Every cloud . . .

No matter how chaotic it is, wild flowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.

Sheryl Crow

I am an optimist by nature. I’m not old enough to remember Monty Python but I do try to always look on the bright side of life (sorry if that’s caused anyone to have an earworm now πŸ™‚ ). I think it’s important to greet each new day with gratitude, each experience with wonder and to smile far more than I frown. At the same time, I’m also a realist which I believe is essential in life, particularly when things don’t go according to plan. It’s so easy to rant and rage, throw our teddies out of the proverbial pram and look for someone or something to blame or else stick our fingers firmly in both ears and sing, “La la la la la la la, not listening, not listening . . .” in an act of total denial. There’s a lot of both going on at the moment around the world and whilst I appreciate people have the right to find their own ways of dealing with situations that are threatening, frightening and deeply worrying, there’s much to be said for a calm and balanced approach. Change happens whether we like it or not. Life is messy. We have to deal with that.

There is much discussion about the ways in which the experiences of COVID-19 might bring about positive changes for humanity and the planet and as an optimist, I am remaining hopeful . . . despite the queues at shopping centres and diposable gloves and masks adding to the already horrendous amounts of plastic waste. Take wild flowers, for instance. As a family, we spent many years pleading with the local councils in South Shropshire and Powys to revise their roadside management policies. Every year saw the grass verges cut just as the wildflowers were at their very best and buzzing with insect life; the hedges were flailed two, three or sometimes more times a year (and boy, did I have the punctures to prove it travelling along those lanes to work ~ five in one school term, no less!), one of those cuts in early autumn always taking the berries and nuts as well as the last of the leaves, so ushering in winter far too early.

The arguments for this approach were twofold, the first being the importance of maintaining a safe environment for road users and pedestrians alike. Now obviously we completely understood that safety must be a priority, especially on certain junctions and dangerous bends ~ but why then the need to treat all stretches of roadside the same, or to cut to a depth of more than one mower’s width where ‘safety’ obviously didn’t come into it? The answer lay in the second reason: we were told time and time again that people like to see the verges and hedges regularly cut, they like the countryside to be tidy and manicured. Really? Why? This isn’t a bowling green or someone’s lawn we’re talking about. Nature isn’t tidy, it’s messy and chaotic, that’s what creates a healthy biodiversity in different ecosystems, including the tiny ones I wrote about in my last post.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t persuade the councils to listen; in fact, if anything, things worsened to the point that over a period of thirteen years in one rural home, we saw the diversity of floral species in the verges dwindle from that gorgeous classic May mix of bluebells, red campion, stitchwort, lady’s smock, foxgloves and wild garlic and the frothy foam of meadowsweet and fiery spires of rosebay willowherb later in the year to sterile strips supporting only nettles and cow parsley. As the flowers disappeared, so too did the wildlife that benefited from them. The ecosystem was greatly impoverished.

More recently, there have been some positive moves such as the ‘bee friendly’ incentives that have seen traffic islands planted with wild flowers but I have been even more encouraged by reports of attitudes changing as a result of COVID-19 causing councils to scale back their roadside cutting regimens. This has allowed the flowers to bloom and, along with clearer skies and enhanced birdsong, it seems that many people are appreciating the true beauty and value of British wild flowers and organisations such as Plantlife are attracting much interest in their campaigns to protect these natural treasures. Perhaps this will be change for the good, a silver lining to the coronavirus cloud? I hope so.

In complete contrast, I have always welcomed the attitude to roadside maintenance here in Asturias which has seemed to be far gentler and more sensitive to the environment in general. The local council only cuts once a year, late in the season when the flowers have set seed and young birds have fledged (they also sweep up after themselves, so no punctures here!); in between times, local people scythe some areas ~ particularly the wide verges on the inside of hairpin bends ~ to make hay or feed directly to stock, but otherwise all is left well alone and the verges are stunningly beautiful.

Well, they were. I don’t know what exactly has happened but we seem to have emerged from the peace of lockdown into Strimmer World, some kind of parallel universe where anything that doesn’t move is razed to the roots by an army of buzzing machines. It’s not just people tidying up their neglected gardens or clearing overgrown paths, either; every roadside strip has been scalped along with places I’ve never seen cut, including riverbanks and even meadows that are normally left to the cows. Even worse, there seems to be a bit of an unprecedented spraying frenzy going on, too. A few weeks ago when we were granted the freedom to walk further than one kilometre from home, we did a circular hike up to the top of the mountain behind the house and back again, climbing up on forest tracks and returning down the winding mountain road. The roadside verges were a real show, full of colour and buzzing with life and we took plenty of photos. A couple of days ago I walked back up a stretch of that road . . . and things couldn’t have been more different. Someone has sprayed the verges on both sides of the road for several kilometres. Everything is dying or already dead.

Where previously there was colour, beauty and life, now there is a barren scrubland. These were the oxeye daisies before . . .

. . . and now.

The knapweed was alive and thrumming with the attentions of insect life . . .

. . . now it’s not even alive.

I’d hoped to pick some beautiful big heads of yarrow to dry for herbal teas. Not a chance.

The saddest part of my walk was the silence: not so much as a single bumble bee to be seen or heard. The heather should be full of them now.

I feel utterly sad that this has happened, partly because it is completely unnecessary but also because it is so very out of character. This is not the Asturian way. What on earth is going on? I am slightly fascinated in an armchair psychology kind of way; is this the result of seven weeks of total lockdown (bearing in mind it was far stricter here than it has been in the UK)? Has being confined en casa or the fear of a pandemic and all its unknown consequences resulted in some kind of atavistic need to go out and destroy and control, to beat nature into submission? I really don’t know but I’m hoping it’s just a one-off, one of life’s strange blips because if it’s going to be a permanent thing, then it very definitely isn’t change for the better.

Back to the bright side, though ~ I’m all for balance! For starters, when I walked out to take those photos, I was bearly a few metres from home when I saw the most beautiful fox on the track ahead of me. I stopped walking and stood absolutely still but it showed no fear of me whatsoever so we watched one another for several quiet minutes before it mosied off through the undergrowth. We don’t have a zoom lens on our camera, which is why my wildlife photos are always composed of subjects I can get close to, but hopefully you will get the idea of how close we were (note our verges had been left in peace). It was a magical moment.

Further on, I joined the mountain road and depressing though the sight of those devastated verges was, when I lifted my eyes I couldn’t help but find some kind of hope and healing in that beautiful view.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a short time after the end of two days of storms that had brought high winds, torrential rain and an unseasonal drop in temperature. In what seemed like moments, the cloud lifted and scattered across the bluest of skies and the sun blazed; the garden was suddenly bursting with life and activity again. I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the return of that blissful warmth.

We are blessed to share our space with such a wealth of wildlife and I have to remind myself that where the vegetation hasn’t been hacked back or sprayed, the verges and forest trails, meadows and wild spaces still bustle with nature’s busyness. A couple of nights ago, we stood with our heads out of the roof window watching a deer grazing in the meadow above, serene and silent amidst the raucous din of a joyful frogs’ chorus. I have spent the last few days watching a family of young redstarts take their first tentative steps and flights around the garden; the parents nested in the tiny wild patch we’ve created from an old chicken run and have raised a beautful if demanding brood, who ~ even though they fledged ten days ago ~ are still sitting about expectantly waiting for food to come to them! Again, the photo isn’t zoomed but you can make out one of the youngsters waiting on the rail in anticipation of the next beakful . . .

So, there is still much to be celebrated, much optimism to be exercised. Let me finish with a heartwarming story about a little girl living in GijΓ³n, one of the three major cities in Asturias, which is surely one of the loveliest tales to have emerged from these strange times here. Having spent several weeks in total lockdown like all Spanish children, unable to leave her home at all, she was finally given the freedom to spend an hour outside with one adult going no further than one kilometre from her home. She chose to go to the nearby beach (GijΓ³n is a seafront city) and spent her precious hour picking up plastic bottles and rubbish that had washed up onto the sand during the weeks of lockdown. With caring souls like that in this world, I like to feel there truly is hope for this beautiful planet we call home. πŸ™‚

How can you buy the sky?

Asturias is a land of contrasts: soaring, snow-capped peaks and shining ribbons of sandy beaches; chattering mountain streams and wide, lazy estuaries; lush green meadows spangled with flowers and a dramatic coastline, jagged and wave-beaten; the timeless tranquility of tiny, remote villages and the vibrant buzz of modern cities. Then, of course, there is the weather. Perhaps it is something contrary in my nature, or maybe because I’m British and ‘weather’ is in my blood, but I love the fickle spirit that is the Asturian climate. There is something energising about the speed and quality of changes, of how a rain-drenched landscape shrouded in cloud is transformed to a vista of green mountains printed in sharp relief against the clearest and bluest of skies in what seems like a matter of moments. One day, it’s all wellies and waterproofs, the next sandals and suncream. It’s a teasing unpredictability that breeds resilience, pragmatism and acceptance: life goes on, whatever. It’s only weather, after all.

Friday
Saturday
Sunday

At this time of year, we spend most of our time outside; we eat our meals out there and only drift into the house in the evening as the sun sinks in a dramatic blaze behind the mountain opposite. Once the new horreo floor is finished (something we can’t do until we are allowed to visit a builders’ merchants again), we will even be able to stay out in the pouring rain. At the moment, though, a wet evening does mean being indoors and last week, one such occasion saw us watching a free online film called Project Wild Thing. This had been recommended to me (thank you, Farn!) after I wrote a couple of posts back about how important I think it is for children to spend time playing and exploring outdoors.

It was an interesting film which raised several pertinent issues but what struck me most was how the driving force in the author’s efforts to connect children to nature was based on branding. I realised just how pervasive and powerful branding and advertising are in our society . . . but honestly, how did things become so complicated? How can you possibly ‘brand’ nature? and why on earth should it be necessary? (Please bear in mind, this is not in any way a criticism of the film; indeed, I had nothing but respect and admiration for the author’s intentions and efforts in trying to do a very good thing.)

Now I admit that I am definitely the wrong person to be asking or answering these questions as I am undoubtedly biased. First, the natural world is such a fundamental part of my life and being that I would find it impossible to extricate myself from its wonderfully beguiling tangle. I cannot imagine a life not spent outdoors and I am truly blessed in being able to indulge myself every day; my heart has gone out in recent weeks to all those who have been or still are totally confined to indoor spaces.

Second, I am a marketing company’s nightmare; I detest shopping, I feel no need to buy or accumulate ‘stuff’ and adverts bounce off me like hailstones on the roof. If I’m honest, I don’t even notice them; I am, in fact, completely blind to branding. Still, putting my prejudices aside, I really can’t understand why for one moment nature should need to be branded in order to make it appeal to children and the adults in their lives. This is not a consumable, it’s not the latest whizz-bang gizmo or this season’s must-have – it’s nature, for crying out loud. It just is.

The crucial point for me is that we shouldn’t have to polish and airbrush the natural world, blow it up on hoardings, flaunt it on the front of t-shirts or hand it out in shiny leaflets in order to whet people’s appetite. Nature is an incredible, astonishing, precious, fickle, dangerous, mind-blowing thing; it can’t be tamed or boxed or packaged or ordered online. We don’t need to buy it or buy into it. It’s out there – everywhere- if we just take the time to look. Turn your face upwards to the splatter of raindrops or the kiss of sunshine and you’re acknowledging nature’s presence. It’s really that simple. Isn’t it?

The ironic thing is, experience has taught me that children will revel in the simplicity of nature when given the chance to do so. As a primary school teacher, I would cart my class off to look round a zoo or aquarium where they could watch exotic species living in very contrived environments but without exception, they had far more fun and engagement doing bug hunts or wildflower sampling only a few steps from the classroom door. The best school ‘trips’ we ever had were the ones where we stayed at school and spent the day building dens, climbing trees and cooking over a campfire. Children will find a whole world in the eye of a daisy or the swirl of a snail’s shell if we just let them.

As if to prove a point – to myself, at least! – I decided to take my camera for a wellies-and-waterproof wander in the rain, trying to capture some basic images that had nothing whatsoever to do with branding. I wanted nature to sell itself simply by being, to prove that there is infinite wonder in the ordinary that far surpasses staged professional photo shoots of children cuddling tame frogs. The woods in the rain at this time of year draw me like a magnet; there is such a sparkling freshness to the air and I am captivated by the layer upon layer of green, all that burgeoing, verdant growth. True, in rainy weather the light level is relatively low and the backdrop of a china blue sky unavailable, but there is magic in that rain-spattered world. All the photos in this post apart from the first, third and fourth were taken on that walk and at no point was I more than a ten-minute leisurely stroll from home.

It worries me sometimes where I ‘go’ on these little ventures, becoming so absorbed in everything that I see that I lose all track of time or place . . . but that, I believe, is the whole point. I suppose some people would call it mindfulness, that complete focus on a single point, being ‘in the moment’ to the exclusion of all else but really, you can call it whatever you like. The previous day, I had wandered into the wood for a leg stretch (without the camera) and rounding a bend in the path, I saw a roe deer just a stone’s throw ahead of me. Thanks to a kind wind direction, she didn’t sense me despite my bright red waterproof coat and I was able to stand and watch her grooming and grazing for many minutes, before tiptoeing away; I didn’t want to carry on in case she had a fawn lying in the undergrowth nearby which is perfectly possible at this time of year. I am lucky enough to have seen deer in the wild many, many times but the sheer magic and wonder of watching a wild animal like this is never tarnished; standing stock still, hardly daring to breathe and being wholly taken up by this privileged window on a wild world, it’s a moment to treasure. It’s priceless, in fact.

The truly gratifying part is that such precious experiences don’t have to involve large mammals, either; there is so much that is extraordinary to be discovered in the ordinary. There is a wealth of wonder to be had watching the purposeful march of an ant trail, the expert weaving of a spider, the sing-preen-sing choreography of a garden robin. It is possible to be totally captivated by the play of dappled light through a tracery of leaves, the movement of water over shiny pebbles, the scudding of broken clouds across a windswept sky. There are great secrets hidden in miniature forests of moss, the pleated underskirts of mushrooms, the complex labrythine centre of a flower.

When you can capture the wash of waves in a seashell or a rainbow in a puddle, when you can feel the gentle tickle of a feather on your cheek, the soft whisper of snowflakes on your eyelashes, the rough fissures of bark or silky trickle of sand or sticky gloop of mud at your fingertips, you don’t need a logo or a slogan or a brand. Connecting with the natural world is as simple as rolling down a grassy bank, kicking up a pile of autumn leaves or tasting the sweet-sour burst of berry juice on purpled tongues . . . and I’m not just talking about children!

It comes as no surprise to me – in fact, I’m delighted – that doctors are increasingly ‘prescribing’ a dose of nature for a wide range of illnesses as an alternative therapy to drugs. The benefits to many aspects of our physical and mental health of exposure to fresh air and sunlight have been well-researched and documented; add time spent moving or simply sitting, observing, enjoying, being curious – whether in a wild, rural location, a suburban garden or a city park – and we have a wonderful recipe for well-being. It’s very, very simple. It’s totally free. Let’s get out there and enjoy it, young and old alike. No branding needed. No adverts required. πŸ™‚

The flight of the bumblebee

Our valley is a tranquil spot at the best of times but in these unusual circumstances of minimal traffic on the roads and no planes overhead, it is exceptionally and blissfully peaceful. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how in modern society, over 90% of the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives is man-made, yet for prehistoric peoples the opposite was true. Now I am not expecting to see a woolly mammoth come strolling down the lane anytine soon but – putting the current grave circumstances aside – how extraordinary it is to experience an environment overwhelmingly dominated by natural sounds.

Of course, there is the usual cacophony of cockerels and cowbells punctuated by short bursts of village activity; after all, despite most of Spanish society remaining in total lockdown, the farming and smallholding year must continue if starvation isn’t to be the next problem. Still, it is the wilder sounds that prevail with a crystal clarity, as though nature’s crackly radio has at last been fine-tuned to perfection. I am a willing audience.

The river snakes its way across the valley floor below us in a constant ripple of energy, bubbling and chattering over boulders as if it were still a youthful mountain stream, but now it is somehow amplified to a level that suggests the rush and drop of a weir or hidden waterfall where there is neither. Breezes susurrate and sigh across the mountainsides, stippling the light and ruffling the trees like a huge invisible hand pulled through soft, silvery grasses.

It is no surprise that the birds hold centre stage from dawn to dusk, their rousing symphony of harmony and counterpoint played out against the rhythmic ostinato of cuckoos and crickets. In this clear air there is a fresh magic to their music, startling surprises in the familiar like a bright new tapestry woven from old threads.

It’s not just their songs, either. How incredible to notice the rigid wingbeats of a crow flapping languorously overhead, the slick torpedo whoosh of a sparrowhawk perforating the air like a dart, the fragile sigh of a wren alighting on a tremulous twig. There’s nothing new about any of these sounds . . . but have I ever truly heard them before? By day, the stags’ guttural coughs echo across the meadows and at night, the tawny owls practise their haunting call-and-response under vaulted skies. There’s no missing those raucous renditions but who’d believe the soft patter of a lizard’s footsteps or the whispered rustle of a grass snake’s sinuous trajectory can truly be heard? Hush. Be still. We only have to listen.

The garden is alive with insects who play their part magnificently, too. I’ve recently read a report about the effects of climate change on bumblebee demographics and in particular, how a run of very warm summers here in Spain has seen populations pushed ever northwards to these green and mountainous regions. I am no biologist but I can certainly vouch for that: they are here in their thousands and the garden and meadows thrum constantly with their exuberant notes. I love them; they are so busy and yet so unfussy, zipping from place to place and feeding at whichever flower take their fancy. Nothing is too grand or too humble for their attention – weeds, garden blooms, vegetable flowers, whatever. Crimson clover is proving to be a huge success, its vibrant bottlebrush flowers are an irresistible bee magnet. The same is true of phacelia, another green manure plant which has self-set around the patch in pops and drifts of hazy mauve, bristling with the frenetic activity of bumbles, honey bees and solitary bees alike.

Something we have noted with delight and optimism is the increasing amount of wildlife drawn to our patch year on year, not only in terms of absolute numbers but in the range and variety of species, too. How exciting this week to see a carpenter bee joining the phacelia feeding frenzy; we had them in our garden in France but have never seen one here until now. I think the females are stunning creatures clad in their shiny black armour with wings of metallic bluey-purple, iridescent in the sunlight. They are bold and brash and very loud which, along with their habit of building nests by hollowing out wooden structures, apparently gets them a bad name; I was completely shocked at how many internet sites give information on how to destroy these so-called troublesome pests. How sad. At least here in our little haven (or as Mary Reynolds would call it, our ‘ark’), they are safe and welcome.

As I sit in the garden writing this on the laptop, I realise that it has been exactly six weeks since I last left our property. For 42 days I have been here without exception, watching spring unfold around me in a way never quite as before. It has been fascinating to observe the developments and events, not in steps or leaps but in the tiniest, barely perceptible shifts of change; it has almost seemed possible to watch leafbuds burst, blossoms unfurl, seeds germinate. What incredible changes have occurred in a relatively short time! Like a time-lapse film, the countryside around us has greened and filled to bursting, whilst the garden canvas has moved through an entire palette – from primroses, violets and tulips to alliums, poppies and roses – to arrive at the crazy, carefree carnival of rainbows I love so much.

Where flower gardening is concerned, I’ve given up – not for any negative reason, you understand, but because I am simply no longer needed. Having saved many things that were already here, planted perennials, sowed biennials, scattered annuals and buried bulbs in previous years, nature now does the work for me and the garden takes care of itself. We haven’t planted the new border where concrete used to be because it will plant itself in the coming months. How could I improve on the swathes of colour, here soft and billowy, there loud and shocking, that have organised their own unique compositions? Would I have thought to take crimson clover and yellow calendula then stitch them through with the dazzling magenta of vetch?

Could it have occurred to me that candy pink granny’s bonnets mingling tastefully with the glaucous blue of cerinthe and then shot through with the screaming fiery orange of nasturtiums might be something that would work? Would I sow candytuft under the grapevine, pansies among the onions, wallflowers between the peas? It’s completely outrageous and I love the whole wild, reckless, hedonistic jumble of nature’s creativity. Let’s just smile and revel in it. Why interfere?

Of course, we’ve already handed the reins over to nature in many, many areas of our patch, those margins and larger spaces left to go deliberately wild after a nudge in the right direction. We’ve recently been developing the orchard area, improving access so that we can wander up and down the steep slopes and spend more time enjoying it; how daft to have a seat there which we barely sat on! Having cleared the rougher areas, knocking back the brambles and applying a selective grass cutting regimen, it is wonderful to watch the whole space regenerating and taking on a new and tantalisingly beautiful aura.

The wildflowers that were already present have proliferated and new ones have appeared, so that beneath the fruit and nut trees – currently resplendent with fragrant blossoms or fat catkins – there are pretty carpets of scattered colour. The verges, too, are a tangle of wild beauty and a-buzz with the rapt attention of a myriad insects.

Have these past six weeks, so worrying and disruptive for much of humanity, brought positive things to the abundance of life we are so lucky to share our environment with? Could the hugely increased numbers and acrobatic energy of the swallows here be a result of a better journey northwards through cleaner air? Is the natural world in general feeling the benefit of fewer machines, less air pollution and less noise?

Has our almost constant presence outside diminished the inhibitions of the resident birds who no longer seem to notice us being here? There is currently a great tit sitting on a hanging basket close by, delicately plucking fibres from the sheep’s fleece I used as liners, without a care in the world; a few moments ago, a dunnock landed on the back of the chair opposite, its beak stuffed with moss, so close I could have reached out and stroked it. It made no rush to leave.

We have at least two more weeks of lockdown here and then, by all accounts, only a very slow lifting of restrictions to movement in small steps towards the ‘new normal.’ By then, I sincerely hope that the human situation will be improving rapidly but in the meantime, with a deep sense of gratitude I shall continue to delight in the beauties of the season and the enchantment of the bumblebees’ song.

Dye another day

Mere colour can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

Oscar Wilde

I love colour. I love bold blocks of brights and paler ribbons of pastels; I love wide, sweeping brushstrokes and precise pointillist dots; I love the way harmonious shades melt together with heart-aching beauty and others clash in eye-opening shock; I love colours smudged and blurred like hazy rainbows or making strong statements in sharp outlines. I believe colour really does speak to the soul in a thousand different ways and for me, there is no greater source of this sumptuous soul food than in nature. Even grey skies have a singular beauty.

What a delight, then, to have the chance to spend a couple of nights recently on the Galician coast and drink in the colour and character of that wild landscape. I have to come clean and admit that I’m always left feeling a bit undecided about Galicia whenever we visit. Much of it is picturesque rolling green countryside clothed in densely wooded hillsides and draped with vineyards currently aflame in the glory of their autumn colours. The Atlantic coast is a gem, all wide estuaries and squiggly islands fringed in white-sanded beaches and studded with intriguing rock formations.

So, why do I struggle to love it? Well, after Asturias it just always seems so very busy, so full of buildings and traffic and people, the coastal roads snaking through miles and miles of built-up areas with only rare glimpses of the countryside beyond. Understandably, tourism is huge; there is a plethora of campsites, hotels, restaurants, bars and the like, many closed or looking slightly forlorn now the tourist season is over, all serving what must be an immense influx of holiday makers over the summer months. I’m not being critical, just saying all this busyness is not for me . . . and happily – as in so many other places – once you leave the hustle and bustle and impact of human activity behind, there are many stunning wild spaces that really hit the sweet spot. Even when it’s pouring with rain.

Yes, the weather was spiteful with blustery, heavy showers becoming more organised into almost 24 hours of torrential downpours as glowering skies dumped what felt like much of the Atlantic Ocean on our heads. Still, nothing daunted, we set out to make the most of it; it’s the first time in many, many months my hiking trousers and jacket have been out for an airing but they’re wonderfully waterproof so I was as dry and warm as toast – still looking skywards for enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, though! Well, a little optimism never hurt anyone.

This was the Playa Con Negro near O Grove, billed on a wooden signpost as ‘nature’s art park’ and there was no arguing with that; it was like landing in a surreal Henry Moore -inspired landscape or – to my rather overactive imagination – a giants’ battlefield from some ancient folk tale. Certainly, the geology hinted at past times of terrible turbulence and violence, immense granite boulders hurled into precarious positions and sculpted into spellbinding shapes. What an extraordinary place.

Between the dominant monoliths were veins of a different darker rock, tortured and twisted and shattered into sinuous strata, all sharp edges and angles in complete contrast to the smooth curves of the lighter, speckled granite.

Caught in hollows and gullies were rock pools, the crystal clear water revealing a captivating spectrum of colours in the rock. Reds, greens, oranges, yellows . . . now this is definitely my thing.

What isn’t my thing is litter and it was sad to find several plastic drinks bottles (and, rather bizarrely, a Fairy Liquid bottle), glass bottles, cartons and other plastic detritus scattered across the otherwise pristine sandy beaches. It’s likely they had been washed up by the tide rather than discarded in situ but either way, they shouldn’t be there. We gathered them up and placed them in recycling bins provided in the car park but given the whole issue of plastic in the oceans, it felt like the tip of an enormous iceberg. The area, quite rightly, has protected status as a special natural environment; there is no charge to park or to visit and you can wander wherever you like to enjoy and appreciate the raw beauty of the place. It is a privilege to do so and there should be no question of a single piece of rubbish being there. Ever.

On a happier note, though, I am always amazed and comforted by nature’s resilience and the sheer adaptability and determination of living things to thrive, even against all odds. From a distance, this landscape might seem barren, almost lunar in character, but on close inspection the rocks were carpeted in lichen and even the tiniest cracks boasted a variety of courageous plants making little wild gardens full of colour.

We wandered up the coast a short way and the sun decided to put in a welcome appearance, albeit very briefly. Incredible how that shift in light altered the colour in the landscape, filling the rockpools with fragments of blue sky.

Mmm, look at those beautiful blues and greens now, that creamy pink sand. Where’s my spinning wheel? πŸ™‚

We crossed the sweeping curve of a bridge from the mainland to the Illa de Arousa and spent several hours wandering along the coastpath and beaches there. Once again, this was just our sort of place, much of it a special nature reserve with protected nesting sites for the multitude of wading birds scurrying and stabbing along the tideline and regeneration projects focused on the dunes, wetlands and native woodland.

The beaches were breathtakingly beautiful and literally carpeted with shells. My goodness, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many in one place.

Isn’t beachcombing a joy? We found ourselves totally absorbed, heads down, sifting through the piles for beauties that caught our eye. The shapes, structures, colours and patterns were exquisite and some of them were so tiny, I could sit several on a fingernail. If I were an artist I would have felt inspired to create something with such an engaging medium, a sort of impulsive, indulgent Andy Goldsworthy moment on the beach; as it was, I simply looked and touched and enjoyed . . . and thought of wool.

Where inspiration was concerned, the beaches hadn’t quite finished with me yet; there was so much colour and texture in the seaweed and plant life amongst the dunes. Forget the tourist attractions, this is all I need. Grazas, Galicia!

Home to Asturias, my head reeling with possibilities and a need to play with more natural dyes; this desperate urge has far outstripped my ability to spin white skeins quickly so I’ve been dipping lengths of wool top instead. The simple pleasure of gathering plant material from the garden and turning it into a dye is just perfect, although I’m going to have to address the mordant issue eventually. My latest little experiment has been with the French marigolds that have been blooming for months, two self-set plants that have mushroomed through the summer to shrub proportions and are covered in literally hundreds of blooms; there’s plenty to go round so I felt the bumbles could spare me a few.

I’m getting quite lazy with this process already, simmering a pile of flower heads for a while then throwing in the wool without straining the plant material off first. The flowers produced a gorgeous ruby colour in the dyepot . . .

. . . and turned the wool a pale, creamy, ‘barely there’ yellow. Out of idle interest, I snipped a small piece and dunked it in an alkali bath. Wowzer, now we’re talking! What a shade. In went half the wool. I’m already planning projects for these two, and as overdyeing yellow with indigo is a good way to get greens, I decided to dry another pile of those marigolds for further forays into the world of yellow. It’s good to plan ahead, don’t you think?

When Roger wandered into the kitchen and observed in his patiently resigned way that ‘the woolly stuff goes on and on and on‘ I had to admit – after a cursory glance around – that he had a point. Various bits and skeins of dyed fleece and silk were hanging from the overhead airer, going through the final drying process; a further batch was simmering on top of The Beast in a pot of marigold soup; the exploded body parts of a half-crocheted teddy were scattered across the coffee table, which itself was thrust out into the room to make space for my spinning wheel (sporting a bobbin partly spun) by the sofa; almost an entire work surface, save for the bit where flower heads were spread out to dry, was covered in lengths of fleece and silk being carded into fluffy rolags whilst numerous baskets and bags of projects started or projects-in-waiting were scattered across the floor. This is not to mention the growing pile of knitted jumpers and crocheted teddies mounting up in the bedroom so that I don’t forget to pack them for our UK trip next month. Even by my lackadaisical standards, I realised that something had to be done: much as I love wool, drowning in a sea of it is probably not how I’d choose to take my last gasp. Death-by-flowers neither, for that matter.

I started by finishing the teddy so it could join its friends in preparation for the journey. Along with a patchwork crochet blanket and some knitted finger puppets, these colourful bears have helped me to finish up a huge pile of yarn scraps this year, something I’m feeling very chuffed about. I’m hoping they will bring some smiles to little faces and the packets of sunflower seeds saved from our patch and hidden in their bags will help to spread the gardening love.

Next, I made a concerted effort to tidy up the finished dyeing projects and put them into safe storage until required. I couldn’t resist a little photo call first, a sort of ‘madder three ways’ moment – it’s a bit like a trio of desserts but better for the waistline.

I’m normally very slapdash with finished skeins but given that I’m hoping to build a reasonable collection over time, I appreciate the need for careful labelling so I can identify everything in the future: type(s) of fibre, yardage, weight (by which I really mean mass in grams) and ‘weight’ as in thickness, as well as information about the dyeing process. I find to my surprise that it’s actually quite a satisfying thing to do.

Putting them carefully into storage in the attic, I was congratulating myself on how I’d managed to start turning a box of plain fleece into more useful supplies and used up most of my spare yarn when a little bag of forgotten bits caught my eye: several ends of balls left over from previous sock knitting projects. On their own, they don’t amount to much but together weighed in at a couple of hundred grams which is enough for two pairs of adult socks. I sorted them into two vague colour schemes, one based on greens, the other on blues and purples and decided to launch into a brand new project (oh come on, I’d finished the teddies . . .): introducing Operation Scrappy Socks.

Now I am the first to admit that these are probably going to look pretty ridiculous knitted in large bands of totally mismatched self-patterning yarn but then, does it really matter? (By the way, I’m finding it a really fun way of working, but maybe that’s just my warped sense of humour.) As far as I’m aware, not too many people go round studying my socks and to be honest, if it’s cold enough to be wearing them then they’re going to be hidden under long trousers and inside slippers or boots most of the time. I’m not overly happy with the idea of knots but then plenty of sock patterns use more than one yarn colour so it’s not like I’m committing some dreadful crime and at the end of the day, I’d rather use the yarn than waste it. Anyway, there’s something about the season in these greens that pleases me. Whether the finished articles are funky, freaky or just downright daft they will keep my feet snug and give me a few more Brownie points on the waste not, want not scale. That’s a win-win, I’d say.

Now it’s time for a bit of a confession – well, quite a lot of one, in truth – on the subject of my attempt not to buy any new yarn this year. I’ve tried so hard to stay on the yarn wagon and I managed nearly ten months but I’m afraid to say, I’ve taken a bit of a tumble and bought a new blanket project. I do feel a wee bit guilty BUT in my defence, there is a very good reason for it, namely that I wanted to order a yarn kit from the UK and with Brexit looming with all the uncertainties regarding tariffs, international postage and the like I thought it better to buy now rather than wait until January and run into possible problems. It’s a sad fact that several small family businesses I use for things like seeds have postponed all orders from outside the UK until they know what’s happening so I feel slightly justified in my decision. Of course, what I really, really should do is hide the yarn away and promise not to start the blanket until the New Year. Yep . . . and pigs might fly! πŸ™‚

How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment πŸ™‚ ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! πŸ™‚

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? πŸ™‚

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. πŸ™‚

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. πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚

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 . . . πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚

Rainy days

Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.

John Updike

Rain. Having spent most of my life living on the western side of the British Isles, I’m no stranger to it; after spending three years living in the parched dust of the eastern Mediterranean, I vowed never to moan about it again. Water is life and rain is the lifeblood of the garden, so essential if we are to enjoy a bountiful harvest of food and flowers. There is nothing abnormal about a good dollop of rain here at this time of year; after all, this part of the world is called ‘Green Spain’ for a reason. Combined with gentle warmth and high light levels, it creates what must be just about the perfect growing climate. In times of drought, we can irrigate the garden from a mountain spring but even that soft, unadulterated water is never quite the same as a decent downpour from the sky.

It’s interesting how the experience of rain here is different to what I grew up with. For starters, although we can have seriously heavy storms, it is very unusual to have prolonged spells of rain and it’s a rare day that we can’t spend at least some time outdoors. The sky is different, too; no low, oppressive, dark grey gloom but rather cloud the pale grey of a pigeon’s breast that enfolds the valley or white cloud that weaves around the mountains and through the forests like strands of soft fleece.

This brings a unique and haunting atmosphere to the valley, something beautifully, mystically Tolkienesque. The garden shimmers with a million scintillating diamond drops.

Perhaps the greatest thing, though, is the warmth; no cold dousings these, but something soft and benign – and when the cloud clears and the sun shines, the valley and garden steam like a rainforest.

Oh my goodness, how stuff grows! There is such energy in the garden, such a burgeoning, flourishing, skyrocketing exuberance of growth, it is quite breathtaking. Plants seem to double in size overnight.

Courgettes, their leaves like huge elephants’ ears, jostle one another for elbow room; onions march in closed ranks, brassicas open their arms skywards, beans climb and wind widdershins round their poles, ever upwards.

Young apple trees groan under the weight of their swelling fruit.

The peas are monstrous, pushing and shoving in every direction, their pods as long as my hands.

The garden balloons in jungled layers; lettuce under marigolds under dill under climbing beans; dwarf beans under calabrese under peas; nasturtiums under and over everything!

I have lost control. There are places I can no longer venture, spaces filled by swathes of flowers I did not plant. Secretly, I am in my element!

Like a secret garden, there have been little surprises hidden away just waiting to be discovered. Tucked away deeply in a dark, leafy cave, the curiously fractal head of a romenesco broccoli.

Scrambling through the floral chaos of the terraces, the first whisper of another squash harvest.

In the murky depths of the rain-filled water trough pond, a squadron of tiny newts.

Nestling beneath the hazel hedge, the first flowers on Annie’s hydrangea.

Emerging from behind the scarlet wall of poppies, a self-set morning glory. What treasure!

Now how on earth did I miss these? How can we possibly have lived here for three years and not realised this little stunner was here? I think it’s angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) rather than the more sinister devil’s trumpet (datura); I know both are highly toxic but what an amazingly exotic beauty to ‘find’. What else could we have missed, I wonder?

Of course, it goes without saying that the kiwi relishes such weather and is making its usual takeover bid, the barn quietly disappearing under those thuggish twining tendrils despite Roger’s best efforts to exert some level of control.

There are benefits, though: the last delicate flowers are exciting the bees, the first furry fruits have set and I’m hoping the damp shade beneath that dense green canopy is exactly what’s needed for the magic to begin in our inoculated mushroom logs.

The rain has contributed greatly to the ongoing green manure story, too. It has accelerated the breaking down of the first cut of buckwheat, on a terrace now ready for planting with broccoli.

New sowings in different places have germinated in three days, including yellow trefoil with its sea-green leaves shooting up between the rows of chard, beetroot, spring onions, chicory, radicchio and winter brassica seed drills. Bare earth is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Can there be a more beautiful plant after rain than lady’s mantle? It’s a plant I love with its unfussy habits and froth of yellow foamy flowers but those scalloped leaves holding raindrops like pearls in an oyster shell are exquisite. I am truly thrilled with this little plant because it came into the garden as a gift, one half of a plant swap that makes it very special to me.

I love to share things in this way; I’m currently collecting many different types of flower seeds to give away and help spread the gardening love. It’s amazing how the smallest slip of root or pinch of seeds can become something tremendous, a living reminder of the generosity, shared passion for gardening and love of other people. What a delight to wander through the garden and be greeted by these honoured guests! How incredible to have squashes from Finland stretching out beneath Jerusalem artichokes from Camarthenshire; what joy to see the nodding flowers of comfrey from friends over the mountain, the zingy lime foliage and brilliant magenta flowers of a geranium (pelargonium) from a close neighbour’s cutting.

Some years ago, during one of our regular – and very alliterative! – seed swap sessions, Sarah gave me some white sage seeds which I finally got round to planting earlier this year. Germination is notoriously sketchy so I was thrilled to watch one little seedling grow rapidly into a healthy, vigorous plant which I’ve planted out in the garden this week. It’s an interesting specimen, hailing from the south-western United States and much valued by the native peoples for its medicinal qualities and use in ritual smudging ceremonies; it should be happy in our mild climate but I’m not so sure about the rain and humidity . . . we will see.

In the far corner of the vegetable patch, below the artichoke hedge, is a stand of very special sunflowers. The seeds were collected by Ben, William and Evan and given to me as a birthday gift which made me very happy – I am never going to have sunflowers in the garden for my December birthday, but how wonderful to have this promise of sunshine in a brown paper packet! The plants are almost as tall as me now and have raised their heads high above the other vegetables so we can see them from the sun terrace. The flowers are coming. I can hardly wait!

If only we could unzip the roof of the polytunnel and let the rain soak the earth in there, too!

No such luck, here we have no choice but to haul buckets and cans to keep everything happy but it’s worth the effort: I think we might be on for the best ever crop of peppers this year.

Aubergines usually frustrate me at the seedling stage with their we-want-to-die attitude but this year they went into the ground strong and lusty and full of promise. Ha ha, there’s always something willing to rain on our parade, it seems: enter flea beetles in their droves and doggedly persistent. We have tried all we can think of to send them packing but back they come for more, constantly taking the newest leaves from the centre of the plants. I’m trying to remain optimistic; there are twenty plants in there and they have a good show of flowers so fingers crossed, at least some will prevail.

Meanwhile, there is another regular visitor to be found lurking amongst their leaves; mmm, just hope it isn’t tucking in, too.

The moisture-laden air brings an ethereal quality to the early morning that is too lovely to miss. Dawn might see the valley totally engulfed in white cloud but as the sun climbs above the mountain, this dissipates to reveal the tantalising promise of a beautiful day. Still pyjama-clad, I brew a large mug of tea, grab a blanket (for comfort rather than warmth) and head out to breathe in that sweet freshness for a few moments.

The birdsong of springtime has not yet diminished and the music rises in a melodious crescendo, reverberating across the valley like a sky-roofed cathedral. The garden is already busy with their activity: a blackbird bathes in the little pond; feisty robins vie for the best worm-hunting spot; a song thrush hammers snails against a terrace stone; shy dunnocks scuttle timidly between the plants; a yellow serin passes through, all flap and twitter like a clockwork toy; bullfinches and goldfinches crash through the peace in a blaze of colour and noise. A clutch of young blue tits, scruffy in their juvenile foliage, pick aphids from the peach tree leaves, their garrulous squeaks and comical acrobatics a complete contrast to the pair of tiny warblers that share the plunder. The garden fizzes with bumble bees about their business, too; how fascinating that they focus their initial attention on the red poppies as if they know full well how transient and fleeting those flowers are. Other beauties can wait until later!

So the wet weather has passed through and rainy days have given way to something drier, sunnier, hotter . . . not the searing heat being experienced in other parts, thankfully, but true summer nonetheless.

In the evening, I sit on the sun terrace, stitching a few more squares of my blanket together and drink in the vibrant green lushness of garden and landscape the rain has left behind.

In the warmth, the scent of freesias is divine; how I wish I could stitch a bit of that fragrance in, too!

The rain was wonderful but it’s delightful now to turn my face to the sun once again . . . and my silent little companion on the terrace feels just the same way, I think! πŸ™‚

Circles and cycles

Going back to a simple life is not a step backward.

Yvon Chouinard

Although we don’t officially practise permaculture, I do feel like the focus of our activities has started to drift as if from Zone 0 at the centre to the outer circles of our living space. When we first moved here, our priorities were to get a roof over our heads (literally) by renovating the house into a warm, comfortable and functioning home, and to create a productive vegetable garden from a former jungle. Three years on and job done, at last we can switch our concentration to new and wider things, to those aspects of the outer zones that need thought and attention; that is a very exciting point to have reached.

The development of the former chicken run / rubble heap in Zone 1 has been underway for a while but is a very slow process. The shade-loving flower seeds I scattered are germinating slowly and sporadically, along with the much stronger ubiquitous self-set nasturtiums and a whole host of weeds; this is going to take some careful management if we are to achieve the look we are aiming for and I need to be patient while nature does its bit, too.

Looks aren’t everything, of course, and there have already been some high points. Having placed stones to give access to the water trough, the birds are using it on a daily basis for drinking and bathing and the beginnings of a rotting log pile has already gained an Appreciation Society.

The orchard (Zone 2) has been one of those features that has frustrated us a great deal, namely because we haven’t had time to sort it out properly, so it’s a lovely feeling to get stuck in at last. It’s an awkward area for several reasons. First, it’s incredibly steep which makes access and maintenance difficult, especially as an army of moles has done its best to undermine the paths we have dug. Second, it is not so much earth as a thin layer of soil covering piles of buried rubble and rubbish, as if a former owner hosted the municipality dump there (hard to see why anyone would go to the trouble of carting stuff halfway up a mountain to dump but something bizarre went on here, that’s for sure). Third, years of neglect had given the brambles full permission to do their thing and they haven’t been too keen to relinquish their stranglehold. So, how best to tackle the area?

Well, one thing we did manage to do a couple of years ago was to plant some new fruit trees – lemon, orange, apple, plum, pear and cherry – where we could find soil deep enough for them to put down roots. Dwarfed by the mighty walnuts, they have looked less than enthusiastic about growing until this year; now a decent growth spurt, dense foliage and the promise of the first fruits suggests they are much happier trees . . . and that makes me smile!

In order to battle the brambles and give the young trees every chance, Roger has been strimming the grass regularly; this is such a difficult job, wielding a heavy machine on a vertiginous slope which has the nasty habit of crumbling underfoot, and is lethal when the grass is wet. No problem, then, in deciding that the bramble situation is under control enough now to stop cutting and let large swathes of grass grow into areas of meadow with simple paths cut through.

I have to admit I am a sucker for grasses; not in a contrived way (I loathed the prairie planting that was so fashionable in gardens some years ago), but in a soft, seedy, billowy haze running wild in the right places. Grasses are so often taken for granted or ignored, but those seed heads caught in sunlight are so beautiful, sheer works of art.

There is already a good variety of wild flowers scattered through the grass so we are doing all we can to encourage them to spread; we are also currently collecting seeds from the verges to increase the number of species.

It’s a slow process but so good to see progress; there is still much to do but we are already enjoying the changes . . . and we’re not the only ones.

We’ve needed several trips to the wood (Zone 4) this week to cut sturdy poles to support the brittle branches on some of our peach trees; they are so loaded with ripening fruit that they are in danger of breaking and that is the last thing we want. It’s a good time of year to think about the woodland and assess our winter fuel requirements; as cut wood takes time to season, we always have to be at least two years ahead of the game!

In all honesty, we don’t like cutting down trees so we try to keep it to a minimum. For a start, we scout the wood for any trees that may have fallen in the winter storms and start with them. Chestnut, which makes fantastic logs, lends itself to coppicing so there is no need to fell the trees at all, simply cut several trunks and leave them to regrow. The eucalyptus was originally planted with harvesting the lot at once in mind; we have no intention of doing that, but take out odd trees here and there, especially where they are crowded. In order to balance our tree-cutting activities, we encourage the growth of new trees as much as possible. ‘Rewilding’ is a hot topic at the moment and although projects are generally large-scale -and often controversial – we see nothing wrong in letting our little patch of woodland develop and thrive as a habitat for (we hope) a growing biodiversity of species. To that end, we allow native tree seedlings to grow where they appear – mostly oak, silver birch, chestnut and holly.

We keep several access paths clear but otherwise give the underbrush free reign, including large areas of brambles; surely we are forgiven for banishing them from the orchard now?

Staying with trees, and a recently purchased box of Pazo de Vilane eggs contained an invitation to participate in their 1 idea, 1 Γ‘rbol scheme where customers are asked to submit original ideas for re-using the box once the eggs have been eaten. I sent them photos to show how I use their boxes as soap moulds and for storing cured soaps and was delighted to receive a message saying my idea had been accepted and that a deciduous tree will be planted on my behalf in the autumn. It’s just one tree. It’s a small thing. It’s a wonderful thing.

Our change in focus offers an ideal opportunity to reflect upon how far we have come in our pursuit of a simple life and how much more we still need to think about. John Seymour suggests a selection of what he calls ‘family units’ as a tool to measure progress towards self-sufficiency; it’s not an exhaustive list by any means but I like the holistic nature of it, encompassing diverse measures such as miles driven in the car, time spent watching television, weight of rubbish produced, hours spent working for other people and money spent on energy.

I also like to periodically use the World Wildlife Fund Carbon Footprint Calculator to see how we are doing. https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/ It’s a very basic tool (there are far more sophisticated versions available online) but it’s user-friendly, done in a jiffy and does at least give a rough and ready indication of where we are and what we can do to improve. I think it’s a shame that since the comparative measure changed from the number of planets we are using to the UK government’s 2020 target for annual household carbon emissions (10.5 tonnes), what I regard as important areas like water consumption have been removed from the algorithm. However, whinges aside, the latest questionnaire showed that at 7.1 tonnes, we are currently operating at 69% of that government target. That’s good news, but we are still above the world average and there’s always plenty of room for improvement. The work goes on.

One area where we don’t score very well is travel. Living in such a rural location, it would be almost impossible to manage without a car as our main means of transport. Our ‘normal’ mileage is very low, partly because we are happy to spend most of our time at home – it’s not unusual for the car to go nowhere for a fortnight or more – and partly because we try to combine trips out to save on journeys as much as possible. Where we fall down are our road trips to the UK, arguably better environmentally than flying but still an exhausting study in notching up three thousand miles or so of driving every time. We have tried to reduce them this year but this is still a serious work in progress. In the meantime, we have at least made one small step towards greener transport by putting our bikes back on the road.

I have owned two bikes in my adult life; the first, a secondhand buy thirty years ago, came to be fondly known as Trusty Rusty. It was a basic machine with three gears (allegedly!), poor suspension and a wildly uncomfortable seat but with a child carrier bolted on, I rode many happy miles around the Shropshire countryside with assorted Little People on the back. I’ve had my current bike for a dozen years or more so, relatively speaking, it’s more up to date with fifteen gears, off-road capability and a luxuriously padded gel seat. I rode it several times a week when we lived in France but for the last three years it has been sadly neglected, sitting in the barn and slowly morphing into Trusty Rusty II thanks to the Asturian humidity. However, with essential repairs carried out and a good dose of TLC from Roger, it is roadworthy once again and I’m very chuffed to be back in the saddle!

Well, maybe. The biggest difficulty with cycling here is the topography of the area we live in which means to go anywhere from home, it is all steep uphills (puff, puff, pant!) or steep downhills (wheeeeeeee!) punctuated by sweeping hairpin bends. This, I’m sure, makes it a lot of fun for the serious Lycra-clad cyclists who pass through the village at weekends but for an amateur pedaller such as myself, it’s bloomin’ hard work. With the nearest shops being many miles away, using our bikes to do the shopping is never going to be a valid option but where I think we can boost our green credentials is in practising ‘eco-tourism’. So, where we would normally combine a journey to the supermarket with a long walk, we can take our bikes instead; yes, it’s putting bikes in the car to go somewhere, but the point is we can cycle much further than walk in any given time which allows us to explore areas we would normally drive to. It’s a small gesture, but it’s a meaningful one.

For our trial run, we cycled along the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail) which follows an old mining railway track along the beautiful Trubia river, passing through spectacular gorges, ancient villages, rock arches and tunnels in a truly stunning landscape. We paused to say Β‘hola! to Paca and Tola, two female Cantabrian brown bears who were rescued as cubs thirty years ago and now live in a special enclosure at the side of the trail. What beautiful, majestic creatures they are and how very precious the endangered wild population is to Asturias. What a wonderful day: 40km later and more than a little saddle sore, I reflected on the joy of ditching the car and exploring this gorgeous place at a slower pace. I think this will be the first of many adventures on two wheels!

Where food is concerned, we score very well on the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator but one of the things that frustrates me a little about it is the fact that the best you are allowed to do in terms of sourcing fresh food is to buy local produce. Now in itself I believe that is a worthy action but I do feel it needs qualifying a bit; after all, local produce may not have travelled very far but that doesn’t automatically mean the entire production process has a low carbon footprint (or low environmental impact, for that matter). Take for instance lettuce, something we have in abundance in our garden at present.

We plant successions throughout spring and summer, small pinches of mixed types of seed all in together; well, why not, seeing as variety is the spice of life? They do not require any heat or special treatment to get them started and grow in soil enriched only with well-rotted manure from the village farm and our own homemade compost. They are watered by the rain, never sprayed with anything and if pest control becomes necessary – which it usually doesn’t – we use wholly organic / natural strategies. They are not processed in any way, don’t come into contact with any mechanised systems, are not wrapped in plastic or transported any further than to the kitchen by foot.

Now unless I walk to buy a lettuce from a neighbour who grows them in exactly the same way, then surely anything else passing as ‘local’ produce must have a higher carbon footprint? Let’s hear it for home grown, I say!

Staying with lettuce, I feel very deeply that it is an underrated and often maligned food which really deserves more love. With more plants than two people could ever need (it’s so hard to grow tiny quantities!), we have no choice but to explore different ways of enjoying it; of course, any that get away from us will be recycled through the compost heap but I prefer to use things as we go along if we can. Naturally, lettuce makes a great salad leaf but it can do far more interesting things than support a bit of dreary tomato and cucumber; in fact, I much prefer it without those things as a simple leafy salad with just the addition of herbs and flowers and a simple homemade dressing.

It also makes a brilliant base and crisp contrast in what I call ‘meatier’ salads, those that contain grains or seeds like quinoa, buckwheat, bulgar wheat or lentils; this is the kind of thing we often eat for lunch with fresh bread and maybe a little local cheese or chorizo. The brilliant thing, though, and the fact that is so often overlooked, is that lettuce makes a wonderful cooked vegetable, too. Honestly, it really does. A large lettuce will shrink down during cooking but not as much as something like spinach, so it can be shredded and added last minute to enhance all sorts of dishes: pasta, risotto, trays of mixed roast veg . . . your imagination is the limit. One of our favourite ways of eating it is braised in a little olive oil and white wine with spring onions and young peas and /or broad beans, finished off with a handful of fresh mint and dill. Sublime.

Reducing consumption and waste are central to our way of life and I’m very proud that -so far – I have stuck doggedly to my resolution not to buy any new yarn this year. This isn’t some painful sort of exercise in self-denial but an acknowledgement that there is simply no need to stockpile yarn that I might use ‘one day.’ In truth, I’ve been having a very happy time using up what I’ve already got in a wide range of woolly projects. I’ve spun and dyed fleece to give as gifts, both as skeins and knitted into garments; I’ve used tiny scraps of coloured yarn to make children’s finger puppets and ends of cotton balls to crochet dishcloths; I’m currently knitting up my penultimate ball of sock yarn and finally, after many months of making solid granny squares from little bits and bobs, I’ve reduced my bag of left-over yarn to next to nothing and started to piece my second patchwork scrap blanket.

Up to now, this has been my most unplanned blanket project ever; I had no way of even knowing how many squares the yarn would run to when I started so I just kept on merrily stacking them up until the yarn bag was almost empty and then thought about what I could do with them. At 184 squares, I decided I had two options: ditch four squares and make a 10 x 18 rectangle or try and squeeze anther twelve squares out of the dwindling yarn to make a 14 x 14 square blanket. Well, I love a challenge so squeeze it was . . . and I just made it! Piecing the blanket is both the most exciting and trickiest part of the whole process because organising colours is great fun but isn’t as easy at it first seems. My brain automatically goes for colour washes like rainbows or paint cards but I had a feeling random would be better for this project, especially as I had such uneven quantities of colours. I decided to start by organising the squares horizontally in individual colours so I could see what I had to work with.

This proved less straightforward than hoped as the table wasn’t wide enough for 14 squares so I had to overlap them a bit and those tails I’d left for sewing up kept unravelling and twisting themselves round each other. Aaaargh! Anyway, from this position I could at least move squares around and around and around until I ended up with something that pleased my eye. I know from past experience that it’s perfectly possible to spend hours faffing about in pursuit of perfection but really, this is just a scrap blanket and once a mischievous little breeze picked up and started to rearrange things on my behalf, I decided enough was enough. I think I’ve managed not to place the same colours next to each other anywhere and avoided too many repeats in any row, so that will do.

Now all I have to do is sew the 196 squares together before working a border. Mmm, this is the point at which I wish I’d opted for a join-as-you-go method as I detest woolly sewing but that would have meant buying extra yarn which wouldn’t be in the spirit of the whole project, would it? Nothing for it then but to knuckle down and get on with it; after all, if I aim to do a few squares each evening it won’t be too painful, especially sitting in the garden and enjoying the beauty around me. The warmth of the sun on my face, the dreamy scent of sweet peas, the soft flutter of butterflies, the bubbling chatter of swallows, the busy buzz of bumble bees dive bombing phacelia flowers . . . I shall be happily cocooned in a special little ‘zone’ all of my own. πŸ™‚