Slow and smooth

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.

William Shakespeare, Othello (Act I, Scene iii)

I’ve written before about how one of the biggest bonuses of living our simple life here is the time we have to indulge in and enjoy exercise in a way we never have before. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not – and never have been – the sporty type, but I am a fidget and I like to be active and on the move. I find it sad, frustrating and very ironic that in our modern world, there has never been such a wealth of research and information about the benefits of lifelong exercise nor so many activities and pieces of kit to choose from (although I suspect much of the latter has more to do with marketing than movement) . . . and yet, the hustle and bustle and rush of life leaves so little time to spend on what must be one of the very best things we can do for ourselves. Human bodies are designed to move. A lot. We are not made to sit on our backsides, stuff snacks or stare at screens. We’re better than that – aren’t we? Trust me, I am not preaching: in the years when I was raising a family and working full-time, exercise came at the bottom of the pile, especially as I’ve never been very good at turning out in the evenings or making much effort when I’m tired. For six months of the year, I travelled to and from work in the dark which made walking or running impossible during the week and living in very rural places always meant a drive to leisure centres. I managed to go to netball club for a while and a few terms of salsa classes, otherwise it was down to manic activity in the garden at weekends plus a walk if we could find the time.

What a difference having time has mades to my outlook and attitude; it is the most precious of commodities. If someone had told me ten years ago that early 2020 would see me pulling on screaming pink trainers to run three or four times a week in the Asturian mountains, I’d have stared at them in total disbelief. Yeah, right. Yet here I am, doing just that. I don’t particularly like running and I’m not very good at it but I appreciate and respect the benefits it brings to me physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. I’ve come to realise that no matter how much I don’t want to make the effort to get out there and do it, I always, always feel better when I have.

One thing I have learned in my time here is to pick and choose races very carefully; it’s a balance between having a goal, something that makes me stick at training without putting myself under the kind of pressure that leaves me resenting the whole running scene. I’ve found out the hard way that some races here are really for elite athletes and the fast times and tight cut-offs make things very tough for me; I’m far happier when I can relax near the back of a pack with like-minded people who aren’t fast or flashing a lot of fancy kit, just there to do it because they can . . . and, most importantly, to enjoy it.

Salinas 6k beach run last May and my feet barely moving . . . playing to the camera instead of focusing on a sprint finish. 🙂

Of course, there’s no harm in setting personal challenges but it’s been a steep learning curve in understanding how to handle the fallout when things don’t go according to plan. Last September, I set out to try and finally run a 10k race in under an hour. For ten weeks, I trained harder than I ever had before: I ran five times a week without fail; I did training sessions I’d never done previously – interval training, tempo runs, hill repeats; I did one 12+k run a week in the hope that it would make 10k seem easier. On the big day, I ran the race two and a half minutes faster than I had the year before, despite thundery weather, blistering heat and a stiff onshore breeze. I missed my target by seven seconds. I was devastated. What I should have done, of course, is smile at all the positives, dust myself off and get back to it; in reality, I went into an almighty self-indulgent sulk, hid my training shoes and refused to run for the next two months! Well, let’s face it, I’d put in all that effort for nothing and I don’t like running anyway, so what was the point? Sulk, sulk, sulk. 😦

Ribadesella is a spectacular place to run . . .
. . . but try as I might, that sub-60 minute 10k still eluded me.

Then in November, I went to support Roger when he ran for Wales in the British Masters Cross Country competition at Aintree and something inside me changed (for the better, I’m glad to say). Watching the hundreds of athletes wearing their national vests with pride, powering round 10k of grass and mud in a bitterly cold wind not only left me feeling inspired – as it always does – but thoroughly ashamed, too. Many of those runners were much older than me (in fact, plenty of them were older than my parents) and yet there they were, giving it their all in a wonderful spirit and atmosphere of enthusiasm, friendship and movement. I had absolutely no excuse to be so peevish; it was time to give myself a good boot up the backside. Home again, and I ran in the Castrillon 8k in December, a fantastic local community event with a slap-up feast afterwards. I didn’t ‘train’ for it, just ran when I felt like it; I didn’t set a time challenge, just went with the flow – which was pretty tricky in high winds and stormy weather; it was tough, but I found myself smiling all the way round just from the sheer joy of being out there doing something slightly mad and under no pressure at all. It was lovely to exchange a few words with fellow runners, high five the children along the route and even acknowledge the traditional Asturian band piping me over the finish line. That’s how it should be.

Castrillon 8k: no pressure, no expectations and a lot of fun . . . even though the weather was dire!

I’ve entered a couple of similar races in the next few weeks purely for the fun of being involved in local community events with no personal challenges involved. One of them is a 10k race in a beautiful coastal spot, running from a village out to a lighthouse and back. I’m not even thinking about that sub-hour time because I’ve come to realise it really, really doesn’t matter; I might never crack it but so what? My life won’t change either way but ultimately surely it’s better to be a slow, smiling plodder – hopefully for years to come – than an inert couch potato?

I love yoga and usually try to do at least a couple of practices a week, more if I’m not doing much running. On some days I do my own sequence either in the house with gentle background music or, in warm weather, in the barn with the relaxing sound of birdsong and gentle village murmurings for company. At other times, I like to follow a yoga class video; there is a wealth of yogic treasure available online and it’s a great way to work with a range of teachers, try different styles and really mix and match practices. The only time I have ever attended proper yoga classes was during the two years we lived in France and those sessions benefited me hugely in three ways. First, it was a good way to socialise and meet new people (I was the only ‘foreigner’ in the class) in a relaxed and friendly environment where I could chat without being under any obligation to speak too much. Second – not surprisingly – it taught me much about yoga, and in particular the importance of breath and seeing the practice as holistic, not the hurried set of stretches I’d squeezed in between marking books and cooking dinner in a previous life. Third (and of most relevance here), it did wonders for my French, in particular my ability to listen and understand. I have an A-level in French but I studied at a time when the emphasis was on reading and writing and conversation was something of an afterthought. The chance to spend a couple of hours a week truly concentrating on spoken French was wonderful, especially as our teacher, Sophie, insisted we did much of the practice with eyes shut, so I couldn’t just watch and copy my class mates. Even now, seven years on, I still sometimes hear her soothing voice reminding us all to ‘Ne pas crispez les orteils!’

It was during one such moment recently, whilst mentally checking in with my orteils, that I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. How it’s taken me so long to have this thought I do not know, but at least I got there in the end: why not look for yoga videos in Spanish? In France I could cycle to my class, here it would involve driving a fair distance and I don’t particularly want to commit to that but there is no reason why I couldn’t have a Spanish ‘class’ at home and – in the name of supreme efficiency aka laziness – I could kill two birds with one stone by combining my Spanish study with yoga sessions. Splendid.

One of the beauties of yoga is that the names of the postures in Sanskrit serve as an international language for the yoga community, in the same way Latin is used the world over for identifying living organisms. It doesn’t matter what individuals with different mother tongues call a particular posture such as the one I know as ‘Mountain Pose’, we would all recognise it as tadasana. This makes following a yoga class in a foreign language slightly easier, because at the very least I can pick out the posture names when Sanskrit is used. However, in the name of really developing my language, it’s fun to learn the Spanish names, too, and I was really thrilled to chance upon a helpful website which literally spells them all out. I was also quite chuffed to find I’d made a correct guess at ‘Downward Facing Dog’ being perro hacia abajo. I’m just very grateful that I don’t have to say it aloud, though, as my attempts at training my tongue to trill that rr have proved futile. This means my oh-so-Anglo-Saxon pronunciation ditches the dog and renders a translation of ‘Downward Facing But’ . . . and to the English ear, there’s far too much inuenndo and word play to be had with that one!

Although I recognise the advantages of attending a yoga class and working under the guidance of an experienced teacher, the great thing about a video class is that I can watch it beforehand to familiarise myself with the sequence and flow of postures and hopefully not find myself left trailing too far behind during the practice. Strangely enough, I actually felt slightly nervous when I tried the first video – ridiculous really, but a good sign that I’m challenging myself once again to shift out of my comfort zone and engage body and brain in something new and fulfilling. Standing at the top of my mat in tadasana, eyes closed, toes flat, spread and relaxed (merci, Sophie!) I heard the words ‘Tomamos unos instantes preparando nos mentalmente para la práctica‘ and understood completely, without any need for translation, reflection or even much conscious thought. It was like a happy sort of homecoming. Namaste.

Where healthy living fashions are concerned I must confess I’ve never been a fan of smoothies; I love fresh fruit and vegetables and eat copious amounts of both every day but I much prefer them as they come rather than whizzed up into a drink. Several years ago when I was still working, I was completely mystified by the ‘must have a Nutribullet for Christmas’ craze that swept through the staffroom. I couldn’t quite get my head round spending a large sum of money on what seemed to be a glorified blender and filling it full of bought kale, frozen blueberries and a host of ‘superfood’ boost products to create a gloop and call it breakfast. Definitely not my cup of tea. However, after a recent couple of debilitating weeks and feeling an urgent need to top up my mineral and vitamin levels, I decided perhaps the idea of a smoothie wasn’t so bad after all as long as, in line with my general attitude to life, I could keep it simple. The internet literally buzzes with smoothie recipes but in the end I just did my own thing . . . wandered into the garden and picked a handful of kale and a few kiwis.

That’s it. No bananas or avocados (we don’t buy either here, they are imported and pricey), no plant-based milks or oils, no fruit juices, no yogurt, no seeds or spices, no protein powders, no honey (I don’t have a sweet tooth, the kiwis are plenty sweet enough for me). The kale is fabulous stuff, an heirloom variety called ‘Cottagers’ which I planted for the first time last year. It’s an old cross between kale and brussels sprouts which was then re-crossed with purple sprouting broccoli, of such interest in Victorian times that it even caught Charles Darwin’s eye. It has easily outperformed all the other varieties I’m growing here but being the daydreamer that I am, I failed to realise it is perennial so perhaps didn’t plant it in the most sensible of places. No worries, here’s to five years at least of healthy green gorgeousness!

Where the kiwis are concerned we are still picking them and there are plenty more to come; I usually eat the whole thing, furry skin and all (I’m too idle to do the ‘boiled egg’ thing with a teaspoon and anyway, it’s a good source of fibre), but in the interests of a reasonably smooth smoothie I did peel them just this once. Into the food processor they went with a dash of cold water to loosen the mixture up and that was that. The verdict? Well, it was very green and I have to admit, very tasty. Yes folks, I actually enjoyed it. Enough to want to repeat the experience, in fact, this time with a handful of fresh mint thrown in for good measure. I even found myself thinking a splash of apple juice would be a good addition, perhaps some grated root ginger, squeeze of lemon juice, few leaves of lemon balm. Mmm, slippery smoothie slope, maybe? ¡salud! 🙂

Staying put

Four years ago this week, we walked out of a notary’s office in Luarca as the proud new owners of Casa Victorio, a rundown hovel and several outbuildings set in eight acres of Asturian mountain pasture and woodland. For us, it was the start of a new adventure and – in all honesty – a huge leap into the unknown. Unlike France, where we had lived previously, we weren’t very familiar with Spain or Spanish culture before moving here and the only Spanish we spoke had been snatched from a few weeks of basic evening classes. (My brain was so fried linguistically that I wrote Espagna on our change of address notifications, a word I’d completely made up by mixing Spanish and French. Of course, it should have been España. I’m glad to say my Spanish has improved hugely since then!) Our move could quite easily have been an unmitigated disaster. However, as with any major decision in our life, we had asked ourselves one question: what was the worse thing that could happen? This has always been our acid test and it’s far more encouraging and empowering than all those ‘what if . . ?’ worries. It’s so easy to let a multitude of unwarranted fears stop us from shrugging off the cosy stagnation of an existence in our comfort zone instead of grabbing the opportunity to do something different, to really live life to the full. I’m so glad we took the plunge. Our life here is wonderful; it is, as the locals would say, una vida muy rica, muy preciosa.

Smoke from the chimney, veggies in the garden, washing on the line . . . this is our home!
Casa Victorio

Why, then, have we recently been contemplating the idea of leaving and returning to the UK? What on earth were we thinking? Well, for starters, there’s Brexit. We are not naive; before coming here we carried out masses of research and did the sums many times over but sadly lacked a crystal ball to tell us what would happen in the UK referendum held just one month after we moved here in May 2016. I have never wanted to use my blog as a political platform and I have no intention of starting now but suffice to say, Brexit has brought us no joy and done us no favours; stripped of the privilege of EU citizenship, our future here is very uncertain and may be a reason to leave in a ‘jump before we’re possibly pushed’ sort of way. On reflection, though, it has actually become a reason to stay, to enjoy and honour that very privilege that allowed us to be here in the first place. There are about 1000 UK nationals living in Asturias, scattered through the principality with no obvious expat epicentre; certainly, we are the only Brits in the village but as such, we have been welcomed unreservedly by our Asturian neighbours. True, they probably find us a little ‘exotic’ and eccentric but as immigrants living in their community and country, we could not have been made more welcome. They are the friendliest and most open, honest, tolerant and generous people I have ever met. A walk or run in the locality is more an exercise in smiles, waves, greetings and conversation than anything else; one elderly chap who walks miles every morning always greets me with a hearty ‘¡Viva la inglesa!’ and gives me a high five. You cannot put a price on such moments. It’s all about cultural exchange, about friendship and acceptance and kindness and being downright human towards one another regardless of nationality, colour or creed. Why turn our backs on something so precious?

Our friendly village

Far more important than the forces of shady political ideology is the climate crisis and here we have a conundrum: if we are truly committed to doing everything we can to leave a viable planet for our children and grandchildren (which we are), then isn’t it hypocritical to be living somewhere that necessitates foreign travel if we are to spend time with them? Surely a return to the UK where we could in theory draw a line under all future trips abroad is one of the greatest gestures we could make? Well maybe, but on reflection it’s not that straightforward because it’s not just about the travelling and any balanced judgement needs to be far more holistic. I’ve written about the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator before https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/; it’s a somewhat imperfect and basic tool but it is useful in giving an idea of how our carbon footprint measures up and revisiting it every few months can be helpful in tracking improvements. Currently, we are weighing in with 7.5 tonnes of carbon in the last twelve months: that’s 72% of (or 28% less than) the UK government’s 2020 target of 10.5 tonnes per household. I’m pretty pleased with that; obviously we’re not going to be complacent – there’s always room for improvement, after all – but the fact is, this measure includes a return flight to the UK. True, take that away and we’re down to 7.1 tonnes (68%) but my point is, it’s the rest of our lifestyle that makes the biggest impact on green living . . . and ironically, much of that is down to climate.

Winters here are mild; some mornings can be a bit chilly but on the whole we don’t need much heating in the house. Like all old buildings here, the thick stone walls are designed to retain warmth in colder weather and keep the house cool in summer (although it’s never so hot as to need air conditioning). When we renovated the house, insulation was a top priority and the upshot of that is that we can heat the whole house with a single wood-burning stove. We fitted a couple of electric radiators and a heated towel rail as back-up but apart from testing them when they were installed, we have never switched them on. There is no heating at all in our bedroom; we simply don’t need it. In the run of mild weather we’ve had since Christmas, on many days we have only lit the stove in the evening and that is ample time to warm the house through as well as cook dinner, heat water and dry or air washing if necessary. The logs come from our own wood and as such are what John Seymour described as the best form of solar heating. We burn no gas or oil; we do use electricity but our consumption is a fraction of the UK and Spanish household average (in our last bill, less than a third of the cost was consumption, the rest was standing charges, tax and the like). We could not easily live like this through a British winter.

Logs seasoning against the horreo wall; once dried, they will be stacked inside the stone shed.

Climate also plays a key role in our food provenance. We grow most of our own fruit and vegetables and every meal is based round what’s good in the garden. Other food we source as locally as possible and much of what we eat is produced in Asturias – which has a similar area to Wales but a third of the population – or other parts of Spain. The benign climate means we can grow sufficient vegetables all year round and there is no such thing as a ‘hungry gap’; how can there be when the autumn-planted peas are dripping with pods in February?!

The vegetable garden is never empty: we are currently harvesting kale, broccoli, cabbage, Florence fennel, chard, carrots, beetroot, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, mizuna, mustards, Chinese cabbage, pak choi, rocket, landcress, lamb’s lettuce and spring onions.

The carbon footprint calculator also flags us up as lousy consumers. Our normal monthly expenditure is zero for new clothes and shoes (don’t need any), restaurant and takeaway meals (don’t want any) and pets (don’t have any). We spend a minimal amount on grooming products (mainly toothpaste) as I make most of our toiletries and the ingredients are pennies, and we never buy new gadgets, furniture or other household stuff unless something is totally broken and beyond repair . . . and we actually need to replace it. We live on a very low income but still save money each month because we simply don’t spend it. I’m not condoning travel but we usually drive to the UK rather than fly and even if we make two road trips like that a year, our annual mileage hovers around the average mark because when we’re here, we barely use the car at all. If we can reduce that to a single trip, our footprint will shrink even more. All in all, we can live the simplest of lives here, doing our best for the planet in as many ways as possible. Why leave in a hurry?

So, with the decision made to stay put we have turned our thoughts to a wave of exciting new projects which should help to improve our patch further and reduce our carbon footprint even more. Our starting point was the orchard which in many ways is an underused resource. I’m still reading and enjoying Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I particularly like his emphasis on a balance between ‘earth care’ and ‘people care’ and the need for places to work well for everyone and everything that inhabits them. Where the orchard is concerned, there is certainly more space for planting trees and possibilities for improving habitats for wildlife but also the chance to make it a more enjoyable and attractive space for ourselves. We started at the farmers’ co-op, choosing two locally grown bare-rooted trees, a greengage ‘Reina Claudia’ and cherry ‘Picota.’ (We plan to plant more citrus trees, too, but as they are all pot-grown there is no great rush). Planting two trees shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes but when Roger started to dig the second hole, an ominous clang of spade against metal suggested this wouldn’t be so easy. Buried in the bank was yet another metal bedstead. Good grief, is there no end to them?

Cue a whole afternoon of stripping the bank back to remove the offending article, then shoring it up with a stone wall to create a small planting terrace – far more work than anticipated but hopefully we will be blessed with a good crop of cherries after giving the tree all that love!

How lovely that the excavation work had to be paused briefly to relocate a fire salamander; what a vibrant reminder of the rich diversity of life with which we share this space and the responsibility we have towards caring for it.

The orchard is a peaceful spot with lovely views of the village and valley and delicious green shade under the walnut trees in summer but we seldom spend time there because the land is so steep and access is difficult. Roger dug several turf paths when we first moved here but they are constantly undermined by voles and the slopes are very slippery, especially if the grass is wet. Time, then, to really sort the access issue out once and for all by making more permanent paths and digging in flat stones to create steps.

The beginnings of a stone staircase.

One corner is a real mess to tackle, a pile of rocks on a steep slope smothered in brambles with no way through. I know brambles are brilliant for wildlife but as we leave huge tracts to scramble through the wood, we don’t feel too bad at knocking them back a bit in this area. Underneath, there is a honeysuckle binding the bank together and a smattering of wildflowers; our plan is to add more native flowers as well as a few cottage garden ones for colour, scent and insect food. The huge tree stumps and rotting logs can stay.

Where do we start?

Last year, we decided to leave a large area of the orchard grass uncut and we were really thrilled with the resulting meadow. This year, we are going to extend that by leaving another bank uncut; it means less work and a better wildlife habitat – definitely a win-win. There’s a garden seat there that desperately needs a makeover . . . and that’s an important job as I suspect it will be much used this summer! 🙂

The orchard meadow last June, full of colour. . .
. . . and life.

We have a tremendous crop of wild strawberries here every year but we’d never got round to planting larger varieties, mostly because it’s hard to find a spot where they would get plenty of sunshine without spreading like stink and being hammered by slugs and snails. The solution, we decided, was to lift them above ground so Roger has created a funky planter from bits of scrap timber and odds and ends of green and black paint; those tall legs remind me a bit of the tripods in War of the Worlds but I’m hoping the chances of fruit will be better than a million to one! It’s a great way to make use of vertical space and hopefully will keep the slimy ones away from the strawbs. We’ve filled it with bare-rooted plants and potted up the spares for hanging baskets. Mmm, get growing, you lovelies.

The ‘courtyard’ is a tricky area and how to turn it into a more attractive space has us scratching our heads for inspiration. There is a lot of concrete. It’s uneven, ugly and, in this humid climate, attracts a covering of moss which can be lethally slippery so we have to sweep it on a regular basis. It’s useful to be able to pull a vehicle into the space for loading and unloading but we never park the car there and really don’t need so much hard standing. We have a few ideas in the pipeline but whatever we do, it will be quite a task.

The wall area between the house and horreo is part of the courtyard problem; originally well-built from local stone, it has been ‘adapted’ by a previous owner (I’m being polite here, the actual word I would use to describe what they did is far ruder) by the addition of several horrendous concrete features, including a set of completely wonky steps and a totally unnecessary vent that always makes us think of a World War II pillbox. We’ve fiddled at the edges with paint and plants to try and soften the impact, but if we’re going to make it look truly lovely, we definitely need to do some more work.

The horreo itself needs a bit of TLC and at last we are planning to do something we’ve been talking about ever since we came here. The middle ‘layer’ between the stone shed and wooden granary is an area that is open to the fresh air but protected from wind and rain by high stone walls and shady in the summer. It would be the perfect place to sit and eat, either when it’s too wet to be outside or on those few very hot days in the summer when we’re seeking evening shade. There was an old kitchen table and chairs left here which we could install, we just need to do something about the floor which is decidedly dodgy and in places, more hole than wood.

Our list of things to do has over 30 items on it; we’ve prioritised them and made a start but I know from past experience we will add to it as quickly as we tick things off. Our plans range from fairly simple ideas such as extending the varieties of perennial vegetables and herbs we grow to demolishing and rebuilding the Garage From Hell, from siting a homemade nestbox for red squirrels to investigating solar power now that the so-called ‘sun tax’ has been abolished and our electricity provider is offering valuable help with installation and management of systems. There’s much to be done but we love to be busy and, most importantly, we love living here . . . so we’ll linger. A while longer living in paradise? That will be tough, then. 🙂

The first of the peach blossom is in bloom. Beautiful.

Fair weather February

Strictly speaking, we are in the middle of winter and yet, here in this pretty corner of Asturias, it feels like anything but. Somehow it seems that November and January changed places this time round; even the oldest locals say they can never remember a November so wet, with weeks of grey gloom punctuated by violent storms, a complete contrast to the sort of extended ‘summer melting into autumn’ we have experienced in previous years. It might be a bit topsy-turvy but we have been making up for the lack of sunshine and warmth in recent weeks and I am not complaining. The mornings are gorgeous and I find myself drawn outside, pyjama-clad and clutching my first mug of tea, to watch the sunrise; tiny bats whirr through the garden on their last rounds as the nocturnal beeping midwife toads hand over to a raucous chorus of birds. The air smells of sweet grass and spring flowers. It is completely beautiful.

Backtracking a little and the second week of January saw us with fingers tightly crossed for a spell of good weather for Sam and Adrienne’s visit from Norway, both to give us all the chance to get out and do some walking and to allow them to top up their light and vitamin D levels. We weren’t disappointed! It was a pleasure to pack up a picnic and head off on several walking adventures. I loved the Ruta de las Xanas where we climbed a steep and stunning – if vertiginous! – gorge, emerging at the top into sweeping, sunlit meadows. The dog behind us in the photo is a mastín, traditionally raised with sheep from puppyhood and living with them in the fields to guard against wolves. This one had tried to persuade us to part with our picnic and, having failed, decided to sleep off her imaginary lunch in the shade rather than go back to watching over her flock.

A little further on, we passed through Pedrovaya, such a typically peaceful Asturian village with its narrow streets, ancient horreos and assorted cats.

The circular walk took us back to our starting point through beautiful rolling countryside; with the warmth of the sun on our faces and the verges studded with primroses and violets, it was hard to believe this was January – the only thing missing were swallows!

The lovely weather has continued into February and we find ourselves living an almost complete outdoor life once again. The garden has recovered from the bashing it took in the November storms and it is good to see some colour back again – how I have missed those flowers! The Japanese quince, stripped totally bare of every leaf and flower bud, are now blooming in their full glory; we have two pink ones and a deep red, stunning against the blue sky and literally buzzing with bumble bees.

There is a wonderful sense of everything waking up and stretching in a joyful salute to the sun. The banks and verges are spangled with daisies and celandines, violets, primroses and starry wild strawberry flowers; narcissi are unfurling their fat buds, some revealing dainty white flowers with a heavenly scent, others far less subtle in a froth of yellow frills. There is every chance we will have a dose of winter yet but for now, spring is very definitely in the air.

It’s always a job at this time of year to sit on my hands and not rush into planting everything in the garden but at least there have been plenty of things to keep me out of mischief. Roger has been back on logging duty and – brave man that he is – pruning the kiwi. Oh my goodness, what a job that is! In keeping with our policy of returning everything organic to the land, we are chopping the prunings and piling them up for compost but there seems to be no end to them and there are still several more days’ worth of chopping to come. Away from Kiwi World, it has been a joy to have my hands in the earth once again.

I have been planting out ‘Barletta’ onions, the big silverskinned variety so popular here, and also a row of ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ first early peas to follow on from the ‘Douce Provence’ peas sown last autumn; the latter are doing that strange thing of flowering before they’ve put on much height but if past years are anything to go by, they will shoot up suddenly and produce a heavy crop – the bees are certainly doing their bit to help on that score.

We’ve dusted off the propagator and planted aubergines, sweet peppers and chillies, and started off trays of tomatoes, lettuce and summer cabbage in the polytunnel. I’ve also sown a pot of New Zealand spinach, it failed to germinate in the ground last year so I’m trying Plan B now; I’ve been told by those in the know that once it’s established, we’ll have it forever so I’m hoping for good things. The salad and oriental leaves in the tunnel have reached jungle proportions and we’ve had the first picking of baby spring onions from there this week, too. Who says winter salads are boring?

On the same subject, the clever idea I had of sowing a patch of outdoor salad leaves in the autumn all went to pot when my poor seedlings were completely vaporised in the mother of all hailstorms (this is where a polytunnel has a distinct advantage . . . as long as it doesn’t get blown off down the valley, of course. 🙂 ). What a happy, happy moment, then, to discover this week that some of the brave little troopers have fought back: to date, half a dozen winter lettuce (‘Arctic King’, I think) and a modest patch of mustards and mizunas. What little stars they are.

Happiness has also come in the shape of oodles and oodles of purple sprouting broccoli. Forgive me if I repeat myself every year but I adore the stuff and will be in PSB heaven for the next few weeks, eating it daily in as many ways as is humanly possible. I think this is the best crop we have ever had and personally I’m putting it down to the snug blanket of green manure planted underneath it.

Well okay, maybe it has nothing at all to do with green manure but I rate the whole ‘no bare earth’ thing so much that I am planning another season of the same. Not that it will require too much thought as nature seems to be doing a pretty good job without any help and a drift of soft blue phacelia flowers to drive the bees to distraction is imminent. The feathery leaves of volunteers are popping up all over, even squeezing themselves into tight spaces like the patch of beetroot below. Other people may see it as mess, I only see beauty.

I am currently reading Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual and I am completely engrossed in his take on permaculture in a temperate climate. Here is a book I shall be dipping into for the rest of my life and I am already feeling inspired to try many new things in the coming months and years as well as revisit or simply revel in old ones. For instance, this week I was inspired by my reading to wear my glasses in the garden. That might sound slightly ridiculous but I honestly resent my specs; I know I’m lucky to have them and they are essential for reading and fine work but otherwise I hate every moment they spend perched on my nose so I never wear them unless I have to. However, what a fascinating time I had looking at things close up and properly: the tiny particles and minute life forms in our soil, the golden ratio spiral in a snail’s shell, the intricate network of veins in petal and leaf, the woody wrinkles of a peach stone, the tiny hairs on stems and roots, the infinite shades of colour and nuance of pattern all around me. All this wonder already and I still have 300 pages to go . . .

For us, good weather and lighter evenings can only mean one thing: time to dust off the barbecue. Cooking outside is one of our favourite things to do and it frustrates me that barbecues are so often seen as a summer-only activity, when they can be immensely enjoyable all the year round. In fact, some of the best barbecues we have ever enjoyed have been in the middle of winter. Well, why not? Apart from anything else, it’s a great way of cooking our food on ‘free’ heat as we always use wood from prunings, coupled with walnut shells and a few bits of eucalyptus for sweet-scented smoke. Also, with the provenance of charcoal being an important environmental issue, we can be sure that we are not contributing to the destruction of precious tropical forests whilst cooking our dinner.

Cooking over wood is slightly trickier than charcoal as it doesn’t hold its heat for as long but it doesn’t take much to get used to and certainly doesn’t limit the culinary possibilities. For our first barbecue of the year we opted for local pork which we marinated in olive oil, wine, garlic and herbs before cooking as kebabs and serving with homemade bread and a selection of salads. As ‘flexitarians’ we often have a veggie barbie, too, especially in summer when a rack of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes really hits the spot and with plenty of homemade hummus, breads, salads and dips we don’t ever miss the meat. One of our favourite tricks – learnt from a Cypriot friend – is to barbecue foil parcels of feta cheese, sliced tomato (homegrown and sun-drenched, preferably), fresh oregano and a drizzle of olive oil, fabulous as a starter to nibble at while everything else cooks. Go on, try it. It’s amazing. Just be careful not to burn your mouth! 🙂