Friday, 21 December 2012

When the lights go out..............

As I post the 21st December 2012 is about half over in Mexico where the Mayans lived, and I am confident that the world will not end today as predicted by some, but have you ever wondered what would happen to you, your family and friends if there were none of today’s electronic forms of communication, no transport due to lack of fuel, and no imports of food because of there being no transport? I have been doing a fair bit of tractor work recently, as well as many hours shelling maize and busting up olive stumps with a big hammer and steel wedges to reduce them to firewood. None of these jobs are particularly mind taxing, so thoughts just drift from one thing to another. Then I began thinking what I could do – with some help, so my mind wandered along several tracks before coming up with a few ideas of what I would like to do if that happened. Whilst it is only imaginative, I feel it is something worthy of consideration because it automatically led to thinking about what I currently produce myself, and what I currently buy, then led to considering what more I could produce so that I spend less. You can do the same.

I have not considered a sudden worldwide catastrophe where almost everyone is killed and infrastructures destroyed. There is no knowing what might or might not be available in that situation. Instead, I decided to form an outline of a possible plan for if and when the power goes off, there is no fossil fuel, and food is DIY. It is just a hypothetical situation that I hope never happens, but having an idea of what you might do cannot do any harm. To develop your own ideas on similar lines you would need to be living in a rural area, which I expect most readers of this will be, and, of course I am already part way there because of my lifestyle over many years being based on living on low income, and this would really be an enforced move further towards self-sufficiency.

The scenario includes a reasonably slow move towards the position. I was not prompted to think about it by the end of the world today predictions, but by reading an article about a TV show where people are asked to give details of their preparedness for an unforeseen event, and an internet forum thread along the same lines – both referring to the USA. It seems most people would stockpile and in fact some already have bunkers and fall-out shelters fully equipped with living accommodation, and food and water for several years. The supplies will run out at some time, even if the people survive to use them all and then they have to rely on another source of food – or die of starvation. Others are stockpiling food in a remote location, and, very frequently, excessive quantities of guns and ammunition with the attitude that they will shoot anybody who attacks them. Obviously they are expecting to be attacked – and why not? If so many people are relying on guns then they will be used. The trouble with that is that John Wayne and a couple of friends seeing off a large band of gunslingers in a film is a lot different to what would happen in real life. The enemy just needs enough firepower that can be used at a distance, especially against those (and there are many) who think they will survive best on their own. Everybody needs to sleep and a group can easily deprive an individual of sleep.

So, I decided that the US is not for me. Gun ownership in Portugal is fairly common, but not universal, and restricted in numbers and type of weapon - a shotgun and a rifle probably being the maximum owned by anybody who hunts (some will have more) but gangs of heavily armed raiders are unlikely, and in fact I would expect many family groups around about carrying on as their grandparents did. Such family groups have always been able to survive, so why not in the future? Indeed it is extremely common for the sons and daughters originally from the villages but who now live in the towns to return “home” at the weekend and help out on the property. For those not familiar with Portugal, almost all rural people live in a village that is surrounded by individually owned blocks of land known as a quinta. There is not often a house on quintas, but there is very frequently a building of some description.

The envisaged scenario would mean only a step-back in time, but with modern knowledge; and there are millions of people in the world currently living with less than I would anticipate us having. Portugal is a poor country, but relatively modernised, and many more countries are much more badly off. Indeed there are many people in other countries that would not notice any difference. Even here there are a very large number of houses without water and electricity connected so their inhabitants would not miss the power going off.

I decided I would prefer to stay where I am and bring into a group some others, including Patrick and his wife who are only five miles away and living on a similar property to us. They would continue to live there. We already share farming equipment and work together on building some items we need and cannot buy at an economic cost. Our house is an enormous 3-storey stone and concrete building that was formerly an olive mill and with several separate entrance doors into various parts of the building. It would easily split into several apartments. All doors are steel and the windows have vertical steel bars so the building is relatively secure. It is wired and plumbed throughout. Several other buildings totalling a few hundred square metres are also wired and plumbed and with lockable steel doors, therefore also reasonably secure. Some are set up for various livestock and others general storage. Included in the ex-olive mill building are a bakehouse with domed oven, a meat house, dairy and cheese store, olive storage bins, and a large wine making room and cellar.

The land totals about 16 acres, all ploughable, and has almost 500 olive trees, plus various fruit and nut trees and a productive garden area next to the house. Patrick’s property has less olive trees and not as many buildings but otherwise more or less the same. We currently have adequate machinery and the ability to repair or make more equipment.

The group comprises me, Patrick, my son and a friend who was at school with him, plus our wives and whatever children the two younger couples have when and if the worst does occur. We have, I believe, an exceptional range of knowledge and skills amongst us as well as being of above average intelligence if academic qualifications are an indication. This in itself means that the group are able to learn. The “end of the known world” has been discussed on a few occasions in a semi-jocular fashion and the ideas for long-term survival are not mine alone.

At a professional level we have a medical doctor, a veterinarian, two scientists – chemistry and physics, a teacher of cookery and needlework, a computer and electronics whiz with very good mechanics knowledge, and accountancy and administrative qualifications. Now some might question the usefulness of the more academic qualifications, but the knowledge of related science subjects makes the scientists useful in many of the things we would need to tackle, and an ability to crunch numbers or organise work sharing rotas, maintain supply records, crop rotation details etc. are also required. I have the most farming and gardening experience but everybody else is “countrified” with a combined experience in seven countries around the world. Several languages are spoken. Everybody can ride a horse and most have good shooting experience if the need arises, and wild meat is always a useful extra. The four youngsters, not blood related to each other, are keen hill climbers and walkers, capable of carrying a heavy pack for many miles.

Skills wise, we can keep our machinery going so long as we have no major parts to replace. Animal power is within our reach if all tractors fail. Many people around about now use donkeys or mules, and I have seen cows used as draught animals. The olives can supply oil for fuel, plus we have PV, generators, compressors, pumps, and the ability to make methane, ethanol and grape spirit. It is legal in Portugal to distil your own brandy, with stills and other equipment readily available, and absolutely everybody in the country has grapes, so fuel (and drink) should not be a problem. We would have birds and animals for eggs, meat, milk, cheese, butter and clothing if required, with the ability to shear, kill, skin, tan, butcher, design clothes, felt, spin, knit and sew whatever is required. I am sure weaving would not be too big a problem either. We also have experience of making mats for floor coverings. Cork for insulation is a further possibility, although not something you decide to use and then be able to grow your own supplies in a couple of decades. The cork oaks I have planted need about another 30 years to their first harvest.

Cooking and food preservation skills are excellent. The long growing season and reasonable temperatures, rarely above 35ºC and even more rarely below minus 5º, means we can grow most temperate crops, and some short-season sub tropical ones. We already produce a large range, and increasing that production would not be difficult. A river and farm ponds are useful for fish and irrigation, with boreholes for household water, although there are numerous potable springs every few miles along the highways. I need to do more planning of the crops that would be most beneficial to grow if we were totally reliant upon our own production. I have been increasing the amount of home grown stock rations each year, and have begun work on a plan to be self-sufficient in livestock feed because of recent problems of price rises and lack of availability of some products, and I shall extend this plan to cover our own needs too. I am drafting it in a form that can be altered to make it a blog, and it will be the next one after this.

Much of Portugal is still a peasant based economy so there are hundreds of thousands of people with the land, equipment and skills to survive, plus a family to assist in the work. Consequently I do not expect any large scale violence if modern ways cease and I believe the country will simply get on with life as it always has. Like my wife and myself, most of the older people have lived with limited money so they have had to fend for themselves.

Bartering is always a possibility, and although I think most rural people would have the same items, I also expect there would still be some urban life, and their skills could be bartered for some of our fuel, food and drink. There is a lot of vacant land around the country too, huge numbers of unoccupied former small farms complete with a building, olive trees and grape vines, and there is a lot of space for present townspeople to move out and start farming again. All in all, it is probably one of the countries least likely to suffer from a collapse of modern society. How would you cope?

Friday, 23 November 2012


In English, the word comfrey is used as the general name for Symphytum species. The same term has been in use in various languages since at least the 1st Century. Pliny, a Roman, called it conferva. This later became cumfria, then (Old French) confrie, and, with a few alternatives in between, eventually the English spelling of today. Symphytum is derived from Dioscorides, who was contemporary with Pliny, and a Greek physician. His word for comfrey has been variously reported as Syumphuo, Sumphutum, Sumphuton and no doubt other similar words. Symphytum officinale or Common Comfrey (so called because it was the common species in Britain) with white or cream to yellowish flowers also has a red to purple flowered variety S.officinale var. patens. It is totally erroneous to refer to S.officinale as “True” comfrey as some Internet sites do, since about 40 species of Symphytum have been identified. They are native to most of Europe and Western Asia and all are called comfrey in English, the norm being to use a descriptive term or place-name before the word Comfrey, e.g. Prickly Comfrey or Palestine Comfrey. Symphytums cover the range of colours from white through to yellow, and blue through purple to red. The Common Comfrey was introduced to North America at least as early as the 17th Century, Josselyn (1672) calling it comferie. Some of the other comfreys followed at later dates and some have also been taken to other parts of the “New World” and Eastern Asia.

Some current day herbalists believe that S.officinale is the preferred, or even only, species for safe medicinal use, Officinale meaning “of the (herbalist’s) shop”. They may well be correct, but historically more species have been used. S.officinale is uncommon, or absent (and other species are common) in some areas where comfrey has traditionally been used medicinally. With 18 of the species in Turkey alone, it is not surprising that Dioscorides was familiar with, and apparently used, more than one species since presumably nearby countries have at least several of the species found in Turkey. Gerard in his Herball gives an unusual use for the root juice in ale; it is “given to drinke against the paine in the back gotten by wrestling, or overuse of women”. 

Of most interest to those people wishing to use comfrey for plant food and livestock feeding are hybrids, specifically of the species Symphytum x uplandicum, a cross between S.officinale and another Symphytum and now widely known as Russian Comfrey. S. x  uplandicum is a naturally occurring hybrid, the original being found in Uppland, Sweden and not Russia. Later discovered hybrids were from Russia.  These hybrids rarely set seed, but will provide the pollen to cross with S.officinale and give yet another variation. Borage, Borago officinalis can also provide pollen to produce a hybrid. Both Borage and Comfrey are in the family Boraginaceae. When an unsorted mixture of varieties of S. x uplandicum was sent to North America from Britain in the 1950s there was a “Cold War” between the USA and Russia, so it was given the name Quaker Comfrey. Lawrence Hills was instrumental in exporting this mixture and he was the founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association. The HDRA was named in honour of Mr Doubleday, who was a Quaker, and he had probably the first ever Russian hybrids in Britain, sent to him by the Head Gardener at the Palace of St.Petersburg.

The most common cultivar in use amongst gardeners and livestock people is S. x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14’ but some, such as myself, use ‘Bocking 4’. Together with all the other Bocking cultivars, at least 21, these were first identified by Lawrence Hills from amongst a large assortment of collections from various people and places. He called each collection a strain or mixture after the people or places where they originated. He did not breed or “develop” the cultivars as is often reported, they already existed, but nobody before Lawrence Hills had identified them as separate cultivars of the same species. In this context please note that a lot of current Internet sites replicate other sites in their supposed “information”. Lawrence Hills warned against such incorrect repetitiveness long before the Internet was invented.  He made great efforts to identify some of the highest yielders, but time and space prevented him doing long-term trials of every hopeful, so if you have a mixture there could be a world-beater amongst them.

All comfreys only actively grow from spring to autumn in temperate climates, dying down before mid-winter, and timing depending upon how “temperate” the climate is. In tropical climates they will grow year round if there is not a long dry season and in temperate areas with a long dry summer they need irrigation for high production. S.officinale sets seed that germinates very easily. So do some of the other Symphytums. Stick to the Russian hybrids if you want to control the size of your plot. Anyone buying named cuttings of a Russian comfrey hybrid, whether root or crown cuttings, also called crown sets or offsets, should find that all plants are of the same cultivar. That means the flowers will all open with exactly the same colour, and fade to the same colour, although there could be some slight variation during the phase from fully open to faded.  If the flowers are not all the same then you have a mixture, and will need to do your own work on identifying the high yielders, just as Lawrence Hills had to do.

Knowing the wide variations that Lawrence Hills found in his mixtures I collected samples of as many collections as I could find when I farmed in the North of Scotland prior to moving to Portugal, with a view to trying to find something that might outyield the Nos. 4 and 14 I already had, along with some S.officinale. I failed to find one in the collections I acquired. I did not have many years to experiment, up to about 7, but with only around 100 plants it was not difficult to spot low yielders and anything that looked promising. Nothing I had acquired was near the 4s and 14s for yield.

I operated a commercial free range egg enterprise on this farm, using mobile night shelters holding either 80 or 120 hens and the hens had free access to all the comfrey beds. They were not interested in the plants at all. This is not unusual, and if you want to offer comfrey to poultry it is best to cut and wilt it first, possibly even chaffing it. I understand this is particularly important for No.14. Poultry apparently find the higher potassium content of this cultivar distasteful when it is growing or offered freshly cut. On the other hand I have heard of people being able to feed it fresh, so it is worth a try if you want to feed it to poultry. I did not attempt wilting and chaffing because I was not interested in feeding it. I had a specially formulated layers’ ration made up for me and delivered in bulk pelletted form. The hens did pick up various tidbits every day, including some greenstuff, but being on a commercial basis, I had regulations to meet as well as endeavouring to sell particularly high quality eggs, and wanted the hens to concentrate on eating the ration I provided. Too much greenfeed can colour the albumen and give an “off” taste.

I kept meat rabbits until the increasing egg enterprise meant I had to cut back on the workload and the rabbits had almost all taken readily to most comfrey leaves they were offered. Some did not like it fresh, wilted or dry. Those that did saved me the cost of bought in hay.

I brought a couple of crown-sets of No.4 with me to Portugal because, following the advice of Lawrence Hills, this is better suited to livestock and I intended to use it primarily for this purpose, the 14 with its higher potash being preferred for plant food, although both can be used for stock; as well as in compost, as a mulch, liquid fertiliser, dug into the ground or laid in drills underneath potatoes. As it happens my land is naturally high in potash so the lower level in the No.4 is not a problem, and the amount is still substantial in any event. One of the analyses made by the HDRA showed No.4 to have 2.35% Calcium; 1.25% Phosphoric Acid (about 0.9% of the P in the N:P:K figures shown on fertiliser sacks) and 5.04% Potash. An analysis of No.14 on another occasion showed 7.09% Potash and lower Phosphorus, with an analysis of No.15 showing similar results to the No.14. Mineral content of the leaves will alter over the course of a season, and I may have my own samples analysed.

I increased the plants from crown sets but only to about 30 plants. I keep a small goat herd of up to 20 does, and they have never been particularly fond of comfrey, often pulling the leaves out of the feeders to try, and then discarding them. I tried many times each summer with only a few does and kids being interested – until this year which began with a particularly dry winter and the usual dry summer, therefore no fresh grazing and very little browse.

Most of the goats took to the comfrey by about the end of July, and my limited stocks had to be fed very sparingly. I have increased the number of plants I have and earmarked another area for a further increase in the spring in the hope that the goats will continue to readily eat comfrey. I hope they do because it makes an ideal complement to maize and beans with a reverse Ca:P ratio to them. Comfrey is higher in calcium. It is also high in protein so can at times replace the beans. I feed some grain and pulses or concentrate all year round, but more in spring and late summer when the comfrey is available and there is limited grazing, either because the fields are shut up for hay in the spring, or because of the dry Iberian summers when pastures do not grow. These two times also coincide with peak lactation of the does and the flushing period (see the Amazing Maize blog). If the goats decide not to eat the comfrey then I shall use it as a mulch around fruit trees.

Whether or not the goats do eat the comfrey I intend to trial it in the Ribeiro Grove of 180 olive trees which I finished planting earlier this year. It will be labour intensive but I believe will be worth the effort. At 6 metres spacing of the trees a comfrey plant can be placed 2m each side of the trees to give two plants per tree. The olive trees have a fairly small root area for a number of years, and not a particularly large one when mature so the comfrey and olive roots will not be competing for space in the soil. The nutrients which the comfrey removes from deep in the ground is kept in the same area under this system, so whilst the soil is being mined, concentrated minerals are returned no more than 2m away and the land does not lose them. Instead they are recycled. Harvesting the leaves and using them for any purpose elsewhere means that the comfrey land loses nutrients.

Obviously some of the nutrients will be locked up in the trees, and the olive harvest will remove some, as does any cropping between the rows, such as the maize this summer, and a current crop of beans. These nutrients need to be replaced, and since I will be fertilising for the crops, they will be. The comfrey and trees will automatically receive their share of the crops’ fertiliser since I use a broadcaster across the whole grove. The area is irrigated via overhead sprinklers and my other grove, the Estrada Grove of 299 trees planted in 2006, is irrigated through drippers, which means that the irrigation is only along the tree lines, but consequently also suitable to take comfrey plants. That is a possibility for the future, but this area is only fenced to grazing livestock standards, and wild pigs occasionally make a foray. I am sure they would destroy a comfrey crop the same as they do a maize crop, so the boundary would need to be pig proofed first.

Another means of using the comfrey would be for me to make liquid manure, simply allowing the comfrey to liquefy inside a container and draw-off the concentrated liquid fertiliser. This could then be fed through the irrigation systems. I have some filters on the lines, but anyone planning on doing this might find that additional fine filters are needed for drip irrigation systems otherwise the drippers can become blocked. The overhead sprayers would not be a problem since they would not block with small pieces of vegetation. If I do use this system, then I will have the concentrated liquid analysed.

A further alternative use that I am also considering is the use of comfrey as part of the feedstock for a small-scale biogas plant. Due to its low C:N ratio, around 10:1, it would make a good feedstock alongside vegetable waste, or a higher carbon crop grown specifically to feed it - especially the forage part of maize. The digestate from this process can be used as a replacement for compost, saving some fertiliser costs, or further used to produce ethanol. I have done a little research and whilst a household sized methane digester is cheap, and feasible on a DIY basis, I have not gone into costs of a slightly larger scale plant, and done very little work on the ethanol production stage because obviously I could not do this without first producing the digestate. My personal use of methane would be to power a generator to pump irrigation water. This means I would only need to produce methane during summer, which fortunately for me is the time when ambient temperatures are ideal for methane production. Consequently I would be using a batch process rather than an all year round constant flow digester. Batch production is cheaper and the equipment less complex although less efficient. This idea too is for some unknown date in the future, and I would work in collaboration with Patrick (see the old blog entitled A Glossary followed by a blog on Olives) since he is much more knowledgeable than me on the technical aspects.

Friday, 2 November 2012


Yes, this is a blatant ad for my book.  The price is 4.99c U.S.  It was much reduced for a while, but some retailers will not sell so large a book for very low prices as they are unable to obtain sufficient commission to cover their costs. Go to to read the first few pages free of charge, although my more recent blog "Snippets" gives a far better insight into the contents.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Amazing Maize

Maize, known as Corn in Canada and USA, really is an “amaizeing” crop.

This year I grew about 0.6 ha., say one and a half acres, in what I call the Ribeiro Grove, this being the latest grove to be planted and as detailed in previous posts. In addition to the local forage variety I trialled 3 non-GM hybrids. In order of maturity the varieties were Local forage, Suzy, Surreal and PR33A46. The first two hybrids are from Dow and the third from Pioneer.

The last soil test was in the spring of 2010 with results of a pH of 6, 4.5% organic matter, with high levels of both phosphate and potash, and much improved on a 2004 test, particularly pH and OM. Since 2010 the land has received a further three tonnes/ha of ground limestone plus estimated maintenance levels of P and K to suit the forage crops grown in summer 2010 and winter 2010/11 together with nitrogen for production. The local forage variety was sown on part of the area in summer 2011, and mainly cut green for feed, with a tiny amount allowed to ripen for the grain. This crop was very poor due to severe weed infestation despite two cultivations with the tractor and a lot of hand work too.

The main purpose of this piece of ground for the next several decades is the production of olives from 180 trees. Inter-row cropping must not be at the expense of the olives, so it is necessary to be generous with fertiliser and to maintain or improve the OM. This means that as much as possible of the crop residues need to be returned to the soil. At the same time the crops are required to feed my goats, consequently the aim of the 2012 maize crop was first to make use of the ground amongst the young olive trees without depleting them of any nutrients; next to produce some green feed for the goats (absolutely essential in what turned out to be a desperate year for fodder given a dry 2011/12 winter); then OM to return to the soil, and finally, if possible, to harvest some grain.

To recap – the olives are at 6 x 6 metres spacings in a wedge shaped piece of land. Using my home-built two row seed drill I fitted 8 rows in between each long row of trees, leaving about 60cms each side of the line of trees bare. The whole area can be irrigated by overhead sprays – provided the river keeps flowing. Prior to sowing on 17th May, and after soil temperatures had been or exceeded 18ºC for five consecutive mornings, I incorporated 20.5%N fertiliser at a rate of 750kgs/ha. 98mm of rain had fallen between 2 and 3 weeks prior to sowing. There was no rain after sowing. Sowing rate was heavy at about 120,000 seeds/ha or 48,000 to the acre. I am happy with this rate since it is much easier to thin a crop if necessary than it is to try and make up a shortfall after emergence. Seedlings pulled up by birds is sometimes a major problem. Magpies are the culprits here, and this year took all my sweetcorn except five plants. It is normal practice in many countries to sow heavily, and to use the thinnings for sheep or goats.

Immediately after sowing I sprayed the pre-emergent herbicide Activus and watered it in with a light irrigation. I also had Laddock Plus available as a post-emergence, but this was only required in a few isolated spots where I think I had not been sufficiently accurate with the pre-emergence. The field had previously shown extremely heavy infestations of a variety of summer weeds, and is just as bad in the winter, and I had been unable to control them.

The crop germinated well and grew at a rate of between 25 and 30 cms per week, the Pioneer variety reaching a maximum height of 3.20 to 3.25 metres. The others were not so tall. At the beginning of June all pasture on the property had dried off and total hand feeding of stock was necessary. The river was falling rapidly and I began to feed maize thinnings, taking the plants least likely to survive lack of water first. Within a few weeks I realised some of the plants were not setting grain and I concentrated on harvesting these in preference to those with grain. From late July I was using plants that had set grain too, aiming for 50% of the plants used each day.

With a planned goat mating period to begin on 17th September I increased feed levels by giving an additional daily feed of immature cobs, including the husks. This increasing level of feed for a few weeks prior to mating is known as flushing, and is of great benefit to all livestock. I always increase hard feed levels over a six weeks’ period before joining and maintain that level for six weeks more, then reduce over the next few weeks. How much is fed depends on many factors, but mainly other available feed and the condition of the animals.

These cobs were used from 6th August onwards by which time the CHUs were 1807. The plants that had cobs removed were left in the field for OM. This harvesting was continued until 22nd September (storing an increasing quantity as the cobs were maturing) on which date I completed the harvest. CHUs totalled 2918 at 128 days from sowing. I de-husked the mature cobs in the field and put the ears to dry in the sun - on a tarmac area at first then in open weave bags as they became drier. I harvested by hand so had to commence whilst the cobs were a long way from being dry. I may have lost a very slight amount of yield by commencing very early, but not much. Since I did all the harvesting myself I was able to ensure that each bag held the same volume of ears.

So far as production is concerned, the Pioneer variety produced the most fodder because of its height, and also the biggest cobs where they were left to maturity, but too many of them failed to set grain. If growing only for fodder and no grain this would be my choice of variety. The local un-named variety produced small cobs and not as much fodder as any of the others. There was extremely little insect damage throughout the crop, but this variety had a disproportionate amount and I will not be using it again. Suzy was sown on the driest ground and most of it was cut for fodder, but produced cobs on virtually every plant, although smaller than the other hybrids. Remember this is the earliest of the hybrid varieties sown, so smaller grain yields are expected.

The best yield of grain on visual appraisal was from Surreal and I left an area of 72 x 6 metres, including bare ground each side of the 8 rows in the area, to be harvested when mature. This 432 sq. m. is close to one tenth of an acre, so, mixing Imperial and metric measures, a little mathematics allows us to calculate yield. Some test weighing of shelled sample bags of the total harvested showed that there was marginally more than 300kgs of dry grain from this area. That is 3 tonnes to the acre or 7.4t/ha. Not a world beating yield, but good under the circumstances of a bad season together with having approximately 20% of the land uncropped due to the bare strip either side of the olives. Add an extra 20% and the yield per hectare becomes very acceptable in a bad season.

Whilst costs and value of the crop obviously vary from country to country and year to year, my costs for this year were Seed €150, Fertiliser €150, Sprays €25 and electricity for irrigation approximately €80. This gives an overall cost of €405. In addition to these costs there was, of course, work with the tractor. This is where costing becomes slightly inexact when more than one crop occupies the same piece of ground, but if the proportion of fertiliser, spray and irrigation costs attributable to the olives is cancelled out by the proportion of the tractor costs attributed to the maize (and that is being generous to the olives) we can leave the costs as they are. The dry grain in store was very close to one tonne with a value of about €400 so the stored grain covered the cost of producing the crop. This may not seem like a big return, but overall it was very profitable.

This year was particularly harsh for the crop with irrigation needing to cease just after silking. This is the very time when irrigation should be applied and I was surprised at the way the crop continued to grow and mature its grain. In addition to the whole cobs and grain that was harvested, I am left with a lot of OM to incorporate, and the quantity of fodder I removed was 3,000 goat days’ forage. In other words I was feeding the equivalent of 4,500 goats for one day (450 for 10 days etc.) for each hectare of land in use, plus growing 270 olive trees per hectare and still left with a grain harvest of 1.5t/ha. I am growing a crop of beans through the winter too. How does that compare with your grass acreage that grows only forage for your stock? You would need to feed more than 12 goats every day of the year for each hectare, or 24 continuously through a 26 weeks’ grazing season merely to equal the forage I removed. Amazing grazing if you could achieve it. I know I cannot.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

T-sum, CHU, GDD, GTI and CRM

They are all acronyms for formulas that are used in connection with the growth and maturity of agricultural and horticultural crops, and follow the same basic principal of measuring daily maximum and minimum (max and min) temperatures.

The relationship between temperatures, and growth and physiological maturity of crops, has been known for a long time, as has the preferred (and often essential) max and min requirements of many plants. Agriculturists have made use of these measurements for more than half a century to my certain knowledge, and probably longer. The first one I ever used was the T-sum. In the northern hemisphere it is a measurement taken from 1st January each year and is the mean of daily temperatures, in ºC not ºF, added together. The timing is to coincide with the lengthening of the days, but begins when there is no pasture growth due to low temperatures. When the total, i.e. the T (or temperature) sum reaches 200 then grass will be able to make use of Nitrogen fertiliser. All you need is a max/min thermometer, which you should have anyway, and you can make use of the same temperature measurements in your home garden or on the farm.

CHU, the acronym for either Corn or Crop Heat Units, also using the daily mean, is sometimes used for maize, known as corn in USA. GDD (Growing Degree Days) is slightly more complicated, ignoring temperatures above and below certain readings to give a base max and min temperature and appears to be the most common measurement used in the USA. Please note that the USA does use ºF. On the other hand, some Canadian CHU systems are even more complicated in that they use different base temperatures for day and night readings, so more calculations are required. Additionally Canada tends to use calendar and minimum temperature data to create a starting and ending calculation date.

GTI (General Thermal Index) can be used, but is also complicated for maize because it uses a different formula for the period before and after silking. The silk is the female part of the flower that appears out of the top of the unfertilised cob. The silk is fertilised by pollen blowing from the tassel which is the male part and appears out of the very top of maize plants. Bees work the tassels and I have occasionally seen them on the silk, so some insect pollination may occur, but wind pollination is the norm.

CRM (Corn Relative Maturity) sometimes referred to as the Minnesota Relative Maturity Rating System is a means of showing the relative maturity of different maize varieties against a set of standard varieties, using dates rather than temperature, and includes a formula for giving approximate conversions from or to CHU and GDD. There is a considerable amount of research information and guidance notes from agricultural departments on the Internet for anyone who wishes to pursue the various measuring systems in technical detail. Merely input the acronyms in a search engine.

My philosophy is always that something easy and simple is best for an individual grower, so I use my own version of CHU to build records of different crops and varieties within them. I take measurements of the previous 24hrs. max/min air temperatures, plus soil temperature and any rainfall at 9.30 am every day. I record these on a spreadsheet that calculates the mean for the day too. There is also a table with the monthly values, but that is for annual historical information and does not form part of the CHU calculations. I total the daily mean results from sowing to harvest.  

My limited use of this simplified system suggests that there is a good year-to-year correlation for CHU requirements for spring sown crops, which is precisely the reason it is used so extensively for maize. But, the maize research has consistently shown that there is a different heat unit requirement for the same varieties in different localities – and this is extremely important. Every property is different and CHU requirements can be expected to vary between properties in close proximity to each other, so do not rely on anyone else’s figures except for use as a general and rough guide. Factors such as daylength, soil fertility and crop stresses like water shortage or water logging will have an effect on maturity too.

Due to its economic importance, researchers began to look for other ways than estimated days to harvest from sowing. Maize is the crop that has been most researched, and varieties now always come with reasonable information relating to season length required to reach maturity. It may not be in the heat units format a particular grower uses, but it is at least the breeding company’s knowledge of relevant maturity dates of its own varieties and comparisons can usually be made against other varieties from other breeders.

Whilst I have not used it for overwintered crops I have the data for several years of such crops - oats and beans on a field scale, and beans, onions and various brassicas in the garden, and can do the calculations. There is not the same necessity for me to know CHUs for these winter crops because they are naturally watered in the vegetative stages and harvested before there is a need to irrigate, but the extremely dry conditions of last winter and the whole of this year (apart from 12 days in late April/early May) proved to be an exception and irrigation was used during winter for some garden crops. This has led to me to consider pursuing this extra “management tool” to winter crops and the permanent ones.  I will use it for olives and may extend it to other tree fruits (using flowering to ripe fruit) and it takes literally only a few seconds to do the calculation on a spreadsheet. If you lack spreadsheet skills then it would be no great hardship to do things the old-fashioned way with a pencil and a piece of paper. CHUs do not apply to such things as the return of the storks, but that, like the arrival of the first cuckoo for Europeans, and other birds elsewhere, appears to depend on other factors, which is understandable since birds migrate from elsewhere. It might apply to the blooming of spring flowers; although I do not record the flowering dates, just being pleased to see them when they do bloom.

The main purpose of knowing CHU requirements for different varieties is ease of management decisions as to what to sow. In farming and gardening there are frequently problems in sowing a crop exactly when one wishes to do so, and it is useful to know how long it will take to maturity if there is more than a few days’ delay in sowing. I know there are often guidelines given as to the number of days from sowing, or transplanting, to harvest – similar to the CRM, but I have always found this to be a rather vague way of deciding on a variety because I have no idea where these days were calculated, nor the growing conditions.

This year I had to cease irrigating on 27th July due to lack of water in the river. This cessation has happened twice before, but never this early, and most years we have been able to irrigate right through. The only rain we had allowed crops to be sown into good moisture - and rain can continue to the end of May in some years, but I hedged my bets with maize, and grew four varieties with different maturity dates. The two earliest are making decent crops, the third probably will, and the latest variety might, depending upon how far down its roots need to go for moisture and how much remains down there. Some plants of this variety are already showing moisture stress and I expect these to fail to produce any grain.

As anyone who has grown early and maincrop potatoes will know, there is a yield penalty with early maturing varieties of most crops; late season varieties yielding much more in a normal cropping year, and maize is no exception. An advantage of early maturity though is that I would have continued irrigating the later varieties of maize if the water had been available and this costs time and not a small amount of money. An early variety saves this time and money, albeit with a smaller crop in a good year.

Everyone will be in a different situation, some need to harvest certain crops before it becomes too hot and dry; others before winter sets in; others are restricted by their irrigation capacity or water allocation, and some could be following on with a more valuable crop and need the land cleared. Armed with your personal CHU requirements for what you want to grow you are in a better position to decide which varieties suit your sowing date, seasonal expectations and overall management plan.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

I think it is time for an update on some previous posts about the quinta, and to add a few random thoughts. I do hope that what I post makes readers think about their own situation and land rather than people feel I am giving out instructions, or merely reporting on happenings on the property. It is wrong to attempt to dictate to people about the way they live their own lives, but relevant reading that leads to a stimulation of the mind is different. I have always read as much as possible about gardening and farming around the world and I continue to do so. It is impossible to know everything that might be suitable for the use of your land, but I try to keep learning through reading.

I planted up the extra olive trees as planned and we now have 483. Most of them are not yet bearing fruit, but those that are have just completed flowering. According to the Ag. Dept. flowering was very variable across this part of Portugal this year, with some flowering well, and others very sparsely. My own trees show similar variances, with some that I had expected to flower in abundance only showing a few. It seems the extremely dry winter was part of the problem, and I have seen a suggestion from a bloke in England that I know only by the name of Owd Fred, that a similarly dry winter is the cause of spasmodic flowering of apple trees this year too. The older olive trees that I retained have all flowered very well, and it suggests that they were able to extract sufficient moisture from their bigger root system, but they are all in favourable positions too and consistently bear well, and that is why they were retained.

Another problem was that Spring never did spring. It is a short season here anyway but this year we went straight from Winter to Summer. April was a full 5ºC cooler than last year and we had overnight temperatures just above freezing, with only 5º as late as 1st May. Then it began to rain – very late, but most welcome, in fact essential to avert a disaster for many people. 110mm were recorded and we needed every one of them. Areas nearer the west coast continued to receive more, and I am sure they needed that too. As soon as the rain stopped the temperatures increased to around the 30ºC mark and remained there until St John’s Day (celebrated overnight on 23to 24 June in Porto and other places as well as other countries, especially I am told, Estonia)) when it moved into the high 30s. The overnight minimum on 26th June was a new record high of 23º and the soil temperature at 9.30 a.m. next morning a similar record at 26º. I know that farmers across Britain were complaining at the same time about excessive rain. Perhaps that is going to be a feature of weather patterns for Britain. A few years back some climate forecasters were predicting more extremes of temperatures and rain in future.

It is much easier to cope with wet weather and even temporary waterlogging or flooding, than it is to farm or garden through a very long dry spell (such as we experience every year in the Iberian Peninsula, and elsewhere, of course) and real drought conditions as occur in Australia, parts of the USA, Africa and other places, often mean just waiting it out without hope of doing anything practical. I appreciate crops can be lost through wet weather close to harvest, and I had a total wipe out of over 200 acres of millet due to excess rain one year in Australia, but pastures grow in extreme wet, and not in extremely dry times.
I decided not to grow more loofahs this year. It was an interesting crop to grow, but the preparation of the matured fruit to bathroom loofah is quite labour intensive. We gave a few to friends and relatives – some of whom had previously thought they were a marine creature rather like a sponge. I did keep back some peanuts from last year’s harvest, and they are growing well in one of the garden beds. My “grown from seed” apple trees are carrying a good crop too, as are the commercial ones we already had growing. Previous severe crop losses of these, and pulses in the garden, through insect damage; inedible grapes through fungal diseases, resulting in no wine either; and a take over of weeds and fungal problems in agricultural crops has led me to abandon all thoughts of continuing to avoid the use of sprays. Portugal is definitely not an easy area to attempt to be organic. Hard winters and a good growing summer season make life much easier for organic production.

Apart from flat out irrigating, my main job at present is picking the hectare of White Lupins. This is another crop I will not be growing again on a field scale. They grew well despite the lack of winter rain, but I would say a combine harvester is essential for larger scale growing. It is harvested too late to be following on with a summer crop and they are quite difficult to remove from the plant - bunches of pods needing to be cut off with secateurs. As previously posted the pods have very sharp points, making the wearing of leather gloves essential. They are also difficult to shell, but I have a fairly labour intensive method of overcoming this that would work well with other podded vegetables, but only if you have hot dry weather, a polytunnel or greenhouse. I lay the pods on the tarmac entrance road to the house after picking and after a week or so they dry enough to burst open. Being big seeds they do not fly when the pod bursts, just drop to the ground. They then need to be picked up and sorted from the empty pods. In future I will stick to earlier maturing broad (fava) beans for a winter crop, and irrigated maize for the summer, both crops being easy to hand harvest. I am also trialling butter beans to see whether they might be a reasonable summer protein crop.

I decided to make Mk3 of the seed drill. Patrick made up precision sowing seed delivery plates (timber wheels with grooves for picking up the seed) and these are driven by bicycle cogs and a chain fixed to the spider wheels of the original version. It is very successful and the broad bean drill will be completed on the same lines. Lack of rain from mid-November last year meant I was unable to sow the planned crop for last winter so switched to the Mk3 maize drill project. I am trialling three varieties of F1 maize hybrids this year (not GM) and all are looking good at this stage. I have a knapsack type sprayer and used a pre-emergence spray against weeds, following up with a post-emergence where necessary. I am very pleased with the results. Last year’s crop was swamped with Purslane (Portulaca) and although I pulled as much of this as I could for goat feed it was a losing battle.

In the garden, we had a good crop of Asparagus, particularly from the varieties Connover’s Colossal and one of the Washingtons – I cannot remember if it is Mary or Martha, having committed the sin of not recording the variety when I sowed the seeds. Very bad management. I have tried a couple of all-male hybrids in the past, in fact destroyed a bed this year, and have not found them to be as productive as the old varieties. Kelvedon Wonder peas, sown late winter, and Aquadulce beans also cropped well before much insect trouble. The later peas and a second sowing of Aquadulce were badly infested with insect larvae. Overwintered onions Despina and Long Red Florence (aka Simiane) had a good survival rate and are being used now, although not yet mature. Both are very mild varieties, which we prefer. When they are matured my wife will chop them and bag up for the freezer – no storage losses that way and they are ready to use in whatever quantity is required. My special Kelsae and Globo onions are bigger than previous years at this stage, as are my leeks. I grow these exhibition type vegetables purely for the fun of it, and eating of course. Apricots fruited well too and my wife made jam and a thinner version that goes exceptionally well on tiramisu ice-cream. We do have a sweet course on rare occasions – and always a dry red with it.

Ever one to experiment with wines, a few weeks ago I began adding a course of pâté between my main course and cheese. In the past I have eaten pâté either as a starter, or after cheese. We found a good rough chopped pork liver one and my wife has also developed one from minced pork loin, adding garlic but still experimenting with other herbs. Pork loins are extremely cheap here, about €4 per kg and some supermarkets will mince it for you (much preferable to your run of the mill mince at about the same price) so the home-made version is a long way cheaper than buying pâté. Making your own from liver is very messy. Nice, but messy.  I have had Moscatel with pâtés in recent years, but since this course is now followed by cheese, with Port, and then nuts, with Moscatel, I began trying different wines as I did not want to go from Moscatel to Port and back again. A Sauternes or other sweet white would be fine, but I have settled for White Port, preferring Ferreira’s (not the Lagrima, it is too sweet) to several others I have tested. 

I have received an email from Smashwords, the ebook publisher, regarding ways and means of promoting ebooks. If you have never tried one, this is a chance because some of the books published can be free of charge from time to time, and this is one of them. Smashwords is running a special promotion during the month of July. It will have a precise start of 00.01 a.m. on 1st July and end at 11.59 p.m. on 31st July, USA Pacific time – so ensure you purchase any books that are discounted by the authors during that time. Smashwords publishes in many languages on a great range of subjects and the site is worth looking at. You can link to this promotion through .  To take advantage of the discounts you will need to enter a Coupon Code towards the end of the purchase process. This will vary according to the book or books you choose, but will be, for example something like SSW50 – the Code for my book.

Monday, 9 April 2012

From seed to humus.

I have written at considerable length on this subject in my book, and as previously posted, will not be repeating the book here, but I am prompted to post a few of the basics because in the last three months or so I have read some misleading and confusing articles related to organic material (shortened to OM for the rest of the blog) soil organic matter (SOM) and humus. Like most gardeners and farmers I am not a soil scientist, but it is necessary for us to understand a little of the subject and some scientific terms if we are to make the best use of our land and keep it fed and healthy. Note that even some soil scientists use OM and SOM interchangeably.

I will begin at the end – with humus.  Unfortunately, as with numerous things in life, the word is frequently wrongly used in general terms, and in the case of humus to mean several different things relating to soil. This is where the misinformation and confusion begins. I am assuming that readers are aware of at least some of the benefits of humus in the soil. If not, please accept that it is vital in improving and maintaining soil fertility and structure.

Humus is a dark brown or black colloidal and amorphous substance that is the result of the breakdown of OM to the point where it will break down no further. Colloidal means that it is a mixture of particles of different components and is neither a solution nor a suspension. In the case of humus it is gelatinous and sponge like. Amorphous means that it is has no definite shape. Imagine a dark sticky blob that can absorb water. The fact that it is an extremely stable substance means it will remain in the soil for a very long time – some soil scientists suggesting up to several thousand years.

Now back to the beginning. Under natural circumstances, and often with our help, viable seeds will sooner or later develop into plants - if something does not previously consume the seeds. The plant grows, is harvested or dies, and leaves a residue either in or on the soil, or in the faeces of living organisms that consume the plant, anything from small creatures in the soil to elephants. For simplicity we will ignore the loss of material through burning or waste that is not returned to the soil, and there is a prodigious amount lost in these ways, including plant material that passes through humans and goes via drains to a sewage works.

As gardeners and farmers we are concerned with returning as much of the plant as possible back to the soil in order to create more humus. We have already left some residue in and on the soil, but we may also have waste, which, if we have any sense, we turn into compost at every available opportunity, and we may have used some to feed to, and provide bedding for, our animals, producing good old FYM. At this stage it is all OM – material that can be incorporated into our soils. The underground plant residues, together with all the underground living organisms and the remains of dead ones are SOM. They are all potential humus and once our OM becomes incorporated into the soil then it becomes part of the SOM too. Humus is also part of the SOM.

Now for a couple of misconceptions. I have seen it stated that inorganic fertilisers will never produce any humus. One million tons of artificials will not add one ounce of humus according to an old author Friend Sykes in Humus and the Farmer and many present-day people think and write the same.  But if you use inorganic fertilisers to grow a crop, that crop is OM and SOM. I should think it is impossible for at least some of that crop not to end up as humus.

I have also read articles by proponents of biochar (a type of charcoal produced at low temperatures) that biochar should be incorporated into the soil instead of organic matter on the basis that organic matter breaks down quickly. Biochar is organic and when it is incorporated into the soil it is SOM. It should be noted that the black soils of South American Indian origin (usually referred to by the Portuguese phrase Terra preta do Indio, which means the same thing) were only partially composed of charcoal, and finely ground charcoal at that, not lumps. It is now accepted that they were purposely formed by the incorporation, over a very long period of time, of a mixed compost of this charcoal, household refuse (including human waste) and broken pottery. The time for the improvement of the original soil through the use of this compost is quoted in a very wide range, from several thousand years ago to pre-Columbian times, or as little as from less than 2,000 years ago onwards. For our purposes the time frame is not desperately important.

Some of this compost is now in the form of humus, and is apparently extremely stable. I am not knocking biochar, I think it is worthy of much research, but do not expect to transform your land in a short space of time through the use of biochar. It is also extremely difficult to produce large quantities. It is much easier to produce the same amount of FYM or compost, and these will give you humus much quicker than biochar that takes a long time to be broken down – the reason it is being suggested as a means of sequestering carbon.

The fastest and best method I know to increase SOM and therefore humus is to use a grazed grass ley. The last paragraph of my earlier blog “2012 and beyond” gives the result of my experience on my present property with the use of such a ley and green manure crops.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Portuguese Wines

Wine drinkers around the world are almost certain to have heard of Vinho do Porto, or Port to the English speaking world, but few will have tasted the many excellent Portuguese table wines or other fortified wines, liqueurs and spirits. This is a great pity. I drink wine with dinner every night, and have done since 1979 when we moved from Britain to Australia and I discovered how cheap wine was there. I have up to two glasses with lunch sometimes too. I have at least one table wine with dinner and most nights more than one. I trial table wines to see whether I would like to put some in my cellar and that is the reason for usually having more than one on the table. In the past I would occasionally have Port afterwards, but since moving to Portugal also have Port with cheese, and Moscatel, sometimes a Spanish one, with nuts, pâté or presunto (a Portuguese ham) every night after a main course. It is extremely rarely that I have a sweet.

I would stress that my drinking habits are not expensive. It will be generally known by regular readers of my writings and forum contributions that I live well, but only spend what I must. This way I do not need a high income and life is therefore much easier. I can enjoy cheap wines knowing that I am not going against my philosophy in order to drink them every night. If I drink a bottle a day it costs me less per week than it would to go to a pub in most countries and have a couple of pints of beer once a week.

I do not profess to be a wine expert, but like to compare wines against each other over two or three nights before deciding whether to commit myself to a few for storage. My reasoning behind this is that after a couple of nights it will be similar to it ageing in the bottle. A very unscientific method, but it seems to work. I would not call myself a “wine lover” either, just a wine drinker. Wine is exceptionally cheap in Portugal, and many very good wines are under €2 a bottle. Bargain ends of line are often under €1. Spain can be even cheaper, and I once bought a large quantity of one-litre bottles at 59c. My son and I occasionally do a “raid across the border” when he visits. Much safer than being a Border Reiver in days gone by in the area where I was raised.

I find some wine tasters’ descriptions rather nonsensical. No doubt they believe the aromas and tastes they describe, but I have extremely rarely reached the same conclusion, and I never read the back label until after I have tried the wine. I believe that if you can have a reasonable idea when you look at the front label of a bottle whether or not you will enjoy it, then that is as much of an expert as you need to be. Portuguese beer is also very good; Sagres and Super Bock being the best known, but there are others of high quality.

I will not go into great detail but Port is the result of grapes grown in the oldest wine demarcated region in the world, high in the Douro valley. The newly pressed grapes have their fermentation stopped at an early stage by transferring the must as it is called into barrels that have been part filled with Portuguese brandy. These barrels are later transported to Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank of the Douro to the city of Porto close to the Atlantic Ocean, and matured in the Port Lodges to produce the various types of Port. Portuguese brandy on its own is probably an acquired taste and whilst I admit to not being much of a brandy drinker, I do not drink it often. “Aguardente” is sometimes the word on the bottle rather than “Brandy” and this is also the word used for home-distilled brandy. Distilling for your own use is legal in Portugal and stills of various sizes are readily available, but expensive. I have had some very nice homemade Aguardentes. One in particular was flavoured with the fruit of the Arbutus tree. This is also known as the Strawberry tree because the fruits look just like little strawberries. They grow profusely in the mountains near us and we have one growing in the ornamental garden area.

For everyday drinking I have Ruby Port, several brands being available at under €4. I think Tawny is better suited to nuts, and occasionally I will compare one against a Moscatel. Moscatel as made in Portugal, either in the Douro or Setúbal, is a different dessert wine to French muscats. Spain makes a similar style to Portugal and there is another made on the Greek island of Samos. On special occasions I will open a bottle of a Vintage Port (VP from hereon) from my cellar. This cellar is built underneath the house as cellars should be and has individual bottle spaces for over 600 bottles within its large space that includes the wine making area, complete with lagar or stone trough for foot crushing of the grapes. The spaces are about half filled, mainly with table wines from around the country, a few Spanish and any others I have found marked down in price, with only a few dozen VPs. They are not cheap even here. I am endeavouring to build up a stock for my son and his offspring when he has some. It takes many years for VPs to mature and it is much cheaper to buy them when young. I also cellar a few Ruby ports each year, and they are improving with cellaring. It is just an experiment, but mentioned by Allan Sichel in a book he wrote about 50 years ago as a possible means of raising the quality of some Rubies.

There is some very drinkable wine, both red and white put into what I call Chateau Cardboard, or plastic bags inside a cardboard box, most holding between three and five litres, although they are available with up to 20 litres in them. I think that size must be for serious drinkers. The boxes are much cheaper than the same quantity and quality in bottles. I use these boxes most nights, often using them as the standard against which bottles are compared, and take aged bottles out of the cellar for visitors, as well as treating myself now and again. I have had whites still drinking well at 15 years old and reds over 20. These wines were very cheap when I bought them, many for only 99c. I look for “bargain basement” offers when the supermarkets are having a general tidy up of their wine areas.

I am also building up a stock of Moscatel do Setúbal, and these are much cheaper to buy than VP. I am told they will keep as long as good Madeira, and that is at least 100 years. The oldest I have is 1981, so a long way to go. I had one of these last month (a bottle usually lasts me a week) and it was produced by the Palmela Co-op. I have also been using their Chateau Cardboard in recent weeks, and am very impressed with both the red and white.

Madeira is part of Portugal although off Africa, and out in the Atlantic, as are the Açores (Azores), which are further north and much further out. The different styles of Madeira are worth sampling if you can find them. The best place is Madeira itself. Even within the Portuguese mainland there is very little choice. The only wine I have seen from the Açores is Lajido from the island of Pico and it is an aperitif, which is again very long lived. I have only seen the 1994 vintage and managed to buy a few. All Portuguese wines will keep much longer than wines from most other parts of the world, many not being ready at the age when wines from other countries are past their best.

Mateus Rosé is the world’s biggest selling rosé table wine, and originated in Portugal, although I understand it is now also made elsewhere. It is lightly carbonated to give a “spritzig” effect. I have never cared for rosé wines, fizzy or otherwise, and prefer a naturally spritzig wine from the region north of the Douro, the Minho, where the wine is know as Vinho Verde, or green wine. In this case the word green meaning young and it is a style that suits many people. There are some really good examples made, perhaps the best being from the Alvarinho grape grown around Monção, where I am told it is served fresh from the barrel in copious quantities. I prefer whites to reds.

Bairrada to the south of the Douro has its own unique red grape, the Baga, which can take decades to reach its peak. It is now my favourite individual varietal wine, but I also like old Douro reds, say ten year old or more, that are a blend of the varieties used to make Port. Younger Douros are slightly too fruity for me but will suit many other people. Wines from the Dão area, to the east of Bairrada, were recommended to me more than 40 years ago as being suitable for a mixed company of people who were not regular wine drinkers, and I think the same still holds good. I like them, but prefer the Baga. Bairrada whites suit my palate too, particularly made from Bical. For those who are not short of cash, or just wishing to treat themselves to something extra special, I suggest a visit to the Buçaco Palace Hotel on the very edge of the Bairrada region and try some of their older vintages. The internationally famous wine writer Hugh Johnson suggested the whites are at their best at about 20 years old and the reds at about 30.

Moving south to the Lisbon area there are small parcels of vineyards and demarcated areas, and some very good reds and whites, plus of course Setúbal across the Tejo from the city. On the other side of the country is the Alentejo wine area, lying below the Tejo and next to the Spanish border. One of the important red grapes in the Alentejo is known as Aragonês, which is the same grape as the Tempranillo of Spain and the Tinta Roriz of the Douro. The region is relatively recently demarcated and a wide range of grapes are grown, both red and white. There are several large co-ops producing wines of high quality. I live in the area known as Beira Interior and this is a little known demarcated area from which I think the wines have improved in the few years I have been here. As with elsewhere in Portugal I shall continue trialling them on a regular basis. I do make wine myself from our own vines, but, in common with most amateur attempts at winemaking (using a mixture of unknown varieties) it is not as good as any of the commercial production and I only make it in years when I think the grapes are good enough..

I have only touched on a few places; there are many more areas, and thousands more wines that I have not mentioned. I admit to having had the occasional bottle of which I was not fond, but I can say the same about other countries. There were wines in Australia I did not care for; I am yet to have a German red that I like, or an Italian wine, either red or white. I am not saying they are not good, just I have not yet found one that I enjoyed. I do keep trying whenever the opportunity arises. I have also had wines from every other country I have tried that did not suit me, with one exception - I am yet to have a Spanish wine that I did not like, but I expect there are some.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

2012 and beyond

Everyone should be thinking about food production for 2012 and all the way through to at least early 2013. Depending upon the severity of a normal winter, some crops should probably be already in the ground. Those with animals will have made plans for their feed for the remainder of the winter and obviously grass leys, or permanent grazing, will be there for those with the need for grazing next summer, although places with mild summers and some rainfall can successfully sow leys in the spring. Autumn sowing is essential in this part of Portugal and mine went in during September and October. Perennial kitchen crops such as asparagus and some herbs will be available, but a few annual vegetable crops should also be under way, and perhaps annual crops for livestock too. Asparagus will be the first crop ready for harvest – sometime in February depending upon overnight frosts. Some spears began appearing before Christmas, but overnight temperatures were too low and they perished. I could cover some plants and force them, at the same time protecting them from damage, but I prefer to let plants grow naturally.

For yourself and any family members you supply, do you know what you used in 2011? Not exactly the number of cabbages or carrots, etc., just a rough approximation. Do you have a record of the varieties you sowed/planted of each vegetable and the quantity? Also a note of whether you had sufficient to harvest or too many? If not, make an effort to record the information in 2012. Weather records are most useful things to have too. If you do not already have them treat yourself to a late Christmas present of a max/min thermometer, rain gauge and soil thermometer – and keep the information they give you. I make a daily check and record it in a diary then transfer the figures to a spreadsheet every few days. To the side of the current year’s figures I keep a summary of each month’s figures for previous years. It is not a big task for anyone with even restricted computer ability – like me. Remember that to be consistent you should read the temperatures at the same time each day. Official weather stations usually do a 9 a.m. check local time, but I find half an hour later suits me best, and I believe consistency is more important than sticking to 9 a.m. Soil temperature is particularly useful for knowing whether seeds will germinate if sown into the open ground. A rising temperature for three or four consecutive days, all over the minimum needed of course, is essential for good germination.

I will be growing more winter pulses than last year if the present reasonably dry weather continues and permits me to prepare the ground and sow. I am fairly well forward with making a couple of olive groves ready for sowing. These pulses will be complemented by a slightly increased area of maize next summer. I can reduce the amount of purchased concentrates for livestock this way. I am also planning to plant an additional 40 or so olive trees. I have not marked out the planting sites yet just done a rough calculation, and will place a provisional order of 20 each of Cobrançosa and Cordovil do Castelo Branco for supply in April. The trees will be an extension of the area I planted last year, so the rows are already there to be extended and I will fill up the space to the boundary fence. This will still leave us a few short of 500 trees. The area to be planted has been used for forage or cutting crops for the goats, and I removed the temporary separating fence and ran the scarifier through. The extra grazing that I will have available in future reduces the forage crop needs.

Part of the new leys will provide a hay crop and I will have a carry over from last year’s oats, the summer maize/black eye pea mix and Sudan grass. I like to have a good supply of hay left over each year. I have not had grass hay since 2005 due to needing to graze the limited amount of leys I have had, but annual winter and summer crops have kept me supplied. I prefer leys to annual hay crops, not just for the work reduction, but because I am sure that all land should have a rotation of leys and cropping to remain productive. The build up of organic matter in the soil during a grazed ley phase is better than any other method I have come across. For example the two areas that I have made into olive groves since I purchased this property had two completely different treatments. The first grove planted had eight successive summer and winter purpose grown green manure crops whilst the later planted one was in a grazed grass/clover ley for the same period. The green manure crops increased the soil organic matter content from 2.7 to 3.0% and the ley raised its soil from 1.3 to 4.5%.  This ley was cultivated out prior to planting the new trees because stock would simply eat the trees. It will be a few years before it is back to grass.