Sunday, June 26, 2011

Making hay whilst the sun shines and gathering winter fuel

It's been a funny old couple of weeks, making hay whilst the sun shines and gathering winter fuel. The warm weather has brought with it the need to cut the long grasses and wild flower areas we let grow in various areas in and around La Pasera. It is ideal time for the seed heads to dry naturally and shed their load onto the ground ready for next year. The grasses and plants will be allowed to dry for a few days, then gathered and used as brown material in the compost heaps. The islands and areas will regenerate in the next few weeks and give a second flower and grass crop for the bees and insects to feast from, way into autumn.

The large amount of pruning material from the fruit and nut trees have been processed for kindling and the wood store has been replenished ensuring plenty of dry burning wood for the wood burners. Two unexpected sources of wood came about this past fortnight, the first from a man in the village who is clearing some of his woodland to subsidise his income now he is unemployed and secondly from a plot opposite La Pasera where the owner has sold off his mature eucalyptus trees to a local company. As they were felling them we negotiated a price for two large (20M) trees - they felled them and we processed them.

In retrospect, the second lot of wood wasn't a good deal as taking into account the amount of fire wood it has generated plus all the effort of processing and splitting it combined with the time taken, it would have be cheaper to buy it from them once they had done all the work! You live and learn... Eucalyptus is tough wood and heavy. At least we have a well stocked wood store that should keep us going for the next winter and beyond.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vegetables: sourcing, germinating and planting seeds and young plants

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There is no doubt about it that raising vegetables from seeds is time consuming and unpredictable. Germination rates depend on the viability of the seed, the temperatures, methods and disease. Wherever possible we save and dry seed for the following season but of course that is not always possible. Seeds are sometimes exchanged with friends, bought from online catalogues or from nurseries both here and in the UK. If possible we buy or source organic seeds, especially old fashioned varieties or varieties that are known to us for their cropping, taste and resilience.

We have a heavy clay-based soil here at La Pasera and despite digging in as much organic matter as we can possibly get, the structure remains heavy and seed unfriendly - the rain and sun combination help form a hard crust that seeds find impenetrable. Luis has developed various methods of seed germination that work for different seeds and that overcomes the soil problems we face.

Some seeds such as brassicas, beetroots, legumes, sweetcorn, peppers, marrows, cucumber and fennel are pre-soaked in a moist cloth and contained within a small plastic box. This method ensures a high germination rate and advances the growth much faster than sowing direct. The downside of this method is that once germinated, handling the sprouting seeds is fiddly and takes a bit more time. The seeds are planted with tweezers into pods or half drainpipes filled with a home-made mixture of compost where they grow very quickly and are ready for planting into the prepared beds.

Other seeds are sown directly into pods, yoghurt pots or pipes and then transplanted when robust. Salad crops, tomatoes, celery, celeriac and herbs are sown using this method. Very few vegetables are sown directly into the ground, potatoes, onions and leeks being the exception.

We generally buy our onion and leeks from a local plants-man as young plants. They are good quality and cheap. 100 leeks cost around 5 euros and we always end up with more than we pay for as he usually puts extra in the bag. If we produce too many, young plants and seedlings are given away or exchanged with friends and neighbours although some vegetables we grow are met with quizzical and perplexed expressions by some of our neighbours who have never grown or eaten anything like them before. Preparation and cooking advice is always offered....

If anyone is interested in seed swaps or has spare seed that they think might do well in our warm and humid climate, please get in touch. We are particularly interested in blight resistant tomato strains and any unusual old fashioned varieties of vegetables or fruit.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Making and using natural insecticides and fungicides for the garden

If you are a regular visitor to Tales from Toriello you will already know that we do not use chemicals in the garden and rely on natural control or potions that are derived from natural sources. Our climate here on the coast is a temperate climate that is humid and prone to sea mists. Conditions are such that our vegetables and plants are very susceptible to fungal infections such as mildew and blight, and infestations such as caterpillars, black fly and aphids.

With tomatoes, potatoes, courgette and marrow in full swing it is important for us to minimise the damage caused by fungal infections and reduce the infestations of caterpillars, aphids and black fly on plants around the garden.

The first thing to mention is that healthy plants, grown in fertile and well structured soil, in conditions that suit the individual plant will of course minimise any problems that may occur as will the use of companion planting  to encourage natural predation. We'll cover companion planting in a future post. Even the most efficient, experienced and knowledgeable gardener will succumb to the laws of nature from time to time so for us who are still serving our apprenticeships, infestations and plant diseases are all part of the valuable learning journey that we find ourselves on.

Natural Insecticides:

At the first sign of attack of aphids or black fly, we would normally spray the affected plants with a light soap and water mixture or garlic water made from macerated garlic and water, strained and then sprayed. This will need to be repeated in two or three days time but can be an effective control that is harmless to other wildlife. Rhubarb macerated in water for a few days also works well as a general insecticide.

Caterpillars are not that easy to get rid of and we have found that by far the most effective method is quick dispatch with gloved fingers. Birds in the garden can also help keep caterpillar populations under control especially if nesting nearby and feeding the voracious appetites of a young brood.

If your salad rocket is affected by Flea beetle they try using a spray made up from catnip soaked in water, it wont eradicate them but it will drive them away giving you a better looking crop during their short season.

Natural Fungicides:

Due to our humidity and climate we spray both prophylactically and symptomatically. Our main lines of defence come from two commonly occurring plants i.e. Rhubarb leaves and Horsetail plant. Both mixtures are made by the same method. In a large bucket or container, soak about 500 grams of bruised rhubarb leaves or bruised horsetail plant in a litre of water,  leave covered for about 5 days and stir occasionally. The liquid eventually stinks vile ( a bit like nettle juice if you are familiar with that). The liquid is then strained through a fine cloth and colander to prevent residues that might clog up the filter mechanism on the sprayer. Plants are sprayed, preferably on a dry day, with a good dose of the mixture and repeated as necessary.

This year we are trialling the horsetail mixture on the onion crop, marrows and cucumbers to prevent fungal infections and mildew.

We would love to hear from you if you have any other remedies or suggestions. Sometimes what works for one does not work for another and the experiences of others, trial and error is a great way of learning. Please get in touch or leave a comment if you have found that your own concoctions work for you.  

As with all potions, take care when handling both the raw plant and the liquid. Gloves and masks are should be worn to minimise inhalation or skin contact. If storing the liquids, keep out of reach of young children and pets.