Tag Archive | permaculture

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

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Patch or Alexanders, Self seeded Aconite (delphinium, very poisonous)  and Chamanthe

It’s raining again, oh Lord, it’s raining again! And you know what rain means? It means weeds!
But nowadays,  that don’t impress me much, because I know the name of most of them and as my gardening friend and Portuguese teacher often says, if you know the name of a plant, it isn’t a weed.

I’ve  had the joy and delight over the past few years of discovering that most of the weeds in the Algarve  are useful for something. Do you want to thicken cheese? Use the petals of a  cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, as a rennet substitute (although, what kind of domestic goddess makes cheese? Not me..well not yet anyway!)  Have you got a toothache? Chew on the leaves of the field marigolds, which are an anodyne.  And don’t bother buying fertiliser for your plants, just soak a few nettles , Urtica Dioica),  in water for a few weeks, water down the resulting liquid (holding your nose tightly as the pong is indescribable) and the job is done. Furthermore nettles are great in soup and if you’re feeling particularly strong, you can whip yourself with them to alleviate rheumatism!

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Nettle, Urtica Doica

Of course some weeds can kill you, so you have to be super careful, as there  isn’t much room for mistakes. Take the Umbelliferae family for example. The plants are very similar in this family and  whilst the Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum, brought here by the Romans,  can be eaten in all  its parts,  Hemlock , Conium maculatum,  is in the same family and is deadly!  Of course, this may be useful if you want to do your husband in, but since Senor Faz-Tudo is my beloved,  indispensable companion and hasn’t finished the greenhouse yet, that’s not likely in my case!  Even the experts don’t always seem to know definitively. I bought a book on foraging in which it said you can eat the flowers and leaves of Aquilegia, and told everyone in a gardening FB group you could eat it, making a total fool of myself, because it’s actually from the ranunculus  family and dangerous to eat. I hope I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death  (nervous laugh!)  So readers, this is a disclaimer. Please, check out any plant for yourselves before you eat them. This is a great place to do it: Plants for a Future What a labour of love that web site is!

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Alexanders, Smyrnium Olusatrum

I have left some areas in my garden specifically for the weeds to grow, especially in the vegetable garden, where the chickens don’t venture, as they are so useful for so many things. (I actually left them in the chicken’s half of the garden  too but they ate them all, although I suppose we got them back in their eggs) Nettles are quite hard to find in the wild around my house, as they prefer nutritious ground with some shade, so they are particularly precious to me and I only ever pick half of them to use, so I can be sure they will continue to drop their seed and come back next year. The local women used to dry them for use as very nutritious fodder for chickens and other animals as they are full of iron and other vitamins and minerals.They can also be eaten in soup, and as soon as they are boiled they lose their sting.  I have lots of dandelions too and I feed them to the chickens and also, when the leaves are very young, add them to salads, in small amounts as they are very bitter.

The  garden is overrun with Borage plants, Borago officinalis, again something I encourage, as they are very good for attracting bees as pollinators for my beans and fruit trees. The flowers are very pretty and look great put into ice cubes in the fridge to jolly up your cocktails, and although the leaves are edible, they are very hairy, you’d be unlikely to eat them unless you’re a goat.

Although the tradition is dying out a little now, local women all have their recipes for “chas” or teas using local “weeds” Malva Silvestris , the common mallow or wild hollyhock is still used in tea to settle sore stomachs, or the leaves boiled and used for a poultice on festering wounds or cuts as it draws out the poison and soothes and heals. Wild thyme and rosemary are both anti-bacterial and can be uses as “pick me up teas” in the morning. The wild thyme here is amazing and I have collected the seeds of several types from the wild in the hope of encouraging  them to grow in my garden.

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Malva  or Mallow

 

Interestingly, unlike in Greece, in my experience, Rosemary isn’t used much in the South of Portugal for cooking, with people preferring to uses salsa (parsley) or green coriander (coentro)

My friend is collecting  “dicas” or uses of common herbs, before the very considerable knowledge of the older countrywomen here is lost. It seems there are many beneficial plants, some of them indigenous to the Algarve and some imported from peoples coming into the Algarve, such as the Carthaginians, Romans or Moors  or brought back from the colonies of Portugal in Africa or South America  in more recent years.

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Patch of Nettles and Chrysanthemum Coronium 

But before you go out with your poison sprays or hacker and commit carnage, at least try to identify your weed and see if you can use them for anything, using the “Plants for a Future” database. It seems crazy we spend so much on cosmetics, remedies and leaf teas when any of them are derived from things we call weeds in our gardens. It’s lovely to wander around the garden and see teapot potential and bath bombs where once you just saw plants which made you cross!

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The grass that keeps on giving – Vetiver

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A clump of young vetiver “slips”


I have fallen in love with a particular species of grass. (No, not that kind of grass, man.. I’m a teetotal great aunt!) I found this grass whilst looking for something to stop the erosion of a steep bank in our brand new garden, which began its life as bare earth a couple of years ago. It was hard to find and we went on a wild vetiver chase. A Kenyan farmer was growing it on a mango farm only 15km from here and I was very excited when we went to pick it up. It won’t grow where there is prolonged cold, and they haven’t really cottoned onto using it in a big way, here in the Algarve, but they should. It’s a wonder plant for anyone gardening on a slope in a dry climate and I’m about to tell you why.

Vetiver or Chrysopogon zizanioides, to call it by its proper name, originally comes from India. In northern and western India, it is popularly known as khus. Its roots are very fragrant and used widely in men’s perfume products, which is why you I can be seen inhaling deeply and swooning with desire every time I dig up a bit of root! Some examples of vetiver used in perfume products include Dior’s Eau Sauvage, Guerlain Vetiver, Zizan by Ormonde Jayne and Vetiver by L’Occitane.The plant can grow 1.5 metres high and form clumps as wide. It has a brownish purple flower, although I have never seen one yet as my clumps are only two years old. Once established it is fairly drought resistant, Unlike most grasses, which form horizontally spreading root systems vetiver’s roots grow downward, 2–4 m in depth. That’s deep! Which is why it has two wonderful properties, it holds back soil, making a natural terrace and it holds in water. In other words, it’s a living terrace wall-and a very pretty one at that!

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Clumps of vetiver interspersed with Pennisetum “White Ladies”

I bought the grass as “slips” which are the side shoots taken from a living plant. I made a bit of a mistake planting them in Autumn during a rather cold damp spell and they sulked for quite a long time, but as soon as the weather warmed up, away they went. They should be planted in two rows along a contour line and within a year or so, they will be strong enough to form a terrace to hold back earth and water.

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I quickly saw the advantage in my vegetable garden which is on a slope. I didn’t want to make stone walls, so have planted lines of vetiver and I plan on making lasagna beds behind them. The other advantage is that you can trim the hedges to any height and use the cuttings as a very useful mulch. In fact if I had any water bison they would eat the cuttings as fodder, but I don’t think a water bison would be very conducive to a beautiful garden;  the chickens are bad enough.

And speaking of chickens, they are descended from Indian jungle fowl, and love hiding amongst the clumps during the heat of the day. I am thinking of using hedges  of plants as living chicken proof fences down the bottom part of the garden where my chickens have free range.

Propagation is easy by taking slips from established plants. They do well with a little organic manure to get them started and away they go! The most commonly used commercial genotypes of vetiver do not produce seeds which are fertile which means they don’t spread widely in the garden and are easily controlled.

One of the other benefits of vetiver is that it cleans the ground of pollution such as wastewater contaminated with chemicals or heavy metals. A wonder grass indeed!

You may want to know where to source plants from and I’m sorry but I can’t help you much. Mine aren’t quite big enough yet to be giving any away. The Kenyan farmer has gone back to Kenya, but I did see some at the Mediterranean Garden Society plant Fair recently. There is an organisation on the web which might be able to help you with suppliers here http://www.vetiver.org/ and they have a Facebook page too, with lots of examples as to how vetiver is used across the world. https://www.facebook.com/groups/9168832759

I find vetiver one of the most useful plants in my garden. So put that in your pipe, but don’t smoke it!

Gardening in Portugal – Can you hear what I hear?

Only to him who stands where the barley stands and listens well will it speak, and tell, for his sake, what man is.
~ Masanobu Fukuoka

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I realise I have started to listen to my garden. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but today I went out to look at my tomato plants and I could hear they weren’t happy. In fact they were really complaining. The problem is they’re planted in one of the hottest parts of the garden, in clay soil, on a slope. They’ve done their best, but it just won’t do. They need more shade and they need any water I give them to soak more deeply into their roots. I sighed. I had intended to try and do some washing and tidying in the house today, but the tomatoes would not let up. “It’s sooo hot” they whined,“You never give us enough to drink.” I’ve rigged up some shade, lugged some timber onto the bank and made some makeshift terraces and mulched the tomatoes and the aubergines with some fallen olive leaves. I could almost hear them sigh with relief. It doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing as I would like, but at least the plants have what they want.

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Happy plants in pots at The Generalife

Before you think I’ve lost my marbles, I think the whole idea of listening to your plants is a good one. It seems to me ther’s often a tension between what I want for the garden and and what it actually wants for itself. Since I’ve  time on my hands nowadays I’m  learning that an hour just sitting and listening to an individual plant or the garden as a whole can be worth several hours in unproductive labour. I am beginning to take the process slowly, in little steps, with listening spaces in between. The garden is teaching me patience. We have heard much about talking to plants, but little about listening to them. We look at them and try to decide what is the matter with them when they are sick, we ask advice from others, but it seems to me that we very rarely ask the plants themselves. .

I’ve  never thought about how a garden should be designed or developed really. I have never been on any course and my knowledge of plants and their needs is minimal. I am a newbie when it comes to making a garden of this size. But as we work on this garden, it is definitely telling us what is needed. For one thing, it’s on a slope and terraces and pockets where water can be contained in the dry months are a must. But drainage is also important as all the water flows to the bottom terrace which can become a quagmire when the heavy rains fall in the winter. The bottom part is obviously crying out for trees and we have planted many fruit trees here. But the citrus are problematical. They are always on the edge of disaster. Too little water, the leaves drop off, too much water the leaves drop off. They are tricky customers and have to be listened to on a daily basis. Or perhaps it’s just that me and citrus trees don’t get on. I have tried to listen, but they tax my patience. They love manure, that’s for sure and have flourished with the sheep poo we put on them last Autumn, but the watering system, which uses grey water from the house, can sometimes give them too much water so they become chlorotic and the leaves go yellow. This makes me sad. I wonder really if I should stop listening to them quite so much, perhaps a little healthy neglect would work better! Or maybe they just don’t like growing here and would rather be in Morocco or something. The avocado tree is happy, so why can’t they be?

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A young lemon tree in my garden

As for the bougainvillea, well she’s a right little tease! One minute she’s looking all green and happy and the next she’s gone into a sulk and threatens to leave me. I have already killed several of her sisters and she reminds me of this often. I just want her to survive one year really. We don’t have any frost here and I have planted her in a sheltered spot, to grow over a low wall. I keep her well watered, but well drained. I feed her. I have planted it in a very sunny spot, facing south. I talk to her. But she isn’t really saying yet if she will live or die. I am not counting my chickens, but I have given her every chance. We will see.

I bought a Japanese Holly Fern in a local market the other day. It’s supposed to be a drought resistant fern. Great I thought.

http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/holly-fern.html

He was so resplendent in his pot. I thought he would like it if I planted him in the shade beneath an olive tree, but he quickly began to wither and ail. What was the matter I enquired ? He wanted to go back in his pot she told me, rather crossly. I obliged him and he began to thrive again.

Today, as well as shading the tomatoes, I repotted some Pennisetums, the Red Button variety, who were scolding me for leaving me with four plants in a small pot. They are tyrants, these plants. However, once I give them what they want, a pot of their own in some fresh compost, a little food, a careful watering, they repay me for my labours by springing up anew. I suppose that’s what keeps the gardener going, the joy of seeing a plant respond to your response to its direction.

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A rainbow over the garden

 

But the greatest joy is listening to the old olive and carob trees in the garden, because they are the wisest and complain the least. The wind sighs through them and the birds nest in them and the olives ripen and apart from pruning them every eight years or so as many have done before us they just exist. I listen for their stories of time gone by, of love trysts and violent encounters, of the hands that have pruned them and the troubles they have heard about from the farmers who have picked their fruit for generations, but they know better than to reveal their secrets. They just dream and sigh, their leaves dropping as the sun dries them.

By now you will think I have been spending too much time in my garden alone and have probably lost it. Well, you may be right, but there you go. I am old but I’m happy.

 

 

Gardening in Portugal – Eat your garden!

 

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My edible London garden


The idea of eating a whole garden tickles me. I once tried to grow a garden where everything in it was both edible and beautiful. It was in a tiny space back garden of a terraced house in Crystal Palace. See here. It flourished, more or less. We munched our way through it throughout the year and eventually ate the whole garden. It was quite hard work, though (making it, not eating it) After all most vegetables are annuals and need constant attention. It didn’t look great in Winter either, but that didn’t matter too much as out of the five winters we lived in the house, there was some considerable snowfall and it took on a special beauty of its own.

 

 

I have an area in this very different garden devoted to growing vegetables. It takes a great deal of water and Señor Faztudo reckons each cabbage costs us at least 10 euros. But I think if I am going to use water in any part of the garden , we might as well eat what it produces to cut the costs of a pleasurable and delightful hobby.

In earlier posts I showed how I was developing a lasagna bed on one of the terraces behind the house. In the first year I grew cabbages of all sorts reasonably successfully in the clay soil off this terrace, but this year I wanted to plant courgettes, tomatoes and salad vegetables in the space. I threw everything at the bed in the autumn, lots of horse manure and straw which a friend kindly donated, coffee grinds by the shopping trolley full, collected by my Portuguese teacher, along with the newspapers from a local cafe, all the cuttings from the 15 foot high weeds in the orchard to be and eggshells, tea bags and a load of old carob pods I found rotting from a large tree in the back lane. I also used the bedding from the chicken shed, wood shavings mixed in with chicken droppings. I wondered if it would all rot down, but the rain came down in bucketfuls night after night, sometimes for a week and the earthworms did the rest. It became a friable planting medium.

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The lasagna bed with beans and Jerusalem artichokes

 

I dug it over a bit to include some of the clay underneath for better water holding capacity and planted some tomato seedlings, as well as some courgette and cucumber seeds directly into the soil. Last year I made the mistake if growing courgettes in pots and then planting them, but this checked their growth for too long and airy the time the courgettes flowered it was too hot. This year I am already harvesting courgettes.

I am finding it hard to get to grips with the seasons, which are very different to England. This is especially tricky with vegetables and I have found the book” Mediterranean Kitchen Garden-growing organic fruit and vegetables in a hot dry climate” by Mariano Bueno a great help. You can get it on Amazon.

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This year’s courgette plants



So what have we eaten from my very new garden? Not much, I have to say, here is the list, don’t laugh!

Two large servings of fava beans
Two small servings of peas
Two globe artichokes (indescribably yummy!)
A large turnip (three more went woody)
A handful of green beans (most of the flowers dropped off)
Some lovely yellow podded mangetout from The Real Seed Company
Four skinny leeks (the rest look so beautiful going to seed I can hardly bear to eat them)
Seven deformed carrots grown in a pot
Several heads of garlic (there are more somewhere but I’ve lost them underground)
Lots of Portuguese cabbage and kale,shared with the chickens
Four eggs a day mostly, as long as we don’t have any serious hen incidents
Six courgettes
Alexander stalks (foraged from a “weed” growing wild in my garden)
Three little limes
Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme, oh and Basil of course!

I was going to say a partridge in a pear tree, but it was actually a pigeon and the cat ate it.

 

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Globe artichokes, planted from seed

 

Not a bad start, but this year I’m hoping for some tomatoes and peppers. They all grew very promisingly last year until it got too hot and they frizzled and fried.
I look at the hortas (vegetable gardens) hereabouts with envy. Whole fields of favas, enormous cabbages and lettuces the size of serving plates. Growing here is a serious business and much love and care goes into it. But farmers anywhere don’t always have the luxury of growing organically, If they did their livelihoods would be at stake and times here are very hard for people, believe me.
As I am only feeding the two of us, I have time to rub caterpillar eggs off plants, capture the locusts I encounter and spray my vegetable with milk against mildew. My learning is trial and error, mostly error at the moment, with the main stumbling block being temperature and rainfall, either too hot, too cold or too much rain or too little. If I was relying on this garden for food at the moment, we would definitely starve. So it’s lucky we aren’t.
My planting isn’t very organised. I don’t like rows. I know I should have the planting under better control for increased production but I can’t manage it. I was the naughty member of the allotment management committee, always pleading that my nettles were certainly edible and that dandelions were a great salad vegetable. I always used to think if you showed me someone’s vegetable plot, I could tell you a lot about the person. My personality is obviously fairly chaotic with hidden turnips!

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Watercress growing in an old pan

I went with some friends recently to visit a small gardening enterprise run by an old Portuguese agriculturist, now in his 70’s. We met him coming up the road, peeling an orange from one of his trees as he walked. He told us sadly that his gardening days was coming to an end, both his age and European bureaucracy had meant it wasn’t viable any more. He took us to see the last of his trees, rows of beautifully kept olives, figs, pomegranates , amongst others, all grafted onto a strong rootstock by his own capable hands. They will be his legacy, living and producing fruit long after he goes to the great garden in the sky. He invited us to choose a tree and I chose a quince, or Marmelo. They are used here to make a special jam paste called Marmelada, which I have hitherto only eaten in posh restaurants with cheese. I wish I could have spoken better Portuguese to tap some of his wonderful knowledge. I have planted the quince in my orchard and named it after him, Señor M’s Marmeleiro, I am sure it will grow beautifully for many years to come, a tribute to him and the skills learnt in a lifetime gardening.

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A quince tree

Along the valleys near here, huge areas are being cleared for orange groves, likewise the hillsides for carob plantations, the old ways are making way for the new ones. There are threats of golf courses on areas where almond trees have thrived since Roman times. Times must change and so will the farming practices.

The Algarve has  been cultivated for generations and all of its landscape has been affected by human intervention from time immemorial. And so it will continue. We can only hope the young ones have learnt from their grandparents and the rich knowledge and understanding of the trees and plants here, probably handed down from Roman times and the Moors won’t be lost forever.

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Donna Galinha, or Mrs Chicken, who’s decided she’s better things to do than sit on eggs!