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Common and Garden Experiments

 

 

When I started this blog, it was to collect my own thoughts about creating a garden from scratch; something to look over in the years to come and maybe even to pass on to anyone who might inherit this beautiful piece of Algarve hillside after me and understand the processes I went through to create it. Along the way,  I have also enjoyed sharing my thoughts  with others who are walking the same path behind me or alongside me and have been kind enough to read it.

When I’m not gardening, I’m reading about the garden, researching what to do next in terms of planting, asking questions on FB groups, mulling things over for the next season. Nowadays, as Shakespeare so aptly put it, my way of life “is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf” and I have the luxury of time and the ability to do whatever I like in retirement, I am obsessed with my garden, as I have many years oto make up  for lost time. For me, gardening has always been a snatched activity, done at weekends in a bit of a frenzy, in between washing the kid’s school uniform or preparing for a new week’s work. Now, I can garden until ill health or death stops me and I couldn’t be happier. It’s as though I’ve already died and gone to heaven!

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My garden five years ago

 

I have often written about the garden  being my teacher, but that doesn’t preclude me trying out my own experiments and seeing if the garden accepts or rejects my treatment of it. I thought, at the end of a summer, which has been one of the hottest and driest on record for a while, I’d take stock of experiments in the garden which have worked and those which have been a failure.

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The garden today

Facebook is wonderful for its gardening groups, I find.  They are full of people with ideas, and each group has a different feel and a different slant. I’m  a member of the Gardening Professors group, which is run by academics at Washington State University. I find the group invaluable for its science based knowledge and also amusing for the spats that occur between the scientists and the “kitchen” scientists. I value peer reviewed science, of course I do, but the Garden Professors themselves would be the first to admit they don’t know everything and sometimes my own experiments in MY garden and in MY conditions disprove some of their theories. But that doesn’t mean to say what they propound is wrong. Only that it doesn’t work or does work  in MY set of circumstances.

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My cat modelling my diffcult soil

 

The great thing I’ve learnt and trialled in my garden from the Garden Professors is the use of wood chip mulch in the garden as a way of improving soil and plantings. I have done it now for the past two years and the difference to my existing plants is quite clear to see. By putting a thick mulch on top of the soil, the worms have worked away underneath, pulling the mulch deep down and already the top 10 inches of my soil are thick and dark and full of  organisms. The chickens have scratched and pooed and done their part too and my soil is improving with no effort at all on my part and there are no weeds. I can see the white mycelia growing amongst the chippings which is also meant to be good for the soil. But where do you get such chippings in a country so low on biomass, someone once asked me. The short answer to that is I’m not telling!  I’ve only told one good gardening friend the answer to this question, because I know my supply is very limited. You’re just going to have to work out a way yourself; it took me a year to think of something.

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My chickens modelling the wood chip mulch

Another experiment which has worked, is a no dig approach, which using wood chip is, but where I have a vegetable garden, I have used the “lasagne” method and this really works too. I know most tidy gardeners would throw their hands up in horror at this experiment as at times my garden just looks like a rubbish tip until the biomass has rotted down.  I once got very excited about “hugelkutur” which is a much bulkier way of making lasagne beds using wood. I’m afraid that was a failed experiment, mostly due to the fact that in the very dry climate of the Algarve, the wood used in hugelkutur never rots down and also (and I’ve heard that this does happen) creates a fire risk as a hugel bed can  burn for days and are very difficult to rot down. So instead, I  experimented with piling all my garden waste in layers, with plenty of manure, on top of cardboard, just before the rainy weeks in the Autumn and find that rotting is sufficient for planting in the following Spring, the clay soil is lightened considerably and the ground over time much more workable. We are very lucky here in that we have few slugs and snails and those we do have are gobbled by the chickens when I turn them on the beds in the Spring.

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A lasagna bed being made

As far as planting goes, I’ve had very little spare money to spend on it. And in a way, I’m glad, because I have discovered that with my thick clay soil, if I chose the right plants, I can easily make twenty new plants in situ by taking cuttings at the right time, after a week of rain and just poking them deep into the soil. Sure, not all of them take, but a lot of them do. I have also grown perennials from seed and although I’m not all that good or patient at getting things to grow, if only one plant grows then I can make cuttings easily after that.

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Clary sage and nepeta grown from seed

Little experiments include germinating seeds in kitchen paper inside polythene bags…that works, but isn’t necessary for some plants eg vegetables, apart from perhaps peppers and tomatoes. It’s great for things like sweet peas.  I’ve also found that peppers grown in pots and moved to the shade in the very hot part of the summer work so much better than those in the ground. Some succulents need shade…who knew? I didn’t have a clue. My experiment of using concrete blocks as an edging and then planting drought resistant plants and bulbs in them is also working better than I thought it would. And vetiver grass, what a wonderful plant! I still haven’t done experimenting with that and I take great joy in following the way different people are using it all over the world on the Vetiver grass network FB group. The chickens have been a delightful and very successful experiment, keeping my garden manured and bug free and providing me with eggs and endless entertainment.

I am also doing lots of experiments with processing my food. The pantry is suffused with the wonderful acrid smell of my first attempts to make apple cider vinegar with a neighbour’s windfalls. She is making pectin. I wrote in an earlier post about making carob flour, which I made a cake with last week and very nice it was too. I made plum gin for Christmas and would love to buy a small still to see if I can make some aromatic oils. There seems to be so much to do…long may I be able to live to do it all!

Further experiments I  want to try are: planting by the phases of the moon, which most Portuguese famers do (if I can be organised enought)  a bit of pebble mosaic, although I’m sure it will all end up wobbly, gathering some seaweed from the Ria Formosa after a storm for use in the garden and making a  succulents rockery on a slope using mostly terracotta pots.

What always amuses me are the people who get very hung up on whether something will work or not, before they try it. Will the lasagna bed make the soil too acid? Will the mulch take too much nitrogen from the soil? Part of the fun of gardening experiments is that the garden experimenters dont know if it will work or not unless they try and succeed or fail.  Since your set of circumstances are always unique, your garden is your laboratory. We are all Garden Professors, endlessly working on small scale experiments and this is my lab report. I hope you enjoyed it.

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The result of my lasagna bed experiment

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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 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.

 

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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 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.

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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 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.

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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 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!

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

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

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

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

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Nettle, Urtica Doica

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

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Alexanders, Smyrnium Olusatrum

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

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

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

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Malva  or Mallow

 

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

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

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Patch of Nettles and Chrysanthemum Coronium 

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

To block or not to block – Algarve garden projects.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My greenhouse will be here one day!

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