We are in the middle of a drought here on Gozo. It’s getting serious. There hasn’t been any rain in over a month.
In search of answers and some practical solutions, we recently made the short ferry trip across to the “big island” (i.e. Malta) to visit Vincent’s Eco Farm located just outside Zebbiah. As one of the few farms seeking certified organic status, we were keen to discover more about growing in dry (and getting drier) conditions. Our guide for the two hour tour was Pawlu de Bono, a Maltese farmer who had worked on a wide range of organic, forest garden and permaculture projects in Australia and East Timor.
The farm is large by Maltese standards, measuring approximately 185 Tumoli (1 Tumoli = 12,100 square feet) and 60 of these are also classed as conservation areas, comprising native wild flowers and shrubs growing on a limestone pavement and with a fair few caves. Close by are the Megalithic Temples of Skorba, and other evidence in the landscape indicates that the area has been continuously inhabited and farmed for thousands of years.
In terms of growing vegetables, the large beds are heavily mulched with compost to help retain any moisture and reduce water and soil loss as a result of the prevailing north westerly winds. The field-long beds are intercropped and rotated regularly. Strongly scented flowers and herbs such as pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) and calendula are inter-planted at intervals to help confuse or deter potential pests. The vegetables grown still reflect the British influence, so we saw lots of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, chard, beetroot and sprouts. Fortunately Malta’s climate enables other crops to flourish, such as peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, sweet potatoes, and okra (the dried seeds are ground into a flour). The constant, and very high summer temperatures mean sun-dried peppers, tomatoes and chillies can be produced by simply utilising spare space in the polytunnels. In addition, fruit such as peaches, pomegranates, a smaller variety of plum (Ghajn Baqar) and both red and white grape vines are cultivated. To help retain moisture around the vines, three grooves are scored into the earth between the rows as this helps to capture any moisture and avoid any water loss through surface run-off over the crust of dry soil.
There are also over 400 olive trees on site, with some under-planted with nitrogen fixing broad beans or just left to provide bee-friendly wildflower cover. The harvest is dependent on rainfall and typically it takes 10kg of olives to produce a litre of oil. Sadly, palm trees have suffered heavily from red palm weevil, and the island’s black mulberry trees have been decimated by the trunk-boring mulberry long-horned beetle. Pawlu showed us the evidence of the extensive (and fatal) damage they had caused.
On the farm they also like to experiment with non-traditional cultivation techniques – so in the two polytunnels aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, and peas are grown on straw bales from their fields. There were also portable micro-salad beds, which use a tweaked compost/ rainwater fed style hydroponic system and hen tractors, whereby chickens are moved around the site to “de-pest” and add manure to an area.
The farm also has a guesthouse, camping area, solar energy systems, rain water reservoirs, beehives, compost loo; art studio (housed in a converted former British Nissen Hut), several wormeries, compost bins and a forest garden under development. The farm also acts as a venue for a wide range of volunteering activities, including those by other local NGOs including “Why Not” who were running all sorts of green themed workshops and outdoor yoga sessions in the “Creativity Vortex” area when we visited. Volunteers regularly spend sessions working on the farm for a month at a time and they each get to plant a tree in the growing forest garden area.
The farm is about to open a shop, with demand for their produce being very high - with vegetarian/vegan restaurants such as “The Grassy Hopper” in nearby Valletta, together with local box schemes, organic shops and other green outlets. Before we left, Pawlu kindly put together a box of lovely fresh vegetables for us to enjoy. Apart from all the produce, we also came away with lots of ideas and feeling inspired.
Back on Gozo, we are busy sowing seeds, building up our compost bins, enjoying new potatoes and our own broad beans and thinking a lot about mulch. As a backup plan I’m also trying out some new moves for my version of the Gozitan rain dance!
For more details about Vincent’s Eco Farm, please visit their Facebook page via this link.