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Garden Reflections: 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 pist.  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 consitutes 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!
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Common and Garden Experiments

 

 

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

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

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My garden five years ago

 

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

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The garden today

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

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My cat modelling my diffcult soil

 

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

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My chickens modelling the wood chip mulch

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

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A lasagna bed being made

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

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Clary sage and nepeta grown from seed

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

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

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

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

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The result of my lasagna bed experiment

“Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds”

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Tomatoes from my garden

I was reading a blog the other day where someone described 10 thoughts he’d had about life in general, and I thought I’d pinch the idea. Thanks HungryDai An Englishman’s life in Lisbon

I often walk about the garden thinking things…then the thoughts drift away on the wind, maybe to be forgotten, perhaps to be remembered and acted upon.

 

So here are 10 thoughts I can remember from the past week

  1. I thought today how green the garden is, considering the drought situation we are finding ourselves in. The fires further North in  Portugal have been horrendous this year and there’s a drought in the Alentejo and parts of the Algarve, so I’m being very careful with water, since I fear water saving measures may be on the way and I don’t want my plants to develop a dependency.  I wondered why it’s still so green and then realised it’s really because now, in its fourth year, everything has got its roots down. Most of the garden is also mulched too which has helped hugely.

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    Multi-headed sunflowers…why do they do that?

  2. I wondered a few days ago, where I would want my ashes strewn, in the event I died whilst we still lived here (cheerful thought I know!)  At the top of the garden under a seat facing the view? In the compost heap? Under a rose? To act as fertiliser for a sunflower? As a dust bath for the chickens? The latter me laugh, when I thought of my ashes being strewn in glorious abandon whilst the chickens deliriously ridded themslves of lice!

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    The greenhouse in development

  3. Wondering how to arrange the interior of the greenhouse Señor Faztudo is just completing for me. I’ve never had a greenhouse before. I’m sure I need a potting bench and I’m thinking about how it should be designed. Lots of searching for ideas on Pinterest. I’m also pondering on what I will actually grow in the greenhouse if anything. It’s really there to bring on seedlings and create new plants, but maybe I’ll grow cucumbers and lettuces in the winter in it too.
  4. Will the beautiful eagle we’ve seen soaring across  the valley recently come for my chickens? Where would they hide if it did?

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    Just the ticket for soup-except the plums!

  5. I thought this morning how pleasing it was to bring two fat beef tomatoes, a yellow and green courgette and a butternut squash up from the garden to make soup, along with garlic and onion harvested earlier and a pinch of home grown flat leaved parsley to go in at the end. I’ve always loved growing  my own food, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures for me.
  6. Which grape varieties are best for raisins? Do they grow here? How do you prepare the ground for grapes? Can I grow them organically or will they be overcome by mildew and diseases? I want to plant a row of grapevines behind the house on a flat terrace, not least  because they will provide a green wall in the summer and look great in the Autumn as they turn yellow and orange.

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    Helichysum Italicum in my gardn

  7. I’m  perplexed as to how  prune stuff in very hot conditions. It looks to me like some of the shrubs, the salvias and cistus are crying out to be pruned. But do you wait until the Autumn? Not sure what to do.
  8. The neighbours are beavering away creating a huge concrete area to store their carobs. It’s clear I’ll need some kind of screening, much as I enjoy the comings and goings of their market gardening activities. What can I grow that’s fast, is in keeping with a Mediterranean garden, and doesn’t need too much water? Pondering…all ideas gratefully received. The bed I need to plant it in is on a slope between two apricot trees. It needs not to lose its leaves in the winter and provide screening to quite a height. Please don’t suggest Leylandi, its one of the few plants I hate.
  9. What is growing now back in the UK? Are the courgettes only just beginning  and are there any blackberries yet…we don’t get them much here as it’s too dry. Are the wild flowers going over in my sister-in-law’s meadow in the Welsh hills? What are my old allotment friends up to in London? I’m thinking they will be getting ready for the annual allotment barbecue, with a camp fire and songs and lots of good things to eat, grown cooked and shared. I miss that community of fellow gardeners sometimes and think of them with wistful fondness.

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    Gunsite Allotment scarecrows, South London

  10. My garden is all “No Dig” one way or another. I’ve never really thought about that until now, although its not no-dig  in the Charles Dowding way, as I can’t produce compost in large quantities as there is little water and biomass and the chickens run free over half of it. Digging never occurs to me for one minute nowadays. I haven’t even got a spade or fork, only an “enchada” the Portuguese hacking implement, which is a bit like something the English would call a mattock and I use that less and less, only to remove unwanted plants or weeds.

And a last thought snuck in, as it always does. What plants would I like next?  Something a gardener always thinks about really, we are all greedy for plants!

Writing  this, I’ve realised  realise that my garden is the place where I do most of my thinking, and not just about the garden. As Alice Sebold said:

“I like my garden –it’s a place where I find myself, when I need to lose myself.”

Growing things to eat in a waterwise way

 

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The first of the plums from my garden

It’s the start of harvest time in the garden, difficult to appreciate when you are used to August, September and October being harvest time in more northern climes. Plums coming out of our ears!

We have just been through a very hot dry June, with the devastating fires that claimed the lives and livings of many in Central Portugal. So very sad and I feel such sorrow the people affected. My fervent hope is that Mother Nature will do her work quickly and start to put up green shoots to soothe the hearts of those who have lost so much.

In times of drought and hot temperatures, water use is a serious issue. I am learning all the time about gardening with less water, including food growing. Water is a limited resource here and not to think about its use is actually socially unacceptable. If you wonder about why ornamental flower gardening isn’t prevalent in the Algarve, it is really because in a country where starvation is still in living memory, to use water on flowers, in some people’s minds, is almost tantamount to a crime. The local farmers’ wives are almost clandestine in their efforts to grow flowers (and flower gardening, for some reason is seen as an exclusively female thing, although that is changing)  Ornamental plants are seen as a real luxury, grown along walls only with the use of washing up or slops water.

However, there are some trees with very beautiful flowers that also produce food. I managed to produced a Feijoa Sellowiana or Pineapple Guava from seed and it’s a beautiful tree, with lovely flowers, as well as fruits. Pomegranates are also stunning in all seasons, with red flowers, lovely young red leaves in the Spring, very attractive fruits and yellowing leaves in the winter. Why not grow a beautiful tree for food and use your water and space wisely?

For us, with our UK pensions and not on subsistence farming money, life is a little less complicated, but we are still using a common and scarcece resource. And in the same way I don’t put on the outside lights we have at night except on a special occasions, I want to use water wisely as an act of respect for those around me, because it’s a limited, scarce resource and also because it’s very expensive. Water is metered here and it depends what camara (council) you live in, how much it is per unit. It isn’t the same countrywide. The cost of it also goes up the more you use.

So, back to the harvest and eating from the garden, what can you grow and how do you maximise on water?

The most obvious thing, considering we have a thick clay soil which retains water well, is to grow trees. In times gone by, when wheat harvests failed , the Portuguese lived off bread made from figs and fed it to their pigs. The almonds grown here, whilst not the perfect shape like the Californian almonds, taste better than any in the world. The olive oil produced was used by the Romans in their lamps, although nowadays it’s much too precious for that. Trees, once established, put down very deep roots and can last until the next seasonal rainfall, as long as you choose those well adapted to this climate.

 

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An old olive tree for eating olives in my garden

I am fortunate to have some venerable trees which were already in our garden when we arrived, a mature and ancient olive which gives me enough eating olives for a whole year, some almonds, and a few carobs. I don’t need more, as I wouldn’t  have time to harvest the fruits and process them and I’ve resolved to eat everything in my garden, if I can and not waste anything. I only have about 1,600 square metres of garden, but within that I realised the other day, I have over fifty trees and 19 different types of edible fruit or nut, some producing, some too young to prouce yet. Many of those are very drought resistant once established, peach, certain varieties of plum, almond, apricots,pomegranate, olive, carob. The rain, when it falls is very heavy indeed and the clay soil retains the water well and nourishes them.  I also have some citrus trees, but aside from the lemon, I am rather wishing I didn’t plant them. They are very difficult I find, hard to get established, prone to disease and pest and they need lots of water. They are at the bottom of my steeply sloped garden and receive all the grey water from the house through a great filtering system, but without this, I don’t think I’d bother with them. The idea of turning shower water into oranges quite pleases me though, so I persevere!

After three years of making mistakes and probably paying huge amounts for each cabbage I’ve produced, I am getting the measure of how to grow vegetables in my garden. The trick is to use the winter period and natural rainfall  wisely. By planting seedlings in the shade in August and getting them ready for the first rains in the Autumn, or buying plug plants in the market, you can have cabbages, kale and spinach in the Autumn. Potatoes can also be planted in the Autumn, for a cheeky Christmas crop, but you do run the danger of frosts cutting them down in the January to March months, even in the Algarve.

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

For broad beans, or favas, as they are known here, I always watch my neighbours andput them in when they plant.  They always plant them after first rains and then they mature by the Spring before the blackfly begin. I also almost always leave some pods to dry on the plants  and drop to the ground, because the best beans in my garden are always those that self seed, since they know exactly the optimum time of year to germinate by themselves. Peas need to be put in during  the very early Spring, as it is all over once the temperatures get too hot and mange-tout work really well here I find. I have yet to find the secret to growing any kind of green beans, they often come to flower and then it gets too hot for them to produce , or the bean rots in the ground before it’s had a chance to germinate. I  don’t  think I’ve hit on the right variety of bean for the Algarve yet, or developed a good understanding of their needs. I tried English runner beans and they flowered, but never produced beans.  All suggestions gratefully received.

Garlic and onions are easy enough if you get them in at the right time. I put mine in very late this year, so they are small, but they are very unproblematic. I buy them as small plants in the market as they are very cheap and the right sort of onion to do well here.

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Peppers in my garden grow best in large buckets or pots. They need early sun and then when it gets too hot, you can move them into the shade, as the afternoon sun in the summer is too hot for them. Planting them in pots means less watering too and you can feed them more effectively. I have also given up trying to grow strawberries in the ground and grow them in deep pots too, the kind you buy trees in, with piles of well-rotted manure at their roots when first planted.

I have been very successful with Globe artichokes, which I love, although dis-infesting them of earwigs is an issue. They also have very deep roots and use natural rainfall well. I now eat them really young at the beginning of the season before I get fed up with them and then leave the flowers to mature as they are so beautiful.

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But the jewel in the crown  this year has been the courgettes and squashes, which I’ve never had success with so far and also beef tomatoes, which I haven’t grown before.The thing is, not to grow too much of anything. You can’t even give them away as everyone has them at the same time as you, so another water saving tip, is to think about how many you need or to grow something different from your neighbour, so you can swap.  Three beef tomato plants is plenty for two people, three courgette plants has given us three of four a day for the past month and I have pickled a lot of them.

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I have written before about my lasagna beds and making soil. My clay soil is full of big and small rocks and any attempt at growing squashes or courgettes in the gorund  has meant buckets of water and a complete stop in production if you don’t plant them before it gets really hot. After that, you could water them all summer and it would make no difference at all. And I did. So I ended  up wasting water and eating nothing. A complete folly and rather shameful. So I invented “The patent  Stork’s Nest Water Retaining Squash and Melon Compost bed” or SNWRSMC (!) for short, a 4 in 1 technique which helps you get rid of all your garden rubbish, grow fantastic food, use less water and make great compost”

But more of that in the next blog post. I’m sure you can’t wait!

The Cats That Walked By Themselves

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My greenhouse will be here one day!

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

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!