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. 

solace

/ˈsɒlɪs/

noun

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?

Thyme

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.

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

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

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

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

Composting done by chickens

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

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

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

Dry Hedge
Dry Hedge to hold compost heap

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

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

Chicken Coop

Gardening in Portugal – Basic Recipe for a Drought Resistant Garden

Ingredients

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

100 succulent cuttings

12 Lavender plants of three different varieties

12 Rosemary plants of three different varieties

12 Drought resistant ornamental grasses, preferably non invasive

5 Geraniums and 5 Pelargoniums

6 Cistus, variety depending on your soil type

10 Helichrysums

6 Santolinas

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

12 Bulbines, yellow and orange

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

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

Live chickens, about 1O

2 sheds, one large and one small

1 medium greenhouse, stable and strong.

1 Chicken Coop

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

50 Terracotta post of all shapes and sizes

5 seats, some fixed  and some moveable

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

10 rolls of Getoex fabric, brown only.

Rain, bucketloads in the winter

Love in abundance

Hard work in moderation

Method

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

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Gardening in Portugal – What’s the big idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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