Earthly matters

A soil-testing kit isn’t something many people whip out of their pockets when they go property-hunting but, if you have serious dreams of growing your own produce, it could be a useful item to have with you. Our lovely little finca was blessed with quite a few almond and fig trees, so I naively assumed that growing vegetables would be just a matter of hard work and time.

Dynamite as a gardening aid?

What isn’t obvious, when merely gazing at the Mediterranean garden we have created, is that the layer of earth is very shallow and beneath it is a bed of solid rock. In places, rocks rise above the soil, creating an attractive rockery effect. Several first-time visitors have complimented us on our strategic placing of the large stones and boulders, but we have to confess that nature did the hard work. The rocks are where they always were, and always will be – unless we employ the tactics of a local wine-producer, who blasted the rock on his land with dynamite, to create a better area for cultivation. The amount of dynamite we’d need would probably also flatten the house . . .

Going potty

Using pots and garden centre compost, and a slightly less rocky corner of the garden, we had a little success last year growing potatoes (harvesting just enough for one meal), tomatoes, and salad leaves (which we had to share with an invisible but insatiable bug). The quantity and quality of what we grew didn’t seem to justify the effort – especially as we can buy excellent produce grown in the neighbouring valley in our local market.

Gifts on the gate

Grapes for breakfast then today . . .

Sometimes we don’t even need to do that. We have some very generous neighbours – with more favourably located land – who regularly bring us surplus produce. Very often, we find a carrier bag bulging with promise, hanging over our gate. So far this summer, we’ve enjoyed tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, plums, and grapes – all grown locally.We have offered to pay something for these fruit and veggie gifts in the past, but the producers won’t hear of it. So, to thank them for their kindness, we buy them the occasional good bottle of wine – Mallorcan, of course.

 

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Power to the people

Shocked by the size of the bill we’d received from a local electrician – for what had seemed to be a very basic check of our finca wiring (and his sustained electric shock into the bargain) – we decided to use a different company to undertake the major work of installing additional switches, sockets and wiring for our future electricity supply.

We’d been determined to use Mallorcan labour for any major jobs around the place but, when our two new electricians eventually arrived with their toolboxes and huge reels of cable, we discovered they were actually Argentinian. No matter; they were also efficient, tidy and seemingly shock-proof – unlike our previous electrician. We were happy to leave them to get on with the job, while we solved the problem of sourcing some electricity.

Easy . . . or watt?

GESA didn’t want to know us: we were too far away from the nearest mains source for it to be viable to connect our property.  Like most of our neighbours, we would be getting our power from the sun, via a solar energy system, with a generator for back-up. Now, doesn’t that sound easy?

Knowing nothing at all about the subject, we placed ourselves at the mercy of a company specialising in these things. All we had to do was give them a list of our electrical appliances and a rough idea of usage, then they came up with a solution.

That solution involved 16 solar panels, 21 batteries, an invertor and – of course – a decent-sized generator.  All except the solar panels would be housed in the little casita we had built without previous permission, but had had legalized (at considerable cost). The panels themselves were to be mounted on a rack, cemented into a base.  What we gave no thought to at that time was where we’d actually put what would end up looking like a sunbathing version of the Angel of the North . . .

A prickly harvest

A common sight in Mediterranean gardens like ours

The Mallorcans call them figues de moro, or Moorish figs, but I just call them dangerous. The prickly pear cactus or Opuntia ficus-indica, if you want to go all Monty Don, is a common sight in rural Mediterranean gardens. Some people grow vast ‘bushes’ of it around the perimeter of their property, as a kind of burglar deterrent. A not unwise choice, since the large flat leaves of this prolific plant are covered in tiny spines that can be extremely irritating if they get into your skin. I speak from personal experience.

We usually avoid going too near our large prickly pear cactus, which borders a short stretch of the lane that leads down into the valley. Funnily enough, when our outdoor cats were kittens, they used to leap from leaf to leaf without any apparent problems, but on the occasion that I stood up from weeding the ground underneath our plant and my forehead hit a leaf on the way up, I had no such luck.

I rushed into the house and looked into the mirror, expecting to see the tiny spines sticking out of my skin. I couldn’t see anything, but if I brushed my hand over my forehead, I could certainly feel them. Dozens of them. The Boss spent a patient half hour or so with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers extracting the irritating little devils from my skin. Not an experience I wish to repeat.

Which is why, at this time of the year, when the prickly pear fruits are ripe for the picking, you won’t find me harvesting them. I’ve never eaten one (which I perhaps should rectify) but have heard mixed reports: some people say they’re pretty tasteless, others describe them as delicious. I have a recipe for prickly pear sorbet, but doubt I’ll ever make it. You see, the fruits also have these nasty little spines, and the job of peeling the fruits puts me off.

Last week, a large old Mercedes stopped outside our gates, and the driver hooted for our attention. He turned out to be a passing Moroccan who had spotted our vast crop of prickly pear fruits and wanted to know if he could have some. It seems a pity that they go to waste, so we told him to help himself to as many as he wanted. I hope his wife had some good thick gloves . . .

Handle at your peril!

5 things to know when buying a rural property in Mallorca (Part 3)

If you’re reading this blog for the first time, welcome. You’ll find the other three things to know about (water supply, waste water disposal, and disposal of rubbish) on the previous two posts. This last part focuses on electricity and gas – two essentials.  We lived for eight months with limited electricity: no usable plug sockets and only two hours of lighting a night (if the sun had shone), courtesy of a small rooftop solar panel. I’m not sorry we did it, as it has made us more careful about using electricity – and it was quite romantic in its own way. But I’ll always remember the day when the electrician who was completing the installation declared that we finally had power. So will he: I went up to him and gave him a big smacking kiss on the cheek . . .

You’ve got the power?

Our bank of solar panels – a sight that took some getting used to!

Rural properties are often too far from a GESA sub-station to make it viable to be connected to mains electricity. That was the case with our finca. So we had to seek an alternative. We decided against wind turbines (too noisy for our liking) and opted for solar power. After all, Mallorca has 300 days of sunshine a year, so it’s a plentiful resource here.

If you’re looking at a rural property with no existing power supply, the first step in deciding what type and size of solar power system you need is to make a list of everything electrical that you’re likely to use. Armed with this information, a specialist in solar power will be able to work out the specifications for a system tailored to your needs.  A system basically comprises solar panels, batteries (charged by the sun) and an invertor. You’ll also need a generator, for those occasions when the sun doesn’t contribute enough to keep it all going, and a tank to hold the diesel that fuels it. As you’ll have gathered by now, all of these things (except the panels) will need to be housed somewhere secure and weather-proof; in our case, it’s an outbuilding.

So, there is a considerable upfront outlay, but at least you won’t be receiving electricity bills from GESA. And if you’re careful with your electricity usage, you can keep generator running costs down.

My top tips:

  • Don’t underestimate your electricity requirements. It’s cheaper to have the correct sized system installed at the outset.
  • Buy the best panels and batteries you can afford.
  • Talk to at least two solar power companies and compare their prices and specifications. Ask about the life expectancy of the individual components. Our first invertor caught fire and had to be replaced.
  • If you have to build something in which to store the system components, make sure you have planning permission (one day I’ll tell you the sorry tale of our own building)
  • Be sure that you’ll be happy with the siting of the panels. Our engineer’s first suggestion would have completely blocked our view of the valley, so we opted for a different site. As it happens, we don’t think the first location would have been as good anyway.
  • If possible, spend some time with someone else who has a solar power system so you can learn from their experiences.
  • Once the system is installed and up and running, turn it all off in the event of a thunderstorm close by. Our second invertor was struck by lightning just a few weeks after it was installed!

Going for gas

A trip to the gas depot for refills

You won’t find mains gas in the Mallorcan countryside, but almost everyone uses butano to power their oven and hob, and water heaters (although solar-powered water heaters are increasingly popular). In towns and villages, you’ll often see the orange gas canisters being delivered by truck, but don’t expect that service to be available in rural areas. Instead, you’ll need to go to  the nearest Repsol butano depot with your empty canister(s), which will be exchanged for full ones at a cost (currently) of 16,50 euros a canister. If the property has no existing canisters (which should be left behind when the current occupiers leave), you’ll need to head to a Repsol office to get the necessary paperwork. You cannot just turn up empty-handed and buy a canister of gas.

It is possible in some circumstances to have a large butano tank installed on your property, but there are certain conditions that must be met for this service to be available. Speak to a Repsol office if you are interested. It certainly saves lugging the containers around (the standard size holds 12,5 kg of butano).

My top tips:

  • Check the rubber hoses that connect the gas to the appliances – they have a limited life (an expiry date is printed on the hose) and it can be dangerous not to replace them. The efficient householder will make a diary note so that replacing out-of-date hoses isn’t overlooked.
  • Get yourself a sack barrow to manouevre the canisters about. They’re pretty heavy.
  • Save the hassle, and find an alternative, eg solar-powered water heating and electric oven/hob.

I always cooked with gas in the UK, but my Smeg oven (bought here) is very unreliable temperature-wise. Could it be the gas, I wonder?

5 things to know when buying a rural property in Mallorca (Part 2)

RUBBISH DISPOSAL

When we came to view properties on the island, with a view to finding a rural home to buy, the rather important matter of rubbish disposal didn’t occur to me. Sub-consciously, I must have assumed there’d be something similar to the service we had back in the UK, where, once a week (until it became fortnightly), the refuse disposal operatives – or whatever PC-term had been coined at the time – came to remove the rubbish from the wheelie bin, which we dutifully placed outside our gates on collection day. (It was our job though to retrieve the empty bin, which had a habit of rolling down the hill because somehow it was always left with its wheels perfectly aligned for downward motion).

A smelly car companion

Where we live, we are our own refuse disposal operatives: taking the black bag full of our rubbish to the nearest communal bin (a ten-kilometre drive away) is something we do at least once a week and, if we remember, a little more frequently during the hotter months. Believe me, when the rubbish has had a chance to stew in a black bag, within a black dustbin, in the heat of a Mallorcan summer, it makes a very smelly car companion – even when shut in the boot. Of course, we could reduce the amount of rubbish if we had a compost bin, but The Boss is convinced that it would attract rats. As we have nine outdoor cats, I’m pretty sure that any rat in its right mind would keep well away but, for now, the subject of composting is closed; a pity really, as our soil could sure use a little organic boost.

Recycling facilities are good here on the island, and there are appropriate bins for waste plastics, paper, glass, and even old clothes and shoes, dotted around our nearest town. Again, it’s our responsibility to take our recyclable waste to town, which we do diligently.

Be bin-alert

So, if you’re looking to buy or rent a rural property on the island, find out where you’ll have to take your rubbish and recyclable waste – and if there are any restrictions in terms of times during which rubbish cannot be put into the bins.  Local regulations here state that non-recyclable rubbish can only be deposited in the bins in the evenings. This being Mallorca, of course, nobody really seems to take much notice of this.

And if you’re considering a home in a village or town, do make sure that the nearest communal bins are far enough away from the property not to be a nuisance.  Or you’ll be buying a lot of air freshener . . .

 

The destination for our bags of rubbish.

5 things to know when buying a rural property in Mallorca (Part 1)

If you want to buy – or even rent – a rural property in Mallorca, there are plenty of things you’ll want to find out about before you commit yourself to a decision. And over the course of this week’s three posts, I’ll write about what I consider to be the five must-know things to keep front of mind, while you’re being enchanted by the beauty of the scenery, birdsong and rural charm.  Today’s two things are water-related. In the UK, we took it for granted that water came out of the tap when we turned it on, and we gave little thought to what happened when we flushed the loo or ran the washing machine. Living in the Mallorcan countryside is different.

  • Supply of water

A rural property won’t be connected to a mains supply, so find out where the water comes from. Some properties have their own well, but you’ll need to know that it’s in a good state and where it is. Does it have an electric pump and, if so, how old is it? Having the water tested is recommended if you’re planning to use it in the house, rather than just using it to keep your garden plants perky.

Our well has been out of action for at least a couple of decades and needs more than a good poke about with a long stick to put it back in service. It’s on the list of ‘things to do when all the more important things have been done’ . . .

Water being delivered into our cisterna

If, as with our property, water has to be delivered, you’ll need a cisterna or storage tank, with pipe connections to the house.  If the property you’re viewing has a cisterna, have a look at it and see whether it shows any signs of leakage.  Repairing a leaky cisterna is inconvenient and can be expensive. You’ll need to find out if there’s a way to gauge fairly accurately how much water is in stock, so you know when to order more.

You’ll also want to check out the cost of water delivery by a local service. Ours comes in a tanker that delivers 12,000 litres at a time.

  • Waste water ‘n’ all that

What goes in, must come out . . . somewhere. In a rural property, waste water doesn’t go into a main sewer but into what’s known as a pozo negro (meaning, literally, black well), or septic tank. Find out how old it is, its exact location, and when it was last emptied. Don’t worry, there are companies that offer this as a service. They come along with a tanker and lots of pipes and suck out what’s left after the bacteria within have done their stuff. How often the pozo negro needs emptying depends on several factors, including – obviously – the number of people using loos, baths and showers. Ours is emptied every 18 months or so. And, amazingly, you won’t need a peg for your nose while it’s being done . . .

On Wednesday, I’ll continue the theme of five essential things you need to know when looking to buy or rent a rural property in Mallorca.

Love at first sight

First impressions made an impression

We bought a rustic little finca in Mallorca that needed work done on it. I’ve often been asked why. Many people say that they knew instinctively when they found the property that was right for them, quoting a ‘gut feeling’. But in my case, it was an arrow straight in the heart.

It was love at first sight. I’ll never forget the moment when I climbed out of the hire car – completely jaded from four days of intensive property-viewing – and saw the valley spread out around the pretty little stone house. I felt a funny fluttering sensation inside me and could hear music playing. (Actually, it was an orchestra of singing birds, buzzing insects and bleating lambs, with dongling sheep bells forming the percussion section.)

I was completely smitten before even stepping through the low doorway into a large airy room (the dining room, I had already decided). The kitchen could best have been described as minimalist – it would certainly have given Delia Smith a seizure – and although there were a few plug sockets around the house, they didn’t function. The electricity system produced only enough power for a light bulb or two for a couple of hours a day – if the sun had shone on the one roof-mounted solar panel.

Love is blind. I didn’t see the inconvenience of living – albeit temporarily – without an electric toaster or my hairdryer. Neither was I daunted by the prospect of having no mains services at the house or living cheek to cheek with a septic tank. And how romantic it would be, living by candlelight!

After the first flush of romance, of course, it soon became apparent that I’d fallen in love with the property equivalent of the man who leaves the loo seat up and the cap off the toothpaste, and snores all night. But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else – then, or now. The love affair continues . . .