My farm is only 7 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, which climatically frees us from the extremes of temperatures that can exist inland, and gives us lovely sea breezes every afternoon. But for the land, the sea has left some unwelcome traces. At several times in the past, what is now my farm was seabed. Before the containing wall was built to stop corroding of the 6 metre high bank on the west boundary of the farm, one could see two distinct deposits of sea shells. These were separated by layers of alluvial silt.
So the soil is a heavy fine clay that becomes easily compacted and has areas with a high concentration of salt.
The salt is more of a problem than the clay. With the addition of lots of organic matter and some serious deep digging, the clay soil can be improved. There is always a problem with drainage and you learn fast not to try to do any work at all after a good amount of rain. I have been so stuck in the wet soil that it took two male friends and a rope to pull me out!
With a good amount of the irrigation water used here coming out of deep wells, this water generally contains some salt, add that to soil with salt residues and it limits the plants that you can cultivate. The technical experts in this area can tell at a glance the concentration of salt in the land by the wild plants that grow on it. When we bought the farm, our first plan was to plant vines and make wine, and with that in mind we built a beautiful wine cellar, but on analysing the soil and finding the levels of salts too high for vines we realised that this was a dream that would not become reality.
For growing vegetables one can pamper some small areas of the land, but for a big crop you have to go with what the land can support. Citrus will tolerate a small amount of salt in the land and the irrigation water, and olives will tolerate a slightly higher concentration. So we decided that for our main crop we would go with citrus, but as the farm is not so big at 7,000 square metres decided to plant limes which are not traditionally grown here. The price that small farmers in this region get for lemons and oranges is very low, so limes are a more profitable option.
Today though, I want to talk about the pampering that you need to do to successfully grow organic vegetables in this harsh soil and climate.
The first, second and third things that you need to do are dig, dig and dig. Then you add lots of well rotted manure, ash from any bonfires and well rotted compost, and then you dig some more. Investing in a small rotavator helps hugely with the digging.
Before planting any vegetables the land has to be shaped into furrows with a v at the top along which will run the irrigation pipe. As I said in Spring Planting Part 1 – Water, everything in the garden here has to be irrigated. There are several reasons that the vegetables have to be grown in furrows apart from not wasting the irrigation water and they are all to do with the combination of soil and weather that we have.
When we do get rain here, it often is a heavy deluge rather than light gentle rain. When this deluge beats down on the heavy clay soil it compacts it and sits on top of the soil, waterlogging it. Then, generally warm weather follows which quickly bakes the clay surface of the soil into a hard crust. If you had your plants in flat land, the soil would see-saw between being waterlogged which would rot the roots of the plant, to being dry and constricting on the roots. All plants need oxygen to be available to their roots, but if the soil is compacted and with a hard crust this denies the plant its oxygen.
So by putting your plants at the top of a furrow you are lifting them out of waterlogged ground and stopping the soil contracting around the roots of them. Also what rain there is collects in the valleys between the furrows and does not get dried by the sun as quickly as it would on flat land so continues to irrigate the plants for longer.
What makes it worth while to overcome the difficulties of the soil here, is the ability to grow vegetables all the year round. Although I have titled this spring planting, in reality I am sowing, planting and harvesting throughout the year. I grow different crops in each season.
In January and late August, potatoes go in, to be cropped in May and December respectively. March is the planting time for courgettes and summer tomatoes which have been started off in small pots in the greenhouse in February. Spring onions and beetroot are sown, and its the harvesting time for asparagus. In May the summer croppers go in. Peppers and chillis, all the squash family, aubergines, okra, purslane, lettuce leaved basil and edible loofahs. Almost all of these have been sown as seedlings in the greenhouse. The conditions here are so tough and the air so dry that seedlings have a very difficult time getting established, not to mention the number of super bugs that proliferate in a warm climate and are constantly looking for a tasty snack, so to give the vegetables the best chance of survival nearly all are started off in a protected environment. I mostly grow my own seedlings but there are lots of small enterprises here that deal in seedlings for the small grower, and the seedlings not at all expensive to buy. These are very useful when either you have had a failure with your own seedlings, usually through rot or greedy bugs eating them, or you have simply forgotten to sow the right thing at the right time.
In august for autumn planting the seedlings are started off in a cool well shaded greenhouse away from the parching summer sun. These are all the plants that are associated with summer sowing in the north of europe. Purple sprouting broccoli – which will sprout the following march, all of the endive family, carrots, peas, beans, cabbages, florence fennel etc.
In november the onion family go in, the leeks and onions having been started in the greenhouse about six weeks previously. And then the year will start again…….