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Gardening in Portugal -a posy story

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I went into the garden this morning and picked a vase of flowers. Finally, there are enough flowers growing  to pick a bunch for the house, I have waited a long time for this moment. I arranged it into a posy and took it into the workshop, where Senhor F was working on a woodcarving and presented it to him, for after all, the garden is his too. He smiled and made the right noises,  at least. Having presented it to my one and only, I took it proudly to the kitchen, put it in a simple jug and gazed at it for a long moment. After a while, I went into the hall and set it against the magenta wall for a photo, because that is what you do nowadays, photo everything.

As I looked at the beautiful bunch of natural perfection, I realised that each flower was a paragraph. The whole bunch of flowers was a story.

It starts with the pink roses, sent to me as cuttings from my sister in law’s garden in central France, just as she was leaving her beloved garden which she grew from scratch to go and live in an apartment in Spain. Her love of roses carries on in its blush, every time I look at the rose, I remember how she pored over catalogues to decide which new beauty to add to her collection. Now a couple of her precious specimens lives on in my Algarve garden.

Then there is the  “Sunset rose” a supermarket rose I had my doubts about at first, being British and inclined to subtle colours, but I planted it for my Senhor F, who was born in the Caribbean where bright colours abound and gradually I have come to love it. It shines out its brilliance so strongly you can see it from the very top of the garden. I try not to think that it looks like one of those 1950’s frilly swimming caps. I rather the fact that reminds me that we are in the sunset time of our life…but in a good way.

The Agapanthus behind is from a cutting given to me by my lovely neighbour. She loves them, but one hot day when I was passing I found her labouring to uproot their deep tangled roots out of a bed and move them somewhere else, giving me some precious offcuts in the process. Watching them now in full flower, I am always reminded of her on her knees on that hot Autumn afternoin, struggling determinedly  with her difficult task.

The Clary Sage has become one of my favourite plants in the garden. It’s provenance is is unusual. I bought it from Lidls as a salvia, which indeed it is, but not of the edible variety one would usually encounter in supermarkets. I didn’t know what it was back then and watched amazed when it grew into the beautiful tall biennial which returns to my garden every year, self seeding or grow  with a bit of help from me. The bees love its sweaty aroma, and I don’t mind it either, although someone once gave me some seeds back from a plant I gave her in a bottle labelled “Seeds of stinky plant”

There is also a Plectranthus barbatus flower spike, the plant a huge beast that was sold to me at a local plant fair as a medicinal plant, good for the stomach and liver, three leaves in a tea. I tried it once and a more bitter foul tasting brew you couldn’t find! If it doesn’t kill you, it would have to cure you,

At the back of the display, there is some society garlic, Tulbaghia, brought to me by my sister who is making her own garden north of here, and a little spike of wild Asphodel, which planted itself in my garden from a wild seed and which has become one of my favourite plants, for it is a “lily of the field” and toils not, nor spins. And indeed nor do we much at this point of the year. However, that will change as I have just ordered some seeds and soon it will all begin again, for the seasons they go round and round, as the song says, and so does my garden story.

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Gardening in Portugal – Reflections through the eyes of others

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The central step down the bank, built from the natural stones, which also acts as a channel for rainwater to the Orchard below.

Thanks to my friends in the gardening group for permission to use these photos, none were taken by me. I am amazed at their talent to only show the good bits to their best advantage!

It’s five years, more or less, since we started making this garden and a few weeks ago, for the first time, I showed it to some gardening friends. For me, it was an important step, it felt like I could dare to admit, for the first time, I had a garden to show anyone. It has been a long road to get to this point and I felt as nervous as a mother taking her daughter to her first prom.

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The glass wall on the terrace, designed to marry old and new . It was a worry, but plants now adorn the shelf.

Up until the last year, despite being an active member of Facebook gardening groups, where I have received huge encouragement and support, I have avoided joining formal gardening associations, and there are quite a few in Portugal. This is the first real garden I’ve ever had and I have both been too busy working on it to join any group and much to shy to even call it a garden. However, last Autumn I was invited to join a group of gardeners new to Portugal and it seemed the right kind of group for me.

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My hippy shed…someone said it looks like a folk museum..but I am the oldest exhibit!

After some very serious tidying up and path sweeping, the day arrived clear and bright  and more importantly, with an abatement of the wind which had been steadily howling around the house in the previous days before our visitors arrived. I had sneakily bagged a slot in the Spring as my garden is at its best at this time! Despite some trepidation at the prospect of trying to explain my gardening journey, I felt encouraged and renewed by the support and feedback given my gardening friends young and old, alternative and mainstream on what has been my daily toil and delight since we came to live here.

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Gay Profusion

Seeing the garden through the eyes of other gardeners, in my eyes, somehow made it a “proper” garden. It was like cutting the ribbon at a new venture, I felt the need for something slightly “official” Not that this means the end of work on the garden, for that never happens…but more that I could come to draw a line between “making” the garden and refining it. It was a kind of significant birthday party.

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The dry river bed, also made to prevent erosion

Our group was a slightly tentative but supportive one. We all had new gardens and felt a bit shy of showing other people the place we had spent our love and toil on, but it turned out to be a very pleasant and non threatening experience, not least helped by the fact that after our garden tour, we sat down to a shared lunch where everyone had brought a dish. I  was one of the last in the group to have a visit and I learnt something from each and every garden. The gardens ranged from those with the main principle being to raise food, through to more formal inherited gardens and I found visiting them and hearing other people’s plans for them truly enlightening.

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Spot Mumma hen and her chick -my chief manure suppliers and weed eaters!

I learnt how to hot compost, how a composting loo works, how to think about the garden in terms of “rooms” and work each area, how important sitting areas are, what to do with sorghum and many other little tips. I learnt that each person has their own plans and dreams, that a garden is a very individual thing and that gardening is a very much an activity which unites people across ages and nationalities. If I was queen of the world for a day I would decree each new born baby received a plot of land to tend and grant them a day a week to devote to it. I think this would solve many of the world’s ills.

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The grassy area on top of the bank-I always envisaged this swaying in the wind that whistles around our hilltop and it does!

The photos on this blog of my garden are all taken through the eyes of others, thanks to them for giving permission to post them here. The views which they chose to photograph is in itself interesting to me, as it helped me to see things through new eyes. Most importantly, I have made new friends and gardening friends are wonderful to have.

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The dry garden

Gardening in Portugal -Poppies in Paradise

 

0961B606-FD14-4702-92E7-500232ADE675.jpegI promised a post on the wildflowers, but I have been so busy looking at them open-mouthed I haven’t been able to tear myself away from the gazing at them to write this post. Every now and again you get an “eighth wonder of the world” year here and this is one of them. The fields and hills are alive with the bright red heads of poppies and the cheerful yellow field marigolds, like a happy yellow sea.

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Field of Poppies

Cistus, both pink and white light up the hills, intermingled with the lavender stoechas we get here, a lovely dark purple variety which the bees love and occasionally viridium, the green version. Every now and again I come across a bush with flowers of the deepest blue imaginable, the blue of a kingfisher’s wing, a lithodora.

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Lithodora

As we drive to the nearby market town of Loule, through our favourite hidden vallies, I cannot get too far without stopping and exclaiming and jumping out to take photos. Senhor Faztudo is very tolerant. He knows the wild flowers are my second greatest love.

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Field Marigolds and Chysanthemum Coronium

I have made no secret in last posts, of my admiration for the Algarvean  “weeds” They must be the most beautiful in the world. I have learned a great deal about them in last years, largely due to my friend and Portuguese teacher who lives in a nearby village. She has been collecting stories from ederly local people about the uses of many of the plants that grow here, as they have been the region’s medecine store from time immemorial, some of the knowledge perhaps being handed down from generation to generation since the time of the Moors.

Some of the herbs still used today are Malva, or Mallow, seen to be excellent for the digestion, used as a tea or put as a poultice on festering wounds to pull the poison out. Another local favourite is the  beautiful Thymus capitatus, which grows in abundance on the hills bere and is used as an antiseptic or to strew agains insects and fleas in the house. The  flower petals of some of the more abundant plants, particularly wild Dill are used to adorn local churches  during their Saints’ Days and petals are used to make patterns on the pavements outside.

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Wils Lavender Stoechas

Recently I went for a wild flower amble with some fellow gardeners amongst the hills and springs of the little village of Alte, where in the shade of the carob trees, wild perwinkle made a beautiful carpet. The long stems were used to tie the faggots of brushwood brought back to light the bread ovens in time gone by. We also saw the impressive blooms of Scilla Peruviana, a plant I couldn’t believe would grow wild when I first saw it, as well as the beautiful sprays of Asphodel “the lilies of the field” from the bible which adorn the paths hereabouts, making them look like a wedding aisle.

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A ford near Alte

I have been collecting seeds in the Autumn and also rescuing any plants I have seen torn up by the diggers clearing the land for agricultural uses, but obviously I don’t pick or uproot  plants, as that is both illegal and immoral. I actually fear for the wild peony, which seems to be disappearing in recent years, and although I know several places where they grow I tend to keep quiet about the exact whereabouts.

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Silla Peruviana

You can see history in the plants too. In my garden and in our village two plants grow in abundance. Alexanders, or Black Lovage, which were used by the Romans instead of celery and Wild Asparagus, which the farmers hate as it has deep roots and prickles, but which produce edible shoots which local people pick and eat in January, after the autumn rains. They were also perhaps brought by the Romans and since an arachaelogical excavation in our village has turned up artefacts from a Roman villa, it is quite likely that we are seeing plants that were brought here two thousand years ago.

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An Alentejo meadow

Sometimes a passing Portuguese neighbour scratches their head when passing our distinctly natural looking garden. Why would I want to grow all those plants that just grow everywhere as weeds on the “mata” or bush? For me, nothing delights me more than walking out every in the garden in the mornings and watching these beauties flourish, without water or special care on our patch. I nurture them and feel honoured when a new wild flower makes itself at home here. The butterflies, bees and I all greet their return with joy and satisfaction each Spring. It’s a wildflower Paradise, my special slice of Eden.

Gardening in Portugal- It’s raining Clay Pots!

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Cântaros

It’s raining buckets, or as the Portuguese say Portuguese “It’s raining clay pots” “Chove a cântaros”  If you had just moved to Portugal, you might wonder why you came, since the view out of my window this morning, is distinctly Welsh, not Algarvean at all. It’s hard not to wish it would stop, when your wheelbarrow has become a wildlife pond, your no dig bed a marshy haven for slugs and your cistern overflow pipe a waterspout, the water overflowing in a fecklessly wasteful fashion away down the hill.

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My garden lush with the rain

However, I am trying hard not to regret my rain dancing, which I did perpetually throughout the dry Winter and early Spring months, when it was so warm and dry you wondered whether it would ever rain again. For one thing is certain, it won’t rain from early June until October, unless we have a real freak of nature, and it will be hot, sometimes up to the 40 degrees C, and we will have to hide from the punishing sun by 11am. So how can I regret the sweet, persistent rain that has been falling since that wonderful moment on February 23rd when the heavens first opened to break the long drought.  Really it’s been raining ever since with the odd day of respite, as the Depressions from the Atlantic, pushed  by a cold weather pattern in the North, sweep in one after the other.

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A Camellia enjoying the rain

I have become slightly weather obsessed, I freely confess.  I have discovered an app called “Storm” which has weather maps all in pretty colours which show you the approaching Depressions. I watch them swirling about somewhere near the coast of Philadelphia , a huge battle going on between the warm winds pushing up from Africa (little orange arrows)  and the cold winds coming down from the North (little blue and green arrows) and then the tail of rain (green and yellow blobs) sweeping our way across Portugal, bringing the rain we so badly need and the less welcome waves to bash our shores, destroying the beach cafes and sweeping the beaches into disarray. Gazing into my IPAD screen at the weather patterns, I feel a bit like Zeus, gazing down on the Earth from lofty Mount Olympus. I just haven’t got the power he had to poke up a tempest here or an earthquake there, luckily!

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The rain on our plain from “Storm” weather app

Along with watching the weather on apps,whilst I am stuck indoors unable to garden,  I have also discovered that our neighbors have a personal weather station which records every five minutes and posts the results on the Internet, with the ability to look up historic weather information in detail. I always enjoy playing with databases, and messing about with it has made me realise that although it has rained and rained, because the Autumn rains failed last year we are still short of the normal rainfall for the season by 100mm. I share the website here in case you want to explore it for your own area, https://www.wunderground.com/wunderstation Just type your area into the “Search Locations” box. And click on “History” for historical data. Some of  dams in the Alentejo, at the time of writing are still only at 59% of capacity and here in the Western Algarve 69%. More rain will not go amiss, no matter how much we are looking forward to the sun shining again, so we can get out in our gardens once more.Here is the link for the dam capacity in case you’re interested.

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This year though, I do have my new greenhouse to potter around in even when it’s raining or windy and this has made a difference to my attitude to the rain Señor Faztudo made it as a lean-to  against the hippy shed so it’s quite sheltered, especially from the north side and it’s rather nice to hear it drumming on the roof and dribbling into a makeshift water butt, which we have rigged up inside the greenhouse so I don’t have to go outside in bad weather to get water.

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The greenhouse/potting shed

I also have the hippy shed next door, where I have installed a camping stove so I can sit there with a cup of tea and even cheer up the shivering chickens now and again with a blast of loud  music from my hippy shed sound system, aka my digital  radio, as they try find shelter under the chicken shed as this weird wet stuff they don’t have to contend with the rest of their year falls unremittingly.

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The hippy shed…a hark back to my young years

The drought this year has concentrated everyone’s minds on preserving the water when it does rain. People who garden in a dry climate think not only about what they plant, but also about storage for the months when it definitely won’t rain. The torrent of  water is running off the roof right now reminds us of how much we craved it when we didn’t have any. We have a large cisterna collecting rainwater from our roof and also all the rainwater that is running down the drive is directed by the paths down into the orchard for the trees.

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The cisterna and terrace overflow

Having a garden on a hill is a good thing when it rains heavily as you can collect water on terraces at each level, but on the whole, the garden remains well drained. Friends into permaculture techniques dig “swales”, ditches filled with spongy materials  to capture water and then plant on “berms” higher banks alongside them so the plants continue to access the stored water in the drier months. I haven’t really got the room to do that, but the bottom of the garden is certainly flooded with water and as its level much of it remains for the tree roots to access.  I am also experimenting with the idea that Vetiver grass, with its very deep roots may bring water to the surface to make it available for plants as I  have noticed my globe artichokes do better where they are planted next to Vetiver, so I am going to plant some closer to my trees.

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Salvia in full flower in my garden

The most exciting thing will be when the rain stops and the sun shines and the fields around here becomes the eighth wonder of the world as they burst forth with wild flowers in all their glory. I’m poised with my camera, I can’t wait. Watch this space for a wild flower display to beat all wild flower displays! As soon as these clay pots stop pouring water.

Gardening in Portugal – No Way Hosé !

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The Whipsnake kinky hose

This is a whinge about hoses, impossible things, they drive me to distraction!  Before I start ranting, as this is definitely a subject I get very hot under my gardening collar about, I will pause to pay respect to the fact that hoses have been used by people for transporting water for over 2000 years, ever since the first ancient Greek picked up an ox stomach and intestines and a light bulb went off (or an olive oil clay lamp, more likely) and decided to use it as a flexible pump and fire hose. I suppose that the intestines of an ox were used for many years after that, because it wasn’t until the 1600s that the very first flexible hose was made by Dutch inventor Jan van der Heyden, probably to water his tulips. Nowadays we have the strong PVC hoses we have today, mostly made in China, but thankfully lasting longer than ox intestines, which must have got quite mushy and smelly in the end. What I want to know is, if hoses have been in development for thousands of years, then why do they still kink and tie themselves in impossible knots? You would suppose in all that time, the problem of the incessant kinking would have been resolved. Perhaps it’s the curse of the poor Ox, in retribution for the disrespect paid to its tripes for so many years. Whatever it is it drives me crazy on a daily basis in the summer.

Picture the scene. It’s a very hot summer’s morning and I have gone off down the garden to water the fruit trees. First of all I unwind the green horsewhip snake from the hook on the wall, where I spend ages trying to make it neat and tidy last night. It immediately contorts itself into a horrendous knot. The fruit trees start up their  gentle moaning, “Water! Water!” At this point, I wonder why we have never invested in one of those “roll your hose” up contraptions. Somehow we aren’t “roll your hose up” type of people. I pull the doobrie off the watchermacallit on the tap and untangle the knot, all the while remembering Maya Angelou’s saying “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lightsShe might have well said “tangled garden hose” I wonder if she is up there somewhere in heaven with her arms folded watching me effing and blinding, as I lose my temper with the knot. I would would really welcome a rainy day right now. I obviously haven’t learnt very much about patience in my 62 years on this earth. Finally the knot is unknotted. I put the doobrie back on the watchermacallit and turn on the tap, only to be squirted at very high velocity (can velocity be applied to water?)  by a water spout soaking my face and hair, temporarily blinding me. Hopping about to the bemusement of my farming neighbours out sorting their melons, I struggle to get control and turn the tap off, aligning the watchermacallit back on the tap where it came loose, my hair and face soaked. I have been watered it seems, but the plants have not. I hear the fruit trees sniggering through their thirst and glare at them angrily.

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The dreaded Whatchermacallit

By this time, the sun is higher in the sky and the plants are drooping piteously. I sally forth expectantly towards the end of the hose. I stare in disbelief. Señor Faztudo  has replaced the Nozzle of Doom on the end! Now the Nozzle of Doom is a huge point of contention between us. Señor Faztudo  says the Nozzle of Doom saves us bucketloads of water, but I maintain it is it a water cannon for destroying all in its path. Sure, it means you can turn the hose off when you aren’t using it, but the water comes out at such force you can’t do anything except blast the plants into oblivion. Now I am really fuming. The plants start a new, louder wailing “Water! Water!”  Ignoring their pleas, I stomp off to the hippy shed temporarily and light a joss stick, stroking the bemused cat  to calm myself down.

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The Nozzle of Doom

Returning in somewhat better humour, I remove the water cannon attachment and start to assuage the thirst of my plants. Within a short time, a kink appears somewhere near the top of the hose. I sigh, put the hose down by the nearest tree root and return to unkink it. On my way back I trip over the hose, narrowly avoiding falling over, I resume and the hose wraps itself around one of my favourite plants, a tender darling, snapping off one of her stems and then kinks anew,  The sun rises higher in the sky and I’m losing the will to live. And as for winding it all up again at the end, don’t get me started!

So now I have shared my problem, let’s go a little further into the technicalities. I really hate those Watchermacallits and Doobries, the things that you have to join hoses to taps, hoses to each other, to connect things etc. They must have been invented by a sadist.  You never have the right one for the right thing, they never fit tightly, they always spurt water out, they completely and utterly defeat me. Oh, but Señor Faztudo can ALWAYS make them work, which he seems to me to be pretty smug about. As though there is something wrong with me! What is that about? I cannot tell you how fed up I am that I always have to ask him to sort it all out for me. Every time.

You might think a solution would be those new-fangled curly hosepipes. They look like they should work, are very neat and lovely and don’t get in a kink. Well we had one for two weeks before it broke at the neck.  It was very expensive and very short lived, so I have lost faith it them altogether.

By now, you may be asking why we don’t sort out some irrigation. We do have some seeping soaker hoses in some parts of the garden, but even they are a wind up, because every now and again one of my cats takes a fancy to bite into them and make mini fountains. These go on for weeks, because I can’t  bear to try and cut that bit out and rejoin with some of the Watchermacallits.  I have looked at all the little irrigation pipes and rubbery bits and timers and malarkey at the agriculture shop and I just know that life will be far worse if I buy them. The holes will clog up with calcium from our hard water, the bits will get lost. I will never enjoy my garden again. I am not going there. I also have a great fear of timed systems since I have heard so many stories of the timer breaking whilst people are away, with them either coming back from holiday to a huge water bill or a dead garden.

So that’s my whinge about hoses. I expect people may tell me  me what an idiot I am and what a wonderful thing hoses are and how you can get this oojamaflip and that and it all works like a dream. Luckily, we are going through a period of much needed rain right now and the hose torture is postponed for a while, so calm in the garden is restored.

 

To my Valentine, Garden.

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A Rose from my Valentine

Dear Garden,

I know you will be surprised to get this letter from me, after all we’ve been together for five years and seen each other every day, so you might wonder at the need for this sudden formality. However, I have the desire to tell you and indeed all the world, just for posterity, how much you mean to me. It wasn’t love at first sight, I admit.  It was the view beyond that attracted me first.  That handsome and inspiring rocky outcrop on the other side of the valley, with the little white village nestling in its armpit grabbed my attention over your shoulder. The mist at its feet was ethereal, the translucent evening light dazzling. I wanted to gaze at it for all eternity. When I finally turned my attention to you, it was quite a shock. You’d undergone some upheaval I admit, recent building works had left you in considerable disarray. Dishevelled and uprooted, discombobulated even, I wondered how I would even begin to work with you to set things straight, let alone help you become the beautiful garden I’d desired all my life. I wondered if I’d ever have the energy to mould your banks, build your steps, form your paths, make your beds, and plant the seeds to make you whole.

As I was wondering all this, Spring came all of a sudden and I turned my attention away for a second, absorbed in the almond blossom and the sparkling sea. When I returned to you, you gave me flowers. Your battered soil  was covered with every kind of beauty, wild chrysanthemum, their daisy heads sparkling like crowns; sumptuous borage alive with bees; wild fennel, home to the Swallowtail; asphodel; poppies in five different shades of red. You  smelled divine too. I breathed in your heady scent.  I turned away from gazing at the rocky outcrop and fell head over heels in love with you. A love which just grows and grows.

You’ve  been very patient with me whilst I try to understand you. You are a foreigner to me, a garden from a far off land with many things to teach me. I thought I was recovering you, but in fact you’ve recovered me. You’ve been a hard teacher at times, rejecting my attempts to inflict my will on you, even killing the tender plants I placed in your care, or shrivelling up my most beautiful efforts and stamping on my dreams. But I know  really you are only mirroring back at me my need for  control, gently teaching me to work with you, not against you. To teach me that we two are one.

So, dear one, it’s been five years since we became  intimately acquainted. I walk your new paths every morning and tend to your trees, both the old ones, planted long ago by other lovers and the new, my gifts to you. There will be new lovers for you too, and although I feel a tinge of sadness at the thought, I wish you well. Love can only be true when you set your lover free.

So, I  think I’ve found the flowers you like, those with strong roots and a tough demeanour, the enduring ones. I’ve planted you herbs to nurture you  and left you precious wild plants to cover you in the Spring. I have learned to give you just enough water, not too much, to feed you at the right time and in the right way. I’ve nourished your bones and in return you’ve nourished my soul. As I learn, you become more beautiful and so do I.

When I am gone, for I will go before you, remember me.  I will be in the hot wind that blows from Spain in the summer and the cold gusts rattling your bones from my homeland in the North;  I will be in the mists that shroud you; the light rain that kisses you. I will be in the special places where we spent hours together;  I will be under the ancient olive tree. For I love you more than words can say and you have healed me and left me whole. One Love. Jane

Gardening in Portugal – Seeing the wood from the trees

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Almond and Olive logs:this year’s and last.

The sound of buzzing chainsaws are filling the valley at the moment and ours is one of them. Well, not ours exactly, as we have enlisted the help of a friend who is much more experienced to do some  difficult tree work. The expertise arises in understanding how to deal with very heavy boughs that need to be cut safely, calculating how they will fall and where they will land to avoid damage, either to the structures they hang over, or the person handling the operation. There is much rubbing of chins between Señor Faztudo  and our friend , as this is a serious business indeed, since it involves people’s safety. I keep out of it, preferring to potter elsewhere and leave the experts to deal with it, as it scares me.  When people buy a house with lots of land, as they often do when they come to Portugal, they don’t realise how much work it can be, even to maintain the trees, nor do they realise that trees and what they produce are the main crop for most farmers in Portugal, especially in the Algarve.

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My cat checking out the olive tree

When we arrived at this house, whilst the garden was completely undeveloped, the builder had preserved every tree he could, which left us with several olive trees, some very ancient, as well as mature almond and carob trees  to care for. Some of these trees were planted by the ancestors of people in our village and the builder of our house remembers playing under the olive tree at the back as a child. It seems like an important business to be custodians of such venerable trees.

Some of the our trees are overhanging the roads and after a while, tree boughs can become too heavy and the branches unsafe.  The old carobs, in particular, have brittle, huge trunks, resembling an elephant’s leg and are very heavy.  For this reason the  carob tree is known as “the widow maker” by local people, because, for sure if a large branch fell on you, that would be the end.

Over the past few years, I’ve  come to enjoy this tree work in the early part of the year , which has a beginning, a middle and an end, unlike some jobs in the garden which go on forever. Señor Faztudo saws up all the medium branches with a handsaw, after the chainsaw has done its work, to create kindling for next year’s winter fires. These branches are mainly olive and burn very hot  in our woodburning stove, useful to get the fire up to a critical heat before adding the bigger logs. I use an electric chipping machine to chip the smaller branches to use on the paths in the vegetable garden at the back. It takes quite a long time but it’s therapeutic and we  need the biomass, because it all improves the soil.

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Cut wood to be processed

At the end, we are left with a small pile of scraggy stuff to burn , and I pull up a chair and enjoy this little bonfire, which is far too dangerous to have at any other time of the year and which reminds me of camping trips in Norfolk and my childhood in Wales. I even leave a potato in foil in the embers for my breakfast.  It’s a pleasure tinged with sadness though, as I think of all the people in Central and Northern Portugal who lost so much in the fires at the end of last year. Many people are cleaning their land of combustible material at the moment under a strict government directive to reduce the fire risk to properties before next Summer and we are still in an extreme drought situation over half of the country, which is very concerning if it continues into another summer.

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Almond twigs for kindling or chipping


Altogether, our wood harvest this year came to about a tonne, which would have cost us about 130 euros to buy and lasts us about a month in our wood burning stove, so our work is rewarding financially too. I ponder how our hard work cutting and stacking the logs and hauling them all up the hill to the woodpile to dry out for a year, is keeping us healthy and saving in gym membership, as well as hopefully keeping us warm next winter. Going to the gym , which we used to do in London, seems so silly when I think about it now. My garden is my gym and my muscles are strong and my legs sturdy as I make my way up and down the hill carrying one thing or another or pushing the wheelbarrow. I strongly advise any retired person to find a garden on a hill to keep fit!

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A graft of peach branches onto a bitter almond tree

Pruning trees has all kinds of purposes, I have come to discover; to make trees safe; to produce and stimulate new growth; to keep the fruit trees low enough to be able to harvest from them; to make grafts, and to keep the tree balanced with air flowing through the middle to prevent fungal disease. Pruning can be quite controversial, some say it weakens the tree, some say it makes it stronger. Olives in particular divide people, especially where thy are clipped for ornamental purposes. I have a small wild olive on my terrace which we keep clipped to be able to admire the view and prevent too many olives falling on the tiles. But I  have to say I don’t feel at all good about it. I don’t really like extreme pruning of trees. Hedges are different, but a noble olive need to be allowed to grow more naturally, for my taste, although Señor Faztudo  doesn’t entirely  agree with me, and he is generally the Keeper of the Trees.

 

olive

Big Daddy Olive


As I chip away, a sort of meditative exercise once you’ve cut all the knobbly bits off that won’t go through,   I note the different properties of the twigs I am dealing with.  The olive twigs are whippy and thorny. I reserve some olive branches to keep chickens off my Agapanthus bed and as pea sticks. Olive doesn’t rot down quickly, which is both a good and a bad thing, but definitely good for pea sticks and chicken defenses. . Almond is very woody and brittle and great for chipping for use on paths and also very good as small kindling.

chippings

Olive chipping used as a mulch

Carob is knobbly and weird looking, almost prehistoric, but burns cheerfully with straight branches that go in the chipper easily. The leaves make good compost and the area underneath an old carob has fertile soil and provides shade for many beautiful wild flowers, not least the striking azure Scilla Peruviana, an amazing sight in the Spring.

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A number 1 for a wild olive

Our labour produces a satisfying pile of logs for next season, stacked away from the house to avoid it becoming a fire risk in itself. They will stay there a year or more before being dry enough to use on the fire. We put the wood on a pallet off the ground against the wood boring insects that have been quite prevalent this year, and bag up the kindling to leave in a dry place. We don’t really need to cover the wood like you do in the UK, because we know by next October, when it’s ready to burn, it will be bone dry after the hot summer.

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Bean sticks or is it art?


So now the trees are tidy and safe, we have  pea sticks aplenty and chicken defences, mulch for our paths and a bean wigwam for the beans I will plant in May and wood stacked against the cold of next winter. All feels well with the world and  I can see the wood from the trees!