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

To book an informative and fun wine tasting whilst holidaying in Italy or arrange for a wild food walk in your area contact me on tuscanytipple at libero dot it or check out my Facebook page

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Monday, 27 August 2012

Amusing pet movie of the week...

This is Eddie the crazy Beagle.  I suppose it's one way to scratch your back...

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The book is finally out!

Just a short post, to let everyone I haven't told yet know, my book finally is available to order!

This is the blurb on the back cover:

A guide to over 130 of the most common edible and medicinal plants in Western Europe, aimed at the long‐distance or casual hiker along the main pilgrim routes through Western Europe. The author has had some 40 years of experience in foraging and though a Dutchman by birth, has been at home all over Europe including Germany, Ireland, England and for the last 8 years in Italy along the Via Francigena pilgrim route, where he feeds his family as a subsistence farmer, cultivating a small piece of Ligurian hillside along permaculture principles, and by gathering food from the wild. 

You can order it directly from the publisher, from Amazon (for those in the US) or send us an e-mail to order directly from me on tuscanytipple at libero dot it. 

Monday, 20 August 2012

Close to the Edge

 "A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
And assessing points to nowhere, leading ev'ry single one.
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,
And take away the plain in which we move,
And choose the course you're running."

Todays post starts a little unusually with some 1970's prog rock, I picked a short version of Close to the Edge by Yes, I'll explain the relevance in a minute...

I'm talking about permaculture again and wild food foraging.  What's that got to do with THE EDGE I hear you ask.  Having traveled a little to other parts of Italy recently in the name of permaculture, a friend coined the new term 'permaculturing around', I realised that I am in a very privileged position in living in an area with an enormous variety of edible plants.  I find some 150 different species of edible and/or medicinal wild plants during the course of a year within an hour's walk from my home.  I had always put that down to the favourable climate of Italy in general compared to the more northern climes where I grew up, but it turns out that we live on a special place within Italy and I started wondering why.

One of the main objectives of permaculture is that we observe nature, see how ecology works and then apply those principles to our designs, because nature does not need any outside intervention and is therefore self-sustaining.  Wild food foraging is a great exercise in observation.  You start to look around you much more and seeing things you normally miss.  Soon you start realising that certain plants prefer certain conditions such as micro-climates, soil conditions, the way they often associate with other plants and how those plants can in fact be an indicator of existing conditions.  One of the main observation you start making is that you find the greatest biodiversity on 'edges'.

It makes perfect sense of course once you start thinking about it:

If you go into the middle of a forest there is only little light available so you won't find many ground covering plants, whilst in the middle of an open field you will find that certain herbs and grasses will quickly dominate the scene.  However if you look at where the two meet you will find the greatest biodiversity, not only of plants, but also of animals.  There is more light available then in the woods, also the forest acts as a windbreak, catching seeds and organic material on the edge and animals normally at home in either of the two environments will occasionally come to the edge where they can feast on the greater diversity of the plants.  In addition a number of species evolve that specialise in colonising the edges of different biotopes, meaning that on the edge there is a greater variety of life than the combined sum of the two.  This is known as the 'edge effect'.

There are many more examples for the edge effect.  Where water meets land, land animals come to drink, fish catch flies, predators eat both and frogs are happy inbetween.  There are aquatic, semi-aquatic and land plants meeting at the same place and all the animals that go with them.  This happens next to lakes:


...and of course by the sea.  Then we have have mountains meeting valleys:

or the edge of a path.  Water runs off the path giving an opportunity for many plants to flourish on the side of the path.  Sometimes the seeds hitch a ride with whoever goes along the path:

Or you may even have several edges meeting at the same time, such as wood, land and water.

Any birdwatcher worth their salt knows that the greatest variety of birds are found in river estuaries, where the river meets the sea.  There are seasonal 'edges': spring and autumn edge around the poorer seasons of summer and winter.  In short edges is where things tend to happen in nature.

Now coming back to where I live.  Within a radius of about 25km as the fly crows... the cry fl...flow cries... around here we have two major mountain ranges of up to 2,000m altitude, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps, we have the Ligurian Sea and the sheltered Gulf of La Spezia, 2 river valleys meeting just below us, the Vara and the Magra, which combine to exit into the Mediterranean and we have extensive woodlands all around us.

If you imagine flying towards us, as you come in from the sea, which is in a general southerly direction of us, you follow up the wide river delta and the hill we live on is the first one you encounter, rising up to 300m.  Should you fly further upriver along either river, you will find the valleys narrowing directly afterwards, giving rise to a much more continental climate within only a few kilometres.  Uphill from us, you'd be flying above a complete cover of chestnut and oak woods.

So we get all the species of all those different biotopes as well as the edge species, cormorants and eagles, saltwater fish and freshwater fish, woodland edge species and plants that like growing in the open, migrating birds such as bee-eaters and passing flamingos and all that goes with it.  And of course aforementioned wild plants.

And that's the reason I live at such a privilegded place.  Also the farmers around us are mostly small-scalle subsistence farmers growing crops mostly for own consumption.  That means few chemicals are used, there are many edges between relatively small plots of land, vegetables are interplanted within vineyards and olive groves, little machinery is used and a lot of natural ground cover plants are allowed to flourish amongst the cultivated fields.  Sometimes cultivated crops are allowed to go to seed and sow themselves out, becoming part of the general flora.  Examples are alfalfa, which is sown as nitrogen fixing cover crop like this one on the edge of a wall:

this Jerusalem artichoke, which has long seized to be a cultivated crop in Italy since the introduction of the potato in Italy:

or this sow thistle just on the edge of a pavement in downtown Milan, surviving on the little dirt which accumulates by the side in a little crack away from the pounding feet of pedestrians:

"Down at the edge, round by the corner,
Not right away, not right away.
Close to the edge, down by a river,
Not right away, not right away."
 If, incidentally you are wondering what that Yes song is all about, apparently it was inspired by Herman Hesse's novel Siddharta, a story telling the life of a young Brahmin in India during the time of the Buddha.  He spends his whole life trying to find himself and the meaning of life until he finally settles down as a ferryman by the edge of a river, where he finds peace and wisdom by observing the ever-flowing, ever-changing yet un-changing river.

 "Crossed the line around the changes of the summer,
Reaching out to call the color of the sky.
Passed around a moment clothed in mornings faster than we see.
Getting over all the time I had to worry,
Leaving all the changes far from far behind.
We relieve the tension only to find out the master's name."

It's all a bit cryptic, but good song anyway...

So how can we utilise the EDGE effect for ourselves.  First of all when going out foraging look for edges, that's where you are most likely to find a great variety of plants.  Keep your eyes peeled next time you are out on a walk.  Secondly when designing a garden create edges.  I designed my pond with as much edge as possible, not just one simple round or oval, but with a wiggly outline, narrow bits and wider bits.  The more edge, the more biodiversity.  Instead of planting your veg in straight lines, try wavy lines.  That way you can also fit more plants into the same area.  Plan vertical as well as horizontal to maximise the space and create edges.  Hedges aren't called that for nothing, they make excellent edges which encourages wildlife and biodiversity which will benefit your garden.

The edge effect also works within human society.  On the edges between different social groups, various sciences, age groups mingling etc is where we can learn most.  Look over the edge of your own horizon to open it up.  Where philosophers meet physists new knowledge arises, when the young listen to the old and vice versa we learn from each other.  And aren't those people who live on the edge of society, those who don't follow every trend like sheep, the ones who will ulitimately change the way we behave, think and live?  I certainly hope so.  

On that philosphical note, let's all move away from the comfortable centre and become 'cutting edge' and there's hope for the human race yet.

Monday, 6 August 2012

teaming with Microbes - a book review

Currently I'm sitting indoors rather than outside helping our helpers finish the pond as I somehow managed to injure my foot.  Not sure what happened, but it's swollen to the size of a pumpkin and I can't walk any more.  Look away now if you are of a delicate disposition:

As you can see the left foot is much larger than the right one.  The almost funny thing is I know what I can do about it, which is apply a comfrey poultice, only thing the nearest comfrey plant I know of is too far away to hobble to and too difficult to explain to Susan where to find it, as she is a) not the best at plant identification and b) is likely to get lost in the woods trying to find it.  And yes I know, I also have a fungal problem, but I'm already working on a solution for that:  I'm making a salve made from field marigold, curry plant and St. John's Wort, which should help.  More of that in another post soon.

But talking about fungi, this leads us neatly into our next subject: a book review on the above book, 'Teaming with Microbes - The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web' by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, since I don't have anything else much to do at the moment.  I did threaten a post on soil science the last time around and that is what this book is about.

Note the pun in the title, the authors are trying to explain how healthy garden soil is not only full of life, but that we should work in cooperation with that life to create a healthier environment for our garden plants.  The book is divided into 2 parts: 1. The Basic Science and 2. Applying Soil Food Web Science to Yard and Garden Care.

Part one was maybe surprisingly the far more interesting part, because by understanding the underlying science you can come to your own conclusions, which, as in my case, may lead you to different conclusions than to those propagated by the author.  The book begins with an explanation why understanding the soil food web is important. 

In general we tend to think of food chains as a kind of pyramid, where the top predator sits at the top of the food chain, but of course, it is much more complex than that, both above ground or within the soil.  Much smaller parasites eat big predators from within, parasitic fungi eat live nematodes or plants, etc, so it makes much more sense to think of the interrelationships between different life forms as a web, where everything tries to get it's sustenance from wherever it is available.  It's a fungus eat nematode world out there, a constant feeding frenzy.  Apparently one single teaspoon of healthy soil has more than a billion lifeforms present in it.  It's a world we have yet to explore properly, which is as alien to us as outer space or the deep sea.

Yet we depend on this soil life in highly complex ways.  The first part goes on to describe the various forms of soil life, each in their own chapter.  Plants deliberately excrete sugars to attract the smalles forms of life, bacteria and fungi, to their roots.  Plants need these life forms to make what they need to feed on available to them.  The most famous example of course is the way legumes attract nitrogen fixing bacteria, which form nodules around the roots.  Nitrogen is ingested by bacteria directly from the atmosphere, which is also why it is important that a quarter of the soil's composition consists of nothing but air.  As these bacteria get ingested by other life forms, the nitrogen is released into the soil through excretion and becomes thus available to plants.  It is important that all parts of the soil food web stay in tact and in balance, for these processes to happen.

Fungi also play an important role as they can break down more complex organic matter and break it down.  Their rhizomes can also travel for literally miles to get to food sources quite some distance away, unlike bacteria, who rarely travel far.  Dying rhizomes create small channels in the soil full of decomposed organic matter, which also let water and air penetrate the soil.  Other notable members of the soil food web each with their own chapter in the book, include algae and slime molds (I particularly liked the example of the slime mold that gangs up as a colony looking like a puddle of dog vomit and moving across your driveway at the speed of 1cm an hour),


protozoa (incl. amoeba aka jelly babies),

Nematodes (not all nematodes are bad!)

Arthropods, i.e. your more visible bugs and insects and other creepy crawlies, earthworms, your most visible sign of soil health, i.e. the more the better, gastropods, i.e. snails and slugs (yes they do have an iportant role to play, as long as they are part of a balanced system),  and finally the bigger animals, such as birds mammals and reptiles.  as you can see the book boasts some impressive microscopic photos, which may or may not give you bad dreams tonight.

The overall conclusion is that each part of the soil food web plays an important role in supporting plant life and you mess with it at your peril.  Whilst many of us regard fungi as a nuisance as they attack our crops in the form of leaf curl disease on peaches, botrytis on our grapes or other fungal diseases, applying fungicide, even one considered safe by organic farmers such as Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and lime, the blue stuff everybody seems to spray on their vines and tomatoes) destroys all fungal life, poisons the soil and breaks an important link in the soil food web.  Also adding liqud nitrogen feed has a long term negative effect.  Whilst initially plants will grow better, it also destroys or at least severely damages the soil food web.  In both cases you create a dependency having to constantly re-apply those substances and in the process making the soil poorer.

The authors also argue that tilling and double digging has a severely negative effect on the soil life, especially on the fungal rhizomes, which act like the communication web of a healthy soil.  Theses mile long rhizomes get disconnected and distroyed, leading eventually to compaction and therefore again, leading to extra work again as the soil needs to be dug over again year after year.  The life that lives in the soil is perfectly capable of doing the job for us if we only let it.

The second part of the book then deals with practical solutions by setting up 19 rules to using the soil food web, using just 3 tools.  I don't agree fully with their conclusions.  The 3 tools to create and work with the soil food web according to the authors are: composting, mulching and applying compost teas.  As for composting, they give you the usual compost recipes.  Whilst I agree that, if you make a compost pile you need to mix 'green', nitrogen rich materials (such as freshly cut grass and kitchen wastes) with 'brown' waste (such as old leaves and woody wastes), I am off building compost heaps as a major tool.  The reasons for me are thus:

  1.  Producing a compost heap at one corner of your yard, then involves transporting the final compost to where you need it, which partyicularly in my case with our steep land, involves considerable effort.  Not to mention the effort of regularly turning your compost.  
  2. While turning the compost and transporting it around, you disturb the soil food web you have created, thus going against the principles the authors advocate.
  3. If I produce a compost I use whatever happens to be at hand rather than following some sort of recipe, which depends on specific materials being available and possibly necessitating importing materials to get the 'correct' balance.
What I do instead most of the time, as I have many gaps in raised beds as it is, I simply fill these raised beds with any organic matter which happens to be available.  The authors also advice against the use of any animal or human manure.  I on the other hand succesfully use donkey manure, which effectively is the same as horse manure, which has a good nitrogen balance and occasionally throw it on top of a pile of other organic materials and plant straight into it.  I have done this on the raised terraced beds for my tomatoes during last winter and now have the most wonderfully rich, mosture attentive soil where those exceptionally healthy tomatoes grow.  If I find myself with spare compost in the future (at the moment I'm busy filling in beds left, right and centre), I shall make myself a wormery, which is one of the most effective and fast ways of producing rich compost.

Mulching on the other hand is nature's way of adding organic matter to the soil.  As you add mulch, it encourages beneficial fungi and bacteria.  Worms will drag down some of the material into the soil and mix it in.  Apart from that it of course suppresses weeds and minimises evaporation, meaning you need to water less.

For the compost teas, this is something I should try in the future.  The authors advocate a method of Actively aerated compost teas (AACT).  This involves some equipment to blow bubbles through some water with some compost added to it, which means extraction of the good bacteria and fungi is very quick and non-smelly.  These teas are not only applied to the soil, but also sprayed onto foliage, strengthening the whole system and making it more resilient against harmful diseases and pests.  Once I get around making one of those I shall write about it in a bit more detail.

Interesting also were the points made about the different preferences of different plants as to the symbiosises.. symbiosae symb... which parts of the soil food web they like to associate with.  There are two basic types: bacterially dominated and fungally dominated.  The bacteria are always the first to join any feeding frenzy, followed by fungi, who take a little longer to establish themselves.  Most annual plants prefer a bacterially dominated soil, whilst perennials prefer a fungally dominated soil.  That makes perfect sense again if you just observe nature.  Pioneer species, such as the legumes, form relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria, whilst of you look at a mature forest with long-lived trees... where is it that you find mushrooms? 

So this is useful information for my bed building again.  If you remember in my last post I was building a raised bed, where I am planning to plant perennials.  We build it up using mainly brown materials, including whole branches and old leaves.  These encourage a fungally dominated soil.  I even threw in an old tree mushroom, to speed up the process.  For your annuals on the other hand you should add plenty of green manure for them to flourish.  My tomato beds also include some chicken manure which is rich in nitrogen.

On a final note on the book, they dedicate a whole chapeter on lawn maintenance.  That seemed to me a bit of a waste of time.  I don't think a lawn has any place in an ecologically balanced garden, as you constantly try and stop it doing what it wants to do, i.e. evolve into a forest.  But all in all this is a really useful, well written and easily understandable book, which I can heartily recommend.  Anybody out there short on money like myself, I do have the e-version on my hard drive and be happy to share it with anybody who wants it.

Finally, the pond really is taking shape now.  Yesterday, already with an injured foot, we constructed the raised bed below the pond, which will be home to some soft fruit bushes:

It's about 5m long and will be filled up with predominantly brown materials.  The pond itself is almost ready.  It just needs another fott depth and some terracing within to give different levels of depth:

 and from above we diverted the way the water comes down into a little feeder channel, so rain water drains into the pond:

Now I just need my foot to get better...

Saturday, 4 August 2012

of pond digging, celebrating and desert cities

This week we've had 4(!) helpers around to give us a hand around the land, notably with the pond digging.  Unfortunately it's also been VERY hot so working hours were restricted to early morning and late afternoon, but still, a lot got done and I'm really happy with the progress we've made.

Here we see Theresa and Peter digging on the pond:

 The basic outline is there, but as we get deeper we are hitting some seriously hard clay and the pick axe is required.  This is the overall progress so far:

Ben and I in the meantime busied ourselves building another raised bed / reverse hugelkultur on the very top terrace right next to the road.

The idea is to slow erosion along that particular stretch, so we are filling it with all manner of organic material, such as wooden branches, leaves and leaf litter from the side of the road.  This will eventually build up the soil and I am intending to plant some perennials there.  More of that at a later stage.  I also have a blog post on soil science in permaculture in my head, so look out for that.  This raised bed was Ben's idea, as he has also just returned from a permaculture design course and was keen to practice his new found skills.

Hannah in the meantime went to pick fruit such as pears, apples and plums to make jam:

It wasn't all hard work though as we spent the evenings celebrating together with pizza and music as you can see in the following photos.

All in all I think they've been having a good time.  Ben and Theresa left us yesterday (for the time being) and Hannah and Peter are still with us for the moment.

On a different note, I had to go to Milan yesterday for some boring bureucratic business.  I was a little apprehensive about it all, as I always have a bad conscience when dealing with any authorities...  Anyway, after I finished my business I had 5 hours to kill in the city with no money in my pocket.

Man was that depressing!  I know why I moved away from the city...  I just aimlessly wandered around the streets, trying to find a shady spot to eat my sandwiches and relax and maybe take in one or two of the sights if I happen to pass them.  At one stage I walked for about 10 or 15 minutes and the only plant life I spotted was this:

...a lonely solitary sow thistle.  It's in theory edible of course, but even if I wasn't worried about the pollution, it would be cruel to pick the one plant managing to survive in this desert.  Cities are just human moncultures, which is why they don't work.  Finally I spotted a creative citizen making use of the limited space to create some green:

Then I found something almost resembling a park... but fenced in and 'proudly sponsored' by an insurance company:

Finally my feet carried me into one of the leafier suburbs where they've created this:

I don't know what the solution is to the growing world population, but stuffing them all as tightly as possible into cities and then putting an odd plant in as an afterthought surely isn't it.  I was glad to get back on my train out of this depressing place.

The promised post on edges is soon coming up, so keep tuned in folks... ;)