The Spring is coming! The Spring is coming! We walked down the road beside the house other day and the Naked Man Orchids were up already (If you look closely at the petals you can see why they are called that, hehe!)
However, Winter isn’t leaving us without a sting in its tail, as parts of Portugal, even as far South as the Algarve, have had snow. It was a surprise to me that this happens at all, especially as Portugal doesn’t have any particularly high mountains, despite the title of author Yann Martel ‘s (Life of Pi fame) latest book “The High Mountains of Portugal” My Portuguese neighbour, Donna M tells me that when it snows in the hills near Monchique, children from Algarve schools are bundled into buses on the spur of the moment to see the wondrous white stuff.
What does this cold snap mean for us gardeners? Well, not much is the answer, where I live, because as we live high up on the side of a windy hill, the worst thing that happens is a very mild frost in the front of the house and some wind burn from the biting North Winds. However, friends in the valleys nearby, where the nights are colder, suffer some fairly fierce ground frost and often have bougainvillea and Datura cut down to the ground, if not killed. The coast is a different prospect and banana trees grow happily without cover through the winter. So if you are a gardener, where you live in Portugal and its microclimates are important in terms of accomdating plants you can grow comfortably. And each garden has its microclimate, with greater or lesser extremes of temperature, depending on the season and the direction it faces. I have had to study the garden closely and learn from it to get it right and I’m not there yet.
I was walking around my garden this morning and realised I am literally in love with it. It hurts my heart and stops me in my tracks. I can barely get back up to breakfast and coffee after I let my chickens out as there is so much to stop and stare at. But like a love affair, I am torn between letting its wild and free side take over and trying to control it and bend it to my will. It’s a difficult balance. And one day I will inevitably have to leave it, whether it be because I choose to, or because death takes me and then my garden will take another lover. The thought brings tears to my eyes already, not for the loss, but because of the beauty of the circle of life itself.
Anyway, I digress into soppiness! Back to practicalities. I constantly read, listen to others and experiment my garden endeavours. As I have said before I like to garden with chickens, who I find to be excellent garden helpers, especially when you design them into the garden. However, they have their half and we have ours. I wanted to plant Spring bulbs in their half, but their predilection for digging everything up meant that all my efforts to plant were in vain. Down the side of our long and steep drive is a west facing flowerbed. The chickens love to use it to scratch for worms, which mean that the drive invariably gets covered with unsightly soil. I inveigled Senor Faztudo into making me what became known as “The Great Wall of China” as it was indeed a great task. We bought 100 grey concrete blocks, the ones with the holes in. I experimented with these and found that although they held water, they drained effectively, so I asked him to lay them holes upwards. I then bought some wholesale narcissi and muscari over the Internet from Holland and spend many an hour on my knees planting them up with the bulbs and putting a thin layer of gravel mulch on top. To my delight the chickens couldn’t scratch in them and although they ate the few tulips I planted, they left everything else alone. I have a lovely show down the length of the drive now! I must be getting soppy in my old age, because they really gladdened my heart on St David’s day and reminded me of my youth when we used to go down into the field near my home in Wales and pick bunches of wild daffodils for my parents. I will eventually plant nepeta and succulents in between to hide the bricks altogether.
On other garden matters, you may recall I had two new bantams, Miss Penny and Miss Henny. Well after a little while, Miss Penny started to act a little suspiciously and paying her sister rather a lot of attention. After a few weeks I heard Miss Penny making very un-henlike noises and although somewhat guttural and rather halting it became clear she was crowing! So now I have two cockerels, Phoenix, the big white gentle head of the flock and Junior. Some people with experience of two cockerels have told me they will kill each other eventually, but there is certainly no sign of it yet. Junior sticks with his wife, who is fairly tolerant of his clumsy advances and every now and again tries it with Phoenix’s hens, who rebut him loudly with a peck and a squawk. And every now and then Junior goes flying through the air when Phoenix catches him attempting to mate with one of his wives. But they all go into the coop together at night and sleep well together and all is forgotten until it starts all over again in the morning.
After several failed attempts last year with Mrs Chicken, who isn’t a very good broody as you may recall, I am hoping Miss Henny will become Mrs Henny on the not too distant future and I will be able to have some Spring chickens. Fingers crossed.
My walk around the garden revealed some interesting sites. The Cape daisies are out. These lovely cheerful plants grow very well here and come in two colour, white and mauve. They are excellent ground cover and look beautiful tumbling over a bank, although they can get unsightly and need hard pruning back.
A gardening friend in Portugal has the most wonderful display of freesias in pots here every Spring and one day I hope to have a beautiful show too…not only for the sight but also for the smell, which is heavenly and always makes me swwwon with delight. We have a small wild version which is cream coloured in the Algarve and they grace many a cottage pathway at this time of year, smelling wonderful as you walk past them I only have two pots, but here they are. My friend just told me to leave them to bake in the Summer in full sun once they are over and they are easily moved to the corner of a garden and forgotten about until the next Spring, when a little feed brings them back to life.
My dalliance with succulents continues and may well become an addiction. I picked this one up at a garden fair recently and I’m absolutely fascinated by it. It looks so much like a snake! I am sure it must be called Cacti Medusa Somethingorotheri it is so like the Gorgon’s head!
Here are another couple of pots of new acquisitions. I have learn to keep them out of heavy rain, and shade them a little in the greatest heat, but apart from that, succulents need little care and often reward you with the most surprising and amazing flowers. One of the most moving moments of my life was waking up to the Mexican desert in a hotel on the Baja peninsular one morning, having arrived in the night after some rain. The hotel was in the middle of nowhere, the kind of hotel you feel you would check in, but never leave. The beautiful desert was in flower, with succulents and cactuses al sporting brightly coloured flowers! I couldn’t believe the beauty, although had to be careful not to wander too far away from the hotel, lest I encounter a rattlesnake!
I am a little obsessed with using the succulents to make miniature gardens for future grandchildren. Here are some of my experiments with flotsam and jetsam gathered from the beach.
Finally, here is an example of the tensions I am creating between control and madness in the garden. I hate weeds and I love them. They strangle and dominate the order you are trying to create on the one hand and rob nutrients, light and water from the food you are trying to grow. But they are beautiful, attractive to beneficial to insects, nutritious to chickens, great for compost and lush in a country where it is dry for months on the other hand.
The area under the fruit trees I am mulching to keep weeds down and to indulge the chickens. They dig and dust bathe in the mulch, the mulch is great for the trees, the weeds are kept at bay. Here’s one of my cats modeeling the mulch rather attracively.
I am developing a new concept here in the mulched area, a lasagne bed stork’s nest, where I’m hoping to grow melons. All the garden rubbish has gone into it, including newspapers along with coffee grounds from the local cafe. I used olive twigs to build the nests and for the moment I am using chicken wire to keep it all in and the chickens out. It doesn’t look great yet, but watch this space! (Reading back over my blog posts, I realise I hae mentioned this before. Forgive me dear reader, I don’t get out much and am probably over excited about what is really a pile of rubbish!)
I am very pleased with how well Globe Artichokes grow in my garden. I grew some from seed last year and all these are seedlings and offshoots from the original plants. The chickens love to hide out in them and you may just be able to spot one of my naked neck chickens peeping out. I get a huge group and earwigs notwithstanding I am able to eat artichoke heart salad until I’m sick in the season!
In some areas of the garden I am encouraging the weeds to grow in all their glorious profusion.
Here is my best weed! How beautiful is that? And I love the Alexanders aka Black lovage, Smyrnium Somethingorotheritis that abounds and was probably bought here by the Romans, who ate it until they discovered they liked celery better.
But don’t get the idea I only have weeds in the vegetabke garden, there are some vegetables too!
So some on with the spring I say! We expect to eat loquats, apricots plums and peaches this year. My only wish is that the trees grow a little faster and that our health and strength remains so we can eat avocadoes, pecans, cherries and figs too from the new trees we’ve planted before I meet that great gardener in the sky!