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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 รกrbol 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 ยกhola! 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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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 . . . ๐Ÿ™‚

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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. ๐Ÿ™‚