From lockdown, with love

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Alexander Pope

We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.

However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.

The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.

The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.

Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.

That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.

I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can we do with this land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)

First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.

As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .

Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.

With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!

I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.

Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!

The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.

There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.

Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.

Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.

To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.

Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.

Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.

Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.

Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.

My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂

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! 🙂

The road less travelled

Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,                  
Though long and steep and dreary,
As it winds on for ever.

Edward Thomas

Having recently celebrated another year in my life’s journey, I’ve been giving some thought to what it feels like for me to be 53 (my goodness, that old?! 🙂 ). I know it’s a cliché but I certainly feel like the older I get, the less I know – yet the more I want to learn, experience and feel. By that, I don’t mean I have an urge to travel the world, gain more qualifications, chase adrenaline highs, break records or spend my time ticking a pile of items off a long and crazy bucket list. Quite the opposite, in fact; something I have come to realise more and more in recent years is that when life is lived simply and I allow myself to be open to all possibilities, even the smallest experiences can be of immense value. Life-changing, even. The path might not always be easy or clear, but anything that helps to keep me physically fit and active, gives my brain a good workout, encourages creativity, bolsters my sense of fun and helps me keep a sense of wonder is treasure indeed.

This was all brought home to me this week when we spent a day exploring a local walking route on the excuse that Sam and Adrienne are coming to stay with us in January. Our time with them is always golden (especially so now they live in Norway) and generally revolves around lots of good food and hiking so we like to have at least one new walk up our sleeve for when they visit. The Esva gorge is probably my favourite walk here and one I never tire of, so I was very excited to be following a different circular route that would bring us to it from a completely new direction. Starting in the village of Naraval, about half an hour’s drive from home, we climbed gently through green meadows in a quintessential Asturian landscape.

The next section came as something of a surprise, though, and was a reminder that the only constant in life is change; it had been billed as several kilometres of forest . . . but the trees had been harvested, the forest gone and in its place, a wide expanse of empty moorland. Mmm. Now I love a bit of woodland so disappointment was my first reaction but, on further reflection, I could see the positive side. It seems that the area is being left to regenerate naturally as part of a rural forestry project, rather than being planted with the ubiquitous eucalyptus, and the resulting dense undergrowth was thick with bird life. Is this rewilding in action?

At the same time, the open landscape gave us the chance to enjoy some spectacular views and – what still always come to me as a surprise in such a mountainous region – those vast expanses and sweeps of sky.

Several kilometres into our walk and we decided to perch on a rock and enjoy a flask of strong, Spanish coffee and some home made mince pies. Is it me, or does coffee take on a whole new delicious flavour at times like this, that nutty roasted aroma curling up out of the flask into the December air? The mince pies weren’t bad either; I’ve been playing about with my mincemeat recipe this year as I couldn’t find some key ingredients but I have to say cranberries for currants, butter for suet and walnuts for almonds have been great exchanges. The star, though, is the home made candied peel: why, oh why, have I ever bought pots of that sticky, gloopy stuff when it is child’s play to make and a hundred times more delicious? I’m definitely not too old to learn new tricks! Anyway, back to our walk and, suitably refreshed, we carried on until suddenly the top of the gorge appeared in front us. Looking across at the mountain opposite, we could see a path we have followed before, winding its way across the mountainside; when we are on it, it feels completely wild, a bit like a remote cliff edge hanging over a dizzying height – quite funny to see another path and houses above it, then!

It is almost impossible to capture the scale and beauty of this place in a photo, the gorge plummeting in a deep, steep-sided fissure, the rocky sides clothed in a blanket of trees, layer upon layer. My woodland at last! A little sunshine would have set the view alight but even without it, there were enough leaves to burnish the landscape with the metallic brights of late autumn.

We stood and watched a black kite wheeling gracefully above us on silent wings, its forked tail printing a perfect V against the sky. Below us, the tumbledown ruins of a stone cottage, the remains of a bread oven still visible in one dilapidated wall. Was it courage or madness to have built a home here, hauling and shaping and placing blocks of stone to create a shelter in such an eyrie?

Things really started to get interesting now as we began our descent following a path known as Las Vueltas del Gato (Cat Bends). This is an ancient drovers’ path, used by the vaqueiros to move their cattle from the valley bottom to the higher pastures for summer grazing in the practice of transhumance. I love paths like this with their deep sense of history and rural tradition, that faint whisper and echo of thousands of footsteps that have passed this way before. Two things are certain: the building of this path was an incredible feat of engineering and both man and beast that followed it must have been very sure-footed because blimey, that is one heck of a route!

It was like going down a steep rocky stream bed which felt near vertical in places (I exaggerate only slightly, I really was wishing I’d taken my trusty stick at this point) and made incredibly tight turns in tricky places. No question of not concentrating, we had to watch every step as we zigzagged down, making a point of stopping here and there to enjoy the view. It was an incredible descent – 170 metres’ drop in 500 metres of walking – and I have to admit, I was happy to be going down: the climb up would be something else!

The further down the path we travelled, the louder the sound of rushing water became until at last, we glimpsed the glassy green of a river between the trees. Well, rivers, actually. In front of us, the serene río Navelgas-Barcena  and to our right, the busy, chattering río Naraval; they meet on a wide sweeping bend in a pool of deep, clear water, their union giving birth to the beautiful río Esva.

What a completely magical spot this is, I could quite happily sit here for hours just drinking in the peace and magic of the place. There was such a strong sense of nature in the raw, the sheer activity and power of fresh water on its ceaseless journey, deftly carving a sinuous pathway through the land. Here the mirrored silver of slower stretches, there the bright foamy babble over rocks; so much movement, so much energy, so much sound. The skeletal trees, too, told their own story, their gnarled trunks and branches cloaked in soft moss and spattered with starry lichen, the last leaves fluttering down around us like silent feathers. What a feast for the senses. What a perfect moment in life. Money could not buy this.

This was the lowest point of our walk so we decided it was a good place to eat our picnic lunch before beginning the long trek back. As the next section involved wading across the río Naraval, we thought it wiser not to risk soggy sandwiches (for the same reason, Roger was in charge of the camera – if anyone fell in, it would be me). The route directions said that it was usually possible to cross the river this way and thankfully it was, as the thought of having to climb back up Las Vueltas del Gato didn’t fill me with too much joy. This sort of carry on does, though; I mean, how often do we do daft things like this? and why don’t we do them more often? Just the simple sensation of forest floor beneath my bare feet, then rocks, then chilly water was enough to make me giggle with the sheer childlike exuberance of being alive. The boulders were slippery, the pools deep in places and the water moving at a fair old lick but I made it across without dropping my boots or falling in. Brilliant fun !

Feet dried, boots back on and toes tingling and warm again, we walked along the tree-lined banks of the río Navelgas-Barcena  before turning upwards into a long climb. The path was certainly easier than those Cat Bends, rising steadily through a mixed forest and giving us glimpses across the valley to where we had been earlier.

At the top of a rise, we came to a four-way crossing and hit a bit of a snag; as an official walking route, the AS-287, the way had been marked pretty clearly so far but just as we really needed a sign, there was nothing apart from a couple of ambiguously placed yellow and white crosses to indicate where we shouldn’t go. Our map and directions (which had lost so much in translation they were almost like a third language) weren’t much help either, as both had suddenly become very vague. In the end, we plumped for what we hoped was the right turn (well, left in fact) and set off along several kilometres of gently climbing path which wound its way through a coniferous forest.

The trees had very much been planted for a harvest, their formal rows and grids so different from the wild tangle of the woodland below, but there is still a charm to stretches of forest like this, the sharp pine scent, soft carpet of needles and a wealth of spiralled cones.

The route we were following was supposed to be 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) in total and we were within a couple of kilometres from the road that would take us back to our starting point when we turned a corner to see this . . .

Now fallen trees and boulders are a fairly common occurrence here and we have found ourselves scrambling over or wriggling under such obstacles on numerous occasions. This, however, was more than just a fallen tree and the throaty growl of machinery beyond suggested that scrambling over would be pointless; there was a major forest harvest in full swing and the whole path had become completely impassable. Nothing for it but to retrace our steps and try to find an alternative route over the mountain and down to the road. At this point, I was thankful for several things: the fact that we hadn’t scoffed our whole picnic by the river but still had apples and water in our rucksacks; the fact that there were still a few hours of daylight left; the fact that my feet and legs felt like they could manage the extra miles that were now inevitable; mostly, the fact that we both have a good sense of direction and a good sense of humour – both would be needed in the next couple of hours! There’s a choice in this kind of situation, isn’t there? Either feel frustrated, cross or hopeless and turn it into some kind of drama or look on it as an adventure, part of life’s rich tapestry and deal with it . . . which is what we did. After all, we weren’t lost exactly, just not completely sure where we were and common sense told us there had to be another way down; there was, of course, it just added another six kilometres (3.7 miles) or so to our walk. Ah, well. Onward, my love.

We finally arrived back in the village of Naraval, crossing the river of the same name once again but using a modern road bridge this time – no need for bare feet here. The charming old stone bridge was still there, too, another ancient reminder of times gone by, when the pace of life was slower and bridges only needed to carry feet and hooves across the water. Time for us to head home and reflect on the adventure we’d had, such a precious and enriching experience in a very special landscape and so many miles without seeing another soul. It seemed that nature hadn’t quite finished with us, though: what a perfect ending to a wonderful day. 🙂

Muck and magic

Sitting in Gatwick airport last week, impatient to board our flight home, I came to the conclusion that I am simply not made for modern living. There was too much hustle and bustle, too many people, too much noise, too much dry air, too many strong pongs, too much focus on fashion and image, too many shops, too many handheld screens and too much junk food. I felt like a complete alien, desperate to be back on our little patch of mountainside where life is simple, the air is fresh and sweet, the noises and smells are natural, the food is wholesome (and still growing . . !) and in place of screens, we stare at fabulous skies.

Luckily, I could at least bury myself in a book and escape to a magical world of natural gardens in the shape of Mary Reynolds’ The Garden Awakening. As a brand new book with that crisp evocative scent of pristine paper, this is an absolute treat for me; probably 99% of the books we buy are secondhand but I was unable to find it in any of my usual used book sources and, as I suspected it would be a book I return to time and again, I decided to push the boat out just this once.

Now I accept that Mary’s Irish magic might prove a tad too woo-woo for many people but I’ve always been comfortable with a bit of pagan mysticism and rustic folklore so it bothers me not one jot. I smiled to read how she had been so inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka (me too, Mary!) and what I truly love about the book is the complete surrender to working with nature and the idea of being ‘guardians’ rather than gardeners. There is so much here to think about, many ideas that I can adopt and put into practice; deep in the fascinating realms of forest gardening, our flight was called and my heart raced with the joy and expectation of being back in that special place where outdoor spaces call to me and rainbows tumble from the morning sky.

Good grief, but the weather in our absence had been so savage that in part, I’m thankful we weren’t here to witness it. Anything that hasn’t been flattened has been shredded, everything from low-lying beetroot – now nothing more than a collection of forlorn purple stalks – to the high hazel hedge, whose leaves have been turned to a grim sort of lace.

Even the roughty toughty kale and cabbages are looking well and truly mauled and my patch of outdoor young winter lettuce and oriental leaves has been obliterated; thank goodness for the others, safe under the protection of the tunnel. What weather could be so violent as to strip the blue bench of its paint? I can only imagine the ferocity of storms, the icy torrent of hailstones, the surprising grip of cold. Poor, battered garden.

Well, of course, this is all part of the dynamics of life and there is still plenty to celebrate in the wake of chaos, many gems to be found amongst the debris. The kiwi, usually such an overwhelming cascade of green even this late in the year, is tattered beyond belief . . . but that only serves to help us see the dripping jewels of fruit more easily.

Despite their tender youth, the peas I planted before we left have hung on cheekily to their fresh bluey green foliage; the leeks are sturdy sentinels, standing tall and proud, oblivious to the carnage around them; the cannellini plants I forgot to pick before our trip have yielded a huge harvest of sleek, creamy beans and – what a surprise! – for the first year ever, several celeriac plants are swelling fat roots beneath a froth of ferny foliage.

I am so used to having a garden full of flowers right into January that the sight of ripped flower heads and shredded petals is slightly heartbreaking, even more so watching bees bumble around in search of a food source that should still be there. The bright crimson cups of Japanese quince, which bloom reliably from October to April, have gone – every last one of them. The delicate white and purple flowers of the sweet-scented peacock lily have been left in tatters, trails of nasturtiums reduced to piles of slimy mush and there isn’t a single leaf (let alone flower) left on any of the usually bright and bold pelargoniums. I am grateful for at least one or two hardy little survivors.

However, should I honestly feel frustrated or sad when it is still possible to gather dinner from the garden? The very final picking of peppers and chillies from the tunnel signalled the official end of summer veg and a seasonal step into the world of things denser and more sustaining, those hefty, starchy characters which will see us safely through winter. How can I resist the honeyed crunch of carrots, the herbal sweetness of parsnips, the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes, the strident onion hit of leeks, the subtle aniseed of fennel? Add melting orange squash and the meaty pops of beans from our store and I’m in foodie heaven.

This is one of our very favourite meals, so straightforward from a culinary point of view but one we go back to time and again throughout the year. Simply wash, trim, peel, chop (or whatever) the vegetables and roast them gently in a little olive oil in a baking dish or tray, adding seasonings as desired. Meanwhile, make a tomato sauce by frying chopped garlic and onion in oil, then adding chopped tomatoes (we used tinned ones as we have eaten all our homegrown toms from the freezer), a splash of red wine and seasoning, then simmer long and slow to create a rich, sumptuous sauce. Stir the sauce into the vegetables ten minutes before serving and you’re done! Just add some really good bread to mop up the juices. The beauty of this dish is that it is so versatile and your imagination is the limit: it works just as well with crisp, green, summer vegetables as it does with winter heavyweights; you can season to taste – we added chillies, coriander seed and cumin seed for a blast of heat but fresh or dried herbs or alternative spices will give a totally different slant; if you don’t want to do the vegetarian thing, it’s easy to pop in meaty additions like chorizo or cooked chicken, pieces of firm white fish (we use hake) or even pork fillets snuggled on top of the veg (I’d go for a couple of good eggs broken in, too, but Roger definitely wouldn’t ); melting pools of cheese take it to a new level! The basic dish reheats like a dream but is also delicious cold, alternatively it can be recycled into fabulous soups and curries. Comfort cooking from the garden at its absolute best.

So, back to a bit of practical ‘guardianship’ and one of my first jobs was to sweep up the piles of leaves that had been ripped ferociously from branches and swirled into soggy heaps in every corner. Now this has nothing to do with tidiness. I’ve never minded fallen leaves or considered them to be unsightly; in my experience, if they’re left alone, nature generally takes care of them with some good, drying winds without any fuss or bother (don’t even get me started on leaf blowers). Alternatively, gathered up and left to rot, they offer a very beneficial free food for the soil so it’s well worth the effort with broom and shovel – and blowing the cobwebs and travel dust in the fresh air was exactly what I needed.

Feeding the soil in the tunnel was high on my agenda, too. The extended growing season we enjoy under cover is a boon to our lifestyle but it leaves a very short turn around: no sooner are the last plants removed in late autumn than we’re planning the planting for early spring, which – apart from anything else – will involve replacing the removable staging down one side. Speed is of the essence if I’m to get the soil fed and rested properly before the demands of the new season begin and luckily, this is just the sort of job I love!

Mary Reynolds likens caring for a garden to raising children and I have to agree, especially when it comes to nutrition. Our sproglets were raised on good, fresh, wholesome home-cooked food, much of which they had been involved in growing, picking and preparing since they were able to totter about and ‘help’ and I have the same obsession with feeding and nurturing the soil as I did for our babies. I’m fascinated with the concept of ‘no dig’ and although Roger isn’t completely convinced by the idea, I think the tunnel is the perfect place to explore the possibilities. It’s a relatively small planting area (we simply don’t have the mountains of required mulch for the whole garden) within easy lugging distance of the muck pile and compost heap and the beds have defined sides which make piling on the good stuff easier. I removed the spent pepper plants, lifted a couple of perennial weeds but left the annual ones on the surface, then slathered all the unplanted parts in several centimetres of well-rotted cow manure and homemade compost. Mmm, it’s gorgeous, worm-laden stuff!

The salad leaves I planted some weeks ago had suffered a bit from lack of light thanks to a couple of Scotch bonnet plants that had reached tree proportions and cast way too much shade. I gave them a good drenching with comfrey tea and just three days of higher light levels later, they had perked up no end.

Where the rest of the garden is concerned, I’ve been shifting vast quantities of muck and compost in a continuing crusade against bare earth; basically, any area that isn’t planted with food crops or green manure (deliberately planted, self-set or spread varieties or soft annual weeds) gets a good old mulching with the brown stuff. In some places, this looks a bit like medieval strip farming: on the bottom terrace, from front to back, there are parsnips, leeks, carrots, former squash patch plus the beginnings of a manure cover, green manure (crimson clover) and comfrey. The terraces above are planted with a green manure winter mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares.

Due to the higgeldy-piggeldy nature of the main veg patch, things are a bit more slapdash there but the same principle applies. On the terrace, for instance, there is a patch of celeriac surrounded by a self-set green manure of poached egg plants and phacelia, a good stand of purple sprouting broccoli undersown with white clover and several short rows of salad leaves including rocket and land cress. One end, however, was a jumble of dead basil, a couple of summer cabbages that didn’t come to anything and a spaghetti of dead nasturtiums so I pulled out the woody stuff and covered the rest in muck.

I’ve repeated the process everywhere I feel the soil needs covering, even between and around the stand of winter cabbages so I can be sure that every piece of available planting space has been fed. It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt affair, but so what? This is the process of creating a healthy, nutritious soil teeming with essential life and the foundation for next year’s food: no job is more important than this one! One of Mary Reynolds’ key pieces of advice is to observe nature closely in the garden in order to work successfully and compassionately with it. One of the things I have certainly been observing with interest this year is the effects (or not) of my green manure experiment and I am truly delighted with the results. As far as I can tell, there have been no adverse effects whatsoever, no reduction in plant health, quality or yield of crops and no increase in pests. Where the soil has been covered by one or several green manures through the year, it has retained moisture and is rich and friable and full of life. It carpets the earth just as nature will do left to its own devices and plants grow quite happily through it.

Beetroot in the trefoil!

One of the most significant factors is the way in which all the green manures I planted in spring and summer (white clover, crimson clover, buckwheat, yellow trefoil, phacelia) have acted as incredible weed suppressants; the only nuisance weed anywhere now is grass which I’ve been lifting with a hand fork and composting, otherwise it’s mainly clumps of chickweed.

Now this in itself is actually a very beneficial plant: not only can it be eaten in salads as a good source of minerals and vitamins, but it attracts pollinators, provides a food source for birds and accumulates potassium and phosphorous making it a perfect green mulch. Rather than consign its bright green carpets to the compost heap, my Garden Awakening self has simply pulled it, left it on the surface of the soil and then thrown manure and compost all over it.

Chickweed pulled, bring on the muck!

One of the crops that was shredded in the bad weather was the Witloof chicory, something I’ve grown for the first time in years. Fortunately, it didn’t really matter as the time had come to harvest the first few roots, anyway. It’s a funny old carry on: lift the plant, chop the leaves off, bury the roots in a pot of compost, cover so that not even the tiniest chink of light can get in, put in a sheltered place (the underhouse barn in our case) and forget for at least a month. It might sound like a dark art but the crisp, blanched chicons which should develop from those roots will give us a fresh, bitter leaf hit just perfect for the season. Now the waiting begins . . .

There’s another bitter leaf ready to eat now, its frilled leaves a deep burgundy gloss nestled in a bed of clover. Ruffled but not wrecked by the weather, this raddichio ‘Palla Rossa’ is a welcome, vibrant sight that is heading for a special meal (maybe for my birthday next week? 🙂 ).

While I have been zipping about the garden literally like a happy little pig in muck, Roger has been busy in the woods with the annual task of fetching, cutting, splitting and stacking logs. These will heat our home, cook our dinners, boil water and dry laundry in future winters – they are worth their weight in gold. It’s hard work but so rewarding to see the stack of split logs growing against the horreo wall where they will be left to season before being stored inside. I love their soft muted colours, their tactile textures and above all, the sharp, spicy scent of them that whispers of forest floors and leaf mould and mushrooms. I adore trees; I am not ashamed to be a happy hugger and never fail to give thanks for this wonderful gift. We always plant far more trees than we cut. That’s how it should be.

On the subject of planting, we came home from a little foray into our local farmers’ co-op with garlic and onions for the garden. We’ve had limited success with garlic here, the warm climate and humidity tend to see overwintered crops rotting in the ground but, nothing daunted, it’s worth another go. We have nothing to lose, after all: two euros for seven fat bulbs is a relatively low investment, there’s plenty of space in the patch and I’m hoping a pre-planting ‘winter holiday’ of vernalisation in the fridge (the garlic, not me) will help things along a bit. The variety we chose is the classic Spanish ‘Spring Violeta’ – it’s supposed to be a a good doer but it’s not the best of keepers. Well, quite honestly, we haven’t scored well so far on that front anyway so let’s see what happens. The ‘Barletta’ onions are an Italian heirloom variety which are massively popular locally; they are a small, silverskin onion which look like extremely fat spring onions and give a good early crop. Our neighbours raise trays from seed overwinter and plant them out very early in spring so that’s exactly what we’re planning to do, although as always I will probably get the date all wrong! There is a lot of gardening done here according to the lunar calendar, and whilst I don’t mind a dash of biodynamics in the garden, I have a tendency to completely overlook the crucial dates in my rush to just be outside with my hands in the earth.

Yes, what a lovely, busy time I’ve been having outdoors; the housework and laundry (and probably a trillion other things) are suffering from severe neglect, but who cares when the garden beckons and wraps its gentle warmth around me? Black Friday . . . what’s that all about, then? Christmas . . . haven’t even given it a second thought. The sun is shining, the robins are singing, the garden is mucked and all’s well with the world. How magical! 🙂

Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂

High days and holidays

It is the height of the holiday season here. The village population seems to have quadrupled in recent weeks as families arrive in their droves to stay with parents and grandparents; holiday homes that have sat empty and forlorn for eleven months have their shutters thrown back, their gardens tidied; tents pop up in gardens overnight like so many brightly-coloured mushrooms. There is more traffic in the valley than the rest of the year put together. Fiesta rockets pop and crump in the distance. Excited children whizz about on bikes and splash merrily in paddling pools. The lanes are dotted with new walkers, cyclists, runners . . . the village dogs don’t know which way to turn first. There is a lively buzz about the place, busyness and chatter and laughter and music and the smell of barbecues. Summer has well and truly landed.

We know from experience that for us, August is a time to stay put. After all, we are lucky to be able to climb mountains, stroll along beaches and visit local places in quieter moments and cooler weather, so why join the crowds? Our food cupboards and freezer are well-stocked, the garden is bulging with fruit and vegetables and we want for nothing. We live in a gorgeous spot with plenty to keep us busy; there is no need to go anywhere.

Backtracking a little, and we did treat ourselves to a mini break in late July just ahead of the main holiday chaos. Having cycled up the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail) several weeks earlier, we decided to return with our tent and and camp at the very top end of the trail near the village of Entrago.

The campsite was very reminiscent of the basic rural ones we favoured when our children were little, camping in the quieter coastal spots of Pembrokeshire and Cornwall. No designated pitches, no electric hook-ups, definitely no shop or swimming pool: just a mown field with water and simple toilet and shower facilities. A captivating view from the tent door rendered the location complete!

I do have to confess, though, that unlike those Spartan days of yore that saw us sleeping on camping mats (or unreliable inflatable mattresses that inevitably went down in the night so I woke with one hip firmly embedded in the ground . . .), these days we do like a bit of comfort in the tent. To this end, several years ago we invested in a couple of canvas safari beds and with an old double futon mattress on top, a proper duvet, pillows and – yes! – crisp cotton sheets, it seems we can glamp with the best of them. A simple life doesn’t necessarily have to be uncomfortable, after all. 🙂

It might appear a bit odd camping somewhere not much more than an hour away from home but there were two good reasons for doing this. First, tempting though it is to get out and explore the entire Iberian Peninsula, we are well aware that there is still so much of Asturias we haven’t yet seen . . . and honestly, it never fails to deliver.

Also, staying for a couple of nights gave us the chance to ditch the car, pull on our rucksacks and stride out to really explore the area on foot, without having to drive home at the end of a long day.

The Bear Trail was certainly much busier than when we cycled it but once off that well-beaten track, we had the paths to ourselves. In fact, in two days of walking we literally didn’t meet another soul doing the same. The routes we took were all well-maintained and clearly marked, the scenery as ever quite stunning at each turn and the wildlife varied and abundant.

Following an ancient track which climbed a steep but blissfully green and shady valley to the medieval village of Bandujo, I wondered how many thousands of footsteps had passed that way before, how many lives and stories had been bound to that magical, leafy path.

The village itself was quite beautiful, perched on a mountainside with soaring views and, despite obvious (and necessary) modernisation, a profound sense of timelessness. We sat beneath the tower in the shade of an horreo and ate our picnic, watching a man scything grass on a slope so steep, it made our garden look like a stroll in the park. What a place this is!

Being close to the southern edge of Asturias, we decided our exploration wouldn’t be complete without climbing to Puerto de Ventana, the mountain pass at an altitude of 1,587 metres (5,206 feet) where Asturias meets the neighbouring province of León. A truly breathtaking panorama greeted us on our arrival, the majestic craggy mountains towering above a wide and open landscape, so very different to the lush, green one behind us.

In days gone by, los vaqueros from the plains below would, at the first snowfall, leave their wives to care for the children and farms in order to drive their cattle up through the pass to spend the winter months grazing in the kinder climate of Asturias. I was fascinated to read how the herd would be led by a matriarch (similar to elephants, I suppose) who would instinctively forge a safe path through snow that was often chest deep. I can’t even begin to imagine what an undertaking that journey was, how cold, difficult and fraught with danger it must have been. Right at the top of the pass, a group of several huge mountain dogs lazed in the sunshine like a pack of placid lions, totally indifferent to our presence . . . but the spiked metal collars round their necks were a reminder that even though the transhumance may no longer be so marked, the threat of wolves in the night is still very much there.

It’s funny how a short time away from home can feel like it was so much longer, perhaps because we managed to pack a lot of activities into a couple of days. It’s also the perfect way to have a holiday and know that the garden isn’t going to die of drought, neglect or wild boar visitations in our absence. Mind you, we did have visitors of another kind this week, not quite what we want to see mooching towards the vegetable patch – but maybe they felt it was time for them to have a holiday somewhere else, too?

The recent weather has been typical of the season, mostly very warm and dry with some days that hail a greater blast of heat, some that bring a dollop of rain. It’s the kind of weather that brings us beautiful skies . . .

. . . and sadly, not so beautiful ones: the plume in the middle of the photo below isn’t cloud but smoke from a huge fire. Thankfully, it’s the first wildfire we’ve seen this year but it was a massive one, taking the bomberos a whole day of fighting to bring it under control through their relentless shuttles between the fire and water reservoir in helicopters (and even an aeroplane this time).

It’s nice to think there may not be any more this year and certainly, waking to a day of steady rain yesterday brought a definite feeling of relief as the parched earth received a generous soaking.

I love the freshness such summer rain brings, the way everything responds and perks up after a good drink, the heady, spiced scents of wet earth and leaves and the renewed sweetness of raindrop-spattered flowers.

There is no more rain forecast for the next two weeks at least and with the heat set to build once more, it looks like we could be busy with the watering can in a while. In the meantime, we will continue enjoying our August staycation and all the natural blessings and beauty it brings. 🙂