Gozo Growing #9 : Worms, Chillies and Aliens

After a long, warm and (surprisingly) wet autumn, things are looking good on the plot. Although we are only into our second year, the soil structure has improved greatly thanks to the no-dig “lasagne” beds and the application of lots of donkey, sheep and goat dung, our own-made compost, and nettle mulches etc. Worms, however still remain something of a rarity, unlike the many spinach-eating Banded Snails that turned up following the recent rains!

So, after hearing about an interesting vermiculture scheme, we headed over to the small fishing village of Marsaxlokk in the south of Malta, where we met Kinga, who runs the project at Juno Heights Villa to learn more about worm composting. The worm bins (old metal bathtubs) are dotted around the grounds of the villa, and have been set up, along with other eco-inspired design features to showcase how such simple techniques can be adapted to benefit Maltese gardens of any style and size.

Typically, large villa planting is very much about year-round floral displays, straight lines, borders, rose beds and annual bedding. Trees, shrubs and vines are planted to provide colour, shade, scent and some fruit. Vegetables (if grown) are hidden discreetly away from view. Any prunings or green “waste” is typically removed and either burnt or disposed at off-site recycling centres. On-site composting is not usually carried out, mulching is rarely employed and watering is typically via a drip feed or timed leaky pipe system via a villa’s own rain-fed well, or underground cistern.

The owner of Juno Heights is taking a different approach, keen to adopt permaculture practices, experiment with garden design, and showcase these possibilities with other growers – whatever the size of plot or growing space. Kinga also hosts open days at the villa to explain vermiculture techniques and share tips on how to set up worm bins, even if you only have a small terrace, balcony or limited roof space (which is the case in many Maltese homes). She has also set up a “Spreading the Worm” initiative so that people can learn more and share their knowledge and some worms afterwards. www.facebook.com/groups/vermiculturemalta/about/

Along with autumn storms, we have had plenty of strong winds – which was handy as Gozo hosted the first ever International Kite and Wind Festival back in October. It’s not every day you get to see aubergine, sunflower and carrot -shaped kites flying over the Gozitan countryside!

Back down to earth, the next series of straw bale beds are now in place. Currently we are harvesting cabbage, lettuce, kale, spinach, rainbow chard, mangetout shoots, green garlic shoots, beetroot, salad leaves and seemingly non-stop sweet peppers. Both the new and main crop seed potatoes are all in (and even flowering!) as are some of the broad beans. We are aiming for new potatoes on Christmas Day. The fruit trees all survived the summer heat, with the pomegranates, plums, loquat (Naspli) and almonds all putting on good growth. This autumn, we also harvested our own olives for the first time. The resulting full buckets were taken along to the local farmers co-op for pressing. A few days later, armed with some re-cycled glass bottles, we collected the resulting oil, which is a rich green colour with a peppery taste – ideal for cooking and in salad dressings.

Our neighbour grows a wide variety of different chillies, and she has turned this hot harvest into a successful cottage industry, with her home-made “Gozambique Peri-Peri Sauce” based on the traditional spicy recipe originating in East Africa. For those who like even more heat, she also makes a Habanero Sauce and a cooler and Green Chilli and Coriander sauce. The Peri-Peri sauce goes very well with the local soft cheese made from sheep milk (Ġbejna) and freshly baked bread (ħobż Malti), but it also gives a kick when added to soups and stews, but as the labels says “try it on anything”!  www.facebook.com/gozambique

The cooler days have also brought back the birds, and one of the joys of some gentle weeding or compost-bin emptying, is simply sitting down and listening to the new arrivals – these include Robins, Sardinian Warblers, Black Redstarts and the Blue Rock Thrush (il Merill is Malta’s national bird). We also have the company of a large family of squabbling Spanish sparrows who love nothing more than to crank up the volume, as if in direct competition with the nearby donkeys and village cockerels! Maltese wall lizards and chameleons can also still be seen on the plot on warmer sunny afternoons.

Gozo has a diverse and unique flora and I’ve been trying to learn more and identify some of the many wildflowers and shrubs to be seen when out walking in the countryside or growing alongside field edges, tracks and paths. As part of that awareness raising I’ve found this excellent website, which is managed and run by Eco-Gozo botanist and orchid expert Stephen Mifsud. www.maltawildplants.com

Unfortunately not all plant species on the Maltese islands are so welcome and some invasive “alien” invaders, such as the yellow-flowering Cape Sorrel – in Maltese known as Haxixa Ngliza ( literally, the English plant), the Castor Oil Plant and the oh-so-pushy Fountain Grass (Penniseteum setaceum) from North Africa have all decided to set up home. Often they can be seen in urban areas, as well as countryside sites such as valley bottoms or along water courses, where their seeds have washed down, or spread successfully into areas where they are difficult to remove or access. Action is being taken to remove them from the countryside, but they are tough, invasive plants and it’s not an easy or quick task.

Finally, we hope you have a fine festive season and wish you happy and successful growing season(s) in 2019!

Simon & Mary Wallace
Qala, Gozo
December 2018

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