After a very damp winter and spring, summer has finally arrived. The second half of June has been a scorcher and the well, which was still full a week or so ago is going down rapidly with the veg patch watering in full flow.
It seems to have been a mixed spring for the birdlife. We had a family of blue tits fledge from a nest box but a couple of serins aborted their nest on the pergola leaving a solitary egg uncared for. We presume one or both of the parents met a sticky end. We also noticed a chaffinch nest near the house and were pleased to see the 3 eggs hatch. Unfortunately, upon returning one day the nest was bare, far too early for any off the littl’uns to have fledged.
In better news, Jackie has been constantly filling up the bird feeder as new families of tits and sparrows have been devouring the seed. Every day now we see great tit parents feeding their young nearby.
We’ve not noticed so many bees this year yet, but we have seen a number of carpenter bees, identifiable as they are enormous and black. We’ve been watching them feed on the nectar of the sweet peas by the pergola but also they have been boring holes in the same pergola, where presumably they laid their eggs. However, a few days ago I heard the familiar tap, tap, tapping of a woodpecker. He had found the bee grubs and was making more holes in the pergola to get at them.
Great spotted woodpecker
And there’s plenty of other wildlife about as well. We have seen loads of lizards recently and a baby horseshoe whipsnake made an appearance in the courtyard. In fact we only ever seem to see either whipsnakes or laddersnakes around here, I’m sure there must be others. Anyway, these two are pretty harmless. They don’t even seem to bother the frogs when they have a drink in the pond.
To round off the wildlife, plenty of these little critters have been seen around here lately as well. absolutely delicious.
Meanwhile I have been busy on a new woodworking project. More news on this next month hopefully:
And to round off, a bit of colour. Here is the above mentioned pergola, where all the action seems to happen.
I mentioned in the previous post that most of the beds would have been filled with little plants by now, but this year I was waiting. The reason for that was because we had decided to take a two week break in May for the first time, rather than in September. I didn’t want the (wonderful!) people looking after the house, dogs and hens to also have responsibility for the veg patch. So the plan was to put in as much as possible before leaving, and then to buy little plugs as soon as we got back. Well, the rain put an end to that. I did put in some plants: courgettes, gherkins and some buttercup squash. But it was far too cold and wet to risk anything else. Already planted were the broad beans, peas (we were just starting to eat those) plus runner beans and broccoli (calabrese) and we were just finishing the asparagus.
Coming back we discovered it’d rained like mad in our absence, so much for May bringing sunnier weather. The garden looked like a jungle: the weeds had grown and flourished; the bushes, trees and flowering plants had also burst forth in a frenzy of leaves and blossom. It looked rather charming in an unkempt, shabby chic kind of way. So we spent the next two days doing exactly what we did before leaving. Richard donned overalls, earmuffs and glasses and got started with the strimming, and I raked and mulched.
The hens weren’t too sure about their new botanical garden, they’ve started jumping out again despite being caught by Betty and so we’ve had to add reinforcements to their fencing and gate.
Then the horrid weather returned, what a rotten spring. We discovered the honesty plants by the pond were completely covered with caterpillars, the great white butterflies had been busy. There were dozens of long stripey green creatures all over the leaves and stems. These were pulled off and thrown to the frogs in the pond, lucky frogs.
Meanwhile, down in the veg patch, there were mixed results. The rain meant that the broad beans and peas continued growing and despite a tangled mass of pods and stems we’ve managed to have quite a few meals from them. There are even broad beans in the freezer. Next year I shall sow fewer of those, more of the peas, and stake them all up. Really pleased too that none of the plants suffered from any pests or diseases, and not a single maggot in any of the pods!
The broccoli too has grown amazingly and hurrah! no problems with either the ants or the moths’ larvae from last year, just ten huge plants. Just as well as I’d molly coddled them all spring. They’d been planted with plastic rings around each stalk (to keep the moths from laying eggs at the base of each plant) and a handful of oyster shells to keep the slugs off. They’d also been planted in a bed I’d started mulching with compost from last year and which, when I put them in, was also covered with newspaper and more grass cuttings. Whether it’s luck or all these things have paid off I don’t know but they are the healthiest plants I have grown.
The strawberries are doing well too. Some of them have been eaten, I think by the voles, but there are plenty for all of us. The runner beans are climbing and have little yellow flowers on but otherwise the rest could do with a good dose of sunshine, the courgettes in particular still look rather pathetic.
Today was spent pulling up the garlic and red onions. I think we got about 80% of the onions, and perhaps just a third of the garlic. A real shame as we’ve never lost anything before but those winter rains really didn’t help. Those that have survived look good, so that’s something. They have been replaced with tomatoes, aubergine, peppers and chillies. In today loads of squash too, buttercup and butternut, plus some melons. Must just remember to sow some brussel sprouts.
Tomorrow though is summer, it has never been more welcomed.
We are waiting. We are waiting for the buds to open, for the leaves to unfold, for the blossom to burst forth and for the clouds to disappear. We are waiting for the meadows to be blanketed with wildflowers. What a wet spring! A real damp squib of a season. Drizzles, downpours and drenches. Enough, no more. ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before. The tulips have failed to become a mini Keukenhof in a pot, the forsythia (which was a huge flaming bush of gold last year) has only a smattering of flowers and the pond has almost overflowed, at least the frogs are happy. So don your wellies and come down to the veg patch and see what’s happening there.
Actually, not a lot! There are beds of yellow and red onions, not looking toooo bad but the garlic has suffered terribly and I fear has rotted in the mud despite being in raised beds. There are things growing though and we are eating some home grown stuff, including the purple sprouting broccoli:
We are also eating the asparagus on a daily basis. Other crops are growing, some peas have somehow come through the wet weather and have pods on.
But the most dramatic crop is the fava, or broad beans. They’ve gone mad! They have never been too successful and I put the blame on buying English seeds. So, having had a good trial run last year, I sowed a whole load of seeds bought locally. The packet suggested putting 3 in a hole. Well, perhaps I should’ve thinned them because everything germinated and grew and grew. The wind and hailstones from the winter knocked everything over but they simply grew again with twisted stems. Onwards and upwards. They are taller than me, really. Should you have staked them, Richard asks. Imagine!
They have fallen over the paths and carried on growing, it’s impossible to walk past them. The triffid bean. We’ve picked a few of the pods but they need to grow more as the beans were rather small inside but I have no doubt, once the sun does come out properly, that we will have fava beans until the cows come home.
Which is just as well as there is only one bed that has been planted this year. That’s where you can find the runner beans and the calabrese. The former is very slow indeed, struggling to climb up the poles but the latter are doing well, hurrah.
Otherwise most of the empty beds have been dug over and remulched with cardboard, grass, straw and or compost. I’m determined to keep both the moisture and the goodness in. (I am ignoring the fact that the voles have returned). Previous years these have been full of little plants but this year I’m waiting. There are a few things in pots in the polytunnel also waiting, including courgettes and, a first for me, some gherkins.
Anyway, ending on a positive note the wait for the nightingales is over, they arrived a few days ago. Let’s hope their song brings spring as well as a mate.
I take full responsibility. Having described the winter as mild in the previous post we had the most amazing snow storm at the end of last month. Not faint fluttering flakes but real big blizzardy blobs of the stuff, it was quite exciting! We hadn’t seen snow since living in Jordan, perhaps 10 years ago now. The dogs were still demanding their morning walk but by the time I had donned hat, gloves, scarf, wellies and waterproofs the sun had come out. It didn’t settle at all near us but on the hill behind our house, and further in the distance, it did – at least until the afternoon. Friends living towards the mountains had more dramatic scenery. So a fun climax to the end of winter.
Now spring is here and we walk around the garden realising there’s a million and one things to do, and so our first reaction is to sit outside and have a cup of tea and a piece of cake. But progress has been made. We bought some more ‘roasties’ and they’ve had their first taste of green grass and fresh air.
We’ve moved the hens again to a new meadow and coop, it’s amazing how much damage they do to the ground with their long sharp toenails, and we like them to have as much grass as possible. If only they ate the weeds too. We have had one mishap. One of the hens became egg bound and despite warm baths, massaging and olive oil (applied both ends) she didn’t recover. It’s the second time this has happened. One of our first lot of hens also suffered but she did get to lay and make a full recovery. So just the three layers for the moment.
Meanwhile, Richard has been strimming and attacking the bramble bushes and ivy while I’ve been pruning so the garden looks quite neat and tidy for a change. We have the beginnings of blossom on the fruit trees and the hint of buds on the irises and forsythia. All the cuttings taken last year of various shrubs seem to have survived the winter and making new growth.
The countryside too is slowly changing, many of the trees have a faint green glow as the buds begin to open. There are birds everywhere. And in the fields the orchids are returning, we now have the early purple (Orchis mascula) and sawfly orchids (Ophrys tenthredinifera) as the giant orchids begin to fade.
And the daisies! This is Jussi’s favourite time of the year: plenty of puddles still (and therefore towel rubs too), and not too hot. It’s probably best not to mention Betty and what she did when she met the little wildboar piglet…
It’s also the time of year to rummage through the seed box and decide what’s needed, but perhaps a cup of tea and a slice of cake first…
One word sums up this winter, our 7th here (that can’t be right, can it?!) and that’s mild. We’ve had the rain, and quite a lot of that, but not the torrential downpours and storms from previous years. We’ve had frosts, but nothing like last year. And we’ve had the sunshine of course, but not the endless days of sunshine (and the resulting drought) as in 2012. This year the low growing narcissus bulbicodium seem to have thrived and meadows are full of their colour, a host of golden daffodils indeed. We’ve also had hailstones:
Brrr, and to think we’ve had winter barbecues some years. No thanks. But spring is around the corner, temperatures are set to go well into double figures and the lush green countryside will soon be sparkling with the jewels of all the wild flowers, can’t wait.
And not only will winter end, but the hunting season too. I would say that, overall, hunting has been less evident this year than previous ones. Betty did get caught in a javali trap (she has learnt to wait patiently as the wire is loosened from around her waist) and one Sunday the sound of shots seemed to come from all directions but we haven’t met the packs of dogs, or too many hunters really this year. We were on a walk one day, however, strolling through the woodland, when we met one guy, camouflaged from top to bottom with his shotgun slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, also looking out for the birds. Hmmm.
And it’s sad to see the empty cartridges littering the footpaths. The one consolation I get is that there are hunters because there are things to be hunted. We have javali (wild boar), deer, mongoose, foxes, weasels, partridges and millions of rabbits. The hedgerows are alive with birds. This is all because the countryside here is perfect for wildlife, they thrive here. Back in the UK farmers are encouraged to leave land uncultivated so that some of the natural habitat can return and so too the wildlife; the loss of land to development or agriculture is directly linked to the loss of flora and fauna. I also suspect that the birds of prey, the buzzards, red kites, falcons, hawks and owls all eat many more birds than the hunters here shoot.
So hurrah for the Portuguese countryside and its creatures, great and small.
Forget the Oscars and all that movie stuff, the most anticipated award is the Plant of the Year award given at Casa Azul! The first award, given in 2012, went to the leek. Actually, it should have gone to all alliums in general. They all do very well regardless of the changing weather and we have onions, both red and yellow, garlic, chives and leeks of course all growing now. The following year the award went to the aubergine. These have done better some years more than others but it’s really great that they can now be bought as plugs in the garden centres if you need to get some replacements. 2014 saw the prestigious award go to the soft fruit; we have raspberries, black and redcurrants, gooseberries and of course strawberries which all do well. I have recently pruned or cut these back and mulched them all. I have to say the redcurrant bush looks like it suffered over the long, hot summer last year but I’m sure it’ll bounce back.
So I have decided to give the 2015 award to a plant that has been successful every single year, just when there isn’t too much around. Right now there are 4 plants, all taller than me, and despite taking a whole year to grow they are definitely worth it. Once going they can be so productive we can’t eat them all and many turn to flowers which the bees appreciate. Yep, it’s the purple sprouting broccoli!
This photo was taken in March when the plants were in full swing, now they’re just a mass of huge leaves (well done those who recognise the Spanish Festoon which is having a bit of a nibble). Usually we just steam the florets, which then lose a bit of their colour, and serve them with a mustard vinaigrette. Very simple, always tasty.
…filling the well, over-flowing the ponds, drenching the garden, making dog-loving puddles and hammering down on the roof tiles. But that, of course, is what January should be all about. The reservoirs are filled for the hot, dry summer ahead and everything gets a good soaking especially newly planted trees and bushes.
There have been some gaps in the downpours which means the garlic is indeed planted now and, incredibly, is already sprouting; the bed getting a good mulch as all the others.
Another task done this month is pollarding the plane tree in the courtyard. It’s been growing at a furious rate and we enjoyed its shade in the summer but we couldn’t let it become a giant. I must have spent hours on the Internet finding out how to do it. Plenty of info on how to pollard established trees, which we already know about as we pollard the willow the beginning of every February, but little on starting. Books and websites did explain it but I really like to have step by step photos of what to do. In the end I took note of all the pollarded planes near us and then took a deep breath, a pair of secateurs and a lopper and went for it. With luck come the spring it’ll be full of tall shoots which are then cut down every year. Well, that’s the idea…
Last year I decided to take a snapshot of one part of the garden every few weeks. I didn’t choose the most interesting part, alas, but you can see the huge difference between the winter and summer (ah, the summer!):
As we are both a bit Bah, humbug! about Christmas we like to celebrate the solstice, especially as here we are so much more aware of the sun and her powers. That the days will slowly lengthen lifts our spirits although a sun filled winter so far means we have been far from gloomy. And once again the 21st was a warm, bright day, a nice one to share with friends.
As always it was a home made affair starting with the fruit infused vodka. We had to have one of our chickens of course as Richard has now killed all 14 of the last lot of roasties (although we had a mini ‘cheeky charlie‘ saga as the last one escaped and spent the night in the bramble bushes) so chicken liver pâté was followed by chicken and leek pies. The tree was also a joint effort, Richard dismantling and cutting up an old pallet and me re assembling it into some kind of arboreal shape. Festooned with flashing lights, knitted trees and tinsel it’s certainly something different!
The main activity in the veg patch has been the endless digging over the beds. I’ve been determined to make them as weed free as possible over the winter and then to mulch them so that, come the spring, I’m not doing it all again. So a variety of organic mulches have been used: straw, grass cuttings, cardboard and newspaper as well as our own compost of course. It’s been quite a tiring task (and my back is suffering as a result) but I’m really hoping they’ll be less weedy (ha!), more enriched and better prepared for the scorching summer ahead. There is one main job to be done and that’s sowing the garlic but that, as they say, is for another day.
So it’s just left for us to wish all our readers a happy festive season and of course a peaceful 2016.
I think I’m right in saying that we have updated this blog every single month since starting and this month, for the first time, we almost didn’t make it. Which would have been a shame as it’s been a wonderful month, a perfect autumn misty morning cum glorious sunshine cum parky evening kind of month. Great for walking, gardening, lunching outside and then enjoying a roaring fire. It’s been alive with colour, not the pretty, pretty colours of spring but vibrant green pastures, rich red and gold vineyards, bronze foliage and clear blue skies.
Jack Frost has visited us a few times adding a sharpness and crunch, red noses and iced waters; a taste of winter. So goodbye November and the season of mellow fruitfulness, and hello to the wrapped-up season.
It’s been a surprisingly busy month, this October. Where to start? Well, with mostly sunny days we’ve been able to do lots of gardening, walking and harvesting. So into the veg patch first and, hurrah, things are definitely looking up. The cauliflowers and broccoli which I’d said had failed have in fact done very well. After cutting off the rather pathetic broccoli heads there have been loads of side shoots which will keep coming over the weeks ahead. And the cauliflower has, after months and months, decided it will grow after all.
So at the moment we have those two crops, plus squash, sprouts and the last of the runner beans. We will start on the leeks now and we’re looking forward to trying the jerusalem artichokes, a first for us in the veg patch. Slightly worried about their side effects and their nickname fartichokes… The horseradish which I’d said had gone rotten has also completely come back to life so that’ll be dug up soon too.
Meanwhile the chooks have kept us busy. We moved the hens from one patch to another, where we have a spare coop, as they’d scratched up all the grass. They are still giving us 3 or so eggs a day. And we bought some more ‘roasties’. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any more ducklings. The man in the market didn’t have any and as far as I could understand he wasn’t going to get any more because there wasn’t the demand. Hoping I’m wrong about that but if not will have to look elsewhere, the duck we had for Christmas last year was great. Instead of ducklings we got 6 white chicks which I’m not a big fan of, they grow much fatter more quickly than the brown ones (we got 8 of those) but become quite pathetic as they put on weight and struggle to walk. They seem to be enjoying the green grass in the meantime.
We are lucky to have a quince tree in the garden, for some reason there are no others in the village. It was a good harvest for them and we have made loads of quince jelly, quince cordial, quince crumble (made with star anise this has become Richard’s fave dessert) and frozen some batches as well. The chillies too have been made into jam, oil or just dried.
The springlike weather has also been great for the wild flowers. We discovered this tiny little orchid on a walk and then were delighted to find it growing near the house. The common name is autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) so that’ll have to go on our orchids page. We also have autumn crocuses in the garden too.
The hedgerows have been fooled by the temperatures. The blackthorn, where we get our sloes from, is in flower and in the veg patch the autumn raspberries are half a metre tall when they should be dormant.
However, the big task of the month has been the olive harvest so it’s been lovely having the springlike sunshine for that. The garden seems to be full of robins who sing while we work. The dogs too always join us and are happy to supervise, although after a while slink off to the sofa or in search of walnuts.
Last year’s spring deluge meant we had no olives at all in 2014 but this year’s bumper harvest meant it was fairly easy to get enough for the year ahead. After a few days we’d collected 188kg of olives and we got 15 litres of oil for that (the going rate is 8 litres per 100kg). We could have got a lot more. Our neighbour spends weeks collecting his olives, he loves it, but we are rather lazy! He has built this amazing structure which sits on the shovel part of his tractor so that he can be raised up and reach the topmost parts of the trees, it’s a frightening sight as he’s well into his 70s! (While driving to the olive oil factory we lost count of the number of people in their olive trees brandishing loppers or saws.)
He very generously lends us his cleaning machine every year. It separates the leaves and twigs from the olives and despite making a racket does the job quickly and efficiently:
So that was October, I haven’t even mentioned all the strimming Richard’s had to do (and will need to do again soon), the baking, breadmaking etc etc. What have you done this month?
We found Casa Azul one wet Monday morning in May 2009. It was just what we were after - a decrepit farmhouse in the depths of Central Portugal. Now restored, this is the story of its, and our, continuing renaissance.