My extra virgin olive oil has lees, should I be worried?

No 🙂

Our extra virgin olive oil is not filtered

This is the reason why there may be sediment or even a gelatinous substance at the bottom of the bottle or canister.

Our olive oil is produced without additional filtration processes, so it retains all its natural characteristics and has a more intense and pure flavor and aroma.
This can be reminiscent of the aroma and taste of fresh green olives.

Our olive oil cannot be found in any supermarket. You can check by yourself by buying a commercial one and comparing it with ours.

Our oil is packaged very fresh (usually the same day the olives have been harvested) to avoid the loss of its numerous medicinal properties and to avoid the oxidation process.
However, this can lead to the appearance of bodies or mucilages with a gummy appearance in the lower third of the bottle or canister. These are actually bonds of waxes, gums, and phospholipids naturally present in olive oil.

Like some solids in suspension (pulp or pieces of olive skin) that tend to accumulate at the bottom of the bottle but this is not indicative of a bad state of the oil and can be easily separated by filtering. 

Our aim is to offer the highest quality olive oil with a high content of polyphenols together with other medicinal components, and with a flavor and aroma as natural as possible. That is why we advise you to consume it raw to be able to take advantage of its great properties and to store it in a cool, dark place

Another type of deposit that can form in the bottle or canister is that caused by low temperatures. When the temperature drops, the fatty acids will become solids and the oil will become more opaque, even creating whitish lumps. As the temperature rises, this effect will disappear. Again, this does not affect the oil, which keeps all its properties intact.

The advantage of extra virgin olive oil is that you can easily detect when it starts to go bad by changing its taste to a more rancid tone

Unfiltered oil does have a slightly shorter shelf life than filtered oil, which is why choosing a cool and dark storage place is highly recommended.

Enjoy 🙂

How to recognize a good or bad olive oil?

Every year we aim to enhance the quality of our extra virgin olive oil. Through regenerative techniques, we are increasing the amount and diversity of microorganisms in the soil.

We are improving the water-holding capacity of the soil and increasing the levels of organic matter through the application of compost, wood chips, and the use of cover crops.

We have also started applying biofertilizers and compost teas that nourish and protect the olive trees through the leaves (what is called foliar application). 

And we can monitor all these changes and the quality of our preparations thanks to our soil lab. (yeah :))

We are happy to see the first improvements on our trees and in the veggie garden. Happier and healthier plants tell us that we are going in the right direction.

We confirmed the effectiveness of our regeneration efforts while checking soil under the microscope and discovering a wider range of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in the samples.

We have also confirmed that we are on the right track by conducting consecutive oil analyses and comparing the levels of compounds such as polyphenols and phenols in our olive oil (see below).

When we claim that our olive oil is medicinal we are not only referring to the fact of not adding any synthetic compounds in the form of pesticides, fungicides, fertilizer, or using tillage therefore disturbing the soils.

We also refer to the impact on the soil and biology contained in it which improve the level of medicinal compounds found later in the oil.

Let’s take a look at the medicinal compounds

Olive oil, apart from having a beneficial lipid composition for human health, is also an excellent source of phenolic substances with excellent health protection properties. European Regulation 432/2012 distinguishes olive oils in terms of their effect on health, depending on the content of these substances. Actually, olive oils with a polyphenol content of 250mg/kg or more can claim to be designated “health-protecting food products”. 

Do you know the polyphenol level of our extra virgin olive oil? 

It contains 438 mg/kg of total polyphenols and we are working hard to further increase this value 🙂

One of the most interesting phenolic compounds are Oleocanthal and Oleacein. They have received much scientific interest due to their outstanding biological properties such as anticancer and anti-inflammatory activity similar to ibuprofen able to inhibit the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Oleacein presents anti-inflammatory, antiatherosclerotic (Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in and on the artery walls.), antioxidant, and neuroprotective activity. 

oleocanthal in olive oil
Oleocanthal molecule representation.

All these polyphenols are found in olive oil in different concentrations, depending, among others, on the harvest season and the oil production conditions.

During the 2023 harvest, we produced a very early olive oil to get a product higher in some polyphenols such as Oleocanthal and Oleacein, and it worked: The values doubled in comparison to our oil from 2021.

Unfortunately, the fact of producing the olive oil so early has also an impact on the taste, which becomes less bright and zippy. Oleocanthal can activate some receptors in the oropharyngeal cavity and give a stinging feeling. This feeling is described as “pungency” and we feel it at the end of our throats. 

Contact us if you want to try some of our early, highly medicinal olive oil (called “Verdone”) or our regular extra virgin olive oil. While both are highly natural, premium quality olive oils, the latter has a slightly more pleasant, rounded taste (although we won’t argue with anyone who prefers the flavor of the medicinal “Verdone”.)

What is the most reliable way to identify a good olive oil?

Through our taste buds 😀

Resources:

What is a guild?

In permaculture, a guild refers to a carefully designed and interconnected group of plants, animals, fungi, and other elements that work together synergistically in a sustainable and productive ecosystem. The main principle behind guild design is creating a diverse and resilient system, where each element performs multiple functions and supports the overall productivity of the ecosystem.

A permaculture guild typically consists of several key components:

Central Species: At the core of a guild, there is usually a main plant or tree species that serves as the focal point or primary provider of resources. This central species is often a long-lived perennial (for example a tree) that forms the backbone of the guild.

Companion Plants: Surrounding the central species are a variety of complementary plants, known as companion plants. These plants are carefully selected to fulfill specific functions that support the overall health and productivity of the guild. They may provide additional resources such as nitrogen fixation, pest control, pollination, nutrient accumulation, or shade regulation.

Beneficial insects and animals: Guilds incorporate beneficial insects and animals that play important roles in pest management, pollination, soil aeration, or nutrient cycling. For example, certain plants may attract predatory insects that control pest populations, while flowers can attract pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Soil Enhancers: Guilds often include plants or organisms that contribute to soil fertility and health. Nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes, convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that other plants can utilize. Dynamic accumulators, like comfrey or yarrow, draw nutrients from deeper soil layers and make them available to shallower-rooted plants when their leaves decompose.

Mulch and / or Ground Covers: Ground covers and mulch plants are employed to protect the soil from erosion, conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and provide organic matter as they decompose. These plants, such as low-growing herbs or spreading perennials, also serve as living mulch, creating microclimates and optimizing resource utilization within the guild.

By carefully selecting and arranging plant species and other components based on their functional relationships, we aim to create self-sustaining and low-maintenance systems that mimic the balance and efficiency of natural ecosystems. The exact composition of a guild will depend on the specific goals, climate, and local conditions of a particular site.

Guild around a young olive tree with various perennial herbs and some annual fruit and vegetable plants

When it comes to guilds with olive trees, there are several companion plants that can be beneficial in enhancing the overall health and productivity of the olive tree ecosystem.

Here are the companion plants we chose for our olive tree:

Other good companion plants for an olive tree guild could be: Borage (Borago officinalis), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Marigold (Tagetes spp.), Nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.).


I. Comfrey (Symphytum spp.):

Comfrey is an accumulator plant and known for its deep taproots that can mine nutrients from deep in the soil. It accumulates minerals and makes them available to other plants, making it an excellent choice for almost any type of guild. Its huge leaves create lots of shade and help suppress unwanted weeds.

Note: We have placed the comfrey in the shade of the olive tree (north side) as it still is difficult to grow comfrey in our climate. Comfrey generally prefers half-shade and cooler temperatures. With a thick woodchip mulch layer, which is reducing surface temperature considerably, we hope that the comfrey will thrive here.


II. Lavender (Lavandula spp.):

Lavender attracts pollinators and beneficial insects while repelling pests. Its aromatic foliage can also help deter pests from olive trees.


III. Thyme (Thymus spp.):

Thyme is a low-growing herb that can act as a living mulch around the base of olive trees, suppressing weeds and conserving moisture. It also attracts pollinators and repels certain pests.

IV. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis):

Rosemary is a hardy herb that can thrive in the same conditions as olive trees. It attracts bees and other beneficial insects while providing some shade to the soil around the tree.

V. Ballota (Ballota acetabulosa):

The flowers of this herbaceous plant are attractive for bees and when big enough, the leaves will work as a ground cover.

VI. Incense (Plectranthus madagascariensis):

Incense attracts insects, pollinators and butterflies and therefore also birds to the garden.
The leaves and branches of this species give off a strong scent and are sometimes used to ward off flies. We’re hoping to keep away the nasty flies that puncture the olives!

VII. Sugar melon (Cucumis melo):

This melon is an experiment – we are very curious as to how well annual vegetables can do around an olive tree. So far, the plant looks quite happy, growing a first little melon.

With its beautiful flowers, this melon will attract pollinators and create shade / ground cover with its big leaves


Remember to consider the specific growing conditions, climate, and region when selecting companion plants for your guild. It’s also beneficial to choose plants that have similar water and sunlight requirements to ensure they thrive together.

Building our composting area

Compost production is at the heart of our regenerative practices and having a proper space to produce it seemed an important milestone in our journey.

It all started from the wish to professionalize our compost production. At the beginning, we were making our compost outside, having to protect our piles from sun, wind, and rain.

Hot compost production outdoors

A fully covered area would give us the benefit of working in the shade and protect our fresh piles and the finished product from too much heat, wind or humidity. All of which contributes to a better product in the end: a rich, dark compost, that is full with microbial life.

It all starts with a rough sketch…

So, the task at hand was to construct a spacious, covered area that would allow us to have more control over the entire process while making our lives a bit easier at the same time.

We always try to design our systems with a permaculture approach – each element performs many functions. Thus, the new building should not only help us to produce compost, protect us and the compost from the elements but should also integrate in the existing systems. That’s why the “relative location” of each element is crucial.

By placing it right next to (and one terrace level up from) the main garden, we can choose to gravity-feed our veggie garden by connecting the liquid compost tank to the irrigation system. This way, we save ourselves a lot of time and effort.
Future plans involve adding animal stables right next to the compost area, which is another example of a “relative location“. The need for fresh manure in our compost production makes the placement of animal stables right next to it a smart choice.

The building process

After having found the right location, we started out with a rough sketch, some measuring, and the help of many volunteers. We had to select the right logs for the pillars, shave the bark off of them and bury them 1m deep in the compacted clay soil.

First task completed: Coco and Chris are celebrating the accomplished burying and aligning of the pillars

Now that the pillars were in place, we started to connect them with horizontal crossbeams. On top of these connectors, we had to fix other logs using simple joinery. Even though it was basic woodworking, the irregularity of roundwood has got its challenges. Nevertheless, we were determined to spend as little money as possible (as opposed to buying more processed – meaning square – pillars and beams) and we simply love the “rinky-dinky”-style of building with roundwood.

As soon as the main structure was up, we could cover the roof. We decided on rough boards from locally sourced Douglas firs.

To protect the roof from rain, we used overlapping rows of tar paper. We heated the tar paper at the edge where the rows overlap in order to glue them together properly.

Finally, it was time to take care of the work area itself. After some debating whether to use cement or not, we’ve decided to pour a cement floor for half of the building.

We wanted a flat and clean workspace for storing the finished compost and more importantly, placing the brewing tank for our liquid compost production.

We boarded up the walls on the two “wheater sides”, to protect from winds and precipitation from north and west. Leaving enough space on top of every wall would grant us enough natural light and also lessen the wind pressure on the structure.

All we had to do now was installing water and power lines and build a wooden platform to carry our 600lt tank. We’ve also included a ladder and service platform on top of it to be able to easily access and clean the residues inside the tank after each brewing process.

We’ve already used it many times and it works perfectly!
The elevated platform provides some altitude to empty the tank without any pump or power, simply using gravity.

Mario and Flo are filling the containers with freshly brewed compost extract
The finished composting area

In the future, we’re planning to install a wind turbine and batteries to hopefully generate enough electricity for the air pumps, which are needed to produce a high-quality liquid compost (tea & extracts).

Another future project is to harvest the rain water from the roof to further minimize the environmental impact in our compost production.

Surely, we’ll be looking for the best possible “relative location” of the rainwater catchment system to ensure that it’ll be also adhering to the permaculture principle of “each element performs many functions”.

For now, we’re super thrilled to be able to work efficiently and produce one of our main assets, a dark, rich, microbially active compost in larger quantities.

This will speed up the regeneration process of all the parts of our land, be it the olive groves, the food forest, or our veggie gardens.

Fighting the honey mushroom (Armillaria Mellea)

In 2020, the biggest walnut tree on the land started to show some signs of weakness. 

We noticed that the bark was highly damaged by insects and through the premature autumn colouration and leaf drop we confirmed that it was seriously sick but we couldn’t identify the reason.
In autumn we found a cluster of yellow to honey-colored mushrooms at the base of the tree which gave us a first clue.

We found out that the tree was infected by a fungus called Armillaria Mellea, commonly known as honey mushroom or mushroom root rot.

This was bad news as Armillaria Mellea is a common worldwide pathogen of trees causing root rot, root-collar rot and butt rot. It’s often lethal for the tree especially in trees stressed by other factors. 

Given that the signs of a weakened tree were quite obvious, our chances to save the tree were small, but we had to try anyway.

We got in contact with our colleagues from the Soil Food Web School and Dr. Elaine Ingham herself to start a treatment with another fungus called Trichoderma. This fungus is an effective biocontrol agent for a number of plant and tree fungal diseases.

The interesting particularity of this fungus is that it eats other fungi so it can help in removing Armillaria Mellea. In fact, Trichoderma is the only known treatment against a honey mushroom infection – there is no other substance or commercially available fungicide to effectively combat Armillaria Mellea.

According to the advice from Dr. Elaine Ingham, we first had to isolate the infected root system from the rest of the land by digging a 30cm deep trench around the root zone of the walnut tree as Armillaria Mellea can disperse naturally through the spread of rhizomorphs (rootlike structure) in the soil. Once a host is dying, the fungus will look for another host to colonize its root system. 

Top: digging a trench around the affected area. Down: Aerial view of the isolated walnut tree

Unfortunately, the tree was already in its final stage of life when we started applying Trichoderma and we couldn’t save it. 

Nevertheless, the tree gave us a gift: 

A more deepened understanding about a widely unknown aspect of the kingdom of mushrooms  and some experience on how to fight Armillaria Mellea in a natural way.

Some months later, a friend put us in contact with Salvatore who is having problems with his olive trees. The way he described the symptoms of his olive trees suggested that he could be faced with the same problem. We paid him a visit to examine the trees and take some soil samples. From all the data and information collected, we found out that the olive trees were indeed infected by Armillaria Mellea.

Salvatore told us that a couple of local agronomists went to the land to check the trees and they suggested uprooting the trees, burning them, and planting new ones. They also recommended disinfecting the infected area with lime. He was clearly upset and disappointed as ¾ of his olive trees are affected by the pathogen and he wouldn’t be able to afford a labor and cost-intensive solution like that.

We elaborated a report explaining the data and suggested an action plan including a treatment with Trichoderma spores (pictures at the top and below). 

Our suggested plan was split in 3 phases: 

Defense – Attack – Recovery

  1. During the defense phase some actions are required to stop the spread of the fungus and protect the tree. For example to reduce humidity at the base of the tree by removing weeds and mulch around the trunk.
  1. The next phase is to apply Trichoderma spores to grow the only known fungus that can attack and eventually kill Armillaria Mellea. The treatment is done by pouring water containing Trichoderma spores in a trench around the drip line of the affected tree. This way, we target the most active part of the root zone where Trichoderma spores have more chances to establish a connection with the root of the tree prior to starting looking for other fungi. 
  1. Last but not least, we will need to bring back to the soil the beneficial organisms that are responsible for providing nutrients and water to the tree and strengthen its immune system. This is particularly important in the case of beneficial fungi (mycorrhizal) as the Trichoderma treatment simply kills every other fungus during the treatment. 

We feel grateful for Salvatore’s trust and we will continue working together to save his olive trees. At the same time, we keep learning about this sort of pathogenic fungus and we implement regenerative practices to restore the soils.

A win-win situation.

We will keep you posted on Social Media and through our Newsletter about the progress 🙂

Producing medicinal olive oil

This year, 2021, we are happy to have harvested more than two tons of olives. Yeah!

We feel very fortunate to have had the help of volunteers and friends who joined us and enjoyed this experience with us. 

We have been harvesting alongside  Belgians, English, Dutch, Germans, Ghanaians, Polish, Swedish and Swiss… who offered their time and energy to make this happen 🙂

Together, we’ve picked the olives directly from the trees or we used light machinery to shake the olives into the nets on the ground to be collected immediately.

View from a net used during the olive harvest

After sunset, when all the olives were safely packed in sacks, we drove them straight to the oil mill to be immediately cold-pressed on the same day. This way, the oil is extracted before the fermentation process of the fruit can start, thus preserving all of its amazing properties. 

In order to maintain a maximum quality standard, we do not use olives that have fallen from the trees prematurely, as they usually have already started to ferment or are otherwise damaged or attacked by insects.

Despite having had an extremely hot and dry summer, especially at the beginning, nature is generous and has provided us with high-quality olives from which we have made outstanding oil. 

Why do we know it is outstanding?

First of all, there is our own sensory assessment. We have made it a ritual to try the freshly pressed oil every time we come back from the oil mill. Usually, there is a quite complex sensation: on the tongue and palate, the full range of flavors of green olives present itself, while a rather spicy aftertaste unfolds in the throat. This itchy feeling in the throat is mainly caused by a polyphenol called Oleocanthal. 

Several studies have shown the medicinal properties of this component but Oleocanthal is just one of many sorts of Polyphenols that can be found in olive oil.

Polyphenols are a group of substances present in plants and in olive oil, with a high antioxidant capacity and with positive effects on our health.

The functions of polyphenols in the body are:

  1. Antioxidant – They act on the skin and fight free radicals, thus helping to slow down cellular ageing.
  2. Anti-inflammatory – They help reduce chronic inflammation and the risk of heart disease.
  3. Protective – They improve the functioning of the inner walls of blood vessels. This produces a cardioprotective effect that reduces the accumulation of platelets.

The amount of polyphenols in olives is higher in young olives that are still green than in more mature ones. This requires a clear decision-making process by the producer in terms of quality vs. quantity. The earlier the harvest, the higher the quality but the lower the quantity of oil.

Our priority is to produce an oil with the highest concentration of beneficial elements, so we harvest early in the season in order to obtain the highest amount of polyphenols.

Agronomic factors affect the quality of olive oil as they directly affect the olive. These factors are classified as follows:

  • Intrinsic: Those that can hardly be modified, such as the variety of the tree.
  • Extrinsic: Those that can be controlled, with relative ease, by the farmer himself. 

This is where our practice and experience can have an impact on the quality of the oil.

Through the application of regenerative methods, we focus on enhancing soil quality, improving water management, and increasing biodiversity.

So far, we have been adding organic matter around the olive trees, distributed rich compost extracts, and started sowing cover crops with leguminous species (Medicago Sativa, Vicia).

In the coming months, we’ll keep adding organic matter which is food for soil microbiology. In turn, these beneficial microorganisms will be making nutrients available for our trees. 

At the same time, we strive to increase the microbial diversity (especially fungi), with the application of compost extracts to our soils.

We also plan to apply bio-active compost teas on leaf surfaces and stems of the trees in order to protect them from parasites and diseases.

Finally, we try to avoid compaction of our soil by machines such as heavy tractors and keep it covered as much as possible with mulch or cover crops throughout the year.

It’s an exciting journey for us as we acquire new knowledge and continue learning about new techniques in this field. We will keep you posted about the progress in one of our next articles as soon as our efforts start to yield reliable results.

We hope that you share our enthusiasm and passion for producing high-quality olive oil that not only tastes great but provides such interesting medicinal properties.

If you are interested in getting our Extra Virgin Olive Oil, please send us an email and we’ll organize it. 

We would like to thank all our harvest hands: Carla, Stef, Jana, Hannes, René, Akasia, Sarah, Joël, Soul, Matthias, Vera, Ramses, Martin, and Corina. Thank you guys, you rock! 

Building an eco-friendly campsite

In the following article, we’ll walk you through the building process for our eco-friendly campsite. We have completed two super comfy and easy-to-service compost toilets aka “the temple of poo”, two “yin-yang” shaped outdoor showers, a spacious washing station, and a social “chill-out space”. It is eco-friendly because every drop of water is being put back into the cycle and re-used. It all turned out quite as we envisioned it and – even after a year – we’re still very happy with the outcome.

When we decided to organize the “natural building workshop” in September 2020 we knew that we had a few weeks of hard work ahead of us to build a comfortable camping area to accommodate the needs of 12-15 students. It was quite a challenge, having to build all that within the hot month of August!

And we had to start from scratch: There were only olive trees, a small meadow, and a ruin.

But with the help of our volunteers, especially René, Markus, and Nina, we started to transform the area quickly into something else. First, we installed a small outdoor carpentry from where we’d build all the components for the dry toilets, the showers, and the washing station.

View of our temporary working station on the small meadow.

Compost toilets aka “Temple of Poo”

Our first priority for the compost toilets was durability and comfort. We wanted to create a structure that would last over time and could comfortably accommodate two people at the same time (in different compartments, of course 🙂 ).

Also, it should be easy to service and clean in an efficient manner.

The location we chose for the compost toilet would have to contribute to this latest aspect. We found a perfect spot that was close enough to the tent space and offered two different altitude levels.

The reason for building the structure across two levels is that on the upper level you’ll have convenient access to the toilet spaces while on the lower level you’ll get easy access to the maintenance area with all the bins and containers. This way, comfortable usage is guaranteed for both the visitors of the toilets and the maintenance crew (us 🙂 ) to do the weekly cleaning routine.

In this image, we can see the two levels under construction. The bottom part is the space for the bins and containers. The upper part holds the two toilets and entrance.

As soon as the site was chosen, we started with the foundations for the main pillars. In this case, we used a cement / gravel mix mainly because our focus was on durability and also because there is a high risk of erosion around a terraced ground that consists mainly of sandy soil.

Chris fixing the wooden pillars on the concrete foundation.

After the foundations had dried, we started constructing the wooden structure and raised the nine main pillars.

View of the main structure set on 9 point foundations. The two wooden steps leading up to the toilets from ground level are already in place.
First “test-drive” of the sitting platform 🙂
View of the wooden structure with the first separating wall.
Frontal view of the two cabins with lateral walls finished.
We recycled 2 old green windows. They grant a beautiful view of the village and bring personality to the building.
Mario helping with calculating the roof angle.
Cutting the pieces for making a super comfy toilet seat.
Frontal view of the building without the roof.
Chris using the chainsaw to cut the roof support at the right angle.
A proper tool for each task will save a lot of time.
Frontal view of the building with the roof.
View of the back with the two green windows at the top and the “maintenance area” at the bottom. The urine containers are still missing.

Luckily, we were able to reclaim both doors and windows from a derelict house which are giving the building a unique touch. In the end, we oiled the whole wooden structure (Douglas fir) with linseed oil to protect it better from rain.

One of the main reasons why the compost toilet works so well without generating unpleasant odours was the separation of liquids and solids in the toilet. A urine separator ensures that the faeces do not get the excess moisture and can therefore dry quickly without generating unpleasant odours. Another huge plus is that we can safely compost the precious “humanure” (feces) and use the urine diluted with water as a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer for our olive trees.

For its size, lasting materials, and efficiency we decided to call it The Temple of Poo 🙂

Yin & Yang Showers

One of our first ideas was to build two intertwined outdoor showers in the shape of a drop or the Yin and Yang symbol (which can only be seen from a bird’s perspective).

However, we soon realised that some modifications had to be made to the original shape to make it functional and to be able to enter and leave the “maze”.

Following the permaculture principle, “Each element performs many functions” (at least three), we had set our minds to a solution that would allow us to reuse the greywater from the showers and circulate it through our land as long as possible. From a permaculture perspective, the showers are not only cleaning our guests, they also inspire us with their beauty and most importantly, they’re also helping us to irrigate our citrus trees.

We knew that this would require some sort of cleaning process before we could use it for irrigation. Read on and discover the step-by-step process of constructing the showers and the reed bed to filter the water until the moment when we finally could wash the sweat and dust off of our happy faces when the showers were finished.

It all started with a hole of about 4m in diameter.

René helped us in making the hole. We can see the mix of sandy and clay soil found in that spot.
View of the future shower area.

In the middle of the two showers, we installed a drainage system and a pipe that would transport the greywater towards the reed bed.

René covers the pipe which connects the showers with the reed bed. The wooden boards were used as an independent base for the walls.

We laid out a 4x4m pond liner (black waterproof plastic) to collect all the water from the two showers. Then we topped it up with gravel until the ground level was reached.

View of the hole covered with the pond liner.
We added gravel onto the pond liner.
In the middle you can see the drainage box for collecting the water.
View of the support structure for the poles. The water input pipes can also be seen in the middle.

Once the water collection system was almost done, we proceeded with the installation of posts to support the walls of the showers. Since the pond liner couldn’t be pierced or damaged, we had to construct a stand-alone wooden structure where the walls could be attached to.

After the structure was finished we covered the boards with gravel.

For the shower walls, we chose the local variety of cane, as it grows abundantly in this area and is available freely all year round. Each of the canes was cut to a certain height (around 2m) and a couple of holes were drilled in the ends of the cane. 

Then, a wire rope was inserted through the holes to give consistency to the wall and to join cane to cane.

Working station for creating the cane panels.
View of the first meters of wall installed.
We included a line of stones where the canes could be rested upon.
Just one missing panel…!

Once the walls were done, the only thing left to do was to connect the shower heads with the pipes coming from the ground. For usability and comfort, Nina has built a small wooden bench for each of the shower compartments.

Detail of the shower.
Done! For more comfort and beauty we’ve hand-picked some smooth stones from the beach
Bird’s eye perspective:
A slightly opened Yin-Yang shape allowing to access both showers independently.
View of the “Temple of Poo” and the showers

Washing station & Laundry

Last but not least, we also needed a place for our guests to wash their clothes, brush their teeth, and, basically, have access to water.

From reclaimed local chestnut wood, Nina built a beautiful wooden table with a double sink. On the extension to the left, we managed to integrate an old washstand that we had found in the trash. 

View of the wooden table with the sinks still under construction.
View of the completed washing station with the old concrete washstand.

Of course, we also connected the greywater pipe from the washing station with the reed bed.

We didn’t want to waste a drop of our precious water!

Chill-out area

Creating a space for people to relax and socialise after work was the last of the tasks. We thought that our ruin, a halfway collapsed former farm building, would serve that purpose.

So we started to clean the inside from all the wild vines, brambles and leveled the ground. The half-open walls protect the interior just enough from wind gusts, creating a nice comfy space which we’ve completed by adding a couple of tables and wooden benches.

We’ve also included a light chain for late-night sessions and, most importantly, a power socket for the students to charge their devices.

Finally, we included a sun sail to create some shade for the rare occasion of rest during the day.

View of the “chill-out” space inside the ruin

Luckily, everybody was as excited as we were about our new campsite facilities! We didn’t have to wait long before we’ve got some positive comments from our guests.

Among many others, we remember the happy face of a student exiting the showers. He came out with a broad smile from ear to ear saying:

“This shower experience has been amazing, I simply love the natural vibe of it”.

But not only us humans enjoy the benefits of a well-designed campsite. Remember: From a permaculture perspective, each element should have multiple functions. In this case, our trees and gardens also benefit indirectly from these facilities as the faeces and urine, generously produced by our guests, are being used as fertilizers.

In the case of urine, we get a ready-to-use, nitrogen-rich fertilizer (diluted 1:10 with water) while we prefer to let the faeces aka “humanure” decompose for at least a year before we use them as an amendment / organic matter for our trees.

We feel proud of managing our campsite in a sustainable way and hope that all our future guests will be equally happy knowing that the water they use or their “left-behinds” in the compost toilet will eventually be reused and put back in the big cycle of life.

The carbon cycle of the olive tree

In a healthy ecosystem (e.g. an untouched forest) nature has established an ongoing carbon cycle with a constant supply of dead organic matter (branches, leaves) falling to the ground where it is being transformed back to become new building material and food for all successive plant life.

With a highly specialised crop system like an olive grove, orchard or even veggie garden, we have to work very hard towards generating a carbon cycle. If we‘d only ever extract fruit, veggies or olives and never gave anything back to sustain a carbon cycle, the soil would be depleted of essential organic matter very soon and therefore having a negative impact on the soil and in future crops.

Taking nature as an inspiration, it is important to observe and understand natural processes and then imitate them. The following 5 steps are showing the regenerative techniques we’re currently using to achieve this:

1. SPREADING ORGANIC MATTER

The most abundantly available organic matter is produced by the olive tree itself in the form of leaves and branches.

After pruning the trees, we put all the branches and twigs through a shredder and scatter the wood chips / leaves on the ground along the drip line of the tree.

Along the drip line we’ll find the most active root zone. This is where the microbial activity is highest. The microorganisms that are present in the root zone now colonize the added organic material and thus enter into a nutrient exchange with the root system of the trees. This way, we return the lost biomass (from old leaves or pruned branches) back to the natural nutrient cycle.

(Source: www.santabarbaraca.gov)

Why aren’t we simply burning the pruned branches like everybody else in this region?

Even though shredding the branches and putting them back as wood chips is a much more laborious process, it is also exponentially more beneficial for the health of our soil.

The act of burning organic matter is interrupting the carbon cycle as the carbon material is lost to the atmosphere and therefore can’t be used by the microorganisms to produce more nutrients for new plant growth.
Plus, by adding organic matter to the soil, we’re actively boosting the plant’s ability to store atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the soil (carbon sequestration) and therefore reducing the impact of CO2 as a greenhouse gas instead of adding more CO2 to the atmosphere by burning precious organic matter.

Shredding olive branches with a woodchipper
Giving back to nature instead of burning it
Adding organic matter (in the form of wood chips) around the drip line of an olive tree

2. PRODUCTION OF BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE COMPOST (solid)

The production of high quality compost (= full with microbial life, especially fungi) is the basic ingredient for a successful regeneration of any land-based ecosystem.

With the active assistance of the present microbiology in a complete compost, we can re-stabilize even the most depleted soils and bring them back to their full, natural potential.We’re using a hot composting process to do this. It is an aerobic process that needs to be monitored regularly in terms of humidity and temperature.

The compost building process involves layering three different materials:

1. MANURE – with a high nitrogen content, ideally from herbivores such as cows, horses, goats, sheep, rabbits (but chicken manure works, too).

2. GREEN – material with nitrogen content such as green leaves, grass clippings, green stems, kitchen waste, etc.

3. BROWN – carbon material such as dry leaves, dry branches, straw, etc..

By using the right ratio between these materials (normally 10% manure, 30% green and 60% brown) and a good water management of the pile (we want to reach 50% humidity level), we’re able to produce a high-quality compost that contains all the beneficial groups of  microorganisms (especially fungi). These microorganisms are going to build a healthy soil, transform minerals and organic matter in plant available nutrients, and protect the plant from pests and diseases. 

The type of microorganisms can be determined both quantitatively and qualitatively with the help of a microscope in our soil lab. This is important because it means that you always know exactly which microbiology you are working with, as not all microorganisms are useful for every purpose.

Depending on the type of application, the finished compost can now be spread directly onto the garden beds or around the fruit/ or olive trees. This will positively favor plant growth through the microbial activity around the root zone. In contrast to a classic NPK-fertilization process (where usually “only” certain elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium are added in the form of salts), the compost application has a far more holistic effect, as the microorganisms also provide the plant with all other nutrients and trace elements and protect them from pest and diseases.

Like with the plants, these additional nutrients and trace elements will be able to nourish and heal our bodies in a holistic sense. We’ll be writing more on nutrient-dense food soon, trying to outline how the beneficial microorganisms in the soil do affect the micro-biome in our guts and how important it is today to know where our food is coming from or how it is being grown.

Left: Fava bean grown in regular soil w no compost Right: Fava bean grown in soil w added compost

The image above shows two fava bean plants from our experimental bed in the garden. They were sown at the same time and had about the same height when they were harvested. The picture to the right shows a massively enlarged root ball. Also the growth of the stems (5 instead of 3) speaks for itself.

Left: Fava bean grown in regular soil w no compost
Right: Fava bean grown in soil w added compost

3. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST EXTRACT (liquid extracted from solid compost)

If one cannot produce enough solid compost with the relatively labour-intensive hot composting process (e.g. for larger areas / systems), there is the option of working with compost extract. The solid compost is placed in a textile bag and “swirled” in a large water tank by blowing air into the water from below. This way, the microorganisms present in the solid compost such as bacteria, fungi strands (hyphae), amoeba or nematodes will be transferred into a liquid medium.

Bacteria feeding nematode
Microarthropod
Microarthropod
Fungi hyphae

After a short time, the extract can be applied directly or used for irrigating a garden or an olive grove (i.e. fed into an irrigation system).

Depending on the amount of organic matter in the soil, the added microorganisms will settle there and thus favour the soil building process and the nutrient uptake of the plants.

4. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST TEA  (liquid extracted from solid compost)

The brewing process of compost tea is more time-consuming ( 24h / 48h) because, in this case, we need to add food to encourage microorganisms to reproduce in the liquid medium. The application of compost tea pursues a different goal than the administration of compost extract. Sprayed directly onto the plant, the compost tea forms a protective layer (a so-called biofilm) on the stem/leaf surfaces of the plant and protects it from pests and diseases, especially on leaves and fruits. With a sufficiently high ratio of beneficial fungal biomass, compost tea serves as a natural fungicide, i.e. it can prevent or cure most types of fungal infestation on leaves.

On our farm, we use both compost extracts and compost teas – both in our gardens and olive groves.

Brewing of compost tea with adding seaweed to encourage fungal growth
Once the brew is finished, we fill it into transportable 25L containers to wheelbarrow it one by one to its destination

Like with solid compost, the same rule of thumb applies to both types of liquid compost (compost extract & compost tea):

A complete beneficial micro-biome provides the soil with the right biology responsible for building healthy soils and that will in return generate healthy plants. This way, we increase the natural resilience of the plants, so it can resist diseases better and is consequently less likely to be attacked by pests.

Inoculation of organic matter with beneficial microorganisms

5. REPEAT POINTS 1-4 REGULARLY

As long as an ecosystem is not stabilized, i.e. as long as it cannot provide itself with all the necessary nutrients or defend itself against diseases, we must repeat the application of organic matter and solid or liquid composts. In our case, we need to fix many years of conventional agriculture practices where the use of toxic chemicals and the lack of soil management were the “normal”.

The good news is that we can regenerate damaged soils in a relatively short period of time if we manage to support and imitate the cycle of life properly.

SUMMARY

If you wish to bring your own soil back to its full potential, it is imperative to first spend some time observing the place, its topography, the water flow, its current vegetation and more to draw the right conclusions for your long-term treatment of the land.
We will write more about the observing process / how to read a landscape in another article. For now, let us subsummize the main “ingredients” for a healthier micro-biome and therefore a richer soil:

1. SPREADING ORGANIC MATTER

We’re helping nature by imitating / speeding up the natural process of decay and regrowth

2. PRODUCTION / APPLICATION OF BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE COMPOST (solid)

We’re actively “producing” the right set of beneficial microorganisms and adding them to our gardens or fruit trees to improve soil and plant health

3. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST EXTRACT (liquid)

We’re multiplying these beneficial microorganisms to improve soil health on a bigger area

4. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST TEA (liquid)

We’re actively re-producing a particular set of microorganisms (i.e. fungi) for a specific purpose, mainly for protecting plants against pests or disease

5. REPEAT POINTS 1-4 REGULARLY

While a single application of organic matter / compost is good – a regular and recurring application of organic matter in combination with the right set of microorganisms will work wonders!

The construction of two rainwater cisterns

“Water is the driving force of all nature”

– Leonardo Da Vinci

This quote is not only valid today but it is even more relevant when we see the steep decline of drinking water reserves globally or the impact that climate change has on the water cycle, just to mention these two.

Since the beginning of our adventure to become regenerative farmers, we know that one of the key pillars in the project is the use of water resources responsibly.

Therefore, we started the construction of two rainwater cisterns that would serve as storage, distribution, and optimization of water use especially in times of drought. Also, this storage of water is extremely important in the fight against wildfires that are quite common in summer.

Several wild fires on neighbouring lands monitored closely by Natural building students September 2020.
Fighting a small bush fire with shovels and hoes before the fire reaches our land.
Wild fires are common in this area during summer. Most of them are man-made!

We discussed several ways of building the cisterns without finding the “right one” until Diego, one of our volunteers with experience in the construction sector, suggested building them in a round form. This would require us to use metal molds to be able to pour the walls in a circular shape. His confidence and motivation convinced us and that is how we started the construction of the first cistern at the end of May 2020.

The first step was to find a suitable location where to build them. They had to be close enough to the house for maintaining a constant pressure (the pump that connects us to the public supply is too far away – due to that we often used to have pressure problems).
An even more important reason for proximity to the house was that we wanted to collect the rainwater from the house roof.

View of the building site at the first stage.
To let gravity do the work for us, we’ve constructed a funnel connected to a pipe
to pour cement from the upper terrace directly into the form. This has saved us a lot of time and back pain 😉

Taking into account that the average rainfall in Badolato is 905mm / year and that our roof surface equals 110m2, we have the potential to store almost 100m3 of water per year.

We chose the closest olive grove from the house to build the cisterns since it is close enough for laying pipes. At the same time, the cisterns would be hidden amongst the trees and not draw too much attention away from the unique landscape.

From the beginning, Diego suggested excavating the holes by hand as the soil is sandy and not too compacted. Despite a certain skepticism, we accepted, and with the help of other volunteers, we started digging.

We used our homemade broad fork from the garden for digging the first part.
One of the metal molds that were used to give shape to the cistern.
Digging manually and with a jackhammer.


The first centimetres were easy to dig but soon we found coarse sand that was very compacted and we had to use a pneumatic hammer.

A metal ring helped us to keep the same right diameter during digging.

The first cistern is 2m wide and 3m deep, which amounts to 9m3 or 9,000 liters. The second cistern measures 2m x 3.5m which generates a capacity of 11m3 or 11.000 liters.

Digging the second cistern.
Detail of the mold and concrete walls.

To ensure waterproofing capabilities of the cisterns we added a finishing painting layer.

Applying a finishing painting layer to avoid any leaks.
A long ladder was mandatory to reach all parts of the big cistern.

At the beginning of July, the cisterns were ready to be filled and we were able to install the pipe system that connects the roof to one of the cisterns to start harvesting rainwater.

View of the rainwater harvest pipe from inside of one of the cisterns. It makes us think about “2001: A Space Odyssey” movie!

After so many weeks of hard work, we opted to hire an excavator to help us with the trenches for the pipes and also to lift the concrete lids onto the cisterns.

The excavator digging the trenches for us.
Installation of one of the lids made of concrete.
Rainwater system connecting the roof to the cisterns.
Construction of the lid.
View of the trenches and Badolato borgo.
Detail of the cistern lid. Metal ring, mesh and hooks.

Both cisterns have submerged pumps that are independent of each other, which allows us to switch between them easily.

The latest step was to build a small housing for all the pipes, faucets, and control units. The natural place for this was right between the two cisterns.

View of the cisterns and housing for pipes and switchers. The ugly orange pipe (we will hide it, promise!) is the one connected to the roof for harvesting rainwater.

The current set-up gives us full control of the water flow, for example, we could decide to pump all the water from one cistern into the other for cleaning purposes.

These are our happy faces reflected on the full cistern while realizing the importance of having such a reserve of water.

After some months of using the cisterns, we can proudly say that the whole project fulfilled all our hopes and expectations.

The system is running so efficiently that we are totally independent in terms of water use except for the driest season. This means that we don’t need to buy any communal water for about half the year! We are very happy to have successfully added some level of self-sufficiency to our lives and to this project.

We want to thank all the volunteers and people involved in this project, especially Diego and Rob who played a key role in the design and construction process. You rock guys!

View of the cisterns area from the top. We can see one of the manhole open.

More fruit trees – Starting a food forest!

New trees for the future food forest

This amazing piece of land has provided us with medicinal herbs, fruits, and all sorts of edible plants. Most of them have been planted a long time ago by the previous owner; Teresa Fiorenza, a gentle old lady that probably has lived through hard times during and after World War II. Thank you for that, Teresa!

We are blessed with a variety of perennial plants and trees such as loquat, artichokes, mulberries, dates, peaches, plums, apricots, almonds, figs, pears, apples, kakhi, jujube, pomegranates, walnuts, hazelnuts, lemons, oranges, mandarins, cedro and bergamot. What a treat to eat fresh produce directly from a tree or pick from the land…!

But it doesn’t stop there.

Continuing Teresa’s legacy and following our own path towards being self-sufficient, we started planting a selection of new trees around the house (such as the sub-tropical Moringa Oleifera and Ceratonia siliqua / Carob, some fig and oak).

Young carob sapling

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

― Chinese Proverb

In the previous orchard, we added two varieties of apricot, two varieties of apple, quince, flat peach (Prunus platycarpa), regular peach, mulberry and plum.

Alongside a cliff in a more shaded spot, we have planted white/red/black currant, red gooseberry, blueberry and raspberry.

In the flatter part of our future food forest, we utilize swales, a landform in the shape of a trench and berm running along contour (points of the same altitude) to catch as much rainwater for the trees and plants as possible. In our case we probably should call them semi-swales, as they’re interrupted and not perfectly along the contour line.

Aerial view of food forest area, showing potential water collection in swales (in blue)

Tree planting

View of the future food forest with freshly dug swales

We dug holes in the “hill” side of the swale, about 40-50cm deep / wide. A large enough hole for the roots to grow bigger before they’ll eventually hit native soil (which is usually more compacted). Each tree will receive more rainwater, as the ditch of the swale will help infiltrate all the surface water into the root zone.

Planting hole

To help these young trees, we added several layers of seasoned compost in between the native soil. The goal with adding our own compost is to inoculate native soils with a most diverse microbiology (beneficial microorganisms and beneficial fungi).

This is the main reason why we have established our Soil Lab. With the help of a microscope we’re able to assess the quality of our own compost and soils, mostly to identify all beneficial or non-beneficial microorganisms that are part of the Soil Food Web.

This way, we’ll simply make better decisions. In the case of planting trees we have utilized a seasoned compost with more fungi than bacteria biomass because trees are lifeforms of a later stage in evolutionary succession. Therefore, trees need nitrogen in the form of ammonium NH4. Fungi are responsible for converting nitrogen into ammonium – that’s why trees prefer fungi dominated soils over bacteria dominated soils.

Adding a rich mix to the planting hole (seasoned compost and topsoil)

Before setting the saplings into their holes, we carefully decompacted the root balls once they were out of their pots to prevent girdling.

Loosening the root ball is important for the development of the roots

What is “girdling”:


When plants grow in nursery containers, their roots hit the wall and begin to grow in a circle. By loosening the root ball and therefore breaking the circling pattern of the roots, the plant will most likely not keep growing circular. We also dug square holes in the hopes that some roots will eventually hit a „corner“ to easier break the threshold between hole and native soil.

Finally, we’ve hammered three fence posts into the ground around each sapling, (making sure not to sever the root ball). Once the summer drought hits this land and the drip irrigation system is on, wild pigs will smell the water immediately (as there is not much water around in summer). They’ll confuse any wet swale for a conveniently prepared pig bath tub and by happily rolling themselves around in it, they might eventually damage or even uproot small trees. Let’s hope this safety measure will protect the saplings from any boar activity!

Creating a “food forest
or “edible landscape

What is a food forest?

A food forest, also called a forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Food forests are three dimensional designs, with life extending in all directions – up, down, and out. A food forest does not have to be re-planted year after year. Once it is established, it is generally very resilient.

Source: Resurgent Circles – Seeding Eden (modified by us)


Generally, we recognize seven layers of a forest garden – the overstory (canopy layer), the understory (smaller trees), the shrub layer (bushes), the herbaceous layer (grasses, medicinal plants, etc.), the ground cover layer (perennials like clover, etc.), the root layer (root vegetables) and the vine layer (climbers). Some people also like to recognize an eighth layer, the mycelial layer (mushrooms). Using these layers, we can fit more plants in an area without causing failure due to competition.

The food forest area is marked with a red dotted line

A food forest must be organic. Forest gardens depend heavily on a healthy ecosystem and cannot be sprayed with herbicides or pesticides or have non-organic fertilizers applied. A healthy ecosystem will take several years to establish itself, especially in a city or open farm area. We have to be patient and let nature take care of itself (while providing the necessary food, water, and habitat for all the components of the ecosystem, otherwise they won’t come).

Food forests are a new farming concept in our area, but they have been used for thousands of years in other parts of the world.

Adding some seasoned high-fungal compost to an orange tree

A well-designed forest garden has many benefits:

  • Planting densely and using ground covers to shade soil and suppress weeds is returning more yield on a given surface area.
  • Utilizing nitrogen-fixing (i.e. leguminosae, etc.) and nutrient-accumulating plants (i.e. comfrey, etc.), “chop-and-drop” techniques, and returning wastes to the land will create healthy soils instead of having to buy and add commercial fertilizers.
  • Planting a diverse array of plants will attract beneficial insects to pollinate the fruit crops and keep pest populations from exploding and causing damage.
  • By utilizing several ground-shaping techniques we are able to keep rain water on the site.
  • Depending on the topography, designing for specific placement of plants helps create windbreaks and micro-climates.
  • Placing emphasis on trees, shrubs, perennials, and self-seeding annuals, the overall amount of work is greatly reduced.

In his book “Gaia’s Garden”, Toby Hemenway recommends some of the following soil-building plants for orchards/food forests: 

FunctionSoil building plants
Nitrogen fixersAlder, autumn olive, bayberry, black locust, broom, butterfly pea, cattail, chamomile, chives, collards, common milkweed, false indigo, goumi, licorice, sea buckthorn, wild lilac, wisteria, wild lupine, sweet pea, bladder senna
Annual nitrogen-fixing cover cropsAustrian winter pea, bell bean, crimson clover, Fava bean, Fenugreek, Garbanzo bean, vetch, black-eyed peas, cowpeas, lablab, pinto beans, soybeans, Sunn Hemp
Nutrient accumulatorsAlfalfa, lamb’s quarters, primrose, purslane, stinging nettle, yarrow, sunflower, dogwoods, horsetail
Soil buildersRapeseed, Sudan grass, and crotalaria
Resources: “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway