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.

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4 thoughts on “Gardening in Portugal – A Bloom with a View

  1. It’s great to hear read about other like-minded gardeners taking on the planting and growing challenges the Algarve presents. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blogs which I have only just discovered.

    I also have a hilltop dwelling but the wind and rain have taken away most of my soil leaving rocks and boulders. (I hope my neighbours in the valley are grateful). Much of my lovely rainwater runs away in torrents taking the road with it. I do however have a cisterna that collects quite a lot of water which I eek out lovingly over the rest of the year. The great excitement this year is that we finally bit the bullet and got a borehole at great cost.

    There is some earth, a rich brown layer which wets to a chocolate / moose-cake colour and consistency. This sits unstably over a whitish-grey layer, with below, rocks so hard, only a pick-axe will make a dent. Sometimes I have to carve out large voids to be able to plant anything. Everyone tells me I need a digger to remove all the rocks. But I’m worried about what little earth I have all blowing away in the digging process or becoming unstable.

    Over the last 6 years I’ve been having the time of my life creating a garden on (in theory) a hectare of land, a surprising amount of it flat or on quite gentle slopes. In practice I confine the actual garden areas to useful spots near sitting places. I’ve not been able to grow any vegetables yet but grow quite a lot of shrubs, most from seed. Many are in large pots as it’s the only soil they’ll get.

    My most challenging set back to date has been almost tripping over a very large snake (over 6 ft) and very fat. It was in the process of shredding a bag of rubbish I had put out ready to take to the dustbins. It was attracted by the smell of prawns shells in the bag. We stood facing each other, him standing his ground waiting for me to leave. As I was rooted to the spot this took some time. I wasn’t even aware that there were snakes in the Algarve. Even the local people still say there aren’t any or just tiny ones.

    All the horticulture I’ve studied goes out the window in the face of these gardening realities. You have to improvise all the time. I spend a lot of my time trying to cooperate with Nature but even more cunningly plotting how I might get my way – which is probably not a bad definition of gardening!

    I look forward with great interest to your next blogs.

    Kind regards
    Karen

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  2. Thankyou so much for visiting my blog, Karen, and how lovely to hear about your gardening adventures. I would love to hear more! I’m not so sure about removing the rocks…it sounds to me as though you are working with your garden, rather than against it. So many wonderful things grow in the wild with huge rocks and no watering…we must be able to work with it.

    How exciting to see the snake! We see many big ones on the roads here in the Spring, but only one is venomous and that one is rare I think. I have seen many weird things in my garden although no snakes as yet…now I think you have given me an idea for the next blog post! Have you read the Dry Gardening Handbook? What have you planted in your “useful spots”?

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  3. Karen

    I continue to enjoy your blogs and photographs. It’s great to see a place you love from different angles and enthusiasms.

    With regard to removing rocks from the earth, reluctantly I have to face the fact that there is some good sense in it; it’s why you see so many stone walls around fields and orchards. The denser and deeper the earth the better the root-run for plants, reducing the need for irrigation – something to do with pore structure. It means the roots have access to deeper water through the finest capillaries of air in the soil.

    Water held in deeper earth means less evaporation too, especially when used with mulching. With larger stones and rocks water is able to run quite fast through my thin soil. It runs more freely past the roots making it unavailable to the plants. However removing stones and rocks is quite some task and for me it would also mean bringing in more topsoil – like your lovely red clay soil. I’ve bought some but it’s very expensive. I imagine bulky manures, sand and grit would lighten more heavy clay soils though. I trust your instinct for using manures etc, instead of the blue stuff. The organic matter produces that wonderful magic ingredient, humus that changes the structure and behaviour of soils making them more fertile.

    I have quite a lot of sitting places because I’ve bought a house with lots of tiled-over terraces. I would have preferred calcada instead of these tiles and definitely not so much of them. It would have been more traditional and would have allowed the rain to filter down into the earth keeping it more fertile. And I love calcada. I am trying to see how I could introduce more shade in my garden and am envious of a friend whose garden is largely in the shade of trees and pergolas. She produces every kind of vegetable in abundance and her fruit trees become weighed down with fruit. Needless to say the soil she gardens on is deep and rich but the light shade protects the earth from drying out too much and losing its structure. I’m thinking of using some vines I have in pots. They already produce quite a lot of grapes and could create a lovely light shade.

    I’ve inherited numerous rosemary, lantana and lavender plants of every kind. They border my sitting places and the scent is lovely. In full bloom it’s wonderful to hear the bees vibrate the air around. Nice to think I’m doing my bit for general fertilisation in the area, especially for my neighbour who keeps beehives for honey production. To date, though I grow mostly ornamentals, except for the almonds, figs and olives that grow there which provide shade and fruit. In my large pots I have ornamental trees of crepe myrtle, bays etc

    I’m also lucky enough to have a very large and ancient alfaroba, or carob tree in the centre of my plot where the land is at its highest and flattest. It provides wonderful shade in the hottest weather like a giant umbrella and is a great sitting place. I’m able to plant a nursery garden around the margins of the shade but mostly use the space for potted, shade loving plants. The environment here is more like an English summer. It’s where I keep potted asparagus ferns and others, now too large to move easily. There is also a group of mature pomegranate trees which cast a lovely shade next to a terrace.

    I know someone who, to my amazement, has drastically cut back some of this old almond trees, rejuvenating them. But instead of growing almonds he has grafted fruit spurs of plums, apricots and peaches on to them producing bountiful harvests. I suppose this is only possible because they are all in the same family Rosaceae. It’s wonderful to see. The grafting needs to be done early in the year when humidity is high and temperatures are gentle. His soil is also very fertile.

    One of the loveliest things about gardening in the Algarve is the relative ease with which the native plants grow and I’m always full of gratitude to them. Your photographs showed just how beautiful Spring meadows can be. More cultivated and long lasting plants like Oleanders in their many variety are lovely too. Sadly my favourite sitting place in the shade of a large fruitful almond tree has been lost; the tree was struck by lightening 2 years ago and has been slowly dying. It would slow down the fiercest wind and created a gentle, cool breeze on the hottest days, providing a delicious shade. Wonderful for those times when I rested from my daily toiling in the garden! Hope you are enjoying the Spring in the warmer weather.

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  4. Hi Karen. Thank for the comments about my blog and for writing about your experiences. I so agree with you about the shade. My garden really has very little and I have shrivelled so many young plants! Even at this time of year the sun is very hot. It is something I am learning about and hopefully can add some experiences in a future post. The carob is great. I too have one in my garden and my neighbour taught me to take the “estrume” or leaf mould from its boles and from the foot of the tree to use in a potting compost, although I dont like to do it too extensively as I feel I am robbing the tree of its own food! Figs are good for shade I find although they are deciduous at our altitudes.

    I have just planted Oleanders, but out of the reach of the chickens as I am a bit worried about how poisonous they are, although I suppose they would be rather stupid if they ate it…they generally know what to eat!

    I have a few of the grafts you described in my garden. The Excellent Builder grafted a peach and an apricot onto old almond stock. He says it makes a much stronger tree. I would love to learn how to do this!

    Please keep visiting and sharing your experiences. I see you as my gardening neighbour over the virtual fence…and hope more will join us. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to write a post or two in Portugese, but that is a while off yet!

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