Before I write this month’s blog entry, I want to acknowledge that there are some gardeners and many agriculturalists and subsistence farmers who have lost all they have built and grown, sometimes over several generations in the Centre and North of Portugal to the devastating wild fires of this searing hot summer. Any words I have seem Inadequate. I can only say, if you are a gardener who has lost their garden to the fires, and are ever down my way in the Algarve, you have an open invitation to come and have a cup of tea with me and take any cuttings or plants that take your fancy. Just get in touch via the comments. I would be completely devastated to be in your position and think of you with great concern.
This is the time of the year in Portugal to begin planting, that is as soon as the first rains come and some are finally forecast for tomorrow, and the gardening cycle begins again. It’s also a time for reflection on the progress of the garden and so here I am, waiting for the rain and pondering on what has worked and what hasn’t and what should be done next.
Over the past five years, I have tried lots of things in my garden, in many ways one of the delights is to experiment, and when I’m not actually gardening, I am scouring gardening books and Facebook groups to beg, borrow and steal from the experiences of other gardeners. But all that is set against my own particular garden, and whilst some things work fine in some settings and some microclimates and some soils, they don’t always work for me. Whilst I always have a desire to be helpful to other new gardeners to Portugal, I am ever mindful that everyone has their own journey to make when it comes to their garden and even whilst advice is useful, no one has all the answers for your set of circumstances, not even the professionals.
So I thought I’d dwell a little on my personal successes and failures, since it is almost five years since we came to live in Portugal and acquired the unplanted and disturbed piece of earth on the side of a north facing hill that is becoming my piece of Portuguese Paradise.
When we first started to make our garden, our biggest concern was how to manage the perennial weeds on the disturbed part of the garden and very hard, compacted clay soil at the back. I made the decision to plant quite large areas with drought resistant and native plants, lavenders and santolinas, rosemary and salvias, cistus and thymes and grasses of various kinds, as we are clearly not able to sustain the watering needed for thirsty ornamentals.. At the beginning, our weeds were literally about 8 feet high as the ground had been thoroughly disturbed and was attempting to heal itself with a huge flush of chrysanthemum coronium and wild radish. It looked very beautiful to be sure, but we had to clear it and the roots were very deep. There was only us two to clear it and whilst we managed to cut it down, cutting through swathes as though through a jungle until we met each other in the middle, there was no way we could remove the roots over such a large area. After a week or so of heavy rain and quite a bit of research we bought brown landscape fabric to lay down with the intention of planting natives through it and covering with a i layer of number 2 brita, as medium-sized gravel is called here. Now, a lot has been written recently about the dangers of using landscape fabric and I agree with much of what is said here:
However, I can only say that in my particular situation and with native plants that flourish in compacted clay and only in certain areas of my garden , it has worked very well and has enabled me to get a big area of garden up and running quickly. I wouldn’t put it in badly drained areas…the biggest danger is rotting the roots of the plants in heavy rain. Neither would I put it in areas I am irrigating. I only use it where I have natives that five years in, I don’t water at all. Based on my experience, I would never use the black plastic fabric with the green lines going through, only the brown, breathable one. The fabric and the mulch keep the moisture in for a long time and I haven’t had any problems with the roots growing into the fabric. Little by little, I am making the holes for the plants bigger and removing the fabric and once the whole ground is covered with plants and you can’t see the gravel, I will probably remove it all, just leaving the gravel, as it will have done its job of allowing the plants to get established without the weeds taking over.
Another successful technique has been dividing the garden, which is about 1,770 m2 or in old money, just under half an acre, into different garden “rooms” about 14 in all, with different plantings and purposes. I reckon each “room” is about the equivalent of my small terraced back garden in South London and if I see things like that, they become more manageable. I have planted some screening of fast growing hedges, of Myoporum Laetum, which although not the most drought resistant and needing some maintenance, are very fast growing. This has provided my very exposed garden with some shelter from the north winds (I have since found this plant inspires great hatred amongst some gardeners, with more useful plants being available, but still find it useful, although I don’t think I’d like a huge hedge of it)
One of my aims has always been to grow vegetables, but with brick hard soil full of small rocks, this was very difficult in the beginning. I also had no understanding of the seasons and spent a lot of money watering things that couldn’t grow above certain temperatures, ending up with shrivelled pathetic cabbages that probably cost about 20 euros in water (I blush to think of it now) I tried lots of permaculture techniques : hugelkultur; total failure as none of the wood rotted a jot and all the soil and water ran off, I had to deconstruct it in the end. I tried making compost in the traditional way and encouraging worms..no…too dry, too hot. What did work however was lasagna beds. I piled mounds of any of the garden rubbish and annual weeds interspersed with coffee grounds, newspapers, leaves, twigs, everything and let them rot down in the winter rains. Luckily in my first two or three years here, it did rain a lot in the winter, lately we haven’t been so fortunate. However, I realised that my vegetable garden wasn’t productive enough whilst these beds where taking their time to rot down and I was beginning to become interested in the Charles Dowding “no dig” approach (google for info, there is even a FB group dedicated to it) Also, my vegetable garden is at the back of the house and doesn’t get enough sun in the summer for tomatoes and squashes, so I resolved to use the front of the garden near the chickens for them. I have now adapted a sort of lasagna bed, African keyhole garden type thingie, which I call “stork’s nest.” as I have explained in earlier pist. All garden rubbish is piled up in the Autumn into a large circle of chicken wire, kept up by six fence posts. This is in the middle of the garden area (not near a wall to prevent vermin nesting in it and under the watchful eye of the chickens and the cats). I pile it high, finishing with a thick layer of garden manure mixed with some sand and soil and let the rain do its work over the winter. I then use my saved cisterna rain water for two purposes, one to grow squash for winter storage, pumpkins and courgettes in the stork’s nest bed and two, to whilst they were growing, to make compost for the winter vegetable no dig beds. Any excess water ran down and watered a nearby avocado tree. It’s important to keep it watered, obviously, otherwise it consitutes a fire risk.
(I know it’s ugly now, but it looked lovely in the Summer)
I emptied it of lovely friable compost this Autumn, the only disadvantage was having to take the compost up the hill to the top vegetable beds, but I used the van for that as much as possible. I then laid down a layer of cardboard on the back garden vegetable beds and a thick layer of compost and rotted manure and planted into it (mostly plug plants as the ants are still about and carry off all the seed) There is no digging, just a bit of heaving and carrying and I can plant quite happily even before the rains with a bit of water as the compost is soft and friable for the young roots and the cardboard blocks out any weeds before rotting down.
Looking at plantings, anything I have planted that is related to things that grow wild here has been wonderful and the smells and the sight of the plants in the Spring and the buzzing and droning of all the insects is delightful beyond measure. Roses are amazing too, to my surprise, although some cannot take the excessive heat, I’ve found white roses work best as the flowers last longest in the sun, in my garden, anyway.
Citrus trees on the other hand, have been a disappointment. They have taken five years to be no taller than my chest, have sulked and pouted, used far too much water and are prone to all kinds of diseases. Yet I persist. I have invested too much in them to let them die on me now. I am grimly determined to get them to maturity. My garden is a bit too cold and the clay isn’t pleasing to them. They are always moaning on. “Tough,” I tell them “I’m all you’ve got and you will grow to maturity, like it or not!” They mutter on, but haven’t given up the ghost yet!
Tropical things are difficult in my garden. I do have two frangipanis, but I cosset them endlessly and a Moringa and an Indian curry leaf tree, Murraya koenigii, both of which are growing in pots. am suffering vexations over where to put them in the ground. I would love them to grow enough for me to pick the leaves, but I know I’m on the edge here with these trees, especially as we had quite a severe frost in parts of the garden last year. I have no doubt they will have to be planted behind the house, sheltered from the North winds of the winter.
And the chickens? Well they have been a success, because now I’ve found a balance between them and the garden and I understand their ways. Dividing the garden into two halves has worked well and now they know their half very well and always run off cackling when we come home from a shopping trip and discover them sunning themselves on the terrace. There is no doubt they dig and poo, but that’s ok as they don’t have access to my “tender” vegetable garden and I can protect the squash plants and tomato plants quite easily from them when they’re young. They don’t eat most aromatics or aloes or ornamental grasses and are maturing the garden constantly, so we’re all happy. But it took some work to get it right. I had them far too near the house originally, that’s for sure and gave them too free a rein. Chickens are creatures of habit and they also listen to a good cockerel or chief hen. They are not stupid and can be trained, but you have to be persistent and consistent. Once they have settled on their daily circuit, as long as there is plenty of food and shelter, they don’t seem to stray from it. Chickens don’t like the unknown and unexpected much and Señor Faztudo is certainly quite good at being unexpected with the water pistol!
One of the reasons why I write this blog, among many is to help anyone inheriting this garden after me to understand the processes I went through in making it, As a teacher, I always told my students, it isn’t about a right or wrong answer, it’s about your thinking along the way. Capturing my thinking, which is often all over the place, is helpful to me and I hope helpful to others too, who are about to start their own journey in the garden.
I am sitting here now watching the grey clouds scudding across the sky and longing for the rain so the gardening can really begin. We haven’t had any proper rain since May and it’s sorely needed. A failure of Mother Nature, not of our making, which I hope she will soon redress, both for my garden’s sake and more importantly, for those still under threat of fire. I’m off out to do a rain dance now, please join me, wherever you are!