My garden has been divided into rooms, almost by default. It’s a big garden and difficult to manage, because of the slopes, the north facing aspect and the heavy clay soil, peppered with rocks. The house sits squarely in about 2,400 square metres. I’m glad it isn’t any bigger, because it’s the limit of our physical ability to work it. Sometimes I hear people lamenting their decision to buy a large plot of land, as they realise they just aren’t able to manage to prune 50 odd olive and carob tree every few years, (let alone harvest and process the crop) strim all the weeds in the Spring or even walk up and down such a big stretch with the wheelbarrow. A little word of warning from someone who feels it every day in their bones …don’t get greedy eye when it comes to land in Portugal if you’re getting on in years, unless you can afford a gardener and other staff. You’ll live to regret it!
In the first two years we had this brand new hillside plot, all we seemed to do is fight with it. The weeds grew 15 feet tall (see here) the rocks wiggled their way out of the ground and I constantly fell over them, the earth became hard and parched and cracked and swallowed up the plants, the terraces kept having minor avalanches whenever it rained, the wind blew everything over and the chickens I insisted on having at the earliest opportunity gobbled up all my seedlings. One day I realised I was almost resenting my garden as it was a constant battle to sort it out. A little shocked at the revelation, as this garden had always been my dream, I sat down somewhere in the middle of the 6 feet high Chrysanthemum Coronium for a rethink. I knew we couldn’t go on strimming and chopping and bending our backs forever..how was I going to start enjoying this garden instead of confronting it every day?
If I’d had the money and good sense to start with, and I’ve since learned it isn’t that expensive, I should have hired a garden designer who could have talked through the management with me and advised on the right plants. But at that point, I thought a garden designer was much too posh for me and anyway I’m not very good at being told what to do. As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve made gardens before, albeit very small ones. Perhaps, if I saw each part of the garden as a separate room, maybe it wouldn’t seem so daunting. So that’s what I started to do.
The garden is divided into terraces, three at the back of the house and a couple at the side and three at the front if you count the top of the cisterna. I saw the back terraces as the herb and vegetable garden, as they were closest to the house and the water supply; a side terrace as a sort of jungly and perennials garden as it’s mostly shady, near a tap and near where we sit; a large area under an olive tree as a wild flower garden, clear around its base in the summer, so we can pick the olives by laying a sheet underneath, as this is our best eating olive tree.
There is one area near the house with no soil really as it’s on top of a huge boulder, so this became a succulents garden, by necessity. The top of the cisterna, a very difficult area with only a small amount of soil, which is baked by the sun in the summer and flooded in the winter rains, would be sedums, thymes and succulents and the odd iris germanicus which are real toughies. (See I’m starting to use the Latin names…get me! )
Lower down the garden, I have made a grasses/irises garden…it’s very windy on this bit and I like to see the grasses swaying violently in the biting North wind! Seriously though, they look lovely and the sound of them rustling away is wonderful on a Spring day. This area also has three plum trees, a loquat and pomegranate which was thoughtfully planted before we arrived by the builder and is now mature. Then on the lower terrace, which is divided up by stone paths, the front part nearest the drive has been planted with Portuguese natives, such as cistus and phlomis and chicken proof aromatics and roses. The rest of it is a mini orchard with citrus, two different figs, a quince tree, and a pear. I have come to be very exasperated by the citrus trees, but that’s another story.
On the basisthat we can’t really afford to water an ornamental garden, since we haven’t got a bore hole (although we have a cisterna and other measures such as grey water recycling) I try to grow useful or edible plants generally throughout the garden so we can get our money back on any plants we have to water. (Although Señor Faztudo insists that my cabbages probably cost about 20 euros each)
We moved the chickens from behind the house to the bottom of the garden as they were driving us both mad with their pooing and crowing and scoffing and stuff.(the coop is behind a screening hedge, see phot below) Chickens love scratching and I want to improve the soil here and suppress weeds, so I’ve given them a mega playground in this corner, by mulching heavily with wood chips. They scratch away happily to the hearts content without doing anything but good.
(Chicken poo is vital to the development of this garden, I have to say, but I haven’t taught the chickens to only poo in the mulch and not on the paths, although I’m working on it! ) I see the corner where the birds hang out as a sort of micro permaculture experiment and mini farm. I have a FB friend in the Algarve who has a page called “Permaculture Playground” and although I can’t go as far as he has, in that tractor tyres will probably not be tolerated by Señor Faztudo, I am doing mini experiments in this corner as it’s the furthest distance from the house.
It’s difficult to get a balance between Señor Faztudo’s sensibilities in the garden and mine. I want him to be happy, as it’s his garden too and he gets a lot of pleasure from the work he does in it. If I’m honest though, he only allows the chickens because he loves me. He actually hates the mess they make and rarely ventures near their corner. He’s not best pleased when he steps in a pile of poo and I can hear the swearing from wherever I am working. But the hippy shed and greenhouse he is making me (see how much he loves me) are also an area and I can go to this far flung corner of the garden and be the mucky pup I want to be in peace -as long as I take my horrible shoes and mite ridden garden clothes off before I come in the house. Another part of the deal is that the areas around the house are kept relatively tidy with nothing climbing up the walls and hanging over things not allowed near the pool. And since it is himself who cleans the pool, I try to comply, albeit grudgingly.
Compromises have to be made, I guess! Thats what I signed up for 35 odd years ago. We are all different and that’s what makes the world go round. But his sensibilities are definitely a part of the garden design.
Most of the garden, apart from the vegetable area, where I like to keep some useful weeds (more of weeds in the next blog) is mulched, some with geotex and gravel mulch and some with woodchips. I think if I knew then what I knew now, I might have used woodchips throughout, but the instant garden that evolved in the early days using the geotex and gravel gave us some kind of garden very quickly and heartened us both as it defeated the weeds. It’s done well with the natives and the grasses, but I do think the mulch allows for soil improvement and all the processes that go on in the soil in a more natural way. It would have been messier though as the chickens always scratch the mulch onto the path. The mulch has made the most significant difference to my garden, since we don’t really have too many weeds any more and the plants flourish because the water they get is retained and doesn’t evaporate. There is some controversy about wood chips robbing the soil of nitrogen, but its fine if you don’t dig it in. I wouldn’t use it in the vegetable garden though and prefer to build the soil using compost.
Talking of compost, I have made a huge heap from posts and chicken wire to receive any garden waste I do have and have included some free manure from people with horses. . I pile everything up in a big heap in the middle of the garden in the Autumn and wait for the rain to come, the sun to shine and the chickens to scratch.
The chickens have half of the garden…this is very important to me. Not only because they kill the pests under the fruit trees, manure the soil scratch up the weeds, but because I’m very happy watching them. They don’t eat rosemaries, lavenders, salvias, cistus, canna lilies, irises, nepeta, some succulents,eg aloes, agapanthus, grasses…other than the seeds which they’re welcome to, roses..well they eat the flowers if they aren’t too high for them, cape daisies (they eat gazanias though) So you can have a garden with chickens, although you do need to protect young plants until they get established with stones or covers. Just don’t have too many chickens!
My flock is growing at an alarming rate, partly because I’m too much of a wuss to eat any. I have five cockerels already, keeping the village awake and I know the day will come soon when I have to face what I have to do, although I’m doing my best to “rehome” them. Señor Faztudo says grimly that he knows exactly where to rehome them! The neighbours look at me pityingly feeding cockerels instead of eating them. I’m obviously not hungry enough, I’m sure they say. And they’d be right….
As far as garden design is concerned, there certainly isn’t any room for more than 10 chickens. I have considered asking for an extension or another room, but then I’d probably fill it with goats who’d have baby goats and donkeys and geese and turkeys and then we’d be a farm! I wonder how much that plot of land on the other side of the house costs?