One farmer’s weeds — a permaculturist’s treasures

In spring, the soil in my mountain garden in southern Valencia is covered with what most farmers would call malas hierbas — bad herbs. In other words — weeds. Emulating what our neighbours do, we’ve been mowing these winter- and spring-growing plants  — until I discovered that many of these malas hierbas, far from being bad, are actually good. Exceedingly good, in fact. After two years of observing the garden, I’ve come to realize that it holds undervalued treasures — in the form of the loveliest wildflowers: pink and white cistuses, blue-flowered Aphyllanthes monspelliensis, called falso junquillo locally, primrose coloured Urospermum delachampii, and many, many more. The cistuses have only begun to bloom this year.

Cistus albidus2

Cistus albidus

Cistus laurifolius?.jpg

Cistus laurifolius (?)

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Aphyllanthes monspeliensis (Falso junquillo)

Urospermum Afr daisy grp.JPG

Urospermum delachampii

On this, our third spring here, I’ve been examining the “weeds” more closely, and I recognize some as legumes, i.e., belonging to the bean family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae), from their flowers that resemble sweet peas. These leguminous plants are even more valuable garden treasures than pretty wild flowers. Not only do they also have colourful flowers, but they have a very important role in the garden. They are extremely beneficial to the soil, since they can fix atmospheric nitrogen in symbiosis with certain soil bacteria, such as rhizobia (sing. rhizobium).

Red orange fl N fixer Fabaceae?.jpg

Lathyrus cicera (Chicharro, guixó)

Nitrogen is the mineral that plants need the most. Although nitrogen makes up close to 80% of the earth’s atmosphere, it does not become accessible to plants until it is converted by bacteria into ionic forms, such as ammonium and nitrate, in a process called biological nitrogen fixation (BNF). Lightning carries out some of this natural conversion as well, but the bulk of BNF is carried out by soil- (and also water-) living bacteria in symbiosis with certain plants, mainly leguminous ones. The bacteria stimulate their host plants to form nodules on their roots (some on stems). Within the nodules, BNF takes place, supplying the host plant with nitrogenous compounds that it can use. Nitrogen can also be supplied through chemical fertilizers, but I much prefer organic sources such as well-rotted manure and the natural process of BNF.

The size of the wild legumes in my garden varies from creepers — no taller than 5 or 6 centimeters — to low shrubs about half a meter high. Their flowers also vary from being no bigger than the nail on my little finger to the width of the first joint of my thumb.

Last year I noticed a volunteer plant with tiny leaves. Curious, I allowed it to grow to see how it would develop. It has now grown into a bush, half a meter high, and is prolifically blooming.  Its clover-like flowers and the wooliness of its stems and leaves have enabled me to identify it — Dorycnium hirsutum (la botja). It turns out to be a really outstanding plant, having received an award of garden merit (AGM) from the UK’s Royal Horticulture Society.  Fortuitously, it belongs to the legume family. So not only does it add fertility to the soil, but its flowers are irresistible to bees — a great plus when bees’ pollen sources are becoming increasingly depleted. Bumble bees, honey bees, and other pollen seekers happily forage among the dorycnium’s flowers. I’m so glad I did not consider it a weed and pull it out last year.

Last autumn I sowed seeds of recommended nitrogen-building legumes — red and white clover and lupines (Lupinus angustifolius), but they haven’t done well. It stands to reason: these seeds from Germany have been harvested from plants grown in a moister environment. However, with these endemic wild legumes that many would dismiss as weeds, Nature has ensured that the garden has its own reliable and rich sources of nitrogen. Another unlikely source are the dark green gelatinous lumps that often appear on the gravel path after heavy rain. These are free-living nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, called nostoc.

 Nostoc on gravel cropt.jpg

Nostoc

I love seeing these diverse native nitrogen fixers that in my ignorance I would once have regarded as weeds. These are indeed treasures to the permaculturist and anyone who wishes to garden sustainably.  Serendipitously these nitrogen fixers often position themselves next to domesticated plants that would most benefit from the symbiosis.

Recently, an unusual leguminous plant with fuzzy seed heads or flower buds sprouted where nothing had grown before — on the gravel path that I knew had been sprayed with herbicide by previous gardeners. After three years of leaving this area herbicide-free, a small community of pioneering wild plants has sprung up — some clearly identifiable as being leguminous. I imagine they are actively building up fertility underneath. It is amazing how Nature provides precisely what the soil needs. Before you pull out a weed, try to examine it closely. You may be pulling out a real treasure that has the potential to enhance the fertility of your soil.

Three types of legumes on gravel

Three species of pioneer endemic clovers —  left Trifolium stellatum; middle T. campestre; right T. tomentosum — growing on bare gravel.

Fuzzy balled legume zoom fab

A closer look at Trifolium tomentosum’s fuzzy buds or seed heads

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Greening the garden overnight

Do you know the feeling of having all your Christmases and birthdays come together all at once? Well, I do. And it has taken me some days to recover and realize that it’s all for real. For good measure, I also had my wishes granted by a fairy godmother. M says I look like I’d been given the keys to a candy store. Actually what I got was waaay better than candy. And not as fattening either.

For those of you who’ve been following my posts, you already know that I’ve had two rather unsatisfactory gardeners. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the three bears, or in this case, three gardeners. The first did way too much. Out of this misadventure came my Gardening Rule 1 — I have to be on the spot, constantly giving directions and supervising.

The second gardener did way too little. He’d been recommended by the carpenter who’d done a fine job with our bookshelves. And what’s more, he’s employed by the Villalonga Ayuntamiento. Knowing he’s a professional gardener of the municipality, I did not apply Gardening Rule 1. From which incident I derived Gardening Rule 2 — notwithstanding a glowing reference, apply Rule 1.

So when it came time to hire a gardener (also highly recommended) to help me plant our first trees — 10 feijoas (Acca sellowiana), 6 cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens ‘Totem’), and 2 bamboos, I applied Rule 1 meticulously.  I kept the two gardeners — father and son — company each step of the process. I ensured the depth and width of each planting hole was generous, much as I would have made myself. To improve the trees’ settling in, I had earthworm humus (humus de lombriz) ready. Most of the feijoas were already fruiting, so they had to be handled carefully and not removed from their pots until the absolutely last minute to prevent their roots getting dry. I also took charge of the watering — giving the trees two sessions of generous soaking: the first as the tree was placed into the ground to ensure no air pockets were left around the roots, and once again when the topsoil was firmed in.

Keeping the gardeners company and chatting with them was a brilliant move. The father mentioned that his brother had passed away two weeks before, and his brother’s nursery business was in jeopardy. The family was still undecided what to do, but in the meantime they’d stopped watering. Having seen my herb raised bed, he suggested checking out the rosemary and other aromatic plants — they were the most likely to have survived two weeks without water.

Now I’m not one to refuse an offer of plants, even if I came away with just a couple. Besides it was a great chance to see more of the neighbouring community. M and I drove over that same afternoon. And drove over again the next day. And again after the weekend.

The stock that had survived was beyond all expectation. Each time, we came away with every available space in the van packed with plants. Mediterranean natives with grey-green and silvery-green foliage — diverse thymes, sage, lavender, rosemary both creeping and upright. Verbenas, pink lantanas, yellow lantanas, lemon verbena (for tea), a tall shrub with orange tubular flowers whose dried seedheads circled the stem like Phlomis, and many other plants whose names I do not know (nor did the gardener). There were also arborvitae (Thuja) — the emerald green variety and a yellow-leafed one. And chrysanthemums ready to bloom. In a word, a Mediterranean gardener’s idea of Heaven. My plan for the garden had been to put in the structure first — fruit and shade trees, nitrogen fixers, and windbreaks. But when opportunity knocks and offers me groundcover now, is there anyway I could refuse?

This has got to be the most amazing experience of unexpected grace: one highly unlikely to ever come my way again. (But I am not discounting a repeat occurrence — one never knows.) I must have found favour in the eyes of all the gods — gardening and otherwise — for this to happen. Just consider the following synchronously happening:

  1. I have the appropriate place, climate, and enough space to accommodate all these plants. Had this happened at another time or another space (say Bonn or Leamington Spa), not all these plants could have been fitted in. The south-facing space in my previous gardens, and therefore ideal for these Mediterranean plants, was rather limited.
  2. Most of the plants have been on my wish list for years.
  3. Other than the olives and a few other fruit trees, the garden is bare and could greatly benefit from this largesse.
  4. It’s brilliant timing –- just after the rains have moistened and prepared the parched earth for new plants. The beginning of autumn is the best time to plant here because the soil is still warm, but temperatures are cooler, thus facilitating the establishment of new plants.
  5. The drip irrigation system will soon be in place, making watering all these plants a breeze.

For these unforeseen presents at just the right time from a kind gardener, I am overwhelmingly grateful.

Thankful for homegrown harvests

So very thankful for the fruits from the olive grove and vegetable beds this year. We’ve been blessed with this first harvest of olives, in just a year and a half since we began caring for these 33 once-neglected trees. This year’s intake — several litres of pickled green and black olives and 13 litres of golden extra virgin olive oil!

Harvest 6 kg basket fab.JPG

Olive harvest1.JPG

Finca Oropendola olive oil copy

Thirteen litres of cold-extracted extra virgin olive oil

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From top: fuzzy cucumber, daikon radish, runner beans, purple-podded beans, tiny Western winged beans, bishop’s mitre peppers

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Purple kohlrabi, chard leaves, tomatoes, purple-podded beans, fuzzy cucumber

Basket harvest new pink fir potatoes pak choi rocket dill fab

Chard, mizuna, Turkish arugula, Pink Fir potatoes

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Amaranth

Year of Grace, Day 240. Breaking ground

 

 

What in winter had been merely a score of olive trees enclosed in dry stonewall terraces is now, the middle of May, a paradise of wild flowers. Some are recognizable to me as delicate, miniaturized versions of their relatives elsewhere, such as the wild crane’s bill, also known as Herb Robert, that flourished in Bonn. The difference in scale is likely due to the vast difference in water and nutrient intake, much scarcer here, and the summer heat and type of soil as well. Plantain — the weed that is — not the edible banana, looks less like a thug and more like an ornamental: its whorl of basal leaves, starry flowers, and stems being all in just the right proportion to each other.

 

What was, months back, bare ground is a sea of various tones of yellow, though closer inspection reveals blue commelinas, pink alliums with a sweet scent, white bladder campions (miniaturized and rising from their stalks like lilies-of-the-valley from afar), tiny orange flowers from a creeper, pink morning glory relatives, and so much more. There are daisies with creamy yellow rays, the backs of which are maroon, that look like Gerberas or Transvaal daisies (African daisies, as we called them in Manila) and are surprisingly perfumed, their scent only noticeable when carried by breezes.

 

In one corner I found to my delight some ground orchids that resemble the lone orchid I saw near Xativa back in March. These I believe to be Ophrys but I need the internet to verify this. (This is one of the minor trials of living in the Valencian outback – getting Movistar’s Technical Services to make good their promise. They’ve been saying mañana for a month now. Apparently due to a problem, our order has been reassigned a new date, though no one bothered to inform us until we called.)

 

Each day brings a different wild flower in bloom, and it is always with the hope of discovering yet another not encountered previously that I make my rounds of the garden. The other day it was another orchid, in an unexpected spot bereft of trees and shade. This one looked like a Dactylorhiza, but again, this needs confirming. There are in the boxes of books still unopened somewhere I can look this up, but a) the bookshelves that are in the shipment from Bonn haven’t arrived so it is pointless unpacking books; and b) it is so much faster looking up things on the internet. How dependent on the internet our daily lives have become!

 

There are geophytes growing out of the rocks that are reminiscent of miniature bluebells, only they are bronze, and I almost stepped on one because it blended so well with the rocks. They could be Fritillaria. And there are buds on plants that I am guessing are Tragopogon (Goat’s Beard), which is a comestible. And this morning very early I hurried to catch the blooms before they closed up: they are yellow. There are also plants that I believe are wild chicory, whose lovely pale blue flowers I adore, and I am hoping that these plants are indeed what I suspect they are.

The bookseller from Damascus in Old Tel Aviv

There are three used bookshops not far from the Carmel Market in the old part of Tel Aviv. They are all within a few steps of each other at one end of Allenby, clustered around the side street of Geulah. One had a hand-written sign saying it was closed for the Passover holidays, and the other, rather disappointingly, had a “For Rent” sign across its glass door. I did not hold much hope that we’d be in luck with the last one. Perhaps it had closed down? To our immense relief, it was open.

Bibliophile front1.JPG

Bibliophile is aptly named — it is a book hunter’s paradise, in particular a polyglot one, with its teetering towers of volumes in Russian, German (and its medieval relative Yiddish), Spanish and Ladino (the Spanish counterpart of Yiddish), Romanian, Ukrainian, French, Ethiopian, Portuguese, besides English, Hebrew, and Arabic of course, and more besides. Within its cramped space of perhaps no more than 30 square meters, Bibliophile holds an unbelievable repository of the world’s literature in so many languages, reflecting the polyglot nature of the country itself.

Bibliophile aisle.JPG

With my dust allergy, I didn’t venture too far to squeeze myself along the narrow aisles, once I’d found a couple of English books by female authors that I’d not read before. They would do me for the return trip home. As I stood outside, waiting for M to explore to his heart’s content, a German tourist on a bike rode by and peered curiously into the shop’s narrow confines.

“Antiquariat?” he asked.

“Not exactly,” I replied. It’s mostly second-hand books.”

“Where can I find an antiquariat?”

“Perhaps in Jaffa,” I said.

“You mean only the Arabs read?”

“I didn’t mean that. I thought you meant you were looking for antiques. Would you like to go in and see what it’s like?”

“No, I’m afraid the books will fall on me,” he said.

“I doubt it. Look, my husband is in there, and so far no book has fallen on him yet.”

And strangely, apropos of nothing, he asked if my native language was English, as we had been conversing in German. I said yes, and then he left, unimpressed by the precariously leaning stacks. Clearly he was no bibliophile.

Pinchas Mash’aniah (משעניה פנחס) the owner, has had this shop for over 50 years, perhaps ever since he came over from Damascus, Syria. In three months, he announced proudly, he turns 80 years old (he made us guess his age. He also made us guess where he was originally from. M guessed either Lebanon or Syria. M guessed correctly on both counts.)

“You’re the champion!” Pinchas chuckled, beaming at M.

Tacked on one pillar of the shop is an article about Pinchas in the Jerusalem Post, written decades ago (the black document posted to Pinchas’s left in the photo below). The article’s photo shows Pinchas in his late 30s, possibly early 40s. I cannot get near enough to read it nor to take a closer photograph of it. He looks younger than his years though, as I guessed he was about 75.

“Everyone in my family keeps telling me to stop,” he said. “But why should I? I love this shop. I love these books. What would I do at home? And I love to come here every day and meet all kinds of people. Just recently a very interesting thing happened to me.”

And he proceeded with all relish to tell me. “Just before Passover eve, a woman buys 200 shekels worth of books. Just then, a friend of hers walks by and invites her to have coffee. And off they go.

“It’s not until some time later when I was closing down that I notice she’s left her handbag. I try to see if there is a name or contact number inside, but there’s nothing, just her purse. It’s early closing time, because of the holiday, so reluctantly, I close the shop and put her handbag safely locked away.

“Two days later she comes into the shop, looking very anxious. “Did I leave my handbag here, by any chance?” she says.

“I produce the handbag, and tell her to look inside and check that everything is intact inside. She takes out 200 shekels (about 50 Euros). “You’ve already paid for the books,” I say.

“Oh no, this is for keeping the handbag safe,” she says.

“I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that.”

She insists, but eventually realizes that I’m not about to relent. “Very well then. Thank you again with all my heart,” she says.

The following day she brings a bag with bottles of champagne and wine. “These you certainly cannot refuse,” she says.

“What can I say? Of course I accepted, but I was only doing what comes naturally.”

They don’t make booksellers like Pinchas Mash’aniah anymore. Nor do they make bookshops like Bibliophile with teetering stacks in narrow, dimly lit aisles anymore. And we bibliophiles are left all the poorer. How long will Bibliophile survive? As long as Pinchas Mash’aniah is alive and well, I pray. And as long as there are bibliophiles who like nothing better than to poke into dim, dusty Aladdin’s caves for undiscovered readable treasures. Long and well may Pinchas continue to live and thrive. And that goes for his beloved shop, Bibliophile, too. (I forgot to ask him how he feels about the ongoing tragedy in his hometown.)

(Interestingly and unintentionally, the books I bought were both about islands. Victoria Hislop’s The Island, on Crete, and Daína Chaviano’s Isla de los Amores Infinitos, translated as The Island of Eternal Love, on Cuba.)

Bibliophile Pinchas Mashaniah.JPG

Pinchas Mash’aniah, proprietor of Bibliophile, Tel Aviv

Bibliophile (ביבליופיל) is on 44 Geulah Street, corner Allenby, Tel Aviv. Bibliophile also buys books — bring back books and get 50% of the purchase price.

Bibliophile is on the ground floor of a classic building from the early 20th century. There’s a trendy cafe next door, but we went to the unpretentious one across the street to have wonderful freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

Old Tel Aviv building facade g

Old Tel Aviv arched window balcony fab

Slow gardening as mindfulness

The other day I was clearing the ground beneath an olive tree. I started by pruning the whippy shoots that always spring up plentifully around the trunk — this I do sometimes twice a year, so that the olive can direct its full energy to the upper branches for fruiting.  This done, I turned my attention to the self-sown zarzaparilla (zarza for short, Smilax aspera) sprouting among the grass. Although zarzaparilla has traditional ethnomedicinal and other uses in this region (as a spring tonic and dyestuff), their long vines bristle with vicious spines, and they seed themselves about so prolifically that they would soon take over the garden if not controlled. (Actually they had built up an impenetrable thicket under the pines that I called The Jungle. This has been thoroughly cleared, twice! But the whole ground is packed full of zarza and ivy roots, so they are slowly reclaiming The Jungle. Yikes. )

Zarzaparilla berries on vine.JPG

Zarzaparilla (Smilax aspera)

In the midst of attending to these activities (I hesitate calling them ‘chores’),  it came to me that this pace and style of gardening is, if one thinks in terms of slow food, or slow cities, essentially slow gardening. It means taking time and lavishing attention to even the smallest details. For me, it means not using anything motorized — no strimmer (aka weed whacker) or mower. And by not resorting to these noisy machines, I am creating ideal conditions for mindfulness, for me. (It’s another matter altogether if the gardener needs to clear up The Jungle with one of those.)

Allow me to explain. Over the past two years, I’ve come to know most of this garden’s resident wild flowers. Others would doubtless call them weeds, but I adore most of them, and endeavour to encourage some with lovely though tiny flowers to self-sow. There are of course those that I don’t particularly care for, such as the thuggish zarzaparilla, whose seeds get into cracks in tree trunks, carried there by birds most likely, and then their roots are impossible to reach. Ah, but how to distinguish between those plants I wish to keep, and those I don’t, especially when they’re growing cheek by jowl?

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Zarzaparilla on a fruit tree

There’s only one way to do this, and that is to get down really close to the ground and acquaint myself with each emerging plant. This is not so easily done with plants whose leaves have more or less similar structures, such as grass or wild garlic or wild gladiolus, which all have similar narrow spikey leaves. To this group I might add two more — the plantain (Plantago) and a pink-flowered geophyte. It is only when I’ve clipped off with hand shears a clump of desirable wild garlic (desirable because they deter pests and diseases from plants nearby) that the distinctive oniony smell rises up to alert me of my unintended infraction. Using a mower or strimmer, I wouldn’t have noticed if I was shearing a plant friend or plant foe.

Admittedly, it does take considerably longer to do this kind of selective weeding, but I find it more satisfying than waving the magic wand of a strimmer. (Besides, my back can no longer carry its weight.) I carry this out sitting comfortably on a low gardening stool among the trees and the understorey of grasses and wild flowers while the sun pleasantly warms my back. And throughout, there is often a background serenade of birds twittering happily going about their daily business in the canopy overhead. When it’s not freezing cold, the Eurasian golden oriole obliges with its melodious song. Now and then Mii-chan and Satchan in turn come to see what I’m up to. After stopping to have their backs stroked, each will go off to crouch elegantly at one end of a patch I’ve just cleared, for a pis-enplein-air. They seem to take it as their natural right to be provisioned thus, and assume that the freshly turned earth is theirs expressly for their morning constitutional. Then off they go leaping and bounding to investigate life in the oleander hedge. Hunter comes along to say hello to me too, and sometimes tries to join in the cats’ games of tag. He’s just a bit too rough for the cats, and they don’t appreciate him as a playmate. [Lady is too much of a marchioness now to join the gang and investigate my activities in the garden. She spends most of her days relaxing on the sofa (‘Her’ sofa now) in the veranda. But after 5 or more years of living in the rough when she had been abandoned, I suppose she deserves this pampered living in her old age.]

By narrowing my focus and attention to just this little piece of ground, this manageable circle of vegetation, this circumscribed world of plants and trees and pets that come and go — the hours serenely pass, unnoticed and unmeasured, in this oh-so-satisfying and intimate communion with the residents of my garden.

The reward of this ever-so-slow paced gardening is discovering volunteers that have disposed themselves in just the very spots that provide them with ideal conditions of sunlight and drainage. Not to mention perfect plant companions. Had I let the gardener or M mow there, there would not now be several self-seeded lavenders growing in just the place I would have chosen for them. They would not have stood a chance, as they are so inconspicuous, almost invisible peeping among the grass. I myself had not noticed them until I almost stepped on them.

Self-seeded lavender in bloom.JPG

Self-sown lavender (Lavandula dentata)

From my zoom-in view of the diverse plants that thrive so companionably together, and at my leisurely pace of distinguishing desirables from non-desirables, my thoughts inevitably turn to idly musing on such questions as —  why does the wild thyme form colonies on this terrace, but not anywhere else in the garden? (I’ve come to call this terrace The Thyme Forest.)

Flowering thyme Miichan.JPG

Flowering wild thyme with Mii-chan

For that matter, why does the helianthemum (rock rose) keep the wild thyme company in this place, but not elsewhere?

Helianthemum on ground habitus .JPG

Helianthemum — each flower is no bigger than a penny coin

Or take the lovely purple fungus, possibly a blewit, that I found growing in the shelter of a rock wall nearby. Why there, where it is so dry, and not where they were found plentifully last year under the pines, but where there were none at all this year?

Blewit mushroom.JPG

Could the timing of the rains have something to do with it? Why did the charming bronze-flowered geophyte not appear in spring, when it had bloomed so profusely the previous year? I had anticipated lots of baby plants, as I’d scattered its seeds about. How can I entice it to come forth again?

These are the sorts of idle musings that fill my mind — its amusements (pun intended) if you will — as I slowly tend to the garden with deliberate slowness. And it also came to me, that old editors never die. They just turn their sharp editing eyes and attention elsewhere — in my case, my garden. So there you have it — my recipe for mindfulness in the garden. 😉

 

 

Almost spring

But for the chilly wind, today would be a perfect late winter/early spring day. (However, the prediction is for more wintry, possibly even snowy, days ahead.) On my favourite walk to the nearby olive grove, I came upon the first wild paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) in bloom.

First paperwhite narcissus cropped g.pngThis is just one of the many Spanish endemic species of narcissus. Apparently Spain is the center of biodiversity for narcissus. The paperwhite is noted for its fragrance, but I couldn’t get close enough to detect any. Next time I shall make sure to crouch down lower (though getting up once that far down may be a bit of a struggle).

Walking just a bit further, I came upon two almond trees with pink blossoms. No one seems to bother to pick their fruits, as there were plenty of almonds still hanging on the branches. I picked a few, and cracked one just now. Though the nut is small, it was sweet with a strong almond flavour.Almond blossom olive grove cropped.png

Everywhere on the olive grove, the ground was strewn with black olives, mostly squashed underfoot. The wild boars may have been feasting on them — just imagine the flavour imparted by ripe olives to these scavenging boars’ flesh! They’ve been rooting all over the orchard as well for bulbs and wild fungi growing underground. Everywhere there were holes that could only have been made by boars desperate for food at this time of year.

Boar hole w fallen olives.png

The owner of this grove does not seem to care much about his or her olives. Sometime in mid-January, we saw someone spreading a collecting net under one tree. I asked if he was the owner. He wasn’t. The owner lives in Valencia, he said, and only remembered about the olives being ripe this week. The past year has been a very productive one for olives all over our region, and the harvest had begun early. Some people had begun harvesting in late October, but those further inland went on until the end of November. The olives that were still on the trees in January had shriveled up like prunes. In Greece apparently, there are those who prefer oil from very ripe, wizened olives. We’d been told by Gardener Alex, and also from our own reading we’ve learned, that olive oil tastes best when pressed from olives that are mature but still green, or just beginning to take on a purple cast. And so we harvested at that time, and still got 28% oil content, which is considered quite high for the variety of olive trees that we have (Villalonga Manzanilla). (It seems the riper and older the olive, the more oil it contains. But then we’re after quality, not quantity.)

To be sure, the cost of labour has gotten ridiculously high that it’s undoubtedly more cost-effective to buy oil than to pay a crew to gather olives by hand and haul them to be pressed and bottled. It makes this newbie farmer’s heart ache to see such waste though. It seems such a sacrilege to deliberately let nature’s bounty go unharvested, especially when she’s been exceedingly generous, as she has been this past year.

I see the same profligate neglect all over on our walks in the yards of those who only spend summers here. Apples, persimmons, lemons, grapes — all left untouched to blanket the ground beneath the tree. Why not place a sign saying — ‘Help yourself, Neighbour’? And it’s not just here either. There are orchards in nearby towns like Xeraco where oranges and other citrus, as well as persimmons, are left unpicked. I suspect leaving the fruit to rot like that encourages all sorts of pests and diseases to proliferate and infect the trees. Enough of my spring rant. I hope I prove to be a better steward of our own fruit trees.

 

 

The narcissi seem to think it’s spring!

It may be 8 degrees Celsius on a sheltered wall outdoors and, with the additional chill factor from the strong winds that sweep unhindered through the garden, it could quite possibly be even colder. Nevertheless, the narcissus bulbs that I planted in autumn have been brave enough to display their blooms. Two days ago the first of the buds unfurled, and when the narcissi are out, can spring be far behind?

First narcissi3.JPG

Narcissus zoom cropped

The cyclamen bulbs that I planted in autumn among the limestone outcroppings are also beginning to awaken. The heart-shaped leaves are charming at every stage of their unfurling, and once fully expanded, they hardly need flowers to attract my attention — the intricate marbling on their surfaces and the sumptuous red underneath are more than enough to catch my eye.

Cropped cyclamen lvs

Cyclamen fully unfurled lvs.jpg

The garden hasn’t been entirely bereft of flowers this winter. The Euryops have provided continuous cheering bursts of colour. Since the summer, they’ve been in non-stop bloom, and although their daisy-like blooms are nothing unusual, nor do they have any scent to speak of, still it is such a delight to see their bright yellow faces daily, unfazed by the chilling winds that have been our constant companion this winter.

Euryops flowers throughout winter.JPG

The lavender (Lavandula dentata) has been in constant bloom since the summer as well, in contrast to last year when it went into a sulk all winter long with the snow and hail.

Lavender flower spike zoom fab

As I end this post, the wind has died down, and in the welcome warmth of the afternoon sun (four degrees warmer now than at midday), overwintering common redstarts (like smaller sparrows with red underbellies), together with sparrows, thrushes, and tits, are taking advantage of the lull and are foraging busily among the bushes and the grass.

This winter seems to be milder than last year’s, and I suppose that’s the reason the lavender, bougainvillea, the wild scabious and snapdragon, as well as a hardy verbena have kept the Euryops company this year.  I say ‘seems’ because there is still February — usually the coldest month — to contend with. And who knows what it may bring? I am fervently hoping for more rain as we’ve had so little so far. The narcissi and cyclamen may be presaging an early spring, but the return of chilling winds and a drop in temperature has made me think otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irohazaka in the Vall de Gallinera

Autumn is my favourite season, and has been ever since my very first encounter with the brilliant autumn colours of deciduous trees in Nikko, Japan over four decades ago. Since then I’ve always looked forward to this yearly spectacle wherever I lived — the US, Canada, UK, and Germany.

Now that I live in southern Valencia, I’ve come to accept that this is one natural phenomenon that I’ve foregone. Although the gingkos and poplars do turn an eye-catching yellow, it’s autumn’s fiery reds and oranges that delight my eyes. To experience such blazing colours, I assumed one would have to travel to Spain’s colder regions, to Asturias and Galicia perhaps, or Cantabria, Navarra, and the Basque country, and even as far afield as northern France.

All the more astonishing then to come across such a spectacular show, just a short drive away — minutes really — down to the Vall de Gallinera in Alicante. I’ve now baptized this area Irohazaka, after the renowned attraction of coloured foliage blanketing the mountain slopes in Nikko during autumn. And, were this Nikko, the whole valley would be packed with tourist buses inching their way all along these winding mountain roads. We were there on a Sunday, and no one else regarded the metamorphosis of leaves from green to red and orange and purple as anything worth marvelling at, or even meriting a second glance. All the other cars sped by. How fortuitous for us then to have these gorgeously coloured fields and slopes to ourselves 🙂

The Vall de Gallinera is famous for its black cherries in May — reputed to be the earliest to ripen in the region. And the best tasting as well — they are juicy and luscious with a nice balance of sweetness and tartness, with a dense, chewy texture. In spring, the entire valley is a joy to drive and walk through, with the cherries and almonds, peaches and apples clothed in white and pink blossom. I should have known, from my own experience with our cherry tree in the UK, that these trees would be equally spectacular in their autumn garb. For this momentary lapse of forgetfulness over how cherry trees behave in autumn, I can perhaps be forgiven, as our own cherry tree and those of our neighbours in our mountain hamlet, have not displayed flaming colours before falling.

Gallinera downslope cherry terraces fab_7667 copy.jpg

Gallinera mt stonewall cherry orchard vvfab wow_7685.JPG

Gallinera cherry orchard lvs on grnd vvfab_7681

Gallinera two cherry lvs Benisilli autumn fab_7698

And after our eyes had feasted on foliage, it was time for another kind of feast — steaks grilled over the embers of a woodfire at the restaurant La Font in Benitaia. The tarta de queso (cheese cake) was topped with the region’s famous cherry preserves.

Gallinera La Font chuleton de ternera steak_7712.JPG

Gallinera tarta de queso cherry preserve g_7721.JPG

 

Giving thanks — a novice farmer’s harvest

Having been away in Germany during April and May, it was only in July that I was able to sow vegetables and herbs. Rather late, I know, but none the less, over the summer, we enjoyed Asian vegetables, such as mizuna and pak choi (bok choy), as well as purple-podded beans and purple kohlrabi. (I was aiming for a jewel-coloured veggie bed.) I also grew dill, salad burnet, Thai royal basil, and an unusual pale green, fuzzy-skinned cucumber, known as Armenian cucumber. I also planted three Pink Fir potatoes bought in a supermarket for Christmas that had been left in the fridge. (Professionals advise to use only seed potatoes, but being new to potato-growing, I thought why not take a risk.) It was my first time to plant these. And, moreover, in a Mediterranean climate (plant hardiness zone 10, with winter minimum temperatures ranging from -1 to 4ºC). For the second time I raised local tomatoes and Bishop’s mitre peppers from seedlings bought from Viveros Agave, the nearest plant nursery. I was warned by our gardener that watering tomato plants before they´ve set fruit will lead to splitting, and indeed some did. They were still edible though. Valuable lesson learned. I also discovered that the Bishop´s mitre peppers, which I´d assumed were fiery hot, turned out to be sweet, with a complex fruity taste, with only the occasional one possessing a bite, and a mild one at that.

The mizuna greens made a nice last-minute addition to stir-fries and soups, and we ate the purple kohlrabi raw in salads. It’s a pity to have had to peel the kohlrabi’s brilliant skins. The purple-podded beans turned green once cooked, though their taste was outstandingly sweet. The runner beans did not take kindly to summer heat. Their orange flowers were decorative, and the occasional bean, like the purple-podded beans, was intensely sweet. The flavour of vegetables cooked just minutes from being harvested is truly incomparable, and the depth and range of flavour can tempt an omnivore to turn vegetarian. Now that it’s cooler though, the runner beans have set more pods. My gardening book (attuned to the English climate) says bean vines should be dug in at the end of summer, but they seem to be just getting into their stride.

Miraculously, a crop of daikon (Japanese giant radish), appeared, though I don’t recall having sowed any. Their origin remains an unsolved mystery. I’m leaving most of them in the ground over winter, as their flavour apparently improves with the cold. I might try making daikon kimchee (Korean hot peppery pickles), from a recipe by Holly in Beyond Kimchee.

The Turkish rocket that I´d grown last year on one of the raised beds seeded itself on the ground below. Since we have two dogs who are rather diligent in marking their territory, we haven’t harvested any. Luckily, the ants have been busily moving seeds about, and rocket plants appeared near the Thai basil on a nearby raised bed. Their leaves have lent a peppery note to several salads. Another crop, the Peruvian fruit physalis, has also appeared elsewhere in the garden, doubtless disseminated by the ants as well.

Last year’s crop of Italian kale (Nero di Toscana) continued to grow throughout winter, spring, and summer. I harvested all the leaves recently, but there are new shoots sprouting from the stalks. I shall wait to see what happens to these. I am learning that some vegetables regarded as annuals in a temperate climate, such as the Bishop’s mitre pepper for example, can overwinter here successfully. I’ve also read that Thai royal basil is a perennial in subtropical conditions — it remains to be seen how it fares with our winter cold. Perhaps the Italian kale will get more leaves….

One of my interests is neglected and under-utilized indigenous food crops, and this year I grew Amaranthus cruentus (variety ‘Velvet Curtains’), as much for its stunning colour contribution to the vegetable and ornamental garden, as to find out what this traditional cereal grain from Mexico tastes like. The tender leaves can be cooked like spinach but I have not tried this. I’ve now harvested the seed heads, leaving some on the plants for the birds to discover and tide them over winter. (The bird feeder with peanuts that we set up last year hasn’t been patronized at all. Perhaps because hunting is rife in our area, the birds are extremely wary.) Amaranth seeds have a nutty taste and were once used in Aztec rituals. The drawback is that they are tiny, and separating them from the chaff seems a formidable task. It is no wonder then that these and similar indigenous small-seeded and highly nutritious crops such as Ethiopian teff (Eragrostis teff) are being supplanted by larger-grained maize and easier-to-process wheat. Such a pity and what a loss of biological and nutritional diversity and culinary history. (That said, amaranth grains, as well as teff, are available in certain health food shops.)

Amaranth harvested in basket fab

Amaranthus cruentus ‘Velvet Curtains’

Not least of this year’s bounty are the olives. The olive tree is alternate bearing, which means it bears plentifully only every other year. Next year we expect very little or no fruit at all. We are elated to be able to taste our own extra-virgin olive oil — 13 precious litres of yellow-green gold — and to have been able to watch the process of its extraction. In months to come we look forward to gradually sampling our home-made preserves of green and black olives.

For the bounty from this year’s experiments in veggie growing and the lessons learned thereby, I am deeply grateful. It has been amazing to discover and appreciate how truly and astonishingly full of flavour organic, homegrown, and just-harvested vegetables are. Bought vegetables, even organically grown ones, simply cannot compete with fare directly from the plant and straight into the pot.

The origin of Thanksgiving is to give thanks for the harvest, and in times past in temperate climates, the harvest referred to wheat and other grains which matured in autumn. The word ‘harvest,’ I was surprised to recently discover, comes from Old English hærfest, meaning ‘autumn.’ A close relative is the German word for autumn, Herbst. What splendid and magnanimous timing indeed is harvest in autumn, enabling the laying of food stores, for humans and wild life alike, for the wintry months ahead.