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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!