We have been enjoying such lovely mild weather of late that there was nothing for it but to down the carpentry tools and paintbrushes and head outside. Even though the real winter is still to come, there are little signs of spring everywhere.
It has been truly wonderful to be able to eat some meals outside, too. We enjoyed a barbecue to celebrate New Year and al fresco lunches have been a lovely bonus: spicy squash, leek and bean soup with spelt and seed rolls make a perfect gardeners’ lunch at this time of year!
With sound progress being made on the house renovation front and the vegetable garden more or less under control, it’s been good to turn our thought to other outdoor projects. There is so much we would like to do here – years and years of ideas, in fact – it’s a case of prioritising and making a Grand Plan for what we would like to achieve this year. High on the list is sorting out the courtyard area between the house and horreo and it was a great feeling to chop and stack the last of the old roof timbers and give the whole lot a good tidy up.
We have saved some huge slates to make a tidier seating area at the garden end and I have plans for lots of troughs and tubs of flowers, as well as some hanging baskets to pretty the area up. The concrete steps and path up to horreo need attention but I decided to start with the ‘border’ that runs along the top of the wall.
The large concrete tank behind takes water from the spring to the cattle trough so it has to stay but is due a makeover – removing the ivy and giving it a coat of white paint to match the house. It will make a good backdrop for planting: there are already some decent clumps of calla lily and a lovely selection of wild flowers directly beneath it but the border in front needs a complete revamp. I’ve talked about the hydrangeas here before: where they grow in huge swathes of indigo and magenta, I love them . . . but ours are a very insipid bluey white and just two of them dominate that whole border and make it very hard to get to the horreo (believe me, that path is tricky enough as it is!). So, I’ve cut them down to ground level and now begins the difficult job of digging them out – this could take me several weeks! My plan then is to clear the whole area, feed the soil and plant smaller things for a much greater and prettier splash of colour this year.
Plastic bottles seem to be something of a hot topic at the moment and walking up the lane I was reminded once again that there was still one fence line strung with bottles that we had yet to clear. When we moved here, there were bottles like this everywhere, hung to deter wild boar (which is a bit of a joke, since there is a very clear and well-worn trotter track right under this particular line of bottles!). It’s a job that’s been needed doing for ages and was done in a jiffy: string cut and removed and bottles piled in a trailer and taken down to the village recycling point. That’s better!
There have been a few general garden jobs to do, too, such as pruning damaged branches from the peach trees, a good bonfire to get rid of old growth I’d cleared round the garden that was too big to compost and some repair to the squash terraces (more stone walls going in this year). I had a good tidy up in the little herb patch at the entrance to the veg garden and was pleased to find the mint is spreading just as mint does under the peach tree and new little seedlings of chives and parsley popping up everywhere. We have been picking herbs here without a break, the coriander happily self-sets over and over and the chervil has gone berserk!
This is such a cheerful little herb, so delicate to look at but mighty tough in character; I’ve grown it outdoors all through British winters so it’s very happy here. We don’t eat huge amounts of it but it’s perfect for a little pinch of fresh, green flavour and I love it in winter slaws. It has created quite a carpet, though, and will have to be reined in to make room for other things when the time comes.
Another job this week has been pushing twiggy hazel sticks in around the early peas. I’ve held off as long as possible as we had such big problems with blackbirds last year; they had a magnetic attraction to the hazel ‘hedge’ and had a lot of fun pulling up the tiny plants. Luckily, they do seem otherwise occupied at the moment, marauding through the kiwi vine in the belief that they have first shout (as if there isn’t enough fruit to go round!) so I’m hoping the peas will be safe. The broad beans have been lagging behind a bit but my goodness, they have caught up rapidly over the last few days.
We are still eating regular helpings of leeks with plenty left to come, and there are some other delicious delights to enjoy, too.
So to the biggest story of the week . . . our new polytunnel. We are great polytunnel fans and this has been on our to-do list ever since we moved here, but it has taken time to organise the ground for it (remember the kiwi prison camp we had to dismantle?) so we have needed to be patient. This is the fourth tunnel we have put up and being the smallest with ready-shaped polythene, it should have been the easiest of the lot. Ha bloomin’ ha! I don’t mean it in a boastful way, but we are pretty practical people; between us we can renovate a house, strip down an engine, sew a bridal gown, grow all our own vegetables and turn them into interesting dishes . . . but this one really had us stumped at times. The instructions optimistically stated that it would take two people 30 minutes to complete the construction, using only the toy spanners included in the kit. Even as seasoned polytunnel builders we felt this was highly unlikely . . . and after the allotted half an hour had come and gone several times, downright impossible. To be fair to the Chinese manufacturers, I understand that when selling their product worldwide it makes sense to dispense with languages and use diagrams and numbers for the instructions instead. However, it helps if there are plenty of diagrams and they are clear to follow. Also, I’d be interested to know if the alleged 30 minutes included the time needed to fetch a drill and punch out missing holes or fetch a file and file off many, many metal spurs which prevented the tubes from fitting together (neither of these steps were indicated in the diagrams). The base went together fairly swiftly; you can see how this 3m x 4m model is the absolute biggest we can squeeze into the space, the sum total of our flat land here!
Ah, then for the rest of the frame and more frustrated moments than I care to mention. Not for the first time, I thanked my lucky stars that I am married to an engineer because when things like this go wrong, my inclination is to kick them, then stomp off with a sore toe to put the kettle on. Roger, on the other hand, calmly ponders the problem and applies rational mathematical reasoning and practical logic; he, too, then gives it a hefty boot but in just the right place and with precisely the amount of force that the stubborn thingummy drops perfectly into alignment without another thought. Somehow, against all odds and with many coffee breaks, the frame was finished.
Now for the polythene and I’d like to share the instruction for this phase . . .
No, very definitely not OK! This was the stuff of nightmares and quite honestly I found myself wishing for a good old-fashioned rectangular sheet of polythene to wrestle and stretch and pleat instead of this ready-shaped beast. Eventually – obviously we had to make up our own instructions so this all took time – the cover was on and stretched as much as is possible with this type of model. In the illustrations, the bottom of the polythene sat tidily and happily on the ground, ready to be rolled up and slotted neatly into the S-hooks when extra ventilation is required. Now this might work well on paper or in a showroom but on the side of an Asturian mountain? Really? One decent gust of wind and the whole lot would take off and fly up the valley. Time for Modification Number 27 . . . bury the base and polythene edges under plenty of soil. We’ve never had a side-opening tunnel anyway as open doors work well enough for ventilation. I removed the S-hooks and relocated them to the central roof bar where they will be perfect for starting hanging baskets off (and Roger will bang his poor head on them and curse every time he goes into the tunnel, it’s a sort of tradition we’ve had over many years). So there we have it, one brand new polytunnel ready for action.
Thirty minutes? Try a day and a half! Anyway, now the chaos is over what we are left with as far as I’m concerned is twelve square metres of planting paradise. I had hauled in several loads of well-rotted manure before we started and as the ground has been dug over several times, the soil is deep and teeming with worms which always makes me joyful.
We will make a stone path down the middle, as narrow as is practically possible to maximise planting space. We have plans for a removable trestle bench so that we can start off trays of seedlings and young plants in spring with early salad crops in the ground, then once the bench is out, plant up with the summer heat lovers: tomatoes (last chance for them this year), peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. Summer over and we will plant some more patches of salad crops for autumn and winter. Oh yes, I do love a polytunnel . . . but please don’t ask me to put up another like that one, at least for a while! 🙂