Life in a Dol house
2016 - Week 26

How to thrive on neglect

I have spent some quality time this week in my big orchard pulling up freshly grown weeds. 

Weeding is a constant battle and I have discovered that when I clear weeds and brush here, then turn the soil with a rotovator, I always bring a whole new batch of weed seeds to the surface. Add to that soil moisture and summer warmth and you have the recipe for a whole swathe of greenery. 

To better understand what goes on with the life cycle of weeds, I have been reading up on the science. They are crafty when it comes to seeds, having developed the means over the eons to ensure their longevity. For any given number of seeds from a particular plant in a given year, some have an internal clock set for immediate germination, once the right conditions are met - light intensity, moisture, soil temperature etc - some have a delayed germination of say six months, and some are inert and can remain in that state, but still viable, for several, even many years. They only change from their inert state when they are brought to the soil surface by tillage.

Having wandered around the orchard, I have noted that where I cleared the ground and planted my Avocado and Nispero trees, any soil which I had not covered with cardboard, was producing a nice green crop with the first flower heads visible, so there needed some immediate action to be taken to prevent them running to seed.

I have planted other things in the orchard, sweet potatoes and also a trial of Jicama seeds both protected by a 70cm wide black plastic weed suppressing mulch surrounded by old cardboard packing. The sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, are growing especially well, much better than last year.

But as some of the weeds were over half a metre tall, I needed to remove them this week. So when the morning sun is still low and the temperature is cool, I have been in there, pulling out the unwanted greenery, which seems to be made up of just five species of unwelcome growth. 

Anyone who gardens, whether it is a small window box, or a few square metres (or few hundred square metres), will quickly understand that propagating seeds is a mixture of science, knowledge, luck and a no small dose of "Green Fingers". I'm lucky. I have inherited my Mum's "Green Fingers" gene, but I still read the packet, look at the RHS and other websites for the latest advice, then follow the instructions to plant my prized seeds.

Let's take the Jicama, Pachyrhizus erosus, as an example. This is probably the most tasty vegetable that you have never eaten. It's crammed full of prebiotic fibre and so eating it helps weight loss. I first came across it when I was buying helicopters just outside Phoenix, in the USA. My neighbours grew it and we ate it roasted, like oven chips. It originates from Mexico, where it is sometimes called the Mexican Turnip or the Yam Bean. So when I saw some seed advertised earlier this year, I bought a packet. There were only 7 seeds in the packet, and the cost was €1 each, so they were quite expensive.

I followed the instructions, kept them in lukewarm water for 24 hours, then planted them in a well prepared seed bed. That was on the 6th May. Each seed was marked with a twig, and was lavished with the best TLC possible. But nothing happened. No shoots, no germination, nothing. So after more than 6 weeks, I abandoned my 7 seeds and gave up with the TLC.

I was to say the least surprised on Wednesday, when I removed a goodly amount of weeds from over and around the black plastic median strip, to find that three of the Jicama have germinated.

They are small, but growing. My next challenge is to get them to a size where the roots can be harvested. It seems they preferred neglect to TLC. I know the soil temperature needs to be warm, and only slightly moist for germination, but clearly the seeds have only just found the conditions acceptable to germinate. I now need 6 months without frost to get them to harvesting size, so I should just about make it. Now if only the weeds were so finicky about the conditions needed to germinate!

Most mornings when it is cool, I am joined by one or both of my felines in the orchard.

Callie in particular will ask me to go with her for a walk round (she is an extremely vocal cat) and if I am ever so slightly tardy in my response, will offer general encouragement by attaching a claw to a shoelace and pulling in the required direction of travel. If this fails to get the desired level of attention, the same method is used on a sock or bare ankle. This week I received just such an insistent call to go with her and she darted ahead wanting to show me that we have new visitors in the Top Orchard. She sat under one of my newly planted trees, looking up at the top of the support pole, tail thrashing wildly from side to side and making the chattering noise she makes when there is prey around.

On the top of the pole, completely oblivious to the audience at the bottom there was a large male Broad Bodied Chaser

This dragonfly, a Libellula depressa, is very distinctive, having a wide, flat body and a wingspan of about 6 centimetres. The male has the blue body, the female is brown. They have favourite perches where they sit before zooming off to catch their insect prey, then returning to the same perch to rest and wait for the next meal to fly past. This species needs standing water, like a pond to breed. During the year I often see dragon and damsel flies, but in such a dry and parched landscape, I have not been able to find anywhere locally that they could breed

This is the time of year for the European Green Toads, Bufo viridis, too. 
They have found some safe, cool damp places for daytime, like the ducts for controlling my irrigation system.

There are large numbers of road kill that I see when I am out on my bike, there are no toad warnings here 

(and I see a few snakes as well) but around my Dol house, going outside in the evening the toads are jumping and hopping all over the paths. Clearly There is some water around, because whilst this species of toad survives well as adults on the forest margins, in orchards and vineyards, the females needs water to lay their eggs in and for the tadpoles to grow and develop. 

Butterflies continue to be attracted to plants, and I have been gathering wild flower seeds so that I can plant the things which seem to be most attractive.

An unusual visitor this week has been a White Admiral, Limenitis camilla.

The female White Admiral lays single eggs only on Clematis, of which I have just one plant growing, so I will look later in the year for the highly distinctive silk tent to overwinter. The underside of the White Admiral's wings is quite distinctive too.

This a Greyling, Hipparchia semele, and is one of many I have seen around the orchards.

I've done a few jobs around the house this week. My success with the window screens to prevent mosquitoes coming into the houses led me to make a modular screen for the greenhouse door. 

Sunday being a day of quiet and having already cut and planed the timber, I built a new wooden door and then covered it with the insect mesh.

This means that I can have the door open 24/7 to get advantage from the cooling movement of air throughout the day. I made it to the same specification as the winter plastic door, so it uses the same hinges, latches and locks, it just has mesh instead of plastic tripplewall.

Another little job was to weld some water pipe to provide an additional outside tap. Two years ago when the building work was going on, I asked the plumber to install an outside tap when he was connecting water to the kitchen. He did, but it was too low and not easy to reach. So with some operational experience, I decided to add an extension spur to the supply pipe and then put a second tap in a more accessible location.

With two taps, one on the left will be connected to the garden irrigation system and the second can be used to fill the watering can or to attach a hosepipe to, without having to disconnect the irrigation. It took a little while to cut the various pieces of pipe and then weld all the bits together, but now I have two taps in much more user friendly locations.

We are now in July - Srpanj in Croatian, the month of using the sickle - so it is time to plan my next three months work. 

I actually want to look a bit further ahead, so it will be a three and six month plan.

Work in the gardens and orchards will of course continue, keeping on top of areas I have brought under control and slowly subjugating some of the wilder plots. But there is also the buildings. I am still waiting for my local equivalent of planning permission. It is taking way, way longer than I thought it would. We are now in the three quiet months of the year, when there is a moratorium on noisy building work so that visitors to the island do not have their holiday spoilt by pneumatic drills, cement mixers and JCB's. But that doesn't mean I can't prepare for the next work. If I plan well, I can do all the preparation now in the third quarter I will be ready for building work in the last quarter of the year.

There is an amount (by area) of building work which can be done without permission, so I want to get a site meeting with the architect and Cvjetko, my master mason friend to at least have a plan ready for the end of September. 

Part of this will be the removal of the old donkey stable and the pig sty. Go back a few decades here and every household had a pig, some goats, chickens, maybe rabbits, ducks and a donkey. I have, or had, all the requisite buildings, some still containing manure. Having removed Billy's house last year to make way for proper waterproof garden sheds, now it is the turn of Porky's old home to go.

Beginning on the 1st of the month, I started to remove the traditional stone roof. I have identified an area for architectural salvage, where all the stones from the roofs, walls and door and window arches will be sorted and kept.

The wooden beams are only fit for firewood, but the photograph does illustrate the old roofing technique of a ⅔ overlap of the large, flat stones. This is how all the old roofs were built, not just animal sheds.

Even these outhouses are substantial, with drystone walls more than 500 mm thick and the very heavy flat slab roofs. Stones used as lintels will be numbered and carefully stored. 

If I do a couple of hours a day, I should have most of the work done come September. There will be the need for the concrete fold yard to be broken up before building work can commence, but it is all part of my plan to actually do something! 

There is also the concrete courtyard which needs to have the level lowered, but fortunately all that does not require planning permission. So watch this space!

I have been down to Stari Grad on the bike a couple of times this week. We are in the high season for tourists, and the harbour is full to capacity with visiting yachts at the seaward end of the fjord, whilst at the town end, the little local fishing boats bob in the bright sun on a sparkling sea.

Until next time, I will leave you with one of our wonderful sunsets