Over the past two weeks we have travelled over 3500 km, tracing a distance of 1150 km between the most southerly and northerly points; it has felt like being in some strange kind of time machine as we have swung back and forth through varying stages of spring along the way.
In the high mountains of Asturias and León and the eastern reaches of Camarthenshire, spring was just a mere whisper, the softest hum of unfurling greenery, primroses and blackthorn. In the Anjou region of France, it was a complete choral work, the trees resplendent in their full summer plumage, the hedges dripping with hawthorn blossom and laburnum, the houses festooned with lilac and wisteria. Shropshire was a blizzard of cherry blossom, West Sussex a glory of bluebells, Mayenne a foam of apple blossom and Cantabria pastelled with elderflowers and valerian, ragged robin and ox-eye daisies. I love this sense of difference, the effects of latitude and altitude, topography, geology and climate that organise nature in their own way; it makes travelling and life so unpredictable and interesting!
I enjoyed the linguistic journey, too, through Spanish, Basque, French, English, Welsh and back again. When we first moved here a little under two years ago, my Spanish was so poor that in desperation to make myself understood, I used to launch into French at every opportunity. This week, whilst chatting to a French friend I found myself – much to his amusement – constantly lapsing into my own personal mix of French and Spanish. Is it Spench? Or maybe Franish? I have no idea, but the positive thing is that my old brain has managed to make that big shift; I’ve swapped oui for sí and et for y and that in itself is progress. Learning a new language is such a rewarding and mind-opening activity and it was lovely to see how many of our family members are currently doing the same just for the fun of it. Italian, anyone? Norwegian? Why not?
So, home again to the comparative simplicity of English and Spanish, and an Asturian spring in full green fettle under brilliant blue skies. What a difference eleven days can make! It’s startling how much things change when we’re not keeping a daily eye on them. The clouds of peach and pear blossom have been replaced by little nubs of new fruit; the new apple trees we planted are in full bloom and – very exciting! – there are the tightest of buds on the orange tree. The newly-planted grapevine has unfurled silvery leaves . . .
. . . the kiwi is a canopy of hanging greenery once more and the figs have opened their arms to the skies.
It’s always good to come home to an unexpected meal.
Not just artichokes, but another good picking of asparagus, a pile of lettuce, yet more purple sprouting broccoli (the sweet corn has had to be planted on a different terrace as those brokkers plants just keep on going and going and going) and the very first sweet and tender little peas. Gorgeous!
It’s so lovely to be back to wandering around with my trug, picking bits and pieces for a meal, grazing and nibbling as I go. Here ‘Red Rosie’ romaine lettuce, asparagus spears, baby spring onions, mint, oregano, chives with calendula, borage and coriander flowers suggested the makings of a fresh and tasty salad. This is the sort of food we love.
Much as I enjoy a bit of mindfulness in the garden, growing our own food always needs us to keep one eye on the future. One of the major decisions before leaving was what to do with the polytunnel, it being full of young plants and, therefore, tomorrow’s meals. Was it better to leave it open for ventilation but risk it drying out or closed to retain moisture and risk everything cooking? In the end, we opted for the closed choice; I carried up buckets and buckets of water to soak the ground, removed the staging and left everything well-soaked and sitting on the soil. Basically, it all had two chances: do or die. I love gardening and raising plants from seed is a rewarding thing to do but I really can’t get too worked up about it: if the worst came to the worst, well . . . it’s perfectly possible to buy excellent plants from Luarca market. The moment of truth: how had it all fared?
Well, everything had thrived on total neglect, it seemed! One of the drawbacks of using homemade compost had become very obvious, too: a jungle of nasturtiums, borage, Californian poppies and squash had erupted in every corner and literally met me at the door. I wouldn’t normally moan about those beauties but the polytunnel is really not the place for them so it was time to roll up my sleeves and get stuck into sorting everything out. A busy (and warm!) morning later, the thugs were cleared out, compost raked over and aubergines, peppers, chillies, tomatoes, melons and kiwano were all in the ground. Some of the plants were a bit small but all looked good and healthy and in the usual way, doubled in size overnight. Fingers crossed for a good harvest to come . . . how different this will look in a couple of months’ time!
I love growing squash, particularly in a climate where they luxuriate in the long, warm season they really need to fruit well. The speed at which they germinate and grow never fails to amaze me, they are such enthusiastic doers and a wonderful food. Our faithful kitchen favourites – ‘Crown Prince’ and the butternut ‘Harrier’ had gone so well that I decided to plant them outside before we left, along with courgette ‘Costata Romeneso’ and cucumbers ‘Marketmore 76’ and ‘Diva.’ We also put up six wigwams for climbing beans; they currently look like something out of War of the Worlds striding menacingly across the garden but the first beans have germinated so it won’t be long before they are towering with lush foliage. This year I’ve planted ‘Blue Lake’, ‘Cosse Violette’, ‘Goldfield’ and ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ as climbing French beans, with borlotti ‘Lingua di Fuoco’ and the local Asturian white bean as podding varieties. We should have plenty; this is bean country, after all!
Back to the squash story and I have once again been led astray by Anja and have probably more varieties and plants than two people could ever need. Not that I’m grumbling; like the sharing of culture and language, what a wonderful thing it is to swap seeds and growing ideas with friends in other places, especially when we are trialling some new varieties. Add Sonja to the mix, and there is going to be a bit of a three-way squash growing experience shared between Finland, Scotland and Spain this summer. ¡Estupendo!
The kiwano (horned melon) seeds also from Anja are certainly thriving; I’ve never grown them before so I’m really excited to see how they go (and taste). The ‘Melba’ melons are looking far more enthusiastic than last year (new seed was definitely needed) so I’m hoping for great fruity happenings in the polytunnel. The cukes can all go into the garden, they are such thugs outside that I hate to think what mayhem they would cause if let loose in the tunnel . . . I’m having enough problems with self-set flowers on that score!
To more things floral, and swathes and pops of colour have been high on my list for this year. I love the drift and flow of deep borders and a wild, chaotic abundance of flowers doing their own thing but the lie of our land makes having a true flower garden as such a bit of a challenge. It’s more a case of squeezing little beauties of all shapes and sizes into any available spaces and places and I’m having a lot of fun with that change of perspective. The few small perennials I have planted are starting to find their feet at last. The verges are currently awash with indigo granny bonnets and our little garden ones are starting to make an impact; I love their gentle grace and beauty and the way the bees get in and mix them up a bit so I’m hoping they will spread themselves around in different shapes and shades over the coming years.
Other self-setters are establishing themselves very happily and doing a brilliant job at drawing in the pollinators..
The herbs I’ve raised from seed – sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, hyssop and lavender – are all thriving and beginning to make the impact of foliage and flower I was after. The rosemary has flowered, the thyme is on the cusp but the sage is currently a haze of mauve flowers that are literally effervescing with bees and butterflies. Those yellows against purple are a feast for the eye!
I’m also planting hanging baskets this year to help brighten up the courtyard and draw eyes upwards with splashes of aerial colour; the honey-coloured stone of the horreo should make a perfect backdrop, despite the awful daubed grey ‘pointing’ work that we need to remove. I last planted baskets four years ago and used an old woollen blanket to make liners; this year I was a bit stumped for an eco-friendly idea until Roger suggested trying eucalyptus bark. We certainly have plenty of it, the trees are constantly sloughing off strips like snakeskins and, soaked in water to make them pliable, they worked very well. I’m keeping it simple this year – just petunias and lobelia – with plans for more adventurous ideas next year if these are successful.
The wilder spots of the garden continue to hum with colour in a way that makes my heart sing. Along the side of the tunnel now there is a pretty tumble of lemon balm, borage, calendula, daisies and bugle with the deep purple clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ romping away along the fence line above. This is the easiest and laziest of flower gardens!
With the garden reined back in to some semblance of control (ha ha!), it’s time to turn our thoughts once again to the house and, more specifically, to the Great Bathroom Revamp. We’ve been putting this delightful little project on hold as the roof needs to come off for starters and we didn’t fancy life under tarps until the weather was smiling. This is the kind of job where we have absolutely no idea what we will find until we get stuck in so we have plenty of emergency materials on standby; our experience of the house so far tells us that terrible things may well be lurking behind the tiles and having to jump into the car and drive off in search of plumbing bits/ building materials / consolation beer with every disaster is a bit tiresome. The most important thing is we have a clear run to crack on and huge incentives to finish in the shape of Sam and Adrienne visiting in early June and Sarah, Gwyn, Annie and Matthew coming to stay a couple of weeks later. A guest room and a new bathroom? Wow, we’re almost getting to be quite civilised these days! We also need to put aside time to explore new walks and beaches, find the paddling pool pump and check out the ice cream shop. It’s a tough job . . . but we’ll give it our best shot, I promise! 🙂