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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!

 

 

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Do the Pokey Pokey….

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After the Deluge

It’s time to do the Pokey Pokey. Not the Hokey Cokey, although on a beautiful day like this, I’m in, out, in, out and shaking it all about. No, the Pokey Pokey is what I do at this time of year, after the rain has fallen in glorious tumults. For the last two weeks, the clouds have rolled in from Africa, bringing with them lightning, thunder and lashings of rain in Biblical proportions. And now we are renewed and I can take up my poker and plant!

I have said before, I am a lazy gardener. I can’t be doing with too much fussing and pruning and preening. Because of various of life’s twists and turns, not least the exchange rate as a result of the  Brexit effect and a series of domestic breakages, I am also an impecunious gardener. I can’t afford to purchase  trays of sumptuous plants (which is just as well, because I probably would have killed most of them) so I have to propagate. Now I know the Pokey Pokey propagation technique sounds a bit rude, but I can assure you there is no sex involved. I just take an iron rod as long as a walking stick,  the sort that reinforces concrete, and walk around the garden cutting bits off one plant, poking a hole and popping the bit in, quite deep. Then I whisper a few magic words (“Hokus, Pokus, please don’t Croakus!” ) and hope for the best. About half of the time it works, chickens and cats, drought and tumult permitting. Obviously it works better with some things than others ; great for lavenders, roses, and succulents; not so great for more tender things. For these I use the “Jitterbug” technique. A garden designer in the Algarve, Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, taught me to  let the leaves of whatever plant fall down and create a little skirt around the plant, even though it’s planted in a gravel mulch (never be too tidy in a garden, it doesn’t pay off)  Also, I don’t cut off any bottom branches until the Spring. Then after the rain, I wait a little while and look under the “skirt” (Why is gardening so rude?)  Usually I find a lot of rooted branches in the leaf mulch, which I gleefully separate from the Mother plant and settle somewhere else in the garden, although it’s a rather dangerous technique as invariably I encounter a creepy crawlie that seriously gives me the jitters!   Although, it’s a slightly dangerous technique from the point of view of unexpected surprise, from one plant, comes forth many and it’s worth the danger! Very satisfying.

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A “Gives me the Jitters Bug”

Early in the morning, after I’ve fed the chickens,  I can be seen in  parts of the garden where the chickens don’t go (they gobble up any seeds dropped) doing the Hippy Hippy Shake. This is the propagation technique which involves me cutting off all the brown heads of plants, like the lovely Clary Sage I bought in Lidls  few years ago,  and bringing them back to life by seed propagation. It’s like sprinkling fairy dust as you go round the garden shaking out the seeds. The chickens look on longingly through the bars of the fence. Poppies also enjoy a good shake out, as do Nigella (not Lawson you understand!)

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I do try to grow from seed, but it’s so hit and miss.  I plant them and watch anxiously for ages and nothing happens, then invariably I forget what I’ve planted and plant something else of top of it. By the time it puts it little head up, I have no idea what it is. As far as organisation, labelling etc, there’s no hope for me,  I’m 60 now and it isn’t going to happen. It’s still worth trying though, because even getting one plant to maturity creates propagation possibilities. I have one Hidcote blue lavender out of a batch of seedlings, most of which fell by the wayside and now I’m taking cuttings from it. I have seeds from a smashing red and orange Gaillardia and some gorgeous  aquilegia.

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Señor Faztudo is in the garage banging away as I write  (what IS the matter with me today?) building me a greenhouse for Christmas. I rather suspect his motivation is his growing collection of small trees  from avocado, mango and various other pips which he plants at random into my flowerpots and expects me to look after. In vain, I tell him I don’t know where we’re going to out any more trees, but he’s somewhat obsessed. In the past we’ve had experience of getting fruit trees to maturity and then having to leave them to someone else as we move house or give up an allotment plot. I think he is determined  to get something to eat before we peg it.

So, if you’re thinking of propagation and you feel a bit unsure, remember if I can do it, you cancan too!

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Lavender hedge created with the Pokey Pokey propagation technique.

Hot damn in Portugal!

 

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The summer has arrived with a vengeance and I am thinking about how both I and my developing  garden deals with the  heat. At the moment, the sun, which was my friend only a few weeks ago, ripening my courgettes and bringing on my beans, is now my enemy. I try to defeat him by getting up before him, watering the plants at dawn, but by 9 o clock it’s almost 30 degrees and he is shimmering relentlessly as he rises in the sky. The courgettes stop flowering, leaves wilting by 10 o clock, any ground not mulched cracks and breaks, the water trickling off, useless. It’s war!

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Gaillardia, grown from seed

 

However, it’s no use taking on Ra as the enemy, because I will lose. Really at this time of year you have to admit defeat, pull up the drawbridge and go inside in the shade , stop planting and go into survival mode. Your best defences should have already been put in place and if not, it’s too late. So how are mine bearing up?

Well, poco poco I’d say.

My first defence has been to set large areas of the garden over to drought resistant planting. If you have eyes to see, there are plants all around us in the mata (wild bush areas) growing wild without any water at all and they don’t die. They return in the Autumn and Spring with the rains, bursting with scent and colour. Lavenders and cistus, rosemaries and fennel, thyme and nepeta, arbutus and Pistacia Lenticus bushes, (mastic tree) even roses only need a little water. And I have also grown irises and grasses over a mid terraced area which look beautiful waving in the wind, even when dry.

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Rose mulched with gravel

These areas, once established need not be watered at all. Admittedly during the heat of the summer, they certainly don’t look their best. But I quite like the dried seed pods and so do the chickens and a little trim and tidy up and they don’t look too bad.

One of my main discoveries is the importance of mulch. I’m a great fan of the Graden Professors’ Blog on Facebook. It is a group set up by scientists at Washington State University to discuss empirically and peer reviewed gardening science and all the research says mulch WORKS. And indeed it does!  Wood Chip Mulch pdf Linda Chalker Scott says you need to use wood chips and I have found a source of something that approximates it in wood bark.  It’s not easy to find appropriate mulch in the Algarve , where even straw is scarce and we have few leafy trees,  and the fire risk also has to be considered, but the addition of the mulch I have managed to find under the  citrus trees, shrubs and perennials has made a huge difference to their capacity to survive and thrive the sun’s searing rays.  I am also able to use less water and growth has been much better on all the areas I have mulched. The chickens scrabble around in it too, which helps improve the soil below and their droppings help with the nitrogen content, which can be depleted in the breaking down process.

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Bark mulch on an area of the garden

I do water the establishing plants, one area of the garden with more tend, non native  perennials, and the vegetables  and have been very glad of the large cisterna or rainwater tank  which collects the winter rainfall we get from the roof.  It’s huge and contains a two month water supply for the garden. Our soil in the Barrocal is on the alkaline side and the slight acidity of the rainwater is good for the plants. We save money on the water bill, which can be huge in the summer as water is metered in Portugal, but we have an electric pump to get it out of the cistern and we are trying to weigh up the costs. I haven’t really got any kind of organised irrigation in place yet and water by hand. This is helpful as I assess the needs of each area and plant and water accordingly, but it’s very time consuming and take an hour and a half to water the whole garden!

One of the surprises to me has been that succulents do better in  the shade once it gets above 30 degrees centigrade. I move them in their pots to the shady side of the house and water and feed them and they put in a huge growth spurt. Those succulents in the ground and  are in the sun, shrink and go to sleep and I don’t water them too much as waterlogged roots when they are in this mode is the kiss of death. I didn’t know any of this when I arrived and lost a lot of succulents by watering them when they were in sleep mode.

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Mulched courgette

I actually get quite angry with high summer and am struggling with myself.  The garden which flowered beautifully in late Spring and now, just like Winter in the UK, everything goes to sleep and looks dried up and dead. I have tried to be grateful for the mini Spring that comes with the first rains in Autumn as a compensation, but I still feel robbed. I sometimes think of the cricket lawns and green woods of the UK and feel a pang of jealousy. Gardeners want it all.

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A long view of the lower garden area

The chickens suffer in the heat of the day. Their feathery coats are a burden to them and they pant to keep cool, taking themselves off to the tall grasses to hide and complaining to themselves as they brave out the time until the evening when they can come out to forage for the dried seeds and unfortunate ants in the garden. Occasionally they come across a locust and an excited chase ensues over its crunchy carcass. Usually Mrs Chicken wins as she is boss, but her progeny sometimes manage to steal a wing or leg. The cats sleep all day stretched out on the cool tiles in a shady spot and I seek solace on the sofa, under the air conditioning unit with a gardening book. I shouldn’t moan. The early mornings bring the most beautiful of dawns, the night skies are breathtaking. Really, it’s just another day in hot paradise.

Three chickies and a funeral..

(This post is dedicated to the FB group Funky Chicken PT Fan Club with grateful thanks for all the help with chicken rearing from their members)

Funky Chicken PT Fan Club

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Broody Godzilla the Hen

 

This is a shaggy chicken story, if there is such a thing, so if chickens are only  something you eat in batter with chips, move on, gentle reader.

I have tried very hard to remain unsentimental about my chickens, really I have, but actually I think I’d  better admit  I’m completely besotted with them. One half of my garden is devoted to them and in that part I can only grow things they can’t eat, that’s how much I love them.

The flock has a sort of natural ebb and flow about it and I like that. It’s also changing as my knowledge of chicken keeping develops. I have learned a lot over the past four years, both from the chickens and from other people who are more experienced and have helped me on the way.

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Mrs Chicken

Although I do see my chickens as a very useful  source of eggs, and potentially meat (well ,you have to do something with the cockerels) I also see them as a resource for the garden. My young fruit trees are doing very well and are fairly  bug free thanks to their efforts as the chickens eat anything that moves and they are also well manured by their droppings. They cheerful ly scratch through the compost heap, turning things over and their night bedding, a mixture of wood shavings and poo is an excellent addition to the compost heap.

But my chicken flock is imbalanced at the moment. Right now, I have the three naked neck  hens, a trio of trouble if ever there was one, and Mrs Chicken and Miss Henny sitting on eggs. To make it more confusing, Mrs Chicken is sitting on 9 of Miss Henny’s eggs, as I want more bantams and Miss Henny  will be sitting on eggs from a friend’s  flock (she is sitting on one rather dirty egg at the moment as I’m waiting for the eggs)  Chickens aren’t terribly fussy about whose eggs they sit on, so there is a certain amount of social engineering a chicken keeper can do.

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Fresh eggs and vegetables from the garden

My two cockerels are left with three hens. I have a big white cockerel called Phoenix, and ayou couldn’t imagine a more gentlemanly bird (if you can call a bird that!)  He watches benevolently over his three hens and the hens on the eggs, clucks lovingly when he finds a tasty tidbit for them and makes  cooing noises to them when they dustbathe together, scratching the soil about them in a heap of ecstatic rolling in the dust.

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The Velociraptors

But he has his problems, in the guise of the bantam cockerel Junior or Bonarparte, as we’ve come to call him (I’ll get to that in a minute). Junior is the Cockerel Formerly  Known as “Miss Penny”. He came with Miss Henny and escaped into the wilderness, as you may remember from an earlier blog post.  Now Junior sees Miss Henny as his wife, and indeed she accepts her role, although secretly she prefers Phoenix and sometimes even sits down for his ever so gentle advances, which is just as well, since he’s three times bigger than her. But Junior also sees all the other hens as his potential wives and creeps up on them for a bit of “how’s your father” at every opportunity. When he succeeds in getting hold of their combs, which is how cockerels stay on a hen’s back  (bit graphic, I know, but you’re all grownups)   the hen squawks loudly in protest and Phoenix rushes up and boots him up the rear to Junior’s great upset. As Junior never gives up on his endless quest to steal Phoenix’s wives, he has come to be known, reasonably affectionately, as Bonaparte, or Bonar for obvious reasons.

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Mrs Chicken helping me garden

Junior needs more wives, which is why Mrs Chicken is sitting on 9 of Miss Henny’s eggs. Although I can’t breed from them as that would be incestuous. Not that hens care about that, and there isn’t a law against it, but it isn’t a great idea in the long run as it will replicate weaknesses in the flock. That’s  why I’m asking a friend to give me some unrelated fertile eggs to put under Miss Henny, who is going to be renamed Godzilla the Hen, because that’s what she turned into since she’s become broody.

I have always heard that broody hens can be vicious, but Mrs Chicken isn’t. She complains a bit when I get her out to let her feed and dust bathe, but she’s never pecked me once. In fact she coos at me in what I like to think is an affectionate greeting.

The little bantam, so prissy and shy with her feathery feet, and usually very sweet, has turned into something out of a Hitchcock movie. As you approach the nest she looks at you with a very reptilian eye. Her icy stare seems to say “Go on, make my day” and then if you do actually approach her further the feathers on the back of her neck go up so she looks like a sort of puff adder . The she emits a blood curdling squawk. And God forbid the gardening glove gets anywhere near!  It’s pecked to death. I’ve learnt my lesson. I approach with the barbecue mitt and a dustpan for a shield.

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Miss Henny and Bonaparte

The baby chicks are due tomorrow. I’ve been very good, I haven’t checked the eggs every minute or disturbed the hen at all. But I have to confess to listening outside the broody box for pips and cheeps, none so far, but I’m quietly confident this time, watch this space.

On a sad note, my chief hen, Lady Henrietta had to be kindly euthanised this week (that’s a nice way of putting it, I’m afraid)  She was my last hybrid hen of the four I originally had. The poor things die of egg peritonitis mostly because their ovaries are overworked producing eggs. Factory hybrids are bred to be egg laying machines and it means they don’t live long. She managed four years, pretty good going and had a lovely life. But she was a clever, sharp hen who rose from being the bottom of the pack (actually she wasn’t bottom, she just couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about being left out of things  and stayed aloof) to being the top hen , almost by default. I will miss her.

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Lady Henrietta RIP

Such  is birth, life and death in my garden. The other day someone said “Your house  is something like a cross between a villa and a farm” I take that as a compliment, I think!

PS. STOP PRESS: Mrs Chicken finally did it! She hatched three chicks and they are all doing well. I’m a Chicken Granny. Weyyy Heyyy!

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The chicks-2 days old

 

Gardening weekly. Read all about it!

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A succulent mini garden

 

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

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

So a photo for every day of the week:

Monday

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

Tuesday

Giant Globe artichokes

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

Wednesday

A Dutch Iris

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

Thursday

Lettuces

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

Friday

Fasciating Echiums

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

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Saturday

Large, Medium and Tiny eggs

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Eggs from my chickens

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

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

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

Sunday

Wild orchids

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Bee Orchids

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

The Kitschen Garden Shed (all puns intended)

The Garden Shed

The Garden Shed

It was my birthday recently. Señor Faztudo gave me the best present ever and I want to share it with you. For a long time I have imagined a particular place in the garden where one day I would have my  hippy shed. I know I have written about it before and pondered how one day I would sit with a niece or two, a gardening friend or even one of the cats and gaze out on my developing garden as it grows, with nothing better to do than dream and muse. Well that day has nearly come and although it isn’t finished yet, the shed was up in time for its inauguration around midsummer’s day. People came for its grand opening, people who have become very precious and all of whom have eased our transition into this new country, one way and another (in fact several people came whom I didn’t know at all and that was a delight in itself) I burnt joss sticks with one lovely neighbor, bedecked the doorway with rasta ribbons donated by another and settled into the wonderful lime green planter chairs which appeared in the shed, complete with up-cycled denim cushions and an artificial lawn. We even had an official opening ceremony with a friend who helped us lay the foundations and build the beautiful stone paths.

My lime green planter chairs, upcycled denim cushions and foam flowers

My lime green planter chairs, upcycled denim cushions and foam flowers

I called it the “Hippy shed” initially because I had thought I would bedeck it with Moroccan accoutrements which are quite easy to get here, since we are only a short hop across the water from Tangier. In my youth, which occurred sometime between the mid- sixties and the mid- seventies, I suppose I thought of myself as some sort of flower child and I wanted to return there, and revisit the times by using luxurious wall hangings, camel gourds and the like. But, the birthday presents I have been given have changed my mind somewhat. It can still be a hippy shed, but I am changing my mind about the decor.
Occasionally I watch UK television on the internet, especially on hot afternoons where temperatures have been in the 30s and sitting under the air conditioner is the only sensible thing to do. So I have wiled away a few hours watching the most eccentric and uniquely British “Shed of the Year” competition. I was gobsmacked by the ingenuity and sheer whackiness of the entrants and the wonderful inventive and quirky garden edifices entered for the competition. One crazy guy had made some garden decking with a shed on top into a boat and sailed happily down the river in his garden shed! Another built the most exquisite Chinese tea pagoda in a garden in Sussex or somewhere, complete with a little bridge over a koi carp pond. So it set me thinking about what my entry would be and what kind of shed could you have which was different from all the wonderful sheds entered for the competition.

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The nascent kitschen shed

I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I am going to create The Garden Shed. In fact it might even be called the The Kitschen Garden Shed, because inside my shed will be…A Garden!

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Pottery chicken, soon to lay Onyx and Amethyst eggs

Now I have the germ of an idea, my imagination is running riot. Water, as you know is a big problem in the Algarve. So most of the garden in my shed will be artificial. I am also going to make it the kind of garden that future grandchildren will be enchanted by. Garden gnomes will abound. Fairies will peep out of bunches or psychedelic flowers, artificial banana trees will harbour toy parrots, larger than life metal ants will crawl up the wall, rubber pythons will wind themselves around the chair legs, clockwork frogs will say” Ribbet Ribbet”, pottery chickens will lay real marble eggs, plastic fish will sing. In short, it will be totally over the top. Anything goes.
Artificial flowers seems to have changed since the sixties when they were all hard plastic. A gardening friend, who is a wonderful gardener and totally dedicated to the plants and flowers she nurtures in her garden was absolutely horrified when she realised that some palms which she was admiring in our garden centre were artificial. That’s how good some of the artificial plants are nowadays. They jump up and dupe you. Horrifying to a real gardener!
The first decorating decision I have is what colour to paint the internal walls. I am considering a cerise pink or a dayglo blue. Perhaps a sort of “Teletubbies” or” In the Night Garden”effect might create the right ambiance. I already have the artificial grass to put down, the lime green chairs and the pottery chicken, so I’m off to a good start.
In the name of garden decency and respect to Señor Faztudo, who doesn’t really go for anything hippy, except me, we’ll keep the outside a conservative grey and maroon to match the house and fit in with the rest of the garden. He sits by patiently however, with that amused smile of his, as I begin making flowers out of recycled bottles and the tissue paper some of my birthday presents came wrapped in and planning where I can get some artificial trees, although a Face Book garden friend suggested a real Monstera might work. Maybe some large real green plants would do well and get less dusty than artificial ones. I can also use it to dry flowers, such as the lavender I have grown in the garden.

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Lavender drying

The wonderful thing about The Garden Shed, is that it has made the bottom part of the garden begin to feel like a garden, rather than a field. The paths we’ve made with blood, sweat and tears converge on it and bring the garden into focus, drawing the eye and giving it a “lived in” feel.
Despite being eager to get going on the decor, I am sure the insides will evolve and grow quietly and unfold perfectly, as any ordinary garden does. Like anything in life, it all starts with an intention, the rest just slowly and wonderfully takes care of itself. May all our intentions be fun, my  gardening friends. Peace and Love Dudes,  Far out!

Peace and Love

I beg your pardon, Mrs Arden, there’s a chicken in your garden!

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I am going to write about my chickens. If chickens don’t float your boat, feel free to move on to look over someone else’s fence, although I aim to convince you that chickens are great  for the garden, although I am painfully  aware there are disadvantages.

The chickens have been part of our garden almost since we arrived. I’ve never kept them before, they weren’t allowed on our allotment in South London ( although someone kept racing pigeons which caused great consternation at allotment management committee meetings) and I always felt a bit sorry for the chickens that were kept as pets in plastic “Eglu” boxes  in the terraced gardens of friends. I just didn’t think they had enough space and they were often eaten or injured by hungry urban foxes, to the extreme distress of the children who looked after them. But now I’ve got  enough space for them to roam freely and foxes are shy around here and tend to stay on the Serra, so I can free range them during the day around the garden, although I live in terror of the Egyptian mongoose, the only predator I really worry about.

We started off with the cockerel, Nando, a gift from someone who mistook him for a hen and then bought four pullets, ready to lay. We have three of these original hens, Yoko, Mother Clucker and Lady Henrietta. The other hen, Chicken Licken sustained an injury to her neck from a weasel or cat when we were on holiday. Sadly, we had to cull her on our return and that wasn’t easy. Although it was necessary, we didn’t enjoy the experience, but it’s something you need to think about if you keep chickens. (I still have the terrible sound of the terrified squark she made just before she went to meet her maker ringing in my ears) I expect the vet could do it, but it would be expensive and probably unheard of here in rural Portugal. Or maybe a neighbour would help out. It is something to think about. I also have a hen donated to us as she has a tendency to go broody. We call her Mrs Chicken and a right fusspot she is too!

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There are endless sites about how to keep chickens, but I won’t go into that here. I really want to talk about how chickens are compatible and incompatible with gardening.

My original plan was to allow the chickens go everywhere in the garden all of the time. Some sites on the Internet suggested that this might be possible. Believe me it isn’t!  There are several reasons for this. The most obvious reason is that chickens eat plants and absolutely love newly emerging seedlings, but even worse than eating them, they are enthusiastic and very diligent diggers. if you haven’t watched a hen scratching at the ground, it’s very amusing. They  do a sort of quickstep shuffle, inspect the ground for any tasty morsel, gobble up whatever they find and then repeat the process. They also love to dust bathe, and generally like to do it at the base of a new shrub you’ve just planted, with no regard for the damage they might do in exposing the roots. But whilst of all these behaviours are damaging, they are also useful. I have placed the compost heap close to the chicken coops so they can turn it over, although I have sectioned off an area where worms can hide, otherwise they would all be eaten. I also take the chickens into the vegetable garden in the Autumn, where they do a great job of eating all the bugs, including the snails’ eggs. They have a voracious appetite for anything that moves, which is also useful in orchards. The Mediterranean fruit fly is endemic here, but for a brief period in its life cycle, it is a helpless newly hatched fly on the ground, when the chickens have a chance to gobble it up. Even small mice are not safe from my chickens, who once stole an unfortunate shrew from my cat’s jaws and gobbled it up! I have one hen, Mother Clucker, who is only interested in eating bugs and she is my chief gardener. I allow her into the vegetable plot with me when I am digging the ground over in the Autumn and she follows me, happily seeking out all the nasty bugs (and probably gobbling up some of the good bugs too unfortunately) She makes appreciative little noises as she follows me around and I enjoy her company. But we never tell the others where she is. Four chickens and a cockerel in my vegetable garden is too many.

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Next, there is the wonderful benefit of chicken poo. It is the most weed free of manures and although quite strong and not to be used neat on young plants, it is very useful in the garden, I use it in several different ways. In the Summer, when it dries quickly, I go round collecting it with my trusty children’s beach spade and put it in a bucket to mature. I either mix this with water to use a feed to the roots of plants, or use it as a compost activator. I use wood chips as bedding in the chicken house and empty the whole thing once a month to put on the compost heap. I have read neat chicken manure should never be used in the vegetable garden for health reasons, but it is fine to put on lasagna beds that will rot down for six months or so before you use them. However, you can put it neat at the base of fruit trees and water in well. Señor Faztudo hates chicken poo with a vengeance and in order to avoid any danger of it getting on the patios, has a super soaker water pistol to hand to discourage the hens from coming near the house. Chickens hate getting wet and he only has to pick it up nowadays and they run off squawking, although we have noted that one particular hen always raises her tail and deposits a present whilst retreating. And they say hens are stupid!

We have separated the garden into two halves, the back of the house for the vegetables and plants which chickens like to eat or which are poisonous to chickens and the front of the house for an orchard and garden area with aromatics, grasses and plants which chickens don’t tend to eat. I think this might be different chickens might have their own preferences, but our hens don’t eat thymes, rosemaries, lavender, geraniums and other aromatic plants, most ornamental grasses once they are established, roses or canna lilies, or irises. Oleander, Datura and Avocodoes are poisonous to them, so I keep an area for those plants around the back. (These plants are poisonous to people too)  I do have a young avocado tree in the orchard, but I hope they aren’t silly enough to eat the fruit or leaves.

Chickens are also great natural lawn mowers. They keep the grass down pretty well. I don’t say they eat all weeds, but they eat a lot of them, which is a wonderful bonus. They love the wild spinach which grows liberally in our garden.  On the other hand, they scratch all the stones up out of the ground and I am perpetually raking them up. They also make holes, which every now and again, you need to fill in or till over as the ground becomes very uneven.

The main reason for having them of course is for their eggs, which we get in plentiful supply. I get great satisfaction eating them and knowing that In essence, I am eating recycled garden bugs and weeds! I keep all the eggshells to bury under the roots of the tomatoes, which makes for strong plants, as tomatoes need calcium for good growth. The crushed eggshells are also good for making a circle around tender plants to deter slugs.

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I have now caught the chicken bug and want to expand my flock. I think my garden needs about eight chickens and the cockerel. Mrs Chicken sat on a clutch of eggs patiently for 21 days, but none hatched. I am afraid Nando may be too big for the little chickens as he falls off frequently and hasn’t managed to fertilise the eggs. So  I have bought four new chickens from a local pet shop, which have been quickly dubbed “The Peepers”  as that”s all they do at the moment, peep and poo. This is quite a dangerous thing to do, as there is the strong possibility of bringing disease into your flock. But they are in quarantine at the moment and seem fine, so far.  I promised I wouldn’t name this batch, in case I had to do the dirty on them somewhere along the line, but that didn’t last long and I have called them Ory, Weed, Pea and Badass. (just add the word Chick to the front of the back of the word and you’ll get the general idea!) They were quite young when I got them and it wasn’t until they came  home, I realised I’d purchased the ugliest chickens on earth, a breed known as the Turken, as they look like a cross between a chicken and a hen. They have a genetic mutation which means they  are born without any feathers on their neck and when fully grown look very weird. But I love them anyway. I have seen quite a few in farmyards hereabouts and with 30 per cent less feathers, apparently they do very well in hot weather, which is a good thing as my bigger hens have looked very uncomfortable in summer. I also hope they grow my bigger than the little hybrid hens I have at the moment, so Nando doesn’t fall off any more and I can breed from them, using Mrs Chicken as a broody.

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The  chickens themselves provide delightful entertainment when you are working in the garden. Nando enjoys cussing the other cockerels in the village and its quite funny watching him stand guard over his harem. Although not unduly aggressive, he has a job to do and he does it well.(The guarding bit I mean, he isn’t so good at the fertilising bit!) His beak is sharp, his talons are like razors and I wouldn’t like to be a cat after his girls. He is easily as big as a small dog and very fierce when anything challenges his flock. He lumbers around like Road Runner and raises a lot of laughs. Most of the Portuguese villagers on seeing him laugh and say “Muito bom com batatas” or “Very good with potatoes” and I guess he would be. But I love him, I have to confess.  For the moment, he’s safe, although I can’t guarantee that will be the case for his sons, sadly. That is unless one of them is good at pushing wheelbarrows up and down very steep hills.

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