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The worst bits…

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A very messy working area!

Everything in my garden is not roses. It’s  a long way from being a perfectly managed, under control garden and I doubt it ever will be. Because I’m not able to keep it like that.  I just want you to know that, readers, if indeed there be readers of this post.  Why do I feel the need to confess this now? Well, the other day, someone on a Facebook gardening group said that she’d try to get the courage up to show photos of her garden. I wondered why she needed courage?  Are we so judgemental we can’t share our problems and failures for fear of people laughing us?  That isn’t the spirit of gardening is it? We all have our triumphs and our failures, our good bits and our bad. I used to get so angry with the allotment committee when they went off on one about rules and tidiness. Of course there has to be a collective agreemment on standards and health and safety.  But sometimes the most messy of gardeners produced the most food.  That set me thinking about the fact that on gardening blogs and social media we generally only show our best side, our beautiful flowers in vases, our lovely bushes in full bloom, our buegeoning vegetables. Of course, we like to show our achievements, but no real garden is perfect and mine is no exception. Real gardens  have warts, carbuncles even!  A blog post and its photographs is nothing more than a blinkered view of reality, a cropped and edited snippet with the scruffy bits left off.

So in this blog post, I’m going to reveal all my less than savoury bits. I would say the seedy bits, but in fact they aren’t seedy, they’re weedy! What I’m about to expose is more shocking than anything you might see on Naked Gardening day, but if you still read my posts after I’ve  revealed all, then you’re a good egg!

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The Glory Hole

So let’s start with my Glory Hole! A Glory Hole was a term frequently used by my maternal grandmother. It was a place where you flung everything, often behind a door which you then closed and hoped it would all rearrange itself inside.  A Glory Hole has a tendency of getting messier and messier until in desperation you try to squeeze the door closed and everything falls out every time you open it.  My little shed and its environs are like this. Although I give it a tidy out once or twice a year it always seems to get so full I can’t get in to find things. The cats sleep in this shed and also find themselves climbing over bits of plastic sheet, jam jars, bags of string and other paraphenalia before they can get to their baskets. Sometimes they give me a pitying or withering look.  In the summer, they generally give up and sleep in their airier accommodation in the porch. My sister-in-law gave me a delightful Welsh slate sign that says “The Potting Shed” Well I try, but not much gets potted in it!

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My flower bed outside the front door

The next delightfully unkempt area of my garden should be my most beautiful. This is the flower bed directly outside our  front door. On the prospective plans, before the house was even built,  a charming bougainvillea is to be seen scrambling up the side of the house. I was enchanted. Unfortunately Señor Faztudo had other ideas. There  is no way anything is going to grow up the side of our house and allow the passage of geckos, ants, and other unmentionables onto our balcony! Discouraged, I have never decided what to grow in this bed and it’s a bit far from the hose and gets the full blast of the morning sun and the East wind. To date it has some very sad and holds only a couple of failing-to -thrive hibiscus and a Dama de Noite, so at least it smells enchanting at night. But I don’t water it or tend to it all enough and it looks awful. I still haven’t decided what to plant there in  the long run, perhaps some beautiful Agapanthus,  all suggestions gratefully received. But nothing that clings to walls or upsets foundations, please!

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Edwina Grundy’s Farm

The next terrible-awful has been dubbed by my one and only husband as “Edwina Grundy’s farm”  This is the area of the garden farthest away from the house, where I indulge my farming and permaculture techniques. I’m  making raised beds here to collect all the rubbish, turn it into good soil and furthermore to keep chickens out and although I can see logically  that raised beds shouldn’t do too well in hot climates, my first example has been producing courgettes and butternut squashes very successfully for weeks. Thing is, they don’t look very beautiful and I’m pondering how to improve their aesthetic. It certainly doesn’t look delightful at the moment in this heat, as I’ve employed old parasols in an endeavour to keep my butternut squashes going for a bit longer. I have also had to shelter a young avocado from the sun. I am going to develop this area into three raised beds for pumpkins, squash, and cucumber as it’s the sunniest are of the garden, until the fruit trees grow bigger at least.

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The Dump

Finally here is one of the very worst bits. I shall call it  “The Dump” I have always been quite good at sweeping things under the carpet. To this end I have planted hedges as I know I’m an untidy gardener. I decided all my untidy bits can be hidden behind the hedge. This part of the garden is waiting for my new greenhouse which is being built by Señor F  for my birthday in a couple of week’s time (actually I’m more likely to get it for Christmas now, and it was for last Christmas,  but I am still very grateful) It’s full of all my carefully collected weeds waiting to go in the next raised bed, loads of bags of fresh horse poo kindly donated to me and all my fencing gubbins, along with several old chairs that I just can’t resist collecting from dumps. To me the chairs speak of the people who sat of them and I hate to see them thrown out. I like to line them up and imagine the old people sitting on them, although in fact the chickens use them as handy perches. I will paint them up and restore them one day, when I can make the time.

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Old hand-made chairs rescued from the dump

So there you have it. My worst bits. I’ve shown you mine, but will you show me yours?

What is a garden FOR?

 

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The Irrigated Garden Bed

In  the early days, when I first started to make this garden, I went to a very interesting  talk Marilyn Medina Ribeiro of Waterwise Gardens at a Mediterranean Garden Society. meeting. It was inspiring for me, a beginner gardener to the Algave and one of the questions raised was, “What is a garden?”

I’ve  found that question quite thought-provoking over the last few years as I’ve been working on mine. Nowadays though, I’m  increasingly asking myself the question: “What is a garden FOR? ” as it gets closer and closer  to something which could be called a garden.

Creating a garden is as personal as painting a picture, writing a novel or composing a piece of music. Each plant, although it has its own will and needs, is placed in position with care and consideration; it’s  tended to maturity, worried over, fed and watered. The garden as a whole, develops almost like a painting or a jigsaw.  Some people paint by numbers almost, planning in advance, others, like me, are more chaotic. Whichever way you do it, bits gets filled in or rearranged, fussed with, put in and taken out, like a patchwork quilt.  I can often be found sitting on an old hand-made Portuguese chair I rescued from the dump, chin in hand, contemplating how something is growing and whether  it can carry on where it is or needs to be moved.

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The dry garden bed- clary sage and nepeta

So what is my garden for and why  do I work at iteach day? What’s the point?

The garden certainly takes up most of my thinking and emotional energy; a lot of my retirement time is spent researching things I’d like to know; questions it raises; techniques I might try. Am I creating it for me to sit in, a refreshing drink and novel in hand, doing nothing except admire my handiwork? When I finish it, will I want to start another one? What is it teaching me about life, the universe and the price of eggs?

People like to show off their gardens, I’ve noticed. I do it through this blog, on Facebook groups and sometimes in person. But why do we do that? Perhaps we do it to get some kind of accolade for our gardening prowess.  Or maybe just for the sheer pleasure of appreciating a plant with other gardeners, getting inspiration and perhaps swap a cutting here and there. Certainly, my gardening friends have always been very inspiring and from a broad spectrum of life. It was one of the things I loved most about  my London allotment, sharing a thermos with a friend on a cold evening after a hard day’s work and watching the crows settling for the night, discussing the plans for beetroot or rhubarb, celebrating small successes.  I love to see how others have put their gardens together and hear their thoughts and dreams about them. However, now the time is coming when I’m getting close to having something to show other people in my garden, I feel strangely shy about it, for it’s something I have struggled with and laboured over for almost five years and I feel almost reluctant to expose it, as though it was a secret gate to my inner self. Or perhaps I’m over thinking it….

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The garden below, my sitting spot on the left in front of the shed

One of the things this garden has done is showered me with gifts. Perhaps that’s what it’s for.  The gift of motivation in my retirement is one thing it’s  given me.  Every morning, I wake up feeling I have something to do, something healthy, meaningful and creative. I wander off down the garden and it gives me tranquillity, right there in the butterflies on the Clary sage, the blackbird singing so very sweetly it hurts and the east wind from Spain  in the olive trees. As if that isn’t enough it surprises me with a courgette which grew  in the night, a newly laid egg where I didn’t expect one or an amazing flower on a succulent, I’d never seen before. Of course, life isn’t perfect, so it occasionally gives me problems, like “How are you going to stop the chickens eating the tomatoes? “ or “Why has the lime tree stopped growing when it was perfectly healthy?”  I am endlessly on my toes.

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Courgette grown in my raised bed/compost heap

I must say, I enjoy sitting in the garden and just staring. I probably spend at least an hour a day doing that in between tasks. Which is better than using a meditation app, I suppose. And because the garden is on a very steep hill and I must walk up and down it at least twenty times a day, I don’t need to go to the gym.  The garden also has built in aromatherapy with all the lavender and thyme – using the hose is a spa in itself and smelling the earth after rain, honestly, you might have well have died and gone to heaven! There are other surprising smells like this plant, Cassia didymobotrya, which amazingly actually smells of hot, buttered popcorn!

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Cassia didymobotrya

If I asked Señor Faztudo  “What is the garden for?” I imagine he might say “To keep me endlessly building things for you in the garage” It is true, he’s kept busy too, as I beg him  for a chicken coop, or a garden shed or a greenhouse for my birthday (Often getting it in time for Christmas, although my birthday is in the summer, but I’m always grateful)  Something has to keep you busy in retirement and as I watch him banging and sawing in the workshop he has created for himself, I see he is happy, in his own way.  I am reminded of the folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”

“I will build my love a bower
By yon clear and crystal fountain
And on it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain”

I have yet to ask him for the bower, or the crystal fountain but I have it in mind. You are never too old to be built a bower by the one you hold dearest.

Wee beasties and long legged locusts and bugs that go bump in the night!

This is a post about beasties, for it’s the season of beasties and the garden is teaming with them. This is all perfectly natural of course, but there are times when it gets a little bit much and lest you think  I’m totally living the dream, without any irritants and that living in Paradise is my daily state, let me tell you something. Go on, come a little closer and I’ll tell you a  secret.  Here it is:  “There are mosquitoes in Paradise” Not only mosquitoes but ticks, bird lice, fleas, the Mediterranean fruit fly, red spiders, locusts and huge hornets. And right now, I’m not sure which of these plagues is worse!

Let’s take the bird mites first. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you keep chickens, at some point or other you’ll get bird mites. I’ve only had them once, a few years ago, but I never want them again. Take heed, chicken keepers, and take preventative measures before you ever get a case of them!  This is a salutary tale which I’m about to tell. One bright Spring morning, you go down to the chicken coop in your pyjamas, even though you really know you shouldn’t. Then you go back to bed with a cup of tea and your book. Snuggling in, you  start to itch a little and think perhaps it’s an allergy to pollens. Then a little mite runs across your book, closely followed by a second one. Starting to get a bit suspicious you pull back the bedclothes to inspect your trouser leg, which you realise is covered in little mites! Arrrrrgh!  It’s the worse thing….the little varmints run up your legs as soon as you go near the infested coop and although they are almost too small to see, they are very irritating and make your skin tickle. They need to be fought aggressively by any means possible and measures taken, such as regular coop cleaning and dusting with diatomaceous earth, so you don’t get them again! Awful things. I still shudder to think about them.

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Are you itching now? Good! You can share my pain. And the chickens don’t like them much either!

Now the evenings are so balmy,  we sometimes sit outside to watch the moon rise. The other night we were sitting on the terrace as  the sun went  down, with  the swallows dipping and diving delightfully across the pool when a noise akin to some kind of helicopter landing assaulted our ears, as a huge and ungainly cockchafer beetle flew around the corner, veering crazily from here to there, blundering its way around, terrifying in its size and unpredictability. Then, just as the last rays of the sun lit the sky, the loud insistent buzz of dive-bombing mosquitoes started and we knew it was dinner time and we were the tastiest dish on the menu. We beat a hasty retreat!

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The next morning, I went down to harvest the apricot crop, which had been ripening beautifully on the tree. I bit into one expectantly ,the juice running down my chin. So sweet! Then I noticed the other half had small maggots wriggling about inside. Sure, they’d only eaten apricot, but it was a bit off-putting. I wondered if I’d eaten one. I made a note not to tell Señor Faztudo, since he’d never eat the courgette and apricot chutney I was  about to make if he knew the dreadful truth. He isn’t very fond of the idea of maggots in his food, even when I promise to remove every one! The Mediterranean Fruit Fly is a serious pest here and can infect 250 kinds of fruits and vegetables. I have been researching different ways to combat it without chemicals, including traps and barrier methods, as I won’t use chemicals in my garden. The fly injects its eggs into the fruit just as it’s ripening and then the maggots hatch and turn the fruit bad. Most people pick the apricots early and let them ripen inside. Luckily not much of my crop was affected, only some, but it’s something I’ll  have to think about in the future.

On a further itchy note, I’m still recovering from the flea bites on my legs I got a few weeks ago. I’m not sure where they came from, really. We don’t have animals in the house, so I suppose I could have picked them up from the cats or chickens who live outside. The thing about fleas is that they are in the earth, jumping on animals is only part of their life cycle. I have started to wear thick socks in the garden, tucked into long  trousers which helps to avoid being bitten.  I don’t even want to get started on the subject of ticks. Luckily in four years I have only found two ticks on me, but I live in fear and terror of them.

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I’ve found the best relief from itching, once bitten, is the hottest water you can bear on the affected parts, which means our water bill will be huge as I’ve been showering twice a day!

Is it all worth it? Of course! A few bites and the odd irritant is more than compensated for by the beauty of the garden this Spring. It’s been truly amazing, beasties notwithstanding.

My Three Garden Graces

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There were three Graces in Greek Mythology: Aglaia, the Grace that symbolized Beauty, Euphrosyne, the Grace of Delight and Thalia, the Grace of Blossom. According to the Greek poet, Pindar, these enchanting goddesses were created to fill the world with pleasant moments and goodwill. My garden is certainly full of Beauty, Delight and Blossom at the moment, which set me thinking about how my three Graces would be personnified.

Three wonderful women in my life have supported my gardening activities. I’ll call them my garden “Graces”  as they have inspired me with their creativity, charm and beauty in their passion for gardening, and although one of them is no longer on this earth, I think of them all every day as I work to make a garden as beautiful as theirs.

The first Grace was my mother. She loved plants and taught me many of  their names from a young age. My first word practically, after “mama” was “aquilegia” apparently. Unfortunately, this precocious and probably not very endearing tendency, to remember complicated plant names from a very young age has not remained with me and I am far more likely to call a plant a “Whateveritis” or “Thingmebobus” nowadays. My mother loved wild flowers in particular and I did manage to learn all the common names, which fascinated me such as “milk maid” and “wet-the-bed”, “lords and ladies” and “cuckoo pint” just a few of the local names in the Wye Valley area. I often wondered how they got such strange monikers, but no one could tell me the origins.  My mother used to keep her four children amused on long walks by helping us to identify the names of plants and trees and their properties. She was a lover of roses and flowering shrubs and as we were growing up, the garden blossomed under her hand. She was quite a wild gardener, straight lines and neat beds were an anathema to her and that sense of an abundant  cacophony of plants is something I always loved in her gardens. She was also a fan of variegated plants, which I am not so sure about in my own garden, but then, I am not my mother.

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My second Grace, we’ll call her Mrs Grace, was a plantswoman. She wanted them all, every one in the world. She loved plants with a passionnate greed, she knew all their names and origins and just had to have any plant she fell in love with. I first met her when I was a student in London, where she was a mature student on the same course as me. She had seven children and came to be a very special friend to me, almost like a second mum,  and I watched her create gardens in all of the nine houses she had during our friendship, either in  UK and Portugal.  Mrs Grace loved colour, colour was her passion and she would literally paint with her plants. In her English garden, pillar roses would intertwine with a huge variety of clematis as they romped all over the apple trees. Tiny violas would raise their purple  and yellow faces to the sun amongst brightly coloured anemones in her English gardens as Spring arrived. “Look at their dear little faces!” She would exclaim with a joy which was infectious. She would stop to point out clumps of Dutch irises, one of her particular favourites. She was particularly fond of Iris hollandica “Tiger’s Eye” and it was one of the first plants I put in my Portuguese garden here. The colours are exquisite.

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Mrs Grace’s Portuguse garden

Mrs Grace was our reason for coming to Portugal, as she bought a house here in the 1990s and encouraged us to come too.  She loved the bright colours she could use in her garden here and it was a great sorrow to her that she had to return to the UK because of ill-health, before she could help with my Portuguese garden. Sadly, she died a few years ago, but every day, I hear her voice as I walk around the garden, encouraging me here and chiding me there, just as she did in life. When I feel sorrow if I have to move a plant, I hear her saying “Well, you have to break an egg to make an omelette, you know” or “You need to have some brighter colours in that corner over there. What about a nice purple clematis or some Bougainvillea?”

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Donna Gracia’s agapanthus

The third inspiration is my neighbour. Donna Gracia. Born in a South American country, and living in Holland now, she loves tropical and exotic plants and her Portuguese garden allows her free rein to grow them. Plants love her, they almost reach their tendrils to her for her touch. If they haven’t flowered for her, she gets very cross and threatens them with the chop and invariably they comply and bloom for her.  I don’t think any plant would dare not to flourish for her! Her garden sings with Hibiscus and Frangipani plants, giant Agapanthus and all kinds of exotic magic. She is generous with her plants and gives me all sorts of wonderful cuttings, as well as plenty of encouragement. Her garden is inspiring and although plants don’t perform for me like they do for her, I am working on it.

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Donna Gracia’s Epidendrum

So Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia in the form of these three lovely women, follow me about the garden, as well as the hens, the cockerels and the cats as I look in wonder this Spring at how the plants are developing. Beauty, Delight and Blossom in abundance!

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!

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!

Gardening in Portugal- The Gifts in my Garden

“She breathes in dirt and exhales flowers” (Unknown author, but I love that quote)

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It seems strange, but for the past four years  of building this garden, I haven’t had much time to concentrate on the plants. I do have a quite lot of plants now, but the garden is big and the plants are still small and sometimes it’s hard to even realise they are there!  Although  I have a fairly well developed idea of how I want the garden to be planted and I have already different “zones” we have been spending our limited resources on finishing terraces, garden buildings and hard landscaping, and haven’t really focused on what is growing in the garden. I have just poked plants in here and there in the general  position I want them to grow and hoped for the best whilst I concentrate on improving the soil, finishing off the structures and grow a little food.

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With this in mind, I went out in the garden yesterday with my roses coloured glasses on. I wanted to take a fresh look at the  plants I already have in the garden, the plants I need and perhaps even more importantly, the plants I desire!
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As I looked around, and focused in on what was actually growing, I felt a huge debt of gratitude, as I realised most of the plants in my garden have been given to me. Here a delicious pot of spiky aloes, which I don’t even know the names of, given to me by a friend with a wonderful collection, there a beautiful camellia or a hibiscus. Many roses, given to me as cuttings by dear neighbours and friends, even some sent in the post from France by my sister in law. Wild flowers growing from seeds plucked from the waysides by my Portuguese teacher, who knows so much about their origins and medicinal uses, Absinthe (Artemisia absinthium) and Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) grown from donated cuttings and Lippia Alba, common name here, Cida, a plant used for tea by someone who thrust a whole pot of rooted cuttings into my hand at the Seed and Plant exchange in the Autumn. During a time when the world seems to be getting more insular and less friendly,  my emerging garden is bright with the generosity and good heartedness of fellow plant lovers and gardeners.  I’ve been donated beautiful pots too and even tools. I’ve been given furniture and decorations for my hippy shed, which I enjoy with much pleasure as I sit there. To help build my lasagna beds I have received coffee grounds collected from the local cafe, newspapers, leaves, horse manure and even shredded bank statements which were great added great benefit to my sludgy compost! Even  some of my chickens are presents. I am humbled by the generosity of so many people as I walk around the garden. People are so kind.
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Looking at different pats of the garden, , I realise already have a good collection of succulents, a wide range of aromatic plants, including several types of lavender and rosemary, cistus and phlomis, thymes  and salvias, some ornamentals including hibiscus, oleander, plumbago, Ceanothus, a rose collection, many of then unnamed and grasses and irises, both winter and summer.

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I also have a few tender and beautiful pot plants, a camellia, a holly fern,(Cyrtomium falcatum), a couple of  frangipanis (Plumeria) and some lilies. I’d like more decorative and unusual plants , but the care they need will make them plants for some time in the future, once I have the greenhouse and can care for them better(  Señor Faztudo is still hammering away in the garage, as I write) Pouco a Pouco, as they say here!

So that’s more or less what is emerging,  not including all the food plants and trees. What do I need? I need more drought resistant, chicken proof plants, to fill in the spaces, nepetas, other species of cistus, euphorbias, varieties of iris, maybe more grasses. I need some pyracantha to make my chicken corner more impenetrable to predators. I need more Dutch irises…you can never have too many Dutch irises! 
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But what do I desire? Ah now…there’s a thought! I desire a moringa  tree.(Moringa oleifera-my sister gave me some seeds but I can’t find them anywhere!) I desire all the aromatics in the world. I desire a bigger collection of aloes as I’ve fallen passionately and hopelessly in love with the spikey fellows. I desire stinging nettles growing just where I want them to grow and comfrey so I can use it to feed my vegetables. I want celandines and poppies and borage, but do they want me?  I crave a rhubarb plant but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I almost desire more space….no wait!  A gardener’s greed knows no bounds, but it’s a happy greed. It doesn’t kill you with calories or pollute your lungs, it just soothes your heart and soul and keeps you fit. My plants reward my time with them and the more whole I become and the more healed I am from the mad hurry of city life,  the better they grow.