The joys of January

After what seemed like endless weeks of wind and torrential rain, culminating in a solstice storm so severe a ‘violet’ weather warning was issued in our neighbouring municipality, the weather has been all smiles. Mornings are dreamily atmospheric, the mountains pink-tipped above cloud-filled dips and silvery frost rippling up the valley sides until the sun clears the horizon and turns the tide. The days bloom under wide porcelain skies of flawless blue and there is a warmth in the sun that makes everything feel hopeful.

Now I am not naive enough to be thinking spring thoughts just yet, although there are subtle hints in the air: dusty yellow hazel catkins in the hedge and the haze of new buds in the woodland; a confetti of primroses, violets, celandines and daisies scattered through the orchard and verges; the fragile cries of our neighbours’ first lambs and an energetic bustling and busyness amongst the birds as they find their voices once again. Most of winter is still in front of us, the worst of the weather likely still to come . . . but for now, what life-affirming glee it is to be outside in the fresh air, breathing deeply, turning my face to the sun and connecting completely with this precious little patch of earth.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions but certainly one of my intentions this year is to continue building on the new things I was inspired to try in the garden last year. After reading (twice!) Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution I went green manure crazy with tremendous results. I’ve just turned the overwintering mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares on the terraces; it might seem a bit early but our neighbours are already planting their patches so I thought it was time to get stuck in to allow the green stuff to die back before potato time – hooray, the two-year ban has been lifted! What amazed me more than anything else was the amount of worms beneath the green, the soil was literally alive with them which has to be a wonderful sign. Elsewhere, white clover has remained a rich green carpet under and around perennial plants like the row of globe artichokes I planted down a fence line last year. You can see the silvery new growth emerging in the right of the photo, while to the left, the space between the artichokes and kale is filled with the deep green foliage of crimson clover.

I planted a few pockets of crimson clover around the patch in the hope it would go through the winter (it’s not hardy and we do get the occasional frost) and so provide an early nectar source; it has never looked back, forming dense mats wherever I planted it and yes, here come the flowers.

Other flowers, too, are making bright little pops of colour now that many plants have recovered from the ravages of that mighty hail storm in November; good news indeed, as the afternoon air is full of insects in search of a food source. The Japanese quince is a bold splash of red, supported by calendula, borage, cerinthe, osteospermum, pansies, coriander, rosemary and a scattering of roses while in addition to the wilder flowers mentioned earlier, there are dandelions, chickweed, fumitory, clover and red deadnettles a-plenty. A patch of rocket is also in full flower, its delicate sunlit petals a constant source of attraction to bumble bees.

Back to green manure, and although I have more seed to scatter in spring, I’m interested to see just how far the varieties spread themselves this year. Already, there are phacelia volunteers popping up all over the place, some of them even on the verge of flowering; I will let the first bunch bloom as they are such a great food source for bees but there is going to have to be some ‘chop and drop’ business later on. I underplanted the purple sprouting broccoli with white clover last summer but now it also nestles in a sumptuous bed of phacelia and poached-egg plant, all self-set. There’s celeriac in there somewhere, too. No need to fret about bare earth, then.

I also put Mr Fukuoka’s teaching into practice when planting the garlic a few weeks ago in a patch that was formerly home to our late harvest of French beans. Instead of pulling the bean plants and carting them off to the compost heap, I scattered them over the surface of the soil and left them as a weed suppressant while the garlic had a blast of winter in the fridge, then scraped them to one side, planted the the plump purple cloves and re-scattered the bean straw over the top. The fresh green shoots have pushed up through the mulch which continues to hold the weeds back and should – I hope – have rotted down completely into the soil by the time the garlic is pulled. I love this kind of approach; it might look untidy but mess doesn’t bother me one bit – nature is inherently messy, after all – and there is something very wholesome about seeing the garden this way. Every scrap of earth that isn’t planted with a crop or green manure is covered in a thick mulch of compost, comfrey leaves or manure; nothing has been dug or disturbed, just fed. It’s as if the entire patch has been metaphorically tucked up in a cosy quilt and given a comforting bowl of steaming soup! It’s nurturing and nourishing, a large helping of hygge for our winter garden.

Mary Reynolds was also inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, so it’s little surprise that there is much in her book, The Garden Awakening, that has struck a chord with me. One of my ambitions is to plant a forest garden, something that’s very much at the thinking stage at present but which I hope will develop and flourish into the real thing at some point in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken on board Mary’s recommendation that everything organic that comes from our land should be returned to it. Of course, done properly and completely that would involve having a compost toilet which is something else to be thinking about for the future. What we have been doing now, though, as a new approach is creating a small hügelkultur-type bed for this year’s tomatoes and this has been a fascinating and satisfying little project so far. It began a few weeks ago when we were left with a huge pile of brush after removing a couple of small peach and apricot trees which had come to the end of their lives; bearing the idea of ‘returning’ them to the earth in mind, making them into a bonfire just wasn’t on the cards so instead I spent several days chopping every branch and twig into small lengths. It might seem a bit simple but I have to admit it was a very therapeutic and rewarding activity, especially in the sunshine. Once done, I piled the thicker pieces (those that had required loppers) onto the rotting log pile in our wildlife patch which I hope has made the resident slow-worms very happy!

It has taken us four summers to find the only spot in the garden where we can grow blight-free tomatoes so now, taking a leaf out of our neighbours’ book, it was time to make it a permanent planting spot beneath the polythene shelter. Roger built an edge using some spare bricks and we began by filling the base with the smaller woody pieces, the ones that required only secateurs to cut them. A standard hügelkultur bed is built with logs but we’re going for something on a slightly smaller and finer scale here.

Next, we added a thick layer of compost (spent and fresh from the heap) and well-rotted manure.

On to this we are now regularly piling any biomass we can, including a heap of rotted meadow grass cut from the orchard in autumn, huge piles of leaf mould and moss scraped from the yard; the idea is that by the time we’re ready to plant the tomatoes, there will be a raised bed of rich organic planting matter sitting over the slow-release woody fertiliser. It’s already teeming with worms so here’s to an even better tomato crop this summer.

Compost has been a bit of an obsession with me for some time and I have to confess I love any excuse to mess about in the heap (as I said, I’m a simple soul). I spent a very happy day last week scraping the top layer off, digging out trugs and trugs of the stuff and piling it into two mountains in the tunnel; here it will stay dry and any annual seedlings that emerge can be turned over before we use it.

I then set about rebuilding the heap in what John Seymour in The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency describes as a ‘countryman’s stack’ (levelled rather than a pile), first chopping everything big – like a huge pile of woody pepper plants from the tunnel that I’d lazily thrown on whole – into smaller pieces and then layering brown stuff and green stuff with the addition of dollops of manure. We don’t have many nettles here but a persistent plant that grows out of a terrace wall was cut and chopped to add as an activator. I am determined not to buy any commercial compost at all this year as we have been increasingly disappointed in the general quality, the lack of nutritional goodness and the worrying amount of plastic particles that even the more expensive stuff seems to contain. The plastic bags it comes in are another environmental nightmare to deal with so from here on in, it’s home-produced all the way; yes, there will be invasive seedlings but that’s a small price to pay, and if the amount of fungi that has popped up in the tunnel piles is an indicator of vibrant compost health, then we’re onto a winner.

Compared to the verdant jungle of summer, the garden at this time of year always looks a bit bare and yet we still have a plentiful supply and good variety of vegetables to choose from; they just take a little more finding!

We are enjoying Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, leeks, several different types of cabbage and kale, chard, celeriac, chicory, beetroot, carrots, rocket and land cress from outside. There are more treats to come imminently: the broccoli is unfurling its first tender purple florets and in the dark cave beneath the house, fat yellow chicons are emerging from the chicory roots. There is still no shortage of squash and beans in storage and possibly enough chillies to last us several winters, even using them every day as we do. Where fruit is concerned, the kiwi has come up trumps once again and we are enjoying them fresh from the vine when we can persuade the territorial blackbirds and blackcaps to share.

In the tunnel, we have a good range of salad leaves and oriental greens to choose from, including the best crop of lamb’s lettuce we’ve grown in a while. I never fail to be thrilled by picking a fresh, zingy, peppery salad at this time of year, it’s the perfect foil to all those starchy winter vegetables.

In contrast to the abundance of salad leaves, we’ve had a few lone stars of late, too. There is a single spear of asparagus ready to cut which is surely ridiculous at this time of year? After much deliberation over how to best use our very first lemon, we decided to put it into a batch of peach marmalade last week so that it is spread through several jars; the flavour is beautifully intense, it has been well worth the wait. Finally, after nine months of precisely nothing happening in our mushroom logs, a single pioneer shitake decided to put in an appearance. I’m hoping others will follow suit although so far, there’s no sign. Patience, patience.

One thing I am determined to do this year is to finally get a grip on understanding permaculture at a deeper level rather than just dipping in and out or nibbling at the edges as I have been doing for some time. There’s a wealth of material available but I’ve decided I can do no better than go to the founding father himself so I have begun reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual which I’m enjoying immensely. At 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and dense with new, and often quite technical, information to absorb but I’m finding that half an hour’s study in the morning followed by a long run to reflect on what I’ve read is doing wonders for my mind and body (and maybe soul, too). Waiting in the wings is The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield which I’m also very eager to start. There’s several months’ worth of reading material here but possibly a lifetime of inspiration; who knows, I might even get that forest garden planted after all. Happy New Year, everyone! 🙂