Common and Garden Experiments

 

 

When I started this blog, it was to collect my own thoughts about creating a garden from scratch; something to look over in the years to come and maybe even to pass on to anyone who might inherit this beautiful piece of Algarve hillside after me and understand the processes I went through to create it. Along the way,  I have also enjoyed sharing my thoughts  with others who are walking the same path behind me or alongside me and have been kind enough to read it.

When I’m not gardening, I’m reading about the garden, researching what to do next in terms of planting, asking questions on FB groups, mulling things over for the next season. Nowadays, as Shakespeare so aptly put it, my way of life “is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf” and I have the luxury of time and the ability to do whatever I like in retirement, I am obsessed with my garden, as I have many years oto make up  for lost time. For me, gardening has always been a snatched activity, done at weekends in a bit of a frenzy, in between washing the kid’s school uniform or preparing for a new week’s work. Now, I can garden until ill health or death stops me and I couldn’t be happier. It’s as though I’ve already died and gone to heaven!

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My garden five years ago

 

I have often written about the garden  being my teacher, but that doesn’t preclude me trying out my own experiments and seeing if the garden accepts or rejects my treatment of it. I thought, at the end of a summer, which has been one of the hottest and driest on record for a while, I’d take stock of experiments in the garden which have worked and those which have been a failure.

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The garden today

Facebook is wonderful for its gardening groups, I find.  They are full of people with ideas, and each group has a different feel and a different slant. I’m  a member of the Gardening Professors group, which is run by academics at Washington State University. I find the group invaluable for its science based knowledge and also amusing for the spats that occur between the scientists and the “kitchen” scientists. I value peer reviewed science, of course I do, but the Garden Professors themselves would be the first to admit they don’t know everything and sometimes my own experiments in MY garden and in MY conditions disprove some of their theories. But that doesn’t mean to say what they propound is wrong. Only that it doesn’t work or does work  in MY set of circumstances.

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My cat modelling my diffcult soil

 

The great thing I’ve learnt and trialled in my garden from the Garden Professors is the use of wood chip mulch in the garden as a way of improving soil and plantings. I have done it now for the past two years and the difference to my existing plants is quite clear to see. By putting a thick mulch on top of the soil, the worms have worked away underneath, pulling the mulch deep down and already the top 10 inches of my soil are thick and dark and full of  organisms. The chickens have scratched and pooed and done their part too and my soil is improving with no effort at all on my part and there are no weeds. I can see the white mycelia growing amongst the chippings which is also meant to be good for the soil. But where do you get such chippings in a country so low on biomass, someone once asked me. The short answer to that is I’m not telling!  I’ve only told one good gardening friend the answer to this question, because I know my supply is very limited. You’re just going to have to work out a way yourself; it took me a year to think of something.

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My chickens modelling the wood chip mulch

Another experiment which has worked, is a no dig approach, which using wood chip is, but where I have a vegetable garden, I have used the “lasagne” method and this really works too. I know most tidy gardeners would throw their hands up in horror at this experiment as at times my garden just looks like a rubbish tip until the biomass has rotted down.  I once got very excited about “hugelkutur” which is a much bulkier way of making lasagne beds using wood. I’m afraid that was a failed experiment, mostly due to the fact that in the very dry climate of the Algarve, the wood used in hugelkutur never rots down and also (and I’ve heard that this does happen) creates a fire risk as a hugel bed can  burn for days and are very difficult to rot down. So instead, I  experimented with piling all my garden waste in layers, with plenty of manure, on top of cardboard, just before the rainy weeks in the Autumn and find that rotting is sufficient for planting in the following Spring, the clay soil is lightened considerably and the ground over time much more workable. We are very lucky here in that we have few slugs and snails and those we do have are gobbled by the chickens when I turn them on the beds in the Spring.

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A lasagna bed being made

As far as planting goes, I’ve had very little spare money to spend on it. And in a way, I’m glad, because I have discovered that with my thick clay soil, if I chose the right plants, I can easily make twenty new plants in situ by taking cuttings at the right time, after a week of rain and just poking them deep into the soil. Sure, not all of them take, but a lot of them do. I have also grown perennials from seed and although I’m not all that good or patient at getting things to grow, if only one plant grows then I can make cuttings easily after that.

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Clary sage and nepeta grown from seed

Little experiments include germinating seeds in kitchen paper inside polythene bags…that works, but isn’t necessary for some plants eg vegetables, apart from perhaps peppers and tomatoes. It’s great for things like sweet peas.  I’ve also found that peppers grown in pots and moved to the shade in the very hot part of the summer work so much better than those in the ground. Some succulents need shade…who knew? I didn’t have a clue. My experiment of using concrete blocks as an edging and then planting drought resistant plants and bulbs in them is also working better than I thought it would. And vetiver grass, what a wonderful plant! I still haven’t done experimenting with that and I take great joy in following the way different people are using it all over the world on the Vetiver grass network FB group. The chickens have been a delightful and very successful experiment, keeping my garden manured and bug free and providing me with eggs and endless entertainment.

I am also doing lots of experiments with processing my food. The pantry is suffused with the wonderful acrid smell of my first attempts to make apple cider vinegar with a neighbour’s windfalls. She is making pectin. I wrote in an earlier post about making carob flour, which I made a cake with last week and very nice it was too. I made plum gin for Christmas and would love to buy a small still to see if I can make some aromatic oils. There seems to be so much to do…long may I be able to live to do it all!

Further experiments I  want to try are: planting by the phases of the moon, which most Portuguese famers do (if I can be organised enought)  a bit of pebble mosaic, although I’m sure it will all end up wobbly, gathering some seaweed from the Ria Formosa after a storm for use in the garden and making a  succulents rockery on a slope using mostly terracotta pots.

What always amuses me are the people who get very hung up on whether something will work or not, before they try it. Will the lasagna bed make the soil too acid? Will the mulch take too much nitrogen from the soil? Part of the fun of gardening experiments is that the garden experimenters dont know if it will work or not unless they try and succeed or fail.  Since your set of circumstances are always unique, your garden is your laboratory. We are all Garden Professors, endlessly working on small scale experiments and this is my lab report. I hope you enjoyed it.

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The result of my lasagna bed experiment

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Preseverance!

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I have written before about my lack of enthusiasm for preserving. Somehow I find making jams and chutneys a hot and anxious pastime, whilst I hover over the jam pan, putting it on cold saucers to set and swearing quietly to myself when it doesn’t. But I made a pact with myself that I would eat everything edible in my garden if possible this year and where spoiled, feed it to the chickens, and only after all that, compost it. So, with that in mind, I have been thinking about the laziest way to make delicious things. I joined a Facebook group of US preserving enthusiasts  the other day, called “Ultimate Rebel Canning” which gave me some  inspiration. I love to think of all the “Rebel Canners” doing it their way, fearlessly,  in the US.

I have always loved sloe gin, and as a young woman, enjoyed foraging for  them in the hedgerows and waysides in the Wye Valley. You always waited for the first frost before picking them. Although not sloes, this  year we had a wonderful crop of plums and after we’d gorged ourselves on them every morning for breakfast, I began to think about the surplus. I relented and made some jam, as I do love plum jam on my oatcakes and happily it turned out quite well, despite a night muttering over a hot stove. Some old CD labels came in useful for the covers. I put the rest in some very cheap bottles of gin from a well-known German supermarket (6 euros a bottle). You have to prick them with a fork and add quite a lot of sugar and stir every now and again. The gin is gradually turning the most wonderful  plum colour. The sadness is I don’t drink any more, but  I am sure my children and husband will enjoy it and who knows, I may even be tempted to a little tipple with the Christmas pud.

 

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I have also had  little go at making apple cider vinegar. We use acv a lot. We both drink a little in some warm water before we go to bed for our digestion and general health, the organic stuff with the mother (that always makes me laugh) and i wondered how it was made. Googling it, it isn’t that difficult, you just cut up some apples and add a bit of sugar, a bit of the “mother” vinegar and some spring water and away you go. Apples don’t grow all that terribly well in the Algarve, but my neighbour gave me some dinky little apples which weren’t really worth eating in a pie, but were just right for vinegar making. It’s been fermenting away for two weeks now and has one more week to go before I filter it and bottle it. It smells and looks right, so I’m quite excited.

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The final experiment is a bit crazy. I know I’ll be laughed at for it, but who cares. I am an old woman and it’s my time if I want to waste it. We have several carob trees in the garden and the recent windy weather is bringing them down every day. I have decided to turn them all into carob flour myself. A carob pod is a hard, gnarly thing and the first thing you need to do is get the seed out, no mean task. Google came in handy once again and I boiled my pickings for twenty minutes and then spent a lot of fairly happy and meditative hours removing the seeds. These little beauties are used in the manufacture of cosmetics and as a thickening agent in certain foods, and the word “carat” used as a weight for gold comes from them. It was a unit of weight and carob seeds have been used for hundreds of years  to measure jewelry, because it was believed there was little variance in their mass. I didn’t need them for my flour, only the pods, which after Id extracted the seeds, I put out in the sun to dry.

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After a few days I brought them back and used an old coffee grinder to grind them little by little into flour. So far I have half a jar and I think I’ll be labouring over this for many weeks to come. This is an act of madness, chiefly  because I can buy good carob flour for about 10 euros a kilo and at the rate I am processing them, the flour is very expensive! Still, I have learned something new. I plan to do the same with the almonds I harvest, and make cakes using almond meal carob flour and my hen’s eggs. I have been baking cakes for some time from almond flour only and they are really delicious. The carob flour has a great deal of natural sweetness too, so I hope to use little sugar.

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Next  on the agenda is pomegranates, which I love, but I don’t think we will have a surplus of that this year, because we are in quite a serious drought situation and they are very small. Then onto the olives! Lots this year, I just hope we get a rain shower before we harvest them to plump them up for brining, something which I am getting quite good at, after several failed attempts. Preserverance pays it seems.

 

 

“Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds”

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Tomatoes from my garden

I was reading a blog the other day where someone described 10 thoughts he’d had about life in general, and I thought I’d pinch the idea. Thanks HungryDai An Englishman’s life in Lisbon

I often walk about the garden thinking things…then the thoughts drift away on the wind, maybe to be forgotten, perhaps to be remembered and acted upon.

 

So here are 10 thoughts I can remember from the past week

  1. I thought today how green the garden is, considering the drought situation we are finding ourselves in. The fires further North in  Portugal have been horrendous this year and there’s a drought in the Alentejo and parts of the Algarve, so I’m being very careful with water, since I fear water saving measures may be on the way and I don’t want my plants to develop a dependency.  I wondered why it’s still so green and then realised it’s really because now, in its fourth year, everything has got its roots down. Most of the garden is also mulched too which has helped hugely.

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    Multi-headed sunflowers…why do they do that?

  2. I wondered a few days ago, where I would want my ashes strewn, in the event I died whilst we still lived here (cheerful thought I know!)  At the top of the garden under a seat facing the view? In the compost heap? Under a rose? To act as fertiliser for a sunflower? As a dust bath for the chickens? The latter me laugh, when I thought of my ashes being strewn in glorious abandon whilst the chickens deliriously ridded themslves of lice!

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    The greenhouse in development

  3. Wondering how to arrange the interior of the greenhouse Señor Faztudo is just completing for me. I’ve never had a greenhouse before. I’m sure I need a potting bench and I’m thinking about how it should be designed. Lots of searching for ideas on Pinterest. I’m also pondering on what I will actually grow in the greenhouse if anything. It’s really there to bring on seedlings and create new plants, but maybe I’ll grow cucumbers and lettuces in the winter in it too.
  4. Will the beautiful eagle we’ve seen soaring across  the valley recently come for my chickens? Where would they hide if it did?

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    Just the ticket for soup-except the plums!

  5. I thought this morning how pleasing it was to bring two fat beef tomatoes, a yellow and green courgette and a butternut squash up from the garden to make soup, along with garlic and onion harvested earlier and a pinch of home grown flat leaved parsley to go in at the end. I’ve always loved growing  my own food, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures for me.
  6. Which grape varieties are best for raisins? Do they grow here? How do you prepare the ground for grapes? Can I grow them organically or will they be overcome by mildew and diseases? I want to plant a row of grapevines behind the house on a flat terrace, not least  because they will provide a green wall in the summer and look great in the Autumn as they turn yellow and orange.

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    Helichysum Italicum in my gardn

  7. I’m  perplexed as to how  prune stuff in very hot conditions. It looks to me like some of the shrubs, the salvias and cistus are crying out to be pruned. But do you wait until the Autumn? Not sure what to do.
  8. The neighbours are beavering away creating a huge concrete area to store their carobs. It’s clear I’ll need some kind of screening, much as I enjoy the comings and goings of their market gardening activities. What can I grow that’s fast, is in keeping with a Mediterranean garden, and doesn’t need too much water? Pondering…all ideas gratefully received. The bed I need to plant it in is on a slope between two apricot trees. It needs not to lose its leaves in the winter and provide screening to quite a height. Please don’t suggest Leylandi, its one of the few plants I hate.
  9. What is growing now back in the UK? Are the courgettes only just beginning  and are there any blackberries yet…we don’t get them much here as it’s too dry. Are the wild flowers going over in my sister-in-law’s meadow in the Welsh hills? What are my old allotment friends up to in London? I’m thinking they will be getting ready for the annual allotment barbecue, with a camp fire and songs and lots of good things to eat, grown cooked and shared. I miss that community of fellow gardeners sometimes and think of them with wistful fondness.

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    Gunsite Allotment scarecrows, South London

  10. My garden is all “No Dig” one way or another. I’ve never really thought about that until now, although its not no-dig  in the Charles Dowding way, as I can’t produce compost in large quantities as there is little water and biomass and the chickens run free over half of it. Digging never occurs to me for one minute nowadays. I haven’t even got a spade or fork, only an “enchada” the Portuguese hacking implement, which is a bit like something the English would call a mattock and I use that less and less, only to remove unwanted plants or weeds.

And a last thought snuck in, as it always does. What plants would I like next?  Something a gardener always thinks about really, we are all greedy for plants!

Writing  this, I’ve realised  realise that my garden is the place where I do most of my thinking, and not just about the garden. As Alice Sebold said:

“I like my garden –it’s a place where I find myself, when I need to lose myself.”

There’s pumpkins in my stork’s nest!

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The amazing view from my garden

Many of the Portuguese villagers in inland Algarve, where we live, are still subsistence farmers. They’ve been farming the harsh landscape here for many generations, probably as far back as Roman times, and they have ways of coping with droughts, plagues and downpours. We, incoming Northern European upstarts, know nothing of their practices to begin with, but we soon learn to take heed.  Although the local people  are very polite about our gardening efforts, I can imagine that many of them look at our practices, which probably work very well in our own countries, and shake their heads as we plant things at the wrong times, water cabbages in the middle of summer and try to grow things we loved in our cooler climes that just wither and shrivel. This photo shows  how dry the garden is where you don’t water it!

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We cannot know better than local farmers. They know trees are a good thing to plant in our thick red clay soil, as once they have their roots down, they can survive on winter torrents. They know that letting the wild flowers grow between their almond trees and then ploughing them in improves the soil, they know how to use winter rainfall to grow their beans and their peas and that some things are too much of a risk to even bother with. They know how to graft their trees onto strong almond rootstock to get peaches and plums.  They know their land, through generations of successes and failure.

But we arrive to our little patch of Paradise and in our arrogance, we think we can defeat the elements. We  get quite angry when we find we can’t.  We wring our hands over the boulders, the brick hard clay, the lack of biomass for mulch, the torrential rain and hail, the burning sun. We curse the elements for our tiny potatoes, the runner bean flowers that dropped off when the sun got too hot, the plagues of grasshoppers eating our citrus leaves and the fact that although we are gardening in a climate conducive to citrus, they just won’t grow for us. Our peaches get nobbled by Mediterranean fruit fly at the very minute our tongues are hanging out for their sweetness and our lovely beef  tomatoes turn mildewed in a night.

When we are done getting angry, we start to think. We look around us at our neighbours and we turn to our Facebook gardening  friends and blogs  for help. But even though we can learn from everywhere, ultimately we have to consult our only real teacher, our own garden. If we listen, it always tells us what to do. That might sound like a bit of wishwashy, knit your own home-made yoghurt advice, but it is absolutely the only answer. You cannot bend a garden completely to your will, no matter how hard you try. You have to work with it if you want it to flourish. You have to listen to what it’s telling you.

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Butternut squash in my stork’s nest bed

That being said, I’m going to give some advice. Follow it or not, it’s your garden. For the past few years, I have suffered much angst over summer vegetable growing, which is very difficult here. I’ve  been failing for four years, simply because I’ve been doing the wrong things. Indeed, most Algarvians don’t do any vegetable gardening at all in the heat of the summer, apart from tomatoes and keeping their “Couve Portuguesa”  a sort of perennial kale, alive. There simply isn’t the water. Melons are grown commercially, but people are even giving up on those in recent drought years as it just isn’t worth it for the amount of water it takes.

However, I love squash and pumpkin and I have been determined to find a way that works in my climate and produces a crop, without breaking the water bank, as all mains water is metered here and even my cisterna water is very precious.  This year, I’ve hit  the jackpot and got a great crop, at least  a great crop of squashes that is, the pumpkins are not developing and I’m not sure why yet.

Google is a great place to find out about gardening, and trying to solve my problem, which is that the courgettes stop growing in my garden, as the soil bakes very hard and courgettes don’t produce once the temperature rises above 30 dgrees C. I needed soil which holds water better and more shade for the developing squash.  Whilst looking for an answer,  I found  African keyhole beds. I attach a link here to describe what they are.

https://www.niftyhomestead.com/blog/keyhole-garden/

For various reasons, I  didn’t want to build a permanent bed in my garden and I didn’t quite see the need for the compost in the middle and was worried about rats, so instead I invented a more temporary and cheaper alternative, which I’ve called “The Stork’s nest bed” as that’s rather what it looks like.

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The “Stork’s Nest” bed

I put six posts in the ground in a circle and attached chicken wire to the height of about 1.5 metres, not least because this bed is in the part of the garden where the chickens hang out. I began to line it with the bendy olive prunings as we have plenty of during the Autumn  when we prune the olives, to prevent anything I added falling out. I did this in the Autumn and then piled all the garden rubbish I had inside it, including the garden rubbish also donated by a neighbour, leaves and such.  I interspersed it with chicken bedding, including their manure, then added a layer of horse manure, which was fresh at the time, followed by the good clay earth and left the winter rains to water it all. I left one side open so the chickens could get in and rummage around and kill any bugs and indeed they did.

Come the Spring, it was a great hot bed. I planted some squash and courgette seeds, about three of each and one pumpkin in about February, covered with a plastic five litre bottle cloche. And away it all  went,  like a rocket.  (Someone said it was so hot the other day, her umpkins exploed…I hope mine dont do that!) By the end of May I was getting courgettes and we carried on harvesting them every day more of less until the end of June. Then the butternut squashes began, with two flushes and I’m still harvesting them now. I added two “ollas” which I made myself, fashioned from flower pots stuck together and filled them with water regularly which kept the roots cool and watered the whole bed every three days from my cisterna. It’s never drooped and the large leaves have shaded the courgette roots every well, so there is a great  little ecosystem going on underneath. The only disappointment has been the pumpkins which have flowered and begun growing, but wither on the vine when they reach mango size…I am hoping it’s just the heat and they will produce when the temperature falls a little, during the last week we have been up to 40 degrees centigrade on several occasions!

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Squashes and Courgettes produced in the “Stork’s Nest” bed

My other success has been beef tomatoes which I’ve never grown before. They are very prone to mildew and Mediterranean fruit fly here and so I planted Tanacetum vulgare nearby and mulched them well with oak chip mulch. I never dig anywhere in my garden, so its simply a matter of making a fairly deep hole and popping them in. I put in a raw sardine (deeply so my cats didnt dig it up!)  some eggshell and a handful of pelleted manure too, just to give things a good start.  The Tanacetum contains a natural pyrethrum which is meant to deter flies and it does seem to. They have been producing well and I have bagged them with organza wedding favour bags against insect and chicken damage, as they discovered them early on and started eating them.. I do water them a lot, but am pleased to get a good crop. I don’t  eat a lot of tomatoes as unfortunately they don’t agree with me much, but Señor Faztudo has them for breakfast every morning.

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Tomatoes growing in organza bags for chicken and fly protection

Finally, I am experimenting with growing chicken fodder. I know I won’t be able to grow all the food my chickens need, but I like to give them treats which I produce, so I have made a little bed, where I’m growing amaranth, sunflowers and some cabbage underneath. It is thriving, even in this he,at and next year, I plan to grow more. It has two purposes as  it looks pretty, but it’s also producing food. and  doesn’t seem to mind the heat at all. That makes it worth watering, for me.

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Finally, I have discovered something green that loves this heat, as long as you water it! It’s the one and only magic New Zealand Spinach. A Portuguese gardening friend gave me some seeds and though it was very difficult to get germination and slow to grow in the beginning , now it’s romping away. I have also discovered it grows well from cuttings and is lovely in quiche, so I’m very happy! Someone told me it even grows on the dunes, so it must be tough!

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Ne Zelnd Spinach, a real toughie.

The rest of the garden is beautifully brown. A decision I have made is only to water the things that grow and let the rest sleep. The kales last out until the Autumn rains and then we will start all over again! I am looking forward to trying out my new greenhouse, which was a birthday present, made for me by Señor Faztudo. It’s the most romantic and wonderful present he could possibly give me and many hours of loving attention has gone into it. As he said at the time, one hot and sweaty afternoon as he was toiling in the garage “The things one does for love!” But I’ll show you that in the next post.

 

Growing things to eat in a waterwise way

 

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The first of the plums from my garden

It’s the start of harvest time in the garden, difficult to appreciate when you are used to August, September and October being harvest time in more northern climes. Plums coming out of our ears!

We have just been through a very hot dry June, with the devastating fires that claimed the lives and livings of many in Central Portugal. So very sad and I feel such sorrow the people affected. My fervent hope is that Mother Nature will do her work quickly and start to put up green shoots to soothe the hearts of those who have lost so much.

In times of drought and hot temperatures, water use is a serious issue. I am learning all the time about gardening with less water, including food growing. Water is a limited resource here and not to think about its use is actually socially unacceptable. If you wonder about why ornamental flower gardening isn’t prevalent in the Algarve, it is really because in a country where starvation is still in living memory, to use water on flowers, in some people’s minds, is almost tantamount to a crime. The local farmers’ wives are almost clandestine in their efforts to grow flowers (and flower gardening, for some reason is seen as an exclusively female thing, although that is changing)  Ornamental plants are seen as a real luxury, grown along walls only with the use of washing up or slops water.

However, there are some trees with very beautiful flowers that also produce food. I managed to produced a Feijoa Sellowiana or Pineapple Guava from seed and it’s a beautiful tree, with lovely flowers, as well as fruits. Pomegranates are also stunning in all seasons, with red flowers, lovely young red leaves in the Spring, very attractive fruits and yellowing leaves in the winter. Why not grow a beautiful tree for food and use your water and space wisely?

For us, with our UK pensions and not on subsistence farming money, life is a little less complicated, but we are still using a common and scarcece resource. And in the same way I don’t put on the outside lights we have at night except on a special occasions, I want to use water wisely as an act of respect for those around me, because it’s a limited, scarce resource and also because it’s very expensive. Water is metered here and it depends what camara (council) you live in, how much it is per unit. It isn’t the same countrywide. The cost of it also goes up the more you use.

So, back to the harvest and eating from the garden, what can you grow and how do you maximise on water?

The most obvious thing, considering we have a thick clay soil which retains water well, is to grow trees. In times gone by, when wheat harvests failed , the Portuguese lived off bread made from figs and fed it to their pigs. The almonds grown here, whilst not the perfect shape like the Californian almonds, taste better than any in the world. The olive oil produced was used by the Romans in their lamps, although nowadays it’s much too precious for that. Trees, once established, put down very deep roots and can last until the next seasonal rainfall, as long as you choose those well adapted to this climate.

 

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An old olive tree for eating olives in my garden

I am fortunate to have some venerable trees which were already in our garden when we arrived, a mature and ancient olive which gives me enough eating olives for a whole year, some almonds, and a few carobs. I don’t need more, as I wouldn’t  have time to harvest the fruits and process them and I’ve resolved to eat everything in my garden, if I can and not waste anything. I only have about 1,600 square metres of garden, but within that I realised the other day, I have over fifty trees and 19 different types of edible fruit or nut, some producing, some too young to prouce yet. Many of those are very drought resistant once established, peach, certain varieties of plum, almond, apricots,pomegranate, olive, carob. The rain, when it falls is very heavy indeed and the clay soil retains the water well and nourishes them.  I also have some citrus trees, but aside from the lemon, I am rather wishing I didn’t plant them. They are very difficult I find, hard to get established, prone to disease and pest and they need lots of water. They are at the bottom of my steeply sloped garden and receive all the grey water from the house through a great filtering system, but without this, I don’t think I’d bother with them. The idea of turning shower water into oranges quite pleases me though, so I persevere!

After three years of making mistakes and probably paying huge amounts for each cabbage I’ve produced, I am getting the measure of how to grow vegetables in my garden. The trick is to use the winter period and natural rainfall  wisely. By planting seedlings in the shade in August and getting them ready for the first rains in the Autumn, or buying plug plants in the market, you can have cabbages, kale and spinach in the Autumn. Potatoes can also be planted in the Autumn, for a cheeky Christmas crop, but you do run the danger of frosts cutting them down in the January to March months, even in the Algarve.

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Last year’s cherry tomatoes-they are more disease resistant then the beef variety

For broad beans, or favas, as they are known here, I always watch my neighbours andput them in when they plant.  They always plant them after first rains and then they mature by the Spring before the blackfly begin. I also almost always leave some pods to dry on the plants  and drop to the ground, because the best beans in my garden are always those that self seed, since they know exactly the optimum time of year to germinate by themselves. Peas need to be put in during  the very early Spring, as it is all over once the temperatures get too hot and mange-tout work really well here I find. I have yet to find the secret to growing any kind of green beans, they often come to flower and then it gets too hot for them to produce , or the bean rots in the ground before it’s had a chance to germinate. I  don’t  think I’ve hit on the right variety of bean for the Algarve yet, or developed a good understanding of their needs. I tried English runner beans and they flowered, but never produced beans.  All suggestions gratefully received.

Garlic and onions are easy enough if you get them in at the right time. I put mine in very late this year, so they are small, but they are very unproblematic. I buy them as small plants in the market as they are very cheap and the right sort of onion to do well here.

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Peppers in my garden grow best in large buckets or pots. They need early sun and then when it gets too hot, you can move them into the shade, as the afternoon sun in the summer is too hot for them. Planting them in pots means less watering too and you can feed them more effectively. I have also given up trying to grow strawberries in the ground and grow them in deep pots too, the kind you buy trees in, with piles of well-rotted manure at their roots when first planted.

I have been very successful with Globe artichokes, which I love, although dis-infesting them of earwigs is an issue. They also have very deep roots and use natural rainfall well. I now eat them really young at the beginning of the season before I get fed up with them and then leave the flowers to mature as they are so beautiful.

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But the jewel in the crown  this year has been the courgettes and squashes, which I’ve never had success with so far and also beef tomatoes, which I haven’t grown before.The thing is, not to grow too much of anything. You can’t even give them away as everyone has them at the same time as you, so another water saving tip, is to think about how many you need or to grow something different from your neighbour, so you can swap.  Three beef tomato plants is plenty for two people, three courgette plants has given us three of four a day for the past month and I have pickled a lot of them.

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I have written before about my lasagna beds and making soil. My clay soil is full of big and small rocks and any attempt at growing squashes or courgettes in the gorund  has meant buckets of water and a complete stop in production if you don’t plant them before it gets really hot. After that, you could water them all summer and it would make no difference at all. And I did. So I ended  up wasting water and eating nothing. A complete folly and rather shameful. So I invented “The patent  Stork’s Nest Water Retaining Squash and Melon Compost bed” or SNWRSMC (!) for short, a 4 in 1 technique which helps you get rid of all your garden rubbish, grow fantastic food, use less water and make great compost”

But more of that in the next blog post. I’m sure you can’t wait!

The worst bits…

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A very messy working area!

Everything in my garden is not roses. It’s  a long way from being a perfectly managed, under control garden and I doubt it ever will be. Because I’m not able to keep it like that.  I just want you to know that, readers, if indeed there be readers of this post.  Why do I feel the need to confess this now? Well, the other day, someone on a Facebook gardening group said that she’d try to get the courage up to show photos of her garden. I wondered why she needed courage?  Are we so judgemental we can’t share our problems and failures for fear of people laughing us?  That isn’t the spirit of gardening is it? We all have our triumphs and our failures, our good bits and our bad. I used to get so angry with the allotment committee when they went off on one about rules and tidiness. Of course there has to be a collective agreemment on standards and health and safety.  But sometimes the most messy of gardeners produced the most food.  That set me thinking about the fact that on gardening blogs and social media we generally only show our best side, our beautiful flowers in vases, our lovely bushes in full bloom, our buegeoning vegetables. Of course, we like to show our achievements, but no real garden is perfect and mine is no exception. Real gardens  have warts, carbuncles even!  A blog post and its photographs is nothing more than a blinkered view of reality, a cropped and edited snippet with the scruffy bits left off.

So in this blog post, I’m going to reveal all my less than savoury bits. I would say the seedy bits, but in fact they aren’t seedy, they’re weedy! What I’m about to expose is more shocking than anything you might see on Naked Gardening day, but if you still read my posts after I’ve  revealed all, then you’re a good egg!

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The Glory Hole

So let’s start with my Glory Hole! A Glory Hole was a term frequently used by my maternal grandmother. It was a place where you flung everything, often behind a door which you then closed and hoped it would all rearrange itself inside.  A Glory Hole has a tendency of getting messier and messier until in desperation you try to squeeze the door closed and everything falls out every time you open it.  My little shed and its environs are like this. Although I give it a tidy out once or twice a year it always seems to get so full I can’t get in to find things. The cats sleep in this shed and also find themselves climbing over bits of plastic sheet, jam jars, bags of string and other paraphenalia before they can get to their baskets. Sometimes they give me a pitying or withering look.  In the summer, they generally give up and sleep in their airier accommodation in the porch. My sister-in-law gave me a delightful Welsh slate sign that says “The Potting Shed” Well I try, but not much gets potted in it!

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My flower bed outside the front door

The next delightfully unkempt area of my garden should be my most beautiful. This is the flower bed directly outside our  front door. On the prospective plans, before the house was even built,  a charming bougainvillea is to be seen scrambling up the side of the house. I was enchanted. Unfortunately Señor Faztudo had other ideas. There  is no way anything is going to grow up the side of our house and allow the passage of geckos, ants, and other unmentionables onto our balcony! Discouraged, I have never decided what to grow in this bed and it’s a bit far from the hose and gets the full blast of the morning sun and the East wind. To date it has some very sad and holds only a couple of failing-to -thrive hibiscus and a Dama de Noite, so at least it smells enchanting at night. But I don’t water it or tend to it all enough and it looks awful. I still haven’t decided what to plant there in  the long run, perhaps some beautiful Agapanthus,  all suggestions gratefully received. But nothing that clings to walls or upsets foundations, please!

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Edwina Grundy’s Farm

The next terrible-awful has been dubbed by my one and only husband as “Edwina Grundy’s farm”  This is the area of the garden farthest away from the house, where I indulge my farming and permaculture techniques. I’m  making raised beds here to collect all the rubbish, turn it into good soil and furthermore to keep chickens out and although I can see logically  that raised beds shouldn’t do too well in hot climates, my first example has been producing courgettes and butternut squashes very successfully for weeks. Thing is, they don’t look very beautiful and I’m pondering how to improve their aesthetic. It certainly doesn’t look delightful at the moment in this heat, as I’ve employed old parasols in an endeavour to keep my butternut squashes going for a bit longer. I have also had to shelter a young avocado from the sun. I am going to develop this area into three raised beds for pumpkins, squash, and cucumber as it’s the sunniest are of the garden, until the fruit trees grow bigger at least.

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The Dump

Finally here is one of the very worst bits. I shall call it  “The Dump” I have always been quite good at sweeping things under the carpet. To this end I have planted hedges as I know I’m an untidy gardener. I decided all my untidy bits can be hidden behind the hedge. This part of the garden is waiting for my new greenhouse which is being built by Señor F  for my birthday in a couple of week’s time (actually I’m more likely to get it for Christmas now, and it was for last Christmas,  but I am still very grateful) It’s full of all my carefully collected weeds waiting to go in the next raised bed, loads of bags of fresh horse poo kindly donated to me and all my fencing gubbins, along with several old chairs that I just can’t resist collecting from dumps. To me the chairs speak of the people who sat of them and I hate to see them thrown out. I like to line them up and imagine the old people sitting on them, although in fact the chickens use them as handy perches. I will paint them up and restore them one day, when I can make the time.

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Old hand-made chairs rescued from the dump

So there you have it. My worst bits. I’ve shown you mine, but will you show me yours?

What is a garden FOR?

 

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The Irrigated Garden Bed

In  the early days, when I first started to make this garden, I went to a very interesting  talk Marilyn Medina Ribeiro of Waterwise Gardens at a Mediterranean Garden Society. meeting. It was inspiring for me, a beginner gardener to the Algave and one of the questions raised was, “What is a garden?”

I’ve  found that question quite thought-provoking over the last few years as I’ve been working on mine. Nowadays though, I’m  increasingly asking myself the question: “What is a garden FOR? ” as it gets closer and closer  to something which could be called a garden.

Creating a garden is as personal as painting a picture, writing a novel or composing a piece of music. Each plant, although it has its own will and needs, is placed in position with care and consideration; it’s  tended to maturity, worried over, fed and watered. The garden as a whole, develops almost like a painting or a jigsaw.  Some people paint by numbers almost, planning in advance, others, like me, are more chaotic. Whichever way you do it, bits gets filled in or rearranged, fussed with, put in and taken out, like a patchwork quilt.  I can often be found sitting on an old hand-made Portuguese chair I rescued from the dump, chin in hand, contemplating how something is growing and whether  it can carry on where it is or needs to be moved.

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The dry garden bed- clary sage and nepeta

So what is my garden for and why  do I work at iteach day? What’s the point?

The garden certainly takes up most of my thinking and emotional energy; a lot of my retirement time is spent researching things I’d like to know; questions it raises; techniques I might try. Am I creating it for me to sit in, a refreshing drink and novel in hand, doing nothing except admire my handiwork? When I finish it, will I want to start another one? What is it teaching me about life, the universe and the price of eggs?

People like to show off their gardens, I’ve noticed. I do it through this blog, on Facebook groups and sometimes in person. But why do we do that? Perhaps we do it to get some kind of accolade for our gardening prowess.  Or maybe just for the sheer pleasure of appreciating a plant with other gardeners, getting inspiration and perhaps swap a cutting here and there. Certainly, my gardening friends have always been very inspiring and from a broad spectrum of life. It was one of the things I loved most about  my London allotment, sharing a thermos with a friend on a cold evening after a hard day’s work and watching the crows settling for the night, discussing the plans for beetroot or rhubarb, celebrating small successes.  I love to see how others have put their gardens together and hear their thoughts and dreams about them. However, now the time is coming when I’m getting close to having something to show other people in my garden, I feel strangely shy about it, for it’s something I have struggled with and laboured over for almost five years and I feel almost reluctant to expose it, as though it was a secret gate to my inner self. Or perhaps I’m over thinking it….

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The garden below, my sitting spot on the left in front of the shed

One of the things this garden has done is showered me with gifts. Perhaps that’s what it’s for.  The gift of motivation in my retirement is one thing it’s  given me.  Every morning, I wake up feeling I have something to do, something healthy, meaningful and creative. I wander off down the garden and it gives me tranquillity, right there in the butterflies on the Clary sage, the blackbird singing so very sweetly it hurts and the east wind from Spain  in the olive trees. As if that isn’t enough it surprises me with a courgette which grew  in the night, a newly laid egg where I didn’t expect one or an amazing flower on a succulent, I’d never seen before. Of course, life isn’t perfect, so it occasionally gives me problems, like “How are you going to stop the chickens eating the tomatoes? “ or “Why has the lime tree stopped growing when it was perfectly healthy?”  I am endlessly on my toes.

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Courgette grown in my raised bed/compost heap

I must say, I enjoy sitting in the garden and just staring. I probably spend at least an hour a day doing that in between tasks. Which is better than using a meditation app, I suppose. And because the garden is on a very steep hill and I must walk up and down it at least twenty times a day, I don’t need to go to the gym.  The garden also has built in aromatherapy with all the lavender and thyme – using the hose is a spa in itself and smelling the earth after rain, honestly, you might have well have died and gone to heaven! There are other surprising smells like this plant, Cassia didymobotrya, which amazingly actually smells of hot, buttered popcorn!

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Cassia didymobotrya

If I asked Señor Faztudo  “What is the garden for?” I imagine he might say “To keep me endlessly building things for you in the garage” It is true, he’s kept busy too, as I beg him  for a chicken coop, or a garden shed or a greenhouse for my birthday (Often getting it in time for Christmas, although my birthday is in the summer, but I’m always grateful)  Something has to keep you busy in retirement and as I watch him banging and sawing in the workshop he has created for himself, I see he is happy, in his own way.  I am reminded of the folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”

“I will build my love a bower
By yon clear and crystal fountain
And on it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain”

I have yet to ask him for the bower, or the crystal fountain but I have it in mind. You are never too old to be built a bower by the one you hold dearest.