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Gardening in Portugal – Seeing the wood from the trees

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Harvesting the trees: the fruits of the Algarve

“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”  Walt Whitman

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I was born in a Welsh valley, full of the most regal, powerful trees. It was my childhood playground. Those were the days of Famous Five and ginger beer drinking and we children often rose early, nabbing what we could get away with from the fridge  and escaping the house and our mother who invariably had some chore for us to do. Our roaming circle was as far as five miles and much of this time was spent making dens during the long summer holidays in the huge trees in the woods near our home. The most beautiful were the huge, dark barked beech trees, with their caterpillar  green, delicate leaves emerging in the Spring, diffusing the light and making patterns on the leafy floor and the great, gnarled sweet chestnuts, hundreds of years old and often hollow, a wonderful place to climb and make dens.

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So when I first came to the Algarve, I was a bit disappointed in the trees. In fact I couldn’t really see any. What there were seemed scrubby and blasted and there weren’t any forests, more large swathes of bushes with the odd straggly tree, which seemed to me to be struggling for survival.

Years later I realise how wrong I was! Trees are everything to the subsistence farmers here, their livelihood, their inheritance, their pride and joy. Disputes over inheritance of a tree or trees on a boundary fence can be fierce and occasionally violent. Once you get your eye in, there are useful and venerable trees everywhere.

The trees which are grown and farmed in the Algarve are Carob, Olive, Fig, and Almond with small trees such as  Pomegranate, Arbutus and Quince. Cork oak is grown for its bark. Kern Oak and Holm Oak prunings are used as fire wood. Eucalyptus and Pine is also grown, but are both controversial, as they are a fire risk and detrimental to more native species. Loquats and Walnuts also grow well where there is some water, but you won’t see them widely.

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The farming year is punctuated by the tending of the trees and the harvesting of the fruit. The pruning of almond trees starts in January, they are often cut back quite fiercely to the trunk so that fresh limbs sprout, bearing the almonds, which is encased in a green skin, which peels open in July to allow the almonds to be harvested. The women and older people harvest them whilst the men bang the branches with a big cane stick, which is both bendy and strong, known as a canna.  I used to wonder why the women were clothed in long sleeved garments, scarves on their heads and hats to harvest them, even though the sun was so hot, until I could speak enough Portuguese to understand that the trees are full of little mites which drop with the almonds and nibble the pickers, should they not be covered up. The almonds are dried in the sun in their shells and then are either taken to the one and only almond processing plant to be cracked, or else bshed open with a big stone, during the long summer evenings over a gossip with neighbours. These almonds are often ground into flour and made into the most luscious cakes, along with the figs which are also in plentiful supply. There are different kinds of almond, five varieties I am told, but the one you have to watch out for is the bitter almond, as uncooked it contains cyanide and can be deadly if too much is eaten. The blossom of the bitter almond is a much deeper pink than those of the sweet variety, so easy to spot amongst the beautiful Spring flowering blossom.

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The fig trees are very beautiful , their large hand like  leaves offering shade in the Summer. Figs were a common food source for the Romans, who probably brought them to the Algarve.  In Roman times the figs were used to fatten geese and in more recent times, the Algarvians fed the surplus food to their pigs, fattening them for a Christmas feast. The trees grow  happily in the red clay soil, especially in the river plains of the Algarve and although in winter, they lose their leaves, they tolerate even light frost and flourish with little care, except for occasional pruning. There are different types, early and late, but the green types are dried in the sun and used in all kinds of cakes and sweetmeats (doces)

Carobs are the trees which bring in the cash for subsistence farmers and as such are shown great respect. The carob harvest is a family affair, with pickers getting up very early to pick the blackened pods from the ground when they are shaken from the tree.  Travelling people come from both the North of Portugal and Southern Spain to pick from wild trees, as they have done for centuries. The carobs are processed at local plants, with the seeds being separated by the pods. The pods  are milled into carob flour, used in cooking and as a chocolate substitute whilst the seeds are used to make a thickening, used in the food industry.  The carob barns often attract rats, which is why the villagers often foster small colonies of semi feral cats, to keep the rat population under control. There are legends about the carob trees, which are very strange looking, especially when old and often have hollow trunks. In the area of Salir, the Mouras Encantadas, female enchanted spirits guard treasure troves hidden under the trees and bewitch hapless passers-by with their mournful songs.

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Last but not least, there us the arbutus or  medronho bush. This is a charming and almost completely drought resistant bush, which grows wild on the serra, with white flowers and strawberry like berries produced in the Autumn.  The berries are picked and fermented  in large vats, eventually being distilled over several nights of still-watching into medronho, a potent  local firewater. The berries are very slightly hallucinogenic, which makes for a rather spacey alcoholic drink, which may explain why many of the farmers around here seem so chilled as they go about their daily lives!