June in the garden

Here we are, finally started! We spent the first days in the orchard and we already harvested fruits and experiences. During this first period we tried to observe and understand the ecosystem as it is today. Then we started building basic infrastructures and taking notes of the first thoughts about the future permaculture system. Also we are trying to explore the surroundings and the local community.

During the first two days we focused on objective observations, counting number of trees and their sizes to make a base map. Based on satelite images and measurements in situ, we have already a map with the basic elements: limits, fences separating the space and large trees location. Many smaller trees are not yet marked on the basemap (image on the right).

Spending time on the site we observed sunny and shadowy spots during the day. We also use a sunpath tool (a free iphone application) to understand the radiation in the different places at each hour during winter and summer. We also looked closer to the vegetation and habitats. Here is a short description of our site analysis and you can see an extended version here.

  • Fruit trees: The fig (Ficus carica) and mulberry trees (Morus nigra and graffted Morus alba) are the largest trees in the site with 5m radius, creating good shadow places. A large majority of the trees are small almond trees (Prunus amygdala var. dulcis and amara). There are also few plum trees (Prunus domestica), an orange tree (Citrus × sinensis), a quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), Pomegranate tree (Punica granatum), olive tree (olea europea), medlar trees (Mespilus germanica). Unfortunately most of the trees are attacked by pests.
  • Fences and barriers: Tall cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens), pine trees (Pinus pinea) and myoporum are functioning as wind breaks while attracting birds. Large opuntia cacti (Opuntia ficus-indica) and reeds (Arundo donax) are used as barriers.
  • Understory: The understory layers are very poor. Some grapevines (Vitis vinifera) are climbing to the opuntia cactus or form small bushes. Thistles (Silybum marianum) are thriving at sunny patches and wild cereals at the less sunny areas. Box bushes (Buxus sempervirens) and thorny climbers are growing spontaneously near the fences.
  • Insects: A very large population of ants is present in the soil and on the trees, few of them living in relation with aphids and black coccinellids pests. Flies are present and mosquitos are thriving as the reproduce in the open wells. Finally some lezards are present.
  • Wildife: Birds and wild boars visit often the orchard.

The mulberries had already a lot of fruits. We harvested from the tree by hand almost 8kg of red and white berries which we ate, shared and transformed to jam and compote. Much more had already fallen to the ground or eaten by birds and insects. We harvested also few plums. Most of the almonds were already harvested by the locals as it is the most easily commercialized product, while the mulberries were left due to the difficulty of harvesting and the difficulties to conserve them. We believe that the non harvested fruits encouraged the explosion of ants population.

Observing the soil we found that a upper largest part of the orchard is covered with a layer of clay coming from the well, while all the rest of the surfaces is mostly sandy. The light  colour of the soil  indicates that it is very poor with no structure nor soil life, probably because it was tilled regularly until now. While the clay is generally considered to be a problem, we think that lack of fertility and structure is more serious. Later on, we are counting to extract the clay layer and use it for building and swales. For this reason we took a soil sample to try to define better its ingredients and made a test ball.

Therefore we decided to start a compost pile with materials coming from the site and the nearby pine forest. We put in the pile: dead wood and branches, dried out cereals and thistles, opuntia leaves in decomposition, decomposed pine needles full of mycelium and fungus, reed leaves, birds and wild boar manure, fig leaves, acacia leaves and branches, bones, coffee, fruits felt on the ground…we watered with the well water and covered with a tarpaulin. In the middle of the compost heap we put a clay pot with water in order to water slowly the pile.

We started working at the first part of the site. In this part slope is important while the tilled clay soil forms irregular clay stones and is tiring  to walk. In order to facilitate moving in the site we started flattening some paths and creating a more comfortable environment removing thorny plants and obstacles. Some paths are already present and openings in the fences offered easy access as local people used the site to harvest some fruits.

During the days on the site we visit the small nearby city of Ras jebel. The city is known for the agriculture practice and in particular for potatoes cultivation. The public outdoor spaces and cafés are man dominated. There are some cultural activities, like the music and theater festival in July. The city seems relatively peaceful during this transitional political period during which religion, politics and art form an explosive mixture in Tunisia.

The spent some money to buy tools, e.g. garden fork, tarpaulin, gloves, pot, rope, metal thread, but our big expense was the petrol to drive to the site.

During this period we also discovered two interesting species: the ground cover sand fig (Carpobrotus edulis) we tasted in a variety of recipes and the Ghassoul (Mésembryanthemum cristallinum) a living water tank ground cover.

Carpobrotus and Mesembryanthemum

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