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. 

Gardening in Portugal – Flat pack capers

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

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

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Breakfast eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Gardening in Portugal – Hen-picked names

 

 

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Phoenix, the risen again cockerel

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

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Sexy Mother Clucker

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

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Donald Trump, the bantam cockerel

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

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Mrs Chicken 

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

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Emu

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

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

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

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

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Miss Snow aka That Bloody Hen Mark 2

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

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Jack Sparrow

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