Thursday, 25 July 2013

2013 to date.

I do apologise for the last post not really being a blog, but I felt I had to post something after almost three months since the previous post, and I had those snippets ready in a document intended to be used in an advertising campaign.

Weatherwise, 2013 began as 2012 had ended – very mild. 2012 had a mean temperature of 15.33ºC for the year, the third warmest since we came here in 2003, with 2011 at 15.90ºC and 2010 at 15.75ºC being the two warmest. Overall, the 2012/13 winter was very pleasant, with extremely few frosts, and only a couple of recorded negative temperatures, with the lowest minimum only –1ºC. The first few years we were here we regularly recorded minus fives and sixes each winter, with one minus seven. Temperatures elsewhere were even lower that night and there were widespread losses of olive trees and eucalypts across the whole country. Virtually everyone thinks of Portugal as a prime holiday spot in summer and few realise that skiing is possible in the winter. The Serra da Estrela (about 40 miles from us) has a ski lift.

As I said at the beginning of the previous blog we had a prolonged spell of wet weather. In the 8 weeks from 18th February we had 352mm of rain, and just as things were looking hopeful for a very late start to spring work, we had a downpour of 15mm in a few minutes on the 27th April. It then turned cold and we had overnight minimums down to 6ºC into the last week of May, with little progress upwards until well into June.

Conditions in March, April and early May were so wet that at the lower end of underground land drainage pipes the water was being forced to the surface because it could not flow sufficiently quickly through them. Being at the bottom of the river valley means there is a considerable amount of underground water moving through the property from higher up the hill. Then, of course, it stopped raining as it always does for the summer.

Growing cold weather crops is somewhat easier than warm weather ones where the soil temperature needs to reach a certain level before the warm season seeds will germinate. The long cold and wet spring also meant that the broad beans (Vicia faba) continued flowering and growing on when they should have been maturing. It meant a heavy crop, but also primed the late spring weeds – mainly a very large crop of corn marigolds and several species of the daisy family. I always find it interesting on the farms I have owned to see the way the weed spectrum changes with the improving fertility of the soil. I do not recognise the different species of these daisy type flowers (several of them are possibly types of Chamomile from the scent) but they come in all sizes up to about 1 metre tall and have masses of flowers each containing an enormous number of seeds.

The prolificacy of the weeds, insects and fungal diseases of crops, plus the relatively mild winters so that they all thrive, has left me deciding to forget any ideas about being organic (even in the kitchen garden) and I now spray as necessary. The winter beans in particular benefited from a fungal treatment early in the year. Some were left untreated due to not being able to walk on the ground because of the excessive rain, and they succumbed without producing anything. I have lost previous crops to the same problem. I have three knapsack sprayers, and it is heavy work and very slow with constant refilling of the sprayers, so I am purchasing a tractor mounted one.

Unfortunately producing the crop is only part of the process, and due to an old and ongoing knee problem that has been exacerbated by the hand picking of the beans I have been unable to complete the harvest. The unharvested portion of the crop has been cultivated into the ground and will produce a green manure crop when the beans germinate with the autumn rains. I have a horrible feeling I shall have to accept that old age is catching up with me and that I can no longer do everything to which I have been accustomed. I usually walk several miles in a day working the quinta, but the knee problem has meant that I have been using the tractor just for travelling around the place. I have decided that I will not grow any more “close to the ground” field scale crops for hand harvesting, with the exception of pumpkins/squashes where a heavy weight is soon collected. Maize and olives are both at a much more acceptable height to save my legs.

The olives had a very large amount of blossom and on the whole have set a good quantity of fruit. I usually spray against olive fly and a fungal disease known locally as gafa and caused by an organism that research people seem to disagree about the spelling, but one of them is Colleotetrichum.  A failure to spray against both often results in a total crop loss, and at best a very large decrease in the crop harvested as well as oil quantity and quality in those fruit which are picked. The number of fruit bearing trees is increasing each year and I could not possibly manage with just the knapsacks.

I sowed two hectares of Piper Sudan grass and it is growing well with irrigation, but because it was late sown I will take only one cut (probably the first or second week in August) for hay instead of the usual two. The quality will be more than adequate for the goats. I was unable to get a maize crop in due to the late and incomplete bean harvest. I did manage to sow pumpkins and winter squashes along some of the olive tree lines so, with the usual winter grazing I should be able to meet the winter feed needs of the goats, but I will buy some concentrates if needed.

In the kitchen garden we had the best garlic crop I have ever grown and good results with all peas – Kelvedon Wonder, my favourite for flavour, Douce Provence and Rondo. Overwintered onions were very poor, failing to bulk up, and we will need to buy some later. I saw some fresh in the supermarket in May that looked good, and they were an excellent sweet flavour too. The variety was Reca. They are still being sold now. I think it is Spanish, and I will look for seed for overwintering this coming season. The late summer sown cabbage Spring Hero also cropped well. Asparagus was nice whilst it lasted, but a lesser crop than previous years.

I bought new seed potatoes this year, and Mona Lisa was quite early for a maincrop, beginning lifting after 12 weeks, and these will be followed by Picasso, a potato with one parent being Cara that I grew in Scotland and they look alike, white with pink eyes. Both varieties will store through the winter, but insect damage in storage is a major problem here and I will have to be vigilant.

I could not find any fresh peanuts to sow, so will have to do without our own, but several other crops are looking good – melons, Jerusalem artichokes, gherkins, cucumbers, and tomatoes (Ailsa Craig, F1Shirley and a determinate San Marzano). The curcubits and tomatoes are cropping well so far, the gherkins in particular have an enormous number of fruits – and despite a quantity having been pickled there are far more than we can use off only four plants so I have begun feeding some to the goats. They are not all fond of them at this stage, but that is not unusual with a new food. Like everyone else in the locality we have very few apples set, no peaches, plums, apricots or almonds. I know someone who grows tree fruits on a small commercial scale, and apart from cherries (apparently a low volume crop this year) he will have no other fruit.

The only new crop I am trying is Sweet Pepper. We have always eaten a very small quantity if offered to us, but both of us have usually found that they have been too hot. As previously mentioned we do not consume any spices. I found a variety, Marconi Red, that is supposedly extremely mild. So far, only a couple of “tasters” in a stir fry, and still green, it is indeed very mild. We will see how they fare as they ripen.

July is sometimes the hottest month of the year, and August in others. I hope that this year it is July because we had a spell of 37 and 38ºC although it has been a more bearable 32/33 for the last week. Time will tell. Fortunately the river is still flowing, it ceased on 6th July last year, and it was helped by some thunderstorms in the mountains on the weekend of 13th and 14th July. I would not say no to a few more, although they can be the source of fires. I am anticipating some fairly big ones this year after the wet Spring. Unfortunately many of them are deliberately lit during August and September.