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.

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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

Amaranth harvested in basket fab.jpg

Amaranth

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?

Zarzaparilla growing on fig trunk.JPG

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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Our own olive oil, finally

When well-laid plans go awry, often Providence steps in with an unplanned proxy, way better than any we could have thought up ourselves. And that is precisely what happened with our first venture into pressing our own olives into oil.

Our oil on plate w olives zaatar

For breakfast this morning: our own extra virgin olive oil, cold extracted, with last year’s pickled olives, za’atar, and sourdough rye bread.

When my gardener went ahead to have his olives pressed three days earlier than we had agreed upon, I thought I had no other option for our olives but to pickle them, as our meager harvest would most likely not meet the minimum required by a press. It would probably require buying more pickling jars, unless I could convince friends to come and get some off our hands.

So what could be more miraculous and providential than my friend Roselie phoning me that she’d just found an almázara (olive press) near her farm? M and I at once set about feverishly harvesting for a day and a half. We left the ones unreachable even with a ladder for the birds, and some fully ripe black ones for later salt pickling. Our harvest came to 2 large crates and a quarter of a large trug. We estimated about 40 – 50 kilos.

Shortly after noon on Friday the 10th, we drove to the 2-hectare farm of Roselie and her husband Lambert. Their lovely house at the end of a stonewall-lined lane peeped through a diversity of fruit trees — olives, persimmons, quinces, and citrus — backlit into shimmering gold by the autumn sun. It was their neighbour who had told them about the almázara run by a cousin. Our group then headed for the village of Benicolet, driving through orchards scented by ripening persimmons, oranges, grapefruits, and olives. There, near a grove of baby olive trees on one side and a citrus orchard on the other, stood the press.

Benicolet Almazara L'or del Xiu

The Benicolet olive press. The man facing the camera is Victor Climent.

View from Benicolet Almazara fab

View from the olive press towards Montixelvo.

The guy in charge of the press, a tall young man, greeted us, and introduced himself as Noé. I had telephoned for an appointment for 1 pm the day before, and he apologised that we would have to wait, as there was still a batch going through. I said we were perfectly content to observe the process while waiting. Noé and his assistant Javi (Javier) were relaxed and pleasant as they showed us around the machinery, explaining the process at the same time that we took photos. Roselie and Lambert then left. They would be bringing in their olives at a later date.

While we waited for our turn, Noé pressed cold beer cans into our hands, and there was no way we could refuse, as we’d already refused once before. They also offered us tiny cups of a herbal liqueur, scented with anise and other sweet-smelling herbs. I was glad to see the previous batch finished before we got totally inebriated. The machinery was cleaned of debris and spent paste (pomace), ready for our turn.

Noé and Javi helped us carry the olives from the car. The olives were weighed, still in the crates and trug, and they came to 51 kilos. ‘Limpia!’ Noé was happy at the state of our fruit. The previous batch had been chockfull of twigs and leaves. ‘We picked by hand,’ I said. There are short harvesting rakes which we could have used, but only learned about later, being absolutely clueless about olive harvesting. In any case, olives meant for the table are best harvested by hand. Those for oil are usually stripped with narrow-tined plastic rakes.

Our olives were then poured into the input chute for sorting and washing.

Our olives into input chute2 fab

Our olives into input chute copy

The leaves and the fruit stems are separated, leaving the fruits to drop into a swirling cold water bath. They then proceed to be crushed into a paste, pulp and seeds together, with steel blades. (The traditional cold press method involved grinding in a stone mill with the ground paste wrapped in layers in straw or jute to be pressed.) The olive paste moves to a large horizontal tank to be mixed gently at 27°C (this is the maximum allowable temperature under cold extraction). This low temperature allows the oil content in the paste to be easily separated from the water content. It is not hot enough to affect the quality and taste of the resulting oil, and the process still qualifies as cold extraction. The term ‘cold pressing’ is now reserved for the traditional stone mill method. The crushed paste is mixed slowly, to allow enough time for all the oil to accumulate while the water drains off to pipes that lead outside.

Olives in macerator stirrer

Ground-up olive paste; the greener the olives, the paler the paste.

Mixing tank olives

From the mixing tank at top right above, the oil then slowly trickles through — a stream of molten gold. ‘Bueno,’ Noé and Javi both comment on our oil as it flows. We are quite chuffed. I am tempted to taste it, but restrain myself.

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The first trickle of cold-extracted oil

Meanwhile the temperature in the mixing tank drops gradually — to 26, then 25 until it is at 23°C when the last drops of oil trickle through to a sieve and on to a stainless steel collector.

The oil proceeds to a large stainless steel tank for mixing, and is then bottled into appropriate sized jugs. Our oil went into 3 jugs, each containing 5 liters. The last one only came to 2/3 of the jug. The total for our first olive oil came to 13 precious liters. And the oil content? At 28%, Noé and Javi reckoned it excellent.

Javi filling jugs

Javi bottling oil from the previous batch (13% oil content).

 

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Our oil at 28% oil content

The standard oil content for the variety of our olives — Villalonga Manzanilla (distinct from the Sevilla Manzanilla) — is between 22 – 25%; 28% is brilliant and totally unexpected. The price of extraction is 18 cents for each kilo of input fruit, and 55 cents for each 5-liter jug. In all our 13 liters of extra virgin olive oil cost us 10 Euros to process. (Prices vary from almázara to almázara. Some charge as low as 14 cents per kilo, others as high as 80 cents. Other mills also expect a portion of the extracted oil in addition to, or instead of payment.)

The high oil rating is, I assume, thanks to the generous organic amendments of stable and chicken manure over the past year, and timely drip irrigation at three critical periods: flowering, fruit set, and seed maturation. The yield of 13 liters of oil from 46.5 net weight of fruit is quite good too. Normally it takes about 6 kilos of fruit to produce 1 liter of oil. Ours came to 3.6 kilos of fruit to 1 liter. For us novice organic olive farmers, this is an encouraging beginning. And we’ve still got a good 20 – 30 kilos of fruit in various stages of being debittered for pickling. Not all our 33 trees have borne fruit this year, as they’d been neglected for years, and only received water and good nutrition since we came.

I cannot end without mentioning another incredible bit of our olive oil adventure. Because it was the team’s time for lunch (between 2 and 3 pm), we were invited to share the partridge puchero slowly cooked into deliciousness over 9 hours by Noé. The partridges were courtesy of Javier’s father who had hunted them in the surrounding mountains. As evidence, Noé warned us to beware of any remaining shot, showing us one that turned up in his serving.

What joy and undiluted pleasure it was to partake of a meal so generously and freely shared by people who an hour before had not known us at all. We sat outside at a table in front of the press in the gentle afternoon sun, drinking red wine, soaking crusty fresh bread in the savoury broth flavoured with parsley and lemon quarters. The mixed olive pickles were from Olives Sanjuan, Javi´s family firm. Across from our dining table were oranges and grapefruits ripening on their trees in the nearby orchard. Could life get any better? This is precisely the kind of experience we had wished to come across while living in Spain.

While we waited for the cold extraction to come to an end, Noé’s father, Victor Climent, was graciousness itself as he recounted the history of the olive press, designed by his eldest daughter, an architect. I note, from the framed certificates on one wall of the press, that both of Noé’s older sisters had undertaken training related to extra virgin olive oil accreditation. It is only the second year that the press has been in operation, and the very first year that it is open to the general public.

The almázara, I gather, was established as a joint venture by the Sanjuan and Climent families in 2015. The Sanjuan family specializes in preserved olives and other pickles, and has branched out into ecological olive oil production under the label L’Or del Xiu. The word ‘Xiu’ comes from the former Moorish stronghold, Castell del Xiu (Xiu Castle), which was captured by Christian forces under King James (Jaume) I of Aragon in 1244. The ruins of the castle are a tourist feature of Llutxent, a town not far from Benicolet. Both Llutxent and Benicolet belong to the comarca (administrative region) known as Vall d’Albaida.

So what is our oil like? First of all, its colour immediately after extraction was a cloudy olive green. It has now settled into a brighter yellowish green, though still fairly cloudy. In time we are assured the particulates will settle and the oil will be less opaque. When poured onto a white plate, it is a distinct yellow. Its scent is intensely fruity, like that of freshly sliced green apples. This scent is characteristic of the Villalonga type of olive. Other scents associated with the Villalonga variety are freshly mown grass and almonds, but these I did not detect. There is also a strong scent of raw olives — after all, extra virgin olive oil is none other than pure olive juice. And what about the flavour? It is, like its scent, intense, mildly bitter, and peppery, and the taste lingers long in the mouth after swallowing. We love it! Not only because it is our very own, but it is just the kind of olive oil that we like, and what we had, rather unknowingly, hoped for. We aim to harvest a little earlier next time. Perhaps even two or more weeks earlier. The Villalonga variety ripens earlier than most other varieties, and ideally for the very best oil flavour, it should be harvested at the point when some fruits are already taking on a purple blush, even when most are still green. There is a trade-off between quantity and quality. The riper the olive, the greater the quantity of oil, but we would rather have less, and enjoy the best tasting oil we can produce.

A resounding thank you to our angels, Roselie and Lambert, for introducing and guiding us to an amazing almázara! And of course to Noé Climent Bosca and Javier Sanjuan Pascual for being so nice and hospitable. We shall certainly be back with our next harvest. Thanks also to Miichan and Satchan, our cats, who helped with the harvesting.

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Noé Climent Bosca, on the left, and Javier (Javi) Sanjuan Pascual.

Contact details: Noé Climent Bosca, Almázara L’Or del Xiu, Benicolet, Valencia. Tel. 655 523 567. Call ahead to book. I understand pressing is only till the end of the November.

 

 

 

Time to plant bulbs

It´s a lovely cool day today at 21ºC. Everyday now I´ve been expecting rain, as it is usually grey and cloudy first thing in the morning. And so I´ve been holding off watering the garden. But so far, no rain. Which is fine, as I can continue to garden without getting wet.

These are what met my eyes this morning as I sipped my coffee and began to write.

Morning light on olive cosmos lavenders fab

Morning light on lavenders with blue-grey Russian sage, yellow euryops, pink cosmos, blue salvias (to the extreme right in front of the boulders), and in front, creeping verbenas.

Morning light on lemon verbena herb bed lavender fab

Flowering lemon verbena surrounded by various herbs — thyme, santolina, sage, creeping rosemary, and lavenders.

Ten am view from veranda

The mountain beyond is often wreathed in fog and mist, but not this morning. It is lovely at all times.

Since we got back from our holiday, I´ve been busy planting bulbs that will bloom sometime in February or March. Cyclamen — one of my favourites — have been nestled among the boulders in front and the back. The fuzzy photos are from the bulb packages.

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I hope to outwit the squirrels and hedgehogs, and possibly mice, who are partial to cyclamen bulbs, whose common (and rather ungainly) name is sowbread, as it was once used to fatten up pigs.

Cyclamen bulbs for planting

Cyclamen bulbs — plant with the bowl facing up and smooth side down. The leftmost bulb was an indeterminate shape, and I am hoping the leaves and roots will find their own way.

Rocks under pine for cyclamen planting

I hope that the cyclamen will spread under the shelter of this pine and among the boulders.

Under the large cherry tree have gone muscari bulbs, and I envision their blue spikes up at the same time as the pale pink of the cherry´s blossoms. Some more muscari are going under the young cherry tree, a housewarming present from my friend T, who lives just over the mountain from me. I´m recreating a similar planting from the Bonn Botanical Garden, only there it was a flowering cherry, not a fruiting one like here.

Muscari from seed packet

Muscari

You can see where I´ve parked the wheelbarrow with my soil improvers — vermicompost (humus de lombriz; lombriz are earthworms, in the white sack) and organic humus (enmienda humica organica, in the blue sack), ready to scatter around the bulbs. These are to be found at the agricultural coop shop in Villalonga. Both are rich, black, and sweet-smelling, and I mix the two together with a bit of grit (limestone chips) from the gravel path and my poor garden soil to ensure good drainage so that the bulbs don´t rot when the rains flood my garden´s sticky clay soil. When I read ´poor garden soil´ in gardening books, my unimproved garden soil does not even qualify, and I always mix compost or humus to my impoverished soil.

Wheelbarrow wild olive ready for planting bulbs

Muscari waiting to be planted under the spreading boughs of a wild olive and young cherry tree. My wheelbarrow with humus sacks marks the spot and reminds me to get cracking, instead of writing.

Incidentally, when it rains for a few days, the gravel path spawns gelatious green-black blobs that look rather like the fungi called cloud ears, often used in Chinese cuisine. I think (but have yet to confirm) that these are nitrogen-fixing single-celled photosynthesizing bacteria called nostoc. And by incorporating these gravel chips (and the invisible dried nostoc) into the soil when planting, I hope to boost the chances of survival and longevity of my new introductions to the garden.

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Deciding just where to plant these bulbs, which are naturally of Mediterranean origin (Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Greece, Turkey, etc.) is a bit tricky. To naturalize them, it is best to plant them 3 to 4 times deeper than is recommended on the packet to prevent them getting dry in our hot Mediterranean summers. For more temperate and wetter climates, planting them at 3 times their height is, conversely, to prevent them getting soggy and, subsequently, rotting. And, moreover, I want to make sure there are no endemic orchids that will be displaced. I shall be planting the rest of the bulbs in the next few days — Scilla hyacinthoides, Scilla peruviana, and scented tazetta narcissus.

Scilla hyacinthoides from seed packet

Scilla hyacinthoides

Scilla peruviana from packet

Scilla peruviana (misnamed as it is not from Peru)

Narcissus tazetta seed packet img

Tazetta narcissus

I missed out on the flowering of the autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis, although I call them pink orchids) while we were away, but their developing seeds are also worth a look.

Seedheads of autumn squill pink orchid fab.JPG

I came across Umberto Eco´s heartening and inspiring words on gardening this morning.

To rebuild a little chunk of the flowering earth: This should be every gardener’s goal. You must begin with a light heart and open eyes — as one does when entering a forest — while keeping in mind, at the same time, how tortuous and tiring is the path that lies before you. To become a gardener means to try, to fail, to stubbornly plug away at something, to endure serious disappointments and small triumphs that encourage you to try and fail again. But it means, above all, perking up your ears, sniffing, identifying the rhythm and the secret voice of a place, so that you may abandon yourself to and indulge it. To make a garden is to surrender so completely that you forget yourself. It is to obey.

I believe that a person cannot plant and remain bereft of hope. Putting a seed or bulb or plantlet into the soil is to see in the mind´s eye its eventual flowering and fruiting. And it doesn´t matter if it doesn´t turn out as expected. The very act of preparing the soil, enriching it with nature´s own and not with chemicals, and laying the seeds or bulbs or seedlings to rest into that thoughtfully made bed, is more than enough to keep dark clouds at bay.

 

 

 

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….

Mini pomegranate in bloom g.JPG