An Extreme HOT AND DRY SUMMER

Sunset at Finca Halcon

July has gone and so has August and September and here we are at the end of October,

it’s shocking how time flies by so quickly.

I have to admit the heat really takes its toll and a siesta is necessary to keep energy-levels up, so then the evenings have to make up for the lost time.

Guests kept coming, keeping me busy and then the olive harvest started in early September.

I have learned some lessons in the garden, the hard way.

The garden gurus say to save seeds yourself, to propagate your own so that seed companies do not have the monopoly on seeds and our food supply.

I sowed courgettes, probably old seed or seed from shop bought courgettes, I cannot remember, mistake number one. Note to self: Always make sure you remember where your seed comes from.

I watered and fertilised, and water and mulched and incorporated ‘ollas’ and did everything to achieve lush, green growing plants. They flowered and some little baby fruit appeared. I harvested one; yes only one medium courgette from five plants. Every other fruit shrivelled up or died or did not even form.

The same with volunteer tomatoes from last year and the melon plants; they grew and developed nice green foliage, two small melons appeared and shrivelled up; granted after being attacked by the peacocks.

And my shop bought tomato plants? Yes, they are still producing, but I rarely get to enjoy a fruit as again the peacocks get at them despite netting and wire mesh. And the ones they cannot get the ants will claim for themselves. In an extremely dry, hot year any source of moisture helps the critters to survive.

Who am I to deny nature its bit? Well, it is damn frustrating to a go without a bounty of harvest after putting in the time of keeping the plants alive in the extreme heat.

Saying that, I did have some success with the cucumbers and made plenty of cucumber smoothies and the peppers are doing quite well and also the multi-coloured aubergines. I have purple, purple-white striped, yellow and white aubergines and even sold some to the Moroccan shop, which also takes our eggs. Ok, I am obsessing about those beauties, simply because this is this years most successful crop, as ants and peacocks don’t go near them.

This year’s lesson is:

  1. take note of where your seeds or plants come from, also what age the seeds are.
  2. do not buy hybrid or polyploid seeds or plants if you want to save the seeds or propagate new plants from the old
  3. bought plants will not guarantee successive produce in the next year, because of the same problem: lots of fruit in the first year, then diminished production.
  4. If you want to save seeds, buy organic seed that are untreated, produced without chemical additives like fertilisers and pesticides and are not hybrids for a once off showy grandeur of produce.

And did I mention the trouble these beautiful wonderful peacock and peahens give me? It’s definitely a love-hate relationship, full of passion. They break into the garden; push their way through netting and wire to eat all of the Swiss chard, some tomatoes, all of the cabbage, lettuce and what-have-you.

I am looking forward sowing my crop of Ruccola, self-saved and always a great slightly peppery salad ingredient.

HAPPY DAYS WITH LOVELY PEOPLE

In August I went to collect my daughter Elaine in Malaga, or rather Fuerengirola, taking in Benalmadena on the way where a dear friend of mine lives.

She is nearing her 80s, but an inspiration with her active life. She moved to Spain in her 70s, learned Spanish then and thus it proves you are never too old to start anything. Being a nurse by profession she volunteered her time and expertise in a nearby hospice and wrote a book at the same time. We met in 2016 in Granada on an excursion of the Spanish language schools and being both on the way to move our lives to Spain, clicked.

My daughter was after having a hen party weekend with friends and happy to move to the quietness of our finca. Not without being dragged over the border to Portugal, where my son and girlfriend holidayed in Albufeira. Well, ‘If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain’ or: don’t underestimate your mother, she will come and find you.

We spent a lovely day paddle surfing, paddle boating, jumping into the water, falling off the paddle board and filling ourselves up with food in between. All crowned with a cocktail, and a mocktail in my case, in the ‘Havana meets Jamaica Bar’, [R. Padre Semedo de Azevedo Nº18, 8200-167 Albufeira, the old town, Portugal], which we would recommend if you like really well made cocktails, Bob Marley, Shisha and a cool decor.

As you can see, I am lacking photos of this single day in Albufeira. Simply because we enjoyed ourselves too much to take silly selfies and were too busy splashing in the water and getting sun burnt.

Water is Life

After four years living in the deep south of Spain and trying to grow things, I can now dwell on my experiences.

Firstly, for me it turns out to be rather frustrating, battling the extremely high temperatures in summer and then the few nights where we actually have a few hours of frost, which will kill the tender plants. It killed our potato stalks once.

Then there is the sandy soil, where any moisture is sapped away immediately. Added to which our back garden has 15 cm sandy soil underlain with building rubble, you could not pick a worse place for a garden.

Despite that, I am growing more or less successful courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard and onions, garlic and herbs. In fact, the rosemary and lavender bushes love it here so much that I have to cut them back twice a year or they would develop into a forest.

These are Mediterranean plants, so this is their home and they thrive; which cannot be said for things like chives, French beans or any other cool-loving plants.

Rucola or rocket, roquette grows in the winter months nicely. Even beetroot, leeks, kohlrabi and other cabbage do well. The main growing season is between October and May, after that comes the time of the tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, melons etc.

As it only rains here twice, usually in November and March or thereabouts, watering the plants most of the year is a necessity.

Nigel did even install a roll-out lawn twice in the front of the house and kept it going over the summer, but it takes a lot of water and time to keep it alive. There is a native type of grass, grama, which can withstand the heat but dies back in winter, and he does not like the look of it. It originates from North and South America, genus Bouteloua oligostachya, is much coarser and spreads in stolons on the surface.

Roll-out lawn when it was put down in March

After one summer.

After two years of struggling along with stunted plants in our back garden we started the out garden or container garden. Any type of big containers, like a square 1000 liter cube or second hand palm tree pots are ideal to grow plants in, as they can be filled with good, humus-rich soil and will keep moisture available for the plants and are easier to tend too, being high off the ground.

We now have 9 big containers, where I grew this year potatoes, tomatoes, fennel, aubergines, sweet corn, leeks and carrots.

This is one solution to the bad soil and lack of rain. I have also tried out a few different forms of irrigation systems on my garden:

  1. water hose, surface irrigation,

2. ‘Ollas’

3. ‘Cuban Method’

4. trench planting,

5. piped, drip irrigation,  

and  most essential: mulching.

  1. Water Hose

The traditional way of using a water hose has the advantage of flooding a plot and can be done willy-nilly, any time of day. The disadvantage of course is it takes a lot of water, splashes from the soil can infect plants with diseases and evaporation is high, if the ground is not mulched.

2. Ollas

A pottery friend in Germany mentioned ‘ollas’ to me, which is the Spanish word for pots, in this case terracotta pots which are buried in the soil beside the plant. Ollas can be very fancy, come in different shapes and sizes. I however just stuck two cheap clay pots from the Chinese shop with silicone together, plugged one hole and dug these in. They work. They act as a reservoir for water, which seeps out really slowly over time. Here however, thanks to the very thirsty sandy soil, it is gone within a few hours, unless the soil around it is also kept damp.

The combination of ollas and water hose works well, but a lot of ollas are needed.

  1. 3. ‘Cuban Method’

On YouTube I found this old Cuban fellow extolling the virtue of watering only once a week thanks to his plastic bottle system. Instead of clay ollas he reuses plastic bottles, makes a small hole in the side and digs them in beside the plant to be watered.

I like the idea of reusing plastic bottles, everybody has them available anyway. So all new bushes and trees now get a two or 5 liter bottle beside them. I have placed a bamboo stick with a cork at the end into the bottle and so I can see how far the water level has gone down.

It works very well. Since my cucumbers have now a bottle beside them, they thrive as well as the cucumbers in the paint container.

  1. 4. trench planting

Another method is to dig a biggish hole, fill the bottom with gravel, and stick a pipe beside the plant root that will be receiving the water. Thus the water goes straight to the roots, where it is needed.

This is a good idea in soils that go rock hard and will not take surface water, again a problem we have.

  1. 5. piped, drip irrigation

I watched YouTube videos, I saw the neighbours doing it, I heard it from others too and it is done on a huge scale in the tunnels and green houses, drip irrigation. Over thousands of hectares of strawberries are grown this way here in Huelva province.

Advantages of drip irrigation

[see https://www.farmpractices.com/types-of-irrigation ]

  • It saves around 30-70 % of water.
  • There is a reduction in the cost of labor.
  • Suitable to use in hilly terrains.
  • It also decreases the weed problem.
  • There will be an increase in plant growth, vigour, and yield.
  • Facilitates easy intercultural operations.
  • Ease the fertilizer application
  • Fewer incidences of various diseases spreading through the soil are minimized.
  • It is most suitable for light soils.
  • Utilization of low-quality water like hard water or salt water without contamination of the whole farm.

It is a bit complicated to get all the bits and pieces together, that’s why I shied away from it for a long time until all this daily watering and getting entangled in hose pipes got to me.

So I made a plan, got the various items in the local supplier, including a programmable watering clock.

Unfortunately the connection coming from the wall tap just is not right and water already gets out from there before going down the various pipes, which we luckily had available here on the finca anyway.

So I am lacking the pressure to have a circular system to drip irrigate all the beds.

It’s not a big area, but I wanted all beds to receive a lot of piping which is just not feasible, so back to the drawing board.

I know others also have their problems with blocked pipes or holes and some areas not receiving enough water. So the jury is out on that one.

But what I urge everybody to do, who lives anywhere at all, is mulching. Deep straw mulch is best. Here we have a ready supply from the goat sheds down the road, so my mulch comes with added nutrients.

Mulching is the very best method to:

  • prevent evaporation
  • prevent weeds from coming up
  • preventing soil erosion
  • keep the soil surface cool
  • adding to humus content and organic matter
  • help water absorption
  • reduces the intensity of rain/irrigation water
  • helps prevent soil borne diseases
  • establish beneficial fungi, bacteria and worms to break down the organic matter
  • protecting tender plants
  • adding nutrients.

You could also use wood chips, bark mulch or dead weed matter, just try not to introduce weed seeds or roots or disease. I have my doubts about paper, because of the ink and very high carbon content.

Currently I use a combination of all the methods listed above. The drip irrigation is stalled at the moment. So watering still takes me an hour, half an hour in the back garden, which is under shading and another half an hour in the container garden and various plants all around the house.

We were lucky enough during our three week holiday to have a conscientious friend looking after our house, plants and creatures, feeding and watering daily.

And yet, still plants wither and die from the sheer intensity of the heat and are under heat stress, they cannot suck up water as quickly as it is lost.

The highest and lowest soil temperatures occur at the soil surface, and become more stable the deeper you go. What I thought is interesting is that in order to properly earth an electric installation you have to go as deep as 1.5 m with your earthing rod according to our electrician. It is at this depth the soil becomes damp, even though on the surface you think it is completely dried out and dead, devoid of all soil life, but deeper down it is teaming with soil life.

When the air temperature reaches 35 degrees Celsius, the soil temperature can go even higher than that if you have a sandy type soil. Our soils here are sand and loam and behave like concrete, making it difficult for roots of newly planted plants to penetrate and search for moisture.

Therefore any new planting is done in the autumn, when there is less heat and the hope of some rain. The vulnerable plants can take their time to drill down roots and get settled before the blazing heat of the summer.

March 2021 – Anniversary of our Journey to Spain 4 years ago

Beginning and end of the months. It started with floods and ended with a feeling of summer:

And as almost every months, March brought a lot of surprises, some good and some not so good.

Below are what are called ‘ollas’. Yes, I know they are terracotta pots.

A German friend of mine who is into pottery sent me a Whatsapp message about ‘Ollas’ (pronounced OY-yah).

These are ancient vessels of clay that are porous and used as a watering system for thousands of years. They are like vases and are buried in the ground between plants and filled with water.

See https://wateruseitwisely.com/olla-irrigation/

I have since read up on them and like this low-tech version of a watering system and have installed a home-made version in my vegetable garden.

Purpose made ollas are beautiful but quite expensive, so I have bought cheap terracotta pots in the Bazaar Chino, two sizes that just about fit snug into another and have sealed the edge with silicone, and also plugged the drain hole that goes into the ground.

The advantage over over-ground irrigation systems is there is no evaporation occurring, as the moisture seeps into the surrounding soil, right there where it is needed and only when it is needed, so it is extremely efficient. This will depend on a lot of things: the saturation of the soil, the soil type, the plant needs, the plant size and how far away it is. So in fact the plants needs dictate how much water is used. Overwatering is not possible, as the olla is full if no water is needed and empty when all is used up.

The other advantage is that because there is no overground moisture, no weeds will thrive. The top soil looks dry, but beneath and surrounding the olla the soil is damp.

How often it needs refilling depends on all these variables and also how often you water the garden. I look upon this system as a back up to my manual ‘flood irrigation’, which I do every two days at least in the heat of the summer. And in between the ollas will supply a steady bit of moisture.

The disadvantage, as far as I can see at this early stage is, that you need a lot of ollas, either one for every two or four plants and they take space away in small plots. Also our soil is nearly pure sand and does not retain any water due to its lack of humus, so any moisture gets sucked away immediately.

I also suspect that the plants will send out their roots towards the source of water and the olla will eventually be totally covered with hair roots. And then what? Will it clog up? Will I need to dig them up, dry them out and clean them?

Will faster and stronger growing plants take all the moisture for themselves? We will see. It is still an experiment for me and evolving as I put down more ollas and plants.

This system can be improved by connecting several ollas with pipes and having a line coming from a water butt for automatic refill if you are so inclined.

I however like to spend time in the garden with my plant children, so it is no chore to look after them or at them while giving them water. They will repay my diligence with beautiful, tasty, fresh and healthy vegetables and leaves.

Property Surprises

We had a surprise while trying to register the finca for the goat project. We did not realise that our abogado/notary did not register the property with the land registry at the time of purchase. Well, at the time we were just happy to close the deal and move on. That’s not so tragic in itself, but it turns out that a several thousand euro embargo is attached to our finca and we did not know about it.

So off we went to La Palma de Condado to check out, if there were any taxes unpaid, just to be on the safe side.

This embargo must be an issue with the previous owner and we immediately engaged a lawyer to shift this embargo off the property while at the same time starting the process of properly registering it into our name, which costs us a further €3,500, apart from the lawyers fee.

Apparently it is quite common that the local authorities will put an embargo on either your bank account or, if you do not have any funds, on your property for unpaid taxes or any incurred fines. They will either take their unpaid dues out over time from your account or prevent a sale of the property from happening. Sometimes the next owner will have to pay those fines, if they have to do with the property, for example not having obtained the required licences or having built too large or for a different purpose.

In our case at the time of sale, this embargo had not yet been put upon the finca, so we will not have to pay any of it. It just takes time and money to shift it.

This is beautiful La Palma de Condado, Iglesia San Juan Bautista, Plaza de Espana:

Garden Art

Thanks to our new neighbour we are now proud owners of not one, but three unique statues. I always coveted some art in my gardens, just not quite the type we now own. But never mind, they are quite fetching and different from the gargoyle that inhabits the vegetable garden.

These three are nymphs come from a nearby finca, whose owners were Dutch and the new owner just does not feel comfortable with them.

The biggest is a real beauty and the two smaller ones are of the same model, but all are unashamed depictions of the feminine form.

It’s really a deal – art for eggs. Astrid, our new neighbour, loves our farm fresh eggs and we really love her oranges and so we swap. I include in the deal surplus from the garden and so we are all happy.

Our terrace is the hottest place in the summer and really only good for an early morning yoga session or a late night wine chill-out. We erected a pergola and the first year I had a synthetic matting up to provide shade. Between the wind and rusty wire it went to bits. The ultimate idea is to have the wine, Kiwi and Bougainvillea climbing up and over it, but this will take years.

For now, we need an alternative type of awning.

So this year I cut the cañas, the reeds growing along the road, and proceeded to slip them into the wire grid. Fingers crossed, it will provide some kind of shade. It’s organic, free and I can always add some more.

Random photo gallery:

Between the times…

Garden produce….