Columns from the Sentinella magazine


January in the Garden

Another year over and we´re back to the beginning again... January. In the garden the cycle is never complete, it carries on, season after season, year after year. There is no beginning and there is no end. Winter follows autumn, spring follows winter. The garlic grows through the winter and we harvest it in spring. We´re accustomed to the repetition, the rhythm. January is a quiet month. It gives us time to rest and to plan and prepare for spring when we know there will be lots to do.

It´s the best month to cut caña or bamboo canes to use as supports for summer tomato and bean crops as the sap is low and the cut canes will be strong. Add compost or manure to any free beds to get them ready for spring planting. Clean out water channels and acequias. Prepare holes to plant new fruit trees next month. Organise your seeds to get ready for planting summer crops at the end of this month. Tidy up your greenhouse or cold frame.

This year the natural cycles will remain the same but socially, we have many changes on the way.

The media would lead us to believe we are all doomed to be slain by the latest variant of the mutating corona virus. At the same time prices of fuel and food are going up, small businesses are struggling to survive and there are disruptions in the food production and transportation chain. For those that choose not to accept an experimental vaccine, their access to restaurants and cafes is being restricted with the introduction of vaccine passports as we stumble towards some kind of medical apartheid.

We are being thrown into times of uncertainty and confusion. We are being coerced into voluntarily accepting experimental vaccines and encouraged to discriminate against those that don´t. We´re being divided in families, friendship groups and neighbourhoods. It has now become socially acceptable to ask people to disclose their personal medical history to gain entry to establishments that serve food. Why has all the talk about data protection suddenly gone quiet? On whose authority do shop assistants, security guards, airline personnel and waiters and waitresses have the right to ask us to disclose our personal information? We are heading into dangerous territory. Those that choose to take responsibility for their own health and decline to take a voluntary, experimental vaccine which, in the words of the companies that manufacture it, neither prevents the spread of a virus nor offers protection against catching it, are facing discrimination and may find it difficult to travel, socialise and even buy food. As the world shrinks because of covid restrictions, we need our gardens now more than ever.

I for one will continue to maintain my right to keep the details of my medical history private and I will continue to take responsibility for my own health by eating a varied diet including as much home grown organic vegetables as I can and by spending time outdoors in the fresh air (gardening), taking regular exercise (gardening), having an active social life (gardening with others) I will continue to participate in the local economy by selling my produce and I will continue to save seeds for future gardens.

I really hope it will be a happy new year. I hope that corona virus will find its equilibrium and we will learn to live with it rather than being overwhelmed by it, just as any pest has its place in the garden. Don´t be scared, be prepared. Grow your own world.

February in the Garden

February is a joyful month, watching the blossoms come out on the almond trees and listening to the birds singing their spring chorus. This year winter is either very late or not coming at all. We will have wait and pray for some decent rain. Rain or no rain, we gardeners are about to get very busy.

This month we can direct sow parsnips, carrots, beetroots, fennel, turnip, radish and potatoes. Salads can be direct sown too; rocket, mustards, Asian greens, cut and come again lettuces and coriander. There's still time to sow peas and get another harvest before the plants admit defeat to the summer heat.

Seeds for companion plants such as calendula, poppies and nasturtiums can be scattered. Comfrey roots can be dug up and divided to make new plants. Its the last chance to prune fruit trees and also to plant new ones.

If you are growing your summer veg from seed then start now. Its always a good idea to stagger your plantings so that you don't become overwhelmed by trying to pot everything on at once. The 8th of February is the best day in this year's biodynamic calendar to sow seeds for fruit crops. Fill small pots or seed trays with potting compost and water gently. Scatter your tomato, aubergine, chilli and pepper seeds on the surface and cover with a thin layer of potting compost about twice the height of the seeds. Water again, gently and place them in a sheltered position, protected from frost. A greenhouse is ideal but a cold frame or windowsill is also fine. Do not allow the compost to dry out – keep it moist but not soaking. Overwatering can be as harmful as under watering.

In around a week the seed leaves will start to emerge through the compost. This is a critical time, so don't allow the tender seedlings to dry out or to be exposed to cold winds. Sometimes it takes longer than a week for seeds to germinate; if nothing has happened within a month, start again with new seeds.

When the seedlings have their first set of true leaves, separate them and pot on into little pots or individual modules in seed trays. Always handle tender young seedlings by the leaves, never the stem. The tiny plants are much more robust than they look but once the stem has snapped, the plant is lost. Keep seedlings moist and they will continue to grow. If their growth slows down or stops, it's because all the nutrition in the potting medium is used up. Then you can pot them on again into a bigger pot with fresh potting compost.

The next fruit day on the biodynamic calendar is 16th of February. Then you can sow summer crops like cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and courgettes. If we don't get a winter then you'll be off to an early start and an early harvest. But these fruits are not frost hardy, so if we do get a late winter and can't protect then from the cold, we may have to sow again later. If you save your own seeds, you should have enough for a second or third attempt. There is nothing worse than not having enough seeds!

If you haven't already, then please start saving your seeds. The world is changing. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding our freedom of movement, the future of our jobs, the state of the financial system, our access to services if we chose not to comply with certain medical interventions. Seeds give us security. They give us autonomy. We can feed ourselves when we have our own seeds. Mother nature is incredibly generous. With just a little extra effort, we can be the holders of enough seeds to feed our community now and in the generations to come.

March in the garden

Here we go again. Time to get ready for another summer season. With the little rain we have had so far this year, it would be intelligent to plan for drought. This means thinking about designing your summer garden so that if you have to abandon part of it due to lack of water, you would be left with enough beds to be useful and include a range of crops. For example, you could grow a bed of mixed vegetables that you can water with your dishwater, or even consider redirecting your washing machine waste-water or your bath water and use it to water your food garden.

You can also build up your soil to make it more moisture retentive – add organic matter; compost or manure and mulch, which ever you prefer. You can also condense your garden with stacked plantings to make better use of your space. Melons, cucumber and pumpkins can be grown vertically up trees, fences or other supports to make most use of your space. Storing water is also useful but if we are in for a prolonged period of drought, we are limited by the capacity of our tanks or albercas. If you have a swimming pool, consider sacrificing that luxury to become water-holding capacity for the garden. Drip feed systems use limited supplies of water exactly where you need them, on your fruit trees for example, so it may be worth considering investing in one.

Tasks to do now; continue potting on your seedlings and sow cucumber, melon, courgette, pumpkin and watermelon seeds. Keep them protected from frost for a while yet. We may still get a cold spell. Peas, beans, carrots, radishes, spinach and beetroots can all be direct sown. Sow lettuces and companion flowers such as calendula, nigellas and poppies to attract pollinators and predators. Start some sweet potato slips by suspending a sweet potato in a glass of water, as you would an avocado stone. Source bean poles and consider planting a “three sisters” garden. Plant the sweetcorn first. When that is a few inches high, plant a couple of bean seeds at the base of each sweetcorn plant so that the beans can climb up the stalks. When the beans have started their journey upwards, plant some pumpkin seeds in between so the large sprawling plants can give some ground cover and help retain moisture.

Preparedness means different things to different people. Some prepare for the end of the world and build bunkers in which to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war or zombie apocalypse. Some others will store firearms, ammunition and dehydrated ready meals. But it doesn't need to be that extreme. Our gardens can provide many things for us – our food, seeds to grow more food in the future, medicinal plants, they can provide fertility in the form of green manures, compost or animal manure; and give us milk and other proteins in the form of eggs or meat, should we choose to raise animals. Gardens can provide us with firewood to heat our homes, our water and to cook with. We can also invest in a solar electricity system to provide our energy needs. As the price of gas and petrol continues to rise significantly, it makes sense to consider converting petrol farm tools to battery operated equipment. The initial investment is quite high, but by using solar power to recharge the batteries, its free power for chainsaws and strimmers into the future.

With the growing crisis about the lack and costs of fertilisers available to farmers around the world, maybe its time to consider where the fertility for your garden comes from. How can we produce our own? If we can no longer afford or source gas bottles can we use firewood or the sun to heat our water? Is it time to invest in a solar cooker or a wood fired water heater? It makes sense to source equipment now while the supply chain is still relatively intact. As Jack Spirko says in the intro to his Survival Podcast, its all about learning to live that better life if times get tough or even if they don´t. Being ready for hard times that don’t come, is better than not being ready for hard times that do.

April in the Garden

Finally, after heading towards drought for many months, March brought some decent rain, even if it was filled with red mud. The calima or sirocco usually happens in summer and this latest one was the muddiest for many years. The minerals in the soil that is carried on the wind from the sahara are great for the garden so a double bonus for us gardeners. Not such a joy for the people of the pueblos who could be seen jet washing, scrubbing and hosing for days afterwards in attempt to change the now terracotta coloured villages back to pristine white. I don’t fancy the chances of the human race to survive a real crisis when the priority use for the long awaited water is cleaning. So much cleaning in my pueblo that the municipal deposito was emptied and the town supply went off the day after the rain.

The plants however loved the muddy rain and are all thriving. April is a busy month in the green house. Lots of tiny seedlings to pot on and more seeds to sow. Keep on with cucumber, pumpkin, courgette, melon, watermelon and luffa seeds. Basil can be sown now and more tomatoes, chillies, peppers and aubergines if you need them. Okra can be direct sown as well as sweetcorn and peanuts and the first plantings of French, soya and Asian beans. Parsnips, carrots, beetroot, turnips and radishes and spinach can be sown too.

Start thinking about planting tomatoes and other tender summer veg out into the garden beds towards the end of the month. Keep an eye on the weather. Depending on where you are located, it can still get cold and we did experience a killer frost on May 1st in the higher Alpujarra a few years ago. Don´t rush it. The tomatoes and co will be happy in the greenhouse or otherwise protected from the cold for a few more weeks yet. Get your tomato poles ready as well as supports for beans and cucumbers.

Between the rain, the mud and the rising temperatures, perfect conditions have been created for weeds. I’ve said this many times before – keep ahead of them. Your hoe is your best friend now. A quick run up the rows before the weeds have started taking hold will save so much time and heartache later. The best time to weed really is when you haven´t get any weeds (yet). If you mulch, now is a good time to do that to keep all that moisture in the soil.

The habas should be ready to harvest by now as well as potatoes and salads. The peas will be near the end of their harvest so make sure you select some of your best plants to go to seed and save those for next year. Leave the pods on the plants until they are dry and papery. When the peas inside are completely dry, put them in the freezer for five days to kill the weevils. The weevils lay their eggs in the pea flower so the peas develop around the egg. Although your pea seeds look fine when you harvest them, the developing larva is working away inside and the mature weevil will eat its way out in spring,

If you would like to learn more about saving your own seeds, come along to one of the seed saving workshops hosted by SEEeD, our local seed bank. Workshops are held on the last Saturday of every month on a finca somewhere. The workshop can even be brought to your finca. Get in touch here for more details.

May in the Garden

We can be pretty confident now that it will be sunny and hot all the way to September and maybe beyond. It's time to get all the summer veg in the ground. The habas and peas will be coming out freeing up some valuable space in the beds. Garlic will be harvested this month too. All the plants you have grown from seed in your greenhouse can now go out into the garden; tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers, melons, watermelons and pumpkins. Chillies, peppers and aubergines may need a little more time to get big enough to go out. Basil should be nearly there and corn, okra, peanuts and beans can be direct sown. You can also do a second round of pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers and melons, sowing seeds directly into the beds.

It's really worth taking the time to build some robust structures for your climbing beans and tomato crop. Bamboo poles are much stronger than caña and can be used several years running if they have been stored well, out of the sun and rain. Don't be tempted to reuse caña poles if they look at all fragile. Those tomato plants look small and delicate now but once they are laden with juicy big tomatoes the weight can snap your sub-standard poles and leave you with a chaotic jumble to try and manage. When you are putting the poles in the ground, use a hammer and a length of rebar or metal to make a deep hole. Cut the end of your bamboo or caña pole at an angle and push the pointed end as deep as you can into the soil. Even if you only get every second or third pole nice and deep it will give your whole structure much more stability. If you are growing a lot of tomatoes, rather than have an individual pole for each plant, you can take a tip from the commercial growers and create a top bar between pairs of poles at intervals. Tie the end of a piece of string around the tomato root ball and bury it as you plant the tomato plant. Throw the string up over the crossbar and tie it off. As the tomato plant grows, you can now twist it around the string. This method is great because not only does it save a lot of poles, it saves a lot of fiddly tying up of the plants as they grow.

Sometimes it's hard to remember the best time to sow seeds for some of our favourite plants. Leaving some in the ground to complete their cycle and go to seed means that they will sow themselves the next year and then we don't have to think about it. This works really well for rocket, kale, celery, fennel, cape gooseberries and many flowers – cosmos, nasturtium, poppies, nigella, calendula, sunflowers. They may not come up where we want them, but they can be dug up and moved, as long as we recognise them in their seedling stage and don't pull them out with the weeds. Study your plants and learn to recognise them. Pumpkins, tomatoes and melons will often self seed from the compost heap and can be dug up and moved to your chosen bed. If you have grown different varieties you will have little control over which ones self seed and you will not know which tomatoes you have until they set fruit. You also won't know if different varieties of pumpkins have cross-pollinated but you will know that you have the strongest survivors that self selected to grow in your conditions. You may even end up creating some of your own varieties.

June in the Garden

If you have managed to stay on schedule, your summer garden will be planted up and looking nice and neat. If you are a bit behind, don’t worry. Melons, watermelons, pumpkins, courgettes, cucumbers, okra and corn can still be direct sown. There is enough time for them to grow to harvest. Any tomato, chilli, pepper or aubergine plants still lurking around can go in the ground now too. It's still time to plant sweet potato slips and basil, and of course, beans. Direct sow all kinds of beans at monthly intervals; french beans, soya, yard long and lab lab can ensure a continuous harvest.

On the downside, it's the time of year that perennial grasses really start to take hold. It pays to weed them out by the roots. Don't just hoe or pull the tops off. Use a tool to get down deep and dig out the roots. A small hand fork works well and for really deep-rooted weeds, like dock, mallow and cañota, try an asparagus knife. The long forked tongue-like blade can be slipped down deep to get to the bottom of the root and lever it out. The more time you spend now eradicating these monsters while they are small, the less pain you will feel later. Meanwhile, continue to tie up the tomatoes and pinch out the side shoots regularly. Give the peppers and aubergines some support poles if they need them.

It's important to get into the habit of harvesting your crops regularly. Pick those courgettes as soon as they are big enough to eat. Don't let one get so big that the plant thinks its done its job and put all its energy into setting seeds in that one big fruit, because it won't put out any more flowers. The more you harvest, the more fruit the plant produces. The same goes for beans, aubergines, peppers and okra.

Plan now for a bumper harvest. How are you going to process and store your gluts? Are you going to sun dry tomatoes? Make lots of tomato sauce and chutney? Are you prepared? Do you have a solar dryer and plenty of empty jam jars? And enough time to make the most of your produce, and not let it go to waste on the ground?

Whether you consume main stream media, alternative media or wear a tin foil hat, the same message is coming over pretty loud and clear at the moment. Pick a rabbit hole and go down it; the war in Ukraine, climate change, inflation, post-capitalism, fertiliser shortages, disruption in the shipping system, rising fuel prices, the lockdowns in Shanghai and Beijing, they all lead to the same conclusion. Food shortages. Ask yourself this question. If you go shopping and can't find the food you want, either because there isn't any or because you can't afford to pay the ever-rising prices, what will you do? Will you start a food riot and smash up the shop? Go and steal some food or money from your neighbour? Eat your pets? Ask the government to feed you? (Before you try this one, I suggest you watch the 1973 classic Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston).

Or will you go home and eat some lovely fresh organic vegetables from your garden and maybe a couple of boiled eggs, if you have chickens? Plant as much food as you can in your garden. We don't know what is coming. The more food we have to feed ourselves and our families and neighbours, the better. Even if, after all the propaganda and scare stories from the media, things do miraculously go back to “normal”, we will still have an abundance of lovely natural food to eat. Don’t forget, it takes three months minimum to get a harvest from planting, so if you haven't already, start now.

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