Tag Archive | cats

Gardening in Portugal – The Cats That Walked By Themselves



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 Faztudo  tolerates the chickens, as long as they stay in their half of the garden, although he says we should re-name 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 dislikes  mice and rats – a lot. 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.

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 advantage  of not bringing ticks and fleas into the house 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 in London 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.


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.


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!


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…