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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

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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!

Preserving: the truth

 

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I find this time of year a tad depressing. The olives are swelling on the trees, ready for brining and salting, the plums have already been made into jam and the peppers are pickled. Well, in most people’s houses. I know it’s sour grapes and probably sour figs as well, but at this time of year, I’m faced squarely with my inadequacies in the preserving department. My Facebook news feed scrolls by with photos of delicious pickles and jams and burgeoning pantries filled with jars of lovely produce as people process their crops. I’m  not a Domestic Goddess. My pantry is full of grubby egg boxes, cleaning equipment and packets of dried foods from Lidls. Maya Angelou once said “Let me watch someone with a tangled pile of fairy lights and I’ll tell you want kind of person they are”  I’m the kind of person who jumps up and down in a flap when my hosepipe gets tangled, falls over it, breaks a few plants and stomps off to the house for a cup of tea leaving Señor Faztudo to sort it out. I’d love to have a pantry full of gorgeous preserves, all lined up, but my jam never sets, my jars are all different sizes and when I make pretty labels, the felt pen runs.

I’m not a complete failure however. I have learnt how to brine olives, preserve lemons and pickle peppers. But to be honest, anyone can stuff a lemon full of sea salt, change the salt water in a jar of olives ever day or boil some vinegar.

Even when I do succeed  in making a jar or pickles or some such, I live in fear of dying of some horrible toxin because I haven’t sterilised the jars properly. Botulism is my biggest worry and although it’s extremely rare, I never put garlic in with my olives, because of my fear of it. I think I’ve got a sort of cook’s hypochondria and lack confidence about the whole preserving game .

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Figs are all being dried around here at the moment, laid out on the top of cisternas or on the flat roof. I have tried to dry them in the sun a few times. The first year I left the out in the sun, I found them crawling with maggots from the flies that laid their eggs on them in two days. “Don’t worry about that,” said my Portuguese neighbour seeing my disgust, “just put them in the oven on a low heat for a long time  and all the little maggots will come out” I did and they did and the maggots  got fried, but that still put me off eating the dried figs a bit, although they were so delicious, I succumbed in the end.  Then I learned  about a  minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is symbiotic with the fig. The female wasp lay their eggs in an unripe fig and her offspring hatch and the females tunnel out to find another fig to lay their eggs where they deposit the pollen from the tree they were hatched in. Unfortunately,  the entrance to the fig is constructed  to destroy the wings of the female, so  she can never visit another plant and is entombed in the fig. So when  you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing those female fig wasps. A friend called this “The Ugh” and said she couldn’t think about it or she would never eat another fig. I’m inclined to agree.

Still, we benefit from all our friends’ offerings, the real Domestic Gods and Goddesses.  One of my friends makes the most delicious “English” marmalade. Funnily enough, although we live only a couple of hours from Seville here, the Portuguese don’t eat or make marmalade, even thought the word marmalade comes form the Portuguese “Marmelada” Marmelada is a sort thick quince jelly  you can slice, such as we serve up in the UK with cheese at posh restaurants. The Portuguese eat it a lot, as the fruit Marmelão or Quince grows very well in Portugal.

My  neighbour, Donna M, always supplies me with huge jars of newly picked and bashed green olives, bashed with a rock gently, to let the brine in and soften them more quickly. They are delicious and although I can’t eat too many because of the salt content, I enjoy them very much and look forward to the new harvest.

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We have a plentiful supply of wonderful sea salt here, from the salt pans at Olhão and Tavira, which have been producing salt since Roman times, so if I’m  feeling lazy, I just pack whatever I want to preserve in salt and then soak it out or use it later. My main success has been the preserved lemons, which just get better with age and make a great addition to tagines.

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One of the things I am trying to cast off in my retirement is the tyranny of “should do” and food processing at times is a tyranny to me. I put rather a lot of my last year’s preserves in the compost bin to my shame this year, having given away as much as I could, so this year I’m  going to eat what I have in the garden as I have it and only process when I get the “Domestic Goddess” urge which does happen occasionally. No,  I’m not going to give a fig, no matter how much it begs me to!

 

 

Naked Men, Gorgons and Stork’s Nests

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

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Naked Man Orchids

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

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

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Salvia Illfindthenamelateris

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

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

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

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Phoenix and one of his wives gardening

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

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

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Cape Daisies

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

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Freesias in pots

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

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Snakey Cactus

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

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

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Succulents miniature garden

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

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

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

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Stork’s Nest Lasagna Bed

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

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Globe Artichoke and a Peeper!

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

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Wonderful Weeds in the vegetable garden

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

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Prize weed, a thing of beauty!

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

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Leeks and cabbages growing on last year’s lasagna bed

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

Another year older and closer to having a garden. A race against time!

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My Glory Hole, with trunks I have found by the rubbish bins, much to Sr Faztudo’s disgust!

Well, dear gardening friend, it has come to the time of the year when we can stop and take a breath and review how the gardening year has gone. In the UK, people will be bringing in their final pumpkins, picking blackberries and sloes and thinking about getting their gardens ready for the long winter. I think fondly of my allotment friends in South London at this time of year, when we used to have a feast of all our produce around a lovely bonfire, with the rooks cawing away in the trees and that lovely smell of damp earth and leaf mould mixed in with the smoke. Here we are having a sort of mini Spring, which always happens after the hot Summer months, when the first rains fall. The olives are plumping up, the grapes have all been picked and I realise I have been writing this garden diary for a year. And since it is a year, I thought you might like to take a little tour of the garden with me. Grab your hat (the sun is quite hot) and a cuppa and we’ll sally round.

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A trio of lettuces, from market plug plants

Starting with the vegetable garden, if you can call it that. I have some terracing, but very poor soil and as it is very expensive to buy topsoil, I have been making my own using the lasagna bed method.
Even if I say so myself, am very pleased with the results. The enormous pile of rubbish and weeds, mixed in with newspapers and coffee grounds and kind deliveries by a friend of horse manure and straw, plus the offerings of used chicken bedding from my hens, who are very generous with their droppings has produced a friable and fertile medium which with the help of the eggshells I collected throughout the year, produced a good crop of tomatoes and courgettes.

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I have recently planted cabbage and lettuce and as you can see it is doing well too, although I am having to irrigate as the weather has been very warm and dry over the last week. The rotting down process was greatly helped by long periods of rain early in the year. I have started my second bed and have decided that for the next few years I will alternate, just adding more material to beds during the winter in turns. I won’t even have to make compost or move compost to the bed, since it is all taking place “in situ” Magic! It makes me smile every time I pass it. It’s one of the most successful recycling projects I can think of, rubbish into food at little or no cost. Mind you, I think it’s important to have my two cats patrolling the garden. They are outside cats and sleep in the shed and are always on guard at night. The lasagne bed is wonderful nesting material for rats and mice and without my cats I think I would have a problem, especially as I also have the chickens in the garden.

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The trees are growing slowly, but well. I remember hearing the saying, “The first year they sleep, the next year they creep and the third year they leap” and I find that very true. We have struggled to find the right balance for water. The citrus trees need a deep watering twice a week, and we haven’t always got that right. The grey water from the house goes to the trees via a large filtering pit full of sand and gravel and then to an irrigation system. We have three irrigation lines each watering a few trees and I have to remember to turn them on an off on alternate days and I don’t always remember, which means that sometimes a tree gets flooded for several days , whilst another gets too much water. I guess I could solve that with automatic valves, but honestly, we like to keep things as simple as possible, so there’s less to go wrong. I feed each one of the 30 odd small fruit or nut trees in turn with the night soil from the chickens and although the manure is raw, after a good watering in it’s fine. I wouldn’t venture to do that with my vegetables however, I think it’s too strong and there is also a risk of pathogens with raw manure, which I certainly don’t want on my salad leaves.

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I think I will have to start calling areas of my garden different things, to distinguish them from each other. It has definitely helped to start thinking of everywhere in zones. I have a flat area on top of my bank, which I have dedicated to grasses, iris and “native plants” such as cistus, and lavender. This area needs little water. I watered it once a week to get it established, but I’ve watered it very sparingly this year and I really hope not to have to water it at all next year. The gravel mulch helps enormously to keep whatever water comes from natural rainfall in the soil. I am a little worried about the area that has been established for two years, where the grasses don’t seem as robust as when they first grew. I am not sure whether it was because I watered them a little too much last year and therefore they established a dependency, or whether perhaps the soil has become a bit too compacted for them to get their roots in. I will watch carefully as I want to maintain this gravel method of gardening, which has been very productive and has made the garden much easier to manage.

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The top bank from the bottom of the garden, with new terraces we have recently built.

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Now to my jungly, terraced area, which is half working and half not. I don’t really want to gravel this bit. I can water this smaller area and I want it to have a lush exotic feel. I can achieve that in the small area around the terrace, but it is very difficult on the sloped part of this side of the garden, which is on the west side of the house.

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The soil is poor, it’s in shade in the morning and hellishly hot in the afternoon. Although I have dug watering holes around the plants, they struggle and water runs away on top of the baked and parched ground. I would like to find some organic mulch for this area, but at the moment all the material I have for composting is being used on my vegetable beds.I have often been tempted to take plant material from beside the rubbish bins which people leave to be taken away by the refuse collection service, but I am never sure what they have been treated or sprayed with and I am trying not to use chemicals in the garden.

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In this area, I planted a cyclad fern, which I thought would make a wonderful centrepiece, but it was having none of it. It’s beautiful dark green leaves yellowed and fell over and it reproached me daily for planting it in this inhospitable desert, until eventually, when all its leaves had yellowed and died and probably just in time, I dug it up and put it in a pot in the shade. I am not sure what possessed me to put it in full sun. I was inspired by some huge cyclads I saw in full sun at the Estoi Palacio, which is now a pousdad, but I think they must have had a ton of wonderful soil under them and a fair amount of water. I am glad to say that the patient is making a full recovery and has sprouted some more leaves. The same thing happened to a Holly fern and I planted that in the shade. I don’t think they can get their roots into the clay soil easily.
Have you finished your tea? Sit here on the terrace and I’ll get you another cup. Do you like my tea cosy? My sister made it for me. And here is chicken woman, a birthday present from my brother. She looks a bit like me, don’t you think?

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Just round the corner from this terrace, I have decided that the bottom bed of my vegetable garden is going to be for aromatics and herbs. It is a difficult bed to clamber about on and I am getting a bit too stiff and unsteady to feel it’s something I want to do on a regular basis, so I am going to keep it for perennials. I imagine it as a cool area of different greens and greys, which we can look out on as we do the washing up. The aromatics smell so wonderful when you water them in the evening and I have planted rose, camphor and lemon geraniums as well as different mints. Since this area is near the house and below the vegetable garden, I am hoping that the smells with help to keep mosquitoes and other insects away. They’re always attracted by the water I use to irrigate the garden. I’ve bought a number of these herbs very inexpensively from a well known German supermarket. They have a surprising selection, with some unusual herbs, and I have found Absinthe, Clary Sage and Rue amongst them. The Portuguese Donnas use herbs in teas for all kinds of ailments, which I think why the supermarket is more adventurous with their choices than we would get in the UK. I am not quite sure what I will do with the absinthe, but it’s a very pretty plant!

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Absinthe and scented geranium

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I have managed to produce quite a lot of useful plants from seed for the garden. The Penstemmons were very pretty and seem to be quite drought tolerant, Aquilegias are romping away and I have managed to grow two sorts of Pennisetum, one called “White Ladies” and one called “Red Buttons” and some Iris Sibirica. My wonderful neighbours and friends have given me all sorts of cuttings and I have produced Datura plants, Buddleia and even a Frangipani plant from them.

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Penstemon grown from seed

Finally, I must mention my failures, lest you think everything in the garden is rosy!. I haven’t managed to think what to do with this terrible bed here, which the chickens keep digging up and which needs to be terraced or something as it doesn’t hold any water. There were grapevines here before we came which we are not too sure how to look after, and there are probably important pipes under it. I think I may have to plant some really hardy shrub down the length of it. Any suggestions?

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I tried to plant lavender cuttings all the way down, but the chickens dug them all up. I don’t mind them digging, in fact I want them to so they can find insects and grubs for their protein supply, but I need something robust they can search under. I have also struggled to produce vegetables where I haven’t any terracing. The wonderful vetiver grass is starting to come into its own with this and I am planning to use the grasses as living terraces, as you can see from this photo. I have killed every strawberry I have planted, Lord knows how. I have never been able to grow them and everyone says how easy they are. They just don’t like me. The main problem I think, is I just can’t find the proper place for them.

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Vetiver grass acting as a terrace wall and preserving water

Have I got a garden yet? Not really. Sometimes I show people my garden and I am sure they think “What garden?” because it certainly isn’t there yet. We still have some hard landscaping to do, but after two years of living here our transition is finally made and we are asset rich, but cash poor, so my hippy shed and the path to it will have to wait for us to build up some funds. But it is still my daily joy and delight, having never had a garden of this size and I never resent the time it is taking to work with it. For what would I do if it were finished? What a disaster that would be, eh? Blimey, look at that cloud, it looks like some fantastic dolphin swimming past. Do you think it’s time for a g and t? Must be…

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Gardening in Portugal – Can you hear what I hear?

Only to him who stands where the barley stands and listens well will it speak, and tell, for his sake, what man is.
~ Masanobu Fukuoka

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I realise I have started to listen to my garden. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but today I went out to look at my tomato plants and I could hear they weren’t happy. In fact they were really complaining. The problem is they’re planted in one of the hottest parts of the garden, in clay soil, on a slope. They’ve done their best, but it just won’t do. They need more shade and they need any water I give them to soak more deeply into their roots. I sighed. I had intended to try and do some washing and tidying in the house today, but the tomatoes would not let up. “It’s sooo hot” they whined,“You never give us enough to drink.” I’ve rigged up some shade, lugged some timber onto the bank and made some makeshift terraces and mulched the tomatoes and the aubergines with some fallen olive leaves. I could almost hear them sigh with relief. It doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing as I would like, but at least the plants have what they want.

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Happy plants in pots at The Generalife

Before you think I’ve lost my marbles, I think the whole idea of listening to your plants is a good one. It seems to me ther’s often a tension between what I want for the garden and and what it actually wants for itself. Since I’ve  time on my hands nowadays I’m  learning that an hour just sitting and listening to an individual plant or the garden as a whole can be worth several hours in unproductive labour. I am beginning to take the process slowly, in little steps, with listening spaces in between. The garden is teaching me patience. We have heard much about talking to plants, but little about listening to them. We look at them and try to decide what is the matter with them when they are sick, we ask advice from others, but it seems to me that we very rarely ask the plants themselves. .

I’ve  never thought about how a garden should be designed or developed really. I have never been on any course and my knowledge of plants and their needs is minimal. I am a newbie when it comes to making a garden of this size. But as we work on this garden, it is definitely telling us what is needed. For one thing, it’s on a slope and terraces and pockets where water can be contained in the dry months are a must. But drainage is also important as all the water flows to the bottom terrace which can become a quagmire when the heavy rains fall in the winter. The bottom part is obviously crying out for trees and we have planted many fruit trees here. But the citrus are problematical. They are always on the edge of disaster. Too little water, the leaves drop off, too much water the leaves drop off. They are tricky customers and have to be listened to on a daily basis. Or perhaps it’s just that me and citrus trees don’t get on. I have tried to listen, but they tax my patience. They love manure, that’s for sure and have flourished with the sheep poo we put on them last Autumn, but the watering system, which uses grey water from the house, can sometimes give them too much water so they become chlorotic and the leaves go yellow. This makes me sad. I wonder really if I should stop listening to them quite so much, perhaps a little healthy neglect would work better! Or maybe they just don’t like growing here and would rather be in Morocco or something. The avocado tree is happy, so why can’t they be?

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A young lemon tree in my garden

As for the bougainvillea, well she’s a right little tease! One minute she’s looking all green and happy and the next she’s gone into a sulk and threatens to leave me. I have already killed several of her sisters and she reminds me of this often. I just want her to survive one year really. We don’t have any frost here and I have planted her in a sheltered spot, to grow over a low wall. I keep her well watered, but well drained. I feed her. I have planted it in a very sunny spot, facing south. I talk to her. But she isn’t really saying yet if she will live or die. I am not counting my chickens, but I have given her every chance. We will see.

I bought a Japanese Holly Fern in a local market the other day. It’s supposed to be a drought resistant fern. Great I thought.

http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/holly-fern.html

He was so resplendent in his pot. I thought he would like it if I planted him in the shade beneath an olive tree, but he quickly began to wither and ail. What was the matter I enquired ? He wanted to go back in his pot she told me, rather crossly. I obliged him and he began to thrive again.

Today, as well as shading the tomatoes, I repotted some Pennisetums, the Red Button variety, who were scolding me for leaving me with four plants in a small pot. They are tyrants, these plants. However, once I give them what they want, a pot of their own in some fresh compost, a little food, a careful watering, they repay me for my labours by springing up anew. I suppose that’s what keeps the gardener going, the joy of seeing a plant respond to your response to its direction.

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A rainbow over the garden

 

But the greatest joy is listening to the old olive and carob trees in the garden, because they are the wisest and complain the least. The wind sighs through them and the birds nest in them and the olives ripen and apart from pruning them every eight years or so as many have done before us they just exist. I listen for their stories of time gone by, of love trysts and violent encounters, of the hands that have pruned them and the troubles they have heard about from the farmers who have picked their fruit for generations, but they know better than to reveal their secrets. They just dream and sigh, their leaves dropping as the sun dries them.

By now you will think I have been spending too much time in my garden alone and have probably lost it. Well, you may be right, but there you go. I am old but I’m happy.

 

 

Gardening in Portugal – Eat your garden!

 

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My edible London garden


The idea of eating a whole garden tickles me. I once tried to grow a garden where everything in it was both edible and beautiful. It was in a tiny space back garden of a terraced house in Crystal Palace. See here. It flourished, more or less. We munched our way through it throughout the year and eventually ate the whole garden. It was quite hard work, though (making it, not eating it) After all most vegetables are annuals and need constant attention. It didn’t look great in Winter either, but that didn’t matter too much as out of the five winters we lived in the house, there was some considerable snowfall and it took on a special beauty of its own.

 

 

I have an area in this very different garden devoted to growing vegetables. It takes a great deal of water and Señor Faztudo reckons each cabbage costs us at least 10 euros. But I think if I am going to use water in any part of the garden , we might as well eat what it produces to cut the costs of a pleasurable and delightful hobby.

In earlier posts I showed how I was developing a lasagna bed on one of the terraces behind the house. In the first year I grew cabbages of all sorts reasonably successfully in the clay soil off this terrace, but this year I wanted to plant courgettes, tomatoes and salad vegetables in the space. I threw everything at the bed in the autumn, lots of horse manure and straw which a friend kindly donated, coffee grinds by the shopping trolley full, collected by my Portuguese teacher, along with the newspapers from a local cafe, all the cuttings from the 15 foot high weeds in the orchard to be and eggshells, tea bags and a load of old carob pods I found rotting from a large tree in the back lane. I also used the bedding from the chicken shed, wood shavings mixed in with chicken droppings. I wondered if it would all rot down, but the rain came down in bucketfuls night after night, sometimes for a week and the earthworms did the rest. It became a friable planting medium.

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The lasagna bed with beans and Jerusalem artichokes

 

I dug it over a bit to include some of the clay underneath for better water holding capacity and planted some tomato seedlings, as well as some courgette and cucumber seeds directly into the soil. Last year I made the mistake if growing courgettes in pots and then planting them, but this checked their growth for too long and airy the time the courgettes flowered it was too hot. This year I am already harvesting courgettes.

I am finding it hard to get to grips with the seasons, which are very different to England. This is especially tricky with vegetables and I have found the book” Mediterranean Kitchen Garden-growing organic fruit and vegetables in a hot dry climate” by Mariano Bueno a great help. You can get it on Amazon.

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This year’s courgette plants



So what have we eaten from my very new garden? Not much, I have to say, here is the list, don’t laugh!

Two large servings of fava beans
Two small servings of peas
Two globe artichokes (indescribably yummy!)
A large turnip (three more went woody)
A handful of green beans (most of the flowers dropped off)
Some lovely yellow podded mangetout from The Real Seed Company
Four skinny leeks (the rest look so beautiful going to seed I can hardly bear to eat them)
Seven deformed carrots grown in a pot
Several heads of garlic (there are more somewhere but I’ve lost them underground)
Lots of Portuguese cabbage and kale,shared with the chickens
Four eggs a day mostly, as long as we don’t have any serious hen incidents
Six courgettes
Alexander stalks (foraged from a “weed” growing wild in my garden)
Three little limes
Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme, oh and Basil of course!

I was going to say a partridge in a pear tree, but it was actually a pigeon and the cat ate it.

 

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Globe artichokes, planted from seed

 

Not a bad start, but this year I’m hoping for some tomatoes and peppers. They all grew very promisingly last year until it got too hot and they frizzled and fried.
I look at the hortas (vegetable gardens) hereabouts with envy. Whole fields of favas, enormous cabbages and lettuces the size of serving plates. Growing here is a serious business and much love and care goes into it. But farmers anywhere don’t always have the luxury of growing organically, If they did their livelihoods would be at stake and times here are very hard for people, believe me.
As I am only feeding the two of us, I have time to rub caterpillar eggs off plants, capture the locusts I encounter and spray my vegetable with milk against mildew. My learning is trial and error, mostly error at the moment, with the main stumbling block being temperature and rainfall, either too hot, too cold or too much rain or too little. If I was relying on this garden for food at the moment, we would definitely starve. So it’s lucky we aren’t.
My planting isn’t very organised. I don’t like rows. I know I should have the planting under better control for increased production but I can’t manage it. I was the naughty member of the allotment management committee, always pleading that my nettles were certainly edible and that dandelions were a great salad vegetable. I always used to think if you showed me someone’s vegetable plot, I could tell you a lot about the person. My personality is obviously fairly chaotic with hidden turnips!

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Watercress growing in an old pan

I went with some friends recently to visit a small gardening enterprise run by an old Portuguese agriculturist, now in his 70’s. We met him coming up the road, peeling an orange from one of his trees as he walked. He told us sadly that his gardening days was coming to an end, both his age and European bureaucracy had meant it wasn’t viable any more. He took us to see the last of his trees, rows of beautifully kept olives, figs, pomegranates , amongst others, all grafted onto a strong rootstock by his own capable hands. They will be his legacy, living and producing fruit long after he goes to the great garden in the sky. He invited us to choose a tree and I chose a quince, or Marmelo. They are used here to make a special jam paste called Marmelada, which I have hitherto only eaten in posh restaurants with cheese. I wish I could have spoken better Portuguese to tap some of his wonderful knowledge. I have planted the quince in my orchard and named it after him, Señor M’s Marmeleiro, I am sure it will grow beautifully for many years to come, a tribute to him and the skills learnt in a lifetime gardening.

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A quince tree

Along the valleys near here, huge areas are being cleared for orange groves, likewise the hillsides for carob plantations, the old ways are making way for the new ones. There are threats of golf courses on areas where almond trees have thrived since Roman times. Times must change and so will the farming practices.

The Algarve has  been cultivated for generations and all of its landscape has been affected by human intervention from time immemorial. And so it will continue. We can only hope the young ones have learnt from their grandparents and the rich knowledge and understanding of the trees and plants here, probably handed down from Roman times and the Moors won’t be lost forever.

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Donna Galinha, or Mrs Chicken, who’s decided she’s better things to do than sit on eggs!