Happy places, awkward spaces



Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein

Rewarding though the massive house renovation project has been, it is a huge relief to have finished. Well, just the imminent porch makeover left to go and then we really are done. Switching our attention to outside activities, we are happily spending our days tackling several jobs we have been itching to start for a long, long time. This is my perfect life: permission to spend every day outside, drinking in the fresh air, the sounds and scents of spring, the vibrant colours of the landscape, turning my face to the sun . . . oh, and doing a bit of work, too.

One of the exciting parts of going away is to see how the garden and countryside have changed in our absence, like a big time-lapse leap, but I much prefer being able to watch those changes slowly unfurling day to day. When I was working full-time, on days where I felt – shall we say – ‘less than motivated’ I used to fantasise about what I would do if I could stay at home. Invariably, it would involve immersing myself in the garden and wrapping it around me as though the whole of nature lived some secret weekday life I wasn’t party to. What a special privilege it is now to be doing just that each and every day. I am fascinated by the mystery and minutiae of garden life, the plethora of constant tiny events; how incredible to watch closed buds unfurling, leaves and stems stretching in the sunlight, minuscule life forms scuttling and hopping and slithering across the surface of the soil. What a happy, joyful, busy place this is.

It’s such a precious gift to have the time to look – really look -with fresh eyes and an open mind. Even the seemingly mundane can become something quite spectacular and awe-inspiring when observed with full attention and awareness. I have delighted in so many simple but incredible things this week.

The soft silvery fuzz of tiny developing peaches.

The plump pointed buds of granny’s bonnets unfurling to reveal the captivating beauty hidden within.

The astonishingly complex and intricate geometry of a clematis flower.

The tiniest, sweetest, bijou of a narcissus unexpectedly emerging from a clump of chives.

The pistachio pompoms of viburnum opulus set against a cerulean sky, fresh and crisp as scoops of green apple sorbet.

Silvered raindrops caught in the glaucous petals of a cerinthe flower . . .

. . . and the vivid orange pollen baskets of a bumble bee caught in the bottom of another. Pure magic.

In between my moments of musing, I have been quite busy, too – honest! It’s that time of year when there is much to be done in the vegetable garden as the growing season really gets under way and jobs jostle for attention. I’ve planted French bush beans in the garden – a mix of ‘Tendergreen’ and ‘Violet Podded’ – along with five tripods of borlotti ‘Lingua de Fuoco’ and ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans and a second patch of mixed lettuces along with sprinklings of radish, coriander and dill. Leeks, celeriac and more lettuce have gone into trays along with the first sowing of kale. In the tunnel, the staging was moved out to make planting room for aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies and I’ve been pricking out and potting on cucumbers, courgettes and squash.

This is very much what I would term ‘normal’ garden routine but the beauty of us both being outside now is that we can focus on wider projects and in particular, finally sorting out some awkward or tatty spaces in desperate need of attention. One such area is the patch of garden above the ‘garage.’ I use the latter term very loosely: we’ve never been brave enough to park the car in it – well, would you?

I’m convinced it’s only that pile of manure, maturing nicely under the plastic sheet, that’s holding the whole thing up. It’s a structure we’d dearly love to get rid of but as that would mean having to deal with a huge pile of rubble including several sheets of asbestos, it’s on the back burner for now – we’ve had enough rubble events for the time being.

Anyway, back to that bit of garden. When we moved here, it was the usual overgrown jungly mess of mustard and cabbages, so I cleared it out, dug it over and used it initially as an overspill salad patch which worked really well for a couple of seasons.

Last year, however, what had been a very small fig tree seemed to quadruple in size and started to cast a significant shade over one end of the patch. We certainly don’t want to get rid of it as it is a different variety to the bigger tree opposite the house, having succulent pink-fleshed (rather than white) fruits at a slightly different time. Time for a change of use. I popped in a couple of autumn raspberries, which have gone completely berserk, and then over winter we added three blueberry bushes which didn’t seem happy in their original spot; quietly, a soft fruit patch was emerging. This week I’ve been having fun with some green manure seed so that – hopefully – as we move into summer, this whole area will be full and productive once again. When we moved our original comfrey plant we missed a slip of root, which is no big deal as comfrey is a fantastic companion plant for asparagus; last year, I cut the resultant plants to ground level four times to make comfrey tea which is such a nutrient-rich plant food and to stop them encroaching on the asparagus (there’s companion and there’s downright over-friendly). I’m planning to do the same again this year and also to try and keep the Welsh poppies – a self-set ‘mulch’ amongst the asparagus – to a reasonable number. Beyond those luscious spears, there should be a fine show of gorgeous bluey-mauve phacelia to bring in the pollinators and a carpet of white clover beneath the fruit bushes, not to mention (all fingers crossed) a harvest of blueberries and raspberries. It might not look too spectacular at the moment but give it time . . .

I love the way our garden develops like this, evolving from season to season, year to year. I know it’s important to have some sort of underlying structure but beyond that, there is something so energising and dynamic about changes and shifts and new things, a tantalising relish in the unexpected. Famous gardens, often at stately homes, are places of real beauty and fascination – inspiration, too – but I find something unnerving about all those knot gardens and parterres that are frozen in time. I don’t want a ‘perfect’ garden set in aspic; life, after all, just isn’t like that. Give me a slightly chaotic, haphazard, unpredictable state of flux where nature has permission to mix things up and try a few tricks of her own any day.

Take for instance the ‘flower garden’ I am slowly trying to develop down the sides of the lane. Now this is one of those classic works in progress if ever there was one; snails – dead ones, possibly – have moved faster. I’m getting there bit by bit- there is definitely far more colour this year – but the further you wander down the lane, the wilder and more tangled things become.

I had to ask myself, though, whether I can (or should) really improve on what nature is doing down there with a carpet of starry wild strawberry flowers and tiny glimpses of bright jewelled fruit beneath the lush foliage?

In all truth, taking cues from nature is something I’m pursuing in the garden this year now I have a little more time to think about it. Green manure, inspired by my reading of The One Straw Revolution, is top of my list and I’ve had a happy time broadcasting seed in all sorts of spots and spaces. Having weeded the former leek terrace, I’ve sown buckwheat as a short-term ground cover to be dug in before the ever-greedy overwintering brassicas go in and once the pole beans have germinated, I’ll sow yellow trefoil between them. A couple of months ago, we replaced the fence at the end of the main garden and gained an extra strip of land where I planted half a dozen young globe artichoke plants. The idea is they will grow to form a splendid food-bearing hedge but in the meantime, the space between them and the fence is a potential weed alley. Not any more. I’ve sprinkled it with phacelia seed, which I’m hoping will make a temporary flower border and all round bee magnet that can be cut after flowering and literally left as a decomposing mulch. Between the ‘chokes I’ve scattered white clover seed to form a permanent weed-suppressing, nitrogen-fixing carpet. Will it work? Watch this space . . . or, with any luck, no space because it will all have been covered.

As a bit of an aside, our original artichoke has taken on rainforest proportions – it’s taller than me, and I’m not short! – and is starting to dominate rather more useful growing space than is polite. Once it’s done it’s stuff and died back later this year, we’ll split it and relocate it in several roomier, wilder places (like the orchard), where it can romp away to its heart’s content.

One area that’s had some much-needed attention this week is the top vegetable patch, the lower part of which spent much of last year gradually sliding away down the bank, helped along by some frustratingly industrious moles. Things had got so bad – and so steep – that it was impossible to walk, yet alone, plant along the bottom edge.

Roger had previously created a couple of terraces above by building drystone walls but this time opted for a simpler, faster solution: eucalyptus poles from the wood. They took a bit of fetching (fresh eucalyptus is full of sap and horrendously heavy) but are just perfect for the job. Once that broccoli has finished, I can clear and prep the whole area for leeks without living in constant fear of tumbling backwards down the mountainside. I don’t mind a bit of extreme gardening but there are limits even to my sense of humour (and balance) . . .

In a rather more abstract sense, there is one tricky spot we’ve certainly improved this year and that’s the ‘hungry gap’, that classic foodless hole at this time of year when the garden is between seasons. The polytunnel has certainly helped us along the way, still housing good crops of chard, kohlrabi, beetroot, wild rocket, spring onions and radish. We are still tucking in to stored squash which is an incredible thing, really, considering that’s seven months now and they still make excellent eating. Outside, several varieties of overwintered kale and the purple sprouting broccoli go on and on and have formed a cheerful overlap with the early peas, asparagus and globe artichokes. There are fresh herbs and edible flowers in abundance. The garden might not look very full but hungry we are not!

The biggest makeover project of the moment is definitely the space between the horreo and field. Roger made a good start some time ago by rebuilding an ugly brick wall with stone and adding a smart gate. It’s great to see that our new little neighbours are very impressed, they just love to peep through and see what we’re up to!

When we moved here, this area had been formerly used as a chicken run. It was built from so many layers of wire mesh, netting, barbed wire, metal poles, wooden poles, the world supply of long nails and who knows what else – all topped off with a roof featuring two old car bonnets – that it took the tractor to pull the whole construction down.

In the interim, the area has been used as a rubble dump, one of those necessary evils of ongoing renovation and building work but with the large rubble shifted and the smaller stuff flattened, we’ve been scratching our heads a bit as to what to do with the space. I had made a tiny start last year, moving the compost heap out of its strange brick and concrete bunker (former function unknown) and creating a planting area for a grapevine to train up the horreo wall.

The rest of that wall – now we can get to it – gives us a final chance to try growing tomatoes as we can mimic exactly what our neighbours do: grow them fast against one wall in a fairly enclosed space, facing west and sheltered from the fine misty rain that spreads the dreaded blight. Roger has constructed a shelter from chestnut poles and spare polythene left over from recovering the polytunnel and we’re using a growbag system of sterile compost rather than planting in pots or containers.

I’ve planted six varieties – ‘Roma’, ‘Tamina’, ‘Marmande’, ‘Rosella’, ‘Red Cherry’ and ‘Voyage’ – and only time will tell whether this approach will be successful. The young plants look enthusiastic and healthy enough now but then they always do; they have two chances and if we lose all again this year that really will be IT!

So, what to do with the rest of that awkward space? Our initial thoughts turned to spreading gravel to create some kind of courtyard though for what, we weren’t altogether sure. Then, sitting out one evening watching the swallows swoop through the garden and the general busyness of birds and insects alike, inspiration dawned: let nature take the lead here. Forget gravel, could we somehow use soil instead and make a planting area? After all, we have a whole mountainside of earth and moving it would be no harder than shifting tonnes of gravel (been there, done that far too many times). We could use stones picked from the garden to make a path to the tomatoes, then plant the rest completely. A hefty honey-coloured stone left over from wall building would make a perfect mount for Roger’s bronze sundial, a beautiful gift from his parents for his 50th birthday. For the last six years it has sat on top of an upturned terracotta pot; about time it had a proper home, don’t you think?

Beneath the field wall is a drinking trough, half buried in the ground. It’s not huge and doesn’t look very promising but I’m planning to turn it into a small wildlife pond. There is no question of anything bigger here with the land being so steep (and we don’t want to give the mosquitoes any excuse to breed, either) but we have a healthy amphibian population to encourage and it’s amazing just how much life even a tiny body of water can support. It will need a bit of tweaking with rocks or slopes to give access and some plant material for cover but I’m hoping it will be a success, especially with the logpile we’re planning to site next to it to act as an animal corridor amongst other things.

It will take a while to be ready for planting; for starters, we need the cows gone from the field so we can shift the soil without their help! This at least has given us time to ponder and do a bit of research into plant possibilities. I was really thrilled to find the perfect solution in a Spanish mix of shade-loving plants; I’m not usually a fan of seed mixes like this, having had dubious results in the past, but I’m crossing my fingers this will do the business.

There’s a lovely tale attached to this box of potential gorgeousness. I ordered my large parcel of seeds (well, it would have been rude to stop at one box . . .) from the eco website, Planeta Huerto, and was told it was due to arrive here on Tuesday or Wednesday. On Tuesday evening we received a message from Christa, who lives a mile or so away, to say the Correos Express delivery man had been very busy that day so had left her parcel at the farmers’ co-op in the next village down the valley and when she had gone to collect it, mine was there, too. She had taken it home and put it in a lidded plastic box at the end of her drive for one of us to collect when we next ran past. The light was starting to fade but it was such a beautiful evening, laden with birdsong and the heady scent of pollen and all things spring, that I decided a two-mile stroll before bedtime would be just the best thing.

Now I know plenty of people who would have been hugely annoyed with this situation, their parcel not delivered to the door but abandoned elsewhere. However, for me this is the very essence of Asturias and especially this precious little corner we live in. If Christa hadn’t collected our parcel, then someone else in the village would have done or, at the very least, let us know where it was, and it would have been perfectly safe left at the co-op until we went to fetch it. There is such a relaxed, pragmatic, friendly and honest attitude amongst our neighbours here, and such incredible generosity, too. I have returned from my little recycling jaunts with a gift from a kind neighbour- a dozen eggs, a pot of plants and the like – so often that I swear Roger now lives in fear of me appearing with something furred or feathered tucked under my arm, especially as there happens to be the most beautiful litter of border collie pups in the village right now! On Easter Sunday, Jairo popped in on his way up the mountain to check his livestock, bringing us the gift of afilada, a delicious Asturian type of brioche traditionally eaten during Semana Santa. ¡qué maravillosa!

When I opened my wandering parcel, I found a couple of little unexpected gifts had been included: a lollipop and, far more my scene, a thank you card impregnated with seeds. No indication as to what they are so there’s only one way to find out. What a lovely touch. It made me smile. What a wonderful country we live in. 🙂

Breathe


The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.

Barry Commoner

I have loved language for as long as I can remember. It’s a very simple thing, really: words fascinate me. Take the origins of ‘inspiration’ for example, a word that came into Middle English via Old French from the Latin inspirare, meaning literally ‘to breathe or blow into’ and figuratively ‘to excite or inflame’; in English, the original meaning suggested a divine being imparting a truth or idea to someone (the word ‘spirit’ comes from the same root). I love the idea of taking a deliciously deep breath of sweet fresh air and filling my very core with the excitement and challenge of a new idea to try . . . and isn’t it fascinating how inspiration can sometimes come from the most unforeseen sources or at the least expected times?

My inspiration in recent weeks has come from a book first written in 1978, The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. I’d actually read much of it in bits previously but after a long-needed nudge (thanks, Sonja!) I finally sat down and read the whole work . . . and as I did so, I felt that wonderful tingling breeze of inspiration in the air. I’m not planning to rush off and grow rice on a Japanese mountainside, but there is certainly plenty of Mr Fukuoka’s wisdom and experience that could be applied to life here on our Asturian mountain.

The first point that resounded with me was the idea of using everything we have here as much as possible; we aren’t – and won’t be – self-sufficient, but we do go a reasonable distance in that respect, and it’s important that we make full use of what we have. For example, it’s so easy at this time of year to look at the garden and think we’re short of things to eat as we’re edging towards that awkward ‘between seasons’ hungry gap and yet, looking again, we still have plenty. The salad leaves in the polytunnel seem for all the world to have gone over but setting out with open eyes to pick something to accompany a barbecue last week, I wasn’t disappointed.

There might not be huge quantities of anything but a combination of young chard and beetroot leaves, rocket, wild rocket and mizuna with spearmint, lemon balm, flat-leaved parsley, marjoram and chives, the first tender kohlrabi for some sweet crunch and a splash of colour from nasturtium, pansy, borage, rocket,violet and coriander flowers was a fresh and delicious bowlful of nutritious beauty. It didn’t need anything else, no extra bought ingredients just for the sake of it. So simple. Just perfect. (Still lovely the next day, too, the leftovers refreshed for lunch with our first spears of lightly steamed asparagus.)

I’m inspired to look further afield, too, and see what possibilities foraging for wild food might offer. If the salad leaves had been thinner on the ground, then young dandelion leaves and chickweed would have added a whack of spring goodness. It’s so easy to dismiss things as weeds when in fact they have great value; it’s time to wander through the meadow and woods and see what overlooked treasures we could be putting to good use in the coming months.

In our holistic approach to simple living, making good use of our resources extends beyond the food we grow. The days when we will be lighting The Beast, even just briefly in the cool of morning or evening, are now numbered so making the most of that free heat is essential, especially when it comes to preserving foods we have harvested. I caught a snapshot of our kitchen worktop which says it all: the jar of sourdough starter out of the fridge, fed and working on a a bubbly sponge for breadmaking later; jars of peach marmalade made from a bonus bag of fruit we found lurking in the depths of the freezer; a tray of roast squash cooling before freezing for soup (two more in the oven) and the rest of the squash ready for processing; a tray of seedy crispbreads fresh from the oven for lunch. It might be a simple life but it’s also a busy one!

Sam and Adrienne, who love all things Scandinavian, introduced us to Trine Hahnemann’s multigrain spelt crispbread recipe. It’s taken me a while to get round to making them as I couldn’t find rye flakes anywhere but a substitution of a Spanish organic five cereal mix seemed like it might work. Oh my goodness, these crispbreads are the cat’s pyjamas! They are so easy to make, in fact I loved the therapeutically tactile business of pressing the warm dough flat with my hands so much that I was quite sorry when it was done. They just ooze good health somehow, are completely delicious and I have serious plans for them this year. In the garden, the rows of carrots and beetroot have germinated, the broad beans are dripping with flowers and the first peas are literally days away from eating . . .

. . . bring on the veggie hummus. This is such a brilliant way of not only enjoying fresh garden produce but using up bits and pieces of leftovers, too. To get us started, a sultry, spicy, caramelised roast squash hummus zinging with the heat of homegrown chillies. Fantastic.

Mr Fukuoka’s words also had me reflecting on herbs. When we moved here, we gave most of our books away, just keeping one small bookcase of treasured tomes; two of those are herbals and it was with great glee and enjoyment I dug them out and pored over them again from cover to cover. We grow a good selection of herbs and I’m planning to add several new varieties this year but I’m the first to admit they are an underused resource. On the strength of using calendula successfully in my recent batch of soap, I set out to harvest more flowers while they are in their prime.

Some of these I set aside to dry, the others were packed tightly into a jar and covered in sweet almond oil. I’ve put them in the polytunnel amongst my tender seedlings; there they can bask in the warmth, creating an infused oil which I can use for making toiletries (and new lip balm recipe is next on the list).

Herbal tea is something else I know I should be pursuing; after all, relying heavily on commercial tea produced on the other side of the world is hardly good for my green credentials when I have a garden full of drinkables. Mmm, there is a slight problem here, though: I love tea. Not the slightly flirtatious green tea or the almost-there oolong but the full monty, rich and malty, tannin-laden black stuff, brewed properly in a teapot and drunk a large mugful at a time (milk in first, no sugar). I cannot begin to describe how hard reducing my tea consumption is, especially as I have tried – really tried- to like herbal teas in the past and have failed miserably every time. Leafy, flowery, fruity . . . you name it, I’ve drunk it and hated every mouthful. However, I need to get a grip, especially as bought tea is not really the best of things: highly processed, over-packaged, racking up the food miles and – horror of horrors – some teabags contain plastic which leaches out of the compost into waterways and becomes part of the terrible microplastic problem in the oceans. So, deep breath: time to try the herbal stuff again. I decided to start with one of my favourites, lemon balm. I brought one small root with us when we moved here and in typical romping away and self-setting style, we now seem to have half a dozen good clumps spread about the patch, including the one below that popped up from nowhere beneath a clump of calla lilies.

Herbal teas require a lot more fresh leaf than dried so I picked a good handful, washed it thoroughly and set it to brew. The smell emanating from the pot could only be described as lemony spinach. Yuk.

It didn’t smell any better when poured into a mug (china, please note – I was trying very hard!) and there is just something about tea which is that insipid colour that really doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, the proof of the pudding and all that . . . What can I say? Well, it tasted – um – okay. In fact, I’d go as far as admitting it was quite pleasant and very refreshing. There are many stories about this melissa tea being a source of longevity and that may be true; even if I live to be a hundred, I’m not sure I’ll ever really love herbal brews but I’m committed to keep on trying. Honest.

Eucalyptus is another resource of which we have plenty. It’s a controversial thing, introduced from Australia and grown in huge swathes of forest as a fast-growing crop. Like any monoculture, it has a dubious impact on the environment and offers very little to indigenous wildlife. About two-thirds of our 4-acre woodland has been planted with eucalyptus, no doubt with a future harvest in mind, but the saving grace for us is that there is also a good amount of mixed tree varieties in there, too – mainly chestnut, oak, birch and holly – and a healthy understorey of gorse, Spanish heath and the like. It can’t be denied, though, that the eucalyptus is useful and we keep finding more ways in which we can make the most of it. Having almost burnt all the old roof timbers now, it will be eucalyptus that forms the basis of our log pile next winter.

Roger has hauled several long poles out of the wood this week which we will use to shore up the vegetable patch below the terraces in the top garden – call it an anti-mole device in this respect! Having made eucalyptus oil from the leaves a few weeks ago, I’ve now discovered that made into a hot infusion, they create a powerful and effective household disinfectant, another useful weapon in my green clean armoury. I’ve also gathered fallen strips of bark, soaked them in water to make them pliable and used them to line hanging baskets.

The flowers sit so high in the trees that we don’t often have chance to see them close up. They look fluffy from afar but in reality, they are exquisite pompoms of filigree strands and smell of honey: little wonder the bees go so crazy for them. A single stem provided an aromatic and simply sophisticated centrepiece for the kitchen table and once the flowers had gone over, I simmered the leaves for cleaning purposes. Nothing wasted . . . and I’m sure there are plenty more uses yet to be discovered.

The second strand of Mr Fukuoka’s philosophy which appeals to me greatly is his ‘do-nothing’ approach to cultivation. Now that doesn’t mean lounging about expecting a garden (or farm) of plenty to miraculously present itself; growing food requires an element of work and that’s fine by me (actually, I’ve never regarded anything in the garden as work, it’s far too enjoyable). The idea, though, is that instead of forever creating more chores in an endless cycle of ‘What else could I / should I be doing? ‘ there is a shift to a ‘What happens if I don’t do something?’ mentality. In short, back off, stop trying to control everything and give nature free rein to get on with it. Music to my lackadaisical little gardening ears indeed. I have to confess I am some way along this path already, as the lemon balm tale above illustrates. I’m happy to let things spread and seed around the garden if that’s what they want to do; it’s no hardship to whip out anything that springs up in an awkward place but otherwise I believe self-set plants are happy plants and who cares if Californian poppies peep out from amongst the leeks or parsley settles itself beneath the roses? Last year I raised a handful of cerinthe plants from seed; this year they are everywhere, in every crack and cranny, jostling for elbow room in pots and troughs and colonising walls like there’s no tomorrow. I love them. So do the bumble bees. They can stay.

I’ve never seen the point of pulling plants out before it’s strictly necessary, either. For a start, it’s more possible than we think sometimes to gather our own seeds; of course, some things won’t come true but that’s half the fun. I also happen to admire vegetable flowers and like to leave them until the last possible moment. Could anything be more exquisite than the few remaining salsify plants now flowering?

The Tuscan kale which has fed us so well since last autumn is in full bloom; I’m hoping to gather seed but in the meantime those buttery flowers are a pollinator paradise mingling against a backdrop of clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ in a pretty colour combination I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.

Every gardener knows that when you clear a patch of ground, you’ve hardly turned your back before nature starts filling it again, as though bare earth is something that simply can’t be tolerated. Well, thinking about it, it’s not very natural, is it? A well-cultivated plot, all tidy rows with hoed bits between, might be a feast for the eyes but it’s purely an aesthetic thing: nature would not create the same left to its own devices. The ‘do-nothing’ approach advocates keeping as much ground covered as possible for as long as possible, using simple mulches, green manure and even – yes, it’s true – weeds. True, I struggle a bit with the latter idea but green manures are something I am definitely going to try. I have no problem with keeping bare earth covered, which is why I’m happy to let nasturtiums trail about the vegetable plots like jewelled carpets or turn a blind eye to the poached egg plants currently making a takeover bid on one of the terraces.

My plan is simple: to try six different green manures in various parts of the garden this year and see how we get on. Globe artichokes grow like crazy here; we are close to eating our first picking of the year and on the strength of their enthusiasm, I planted a hedge of them at the end of the garden last autumn.

My plan is to underplant them with white clover as a permanent thing; Roger is a tad nervous about the sense of this which I do understand, given how enthusiastic clover is, too, but I’m willing to take responsibility should we end up with clover chaos.

The other patch earmarked for the clover treatment is in the top garden, beneath and between fruit bushes; here we have planted three blueberry bushes and also two autumn raspberries which have currently pushed up over 40 new shoots. Yikes! Maybe the clover will meet its match up there. Note the self-set nasturtiums gathering strength in the foreground, too; something tells me bare earth will be a thing of the past in this area very soon.

I’m also planning to try sowings of buckwheat and trefoil between rows of vegetables and under the bean tripods – to be cut and left as a mulch before they seed – and a winter mix of Westerwold ryegrass and vetches to be dug in next spring. A patch of phacelia, too, but in all honesty I just know that will be left to flower for the bees! It’s interesting and exciting to be trying something new and different, to be putting a slightly different slant on how we do things . . . and why not? After all, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain and if it helps the soil, the wildlife and our harvest, that’s fantastic news. Breathe in. Be inspired. Over to you, nature! 🙂

Footprints


I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do. 


Edward Everett Hale
Moonset in the morning

I recently read a wonderful quotation by Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero- Waste Chef. She said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Well, thank goodness for the kind of common sense thinking and down to earth pragmatism that cuts through the guilt and frustration felt by so many people trying so hard to do their bit for the planet. Search ‘zero waste’ and you’ll find a wealth of different definitions. Whether it is described as a philosophy, an ideology, a movement, a way of life, an impossible dream or all of the above the bottom line is about ordinary people (and many extraordinary ones, too) trying to reduce and eliminate waste through adopting sustainable natural cycles. It’s a whole lot more than simply (or not!) reducing what goes into landfill; it’s about not wasting precious resources, clean water, fuel, journeys, time . . . it’s about doing what is best for our health, our bodies and minds, our environment, the Earth and all that shares it. It’s hard. Very hard, in fact. Trust me, zero waste is not for wimps.

The internet is a great tool and there are some fantastic zero waste / sustainable living sites out there written by inspiring people doing some amazing things and sharing their expertise and experiences with generosity and enthusiasm. The problem is – and this is my personal opinion so feel free to disagree – that social media, with its emphasis on pithy phrases, clever graphics and arty photos, so often gives the impression of lives lived perfectly (and that includes the zero waste movement) which can lead those of us who are distinctly flawed feeling a tad inadequate. However, it needn’t be that way, hence my appreciation of what Ms Bonneau has to say. Instead of trying desperately to achieve zero waste and failing, surely it is better to do a few things (or maybe only one thing?) at a time and do them to the best of our ability. It’s that old saying about eating an elephant: don’t become overwhelmed by trying to crack it all at once. There is beauty and reward in being one of the millions who do it imperfectly because collectively the achievement is astounding.

Leo Babauta of https://zenhabits.net/ often cites accountability as a useful tool in helping to form new habits and behaviours; if you have to report your progress to someone then the chances are you will stick to your resolution. This is why I think it’s important for me to write occasionally about the progress we are making in our attempt to live as simply and greenly as possible. It doesn’t matter if no-one reads my posts (although it’s always lovely to hear when people have!) but the discipline of sitting and gathering my thoughts and reflecting on where we are is in itself extremely helpful. For us, total zero waste – like total self-sufficiency – is not a viable target, but working bit by bit to a point as close as possible is an interesting, rewarding and thought-provoking process. Here, then, are the recent steps we have taken along this fascinating path . . .

Making soap is a relatively new activity for me and following the success of my first attempts I decided to try and create a hand soap that was slightly more complicated and interesting than my original basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soaps. It would be very easy to get sucked into the fascinating world of soap-making, there is so much creativity and possibility out there! However, I am adamant about not going down the route of synthetic colourants or fragrances, no matter how beautiful or tempting they may seem; it’s natural all the way for me.

Calendula has long been recognised for its healing qualities in skin care; it’s also one of my favourite flowers and we are lucky enough to be blessed with a year-round jungle of it here so picking a few flowers in the spring sunshine and setting the petals to dry was really no hardship. This is one of the few dried flowers that retains its vibrant colour in soap.

The second new ingredient I chose for this batch was saffron, also renowned for its beneficial skincare qualities. Much used in Spanish cooking, it is widely available and a fraction of the cost in the UK so didn’t seem too much of an indulgence. Mixed in powder form with my blend of olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and almond oil it also added natural colour so the cured soaps should be a soft yellow. Once the calendula petals had been added along with sweet orange essential oil, the batter looked and smelt good enough to eat!

The finished soaps are now curing on a baking rack, currently the sweet colour of primroses; I am turning them daily and watching with interest to see how (or if) they change in the coming weeks.

Sticking with soap and I have to say that my homemade solid shampoo bars have been something of a revelation. They lather beautifully in our soft spring water and double as a body wash in the shower so are a super-efficient idea. I was expecting some kind of ‘transition’ phase when we started to use them – even my very green and gentle shampoo of choice contains some of those dreaded oil-stripping surfactants – but there has been no problem whatsoever. Obviously, a soap-based shampoo has a higher pH so I use a leave-in final rinse of apple cider vinegar in warm water to balance that. Taking that idea one step further, the fresh new growth on our perennial herbs has provided the perfect ingredient for a herbal hair rinse which couldn’t be easier to make: lavender, sage and rosemary simmered gently in water for an hour, left to cool naturally then strained and stored in the fridge. For each hair wash, I simply decant a small amount, add the vinegar and warm water to take off the chill, then rinse through as many times as I can. The result? Soft, shiny hair that smells pleasantly and faintly herbal (not of vinegar at all!) and stays looking clean and bouncy for several days between washes. Even better, we no longer have bottles of shower gel, shampoo or conditioner in the shower; one bar each of soap and shampoo does the trick. All natural, no harsh chemicals, no packaging. So far, so good.

The next item to try on my list of homemade toiletries was deodorant. Now this is a bit of a tricky one, isn’t it? I have no desire to smell of the harsh synthetic scents that are so prevalent these days and given I spend most of my time pottering about our mountain patch, slapping on deodorant isn’t always necessary . . . but when I do venture into public, I wouldn’t want to offend other people with a pong, no matter how ‘natural!’ Having done a fair bit of research, I opted for a very simple recipe using melted coconut oil mixed with bicarbonate of soda, arrowroot (cornflour is an alternative) and lemon and sweet orange essential oils.

My biggest concern over this was the bicarb. When it comes to deodorising and cleaning everything from teeth to toilets, it’s an amazing substance but there is a danger of assuming that everything ‘natural’ is good and that’s not true. Let’s face it, snake venom is natural but I wouldn’t want it in my bloodstream. The problem with bicarbonate of soda is that it is a powerful alkali which may not necessarily make it a sensible thing to be applying to skin. I read and re-read every article I could find, mulling over the pros and cons; it seems that both extremes of the argument (use it for everything vs. don’t touch it with a barge pole) can be backed up by some pretty complex chemistry and strong emotional arguments. In the end, I decided a dose of pragmatism was called for. I don’t have sensitive skin so I was happy to give it a go, but jiggled the proportions of ingredients around to reduce the bicarb by half. The result, once the mixture had set, was a soft solid that will keep happily for several months in a jar. It is easy to use – just rub a pea-sized amount on with a finger and feels really lovely, far nicer than any other kind of deodorant I’ve used. The big question, of course, is does it work? Well, here is the bit I have to admit I doubted right from the start but yes, it works brilliantly. Considering I’ve been putting it through some fairly serious 10k runs and heavy gardening in warm weather, I am amazed at how it stands up. Wow! It goes without saying that I shall watch for any adverse reaction but in the meantime I’m a convert – and a sweet, citrus-scented one at that!

Moving swiftly from smells to snacks. We’re not naturally snackers as we find three square meals a day of good wholesome food keeps us going well, but occasionally – especially on days involving long or arduous runs – there is a need for a small top-up. Dried kiwi has proved a real success and definitely something I shall be making again next season. They may be a bit of an acquired taste but I love that first tangy sweet-sour whack of flavour like bitter sherbet; a few slices are enough for a fulfilling snack packed with fibre and potassium and they are great for carrying on a long walk. Although our walnut harvest was relatively poor last year, we still have several kilos in store and I love to spend a few minutes each week shelling enough to keep in the kitchen for cooking, sprinkling on breakfasts and grazing in those occasional between-meals tummy rumbling moments. Two healthy snacks, no food miles, zero packaging and totally free. How good is that?

Of course, it’s always great to try new things and as we both love cooking, new recipe ideas are always welcome. We’ve started experimenting with making our own runners’ energy bars, ones that are packed with energy and goodness but without the inevitable high sugar content, additives, preservatives and E-numbers (not to mention excessive packaging) so common in bought ones. In a way, this is a simple exercise in lining up all the different kinds of seeds we have in the cupboard, combining them with something gloopy and baking until crisp. So for our first attempt, a mix of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and chia seed together with milled linseed and dried goji berries, stuck together with honey, olive oil and a dash of soy sauce. The cooked bars were a bit crumblier than we’d hoped for but fantastically tasty and certainly the perfect post-run booster food. We need to keep playing about with recipes and experimenting with different ingredients; mmm, that will be tough, then!

I think an essential part of our approach to green living is to revisit different things regularly and look at ways in which we can improve them, nudging forward a bit at a time. Take dish washing, for example. We don’t have a dishwasher so everything is washed and dried by hand. During the months when The Beast is lit, we heat all our dish water on the hob; to save wasting water and fuel, we never fill a bowl just to wash a couple of things but let the dirty crockery mount up through the day for one big washing up event in the evening. (Sometimes, we just need to shift our perspective about things: this is not slobby behaviour, it’s green. ) When we are here on our own, we simply cold rinse the same two coffee mugs and re-use them throughout the day – and we haven’t died from doing that yet. Making my own washing-up liquid is something I want to try but for now we use eco-brands, preferably in refillable bottles. Our water is so soft that a 950ml bottle like the one below lasts us six months, even when it’s also used in homemade cleaning potions. For some time now I’ve been crocheting cotton dishcloths which last for ages and can be thrown through the laundry on a regular basis, then composted when they finally give up the ghost. So, what could we do better? Well, one thing I certainly wanted to remove from our lives was scourers made of that nasty scrubby plasticky stuff but how to replace them with something effective? I’ve tried making various knitted scrubbies but nothing seemed to work so in the end the decision was to invest in a couple of wooden brushes which, fingers crossed, should last us for years. That’s another little box ticked.

I’ve been making and using my own washing powder very happily for some months now but now I find there is a bit of a fly in the ointment. I’ve read several articles recently urging people not to do this on any account (it’s a bit like the whole bicarb argument – this green living / zero waste business is tricky stuff sometimes.) The argument is based on the fact that modern washing machines and modern textile fibres are all designed to be used with detergents. Soap-based cleaners can cause a build-up of scum which could ultimately wreck a machine and obviously, having to replace a perfectly serviceable machine before necessary is not remotely green. Also, soap doesn’t clean laundry properly and to prove the point, there are any amount of horror photos of dirty water left behind after so-called clean laundry has been ‘stripped out’ with powerful mineral cleaners. Okay, time for some balanced thinking once again. For every writer standing against homemade laundry powder, there are plenty claiming to have used it for many years without a single machine issue; there are also plenty of people who have stripped out detergent-washed laundry and been left with grotty water, too. As washing soda is the key ingredient of homemade laundry powder, I have increased the proportion in my recipe and reduced the soap; I always fill the fabric conditioner dispenser with white vinegar which it’s claimed helps to stop the scum and as an extra precaution, I am using an eco-detergent every few washes. Not perfect, but I’m hoping it’s a sensible compromise.

Spring clean: winter blankets gently washed in homemade laundry powder drying in the sunshine.

One of the best things I’ve discovered recently is organic bamboo kitchen roll. We don’t use paper kitchen roll often and certainly never for mopping up spillages (a cloth does the job just fine) but there are certain cooking processes and some of my messier pastimes where it’s useful stuff to have around – and it is at least compostable. The bamboo roll, however, takes things to a new level: simply tear off a square, use it for whatever . . . then wash it and use it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, each square can go through the laundry as many as 80 times, can be bleached, too, if necessary and eventually finishes up on the compost heap like paper. After the first wash, the fabric becomes very soft and almost fluffy; it’s delightful stuff and I’ve already found far more uses for it than imagined. (The bowl of soap batter above is sitting on a bamboo square.) Our roll of 20 sheets will last us many, many years. What an inspired idea.

Staying with bamboo, I have also recently bought bamboo toothbrushes to try. They are one of those things that seem to attract Marmitesque reviews (love or loathe) so I’m interested to see how we get on with them. I love the fact they have their own leaf pattern for easy identification and I can already see a further life for them as row markers in the garden once their dental duties are done. Now I do love an idea like that!

One of our biggest resolutions on the path to zero waste is to use the materials and resources we already have as much as possible rather than buying new. In this vein, Roger has been demolishing an ugly and tumbledown brick wall and replacing it with a gate he has made from wood left over from the house renovation. Not only has it made access to the field so much simpler (what, no more scrambling over a wall?) but it looks far smarter, has opened up the view from the garden and put some spare materials to very good use.

I have used up my final scraps of curtain lining fabric to make another batch of food storage bags – how did we ever live without them, they are such useful things? I also turned the last two patchworking fat squares in my box of bits into a wash bag to take when we’re travelling. The rather nasty plastic lining of our last one crumbled into pieces many years ago and since then we’ve been using random scruffy plastic bags stuffed into a suitcase. The bag was made in minutes, finished with a scrap of satin ribbon as a drawstring and then sprayed with waterproofer; I’m hopeful it will last us for many years and it’s certainly an improvement on our current system!

Natural toiletries for the new wash bag: deodorant in jar, toothpowder in bicarbonate pot, solid hand / foot lotion and solid shampoo bar in muslin square, reusable razor, bamboo toothbrushes.

Having resolved not to buy any new yarn, I’m enjoying planning my woolly activities around what I already have, whether commercially-produced yarns or fleece to spin myself. Spinning, dyeing and knitting from scratch takes a long time but there is such pleasure and satisfaction in working through the whole process, especially if I have someone else in mind for the finished article. A skein of Blue-Faced Leicester wool spun with kid mohair and dyed with ready-mixed colours left over from the last project brought to mind a cottage garden of delphiniums and clematis, granny’s bonnets and roses . . . perfect for the summer birthday gift had I planned. I’m not a fan of circular needles and my lace knitting is painfully slow but that’s all part of the process . . . there is no rush, just the simple delight of creating something unique from scratch for someone I love.

I’m also working my way slowly through the scraps of yarn left over from various blanket projects and the pile of little crocheted squares is mounting up steadily. I still have no real final plan – there will certainly be enough for a blanket – but it’s good to see those little bits and pieces being put to good use.

So, on we go, taking small footsteps along this tricky path. We still have such a long way to travel and I know it won’t all be easy; the next few ideas to try are already in the pipeline and the coming weeks will see how well they pan out. It’s easy to feel despondent sometimes, despair even, especially looking at the wider world and the problems too mighty for us to tackle alone. However, taking a walk through the woods down to the river yesterday, I paused to enjoy the moment: the trees hazed with fresh new spring growth, clouds of butterflies playing chase in the sunshine, the first swallows wheeling and chattering overhead, the raucous birdsong echoing, it seemed, from every branch.

Yes, this is why we do it, this is what it’s for . . . the hope that in small green footsteps we reduce our giant footprint and leave a beautiful and sustainable world for our precious grandchildren. Surely that’s a future worth fighting for, however imperfectly?