Gardening in Portugal – Seeing the wood from the trees


Almond and Olive logs:this year’s and last.

The sound of buzzing chainsaws are filling the valley at the moment and ours is one of them. Well, not ours exactly, as we have enlisted the help of a friend who is much more experienced to do some  difficult tree work. The expertise arises in understanding how to deal with very heavy boughs that need to be cut safely, calculating how they will fall and where they will land to avoid damage, either to the structures they hang over, or the person handling the operation. There is much rubbing of chins between Señor Faztudo  and our friend , as this is a serious business indeed, since it involves people’s safety. I keep out of it, preferring to potter elsewhere and leave the experts to deal with it, as it scares me.  When people buy a house with lots of land, as they often do when they come to Portugal, they don’t realise how much work it can be, even to maintain the trees, nor do they realise that trees and what they produce are the main crop for most farmers in Portugal, especially in the Algarve.


My cat checking out the olive tree

When we arrived at this house, whilst the garden was completely undeveloped, the builder had preserved every tree he could, which left us with several olive trees, some very ancient, as well as mature almond and carob trees  to care for. Some of these trees were planted by the ancestors of people in our village and the builder of our house remembers playing under the olive tree at the back as a child. It seems like an important business to be custodians of such venerable trees.

Some of the our trees are overhanging the roads and after a while, tree boughs can become too heavy and the branches unsafe.  The old carobs, in particular, have brittle, huge trunks, resembling an elephant’s leg and are very heavy.  For this reason the  carob tree is known as “the widow maker” by local people, because, for sure if a large branch fell on you, that would be the end.

Over the past few years, I’ve  come to enjoy this tree work in the early part of the year , which has a beginning, a middle and an end, unlike some jobs in the garden which go on forever. Señor Faztudo saws up all the medium branches with a handsaw, after the chainsaw has done its work, to create kindling for next year’s winter fires. These branches are mainly olive and burn very hot  in our woodburning stove, useful to get the fire up to a critical heat before adding the bigger logs. I use an electric chipping machine to chip the smaller branches to use on the paths in the vegetable garden at the back. It takes quite a long time but it’s therapeutic and we  need the biomass, because it all improves the soil.


Cut wood to be processed

At the end, we are left with a small pile of scraggy stuff to burn , and I pull up a chair and enjoy this little bonfire, which is far too dangerous to have at any other time of the year and which reminds me of camping trips in Norfolk and my childhood in Wales. I even leave a potato in foil in the embers for my breakfast.  It’s a pleasure tinged with sadness though, as I think of all the people in Central and Northern Portugal who lost so much in the fires at the end of last year. Many people are cleaning their land of combustible material at the moment under a strict government directive to reduce the fire risk to properties before next Summer and we are still in an extreme drought situation over half of the country, which is very concerning if it continues into another summer.


Almond twigs for kindling or chipping

Altogether, our wood harvest this year came to about a tonne, which would have cost us about 130 euros to buy and lasts us about a month in our wood burning stove, so our work is rewarding financially too. I ponder how our hard work cutting and stacking the logs and hauling them all up the hill to the woodpile to dry out for a year, is keeping us healthy and saving in gym membership, as well as hopefully keeping us warm next winter. Going to the gym , which we used to do in London, seems so silly when I think about it now. My garden is my gym and my muscles are strong and my legs sturdy as I make my way up and down the hill carrying one thing or another or pushing the wheelbarrow. I strongly advise any retired person to find a garden on a hill to keep fit!


A graft of peach branches onto a bitter almond tree

Pruning trees has all kinds of purposes, I have come to discover; to make trees safe; to produce and stimulate new growth; to keep the fruit trees low enough to be able to harvest from them; to make grafts, and to keep the tree balanced with air flowing through the middle to prevent fungal disease. Pruning can be quite controversial, some say it weakens the tree, some say it makes it stronger. Olives in particular divide people, especially where thy are clipped for ornamental purposes. I have a small wild olive on my terrace which we keep clipped to be able to admire the view and prevent too many olives falling on the tiles. But I  have to say I don’t feel at all good about it. I don’t really like extreme pruning of trees. Hedges are different, but a noble olive need to be allowed to grow more naturally, for my taste, although Señor Faztudo  doesn’t entirely  agree with me, and he is generally the Keeper of the Trees.



Big Daddy Olive

As I chip away, a sort of meditative exercise once you’ve cut all the knobbly bits off that won’t go through,   I note the different properties of the twigs I am dealing with.  The olive twigs are whippy and thorny. I reserve some olive branches to keep chickens off my Agapanthus bed and as pea sticks. Olive doesn’t rot down quickly, which is both a good and a bad thing, but definitely good for pea sticks and chicken defenses. . Almond is very woody and brittle and great for chipping for use on paths and also very good as small kindling.


Olive chipping used as a mulch

Carob is knobbly and weird looking, almost prehistoric, but burns cheerfully with straight branches that go in the chipper easily. The leaves make good compost and the area underneath an old carob has fertile soil and provides shade for many beautiful wild flowers, not least the striking azure Scilla Peruviana, an amazing sight in the Spring.


A number 1 for a wild olive

Our labour produces a satisfying pile of logs for next season, stacked away from the house to avoid it becoming a fire risk in itself. They will stay there a year or more before being dry enough to use on the fire. We put the wood on a pallet off the ground against the wood boring insects that have been quite prevalent this year, and bag up the kindling to leave in a dry place. We don’t really need to cover the wood like you do in the UK, because we know by next October, when it’s ready to burn, it will be bone dry after the hot summer.


Bean sticks or is it art?

So now the trees are tidy and safe, we have  pea sticks aplenty and chicken defences, mulch for our paths and a bean wigwam for the beans I will plant in May and wood stacked against the cold of next winter. All feels well with the world and  I can see the wood from the trees!


Gardening in Portugal- If you know its name it’s not a weed!


Patch or Alexanders, Self seeded Aconite (delphinium, very poisonous)  and Chamanthe

It’s raining again, oh Lord, it’s raining again! And you know what rain means? It means weeds!
But nowadays,  that don’t impress me much, because I know the name of most of them and as my gardening friend and Portuguese teacher often says, if you know the name of a plant, it isn’t a weed.

I’ve  had the joy and delight over the past few years of discovering that most of the weeds in the Algarve  are useful for something. Do you want to thicken cheese? Use the petals of a  cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, as a rennet substitute (although, what kind of domestic goddess makes cheese? Not me..well not yet anyway!)  Have you got a toothache? Chew on the leaves of the field marigolds, which are an anodyne.  And don’t bother buying fertiliser for your plants, just soak a few nettles , Urtica Dioica),  in water for a few weeks, water down the resulting liquid (holding your nose tightly as the pong is indescribable) and the job is done. Furthermore nettles are great in soup and if you’re feeling particularly strong, you can whip yourself with them to alleviate rheumatism!


Nettle, Urtica Doica

Of course some weeds can kill you, so you have to be super careful, as there  isn’t much room for mistakes. Take the Umbelliferae family for example. The plants are very similar in this family and  whilst the Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum, brought here by the Romans,  can be eaten in all  its parts,  Hemlock , Conium maculatum,  is in the same family and is deadly!  Of course, this may be useful if you want to do your husband in, but since Senor Faz-Tudo is my beloved,  indispensable companion and hasn’t finished the greenhouse yet, that’s not likely in my case!  Even the experts don’t always seem to know definitively. I bought a book on foraging in which it said you can eat the flowers and leaves of Aquilegia, and told everyone in a gardening FB group you could eat it, making a total fool of myself, because it’s actually from the ranunculus  family and dangerous to eat. I hope I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death  (nervous laugh!)  So readers, this is a disclaimer. Please, check out any plant for yourselves before you eat them. This is a great place to do it: Plants for a Future What a labour of love that web site is!


Alexanders, Smyrnium Olusatrum

I have left some areas in my garden specifically for the weeds to grow, especially in the vegetable garden, where the chickens don’t venture, as they are so useful for so many things. (I actually left them in the chicken’s half of the garden  too but they ate them all, although I suppose we got them back in their eggs) Nettles are quite hard to find in the wild around my house, as they prefer nutritious ground with some shade, so they are particularly precious to me and I only ever pick half of them to use, so I can be sure they will continue to drop their seed and come back next year. The local women used to dry them for use as very nutritious fodder for chickens and other animals as they are full of iron and other vitamins and minerals.They can also be eaten in soup, and as soon as they are boiled they lose their sting.  I have lots of dandelions too and I feed them to the chickens and also, when the leaves are very young, add them to salads, in small amounts as they are very bitter.

The  garden is overrun with Borage plants, Borago officinalis, again something I encourage, as they are very good for attracting bees as pollinators for my beans and fruit trees. The flowers are very pretty and look great put into ice cubes in the fridge to jolly up your cocktails, and although the leaves are edible, they are very hairy, you’d be unlikely to eat them unless you’re a goat.

Although the tradition is dying out a little now, local women all have their recipes for “chas” or teas using local “weeds” Malva Silvestris , the common mallow or wild hollyhock is still used in tea to settle sore stomachs, or the leaves boiled and used for a poultice on festering wounds or cuts as it draws out the poison and soothes and heals. Wild thyme and rosemary are both anti-bacterial and can be uses as “pick me up teas” in the morning. The wild thyme here is amazing and I have collected the seeds of several types from the wild in the hope of encouraging  them to grow in my garden.


Malva  or Mallow


Interestingly, unlike in Greece, in my experience, Rosemary isn’t used much in the South of Portugal for cooking, with people preferring to uses salsa (parsley) or green coriander (coentro)

My friend is collecting  “dicas” or uses of common herbs, before the very considerable knowledge of the older countrywomen here is lost. It seems there are many beneficial plants, some of them indigenous to the Algarve and some imported from peoples coming into the Algarve, such as the Carthaginians, Romans or Moors  or brought back from the colonies of Portugal in Africa or South America  in more recent years.


Patch of Nettles and Chrysanthemum Coronium 

But before you go out with your poison sprays or hacker and commit carnage, at least try to identify your weed and see if you can use them for anything, using the “Plants for a Future” database. It seems crazy we spend so much on cosmetics, remedies and leaf teas when any of them are derived from things we call weeds in our gardens. It’s lovely to wander around the garden and see teapot potential and bath bombs where once you just saw plants which made you cross!

Gardening weekly. Read all about it!


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:



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.


Giant Globe artichokes


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!


A Dutch Iris


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.




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.


Fasciating Echiums


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.




Large, Medium and Tiny eggs


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.


Wild orchids


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…

They call me Daisy…..that’s not my name!


“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet”…the problem is I don’t know any of the names of the roses in my garden. I bought most of them from a famous German supermarket in the sale for Eur 1.49 and I’ve thrown away the labels. I will be forgiven for this, I’m sure, they’re  not old roses or special roses after all. But I have a far worse problem, in that I’ve planted quite a lot of different plants, both bought, borrowed and occasionally even stolen, (albeit it only little pieces) and I don’t know the names of most of them. This is starting to cause me problems, as friends ask me the names of plants they particularly like and I haven’t a clue! Actually, that’s not strictly true. I know an Aloe from an Agave, or a Salvia from a Penstemon, I just don’t know what comes after that. It’s a shame really, as according to my mother, one of my first words was Aquilegia. Being a rather precocious two year old I corrected a visitor, who called the plant a Columbine. It’s all been downhill since unfortunately.


When I was a teacher, I once had a class with four Jason’s. I could never remember their surnames, so I invented them. One was called Jason The Red (he had ginger hair) Another, Jason Basin (pudding bowl haircut) Jason Mouse (he squeaked a lot) and last, but not least Jason Fireraiser (He once set fire to the class notice board) Now I am doing this with my plants, in the absence of my ability to identify them correctly. I walk round the garden checking on their progress, I note Agave Biggus Spikus is getting bigger every day, whilst Agave Variegata Pipsqueaka is not really doing much. Penstemon Freebius Seedpacketia is bursting into flower, whilst Aloe Aloe Aloe Whatasallthisthenus, (which is what I imagined I might hear any minute as I was furtively half inching the cutting this plant grew from) has put up several baby plants.

Harebells from Canada

To complicate matters further, I am learning the names for plants in Portuguese as well. I can never remember the English for Coriander nowadays, because I am too busy thinking of it as Coentro. A lot of wild flowers are called Boa Noite, according to neighbours, which means Good Night and I am still thinking of some flowers by the nicknames we had for them in Wales, Snapdragons for Antirinhiums, Roarydumdums for rhododendrons and Wet-the-bed for dandelions. No wonder I get confused! Then, instead of fields of purple clover, there are fields of something which has similar leaves called Bermudan Buttercup, or whatever its proper name is, and Giant Hogweed is replaced by Alexanders, or Black  Lovage. Then there are the orchids, The Naked Man orchid (don’t ask!) the Mirror orchid, the Bee orchid and a myriad others.


And I guess all this confusion is why I need to learn the proper names for things, although how I’ll remember them, I don’t know! I realise I have never really thought about how plants are classified, so after a bit of a Google session I discovered this:
Whoever thought it was so complicated? Plants have families, subfamilies and tribes!
And thirteen-barrelled names! And I have to remember to spell the name of the Genus with a capital letter! Gordonus Bennetius!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut for the sake of trying to at least sound like a real gardener, I am going to make a serious effort get to grips with calling things by their proper names, although it’s difficult identifying the plants I already have. I have found this tool from the RHS website ,which is quite useful and I’ve resolved to try to learn the proper names for one of the plants in my garden every day. I’ve posted some photos of plants I can’t identify throughout this post. If you know the proper names of any of them, it would be great of you could let me know. I’d love to be able to sail around the garden, with a glass of something cool in hand, reeling off the names of the plants we walk past, and although I don’t think I’ll ever manage it, I’m sure it will keep my ageing brain cells active for many years to come. To get us off to a good startI will tell you I bought a lovely Ballota pseudodictamnus at the Mediterranean Garden Fair this year. If only I could remember which of the twenty plants or so I bought was called that!

The grass that keeps on giving – Vetiver


A clump of young vetiver “slips”

I have fallen in love with a particular species of grass. (No, not that kind of grass, man.. I’m a teetotal great aunt!) I found this grass whilst looking for something to stop the erosion of a steep bank in our brand new garden, which began its life as bare earth a couple of years ago. It was hard to find and we went on a wild vetiver chase. A Kenyan farmer was growing it on a mango farm only 15km from here and I was very excited when we went to pick it up. It won’t grow where there is prolonged cold, and they haven’t really cottoned onto using it in a big way, here in the Algarve, but they should. It’s a wonder plant for anyone gardening on a slope in a dry climate and I’m about to tell you why.

Vetiver or Chrysopogon zizanioides, to call it by its proper name, originally comes from India. In northern and western India, it is popularly known as khus. Its roots are very fragrant and used widely in men’s perfume products, which is why you I can be seen inhaling deeply and swooning with desire every time I dig up a bit of root! Some examples of vetiver used in perfume products include Dior’s Eau Sauvage, Guerlain Vetiver, Zizan by Ormonde Jayne and Vetiver by L’Occitane.The plant can grow 1.5 metres high and form clumps as wide. It has a brownish purple flower, although I have never seen one yet as my clumps are only two years old. Once established it is fairly drought resistant, Unlike most grasses, which form horizontally spreading root systems vetiver’s roots grow downward, 2–4 m in depth. That’s deep! Which is why it has two wonderful properties, it holds back soil, making a natural terrace and it holds in water. In other words, it’s a living terrace wall-and a very pretty one at that!


Clumps of vetiver interspersed with Pennisetum “White Ladies”

I bought the grass as “slips” which are the side shoots taken from a living plant. I made a bit of a mistake planting them in Autumn during a rather cold damp spell and they sulked for quite a long time, but as soon as the weather warmed up, away they went. They should be planted in two rows along a contour line and within a year or so, they will be strong enough to form a terrace to hold back earth and water.

I quickly saw the advantage in my vegetable garden which is on a slope. I didn’t want to make stone walls, so have planted lines of vetiver and I plan on making lasagna beds behind them. The other advantage is that you can trim the hedges to any height and use the cuttings as a very useful mulch. In fact if I had any water bison they would eat the cuttings as fodder, but I don’t think a water bison would be very conducive to a beautiful garden;  the chickens are bad enough.

And speaking of chickens, they are descended from Indian jungle fowl, and love hiding amongst the clumps during the heat of the day. I am thinking of using hedges  of plants as living chicken proof fences down the bottom part of the garden where my chickens have free range.

Propagation is easy by taking slips from established plants. They do well with a little organic manure to get them started and away they go! The most commonly used commercial genotypes of vetiver do not produce seeds which are fertile which means they don’t spread widely in the garden and are easily controlled.

One of the other benefits of vetiver is that it cleans the ground of pollution such as wastewater contaminated with chemicals or heavy metals. A wonder grass indeed!

You may want to know where to source plants from and I’m sorry but I can’t help you much. Mine aren’t quite big enough yet to be giving any away. The Kenyan farmer has gone back to Kenya, but I did see some at the Mediterranean Garden Society plant Fair recently. There is an organisation on the web which might be able to help you with suppliers here and they have a Facebook page too, with lots of examples as to how vetiver is used across the world.

I find vetiver one of the most useful plants in my garden. So put that in your pipe, but don’t smoke it!

Come into the Garden, Moored!

We have had a busy period with lots of visitors and have had a few weeks of being tourists, both here on the Algarve and in Southern Spain, where we visited some  of the small white villages on the Costa de Sol, the Tabernas desert near Almeria and the Alhambra and Generalife Gardens in the Alhambra for some Moorish inspiration,

I took pictures along the way with an eye on inspiration for the garden, so here are a few thoughts.


I saw this lovely combination of tables and chairs and flowerpots outside a restaurant in the village of Mijas. Everwhere in Mijas, the white walls were lined with blue flowerpots containing the same bright red geraniums. It made me think about what accent colours I might use in my own garden.


I found this great swathe of bright colour a surprising choice outside the inner Palaces of the Alhambra, but cheerfully pleasing. I was wondering what other plants might have this range of colour, lilies, roses , geraniums perhaps? English gardens tend to be muted in colour, which I also find beautiful, but there is something very uplifting about these bright colours under a clear blue sky and the green of the box offsetting them.



This beautiful dry garden was found on Barril beach, close to Fuseta on the Algarve. It has no water at all and the broken bones of a discarded fisherman’s boat reminds me how lovely flotsam and jetsam can look in the right setting. I suppose my equivalent would be a carob stump or a piece of volcanic rock.


 A lesson in simplicity inside the Alhambra. Cool water, giant cypress trees forming natural pillars with their roots underplanted , long trails of ivy hanging down, the quiet benches. It reminds me to try and create a sense of peace and calm in my own garden where there are sitting spaces, even though I know I can never create anything as beautiful and stately as this.


A perfect frame and a beautiful perspective in the Generalife. Are there ways of framing things in my garden?


A dream for the future, outside the Alhambra palace. And an inspiration that such beauty can be made by human beings and nature together.



Small beginnings outside my front door, with some pink ivy leaf geraniums against a camellia in a pot! Enough dreaming, time to pick up the hoe and tackle the mayhem caused by our absence!