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.

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Preparing for The Good Life

Most of the Mediterranean is graced with two planting seasons due to the temperate winter climate. By now we’re well into the first one with many gardeners already having their second batch of seedlings coming up in greenhouses or various lesser-used corners of the house.

I hesitated before writing the word “greenhouse” because it turns the idea of growing-your-own into something that appears costly and requiring sizeable outlays of space, time and money. This is quite wrong.

Growing at least some of your own fruit and veg can be done anywhere. Even when I lived on a boat I would sprout mung beans for use in salads and stir-fries (put some holes in the plastic top of an empty jar, place a thin layer of beans in the bottom, cover with water for 12 hours then shake out. Moisten and drain daily until ready to use) I also used to grow a selection of herbs by placing flowerpots inside 5 litre water containers which had their tops removed. I then threaded a string through the sides to make a swinging handle when we were sailing. These adapted water containers not only ensured the plants never tipped over in a high sea but also acted as mini greenhouses when the pots were on deck.

My current “greenhouse” is an old shelving unit with bits of perspex hinged on and sealed with magnets (see photo). Clear plastic sheeting would also work or just transporting your pots inside at night and keeping them in sheltered sun patches during the day will be fine.Image

A friend of mine who lives in an apartment with no terrace still grows rocket and herbs in window boxes. The possibilities are endless and every little helps to make your family’s diet more natural and full of flavour.

A packet of seeds will cost you roughly 1.50€ and will contain more seeds than you need for the coming season however many are in your family. Easily handleable seeds like melons, courgettes and cucumbers do well being sown in individual yoghurt pots with a hole in the bottom (the photo shows this year’s yoghurt-pot watermelon seedlings almost ready for planting out). Smaller seeds like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are simpler to sow in bigger pots and then thin out to allow the sturdiest plants to grow well before planting. Never skimp on seeds, it’s a false economy. Buy from an outlet that sells in large volume to ensure you’re getting the freshest seed possible as it’s irritating to go to all the trouble of planting only for no shoots to appear.Image

Of the above mentioned list, aubergines and peppers are far slower-growing than the others so you need to begin early if you want to ensure the longest fruiting period. The number of batches you grow will depend on what you most enjoy eating and the space you have available.

With cherry tomatoes, pear tomatoes and salad tomatoes I try to stagger 2 or 3 batches so they produce for as long as possible.

Although cherry tomatoes can be fiddly to pick they’re great in salads and when there’s a glut they make superb chutneys and jams.

Pear tomatoes are best for cooking and many varieties are very heavy croppers so I can usually grow sufficient in a couple of batches to make enough Neapolitan sauce for the year’s pasta dishes. They also make great ketchup. The number of salad tomatoes you grow has to depend on your family’s salad tolerance.

If you’re considering planting herbs and want to produce some wicked pesto, opt for the large leaf variety of basil seeds but, unless you’re keen on an aniseed flavour, avoid the seed packets with pictures of slightly wrinkled large leaves, it’s the smooth ones that make classic pesto. Coriander, parsley, dill, oregano, marjoram and savoury are all easy to grow from seed in window boxes, pots or patches of ground close to the kitchen so you make maximum use of them. However, I have only managed to grow thyme from an established plant – usually available for less than 2€ from a garden centre. If you re-pot it in a larger container and give it a bit of a trim it will soon expand and give plenty of fresh shoots.

The difference in the taste of your food when you have abundant fresh herbs at your disposal is incredible and you are unlikely to ever go back to the dried-up shadow of the natural flavour that comes in shop bought jars. Many of the vegetables and fruits I had previously thought were rather bland, such as cucumbers, melons and bananas, I’ve discovered are mouth-wateringly different when picked straight off the plant.

If you’re inspired to begin The Good Life, get along to your local garden centre or supermarket for seeds and potting compost. The time for planting your first crops is now. What have you got to lose?