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 EspaΓ±a. 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 ‘Β‘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! πŸ™‚

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. πŸ™‚

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

Green and gold

The Autumn Equinox has passed, the days are shortening and most of the swallows have departed but in every other sense, it still feels very much like summer here. We bask in exquisite days of green and gold beneath flawless cerulean skies, blanketed in a delectable warmth and seasoned with the buzz and flutter of a myriad insects.

There is still a potent atmosphere of growth and busyness, as if nature is having a long, last workout and stretch before the season truly shifts. A good soaking of warm rain has freshened the faded landscape, restoring it to intense shades of verdant green in a single, sweeping brushstroke. My goodness, how the green stuff is growing once again.

The passion flower has known no bounds this year, shamelessly threading itself along the whole fence, then scrambling to the very top of a peach tree and tumbling down in a fountain of floral Catherine wheels.

I’ve warned it that I really must cut it back this autumn and try to instil at least a modicum of control, but with a nonchalant shrug of its shoulders, it’s simply decided to start a new game. What can I say?

Along another fence line, a new beauty has appeared. This was one of those neglected little supermarket bargain buys, not much more than a stick on a root when I planted it last year. The poor thing was completely swamped by the poppy hedge for many months and quite honestly, I’d forgotten it was there so what a fine surprise to find an outburst of velvety blooms this week. Another surprise is the colour. I swear it was supposed to be magenta. Oh, well.

The squash plants need no lessons in how to exert their authority; they totally refuse to stay politely on their terraces and tumble down the hillside in a relentless tide, joined in the rush by several hoodlums we didn’t even plant.

Unlike previous years, though, when the plants have all died back simultaneously and the harvest has been a concentrated day of furious activity, this year they are ripening a few at a time in gentle waves. The first few are curing in the sunshine on the horreo balcony but there are still many, many more to come.

Having let the self-setters do their own thing as well as planting seeds from a mongrel we grew and ate last year, I am fascinated by the sheer range of shapes, colours, sizes and textures that have emerged from the mix so far.

We did, of course, plant several official varieties, just to be sure of a fail safe supply: ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Speckled Hound’, ‘Speckled Pup’ and a couple of Hubbards. What has really captured my imagination, however, are the characteristics being flaunted by those of lesser pedigree: we’ve never grown a variety here with that classic Turk’s Turban belly button, so where on earth did it spring from? The magic of open pollination is completely spellbinding.

Bewitching, too, is the play of light through the trees. Walking through the woods, I sense just the merest sigh of autumn, the faintest whisper of things to come.

The verges and wild patches are still a vibrant embroidery of wild flowers, each dainty head spun with a filigree of spider silk.

Ah, ’tis time to stop wandering and settle down to a more serious business. The ‘eco’ day I planned in my previous post proved to be every bit as revealing and inspiring as I had hoped, leaving me with much food for thought and a wealth of new ideas to put into practice. Let me start with a tough one: life without tea or coffee is a challenge! However, I can see that reducing my consumption even a small bit each day would make a difference to electricity usage, food miles and also possibly my health. I’m persevering with trying to drink more herbal concoctions, lemon balm and lavender being my favourite so far with fragrant apple mint (of which we have several acres) a close second.

Now, as part of the effort to make fuller use of our produce, I am drying Japanese quince to use in a herbal tea blend over winter. We have three large bushes close to the house, covered in striking, bee-filled flowers for many months and now literally dripping with golden, aromatic fruits; I like to put a couple in the fruit bowl to scent the house with their tantalising perfume but using them for tea is a whole new escapade.

Actually, making full use of our produce has been quite a theme for the week let alone a single day. It’s so easy at a time of ample harvest not to pick as much as we can because the amounts seem overwhelming or there’s a limit on how much we can preserve. After last year’s disappointing walnut harvest, this year we have collected buckets and buckets of them and there are still several trees’ worth to come. Dried on trays in the sunshine, they will keep for the next year in the horreo and will play a major role in our diet.

To us, figs are such a luxury food and I am happy to tuck into piles of fresh ones, either with yogurt and walnuts for my breakfast or as a snack; no need to try and do clever culinary things with them, they are perfect just as they come. They keep for such a short time, though, and we have such an enormous crop this year that we have been experimenting with drying them to keep and use later. A wet day saw us light The Beast for the first time since spring so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get preserving. I’d like to say at this point, it might have been wet outside but it certainly wasn’t cold so the house was like a sauna; talk about sweltering and suffering for our art!

Anyway, we set whole and half figs to dry on racks above the hob, slices of pear (another bumper crop) to dry in the warming drawer and boiled up a huge vat of peach jam, as well as cooking dinner and baking bread. How I love that stove! I’ve never quite understood how I can be a glutton for fresh figs but can’t bear them dried (it’s something to do with Fig Roll biscuits, I think) so I wasn’t sure about this idea; what a revelation, then, to find myself tucking into something akin to soft, fruity toffees. Sublime. The problem is, I’m eating them now which wasn’t really the point. We need another wet day, pronto.

Backtracking to pears, we have put plenty into storage in the cool and dark of the underhouse barn to be eaten whole and those dried slices turned out to be totally delicious. Trying a different strategy, we’ve also bottled some in mulled cider, one of the top local products in Asturias; as Roger had been given a bottle in a post-race goody bag, it seemed perfect for the job. These are not meant to be sweet treats but rather served as accompaniments to savoury dishes and foods like cheese; I can already see them being a great base for a dish in a tapas meal. It all went so well, Roger decided to do a second batch, this time in mulled red wine; well, you have to do these things, don’t you?

Looking further afield, I have been making plans for using some wild foods, too. The coming weeks should see a proliferation of parasol mushrooms in our meadows and as the cows have been and gone on their regular circuit of the valley, we should be able to get in there and pick some without them being trampled. They are supposed to make excellent eating so I’ve been studying recipes to try. At the same time, I’ve been researching ways in which we can use chestnuts, a huge harvest that is desperately underused. Obviously, they have a wide range of culinary applications but I’m interested in the Italian tradition of making them into flour; they don’t contain gluten so they are no good for bread flour, but are perfect for flat breads (which we love) and pasta. A walk into the woods told me they’re not quite ready but very close . . .

One of the many things I did on my ‘eco’ day was spend some time leafing through our cook books, not in a random way but with the intention of finding and listing new recipes that we can try with the foods I know we will be harvesting through the coming months. I love the idea of baked fennel agrodolce and kale with oats; why not have a go at making a walnut dukka or beetroot kimchi? The garden is still so full of food: aubergines, courgettes, peppers, French beans, kale, summer cabbage, chard, beetroot and salad crops.

Waiting in the wings are Florence fennel, autumn carrots, more chard, more beetroot, more beans, parsnips, leeks, winter cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory and broccoli, along with those things in store – squash, onions, podding beans and chillies. I need to plant some overwintering crops in the polytunnel but it is still full to the rafters.

Having spent time riffling through our food cupboards to check on countries of origin and packaging, I realised more than ever that what we must do is persist with a totally holistic approach. How badly do we need a plastic package of prunes from Chile? What can we use instead? Figs, pears, kiwis . . ? How on earth did we manage to buy a packet of white beans – one of the biggest products of Asturias – that had come from Argentina? Why don’t we grow more of our own, enough to last all year? Why don’t we pay more attention when we’re shopping?! I think the message to self is clear: every meal, every dish, every mouthful we can produce here reduces our consumption in a positive way so we must, must, must make the most of everything we have.

This will mean very careful planning for the garden next year; there is plenty of time to organise that, but in the meantime the spaces that open up need some loving care and – bottom line – a good feed. I don’t want to go the whole Masanonbu Fukuoka hog and leave the ground untouched, mostly because we are still battling oxalis and I welcome any opportunity to knock it back. Where spaces have begun to appear such as the climbing bean and cucumber patches, green manure (whether sown deliberately or naturally-occurring clovers and trefoil that I left to spread) has done a wonderful job in suppressing weeds and creating a soil beneath that is to die for, such a rich, friable loam.

I’ve lifted the plants, extracted those infuriating oxalis seeds, relocated a few pansies and then left the green stuff to wilt on the surface. In a while, I’ll tickle it in with a fork, throw on a pile of muck and let winter and the worms do the rest.

In other places, I will leave patches of crimson clover in the hope it goes through the winter and provides an early nectar source whilst on the squash terraces I plan to broadcast a mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares as a winter green manure. I love the fact that even through the quietest months, the garden will be far from bare and thoroughly nourished for next year’s planting.

So what else did I learn? Well, the whole business of heating a bucket of water in the sunshine for my shower has already led to a complete change to my body washing approach. I took the bucket into our shower cubicle and had a ‘scoop and slosh’ wash which worked brilliantly and felt lovely: solar heated water free from a mountain spring – just perfect. This got me thinking that, apart from days where I’ve had a very hard, hot run, I am filthy dirty from gardening or I need to wash my hair (which I only do every four days or so anyway), there is really no need for me to shower; a good old-fashioned stand up all-over wash using just a couple of litres of hot water in the basin will suffice. . . and in the cooler months, that water can be heated on The Beast. I will be clean and I will not smell nasty but it will certainly reduce my carbon footprint and our electricity bill. Modern living sucks us into so many activities that are really not necessary. Having regular showers or baths is a habit – like so many others – I developed to satisfy the demands of my working life. How refreshing to step away from it now. πŸ™‚

My shower bucket warming in the September sunshine.

Assessing our progress on the environmentally friendly personal hygiene front, I decided we aren’t doing too badly in general. I need to make a new batch of soap and, having made and tested several different varieties in the last few months, I have come down to a single recipe of olive, castor, coconut and avocado oils enriched with shea butter and scented with tea tree, rosemary and lavender essential oils which works well as a solid shampoo and soap. We don’t need anything else. I’d like to try rye flour as a shampoo if I can find a supplier here where we can buy bulk quantities; it’s not easy to find, is only sold in small volumes and is relatively expensive – none of which would matter if we weren’t feeding a sourdough starter, I just worry about running out as we shop so infrequently. It’s one to work on, as is tracking down bamboo toothbrushes with firmer bristles; I like the ones we have now but Roger finds them too soft. No surprise, I came out of my ‘eco’ day with a very long to-do list.

When it comes to leisure pursuits, I treasure the simplicity of my old wooden spinning wheel that needs nothing more than a little mechanical effort on my part in order to work and I am enjoying my evening spinning moments so very much. With a large box of natural white fleece to be spun, you would think I would leave my two coloured batches until later to alleviate the boredom of white, white and yet more white. Well, no. A coil of commercially dyed Merino left over from a project some years ago caught my eye and that was it; I couldn’t help myself, there was something of the season about those luscious colours.

Merino is the finest fleece in the world, beautifully soft and silky, lofty and warm. Not much good for socks that have to do some work but this is not all about socks; there is enough here for gloves, mittens, a hat, or to be used as an accent yarn in something bigger. Ah, the pure pleasure of seeing those colours twist around each other on the bobbin . . .

. . . and then plied into the finished yarn in gorgeous ripples of berry shades. Yum.

So, on to the white stuff now? Um, not exactly because what else should I have lurking in that box but a pile of ‘rescue’ fleece that had been thrown into an inexhaustible dyepot a couple of years ago in my frantic efforts to use up a purple and turquoise mix that just would not disappear. Poor unloved thing. I owed it some attention.

This is Kent Romney, my number one choice for sock yarn: soft enough to hug next to the skin but strong enough to wear in boots, fairly dense but elastic, medium staple so easy-peasy to spin – in brief, an all-round good egg. The slight problem with this batch is as a result of the dye session chaos, I took my eye off it for a while and it felted ever so slightly. Well, I spun it anyway; it won’t make socks but has turned out to be the perfect yarn for a little bag project (and I know a small person with a passion for purple). The beauty of this for me was having to card lovely, fluffy rolags, something I haven’t done for a while. I’m a simple soul but things like this just make me so happy.

So yes, now I’m on the white and settling into some really serious skeins for dyeing and sock knitting, starting with more Kent Romney blended with kid mohair, which adds as much strength as nylon does in commercial yarns and also an antibacterial quality for healthy toes. It’s a gentle thing to be doing, sitting outside in the evening light, treadling and drawing and watching the bobbin gradually fill. At the same time, I’ve found the loveliest and most peaceful of pastimes: collecting skies. Those colours . . . if only I could spin clouds.

Who needs television? πŸ™‚

Eco Worrier

The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.

Ernest Hemingway

It’s been a sobering week. We’ve had an all too clear view of a savage forest fire, burning just a couple of miles from home as the crow flies. On the day it started, two helicopters, supported by ground crew bomberos, flew relentless shuttles with water bombs for more than eight hours.

It’s hard to convey the sheer size of the fire but if you look carefully at the smoke plume on the right, you can see the helicopter which gives a sense of scale.

They returned again and again through the week but five days later, the fire was still burning. It is a terrible thing to witness and I can only begin to imagine how horrific the larger fires raging around the world – and especially in the Amazon rainforest – must be.

Five days on and still burning . . .

With climate and environmental issues prominent in the news this week, it seems like a good time to stop once more and reflect on our behaviour and how much more we personally could be doing to reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet. I know there are those who deny climate change or, at least, the contribution of human activity to it, and I don’t intend to become embroiled in a political or scientific discussion here – partly because that’s not what my blog is about, mostly because it’s being done so well in other places by people with far more expertise than myself. For me, it’s not just about climate change, anyway: what about the destruction of habitat, extinction of species, plastic in the oceans, loss of topsoil, air pollution, gross consumerism and the appalling amount of waste that goes with it, to name just a few things? Anything I can do – no matter how small – to try and mitigate against these disasters is, in my book, well worth doing. I don’t agree that individual efforts are a waste of time or subscribe to the view that it’s too late, so why bother? I have children and grandchildren and a deep respect and reverence for the natural world: they are all extremely precious to me and all definitely worth fighting for.

I’m not in a position to go on strike, and driving somewhere to join a protest would, in my opinion, be the greatest irony so what am I planning to do instead? Well, I have decided to spend a day next week totally committed to all things ‘eco’ whether through physical activities at home, researching or studying new things to try or lobbying the powers that be online. By the end of the day I’m hoping to have deepened my awareness of our own approach and attitude, put some new strategies in place, made plans for the future, shared ideas with other people and added my voice once again to the global concern.

In order to make sure I use the day wisely and meaningfully, I’ve been looking at several lists of key ways to reduce our carbon footprint and choosing what to focus on. I’m pleased to say that we already do most of the things suggested (switching off lights and electrical devices, line drying clothes, buying less stuff, not buying fast fashion, planting a garden, composting, reducing food waste, using reusable bags, avoiding excess packaging, etc, etc) but that doesn’t mean it’s alright to become complacent: there’s always room for improvement! In a recent discussion with my lovely daughters about how we can do our bit and encourage others to join in, the consensus was to keep reading, sharing, trying things then normalising them – and the latter, I think, is the key. It’s amazing just how quickly small changes become the norm; things we weren’t doing this time last year, such as reaching for bee wraps and cloth food bags or using homemade toiletries and cotton hankies are now second nature.

Homemade soap and solid shampoo.
Homemade cotton drawstring bags for food storage.

So as not to get too bogged down, I’ve come up with some general headings to help organise my ideas for the day.

  1. Travelling. I will commit to going nowhere other than by bike or on foot. This in itself isn’t too difficult as we use the car as little as possible anyway, always combining errands and often going nowhere for ten days or more at a time. If we don’t use the tractor or strimmer either, then no petrol or diesel will be burnt. We have booked flights to the UK in November and I have to admit this does grieve me; it’s the second time I’ve flown since moving here in May 2016 and only the third time in thirteen years but all the same, it would be better not to be doing it at all. I need to address the carbon offset and we are currently having some very serious discussions about our travel in the future; some difficult decisions loom, but then this isn’t a lightweight subject, is it?

2. Shopping. I will commit to buying nothing. Like travelling, this isn’t a huge challenge as we only ever shop when we need to (as in a depleted food cupboard or fridge, mostly!). I actually don’t like going shopping at all, even when it’s necessary, and as the only option would be to cycle several miles to the local Farmers’ Co-op, I think this one’s a safe bet. I rarely shop online these days, either; in fact, only really to send celebration gifts to family as it seems the most sensible option from here. I would like to do more research into ethical shops and I think this would be time well spent. We are avid readers, buying all our books from charity shops then returning them for resale; I have also occasionally used https://www.worldofbooks.com/en-gb for buying secondhand books online. For new gift books, though, I’ve recently started to use https://www.hive.co.uk as an ethical alternative to shops like Amazon and I think this is a worthy area to develop.

Something I have had to buy in recent weeks is a new pair of running shoes. As a pastime, running is fairly low impact, certainly in my case where I run from home, have no gadgets whatsoever and wear the same kit I’ve had for years. Shoes, though, do need replacing after several hundred miles of pounding the ground; I then relegate them to walking footwear in summer as they are lighter than boots and finally to gardening shoes if they are still in one piece. I’ve been doing some reading lately about how manufacturers are moving towards more eco-friendly designs and materials and also ways in which worn out shoes can be reused or recycled in socially and environmentally acceptable ways. This is definitely another area for further research as well as considering just how long we can go without buying anything new, clothes or otherwise. Where running is concerned, what can we do to try and make races more environmentally friendly events? They don’t tend to hand out pointless participation medals here and more and more races are giving us the option of turning down a commemorative t-shirt; it’s also great to see Roger coming down off a podium with a box of local foods rather than a trophy. It would be good to be able to hand timing chips back for re-use or proper recycling and as for all those plastic water bottles . . . there must be an alternative, surely?

3. Using energy. I commit to using the bare minimum. This one promises to be quite a challenge! Roughly a third of our electricity comes from renewable resources; it’s more expensive than in the UK but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it means the energy companies are making long-term investments in clean energy and we are encouraged to keep an eye on our meter. Where our electricity consumption is concerned we are a bit of an anomaly as our usage is much higher in summer than winter. During the cooler months, our woodburning range heats the entire house, provides hot water for drinks, washing the dishes, hand and face washing, hand laundry and house cleaning as well as an oven and hob for all our cooking. At other times, we rely far more heavily on electricity so my intention is to reduce consumption drastically for a day by using only essential appliances.

The fridge and freezer are non-negotiable for obvious reasons but beyond that, what can I manage without? Instead of boiling the kettle for tea and coffee, I’ll drink cold water – this will score some food mile points, too. I will need no persuading to leave the washing machine, iron and vacuum cleaner alone; to be honest, we don’t use them much anyway. We don’t have a television, we can manage without listening to music and appliances like my hairdryer and sewing machine are only used once in a blue moon. The laptop and internet are a lifeline, though, and we need both for online banking and organising our business and financial matters; they are also our first port of call in keeping in touch with friends and family. If I’m going to spend some time on proper research, I will need to use them but other things like blogging and my daily language study will be put aside.

September evenings are very beautiful here so we tend to stay outside until the sun has set and then go to bed early; this means our use of electric light is very small but in the spirit of my challenge, I can always light a candle or two.

I can’t turn the water heater off as we will need to wash dishes but I can do something about the shower. When we renovated the house, we chose not to install a bath; it would have been a very tight squeeze in a small space and we didn’t want to replace a perfectly modern and efficient 50-litre water heater with a bigger one. A shower is more eco-friendly anyway . . . as long as we don’t linger. Having read about someone’s ‘eleven minute shower routine’ recently, I was left with two thoughts: how have I lived so long without realising I needed a routine in the shower and what on earth could anyone be doing in there for eleven minutes? Astonishingly, a quick internet search informed me the average shower time in the UK is eight minutes, during which time 62 litres of hot water have gone down the drain – not much better than a bath, then. I have to admit we are very speedy shower dwellers but even so, heating the water tank is a big use of electricity. My plan is to spread a full hosepipe across the yard with a couple of clean buckets of water; it is still very much summer here, so by evening the sun will have warmed the water enough for me to have an outdoor shower!

The other big electricity guzzler, of course, is the cooker. We bake bread several times a week and always organise the timings so the oven can be used to cook dinner at the same time; on other days, we use the hob, barbecue or eat simply eat cold foods (we don’t have a microwave).

Not using the cooker at all for a day is perfectly possible but obviously needs some careful meal planning beforehand – there’s no point in deciding to have, say, a barbecue with homemade hummus if we then remember we need to cook some beans and chickpeas! Generally speaking, though, a barbecue needn’t cramp our style and we can still make plenty of good use of vegetables from the garden: aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes brushed with a little olive oil and cooked directly on the grill are heaven sent.

4. Eating. I commit to eating foods with the lowest food miles and least packaging. Basing our meals around what comes out of the garden is a way of life here and at this time of the year, we have enough fresh produce to feed the entire village so this shouldn’t feel like much of a challenge at all: no food miles, no packaging. Job done.

Mmm . . . but we can’t just live on fruit and vegetables so for anything we buy from elsewhere, food miles and packaging become a consideration. Since finishing the house renovation and no longer needing to trek off to distant places in search of building materials, we have been shopping very locally and paying far more attention to food provenance. I know that becoming vegetarian or even vegan is cited as a major way to reduce carbon footprints; we aren’t vegetarians but we eat far less meat than we used to – in fact, most of our meals and several days a week are completely meat-free. There is, of course, a huge debate around this issue – and I don’t want to open a can of worms here – but I would argue that there is a world of difference between the animals extensively raised on small, local, family farms and those that are raised intensively on feed lots and in factory farms around the globe. We buy high quality local meat from animals that have been reared slowly outdoors on natural foods without any antibiotics, growth hormones or other nasties pumped into their systems; yes, it’s several times more expensive than the ‘other’ stuff but as we don’t buy it often, that’s not a problem and I would prefer to support farmers in continuing with this sort of meat production where animal welfare and care of the environment are of the highest concern.

Other fresh foods we buy, namely dairy and eggs, are all produced in Asturias, and with dry goods such as flour, we opt for local where possible. I’m not about to start buying green beans from Kenya or Brazilian prawns but the main problem is with ‘world foods’ like tea, coffee and rice which can’t be produced close to home (or even to Europe in some cases). Should we be reducing our consumption of these foods? On my eco day, I shall scrutinise the origin of everything in our food cupboards then keep a rough tally of food miles associated with what we eat that day, trying to keep them to a minimum. That should be an interesting and revealing activity.

At the same time, I will assess the packaging situation. We are lucky here in that pretty much all types of food packaging can be recycled including rigid plastics and Tetra Pak, but reducing is far better than recycling and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the mark with this one. Bags for life are common practice and it’s possible to buy all sorts of foodstuffs loose in some places but only plastic bags are provided to decant them into. I’ve tried to mitigate against this by re-using them and sticking a new label over the old one at the scales but it’s far from great; ideally, I’d like to use my own containers but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone else doing the same. I don’t feel my Spanish is fluent enough to try and explain my intentions to shop assistants but that is something to work on. Buying meat and fish loose from counters means they come wrapped in paper rather than on polystyrene trays covered with clingwrap which is something, I suppose. We choose unwrapped foods like local waxed cheeses or chorizo on string, and jars and tins over plastic where possible; we never buy multi-wrapped goods – but still, there’s far too much of the stuff and we definitely need to move forward with this one.

Golden Hubbard squash comes in its own biodegradable packaging.

5. Bits and pieces. There are many other areas of our life which I would like to give further thought to. It’s been an interesting year in the garden and I’ve learnt much from using green manure, selective (minimal) weeding, self-setting and seed saving. I think it would be worthwhile now to really focus sharply on growing fewer varieties of single vegetables – the ones we know are successful here – and creating a sustainable, ‘nothing new’ garden: if we can’t raise it ourselves from seed, cuttings, roots and the like, then we don’t have it. There’s no need to be buying new plants for the sake of it.

I’d also like to consider how far we make full use of what’s available, from the garden, orchard and further afield. What wild foods could we forage? We’ve just started collecting this year’s walnuts but every autumn we also have a tremendous crop of chestnuts and barely use them. It seems like a missed opportunity so what are the options there?

I’m picking chillies from the polytunnel and garden a couple of times a week at the moment and stringing them up to dry. What other ways of preserving our produce could we be exploring? Just how self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables could we be?

We gone a long way down the green household cleaning and toiletries route but I feel there’s still a lot more we could be doing. Research needed! It’s the same with our efforts to be plastic free and achieve zero waste; it’s easy to get so far along the path, then sink into some kind of complacent smugness and I think this is where other people’s ideas, experiences and encouragement are vital to help keep the ball rolling. It should be a community thing, surely? After all, we’re all in it together. As one of our neighbours so eloquently put it (in Spanish), ‘We are all sailing in one boat and if it tips over, we all go down.’

Expanding on that idea, I believe it’s important to be active beyond our own patch, too. I’ve committed to stopping and picking up any bits of litter I see when I’m running, even if that means adding a few seconds to a timed run; actually, I also deviated in both 10k races I’ve done here to put my water bottle in a recycling bin – no wonder I can’t crack that golden hour! No matter, as far as I’m concerned, caring for the environment will always be more important than how fast I can run a few kilometres. There isn’t a huge amount of litter here but I’m not prepared to pass plastic bottles, beer cans, chocolate wrappers, cigarette packets and other discarded junk lying in the verges if I can collect it, and either recycle it or put in a bin. I did draw the line at a plastic food wrapper full of dog turds but I hope I can be allowed that one.

I keep an eye on meaningful petitions to sign and email politicians about environmental issues when I can; it might seem like a minimal impact thing to be doing but it’s a case of tiny drops making an ocean. I’m sure there’s more I could be doing in this area, too; it’s not as exciting as making soap or planting seeds but now more than ever, I think, a very valuable way of spending time.

Self-set phacelia (green manure) completes a natural cycle.

I realise that all this might sound a bit superficial, something of a game, in fact; in truth, it doesn’t look like I’m planning to do much that is different to a normal day and I am aware at how privileged I am to have so many blessings in my life and to be able to spend a day in this way. I’m very lucky to be able to choose to use less electricity or hot water or a range of foodstuffs when so many people don’t have those things . . . but that, to me, is precisely why this exercise is so important. There is no question that is totally serious and is about complete and unequivocal focus. From the moment I wake up and remember there is to be no morning mug of tea, I will be approaching every single activity with total concentration and reflection on the environmental impact it has . . . and if that leads to just one tiny improvement in helping the planet, then it will have been time very well spent. πŸ™‚

This single self-set sunflower plant has 25 flowers on it – that’s seed well worth spreading!

Messing about

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.

Jane Goodall https://youtu.be/48mxaQtbUdU (This is a beautiful, inspirational video – please watch if you have a few minutes to spare.)

Those are such wise words in the above quotation and without doubt, the very maxim by which I try to live. In these uncertain times, it is the uncomplicated thinking and optimism expressed and shared by people like Dr Jane Goodall and David Attenborough that encourage me more than ever to keep doing my bit for the planet, no matter how small. I am no expert, happily: I hate the thought of losing my capacity to learn or to be open to new ideas, not because they are fashionable but rather thought-provoking, inspirational and based on good practical advice. I was thrilled to be introduced recently (thank you, Maria!) to the work and philosophy of ‘reformed’ landscape gardener, Mary Reynolds; in her assertion that we should be ‘guardians’ rather than ‘gardeners’ and her commitment to rewilding, I have found a kindred spirit.

Reading about Mary’s work and the We Are The Ark movement (http://wearetheark.org/) had me wondering just how possible is it to create and maintain a patch that allows us to produce the bulk of our fruit and vegetables organically, that provides us with a pleasant space in which to spend much of our life, that offers a haven for wildlife and contains a wide and healthy biodiversity all within an ethos of sustainable living, reduced consumerism and waste and a small carbon footprint. Phew, it seems quite a big ask . . . but I think we’re getting there slowly.

Permaculture sets a lot of store by margins and they are certainly an area I’ve given much thought to since we moved here, working on deliberately blurring the boundaries between the garden and the landscape beyond and creating wildlife-friendly edges. From a practical point of view, some fences are necessary to keep the cows in their meadow and the wild boar out of our parsnips; having replaced the former ugly ones (built from rusty bedsteads and hung with hundreds of plastic bottles) with stock fencing or post and rail fences, we have since let nature have a free run. I love stretches like this, where morning glory has woven itself through the wire netting, underplanted with Californian poppies – both self-set, both buzzing with insect life.

This patch is particularly popular with tiny butterflies at the moment; dazzling with their electric blue bodies and shimmering bronze wings, they sit on the leaves like delicate jewelled brooches. So beautiful.

This colour combination is beautiful, too; I couldn’t have planned anything more lovely so I’m especially thrilled that it’s repeated itself in another random intertwining around the fence in front of the polytunnel.

Round-leaved (apple?) mint is a widespread native here and has wasted no time in sprawling along all our fence lines in great silvery carpets, releasing a delicious herbal scent from its fuzzy leaves whenever disturbed. Bees and butterflies go completely mad for it.

The same can be said for knapweed . . .

. . . even after the flowers have gone!

Living on the side of a mountain as we do, the house and horreo are backed by a steep bank above which is a meadow and, further up, woodland. It would be very easy to cut this ‘messy’ area right back or even replace it with some kind of ground cover plants in the name of keeping it tidy. Well, we don’t want to do that so we have simply left it for nature to sort out.

It is impossible to capture the sheer diversity of plants that have colonised this area. The heathers dominate at present in their gorgeous purples but there is such a wonderful mix of species, including young holly trees which are an endangered -and therefore protected – species in Asturias. I’m not completely sure, but I think this is exactly what rewilding is all about.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Year of the Spider; they are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes and colours and our world feels like it is completely encased in their silk. One even managed the beginnings of a web between Roger’s feet in the time it took him to sit and drink a mug of coffee in the sunshine! I’ve been cheered to find tiny ones living in complex webs on the underside of the brassica leaves from where I hope they will be practising some natural pest control that will be to the plants’ benefit. Prize for the most striking has to be awarded to the one below which I think is a wasp spider; it has been living for some weeks on a most spectacular web amongst the French marigolds.

I love those quiet moments of contemplation spent observing the fascinating creatures whose space we share and I have found myself drawn back to this spider many times. Whilst trying to work out where the lower section of the web had been anchored, my gaze was drawn down to something hiding beneath the foliage . . . this from a plant that had popped up randomly on its own some weeks ago. Treasure indeed!

Inspired by my reading of Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution earlier this year, I have thoroughly enjoyed my mission of banishing bare earth in the garden as much as possible. In part, I’ve achieved this using green manure in a trial that is ongoing. As well as sowing seeds in many locations, I’ve left clover and yellow trefoil to grow wherever they appear; in addition to forming luscious green mats, suppressing weeds and fixing nitrogen, I love the way the clover in particular buzzes with insect life. We change the path layouts each year, simply treading new ones where we want them but we’ve decided next year to sow them with clover; it’s tough enough to take the wear and tear and should be perfect for the job.

Such is my passion for this project that any bits of earth that remain bare for more than a few days have me well and truly fretting. When we lifted the last of the onions, I planted a few rainbow chard leaves to see us through winter then filled the rest of the space with crimson clover. As soon as the latest plantings of French beans, cannellini beans and Florence fennel were big enough to fend for themselves, I found myself sprinkling yellow trefoil seed between the rows. Yes, it’s an addiction.

I’m very happy to let the garden do the job for me where possible, too. Here, a recently cleared patch has greened up in no time with a welcome mix of coriander, calendula, pansies and Californian poppies.

I’m so encouraged by what I’m reading about changing perspectives and attitudes towards gardening and the strong movement towards dropping the notion of ‘messy.’ I know there are plenty of people who would certainly have pulled out the spent summer calabrese plants by now on the grounds that they are a long way from being aesthetically pleasing. I’ve left them for several reasons. First, even though they are pretty much over, they are still sending up heads which may be small but are perfectly edible; second, the flowers are a wonderful source of nectar for insects; third, I want them to set seed; fourth, as they are the only brassicas in the garden where I’ve found cabbage white caterpillars, they seem to be doing a grand job as sacrificial plants. Unsightly? I really don’t care.

I’ve let one of our Witloof chicory plants flower; I know I’m probably not supposed to do this seeing as I’m growing them for chicons- and they most definitely shouldn’t be allowed to go to seed – but I couldn’t resist the temptation of that perfect baby blue.

Our second vegetable patch probably wouldn’t win any prizes for beauty just now, either; standing in the middle of the jumbled jungle, it would be easy to think a little more care and control wouldn’t go amiss but look below the dishevelled chaos and as far as I’m concerned, all’s well with the world.

I have to confess that higgeldy-piggeldy patches have become my absolute favourite garden thing. They are about as far removed from monoculture and controlled, manicured order as you can get but that’s the very point. Here in a space no more than a couple of metres square are thyme, hyssop, cucumbers, chillies, lettuce, courgettes, French marigolds, buckwheat, trefoil and pansies.

The latter have become the new self-set thug, popping up all over in a crazy, motley, mongrel mix of colours and shades; I love their cheerful, whiskered faces and it seems I’m not alone.

The bare earth beneath the grapevine is now a sumptuous jostle of marjoram, basil and pelargoniums, all good companion plants. There’s buckwheat; too; I’ve pulled it, chopped it and wilted it once as a green manure but here comes the next batch of volunteers. The self-perpetuating gardening. I love it.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as saying we have a forest garden, I do like the philosophy, the significant importance of trees and the layers of growth beneath. I have a soft spot for this shady tangle, where pear trees, a fig tree and a kiwi vine, all heavily laden with fruit, meet and intermingle. A fragrant honeysuckle has garlanded itself through the lower reaches and the underplanting of comfrey – surely the most important plant in an organic garden? – is a bee-rich wilderness.

Wander further into the orchard area and here the mighty walnut dominates with the promise of a good harvest this year.

The row of straggly hazels which Roger laid into a hedge last year has really come into its own, thickening out and providing what has been a very popular nesting site for several species of bird this year. Beneath it, we planted fennel amongst the carpet of wild strawberries (which, incidentally, are still fruiting!); all wild natives, all food plants. This is good.

We are starting to benefit from the fruit trees we planted here a couple of years ago. Frustratingly, the first ever apples have been targeted by marauding jays which seems a bit unfair when there are orchards in the village heaving with fruit that have remained untouched! They aren’t the most beautiful looking crop but they are utterly delicious with that sharp fragrance and sweet juiciness that only comes with an apple straight from the tree.

We are at the height of peach season and picking daily, only too happy to fulfil Mr Fukuoka’s plea to use what is available locally and seasonally. The freezer is stuffed to the brim, we have made jam and relish, we are eating them fresh and sun-warmed from the tree and we’ve even indulged in a pudding or two!

Of course, it’s not all good news. We have been suffering from a plague of giant Asian hornets who have a taste for rotten peaches; they’ve never been a problem before but, although we can’t find it, there must be a huge papery ball of a nest hanging high up in a tree nearby. Apparently, their stings can be fatal even to those who are not allergic and although they haven’t been aggressive, I’ve been pulling on wellies to pick courgettes as the drunken hornets lurk in any peaches that have fallen and rolled under those huge leaves.

We’ve been collecting as many fallen fruits as possible at each end of the day when the hornets aren’t active but it’s impossible to find them all. I’ve been very glad that the clover I planted around the broccoli plants is suppressing weeds and the patches of salad leaves have spread to cover their end of the terrace as any kind of maintenance in that area has been definitely no-go. The shade of the peach trees is just perfect for growing these plants in but the risk of a hornet-laden peach falling on my head is more than off-putting!

The weather has mostly been very benign of late but a recent afternoon of high winds brought some problems, shaking far too many peaches off the trees and playing havoc with the beans. The tripods were so heavy it took both of us to lift and stake them with Roger wobbling around on top of a stepladder and the continuing gale doing its best to make things difficult. By some kind of miracle, the plants survived and recovered and are now yielding a massive crop of creamy fat beans for our winter store.

How the towering sunflowers survived the lashing I have no idea but I really had to hand it to that bumble bee, clinging on for dear life! The shorter yellow sunflowers finished flowering some time ago and their heads are ripening nicely; I will save some seed to scatter along the margins next year then leave the rest for the flocks of assorted finches who will arrive very shortly to tuck in.

On the subject of seed saving, I have been doing some research using the excellent Real Seeds website (http://www.realseeds.co.uk/) as this is something I certainly want to do more of. In particular, I like the idea of developing our own variety of perfect squash by selecting and hand-pollinating over several seasons. The seeds we planted from a fabulous squash that grew out of the compost heap last year have so far thrown up at least four different fruits (since taking the pictures, the first one has developed a distinctly pink tinge reminiscent of the Russian Pink Fairy squash we grew last year). It’s a fascinating exercise!

We’ve had a bit of a self-set surprise this week, too, in the shape of a ‘mystery’ plant that has popped out of the side of a path. We’re pretty convinced it’s a tomatillo and it looks like it’s hoping to fruit.

We have never grown tomatillo plants here and there has never been any evidence of them being here previously; I’ve never seen one in any garden locally and since it’s at least twelve years since we grew them anywhere, we can’t have inadvertently carried the seed here ourselves. It’s all a bit of a puzzle but if this is another benefit of letting the garden go wild, I’m not about to grumble.

There is still so much I would love to do here but I’m pleased with the progress so far and as far as a messy, unkempt, barely controlled garden is concerned, all I can say is that it is heaving with colour and scent and life . . . and, what’s more, we are certainly not starving. πŸ™‚