Archive for the ‘Growing things’ Category

The heat and the dust

Monday, June 19th, 2017

So let’s start with the bad news: 61 dead, so far, in the worst forest fires in Portugal for many years. Fires continue to blaze since Saturday in some places and new ones pop up all the time. The firefighters are exhausted, their heroism is extraordinary. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures and videos yourselves. Despite this we count ourselves as exceedingly lucky. We have the smoke, the ash, the drone of the helicopters, the intense heat of a 40° sun but we are safe and sound. Until the weekend I was lamenting the fact that the temperatures were affecting the vegetables but now I realise losing some of this year’s crop is nothing compared to those who have lost all.

It’s been very hot, of course, for the chickens, all three batches. The ‘roasties’ seem to suffer the most, sitting panting on the ground dipping the beaks into the water. Ah well, Richard is sharpening his knife so they won’t be suffering for much longer! The new hens, we are really pleased to say, are continuing to grow well. The eldest black one laid her first egg 27 May and has since been laying every day; perfect, nut brown eggs.

Many years ago, we saw that one of the fields allocated to the hens had little shade midday so we planted a couple of lime trees. It gives me great joy to see our new hens sitting under them, exactly as planned!

The veg patch is bursting with growth, somewhat curtailed by the heat, but battling it out. Far too many crops to mention here but we are eating the cucumbers, a little celery, the parsley, the runner beans and I’ve already pickled a jar of gherkins. Oh, and the courgettes of course.

The sweetcorn should be ready soon and some of the many tomatoes too.

Fruitwise we are eating the raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. Having our own eggs again means ice cream is back on the menu so we’ve had some delicious gooseberry and elderflower ice cream. The neighbours’s peach tree put on a good show again for us too.

We are really hoping for a bumper crop of plums. Alas, our Stanley plum tree has died – such a shame when we had so many last year and they were just so delicious. The redcurrant almost died, a few twigs left only, and the blackcurrant also died. At the end of the day some things can cope with the freezing temps (remember it went down to -6° quite a few nights over the winter) and blistering heat, and others can’t. The red and yellow plums, damsons and greengages will make up for that we’re sure.

Meanwhile, back in the courtyard, it’s looking lovely since being painted and the pink against the blue is surprisingly striking. Just a shame it’s too hot to sit outside and enjoy it – ha!

Finally, the most important things in our lives are also fine. Less lively in the heat…

…but thankful for the cool of the outdoor ponds.

Richard has just come in from watering the garden. He says there are more helicopters over the valley from us and a new fire has broken out. With the summer just starting these are certainly unsettling times.

Busy bees

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

It’s been one of our busiest months, not just in the garden or veg patch but around the house too.  I’m sure we thought that, once we had been in the house for seven years, we wouldn’t have much to do. But with the new wall this has meant painting, re-organising the rooms, moving stuff from one place to another (my old office is now Richard’s ‘man cave’), putting up shelves, painting, putting up new lighting, buying a new sofa and, yes, painting. I still need a desk of some sort for the main computer. I’m perched on a stool under the stairs at the mo.

The courtyard too has had a face lift. We had painted the lower part of the walls a solid blue which faded, so we did it again and that faded. Last year we went to a paint shop and asked for advice: this meant us buying special fixative first which is applied to a cleaned wall. And then expensive exterior paint, two coats. So yet more cleaning and painting. Urrgh. I have to say I don’t want to see another paint brush again for a long time. Alas all the walls, I am reluctant to say, need their second coat and I have lost enthusiasm. Anyway, it all looks a lot nicer and pics are to follow.

Meanwhile April has not been behaving itself. The nightingales are here, the colourful orchids and wild flowers are appearing but the showers, or any real rain, have yet to come. It’s been very dry. Dry and hot. The lack of rain has meant watering the garden and veg patch (we haven’t had the wood burning stove on all month). Despite the drought we are drowning in peas and broad beans and have just had the last of the asparagus and beetroot. The veg patch has seen far too many bugs already, especially aphids. There are ladybirds (didn’t see a single one last year) but these are too few and too late. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slugs and snails have kept away; they love the wet weather (and our many frogs have very beady eyes). Strong winds and ants have meant most of the broccoli and cauliflower have failed. On a more positive note three different kinds of runner beans are running up their poles, gherkins and cucumbers are showing signs of flowers, and there are courgettes in too. The sweetcorn are doing well. All the other seedlings have now been potted on and these will all be planted over the next few weeks of May; the game of putting all the plants away at night into the polytunnel and then back out again in the morning has begun.

We have a new set of ‘roasties’, this time 3 ducks, 5 white chickens and 2 brown ones. Which reminds me: the highlight of Richard’s month has been the purchase of a chicken plucker. Expensive? Yes. Worth the money? You bet. Half an hour of plucking has been reduced to a cool 10 seconds. One happy Richard.

Cooling off time for the dogs, two happy hounds:

Four seasons in one month

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Spring is here, hurrah! I decided to sow most of the seeds for the veg patch at the start of the month and this year, instead of putting them in either the potting shed or polytunnel, chose to keep them on the window sill. The temperatures, especially in the polytunnel, can fluctuate widely and I thought I would try, as many books suggest, a sunny south facing spot inside. Well, it worked a treat with everything coming through very quickly, and a load of old seeds I almost threw away too. I think the sun and the even temperature really did the trick.

So with spring in the air and in my step I planted a whole load of sprouts, cauliflowers and broccoli. And some beans. Beans which, for the last two years, have always been killed off by the frost as I have been too eager to plant them out. Then it got hotter and hotter, summer barbecue weather arrived, and everything needed to be watered. Then autumn mists greeted us in the mornings. Then it got colder and colder, winter glove wearing weather arrived, and yep, the beans all got killed off by the frost. Ah well, I did have some spares and they are now thriving that the spring has sprung back.

Despite the set back all is well in the veg patch really. Remember this?

Well, both the broad beans and peas survived the freezing temperatures and are well on their way:

We are eating the asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli:

And the onions are monsters (Betty guards the seedlings):

I should add that the seedlings, those that haven’t yet been planted out, are brought in every night and we share the kitchen table with them when we eat. There are 6 different kinds of tomatoes, gherkins, 2 kinds of cucumbers, aubergines, peppers of various types and all sorts of squash. Oh, and some sweetcorn. So looking forward to some April showers, sunny spells and proper spring weather all month.

 

Bloomin’ spring

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

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 big freeze

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

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…

 

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Plant of the year award 2016

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

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!

Where there’s muck…

Monday, October 31st, 2016

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.

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Away with May

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

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

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

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.

Plant of the year award 2015

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

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.