Thursday, 15 December 2011

Winter garden and winter workshop

Most of the over-wintering crops are already sown and growing well in the garden – peas, spring cabbage, onions, garlic, shallots and parsley. We grow perennial herbs such as rosemary, oregano and chives too, as well as asparagus. I will be sowing a few leek seeds later this month, and some exhibition type onions. Not that I show, I just enjoy growing some “special” leeks and onions. These will be sown in modules and started off indoors overnight and outside during the day if the weather is suitable. I aim to produce as much food as reasonably possible, both for us and the goats, and winter growing crops are better than summer ones due to almost total lack of rainfall in the summer, which means irrigation is needed for crops that are spring sown.

In the last week I have harvested 28 loofahs (some places spell the word differently) that I considered appeared mature with others that have been left just to see what happens to them. I only had five plants. Average length is about 40cms although I have a couple of short ones, and two at 55cms. I also tried one peanut plant and there are pods well formed, but most are immature. They were very late sown, being a few seeds in a small packet of nuts and raisins that my mother in law had with her when she visited in May and 12 germinated. We cannot buy raw peanuts in this part of Portugal. I do not know why. The immature ones look like baby potatoes, whilst the mature ones are dimpled, looking just the same as you would see them in the shops. I know this will be old hat to some people, but not to others. I will leave the rest as long as possible but the lower temperatures (4 nights below 2ÂșC and exactly zero a week ago) means that the plants are dying and unlikely to be able to put much more into the filling of the pods. Nevertheless I will wait. At least I will be able to sample home grown peanuts, and if I have enough to sow for next year I will be happy.

Both loofahs and peanuts are new crops to me. I cleared the tomatoes a few days ago and have sown more peas and a few broad beans in the two narrow beds, although the bulk of the broad bean crop is grown elsewhere on the quinta. The two beds had already grown early potatoes this year, so have had two crops through them and a third almost ready to sow. I have 21 of these beds in the kitchen garden area, which is close to the house. They are slightly variable in length but average about 10 metres. Of course I make use of the irrigated olive groves for our own food crops too, and we have a variety of fruit and nut trees in other areas so I do not need a bigger garden.

The used farm equipment market in this part of the world is almost non-existent and importing from other countries is an extreme hassle as well as prohibitively expensive. The price of new equipment is also such that it cannot usually be justified on a small property, although I did buy a new tractor (and haymaking equipment in shares with Patrick). As a consequence I have made several pieces of equipment myself since moving here. I am currently making something based on the principles of a corn sheller. Corn shellers will be well known to readers in USA, but for others who are not familiar with the gadget, it is simply a piece of equipment that removes the kernels from corn cobs, corn to the north American people being called maize in most of the rest of the English speaking world.

I spend only a little time on most (but not all) days on this type of project if I have one active, and so it can take a while to make something that is slightly complicated. I have reached the trial stage (a few clamps or temporary nuts and bolts still attached whilst I do some test runs) and it is working satisfactorily – some shielding needed to stop stray kernels flying about but the actual kernel removal is working. I do not work from plans but have a rough idea of what I want to achieve before I start and always need to modify something as I progress. So far as possible I use scrap materials. This is in keeping with my philosophy of being able to enjoy life without spending money if it can be avoided. The sheller is no exception. I had a plywood and angle iron box that was originally intended as a seed box for a seed drill (itself made up from scrap pieces) and I used this to support the sheller plates – one static, one moving (two old discs from a car’s brakes) and covered the gap between them with parts of a hoop from an old wine barrel. The drive shaft (an old water pipe) fits through the discs and is turned by means of a handle devised from some scrap bar, a piece of irrigation tubing and a broken tap fitting. I had to use some new angle iron and nuts and bolts, but all in all, it cost me very little.

I need a sheller because whilst a small number of ears are easily shelled by hand, I want to feed several kilos a day leading up to the goats kidding from early February onwards, so hand shelling is not really an option. I have been using a grape crusher for shelling, but it was never going to be the answer because it is very slow, needing to be constantly turned (manually) in reverse to loosen some kernels and then forward to pull the kernels and smaller cobs, or pieces of cob through and into a container. I pull out some of the shelled cobs during the process and then winnow the shelled kernels to remove the pieces of cob, although the goats will consume some, so perfect winnowing is not necessary. I think the cobs may not be too palatable because the goats sometimes leave a few in their feed troughs. The grape crusher is not satisfactory for shelling pulses either, because it breaks a proportion of the seeds - the quantity depending on seed size.

This is acceptable for some stock, but the goats prefer whole seeds rather than kibbled seeds mixed with coarse meal, which is the effect of the crusher on larger pulses. Cattle would consume this mixture better, and whole ears of maize can be hammermilled to avoid the need to shell the grain from the cob. The overall energy level is slightly reduced when this is done, but the amount of fibre is increased compared with straight grain.

I am making the sheller as dual purpose so that I can shell seed stocks for the next crop of pulses. In other words a small scale thresher, but limited to certain crops and not suitable for small grains such as wheat or barley. I can readily feed pulses in the shell apart from White Lupins, another new crop for me in 2011. Lupins come in many different varieties, and the white seeded white flowered lupins I used are about the size of a small broad bean, and eaten as a snack in Portugal after being boiled and sometimes pickled. I grew them as a livestock protein source.  It was a most successful crop, up to 300 seeds per plant with sowing both in the autumn of 2010 and late winter of 2010/11, but the mature pods have a very sharp spike on the flower end – the part you can take in your fingers on many peas and beans and pull to open up the pod for shelling. This point penetrates flesh very easily and makes hand shelling both difficult and dangerous. It also means I am not prepared to feed the pods whole as I can the other pulses. 

Shellers as made commercially in USA are designed to leave the cob intact and this is usually ejected separately to the kernels. I will not have this refinement because I need the sheller to be capable of breaking open the pods of the pulses, so it will also break the maize cobs into pieces. This is no great hardship for me and I have various ideas for dealing with the produce of the sheller, one of which is to extend the usually short seasonal use of my olive-grading table by adapting it to winnow the maize and pulses after shelling. The cobs have three uses. Goat feed in limited amounts, added to the goats’ bedding, or burned on the household stove. Through the goats or under their feet are probably the best uses for me. I have enough grubbed out olive stumps to last me a few years in firewood.

Yellow lupin varieties have a much softer pod and they are suitable as a hay crop as well as turning in as green manure. I am not growing any yellow ones this year, but I gave Patrick a hand with preparing ground for some that he has sown in the last week. I want to grow white ones again for stockfeed. The seed of the yellow ones is too small to consider hand harvesting, especially since the white ones can be grown at the same time and on similar ground. In places with harsh winters they can both be grown as spring sown.

Lupins are a very high protein crop, with high quality dietary fibre and some oil, but not enough that it needs to be removed, so lupins are more akin to a low oil soy in composition than they are to beans and peas, and that is important. They could be used instead of soy in those places where soy cannot be grown and do not need any processing as soy does. Along with maize, lupins make a good base for concentrate feed for all livestock, although they are low in methionine, an amino acid that can be a limiting factor in milk production of lactating animals. Lupins are a safer crop than cereal grains in relation to the risks of acidosis, also known as grain poisoning.

I grow the maize between the rows of olive trees, and it is sown with a tractor mounted seed drill I made last winter. Several parts of this drill were removed from a previous drill I had also made from scrap – photo in the book for those of you who have it. The new improved “Mark 2” (see endnote) is a twin double row seeder, i.e. twin rows 10cms apart and a 50cms gap between each pair of twins. I fit 8 rows of maize in between each row of olives whilst the trees are small, and expect to reduce this to six as the trees grow. The spacing is such that with some re-arrangement of the tines (a few minutes work) I can run my scarifier through as a post-emergence weeder. Hand harvesting is not difficult, and I only grew a bit more than an acre this year in one grove so it was not a big job. I had Black Eyed Peas, sown with the same drill, on about a hectare in another grove and harvesting these was a much bigger job. Probably too much in fact as I was desperately short of time in the late summer, and I will cut back next year if I can harvest a reasonable crop of broad beans and lupins. The main advantage of the Black Eyes is that they require a lot less irrigation than other summer legume crops.

It is essential that the place maize is grown is entirely pig proof otherwise the wild population just moves in and destroys the crop as it forms the ears. They do not bother other crops very much. It seems they do not care for pumpkins and squashes, and they ignore the pulses too. I do not know why, because I should have thought all of them were equally good feeding, and just as easy for the pigs to “harvest” as the immature maize cobs.

I am also part way through construction of a four row broad bean drill that would double for white lupins (although I am also considering an exchangeable lupin seed metering tube for the maize drill) but temporarily shelved this as I decided to sow the 2 hectares destined for early sown beans to a fescue/white clover ley, using Segria a Spanish fescue and Haifa white clover. The organic matter content of this piece of land is not increasing as well as I would like, still only 2.7% on analysis although an improvement on the 1.8% in 2004. Four years in grass will make a big difference. The beans will now go into the olive groves, and I am restricted in being able to work this land due to the usual heavy autumn rains, so decided the sheller had priority. I take our household requirements from the field sown crops, but the garden bed I sowed will be ready earlier than the field sown ones.

I will move back to the bean drill when the sheller is finished and delay sowing probably until February depending upon weather conditions. I will be able to pick fresh beans for ourselves in May and they will be dry enough for long term storage by early June. They will be followed by maize. Patrick is assisting me with the design of the sowing tines (CAD or Computer Aided Design no-less) complete with fixed seed delivery tubes for the bean drill. We had intended to use the rear tines from a scarifier, but may have purpose made tines manufactured for us. This will considerably increase the cost of the drill, but could be worthwhile in the long run since the drill is likely to have a great deal of use in season, and it is probable that at times Patrick and I will have a narrow sowing window of opportunity so will work as a team, one getting the land ready and the other sowing immediately behind.

Endnote.   I have a lot of what might normally be considered useless information floating around in my head, and I was reminded when typing Mark 2, that it is the name that was used by the author Mark Twain. His real name was not Mark Twain, but Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He qualified as a Mississippi river boat pilot and it is said took his pen-name from the call of the person taking a depth measurement of the river on the boats, which, when it was two fathoms deep was “Mark twain”.