Today, my shadow touched the garden after four weeks’ absence. That’s a long time in human affairs, but in January, barely worth two summer days of plant growth. That’s a pretty good exchange rate: I’ve been spending some time abroad.
After the festive season, this year’s winter break was spent in warmer climes. The official line is that this allows me to be outside amongst plants that are active, though sceptics might wryly note the “topped up” status of my sun tan.
Andalucia, in Southern Spain, has a rich, living horticultural tradition. We stayed at Chris and Terry’s Finca Colina in Barranca. Not far inland from the dense golden honey pot of the Costa del Sol, it’s a tranquil tapestry of smallholdings, shielded from unbalanced development by its sheer topography. Each lime-washed house balances among its steep few acres of extensive olive and almonds. Extensive, as the relative financial returns on such land is too low now for most, except the goat herders, to work it full time.
This presumably assists the wild plants of the understory, so that on my kernel-warming wanderings under almond blossom I would meet more salad burnet, mountain thyme, apple mint, fennel and navelwort than I could hope to use.
One of the magics of real travel, or just stopping still to see things differently, is the surprise of the familiar, like the common-or-garden plants listed above – interlaced with the bafflingly exotic. Out of this foreign language of flowers emerged some moments of enlightenment: an endemic thorny specimen was pointed out as wild asparagus, the shoots of which we later found in abundance at Algeciras market. The larger of the many cork-skinned evergreens in this dry land identified itself as a carob: by their fruits shall thee know them.
On the track homewards, the many railside cultivations looked like allotments, only different. The town of Ronda was a leader, but not unique, in lining its streets with orange trees. From bitter experience, I can confirm these to be marmalade, rather than desert, types. In Madrid, Emilio, a founder member of OrganicLea, tried to dispel any romantic notions that the citizens or council might have utilised these as an urban harvest; he also bemoaned the lack of organic vegetables – this in spite (or even because?!) of fairly healthy food, and radical political, cultures.
So the journey ended, as I had a hunch it might, with a familiar riddle: how to construct the rainbow bridge that should only connect [as EM Forster might have it] our brave crazy human race with food, land, nature, each other…with wonder.
And so, back to the job in hand: a year at the urban market garden.
As promised, I come bearing seed, notably a fine chilli cultivar, “Bolivian Rainbow”, courtesy of the Finca Colina Chilli Patch. But seeing the amount of work that has gone on in my absence, I feel more prodigal son than returning hero.