Living with wasps (and ourselves)

We were eating in the shade of the house, between the crumbling lime render of the north wall and the tubs of three runner bean plants that have not thrived. It was a very late lunch, in the still, heavy air just before the 4pm sweet breeze from the sea.
We were stepping away from the computers and telephones, into the infinite, calming greatness.
I had my back to the pitted wall. There was a low hum. I turned and a fat and yellow creature cruised past my nose and back again – what looked like a hornet, but on reflection may not have been given what transpired.
It was twice the size of your average yellow and black incubus. Mesmerising. During the next five minutes it completely ignored me as it painstakingly explored holes in the render between the red stones, before suddenly rising rapidly through the tangle of wisteria and making a waspline for the woods.
We ate. The breeze arrived. Then back came the purring juggernaut, only now it was clutching a lime-green cricket that was twice its size. What power. Within a few seconds the paralysed prey had been hauled into the chosen hole, presumably food for the wasp’s offspring.  But what was it? It had hornet markings but they are not solitary, and it did not look like a bee-wolf wasp. How I wish I had a photograph to show you.

A pottery mystery. We know what these are, but do you.....But I did present you with photo-puzzle the other day, didn’t I? Clay pots in a tidy row, most of them sealed.  Here is the grisly and frightening story behind them.
The creator was another winged resident of Mother’s Garden, the female pottery or mud dauber wasp, a viscous looking beast with a narrow, thread-like waist and long sting needle that, in fact, is mostly passive where humans are concerned. We regularly have to guide one out of the house.
All these pots, each two centimetres long, were the work of one female, and inside each pot is one lava and several paralysed spiders for it to feed on until it is ready to take wing.
How deep the pool of unknowns and how much to wonder at: How under our noses there is extraordinary life, if we but stop and see, and drop our guard, preconceptions and fears.
A wasp isn’t just a wasp, though it is a fine example of the narrow view.
Wasps come in all manner of colours and the number of species tops 30,000. Or rather, that is the number identified so far, but with nearly 10,000 new species of insects being discovered annually it could well be higher by now. (Have I found another one?)
And although we think they swirl around in gangs looking for humans to puncture, most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging, or non-aggressive varieties. They are another critical, wondrous detail in the tapestry.
Wasps are members of the Hymenoptera order, along with bees and ants, considered to be the most beneficial to life through their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops.
There are a staggering 115,000 species of Hymenoptera, making it the second largest group to Coleoptera (beetles) of which there are 300,000 known species.

The current book pile in our bathroom is as eclectic as ever: Eric Newby travel logs, Catalan grammar course book, English poetry and, yes, a detailed guide to entomology. All of them inform me, not least how little I know.
The leaning tower of literature by my bed is too tall to list, but on top is JM Roberts’ History Of The World which I am reading to Maggie. I first read it to her two decades ago.
We are in the thick of the Roman republic, sliding towards the age of emperors, further flourishes of efficient domination and expansion, and on finally to the corruption, crumbling and collapse of something that had once seemed eternal.
What was it like for that final generation as the sand ran out?
It is unnerving reading, especially when I can bear to turn 360 degrees and attempt to hold all that is manifestly soul-breaking about the human situation now: the weight of relentless, unthinkable aggressions; the wrong, selfish, denial among the economic and political power brokers who are locked into the ages-old patterns of greed and control; the portents of palpable climate change.
I need nature more than ever – to step outside regularly, distancing myself from the numbing babble of the unbridled information age and to find clear air in which to counter the exhaustion, doubts: To try, in my own barefoot way, to find context.
A few elderberries hang from the high branches. We gathered what we could to make cordial and jelly, and now the shoal of sparrows is working to clear the rest, chirping with glee and purple paint-balling the car.
Last week we timed our evening dog walk to coincide with the honey-light and iridescent congregation of bee-eaters on the power line at the top of the farm. More and more. Maggie counted sixty. Yet our honey bees thrive too.
Life in happy balance. Reasons to hope.
Some of our sixty-plus resident bee-eaters.

 

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Here’s an olive farm puzzle

A pottery mystery. We know what these are, but do you.....Summer sighs, olives begin to swell on the trees and we beaver with Mother’s Garden farm work in the early or late hours, or in the shade of the house or barn. In the early afternoon we are in the office, talking olive oil to people from all over the world.
Every day more and more new customers are contacting us to order fresh olive oil, so thank you. We have stock in the UK right now, so please get in touch if you would taste the difference. You can also visit our the online shop.

Here’s the puzzle.
We have started the annual clearing of the barn in readiness for the September grape harvest (we made about 100 litres of farm wine from the little vineyard beside the house) and the all-important November olive harvest.
Hidden in a dark corner behind the olive nets we found some pottery – mud vases all sealed but for one. We find these everywhere and it is a fascinating story. Do you know what they are?
We will tell you later in the week.
Keep well. Eat well.

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Mother’s Garden Cornwall connections

Here is some fresh extra virgin olive oil good news if you live in Cornwall.

Our new labels1First, we are delighted to be now working with top Cornish chef Ben Quinn, whose refreshing approach to food includes Catch and Cook seafood barbecue feasts, dinner parties in your own home, Cook Together Eat Together family feasts, bespoke menu Pop Up Parties, and wonderful Wedding fayre. His business is worldwide. If you have a special occasion or just want an exceptional food experience in a group or as a family, with Mother’s Garden Fresh olive oil on the menu, get in touch with Ben.

Second, if you want to try one 500ml bottle of our fresh olive oil it is available at Argal Farm Shop, just outside Falmouth on the Hillhead Road.  Tel 01326 372737 or see the shop’s Facebook page. Colin and Stacey have a host of other treats for foodies, including homemade cakes, pasties, chutneys, cheeses and even organic skincare. Do you have a deli or farm shop in the Newquay or Penzance areas and would like to stock our fresh olive oil or to ask about it? Please get in touch.

Third, we have more and more Cornish foodies buying direct – 2 or 5 litre containers – and saving on transport by being part of a hub or group who share a single delivery. Again, if you are keen to have fresh olive oil with all its goodness and flavour, at the centre of your table then please get in touch. Some friends who have worked here at Mother’s Garden have done olive oil tastings at some Cornish markets for us – maybe some of you have already tasted some.

Mother’s Garden – cold pressed, exceptional low acidity, one village mill, and we tell you the pressing dates.
FRESHNESS, PROVENANCE, QUALITY

And here are that swallow and the oriole

Yesterday I told of treasures of time, colour and song. Here they are – that swallow on the sundial and, fleetingly, the golden oriole on the crown of the Friar Tuck fig tree.
Care to share my blogs with others? The more that sense Mother’s Garden the happier my world.
Keep well.

Swallow and golden oriole

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Swallow on a sundail, honey in the jar

I’m grateful to the swallow on the sundial. In the delicate beginnings of another day we wake again to the cacophony of golden orioles feasting on tear-drop figs, accompanied by whistling bee-eaters spiralling above.
Outside the storeroom door I drop cat food into an old frying pan for the two barn felines, and lazily lift my gaze up above the muscat grape vine. The swallow sits near the tip of the angled iron rod protruding from the mottled lime render, soon to cast a shadow and tell us the early hour, plum centre on the forehead of the weathered house.
It sums up Mother’s Garden, the common quest to weigh time and consider the natural waypoints to a fulfilling existence. I tiptoe back into the house to get my camera. The swallow bides and I thank it. Then, just to its right, an oriole alights on the dead branch crown of a crowd of fig leaves. The fat tree has a bald patch like Friar Tuck. Most days I glimpse a flash of gold as the fidgety orioles whirl about, never still for more than a breath. But now I am holding my camera. There is just enough light, just enough time.
Bind weed clouds the log pile, life swamping death, and trumpets its victory through a plethora of white blooms that unfold with the warmth. How stupid the word we have for plants that don’t fit our narrow values. Just a few days ago a typically curious, keen-eyed six year old Bavarian boy, staying with his family in our cottage for a few days, and like all little people hungry for real adventures if given the chance, stopped me on our nature walk to marvel at the yellow flowering of a succulent thistle.  The intricacies of things we rarely notice crowd the senses. How raw and rich the world can be to young eyes, uncluttered minds, if time and will can be cherished, nurtured.
The valley steadies its breath, paces itself as the heat of midsummer sucks energy from Englishmen. Hounds and felines flop too and busy ants must make a detour round a lazy tail.
What follows may not be palatable but it is the truth.
Rats come and go. The population is thin most of the time, far thinner than any city, but spikes occasionally when, naturally, there are rich pickings on the fruit trees. These creatures, mostly of the night, take their life in their claws and figs in their teeth. It is impossibly hard for them. They flourish for a few days and those that prey on them circle and close in.
Raptors eye for daylight risk-takers, ring-tailed cats crouch in the dark, and snakes move in. A mostly black western whipsnake (coluber viridiflavus) a 5ft wonder to behold, ignores Maggie to bide in the shade of a drystone wall near the woodpile. It is taking a mid-morning risk, for the birds of prey are partial. The circle of life spins. Ripe, half-eaten figs fall to warm earth, hungers are sated.
Yesterday the sweat was blinding. I was at the hives for nearly two hours in the seamless heat, talking quietly, taking a little honey, repairing frames and delicately transferring one family of 50,000 from one broken hive to another, newly repaired. Only a tiny few lost their patience with me.
Ella was at my side.  We finished, gave thanks and wandered away as slowly as we had come, brushing the last remaining bees from the heavy frames in our hands. Joe helped in the farmhouse hall with the spinning, and then Maggie and I filled an assortment of jars with more than 25lbs of chestnut dark, simple goodness that will last us the year as well as afford us the joy of gifting to friends. Always seek raw honey from untreated mixed farms with healthy hedgerows if you can, where the bees have a host of options, a chance to thrive away from mono crops.  Honey that has not been heated or processed in any way contains natural vitamins, enzymes, powerful antioxidants and vital natural nutrients.
After our labour scores of bees filled the air close to the barn door where, on a yet to be cleared work bench, Joe and I had been repairing frames and affixing the sheets of wax. As I put tools away and tidied the surplus frames, smiling Ella wandered slowly through the thick air, simply attired for a cooling dip in the pool.
I  took myself off up the land, through the eye-height fennel and shin-tickling growth. We have set a fourth hive in the almond grove. No residents yet, but I will put a spun-but-not-spent honey frame in with the new wax sheets as an invitation, a welcome. The bees will come, for sure. Also patiently waiting for signs of their arrival were the iridescent bee-eaters, decorating a pine. Their numbers grow, yet somehow all is in balance. The humming of the honey-makers swells in equal measure.

PS: See our Mother’s Garden Facebook page for Maggie’s latest summer recipe. We’d be delighted, too, if you were able to share the news, blogs, recipes and fresh olive oil from Mother’s Garden.

 

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Making whoopee on a windowsill

Midsummer, languid, the day stirred by the faintest breath of eastern breeze. Look closer and our Earthly peers, the multitude of insects, birds and mammals, are drinking in the zest of the mellow first hour of long shadows.
runner bean success at lastGolden oriels warble and whizz through the pines. A pair of hedge sparrows has left the family shoal and the security of the reef of holly oaks and wild olives next to the chicken run to make whoopee on a windowsill. Oxygen is alive with winged wonders and I have clocked my first western marbled white butterfly of the year.
I potter with the terriers Ted and Tilly on loose leads. They know the rhythm. I water and talk to my sapling olives and then dwell happily in the vegetables. Maggie joins me and we harvest runner beans, a moment of the greatest cerebral sustenance. For years we have tried to grow runner beans. They always reach for the sky, flower but fail. Last year I couldn’t even be bothered to pull up the roots.
But this year those old plants shot again. I watered and sprayed them, building another bamboo frame, enjoying the meditation but not holding out much hope.  It is too hot here, too dry, however much I give them to drink, or so we thought. Maybe that is the secret. Don’t plant seedlings, but leave the old plants to die back, to come again and again.
Our new potatoesNew red pontiac potatoes jewel our plates. It has been a very good root crop year, for a change, and the wild boar have not come a calling.
The paths and track, remoulded by the crashing storm last week, harden again. Memories of the trauma are slipping away, but we must go to a neighbours to pick her ripening apricots that were pitted by the hail.
Our storm-blasted village made national television news. Hail in late June and the most rainfall anywhere in Spain in the last decade. Farmers in our valley face grim grape and olive harvests this autumn. We too, but our vast fig trees seem to have offered a little protection to the vines. We shall see.  My pulse has settled again. What will be will be.
Another storm is coming, but of the human variety.  In towns and along the coast road bright shacks have appeared like pop-up kitchens in London parks. Only they are peddling deafening wares – explosives for the all-night firework festival of Sant Joan, from nightfall today to birdsong and ambulance sirens on tomorrow.
Already piles of combustible rubbish are growing in villages and naughty boys are lobbing bangers in the streets, the portent of thunderous fun and roaring fires on the one summer night in the year when firemen and medics are particularly twitchy. Like running before the bulls, the risks never stop the ritual, the upholding of Iberic traditions that defy caution and define identity. Let’s hope no flames are fanned and that our luck holds.

I must go and post an olive oil recipe. Maggie has been making parsley oil, perfect for our new potatoes, for marinating meats and simply for spooning on to her fresh bread. Quick and simple goodness, and such flavour. Mmmm.
If you would like some fresh olive oil, let us know.

Keep well

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Our furious world

Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, doors blown off hinges, terrified chickens; horizontal hailstones that rattle on tiles, these are a few examples of the world going wild.
June the 17th. Nearly two inches of rain in under two hours. Yes, hail too.  We hunched  in the dry, comforting ourselves by comforting our old hound Biba who cannot abide the gods rearranging their furniture. Gashes in the iron red track bled with the torrent. Then the clouds lumbered east, chased by two of the flying boats fighting the lightning-strike forest fire 15 miles south-west of us. Yesterday the sky was stained like the nicotine pub ceilings of my youth. The wind propelling the storms was fanning the flames.  Latest count, 1000 mountain-top acres torched.
Today’s moisture-madness may have extinguished that fire, but the crackling could have started another.  We wait to find out. Once, a tree that took a direct hit, burned at the core, then toppled two days later when all was dry again. Wwoof.
I paddled out before the final drops, certain that our cottage guests (Japanese and Australian) would have rivulets running from windows across the terracotta tiles, and that the normally dry swimming pool motor would be submerged. Right on both counts.  I mopped, then with the sun on my wet back I steamed as I tried to get a small submersible pump with pipe attached down into the opaque depths beside the floundering pool pump. I jiggled the pipe too much and it came away in my hand. A fountain of dirty water hit me full in the face. It stopped the steaming for a short while, though.
What damage to the tiny olives forming on the trees, the young grapes on the vines? Maggie met a friend in town and the tale from her family farm was grim. The shadow of the storm will reach to a poor harvest.
You wonder, though, don’t you, when those gambling the economy against ecology, share prices against sea levels, power lust against the force of nature, the fat and greedy now against the increasingly sick future, are shamed for their woefully limited reaction to the glaringly obvious. History will damn them, but that is no help now.

Ella is home for the summer . We are four.

I will post again in a couple of days. Keep well.

Martin

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Away with the fairies

And don’t let me forget to tell you the story of the blue bird and the blue whale….. another true story from The Garden.

Fairies dwell in our garden. It’s always good to be away with them. We join for sustenance almost every dappled evening now, weeding and watering our vegetable patch and minds.
May. It sedates the cats and lifts the heart with beguiling shades of new life that surges before the eyes. When I listen hard I see more, and even deadening ear protectors for occasional tractor duty only seem to evoke dreamier enchantments.
Veg garden at sunsetThere is so much to fill every minute, what with the need for paths through the waist-high grasses while avoiding the wild flowers, and especially now that the holiday cottage has awoken with the deepening of the warming seasons and the lengthening of the outside hours, when people want to change their rhythm for a while, to touch the earth, bare their knees, stare at stars and hear the cacophony of nature that we all call peace. The bookings calendar is, finally, beginning to fill through to September – air for the financial rubber ring. Still gaps though, in case you were wondering.
And in the office my book and screenplay ponderings blur with managing olive oil shipments and sales in the UK as customers wanting at least the summery taste of Mother’s Garden send their orders. Sales build as the word “freshness” spreads and I must re-visit my passionate thoughts on the delicious and healthy subject of the juice of the olive before flying back to the UK to give a presentation at Hunstanton Golf Club at the end of the month. I’ll then move on to London to see our Ella who has just finished her Film Foundation course at the University of the Arts.
We crack on early with the many tasks after a round of animals feeding and plant watering. Yet, when we flop for early evening English tea the meditative tasks of the vegetable garden inspire us to stand again. When approached in the right frame of mind it is not toil, but comfort, don’t you agree? The art, of course, is to tickle along, to make small but visible advances every day, and when we don’t there is a pang. There are the usually misses as well as the hits, and the occasional rewards of indescribable goodness for the table. But equally importantly, we need this gentle time, individually and as a couple.
Last night two new raised beds, prepared with a mix of mature pony poo and ash, were planted with aubergines and peppers.  While Maggie carefully spread olive leaf mulch around them I puzzled over how best to increase on last year’s runner bean crop of four pods. The plants reached the top of the canes and we watered the leaves, flowers and roots, but it was most probably the heat that stopped the fruiting.  We planted too late. This year the plants are deciding. They have shot again from last year’s roots. Can I create some sort of shade for them?
If the rampant lettuces are anything to go by we have got the soil balance about right for once. Next to go in are the tomato and melon seedlings, plus some more runner beans.
DSCF2763At the back of the house our peas, French beans, courgettes, onions and broad beans aren’t exactly flourishing , and I think I may lose two of the ten young olives I in the autumn. A third is looking unhappy too, so at first light I cleaned around them all, laid down some mulch, watered and talked.
Today I must strim down the grass touching the electric fence, grit my teeth and test the system, for another hog season is upon us, that time of year when midnight wild boar shed their shyness and come within feet of the farmhouse door in search of salad sustenance.
It was still 21 degrees at 9pm last night, but by sunrise there was dew and a zing in the air. Wrynecks, golden orioles and serins have joined the chorus, and the barn swallows and fig tree bee eaters chose the same day to wing in from Africa. Today I have been trying in vain to photograph the pair of short-toed eagles riding the blue river of light between the banks of the Catalonian mountains.
The wild asparagus season has waned, sadly, but we have had our fill, which reminds me of our very recent, extraordinary stay in Rutland, land of my ancestors, the Healey clan of Edith Weston.  Two incidents made it extraordinary. First, we spied wild asparagus in England for the first time (but I am not at liberty to tell you where….) and, second, we were there when the earthquake struck. It felt like a truck had reversed into the building. Been to countless countries where the earth moves and never felt a twitch.
Ah yes. The blue bird and the blue whale.
Ever since I can remember we have had a large gourd shell that needed to be put to a good purpose. The hollow, hard, bulbous former vegetable had been lying about; beautiful to the eye, but unless we used it as a water carrier like ancient civilisations it was destined to be merely decorative and homeless.  Like a great many useless things we can’t bear to throw away, it ended up moving around in the barn.
My nephew Yan, a musician, digging for bits to repair the dog kennel for us, saw it and asked if he could use it to make a kora harp. He’d learned to play and make them in Senegal. Great. One side was cut away, leaving two-thirds of the shell and the funnel neck intact. But he ran out of time and so the gourd shell returned to an old crate.
Then artist Paul, a regular visitor, spied it. I think it had moved to near the gardening bits and bobs by then. He thought it was perfect for an up-light. He painted it as a striking blue whale, with two small holes for eyes. We put it in the outside toilet near the holiday cottage swimming pool and, boy, did it shine. Once or twice.
But the convenience, which has western saloon bar swing doors for, er, ventilation, is rarely used at night, and not at all through the winter and spring.
Yesterday Maggie was in there, clearing and cleaning in preparation for our first guests of the season who arrive today. Only they will have to use the loos in the cottage, not the one with the whale light.
A blue tit has built a nest in it and there are about eight eggs about to hatch.
We’ve turned the outside sign round from vacant to occupied.
Keep well, and happy gardening.
And if you like the tales for The Garden, please spread the word. The more the merrier.

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Fresh olive oil for summer – taking orders

STOCK UP FOR SUMMER FEASTS AND SNACKS – we have a new supply of fresh, award-winning extra virgin olive oil from our village mill in Britain now for immediately delivery.Our new labels1
More and for foodies who want the finest, freshest cold pressed arbequina extra virgin olive oil at a sensible price, bursting with goodness and flavour and with exceptionally low acidity, are joining our customer list.
Try it for yourself.
And for orders over £100 (why not share a delivery with family or friends?) we will refund you the delivery cost, meaning you can get our fresh oil for as little as £7.50 a litre.
Provenance, quality and freshness – trust the tree that is Mother’s Garden.

WHY FRESHNESS MATTERS.
If you just have a question and not an order that’s great too. Just ask.
Or come and see us here in The Priorat, Catalonia and experience Mother’s Garden. We have a few holiday cottage weeks left unbooked in May, June and July.
Keep well. Eat well.

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All that is Mother’s Garden

Wild flowers openingApril rollercoasts on. Downpours, pulsing heat, clouds spilling over the mountains like frothy milk from a boiling pan. Gales then breathless calm. Life rushes headlong, while I stand in the vineyard and wait to watch the wonder of a myriad of wild flowers opening to the sun.
wild flowers in the vineyardThe laughing wrynecks and the frenetic serins leave the pre-dawn chorus to the warblers and blackbirds, then fill the bright hours with their calls. The family of short-toed eagles come lower and lower scanning for snakes in the myriad colours and riches of spring. Swallows surge north. We await the bee eaters.
The pollinators are thick in the air, and the dew pearls the countless funnel webs of the grass spiders. What speedsters these eight-eyed funnel weavers are, darting from their lairs to dine on blue-winged grasshoppers or other insects that drop onto their fishing nets.
We have set another hive, in the almond grove this time, in penance. A swarm took up residence in our loft. I squeezed after them into the darkness, even chiselling away part of a wall to try and reach the queen bee in the slim hope of settling her and her entourage somewhere else. But they were down a narrow, dusty shaft clogged with water pipes. Arm wedged, only my fingertips could reach them. I failed.
No stings, though, until yesterday. Wandering back from the far side of the wildflower meadow with another fistful of wild asparagus, I cast too close an eye at the comings and goings of our older hives.  Two of the four hum with life and I must tend them, perhaps moving the vacant dwellings up to the almond grove. How mesmerizing the essence of life that is a tireless bee community. Too much so. I drifted closer and was nailed mid-forehead.
Sitting at the kitchen table, rubbing a clove of garlic on the sting, Maggie and I indulged in our constant reflection on the diverse joy and immeasurable wonder of the nature that swirls around us, somehow tolerating and thriving despite our footprints and human clumsiness.
We will leave the grasses and flowers for the insects and continue to channel our energies and water from the spring into the vegetable garden where peas, broad beans, lettuces, onions, courgettes are up and running. We still have half of our 30 kilos of seed potatoes to plant and, as ever, I’ve not quite come up with an irrigation system that fills Maggie (or me) with confidence.  So, on every evening dog walk, I surreptitiously dampen the patches of dry soil with the aid of a watering can.
Ground spiderEight more olive trees, lost for decades to wilderness, have been freed and pruned, and a bee orchid has popped up to celebrate.
There, in that fingernail-sized bloom, is everything that matters about Mother’s Garden.
I must press on. A shipment of fresh olive oil leaves for England today and I must alert our lovely customers. If you would like to join them just let me know. There is, by the way,  a new post on our business facebook page about the joys of fresh olive oil and fresh asparagus, now coming into season in Britain.
Keep well – and remember, our cottage is available should you want to visit. See here for availability. Late deals for May and early June. Just ask.