The landscape of the islands is characterized by low hills with terraced fields. 38% is arable land that produces 3% of our permanent crop. Malta’s weather provides little rainfall and lots of sunshine so the gardens also provide additional “green” to a somewhat dried land. The land does not cater for forests and woodland and only 10 squared kilometers is irrigated land.
There’s quite a variety of palm trees on the Maltese islands. Palm trees are restricted to survive in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate climates. Most palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. Palms in fact exhibit an enormous diversity in physical characteristics. As well as being morphologically diverse, palms also inhabit nearly every type of habitat within their range, from rain-forests to deserts.
View of the South Coast from Fawwara farm:
Fawwara is situated along the south west coast of Malta. It is an interesting area of Geology and is one of the few places on the island that boasts of a varied flora. Biodiversity lives here and allows for tomato, olive, eggplant, marrows, pumpkin and other crops to be grown here. Organic farming is practiced here and some plant species in this area prevent fruit flies and animal species from attacking fruit and vegetables while in cultivation.
Argotti Botanical Gardens, Floriana
The Argotti Gardens were laid out in the 18th century as a private garden belonging to Grand Master Pinto. Built on the preserve of a deceased knight, these Botanical Gardens consist of many hundreds of cacti, succulents and plants, both indigenous and foreign. A rich collection of trees and shrubs from oaks to oleanders and potted plants, live here. The gardens also hold a variety of water features too including fountains, ponds and water towers. These are just a kilometers’ stroll from Malta’s Capital, Valletta.
San Anton Gardens, Balzan
The gardens of San Anton, have been open to the public since 1882. Laid out back in the 17th century, by Grand Master Antoine de Paule as grounds to his summer residence, San Anton Palace, they are designed with walkways that are decorated with a large variety of trees and flowers from around the world. The gardens are a botanical wonder with palm trees, cypress, jacarandas, araucarias and other exotic plants (some over three centuries old) decorated with diverse, well-bred flower beds, statues, old stone urns, fountains and ponds. Families of ducks and swans provide for the harmony of the place.
Interesting to note that from 1802 until 1964, the gardens provided relaxation to many a dignitary, since back then, San Anton Palace was the official residence of the British Governor. Nowadays, it is the residence of the Maltese President. For many years it has been customary for visiting Heads of State to plant a tree in memory of their stay in Malta. Orange trees are cultivated in the cool shades, the gardens provide, and it was once the practice of incumbent Governors to give baskets of oranges grown in the palace gardens as gifts at Christmas time.
Zeppi watering the soil
Malta’s boasts of 300 days of sunshine and summer temperatures average over 30 degrees celsius. One challenge a farmer has to face is the lack of water supplies on the island and soil has to be kept cool in sundry weathers.
Zeppi is an organic farmer who owns a farm in Fawwara. On his 10 hectare land, situated on the south western cliffs of the island, he grows crops including olives, tomatoes, eggplant, marrow, capsicum and the South American gooseberry.
Zeppi uses no chemical fertilizers and herbs planted along his crop keep insects and birds away from his produce. He also uses a dusty mixture of crushed stone to protect his crops from pests and keeps the soil cool by burying water pipes in the soil. Cold water flowing in these pipes from a reservoir system is used for irrigation. Water is collected from rain and underground water tables. Some cultivated plants are buried under cloth or dead foliage to keep them from drying up.
More pictures of Zeppi’s land and produce can be viewed here.
The soil on these islands has a high content of alkaline and nitrates have to be pumped into the soil to produce more crops. Synthetic fertilizers have been used and abused since the soil was gaining tolerances to these type of chemicals. An overdose of chemicals can make the soil infertile and crops that grow (if any) wither and die during cultivation.
Through synthetic fertilizers, plants never get to use much of the nutrients – which then wind up in our waterways. Fertilizers one can buy from a hardware store contain chemicals like potassium, nitrogen and phosphates and these are the nutrients that plants need the most of.
More is not better. Overusing any fertilizer, natural or synthetic, make it possible to not only contribute to the phosphate runoff problem, but also to kill the plants you’re trying to care for by burning their roots or making them totally dependent on your intervention for their survival.
The “less is more” approach minimizes environmental impact and saves money. Making use of green fertilizers can be incredibly cheap as many of the base materials are found around our homes.
Grass clippings are probably the best natural fertilizer. These can be put them back on a lawn or on garden beds. However, if the clippings are moist and very green, the natural chemical reactions during decomposition can create ammonia and make the soil below acidic.
Alternatively, the clippings could be left spread out in the sun for a day or two to dry. When dry, grass clippings contain 3-4% nitrogen, plus phosphorous, potassium and other trace elements.
Other fantastic natural fertilizers include seaweed, animal manure, wood ash, beer, coffee grinds, compost and even crushed olive seeds.
The Prickly Pear Tree:
Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian Fig Opuntia or barbary fig) is a species of cactus that grows wild in most every field in Malta.
The fruits flower in three distinct colors: white, yellow and red. They first appear in early May through the early summer and ripen from August through October. The fruits are typically eaten, minus the thick outer skin, after chilling in a refrigerator for a few hours. They have a taste similar to a juicy extra sweet watermelon. The bright red or yellowish flesh contains many tiny hard seeds that are usually swallowed, but should be avoided by those who have problems digesting seeds.
It is a long-domesticated crop plant important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world including the Mediterranean and South American regions. Cacti are good crops for dry areas because they efficiently convert water into biomass.
In Malta, a pink herbal sweet-tasting liqueur called Bajtra (the Maltese name for prickly pear) is made from this fruit. This summer fruit, quite a popular delicacy in the Maltese cuisine, has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption.
In the center of Sicily, in the Province of Enna, in a small village named Gagliano Castelferrato, a prickly pear-flavored liqueur called “Ficodi” is produced. It tastes somewhat like an aperitif.
Mexicans have used it for thousands of years to make colonche, an alcoholic drink. However, Indian Fig Opuntia might have a reducing effect on alcohol hangover, by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators.
In Southwest United States Opuntia ficus-indica is being cultivated as a fresh source of feed for cattle. The nutrition available in the cactus pads, which is what the cows feed on, far surpasses that found in corn and other cattle feed. In addition to the food value, the moisture content virtually eliminates watering the cattle and the human effort in achieving that task.
In Mexico and the Southwest this fruit is used for medical purposes, since its pulp and juice have been used to treat numerous maladies, such as wounds and inflammations of the digestive and urinary tracts.
In Malta, the fruit is usually collected during the early hours of the day and soaked in water so the spines are softened before peeling. These spines can be quite annoying and painful when in contact with naked hands, so gloves are always recommended for peeling. If the outerlayer is not properly removed, glocids can be ingested, thus causing discomfort of the throat, lips, and tongue, as the small spines are easily lodged in the skin.
The Maltese Endemic Flower:
Widnet il-Baħar (Cheirolophus crassifolius) is a flowering plant species unique in the Mediterranean region. Local to Malta, it has been the island’s national plant since 1973. Its natural habitats are cliffs and coastal valleys. It is threatened by habitat loss.
Malta and Rubble Walls:
In Malta, rubble walls are found all over the island. Similar walls are also frequently found in Sicily and Arab countries. Most probably, this practice of building walls around the field was inspired by the Arabs during their rule in Malta and Sicily (AD 870 till AD 1090).
Various shapes and sizes of stones, which are found in fields or in the soil, are used to build these walls. These stones are of the harder coralline variety and have withstood the forces of the elements for a very long time.
Without the use of cement or mortar, the stones are skillfully placed so that each one is locked securely in place. This highly skillful masonry work makes for the strength and durability of the wall. The Maltese farmer found that the structure of these walls are useful especially when resources are limited.
Rubble walls are used to serve as borders between the property of one farm and the other. A great advantage that these walls offer is the fact that in heavy rain conditions their structure would allow excessive water to pass through to the adjacent field and therefore, excess water will not ruin the products. Water carries with it anything in its path including the soil in the field, however the wall structure allows the water to pass through but traps the soil and thus preventing it from being carried away from the field.
The Maltese farmhouse is commonly known as “Ir-Razzett”. Along the years, farmers who lived in small hamlets built their own farmhouses around arable acres of land. Nowadays these are inherited by their own children, grandchildren and relatives who could be still living in the village and make part of its history. One cannot miss these discreet and humble buildings behind the trees and outcrops, when wandering down the winding village roads which usually follow the original field paths. Maltese farmhouses are the primary example of the local architecture and are built to adapt to nature and the seasons.
Farmhouses were built by people who lived close to nature and whose livelihood depended on careful evaluation of the weather. Austerely planned around the occupants’ needs, these are not fancily decorated dwellings but sturdy houses which are, literally, firmly rooted to the earth they stand on.
Today, some farmhouses can play an important role in the local tourism industry as landlords choose to rent them out to holiday-makers.
Food is an important part of Maltese culture. Cooking and setting up dinner gatherings, with traditionally prepared Maltese food, families and communities together in Malta.
Maltese farmers labour extensively to produce an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, that are being sold at relatively low prices, by green grocers who often set up their market vans at the side of main roads and busy locations in all towns and villages.
Certain villages, such as Mgarr, in the Western part of Malta, organize an annual celebration of the year’s fresh crops. Below is a map of Mgarr.
Such fresh crop events are becoming increasingly popular throughout the island. Farmers show off their often record-surpassing sized fruit in friendly competitions and are rewarded after their fruit and veg are judged as being the year’s crème de la crème of local produce.
Traditional Maltese food is mostly enjoyed, during the longer days of summer time. The fruit is dripping with nectar as a proof of the best nature can produce. Plump and juicy peaches and plums for example, tend to ripen in August and September.
Melons, especially watermelons, are the best treat for the summer. With this type of fruit, big is usually better. The bigger the melon, the better the taste. Recently, some vendors have got into the habit of selling them by the slice and nowadays they can be easily spotted around beach areas during the sundry hot months. Beach-goers can benefit from a fresh fruit rich in flavour and water content to parch their thirst. Maltese grapes have a particular flavour which is parched by the Mediterranean sun. Supple and juicy, grapes can be anything from green to brownish or purplish-black. Many a household, buys tonnes of grape to produce home made wine, which they share with their guests.
Maltese bread is well known and loved by locals and visitors alike. Its hard crust hides a very tasteful, fluffy inside. It makes a perfect summer’s day lunch and sandwiches are usually made with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and seafood. In many towns and villages, the local baker sells bread by driving around the streets, delivering fresh bread to Maltese families daily. Fish is an important ingredient in Maltese cuisine, as Malta is a nation surrounded by sea. Seafood is often the constituent in daily family meals and is present on most restaurant menus. Some establishments specialize in the preparation of various types of the local catch.