Food for thought in the garden- Gardening in Portugal



A beautiful cabbage with a wild geranium peeping through

I have often written before about the idea of having an edible garden and eating or drinking it as much as possible. In such a dry climate, such as we have in the Algarve, this becomes ever more important, since water here is metered and quite expensive. We don’t have a personal bore hole and although we have a large cisterna to catch the rainwater from the roof,  we are in a state of severe drought, and with a rainfall  level of a mere 450 mm during the whole of last year, it’s vital that we make every drop count.


Potatoes, Nasturtiums to eat in salad, chickweed for the hens, nettles for soup, a leek.

After five years of working on the garden with food production in mind , albeit it pretty food production,  we are  starting to see results. This year, to my delight, we harvested 11 avocados from the Hass avocado tree that we nurtured for three years and I reached up in wonder at the end of the summer and picked one walnut which had been hiding amongst the green leaves. That walnut could not have been more precious , as it’s the promise of many more to come. We’ve been busy finishing off  jams and chutneys produced from last year’s fruit crop in expectation of the next. Even with our young trees, I managed to make loquat, plum and apricot jams and very tasty they were  too. The citrus trees have been the most problematic to get started, but we had a small but satisfyingly juicy crop of lemons this year and even a handful of limes. We have also harvested  a small sackful of almonds, before we trimmed back the trees. Luckily the almonds were already young trees on the land when we first got the house.  The tree work  we did has given us the first tonne of wood to burn next Autumn, once it is properly seasoned and dried out, and kindling aplenty.


Physalis or Cape Gooseberry

As well as all the Mediterranean standard trees, I have more unusual fruit in mind too. Physalis, or Cape Gooseberries are dotted about here and there,  which are surprisingly easy to grow, although they do need steady water in the summer, so I’ve planted them under a tree  so they share the water. I also have a Dragon Fruit cactus and an Opuntia, or as they are known here a “Figo de India “and hope one day to eat the fruits, which although seedy, I find delicious. When I went to Mexico once, we ate the pads, although I am going to have to find out how to remove the spines without doing myself a damage.


Moaning Millicent, the bantam, peeping through the lemon flowers

On reflection, I think I have planted too many citrus trees and should have planted more figs or apricots, which need far less water. I think the idea of citrus is so attractive to us people arriving from Northern climes and the trees are so cheap in the markets that we get a bit over excited. They take a great deal of water to get established a lot of cosseting, especially in the heavy clay soil of the Barrocal. They also get sunburned trunks and suffer from deficiencies. They are a vexatious tree, but I will keep trying with them, having put so much water, blood, sweat and tears into their care over the past three years.


Some nearly organic eggs

The chickens are still giving us lovely eggs every day. I am pondering over their feed though as although I thought I could get buy on feeding them scraps and letting them free range, this isn’t enough. I need to feed them some grains. However, the corn here is all genetically modified and liberally sprayed with glysophate and none of the feed is organic, so I am trying to find an organic source of grain at a reasonable price, which is proving difficult. I am not comfortable about eating the eggs every day if they aren’t organic,  since this is a main food source for us, so I need to find a solution.


Favas or Broad Beans in flower.

In the vegetable garden, I’m harvesting lettuce, cabbage and broccoli and beetroot all grown from plug plants, bought in the market in October. I also have some potatoes which were left in the ground from last year and reproduced themselves. I am also experimenting with some beautiful kale in five different varieties I grew from seed ordered from the UK. Some have purple or red leaves and I think they will look beautiful in May, before my winter vegetable garden is put to rest for the summer.  Everything is growing well, but quite slowly right now as it’s cold at nights and the days are short. I have flat leaved parsley in pots, plenty of delicious thyme, bay leaves, and the tops of onions left behind from  last year as seasoning and even the odd chilli pepper which I’m overwintering in my new greenhouse. I didn’t realise pepper plants can last a few years here, like perennials.


Cucumber seedlings

The favas, which again self seeded from last year are flowering already and I am hoping there are enough insects about for them to set seed and if they do the wild west winds that tend to rattle around us in March don’t blow off all the burgeoning seed pods. I am growing summer savoury, which when eaten in conjunction with favas are meant to stop you farting. We will see!
I have brined the olives I picked from my biggest tree last October and they are curing nicely, we are eating the green ones already and the black ones are going all wrinkly in their bed of salt as they should. Once they are finished, the skins can be quite hard, so I often spend a morning peeling them and de-pipping them before turning them into a tapenade.  Oh the joys of retirement, to spend a whole morning taking olives apart! We didn’t pick enough to make oil this year, but it is something I’d like to do in the future, as we certainly have enough trees to give us at least 10-15 litres, especially if we grafted some our wild olives and made all our trees productive.


Salvia Officianalis and Rosmarinus officinalis

The wonderful aromatic shrubs in the garden also have a range of uses and I am learning them. Rosemary and Sage for cooking, verbena and mint for teas, myrtle and fennel to flavour vodkas and lavender to flavour olive oil to make a dressing for tomatoes. Even the weeds  can be eaten. I have used nettle tops for soup, as my grandmother used to do and the stalks of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) in salads, although they are very scented and Señor Faztudo  says its like eating after shave. Nasturtiums also grow well here and I dot them amongst the vegetables and put the leaves in salads, even eating the seeds like capers as they produce a plentiful amount, although they need to be planted on north facing banks as they can’t take temperatures above 30 degrees and shrivel and die off quite quickly in July.

This year I am attempting to grow a patch of chick peas for the first time. The peas need to be planted quite deep after rain and then once up, don’t need further watering. Even if I get a kilo from my little patch, this will give me some hummus, which we both love.


Various Kales grown from seed

My new greenhouse has been a great pleasure (more of that in a future post) and I have far too many tomato, squash and courgette and pepper plants, waiting for the warmer weather. I also have outside cucumbers, which for some reason, I have never grown very successfully, but I have prepared a special place for them this year, so let’s see.

Reading this, it sounds like I have an enormous vegetable garden or something. I really don’t. I grow my vegetables potager stylie, some time ago realising that they can be just as beautiful as any annual flower garden. Sometimes everything looks so pretty I can hardly bring myself to eat it, but I am getting better at planting things throughout the season to take the place of the things we eat.


The vegetable garden…spot the cat’s head!

So, eat your garden folks! And eat it quickly before something else does. As I speak, the rain is falling steadily outside after months and months of blue skies and no rain and if I listen carefully I’m sure I  can hear the sound of the little snails chomping their way through my greens. I don’t blame them, but it can’t be allowed as I need the crop. A good way to deal with problem that might be to eat them back! Now there’s a thought..


Gardening in Portugal: Successes and failures in my Algarve garden

Before I write this month’s blog entry, I want to acknowledge that there are some gardeners and many agriculturalists and subsistence farmers who have lost all they have built and grown, sometimes over several generations in the Centre and North of Portugal to the devastating wild fires of this searing hot summer. Any words I have seem Inadequate. I can only say, if you are a gardener who has lost their garden to the fires, and are ever down my way in the Algarve, you have an open invitation to come and have a cup of tea with me and take any cuttings or plants that take your fancy. Just get in touch via the comments. I would be completely devastated to be in your position and think of you with great concern. 

This is the time of the year in Portugal to begin planting, that is as soon as the first rains come and some are finally forecast for tomorrow, and the gardening  cycle begins again.  It’s also a time for reflection on the progress of the garden and so here I am, waiting for the rain and  pondering on  what has worked and what hasn’t and what should be done next.

Over the past five years, I  have tried lots of things in my garden, in many ways one of the delights is to experiment, and when I’m not actually gardening, I am scouring gardening books and Facebook groups to beg, borrow and steal from the experiences of other gardeners. But all that is set against my own particular garden, and whilst some things work fine in some settings and some microclimates and some soils, they don’t always work for me. Whilst I always have a desire to be helpful to other new gardeners to Portugal, I am ever mindful that everyone has their own journey to make when it comes to their garden and even whilst advice is useful, no one has all the answers for your set of circumstances, not even the professionals.
So I thought I’d dwell a little on my personal successes and failures, since it is almost five years since we came to live in Portugal and acquired the unplanted  and disturbed piece of earth on the side of a north facing hill that is becoming my piece of Portuguese Paradise.
When we first started to make our garden, our biggest concern was how to manage the perennial weeds on the disturbed part of the garden and very hard, compacted  clay soil at the back. I made the decision to plant quite large areas with drought resistant and  native plants, lavenders and santolinas, rosemary and salvias, cistus and thymes and grasses of various kinds, as we are clearly not able to sustain the watering needed for thirsty ornamentals.. At the beginning, our weeds were literally about 8 feet high as the ground had been thoroughly disturbed and was attempting to heal itself with a huge flush of chrysanthemum coronium and wild radish. It looked very beautiful to be sure, but we had to clear it and the roots were very deep. There was only us two to clear it and whilst we managed to cut it down, cutting through swathes as though through a jungle until we met each other in the middle, there was no way we could remove the roots over such a large area. After a week or so of heavy rain and quite a bit of research we bought brown landscape fabric to lay down with the intention of planting natives through it and covering with a i layer of number 2 brita, as medium-sized gravel is called here. Now, a lot has been written recently about the dangers of using landscape fabric and I agree with much of what is said here:
However, I can only say that in my particular situation and with native plants that flourish in compacted clay and only in certain areas of my garden , it has worked very well and has enabled me to get a big area of garden up and running quickly. I wouldn’t put it in badly drained areas…the biggest danger is rotting the roots of the plants in heavy rain. Neither would I put it in areas I am irrigating. I only use it where I have natives that five years in, I don’t water at all. Based on my experience, I would never use the black plastic fabric with the green lines going through, only the brown, breathable one. The fabric and the mulch keep the moisture in for a long time and I haven’t had any problems with the roots growing into the fabric. Little by little, I am making the holes for the plants bigger and removing the fabric and once the whole ground is covered with plants and you can’t see the gravel, I will probably remove it all, just leaving the gravel, as it will have done its job of allowing the plants to get established without the weeds taking over.
Another successful technique has been dividing the garden, which is about  1,770 m2 or in old money, just under half an acre, into different garden “rooms” about 14 in all, with different plantings and purposes. I reckon each “room” is about the equivalent of my small terraced back garden in South London and if I see things like that, they become more manageable. I have planted some screening of  fast growing hedges, of Myoporum Laetum, which although not the most drought resistant and needing some maintenance, are very fast growing. This has provided my very exposed garden with some shelter from the north winds (I have since found this plant inspires great hatred amongst some gardeners, with more useful plants being available, but still find it useful, although I don’t think I’d like a huge hedge of it)
One of my aims has always been to grow vegetables, but with brick hard soil full of small rocks, this was very difficult in the beginning. I also had no understanding of the seasons and spent a lot of money watering things that couldn’t grow above certain temperatures, ending up with shrivelled pathetic cabbages that probably cost about 20 euros in water (I blush to think of it now)  I tried lots of permaculture techniques : hugelkultur; total failure as none of the wood rotted a jot and all the soil and water ran off, I had to deconstruct it in the end. I tried making compost in the traditional way and encouraging…too dry, too hot. What did work however was lasagna beds. I piled mounds of any of the garden rubbish and annual weeds interspersed with coffee grounds, newspapers, leaves, twigs, everything and let them rot down in the winter rains. Luckily in my first two or three years here, it did rain a lot in the winter, lately we haven’t been so fortunate. However, I realised that my vegetable garden wasn’t productive enough whilst these beds where taking their time to rot down and I was beginning to become interested in the Charles Dowding  “no dig” approach (google for info, there is  even a FB group dedicated to it)   Also, my vegetable garden is at the back of the house and doesn’t get enough sun in the summer for tomatoes and squashes, so I resolved to use the front of the garden near the chickens for them. I have now adapted a sort of lasagna bed, African keyhole garden type thingie, which I call  “stork’s nest.” as I have explained in  earlier post.  All garden rubbish is piled up in the Autumn into a large circle of chicken wire, kept up by six fence posts. This is in the middle of the garden area (not near a wall to prevent vermin nesting in it and under the watchful eye of the chickens and the cats). I pile it high, finishing with a thick layer of garden manure mixed with some sand and soil and let the rain do its work over the winter. I then use my saved cisterna rain water for two purposes, one to grow squash for winter storage,  pumpkins and courgettes in the stork’s nest bed and two, to whilst they were growing, to make compost for the winter vegetable no dig beds. Any excess water ran  down and watered a nearby avocado tree. It’s important to keep it watered, obviously, otherwise it constitutes a fire risk.
(I know it’s ugly now, but it looked lovely in the Summer)
I emptied it of lovely friable compost this Autumn, the only disadvantage was  having to take the compost up  the hill to the top vegetable beds, but I used the van for that as much as possible. I then laid  down a layer of cardboard on the back garden vegetable beds and a thick  layer of compost and rotted manure and planted into it  (mostly plug plants as the ants are still about and carry off all the seed) There is no digging, just a bit of heaving and carrying and I can plant quite happily even before the rains with a bit of water as the compost is soft and friable for the young roots and the cardboard blocks out any weeds before rotting down.
Looking at plantings, anything I have planted that  is related to things that grow wild here has been wonderful and the smells and the sight of the plants in the Spring and the buzzing and droning of all the insects is delightful beyond measure. Roses are amazing too, to my surprise, although some cannot take the excessive heat, I’ve found white roses work best as the flowers last longest in the sun, in my garden, anyway.
Citrus  trees on the other hand, have been a disappointment. They have taken five years to be no taller than my chest, have sulked and pouted, used far too much water and are prone to all kinds of diseases. Yet I persist. I have invested too much in them to let them die on me now. I am grimly determined to get them to maturity. My garden is a bit too cold and the clay isn’t pleasing to them. They are always moaning on. “Tough,” I tell them “I’m all you’ve got and you will grow to maturity, like it or not!” They mutter on, but haven’t given up the ghost yet!
Tropical things are difficult in my garden. I do have two frangipanis, but I cosset them endlessly and a Moringa and an Indian curry leaf tree, Murraya koenigii, both of which are growing in pots.  am suffering vexations over where to put them in the ground. I would love them to grow enough for me to pick the leaves, but I know I’m on the edge here with these trees, especially as we had quite a severe frost in parts of the garden last year. I have no doubt  they will have to be planted behind the house, sheltered from the North winds of the winter.
And the chickens? Well they have been a success, because now I’ve found a balance between them and the garden and I understand their ways. Dividing the garden into two halves has worked well and now they know their half very well and always run off cackling when we come home from a shopping trip and discover them sunning themselves on the terrace. There is no doubt they dig and poo, but that’s ok as they don’t have access to my “tender” vegetable garden and I can protect the squash plants and tomato plants quite easily from them when they’re young. They don’t eat most aromatics or aloes or ornamental grasses and are maturing the garden constantly, so we’re all happy. But it took some work to get it right. I had them far too near the house originally, that’s for sure and gave them too free a rein. Chickens are creatures of habit and they also listen to a good cockerel or chief hen. They are not stupid and can be trained, but you have to be persistent and consistent. Once they have settled on their daily circuit, as long as there is plenty of food and shelter, they don’t seem to stray from it. Chickens don’t like the unknown and unexpected much and Señor Faztudo is certainly quite good at being unexpected with the water pistol!
One of the reasons why I write this blog, among many is to help anyone inheriting this garden after me to understand the processes I  went through in making it, As a teacher, I always told my students, it isn’t about a right or wrong answer, it’s about your thinking along the way. Capturing my thinking, which is often all over the place, is helpful to me and I  hope helpful to others too, who are about to start their own journey in the garden.
I am sitting here now watching the grey clouds scudding across the sky and longing for the rain so the gardening can really begin. We haven’t had any proper rain since May and it’s sorely needed. A failure of Mother Nature, not of our  making, which I hope she will soon redress, both for my garden’s sake and more importantly, for those still under threat of fire. I’m off out to do a rain dance now, please join me, wherever you are!

Gardening in Portugal – “Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds”


Tomatoes from my garden

I was reading a blog the other day where someone described 10 thoughts he’d had about life in general, and I thought I’d pinch the idea. Thanks HungryDai An Englishman’s life in Lisbon

I often walk about the garden thinking things…then the thoughts drift away on the wind, maybe to be forgotten, perhaps to be remembered and acted upon.


So here are 10 thoughts I can remember from the past week

  1. I thought today how green the garden is, considering the drought situation we are finding ourselves in. The fires further North in  Portugal have been horrendous this year and there’s a drought in the Alentejo and parts of the Algarve, so I’m being very careful with water, since I fear water saving measures may be on the way and I don’t want my plants to develop a dependency.  I wondered why it’s still so green and then realised it’s really because now, in its fourth year, everything has got its roots down. Most of the garden is also mulched too which has helped hugely.


    Multi-headed sunflowers…why do they do that?

  2. I wondered a few days ago, where I would want my ashes strewn, in the event I died whilst we still lived here (cheerful thought I know!)  At the top of the garden under a seat facing the view? In the compost heap? Under a rose? To act as fertiliser for a sunflower? As a dust bath for the chickens? The latter me laugh, when I thought of my ashes being strewn in glorious abandon whilst the chickens deliriously ridded themslves of lice!


    The greenhouse in development

  3. Wondering how to arrange the interior of the greenhouse Señor Faztudo is just completing for me. I’ve never had a greenhouse before. I’m sure I need a potting bench and I’m thinking about how it should be designed. Lots of searching for ideas on Pinterest. I’m also pondering on what I will actually grow in the greenhouse if anything. It’s really there to bring on seedlings and create new plants, but maybe I’ll grow cucumbers and lettuces in the winter in it too.
  4. Will the beautiful eagle we’ve seen soaring across  the valley recently come for my chickens? Where would they hide if it did?


    Just the ticket for soup-except the plums!

  5. I thought this morning how pleasing it was to bring two fat beef tomatoes, a yellow and green courgette and a butternut squash up from the garden to make soup, along with garlic and onion harvested earlier and a pinch of home grown flat leaved parsley to go in at the end. I’ve always loved growing  my own food, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures for me.
  6. Which grape varieties are best for raisins? Do they grow here? How do you prepare the ground for grapes? Can I grow them organically or will they be overcome by mildew and diseases? I want to plant a row of grapevines behind the house on a flat terrace, not least  because they will provide a green wall in the summer and look great in the Autumn as they turn yellow and orange.


    Helichysum Italicum in my garden

  7. I’m  perplexed as to how  prune stuff in very hot conditions. It looks to me like some of the shrubs, the salvias and cistus are crying out to be pruned. But do you wait until the Autumn? Not sure what to do.
  8. The neighbours are beavering away creating a huge concrete area to store their carobs. It’s clear I’ll need some kind of screening, much as I enjoy the comings and goings of their market gardening activities. What can I grow that’s fast, is in keeping with a Mediterranean garden, and doesn’t need too much water? Pondering…all ideas gratefully received. The bed I need to plant it in is on a slope between two apricot trees. It needs not to lose its leaves in the winter and provide screening to quite a height. Please don’t suggest Leylandi, its one of the few plants I hate.
  9. What is growing now back in the UK? Are the courgettes only just beginning  and are there any blackberries yet…we don’t get them much here as it’s too dry. Are the wild flowers going over in my sister-in-law’s meadow in the Welsh hills? What are my old allotment friends up to in London? I’m thinking they will be getting ready for the annual allotment barbecue, with a camp fire and songs and lots of good things to eat, grown cooked and shared. I miss that community of fellow gardeners sometimes and think of them with wistful fondness.


    Gunsite Allotment scarecrows, South London

  10. My garden is all “No Dig” one way or another. I’ve never really thought about that until now, although it’s not no-dig  in the Charles Dowding way, as I can’t produce compost in large quantities as there is little water and biomass and the chickens run free over half of it. Digging never occurs to me for one minute nowadays. I haven’t even got a spade or fork, only an “enchada” the Portuguese hacking implement, which is a bit like something the English would call a mattock and I use that less and less, only to remove unwanted plants or weeds.

And a last thought snuck in, as it always does. What plants would I like next?  Something a gardener always thinks about really, we are all greedy for plants!

Writing  this, I’ve realised  realise that my garden is the place where I do most of my thinking, and not just about the garden. As Alice Sebold said:

“I like my garden –it’s a place where I find myself, when I need to lose myself.”

Preserving: the truth



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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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



Naked Men, Gorgons and Stork’s Nests

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


Naked Man Orchids

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

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


Salvia Illfindthenamelateris

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

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



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


Phoenix and one of his wives gardening

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

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


Cape Daisies

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


Freesias in pots

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


Snakey Cactus

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


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


Succulents miniature garden

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

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


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


Stork’s Nest Lasagna Bed

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


Globe Artichoke and a Peeper!

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


Wonderful Weeds in the vegetable garden

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


Prize weed, a thing of beauty!

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


Leeks and cabbages growing on last year’s lasagna bed

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

I beg your pardon, Mrs Arden, there’s a chicken in your garden!


I am going to write about my chickens. If chickens don’t float your boat, feel free to move on to look over someone else’s fence, although I aim to convince you that chickens are great  for the garden, although I am painfully  aware there are disadvantages.

The chickens have been part of our garden almost since we arrived. I’ve never kept them before, they weren’t allowed on our allotment in South London ( although someone kept racing pigeons which caused great consternation at allotment management committee meetings) and I always felt a bit sorry for the chickens that were kept as pets in plastic “Eglu” boxes  in the terraced gardens of friends. I just didn’t think they had enough space and they were often eaten or injured by hungry urban foxes, to the extreme distress of the children who looked after them. But now I’ve got  enough space for them to roam freely and foxes are shy around here and tend to stay on the Serra, so I can free range them during the day around the garden, although I live in terror of the Egyptian mongoose, the only predator I really worry about.

We started off with the cockerel, Nando, a gift from someone who mistook him for a hen and then bought four pullets, ready to lay. We have three of these original hens, Yoko, Mother Clucker and Lady Henrietta. The other hen, Chicken Licken sustained an injury to her neck from a weasel or cat when we were on holiday. Sadly, we had to cull her on our return and that wasn’t easy. Although it was necessary, we didn’t enjoy the experience, but it’s something you need to think about if you keep chickens. (I still have the terrible sound of the terrified squark she made just before she went to meet her maker ringing in my ears) I expect the vet could do it, but it would be expensive and probably unheard of here in rural Portugal. Or maybe a neighbour would help out. It is something to think about. I also have a hen donated to us as she has a tendency to go broody. We call her Mrs Chicken and a right fusspot she is too!


There are endless sites about how to keep chickens, but I won’t go into that here. I really want to talk about how chickens are compatible and incompatible with gardening.

My original plan was to allow the chickens go everywhere in the garden all of the time. Some sites on the Internet suggested that this might be possible. Believe me it isn’t!  There are several reasons for this. The most obvious reason is that chickens eat plants and absolutely love newly emerging seedlings, but even worse than eating them, they are enthusiastic and very diligent diggers. if you haven’t watched a hen scratching at the ground, it’s very amusing. They  do a sort of quickstep shuffle, inspect the ground for any tasty morsel, gobble up whatever they find and then repeat the process. They also love to dust bathe, and generally like to do it at the base of a new shrub you’ve just planted, with no regard for the damage they might do in exposing the roots. But whilst of all these behaviours are damaging, they are also useful. I have placed the compost heap close to the chicken coops so they can turn it over, although I have sectioned off an area where worms can hide, otherwise they would all be eaten. I also take the chickens into the vegetable garden in the Autumn, where they do a great job of eating all the bugs, including the snails’ eggs. They have a voracious appetite for anything that moves, which is also useful in orchards. The Mediterranean fruit fly is endemic here, but for a brief period in its life cycle, it is a helpless newly hatched fly on the ground, when the chickens have a chance to gobble it up. Even small mice are not safe from my chickens, who once stole an unfortunate shrew from my cat’s jaws and gobbled it up! I have one hen, Mother Clucker, who is only interested in eating bugs and she is my chief gardener. I allow her into the vegetable plot with me when I am digging the ground over in the Autumn and she follows me, happily seeking out all the nasty bugs (and probably gobbling up some of the good bugs too unfortunately) She makes appreciative little noises as she follows me around and I enjoy her company. But we never tell the others where she is. Four chickens and a cockerel in my vegetable garden is too many.


Next, there is the wonderful benefit of chicken poo. It is the most weed free of manures and although quite strong and not to be used neat on young plants, it is very useful in the garden, I use it in several different ways. In the Summer, when it dries quickly, I go round collecting it with my trusty children’s beach spade and put it in a bucket to mature. I either mix this with water to use a feed to the roots of plants, or use it as a compost activator. I use wood chips as bedding in the chicken house and empty the whole thing once a month to put on the compost heap. I have read neat chicken manure should never be used in the vegetable garden for health reasons, but it is fine to put on lasagna beds that will rot down for six months or so before you use them. However, you can put it neat at the base of fruit trees and water in well. Señor Faztudo hates chicken poo with a vengeance and in order to avoid any danger of it getting on the patios, has a super soaker water pistol to hand to discourage the hens from coming near the house. Chickens hate getting wet and he only has to pick it up nowadays and they run off squawking, although we have noted that one particular hen always raises her tail and deposits a present whilst retreating. And they say hens are stupid!

We have separated the garden into two halves, the back of the house for the vegetables and plants which chickens like to eat or which are poisonous to chickens and the front of the house for an orchard and garden area with aromatics, grasses and plants which chickens don’t tend to eat. I think this might be different chickens might have their own preferences, but our hens don’t eat thymes, rosemaries, lavender, geraniums and other aromatic plants, most ornamental grasses once they are established, roses or canna lilies, or irises. Oleander, Datura and Avocodoes are poisonous to them, so I keep an area for those plants around the back. (These plants are poisonous to people too)  I do have a young avocado tree in the orchard, but I hope they aren’t silly enough to eat the fruit or leaves.

Chickens are also great natural lawn mowers. They keep the grass down pretty well. I don’t say they eat all weeds, but they eat a lot of them, which is a wonderful bonus. They love the wild spinach which grows liberally in our garden.  On the other hand, they scratch all the stones up out of the ground and I am perpetually raking them up. They also make holes, which every now and again, you need to fill in or till over as the ground becomes very uneven.

The main reason for having them of course is for their eggs, which we get in plentiful supply. I get great satisfaction eating them and knowing that In essence, I am eating recycled garden bugs and weeds! I keep all the eggshells to bury under the roots of the tomatoes, which makes for strong plants, as tomatoes need calcium for good growth. The crushed eggshells are also good for making a circle around tender plants to deter slugs.


I have now caught the chicken bug and want to expand my flock. I think my garden needs about eight chickens and the cockerel. Mrs Chicken sat on a clutch of eggs patiently for 21 days, but none hatched. I am afraid Nando may be too big for the little chickens as he falls off frequently and hasn’t managed to fertilise the eggs. So  I have bought four new chickens from a local pet shop, which have been quickly dubbed “The Peepers”  as that”s all they do at the moment, peep and poo. This is quite a dangerous thing to do, as there is the strong possibility of bringing disease into your flock. But they are in quarantine at the moment and seem fine, so far.  I promised I wouldn’t name this batch, in case I had to do the dirty on them somewhere along the line, but that didn’t last long and I have called them Ory, Weed, Pea and Badass. (just add the word Chick to the front of the back of the word and you’ll get the general idea!) They were quite young when I got them and it wasn’t until they came  home, I realised I’d purchased the ugliest chickens on earth, a breed known as the Turken, as they look like a cross between a chicken and a hen. They have a genetic mutation which means they  are born without any feathers on their neck and when fully grown look very weird. But I love them anyway. I have seen quite a few in farmyards hereabouts and with 30 per cent less feathers, apparently they do very well in hot weather, which is a good thing as my bigger hens have looked very uncomfortable in summer. I also hope they grow my bigger than the little hybrid hens I have at the moment, so Nando doesn’t fall off any more and I can breed from them, using Mrs Chicken as a broody.


The  chickens themselves provide delightful entertainment when you are working in the garden. Nando enjoys cussing the other cockerels in the village and its quite funny watching him stand guard over his harem. Although not unduly aggressive, he has a job to do and he does it well.(The guarding bit I mean, he isn’t so good at the fertilising bit!) His beak is sharp, his talons are like razors and I wouldn’t like to be a cat after his girls. He is easily as big as a small dog and very fierce when anything challenges his flock. He lumbers around like Road Runner and raises a lot of laughs. Most of the Portuguese villagers on seeing him laugh and say “Muito bom com batatas” or “Very good with potatoes” and I guess he would be. But I love him, I have to confess.  For the moment, he’s safe, although I can’t guarantee that will be the case for his sons, sadly. That is unless one of them is good at pushing wheelbarrows up and down very steep hills.



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


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

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


A trio of lettuces, from market plug plants

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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


Absinthe and scented geranium


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


Penstemon grown from seed

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


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


Vetiver grass acting as a terrace wall and preserving water

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