If you have been following our story so far you’ll know that our first harvest dragged on far longer than we had expected. As soon as it had been picked and pressed we decided to take “a day or two” off as a well deserved rest and review what work we still have to do before summer. Certain natural cut-offs dictate the farmers’ calendar here in Crete. For example , it’s important to get the fertiliser down well before it stops raining*, otherwise it won‘t get washed in. Additionally, you should do any pruning and major weed removal projects by the same time so that the resulting heaps of wood and weeds can be safely burned off. Fires are banned here after the last day of April , and when you recall the disaster in mainland Greece last year it’s easy to understand this precaution.
(*Explanatory note for our readers on holiday from England: “Before it stops raining” means that the water that comes from the sky stops doing so for about six months or so! You can arrange to have a barbecue, no worries!)
I say “a day or two“, but in reality very little work has been done since the harvest finished on February the 4th, mostly on account of “Ooh, my back” and “Blimey, my hands“. The back, after 20 years of having to do nothing very much other than hold my head and shoulders up, naturally objected to being suddenly treated like some sort of Navvy and required to do some manual work for a change. It went on a very painful strike. The hands, similarly insulted, came out in sympathy. Each night they seize up into claws which have to be unbent , painfully , each morning. I guess it’s the muscles going into some sort of spasm. When you see an old Cretan olive farmer hobbling to his beat-up old pick-up, now you know why he’s hobbling, (and remember to say hello, it could be me!)
Anne , who is obviously made of sterner stuff than I, has been sympathetic and handy with the back soothing creams (I can recommend something called Counterpain even though it sounds like something you used to throw over the bed). Being a fairly senior nurse by previous profession she‘s pretty good at telling the patient to behave, sit up straight, get back into bed etc in that particular “you‘ll do as you‘re told“ kind of voice that they must teach them at nursing school. So with Matron in charge and my natural inclination to be a complete wuss when in the slightest pain we’ve managed little of what we should have.
All plants like a bit of fertiliser and Olive trees are no exception. Fertilising is a word that’s always conjured certain images, and now we get to fertilise 750 times a year! The technique is simple: First load up your pick-up with as many 25 kg sacks of nitrogen-with-boron and 30 kg sacks of phosphor as you’ll need for the day. Go “ouch” for a bit. Drive to the groves, unload the bags at a fairly inconvenient place and then carry them 50 meters to where you’re going to start. Go “aarrghh”! Once there, wait for the pain to stop, then tip the nitrogen into the wheelbarrow and put the phosphor, in its bag, on top. Slit the top of the phosphor bag, and you’re ready to go. Stop for a breather and a bit of a rub, and whimper quite a lot like a big kid.
Some of the more observant readers will have spotted that the bags are carried to the wheelbarrow, and not put in the barrow at the van and wheeled to where needed. Well, I can only say that you have to try each method personally before deciding which suits you best. Over rough ground ,uphill ,with a heavy barrow believe me, carrying the stuff is easier, (at least until you’re at the dispensing stage, trundling 5 meters at a time from tree to tree.)
To dispense the fertiliser, take 2.5 kilos of nitrogen-with-boron (in an old saucepan that you just happened to know would be ideal for the job when you were packing your few belongings together and leaving Blighty) and 1 kilo of phosphor, (I recommend an old Greek yoghurt pot for the purpose), bend down and walk in a circle under the branches of the tree ,sprinkling as you go. If the tree’s on a slope, sprinkle a bit more at the top than at the bottom. Be careful the tree doesn’t get romantic during this fertilising and give you a kiss. A kiss from an olive tree consists of it deliberately stretching out a sturdy branch and clouting you firmly on the head with it. Anne seems to get away with very few kisses, but in my blundering I usually pick up one or two a day. Follicly challenged as I am this means of course that my head is always covered in scratches, scabs and bumps. A kind of arboreal love-bite. I wonder ,therefore, if our trees are female rather than male? And how do you find out the sex of a tree anyway? Before we started this craziness I didn’t even know that trees could be either male or female. What’s that all about?
A side-note about organic fertiliser. It’s made from Guano (dried bird poo , to be as polite as I know our readers will expect ), dried blood, and the leftovers from fish processing factories. You’re right, it absolutely stinks. Stinks of what it’s made from. Each night we’d drive home with Hank’s windows fully open, (Hank is our pick-up), pray we didn’t meet anyone between parking Hank and getting upstairs to our apartment, strip down to our undies on the landing (not sexy, not with that smell) and leave the clothes outside the front door to ward off evil spirits. We’d fight over who gets in the shower first. Scrub exposed skin parts several times vigorously to get rid of the stink. Wash our hair four times (in my case, not a big job!) and still sometimes a lingering whiff can be had! It must be good for the trees, as my Dad always reckoned fertiliser has to pong to be any good.
Because of the length of time it took to get the harvest in and then the dodgy back and hands we were late with the fertilising. In fact, as I write we’re getting the first rain we’ve had since putting the fertiliser down. If it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t get soaked in and 6 days’ work and 600 Euro will blow away in the summer wind. We reckon we need another 8 days rain to do the job properly, and there’s little chance of that. To help, our mates are washing their cars and cleaning their windows , which is powerful rain generating voodoo. I’m trying to persuade Anne to strip naked and do a rain dance, but regrettably so far without success. I don’t know if rain dancing requires nudity, but it certainly sounds like it might and it would be considerably more entertaining that way.
Back permitting, we’ve been doing a bit of pruning on the large, old, uncared for trees that form the majority of our stock. Really, they need the big “rejuvenation” prune, cutting them right back and flattening their profile to a workable height. However, this year’s harvest should be a heavy one relative to last year’s ,so we’re reluctant to give it up by doing the big cut. The problem with most of the trees is that they haven’t been trimmed at all in about ten years. The outer profile is rounded and inside the tree looks like someone has gone mad with a dead- twig-making-machine just for fun. The riotous proliferation of these useless twigs slowed us down considerably at harvest time, having to fight through them to get at the olives. They have to go.
Between half an hour and two hours with the trusty pruning saw and the “Felco Professional Number 7” secateurs (the best, especially for those with dodgy hands) and all the dead, dying, and useless twiggy festoonery is gone. The tree is transformed internally, lots more light can get through (which is important) and the branches which will carry this year’s harvest are now easy to get at. The yield should improve, as the tree would otherwise expend energy maintaining this useless wood, and the next harvest should be a relatively easy affair. So, 12 trees done so far, 230 trees to prune, other jobs to do , the end of April as a deadline. You’re right, we’ve got no chance!
In the next day or so we’re expecting delivery of our grape vines. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work for an organisation where money was no object when it came to entertainment and it was at that time that I discovered “Barolo” wine, normally far outside my £4.99 a bottle maximum budget. (In this case, £60 outside! My current hooch of choice is local Raki at 6 euro for a litre and a half. How times change…) “Barolo” is arguably the best red wine in the world and the grape variety from which it is made, “Nebbiola”, grows successfully in few places. Italy is one, Kephalonia is another, so we’re hoping Sitia, Crete is another.
Just after we’d bought our land we found a little flat area tucked away in a sheltered corner covered with chest high weeds and a few chest high olive trees. Five days of hard weed-clearing graft, slashing dragging and burning, revealed a lovely little terrace where we discovered SOIL! A rare commodity indeed. As the Minoans at Praissos just 0.5 km away numbered 20,000 some 4000 years BC it’s fairly obvious that they farmed the area where our groves are. There’s something in the atmosphere about this little plot that makes us feel they made this little terrace and grew vegetables or something here some 6000 years ago. We now call it “The Orchard Plot” and have augmented the few small olives with half a dozen different varieties of orange trees, a grapefruit, a lemon, two pomegranates, a peach which as I write has burst into flower, a mandarin, a Japanese Loquat, two avocadoes and a walnut. We’ve already got two pears and almond trees. On order are a couple of cherries and a brace of nectarines, so hopefully, in about 5 years, we won’t have to buy any fruit or nuts ever again. The pears, by the way, are this year going to be made into Raki, or “Calvados” as they call pear brandy in Normandy!
The Nebbiola vines will fill up the orchard plot and who knows, in two or three years time we might have our first Barolo wine. Having ordered the grapes and readied the land only then did we do a bit of research on the internet where we read that Barolo is often undrinkable early on, only becoming the king of wines after 20 years in an oak cask! Ah well, it’s good to have long term goals to live for.
This time of year is decidedly the most beautiful in the groves. The olives, peaches and almonds are in blossom, with the wild pears and soon the cultivated pears to come. Everywhere is amazingly green with a luminescence rarely seen anywhere else. As our land has never seen weed killer the profusion of wildflowers is astonishing and every day sees a new variety of flower emerge. There is a clover-type plant that is everywhere and produces thousands of yellow flowers. Anenomes abound in various forms. There are a profusion of orchids, particularly “bee” orchids, tiny flowers that look just like bumble bees. We are reminded of the old water-meadows in England before the advent of corporate prairie farming and the mass chemicalisation of once rich and verdant land.
One of our neighbouring farmers (downhill from us, thankfully) is still sold on the idea that herbicides are a great idea. His groves are now barren earth, with not a flower or a blade of grass in sight. Strangely, as you walk through them there is a marked absence of birdsong too. We imagine that the lack of vegetation means that there is no habitat for the insect life on which the birds feed, and so the birds go elsewhere. “Our” badgers, that have a large and well established set in one of our groves, probably ignore the place too , as there would be nothing there for them to eat . On our groves, conversely, we often see a circle of trodden-down vegetation around the trees, left there by the badgers as they search for their evening meal. We know that farmers got sold on the idea of an easy life with the products of the chemical giants, and more certainty of crop yields with the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers, but the environmental cost is frightening. Unsuspecting consumers buy the oil produced by olive trees farmed by tens of thousands of these “chemical” olive farmers across Europe and elsewhere never fully comprehending the chemical cocktails they might contain. As with other supposedly “good for you“ fruits and vegetables produced with intensive use of fungicides, pesticides and herbicides and with chemical fertilisers there must, one would imagine, be a negative health impact over time? Olive oil consumers tend to imagine that they are keeping themselves healthy and in reality, unless the oil is organic, are consuming who knows what residual chemicals?
To spot olive trees that are spared the chemicals, look for string tied from branch to branch around the perimeter of the grove, or a red striped plastic band. The olives from these trees are often the ones used to produce oil for family consumption. Make a friend of the farmer and if they are anything like the farmers around Sitia they’ll probably give you some of this most precious commodity.
“” as we say here in Crete. Happy Easter