Saturday, 26 July 2014


Those of you who have my book will know that the simple recipes at the end have been modified by my wife from more complicated ones. They are quicker, cheaper and easier to make than the originals. They taste better too, because they have been adjusted to suit us. You will also know that whenever possible she makes the recipes flexible so that you are not tied to specific weights or ingredients and you can change them to suit you.

It does mean you need a little cooking experience, or are prepared to experiment. You will soon learn how to modify them, and there are always opportunities to change things as you go. Building in the safeguard of being able to make changes part way through means that tips on how and when to do it need to be included in the instructions.

One important point to note is that unlike almost all recipes for piccalilli this one does not have the vegetables coated in salt overnight. In fact there is no added salt. It is not necessary because of the other flavours. It is also a lot healthier than the salt laden versions. The amount of sugar in many recipes is also excessive. This is the typical “bad” manufactured food scenario - lots of both salt and sugar.

If you are in the northern hemisphere, now or in the next few weeks is the time of year when you (or a friendly neighbour) can supply most of the ingredients from vegetables in the garden – or buy them at their cheapest if you have no garden.

The two things you need to make vegetables into piccalilli are vinegar and spice. We use white wine vinegar because that is what is available in Portugal, but use whatever you have. The British brown malt vinegar is what my mother always used and the only difference is that it makes the sauce darker. The one essential spice is turmeric powder. Everything else is optional. I prefer some mustard seeds too, or you could use powdered mustard. Coriander seeds, powdered ginger and other spices are frequently used in more complicated recipes. The choice is up to you. Use what you like.

Marrows or courgettes tend to overwhelm anybody who grows them, and many gardeners have a few plants. They soon grow bigger than is suitable for a single meal and piccalilli is often the only thing that these fruits are used for in a household. They are also very cheap in shops that stock them. Onions, cucumbers (or gherkins) and cauliflower are traditionally used in addition to the marrows or courgettes. I think it would not be the same without onions and cauliflower. Further options are green tomatoes, French beans, runner beans, peppers (either sweet or hot depending upon your taste) capers and garlic. Omitting the overnight salting means you can have the piccalilli ready in under an hour after you have prepared the vegetables. We do feel that a small amount of sugar enhances the flavours.

Before making the first batch this year we did an internet search and looked at numerous recipes. Most had far too much salt, and only one confirmed our opinion that salt should be omitted. That was on the website of the supermarket chain Waitrose. We saw recipes that use nasturtium pods instead of capers. Carrots occasionally appear in recipes too. Some used weights, others referred to large, medium or small vegetables.
You might want some guidance on quantities to use. The ratio of vegetables to vinegar varied a lot in the recipes we saw, from less vinegar than vegetables to twice as much. Have available a bit more than half the weight of vinegar to vegetables for your first attempt, although it is unlikely you will need it all. Vinegar weighs 1kg per litre, 20ozs (one and one quarter pounds) per British pint, and one pound per US pint. We also suggest no more than 1oz of sugar per pound of vegetables or 55g per kilo – and use a lot less ourselves. We are not being diet goody-goodies, we just think that sweet piccalilli is not right. If you want sweet pickles then make chutney and not piccalilli.

Make sure you have sufficient sterilised jars with non-corrosive lids for the batch being made. Know the capacity of the jars and allow one spare over the combined weight of vegetables and vinegar. You might not need it. They must be kept hot because the newly made piccalilli will be close to boiling point when it is transferred to them.

Our main purpose for a recent batch was to use up an overgrown courgette and excess cucumbers. So, we used 1 large cauliflower, 250g/half a pound of French beans and 2 big Onions in a total weight of 6.5kgs/14lbs of vegetables in their fresh natural state. The single courgette we used was close to 6lbs (2.5kgs) so comprised about 40% of the total weight. Cucumbers brought the total to 6.5kgs. We had not previously used French beans and are not impressed. They add nothing to the flavour and we will not use them again.

We had added 5 large garlic cloves to an earlier batch of about half the quantity plus about half a jar of leftover capers, and I like that. We decided on 2litres of vinegar which is a lot less than any recipe we have seen, and is about one third of the weight of the prepared vegetables. We made the decision because the courgette and cucumbers were harvested from the garden immediately before being prepared and we knew they would contain a lot of liquid. With other vegetables you might need more. The starting amount is not critical to success.  
You will see how to use the dry ingredients during the instructions below and we used 1 heaped tablespoon of Mustard seed, the same of turmeric powder, about 3ozs/90g of flour, and 150g/5ozs of white sugar. All these are less quantities than other recipes will state, but it was enough.  Keep the flour handy in case you decide to thicken the sauce some more, when a tiny further amount of turmeric can also be added.  More vinegar should be available to increase the quantity of sauce if you think it necessary at a later stage. Some prefer the sauce runny, and others for it not to drip off the bottom of a spoon dipped into a jar, and the quantity of liquid in your chosen vegetables will have some effect on the consistency, and quantity, of the sauce. 
Take some notes on what you use and how long various stages take. That way you can decide whether you want to change anything for the next batch. You will make more.

If you intend to weigh the vegetables do it before preparing them – it is easier. Cucumbers and large gherkins are best skinned, as the skins tend to be bitter and the bitterness can persist in the piccalilli. Small courgettes need not be skinned, but if large like the one we used they have tough skins. We peeled most of it but left the skin on a few pieces for additional colour. We also removed the central pith and seeds. Break the cauliflower into small florets and prepare and cut all the other vegetables into the size of pieces you want in the finished product. Keep each vegetable separate from the others. About half an inch or 1cm cubes suits most people, except for garlic if used, which many will like sliced small, or even crushed.

Heat the vinegar and sugar in a pan big enough to take all the vinegar and vegetables. Whilst the vinegar is heating mix the mustard, turmeric and flour into a smooth paste with some cold vinegar. Other seeds or spices that you want to include should also be mixed in this paste. Extra dry spices, or including peppers, will change the flavour. Bulk up the paste with hot vinegar from the pan. This ensures you have a smooth paste that will not go lumpy. It also thins the paste and makes it easier to pour.

Pour the paste into the pan of hot vinegar before it comes to the boil. The mixture, now a sauce, needs to be stirred continuously and heated to boiling point. It should be adjusted to the consistency you prefer. I am happy with it quite thin. You do not want it too watery, nor do you want too much of it. You want jars full of vegetables in sauce, not sauce with some vegetables, so be careful about adding extra vinegar, and remember the liquid that will come out of the vegetables, especially the cucurbits (marrow, courgette, cucumber). You can always add more flour and a touch of turmeric later if you want to thicken it more. The sauce should not quite cover the vegetables when all have been added to the pan, and you can increase the quantity of sauce at later stages. You always have room to manoeuvre.

Do not tip everything into the sauce willy-nilly. The reason for keeping them separate is so that you can add them in order to achieve equal crunchiness in the piccalilli. Onions are always first, and the sauce will drop in temperature and stop boiling. Stir each vegetable into the sauce as you go. When one is thoroughly coated, add the next, but there is no need to rush. Cauliflower follows the onions, then any other hard vegetables such as carrots. These are followed by (if used) beans and peppers. Next comes the bulk - the cucurbits and finally garlic and capers. If the sauce is too thin for you, add more flour and turmeric paste, but remember you have to keep stirring it, so not too thick. 

Continue heating and stirring until the sauce returns to the boil. Liquid from the cucurbits will increase the amount of sauce, and the vegetables should have enough sauce to just cover them when boiling point is reached. If not, merely add some vinegar - and more flour paste if you want. Make sure it reaches boiling point again if you have added more vinegar or paste. You now have piccalilli. It can be removed from the heat now, which is what we do, or left to boil some more, but you must remove it from the heat before the vegetables become soft. A small number of minutes should be sufficient for anybody. Put the piccalilli in the hot sterilised jars immediately. Fill them right to the top and close the lids firmly. It will keep a long time. Some folks like to let the flavours mingle for a couple of weeks or more before using. As soon as it cools is long enough for me.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

That is the name of my website. Even if you are not interested in what I have to offer - mainly dried leaves from trees and other plants traditionally used in cooking, herbal teas and for small pets, you might be interested in some views of where I live and the neighbouring land. Use the Google map "streetview" icon for this purpose when you link from the website.

Those of you who either have, or are thinking about having their own website, should take a look too. See what an exceptional site has been created for me by my friend Patrick (mentioned elsewhere in the blog from time to time) through his site and consider using him to upgrade or create your own site. Patrick also did the technical work to enable my ebook to be published. He could do one for you too.

Obviously the launch of my site is for my new venture for 2014 and that is offering a range of products from things growing on the quinta. I have previously remarked that I like to do something new each year. The almonds are now the favoured venture for 2015 as it is unlikely I will have the land and infrastructure ready to consider planting later this year.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Mediterranean Diet

Having recently read yet another article praising the Mediterranean Diet (MD) I decided to write this blog. Over the best part of 20 years I have read a great deal about the origins of the term and what it means. Having known a few people from rural areas of countries around the Mediterranean (Med) when I lived in Australia in the 1980s and knowing what they considered traditional foods from “back home” I always doubted that the MD was truly representative of what country people in that area ate in the middle to latter 20th century. Having lived in rural Portugal for the last 11 years my doubts are now beliefs.

The MD is generally recognised as being one promoted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health in the mid 1990s and constantly repeated by all and sundry ever since. It is supposedly based on the typical diet of people in Crete, the remainder of Greece and Southern Italy during the 1960s. There is quite a good Wikipedia article on how it all came about, including some earlier research and some subsequent studies. UNESCO has recognised the diet pattern as an integral cultural heritage of several countries bordering and close to the Med, including Portugal which strictly has the Atlantic as its shores, Gibraltar being the westerly point of the Med.

The MD indicates that a large proportion of daily food intake should be, and I quote, "abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts". What that all means is, of course, interpreted differently by different people.

Harvard also made the MD idea into a graphic known as “The Healthy Eating Food Pyramid” and another called “The Healthy Eating Plate”. These are revised from time to time to take into account recent research but follow the same ideas as the quote above – with some notable exceptions. Dietary vitamin supplements are now recommended by Harvard. If a diet is adequate then supplements are not necessary. If it is inadequate then it cannot be a healthy diet. Vegetable oils (the olive is a fruit not a vegetable) are also now recommended as “healthy”. There have been too many adverse research reports about the unhealthiness of vegetable oils for me to accept this. All vegetable oils are a modern invention, say about 100 years ago onwards, and an industrial processed one at that – nothing natural about it, and no long-standing use of vegetables as a fat source in any of the countries near the Med. In fact I am not aware of any country that historically relied on vegetable oil as a source of fat. I do not have any vegetable oils by choice, nor would I (nor have ever in my life) eaten margarine and similar spreads – always butter. Why does Harvard espouse chemical supplements and industrially processed fats?

So what do country folks really consume? It is necessary to generalise, there are exceptions – I have met a Portuguese vegetarian and a couple of teetotallers.  Without question a lot of olive oil is consumed, people have told me of up to a litre a week for their household, but it is likely to be Virgin Olive Oil, not Extra Virgin, and from the olive mill where their, or their neighbours’ olives were pressed. It is poured on most dishes, cooked or uncooked. Often used as a dip for bread to accompany food. They also consume a lot of vegetables, fruit and some nuts – my wife and I eat about a kilo of nuts a week between us. I doubt many other people do. But these people also eat a lot of meat, cheese and eggs. In fact they consume a lot of everything, because they eat a lot. They also drink a lot. Almost every person I know here has wine with their lunch. I recall 4 or 5 years ago coming across two old couples (and I am 70, so when I say old, I mean old) about to begin their middle of the day break from picking olives. On the back of the donkey cart were two enormous loaves of bread, a huge chunk of presunto (dried ham) a heap of fruit and 4 bottles of wine. I did not see any olive oil but my experience is that presunto is eaten with dry bread, no oil.

Therein lies, I believe, the real reason these people live so long without much by way of illness – they cannot spare the time to be ill because they have too much work to do. To be fair, Harvard has always stressed the need for what they term “regular physical activity”. Most modern people do not have work that needs that regular physical activity, even housewives with their modern gadgets do not get the exercise of doing such things as laundry by hand. Although I know one old lady who in addition to working her small quinta and tending goats, still does, and in the river at that, and all year round – it is an exceptionally clean river. As a consequence people in modern sedentary jobs are not burning up the calories they would consume if they lived the peasant life, and so end up fat and often with associated health problems.

To go back to the original source of the MD, Crete, it is estimated that there were over one million goats and sheep on the island in 1990 just before the MD was widely publicised. And people were supposed to eat very little red meat? There were also “large” numbers of pigs whatever “large” means, and “some” cattle. These animals, plus hens, were and are owned in small numbers by virtually every country dweller around the Med. The number seems to vary according to family needs, but I would say from observations, usually between two and twenty. Some people raise more than they need in order to create some income. There are extremely few cattle owned by small scale farmers. Lack of adequate grazing is a prime reason.
On the other hand it seems just about everybody kills a pig on a regular basis. Add to this kids, lambs, and bountiful numbers of eggs for almost all the year. Further away from the equator hens need supplementary lighting to keep producing at a reasonable rate through the winter. In all my life, and that of millions of other rural people, nobody has ever asked how much home reared meat is eaten. Official figures of meat and egg consumption simply ignore this aspect of diet, because nobody knows. All animals are by law required to be ear tagged for food safety and disease control reasons (and in recent times an internal identification bolus in addition to the ear tags) but huge numbers are not so identified. It is wrong, and I do not condone it. Officially they do not exist, but their offspring are killed and eaten, as well as lots of cheese made from surplus milk.

Add too the fact that every little block of land owned by these people includes (apart from the necessary olive trees) wine grape vines. Nobody knows how much home produced wine and brandy is drunk either, because nobody knows how much is produced. Have a meal with, or just visit, any of these people and you will soon find out that it takes a persistent drinker to get through what they do.

I follow what I believe is really the MD, including using Virgin not Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I take oil in exchange for olives I take to the mill at Sobral do Campo. EVOO is for those with money who use it sparingly – a bit like drinking good Claret and Vintage Port every day instead of equally as satisfying less expensive wines. I also eat a lot more butter than anyone I have ever met, but then I still do a lot of physical work 7 days a week, and unless you do too, or exercise intensely several times a week, I think you would be better sticking to Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, but without the supplements and definitely without vegetable oils.  

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Weather Extremes

Forget whether you believe the world is warming, and if you do, what is causing it. Think instead about what you have seen and read about in the last three months. I have been confined indoors for a lot of that time due to continuing wet and windy weather. My winter outside work schedule has not been met, but being restricted has let me see what is happening to others less fortunate than me – when I have an Internet signal.
The usual Australian heat and bushfires have been reported as well as blizzards in America. Floods and gales have made the news in Britain and some European mainland countries, and Portugal’s Atlantic islands have also suffered. The difference this winter/summer appears to be the severity of these events and the geographic and time extension over past years.
Some parts of Australia that normally receive summer rainfall are in drought conditions – and unless you have seen first hand what an Australian (or similar country) drought looks like, then you cannot imagine it. People in places like Britain talk about having a drought. No they do not, they have a short spell without rain. Where I now live it does not rain between May and at least the end of September. Every year. That is just a dry spell. Drought means absolutely no grass whatsoever, and water supplies drying out completely. No food, no water and the inevitable outcome is that enormous numbers of farm livestock and wild animals die.
Drought is particularly bad in the SW of the U.S.  “Natural disaster” status was declared for counties in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Utah, Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma and California. California has been dry for 3 years and is running out of drinking water. Hawaii is included in the natural disaster status too and other countries worldwide are similarly suffering. The Eastern part of the U.S. suffered from winter storms with unprecedented snow in some southern states. As I post I am aware of temperatures in at least one area of Kansas being close to zero Fahrenheit. One thing I came across that many will have missed is the flooding in Bolivia. More than 40 people killed and about 50,000 homes totally destroyed in January, plus an estimated 100,000 cattle lost. I saw one aerial photo of an isolated higher bit of ground tightly packed with a large number of cattle that would obviously starve to death. 

It seems a lot of vegetables have been lost around the world, including those in large numbers of glasshouses and plastic tunnels for out of season supplies. We can feel as sorry as we may for all the farmers worse off than ourselves, and indeed those non-farmers who have lost their lives or homes and possessions, but there is little we can do. I am sure that more than one reader has suffered losses themselves in recent weeks due to the weather. It is not so long ago either that many in Scotland had sheds collapse due to excessive snow. Recent wet seasons have caused havoc too to farmers’ cash flows. For a couple of years I have been half-heartedly planning future action in the event that extreme weather and declining supplies of petrochemicals make what we now consider normal life to become unobtainable and/or unaffordable. 

I have made a couple of posts already about “what if” scenarios, and these were on the basis that I did not really expect to need to resort to putting the ideas into practice, just a sort of insurance policy. If these extreme conditions continue for another couple of years there will be severe shortages of several food commodities for those in “developed” countries. Millions are already starving and an inability for other countries to supply food aid does not bear thinking about, but we should. 

Along with some farmers in other countries I had noticed that weather patterns were staying around longer, meaning that when it is wet it stays wet for longer, and when it is cold (always relative of course) it stays cold for longer. The only difference is that in this part of the world it definitely is warmer than even 10 years ago. We have not had what I would call a "hard" frost (that is below minus 5ºC here) for about 6 winters. I have the old records but it takes some time to search them all. We have not been below freezing point since 10th Dec and that was only minus one. Soil temperatures have been in double figures at 9.30 a.m. and the mean temperatures for January and February 2014 were well above anything we have experienced in the past. 

I have also noticed in my trawling of news and general agricultural sites around the world that more and more large scale farmers are switching from traditional livestock and crops into so-called niche markets. I think it has always been this way, but probably on a smaller scale. I wonder if this shift means that grazing livestock numbers will fall rather quickly and that staple cereals acreages will also fall around the world. 

This would give opportunites to some - but who? Similar opportunities will arise for those not into broadacre farming, hence my interest in the lack of water in California, which produces more than 80% of the world’s almonds. Growers there are struggling with the lack of rain and snowmelt. Little snowmelt will be available this spring. California also supplies virtually all of several different vegetables consumed in the US. 

We all have try to survive and feed ourselves and families, and this led me to wonder how I might change my farming system. I intend to plant almonds. I will fit this change into my intentions for 2014 after the ground dries sufficiently for me to begin thinking how I will catch up on the backlog of work around the farm and what I will be able to achieve through the summer.

Monday, 23 December 2013

August to December 2013

August was a relatively mild month, temperatures fairly steady in the mid-30s C without any high spikes. The river ceased flowing on 10th August which meant a cessation of irrigation. It has ceased for the last few years now, and I am beginning to expect that to be normal. The first few years we were here it was more reliable. Fortunately, having bought the tractor mounted sprayer as intended I was able to cart some water to the most susceptible olive trees – young ones bearing a heavy crop, and keep them from losing their fruit.

What a difference that sprayer has made. It was not off the tractor for over 3 weeks from when I bought it. I sprayed against weeds all along the tree lines in less than a day. It used to take me the a week with knapsack sprayers. I also had complete protection from olive fly and gafa with the first clean crop I have harvested.

I know many people are opposed to using chemical protection of crops, but there really is no alternative here. Neglected groves abound and they are a permanent source of spreading diseases and pests. A loss of table quality fruit and the resulting low oil yield from the damaged fruit that is harvested is simply not an option, so spraying is necessary. I used the sprayer too to clean up the edges of the tarmac drive where weeds, and particularly couch grass were beginning to damage the surface. It also proved useful in spraying in and around buildings against insects, as well as treating the goats for the same problems. Biting and sucking insects, as well as flies, are a great problem for livestock in the summer.

In the garden, we continued to harvest lots of gherkins and then a year’s supply of the peppers which were just beginning to fruit when I posted in July. They are indeed a welcome new crop and very pleasant. To save anyone checking back to July, Marconi Red is the variety we used. I only had nine plants, but they cropped for many weeks. It is not a big blocky pepper, but has a very small cavity and is easily prepared for cooking or freezing – so my wife tells me. I just grow and harvest crops, she does the rest.

The potatoes followed their usual form of not being particularly brilliant. The property just seems not to be suited to grow them. Mona Lisa definitely outperformed the Picasso – both potato varieties, nothing to do with art. I will try Mona Lisa again next year, and maybe something else new. I just cannot accept that with all my experience I am unable to produce our own potatoes for all year round supply. Those available in the shops are of such poor quality that we eat them much less frequently than we like, using rice or pasta instead.

The olive harvest was rather late with very slow ripening of crops around about. I was picking ripe fruits as I could because I knew it would take me too long if I waited for full trees to ripen. The days become shorter and rain always stops picking. I was storing the picked fruits in vats of water until I had sufficient to take to the mill, when we received a sharp frost on the morning of 21st November. This was followed by a mild few days and then a string of frosts right through to 12th December. The first one had damaged all the olives remaining on the trees so it became a race against time to pick them, whatever their state of ripeness, before they disintegrated. Our son and family were visitng for a week and I was almost finished, with only one remaining to be picked, a very old and very tall tree, close to the house on the west side, that acts as a sunscreen to the cellar entrance and shades part of the house too. The day after their arrival we finished the tree, with my son doing all the climbing. I did not purposely plan it that way but I was pleased not to have to spend an hour climbing amongst the branches. His wife and I took care of the lower fruit.

As expected the oil yield was very low because of the frost damage to most of the crop, Fortunately due to a total lack of insect and fungal damage the fruit had retained a reasonable amount of structure and was acceptable at the mill. After allowing for the miller’s 18% processing deduction we ended up with 10 kilos of fruit to the litre. This meant a production of one litre to approximately eight and a half kilos of fruit. Very acceptable under the circumstances. At first I thought I might have been looking at a loss of much of the unharvested crop, and if I had not sprayed the resultant lower yield of even the sound fruit would have been a disaster.

There are still a few days to go to the end of the year, it is raining as I type, and it is forecast to last into the new year, so the nights will be mild, but that long string of frosts has reduced the mean minimum for the year and this will not be a record breaker for temperatures. I do expect it to be in the top four though since we came here in 2003. The afternoon high for 31st December will give me the final figure.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Flying Ants

2nd October was “Flying Ant Day 2013” here. That was the day when the ants with wings left their nests. The day varies each year because it always follows the first  rains  that end the summer dry spell. Every summer is always dry, but they are not droughts such as are experienced for example in Australia and USA. The first rains also bring a drop in temperatures.

Weather forecasts are much more accurate than they used to be and I knew about a week in advance when the rain would begin. This is very useful information because it allows time to deal with work that absolutely must be done in advance of it happening. For me that meant removing the irrigation pump from the river as the first priority. I always leave it in position until immediately before local rain, because being an optimist, in the years when the river stops flowing I hope for sufficient of a thunderstorm somewhere in the mountains at the top of the catchment area will begin the river flowing whilst we are still dry. It did happen one year. Harvesting fruit and vegetables that are ready comes next. Figs and tomatoes are particularly prone to splitting with a sudden influx of water after they have been dry for so long. Olives are also at risk, but I had been carting out water in the tank of my boom spray to supply a little to those trees where the fruit was beginning to shrivel and I hope I have prevented damage.

There was a little rain early on the morning of 27th September with another 53mm falling during the day and a further 50mm over the next couple of days. Temperatures tend to be fairly static on a daily basis, changing little from one day to the next. It is rare to get a change of more than two degrees on consecutive days, but the rain makes one of the two exceptions in the year. Temperatures had been a degree either side of 31ºC up to the 23rd with slight falls as the clouds moved in and a drop to 21º when the rain began. It felt decidedly cool the first day, despite the fact that I consider that temperature to be very pleasant most of the time. There is a similar fairly sudden change each year in May when we begin to receive warm southerly winds and the shade temperatures increase. It is always warm in the sun, even in the depths of winter.

On the 2nd October around 10 am the ants began to take to the air. I had seen the numerous holes that appear around nests earlier in the morning and a few winged ants coming out of them. For a few hours they were on the wing, but not as numerous as in other years. Perhaps my efforts at destroying nests on the quinta is beginning to have some effect. Our biggest problem is the Seed-harvester Ant and they cause considerable economic loss so I spend some time searching out nests and killing the occupants, but many nests have only a single entrance/exit that is often covered through the summer heat and it is difficult to find them.

These ants do exactly what their common name suggests – they harvest seeds. Millions of them. I have lost all seeds sown in the garden on more than one occasion, and when I can spot the ants in the process I follow them to their nest, but a hundred feet of small seeds can disappear overnight. They also cart away many kilos of grass and clover seeds when fields are sown. They have no problems whatsoever with cereals, maize, smaller beans and even White Lupins. I have not yet seen an ant carrying a Broad (Fava) Bean. I have also lost about 20 young olive trees to ants building their nest in the rootball of newly planted and young trees and the tree dies. The Seed-harvesters are not the only culprit in these losses though, because there is a much smaller ant (no idea what it is) that likes to do the same.

In previous years there has always been an ant to approximately each square foot after they land. This year it was less than one to the square yard. They always drift downhill on this property whereas it seems they normally swarm towards higher points. Their behaviour is similar to that of the honey bee when a new Queen emerges and drones fly to mate with her in the air. Whilst the male ants still very much outnumber the females, there are many potential Queen Ants on the wing. Fortunately most of them fail to establish a nest. As with bees, the males merely die.

There is a lot of information on the internet for those interested, simply search the term “flying ants” and included, for those specifically interested in Portugal or Spain, there is a very good and easily readable paper with the title beginning “Nuptial flights of the Seed-harvester Ant (Messor Barbarus) in the Iberian Peninsula………” by Gomez and Abril of the University of Girona and published in the Myrmercological News of January 2012.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Feeding and watering olives

Olives will grow and fruit in a wide range of soils, even under arid conditions. Tree spacing is less in modern groves than it was historically, when trees were frequently planted around the Mediterranean at 12 x 12 metres spacing. Ignoring super high-density groves where the trees are close spaced for “over the top” harvesting with machines, it is currently usual to plant at distances between 5 x 5 to 7 x 7 metres.

Temperature constraints are that damage will occur below minus 6ºC.   Severe damage, and perhaps trees killed, occurs very little below that, but, like many species of fruit and nuts, olives have a chilling requirement  – i.e so many hours of temperatures below 7ºC,  (45ºF for those who use Fahrenheit) before they will flower the following spring. How many hours each cultivar needs is variable, and it seems extremely little research has been done. No doubt cultivars evolved to suit the environment in which they are found naturally, and a failure to reach the chilling requirement of any cultivar means that flowers will not bloom. A mean daily temperature below 12ºC for several weeks seems sufficient to meet the chilling requirement of all cultivars. How many weeks is open to debate.

As with all plants, better quality soil, adequate nutrients and adequate water lead to much more production. Soil is usually a “given” for most people, and, within the temperature ranges required, almost any soil can be made to grow olives. Millions of trees have been planted in individually terraced planting spaces on very steep hillsides. If looking to buy a new property specifically for planting olives, then somewhere with a good depth of soil, say at least a metre and not solid clay, and plenty of available water for irrigation are the main requirements.

With limited knowledge of olives, and a desire to begin a non-animal enterprise when we first bought our present property, I was led to plant a grove at 6 x 6 metres spacing. I am quite happy with that and have planted more since at the same spacing. This works out at 277 trees/ha of planted area. Over the last 10 years I have read an enormous number of articles, research papers and advice from a huge number of people and organisations involved in olive production in probably every country in the world where olives are grown, as well as spoken with several knowledgeable people. I have made decisions, based on all this information, that I use to provide food and water for my trees. Whilst at least one expert agrees with each individual decision - because I have chosen to follow at least one expert’s advice in everything I have decided, some will disagree with my overall management, but then they disagree with each other, ranging from extremely little fertiliser to extremely high levels, and from allowing quite severe moisture deficiencies (at times) to maintaining full moisture profile of the soil.

Note that being in the northern hemisphere the calendar year begins a few days after mid-winter, so southern hemisphere information that refers to dates is in the reverse production cycle position. Based on soil analyses, fertilisers used and crops grown in the groves since the previous analysis, I apply granular fertiliser as soon as practicable in the year. I top up phosphorus(P) and potassium(K) if necessary. I apply Nitrogen(N) according to a personal assessment of how much to apply. I may have grown a winter leguminous crop for harvesting or for incorporation as a green manure. Alternatively, a crop of maize may have been grown the previous summer and the stover left on the surface as an overwintering mulch; or a summer leguminous crop may have been sown and either harvested or ploughed in. I am also conscious of the requirement for adequate trace elements without fertilising to excess.  I have used foliar feeds, sometimes called foliar fertilisers, this year and propose to make them an integral part of my fertiliser programme. I will use high N early in the year and low N as the fruit matures. I may apply a second dose of N granular fertiliser in the spring too – again depending on a personal assessment of need. I prefer to split fertiliser into smaller doses rather than apply a full season’s requirements at once, but this is not always practicable. I will aim to have a pH of 7 or slightly above. Somewhere in the range of 6.5 to 8 seems to be preferred, but as I said, the experts do not always agree on the ideals

The groves are irrigated, either through drip irrigation or overhead sprays. The drip system is a single line with four litres/hour drippers at one metre spacing and laid on the ground. The different irrigation methods determine what I can and cannot grow in the summer. With overhead I can grow crops between the rows. With drippers I am limited in summer, but not winter. I still intend to grow comfrey on these lines (to be cut and used as a mulch for the trees) but this might be delayed for another couple of years because the weed seed bank in the soil is still too high.

There is nothing I can do about the texture of the soil I have except to increase the Organic Matter(OM) content. Higher OM means a soil that is more capable of retaining both nutrients and water. Many semi-arid and arid soils have an OM content of 1% or even less but, from anecdotal information only, it seems that the highest yields come from trees grown on land with OM of several percentage points. I will also avoid bare soil as much as possible, endeavouring to maintain some ground cover to stop the possibility of water erosion in winter despite the fact that I have not experienced this happening, and to ameliorate high soil temperatures in summer.  This means cultivating as infrequently as possible – anathema to some growers who insist on permanent bare land cultivated regularly throughout the year.

The sole reason behind my decisions is the way in which the olive tree grows and produces its fruit. The following three paragraphs are a combination of information in a University of Cordoba, Spain publication and a paper by Razouk et al, with the long title of “Optimal time of supplemental irrigation during fruit development of rainfed olive trees in Morocco” with some additional comments based on other information I have sourced.

Yield of olives is the result of three main developmental processes that occur from flowering to harvest:  fruit set, fruit growth and oil accumulation in the fruit pulp. Vegetative growth is critical in terms of olive fruit production, because flowers are borne in inflorescences at the axil of leaves of one-year old wood. This means that flowering and fruit set originate in the axillary buds of last years growth. So, the big problem is ensuring that this year’s fruit crop has sufficient nutrients to yield a heavy crop of large (for the variety) olives, but at the same time producing sufficient growth of new wood for next year’s crop. In less than optimum conditions one or the other, or both, will suffer. This is one of the reasons why there is so much biennial bearing in olives. New growth is restricted by the demands of a heavy crop on the tree, but flourishes when the previous year’s poor growth carries a small or nil crop, and the tree produces another good crop in the following year. A vicious circle.

The reproductive cycle from flower bud initiation to fruit ripening takes 15-18 months depending on cultivar and growing conditions, as initiation starts in one summer and fruits from this initiation ripen in the autumn or winter of the following year. The terminal bud of a shoot is almost always vegetative and shoot growth starts with this bud break in spring, when temperatures rise above 12ºC. Growth continues as long as temperatures are below 35ºC, and there are no soil water deficit or other environmental stresses. Growth begins pre-flowering, but natural soil water supplies are almost always sufficient to avoid the need for irrigation at this time. Critical stages for the tree are flowering in April/May; a time of rapid growth about mid June; pit hardening about the end of July or early August, and a second rapid growth about mid September. The first rapid growth stage occurs just as most Mediterranean soils are becoming water deficient for the summer. Pit hardening and the second rapid growth stage are well and truly in the dry summer and early autumn before the winter rains begin. Some fortunate areas receive some summer rain. Pit hardening is about the time of flower initiation for next year’s crop too, so a lot of stress on the tree at this stage. The growth stages and fruit development were the factors considered by Razouk and his associates.

So, back to why I do what I do. I rely on soil analyses in preference to leaf analyses. The reason for this is simple – the chemical and nutritional composition of any particular leaf changes throughout the year, and younger leaves have a different composition to older leaves. Because of these changes I believe that leaf analysis is of less value than soil analysis for long term planning. We could obviously become super technical and do all sorts of tests, but that is for research scientists, not your average grower. Some sources of information, particularly those selling foliar feeds, insist on using leaf analysis (taken in July each year) as the decision maker in fertiliser requirements. Following the work of some researchers, maintaining the soil at adequate levels of all plant nutrients is recommended – bearing in mind that an excess of some can prevent an uptake of others, even although they are available. I take an approach that if levels of the macro nutrients are considered adequate by most authorities I am probably offering my plants the best that can be reasonably done by any farmer.

I agree with those who say that applying foliar feeds shows an almost immediate response, whereas granular (or liquid) fertiliser applied to the soil may not. At the same time it is not a lasting effect – similar to the application of prilled lime, which is a very finely ground limestone that is formed into prills the same as granular fertilisers and break down rapidly after application to the land. This gives a quick fix to a low pH but does not have the ongoing pH correcting ability of coarser ground limestone. The same applies to the foliar feeds, they raise nutrient levels within the aerial part of the tree for a short period of time. I do, though, go along with the school of thought that foliar feeds assist the plants to assimilate nutrients from the soil. P in particular can be a problem for plants to take up because it is fairly immobile in the soil, and it appears that applying foliar N can assist with that problem, although it also seems sensible to have some P in the feed. Foliar feeds do not replace the soil nutrients, they complement the soil supply. You cannot feed a tree just through its leaves.

I apply N fertilisers to the soil so that the tree has the nutrients to produce fresh young growth in early spring, and will apply a high N foliar feed, containing P, K and trace elements, as a booster pre-flowering, possibly a second high N foliar feed too. Some authorities believe that Boron(B) should be applied pre-flowering. Both compound fertilisers and foliar feeds that I use contain some B and I am not inclined to add more as a special feed unless I apply only N to the soil when I might mix some additional B with the foliar feed. B is toxic to most living things at fairly low levels – it is used by people who do not like “poisons” in order to kill ants. It certainly is a poison (as are most things) above certain levels. If I think the pH level needs raised, I will include lime when filling the fertiliser spreader with the granular N or compound fertiliser. Lime spreads easier when mixed with granular fertiliser.

Provided the trees are growing well there will be no further fertilisers applied specifically for the olives until late summer, but any crops grown between the rows of trees will be fertilised independently of the needs of the olives, and some of this is available to the trees. After pit hardening I will apply at least one and probably two foliar feeds with lower N and higher levels of P and K, plus trace minerals. It is convenient to apply these foliar feeds with sprays against olive fruit fly – a necessity where I live. There are so many untended groves that all olive pests and diseases are able to proliferate and a failure to treat against them results in enormous crop losses, sometimes total failure. It is also necessary to spray against a fungus that can cause total crop loss too and this is done nearer harvest. Again it is convenient to add a foliar feed with these sprays if desired.

I use the overhead spray equipment for irrigation primarily because I have it and it suits me to use it in a grove which I can summer crop. The drippers were installed to meet the needs of a new grove, but using existing pumps and underground main lines. I have the dripper lines on the surface because I prefer them where I can see them and I make an inspection as soon as I begin an irrigation. That way I can spot any problems along the lines and fix them immediately without switching off the pumps. An underground line that suffers damage will not show up until the water begins to puddle on the surface, which undoubtedly means some trees have missed out on their water, and it is necessary to dig up the line to mend it. There is also the problem of where to bury the line. In the early years the trees occupy only a small area of the soil so the drippers need to be relatively close. As they grow, the lines are moved back from the trees and the trees make use of additional drippers as they spread their root zone.

Not all the water I currently pump is utilised by the trees, but it will be in time, and until then I make use of drippers outside the root zone by sowing pumpkins and squashes as  feed for the goats, as well as some household use and also tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, etc. immediately adjacent to a dripper. In previous years I have also sown the drought hardy black eyed peas between the rows and they have benefitted from the water from the drippers, particularly those peas close to the drip line. The site is a very slight slope so the water naturally travels downhill and the drip line is uphill of the row of trees it supplies. Both types of irrigation are left in their permanent positions. Hand harvesting means there is no need to move the lines off the fields.

Irrigation commences around mid-June every year for the whole property, which makes it convenient for the first irrigation requirement of the olives – unless there has been a particularly dry spring when an earlier start to the irrigation season may be required. There is always plenty of water available in the early summer, and this first irrigation has been found to be the most beneficial from an economic perspective. It assists both the current crop and the ability of the tree to produce growth for next year. It is more valuable than the water needed at pit hardening and the second rapid growth stage. This is a most fortuitous situation, because those relying on natural water supplies, as I do, may run out of water if the winter and spring rains were low or ceased early.

My strategy then is to maintain a good soil moisture level as long as possible, and of course other summer crops grown in the groves need this water. My theory behind this is that if I run out of irrigation water, then the more there is in the soil the longer it will be before moisture stress affects the crop. I know from my 2012 maize crop that it was successful without irrigation from silking onwards. The olives did not receive their pit hardening and mid-September water that year. Provided I have the water I will continue to irrigate past the second flush of growth, but in 2013 the last irrigation was just after pit hardening. Reducing irrigation earlier in the season does not prolong my season, being dependent upon a river continuing to flow.

For those with water storage, Razouk showed that a large quantity applied at the first rapid growth stage (he used 500 litres per tree, on mature trees) can be followed by the next at pit hardening, and preferably a third at mid-September. If there is storage for only one irrigation, or natural supplies only into the early summer, then apply water in June. Whether water is available or not I will cease irrigation at the end of September. This allows time for the fruit to mature without containing too much water - which would result in a lower oil content, giving a poor yield of oil for the fruit weight. This is extremely important for anyone paying a contractor crusher to produce their oil and charging, as apparently many do, on the weight of fresh fruit rather than yield of oil.