Archive | February 2014

Gardening in Portugal – A Bloom with a View

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When I was a child we had a garden with a view of Wales. My bedroom looked over the Wye Valley from the English side and in those days you could look up and see a little steam train puffing along in the distance. It was part of my daily life and although it was breathtakingly beautiful, I suppose I took it for granted. It looked like this

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/wye-valley-river-and-steam-train-159388

I grew up and went to London and for the next thirty years I had tiny gardens in terraced houses. The view here over the fences separating one family from the next was interesting, to say the least, but I can’t say it was beautiful. It was fun watching what each family chose to grow. My Indian neighbour had an avocado tree, planted close to back walloff the  Victorian suitcase factory behind our garden and promised it would bear fruit one day. There was the odd large plant with serrated leaves that the student growers kept quiet about. But you had to crane your neck to see a star and the sun always set quite early over the factory wall

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/back-gardens-wandsworth-london-51886

We bought this house in the Algarve because we fell in love with the view. The house is built on the North side of what was probably an extinct volcano; a flat topped prominence with a rocky outcrop across a level bottomed valley. Curved hills frame the 180 degree view, and because they are different distances apart they show themselves in subtle degrees of colour, blues, dark purple, pinks. As I look at them at sunset or even at dawn my hand involuntarily wants to pick up a paintbrush. I want to capture this beauty for all time. But you never could. No camera could portray it, no painting perfect it.

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Our house faces North. My father always counselled against buying a house facing North. Good advice in England, but not necessarily the case in The Algarve. There is only one house on the South face of our hill and Roman ruins have been found on this North side. Generations of Portugese can’t be wrong. We have the shade of the hilltop behind us in the Summer, but the view is always in the light. The sun rises beautifully on our right and sets beautifully on our left.

So I am a gardener with a view. I plant my seedlings on the flat wall top facing East. The blue jays squawk loudly as they pick over the last of the olives in the field next to me. The hills above Tavira, which we saw burning from our balcony in the terrible fire the year before last, are tranquil. As I plant sedums on top of the cisterna, the clouds scud across the rocky outcrop, lighting up a pair of buzzards circling in a thermal. My trowel poised, I cannot believe the good fortune that brought me here.

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I can see the smoke coming from the woodburning chimneys in the little village where some friends of mine live and wonder how different the village would have been in the time of the Romans or the Moors. The almond blossom was there I know, because of the ancient legend of Ibn Afim, a Moorish prince with a wife from the a northern lands, who planted the almond trees so that the blossom would remind her of the snow and stop her feeling homesick.

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The view cries out for sitting places in the garden and we intend to sit and stare a lot. I have put one under the ancient olive tree on my vegetable plot. I imagine a sort of covered seat right up at the highest point in the garden, but probably not covered with vines, as Señor Faztudo doesn’t  like the idea of geckos dropping down his neck. And I hope to build a hippy shed one day, facing Spain, where I can play Leonard Cohen and bring Señor Faztudo tea and oranges that come all the way from my garden.

Gardening in Portugal – Don’t pooh pooh poo!

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In this post I am going to write quite a lot about poo. Chicken poo, horse poo, sheep and goat  poo and even bat poo, not to mention a little bit about pee. If you are of a nervous disposition, don’t read on.

I have found that the Portugese farmers hereabouts have largely stopped putting organic manure on their trees and vegetables.  They use the chemical fertilisers, which largely consist of blue pellets or white pellets, clean and easy to use and effective in their eyes. They sprinkIe a little in each hole as they plant their fava (broad) beans and peas. I understand this. I am not a farmer needing to make a living. But I do worry about this and all the other stuff which I see being sprayed all around, including the weed-killing that regularly goes on at this time of year. People believe the stuff they buy in the market is probably organic. Believe me, a lot of it is not.

I want to use organic fertilisers. But it’s very hard to find quality poo around here.

I have a friend who knows someone who runs a livery stable nearby. The owner shows her horses and feeds them on top quality feed, bedding them in good wheatstraw. He kindly brings me a load every now and then and it’s the best present anyone can give me. I get very excited about a present of good manure.

Last year, we found a source of well rotted manure, again from someone who kept horses. It was in a pile in the field. After a while of digging into it and bagging it up,  it seemed to have a load of big fat prawns buried in it. I just couldn’t figure it. How did they get there? On closer inspection  I realised that they weren’t prawns at all (I didn’t know whether to heave a sigh of relief or start screaming!) but huge fat grubs.  Identification later revealed them to be dung beetles, who apparently take years to mature. I did feel a little sad as I tossed them to the chickens, who gobbled them up greedily. But I guess they got recycled.

I added this lovely manure to my lasagna bed, along with coffee grounds from the local café and lots of newspaper. The results have yet to be revealed, but I hope to produce good pumpkins and courgettes form this bed this year as it has rotted down very well.

Despite Senor Faztudo threatening to behead the chickens for pooing on the patio, we have collected a bucket of their little presents  from around the garden and diluted it in water, which I will use as a root feed in the weeks to come. I won’t be putting it anywhere near my salad crops, for obvious reasons, but for our emerging fruit trees, and for the cabbages which won’t be ready for a few weeks to come and will be cooked, it is a useful  feed for the roots. I also clear out the chicken droppings from their coops every morning which are mixed with sawdust and put it on the compost heap. It’s a wonderful circular process. They eat the weeds and any vegetable peelings and turn it into fertiliser, which goes back on the vegetables.

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Sheep poo can also be found, if you know where to look for it. (it always seems to be just out of your reach) It is left to rot into a lovely black crumbly mix over time and is black gold, if you can get it. I am not revealing my source. Great for the roses and the fruit trees.

The other source of fertiliser I have found that comes in useful, is guano. It is the old fashioned fertiliser and although some farmers still use it, it is no longer fashionable. This is either bat or seabird poo, collected from caves.   I have been able to buy this in powdered form until recently, in local supermarkets,  although I haven’t seen it lately. A quarter of a teaspoon around the bottom of a cabbage is like a real tonic. I have found it in huge sacks mixed with soil improver in an agricultural store near here. It is quite cheap and works well.  The smell is the worst thing imaginable and carrying it back in my little van is a torture. It smells like a cross between dead animals, sick and cat poo. It is indescribably awful and you need a mask and gloves when putting it into the soil. But the smell goes in a few days and if you apply it in the autumn, the soil will be ready for Spring plantings.

Unfortunately, comfrey doesn’t grow very well here. I used to grow oodles of it in the Uk and use it to make a comfrey tea. But it is too hot here for it and gets rust easily.  Again, the stink really bad, but it was a very good fertiliser. We have lots of borage and nettles going in the garden, however, so I have been using these, dunking the leaves in water and stirring the pot at intervals. After a month it becomes a real witches brew and need to be diluted in water before applying to the roots of plants.

Finally, I come onto pee. Obviously in a country with little water, weeing and pulling the chain all the time is not very good for the environment and water is also metered here. I have discovered that wee is a plentiful supply of nitrogen. And on tap all the time!  When you first do it, it is sterile. So I have started encouraging Senor Faztudo to wee on the compost heap, although being a city lad he is not too keen.  What I do, I will leave to your imaginations! Don’t worry, I draw the line at the use of human poo anywhere in my garden. That’s goes off down the drain. I am sure someone will try and sell me a composting toilet, but I think that may be a step too far!

Gardening in Portugal – Weed and Write

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878.

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Algarve Wild Flowers collected for identification

I have spent my gardening life fighting for the rights of “weeds.”   I have met people who hate weeds with a complete vengeance and twitch whenever they pass one in my garden and I have met people who have said to me “If I know its name, it’s not a weed”. One thing I have learnt is that if you let weeds make you unhappy for a minute, they will. If you learn live with them and even to  love them, at least a little, you will be more at peace and happier in your garden. Or at least, that’s how I feel. However,  I  must add that I am not the most thorough of gardeners, so this philosophy is partly a defence!

I had the great fortune to spend eight years gardening on an allotment in South London.  It had an active allotment committee and on the whole, not full of rules and regulations as some are, but we had regular debates in the potting shed at monthly meetings about how to define a weed and how tolerant we should be of them on people’s allotments. As you walked around, there were some plots with not a weed in site, all the vegetables growing in serried rows and others where the nettles were growing in profusion amongst the spring cabbages, the rosebay willow herb billowing amongst the fruit trees and  bindweed scrambling over the trellises alongside the runner beans. Interestingly, in terms of production, the vegetable gardens which were slightly weedier, often produced the best vegetables. The birds ate the raspberries from the tidy plots where they could see them better, the sun beat down on the bare ground and shrivelled up the lettuces and the blackfly went for the beans more readily on the neater plots. I fought hard for my rights to have nettles on my plot and comfrey. Without these I would have not been able to make the nettle  tea fertiliser I used all the time, or attract the benefical insects. I even ate the nettles occasionally.  The weed resisters amongst us were fervent in their protests. They must die! Kill the weeds! The gleam in their eyes scared me on occasions. I sometimes felt weeds were a hanging offence!  Mind you, I have to confess to being a bit of a wind up merchant.  Allotment committee meetings sometimes needed spicing up and to be fair, I was a naughty, laid back kind of gardener, whose weed seeds regularly encroached onto my long suffering neighbours’ plots!

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“Weeds”-my garden last Spring.

As a child, I loved to walk along the banks of the river Wye, popping the Himalayan balsam pods and laughing as they exploded everywhere. But it is an invasive monoculture, and damaging to the banks of the river, causing  erosion, and detrimental to other, less invasive species. My sister-in-law  and brother are  busy growing a native wildflower meadow near to the river and  they are very choosy about their weeds!

One of our regular allotment agenda items was “The Japanese  knotweed is coming out of the woods!” These huge giants are almost impossible to kill and we had regular workparties to try to stop them encroaching on our plots. There is a similar situation in Portugal, with plants such as Agave Americana, Mimosa and Pampas grasses romping away at the expense of slower growing indigenous species.

So, a line has to be drawn. Here in Portugal, some beautiful plants have been considered invasive and a danger to the native species and this is where, I guess, we have to stop and think.  There are obviously some weeds which are so invasive you can’t have them all over the place.  On the allotment, couch grass was one of these;  here in my garden in the Algarve, even though it is beautiful,Chrysanthemum Coronium is one,wild spinach is another.

ImageChrysanthemum Coronium in my garden

I don’t use any weed killer in my garden, so what to do? The spinach is fine. The chickens love it, but they don’t eat the chrysanthemums, so I have resolved to let them grow, just not fifteen feet tall as they did last year. A gentle strim every now and then suffices. In the vegetable garden, I am trying to keep weeds at bay with a straw mulch, which seems to be working fairly well. I also use the chicken bedding, which is wood shavings, mixed with chicken poo, being careful to rot it down first. Although the shavings can rob the soil of nitrogen, I reckon the chicken poo puts it back. So we end up evens. And where I really want things to get a head start, I have used permeable weed suppressant material and a thick mulch of gravel. This keeps the weeds out and the water in (called Brita here) A word of warning though, if your soil is very heavy clay as mine is, as the roots can get waterlogged. Put some gravel into the hole first before planting for drainage.

In my quest to understand the flora and fauna of the Algarve, I have made some wonderful discoveries about the “weeds” in my garden.  I have found Alexanders, a beautiful plant, edible in all its parts (Although great care has to be taken in identification, as it is in the umbellifer family and related to the deadly Hemlock) I have left them to flourish in a corner of my vegetable garden.Wild asparagus, a prickly, but beautiful plant with edible shoots is present  and Borage growing everywhere…a great bee attracter. I even have some wild Delphiniums and six feet tall Mallows! I  have left areas for the natural flora and fauna to grow as it will, although I have had to protect it from the chickens (see last post)

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Alexanders (Smyrium Olusatrum)

To the aged and wise Portugese “Donnas” who live in this little village, the “weeds” are their medicine chest and their flavourings …this one’s leaves  as a tea for constipation, that one if you can’t sleep, this one has roots that you can use to bring down a fever, that one for flavouring your olives.

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A mulched area in its infancy, planted with succulents, and other drought resistant plants

It’s a race against time whether I can learn enough Portugese to try and understand their wisdom in these things. And sadly, you have to be very wary nowadays where you pick your medicines. The men are already out with their yellow tanks on their backs…spraying things to hell.

Gardening in Portugal with chickens

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I’ve  always wanted to keep chickens. Why, I am not quite sure, especially since I have had my chickens now for nearly a year and they drive me crazy on a daily basis. I think it must have stemmed back to a childhood memory of the magic of finding new laid eggs in the coop. I love the idea of food for free and chickens seem to me to be the ultimate in garden recycling.

Chickens are much more interesting than I thought they would be. They are social creatures and studying their behaviour has been a revelation to me. In many ways,  I think they are better socially organised than many groups of people I know. I have four chickens and a cockerel. Nando, the rooster is a very Big Bird. He was a freebie, as the people who had him before thought he was a hen and they didn’t want two cockerels.  He is meant to be a Cuckoo Maran, but in fact he’s more cuckoo than Maran. His wives are plain old hybrid egg layers, bought from a local Portugese pet shop for seven euros each. Mother Clucker (excuse the play on words) is chief hen. She has a partner in crime, called Yoko. They were the first hens we had and the young cockerel was ecstatic when he first saw them.  The second two came a few weeks later and were named Chicken Little  and Lady Henrietta. Chicken Little is a pest. Lady Henrietta is meant to be the bottom of the pecking order, but interestingly, she doesn’t care….she just wanders around in her own little world and does her own thing. Confucius Chicken, she says, “It is only a bad thing to be the lowest in the pecking order if you give a damn”

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Despite giving them names and enjoying keeping them,  I am reasonably philosophical about the chickens. They have a job to do and  I may put them in the soup in the end when they have stopped laying eggs.  I’m sorry if you think this is shocking, but I am a farmer’s daughter. However, I want my chickens to have a healthy and happy life. And if you have ever seen chickens flapping their wings and flying 20 metres down the garden, or running full tilt after each other when one catches a worm, then you wouldn’t want to lock them in a cage. The  dilemma is how to keep a balance between the freedom of the  chickens and the planting  when you are trying to make a new garden.

I should have planned it better. The chickens should have been part of some great permaculture design and been brought into the garden last. But I didn’t know too much about them when I started out. The gardening pluses are that chickens eat up bad bugs, unfortunately though, they also eat worms; they provide lovely nitrogen rich poo, but they don’t mind doing it on your patio or paths;they turn over the compost heap beautifully with their busy, scratchy feet, but they also dig up all your newly planted iris corms or make big holes at the bottom of your shrubs.  They love to dust bathe in the mulch you just put around your fruit tree, throwing it to the four winds and they keep the weeds down but tear your newly planted brassicas to shreds. Swings and roundabouts, gardening with chickens is.

On balance though, I love having them around. I just can’t help it. Watching the cockerel lumbering down the steep slope to the bottom of the garden,  like Foghorn Leghorn or hearing the hens coos of delight as they turn over the compost heap for tasty morsels brightens up my day. A Portugese saying is “Solta o frango!” a saying which means “Release the chicken in you!”  or “Be creative and full of joy” And when you let them out in the morning, you can see the meaning tangibly. So how to make a garden and combine it with these little blighters?

Well, I have had to create chicken free zones. I have caged up the vegetables, not the chickens, and left them to have the run of the rest of the garden.

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We are lucky here in the Algarve, not to have to contend with too many predators. The three main predators are the fox, the Egyptian Mongoose and the Bonelli’s’s eagle. The fox is very shy and doesn’t come into the village too much. There have been losses on occasions, but not too many. A neighbour’s chicken escaped and lived in the wooded back path behind our house for a week and wasn’t eaten, that would never have happened in South London, where I used to live. The mongoose is quite a big creature and more dangerous. It can hunt in the daytime and can get in anywhere and likes to bite chickens heads off for the corn in their croups. But the Portugese farmers are ever vigilant around here.  They don’t like anything eating their food and so I guess the predators  tend to go further away into the hills and eat the big snakes we have around here (none of which are poisonous, but some of which grow very big). Speaking of snakes, I guess they could eat a young chicken, but I think my girls would be more likely to eat them. We have the occasional eagle and as the fruit trees are still too little to provide much shelter. I worry about the threat from the air.  But all in all, they are very safe. There is a wall all around the garden with fencing and our boundaries are very clear. So they strut around like a little tribe, fussing and clucking and as happy as Larry. (whoever he was!)

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Fruit trees and chickens are a good combination. The chickens eat any bugs that overwinter under them, and eat any fallen fruit. I do have a  young avocado planted this year, which is supposed to be poisonous to chickens, as are the leaves, but I am afraid I am not a chicken helicopter parent, it’s their lookout and if it doesn’t kill them, it should make them stronger. I also apply this philosophy to the cats, who have learnt that trying to eat toads or black geckos makes them pretty ill, so they have stopped doing it. So the chickens have the run of the “orchard” (which is no more than a collection of twenty sticks hanging on for dear life at the moment)

I have found that chickens don’t eat roses, echiums, aromatics like Lavender and Rosemary, tall grasses, iris leaves (although they did up the corms) cistus or salvias. So I have planted lots in the gravel mulched area . On the whole, the chickens don’t like scratching in the gravel…it is sore for their little tootsies, so that helps.

I have also tried to distract them by making a giant compost heap close to their run. They do a sterling job of turning it over and all the scraps go on it. (EU law says you can’t put vegetable scraps on the compost if you are not a vegetarian and you have prepared them in your kitchen) Which is why I prepare all my vegetables for dinner outside.  Hmmm….

Señor Faz-tudo gets his adrenalin pumping every morning by chasing the chickens off the patio with a broom, much to the bemusement of the local villagers, but they don’t come on the terraced areas too much as there is no food  (the chickens I mean, not the villagers!) There is one chicken, Chicken Little, who is hell bent on upsetting my husband by pooing directly in front of him, and whilst he does threaten  her regularly with beheading, it gives us an opportunity to use the chicken pooper scooper and collect manure to water down or dry  for the fruit trees.

And every day, I clean the night chicken poo mixed with wood shavings out of their sleeping quarters and  mix it with the compost. What riches!  This is a great gift, along with the eggshells that I keep to put into the planting holes I bury  the tomato plants  in, for the calcium, along with a sardine.

I adore  the chickens and would love to have more…and ducks and geese and maybe even rabbits. But at the moment we are just about balanced. The cats, the chickens, the garden, Señor Faz-tudo and I all have to be in harmony. And I am sure even one more fowl would tip us over!

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