Summer snippets

Hot July brings cooling showers, apricots and gillyflowers.

Sara Coleridge

Our July brings sunflowers, too. The very first bloom from the seeds Ben gave me for my birthday opened it’s cheerful smile on his sixth birthday. What perfect timing! 🙂

Right on cue, our beautiful ‘For Your Eyes Only’ wedding anniversary rose unfurled its peachy buds in the second flush of the year.

Early July has a long-standing tradition of throwing us red letter days in need of joyful celebration or serious attention, and often sees us having to pack our bags and take to the road. It’s a less than great time of year to leave the garden unattended but that’s all part and parcel of life.

So, we have just returned from a spell of time away and, as this was a case of far more business than pleasure, it was a relief to be home. Even after a 4am start to miss the chaos that is holiday traffic on French motorways and an exhausting 14-hour drive, I could hardly wait to jump out of the car and check what the garden had been up to in our absence. Forget unpacking for a while, there were far more important matters at hand!

It never fails to amaze me how quickly things change at this time of year; twelve days away and the garden has taken on a completely different mood. It’s as if after the spring party of youthful energy and zingy growth, everything has expanded and matured and settled into its prime. Like the trees in the surrounding landscape, it has all taken on the deep, velvety shades of summer . . . and there is so much growth! To venture into the depths on a harvesting mission is like swimming in a sea of lush, leafy, verdant green. The garden has grown up.

Abandoning the garden like this several times a year is simply something we have to accept; I can never get too precious about leaving things – if we miss the best of the sweet peas or the last of the blueberries, so be it. The problem is the danger of irreparable damage that can happen in the blink of an eye: half a dozen small broccoli plants baked to a frazzle in heat or scoffed by snails in damp weather now means a loss of three months’ food in spring time. The fear of wild boar staging a moonlit rave and trashing the lot is the stuff of nightmares, trust me. Mind you, someone has been keeping an eye on the place for us, it seems!

Happily, everything seems to have survived this time round. Of course, there will always be some collateral damage: the oldest lettuces had bolted and it came as no surprise to find a garden heaving with marrows where once there were baby courgettes. On the plus side, a few things had finally shaken their tail feathers and decided to perform. The cucumbers, so unusually reticent this year, have woken up, stretched and risen to meet the light at long last.

The ‘Greyhound’ summer cabbage, fried as seedlings in a heatwave last time we were away (in February, can you believe?), have plumped out into crisp, pointy hearts of deliciousness. We should have been eating them a month ago but never mind, they’ve caught up at last.

As for the squash? Well, they’re doing what squash do . . . honestly, I’m convinced they’d survive anything. They don’t need us at all.

What a mountain of food to return to: peas, broad beans, French beans, courgettes, calabrese, cabbage, chard, carrots, beetroot, peppers, chillies, lettuce, rocket, onions, spring onions and cucumbers. Not a problem in my book as I love nothing better than to wander about foraging for bits and pieces on which to base a meal. No matter if there isn’t a huge quantity of any one thing, there is something so satisfying about the sheer variety of colour, texture and flavour on a plate. . . and there’s always tomorrow to ring the changes.

Our biggest concern about being away for so long was how the polytunnel and tomato shelter would fare without their daily watering. Leaving the tunnel shut would help to conserve moisture but it would become unbearably hot in there and bar those essential pollinators from entering; leaving it open means it dries out more quickly, but is definitely the better option. We’d been collecting plastic bottles for some time before we left to make slow drip feeders in the tunnel, along with some leaky buckets, and Roger devised a natty irrigation system for the tomatoes using old buckets and plastic pipe. Not very pretty, but extremely effective.

Despite hot, dry weather it all seemed to have worked; one pepper plant had perished and one or two toms were slightly stressed but otherwise, it’s looking good. There are fruits on the tomatoes (including the rather bizarre clustered ‘Voyage’ variety) and so far, still no blight, whilst the tunnel is already bursting with glossy green peppers and creamy yellow Bulgarian chillies.

A forest of flowering basil is tempting in the bees with its seductive scent and they are certainly doing the business.

Joy of joys, having battled with flea beetle on the aubergines for months – I’d come to the conclusion they are totally indestructible and will inherit the earth along with cockroaches – the top growth is now beetle-free, unblemished and flourishing. What’s more . . . 🙂

The taller plants – climbing beans, hollyhocks, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet peas, dill – are making bold statements, standing head and shoulders above their more vertically-challenged neighbours.

There are painted spires of hollyhocks everywhere, most of them self-set, all of them towering over me. We have some doubles for the first time this year, so pretty in their flirty petticoats; the bumble bees somehow manage to riffle through the frills to feed but not surprisingly, they seem far happier with the simplicity of single flowers, emerging from the starry centres dusted in pollen like floury millers.

I love the subtle changes around the patch, too, the gentle shifts and shimmies as the season flows on. The cheerful wayward abundance of calendula has given way to the more sophisticated, elegant tagetes.

Above dusky hydrangeas, hibiscus flaunts itself against the bluest of skies.

Sweet William stands aside to let dahlias take centre stage.

Seedpods make artistic accents of interest where petals once bloomed.

The flamboyant hedge of crimson poppies has faded into something more akin to a rippling cornfield edge.

There are butterflies everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of them in dreamy clouds. They have bagged the garden for themselves in our absence, luxuriating in the purple pleasure of marjoram and verbena bonariensis.

In some ways, I think we were home just in time to stop the garden doing too much of its own thing. The climbing beans, already over the tops of their poles and down the other side, have decided to start knitting themselves into each other and the underplanted dill. A row of parsnips, usually so difficult to establish here, have put on so much enthusiastic leafy growth, they are threatening to swamp the neighbouring leeks. The prone onions are dropping huge hints that it is time to lift them and as for the squash emerging from the courgette patch on the right and trailing across the path . . . where the heck did that come from? Definitely not one we planted there.

As expected, the broad beans and peas had reached the end of their cycle and succumbed to old age. Those broad beans had been in the ground since last November and have been providing us with copious pickings for many weeks. What troopers they are! A final harvest of pods from both yielded a goodly haul of meaty specimens, just perfect slow-cooked in a spicy casserole. It always feels a little strange as spaces start to open up in the patch but this is not so much an end as a beginning, an opportunity for something else to take its turn.

The second row of violet-podded French beans is in its full glory; so pretty these, I would gladly grow them just for the splash of colour they bring but their dark waxy pods are utterly delicious. It’s not too late to sow more for a late harvest, so I’m trying a couple of new varieties – ‘Stanley’ and ‘Faraday’ – which should make good autumn picking.

The demise of those nitrogen-fixing legumes leaves the perfect place for some new stars: enter the winter brassicas. I loved kale long before it became a trendy superfood and I must confess to preferring it eaten as a leafy veg, raw or cooked, rather than blitzed to a drinkable green gloop. Cavolo nero grows well here but is consistently out-performed by its leafier cousins so this year, I’m sticking with those. I’ve planted three varieties – ‘Curly Scarlet’ (Looks purple to me. Just saying.), ‘Thousandhead’ and the heirloom ‘Cottagers’ – and they’re off with great gusto already.

We’ve had scanty success with winter cabbages so far but have decided they’re worth another punt; it’s all down to timing so fingers crossed, we’ll hit the jackpot this year. I had sown ‘Red Drumhead’, ‘January King Extra Late’ and ‘Savoy Perfection’ along with ‘All Year Round’ cauliflower (worth a try, surely?) in a seed drill directly into the ground and they were looking splendidly happy, tucked around with a green manure blanket of yellow trefoil.

It seemed cruel to disturb them, especially given the heat, but they needed to move into their own space. Time then for a lot of care and attention as caterpillar season gets underway; no prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing every day from now on!

With any luck, those cabbages will take a leaf (ouch, no pun intended) out of the purple sprouting broccoli’s book; here is a plant that grows like stink and is a staple spring time treat. This year it’s honoured with its own terrace beneath the peach trees and the first few plants have gone into their buckwheat-enriched soil. I’m really impressed with the whole green manure adventure so far, the buckwheat has rotted down completely leaving soil which feels nutritious and improved and has retained moisture close to the surface, despite the dry weather. Since taking this photo, I’ve lifted and chopped the second sowing at the end of the terrace so that will be ready for the next round of young PSB plants in a couple of weeks’ time.

I’ve left the buckwheat under the grapevine to go to seed for collecting and drying; everyone says you absolutely must not do this as volunteers will pop up everywhere for ever more. So it’s a monster of a self-setter, then? Glory be, just my thing. Bring it on!

Feeling extremely virtuous at being back on a diet consisting mostly of fresh garden produce and having embarked on a 10-week training plan which, among other torturous things, means minimal alcohol consumption and upping my running to five days a week at the hottest time of year (yikes!), I felt a little decadence was called for. I’m not usually a seeker of sweet treats but what could be better than indulging in a dose of homemade ice cream part way through a hot gardening afternoon? I’ve made ice cream for many years, usually starting with a custard base but this recipe for double chocolate ice cream https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-the-best-homemade-chocolate-ice-cream-244716 has been a revelation: it’s super easy to make and is, without doubt, the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s divine. It’s sublime. It’s heaven on a stick (or in a cone or a bowl, or – mmm, don’t tempt me – straight from the tub)!

What an amazing ingredient condensed milk is, why have I never discovered this before? It means no churning is required, so you don’t need an ice cream machine or to remember to break down ice crystals with a fork every hour as it freezes – just whack the cooled mixture into the freezer and forget about it until temptation beckons. It also helps to keep the ice cream slightly soft so you can spoon silky scoops straight from the freezer with no need to take it out early to soften or to chip it out with hammer and chisel when you forgot to do just that. Sheer wickedly, wonderful, chocolatey indulgence. Oh happy, happy summer . . . it’s so good to be home! 🙂

Six On Saturday 28th July

Would it be rude of me to use the ‘R’ word given the extraordinary hot, dry weather searing through so much of Europe at the moment? Here in northern Spain – somewhat ironically – there has been no shortage of wet stuff falling from the sky; in fact, for weeks and weeks we wondered if it would ever stop. (For anyone tired of lugging watering cans now cursing me soundly, I’d like to point out we’ve also been living under mostly cloudy skies, grateful for the tiniest scraps of sunshine). It might be warm and incredibly humid rather than hot and dry,  but the upside is that the landscape is still lush and green and everything is growing like stink. Ten days away to attend the most beautiful West Sussex wedding was followed by another ten days trying to get the jungle-masquerading-as-a-garden back under some sort of control. Needless to say, we came home to delights and disasters so here are my six for today.

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I’ll start with the scene of devastation that greeted us in the polytunnel: every single tomato plant collapsed, brown and stinking, as a result of blight. It was no great surprise as blight is endemic in this area and this was our third and last attempt at growing a crop, a sort of  ‘do or die’ affair. Die it was, then. It’s a bit frustrating but I’ve filled the space with spare pepper and chilli plants and we ate what unblemished fruit there was. Forget chutney, green tomatoes cooked in olive oil with warming spices and finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar are truly delicious. Honestly.

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If nothing else, the Great Tomato Collapse had me tidying up the tunnel a bit; I staked the aubergines and peppers and gave them a good feed with comfrey tea, then turned my attention to encouraging some of the crazy ‘Melba’ melons upwards. . . and found some hidden treasures under all that foliage. Three fruits (so far) on five plants will hardly make the headlines but it’s a bit of fun. Everyone needs a little bit of frivolity in the garden, surely?

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So we have no tomatoes, no potatoes (there’s a two-year ban in place thanks to the Guatemalan potato moth) and the caterpillars have devastated the brassicas in our absence. 😦 Even so, I love this time of year in the veg patch; what is better than wandering around, trug in hand, foraging bits and pieces for dinner? We have more food than we know what to do with and although our veg wouldn’t win any prizes, they are fresh and wholesome and totally delicious. For me, this is what it’s all about!

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It’s good to see the hibiscus flowering again, they are such pretty things. We have several bushes – all of the common hybiscus syriacus variety –  and although they’ve been planted in daft places (such as the one in the background of my photo, struggling for light under the monster kiwi), they never fail to please. We have a couple of pink ones but my favourites are the whites with those waxy centres and astonishing ink blot of deepest pink dye.

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At the risk of sounding a bit tongue in cheek, Roger has been proudly admiring his nuts this week. In late winter, he lay a hazel hedge; it was quite a feat as the trees were really too tall but they have greened up into a thick, verdant hedge that has already housed several birds’ nests and is now flaunting clusters of large, frilly nuts. They are very beautiful,  looking more like a Kentish cob (well, a filbert really) than common hazel to me so we should be in for a treat if we can beat the wildlife to them later in the year.

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Finally, what a delight to return home to the gorgeous intensely blue abundance of agapanthus. These are ‘Northern Star,’ a hardy variety which flowered amazingly well in our former garden on a wet, windswept Welsh hillside but are ten times happier on our Spanish mountainside (mmm, also rather wet and windswept this year, it must be said). They were given to us on our son Sam’s 18th birthday so there was something lovely to come back from celebrating his wedding seven years later to find they had burst into their best ever show of blooms. Perhaps they knew? 🙂

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It’s time now to head across to join The Propagator   and find out what great things other gardeners have to share from their gardens this week. Happy gardening, all! 🙂

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Six on Saturday 30th June 2018

We’ve had a blast of heat this week, the kind that leaves everything in the garden flagging and wilting in a slightly soporific way during the afternoon and evening . . . but there are no complaints. Overnight temperatures in the high teens and a little gentle rainfall to freshen things up have encouraged maximum growth and certain plants seem to have doubled in size in a matter of days. We might have been several weeks behind this year but suddenly the gap is closing and glut time is knocking on the door. Yippee! Here are my Spanish Six for today.

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Having sat in the ground looking less than enthusiastic for several weeks, the cucumbers have decided this is the week to do something more energetic. Maybe they didn’t like the look of the very ‘unique’ climbing frame I fashioned for them out of three twirly metal tomato stakes (bought in France many years ago, one of the most brilliant garden equipment investments ever), a stout hazel pole, twine and three corks (a decent Rioja, by the way – someone has to do it :-)). Well, art it isn’t but it will do the job. I planted two varieties – ‘Diva’ and ‘Marketmore76’ – but despite a resolution to try and keep tabs on labels this year I have failed in spectacular fashion, so I have no idea what each of the five plants is. No worries, it’s good to see the first tiny fruits forming and if the last couple of years are anything to go by, we will be up to our necks in cucumbers in no time at all. Mmm, bring on the chilled cucumber and yogurt soup, such a perfect lunch dish in this warm weather.

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Another crop that invariably grows well here is squash; in fact, give it another month and they will be threatening to take over the valley. This year I have planted several new varieties sent to me by a Finnish friend which I am watching with great interest, but our absolute favourite ‘Crown Prince’ and the butternut variety ‘Harrier’ both went in as bulk staples (we have only just eaten the final stored butternut from last year’s harvest). Good old ‘Crown Prince’ is already well on the way to another bumper crop.

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Continuing with my theme from a couple of weeks ago, here is the late large-flowered clematis ‘Polish Spirit,’  yet another bargain basement supermarket buy that has started to flourish in its second year. It’s making quite an impact with those deep, velvety blooms sprawling along a post and rail fence in front of the rather unglamorous white polythene of the polytunnel; gorgeous throughout  the day, but I love them with the evening sunshine backlighting their show.

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One of the enduring memories of my grandparents’ north Shropshire garden is a fabulous butterfly-studded lavender hedge. I’ve never been able to emulate it in my own gardens, possibly because we’ve always gardened in higher, wetter, windier places and who could blame the plant for its refusal to thrive in those conditions? Now, at long last, I have a dozen or so basic ‘Munstead’ plants grown from a cheap packet of Wilko seed; they are thriving and have really come into their own this week so I have been crumbling a few flowers as a last-minute addition to my petal confetti. Perfect!

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The next one is something I had never really come across before we moved here so I needed to do a bit of research (thank goodness for the internet). It’s a tillandsia (I think tillandsia stricta) which grows literally suspended in the air. Thriving on high humidity, it’s little wonder they grow well here, although most of the others we’ve seen have been in gardens down on the coast. There were two balls of them here when we arrived two years ago; on the day we bought the house, the former owner (who insisted on being here to instruct us in how to operate the door keys – we obviously looked totally inept) plucked a flower bud off one and with a theatrical flourish, stuffed it up his nose to indicate – I assume- an impressive scent. Sadly, it proved to be the only bud on either plant and there has been no sign of another until now. This week, one plant has finally burst into bloom and the flowers are quite curious, pink buds that open into tiny blue blooms. Unfortunately, they are hanging too high for me to check their scent (and they are competing with some highly-perfumed roses) . . . but after two years, it’s good to see them.

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I won’t be Sixing next Saturday as we will be busy celebrating our son’s wedding in a rather beautiful West Sussex garden; by accident rather than design, the day before just happens to be our own anniversary. When we reached a ‘biggy’ three years ago, my parents-in-law gave us a beautiful Persica floribunda rose called ‘For Your Eyes Only.’ It was voted Rose of the Year in 2015 and little wonder: it is an absolute stunner and was one of a tiny handful of plants we brought with us when we moved here. It flowers three times a year and has burst into its second flush this week, bang on time for our anniversary as it has done each year. Thank you, you gorgeous thing!

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Time now to pop over to The Propagator and catch up with what everyone else has been up to in their gardens this week. 🙂

The light fantastic

Summer has most definitely arrived here. The children have broken up for their lusciously long school holiday and the San Juan fiesta rockets have been crumping and thumping in the distance all over the weekend. We have put up the sunbrella, stacked the fridge with sparkling water and cooked our dinners outside on a wood fire every evening.

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Morning is now the time to get jobs done in the garden before the searing heat of the afternoon leaves everything  bleached of colour and soporific in the shimmering, silvered sunlight. There is no rush, though; I love nothing better than wandering out, still pyjama-clad, with my first tea mug of the day to breathe in the freshness and beauty of the moment and welcome the gift of a new day. The air is spiced with the scents of eucalyptus and lavender, sugared with roses, honeysuckles and sweet peas.

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Swallows skim the vegetable patch just above ground level, swooping and twisting like arrowheads through the plants with split-second precision (I wish I could capture them with the camera!). Even this early, the flowers are teeming with myriad insects. Lacy coriander blooms sparkle with dainty hover flies, lavender bristles with businesslike bees and everywhere – everywhere – there are butterflies, so many different varieties floating dreamily on painted wings.

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This is the time of day to truly appreciate the garden beauties; illuminated by a soft, dappled light they take on a whole new allure, a delicate elegance that is washed out by full sunlight. Here I can see every shadowed pleat and fold, every nuance of shade and texture, every mesmerising mystery of petal and sepal, stigma and style, frond and tendril, pattern and form.

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The wild ones, too, take on a fresh flush of beauty, clothing the garden’s margins in their soft hues and rowdy brights.

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There are the cheeky chancers, popping up uninvited in unexpected places: a nasturtium trailing cheerfully amongst the beetroot plants, satin Welsh poppies fluttering in the asparagus bed, a  self-set young walnut tree (they are weeds here, no question) on the edge of the patch. How can I be anything other than enchanted by their optimistic charm?

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So, to work and the main task of the week is weeding. Hoes are handy tools but I enjoy a bit of hand weeding, even more so now that I can take my time and do it with focus and attention rather than cramming it in around a hectic working week. I love the simple physical act of getting down amongst the plants and looking at them from new angles and through fresh eyes. I relish the smell of the earth, delight in the characters of the plants and cherish the work of tidying things up a bit. There is something so fundamentally satisfying about feeling the essence of all those scientific processes – germination, transpiration, pollination, photosynthesis and the like – going on all around me, not textbook descriptions but fizzing and buzzing with real in-the-flesh life. What a wondrous, miraculous thing it is! How captivating, too, are those vegetable plants caught in the teasing play of light and shadow; here even the mundane is taken to new heights.

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Working in the garden? No, we’re unashamedly tripping the light fantastic, don’t you think? 🙂