tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:/posts Corujas Blog 2021-04-15T11:40:22Z Corujas tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/1050017 2016-05-11T23:29:18Z 2016-05-11T23:29:19Z Building a small production greenhouse

When we rebuilt the house one thing we decided to add was a small greenhouse. We picked a spot with great sun exposure and a convenient pre-existing wall and built a small glass and granite building. The same architect that designed the house remodel gave it some nice touches too.

We added a metal table with automatic watering above it on the taller side, which is where we do most of our reproduction work and left the smaller side for mostly potted plants. In the middle we built a wood walkway between the two doors.

The last change we've done is to add some benches to the smaller side and extend the watering system to that side as well.

We've been extremely successful at doing all sorts of reproductions using this greenhouse. For example we start all our tomatoes from seed we collect from the previous year's production (that's only possible because we use heirloom varieties from the The Real Seed Catalogue and not the usual hybrids).

Last season we had a tomato plant grow out of the ground by chance. We let it ride and it fruited well past the normal season (we ate the last tomatoes in January). After that much success we decided to start planting some tomato plants on the greenhouse ground to get a small but out-of-season crop. We used the low side of the greenhouse and added a watering line on the ground as tomato plants supposedly don't like to be watered from above. That also went well but it was always a small crop. That eventually made us want a much bigger greenhouse to have much more actual production instead of nursery...

After shopping around quite a bit we found a local supplier that would build a 14 by 4 meter poly tunnel for a very reasonable price. We decided to set it on the edge of our forest garden in a spot with good sun exposure and that also helped with bringing some immediate wind cover to a somewhat exposed part of the field. The construction was all done in a single day last summer. The builders brought most of the structure pre-built with them and the day's work was mostly assembly. It started early in the morning with the setting of the posts. This was done extremely quickly with a gasoline powered drill. They were pre-prepared metal posts with a cylindrical concrete base that was buried for stability.

After all the posts were level and straight the pre-bent arches where slid into place and bolted on.

Once that was done they dug two trenches on either side of the structure. This was done by hand and was by far the most grueling part of the job, especially since the sun was high and hot by then.

Once that was done they unwrapped the main length of plastic and stretched it on top of the structure.

After the plastic was over the structure they stretched it firmly and held it in place by placing it in the two ditches simultaneously and filling them back up with the soil that had been taken out and pressing it in stepping on it. Once it was stretched they bolted it to the end arches. The next step was to assemble the frames for the doors on both sides. We opted for a single door on one side and a double one on the other so we could fit the electric buggy in if we wanted to.

Both the single and double doors have a window above it that can be closed or held in place in one of two positions. Here the winter position is shown, giving some ventilation but not facilitating the egress of hot air. The summer position is swung the other way round so the hot air rising is naturally driven out. All the doors and windows have rounded corners but are set into square frames. This leaves enough of a gap that even if everything is closed (for the coldest part of winter) there is a decent amount of ventilation.

After the build was complete we drove the electric buggy through the double doors bringing a very large amount of compost from our large piles. After spreading it evenly we planted the first crop, using cardboard to create walking paths in the middle and sides.

The cardboard worked well at controlling weeds but started to waste away relatively quickly so we used some weed barrier fabric to cover the paths instead.

To water the greenhouse we started out with a simple square lawn sprinkler driven by a water timer. This worked fine in the beginning but once the plants started growing the sprinkler would often get covered by plants and not water everything evenly. We've now installed a new overhead system. We'll do a separate post detailing that.

We've been having great success with all sorts of vegetables so far. The first tomato plants have just been added and we'll see how that goes. This is not just for annual crops though. There is a selection of tropical plants in pots about to be put in. The selection includes banana, annona, papaya, mango and a few other smaller stuff. The banana may be pretty marginal but we think we have a shot at getting a crop from most of these even if it's not every year. And that's even before exploring some of the passive heating options out there (long but very interesting video).

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/835679 2015-04-04T12:26:08Z 2015-04-05T20:41:57Z Building a practical large compost pile

We have two donkeys continuously outputting large amounts of manure. Between leftover straw and manure we add about 3 cubic meters per month to the compost pile. Initially we had been piling it on the ground but it's hard to build a large enough pile to generate enough heat for proper composting. Since the farm is on a slope and each field a terrace with a drop to the next field we decided to build large vertical manure piles on the field just below the donkeys. That way it's easy to drop in the fresh manure from the top and then empty the finished compost from the bottom. We decided to build three piles side by side so we could have at all times one being filled, one composting and one being emptied.

We started by leveling the ground a bit and then opening four large holes in the ground where our pillars are going to go.

We had some leftover granite pillars from dismantling old vine pergolas that we carried over and tilted into each of the holes.

Some careful maneuvering and an old industrial drill bit got the pillars positioned vertically.

Once they were vertical we carefully nudged them into alignment and then filled in the holes to keep them in place.

With the four pillars in place we set out to build the base. We bought some concrete blocks and used some left over granite rocks.

We used the granite blocks to build a solid base to hold the pillars and the four concrete block walls.

The four walls went up relatively quickly. To secure the pillars properly we connected some metal cable between the pillars and the back wall so they have nowhere to go.

We built all the walls with some spacings between the blocks for added ventilation to improve composting.

At this point we had the basic structure done and only the front wall missing. We had sized the whole construction so we could fit 3 standard pallets as the face of each pile. They allow for great ventilation and are cheap and easy to replace. We attached L brackets to each pillar to create mounting points for the pallets. A metal wire connecting all the tops of the pillars increased the structural stability and gave us a nice place to attach the pallets to. The top one we just fixed in place with some wire on the top and screws through the L brackets on the bottom.

That left a large enough opening to get the compost out. For the bottom two pallets we made them easily removable. We screwed in some tabs on the bottom of the top and middle pallets to hold the middle and bottom ones in place. The tabs on the back of the pallet are just fixed in place but the front ones pivot on a single large central screw so they can be rotated to be able to remove the pallet. The bottom of the middle pallet is held in place by a pin going through the pallet and through the L bracket and the bottom pallet with a pin inserted into a hole in the base.

It takes us about 4 months to fill each of them. This means they're just about the right size to cover the whole load of a year. We usually put some small branches once in a while to create space inside them and then just drop in manure and straw. 

After they are full it takes around 6 months to compost. That leaves us 2 months to empty it before we need to reuse it.

We use the electric car to load up compost from here and then drop it wherever we need it with the electric tipping bed. We never use the compost below the top of the granite base so there's always a compost base to make the process start faster. The back of the piles are also against the granite wall of the field above which has quite a few openings. Worms have already fully populated the piles all by themselves so the composting goes pretty quickly.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/655517 2014-04-13T21:30:00Z 2017-07-29T21:28:13Z Egg yolk pudding

All sorts of things are named pudding, sweet or savoury, with ingredients that can include dairy, starch, rice...

In Portugal puddings are desserts, cooked in specific pleated moulds with a lid. Milk-based puddings are common, and typically go by "french pudding". But if you want a heavenly pudding, all you need is egg yolks, sugar, water and some Port wine. It is easy to make if you are strict with some details. 

The first thing to do is coat the mould with caramel. Of course there is ready made caramel, but it is fairly simple to make it directly in the mould, burning the sugar on the stove (avoid this if your mould has any soldered parts). You can also cook it aside in a regular pan and then pour it into the mould. 

  • 130 g sugar for the caramel (approximately, use more if you cook it in a pan, there will be some caramel left)

Caramel is very easy to make: just put the white sugar in the pan (no water) on medium heat, and it will quickly begin to turn into a thick brown paste; stir gently, there will be some smoke and a caramel scent. Be very careful, sugar boils at 186º Celsius (367º F) and getting a caramel burn is not nice. As soon as you stop seeing any white sugar, get it away from the fire and handle it quickly, because it turns solid very fast as the temperature goes down. Roll it around with the help of a spoon, until the inside of the mould is all coated. If you cook it in a pan, pour it in the pudding mould and use a spoon to quickly coat the mould, middle axis included.

By the way, the caramel in the first picture has been cooked on the fireplace (not recommended!) because our induction stove would not work on the aluminium mould. In this case, the safe way to go would have been to make the caramel in a pan...

Warning: do not let small children near you as you prepare caramel - the sugar burns, there is smoke, and everything has to be done quickly. You will not be able to supervise them and caramel burns will be harder to avoid.

When the mould is all coated, leave it to cool while you prepare the pudding. We leave it upside down on a plate. In case too much caramel has gone into the coating, it will drip. You can remove the excess caramel over the rim of the mould when it solidifies, just break it off with the help of a knife. It will be very brittle and not as sweet as caramel candy, but ok to eat.

Now for the pudding dough. 

First of all, weigh the 4 ingredients:

  • 800 g sugar
  • 275 g water
  • 400 g egg yolk (approximately 2 dozen eggs, preferably at room temperature)
  • 80 g red Port wine (a tawny works best because it has a more intense flavour and is also much cheaper)
If you have a good scale you can do the weighing directly on the pan: weigh the sugar first, zero the scale, pour in the water. 

Take your sugar to a gentle boil and test for the "sugar point" as we say in Portuguese, which is actually the density of the sugar+water mix or the sugar sirup stage.

We want the "pearl" point, which is easily detected if you take part of the mixture on your spoon, blow a bit to cool it down and then let it drip slowly from the spoon. The sugar will flow and then stop, leaving a little pearl attached to the spoon. This is the density you want, turn off the heat and let the sugar cool for a while. The amount of water and sugar indicated should bring it pretty close to the desired density as soon as it boils.

In the meantime, use the scale again and weigh the yolks and the Port wine. We used separated yolks sold in 1 kg cartons. You will get the same with 2 dozen large eggs, separating the yolks carefully. This will be a good task for children to help, and you can use egg-separator gadgets...

Measure the Port, this small amount is enough, so a bottle will last many puddings.

 Stir gently (do not whisk, just loosen the yolks a bit with the wine).

By the time the sugar sirup has cooled down, pour it slowly into the yolks. It is easier with two people, but you can do it easily with a saucepan. Start with just a drip of sugar sirup, stir the yolks to mix it in and continue, making sugar drip faster as the mix warms up.

Now pour the dough into the caramelised pan. Put the mould into a pan where it fits (not too tightly) and put the lid on. The pan should have some water, but not too much; as you sink the mould, the water should not go above more than half its height.

Put the lid on the pan as well and turn the heat on. As soon as the water boils, bring the heat down to a steady slow boil point. Let it cook for 1 hour. When the time is up, turn off the heat, take the pudding mould out of the pan (be careful with the hot water) and take the lid off. The top of the pudding should look well cooked and the overall feel should be jelly-like, not liquid.

It will probably smell wonderfully, but you will have to wait at least 12 hours to remove it from the mould and look at the result. If you make the pudding in advance (up to 1 week), you can just let it stay in the mould until just before serving - it will look better and there will be no danger of it collapsing.

The pudding is an excellent dessert to bring if friends invite you over for dinner. Just carry the pudding still in the mould, unmould it in the destination to a local plate, and take the mould back on the same plain bag (lid on).

The result, we can assure, is amazing.


tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/672314 2014-04-03T17:40:33Z 2014-04-03T17:40:33Z Converting Par36 bulbs to LED

Last year we got an electric car to go around the farm. It's a Toro Workman and it has an electric tipping bed that carries 400kg and climbs our steep paths with ease. We're really happy with it. We bought it used and the company that sold it was less than stellar in getting it to us in good condition. One of the things we had to fix was a broken head lamp. The lamps are Par36 28V bulbs, so the whole headlamp is actually a bulb. One of the two was fried and since the two are wired in series this meant we didn't have any lights. This sucks in nice winter days when the temperature is fine but the day ends very early.

It was getting late and the cat wanted a ride. We couldn't do it without lights though...

We had asked the local glass supplier to cut out the back of the bulbs. He did a decent job even though he didn't center his drill very well. This meant the cut wasn't parallel to the bulb orientation.

We got some pre-packaged LEDs off ebay. They were a nice round shape that would fit nicely on the back of the bulb. Now we just needed to secure them properly and wire them up.

We took a piece of leftover IKEA board that we didn't use and cut out a square with a round hole in the middle.

We used a hammer and a nail to open up two small holes in the board to fit the two pins from the LEDs.

We also took some leftover power cord and made two extensions.

Then it was a matter of putting the board in and soldering the two extensions to it. We used some pieces of heat-shrink tubing to protect the soldering and avoid short-circuits.

To secure the LEDs to the board we used a nylon screw on the opposite side of the soldering. We tried gluing it on with a bunch of things and it didn't work. We glued on a few pieces of wood/board to level the boards against the two cut bulbs, to solve the problem with the cuts not being centered. We then trimmed the boards to size (right one was trimmed after painting). To make the board cleaner we masked the LEDs themselves and painted the boards with a gray spray can. 

To attach the boards to the bulbs we simply used duct tape. We were careful to make sure the tape reached the edge of the bulb, as that's what is then put inside a rubber piece and put into the car so the tape becomes mechanically locked. It taped on just fine though.

Here are the two bulbs finished.

Here is one bulb put into its rubber sleeve, ready to install into the front of the car.

And here is the end-result in the car. The cat was gone by then though so no ride for him.

You may notice the right bulb is brighter than the left. That's because initially we wired the two in series. The LED's we got were rated 11-28V but since they have buck converters to achieve that you can't really wire them in series. Instead we added a DC regulator to get 12V out of the batteries 48V and then ran the two bulbs in parallel. It now works great, with much less power consumption than the previous bulbs, which is relevant in an electric car.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/669806 2014-03-31T23:26:11Z 2021-04-15T11:40:22Z Building an observation hive

When we started beekeeping one thing we read in multiple places was that getting an observation hive was a great way to learn. An observation hive is basically a glass sided bee hive so that you can look into it without putting on a bee suit and disturbing the bees. 

Michael Bush has a great page on what to consider in observation hive design. We used that page and some advice from the beesource forums to design a single wide 6 frame hive. We did an initial sketch in Google Sketchup:

After thinking it over and detailing the design we defined all the wood sizes we needed and had them cut for us. We also ordered two framed glass panes from a picture frame supplier. With all the supplies ready we got to work. We build the two sides, one with a hole in the middle that will serve as the bee entrance:

We quickly built the basic frame, using some right angle metal pieces for strength and two threaded rods at even spacing to attach the frame supports and to make sure the top bar was straight.

This was our first test fit of everything.

Two lengthwise pieces on top and bottom will seal the gap against the glass frames.

We also opened up the entrance side hole to 31mm and fitted a brass hose connector so we can then attach a hose to connect the hive to the outside. We had to use an adjustable drill bit as we couldn't find a 31mm or 32mm bit. These things suck for this job. The hole was already cut at a smaller size so the center part of the bit that guides the hole had nothing to connect to and since the drill only cuts on one side it becomes unstable. Because the bit is so long it swiveled pretty easily even when using a drill press. Only after getting the initial depth done did the drill stabilize as it became locked into its own hole. Next time we need to plan ahead more and use the adjustable drill for the initial hole and them finish the inside with the smaller bit.

A first test fit with everything in place. We made some frame supports with folded sheet metal held in place between two bolts and two washers on the threaded rods. On the right and left sides the frame supports are also folded metal and screwed in directly to the wood. We're still considering making these a bit better. They only have a stop for the frames in the back so the frames can still fall forward.

The glass frames were attached with some simple metal holds on top on both sides, and three nails on the bottom plank to make sure the glass frame fits snuggly (it's not nailed in).

Here's the final assembly. Note the cork top in the middle of the top bar. We drilled 19mm holes aligned with the center of each of the top frames. That way it's easy to open/close them for adjusting ventilation or to setup a rapid feeder.

After getting the finishing touches done we'll be putting it in a small building on the farm and routing a one inch transparent hose from the entrance through the wall of the building so the bees can get in and out freely without being able to enter the building itself. We'll probably do a spring split into the observation hive to be able to observe the bees make a new queen.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/657142 2014-03-30T22:30:00Z 2014-03-30T22:40:48Z Early spring recipes: purple cabbage and chicken stew

This is what we call comfort food. It is lovely for an early spring dinner by the fireplace when it's cold outside. Serves 5-7.


  • 2 medium sized onions
  • olive oil
  • 1 purple cabbage
  • 6 boneless chicken breasts, sliced in cubes
  • 1 table spoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • salt
  • bread or toasts

Fry the onion in olive oil until golden, add the chicken and stir until the outside gets cooked. Slice the cabbage in quarters lengthwise and remove the thick white part. Slice into small bits and add to the pot. Stir until the cabbage softens a bit and then add the mustard, vinegar, salt and water. How much water you add depends on how much you like dipping bread into the stew. If you don't - add just enough water to cover half the height of the cabbage and chicken in the pot. If you're using a pressure cooker, close the lid and cook for 15-20 minutes after it reaches steam. In a regular pot count on 45 minutes to one hour.

Serve with toasts or good quality bread.


tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/669784 2014-03-30T22:07:23Z 2014-03-30T22:07:23Z Adding comb guides to regular bee hive frames to go foundationless

We've been running foundationless frames on all our hives. It's less work and may have some health benefits for the bees. To do this though we've had to retrofit comb guides to our regular bought frames. We don't make our own equipment. Our hive supplier is cheap enough and we're small enough that it wouldn't make sense to start making them, so we have to modify them to our needs.

We started by using tongue depressors to press into the groove carved on the inside of the top bar of the frame that would normally fit the wax sheet. We found that two of them fit snugly into the frames and initially just pressed them in by hand and started using them. What we found was that even after the bees had put propolis on the depressors they would still sometimes fall out of the frame, probably once the hive got hot and the wood expanded. We had a hive lose a full comb probably as a combination of wood expansion and the comb's weight. Our method for these is now to put in a small amount of regular wood glue into the groove and then press the tongue depressors in. This seems to work fine and we haven't had one fail yet.

Our next issue was that sometimes the bees would actually build comb on both sides of the tongue depressors, so two combs to a frame, instead of using it as a guide. We had this happen with a new swarm. Once they get into that rhythm it's hard to break them off of it as they'll base the location of the next comb on the distance from the previous one, again ignoring the guide on the frame. We've recently tried a different approach which was to glue and nail a wedge to the full length of the frame. We had a woodshop take a 2cm by 2cm section length of pine wood and cut it in half lengthwise between opposite corners. This gave us the triangular section wedge to glue onto the frame. We cut it into several pieces with the length of the internal frame width and glued it on with wood glue and then nailed it in. The nailing was the hardest part, and a nail or staple gun might be ideal for this. So far we've only done a 10 frame box to test this in one of this year's swarm boxes.

The end result are two types of foundationless frame that we use in our swarm traps

When the bees take the hint and follow the guide the end result is nicely drawn pristine white wax.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/657520 2014-03-05T16:39:49Z 2014-03-05T16:46:01Z The tomato season is on!

Winter always seems too long and in January we have all those seeds patiently saved from the previous season, plus the packets with the new things we want to try, and little patience to wait for warmer days. In previous years we have sown our first tomatoes around January 20, but sometimes those early trays take so long to germinate that the seedlings are weak and easily surpassed by the ones sown a month later. 

This year, however, we had such a cold, rainy winter that we did not even consider starting anything in January. But as February went by with one rainy day after the other we counted the days and worried about all the work that was being postponed: soil preparation (impossible to do with soaked soil), sowing, transplanting. By February 15 we made a trial with our most robust tomato seed, and on the 22th we took the chance to prepare some trays and try to start the first sample of our favourite and also some new acquisitions. 

There are two ways we sow tomatoes: using old styrofoam trays (they are put away at the fishmongers) or the regular sowing trays. In any case we fill them with a germination substrate we buy at our vegetables nursery. If we use our regular soil it is so full of seeds we get all kinds of weeds germinated well before the tomatoes! 

So the first step is to fill the trays: the substrate comes dehydrated and compact, we have to loosen and hydrate it. After that it is easy to fill the trays and compress the soil in each cell.

Just to be sure we gave most of our favourite varieties a try, we prepared two 8x5 trays. We chose 8 of our tried-and-true varieties and also picked some seeds from the 8 new varieties we have ordered this year. For weekend gardeners, it is really insane to test for 8 new varieties in the same season, but as we go through all the wonders in the Real Seeds website, it becomes very hard to resist...

It is easy to get all the seeds mixed up, so we always prepare the labels and label the rows in the trays prior to laying the seeds. In this case, we used tongue depressors (also used for beekeeping tasks) cut in 4. The little white plastic labels are nice and easy to reuse but we buy a bag and they are soon spent. We need larger packs.

When each cell has its seed, it is time to slightly bury them (we learned the layer of soil on the seed should be approximately twice the size of the seed). Now there is a problem with seeds in the greenhouse: mice are hungry this time of the year and they like seeds. So some times we wait, nothing sprouts and we see that the seed is no longer there. Not so common with tomatoes, but almost certain with pumpkins, melons and watermelons: their favourite! So we already have some hardware cloth folded to the size of the trays. They can be left until the seedlings are 2-3cm high and there is no seed any more. By that time we have to be careful with snails, but we will talk about them later.

Now it's time to select a good spot on the greenhouse table, check the irrigation timer, and hope the next weeks will bring some sunny days. The greenhouse is not heated, but keeping the door shut and taking advantage of the longer days we have now, our average temperature in the past weeks has been 12.5º C, with 10º C minimum. Tomato seeds would appreciate some 5º extra, let´s see how they will do.

It has been a week since we made this sowing, no seedlings have sprout yet. But we expect to have some next weekend. As we have lots of seed from last year, we have put some in a pot a week prior to these. It has 2 weeks now, and a regular hair of good looking seedlings. 

So we are optimistic about our first batch of 16-variety tomato seeds.

We need these tomato plants to develop and leave rooms for all the other vegetables and flowers we will start in the greenhouse. We are just beginning the season and the table is already well stocked: besides the two tomato trays, there are two large styrofoam trays with our most common varieties: the large oxheart which are cherished in the neighbourhood and the heavy-production plum tomato we use for preserving and making sauce. Another tray is starting our first parsley. Two trays have echinaceas sown in autumn: they overwintered in the greenhouse, died back and are now sprouting. Hopefully in two or three weeks the weather will be warm and we will be able to take our seedlings outside, start new batches and get room for basil, zinnias, scarlet sage, ...

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/658225 2014-02-28T20:24:46Z 2019-01-10T16:12:24Z Attracting swarms to get free bees

We have told the story before about how we stumbled into beekeeping. Our first year as beekeepers we were able to attract a swarm directly into a hive without much effort. Last season we got 4 the same way (although one entered the owl box) and even caught one on video. So this year we have our method pretty much figured out and are hoping last year wasn't a fluke. Here's what we do.

We start by getting a normal hive ready. We use all medium sized frames and boxes. We use all foundationless frames to let our bees build their own wax. Our swarm traps are really a full hive setup, with a base board, a box, 10 frames, and inner and outer covers. We tend to look for hives that have already been used by the bees. This year we have a couple of boxes we removed from the hives to consolidate them for winter that should work better for swarm attraction.

After we setup the hive we then take a small ziplock bag and stuff a paper towel inside and then wet the paper with lemongrass oil. We then close the ziplock almost all the way leaving a small entrance for the smell to get out slowly. That bag gets dropped to the bottom of the hive. We also drop a couple of drops of lemongrass oil on the flying board to help attract swarm scouts looking for locations to test out. You can replace the lemongrass with a number of industrial attractants although we've never tried them.

Once we have the hive fully assembled and with the lemongrass attractant deployed we set it somewhere where it's not in the way and make sure the hive is level. That's particularly important as we're using foundationless frames. Bees will follow gravity and build their wax hanging down vertically. If the hive wasn't level the combs wouldn't be aligned with the frames. So far we've set out 4 hives in a few spots. We've doubled down on the wooded area where last year we caught two large swarms. We're now completely out of hives and thinking of how many we want to order from our typical supplier.

Our main idea is to set out full hives that we can then just move into the bee yard without any other intervention. Moving them once they are full is a little harder than if we were using a lighter box but we've managed fine so far. If you want to look into this in more detail there was a pretty large study done on what characteristics will attract swarms. The main outcome of the study is the following list of characteristics of the optimum swarm trap:

  • Set 5 meters off the ground in a well shaded but visible area (distance from the parent hive doesn't matter)
  • An entrance that's about 10-15 square centimeters large at the bottom of the box and ideally facing south (shape is irrelevant)
  • A box that's about 40 liters in volume (both deeps and mediums should be fine, the study only really tested 10, 40 and 100) and also airtight and dry
  • The smell of wax and lemongrass or other attractants. A frame of old black brood comb is often recommended here.
tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/658215 2014-02-26T10:35:41Z 2014-02-26T11:48:10Z Spring is upon us and the bees are flying

We had the first few early spring days at the farm. All the early bloomers are in full force and birds are everywhere.

The bees were in full force as well taking advantage of all the early flowering going on. In our climate bees never really stop but you can really tell that their activity has slowed down when it gets colder. The experience from the two seasons though is that August is actually much more of a worry because there's nothing to eat. We really need to find some plants or trees we can add to the farm and possibly irrigate to get over that period more gracefully.

At this point though they seem to be in great shape. 

All 6 hives had activity with one of last year's swarms clearly booming. 

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/594957 2014-02-22T22:41:17Z 2014-02-22T22:41:24Z Building our herb garden

Herb gardens are delightful places, or so we thought even before we began to care of Corujas. Our first book on gardening was actually on herb gardens. Others followed, such as Jekka's.

Getting water to the center of the farm, from the existing water well that fed the main reservoir, was our first major work. From the reservoir we made a level waterway to get water near the house, and built a new reservoir in a small piece of land just below the house, the highest point we can get water to just using gravity. This place, organized with the reservoir and bound by a string of vines and an olive tree, was small enough to be manageable as a herb garden and we started the lists of herbs and the design of the patches and walkways. We used granite slabs, easily bought locally. We do not get English-looking red-bricked paths, but our plants can compensate for that.

The herb garden was first planned on paper, selecting the herbs we found more tempting. The design turned real after some visits to "Cantinho das Aromáticas", our supplier of all original herb material. 

The herb garden exceeded our expectations, both in the fast growth of the herbs, planted in groups of 4 in the 1.4m patches, and in the amount of weeding required to keep it clean. We have been improving it over the years. Some seasons we were patient and mended the place, replanting lost species and changing locations, others we just weeded and let them spread around, others we tried mulching. Overall we have reduced the watering to almost none, realizing that it was not possible to make biennials like parsley, requiring a fair amount of water, co-exist with sage, thyme and other more drought-resistant herbs. So we moved basil to the vegetable garden, encouraged parsley to get established wherever it likes by spreading its seeds in various places and made our herb garden the place for Mediterranean herbs that can endure our summer with only occasional light watering. 

The herb garden has its ups and downs, some years it is renovated and we try new species, others we just let them run wild. Some of the species we have tried have been propagated and now exist in some other corners of the garden. We regularly use herbs from the herb garden: varieties of sage, varieties of thyme, rosemary, chives, tarragon, lemon grass.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/652197 2014-02-08T23:06:25Z 2014-02-08T23:06:30Z Really fast risotto in a pressure cooker

We've recently become huge fans of the book "Modernist Cuisine at Home". It certainly changed the way we cook risotto. It used to take over 40 minutes to prepare a risotto the traditional way (constantly stirring the rice and adding stock) and now it takes 10-15 minutes (including preparation time).

Today we made an improvised risotto recipe with frozen hake and freshly cut vegetables but you can cook any risotto recipe using this technique.

You'll need:

  • a pressure cooker
  • olive oil
  • 1 large or 2 small onions
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • frozen hake fillets (360g)
  • fresh vegetables (we used what we picked from the garden - small broccoli sprouts and a small cabbage)
  • salt
  • freshly grounded black pepper
  • frozen cilantro leaves (yes, we had fresh cilantro growing in the garden, but it was pouring rain outside...)


Gently fry the onion and garlic clove in a bit of olive oil (just enough to cover the bottom of the pressure cooker) until the onion turns golden (using the pressure cooker with no lid on). Add the rice until it looks semi-translucent in the borders (approximately 2 minutes). Add 2.5 times the amount of water, e.g., 1 cup of dry rice: 2.5 cups water. Add the vegetables and the frozen fish (fresh fish might overcook) and lock the lid securely using the pressure cooker's instructions. Set the heat on high to bring the cooker to pressure. You'll know this happens when the escape valve begins to release steam. Once it reaches pressure, immediately lower the heat to a setting that will just barely maintain pressure. Time 7 minutes.

Place the pressure cooker in the sink and run cold water over it until the pressure drops. At this stage if you remove the pressure valve there should be almost no sound of escaping steam. Once all the pressure has been removed it is safe to open the lid. Season to taste with the salt, peeper and cilantro. Gently stir the rice to avoid smashing the fish fillets and serve hot.

Other risotto recipes benefit from grated cheese added in the final step. We prefer this one cheese free but mushroom risotto calls for cheese. Just remember to close the lid after adding the cheese and allowing it to melt for 2 minutes before serving.


tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/650954 2014-02-08T09:59:26Z 2014-02-08T10:33:40Z How we stumbled into becoming beekepers

When we got the farm there was an old bee yard an uncle used to run. It had been abandoned for at least a decade and yet there was still one surviving colony. We let it alone at first but then decided we wanted to turn the bee yard space into a plant nursery and move the bees somewhere else. We got a local beekeeper to come and do the move. He decided it was a good time to also do a split and try and turn the one hive into two. Both decisions turned out poorly. The split colony was robbed by other bees and the original colony eventually decided it didn't like its new home.

Fresh out of bees and empty new equipment we decided we might as well set it all up and hope a swarm would decide to move in. Neighbors had told us they had seen swarms moving about a couple of times so we had a at least some indication there were wild bees around. We put the hives we bought on the new stand, cleaned everything up, and just hoped for the best. Come spring we noticed bees coming and going from one of the hives carrying pollen. We knew that was the tell-tale sign of a working hive and were ecstatic.

After nervously opening the hive a little bit we realized we had screwed up. We had stacked all the boxes on top of each other and the topmost one didn't have any frames in it. Bees being bees decided to go ahead and build their home on the top of the cavity, hanging from the lid.

We scrambled for help and got a beekeeper friend to come over and help us correct our mistakes. We filled the remaining space with frames and waited for the bees to gradually move down until the ad-hoc comb was just honey and we could extract it. Eventually by late summer we got to that point  and had a working hive in a standard box. After a bit of feeding with sugar water to compensate for the honey we had extracted the hive overwintered fine.

By this spring we had read everything we could find online and a couple of great books on beekeeping and felt confident enough to try and get more bees. We decided to put out some swarm traps and split the one hive we had. It was a huge success. We ended up catching four swarms including one on video and one in an owl box we had built. We also split the original hive three ways. We ended up with six hives. For those keeping count at home we had seven at the peak but the owl box cut-out didn't go well and we lost that hive. It was a pity, it was a great swarm.

When we originally though about taking care of the bees we looked for a local beekeeper to take over. As it turns out this is a pretty low effort addition to the farm work. In less than an hour a week we can inspect the hives and do the occasional change (adding a box, feeding, etc). We've been taking notes and continuing to read up on the subject. The hardest part though is learning to read the hive. Finding the queen is always particularly hard. Anyone want to try and find it in this set of photos? We haven't been able to do it.

You can see higher resolution pictures on our Flickr if that helps.

We originally thought we didn't want to become beekeepers. It seemed like too much work and a little scary to be honest. As it turns out it's a pretty simple affair, at least in our location. We get bees for free just by setting swarm traps (a topic for a future post). And since bees are wild animals you don't need to do much if you don't want to. We'll expand on our management model in a later post but we mostly leave them alone. We don't give them wax foundation, we don't treat for any diseases and we only extract the honey they can spare to avoid having to feed them at all.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/649164 2014-02-03T21:55:11Z 2017-12-09T17:54:06Z Using leftover olive oil to make soap

This weekend we made our first attempt at making homemade soap. It was pretty straightforward and a lot easier than we had anticipated. There was some leftover olive oil from 2011 in the bottom of the stainless steel containers we use to keep it. We needed to remove it to refill them with the new 2013 olive oil. The leftover olive oil had gotten cloudy and thick and although we didn't want to use for cooking we couldn't just throw it away.

So we looked up some online recipes and found a great DIY video of how to make olive oil soap.

We followed the recipe adjusting the dosages and confirmed the lye proportions using an online lye calculator (inputing 0% superfat and 0% lye discount). The only ingredients you really need to make oilve oil soap are lye and olive oil. Lye is produced by mixing together granulated sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda - available in any hardware store) and water and is very corrosive. You need to wear protective gear (gloves and protective glasses) to prevent chemical burns from splashes.

We had 1773g olive oil, so according to our calculations we needed 237g caustic soda and 663g water to make the lye. We weighted the olive oil first to be able to make just the lye we needed - you don't want to store leftover lye...

We used only plastic and silicone containers and tools because lye can damage glass and wood and react vigorously with some metals (like aluminium) to produce highly flammable hydrogen gas.

Then we weighed the caustic soda and water and added the caustic soda to the water (never add water to caustic soda!).

Mixed it well until it became fully dissolved and transparent. Making lye is an exothermic reaction and it really heats up! We did it outdoors because of the fumes that are released during the dissolution.

Gently poured the lye into the olive oil.

Gave it a mix with a plastic spoon.

And then used a hand blender to speed up the process of getting the soap to trace. Trace is a sign of emulsification, meaning that the oil and water are completely mixed together and are not going to separate again. It is called trace because when you drizzle a little of the mixture back into the container, you see a little ridge or trace of it left behind that takes a few seconds to disappear. Before hand blenders were available, it took 3-4 hours to thoroughly mix the ingredients; now it takes 2-3 minutes. We used an old blender since we wouldn't trust it inside a soup pan again.

We replaced the essential oils and dye with some fresh lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodorathat we shredded into the mixture with the hand blender.

Poured the mixture into two IKEA silicone backing molds to make it easier to unmould. You can also pour it into molds that will make individual soap bars.

And finally covered the molds with a chopping board and towels to keep it warm during the saponification process. Most recipes say you can cut your soap in slices after 24 hours but we will leave it a few days longer. It will then need to cure for about four weeks to be ready to use. We'll update this post after our first bath with homemade soap! Let's hope it's as good as the 8$ version.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/649160 2014-02-02T16:23:13Z 2014-02-02T16:23:27Z Making our own olive oil

Our location isn't ideal for olives. We usually only have any meaningful quantity every two years. We've been trying to improve that by bringing in new olive trees of different species and watering the trees more. Two years ago we had a great harvest and made enough olive oil to last almost two full years. Last year was an off year and this time we've had a decent but not great harvest.

Harvesting olives is pretty simple. At the end of autumn when it gets cold and the olives are fully mature you set a tarp under the trees and wack them with a stick a few times to make the olives drop. Ideally you'd immediately make olive oil or cure them to make them edible (olives are incredibly bitter if eaten straight from the tree). Since we don't have a large quantity or the ability to harvest everything at once we first keep them outside in cold water to keep them from spoiling.

The day we had scheduled to make the olive oil we sorted through a few last olives to select a small quantity for salt processing to get cured olives. We'll detail that process in a later post.

Once we had selected everything we put them into plastic bags, roughly 30kg to a bag. We ended up having about 300kg of olives. We loaded all the bags into the newest addition to the farm, an electric utility vehicle. This made getting all the olives to the car much easier. Electric rear wheel drive works wonders for the steep paths we have at the farm. We need to write a post just about this as well, as there are plenty of pitfalls on how to choose and buy one of these.

We then loaded the olives in the car with a tarp under to try and keep it clean. All the family wanted to go and see the oil making so we ended up using two cars instead of dropping the back seats and loading it all into just one.

Once we got to the local olive oil factory we realized we were in for a wait. We had a scheduled appointment but they were running very late. After waiting for 2 hours we eventually got our turn. We unloaded the olives in the loading dock and they got transferred around the factory to the large containers at the start of the line. When it was our turn they opened our container and the olives started flowing.

The first step is to go through a washing stage. The olives are rinsed in water and then vibrated to dry them again.

Unfortunately after that step nothing is really visible any more. The factory is mostly automated. The olives are grinded into a paste and cold-pressed to separate the oil from the rest.

After running through the whole process a final tap releases the oil into a final tank from which they fill the jerrycan containers we brought. This year we produced around 28 liters of oil from the 300kg of olives. That's around half of what we got two years ago so we have to make it last longer.

At this point the olive oil is still pretty cloudy. We let it sit in the jerrycans for a while and only started using the oil when most of the solids had settled in the bottom. The oil tends to have a much stronger flavor than the store bought one. Because the olives waited for a week or two between harvest and processing the acidity levels are a bit higher than usual but not by much. It doesn't really impact the flavor.

When we have a lot we use it for cooking but since this year we don't have as much and since olive oil is very cheap in Portugal we'll probably keep this one mostly for dipping bread in and eating raw. Yum!

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/586964 2013-08-04T09:35:58Z 2013-10-08T17:26:57Z Summer recipes: gazpacho

One of our favourite summer dishes is gazpacho, the best cold soup ever. Come August the farm is usually producing tons of different kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and bell peppers and we keep trying to find ways of using up all of those fresh flavours. There's no greater luxury than being able to cook with ingredients freshly picked from the garden.

Our version goes like this:

You'll need:

  • 3-4 pounds of tomatoes (any kind - we usually mix several types)
  • 1 green bell pepper cored and seeded
  • 1 cucumber sliced and seeded (you don't have to peel it - the strong flavour is actually from the seeds)
  • 1 purple onion (or 2 small ones)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon black freshly grounded black pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • fresh mint leaves as decoration
  • a food processor

We put each separate vegetable ingredient in a cup and use the food processor to chop everything up in turn. You'll need several cups for the tomato. 

The visual effect of adding each chopped ingredient to a big glass bowl is amazing. If you want to impress guests mix everything up just before serving - it looks gorgeous. 

After you do that, season with the vinegar, olive oil and pepper, sprinkle some mint leaves and enjoy!

To be completely honest, it will taste even better if you mix everything up 2 hours before serving and leave it in the fridge, but it's a little less spectacular to watch.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/589847 2013-07-23T20:47:43Z 2013-10-08T17:27:31Z Summer recipes: chicken kryptonite

This is one of our favorite summer recipes when we have lots of basil and zucchinis. The name is self-explanatory once you see the final result - it looks radioactive green but tastes superb.

Ingredients for 5:

  • 1 cup of pesto (basic recipe or with nuts)
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 chopped garlic clove
  • olive oil
  • 4 chicken breasts chopped in cubes
  • 2 or 3 zucchinis unpeeled, chopped in cubes
  • 200g of fusilli pasta
  • salt


Gently fry the onion and garlic clove in a bit of olive oil (just enough to cover the bottom of a large pan) until the onion turns golden. Add the chicken until it is cooked, then add the zucchini and the pasta (add water as needed just so the ingredients don't stick to the bottom of the pan) and a pinch of salt. Let it simmer for 10-12 minutes and then add the pesto, and keep stirring while it cooks for another 2 minutes.


tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/590005 2013-07-21T20:18:28Z 2013-10-08T17:27:32Z Summer recipes: traditional grilled sardines

Grilled sardines are a traditional summer food in Portugal. They're in vogue right at the start of summer when they're eaten in a bunch of traditional parties. In reality the time when they're really good is a bit later when summer is in full swing. You can tell because the sardines start to be fatter and that gives them a lot more taste.

Yesterday our local fish supplier had some really good looking ones so we bought 4 a person and asked her to prepare the fish. She takes out the entrails so you bring the fish home ready to cook. All that is needed is to mix them with some coarse sea salt and put them on the grill. We also grilled some peppers at the same time.

Both the sardines and the peppers are ready when you get the exterior looking toasted. The idea with both is that the outside layer (skin in the sardines and peel in the peppers) is removed before eating. The peppers can take more heat so usually you start them early when the grill is going strongest. That also gives you time before the sardines are ready to peel and slice the peppers and mix them with some olive oil and garlic. 

After everything was done we just ate the sardines together with what was fresh from the garden. Yesterday that was some padron peppers, the first tomatoes of the year and a lettuce and basil salad. A little olive oil and some red wine and we had a great lunch.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/589844 2013-07-20T22:20:19Z 2013-10-08T17:27:31Z Summer recipes: pesto

We've been making pesto for a few years now and have tried every variation you can think of. This is the basic recipe on which you can experiment by adding extra ingredients if you like. We tend to prefer it simple or with macadamia nuts.

If you grow basil, it is very important that you keep the plants pruned regularly. We've managed to keep the same plants producing new leaves continuously throughout the summer and part of autumn this way. Basil plants need to be prevented from flowering until you are ready to collect seeds for the following year. Flowering means the plant is done with producing more leaves. To stop it you'll need to (at least) weekly chop off the top of the stems showing signs they are about to flower and any flowers already present. They should be pruned immediately over the place where you see two leaves sprouting, which will then grow into two more stems. See the photos for an explanation.

Basic ingredients:

  • Basil leaves
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Extra ingredients:

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Pine nuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Parmesan cheese (if you use it cut back on the salt in the basic recipe, parmesan cheese is pretty salty)


All you have to do is wash the leaves, add the olive oil and a pinch of salt and use a food processor to turn everything into a delicious mush. Just add the other ingredients in this stage of the process if you want. Just beware that macadamia nuts are a little harder and you need a little longer in the processor. As for quantities, we just fill the food processor cup with leaves, fill it to 1/4 with olive oil and add a few grains of salt. If you want a thinner pesto just add more olive oil. See the photos for the whole process:

We use pesto to season all kinds of salads as well as some warm dishes, like "chicken kryptonite" (coming up). We always look forward to the summer as it means pesto and basil every week.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/589815 2013-07-20T18:12:21Z 2013-10-08T17:27:30Z Aerial firefighting, an unwelcome summer air show

Every summer we keep a close eye on the the other side of the valley for any new fires springing up. We have a simple telescope that we use to keep an eye on any suspicious smoke. Sometimes when we called to report a fire and gave a bunch of details (we were looking through the telescope) we got a suspicious vibe from the authorities, as if we were the ones setting the fires. In reality the summer fires are always a big worry for us as we have a bunch of poorly managed fields around us that are always a fire hazard. The upside is that we get to see the firefighting efforts as if it was an airshow. We've seen helicopters swooping in to drop of firemen and then go off and get water from the river at the bottom of the valley to come back and do precision drops.

A few years back we got to see a few Canadair airplanes do runs to get water from the river and then drop them across the valley. Their flight path went directly over the farm so we got good shots of them passing by:

We also got to see the spectacle of them dropping water right in front of us. I'm afraid we didn't get any video but it was amazing to see the airplanes pitch up when they started dropping the water on the fire.

As much as the summer fires are a horrible worry the aerial demonstrations were quite cool. Hopefully we don't get to see them in person again and get our fix from cool youtube videos:

Update: After I wrote this post I went and setup another small watering system (similar to the kiwi one) for some vines. As I was coming back home this was the sad view that was presented:

This fits the pattern we saw in previous years when right at sunset the fires would start. One of the theories around that was that at night the aerial means weren't available, so the fire would last longer.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/587425 2013-07-17T14:29:40Z 2013-10-08T17:27:03Z How to milk a goat

Ever since we started having baby goats, we saw the need to milk our goat, either because she had too much milk, which caused her pain, or because we had to tube feed the kids

In order to milk a goat, many people use a milking stand, as we do not yet own one, we have a second person hold the goat. Before starting, you should wash the goat's teats and udder so that no dirt or hair gets in the milk. For this, we use very diluted dish washer.

To start milking, you must prevent the milk from flowing back by securing the top of the teat with your thumb and forefinger. After this, squeeze the milk out by applying pressure first with your middle finger, then with your ring finger and, finally, with your pinky finger, until the teat is empty. Then release the pressure to let the milk flow back to the teat and start over. Repeat these steps until both teats are empty.

Be careful not to pull on the teats, as this would only hurt the goat and would not make the milk flow any faster.

Here is a video of how to do it:

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/588593 2013-07-16T22:54:43Z 2018-08-03T09:06:38Z Francesinha - Porto's famous "sandwich"

Without a doubt one of the best sandwiches you can make if you can call it that. It's a typical pub dish in Porto, usually accompanied with some fries to dip in the sauce and a nice beer. You can get them all over town and everyone has a favorite place. For us the reference has always been "Capa Negra II". Recently we have started making our own.

The sauce takes a few hours to make (most of the time unattended) but it is well worth it. It freezes well so it is a good idea to make large quantities. You'll find it is miles away from the quick beer-based versions. The key to the best francesinha is to use only exceptional ingredients.

Ingredients for the sauce:
- extra virgin olive oil
- 2 onions
- 2 garlic cloves (optional)
- 4 pounds tomato, ripe
- 300g beef (any kind as long as it has just a little fat)
- 2 carrots
- tomato concentrate
- 2 pounds of shrimp, shells only (next time time you eat shrimp remember to save them!)
- english (Worchestershire) sauce
- Dijon mustard
- chilli sauce
- 1/3 cup Brandy
- 1/3 cup Port wine
- salt

Ingredients for the sandwich
- 1 loaf of sliced white bread sliced (2 or 3 slices per sandwich); you need to find a decent brand that actually tastes like bread, don't get the preservative filled disappointment that comes with anything that advertises on TV
- sirloin steak (100g per sandwich - 1 steak)
- fresh pork sausages (1/2 per sandwich)
- black pork linguiça (1/3 per sandwich)
- turkey salami with olives (1 slice per sandwich)
- "flamengo" cheese (if you can't find it, edam cheese will do the job - 4-5 slices per sandwich)

For the sauce
In a large tall pan, gently fry the chopped onions and garlic in olive oil until the onions turn transparent. Add the beef (in small chunks) and cook until it looks evenly cooked on the outside. Add the carrots, chopped. Add the tomatoes (I usually use the processor to chop them first, but you can just chop them coarsely), 1 table spoon of tomato concentrate and 4 pounds of water. (When we run out of tomatoes, we use frozen tomato sauce which is what you see in the photos. Tomato sauce is just tomato cooked in onions and olive oil. We freeze it in plastic cups to make it easy to use.) Let it simmer for 2-3 hours. Meanwhile, prepare a shrimp stock. It's really easy, just fry the shrimp shells (heads included) in some olive oil, add 3-4 cups of water and bring to boil for 15 minutes. Use a hand blender to puree the stock and then filter. Add a cup of the shrimp stock to the sauce and boil for a few minutes. Season with the english sauce (1 table spoon), 1 table spoon Dijon mustard, the brandy and Port wine, chilli sauce, black pepper and salt to taste. Let it simmer another 15 minutes and use a hand blender to turn everything into a smooth thick sauce. Have a taste. With me it always needs more salt and chilli. Keep warm until you serve it extra hot over the sandwich.

For the sandwich
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC (360F). Slightly toast the bread slices. Fry the steaks, sausages and black pork linguiça in olive oil. It is easier to fry the linguiça if it is previously sliced in half lenghtwise so it doesn't curl.

And now for the serving, from the base to the top (see animation): 1 slice of bread, 1 slice salami, half a sausage and 1/3 of a linguiça, the sirloin steak, the second slice of bread and finally the cheese covering the top and sides of the sandwich. In the animation, you'll see 3 slices of bread, but we've been trying to cut down on our carbs and I think it's better with less bread.

Put them in the oven for 5 minutes or until the cheese starts melting too much.

Serve in a deep plate and cover with hot sauce. Accompany with good beer. If you're in Porto that's either the dominant Super Bock or one of the new crafts beers like Sovina's wheat brew in the photo.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/589060 2013-07-15T23:15:12Z 2020-08-01T22:35:44Z Reproducing camellias from cuttings

Camellias are beautiful plants that look great in most gardens. Unfortunately they can be quite expensive and since there are a lot of different species it's hard to get the exact one you want. Thankfully it's relatively easy to propagate them using cuttings, making sure you get the same exact species cheaply.

(the farm's collection includes several varieties of japonica, sasanqua, sinensis (tea plant), and reticulata, see them all on our flickr)

This weekend we went on an expedition to a nearby family garden to get cuttings of some interesting camellias. We cut some small branches and set out to create cuttings to plant. First we cut the branches at nodes since that is where it's easiest for the plant to create new roots. Then we trimmed the cuttings to a reasonable size and trimmed the leaves so the plant has less to sustain. Any small branch can produce several cuttings.

Once we had our cuttings prepared we used a rooting hormone to increase the chances that the cuttings will grow roots and turn into a viable plant. To do this first we wet the cuttings in running water and then gently tapped the nodes into the hormone powder. We then tapped the nodes against the container to remove excess power. We did this one by one while being very careful not to spill the hormone as it's supposed to be quite toxic if inhaled.

Once we had our cuttings ready with the hormone we needed to plant them in an appropriate soil. We usually use a seed starting mix to make sure we have a sterile soil that won't immediately be overrun by weeds. We also use a plant cell tray to plant each cutting individually so that once we have viable plants it's easy to split them up and plant them in their own individual pots. After filling the plant tray with pre-watered starting mix we used an old large nail to open the wholes to put the cuttings in. This avoids scraping the rooting hormone all over the dirt while pushing it in, making sure the hormone is where it should be, in the cutting's node.

With the holes all opened it was a simple matter of putting the cuttings in and then pushing the dirt down so that the cutting is held on snugly.

Once we filled the whole tray it was time to clearly label them and then figure out where to put them so that they are regularly watered.

These were actually put in our outdoor nursery. It's a shaded area to protect plants from the summer heat and it has an automatic irrigation system that sprays the whole plant area twice a day to make sure everything is well watered.

Our success rate in the past has not been particularly good but since we are planting a whole tray of at most two species we will eventually get at least a few of each to survive. Once we have gotten survivors it will be time to transplant them into a larger pot still in the nursery until they are strong enough to be planted directly in the soil. We will do another post when it's time to transplant these ones.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/588740 2013-07-14T21:47:12Z 2013-10-08T17:27:18Z Building a forest garden We've been considering the forest gardening concept for a while now. Martin Crawford's book on the subject is an amazing introduction, tutorial and reference. The idea is to run an agricultural system as close to a natural forest as possible. The suggested benefits are to be able to produce at good levels per acre with much lower inputs of energy and work. We have now picked a few spots on the farm where we are planning on building forest gardens to use the space more efficiently in producing things we value.

A lower energy way to farm

In most climates if you leave a piece of land alone for enough time it will eventually turn into a forest. An empty plowed field is as far away from a forest as you can get so a lot of energy is required to push back against nature and keep it that way. Conversely a forest garden aims to be the closest thing to a forest you can get while still remaining productive, so it should take the least amount of energy to keep it that way, without turning into a full forest.

When we got the farm there was a part of it that had been left unattended for 10+ years and had grown some pretty large oak trees. After the initial clearing of the still heavy underbrush and a few more years of letting the trees grow we now have a nice spot to take an afternoon nap that never needs any weeding.
The problem with that space is that it doesn't produce any valuable products. If instead of oak trees we had chestnut trees, we would be getting something out of it but only a single small crop a year. So the usual response to this has been to create highly intensive agricultural systems that operate on a yearly cycle. In Portugal that was usually a mix of annual crops that have a beneficial profile in terms of nutrient use/generation (pumpkin, corn and beans) and then a few fruit trees made to grow very high to leave the field beneath them alone and some vines along the borders. Here's the state of the typical field this time of year:
You'll notice the bales of hay that have just been harvested from the field leaving it barren as well as the vines on the edge of it. This particular field doesn't have any trees on it but the one just to the left of it right now is fully planted with corn around a large apple tree in its center. To keep this field in this state you need to add a lot of energy to it. If you don't plow or cut yearly oak seeds from nearby forest will take hold and after a few years the field will turn into a forest.

The vines and the trees are the only perennials in the traditional system. The main sources of food however are the annual crops that require a lot of energy input not only from the annual plowing but also from the fertilizers you must add to the field to compensate for the fact that these crops are not adding enough nutrients back to the soil. Traditionally this was done by rotating crops and adding animal manure, both things that consume resources, either because you need to forfeit production from the field or have crops to feed the animals that provide you with the manure.

Forest gardening tries to use much less energy by solving the energy input problem in two different ways. First it uses perennial instead of annual plants so the energy needs are lower as you're not having to rebuild the whole plant every year from scratch and can instead steadily accumulate "plant capital". And second, it plays with the plant mix to get a whole ecosystem going, just like in the pumpkin+corn+beans example but with a much more diverse ecosystem. This whole ecosystem is much easier to maintain since it uses plants of various sizes and types to fill every niche crowding out weeds. After you've established the system you just need to do small yearly cuttings to keep it in balance without tipping over into a dense forest. Since you're only pushing nature a little bit instead of all the way to a barren field this takes much less effort and/or energy.

Getting there in baby steps

Right now we're still in the planning stages of our own forest gardens at the farm. Our base idea for a full blown garden is simple. On the north side the farm limit is a county road. From that road to the core of the property we'll build a wedge type ecosystem where the larger species are in the back and the smallest in the front. This will improve the sun exposure as the large trees in the back won't shade the smaller trees, bushes, grasses, etc in the front. We're still in the process of picking out what all the species should be. In the meantime we've taken some of the concepts and started applying them at a lower scale.

First we've started looking into which species to add in places where we've added watering like the recent installation in the kiwis. Weeds will grow very fast when given water so the best way to not have to cut them is to just crowd them out with something you actually want. In another spot in the farm where we added irrigation to some vines this happened naturally with some wild strawberry growing strongly and taking over from the weeds.

Then we started looking into how to improve the ground coverings so that we don't have as many weeds growing. There are plenty of ground cover mixes you can try. Crawford's book lists a few and the one that caught our eye was a mix of three species:

  • Trifolium repens (white clover)
  • Lolium perenne (dwarf perennial ryegrass)
  • Festuca rubra (creeping red fescue)

Crawford suggests you mix them as seeds in a 3kg+6kg+2kg proportion for each acre and sow them anywhere from April to August. So far we've only been able to get our hands on the white clover and are still looking for bulk sources of the other two. The idea is that this kind of mix will last very long without maintenance (the book says 10+ years) and still provide beneficial value. In the case of this mix that would be fixing nutrients like nitrogen into the ground while also producing flowers that bees will use. We've also used thyme as it covers the ground reasonably well and is a great herb for seasoning.

Finally the last thing we're considering doing in the immediate future is to pick the main species of large tree to put on the north side of the property. Since those are the ones that take the longest to grow it makes sense to plant them there early enough so that we can then add the rest of the garden over the years. The Italian Alder is highly recommended in the book as a good nitrogen fixer that grows relatively quickly.


We're still very much in the beginning when it comes to shaping the garden and yet the forest gardening concept has reinforced a lot of the things we had already been doing. When we took over the farm there was not a lot of diversity and we've been slowly increasing it by bringing in a lot of exotic or even native plants that were no longer present. We also fought the local tendency to cut down everything and start from scratch. For example we've been slowly cutting down trees only as they've become a nuisance, meanwhile they grow large enough to produce firewood. We've build quite a stockpile of firewood over they years because of this.

What we haven't done enough of is building the garden with enough layers and density so as to crowd out invasive species. We still have a lot of weeds and yet are always complaining that we're running out of space to try new things. Hopefully over the next few years we will have a lot more plants, of a lot more species with a lot less work in weeding and cutting.

Further reading

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/588584 2013-07-13T22:47:43Z 2013-10-08T17:27:17Z Watering the kiwi plants continuously with drip irrigation

We've installed a bunch of automated plant watering systems throughout the years. We've done a lot of them based on water timers and pumped water. Lately we've been trying to water directly from the two water tanks we have as it saves on electricity and simplifies the system. This year we did a complex install on the tomato plants that I need to describe in full in another post. But to start here's a simpler install we did in the kiwi plants. Kiwis like a lot of water so they were a good candidate for just giving them drip irrigation continuously.

We used an old vineyard to install our kiwi plants. We planted 6 female plants and one male in the middle of them as kiwi plants need to have both to polinate and grow fruit.

When we overhauled the water installation to that part of the farm a few weeks ago we installed a new tap to use for this kind of purpose.

Unfortunately the tap was on the other side of the small field so the first job was to open a trench. Not an easy task with the summer heat wave we've been going through.

Into that trench we put a 3/4 inch tube to act as the conduit for the actual water tube.

The easiest way to install these tubes is to hold them down on one end while you cover them, otherwise they'll spring up quite easily as they have a natural bend from being spooled.

Once we had the tube in place and the whole trench covered we pushed the actual half inch tube into it and connected it to the tap.

We used a filter on the tap as the water coming from the water tank often has a lot of algae. To water all the kiwis we used a single drip tube which is much more convenient that installing tiny sprinklers all throughout the tube. Because the trench ended in the middle of the kiwi line we spliced the tube with a t-connector and then used simple closure fittings to close both ends.

We just leave the tap continuously open to water the kiwis. Since the tap is fed by the water tank which in turn is filled by our horizontal water well the whole system operates on gravity alone. Come late fall all we'll have to do is close the tap, to be opened again in spring.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/587759 2013-07-12T23:10:00Z 2021-03-11T16:39:32Z Winter recipes: homemade tangerine liqueur

This winter, we decided it was time to start making liqueurs. We had got some grape marc spirit to use as the base alcohol, but you can use almost any kind of strong alcohol to make liqueurs. Vodka, spyritus, grappa... We got an old family recipe from a friend and decided to try it out.

It is actually easier that we had anticipated, but you need to be prepared to be patient.

You'll need:

  • 1L grape marc spirit (or any other distilled alcohol without too much flavor)
  • 600g white sugar
  • 600 mL water
  • 18 ripe tangerines, skins

If you look for other recipes online, a common advice is to remove the whitish inside of the skins to prevent bitterness. We had to test this, because it adds a lot more work to the preparation. We actually made two batches - one with inside of the skins removed and another without. We can't tell which is which now that they're done. So it really doesn't seem to make a difference and you can save yourself the trouble.


Cut the skins into tiny pieces, mix them up with the alcohol and leave to rest in a closed jar for at least 2 weeks (we actually left them 2 weeks longer).

Filter the mixture and reserve the flavoured alcohol and the skins.

It should look like this:

Put the sugar in a pan and use a strainer on top of the pan to wash the leftover skins in the cooking water that you add to the pan. You won't need to use the skins for the rest of the recipe, but we kept them (they smelled wonderful!) and used them to season other dishes. Boil the sugar and water for 5 min and leave to cool.

Add the filtered flavoured alcohol to the pan, stir, and carefully pour into some glass bottles:

And now for the real test on patience - the liqueur gets better with time, but that means refraining from drinking it in the first months. Alternatively you could fill several small bottles and taste the evolution of flavours. It is amazing!

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/586995 2013-07-03T23:06:07Z 2020-09-06T11:13:33Z Cutting out a swarm from the owl box

We put up the owl box much too late this year for an owl to nest in it. It seems it was perfect timing for swarm season though. Even though we had a few bait hives out and caught a few swarms in them the owl box proved too attractive for a very large swarm. Here's what we found when we opened it after noticing a bunch of bees coming and going from it.

We decided to do what is known as a cutout. It consists mostly of cutting off the individual combs and attaching them to frames to be able to house the swarm in a normal hive. We started by smoking them to make them calmer.

Then we started to cut down and put the combs on frames prepared with a string mesh on one side to hold the comb in.

After a while we had all the combs down and resting on frames.

We used some more string to make sure the combs didn't fall to the other side...

...and placed the frames on the hive.

We used a piece of cardboard to scoop some of the bees left-over in the owl box into the hive

After a while you could see the bees fanning to attract the strays into the new hive.

We finally anchored the hive next to the owl box and left it there to let any remaining bees find their way back.

Although this initial process was mostly a success there were a bunch of things that didn't go well after that. Putting the comb in the frames this way without any kind of attachment to the top bar made a bunch of the frames sag and drop into the bottom bar. For future cases we were convinced that stitching the combs into the top bar would be a better solution than the wire mesh stuff. Another flop happened when we decided to move the hive after most of the bees had moved in. Even though we took precautions to force the bees to reorient and not return to the original location a bunch of them found their way back and clustered in the owl box again. Right now the hive is not in particularly good shape which is a pitty given that this was probably the strongest of the 4 swarms we attracted this year.
tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/586832 2013-07-02T22:19:48Z 2013-10-08T17:26:56Z Swarm moving into a bait hive

Come spring we decided to put a few bait hives around the farm to attract any passing swarms. The one hive we had last year was a swarm that moved by its own accord into an empty box we had around. A bait hive is simply a normal hive that has some form of attractor put into it and is placed in a good location from the point of view of the bees. In our case we used lemon grass oil as the attractor and used old hive boxes as they're known to prefer older wood. We scattered the hives around the farm to try and cover as much ground as possible.

Our first swarm moved into the bait box that was right next to the solar wax melter. We then moved the wax melter to the side of a second bait box. A week or two later that box started seeing a lot of bee activity. Swarms will often send scouts ahead of the swarm to look for good places to move into. We decided to setup a camera to catch the swarm moving in. We used a simple HD camera on a small tripod. These cameras are awesome value (they even record underwater) and use SD cards for storage so any cheap 32GB card will record 5 or 6 hours of video. We just set everything up around noon and left it recording. At the end of the day we went through the footage and found the key 20min where everything happened:

It was great to see the first bees land and start fanning with their butts in the air, releasing pheromones to attract the rest of the hive. This was actually a small swarm. Even today it's still a very small hive but building strongly.

tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/343339 2013-06-30T21:31:00Z 2021-02-25T20:10:40Z Building a solar wax melter

As I was looking at a piece of leftover metal sheet from building the owl box I realized we could use it to build a solar wax melter. Bees make comb to store honey and polen and as "wombs" for new bees. Once they've reused the comb a couple of times if you take it out and extract honey from it what's left isn't just wax. It'll have left-over cocoons, polen, etc. To get clean wax you need to split those things up and the easiest way is to just heat it up making the wax fluid. You can do this on a stove but why pay for the energy to do it when the sun can provide it. A solar wax melter is a very simple device. It's just a small green-house of sorts where the comb is put on a ramp so that the wax will drip out as it's heated. 

The idea here was reuse. We started with an old wine box, the leftover sheet metal and an old plastic container to collect the wax. We're probably going to replace the plastic container with a glass one as heated plastic can give off harmful chemicals.

After a lot of measurement and back and forth we decided to set the metal flat on the box and just create the angle by putting some feet on one side of the box. So we folded the metal so as to create a funnel like exit into the box, to try and make sure only the liquid wax gets through and put it inside the box.

We used the dividers from the wine box nailed to the sides as feet, setting the box up at a fifteen degree angle. To finish it up quickly we bought an Ikea picture frame, took out the back and just set it on top, using the frame itself to keep it in place.

That proved the concept pretty well and we got good wax right away.

Eventually after being outside in the rain for a few days the Ikea frame self-destructed and so we did a simple fix. We took the glass out of the frame and glued a small block of wood to one side so that it holds the glass on top of the box without sliding. This has been working fine and the fact that the glass is much bigger than the box should help protect it from rain.

We've been putting in old wax and bits that we cull from hives and have built up a nice block of wax. It's mostly clean although a couple of bees have been able to get through the crack at the bottom and end up stuck in the wax.

The smell of melting wax seems to attract bees, especially scouts looking for a place to swarm into. This year two of our swarms moved into bait hives that we setup next to the wax melter. An unforeseen upside.]]>
tag:blog.corujas.net,2013:Post/342212 2013-06-30T21:09:00Z 2013-10-08T16:34:48Z New baby goats

Back in April the goat finally went into labor and delivered three baby goats. No one was around to help and by the time we got there one of the babies was already dead. We don't know if he was born dead or died after but we were certainly not expecting three. All of them were pretty small and weak. Here's our first picture of the two that survived:

Initially we were afraid they weren't going to make it. They weren't very active and didn't seem to have much of an instinct to go feed. After trying to bottle feed them and not having much luck we went on youtube and figured out we needed to intubate. We used a kit similar to this one to do it.

After a couple of days of regular feeding with their mother's milk they started getting stronger and feeding by themselves. By the end of the weekend they were active and already showing their insticts by climbing on things. The flickr stream has a few more photos and videos.