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.

Wee beasties and long legged locusts and bugs that go bump in the night!

This is a post about beasties, for it’s the season of beasties and the garden is teaming with them. This is all perfectly natural of course, but there are times when it gets a little bit much and lest you think  I’m totally living the dream, without any irritants and that living in Paradise is my daily state, let me tell you something. Go on, come a little closer and I’ll tell you a  secret.  Here it is:  “There are mosquitoes in Paradise” Not only mosquitoes but ticks, bird lice, fleas, the Mediterranean fruit fly, red spiders, locusts and huge hornets. And right now, I’m not sure which of these plagues is worse!

Let’s take the bird mites first. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you keep chickens, at some point or other you’ll get bird mites. I’ve only had them once, a few years ago, but I never want them again. Take heed, chicken keepers, and take preventative measures before you ever get a case of them!  This is a salutary tale which I’m about to tell. One bright Spring morning, you go down to the chicken coop in your pyjamas, even though you really know you shouldn’t. Then you go back to bed with a cup of tea and your book. Snuggling in, you  start to itch a little and think perhaps it’s an allergy to pollens. Then a little mite runs across your book, closely followed by a second one. Starting to get a bit suspicious you pull back the bedclothes to inspect your trouser leg, which you realise is covered in little mites! Arrrrrgh!  It’s the worse thing….the little varmints run up your legs as soon as you go near the infested coop and although they are almost too small to see, they are very irritating and make your skin tickle. They need to be fought aggressively by any means possible and measures taken, such as regular coop cleaning and dusting with diatomaceous earth, so you don’t get them again! Awful things. I still shudder to think about them.

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Are you itching now? Good! You can share my pain. And the chickens don’t like them much either!

Now the evenings are so balmy,  we sometimes sit outside to watch the moon rise. The other night we were sitting on the terrace as  the sun went  down, with  the swallows dipping and diving delightfully across the pool when a noise akin to some kind of helicopter landing assaulted our ears, as a huge and ungainly cockchafer beetle flew around the corner, veering crazily from here to there, blundering its way around, terrifying in its size and unpredictability. Then, just as the last rays of the sun lit the sky, the loud insistent buzz of dive-bombing mosquitoes started and we knew it was dinner time and we were the tastiest dish on the menu. We beat a hasty retreat!

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The next morning, I went down to harvest the apricot crop, which had been ripening beautifully on the tree. I bit into one expectantly ,the juice running down my chin. So sweet! Then I noticed the other half had small maggots wriggling about inside. Sure, they’d only eaten apricot, but it was a bit off-putting. I wondered if I’d eaten one. I made a note not to tell Señor Faztudo, since he’d never eat the courgette and apricot chutney I was  about to make if he knew the dreadful truth. He isn’t very fond of the idea of maggots in his food, even when I promise to remove every one! The Mediterranean Fruit Fly is a serious pest here and can infect 250 kinds of fruits and vegetables. I have been researching different ways to combat it without chemicals, including traps and barrier methods, as I won’t use chemicals in my garden. The fly injects its eggs into the fruit just as it’s ripening and then the maggots hatch and turn the fruit bad. Most people pick the apricots early and let them ripen inside. Luckily not much of my crop was affected, only some, but it’s something I’ll  have to think about in the future.

On a further itchy note, I’m still recovering from the flea bites on my legs I got a few weeks ago. I’m not sure where they came from, really. We don’t have animals in the house, so I suppose I could have picked them up from the cats or chickens who live outside. The thing about fleas is that they are in the earth, jumping on animals is only part of their life cycle. I have started to wear thick socks in the garden, tucked into long  trousers which helps to avoid being bitten.  I don’t even want to get started on the subject of ticks. Luckily in four years I have only found two ticks on me, but I live in fear and terror of them.

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I’ve found the best relief from itching, once bitten, is the hottest water you can bear on the affected parts, which means our water bill will be huge as I’ve been showering twice a day!

Is it all worth it? Of course! A few bites and the odd irritant is more than compensated for by the beauty of the garden this Spring. It’s been truly amazing, beasties notwithstanding.

My Three Garden Graces

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There were three Graces in Greek Mythology: Aglaia, the Grace that symbolized Beauty, Euphrosyne, the Grace of Delight and Thalia, the Grace of Blossom. According to the Greek poet, Pindar, these enchanting goddesses were created to fill the world with pleasant moments and goodwill. My garden is certainly full of Beauty, Delight and Blossom at the moment, which set me thinking about how my three Graces would be personnified.

Three wonderful women in my life have supported my gardening activities. I’ll call them my garden “Graces”  as they have inspired me with their creativity, charm and beauty in their passion for gardening, and although one of them is no longer on this earth, I think of them all every day as I work to make a garden as beautiful as theirs.

The first Grace was my mother. She loved plants and taught me many of  their names from a young age. My first word practically, after “mama” was “aquilegia” apparently. Unfortunately, this precocious and probably not very endearing tendency, to remember complicated plant names from a very young age has not remained with me and I am far more likely to call a plant a “Whateveritis” or “Thingmebobus” nowadays. My mother loved wild flowers in particular and I did manage to learn all the common names, which fascinated me such as “milk maid” and “wet-the-bed”, “lords and ladies” and “cuckoo pint” just a few of the local names in the Wye Valley area. I often wondered how they got such strange monikers, but no one could tell me the origins.  My mother used to keep her four children amused on long walks by helping us to identify the names of plants and trees and their properties. She was a lover of roses and flowering shrubs and as we were growing up, the garden blossomed under her hand. She was quite a wild gardener, straight lines and neat beds were an anathema to her and that sense of an abundant  cacophony of plants is something I always loved in her gardens. She was also a fan of variegated plants, which I am not so sure about in my own garden, but then, I am not my mother.

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My second Grace, we’ll call her Mrs Grace, was a plantswoman. She wanted them all, every one in the world. She loved plants with a passionnate greed, she knew all their names and origins and just had to have any plant she fell in love with. I first met her when I was a student in London, where she was a mature student on the same course as me. She had seven children and came to be a very special friend to me, almost like a second mum,  and I watched her create gardens in all of the nine houses she had during our friendship, either in  UK and Portugal.  Mrs Grace loved colour, colour was her passion and she would literally paint with her plants. In her English garden, pillar roses would intertwine with a huge variety of clematis as they romped all over the apple trees. Tiny violas would raise their purple  and yellow faces to the sun amongst brightly coloured anemones in her English gardens as Spring arrived. “Look at their dear little faces!” She would exclaim with a joy which was infectious. She would stop to point out clumps of Dutch irises, one of her particular favourites. She was particularly fond of Iris hollandica “Tiger’s Eye” and it was one of the first plants I put in my Portuguese garden here. The colours are exquisite.

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Mrs Grace’s Portuguse garden

Mrs Grace was our reason for coming to Portugal, as she bought a house here in the 1990s and encouraged us to come too.  She loved the bright colours she could use in her garden here and it was a great sorrow to her that she had to return to the UK because of ill-health, before she could help with my Portuguese garden. Sadly, she died a few years ago, but every day, I hear her voice as I walk around the garden, encouraging me here and chiding me there, just as she did in life. When I feel sorrow if I have to move a plant, I hear her saying “Well, you have to break an egg to make an omelette, you know” or “You need to have some brighter colours in that corner over there. What about a nice purple clematis or some Bougainvillea?”

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Donna Gracia’s agapanthus

The third inspiration is my neighbour. Donna Gracia. Born in a South American country, and living in Holland now, she loves tropical and exotic plants and her Portuguese garden allows her free rein to grow them. Plants love her, they almost reach their tendrils to her for her touch. If they haven’t flowered for her, she gets very cross and threatens them with the chop and invariably they comply and bloom for her.  I don’t think any plant would dare not to flourish for her! Her garden sings with Hibiscus and Frangipani plants, giant Agapanthus and all kinds of exotic magic. She is generous with her plants and gives me all sorts of wonderful cuttings, as well as plenty of encouragement. Her garden is inspiring and although plants don’t perform for me like they do for her, I am working on it.

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Donna Gracia’s Epidendrum

So Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia in the form of these three lovely women, follow me about the garden, as well as the hens, the cockerels and the cats as I look in wonder this Spring at how the plants are developing. Beauty, Delight and Blossom in abundance!

Gardening in Portugal- If you know its name it’s not a weed!

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Patch or Alexanders, Self seeded Aconite (delphinium, very poisonous)  and Chamanthe

It’s raining again, oh Lord, it’s raining again! And you know what rain means? It means weeds!
But nowadays,  that don’t impress me much, because I know the name of most of them and as my gardening friend and Portuguese teacher often says, if you know the name of a plant, it isn’t a weed.

I’ve  had the joy and delight over the past few years of discovering that most of the weeds in the Algarve  are useful for something. Do you want to thicken cheese? Use the petals of a  cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, as a rennet substitute (although, what kind of domestic goddess makes cheese? Not me..well not yet anyway!)  Have you got a toothache? Chew on the leaves of the field marigolds, which are an anodyne.  And don’t bother buying fertiliser for your plants, just soak a few nettles , Urtica Dioica),  in water for a few weeks, water down the resulting liquid (holding your nose tightly as the pong is indescribable) and the job is done. Furthermore nettles are great in soup and if you’re feeling particularly strong, you can whip yourself with them to alleviate rheumatism!

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Nettle, Urtica Doica

Of course some weeds can kill you, so you have to be super careful, as there  isn’t much room for mistakes. Take the Umbelliferae family for example. The plants are very similar in this family and  whilst the Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum, brought here by the Romans,  can be eaten in all  its parts,  Hemlock , Conium maculatum,  is in the same family and is deadly!  Of course, this may be useful if you want to do your husband in, but since Senor Faz-Tudo is my beloved,  indispensable companion and hasn’t finished the greenhouse yet, that’s not likely in my case!  Even the experts don’t always seem to know definitively. I bought a book on foraging in which it said you can eat the flowers and leaves of Aquilegia, and told everyone in a gardening FB group you could eat it, making a total fool of myself, because it’s actually from the ranunculus  family and dangerous to eat. I hope I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death  (nervous laugh!)  So readers, this is a disclaimer. Please, check out any plant for yourselves before you eat them. This is a great place to do it: Plants for a Future What a labour of love that web site is!

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Alexanders, Smyrnium Olusatrum

I have left some areas in my garden specifically for the weeds to grow, especially in the vegetable garden, where the chickens don’t venture, as they are so useful for so many things. (I actually left them in the chicken’s half of the garden  too but they ate them all, although I suppose we got them back in their eggs) Nettles are quite hard to find in the wild around my house, as they prefer nutritious ground with some shade, so they are particularly precious to me and I only ever pick half of them to use, so I can be sure they will continue to drop their seed and come back next year. The local women used to dry them for use as very nutritious fodder for chickens and other animals as they are full of iron and other vitamins and minerals.They can also be eaten in soup, and as soon as they are boiled they lose their sting.  I have lots of dandelions too and I feed them to the chickens and also, when the leaves are very young, add them to salads, in small amounts as they are very bitter.

The  garden is overrun with Borage plants, Borago officinalis, again something I encourage, as they are very good for attracting bees as pollinators for my beans and fruit trees. The flowers are very pretty and look great put into ice cubes in the fridge to jolly up your cocktails, and although the leaves are edible, they are very hairy, you’d be unlikely to eat them unless you’re a goat.

Although the tradition is dying out a little now, local women all have their recipes for “chas” or teas using local “weeds” Malva Silvestris , the common mallow or wild hollyhock is still used in tea to settle sore stomachs, or the leaves boiled and used for a poultice on festering wounds or cuts as it draws out the poison and soothes and heals. Wild thyme and rosemary are both anti-bacterial and can be uses as “pick me up teas” in the morning. The wild thyme here is amazing and I have collected the seeds of several types from the wild in the hope of encouraging  them to grow in my garden.

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Malva  or Mallow

 

Interestingly, unlike in Greece, in my experience, Rosemary isn’t used much in the South of Portugal for cooking, with people preferring to uses salsa (parsley) or green coriander (coentro)

My friend is collecting  “dicas” or uses of common herbs, before the very considerable knowledge of the older countrywomen here is lost. It seems there are many beneficial plants, some of them indigenous to the Algarve and some imported from peoples coming into the Algarve, such as the Carthaginians, Romans or Moors  or brought back from the colonies of Portugal in Africa or South America  in more recent years.

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Patch of Nettles and Chrysanthemum Coronium 

But before you go out with your poison sprays or hacker and commit carnage, at least try to identify your weed and see if you can use them for anything, using the “Plants for a Future” database. It seems crazy we spend so much on cosmetics, remedies and leaf teas when any of them are derived from things we call weeds in our gardens. It’s lovely to wander around the garden and see teapot potential and bath bombs where once you just saw plants which made you cross!