Tilled and tidied

My huerto (Martin Kelsey)

I confess that too often it takes second place and suffers an inevitable neglect. But there are few places that give me such a sense of satisfaction as my little vegetable garden, my huerto. Lying just in view from our main gate, at the base of the slope carrying our olives and beside the ancient pond, is my fenced-off plot, probably well less than half the size of a standard British allotment (which is ten poles - a wonderful old measure dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and about 250 square metres). It is in summer when my visits are daily: each evening to check the irrigation for the tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. As winter approaches, the peppers are still prolific and tomatoes hang from their vines. But now, as in early spring, is the time for the major tasks. But opportunities are scarce. On days of fine weather weather there will be the competition with the allure of exploring further afield, often with guests, finding birds and other wildlife in woodland, plains, the rice fields and mountains. But I will have to find days, like yesterday, when it is fine and the sun is shining, with the soil recovered enough from earlier rains, but with the prospect of wet days ahead. It was now or never.

My task was to fork in the manure from our chickens into as much of the plot as possible and follow that with the sowing of broad beans and planting of garlic. The latter job was a tad bit on the early side to do, but looking ahead over a busy month ahead, I could not be sure of otherwise getting the garlic in before mid-winter. The soil was in perfect condition to dig and it took less time than I had expected to have forked over the whole plot, save where the tomatoes and peppers still stood (that I will leave for later) and the portion holding rows of spring brassicas.  As I left the huerto at the close of the afternoon, two rows of garlic and four rows of broad beans were settled-in in the freshly dug soil, I had picked some peppers and the cabbages had been hoed. There was a fundamental sense of creating stepping stones in time: the large beans placed in the ground, waiting for the emergence of their germinating shoots in a few weeks time, checking their growth in early spring, picking the large pods in early May, shelling and freezing the anticipated kilos of beans for eating.

My love of growing vegetables is almost as long as that of my feelings about nature and it was my father that got me hooked. I especially remember though on long summer holidays to my maternal grandparents' smallholding, understanding the sense of rotation and annual cycles and the appreciation that with a wise choice of plants grown and careful storage, one could be almost self-sufficent. For them this was not the result of indulging in a lifestyle choice, this was from necessity and tradition in a small rural community. It was John Seymour who wrote that small well-looked-after cottage gardens produced vegetables every year over centuries.  It hit an almost romantic nerve in me: a total admiration of what care and nurturing could yield from the soil. I spent six months after leaving school working on a smallholding in Wales where my responsibilities were the vegetables and hand-milking their Welsh Black cow, whose name was Brenda.

There on that Welsh hillside, a pause from the task gave me the chance to watch Common Redstarts in the sessile oaks, or Buzzards soaring over the magnificence of the Welsh marches. Here too in my huerto in Extremadura there is always reward too. A Cetti's Warbler sang as I worked and overhead drifted Griffon Vultures and a wintering Red Kite. Without any particular effort, I have found no fewer than ten species of amphibians and reptiles in the vegetable garden over the years, as well as relishing other distractions from Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Hawfinches to Golden Eagles and Black Storks.  It is simply another gifted chance to be outdoors.


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