Columns from the Sentinella magazine

2019


January

The days are already starting to get longer but while growth in the garden is still slow do as much preparation for spring as you can. Clear out empty beds and start adding manure and compost for summer veg beds. Get tomato poles ready and fix fences. Get holes ready for trees to be planted in February. Garlic, radishes and carrots can be sown.

In the New Year it's customary to make new years resolutions and make decisions about how we're going to live our lives, breaking old habits and starting new ones. Growing our own world has so much more to it than what we can grow in the garden. We can't grow everything we need to live and even those of us with the biggest most productive gardens still have to buy certain produce. Our buying power has a lot of influence on the world around us and this influence has a global reach. The decisions we make about the products we buy help to create the world we all live in. 2018 saw a global campaign to reduce the use of plastics. Plastics are getting into the food chain, literally; an increasing number of marine mammals and sea birds are being found dead as a result of consuming humans' plastic waste. This has touched the hearts of many of us and we can all support the campaign to ban single use plastics. While we wait for the ban to come into action, we can all choose not to buy products packaged in single use plastics. Bananas are on sale in the supermarkets, wrapped in plastic bags. Is it really necessary to wrap bananas? They already come in a biodegradable bag, called a banana skin. Bananas grow on the Costa Tropical, yet the shops are full of bananas imported from South America. We can choose to seek out locally grown food. There is a growing local organic food movement in Granada province. With two monthly farmers' markets both in Granada and the Valle de Lecrin, local growers on the weekly markets in Nerja, Orgiva and Velez de Benaudalla and numerous health food shops throughout the region offering locally grown produce, we can make choices about the food we buy. Supporting local growers not only cuts down on pollution from transportation and packaging, it also keeps farmers in the campo and conserves our beautiful landscape. Shopping locally also gives us the benefit of eating seasonally so we can be sure our walnuts were not grown in California and our asparagus did not come from Peru. European legislation deems that all fruit and veg sold should state its country of origin. Have a look next time you buy some “fresh” produce in the supermarket and see how far it has travelled. We can all grow our own world and create the world we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren.

Tip: when sowing carrot seeds mix the tiny seeds with sand to help sow the seeds thinly. This will mean less thinning to do later on.

Reader's Question: When is the best time to prune my walnut tree? - Sue, Orgiva
It's best to prune walnut trees when they are in their dormant phase and before the sap has started to rise to carry nutrients to the new spring growth. The sap in walnut trees tends to rise early so it's best to prune the tree nearer the beginning of the dormant phase, so in autumn or early winter when the tree has lost all its leaves. Walnuts are prone to “bleeding” which means sap flows from the pruning cuts. This apparently doesn't harm the tree but can be very alarming for the gardener to see. The sap will be lower on a waning moon.

February

...is the most exciting in month in the gardening year. It's time to start sowing the seeds for all the summer in veg!! While it can still be very cold outside, all those pepper, aubergine, chilli and tomato seeds want to start getting planted into pots or seeds trays now. Protect them from frost in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill and when the last frost has passed in spring, the plants will be big enough to go in the ground. SEEeD (Semillas Espanolas Ecologicas en Deposito) were delighted to receive an invite from Maro Transition Towns group to join then for a seed swap. We love a seed swap and are looking forward to making new friends and connections and of course finding some new varieties to grow. Come along to swap some seeds and to hear about their project.

A postcard from Maro en transición

Here in our blessed sub tropical microclimate around Nerja and Maro there is a thriving international community of people interested in sustainable ecological living. Recently we have been making efforts to come together as a cohesive, inclusive community under the umbrella of the international transition town movement. Started in Totnes, UK, the movement aims to improve local communities' resilience in the face of the inevitable eventual exhaustion of easily accessible oil, transitioning away from our dependence by offering tools and experience in the organisation of grassroots community led projects.

So what does that mean in practical terms? Normally taking on the responsibility for our basic needs as local communities: our food, water, energy, shelter and economies: sharing of resources, and production and direct consumption in the local area where possible. There are around 50 initiatives in Spain alone. In Maro, through various open meetings, we have formed working groups which take turns in helping to develop each others projects, often in our veggie gardens. This is a great, enjoyable way to get a lot of hard work done quickly while at the same time bonding, and our toil is always rewarded with a tasty shared meal together afterwards. We also bulk buy organic staple foods together in a consumer group, have set up an online timebank and regularly exchange fruit, veg and seeds.

There are also plans to organise knowledge exchanges, mount a large scale community compost scheme and perhaps expand the exchanges up into the mountains, swapping avocados and chirimoyas for olive oil and chestnuts for example. As usual, there are no shortage of ideas, and the work is rather to focus and organise, perhaps more of a challenge in non-hierarchical projects, as few people have experience of working in that way, as well as maintaining motivation and continuity within a community of people who are regularly travelling. The physical, emotional and spiritual health of the community is of course a prerequisite for any other projects, and there is a busy WhatsApp village announcement board for local activities that include weekly alcohol-free dance sessions, theatre classes, car-sharing, help needed or offered, as well as the inevitable viral memes!

The next activity on the agenda is a seed swap in readiness for the spring, and we have invited the association "SEEeD" from Orgiva to join us. We're excited to meet them and help in their mission to spread biodiversity. All are welcome to come along with their seeds and envelopes and swap away.

If you live close to Maro and would like to get involved in the transition group, or would like more information, like the Facebook page: Maro en Transición
Saludos,
The Maro en transition team

March in the garden

It's March and the weather is really starting to warm up as the days get longer. All those little seedlings coming up from the seeds planted last month will be getting big enough to transplant. Keep an eye on them, and if they seem to have stopped growing, they have used up all the nutrition in the soil in their pots and it's time to give them a bigger container and fresh potting compost. If they've been in clusters in pots, separate them out into individual modules or pots. Carry on planting seeds for tomatoes, chillies and aubergines and get started on the courgettes, cucumbers and pumpkins. Get the ground ready for them now too. Dig a hole and fill it with well rotted compost or manure. When all danger of frost has passed, you can get the little seedlings in the ground and they'll be off to a good start. If you find yourself behind, and don't manage to grow little plants, you can direct sow pumpkin and cucumber seeds into the prepared holes once the weather has warmed up, or earlier as long as you protect them from frost with a cloche.

Remember to plant some companion plants and flowers to attract bees and other pollinators. Nasturtiums, marigolds, calendula, rudbeckia and tall verbena all make colourful additions to the veg garden. Annual herbs can go in from seed now too. Coriander, basil, parsley, shiso and also some Asian leaves such as mizuna and giant red mustard to add a bit of spice and colour to salads.

Why do we grow gardens? For some it's therapeutic. We like to spend time nurturing our plants and watching the insects on the flowers, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of spending time in the beauty of nature. Others love to have freshly harvested organic food to eat, and by growing our own we know exactly what's gone into the soil and what has, or hasn't, been sprayed on our food. The very act of gardening creates the world we live in as it shapes and colours the landscape. Here in the Alpujarras the landscape has been sculpted by hundreds of years of traditional farming methods, fed by the complex system of acequias that carries water from the high peaks all the way to the river valleys, nourishing both people and places as it winds it way through the mountains. As gardeners we become absorbed in our work but we must sometimes lift our gaze up from our individual garden paradises and see what is going on out there, in the wider landscape. The REE (Red Electrica de Espana) is planning to erect a line of high tension electric towers which will run right through the Valle de Lecrin and the Alpujarras on it's route from Granada to Almería. Apart from the obvious visual impact, the towers will change our landscape in a profound way. This scheme will shatter our beautiful world, cause disruption to the acequia system and will drive many farmers from their land because they will not wish to live in the shadow of these towers. Tony Milroy, a former agricultural engineering adviser to Yemen's ministry of agriculture, recently gave a talk in Orgiva about the Yemen, where he has been working at a grassroots level with traditional farmers for 40 years. The terraced farming system in the Yemen is collapsing because it is no longer being maintained, due to the war there. It is very similar to ours here in Granada province and Tony is sure that it was Yemeni technicians that built ours in the time of the Moors. Both the Alpujarras and the Vale de Lecrin have been nominated for World Heritage Status and he is correct when he says this area should be a beacon for the rest of Europe. We must all stand up now and do whatever we can to prevent our terraces from sliding down the mountains before they become only memories, like those in the Yemen.

April in the garden

The unusually warm February and early March may have fooled us into thinking that summer is already here. Don't forget that cold snap that hit us late last year, when Cadiar growers lost their tomato plants to a killer frost on May 1st. If you have been tempted to put in some summer veg early, it would be wise to keep some fleece handy so you can protect those tender plants should the temperatures take a dip.

Organic certification brings many benefits to farmers. The stamp of approval from organic certification bodies, such as CAAE, allows access to organic markets where products reach a higher price and demonstrates to customers that the grower has serious organic credentials. With so many people nowadays actively seeking out organic produce, not only for health reasons but as a lifestyle choice, many farmers are investing in the extra cost of certification. There is an alternative to third party certification bodies that is much more economical. The SPG (Sistema Participativo de Garantía) [in English PGS (Participatory Guarantee System] is defined by IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) as "locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange."

Well let's break that down a little...PGS has been around since the 1970s where it first appeared in France. It is a system whereby groups of local farmers work together to choose and define standards and to develop their own certification process. Participation is the key word and all members of the group agree upon the criteria to which they all adhere. Transparency is very important with every member welcoming the rest of their group for a visit of their property every year. The more the members participate, the stronger the group becomes, supporting each other by sharing knowledge and experience, collaborating on work days and cooperating to market products. The Agroalpujarra group which consists of 3 main branches, Orgiva, Cadiar and Costa Tropical have secured themselves a place on the eco mercado in Granada. Between them they have an impressive diversity of products; fruit, nuts, vegetables, honey, sweet chilli sauce, olive oil, seeds, soap and flour from last water powered mill in the Alpujarra.

They will have a stall again this year on the feria “Hecho en la Alpujarra – Feria de Turismo, Artesanía y Alimentación” from April 18th to 21st in the polidesportivo in Orgiva. Come and see us there to find out more about the group and how you can join. www.agroalpujarra.com

Tip: As brassicas start to flower, pinch out the flower buds to prolong harvest. The flower heads are delicious too.

Readers question: I have clumps of little green creatures on the tops of my habas plants. What are they and should I be worried?
What you describe are aphids. They love to suck the sap out of tender new growth and will weaken your plants if left to get out of control. Luckily, they are quite easy to deal with but do it now because they multiply very quickly. A true soap, such as castille, works better than dishwashing detergent as the fatty acids in real soap dissolves the waxy coatings of the insects and causes them to die of excessive moisture loss. Make up a 2% solution of soap and water in a spray bottle and give them a good blast every couple of days.

May in the garden

May is such a busy month in the garden. All danger of frost has surely passed by now, even if you are in the high mountains, so it's time to get all the little summer veg plants in the ground. Cucumbers, melons and pumpkins can be direct sown up till the middle of the month. French beans, runner beans, soya beans and all your orientals; lab lab, yard long, winged beans plus cowpeas can also be direct seeded. The last of the onions and the garlic will be ready to harvest in May too and if you want to save your own pea and broad bean seeds, now is the time to do that. Don't forget to freeze your pea seeds (after they are completely dry) for a few days to kill any weevil eggs.

Sweetcorn and peanuts can be direct sown and sweet potato vines can go in too. Weeds will really take hold now so try to put aside a little time every week to keep ahead of the weeds. Plan your garden with summer in mind. How much water will you have available? How much space can you realistically keep under control when the summer heat really kicks in?

"Take your project to the next level! There is a really exciting opportunity coming to Andalucía for those of you who have a piece of land or a farm or are wanting to start a project or homestead. Darren Doherty from the worlds leading regenerative farm planning group, the Regrarians will be here on the coast of Granada at La Loma Viva, offering a 4 day "Intensive Farm Planning Programme". During the workshop you will get expert advice and work on the design of your own project with Darren, who has consulted on thousands of large and small projects around the world. The Regrarians have developed this programme to help people to fast track their projects, to become productive and profitable, saving loads of time, energy and money. And more importantly how to regenerate your ecosystem and environment at the same time, improving soil, increasing biodiversity and the health of your land. They are also really good at helping people to discover their real passions and how to make your dreams a reality. By signing up for the course you will also get one years free membership to the Regrarians workplace, where you will get ongoing support from the worlds leading experts in all things regenerative, covering all aspects of your farm plan from water to buildings to energy and production. Don't miss out on this unique opportunity to get your project to be financially, environmentally and personally sustainable with the worlds best team!" For more information see the website here: http://www.lalomaviva.com/courses-2019/2019/3/31/regrarians-farm-planning-programme"

Tip: When seed saving goes wrong and you cross pollinate something by mistake, try to see yourself as a successful plant breeder, rather than a failed seed saver.

Readers question: Do climbing French beans cross pollinate? All my gardening books say they don't but some of my home saved seeds changed from having white seed coats when I planted them, to black when I harvested them. What is going on?
Most gardening books from northern Europe state that climbing French beans do not cross pollinate. Many of us here in the Alpujarra have found that they do. I have researched this topic in great depth as many of the beautifully pattered colourful bean seeds I started with have turned black. I also have a myriad of new varieties going on! Black is the dominant seed coat colour and will usually be the first sign that your precious bean has been cross pollinated. After much searching, I discovered some studies from Costa Rica where the reported incidence of cross pollination in French beans was very high. They concluded that Carpenter bees were the culprit. Watch these big meanies on your bean flowers and you will notice that unlike other smaller bees, they are heavy enough to weigh down the bottom part of the bean flowers and can access the nectar and pollen inside. But don't despair. The surest way to keep your French beans from crossing is to grow one variety a year. You can also start one off very early, say early March and then grow another from July. This would mean they are not flowering at the same time. The good news is that French beans don't cross with yard long beans, lab lab, soya beans or runner beans so you can still grow a diverse selection.

June in the garden

Looks like we've got a good chance of survival this summer with plenty of water in the rivers and the dams full to the brim. It's hard to predict how hot summer is going to be so it's a good idea to plan for extreme heat and hope it doesn't come! If you are considering drip irrigation to conserve water and to reduce the gardener's workload, now is the time to get it set up and make sure it's all working properly. Weeds will become vigorous so try your best to keep ahead of them. Make “hoe and mulch, hoe and mulch” your daily mantra until September.

By now the summer garden should be well underway. Keep pinching out the lateral shoots of the tomato plants as you tie them onto the poles. Continue with successional sowings of French beans and sow soya beans, Asian beans, sweetcorn, okra and peanuts. Sweet potato slips can go in the ground.

Try to find some shady spots for salads or switch now to “summer greens”. Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, leaf amaranths and orach all love the heat. You should have plenty of basil now too.

It's very important to look after yourself as well as your plants. In the summer heat it's crucial to protect yourself against heat stroke, sunburn and exhaustion. Work early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the heat of the day, wear a hat and sunscreen or a lightweight long sleeved shirt and most importantly, keep yourself hydrated. Don't underestimate the value of good health! I have just come through a period of ill health which kept me out of the garden for six months. The garden has survived but with a design of it's own, almost turning into a cardoon forest. It is often said that gardening is therapeutic and I now have a deeper understanding of what that means. As garden and gardener we strike a balance where we support one another. The gardener is fulfilled on a deep level by nurturing plants to create something both beautiful and edible. The garden relies on the gardener to keep marauding cardoons, and other space invaders, at bay. If you know someone who is unwell, lonely or depressed please consider sharing some time in your garden with them. It really is the best therapy.

Tip: When temperatures are over 30 degrees C, Runner bean pollen is not viable. To avoid abundantly flowering plants that never set fruit, sow the seeds in early spring or late summer. July sown plants will bear fruit in October.

Reader's question: What's happening to my tomato plants? They were healthy seedlings just about ready to plant out and now they are turning yellow with bald patches on the leaves and black smudges all over them. What is it and what can I do?
Sounds like you have a tuta absoluta infestation. The black smudges are the tell tale excrement left behind by the tiny little tuta caterpillars. Have a look at the bald patches on your leaves. The bright green grub burrows into the leaves and sits in between the membranes eating the fleshy green parts. You can often see them through the membranes and here you can squash them. As the plants mature, the grubs will burrow into the stems and eventually will eat a hole into the fruit. It's not the end of the world if your tomatoes are for home use, you can just cut that bit, and the caterpillar, out, but for commercial growers, it's a disaster. The biggest danger is when the growing tips get attacked, the plants are stunted and often don't recover. It's best to get on top of it as soon as they appear. Manually remove all damaged leaf parts, squash grubs and make sure you have plenty of diversity in your garden. Flowering herbs attract insect predators which will work on your behalf. Give your plants a feed for a boost of strength to help fight off the plague. You could use neem, an organic pesticide, but bear in mind it is still a toxin and will kill you friends as well as your foes. It is unlikely that you will see the tiny nocturnal adult moth.

July in the garden

If you don't have a garden, but are still reading this page, then you will be delighted to hear that the Orgiva branch of the SPG (participatory guarantee system) group, Agroalpujarra, are welcoming volunteers to their community garden. It's close to town and has plenty of parking. It is a multi-lingual group and there is always someone there that can speak English, Spanish, French or German. Volunteers will be offered beautiful organic vegetables in return for their labour. The participatory principles of the SPG group also include a consumers' group so if you don't have the time or inclination to work in the garden, you can sign up to the organic veg box scheme. Much of the veg in the boxes is sourced from the community garden and the rest comes from other local growers in the group. With so many specialist growers in the SPG group, the boxes contain a diverse range of seasonal food. Signing up for a veg box is a great way to support your local growers, your local economy and our environment. Look out too for activities coming up in the garden; children's days, seed saving workshops and a seed swap in the autumn.

Tip: A simple frame can be made out of fly mesh and an old window frame to sun dry tomatoes. It's best to cover the drying tomatoes with another layer of fly mesh too so that moths don't lay their eggs in them. They will hatch later on and might put you off your sun-dried tomatoes when the jar seems to be full of flying creatures.

Reader's Question: We recently moved into a house with a cherry tree. It is an established tree and was heavily cut back at the end of March or thereabouts. It is now shooting off lots of branches with loads of leaves but no cherries and there is also a very, very heavy infestation of black aphid eggs (I think) on the ends of all the branches causing the leaves to curl. Will we see any cherries this year and how do we get rid of the aphids?
First of all, do you have just one cherry tree? Is it a sweet cherry or an acid cherry? Most varieties of sweet cherries are self sterile and so two trees are required to produce a crop. They tend to get very large and so are better suited to the orchard than the garden. Sweet cherries bear fruit on two-year-old, or older, wood. Acid cherries are much smaller trees and most cultivars are self fertile. They bear fruit on year old shoots that were produced the previous summer. The fruit is not generally eaten raw, but rather used for preserves. In the late 1970s, new cultivars of sweet cherries were introduced to Europe from the USA and Canada. This meant that smaller, self fertile sweet cherry trees could be grown in the garden. So does this answer your question? Well, no it doesn't. But watch your tree. If you get cherries next summer, you have an acid cherry. If you get cherries in two years then you probably have a sweet cherry. This can be confirmed by tasting the fruit! If you don't get any cherries at all in two years then you might want to plant a second sweet cherry tree.

As for the bugs, they sound like cherry blackfly. They will suck sap from the leaves and cause them to curl. You could try an organic bug spray but it will have little effect once the leaves have started to curl. The blackfly generally start to die out as summer progresses and will not have any effect on the tree's future ability to produce fruit. The leaves will look unsightly though as they dry up and turn brown. Cherry blackfly has many natural predators, so plant some herbs and flowers nearby to host ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings. Try dill, coriander, lavender, marigolds or rudbeckia. Many types of wasp will also eat your unwelcome visitors.

August in the garden

It's high summer now and conditions in the garden are getting harsh. Try to work early mornings and later in the evening to avoid the intense heat. It's also very important to be aware of the risk of fires. Strim any long grass before it turns to dry tinder. Take great care when using power tools; a spark from an angle grinder can start a fire. A carelessly discarded cigarette butt can quickly turn into a major fire. Remain vigilant and try to convince your summer visitors that they don't really need to have that BBQ!! The fines imposed for fires started outside of the official burning season are substantial. Common sense and a bit of preparedness are your friends now. Know where your buckets are and where the hose is and have it connected just in case.

This month and next, it's time to think about sowing seeds for winter veg. Kale, cabbages and all the other winter brassicas can be sown in seed trays now. An easy way to prepare winter beds is to spread compost or manure over the area and cover it with black plastic. Weigh it down it with rocks, planks or anything you have handy. Heat will be created under the plastic and the weeds will be killed off. Even pernicious perennial grasses can be controlled using this technique. It doesn't completely eradicate them but it does keep them at bay during the summer, when they grow vigorously. Leave the plastic on for a minimum of three weeks, the longer the better. When it's time to plant the seedlings in Autumn, pull back the plastic and you will find a lovely dark, moist bed. The worms will have been to work and you can just rake out any debris remaining from the dead weeds.

All kinds of summer veg should be flowing fast now from the garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, basil and sweetcorn. Aubergines, peppers and chillies sometimes take a bit longer. Harvest the beans every three days, minimum, to encourage the plants to maintain production. Pinch out the flowering tips of the basil so that the plants put out more leaves.

Tomato gluts can be bottled, made into pizza/pasta sauce and frozen for use in the winter or they can be sun dried. Other vegetables can also be sun dried. Try strips of courgette or pepper. They can be kept in a jar and added to soups and stews later in the year.

Carry on tying your tomatoes to the poles and check the undersides of melons and pumpkins for signs of rot. If they are sitting in a damp spot raise them up on a stone.

Tip: When putting drip feed systems together, have a kettle of hot water at hand. Dip the ends of the black pipe in for a few minutes to heat them up and make them pliable. The connections will just slide in easily.

Reader's Question: My lemongrass bush went all brown and dry over the winter. I thought it was dead but when I started to pull it out it was still green in the middle - so not dead? But it looks horrible. What can I do with it? - Natalie, Orgiva
Lemongrass plants are dormant over the winter, only springing back to life in early summer. They are a perennial grass that multiplies in clumps and really needs to be divided every two years to keep them looking lush and healthy. Just dig up the whole plant and select a few of the most succulent looking stalks with some root still attached. Strip off all the dry brown leaves and replant the stalk. You will be amazed how quickly it begins to sprout new leaves and bush out. Save a few more stalks and plant them in pots, just in case. The rest of the stalks can be chopped up fine and cooked into a nice Thai curry or dried and used in teas. Cleaned stalks also freeze well for future use.It's a good idea to grow two plants and divide them on alternate years.

September in the garden

September brings a welcome change of season and we can really start getting stuck in to the winter garden. It you haven't yet sown seeds for winter veg, do so now. Kale, cabbages, sprouting broccoli, cauliflowers, lettuce, Asian greens, coriander can all go into seed trays. Peas, carrots, turnips, swedes, fennel and radishes can be direct sown. Pumpkins and melons will still be bearing fruit and can be harvested and stored. You should still be harvesting peppers, chillies, aubergines, tomatoes and beans too. Chillies, peppers and aubergines can be overwintered in the ground in areas that don't have too much frost. When the plants stop producing fruit, trim them back to about a third and mulch them. If they survive through the winter they will sprout leaves in the spring and will fruit early. Plant green manures in the gaps as summer veg comes out. It can be turned under later, before flowering, to add fertility to the soil.

September is one of the busiest months in the life of the seed saver. By now all those summer veg seeds should be well on the way to being processed, labelled and stored so you should be ready for the SEEeD (Semillas Espanolas Ecologicas en Deposito) annual seed swap in the indoor market in Orgiva on Thursday 19th September, 10am till 1pm. This yearly event is a great place to meet other growers, discover new varieties to grow in your garden, swap growing tips and knowledge and to have a good chat about all that is going on in the world of seeds. With all the talk in the media about climate change and extinction rebellion, why not join the front line in extinction prevention and take on an endangered heritage variety to save?

SEEeD meets every first Wednesday of the month in Las Torcas in Tablones from 10am till 1pm. Come and join the group to learn from each other about seed saving and processing. Our fantastic open source seed cleaning machine is available in Las Torcas for all to use. It was lovingly crafted for us out of recycled materials by two volunteers. (Thank you Paul and Frederick) It operates with a donated hoover. The machine is genius and makes light work of the often tedious task of cleaning small fiddly seeds. Our latest large batch of lettuce was transformed in minutes!

TIP: Runner beans are perennial in warm climates. Leave the roots in the ground over the winter and as long as you don't have too much frost where you are, the plants will sprout again in spring.

Reader's Question: I saved some pumpkin seeds last year and grew them this year. The plants were amazingly big and strong looking but the pumpkins were not all the same. What happened?
You have cross pollinated two varieties. The strong healthy plants would give you a clue that cross pollination has taken place. This is a phenomenon called “hybrid vigour” and is the energy that is harnessed by seed companies that produce F1 seeds. This topic has been long debated by scientists and Charles Darwin experimented around the subject which is still not fully understood. Your pumpkins will have belonged to one of four families cucurbita pepo, maxima, moschata or mixta. If you grew two varieties from the same group, they will, with the help of the bees, have been cross pollinated and that is why you saw diversity in the F1 generation. The good news is that pumpkins don't cross between groups, only within, so you can still grow four different pumpkins, one from each group, and save pure seeds. Don't look at your pumpkins as a seed saving failure. Rather see them as the first step on a plant breeding project.

October in the garden

October feels like things are “back to normal” after the long summer. For those of you with school age kids, you may be welcoming the return to term time routine and you can structure your gardening time around the school day. Our rhythms can all adapt now to the shorter, cooler days. All those little plantlets that you sowed last month will be getting big enough to go in the ground. If you lost some, you still have time to sow more from seed. As long as they have put on enough growth before the cold weather starts, they will over winter giving you a harvest right through till early summer. Continue with direct sowing of carrots, radishes, beetroots, spinach and parsnips. Winter peas and habas go in now, as well as garlic. It's also time for asparagus plantlets. Throw a few calendula and nasturtium seeds around the veg garden too. They are great pest deterrents.

It's important to keep an eye on the water situation. With all the rain we've had recently, it's easy to fall into the mindset that watering is over for the year. However, the temperature has risen after the rain so pay attention, don't let things get too dry. You may have to water again before winter proper.

One of the principles of organic gardening is to feed the soil, rather than the plants. Green manures are a very convenient and efficient way to do this. Sown over the winter, green manures add fertility to the soil, improve it's structure, prevent erosion and act as a weed suppressant. Sow them now in any vacant beds and cut them before they flower in spring, leaving the roots in the soil. The plants can either be dug in or removed to the compost pile. Either way, you will be harvesting fertility. Leguminous green manure crops have nitrogen nodules on their roots so will add nitrogen to beds just in time for those hungry summer crops such as tomatoes and aubergines. Clover, field beans, vetch, lentils, rye, oats and alfalfa can all be used individually or as a mixture.

Tip: Round seeded peas can be sown in autumn and wrinkled seeded peas are sown in spring.

Reader's question: How do I stop voles chewing through the roots of my plants? They live under the mulch in my veg garden so the cats don't spot them. - Kate, Portugal
Voles can become a real nuisance in the garden. Since the cats aren't doing the job have you thought about getting a snake? Or an owl? I would suggest removing the mulch, to take away their cover, but I imagine that it's an integral part of your system so I'm sure that won't be a welcome solution. You could try creating a bare zone around the veg garden. Voles need the cover of long grass (or mulch) to move around so if you create a completely bare surround, at least 10 inches wide, they won't want to cross it. Apparently a trench, 12 inches deep around the veg patch is a good deterrent. But what to do about the voles already settled in to your beds? Castor oil is said to deter voles. Add two tablespoons to a watering can and water the ground around the plants. This is not harmful to the plants. Old favourites like chilli powder or garlic may also act as deterrents. Sprinkle powder around the base of your plants or make an infusion and water the surrounding soil with that. Try humane mouse traps baited with apple or carrot. You will have to take the voles far away to prevent them from returning, or just put them on the other side of your trench. Voles don't hibernate and their peak population time is the autumn so you may start to notice a natural decline soon.

November in the garden

With summer temperatures keeping up well into October, we really don't know what November will bring. More hot and dry weather? Or a drastic winter? Some of us may have struggled to get our winter crops going due to the prolonged heat and scarce water. Don't despair! Now is the time to experiment and to pay attention to the results. It's more important than ever to keep notes to discover which varieties can withstand harsh conditions, to select seeds of the plants that thrived despite their challenges and to toy with planting times.

This month, direct sow broad beans, garlic, beetroot, carrots, chick peas, round seeded peas, radish, turnip and leaves such as lettuce, chicory, radicchio, spinach, rocket, coriander and Asian greens. If you have struggled to get your brassicas going due to the weather conditions, plant more from seed now. You could try direct sowing which may hurry things along and give them time to get established before the temperature drops.

Greta Thunberg is not the first to tell us that we are doomed. Malthus told us we would starve due to over population in his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population; Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring warned us that all the insects would die; Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb in 1968 again spoke of starvation, and the mushroom cloud that hung over the whole of the 1980s told us nuclear war was inevitable. We're still here.

Greta is doing a great thing, demanding that politicians wake up and make some sensible laws to ensure our survival. But change of this kind is slow. It wasn't until 1972, ten years after Silent Spring was published, that DDT was banned. The green revolution ensured our survival by increasing agricultural productivity, but it was a short term success and the fallout from those practices has given us a whole other set of problems to overcome. Genetic engineering and CRISPR technology are the latest scientific fixes that threaten to do us more harm than good in the long run.

What happens if the politicians don't do what Greta asks? Will our young people fall into despair? Or if governments do act, how long will it take to enforce the changes? We must not hand all of our power over to the politicians. We have so much more power than we believe. The simple act of planting a patch of habas creates soil fertility, prevents soil erosion, provides food for humans, insects, birds, goats, horses and small rodents. The beans can be eaten fresh or dried and stored to be eaten later. The seeds are cheap, they don't need to be weeded and rain water will be sufficient so they won't need to be irrigated. A patch of habas takes practically no effort and gives so much in return.

We must give our young people hope. We must empower then to take their future back, to recognise the power they do have and show them how to use it. Every tree planted helps to mitigate the effects of climate change. Watch Geoff Lawton's Greening the Desert on Youtube. It demonstrates what can be grown with absolutely no water. And if your young people are heading into catastrophic thinking, look up Joanna Macy's despair work to help them work through it.

Our actions are our strength. Growing food and saving seeds is the most powerful thing we can do to ensure our future on this planet. And if growing food is out of your reach, then support those that do. Money is power and if your supply is limited then make every euro count. Spend your money on an electric bike instead of petrol for the car; buy locally grown food; reject over-packaged, over-transported greenhouse grown vegetables, shop in independent local shops rather than adding to the profits of the multinational superstores. Change your electricity supplier to one that trades in renewables. If Greta is right, we have no time to waste. We need to grow our own world, each and every one of us, starting today. Children are the future and we must teach them the skills they will need not only to survive climate change but to thrive their way through it. This is too big to leave solely to the politicians.

December in the garden

Deepest winter … but here in Southern Spain we are lucky to have perfect gardening weather on most days through our coldest months. Although the garden has slowed down, salads and Asian greens are plentiful and you should have daily harvests. Kale should also be ready to harvest. Just keeping plucking off individual leaves which will encourage the plants to sprout more and ensure a harvest over many months. Any aubergine, pepper and chilli plants that are still going can be pruned back by about a third and mulched. They may survive the winter as they are perennials in their native climates and if they do, they will give an early harvest next year.

Continue to sow radish, spinach and salad leaves. It's last chance for garlic, habas and peas. Beetroot, carrots, turnips, leeks and potatoes can be sown now too.

We're getting a welcome break from the vigorous summer grasses so there is an opportunity to dig out those invasive roots while cleaning up the beds where summer veg has finished. Try not to add the tuberous grass roots to your compost. Chuck them out onto a river bed somewhere or burn them. They will never be fully eradicated from the garden but they can be minimised.

The end of the year is a good time to plan for the coming new year. A great aid to garden planning is a moon calendar. Although it sounds cosmic, gardening with the moon is an ancient and well founded practise. At it's simplest, it means being aware of the moon's cycle. The gravitational pull that affects the ocean tides also affects the moisture content in the soil and the sap in plants.

Simply put, plant things that go down; roots, such as carrots, on a waning moon and things that go up; leafy things and plants like beans, on a waxing moon. A bio dynamic moon gardening calendar is a complex guide to all tasks in the garden. Based on the interactions of the sun, planets and stars as well as the moon, it will tell you the best days to work on all aspects of the garden including compost, pest control, tree pruning and seed saving and will also tell you days that it is not recommended to work in the garden at all. Rudolf Steiner is well known for his work on developing these ideas in the 1920s and Maria Thun started her extensive research in the 1950s. The beauty of these calendars is that you don't have to work it all out for yourself, or even fully understand it. It is all laid out for you. Most of them have beautifully illustrated charts and tables and are very easy to follow. It's all your garden planning done for you built on ancient knowledge and modern scientific research. They make an inspiring Christmas gift.

TIP: Sprinkle wood ash around brassicas to deter pests

Reader's question: I planted some bergamot seeds expecting to grow a leaf I could use in home made Earl Grey tea. The plant however has leaves that smell more like oregano, nothing like the delicate Earl Grey flavour. I'm confused. Can you give me an explanation?
You have seeds for Monarda fistulosa or bee balm, a wild flower of the mint family also known, confusingly, as bergamot. The bergamot you seek, the one used in Earl Grey tea, is Citrus bergamia, bergamot orange, which is a fragrant citrus fruit the size of an orange although shaped like a pear. The small tree is thought to be a hybrid of a lemon and a bitter orange. It is grown commercially in the south of Italy and in Southern France. I don't know of any in our area but if there is one I would love to hear about it.

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