Archive | October 2014

I beg your pardon, Mrs Arden, there’s a chicken in your garden!

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I am going to write about my chickens. If chickens don’t float your boat, feel free to move on to look over someone else’s fence, although I aim to convince you that chickens are great  for the garden, although I am painfully  aware there are disadvantages.

The chickens have been part of our garden almost since we arrived. I’ve never kept them before, they weren’t allowed on our allotment in South London ( although someone kept racing pigeons which caused great consternation at allotment management committee meetings) and I always felt a bit sorry for the chickens that were kept as pets in plastic “Eglu” boxes  in the terraced gardens of friends. I just didn’t think they had enough space and they were often eaten or injured by hungry urban foxes, to the extreme distress of the children who looked after them. But now I’ve got  enough space for them to roam freely and foxes are shy around here and tend to stay on the Serra, so I can free range them during the day around the garden, although I live in terror of the Egyptian mongoose, the only predator I really worry about.

We started off with the cockerel, Nando, a gift from someone who mistook him for a hen and then bought four pullets, ready to lay. We have three of these original hens, Yoko, Mother Clucker and Lady Henrietta. The other hen, Chicken Licken sustained an injury to her neck from a weasel or cat when we were on holiday. Sadly, we had to cull her on our return and that wasn’t easy. Although it was necessary, we didn’t enjoy the experience, but it’s something you need to think about if you keep chickens. (I still have the terrible sound of the terrified squark she made just before she went to meet her maker ringing in my ears) I expect the vet could do it, but it would be expensive and probably unheard of here in rural Portugal. Or maybe a neighbour would help out. It is something to think about. I also have a hen donated to us as she has a tendency to go broody. We call her Mrs Chicken and a right fusspot she is too!

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There are endless sites about how to keep chickens, but I won’t go into that here. I really want to talk about how chickens are compatible and incompatible with gardening.

My original plan was to allow the chickens go everywhere in the garden all of the time. Some sites on the Internet suggested that this might be possible. Believe me it isn’t!  There are several reasons for this. The most obvious reason is that chickens eat plants and absolutely love newly emerging seedlings, but even worse than eating them, they are enthusiastic and very diligent diggers. if you haven’t watched a hen scratching at the ground, it’s very amusing. They  do a sort of quickstep shuffle, inspect the ground for any tasty morsel, gobble up whatever they find and then repeat the process. They also love to dust bathe, and generally like to do it at the base of a new shrub you’ve just planted, with no regard for the damage they might do in exposing the roots. But whilst of all these behaviours are damaging, they are also useful. I have placed the compost heap close to the chicken coops so they can turn it over, although I have sectioned off an area where worms can hide, otherwise they would all be eaten. I also take the chickens into the vegetable garden in the Autumn, where they do a great job of eating all the bugs, including the snails’ eggs. They have a voracious appetite for anything that moves, which is also useful in orchards. The Mediterranean fruit fly is endemic here, but for a brief period in its life cycle, it is a helpless newly hatched fly on the ground, when the chickens have a chance to gobble it up. Even small mice are not safe from my chickens, who once stole an unfortunate shrew from my cat’s jaws and gobbled it up! I have one hen, Mother Clucker, who is only interested in eating bugs and she is my chief gardener. I allow her into the vegetable plot with me when I am digging the ground over in the Autumn and she follows me, happily seeking out all the nasty bugs (and probably gobbling up some of the good bugs too unfortunately) She makes appreciative little noises as she follows me around and I enjoy her company. But we never tell the others where she is. Four chickens and a cockerel in my vegetable garden is too many.

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Next, there is the wonderful benefit of chicken poo. It is the most weed free of manures and although quite strong and not to be used neat on young plants, it is very useful in the garden, I use it in several different ways. In the Summer, when it dries quickly, I go round collecting it with my trusty children’s beach spade and put it in a bucket to mature. I either mix this with water to use a feed to the roots of plants, or use it as a compost activator. I use wood chips as bedding in the chicken house and empty the whole thing once a month to put on the compost heap. I have read neat chicken manure should never be used in the vegetable garden for health reasons, but it is fine to put on lasagna beds that will rot down for six months or so before you use them. However, you can put it neat at the base of fruit trees and water in well. Señor Faztudo hates chicken poo with a vengeance and in order to avoid any danger of it getting on the patios, has a super soaker water pistol to hand to discourage the hens from coming near the house. Chickens hate getting wet and he only has to pick it up nowadays and they run off squawking, although we have noted that one particular hen always raises her tail and deposits a present whilst retreating. And they say hens are stupid!

We have separated the garden into two halves, the back of the house for the vegetables and plants which chickens like to eat or which are poisonous to chickens and the front of the house for an orchard and garden area with aromatics, grasses and plants which chickens don’t tend to eat. I think this might be different chickens might have their own preferences, but our hens don’t eat thymes, rosemaries, lavender, geraniums and other aromatic plants, most ornamental grasses once they are established, roses or canna lilies, or irises. Oleander, Datura and Avocodoes are poisonous to them, so I keep an area for those plants around the back. (These plants are poisonous to people too)  I do have a young avocado tree in the orchard, but I hope they aren’t silly enough to eat the fruit or leaves.

Chickens are also great natural lawn mowers. They keep the grass down pretty well. I don’t say they eat all weeds, but they eat a lot of them, which is a wonderful bonus. They love the wild spinach which grows liberally in our garden.  On the other hand, they scratch all the stones up out of the ground and I am perpetually raking them up. They also make holes, which every now and again, you need to fill in or till over as the ground becomes very uneven.

The main reason for having them of course is for their eggs, which we get in plentiful supply. I get great satisfaction eating them and knowing that In essence, I am eating recycled garden bugs and weeds! I keep all the eggshells to bury under the roots of the tomatoes, which makes for strong plants, as tomatoes need calcium for good growth. The crushed eggshells are also good for making a circle around tender plants to deter slugs.

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I have now caught the chicken bug and want to expand my flock. I think my garden needs about eight chickens and the cockerel. Mrs Chicken sat on a clutch of eggs patiently for 21 days, but none hatched. I am afraid Nando may be too big for the little chickens as he falls off frequently and hasn’t managed to fertilise the eggs. So  I have bought four new chickens from a local pet shop, which have been quickly dubbed “The Peepers”  as that”s all they do at the moment, peep and poo. This is quite a dangerous thing to do, as there is the strong possibility of bringing disease into your flock. But they are in quarantine at the moment and seem fine, so far.  I promised I wouldn’t name this batch, in case I had to do the dirty on them somewhere along the line, but that didn’t last long and I have called them Ory, Weed, Pea and Badass. (just add the word Chick to the front of the back of the word and you’ll get the general idea!) They were quite young when I got them and it wasn’t until they came  home, I realised I’d purchased the ugliest chickens on earth, a breed known as the Turken, as they look like a cross between a chicken and a hen. They have a genetic mutation which means they  are born without any feathers on their neck and when fully grown look very weird. But I love them anyway. I have seen quite a few in farmyards hereabouts and with 30 per cent less feathers, apparently they do very well in hot weather, which is a good thing as my bigger hens have looked very uncomfortable in summer. I also hope they grow my bigger than the little hybrid hens I have at the moment, so Nando doesn’t fall off any more and I can breed from them, using Mrs Chicken as a broody.

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The  chickens themselves provide delightful entertainment when you are working in the garden. Nando enjoys cussing the other cockerels in the village and its quite funny watching him stand guard over his harem. Although not unduly aggressive, he has a job to do and he does it well.(The guarding bit I mean, he isn’t so good at the fertilising bit!) His beak is sharp, his talons are like razors and I wouldn’t like to be a cat after his girls. He is easily as big as a small dog and very fierce when anything challenges his flock. He lumbers around like Road Runner and raises a lot of laughs. Most of the Portuguese villagers on seeing him laugh and say “Muito bom com batatas” or “Very good with potatoes” and I guess he would be. But I love him, I have to confess.  For the moment, he’s safe, although I can’t guarantee that will be the case for his sons, sadly. That is unless one of them is good at pushing wheelbarrows up and down very steep hills.

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Another year older and closer to having a garden. A race against time!

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My Glory Hole, with trunks I have found by the rubbish bins, much to Sr Faztudo’s disgust!

Well, dear gardening friend, it has come to the time of the year when we can stop and take a breath and review how the gardening year has gone. In the UK, people will be bringing in their final pumpkins, picking blackberries and sloes and thinking about getting their gardens ready for the long winter. I think fondly of my allotment friends in South London at this time of year, when we used to have a feast of all our produce around a lovely bonfire, with the rooks cawing away in the trees and that lovely smell of damp earth and leaf mould mixed in with the smoke. Here we are having a sort of mini Spring, which always happens after the hot Summer months, when the first rains fall. The olives are plumping up, the grapes have all been picked and I realise I have been writing this garden diary for a year. And since it is a year, I thought you might like to take a little tour of the garden with me. Grab your hat (the sun is quite hot) and a cuppa and we’ll sally round.

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A trio of lettuces, from market plug plants

Starting with the vegetable garden, if you can call it that. I have some terracing, but very poor soil and as it is very expensive to buy topsoil, I have been making my own using the lasagna bed method.
Even if I say so myself, am very pleased with the results. The enormous pile of rubbish and weeds, mixed in with newspapers and coffee grounds and kind deliveries by a friend of horse manure and straw, plus the offerings of used chicken bedding from my hens, who are very generous with their droppings has produced a friable and fertile medium which with the help of the eggshells I collected throughout the year, produced a good crop of tomatoes and courgettes.

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I have recently planted cabbage and lettuce and as you can see it is doing well too, although I am having to irrigate as the weather has been very warm and dry over the last week. The rotting down process was greatly helped by long periods of rain early in the year. I have started my second bed and have decided that for the next few years I will alternate, just adding more material to beds during the winter in turns. I won’t even have to make compost or move compost to the bed, since it is all taking place “in situ” Magic! It makes me smile every time I pass it. It’s one of the most successful recycling projects I can think of, rubbish into food at little or no cost. Mind you, I think it’s important to have my two cats patrolling the garden. They are outside cats and sleep in the shed and are always on guard at night. The lasagne bed is wonderful nesting material for rats and mice and without my cats I think I would have a problem, especially as I also have the chickens in the garden.

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The trees are growing slowly, but well. I remember hearing the saying, “The first year they sleep, the next year they creep and the third year they leap” and I find that very true. We have struggled to find the right balance for water. The citrus trees need a deep watering twice a week, and we haven’t always got that right. The grey water from the house goes to the trees via a large filtering pit full of sand and gravel and then to an irrigation system. We have three irrigation lines each watering a few trees and I have to remember to turn them on an off on alternate days and I don’t always remember, which means that sometimes a tree gets flooded for several days , whilst another gets too much water. I guess I could solve that with automatic valves, but honestly, we like to keep things as simple as possible, so there’s less to go wrong. I feed each one of the 30 odd small fruit or nut trees in turn with the night soil from the chickens and although the manure is raw, after a good watering in it’s fine. I wouldn’t venture to do that with my vegetables however, I think it’s too strong and there is also a risk of pathogens with raw manure, which I certainly don’t want on my salad leaves.

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I think I will have to start calling areas of my garden different things, to distinguish them from each other. It has definitely helped to start thinking of everywhere in zones. I have a flat area on top of my bank, which I have dedicated to grasses, iris and “native plants” such as cistus, and lavender. This area needs little water. I watered it once a week to get it established, but I’ve watered it very sparingly this year and I really hope not to have to water it at all next year. The gravel mulch helps enormously to keep whatever water comes from natural rainfall in the soil. I am a little worried about the area that has been established for two years, where the grasses don’t seem as robust as when they first grew. I am not sure whether it was because I watered them a little too much last year and therefore they established a dependency, or whether perhaps the soil has become a bit too compacted for them to get their roots in. I will watch carefully as I want to maintain this gravel method of gardening, which has been very productive and has made the garden much easier to manage.

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The top bank from the bottom of the garden, with new terraces we have recently built.

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Now to my jungly, terraced area, which is half working and half not. I don’t really want to gravel this bit. I can water this smaller area and I want it to have a lush exotic feel. I can achieve that in the small area around the terrace, but it is very difficult on the sloped part of this side of the garden, which is on the west side of the house.

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The soil is poor, it’s in shade in the morning and hellishly hot in the afternoon. Although I have dug watering holes around the plants, they struggle and water runs away on top of the baked and parched ground. I would like to find some organic mulch for this area, but at the moment all the material I have for composting is being used on my vegetable beds.I have often been tempted to take plant material from beside the rubbish bins which people leave to be taken away by the refuse collection service, but I am never sure what they have been treated or sprayed with and I am trying not to use chemicals in the garden.

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In this area, I planted a cyclad fern, which I thought would make a wonderful centrepiece, but it was having none of it. It’s beautiful dark green leaves yellowed and fell over and it reproached me daily for planting it in this inhospitable desert, until eventually, when all its leaves had yellowed and died and probably just in time, I dug it up and put it in a pot in the shade. I am not sure what possessed me to put it in full sun. I was inspired by some huge cyclads I saw in full sun at the Estoi Palacio, which is now a pousdad, but I think they must have had a ton of wonderful soil under them and a fair amount of water. I am glad to say that the patient is making a full recovery and has sprouted some more leaves. The same thing happened to a Holly fern and I planted that in the shade. I don’t think they can get their roots into the clay soil easily.
Have you finished your tea? Sit here on the terrace and I’ll get you another cup. Do you like my tea cosy? My sister made it for me. And here is chicken woman, a birthday present from my brother. She looks a bit like me, don’t you think?

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Just round the corner from this terrace, I have decided that the bottom bed of my vegetable garden is going to be for aromatics and herbs. It is a difficult bed to clamber about on and I am getting a bit too stiff and unsteady to feel it’s something I want to do on a regular basis, so I am going to keep it for perennials. I imagine it as a cool area of different greens and greys, which we can look out on as we do the washing up. The aromatics smell so wonderful when you water them in the evening and I have planted rose, camphor and lemon geraniums as well as different mints. Since this area is near the house and below the vegetable garden, I am hoping that the smells with help to keep mosquitoes and other insects away. They’re always attracted by the water I use to irrigate the garden. I’ve bought a number of these herbs very inexpensively from a well known German supermarket. They have a surprising selection, with some unusual herbs, and I have found Absinthe, Clary Sage and Rue amongst them. The Portuguese Donnas use herbs in teas for all kinds of ailments, which I think why the supermarket is more adventurous with their choices than we would get in the UK. I am not quite sure what I will do with the absinthe, but it’s a very pretty plant!

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Absinthe and scented geranium

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I have managed to produce quite a lot of useful plants from seed for the garden. The Penstemmons were very pretty and seem to be quite drought tolerant, Aquilegias are romping away and I have managed to grow two sorts of Pennisetum, one called “White Ladies” and one called “Red Buttons” and some Iris Sibirica. My wonderful neighbours and friends have given me all sorts of cuttings and I have produced Datura plants, Buddleia and even a Frangipani plant from them.

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Penstemon grown from seed

Finally, I must mention my failures, lest you think everything in the garden is rosy!. I haven’t managed to think what to do with this terrible bed here, which the chickens keep digging up and which needs to be terraced or something as it doesn’t hold any water. There were grapevines here before we came which we are not too sure how to look after, and there are probably important pipes under it. I think I may have to plant some really hardy shrub down the length of it. Any suggestions?

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I tried to plant lavender cuttings all the way down, but the chickens dug them all up. I don’t mind them digging, in fact I want them to so they can find insects and grubs for their protein supply, but I need something robust they can search under. I have also struggled to produce vegetables where I haven’t any terracing. The wonderful vetiver grass is starting to come into its own with this and I am planning to use the grasses as living terraces, as you can see from this photo. I have killed every strawberry I have planted, Lord knows how. I have never been able to grow them and everyone says how easy they are. They just don’t like me. The main problem I think, is I just can’t find the proper place for them.

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Vetiver grass acting as a terrace wall and preserving water

Have I got a garden yet? Not really. Sometimes I show people my garden and I am sure they think “What garden?” because it certainly isn’t there yet. We still have some hard landscaping to do, but after two years of living here our transition is finally made and we are asset rich, but cash poor, so my hippy shed and the path to it will have to wait for us to build up some funds. But it is still my daily joy and delight, having never had a garden of this size and I never resent the time it is taking to work with it. For what would I do if it were finished? What a disaster that would be, eh? Blimey, look at that cloud, it looks like some fantastic dolphin swimming past. Do you think it’s time for a g and t? Must be…

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