Columns from the Sentinella magazine

2018


January

With the shortest day of the year just behind us, deepest darkest winter is over and January is the time to get planning the spring garden. If you are going to be raising your own plants from seeds, now is the time to get all your seed packets out and see what you've got. Commercial seeds packets have a best before date but in most cases the seeds will last longer than stated. An exception to this is parsnip seeds which are only viable for one year but squash and pumpkin seeds can stay viable for 10 years. Don't give up on old seeds, plant them out and see what you get. You may be surprised by how many germinate and at the very worst you might have some spare plants to swap with friends or give away.

If you are looking for something new to try, January is a great month to settle down by the fire and flick through a few seed catalogues. And with so many catalogues now online now the possibilities are endless. Just take a look at an online catalogue and see how many tomato varieties there are!!

What are the advantages of growing from seed? Being so close to one of the main vegetable production areas in Europe, seedlings are readily available from the semilleros on the coast and in almacens in every town and village. Many of these outlets now sell organic plants. A lot of growers have had great results with these plants but when they have saved the seeds and gone on to plant them the following year the results have not been so good. This is because the plants are, as well as being organic, hybrids. There is nothing wrong with hybrids, they have a place in our food system but the terms F1, hybrid, and GMO are often confused. Just because a plant is organic does not mean it is not a hybrid. Plant breeders have been creating hybrids by cross pollinating two distinct varieties for generations. Natural hybridisation occurs in the garden when pollen is carried from one variety to another by insects. So if you do want to save your own seeds, make sure you start with plants raised from open pollinated seeds.

You'll want to start your summer veg seeds off in February, in a greenhouse, under cover or on a sunny windowsill. Tender seedlings must be protected from frost. So start getting ready now.

There is plenty to do outside this month too. The days are short and growth has slowed down. We're getting a break from the weeds and invasive grasses. Now is a good time to prepare beds for spring planting. The roots of invasive grasses are easier to dig out while they are dormant. Manure or compost can be spread and it's a good idea to cover the beds over with plastic or a heavy mulch of straw or cardboard. When the mulch is removed in the spring, the worms will have been hard at work and your beds will be ready to plant in.

It's not too late to plant some garlic if you haven't already and succession planting of leeks, lettuces, onions, radishes and spinach can continue.

For good, strong tomato poles, cut caña in January while the sap is low.

Readers question: I have heard it's possible to grow pistachio nuts in the Alpujarra. Is this true and can you give me some tips on how to grow them.
Yes it is possible to grow pistachio nuts in the Alpujarra. Pistachio trees like summer temperatures of 38 C and above but also need temperatures below 7 C in winter to complete their dormant period. They can't tolerate temperatures below - 9 C. They are not fussy about soil type and are quite drought tolerant. They prefer infrequent deep watering and can suffer from root rot if they get too much water. There are male and female trees and one of each will be needed to produce nuts. The male trees bear the pollen and the females bear the nuts. They are wind pollinated so bear this in mind and think about your prevailing winds when choosing a position. Grafted trees are available, these are females with male branches grafted on. The trees get very big, very slowly and will bear fruit after 7 years reaching peak production at 20 years of age. They have been known to live and continue to produce for centuries.

February in the garden

The almond blossom shouts that spring is on it's way! February is the time to plant almost everything. Parsnips, carrots, beetroots, fennel, turnips and radishes can be direct sown into those beds that were prepared in January. As soon as you are sure all danger of frost has passed in your area, potatoes can go in the ground. Tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, peppers, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and courgettes can be sown in seed trays under cover or in the greenhouse, as can lettuce, cabbages, kale, leeks, onions, celery, celeriac and annual herbs and flowers. Leafy greens such as pak choi, rocket, mustard, coriander, spinach, swiss chard and baby leaf salad mix seeds can all be direct sown. Jerusalem artichokes can be planted now too and if you plant peas with wrinkled seeds as soon as the frost has passed you should be able to enjoy plenty of peas before the plants succumb to the summer heat. It's the last chance to plant fruit trees and trees that drop their leaves. As long as there is no risk of frost, finish pruning established fruit trees. And if that's not enough for you to be getting on with, try to keep ahead of the weeds. Hoeing them out regularly when they are small is much easier than dealing with them later when they get so big they start to take over. Don't let them creep up on you!

On Thursday 15th February, Semillas Ecologicas Españolas en Deposito (SEEeD) will be holding a seed swap downstairs in Orgiva's indoor market from 10am till 2pm. Come along and meet other local growers and bring your extra seeds to swap. Don't worry if you don't have any seeds to swap just yet, there will be plenty to buy and a whole lot to give away. Members of SEEeD will be on hand to answer all your seed saving and seed bank questions. SEEeD is a community seed bank that was formed in 2014. It is a small attempt to address the issues facing our seeds on both a local and global level. With more and more growers relying on widely available plantlets from semilleros to grow their gardens, the number of growers growing from seed is dwindling. At the same time, a few giant companies are buying up small and family run seed companies around the world and replacing many of the locally adapted varieties with generalised and more profitable hybrid and patent varieties. The net result of this is a massive, global variety loss, while at the same time eroding the seed saving skills of gardeners and farmers. SEEeD is actively collecting local strains and indigenous seeds from all over the Alpujarra and beyond. Members donate their extra seeds to the bank to be distributed to the local community through swaps, sales or just given in return for a few hours work at the bank. The seed bank is housed at Las Torcas in Tablones and there is a meet there on the first Wednesday of every month from 10am till 2pm. Everyone is welcome. Save our seeds!

Tip: If you want to expand your comfrey patch, 2 inch root cuttings can be taken now and planted into pots to make more comfrey plants.

Reader's question: I would like to grow sweet potatoes this year. Where can I get plants?
Sweet potatoes are grown from slips, and the good news is, you can grow your own! In January or February, find a nice, organic if possible, sweet potato and place it one end down in a glass of water with the other end sticking out the top. Stick three toothpicks in it to hold it in place, just like you would an avocado stone. Place the glass on your kitchen windowsill and keep the water topped up and you will soon start to see roots forming down into the water. Keep watching and shoots will start to sprout upwards. When these shoots are about 4 inches long, they can be picked off with your fingernail, taking a little piece of the sweet potato flesh with them. Pot these in potting compost and plant then out when the soil is warm. Your sweet potato in the glass will keep on yielding new shoots.

March

It's officially spring! The days are getting longer and warmer and there is lots to do in the garden. All those seeds that were planted in February will be little seedlings by now. Pot them on as soon as they are big enough to handle. Don't wait for them to get bigger. They will use up all the nutrients in the compost quite quickly and growth will slow down. Encourage strong healthy plants by giving them more food and more space as soon as they need it. If you didn't quite mange to sow all the tomato, pepper and chilli seeds you planned to in February, continue with this in March. They will catch up. French beans and runner beans can be direct sown from now until July. Make sure you give climbing beans good strong supports. Get the poles as deep into the ground as you can. There's nothing worse than the sight of those lovely beans blown over into a big heap on a windy day. Pumpkins and courgettes can be direct sown too, but in colder areas you might be wise to protect them from unexpected cold spells by covering them with a cloche. You can make your own inexpensive cloches by cutting a plastic water bottle in half and sitting it on top of the seedling, like a mini greenhouse. Okra and corn can also be direct sown now until May or, if you prefer, plant in seed trays first and then transplant a little later. As the potatoes you planted in February start to grow, earth them up regularly. Cover as much of the plant as you can with earth or a thick mulch of straw. Just leave a little bit of leaf sticking out the top and all the covered-over stem will revert to a root and put out more potatoes. This really increases your yield. Now that the soil is warming up and the soil microfauna is coming to life, it's a good time to feed those creatures. Add your soil amendments now. This could be compost, compost tea, liquid comfrey feed, nettle feed, seaweed, whey, worm compost...

Tip: When harvesting lettuces, cut the head off with a knife leaving the roots in the ground and a bit of stem. Soon the stump will start to sprout new leaves giving you a second harvest from your lettuce.

Reader's question: I have recently moved to Spain and am finding my gardening books a little bit incompatible with my new environment. Can you recommend any gardening books for Spain in English? Growing Healthy Vegetables in Spain by Clodagh and Dick Handscombe is written in English for growers in Spain. It offers a wealth of tips and knowledge for gardens of all sizes from growing veggies in pots on a terrace to a full size finca. It has a very useful vocabulary section that translates all your favourite gardening words into Spanish. Mediterranean Kitchen Garden by Mariano Bueno, is a beautiful book, written by Spain's top organic gardener. There is an English translation. Broken down into sections on vegetables, herbs and the orchard, it is full of very useful and well laid out information.

Both of these inspiring books provide a great guide, but there is no right and wrong in gardening. Only what works and what doesn't work for you. What works for you is defined by your micro climate, your preferences, the time you have available to dedicate to your garden, your own health and fitness and the specific conditions of your site, aspect, available water, etc. Observation and commitment are your two most useful skills. It's a good idea to keep a journal. You might think you will remember everything but, you won't. It doesn't have to be hugely detailed or complicated, just jot down a few notes about your planting times, where and when compost was added, when the crop was harvested, insect damage, good harvests and bad harvests. When you go back and read it over again next year, you will start to build a picture of your garden and what works for you. It's invaluable and better than any book on gardening that you can buy. In a few years you'll have all the notes you need to write your own book!

April in the garden

April is haba time! After watching the broad beans growing since October it's finally time to eat them! It's also time to get all the summer veg in. Keep on transplanting the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers until they are big enough to go in the ground. The pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers and melons should be ready to go in the ground by the end of the month and sweet potatoes can go in too. Corn can be direct sown, as can French beans and runner beans. Don't let the weeds get you down, try to look at them as a resource. Chickens love all those greens but if you don't have chickens, your compost pile will love them too. Try to get them out before they go to seed. In a few weeks March's deluge will be a distant memory and we'll be getting ready for the long dry summer but in April the weather can still go either way. One way to guard against drought or excessive amounts of rain that can cause soil loss, is to build your soil. Ideally, you want your soil to soak up the rain like a sponge and hold the moisture through dry spells. Top dressing your beds with a layer of compost is a great way to feed your plants, suppress weeds and over time build a healthy soil. Mulch can also be used to help retain moisture and suppress weeds. Additionally, as it breaks down it adds structure to the soil. Mulch with straw, comfrey leaves, leaf mould, grass cuttings or withered weeds. Permaculture is a design approach which, like nature, uses what is available. It is a whole system approach that connects different strategies and techniques. The good folks at La Loma Viva in Gualchos are happy to invite Alex Kruger (South Africa) for the 4th year running to hold a Permaculture Design Course in May. Alex has been a permaculture designer, teacher and social activist for over 25 years and will be the lead facilitator for the PDC. Karen de Vries and Ryan Botha (the La Loma Viva team) will be sharing their knowledge as co-facilitators on the course, along with international itinerant investigator, Roman Eisenkolbl (of Soil*Sun*Soul). The PDC is an inspiring course that connects us to our world. It is a comprehensive, certified permaculture course with international recognition, providing basic skills in a vast array of subjects, to enable you to start designing a world based on the ethics of earth care and people care. Permaculture provides the tools for whole systems thinking, allowing us to understand that we are interconnected and interdependent with all of the living world. It helps us to apply these skills in all our activities and professions, to create a more regenerative way of being, that rehabilitates degraded systems in all areas of life.

TIP: Put cut nettles in a barrel and cover with water. Leave to ferment for a couple of weeks then dilute 20:1 and use as a liquid or foliar feed. High in nitrogen, it encourages leaf growth and more resilient plants.

Reader's question: How do we use wood ash to raise the fertility of our land? We have a hectare at 1350m alt above Mecina Bombarón and produce lots of ash from our wood burner. I've heard wood ash can be good for the soil- how do we use it? Jo and Jane

Wood ash is a great source of potassium, one of the three major nutrients that plants need to thrive. As well as providing vigour, it is also a flavour enhancer. Ash has an alkaline effect on the soil so acid soils can be remedied with it but be sure to use it with care if your soil has a pH of more than 6.5. It also repels maggots and can be sprinkled on and around any plants prone to insect attack. Ash can be incorporated into your soil by adding it to your compost pile or simply use it as a mulch around your plants. Cauliflowers and garlic are particularly fond of it. In October mix it with clay, lime and powdered milk and daub it on your tree trunks to protect against pests.

May in the garden

After a very unusual April, with all the wind and rain and late frost, I'm sure I'm not the only one that's totally behind with my planting schedule. It's not too late to direct sow courgettes, cucumbers and pumpkins and you can do so until the middle of this month. If summer lasts longer, like it did last year, we might have hot weather all the way to October, so those late planted summer veggies should do just fine. May is time to focus on getting everything in the ground. Get those tomato poles in nice and deep and try to keep up with pinching out the side shoots and tying the plants to the poles. French beans can be direct sown until July. They will take three months to bear fruit so plant some every month now and harvest beans until October. Okra, corn and peanuts can be direct sown and those sweet potato slips that you started growing in January can go in the ground now too. Melons and watermelons can be direct sown and the aubergine, pepper and chilli plants can be transplanted.

If you are thinking about saving some of your own seeds this year, you have a few extra things to think about. Educate yourself on what will cross pollinate with what and consider what needs to be isolated. It's also important to know where your vegetable transplants have come from. If you are planning to save seeds from organic plants from an almacen, those plants could very well be hybrids. Most of the tomatoes grown in semilleros are hybrids, even the organic range, and although the plants will perform very well, the seeds saved from these plants will not give good results.

And of course I have to mention the weeds. What perfect spring weather we've had, if we want to grow lots of weeds. Just try and keep ahead of them and don't despair. Hoe and mulch!

Tip: As garlic starts to flower, pinch out the central flower stalk and eat it as fresh garlic. Chop it finely and cook it with fish. Delicious! Some say that pinching out the central stalk makes the garlic bulbs grow fatter.

Reader's question: Can you advise what the best non chemical bug spray would be to use? Steph.
Soapy water works well for aphids and a garlic spray is effective against most pests. Neem is a natural insecticide and it is very effective but do bear in mind that however natural it is, it is still toxic to all insects and so will kill the good ones as well as the bad ones. Insects tend to attack sick and weak plants so before you reach for the insecticide, try feeding your soil or give your plants a foliar spray of liquid comfrey feed. If caterpillars are bothering you, you can remove them manually. They are easier to deal with at the egg stage. Look for the little clusters of yellow eggs on the underside of your leaves and gently scratch them off with your fingernail. Insect plagues are usually a sign of an imbalance in your system and you would be wise to feed the soil. Experiment with companion planting to attract predator insects and discourage pests. Chamomile attracts hoverflies and beneficial wasps, dill repels aphids and spider mites and hyssop repels flea beetles. Plant plenty of flowering herbs to attract the insects away from your vegetables and to encourage predator insects.

June in the garden

If your plants survived the late frosts, heavy rains, floods and giant hailstones that we experienced this spring, your summer garden should really be taking shape by now. As summer hots up, the garden landscape is changing as the low lying winter veg gives way to high climbing beans and tomato poles. By midsummer's day the first tomatoes should be ready to eat. Water now starts to become an issue. Unless you are lucky enough to have a plentiful supply all summer, you will be looking at ways to conserve water in the soil. If you have been adding organic matter to your beds, the rewards will really start to pay off. A soil rich in humus holds moisture like a sponge. To help prevent your soil drying out, limit bare soil by dense plantings or mulching around your plants. Compost is an ideal mulch now, straw can get very dry and blow off in the hot summer winds.

Sweetcorn, courgettes and okra and can be direct sown until the middle of the month. Plant more sweet potatoes and peanuts. Continue monthly sowings of french beans.

Everyone loves a salad in the summer but the truth is, lettuces thrive at around 18° C but will start to bolt when the temperatures get into the high 20s. The seeds won't even germinate when temperatures get over 30 degrees. Use your taller plants as shade, growing lettuces under tomatoes or on the north side of your corn patch. Try using shade cloth and keep the roots cool with frequent watering and mulch. Loose leaf lettuces and romaine varieties are more heat resistant. Plant regularly and harvest when they are small. Or why not try something totally different in your summer salads? Basil comes in many flavours or try other heat loving greens like leaf amaranth, Malabar spinach, sorrel or shiso. Some endives and chicories will also fare well in the heat.

Don't forget, gardening should be a pleasure. If you start to feel overwhelmed, reduce your growing space. If you lose control of a bed, strim it, drag a tarp over it, stop watering it and come back later when it's not so hot!

TIP: To germinate lettuces when the day and night time temperatures are high, sow seeds in pots and put in the fridge for 4 to 6 days.

READER'S QUESTION: I'm planning to go away for part of the summer. What can I do to prevent my whole garden dying while I am away? - Sian, Velez de Benaudalla
Ideally, you would really like to find someone to come round and water regularly while you are away. If you can't organise that, give your trees a good deep watering before you go and mulch heavily around the base to conserve as much moisture as you can. Consider a drip feed irrigation system with a battery operated timer. It is relatively easy to install and there is a wide range of timer controllers available with varying prices and functions. You can set the watering times and there are even some available with a light sensor that will automatically water at sunrise and sun set.

If you are thinking about leaving veg in the ground to come back and harvest, choose some low maintenance vegetables. As long as they get some water, sweet potatoes and pumpkins will grow happily and give good ground cover so will suppress the weeds. You should be able to harvest them when you get back. Peppers, aubergines and peanuts are ready later so you should be able to harvest them when you get back. Veg that needs regular harvesting, like melons and tomatoes, would not be worthwhile in my opinion. You would come back to a load of split, rotting fruit.

July in the garden

July is the month that really starts to reward the gardener for all their hard work. Courgettes, cucumbers, green beans and tomatoes should be abundant by now and as there's really nothing new to plant at the moment, the focus is on maintaining what you've got. It's important to harvest tomatoes, beans, melons and cucumbers regularly. Allowing fruit to go overripe and rot on the plants not only smells bad but attracts fruit flies and other pests which can get into your crop. And please pick that monster courgette! The plant will think it's achieved it's mission of making seeds to ensure the next generation and will stop putting out new flowers and concentrate all it's energy on securing those seeds in that giant fruit. Beans not only taste better when they are young and tender but must be picked to stimulate the plants to continue flowering and produce more beans. When the seeds start to form in the pods, bean plants too will concentrate on seed production and your yield will be considerably less than if you pick the beans every day or three.

In the case of basil and rocket, the leaf is the crop, so when those plants start to flower and start their seed producing mission, they will stop putting out new leaves. Pick the flowers off to prolong the harvest. When the flowering tip is pinched out, basil will put out two leading tips in it's place so you will end up with bushier more productive plants that will yield much more over a longer time. When you can no longer keep up with the plants' desire to run to seed, allow them to do so and save some seeds for next year. Bear in mind that different types of basil will cross pollinate, rampantly, because the bees love basil flowers, so if you do decide to save some seeds, make sure only one variety flowers at a time.

Tip: When pinching out your tomato side shoots, try potting a few up to produce new plants for later in the season. Tomatoes planted in August can produce fruit as late as December.

Reader's question: Will my tomato plants grow bigger and stronger if I take off the first flowers? - Imbal. Tablones
No, I shouldn't think so. Tomatoes will produce fruit on the lower parts of the plant first and continue to grow upwards producing fruit higher up the plant. You would be wise to pinch out the side shoots that sprout out of the axis between the main stem and the leaves. This makes the plants have a more upright and manageable form which is easier to tie to the poles. You can leave the side shoots but you will end up with wild and bushy plants that are harder to manage. You may also like to take off the lower leaves. This allows air to flow and decreases the chance of fungal diseases. The plant doesn't really need the lower leaves once the low fruit has been harvested so it's good to take off the leaves two junctions below the harvested fruit. Some growers in cooler climates strip nearly all the leaves off (leaving a few to perform photosynthesis I hope) to maximise the sun and help the fruit to ripen. This is not necessary in our hot climate and the fruit really needs the bit of shade provided by the leaves otherwise it can get sunburned. Take off any damaged or diseased leaves too and any leaves that are touching the ground, but be careful not to remove the main growing tip.

August in the garden

As the August sun beats down and both gardener and garden struggle to survive the summer heat, it's time to think about winter veg. If you want to raise your own plants to plant in Autumn, from the middle of the month it's time to sow seeds for all the winter brassicas such as kale, broccoli, cauliflowers and cabbages, as well as cool season Asian greens like pak choi, tat soi and mustards. If you have a greenhouse, it might be a good idea not to use it for these seedlings. The greenhouse tends to be very hot now and tender seedlings will at least struggle, most likely fry. Better to find a shady spot outside but you will want to raise your seed trays up off the ground to keep them away from slugs and snails. If you have a real problem with these creatures, you could consider constructing a simple frame with fly netting and an old window frame to keep them away from their favourite snack.

Nothing can beat the joy of eating fresh juicy fruits and vegetables straight from the garden. The tomatoes are divine compared to what you can buy in the shops and the experience of eating a ripe melon picked and eaten straight away is incomparable. If there are some things you didn't manage to grow this year, the next best thing is to buy locally. Not only are you supporting your local farmers, you can be sure that the produce has not had far to travel so was not harvested under-ripe and allowed to ripen up on it's way to you. Fruit and vegetables harvested in this way often lack flavour. You can also be sure there has been no long storage times and air polluting haulage. An indirect way to support your local farmers is to eat at “La Milpa” vegetarian organic cafe in the municipal market in Orgiva. Raul from Cordoba and Ivonne from Mexico cook up a seasonal feast using products from local growers as much as possible. The menu changes weekly depending on what the local growers have to offer and covers a range of salads, tropical fruits from the coast and pastry made with flour milled in the last surviving water powered mill in the Alpujarras. All the bread is baked by local bakers and juice is juiced from vegetables and fruits so fresh it's almost still alive. Drop in for a real treat!

Tip:

Readers question: When I save my tomato seeds I put them on a bit of kitchen paper to dry. It's all a bit messy. When I buy tomato seeds, they come out of the packet so clean. How do the seed companies do that?
It's really very easy. When tomato seeds come out of the tomatoes, they are encased in a gelatinous sac. This is to inhibit germination as soon as the seeds hit the ground at the end of summer, helping to delay it until the more favourable conditions of spring. As gardeners, we can take those seeds and ferment them to remove the gelatinous sac, dry the seeds and store them. Do this by scraping the seeds out of the tomato into a glass and topping it up about half way with water. Give it a stir. Leave the glass on the kitchen window sill, or somewhere you can keep an eye on it. After about three days, a gloopy film will form on top of the glass. Stir, and all the good seeds will sink to the bottom of the glass. Seeds that are not viable will float. Pour of the scummy top and spread the good seeds out on a saucer to dry. In a few days when they are perfectly dry, store them in a paper envelope remembering to write the variety and year on it. When you come back to them in spring, your seeds will look just like the ones in the shop bought packets.

September

... is the time to start the transition from summer garden to winter garden. If you haven't got your brassica plantlets started yet, start them from seed now in pots or seed trays. Plant more lettuces and other salad leaves in seed trays too.

It's tricky at this time of year because the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are still going strong so we don't want to clear them out just yet to make way for the winter veg so space can become an issue. Pumpkins can be harvested and stored. Peppers and tomatoes can be given a feed to encourage them to keep producing. Make the most of the abundant harvests by bottling tomatoes and making chutney. Start thinking too about where the peas, habas and garlic are going to go in October and start working towards getting those beds ready. Parsnips, radishes, spinach and coriander can all be planted now as well as carrots and potatoes. Prepare the brassica beds with manure or compost. They are heavy feeders and will appreciate plenty of organic material.

SEEeD (semillas espaňolas ecologicas en deposito) will be holding their autumn seed swap in the indoor market in Orgiva on Thursday 27th September from 10am till 2pm. The event is a great opportunity to meet other gardeners and seed savers and exchange vegetable herb, and flower seeds. There is always an array of common, rare, unusual and local varieties on offer and a wealth of information about growing methods and seed saving techniques from local growers. Bring your spare seeds along to swap and even if you don't have any seeds to swap come and see what's on offer in the seedbank. The SEEeD collection includes 300 varieties of tomatoes and 200 chilli varieties as well as unusual aubergines, pumpkins, purple carrots and leafy greens of many sorts and more. The bank strives to maintain every variety that is donated but more growers are desperately needed to grow, multiply and return seeds to the bank. If you think you may be able to take a variety or two on to grow in your garden and return seeds to the bank, then do come to the event or get in touch through the website. Seed saving is the most important task for gardeners to do now that the giant seed companies are consolidating all the small and family run seed companies into their mega corporations. An alarming number of varieties have been lost over the recent past and not only our growing choices but our food choices become narrower and narrower with every company take over. Many varieties that were previously commercially available get dropped from the European seed list as companies concentrate their efforts on the most profitable varieties. These are geared towards industrial farming methods and the old favourite garden varieties get lost. You can help your local seedbank to save our indigenous varieties.

Tip: Dig fish heads and skins into your cabbage beds for really giant heads.

Reader's Question: Last year I saved some seeds from my climbing French beans. When I went to plant them in Spring, they were full of holes and there were dead weevils in the envelope. How can I prevent this from happening again this year?
Bean weevils lay their eggs in the bean flowers and immature pods.That's why you don't see them when you harvest your bean seeds. They actually mature inside the bean and then eat their way out. You really don't want these little creatures in your seed store, they can devastate your collection. The best way to deal with them is to freeze all your pea, bean and okra seeds before you store them. The seeds must be fully dry before you freeze them or the germ will die. To check if they are dry enough, hit one seed with a hammer. If it squashes, it's not dry enough. If it shatters, it's good, so freeze the rest for 5 days or a week.

October

... always feels like a new beginning in the garden. The high maintenance, highly productive plants like tomatoes and aubergines are mostly out of the ground and we can say goodbye to the intensity of daily harvesting and processing. It feels good to take out all the tomato poles and clear away the old pumpkin vines. Things start to look neat again!! Now it's time to settle down to the gentle flow of the winter garden. We won't be watering so much, the weeds slow down, the days are shorter and everything just grows much more slowly. Now is a great time for salads. Lettuces, rocket, pak choi and mustards will all be happy in the cooler temperatures and give a spicy, warming winter mix. Coriander tends to do pretty well now too. Radishes, carrots, beetroots and parsnips can all be direct sown from seed.

Keep on planting all those brassicas you've been rearing; kale, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower. It's not too late to sow more in seed trays if you don't have enough plants. Broad beans, garlic and potatoes can be planted now too. So can onion and leek plantlets. Peas and mange tout planted now will be ready to harvest in spring. Asparagus can be planted now. It's a good time to give the strawberry patch a weed and tidy up. All the suckers should be removed. These can be planted up in pots to raise new plants. It's a good idea to gradually replace your old plants. They will remain productive for about 5 years but production will slow down after 3 years. Any spare plants can be given away or swapped.

Tip: Sow companion plants such as marigolds and nasturtiums near your brassica patch to deter cabbage pests.

Reader's question: Last year my brassica plants went all mushy and smelly in the middle. I ended up pulling them all out. What was it and how can I prevent it from happening again this year?
I too have experienced this. I believe it to be swede midge, coupled with bacterial soft rot. Bacterial soft rot is a “secondary invader” that gets into the plant tissue after the swede midge has created a wound. The swede midge is a tiny (1.5 - 2mm) tan coloured fly. To the naked eye it looks much like any other garden midge. The female lays clusters of eggs in the youngest, tenderest plant tissue it can find, preferring brassicas, and usually in the growing tip. The larvae are 0.3mm long when they hatch. They will feed in groups until they mature (in 7 – 21 days) when they will measure 3-4mm and be yellow in colour so by now you should be able to see them.

The larvae feed on newly emerging leaf bases and flower buds. They secrete a digestive fluid that breaks down the plant cuticle and causes twisting and curling of leaves and swollen leaf stems. This damage presents an opportunity for the bacteria that cause soft rot to enter the plant tissue and that is when you start to notice the putrefaction and the unpleasant smell. So what can you do? My brassica patch has suffered from this in the past. Even though the crowns get eaten, some plants will survive and go on to produce. Cauliflowers may produce four small heads rather than one big one. I covered my rows of young plants with agricultural fleece until they were well established last year and didn't have any trouble at all. A favourite remedy in my area is to sprinkle wood ash over the plants. This seems to be quite successful.The swede midge larvae will pupate in the soil and can carry over to the following year. For this reason, crop rotation is very important.

November

It's November and winter is on its way. If you haven't dug your sweet potatoes up, then do so now. They will turn to mush at the first frost. Habas (broad beans) can still be direct sown, as can carrots, radishes, parsnips, beetroot, garlic and spinach. If you have any empty beds, consider planting oats or field beans as a green manure. Cut them down in spring just before they flower to give those beds a big dose of nitrogen for your spring plantings. Keep on planting out your brassica seedlings and if you are short of plants it's not too late to sow some more from seed.

Lettuces can be direct sown or sown in seed trays as well as all your asian greens, coriander, rocket and mustards. Have a good tidy up now and put all your old finished summer plants in the compost heap. Don't leave plant residues lying around the garden to provide a habitat for snails and other garden pests. If you mulch it's a good idea to take the mulch away now, as this too provides a nice warm bed for snails. Weeds will slow right down now so you don't really need to be suppressing them and your plants will benefit from the warmth the soil will take in if it is exposed to the sun. Sort out your tomato and bean poles. Put all the old broken ones in the burning pile and keep any good ones that you can use again next year up off the ground and out of the rain if you can.

You may still have a few stragglers producing tomatoes.Take all the brown leaves off the plants and clean up around the base of the plants. There will be more chance of the fruit ripening if the soil has the chance to warm up in the sun. Although aubergines, chillies and peppers are grown as annuals in the northern hemisphere they are actually perennials in their native climates. These plants can survive the winter if it is relatively frost free. If you have any plants that you are particularly fond of, try cutting them back to about a third and if the winter is not too cold they will sprout new leaves in the spring and fruit long before any plants raised from seed next year. If the winter does turn very cold, you can try a thick mulch to protect from the frost, although take it off again when it's warmer and sunny. You could also try covering the plants with agricultural fleece during the coldest spells. If you have a really great chilli that you don't want to lose, dig it up, put it in a pot, cut it back quite hard and take it inside or into the greenhouse for the winter. You can plant it out again in the spring.

TIP: November is a good month to spread manure around fruit trees.

Reader's question: I have grown lemon grass and turmeric very successfully this year. Will they survive the winter?
Both lemongrass and turmeric will go dormant over the winter. The turmeric leaves will disappear altogether and the lemon grass will turn brown and look dead. The turmeric will reappear in late spring but it is a good idea to mark the spot so you don't forget where it is. If you have a lot of frost in your area you would be wise to pile quite a bit of mulch on top to protect the tubers from frost. The lemon grass can be divided and replanted. It does look quite messy and well, dead, over the winter but it will suddenly turn all lush and green again in early summer. You will be amazed at how quickly it turns into a big clump. If you divide it now you will have more smaller plants next year that are easier to manage. You can also plant some in pots for insurance or to give away or swap. Each stalk, planted with a little bit of root left on, will eventually turn into a giant plant.

December

If you timed it right you'll be lucky enough to have your own parsnips for Christmas dinner. You should also to be able to roast your own potatoes and eat your own brussels sprouts and kale. If those August plantings worked out, you'll have your own tomatoes too, for the starter. The last winter sowings of habas, peas and garlic can be made now. Radish and spinach can go in too as well as winter salad crops such as rocket, lettuce and Asian greens.

With Christmas looming, now is a really good time to review your garden tools. A maintenance session to oil wooden handles, sharpen blades and do a general check of the condition of your tools will reveal what you are lacking,what needs to be replaced and give you some good ideas to put on your list for Santa. The end of the year is also a good time to look over the successes and failures of the last year and make a plan for the coming year. This of course will involve looking through your seed stocks. Yet more ideas for Christmas presents!

With so many catalogues available online making seed purchases is very easy. You can buy lovely presents for your friends and family. Even if they don't have a garden, or any interest in having one, why not buy them something to grow on their windowsill? Basil, chives or parsley are commonly bought in little pots in supermarkets. Wouldn't your loved-ones like to grow their own? There are many small ecological seed companies online who really need support to keep the ethical seed trade alive. Try the The Real Seed Company in Wales (http://www.realseeds.co.uk) or plantaromed in Málaga (http://www.plantaromed.com).

Christmas is becoming more and more commercial and disposable, so why not give a present that produces something? Seeds already come in a lovely package so there's no need for wrapping paper and they are light and cheap to post.

Tip: Giving brassicas a nettle feed will deter white flies.

Reader's question: With the olive season coming up we will have lots of brush to process. Burning, although quick and effective, seems a waste of resources. How else can we get rid of such a large quantity of brush?
Processing the olive prunings is a huge task every year. Goats love olive leaf and, if you know some, they would happily dispose of your leaf for you. You can either transport the prunings to a local goat herder or bring the goats to the prunings. If you bring the goats to the prunings, you will be left with the branches. These still need to be processed and can be chopped up for kindling if you have a wood burner. If you have a lot of prunings, this is a soul destroying task and how much kindling do you need? At this stage getting hold of a shredder or wood-chipper would be very useful. Ask around your neighbours or see if there is one available to rent or borrow, before you consider buying one. It's good to use one before you make the commitment to buy a large and possibly expensive piece of kit. The smaller ones are generally harder to use and the job takes longer. Big ones go through the sticks like butter but are very expensive.

Another option would be to build a hugel bed. “Hugel” culture means hill culture and is a system where branches, logs, leaves and any other biodegradable matter is heaped into a mound and covered with soil. Your veggies are then planted on top of the mound. The gradual decay of the wood provides nutrients for many years and also provides heat to the bed. The large volume of decaying matter also holds the moisture in the soil and there is much less need to water. Altogether a great way to use those prunings.

hands-seeds hands-heart-seeds seedlings
Semillas Españolas Ecológicos en Deposito