Archive | July 2017

There’s pumpkins in my stork’s nest!

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The amazing view from my garden

Many of the Portuguese villagers in inland Algarve, where we live, are still subsistence farmers. They’ve been farming the harsh landscape here for many generations, probably as far back as Roman times, and they have ways of coping with droughts, plagues and downpours. We, incoming Northern European upstarts, know nothing of their practices to begin with, but we soon learn to take heed.  Although the local people  are very polite about our gardening efforts, I can imagine that many of them look at our practices, which probably work very well in our own countries, and shake their heads as we plant things at the wrong times, water cabbages in the middle of summer and try to grow things we loved in our cooler climes that just wither and shrivel. This photo shows  how dry the garden is where you don’t water it!

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We cannot know better than local farmers. They know trees are a good thing to plant in our thick red clay soil, as once they have their roots down, they can survive on winter torrents. They know that letting the wild flowers grow between their almond trees and then ploughing them in improves the soil, they know how to use winter rainfall to grow their beans and their peas and that some things are too much of a risk to even bother with. They know how to graft their trees onto strong almond rootstock to get peaches and plums.  They know their land, through generations of successes and failure.

But we arrive to our little patch of Paradise and in our arrogance, we think we can defeat the elements. We  get quite angry when we find we can’t.  We wring our hands over the boulders, the brick hard clay, the lack of biomass for mulch, the torrential rain and hail, the burning sun. We curse the elements for our tiny potatoes, the runner bean flowers that dropped off when the sun got too hot, the plagues of grasshoppers eating our citrus leaves and the fact that although we are gardening in a climate conducive to citrus, they just won’t grow for us. Our peaches get nobbled by Mediterranean fruit fly at the very minute our tongues are hanging out for their sweetness and our lovely beef  tomatoes turn mildewed in a night.

When we are done getting angry, we start to think. We look around us at our neighbours and we turn to our Facebook gardening  friends and blogs  for help. But even though we can learn from everywhere, ultimately we have to consult our only real teacher, our own garden. If we listen, it always tells us what to do. That might sound like a bit of wishwashy, knit your own home-made yoghurt advice, but it is absolutely the only answer. You cannot bend a garden completely to your will, no matter how hard you try. You have to work with it if you want it to flourish. You have to listen to what it’s telling you.

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Butternut squash in my stork’s nest bed

That being said, I’m going to give some advice. Follow it or not, it’s your garden. For the past few years, I have suffered much angst over summer vegetable growing, which is very difficult here. I’ve  been failing for four years, simply because I’ve been doing the wrong things. Indeed, most Algarvians don’t do any vegetable gardening at all in the heat of the summer, apart from tomatoes and keeping their “Couve Portuguesa”  a sort of perennial kale, alive. There simply isn’t the water. Melons are grown commercially, but people are even giving up on those in recent drought years as it just isn’t worth it for the amount of water it takes.

However, I love squash and pumpkin and I have been determined to find a way that works in my climate and produces a crop, without breaking the water bank, as all mains water is metered here and even my cisterna water is very precious.  This year, I’ve hit  the jackpot and got a great crop, at least  a great crop of squashes that is, the pumpkins are not developing and I’m not sure why yet.

Google is a great place to find out about gardening, and trying to solve my problem, which is that the courgettes stop growing in my garden, as the soil bakes very hard and courgettes don’t produce once the temperature rises above 30 dgrees C. I needed soil which holds water better and more shade for the developing squash.  Whilst looking for an answer,  I found  African keyhole beds. I attach a link here to describe what they are.

https://www.niftyhomestead.com/blog/keyhole-garden/

For various reasons, I  didn’t want to build a permanent bed in my garden and I didn’t quite see the need for the compost in the middle and was worried about rats, so instead I invented a more temporary and cheaper alternative, which I’ve called “The Stork’s nest bed” as that’s rather what it looks like.

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The “Stork’s Nest” bed

I put six posts in the ground in a circle and attached chicken wire to the height of about 1.5 metres, not least because this bed is in the part of the garden where the chickens hang out. I began to line it with the bendy olive prunings as we have plenty of during the Autumn  when we prune the olives, to prevent anything I added falling out. I did this in the Autumn and then piled all the garden rubbish I had inside it, including the garden rubbish also donated by a neighbour, leaves and such.  I interspersed it with chicken bedding, including their manure, then added a layer of horse manure, which was fresh at the time, followed by the good clay earth and left the winter rains to water it all. I left one side open so the chickens could get in and rummage around and kill any bugs and indeed they did.

Come the Spring, it was a great hot bed. I planted some squash and courgette seeds, about three of each and one pumpkin in about February, covered with a plastic five litre bottle cloche. And away it all  went,  like a rocket.  (Someone said it was so hot the other day, her umpkins exploed…I hope mine dont do that!) By the end of May I was getting courgettes and we carried on harvesting them every day more of less until the end of June. Then the butternut squashes began, with two flushes and I’m still harvesting them now. I added two “ollas” which I made myself, fashioned from flower pots stuck together and filled them with water regularly which kept the roots cool and watered the whole bed every three days from my cisterna. It’s never drooped and the large leaves have shaded the courgette roots every well, so there is a great  little ecosystem going on underneath. The only disappointment has been the pumpkins which have flowered and begun growing, but wither on the vine when they reach mango size…I am hoping it’s just the heat and they will produce when the temperature falls a little, during the last week we have been up to 40 degrees centigrade on several occasions!

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Squashes and Courgettes produced in the “Stork’s Nest” bed

My other success has been beef tomatoes which I’ve never grown before. They are very prone to mildew and Mediterranean fruit fly here and so I planted Tanacetum vulgare nearby and mulched them well with oak chip mulch. I never dig anywhere in my garden, so its simply a matter of making a fairly deep hole and popping them in. I put in a raw sardine (deeply so my cats didnt dig it up!)  some eggshell and a handful of pelleted manure too, just to give things a good start.  The Tanacetum contains a natural pyrethrum which is meant to deter flies and it does seem to. They have been producing well and I have bagged them with organza wedding favour bags against insect and chicken damage, as they discovered them early on and started eating them.. I do water them a lot, but am pleased to get a good crop. I don’t  eat a lot of tomatoes as unfortunately they don’t agree with me much, but Señor Faztudo has them for breakfast every morning.

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Tomatoes growing in organza bags for chicken and fly protection

Finally, I am experimenting with growing chicken fodder. I know I won’t be able to grow all the food my chickens need, but I like to give them treats which I produce, so I have made a little bed, where I’m growing amaranth, sunflowers and some cabbage underneath. It is thriving, even in this he,at and next year, I plan to grow more. It has two purposes as  it looks pretty, but it’s also producing food. and  doesn’t seem to mind the heat at all. That makes it worth watering, for me.

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Finally, I have discovered something green that loves this heat, as long as you water it! It’s the one and only magic New Zealand Spinach. A Portuguese gardening friend gave me some seeds and though it was very difficult to get germination and slow to grow in the beginning , now it’s romping away. I have also discovered it grows well from cuttings and is lovely in quiche, so I’m very happy! Someone told me it even grows on the dunes, so it must be tough!

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Ne Zelnd Spinach, a real toughie.

The rest of the garden is beautifully brown. A decision I have made is only to water the things that grow and let the rest sleep. The kales last out until the Autumn rains and then we will start all over again! I am looking forward to trying out my new greenhouse, which was a birthday present, made for me by Señor Faztudo. It’s the most romantic and wonderful present he could possibly give me and many hours of loving attention has gone into it. As he said at the time, one hot and sweaty afternoon as he was toiling in the garage “The things one does for love!” But I’ll show you that in the next post.

 

Growing things to eat in a waterwise way

 

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The first of the plums from my garden

It’s the start of harvest time in the garden, difficult to appreciate when you are used to August, September and October being harvest time in more northern climes. Plums coming out of our ears!

We have just been through a very hot dry June, with the devastating fires that claimed the lives and livings of many in Central Portugal. So very sad and I feel such sorrow the people affected. My fervent hope is that Mother Nature will do her work quickly and start to put up green shoots to soothe the hearts of those who have lost so much.

In times of drought and hot temperatures, water use is a serious issue. I am learning all the time about gardening with less water, including food growing. Water is a limited resource here and not to think about its use is actually socially unacceptable. If you wonder about why ornamental flower gardening isn’t prevalent in the Algarve, it is really because in a country where starvation is still in living memory, to use water on flowers, in some people’s minds, is almost tantamount to a crime. The local farmers’ wives are almost clandestine in their efforts to grow flowers (and flower gardening, for some reason is seen as an exclusively female thing, although that is changing)  Ornamental plants are seen as a real luxury, grown along walls only with the use of washing up or slops water.

However, there are some trees with very beautiful flowers that also produce food. I managed to produced a Feijoa Sellowiana or Pineapple Guava from seed and it’s a beautiful tree, with lovely flowers, as well as fruits. Pomegranates are also stunning in all seasons, with red flowers, lovely young red leaves in the Spring, very attractive fruits and yellowing leaves in the winter. Why not grow a beautiful tree for food and use your water and space wisely?

For us, with our UK pensions and not on subsistence farming money, life is a little less complicated, but we are still using a common and scarcece resource. And in the same way I don’t put on the outside lights we have at night except on a special occasions, I want to use water wisely as an act of respect for those around me, because it’s a limited, scarce resource and also because it’s very expensive. Water is metered here and it depends what camara (council) you live in, how much it is per unit. It isn’t the same countrywide. The cost of it also goes up the more you use.

So, back to the harvest and eating from the garden, what can you grow and how do you maximise on water?

The most obvious thing, considering we have a thick clay soil which retains water well, is to grow trees. In times gone by, when wheat harvests failed , the Portuguese lived off bread made from figs and fed it to their pigs. The almonds grown here, whilst not the perfect shape like the Californian almonds, taste better than any in the world. The olive oil produced was used by the Romans in their lamps, although nowadays it’s much too precious for that. Trees, once established, put down very deep roots and can last until the next seasonal rainfall, as long as you choose those well adapted to this climate.

 

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An old olive tree for eating olives in my garden

I am fortunate to have some venerable trees which were already in our garden when we arrived, a mature and ancient olive which gives me enough eating olives for a whole year, some almonds, and a few carobs. I don’t need more, as I wouldn’t  have time to harvest the fruits and process them and I’ve resolved to eat everything in my garden, if I can and not waste anything. I only have about 1,600 square metres of garden, but within that I realised the other day, I have over fifty trees and 19 different types of edible fruit or nut, some producing, some too young to prouce yet. Many of those are very drought resistant once established, peach, certain varieties of plum, almond, apricots,pomegranate, olive, carob. The rain, when it falls is very heavy indeed and the clay soil retains the water well and nourishes them.  I also have some citrus trees, but aside from the lemon, I am rather wishing I didn’t plant them. They are very difficult I find, hard to get established, prone to disease and pest and they need lots of water. They are at the bottom of my steeply sloped garden and receive all the grey water from the house through a great filtering system, but without this, I don’t think I’d bother with them. The idea of turning shower water into oranges quite pleases me though, so I persevere!

After three years of making mistakes and probably paying huge amounts for each cabbage I’ve produced, I am getting the measure of how to grow vegetables in my garden. The trick is to use the winter period and natural rainfall  wisely. By planting seedlings in the shade in August and getting them ready for the first rains in the Autumn, or buying plug plants in the market, you can have cabbages, kale and spinach in the Autumn. Potatoes can also be planted in the Autumn, for a cheeky Christmas crop, but you do run the danger of frosts cutting them down in the January to March months, even in the Algarve.

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Last year’s cherry tomatoes-they are more disease resistant then the beef variety

For broad beans, or favas, as they are known here, I always watch my neighbours andput them in when they plant.  They always plant them after first rains and then they mature by the Spring before the blackfly begin. I also almost always leave some pods to dry on the plants  and drop to the ground, because the best beans in my garden are always those that self seed, since they know exactly the optimum time of year to germinate by themselves. Peas need to be put in during  the very early Spring, as it is all over once the temperatures get too hot and mange-tout work really well here I find. I have yet to find the secret to growing any kind of green beans, they often come to flower and then it gets too hot for them to produce , or the bean rots in the ground before it’s had a chance to germinate. I  don’t  think I’ve hit on the right variety of bean for the Algarve yet, or developed a good understanding of their needs. I tried English runner beans and they flowered, but never produced beans.  All suggestions gratefully received.

Garlic and onions are easy enough if you get them in at the right time. I put mine in very late this year, so they are small, but they are very unproblematic. I buy them as small plants in the market as they are very cheap and the right sort of onion to do well here.

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Peppers in my garden grow best in large buckets or pots. They need early sun and then when it gets too hot, you can move them into the shade, as the afternoon sun in the summer is too hot for them. Planting them in pots means less watering too and you can feed them more effectively. I have also given up trying to grow strawberries in the ground and grow them in deep pots too, the kind you buy trees in, with piles of well-rotted manure at their roots when first planted.

I have been very successful with Globe artichokes, which I love, although dis-infesting them of earwigs is an issue. They also have very deep roots and use natural rainfall well. I now eat them really young at the beginning of the season before I get fed up with them and then leave the flowers to mature as they are so beautiful.

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But the jewel in the crown  this year has been the courgettes and squashes, which I’ve never had success with so far and also beef tomatoes, which I haven’t grown before.The thing is, not to grow too much of anything. You can’t even give them away as everyone has them at the same time as you, so another water saving tip, is to think about how many you need or to grow something different from your neighbour, so you can swap.  Three beef tomato plants is plenty for two people, three courgette plants has given us three of four a day for the past month and I have pickled a lot of them.

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I have written before about my lasagna beds and making soil. My clay soil is full of big and small rocks and any attempt at growing squashes or courgettes in the gorund  has meant buckets of water and a complete stop in production if you don’t plant them before it gets really hot. After that, you could water them all summer and it would make no difference at all. And I did. So I ended  up wasting water and eating nothing. A complete folly and rather shameful. So I invented “The patent  Stork’s Nest Water Retaining Squash and Melon Compost bed” or SNWRSMC (!) for short, a 4 in 1 technique which helps you get rid of all your garden rubbish, grow fantastic food, use less water and make great compost”

But more of that in the next blog post. I’m sure you can’t wait!