Prune, the verb

September 2nd, 2016 by Jackie

I have a love / hate feeling towards pruning. I love the idea of doing it, tidying up a tree or bush knowing that it’ll look nicer and, with luck, more bountiful. Today I stood in front of our apricot tree, armed with a two kinds of loppers (the saw kind and the snipping kind), a pair of secateurs, a ladder and a copy of the RHS’ Pruning and Training book.  This book is full of amazing photos, diagrams, instructions and advice. It makes pruning look a doddle. I read the book and look at the tree. I do this a few times. Reading the book I know what to do, looking at the tree I am completely fazed. So I start by cutting away the weak branches, the overlapping ones, the downward ones and the inward growing ones. The tree now needs the proper prune. I read the book and look at the tree. Hmmm. Part of the problem is I didn’t prune it last year. Anyway, I brave the wobbly ladder and 30 minutes later, with only minor cuts to one wrist and a little saga when a wasp flew up my skirt, there is a huge pile of branches and leaves on the ground. One pruned tree.

prune

I have no idea if I have done the right thing. Time to tackle the others…

Wild harvest

August 26th, 2016 by richard

The baking heat continues. We have a thermometer we keep in the shade in the garden and on 8th August it peaked at 45.6 degrees! In fact over a third of the days in August so far have registered 40 degrees or higher. Of course these are not official readings – if they were we would be the hottest place in Portugal. Anyway, searingly hot! Not surprisingly most of Portugal has been hit with devastating wild fires but fortunately for us none of them are near here. At least over the last few days the heat has relented enough for me to enter the garden to find that the blackberries are ready and looking very plump.
blackb
I guess they must have stored up much of the rain we received in May. I have to admit they are not as tasty as British blackberries nor as juicy – no stained purple fingers that were typical of blackberry picking sessions of years ago. In any case it is a welcome harvest given that the plums let us down so much. Having said that, the one plum tree we planted (and therefore the only one we water), the Stanley plum, has outdone itself. We had a few fruits last year but this year its tiny branches are straining under the weight. As I type, Jackie is collecting and bottling some of the fruit and no doubt has plans for the rest as well.

Stanley plum

Stanley plum

The heat, however, is affecting our apples as they are even tinier than usual and there are not so many on the wild trees in the area either. I’m not sure I’ll have enough for any cider this year.
We have three pear trees. There is an old one which is covered with tiny, hard fruit and no use to anyone. We have a slightly younger tree right at the back of the garden which almost dies every year but struggles on. This actually has half a dozen fruit which may turn out all right and we have a very young tree which we planted a few years ago and this one also has about half a dozen decent sized pears. OK so not exactly a bumper crop but beggars can’t be choosers.
pear from young tree

pear from young tree


pears from old tree

pears from old tree

We planted some grape vines around our pergola which are quite frankly pathetic but there is a wild vine growing along a wall. It produces very small grapes, not good for eating but the right sort for wine and last year I had enough for 12 bottles of very passable red wine. This year, it’s not looking great but fingers crossed.

grapes
We also have three large mature walnut trees and these always produce a great crop – in actual fact we still have nuts from last year waiting to be shelled, so that won’t be a problem. And I think the figs will be OK as well but we won’t be getting those for a while.

Meanwhile, the hens are also feeling the heat. As usual, they don’t lay so many eggs in summer but one of them has molted quite drastically. In our experience if one hen shows any sign of weakness or sickness, the other hens pick on it mercilessly. It’s very sad to see but fortunately our pen is big enough for the baldy one to stay out of trouble and I am pleased to report that it is slowly regrowing more feathers.
hen
We also had a strange snake event. I found a large Montpelier snake attacking a much smaller Ladder snake. They were caught in a deadly embrace for quite a few minutes until finally the Montpelier snake decided to bail out and slunk away. It was only then that I saw how large it was – it was well over a metre long, which is large for round here. The Ladder snake looked a bit dazed but also managed to slither off. I saw the Montpelier snake again the following day. This time it had eaten something as it was very lethargic and I could see its belly was distended presumably with its favoured prey, a lizard, of which there have been loads in the garden this year.
snakes
So that’s it for the wild crops (and animals), Jackie will be back next time to update on the trials and tribulations of the veg patch. Let’s hope by then we will have had some rain and cooler weather…

Harvest season begins in earnest

July 17th, 2016 by richard

It’s now mid July and we are well into the summer. Every day for the last 2 weeks has been well over 30 degrees with a scorching hot sun. I’m amazed that there are still some green patches of grass about but they won’t last long I’m sure. Many of the soft fruits have already come and gone – we had plenty of strawberries, a few gooseberries and plenty of the summer raspberries, but mid July brings the plums. Last year we didn’t have many yellow plums but the red ones and the greengages made up for them. This year we’ve got a few yellow ones but hardly any greengages and we had only 3 or 4 red ones! So not great news.

plum

However, the only plum tree we planted, the Stanley plum, goes from strength to strength. Although still only a small tree, it produces quite a few fruit and as opposed to most of our other varieties, it is great for cooking with and the stewed plums are divine. Here’s a recent photo which shows they won’t be ready for a few weeks yet.

Stanley plums

Stanley plums

Meanwhile, our two almonds are just about hanging in…

almond

almond

Of the other trees, it’s still early days for the apples and pears, although as there are plenty of wild apple trees about, which are doing very well, I’m sure I’ll have enough for another batch of cider which went really well last year. Talking of which, I recently made another batch of home brew and I have to say it just gets better and better. And I much prefer my own home brewed bitter to the generic lager which is usually the only thing available in Portugal (although this is changing rapidly with a number of micro-breweries popping up locally).

beer

But back to the garden. I’m not sure why but the mixture of a wet spring followed by a boiling summer seems to have induced a growth spurt in the prickly pears. We had a number of yellow flowers a while ago and it looks like we’ll have quite a few fruit. Careful of those spines though!

prickly pear

prickly pear

And of course the sun has brought out the lavender and the bees. We lost a few lavender plants to the frosts this year but I replaced them with an ancient wheelbarrow.

lav

Last month I showed this pic of a new project.

obbo

Well, it developed a bit further into this:
obbo3

and finally this, undergoing its final inspection:
obbo2

It’s my new observatory. I’m quite pleased with it, especially the sliding roof. It’s been christened the “Star shed”
obbo4

The heat is on

June 28th, 2016 by richard

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.

great_tits

Great tits

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

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.

Horseshoe whipsnake

Horseshoe whipsnake

liz

To round off the wildlife, plenty of these little critters have been seen around here lately as well. absolutely delicious.
sardines

Meanwhile I have been busy on a new woodworking project. More news on this next month hopefully:

obbo

And to round off, a bit of colour. Here is the above mentioned pergola, where all the action seems to happen.

perg

Away with May

May 31st, 2016 by Jackie

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.

may-garden

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.

may-hens

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.

may-frog

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!

may-calabrese

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.

may-strawbs

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.

The waiting game

April 14th, 2016 by Jackie

bud

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:

psb

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.

asparagus_peas

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!

fava

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.

mulch

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.

Glad for the garden

March 18th, 2016 by Jackie

snow

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.

roasties

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.

orchids

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…

jussi

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…

He shot me down, bang, bang.

February 25th, 2016 by Jackie

narcissus_bulbicodium

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:

hail

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 fromhunting 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.

countryside

So hurrah for the Portuguese countryside and its creatures, great and small.

 

Plant of the year award 2015

January 31st, 2016 by Jackie

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!

psb

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.

Here comes the rain again…

January 8th, 2016 by Jackie

Screen shot 2016-01-08 at 15.51.09…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!):