Part of our big plan is to produce a lot of our own food, and if we end up hosting guests, producing enough to provide tasty dishes for them too. The reason for this is that we believe that the way food production is happening now is unsustainable. Global population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion people by 2050. Meat consumption is increasing as developing nations become richer and aspire (in some cases) to western diets. We don’t think the world can cope with that!
We think that the diet of the future is going to have to be mostly vegetarian, and that, where possible, we should be using the land we currently use for livestock to produce locally grown veggies.
Our personal contribution has been to cut our meat and dairy intake, which we started about a year ago. We basically eat meat now when someone else offers us leftovers. Going further, we wanted to reduce our consumption of plastic-packaged, airmile-heavy fruit and veg by growing them at home.
Richard and Suzanne kindly allowed us to use their dormant veg garden, so that was our first major obstacle out of the way. Jose Pedro, the handyman and erstwhile farmer lent us a rotivator (a small plough) to turn over the soil, as well as some other tools, and we were away!
Our first plot was approx. 4m x 6m below an existing but neglected strawberry bed. When we arrived it was all overgrown with weeds. Jose Pedro and I rotivated it, then we threw on a wheelbarrow of rotted cow manure, watered it and left it for a few days for the weed seeds we’d disturbed to germinate. After that we weeded again, hoping that we would have got rid of the worst of the weeds before planting.
I decided that since our plot was on a hill, we should have terraces. Anna wasn’t too bothered with that concept so I dug out the terraces all by myself. I used an azada, a short handled pull-hoe, which is the ubiquitous gardening tool in Spain and Portugal, and once you get used to it, an absolute winner. I assumed my back would be crippled within five minutes of picking it up, but they are actually far superior to spades for all tasks except digging deep holes in my opinion.
We had four terraces in our first plot. On the top one we planted carrots, broccoli raab (like sprouting broccoli) and turnip greens (you eat the leaves). The carrots were extremely patchy; not all of them germinated, and of the ones that did, we would occasionally find a sad, dried up stem which something had severed from the root. Suzanne tells us this is probably cutworms, it could also be mice. The remaining carrot tops are looking nice and bushy now, and we just harvested our first carrots! They are a bit smaller than supermarket ones, but very tasty! We have more carrot seedlings growing in planters to protect them from predators, and we will plant them out when it gets a little cooler. The turnip greens grew very fast for a few weeks, then went to seed (flowered) so we pulled them up and fed them to the chickens, getting 10% of the energy back in delicious eggs! The greens are a distant memory now, but we think they were very nice fried up in a bit of oil. The broccoli raabs are still growing, the flower spears haven’t developed yet, and if they don’t hurry up we will miss them while we’re back in the UK in September! Lots of things that we didn’t want to flower have done so because of the heat, so I find the broccoli raabs’ reluctance slightly annoying!
The next bed down contains lettuces, onions, basil, chillis and what we thought were ordinary cabbages but were excited to discover the other day are actually romanesco broccoli! The lettuces were awesome for quite a few weeks, we had two big bowls of salad per day from them. Now, lots have gone to seed and others are just going rotten and dying – we think it might be chafer grubs in the soil as we have dug a few out. We are replanting and hoping for an autumn crop!
The onions are brilliant so far. They have required very little maintenance and look like they will give a good crop, although we haven’t tried any yet. The basil went in a bit late, but is absolutely loving the long hot days – it has developed huge leaves which taste amazing! Our two chilli plants are doing well and have produced a lot of very hot fruit, we are just hoping it all ripens before it gets cold at night. The brocollis are just starting to show their heads so we are watching them with baited breath, hoping that they get big enough to eat before something else eats them for us!
The second bed contains tomatoes, with more onions and lettuces planted in between. The tomatoes have been relatively high maintenance. We were told to watch out for fungus so we have sprayed them with a copper spray as well as watering them separately from everything else and making sure the sprinkler doesn’t get the leaves wet. Some of the leaves have become diseased and we have had to keep an eye on them and cut off any bad ones. We also spent a lot of time at first pinching out extra stems to stop the plants getting too unruly. For all the hassle though, the tomatoes are delicious – the best we’ve ever had. We have a lot of fruits ripening on the plants now and it looks like we will get a good main crop in a few days.
The third bed has beetroots as well as more lettuces and onions. We got purple beetroot seedlings from the market in Potes, which turned out to produce quite bitter roots – they are nice cooked but we can’t eat them raw. Anna also got some golden and albino beetroots from The Real Seed Catalogue which have a much more delicate flavour and have been delicious sliced thinly in salad. They are also a lot lower risk when it comes to staining clothes / furniture!
In the fourth bed we planted five tiny plants which we thought were pumpkins but turned out to be marrows. They grew super fast, quickly covering their own bed and beginning to invade the surrounding ones. They have produced loads of massive marrows, which we now have to find a way to eat, or give away. Apparently the locals feed them to the pigs over winter, but since we are without pigs, we will have to look up some recipes!
A few weeks after planting up our first plot we decided our ambitions were bigger, so we decided to develop the other side of the garden as well. This side was similarly overgrown. The first thing we did was put in some more lettuces, just loosening enough soil to plant the seedlings. They have never done as well as their neighbours on the rotivated side, we aren’t sure if this is because the ground is too compacted or they didn’t get any fertiliser (or both), but we definitely saw a difference. We then planted coriander and a few cucumbers alongside the lettuces, but this time we dug out bigger holes and made sure we mixed in a fair bit of manure to give them a chance. These plants have all done well, the cucumbers are really prolific and the coriander grew very strongly through several harvests before going to seed in the dry weather.
We had been reading about no-dig gardening, which is basically where, instead of digging and turning the soil, you use a thick layer of compost or rotted manure to both kill off underlying weeds and create a bed for planting. Apart from saving you the trouble of digging, this is meant to be good because it allows the underlying soil to retain its structure, along with any beneficial fungi that are in there. We decided to give it a bash so we built two more beds filled to a few inches depth with rotted cow manure and left the underlying soil intact. In went cucumbers, beetroots, more carrots, courgettes, melons, pumpkins and beans. So far everything has been really good. The one issue we had early on was that the manure was too coarse for the seedlings and didn’t hold water very well, so the plants were loose and dried out easily. If we did it again we would use older manure and make sure it was broken up finer. The beans have done really well and we are harvesting every other day at the moment. The cucurbits (melons, courgettes, pumpkins and cucumbers) are all “heavy feeders” and have grown really well; we discovered today even the melons are producing fruit! The beetroots and carrots are a bit smaller and less tasty than their compatriots on the ploughed side; we found out after we’d planted them that carrots don’t do well in very rich soil, producing a lot of leaves and not much root. That has certainly been our experience.
Overall the garden has been a great success for us. Almost everything grew well, and it is extremely satisfying sitting down to a lunch that you produced yourself, especially when it tastes so good!
We have learned loads about gardening that will inform our future project. The main thing is that anyone can do it given the time and inclination and a bit of investment for tools. The next lesson is that time invested up front pays off later with better crops and less maintenance. We will definitely need to plan more thoroughly for a bigger garden and take into account crop rotations and disease control (since we started from scratch this year we didn’t have to worry about diseases built up in the soil from previous years’ crops).
We weren’t sure how we would take to gardening, but we have both really enjoyed it so far, and we would encourage anyone who is interested to grab a fork (or an azada!) and start cultivating! We would absolutely recommend The Real Seed Catalogue (http://realseeds.co.uk/index.html) to get your seeds. These guys provide an amazing range of seeds, which are all open-pollinated (meaning they are not hybrids and if you want to, you can save the seeds from your crop and plant them next season). They are based in Wales and have also gardened in Spain so they are well-placed to advise on varieties that will grow well in British or Spanish climates.
We have tried to save some of our seeds this year; we have courgettes and pumpkins. We will see how we go, and maybe expand our efforts next season.
By volume, our diet has come largely from the veg garden over the last few weeks. We’ve grown strawberries, beans, broccoli, courgettes, cucumbers, lettuce and other salad crops, coriander, basil, onions, carrots, cabbage, chillis, tomatoes, pumpkins, marrows, beetroots and melons. Richard and Suzanne already had several fruit trees here giving figs, plums, greengages, apples, mulberries, hazelnuts and pears. They also have five chickens which lay too many eggs for them to eat, so we are having some of those too, but before we left the UK we weren’t eating eggs and we could manage fine without them. We didn’t try to grow staples like wheat or chickpeas this season (the learning curve is steep enough already), although we are keen to try sweet potatoes and perhaps chickpeas next year.
Fruit and veg production is going to tail off in the coming months, and we are not able to preserve much at the moment, although we have made loads of mulberry and elderberry jam! Anna has just ordered a canner (an expensive pressure cooker) so we will soon be able to preserve loads of other fruit and veg and keep our surplus production for consumption during winter and spring.
We are still buying most of our calories. We buy chickpeas, cereal, flour, bread, beer and wine, margarine, chocolate, citrus fruits and oil as well as salt and spices. We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, and for the effort it would take, we’re not sure we want to be at the moment. What we hope we have done however is massively reduce our carbon footprint and some of our other environmental impacts We are no longer responsible for having lettuces wrapped in plastic and flown in from all over the world. Our biggest victory is cutting out meat. That alone over the last twelve months has apparently saved approx. 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent between us. In terms of fertiliser, we are very lucky where we are because there are heaps of cow dung going spare all over the place. Of course in our ideal world there wouldn’t be heaps of cow dung everywhere because there would be far fewer cows, but we could use other methods like growing nitrogen fixing ground cover like borage or clover.
This season was about testing out our ideas and seeing if we could hack the work involved. We have been extremely fortunate in that Richard and Suzanne have provided so much input and advice, as well as providing us accommodation, land and tools in return for our willing but haphazard assistance with their own gardens and odd-jobs. Jose Pedro has also been really nice, lending us tools, helping out and giving useful advice. We really appreciate how lucky we are to have made such good friends! We still have loads of challenges ahead: finding and buying a property, navigating the planning permission minefield, working out a viable business model and eventually welcoming guests. So much to think about, but at least it’s good to know that the earth will provide if we are willing to put in the work!