Monday, 8 December 2014

The Answer Lies in the Soil

We've spent a couple of weeks barely seeing a soul and it's been lovely. This time of year is really good for getting the garden into shape as the climate goes through the period that we often call its "second spring" as the rains that come after the long arid summer, coupled with ideal temperatures for "doing things" out of doors encourage so many of the plants to put out new growth and begin flowering again in earnest.

The Gazanias, which have gone quiet during the hottest months of July through September, often withering up to a crisp, put out an abundance of long, pale green leaves once again and already the garden is awash with their huge, orange, yellow and red daisy-like blossoms. They can often appear to be quite dead, yet once the rains have fallen a few times you'll see new green leaves shooting up amongst all the tangled dry, brown dead stuff which we usually try and cut back to ground level, but don't pull the plants out too often, because we've got used to the fact that they do recover once the cooler months of November and December are upon us.

We did have a lone male friend over for a meal the other evening as his wife is in the UK for an extended period and we decided it was time we offered him some relief from trying to cater for himself. We passed a pleasant evening over my wife's excellent (though I say so myself. Nothing like basking in the glow of joint credit for one's spouse's creations eh?) lasagne and a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon. In the drinks cupboard I had lurking a bottle of Jameson's plus one of Johnny Walker Black Label, neither of which have I troubled of late, since for me such drinks are best taken in good company. Needless to say, I was delighted when, after we'd retired to the sofa after our meal, our friend accepted my offer of a glass of Jameson's and thus we sipped at the smooth warming Irish spirit as we talked about the kinds of things that one does usually talk about at this time of year, olive oil, logs, problems with the telephone lines, that sort of thing.

I say "problems with the telephone lines" because the ygrasia [humidity] has of late been getting into the cables of many people's phone lines and quite a number of friends locally have reported intermittent internet and been told by the phone company that it's something that's stretching their maintenance teams at the moment. Lots of houses have their phone lines coming into the property underground and, since they're still metal and not fibre-optic, the damp has been "shorting" cables whose outer sheathing has corroded with time.

Another local mutual friend with whom we took coffee a couple of weeks back was comparing notes with us over what vegetables we've planted recently. Tom, whom you may be familiar with if you've read "A Plethora of Posts" chapter 21 entitled "Bringing Home the Bacon", has a kind of private arrangement with his friend and ours Vageli, from the village up the hill, to use a section of his vegetable field as a kind of "allotment". This field is not all that far from our house and the dearly beloved and I often walk right past it on our regular strolls in the area. if we walk down to the beach we only encounter the main road fleetingly, as we simply cross it at the bottom of our lane and strike up the track opposite and over the short hill which then levels out and gently descends toward the beach, about half a mile further down. Just a hundred metres or so along that lane the field is to our right. There's an apothi'ki (a shed, basically) in the corner, where Vageli and his old dad keep their tools and stuff and the actual vegetable field is probably about the size of a tennis court.

Many's the time we've passed that field and become green ourselves with envy at how huge all the plants are that grow within. Occasionally there'll be a battered old pickup parked at the entrance in the fence, which consists of some rigid fencing wire and a couple of wooden pallets, which can be deftly dragged aside to allow ingress to the field itself. If the pickup's there, we'll usually see Vageli's ancient father, often accompanied by his equally wizened wife, headscarf knotted tightly under her chin after the manner that is often "à la môde" for women of her generation. They'll be bent double as they tend the patch, perhaps pricking out seedlings, trimming some of the vines that grow there, earthing up potatoes or some such thing. They always straighten up if they see us passing and we'll exchange a friendly greeting as they remark on whether it's too hot, too cold, not rained enough or far too sodden and the expected consequences which such disastrous conditions will wreak on their attempts at feeding the family.

We'll of course empathize and tut sympathetically about such things before continuing on our merry way, all the while musing over the fact that farmers the world over tend to display this particular trait - that of always managing to make a negative about whatever the weather's doing at the time. Have you ever encountered a market gardener or farmer, enthusiastic gardener even, who says "Yup! Weather's been just perfect of late. My artichokes are gonna win prizes!" I haven't yet. But there's still time I suppose.

These days Vageli, of course, is more often grafting away there than are his parents, since he's now much more able-bodied than they are. Thus it was that, some years ago now, he agreed to let Tom set aside a nice area in the field under discussion just large enough for him to grow some beetroot, lettuce, onions, carrots, broccoli, spinach and maybe some green peppers. Cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes were in the plan too I'm sure. Tom was telling us how the soil wasn't very good to begin with. This was prompted by our expressions of envy about how good and dark, loamy in fact, it looked to us. When we survey, as we often do, the sheer size of the vegetables that grow there, we can't fail to be convinced that, even though it's only a kilometre or so down the valley from us, the soil quality is vastly different from our yellow rock-hard exhausted dust.

I remember my wife looking at me askance when I used the term "friable" to describe the soil in that allotment.

"You made that up!" She said, sceptically.

"No I didn't! Friable means like, you know, easily forked over, good soil consistency, something like that."

"Nah! Eggs are friable, yes, but soil? You're having me on."

"I tell you it's right! I've even heard Alan Titchmarch and Monty Don use the expression on Gardener's World, so there!"

She eventually allowed me the benefit of the doubt, but I could tell that she wasn't convinced. Anyway, the soil in Vageli's allotment is, as far as I'm concerned, eminently friable and that's final.

Tom, though, told us that he'd been using his graciously granted sector of Vageli's field for a few years now, but that in the beginning it was so full of rocks that you could hardly fork it over without jarring your spine as the fork's tines hit something solid virtually every time you shoved it in. Now that's another word that I got disallowed once at Scrabble, tine. C'mon folks, you know what a tine is, surely? I'll say no more, other than that I was furious at not being allowed to use it once when playing the world-famous word game, simply because on that occasion we didn't have a dictionary on hand to consult as arbiter. I'm talking some years back too, when one couldn't reach for one's 'tablet' (unless of course, one had a headache) and Google the thing either. And no, "tine" isn't the posh person's way of saying "tone" all right?

So, anyway, Tom was waxing lyrical about just how much work he and his wife May had put into getting this patch of soil into good enough condition to plant his veg in.

"We worked sack after sack of manure into that patch" Tom ruefully explained, "to get it really fertile. By the time we'd taken out probably half a ton of stones, through digging and re-digging it over, and worked in all that manure that we'd hauled up there in sacks in the back of the car, I suppose we'd been working on it for four or five weeks. I distinctly remember leaving the place late one evening, the two of us staring back at this rich, dark, smooth patch of excellent soil and enthusing about what we were going to plant there as soon as we could.

"Couple of days later, we arrived up there with a load of seedlings from the garden centre, ready to break our backs putting them all in, when, would you believe it, we arrived at the fence to see Vageli's parents pickup parked outside and the two of them inside the field. They'd just about finished as we arrived - planting their potatoes all over OUR patch, the patch we'd worked our fingers to the bone preparing for all those weeks. Turned out that Vageli hadn't told his parents that this bit was ours. Well, he swore blind to us that he had and that they'd just forgotten, but either way, all that work was for nothing. We didn't have the heart to tell them that this patch was the bit that Vageli had let us have. We did wonder who they thought must have prepared that piece of ground. But they'd just turned up and, obviously feeling that anything inside that fence was theirs to use, chose the best patch of soil and got on with it."

"So, what did you do?"
We asked.

"What else could we do? We set about forking over another section. Took us another few weeks to get it prepared. You won't believe how difficult it was to source another load of manure too. We'd had just about all that Dimitri the horse would give us, short of his horses developing diarrhea or something in the next couple of days."

"But how did you feel, after all that work?"

"Tell you what, it took all our strength to grin and bear it, trying to talk cheerfully with Vageli's parents as they merrily chucked their tools back in the shed, a few other odds and ends into their pickup and cheerfully waved at us as they drove away, leaving us to pick another patch and start from scratch."

So there you have it, a cautionary tale if ever there was one. Never prepare your friable soil, risking a bent tine or two, unless you're dead sure that you'll be able to plant it up without it getting half-inched from under your noses.

Of course, there's also the possibility that the wily old pair knew exactly what they were doing. After all, Tom did say that they were very cheerful when they drove away. One could have mistaken that happiness for the feeling of 'yay! A result!

But, well, let's not go there, eh?


  1. I'm definitely with you, John, on the friable/tine debate. Both words exist in my vocabulary. However, I will question whether the answer is really lies in the soil. I always understood that it was blowing in the wind!


  2. Chick peas , my friend, chick peas

  3. I see you're on the pulse with that one.

  4. Your first paragraph is a great summation of gardening on Rhodes, love it!

  5. I do a little gardening in Pastida. Is my soil friable? Not bad, mustn’t crumble. The main problem is the high pH, so I have started a lot of stuff in pots on my patio. Then I leave for the winter, and hope that some of it is still there when I get back when the gastropods have finished with it. I have got Passionfruit, Cherimoya (custard apple), Guava, and Pitaya (dragonfruit) started. Have you tried anything unusual?

    1. Gardening in a meat and pasta pie eh? You wanna be careful what you grow in those pots too Simon, some of those plants can get you arrested. Oh, and I have occasionally tried something unusual, but it had nothing to do with gardening!!!