ORGANIC SMALLHOLDING IN WEST CORK

A few days ago we visited a smallholding belonging to old friends, this couple had emigrated from Belgium to Ireland in the late eighties. Back then they set up a smallholding and were soon self-sufficient. About two years ago they bought a smaller piece of land, just about one acre in size.

Being who they are, hard working people, they amazed us totally with the amount of vegetables and herbs they have growing in an already very organized garden, the one acre is totally utilized and apart from vegetables they keep hens, ducks, a cock, and goats, so they have eggs, and milk from the goats.

We found their way of life so inspiring, totally self sufficient, they are so very organized, because of yearly flooding of their land they have built raised beds, the soil they used in these beds is totally organic, there being organic waste from the goats, the chickens, and their own compost heap, and lots more go into a recipe that is excellent to enrich the soil. A local strawberry farm provides mulching material. So the vegetables and herbs grow very well, they look the picture of health.

Among one of the things that is very important to them is to save their own seeds.  They reckon that seeds saved from their own produce, and swapped perhaps with neighbours, will produce easy to grow crops.  Crops that would naturally grow well in this particular micro climate, and soils.  Some of the crops we saw were, potatoes, mais, beans, peas, broad beans, onions, leeks, carrots, spinach, oca, spring onions, asparagus, lettuce, quinoa, marrows, cucumbers, kale, broccoli, and lots of herbs, among them rosemary, oregano, chives, comfrey, milk thistle, angelica, bay leaf, mint, and so many more.  There is also a wide variety of berries that grow along the side of the acre.

There are six home-made tunnels in which the couple grow a variety from tomatoes and quinoa to millet, and all sorts of other interesting things. Along the beds the grass is kept short by guinea pigs, these do a good job. The guinea pigs are kept in specially made large wire cages, that get moved along the grass, they also have a larger cage inside, there seem to be quite a few of them, and they are looked after very well.

Use is also made of ferrets, these guys keep the rats down.

Everything has a use, there is no sentimentality at the smallholding. We shared a meal with this couple and it was delicious, all produce out of the garden, except the fish which had been locally sourced too. From the photos you can see how efficient the place looks, lots of hard work goes into it, but I think that the satisfaction one gets when all runs smoothly and the produce is great, is wonderful.

JAN & NADIA'S SMALLHOLDING

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DIFFERENCE SOURCES OF MANURE FOR THE LAND
DIFFERENCE SOURCES OF MANURE FOR THE LAND

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MY GARDEN UPDATE ~ JULY

It has been a while since I did serious work in the garden, seeing that I had not sowed nor planted anything this season, I had let the garden be for the bees and the insects, they of course took full advantage of the wilderness, and though there were not as many insects around this summer, I was still able to find some today. I had my little helper with me all day, Ruben, my grandson, came over and we both put on our wellingtons and out we went, we soon started to pull some of the overgrown cleavers away from other plants, also some of the ivy was removed. The two cold frames were totally overgrown some of the plants were pushing up the plastic and some had grown through it! Ruben, being almost 6 and a very enthusiastic worker was lifted into the frame and soon had pulled all the ‘weeds’ out, they then went on to the compost heap. We covered the earth in one of the cold frames with comfrey leaves, that will be good for the soil.

Ian came and cut the grass so we could use this for mulching as well.  We spotted quite a few insects and I am happy to say that Ruben does not mind them at all, he is just very interested in the little creatures and seems to quite love them.  Here is one beauty sitting on the flowers of a parsley plant, there were several others on the same plant.

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Then there were all these weevils, and several different types of beetles, spiders, and caterpillars, lots of woodlouse as well. And the snails and slugs could not be counted, so many.

We have at this moment quite a few of these most beautifully scented white clover growing, I sowed them last year to improve the soil and they are giving a lovely display this summer.  They will be good for the soil.  The flowers of the parsley are quite beautiful too, they seem to attract many different insects.

And so the summer is moving along, there is more work to do, is lots to prepare before we leave for Gozo in autumn, though the garden will not be unattended while we are gone as there will be people in and out of the place all the time, still, I must make sure that when we return the garden will be ready for me to start more planting.

ORGANIC GARDENING IN WEST CORK

Growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and wild plants in the coastal area of the Beara peninsula where everything is very lush and producing wonderfully right now. I have attempted a small video to show some of the beauty and produce. Sorry no sound as I do not have copy right to the music that I would want to put on this video. Enjoy I hope.

DISTRACTED BY LIFE

As it was an overcast but still very nice day, I decided to do some work in our own garden. I cleared one raised bed ready for growing some plants, but I am delighted with what is growing there already, there are plenty of herbs, such as rosemary, lemon balm, lavender, evening primrose, oca, oregano (two types), and of all things some Jerusalem artichokes have come up too. So I just took out some grass and some other stuff that was smothering those plants. Ian decided to come and work with me, so he cleared the path on his knees with a small little knife, no easy task to be sure.  Now and then we took a rest, either for tea or chat, or to admire the creatures flying or crawling around.  Meanwhile I took a few shots of them.

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These are three wild plants that I am keeping my eye on very closely, number one is a huge thistle, it is almost in flower, I know that the seeds are what the gold finch feed on and that is why I want to keep it, to attract these birds and see how it goes.  The second one is our comfrey plant, it’s flourishing and what I am watching is the amount of insects that are using it, most of what I see are the bumblebees and I would love to see some honey bees on the comfrey too, of course.  The third plant is two years old, I grew it as a salad plant but it was so beautiful that I did not want to eat it, so I let it grow, and when we returned from Gozo it was so large and I recognised it as a plant you see a lot around here in the wild, a type of sorrel perhaps.  These three are on my watch list.

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And this is a view of our garden, we have had the pleasure to sit under the hawthorn tree all week for our meals, in the dappled sunlight with the garden scents all around us and the birds singing, what a perfect summer weather, aware that for people in other lands, not as lucky just then because of rains and floods.

Always nice to appreciate what we have in the moment.

COMMUNITY GARDEN IN SKIBBEREEN

Today a few of us went to work in our Community Garden in the town of Skibbereen, which is a little town in the South West of Ireland. Some years ago a local group of the GIY organisation was set up in this town and monthly meetings were held, discussions, seed swapping, information nights and more were organised and it was real interesting and encouraging. Around the same time I also started with my own organic garden following permaculture principles, so I learnt a lot by attending these events and meetings. Now with the warm weather and the long evenings we meet regularly at the Community garden and we do some work. Part of the work that is done in Skibbereen is to facilitate school children to learn a bit more about growing vegetables, something that I have become involved with this very day. We had a class of about twenty-two 9 or 10 year olds from the girls school, they came with their water bottles filled (not just for themselves but also to water the plants), and they looked enthusiastic and happy. The day was hot, the sun blazing down on us. I was allocated my little group of about 7 girls and after introductions we started with looking at our plot and discussing what we were going to do, in fact we were going to plant some chive plants, but first we had to take away some weeds, then we had to add just a little lime and we had to water the very dry soil, I explained how important it is to prepare the soil before we plant anything in it. There were some herbs growing in the plot too, so they all had to smell those and tell their stories of how their mums or baby-sitters did or did not use oregano and rosemary in their cooking. Next the planting was started and they all got a go of digging a hole and putting in the chives, hardly a scream was heard when they encountered an earwig or a snail, anyway to make a long story short, we then pulled some grass away from the edges, and they watered their newly planted chives, we also discussed the beautiful purple flowers of the chive plants, they all loved the colour purple (surprise!) they all agreed that the flowers were beautiful.

Lots of fun was had while all this was going on, they were very well behaved children, they were very kind to one another and took turns with the work.

Afterwards we did a tour of the rest of the garden, lots of stories about vegetable use and some home traditions were coming from each child, I was impressed, quite a few of the girls knew bits about the plants, the fruit trees, and the berry bushes, so nice to see this in children.

We also helped a hazelnut tree along, by stamping on the high grass around it, covering the grass with cardboard, and then again with some grass, in this way the water is retained and the trees are getting extra compost when it all breaks down (I think – I’m still learning too).

A lovely morning was enjoyed by the children and adults alike. It is so nice to see the children soak in the knowledge and to see them get their hands in the soil and getting in contact with the earth.

For me this is a newly discovered joy, I worked with children before during my library work, story reading, and St. Brigid’s cross workshops, or helping them pick books. I also worked with children in India, helping them with their English. And I have five delightful grandchildren who I love to have around and teach them about nature or art, so I would like to continue my involvement with this Community Garden in a small way, share what I know, and learn as I go.
COMMUNITY GARDEN 3 JUNE 2016

THE GIFTS OF MOTHER EARTH

Just when I thought that it could not get any better, and this while I was taking delight in the garden the day after we arrived home again in Ireland, mother nature has given me another two beautiful surprises, first I discovered that there were several patches of forget-me-nots flowering, their blue a delight to the eye, then I discovered that there are several lilies of the valley flowers almost opening, how truly magical! I had not known what to expect of the garden on our return, no sooner were we home than I went to inspect, and that’s when I found lots of surprises, vegetables wild and not so wild, and waiting for me to make soup of them, kale and leeks and other goodies, they were not ready when we left in March, but now they are just waiting to be made into delicious dishes. Herbs too are doing well and looking very lush, the lemon balm has never looked so good, rosemary, lavender, comfrey and others are all ready to be used. Then I saw that the cold frames looked a bit bulky, and checked it out, to my amazement there was one plant of lettuce which had grown to become a monstrosity, the leaves so huge that one leaf would do a whole meal 🙂 Not sure what happened there!  Some grass had also grown large inside. Lots of work to be done that is for sure, but I already have helpers lined up, my grandchildren, one of them had a birthday today, she is now four, and she wants a wheelbarrow, she wants to do gardening, and no fear of that, because she is small she can fit into the cold frames easily so she can do the weeding in there if she likes, looking forward to that. Anyway we are back in West Cork, and we are now already fully occupied with our work here in garden and house. Plans have been made for later in the year when we will be returning to the island of Gozo where we spent a wonderful two months, a time that will stay with us for very long.

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On the last lot of photos, some onions which I had left in the kitchen sprouted, and are now ready to plant out.  Also I had some oca tubers in a pot and I found the shoots creeping through a hole in the lid and the whole pot filled with sprouts, how funny!

ALL THE GOOD OF LAND AND SEA

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Today I did a spot of cooking, but first I took the bus to Victoria, only ten minutes away, and I searched for and found the Fish Shop where I bought one large steak of fresh tuna, and two fillets of ling, the man in the fish shop offered me a recipe for cooking the tuna, it’s a great recipe he said, you will need oregano and other items, and as he said it he added a bunch of fresh oregano to the bag of fish, all for only €7 which I thought was very reasonable.  I then visited a vegetable stall, in Victoria these stalls are at the large car park near the bus terminal, and they are there most days.  From what I can see the produce is very fresh.  A friendly man helped me to a number of vegetables, as well as lemon, parsley, and an orange that I needed for my recipe.  He added a bunch of free celery leaves to my other shopping free of charge, the herbs and vegetables smelled good.  I love cooking with fresh herbs, and that is why I am enjoying the cooking quite a bit here, fresh fragrant herbs, especially oregano, rosemary, mint, basil, and sage, as well as tomatoes, olive oil, lemon, garlic, broad beans, green beans, and fish.  I may add that the long type of onions also are delicious, I’ve been enjoying those here.  To finish the tuna story, I made the marinade as instructed and cooked the fish  according to the recipe, and it was really delicious.

The man at the vegetable stall also informed me that the local produce would be best if I was looking for organic, which of course I was and I told him that, and he was selling a lot of local produce which is very nice.  Why would one import foods when they can be grown at home.

I was in a sort of garden centre shop as well this morning as I wanted to check what the situation is in Gozo regarding the use of ’roundup’ seeing that now it has been recognised by the WHO that the Glyphosate contained in roundup is a cancer causing ingredient.  The nice girl that I was talking to did not know about these matters, she did say that yes they sold roundup and that it is needed as it is very hard to grow produce on Gozo, and this is the second person that tells me that.  Some people that I encountered in the last few days have also told me that it would be impossible to grow organically on Gozo because of the drought, I wonder if I am overlooking something, as I never realised that you need more water to grow organically than with using fertilizer/pesticides.  It is all very interesting to learn how other countries/people think about these matters.

The produce that we have enjoyed here a lot are the local honey.  Depending on what month of the year it is, the honey will taste different and come from different plants.  The prickly pear jam was something new to us, for me it is too sweet, but I just got to try new things, so we bought some.  The basmatic vinegar of Gozo is delicious, I love it in a tomato dish.  The capers, which are grown locally too, are lovely and add a kick to the mixture which all people of the Maltese islands love on toast.  Joso, a nice woman I got to know in Malta, a neighbour of ours there, gave me this recipe for a nice breakfast, she told me to cup up some nice tomatoes, or use tomato paste and put that on toast, then add capers and some basil, it does taste delicious.

Another woman in the shop the other day showed me how the Gozitans use their herbs, also mixed with tomatoes and olive oil, left for half an hour to soak it all up, and then served with capers and toasted bread.  I am sure that this food is all very healthy, it does taste nice that is for sure.

I still wanted to add some photos of what we were discussing in my last post, about the swales, because today I took some pics in the park which is in the middle of the town of Victoria.  A lovely and well kept place where it strikes you how much attention is given to each individual plant or tree.  I saw how they use the swales, and water harvesting.  They dig a ditch around the plant or tree individually, which then keeps any water near the roots and lets the plant utilize the water to the full.  They also make ditches along plants so that even more water is harvested.  Though these photos I took in a park, I am sure these methods are being practised in general.

Just a few examples above.  Below an example of terraced crop growing, where the water will not just run down the slope but will stay on the terrace watering the crops growing there, or in this case the crops that will be sown here.

Terraced small fields at Xlendi
Terraced small fields at Xlendi

I’m enjoying all this getting to know about the life here, so interesting, but also what it does to me is, it makes me think more, and ask more questions to how things are done back in Ireland, where things are on a far larger scale because of the size of the country and the larger population, but still comparisons may be made in certain areas.

One question I still have for Gozo, I still have not seen any cows, sheep, pigs, only three goats, and one chicken, where is all the smallholders livestock?  Are they really all inside like I am told?  And if so how are they fed.  It seems most unusual not to see cows or other livestock on the land.  I look forward to getting answers to those questions some day.

MY OBSERVATIONS ON THE LAND

Even though I only wrote these observations the other day, I have gleaned more information today that I would like to add to this blog entry as it is relevant. As well as that, some of my dear blogger friends have asked me questions about the water situation in relation to farming and growing crops which I have tried to answer, but I am constantly learning more about the situation on Gozo and so I want to update my writing, it is still only my own observations, and they will change as I learn more about this beautiful and attractive island. Thank you to Lydia (Lyart) and Mary Tang for asking me questions which made me think deeper and search for more answers.

Ever since we came to the Maltese islands nearly two months ago I have been looking for signs of agricultural activity, and in particular have I wondered if there were people practicing permaculture, or growing vegetables organically. I have looked for signs, asked around and checked the internet, and slowly I am forming a picture of what is happening on this front here on Gozo. I think from what I gather from the papers that back in 2008 some people wanted to see Gozo turn into an ecological island, growing crops organically, preserving water and stone, but there are many challenges and they are not easily overcome, and I don’t think much progress has been made, but don’t take my word for it. I am only observing, one needs to be longer in a country to be sure of what the real story is, what the problems are, and what progress is being made. I did see quite a few crops even this early in spring, the grains such as barley or oats seem to have been harvested already. Large cabbages were in some of the small fields, as were plenty of onions. When we came early in March the vineyards were still looking very bare, but now they are beautifully green and flourishing despite the drought. Yes, it actually has not rained here since the New Year, you can see some of the wild plants are wilting, and growth is stunted.  From what I notice there are a lot of small farms, or areas for growing crops, apparently there are not that many full time farmers on Gozo, but quite a few part-timers, people who have inherited farmland and work the land as a matter of course.  It is very noticeable when travelling around the island that an effort is being made to utilise every bit of available land to grow crops.   But today we had a chat with a local woman at Dwejra, she gave us information about the small farmer, the ordinary householder who will have a garden full of vegetables, will keep chickens for the eggs, will grow plenty of tomatoes, and some of those who have more land will even grow some grapes for wine making.  She told us that when the produce was plentiful people would share out to family and friend, a practise which is age old and so sensible and to be appreciated.

Terraced small fields at Xlendi
Terraced small fields at Xlendi, soil looking good.

The prickly pear is used in jam and liqueur making, the local wines are delicious.

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Some of the soil is very stony, just like it is in Ireland!  Of course seeing that it is a very dry climate here, the soil everywhere I looked was totally dried out, still the crops looked fresh and full of foliage, when items are planted the Gozitans make a bit of a pit and put the plant in there and water it, this keeps the plant more moist and preserves the water I guess.  The darker the earth, the more fertile it is.

On the water questions, many of the people on Gozo use their own wells, but the water table is becoming lower and lower because of the lack of rain. The Maltese islands do have a problem with drought, they get their water for a certain percentage from wells and the rest from desalination using electricity to transform it. Small organic farms may still be possible but there are other factors to consider, when it does rain there is often flooding. A lot of area on the island is urbanised but not enough water is collected and stored in cisterns (I read recently).  According to our local source the ground water is being depleted, which is not surprising when there is not enough rain to replenish it and at the same time there is more tourism and this industry uses a lot more water than does local living, what with swimming pools and many more people actually utilising water.  I am sure that there is much more to be said and thought about with regard to water provision and regulation, that I do not know about.  Gozo does have water reservoirs, and I read that there is constantly improvement being done. Check this document too http://www.fao.org/3/a-a0994e.pdf

Some kitchen gardens at Mgarr, typical between the high-rise flats
Some kitchen gardens at Mgarr, typical between the high-rise flats

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This is a farm where, we were told are cows but we did not see any and were told that the cows are kept inside here on Gozo, not sure if this is true but I did not see more than two or three cows outside.  Some of the milk is imported from Italy.  There is excellent sheeps cheese produced on Gozo, a favourite of mine.  I also saw goats but was not able, so far, to source goats milk.

There is great potential for permaculture, and for growing vegetables, crops and vines without using pesticides and fertilizers, imagine what it could mean for Gozo if it became know for its pure and healthy food production, as there is a growing market for such produce all over Europe, and as the Maltese islands would not be at a danger of becoming contaminated with genetically modified pollination once seeds are kept out of the islands, this could be an ecological paradise.

 

SOME THOUGHTS

 

From inert fossils and lichens, to the very much alive and energetic lizards, bees and ants, and a huge range of other creatures, the flowers, trees, the amazing rocks and limestone buildings, the land here has such riches to offer for the eye and the mind.  It will take me a while to analyse it all.  I have taken so many photos while here, and I still have so much in mind to write about.  I am still finding out about the agriculture, the organic and permaculture on Gozo.  I’m also reading up about the local bees, the honey, the production of local wines, the economy of the land.  I have met local people on buses and in shops and we have had great chats, I have also visited the libraries and talked with people at an art exhibition.  I find the Gozitans very approachable, they are friendly people and welcoming to strangers.