Edible walks – a single step is the start of any change

A couple of years ago I was walking beside the River Orwell in Suffolk and among all the oaks and horse chestnuts we came across an elderly cherry plum tree, bows bent low with ripe fruit. We gorged ourselves and filled our pockets with cherry plums to take home. This single tree made the walk memorable for everybody and had me dreaming of creating “edible walks” all over the island of Mallorca.Image

One of my favourite folk tales is The Man Who Planted Trees (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Man-Who-Planted-Trees/dp/1860461174/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372007391&sr=8-1&keywords=The+man+who+planted+trees ) I’ve read it innumerable times as a bedtime story to the kids. It contains a simple altruism which appeals to something deep within me, but whereas the protagonist plants oaks and beech trees, in my head it is pears, dates, avocados (above: the result of some avocado stone planting in my garden) and loquats.

Last week I saw an article about Seattle’s edible forest. This has been planted in the middle of the city for any of its residents to eat from. It’s self-sustaining and offers a myriad of fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, nuts and berries.

Since being given Amerigo’s apple tree (see last post) which he grew from a pip, I’ve developed a “stick-it-in-a-pot-and-see” fetish. So far this has resulted in some spindly papaya seedlings from a Mercadona fruit (pictured below), a goodly number of avocado trees, a loquat (and I only planted two seeds in yoghurt pots, so next year I’ll plant more) and many mini-date palms – which so far have not been attacked by the dreaded red beetle.Image

As I have run out of space in my garden, many of my experiments are being surreptitiously planted on walks I take with the dog. Once each one has been dug in, it is given the contents of my water bottle and an earnest prayer that one day it will give fruit to a future family, making their day memorable in the way that the cherry plum tree did for us.

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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.

The Power of Poo – and other freebies

With the sun and rain we’ve enjoyed over Easter, the whole island is green and burgeoning. It’s time to give the soil a boost in order to get the very best fruit and vegetables possible this summer.

Top of the soil-feed desirability stakes for gardeners has always been horse manure – so much so that it was originally believed the tractor would never become popular on farms because of its lack of poo production! This year my garden enjoyed a bonanza after Eva Marie Burns from Inca posted on Facebook that she was happy for all horticulturists to descend upon her five-horse paddock and dig to their hearts content. The financial crisis has meant that the person who usually removed the “waste” and paid her for the pleasure, is no longer prepared to cough up, so, enterprising Eva crowned herself Queen of Poo (her words, not mine) and posted her appeal.Image

She is asking those who load up their cars at the stables to donate a couple of euros to the Dogs 4 U charity on the island or, if you don’t want to do your own shovelling, her son will bag it up for a euro a bag, half of which will also be donated to Dogs 4 U. This all seems more than fair for a pile of what my parents always referred to as “gold dust”.  Heavy feeding plants such as tomatoes, bananas, asparagus, avocados, cucumbers and roses will perk up no end with a few spadefuls of this superfood.

However, Mallorca is abundant with many other free soil feeds in addition to horse manure. For centuries local farmers used seaweed on the land. It is useful both as a mulch to keep down weeds, limit water evaporation and discourage snails and also to add to compost heaps to increase the content of many trace minerals.

If you have chickens their manure should also be added to the compost but it’s far too strong to place directly on plants, this is a product that definitely needs mixing with less extreme foods such as grass cuttings before use.

Wood ash from wood burners or bonfires is another freebie that’s great for the garden. It’s full of potash and calcium carbonate, while slugs and snails hate it so it creates a natural slug repellent. However, don’t overdo it in one place as mounds of it can form an impenetrable cement which prevents moisture from getting through to the roots below.

My final free fertilizer is what my kids call Mum’s Witches Brew. When stinging nettles are prevalent, as they are now, this can be made easily and used anywhere, diluted with 3 parts water to one part “brew”. Fill a bucket with nettles and place it in the area of the garden you will want to spread the fertilizer. Fill with water and leave for a fortnight before using. The final mixture is full of nitrogen, magnesium, sulphur (yes, it does smell after a while!) and iron. It can be used on all plants or as a compost activator, but is particularly good for any trees whose leaves are paler than usual, indicating they need some extra iron.

A little bit of effort in the spring will reap huge benefits when the intense heat turns much of our land into a dust bowl. Better soil makes for improved water retention which is good for both plants and pockets, while regular feeding ensures gardeners can make maximum use of the Mediterranean’s two growing seasons without the earth becoming exhausted.

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.