Learning to look after the trees

Before coming here I’d never had a fruit tree, and had absolutely no idea how to look after them, so buying a finca with 97 of them was a bit of a baptism of fire! Our fruit trees include oranges, mandarins, chirimoya, nispero, almond, olives, pears and bananas.

We’ve learnt a lot, but by no means are we experts yet. As with all aspects of life, it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive. Preventing problems through proper management is less work than trying to cure insect or mold problems, as we’re currently finding out!

Twice a year they need fertilizer, which we buy as granules in large sacks – this gets thrown up into the tree canopy so you get a good spread on the ground, and then as we water the trees, the granules dissolve. We also bury our waste from the house under the trees which composts directly under the trees to give them extra oomph too.

Fruit trees can be prone to fungus and mold problems. The best way is prevention rather than cure, and the popular method here is sulphur powder. We have a backpack which has a nozzle on the end and a handle on the side to puff out the powder. It’s a job that needs doing every couple of weeks to be effective. This really does need safety gear – hat, goggles, face mask and overalls – although it’s a natural substance, it can cause all sorts of irritation and problems if you get it on yourself.

We’re a bit devastated that we’ve just lost out apricot tree to fungus (we think) – it was going great guns and covered in fruit. Literally overnight the fruit shriveled and the leaves dropped and died. Apricot trees are prone to a root fungus that kills the tree from the bottom up, and in just days we went from a good tree to one that rocks in the ground – we’re going to have to take it down before it falls down. If we plant a new one, we will have to wait several years for it to produce fruit. There could well have been early signs that we missed – but it’s all part of the learning journey.

Fruit trees are targets for insects – ants develop aphid farms up in the leaves so they can eat the sweet secretions from the aphids – produced when the aphids munch on your tree! The one we’re really struggling with at the moment is scale – they reproduce at such a rate. The trees have been sprayed now with four different types of insecticides and we’ve still got a problem. Scale insects not only suck on your trees, they leave a sooty mold on the leaves, which can affect the fruit. Usually we would insecticide four times a year – January, March, July and October, but at the moment we’re just continually spraying weekly to try and get rid of the problem.

Undoubtedly, the most effective method is to pick insects off by hand, but this is very labour intensive as you can imagine!

Scale insects are ugly little bugs! This is the Cottony Cushion Scale that we are currently battling with.

The adult female cottony cushion scale is capable of self-fertilization and lays about 500 to 800 eggs. Eggs are laid within an egg sac and are red and oblong. The eggs can hatch within a few days during the summer months but can take up to two months during the winter. The population increases most rapidly during the drier months and requires about four months for a generation.

Neem oil and insecticidal soap are both effective for scale, but both are contact insecticides rather than systemic, so the trees need drenching from every angle.

Then there’s watering – we usually irrigate 3-4 times a week in summer. Recently we’ve been turning on the irrigation at night as we go to bed and leaving it in all night. As we use drip irrigation rather than flooding, there are about 300 little nozzles that need checking each time we irrigate – we’ve got pretty efficient at doing this and now it only takes about half an hour!

The drip irrigation lines run throughout the finca, and Roger has zoned them so we can control what areas get watered. This is especially important if the water pressure is too low to water the whole place at the same time.

Pruning – I’ve done blog posts before on pruning but it’s worthy of another mention here. Pruning is essential for tree health – cutting out the dead wood whenever you spot it, and then the bigger, annual cut, to ensure enough light gets in. Water shoots regularly sprout and they need cutting off to ensure the water goes to the fruit bearing branches. Trees that haven’t been pruned will still produce fruit, but it will be smaller and not as good. Opening up the tree through pruning also helps with insect control, as it’s easier to spray thoroughly, and you can actually see what’s going on.

A clean orchard is essential – picking up cuttings if you’ve pruned to get rid of insects and cleaning pruners and shears between trees both help to stop diseases spreading between trees.

And after all that work, your reward is your harvest – we both love harvesting! You get to climb trees and eat lots of fruit, so what’s not to love about it!

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!

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!

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!

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 …

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!

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!

Baby Oranges Part 3

I love this time of year – when you look across the valley the trees look like they have jewels all over them!

The oranges are not ready yet – but they are ripening nicely. The harvest around here generally starts in January and goes on until the end of April / beginning of May. Last year we got the call in mid March from the cooperative for our oranges.

We don’t earn a lot from the oranges, which is why you see people just letting their oranges fall to the ground – the time and effort needed to grow the oranges doesn’t feel fully rewarded by the payment you get! There are two types here – eating oranges and juicing oranges. The only difference is whether you hold an ecological certificate for your finca – if you do then you can sell them as eating oranges and you earn more money. Needless to say, our small finca doesn’t have a certificate, and to be honest, we can’t be bothered with the rules and regulations and soil testing that would be needed to get the certificate. The process would probably cost more than we could earn in 3 years selling them as juicing oranges. For farmers with large fincas it’s absolutely worth it – but for half an acre with 35 trees? Nah!

The first year we were here we didn’t have anywhere to sell our oranges – we sort of moved in just at the wrong time really! We didn’t want rotting oranges littering the finca so we’d pick up the fallen ones each day and then at night take them to the bins in town. We did try to eat as many as we could, and we had fresh orange juice for breakfast each day – it’s a wonder we didn’t turn orange! We gave away what we could to friends back on the campsite, but there were still an awful lot of oranges left to get rid of. I hate wasting food, and throwing them away really bothered both of us.

Last year though, it was all very efficient. Got the call, harvested the oranges over a few days (well, Rog did as I was in England when the call came!) and then we delivered them to the co-op. All done in a week or so.

Learning how to look after the orange trees has been a bit bewildering at times – too much water, not enough water, what fertilizer and when, how to cut them. We’re nowhere near experts yet, but we are learning how to look at them and figure out what they need … we think!

And next month I’ll be stocking up on sugar and jars ready to make a ton of marmalade in January! There’s nothing quite like homemade marmalade with big thick chunks of peel in it!

The next post on the oranges will be when we harvest them!

Baby oranges part 2!

In April I wrote a post showing the little baby oranges that were appearing as the blossom fell away from the trees.

April 2020

So here we are nearly at the end of September, and the oranges are coming on nicely. The weather has been really bad for fruit this year – we had far too much cloud and rain followed by really hot sunshine in the spring, which meant that a higher percentage of babies fell off than normal.

We have also watered less this summer. We lost quite a few oranges at the start of the year simply because they were so huge that the tree couldn’t hold on to them. When we had the builders here last December they thought our oranges were absolutely hilarious, so we decided to put less water down, and they are a better size this year.

It’s lovely watching the oranges develop, and in just the last week or so they’ve started to change colour. We do hit our heads on them constantly as we walk around, and they’re quite hard!
I took some ripe oranges back to the UK in March this year and was told they were the best oranges ever!

Yum, I can taste them already! 😋

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!!