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“Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds”

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Tomatoes from my garden

I was reading a blog the other day where someone described 10 thoughts he’d had about life in general, and I thought I’d pinch the idea. Thanks HungryDai An Englishman’s life in Lisbon

I often walk about the garden thinking things…then the thoughts drift away on the wind, maybe to be forgotten, perhaps to be remembered and acted upon.

 

So here are 10 thoughts I can remember from the past week

  1. I thought today how green the garden is, considering the drought situation we are finding ourselves in. The fires further North in  Portugal have been horrendous this year and there’s a drought in the Alentejo and parts of the Algarve, so I’m being very careful with water, since I fear water saving measures may be on the way and I don’t want my plants to develop a dependency.  I wondered why it’s still so green and then realised it’s really because now, in its fourth year, everything has got its roots down. Most of the garden is also mulched too which has helped hugely.

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    Multi-headed sunflowers…why do they do that?

  2. I wondered a few days ago, where I would want my ashes strewn, in the event I died whilst we still lived here (cheerful thought I know!)  At the top of the garden under a seat facing the view? In the compost heap? Under a rose? To act as fertiliser for a sunflower? As a dust bath for the chickens? The latter me laugh, when I thought of my ashes being strewn in glorious abandon whilst the chickens deliriously ridded themslves of lice!

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    The greenhouse in development

  3. Wondering how to arrange the interior of the greenhouse Señor Faztudo is just completing for me. I’ve never had a greenhouse before. I’m sure I need a potting bench and I’m thinking about how it should be designed. Lots of searching for ideas on Pinterest. I’m also pondering on what I will actually grow in the greenhouse if anything. It’s really there to bring on seedlings and create new plants, but maybe I’ll grow cucumbers and lettuces in the winter in it too.
  4. Will the beautiful eagle we’ve seen soaring across  the valley recently come for my chickens? Where would they hide if it did?

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    Just the ticket for soup-except the plums!

  5. I thought this morning how pleasing it was to bring two fat beef tomatoes, a yellow and green courgette and a butternut squash up from the garden to make soup, along with garlic and onion harvested earlier and a pinch of home grown flat leaved parsley to go in at the end. I’ve always loved growing  my own food, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures for me.
  6. Which grape varieties are best for raisins? Do they grow here? How do you prepare the ground for grapes? Can I grow them organically or will they be overcome by mildew and diseases? I want to plant a row of grapevines behind the house on a flat terrace, not least  because they will provide a green wall in the summer and look great in the Autumn as they turn yellow and orange.

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    Helichysum Italicum in my gardn

  7. I’m  perplexed as to how  prune stuff in very hot conditions. It looks to me like some of the shrubs, the salvias and cistus are crying out to be pruned. But do you wait until the Autumn? Not sure what to do.
  8. The neighbours are beavering away creating a huge concrete area to store their carobs. It’s clear I’ll need some kind of screening, much as I enjoy the comings and goings of their market gardening activities. What can I grow that’s fast, is in keeping with a Mediterranean garden, and doesn’t need too much water? Pondering…all ideas gratefully received. The bed I need to plant it in is on a slope between two apricot trees. It needs not to lose its leaves in the winter and provide screening to quite a height. Please don’t suggest Leylandi, its one of the few plants I hate.
  9. What is growing now back in the UK? Are the courgettes only just beginning  and are there any blackberries yet…we don’t get them much here as it’s too dry. Are the wild flowers going over in my sister-in-law’s meadow in the Welsh hills? What are my old allotment friends up to in London? I’m thinking they will be getting ready for the annual allotment barbecue, with a camp fire and songs and lots of good things to eat, grown cooked and shared. I miss that community of fellow gardeners sometimes and think of them with wistful fondness.

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    Gunsite Allotment scarecrows, South London

  10. My garden is all “No Dig” one way or another. I’ve never really thought about that until now, although its not no-dig  in the Charles Dowding way, as I can’t produce compost in large quantities as there is little water and biomass and the chickens run free over half of it. Digging never occurs to me for one minute nowadays. I haven’t even got a spade or fork, only an “enchada” the Portuguese hacking implement, which is a bit like something the English would call a mattock and I use that less and less, only to remove unwanted plants or weeds.

And a last thought snuck in, as it always does. What plants would I like next?  Something a gardener always thinks about really, we are all greedy for plants!

Writing  this, I’ve realised  realise that my garden is the place where I do most of my thinking, and not just about the garden. As Alice Sebold said:

“I like my garden –it’s a place where I find myself, when I need to lose myself.”

Gardening in Portugal- If you know its name it’s not a weed!

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Patch or Alexanders, Self seeded Aconite (delphinium, very poisonous)  and Chamanthe

It’s raining again, oh Lord, it’s raining again! And you know what rain means? It means weeds!
But nowadays,  that don’t impress me much, because I know the name of most of them and as my gardening friend and Portuguese teacher often says, if you know the name of a plant, it isn’t a weed.

I’ve  had the joy and delight over the past few years of discovering that most of the weeds in the Algarve  are useful for something. Do you want to thicken cheese? Use the petals of a  cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, as a rennet substitute (although, what kind of domestic goddess makes cheese? Not me..well not yet anyway!)  Have you got a toothache? Chew on the leaves of the field marigolds, which are an anodyne.  And don’t bother buying fertiliser for your plants, just soak a few nettles , Urtica Dioica),  in water for a few weeks, water down the resulting liquid (holding your nose tightly as the pong is indescribable) and the job is done. Furthermore nettles are great in soup and if you’re feeling particularly strong, you can whip yourself with them to alleviate rheumatism!

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Nettle, Urtica Doica

Of course some weeds can kill you, so you have to be super careful, as there  isn’t much room for mistakes. Take the Umbelliferae family for example. The plants are very similar in this family and  whilst the Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum, brought here by the Romans,  can be eaten in all  its parts,  Hemlock , Conium maculatum,  is in the same family and is deadly!  Of course, this may be useful if you want to do your husband in, but since Senor Faz-Tudo is my beloved,  indispensable companion and hasn’t finished the greenhouse yet, that’s not likely in my case!  Even the experts don’t always seem to know definitively. I bought a book on foraging in which it said you can eat the flowers and leaves of Aquilegia, and told everyone in a gardening FB group you could eat it, making a total fool of myself, because it’s actually from the ranunculus  family and dangerous to eat. I hope I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death  (nervous laugh!)  So readers, this is a disclaimer. Please, check out any plant for yourselves before you eat them. This is a great place to do it: Plants for a Future What a labour of love that web site is!

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Alexanders, Smyrnium Olusatrum

I have left some areas in my garden specifically for the weeds to grow, especially in the vegetable garden, where the chickens don’t venture, as they are so useful for so many things. (I actually left them in the chicken’s half of the garden  too but they ate them all, although I suppose we got them back in their eggs) Nettles are quite hard to find in the wild around my house, as they prefer nutritious ground with some shade, so they are particularly precious to me and I only ever pick half of them to use, so I can be sure they will continue to drop their seed and come back next year. The local women used to dry them for use as very nutritious fodder for chickens and other animals as they are full of iron and other vitamins and minerals.They can also be eaten in soup, and as soon as they are boiled they lose their sting.  I have lots of dandelions too and I feed them to the chickens and also, when the leaves are very young, add them to salads, in small amounts as they are very bitter.

The  garden is overrun with Borage plants, Borago officinalis, again something I encourage, as they are very good for attracting bees as pollinators for my beans and fruit trees. The flowers are very pretty and look great put into ice cubes in the fridge to jolly up your cocktails, and although the leaves are edible, they are very hairy, you’d be unlikely to eat them unless you’re a goat.

Although the tradition is dying out a little now, local women all have their recipes for “chas” or teas using local “weeds” Malva Silvestris , the common mallow or wild hollyhock is still used in tea to settle sore stomachs, or the leaves boiled and used for a poultice on festering wounds or cuts as it draws out the poison and soothes and heals. Wild thyme and rosemary are both anti-bacterial and can be uses as “pick me up teas” in the morning. The wild thyme here is amazing and I have collected the seeds of several types from the wild in the hope of encouraging  them to grow in my garden.

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Malva  or Mallow

 

Interestingly, unlike in Greece, in my experience, Rosemary isn’t used much in the South of Portugal for cooking, with people preferring to uses salsa (parsley) or green coriander (coentro)

My friend is collecting  “dicas” or uses of common herbs, before the very considerable knowledge of the older countrywomen here is lost. It seems there are many beneficial plants, some of them indigenous to the Algarve and some imported from peoples coming into the Algarve, such as the Carthaginians, Romans or Moors  or brought back from the colonies of Portugal in Africa or South America  in more recent years.

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Patch of Nettles and Chrysanthemum Coronium 

But before you go out with your poison sprays or hacker and commit carnage, at least try to identify your weed and see if you can use them for anything, using the “Plants for a Future” database. It seems crazy we spend so much on cosmetics, remedies and leaf teas when any of them are derived from things we call weeds in our gardens. It’s lovely to wander around the garden and see teapot potential and bath bombs where once you just saw plants which made you cross!

The Cats That Walked By Themselves

 

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Subordinate Cat

I am going to tell you about my cats.  I consider them very important members of my gardening team as  I wouldn’t have thought of having chickens without them.

Subordinate Cat in full camouflauge

Because  he loves me, Señor F tolerates the chickens, as long as they stay in their half of the garden, although he says we should rename that part of the garden “Poo corner”  But what about the cats? Why have we got them? I suppose the answer to that, is that he hates mice and rats worse than cats. We lived in a terraced house in London and once, the cellar was overrun by mice after some building works next door. We still shudder to think of it , as we had to really fight back to get rid of them. And there is a carob processing plant in the village, which is why no one minds the feral cats we have hereabouts, they do a very important job.

A  friend of ours who worked in cat rescue  found a nearby farm-house with  two kittens living in the barn, needing a home. I wanted females as they are better mousers, in my experience and two little balls of very frightened fluff arrived.  The condition of their adoption was that we had them spayed,and vaccinated which we, of course agreed to.

On their arrival, we immediately had the problem that Señor Faztudo didn’t want them in the house, so I made them a warm bed in the cellar. However, it became clear in a very short time it  was cruel to leave such young kittens alone and so they were brought into the house under sufferance, where a dark box in the warm kitchen soothed their initial fears. But feral kittens are taught to hide in the day  by their mothers and somehow on the second day, the smallest kitten disappeared completely and was nowhere to be found. I thought it may have crawled up the central hoovering system and was in a terrible panic when the other kitten also did a disappearing act! Two hours later I had pulled out every box from every cupboard, shouted “kitty kitty” down the central hoover conduit until I was hoarse and taken the washing machine apart. Zilch…nada….

A little while later, I was on the loo and suddenly an awful smell began to attract my attention. Worried that there may have been  something badly wrong with me, I suddenly heard a pitiful mewling and both kittens emerged from behind the bidet covered in poo.  Panicking and to hide the fact that the cats had done the terrible awful behind the bidet I scooped them up in one of my best hand towels  and washed the poor little things under the bidet. All of Senor F’s worst nightmares were happening at once! Bedraggled, but none the worse, the kittens went back in their box and so their lives with us began.

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Boss cat up the ladder

The kittens entertained us mightily  for the next six weeks, but Señor F held firm in his resolve that they would be outside cats and actually, I agreed with him. Both our previous London cats had lived outside, and were very healthy for it. They always had a warm bed in the shed, were fed a good quality meal once a day and did  a great job keeping rats and mice out of the garden. And there is the added advanatge of not bringing ticks and fleas into the fhouse with is an inevitable by product of having animals, even with treatments. The key thing is to feed them at the same time every night, and let them in the house, just for their meal, so they know where they belong. And  of course, if they hate it, they are at liberty to go and live elsewhere (which in fact, one of our cats did, at the age of eight. But that’s another story)

Little by little our kittens grew and Señor F tolerated them swinging on his trouser leg, dashing in and out of paper sacks and cardboard boxes and scratching the sofa to death, with good grace. After a while, they began to venture outside and get used to their surroundings. I’ll call them Boss Cat, the white one and Subordinate cat, the tri-coloured one,  to protect their anonymity. One day, Boss Cat didn’t come home at night. I was distraught and feared she had been eaten by something, a fear which was made worse by venturing into the garden and shining a torch into the tree to see dozens of pairs of eyes of something! I hoped they were feral cats who would look after a kitten, but I went to bed in tears. The next morning  there she was at the door, bright as a button and none the worse for her adventure, although she didn’t do that again for quite a while.

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Over  the next few months the kittens  became more and more adventurous, only returning to the house in the evening. At first, like all young things they had their ups and downs. Subordinate  cat ate a black gecko and had a very sore throat for a few days. Boss cat got beaten up by a huge Tom, despite being spayed and was very wobbly for a while. Subordinate cat got her foot caught in a rabbit snare and it was red raw…she must have been released by the farmer, but it healed. All of this was worrying, of course, but I tried to accept it as an inevitable part of their freedom and we were always on hand to take them to the vet if they needed treatment. Every night I fed them a meal at the same time, so I could keep an eye on them and they have nearly always come home and always a few days later if they have gone roaming.

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For their part, they have done their job well. Despite having chickens and vegetables growing in my garden, I have never seen a rat or mouse unless it was dead and in the process of being consumed. The downside is occasionally they eat lovely birds, the saddest was a green woodpecker baby. Boss Cat once fell in the pool swiping at a swallow, to her great surprise and found quite quickly, she could swim! And I once found quite a large snake on the mat, playing dead. I picked up up on a stick and it sprang, to life, quite crossly. At the point I could only say I was glad the cats don’t live indoors!  They have a bed each in the porch and occasionally on a winter’s night I can be seen furtively slipping a hot water bottle in their beds, although with the thick coats they have, I doubt if they really need it. If  Señor were to see me he’d say ” you’re turning those cats into wusses!”  They have lived with us for four years now and have learned wily ways to cope with their surroundings. They don’t even eat my newly hatched chicks and I like to think they know they are “family” but sit on top of the coop as though guarding them from other cats. I love to see them about the garden enjoying their independence, although I also feel honoured  when they come and sit on my lap and watch the chickens with me from the hippy shed. I would have more if I could, but Señor F says two is plenty to take responsibilty for and, as usual, there is some sense in that!

To block or not to block – Algarve garden projects.

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It’s raining again today, but we’re happy because we really need it.  In the Algarve when you talk to locals in the village about the rain they says “Faz falta” which literally means “There is a lack” or in other words “We need it”  There is officially a drought across Portugal this winter and the reservoirs are nowhere near the levels they should be. The trees need a deep watering or the farmers will start to despair.

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We have been using  lovely crisp, blue-skied days to work  on garden projects  throughout the whole day. The evening light, as we put away the tools, is suffused  along the horizon, a pure Moroccan ultramarine, tinged with pink,  highlighting the hills around sunset time and the almond blossom so luminous below us. It is four years now since we really started work on this garden and by the end of next year, I think  we’ll  have finished at least the hard landscaping and any buildings and then I will be able to focus more on the planting.  And by that time, neither of us will be able to manage all this heavy stone lugging and earth moving we’ve been doing, as we get towards our mid sixties and our back and knees start playing up. It doesn’t matter how many people tell us you’re only as old as you feel, it’s not true when it comes to some of the physical aspects of the work you have to do in the garden. Señor Faztudo has been suffering from a bad back since last March and I am becoming aware that my knees and ankles are also creaking as I barrow stuff up and down the hill! So I’m grateful we are coming to an end of the major projects.

 

The three main projects which we are working on this winter have been: the extending of our shady terrace and enclosing it with a glass block wall; (mainly to stop any future little people and old gits falling off the edge);  the making of a dry river bed to deal with the outflow of the backflow from the swimming pool and heavy rainfall and the building of a greenhouse next to the hippy shed. Not bad going for one winter!

 

The terrace is an interesting project. Although this house is new, we weren’t involved in designing  it. When we moved in, we realised there wasn’t really anywhere suitably shady to sit when the weather became really hot. If you’re coming from Northern Europe, you are always trying to capitalise on the sun, but here, from June to September, you seriously need some shade, not just for yourselves, but for those potted plants you crave which just won’t survive the summer unless you have somewhere to put them out of the fierce heat of the noonday sun. Not even a mad dog and certainly not an Englishman or woman can survive the searing heat. I killed a lot of my succulents at first, because I thought they always wanted the sun, as indeed they do in the UK. Not so here! Many of them need to be put in the shade in the Summer, where they put on their most productive growth with watering once a week and feeding.

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Our house is on a VERY steep slope. People who have been to visit and heard or read my description of it have been very surprised at just how steep it is. So some of the walls here  actually have a 20 foot drop behind them. As we get older and more doddery we eye the steep drops over our stone walls  more warily and I am more careful skitting around the place in my crocs in wet weather. I have been particularly mindful of not planting agaves and yuccas at points where if I fell from anywhere I might be impaled on them. Death by Agave Americana is not something I like to contemplate, even though I  know it would make a very juicy headline, “Algarve woman impaled on her Agave!” –  I can just picture the headline in the Portugal News. I hope not to give them the satisfaction.

So when we came to extending our terrace, I had to think of some way of building a barrier. At first, we thought of wrought iron, which can be skilfully made by a local blacksmith. Indeed, we commissioned him to make a security door for the terrace doors.  But we are on a pensioner’s budget nowadays and it was looking quite expensive. Passing a neighbour’s garden, I saw a glass block wall, the kind they used quite a lot in the 1980s in the UK and which are quite frequently used as shower enclosures here. Mostly I hate glass blocks with a vengeance, but there was something about the way that the light glistened through this neighbour’s garden wall that took my fancy and set me thinking. In a hot climate, glass block doesn’t seem the most suitable material for outside. There is the possibility of fire risk, the lack of strength, the likelihood of the colours in any blocks fading and other considerations.  I started exploring the use of glass blocks in garden design on the web and there was very little, but a couple of projects I did see, I really liked.I fancied  a slightly retro feel to mix the old and the new in our garden. There is a lot of retro stuff in architecture in the Algarve and I didn’t think it would look out of place in our garden.

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We went to the local DIY store and as fate would have it, they had a massive discount on the types of blocks I thought would look best and we came home with a job lot at knock down prices. I’m quite a superstitious type and believe in omens and the like, so I reckoned the decision had been taken out of my hands. I wanted a few coloured blocks which were eight times the cost of the others , so Señor Faztudo and I had a little tussle about that. But as usual, he bowed to my superior garden design skills. I was still very nervous about the whole thing, but our minds were made up by the baragin on offer, which was probably just as well or we’d have gone on cogitating for months!

We couldn’t do all the work ourselves, as we don’t really have that kind of DIY knowledge or the knees for it, so we enlisted porfessional help and the photo beelow is the end result. For those of you who are technical, you need to insert iron reinforcing rods between each layer on the horizontal if the span is as wide as ours and the tiles on the top and stone pillars give etra strength. This is meant to be a decorative wall and doesn’t get  hot sunlight for long  in the Summer and none in the winter or we wouldnt have used these materials. I like the end result and am very happy and look forward to the extra space it will give us for entertaining our friends and familiy in the Summer.  It just leaves the wrought iron gates which we will commission later and some pots of lush green plants. The olive tree had a number 1, but it will recover! (The lamp is temporaray  as I broke the lovely globe one we had by dropping it off the edge of the wall)

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The next project was the dry river creek. The backwash from the swimming pool runs down the garden and waters the fruit trees without ill effect. I thought it would kill them but it doesn’t at all.(yet!) And I guess when you think about it, the pool has no more chemicals that the water coming from the tap, although you obviously can’t do this with a salt water pool. However, we needed to slow up the water which comes out with force and is causing erosion. We went down to the local river bed, which is a dry river creek  for most of the year, to gather the stones. I expect I have broken some serious environmental rule regarding the extraction of stones, but then,  if I have done that, so has everyone else, because the stones have been used on the tracks  around here and to decorate houses all over the place. It was quite enjoyable gathering the stones and finding the prettiest ones, but not so enjoyable lugging them in supermarket bags back to the car on a hot day. I certainly don’t need the gym! Two car journeys later my dry bed was complete and now it only remains to develop the planting to finalise it. It’s quite fun to watch the river come alive when the backwash is done and it is now slower going down the hill towards the fruit trees. I also think it looks quite nice and can only get better.

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The last and final project is yet to be completed. We have laid the gravel down  for the greenhouse where I hope to be happily potting away my seedlings in a few weeks time. Senor Faztudo spends an hour or two here and there sawing and banging in the garage. He even showed me a sheet covered in equations he had worked out to estimate the incline of the roof (I often forget he is a mathematician and physicist by training) I am also impressed by his woodworking skills. The chicken house is still going very strong three years later and I am sure the greenhouse will be of equal quality (if I ever get it!)

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My greenhouse will be here one day!

As for the plants, there is good and bad news.  I had a terrible attack on sooty mould on the citrus trees this year, but I have been cleaning every individual leaf with soapy water and they look a lot better now. Not sure if it was the aphids or the mixture of milk and neem oil I used to kill them that caused the mould. It looks horrible, but doesn’t actually kill the tree. I hope we don’t get it next year, I’ll keep a closer eye. We nearly lost a full grown plum tree in the heat this Summer, I wait to see if we will have any leaves in the Spring. The almond blossom is  beautiful. But more of the Spring in the next blog. I want to save something for later!

 

 

Do the Pokey Pokey….

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After the Deluge

It’s time to do the Pokey Pokey. Not the Hokey Cokey, although on a beautiful day like this, I’m in, out, in, out and shaking it all about. No, the Pokey Pokey is what I do at this time of year, after the rain has fallen in glorious tumults. For the last two weeks, the clouds have rolled in from Africa, bringing with them lightning, thunder and lashings of rain in Biblical proportions. And now we are renewed and I can take up my poker and plant!

I have said before, I am a lazy gardener. I can’t be doing with too much fussing and pruning and preening. Because of various of life’s twists and turns, not least the exchange rate as a result of the  Brexit effect and a series of domestic breakages, I am also an impecunious gardener. I can’t afford to purchase  trays of sumptuous plants (which is just as well, because I probably would have killed most of them) so I have to propagate. Now I know the Pokey Pokey propagation technique sounds a bit rude, but I can assure you there is no sex involved. I just take an iron rod as long as a walking stick,  the sort that reinforces concrete, and walk around the garden cutting bits off one plant, poking a hole and popping the bit in, quite deep. Then I whisper a few magic words (“Hokus, Pokus, please don’t Croakus!” ) and hope for the best. About half of the time it works, chickens and cats, drought and tumult permitting. Obviously it works better with some things than others ; great for lavenders, roses, and succulents; not so great for more tender things. For these I use the “Jitterbug” technique. A garden designer in the Algarve, Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, taught me to  let the leaves of whatever plant fall down and create a little skirt around the plant, even though it’s planted in a gravel mulch (never be too tidy in a garden, it doesn’t pay off)  Also, I don’t cut off any bottom branches until the Spring. Then after the rain, I wait a little while and look under the “skirt” (Why is gardening so rude?)  Usually I find a lot of rooted branches in the leaf mulch, which I gleefully separate from the Mother plant and settle somewhere else in the garden, although it’s a rather dangerous technique as invariably I encounter a creepy crawlie that seriously gives me the jitters!   Although, it’s a slightly dangerous technique from the point of view of unexpected surprise, from one plant, comes forth many and it’s worth the danger! Very satisfying.

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A “Gives me the Jitters Bug”

Early in the morning, after I’ve fed the chickens,  I can be seen in  parts of the garden where the chickens don’t go (they gobble up any seeds dropped) doing the Hippy Hippy Shake. This is the propagation technique which involves me cutting off all the brown heads of plants, like the lovely Clary Sage I bought in Lidls  few years ago,  and bringing them back to life by seed propagation. It’s like sprinkling fairy dust as you go round the garden shaking out the seeds. The chickens look on longingly through the bars of the fence. Poppies also enjoy a good shake out, as do Nigella (not Lawson you understand!)

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I do try to grow from seed, but it’s so hit and miss.  I plant them and watch anxiously for ages and nothing happens, then invariably I forget what I’ve planted and plant something else of top of it. By the time it puts it little head up, I have no idea what it is. As far as organisation, labelling etc, there’s no hope for me,  I’m 60 now and it isn’t going to happen. It’s still worth trying though, because even getting one plant to maturity creates propagation possibilities. I have one Hidcote blue lavender out of a batch of seedlings, most of which fell by the wayside and now I’m taking cuttings from it. I have seeds from a smashing red and orange Gaillardia and some gorgeous  aquilegia.

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Señor Faztudo is in the garage banging away as I write  (what IS the matter with me today?) building me a greenhouse for Christmas. I rather suspect his motivation is his growing collection of small trees  from avocado, mango and various other pips which he plants at random into my flowerpots and expects me to look after. In vain, I tell him I don’t know where we’re going to out any more trees, but he’s somewhat obsessed. In the past we’ve had experience of getting fruit trees to maturity and then having to leave them to someone else as we move house or give up an allotment plot. I think he is determined  to get something to eat before we peg it.

So, if you’re thinking of propagation and you feel a bit unsure, remember if I can do it, you cancan too!

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Lavender hedge created with the Pokey Pokey propagation technique.

Real chicken – how does it feel to kill, butcher and eat your own poultry?

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Please note: I am an omnivore. I respect people’s rights not to eat meat, but I do- and I want to be a responsible omnivore who celebrates healthy food, reared properly and killed with thoughtfulness. This article is about killing chickens and butchering them for meat and how I felt, doing it for the first time.  If that upsets you or offends you, please don’t read it. I am struggling with my own path on this and hope you will respect that.

It’s an inevitable fact of rearing chickens that sooner or later you will probably have to kill one. Whether it be sick, or whether it’s a cockerel you need to eat, the day will come when you’ll have to “do” for a bird. And it’s not something to be taken lightly, even if the gallows humour breaks through with the nervousness of taking a life of a warm blooded creature. I love my chickens with a passion and am soppy over them in a way I shouldn’t be.  They follow me round the garden whilst I’m weeding and digging, I watch them peeping out from under their mothers after a hatch. I rear them with all the love and tenderness  a menopausal woman has to spare. Killing them, plucking them and preparing them for dinner is the last thing I really want to do. However, being a chicken keeper or indeed, a chicken eater comes with its responsibilities and I intend to live up to them.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed up for Julia’s chicken butchering workshop. Julia lives and works here in the Algarve and  is passionate about rearing healthy food for herself and her family. She  has come to terms with the fact that she’s  an omnivore and wants to be able to kill and prepare her own chickens. She understands the emotional difficulties we all face when we have to kill something, but she’s  committed to doing this in the best way possible and showing others how to do it too. None of the five of us who attended the course were happy with the prospect, but we all tuned up with the same intention, to make a commitment to the responsibilities we face as animal keepers and to do our best to kill them humanely and butcher them properly without waste. (Julia uses every part of the chicken)

It was an unusually grey day as we wended our way in convoy  up into the hills above Salir. The smell of pine and eucalyptus hung deliciously in the air and some of the cork trees had been newly stripped, giving them that wonderful red brown trunk. The dripping trees and the dark skies seemed to be in sympathy with the deed we were about to commit when we arrived at the farm where the course was to take place.

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Julia’s pumpkins, fed by chicken manure!

The course members had bought a chicken or even two that they wanted butchered. I didn’t bring one, as I couldn’t face killing either of my two beautiful bantam cockerels and am still looking for a home for them. I felt slightly hypocritical about this slight cop out, but every step you take along this path of admitting the truth about where meat comes from, needs to be taken at your own pace. Ironically, the yard was full of  chickens including a mother hen with eight babies, all hopping and  skipping about amongst the huge pumpkins Julia has grown this year. They looked like very happy chickens.

It was on the trunk of an old dead cork tree that Julia hung the “Killing cone” a sort of metal funnel used for managing the killing process with less stress to the chicken and ourselves.  The trunk was stained with a dark stream of old blood from previous killings and as we stood around with mugs of warm coffee against the damp, we confessed our nervousness to each other and our doubts about whether we would be able to wield the knife when the time came.

We all took the process very seriously, but the odd joke lightened the heaviness that “normal” people feel when they have to take a bird’s life.

The first cockerel up for butchering had a name, Jack. Jack had become very aggressive to humans and so it was time for him to meet his maker. The fact he had a name somehow made it worse. My father, who was a farmer in his youth, always told me you should never name your future food.   He was a big, strong bird, but when  Julia placed him gently upside down in the cone, he went completely still whilst she showed us where to make a cut on his neck, on the left side, feeling for the base of the skull and moving a little towards his feet,  to sever the jugular vein. He didn’t even wince as she made a deep cut and although it took longer than she expected for him to die,  it just looked like he was going to sleep. I expected there to be flapping, but this didn’t happen until he was completely dead. (This spattered us with blood, so I was glad I had an apron on, as I was holding his feet.)  I thought about how this has been the lot of unwanted cockerels from time immemorial, but how far removed we have come from this hot blood and mass of feathers when we buy our pre-wrapped, sanitised chicken from the supermarket.

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The plucked feathers

All too soon, it was my turn. I had to despatch a young, black cockerel that  Julia didn’t want to keep any more, a handsome bird. I looked him in the eye and thanked him for his life.  I looked brave, but my stomach was churning inside. Up to the moment when I made the cut, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But when the time came, with Julia’s support and a very sharp knife,  I was resolute and when my first cut wasn’t quite deep enough, I firmly and quickly made a second one. Then  I felt distressed and had to walk away to catch my breath and shed a little tear.  It isn’t easy killing any creature and nor should it be.

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As a group, we supported each other.  Some brought birds they’d  raised from chicks and swapped birds with others so they didn’t have to kill their own. One person decided she wasn’t ready yet, having never even held a chicken up to now but hoping to keep them in the future. But she worked to support her partner who was able to carry the process through.  After each bird had been killed, they were hung ready for plucking. If you pluck them immediately, then you don’t need to put them in hot water as they are still warm and so we plucked in a companionable way, chatting about our experience, relieved the birds were now dead and we could get on with the business or turning them into dinner.

Plucking wasn’t too difficult, and at this stage you should also remove the crop and the scent gland in the “parson’s nose” (chicken’s bum) and soon the ground was full of feathers, which Julia puts on the compost heap as they make great fertiliser.You just need to make sure you don’t pull out too many feathers at once and break the skin. We finished off by singeing off the last feathers with a blow torch.

A pleasurable break for lunch ensued, happily not chicken, but a delicious leek and potato soup with bread and local cheeses, whilst we got to know each other. It was interesting meeting other people who have made their home here in the Algarve and to learn about how they make their living, how they came to be keeping chickens and to swap their experiences of predators and chicken rearing, how to feed chickens organically and the different breeds they were interested in.

The next session we got down to the gritty business butchering the birds . We had to sever the windpipe at the neck  to pull it through with all the guts intact, literally with our hands inside the cavity of the chicken.   We were surprised at the bright colours of the viscera, the vivid maroon and yellow of the stomach, the emerald green of the bile sac (which you must not break at all costs as it makes the meat bitter) We collected all the bits good to eat, such as the heart, the liver  and even the cockerel’s testicles (which are huge and inside the bird) Julia says the head makes an excellent stock, although most of us were a bit doubtful and discarded  the head in the slops bucket, as though that would help us forget the deed.  I forgot to ask Julia what she does with the guts and discarded bits, but I expect she buries them somewhere under a fruit tree or adds them to the compost for fertiliser.

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Cutting off the legs-this is a breed of chicken with black meat.

Finally we cut off the feet and took off the nails and the chicken was dressed and ready to eat or freeze. When I put mine in the bag, it looked quite a lot like the chickens you buy in the shop, but what a journey we had come through to get to that!

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The chicken in the bag

I left feeling I’d  learned a great deal. I had killed a chicken effectively and more or less confidently. I had plucked it and butchered it, something I’ve never done before and I had shared what was almost a hunter and gatherer  experience with supportive and caring chicken keepers. I can’t say I was “happy” with the outcome, but I was certainly satisfied and went home bearing my chicken for our dinner, knowing exactly where it had spent its days and last hour and feeling I had taken full responsibility for the food I was about to eat.

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Dinner: Chicken, Lentils and Rice with clams

 

Preserving: the truth

 

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I find this time of year a tad depressing. The olives are swelling on the trees, ready for brining and salting, the plums have already been made into jam and the peppers are pickled. Well, in most people’s houses. I know it’s sour grapes and probably sour figs as well, but at this time of year, I’m faced squarely with my inadequacies in the preserving department. My Facebook news feed scrolls by with photos of delicious pickles and jams and burgeoning pantries filled with jars of lovely produce as people process their crops. I’m  not a Domestic Goddess. My pantry is full of grubby egg boxes, cleaning equipment and packets of dried foods from Lidls. Maya Angelou once said “Let me watch someone with a tangled pile of fairy lights and I’ll tell you want kind of person they are”  I’m the kind of person who jumps up and down in a flap when my hosepipe gets tangled, falls over it, breaks a few plants and stomps off to the house for a cup of tea leaving Señor Faztudo to sort it out. I’d love to have a pantry full of gorgeous preserves, all lined up, but my jam never sets, my jars are all different sizes and when I make pretty labels, the felt pen runs.

I’m not a complete failure however. I have learnt how to brine olives, preserve lemons and pickle peppers. But to be honest, anyone can stuff a lemon full of sea salt, change the salt water in a jar of olives ever day or boil some vinegar.

Even when I do succeed  in making a jar or pickles or some such, I live in fear of dying of some horrible toxin because I haven’t sterilised the jars properly. Botulism is my biggest worry and although it’s extremely rare, I never put garlic in with my olives, because of my fear of it. I think I’ve got a sort of cook’s hypochondria and lack confidence about the whole preserving game .

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Figs are all being dried around here at the moment, laid out on the top of cisternas or on the flat roof. I have tried to dry them in the sun a few times. The first year I left the out in the sun, I found them crawling with maggots from the flies that laid their eggs on them in two days. “Don’t worry about that,” said my Portuguese neighbour seeing my disgust, “just put them in the oven on a low heat for a long time  and all the little maggots will come out” I did and they did and the maggots  got fried, but that still put me off eating the dried figs a bit, although they were so delicious, I succumbed in the end.  Then I learned  about a  minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is symbiotic with the fig. The female wasp lay their eggs in an unripe fig and her offspring hatch and the females tunnel out to find another fig to lay their eggs where they deposit the pollen from the tree they were hatched in. Unfortunately,  the entrance to the fig is constructed  to destroy the wings of the female, so  she can never visit another plant and is entombed in the fig. So when  you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing those female fig wasps. A friend called this “The Ugh” and said she couldn’t think about it or she would never eat another fig. I’m inclined to agree.

Still, we benefit from all our friends’ offerings, the real Domestic Gods and Goddesses.  One of my friends makes the most delicious “English” marmalade. Funnily enough, although we live only a couple of hours from Seville here, the Portuguese don’t eat or make marmalade, even thought the word marmalade comes form the Portuguese “Marmelada” Marmelada is a sort thick quince jelly  you can slice, such as we serve up in the UK with cheese at posh restaurants. The Portuguese eat it a lot, as the fruit Marmelão or Quince grows very well in Portugal.

My  neighbour, Donna M, always supplies me with huge jars of newly picked and bashed green olives, bashed with a rock gently, to let the brine in and soften them more quickly. They are delicious and although I can’t eat too many because of the salt content, I enjoy them very much and look forward to the new harvest.

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We have a plentiful supply of wonderful sea salt here, from the salt pans at Olhão and Tavira, which have been producing salt since Roman times, so if I’m  feeling lazy, I just pack whatever I want to preserve in salt and then soak it out or use it later. My main success has been the preserved lemons, which just get better with age and make a great addition to tagines.

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One of the things I am trying to cast off in my retirement is the tyranny of “should do” and food processing at times is a tyranny to me. I put rather a lot of my last year’s preserves in the compost bin to my shame this year, having given away as much as I could, so this year I’m  going to eat what I have in the garden as I have it and only process when I get the “Domestic Goddess” urge which does happen occasionally. No,  I’m not going to give a fig, no matter how much it begs me to!