Gardening in Portugal- The Gifts in my Garden

“She breathes in dirt and exhales flowers” (Unknown author, but I love that quote)

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It seems strange, but for the past four years  of building this garden, I haven’t had much time to concentrate on the plants. I do have a quite lot of plants now, but the garden is big and the plants are still small and sometimes it’s hard to even realise they are there!  Although  I have a fairly well developed idea of how I want the garden to be planted and I have already different “zones” we have been spending our limited resources on finishing terraces, garden buildings and hard landscaping, and haven’t really focused on what is growing in the garden. I have just poked plants in here and there in the general  position I want them to grow and hoped for the best whilst I concentrate on improving the soil, finishing off the structures and grow a little food.

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With this in mind, I went out in the garden yesterday with my roses coloured glasses on. I wanted to take a fresh look at the  plants I already have in the garden, the plants I need and perhaps even more importantly, the plants I desire!
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As I looked around, and focused in on what was actually growing, I felt a huge debt of gratitude, as I realised most of the plants in my garden have been given to me. Here a delicious pot of spiky aloes, which I don’t even know the names of, given to me by a friend with a wonderful collection, there a beautiful camellia or a hibiscus. Many roses, given to me as cuttings by dear neighbours and friends, even some sent in the post from France by my sister in law. Wild flowers growing from seeds plucked from the waysides by my Portuguese teacher, who knows so much about their origins and medicinal uses, Absinthe (Artemisia absinthium) and Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) grown from donated cuttings and Lippia Alba, common name here, Cida, a plant used for tea by someone who thrust a whole pot of rooted cuttings into my hand at the Seed and Plant exchange in the Autumn. During a time when the world seems to be getting more insular and less friendly,  my emerging garden is bright with the generosity and good heartedness of fellow plant lovers and gardeners.  I’ve been donated beautiful pots too and even tools. I’ve been given furniture and decorations for my hippy shed, which I enjoy with much pleasure as I sit there. To help build my lasagna beds I have received coffee grounds collected from the local cafe, newspapers, leaves, horse manure and even shredded bank statements which were great added great benefit to my sludgy compost! Even  some of my chickens are presents. I am humbled by the generosity of so many people as I walk around the garden. People are so kind.
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Looking at different pats of the garden, , I realise already have a good collection of succulents, a wide range of aromatic plants, including several types of lavender and rosemary, cistus and phlomis, thymes  and salvias, some ornamentals including hibiscus, oleander, plumbago, Ceanothus, a rose collection, many of then unnamed and grasses and irises, both winter and summer.

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I also have a few tender and beautiful pot plants, a camellia, a holly fern,(Cyrtomium falcatum), a couple of  frangipanis (Plumeria) and some lilies. I’d like more decorative and unusual plants , but the care they need will make them plants for some time in the future, once I have the greenhouse and can care for them better(  Señor Faztudo is still hammering away in the garage, as I write) Pouco a Pouco, as they say here!

So that’s more or less what is emerging,  not including all the food plants and trees. What do I need? I need more drought resistant, chicken proof plants, to fill in the spaces, nepetas, other species of cistus, euphorbias, varieties of iris, maybe more grasses. I need some pyracantha to make my chicken corner more impenetrable to predators. I need more Dutch irises…you can never have too many Dutch irises! 
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But what do I desire? Ah now…there’s a thought! I desire a moringa  tree.(Moringa oleifera-my sister gave me some seeds but I can’t find them anywhere!) I desire all the aromatics in the world. I desire a bigger collection of aloes as I’ve fallen passionately and hopelessly in love with the spikey fellows. I desire stinging nettles growing just where I want them to grow and comfrey so I can use it to feed my vegetables. I want celandines and poppies and borage, but do they want me?  I crave a rhubarb plant but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I almost desire more space….no wait!  A gardener’s greed knows no bounds, but it’s a happy greed. It doesn’t kill you with calories or pollute your lungs, it just soothes your heart and soul and keeps you fit. My plants reward my time with them and the more whole I become and the more healed I am from the mad hurry of city life,  the better they grow.

Gardening in Portugal: Fowl play!

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One of my fowls

This is a  fowl post. Fowl is a lovely old fashioned word you don’t hear much any more, people are more likely to call their chicken “chooks” nowadays, which I think is a term that originated in the States.  In my youth, in the Forest of Dean, everyone called their chickens “fowls” and I think my fascination for them is rooted in collecting eggs from a straw nesting box at a friend’s house and going back to the kitchen to eat them for breakfast. It seemed like a magic thing then and it still does now. I’m not sure they taste all that different from the eggs in the supermarket, to be honest, but the yolks are a deep yellow  and I  know where they’ve been, so to speak!  I am a relatively new chicken keeper, only having chickens for the four years I’ve been here. Chicken is a very important part of  the Portuguese diet. It’s  so important that there are different words for different types. This can also cause some confusion to both chef and chicken keeper alike. You can still buy live chickens in the markets here, although I haven’t done that yet, preferring to buy mine from a local agricultural store, where, to me, they seem less stressed. At the moment, you couldn’t buy a chicken in the market at all, as they have found bird flu in a heron in the Algarve and the movement of birds is restricted for 50 miles around where the sick bird was found.

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The big girls

Last  Autumn, I bought four young birds from the agricultural store. They were “poedeiras” or hens on the and point of lay, in the Uk we would call them pullets. Two of them were speckled brown and two were white. These brown ones are mixed , dual purpose hens, and good layers, however, the white ones are usually bought for fattening for meat. They are bred for the speed in which they fatten up and not really meant to be kept as they get too fat and don’t function very well as layers.They are very greedy birds. But quite docile and pleasant in nature. I didn’t know they were meat birds when I bought them though. I quickly realised my mistake, as my two white birds grew to almost the size of turkeys. They waddle around and don’t lay very well, quite often producing a soft shelled egg. One of the birds is an especially hopeless case. She is so big, she can’t clean herself very well and so she looks very mucky. I had to give her a bath the other day and trim her bottom feathers and she lumbers about looking quite sorry for herself with a red bottom and dishevelled feathers. I am a failed chicken keeper…5 cockerels, all crowing their heads off who should be in the pot by now, and a bird with special needs who needs nursing care. I’ve got to give myself a firm talking to and deal with my growing cockerel problem!

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My big fat hen

Chickens bred for laying eggs are called “Gallinhas” and those young chickens bred for eating are called “Frangos”  Cockerels are called “Gallos” If you want to buy a freerange chicken in the supermarket you can buy a “Frango de Campo” but these are more for stewing than roasting  as they are older birds and very delicious they are too!  Roasting of chicken is rarely done , at least in my part of Portugal, chicken is either barbecued or stewed. Chicks are called “Pintos”

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Young cockerel 2

Anyway, I digress. My exciting news about chickens is that I have a clutch of new arrivals, hatched last Wednesday! You may remember early disasters with trying to successfully brood chicks using a broody hen.  So far I have had an exploding egg, infertile eggs, a raid by other jealous chickens on the poor bantam broody, a trampled chick and various other mishaps, mostly caused by my interference. I have felt like a bungling murder at times! I have had two broods already, but they were only two chicks each time. And all boys. Beautiful  boys none the less, but more than two cockerels, one little and one large so they don’t fight, becomes unmanageable for me and the hens. So much drama! Especially when Spring arrives and the testosterone  kicks in.

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Young cockerel no 3

However, under the guidance of an experienced chicken keeper and friend, I have learned a great deal about the process of successfully hatching chicks. I have learnt the importance of having a safe separate area for the broody, to leave her to do her job which she can ably do without me, how to keep chicks healthy and warm in the early weeks and above all NOT to keep fussing and peeping during the hatch. So this time she hatched nine eggs out of ten! One died straight away, I found it squashed, poor thing and chucked unceremoniously out of the nest along with the egg shells from the others. I buried it in the compost heap with a little prayer and hope it will be reborn as a succulent tomato.  I lost a second through my own stupidity. It got out of the crate where its mum was and couldn’t get back in and died of cold. I found it’s stiff  little body in the morning and shed a tear. There is nothing sadder than a new born creature  which didn’t make it. I felt terrible and consigned it to the compost to the company of its squashed brother or sister. I rigged up a flowerpot candle heater since there is no electricity where the chickens are and it has been very cold and now all  the chicks now look very happy and healthy.

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Chicks and their mum

So now, I’m the proud keeper of 19 birds. 6 big girls and their cockerel, 4 young bantam  cockerels all strutting around, a bantam broody and seven chickens, of indeterminate sex and not all bantams as I slipped some eggs from the big girls under the broody when she wasn’t looking.

I have a plan to have two small flocks, five or six bantam hens with a cockerel and the same with the big hens. The bantams are wilder and go broody more often, but are less destructive in the garden and very good foragers. The big girls are more passive, better  layers, never go broody and  I love the way they chat and mutter to each other as they tour the garden. They also do poos the size of small dogs, a bonus for the plants.

It’s been very cold and wet here this week, so it’s not a great time to have new chicks. The main flock have been very happy to go to bed, having spent the day  crouched miserably under the chicken shed as the rain literally comes down as though grey buckets of water are being chucked  from the sky.

The chickens are a great start my day. Stopping to make myself a cup of tea, I head down to the chicken corner and let them out, chuckling at all the crowing and posturing from the young cockerels and taking delight in the chicks peeping out from Mrs Chicken’s feathers. The valley is often shrouded in wisps of mist, the garden has some new discovery, the Chief cat comes and sits on my lap for warmth and watches the chickens with me as I drink my tea, swearing quietly at Subordinate cat who is very jealous and sits at my feet.  It’s a wonderful way to forget the world’s problems!

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Chief Cat on the left with Subordinate cat on the right

Roominations in the garden. Garden design in retrospect.

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My garden has been divided into rooms, almost by default. It’s a big garden and difficult to manage, because of the slopes, the north facing aspect and the heavy clay soil, peppered with rocks.  The house sits squarely in about 2,400 square metres. I’m glad it isn’t any bigger, because it’s  the limit of our physical ability to work it. Sometimes I hear people lamenting their decision to buy a large plot of land, as they realise they just aren’t able to manage to prune 50 odd olive and carob tree every few years, (let alone harvest and process the crop) strim all the weeds in the Spring or even walk up and down such a big stretch with the wheelbarrow. A little word of warning from someone who feels it every day in their bones …don’t get greedy eye when it comes to land in Portugal if you’re getting on in years, unless you can afford a gardener and other staff. You’ll live to regret it!

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In the first two years we had this brand new hillside plot, all we seemed to do is fight with it. The weeds grew 15 feet tall (see here) the rocks wiggled their way out of the ground and I constantly fell over them, the earth became hard and parched and cracked and swallowed up the plants, the terraces kept having minor avalanches whenever it rained, the wind blew everything over and the chickens I insisted on having at the earliest opportunity gobbled up all my seedlings. One day I realised I was almost resenting my garden as it was a constant battle to sort it out.  A little shocked at the revelation, as this garden had always been my dream,  I sat down somewhere in the middle of the 6 feet high Chrysanthemum Coronium for a rethink. I knew we couldn’t go on strimming and chopping and bending our backs forever..how was I going to start enjoying this garden instead of confronting it every day?

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If I’d had the money and good sense to start with, and I’ve since learned it isn’t that expensive, I should have hired a garden designer who could have talked through the management with me and advised on the right plants. But at that point,  I thought a garden designer was much too posh for me and anyway I’m not very good at being told what to do. As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve made gardens before, albeit very small ones. Perhaps, if I saw each part of the garden as a separate room, maybe it wouldn’t seem so daunting. So that’s what I started to do.

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My garden, on arrival

The garden is divided into terraces, three at the back of the house and  a couple at the side and three at the front if you count the top of the cisterna. I saw the back terraces as the  herb and vegetable garden, as they were closest to the house and the water supply;  a side terrace as a sort of jungly and perennials garden as it’s mostly shady, near a tap and near where  we sit; a large area under an olive tree as a wild flower garden, clear around its base in the summer, so we can pick the olives by laying a sheet underneath, as this is our best eating olive tree.

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The olive tree and wild flower area

There is one area near the house with no soil really as it’s on top of a huge boulder, so this became a succulents garden, by necessity. The top of the cisterna, a very difficult area with only a small amount of soil, which is baked by the sun in the summer and flooded in the winter rains, would be sedums, thymes and succulents and the odd iris germanicus  which are real toughies. (See I’m starting to use the Latin names…get me! )

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At the beginning

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A year later

Lower down the garden, I have made a grasses/irises garden…it’s very windy on this bit and I like to see the grasses swaying violently in the biting North wind!  Seriously though, they look lovely and the sound of them rustling away is wonderful on a Spring day. This area also has three plum trees, a  loquat and pomegranate which was thoughtfully planted before we arrived by the builder and is now mature. Then on the lower terrace, which is divided up by stone paths, the front part nearest the drive has been planted with Portuguese natives, such as cistus and phlomis  and chicken proof aromatics and roses. The rest of it is a mini orchard with citrus, two different figs, a quince tree, and a pear. I have come to be very exasperated by the citrus trees, but that’s another story.

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The grasses and irises area

On the basisthat we can’t really afford to water an ornamental garden, since we haven’t got a bore hole (although we have a cisterna and other measures such as grey water recycling) I try to grow useful or edible plants generally throughout the garden so we can get our money back on any plants we have to water. (Although Señor Faztudo insists that my cabbages probably cost about 20 euros each)

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A vegetable garden in development behind the house

We moved  the chickens from behind the house to the bottom of the garden as they were driving us both mad with their pooing and crowing and scoffing and stuff.(the coop is behind a screening hedge, see phot below)  Chickens love scratching and I want to improve the soil here and suppress weeds, so I’ve given them a mega playground in this corner, by mulching heavily with wood chips. They scratch away happily to the hearts content without doing anything but good.

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My “farm” corner

(Chicken poo is vital to the development of this garden, I have to say, but I haven’t taught the chickens to only poo in the mulch and not on the paths, although I’m working on it! ) I see the corner where the birds hang out as a sort of  micro permaculture experiment and mini farm. I have a FB friend in the Algarve who has a page called “Permaculture Playground” and although I can’t go as far as he has, in that tractor tyres will probably not be tolerated by Señor Faztudo,  I am doing mini experiments in this corner as it’s the furthest distance from the house.

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Native plants on the banks

It’s difficult to get a balance between Señor Faztudo’s sensibilities in the garden and mine. I want him to be happy, as  it’s his garden too and he gets a lot of pleasure from the work he does in it. If I’m honest though, he only allows the chickens because he loves me. He actually hates the mess they make and rarely ventures near their corner. He’s not best pleased when he steps in a pile of poo and I can hear the swearing from wherever I am working. But the  hippy shed and greenhouse he is making me (see how much he loves me) are also an  area and I can go to this far flung corner of the garden and be the mucky pup I want to be in peace -as  long as I take my horrible shoes and mite ridden garden clothes off before I come in the house. Another part of the deal is that the areas around the house are kept relatively tidy with nothing climbing up the walls and hanging over things not allowed near the pool. And since it is himself who cleans the pool, I try to comply, albeit grudgingly.

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Mini horta/farm area

Compromises have to be made, I guess!  Thats what I signed up for 35 odd years ago. We are all different and that’s what makes the world go round. But his sensibilities are definitely a part of the garden design.

Most of the garden, apart from the vegetable area, where I like to keep some useful weeds (more of weeds in the next blog) is mulched, some with geotex and gravel mulch and some with woodchips. I think if I knew then what I knew now,  I might have  used woodchips throughout, but the  instant garden that evolved in the early days using the geotex and gravel gave us some kind of garden very quickly and heartened us both as it defeated the weeds. It’s done well with the natives and the grasses, but I do think the mulch allows for soil improvement and all the processes that go on in the soil in a more natural way. It would have been messier though as the chickens always scratch the mulch onto the path. The mulch has made the most significant difference to my garden, since we don’t really have too many  weeds any more and the plants flourish because the water they get is retained and doesn’t evaporate. There is some controversy about wood chips robbing the soil of nitrogen, but its fine if you don’t dig it in. I wouldn’t use it in the vegetable garden though and prefer to build the soil using compost.

Talking of compost, I have made a huge heap  from posts and chicken wire to receive any garden waste I do have and have included  some free manure from people with horses. . I pile everything up in a big heap in the middle of the garden in the Autumn and wait for the rain to come, the sun to shine and the chickens to scratch.

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The compost heat with squashes growing in it

The chickens have half of the garden…this is very important to me. Not only because they kill the pests under the fruit trees, manure the soil scratch up the weeds, but because I’m very happy watching them. They don’t eat rosemaries, lavenders, salvias, cistus, canna lilies, irises, nepeta, some succulents,eg aloes, agapanthus, grasses…other than the seeds which they’re welcome to, roses..well they eat the flowers if they aren’t too  high for them, cape daisies (they eat gazanias though) So you can have a garden with chickens, although you do need to protect young plants until they get established with stones or covers.  Just  don’t have too many chickens!

My flock is growing at an alarming rate, partly because I’m too much of a wuss to eat any. I have five cockerels already, keeping the village awake and I know the day will come soon when I have to face what I have to do, although I’m doing my best to “rehome” them. Señor Faztudo says grimly that he knows exactly where to rehome them! The neighbours look at me pityingly feeding cockerels instead of eating them. I’m obviously not hungry enough, I’m sure they say. And they’d be right….

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The chickens on the rampage

As far as garden design is concerned,  there certainly isn’t any room for more than 10 chickens.  I have considered asking for an extension or another room, but then I’d probably fill it with goats who’d have baby goats and donkeys and geese and turkeys and then we’d be a farm!  I wonder how much that plot of land on the other side of the house costs?

To block or not to block – Algarve garden projects.

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It’s raining again today, but we’re happy because we really need it.  In the Algarve when you talk to locals in the village about the rain they says “Faz falta” which literally means “There is a lack” or in other words “We need it”  There is officially a drought across Portugal this winter and the reservoirs are nowhere near the levels they should be. The trees need a deep watering or the farmers will start to despair.

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We have been using  lovely crisp, blue-skied days to work  on garden projects  throughout the whole day. The evening light, as we put away the tools, is suffused  along the horizon, a pure Moroccan ultramarine, tinged with pink,  highlighting the hills around sunset time and the almond blossom so luminous below us. It is four years now since we really started work on this garden and by the end of next year, I think  we’ll  have finished at least the hard landscaping and any buildings and then I will be able to focus more on the planting.  And by that time, neither of us will be able to manage all this heavy stone lugging and earth moving we’ve been doing, as we get towards our mid sixties and our back and knees start playing up. It doesn’t matter how many people tell us you’re only as old as you feel, it’s not true when it comes to some of the physical aspects of the work you have to do in the garden. Señor Faztudo has been suffering from a bad back since last March and I am becoming aware that my knees and ankles are also creaking as I barrow stuff up and down the hill! So I’m grateful we are coming to an end of the major projects.

 

The three main projects which we are working on this winter have been: the extending of our shady terrace and enclosing it with a glass block wall; (mainly to stop any future little people and old gits falling off the edge);  the making of a dry river bed to deal with the outflow of the backflow from the swimming pool and heavy rainfall and the building of a greenhouse next to the hippy shed. Not bad going for one winter!

 

The terrace is an interesting project. Although this house is new, we weren’t involved in designing  it. When we moved in, we realised there wasn’t really anywhere suitably shady to sit when the weather became really hot. If you’re coming from Northern Europe, you are always trying to capitalise on the sun, but here, from June to September, you seriously need some shade, not just for yourselves, but for those potted plants you crave which just won’t survive the summer unless you have somewhere to put them out of the fierce heat of the noonday sun. Not even a mad dog and certainly not an Englishman or woman can survive the searing heat. I killed a lot of my succulents at first, because I thought they always wanted the sun, as indeed they do in the UK. Not so here! Many of them need to be put in the shade in the Summer, where they put on their most productive growth with watering once a week and feeding.

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Our house is on a VERY steep slope. People who have been to visit and heard or read my description of it have been very surprised at just how steep it is. So some of the walls here  actually have a 20 foot drop behind them. As we get older and more doddery we eye the steep drops over our stone walls  more warily and I am more careful skitting around the place in my crocs in wet weather. I have been particularly mindful of not planting agaves and yuccas at points where if I fell from anywhere I might be impaled on them. Death by Agave Americana is not something I like to contemplate, even though I  know it would make a very juicy headline, “Algarve woman impaled on her Agave!” –  I can just picture the headline in the Portugal News. I hope not to give them the satisfaction.

So when we came to extending our terrace, I had to think of some way of building a barrier. At first, we thought of wrought iron, which can be skilfully made by a local blacksmith. Indeed, we commissioned him to make a security door for the terrace doors.  But we are on a pensioner’s budget nowadays and it was looking quite expensive. Passing a neighbour’s garden, I saw a glass block wall, the kind they used quite a lot in the 1980s in the UK and which are quite frequently used as shower enclosures here. Mostly I hate glass blocks with a vengeance, but there was something about the way that the light glistened through this neighbour’s garden wall that took my fancy and set me thinking. In a hot climate, glass block doesn’t seem the most suitable material for outside. There is the possibility of fire risk, the lack of strength, the likelihood of the colours in any blocks fading and other considerations.  I started exploring the use of glass blocks in garden design on the web and there was very little, but a couple of projects I did see, I really liked.I fancied  a slightly retro feel to mix the old and the new in our garden. There is a lot of retro stuff in architecture in the Algarve and I didn’t think it would look out of place in our garden.

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We went to the local DIY store and as fate would have it, they had a massive discount on the types of blocks I thought would look best and we came home with a job lot at knock down prices. I’m quite a superstitious type and believe in omens and the like, so I reckoned the decision had been taken out of my hands. I wanted a few coloured blocks which were eight times the cost of the others , so Señor Faztudo and I had a little tussle about that. But as usual, he bowed to my superior garden design skills. I was still very nervous about the whole thing, but our minds were made up by the baragin on offer, which was probably just as well or we’d have gone on cogitating for months!

We couldn’t do all the work ourselves, as we don’t really have that kind of DIY knowledge or the knees for it, so we enlisted porfessional help and the photo beelow is the end result. For those of you who are technical, you need to insert iron reinforcing rods between each layer on the horizontal if the span is as wide as ours and the tiles on the top and stone pillars give etra strength. This is meant to be a decorative wall and doesn’t get  hot sunlight for long  in the Summer and none in the winter or we wouldnt have used these materials. I like the end result and am very happy and look forward to the extra space it will give us for entertaining our friends and familiy in the Summer.  It just leaves the wrought iron gates which we will commission later and some pots of lush green plants. The olive tree had a number 1, but it will recover! (The lamp is temporaray  as I broke the lovely globe one we had by dropping it off the edge of the wall)

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The next project was the dry river creek. The backwash from the swimming pool runs down the garden and waters the fruit trees without ill effect. I thought it would kill them but it doesn’t at all.(yet!) And I guess when you think about it, the pool has no more chemicals that the water coming from the tap, although you obviously can’t do this with a salt water pool. However, we needed to slow up the water which comes out with force and is causing erosion. We went down to the local river bed, which is a dry river creek  for most of the year, to gather the stones. I expect I have broken some serious environmental rule regarding the extraction of stones, but then,  if I have done that, so has everyone else, because the stones have been used on the tracks  around here and to decorate houses all over the place. It was quite enjoyable gathering the stones and finding the prettiest ones, but not so enjoyable lugging them in supermarket bags back to the car on a hot day. I certainly don’t need the gym! Two car journeys later my dry bed was complete and now it only remains to develop the planting to finalise it. It’s quite fun to watch the river come alive when the backwash is done and it is now slower going down the hill towards the fruit trees. I also think it looks quite nice and can only get better.

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The last and final project is yet to be completed. We have laid the gravel down  for the greenhouse where I hope to be happily potting away my seedlings in a few weeks time. Senor Faztudo spends an hour or two here and there sawing and banging in the garage. He even showed me a sheet covered in equations he had worked out to estimate the incline of the roof (I often forget he is a mathematician and physicist by training) I am also impressed by his woodworking skills. The chicken house is still going very strong three years later and I am sure the greenhouse will be of equal quality (if I ever get it!)

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My greenhouse will be here one day!

As for the plants, there is good and bad news.  I had a terrible attack on sooty mould on the citrus trees this year, but I have been cleaning every individual leaf with soapy water and they look a lot better now. Not sure if it was the aphids or the mixture of milk and neem oil I used to kill them that caused the mould. It looks horrible, but doesn’t actually kill the tree. I hope we don’t get it next year, I’ll keep a closer eye. We nearly lost a full grown plum tree in the heat this Summer, I wait to see if we will have any leaves in the Spring. The almond blossom is  beautiful. But more of the Spring in the next blog. I want to save something for later!

 

 

What’s giving in the garden?

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(I wrote this back in November..too busy in the garden to post! More catch ups to follow)

The end of November and Thanksgiving day over the pond. A time of reflection on the harvest of the year, gardening achievements and failures and the way forward. Yesterday we went to our weekly Portuguese lesson. At this point, three years  in, we are managing conversations and the theme of the lesson was “A year of village life” One of the wonderful things about living in rural Portugal is the rhythm that the seasons give to everyday life. It feels as though we are part of something that has been happening year in and year out for a very long time, although it’s clear that this older generation is probably the last to be totally subsistent in what they grow and that the way of life will change with the next generation who struggle to pick the carobs on the trees in honour of their grandparents or great grandparents  who planted them.

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And we, having come from London with all its noise and haste, feel wistful about what we know is about to be lost. However, maybe I’m being too gloomy. An awareness is growing that the traditional methods are valuable and the Government has been looking into several initiatives to return the young to the land.  There is a growing awareness that what is here, the figs, the almonds,the very plants on the serra, have  real value. Let’s hope that awareness grows at a greater rate than the golf courses and  the orange groves, which  consume so much water and use so many chemicals.

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A week ago, I attended a “Trocas de sementes and plantas” or a “Seed and Plant Exchange” organised by some gardening friends. This is a practice that happens quite a lot throughout Portugal. It was an occasion where both the Portugal gardening community and Northern European gardeners  came together. The idea is to bring seeds, plants and something to eat and exchange. It was lovely to find that I could talk a little with Portuguese gardeners and I picked up some interesting plants, Lippa Alba, or “Cidra” cuttings, a plant used for a health giving tea, some walking onions and perpetual garlic and some seeds labelled “Salad Party” I love the idea of my salad having a party when my back is turned and am eager to see what turns up after germination! I spent quite a few weeks before the date for the exchange potting up bits and bobs to share and it was wonderful to come home with as many plants as I took and also to sample the delicious food people brought. It was a bit strange meeting people I have been talking to online for a long time and I felt I didn’t have time to talk properly to many of them, but no doubt there will be a next time and I look forward to it.

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We were also treated to a really interesting talk on seed saving, especially for the beautiful native plants from the serra, such as cistus and rosemary, by Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, a garden designer in the Algarve  whose design principles are committed to drought resistant and waterwise gardening. I learnt a lot, especially as some aspects of drought resistant gardening are very surprising to Northern European gardeners, not least that spoiling a plant in this climate with too much water is one of the worst things you can do for it! Her website is here.Waterwise Gardens

Winter in the Algarve  is the time to get on with  garden projects. The weather, especially from October to January is often dry and not too hot. (The photo below is of a dry garden outside a beach cafe taken with the winter aloes on full display) We have several ideas planned to move the garden on.  I really want the main projects finished before too much longer, so I can focus more on the planting or I’ll be planted myself before I see the results!

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So there are three projects in the pipeline. As Ive mentioned before, Señor Faztudo has promised me a greenhouse for Christmas, which I expect will be ready by my birthday halfway through next year….perhaps. He is busy banging and sawing bits of wood in the greenhouse, but  promises to make it in situ so we don’t have a repeat of the chicken coop debacle. See here:  We are also going to extend our shady terrace and put some kind of wall/barrier around out to stop any potential grandchildren, or other small people, yet to be born, from falling off the precipitous walls (actually I suspect, secretly, we are afraid of falling off the walls as we get older and more doddery, but we aren’t admitting that to ourselves) and last, but not least, I have plans to build a dry river bed to take the heavy rainfall neatly down the garden without erosion.This is the kind of thing I have in mind , only mine will be on a much smaller and less leafy scale.

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Much of this work, we will do ourselves, as we are time rich and capital poor, although we will be getting help with the patio as we know someone who will do a much better job than us. I’d better start eating pasta, so I can generate some energy for all the weightlifting of the boulders and river stones!

Do the Pokey Pokey….

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After the Deluge

It’s time to do the Pokey Pokey. Not the Hokey Cokey, although on a beautiful day like this, I’m in, out, in, out and shaking it all about. No, the Pokey Pokey is what I do at this time of year, after the rain has fallen in glorious tumults. For the last two weeks, the clouds have rolled in from Africa, bringing with them lightning, thunder and lashings of rain in Biblical proportions. And now we are renewed and I can take up my poker and plant!

I have said before, I am a lazy gardener. I can’t be doing with too much fussing and pruning and preening. Because of various of life’s twists and turns, not least the exchange rate as a result of the  Brexit effect and a series of domestic breakages, I am also an impecunious gardener. I can’t afford to purchase  trays of sumptuous plants (which is just as well, because I probably would have killed most of them) so I have to propagate. Now I know the Pokey Pokey propagation technique sounds a bit rude, but I can assure you there is no sex involved. I just take an iron rod as long as a walking stick,  the sort that reinforces concrete, and walk around the garden cutting bits off one plant, poking a hole and popping the bit in, quite deep. Then I whisper a few magic words (“Hokus, Pokus, please don’t Croakus!” ) and hope for the best. About half of the time it works, chickens and cats, drought and tumult permitting. Obviously it works better with some things than others ; great for lavenders, roses, and succulents; not so great for more tender things. For these I use the “Jitterbug” technique. A garden designer in the Algarve, Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, taught me to  let the leaves of whatever plant fall down and create a little skirt around the plant, even though it’s planted in a gravel mulch (never be too tidy in a garden, it doesn’t pay off)  Also, I don’t cut off any bottom branches until the Spring. Then after the rain, I wait a little while and look under the “skirt” (Why is gardening so rude?)  Usually I find a lot of rooted branches in the leaf mulch, which I gleefully separate from the Mother plant and settle somewhere else in the garden, although it’s a rather dangerous technique as invariably I encounter a creepy crawlie that seriously gives me the jitters!   Although, it’s a slightly dangerous technique from the point of view of unexpected surprise, from one plant, comes forth many and it’s worth the danger! Very satisfying.

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A “Gives me the Jitters Bug”

Early in the morning, after I’ve fed the chickens,  I can be seen in  parts of the garden where the chickens don’t go (they gobble up any seeds dropped) doing the Hippy Hippy Shake. This is the propagation technique which involves me cutting off all the brown heads of plants, like the lovely Clary Sage I bought in Lidls  few years ago,  and bringing them back to life by seed propagation. It’s like sprinkling fairy dust as you go round the garden shaking out the seeds. The chickens look on longingly through the bars of the fence. Poppies also enjoy a good shake out, as do Nigella (not Lawson you understand!)

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I do try to grow from seed, but it’s so hit and miss.  I plant them and watch anxiously for ages and nothing happens, then invariably I forget what I’ve planted and plant something else of top of it. By the time it puts it little head up, I have no idea what it is. As far as organisation, labelling etc, there’s no hope for me,  I’m 60 now and it isn’t going to happen. It’s still worth trying though, because even getting one plant to maturity creates propagation possibilities. I have one Hidcote blue lavender out of a batch of seedlings, most of which fell by the wayside and now I’m taking cuttings from it. I have seeds from a smashing red and orange Gaillardia and some gorgeous  aquilegia.

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Señor Faztudo is in the garage banging away as I write  (what IS the matter with me today?) building me a greenhouse for Christmas. I rather suspect his motivation is his growing collection of small trees  from avocado, mango and various other pips which he plants at random into my flowerpots and expects me to look after. In vain, I tell him I don’t know where we’re going to out any more trees, but he’s somewhat obsessed. In the past we’ve had experience of getting fruit trees to maturity and then having to leave them to someone else as we move house or give up an allotment plot. I think he is determined  to get something to eat before we peg it.

So, if you’re thinking of propagation and you feel a bit unsure, remember if I can do it, you cancan too!

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Lavender hedge created with the Pokey Pokey propagation technique.

Waiting for the rain with the one I love..

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Waiting for the rain on Faro beach!

Señor Faztudo and I are simply waiting for the rain. So is the garden, it’s desperate.The long hot Summer means everything is hanging on in there, exhausted by the blasted heat of a relentless sun. I can’t recall a hotter summer in 25 years of my acquaintance with the Algarve and I’m very glad my garden is in its fourth year and not its first!

Lately, there’s a cooler breeze and some cloudier days and we did actually have a couple of hours of rain, which staved off the watering for a few days, but only really tickled the surface of the parched ground. But Autumn is definitely on its way.

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The parched garden

At this time of year, we’re  busy cleaning everything up in the garden  for the expected Autumn rain, which can fall in torrents or even stair rods. I’ve  been building up a compost heap, interspersing weeds with newspapers, leaves and chicken bedding, laced with their manure. It doesn’t rot at all throughout the summer and you can’t really water it enough, but as soon as the rains fall, the process will be quite fast. I have piled in the middle of the “orchard to be” where it looks like a great big stork’s nest. As soon as it rots down sufficiently , I’ll spread it out over the ground and let the chickens feast on the insects and grubs whilst they dig it in.  I get huge satisfaction in this use of all the waste from my garden and the thick mulch of bark I put on top of the orchard has already created a good, dark looking soil up to a few inches on top of the red clay. The worms and chickens mix it in and then it becomes a manageable tilth.  I did a similar thing in the vegetable garden a few years ago and when I went to plant some cabbage plugs recently I was pleased with how friable the soil was and how quickly the plugs grew. Here’s a photo of the bed, it’s one of the few things I am using water on, so that I can get a head start and have cabbages before it gets too cold, something which has caught me out in previous years.

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Our work in the garden has been punctuated by the “tap tap” of sticks  knocking the branches on the carob trees and the cheerful voices of the pickers as they harvest the black pods as they fall. Carobs are an important cash crop to the subsistence farmers, although it’s a tiring job picking them in this heat, but families have been doing it for generations and the carob harvest holds  great importance in the  minds and hearts of people in the Algarve, many remembering camping out under the stars in their youth, having travelled too far with donkeys carrying the carobs in panniers to return in one day.  Husbands and wives pick together, friends help out neighbours and there is a race to gather all the pods before the rain falls and ruins them.  We have two or three sizeable carob trees on the periphery of my garden and we pick up the pods to give to a friend.

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The carob harvest, although this looks like  Italy, not Portugal!

 I’ve been doing my own bit of harvesting too, of the seeds of various plants in my garden, both to replant and share with my gardening friends at a communal  “seed exchange ” in November.  I’ve harvested the seeds of gaillardia, delphinium, aquilegia, clary sage, calendula,  tree mallow,  leek, garlic and shallots. I am particularly pleased with the delphiniums, since my collection started with one feral plant growing in my garden and this year I had some lovely plants. I tried growing them in various ways, cosseting them in a pot, growing them in a seed bed and just tossing the seeds around. The plants that grew best were the ones I threw on a pile of garden rubbish, leaves  and loose soil under a tree. They clearly loved this habitat and lack of care and grew five feet tall!  They like dappled shade and I will be throwing the seeds here again this year. The tree mallow seed pods were full of little bugs that looked rather suspiciously like ticks. I didn’t enjoy winnowing them, so I only ended up with a small pile as I was somewhat hampered by the nasty looking things scurrying over my hands. I don’t mind bugs too much, but my garden teems with all kinds of unusual things I haven’t got names for. In  the UK,  I had the measure of harmful bugs and plants, but here  I’m never quite sure whether they are going to bite, suck or poison my blood!

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There has been some talk recently about Facebook and it not being “real” and whether it’s good for our soul, mind, the Universe or Margate,  but I must say, I have had huge benefit from being able to make contact with and learn from both gardeners and chicken keepers in FB groups such as “Gardening in Portugal” or “The Funky Chicken PT club”  or “Horta em Portugal”

I  value the quiet pace of my life in Portugal, but in London I was part of a vibrant community of gardeners on the allotment. I get that same support here from FB groups and although I don’t get to meet people face to face too often, I love being able to check  “over the garden fence” on FB and ask for advice or share progress with other gardeners in Portugal. I am a little shy to talk in the Portuguese group yet, but it is wonderful to be able to see what  people who live here are growing  and my Portuguese is good enough to understand most of the comments. I learn a great deal this way. I try to help where I can with advice on my  own mistakes and trials and tribulations, but there are a body of people with huge knowledge of plants, both cultivated and wild, and it’s a privilege to have access to their freely given advice on all kinds of issues.The first Algarve seed and plant exchange is taking place soon and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the people in the FB groups for the first time.

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I’ve been reviewing projects for the coming year and we’ve  got a few lined up. One side of the garden above the chicken shed  is still looking very ropy and we are planning to build a sitting area and a rockery. There are some fruit trees growing there, a cherry, a pear and a fig and I’m hoping this will become a shady area to sit and contemplate the garden in the Summer months.

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One day I’ll be sitting on a terrace  under this fig tree, looking over a rockery!

I also need to do something where the backwash of the swimming pool comes out as it’s causing quite  a bit of erosion. Never having had a pool before, I didn’t realise that a ton of water cascades out, whenever you clean the filter. The water is useful and the chlorine doesn’t seem to cause a problem; in practice it’s probably not much worse than tap water, but I am thinking of making a sort of dry river bed with large stones, to slow the flow of the water down when it is released, which is about once a week.  I will plant conifers and succulents in between. Maybe…or maybe I’ll plant something else, my mind changes frequently!  But…and this is a big but, we need to get some stones, as unbelievably, on a hillside with millions of them, we have run out of stones of the right size. We are getting a bit old to carry such big stones, although we have done it in the past, so we are pondering where to get a supply.

Señor Faztudo has promised to build me a greenhouse for Christmas, but since I’ve nearly killed him in the garden already and his back is a bit dodgy, it might be a slow process.

As I have finished this post, the rain has started falling, so now we’re really in business!  I would be dancing naked around the garden in the rain if I didn’t live in full view of the rest of the village, and there weren’t so many snails to crunch underfoot!