Gardening in Portugal – The Lazy Old Woman’s Guide to Making Compost

It is the time of year in my part of the world for making compost. Living here in the Algarve, it has been a revelation to me that not too many people locally make compost. Asking my neighbours about compost brings blank looks, although one did tell me in the old days, people dug pits and buried their waste and then planted on top of it when the pit was full. I suspect pits were made, rather than heaps, for several reasons. The chief reason may have been the threat of fire, coupled with the fact that compost can’t be made without water and we don’t have much for a lot of the year. In the UK, we just make piles and only rarely have to add water in the summer, the rain does most of it. The second reason, here where I am in the country, is that  local people around me are very clean and tidy in their gardens. They don’t like piles of rubbish because of the danger of harbouring rats, scorpions and snakes, I suspect, but they are too polite to say so when they see mine. Finally, they have the clean technology in the form of “blue” pellet fertiliser, so don’t feel the need for piles of old fashioned poo and cuttings. Usually olive and other tree cuttings are burnt once the useful branches have been gleaned for firewood  and animal manure  has become hard to find as they are very few animals around here nowadays. As my neighbour told me “A tractor doesn’t need feeding and looking after as much as a donkey, you just put the diesel in” My neighbour once  also took me to the large carob tree with a wheelbarrow, to get the rotted matter from the boles for compost, but it did feel a bit like robbery.

I am still enthusiastically making compost, however, although I do it slightly differently to the way I did it on my allotment in the UK, which was basically to have a worm farm in a dalek composter for my scraps and a couple of palette type compost bins for all the garden waste.

In the Algarve I have 2400 square metres of land, which for us in the UK, would be a large garden. Our garden waste is fairly considerable now, after seven years of growth. It consists of a lot of twiggy branches from trees and hedge clippings , some with fleshier leaves than others, as well as vegetable leftovers and some weeds, although not too many as the chickens eat most of them. Since we have walls all around our property which can be a hiding place for rodents, I prefer to make my compost heaps out in the open, where the chickens and cats can get at them and prevent any rodent population setting up home. I have sympathy for supporting wildlife, and plant with this is mind, but not to the point where the wildlife is endangering what I am trying to produce. Roland the Rat and Minnie Mouse have to stay out and the two cats who choose to live with us, already trained by their semi-feral mothers when they came here to catch mice, see to that job extremely well. The only rodent I ever see in my garden is usually in pieces on the front doormat, often with only the head left behind, as the cats kindly eat their catch properly.

Composting done by chickens

I have tried various composting methods, both taking advice from friends and also watching many a Youtube video. Some people love the whole process of making and turning compost. You can see the gleam in their eye as they explain the ingredients. “First of all I take a lovely steaming pile of smelly horse manure. Mmmmmm, just smell that! Then I open my pot of lovely festering nettle tea and unmentionable bits of rotting vegetable matter just to spice things up and get things going. Yummmmmy!  (slight look of worry on the video as the presenter wonders if  they might find a frog or a dead rat in the bottom of the pot) Then I mix several bucketfuls of chicken bedding, laced with hot chicken poo, just to get the perfect balance. Then I come down every day and turn it inside out and back to front with a great big pitchfork.” This goes on for fourteen days until the compost does indeed look wonderful , but excuse me, duck that for a game of soldiers! I am 63 years old and this kind of caper is far too strenuous. I tried it once and couldn’t walk for a week!

So, this is the Lazy Gardener’s guide to making compost in hot climates. I have three methods. I was reminded of the  first method by Linda, a gardening friend in Central Portugal. This method may work best at this time of year when the weather is wet. It is simply this. Take all your soft peelings and stuff from the house, dig little holes, about eighteen inches feet deep and bury it. Done. When I had my allotment in South London, this kind of method was favoured by Shirley, my Jamaican allotment neighbour. Shirley used to laugh at all the old blokes making their lovely composting bins. None of that for her. She just got her feisty Sicilian husband to chop  up all her waste on a chopping block with a machete and added it back there and then to the top of the soil. She never dug anything, she just parted the beautiful soil she made from years of weeds and chippings and planted her seedlings right there, talking to them gently as she did so, as though they were babies being put to bed. She had the best vegetables of any of the 200 odd plots.  Encouraged by her, we did a sort of Hugelkutur job with a large Cotoneaster Wateri tree we chopped down from our Peckham back garden and buried the lot. With the rain we had in the UK, it rotted down completely in two years. It improved the soil a great deal and didn’t seem to upset the vegetables we subsequently grew there.

Unfortunately, hugelkutlur hasn’t worked well for me in this warm climate, especially with the tough twiggy olive branches and carob wood we have. There just isn’t enough water to rot it down, not even after five years. So this is my second lazy method of making compost. What I do nowadays with my twiggy branches is pile them up in a quiet area of the garden for the winter and let the rain and winter weather do its work of removing all the leaves. Then I take the branches and make a “dry hedge” in a circle with the twiggy branches, away from the wall, as I said. Then inside this twiggy circle I pile up  all the soft weed materials and cuttings gleaned  in the Spring, only leaving out poisonous trees like oleander, layered with horse manure and any softer twiggy branches, topped by a thick layer of manure and garden clay soil. Then I plant squash and pumpkin on the top and water them all summer and I get a good crop of vegetables and in a good crop of compost, the water having been used for both. In theory the circle of dry wood is a good home for spiders and bugs, but in practice, when I dismantle it, the chickens eat most of them, peeping wildly and running about the kids on Christmas morning.

Dry Hedge
Dry Hedge to hold compost heap

So now to the third and final method.  After removing the well rotted compost on the top of this “stork’s nest heap” as I call it, I leave anything not decomposed completely and mix it all with fresh horse poo on the ground. My horse poo comes from a local friend who loves her horses more than herself and I am very happy to pick it up and in exchange, although she ever asks it of me, I give her what produce I have at any  time from the garden. I think I get the better deal though, as horse poo from a trusted source is hard to find around her. At this point, my little gardeners, aka the chickens, start helping me. I soak a bowlful of whole grain such as wheat for a night and then bury it in the material for composting. After a few days it begins to sprout and the chickens are happy to dig over the compost every day. I have only to encourage them slightly every morning by turning over a few forkfuls. Right now I have at least half a tonne of compost being made by my chickens to use on the vegetables in the Spring. The rain is a vital part of this, so I always make compost when I see we have a settled period of wet weather.  If you haven’t got chickens, you will have to heap it up somewhere and turn it now and again.

So, there we are. Lazy ways to make compost. The only problem is, there is no lazy way to keep chickens. Cleaning out the chicken coop is always very hard work! Perhaps I can start training them to do that for me too!

Chicken Coop

Gardening in Portugal – Basic Recipe for a Drought Resistant Garden


20 fruit bearing trees (choose drought resistant self raising type)

100 succulent cuttings

12 Lavender plants of three different varieties

12 Rosemary plants of three different varieties

12 Drought resistant ornamental grasses, preferably non invasive

5 Geraniums and 5 Pelargoniums

6 Cistus, variety depending on your soil type

10 Helichrysums

6 Santolinas

9 Salvias (edible type are good but others can be used as garnish)

12 Bulbines, yellow and orange

6 Roses (Cuttings  from plants found in abandoned gardens work best, but experiment)

A basketful of Irises of all sorts, but Germanicus give the best flavour.

Live chickens, about 1O

2 sheds, one large and one small

1 medium greenhouse, stable and strong.

1 Chicken Coop

Large, medium and small stones of various shapes and sizes, 10 tonnes

50 Terracotta post of all shapes and sizes

5 seats, some fixed  and some moveable

5 tonnes gravel, Brita no 2l depending on your circumstance

10 rolls of Getoex fabric, brown only.

Rain, bucketloads in the winter

Love in abundance

Hard work in moderation


  1. Turn the temperature up to 20c and check the sky is blue. Start  by clearing the surfaces and preparing the area for work.
  2. Choose your tools wisely. Make sure they are all sharp and fit for purpose and that you’re wearing the right footwear and clothes for protection.
  3. Start clearing  out the areas you want to make first. Take the flat stones and start building the paths. Do this part little by little or you will find yourself starting to sag in the middle. 
  4. Plant the fruit trees where  the most water congregates in the winter. Don’t worry about improving the soil before you plant  them, just make sure the roots are not circling  and make a wide hole. Add a mulch  when finished and ensure the tree isn’t sitting in a depression so the roots get waterlogged. It will be a few years before they are ready. Set to one side, but keep improving the mulch by adding more compost every year.
  5. Wait until a lot of rain has been poured on the earth then cover areas of the garden with the brown Geotex. Roll it out completely, the cut a criss cross in the fabric and plant the lavenders, rosemaries, cistus, grasses,Helichrysums, Bulbines,Plectranthus, Santolinas and Hardy Salvias, to your taste. You can also add a few Aloes and Agaves. Make sure you dig a wide planting hole and planting in threes in a triangle helps the plant to look more established more quickly. Water in well, but don’t fertilise. Cover back neatly with the brown fabric where it was cut and add a thick layer of gravel. Water once a week deeply for the first year. Water once a month for the second year. Don’t water at all in the third year, even though you will worry about potential disaster. 
  6. Build a rockery and plant with more succulents and irises. 
  7. Choose an area where there is more water for your rose garden. Water deeply once  a week and fertilise with horse manure and compost. (Find a good horse, well reared on fresh air, good food and plenty of love) 
  8. Take your pots and plant them with succulents and your delicate Salvias. Move them into sun in winter and shade in summer, water once a week. You can also add Geraniums and Pelargoniums if they are to your taste.
  9. Designate  an area for your vegetable garden. Fence it off. Start making lasagna beds[Recipe Click Here)
  10. Build base for shed and erect chicken coop in an area well away from the house where your spouse doesn’t have to be annoyed by the pooping birds.
  11. Add the live chickens to your fruit tree area. Start with only a few and add more once you are confident with the mix. Separate them out so they can’t mix with your vegetable garden. Let them whisk and stir your compost heap.
  12. Start seedlings off in the greenhouse to add spice. Keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. Keep excess seeds in the fridge until ready to use.  Don’t add too much water.
  13. Arrange the seats to decorate, sit on them often and add some hard work in moderation and a lot of love.
  14. Let me know how your garden turns out!


Gardening in Portugal – What’s the big idea?


Sometimes the garden just seems like a big idea to me, or a series of ideas developed over time. How else would it form? The trouble is, my idea of a garden doesn’t always match other people’s idea of a garden. I am never more aware of this than when British guests visit us in the summer, because this is the time when my garden looks almost dead and they find it hard to understand why.

The other day some guests said “Give us a tour of the garden,” I started off happily enough, pleased to explain the big idea. But they weren’t gardeners and didn’t understand. When I explained why two thirds of my garden is dried up and brown, with not a flower in sight at this time of year, they struggled. I explained that watering my lavenders and rosemaries in summer would surely kill them and that heat and copious water don’t mix. I explained we just don’t have the water for anything other than a drought  resistant garden.  I couldn’t blame them, they have never visited in the Spring, when everything bursts into life after the rain. They could only see a dead looking garden and  indeed that is what it is. But I know it’s only sleeping. 


When we reached the bottom part of my big idea, where I am making a sort of mini food copse (actually it’s an orchard, really) , they were greeted by piles of horse manure, wood bark  and bits of vegetable matter being scratched up happily by the chickens. “This is my food forest and the chickens are making all this rubbish into compost on the ground,”  I explained enthusiastically. My good friend raised his right eyebrow. I couldn’t really blame him. “ Mind the chicken poo,”  I said as we moved on.

The littlest guests loved the chickens, at least. But their parents wondered why I let them roam all over the garden. “Don’t they scratch everything up and poo everywhere? “ “Well, yes,” I said, “that’s kind of the point”  As we turned the corner, the most execrable smell assaulted our nostrils, I had forgotten to put the lid on the bucket of nettle and comfrey tea, which was now festering in the hot sun. We moved swiftly on.

We wandered up the path towards the grasses on the bank, their browned fronds rustling in the wind, I stopped to admire their beauty, but you know, beauty is in eye of the Beholder and the other Beholders  didn’t find it as beautiful as I did. I took them up to look at my melons, at least a bit of green.


“You must find it very hard to garden here after having such a lot of water in the Uk” they say, as they survey my little melon plants in the vegetable patch, their leaves curling in the burned up wasteland. I know if I answer them I will start apologising for the dryness and arid look of my garden and truthfully, I don’t want to apologise. I really want to transport them to the riotous joyfulness  of late Autumn and early Spring , with  everything bursting with life again, when Borage is buzzing with bees and the Parsley and Coriander is so green. I want to show them the torrents of water that can run down the drive, share with them the elation as you lie in bed,  listening to the first rainwater for months trickling from the roof and down into the cisterna, knowing that the plants are sighing with relief after their long wait.  But the cicadas drone on insistently and the locust alights on a sad dried up kale.

We tried to sit on my bench but the guests jumped up smartly as some geckos popped out and took them by surprise. Geckos like to do that. We went back to the safety of the terrace, where at least I had some pots of bright geraniums.


Soon I will visit the UK. I will be there in the Autumn, amongst the falling beech leaves, admiring the green lawns in villages, feeling the winter chill in the air, smelling the woodsmoke from the clean-up bonfires. Would I trade back this little piece of sun blasted Portugal I am stewarding for a green idyll in South Wales, where I was born? No. I will love it and fight for it until I die. That’s the big idea, anyway. 

Gardening in Portugal – Flat pack capers



The summer has been surprisingly cool. Normally at this time of year,  I‘d be languishing in a darkened room with a good book during the heat of the day, having tended to the chickens and watered the garden, but this year I have been inspired into the garden by the cooler temperatures and am getting things ready for the growing season, (which is Autumn here)  earlier than usual.

My latest idea is to try and make the garden as productive as possible food-wise over the next few years. Every day, throughout the year I proudly walk up from the garden with something to eat in my hands or cradled in my jumper. This week it has been tomatoes by the basketful, courgettes and pumpkins, and some yard long beans. Although the eggs have been sparser because of the heat, we are still getting some for breakfast. 


Breakfast eggs

In our house, Senor Faztudo is Head Chef and some of my garden offerings are more enthusiastically greeted than others. Senor Faztudo is my brave and courageous protector and in our 40 years together, I have seen very little to scare him, except one thing, creepy crawlies of the legless variety. Caterpillars, slugs and maggots, especially when they jump out unawares, have caused him to leap five feet in the air from a standing position. Whilst  he may have been able to do this to good effect in his young days as a keen basketball player, it is not desirable in his sixties with his dodgy knees (mostly caused by old basketball injuries admittedly) I am taking pity on him and have decided to try to grow salad vegetables in containers, on a bed of gravel, to try and lessen such encounters. I have given up trying to convince him that caterpillars prove the gloriously organic nature of what we eat or that the slugs have only eaten lettuce and therefore it’s fine to eat them, all arguments are futile and quite frankly, the stress of persuading him is just too much. Even when I wash each green leaf myself three times, somehow the caterpillar just leaps out a him as he is about to eat. I am convinced he is manifesting them.

During this year, I have been experimenting with making my own compost mixes, using horse manure from a stable where the horses are very lovingly treated; on the grounds that this will be the best poo in the world; river sand and a little sifted garden soil. I have also been growing different types of lettuce to see which works best. The Portuguese in the Algarve favour frilly green  or purple lettuce and this is a good bet, because you can keep taking leaves from the outside for ages without digging up the whole plant. Spring onions are very rare here, so I will have a go at those in my containers and I love  baby beets and carrots in my salads, but have found it difficult to grow them in our stony ground.

I identified a great place for the containers, on top of the filter pit that filters our grey water. The filter is very deep down and there is no problem with growing on top of the pit, which would be otherwise unused space. I can’t grow anything else there because of the roots getting down into the filter and also because every six years or so, we need to change the sand and gravel. But there is a big problem…this area of the garden is the chicken’s  domain and salads won’t last two minutes in the care of my little velociraptors.

I had the brainwave in the middle of a sleepless hot night to grow the containers in cold frames with lids. A polytunnel isn’t a good idea on my hillside as we have high winds, but since the cold frames would be down into the pit a little, I thought the wind wouldn’t get under them and they would be protected from the chickens and the worst of the weather. 

Cold frames are impossible to find locally, most people make their own, but Senor Faztudo  is already busy with my greenhouse extension and I didn’t  want to push  my luck! So I spent  three days on the interwebs looking for the right polycarbonate frames at the right price. I eventually found some which suited my needs perfectly, but ominously there were no reviews. So I shrugged, pushed the button and went ahead and ordered three to fit perfectly into the space.

They arrived and I eagerly ripped  opened the first packet, determined to put them up myself. Senhor  Faztudo eyed me knowingly, but he knew better than to speak. He has seen these situations many times and knows it usually ends in tears!


Reader, I tried!  But there were screws missing, none of the bladdy bits fitted at the corners and I cut my fingers on the badly manufactured aluminium bits. Bleeding profusely and swearing loudly, in a manner totally unbecoming of a woman in her prime, I begged  Senhor Faztudo to come to the rescue and he patiently bent the first frame  to his will and confirmed that the whole thing was very poorly made. After a reassuring cup of tea and a biscuit, we got some duct tape and stuck the bits together which still wouldn’t conform.

Emboldened by the first complete frame, I worked hard on the second two. One went together as sweet as the nut that wasn’t  supplied. The other was simply a complete nightmare and I swear was manufactured by some kind of evil employee with a grudge against humanity. But I triumphed over my impatience and cack handeness and finally carried the three frames in their final place. They  have been up for a month in very windy conditions and haven’t flown off anywhere. I think they will stay where they are. Since they have lids, the chickens won’t get in to guzzle the crops and I hope we will have lovely salads most of the year, especially as I will easily be able to shade them.



The other project was to create a small root cellar in what was the construction workers’  toilet, used when the house was built and which the builder combined into the cisterna walls. It is little more than a cupboard really (the toilet having been removed and capped and everything cleaned rigorously of course)  but we fitted a strong door with ventilation and I hope to dry herbs, keep seeds and store roots and pumpkins inside, since the cisterna water around the cupboard keeps it cool. I bought flatpack aluminium  shelves, to create more of an airflow,  and they went up with no problems at all, reassuring me that I am not as much of an idiot as I thought.


Whilst taking a photo to show you the set up, I disturbed Jemima, the resident gecko and then I saw that the snails were already trying to get in, luckily there is a mesh in place to prevent them. I hope Senhor F never sees them!


So bring on the Autumn! I can’t wait. I am already cleaning down the greenhouse, ready to plant brassicas. Trouble is, Senhor Faztudo always finds the very big green caterpillar in his portion of broccoli…or could it be that I had one too and I ate it?

Gardening in Portugal – Hen-picked names




Phoenix, the risen again cockerel

I have had chickens in my garden for all the six years I have been working on it. I cannot envision life any more without these fascinating birds working alongside me. They start my day delightfully, squabbling and scolding each other over their morning scraps and grain, with the big cockerel and little cockerel gathering the hens, one eye on each other to see who is the favourite this morning. When I first had chickens, I used to think up names for them. The first to start my flock was a Cuckoo Marran cockerel called Nando, the diminutive term for the Portuguese name Fernando and a favourite place for my children to eat Piri  Piri and chips on special occasions in South London.  He was quickly joined by his four wives, and I gave them clever clever names, or so I thought, Mother Clucker, and Yoko, Joni Hendrix and Eggletina. Unfortunately the hens had other ideas. Yoko  quickly renamed herself Nuisance, or That Bloody Hen, whilst Eggletina became Eggless as she never laid any.  Joni turned out to be Jimi and had to be rehomed as he started fighting with Nando and only Mother Clucker retained her name, but it got lengthened to Sexy Mother Clucker as she was the cockerel’s favourite.


Sexy Mother Clucker

After several years, Nando sadly pegged it and was replaced by Phoenix, the bird who rose again, as he was given to me by someone who rescued him from becoming someone’s dinner. Hens came and went after that and I began to realise that rather than giving them names, I would wait until they named themselves.  So now I have a strangely named flock. We have Donald Trump, the self important little bantam, who has an orange quiff and struts around with his chest puffed out  and thinks all the hens love him, when in fact they despise him in favour of the bigger cockerel. All save one loyal hen, who has named herself Ivana.


Donald Trump, the bantam cockerel

Someone gave me a beautiful big Brahma hen who is very phlegmatic, slow and deliberate and never runs anywhere and somehow she has got the name Aircraft Carrier.  A hen who is constantly broody and a great mother has been named Mrs Chicken and her best friend is Mrs Speckles. Most people have a hen named Mrs Speckles, I have noticed.  It is a very common  surname amongst hens. Three white hens have been called Miss Coco, Miss Cream and Miss Snow by my great nephew,  although Miss Snow is also frequently referred to as That Bloody Hen Mark 2.


Mrs Chicken 

For a while I had a couple of Naked Neck hens, or Turkens, which although a bit alarming in appearance, as they have a genetic trait which give them 30 per cent less feathers, have great characters. This one, who lived the longest, got the name “Emu” after the infamous puppet belonging to Rod Hull.



Some hens never get a name for some reason and are just referred to as “The little brown one” or the “Cuckoo hen”  I wait for their names patiently, but sometimes it is a year or so before one occurs. Recently a small speckled bantam got the name Moaning Millicent when I realised that she just moans on and is never happy, no matter what the cockerel does for her.

The hens are doing a great job in the garden, now we have got things organised.  They are helping me make compost in the bottom of the garden under the fruit trees, where I am piling straw, horse manure and leaves for them to scratch through. Whilst they are free to wander anywhere this area is very attractive to them, as I sprinkle grain every morning and water the area so they can scratch through it and turn what I have scattered into compost. This also encourages them to stay in that area and not go off eating and scratching where I am less inclined to be happy about it. I am able to plant vegetables such as tomatoes and courgettes in their area as I make small chicken wire enclosures to plant inside. I am also planting things like beans in tubs to climb up the trees and these have grown well unmolested b the chickens.  I am learning to garden happily with the chickens and although it’s been a challenge, it works.

For me, watching the chickens is a wonderful meditation. I have also been learning to speak chicken as well as Portuguese. In the morning, when I come down to the coop, I get a lovely greeting “Bawk!” “Bawk Bawk bawky bawk!” they intone whilst rushing out to see who can get to the food first. Phoenix  calls his ladies with a “Flobby Lobby Lobby , Lookie here!” which means “I love,  you my darling and I have a tasty bit of food for you to eat, come here and then I will jump on you” (they have learnt his words are only flattery and keep a wide berth) “Woor woor wooor… “ say the hens, “Get off my tasty bit of food, I saw it first”

Moaning Millicent moans gently on “Oooja, ooja, ooja” because everything in life is so hard for her, especially as she is the most unpopular hen, being so moany and miserable.


Miss Snow aka That Bloody Hen Mark 2

Alongside the chickens I have also managed to attract a big flock of noisy, and disruptive sparrows who add a bit of spice to the morning garden capers. I have never seen such squabbling in my life, everything is contention  and argy bargy. As I ponder on all the bird life over my morning cup of tea, I realised that the sparrows are starting to name themselves too. There is Jack Sparrow, a handsome Johnny  Depp kind of character who is a great hit with the females and a very bossy and maternal  female I have called Maggie Hatcher. I think I am spending too much time with the birds!

jack sparrow

Jack Sparrow

The hens, ably guided by Phoenix and Donald Trump all put themselves to bed as the sun sets, bickering about who gets the spot next to the cockerel and trying hard not to be in a position where they will be pooed on from a great height. I wait until all the drama is over and pop down through the garden through the fading light to lock them in. I poke my head in to say Goodnight and Phoenix always replies  “Dib a Lob bleugh bleugh” which is chicken for “Até amanha”  They are Portuguese chickens, after all.

Gardening in Portugal : Lest there be any drought


Garden in height of summer drought

It’s the end of any rain, maybe until November or even beyond.  Since March 2018 and believe me I have been watching, we have had only two significant periods of rainfall, lasting less than a week. The little river at the end of our farm track, that usually  burbles happily over stones rounded by all the years of running water, is dry and sad and has been that way since May last year. Local people tell me once upon a time, it never dried up. Anxious farmers know it’s only a matter of time before their tree crops of  olives and almond, carob and cork start to suffer and indeed many trees are showing signs of drought stress, becoming more prone to fungal and bacterial diseases. People with bore holes are beginning to find the water is no longer good for the garden, nearer the coasts it is very salty and further inland, very calcified. The press has indicated that soon the water authority will conduct door to door talks about water conservation.

The Algarve consists of  different geological areas. Some areas, such as the central Barrocal,  are not suitable for reservoirs, as the rock is too porous, and then we rely on the aquifer, a natural water reservoir deep underground. In our village, in the Central Algarve hills, all our water is pumped up from the aquifer in the valley below. We have one very old Roman well  which everyone used in the past to water their fruit trees, water would be carried around by donkey. The  household supply would be caught from the roofs and directed into a large cisterna, usually  underground to be kept cool. People would take care to capture the first run off, containing all the dirt and other unmentionables such as rat droppings from the roof and then keep the cisterna clean using little fish that could be obtained from the water authority to clean any debris. This water was used sparingly throughout the summer, occasionally topped up by a farmer from his borehole at a price…and this is still how some people get their water, not everyone is on the mains!


People coming to live here in the Algarve from abroad don’t always ask the right questions about water, indeed we didn’t when we first bought a ruin here in 2000. We only had a cisterna and didn’t appreciate how precious water was until we had to make every drop count. Now we  have a house on the mains, but I have never forgotten how important it was to consider how I used all the house supply of water.

So as gardeners, how are we going to manage to see our garden through a drought? I can’t pretend I know all the answers, but I will tell you want I have learnt, often the hard way too, by producing very expensive cabbages!

The first thing I have learnt is to build water preservation  into whatever garden you are going to make. Number one rule is to make sure you direct any available rain  when it does fall to where it is needed. For example, if you are on a hill and have a drive, put drainage channels (or swales) at key points in the drive, you only have to make a shallow channel your car can drive over to direct the water which will all run down the drive. Collect any water that comes off your roof in the biggest container you can afford. Our house was newly built, although we didn’t commission the build, we were able to ask the builder to incorporate a large cisterna into the design. A valve can be installed so you can switch between mains and cisterna water, so that you could also use the cisterna for the house in the event your water was cut off for any period. If you can’t do this, you can still think of ways to collect water. If it can be directed  to your garden by gravity, that will also save money on a pump and the electricity. Use all your house water by installing a greywater system with a filter at best, or collecting it by any means possible to return to your trees. It’s not advisable to use this on vegetables, but it’s fine for trees. Try to make that system as simple as possible, ours works by gravity feeding through a sand and gravel filter, but it still needs to be maintained to prevent clogging. It will not filter all chemicals out so you need to think about using ecological products for your household needs.


The dry ground

Second thing I’ve realised having planned your water conservation strategy, is to choose drought resistant plants for the decorative areas of your garden. Of course, we all like some summer colour, but it’s simply not possible to continue  to think in my area of the Algarve that I can have them everywhere. My village can’t afford the cost in water. I plant native and drought resistant plants such as lavender, rosemaries, thymes, alliums, salvias, irises and grasses that simply go to sleep in the summer when it is hot but don’t die and come back to life at first rains. Of course, my garden isn’t very pretty in the hottest months, but I can live with that, knowing I am not constantly fearing their demise as my water supply dwindles. Two thirds of my garden is barely watered at all except by natural rainfall, unless I have planted new plants which need nurturing through their first year with once weekly deep waterings in the summer, but no more, to encourage roots to go deep. Gradually you can get away with no water or only a watering once or twice all summer,  once the plants are established, if you choose the right plants. I don’t use any irrigation system apart from  a short trickle hose once a week for an area close to the house where I have more tender plants. Apart from that, anything I do water is watered with a hose.  I have kept anything in pots thirsty for water in one shady area close to the house for the summer, that way I am only watering one area and paying attention…it’s less wasteful.


Drought resistant planting in gravel mulch

Thirdly, use winter rainfall for vegetables. Leafy vegetables can be started in August as plugs and planted out  as soon as the ground is cooler. Potatoes, carrots, beets and chard, lettuce and onions, favas and peas can all be planted as soon as the nights are cooler and the dew begins to form.With a bit of water you can get them started and then, as the dew starts in the cooler evenings and the winter rainfall comes, they will grow and produce great crops in late Winter, early Spring until May. After this, I only grow courgettes and pumpkins on top of a compost heat, so I am using the water twice, both to grow vegetables and make compost. Tomatoes are the only summer  other crop and I grow them near the fruit trees so everything gets the water. I also sometimes grow beans up my newly planted fruit trees, so the water used for them is used twice.

The other water saving  technique I am adapting is to only grow what we need wherever possible, since growing too much, unless you can swap it for other things seems to me to be  a waste of water. Also choose vegetable varieties which do well for you and stick to those. When I came from the UK, there was huge emphasis on growing different varieties of courgettes, beans and other vegetables  but you may notice that the Portuguese have a great way of growing only one variety and that is the best tasting variety for the conditions. They don’t waste time on pretty colours and weird things if they don’t grow well. That being said, Heritage varieties are the most robust and seed swaps have come to play in this respect, often  organised locally in the Autumn in different area.


Vegetable varieties that grow well with plums

Fourthly, mulch, mulch, mulch. But only do it in early summer as it starts to get hot. Consider a gravel mulch for native plants with brown geotex underneath. I know geotex is contentious nowadays, but if you use the right one, it certainly helps tough native plants to go longer without water, although in heavy rain, there is a danger of waterlogging and rot.


Carob pods harvested- our main cash crop

Finally, I am going to make a plea. I don’t apologise for not mincing my words, things are getting quite dire here on the water front. Please be a little culturally sensitive to how precious water is to people here in the Algarve. “Wasting” water on ornamentals, ie plants without a “use” isn’t really greeted with huge enthusiasm, which isn’t to say we can’t have some well chosen beautiful ornamentals which have their uses for the insect population. However, we need to understand, for many subsistence farmers, water is everything. I have heard comments from newly arrived incomers, who don’t always understand this (and I don’t blame them, how would they know) such as “I have a borehole so I have as much free water as I like”  Growing a lawn is really not appropriate either , unless you have a desalination plant or something or have found a way of reusing water to do it. There are already mini wars being fought over water use in the Algarve between local populations and large commercial farmers and as gardeners often coming from  Northern European climes, we just need to try and understand the feelings of those very worried farmers and anyway, we need to make sure if they do start turning off the water and restricting its use, our plants can survive. If you have any of your own tips, from experience,  would be so glad to read them in the comments.






Gardening in Portugal: Permaculture by accident or design?


Permaculture.  What is that?  This garden I’ve  been making here  has tested me to the limits. The climate is harsh, the soil is sparse, the water is little. Fighting it isn’t an option,  it only exhausts me and would defeat me if I fought it daily. I have had to find ways to work with it, almost becoming  a part of  it to understand it. Somewhere halfway through this journey, I discovered that there was a name for this approach, a kind of holistic gardening,   the name given for  what I have begun to practice in terms of Garden design  is “Permaculture”

Looking at the answer to my initial question, “What is Permaculture” I found  this definition:

“Permaculture is a design process. It helps design intelligent systems which meet human needs whilst enhancing biodiversity, reducing our impact on the planet, and creating a fairer world for us all”

Did I set out to design an intelligent system?  Not at all. I muddled along, whilst every now and again sitting on my bench for a little think about things. I watched the chickens for hours and noticed that the area they hang about in is becoming much more fertile than other parts of the garden; that they had a pattern to their day; that they needed a certain ecosystem to feel comfortable. Fed up with weeds and wanting to keep the water in for longer, I mulched with huge piles of wood chip. I did a bit of research and discovered that wood chip was brilliant for soil diversity. I dug down a bit with an old stick and found the worms were just underneath the surface where there had been none before. I  continued to observe and learn.

Later on, to my delight I discovered that all my sitting around gazing on my little bit of terra was a vital part of permaculture design when I found this quote from the Permaculture association.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

“Observation is key to permaculture. Developing good observation skills is essential if we want to make well-functioning permaculture designs.”


Getting chickens was one of the first things I did in my garden. Not because I knew that they were good for anything, but because I always wanted to go down the garden path in the morning and get myself a fresh warm egg from a straw nest as I did in a friend’s garden, as a child. I wanted a cockerel so I could hear his throaty crow at dawn and know I had woken up to greet  another day. I wanted to steward these creatures as an idea, for myself. Little did I know, they would have ideas of their own! Chickens want to do what chickens want to do. They want to hide in the long grass in the heat of the day, they want to scratch in the dust and have glorious sunbathing sessions, they want to poo everywhere, they want to breed and hatch chicks; they want to eat fresh green plants. After a little while I realised that my husband and the chickens couldn’t co-exist. Nor could the chickens co-exist with leafy green vegetables or other tender annuals. I didn’t know it then, but this was my first Permaculture design mistake, thinking we could all live so very closely together. Wet slimey poo on the terrace every morning wasn’t conducive to a calm and  happy existence.  The chickens and my husband got half of the garden each. The design system was rebalanced. Peace reigned.  Our intelligent Permaculture design system now met all our needs, human and chicken.


Produce from my Food copse

Then we started planting what I would have called an orchard. It wasn’t quite like the orchards I used to go scrumping in as a child, since they were mainly apples and pears and cherries. I planted oranges and lemons, quince and pomegranate, peach and walnut, plum and mulberry.  After a while, because I had chickens and they didn’t scratch  them up, I planted beans and tomatoes in tubs, supported and shaded by the growing trees. I kept the trees well pruned so I could reach the fruit because I am getting too old to balance on ladders and grew aromatics underneath, mainly because the chickens didn’t eat the aromatics and also because they grow well here.. All the water from the house’ including the greywater was directed to this area and the chickens lived there too, mostly. One day I was browsing growing fruit trees in a hot climate and I realised I had inadvertently grown a food forest! (I still can’t call it that though in all seriousness, to me it is still an orchard, or at best, a food copse)  Now, when thinking about a retrospective Permaculture design, I have certainly done my  bit for biodiversity; the birds are busy chewing off all the flower buds on the trees ;the Mediterranean fruit fly is ecstatically piercing the fruits I grow there and filling them with little maggots; the clouds of midges and mosquitoes are in insect heaven.  A flock of unruly sparrows are delighted with the excess loquats and  love my growing grapes. However I am quite sure, in time, everything will balance out and the good bugs will conquer the bad bugs and I will end up with some fruit. I even had ladybirds in my garden this year for the first time.


My next accidental Permaculture experiment was  the raised beds, African keyhole beds, lasagna beds , hugelkutur beds or whatever you like to call them. I call them lazy gardener beds. Have you ever tried to get rid of huge piles of whippy olive or almond branches and other prunings? It’s a pain. I can’t say I enjoy burning them much and you can’t do that any more except in certain cool months because of the fire risk, never mind the effect in air quality. And to me, it’s such a waste of good material. So I put them all in a big circle made out of chicken wire posts and pile all the green stuff and everything else I can get hold of in the Autumn and then put heaps of very kindly donated horse manure and some garden soil on top. I impressively describe this pile of unsightly rubbish as a lasagne bed or a hugelkutur bed, as though I know what I am on about. In reality  it’s a gigantic pile  bed of  garden rubbish into which I plant squash and courgettes, so it doesn’t look so unsightly in the summer and then I water it so the water rots the compost and stops the heat igniting. This way  I get returns on the water used with courgettes and pumpkins coming out of my ears. Then it all rots down into great compost and is used in the Autumn on my No Dig Beds (No Dig is one of the greatest discoveries for lazy gardener, the subject of a future post but often written about before)  I move the huge circle every couple of years and plant  tomatoes in the place where it has been. This year they are nine feet tall.


By now, I am really enjoying Permaculture practice.  I have designed an intelligent system as a result of my human need for lazy gardening and reduced my impact on the planet by planting trees and not making fires.  It’s a great wheeze and makes me feel very saintly.

However, let’s be clear, I am laughing at myself here, not the principle of Permaculture. The more I read and study it, the more I am in agreement with what the principles have shown me. The main tenet is to work with nature and not against it and in my six years of working this garden, it’s the only way the garden and myself  can both be happy and thrive. I have been practising Permaculture Design all along without really being aware of it until recently. The good earth and my inner voice  taught me a great deal and I followed up with advice from many people in real life and on the internet. It’s a great plus that to listen you have to sit around a lot, so make sure your Permaculture design includes great places to rest your bottom.