Gardening in Portugal – Can you hear what I hear?

Only to him who stands where the barley stands and listens well will it speak, and tell, for his sake, what man is.
~ Masanobu Fukuoka

I realise I have started to listen to my garden. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but today I went out to look at my tomato plants and I could hear they weren’t happy. In fact they were really complaining. The problem is they’re planted in one of the hottest parts of the garden, in clay soil, on a slope. They’ve done their best, but it just won’t do. They need more shade and they need any water I give them to soak more deeply into their roots. I sighed. I had intended to try and do some washing and tidying in the house today, but the tomatoes would not let up. “It’s sooo hot” they whined,“You never give us enough to drink.” I’ve rigged up some shade, lugged some timber onto the bank and made some makeshift terraces and mulched the tomatoes and the aubergines with some fallen olive leaves. I could almost hear them sigh with relief. It doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing as I would like, but at least the plants have what they want.


Happy plants in pots at The Generalife

Before you think I’ve lost my marbles, I think the whole idea of listening to your plants is a good one. It seems to me ther’s often a tension between what I want for the garden and and what it actually wants for itself. Since I’ve  time on my hands nowadays I’m  learning that an hour just sitting and listening to an individual plant or the garden as a whole can be worth several hours in unproductive labour. I am beginning to take the process slowly, in little steps, with listening spaces in between. The garden is teaching me patience. We have heard much about talking to plants, but little about listening to them. We look at them and try to decide what is the matter with them when they are sick, we ask advice from others, but it seems to me that we very rarely ask the plants themselves. .

I’ve  never thought about how a garden should be designed or developed really. I have never been on any course and my knowledge of plants and their needs is minimal. I am a newbie when it comes to making a garden of this size. But as we work on this garden, it is definitely telling us what is needed. For one thing, it’s on a slope and terraces and pockets where water can be contained in the dry months are a must. But drainage is also important as all the water flows to the bottom terrace which can become a quagmire when the heavy rains fall in the winter. The bottom part is obviously crying out for trees and we have planted many fruit trees here. But the citrus are problematical. They are always on the edge of disaster. Too little water, the leaves drop off, too much water the leaves drop off. They are tricky customers and have to be listened to on a daily basis. Or perhaps it’s just that me and citrus trees don’t get on. I have tried to listen, but they tax my patience. They love manure, that’s for sure and have flourished with the sheep poo we put on them last Autumn, but the watering system, which uses grey water from the house, can sometimes give them too much water so they become chlorotic and the leaves go yellow. This makes me sad. I wonder really if I should stop listening to them quite so much, perhaps a little healthy neglect would work better! Or maybe they just don’t like growing here and would rather be in Morocco or something. The avocado tree is happy, so why can’t they be?


A young lemon tree in my garden

As for the bougainvillea, well she’s a right little tease! One minute she’s looking all green and happy and the next she’s gone into a sulk and threatens to leave me. I have already killed several of her sisters and she reminds me of this often. I just want her to survive one year really. We don’t have any frost here and I have planted her in a sheltered spot, to grow over a low wall. I keep her well watered, but well drained. I feed her. I have planted it in a very sunny spot, facing south. I talk to her. But she isn’t really saying yet if she will live or die. I am not counting my chickens, but I have given her every chance. We will see.

I bought a Japanese Holly Fern in a local market the other day. It’s supposed to be a drought resistant fern. Great I thought.

He was so resplendent in his pot. I thought he would like it if I planted him in the shade beneath an olive tree, but he quickly began to wither and ail. What was the matter I enquired ? He wanted to go back in his pot she told me, rather crossly. I obliged him and he began to thrive again.

Today, as well as shading the tomatoes, I repotted some Pennisetums, the Red Button variety, who were scolding me for leaving me with four plants in a small pot. They are tyrants, these plants. However, once I give them what they want, a pot of their own in some fresh compost, a little food, a careful watering, they repay me for my labours by springing up anew. I suppose that’s what keeps the gardener going, the joy of seeing a plant respond to your response to its direction.


A rainbow over the garden


But the greatest joy is listening to the old olive and carob trees in the garden, because they are the wisest and complain the least. The wind sighs through them and the birds nest in them and the olives ripen and apart from pruning them every eight years or so as many have done before us they just exist. I listen for their stories of time gone by, of love trysts and violent encounters, of the hands that have pruned them and the troubles they have heard about from the farmers who have picked their fruit for generations, but they know better than to reveal their secrets. They just dream and sigh, their leaves dropping as the sun dries them.

By now you will think I have been spending too much time in my garden alone and have probably lost it. Well, you may be right, but there you go. I am old but I’m happy.




7 thoughts on “Gardening in Portugal – Can you hear what I hear?

  1. Your last sentence says it all! 🙂 this was fun to read and it’s good to know there’s no perfect place in which to grow … My citrus, lemons soon to be joined by a mandarin and a lime( aren’t we brave……..) do very well in pots with constant MOIST soil- not too wet/ dry! What’s that mean, I scream shrilly! Anyhow also dump organic bits to feed monthly. Else they go all wonky… But it does keep me out of trouble..sort of! 😉


  2. Thankyou for reading, D’you fancy a cup of tea? And thanks for the citrus advice. When you say organic bits, what do you mean? The best tree is actually the one closest to the chicken house, where I dump the chicken bedding…think I will have to distribute the goodies more evenly. Lovely to hear from you and thanks for the help!


  3. I’d love one! 🙂
    I use an organic bagged fertilizer that is just a bunch of manures–bat, worm, fowl, steer.. Stinky but they seem to like it. I don’t use straight manure because my dogs try and eat it! Yuck!
    And they seem to need a constant state of moisture so when it’s really hot or dry, we put them under an umbrella. They live in the courtyard, a mini- greenhouse. The others are going out to the side yard, more exposed but in pots so we can move them( w/ crane! ) if need be! 🙂


  4. I came across you via British Expats and I’ve had an interesting read about your Portuguese garden, especially that you were able to grow your avocado from seed. Mine failed to thrive here. We’re on the windy Costa de la Luz and arrived 11 years ago to a building site.barley field with one or two fruit trees in it.

    You’re right about cataloguing your progress: it’s encouraging to look back and see the positive changes made. Our problem is the Levante wind that tears through and destroys many plants, sucking the moisture out as it goes. If I listened to my plants, they would be a helluva din of complaint.

    I shall be keeping an eye on what you’re doing…..very interesting. Thank you.


  5. Lovely post. My trouble is that I am like the old woman who lived in a shoe and had so many children she didn’ t know what to do. I haven’ t got time to to listen to all their complaints, there are too many of them. You really need to spend a little time with each individual plant and listen, but oh dear, I haven’ t got the time. Specially at this time of the year when they are all whining ‘ I’ m hungry! I’ m thirsty! I’ m pot- bound! I don’ t like it here!’
    So many plants, so little time!


  6. How nice to hear from you and thanks for commenting on my blog. It is so encouraging to hear from other Med gardeners and know that you are still gardening 11 years down the line! We are on a very windy hillside too, I have lost quite a few plants along the way to my chagrin, but I am trying not to cry too much over their frizzled memories and come to the terms with the fact that I can’t grow everything. The grasses, such as pennisetums are doing well and look pretty in the wind. I guess we have to go with the flow! I am off to your blog now. Do keep in touch, it is so nice to hear from fellow gardeners!


  7. Lovely to hear from you again Chloris. I know how you feel sometimes, my plants do all chatter on so, not to mention the chickens, the cockerel and the cats! But, being an ex-teacher I am used to a myriad demands and quite enjoy being needed in a way. But I am lucky, as it’s all I do really, having reached retirement age and not having any grandchildren yet and it is such a luxury to have the time to garden. Don’t let the plants get the better of you. They must love your gardening skills or they’d have popped off long ago.


Please talk to me. I am struggling here!

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