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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Will the beautiful eagle we’ve seen soaring across the valley recently come for my chickens? Where would they hide if it did?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
I have fallen in love with a fiery creature of incredible power and beauty. A huge hulk of gigantic proportions, belching steam and sulphur. In short, I lost my heart to Mount Etna.
But not only Etna; to the beauty of the towns and villages, the people, the awe inspiring sense of history and above all, the colours, sights and smells that Sicily regaled us with.
We went to Sicily for Señor Faztudo’s 60th birthday, (he seems to have a penchant for visiting mountains on his important birthdays, I’m not quite sure why) We visited some wonderful towns and villages and each one of them was awash with plants and flowers, tumbling from everywhere and bursting with colour.
The ceramics, balconies and colours of the plants were very inspiring and leave me wondering why the Algarveans don’t so more to fill their streets with colour? They have the ceramics, they have the plants, but they don’t do it. Why? I think the answer lies in the fact that culturally, plants for decoration are seen as a waste of water and time (at least that’s how it seems to me in Southern Portugal , please correct me if I’m wrong) Food plants good; decorative plants a bit naughty. Growing flowery plants seem to be seen as the slightly shameful indulgences of women. Women crave them and try to grow tropical Datura, Bougainvillea and other very pretty plants, but it is somewhat to the approbation of their husbands and only the leftover washing up water can be used to water them. Neither must they take up important ground where food can be grown. I suppose it’s understandable. Very hard times, including starvation, are within the living memories of the oldest in our village, some of whom had to eat grass to survive and walk a hundred kilometres or more in their bare feet to work in the fields of the Alentejo under Salazar’s regime.
However, the people of Sicily have also had very hard times and they have no such inhibitions where flowers are concerned. I’ll let the pictures help me do the talking.
First of all the ceramics are so unusual and beautiful. Look at this little orange tree growing out of the head of one of the kings in Toarmina. The choice or an orange tree fits perfectly and looks like part of his jewelled crown.
Then there is beautiful symmetry of these three succulents, like Japanese pagodas, going into flower on a balcony, so casually elegant. Is everyone an artist in Sicily?
And look at these prickly pear cacti in their pots, how did they grow so perfectly alike? Or were they pruned like that?
And the balconies! This one is in Taormina. Well, if you’ve ever seen any more beautiful in the world, I’d like to know where.
Everything growing in Sicily just looks right, casually arranged, not a dead flower head, not a withered plant. Just look at these petunias tumbling out of white wicker baskets in Ortigia; you really have to be able to imagine the outcome before you plant, like an artist. In truth, the Sicilians paint with their plants.
However easy they make it look there is obviously great artistry in their planting and a great deal of love. I was taken by the current date in a small park in Caltagirone and struck by the fact that the number would have to be lovingly rearranged very single day. And look how the ivy is trained to make windows out of the railings!
I began to realise that the casual artistry is all carefully planned. These flower pots were arranged all the way up the steps to the church at Caltagirone to make the shape of a larger flower. How amazing is that?
So what have I learnt from my visit to Sicily to bring to my own garden here? I learnt that you really can paint with flowers, but to keep your painting looking beautiful you have to tend it every day and you need a special canvas and frame, the simplest plant can look amazing in the right container.
I left a piece of my heart in Sicily. I am sure that happens to everyone. I hope one day to return, but in the meantime I am already planning some beautiful container plantings for next year.
Hello from the Algharb Desert. Today it rained. Unusual here in June. The thirsty plants put their little faces upwards and drank it in with a sigh of relief. It’s been months without rain and the garden is a dust bowl. But a good heavy shower has fallen and I won’t have to water the garden today, something which has been a nightly chore for a good while, despite all our water saving measures, as we still have the pots, vegetables and trees to water.The heavy rain has only penetrated a couple of centimetres of soil, but the smell in the garden of the wet on the dusty soil is heavenly and I am relieved. I have tied up my camel for the moment and the canteens are replenished. We live to fight another day!
More seriously, the garden is coming along a little every day. Using the grey water and plenteous sheep manure in the nascent orchard is having some effect and the fruit trees have survived a cold winter and a drought and seem to be getting their roots down now, and although small are looking quite green and healthy. A quick spray of neem oil in nine parts milk seems be keeping the bugs down and I am experimenting with not putting the little organza bags on the peaches this year, to see if the chickens have done their job gobbling up any newly hatched fruit flies.
Our hard labour lifting and positioning flat stones in the hot sun all day to make the paths around the garden is complete and the hippy shed is in pieces in the garage waiting to be built by Senor Faztudo. I may get it before I’m 60! I have been thinking hard about how to keep it warm in the winter and the very important question of the interior design. Caribbean or Moroccan retreat? Zen or Heath Robinson? I can’t quite make up my mind. But that’s half the fun. I think the Shed of the Year competition should extend to the Algarve.
My little garden successes are some very pretty double aquilegia this year, which I grew from seed. I never thought they would grow here, but I chose a shady spot for them and they did very well. I have left all the seed pods to dry on the plant so I can distribute them around the garden. I have also managed to produce some euphorbia rigida seedlings and some euphorbia cypressa. My success is a bit like the parable “and some fell on stony ground etc” as out of a whole portion of perennial seeds, I often end up with between 2 and 10 plants after I have neglected to water them, left them in a a place that is too cold or too hot or let the cats knock them off the wall. But even if I get one plant I consider that to be a success as I can generate cuttings after that. I have managed to keep one lavender Hidcote blue alive that I grew from seed and also produced enough Tansy plants to put around the citrus trees in an endeavor to deter the fruit fly since apparently they don’t like the smell. (Nor do I much!)
Our globe artichokes, grown from seed. have been fantastic and we ate as many as we could be bothered to prepare, leaving the rest to produce their stunning seed heads. It’s so decadent to make a salad completely of artichoke hearts and I love doing it. There isn’t much in the vegetable garden at the moment, but I have managed to grow a few tomatoes and squash plants as well as some courgettes in this year’s lasagna bed. I know the vegetable garden is a long term project as until I can improve the soil, it isn’t going to be very productive. But we manage to have something most of the year, although it’s always far from being a glut. But then who needs a glut really? A glut just sits there looking at you mournfully waiting to be dealt with, making you feel guilty. And then when you tun it into jam or chutney it makes you fat!
I have a fine new cockerel. I was waiting for one to come to me and he came through a delightful route, in the boot of a new gardening friend, who had also bought me a stirrup hoe from France after mine broke from overuse. It was my favourite gardening tool, but I’ve never seen one like it here, so I was overjoyed to get a new one. And a fine rooster he is too, proudly upright and very quickly taking possession of his hens. I’ve called him Phoenix. Long may he rule the roost!
The other day as I was snoozing under the carob tree, the Carob fairy, who lives in one of the boles of the old tree and has done for many years, flew down and whispered in my ear. “As you have worked so hard over the past year, I will grant you three wishes for your garden. What will they be?”
I was ecstatic. Three wishes? What could I ask for? I had so many!
My first wish would be that my hippy shed, which I have been dreaming of for the last thirty years, but never had the room for, will appear at the wave of her magic carob pod. This one below is not the one, but a fisherman’s shed I spotted on Faro beach.
“But what kind of hippy shed do you want, really? ” said the fairy. I didn’t like her tone much. A bit up herself I thought.
I pondered. My hippy shed will be a place where I can relive my 60’s youth. In my mind, it will have mirrored Indian cushions, Moroccan lanterns and a comfortable chair for me to sit and read. It will smell wonderful and I will entertain my nieces and nephews and if I’m lucky, my grandchildren in it, and they will indulge me as I get old and listen to my silly stories. It will be an anachronism and rather twee, but I don’t care. The trouble is though, I’m not really a hippy anymore. And the house and garden aren’t particularly hippyish, if you see what I mean. So the question is a difficult one as I want my glamorous retreat to fit in with the rest of the garden. So I suppose I want a reasonably smart shed on the outside, which is a hippy haven on the inside.
I looked through the sheds on this wonderful site, which actually has a competition for The Shed of The Year. http://www.readersheds.co.uk/share.cfm Browsing through the hundreds of sheds, I found The One.
It’s a Caribbean Moroccan retreat, built from a budget shed and transformed. The very jobbie! I hope it wins the competition.
The Carob Fairy humphed and said I might have to wait a bit longer as she had to order the shell from the DIY store and search Ebay for bits and bobs and she couldn’t get that exact colour paint right now, but hopefully I will wake up one morning and there it will be.
So that was the first wish taken care of. The second wish was easy. I want the hard landscaping finished please. I am fed up with not having the bones of the garden completed yet. I can’t push a wheelbarrow all the way around the garden and I keep getting rye grass stuck in my sandalled feet. I also want some more gravelled areas as doing the last bit nearly killed us both. So I asked the Carob fairy if she could just move a ton or so of rocks from the fields around, the more attractive ones if possible, and arrange them as a terraced rockery on the bank, bung in a few more calcada paths and sort out some terracing in my vegetable garden and just finish off the gravelling in the corner please. She gave me a very hard look. “The landscaping fairy has hurt her back at the moment,” she said “You will have to wait a little longer, I’m afraid!” .
“Fine fairy she is!” I thought! “You’d think she could have at least made one of my wishes come true instantaneously”.
So we came to my last wish. I didn’t want to waste it.
I took a deep breath. I want more water please. “What? she said, “More water than you had this winter? Surely not! You’d need an ark!”.
“No”, I said “I want more water right now, when I need it. And I dont want to have to use electricity to pump it anywhere”
“Oh, I see, you want a reservoir on the hill behind the house”, she said ” I think your neighbours would have something to say about that. Other than that I’d have to put solar panels all over your garden with huge batteries in the garage to pump the water up from a borehole and I don’t think you’d like that either. I know how fussy you are about the way things look . Anyway, this is supposed to be a waterwise garden. What do you need more water for?”
I sighed. “I suppose you’re right” I said, “Could I just have a few extra water butts then, up there by the vegetable garden?”
So she waved her carob wand and they appeared in a puff of smoke and fairy dust. Two enormous green butts. I was rather taken aback. So I went off to water the tomatoes. And that is the end of the story. Except, I want to know your story. What would your three wishes be for your garden right now?
I came across this on YouTube today and couldn’t resist posting it here to share with you. I am now dancing round the garden in my rubber slippers and a floppy hat singing “I like the way you grow it” and invite you all to do the same!