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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.