Bloomin’ spring

March 21st, 2017 by richard

Just three weeks ago Jackie mentioned that the almond was the first tree to blossom, followed by the blackthorn and peach. Well since then the cherry, plums, apricots and now the pears have joined the party. And in fact the almond and the apricot have already set fruit. Last year we had 2 almonds and we are yet to get any apricots, so lets hope this year is a bumper crop!

apricot

almond

Last year we really hacked back a number of greengages and more grew up from water shoots in the hen run. These have borne flowers for the first time this year, so it’s looking good so far. In addition, the grape vines have sprung into life and also the kiwis which were newly planted in the autumn. We won’t have fruit this year but we are hoping for a good show.

grape vine

The other trees are not holding back either. The plane trees in the courtyard and the garden are showing signs of life. The courtyard plane has been great. It lets all the sun shine through in the winter and then provides plenty of dappled shade in the summer. Just what we wanted.

plane tree

Also in the courtyard, we haven’t mentioned the orange trees for a while. These guys fruit in the winter of course and have provided plenty of oranges. Only a few days ago, I picked bucket loads of them and got 8 litres of juice but there are still dozens left on the trees!

oranges

Still in the courtyard, the quince is in full flower. That never disappoints with plenty of quince jam and quince crumbles to come.

quince

Last year we had daffodils in December, or should I say, December 2015. This year they have been late but are now putting on a show for us, as is our Forsythia which is in full bloom.

forsythia

Last but not least, even the figs have burst into life – last year was a bumper crop. More of the same again please!

fig

The wall (no, not that one)

February 28th, 2017 by Jackie

We say in our introduction that Casa Azul is now restored. Well, although the major restoration was done some time ago now, there are still things here and there being fiddled with. After a freezing January we were reminded yet again that the living room could be cozier. It’s definitely a summer house, lovely and cool during those blistering temperatures. We’re fairly hardy, have to be I suppose with the dogs trooping in and out leaving all the doors open, (and we firmly believe in putting on an extra jumper if it’s chilly) but there is often a draught when the fire’s blazing caused by the spiral staircase and its hole in the ceiling. So we have at last done something about that and now we have a new wall which divides half of the living room, effectively separating Richard’s study area and the sofa bit. It looks a bit dark now but once plastered and painted will be warm and snug. Someone hasn’t even noticed the workmen plodding in and out:

Meanwhile, it’s been a mild February. Plenty of weeding has been done in the veg patch and lots of little flowers have germinated, been transplanted and are now ready for the garden. Most of the beds are ready for busiest time of the year although I must get out and do some more mulching…

The almond tree won this year’s Who’s going to Blossom First award. There are now flowers too on the ornamental cherry, blackthorn, peach and the rosemary is alive with appreciative bees. Fingers crossed we don’t have any downpours like last year that knocked all the flowers off. The first of the orchids have also been spotted in the village.

Finally, we are more of a little farm again with the arrival of 3 ducks and 5 roasties. I was a bit anxious about the cold nights and the possibility of avian flu heading this way but both seem to be less of a concern now. I have peeked at them at night and they are all huddled together in their cardboard box.

So March is marching towards us; seeds have been bought, tools are ready and beds are waiting. Bring on the spring!

Save

The big freeze

January 23rd, 2017 by Jackie

It has been cold. Finger-numbing, shoulder-hunching, teeth-chatteringly cold. Freezing cold. We have woken up (it seems like for weeks) to heavy frosts and winter wonderlands. One night we recorded a minimum of -6.3C, now that is cold!  Many of the garden plants are now wrapped in plastic bags, fleece or bubble wrap. There will be some trepidation when they are unwrapped to see how they have survived.

The first victims have been the prickly pears. Every morning they have drooped lower and lower, and their recovery less noticeable. Alas, some have now snapped although this just means replanting the fallen leaves, and we’ll have a lot more come the summer.

The pond has regularly turned to ice and its plants blackened. We did remember to make sure that it was full before the big freeze came, somehow the leaves of the lilies and water hyacinths suffer more by being exposed to the frost rather than being frozen in the water.

This little, actually rather large, salamander was caught with its mate during a clear up. I do hope they, and the resident frogs, will be okay come the spring.

We have also been making sure there is plenty of extra seed for the garden birds, the usual suspects come and work their way through vast quantities every day.

One bitterly cold morning a little robin was completely still in the courtyard, almost like it had been frozen to the ground. I was able to gently pick it up and place it in a nest we’d kept. The next time I looked it had flown away.

Along with a certain beauty the cold has, there is also the reward of clear blue skies and sunny days. When the wind drops it’s still warm enough to eat outside for lunch, and has meant there is no excuse for not tackling the winter jobs. Pruning continues with the plane tree having its annual pollarding, the vines all being cut back and the willow too being pruned.

Like the summer afternoons, when the temperatures go well over 40, the veg patch has been a sorry sight these winter mornings. At first the broad beans would have collapsed and then bravely ‘pulled themselves together’ come mid-day but now most of them lay on the ground in a sorry state. The smaller ones planted later seem okay but we’ll be lucky to have another bumper crop.

Having said that we, amazingly, have had loads of broccoli and tonight we’re having the first of the cauliflowers. Somehow the leaves have provided enough protection, full marks to them.

We’ve also just had the last of the Jerusalem artichokes, the ones the voles kindly left for us, and there are still some leeks to be had. We’ve just had the first of our beetroots too, so really we can’t complain!

And with a roaring fire every evening the dogs aren’t complaining either. There is also some welcome rain on the horizon too; it seems incredible that we have actually watered some of the plants and smaller shrubs, in January! Let’s see if I can finish knitting that jumper for Richard before it’s no longer needed…

 

Save

Plant of the year award 2016

December 29th, 2016 by Jackie

We have had the pleasant December we were hoping for: little rain, a few cold nights yes but mostly glorious sunny days.  It’s been the kind of December that reminds us why we moved here. Richard (whose middle name is now ‘master chef’) cooked one of our ducks for Christmas which we had with many of our homegrown veg plus, for a starter, his famous chicken liver pâté and some of our sloe gin.

This was followed by traditional pud but the stanley plums we bottled in the summer are just lovely now:

Now, as the days start to get longer again, it’s time to check over the seed packets, plan the veg patch and prepare the beds for the year ahead. But before that it’s (drum roll, please) time to announce the plant of the year award. Hurrah! What a hot summer it was, many of the stalwart plants were disappointing, reluctant to flower in temperatures well over 40 many days. The broad beans were great at the start of the season, and the broccoli and leeks are feeding us now but the plants which not only survived the heat but actually kept on going until October were… the cucumbers!

Yep, they were just fab this year. Prolific, tasty (never bitter) and a welcome addition to all our lunchtime meals, they never let us down. We have grown them every year, including some round yellow ‘lemon’ ones, and overall they do well but this year was special.

The award should be shared in fact with their cucurbit cousins, the gherkins. These were a first for us this year and, perhaps not surprisingly, they also did well. Both can be pickled successfully, the cucumbers are sliced thinly to make a kind of relish whereas the gherkins were either pickled whole or in chunks, some with a few of our chillies thrown in too. Either way they are just perfect with cheese.

Will just leave you with a pic of the garlic. I mentioned in the last post how I’d just covered their bed (previously mulched) with paper and cut grass and hoped for the best. Well, you can see for yourselves:

Wishing all our readers a great festive season and a wonderful time in the veg patch for 2017!

November, nice

November 30th, 2016 by Jackie

It’s been a lovely November really. We’ve had some rain, some frost and some wind. But mostly we’ve had sunny days and quite mild nights. The wood burning stove went on for the first night on the 5th, appropriately, and always heralds the start of the chilly season and cozy evenings. But we’ve still been having lunch outside and the garden still feels a welcome place to spend some time.

autumn3

Both in the countryside and the garden the autumnal colours are on full display, this robin (we have loads here) was checking up on me one afternoon:

autumn2

Pomegranate and vines ablaze:

autumn

We’ve both been busy chopping, pruning, bonfire making, last of the jam-making, and planting. Another lot of daffodils and irises went in recently although previously planted bulbs are already peeking through. We just have three kiwis waiting to go in. It’s been great weather for pottering about in wellies. On one lovely countryside walk we managed to get the last of the medronhos (left), strawberry fruit, for some jam. I think these on the right are wild pistachios:

wild-fruit

But frosts we have had. The veg patch had a silver sheen on it one morning:

frost

I’m amazed how things survive. The broad beans had become frozen favas and only the smallest of the pea sprouts had been protected overnight, but neither have been affected by the frost.

peas-beans-frost

Meanwhile the old broccoli from the spring planting, from which I’d only cut off the main heads, are giving us a second crop (left), slightly smaller but just as good. And the September plants have the first of their heads appearing:

broccoli

So we’re eating these as well as leeks, jersualem artichokes (what the voles haven’t had), peppers (yes!), and different kinds of squash. I’m hoping the sprouts will be big enough for our Christmas dinner. The purple sprouting broccoli meanwhile is the best yet (ready in the spring) and the oranges are almost ready:

psb-oranges

The main task for me this month has been dealing with the asparagus. Why oh why don’t the books tell you it will grow into a huge hedge where no light can penetrate. I really would have put them in a different place.  First task then was to cut the plants down and clear the bed of weeds:

asparagus1

I started to remove the soil around the plants carefully, using just a small and large fork but it soon became evident that the ‘simple’ task of edging them out, despite the recent rain, would be no such thing. I scraped and levered and tugged and coaxed the plants out. Nothing. I spent another thirty minutes doing the same thing. Nada. Eventually, I got one plant out; it had taken almost an hour. This was not going to work. In the end I got the spade and hacked at the plants and their enormous, tough, penetrating roots. I broke my favourite spade 🙁

Anyway, I got three out and placed them in their new bed. If they don’t work never mind as I still have another healthy, productive bed. But what a bother.

asparagus2

The garlic is in. In the last post I talked about mulching the beds. I just couldn’t face any weeding at all, there wasn’t a great deal as the bed for the garlic had already been mulched over the year (I decided to let that bed be fallow) but there were certainly some grasses and bindweed (my nemesis) that should’ve been pulled out. But no, I simply covered it with chicken feed paper sacks, made some holes and plonked the garlic in and then covered it with the grass Richard had strimmed and fallen leaves.  I have no idea if this will be all right, time will tell but a task that normally took a few hours was less than one. Green fingers crossed.

garlic

The main task for Richard this month (apart from the strimming) has been reducing the number of our roasties and ducks. All the ducks are now dead and there remain four, increasingly nervous, roasties.

ducks-roastie

A new thing for us, inspired by our road trip to France in May, was to make confit de canard. It was surprisingly easy to make and we’re looking forward to having that with some home grown veg.

While we’re on the fowl front the hens have been slow at laying. The one which moulted over the summer is looking fine and dandy, but the other two now seemed to have mistimed their feather dropping and are looking rather sorry for themselves and one has lost its tail.  They bullied the third one horribly so it serves them right. But none of them are producing eggs so it looks like we’ll have to get replacements in the spring… are you listening chooks?

hens

So as we hunker down in front of the fire, chestnuts roasting, we hope that December will be as pleasant – well for us, less so for the roasties 🙂

Where there’s muck…

October 31st, 2016 by Jackie

autumn

We have a saying in the UK: where there’s muck, there’s brass. This basically means you can make a lot of money from work that most people don’t want to do because they think it’s dirty or unpleasant. Well, the muck from our compost heap doesn’t make us a lot of money but certainly helps with producing the veg. This whole year I have been mulching the beds with compost, paper, straw, cut grass, leaves, and chicken bedding… you name it, it has been put on the beds. The idea is to keep the weeds down, keep the soil moist and, as it’s organic, slowly turn the soil into a great substance for growing things. And as it’s not dug in, just laid on top, the worms do the work for you. Well, that’s the idea! It’s not really hard work, although quite tiring, but so much better than weeding (and for my back).

Here’s some examples:

mulch2First up is a combination of freshly cut grass and straw on the beds which produced the peppers and cucumbers. This was laid on top of magazines and newspapers. I tried to do it each time after some rain so that the moisture in the beds was kept in.

We had the best cucumbers ever, from June to October, but although the peppers did well they put their brakes on over the scorching summer so the flowers and subsequent fruit were too late really.

vegWe’ve had the same problem with the tomatoes and aubergines: a smaller, later crop than usual as they too hated the heat.

Next up are the sprouts, planted early July (seeds sown in May) in a lovely bed of straw. Each plant also had a protective tube of card around it. The irregular size of growth is in proportion to the amount of sunlight they get. Behind them is one of the asparagus beds, they grow thick and hedge-like every summer creating a dark shadow. This year it’s going to be dug up and moved elsewhere, I’m hoping to do that in time for the smaller sprouts to still catch up and give us a winter crop.

sprouts

And here the leeks, also put in early July, with a combination of paper and straw and loo rolls:

leeks

We’ve had the first of those already. What was very obvious with the leek bed is that those that were planted where the broad beans had been were much bigger. They all get the same amount of sunshine so for me it’s proof of the benefit of crop rotation and also of leaving the beans to die in the beds rather than pulling them up for the compost heap. They really did leave lots of nitrogen in the soil.

leeks2

Meanwhile there is still the joy of seeing things grow, the mild autumn has been great for the beets…

beets

Less said about the artichokes the better. We’ve had some but it seems the voles have taken a fancy to them too and munched through most of the crop!

And the mulching still continues of course. The squash and courgettes (the latter just pathetic this year) have all been pulled up and lots of muck put on where the brassicas will go next year.

mulch

The onions (both red and white) are in, so are the broad beans and peas (both sprouting already). The August planting of cauliflower and calabrese has been a success with large plants already. Just the garlic is left for this year’s planting. And we’re still enjoying some late fruit too: strawberries, figs (both kinds), and melon.

fruit

Now we’re just waiting for the rain. It’s been an amazingly warm month with temperatures of 30 a couple of days. The forecast rain never seems to appear, and I’ve actually been watering the veg patch – in October! It feels more like late summer than autumn, perhaps we’ll get some more peppers and aubergines after all.

Save

Good news and bad news

October 13th, 2016 by richard

Last month I noted that the hens were feeling the heat and one had molted quite significantly and was being picked on by the others. Well, it grew back its feathers and is now back to normal. It has also cooled down a bit now, it is October after all! and we have bought some frangos or roasties as we like to call them (chickens that we grow to eat). All was well for a few days then one became ill and died and then another two became ill. We thought they had coccidiosis which is a very nasty disease and highly contagious, so we quickly separated the two ill ones and later had to put them out of their misery. Thankfully since then a week or more has passed and the rest of the bunch seem happy. We also have four ducks and they all seem to get along well together. It is interesting that when we bought them, the ducks were much smaller than the chickens but they just grow so much quicker and are already bigger.

ducks2-1

It’s also been good and bad news with the fruit. We have had very few apples this year – so no cider :-(. And the grape harvest has been a poor one, so I’m not making any wine. We are however, drinking the stuff I made last year and although it’s not as full bodied as it could be, it’s very light, fruity and very palatable.

The really hot summer has meant that we have got loads of prickly pears. You have to be very careful picking them, but once skinned they are delicious. And the fig harvest has been fantastic. I’m amazed at how many varieties there are growing wild around here. We have green ones and purple ones and some with honey coloured insides and some bright red. Anyway, I’ve been busy making fig jam, fig crumble and fig rolls (Thanks for the recipe Pam).

pps

figs-1

We love having guests over the summer and this year has been a very busy one. We’ve had 8 sets in all and as well as enjoying plenty of meals at Casa Azul, we’ve also enjoyed eating out, as the photos below show – especially seafood!

Jackie, Robert and Caldeira

Jackie, Robert and Caldeira

Jim and crab

Jim and crab

Richard and squid

Richard and squid

We’ve also had one uninvited but very welcome guest. Ron Weasley. I hope he feasted on all the voles and mice in the garden so they don’t eat the veggies!

ron

ron1

 

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