Cleaning the trees …

Yes, you read that correctly, and no, it’s not because of my old OCD cleaning regime – you really do have to clean the trees!

We took delivery yesterday of this mighty fine machine …

This pressure washer holds 100 liters – today we’re using water and washing up liquid to clean the trees, but it can be used to apply horticultural oil and the like too. Soapy water will not only clean, but also kill the scale that have been tormenting us all year, and sort the leaf curl. Blasting the scale into oblivion is so very satisfying I can tell you!

Up until now we’ve been using backpack sprayers. The problem with these is (a) there’s very little pressure so it’s difficult to get really great coverage – missing loads of problems is really easy and (b) they really knacker your shoulders after 3 tanks.

On a fun scale of 1-10 this sits at about 38!

We found the best technique so as not to get soaked through very quickly – start inside the tree and work outwards!

Now we just need to wait and watch to see if this does cure the problems that the trees have … I’m feeling confident!

Before …
After!

Now that they’re clean, we’ll cut out any dead wood today and give them a lovely long watering overnight tonight – they’ll feel so loved!!

Then tomorrow, the other two terraces!!

Dogs and mules …

Our normally tranquil and peaceful life was somewhat shattered on Sunday with the arrival of a mule in the field at the end of our road …

This poor little bugger gets moved around, and sometimes we have passed him in a field further away when we’ve been out for a walk. The very short tether, lack of food, water and shelter did upset me. The dogs had a quick bark but didn’t seem overly interested then.

But on Sunday he got moved a bit too close, and the dogs were beside themselves! The mule was now on ‘their turf!’.

They both went down there, and when Luna realised the mule was tied up, she got bored of barking at him and went to come back home. Rog heard the commotion and went down to investigate (in the pitch dark)!

But Persi, well, that was a different matter altogether! He’s only 8 months old and hasn’t been able to contain himself at this new arrival. Persi was barking furiously, wanting to play, Luna was trying to drag him away, the mule started kicking out, and Rog was shouting at, well, all of them!

We had friends staying here too – they must’ve thought they’d come to a madhouse!

We had to tie the dogs up Sunday night to make sure they didn’t go back over there – something we don’t like doing, but if the mules hoof connected it would definitely have had a sad ending, so better to secure them.

The next morning we decided to let them off in the hope they would now be bored of the new arrival, but no, Persi was off like a shot. Luna gave chase, closely followed by Rog (he has walked / run about 2 miles going back and forth). Persi has an injury on his face – not sure if that was Luna or the mule, but it hasn’t deterred him at all – talk about not learning your lesson!

Rog has been taking down water for him – it’s heartbreaking to see him tied up on a really short rope with nothing except an empty water bucket by him. He drunk the first bucket in one go – just broke our hearts!

So Persi is under house arrest, and currently being walked on a lead … I just hope they’re not planning on leaving the mule there for too long … for everyone’s sake!

Rats!!!

Now you know me, I’m an animal lover, and we need all sorts of animals to create a balanced eco system … but there is a list of animals in my head where my attitude is ‘you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone!’. At the top of that list here for me is the rat…

I remember our neighbour Paco saying to us ‘you know there are rats and snakes in the campo don’t you?’ – to which we replied of course, it’s the campo! You have to accept there’s all sorts of creatures out here!

Over the last few years I’ve caught the occasional rat out of the corner of my eye, but recently they’re getting bold and brave. Rog had one that made a nest in the shed, so he cleared out anything that could be used for nest building, leaving just a few rags in a drawer . After doing up the caseta and laying a floor, the droppings became very clearly obvious – and we think they’re mithering the chickens as they try to get the chicken food.

But this week, just the worst thing imaginable happened to Rog…

Whilst in the shed, he reached over to get a rag out of the drawer … stuck his hand in and grabbed a rag … which then started to move in his hand 😱😱😱

The shock of having a rat in his hand instead of a rag meant he dropped it and the rat made a run for it. Rog said he was annoyed with himself for dropping it as we could’ve had one less here … not a problem Mr C!!! Definitely forgive you that one!

To say I’m nervous about going in the shed is an understatement – I needed to get my pruners and gloves out this morning, and I thought, be brave, you can’t keep asking Rog to get everything out for you. So, like a ninja, I picked up my pruning shears and used the blade to open the glove drawer very gingerly, and only when I was sure it was rat free would I pick up the gloves 😂😂

So I’ve made some poison using chicken feed, peanut butter and salt, as well as sprinkling salt around their haunts. It’s the best way to deal with them when you have other animals – this won’t harm the dogs or the chickens, but should kill the rats, as their bodies can’t deal with salt. Melting their insides … sounds good to me!

War is declared!

Buying a second hand car in Spain …

Our 37 year old Suzuki Santana has started costing a bit of money for repairs, and is just getting a bit, well, old …

It’s a bit agricultural to drive, still has a manual choke and no power steering etc. It has been a wonderful thing to own, and perfect for here, but a couple of months ago we started looking around .

This little car has done us proud over the last few years! We’re not sure yet whether we’ll be selling it, or keeping it just for using round the campo!

The problem we have here is that the road to our house has a really tight corner and the road is really narrow, so we’re a little bit limited on what sort of car we can have. We looked at a modern Jimny – but they’re really expensive! That would be the best option – they are a great little 4×4 with fabulous ground clearance. In fact, all second hand cars here are really expensive compared to the UK!

Both of us have always wanted a Land Rover Defender but they were just completely out of our price range, so we stopped looking at them and tormenting ourselves – you’d need to spend at least €15,000 for a decent 30 year old one!

So we had about six different cars that we thought would be suitable for here, and that would fit up the drive without too many problems, and so started having a serious look about.

We were just getting to the stage of pulling our hair out when our lovely mechanic, Fran, sent us some pictures of a Jimny and some Vitaras that were in a garage in Roquetas. Now this place only sells to the trade, not normally to the public, and Fran knows the chap very well.

So off we all went in a jolly this morning, and we decided to go for the Jimny – it’s only 16 years old and has just 107,000 km on the clock – it has been in a slow accident and there’s a bit of cosmetic damage, it needs new tyres and a service – but an absolute bargain at €5,000 – half what we’ve seen the others at. Even better, we can still take the entire roof off this one, the same as we can with the Santana – a real must for us! Rog and Fran took it for a spin and when they came back the verdict was ‘buy it!’. A quick phone call to our insurance company, and five minutes later we had a cover note.

But here’s the hilarious bit … we drove it away without paying the man a penny! ‘No problem, pay me later’ he said! Really!!

We stopped at the gestorias on the way back to sort the paperwork to change the car into our name – that costs just over €100 here. Top tip – never ever bother trying to do this yourself – always get a gestoria to sort it – it’s well worth the €50 fee! We tried to do it ourselves when we bought the Santana … no, no, no, never again!!! At one point I actually stamped my feet, and was close to tears of frustration!

We’ve taken it straight to Frans garage for him to sort the required work over the next few days or couple of weeks, depending on the queue for the body shop!

Looking forward to getting it once the bit of work has been done and it’s had a darn good clean! Not that it will stay clean for long here!

Getting ready for autumn …

The temperature is starting to drop (down to 30 degrees 😂) and it’s getting dark a little earlier now – the door is closed by 9pm. Time to roll up our sleeves and crack on with preparing for the autumn and winter months … and there’s lots to do!

Rog has already started getting our stock of firewood ready – he’s doubled the size of our old woodshed and repurposed an IBC cage, adding a roof, for extra wood storage. We’ve been caught out in previous winters and ended up scrabbling around for wood on cold days. That’s not going to happen this year – we learn a bit more with every passing year here!

The trees need spraying and fertilizing, and we need to plan for the food we will grow over the winter. We’ve been having terrible problems with scale on the trees this year – we’ve sprayed and sprayed, but just can’t get rid of them. We asked a neighbour at the cafe the other day and he said we need a jet washer with a tank of water and washing up liquid and to ‘clean’ the trees. So we’ve bitten the bullet and ordered a petrol jet power washer with a 50l tank so we can get to all the trees. It comes on a little trolley that you can wheel around. This is going to be so much easier than staggering around with a 16l backpack on, which we currently do, and it knackers my shoulders! It will be much more effective too, and that’s what counts at the end of the day. There’s some things you can scrimp on or take shortcuts with here.

Last year we built a large framework in the veg garden, which, now that we’ve actually used it, we know what we want to change about it. Unfortunately this does mean taking it down and starting again, but doing this will allow us to rotivate the whole area before the next round of planting. I’ve already bought loads of seeds, and plan to grow a bigger variety of veg over the winter to harvest in the spring. Last spring we were overrun with cabbages and kohl rabi but little else – they were everywhere!

In the house, there’s decorating to be done – everything has to be redone every two years here! We did our bedroom this week, and the next job is to tank and then paint the spare room. Pretty much all cortijos in Spain suffer with damp, as there’s never a damp proof course in the houses. For us it’s especially bad in the spare room as the back is built into the hillside. Most of the plastering and painting we did two years ago has fallen or flaked off the walls in there, so we’re doing it properly this time. Brico Depot had a special offer on ready mixed tanking slurry so we now have a huge tub of that to try and stop the damp coming through.

Yep, definitely a damp problem!
Most people say you just have to accept that this happens in cortijos and that you simply have to scrape and paint the bad patches every year.

And the spare room needs to be ready for the end of the month for two VIP’s – yep, my parents are finally able to come over in October and see the finca for the first time since we moved here! Can you begin to imagine the cleaning that will be taking place the day before they arrive 😂😂

So, the next three months are going to be pretty busy! It’s actually nice now that it’s cooled down a little now so we can crack on again! There’s a lot of just sitting around doing nothing when it’s 40 degrees!

Learning new skills

Since moving here we have learnt so many new things, mostly on the hoof as we’ve had something that needs doing!

I’ve always had a love of learning, and in the past have done so many diplomas and courses to expand my knowledge – and usually nothing to do with my job at the time! I like taking a hobby and really getting good at it!

So here, well, I barely know where to start on the list of things we’ve learnt! There’s the obvious, like looking after the trees, and our veg growing knowledge is getting there. But it’s all the other stuff, like making the water safe, sectioning the irrigation, using chain saws, installing a wood burning stove, installing a solar system and wind turbine … the list goes on! Roger has proved to be like a sponge when it comes to taking in new skills, and I have been in awe of how he tackles problems head on.

So his latest project has been the caseta – the small shed up on the third terrace. It was built out of breeze blocks up against the back wall (which is a dry stone wall), with an earth floor and some corrugated metal laid on the top for the roof. There were massive gaps in the wall, and a resident rat …

We’ve been using this caseta as a bit of a loft space – spare chairs, two grape presses, the suitcases, and the tent that we lived in when we got here etc. It’s been a good opportunity to get rid of some stuff out of there that we simply don’t use.

So, with the help of our mate Paddy, the work began! They emptied it out, chasing the rat out at the same time (although it’s still lurking around 😱). All the gaps were filled, and the roof removed. They laid a new OSB roof, which is secured to the metal crossbars, and they tilted the roof slightly so that the rain will actually run off towards the chirimoya trees. Thanks Paddy!

All the gaps between the bricks were filled to hopefully stop any more unwelcome guests from moving in. Foam filler finishes off the gap between the wall and the roof.

Then Rog laid a bitumen roof on the top. We bought some tiles that he laid, and luckily didn’t have to use a heat gun to melt them onto the roof – the sun did that for us!

Getting there… new roof on!
Rog has even included a skylight using a glass shelf from an old fridge! It’s normally a dark and creepy place to go in to look for something!

So the last jobs were to render the outside to make it look a bit prettier – another skill Rog has picked up by watching our builders at work here, and to put some sort of floor in. We couldn’t put a concrete floor in, as when our neighbour above irrigates, the water sometimes comes through holes in the wall, so needs to be able to drain away. We thought the best way to have a floor was to collect some flat stones from near the river and then fill in between with dry mix mortar. Looks pretty too! I should point out here that the stones didn’t come from the actual riverbed – this would be bad! Instead we collected them from places nearby where the water doesn’t run!

This won’t affect the ability for water to drain away, and is a vast improvement aesthetically!

When we do these projects we try to buy the bare minimum, repurposing things we have around where possible. This whole project has come in under €120 – the bitumen tiles were the expensive bit at just over €100

We’re pretty pleased with the finished article – hopefully we can now store some extra stuff up there out of the way without fear of rats nesting in there and chewing everything!

So the next project is the other shed. Built in the same way out of breeze blocks and a corrugated metal roof, but this has an added challenge of a very wonky wall, currently propped up with scaffolding poles.

Never a chance of running out of things to do here!

Heatwaves and wildfires

As if Spain wasn’t hot enough in summer (we average around 36 degrees in July and August), we’re now getting ready for what could be a historic heatwave. The temperature in parts of Andalucía is expected to hit 50 degrees this weekend, and elsewhere it will be over 40 degrees. The UV index has already been at extreme for some time, and we’re just in the mid thirties – what comes after extreme??

So there are sensible precautions that we can take, namely getting up early before sunrise to do any essential jobs and never go outside without wearing sunglasses. We never sunbathe here anyway – we’ve already been eaten alive in the last week, so the thought of lying down outside with minimal clothing on would be just madness! At the moment we tend to stop any work outside by midday, but that will have to change to probably 10am! We do then have a couple of hours in the evening when we can do things before it gets dark. It’ll be salads all the way – no cooking (hurrah!) as that increases the temperature of the house substantially.

Obviously we can’t run air conditioning or ceiling fans here – we just don’t have enough electricity, so the two things we do use are these:

Yes, that electric fan is as small as you think it is! The traditional fan works brilliantly and also keeps flies and bitey things away!

Extreme heat often sparks wildfires, and so now is the time be be vigilant living here. There have been a few wildfires in the area over the last couple of years, but none of them close enough to warrant any real concern, although we did go up to the roof terrace to keep an eye regularly, as you can imagine!

A friend of ours has an Australian partner, and when he asked us what evacuation plan did we have, we laughed and said we’d probably do a great impression of scooby doo and just get the hell out – ‘not good enough, you seriously need a plan’ he said!

So we have made sure we have several options, and we do have a plan. We have a big plastic box which houses all our paperwork for everything – that goes in the car with the dogs. The chicken coop would be opened and they would have to fend for themselves (I know 😢, but that’s a better option than putting them in the car with the dogs!). If we turn left at the end of our Camino, that takes us to the river, where we can go left or right to get away. We regularly walk along the river bed, and have been down there in the car to make sure we know the turning off that we can take to either get up to Illar, or go to the neighboring village Bentarique. If we turn right at the end of the road, that takes us up to the village. And this is why we have the car that we do – we don’t necessarily need a 4×4 day to day, but there could well come a day where it makes a big difference!

Preparing for extreme weather has always meant snow for us in the past when we lived in the UK – it seems funny thinking ahead because it’s going to be so hot! I know which I prefer!!

Living on the edge of society

Although our finca is only 1km from the village, most days it might as well be 100km away! And we like that, it’s what we wanted. When we first viewed here we were a little worried that it was too close to civilization, but everything else we had looked at was too remote (I know, there’s no pleasing some people 😂).

So I thought I would investigate why we felt so compelled to leave society behind three years ago, and whether we have really achieved that.

I think one of the main problems we had with life in the UK was the fact that there is an expectation that you should live to work, rather than work to live. The people that were still sending emails at 2am were the ones to get promoted – ooh look how hard they work. I have been in this situation, and oftentimes felt so tired that I literally cried. This is not living.

Then there’s the need for more and more useless stuff. I too was caught in this trap, and the day I spent £995 on a handbag I suddenly thought ‘what on earth am I doing???’. Work harder so you can earn more money, and then spend it on useless crap that maybe makes you happy at best for a fleeting moment. Now I have no issues with working hard to earn my money, the difference now is that we buy things we need, with just the odd exception! I don’t think we’d be human if we weren’t occasionally drawn to something glittery. But it is just occasionally now, rather than the weekly or monthly norm. I wish I’d saved more, rather than spending it on unnecessary things – it would’ve made the escape a little easier.

The third reason is just how unkind and judgemental society seems to have become. There’s a real streak of selfishness running through many cultures, and quite frankly, it makes me sad. We came off Facebook a few years ago, although we have recently rejoined. The difference now is that we’re very careful who we add as friends. Mostly it’s family and a few friends, as this is a good way to stay in touch with the ones we like! It also means we can keep up with things that are happening in the village, and although we don’t always go and join in, we do occasionally go and show our faces to be part of the community. One thing though, we make sure we don’t get drawn into any politics or arguments in the village. We smile and walk away …

We went and joined in with tree planting in the new park in the village. This is the expat tree and between us we represented Ireland, England and Scotland!

For Rog, he said his main reason was how het up people get over things that just really don’t matter – the fact that people rarely look at the bigger picture or overreacting to minor issues. Now we’re far from perfect, and we do still get wound up over stupid things, but I like to think that we realise it quicker now when we’re doing it and stop ourselves (or stop each other).

The last reason of course, is the environment. We wanted to live a life with a gentler touch on the planet. This, we have achieved, and it makes me happy that we are contributing less now to the environmental catastrophe that’s happening to Earth.

So looking back at those reasons, there wasn’t an awful lot left that we did like!

The hardest thing about doing what we did was leaving the family. We do miss them, but that’s where modern technology does improve life, being able to video call regularly. And these days we do actually have the time to talk properly to them, without clock watching, or having to dash off somewhere.

So now, the big question – have we achieved our dream of dropping out? Well, no, not totally. I think, as the title of this blog suggests, we have achieved living on the edge of society – we’re on the hard shoulder of life, but haven’t quite made it into the field on the other side of the hill away from the motorway 😂. But that’s fine with us.

I don’t think we expected to form some good friendships, but we have – and it’s nice having a handful of people that you can call up and go ‘help!’ – and help them in return when needed, or to just drop in for a coffee. I think the best thing is that our few good friends know we’re oddballs who moved here to get away from people, and so there’s no pressure on us to meet up regularly, or join the whist club or pétanque team (one person did suggest that we join them on a Sunday afternoon for a game but I think the horrified look on our faces was enough of an answer!). When we do occasionally meet up for lunch, we enjoy it, simply because it’s not every week.

Even here though we do sometimes meet people we’d rather not have anything to do with, but living where we do makes it easier to avoid them! We try not to venture away from the finca too often, usually a couple of times a week just for a few hours, as when we’re here we’re generally undisturbed. Whilst it’s nice to go out occasionally, I always feel happy to get back here again. It’s definitely become our sanctuary away from the world.

Best of all, we enjoy more freedom than we’ve ever experienced before – real freedom. No one telling us those trees have to be pruned today, or that we have to work late to get things done. They do say that people are their own worst bosses, and I agree with that – at the start of this journey we had a grueling amount of work to do to get this place in shape, and we did put ourselves under pressure. We’re learning to slow down now though! We have time to sit and talk, and sometimes to just sit and enjoy the scenery, watching the swifts dive around at sunset, or just hearing the golden oriels in the morning as the sun rises. Summer afternoons are for reading or sleeping in the cool. This is living to us. The longer we’re here, the more certain I am of the decision we made, and the more sure I am that we could never go back to our old lives.

As for the other aspects of being part of society – paying your bills, making sure you’ve filled in all the forms for everything, going food shopping etc etc, well there’s no escaping those things is there! But these are things we can live with!

Cars in the campo

As part of selling all of our belongings before coming to Spain, we also sold the car, as it had a loan on it that we wanted to clear. I had a company car, so just needed to hand that back. We’ve always loved cars, and have been lucky enough to own some really lovely cars over the years – a TVR Cerbera and an Alfa GTV to name but two.

So, Rog bought a 17 year old Saab 95 estate for £660, and paid £200 for new tyres and a service. All this needed to do was get us to Spain – if it then died, so be it! We didn’t want to bring a car to then change it to a spanish licence plate – the process is a bit complicated and can be costly. Not knowing where we would end up buying a house, the ideal would’ve be for the Saab to last until we had a house, at which point we could scrap it and buy a Spanish car suitable for our location. And it did just that! Hurrah! Not only that, but we managed to sell it on for €400! Hurrah, hurrah!

Rog has had several Saab’s over the years and we’ve always loved them. This carried so much stuff to Spain, including the tent that was home for 3 months in the picture!

So when we came to visit this Finca, we were prepared for narrow roads, steep hills and shingle tracks, as had been the case with most of the other places we had viewed. But we were pleasantly surprised – an actual concrete road! Initially it wasn’t overly narrow, but the closer we got to the finca, the narrower the road got, and then we arrived at the irrigation pool where we turn left to get to the place! Oh! That was quite tight! And the final 100 meters after that turn is considerably narrower than the rest of the road down from the village!

So, once our offer had been accepted, we started to think seriously about what car to buy for here. It needed to be a small narrow car with good ground clearance, which immediately limited our choices.

We’d been looking at the Suzuki Jimny, and the forerunner to that, the Samuri. There was a version built in Spain – the Santana SJ410. We had checked and knew that we would easily get spare parts for these still, so this seemed to be the best option – a small 4×2 that was pretty cool looking in our opinion, and would fit comfortable round the corner and up the road to the finca. And so we bought this …

We’ve had this since March 2019, and in that time we’ve had to do various bits of work to it. The good thing is that the parts are cheap and it’s pretty easy to work on. It’s been great value for money though, as we originally paid €2,250 for it. Second hand cars in Spain are SO expensive!

But it’s now 37 years old, and we think we’re coming to the point where a decision will need to be made – spend more money or change it. When we come up our rather steep driveway it makes some funny sounds, which we suspect is the drive chain. We’ve already replaced the drive shaft, the steering rack and the wheel bearings, and we know the suspension needs some work and the clutch is on its way out. The maximum speed we get out of it is about 80kmh – and it’s not a terribly comfy ride. It does, however, come into its own off road – it’s amazing!

We’ve made a list of cars that we think would be suitable, and today we’ve been walking up and down the road and our drive with a tape measure to see what will fit. There is one car that both Rog and I have always wanted to own – a Defender. The smaller one, the 90, should just about fit the road and the drive. The big but though is the price! We’ve found one over in Malaga that has been renovated, but it’s 4 years older than the Suzuki and it’s up for … €10,000 😱 For a 41 year old car!!!

The hunt will continue, but getting the right one is important as it has to ferry the dogs, the orange harvest, the olive harvest, furniture, solar panels, and well, anything that needs to get to the house!

If we do change the car, I will really miss the Suzuki, which sounds funny coming from a couple of old petrol heads!

The Land Rover is the ultimate classic in our view and would be perfect for here.

Tips for surviving hot weather!

Summer, after a bit of a stuttering start, properly arrived last week. Suddenly, wham, mid 30’s! Nighttime temperatures are now around 20 degrees too – usually by the end of July these will rise to 26-27 at night.

Over the last couple of years here we have had to learn how to live with the heat, and so here are my top tips!

Now obviously, we don’t have air conditioning, and there’s not enough electricity to run a ceiling fan – in fact, the only fan we can use is this little one:

Try not to sit in the path of a fan – as soon as you move away you’ll feel ten times hotter! Position it so it’s just keeping the air in the room moving!

Most Spanish houses have roller shutters at the windows to try and keep the heat at bay, and we keep ours mostly down in the day, although we do still keep the front door open!

We only have a shutter at the big window in the main room. You could use an ordinary roller blind to achieve the same effect, which we have at the other window in the main room, or just keep the curtains drawn.

At the start of the summer we open all the windows, and then they stay like that then until usually September. This is the reason why you see grills at the windows and doors – we can go out knowing that the house is secure. It felt a bit weird at first going out and leaving all the windows open! As houses in the UK don’t have grills this isn’t an option, but the minute you get in, throw them all open to get some airflow!

Get up early – the cool mornings are when you will be able to get things done. If it’s not done by 11.30-12 o,clock, it’s not going to get done until either late evening or the next morning here!

Have cool, but not cold showers.

We still drink tea and coffee in the morning and late evening, but the rest of the day it’s water or juice, with big ice cubes! If I really want a cuppa in the day then I’ll generally have green tea, as this is still lovely when it’s really cooled down. There’s nothing worse than trying to have a cuppa and feeling yourself sweat it out the minute you’ve drunk it! Avoid alcohol, which will dehydrate you and make you feel worse!

Hot weather will bring flies and mosquitos, and boy are they bad this year! We have mosquito nets up at the windows, and keep our bedroom door closed in the day. Any that do get into the house in the day don’t annoy us at night! You can repel insects by planting things like mint and lavender near the house, or by taking some cuttings and having them inside. Keep worktops clean and clear of food so there’s nothing for the little blighters to feed on. We are demons with a fly swat these days! No mercy! We also have a plastic strip curtain up at the door – simply a must have living here! Dab any insect bites with iodine – this will stop flies coming and feeding off the bite wound – I know, gross!

Rog is a bit of a ninja with our
flower shaped fly swat 😂

We’re lucky enough to have an above ground plunge pool outside – it’s years old and has seen better days, but at the end of a very hot day, there’s nothing better than sitting in that for a while to cool the blood. A cheap paddling pool would do the same outside and it really does make a difference! We never sunbathe here – the flies would drive you mad, plus we don’t use sun cream. Too much sun ages the skin and I really don’t want to look even older than I do now 😂. We try to do jobs outside where we can be in the shade, but there comes a point in the day where the best place is inside!

The siesta – it’s what Spain is famous for! Our bedroom has one small window that luckily faces away from the hot midday sun, and so it stays relatively cool in there. The duvet has long gone off the bed – we just have a sheet. After lunch, it’s time for a lie down – if I’m not tired then it’s a good time for a read, but inevitably, I always end up having a half hour nap! If you’re working, maybe take a later lunch break, find somewhere cool and close your eyes for 20 minutes! Hot weather drains your energy, so this is a great boost to get you through to the end of the day.

Clothing – Rog generally lives in swim shorts in the summer, and puts on overalls when he’s strimming etc, but that all happens first thing in the morning. I have discovered the best clothes are simple, loose cotton dresses. Now although my blog is called Life with no bra, I’m not really of an age to be going around all day without a bra! However, ladies, when it gets really hot, losing that thing of torture will make life better! Hats are good – we have a couple of dodgy looking straw hats here for working outside – no one wants sunstroke!

Lastly, food. When you digest food your body temperature rises. So, little and often is the best way. We eat lots of salad this time of year, but try to make sure we’re still getting all our nutrients – homemade potato salad or coleslaw, home grown and pickled beetroot, cold fish, or some cooked prawns (because they only take a minute to cook!), tinned corn … adding these types of things to a basic salad makes them nutritious as well as delicious! Our main meal is late – usually 9ish at night. During the winter we do eat earlier, but the hotter it gets, the later dinner is. People worry about eating before bed – well, it’s not a problem if you’re eating healthy food. Burger and chips just before bed would probably be bad!

So life slows down in summer, and we no longer get frustrated at not being able to whizz around the finca. It’s time to relax and enjoy the sunshine!

Things we love and hate about living here!

Whilst outside doing some washing this afternoon, being hounded by flies, it got me thinking about the top five things we love and hate most about living here – some on the list are relevant to our particular location whilst others are more general about Spain!

Things we love:

The climate – obviously! In Almeria we average just under 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, and it only rains on 25 days in an average year. Average temperature is 19 degrees.

The sense of community – there are events almost every weekend in the summer (in years with no pandemic!) where the community comes together to enjoy … well, being alive! Everybody helps each other here.

The fiestas – we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we may be allowed our big summer fiesta again this year. There is a love of fireworks here, and no party would be complete without them!

Fiesta in July 2019. The ‘big one’ each year in each village lasts around four days!

The cafe culture. I think this is where the pandemic hit hard last year. Spain is a very sociable country and people spend time with friends and family at the local cafe, enjoying a cold beer and some tapas.

The work life balance. When there’s work to be done, sleeves get rolled up and people work hard. BUT, and this is the bit that’s missing in other countries, people here work to live, not live to work. Weekends are precious, and so aside from the big stores in the city, you’ll find local shops closed on Sundays – I love that.

So then … the top five things we hate!

Number one has got to be the flies – they drive you to distraction from June until about October. Even when they’re not in you, you feel like your skin is crawling with them after a while. I am often seen doing stupid dances whilst doing jobs outside – just to keep the flies off. It’s a sight to behold.

This next one is very personal to me – Rog doesn’t mind them, and that’s the snakes. Literally, my blood runs cold when I see one.

Learning Spanish. It’s the second fastest spoken language in the world, and when the locals fire a conversation at you, it’s almost impossible for non native speakers to understand. Where we might have 3 words for something in English, there’ll be two dozen in Spanish. Makes our heads hurt … but we’re getting better!

The use of car horns. Many delivery vans visit the villages selling bread, fish, gas bottles etc, and they literally drive around continually honking their horns to let people know they’re there. This might go in for fifteen minutes each time.

We’re struggling to think of a fifth thing … oh, the bureaucracy! Everything you want to do involves reams of forms. When we changed our mobile phone numbers to Spanish ones we popped into the bank to let them know – 20 sheets of paper each with multiple signatures. When trying to register the car when we bought it, I actually cried outside the fifth government building with the fifth form out of sheer frustration. My advice – never ever try and do these things yourself – pay a gestoria – they are administrators and know the systems. You will never fathom it!

The list of things we love was really easy – the only difficulty was keeping it to just five things! When we did the list of things we hate, we struggled to think of five things – tells us we’ve made a good move!

Cleaning in the campo …

I’ve always been very house proud, I mean for goodness sake I used to iron dusters! Ive always tried to look my best too – I’m no stunner by a long chalk, but a bit of makeup, clean styled hair etc, nice clothes etc were always important.

Now, things are …. well, different!

Before we moved here we had a weekend away in Limoge in France – we’d made the decision to move to Spain but this weekend break had been booked for some time. When we got to the airport there was a really scruffy, quite mad, Englishman, looking for his wife who was supposed to be on our flight. He was pretty dirty, and had what we now refer to as an ‘off grid air’ about him! I said that we would never go out looking like that when we live off grid! But here we are, killing it!

So, my personal appearance – I think feral would be a good word 😂. Don’t get me wrong, we are clean of course, but now I haven’t worn make up for over 2 years, and I’m less concerned about clothes. I actually threw away my last few bits of make up at Christmas! That was a liberating moment! I haven’t been to a hairdressers since we moved here – Rog sometimes cuts my hair, and sometimes I do it myself! Living here our clothes need to be functional. You tend to look and say, will these show the dirt or doggie paw prints two minutes after getting dressed? Without heating, clothes are things to keep you warm in winter. Without air conditioning, clothes are things to keep you cool in summer. We do still have some nice going out clothes, but they get worn less and less the longer we’re here. The last time I wore a pair of high heels or proper shoes was December 18th 2019 – my last day at work back in the UK! These days it’s steel toe capped boots, wellies or flip flops!

Onto the house. This is more challenging as we avoid using any chemicals on ourselves or in the house. We live just over 10 miles from Europe’s only desert, so we do get pretty dusty here and it can also get very windy. Then there’s the dogs running in and out, often after they’ve played in a field full of water or in the river. Then there’s us – it’s just not a ‘take your shoes off at the door’ kind of place (like our old house in the UK was!). The result is that you are literally fighting a losing battle to keep the house spic and span.

I’ve had to learn to be less fussy – you dust here and ten minutes later it looks like you haven’t bothered for months. Being a small house it’s not all beautifully organised with a place for everything and everything in its place – but it’s comfortable, and it works for us. A certain level of tidiness is required or we just wouldn’t fit our stuff in. We have no storage, so the bed linen and towels have a long shelf in the spare bedroom. Photos and everything else are in boxes stored under the bed – it’s amazing how valuable the space under the beds has become!

I have to say, it’s been a revelation learning not to be so fussy – I never thought I’d hear myself say that there’s more to life than having a perfectly clean house!

But I do now have some clever cleaning hacks using natural products that I thought some of you might like – I have shared some before that you’ll find in the recipes, tips and ideas page, but these are my daily go to favourites.

Buy an old fashioned feather duster – they are amazing! I have a long handled one which means I can do the ceiling and into the corners.

A lemon, some vinegar and some bicarbonate of soda will clean most hard surfaces in your home (not wood furniture though!). Sprinkle some bicarb around your stainless steel sink, rub half a lemon around, and if still not clean, splash some vinegar and gently wipe. Amazing results. Use in kitchen cupboards too! Never use vinegar on natural stone, like marble or granite, or on wood or cast iron.

We have tiled floors, and just use a mop to clean – I use vinegar in the warm water and a few drops of lavender essential oil. The result is that you get lovely clean floors which smell great too. The added advantage of the essential oil is that spiders and bugs hate the smell of lavender so stay away! If you don’t like lavender substitute for an oil you do like! Bugs hate the smell of peppermint too!

For wooden chopping boards and bread boards, you can clean them with toothpaste. Put a generous teaspoon of toothpaste on your hand and work into the wood thoroughly, rinse and wipe dry. Not only does it clean the wood, but will kill off any bacteria lurking in the surface. Half a lemon dipped into salt also works really well for chopping boards, and smells great too!

For the laundry I do buy some environmentally friendly detergent, but also use soapnuts. I boil up the soapnuts in some water for 20 minutes, strain, and use the liquid just like ordinary detergent. The smell isn’t great though, so I add just a tiny bit of the detergent to the wash too. The soapnuts work out to be very cheap – I buy a kilo for around €11 and they last me a year – can’t complain at that! Because I only use a tiny bit if the detergent, I use maybe 3 litres in a whole year – I used to use that in a month back in our old life!

I have recently bought some of these new detergent strips – I’m using the Tru Earth ones. You get 32 strips in a pack and just pull one off and use it in your wash. Obviously, I cut mine down to a smaller size. There’s no plastic, they’re environmentally friendly and good for people with sensitive skin. The only downside I can see at the moment is the price – they work out about 3 times the price of traditional detergent. More companies are launching their own versions, and as they become more popular I’m sure the prices will come down. So far though, in terms of cleaning, they’re really great, and take up almost no room at all!

When I change the bed sheets each week I give the mattress a quick spray to deter any bugs that might want to set up home in our bed (we do get a lot of insects here and it’s my mission in life to keep them out of the house!). I use alcohol with some lemongrass essential oil in a spray bottle – we buy cleaning alcohol here – it’s usually 80/90% strength. I give the mattress and pillows a quick spritz and leave it for 10 minutes. The bed smells lovely and we can sleep soundly at night knowing there’s no bugs in there!

The cleaning alcohol is also really useful in the garden to clean the pruners and shears etc. It’s a good idea to clean these in between working on each tree so that no diseases are transferred from one tree to another.

Lastly for today, a kitchen cleaner. Grab hold of some citrus peel, pop in a jar and add equal amounts of water and vinegar. Let it sit for two weeks, strain and it’s ready to use.

Not only are these environmentally friendly, but you’ll find that you’ll save an enormous amount of money too! I’m always looking for new hacks so if you know of any please leave a comment!

Hens and eggs …

At the moment we have 5 hens, and average 4 eggs a day from them. We were getting slightly overrun with eggs so decided to start selling some. The problem is, they’ve become so popular we’re struggling to meet the demand!

Here’s a picture one of my customers sent, with the message ‘guess which two eggs are from your hens!’ 😂 – easy peasy!

The pale eggs on the right are organic free range eggs from a big supermarket costing double what we charge! Our customer said ‘The flavor is vastly different – yours are creamy and full flavored, the shop ones are watery and bland’

So we have a couple of choices – just keep one or two customers; put three more hens into our existing coop (which will realistically be the most we could add for the space we have) – or build a second coop and get another six or so hens … I think we all know my preferred option! 😂😂😂

We don’t really want to limit our customers. If we add three hens into the existing coop we’re looking at six weeks of bickering and very few eggs. Option number three it is then – a second chicken coop and run with another batch of chooks!

We’re clearly doing something right for our hens to be producing such marvellous eggs. Every morning they get chopped up vegetables, including peelings from the kitchen, and which most days include some fresh parsley (excellent for egg production). They also have a really good layer food, plus extra corn in the winter when it’s cold. Corn is high in fat and helps to keep them warm. They also get crushed up oyster shells to munch on. Hens use so much calcium from their bodies to produce eggs that it’s really important for them to have extra calcium in their diet. And lastly, they get mealworms every day to keep up their protein – again, essential for egg production.

Most days they do get out of the coop and can free range around the finca for a while – they like to dig a little hole and have a dust bath – a natural way for them to clean their feathers and keep any mites at bay. We also use diatomaceous earth in with their bedding too to make sure no mites can get at them. We grow vetiver here on one of the banks to stop soil erosion, and when we cut the vetiver we add some to the nesting boxes as they are a natural insect repellent. I love utilizing everything possible here!

So we’ve picked a spot at the end of the third terrace – the run will need to be triangular to fit in the space, but it will be a bit bigger than the first one. We need to do some planning and decide whether to build a wooden coop, buy another IBC or buy a ready made coop (which is the most expensive option and not the preferred way for us). I think we might also try another breed of hen this time too! Variety is the spice of life!

I think we’ll get the kitchen finished first, and then it will be watch this space!

Here comes summer!

So here we are, just into May and the temperature is swaying between 22 and 30 degrees – lovely when you’re on holiday with nothing to do! Slightly more tricky when there’s work to do!

I do understand why many people think the Spanish are lazy, but having lived here for over two years, I can say hand on heart that they’re not – you simply have to pace yourself in this climate.

The working day in Spain is actually a very long one, with a break in the afternoon when it becomes too hot to do anything. For many Spaniards out at work, this makes spending time with family almost impossible during the week, which is why Sundays here are still pretty sacred.

We are soon reaching the time where if things that need doing outside haven’t been done by about 11.30 in the morning, then they won’t get done until the end of the day – 8 or 9pm – or sometimes mañana!

Even the dogs rest more in the day now – they have a mad couple of hours in the morning – then pretty much sleep until about 4pm when it’s dinner time. Our daily walk is getting later and later – the steep hill back up from the river is a killer when it’s 25 degrees! As the temperature cools, the dogs change back into the mad sods we know and love!

With summer comes very windy afternoons here – we get wind warnings most days – it starts out of nowhere at 1pm and just stops at 5pm- another reason for a siesta during these hours! It’s very dusty here, and with the wind it becomes quite uncomfortable to be outside.

Having worked in office or sales jobs all my life before we came here, the weather influenced my life very little (unless we had maybe a week of snow which disrupted things). Now we’re here, we organise our working day and week around the weather, with jobs that need overalls and boots being done early in the morning before the heat kicks in! We don’t use sun cream which means we do have to be careful to do jobs in the shade when we can. It also makes sure that we take regular breaks during the day to top up on water – we drink gallons of water in the summer months as it’s just too hot to drink tea in the day (which is really hard for me – you know how I love a cuppa!).

The hottest months are July and August, and during these months we actually do very little work outside. The main task is to keep on top of the irrigating, and the trees get a spray in July. This year of course, we’ll have more veg growing, so they will need regular irrigating and some attention, but all the big, heavy jobs are done in the Spring and Autumn.

We have noticed too that our weight changes with the seasons – going into summer we’re carrying a few extra pounds! Between the cold of winter and the physical activities in the spring, we naturally eat more. Coming into summer, we switch mainly to salads, so the weight comes off again!

A very different way of life!

Something a little like normal …

After the last year of lurching from one lockdown to another, there’s a lighter feeling starting to settle, something a little like being closer to life pre coronavirus. We are still officially in a 4th wave, but it seems to be more under control than previous peaks.

Last weekend we welcomed some lovely friends here to stay – our first guests for almost 16 months. Our friends were ones we had lost touch with and not seen for over 12 years. We recently got back in touch when we decided to rejoin Facebook after a break from it for several years, only to discover they too were living in Andalucía! It’s a very small world!

Last Thursday saw the opening of the provincial borders, so although the region of Andalucía is still closed, you can now travel freely within Andalucía. The curfew was also reduced, and we can meet up with 2 other people inside or 4 outside (I think anyway, it’s hard to keep up with the changes!)

The State of Alarm that has been in place across Spain for over a year comes to an end on 9th May, and apparently is not intended to be extended again. What this actually means for us in terms of restrictions isn’t really clear yet. Some regions are calling for a further extension in order to maintain restrictions, and if not agreed, there is a public health law that they could use in order to maintain some restrictions – we can only wait and see what happens.

In our village, some things are beginning to return to near normal – our cafe is open again now that the owner, Antonio, is out of hospital – he got covid last September and spent about 50 days on a ventilator. Although he is unable to work, his family have re-opened the cafe, and Antonio is able to come and sit outside for a while to chat to customers – it is lovely to have him back! The village feels more alive again now the cafe has reopened.

There are still no flights to and from the UK into Almeria airport, but fingers crossed these will resume again soon so I can visit the family. I haven’t had a hug from the grandchildren for 18 months, and Mum is desperate for a visit – lockdown was so hard for them with my sister getting cancer and me being so far away.

Throughout the pandemic, it has been law here to wear a face mask at all times when outside (except when you’re actually eating and drinking at the cafe!), unlike the UK. For me, this is the one thing I am most looking forward to ending at some point… maybe next year??? They have now declared that you don’t need to wear one when out walking in the countryside, or when you’re swimming (😂), so that’s a step in the right direction for me. We do have a municipal pool in the village, which remained closed last summer – it would be great if this could reopen this year.

Whilst the vaccine rollout has been hugely successful in the UK, most European countries are lagging behind, with simply not enough vaccine being delivered to provinces – we are just moving into the 50-70’s age group here, so it could be another month or more yet before we get jabbed at this rate. It will be interesting to see if this picks up.

Living where we do, we haven’t felt the impact of the pandemic as much as those living in towns and cities – we spend most of our time going about our normal daily tasks, rarely seeing anybody – exactly as we planned when we moved here! Going out once a week to get the things we need used to be fun, but for the last year it’s been go out, get what we need, and get back home. With the cafe reopening, we can at least resume our Wednesday coffee and tostada tradition when we go to the market!

Let’s all hope now that the light at the end of the tunnel starts to shine a lighter brighter so that we can all get back to the old normal as opposed to the new normal, which hasn’t been normal at all!

Luna & Persi

Persi has been with us now for 6 weeks and he’s grown a lot in that time! He was tiny and just nine weeks old when we got him from the rescue shelter in Almeria.

That little face!

How he’s grown!

He loves sleeping with his head under the chair!

He and Luna have had a couple of trips in the car together to go to the vets for their vaccinations, which was … interesting! Luna now weighs about 48kg and Persi is 12kg. When you tell Luna to sit she literally plonks her bum down, and more often than not Persi is in the way as he is forever hanging onto Luna’s tail. We have no back seats in the car, so the pair of them have to go in the back together without harnesses and we just drive very carefully! Thankfully the vets is only 10 minutes away! Luna loves to stand with her head on Rogers shoulder so she can look out of the window, so he gets covered in drool – we don’t wear nice clothes when we have the dogs in the car!

So, the primary reason for getting a second dog was to try and get Luna to stay on the finca, instead of wandering off to find other dogs to play with – so has it worked? For the most part, yes – hurrah! She no longer goes into the village, which is a huge relief. In the mornings she goes off for half an hour as if to say, I’ve had him all night, you two can look after him now 😂. But these days she stays local. Luna is a much happier dog these days – they chase each other all around the trees, and are never far from each other.

A match made in heaven!

Luna has taken on the role of Persi’s Boss, and she regularly chastises him when he’s naughty, which is quite often! We think that’s why one of his ears has gone funny, maybe Luna had a little chew or tug on his ear! We got the vet to check it out and she says he’s fine, but he now looks like he’s been caught in a gust of wind all the time! Maybe it will straighten again as he gets older!

Luna has really matured since we got Persi – she’s become really responsible and well behaved. Persi, on the other hand, is a proper demon – he’ll steal and hide anything that’s not nailed down – shoes, clothes, the dustpan and brush – oh, how he loves the broom!

But we love them, and the place just wouldn’t be the same without them!

Catching up

With Rog having been so poorly, we found that we were quite a lot behind with jobs on the finca. There’s never a good time to be ill, but March and April are definitely the worst time possible!

So now that he’s back on his feet, and I’ve stopped teaching, we’ve been really going for it to try and catch up.

The oranges have all been harvested, and all the trees have had a mammoth prune . We probably won’t have many oranges next year, but it was something that really needed doing. I think it’s taken us the two years we’ve been here to feel confident enough to prune them this hard. They say here that a good fruit tree is one that a bird could fly through – and this really is a good measure when you’re pruning.

The orange trees are about half the size now! I think this meets the criteria that a bird could fly through it!

We have raised the canopy off the ground, brought down the height of the trees and taken them in too – a fairly savage short back and sides! There’s no point having oranges growing 25 feet up in the air where you can’t get to them. We can now also walk around the finca comfortably!

The next job was to tackle the weeds, which were 4 feet high in some places. A combination of strimming and old fashioned pulling up has left us with a few pulled muscles and sore bum cheeks from all the bending, but it’s been worth it!

Now that the weeds are under some sort of control we can start rotivating. The oranges on the second terrace are being turned into the ground – we missed the end of the campaign with the cooperative, and couldn’t get rid of them. At least by turning them into the ground they will compost and improve the soil.

The second terrace has had its first turnover with the rotivator – we’re expecting some rain this week so we’ll do it again after the rain. The soil goes solid here in the sunshine!

Once that’s done, it will be time to spray the trees. Usually we would do this in March before the blossom. It’s so important not to do this when the bees are still pollinating as we really don’t want to kill them. Some of the trees developed a fungus problem last year – it didn’t spoil the fruit and they still tasted delicious, but some oranges just didn’t look very pretty! It does mean a double spray this time round – first with insecticide and then a fungicide.

And lastly, before we have a little break, will be pruning the vines. I’ve been amazed at the amount of work that vines require – it’s almost a weekly job to go round taking back the vines without fruit so that the grapes can develop. Grades are also so susceptible to fungus problems, so they will need spraying too!

Baby grapes are starting to form so the vines need thinning out. This allows all the growth to be concentrated where there are grapes. We have 97 vines so it will take a good number of days to thin them out – a very satisfying and therapeutic job!

And in between all this we will be planting the summer veg! The veg garden has been cleared of the last of the cabbages and kohlrabi, and weeded ready for the next lot of seedlings to go in.

We’re cramming about 3 months of work into just a few weeks. At least the days are getting longer now – we don’t go dark until 8.30-9pm which means we can get more done. The nice thing is that we’re not worried, we’re not panicking – it will all get done eventually. And let’s face it, if something doesn’t get done quite at the right time, the world isn’t going to stop turning!

It is so satisfying when you stand back and look at the difference after a hard days graft – it really does feel so worthwhile!

Time

As you get older, you realise just how precious time really is, and the older you get, the faster time seems to move. It’s a strange phenomenon- remember when the school summer holidays felt like forever? Six weeks now goes by in a flash.

I look at our family – Matt is 31 and has three children of his own – it seems like yesterday when he was born. Josh will be 30 this year, and he has two children, and Kate is almost 27! There they all are, leading their own lives, and doing pretty well at life in our view! We’re very proud of all of them, and becoming grandparents has been wonderful. We’ve been married for 22 years today, and I said to Rog earlier that we never imagined all those years ago that we’d be where we are now.

In our old life there never seemed to be enough time to do everything – there were days where we just really wanted to do nothing at all, exhausted from the week at work, yet we felt almost guilty for resting. What about the cleaning, the shopping, we really should go to the gym. Every day at 100 miles per hour.

I think one of the most valuable gifts this life has given us is time … we work hard but we do have time to relax, to do nothing at all, and best of all, we never feel guilty for doing nothing. It’s amazing what you miss when you’re constantly busy. Today we heard the first distinct calls of the golden oriel, a beautiful bird who arrives every spring and stays for the summer. Their arrival for us is special – I remember our first few weeks here when we heard one and we were all excited – what bird is that, let’s look it up! Would we have even noticed that in our old life? Very doubtful!

We go for a walk with the dogs every afternoon, and we pass by one of our neighbours fields where he’s growing potatoes – and we’ve watched them growing bigger every day. I know it sounds daft, but this is the stuff that’s real life. Not social media (which we do also indulge in), TV, magazines about how much better life would be if you were thinner, fitter, prettier, or wore better clothes – none of that is real.

There is enough time, we’ve discovered, when you focus on the real stuff and don’t get distracted all the time by things that don’t matter. It’s hard if you still have to work etc, but maybe now and again look up from your phone and look at the stars, turn off the tv and go for a walk, or say to hell with the cleaning and go and sit in the garden and listen to the birds!

Getting creative!

We now have a regular supply of eggs – 4 or 5 each day. Clearly too many for us to eat! Until now, we have been giving eggs away to friends, but I really want to start selling them now I’m not working.

I need some egg boxes, I thought. Checked with our local place where we buy our chickens thinking they’re bound to have some, but no! Finally found some online but they cost 50 cents each! I have ordered a pack, but clearly there’s got to be a better way!

Now my friends and family on Facebook know that I love the chickens, so tend to tag me into anything that’s daft and chicken related -things like a harness and lead to take your chicken for a walk, swings and picnic tables! My stepdaughter Katie sent me a picture of a crochet egg collecting apron – I’m totally serious 😂 – here it is …

But it got me thinking, and after a bit of research I came upon a picture of an egg basket. Now this would be more sustainable than an egg box as it could be used over and over, and it gives me something else to sell alongside the eggs. So the idea is that people can buy one of my sustainable egg baskets with 6 eggs in it, and then when they want more eggs they just bring it back to fill up, paying just for the eggs. It totally fits in with our sustainable living! So, here’s the first one – not perfect but it definitely works, and even has little carry handles! Some of our eggs are enormous so I might have to make them a little bigger!

Pretty easy and cheap to make!

I might also make some reusable bags so people can also buy marmalade, chutney and jam when they come for their eggs! I’m actually quite excited at the thought of our little cottage industry!

Plants to improve air quality

I mentioned the other week that we were going to try using house plants to improve the humidity in the house when Rog got ill.

Well, we’re a few weeks on now, and I can reveal whether this method has been a success!

The short answer is a resounding YES!

Two of the peace lilies which are good for purifying the air

In our main room, which serves as kitchen, dining room and living room, we have two reed palms and three peace lilies. Then in the bedroom we have another, slightly larger reed palm and a mother in laws tongue. We have also bought a Himalayan salt lamp for the bedroom, which we put on for a couple of hours in the afternoon – we don’t have enough electricity to have it on longer, but combined with the plants, we can both really feel the difference.

Reed palms reduce humidity

We have a weather station here, and one of the things it measures is indoor and outdoor humidity. A comfortable range is 30-60% humidity. A few days after I put the plants in, we started to monitor the humidity more carefully, and for the last two weeks it’s hardly gone over 60% indoors! We had a day last week where the humidity outside was 97%, but we we’re still all good indoors!

The fact that the house now rather resembles Kew Gardens is a lovely bonus!

It’s been a perfect example of thinking outside the box. Not having access to unlimited electricity means you have to find other ways, and I think you’ll agree that these are much better than running some ugly, noisy dehumidifier!

I was also planning to try making a home dehumidifier by placing one pot inside another and adding rock salt to draw the moisture in – I haven’t managed to get my hands on any rock salt yet so haven’t made these, but I’ll let you know how I get on if I do manage to get some!

We need to go and get some more plants now for the spare bedroom, which is the worst room in the house for damp!

Writing a blog!

I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who reads the blog! This month has been record breaking for us, and it’s quite humbling that so many people in so many countries are reading it.

My first blog post was just before my 50th birthday – we’d made the decision to move and we were trying to sell the house and our belongings – it seems like a lifetime ago now, but it’s just shy of three years.

I hope in that time that we’ve provided a few laughs, a bit of inspiration and some sound advice. It’s certainly lovely for us to have a record of our journey so far. So much has happened in such a short space of time that it would be easy to forget some of those moments (although some will be totally unforgettable, like the snake in the bedroom!).

Hopefully over the next year we will be able to make some more informative videos about what it takes to live this sort of life, how to grow vegetables, and what life in this part of Spain is really like. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short space of time and it’s a lovely thing to be able to share our adventure.

So, thanks again, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading!

Spring jobs and pacing yourself …

It’s a busy time of year on the finca. Roger is now out of hospital but obviously needs to go carefully (although getting him to take it easy is easier said than done!).

We have managed to find someone to take the oranges – just about half have been harvested so the rest need to get sorted. This is the point where I say a massive thank you to our friends Paddy, Anita and Rab – while Roger was in hospital last week they came over and helped me harvest half of the oranges and have offered to come back this week to help with the rest. We can’t thank them enough for stepping in to help. There’s never a good time to be ill, but March / April is definitely the worst timing!

Rog has rotavated around the olives, and the second and third terraces need strimming and rotavating.

Then the orange trees need pruning and spraying.

The veg that we grew over the winter needs to make way for summer crops – we have prepared the tomato seedlings, and have loads of others that need sowing so that in about 4 weeks they can all be planted down in the veg garden. I did grow too much cabbage, so any visitors here at the moment leave with a big bag! My plan is to have a wider variety of veg, but not so many of each type – these are all the things you learn as you progress!

The important thing now is to pace ourselves – whilst all of these things need doing, no one is going to give us a written warning if they’re not quite done on time! That famous phrase here ‘a poco a poco’ (little by little) is completely relevant at the moment. It will all get done, and it’s important to keep enjoying it, and the only way to do that is to not put ourselves under pressure.

When we first got here we would give ourselves a goal – I’ll finish these two trees then go and have a cuppa, but after watching how the Spanish approach tasks, we now have a different way. We stop when we need to, no matter where we are up to in a job, if we need a break we take it. This is a very different mindset to what we are both used to in our old working lives, living to deadlines.

We have learnt the consequences of not listening to our bodies – the day Rog cut off the top of his finger he was definitely dehydrated. Ignoring the warning signs of his asthma going out of control could’ve had the worst ending – we can’t keep saying oh I’ll be ok in a couple of days – some things will be, but it’s like playing Russian roulette …

So, we continually learn and adapt to this new way of living. Making mistakes is fine, as long as you learn from them and don’t repeat them!

So, it’s time for me to go and crack on with the seedlings …! Until I’m ready for a cuppa, of course!

Baby oranges – the final installment!

Over the last year we’ve been charting the lifecycle of our oranges, and here we are, it’s harvest time!

The final product … better get picking!!

The oranges were actually ready to be picked weeks ago, but we’ve been waiting for a call from the cooperative to say they’re ready for our oranges. Having not heard anything, and now a week later than when we got the call last year, we decided to chase them up. The lady who organises the dates for each finca said she didn’t have us on the list – had we registered? Yes, we said, we filled out all the paperwork last year. Oh dear, she said, you have to register EACH YEAR! Oh bugger!

She’s going to call a couple of other local villages to see if they are still collecting, in which case we can take them over. Whatever happens though, the oranges need to come off the trees as we need to prune and cut the trees.

We get paid very little for our oranges – last year we harvested 1008kg and got €123! So financially, whilst every penny counts, it’s not a financial disaster if we can’t add them to another village’s campaign. For us though, we hate waste, so we’ll use what we can (even more marmalade!), and give away what we can, rather than throw them all away. We have got quite a few holes in our banks, so we will fill these up with oranges that will compost down – there’s always different uses for organic material.

For the payment you get, you can understand why so many people let the oranges fall to the ground really, although it’s not something we’ll ever do.

But for this year, lesson learnt, and we’ll make sure we register good and early for next year!

April 2020 and the oranges were really tiny!

A new addition to the family …

Luna gets a bit lonely, and the result of this is that she goes wandering off to look for other dogs to play with sometimes.

So there was only one answer to this problem!

Meet Persi! We got him from the local animal shelter – he’s only a baby but when fully grown he’ll be about 14-15 kg, a good size!

His breed is ‘dog’ – a proper Heinz 57!

He and Luna have been getting used to each other today – there have been a few fractious moments but we’re getting there! We introduced them to each other away from the finca initially, and then walked them back together. We’ve been out for a big walk, and they’ve had dinner, and they’re both still alive – I’ll take that as a success!

We now need a nap, we’re exhausted!

Possibly the most fun you can have with your clothes on ….

I mentioned that the rotivator died last year, so this was something we knew we would have to buy.

The old one didn’t have wheels on at all, so getting it to the other terraces was a total killer – lots of swearing, heaving and then we would both be way too tired to actually rotivate anything once it was in place. So, one of the things the new one HAD to have was wheels. This means it’s easier to move about and then once it’s where we want it, the wheels come off and the rotivating thingies (technical term!) go on.

What we didn’t expect though was to get one that came with a little trailer too!!!!! Whilst it’s not legal to drive this on the road, it certainly will make moving heavy stuff around the finca much easier. Lugging crates and buckets of fruit from one end to the other gets a bit much after the first dozen buckets!

So it’s basically a baby mechanical mule! The trailer can carry 200kg – not too shabby!

Unbelievably, it arrived literally in pieces – Rog has had to build the entire thing, which has taken a couple of days. Plus, the instructions had been translated into English, which doesn’t always make a lot of sense as you get the literal translation. It needs a bit of tuning, but we had a test run down the road to pick up some firewood … here’s Rog on our 7hp bullet …

Food shopping in Spain

Out here in the countryside, the weekly shop is a little different to what we were used to in the UK. Large supermarkets with an enormous amount of choice, and all veg available all year are just not a thing here. In Almeria you have loads of big supermarkets, but we rarely go down to the big city these days!

Locally, there’s the daily fish van that comes round the village beeping his horn vigorously – we’ve never bought from him as he doesn’t get to our village until lunchtime, and we’re always back at the finca by then if we have been out. Some locals say never to buy the fish as the van isn’t refrigerated – the fish is kept in polystyrene boxes in the back of the van, and would’ve been in there for hours by the time he gets to us!

We have two food shops in the village – they’re small, but you can get your staples there if you run short, and we do like to support our local shop where possible. We do go to the nearest ‘bigger town’, Alhama, which is about 4 miles away, as there is a small supermarket there, so between Alhama and what we have in the village, we can get everything we need.

Then there’s the pharmacy – if you want some headache pills, you can’t get them in the food shops – there’s no crossover here! Different shops for different things.

But the highlight of the week is the market on a Wednesday. Every village has its particular market day, so if you miss yours for some reason then you can always find a nearby market within the next day or two (when there’s no pandemic and you’re allowed to travel anyway!).

The number and variety of stalls vary from week to week, but there’s always a couple of fruit and veg stalls, a butchers van, usually one selling clothes, one with household items – pots and pans etc, and a linen stall with bedding and towels. Sometimes we get shoes, handbags, scarves, and underwear too!

The weekly market is an important part of life in Spain. Some weeks the market is really small, but other weeks stalls line both sides of the road.

You can always tell when it’s fiesta time – extra stalls appear with special flowers and posh dresses!

We always get our veg from the lovely Alexandra. It seems normal to us now, but I remember when we first moved to Spain how we couldn’t get over the size of the veg – it’s all huge! And it’s really fresh too. You don’t go with a shopping list – you decide what to buy when you get there based on what’s available and what’s in season. The only things I really miss are parsnips and swede – never ever see them here (probably because they need a frost and that just doesn’t happen here!).

I remember as a child going to do the weekly shopping with Dad on a Thursday night – butchers first, then the green grocers, followed by the supermarket (and always the fish and chip shop on the way home, making sure we were back for Tomorrow’s World and Top of the Pops!) – going shopping here is just like that (minus the fish and chips, Tomorrow’s World and Top of the Pops of course!) in that you go to different shops for everything. I didn’t realise just how much I’d missed that till we got here – it really is like going back 40 years!

Like most things about life here, rushing is pointless. Standing at the veg stall isn’t boring .. it’s just an opportunity to catch up with other people and enjoy the sun for a while! This slower, calmer pace of life is wonderful and I would heartily recommend everyone trying to introduce a bit of this ethos into life! It would’ve probably driven me mad though if I was working full time with a family like I used to – it was a struggle to find the time to do an online shop back then, never mind visiting different shops!

Over the last year during the pandemic, shopping hasn’t been as much fun as it used to be … after getting our stuff from the market we would go and enjoy a leisurely coffee at the cafe and have a gossip. Unfortunately, our cafe has been closed since last Autumn as our lovely cafe owner, Antonio, is very ill with Covid – I’ll take this opportunity to wish him a speedy recovery – the cafe is such an important part of the village and it’s just not the same without Antonio and his family there. Fingers crossed we have better and happier days coming again.

There’s pruning, then there’s the skeleton cut …

Our mandarin trees have needed a good hard prune since we got here really. We’ve been avoiding doing too much to them as with some trees it’s hard to know where to start when they’re so bad. The problem with mandarin trees is that they get very thick, almost like a hedge, and it becomes difficult to cut out dead wood and cut out crossing branches. Not being able to do this means that not enough light gets in, and so the fruit that you do get is really small.

Mandarins tend to get very thick and dense, and they say here that a good fruit tree is one that a bird can fly through.

Last year we had a bumper harvest, and so this year, while we’ve had mandarins, there haven’t been as many and a lot of them were very small. As we finished the harvest we both agreed we needed to do something with them.

So we got brave, and so the first time on any of our trees, we did a skeleton cut – and oh boy it does look a bit brutal. You do forego one harvest after you’ve done this, but in two years it should be amazing. The plan is to do half the mandarin trees this year, and the other half next year. There is part of me that thinks we should just do just this one though and stand back to see if we’ve rescued it or killed it! We did something similar, although not quite as brutal, with the olive trees last year. Our first harvest yielded 265kgs, but the last one we got just 50kgs – next year we’re hoping to improve on the 265kgs, and have healthier trees too.

The timing of doing a skeleton cut is important – as soon as you’ve harvested, no threat of frost, but before it gets really hot – so really we’ve got a window of a few weeks during February to get this done. That will give the trees a chance to get some leaves going before the summer. It’s actually much quicker to do than traditional pruning, as you just cut most of it off! Getting a good shape is important, and where there are several branches close to each other, you need to decide on the best ones and get rid of the rest.

Doing this sort of cut is like hitting the reset button – it will go crackers now to replace its canopy , as this is what protects the trunk from sun damage.

So here it is, looks a bit sad doesn’t it!

It was scary just how quickly we went from a mature tree to this! Some say it’s a good idea to smear the cuts with manuka honey to protect from disease.

So we wait now for the first signs of life to spring forth from the branches! We’ll let you know what happens!

Power tools & machinery!

Now Mr C has always loved playing with power tools, not that he ever had much time back in the UK for projects! But here, oh boy, is he having a ball!

The drill he owned man and boy finally died about 6 months after we moved here, it was a sad day … but it was used more in that 6 months than probably in the previous 20 years!

Living on solar power as we do means we have to be a bit careful with tools. Rog now has a drill with 2 battery packs, and these charge up quite happily on a sunny day on the solar. We bought a spare battery pack so he wouldn’t run out of power halfway through a project and it’s something we’re glad we did – the second battery was about €30 and worth every penny. His other power tools, such as his angle grinder, sander, dremel drill etc all run off the generator. The one he gets the most use from is the angle grinder – it’s worth its’ weight in gold!

Day to day we tend to manage most things with manual tools. Pepe, who sold us the finca, left all his old tools here for us, and we have every size of spade available, rakes, pick axes, you name it .. the shed was bursting! Plus we had the stuff we brought with us from the UK. Working this way has replaced the expensive gym membership I used to pay back in the UK!

Just a small part of the collection! A spade for every job!
Rog wanted me to wait till he’d tidied up 😂 We do actually use everything at some point in the year! There’s another two whole walls like this too!

So the other tools we use here are all petrol, which is great as there are no annoying leads to get in the way, and they are pretty cost effective to run. These tools include the wood chipper, rotivator, chain saw and the strimmer. It does mean we keep a good store of petrol here to keep all of these plus the generator running.

As Rog has become a recycling god here, having decent tools has become essential. There’s nothing we enjoy more now than having a nose around a good suministros, who sell everything from pruning shears to tractors – I really am in love with the little tractors they use here – but we simply cannot justify having one for our small finca! I couldn’t understand at first why they were so small – until we drove down the tiny roads in the campo! Also, as the fincas are generally packed with fruit trees there isn’t much room to either fit a tractor in or turn it around to get out again. They’re known here as mechanical mules. Look though, how sweet are these …

This belongs to our builder and it’s the only way he can get large amounts of materials here! Who wouldn’t want one!

Of course, some safety gear is pretty important – we both have steel toe capped boots (although mine still look quite new and Rog is on his second pair!), safety glasses (tinted of course!), ear defenders and a hard hat. Rog has just bought an all in one thing – helmet, ear defenders and face protector – it will be invaluable as we’ve both noticed that we’re a bit deaf after finishing jobs around here! This will definitely come into its own when strimming under the trees – Rog has cut his head on branches so many times, and of course, strimming kicks up all sorts into your face! Before getting this he had to choose between hard hat, ear defenders or a face mask- it was impossible to get them all on at the same time!

But at last we now have the new chainsaw – the old one died at completely the wrong time, just as the cold weather set in at the end of December. It’s taken 6 weeks to arrive but it’s here at last. We decided to go the whole hog and buy the king of chainsaws – Stihl – it was expensive but I think this is one piece of kit you don’t scrimp on. The next purchase will be a new rotivator (if we’re ever allowed out again) – ours went bang in a big puff of black smoke at the end of last year – piston rings have gone. The way we look at it is we did expect to have to buy this stuff, but Pepe left all his old gear so we’ve had two years out of those. We guessed that all his stuff was 20+ years old, so they’ve done well to last this long.

Ooohhhh! We bought one with a slightly shorter bar – easier to manage but will do everything we need it to.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I’m quite excited at the prospect of rotivator shopping …😂

My favourite time of year …

Spring has always been my favourite time of year, not too hot, not too cold, and I love seeing everything starting to come back to life after the winter.

I see a change in myself, too, as the seasons change – something I’ve never noticed before.

As the cold weather has relented in the last couple of weeks, I feel more energetic, I seem to be coming out of my winter slumber just like the plants. I find myself buzzing around the farm doing all sorts of things – all with a big smile on my face! Getting into bed at night feeling physically tired instead of mentally tired is a wonderful thing.

March and April can be changeable here, but not being under the continual pressure of our old life, we can take a day off if the weather is rubbish. It’s an opportunity to hole up in the house with a nice fire and a good book, or plan what we’ll do next when the weather improves. I’d never consider that a wasted day!

Of course, the orange trees are lush and green all year round, and the fruit is definitely ready – we’re just waiting for the call from the cooperative. This week though, we noticed buds on the apricot and almond trees, and the very next day they sprung into life with gorgeous blossom.

As soon as the blossom appears, so do the bees, and we hear the familiar buzz all day again now.

The vegetables are doing well – the weeds went mad, but they’re cleared again now. We tend to get lots of wood sorrel and chickweed, which are good for the soil as they give out nitrogen, so it’s a case of just pulling up handfuls if it from around the veg, but you can leave the roots down. And the great thing is that the chickens go mad for both, so even the weeds get recycled here!

Lovely greens!

We’ve always had a keen interest in the weather, so we decided to treat ourselves to a home weather station – and with the very changeable weather at the moment, it has really come in handy! It gives a pretty accurate 12 hour forecast, which helps to decide whether we need to irrigate or not!

The weather station. A very clever bit of kit – a battery operated digital base station indoors tells us wind speed, wind direction, indoor and outdoor humidity and temperatures, rainfall, air pressure, 12 hour forecast, and all sorts!

And of course, the best thing about Spring is that the winter is over! I do really struggle with the cold, although this year I seem to have been much better than our first year off grid I’m happy to say! Definitely toughened up!

The crazy weather continues …

We tend to get very strong winds here – it comes straight off the Sierra Nevadas and down the valley in the winter, and in the summer it blows up the valley from the coast. The last few days it has been worse than normal. Being halfway up the side of the valley we seem to get it full force here.

It started Saturday afternoon – about 50kgs of oranges were blown clean off the trees and the gates to the finca were ripped out of the concrete columns either side of the gates. The solid bar that you close the gates with – the bit that goes into the ground – bent by the wind! To straighten it Rog had to use a dirty great lump hammer! That is strong wind!

Once the mortar has dried we can repaint – this gate shouldn’t ever move again!

And then at 3 o,clock this morning we had a repeat performance, so there we were, sitting the house working our way through several pots of tea waiting for it to end – which it finally did about 5.30 – managed to catch a quick hours sleep before getting up so we were ready for the builders, who arrive at 8.

This sort of weather certainly isn’t ideal at this time of year – the oranges are ripe, and you just have to hope they stay on the tree until you get the call from the Co-operative saying they’re ready for you – it was March for us last year.

So we have about 150kgs of oranges sitting outside – what on earth are we going to do with them all??? When I make marmalade, just 4 oranges (2 kgs) makes 5 or 6 jars! I have made some already this year and will do another couple of batches – it’s very handy to be able to give people a jar in exchange for some vegetables etc! The nice thing is that no-one around here expects anything in return, but it’s something we like to do. At the moment, anyone we see leaves with a carrier bag of oranges! We’ve just harvested most of the mandarins too – we could be facing a vitamin c overdose!!

It’s too early for them all to be in crates! This is over 10% of our total expected harvest.

So far this year, we’ve had the coldest weather in 50 years followed by the hottest weather in a decade in January – and now apocalyptic wind! We’re also getting a whole series of earthquakes in the area – Granada, which is only a couple of hours away, had a series of them last week, and last night, Gergal, which is not that far from us, had a sizeable one too!

The weather really plays such an important part of our lives now, and you have to stay on your toes all the time to try and manage the farm around different bizarre weather events. We all know that the weather plays a crucial part in every farmers life, but to experience it firsthand really brings it home. Let’s hope the weather calms down a bit now for the next few weeks!

A loo with a view!

We used to have a proper flushing loo in the bathroom, but we soon discovered that the pozo negro (cesspit) was extremely small. It may have been fine for two people staying here just the odd night, but for two people living here full time, it was a disaster. The day we got up and discovered raw sewage floating outside on the ground we thought we’d better sort something out!

We looked at increasing the size of the pozo, but in the end decided to buy a composting toilet, which is dry, and requires emptying (the wee is every day and the composting bit once a week). We did a lot of research and opted for the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet – not the cheapest, but not the most expensive either, and it had lots of good reviews online. We took delivery in July 2019, so have been using it now for the last 18 months.

As we’re having the bathroom totally renovated at the moment, the composting loo has just come into its own! This week, while the builders have been here, we moved the toilet out into the shed, and then brought it back in the house for overnight. Fantastic! But even better today, we’ve popped it outside, in the warm sunshine, so we can sit and look at the view while we … you know!

Whilst a composting toilet is flexible and you can put it anywhere you want to, there is a hose for ventilation – the toilet has a little fan on the side to suck out the smells. The hole for that tube is obviously still in the bathroom – it’s no problem at all in the day while it’s outside or in the shed, but at night when we put it in the spare room, we’ve had to leave the window open so the room doesn’t smell in the morning!

When we first got the toilet, and with me being me, I wrote a little poem for visitors, so they would know how to use it .. which goes like this …

If while you’re here you need the loo, then this is what you have to do …

Both boys and girls must both sit down, otherwise you’ll get a frown.

If you just need a number one, then go ahead and have some fun,

But if you need a number two, there’s a little extra you must do …

The little handle on your left, opens the trap door of death …

Once finished, close the little door, then see the spindle near the floor

Just turn it round, three times, no more, and then a quick spray so the smells are no more!

I know, I clearly have too much time on my hands!

Dogs in the campo …

Spain has a reputation for stray dogs, which in our experience so far is a little unfounded where we are at least. You do see the odd dog wandering around the village, but they do actually have a home – they just like to go for a walk and a nose on their own! I know in bigger cities there are problems though.

This morning we were enjoying a cuppa on the roof terrace when these two appeared …

I reckon they’re about 3 or 4 months old – they have collars but no names or phone number. They made themselves at home here in about 30 seconds (Luna was out exploring at the time!). When Luna came back, she was really calm … until they decided to try her food. All hell broke loose and both pups ‘got taught a lesson’ shall we say!

But they haven’t been put off … all three are now camped out on the drive! Watch this space for the next installment of ‘Do we now have three dogs?’ 😂😂

Awwwwww ….

Firewood

Now a well stocked woodshed has become my security blanket. If there’s one thing I really don’t like it’s being cold! I start to get a bit jittery and nervous if we don’t have at least a weeks worth of wood.

We weren’t sure what the winters would be like here, and when we bought the finca it was March and still a bit chilly in the evenings. We didn’t have the wood burning stove at that point, so we used the open fire … which, no matter what we did, simply filled the house with smoke every night. We tried everything, resorting to an upside down fire technique we found on the internet. This worked a little better but still not ideal. Thankfully the weather warmed and it wasn’t an issue for a few months. However, we made plans for the next winter, and bought a wood burner. There were piles of wood strewn all over the finca, which we gathered up. Great, we thought, we’re ready for our first full winter!

Wrong!!! When you only burn wood, boy, do you go through a large amount of wood! We used to mainly burn coal back in the UK, but no one does here – the chimneys wouldn’t take the heat and would probably just crumble! So in our first winter here, we got to mid January before the supply ran out.

After speaking to a couple of locals we were told about a place in a nearby town, so off we went …

We drove to Alhabia a few miles away and took the little dirt track off to the right and came across a warehouse with loads of tree trunks outside – must be the place!

Inside there were two elderly gentleman – 80 if they were a day, an old defender in the process of being done up, a myriad of other bits and bobs, plus a really old band saw, which looked as old as the two fellas!

Can we buy some wood please? Si, si! And off they went to go and collect some tree trunks in a wheelbarrow – Rog went to help too of course. They started up the band saw to warm it up – lots of black smoke! Then they just started putting the wood through – no goggles, no gloves, no safety equipment whatsoever! They filled up the back of the Santana until it looked like the suspension was going to break, and then told us that would be €20! Bargain!

Although we do cut a lot of our own firewood we do still regularly top up from the old chaps – it’s really cost effective and that old band saw cuts through the wood like butter, so less work for us chopping wood (and we’re not getting any younger!). Nothing makes me happier than seeing our little woodshed that Rog built fully stocked!

We did almost run out of wood again this winter, right in the middle of that awful week with freezing temperatures, and the old guys came to the rescue again. A combination of the chainsaw breaking on Xmas eve, Rog having to go back to the UK because of his Mum passing away, and not being allowed out to buy a new chainsaw saw us caught short – we have tree trunks here, but they’re way too big to just use the axe and saw.

So we’ve already started planning what to do differently for next winter so we don’t get caught out again. Rog has just started enlarging the woodshed to double the size – this will then hold at least 3 weeks worth of wood. In the summer we will begin chopping in earnest so that by the time we need a fire in November / December we will have enough wood for the whole winter. We can stack the extra near the woodshed and cover with tarpaulin and then shift into the woodshed as it empties.

The woodshed (made from pallets) in the process of being extended to double the size.

Most days we don’t light a fire until the evening – we’re generally pretty busy during the day and we’re in and out of the house. We do get the odd couple of days where it’s so cold we literally huddle in front of the fire with the house door closed, but they’re few and far between thankfully. Winters here are not like we were used to in the UK – but we are becoming acclimatized. When we first lived here we laughed at the Spanish wearing coats hats and scarves when it was 16 degrees – but we’re a bit the same now!

Bliss! Rog fitted some silver bulk head insulator material on the outside wall (normally used in car engines) to reflect the heat back into the room. We left the other wall as that’s our bedroom, so the fire heats that room too! The little fan on top was great until it packed up the other day!

But we’re starting to get warmer again now – the daytime temperatures are back up at 17-20 degrees and it’s generally 10ish degrees at night – not bad for January! We no longer need woolly hats and gloves when we go for our afternoon walk. I do drive Rog a little mad when we’re out walking – pointing out wood we can come back for for the woodshed – and that’s no matter what time of year it is! A bargain is good but free is even better!

Dealing with waste

No matter how carefully we use resources, there will always be some waste that we have to get rid of – grey water from the bathroom and kitchen; kitchen food and packaging waste; our ‘personal’ waste; the list goes on.

Back in the UK we were furnished with three large wheelie bins – one for recycling, one for general waste for landfill and one for organic matter for composting. Each bin was collected every two weeks, and there were some weeks where the bins would be overflowing, especially the recycling one. As for other waste, such as grey water or the loo, well, you don’t think twice about it do you? You pull out the plug or flush the loo and it just goes away like magic!

There are no wheelie bins here, and no magic drains or sewers – we have to manage everything we need to get rid of. The previous owner of the finca didn’t manage this very well, which is why the place was in such a mess when we bought it – old kitchen cupboards under the trees, worn out shoes, hundreds of mismatched tiles just sinking into the ground – it took months just to clear the rubbish away so we could start the real work.

The whole finca was like this – it took two months of taking a car load of rubbish up to the bins in town almost every day to clear the place.

We do have access to large bins in the village – there’s an array of recycling bins and then the big grey ones are for household waste. So now we have one small dustbin outside, which we empty in the town once a week. When we go to the market on a Wednesday we sort all the rubbish into piles in the back of the car and work our way round the bins in town. I’m quite proud that we only produce two small plastic bags of rubbish for the grey bin – everything else is cardboard or paper for recycling and then our milk cartons, which are also recycled here. We don’t pay for using these bins – if we lived in town then we would pay a quarterly charge of about €30 but as we’re in the campo in a rustic house, the system won’t let them produce a bill for us – fine by me! I was really impressed that about 93% of all the rubbish in Almeria gets recycled.

Food scraps are no problem at all – we have a second small bin in the kitchen for any food scraps that the chickens can’t eat, and these simply get buried in the ground under the trees.

When we prune the trees we obviously have the cuttings to get rid of. Any larger branches go in a pile to dry out and get used as firewood. The smaller stuff gets wood chipped and put back under the trees. Some cuttings, such as the olive tree branches, don’t chip very well, and so we have a couple of fires after we’ve done those trees, and then use the ash as fertilizer. When we cut down the pine trees at the front of the finca, obviously we had an abundance of twigs covered in pine needles and fir cones – both are excellent firelighters!

So this leaves us with the grey water and human waste. When we bought here we knew there was a pozo – a cesspit, but it became apparent very quickly that it wasn’t big enough for two people living here all the time. The day came when we had to uncover it and see what was going on as we had raw sewage floating on the ground – not pleasant! So the pozo was a small hole in the ground, lined with old tiles – that was it! We still use this for the grey water from the bathroom. We did consider making a proper cesspit using IBC’s, but we would’ve lost a mature orange tree, and we would’ve needed a digger up here for several days, so we decided to find another way – and that was to buy a composting loo.

The grey water from the kitchen and from the outside sink that I use for washing clothes was the next challenge. We decided to deal with these separately, so we have the water spread out rather than all going into one area. To deal with these, Rog dug holes and made two French drains. Now a French drain works a little like a pozo – the pipe goes into a hole lined with stones, but with the addition of a largish bowl upside down. The whole lot is then covered with earth. These have worked really well, but I do have to be careful how much washing I do in one day, as the water needs some time to drain away. After heavy rain like we had the other week, we do have to be mindful of how much water we put down the sinks as it’s not going to drain as well or as quickly as in the summer months.

I think the most important thing we’ve learned is … is it really rubbish? Can we repurpose this, or does it really have to go in the bin? As an example, there were a couple of old tea chests outside, a bit the worse for wear. Take that, some pallet wood and a drop of varnish and Ta da! A new cupboard for the kitchen! It gives me a small worktop next to the cooker and hides the ugly bright orange gas bottle!

Repurposing an old tea chest and a pallet. Excuse all the jars – it’s marmalade week!

Finding a pallet when we’re out makes us so happy! There are sooo many things you can do with them! It’s the same with IBC’s that hold water – we’ve used all the ones that were here already for other things – dog kennel, chicken coop and run, rainwater collection … the list goes on!

The management of these systems is on going – you can’t just put them in and forget about them! Rog spends much of his week on maintenance, adjustments and repairs. He’s definitely a busy boy!!

Owning a Spanish Mastin

When we lived in the UK we had a lovely Japanese Shiba Inu (a small husky) for 14 years. She was gorgeous and a fabulous pet. I cried and cried when she had to be put down. She wasn’t a big dog – she stood about 12 inches tall at the shoulder and I think the most she ever weighed was about 9 or 10kg. Being a husky though we could never let her of the lead – their hunting instinct is so strong that she would’ve been off and gone if she caught the scent of something – but that was the only downside. We were told when we got her not to bother with training classes – they’re rather strong willed and so with all the training in the world, they will only do something if they want to!

The lovely Ella

Fast forward to living in Spain and Luna, the Spanish mastin! We couldn’t have chosen a more different dog! Ella loved to keep herself spotlessly clean … Luna, well there’s a constant ‘aroma’ that follows her everywhere! Some days it’s so bad we can’t let her in the house – anything that smells bad is only there to be rolled in as far as she’s concerned!

So, mastins, what can I tell you about them – well, they’re big, really big! At 14 months she weighed 49 kg – her head is bigger than ours, and if she puts her front paws on our shoulders she’s taller than us. Her tail is like a weapon, and god help you if you put a cup of tea down on the terrace table – one wag of the tail and she clears the table – mugs and tea flying everywhere! When she’s fully grown she will end up at about 10 stone in weight. Males are generally bigger still, weighing in at around 12 stone fully grown.

Mastins are guard dogs – their primary role has always been to look after livestock here. However, they’re usually not aggressive towards people, just animals that would attack the livestock.

Mastins generally sleep for a large portion of the day – she has her spot in the sun (when it’s not too hot) by the fence, and she’ll be out for the count … or so you think … but if you walk by, or a motorbike, a tractor or person goes by the finca – then she springs into action! At night she simply chases anything and everything off the finca – well not just off the finca, out of the province! She spends most of the night on the roof terrace surveying her kingdom, well positioned to take off like a bullet out of a gun at the first glimpse of anything moving! When she comes back she actually wakes us up when she sits back down again – there’s nothing dainty about her! There are nights where we barely get any sleep!

She has recently started following bikes and tractors, which is proving to be a bit of a nuisance because she follows them all the way to the village, and then doesn’t know how to get back to the finca. It means a quick run up to the village in the car to get her. All we have to do is call her, turn the car around and she follows the car back home! She gets a fair lick on too when she gets moving! The locals think it’s hilarious – our very old car chugging along with a massive dog loping after it!

Mastins are fiercely loyal – when Rog was in the UK before Xmas she literally didn’t leave my side, and at night she still chased everything but did not leave the finca once, really unusual for her. She’s very affectionate too, and loves nothing more than sticking her head through the crook of your arm for a cuddle! It is rather like being cuddled by a bulldozer at times!

She does eat quite a lot of food as you’d expect – a 20kg bag of dried food lasts 2-3 weeks and on top of that she has 1kg wet meat food for dinner each day, which takes less than 3 minutes to finish off! Then there’s bones – we buy her ham bones which have quite a bit of meat on them – that’s a 20 minute snack after dinner. Plus of course, there’s anything she catches outside herself – she’s quite partial to snake, particularly once it’s been crisped up in the sun – I just wish she wouldn’t bring them in the house to show us 😂 And she doesn’t have a water bowl, she has a water bucket!

When we decided on her name (Luna means moon in Spanish) we didn’t realise that a better name would be Lunática (lunatic!) – which is what we call her mostly!

But she is bilingual! We speak to her in both English and Spanish! Certain commands are either always English or always Spanish – sit and stay are always English, but when we’re sending her out of the house (because of the smell!) it’s always fuera or afuera! And dinner is always la cena! Clever girl!

We have been able to train her (sort of!) – she will sit and lie down as long as you have a treat in your hand, and although she does wander off to go and visit anyone working on their fincas, more often than not she will come back now if we call her. I think the locals are getting used to her now – in an ideal world she wouldn’t leave the finca, but short of erecting 10ft high fencing it’s pretty impossible to get her to stay here. The sound of irrigation water is too strong for her, she absolutely loves sitting in muddy water!

So would I recommend a mastin as a pet? Yes, BUT, you need a big garden, and if you treasure your furniture in the house it would be best for the dog to live outside! They can be quite drooly- occasionally Luna shakes her head and ends up with drool on top of her own head – nice!

Extraordinary weather!

You may have seen the pictures in the news of storm Filomena, which has brought much of Spain to a halt! Roads closed, blocked with snow, airports shut, and so far four people have died. Last winter was the coldest here in 40 years, but at the moment this winter is beating it hands down!

Madrid on Saturday!

We’re not doing too bad in this little corner of Spain – we are now in our fifth day of this storm, and rather than snow we’ve had rain – lots and lots of rain. Temperatures have been the lowest we’ve ever experienced here and we are truly living in a quagmire. We have had a massive hole open up on the first terrace, so once this rain stops we’ll need to take steps to sort that or we’ll risk losing the back of the car down it. It’s not unusual for this to happen here with the amount of water that we’ve experienced.

Obviously, living off grid in this sort of weather gets a little tougher … there’s been no sun and no wind, so no electricity to speak of. The house doesn’t have a damp proof course, insulation or heating. So, how are we coping?

Well poor Luna and the chickens are sodden! Luna hates the rain so has mainly stayed in her kennel, coming out now and again to check if we’re still alive I think! The ground in the chicken runs desperately needs raking out once it’s stopped raining – the poor things look so bedraggled! As well as their layer food and lots of veggies, the chickens get corn to eat – because corn is actually very fatty it helps to keep them warm, plus a bit of extra protein by way of meal worms helps too.

Thankfully we have the back up generator so I was able to work on Saturday! It is very noisy so we tend not to use it all day though, just while I’m working. We are well set up now to cope for a few days without electricity – we have lights that will work for several days once charged up, the fire to keep us warm, and I’ve read two books in the last few days! Well it’s not like you can do much outside! It’s felt a bit odd sitting around doing nothing, but quite nice at the same time. I think this is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since being here – just roll with it, whatever is happening!

The house does feel pretty damp, especially the spare bedroom which is where I work, that’s probably the worst thing to deal with. Luckily we went to Sweden a few years back, which was a trip that required us to buy lots of thermals! I’m currently wearing two or three layers of clothes as I really do feel the cold – I remember packing the thermal clothes when we were moving and thinking I’ll probably never need these, but we’ll take them just in case … thank goodness we didn’t throw them away!

I really could do with a hot bath or shower, but we’re now in our 11th week of not having a bathroom to speak of – just the loo and the sink is left in there. Our builder lost a family member to covid so they all had to quarantine, leaving him 3 weeks behind at work. Fingers crossed we’ll have a bathroom by the end of January! Another thing to just roll with!!

So we’re actually counting our blessings – looking around Spain it could’ve been a lot worse! I think we picked a good spot to live!

And the forecast from Wednesday onwards is back to wall to wall sunshine!, if still a little chilly – that I can deal with!

Creating a farmers almanac

In America there is an annual publication that has been going since the early 1800’s. This farmers almanac gives information on timings for growing crops, moon phase dates and lore as well as natural remedies.

I started a project book when we moved here, and it’s actually fast becoming a kind of perpetual almanac – when to harvest the different fruit, when to prune, recipes etc. But there was a missing piece to the puzzle – sewing and harvesting dates for many of the vegetables we want to grow.

We’ve been feeling our way through this over the last year, but then this week, our lovely neighbour Pepe dropped in a spreadsheet which has everything we need to know – hurrah!! It has the plant name, when to sew the seeds, the spacing, when to plant out, when to harvest, optimal temperature for germination – everything! I need to make this man a lot of jam and marmalade!

We knew most of the veg names in Spanish, but one or two of them are even a mystery to the online translator!

The weather for the next few days is set to be awful (it’s already so cold we’re sitting less than a foot from the fire with blankets over us!) so we have the perfect opportunity to update our own almanac!

Here’s to a more successful harvest throughout 2021!

And they say living in the countryside is peaceful …!

There are some nights where it literally just all kicks off around here. Probably why we’re sitting up drinking tea and writing in the middle of the night!

We have some animal, we don’t know what it is, that comes around occasionally – it makes a terrible screaming noise and sets off every dog for miles around! We had some friends here one night when it visited, and they sat there looking terrified going ‘what the hell is that?’ We’re pretty laid back about it now, but the first time we heard it we reacted in exactly the same way. Whatever it is, I don’t want to meet it!

There’s a really small finca next to ours owned by a couple who just come down twice a week for a few hours – it seems the primary reason for having the finca is to house their three dogs. So tonight, there’s the three of them going mad, and Luna is basically running around the entire area barking her head of, and this thing is still doing it’s’ screaming thing – it’s like a madhouse!

We didn’t know it when we got Luna, but apparently this is what mastins do – they sleep in the day and chase everything all night. They’re very vigilant so even when they sleep in the day, it’s always with one eye open!

We also get some of the locals who go hunting at night so sometimes we lie in bed listening to the gunshots. It’s preferable to when they go shooting in the day to be fair – we’ve had a few bullets whistle overhead – bad enough to make you want to hit the deck!

The good thing about this lifestyle is the freedom though – the day after a bad night we can always have a little siesta or nanna nap in the afternoon! Thank goodness!

A very untraditional Christmas

I think it’s fair to say that most people will have an unusual Christmas this year, with family bubbles, face masks and a lack of social events. I saw some advice that says you should sit Granny and Grandad at one end of the table near an open window – great, so they can die of hypothermia instead of covid!

In the past, we were definitely upholders of the spirit of Christmas. We never had much money, but Christmas was always a busy time, with lots of family, a huge tree and turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day.

Last Christmas was our first one on the finca, and it did feel very different – no family here, not a turkey to be seen anywhere (lamb is the traditional Christmas dinner here but we ended up with roast beef) and not enough room in the house for a tree. But we enjoyed it nonetheless – we didn’t feel particularly ‘christmassy’ despite playing all the old Christmas music – sitting on the roof terrace in a t-shirt in 24 degrees just somehow made it all feel a bit wrong!

We did go into the village for the unveiling of the belen (the nativity scene) and joined in with the locals having some rather strong bright green alcohol and some traditional Spanish sweets though. New Year was fun last year – it’s traditional to meet up outside the town hall and eat a grape on each bong at midnight!

This year will be different again – I doubt there will be any form of socialising in the village, no family will be here, and of course, now we don’t eat meat I’m looking at all sorts of vegan recipes to try and still do something a bit special (mushroom Wellington is top of the list at the moment!). We have bought a small tree this year – I think we have got used to the size of the house, we sort of fit into it a bit better now after 18 months!

Christmas, like life, is what you make it. Knowing that your family are safe and well, even if they’re not with you, would seem to be the most important thing to me. It will be an odd one, but let’s hope that Xmas 2021 will feel more normal, and maybe this year’s muted celebrations will make people feel even more thankful for a more traditional Christmas next year!

The Olive Harvest

I can’t believe it’s that time of year again already! Over the last week or so we have seen a few people coming down to their fincas to pick the olives – it seems almost everyone here has at least a few trees!

Last year we managed to harvest 246 kilos from our nine trees which gave us 31 litres of extra virgin olive oil, and beautiful it was too!

Now back in the UK I might have used 2 or 3 litres of oil in a whole year, so I was a bit bewildered at the thought of what I was going to do with 31 litres, but just in normal everyday cooking we’ve used 16 litres this year! Wow! It goes into everything, and I no longer buy salad dressings, we just use olive oil – and it’s soooo good for you! It really is the backbone of Spanish cooking.

So we’ve made a short video of this years harvest to show how we pick them. We tried various different methods last year but found this way the most successful! It’s very therapeutic – well, the first few trees are, then your back starts to protest a little and your hands get a bit sore – but do you know what, we don’t mind one bit!!

The harvest is much smaller this year – the terrace with the olive trees was so overgrown that after the harvest last year we gave them a really hard cut. Olives grow on second year wood, so whilst this years harvest is small, we can expect a better crop next year. So, here’s a short video showing just how easy it is to harvest olives!

The olive harvest …

So off we go to the olive mill in Canjayar with our harvest …

The olives are emptied into the grills where they are weighed and a sample taken for analysis. The sample shows the yield of oil for our particular olives which then determines how much oil we get next week.
And then off they go on these conveyers to be pressed.

So that’s it for another year – time to start all over again!

As if the house didn’t already feel small …

… tonight Luna is staying in the house with us, complete with a cone of shame!

Feeling pretty sorry for herself!

Luna was spayed today – not a decision we made lightly, but at night the entire area around Illar becomes her finca as she chases lord knows what around! Other dogs do the same, and we really didn’t want to end up with a herd of mastín babies running around the place (although baby mastins are soooo fluffy and cute!)

The first hurdle was getting her in the car this morning – she’s not keen on the car, but with a bit of encouragement and pushing, we got her in. Next stop, Alhama and the vets (who love her!). Let’s pop her on the scales said the vet … no thanks said Luna, think I’ll just pee all over the floor instead 🙄

Fifteen minutes of coaxing, we got her on the scales. She’s just 13 months old but now weighs 42kg (6 stone 9lbs). Yikes!

Our vet is lovely, and so we stayed to help get the canula in her leg, which took four of us. Sedative first and then when she was lovely and calm, she was sent off into a lovely sleep. It all went well and we were able to pick her up this afternoon and bring her home. She’s still a bit wobbly and hasn’t had anything to eat or drink, but I’m sure she’ll feel better in the morning.

So basically Luna has got one half of our main room. We’ve pushed one armchair into a corner and moved the table to give her enough room to stretch out and lie comfortably – I just hope we don’t get up to too much mess in the morning – a 42kg dog that’s not house trained – could be messy!

She’ll need to keep the cone on for 5 days. Even without it, Luna has no spacial awareness and constantly walks into things – she really doesn’t understand just how big she is. With the cone on though, it’s hard not to laugh – I think she has actually managed to walk into and hit everything in the room already! It’s going to be a challenging week I think!

Houses in Spain

Spain certainly seems to have different building regulations to what we’re used to in the UK, even more so when you buy a cortijo on a Finca.

Many cortijos were built without any permissions or sign offs at the end of the build – think along the lines of building a shed in your garden!

Most houses don’t have a damp proof course, so suffer from some damp and paint peeling off the cold cast walls.

When we bought this cortijo were went in eyes wide open and knew what we were buying – and also accepted that some work would need to be done to live in it all year round. And I think we’ve been pretty lucky – the house has been way better than we thought it would be. Some of the electrics and plumbing have been ‘interesting’ to say the least, but Rog is handy in both of these areas so with a bit of hard work and some choice swear words, we’ve had everything working ok.

But there, in the back of our minds was ‘what’s going on under the shower tray?’ We took the decision to leave it well alone while it’s all been working ok.

But a couple of weeks ago we had a problem with the hot water – there was literally a trickle coming out of the taps. Knowing the water here has loads of calc we called Emilio, our gas man, to clean out the boiler pipes with the special diluted acid to get rid of the calc. But then disaster struck!

We turned the hot water back on and even though the taps were off, we could hear water running in the house – there was a leak somewhere. The leak had been plugged by the calc so now the pipes were clean, the leak could flow freely! At which point I buggered off to the UK leaving Rog to sort it out!

It turns out that the water pipes were laid and then the concrete floor was poured. So Rog had to dig down and around to find the leak, taking out the shower as part of the process. He had to dig fairly deep …

This is under what used to be our shower!

So the good news is we do now have running hot water, but the bad news is we have no shower or bath! So, we called our builder (also called Emilio!), who once again looked at something in our house and simply said ‘Madre Mia!’. The situation has forced our hand to get the bathroom totally re-done (which was on the list for some point in the future). We’ve been and bought all new tiles and new fixtures and fittings for the bathroom now in case we go back into lockdown like other countries in Europe, but Emilio can’t do the work for a month … it’s going to be a very long month I think!

At this point it’s better to just rip everything out and start again. We’re bringing the water pipes above ground just in case we have another leak in the future!

We’re turning it into a wet room and have chosen tiles we actually like 😂. It’ll all be worth it when it’s done!

It’s a cruel world …

Only three chickens came back tonight … Maureen was missing. After half an hour of searching and calling her Rog found her. She had gone through the fence into the next finca and had been attacked, probably by a dog – the attack didn’t kill her directly, we think she died of fright.

That’s the reality of living out here … but I have shed a tear or two – love my girls.

RIP Maureen 😔

The Vegetable Garden Part 2!

So after cutting down 4 small orange trees and rotavating the end where we plan to have the veggies, we did a big of digging. Now I’m just going to say it was pretty hard work digging in 30 degrees! But I’d rather be doing it in 30 degrees than in the cold, pouring rain!

Trenches prepared for flood irrigation. I promise we hadn’t been drinking when we marked out the lines for the trenches!

Rog then ran an irrigation pipe around the edge of the garden with several large outlets so we can flood the trenches.

So then it was test time – would the irrigation work?

Of course it did!!

The next step was to plant some seeds in trays to get them going so we can plant them in November – we planted cabbage, kohlrabi, onions, spinach, beetroot, beans and some herbs to start us off. We will also go and buy some seedlings from the local garden centre nearer the time. I have a large plastic box divided up into the seasons, with packets of seeds filed away in the relevant sections for when they can be planted – once an administrator, always an administrator! The plastic box also stops the pesky mice from eating all our seeds in the shed (learned that one pretty quickly last year!).

And then the building of the frame began! We had a drive up to Canjayar as they have a metalworks place there so we could buy some really long metal poles for the corners. I do find shopping for agricultural stuff quite exciting these days! Canjayar is only about 10km from us, higher up in the mountains – lovely little town, so of course we took the opportunity to have a nose round and a coffee while we were there!

We put the metal poles in the corners to support the rest of the frame – they’re a long way into the ground so should make the whole thing really sturdy. Then we started building the rest of the frame from river grass. Now the river is at the bottom of the valley of course, so the walk down there is easy peasy- not so easy coming back though, especially with a huge bundle of bamboo stuff that’s about 8ft long! We still needed more, so the next trip was in the car! Alleluia for having a very narrow car which happily goes down the lane to the river (which is still dry and has been since the end of May!).

So with all this bamboo and masses of wire, we started constructing the frame …

Luna wasn’t terribly helpful, she just kept chewing all the sticks!
And it grew and grew …
Ta da! Perfect for tomatoes, squash, beans, peas and peppers! We’ve left a corner without a frame for cabbage, spinach etc but we can also plant these between the poles over the winter while there’s no tomatoes and peppers.

And the finishing touch is a particularly ugly scarecrow to stand guard! Had to be done!

I attached some bells to the sides of the overalls so they jingle in the wind! The scarecrow is the one on the left by the way 😂😂😂. And Luna is STILL chewing the sticks!

Next step, get planting!

Wind turbines and solar panels

When you live in a ‘normal’ house with an unlimited supply of electricity, you don’t even stop to think before you plug something in – at least, we never did. I was a great lover of lamps – we had so many around the house, all on timers so they went on and off automatically. Kettles, irons, microwaves, telly, stereo, hairdryer, food mixer, coffee machine, slow cooker, computers, bread machine, toaster … the list of electrical items we use is endless, and nearly all are probably considered necessary for daily life.

So when you live on solar panels you have to totally re-think what you use, and not just what you use, but when you use it.

The biggest enemy of solar power is ‘the heating element’. Heating elements drain power at an unbelievable rate – I was really taken by surprise by the amount of power they use. So that rules out an awful lot of things – the kettle being the big one for me (being a tea lover!). No iron, no microwave, hairdryer, coffee machine, bread machine, heaters or a toaster – they’re all a huge no no! Instead, we have a stove top kettle, and do the toast in a griddle pan (my new cooker has a grill, which I was quite excited about, but was totally underwhelmed the first and only time I used it). As for the other stuff, well we just don’t have them anymore!

When we were learning about solar systems it became obvious very quickly that it was not as easy as it looks. There are different parts to a system, and balancing out the different parts and calculating what power you think you might need had us producing pages and pages of mathematical equations, and we spent several months of planning before we attempted to install anything.

The house had a very simple control panel, one 100 watt panel, a 150 watt inverter and six 2 volt batteries to store the energy. This set up was used by the previous owner to run the tv for an hour once or twice a week. We were clearly going to need more! We found the original paperwork for the installation of this original system and discovered that everything was 15 years old. Only five of the batteries were working, and the rest were bulging, and definitely at the end of their life. So, we were starting from scratch basically.

On the Internet there are lots of methods of calculating how big your system needs to be. We started by listing what electrical equipment we NEEDED (not wanted!). We needed to know the wattage, voltage and amps of each item, and estimate how long we would use each item each day / week / month / year. Once this calculation is done, you then look and see what items might need to be on at the same time, and from that you can calculate what amount of power you need in any given day. Now, as you can’t discharge the batteries by more than 50% you have to build a system that gives double what you actually need.

So step one – we bought a 2000 watt inverter. We have a 12 volt system here and so we need the inverter to change the current from 12 volt to 240 volts. That was around €800 – wow! You can get much bigger ones, but we calculated that we could run what we needed on this. The big problem with most electrical items is, it might say it’s 5 amps, but to get the item going it actually needs triple the amps. So something you think is pretty light on power can still cause a problem.

The inverter converts the power from 12volts to 240 volts.

The power coming into the inverter from the solar panels is controlled by … the control panel. Now there are two main types of control panel – MPPT and PWM. We chose an MPPT controller as it’s more flexible. MPPT stands for maximum power point tracking. This type of controller looks after the life of the batteries better as it gives just a little more power than you need for what’s on, and the rest is used to maintain the batteries. That may be over simplifying it a little, but you get the drift! When you turn something else on in the house, it diverts the extra power you need to the inverter. The control panel wasn’t too expensive – around €140. You can also buy a combined inverter and control panel all in one now.

The control panel tells you at a glance what state the system is in, and what power is coming in and going out.

So then there’s the solar panels. There are two ways to connect the panels to the controller – in series or in parallel. Always so many choices to decide on when installing a solar system! We have three solar panels totaling 745 watts. The maximum we could have for our controller was 760 watts. Solar panels have come down in price massively and so this part cost around €400. Again, there are different types of solar panels – polychristaline or monochrystaline. The big problem with solar panels is how quickly they lose their effectiveness – we’re probably looking at replacing the panels every 6-7 years.

Lastly, you need batteries to store the energy so you can have power when it’s dark. These are expensive, and need changing about every 8-10 years. We bought 6 batteries which cost about €1100, but they are a decent size. Again, there’s a huge amount of choice of type and size of battery. The control panel’s job is to maintain the batteries – when to pull in power, when to stop, when to stir the batteries to refresh them etc etc.

The batteries are stored in our bedroom – it’s sometimes disconcerting when the fizz and bubble!

Now at this point, I will say that Rog did 98% of the research, and all of the installation! I just couldn’t get my head around volts, amps and watts, so was sitting there chipping in ‘can I run a food processor then?’

All was well, and as we’re in Spain we get a decent amount of sun for much of the year. It is harder in the winter – it gets dark at 5 o,clock and so the batteries get drained much more than in the summer. This is where the candles, oil lamp and solar lights come into their own! We have fitted low energy LED lights in the house, but they are still a drain, and so only use them briefly when we need to rather than leaving them on all evening. We can charge up the solar lights in the day and bring them in the evening. We also have a light we can charge up in the day via usb to use in the evening, which has been more successful than the solar lights! We have to plan what needs charging in the winter on cloudy or rainy days as we can’t have everything plugged in together like we can on a summers day!

So last winter we asked ourselves what we could do to boost our power on cloudy days – and of course, the solution was a wind turbine! It was surprisingly cheap at €130 from Germany. Now, this is where it got complicated. Solar panels output DC power which comes into the control panel and is then converted to AC by the inverter. Wind turbines produce AC power! We wired the wind turbine into the solar panels (I can say we here ‘cos I did actually help!) so all the power from both the solar panels and the turbine combine as they come into the house. This meant fitting a small controller between the wind turbine and the solar panels. This changes the current from the wind turbine into DC to join up with the solar panels, and then the controller / inverter changes it all back to AC. It makes your head hurt doesn’t it!!

We stabilised the pole that the wind turbine sits on with metal wire – it wobbled alarmingly without these!

The net result is that we have enough electricity to live a simple life. We can produce about 7 amps. The average house in the UK has a supply of at least 50 amps to put that into perspective! Most of Roger’s power tools need to run on the generator as the solar system simply can’t handle them, but much of what we do is manual so this doesn’t need to happen often. We are fortunate to have satellite WiFi so I can work, and if we do have a bad weather day, there’s always the generator (a back up is a must have in our situation) – it costs about €1 an hour to run so not too bad. There are days when we literally turn everything off during the day so that we have some power after dark, but the benefit of living in a sunny country is that we don’t have too many days like that!

So, that’s all there is to installing an alternative power system!

The Vegetable Garden

Over the last 18 months we’ve been ‘playing’ at growing veg, with a bit of success. We’re novice veg growers who have watched quite a lot on the Internet, but nothing replaces hands on experience – and it’s going to take us years to learn this properly. The veg garden wasn’t the top priority initially as we had to learn about looking after what we already had (the trees) and get things like the house, water and power sorted first. Now the other things are pretty much there we can turn some of our attention to growing our own food. Vegetables from the market are pretty cheap and really fresh, so it’s caused us no problems buying them for the last 18 months, but of course, the long term aim is to grow as much of our own veg as we can.

When we moved here there was a spot that was the natural choice for growing veg – yes, it was dotted with smaller trees but it had more open space than anywhere else on the finca.

Having tried growing in raised beds, directly into the ground, using seeds for some things and plants for others to see what would and wouldn’t work, we now have a bit of a plan …

Step one involved cutting down four orange trees, which we did last week – they were really small compared to the others so weren’t big producers. We still need to try and get the stumps out, but if they prove really awkward we can actually work around them if need be. We’ve read that an average orange tree will put their roots down 3-4 meters, and there’s no way we’ll get a mini digger up here! But having a clearer patch of land now means we can start to develop this end of the finca. We have left two orange trees, a lemon, peach, níspero, citrus finger, two almonds and a chirimoya down that end, but they shouldn’t get in the way too much as they’re along the sides and at the end. We’re expecting some rain and so will rotavate after the rain (by the end of the summer the earth is like concrete where there’s no irrigation!). The bird table will need a new home!

So the plan is to build a framework out of river grass canes – they’re a bit like bamboo and grow wild at the river – so best of all, they’re free! In between these rows of canes we will dig trenches so we can irrigate the roots of the plants, which will grow up the framework. The big problem we’ve had here is that the water runs away so quickly, so digging trenches should mean that the plants get what they need. Rog has set up new irrigation pipes down there all around the edge so we can run pipes off to literally flood the trenches a few times a week – it’s the method everyone round here seems to use. Using this method we should be able to grow pretty much everything we want to down there! That’s the theory anyway!

The aim is to grow tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, cabbage, kohl rabi, spinach, potatoes, squash and beetroot to start. I’ll also be doing a herb garden on the new decking in pots – we have several types of mint already, but I want to grow garlic and parsley as I use loads in the kitchen. The chickens also love fresh parsley and it increases egg production!

We have gated off the veg garden using an old bedstead left here by the previous owners and some plastic fencing – it works well enough to keep the chickens out!

The vegetable garden part 2 should be in the next few weeks once we’ve got the framework in place!

Working outside

For the last 15 years or so in the UK I worked on the road as a rep, driving around 40,000 miles a year. There are benefits to this type of job – you avoid office politics and the obligatory small talk with people you sometimes don’t like too much 😂, but it does take its toll, both physically and mentally. Don’t get me wrong, there were days that I loved it – driving back home with a fist full of orders, knowing you’re on for good commission that month – I would have a big old sing in the car, and do my best Jerry Maguire impression ‘SHOW ME THE MONEY’ – I think Rog used to know what sort of day it had been by the way I pulled into the drive 😂

But it can be lonely, hours and hours each day in the car, and physically it totally screws your neck shoulders and back – and lets not even talk about the varicose veins on your accelerator leg! You tend to average a 12 hour day in this type of job, and then when you get in there’s emails, reports and the like to do.

So now I work just a few days a week, sitting at the computer – but only for 5 hours at a time maximum. I now earn in a month what I used to earn in 3 days, but it doesn’t matter – it’s enough. The rest of the week is spent on housework / washing and working outside on the farm. Rog spends all his time working outside (you should see his tan!). The list of jobs to do here is endless, but we’re under no pressure and there’s no-one telling us what we have to do, how we have to do it and when it has to be done by.

We work with the seasons and the weather. In the winter it’s pretty chilly in the morning and so we start a bit later after a couple of pots of tea, and then finish working outside as it gets dark (no earlier than 5pm). In the summer, we have to get started earlier before it gets too hot. We stop at 12.30 and the afternoon is spent having a leisurely lunch and a siesta. Then at about 6pm we start working again as it starts to cool down.

We take regular breaks – we’ve spent an hour today collecting firewood from our neighbours farm as he’s just given his trees a massive prune – the temperature was about 30 degrees already at 10.30am – so do that job, then take a break before starting anything else. We wouldn’t last the day if we didn’t! By the way, he did say to us to help ourselves to the wood!!

Even when I’m doing the washing, it all goes on outside in our old fashioned sink and the homemade tumbler washing machine. Lots of fresh air and quite physical!

Last winter was the coldest here for 40 years, and there were days when I didn’t want to go outside (I really do feel the cold) but Rog convinced me to help him chop some wood one day, after which I was so hot I didn’t need a fire straight away! They say there’s no wrong weather, just the wrong clothes – and we do go from thermals and jumpers to the skimpiest shorts over the course of the year!

It’s a different way of life – you gauge your day on what the weather is doing AND how you feel – now and then we have a lazy day – and why shouldn’t we! And we don’t feel bad about it anymore! Some summer evenings are just too lovely to work – it would almost be criminal not to have a sit on the terrace with a glass of something cold and just enjoy the view whilst watching the bee eaters enjoying their final flight before bed!

I don’t think I could go back to our old life – every day feels joyous here, even when we’re melting in the heat and covered in insect bites or freezing cold 😂. I used to think I was in tune with nature, but now I understand what it really means, and there’s nothing like it on this earth! Where the wind blows from at different times of year, where the moon rises, the position of the sun when the bee eaters and swifts take flight in the evening – we know when to go up on the roof by the position of the sun over the mountain, not by the clock in the house – being in the same place each day means you really see what’s changing as the year turns.

We’re doing it!!!

I know, it’s just some beetroot and salad onions, but I’m made up! Skipping down to the veg garden with my little basket and coming back with these makes me so unbelievable happy. Having never grown veg before it’s going to take years to perfect the craft, but time is something we have…

And in the meantime, Rog was harvesting the first pears! I just love it.

Fresh onions and beetroot in the salad tonight with pears for pudding – life just doesn’t get better!

Something like ‘normal’ …

I’m not quite sure why, but I just can’t stand the phrase ‘the new normal’ – I think it’s because I really liked the ‘old normal’ and the thought of wearing these face masks every time we go out, and not being able to hug friends etc for the foreseeable future doesn’t bear thinking about for me.

But … our cafe in the village opened yesterday and so we lost a few hours there today catching up with friends! And it was lovely. The village market was back on today with stalls the length of the high street (well the only real street!) and there were people milling about, sitting on benches in the sunshine and chatting – it almost feels like Illar again! Driving through the village during lockdown was eerie – not a soul in sight and none of the old fellas sitting around chewing the fat – I couldn’t be happier that that is over with (for now at least).

I know, it’s not exactly a throng in the picture!

Chicken update …

I’ve always wanted to have some hens but was never able to until now.

We’ve had them for a couple of months now, and they make me laugh every day – they really do have personalities! As I go past I always say hello to them, and they do talk back – Rog said I was going bats!#t crazy talking to them … and then I overheard him having a full blown conversation with them 😳

They are quite naughty … you can’t go into the coop with sandals on – they just love pecking at toes! They do protest at being put away at night – you get three in, turn your back for a split second to get the last one in, and then the other three escape again, but it’s all part of the fun. We’ve found that using a piece of board to herd them works well (sometimes!)

We do let them out every day or every other day – one of us sits with the dog on a lead on the terrace – think she’ll have to be much older before we can trust her around them!

They love to stretch their legs and have a good forage about, and we feel better knowing they’re having fun. We wanted to let them free range but that’s just not possible with Luna.

We’re getting 4 eggs a day and the aim is to sell them, although that hasn’t been possible with all the virus stuff going on. I’ve been giving some to our veg lady each week and in return she gives us a ton of tomatoes for free – I have jars of homemade canned toms and chutney – having so many tomatoes is almost as problematic as having 28 eggs a week! 😂

They are actually pretty easy to look after. They like to get out the second the sun comes up over the mountain in the morning, and so I get a bucketload of weeds ready the night before to give them first thing. Rog made a snazzy feeder out of tubing so that only needs filling up every few days, and so it’s a case of clean water with the weeds in the mornings. We have a small feeder that goes in the coop at night in case they get peckish. We have changed their food recently – we got a sack from the local ferriteria but it was like dust, so after a visit to our local pet shop we now have proper dried corn that they love – and at €11 for a 25kg sack that won’t break the bank!

In terms of cleaning them out, we’re using the deep litter method, so once a month we add more wood shavings into their house. That means the whole thing only needs emptying and cleaning twice a year. Their nesting box is fitted to the outside of the coop for easy access to add hay and collect the eggs. Using diatomaceous earth around the edge of the coop and in with the wood shavings keeps insects at bay (I’ll do a post on diatomaceous earth another day!). We do have some small mice that come to nick the corn at night, but there’s not much we can do about those!

These girls though …

Left to right: Balti, Maureen, Attila the Hen and Ethel

Easing of lockdown restrictions in Spain

Spain went into lockdown back in March just before the UK and I was lucky to get the last flight back into Almeria from the UK – if I hadn’t come back early I would still be in the UK now, over two months later!

The lockdown here was one of the most restrictive across Europe. Two thirds of Spaniards live in flats and spent that first 6 weeks unable to leave their flats unless they were shopping for essential items. Children weren’t allowed to go out at all (unless they had to go out with their parent where no one else could care for the child). No daily exercise was permitted and only one person could be in a car to go out for essential items. Pretty hardcore stuff. Those that thought we were mad for living out in the campo were suddenly a bit jealous as we still had our freedom out here, and daily life wasn’t too different for us.

A couple of weeks ago we transitioned into the start of an easing of these restrictions, and last Monday we went into the second phase.

Just to make things confusing, the first stage was phase 0 and the second stage is phase 1 😂. Some places, such as Madrid, didn’t meet the criteria to move to phase 1, so they’re in phase 0.5 😂 It’s nigh on impossible to know what you can and can’t do! Luckily, Almeria has been pretty good – not too many cases compared with elsewhere in Spain, so the move to the next phase was never going to be an issue here.

We still can’t leave the province (not that we need to!) and there are still no flights out of Almeria – really hoping I can get back to see my poorly sister soon, although with two weeks quarantine both ways it would hardly be worth it, as I wouldn’t be allowed to see the family in that time. With my sister being so ill, she can’t have any visitors in case she gets the virus – mum and dad go over and wave to her through the window – brain cancer at any time is devastating, but this pandemic has made it even harder for everyone in the family. It would be good to see her again though, and to support mum and dad.

But, last Wednesday did see us going food shopping together for the first time since March! It was quite an event!

Cafes are allowed to open again, but customers can only use the outdoor terrace and with a maximum capacity of 50%. There are stringent hygiene requirements too and twice daily disinfecting of the premises, which has meant that lots of cafes have chosen to stay closed, fearful of getting it wrong, including our one in the village. But we did stop at a different cafe whilst out shopping – there wasn’t a whole load of social distancing going on, but we didn’t mind – it was lovely to see people out laughing and kids running around again.

A few more shops were open so we were able to get some bits – only shops that are less than 400 sqm can open, and the number of people in there at any one time is limited, but it’s a step forward.

So fingers crossed we’re in the road back to a more sociable life with the freedom to travel again …

First aid in the campo and the wonder that is iodine!

We’re forever getting bites and stings, scratching ourselves on the trees and the like, so having a decent first aid kit is quite important.  But there’s one thing we have started using all the time since we moved here, and that’s iodine – it’s miraculous!

Obviously iodine is used by doctors and hospitals all the time, but it was never very common for it to be used at home very much in the UK.

There was a bottle here when we moved in, and so on some of our bigger cuts we thought one day, we should put some iodine on it to stop it getting infected … and that was it – we now use it almost daily!  Bites, stings, cuts, everything.  I recently had a really bad eye infection and so got the iodine out – it was a lot better by the time I got around to speaking to the doctor a week later, but hadn’t quite killed off the infection, so eye drops had to be used to finish it off!  But I would’ve been in a right mess without the iodine!

We have two first aid cupboards here – one in the bedroom, which we refer to as the ‘ooh I don’t feel very well’ medicine cabinet – simple remedies, paracetamol, homeopathic medicine and essential oils etc, and one in the bathroom which is the ‘oh my god I’ve cut my arm off’ medicine cabinet.  The latter has serious first aid stuff – the iodine, tournequets, big ass bandages and dressings, saline eye wash etc – the one we used when Rog chopped his finger off last year!

Our neighbour reckons an ambulance would come out here, but the last turn into our lane and the last 100 metres would be impossible for an ambulance, so we need to make sure we can do immediate first aid here.  We do have a house address for official use, but only a few of the locals would be able to tell anyone how to get here, so we have GPS co-ordinates to give out and can send the exact location via things like Google maps – these are all things you have to think of living out here.  You wouldn’t want to be trying to work out how to direct an ambulance here if one of our limbs was hanging off!

Fingers crossed (although Rog struggles to cross his fingers now 😂) we’ll never need to make that call …

Living with solar power… a year on

Having completed just over a year of being off grid, I really think we have this licked now! Not really knowing what the climate would be like across a whole year meant we had to try and anticipate what we would need to get through winter.

We have three decent sized solar panels, a 2000 watt inverter, charge controller and six big batteries to store the energy in here.   We replaced the ancient system that was here when we moved in as it was just 1 x 100 watt panel, very old batteries and a 150 watt inverter!  What we have now gives us enough electricity to run the compost loo fan 24 hours a day, for charging phones, the toothbrush, battery packs, running the WiFi and the radio / speaker. We can also run the computer when I work in the day as long as it’s not really cloudy. We have to be careful how many things we have going at once, so try to stagger the usage.  On bad winter days we turn the wifi off for most of the day so we can have it on in the evening for a few hours – running the compost loo fan is way more important than having wifi!!  We added a wind turbine last autumn to try and boost the power on cloudy days and overnight – I wouldn’t say it’s been a roaring success, but it helps to maintain the batteries rather than add to the stored power.

We can have lights on, but they’re quite a drain on the power even though they’re LED, so we have a couple of solar lights that we charge up outside during the day, and another we can charge on the usb in the day, which is a great light in the evening.  Worse case scenario, we always have a stock of candles. It all comes down to finding other ways of achieving your goals, and prioritising what’s most important.  We can use the light in the bathroom in the evening as it’s not on constantly, but we do find these days that our eyes don’t like bright artificial lights!

On cloudy days we really limit our usage. We both have battery packs that we can charge up on sunny days to use on cloudy days so we don’t need to draw on the power, and we have the all important back up petrol generator so I can work in bad weather.

But it’s funny how quickly we’ve got used to living like this! It just takes a little juggling and organisation, but we do it now without really having to think about it!

In the kitchen though, I didn’t want to be beholden to having sunshine to be able to cook, wash etc, so opted for as few electrical items as possible. I did bring my food processor, but this has been resigned to the back of the cupboard as it will only work on the generator – it’s too powerful for the solar on start up.  I can use it if I really need to, but its a bit of a pain to turn on the generator, run a lead into the house just to blitz something for 30 seconds!  I have a spiralizer and have just treated myself to a pull cord mini chopper / processor, and I have to say it’s brilliant!  But other than those, everything is just done the old fashioned way by hand with a wooden spoon or knife – it actually feels like real cooking again!

We have a fridge with a small freezer, which runs on butane gas – we go through a gas bottle every 3-4 weeks, which costs about 13 euros, so an effective way to run a fridge.  We have a small camping oven with two gas rings, which is ok for cooking on – this also runs on gas, and a gas bottle lasts 6 weeks, so pretty efficient.  I simply avoid cooking things that take hours – lots of dishes that take 20-30 minutes works well on so many fronts!  For most of the summer it’s too hot to eat anything other than salads anyway! Our hot water is on gas too – in the summer a gas bottle lasts nearly 3 months – all you want are cold showers when the temperature doesn’t drop under 26 degrees at night and averages 36 in the day!  In the winter we get 6-8 weeks on a gas bottle.  So we average 2 gas bottles a month – about 26 euros – I wish my gas bill in the UK had been that low!

I’ve got the clothes washing down to a fine art now.  I have a small hand crank washing machine in the house for clothes and a larger one outside that Rog built for duvets, towels etc.  When we got here there was an old fashioned sink outside with a washboard (you can actually still buy these new here!). Rog has done it up, added a pipe to drain away the water etc and this is brilliant for getting really dirty work clothes clean.  Now that the weather has gone back to normal at last, the washing dries in no time outside, and with the afternoon breeze it doesn’t need ironing – in fact, I haven’t ironed a single thing since we moved to Spain! It’s been a revelation!

We weighed up putting in a bigger solar system so we could run things like a fridge, but the cost was pretty steep – it would only break even after ten years compared to what we spend on gas, and at that point, parts of the solar system would need replacing, so not a cost effective option.

We bought a decent generator when we moved here – being able to work to earn a few bob is essential, but we also use this for some of Rogers’ power tools for doing jobs outside – there are times when you just need to use beefy tools for some jobs!  We bought a rechargeable drill with a spare battery pack, so one on and the spare charged up as a back up, and this does for most jobs.

Our only source of heating for the winter is the wood burning stove, but as our house is tiny this pretty much heats the whole house.  We have a fan that sits on top of the stove to maximise output, and this is powered solely by the heat from the fire – an excellent purchase! We tend to only use this in the evening – if it’s cold in the day it’s warm clothes and move around (difficult when I’m teaching, so out of view I have a hot water bottle and a blanket!).

We don’t have air conditioning here – some people think we’re crazy to live in Spain without it, but the house stays pretty cool in the summer, and we do have a tiny fan just to keep the air moving in the day. We found last year that we opened all the windows in May and they stayed open until September! We have mosquito nets up at all the windows to stop the critters otherwise leaving them open just wouldn’t be an option!

We use strimmers outside for weed control, a rotavator and of course the wood chipper, and these all run on petrol. As they aren’t in constant daily use they don’t cost us much at all – we rotavate a couple of times a year, strim every couple of months in autumn and winter but more often in the summer (almost a constant job like the forth bridge!) and wood chip maybe 6 – 8 times a year.

Back in the UK we never gave a second thought to using gas and electric – just turn it on, and the direct debit goes out each month.  Now we have to be more careful, and prioritise what jobs to do and what to use, but it’s really no problem at all.  I would imagine that living off solar in colder or cloudier climates would be harder and more of a challenge.

I can honestly say that with the set up we have, living off the grid is pretty easy and less of a compromise than I ever thought it would be.

Preserving fresh food

One of the plans we had for our new life was to grow and preserve as much of our own food as possible. We’ve had some cabbage, broad beans, peas and onions from the garden so far, with lots more planted. So far we’ve eaten whatever veg we’ve produced, but we plan to increase how much we grow each year as we find our feet.

From our fruit we either make jams, chutneys, sell it or just eat it!

Yesterday my lovely veg lady gave me about 4 kilos of tomatoes in return for some eggs – now we like tomatoes, but there’s no way we could eat that many before they go off, so I set to this morning to bottle them so they’ll be like tinned tomatoes which I can then use in dishes.

I know lots of people have started growing some veg now because of the worries around food supply chains with the pandemic, so I thought I’d share how to preserve tomatoes, and also details of my favourite, no nonsense preserving book. I’m guessing that come the summer people are going to suddenly be inundated with tomatoes!

First, my favourite book is this one by John and Val Harrison:

It’s practical and easy to follow – it’s become my little bible here!

There are a few bits of equipment that I would recommend you get, namely a jam thermometer and jar tongs (worth every penny!) A decent preserving pan is helpful for jams and chutneys (I stole my mums!).

For jams and chutneys you can use ordinary jars – I re-use these as long as the seal on the lid is still good. For bottling and preserving use le parfait clip top jars and mason jars. All are easy to get hold of in the UK and can be used re-used for years, simply buy new rubber seals or lids occasionally to make sure you always get a good seal.

To bottle or can tomatoes, I skin the tomatoes first – cut a small cross in the bottom and pop them in a pan of boiling water for a minute until you see the skins loosening – take them out with a slotted spoon and peel off the skin, cut out the hard core and chop up.

Once this is done simply bring your tomatoes slowly to a simmer, stirring frequently.

I wash my jars and then pop them in a warm oven to dry and sterilise while I’m cooking the tomatoes – if you have a dishwasher simply wash them on the hottest wash.

Ladle the tomatoes in leaving half an inch headroom. Add a teaspoon of salt or lemon juice and put the lid on. Pop into a water bath (saucepan of hot water with either a cloth in the bottom or a metal trivet, and make sure the jars don’t touch each other) and let it bubble away for 40 minutes to seal. The water needs to be 1-2 inches over the jars, so keep an eye on the water level and top up when necessary.

Once done, lift the jars out and leave standing for 12 hours – and that’s it! You can check the seal by unclipping or parfait jars – the lid should stay sealed (if it doesn’t it needs to go back in the water bath) or unscrewing mason jars – the middle section of the lid should stay put. Your tomatoes will be good for a year.

Here are the ones I’ve just finished:

You can add herbs or garlic etc – I’ve just left mine plain and will add the garlic and herbs when I use them in a dish.

Fingers crossed I’ll be sun drying our own tomatoes and preserving them in our own olive oil later this year!

Baby oranges

I’ve found watching the life cycle of oranges quite fascinating over the last year. The UK isn’t well placed for growing citrus fruit, so this has all been totally new to us.

The trees blossomed about a month ago, just as we were harvesting the oranges, and since then the trees have been humming with the sound of hundreds of bees busy pollinating.

The blossom is just about done now, which means that next week we’ll be able to insecticide – some of the trees have an aphid problem so this won’t be a minute too soon. But while the bees are doing their thing you just let them get on with it and don’t interfere! The smell of the orange blossom has been heady to say the least – I don’t suffer with hay fever, but it even got me sneezing!

As the blossom falls away, the trees reveal their little babies!

The tiny green balls are what will become the oranges that we will harvest next year. The harvest around here starts in mid January and goes right through to April. We have to wait for the call from the cooperative to tell us when to harvest, as they can’t be sitting around for weeks in crates. This year we got the call which gave us a week to harvest and get the oranges to the drop off, which was fine.

Lots of these tiny oranges will fall off over the next few months – the trees will shed about a third or more of them to make sure it can grow all the other oranges to perfection.

Our job over the next year is to insecticide every 3 months, water regularly and fertilise 3 times. We also keep an eye out for dead wood and crossing branches that need cutting out. There’s no specific time of year to prune orange trees – it’s just an ongoing job throughout the year. We did remove some of the bigger branches that needed to come out after the harvest in March – it’s important to let light into the middle of the tree, as one thing oranges do need is sunshine, and lots of it!

Spring has … limped in

After one of the worst winters here for decades, Spring is attempting to get going. The weather has improved slightly this week, actually managed a wear a t-shirt yesterday and today for a few hours! Looking at the forecast it’s going to be up and down over the next few weeks, but at least it’s warmer now while it’s raining!

But despite the weather, Spring is doing her thing and stuff is growing – it’s my favourite time of the year.

The nisperos are growing visibly bigger every day:

And the orange blossom, which has been humming with hundreds of bees every time the rain stops, is starting to die off to make way for baby oranges:

The apricots are going great guns – another month or so and they’ll be ready:

Baby pears are forming:

The vines are taking off:

Almonds are getting big, but won’t be ready until August / September:

And the olive blossom is getting ready to open:

We still have some poorly trees that we’ve been trying to rescue since we got here – we have 12 chirimoyas that really don’t look well at all – I’d hate for these to fail as the fruit is delicious and really expensive to buy! A handful of the orange trees are struggling, but they’ve had a really good hard prune, which will be kill or cure … time will tell. The big challenge at the moment is the weeds – we don’t use herbicide and could literally spend day after day pulling them out and strimming! The good thing now, of course, is that we pull them up and give them to the chickens!

We leave the wood sorrel and chickweed to grow freely – these are good for the soil and the chickens favourites. Since we started giving them a huge pile of weeds every day, egg production has gone through the roof – we’re getting 28 a week – that’s a lot of eggs for two people! We were planning to sell them, but with the current lockdown restrictions we can’t to that – so we’re giving some away and eating the rest, scrambled egg for lunch most days – I’m not complaining!!