Archive | July 2016

Harvesting the trees: the fruits of the Algarve

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”  Walt Whitman

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I was born in a Welsh valley, full of the most regal, powerful trees. It was my childhood playground. Those were the days of Famous Five and ginger beer drinking and we children often rose early, nabbing what we could get away with from the fridge  and escaping the house and our mother who invariably had some chore for us to do. Our roaming circle was as far as five miles and much of this time was spent making dens during the long summer holidays in the huge trees in the woods near our home. The most beautiful were the huge, dark barked beech trees, with their caterpillar  green, delicate leaves emerging in the Spring, diffusing the light and making patterns on the leafy floor and the great, gnarled sweet chestnuts, hundreds of years old and often hollow, a wonderful place to climb and make dens.

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So when I first came to the Algarve, I was a bit disappointed in the trees. In fact I couldn’t really see any. What there were seemed scrubby and blasted and there weren’t any forests, more large swathes of bushes with the odd straggly tree, which seemed to me to be struggling for survival.

Years later I realise how wrong I was! Trees are everything to the subsistence farmers here, their livelihood, their inheritance, their pride and joy. Disputes over inheritance of a tree or trees on a boundary fence can be fierce and occasionally violent. Once you get your eye in, there are useful and venerable trees everywhere.

The trees which are grown and farmed in the Algarve are Carob, Olive, Fig, and Almond with small trees such as  Pomegranate, Arbutus and Quince. Cork oak is grown for its bark. Kern Oak and Holm Oak prunings are used as fire wood. Eucalyptus and Pine is also grown, but are both controversial, as they are a fire risk and detrimental to more native species. Loquats and Walnuts also grow well where there is some water, but you won’t see them widely.

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The farming year is punctuated by the tending of the trees and the harvesting of the fruit. The pruning of almond trees starts in January, they are often cut back quite fiercely to the trunk so that fresh limbs sprout, bearing the almonds, which is encased in a green skin, which peels open in July to allow the almonds to be harvested. The women and older people harvest them whilst the men bang the branches with a big cane stick, which is both bendy and strong, known as a canna.  I used to wonder why the women were clothed in long sleeved garments, scarves on their heads and hats to harvest them, even though the sun was so hot, until I could speak enough Portuguese to understand that the trees are full of little mites which drop with the almonds and nibble the pickers, should they not be covered up. The almonds are dried in the sun in their shells and then are either taken to the one and only almond processing plant to be cracked, or else bshed open with a big stone, during the long summer evenings over a gossip with neighbours. These almonds are often ground into flour and made into the most luscious cakes, along with the figs which are also in plentiful supply. There are different kinds of almond, five varieties I am told, but the one you have to watch out for is the bitter almond, as uncooked it contains cyanide and can be deadly if too much is eaten. The blossom of the bitter almond is a much deeper pink than those of the sweet variety, so easy to spot amongst the beautiful Spring flowering blossom.

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The fig trees are very beautiful , their large hand like  leaves offering shade in the Summer. Figs were a common food source for the Romans, who probably brought them to the Algarve.  In Roman times the figs were used to fatten geese and in more recent times, the Algarvians fed the surplus food to their pigs, fattening them for a Christmas feast. The trees grow  happily in the red clay soil, especially in the river plains of the Algarve and although in winter, they lose their leaves, they tolerate even light frost and flourish with little care, except for occasional pruning. There are different types, early and late, but the green types are dried in the sun and used in all kinds of cakes and sweetmeats (doces)

Carobs are the trees which bring in the cash for subsistence farmers and as such are shown great respect. The carob harvest is a family affair, with pickers getting up very early to pick the blackened pods from the ground when they are shaken from the tree.  Travelling people come from both the North of Portugal and Southern Spain to pick from wild trees, as they have done for centuries. The carobs are processed at local plants, with the seeds being separated by the pods. The pods  are milled into carob flour, used in cooking and as a chocolate substitute whilst the seeds are used to make a thickening, used in the food industry.  The carob barns often attract rats, which is why the villagers often foster small colonies of semi feral cats, to keep the rat population under control. There are legends about the carob trees, which are very strange looking, especially when old and often have hollow trunks. In the area of Salir, the Mouras Encantadas, female enchanted spirits guard treasure troves hidden under the trees and bewitch hapless passers-by with their mournful songs.

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Last but not least, there us the arbutus or  medronho bush. This is a charming and almost completely drought resistant bush, which grows wild on the serra, with white flowers and strawberry like berries produced in the Autumn.  The berries are picked and fermented  in large vats, eventually being distilled over several nights of still-watching into medronho, a potent  local firewater. The berries are very slightly hallucinogenic, which makes for a rather spacey alcoholic drink, which may explain why many of the farmers around here seem so chilled as they go about their daily lives!

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Hot damn in Portugal!

 

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The summer has arrived with a vengeance and I am thinking about how both I and my developing  garden deals with the  heat. At the moment, the sun, which was my friend only a few weeks ago, ripening my courgettes and bringing on my beans, is now my enemy. I try to defeat him by getting up before him, watering the plants at dawn, but by 9 o clock it’s almost 30 degrees and he is shimmering relentlessly as he rises in the sky. The courgettes stop flowering, leaves wilting by 10 o clock, any ground not mulched cracks and breaks, the water trickling off, useless. It’s war!

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Gaillardia, grown from seed

 

However, it’s no use taking on Ra as the enemy, because I will lose. Really at this time of year you have to admit defeat, pull up the drawbridge and go inside in the shade , stop planting and go into survival mode. Your best defences should have already been put in place and if not, it’s too late. So how are mine bearing up?

Well, poco poco I’d say.

My first defence has been to set large areas of the garden over to drought resistant planting. If you have eyes to see, there are plants all around us in the mata (wild bush areas) growing wild without any water at all and they don’t die. They return in the Autumn and Spring with the rains, bursting with scent and colour. Lavenders and cistus, rosemaries and fennel, thyme and nepeta, arbutus and Pistacia Lenticus bushes, (mastic tree) even roses only need a little water. And I have also grown irises and grasses over a mid terraced area which look beautiful waving in the wind, even when dry.

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Rose mulched with gravel

These areas, once established need not be watered at all. Admittedly during the heat of the summer, they certainly don’t look their best. But I quite like the dried seed pods and so do the chickens and a little trim and tidy up and they don’t look too bad.

One of my main discoveries is the importance of mulch. I’m a great fan of the Graden Professors’ Blog on Facebook. It is a group set up by scientists at Washington State University to discuss empirically and peer reviewed gardening science and all the research says mulch WORKS. And indeed it does!  Wood Chip Mulch pdf Linda Chalker Scott says you need to use wood chips and I have found a source of something that approximates it in wood bark.  It’s not easy to find appropriate mulch in the Algarve , where even straw is scarce and we have few leafy trees,  and the fire risk also has to be considered, but the addition of the mulch I have managed to find under the  citrus trees, shrubs and perennials has made a huge difference to their capacity to survive and thrive the sun’s searing rays.  I am also able to use less water and growth has been much better on all the areas I have mulched. The chickens scrabble around in it too, which helps improve the soil below and their droppings help with the nitrogen content, which can be depleted in the breaking down process.

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Bark mulch on an area of the garden

I do water the establishing plants, one area of the garden with more tend, non native  perennials, and the vegetables  and have been very glad of the large cisterna or rainwater tank  which collects the winter rainfall we get from the roof.  It’s huge and contains a two month water supply for the garden. Our soil in the Barrocal is on the alkaline side and the slight acidity of the rainwater is good for the plants. We save money on the water bill, which can be huge in the summer as water is metered in Portugal, but we have an electric pump to get it out of the cistern and we are trying to weigh up the costs. I haven’t really got any kind of organised irrigation in place yet and water by hand. This is helpful as I assess the needs of each area and plant and water accordingly, but it’s very time consuming and take an hour and a half to water the whole garden!

One of the surprises to me has been that succulents do better in  the shade once it gets above 30 degrees centigrade. I move them in their pots to the shady side of the house and water and feed them and they put in a huge growth spurt. Those succulents in the ground and  are in the sun, shrink and go to sleep and I don’t water them too much as waterlogged roots when they are in this mode is the kiss of death. I didn’t know any of this when I arrived and lost a lot of succulents by watering them when they were in sleep mode.

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Mulched courgette

I actually get quite angry with high summer and am struggling with myself.  The garden which flowered beautifully in late Spring and now, just like Winter in the UK, everything goes to sleep and looks dried up and dead. I have tried to be grateful for the mini Spring that comes with the first rains in Autumn as a compensation, but I still feel robbed. I sometimes think of the cricket lawns and green woods of the UK and feel a pang of jealousy. Gardeners want it all.

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A long view of the lower garden area

The chickens suffer in the heat of the day. Their feathery coats are a burden to them and they pant to keep cool, taking themselves off to the tall grasses to hide and complaining to themselves as they brave out the time until the evening when they can come out to forage for the dried seeds and unfortunate ants in the garden. Occasionally they come across a locust and an excited chase ensues over its crunchy carcass. Usually Mrs Chicken wins as she is boss, but her progeny sometimes manage to steal a wing or leg. The cats sleep all day stretched out on the cool tiles in a shady spot and I seek solace on the sofa, under the air conditioning unit with a gardening book. I shouldn’t moan. The early mornings bring the most beautiful of dawns, the night skies are breathtaking. Really, it’s just another day in hot paradise.