En casa

What a difference a couple of weeks can make. There I was in my last post writing about some of the lovely walks we’d been doing locally and now, following last Friday’s declaration by prime minister Pedro Sánchez of a national state of alarm in Spain, we are not allowed to walk any further than the garden.

I am not complaining. The response by the Spanish and Asturian governments to the coronavirus situation was swift, decisive and efficient, putting the welfare of people ahead of any political shenanigans; the 15-day ‘lockdown’ is designed to minimise contact between people whilst enabling key workers to do their vital jobs and essential industries to keep supply chains open. The sense of common purpose, solidarity and concern for each other’s welfare is immense.

We are very lucky. We don’t have to worry about going to work or the financial hardships of being laid off or of trying to care for dependants under difficult circumstances. We are not trapped in a city flat with small children. We are not living alone. We live in a very beautiful place and it is no hardship to keep ourselves to ourselves at home; we are allowed to leave (one of us at a time only) if we need essential goods from a supermarket or pharmacy, or to receive medical attention, but there is a good chance we won’t need to go anywhere.

There are far worse places to be stuck.

Something that has become abundantly clear is that leading the kind of life we do normally – very simple, minimal consumption, close to self-sufficiency – in a sharing, caring community, makes us far more resilient than many others in a time of crisis. We don’t have to worry about food as we have a freezer and cupboards that are well-stocked (but not stockpiled!) with a wide range of ingredients, both bought and home-produced. We also have foods from the garden and orchard that are stored in the horreo or have been dried, bottled or made into preserves.

Even now, the traditional time of year for a hungry gap, we still have a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables and fruit from the garden and tunnel.

We buy fresh milk in bulk and freeze it as a matter of course, but always have a couple of cartons of UHT as a standby; if we end up having to drink black coffee, it will hardly be the end of the world. We make all our own bread using a sourdough starter so don’t have to worry about running out of fresh yeast, although we keep a packet of dried stuff to hand in case our starter decides to give up the ghost. In short, where food is concerned, we could survive a lockdown of many weeks and if that means eating a lot of squash and bean soup, then so be it.

Thankfully, we are both generally fit and healthy; we don’t require any regular medication and in fact, we have only used the medical services three times between us in the (nearly) four years we have lived here so the chances are we will not need to add to the considerable burden the health care systems are currently facing. We are used to reaching for natural remedies for minor discomforts and ailments and it’s wonderful what comfort can be found in honey, lemon, ginger, chillies, sage and a host of other herbs and flowers from the garden.

Pot marigolds (calendula) play an important role in our herbal medicine chest; the garden is currently full of their sunny blooms.

Given that it is nothing for us to go for a fortnight or more without getting in the car to travel anywhere, then staying at home bothers us not one jot. We don’t base our lives around clubs, restaurants, cinemas, shopping and the like so we don’t miss them. We are happiest pottering about on our patch and have no problems entertaining ourselves. We don’t live a life glued to television screens or smartphones (we have neither) but we are very grateful for the internet, particularly as we are in daily contact with our offspring, enjoying a lively discussion and comparison of the situation in Spain, Norway and the UK; video chatting to our grandchildren online is always great fun! We have no problems filling our time with other things: cooking, music, reading, writing, studying Spanish, playing games, chatting and laughing together. I am happy to watch the busyness of insects, the flutter of birds, the dashing of lizards. I love to contemplate the silk inside a petal or the subtle shifts of colour in a sunset. I never need asking twice to crack open a new ball of sock wool!

The only drawback of curtailed liberty for us is the fact that we can’t get out to walk or run; in a normal week, I usually run about 20 miles (32 km) and Roger notches up an almighty 100 miles (160 km) or more. Now we are not allowed to run on public roads and all the forthcoming races we had entered have quite rightly been cancelled. Yes, it is something we miss but again, we’re not complaining: how could we when other people are suffering in so many ways? It’s simply a case of adapting and finding alternatives and at least we can get outside, unlike so many others; there is much activity to be had through gardening, a mat and weights in the house and barn make a perfectly good home gym, and 140 lengths of the barn is one kilometre of running! We love the joyful camaraderie of the running community here so it’s no surprise that there is much sharing of ideas about how to keep fit en casa. Far from mourning running (ha ha, now who’d believe that?), I’m experimenting with other things such as some new cardio yoga routines and learning to zumba. The loveliest video clip I have seen this week is of a whole community in highrise apartments doing exercises together to music on their balconies. What a wonderfully uplifting sight.

Running shoes are confined to barracks!

Being able and willing to adapt to change is most definitely another consequence of living life as we do; if we have to manage without something, we simply find an alternative or change our habits without any fuss. It astounds me that faced with the rumour of shortages, the western world rushes out and fills shopping trolleys with, of all things, toilet paper! Holy crap, what is that all about? Yes, it’s something we use but if we run out, then we will switch to water and washable rags. It’s probably what we should be doing anyway and I suspect if it happened, we’d never swap back.

The switch from tissues to cotton hankies wasn’t a difficult one to make.

Reflecting on all these things I’ve noticed that the more we simplify things, the more we can do without and this seems to happen in an exponential way. Take, for instance, toiletries. It’s fair to say we started from a reasonably sane place as neither of us has ever been what you might call high maintenance; in fact, the list of grooming products and processes I’ve never tried (hair dye, leg wax, cleanse-tone-moisturise procedures, anti-wrinkle potions, spray tans, eyebrow threading, manicure, pedicure, massage, spa treatments . . . and zillions of other things, most of which I don’t even recognise!) far outweighs those I have. I haven’t worn perfume for twenty years and the last make up I applied was a slick of mascara for Sam and Adrienne’s wedding in July 2018. I might look like a greying, wrinkling 53 year-old but actually, that’s exactly what I am and I’m proud of it; I have no desire to try and look younger, but part of me suspects the bountiful fresh air, exercise, healthy diet and laughter that fill my days brings more to my life than any chemical-laden product ever could.

I’ll take this over a trip to the hairdresser any day!

So, with this in mind, last year I set out to pare back the bought products we have and replace them with homemade ones: cue a fascinating foray into the world of soap-making. I love the fact that making my own toiletries gives me complete control over what goes into them; they might seem a bit rustic but at least they are as ‘natural’ as possible. Having played around with several soap recipes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I now only need to make one kind from a mix of coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, castor oil and shea butter; the beauty of this recipe is that it doubles as a solid shampoo so it’s all we need in the bathroom, and a couple of batches keep us going for a whole year.

Even better, now that I’ve found an affordable and reliable source of rye flour (well, two in fact), I’ve started to use that as shampoo so the soaps will go much further in the long run. I’m still making a herbal infusion by simmering a handful of herbs in water – sage and rosemary are my favourites, with a few cloves thrown in for a deeper, spicy note – but not adding apple cider vinegar any more as this is now a base for the shampoo, not a conditioning rinse. The infusion keeps in the fridge for a couple of weeks and actually doubles as a mouthwash that is great for the gums. I simply mix a dessertspoon of rye flour with some infusion to make a paste, then add more of the liquid to end up with a pretty runny consistency which is easier to work into my mop of very thick hair. It’s a simple routine in the shower: I wet my hair, work in the flour shampoo and leave while I wash myself, then rinse thoroughly. Job done. I can’t praise this mix enough, my hair is very soft, silky and shiny and easily lasts four or five days between washes. Kitchen cupboard shampoo. Brilliant.

I’m not the only one who loves rosemary! It’s one of our top bumble bee flowers at the moment.

On the same theme, I’ve just made another batch of solid hand lotion. This is far easier than soap as there’s no lye involved: I simply melt beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil and cocoa butter together in a bowl over simmering water on the woodstove and pour into moulds (I use an old silicon muffin mould). I store the spares in a tea tin I had as a gift and keep the current bar in an old Lush tin which is very portable. The lotion is really lovely, very silky and smooth and can be used on hands, feet, face, all over, in fact. Oh, and it makes a great lip balm, too. Now there’s a simplicity I love.

One of the changes we’ve made recently is to stop buying commercially-produced compost and to rely wholly on our home-produced compost instead. I’m very thrilled that we’ve successfully achieved a closed loop with this, recycling every scrap of biodegradable waste and putting it all back into the soil and food production. There is no doubting the benefit that using it as a mulch has brought, the soil is literally heaving with worms and life. In stark contrast to last year, our vegetable seedlings in trays and pots are growing strongly and healthily.

Meals in waiting: vegetable seedlings in the tunnel.

The downside, of course, is that it’s not sterile so all sorts of other things pop up too and we have to spend some time nipping the rogue seedlings out. It’s also quite chunky so this week Roger turned some scrap plastic mesh (part of one of our wonderful original fences here) and odds and ends of timber into a sieve. It’s not fine enough to separate out all the seeds but certainly keeps two of the biggest nuisances – squash seeds and peach stones – out of the mix. I’ve had a very happy time in the tunnel, sifting a mountain of compost into lovely, fine stuff, picking out any stones and returning the bigger organic lumps to the compost heap. As for the self-set squash that had already emerged, they’ve been potted up for the garden, and any that appear in the compost heap will be left to grow and trail as they love to do; the vast majority of our squash was grown like this last year, mixed up mongrels from open-pollinated varieties and they have been fabulous. We might never bother buying squash seed again.

Organising our lives to be as self-sufficient, sustainable, eco-friendly and plastic-free as possible takes time and can’t all be done at once for many reasons which can lead to a sense of frustration. At times it feels like we’ve stopped moving forward and then something comes along that gives me heart once again. One of the things I’ve found hard to get round here is the reliance in shops on single-use plastic bags for loose produce and the fact that there is no tare on the scales which would allow me to take my own bags or containers. Great news, then, to find that re-usable, washable mesh bags have suddenly become the fashion for fruit and vegetables but as they are very fine, I can use them for buying things like loose grains and spices, too. This is progress.

I was also delighted to find several outlets for the herbal teas produced by Pharmadus Botanicals, a family company from León. Much of what they sell- dried rosemary, mint, eucalyptus and the like – I can produce at home but I don’t grow green tea (yet!) and I’ve never been able to find a loose leaf variety here until now. The Spanish drink a lot of tea and tisanes, so there is a fantastic variety of types, flavours and mixes to choose from . . . but they tend to come in teabags on strings with a cardboard tab, individually wrapped in paper packets and stacked in a cardboard box which is then sealed in clear plastic. It’s a packaging nightmare and somewhere in the depths of it all is a meagre 30 grams of tea! So, this large leaf green tea is a great find: 50 grams of tea in a paper bag that is plastic-free and totally biodegrable (oh, and the same price as the highly-packaged stuff, too). I wish I could return them for a refill, but in the meantime those little bags are just perfect for storing my own dried herbal mixes. Cuppa, anyone?

Returning to the coronavirus and the latest predictions in Asturias are that the peak will occur during the first week of April; it’s likely, then, that the lockdown could be extended. That’s fine. Whatever it takes. In the meantime, I feel nothing but an overwhelming sense of gratitude, respect and admiration for those who are working in extreme circumstances for the welfare of us all and a deep sense of concern and empathy for everyone who is stricken and suffering, in whatever way. Finally, I have a profound sense of hope: hope that, once this is over, humanity can take a long, hard look at the chaos and rush of modern lifestyles and the fragile state of our beautiful planet and maybe – just maybe – reset some of the values that underpin all that we do. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to shift from me to we, from just in time to having more time, from stuff to smiles, from stress to simplicity, from shopping to sharing, from having to happiness? I believe so, and as a man once famously wrote, you might think I’m a dreamer . . . but I’m not the only one. 🙂

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! 🙂

Lessons from nature

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken .

Leo Tolstoy

I decided a long time ago that there is much I can learn from nature and that working closely with it, observing it and communing with it would provide some of the best and most valuable lessons of my life. I don’t mean this in any romantic, dewy-eyed way: nature isn’t all soft and fluffy and cute – anyone who has watched a predator at work or suffered the effects of violent weather can attest to that. It’s about awareness and connection, understanding and acceptance, tuning in to the environment and that complex worldwide web of life of which I am a tiny part. It’s about relinquishing any notions of superiority and control, any feelings of disapproval or disappointment and developing an open, pragmatic attitude instead. Where roses bloom so greenfly will follow . . . but is that a reason not to enjoy the exquisite beauty of the flowers?

I’m genuinely thrilled by the sheer quantity of insects in the garden this year, not just in terms of absolute numbers but the wider range of species we are seeing, too – bees (bumbles and solitary types), butterflies, hoverflies and a wealth of beetles of every shape, size and hue to name but a few. I’m hoping that at least part of the reason is the ongoing efforts we are making to encourage them in by creating diverse habitats and wilder patches. Earlier in the year – after much head scratching- we decided to turn the eyesore of a former chicken run / rubble patch into a planted area, shifting soil from the field and scattering a box of Spanish flower seed along with some old bits and pieces of wildflower seed, things like ragged robin and knapweed which thrive here.

So far the annuals are dominating and I love the glimpse of their cheerful colours in the afternoon sunlight; they remind me so much of the cottage garden seeds I used to plant with our children when they were small. There’s clarkia, candytuft, gypsophila, borage, poppies, Virginian stocks . . . and of course, the ubiquitous nasturtium.

This little patch teems with life: newts rummaging about in the tiny pond, a slow-worm curled beneath the logpile, lizards sunning themselves lazily in front of the tomatoes and a myriad insects in the flowers. It’s a wonderful spot for a little quiet contemplation and observation and I marvel at all the bustle and busyness. Butterflies make straight for the candytuft whilst bumble bees love the clarkia but seem to prefer the flowers when they are going over. Interesting.

There’s much activity, too, in the areas of orchard we have purposely left uncut, trying to develop a meadow area using what is already there. Close inspection reveals an array of flower species, a whole rainbow of wild beauty.

It’s not all rosy, though. Several parts of Asturias, including ours, are in the second year of a potato-growing ban designed to try and eradicate the Guatemalan potato moth which arrived here from South America via the Canaries. Meanwhile, the ‘hornet man’ is extremely busy travelling round the local area in his van, putting up plastic bottle traps to catch Asian hornets, voracious predators which wipe out colonies of honey bees every summer. Of course, in the web of life, both insects have a valued role but not in this particular ecosystem; they are not indigenous, they cause complete devastation and – most sobering of all – they did not arrive here unaided.

On a much brighter note, it’s been a fantastic week for mammal spotting. Pole cats are a regular visitor to the garden, slinking along the margins in dusky light but this is the first time we have seen a weasel – and what a character, literally dancing between Roger’s feet without a care in the world! A pair of bright-eyed foxes appears each evening to check out the compost heap and young deer graze in the meadow behind the house before melting silently into the wood. In the depths of the night, Iberian wolves are calling from higher up the mountain, their evocative, spine-tingling howls spooking the neighbourhood dogs into a raucous cacophony. They were once almost hunted into extinction, and their protected status causes some controversy within the farming community but for me, there is magic in their mournful song. What a privilege to listen.

When it’s a struggle to open the polytunnel door and impossible to travel the length of its path, even I have to admit it’s time to act. I don’t usually like plants standing tall in serried ranks but when they start to collapse into chaos it is definitely time to impose a little parade ground discipline. It’s hard to believe how rapidly these once young plants, firmly tied to their stakes and shyly revealing their first dainty flowers, have completely filled the space and are toppling over thanks to the sheer weight of fruit on their branches.

I love jobs like this, a couple of hours immersed in greenery, caring and nurturing and observing; it’s a great opportunity to check each individual plant, assess their general health, check for disease and pests and take account of the fruits they are producing. With the foliage canopy lifted and reined in and the bigger weeds cleared from between, it was obvious that a real soaking was required: this is one thirsty jungle! Cue carrying a 14-litre can of water up several metres of steep lane sixteen times. By my reckoning that’s 224 kilos of water (plus the weight of the can) or almost four times my body weight in all and under time pressure, too – I leave the hose from our spring running into a bucket ready for the next fill and refuse to let it reach overflowing before I’m back so speed is of the essence. Well, I think that counts as a decent session of strength training!

As part of the polytunnel clear up, I decided to remove several basil plants that had become quite thuggish. Not all of them, though, as they have been doing such a great job as companion plants, attracting pollinators into that strange, plastic-coated world. I watched a vibrant ladybird beetling along a stem, the daintiest of hoverflies alight on a leaf and a velvety ginger bumble bee come in straight to those tiny white flowers, then move on to working through the aubergine flowers. That’s precisely what it’s all about. Moments like these are so precious to me and timely reminders of the gratitude I feel to all those small creatures for the part they play in producing the bountiful harvest we enjoy.

The garden looks impossibly full at this time of year and such is the mild climate we enjoy, as soon as something is finished there is still plenty of time to plant other things for later crops. I love filling spaces in this way and seeing that promise of good food roll on and on through the seasons, so what a pleasure to be sowing ‘Autumn King’ carrots and Florence fennel – two crops that usually do so well for us right into December – along with random patches of loose-leaf lettuce, mizuna, rocket, summer purslane, land cress, New Zealand spinach and spring onions. I really can’t fault the recently planted French beans for their enthusiasm, either; these are ‘Faraday’ and ‘Stanley’ – I haven’t decided yet whether they are a music hall act or firm of solicitors, but they certainly haven’t wasted any time in germinating.

Another space became vacant this week as the first two rows of onions were lifted out to dry; these were grown from sets and haven’t performed quite as well as the others raised from seed which we’re leaving in the ground a little longer.

When Roger suggested it might be a good spot for another row of autumn carrots, I had to apply my best Wallace and Gromit smile and cutest eyebrows before admitting that I’d already planted some more beetroot there, something he doesn’t even really like. Oops! Luckily, given the general haphazard nature of my gardening style, I had lazily thrown the seed into a patch at the top of the slope rather than a row so there was room to squeeze in some carrots, too. I think I’m forgiven, but where nabbing bare earth is concerned here, it’s definitely a case of you snooze, you lose.

For me, one of the fascinating aspects of gardening is the way that everything follows cycles; true, this can be a frustrating rollercoaster ride at times but I think it also delivers valuable lessons in life. Nothing is perfect or predictable and we can choose to fight that fact or shrug it off and go with the flow. I would far rather be a happy gardener smiling at all that is good rather than stomping and scowling around the patch because things haven’t quite gone as planned. Let’s face it, even in the very worst of years there is still much to celebrate.

Last year, spring storms ripped the blossom from our peach trees and our harvest amounted to a single fruit; this year, the trees are so heavy that Roger has been cutting chestnut poles from the wood this week to prop up their brittle branches.

These delicious fruits were sorely missed last season but this year we are blessed with a bountiful crop and will value them all the more after last year’s dearth.

I’m sure somewhere in the world there is someone who has a soft spot for flea beetles but I have to admit I’m struggling to feel the love at the moment; in fact, I’m sick of the sight of them massed on the brassicas, flaunting their shiny metallic jackets and kangaroo legs. We’ve never had a problem with them before but my word, are they making up for lost time this year. Having previously gone all out to annihilate the aubergines in the tunnel, they now seem set on a path of total destruction of anything brassica-related outside.

The good news (please look away now if you are of a squeamish nature) is that instead of doing that usual manic flea jump thing whenever we go near, they are very dopey which renders them easily squishable; I’ve read this happens once they become well-fed adults – ha, well they’re certainly that alright if the state of our plants is anything to go by.

Obviously, I haven’t set out to eradicate them, just knock the numbers back a bit to give the plants a chance. I am having to check every leaf of every brassica every day, quite an undertaking when at last count we had over 70 young plants but it will be worth the short term pain; cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale are all such fantastic foods that I hate the thought of being without them. Mind you, there’s still the worst of caterpillar season to come . . .

There has been a slight sense of nature running away with things this week and much of my time in the garden seems to have been spent on some kind of rescue mission or damage limitation. The ‘Garrafal Oro’ climbing beans have gone berserk; we grow them up stout hazel poles cut from the hedge and I have to admit I did think I was winging it a bit using the same poles for the third year in a row.

Big mistake! The plants have climbed well above the tops of the poles and are so heavy with beans that the pole tops have snapped, leaving the whole structure on a lean that makes a certain tower in Italy look positively vertical. As we are growing these purely as podding beans they will be in the ground a long time yet so it’s time for some emergency staking and guy ropes.

The ‘Latino’ courgettes are also getting away from me at every turn and despite my efforts to be vigilant, they are hiding fat marrows under their huge leaves on a regular basis. These have to be cut off if the plants are to continue fruiting and I confess they go straight onto the compost heap. I don’t feel too guilty about this; preserving is an excellent age-old method of using up gluts of seasonal produce but I think it can go too far. Preserving requires expenditure on other ingredients and energy for the heating process; this is fine if what is produced is definitely going to be eaten but there is little point in filling cupboards with jars and jars of gooseberry jam, marrow chutney, pickled beetroot and the like if it doesn’t get eaten because it isn’t wanted, needed or – in many cases – not even liked. We will freeze excess peaches and every single fruit will be used but the marrows will be recycled by nature into compost. On which subject . . .

One of the things we have decided this year is to stop buying commercial compost. Obviously, peat-based compost has been a big no-no for some time but I’m beginning to wonder exactly what the peatless stuff is made from these days, even some of the more expensive types. Am I missing something when I believe compost should be made from biodegradable, organic matter? I’m tired of finding bits of plastic, chopped rubber and a whole host of other dubious materials that shouldn’t be there: in one bag we bought recently, there was an entire length of plastic tubing! (By the way, this isn’t a Spanish thing, either – we’ve had the same experience with compost bought in the UK and France.) We’ve had far too many trays of seeds that have germinated and then sat refusing to develop their first true leaves or young plants and cuttings failing to grow because there is simply little or no nutrition in the compost, so really what is the point? Compost should be dark and rich and crumbly and packed with a wealth of nutrients that give seeds and plants the best chance to grow strongly and healthily.

Our compost area is more of a stack than a heap, tucked into a trench at the back of an old shed where we can add material in layers and keep it more or less flat, which I feel helps it to rot down more quickly. Every single scrap of biodegradable material from the house is collected in a large mixing bowl and added each evening; at the moment, this involves trying to find the compost pile first given how several nasturtiums and a squash are growing out of it.

I love this daily compost ritual; it’s hardly the prettiest of places but what comes from the depths is as precious as gold and we are going to need it more than ever now. Of course, it will be full of weedlings and seedlings which will mean much vigilance when we use it as seed compost but that is a tiny price to pay if it means at least they get the best of starts. Oh, and there’ll be none of those horrible big plastic bags to dispose of, either. 🙂

Seed saving is something I think we should be doing far more of so this year I’m experimenting with a few new ideas. It’s so easy as gardeners to succumb to the siren call of seed catalogues (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!) whilst forgetting that collecting our own seed brings many benefits, not just the financial ones. The nature of commercial production means that varieties can disappear unless someone saves them as an ‘heirloom’, so saving our own seed can help mitigate against that. Perhaps the biggest boon, though, is being able to select for varieties that thrive in our particular patch of land, in the way that people have done for millennia. It’s fun to try new varieties but there’s no sense in swapping a really good doer for something that fails to perform if there’s no need. For years, we’ve saved our own parsnip seed: just letting a single root go to flower produces more than enough papery seeds for the following year and this is especially useful since parsnip seed needs to be truly fresh.

There is quite an art to seed collecting and not everything is a viable prospect, F1 hybrids being the obvious example, but otherwise there’s much fun to be had. I’ve already saved enough buckwheat and phacelia seed to fuel next year’s green manure moments and I’ve let lettuce and chard flower in the hope of collecting their seed, too. Something else I am definitely going to collect this year is the French bean ‘Purple Teepee’; we’ve grown this for two years now and I think it’s the best variety ever, producing a mass of long, crisp, delicious beans which are so easy to see and pick.

Open-pollinated plants are a bit of an adventure, especially where the curcubit family is concerned as they readily cross-pollinate and you can end up with some interesting specimens! The best squash we ate from last year’s harvest came from a plant that emerged unbidden from the compost heap and trailed off down the orchard, producing large fruits whose blue skin and dense orange flesh suggested a dose of ‘Guatemalan Blue’ genes were in its make up somewhere along the way. We saved some seed to see what would happen this time, bearing in mind there could well have been more cross-pollination at work last year; so far, the plants have been without doubt the strongest growers of the season and are already forming some promising looking fruits.

I might well be tempted to have a go at saving some tomato seeds, too. I don’t want to jump the gun here but this is the latest we’ve ever gone without the plants falling foul of blight; we’ve even had a picking of ripe cherry tomatoes which equals our best ever previous crop. It’s just possible that this year’s approach – I think we’re on plan D now – is working and I have all my fingers crossed that the fabulously loaded vines of green cherry, plum and beefsteak fruits will have their chance to ripen. Knowing this was hailed as our last ever attempt, my Finnish friend Anja sent us some ‘Voyage’ seeds to try and what a species it is! An heirloom variety from central America, the name comes from the fact that it is a handy food for travelling with since the segments can be peeled off and eaten separately like grapes. It’s a very bizarre looking thing but I’m so excited about the prospect of tackling a ripe one, I have all my toes crossed as well.

There are plenty of seeds I don’t bother collecting because they successfully sow themselves every year. Coriander (we do collect a pile of seed for the kitchen), dill, flat-leafed parsley, chervil, wild rocket, komatsuna and mizuna pop up on a regular basis and given my laissez-faire approach to the garden, I’m happy for them to grow wherever they choose. The same is true of many flowers, to the point that most of the colour we have enjoyed so far this year has been self-set and yet not entirely predictable. Nasturtiums are a master of the game but this rather sweet double feverfew has come as a complete surprise. Hope it stays!

Calendula is such a reliable and widespread self-setter that it almost single-handedly fulfils my mission to do away with bare earth. It’s a brilliant companion plant and has useful medicinal properties, too, which is why earlier this year I captured some of its golden sunshine by infusing petals in almond oil. I’ve made my own lip balm for many years using a simple recipe of beeswax, almond oil and honey but having been inspired to try something different (thanks, Sonja and Jim!), I’ve just made a new batch using beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter and some of the infused calendula oil. It’s smooth and creamy and a great example of the good things nature has to offer.

We’re between seasons where calendula is concerned in the garden; the first flush of plants has flowered, seeded and died but the next generation of eager new seedlings is already carpeting the earth and will grow into plants that will flower throughout winter. In the meantime, French marigolds are hogging the limelight instead and I just have to smile; having tried and failed miserably several times this spring to raise a tray of seedlings, we have several enormous plants that appeared all on their own and are bristling with bright, frilly blooms.

Nature wins again . . . maybe I should stop trying, just do nothing and let it all happen around me! 🙂

Bridging the gap

Spring is almost officially here and we have just eaten the final picking of leeks and the very last cabbage from the garden. It feels a bit sad in a way but we’ve been harvesting leeks since last September so they really have done us proud.

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There is still a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and small pickings of mizuna, pak choi and komatsuna fresh from the patch and we still have plenty of squash and beans in storage. We have been using fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chervil and coriander all winter and now the vigorous new growth on parsley, spearmint and chives offers additional delicious flavourings.

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That said, we are teetering on the edge of that ‘hungry gap’ when there will be very little to be had from the garden; if we want a wide diversity of veg in our diet, we have to buy a few now. The next crops won’t be too long; there are flowers on the autumn-planted broad beans and peas, and the second plantings are through the ground. In the polytunnel, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce are leafing up nicely and the first taste of radish is on its  way.

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The bottom line, though, is that it would be good to be gapless.

We were much later getting our polytunnel organised and up than planned (and we’ve had nothing but problems with it since . . . mmm, that’s another story) but next spring, it will be key to bridging the gap. There are many things that can be planted in autumn to give crops all winter or an early spring harvest and we intend to exploit that situation to the full. At the moment, there are a few bits and pieces in the ground but much of the space is either empty or housing the staging, currently heaving under trays and pots of emerging seedlings – our food (and flowers) of the future!

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The plan is to remove the staging when it’s done its job and plant the whole space with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons plus a few other bits and bobs; we’re also planting everything but tomatoes outdoors and it will be an interesting experiment to compare both lots over the summer. Now I have to admit that I love a good dig – or at least, a good rummage around in soil with my fork. It’s a simple thing, the joy of physical activity combined with that wonderful earthy smell, the sight of worms, that feeling of preparation and expectation . . . but I know there are arguments against it and I’m interested to try a bit of ‘no-dig’ gardening. Roger isn’t at all convinced of the benefits and we have enjoyed some lively discussions on the subject but I’m wondering if the tunnel might just provide an opportunity to have a go this year? To that end, I hauled what felt like several tonnes of homemade compost into the tunnel and dumped it on all the bare areas; there’s plenty of excess to spread around once the trestles have gone. It’s a deep layer of lovely, worm-riddled, crumbly gorgeousness so my idea is not to dig it in but leave it as ta thick mulch, plant directly and observe with interest.

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Back to that gap and another strategy this year is to alter the planting times of some crops; it takes a while to understand a new climate and we are still in the early stages here. This time last year, we had trays of leek plants several centimetres high but we haven’t even planted them yet this year. The truth is, we don’t need to be eating them in September when the patch is still heaving with other veg, so by pushing them back a bit with any luck we will be able to harvest them until the end of March at least. Parsnips have always been a huge winter staple for us; they are notoriously tricky to germinate but we have never had a problem, fresh seed saved from our plants and sowed with freezing fingers in cold, waterlogged February soil always yielding more than enough to feed our family of five all winter. They grow like stink here, too – enormous great roots which do several meals for two of us – but oh my goodness, the trouble we’ve had getting them started.

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Last year, we had to plant three times before anything germinated and then the harvest was not quite as big or prolonged as we would have liked. This year, we’ve started them off in the tunnel, the seeds planted in little cones of newspaper filled with compost (I had great fun making those cones, like folding tiny piping bags . . . very therapeutic!); fingers crossed for a successful germination and then we simply pop the cones into the ground outside and look forward to a winter feast of those delicious beauties.

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On the subject of adjusting to a different climate, we have been catching the tail end of the wintry weather sweeping across more northerly parts; we aren’t suffering from frosts or snow but the temperature has been pegged back and there is a certain amount of gardeners’ frustration at play. Patience, patience! That said, the signs of spring are all around, not least the delicate beauty of peach and apricot blossom.

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This is a timely reminder that the new season’s harvest is on its way and we still have a mass of fruit in the freezer from last year’s glut. No problem, I have been pulling them out in batches, stewing them lightly in their own juices on top of the woodstove and eating them for breakfast. I don’t know about other people, but sometimes when reflecting on our attempts to live a simpler, greener, more sustainable life I find myself focusing on how much we aren’t doing; it’s human nature, I suppose, but occasionally it’s good to stand back and look at the positives, too.  So, here is my breakfast: peaches picked and preserved from our trees, organic oats bought in a paper bag which will be shredded onto the compost heap, and walnuts from our woodland, stored in their shells and cracked as needed. No hint of chemicals, no plastic wrapping in sight, zero waste. (Not to mention it’s a delicious and nutritious combination to start the day!)

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One ‘gap’ we really can’t risk is that of logs; we rely on a steady supply to feed the stove and that means planning ahead. This winter we have been burning the old roof timbers, ‘recycling’ them into heat – the stove heats the entire house – as well as hot water and a hob and oven for cooking. During the autumn, we have cut the remaining timbers and stacked them to dry; this week, Roger has moved them all into the shed for storage and turned his thoughts to logs for 2020!

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We are blessed with several acres of woodland, a mix of mostly eucalyptus (planted by the former owner as a cash crop), chestnut, birch, oak, willow and holly. There is much shrubby undergrowth including Spanish heath and gorse and a wealth of wild flowers, too (there are carpets of sweet violets everywhere at present). It is a beautiful wild tangle of growth and a haven for wildlife – wild boar and deer are regular visitors and there is a tremendous population of birds. Our attitude to logging is to take just enough for our needs through careful ‘management’ rather than greed; fallen trees are always the first port of call. The chestnuts can be coppiced rather than felled – this is typical local practice – and that is what Roger has been doing, cutting selected trunks and hauling them home with the tractor to split and season.

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There’s no waste here, either: the sweet-smelling sawdust is a great addition to the compost heap and I’ve been happily sweeping it up and spreading it across the top of our greatly reduced pile.

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So . . . here’s to another year of logs and compost and  – if we play our cards right – no hungry gap at all next spring. Happy equinox, everyone! 🙂

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To be or not to bee wrap

‘Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.’  Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

 
I have just finished reading a book about minimalist living. Whilst being an interesting and thought-provoking read, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by some of the ideas being suggested. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own interpretation and opinion but for me, the whole essence of minimalism is about getting rid of excess, living with only what we need and no more so that what is left – whether in terms of space or time – can be used for happier, non-material things and appreciating the beauty of life and the world around us (as per the opening quotation). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong?

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For instance, there was a lot of time spent on the idea of de-cluttering which seemed to focus far more on organising existing ‘stuff’ rather than reducing the overall amount of possessions; I found it a bit ironic being advised to go out and buy large plastic boxes so I can store things under the bed. There is nothing under our bed at present because, quite simply, there is nothing to go under the bed (and if there were, I’d be seriously questioning whether we really needed it). When it came to getting rid of things, there was also far too much ‘throw it away’ for my tastes: whatever happened to re-use and re-cycle? Well, I’m happy to agree to disagree with the author on a few things but when it came to a discussion of decorating, I felt completely lost at the suggestion of a simple black and white scheme for everything. Now admittedly, we have painted all the walls of our little mountain house white in order to maximise light as the windows are very small . . . but there is colour in everything else. I am happy to embrace a simpler lifestyle but I didn’t realise it extended to removing an excess of colour! I love colour, it brings so much joy and happiness into my world and the idea of eliminating it is out of the question. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s been high on my agenda this week.

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Last year, I decided to brighten up an old garden seat we’d had for many years; we had kept it as natural wood, oiling it every year to keep it waterproof, but the poor thing was really looking its age. I painted it with the dregs of paint left over from a previous project and we placed it in one of our sunniest patches. It has become one of our favourite places, a natural spot to gravitate towards, mug of coffee in hand. Unfortunately it had gone to look weather-beaten again and having no ‘petrol’ paint left, this week I opted for a brighter ‘peacock’ instead and spent a happy couple of hours in the sunshine giving it another facelift.

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I also finished making the crochet patchwork granny square blanket, something I started last year to use up a pile of  yarn left over from other projects. It’s been great fun creating something useful from a crazy mishmash of colours and clashes, although in theory I suppose I could have put the yarn into storage under the bed or thrown it away. 🙂 Instead, it will be a blanket of many uses, including padding out that seat or throwing in the back of the car for picnics.

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We are edging ever closer to being able to move the spare bedroom furniture out of the kitchen and upstairs. We won’t be able to sort our kitchen/living area out properly until then but in the meantime I dug out our old cotton bunting, washed and ironed it (quite something for me!) and we hung it from the beams. A visiting neighbour was very taken with it and asked if we had been celebrating a birthday to which I had to honestly answer no, it was just me being a bit frivolous and girlie and the bunting was a permanent thing.

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He said he thought that was wonderful because it meant we were celebrating our non-birthdays every day and that was surely a great thing to do? What a lovely way of looking at life! Black and white? I don’t think so!

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One of my goals this year is to try and get as close to zero waste as possible. The amount of waste that goes out for the rubbish collection is already relatively small – one small bag per fortnight, rarely full; we recycle everything we can, compost biodegradable waste and re-use things wherever possible as second nature. The composting in particular is a huge success here; as gardeners, we have had compost heaps for 30 years but have never had such a fast working one. It’s like some sort of magical bottomless pit of gorgeous, crumbly compost. I turned it and emptied it in the autumn, digging out enough to mulch the entire vegetable patch. This week, I’ve turned it again, piling it onto the terraces where the squash and sweetcorn are to be planted (they are such greedy feeders), top dressing all our pots and troughs and hauling buckets and buckets up to the polytunnel. I love this sort of activity, definitely not work in my book. What a thing of wonder compost is . . . and all from waste and worms!

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For us, the biggest issue to tackle is plastic waste, and in particular, food wrapping – something of a hot topic at the moment. Luckily,  a huge proportion of our food here comes package-free . . .

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. . . but we are not self-sufficient so inevitably we have to buy from other places and that’s where the problem starts. Even buying fresh meat and fish loose over the counter, there seems to be no getting away from the plastic it is subsequently wrapped in and which cannot be hygienically recycled. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m working on it and in the meantime, I’ve had a go at making some bee wraps which should at least help to eliminate home-produced cling film waste. Waxed cloth is not a new idea but it has become popular in recent years as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable food wraps. There are some really beautiful products on the market but they tend to be a bit pricey so, encouraged by many helpful websites, I decided to have a go at making my own; driven in from the garden by Storm Gisela a couple of days ago, I decided the moment had arrived!

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The theory is a simple one: soak cotton cloth in melted beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil to create a waterproof, flexible, washable food wrap. The fabric I used was good quality 100% cotton left over from a baby quilt project (I think it came from Hobbycraft). Beeswax is easily obtainable in a block that can be grated or as small perles, but I had some beekeeper’s waste – a sheet of wax foundation that had shattered – so it seemed the right thing to use. There are various methods for making bee wraps; as the stove was stoked up and the oven hot, I decided to use that rather than the ironing method. I opted for mixing the cold ingredients and spreading them across the fabric as this seemed to be less wasteful and also I know from making lip balm and hand cream that cleaning bowls and utensils that have been around melted beeswax is the very devil!

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It would have been nice to cut the fabric with pinking shears but I don’t have any so straight edges had to suffice; I was working on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that such a tight weave was unlikely to fray after waxing. I chopped the fabric into various shapes and sizes and made a start with the largest square (30cm x 30cm), laying it on a large baking tray covered in parchment paper.

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I popped the tray into the hot oven and the mixture took only moments to melt. I then removed it, used a paintbrush to spread the melted mixture around, making sure it went right to the edges of the fabric, then put it back into the oven for another couple of minutes.

Mmm. What can I say? It did work in as much as I ended up with a sheet of waxed fabric but . . . for some reason, the resin pooled in places and left rather unattractive yellow splodges – no mention of this little problem on any of the websites. I turned the second piece right side down on the parchment which did at least mean the resin wasn’t quite so obvious but I really wasn’t very happy with this method. I honestly wished I’d used the pre-melting approach instead, so for the smaller pieces I piled the mixture on to the parchment next to the fabric, melted it then brushed over. You can see the difference that made in the photo below.

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The upshot of my little wrap making experiment is that I certainly won’t use this method again but will melt everything together first; the good news is that I will definitely be making some more because although aesthetically they aren’t the greatest, they work. They have a strange texture but smell pleasantly and subtly of beeswax and there is something very satisfying about moulding them around the top of a food container with just the warmth from my hands (yes, I’m a simple soul!). I’m interested to see which sizes we use the most in the coming weeks and then I shall make a second batch.

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To me, these little ideas are the epitome of the simple life we live here. I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but drops add up. It’s another tiny step towards zero waste and steps add up, too. It’s not about grand gestures or dramatic dogma, strict colour schemes or savvy storage systems. It’s about living peacefully, kindly and mindfully every day, taking little steps one at a time to tread more gently on the earth. That’s a life worth living, surely? 🙂

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Simply living

‘Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?’ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

We have never set out to be self-sufficient in an extreme ‘Good Life’ sort of way; there are too many commodities we need but can’t produce ourselves, and  – to be completely honest – there are also things we love and wouldn’t like to live without (coffee and tea, for instance). Our aim is to live simply, walking lightly on the Earth and living gently from the land as much as we possibly can. We are happy to have just what we need and no more, and that is a lovely place to be. Neither of us is shy of hard work and yet somehow even on the busiest of days, spending our time on tasks that support our lifestyle can feel exactly like taking it easy! What’s more, the freedom from rigid timetables and responsibilities allows us to take time ‘off’ and enjoy the beautiful place in which we are so lucky to live.

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Walking the coastpath last weekend . . . 

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. . . then up into the mountains.

In cooler months, the woodburning stove  – aka ‘The Beast’ – is absolutely central to our lifestyle. We had hoped  to keep the original stove here but it proved so inefficient and unreliable in our first winter that replacing it was the only choice and once again we opted for a Nordica.

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This is an Italian make, at the ‘budget’ end of things compared perhaps to better known makes of kitchen ranges but we rate it very highly – so much so that this is the third house where we have installed one. Nothing clever or fancy, it simply burns wood in the form of good old-fashioned logs . . . and here is an area where we can be self-sufficient. Half our land here is forest, about four acres (1.6 hectares) of mixed woodland which contains a lifetime’s sustainable supply of logs. We can take what we need through careful woodland management, there is no question of plundering or destroying; all it requires is careful planning and a lot of work! The wood needs to be hauled home, cut into lengths, split into logs then stacked in a stone shed to season until dry enough to burn.

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This is an ongoing process, always looking ahead. This year we have the added bonus of an enormous pile of old timbers which were removed from the house when it was re-roofed in the summer.  We could have paid several hundred euros to have it thrown in a skip and taken away but what would the point of that been? A few days’ hard work at the time created the timber mountain outside and Roger’s daily chainsawing session is steadily reducing it to enough logs to see us through one if not two winters.

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The benefits of having the stove are many. Having opted for an open, cabin style-home it heats the entire house; we have a few modern electric radiators for back-up but quite honestly, I doubt they will ever be used. We are toasty with a capital T! We don’t have a tumble drier: 95% of our laundry is dried outside in the fresh air, but a collapsible wooden airer in front of the stove overnight dries or airs anything if we have a run of rainy days. A kettle of water sits permanently on the hob, providing boiling water for tea and coffee, all our washing up and household cleaning purposes. A constantly hot hob and oven mean we can cook as much as we like without having to worry about using the electric cooker efficiently and it is perfect for those things that need long cooking like the batch of marmalade made earlier this week.

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A hot stove in the morning also means we can cook dishes for lunch, a luxury I have really enjoyed since giving up work and being at home – it beats a lunchbox any day! In the photo of the stove above, there is a pan of lentils cooking as a base for a lunchtime salad and on the worktop next to it, two trays of dough rising for ciabatta loaves.

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Gardening and growing our own food have always been important parts of our life and something I find difficult to regard as work; I love being out of doors with my hands in the soil and the benefits of fresh, organic produce with zero food miles are priceless. Sarah and I often agree that there is a lot of fun to be had ‘foraging’ in your own garden as even at this time of year when it is perhaps at its emptiest, it is amazing what can be gathered. With this in mind, I set off to pick what I could find to go with those lentils, thinking probably a small bulb of fennel and a few herbs would be it . . .

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What a lovely little haul! There was fennel (the smaller bulbs are starting to go to seed now so need eating quickly), mizuna and baby komatsuna from self-set plants, peas ‘three ways’ (a few pods of sweet baby peas, small pods to eat whole and pea shoots), mint and chives for herbal flavour and calendula and borage flowers for colour. Mixed with lentils, salt, pepper, olive oil, grated lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice, what a splendid salad they made.

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Making stock is a way of life for us and here again the stove comes into its own. We bought a stainless steel stockpot over 20 years ago and it is one of the best investments ever, we have used it so much (not just for stock – that marmalade was made in it, too). No bits of meat or fish bone, skin, scraps or shell (in the case of seafood) leave the kitchen without first having been boiled and simmered into a gorgeous, flavoursome stock. For us this is not just about creating the base for future meals but also doing full honour to the animals we have eaten. There is simply no waste. The same is true of vegetable stock, so easy to make and a world away from anything that comes from a cube. The beauty of it is that any bits and scraps of veg can be used so it’s a good way of using up anything that’s past its best and, as the finished stock is strained, the veg can go in skins and all. Here is the pot I made this week:

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A scrappy onion, a couple of garlic cloves, rainbow chard (stalks that had self-pruned), the last few carrots from our late crop now suffering from rootfly, some leafing celery, a tiny leek that came out when I was lifting bigger ones, a couple of definitely-past-their-best parsley stalks and salt and peppercorns yielded three litres of delicious stock, some of which went straight into vegetable soup, the rest into the freezer for future meals. Really, this is something from nothing!

On which subject . . . we are trying hard to get as close to zero waste as possible; it’s not easy, but making compost has again always been a way of life to us, and a great way to recycle organic matter into (eventually) more food. I’m not keen on having a kitchen compost bin which always seems to go slimy, so we use a large plastic mixing bowl instead and empty it daily. I don’t think our current compost heap would win any prizes at it is not very pretty and breaks several golden composting rules: it sits directly on concrete, it isn’t covered, there is only one heap rather than two or three in rotation, we only turn it once a year and we just throw on whatever needs composting rather than any strict green / brown layering. Oh dear!

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Well, the proof of the pudding and all that: I turned the heap a couple of days ago and found many, many barrow loads of the richest, crumbliest, most wonderful compost ever – enough, in fact to mulch the whole of the veg patch currently fallow (most of it) with plenty left to dig into the area where a polytunnel will soon be going up. I think we’ll just stick with the rule breaking, it seems to be working a treat.

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Back to the idea of living simply and taking it easy. A very rainy day saw me looking for an indoor activity and I had just the thing which certainly felt like relaxation. Some months ago, I crocheted a couple of dishcloths from scrap cotton yarn and they have proved to be the best things ever (I realise sounding enthusiastic about dishcloths might seem a bit sad, but I am a simple soul). Given that we don’t have a dishwasher and all our washing up is done by hand, they have taken quite a bashing without showing any signs of wear and tear at all. I throw them into a hot wash with sheets and teatowels and back they come, ready for another go. On the strength of this, I decided to make some more, this time from a slightly heavier cotton: a 100g ball yielded two dishcloths and a larger floorcloth. While I was at it, I dug out some more scrap cotton and knitted a purple tawashi knot scrubbie to use as a scourer (thank you to Sonja for the idea!).

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Simple things and happy days. There really isn’t anything better! 🙂

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