Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Control of slugs and snails in the garden

Slugs and snails are a problem. Where we live on the coast in Asturias, we enjoy an ideal temperate climate that is also just right for the proliferation of slugs and snails. Their favourite habitat is in the crevices of the limestone walls, snuggled into the roots of long meadow grass, hiding in the shelter of leaves on a multitude of favourite plants, clinging precariously to the walls of the house, or just below the surface of exposed soil... In other words, wherever it is warm and damp.

When we were in the UK we successfully used nematodes to reduce the population but where we are now, the amount of land we have and the position we are in makes this method of control too expensive and probably a waste of time.

We have tried various methods of control, some of more use than others and some, more strategic and less haphazard. We only use organic or natural methods in the garden so chemical control is excluded. The methods we have tried include:

Prevention Methods:
Reducing the population of slugs and snails where possible - collection and disposal after rainfall or early evening is a good time to do this;

Increasing natural habitats for frogs, hedgehogs, toads, slow worms, beetles and birds, all natural predators of slugs and/or snails. This has worked to a point and the added bonus of garden visitors is a joy to see;

Organic slug pellets - we have tried these and they work but alas they are not available here in Spain so the small supply we have, is used sparingly. The advantage of these pellets is that there are harmless to animals and birds unlike the ordinary pellets some people use in abundance;

Sowing seeds into pots or half a drain pipe to give young plants a good start - this has helped reduce the number of fatalities early on.

Barrier Methods:
Coffee grinds can help - this is supposed to be toxic to slugs and snails but beware, using coffee grinds extensively can increase soil acidity - it works but needs regular renewal;

Copper rings around the base of new trees and shrubs can help act as a deterrent. When the slug or snail glides over the copper, they apparently get a small electric shock. This method was only successful a couple of times for us in combination with other methods;

Crushed egg shells - egg shells, baked and crushed surrounding the plants can act as an effective barrier - works well but needs renewal;

Ash - wood ash from the fires can also be used as an effective barrier particularly around salad crops - renewal necessary especially after rainfall;

Sheep wool pellets - I brought a couple of tubs of this new product back from the UK and it seems to work very well. A barrier of pellets is put around the base of the plant and then watered - it mats together like felt and eventually breaks down into the soil.  http://www.sluggone.com

There are of course other methods such as beer traps, half a grapefruit skin placed on the soil, grit.....and so on. If you have found any methods that work for you, please get in touch or leave a comment. We would love to hear from you.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How to make a quick and easy Garden vegetable quiche

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In the second instalment of my celebrations of 50 years a vegetarian, I will give you my recipe for the easiest quiche in the world. This dish is an adaptable, quick and foolproof recipe for a tasty meal for a picnic, lunch with salad or dinner with roast vegetable, however, before that, a little memory from my experiences of being a vegetarian.

On a night out in Dewsbury with old friends Heather and Malcolm we had booked a meal at a newly opened restaurant/bistro. Arriving at 8pm, and to cut a long story short, our starters finally arrived at 10pm. Luis had ordered vegetable samosas which arrived looking like they'd been attacked by a rabid pigeon. As we attempted to tackle rock hard honeydew melon, Luis enquired as to why his samosas had seen better days. Not even I was prepared for the reply. "We've run out of vegetable ones so the chef has taken the lamb out of the lamb ones and just left the vegetable", explained a young, naive and hapless waiter. Needless to say, we soon departed, without paying, without the spectacle of our main course and with our stomachs and thoughts still rumbling.

Normally, quiche bases are pre-cooked and typical short crust pastry doesn’t stay crisp for more than a day. I use this particular pastry recipe as it is easy to handle, stays crisp for a couple of days, it doesn’t need pre-cooking and is a bit more transportable for events like picnics or village gatherings. Never having tasted quiche before, our neighbours and fellow villagers really enjoyed this dish and always request I bring one should a gathering take place.
Garden Vegetable Quiche  - 28cm tin
For the pastry:

200g margarine
300g Flour
1 Egg
Crushed oregano

Bring all the ingredients together with a fork then by hand, cover in cling film and chill in fridge until next stage is complete.

For the filling:

2 Medium onions
2 grated carrots
Half a cup of sweet corn (peas, red pepper  or tomatoes can be used in place of sweet corn)
4 eggs
100 gm of grated cheese
350 ml of milk
1 teaspoon of mustard
Salt and ground black pepper (to taste)
Oregano to taste

Heat oven to 200 degrees centigrade.
Roll out pastry on well-floured surface. Line quiche dish/tin by rolling pastry around the rolling pin and gently lifting it into place. Mould to dish and trim excess (use for a smaller quiche or cheese and onion pasty).

Put all the filling ingredients into a dish and mix well. Pour into the uncooked pastry case and spread evenly. Place in a hot oven for 15 minutes then reduce the temperature to 175 degrees centigrade and cook for a further 45 minutes, turning occasionally to ensure it gets evenly brown. Cool in tin and enjoy.

For a smaller quiche, half the ingredients or make two and freeze one pre-cooked.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New blog for mosaics by Luis

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Due to the overwhelming success of Luis' blog for chair restoration and mosaic making, we have decided to split the two crafts and develop a new blog for his mosaic making. With an upcoming exhibition and increased interest from garden designers and members of the public, we felt the mosaics were worthy of their own site. 

Roman Mosaic for an occasional table

Although the blog will be in Spanish, with translation tools widely available, you can follow his mosaic making exploits easily enough. The un-laid mosaic slabs pictured are from a set made from pebbles and slate which will form a flight of steps and sitting area around the garage and workshop.

His new blog for mosaics is: www.mosaicoslapasera.com - links for both his blogs can be found on the right hand side of this page. Don't forget to keep up to date with all our blogs by subscribing by email.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Protecting strawberries from slug and snail damage

We have a small number of strawberry plants that are in their second and third year of growth. Each year they produce well but the fruits are susceptible to damage from slugs and snails if we are not careful. Up to now we have relied on organic slug pellets, crushed egg shells or wood ash to help protect or to form a barrier around the plants. This has worked, up to a point.

This year we acquired a few bales of straw and decided to try using some to protect the fruits. Not only does it help keep them free from rain damage but it has been a great success in keeping the slimy creatures at bay. The organic slug pellets act as a second barrier but as these are not available here in Spain, we use them sparingly.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Great Tits nesting in the garden

Birds in the garden are always a joy to see. La Pasera is surrounded by lush vegetation in the form of fields, pasture land, woodlands and coastal plains, giving the local bird-life a range of habitats on which to feed, roost and nest. One element that is in short supply locally is a reliable, fresh water supply.

Since we installed the wildlife pond and three shallow birdbaths we have seen the number of garden visitors increase dramatically. At the end of last year we made a bird box from old scraps of wood and attached it high up on the trunk of the old cherry tree in the hope that birds would nest. Some weeks ago we noticed several birds exploring the box and we hoped that one of them would decide that it was a safe and secure nesting site.

This past week or so we observed Great Tits franticly flying to and fro desperate to keep their newly hatched chicks fed. They bring a never ending supply of large green juicy caterpillars, grubs and an assortment of flies and insects, consumed by the hungry chicks in seconds, the exhausted parents fly off again to seek more food for their young.

Not wishing to get too close (and bring the nest box to the attention of Gawber the cat), I managed to get a few shots of the male / female in full action. I think they must be near to being fully fledged and hopefully, the surrounding trees and bushes will provide the young birds with plenty of cover once they leave the nest....dangerous times.

This next picture is a female Blackbird having a well-deserved bath in one of the birdbaths we have in the garden. This particular birdbath was spotted by Luis when we were out on a walk once. Washed down from a hillside following a mud slide, it is sandstone and has a natural smooth and curved hollow. He carried it for 5 Km or so back to the car, a hard and heavy task but well worth his effort.

We'll definitely build more nest boxes this year and both enjoy and value what they bring to La Pasera.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Renewable energy - tea and cake in the garden

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Every once in a while it is good to sit back, relax and enjoy a bit of free time in the garden. Watch the world go by, review ideas, think about life in general and take stock. It is one of those days when weeding, mowing the grass, planting, cutting back, dead heading and the rest can wait. Time to enjoy a slice of cake and a pot of tea... Renewable energy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review of the vegetable garden in late Spring

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At this time of year we review how the vegetables and salad crops have performed. Luis keeps a notebook recording what grew where, what seeds were sown and when, varieties that perform well and problems and challenges that we faced in the previous season. The notebook is a useful reminder of when and what to sow.

We are lucky in so much that given our temperate climate and being so close to the coast, we can maintain the growing season throughout the year. We are just coming to the end of our leeks and fennel and in the middle of a rather splendid mange tout harvest.

We have three main vegetable beds: two measuring 10x5 meters and one of 10x2 meters. We use a standard rotation system to ensure the soil is not depleted of essential micro nutrients and we add, on a yearly basis, as much manure as we can get and plenty of home-made compost. Manure this year has been a short supply and we are currently looking at alternative sources.

Bed 1 contains: beans, squash, marrow/courgette, cucumber, sweetcorn, sage and a small lavender hedge (great for pollinating insects)

Bed 2 contains: gooseberry bush, strawberry plants, beetroot, peppers, chilli peppers, aubergines and wild tomatoes.

Bed 3 contains: Potatoes (100), tomatoes (12), onions (150 red, 150 white plus another 100 early local variety, peas and mange tout.

Seedlings at the moment include: salad leaves, sweetcorn, beetroot and basil. Still to come later in the season: 2nd crops of cucumber, marrow, beetroot. Winter lettuce, fennel, brassicas, leeks, celery, celeriac, turnips and swede.

Other beds we maintain are a salad and herb garden which contains various types of salad leaves and a range of herbs and plants for infusions and cooking.

Year on year we use more of what we grow and rely less on bought vegetables. All our produce is chemical free. Some crops are bountiful whilst others disappoint, some get attacked or diseased but experience has taught us that there are many natural remedies or prophylactics that can minimise damage or loss of crops. We learn each season from experience, trial and error but that is what growing your own is all about.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The challenge of growing tomatoes outdoors

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Tomatoes are a fruit we have always enjoyed growing to use raw in salads, juiced in refreshing drinks and cooked to make passata and pisto, a typical castillian recipe that mixes tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin, marrow, onion and herbs.

Since we came to La Pasera, we have found that tomato growing can be a challenge due to the high air humidity and sea mist that we get at this time of the year causing tomato blight. Even those varieties reported to be more resistant to this common fungal infection succumb if the conditions are such.

The local vegetable growers tend to grow the tomatoes in a sheltered position next to a south facing wall and with some added protection from a roof.

For the last few years we have grown our tomato plants under partial cover as in a mini poly tunnel that we can site in different parts of the vegetable plot according to our crop rotation system. In addition to growing them under cover, we may also use Bordeaux mixture and natural anti-fungal remedies during periods when the weather is particularly humid and still.

This year we bought seeds for a variety of tomato called Alicante, a fairly small but very tasty fruit that seems to like the conditions our vegetable plot presents. We are also trialling a local wild tomato that has small but sweet fruit.

We sowed seeds in early February in a compost that we mix ourselves based on garden soil, well rotted manure, leaf mould and vermiculite. After a few weeks, we potted up the seedlings in fresh compost with added organic slow release fertiliser to be grown on in a sunny and sheltered position before they were planted o the ground in the second half of April. So far the plants are looking very healthy and some are starting to have their second set of blossom.

As the tomato is a plant very susceptible to blight, we prune the side shoots on the young plants and leave only the main stem to flower. We have found that this method increases air flow and makes infection less likely.

The tomatoes we produce will be used fresh whilst the large quantities of fruit we need to make the passata and pisto is gathered from my sister Rita's vegetable plot in Palencia where she grows about 150 tomato plants in a climate that is much hotter than ours. We process about 60-80 kg of tomatoes each year, ensuring we have plentiful supplies of pisto and passata for the coming year.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Creating a wild-flower meadow in the garden

Creating a wild-flower meadow in the garden was always on the plan. This year it is looking spectacular and they more than meets expectations. I don't know why more people don't have one. You can create a wild-flower meadow in the garden even in the smallest or unlikeliest of places. Leave a grassy border to grow, see what happens. Create an island in the middle of a lawn, let it grow, scatter seeds gathered from walks in the country side. Grasses, flowers, wild herbs...what ever is native.

Here at La Pasera we were fortunate because the house was built on an old orchard where the meadow had been traditionally maintained with regular, seasonal scything. This method ensures that biodiversity can be maintained by letting plants and flowers reproduce and run to seed, next years display safely deposited in the soil or stored in roots and tubers.

Each year, we leave three islands of grass, in the same place every year, we also leave the grassy borders down two sides of the garden and a small patch down by the old cherry tree. At this time of year it really comes into its own with a magnificent display of wild flowers, orchids, grasses, plantains and more. We think there maybe up to 30 - 40 species of plants at any one time in each area. This changes through the year. We have scattered seeds collected from around our local area and let it take its chance.

Each year, in late June, when most of the seed heads from spring have dried or are drying, we scythe the areas and leave it to dry for a few days. This is then raked and the dry vegetation is added as useful dry matter to the compost heaps. The grasses and flowers soon begin to grow back again and by August, a whole new batch of flowers and grasses are beginning to bloom again. It is left until late October, early November when it is once again scythed, dried and raked.

Not only does it look great, these mini environments create great habitats for crickets, spiders, beetles, butterflies, bees, shrew, lizards, slow worms, moths, grasshoppers, field mice, rato topos, snails and birds. Both Wentworth and Gawber are often distracted by the jump of a grass hopper or the hum of an insect. Stopping and listening for any likely prey that maybe lurking inside.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

April's photograph album

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Each month I publish a photograph album of images that inspire me. Taken in and around La Pasera, the photographs are not the best technically, but they capture the beauty and diversity that surrounds us. April's offerings can be found here:

April Album