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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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:
Antioxidant – They act on the skin and fight free radicals, thus helping to slow down cellular ageing.
Anti-inflammatory – They help reduce chronic inflammation and the risk of heart disease.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After the foundations had dried, we started constructing the wooden structure and raised the nine main pillars.
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.
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.
In the middle of the two showers, we installed a drainage system and a pipe that would transport the greywater towards the reed bed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
To ensure waterproofing capabilities of the cisterns we added a finishing painting layer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Before setting the saplings into their holes, we carefully decompacted the root balls once they were out of their pots to prevent girdling.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Our first big project was the construction of a big veggie garden. With the uncertainties of this new pandemic situation, we figured that it won’t be a mistake to create a slightly bigger garden, just in case we would have to become self-sufficient earlier than we had thought… The capacity of it should be able to feed at least six people or more.
We chose a sunny 500m2 patch that stretches along the steep, forested valley-side down to the river which runs 150 m below. There were just four small olive trees on this terrasse, so we wanted to include them in our garden design as a shade instead of eliminating them. First of all, we had to create a durable fence to keep out the many wild boars that roam these lands. Many people had warned us from these animals that seem to be quite a plague here.
Protection against wild boars
The main reason is that there are no more predators (i.e. wolves) around to keep their numbers at bay. Some locals have another explanation for this phenomenon: The legend goes that some farmer once bound a domestic sow (female pig) and had her impregnated by a wild boar. Later on, part of the offspring apparently managed to escape and therefore combined the original genes with properties from the domesticated mother. While wild boars usually only give birth once a year, these new wild boars (with partly domesticated genes) could now reproduce up to three times a year and get up to twelve young ones at a time! Whatever the case might be, we soon discovered holes in pre-existing fences in other parts of our land. Following the trails that started at these holes we regularly discovered patches that had been upturned by a troop of wild pigs. So far, the damage luckily has been moderate since they didn’t reach the roots of the olive trees. Let’s hope it’ll stay that way! Nevertheless, we were warned..
So we dug a trench, 50 cm deep and 30 cm wide and inserted more than 100 hard-wood poles (chestnut), each of them 1 m apart. The poles were secured by hammering granite stones into the soil around them
We continued by filling the rest of the trench with more granite stones and some rubble that the previous owners had dumped somewhere on the land. After the main fence (150 cm high) was set, we reinforced it with a 1 m high heavy-duty steel-mesh which was buried around 30 cm into the ground.
Our volunteers Angi and Joel completed the job with two nicely crafted gates that would supposedly withstand any attempt by wild boars of ramming it. After some weeks of hard labor we finally could start with the initial task of creating a veggie garden!
Preparing the beds and soil
The existing soil seemed to be pretty compacted, so we decided to loosen it with digging forks. The first layer was dry leaves and/or cardboard to reduce the weed pressure from below as there was nothing more than thick grass and weeds present.
Luckily, we got a few cubic meters of old soil (supposedly fertile) out of a ruin in town, where a huge fig tree has been growing for decades. The beds were then topped off with a 10 cm thick layer of soil mix (we added old chicken manure that we’ve found in a barrel – unfortunately, it was almost decomposed to soil). After putting the soil mix on the beds, we watered them down to moisten the soil and also the cardboard underneath.
The fun begins
Finally, the fun part could start: Planting the beds! Shortly after our arrival to the land, we had eagerly germinated a big variety of seeds, no matter if they were in season or not. We brought a bunch of seeds with us and we didn’t even know if these varieties would tolerate the much hotter climate here in the south.
We planted tomatoes, basil, peppers, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, strawberries, leeks, salads, onions, carrots, broccoli (which was apparently not the right season – they grew like crazy but went straight to seeding stage), beans, beetroots, chard, corn and many other things would follow as soon as we got more beds prepared. Our volunteer Diego built us a nice broad fork to loosen the soil much easier as you operate it with your whole body, not just with your hands. We eagerly mulched all the beds around the seedlings to avoid evaporation and to slow down weed growth. Since May was no season to find fresh straw, we had to take what was left over from the previous year (most of it got rained on), so we must have used some moldy bits in our mulch because some plants really didn’t seem to grow for weeks. Only after we had taken it off or have replaced the straw with other mulch (wood chips that we made with our shredder) the beds suddenly showed some increased activity.
Later on, we added more organically shaped beds, like a spiral with a Fibonacci ratio :), two keyhole beds and a „hügelbed“ or „hügelkultur“ in the shape of a gecko. Most of the beds produced a good yield regarding the little input we gave them and for the first season (spring / summer) we are quite happy how everything developed.
Thanks to the amazing cooking skills of Yvonne, we enjoyed countless incredibly yummy vegan meals and dishes. Besides the luxury of having a passionate cook who always fed us well (and therefore kept us happy), the rest of the gang could concentrate on the other tasks at hand. Thanks again, Yvonne, for the love and passion you’ve brought to this place!
We also won’t forget Markus’s skills to create incredibly delicious raw food cakes for us (which would easily match those of a 5-star restaurant!) Thank you, too, Markus. You’re a gifted cake-maker (and also maker of useful things like vermicompost bins and much more)
The small house garden
We also created a small house garden which is running along and underneath a pergola-like structure that is overgrown with wine. We also included the pre-existing lemon tree, a loquat tree, a plum tree and a fig tree inside the fence.
These trees will most likely produce much more fruit in the long run, thanks to the irrigation in the surrounding garden. In return, they will help shade the plants from too much sun. The little wooden bench that Mario and Markus have built invites everyone to enjoy little breaks in the midst of a beautiful variety of plants and flowers.
This little bench invites everyone to enjoy little breaks in the midst of a beautiful variety of plants and flowers. If you want to know more about our adventures you can join our community and receive our regular newsletter.
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