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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.

 

Food for thought in the garden- Gardening in Portugal

 

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A beautiful cabbage with a wild geranium peeping through

I have often written before about the idea of having an edible garden and eating or drinking it as much as possible. In such a dry climate, such as we have in the Algarve, this becomes ever more important, since water here is metered and quite expensive. We don’t have a personal bore hole and although we have a large cisterna to catch the rainwater from the roof,  we are in a state of severe drought, and with a rainfall  level of a mere 450 mm during the whole of last year, it’s vital that we make every drop count.

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Potatoes, Nasturtiums to eat in salad, chickweed for the hens, nettles for soup, a leek.

After five years of working on the garden with food production in mind , albeit it pretty food production,  we are  starting to see results. This year, to my delight, we harvested 11 avocados from the Hass avocado tree that we nurtured for three years and I reached up in wonder at the end of the summer and picked one walnut which had been hiding amongst the green leaves. That walnut could not have been more precious , as it’s the promise of many more to come. We’ve been busy finishing off  jams and chutneys produced from last year’s fruit crop in expectation of the next. Even with our young trees, I managed to make loquat, plum and apricot jams and very tasty they were  too. The citrus trees have been the most problematic to get started, but we had a small but satisfyingly juicy crop of lemons this year and even a handful of limes. We have also harvested  a small sackful of almonds, before we trimmed back the trees. Luckily the almonds were already young trees on the land when we first got the house.  The tree work  we did has given us the first tonne of wood to burn next Autumn, once it is properly seasoned and dried out, and kindling aplenty.

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Physalis or Cape Gooseberry

As well as all the Mediterranean standard trees, I have more unusual fruit in mind too. Physalis, or Cape Gooseberries are dotted about here and there,  which are surprisingly easy to grow, although they do need steady water in the summer, so I’ve planted them under a tree  so they share the water. I also have a Dragon Fruit cactus and an Opuntia, or as they are known here a “Figo de India “and hope one day to eat the fruits, which although seedy, I find delicious. When I went to Mexico once, we ate the pads, although I am going to have to find out how to remove the spines without doing myself a damage.

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Moaning Millicent, the bantam, peeping through the lemon flowers

On reflection, I think I have planted too many citrus trees and should have planted more figs or apricots, which need far less water. I think the idea of citrus is so attractive to us people arriving from Northern climes and the trees are so cheap in the markets that we get a bit over excited. They take a great deal of water to get established a lot of cosseting, especially in the heavy clay soil of the Barrocal. They also get sunburned trunks and suffer from deficiencies. They are a vexatious tree, but I will keep trying with them, having put so much water, blood, sweat and tears into their care over the past three years.

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Some nearly organic eggs

The chickens are still giving us lovely eggs every day. I am pondering over their feed though as although I thought I could get buy on feeding them scraps and letting them free range, this isn’t enough. I need to feed them some grains. However, the corn here is all genetically modified and liberally sprayed with glysophate and none of the feed is organic, so I am trying to find an organic source of grain at a reasonable price, which is proving difficult. I am not comfortable about eating the eggs every day if they aren’t organic,  since this is a main food source for us, so I need to find a solution.

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Favas or Broad Beans in flower.

In the vegetable garden, I’m harvesting lettuce, cabbage and broccoli and beetroot all grown from plug plants, bought in the market in October. I also have some potatoes which were left in the ground from last year and reproduced themselves. I am also experimenting with some beautiful kale in five different varieties I grew from seed ordered from the UK. Some have purple or red leaves and I think they will look beautiful in May, before my winter vegetable garden is put to rest for the summer.  Everything is growing well, but quite slowly right now as it’s cold at nights and the days are short. I have flat leaved parsley in pots, plenty of delicious thyme, bay leaves, and the tops of onions left behind from  last year as seasoning and even the odd chilli pepper which I’m overwintering in my new greenhouse. I didn’t realise pepper plants can last a few years here, like perennials.

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Cucumber seedlings

The favas, which again self seeded from last year are flowering already and I am hoping there are enough insects about for them to set seed and if they do the wild west winds that tend to rattle around us in March don’t blow off all the burgeoning seed pods. I am growing summer savoury, which when eaten in conjunction with favas are meant to stop you farting. We will see!
I have brined the olives I picked from my biggest tree last October and they are curing nicely, we are eating the green ones already and the black ones are going all wrinkly in their bed of salt as they should. Once they are finished, the skins can be quite hard, so I often spend a morning peeling them and de-pipping them before turning them into a tapenade.  Oh the joys of retirement, to spend a whole morning taking olives apart! We didn’t pick enough to make oil this year, but it is something I’d like to do in the future, as we certainly have enough trees to give us at least 10-15 litres, especially if we grafted some our wild olives and made all our trees productive.

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Salvia Officianalis and Rosmarinus officinalis

The wonderful aromatic shrubs in the garden also have a range of uses and I am learning them. Rosemary and Sage for cooking, verbena and mint for teas, myrtle and fennel to flavour vodkas and lavender to flavour olive oil to make a dressing for tomatoes. Even the weeds  can be eaten. I have used nettle tops for soup, as my grandmother used to do and the stalks of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) in salads, although they are very scented and Señor Faztudo  says its like eating after shave. Nasturtiums also grow well here and I dot them amongst the vegetables and put the leaves in salads, even eating the seeds like capers as they produce a plentiful amount, although they need to be planted on north facing banks as they can’t take temperatures above 30 degrees and shrivel and die off quite quickly in July.

This year I am attempting to grow a patch of chick peas for the first time. The peas need to be planted quite deep after rain and then once up, don’t need further watering. Even if I get a kilo from my little patch, this will give me some hummus, which we both love.

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Various Kales grown from seed

My new greenhouse has been a great pleasure (more of that in a future post) and I have far too many tomato, squash and courgette and pepper plants, waiting for the warmer weather. I also have outside cucumbers, which for some reason, I have never grown very successfully, but I have prepared a special place for them this year, so let’s see.

Reading this, it sounds like I have an enormous vegetable garden or something. I really don’t. I grow my vegetables potager stylie, some time ago realising that they can be just as beautiful as any annual flower garden. Sometimes everything looks so pretty I can hardly bring myself to eat it, but I am getting better at planting things throughout the season to take the place of the things we eat.

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The vegetable garden…spot the cat’s head!

So, eat your garden folks! And eat it quickly before something else does. As I speak, the rain is falling steadily outside after months and months of blue skies and no rain and if I listen carefully I’m sure I  can hear the sound of the little snails chomping their way through my greens. I don’t blame them, but it can’t be allowed as I need the crop. A good way to deal with problem that might be to eat them back! Now there’s a thought..

To my Valentine, Garden.

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A Rose from my Valentine

Dear Garden,

I know you will be surprised to get this letter from me, after all we’ve been together for five years and seen each other every day, so you might wonder at the need for this sudden formality. However, I have the desire to tell you and indeed all the world, just for posterity, how much you mean to me. It wasn’t love at first sight, I admit.  It was the view beyond that attracted me first.  That handsome and inspiring rocky outcrop on the other side of the valley, with the little white village nestling in its armpit grabbed my attention over your shoulder. The mist at its feet was ethereal, the translucent evening light dazzling. I wanted to gaze at it for all eternity. When I finally turned my attention to you, it was quite a shock. You’d undergone some upheaval I admit, recent building works had left you in considerable disarray. Dishevelled and uprooted, discombobulated even, I wondered how I would even begin to work with you to set things straight, let alone help you become the beautiful garden I’d desired all my life. I wondered if I’d ever have the energy to mould your banks, build your steps, form your paths, make your beds, and plant the seeds to make you whole.

As I was wondering all this, Spring came all of a sudden and I turned my attention away for a second, absorbed in the almond blossom and the sparkling sea. When I returned to you, you gave me flowers. Your battered soil  was covered with every kind of beauty, wild chrysanthemum, their daisy heads sparkling like crowns; sumptuous borage alive with bees; wild fennel, home to the Swallowtail; asphodel; poppies in five different shades of red. You  smelled divine too. I breathed in your heady scent.  I turned away from gazing at the rocky outcrop and fell head over heels in love with you. A love which just grows and grows.

You’ve  been very patient with me whilst I try to understand you. You are a foreigner to me, a garden from a far off land with many things to teach me. I thought I was recovering you, but in fact you’ve recovered me. You’ve been a hard teacher at times, rejecting my attempts to inflict my will on you, even killing the tender plants I placed in your care, or shrivelling up my most beautiful efforts and stamping on my dreams. But I know  really you are only mirroring back at me my need for  control, gently teaching me to work with you, not against you. To teach me that we two are one.

So, dear one, it’s been five years since we became  intimately acquainted. I walk your new paths every morning and tend to your trees, both the old ones, planted long ago by other lovers and the new, my gifts to you. There will be new lovers for you too, and although I feel a tinge of sadness at the thought, I wish you well. Love can only be true when you set your lover free.

So, I  think I’ve found the flowers you like, those with strong roots and a tough demeanour, the enduring ones. I’ve planted you herbs to nurture you  and left you precious wild plants to cover you in the Spring. I have learned to give you just enough water, not too much, to feed you at the right time and in the right way. I’ve nourished your bones and in return you’ve nourished my soul. As I learn, you become more beautiful and so do I.

When I am gone, for I will go before you, remember me.  I will be in the hot wind that blows from Spain in the summer and the cold gusts rattling your bones from my homeland in the North;  I will be in the mists that shroud you; the light rain that kisses you. I will be in the special places where we spent hours together;  I will be under the ancient olive tree. For I love you more than words can say and you have healed me and left me whole. One Love. Jane

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 – 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 Facebook 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 to 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 are saying is wrong. After all it’s been scientifically tested, just not  tested 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. 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 enough)  a bit of pebble mosaic, although I’m sure it will all end up wobbly, gathering some seaweed from the beach 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 don’t 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