Friday, October 9, 2009

All The Dirt On Soil

It goes without saying, but I said it anyway - crap soil is the vegie gardener's nemesis.

Take tomatoes. They're forgiving buggers, they'll grow in all sorts of conditions. They'll even try to grow in extreme - in terms of poor - conditions. The results will be less than optimum, but they'll give it a go.

This has been our third summer with the orto. For two years the tomatoes were less than what they should have been. Production was down on what I'm used to, the plants themselves never developed to sizes I was used to and nor did the fruit. I couldn't fathom it.

Until, this year, I decided to test the soil. Wherever I tested across the three terraces, the soil was utterly alkaline, up to and beyond 9 on the pH scale.

Quite a few vegies - for example, most brassicas - like alkaline soil. Except I don't grow them. I don't have the space. Tomatoes, on the other hand, don't mind neutral soil but they very much like slightly acid soil. Hence the orto's soil couldn't have been less to their liking.

Why should the soil be so utterly alkaline?

As I thought about it, a number of reasons emerged. First, Italian soil is chockers with limestone, particularly closer to the mountains. Limestone, of course, is the principal means of sweetening - which is to say, making more alkaline - acid soil. So our soil has no option other than to tend towards alkalinity.

Second, and unsurprisingly given the above, Italian water is also chockers with limestone. Anything with which Italian water comes into contact - washing machines, kettles, dishwashers, espresso machines, hot water services, water-heated radiators, taps, you name it - will gradually build up an internal crust of calcium. Water pressure only a trickle? The filter on the tap is blocked with calcium. I flush the inner workings of the espresso machine once a month to keep the pipes clean. The Italian word for calcium is calcare. The supermarket shelves are loaded with anti-calcare products. So every time I watered the orto, I was pumping up the alkalinity.

Third, and crucially, I have been at a disadvantage relative to other Italian market- and home-gardeners. Our orto was used for many years as a dumping ground for building rubble. One family owned our entire building:

Along with a lot of the building on the immediate left. There are four and a half apartments in our building, and, as the apartments were renovated over the years - along with the adjacent building - unwanted bricks, stone, concrete, timber, broken glass, metal, tin and goodness what else was dumped into our terraces and covered over with brought-in, very ordinary soil. All of which was left sitting untouched, uncared for, for 30 or more years, with the lime from the stone and cement undoubtedly leeching into the soil.

Sadly, there isn't a single earthworm on the property.

Enough history. The bottom line is that every time I watered the orto over the last two years, I was pouring hard alkaline water onto already rubbishy, alkaline soil.

What a dill. And no wonder the toms struggled.

Now, such alkaline soil, in such quantity as in the orto, is virtually impossible to amend sufficiently to turn it into neutral - or, better still - slightly acid soil. The amending products - sulphur, iron - would need to be in such quantities that they would create interactions likely to damage anything planted. Besides, given that the base soil will always be essentially limestone, the battle would be ongoing and mighty expensive.

Other options? Replace all the soil. Well, for starters, I can't afford it. For closers, the only access into the orto is through our apartment.

Solution? I suppose it's called micro-management.

For every tomato plant I put into the ground, I dug a decent-sized hole, sufficient to accommodate mature root systems in their entirety. I filled the hole with compost from the heap - essentially neutral in pH terms - mixed in with a couple of shovelfuls of potting mix designed for acid soil-loving plants like camelias and hydrangeas. The compost nicely balanced the acidity of the potting mix. Thus I created little oases of tomato-friendly soil in a desert of limestone.

Next, watering. How to avoid pouring hard alkaline water into the soil and undoing any good I'd already done with the soil? Rain water? Great idea. Except in an Italian summer when it doesn't rain for months on end.

So I improvised. I added a tablespoon of vinegar to every 8-litre watering can before watering. Someone told me it was storie della nonna - an old wives' tale - but, combined with the soil, it seemed to work:

A small portion of the best tomato crop in three years - a couple of Anna Russians with a pair of Pink Gaetanos, all between 450g and 600g. And delicious.

I'll have to do it all again next year.

But it will be worth it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hot June, July and August Nights

Neil Diamond got it only one-third right. Younger readers might need to Google Neil Diamond+Hot plus one of the above-mentioned months. I'm not telling you which. You young people have it too easy these days.

So what's been happening since April when I observed that spring had finally sprung?

Summer. It arrived in late May, it's still here, and shows no signs of disappearing. Week after week of high 30s and low 40s. Typical Italian summer heat - baking, without a breath of wind, but, thankfully, mainly dry heat.

L'Artista is getting jack of it. I just tell her to wait five months. We'll be back to this:

In the meantime, what's been happening in the orto?

This was the root vegie bed in May:

That's beetroot along the left hand side, adjacent to the first crop of spring onions - not root vegies, I know, but space is at a premium around here - with the first crop of carrots behind, radishes perpendicular to the beetroot, and very baby parsnip amongst some more radishes on the far side.

How times flies in summer. The same bed today:

The beetroot are finished, that's the third crop of carrots in the background, the second crop of spring onions adjacent to the remnants of the first crop, and the parsnips going for their lives. They won't be harvested until at least early December providing they've had some frost by that time.

Between times, we've eaten very well:

They're the Amsterdam Forcing carrots I've mentioned before. An early variety, lovely sweet flavour, very easy to grow. I've managed to squeeze in four crops so far this summer. The cuke is a Mini Lebanese, seeds from Australia via a friend, Trish. They run rings around the local cukes for sweetness and flavour. Though they need to be harvested no bigger than in the photo. Any more mature and the seeds will get in the way.

In fact, we're onto our second crop of the Mini Lebanese cukes:

The first crop was murdered by a couple of days of gale-force winds in early June. As tightly as the plants were tied to their trellis, the wind tore them to bits. Recognise the tub? In early spring, it was home to L'Artista's new early Aaron Pilot potatoes couresy of The Cousins from Dorset, England. And what a triumph the Aaron Pilots were. From only a handful of seed spuds, L'Artista had a dozen or more feasts of steamed new baby potatoes.

Here's one of the cukes almost ready for harvest:

Onions? Who mentioned onions? Well, I tested out one onion adage and proved it right - that they will grow in just about any sort of soil. This, on the top terrace, is where I planted a mix of onion sets and seedlings grown from seed:

In gardening parlance it's called crap soil. I pulled out the weeds, dug over the ground, and, on the basis that I was short of compost and terriccio - that's soil improver - I planted. Time to test the old onion adage. More about the soil problems in this orto when I get to the tomatoes, but, suffice to say, I'd tested the soil and it came up pure alkaline - a pH of almost 9.

Did it deter the onions? Four months later:

Some of the 10 dozen I harvested. And, after they'd dried suitably, L'Artista added her touch:

I suspect onions would grow in concrete.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yup! Spring Has Sprung

Not a sign of a snow flake. He typed, crossing his fingers. Metaphorically, as it were.
Some things in the garden are raring to go, others are already on their way.

In the mini-greenhouse, the tomatoes, hot chillies, sweet chillies, lettuces, capsicums, egg plant and some spring onions are raring:
Not to mention more spring onions, brown onions, zucchini, cucumber, Kent pumpkin, watermelon and Italian parsley:
We're getting mid-teen temperatures most days but it's still single figures overnight, so most of these have another couple of weeks before they hit the ground.

Elsewhere, the precocious cherry tree, in its third season in the ground, in its second fruiting season, looks to have at least twice the crop it had last season:
And the Italian version of silver beet, over-wintered under a couple of layers of fleece, is repaying the patience:
Even the rocket is getting a shuffle on:
Rocket is very much an early spring crop around here, particularly in this garden. There are next to no shady spots in the garden, and a crop will bolt like a flash as soon as things heat up.

The first stringless French climbing beans went in early:
And possibly a couple of weeks early. They were started in the mini-greenhouse, flourished, and two or three consecutive days of high teens temperatures seduced me into planting them out. Of course, things immediately turned chilly and damp. But they're battling along.

Now, L'Artista is altogether fond of steamed baby new potatoes. Trouble is, Italy doesn't really do potatoes in terms of a wide variety of same. Look for seed potatoes here and you have a choice of white, yellow or red, all maincrop. Our very kind English neighbours - they have a holiday apartment at the top of our building - offered to help out. Last time they came, they brought a handful of one of the nicest new earlies, Arran Pilot, and, on the basis that I have limited growing space, half of them went into a tub of compost:
They've already developed since this photo. In fact, they had their first hilling the other day. The other half went into the ground. L'Artista will have no complaints this potato season.

Elsewhere, the carrots - Amsterdam Forcing, a wonderful early, sweet variety - are poking their feathery tops out of the ground:
And the radishes are doing their version of the same:
And last but not least, for this post anyway, the rhubarb is getting a rattle on:
Last year, I planted three seedlings started by a friend. Rhubarb grown from seed can be a dicey proposition at the best of times. Two didn't make it through the icy winter. This one did. The two fatalities hit the compost heap. L'Artista saved this one from a similar fate - as fond as I am of rhubarb, it takes up so much space in a small garden - and I transplanted it into a pot full of compost on the terrace. And it's booming. It can thank L'Artista.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring One Day, Winter The Next

Why are blogs like mouths? Because you open them and end up sounding like a proper dill.

Last time I mused that spring was springing. Finally. I had started my onion seeds, followed rapidly by the tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, various lettuces - in fact, the whole gamut.

About ten days later - which is to say, only a couple of weeks ago - this is what we woke to:
That's not a photo taken through a dirty window. Nor has a cotton-stuffed cushion been disembowelled and tossed in the air.

It's snow. That's right. S.N.O.W.

The seeds that had germinated were already basking in their little greenhouse warmed by the spring sunshine.

Well, they were, until they discovered they were looking out on snow:
I'd also uncovered the strawberries from their winter cocoon of a triple layer of garden fleece:
That's them just visible on the right. They coped. Remarkable plants, strawbs. Now they're flowering.

Tomorrow, 19C is forecast. The day after? The garden shudders to think.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spring Is Springing If Not Yet Entirely Sprung

Barely three weeks ago, this was the sight that greeted us in the gardens just outside the town's front gate:

Yes, that's ice. The flowers around the fountain were doing it tough, too:

Today, the sky is as clear and blue as three weeks ago, but it's 14C. A good enough excuse to start the first vegie seeds of the season:

That's Cipolla Tropea Rossa Lunga, the long red onion from Tropea, Calabria, in southern Italy. Almost cigar-shaped, they're the sweetest onions you'll come across in a day's march. Absolutely delicious very finely sliced in salads.

And here are the seeds keeping warm in their improvised greenhouse until they germinate:

It's impossible to underestimate how thrilled L'Artista is every spring to have the espresso machine and every heater in the place loaded with seed trays inside plastic bags.

In the next week or so, it'll be time to start the tomatoes, capsicums, chillies and all sorts of other good things.

The distant thuds you hear is L'Artista beating her head against a wall.

In the meantime, there are winter weeds to clear.

Send down the sun, Huey.