Gardening in Portugal – Chicken Symbiosis

I have been a Chicken Keeper for eight years now And I’ve learned a great deal from them and about them. I was watching a YouTube permaculture video the other day where a woman who keeps chickens and goats, explained that it had taken her a long time to learn how to give the goats back as much as they gave her. That set me thinking and asking myself, do I give as much back to the chickens as they give me?  The answer is probably, just about, but it’s taken time for me to get there and I’m still learning.

But what do we give each other? What is the  exchange between these so called  “ utility” creatures as some call them, and myself? 

Firstly and foremost, the chickens give me joy. When I watch them scratching happily in a pile of ash in the sunshine or see a mother hen clucking around the garden finding bugs for her beautiful, fluffy-bummed chicks; as I trim the shrubs, or when I turn my head from a planting task to see the fine cockerel shake out  his wings  and  strut  his stuff for his ladies, my heart swells. Chickens make my gardening even more of a pleasure with their coos and their trills and their warning calls as a large bird flies overhead. They punctuate my days, as I wander down in my pyjamas and let them out, or pick my way to the chicken shed in the dark, by the light of a perfectly round orange moon rising over the eastern hills.

Do I give them joy? Well, that’s hard to say. They certainly look joyful to be released in the morning; sound joyful when I arrive with the food bucket of some  leftovers from the kitchen; running around crazily trying to catch a fly. However, a chicken’s feelings are only for it to know, I cannot second guess. What I do know is I’ve studied them almost every day for eight years and I do know what they like. They like routine for one thing. They want to be let out in the morning for a tasty breakfast and a good long drink of fresh water. They delight in having soft places to scratch  and hang out under the trees, they are not happy during their quiet times to be out in the open. They want to be free with lots of space to roam in groups, or alone, but they want to feel safe. They like to know where they stand with the people around them. They prefer it if you move softly around them. They don’t like to be caught by the tail, or even caught at all really.  They enjoy the security of settling into their hard fought for places on the perches in the coop and locked away to my silly good night chicken lullaby song. 

Chickens are not wild though, we tend them, and as a Chicken Keeper you need  to do the unpalatable things too in order keep your flock healthy and safe. You need to clean their wounds; bathe them if they get shitty bottoms and trim the poo off their feathers so they don’t  get fly strike; clean out the stinky chicken shed, taking especial care to prevent fleas and mites; deal with  their claws if they  get  too long; wrap them up warm and leave  them to die in a dignified way if they are too old and sick to carry on. Sometimes, and this is the very  hardest bit for me, the flock  will  need balancing and you will need to take care of excess males, however you choose to do that. For me, it is with a heavy heart I break their trust in me and take them quickly to the executioner’s cone. At first I tried to give them away to other chicken keepers but that never worked out really. It is very sobering to take a life and I understand why some feel it is very wrong and become vegan. I don’t seek to justify the slaughter, that is between me and my conscience, but slaughter them I do…and eat or use every bit, to the last feather.

At first, I thought I wanted chickens because of the eggs, but the eggs are just a wonderful side benefit. Anyone who frets about the eggs being stolen from a chicken needn’t worry unduly. It is hard work for a chicken to sit still on a brood for three weeks and then look after the babies for a further six weeks. You wouldn’t really  want her doing that more the once a year or so, especially in the Algarve heat. And in order to sit, a hen needs to go broody and some never do. The reason why humans domesticated Jungle fowl in the first place, which is the bird the domestic chicken descended from, is because every day a hen will leave her chosen nest and forget  about it completely until she has about ten to twelve eggs and only then does she go broody. Broodiness is an interesting phenomena, where a perfectly calm chicken turns into a creature resembling Godzilla. She starts a persistent cluck -clucking over a few  days, puffs herself up like a feathery football with her tail fanned out and  runs around in discomfort as she feels hot underneath and all she wants to do  is to sit on a nice clutch of eggs and go inside herself in her own zone for three weeks. Touch her in this state and may well get sworn at and pecked! However, if you take away a few eggs every day so there are never more than a few, she isn’t so likely to go into this state. Although  Señor Faz-tudo made  some beautiful egg boxes for the hens, in reality they lay eggs all over  the place in secret nests and we often have Easter egg type hunts to find them. If you don’t find them, one day you will be missing a hen and think maybe a fox got her, until she reappears proudly three weeks later with seven or eight of her progeny skittering along behind her. It’s still a sight that makes me catch my breath in delight.

The best thing the chickens actually do for us is weed the garden, manure it and make amazing compost. This is a benefit I hadn’t really foreseen. The manuring and weeding is done as a natural process, as chickens love to scratch, dig for bugs and generally turn over the soil. To do this, they have just about exactly half of our hillside garden. The other half of the garden, as I have mentioned before, is off limits to chickens and although it isn’t all fenced off, they have learned that we guard the boundaries and as long  as I keep them well fed, they only occasionally encroach for a naughty escapade but run off in alarm when they see us as they know they aren’t meant to be there.

In their half, I  planted  aromatics such as rosemaries, thymes, salvias and succulents, all of which chickens don’t eat, and fruit trees. Under the fruit trees, we dump fresh horse manure, leaves, household scraps ( uncooked) and ash. The chickens scratch away happily and within six weeks, with a bit of rain or some watering, it is perfect  compost, which can then be used on my no dig beds. All of the weed seeds have been eaten as well, an added bonus. They are such happy  workers and I really enjoy watching them do what they do best. 

Finally, they are mostly self sustaining, in that new chickens, on the whole, come from within the flock. Now I have a happy, healthy flock, every two years, I get a good brood of young chicks, allowing whichever hen seems to desire it, to be a mum. To see new life being created is always a delight and I couldn’t imagine denying them this. The cockerel gets even more protective and it is so endearing to see him joining in with the food finding. 

So, it’s a symbiotic relationship, a balance if you like, between their needs and mine. Sometimes  I look at them and envy them their simple, healthy cared for life. You could do worse than be a bird in my flock really, well unless you are an excess cockerel of  course! 

Gardening in Portugal – The Big Questions

The other day I was working in the garden thinking about ethics, as you do. I wandered in for a cup of Yorkshire tea and a digestive and had a little Google  to find out whether anyone out there was considering the ethics of gardening and of course they were. I found this and learnt a new word “ Anthropocene” You can look it up, I had to. 

This is what the abstract for an academic chapter written by Marcello Di Paola said:

“This chapter argues that working in gardens can disclose and enable the exploration of important sources of meaning in and for our lives in the Anthropocene. This will happen in the process of developing and exercising attitudinal and behavioural dispositions that are enabled and required by the correct performance of the practice of gardening. Such process moulds character and is in turn reinforced by the character that it moulds – by the behavioral and attitudinal dispositions that it enables and requires individuals to develop and exercise.”

Now this is what I had been  thinking exactly as I worked. How is the garden shaping my attitudes? As I put down the cardboard for my “No Dig” beds, I was wondering if the printing ink on the box would damage my soil in some way.   I carefully peeled off all the sellotape , so it wouldn’t remain in the soil. I left patches of nettles and borage for the beneficial insects. I didn’t till the soil, in order to help the earthworms and garden biome.

Food from the garden

There is no doubt that our gardening practices are shaped by our beliefs, but does our gardening actually change our beliefs too?  If you work close to nature every day, you observe the flora and fauna and you begin to know what makes it  happy and what makes it sad, what makes it healthy and what makes it ill. But you too are part of that process, you are fundamental in your interference, because you are directly intervening in the natural process. 

Lately I have been thinking hard about life and death. I am acutely aware that my life is coming to an end. My mother died when she was six years older than I am now, my father lived until he was twelve years older than me, about the length of time it takes a fruit tree to grow to full maturity then.  Maybe that is all I have left, who knows? Hopefully, I will go suddenly, whilst pruning the roses, the same way a dear gardening friend of mine died. But one thing is sure, I won’t live forever.  When you work in a garden on a daily  basis, the full cycle of life and death is apparent to you.  However, the ethical question is, how far are you a part of that as far as the flora and fauna or even the birds and animals in your garden is concerned? I am a life enabler on this little patch. I sow seeds and nurture them to maturity, but then I favour them over  other plants, which I mercilessly pull up to give my vegetable seedling an advantage. However, I also feed the unwanted plants  to the chickens to give them nourishment or I put them back into the soil to support the earthworms. But then sometimes I feed the earthworms to the chickens. I am both a life giver and a life destroyer.

Uneaten by snails Seedlings
Nibbled by snails seedlings

I personally am not afraid of death. But that is because of my beliefs that life is a circle and death is just a recycling process. Everywhere in the garden, you see this process, plants, insects and animals come to this earth, live, fulfil their purpose and die, that is the process. A mouse  does not live its life fearing death. It exists for now, until it dies, often in the jaws of a totally unremorseful cat, after a period of prolonged torture. Or maybe the cat is remorseful, who knows?

But then, what of murder?  And what is murder? If I squish a cabbage white caterpillar between my fingers and bring about its instant death, am I a murderer, or just a predator trying to protect its food? Most of us nowadays have not suffered potential starvation or come even close. I  search my conscience on this often and realise  I don’t feel any remorse  when I squish a cabbage white caterpillar, eating my cabbages, not a jot. I can reason why this is. I could say that it is preferable for me to do this than spray with an insecticide. I could say that I would prefer to grow my own cabbages rather than buy them from the supermarkets where they have been sprayed to death and probably  picked by someone  subjected to conditions of modern day slavery in the greenhouses  of Spain. But the simple fact is, I feel nothing when I squish a caterpillar. I am happy for the cabbage whites to go whither they like, just not on my cabbages or I will squish them. Yet I go to great lengths to encourage the butterflies of the Swallowtail  or Painted Lady into my garden, encouraging their host plants to grow.  I have to live with my feeling little about being a cabbage white serial killer, but I know not everyone feels like me. 

The other vexed question is the type of plants it is ethical to grow. Why shouldn’t we have whatever we like in our own garden?  What does it  matter if we plant a water hungry avocado or a lawn? We pay the water bill, why should it be anyone else’s business?  Just like our behaviour over Covid19, the problem is increasingly how our behaviour impinges on others and that is the issue. I  have to confess here that I have been trying to grow an avocado for six years and wasted a lot of water on it. This is water which I could have used to grow something more suited to the climate. It takes seventy litres of water in average to grow one avocado fruit. Even if you have a bore hole, that water is coming from a finite resource, the aquifer. Really, we shouldn’t be eating avocados, as it is damaging to the environment and neither should we grow them in a drought threatened environment.  It’s an ethical decision. Likewise, should I ignore Government advice and grow species of plants which I know to be invasive? Surely it won’t do any harm to have a pampas grass in my garden, if I kept it under control? All these questions raise discussion, personal decisions and often a great deal of judgement. Did you know nasturtiums are in the banned list in Portugal? No, thought not. But nasturtiums are great for preventing cabbage white caterpillar infestation. Tricky decisions have to be taken! Are cabbage whites even native butterflies? Should we destroy an invading species  of ladybird that is killing another native species? Is killing always wrong? 

One thing I know I do believe in is the quality of life of any living thing. I strive for a good quality of life for all the things in the garden I am tending. I try to understand the right balance, the needs of a plant. I do not kill garden creatures unless they are killing or damaging greatly the plants I am caring for, plants that I am going to eat mostly. And if I do kill them, I care about how and the way it will affect other creatures or the soil, or the air. The garden itself is teaching me this. 

Gardening and food production all have their methods and means and they move and change with the ages. I am personally very upset at the thought of aquaculture and aquaponics and growing food indoors for example. I think it’s cruel to plants to grow them indoors, in similar conditions to battery hens, their roots in water, fed by captive fish. I hate bonsai and topiary, it reminds me of foot binding  and neck rings and lip  plates. I don’t even really like clipping  my hedges or pruning my trees, although I do it as others convince me it helps them. And the thought of trying to grow fruits to specific shapes on the tree horrifies me.  I think we can be as cruel to plants as we are to animals, without a second thought. I don’t even like passing some of the plant factories, aka nurseries, around here  in the Algarve, with their serried rows of plants all fed by chemicals and water and grown for the point of sale to perfection. Very often, when you get these pampered plants home and plant them in real soil, in real garden conditions, they pop their clogs, sulking as they have been molly coddled to the point of being unable to cope in a real garden. I would rather grow plants from seed myself, so I can raise them properly. 

The advent of social media allows discussion about these gardening issues, which is very important, I feel. I used  to have these kinds of discussions in a hut on our London allotment during our monthly allotment committee meetings. Bonfires  were often on the agenda and caused huge argument, as did the use of glyphosate, no dig gardening and the keeping of bees.  I have learned a great deal about the environment, the beliefs and the practices of other gardeners both from real and virtual chats with others. But, finally our gardening decisions are ours alone to have. 

Allotment garden

I once  had a huge row with Shirley, my Jamaican allotment neighbour, because she was using a non return valve on her garden hose, something which the committee had asked us not to do as it could have polluted the water supply. It got very personal and I had to smile to myself when her  husband, a hot blooded Sicilian told me, whilst defending his wife, that “ her vegetables were better than mine anyway”  which in fact, was very true. We made it up later and I told myself to mind my own business in future, these  things are never worth losing good gardening  friends over.  And that is what I was pondering on, as I planted  my snail nibbled kales today.  Perhaps I should stop thinking so much and just be one with my kale.

Gardening in Portugal – without a drought!

It is raining. Until October, we hadn’t had any rain since May 14th, when we had the last light shower. Since then, we had no rain for five months. The smell of the rain on the parched earth is so reminiscent of the end of my childhood summers and childlike, at the first decent shower, I run outside in my bare feet and turn my face to the sky, poking out my tongue to catch a precious drop. 

I think back to the first little ruined cottage we bought in the Algarve, around about twenty years ago. We had no thought of the water supply when we bought it and there wasn’t one connected to the mains. We didn’ t even ask about it, imagine that! We knew it had a cisterna, but we didn’t really know what that meant. Somehow the rain came off the roof and went into a big tank under the ground and supplied the house with water. We could deal with it all later, we thought.

The cisterna which fed our first house

Over the years we renovated this little cottage and got good instructions from our neighbour about how to manage the cisterna. The rain ran off through the roof into a small tank, which had a pipe near the top  with a filter tied around the pipe, which led into a larger tank. Any sediment  coming off the roof ran into the bottom of the small tank and could be cleaned out. Our neighbour warned us to clean out the first run off before it got into the tank, as it could contain rat and bird faeces and other nasties from the roof, so we baled it out and cleaned it. Then she used to come across with a bowl containing some little fish from her cisterna, which you could purchase from the water board. You put them in the tank and they cleaned the water of any escaped impurities. As the cisterna was underground , it kept relatively cool and people in the Algarve even drank from theirs, I was told. We didn’t drink ours, but it was our main water supply the whole time we owned the cottage. A tank would last two months of very careful household use, and then we had to get it filled by a local farmer with a borehole, with a tanker attached to a tractor. We had to make do with saved washing up water for any pot plants. We really learned the value of water and the importance of saving it during this time. This little cottage was our holiday home for many years and a few years before we sold it, we got mains water. Whilst I was glad to get the mains, we then found out about the costs of water, which is metered in Portugal. Dreams of growing vegetables through the dry periods were out of the question. a cabbage can become worth more than a bottle of champagne if you have to water it from the main, as Señor Faztudo was quick to point out.

An expensive and slightly nibbled cabbage

We bought our present house as it was being built by a local building friend. Eyeing the large roof, we asked him to include a cisterna into the build and he built us a large tank, almost as big as a swimming pool. Since our house is on a steep hill, water management for heavy rain was essential and how it was managed was an advantage for the garden. The drive itself became a conduit for the torrents of water and inbuilt in the drive were two wide swales or drains to direct all the water which runs down the drive back into the garden, so all that water goes to the plants and trees. As the soil is thick clay, the soil retains the water for a long time, so the more we collect during wet weather, the more is available to the tree roots. The other water saving measure is a grey water system. A large pit was built into a terraced part of the garden, which has a sand and gravel filter. It works by gravity, the next level being much deeper down. The grey water is filtered through the pit and comes out clean  at the bottom into a piped  irrigation system for the trees. Very simple and satisfying. Nothing like having a shower and knowing you are watering the orchard at the same time! 

We have built our whole garden around water preservation, a central terrace has a collection of grasses and perennials which need no watering at all, once established. People don’t always believe me that I don’t water it, but to do so would actually kill some of the plants. Lavender and rosemary quickly succumb to fungal diseases if you water too much in the summer. It’s hard though, because it’s so counter intuitive for us Northern Europeans not to water in hot weather and so we often kill with kindness. The terrace is heavily mulched with gravel. The fruit trees need water and are fed by the grey water system. I guess this means my fruits aren’t strictly organic since there are some chemical in the washing water from the house which don’t get filtered out, but we use ecological products and no damage seems to have occurred to us or the trees or indeed the chickens who sometimes drink the water come out of the irrigation pipes before I can stop them. I have planted vetiver grass to clean any chemicals from the soil, which it is meant to do very effectively.

The Algarve is having a big debate at the moment about water, but not too many solutions are forthcoming. Huge monocultures of water guzzling avocado plantations continue to be planted and yet another inland golf course near us is about to be completed in an environmentally sensitive area, one of the few water courses which doesn’t dry up in the summer. I pass the place regularly, still under construction and wince when I see the slogan they have adopted “carved by nature” I am tempted to get a graffiti spray and change the “by” to “up” I am sure I will  be pushing up daisies by the time they come around to making the changes they most desperately need to make to preserve water. So much more is being used in the past years both on agriculture and tourism and so little thought is going into the future. Cutting everything down in sight against fire doesn’t help, it just creates erosion, less humidity and turns us into a desert. In the meantime I will keep planting trees and making my own green ark, watered mostly with natural rainfall and using every drop twice.

My ark

Gardening in Portugal – Genus Envy

My garden is as dry as dust. Here in the Algarve it is what I call the fifth season, the desert  season, when the plants are deep asleep or hanging on for grim death until the first rains. In my Uk garden, I accepted that everything was asleep in the winter cold; all stopped and there was nothing to be done until the first signs of Spring, as the ground thaws.  Here, it is so tempting to start watering lavenders and rosemaries, bringing about their certain death from fungal diseases and hard not to feel mournful and wonder if the garden will ever come back to life again. I have chosen to have a dry garden; colourful summer plants are limited to pots or areas close to the house. The rest is a sea of browns and soft greys right now, the Aeoniums, proudly plump and rosette like in the Spring, have become small buttons and Aloes are curling and turning a protective red. 

I get very doubtful at this time of year, I wonder if I am doing the right thing in this muddled naturalistic design which reflects my own nature; half farm, half villa garden; mainly for my pleasure but also for our guests, although there aren’t many in this weird covid year.  People don’t understand, they feel sorry for me almost, when they see everything dried up  and then I feel a bit sorry for myself. Feeling sorry for yourself never really brings about any change or anything good.  You have got to get uo and get on with it, it’s the only remedy. 

My doubtful feelings were compounded recently, when I visited some beautiful  gardens in my village belonging to my neighbours. Some people in our Algarve village  are from tropical countries, the Caribbean and Africa and of course they aspire to grow the both colourful and useful plants of the countries of their birth. They have green thumbs, indeed they only have to breathe next to plants are are rewarded with food aplenty. I swear, the  plants seem to bend  towards them lovingly when they walk past…what do they have that I haven’t got, I wonder? Well, they are all lovely  souls, it’s true, but they have also used water and mulch and even the design of their gardens very cleverly. But I guess the key is also in the irrigation, something which I only have in a very small area. When I return from seeing and admiring their beautiful creations, everything planned carefully and each plant  healthy and colourful, I find myself suffering from garden envy and then  I have to sit down and give myself a talking to and  remind myself that I am not them, will never be them and that my garden is beautiful too, just in a different way. Someone said to me “ Envy is a natural feeling – I believe it exists to help us to push ourselves to excel further!” That helps me deal with my struggles to believe that my garden will evolve more and more, whilst I still stick to my dry garden principles. 

Whilst I have been pondering on all this, a virtual gardening gardening friend introduced me to the work of Piet Oudoulf, whose naturalistic style of garden design is as inspiring as that of Olivier Filippi and fills me with excitement. He talks about  the beauty of plants throughout the seasons, including dead plants and in the video below, you can see what he means. What a cornucopia of hazy beauty! The  garden becomes a moving impressionist painting you can walk into. How Monet would have loved it! Whilst we have to be mindful of the fire risk in the Algarve, it isn’t at all beyond the realms of possibility to create  a naturalistic design here, perhaps with a little less grass and more thought for paths as firebreaks etc. And how the insects love it! I am excited again and already planning for Autumn planting and more  seed catalogues. I can now foresee the possibility of planting  many more plants than I even have already and if I choose the right plants, I won’t need too much more water. The only problem now is that I need to find plants which chickens don’t eat. 

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf documentary trailer

So as I walk down through the sunset  light  to put the chickens to bed, I squint my eyes trying to figure where I will be putting my new plants. A new year is beginning in the Algarve from the first wonderful rains and hope springs eternal in every gardener’s breast. 

Gardening in Portugal -What’s the use?

Once, shortly after I met and married Señor Faztudo, I took his Jamaican mother outside to show her our pocket sized South London garden. She looked at the petunias and fuschias and blousy bedding plants I was so proud of and then turned to me a little  disparagingly “But me darlin, “ she said, “ they don’t have no use!” Whilst her words stung me a little some forty years ago they have returned to me many a time, as have many of her other wise sayings, as I have worked on this garden. In the Algarve they have a local “dica” or tip which is, “ He who plants it, eats it” by which they mean, if you plant something pretty and times get hard, you’d better make sure it is edible. The reason for this is that local people have been very short of food within living memory here. Water is precious, and up until ten years ago or so, many cottages in my area of the Algarve made do with only a deep cisterna or tank, filled from the roof in the winter and eeked out over  the summer, so every drip of water counted. The lucky ones have a bore hole, but even that isn’t possible on the top of the hill where I live as you would have to dig too deep, so my garden survives on a cisterna and mains water, which in my area, is very expensive once you start to use a lot in the summer. Furthermore, the more bore holes, the more the deep underground  water from the aquifer is used up and then what will we do? Our mains water actually comes from the aquifer, there is no reservoir except the underground  source feeding Central Algarve villages such as mine. 

So I starting thinking about plants with a “ use” as an idea, along with choosing plants which either don’t use any water in the summer, or which have such deep roots, like trees, since they don’t need watering more than once a week. 

Once I started thinking about it, I realised that what might be a “use” to me or my mother in law even, might be different to someone else. As well as uses of plants for food and medicine, flavouring and teas, there are also plants for making baskets and mats.

The first useful plant I learned about was wild fennel, which grows throughout the Algarve which was and still is, used to make make mats to roll up the figs at night time when they are drying. The only native palm, Chamaerops humilis was used to weave baskets and the reed or canna, Arundo Donax, which grows  along the river banks, hated by many as it is so invasive and pervasive,  was used to line the roofs of the cottages here and was allowed to be harvested by anyone as a common right where it grew along the river banks. Arruda or Rue, a bitter smelly plant, was used to keep both weevils and witches away. None of this was known by me when I first came here and it opened my eyes to the “use” of many local plants as they were explained to me by the local “donas” in the villages. 

So then I turned  my eyes to the “pretty” plants. What use are they? Obviously many pretty plants such as rosemary and lavender have medicinal uses, but one very hot day I was watching an “Around the world in 80 gardens” programme in the cool and I saw a Cuban garden on a piece of wasteland being cherished by a woman which, unlike others in the area, was full of colourful tropical plants that she tended every day. She said “These beautiful plants feed my soul” and I realised that we don’t just feed our body, our spirit also need the food of rare of colourful plants, Hibiscus coccineus or Camellia, both of which  really have no place in a drought resistant  garden and which are a delight as they returns each year to flower against all odds. I also cherish a beautiful vibrant creeper, scrambling over the wall with its bright orange flowers lifting my mood as I wander around in my pyjamas with a tea in the morning. It’s a happy indulgence, like Christmas, not to be overdone, but to be treasured. This is why the Portuguese famers’ wives keep their washing up water, to cherish a few plants to feed the soul and one shouldn’t feel guilty about that. And at  the very least the butterflies and bees have a use for them! 

Many flowers can be eaten, if we are  going to be truly purist about the usefulness of plants, although not all. The flowers of most yuccas are edible, the flowers of borage and calendula and nasturtium can all be eaten and even freesia and roses, all lovely in salads, although Senhor Faz-tudo is a bit doubtful, suspecting earwigs. Locally the petals  of globe artichokes and used to thicken cheese, as a form of rennet and at local Easter festivals, the flower of wild calendula and the other wild glories adorn the pavements outside churches as a homage to locally adopted saints. 

I love ornamental grasses and often wonder what their use is, apart  from their delightful beauty as they dance  their way through the windy days. The chickens adore them, sitting under their shade in the summer and when I cut them in the early Spring, they are dried and used as chicken bedding, as a kind of aromatic home made hay, or for mulch.  

Indeed, there are very few “weeds” in my garden. Nettles are prized and encouraged, dried and ground for tea or soups or used as a plant feed, made into a stinky brew laced with chicken poo and watered onto plants. Malvas are also used for teas or as a feed or even as a poultice for wounds incurred by the chickens, cats or ourselves. 

I have come  to find trees the most useful of all plants.  Once established they provide shade; nuts and fruits all the year around; leaves for medicinal teas; sticks for building fences and to use as kindling and as living poles for hammock slinging. Furthermore they take very little looking after once established and go on giving every year and maybe will go on giving to someone else, long after we are gone and laid in earth. I now have almost a hundred trees of different kinds in my 2400 square metres of space and I love them all. The four pencil cypresses are the guardians of the garden, representing each member of our immediate family and stand like totems, weathering all storms. I hope I have  mitigated my  carbon footprint a little in the planting of them.

So, forty years later, if my mother in law was still here, I would have more of an answer about the use of most of the plants in my Algarve garden. It was she who taught me many of the uses of plants for medicine and if she was alive now, I fancy I could teach her a little too. I think she would be amazed

Gardening in Portugal – It’s just my imagination, running away with me.

What is a garden? This is a question which often comes to me, ever since I heard it first posed by Algarve garden designer, Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, famous for her promotion of water wise gardening. Lately, I’ve realised that my garden has largely grown out of my imaginings. The other day I went to a friend’s cottage garden for tea. She has six or so young carob trees outside her house and she described the shady area underneath them as “The Enchanted Forest ” and instantly I saw it as an Enchanted Forest and will forevermore. I walked through the shady glen, imagining fireflies at night, gnomes sweeping up the fallen leaves whilst she slept and toads turning into charming princes.

My garden is divided into specific places in my head. The area under the ancient olives I’ve left to run wild, is a glorious wildflower meadow in my mind’s eye, home to insects and butterflies and indeed it is, even thought it’s only a couple of square metres or so. However, since you don’t know what is in my head, to you it might just look like an unkempt field of weeds. Then, I might suggest it’s  a wildflower meadow, with eighteen different native species of plant and the home to hoverflies, carpenter bees, moths and all manner of bug and you may begin to see it differently. There is a lot of power in what you choose to call areas in your garden; how you picture them in your imagination and how that makes you feel about them.

The bottom area of my garden, home to my chickens, piles of horse poo and a motley collection of struggling fruit trees, is my mini farm and orchard. To be honest, I don’t really care if you look at the mess and feel sorry for me because it’s my favourite part of the garden and Senor Faz-Tudo rarely ventures there. Down there, in the wilderness beyond, I am happy as a pig in the proverbial, messing about with the chicken coop, sitting in my hippy shed drinking tea and pretending to be eighteen again and getting down and dirty in the muck. Down in that part of the garden I am on the farm in my head. 

Behind the house, sheltered from the fierce North winds, there is the “kitchen garden” as I have  come to imagine it, or when I am feeling really confident that it is looking at its best and I am trying to impress myself, “The Potager” Here a happy mix of stuff grows spontaneously in the Spring, such asborage and milk thistles and giant hollyhock and plants I have put in deliberately, kales; herbs like coriander and parsley; plants to make tea such as verbena and mint and some small bushes like Goji. It is, in fact, a complete hotch potch of madness, but if I call it the kitchen garden, with the idea that I can just pop out of the back door and pick something for the kitchen, then I am comforted….because it certainly isn’t a vegetable garden, at least in the conventional sense. 

Then, on the middle terrace, I have the “dry garden” the part covered with Mediterranean plants and grasses, an area which never gets any water in the summer, now it is established. This is the part of the garden that puzzles some of my Portuguese friends the most, many of whom love to try and grow colourful, tropical plants. Why would I call what is essentially “the mata” a landscape they can see on every hill around, a garden?  To me, it is the most delightful thing in the Spring to have this amazing aromatic deliciousness right near me, but for some of them, these are just any old weeds that grow anywhere…how can I call that a garden? I guess it would be equivalent to growing beds of nettles and dandelions in the UK and marvelling over their beauty.

Throughout the garden, I have sitting places, where I imagine myself to be someone I’m not. There is a bench, made by a friend of mine, as a gift. When I sit on it, it makes me feel like a Moorish princess. I will be even happier on it when the fig I have planted grows over my head for shade.  I have a hammock under the huge olive, where I feel myself to be a child again, where I loll with a book or just stare at the clouds and another bench in an area which I am eventually going to turn into a rose bower, if I can stop  the chickens eating the rose plants. I imagine, once it grows, I can sit there and see myself to be a Shakespearean maiden or some – such, with a “Hey and a ho and a hey nonny no” Ha ha.

Even the chickens themselves are part of my imaginings. I fancy that when we go away on a short break, they quickly decamp to the sunbeds on the terrace  where they are expressly forbidden to venture and also have a holiday, sipping mojitos and clucking happily to themselves.

Sometimes, when people come to see my garden, my imaginings seem a bit foolish. The upturned old wooden chairs I picked up from the bins that the chickens use as a playground and which I call  “Chicken Disneyland” just look like a pile of rubbish to them; the  rose bower isn’t even made yet; the  farm is a bit whiffy; enchanted places haven’t been swept; the dry garden is toast. Luckily, I have learned enough about myself not to worry about how it looks to others much. As long as I believe in my imaginary places, they exist and that’s all that matters. 

Gardening in Portugal- Jeepers Peepers!

Mrs Chicken

There is an expression “All of my chickens come home to roost” which as a chicken keeper of free range chickens is always a good thing, but as a saying has negative connotations, meaning bad things that can back to haunt you. Well, in my case too many chickens have come home to roost, in that I have allowed four broody hens to sit on eggs and now the whole garden is overrun with peeping chicks and clucking hens and nowhere to keep them all. What  was I thinking? 

I like the idea of letting my flock do what comes naturally as far as possible; to experience motherhood,; to let the cockerels do their thing and to raise my own hens, who remain in the place they were hatched,  unstressed and part of a family  group.  The reality is that this is not always easy as things can become quickly imbalanced.

It all started when a friend gave me what she said were two fine naked neck hens rescued from a bad situation, which turned out to be cockerels. The first time people see naked neck cockerels or hens, they express alarm at their skinny red necks with no feathers and  I can understand that. When I saw my first naked neck cockerel,  I thought the poor bird had befallen some terrible accident. But I got four of these hens a few years ago and came to love them for their weird  looks and pleasant natures. It is a genetic fault, that gives  the chickens thirty per cent less feathers…and actually in our hot climate it is quite useful. 

A Naked neck hen

My last naked neck hen died last year and I wanted some more, so I was glad to get these two hens but perhaps not so glad when they turned  out to be male. One had to go for sure, as I already have two cockerels and it was the biggest one  who squared up to me and gave me his evil eye a couple of times, that was turned into coq au vin. I can’t have aggressive cockerels. The other was a scaredy cat with a limp and no match in a fight for my Grandad cockerel, Phoenix, whom I could never consider eating, even though I suspect him to be firing blanks at eight years old , when he can be bothered to climb wearily onto a hen. So I kept the second cockerel and called him Johnny Rotten due to his punkish  appearance and hoped  for fertile eggs so I could have some baby naked necks and new blood in the flock. Phoenix  wasn’t impressed but Johnny Rotten didn’t square up to him, so it is a tolerable arrangement for now, although I see trouble ahead.

Johnny Rotten

Well Johnny did the business, even thought the hens showed him great disdain, despite all his wooing and cooing and fluffing up his chest and one of my bantams went broody, the best mother, Mrs Chicken, a senior  hen. I put ten fresh eggs under  her and put her in the broody box and she settled in happily. I intended this to be my only hatch this year. Just as I was about to chuck the eggs she had been sitting on into the compost since they were a motley collection, another hen, Mrs Black, determinedly sat on them. They were in the coop, not the best spot for a hatch but I allowed it. Then I noticed a bit of a hoohaa going in in the greenhouse and realised another hen, a first time mother, was sitting in there in ten eggs she had squirrelled away! I advised her on the foolhardiness of making her nest in the greenhouse in the summer, but she was determined. I rigged up extra shade for her even though she was under the bench and left her.  A week later I was hosing a bush down and there was an annoyed squawk and I found  another bantam, Miss Special, on no less than fourteen eggs. No wonder I had been short of eggs! Since the nest was very inaccessible due to a prickly rose bush I left here too, although slightly worried about predators at night. 

Mrs Chicken, senior hen with her chicks

Well 21 days later and round about Midsummer’s day, I peeped in the coop one morning to be greeted with the little beaks and beady eyes of some newly hatched chicks peeping out from between, Mrs Black hen’s feathers. Six of her twelve eggs hatched into chicks, the rest were blanks so I buried them under my tomato plants and thanked my lucky  stars I didn’t  throw the eggs away. 

One of the chicks was a beautiful little naked neck who looks just like Johnny. 

Two days later and two chicks hatched to Mrs Chicken in the broody pen. That  was her lot, but she proud enough of what she had and she, being a bantam, is an experienced and excellent mother.  She hatched one little naked neck again, so now we have two. The weather turned very hot and I was very worried about Mrs White, the hen in the greenhouse and really didn’t think her eggs would hatch. The  one morning I saw her puffing up and I knew there must be a chick. A sad and sorry beaten up little yellow chick peeped out at me. Either it had had an injury from hatching, such as the membrane sticking to its head, or the new mother had panicked when it was born, not recognising it as a chick and pecked it twice in the head!  I am afraid I suspect the latter. I don’t think I will let this hen sit again. If she was human they would report her to social services for her lack of care. Her chick keeps fighting  back though, and was the only hatchling. mrs White has lost interest in it over the last week and has really given it the minimum attention, but it has never given up! I really  have a soft spot for it now and have christened it Johnny No mates (but it might have to be changed to Jenny) and hope it makes it. I don’t intervene too much, beyond making sure it gets food it must be able to survive itself in the rough and  tumble of the flock.

Jonny no mates

And finally, what of the hen in the bushes, Mrs Special? She hatched three chicks before the nest became invaded by ants after an egg exploded and I had to act quickly to save the three existing chicks and move  her, always a risk because of the potential for rejection, but she remained loyal to her babies. The littlest  is teeny tiny, a bantam chick. One  of her chicks is also a naked neck, so let’s  hope at least a couple are hens.

Teeny Tiny Bantam chick

But where to put all the mums and babies? Well they mostly sorted it themselves. The hens with the biggest brood takes them off to the egg boxes at night. The hen with the youngest brood goes in the broody box because the littlest chick can’t fly up  anywhere yet. Mrs Chicken takes her to the top shelf of the coop, being the senior hen that  she is and Mrs White, the Unmaternal settles herself  in the coop and leaves her chick cheeping sadly outside until I encourage it in. 

In the morning I take my tea down and settle  in a chair to watch the madness once I let them all out. The excited peeping and squeaking as the gobble up any ants stupid enough to still be out foraging is hilarious and trying to work out which are hens and cockerels is a great game. It won’t be long before they are teenagers trying to get into parts of the garden they are not allowed in and then they will learn all about Señor Faz-Tudo and the Broom of Doom, not that he ever hurts them with it…but one wave is enough to scare them back to their half of the garden. In all I have 12 chicks and only a few can stay. The cockerels will be kept until Christmas and then we will eat them, some hens will stay and never be eaten, some hens may go to other free range homes. The  big fun will be when their mothers reject them between about  six and eight weeks and they all start squaring up  to each other and need to find somewhere to sleep…I dread to think what will happen then!  However, if your day starts and ends with animals, it is always more pleasurable. And there is  nothing more fun to watch than Chicken TV! 

Gardening in Portugal- Solace

The Garden of Solace

It has been a difficult time for the world  and for us personally. Sometimes you go through the wringer, it’s just that way life is. Portugal was locked down for the pandemic fairly quickly and although we were unable to see our children and family, you know, everyone was in the same boat and we were locked down in a beautiful place with a garden. But then Señor Faz-Tudo had a close brush with death and was whisked off to Lisbon in a helicopter for emergency surgery and I couldn’t be with him or visit him. It was distressing and sad. He’s  fine now, making a great recovery and has is resorting once more to waving the Broom of Doom at the chickens and sweeping the drive, but it certainly rattled us both. Whilst  I was alone, truly terrified  I might not see him again, a strange thing happened. The garden gave me great Solace. 




noun: solace; plural noun: solaces

  1. comfort or consolation in a time of great distress or sadness.

The day I returned from Faro hospital, having waved my lovely old bloke off forlornly from the street as he took off from the roof in the helicopter for a life saving operation, I returned to my garden alone. I paced up and down between the trees and tried to steady myself before ringing our children. The  trees calmed me, in turn. The grasses swayed and whispered softly, the butterflies gave my heart hope. I settled myself in my hippy shed to make the phone calls I knew I had to make and when that was done, I watched the chickens pecking away at the ants. It soothed me.

And during the following days when I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was going to come back to me, I busied myself clipping and tidying and the garden wrapped me up in love and I knew it would all be ok.  In my state of heightened distress and awareness, I saw signs of hope everywhere, in the sparrow that landed on the table where I sat; in the red rose bush I bought for his birthday coming into flower; in the plums swelling on the trees, the variety he particularly likes. I sat in my hippy shed where he never comes for dislike of spiders and creepy crawlies and where I wouldn’t miss him so much and looked out over the greenery of an Algarve Spring and knew that whatever happened, I was in the place I was meant to be and I was safe until he returned. My garden kept my  company and was my kind and loving friend. And in those moment I felt great sorrow for all those who didn’t have a garden for Solace, in times of great distress and wished I could grant everyone a piece of land and time to look after it from birth. How much better would the World be then.

Here he is. He came safely back across the road.

Gardening in Portugal -Who’s got Thyme for Corona?


The world is in crisis, well at least humans are. Mother Nature couldn’t give a fig. In fact, she’s breathing a sigh of relief that we are all being confined to quarters. Whilst I’ve worried myself sick about our grown up children, still in the UK,  I am now working out my troubles with my garden, which is rewarding me with peace and positivity.

In the current Coronavirus crisis, many have turned to their gardens, both for solace and with an increasing sense of purpose.  A few months ago, when I realised the impending seriousness of this nasty little microbe, I began to consider how my garden might help us through the period of quarantine and isolation. Our garden is full of medicine, for one thing. I don’t want to recommend the use of any particular plant or remedy, and beg you to do your own research, but I have worked with a good friend, Marianne Guerreiro who wrote a book about local remedies here, called “Herbal Hints from the Algarve Countryside” as a typist for her book about how local Algarvians and have gained a good knowledge of the possibilities, backed up by by own research. However, I am not a doctor or herbalist. For the last seven years, I have been creating a garden which, whilst a feast for the eyes and senses, also has herbal and culinary uses. It is full of Rosemaries and Thymes, Lemon balm and Verbena, Aloe Vera and Olive leaf, Calendula and Malva, all of these have their uses, either in a tea or as a tincture.

Giant Malvas

All the worry I have felt over the past two months, as we have tried to support our children through the overnight loss of their good jobs and how to survive, has given me an acid stomach. Rather than turn to a daily barrage of antacids, I have used aloe vera gel, taken from the fresh plant with only the clear inner gel used and eaten raw three times a day and mint and wild calendula flowers, whenever the griping starts. This has given me huge and almost instant relief and the problem is improving every day. If it continues, of course I will seek medical help, but right now the soothing tea with a local spoon of honey is helping enormously. Whilst I am suffering with acid indigestion, I have sacrificed by daily “bica” or strong coffee, but needing a morning pick me up, I find a Rosemary tea, with a sprig taken straight from the garden with a slither of fresh ginger wakes my brain up just as well as the caffeine. My garden is sustaining me. Whilst fresh leaves are best, I am aware that they won’t be this green or efficacious as the summer is fast approaching, so I pick fresh bunches in the morning and hang them upside down in our cool cellar to dry. A friend gave us some homemade medrohno and schnapps, far too strong  to drink without burning our your throat, or your  stomach lining come to that,  so I have used that to make some tinctures, principally of Herb Robert, a plant much used in a “cha” or tea, to be used in small drops under the tongue, as needed.

Aside from the teas, I am working harder than usual to ensure we have food to supplement what we can buy from the markets or supermarkets. At the moment, we are following the Portuguese Government’s pleas, and indeed legal, edicts to stay in, unless it is absolutely necessary to go out.  #fiqueemcasa The main food that would drive us out is fresh vegetables, and for this reason, I have been considering what I can grow with minimum water and in the shortest time.

Vegetables and eggs from the garden

Whilst I wait for deliveries from local seed companies, I have to confess that I have bought quite a lot of seeds from Lidls, mostly because they are 49 cents a packet and they germinate very well. The terraces that we made in the Spring are now coming into their own. I have struggled to grow roots well, as I have over fertilised my soil with nitrogen in previous years, but I have left our new terraces with no more than a sprinkling of rotted manure and the onions, turnips and beetroots are really taking off. I also grew some lovely radishes in a few weeks, but to my chagrin, realised they really aggravate my acid indigestion, even when cooked. So sadly, since Señor Faztudo doesn’t eat them either, they are boiled and feed to the chickens.

At the moment, I am more intent than ever on not wasting anything. Nettles are turned into fertiliser, as are Malva leaves. Once chopped, they are either mixed with water and left to soak for a few weeks to make a fertiliser to apply to the fruit trees (the “tea” is anaerobic and full of bacteria and shouldn’t be used on ordinary vegetable crops, especially those you won’t cook) or laid straight on the soil. (Nettles laid on the ground also deter slugs and snails)

Seedlings from Lidls seed packets

To feed the chickens, I am soaking whole wheat grain  until it starts to sprout a little and then mixing it with the compost in their area of the garden, so they can turn it over and find the sprouts at the same time, more nutritious than ordinary grains. I also feed them any appropriate weeds I can find such as dandelions, chickweed and Bermuda Buttercup, although the latter in moderation, as it is very acidic. All this will strengthen them against the long summer to come, as we will need their eggs. Any spare eggs, I am freezing, after beating them a little, two at a time, or if they are a bit dirty from the coop, during rainy times from their muddy feet, I feed them back to the hens or to the cats. In their coop, I sprinkle fresh rue and artemisia leaves to deter fleas and mites and it seems to work.

Happy Hens

For bulk crops high in carbohydrate, whilst I haven’t got much space, I am trying to grow ordinary potatoes, and also to sprout and grow sweet potatoes and I want to grow as many squash and pumpkins as possibly, as they store well. But if the truth be told, there is little space for this. I just have to do what I can. Herbs for cooking such as parsley, coriander and mint will be frozen in ice cubes and then bagged in the freezer. Lemons and oranges remaining will be juiced and the juice frozen.

Teas made from flower petals, chamomile and calendula

For quick vitamins, I am growing rocket, which grows very well here, lamb’s lettuce in tubs, mixed baby leaves of all sorts and cress, the kind I grew as a kid on tissue papers. I haven’t started on the bean sprouts yet, but I am thinking about it. I wish I had space to grow chick peas, I tried it once with a few but you need a lot of space to make it worthwhile, although green chick peas are delicious.

And as for flowers, they are beautiful and so many of them are edible, nasturtium flowers, calendula, yucca flowers, they can all be eaten in salads although Señor Faztudo  passes on that…it’s a step too far for him and he peers suspiciously into the salad looking  for earwigs. And speaking of earwigs, I ate my first globe artichoke this morning and I didn’t see one! But even if I did eat one inadvertently,  I guess that is extra protein!

This blog post has not been to teach seasoned vegetable growers or herbalists or permaculturists how to suck eggs, it is more my contribution to new gardeners to help a little on the way to raising awareness as to what is possible, even in the drought ridden Algarve. I have a relatively small space, but in the past, I have produced quite a lot of food in a London terraced house garden. And it still looked beautiful. I hope you enjoy helping your garden to help you, it will ease your troubles and put lovely food in your table and don’t forget to grow a little extra for your neighbours if you can!

Gardening in Portugal – Rocksy Music

“ Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun; ”

Robert Frost

The Central Algarve area, known as the Barrocal, has walls everywhere. These consist of piles of boulders, fashioned into wide walls, not as a fence so much, as we might make them in the UK, but as a pile, sometimes six feet high and eight to ten feet broad, to clear land and make a terrace to plant trees and retain water. These beautiful weathered walls are a habitat for all manner of snakes, lizards and insects, who scuttle into their cool crevices when you pass. The walls are like the ancient spinal columns of a landscape fashioned by farmers over a millennium. My garden faces the beautiful rocky outcrop of Rocha de Pena, and along the top is a great scar of boulders made as a defence by people of the Iron Age. “I am rich in stones” a neighbour once said and indeed the whole of this Limestone area is awash with a multitude of stones, all kinds of weird shapes and sizes. At first although you may want to hate them in your garden as an enemy of efficiency, in time, you come to love them as your friends, as they have all kinds of uses. Sometimes, at dusk, when I put the chickens to bed, I fancy they are watching me pass, waiting to have a gossip about the day or a little sing song once I have returned to the house.

Our garden started as a blank page, except for the beautiful terraces and a wall around the entire perimeter, fashioned from the stones which were broken up by a large machine which tapped away like a giant woodpecker all day. Although we didn’t commission the house to be built, we knew the builder as a friend and one day approached the house to try and talk to him. He wasn’t there, but approaching the shell of the house we peeped in and saw four of his workers, spark out asleep on the floor in their lunch break. They were exhausted after their labours, lifting huge heavy rocks all day and lugging them up and down to build the surrounding walls. I was humbled by their Herculean efforts. Later, once we started on the garden, we came to realise that even though one might be “rich in stones” it isn’t the stones that carry a cost, it is the labour it takes to move them.

Señor Faztudo and I have always prided ourselves on doing stuff for ourselves and  having more time than money, we decided to collect rocks from a friend’s field on his invitation to make paths for the garden. When we did this we were in our late fifties. I am in my sixties now and the rocks I can lift are getting smaller and smaller each year. Each rock we chose was heavy, dense with iron and we also had to leap around the rock piles, dodging scuttling scorpions and sand lizards to find those with the flattest surface. We loaded the ion heavy rocks into the wheelbarrow, trundled it across the field and lifted the rocks into the back of the car and then lifted them out once home. Each rock was lifted at least three times. We now know the price of a rock! I can’t imagine how those huge walls all around the Algarve were built. I look up at them now and just see exhausted people. They are the Algarve’s pyramids to me. We made some beautiful garden paths from those rocks though, with help from a friend who knew how to lay them.

The Algarvians have a way of turning some of the more beautiful rocks into sculptures and placing them on the borders of their properties.  Contorted into wonderful shapes by some huge force of nature, they take the shapes of owls and lions, angels and weird melting faces. Such  rocks, when turned up by the tractor are prized and decorate many an entrance pillar. When our house was finished, all the loose rocks left behind were removed except for three majesti boulders, left as a feature in the garden. I planted a lime tree next to them, so it could take the heat absorbed by the rocks from the winter sun. We have since imported many rocks to make rockeries and dried river beds, most people are happy to get rid of them from the edges of their fields, as long as we are happy to collect them.

Stone path to thechicken shedERA

When you see the hillsides and find a wild carob, it often appears to be growing out from under a rock. You wonder how it gets it grows in such inhospitable conditions, but actually it is because of this giant rock it can survive the searing temperatures in the summer without water. It gets its roots down under the boulder and manages to keep them cool. Nowadays, all around our house, in the valley below, great rocks are being piled up as areas are cleared along the upland valleys  for new carob and almond plantations. The large earth moving and rock breaking machines have been busy. No longer the work of men, now the work of machines, the walls are not so beautiful, more a pile of unruly rocks, plugged with the awful burnt  stumps of uprooted  ancient olive trees, like corpses to my eyes. The cleared spaces are planted with neat lines of carob and almond trees. Whilst much more efficient, it is hard not to mourn the lost habitats. Still, people must making a living and the price of carobs has gone up hugely. Things have to change.

Stone oath and steps up the terrace

I never have enough rocks nowadays. I am always looking round for a rock to protect a new planting for the scratching of chicken feet, or to hold down the edge of a protective sheet. Rocks are a great mulch around the base of a tree, wonderful as cairns in the garden, so that wildlife can hide from the attentions of the cats or the chickens and useful as an edging for beds. Once seen as the enemy, I now offer them the veneration they  deserve. All around the little cottages here and farm barns are built of them. If they could speak, they would have much to tell about this amazing landscape.