Every summer one of the favorite plants I like to watch grow are the tomatoes in my greenhouse. Everytime I walk through the greenhouse door I feel very lucky to have a greenhouse at all. It is only because of my greenhouse that I am able to grow amazing tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. I go inside the greenhouse house every day, when possible, to give the tomatoes a little shake. This helps ensure that the tomatoes are pollinated and the fruit sets. If the tomatoes were outside a bee or even the breeze would do this but in a greenhouse they need a little help.
In the last month the tomatoes have grown several feet and have added 2 - 3 new flower clusters. In another month these tomatoes will likely be close to hitting the 14 foot roof of the greenhouse - really! Before getting the greenhouse I had no idea that tomatoes would get this big if grown in optimal conditions.
This year I decided to mostly try new varieties of indeterminate tomatoes. I am growing the following:
All of my tomatoes are doing really well aside from one of the Gardeners Delight, it seems to have had an issue which, based on my research, is from an herbicide. I grow 100% organically but I suspect something might have been blown through a roof vent on a windy day. I believe that my neighbors treated their roof with a moss control which could be the likely cause, what a shame! The rest of the plants are doing well but it is the growth at the top of the Gardeners Delight which is suffering.
I am also growing the amazing Red Robin small bush tomato. This is an amazingly prolific plant which can be grown in small pots and even hanging baskets. I cannot go a summer without this tomato, some nights I pick and pick for close to an hour from just 4 plants!
When I lived in England I had a couple of allotments which was quite fun. I lived in a small house with a small garden so this was my only chance to grow anything. I had a smallish allotment in the beginning which was perfect and then a couple years after getting that one I took on another allotment 4x the size.
When taking on the large allotment, much to the dismay of the gentleman who ran the allotment, I refused to double dig as I had watched people do this on another allotment and was horrified by the amount of time it took them to do. I decided I would use half to grow potatoes and the other half for winter squash. I had heard that growing potatoes can help fight out the weeds. For the squash I put down black plastic and cut holes for the squash, again to suppress the weeds and keep the roots and soil underneath warm.
Weeds, especially bindweed, was a constant battle even with this approach. Every weekend I spent hours weeding and each weekend I returned there were more weeds.
When I moved to Seattle and bought a house with some land I think the fear of weeding led me to build my 30 inch high raised beds (also I needed them high enough to keep the rabbits out). Raised beds are not ideal for potatoes, onions etc. as I could not grow the quantity that I would find satisfying.
At the same time I have developed a system to ensure that I am getting massive amounts of vegetables and fruits for the space I have. The key to keeping the raised beds as productive as possible is to start the seeds in containers rather than sowing seeds in the beds. Vegetables like radish can't be done this way but most fruit and vegetables can. The benefit is that when you gain space after harvesting a crop, you have a ready supply of new plants to put in. This works so well for lettuce, spinach and other salad crops. I even start beans and peas in pots and plant them out when appropriate. When it comes to peas I plant the seedlings and then sow another pea seed close by for succession planting in the same space.
By using this approach my raised beds are pretty much full and productive 100% of the time (from May - October)!
I often go outside in the evening after I put my son to bed to just look around. I take notice of the little details, the colors and the small changes from day to day. I grow and forage for fruits and vegetables for flavor, above all else, but when you stop and actually look at these plants you realize how beautiful they are. The colors and shapes are amazing, it is no wonder artists draw and paint fruits and vegetables.
In the raised beds my eyes are drawn to the different types of lettuce both in shapes and colors. I now realize why I always grow way too much lettuce, it is because I am curious as to what the hundreds of varieties look like. I grow radishes because there is something so fun about picking them in order to see those bright, vivid vegetables below ground. Even with holes from slugs they look great, the colors look almost man-made. Cucumbers are another favorite of mine, the variations of green on the cucumbers make me want to look closer.
Wild fruit is also so attractive, I was able to catch a bee on a blooming salal today and by looking up close I realized how lovely the little light pink flowers are. Salmonberries are another amazing looking fruit. From the orange colored fruit to the reddish ‘hairs’, they really look a bit odd.
If you have the time, take a closer look!
What an amazing walk it was today. Everywhere I looked it was like a picture on a postcard. Those postcards of Tuscan landscapes are real. When you get up close you see that the various shades of browns, yellows and greens are from the different crops growing in the fields. Today I saw a dark, almost black, wheat growing in a field. The colors are really amazing and what I love is that they are really using almost every bit of land to grow something. Of course this area is famous for the Brunello wine which is 100% Sangiovese grapes but the olive oil and fruit is also amazing. I can say I have had so much amazing olive oil. The flavor is so rich and nutty and a flavor I have rarely tasted in the US. I read that a study done in 2010 said 69% of the imported olive oil in the US is rancid.
The fruit I am sure is amazing but based on the time of year I am here in Italy I have only been able to pick cherries from the trees and wow are they good. There are cherry trees everywhere, in manicured gardens but also in the hedgerows as well. This goes for other fruit trees like apples, pears, plums and figs. There are walnut everywhere as well. I just love seeing people growing so much and wonder why we don't see more people growing food in the US.
One things that I find quite interesting is that many of the fruit trees are much smaller than in the US. Possibly they are using different rootstock but apples, pears and plums for example are mature and standing about 10 foot high with the crown 6 foot in diameter with the trunk as the center point. These trees are covered in fruit. I am going to try and learn a little more while here.
We have moved on (sadly) from the wonderful sustainable farm to start our InnTravel walking holiday. Leaving Umbria and entering Tuscany has been more extreme, landscape-wise, than expected. Umbria was so green and lush with vegetation. To me, Umbria is perfect as you can grow everything that it is possible to grow in Tuscany but Umbria has lush forests and trees which are hard to find in Tuscany. As we drove to our agriturismo we passed through the typical Tuscan countryside, fields of various shades of brown, yellow and green lined with the imposing Cypress trees and gorgeous villas.
Agriturismos are very special and unique to Italy. They are usually working farms that incorporate tourism. I am a huge fan for several reasons, 1) They are almost always in the countryside 2) They are usually very traditional and give you a feeling that you are experiencing the ‘real’ Italy 3) You get exposure to a farm in Italy 4) They are usually reasonably priced and lastly 5) You often get to eat the delicious produce that they produce!
We are staying at the Fattoria Pieve A Salti which is an amazing 700 hectare farm producing only organic products, and mainly focusing on cereals and beans. I am sucker for this stuff which made the shop a very appealing place to spend time (and money). The dinners and breakfasts were filled with the farms home-made items like granola, farro risotto and more.
The walking here is gorgeous, I really love it because you get to see what everyone is growing. People here in Italy grow vegetables on the smallest plots of land. In the towns people are growing artichokes, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and more. There is really a culture of growing your own regardless of how much land you have. To me this is a great thing, eating seasonally and locally is not a trend it is just how people eat here. The olive oil and wine are literally from ‘down the road’. More to come...
The techniques used at Monestevole are interesting and also a great use of space. This video talks about the way they grow vegetables in the polytunnel as well as how they grow vegetables in their Madala Garden. Thanks for watching!
Today I decided to venture out of the farm for a walk in the countryside to see what wild flowers the Umbrian countryside has to offer. From discussions with the locals I have learned that they have had a lot less rain so far this year and it is much hotter than it normally is this time of year. Although there has been a lack of rainfall there are still so many flowers out.
One thing that has surprised me is the abundance of gorse; I was surprised to see it everywhere. Before moving to the Pacific Northwest I lived in England for 10 years which is where I first came across this plant. The Pacific Northwest is covered in it. Clearly this is a versatile plant given that it can thrive in all of these places. It has such an amazing scent that the wind carries so you smell it constantly everywhere you go! Thyme and fennel are growing everywhere here, and the thyme is blooming now which makes some patches of the ground a sea of pinkish-purple.
Italian honeysuckle grows amongst the shrubs but adds a blast of color which really draws your eye! I was surprised to see hellebore that had finished flowering and were heavy with seed heads. I was not aware that they were native to Italy! Lovely red poppies were everywhere along with the bright purple wild salvias. What an amazing countryside with so much to see!
Walking around the farm I am struck by how many varieties of fruit and nuts you can grow here in Umbria! Also the variety means that throughout the summer you really can have an abundance of fruit. Additionally, they can grow fruit that stores well so you can really grow all the fruit you need for the entire year! Not to mention the hedgerow fruit and nuts you can collect. On my walk I noticed blackberries, elderberries and juniper berries!
This farm produces wine and olive oil so these are by far the largest group of plants. They have 350 olive trees. Interestingly I have been told it is rude to ask how many olive trees someone has as this is equivalent to asking someone how much they earn since each tree gives a predictable amount of olive oil each year and everyone knows what you can sell it for. They also have hundreds of other fruit and nut trees, and as this is a 100 acre farm, I am sure I have missed a few varieties as well.
It is May here and we are currently eating the most amazing cherries which they have in abundance. In fact I am writing this blog while laying in a hammock attached to an olive tree and a cherry tree, this makes for excellent snack breaks! The figs will be ready in a month or so. The mulberries are not totally ready but I found the random ripe one or two. When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago my neighboor had a mulberry tree which I adored but I had to eat the berries without anyone knowing so I used to put bags on my feet so as not to dye my shoes and get caught. I used to spend hours picking and eating this delicious fruit!
In the late summer they will have walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds; they will also have peaches, apricots and kiwi. Then in autumn they will have quince, apples, persimmons and pears. Surprisingly the weather on the hill where the farm is located is too hard on citrus so they have built a greenhouse to house the lemons and limes.
What abundance this climate has to offer.
This morning I fed the animals and having raised chickens myself before not all of it was new but some of the practices are new to me and I wanted to share them! At Monestevole they have pigs, goats, sheeps, horses, chickens, geese and ducks. One of the very interesting practices here is the way they use manure. Basically the horses are housed (when not out to pasture) in a shed at the top of a hill. When the manure is cleared out it is swept into the area where the chickens are. They pick out and eat all of the seeds so that after a short period of time the manure is free from seeds which is great as when this is spread as a soil amendment there will be no sprouting seeds.
They have both chickens for eggs and chickens for eating. This is certainly something I would like to do myself, these chickens looks so healthy. Being able to incubate your own chickens makes this a very economical practice. The ducks and geese are also a nice addition for eggs as well.
The pigs are also happy and healthy looking. As you may or may not know there are lots of wild boar here in Italy and as they do not have a natural predator they are a nuisance. They are hunted in October - December but the rest of the year they do damage on farms. There are little piglets running around and they are ½ wild boar as a wild boar broke into the pig pen and impregnated the pigs. In Italy farmers are fined when a pig is impregnated by a wild boar which is frustrating for the farmers (based on my conversations) as there is little they can do, these wild boar are smart!
Based on my experiences I would say that chickens, pigs and ducks are what I aspire to keep when 2020 rolls around!
I have arrived in Italy after nearly 24 hours of travel with a 21 month old, I am tired but the minute I am driving away from Florence airport in my rental car I see the scenery and immediately feel at home. I am excited to see a different part of Italy on this trip. We are first headed to Northern Umbria and then to the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany.
The first stop is Monestevole an ecotourism sustainable community in northern Umbria. Monestevole was originally built in the 15th century as a watch-tower for nearby castle. Over the coming centuries, additional parts were added to the tower to develop it into the current hamlet structure.
As we drove up into the hills from the nearby town of Umbertide it was clear that we would not be hearing traffic noise which is something we are constantly trying to avoid. When we arrived everyone was eating homemade pizza by the outdoor pizza oven and enjoying the carafes filled with wine. What a great welcome and start to the holiday!
The owners really do take sustainability seriously, they recycle all the water and use the gray water for irrigation and flushing toilets. The solar panels give the home enough power in the summer and once they get their new Tesla batteries they are going to be able to store the power for the non-sunny times of the year! They invite guests to plant hedges to offset their carbon footprint. They grow enough food to feed 25 people year round based on the many things that they grow and make.
This place is inspirational and even though I have only been here for 24 hours it has helped me know about what I do and don't want to do with my land once I move to Italy. Whilst I like the idea of sustainable living I also know that these practices take a lot of time and effort which I want to put into growing food, raising animals and making things (like beer, cheese, wine etc.).