What’s blooming now in my garden

With the first autumn rains coming early this year, the garden has greened up in the three weeks we´d been away. The daisies (Bellis perennis) are looking fabulous. The yellow flowers among the daisies are not dandelions — they´re autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis).

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Here’s a closer look. The back side of the petals are a lovely pink.

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I’d totally forgotten that I’d planted a cyclamen tuber in this boulder some time ago. What a lovely surprise! The curled up stem close to the soil is a seed capsule which bears as many as 12 seeds. Very clever of the cyclamen to insert the seed capsule into the soil. Ants are attracted to the sweet coating of the seeds and carry them away from the plant. They´re not interested in the seed itself and leave it once they´ve licked it clean, thus aiding in the cyclamen´s proliferation.

Cyclamen in boulder.JPGThe chrysanthemums, despite being frozen last winter, have come through. Here they are looking promising in bud.

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A few spiral orchids (Spiranthes spiralis), also known as lady´s tresses orchid, are still in bloom, but most were flattened by heavy machinery when the new septic tank was put in while we were away.

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I am willing myself to be optimistic that the spiral orchids will come back next year. The double track made by the backhoe into the daisy “lawn” (ouch!) was precisely where the spiral orchids grew thickest last year.

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Some lovely pale blue chicory are still in bloom.

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The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo, madroño in Spanish) has fruits  ripening at the same time as its new flowers. It is often mentioned that the species name unedo (“only one”) is due to the insipid taste of the fruit, so that one is enough. To my surprise, the arbutus fruits on the two trees we have here are very sweet, too sweet for my taste in fact. A potent liqueur is made from the fruits in Portugal (called aguardente de medronho) and the Canary islands. In Madrid as well, licor de madroño is a typical drink, perhaps because the madroño and a bear feature on the coat of arms of the city, although the tree itself does not flourish in Madrid.  I am tempted to suggest that the specific unedo is actually because if you eat more than one, you are likely to become inebriated, due to the high alcohol content of the ripe fruits.

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Can you see the bumble bee on one of the flowers?

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The blossoms on this miniature pomegranate were a surprise. I had not expected any for at least two more years. I wonder if there will be some mini fruits? Watch this space….

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Purple in the vegetable garden

Color is something I’d never considered as a criterion for choosing which vegetables to grow… that is, until this year. It’s not that I hadn’t appreciated the lovely blue-green of cabbage leaves before. Or the equally gorgeous silvery grey and majestic structure of artichoke leaves. But this year I decided to go with purple. In particular, purple kohlrabi. I confess I’ve never eaten much kohlrabi before, neither green nor purple. But the photo on the seed packet was so irresistible, I just caved in.

As a plant, purple kohlrabi, did not disappoint. It started out with purple stems, and its leaves are veined with the same exquisite colour. Even if it bore no fruit, it is such a beautiful plant, it made me so happy just to be able to grow it.

 

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And of course when the ‘fruit’ started to swell up just above the roots, it was almost unbelievable!!! I harvested it at the size of a plum, but I couldn’t stop gazing at it. It was so stunning in all its parts — its stems, its leaves with their purple veins. How could I cut into such beauty, or even contemplate eating it? Just cutting off the leaves pained me. I reluctantly peeled off its lovely purple coat to put it in a  salad. It was sweet and extremely crisp. I shall definitely be planting more.

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The other contributor of purple to the vegetable garden are purple-podded beans. I’m growing them for the first time as well. The stems, similar to the purple kohlrabi, also start out purple. And the flowers are divine.

Color in veg gdn prpl podded pea flwr vine gYou can see the bean developing below.

Color in the veg gdn fab 3 stages of pea fab.JPG I love the way the purple-podded bean tendril and new leaves go well with the kohlrabi leaf with its light purple veins.

Casa color in the veg gdn kohlrabi lf pea leaf fab.JPGIn the same veg bed is Amaranth ‘Velvet Curtains’. The amaranth’s seeds are edible, as are the young leaves, though I have yet to try them.

 

Amaranth seedlings2Given lots of water, they grow very fast and quite tall.

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The amaranth looks great behind the purple-podded bean. On the left is a bean leaf, which has purplish tones as well. The frilly leaf in the middle is kale.

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Casa color in the veg gdn amaranth curly kale g.JPGI’ve sown orange Tagetes all around the perimeter, not only for the colour contrast, but as well to deter nematodes A bit brassy, but quite cheering.

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It’s great to see what works and doesn’t work in terms of color and texture. I’m not too sure brassy Tagetes is in the right place, but as long as it deters nematodes, it can stay right where it is.

 

 

 

 

Garden blues

Blue in the garden begins with the wild chicory. Last year they only grew in one place, but this spring they have seeded all over the garden.

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Then the electric blue ‘Grandpa Ott’ morning glory takes over.

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Here’s a closer look at ‘Grandpa Ott’. I brought the seeds with me from my garden in Bonn.Casa morning glory blue zoom fab

These are Salvia farinacea, I believe, otherwise known as mealy sage. Unlike the other sages, they have shiny leaves that, rather to my surprise, withstood last winter’s snow and hail quite well.

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Summer heat doesn’t faze them either. Here they are, looking quite hale, after the last heat wave.

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Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is another of my faves. It’s another toughie, standing up well to cold and heat. Depending on the time of day, it can look blue or mauve. The photo below was taken in late afternoon, so the setting sun’s scattered red rays may have tinted them slightly lavender.

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The agapanthus, which I brought with me from Germany, is not used to having a thuggish local lavender nearby. It has gotten rather swamped, and will have to be moved where it can spread itself.  I hope to get more of them, as the flowers are really true blue.

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Tough lilies — A lesson in survival

Last year while exploring an abandoned quarry, I came upon two clumps of what I took to be some kind of lily near a mound of dumped construction debris. (It is illegal to dump such material except for in the designated area, but people do it anyway. Shame on them.) The plants looked moribund, but I thought I might just manage to rescue them, as the leaves were still showing a bit of green. The clumps were rather heavy, so we only took one home. What with one thing and another, and with so many other plants that needed immediate attention, the clump did not get planted into the ground. I´d left it sitting near an olive, waiting its turn till I got around to it. Every so often I would give it some water, but not in a regular fashion.

Imagine my surprise when I saw what looked like a flower stalk just a week or so ago. And as the days went by, more and more stalks came springing up. What joy to behold these marvelous white blooms now gracing this former bedraggled clump. I thought they might be Pancratium lilies, but these look like something else entirely. I suspect they are a species of Crinum, perhaps a hybrid. If anyone can identify them, I´d really appreciate it.

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Well, seeing how lovely these lilies turned out to be, my cupidity was aroused, and so we went to see if the other clump was still there. And it was. While nosing around, I found yet another clump abandoned under the shade of a pine. While cleaning up the bigger clump, removing the dried up leaves, I spied a flower stalk two days ago. I hadn´t expected it to flower so soon. I thought it might need a year to settle down, at the very least. This morning, like a miracle, the whole clump seems to have woken up and decided to strut its stuff. Overnight, flower stalks have erupted all over. And this is a plant that has only received whatever rain has graced it over the winter. It has been baking under the sun as well. This is most definitely one tough plant!

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Strewn on the ground are the dried leaves that I´d cleared from the clump. The pot was only for transporting it from where we´d found it. It had been abandoned just on its own roots. Two flower stalks are peeking out.

The one that has been more sheltered from the sun is showing just one flower stalk. Its leaves are also not as robust. Perhaps it needed to be out braving the sun and being blessed by the rain.

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This morning both clumps were planted into the ground and watered. We shall see how well they take to a little bit of pampering.

Sowing with the moon

There are gardeners who faithfully sow according to the phases of the moon, firm in their belief that the tug of the moon’s gravity influences germination time. I have in the past tried to time my sowing of flower seeds as the moon heads towards fullness, but I have not kept a record of how much faster germination happened. This year however, I’ve actually noted when I sowed seeds and when they eventually germinated. The earliest to germinate was a green vegetable: mizuna (Brassica rapa var. Nipponica), also known as Japanese turnip greens (and sometimes as mustard greens). Sown on the 1st of July, they germinated on the 3rd, a mere 48 hours from sowing. I was truly amazed.

Mizuna early germination_6441

I was concerned that the higher temperatures at the end of June would deter germination. Another concern was the onset of summer heat for the next month — according to a local gardener, mid-July to mid-August is the period of greatest heat. I’d been away during what would have been the best time to sow seeds for summer crops, but now that I’ve sown the seeds, it would be interesting to see how they fare at the height of summer. Today the mizuna look like this, with their first true leaves — the serrated ones — up. I shall have to thin these out soon.

Mizuna first true leaves

The optimum soil temperature that triggers cabbage (and its relatives, such as mizuna) seeds to germinate at 99% certainty is 77ºF or 26ºC (from germination tables posted by Tom Clothier. On average at this temperature, cabbage seeds should germinate in 5 days. So, my result compares favourably. Could this be attributed to the power of the moon? Hmmm… I honestly don’t know, and I would need another sowing (if not more) of the same seeds when the moon is on the wane for comparison.

The runner beans, sown on the same day as the mizuna, took 5 days to germinate, and leaves opened out on the 6th day. Cucumber – a local variety with a pale green skin and a similar shape to snake gourd — took 3 days to germinate. This is the same number of days posted by Tom Clothier at 86ºF (30ºC), though I doubt it refers to the same variety of cucumber.

Tarragon and Thai basil germinated in 4 days, and the dill and salad burnet likewise. This herb gardening site  gives 10 – 14 days as standard for tarragon seed to germinate (no soil temperature given on this site; for basil, 5 – 10 days. If using a special propagation medium (and I did not), basil could germinate in 2 – 3 days, and tarragon in a week.

Okra germinated in 5 days for me, and the germination time given for it by the SF Gate (no soil temperature given) is within a week, so it has germinated well within the normal time expected.

I also sowed some flower seeds: cosmos sprouted in 4 days; and sunflowers in 5 days.

Whether the moon’s phase had an accelerating effect or not, the rapid germination of these seeds – some of which are quite old and have been in storage for the past 3 years – is nothing short of astounding. The air temperature at sowing time has been between 21ºC (69.8ºF) and 27ºC (80º F) during the day, and dipped by 3 – 5ºC during the night.

I’m too much of a skeptic to garden entirely by the moon, though it remains to be seen whether the seeds I sow from now on, i.e., during the moon’s waning or dark phase, will germinate as rapidly as those sown before.

For those who are curious about gardening by the moon: this site recommends planting annual flowers and vegetables that bear crops above ground during the moon’s waxing phase: that is, from the day of the new moon to the day of the full moon. Flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers, and vegetables that bear crops below ground are best planted during the waning phase: from the day after the full moon to the day before the new moon.

A German gardening magazine, Mein Schöner Garten, and its sister publication, Mein Schönes Land, use a more detailed moon calendar published by the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland. This society also advocates Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic method of gardening. The society’s Mondkalendar (moon calendar) even goes into specific hours, not just days, for garden care of flowers, leaves, fruits, and roots. It also recommends when to trim hedges or to do weeding, so that the subsequent growth is slower or weaker, thus lightening these garden chores.

I leave you with the moon over our hamlet, the day before it was full.

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Asparagus in Japan’s Snow Country

Asparagus is not the first vegetable that comes to mind when people think of Japan. Yet whenever I see or eat asparagus, I cannot help but think of that year that I lived on a surfeit – and oh, such a surfeit it was – of fresh asparagus. And it was all thanks to Okuyama-san.

Okuyama-san had an asparagus patch of his own, in a field just on the outskirts of town. Every morning and late afternoon, just before and after work at his printing shop, he trudged there with old Pochi (then barely able to see, his eyes clouded with cataracts). Of all the plants he grew there — a medley of stalwarts like giant radish (daikon) and Chinese cabbage (hakusai) and chrysanthemums — his favourite, and obviously his pride and joy too, was the asparagus. And he lavished it with attention and generous feeding with well-composted leaf mould and compost all mounded up into a soft and fluffy brown futon. And the asparagus in turn repaid his solicitous care with the fattest and most succulent spears.

The year we lived there he was gifted with another patch nearby – a larger one – that had belonged to the old woman whose field abutted his. She could no longer give it the attention it needed, she’d said, and so passed it on to him where she knew it would be in the best of hands. And with so much to spare, Okuyama-san had a bundle for me every few days, enclosed in a large leaf of giant fuki to keep them moist, left at my doorstep to greet me first thing in the morning.

When we had a group of science fiction translator friends come to stay with us one weekend in spring, a feast of Okuyama-san’s asparagus awaited them. Aspara tempura nante, shinjirarenai! (‘Asparagus tempura! Unbelievable!’) was their delighted response. There was so much asparagus, I’d made some into salad as well, with a dressing of miso (made by our neighbours across the road), walnuts, and mirin – from a local recipe (kurumi miso-ae) shared by another neighbour.

With the next batch that I hope to glean from my wild asparagus patch, I know exactly what I’m going to make with them. And if I find some sake (I may need to go to Valencia for this), it will be a fitting meal with which to remember Okuyama-san and our days in Yuzawa, Akita — in the heart of Japan’s snow country —  by.

As I write this, fog has come in from the sea and completely covered the mountain ahead, which was, just minutes ago, nice and clear.

I leave you with a photo of lovely wild orchids growing in a nearby olive grove. March came in like a lamb, behaved like a lion some days ago, and although it’s not roaring at the moment, it’s still far from its mild manner at the start. I’m not complaining — the plants that I’ve sown need the additional coolth to mature. Happy spring everyone!

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Foraged lunch

While walking around the back garden looking for spring wildflower surprises at midday, I spied several spindly stalks swaying in the light breeze. As I got closer, they turned out to be wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius; in Valenciano, esparreguera)! It took me back to the late 70s, to the first book that inspired me into foraging and gathering and eating wild foods – Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Well, the beauty of it is that there was no need to stalk these at all. They were just there underneath the pines, the ground having been cleared of the thicket of viciously spined smilax vines that had made that side of the garden a forbidding jungle about a year ago when we moved in. (Though ruthlessly slashed a month back to clear the ground, the reddish new smilax shoots are beginning to push through. Known here as zarzaparilla, they are apparently edible. Hmm… do I dare try them as well? We shall see.)

I was enthralled, walking from clump to clump of waving asparagus, breaking off only the tender top tips, and in no time at all I had a good handful. Just the ticket for lunch – freshly picked wild asparagus! They were brilliant with pasta and some home-made pesto (also from ‘foraged’ basil – actually plants that were past their prime in a nursery that had closed down last autumn) made with artisanal green olive oil from Catalonia. A generous amount of chopped garlic was stirred in at the last minute. And to my surprise, the asparagus tasted much sweeter than store-bought ones. Bliss! Casa Wild asparagus pasta_5605

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Early spring risers

With the weather warming up, early morning walks around the garden are rewarded by the sight of the earliest of flowers – wild and cultivated.

The earliest to awake from its winter sleep is shrubby germander or Teucrium fruticans. I love its silvery leaves and its blue-mauve flowers. We planted several bushes in the autumn, and they have survived the worst that winter threw at them – over 100 kph chill winds, torrential rain, snow, and hail.

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Out of the corner of my eye I caught a dark speck of blue in the back garden, and it turned out to be the first grape hyacinth or Muscari. This tiny flower, the whole of it no bigger than my thumb nail, is endemic to this part of Valencia.

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Here is one still in bud.

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Another miniature flower is this adorable unknown wild resident.

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Yet another unidentified mini bouquet.

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And yet another. These flowers are really tiny.

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And although most of the garden is still asleep and the height of spring bloom is still a few weeks away, nevertheless there is much to admire in the colour of awakening leaves. Fresh leaves nudged into growth with the gradually warming sun are showing signs of recovery from having been battered by hail. Here are fuzzy lavender leaves also recovering from being mauled by scaffolding and falling rubble while the veranda was under construction.

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Creeping rosemary suffered a similar fate to the lavender, having been side by side on the herb bed. Here it is on the way to full recovery.

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Here are spikey thistles with their amazing structure.

 

This normally bluish-green succulent was unused to being buried under snow and hail. Flushed red from the warming antioxidants it summoned to protect it from the cold, it is still pockmarked from hail, but looks like it will recover. There seems to be a new shoot growing on the right.

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That’s the first of the early risers in my garden. More to come soon!

Spring song

 

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

— Song of Solomon 2:11-12, King James Version

The flowers in Solomon’s song most likely refer to almond, as they are the earliest trees to blossom in the region of the Mediterranean. And when the almond blossom is out, you know that spring is just around the corner. There may still be the occasional days of chilling winds and even a hail storm, as we had unexpectedly for the third time this year a few days ago, or, like last year, snow at the very end of February. But these unseasonal phenomena are rather like winter’s half-hearted attempts to claw itself back in. But even it too is aware that it’s time to move on, and let spring have centre stage and reap its fair share of glory.

And after such an unprecedented winter, according to locals unused to extended weeks of rain and hail and thunderstorms and snow, this year’s spring blossoming is truly glorious. All along the lowland roads leading to the coast, and scattered hither and yon amongst the dark green of orange orchards and the silver grey of olive groves, beam gigantic bouquets of white and pale pink and brilliant pink. So cheering!

Up here in the mountains, spring blossom is always delayed by a couple of weeks at least. This year it’s obviously been a colder winter than last. I took this photo on the road descending to the Vall de Gallinera on the 4th of February last year.

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On the 5th of February this year, on the very same spot, this was the state of bloom.

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But just a few meters below, in a more sheltered spot, was this marvellous sight.

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The backdrop of this gloriously blooming almond — the Vall de Gallinera — is stunning.

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What other unmistakable signs of imminent spring have there been? I’ve been hearing the enchanting song of the Mediterranean golden oriole off and on over the past week. I haven’t got a photo as it’s extremely elusive. We were fortunate enough last year to catch a brief glimpse of it perched on one of the pines.

Other birds I’ve never seen in the garden before have been flying in in small flocks. They shelter in the belt of tall pines at the back of the garden and swoop down several times a day to peck intently at the grass and pebble path. For what? Surely not seeds — too early. Perhaps larvae of grass mites? (That would be a great help indeed. I’ve momentarily forgotten that with the hot weather come insects of all kinds — mites and mosquitoes, as well as the dreaded mosca negra.)

These could be passerine birds, here for a brief stopover to fatten up, before flying further northwards. One flock look remarkably like sparrows — same size, but with rust-coloured chests and greyish brown caps. Another flock has red-barred cheeks with bright yellow streaks leading to their tails. Beautiful! Those stayed only for a couple of days. The sparrow-like flock seems to love it here, especially since M has set up a feeder for them with mixed bird seed.

The seed mix was supplied by our favourite provisions shop in Gandia — a rarity nowadays. It looks like a grain- and spice merchant’s shop from previous centuries, with open sacks of beans and maize and all manner of nuts and grains in a high-ceilinged locale just off the Mercat del Prado. They had some prepared mixes for parrots and canaries, but when we said we were feeding wild birds,  the proprietor took a scoopful of lentils, another of hulled cereal, and another of cracked assorted grains, and mixed them all up. Perfect.

I haven’t seen nor heard a turtle dove yet — the ‘turtle’ in Solomon’s song. The only doves around are white ones kept by our nearest neighbour. And as for the rain being over and gone, the weather forecast for the weekend is rain; for which I and my garden are glad. I hope the rain won’t be over and gone yet for another month or so more.

Our hamlet is white

Yesterday’s grey skies and rain gave way to snow that sprinkled the northern flanks of the mountains framing our hamlet on three sides. I’d thought that if the low temperatures held overnight, the garden would perhaps get a sprinkling of snow. Well… it wasn’t just a sprinkling but 5 centimeters of snow had fallen and was still falling when I got up this morning. We had breakfast in the veranda looking out over our Mediterranean garden transformed into a polar landscape. The sun is still trying to make up its mind whether to come out.

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There is something rather incongruous about a palm tree’s fronds weighed down with snow. There is something incongruous, to me anyhow, about a palm tree among olives and pines, to begin with. Though there is an endemic palm quite common here — Chamaerops humilis — of which there are three long established in the garden and many more growing wild outside. Because it is winter-hardy, it is often used in English gardens to lend an exotic touch. It has fruits which turn dark red when ripe, and one of the workmen told me that as a child he and his friends used to snack on them on mountain hikes. There wasn’t much to taste of it: it was rather astringent with very little sweetness or any flesh at all. “No hay mucho carne,” he said, but he obviously enjoyed this nostalgic taste of childhood and went on to eat a few more. But I digress as usual.

Lady Brown and Hunter refuse to go out on their own. I wonder what they make of all this cold white stuff. Apparently it’s been years since they’ve had snow here, though it must’ve been a frequent occurrence in times long past, regular enough for people to establish a nevera — an underground storage chamber for packed snow to serve as ice over the summer months. No one relies on this nowadays of course with modern refrigeration. Hunter definitely and Lady B most likely has not experienced snow at all. M had to walk with them out to the back garden so they could do their business. Only Hunter was brave enough to come with me later to walk around the garden. He’s still feeling a little tender, since his snip yesterday. We’re hoping that this will deter his frequent escapades whenever there’s a female in heat in the neighbourhood. It remains to be seen whether this will calm his hyperactivity as well. Lady B was extremely upset when M and Hunter set off to the vet’s early yesterday morning, leaving her behind with me. She refused to look at her breakfast bowl, and did not touch her food at all, even when Hunter and M had come back. All day long she kept giving me sad, baleful looks.

One of our garden’s resident red squirrels came down from his perch up in the pines, going down gingerly along the trunk trying to avoid the patches of snow on it. He was obviously not pleased and he scolded the largest patch, shaking his tail at it furiously. But of course despite the scolding it refused to budge, so he was forced to circle around the trunk to find drier, warmer footing. Once down, he started merrily skipping along his usual path along the stone terraces but turned directly back after the first shockingly cold steps and ran up into the nearest snowless surface — one of the spiny yuccas. Ouch! From there he bounded off onto the tops of the reed fence. Poor Paleface. He’s got a white patch that runs from his head down to his belly, hence his name. I don’t know whether he made it to his usual breakfast nook somewhere in the pine forest behind the house, as I had to put another log on the fire.

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I give thanks again for the veranda, glassed in just in time. In it, with the fire blazing, we feel as if we are outside yet warm and protected from chill winds. Lady B spends most of her days here as well, lying in the sun on her favourite sofa. The sun appears in fits and starts as I write, still not quite sure this is a day for it to be out.  For me it’s a day for staying in and writing while looking out onto the snowy landscape, enjoying views of red-breasted robins and the occasional female blackbird foraging on snowless ground. And to think just a few days ago, we enjoyed daytime temperatures of 20ºC and took the dogs to the lovely Sant Antoni beach in Cullera, a short drive away. What a contrast, eh? Keep warm, my friends.

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