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.
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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Will the beautiful eagle we’ve seen soaring across the valley recently come for my chickens? Where would they hide if it did?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
It’s the start of harvest time in the garden, difficult to appreciate when you are used to August, September and October being harvest time in more northern climes. Plums coming out of our ears!
We have just been through a very hot dry June, with the devastating fires that claimed the lives and livings of many in Central Portugal. So very sad and I feel such sorrow the people affected. My fervent hope is that Mother Nature will do her work quickly and start to put up green shoots to soothe the hearts of those who have lost so much.
In times of drought and hot temperatures, water use is a serious issue. I am learning all the time about gardening with less water, including food growing. Water is a limited resource here and not to think about its use is actually socially unacceptable. If you wonder about why ornamental flower gardening isn’t prevalent in the Algarve, it is really because in a country where starvation is still in living memory, to use water on flowers, in some people’s minds, is almost tantamount to a crime. The local farmers’ wives are almost clandestine in their efforts to grow flowers (and flower gardening, for some reason is seen as an exclusively female thing, although that is changing) Ornamental plants are seen as a real luxury, grown along walls only with the use of washing up or slops water.
However, there are some trees with very beautiful flowers that also produce food. I managed to produced a Feijoa Sellowiana or Pineapple Guava from seed and it’s a beautiful tree, with lovely flowers, as well as fruits. Pomegranates are also stunning in all seasons, with red flowers, lovely young red leaves in the Spring, very attractive fruits and yellowing leaves in the winter. Why not grow a beautiful tree for food and use your water and space wisely?
For us, with our UK pensions and not on subsistence farming money, life is a little less complicated, but we are still using a common and scarcece resource. And in the same way I don’t put on the outside lights we have at night except on a special occasions, I want to use water wisely as an act of respect for those around me, because it’s a limited, scarce resource and also because it’s very expensive. Water is metered here and it depends what camara (council) you live in, how much it is per unit. It isn’t the same countrywide. The cost of it also goes up the more you use.
So, back to the harvest and eating from the garden, what can you grow and how do you maximise on water?
The most obvious thing, considering we have a thick clay soil which retains water well, is to grow trees. In times gone by, when wheat harvests failed , the Portuguese lived off bread made from figs and fed it to their pigs. The almonds grown here, whilst not the perfect shape like the Californian almonds, taste better than any in the world. The olive oil produced was used by the Romans in their lamps, although nowadays it’s much too precious for that. Trees, once established, put down very deep roots and can last until the next seasonal rainfall, as long as you choose those well adapted to this climate.
I am fortunate to have some venerable trees which were already in our garden when we arrived, a mature and ancient olive which gives me enough eating olives for a whole year, some almonds, and a few carobs. I don’t need more, as I wouldn’t have time to harvest the fruits and process them and I’ve resolved to eat everything in my garden, if I can and not waste anything. I only have about 1,600 square metres of garden, but within that I realised the other day, I have over fifty trees and 19 different types of edible fruit or nut, some producing, some too young to prouce yet. Many of those are very drought resistant once established, peach, certain varieties of plum, almond, apricots,pomegranate, olive, carob. The rain, when it falls is very heavy indeed and the clay soil retains the water well and nourishes them. I also have some citrus trees, but aside from the lemon, I am rather wishing I didn’t plant them. They are very difficult I find, hard to get established, prone to disease and pest and they need lots of water. They are at the bottom of my steeply sloped garden and receive all the grey water from the house through a great filtering system, but without this, I don’t think I’d bother with them. The idea of turning shower water into oranges quite pleases me though, so I persevere!
After three years of making mistakes and probably paying huge amounts for each cabbage I’ve produced, I am getting the measure of how to grow vegetables in my garden. The trick is to use the winter period and natural rainfall wisely. By planting seedlings in the shade in August and getting them ready for the first rains in the Autumn, or buying plug plants in the market, you can have cabbages, kale and spinach in the Autumn. Potatoes can also be planted in the Autumn, for a cheeky Christmas crop, but you do run the danger of frosts cutting them down in the January to March months, even in the Algarve.
For broad beans, or favas, as they are known here, I always watch my neighbours andput them in when they plant. They always plant them after first rains and then they mature by the Spring before the blackfly begin. I also almost always leave some pods to dry on the plants and drop to the ground, because the best beans in my garden are always those that self seed, since they know exactly the optimum time of year to germinate by themselves. Peas need to be put in during the very early Spring, as it is all over once the temperatures get too hot and mange-tout work really well here I find. I have yet to find the secret to growing any kind of green beans, they often come to flower and then it gets too hot for them to produce , or the bean rots in the ground before it’s had a chance to germinate. I don’t think I’ve hit on the right variety of bean for the Algarve yet, or developed a good understanding of their needs. I tried English runner beans and they flowered, but never produced beans. All suggestions gratefully received.
Garlic and onions are easy enough if you get them in at the right time. I put mine in very late this year, so they are small, but they are very unproblematic. I buy them as small plants in the market as they are very cheap and the right sort of onion to do well here.
Peppers in my garden grow best in large buckets or pots. They need early sun and then when it gets too hot, you can move them into the shade, as the afternoon sun in the summer is too hot for them. Planting them in pots means less watering too and you can feed them more effectively. I have also given up trying to grow strawberries in the ground and grow them in deep pots too, the kind you buy trees in, with piles of well-rotted manure at their roots when first planted.
I have been very successful with Globe artichokes, which I love, although dis-infesting them of earwigs is an issue. They also have very deep roots and use natural rainfall well. I now eat them really young at the beginning of the season before I get fed up with them and then leave the flowers to mature as they are so beautiful.
But the jewel in the crown this year has been the courgettes and squashes, which I’ve never had success with so far and also beef tomatoes, which I haven’t grown before.The thing is, not to grow too much of anything. You can’t even give them away as everyone has them at the same time as you, so another water saving tip, is to think about how many you need or to grow something different from your neighbour, so you can swap. Three beef tomato plants is plenty for two people, three courgette plants has given us three of four a day for the past month and I have pickled a lot of them.
I have written before about my lasagna beds and making soil. My clay soil is full of big and small rocks and any attempt at growing squashes or courgettes in the gorund has meant buckets of water and a complete stop in production if you don’t plant them before it gets really hot. After that, you could water them all summer and it would make no difference at all. And I did. So I ended up wasting water and eating nothing. A complete folly and rather shameful. So I invented “The patent Stork’s Nest Water Retaining Squash and Melon Compost bed” or SNWRSMC (!) for short, a 4 in 1 technique which helps you get rid of all your garden rubbish, grow fantastic food, use less water and make great compost”
But more of that in the next blog post. I’m sure you can’t wait!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!)
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!
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 .
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.
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.
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!
“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?” Walt Whitman
I was born in a Welsh valley, full of the most regal, powerful trees. It was my childhood playground. Those were the days of Famous Five and ginger beer drinking and we children often rose early, nabbing what we could get away with from the fridge and escaping the house and our mother who invariably had some chore for us to do. Our roaming circle was as far as five miles and much of this time was spent making dens during the long summer holidays in the huge trees in the woods near our home. The most beautiful were the huge, dark barked beech trees, with their caterpillar green, delicate leaves emerging in the Spring, diffusing the light and making patterns on the leafy floor and the great, gnarled sweet chestnuts, hundreds of years old and often hollow, a wonderful place to climb and make dens.
So when I first came to the Algarve, I was a bit disappointed in the trees. In fact I couldn’t really see any. What there were seemed scrubby and blasted and there weren’t any forests, more large swathes of bushes with the odd straggly tree, which seemed to me to be struggling for survival.
Years later I realise how wrong I was! Trees are everything to the subsistence farmers here, their livelihood, their inheritance, their pride and joy. Disputes over inheritance of a tree or trees on a boundary fence can be fierce and occasionally violent. Once you get your eye in, there are useful and venerable trees everywhere.
The trees which are grown and farmed in the Algarve are Carob, Olive, Fig, and Almond with small trees such as Pomegranate, Arbutus and Quince. Cork oak is grown for its bark. Kern Oak and Holm Oak prunings are used as fire wood. Eucalyptus and Pine is also grown, but are both controversial, as they are a fire risk and detrimental to more native species. Loquats and Walnuts also grow well where there is some water, but you won’t see them widely.
The farming year is punctuated by the tending of the trees and the harvesting of the fruit. The pruning of almond trees starts in January, they are often cut back quite fiercely to the trunk so that fresh limbs sprout, bearing the almonds, which is encased in a green skin, which peels open in July to allow the almonds to be harvested. The women and older people harvest them whilst the men bang the branches with a big cane stick, which is both bendy and strong, known as a canna. I used to wonder why the women were clothed in long sleeved garments, scarves on their heads and hats to harvest them, even though the sun was so hot, until I could speak enough Portuguese to understand that the trees are full of little mites which drop with the almonds and nibble the pickers, should they not be covered up. The almonds are dried in the sun in their shells and then are either taken to the one and only almond processing plant to be cracked, or else bshed open with a big stone, during the long summer evenings over a gossip with neighbours. These almonds are often ground into flour and made into the most luscious cakes, along with the figs which are also in plentiful supply. There are different kinds of almond, five varieties I am told, but the one you have to watch out for is the bitter almond, as uncooked it contains cyanide and can be deadly if too much is eaten. The blossom of the bitter almond is a much deeper pink than those of the sweet variety, so easy to spot amongst the beautiful Spring flowering blossom.
The fig trees are very beautiful , their large hand like leaves offering shade in the Summer. Figs were a common food source for the Romans, who probably brought them to the Algarve. In Roman times the figs were used to fatten geese and in more recent times, the Algarvians fed the surplus food to their pigs, fattening them for a Christmas feast. The trees grow happily in the red clay soil, especially in the river plains of the Algarve and although in winter, they lose their leaves, they tolerate even light frost and flourish with little care, except for occasional pruning. There are different types, early and late, but the green types are dried in the sun and used in all kinds of cakes and sweetmeats (doces)
Carobs are the trees which bring in the cash for subsistence farmers and as such are shown great respect. The carob harvest is a family affair, with pickers getting up very early to pick the blackened pods from the ground when they are shaken from the tree. Travelling people come from both the North of Portugal and Southern Spain to pick from wild trees, as they have done for centuries. The carobs are processed at local plants, with the seeds being separated by the pods. The pods are milled into carob flour, used in cooking and as a chocolate substitute whilst the seeds are used to make a thickening, used in the food industry. The carob barns often attract rats, which is why the villagers often foster small colonies of semi feral cats, to keep the rat population under control. There are legends about the carob trees, which are very strange looking, especially when old and often have hollow trunks. In the area of Salir, the Mouras Encantadas, female enchanted spirits guard treasure troves hidden under the trees and bewitch hapless passers-by with their mournful songs.
Last but not least, there us the arbutus or medronho bush. This is a charming and almost completely drought resistant bush, which grows wild on the serra, with white flowers and strawberry like berries produced in the Autumn. The berries are picked and fermented in large vats, eventually being distilled over several nights of still-watching into medronho, a potent local firewater. The berries are very slightly hallucinogenic, which makes for a rather spacey alcoholic drink, which may explain why many of the farmers around here seem so chilled as they go about their daily lives!
The summer has arrived with a vengeance and I am thinking about how both I and my developing garden deals with the heat. At the moment, the sun, which was my friend only a few weeks ago, ripening my courgettes and bringing on my beans, is now my enemy. I try to defeat him by getting up before him, watering the plants at dawn, but by 9 o clock it’s almost 30 degrees and he is shimmering relentlessly as he rises in the sky. The courgettes stop flowering, leaves wilting by 10 o clock, any ground not mulched cracks and breaks, the water trickling off, useless. It’s war!
However, it’s no use taking on Ra as the enemy, because I will lose. Really at this time of year you have to admit defeat, pull up the drawbridge and go inside in the shade , stop planting and go into survival mode. Your best defences should have already been put in place and if not, it’s too late. So how are mine bearing up?
Well, poco poco I’d say.
My first defence has been to set large areas of the garden over to drought resistant planting. If you have eyes to see, there are plants all around us in the mata (wild bush areas) growing wild without any water at all and they don’t die. They return in the Autumn and Spring with the rains, bursting with scent and colour. Lavenders and cistus, rosemaries and fennel, thyme and nepeta, arbutus and Pistacia Lenticus bushes, (mastic tree) even roses only need a little water. And I have also grown irises and grasses over a mid terraced area which look beautiful waving in the wind, even when dry.
These areas, once established need not be watered at all. Admittedly during the heat of the summer, they certainly don’t look their best. But I quite like the dried seed pods and so do the chickens and a little trim and tidy up and they don’t look too bad.
One of my main discoveries is the importance of mulch. I’m a great fan of the Graden Professors’ Blog on Facebook. It is a group set up by scientists at Washington State University to discuss empirically and peer reviewed gardening science and all the research says mulch WORKS. And indeed it does! Wood Chip Mulch pdf Linda Chalker Scott says you need to use wood chips and I have found a source of something that approximates it in wood bark. It’s not easy to find appropriate mulch in the Algarve , where even straw is scarce and we have few leafy trees, and the fire risk also has to be considered, but the addition of the mulch I have managed to find under the citrus trees, shrubs and perennials has made a huge difference to their capacity to survive and thrive the sun’s searing rays. I am also able to use less water and growth has been much better on all the areas I have mulched. The chickens scrabble around in it too, which helps improve the soil below and their droppings help with the nitrogen content, which can be depleted in the breaking down process.
I do water the establishing plants, one area of the garden with more tend, non native perennials, and the vegetables and have been very glad of the large cisterna or rainwater tank which collects the winter rainfall we get from the roof. It’s huge and contains a two month water supply for the garden. Our soil in the Barrocal is on the alkaline side and the slight acidity of the rainwater is good for the plants. We save money on the water bill, which can be huge in the summer as water is metered in Portugal, but we have an electric pump to get it out of the cistern and we are trying to weigh up the costs. I haven’t really got any kind of organised irrigation in place yet and water by hand. This is helpful as I assess the needs of each area and plant and water accordingly, but it’s very time consuming and take an hour and a half to water the whole garden!
One of the surprises to me has been that succulents do better in the shade once it gets above 30 degrees centigrade. I move them in their pots to the shady side of the house and water and feed them and they put in a huge growth spurt. Those succulents in the ground and are in the sun, shrink and go to sleep and I don’t water them too much as waterlogged roots when they are in this mode is the kiss of death. I didn’t know any of this when I arrived and lost a lot of succulents by watering them when they were in sleep mode.
I actually get quite angry with high summer and am struggling with myself. The garden which flowered beautifully in late Spring and now, just like Winter in the UK, everything goes to sleep and looks dried up and dead. I have tried to be grateful for the mini Spring that comes with the first rains in Autumn as a compensation, but I still feel robbed. I sometimes think of the cricket lawns and green woods of the UK and feel a pang of jealousy. Gardeners want it all.
The chickens suffer in the heat of the day. Their feathery coats are a burden to them and they pant to keep cool, taking themselves off to the tall grasses to hide and complaining to themselves as they brave out the time until the evening when they can come out to forage for the dried seeds and unfortunate ants in the garden. Occasionally they come across a locust and an excited chase ensues over its crunchy carcass. Usually Mrs Chicken wins as she is boss, but her progeny sometimes manage to steal a wing or leg. The cats sleep all day stretched out on the cool tiles in a shady spot and I seek solace on the sofa, under the air conditioning unit with a gardening book. I shouldn’t moan. The early mornings bring the most beautiful of dawns, the night skies are breathtaking. Really, it’s just another day in hot paradise.