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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 – 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.

 

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.

 

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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.

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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!

Gardening in Portugal: Successes and failures in my Algarve garden

Before I write this month’s blog entry, I want to acknowledge that there are some gardeners and many agriculturalists and subsistence farmers who have lost all they have built and grown, sometimes over several generations in the Centre and North of Portugal to the devastating wild fires of this searing hot summer. Any words I have seem Inadequate. I can only say, if you are a gardener who has lost their garden to the fires, and are ever down my way in the Algarve, you have an open invitation to come and have a cup of tea with me and take any cuttings or plants that take your fancy. Just get in touch via the comments. I would be completely devastated to be in your position and think of you with great concern. 
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This is the time of the year in Portugal to begin planting, that is as soon as the first rains come and some are finally forecast for tomorrow, and the gardening  cycle begins again.  It’s also a time for reflection on the progress of the garden and so here I am, waiting for the rain and  pondering on  what has worked and what hasn’t and what should be done next.

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

Gardening in Portugal – “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 garden

  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 it’s 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 – Growing things to eat in a waterwise way

 

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The first of the plums from my garden

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 scarce 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, finite resource in a drought 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.

 

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An old olive tree for eating olives in my garden

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 produce 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.

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Last year’s cherry tomatoes-they are more disease resistant then the beef variety

For broad beans, or favas, as they are known here, I always watch my neighbours and put mine in at the same time.  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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ground  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!