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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Mosquito Season

The mosquito season starts around the end of May and will usually last until the weather turns chillier in the evenings towards the end of October.

We had fly screens installed on all our windows and doors during construction, a lesson we learnt whilst living in Australia for a period in the 1980's, which keeps out flies, moths and wasps but the tiny mosquitoes seem to find a way in. 

The mosquitoes we have are tiny, lightly coloured and are difficult to see against our cream walls but we do manage to vacuum up a significant numbers every morning from their favourite haunts which keeps the numbers down.

Every night before we go to bed, we plug in the spiral mat heater, which has tablet inserts, which give off a strong odour but it's preferable to being bitten and we have got used to the smell. These devices are available in most supermarkets along with replacement tablets. 

We leave our bedroom windows open, to cool us, and it does reduce the strength of the odour but still deters the mosquitoes. We have also started making our own repellent from one part disinfectant and four parts baby oil which we use on our arms, shoulders and faces, which are the only body parts the mosquitoes can get to unless they find a way under the sheet. 

The trouble is that even one mosquito buzzing around your ears is enough to keep you awake until you can find it and vacuum it or swat it. Thankfully, malaria was eradicated in the 1950's from Cyprus so bites are not dangerous.

We seem to get most bites whilst relaxing in the evening. The trouble is you don't feel the bites until you feel itchiness and see the red lump and by this stage the mosquitoes are usually nowhere to be seen. We have found that applying vinegar to the bitten area seems to provide instant relief and is very soothing.

Apparently mosquitoes breed in standing water, so we make sure we don't leave any puddles close to the house but whatever we do some bites are unavoidable and are part and parcel of living in the Mediterranean.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The challenges of Mediterranean or Subtropical gardening

For anybody relocating to a Mediterranean or Subtropical area, the climate provides certain challenges that gardening in the UK and Northern Europe does not.

A climate with extremely high summer temperatures, reduced rainfall and mostly mild winters. In Cyprus, for example,it's a climate where spring generally runs from mid-February to mid-May, summer from mid-May to mid-October, autumn from mid-October to the end of November and winter from December to mid-February. 

There are four other areas in the world which experience similar subtropical climatic conditions. Included are much of California, parts of Western and Southern Australia, South Western South Africa, parts of Central Asia and parts of Central Chile.

There are certain differences, which if understood, will enable you to adapt gardening methods to suit theses climates. Primarily, you need to understand the seasons and work with them. We have to almost start from a zero knowledge base and forget, however experienced we were, our gardening experiences in Northern Europe, as it can be a real problem if we focus too much on how we did things before.

Understanding what distinguishes a Mediterranean or Subtropical environment is crucial. It is one in which there is a hot, dry period, when temperatures can reach 50c, with sometimes hot drying winds, little or no rainfall and a high humidity throughout the year. Rainfall is mainly concentrated during the winter period.

In Northern Europe, there is consistent year round rainfall, whilst in the subtropical areas, there is anything from between 3 to 6 months of drought.

Understanding the implications of this uneven rainfall is the key to successful gardening. This fact alone will make the difference between a garden in which things grow and a garden that becomes hard work.

Where there is consistent all year round rainfall, plant material easily breaks down providing humus for the soil which helps moisture retention. However, when this rainfall is concentrated mainly in the winter months, plant material does not readily breakdown but oxidises in the sun. This means there is lack of humus in the soil, as rather than rot down plant material is sun baked and if not removed can build up to create a fire risk; can suffocate new growth and  wind and rain can move the plant material exposing the soil to erosion. None of these factors are good for the garden soil.

This lack of water retention means plants, especially newly planted, can be devastated by occasional hot summer winds. In the Mediterranean these hot summer Saharan winds can dry out and burn non native plants especially in soils that have a very low water retention capacity. 
The four or five month drought in the summer months is a normal part of a subtropical climate and is easily survived by the plants that are native to the area. Newly arrived gardeners often purchase and put in plants from garden centres during this drought period without realising that to survive plants will need to be kept constantly moist until roots are established.
Rain can also be problematic, when it does rain, mainly in the winter months, it can be up to the 70 centimetres of rain in a day which can result in flash floods, washing away of soil and uprooting of plants.
What is important in planting self grown plants or shop bought plants is the quality of the root system. Patience is needed, as without a very good root system plants will not survive. Ensure the root system is well established otherwise plants will not have the capacity to get the water needed to grow. This means sometimes potting plants on for a period before planting out. This applies to trees and shrubs as well.
It is also important to avoid large areas of bare soil between plants, as these will be baked hard by the sun and affect the plants nearby. Try to cover all soil areas with ground cover plants and provide a mulch or allow a natural mulch to cover bare soil. Mulching will help retain moisture and cool roots of plants. It is also good policy to continually improve your soil by applications of organic material to moisture retention capacity and nutrient levels.
    In Northern Europe we are used to the constant watering of shallow rooted annuals but new gardeners to subtropical climates can mistakenly assume the same is needed without realising that most subtropical plants are deep rooted and are better off with a less frequent but thorough soaking down to the level of the deepest roots. Over watering these deep rooted plants can cause fungal and viral problems.  
    It is also good practice to avoid planting drought resistant and thirsty plants close together, as watering to keep the thirsty plants alive will cause fungal and insect attacks on the drought resistant ones.

    Sunday, 5 May 2013

    know your soil

    Your soils fertility is the key to successful organic vegetable growing. Not only does the soil provide a mooring for roots, it allows roots to breathe, supplies water for the roots to soak up and most importantly food for your plants. Types of soils can vary in the Mediterranean but there are four main classifications and its well worth the time in finding out your soil type. 

    We are within the Lefkara formation of Cyprus and our soil was formed during the palaeogene period, millions of years ago, when sea levels dropped forming land with high carbonate and siliceous deep water sediments and this accounts for the whiteness of our chalky soil. The disadvantages of chalky soil are that is free draining and loses nutrients easily and ours is slightly acidic with a pH of 5.5.
     Fortunately, unlike some chalky soils, it has a good depth and has benefited from generations of adding organic matter which has improved its fertility. It does, however, bake hard after very heavy rain, if followed by strong sun, and needs loosening to avoid seedlings being crushed. 

    Our challenge is to continue improving its fertility, structure and gradually improve its acidity. The best way to improve a soil is by adding as much organic material as possible, over many years, as part of a rotation cycle for growing vegetables. Animal manures, compost, seaweed or green manures will all add humus and goodness to your vegetable beds.

    The pH needs of individual plants are important for the health of your plants and cannot be underestimated. Basically pH measures how acidic or alkaline your soil is. The pH range is from 1 to 14 and less than 7 means soil is acidic and over 7 that it is alkaline. The level of pH affects a plants ability to take up nutrients and generally a range from 6 to 7 allows most nutrients to be readily taken up by plants. It is well worth the expense of purchasing a test kit to analyse your own soil and then monitor changes over time as the addition of slow acting ground limestone, during your rotation cycle, will gradually alter acidic soil towards neutrality. Monitors are easy to use and come with full instructions.

    Friday, 3 May 2013

    Make Globe Artichoke Soup

    We currently have a glut of globe artichokes, as due to the extremely high temperatures for May, we have had to harvest most of the crop to stop it drying hard.

    The following recipe for globe artichoke soup is a delicious way of using up some of our glut.  The recipe provides enough to serve 4 and the soup is wonderfully rich, smooth, and creamy.


    Hearts from 3-5 globe artichokes depending on size

    Olive oil for frying

    2 medium sized onions, finely chopped

    3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

    1 medium sized potato, peeled and diced

    4 cups of vegetable stock

    A bay leaf, thyme and parsley

    Black pepper and salt to taste

    1/4 of a cup of milk


    Firstly, prepare your artichokes. Squeeze half a lemon into a large bowl of water. You will be dropping trimmed globe artichokes into this bowl to stop them from oxidising and turning brown. 

    Start by snapping off the artichoke leaves until you get to the fresher leaves which just pull off.

    Take care when you get to the pinkish centre of the artichoke leaves, as they have sharp spines. Pull them out.

    Take a knife and dig out the fuzzy choke. You will want to slice off the narrowest layer of the heart to get out all of the choke but do not cut away too much of the delicious heart.

    Once the choke is out, slice off all but the last inch or so of the stem. Trim the hard green exterior of the rest of the heart. Cut away from you as you rotate the artichoke, slicing off just the hard green part and leaving the light green underneath. 

    To finish, slice the outside layer off the stem. Drop the heart into the bowl of water and go on to the next one. 

    Once all the artichokes are ready, cut them lengthwise, slice and chop.

    In a large pot, add the olive oil and cook the artichoke hearts, chopped onions and chopped garlic on a medium heat until tender but not brown. Add the potatoes, stock and milk. 

    Add the bay leaf, thyme, parley and salt and pepper to taste to the pot. Increase heat to boil and then let simmer for about 15-20 minutes.

    Once slightly cooled, remove and discard the bay leaf and any herb stalks. Blend the soup, adding more salt and pepper if needed to taste. 

    Serve with a crusty roll.


    Thursday, 2 May 2013

    Many uses of lemons

    We are fortunate to have friends in the village who are happy to provide us with a bag of lemons whenever we want them. The lemon is a much undervalued fruit and is much more than just for lemon curd or lemonade, it has very many health benefits and uses. We planted a young tree about three years ago and it will probably be another few years before we can have our own supply but at least we can rely on our friends in the meantime.

    Lemons are vitamin and mineral rich, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-rheumatic, anti-viral and act as a diuretic.

    Lemon juice can be diluted in water and used as a gargle for sore throats. Diluted in a little olive oil to relieve insect stings. Mixed with honey to treat colds and flu's. Rub around your teeth to remove plaque.

    Lemons are also useful in the kitchen. Add lemon juice to stop the smell of cabbage and greens spreading. To crisp up limp lettuce, place the lettuce in a bowl of cold water with added lemon juice.

    We have recently been making a regular batch of lemon curd. The curd, as it contains eggs, has to be refrigerated and used within 2-3 weeks, although this has not proved a problem as it tastes delicious. The recipe is available at http://sites.google.com/site/cyprusgardener/home/preserving-and-storing-produce/preserve-recipes if you would like to try it for yourself.

    The lemon is useful in so many ways for making home made cleaning products, home made beauty treatments, a multitude of recipes and for use in home remedies.

    Wednesday, 1 May 2013

    Make your own olive leaf tea

    Where would we be without our wonderful olive trees which supply us with, after processing, edible green and black olives, olive oil and kindling and wood for our wood burning stove. We have now discovered that the leaves are also a very useful resource and make a very healthy tea. A tea which has been brewed in the Mediterranean area for thousands of years.

    Apparently, the tea is very beneficial and has antioxidant levels tens times that of green tea. Clinical trials are ongoing but the tea is said to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve blood flow. The leaves also have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties.

    If you have your own olive tree or have access to a tree its easy to make your own tea.

    Only pick leaves from a tree that has been kept organically to avoid any pesticides, insecticides or any other chemicals. Select and pick healthy and blemish free leaves about  mid-morning when any dew has evaporated.

    Wash and dry the leaves indoors and away from direct sunlight. When dried thoroughly, crush the leaves by hand, removing the stalks and place in an airtight container.

    Simply add about 6-8 leaves (depending on the strength of tea preferred) to a pot and pour over sufficient boiling water for 2-4 cups. Allow the tea to infuse for 25-30 minutes before straining. We enjoy a cup every morning and the taste in not unlike loose leaf green tea and very pleasant.