Thursday, November 27, 2014

Autumnal jobs around the garden - the working area

Every season brings with it the need to keep on top of work in and around the garden. Autumn is especially busy for us. Surrounded by mature trees, we have many fallen leaves to collect which provide us with leaf mold for the following year. The colours of autumn are especially vivid this year prompted by an extended warm and dry period followed by cooler and damper weather.

Our main working area in the garden is down by the potting shed. When we first came here we built a partition hedge/fence around it made out of coppiced twigs, branches and logs: an idea we saw first used at Worsborough Reservoir in Barnsley, UK. This has worked well for us and has not only provided a natural looking compound around the working area but also a haven for wildlife including slow worms, beetles, lizards, birds, amphibians, mice and many moths and other insects which are so important in maintaning the natural balance in and around our vegetable beds and small orchard. We call this creation a fedge for want of a better word.

The fedge has served us well and each year we add more and more surplus branches and used bean poles and such which over time rot down and provide a valuable habitat - a functional and manicured wood pile. From time to time we have repaired it with new supports cut from coppiced hazel and last year we added discreet iron bars to help hold its shape and substance.

This year we will have a lot of coppiced hazel to add to the fedge so we decided to purchase some treated posts which will increase the height of the fedge and enable us to add a lot more material.

At the same time of renovating the fedge we decided that the leaf bin needed replacing as it had begun to rot and break apart. Fortunately we had a few pallets in stock from recent building work so with a bit of tweaking, a few nails and a staple gun we were able to produce a replacement leaf bin which is much stronger, slightly bigger and that will last us a good few years.  We will need to think about replacing the compost bins next year and we still need to re-treat the shed with preservative but for now, the working area is once again fully functional and will serve us well in the coming weeks as the autumnal garden jobs are tackled.

More creatures from our garden can be found on Smaller Tales from Toriello

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Staying safe and warm this winter

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It is rare to have any heating on in the house before the onset of November and unlikely that heat is needed after April. We have two sources of heating, log burners (one in the lounge and one in the studio) and diesel central heating which also heats the water. We rarely use the central heating apart from taking the chill of the house if the log burner hasn't been lit for a while. The insulation in the house is really good and once warm, it retains an ambient temperature for a good 12 hours. This is despite the high ceilings and open stairway. 

We source our wood from a local merchant who needs reminding from time to time that we want mixed wood with oak, cut to an appropriate length and where possible dry... and we occasionally need to remind him that we are locals and want a good price. Luis is very good at negotiating and setting out terms and conditions (a formal way of saying - "if it's no good, we won't accept it and you will have to take it back"). To save having two different sizes delivered we split and cut the larger logs ourselves so that we can use it for the smaller log fire in the studio.

When possible, we try to keep a year ahead with our wood store so that when we come to use it we can be assured that it is dry and it will burn more efficiently.

Our wood supply is supplemented from time to time by fallen apple, cherry or hazel that is gifted to us by neighbours. We never refuse as wood is expensive here and if we didn't collect it it would probably be burnt in situ and wasted. We have a good chain saw, axes and log splitter but we are very aware that there are dangers when operating such machines, especially a chainsaw. A couple of years ago Luis almost lost two fingers when a lapse in concentration by the chainsaw operator and poor technique resulted in the saw driving over his gloved hand, cutting through the leather and slicing deep into his flesh. Fortunately, both fingers healed well.

We always wear chainsaw gloves, goggles and ear defenders when operating a chainsaw but we are very aware that our home-made saw horse is not ideal. I recently came across a piece of equipment called a Log Master. Having watched several Youtube videos, it seemed like a good investment and something that would significantly reduce the possibility of accidents (and back strain) when using a chainsaw. We have just acquired one and will unpack, assemble and use it in the very near future. We will report back in a subsequent blog post.   You can read more about it here and watch a short film: Log Master

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A clifftop walk

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Tomason Cliffs near our village (Toriello) looking westwards.

I have always been attracted by the sea with its changing moods, sounds, colours, smells and the way in which it reflects light under different conditions. If in addition to all of that you add the stunning ragged limestone cliffs we get on the stretch of the Asturian coast near La Pasera,you could easily understand how little it takes for me to forget all I am doing and simply go for a walk along the cliffs. This is what I did this afternoon, I simply could not resist taking this walk knowing there was a storm coming towards Spain and causing rough seas.

I personally love this walk and every time I do it I notice something different along the ragged but stunning limestone cliffs that make me stop to admire the views or be captivated by the way the waves crash against the rocks.

Walking along the cliffs, the sea in never silent and I have come to view the sea in this part of the Bay of Biscay as a friend that accompanies me on a walk and whose constant voice I never tire of; a friend whose voice at times is soft and gentle while others it is powerful and loud.

Halfway along this walk, I never fail to be impressed by a small rock island that stands like a solitary witness; where a local rock climber can occasionally be seen defying gravity; one of its faces is rather smooth and makes a nice challenge for those who enjoy this popular sport here in Asturias. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush.

Within a short distance further East, I came by an area known by local fishermen as St. Michael's Bridge. Other than the occasional fisherman precariously hanging at the edge of the cliffs with a fishing rod it is unusual to meet others along this path. The rough seas are a good time for them to come out fishing, it is very rare to come across other people along the path. The sense of solitude and tranquility along this walk is something I find to be very inspiring.

St. Michael's Bridge
St.Michael's Bridge is one of the most beautiful areas within this walk and close to the picnic area known as Castro Arenas at the mouth of the Guadamia river estuary where the clifftop walk ends. From Castro Arenas the views both towards the West and East are simply stunning and the drama as the waves crash against the cliffs and reach all the way over the clifftop is something that I always find captivating and never fails to impress me.

Depending of the tide, at this time of the year, the blowholes that dot the coastline in this part of the Asturian coast are a natural phenomenon worthwhile seeing and Castro Arenas without doubt is the best place to enjoy this spectacle. On this particular day, the blowholes were just starting to work and as the tide comes it forces air and sea water that comes out through the blowholes as a water vapour geyser.

There is an Asturian word that refers to this phenomenon: "bromaduriu" a beautiful sounding word for a beautiful and impressive show that nature graces us with. I hope you one day have a chance to visit this beautiful part of the Asturian coast and enjoy this fantastic walk.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How we prepare the vegetable plot for Winter


As the days get shorter we start noticing a drop in the temperatures, especially first thing in the morning, that contrast with the hot sunshine we experience in the middle of the day. This warmth encourages a spur of growth not only in the vegetable plot but also in the garden and miniature gardens where the Lithops or pebble plants start to bloom.

The hot and dry weather we tend to get by the coast at this time of the year encourages the last of the aubergines and peppers to ripen whilst the Winter crops start coming into their own. In another post I will write about what is happening with the crops that we will be harvesting as Autumn deepens and Winter becomes closer.

The red peppers will be bottled, we freeze the green ones to use later in cooking whilst the aubergines we will be frozen after they are grilled or made into a pate.

In the vegetable plot, one of the main jobs we normally undertake at this time of the year is the clearing and composting of all those vegetable plants that have come to an end and digging of the soil in readiness for sowing oats as green manure.

Home made compost is a valuable resource and you can never have too much. This year the Summer months were unusually dry and as a result the garden produced a much smaller amount of organic matter that goes into the compost bins. At the beginning of Autumn, one of our compost bins was only half full and the other completely empty rather than both been bursting to the rim. We brought a few barrow loads of dry grass from a nearby meadow that our neighbour would have otherwise burnt. This grass comes from a meadow where animals graze and no chemicals have been used.

An important health and safety aspect to take into account when dealing with drying grass is the amounts of spores that semi rotten grass produces. These spores are a respiratory sensitisers and can lead to chest problems if breathed, hence the use of a mask. 

With the several barrow loads we brought in, we should have enough compost to dig into the soil when the next growing season starts in late February or early March. As the grass was rather dry, we had to water it to ensure it rots over the Winter months. 

Another of the big jobs that we normally undertake before the wet and cold weather season starts is the preparation of the soil in the areas now empty of growing plants in readiness to sow the oats as a green manure.

We considered buying a mechanical rotovator but decided against this once we found out that using these devices would kill most of the earthworms, an invertebrate whose benefits to the soil are numerous as they help the break down of organic matter and improve soil structure with the tunnels they create which also help improve soil compaction and aeration. Consequently, we use a spade or garden fork to dig the soil. It is nice to see how the earthworm population appears to increase year after year and as a result of the organic matter added to the soil.

Once the soil is dug over, a light sprinkling of oat seeds is applied over the whole surface before the seeds get gently raked into the soil. Some people leave the oat seeds to germinate whilst they lay on the soil surface. We favour covering them lightly with soil by raking them in.

As the oats grow, their roots reach deep into the soil breaking it up and thus improving its structure. With the oats covering the surface of the soil, seeds from weeds are less likely to germinate. The benefits from sowing oats or any other type of green manure at this time of the year are many.

We will often see Gawber and Wentworth eating tender oat shoots to purge themselves, another good reason to continue sowing oats at this time of the year. We find the oats will start germinating within 7 to 10 days depending on weather condition such as warmth and humidity.