Archive | March 2014

Gardening in Portugal- my gardening history

My garden, on arrival

My Algarve garden, not long after we moved in

Making a new garden is an adventure, there’s  no doubt about that. Moving from one country to another and trying to create a garden is an even bigger adventure. It’s like learning another language.

My gardening and cultural background is firmly Welsh and English, although I have a smattering of Jamaican influence.  My adult life has mostly been spent in London, but I was always a country girl at heart and much of this has been reflected in my thinking about gardens. But I only ever had a tiny patch. The photo below shows the first garden of the house we had in Camberwell. We lived in the house for 26 years and raised our children there. The garden evolved. It adapted to children and their roller skates, summer barbecues with friends, even a wake for my father-in-law was held in it. The shed you see was recycled from the old shed we found when we arrived, the path was made from London brick that we recycled from a wall that fell down; the garden was warmed by the large factory wall behind it; a peach tree, planted from a pip from a peach bought in Sainsburys was planted;roses came and went;a bay tree grew out of a chimney pot I put around it when it was young. The garden was tidy or less tidy according to how busy our  life was. We never really finished it.


My South London garden

We thanked this much loved house when it was time to leave it and moved to a small  house further out in the London suburbs. We knew we would only be living there for five years, so I decided to see if I could create a beautiful garden, which was nearly all edible, as an experiment. This was alongside an allotment which I had close by. Image The experiment worked quite well and by the time I left, we were really eating our garden and it looked quite pretty. It was rather bleak in the winter though. Image The allotment we used to work was instrumental in my understanding of gardening, as I learned much from other gardeners. I haven’t read much about this being a benefit of community gardening, but it is invaluable. When we left England to come to the Algarve, apart from my children obviously, it was the allotment community which I missed the most. I learned such a great deal from fellow  plot holders, many who came from all parts of the world and all of whom had something new to teach me. A Jamaican allotment neighbour taught me how to improve the soil and that you could do it by adding stuff in layers, even without composting it; a Turkish neighbour taught me about grapes; my  immediate neighbours made a beautiful bower and sitting area under the apple trees, where we often shared a cup of tea.  The allotment committee meetings were a rich place for gardening discussions and somewhere to air differences of opinions on gardening ethics.

Allotment garden

Allotment garden

My first introduction to Algarve gardening came from a dear friend. She had lived in several houses in the Algarve and was a great plantswoman, always greedy for different varieties of plant, with a range forms and shapes and always stretching the limits. In her hands, canna lilies would be set riotously against a wall of azure blue, roses would climb into pomegranate trees and violets would bloom among agapanthus leaves. She was a plant magician and sadly she died before I could get her advice on this garden. But she is with me in spirit every day as I walk about, whispering to me about what to plant, telling me the names of things and pointing me in the right direction for advice.

My friend's algarve garden

My friend’s Algarve garden

I have several friends here in the Algarve, who kindly bring me cuttings from their gardens. Some have been passed on to them by my friend, who is no longer alive. It’s like a piece of her returned. It makes me wonder whether plant cuttings could be everlasting and how far some of them have travelled around the world or how many are the clones of plants have been handed down through the generations from far off climes.  I recently sent some succulent cuttings back with a friend to England, where she will put them in a pot in her South London garden.  I used to have a fern I took  from my grandmother’s garden on the day she died. Each plant has a story. So then a garden becomes full of memories and history.


A Scilla Peruviana, given to me as a bulb, given to me The Excellent Builder.

Although I miss my allotment community, I am finding new gardening friends here. Someone who reads my blog who lives nearby, but whom I haven’t met yet; a garden designer in Italy, who has created a magic garden, poets and priests who garden. I am learning the Portugese names for things from my neighbours and they are very helpful with their advice and encouragement, giving me fava bean seeds and coentro (coriander) seeds they have saved. 11042010278 So I am an evolving gardener, trying to apply  the little I know to this huge and sometimes inhospitable space. Every morning I wake up excited and even though there is nothing  to get really excited about yet, it is all here, in my head and heart. We  just need the strength to make it happen. It’s part of my evolving garden history.


Gardening in Portugal-Spring Update


Spring pots planted up

It’s Spring and I’ve  been feeling a bit desperate. Spring should be the time when everything is busting out all over, but unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of planting to bust out in my garden yet. We have done a lot of work, enough to make us ache all over. I have an additional blog to support new arrivals to The Algarve here which explains what we’ve been up to, making a gravel bed.

So, it was some pleasure that I stumbled upon a wonderful blog, part of which I reblogged in two earlier  posts, describing the process of creating a garden in Lazio, Italy. The writer is a very experienced gardener and designer and gives me inspiration and strength to believe in the  possibilities, even though sometimes it feels very difficult to garden on this windswept hillside with little water. Onwards and Upwards!

So come with me on a little walk around the garden, what there is of it. There HAS been progress, of course there has. It was a building site under two years ago, I remind myself frequently. Here is what it looked like then.

Before there was a Garden

I have tried to see the garden in sections. It’s the only way I can stop myself feeling engulfed. This is not a huge garden, but for us, who have been used to a backyard terraced garden in South london, cheek by jowl with others, it is daunting enough! And I am in my third and final age, so five years is a long time for me. But I can’t go faster than the plants grow.  I have to take a step at a time.

Small triumphs are that we have nearly completed the gravel terraced area on top of the bank, mentioned above.  It has been really hard labour, hauling gravel up the hill. I haven’t been able to plant the whole area because of shortage of funds, but have several grasses, pennisetums and iris sibirica which I am growing from seed and hope to plant in the Autumn, along with lavender cuttings. This side of the terrace  was planted last Autumn. The lavender hedge was grown from cuttings, so I am hopeful that I can replicate it fairly cheaply in other areas of the garden. The clay soil here is good for striking cuttings, if you get it at the right time when it is wet and warm enough, but it can be a bit hit and miss, so I have also done some in pots.


The gravelled area and lavender hedge, grown from cuttings



The side of the gravelled area that was planted a year ago

There is at least bit of Spring going on here. I have planted grasses at the top of the bank, which I have cut back, so it’s somehwat bare. I also buried  some dutch irises I bought at the MGS fair in between other plants . I haven’t a clue what they are all called, either common names or Latin ones, but I must sort this out. I am always muddling up plant labels and forgetting what I’ve planted where.  There are so many different irises, bearded iris, dutch irises, flags etc. I sometimes wonder where they are all growing together, if one sees itself as more superior to the other. I imagine the bearded irises (I think they are Iris germanicus) mocking the slightly more gentile dutch variety.  (Reading this back, I think I have spent too long on my own with the plants!)

In the vegetable garden, my sister sent me some Jerusalem Artichokes from her garden in Wales  (or Fartichokes, as she calls them) I think they should do very well here and indeed they are popping up their little shoots already, bless them. I had them on my allotment in Dulwich and enjoyed growing them and eating them. I even had them in a tiny back garden in Crystal palace, where they were a talking point for the neighbours.


Jerusalem Artichokes

Señor  Faztudo has made me a glory hole. We have created a fenced off and gravelled area below the shed where I can potter and plant to my heart’s content. We are very different, in that he is obsessively tidy and  I am pathologically messy. We usually work it out somehow!


The Glory Hole

I have planted a Lidl’s rose of unnamed variety to grow up the fence, which is supposed to climb and cover everything with pink roses, along with some ivy. It was  one euro 49 cents in a sale.(I can’t afford David Austin at the moment!)  In the meantime, I have some horrible green screening to hide the mess and I have planted some succulents in old cat food tins and hung them from the fence. It’s a kind of temporary joke and a nod to my hippy days and I like it.


Cat food tins recycled as planters for succulents

The camellia below is very pretty, but really a gardening mistake. I wanted something to plant in the flower trough near the front door, but then realised it was full of alkaline soil.  It likes acid soil. So I have put  it into a pot and I water it every day with coffee grinds which are a little acid. It seems happy. It looks good against the pigmented plaster, I think.


In the vegetable garden, we are cropping peas, mangetout and lettuce and Portugese kale. I have planted some courgette seeds in my newly created lasagna bed, but the blackbirds have dug them all up looking for worms, so I will have to plant them again. Some of my small tomato plants have been eaten by cutworms, but I have more plants  to replace them.


Pea plants in my garden

I haven’t got much room for potatoes, so I have planted some in a sack, as an experiment. Watch this space. Once they sprout you just put more soil in and they are supposed to keep putting tubers out.


Potatoes planted in a sack

I have developed a love affair with succulents and cacti  and have been  potting them up in the Glory Hole. I found out recently from a fellow Algarve gardener  they are better grown on in light shade, so I’ll  be moving them to a shadier place when it gets hotter. The scallop shells, which are plentiful on the beach here, make a good shade protector and look pretty, I  think.


A good use of scallop shells

The succulent gravel garden is doing well. This was grown in the place where the builder’s mixed all the concrete to build the house and was really the only choice for a garden here. It’s difficult because the area by the wall is in deep shade, but I am pleased with its progress, albeit slow. I have put the pots as an edging, with a dogs skull I found on a walk. Poor dog. He had healed injuries on his skull which suggested a hard life. I wanted him to rest in peace, as a thing of beauty.


The succulents garden

Other jobs we have completed is to feed all the fruit trees with lovely sheep manure. Unfortunately the sheep manure came with rather a large number of ticks which we have been removing from the cats and even ourselves this week. Ah, the trials of gardening! But I’m sure it will be worth it when we bite into those succulent oranges…in about three or four years time! So that’s the update. Now let’s sit under the olive and have some tea. How is your garden getting on?


Gwynnie dreaming

Gardening in Portugal – Secrets and Lies

Echium Candicans "Pride of Madeira"

Echium Candicans “Pride of Madeira”

I hereby make my confessions. Are you ready to hear them?   Everything in the garden is not always rosy, and it’s time I fessed up.  I have made many gardening faux pas since being here, some more costly than others. I’m going to share a few with you on the grounds that you won’t make the same mistakes.  Also, I  hope you will share yours with me, so I don’t keep making a fool of myself!


Ants carrying off booty

The first embarrassing confession has to do with ants. I have a little patch of my garden, where I fancied creating a colourful array of wild flowers.  There are whole areas not intentionally devoted to wildflowers, (Señor Faztudo refers to them as weeds, much to my chagrin) but this patch was rather bare and ready for a sprinkle of  seeds. I envisaged a sea of pinks and purples come the Spring, visited by colourful butterflies, as pictured on the exciting seed packet.  My neighbour Donna Maravilhoso looked on with some bemusement as I tilled and watered the ground and sprinkled the “weed seeds” where she thought the favas (broad beans)  should go, but tactfully, she didn’t say much. The next morning, I came out just as she crossed the road to give me some cabbages for my sopa. She looked over the fence and shook her head dolefully. To my amazement a long line of huge ants were carrying all my seeds off into their nest! For the next few hours, the long march continued.The robber ants methodically making off with each seed.  I considered pouring boiling water down their nest, egged on by my neighbour, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I reasoned there would only be another colony somewhere else and besides, I love the ants. The next day all the seed had gone. My second confession, Oh Best Beloveds, is that I didn’t know that there was such a thing as frost in the Algarve. It was a great surprise to me to wake up early one morning and find that Jack had been in the night.  There are microclimates throughout the hills where we live, 5 degrees of frost on the valley near the river bottom, but none on the hills. It often rains up here, when there isn’t a drop on the coast.: windy up here, but none down there and so on. So I have lost succulents and tender plants to frost. I spent nearly 80 euros on bougainvillea and the like and lost the lot in my first winter. And when they died, I dug them up and threw them away without waiting to see if they would come back to life. Once established, they often do come back to life if they are cut back, so I’ve heard. In fact, I have witneesed this with a neighbour’s Brugmansis, which rose again like the Phoenix.

portugal 017

A robin, perched on a Rosemary branch

My third secret failure is that I didn’t know plants go to sleep in July and August and there is very little in flower then. You can’t water them awake. I found this out the hard way and  wasted a lot of water learning that. (Forgive me, Water Goddesses, for I have sinned) I also spent quite a bit buying overwatered, overblown, petunias and trying to plant them in rock hard clay soil.  They turned up their petals and croaked, very quickly. Some of my vegetables went to sleep when the weather got hot, especially the brussel sprouts  and I dug them up thinking they were dead, when they could have revived and carried on growing in the garden. Other failures have been trying to grow runner beans (they grew beautifully, had lovely flowers but never set seed) nurturing a pot of grass which I thought were Spring onions and thinking you could mix vegetable gardens with free range hens. I also planted my tomatoes in the hottest part of the garden as I would in England and they shrivelled up as soon as it got really hot!


My hens scavenging in my parched  garden

I brought all my garden tools from England thinking they would be useful. It makes me blush to think of it now. Have you ever tried forking cement?  The tines buckled and the spade handles snapped off. I have now got a good selection of mattocks and hackers, not to mention a pickaxe and a mallet.  The only tool  I bought that has been very useful is a sort of scraping sharp hoe that scrapes the weeds off the top of the soil.(  I have just made the mistake of googling “hoes” to try and find out its name. The search wasn’t very helpful; try it on images and you’ll see what I mean. A search for “Garden Hoes” works much better). The name of the hoes I was looking for is a “Scuffle Hoe” This is a useful article about hoes here and you can see the scuffle hoes: I also bought a dainty little electric strimmer from England that I used to use to strim the edges my London  allotment. Algarve weeds weeds need a real strimmer. Unfortunately, I cannot manage it, so Señor Faztudo has to wield it. He looks like Mad Max as he wildly beheads the wild spinach and long grasses. My final confession is about guano.  I buy this in big bags from the agricultural store. I believe it is an organic fertiliser made from bat or bird droppings. As I think I’ve said in an earlier post, it  smells indescribably bad. Rather  like a dead fox wafting on the wind on a country walk, times ten. But I didn’t know this when I spread it all over the garden on the day we decided to have a Spring barbecue for our guests who had just arrived from England! I thought the smell would dissipate quickly. Even the smell of delicious barbecued meat could not disguise the pong. I won’t be doing that again!

Stinky but Good Guano

Stinky but Good Guano

My final secret is that I only have three things in flower in the garden, some Strelitzia, an Echium Candicans and a Plum tree. But the poppies, wild mallow, milk thistles, ragwort and chrysanthemum coronium are all about to burst out in all their glory. I hope to improve on the cultivated plantings next year. I have had to focus on the structure and food plants for the moment. And I have much to learn about what to plant and how to make it look good.

Strelizia Reginae

Strelizia Reginae

So, if you want absolution for your sins, tell Donna FauxPas and I will give you a penance-three hours on your knees weeding! I’m off to do mine now.

Gardening in Portugal – Planning your Waterways

The sun has finally come out and the terrible East wind has stopped wuthering around the house. Spring “em cheio” is just around the corner. We are out, racing against time, to get jobs done before the soil sets like concrete and we can’t do anything, except sit and look at it all.


                                            The sun has got his hat on!

It is always the case that you have to garden to the weather, but even more so here .It’s  critical to get seeds sown when the temperature is just right, to transplant seedlings whilst there is still moisture in the soil and above all, to realise that once it gets above 30 degrees, everything simply stops growing.


                                                     Dry cracked clay soil

We are in a country where water is at a premium, so using it wisely is very important. Apart from not being great for the environment, water is expensive here. It is metered and once you use more than a certain amount, can be quite costly.

We live in the heart of rural Algarve. Many houses don’t have mains water, even now. People use deep bore holes which tap into underground water sources, or collect winter rainwater  into tanks or cisternas which they use sparingly in the long dry summer months. In our small village there is a deep well, which was probably used in Roman times. The water is sweet and can be drunk, but right next to it is a drinking fountain from the mains! The farmer opposite has found Roman pottery and coins in his fields and uses the water to grow enormous lettuces, probably much as the Romans did also.

Our house is newly built, but we asked for a cisterna to be added. It is really just a giant water butt, and collects rainwater from the roof in the winter, which I am hoping to use on my vegetables through the Spring and Summer. It is full to the brim, the only downside to its use being that my vegetable garden is at the back of the house and we have to use an electric pump to get the water up there from the cisterna. I suppose I should get some sort of bicycle contraption rigged to it, so I could get fitter and power it at the same time, although I need most of my energy at the moment to keep up with all the work in the garden.


                                              The cisterna for our house

The lack of water dictates the gardening and agricultural practices hereabouts. You can grow crops which come to fruition without extra watering, but it’s a tricky business. Broad beans (favas) and peas (ervilhas) are sown in the Autumn at first rains, and even potatoes. The beans and peas are eaten both fresh and dried and form a staple crop during the year. However, it’s  often touch and go.  Sometimes the rains fail, sometimes fields are flooded by weeks of torrential rain, rotting the beans in the ground, sometimes the high winds destroy the peas just as they are ready to set seed. Which is perhaps why the Portugese  farmers love their trees  so much. The trees have roots extending deeply into the clay soil and can survive several years of drought.  Olives, almonds, cork, plums, peaches, apples, pears, pomegranates, nespera (loquat), apricot, walnut, even avocado and sometimes mangoes, all these produce fruit by the bucketload at different times during the year.

Preserving water means you need to think carefully about where and how you plant and indeed, what you plant.   I first got interested in Waterwise hardening after listening to a talk by Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, who runs this company in the Algarve. There lots of water wise tips on her website. She points out that there are lots of plants, such as Salvia Candelabrum, that you could never grow if you watered them all the time and that to overwater will kill them as surely as weedkiller. I was aslo encouraged by reading the book, “The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate” by Olivier Filippi. It gives you the tools to think about a new way of gardening  where you can have  lovely garden  without expensive automatic watering systems, with an understanding of how to garden in a dry climate, at the deepest level. There are lots of practical tips for a new gardener like me, but an established gardener coming new to a hot climate would learn much, I think. There is a very useful list of plants which will thrive, even in a long summer of high temperatures and drought. It’s a bit expensive, but well worth every penny in the dead plants you will have to bury if you don’t follow its practices!


                    My “vegetable garden” at the end of the Summer

The lack of water has affected attitudes to gardening amongst the Portugese neighbours in my village, where with such scarce water and in times of hardship, such as the present crisis, food takes priority. Flowers seem to be seen as  the indulgence of the woman of the house often, and planted at the front, where the odd bucket of washing up water is thrown upon them. That isn’t to say they are not loved and cherished. Most of my neighbours try to outdo each other, with all kinds of exotic species that shouldn’t really be growing on the Algarve, the brighter and prettier the better. I bought some of these one Autumn in the market , spending quite a bit of money, and failed miserably at making them grow. The harsh wind and cold weather cut them down and they refused to wake up in the Spring.

The lavenders, cistus, salvias and rosemary are growing in abundance all over the serra, however, with nary a drop of water. These are my plants of choice now and I have dedicated a large area in my garden to them and also ornamental grasses, which I will write about in more detail in a future blog.


                  A field of wild lavender in the valley below my house

Although we have little water or none in the summer, sometimes we have far too much. I have known in rain in stair rods for a month on end in the winter. That is almost a worse problem, as root rot is also the end of many plants.

So no pressure then!  So much to learn.  I hope I live long enough to learn how to work with this beautiful piece of the earth I have  custody of for a short time. Whatever I do though, I am hoping to do it with as little water as possible. Please give me any tips or ideas for saving water if you have them. I need to learn a lot, quickly!

Gardening in Portugal – Creepy Crawlies!


When I first started working in my garden I confess I was a little apprehensive.  Everything was so different and new. Instead of the crumbly dark London soil I was used to on my allotment, the clay here is red and sticky and the colour of builder’s tea. Further poking about reveals unfamiliar creepy crawlies, not to mention other creatures you certainly don’t see in a South London back garden.

Before you run off screaming, I am still alive a year later and am now longer afraid of the insects  I encounter. Rather they fascinate me and make me feel honoured that they have visited my garden. They just seem to appear all of a sudden as you are weeding or raking. Here is a cricket hiding in the grass. He is very well camouflaged!

Can you spot the cricket?

Can you spot the cricket?

Those of you with a nervous disposition can look away now because I’m going to start with the most frightening one. Don’t worry, it is rare and only hides in the deepest darkest stones. We encountered the mother of all these creatures at the bottom of an old bread oven we dismantled. It was about 10 inches long.  I don’t like killing anything, so we tried to capture it to take it away…big mistake. It is very aggressive and we had a rather alarming encounter with it rearing up at us as we tried to catch it with the dustpan before we beat a hasty retreat. I am currently ordering a boiler suit with elasticated  legs as I live in horror of it crawling up my trouser leg.

Here is the beast. It has a nasty bite and you will need to get some attention if it bites you, so beware.

The creature that people seem to be very nervous of are scorpions. I have never seen one in a whole year of gardening in Portugal, but I think it is a good idea to wear gloves at all times and shake out your shoes, especially if you have left them in the garden or shed overnight. I don’t think the varieties in Portugal are deadly if they sting you, but I expect the bite will be painful. Make sure you know where your nearest health centre or pharmacy is so you can get rapid treatment if you are bitten.

Ok, now let’s move onto some harmless (to humans anayway) but rather intriguing creatures.  First the preying mantis. This is a definite goody, since it eats many of the more harmful bugs and insects in your garden, incuding mosquitoes. I once saw one laying its eggs into a case that looked like a piece of Styrofoam on the gate of our house. Another time, we were enjoying dinner in a restaurant nearby and one joined us ata the table!

I said it was harmless, but not to dragonfly nymphs. This is a disturbing film of one being gently eaten alive!

The bible talk of plagues of insects, but I have never actually seen one. That is, until it rained last October. The first rain brings plagues of little black millipedes. They come out of the soil to mate in their hundreds and sometimes we have had to sweep dustpanfuls off the terrace. (In Portugal they sell dustpans with long handles and I have come to learn why…they double up very well as creepy crawly catchers) They are harmless, unless you crush them when they make a horrible stink. We put draught excluders under our mosquito screens as they seem inclined to try and get in the house, where they promptly die.  They only last a few weeks though mercifully and after mating either die or return to the soil. They have been much more of a pest in Australia, where they have accidentally ended up and have even stopped trains running due to the amount of them squashed on the tracks!

Now to an unidentified flying object. I can’t find out what it is called, so please let me know if you can identify it. It lived in our garden for several days and we became rather fond of it. It was really big for a bug and so unusual looking that I fancied it may have come to earth on a meteorite we had seen the night before. He camoflauged himself among the green plants and moved every now and again, so we had to really look to find him.


Same unidentified bug on a leaf

The other creatures to be careful of in your garden are mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. There is a period in June where they all hatch out at once and drive you crazy! Make sure you have tipped out all standing water from buckets etc, because that’s where mosquitoes lay their eggs and produce lavae. Fleas, which I have always thought live on cats actually live in the ground and jump on the cats, lay their eggs and jump off again. So they can equally jump on you. And ticks, which are generally only found in long grass and mostly where sheep have been can be dangerous and spread lyme disease or tick fever. Our cats get them quite a lot, even after we have treated them with flea and tick repellent and we have to remove them with a tweezers. So wear good boots, and don’t be gardening in your flip-flops.  A good strong antiseptic liquid is very important to have on hand  when gardening I find…just make sure to treat anything immediately with an undiluted dab. When I first started gardening bites festered more than they do now. I think your immune system needs to get used to the different bugs and germs. And don’t forget to keep your tetanus shots up to date!

When I retired, people asked me what I was going to do. I said, “I’m off to Portugal to watch the ants all day. This is what we do a lot of the time. There are many different sorts and they are very entertaining. We feed them bits of biscuit and watch them carry off chunks larger than themselves. Unfortunately, one of our chickens loves them too and will stay by their nest all day, picking them off as they come out.


Watching the ants

Now I have frightened you all to death, can I point out that I have a big garden and none of these bugs and minor hazards have caused me much discomfort. They have however, caused my vegetables some damage. But that is the subject of another post!