and stir fried the garlic, chilli, onion and beetroot with coriander seed (saved from the garden) and cumin for a couple of minutes, added the peppers and fennel and cooked for another couple of minutes, then stirred in the olives and preserved lemons to heat through. After seasoning with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, I scattered the greens over the top and covered the lot with a lid to let the leaves steam gently. Meanwhile, in another frying pan, I dry toasted more coriander seed, cumin seed and the chopped walnuts from earlier then stirred in the previously cooked buckwheat; I added a glug of olive oil to loosen everything, heated until piping hot then finished with a squeeze of lemon juice and scattered the chopped fresh coriander and mint over the top. Job done. Fast food indeed!

Having tasted the veg, it transpired that the little green chilli was a bit on the lip-tingling, ear-steaming side so I added a dollop of cooling Greek-style yogurt (bought stuff sadly, I discovered the hard way that the house is too cool for making my own without The Beast lit) and headed outside for an al fresco supper. The dish was totally delicious and very substantial; needless to say, I had made far too much so there was enough left over for lunch the next day (it turned out to be great cold, too). It was lovely to reflect on the fact that we can create interesting, nutritious and tasty meals based on what’s good in the garden and that more and more, our awareness of what we buy is leading to a focus on local / Spanish ingredients with reduced food miles and packaging. As the sun sank, treating me to another of those beautiful light shows across the sky, and the first tiny bats came out to play in the twilight, I also had to admit that when it comes to a solitary supper, there really is no excuse for toast! 🙂

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. 🙂

Lessons from nature

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken .

Leo Tolstoy

I decided a long time ago that there is much I can learn from nature and that working closely with it, observing it and communing with it would provide some of the best and most valuable lessons of my life. I don’t mean this in any romantic, dewy-eyed way: nature isn’t all soft and fluffy and cute – anyone who has watched a predator at work or suffered the effects of violent weather can attest to that. It’s about awareness and connection, understanding and acceptance, tuning in to the environment and that complex worldwide web of life of which I am a tiny part. It’s about relinquishing any notions of superiority and control, any feelings of disapproval or disappointment and developing an open, pragmatic attitude instead. Where roses bloom so greenfly will follow . . . but is that a reason not to enjoy the exquisite beauty of the flowers?

I’m genuinely thrilled by the sheer quantity of insects in the garden this year, not just in terms of absolute numbers but the wider range of species we are seeing, too – bees (bumbles and solitary types), butterflies, hoverflies and a wealth of beetles of every shape, size and hue to name but a few. I’m hoping that at least part of the reason is the ongoing efforts we are making to encourage them in by creating diverse habitats and wilder patches. Earlier in the year – after much head scratching- we decided to turn the eyesore of a former chicken run / rubble patch into a planted area, shifting soil from the field and scattering a box of Spanish flower seed along with some old bits and pieces of wildflower seed, things like ragged robin and knapweed which thrive here.

So far the annuals are dominating and I love the glimpse of their cheerful colours in the afternoon sunlight; they remind me so much of the cottage garden seeds I used to plant with our children when they were small. There’s clarkia, candytuft, gypsophila, borage, poppies, Virginian stocks . . . and of course, the ubiquitous nasturtium.

This little patch teems with life: newts rummaging about in the tiny pond, a slow-worm curled beneath the logpile, lizards sunning themselves lazily in front of the tomatoes and a myriad insects in the flowers. It’s a wonderful spot for a little quiet contemplation and observation and I marvel at all the bustle and busyness. Butterflies make straight for the candytuft whilst bumble bees love the clarkia but seem to prefer the flowers when they are going over. Interesting.

There’s much activity, too, in the areas of orchard we have purposely left uncut, trying to develop a meadow area using what is already there. Close inspection reveals an array of flower species, a whole rainbow of wild beauty.

It’s not all rosy, though. Several parts of Asturias, including ours, are in the second year of a potato-growing ban designed to try and eradicate the Guatemalan potato moth which arrived here from South America via the Canaries. Meanwhile, the ‘hornet man’ is extremely busy travelling round the local area in his van, putting up plastic bottle traps to catch Asian hornets, voracious predators which wipe out colonies of honey bees every summer. Of course, in the web of life, both insects have a valued role but not in this particular ecosystem; they are not indigenous, they cause complete devastation and – most sobering of all – they did not arrive here unaided.

On a much brighter note, it’s been a fantastic week for mammal spotting. Pole cats are a regular visitor to the garden, slinking along the margins in dusky light but this is the first time we have seen a weasel – and what a character, literally dancing between Roger’s feet without a care in the world! A pair of bright-eyed foxes appears each evening to check out the compost heap and young deer graze in the meadow behind the house before melting silently into the wood. In the depths of the night, Iberian wolves are calling from higher up the mountain, their evocative, spine-tingling howls spooking the neighbourhood dogs into a raucous cacophony. They were once almost hunted into extinction, and their protected status causes some controversy within the farming community but for me, there is magic in their mournful song. What a privilege to listen.

When it’s a struggle to open the polytunnel door and impossible to travel the length of its path, even I have to admit it’s time to act. I don’t usually like plants standing tall in serried ranks but when they start to collapse into chaos it is definitely time to impose a little parade ground discipline. It’s hard to believe how rapidly these once young plants, firmly tied to their stakes and shyly revealing their first dainty flowers, have completely filled the space and are toppling over thanks to the sheer weight of fruit on their branches.

I love jobs like this, a couple of hours immersed in greenery, caring and nurturing and observing; it’s a great opportunity to check each individual plant, assess their general health, check for disease and pests and take account of the fruits they are producing. With the foliage canopy lifted and reined in and the bigger weeds cleared from between, it was obvious that a real soaking was required: this is one thirsty jungle! Cue carrying a 14-litre can of water up several metres of steep lane sixteen times. By my reckoning that’s 224 kilos of water (plus the weight of the can) or almost four times my body weight in all and under time pressure, too – I leave the hose from our spring running into a bucket ready for the next fill and refuse to let it reach overflowing before I’m back so speed is of the essence. Well, I think that counts as a decent session of strength training!

As part of the polytunnel clear up, I decided to remove several basil plants that had become quite thuggish. Not all of them, though, as they have been doing such a great job as companion plants, attracting pollinators into that strange, plastic-coated world. I watched a vibrant ladybird beetling along a stem, the daintiest of hoverflies alight on a leaf and a velvety ginger bumble bee come in straight to those tiny white flowers, then move on to working through the aubergine flowers. That’s precisely what it’s all about. Moments like these are so precious to me and timely reminders of the gratitude I feel to all those small creatures for the part they play in producing the bountiful harvest we enjoy.

The garden looks impossibly full at this time of year and such is the mild climate we enjoy, as soon as something is finished there is still plenty of time to plant other things for later crops. I love filling spaces in this way and seeing that promise of good food roll on and on through the seasons, so what a pleasure to be sowing ‘Autumn King’ carrots and Florence fennel – two crops that usually do so well for us right into December – along with random patches of loose-leaf lettuce, mizuna, rocket, summer purslane, land cress, New Zealand spinach and spring onions. I really can’t fault the recently planted French beans for their enthusiasm, either; these are ‘Faraday’ and ‘Stanley’ – I haven’t decided yet whether they are a music hall act or firm of solicitors, but they certainly haven’t wasted any time in germinating.

Another space became vacant this week as the first two rows of onions were lifted out to dry; these were grown from sets and haven’t performed quite as well as the others raised from seed which we’re leaving in the ground a little longer.

When Roger suggested it might be a good spot for another row of autumn carrots, I had to apply my best Wallace and Gromit smile and cutest eyebrows before admitting that I’d already planted some more beetroot there, something he doesn’t even really like. Oops! Luckily, given the general haphazard nature of my gardening style, I had lazily thrown the seed into a patch at the top of the slope rather than a row so there was room to squeeze in some carrots, too. I think I’m forgiven, but where nabbing bare earth is concerned here, it’s definitely a case of you snooze, you lose.

For me, one of the fascinating aspects of gardening is the way that everything follows cycles; true, this can be a frustrating rollercoaster ride at times but I think it also delivers valuable lessons in life. Nothing is perfect or predictable and we can choose to fight that fact or shrug it off and go with the flow. I would far rather be a happy gardener smiling at all that is good rather than stomping and scowling around the patch because things haven’t quite gone as planned. Let’s face it, even in the very worst of years there is still much to celebrate.

Last year, spring storms ripped the blossom from our peach trees and our harvest amounted to a single fruit; this year, the trees are so heavy that Roger has been cutting chestnut poles from the wood this week to prop up their brittle branches.

These delicious fruits were sorely missed last season but this year we are blessed with a bountiful crop and will value them all the more after last year’s dearth.

I’m sure somewhere in the world there is someone who has a soft spot for flea beetles but I have to admit I’m struggling to feel the love at the moment; in fact, I’m sick of the sight of them massed on the brassicas, flaunting their shiny metallic jackets and kangaroo legs. We’ve never had a problem with them before but my word, are they making up for lost time this year. Having previously gone all out to annihilate the aubergines in the tunnel, they now seem set on a path of total destruction of anything brassica-related outside.

The good news (please look away now if you are of a squeamish nature) is that instead of doing that usual manic flea jump thing whenever we go near, they are very dopey which renders them easily squishable; I’ve read this happens once they become well-fed adults – ha, well they’re certainly that alright if the state of our plants is anything to go by.

Obviously, I haven’t set out to eradicate them, just knock the numbers back a bit to give the plants a chance. I am having to check every leaf of every brassica every day, quite an undertaking when at last count we had over 70 young plants but it will be worth the short term pain; cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale are all such fantastic foods that I hate the thought of being without them. Mind you, there’s still the worst of caterpillar season to come . . .

There has been a slight sense of nature running away with things this week and much of my time in the garden seems to have been spent on some kind of rescue mission or damage limitation. The ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans have gone berserk; we grow them up stout hazel poles cut from the hedge and I have to admit I did think I was winging it a bit using the same poles for the third year in a row.

Big mistake! The plants have climbed well above the tops of the poles and are so heavy with beans that the pole tops have snapped, leaving the whole structure on a lean that makes a certain tower in Italy look positively vertical. As we are growing these purely as podding beans they will be in the ground a long time yet so it’s time for some emergency staking and guy ropes.

The ‘Latino’ courgettes are also getting away from me at every turn and despite my efforts to be vigilant, they are hiding fat marrows under their huge leaves on a regular basis. These have to be cut off if the plants are to continue fruiting and I confess they go straight onto the compost heap. I don’t feel too guilty about this; preserving is an excellent age-old method of using up gluts of seasonal produce but I think it can go too far. Preserving requires expenditure on other ingredients and energy for the heating process; this is fine if what is produced is definitely going to be eaten but there is little point in filling cupboards with jars and jars of gooseberry jam, marrow chutney, pickled beetroot and the like if it doesn’t get eaten because it isn’t wanted, needed or – in many cases – not even liked. We will freeze excess peaches and every single fruit will be used but the marrows will be recycled by nature into compost. On which subject . . .

One of the things we have decided this year is to stop buying commercial compost. Obviously, peat-based compost has been a big no-no for some time but I’m beginning to wonder exactly what the peatless stuff is made from these days, even some of the more expensive types. Am I missing something when I believe compost should be made from biodegradable, organic matter? I’m tired of finding bits of plastic, chopped rubber and a whole host of other dubious materials that shouldn’t be there: in one bag we bought recently, there was an entire length of plastic tubing! (By the way, this isn’t a Spanish thing, either – we’ve had the same experience with compost bought in the UK and France.) We’ve had far too many trays of seeds that have germinated and then sat refusing to develop their first true leaves or young plants and cuttings failing to grow because there is simply little or no nutrition in the compost, so really what is the point? Compost should be dark and rich and crumbly and packed with a wealth of nutrients that give seeds and plants the best chance to grow strongly and healthily.

Our compost area is more of a stack than a heap, tucked into a trench at the back of an old shed where we can add material in layers and keep it more or less flat, which I feel helps it to rot down more quickly. Every single scrap of biodegradable material from the house is collected in a large mixing bowl and added each evening; at the moment, this involves trying to find the compost pile first given how several nasturtiums and a squash are growing out of it.

I love this daily compost ritual; it’s hardly the prettiest of places but what comes from the depths is as precious as gold and we are going to need it more than ever now. Of course, it will be full of weedlings and seedlings which will mean much vigilance when we use it as seed compost but that is a tiny price to pay if it means at least they get the best of starts. Oh, and there’ll be none of those horrible big plastic bags to dispose of, either. 🙂

Seed saving is something I think we should be doing far more of so this year I’m experimenting with a few new ideas. It’s so easy as gardeners to succumb to the siren call of seed catalogues (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!) whilst forgetting that collecting our own seed brings many benefits, not just the financial ones. The nature of commercial production means that varieties can disappear unless someone saves them as an ‘heirloom’, so saving our own seed can help mitigate against that. Perhaps the biggest boon, though, is being able to select for varieties that thrive in our particular patch of land, in the way that people have done for millennia. It’s fun to try new varieties but there’s no sense in swapping a really good doer for something that fails to perform if there’s no need. For years, we’ve saved our own parsnip seed: just letting a single root go to flower produces more than enough papery seeds for the following year and this is especially useful since parsnip seed needs to be truly fresh.

There is quite an art to seed collecting and not everything is a viable prospect, F1 hybrids being the obvious example, but otherwise there’s much fun to be had. I’ve already saved enough buckwheat and phacelia seed to fuel next year’s green manure moments and I’ve let lettuce and chard flower in the hope of collecting their seed, too. Something else I am definitely going to collect this year is the French bean ‘Purple Teepee’; we’ve grown this for two years now and I think it’s the best variety ever, producing a mass of long, crisp, delicious beans which are so easy to see and pick.

Open-pollinated plants are a bit of an adventure, especially where the curcubit family is concerned as they readily cross-pollinate and you can end up with some interesting specimens! The best squash we ate from last year’s harvest came from a plant that emerged unbidden from the compost heap and trailed off down the orchard, producing large fruits whose blue skin and dense orange flesh suggested a dose of ‘Guatemalan Blue’ genes were in its make up somewhere along the way. We saved some seed to see what would happen this time, bearing in mind there could well have been more cross-pollination at work last year; so far, the plants have been without doubt the strongest growers of the season and are already forming some promising looking fruits.

I might well be tempted to have a go at saving some tomato seeds, too. I don’t want to jump the gun here but this is the latest we’ve ever gone without the plants falling foul of blight; we’ve even had a picking of ripe cherry tomatoes which equals our best ever previous crop. It’s just possible that this year’s approach – I think we’re on plan D now – is working and I have all my fingers crossed that the fabulously loaded vines of green cherry, plum and beefsteak fruits will have their chance to ripen. Knowing this was hailed as our last ever attempt, my Finnish friend Anja sent us some ‘Voyage’ seeds to try and what a species it is! An heirloom variety from central America, the name comes from the fact that it is a handy food for travelling with since the segments can be peeled off and eaten separately like grapes. It’s a very bizarre looking thing but I’m so excited about the prospect of tackling a ripe one, I have all my toes crossed as well.

There are plenty of seeds I don’t bother collecting because they successfully sow themselves every year. Coriander (we do collect a pile of seed for the kitchen), dill, flat-leafed parsley, chervil, wild rocket, komatsuna and mizuna pop up on a regular basis and given my laissez-faire approach to the garden, I’m happy for them to grow wherever they choose. The same is true of many flowers, to the point that most of the colour we have enjoyed so far this year has been self-set and yet not entirely predictable. Nasturtiums are a master of the game but this rather sweet double feverfew has come as a complete surprise. Hope it stays!

Calendula is such a reliable and widespread self-setter that it almost single-handedly fulfils my mission to do away with bare earth. It’s a brilliant companion plant and has useful medicinal properties, too, which is why earlier this year I captured some of its golden sunshine by infusing petals in almond oil. I’ve made my own lip balm for many years using a simple recipe of beeswax, almond oil and honey but having been inspired to try something different (thanks, Sonja and Jim!), I’ve just made a new batch using beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter and some of the infused calendula oil. It’s smooth and creamy and a great example of the good things nature has to offer.

We’re between seasons where calendula is concerned in the garden; the first flush of plants has flowered, seeded and died but the next generation of eager new seedlings is already carpeting the earth and will grow into plants that will flower throughout winter. In the meantime, French marigolds are hogging the limelight instead and I just have to smile; having tried and failed miserably several times this spring to raise a tray of seedlings, we have several enormous plants that appeared all on their own and are bristling with bright, frilly blooms.

Nature wins again . . . maybe I should stop trying, just do nothing and let it all happen around me! 🙂