Dog Days

The dog days are here. In the dark, moonless sky Sirius lopes along brightly at Orion’s heel while under the cloudless blue of day, the land pants in the shimmering heat. Not that it’s anywhere near as hot here as even a short distance south but the increased warmth and prolonged dry spell have brought a palpable shift in perspective, a breath of change across the langourous landscape. South-facing slopes are crisping from green to brown and the high sunlight flattens leaves and bleaches colour from the meadow; not that the crickets and butterflies seem remotely bothered, going about their usual business in the rippling heat of afternoon when others are seeking shade.

No matter how settled the weather might seem, however, we can always be surprised by a sudden wet day that tumbles clouds down over the mountains and brings a soothing freshness to the air. It’s the reason Asturias is so green . . . and the garden revels in it.

In the vegetable patch there is a sense of things just ‘getting on’ with it and yes, in some cases, getting away from us, too. Every fresh, flavoursome, crisp and crunchy mouthful comes from this space now and I love the rough and tumble of it all, the jostling for elbow room in every direction. Our current harvest includes cabbage, calabrese, chard, celery, New Zealand spinach, beetroot, carrots, French beans, onions, spring onions, garlic, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and rocket.

Note the self-proclaimed ‘Under Gardener’ hard at work on the terrace.

Enjoying a smooth succession of lettuce crops has been a game of trial and error in our time here but this year we have most definitely cracked it, with little patches squeezed into every available nook and cranny. A quick recce recently revealed six different varieties growing in fourteen separate locations: salad days as well as dog days, then.

Oak-leaved and blond romaine lettuce nestled between beans, courgettes and New Zealand spinach (and self-set coriander and Californian poppies, too).

The ‘Purple Teepee’ French beans grown from saved seed are every bit as prolific as they were last year; after a cloud of gorgeous mauve flowers, the plants literally droop under the weight of those purple beans. We are eating them daily hot or cold and I have made several jars of dark, deeply-spiced chutney.

The ‘Latino’ and ‘Black Beauty’ courgette plants have grown to elephantine proportions and the stems and leaves are so tough and prickly that playing Hunt The Courgette has to be done in wellies ~ very glam with shorts! 🙂

With the cucumbers, it’s a case of turn our backs for five minutes and there’s yet another picking. They are officially a gherkin variety so the bigger ones are perfect for a chilled yogurt soup, the smaller ones are being pickled with dill, garlic and chillies.

The tunnel is heaving with plants and is starting to take on a jungly feel; stand still long enough and there’s a danger of being wrapped around by melon plants whose tendrils literally meet us at the door. The afternoon temperature soars in there and it’s a full-time job watering; we’re wishing it had some kind of retractable roof we could peel off for a while!

Not that I’m grumbling when we are already enjoying a tremendous harvest of peppers with aubergines following closely behind. There is also a lush forest of basil which I’ve been freezing in ice cubes so we can enjoy a wack of summer in winter sauces.

We haven’t grown melons for a couple of years so it’s very exciting to have several plump fruit fattening daily; we’re going to have to organise some supports for them very soon.

On the subject of fruit, one of my very favourite seasons has just begun . . .

We had a worse than usual muddle with plant labels in the spring so somehow we’ve ended up with a courgette in the squash patch and a ‘cucumber’ and ‘courgette’ that have both magically transformed into butternut squashes. We have a good crop of the latter and ‘Crown Prince’ coming along plus a tribe of mongrels grown from saved seed in various colourways and patterns ~ blue skinned, yellow and orange smooth and wrinkled, green striped . . . it’s all part of the fun. As for the state of the squash patch, probably the least said, the better. There is a garden under there somewhere.

It’s not all about food, of course, and I’m really thrilled that at long last the sweet peas are flowering. They have been so unbelievably slow this year, it feels like they’ve been in the ground for ever, but they are promising to be the best we’ve grown here and the garden and house are both full of their wonderful perfume.

To wilder things and one of the natural dyes I’ve been planning to try for a while is Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot (daucus carota) and with the verges, orchard and meadow full of the white froth of its lacy caps, the time seemed to have arrived. I’ve seen it described by many people as an invasive weed but I’m not keen on either word, to be honest; in my opinion, it’s merely a survivior or a good doer, and I happen to love the plant in all its various stages of growth wherever it happens to pop up.

Queen Anne’s lace is perfectly edible; the flowers, for instance, can be sprinkled over summer salads as a good source of potassium. However, it looks very like its close cousin, hemlock (conium maculatum), which is highly toxic even in small quantities, so let’s face it, muddling the two could have pretty dire consequences! I wasn’t intending to ingest the contents of my dye pot but even so, I had no desire to be handling anything poisonous; although I was 99% sure that I had the right plant, I spent some time on research before I went out foraging.

This was a timely reminder about the nature of Nature. I know it might seem that I wax lyrical about all that beauty and wonder and bounty but I’m not naive; my attitude towards the natural world is most definitely not some airbrushed, Disneyfied, fluffy bunny love-in. Nature can kill as well as cure, delight and destroy, bring happiness and heartache: there is a very good reason why I chose to put the word respect under the heading of ‘Nature’ in my post about core values! One of several ways to distinguish between these two plants is that Queen Ann’s lace can have a tiny dark red flower nestling in its centre; it isn’t always there so it’s not a foolproof method, but it’s a pretty little find when it is, like a tiny hidden jewel.

At this point, I should come clean and admit that this whole project could really have been called Messing About With Stuff. I have done a lot of reading about natural dyeing techniques and I’m always very grateful to be able to tap into the expertise of others, particularly where that means not making huge mistakes or wasting time and precious resources. That said, I think it’s also important for me to do a certain amount of my own exploring and learning; after all, if I never have a go at breaking a few rules such as using an adjective dye (one that requires a mordant) without a mordant, then what benchmarks do I have to work from? You can read about things until the cows come home but nothing actually beats the experience of doing. So my plan was to start by seeing what sort of colour (if any) I could extract from Queen Ann’s lace without pre-soaking the fibre in a mordant.

At the same time, I decided to play around a bit with heating techniques, too. It’s all well and good spouting about using natural dyestuffs but in the spirit of a truly holistic approach, I need to pay attention to how I use resources like water and energy, too. During the winter months, I can make free with the woodstove heat but using electricity is another matter, so my intention with this little escapade was to use minimal hob time and make the most of the weather by sitting the dye pot out in full sun. Lesson 1: never underestimate solar heat ~ I needed an oven glove to lift the lid after a couple of hours of dye pot sunbathing! The resultant liquid was a pale brown colour, smelling crisply of lemony carrots but not really promising the sorts of yellows I had been reading about.

The fleece I chose to use is a length of Southdown which I bought after seeing flocks of the delightful mop-headed sheep when hiking with Adrienne and Sam across the South Downs (strangely enough). I’ve had it for ages, trying to pluck up the courage to actually get on and do something with it. It’s a soft wool and very elastic which gives a lovely springy bounce to yarns, it doesn’t wet-felt easily and is one of the best fleeces for dyeing so everything about it should be screaming,”Socks, socks, socks, yippee!” but ~ and it’s a big BUT ~ it has a very short staple and is notoriously difficult to spin. There is no point in me fantasising about a fine, consistent, high-twist yarn of the type I’m spinning with ease from the indigo-dyed Kent Romney and silk; given my total lack of confidence and skill in the long-draw technique this fleece demands, I’m expecting a thick, uneven rope full of nepps and slubs which I will (tongue in cheek) label as an ‘art yarn.’ Socks it won’t be, but there will be a future for it somehow, somewhere . . . I hope!

Anyway, back to the dye and a simmer and overnight steep yielded the palest of creams, not exactly disappointing (there is a place in the world for cream yarns, after all) but a bit underwhelming all the same.

Onward and upward into the next stage of messing: bring on the onion skins. This was a bit of an impulse move, to be honest; we had lifted the first crop of onions several days previously and laid them out to dry in the sun and when the time came to start cleaning them up for storage, it seemed a pity to consign the outer skins to the compost heap straight away. Another simmer and suddenly the dye pot was looking a lot more exciting!

Ah, the colour this yielded in the fleece was completely gorgeous. I know it isn’t fast and will fade like summer snow but there’s no harm in enjoying it for the time being. There’s a good chance it will end up having a dip in my next indigo pot, anyway (if you’re messing about, then really mess about, I say) so the future will be bright in blues and greens, if not orange.

On the subject of blues and greens, I had so much fun and enjoyment from sewing a nightie from a fabric remnant recently that I’ve pushed the boat out and bought my first length of proper dressmaking material in twelve years. It might seem a bit odd for someone who lives in Spain but I only have one sundress to my name, partly because I tend to wear shorts and partly because I like to wear clothes until they fall apart before replacing them. My old faithful hippy-style tie-dyed crushed cotton number is seriously on its last legs, breaking out in little holes that just can’t be mended because the fabric is so thin. I used it to make a bodice pattern for the nightie so its spirit will go on and although I’m still wearing it, I know its days are numbered.

My ancient dress: the bodice is pulled in by ties at the back when I wear it, but the width was just perfect for a loose-fitting nightie pattern.

Playing with indigo had me thinking about all things batik, so I couldn’t resist a 100% quality cotton in fresh blues and greens; mmm, the colours are yummy. I don’t have a pattern and I’m not feeling brave enough to draft my own for this project so I’m planning to have a crack at a no-pattern kaftan. https://www.thestitchsisters.co.uk/diy-kaftan-free-tutorial-no-pattern/ I love the idea of creating a garment so simply constructed from rectangles without any zips, buttons or other fiddly fastenings, cool and flowing yet looking shaped and fitted.

So with the garden happily doing its own thing, I can set up my sewing machine in the shade of the sunbrella once again and indulge in a little summertime sewing. Dog days? Happy days! 🙂