What a bind!

What a bind!

Our collection of animals has expanded, albeit temporarily. First up is Spot the dog who is staying for a few weeks while his real family are swanning around the Isle of Man:

Observant readers will notice that Richard is enjoying two hobbies at one time ie reading about brewing beer and drinking his own at the same time. There is also a tub of something bubbling in the man cave (‘Don’t touch!’) which he fusses over while licking his lips.

Next up is the little chick. When we got back from Sintra our grey hen Hattie became broody. After a few weeks of not being able to shake her out of it we decided to take advantage instead and, thanks to people we know who have hens and a cockerel, slipped some eggs under her without knowing if these were fertilized or not. Her patience was rewarded with a little chick (actually 2 of the eggs hatched but alas one was squashed) who, now almost 3 weeks old, is the cutest thing on two spindly, and slightly feathery, legs.

Temporary? I hear you cry. Well, it depends. If little chick is male, yes (Richard has a great coq au vin recipe). If little chick is female she’ll become one of the girls. (That’s if the lurking ladder snake doesn’t get it first).

Jussi meanwhile is now the eldest in the household having celebrated her 10th birthday (making her 70):

Richard has been badgering me to update the blog about the veg patch which I must admit I have been putting off.  I’m afraid there is a feeling of despondency as I wander round the beds. The wet spring and crappy July weather (I have failed to understand how the whole world seems to be having a heatwave and yet here in Portugal we’ve had grey, cold, misty days with never a forecast reaching 30 let alone the temperatures of over 40 last year – which I am not missing I hasten to add) hasn’t helped but I’m not blaming the weather. The problem is a growing one that has got worse and worse, creeping through the plants, climbing and devouring all in it’s way: yep, the veg patch is riddled with bindweed.  It was quite bad last year but now there is an invasion. I try to use the ‘no-dig method’: firstly come the winter the beds are covered in a thick mulch of compost and leaves, usually over a layer of cardboard or newspapers, which is slowly broken down by the worms (and therefore doesn’t need ‘digging over’). Then this is repeated once the new seedlings go in to keep the soil moist and prevent the weeds coming through. But nothing stops the bindweed. Whilst weeding the spring beds before applying the new mulch I can hear their roots being torn. One small section takes simply ages to clear and as these roots go down at least 3m it’s actually impossible to get rid of. Any broken roots multiply into new plants; so hence the sense of despair.

Despite this there is still stuff growing that has combatted the cold and battled the bindweed. The kitchen is full of bowls of tomatoes, some to be roasted, some to be made into passata, some to have in salads and some to be dried.  We have had the first aubergine, all of the sweetcorn and many runner beans. And a feast of courgettes: in cake, stuffed, in ratatouille, in salads, barbecued… in fact I don’t think a day passes without some courgette being eaten in some guise or another. The strawberries are great and we try to get the raspberries before the birds.

So the last day of July, and the last day of the cooler weather.  Temperatures are set to rocket from tomorrow so time to enjoy the pleasant evening sunshine and join Richard with one of his homemade tipples.

 

 

Weather woes

Weather woes

Being British we go on about the weather far too much, so, of course, that’s what I’m going to do now. Summer, what summer? while the UK seems to be enjoying their best summer in ages, ours is yet to start. OK we’ve had a few warm days and we’ve had our first swim but it’s been pretty dreary so far and all the fruits are at least a month behind. We are about to enter July and still no plums and it looks like we’re not going to get many anyway. Having said all that, there are lots of positives. The garden looks lovely. We don’t have a lawn but we do have a sea of dandelions.And many of the plants are thriving with a bit more moisture than normal. Especially the new trees that we planted late last year. Their test will come when high summer eventually kicks in. Also it has been a bumper time for the birds. We’ve had blue tits nesting in both our bird boxes and we’ve now got our third serin nest. The latest is in the plane tree right outside the kitchen. Eggs have been laid but they are yet to hatch. Meanwhile the four chicks in the nest above the front door fledged safely. Here they are just before they left home.

Meanwhile, spring is when we often see snakes. Here’s a ladder snake having a look in the kitchen window!

The birds haven’t been bothered by snakes, however, two of our roasties went missing and so we put a camera up in the roastie run and this is what we saw: a sparrow hawk!

Of course I have been busy with my little projects. I made a very simple incense stick holder and an even simpler bench made from a few pallets.


I’ve also been busy brewing more of my own beer. The latest have included a deliciously dark Irish stout and a sparkling red ale.


We haven’t just stayed at home either. We had a great little trip down to Sintra at the beginning of June and more lately had our first swim of the year in the Barragem de Cabril, not far from our house.

Pena Palace, Sintra


No doubt by the next post we will be moaning about how hot it is. We shall see!

Springwatch

Springwatch

We are avid followers of the BBC programme Springwatch which comes out about this time of year. It covers many plants and animals emerging from the long dark winter of the UK. However, we have our own Caza Azul Springwatch this year covering the birds and plants that have appeared here over the last month.

First up we had Blue tits once again nesting in one of our bird boxes. Unfortunately this didn’t end well as the five little brown speckled eggs were left and didn’t hatch. 🙁

Better news for the Serins however. Although not the best of places for a nest, they had made it on the end of the loquat tree five feet off the ground and in a position to catch any breeze. I’m surprised they didn’t get seasick. However, a good place to photograph and I was there to see two of the three nestlings fledge. And they stayed in the garden fluttering about for a few days as well.

one of the Serin parents
Two nestlings

In fact we have another Serin nest on the go now as well. It’s in the rose bush right above the front door. At the moment we think there are just eggs but hopefully (like last year) some youngsters will emerge from this nest.

Serins above the front door

We also spotted a wren nest. It was in a little crevice where the waterpipe comes into our courtyard. Here two wrens set up shop and we could see them for weeks, first bringing nest materials and then latterly insects, until finally the little critters fledged. They hung around for a few days as well and I counted at least 6 babies flying around the courtyard rather unsteadily. Amazing to think that they had been packed into that little space.

adult wren with supper for the kids
baby wren just fledged

Away from the birdlife, the orchids have put on a tremendous show this year. Although we have a page dedicated to them, I thought I would showcase a few photos I took this year:

Ophrys apifera, Bee orchid

Ophyrus lutea, Yellow ophyrus orchid
Ophrys speculum, Mirror orchid
Ophrys speculum subsp lusitanica, Portuguese mirror orchid
Anacamptis pyramidalis, Pyramidal orchid
Ophrys tenthredinifera, Sawfly orchid
Ophyrus scolopax, Woodcock orchid
Ophrys fusca, Sombre bee orchid

NB there are another 10 different orchids we’ve seen which I haven’t included!

The building work in the courtyard continues. Joining the new wood shed, I’ve put a planter on top of the wall and Jackie has planted some geraniums. Let’s hope they put on a good show this year. I’m also going to tile it with some of our old azulejos when I get a chance. And when we sit on the blue bench hopefully we will get the aroma from the newly planted jasmine.

Talking of good shows, our climate seems to favour roses. I’ve shown the yellow rose earlier from above our front door, but our red rose in the garden is doing tremendously as well.

Gone to seed

Gone to seed

We are getting to the nicest time of the year. A tad later this year than normal but getting there. Jussi is less keen on the warmer months. She’s smiling in this photo because, yet again, black clouds are on the horizon and if she’s lucky there’ll be some puddles on her walk tomorrow.

Walking around the garden admiring the colours has reminded me I have been meaning to do a blog post about where many of our plants have come from. We have, of course, bought plenty over the years but there are also a significant number that we’ve got free, one way or another. Most have been cuttings but this post is about those grown from seed. First up the poppies. The Oriental poppy seeds were (I have to admit) stolen from a botanical garden, I snapped off a dried head and before I knew it had popped it into my handbag… The Californian poppy seeds were taken from a campsite we stayed in.

The Antirrhinum, or snapdragon, seeds were taken from the field next door. They’re mostly a pinky colour but there was one a few summers ago which was a striking purple. I earmarked the plant and collected the seeds later in the autumn. The photo makes it look more pink than it is.  And then, on a holiday in the south, I came across this tall plant in a patch of wasteland by the motorway service station. It looked like it had had orange flowers. Sowing the seeds the following spring I realised it was in fact an Evening primrose, the flowers come out every evening (you can watch them opening) and come the next day have died and turned orange. Plants that seem to survive in the wild without watering are perfect for the garden.

Next up some flowers seeds given to me some time ago by friends which have self seeded. The white Honesty has come up around the pond and looks charming, the blue Nigella is just stunning (although fewer this year it has to be said as Richard is rather cavalier with the strimmer which is why there are no pics of the Chamomile daisies…)

At the end of the summer we get two that seem happier in the shade:  the deep pink Mirabilis jalapa grow in the village (although some seeds from a yellow flowered variety I took from Spain never germinated) and come up behind the potting shed when I have forgotten all about them. A neighbour has these delicate Impatiens balfourii growing outside her house. The seed heads pop open when touched scattering their contents all down the street. I tried them in the courtyard but it’s too hot so I’ll have another go round the back of the house this year.

Another time you’ll find out what I come back with when I disappear into the fields with the wheelbarrow and spade…  🙂

A sort of spring

A sort of spring

Well, you may have thought us rather moany last month but in fact the average rainfall in Portugal was 272 mm (10.7 inches), making it the second wettest March since 1931 (the rainiest being in 2001). It was also pretty parky: it was the coldest March since 2000, with an average maximum temperature 2.6% below normal. So there you have it: cold and wet! At least the drought (since April 2017) was officially over. Meanwhile this month hasn’t been fab but when the wind has dropped and the sun’s come out it’s been wonderful and we’ve been making the most of that: a mixture of working outside and lazy barbecues… Those of you as fascinated by meteorological matters as Richard is can check out his weather page on the site.

So first up has been pruning the olive trees. We have both to admit that our pruning skills aren’t great, and although we’ve attempted to keep on top of it all there are a number of grand masters in the garden that we are reluctant to touch. Not only are they too big for us to cut but we actually like them although our neglect has meant some now look rather scruffy and aren’t growing that well.  Luckily our friend Barbara, armed with chainsaw and lopper and a lot more confidence than we have, came to the rescue. She also gave lots of advice about how to do it ourselves which we hope a) we can remember and b) we have the courage to act on. Seeing her hidden high among the branches with the chainsaw was rather alarming. As was the result on a couple of trees too!

Richard, you can see, was helping out from the safety of ground level…

The good thing though is that olive trees are very forgiving and whatever we do they’ll bounce back. You may remember at the beginning of the year we planted over 30 saplings and all of these, bar one, seem to be doing well with lots of leaves, they’ll be great in 5 years time!

The constant rain has meant the grass has grown extremely tall. There are areas where the hens refuse to go, no doubt concerned they’ll never get out again. So the second main job of the month for Richard has been strimming, not a small feat now that we also have the field next door. And for me that means raking, my least favourite job. The cut grass is great for mulching though and most has been used around the small saplings in preparation for the scorching months ahead.

Having to be inside more has meant opportunity to take on my latest hobby: natural dyeing. Since discovering that many of the ingredients for this are to be found not only in the nearby woods and fields but also in the garden means I haven’t looked back. There are already baskets and jars and pots full of bark and lichens and roots all over the kitchen and under the porch outside.

I’ve been quite excited about the colours achieved but Richard says, “Well done, another shade of brown.” But nice shades of brown, I think 🙂

Richard has also rescued the vine that was sprawling in the field we bought, he’s built a wooden structure for it to grow over so no doubt another attempt at wine making is on the cards. Steps have also been made through the dry stone wall from the field into our garden for easy access.

So we’re looking forward to May, and so are all the plants in the demi-poly that are waiting to be planted out, and saying goodbye to the April showers.

 

The good, the bad and the beautiful

The good, the bad and the beautiful

The good: it’s been raining. In fact we have had rain every day in March except 13th. This means the grass is green, the well is full and there are puddles galore for Jussi on her walks. The saplings we put in are beginning to show the very first signs of life.

The seed sowing has been slightly delayed this year until it’s a tad warmer, but those on the kitchen windowsill are coming through.  Each of the sweetcorn has just germinated, I can taste those already. The purple sprouting broccoli is out and being eaten (by us!) and the lettuce, radishes, rocket (and some nettles) are thriving in the demipoly:

The bad: it’s been raining. In fact we have had rain every day in March except 13th. This means the hens and roasties, and even the ducks, spend more time sheltering despite so much lush grass to eat. The broad beans are up and flowering but the flowers look rather soggy and there doesn’t seem to have been many insects about, I’m waiting for the first pod to appear. The peas are bedraggled. The raised beds in the veg patch, it seems not that long ago, were looking great but the weeds love this weather and are slowly taking over:

The beautiful: but we have had some sunny intervals, enough for the spring flowers to appear:

And the blackthorn at the end of the garden has put on a marvellous snowy, showy spectacle:

We have left it too late to clean out the bird boxes as the blue tits are already making themselves at home. And on the morning walks nothing is nicer than hearing the Song Thrush echo down the valley. They have normally gone by now, being winter visitors, but it seems they have decided to stay this year. How nice:

Renewal

Renewal

Six weeks since the new year and our last post and we have been as busy as ever. Last year, I built a new wood shed in the courtyard and flushed with success decided to make another one next to it. This was earmarked to store a few items from the barn to open up a bit of space there. I also got some more gravel to make the courtyard a bit more attractive. Possibly the only advantage of living close to a quarry is that gravel is very cheap – where else could I have got 2 tonnes for 8 Euros?

We’ve also done something we have been planning to do for the last 8 years – we went skiing in the Serra da Estrela! It’s just over 2 hours drive from us and despite there not being much snow, there was enough and the added bonus was that the slopes were almost completely empty.

One of the reasons we love living here is that the countryside is stunning and the misty mornings have made it even more beautiful.

In the photo above you can see a few willows. Jackie has started pruning the one in our garden and made some bird feeders out of the branches. Here is a Great Tit perched on one,  enjoying a treat. Other birds have also been out in force including one of our favourites, the Robin.

As well as pruning the willow, Jackie has been hard at it pruning the plane tree in the courtyard and getting sage advice from one of the hairy ones. The other hairy one, meanwhile, has been hard at it under the orange tree. This is the tree that keeps on giving. I must have made gallons of orange juice so far this winter and there is still more to come.

I’ve also got myself a new toy. I’m not sure what it’s called – a rasper? It’s an attachment to my small angle grinder and acts like a turbo sander. Anyway, it made short work of a piece of olive wood turning it into a small bowl. Watch this space to see how this new hobby develops!

before and after

Although we have had daffodils for a quite a few weeks now it is always great to see the first fruit blossom – and the winner this year is the apricot (I wonder if any of the fruit will manage to reach maturity this time?) and although there have already been some wild irises in the countryside, this is the first one to appear in our garden. Roll on Spring!!

 

Plant of the Year Award 2017

Plant of the Year Award 2017

First of all, a very big Happy New Year to all our readers. We are looking forward to a 2018 of cooler temperatures, more rain but still plenty of sunshine. Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, we have had quite a lot of (very welcomed) rain and the garden and veg patch look wonderful sporting a bright emerald green. When the sun comes out everything glows and it’s been perfect to get outside and do some end of year jobs between the downfalls. (And how nice that those clouds on the horizon have got nothing to do with fires).  The peas and broad beans are well on their way and I’m really pleased that all 60 of the garlic are up. Plenty of onions (red and yellow) have been planted too so it feels like being back on track at last.

So homemade damson vodka was put aside for operation hen run. The hens had completely scratched or eaten every single blade of grass and were living on a bare patch of earth. A few hoops later and some chicken wire they now have a tunnel to one of their other meadows which had been tempting them for the last few weeks.  I’d done this before and the system works very well; the hoops are simply removed once the grass returns. Now there’s plenty to keep them happy.

Very sadly our last Orpington didn’t survive to appreciate the green goodness. We have no idea why she died and it upset us both that she too succumbed, especially having survived the summer.  Rocky and Hatty are well though and very feisty, and two eggs every day is more than enough. Bye bye, Bright Eyes.

Over the year we also said goodbye to the Stanley plum and one of the plane trees we’d planted a few years ago (plus the redcurrant and blackcurrant in the veg patch), it was just too hot we think. So we decided to buy a load more trees! Of course this means yet more watering but plan A is that, once they are mature, they’ll create their own shade and prevent the ground from completely drying up.  We found a garden centre that sells saplings at a very reasonable price and came away with 33 (yes, 33!), for 18 euros. In addition, the Saturday before the New Year was just wonderful, we had lunch outside, and we were able to plant all of these in one go.

Some went in the back of the garden and some in the field we now have next to the house where we park the car. So a mixture of chestnuts, Monterey pines, Portuguese cyprus, oaks (red and cork), poplars, liquidambers, and strawberry trees. Plus a replacement Stanley. In danger of being strimmed, they are all earmarked with twigs bearing bright yellow ribbons. We hope they are now loving the rain.

Late December is also the time to make the year’s supply of marmalade and get the juicer out. I did the former and Richard the latter; the kitchen smelt of citrus for days.

But now it’s time to reveal what gets our Plant of the Year award for 2017. Well, actually I think they all deserve a medal of some sort. Such a horrid summer and yet very few things actually died. Some just stopped doing anything and have now kicked into life, mainly the brassicas. Others produced fruit but just not in the same quantity or size as previous years.  But the award, this year, goes to the capsicums. Both the green bell peppers, many of which turned red, and the chilli peppers did very well indeed and were certainly the stars of the show.

It was always so nice to pop into the veg patch and see their vibrant colours.

So it’s that time of the year now to sit down with the last of the mince pies and thumb through the seed catalogue. I have managed to keep loads of seeds each year, there’s certainly no need to buy any more tomato seeds, but it’s always nice to try something new. Have a great year gardening, too!

From fires to frosts

From fires to frosts

This year, perhaps even more than most, has been all about the weather. The long, hot, dry spring and summer that caused the horrendous wildfires, the briefest of warm dry autumns and now, in early December, Jack Frost is already nipping at our toes. We’ve had a week of sub zero temperatures and as is usual here, if it’s cold, it means bright blue skies during the day and clear dark skies at night. And no rain. And it makes my daily morning walk with the dogs all the more pleasant.

 

And especially because the autumn colours are fantastic.

I’ve also been busy with my saw and nails. As soon as I finished the new wood store, I knocked this coffee table together. I’ve also been to a friend’s house and used his wood turning lathe. Maybe something to think about in the future?

They say the hardest part is the waiting, well it was with the cider (4 months in fact) but it’s now ready and it tastes pretty good.

cider

Meanwhile the harvests keep on coming. We’ve still got plenty of quinces on the tree but I have to say both me and Jackie aren’t that keen to make any more quince jellies or crumbles. Especially as the oranges are also now ready for marmalade making. Because we have had so little rain, although there are plenty of them, they are very small and so not really worth juicing.

Latest update: As I type, it seems the drought has been broken – to a certain extent. Storm Ana has passed by and dropped 57mm of rain over the last 24 hours. It’s also taken the leaves off the plane tree in the courtyard. Below is a photo taken a couple of weeks ago and then another taken this morning (with hailstones). We still need plenty more rain though.

So all in all another busy but thoroughly enjoyable year at Casa Azul and plenty of projects planned for next year too. We hope you like the ‘new look’ blog and all there is to do is to wish all our readers a very happy festive season and may your gardens and lives be bountiful in 2018!

Week of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Week of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The poor old veg patch, suffering in the heat and drought. Then, even though we only got a bit, last month’s rain perked a few things up, mainly the brassicas which I have just been keeping alive in the hope that, when the rain did come, they would recuperate. That indeed seems to have happened: the sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, calabrese and cavolo nero all took a turn for the better and revived my enthusiasm too.

In fact, the never ending sunny days have meant there’s been little pressure getting things done before the weather takes a turn for the worse so, slowly but surely, I have been turning the overgrown mess into something that resembles beds once more.  60 garlic in here now:

Along with the dreaded weeding I have now planted a bed of leeks and sown a bed each of broad beans and peas, just some onions to go in and then the winter crops will have been sorted. There are still some crops left, the aubergines and courgettes need to be pulled up, and the asparagus chopped down, but there are some tomatoes, peppers and chillies growing so they’ll be left for a bit. The fact that the grass is growing again has also lifted my spirits.

I have also, a major achievement this, sorted out the potting shed – hurrah! Loads of stuff has got thrown away, tools cleaned and hung up, shelves tidied and cobwebs swept. The little rosemary hedge around the front has grown amazingly and has been pruned. It looks great inside again now. I couldn’t find a photo of when I first planted the rosemary cuttings but you can just see a tiny one here, and the weigela, the last time I sorted out the shed in June 2014:

Look how everything has grown in the last 3 or so years:

You can see that the polytunnel has at last got a new covering, but only the top half. It’s now called the demi-poly. And, since starting this post, you’ll notice the weather has turned. At long last it feels like autumn, it’s mild but misty, and the smell of wood smoke means that bonfires are being lit rather than the forest is on fire. Perfect gardening weather at last. (Is it really December, and winter, next week?!)

Meanwhile, on the feathered front, all the roasties, ducks and the guinea fowl are now in the freezer.  We also only have three hens now as Barbara, and her pendulous crop, couldn’t cope any more.  So we have Rocky, Barbara’s sister Hatty (centre), and the gentle giant Bright Eyes (background), the only one of the Orpingtons to have made it. She gets bullied terribly by the other two, despite being twice their size, and has yet to lay an egg.

I’ll finish with a pic only gardeners will appreciate: the very first broad bean poking through. Despite the digging, weeding and compost turning the sight of a little seedling makes it all worthwhile :-).