Gardening in Portugal -Poppies in Paradise

 

0961B606-FD14-4702-92E7-500232ADE675.jpegI promised a post on the wildflowers, but I have been so busy looking at them open-mouthed I haven’t been able to tear myself away from the gazing at them to write this post. Every now and again you get an “eighth wonder of the world” year here and this is one of them. The fields and hills are alive with the bright red heads of poppies and the cheerful yellow field marigolds, like a happy yellow sea.

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Field of Poppies

Cistus, both pink and white light up the hills, intermingled with the lavender stoechas we get here, a lovely dark purple variety which the bees love and occasionally viridium, the green version. Every now and again I come across a bush with flowers of the deepest blue imaginable, the blue of a kingfisher’s wing, a lithodora.

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Lithodora

As we drive to the nearby market town of Loule, through our favourite hidden vallies, I cannot get too far without stopping and exclaiming and jumping out to take photos. Senhor Faztudo is very tolerant. He knows the wild flowers are my second greatest love.

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Field Marigolds and Chysanthemum Coronium

I have made no secret in last posts, of my admiration for the Algarvean  “weeds” They must be the most beautiful in the world. I have learned a great deal about them in last years, largely due to my friend and Portuguese teacher who lives in a nearby village. She has been collecting stories from ederly local people about the uses of many of the plants that grow here, as they have been the region’s medecine store from time immemorial, some of the knowledge perhaps being handed down from generation to generation since the time of the Moors.

Some of the herbs still used today are Malva, or Mallow, seen to be excellent for the digestion, used as a tea or put as a poultice on festering wounds to pull the poison out. Another local favourite is the  beautiful Thymus capitatus, which grows in abundance on the hills bere and is used as an antiseptic or to strew agains insects and fleas in the house. The  flower petals of some of the more abundant plants, particularly wild Dill are used to adorn local churches  during their Saints’ Days and petals are used to make patterns on the pavements outside.

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Wils Lavender Stoechas

Recently I went for a wild flower amble with some fellow gardeners amongst the hills and springs of the little village of Alte, where in the shade of the carob trees, wild perwinkle made a beautiful carpet. The long stems were used to tie the faggots of brushwood brought back to light the bread ovens in time gone by. We also saw the impressive blooms of Scilla Peruviana, a plant I couldn’t believe would grow wild when I first saw it, as well as the beautiful sprays of Asphodel “the lilies of the field” from the bible which adorn the paths hereabouts, making them look like a wedding aisle.

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A ford near Alte

I have been collecting seeds in the Autumn and also rescuing any plants I have seen torn up by the diggers clearing the land for agricultural uses, but obviously I don’t pick or uproot  plants, as that is both illegal and immoral. I actually fear for the wild peony, which seems to be disappearing in recent years, and although I know several places where they grow I tend to keep quiet about the exact whereabouts.

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Silla Peruviana

You can see history in the plants too. In my garden and in our village two plants grow in abundance. Alexanders, or Black Lovage, which were used by the Romans instead of celery and Wild Asparagus, which the farmers hate as it has deep roots and prickles, but which produce edible shoots which local people pick and eat in January, after the autumn rains. They were also perhaps brought by the Romans and since an arachaelogical excavation in our village has turned up artefacts from a Roman villa, it is quite likely that we are seeing plants that were brought here two thousand years ago.

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An Alentejo meadow

Sometimes a passing Portuguese neighbour scratches their head when passing our distinctly natural looking garden. Why would I want to grow all those plants that just grow everywhere as weeds on the “mata” or bush? For me, nothing delights me more than walking out every in the garden in the mornings and watching these beauties flourish, without water or special care on our patch. I nurture them and feel honoured when a new wild flower makes itself at home here. The butterflies, bees and I all greet their return with joy and satisfaction each Spring. It’s a wildflower Paradise, my special slice of Eden.

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Gardening in Portugal- It’s raining Clay Pots!

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Cântaros

It’s raining buckets, or as the Portuguese say Portuguese “It’s raining clay pots” “Chove a cântaros”  If you had just moved to Portugal, you might wonder why you came, since the view out of my window this morning, is distinctly Welsh, not Algarvean at all. It’s hard not to wish it would stop, when your wheelbarrow has become a wildlife pond, your no dig bed a marshy haven for slugs and your cistern overflow pipe a waterspout, the water overflowing in a fecklessly wasteful fashion away down the hill.

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My garden lush with the rain

However, I am trying hard not to regret my rain dancing, which I did perpetually throughout the dry Winter and early Spring months, when it was so warm and dry you wondered whether it would ever rain again. For one thing is certain, it won’t rain from early June until October, unless we have a real freak of nature, and it will be hot, sometimes up to the 40 degrees C, and we will have to hide from the punishing sun by 11am. So how can I regret the sweet, persistent rain that has been falling since that wonderful moment on February 23rd when the heavens first opened to break the long drought.  Really it’s been raining ever since with the odd day of respite, as the Depressions from the Atlantic, pushed  by a cold weather pattern in the North, sweep in one after the other.

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A Camellia enjoying the rain

I have become slightly weather obsessed, I freely confess.  I have discovered an app called “Storm” which has weather maps all in pretty colours which show you the approaching Depressions. I watch them swirling about somewhere near the coast of Philadelphia , a huge battle going on between the warm winds pushing up from Africa (little orange arrows)  and the cold winds coming down from the North (little blue and green arrows) and then the tail of rain (green and yellow blobs) sweeping our way across Portugal, bringing the rain we so badly need and the less welcome waves to bash our shores, destroying the beach cafes and sweeping the beaches into disarray. Gazing into my IPAD screen at the weather patterns, I feel a bit like Zeus, gazing down on the Earth from lofty Mount Olympus. I just haven’t got the power he had to poke up a tempest here or an earthquake there, luckily!

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The rain on our plain from “Storm” weather app

Along with watching the weather on apps,whilst I am stuck indoors unable to garden,  I have also discovered that our neighbors have a personal weather station which records every five minutes and posts the results on the Internet, with the ability to look up historic weather information in detail. I always enjoy playing with databases, and messing about with it has made me realise that although it has rained and rained, because the Autumn rains failed last year we are still short of the normal rainfall for the season by 100mm. I share the website here in case you want to explore it for your own area, https://www.wunderground.com/wunderstation Just type your area into the “Search Locations” box. And click on “History” for historical data. Some of  dams in the Alentejo, at the time of writing are still only at 59% of capacity and here in the Western Algarve 69%. More rain will not go amiss, no matter how much we are looking forward to the sun shining again, so we can get out in our gardens once more.Here is the link for the dam capacity in case you’re interested.

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This year though, I do have my new greenhouse to potter around in even when it’s raining or windy and this has made a difference to my attitude to the rain Señor Faztudo made it as a lean-to  against the hippy shed so it’s quite sheltered, especially from the north side and it’s rather nice to hear it drumming on the roof and dribbling into a makeshift water butt, which we have rigged up inside the greenhouse so I don’t have to go outside in bad weather to get water.

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The greenhouse/potting shed

I also have the hippy shed next door, where I have installed a camping stove so I can sit there with a cup of tea and even cheer up the shivering chickens now and again with a blast of loud  music from my hippy shed sound system, aka my digital  radio, as they try find shelter under the chicken shed as this weird wet stuff they don’t have to contend with the rest of their year falls unremittingly.

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The hippy shed…a hark back to my young years

The drought this year has concentrated everyone’s minds on preserving the water when it does rain. People who garden in a dry climate think not only about what they plant, but also about storage for the months when it definitely won’t rain. The torrent of  water is running off the roof right now reminds us of how much we craved it when we didn’t have any. We have a large cisterna collecting rainwater from our roof and also all the rainwater that is running down the drive is directed by the paths down into the orchard for the trees.

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The cisterna and terrace overflow

Having a garden on a hill is a good thing when it rains heavily as you can collect water on terraces at each level, but on the whole, the garden remains well drained. Friends into permaculture techniques dig “swales”, ditches filled with spongy materials  to capture water and then plant on “berms” higher banks alongside them so the plants continue to access the stored water in the drier months. I haven’t really got the room to do that, but the bottom of the garden is certainly flooded with water and as its level much of it remains for the tree roots to access.  I am also experimenting with the idea that Vetiver grass, with its very deep roots may bring water to the surface to make it available for plants as I  have noticed my globe artichokes do better where they are planted next to Vetiver, so I am going to plant some closer to my trees.

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Salvia in full flower in my garden

The most exciting thing will be when the rain stops and the sun shines and the fields around here becomes the eighth wonder of the world as they burst forth with wild flowers in all their glory. I’m poised with my camera, I can’t wait. Watch this space for a wild flower display to beat all wild flower displays! As soon as these clay pots stop pouring water.

Gardening in Portugal – No Way Hosé !

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The Whipsnake kinky hose

This is a whinge about hoses, impossible things, they drive me to distraction!  Before I start ranting, as this is definitely a subject I get very hot under my gardening collar about, I will pause to pay respect to the fact that hoses have been used by people for transporting water for over 2000 years, ever since the first ancient Greek picked up an ox stomach and intestines and a light bulb went off (or an olive oil clay lamp, more likely) and decided to use it as a flexible pump and fire hose. I suppose that the intestines of an ox were used for many years after that, because it wasn’t until the 1600s that the very first flexible hose was made by Dutch inventor Jan van der Heyden, probably to water his tulips. Nowadays we have the strong PVC hoses we have today, mostly made in China, but thankfully lasting longer than ox intestines, which must have got quite mushy and smelly in the end. What I want to know is, if hoses have been in development for thousands of years, then why do they still kink and tie themselves in impossible knots? You would suppose in all that time, the problem of the incessant kinking would have been resolved. Perhaps it’s the curse of the poor Ox, in retribution for the disrespect paid to its tripes for so many years. Whatever it is it drives me crazy on a daily basis in the summer.

Picture the scene. It’s a very hot summer’s morning and I have gone off down the garden to water the fruit trees. First of all I unwind the green horsewhip snake from the hook on the wall, where I spend ages trying to make it neat and tidy last night. It immediately contorts itself into a horrendous knot. The fruit trees start up their  gentle moaning, “Water! Water!” At this point, I wonder why we have never invested in one of those “roll your hose” up contraptions. Somehow we aren’t “roll your hose up” type of people. I pull the doobrie off the watchermacallit on the tap and untangle the knot, all the while remembering Maya Angelou’s saying “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lightsShe might have well said “tangled garden hose” I wonder if she is up there somewhere in heaven with her arms folded watching me effing and blinding, as I lose my temper with the knot. I would would really welcome a rainy day right now. I obviously haven’t learnt very much about patience in my 62 years on this earth. Finally the knot is unknotted. I put the doobrie back on the watchermacallit and turn on the tap, only to be squirted at very high velocity (can velocity be applied to water?)  by a water spout soaking my face and hair, temporarily blinding me. Hopping about to the bemusement of my farming neighbours out sorting their melons, I struggle to get control and turn the tap off, aligning the watchermacallit back on the tap where it came loose, my hair and face soaked. I have been watered it seems, but the plants have not. I hear the fruit trees sniggering through their thirst and glare at them angrily.

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The dreaded Whatchermacallit

By this time, the sun is higher in the sky and the plants are drooping piteously. I sally forth expectantly towards the end of the hose. I stare in disbelief. Señor Faztudo  has replaced the Nozzle of Doom on the end! Now the Nozzle of Doom is a huge point of contention between us. Señor Faztudo  says the Nozzle of Doom saves us bucketloads of water, but I maintain it is it a water cannon for destroying all in its path. Sure, it means you can turn the hose off when you aren’t using it, but the water comes out at such force you can’t do anything except blast the plants into oblivion. Now I am really fuming. The plants start a new, louder wailing “Water! Water!”  Ignoring their pleas, I stomp off to the hippy shed temporarily and light a joss stick, stroking the bemused cat  to calm myself down.

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The Nozzle of Doom

Returning in somewhat better humour, I remove the water cannon attachment and start to assuage the thirst of my plants. Within a short time, a kink appears somewhere near the top of the hose. I sigh, put the hose down by the nearest tree root and return to unkink it. On my way back I trip over the hose, narrowly avoiding falling over, I resume and the hose wraps itself around one of my favourite plants, a tender darling, snapping off one of her stems and then kinks anew,  The sun rises higher in the sky and I’m losing the will to live. And as for winding it all up again at the end, don’t get me started!

So now I have shared my problem, let’s go a little further into the technicalities. I really hate those Watchermacallits and Doobries, the things that you have to join hoses to taps, hoses to each other, to connect things etc. They must have been invented by a sadist.  You never have the right one for the right thing, they never fit tightly, they always spurt water out, they completely and utterly defeat me. Oh, but Señor Faztudo can ALWAYS make them work, which he seems to me to be pretty smug about. As though there is something wrong with me! What is that about? I cannot tell you how fed up I am that I always have to ask him to sort it all out for me. Every time.

You might think a solution would be those new-fangled curly hosepipes. They look like they should work, are very neat and lovely and don’t get in a kink. Well we had one for two weeks before it broke at the neck.  It was very expensive and very short lived, so I have lost faith it them altogether.

By now, you may be asking why we don’t sort out some irrigation. We do have some seeping soaker hoses in some parts of the garden, but even they are a wind up, because every now and again one of my cats takes a fancy to bite into them and make mini fountains. These go on for weeks, because I can’t  bear to try and cut that bit out and rejoin with some of the Watchermacallits.  I have looked at all the little irrigation pipes and rubbery bits and timers and malarkey at the agriculture shop and I just know that life will be far worse if I buy them. The holes will clog up with calcium from our hard water, the bits will get lost. I will never enjoy my garden again. I am not going there. I also have a great fear of timed systems since I have heard so many stories of the timer breaking whilst people are away, with them either coming back from holiday to a huge water bill or a dead garden.

So that’s my whinge about hoses. I expect people may tell me  me what an idiot I am and what a wonderful thing hoses are and how you can get this oojamaflip and that and it all works like a dream. Luckily, we are going through a period of much needed rain right now and the hose torture is postponed for a while, so calm in the garden is restored.

 

Food for thought in the garden- Gardening in Portugal

 

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A beautiful cabbage with a wild geranium peeping through

I have often written before about the idea of having an edible garden and eating or drinking it as much as possible. In such a dry climate, such as we have in the Algarve, this becomes ever more important, since water here is metered and quite expensive. We don’t have a personal bore hole and although we have a large cisterna to catch the rainwater from the roof,  we are in a state of severe drought, and with a rainfall  level of a mere 450 mm during the whole of last year, it’s vital that we make every drop count.

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Potatoes, Nasturtiums to eat in salad, chickweed for the hens, nettles for soup, a leek.

After five years of working on the garden with food production in mind , albeit it pretty food production,  we are  starting to see results. This year, to my delight, we harvested 11 avocados from the Hass avocado tree that we nurtured for three years and I reached up in wonder at the end of the summer and picked one walnut which had been hiding amongst the green leaves. That walnut could not have been more precious , as it’s the promise of many more to come. We’ve been busy finishing off  jams and chutneys produced from last year’s fruit crop in expectation of the next. Even with our young trees, I managed to make loquat, plum and apricot jams and very tasty they were  too. The citrus trees have been the most problematic to get started, but we had a small but satisfyingly juicy crop of lemons this year and even a handful of limes. We have also harvested  a small sackful of almonds, before we trimmed back the trees. Luckily the almonds were already young trees on the land when we first got the house.  The tree work  we did has given us the first tonne of wood to burn next Autumn, once it is properly seasoned and dried out, and kindling aplenty.

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Physalis or Cape Gooseberry

As well as all the Mediterranean standard trees, I have more unusual fruit in mind too. Physalis, or Cape Gooseberries are dotted about here and there,  which are surprisingly easy to grow, although they do need steady water in the summer, so I’ve planted them under a tree  so they share the water. I also have a Dragon Fruit cactus and an Opuntia, or as they are known here a “Figo de India “and hope one day to eat the fruits, which although seedy, I find delicious. When I went to Mexico once, we ate the pads, although I am going to have to find out how to remove the spines without doing myself a damage.

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Moaning Millicent, the bantam, peeping through the lemon flowers

On reflection, I think I have planted too many citrus trees and should have planted more figs or apricots, which need far less water. I think the idea of citrus is so attractive to us people arriving from Northern climes and the trees are so cheap in the markets that we get a bit over excited. They take a great deal of water to get established a lot of cosseting, especially in the heavy clay soil of the Barrocal. They also get sunburned trunks and suffer from deficiencies. They are a vexatious tree, but I will keep trying with them, having put so much water, blood, sweat and tears into their care over the past three years.

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Some nearly organic eggs

The chickens are still giving us lovely eggs every day. I am pondering over their feed though as although I thought I could get buy on feeding them scraps and letting them free range, this isn’t enough. I need to feed them some grains. However, the corn here is all genetically modified and liberally sprayed with glysophate and none of the feed is organic, so I am trying to find an organic source of grain at a reasonable price, which is proving difficult. I am not comfortable about eating the eggs every day if they aren’t organic,  since this is a main food source for us, so I need to find a solution.

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Favas or Broad Beans in flower.

In the vegetable garden, I’m harvesting lettuce, cabbage and broccoli and beetroot all grown from plug plants, bought in the market in October. I also have some potatoes which were left in the ground from last year and reproduced themselves. I am also experimenting with some beautiful kale in five different varieties I grew from seed ordered from the UK. Some have purple or red leaves and I think they will look beautiful in May, before my winter vegetable garden is put to rest for the summer.  Everything is growing well, but quite slowly right now as it’s cold at nights and the days are short. I have flat leaved parsley in pots, plenty of delicious thyme, bay leaves, and the tops of onions left behind from  last year as seasoning and even the odd chilli pepper which I’m overwintering in my new greenhouse. I didn’t realise pepper plants can last a few years here, like perennials.

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Cucumber seedlings

The favas, which again self seeded from last year are flowering already and I am hoping there are enough insects about for them to set seed and if they do the wild west winds that tend to rattle around us in March don’t blow off all the burgeoning seed pods. I am growing summer savoury, which when eaten in conjunction with favas are meant to stop you farting. We will see!
I have brined the olives I picked from my biggest tree last October and they are curing nicely, we are eating the green ones already and the black ones are going all wrinkly in their bed of salt as they should. Once they are finished, the skins can be quite hard, so I often spend a morning peeling them and de-pipping them before turning them into a tapenade.  Oh the joys of retirement, to spend a whole morning taking olives apart! We didn’t pick enough to make oil this year, but it is something I’d like to do in the future, as we certainly have enough trees to give us at least 10-15 litres, especially if we grafted some our wild olives and made all our trees productive.

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Salvia Officianalis and Rosmarinus officinalis

The wonderful aromatic shrubs in the garden also have a range of uses and I am learning them. Rosemary and Sage for cooking, verbena and mint for teas, myrtle and fennel to flavour vodkas and lavender to flavour olive oil to make a dressing for tomatoes. Even the weeds  can be eaten. I have used nettle tops for soup, as my grandmother used to do and the stalks of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) in salads, although they are very scented and Señor Faztudo  says its like eating after shave. Nasturtiums also grow well here and I dot them amongst the vegetables and put the leaves in salads, even eating the seeds like capers as they produce a plentiful amount, although they need to be planted on north facing banks as they can’t take temperatures above 30 degrees and shrivel and die off quite quickly in July.

This year I am attempting to grow a patch of chick peas for the first time. The peas need to be planted quite deep after rain and then once up, don’t need further watering. Even if I get a kilo from my little patch, this will give me some hummus, which we both love.

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Various Kales grown from seed

My new greenhouse has been a great pleasure (more of that in a future post) and I have far too many tomato, squash and courgette and pepper plants, waiting for the warmer weather. I also have outside cucumbers, which for some reason, I have never grown very successfully, but I have prepared a special place for them this year, so let’s see.

Reading this, it sounds like I have an enormous vegetable garden or something. I really don’t. I grow my vegetables potager stylie, some time ago realising that they can be just as beautiful as any annual flower garden. Sometimes everything looks so pretty I can hardly bring myself to eat it, but I am getting better at planting things throughout the season to take the place of the things we eat.

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The vegetable garden…spot the cat’s head!

So, eat your garden folks! And eat it quickly before something else does. As I speak, the rain is falling steadily outside after months and months of blue skies and no rain and if I listen carefully I’m sure I  can hear the sound of the little snails chomping their way through my greens. I don’t blame them, but it can’t be allowed as I need the crop. A good way to deal with problem that might be to eat them back! Now there’s a thought..

To my Valentine, Garden.

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A Rose from my Valentine

Dear Garden,

I know you will be surprised to get this letter from me, after all we’ve been together for five years and seen each other every day, so you might wonder at the need for this sudden formality. However, I have the desire to tell you and indeed all the world, just for posterity, how much you mean to me. It wasn’t love at first sight, I admit.  It was the view beyond that attracted me first.  That handsome and inspiring rocky outcrop on the other side of the valley, with the little white village nestling in its armpit grabbed my attention over your shoulder. The mist at its feet was ethereal, the translucent evening light dazzling. I wanted to gaze at it for all eternity. When I finally turned my attention to you, it was quite a shock. You’d undergone some upheaval I admit, recent building works had left you in considerable disarray. Dishevelled and uprooted, discombobulated even, I wondered how I would even begin to work with you to set things straight, let alone help you become the beautiful garden I’d desired all my life. I wondered if I’d ever have the energy to mould your banks, build your steps, form your paths, make your beds, and plant the seeds to make you whole.

As I was wondering all this, Spring came all of a sudden and I turned my attention away for a second, absorbed in the almond blossom and the sparkling sea. When I returned to you, you gave me flowers. Your battered soil  was covered with every kind of beauty, wild chrysanthemum, their daisy heads sparkling like crowns; sumptuous borage alive with bees; wild fennel, home to the Swallowtail; asphodel; poppies in five different shades of red. You  smelled divine too. I breathed in your heady scent.  I turned away from gazing at the rocky outcrop and fell head over heels in love with you. A love which just grows and grows.

You’ve  been very patient with me whilst I try to understand you. You are a foreigner to me, a garden from a far off land with many things to teach me. I thought I was recovering you, but in fact you’ve recovered me. You’ve been a hard teacher at times, rejecting my attempts to inflict my will on you, even killing the tender plants I placed in your care, or shrivelling up my most beautiful efforts and stamping on my dreams. But I know  really you are only mirroring back at me my need for  control, gently teaching me to work with you, not against you. To teach me that we two are one.

So, dear one, it’s been five years since we became  intimately acquainted. I walk your new paths every morning and tend to your trees, both the old ones, planted long ago by other lovers and the new, my gifts to you. There will be new lovers for you too, and although I feel a tinge of sadness at the thought, I wish you well. Love can only be true when you set your lover free.

So, I  think I’ve found the flowers you like, those with strong roots and a tough demeanour, the enduring ones. I’ve planted you herbs to nurture you  and left you precious wild plants to cover you in the Spring. I have learned to give you just enough water, not too much, to feed you at the right time and in the right way. I’ve nourished your bones and in return you’ve nourished my soul. As I learn, you become more beautiful and so do I.

When I am gone, for I will go before you, remember me.  I will be in the hot wind that blows from Spain in the summer and the cold gusts rattling your bones from my homeland in the North;  I will be in the mists that shroud you; the light rain that kisses you. I will be in the special places where we spent hours together;  I will be under the ancient olive tree. For I love you more than words can say and you have healed me and left me whole. One Love. Jane

Gardening in Portugal – Seeing the wood from the trees

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Almond and Olive logs:this year’s and last.

The sound of buzzing chainsaws are filling the valley at the moment and ours is one of them. Well, not ours exactly, as we have enlisted the help of a friend who is much more experienced to do some  difficult tree work. The expertise arises in understanding how to deal with very heavy boughs that need to be cut safely, calculating how they will fall and where they will land to avoid damage, either to the structures they hang over, or the person handling the operation. There is much rubbing of chins between Señor Faztudo  and our friend , as this is a serious business indeed, since it involves people’s safety. I keep out of it, preferring to potter elsewhere and leave the experts to deal with it, as it scares me.  When people buy a house with lots of land, as they often do when they come to Portugal, they don’t realise how much work it can be, even to maintain the trees, nor do they realise that trees and what they produce are the main crop for most farmers in Portugal, especially in the Algarve.

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My cat checking out the olive tree

When we arrived at this house, whilst the garden was completely undeveloped, the builder had preserved every tree he could, which left us with several olive trees, some very ancient, as well as mature almond and carob trees  to care for. Some of these trees were planted by the ancestors of people in our village and the builder of our house remembers playing under the olive tree at the back as a child. It seems like an important business to be custodians of such venerable trees.

Some of the our trees are overhanging the roads and after a while, tree boughs can become too heavy and the branches unsafe.  The old carobs, in particular, have brittle, huge trunks, resembling an elephant’s leg and are very heavy.  For this reason the  carob tree is known as “the widow maker” by local people, because, for sure if a large branch fell on you, that would be the end.

Over the past few years, I’ve  come to enjoy this tree work in the early part of the year , which has a beginning, a middle and an end, unlike some jobs in the garden which go on forever. Señor Faztudo saws up all the medium branches with a handsaw, after the chainsaw has done its work, to create kindling for next year’s winter fires. These branches are mainly olive and burn very hot  in our woodburning stove, useful to get the fire up to a critical heat before adding the bigger logs. I use an electric chipping machine to chip the smaller branches to use on the paths in the vegetable garden at the back. It takes quite a long time but it’s therapeutic and we  need the biomass, because it all improves the soil.

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Cut wood to be processed

At the end, we are left with a small pile of scraggy stuff to burn , and I pull up a chair and enjoy this little bonfire, which is far too dangerous to have at any other time of the year and which reminds me of camping trips in Norfolk and my childhood in Wales. I even leave a potato in foil in the embers for my breakfast.  It’s a pleasure tinged with sadness though, as I think of all the people in Central and Northern Portugal who lost so much in the fires at the end of last year. Many people are cleaning their land of combustible material at the moment under a strict government directive to reduce the fire risk to properties before next Summer and we are still in an extreme drought situation over half of the country, which is very concerning if it continues into another summer.

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Almond twigs for kindling or chipping


Altogether, our wood harvest this year came to about a tonne, which would have cost us about 130 euros to buy and lasts us about a month in our wood burning stove, so our work is rewarding financially too. I ponder how our hard work cutting and stacking the logs and hauling them all up the hill to the woodpile to dry out for a year, is keeping us healthy and saving in gym membership, as well as hopefully keeping us warm next winter. Going to the gym , which we used to do in London, seems so silly when I think about it now. My garden is my gym and my muscles are strong and my legs sturdy as I make my way up and down the hill carrying one thing or another or pushing the wheelbarrow. I strongly advise any retired person to find a garden on a hill to keep fit!

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A graft of peach branches onto a bitter almond tree

Pruning trees has all kinds of purposes, I have come to discover; to make trees safe; to produce and stimulate new growth; to keep the fruit trees low enough to be able to harvest from them; to make grafts, and to keep the tree balanced with air flowing through the middle to prevent fungal disease. Pruning can be quite controversial, some say it weakens the tree, some say it makes it stronger. Olives in particular divide people, especially where thy are clipped for ornamental purposes. I have a small wild olive on my terrace which we keep clipped to be able to admire the view and prevent too many olives falling on the tiles. But I  have to say I don’t feel at all good about it. I don’t really like extreme pruning of trees. Hedges are different, but a noble olive need to be allowed to grow more naturally, for my taste, although Señor Faztudo  doesn’t entirely  agree with me, and he is generally the Keeper of the Trees.

 

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Big Daddy Olive


As I chip away, a sort of meditative exercise once you’ve cut all the knobbly bits off that won’t go through,   I note the different properties of the twigs I am dealing with.  The olive twigs are whippy and thorny. I reserve some olive branches to keep chickens off my Agapanthus bed and as pea sticks. Olive doesn’t rot down quickly, which is both a good and a bad thing, but definitely good for pea sticks and chicken defenses. . Almond is very woody and brittle and great for chipping for use on paths and also very good as small kindling.

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Olive chipping used as a mulch

Carob is knobbly and weird looking, almost prehistoric, but burns cheerfully with straight branches that go in the chipper easily. The leaves make good compost and the area underneath an old carob has fertile soil and provides shade for many beautiful wild flowers, not least the striking azure Scilla Peruviana, an amazing sight in the Spring.

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A number 1 for a wild olive

Our labour produces a satisfying pile of logs for next season, stacked away from the house to avoid it becoming a fire risk in itself. They will stay there a year or more before being dry enough to use on the fire. We put the wood on a pallet off the ground against the wood boring insects that have been quite prevalent this year, and bag up the kindling to leave in a dry place. We don’t really need to cover the wood like you do in the UK, because we know by next October, when it’s ready to burn, it will be bone dry after the hot summer.

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Bean sticks or is it art?


So now the trees are tidy and safe, we have  pea sticks aplenty and chicken defences, mulch for our paths and a bean wigwam for the beans I will plant in May and wood stacked against the cold of next winter. All feels well with the world and  I can see the wood from the trees!

Gardening in Portugal: Successes and failures in my Algarve garden

Before I write this month’s blog entry, I want to acknowledge that there are some gardeners and many agriculturalists and subsistence farmers who have lost all they have built and grown, sometimes over several generations in the Centre and North of Portugal to the devastating wild fires of this searing hot summer. Any words I have seem Inadequate. I can only say, if you are a gardener who has lost their garden to the fires, and are ever down my way in the Algarve, you have an open invitation to come and have a cup of tea with me and take any cuttings or plants that take your fancy. Just get in touch via the comments. I would be completely devastated to be in your position and think of you with great concern. 
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This is the time of the year in Portugal to begin planting, that is as soon as the first rains come and some are finally forecast for tomorrow, and the gardening  cycle begins again.  It’s also a time for reflection on the progress of the garden and so here I am, waiting for the rain and  pondering on  what has worked and what hasn’t and what should be done next.

Over the past five years, I  have tried lots of things in my garden, in many ways one of the delights is to experiment, and when I’m not actually gardening, I am scouring gardening books and Facebook groups to beg, borrow and steal from the experiences of other gardeners. But all that is set against my own particular garden, and whilst some things work fine in some settings and some microclimates and some soils, they don’t always work for me. Whilst I always have a desire to be helpful to other new gardeners to Portugal, I am ever mindful that everyone has their own journey to make when it comes to their garden and even whilst advice is useful, no one has all the answers for your set of circumstances, not even the professionals.
So I thought I’d dwell a little on my personal successes and failures, since it is almost five years since we came to live in Portugal and acquired the unplanted  and disturbed piece of earth on the side of a north facing hill that is becoming my piece of Portuguese Paradise.
When we first started to make our garden, our biggest concern was how to manage the perennial weeds on the disturbed part of the garden and very hard, compacted  clay soil at the back. I made the decision to plant quite large areas with drought resistant and  native plants, lavenders and santolinas, rosemary and salvias, cistus and thymes and grasses of various kinds, as we are clearly not able to sustain the watering needed for thirsty ornamentals.. At the beginning, our weeds were literally about 8 feet high as the ground had been thoroughly disturbed and was attempting to heal itself with a huge flush of chrysanthemum coronium and wild radish. It looked very beautiful to be sure, but we had to clear it and the roots were very deep. There was only us two to clear it and whilst we managed to cut it down, cutting through swathes as though through a jungle until we met each other in the middle, there was no way we could remove the roots over such a large area. After a week or so of heavy rain and quite a bit of research we bought brown landscape fabric to lay down with the intention of planting natives through it and covering with a i layer of number 2 brita, as medium-sized gravel is called here. Now, a lot has been written recently about the dangers of using landscape fabric and I agree with much of what is said here:
However, I can only say that in my particular situation and with native plants that flourish in compacted clay and only in certain areas of my garden , it has worked very well and has enabled me to get a big area of garden up and running quickly. I wouldn’t put it in badly drained areas…the biggest danger is rotting the roots of the plants in heavy rain. Neither would I put it in areas I am irrigating. I only use it where I have natives that five years in, I don’t water at all. Based on my experience, I would never use the black plastic fabric with the green lines going through, only the brown, breathable one. The fabric and the mulch keep the moisture in for a long time and I haven’t had any problems with the roots growing into the fabric. Little by little, I am making the holes for the plants bigger and removing the fabric and once the whole ground is covered with plants and you can’t see the gravel, I will probably remove it all, just leaving the gravel, as it will have done its job of allowing the plants to get established without the weeds taking over.
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Another successful technique has been dividing the garden, which is about  1,770 m2 or in old money, just under half an acre, into different garden “rooms” about 14 in all, with different plantings and purposes. I reckon each “room” is about the equivalent of my small terraced back garden in South London and if I see things like that, they become more manageable. I have planted some screening of  fast growing hedges, of Myoporum Laetum, which although not the most drought resistant and needing some maintenance, are very fast growing. This has provided my very exposed garden with some shelter from the north winds (I have since found this plant inspires great hatred amongst some gardeners, with more useful plants being available, but still find it useful, although I don’t think I’d like a huge hedge of it)
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One of my aims has always been to grow vegetables, but with brick hard soil full of small rocks, this was very difficult in the beginning. I also had no understanding of the seasons and spent a lot of money watering things that couldn’t grow above certain temperatures, ending up with shrivelled pathetic cabbages that probably cost about 20 euros in water (I blush to think of it now)  I tried lots of permaculture techniques : hugelkultur; total failure as none of the wood rotted a jot and all the soil and water ran off, I had to deconstruct it in the end. I tried making compost in the traditional way and encouraging worms..no…too dry, too hot. What did work however was lasagna beds. I piled mounds of any of the garden rubbish and annual weeds interspersed with coffee grounds, newspapers, leaves, twigs, everything and let them rot down in the winter rains. Luckily in my first two or three years here, it did rain a lot in the winter, lately we haven’t been so fortunate. However, I realised that my vegetable garden wasn’t productive enough whilst these beds where taking their time to rot down and I was beginning to become interested in the Charles Dowding  “no dig” approach (google for info, there is  even a FB group dedicated to it)   Also, my vegetable garden is at the back of the house and doesn’t get enough sun in the summer for tomatoes and squashes, so I resolved to use the front of the garden near the chickens for them. I have now adapted a sort of lasagna bed, African keyhole garden type thingie, which I call  “stork’s nest.” as I have explained in  earlier post.  All garden rubbish is piled up in the Autumn into a large circle of chicken wire, kept up by six fence posts. This is in the middle of the garden area (not near a wall to prevent vermin nesting in it and under the watchful eye of the chickens and the cats). I pile it high, finishing with a thick layer of garden manure mixed with some sand and soil and let the rain do its work over the winter. I then use my saved cisterna rain water for two purposes, one to grow squash for winter storage,  pumpkins and courgettes in the stork’s nest bed and two, to whilst they were growing, to make compost for the winter vegetable no dig beds. Any excess water ran  down and watered a nearby avocado tree. It’s important to keep it watered, obviously, otherwise it constitutes a fire risk.
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(I know it’s ugly now, but it looked lovely in the Summer)
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I emptied it of lovely friable compost this Autumn, the only disadvantage was  having to take the compost up  the hill to the top vegetable beds, but I used the van for that as much as possible. I then laid  down a layer of cardboard on the back garden vegetable beds and a thick  layer of compost and rotted manure and planted into it  (mostly plug plants as the ants are still about and carry off all the seed) There is no digging, just a bit of heaving and carrying and I can plant quite happily even before the rains with a bit of water as the compost is soft and friable for the young roots and the cardboard blocks out any weeds before rotting down.
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Looking at plantings, anything I have planted that  is related to things that grow wild here has been wonderful and the smells and the sight of the plants in the Spring and the buzzing and droning of all the insects is delightful beyond measure. Roses are amazing too, to my surprise, although some cannot take the excessive heat, I’ve found white roses work best as the flowers last longest in the sun, in my garden, anyway.
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Citrus  trees on the other hand, have been a disappointment. They have taken five years to be no taller than my chest, have sulked and pouted, used far too much water and are prone to all kinds of diseases. Yet I persist. I have invested too much in them to let them die on me now. I am grimly determined to get them to maturity. My garden is a bit too cold and the clay isn’t pleasing to them. They are always moaning on. “Tough,” I tell them “I’m all you’ve got and you will grow to maturity, like it or not!” They mutter on, but haven’t given up the ghost yet!
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Tropical things are difficult in my garden. I do have two frangipanis, but I cosset them endlessly and a Moringa and an Indian curry leaf tree, Murraya koenigii, both of which are growing in pots.  am suffering vexations over where to put them in the ground. I would love them to grow enough for me to pick the leaves, but I know I’m on the edge here with these trees, especially as we had quite a severe frost in parts of the garden last year. I have no doubt  they will have to be planted behind the house, sheltered from the North winds of the winter.
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And the chickens? Well they have been a success, because now I’ve found a balance between them and the garden and I understand their ways. Dividing the garden into two halves has worked well and now they know their half very well and always run off cackling when we come home from a shopping trip and discover them sunning themselves on the terrace. There is no doubt they dig and poo, but that’s ok as they don’t have access to my “tender” vegetable garden and I can protect the squash plants and tomato plants quite easily from them when they’re young. They don’t eat most aromatics or aloes or ornamental grasses and are maturing the garden constantly, so we’re all happy. But it took some work to get it right. I had them far too near the house originally, that’s for sure and gave them too free a rein. Chickens are creatures of habit and they also listen to a good cockerel or chief hen. They are not stupid and can be trained, but you have to be persistent and consistent. Once they have settled on their daily circuit, as long as there is plenty of food and shelter, they don’t seem to stray from it. Chickens don’t like the unknown and unexpected much and Señor Faztudo is certainly quite good at being unexpected with the water pistol!
One of the reasons why I write this blog, among many is to help anyone inheriting this garden after me to understand the processes I  went through in making it, As a teacher, I always told my students, it isn’t about a right or wrong answer, it’s about your thinking along the way. Capturing my thinking, which is often all over the place, is helpful to me and I  hope helpful to others too, who are about to start their own journey in the garden.
I am sitting here now watching the grey clouds scudding across the sky and longing for the rain so the gardening can really begin. We haven’t had any proper rain since May and it’s sorely needed. A failure of Mother Nature, not of our  making, which I hope she will soon redress, both for my garden’s sake and more importantly, for those still under threat of fire. I’m off out to do a rain dance now, please join me, wherever you are!