orWine Tastings in the Comfort of you own villa or B&B while on holiday in Tuscany or Liguria

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Friday, 24 February 2012

Ooga Dooga Hugelkultur!

Sometimes in gardening like in any other walk of life you suddenly have that religious AHA! experience.  You know what I mean the Road to Damascus "I can see the Light!" kind of moment.  As I've been telling you I've been doing this online Introduction to Permaculture course and as part of that I'm reading Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway (I keep wanting to call him Ernest). 

I'm already coming around to permaculture being the best way to produce food AND preserve the land, especially in our rather... challenging gardening conditions.  Now Hemenway has introduced me to a completely new concept within permaculture, (well new to me anyway, I'm sure some of you have been doing this for years): the Hugelkultur!  Well actually it should be spelled: Hügelkultur.  Now for those of you not familiar with German, this should be pronounced hoogle-cool-toor, except for the first double o you should pout your lips forward like the Librarian of Unseen University who accidentally got turned into an orang utang, leaving a small round opening between your lips and pushing your tongue forward a tad towards said opening, as if to whistle and then you activate your vocal chords rather than whistle to emit an ü sound like in Bügeleisen.  What you don't know that one either?

Anyway, enough of this sillyness, I was talking about me seeing the light!  Serious stuff!  So you know the way you keep doing a particular thing for no better reason than not knowing any better and all of a sudden someone tells how to do this better and solve a number of other problems at the same time?  Well that's a Hugelkultur for you.  (You still practicing that pronunciation?).  Every year we prune our various trees, most of them in winter.  The larger bits of wood coming off that we cut into logs and use the following winter in our fire to heat our kitchen, given them some months to dry out some too.  Some of the smaller bits are handy to get your fire going, but the majority of the twigs and little branches just end up clattering up the place.  So we wait until we have a pleasant, not too dry, not too windy, not too wet, not too hot day and build a bonfire.  It takes a fair bit of effeort dragging it all to one place on a given terrace not too close to other vegetation, and stand over it all day keeping it under control.  And the result: tidier terraces and a small pile of woodash, which can be incorporated into the soil (and coughing neighbours, but mind you they are chain smokers anyway).

Since today what we do is, gather it all up and pile it up neatly.  A few rotten bits of bigger wood, which wouldn't be much good in the fireplace are also helpful.  You cover that wood with the turf you previously removed from your chosen site and having turned them upside down.  Find a few more turf squares and dump them on top.  If you have some other organic material, old leaves, grass cuttings, on with it.  Then shovel a load of soil on top, some compost if you have some spare and hey presto! You have a Hügelkultur (no hüüügel.  Got it now?). It should look somewhat like this (once mature of course):

or this:

Now that sound like more work then simply burning I hear you say, so what's the point of this.  So let me tell you:
  • As the wood rots it slowly releases nutrients to the soil
  • At the same time it releases heat, increasing the ambient temperature and enabling you to grow things earlier in the season then normal
  • The wood has an incredibble capacity to absorb water, which is then slowly released again, eliminating or at least reducing the need to water.
  • It increases surface.  Compared to a standard flat bed you have at least 3 times as much surface area to plant on
  • It won't need digging over

Now, whilst I had some work building this thing, it will actually from now on reduce my workload.  Various sources seem to have varying opinions on what size this (incidentally Hügel simply means hill) hill should be.  Anything from 2 to 10 feet gets bandied about.  I made my decision based on the amount of wood I happened to have handy, which resulted in dimensions of approximately 8x4x4 feet.  One of the few disadvantages quoted is that the rotting wood, at least in the first year or two, will deplete the soil of nitrogen.  To get around that I started with sowing a couple of nitrogen fixers, i.e. peas and lupins.

Sepp Holzer, Austrian permaculture supremo and hillside farmer recommends that if you build one of those things on a slope angle it with the direction of the waterflow.  As my terraces are not so wide, I've given it a bit of a diagonal angle, roughly south-east facing.  And I placed it on one of the lower terraces, where a) the micro-climate is more humid and b) it's a bit far away from the main action, so you want to have a low maintenance bed there.  Unfortunately I'm still camera-less, so you are just going to have to use your imagination.

In other news, spring has arrived yesterday and we have 3 new additions to the woodland garden: Ribena, the blackcrrant, Ellie, the Elaeagns X Ebingei 

 ...and Paddy, the strawberry tree (also known as Killarney strawberry, hence Paddy)

Obviously it's not carrying that much fruit just yet...  Ellie should also be producing some tasty and delicious berries for us in the future as well as fixing the soil and adding nitrogen for the nearby apple and cherry trees as well as for Ribena.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

There's No Tomorrow

Gloomy, but hard hitting video.  Take the time to watch this and pass it on to your friends.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Plans for the new season

Slowly the temperatures are creeping up again, onto the plus side of the Celsius scale, the bitter wind has finally blown itself out, the neighbours are poking their noses out of their doors again, with the help of them we have cleared out a ton of rubble from our doorstep which was still lying there since the earthquake, hopefully we have now survived the worst of winter and we'll remain catastrophe free for a while.  This has been the longest sub-zero spell we have known here, not so much snow, but a cold wind.  Most producing plants look rather sad on my land now.  Even the broad beans have suffered damage, I hope they will recover.  The only thing quite happy with the temperatures is this Japanese spinach.

Anyway, with the weather finally improving we have ventured out again taking a look at the land.  I've used the time being holed up indoors to work on this free permaculture course and as I said before I'm planning to turn our land into a food forest now.  So one of the things it tells you is to start your planning by making a map of your plot of land including all outside influences.  Now this is easier said then done.  I envy those people who have a flat square or rectangular plot of land where they can draw in everything neatly and show there crop rotations and all, neat beds etc.

My land is roughly triangular in shape, but that isn't the real problem it is also on a steep slop.  I have now worked it out: along our southeastern border where the landslides of 2010 have actually created a fairly even slope rather than being interupted by terraces, I have a 43% downward gradient.  In other words in the parts where I still have terraces I have almost as much vertical areas as I have horizontal ones.  Try drawing that onto a flat piece of paper!  I need to have some sophisticated computer software to make a 3d map, which needless to say I don't.

Anyway, here's my attempt of a 2d map.  I used my original ground survey map which we received when we purchased the plot and then drew around it a bit.  The first one shows a lot of the neighbouring land for a general impression of where water and wind come from.

Our plot is the little triangle in the centre, number 299 with a rough idea of the tree cover.  We are located in the southwestern corner of a kind of amphitheatre.  Our terraces face east with slight northern inclination.  The large plot to our southeast is badly overgrown and has suffered a lot worse from the landslides.  It shades  the area of our land that borders ours as it is a kind of a fold in the land.  This is where most of the water has come down too causing most of the devastation.  Much of it we haven't even attempted to fix yet, except that we have diverted water off the top to down along the road rather than down our land.

The plot to the north of us is a well tended vineyard facing the same way as us.  The plots to the north of that are also vineyards and some woodland facing south.  Water runs off in a seasonal gully in an easterly direction.  To our west is some woodland on a steep upwards slope, so we are sheltered from all prevailing winds.  The little purple circle incidentally represents our caravan.  The elevation of the plot is between 100 m (300 feet) at the eastern corner of our land to 130 metres (400 feet) at the western end.  For scale, the line representing our southeastern border is about 70 metres in length.

Now we zoom in a bit and show what trees currently grow where:

You may have to click on the image to enlarge it a bit.  I've named some of the trees, not that all have a name, but I didn't have room to give each their name.  The incline is sharper at the top end, so the terraces at the bottom are lower and wider.  At the top they are only about a metre (3 feet) wide in places.  However the top end, especially the northern half, gets the most sunshine, whilst the bottom, especially the southern side, is colder, damper and more likely to catch frost.

As you can see there are still plenty of white spots that can be filled in.  I am looking for biodiversity, including some species that don't imediately come to mind as edible species.  I have already bought a strawberry tree, a classic forest edge variety around here, and an eleagnus ebingii, which is good for stabilising soil, is a nitrogene fixer, attracts wildlife and produces edible and nutritious fruit.  All the kind of things I'm looking for.

If any of you out there have any other suggestions I'd be really grateful, especially combinations of plants benefitting each other.  Below the caravan we have built some sub-terraces to strengthen that particular terrace.  As posts to hold up the boards I have used freshly cut elder wood, some of them have now started sprouting.  The most vigorous one I have now named Pliny (the Elder...).  This should hopefully strengthen that area even more as well as giving us elderflowers and berries.

And finally a request to anybody likely to visit us anytime soon: instead of bringing us chocolate and wine, bring a tree :)  Thank you!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Navel Wort

I have let the wildfood of the month series lapse a bit, but as we are still holed up indoors due to the unusually cold weather I may as well do another one of them that I had originally planned for last year but kind of missed the window: Navel Wort (umbilicus rupestris), also known as penny-pies or wall pennywort.

This photo was taken in April last year, which really is already a little late in the season for this delicious herb  When they turn reddish like this they get a slightly unpleasant bitter taste.  They grow mainly on rough stone walls and are quite abundant around here even as early as January.  There were lots of them around before our current coldsnap, but now they have disappeared on most but the sunniest walls.

They are thick, succulent leaves about the size of a large coin and the shape of a human navel (hence the name)  Here a better idea of the size of them:

You pick them off the wall and just pop them in your mouth, just like that, and they have the most refreshing crunching juicyness to them.  If you've been walking for a bit and have run out of water, just a pop a few of these for an instant revitaliser.  If you find quite a few of them, and never graze them bare, take them home and pop them into a salad or I could imagine them added to an energising vegetable juice.

Not only are these things tasty, they are also good for you.  Culpeper used to call it 'kidneywort' because of it's beneficial influence on the waterworks in general and the kidney in particular.   The juice applied externally is said to combat acne if you have any teenagers suffering from that ailment.  It generally has a cooling effect on anything it is applied to, both internally and externally.  I imagine it would help relieve insect bites, but alas it's not available when insects are around...

I have no doubt there are other benefits, but best of all it's really tasty and free!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


Ok Mr. God, you've had your fun.  First you try to drown us, then you shake our house about and now you dump all that white stuff on us.  What is next?  Pestilence?  Locusts?  Ronny the Milkman and 5th rider of the acopolypse.. alocopyspse...?  We've had gail force winds and snow for the last 18 hours, just as we thought winter was going to be cancelled this year!  It is to last for about 10 days!

In the absence of a camera to record the event here some archive footage of last time it snowed.  Meet some of my crazy neighbours:

Should we decide to leave here, there are some people from this village I'm really going to miss.  The following is a concert held last Christmas involving Mauro on accordeon and pipes as well as Iacobo (an Italian who teaches Irish to the Irish) and Corrado.  Unfortunately we had missed the concert ourselves as we were in the mountains over Christmas.  Thank God for You Tube!

Right, enough of all that.  I'm going to hibernate now.  Someone wake me up in March... ;)