Archives

The Cats That Walked By Themselves

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Subordinate Cat

I am going to tell you about my cats.  I consider them very important members of my gardening team as  I wouldn’t have thought of having chickens without them.

Subordinate Cat in full camouflauge

Because  he loves me, Señor F tolerates the chickens, as long as they stay in their half of the garden, although he says we should rename that part of the garden “Poo corner”  But what about the cats? Why have we got them? I suppose the answer to that, is that he hates mice and rats worse than cats. We lived in a terraced house in London and once, the cellar was overrun by mice after some building works next door. We still shudder to think of it , as we had to really fight back to get rid of them. And there is a carob processing plant in the village, which is why no one minds the feral cats we have hereabouts, they do a very important job.

A  friend of ours who worked in cat rescue  found a nearby farm-house with  two kittens living in the barn, needing a home. I wanted females as they are better mousers, in my experience and two little balls of very frightened fluff arrived.  The condition of their adoption was that we had them spayed,and vaccinated which we, of course agreed to.

On their arrival, we immediately had the problem that Señor Faztudo didn’t want them in the house, so I made them a warm bed in the cellar. However, it became clear in a very short time it  was cruel to leave such young kittens alone and so they were brought into the house under sufferance, where a dark box in the warm kitchen soothed their initial fears. But feral kittens are taught to hide in the day  by their mothers and somehow on the second day, the smallest kitten disappeared completely and was nowhere to be found. I thought it may have crawled up the central hoovering system and was in a terrible panic when the other kitten also did a disappearing act! Two hours later I had pulled out every box from every cupboard, shouted “kitty kitty” down the central hoover conduit until I was hoarse and taken the washing machine apart. Zilch…nada….

A little while later, I was on the loo and suddenly an awful smell began to attract my attention. Worried that there may have been  something badly wrong with me, I suddenly heard a pitiful mewling and both kittens emerged from behind the bidet covered in poo.  Panicking and to hide the fact that the cats had done the terrible awful behind the bidet I scooped them up in one of my best hand towels  and washed the poor little things under the bidet. All of Senor F’s worst nightmares were happening at once! Bedraggled, but none the worse, the kittens went back in their box and so their lives with us began.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Boss cat up the ladder

The kittens entertained us mightily  for the next six weeks, but Señor F held firm in his resolve that they would be outside cats and actually, I agreed with him. Both our previous London cats had lived outside, and were very healthy for it. They always had a warm bed in the shed, were fed a good quality meal once a day and did  a great job keeping rats and mice out of the garden. And there is the added advanatge of not bringing ticks and fleas into the fhouse with is an inevitable by product of having animals, even with treatments. The key thing is to feed them at the same time every night, and let them in the house, just for their meal, so they know where they belong. And  of course, if they hate it, they are at liberty to go and live elsewhere (which in fact, one of our cats did, at the age of eight. But that’s another story)

Little by little our kittens grew and Señor F tolerated them swinging on his trouser leg, dashing in and out of paper sacks and cardboard boxes and scratching the sofa to death, with good grace. After a while, they began to venture outside and get used to their surroundings. I’ll call them Boss Cat, the white one and Subordinate cat, the tri-coloured one,  to protect their anonymity. One day, Boss Cat didn’t come home at night. I was distraught and feared she had been eaten by something, a fear which was made worse by venturing into the garden and shining a torch into the tree to see dozens of pairs of eyes of something! I hoped they were feral cats who would look after a kitten, but I went to bed in tears. The next morning  there she was at the door, bright as a button and none the worse for her adventure, although she didn’t do that again for quite a while.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Over  the next few months the kittens  became more and more adventurous, only returning to the house in the evening. At first, like all young things they had their ups and downs. Subordinate  cat ate a black gecko and had a very sore throat for a few days. Boss cat got beaten up by a huge Tom, despite being spayed and was very wobbly for a while. Subordinate cat got her foot caught in a rabbit snare and it was red raw…she must have been released by the farmer, but it healed. All of this was worrying, of course, but I tried to accept it as an inevitable part of their freedom and we were always on hand to take them to the vet if they needed treatment. Every night I fed them a meal at the same time, so I could keep an eye on them and they have nearly always come home and always a few days later if they have gone roaming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For their part, they have done their job well. Despite having chickens and vegetables growing in my garden, I have never seen a rat or mouse unless it was dead and in the process of being consumed. The downside is occasionally they eat lovely birds, the saddest was a green woodpecker baby. Boss Cat once fell in the pool swiping at a swallow, to her great surprise and found quite quickly, she could swim! And I once found quite a large snake on the mat, playing dead. I picked up up on a stick and it sprang, to life, quite crossly. At the point I could only say I was glad the cats don’t live indoors!  They have a bed each in the porch and occasionally on a winter’s night I can be seen furtively slipping a hot water bottle in their beds, although with the thick coats they have, I doubt if they really need it. If  Señor were to see me he’d say ” you’re turning those cats into wusses!”  They have lived with us for four years now and have learned wily ways to cope with their surroundings. They don’t even eat my newly hatched chicks and I like to think they know they are “family” but sit on top of the coop as though guarding them from other cats. I love to see them about the garden enjoying their independence, although I also feel honoured  when they come and sit on my lap and watch the chickens with me from the hippy shed. I would have more if I could, but Señor F says two is plenty to take responsibilty for and, as usual, there is some sense in that!

To block or not to block – Algarve garden projects.

1.jpg

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.

almond-blossom-323829_960_720

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.

flowerpots-1852912_960_720

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.

tile-1148768_960_720

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)

img_0936

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.

thumbnail_image1

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!)

thumbnail_image1.jpg

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!

 

 

Harvesting the trees: the fruits of the Algarve

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”  Walt Whitman

fig-tree-1432291_960_720

 

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.

forest-1407624_960_720

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.

black-87800_960_720

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.

fruits-183411_960_720

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.

arbutus

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!

Hot damn in Portugal!

 

sunflower-105113_960_720

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gaillardia, grown from seed

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rose mulched with gravel

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bark mulch on an area of the garden

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mulched courgette

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A long view of the lower garden area

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.

Gardening weekly. Read all about it!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A succulent mini garden

 

As I walk around garden, I think of great stuff to blog about. Then when I sit down to do a post, I forget them all! I really must get into the habit of carrying a notebook around in my pocket to jot down ideas. I can’t even blame my advancing years on these lapses of memory, since I’ve always had a brain like a sieve. It’s raining today, so I’ve settled myself to catch up. I blog really as a way of writing a diary of the garden progress, but it’s nice to know people may read and learn from my experiences and mistakes. I like to thing of you all gardening away on the other side of the virtual fence.

The other day my sister, a keen gardener,  did one of those round robin Facebook challenges of posting something from the garden every day.  She nominated me to take part, but I never got round to it  although I did take some photos and thought about what I’d include each day. Instead of posting them day by day, I’ll do it here:

So a photo for every day of the week:

Monday

P3260738.JPG

This is a Scilla Peruviana. To my shock and awe when I first came here, because I just couldn’t believe my eyes, it grows wild here under the carob trees!  And long may it continue to attract the bees and insects, although many of the extraordinary habitats here are threatened by the cleaning of large areas of the serra/mata for carob or orange plantations. I have some growing in my garden, but only because a friend and neighbour found  some bulbs uprooted by one of these diggers and rescued them for me.

Tuesday

Giant Globe artichokes

P4050767.JPG

I have globe artichokes coming out of my ears. Or should that be earwigs coming out of my globe artichokes! The plants are gigantic and I grew them from seed. I need a ladder to pick the globes.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised really, because cardoons  and large thistles grow very well hereabouts. The Portuguese use the flower petals of the cardoons as a sort of rennet to make the local sheep’s or goat’s cheese set. Unfortunately, although I love globe artichokes, they are full of earwigs, which I detest. The other day some friends  arrived from the UK just as I was putting them in a pot to boil to make globe artichoke salad for lunch. Although I’d banged them out before bringing them in, there were still loads struggling very vehemently against a watery death and my guests were greeted to me hopping about the kitchen doing battle with the little varmints. Not a great advert for lunch!

Wednesday

A Dutch Iris

P4050781.JPG

Irises grow very well in my sunny garden. I have planted many, in honour of a very dear friend,  who loved them with a passion. Athough she has gone to the Great Garden in the Sky, I feel she walks about with me as I work in the garden. She was never shy of giving advice and I frequently feel I hear her telling me I need to be bolder with colour or more daring in my planting. I love the colour of this iris which is called “Tiger’s Eye” It has  just the sort of exotic colours she liked and I’m sure she’d approve of it. I share it in her memory. I miss her  in my world.

Thursday

Lettuces

lettuce1.jpg

Some of my lettuces have been so beautiful this year I can hardly bear to eat them! Lettuces are a bit touch and go in hot climates, and frequently bolt. I bought these as plug plants in the local market, where you can get  15 plants for a euro, and planted them in a sunny spot a couple of months ago and they have done really well. The leaves have that slightly bitter taste you don’t get in the hydroponically grown offerings in the supermarket. And if you manage to grow them in between one rainfall in the winter and another before the snails and butterflies have woken up yet, you can get away with little damage, although I did cover these with horticultural fleece, which Ive since discovered disintegrates in hot sun.

Friday

Fasciating Echiums

P2230186.JPG

Fasciating Aida! This is an Echium Candicans or The Pride of Madeira doing something weird called Fasciation. It should grow into a tall blue spire, but the cells get confused, something to do with slightly too rapid growth and this weird thickening and twisting happens to the flower.  I find fasciation fascinating, but not everyone likes it to happen to their plants. It doesn’t happen every year and I watch it in amazement! Google it if you’d like to know more, I’m not too sure of the science of it. The  flower should be like those in in this photo, spire like. A beautiful plant that grows like a weed in Madeira on the hills.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Saturday

Large, Medium and Tiny eggs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Eggs from my chickens

These are three eggs laid by my  chickens. The first ibelons to  Lady Henrietta.   She laid huge eggs. Unfortunately she’ll never lay an egg for me again as  we had to kill her kindly this morning as she had been ill for a week and my nursing wasn’t making her any better. She went the way of all my hybrid hens, all dying of  egg peritonitis in the end, caused by the fact that they are bred to be egg laying machines and it’s all too much for their bodies eventually.  But she lived a good life; four years for a hybrid hen is a very long time and she went from being the bottom hen to Chief Chicken in that time. I stroked her head, shed a tear, looked her in the eye  and thanked her for her life and eggs,  as I always do when we have to cull a hen and with Senor Faztudo’s  help we dispatched her quickly with the garden loppers.  I hate it, but it has to be done as part of a responsible chicken keeper’s job. Unfortunatey I doubt  someone will be able to afford me such kindness when it’s my turn to go (although I’d rather it wasn’t by garden loppers of course, could get a bit messy!)

On to happier subjects! The second egg is from my bantam hen, Miss Henny. Mrs Chicken , my rather unreliable broody, is sitting on nine of her eggs right now and if we don’t have any mishaps, we may have new life in the garden by next Wednesday. I do hope so. I am learning all the time and although I haven’t hatched a brood yet, I’m hoping this will be third time lucky.

The third egg is a witch’s egg! Or that’s what some people call them and superstitious people won’t have them in the house. It’s a teeny, tiny egg with no yolk. I’m fascinated by them, but glad they don’t lay them too often, usually in the Spring after a period of being off lay.

Sunday

Wild orchids

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bee Orchids

Finally here’s a photo from God’s Garden for Sunday. The wild orchids are all around us here and you can see from this shot how similar they are to bees. Bless them!  I love the way they just pop up at you on a walk and surprise you. I hope I will always be surprised and delighted by them and never take them for granted. And that’s the end of the Gardening Weekly. I just remembered I was going to write about my latest passion, perennial vegetables. I’ll get on with that then…

Naked Men, Gorgons and Stork’s Nests

The Spring is coming! The Spring is coming! We walked down the road beside the house other day and the Naked Man Orchids were up already (If you look closely at the petals you can see why they are called that, hehe!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Naked Man Orchids

However,  Winter isn’t  leaving us without  a  sting in its tail, as parts of Portugal, even as far South as the Algarve, have had snow. It was a surprise to me that this happens at all, especially as Portugal doesn’t have any particularly high mountains, despite the title of author Yann Martel ‘s (Life of Pi fame) latest book “The High Mountains of Portugal” My Portuguese neighbour, Donna M tells me that when it snows in the hills near Monchique, children from Algarve schools are bundled into buses on the spur of the moment to see the wondrous white stuff.

What does this cold snap mean for us gardeners? Well, not much is the answer, where I live, because as we live high up on the side of a windy hill, the worst thing that happens is a very mild frost in the front of the house and some wind burn from the biting North Winds. However, friends in the valleys  nearby, where the nights are colder, suffer some fairly fierce ground frost and often have bougainvillea and Datura cut down to the ground, if not killed. The coast is a different prospect and banana trees grow happily without cover through the winter. So if you are a gardener, where you live in Portugal and its microclimates are important in terms of accomdating  plants you can grow comfortably. And each garden has its microclimate, with greater or lesser extremes of temperature, depending on the season and the direction it faces. I have had to study the garden closely and learn from it to get it right and I’m not there yet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Salvia Illfindthenamelateris

I was walking around my garden this morning and realised I am literally in love with it. It hurts my heart and stops me in my tracks. I can barely get back up to breakfast and coffee after I let my chickens out as there is so much to stop and stare at. But like a love affair, I am torn between letting its wild and free side take over and trying to control it and bend it to my will. It’s a difficult balance. And one day I will inevitably have to leave it, whether it  be because I choose to, or because death takes me and then my garden will take another lover. The thought brings tears to my eyes already, not for the loss, but because of the beauty of the circle of life itself.

Anyway, I digress into soppiness!  Back to practicalities. I constantly read, listen to others and experiment my garden endeavours. As I have said before I like to garden with chickens, who I find to be excellent garden helpers, especially when you design them into the garden. However, they have their half and we have ours. I wanted to plant Spring bulbs in their half, but their predilection for digging everything up meant that all my efforts to plant were in vain. Down the side of our long and steep drive is a west facing flowerbed. The chickens love to use it to scratch for worms, which mean that the drive invariably gets  covered with unsightly soil. I inveigled Senor Faztudo into making me what became known as “The Great Wall of China” as it was indeed a great task. We bought 100 grey concrete blocks, the ones with the holes in. I experimented with these and found that although they held water, they drained effectively, so I asked him to lay them holes upwards. I then bought some wholesale narcissi and muscari over the Internet from Holland and spend many an hour on my knees planting them up with the bulbs and putting a thin layer of gravel mulch on top. To my delight the chickens couldn’t scratch in them and although they ate the few tulips I planted, they left everything else alone. I have a lovely show down the length of the drive now! I must be getting soppy in my old age, because they really gladdened my heart on St David’s day and reminded me of my youth when we used to go down into the field near my home in Wales and pick bunches of wild daffodils for my parents. I will eventually plant nepeta and succulents in between to hide the bricks altogether.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On other garden matters, you may recall I had two new bantams, Miss Penny and Miss Henny. Well after a little while, Miss Penny started to act a little suspiciously and paying her sister rather a lot of attention. After a few weeks I heard Miss Penny making very un-henlike noises and although somewhat guttural and rather halting it became clear she was crowing! So now I have two cockerels, Phoenix, the big white gentle head of the flock and Junior. Some people with experience of two cockerels have told me they will kill each other eventually, but there is certainly no sign of it yet. Junior sticks with his wife, who is fairly tolerant of his clumsy advances and every now and again tries it with Phoenix’s hens, who rebut him loudly with a peck and a squawk. And every now and then Junior goes flying through the air when Phoenix catches him attempting to mate with one of his wives. But they all go into the coop together at night and sleep well together and all is forgotten until it starts all over again in the morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Phoenix and one of his wives gardening

After several failed attempts last year with Mrs Chicken, who isn’t a very good broody as you may recall,  I am hoping Miss Henny will become Mrs Henny on the not too distant future and I will be able to have some Spring chickens. Fingers crossed.

My walk around the garden revealed some interesting sites. The Cape daisies are out. These lovely cheerful plants grow very well here and come in two colour, white and mauve. They are excellent ground cover and look beautiful tumbling over a bank, although they can get unsightly and need hard pruning back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cape Daisies

A gardening friend in Portugal has the most wonderful display of freesias in pots here every Spring and one day I hope to have a beautiful show too…not only for the sight but also for the smell, which is heavenly and always makes me swwwon with delight. We have a small wild version which is cream coloured in the Algarve and they grace many a cottage pathway at this time of year, smelling wonderful as you walk past them I only have two pots, but here they are. My friend just told me to leave them to bake in the Summer in full sun once they are over and they are easily moved to the corner of a garden and forgotten about until the next Spring, when a little feed brings them back to life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Freesias in pots

My dalliance with succulents continues and may well become an addiction. I picked this one up at a garden fair recently and I’m absolutely fascinated by it. It looks so much like a snake! I am sure it must be called Cacti Medusa Somethingorotheri it is so like the Gorgon’s head!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Snakey Cactus

Here are another couple of pots of new acquisitions. I have learn to keep them out of heavy rain, and shade them a little in the greatest heat, but apart from that, succulents need little care and often reward you with the most surprising and amazing flowers. One of the most moving moments of my life was waking up to the Mexican desert in a hotel on the Baja peninsular one morning, having arrived in the night after some rain. The hotel was in the middle of nowhere, the kind of hotel you feel you would check in, but never leave. The beautiful desert was in flower, with succulents and cactuses al sporting brightly coloured flowers! I couldn’t believe the beauty, although had to be careful not to wander too far away from the hotel, lest I encounter a rattlesnake!

IMG_0135

I am a little obsessed with using the succulents to make  miniature gardens for future grandchildren. Here are some of my experiments with flotsam and jetsam gathered from the beach.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Succulents miniature garden

Finally, here is an example of the tensions I am creating between control and madness in the garden.  I hate weeds and I love them. They strangle and dominate the order you are trying to create on the one hand and rob nutrients, light and water from the food you are trying to grow. But they are beautiful, attractive to beneficial to insects, nutritious to chickens, great for compost and lush in a country where it is dry for months on the other hand.

The area under the fruit trees I am mulching to keep weeds down and to indulge the chickens. They dig and dust bathe in the mulch, the mulch is great for the trees, the weeds are kept at bay. Here’s one of my cats modeeling the mulch rather attracively.

P3030625.JPG

I am developing a new concept here in the mulched area, a lasagne bed stork’s nest, where I’m hoping to grow melons. All the garden rubbish has gone into it, including newspapers along with coffee grounds from the local cafe. I used olive twigs to build the nests and for the moment I am using chicken wire to keep it all in and the chickens out. It doesn’t look great yet, but watch this space! (Reading back over my blog posts, I realise I hae mentioned this before. Forgive me dear reader, I don’t get out much and am probably over excited about what is really a pile of rubbish!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Stork’s Nest Lasagna Bed

I am very pleased with how well Globe Artichokes grow in my garden. I grew some from seed last year and all these are seedlings and offshoots from the original plants. The chickens love to hide out in them and you may just be able to spot one of my naked neck chickens peeping out. I get a huge group and earwigs notwithstanding I am able to eat artichoke heart salad until I’m sick in the season!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Globe Artichoke and a Peeper!

In some areas of the garden I am encouraging the weeds to grow in all their glorious profusion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wonderful Weeds in the vegetable garden

Here is my best weed! How beautiful is that? And I love the Alexanders aka  Black lovage, Smyrnium Somethingorotheritis that abounds and was probably bought here by the Romans, who ate it until they discovered they liked celery better.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Prize weed, a thing of beauty!

But don’t get the idea I only have weeds in the vegetabke garden, there are some vegetables too!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Leeks and cabbages growing on last year’s lasagna bed

So some on with the spring I say!  We  expect to eat loquats, apricots plums and peaches this year. My only wish is that the trees grow a little faster and that our health and strength remains so we can eat avocadoes, pecans, cherries and figs too from the new trees we’ve planted before I meet that great gardener in the sky!

Sicilia, you’re breaking my heart!

I have fallen in love with a fiery creature of incredible power and beauty. A huge hulk of gigantic proportions, belching steam and sulphur. In short, I lost my heart to Mount Etna.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But not only Etna;  to the beauty of the towns and villages, the people, the awe inspiring sense of history and above all, the colours, sights and smells that Sicily regaled us with.

We went to Sicily for Señor Faztudo’s 60th birthday, (he seems to have a penchant for visiting mountains on his important birthdays, I’m not quite sure why) We visited some wonderful towns and villages and each one of them was awash with plants and flowers, tumbling from everywhere and bursting with colour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The ceramics, balconies and colours of the plants were very inspiring and leave me  wondering why the Algarveans don’t so more to fill their streets with colour?  They have the ceramics, they have the plants, but they don’t do it. Why? I think the answer lies in the fact that culturally, plants  for decoration are seen as a waste of water and time (at least that’s how it seems to me in Southern Portugal , please correct me if I’m wrong) Food plants good; decorative plants a bit naughty. Growing flowery plants seem  to be seen as the slightly shameful indulgences of women. Women crave them and try to grow tropical Datura, Bougainvillea and other very pretty plants, but it is somewhat to the approbation of their husbands and only the leftover washing up water can be used to water them. Neither must they take up important ground where food can be grown. I suppose it’s understandable. Very hard times, including starvation, are within the living memories of the oldest in our village, some of whom had to eat grass to survive and walk a hundred kilometres or more in their bare feet to work in the fields of the Alentejo under Salazar’s regime.

However, the people of Sicily have also had very hard times and they have no such inhibitions where flowers are concerned. I’ll let the pictures help me do the talking.
First of all the ceramics are so unusual and beautiful. Look at this little orange tree growing out of the head of one of the kings in Toarmina. The choice or an orange tree fits perfectly and looks like part of his jewelled crown.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then there is beautiful symmetry of these three succulents, like Japanese pagodas, going into flower on a balcony, so casually elegant. Is everyone an artist in Sicily?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And look at these prickly pear cacti in their pots, how did they grow so perfectly alike? Or were they pruned like that?

The poetry of prickly pears

And the balconies! This one is in Taormina. Well, if you’ve ever seen any more beautiful in the world, I’d like to know where.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEverything growing in Sicily just looks right, casually arranged, not a dead flower head, not a withered plant. Just look at these petunias tumbling out of white wicker baskets in Ortigia; you really have to be able to imagine the outcome before you plant, like an artist. In truth, the Sicilians paint with their plants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever easy they make it look there is obviously great artistry in their planting and a great deal of love. I was taken by the current date in a small park in Caltagirone and struck by the fact that the number would have to be lovingly rearranged very single day. And look how the ivy is trained to make windows out of the railings!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I began to realise that the casual artistry is all carefully planned. These flower pots  were arranged all the way up the steps to the church at Caltagirone  to make the shape of a larger flower. How amazing is that?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a close up, further up the steps. Not a dead head in sight!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven the bicycles are beautifully adorned, really it’s like a film set everywhere.So beautiful!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So what have I learnt from my visit to Sicily to bring to my own garden here? I learnt that you really can paint with flowers, but to keep your painting looking beautiful you have to tend it every day and you need a special canvas and frame,  the simplest plant can look amazing in the right container.

I left a piece of my heart in Sicily. I am sure that happens to everyone. I hope one day to return, but in the meantime I am already planning some beautiful container plantings for next year.