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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The Cats That Walked By Themselves

 

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Subordinate Cat

I am going to tell you about my cats.  I consider them very important members of my gardening team as  I wouldn’t have thought of having chickens without them.

Subordinate Cat in full camouflauge

Because  he loves me, Señor F tolerates the chickens, as long as they stay in their half of the garden, although he says we should rename that part of the garden “Poo corner”  But what about the cats? Why have we got them? I suppose the answer to that, is that he hates mice and rats worse than cats. We lived in a terraced house in London and once, the cellar was overrun by mice after some building works next door. We still shudder to think of it , as we had to really fight back to get rid of them. And there is a carob processing plant in the village, which is why no one minds the feral cats we have hereabouts, they do a very important job.

A  friend of ours who worked in cat rescue  found a nearby farm-house with  two kittens living in the barn, needing a home. I wanted females as they are better mousers, in my experience and two little balls of very frightened fluff arrived.  The condition of their adoption was that we had them spayed,and vaccinated which we, of course agreed to.

On their arrival, we immediately had the problem that Señor Faztudo didn’t want them in the house, so I made them a warm bed in the cellar. However, it became clear in a very short time it  was cruel to leave such young kittens alone and so they were brought into the house under sufferance, where a dark box in the warm kitchen soothed their initial fears. But feral kittens are taught to hide in the day  by their mothers and somehow on the second day, the smallest kitten disappeared completely and was nowhere to be found. I thought it may have crawled up the central hoovering system and was in a terrible panic when the other kitten also did a disappearing act! Two hours later I had pulled out every box from every cupboard, shouted “kitty kitty” down the central hoover conduit until I was hoarse and taken the washing machine apart. Zilch…nada….

A little while later, I was on the loo and suddenly an awful smell began to attract my attention. Worried that there may have been  something badly wrong with me, I suddenly heard a pitiful mewling and both kittens emerged from behind the bidet covered in poo.  Panicking and to hide the fact that the cats had done the terrible awful behind the bidet I scooped them up in one of my best hand towels  and washed the poor little things under the bidet. All of Senor F’s worst nightmares were happening at once! Bedraggled, but none the worse, the kittens went back in their box and so their lives with us began.

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Boss cat up the ladder

The kittens entertained us mightily  for the next six weeks, but Señor F held firm in his resolve that they would be outside cats and actually, I agreed with him. Both our previous London cats had lived outside, and were very healthy for it. They always had a warm bed in the shed, were fed a good quality meal once a day and did  a great job keeping rats and mice out of the garden. And there is the added advanatge of not bringing ticks and fleas into the fhouse with is an inevitable by product of having animals, even with treatments. The key thing is to feed them at the same time every night, and let them in the house, just for their meal, so they know where they belong. And  of course, if they hate it, they are at liberty to go and live elsewhere (which in fact, one of our cats did, at the age of eight. But that’s another story)

Little by little our kittens grew and Señor F tolerated them swinging on his trouser leg, dashing in and out of paper sacks and cardboard boxes and scratching the sofa to death, with good grace. After a while, they began to venture outside and get used to their surroundings. I’ll call them Boss Cat, the white one and Subordinate cat, the tri-coloured one,  to protect their anonymity. One day, Boss Cat didn’t come home at night. I was distraught and feared she had been eaten by something, a fear which was made worse by venturing into the garden and shining a torch into the tree to see dozens of pairs of eyes of something! I hoped they were feral cats who would look after a kitten, but I went to bed in tears. The next morning  there she was at the door, bright as a button and none the worse for her adventure, although she didn’t do that again for quite a while.

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Over  the next few months the kittens  became more and more adventurous, only returning to the house in the evening. At first, like all young things they had their ups and downs. Subordinate  cat ate a black gecko and had a very sore throat for a few days. Boss cat got beaten up by a huge Tom, despite being spayed and was very wobbly for a while. Subordinate cat got her foot caught in a rabbit snare and it was red raw…she must have been released by the farmer, but it healed. All of this was worrying, of course, but I tried to accept it as an inevitable part of their freedom and we were always on hand to take them to the vet if they needed treatment. Every night I fed them a meal at the same time, so I could keep an eye on them and they have nearly always come home and always a few days later if they have gone roaming.

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For their part, they have done their job well. Despite having chickens and vegetables growing in my garden, I have never seen a rat or mouse unless it was dead and in the process of being consumed. The downside is occasionally they eat lovely birds, the saddest was a green woodpecker baby. Boss Cat once fell in the pool swiping at a swallow, to her great surprise and found quite quickly, she could swim! And I once found quite a large snake on the mat, playing dead. I picked up up on a stick and it sprang, to life, quite crossly. At the point I could only say I was glad the cats don’t live indoors!  They have a bed each in the porch and occasionally on a winter’s night I can be seen furtively slipping a hot water bottle in their beds, although with the thick coats they have, I doubt if they really need it. If  Señor were to see me he’d say ” you’re turning those cats into wusses!”  They have lived with us for four years now and have learned wily ways to cope with their surroundings. They don’t even eat my newly hatched chicks and I like to think they know they are “family” but sit on top of the coop as though guarding them from other cats. I love to see them about the garden enjoying their independence, although I also feel honoured  when they come and sit on my lap and watch the chickens with me from the hippy shed. I would have more if I could, but Señor F says two is plenty to take responsibilty for and, as usual, there is some sense in that!

Do the Pokey Pokey….

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After the Deluge

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

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

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A “Gives me the Jitters Bug”

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

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

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

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

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Lavender hedge created with the Pokey Pokey propagation technique.

Three chickies and a funeral..

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

Funky Chicken PT Fan Club

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Broody Godzilla the Hen

 

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

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

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

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Mrs Chicken

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

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

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Fresh eggs and vegetables from the garden

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

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The Velociraptors

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

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Mrs Chicken helping me garden

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

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

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

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Miss Henny and Bonaparte

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

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

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Lady Henrietta RIP

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

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

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The chicks-2 days old

 

The Kitschen Garden Shed (all puns intended)

The Garden Shed

The Garden Shed

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

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

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

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

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The nascent kitschen shed

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

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Pottery chicken, soon to lay Onyx and Amethyst eggs

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

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Lavender drying

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

Peace and Love

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 – Don’t pooh pooh poo!

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In this post I am going to write quite a lot about poo. Chicken poo, horse poo, sheep and goat  poo and even bat poo, not to mention a little bit about pee. If you are of a nervous disposition, don’t read on.

I have found that the Portugese farmers hereabouts have largely stopped putting organic manure on their trees and vegetables.  They use the chemical fertilisers, which largely consist of blue pellets or white pellets, clean and easy to use and effective in their eyes. They sprinkIe a little in each hole as they plant their fava (broad) beans and peas. I understand this. I am not a farmer needing to make a living. But I do worry about this and all the other stuff which I see being sprayed all around, including the weed-killing that regularly goes on at this time of year. People believe the stuff they buy in the market is probably organic. Believe me, a lot of it is not.

I want to use organic fertilisers. But it’s very hard to find quality poo around here.

I have a friend who knows someone who runs a livery stable nearby. The owner shows her horses and feeds them on top quality feed, bedding them in good wheatstraw. He kindly brings me a load every now and then and it’s the best present anyone can give me. I get very excited about a present of good manure.

Last year, we found a source of well rotted manure, again from someone who kept horses. It was in a pile in the field. After a while of digging into it and bagging it up,  it seemed to have a load of big fat prawns buried in it. I just couldn’t figure it. How did they get there? On closer inspection  I realised that they weren’t prawns at all (I didn’t know whether to heave a sigh of relief or start screaming!) but huge fat grubs.  Identification later revealed them to be dung beetles, who apparently take years to mature. I did feel a little sad as I tossed them to the chickens, who gobbled them up greedily. But I guess they got recycled.

I added this lovely manure to my lasagna bed, along with coffee grounds from the local café and lots of newspaper. The results have yet to be revealed, but I hope to produce good pumpkins and courgettes form this bed this year as it has rotted down very well.

Despite Senor Faztudo threatening to behead the chickens for pooing on the patio, we have collected a bucket of their little presents  from around the garden and diluted it in water, which I will use as a root feed in the weeks to come. I won’t be putting it anywhere near my salad crops, for obvious reasons, but for our emerging fruit trees, and for the cabbages which won’t be ready for a few weeks to come and will be cooked, it is a useful  feed for the roots. I also clear out the chicken droppings from their coops every morning which are mixed with sawdust and put it on the compost heap. It’s a wonderful circular process. They eat the weeds and any vegetable peelings and turn it into fertiliser, which goes back on the vegetables.

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Sheep poo can also be found, if you know where to look for it. (it always seems to be just out of your reach) It is left to rot into a lovely black crumbly mix over time and is black gold, if you can get it. I am not revealing my source. Great for the roses and the fruit trees.

The other source of fertiliser I have found that comes in useful, is guano. It is the old fashioned fertiliser and although some farmers still use it, it is no longer fashionable. This is either bat or seabird poo, collected from caves.   I have been able to buy this in powdered form until recently, in local supermarkets,  although I haven’t seen it lately. A quarter of a teaspoon around the bottom of a cabbage is like a real tonic. I have found it in huge sacks mixed with soil improver in an agricultural store near here. It is quite cheap and works well.  The smell is the worst thing imaginable and carrying it back in my little van is a torture. It smells like a cross between dead animals, sick and cat poo. It is indescribably awful and you need a mask and gloves when putting it into the soil. But the smell goes in a few days and if you apply it in the autumn, the soil will be ready for Spring plantings.

Unfortunately, comfrey doesn’t grow very well here. I used to grow oodles of it in the Uk and use it to make a comfrey tea. But it is too hot here for it and gets rust easily.  Again, the stink really bad, but it was a very good fertiliser. We have lots of borage and nettles going in the garden, however, so I have been using these, dunking the leaves in water and stirring the pot at intervals. After a month it becomes a real witches brew and need to be diluted in water before applying to the roots of plants.

Finally, I come onto pee. Obviously in a country with little water, weeing and pulling the chain all the time is not very good for the environment and water is also metered here. I have discovered that wee is a plentiful supply of nitrogen. And on tap all the time!  When you first do it, it is sterile. So I have started encouraging Senor Faztudo to wee on the compost heap, although being a city lad he is not too keen.  What I do, I will leave to your imaginations! Don’t worry, I draw the line at the use of human poo anywhere in my garden. That’s goes off down the drain. I am sure someone will try and sell me a composting toilet, but I think that may be a step too far!