Amerigo’s tree – wishing for a small miracle

We met Amerigo 15 years ago under inauspicious circumstances. At four in the morning on the second night in our new home we awoke to the sound of a woman screaming hysterically whilst a harsh male voice yelled: “Abre! Abre!”

The screaming and yelling continued to shatter the silence as we ran outside to discover where the commotion was coming from. A feral desperation in the woman’s voice meant we waited only moments before calling the police. The cries continued from next door and my husband was half way up the front railings when a blue-rinsed lady erupted out of the house pursued by a gentleman with a perfectly-quaffed handlebar moustache. Although it was not exactly the damsel in distress we had anticipated, my husband tried to sooth the lady, promising to get her out.

“Don’t let her out! She’ll escape!” hollered the lady’s elderly ‘tormentor’ as a police car swung round the corner and we were brushed back into our home by the boys in blue.

Next morning we met the lady who lived in the apartment below Amerigo. “Does the man above you mistreat his wife?” we enquired.

She looked at us as if we were dangerously insane. “That man is a saint!” she announced before telling us Amerigo’s wife had suffered from dementia for more than a decade and he had lovingly nursed her throughout with never a murmur of discontent.

“Sometimes she won’t take her medicine and if I hear a commotion I go up and help him open her mouth so she swallows it and calms down. Last night I was very tired and must have slept through it.”

Deeply embarrassed at causing this stoical gentleman further trouble, we bought the best bottle of wine we could afford and went round to apologise. True to character, Amerigo was far nicer to us than we could possibly have hoped for.

“I’d rather have neighbours who would call the police if they hear a woman screaming than someone who’d roll over and go back to sleep,” he said, and a friendship was cemented.Image

Although Amerigo is in the middle apartment of a block of three, and so has no access to a garden, it does not diminish his love of plants, or his attempts to push horticultural boundaries. Over the years he has lent me several books on gardening and offered countless tips over the wall. Every time he throws open his shutters to the morning and walks onto his balcony to see the same view he has seen for more than 60 years, he breathes in deeply, smiles, and comments on what a paradise we live in and how lucky we are. In the cool of the evening you can sometimes hear him playing soulful Spanish guitar so exquisitely tortured it’s capable of making grown men weep.

Several years ago Amerigo was due to be taken into hospital. He called out urgently over the wall to come round as there was something he wanted to give me before the ambulance came to take him away.

“It’s an apple tree,” he said pointing to a couple of twigs in a pot, “I grew it from a pip. If anything happens to me I know my daughter will throw it away, will you plant it in your garden?”

Although I knew it must be possible to grow apple trees from apples, I had never known anyone actually do it. The patience involved, the dedication in the face of, no doubt, innumerable failures, transformed Amerigo’s spindly sapling into a gift of immeasurable worth.

I promised him I would take care of it and sadly waved him off in the ambulance, half expecting it to be our last meeting.

Three years on and Amerigo is almost 90. The tree is the first in the garden to get an extra compost ration and, although it is still very small, it’s thriving. He knows it’s doing well, but every time I water it I wish for a small miracle, a first apple that I can take to him and watch his neatly trimmed moustache lift, his eyes sparkle and a deep chuckle gurgle up from his chest.

Although he’s never had a garden, this Spanish gentleman has taught me more about growing all sorts of plants in the Mediterranean than anyone I’ve ever met; it would be fitting to be able to give him back this one tiny thing.

There’s a deep need within most people’s psyche that yearns to leave something worthwhile and lasting when they’re gone. What better than a tree that can feed those who come after us and, as Amerigo has shown, you don’t need to shell out loads of euros at a garden centre and live in a fancy house with a few spare acres.  Just a pot and an avocado stone, a date, a loquat or even an apple plus lashings of love and care, will allow you to do that.

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After wind, plants need some love

After all the wind the island has experienced during the past ten days, I noticed many of our plants and trees had leaves that looked dead around the edges. Although we’ve enjoyed some refreshing rain, large shrubs and trees become dehydrated far quicker by wind than by drought, and unhappy leaves are a sure sign they’ve been affected.Image

So, in spite of the rain, most of my garden (apart from the vines) has been treated to a little extra water plus a good dose of copper spray on their leaves (including the vines).

Copper spray acts as a general fungicide so plants that are susceptible to black spot or mildew will benefit from regular use. Citrus trees and avocados, in particular, seem to become glossier almost over-night following treatment. When you visit your local garden centre you may see tell-tale bluish-brown dollops on plant leaves. This reveals that they’ve been given their strengthening medicine recently.

If there are late heavy rains, after vines and trees have already produced dense leaves,  the risk of mildew is increased. This problem ruined all our grapes a couple of years ago. After this experience we discovered that a thorough copper spraying could have saved both leaves and fruit before the problem became acute. It’s also useful on pear and apple trees if you see any evidence of fire blight disease. This is when the tips of leaves and shoots blacken and droop into crook shapes. Remove and burn any black parts and then spray the whole tree with copper spray, reapplying in a fortnight if the tree is still looking poorly.

Although copper spray is certified for use by organic gardeners, if you wish to go even further down the green road some gardeners claim that liquid seaweed achieves much the same results. This is said to work by boosting beneficial fungi which then counteract any bad ones.

Pesto Paradise

Finally it’s warm enough for basil seeds to germinate outside. With the first glimpse of their little green heads, every spare pot in the house has been filled with compost and pressed into action – to say we love pesto could be an understatement.

For me, the smell of basil brings a smile, it’s an aroma that conjures up everything that’s relaxed about summer.Image

Anyway, to get down to the business of growing it: in my book, the classic large-leafed basil is the only way to go, however, if you have a passion for a more aniseed flavour buy the slightly crinkly-leaved variety. One seed packet can easily provide sufficient for pesto and salad usage throughout the summer, plus 20-30 packets of frozen pesto stacked in the freezer so that pesto-addicts need never go without.

Fill your pots with compost and sprinkle the seeds over the surface before covering with a thin layer of compost and gently firming down. Keep the compost moist, but not drenched, until you see a haze of green shoots. When the plants have produced their first crop of large leaves, pinch out the top shoot to encourage them to expand sideways and stop them from going into their seed-producing stage too quickly. As with lettuce, the trick is to keep harvesting the leaves as you need them, letting the plant rest and produce some more while you harvest off other pots.

I thought this was what everybody did until a friend of mine asked to take some basil home with him at the end of a barbecue.

“Sure,” I said, beginning to turn to go into the house for a bowl. Before my jaw even had time to hit the floor, he had snapped off four or five plants – he was a chef, not a gardener! Guillotined basil doesn’t live, but had the plants just had their leaves removed they would have continued to produce for one or two months more. While I may not talk to my plants – at least not when anyone’s within earshot – I do advocate being kind to them, it keeps them alive!

Try to remember to water your plants a couple of hours before you intend to pick leaves, then they are nice and plump, bursting with flavour and at their best for eating.

Personally I don’t like too much oil in my food which is why I always freeze pesto rather than keep it in oil in jars. Small bags take up very little space and make an easy instant meal with a bit of pasta and salad. If you are unfreezing your home-produced pesto in the microwave, do watch it carefully as it unfreezes very quickly and isn’t nearly as good if it’s “cooked”.

To make one bag (enough for about 400g of pasta)  I put a clove of garlic, small handful of pine nuts (or since they’ve become so expensive, almonds), and some ground black pepper in a small food processor. Top this with basil leaves until they’re at the top of the container without being pressed down. Place 3 or 4 chunky slices of parmesan on top of the leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil. If the mixture is too rough add some more olive oil until it is the consistency you like. Either use it immediately, or scoop it into a small freezing bag and keep for later. For variation, pop in a few dried tomatoes to the mix, it makes the flavour even “warmer”.

A refreshing cup of tea – back on the menu

A refreshing cup of tea - back on the menu

I forgot to dry the leaves of my lemon verbena (Hierba Luisa in Spanish) this winter, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a lovely cup of tea. However, with the recent rains it has sprung to life and lemon verbena tea is back on the menu. This is another plant that does very well in pots and can give a wonderful scent to your balcony for much of the year. Once established it can grow up to 3 metres in height. Don’t be shy of giving it a good prune when it becomes scraggly and making use of any cuttings or unwanted base shoots in the kitchen.

Mint with pasta – great until basil comes along

Mint with pasta - great until basil comes along

It’s still a little too early for mounds of lush green basil and my store of frozen bags of last year’s pesto is now very thin. However, mint is in abundance and can make a wonderfully refreshing pasta sauce in the interim. Boil about 350g of pasta according to packet instructions. Take a large handful of fresh mint sprigs, strip the leaves into a food processor, add 3 or 4 good lumps of parmesan, a tub of creme fraiche and a good grind of black pepper. Wizz it all together and then add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water to loosen the mix. Add either a couple of handfuls of peas, or some asparagus to the pasta a couple of minutes before the end of cooking time, or add some cherry tomatoes directly to the sauce. When the pasta and veg are cooked, stir in the mint sauce and eat!

All herbs are perfect for the mini-gardener who only has space for a few pots on a terrace, and good herb pots make a greater impact on your cooking than anything else. Try to keep herbs together that like the same conditions, for example put mint, parsley and chives in one pot and keep it in an area of partial shade, while putting oregano, thyme, marjoram and basil in areas with plenty of sunshine.

Revel in Radishes!

Revel in Radishes!

They are quick and easy to grow – planting to eating is about one month; they’re happy in anything from a pot to a field; the seeds are big enough to handle easily so there’s no need for wastage through thinning, and a single packet will provide sufficient seeds for many months of sowing, but the best thing is that when they travel directly from earth to salad bowl they retain their natural fiery flavour which is generally so absent in shop-bought radish. Remember to eat them before they become too large and woody – there’s always plenty more where they came from!

Something is better than nothing …

Whether it’s exercise, saving the pennies or growing some of your own fruit and veg, I’m solidly of the opinion that something is always better than nothing! To know exactly where some of your food has come from is always a plus as, even when you believe you’re consuming a thoroughly healthy diet, you can come across daily shocks that make you sit up and think.

A few years ago I was eager to grow some avocado trees. A South African friend had told me that in her country, whose climate is similar to Mallorca’s, avocados grow along the roadside and are considered to be one step up from a weed.

“They’re the simplest thing in the world to sprout,” she assured me; yet try as I might I managed zero response from the pips from my Mercadona-bought pears.

In frustration I contacted Richard Handscombe whose wisdom on growing fruit and veg in Spain is documented in the two books he has written with his wife Clough, Growing Healthy Fruit in Spain and Growing Healthy Vegetables in Spain.Image

I discovered that most of the fruit and veg imported onto the island had been irradiated and so seeds would not germinate. Richard kindly packaged up a couple of pips in a jiffy bag and put them in the post. They are now over two meters high and have been joined by others I bought from local markets – these may look small compared with their supermarket cousins but they haven’t been tampered with and so they will grow.

Very few people can eradicate all irradiated fruit and veg, additives, artificial preservatives and e-numbers from their diet, but reducing them in some measure at least leads to the feel-good-factor that you’re “aware” and attempting to stem the avalanche of unknowns.

Whether you’ve got a window box or a casa senorial with an army of gardeners, it’s worth growing something edible. Most people, like those depicted in the hit show The Good Life, fall somewhere in the middle, and whereas I might not go as far as Felicity Kendal and have a pig in the back garden of a suburban semi, you don’t have to be living in the heart of the countryside to enjoy a real difference in your diet.

My own home is so close to Palma’s infamous Plaza Gomila that hoards of teens become my kids’ best friends every Friday and Saturday night so they can crash onto one of the stack of mattresses I keep specifically for the purpose – not exactly rural isolation, yet we have hens laying eggs and trees laden with fruit.

Clough and Richard Handscombe’s books are full of tips for the terrace gardener right up to those who have large tracts of land. From herbs to tomatoes and even citrus trees in pots, they describe how much can be achieved in an apartment, the message is: you don’t have to have a garden to be a productive gardener.