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™‚

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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™‚

Keeping it simple

Find a little bit of land somewhere and plant a carrot seed. Now sit down and watch it grow. When it is fully grown pull it up and eat it.

Alicia Bay Laurel

So much of what Roger and I do together is aimed at simplifying our life, at paring back all that is unnecessary in order to enjoy fully what is important. We don’t care about status or kudos, about standing or stuff, about gadgets or gizmos. We don’t crave the new and novel or rush after fashion and fad. The philosophy embraced in the quotation above is as elaborate as it gets and what better way to reflect on this aim than spending time with our small grandchildren on their recent stay here? Seeing life through children’s eyes helps to put so much into perspective and as adults, the chance to look again at the world with an unfettered sense of awe and open curiosity is a precious thing indeed.

The shared curiosity of young things.

What fun we had feeling the smoothness of a shiny pebble and the knobbles on a fir cone, smelling the sweet perfume of roses and herbal aroma of eucalyptus seeds, of watching the busyness of lizards darting about the terrace and the stealth of a pole cat coursing the hedgerow. We picked wild strawberries and sweet green peas and ate them straight from the plant, sun-warmed and delicious. Why did life ever become more complicated than this?

Simplicity is something I’m working on in the garden, not because I’m lazy (I’m not) or because I think gardening is a chore (quite the opposite!) but because I question the wisdom of spending time on activities which are fundamentally unnecessary. Gardening shouldn’t be something I ‘do’ but rather something I ‘am’; immersed in nature, bathed in fresh air, a part of the intricate whole rather than a separate controlling factor. Why waste time trying to enforce ridiculous strictures on the natural world when I could just be enjoying the beauty instead, a human being instead of a human doing? With this in mind, I’m playing with several ideas this year.

In case you’re wondering, the empty wine bottle on a stick is the local approach to deterring moles. It would be rude not to try it. First, empty your bottle . . . πŸ™‚

The first approach I’m using is to plant things very closely together in order to suppress weed growth. I am by nature a bit of a crammer in the garden anyway so this hasn’t been too difficult to put into practice and as the wrap-around warmth and recent rainfall work their magic on all things leafy, the bare earth is rapidly disappearing under a lush carpet of green. Take for instance this spot where violet-podded dwarf beans jostle for elbow room with a range of summer and autumn calabrese plants on one side and three hefty ‘Latino’ courgettes on the other, the whole lot undersown (mostly by nature’s fair hand) with coriander, dill and nasturtiums.

Beyond there are carrots, broad beans, three rows of peas, lettuce, beetroot, sunflowers and globe artichokes all squeezed together so snugly there is barely room for daylight between.

Now I know gardeners who would hate this chaotic hotchpotch of push and shove but I love it to bits. For a start, the jungly crush helps to retain moisture which is a huge boon during hot spells, especially for plants like brassicas who aren’t the world’s greatest sun worshippers. These damp leafy corridors are perfect for our ever-growing population of very precious amphibians to move through in privacy, slurping up slugs and the like as they go. There is a hive of bird activity in there, too, especially in the evenings, as the whole patch turns into a sort of avian fast-food outlet; one rather beautiful song thrush has even organised a handy snail-bashing spot on the nearby terrace to make full use of the facilities!

Yes, I know there are many arguments against this gardening version of Sardines, not least the fact that it makes harvesting difficult, but honestly, is that such an issue? We’re adults, after all; we can manage to tiptoe between patches and rows without damaging anything and if we get a bit damp from rain-soaked vegetation, well – we’ll dry. If I wanted to select fresh produce mindlessly from wide straight aisles I’d give up gardening and go to a supermarket instead . . . and where would be the fun in that?

Actually, on the subject of harvesting let me digress a little into the World of Peas. I am currently reading John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency for the umpteenth time; it’s a book I love to devour from cover to cover – as I’m doing this week – or dip in and out of as the mood takes me. I have to agree completely with his assertion that freezing vegetables doesn’t improve them; for that reason, very little of what comes out of the garden ends up entombed in ice. In many ways, there’s simply no need now that we have achieved an unbroken supply of fresh produce from the garden and polytunnel all year round plus excellent dry storage facilities in the horreo (we’ve literally just eaten the last squash which has been stored there since October). I would far rather eat freshly-picked bits and bobs with minimum time and fuss between garden and plate than something that has taken time and energy to store, gaining nothing in terms of texture, flavour or nutritional value during the process.

The one big exception to this rule, however, is peas. Peas freeze like a dream and much as I adore seasonal produce, there is something so comforting about a blast of their sweet summery goodness in a hearty winter gravy! Mr Seymour believes freezing peas is a bore but I must disagree with him on that score. What job could be more pleasant than rummaging about a sun-drenched pea row, gathering pods of gorgeousness? Actually, is that even a job? We have experienced immense frustration and disappointment trying to grow peas here but at last, in our fourth season, everything has conspired to give us the greatest crop ever.

We have been picking the autumn-planted ‘Douce Provence’ for several weeks now; they really ought to be dying back (and part of me wishes they would – I need that nitrogen-rich space for young kale plants!) but instead, the new top growth just goes on and on producing heavy clusters of plump pods. The spring-planted row is bursting and needs picking daily whilst a later row of a Spanish variety is catching up fast. The only work this crop involved was pushing twiggy hazel sticks in amongst the young plants for support; otherwise, it’s a case now of sitting in the sun and popping the pods. Peas into the freezer, pods onto the compost heap. Convenience food, indeed.

Back to the garden jungle, and is my focus on companion planting as well as cramming at work here, too? I love the flavour and smell of coriander, dill and mint but white butterflies apparently beg to differ; there are a few about doing their dainty fluttery butter-wouldn’t-melt stuff but not a caterpillar in sight as yet. The nasturtiums are there as sacrificial plants should the butterflies feel the urge to lay eggs but they’re also drawing in valuable pollinators, with bumble bees and hover flies alike flitting from their vibrant sunny flowers to the deeper trumpets of the courgettes. The radish I sowed between lettuces, also as a sacrificial crop, are ironically some of the best I’ve ever grown; the lettuce don’t look too bad, either.

In fact, what I can say without a shadow of a doubt is that everything – everything – is growing with great gusto and it all looks disgustingly, wonderfully healthy.

(Shhhhhh . . . I’m probably tempting fate as well as blight but even the tomatoes crammed tightly into in their special shelter are looking fabulous.)

Regular readers will know that I am experimenting with green manure in the garden this year after reading the deeply inspirational book The One-Straw Revolution. Oh my, what enthusiasm those plants demonstrate in covering bare earth at speed! I am more than thrilled with the results so far. White clover sown beneath globe artichokes and raspberry canes is forming wonderful mats of trefoiled green while sprinklings of phacelia along fence and wall margins are unfurling their hazy mauve beauty, much to the delight of the bees.

The dainty pink and white flowers on the buckwheat are insect magnets, too; I really need to cut the large swathe on the top terrace so it has time to feed the soil before the purple sprouting broccoli goes in . . . but those flowers are just so pretty, and the pollinators so happy that I keep putting it off, which isn’t really the idea, is it? Oh, well. πŸ™‚

Comfrey has been well-established in the garden for some time now but I’m on a mission to spread it about as much as I can. I mean, can you really have too much? It’s such a forgiving plant, happy to grow pretty much anywhere so I’ve been stuffing roots in along the shady edge of the terraces and the damper spots down the lane; the bumble bees are enjoying the dangly flowers and the garden and compost heap will benefit from comfrey mulch and comfrey tea. What’s more, I will benefit from not having to deal with awkward planting spaces. Perfect, I’d say!

Another strategy I’m applying is ‘selective’ weeding and this comes down to the definition of what a weed really is; traditionally, of course, it’s deemed to be a plant growing in the wrong place although I love A.A.Milne’s assertion that ‘Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.’ Please don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating no weeding. I have experienced enough to know that trying to grow a garden blighted by the thuggish behaviour of creeping buttercups, ground elder and bindweed is not a good idea. However, with the invasive perennials under relative control, how many annual ‘weeds’ are really and truly a problem? Should I impose a ban on the spires of foxgloves that sneak out of the terrace walls or the toadflax that streams and trails like delicate lilac-flowered bunting? Would it have been better to rip out the self-sown poppy hedge instead of giving it free rein?

As gardeners, we are programmed to regard a long list of plants as nuisances never to be tolerated but surely in this enlightened age of environmental awareness, we should have the freedom and courage to make our own decisions? Oxalis, with its frustrating sorcerer’s apprentice trick, is the bane of my gardening life here: hoe off a single stem and four spring up in its place. It has to be dug up carefully and removed and is shown no mercy. Otherwise, we have a lot of what I think of as ‘soft’ weeds, plants like chickweed, speedwell, scarlet pimpernel, read deadnettle and fumitory which I am happy to leave trailing between flowers and vegetables alike.

They form useful moisture mats, help to bind the soil together (pretty crucial on our steep mountainside), have tiny flowers loved by insects and when they overstep the mark are quick and easy to pull out and compost. Why waste time and energy trying to banish them from sight, especially when on balance they are actually quite beneficial? The same is true of the self-setters that pop up all over: this week, my ‘weeding’ session saw me leaving – yes, leaving – calendula, pansies, Californian poppies, verbena bonariensis, borage, parsley, dill, coriander and nasturtiums, not to mention several cucumber seedlings that had emerged from a spreading of homemade compost.

Mustard seedlings appear overnight like mushrooms; it’s not a pleasant eating variety but provides a fantastic decoy for flea beetles and friends who reduce the leaves to lace and leave other things alone. It’s also a brilliant green manure, rotting down rapidly once cut and dug in (or left on the surface for the worms to deal with). I was planning to sow yellow trefoil under the climbing beans but there is no need, it seems; the space has already been taken.

I’m leaving clover wherever I find it, too; it would be worse than ironic to have bought clover seed to sow in designated patches if I then set about pulling it out everywhere else. It’s a great nitrogen fixer and source of nectar; let’s leave it be.

Elsewhere in the garden, things move forward without any input from me whatsoever. In a tangle of green behind the polytunnel, velvety peaches swell against a backdrop of kiwi flowers.

In the orchard, heady citrus blossoms perfume the air whilst towering walnuts flaunt their glossy young fruits.

Blueberries ripen in the shade of a laden fig tree as squash plants emerge in a burst of green from neighbouring terraces clothed in self-set nasturtiums (and friends). Perhaps I should be concerned about them being smothered? No, they’re squashes. They will prevail!

In the polytunnel, aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies have all opened their first hopeful blooms.

There is a thriving community of pollinators in there; unfortunately, they’re currently absorbed in visiting the wild rocket flowers but surely at some point they’ll opt for a little variety?

The passionflower tumbles its exquisite flowers through an apricot tree whilst Californian poppies and pansies squeeze out of cracks in the concrete, their cheerful faces lifted to the sun.

Love-in-the-mist froths in pastel shades, geraniums shout out in bold colours and long-forgotten plantings of alliums and freesias burst out in little pops of gorgeousness.

Who needs a gardener? Truly, what is there for me to do? Well, I can potter about and tie things in or transplant the next batch of lettuce plants into any available spaces. I can wander around with my trug, gathering goodies for dinner. I can smell the roses. I can feast on wild strawberries and nibble baby peas. I can sit and watch the carrots grow. Simple, really. πŸ™‚

Two’s company

Company: Middle English from Old French compaignon, literally β€˜one who breaks bread with another.’

Isn’t ‘companionship’ a wonderful word? For me, it is imbued with a sense of warmth, comfort and reassurance like a well-worn pair of hiking boots or a slice of hot buttered toast. It’s about being together without fuss or bother, without any drama or making demands; a gentle sharing of time and place that enhances and enriches all those involved.

One of the things I’m dabbling in this year is companion planting in the garden. I last tried it some years ago in our French garden, but we were there for such a short time I didn’t really get to do it justice. I realise that it’s a concept – along with permaculture, no-dig, biodynamics and the like – that has orthodox eyebrows hitching and twitching but I’m happy to embrace such things, or at least give them a go. As far as I’m concerned, this doesn’t make me a dippy hippy, fluffy bunny, tree hugging eco-nut (but if that’s the worst that critics have to say, carry on). I don’t think there is a problem giving credence to ‘alternative’ ideas even if they haven’t been wholly scientifically proven.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of time for science. I’ve recently been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Just About Everything, a well-researched and fascinating book that had my head zinging with all things scientific (and some pretty amazing word etymology, too). One of the stark realisations, though, is just how relatively recent so much accepted knowledge is; I was astounded to learn that the plate tectonic theory I lapped up for O-level geography in the early eighties was only a couple of years older than me! As for particle physics . . . it seems the more bigger brains look at tinier things, the less we can be certain of anything. Why, then, should we disregard ancient wisdom simply because we believe we can do things better? Yes, there’s a lot of superstition and misconceptions out there but also a great deal of knowledge and understanding that comes from centuries of patient observation and practical application.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, nothing. It’s possible that nothing will happen or be different or better or worse, but at the very least we should have a garden that is crammed with colour and life and food and I’m happy to go for that. The green manure I’m experimenting with is in its own way a kind of companion planting and so far all is going well. The white clover, phacelia and yellow trefoil are all bombing up and what an interesting and enthusiastic little plant buckwheat is; it’s already forming thick carpets and I love the way its lime heart-shaped leaves catch the light.

One of my key aims this year is to strive for fewer problems with our brassica crops, and in particular the damage wrought by caterpillars. To this end, I started by transplanting a couple of dill seedlings to each end of the calabrese rows where they stand like sentinels on guard for the first hint of fluttering white wings. There were already a few self-set nasturtiums in the vicinity so I added to their numbers, too. Coriander is supposed to be another good companion so I’ve sown a row between the brassicas and couldn’t resist an extra sprinkling of dill down one side. These two were both very old seed (I never replant as they set themselves so freely) so I knew they may not germinate but felt it was worth a try. Cue dill forest! Finally, I’ve been potting up roots of spearmint, partly in a bid to curb its march across the garden but also to create Mobile Mint Units that I can move about and place in strategic positions. Forget belt and braces, this is extra buttons, a new zip and probably a pair of spare trews, too . . . but if it keeps the beasties at bay, it will have been well worth the effort.

Elsewhere, I’ve been planting out basil. This is a great companion to so many things and with a hugely successful germination rate this year, I’ve been able to spread it far and wide, in the polytunnel, the garden and the fingers-crossed tomato patch. I’ve tucked some under the grapevine, along with an oregano and a couple of geraniums – just need to add hyssop and the grapevine band of friends will be complete. I goes without saying that many flowers act as companion plants by drawing in the pollinators and we are already a long way down the path with that one, especially the irrepressible self-setting crazies: calendula, nasturtium, borage, Californian poppies, field poppies, cerinthe and hollyhocks. Roger has gently suggested I might like to curb my indulgence of these rascals a tad and I have to concede, he has a point: this is the current state of the path along the bottom of the main vegetable patch and I suppose it’s not too unreasonable expecting to be able to walk along it?

As you can see, we’ve had to tread a new path above the floral chaos which eats into precious planting space . . . but just look at the vibrant gorgeousness of those graceful poppies, filling my heart with such joy! They are hosting a bumble bees’ feeding frenzy inside their silken petals so who am I to disturb them?

There’s another frenzy in action along the fence line of the top veg patch, this time in the form of the passion flower. If ever there was a successful pairing, then it must be this showy seductress and the Asturian climate; if it weren’t for the indomitable kiwi, I would say I’ve never seen anything grow faster. This year’s floral spectacular has just begun . . .

. . . but now she’s taking things literally to new heights. This flower is halfway up a peach tree!

Moving in the opposite direction down the fence, the passion flower is also mingling companionably with the pink-flowered jasmine beesianum, which in complete contrast has to be one of the most disappointing specimens I’ve planted here. The flowers are tiny and totally underwhelming; even now the plant itself is beginning to spread itself in graceful evergreen arches, the impact of colour and scent is minimal. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the sheer allure and verve of the white jasmine but there is a certain despondency about this plant; I’m really not a fan.

However, there are always two sides to a story and not everyone shares my gloomy opinion: those minuscule flowers are a bumble bee magnet, the whole plant literally thrums with their excited attentions. They visit each little pink trumpet for a nanosecond, so capturing one in a photo was a study of extreme patience and a lot of good luck.

I adore colour, crave it in my life, in fact; it’s one of the many, many reasons I love Spain so much. At this time of year, the garden and wild areas pop and explode with joyful, reckless exuberance that has me turning cartwheels. I would make a hopeless garden designer, those elegant, sophisticated borders of limited hues – so clever, so beautiful – are really not my style. I need rainbows, paintboxes, confetti cannons, everything mingling and jingling, clashing and clamouring and knitted together only by the calming influence of green. The local way of growing flowers – stuffing bits and pieces into every nook and cranny, then letting them do their own thing – suits me so well. I might not have deep borders of stylish perennials but this kaleidoscope effect makes me so happy; it’s like a giant tube of Smarties!

I also love those little dabs of unexpected colour, the wild things that have invited themselves to the party.

As the season shifts a gear and the temperature shuffles up a few notches, the geraniums (or pelargoniums, if you prefer) really come into their own. They are such reliable doers and I love their brazen attitude, shamelessly flaunting their bright hues for months on end.

Mind you, the roses are not averse to dabbling in a bit of that pink-and-red- together nonsense, too.

Sweet William has emerged from its feathery buds to drive the butterflies to distraction with its clove-scented velvety vivaciousness.

In relatively muted tones, the globes of alliums add a modish touch with their beguiling starry globes . . .

. . . while the audacious delosperma explodes in an unapologetic fountain of shocking pink against the terracotta walls.

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing so I welcome the pointillist spots of cool whites bringing light and levity to the colour riot and spangling the moonlit garden with silvery stars. What a range of personalities we have now, from sculpted waxen rosebuds to the lacy bridal froth of coriander.

Funny how nature has a way of adding a dab of colour even here . . .

Bitter leaves are something of an acquired taste but we love them so as part of my recent seed spree, I bought a packet of radicchio ‘Palla Rosa 3’ to plant later in the season and also chicory ‘Brussels Witloof’ which I’ve already popped into the ground. We last grew chicory in the aforementioned French garden and it was a huge success; it’s a strange thing, growing magnificent leafy plants just to lift them, reduce them to roots and bury them in boxes of compost in the dark. The resulting chicons are delicious, though – we always indulge in some when we are in France so what a treat it will be to have our own. The short row of wild rocket in the polytunnel just refuses to stop growing and go to seed; it provides the perfect companion for the beetroot growing next to it in a heady colourful combination of bitter and sweet on the plate and palate.

With the porch re-roofed and newly decorated, the major house renovation work is finished at long, last. Almost three years to the day we moved here, we finally have our very own hogar, dulce hogar! After so many months as working partners, it’s lovely at last to have the time to be walking partners and enjoy a relaxed evening stroll from home. My favourite route is the two-mile wander through woodlands to the small river that cuts a deep valley beyond the house; it is particularly beautiful at this time of year when the landscape is so very, very green.

I have tried before to describe the sheer depth and scale of this verdant paradise but words always seem so inadequate. Forget the tranquil weaving harmonies of Vivaldi’s spring idyll; this is Beethoven’s 5th on steroids, a roaring, rumbustious chlorophyll-fuelled symphony of bursting life and new growth.

The chestnuts are always the last to arrive but they have tiptoed noiselessly onto stage in the past two weeks; the woodland cast is now complete.

There are plenty of supporting characters playing their parts, too. Foxgloves drift in elegant spires, their freckled bells a delirium of bee activity.

The dappled shade reveals cool beauties . . .

. . . whilst splashes of sunlight host butterflies, blue as dainty shards of sky.

There is a magic to this place: the interplay of sunlight and shadow, leaf and lichen, boulders and birdsong, moss and mountain. I lose myself in the gentle babbling of clear water on rock, the peaty scent of damp earth and sun-warmed bark, the enfolding peaceful wildness of it all. Asturias may have been the cradle of Spanish Christianity but there lingers a pagan song here, an untamed green heart beating to a more ancient rhythm.

So, home again and time to reflect on how far the last three years have brought us. What a mad journey of adventure in a new land. What a crazy, quirky, little home in a stunning landscape.

What a very special place this is to live, love and enjoy each other’s company. Who needs any more than that? πŸ™‚

Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.


Just because you’re grown up and then some doesn’t mean settling into the doldrums of predictability. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.

Victoria Moran

Something very strange is happening to me. I set out for a run one morning this week, aiming to do 8k (5 miles); in the end, I ran more than 11k (7 miles), including the hard slog up the final hell hill which is a climb of 70 metres over a kilometre (or 230 feet in 0.6 miles). When Roger asked me  – as he always does – how my run had been, my answer was, “It was great!”Shock. Horror. Hold the front page. This does not happen. I’ve been running for a while now but I’ve never, ever learned to love it. Runs are hard or terrible but never great. So what has changed? Well, I’m starting to feel fitter and stronger because I’ve committed seriously to regular running and other stuff (of which more later) . . . and that’s all down to a rather special little booklet that Roger has recently been given by the British Masters Athletic Federation.

An easy read over a cup of tea but a big message to influence the rest of our lives.

Before I go any further, please let me say that I am not trying to preach or tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t dream of it. The reason I wanted to write this post is partly to share what we are doing to keep fit and active as part of our simple lifestyle but also to reassure anyone (particularly our age or older) who might have doubts about giving exercise of any kind a go. Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. Don’t worry about what other people might think, this is about you. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to ‘look the part’, you don’t have to compete or win anything. There is a difference between exercise and sport. Be kind to yourself, smile at yourself and have fun. You might surprise other people. You will certainly surprise yourself. Yes, I’m a wild-haired, 52 year-old granny plodding about the Spanish countryside in bright pink trainers come rain or shine. Crazy? Quite possibly. Living life to the full? Definitely . . . and hoping to be doing the same for many years to come.

The penultimate runner in a long, hard race: very hot, very tired, very slow but very happy . . . and my own police escort to boot!

Back to that booklet. It succinctly summarises a Manchester Metropolitan University research project focused on continuing (or even starting!) exercise into old age. It’s a fascinating report and one which, given the demographics of an ageing population, should be a recommended – if not compulsory – read, as it is about everyone, not just master athletes, and contains a message which could change and enhance many lives. According to the researchers, currently around two out of three older adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activities which has serious consequences for health and mobility in later life. Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Human bodies are made to move at any age, to walk, run, jump, bend, stretch, climb, twist and generally be anything other than mostly sedentary. As long as there is no serious underlying illness then raising our heart rate, breathing hard and having temporarily aching muscles is a good thing. What an incredible inspiration someone like Eileen Noble is; she didn’t start running until she was in her fifties and has just become the oldest lady to run the London Marathon two years in a row. She’s 84. How fantastic.

(For anyone interested, the brochure can be read online here http://bmaf.org.uk/health-well-being-performance-improvement )

That exercise and well-being go hand in hand is pretty irrefutable but trying to maintain an adequate level of activity whilst working or raising a family is incredibly hard, especially in those long months of dark days and grim weather. It takes a special kind of discipline and resolve to keep at it. One of the huge benefits of our life here is having the luxury of time
like we’ve never had before to exercise fully and regularly over and above our usual daily activities. It can be hard though, believe me; we are so programmed to that subconscious charge that we should be ‘doing something’ that spending time away from chores to exercise feels like an indulgence, even though it’s the very best gift we can ourselves. We don’t know whether we will live to a ripe old age but we are both determined to stay as fit and active as we can for as long as we can.

I like the way the booklet emphasises the continuing importance of being busy outside ‘training’ times, too; it’s not about doing a session of exercise then doing nothing for the rest of the day but keeping active with things like gardening, housework, shopping and walking. Put aside sleeping hours and most of the day is taken up with being on the move as opposed to being on the sofa.

Who needs dumbbells? Lifting and hauling several of these full to the brim every day is great weight training.

Let me talk about running a bit, not because I’m a keen runner or a good one; in fact, precisely because I am neither of those things. I am not naturally sporty and have never particularly enjoyed the sensation of moving at anything faster than a brisk walk. I started running several years ago on medical advice and I hated it. I’m still not a fan, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier, but I keep doing it because the benefits to physical and mental health are well-documented and undeniable (my resting pulse rate and blood pressure have both fallen significantly in recent months) . . . and – hand on heart – I always feel better afterwards. Of course, there are other aerobic activities to choose from but the beauty of running is that it is so low-maintenance. You don’t need to be taught how to do it. You don’t need a partner or team. It’s virtually carbon-neutral (completely so if you run naked and barefoot, although I appreciate that’s probably not an option for most of us! πŸ™‚ ) It’s cheap. You don’t need a bike or a swimming pool or a dance studio or gym membership or piles of hi-tech gear; just a pair of comfy trainers will do the job and, as long as it’s safe, you can run pretty much anywhere starting from your front door. I am very lucky in having to look no further for help and encouragement than Roger who, in athletic terms, is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to me. He runs every day, sometimes twice, without fail; he runs very fast and wins lots of trophies; he’s ridiculously disciplined and incredibly fit. He’s also living, running, speedy proof that grandads can still gallop!

Number 74 heading for another trophy!

He only ever has two pieces of advice, though, and these have helped me hugely. The first is to run to how you feel: if you are feeling relaxed and going well, try for distance; if you are full of beans, add some strides and a faster section; if you’re tired, achy or just generally in a ‘I don’t want to do this’ mood, just go for a short, gentle leg stretch at a leisurely pace, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds, enjoying the wildflowers . . . but GO! The second is that if you want to run miles, then you need to run miles. Don’t worry about training schedules or plans, forget tempo runs, fartlek and the rest, don’t angst over cross-training: just lace up your running shoes and run. I do. It’s not just the physical activity, either: time spent outside in the fresh air is hugely beneficial to body and soul. In his brilliant book The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how modern humans have become ‘homo encapsularis’, spending 80-90% of their time indoors and missing out on the many advantageous factors for physical and mental well-being that time in the great outdoors has to offer. Hippocrates claimed that nature is the best physician; well, he knew a thing or two, I suppose!

I’d expected the report to talk about aerobic exercise, weight training and flexibility but what came as a bit of a surprise was the section on balance and, more specifically, the importance of being able to balance on one leg for a sustained period with your eyes closed. Go on, try it! We amused ourselves (and probably several other people as well) testing this on our last ferry sailing; well, it’s a very long six hours of inactivity and you can only read so much. The slight bounce of a relatively calm sea added a frisson of excitement and much hilarity to our attempts but on a serious note, this is something we need to address. My balance isn’t actually too bad so I’d fondly imagined that it would be enough to add a few extra challenging postures to my standard yoga practice but delving deeper, it seems that tai chi is the most recommended activity (along with standing on one leg to clean your teeth or tie your shoelaces). I have to admit that tai chi isn’t something that’s ever appealed to me but to be fair, I didn’t really know much about it it. So, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I tracked down a small but useful secondhand book on the subject and watched a couple of short YouTube clips . . . then I had a go.

Well, it looks pretty simple . . .

Oh my goodness, but it is so much harder than it looks! I’m not sure about improving balance but trying to sort out my left and right, above and below, over and under and all sorts of other positional things whilst mirroring the video instructors, it certainly felt like some pretty strenuous brain gym. Graceful, I am not. For White Crane Spreads Wings try Ostrich Does Face Plant: this is going to need oodles of practice and patience. Roger has suggested we learn together and that’s an idea I love. We walk a lot as a couple but rarely run together and where he will do a session of strength work, weights and stretches, I will opt for yoga every time so what a treat to share this new experience. He has also suggested that if we lift the outdoor table to one side we can practise on the new terrace in the fresh air of early morning before the sun climbs over the mountain. How perfect . . . and if the tolerant folk in the village should look up and scratch their heads in puzzled amusement, then so be it. I’m more than happy to be labelled an eccentric Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg now if it means I can still Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain when I’m eighty.

Not a bad backdrop for a little early morning stretching.

Good balance in part relies on core strength, those all important back, abdominal and pelvic area muscles that help to support and stabilise the spine. There are lots of activities that strengthen core muscles so as part of my new exercise commitment, I’ve opted to take the Ultimate Pilates 21-Day Challenge by Boho Beautiful    Now I hope at this point that Adrienne is sitting down because this will probably come as something of a shock to her; she has tried valiantly to interest me in Pilates several times and I have to confess I’ve never exactly bowled her over with my enthusiasm! However, I’m giving it another go and I especially like this exercise plan because it’s mixed through with lots of yoga. It will take me more than 21 days as I’m adapting it to fit around my running, which I do every other day. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew I had but already I can see a huge improvement. I’m using fewer modifications each time and feeling so much stronger when I run or spend the day on heavy gardening tasks. Even better, I’ve had to pull in my belts and adjust my bra straps  . . . and I seem to be back to the single chin I was born with. This is good!

Healthy eating is part and parcel of our approach: here, homemade pizza, mixed roasted vegetables and a pile of salad straight from the garden.

It’s amazing just how much inspiration can come from a small, free handout. It’s amazing just what human bodies can achieve, even as they age. I’m never going to have the speed or strength or poise of an athlete but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep running and stretching, strengthening and balancing and breathing in that sweet, fresh air so that as I get older, I can still climb a mountain with my husband to watch the sun set or chase my grandchildren through the woods or just go out to run in the rain for the sheer joy of being alive. Hell, I might even master White Crane Spreads Wings. Now that can’t be a bad ambition for an old lady, can it? πŸ™‚