Plant of the Year Award 2018

Plant of the Year Award 2018

New Year’s Day was lovely. We sat on the green bench (one of Richard’s very first woodworking projects which is still going strong) enjoying the surprisingly warm winter sun. Then we heard a strange noise. We looked at each other, and then looked over towards the chooks. There was Skittle, wings held out wide, standing high on feathered toes and head thrown back. He opened his beak and crowed again. Yep, he. Sir Skittle it seems after all. Putting off what to do now (coq au vin seeming less likely) we left all three together but when I tried to record Skittle crowing I found myself filming this instead (not for the faint-hearted):

Poor old Rocky, and you can see Hattie making sure she wasn’t next. Since then Skittle has been rather too keen on Rocky and as he can’t share his advances with other hens they are now separated (witnessing Rocky squawking and running away from Skittle made it an easy decision). They are still near, and can see each other through the fence, but until we have some more hens we are keeping the girls and boy apart. There has been something nice though about hearing a cockerel doing his cock-a-doodle-dooing, it feels like we have a proper farm.

We have two orange trees in our courtyard. Every January we are reminded how lucky we are to have them. This year I made our regular batch of marmalade and Richard made vast quantities of orange juice for the freezer.

This year I also had a go at making some orange leather from the left over pulp. Normally the leather is made from summer fruits and allowed to dry in the sun but the oven was fine too.

We’ve already had some for our walking trips.

And as I have got back into making bread every week we enjoy toast, marmalade and juice of a morning with a certain amount of smugness.

The courtyard is also home to our plane tree which gets pollarded this time of the year. It always look so forlorn with its haircut.

Another task has been to stack our year’s supply of wood. We have been having something of a saga over buying a new wood burner, and getting it installed, but we’re really hoping it’ll all be done for next month’s post. The fact that the boiler has been on the blink much of the month hasn’t helped.

Another big project on the go is the making of raised beds. Hattie and Rocky here are inspecting Richard’s handiwork, again full update next month.

But it’s also that time of the year to find out who’s the lucky winner of the Casa Azul Plant of the Year! And this year it goes to the trusty toms. I’m not sure how many different varieties I had last summer: there were cherry ones, plum ones, heritage ones, yellow ones, black ones, large beefsteak ones and normal round red salad ones. Some were tall and staked, others bushy. I think I’m right in saying that they were all grown from seed I’d kept from the year before which is marvellous. I should be able to do the same this year too.

And not only did they do well, and taste great (and were all free!) but many were then preserved: roasted, made into passata, sun dried and/or frozen.  The freezer is packed with bags of sauces!

In fact if I had to choose my favourite crop it would be the tomato.  They’re easy to grow really, come in such a wonderful range of shapes and colours (in the past we’ve had the stripey ‘tigerallas’ too), taste so much better than bought ones and are just so versatile.  They also smell nice too. We had them from July until early November.

We’ve been making the most of the sunny weather away from Casa Azul.  Nothing nicer than having a seafood meal on the beach:

You’ll be pleased to hear though that rain is forecast now until the end of the month. Sun and rain with a touch of frost: the perfect month 🙂

 

Feliz Ano Novo

Feliz Ano Novo

It’s the last day of 2018 and in many ways it’s days like these that we appreciate the most: there’s a gentle wind but it’s sunny, not a cloud in the sky. You can sit in the courtyard and almost begin to feel too hot. It’s wonderful walking weather. It’s perfect gardening weather. It’s delightful dozing in the afternoon weather. It’s green.

The sun is bringing out the daffs and in the courtyard we continue to have some colour.

Skittle is also enjoying the warmth, and the light brings out some wonderful colours. There are some emerald green feathers in the tail if you look hard enough. The three chooks are now in new quarters but they have already eaten most of the grass. Rocky and Hattie are giving us two eggs most days still.

We also have some exotic species frolicking in the laurel above the pond. They’re from Asia although we suspect they have flown from a cage rather than thousands of miles as they are not migratory. Yes, a flock of red-billed leiothrix (Leiothrix lutea) has made our garden its home. And lovely they are too, but despite being quite raucous of a morning they are very hard to spot.

So Christmas has come and gone. The cake has been eaten, there are a few mince pies in the freezer and only a drop or two of home made liquor is left.

The pallet tree is making it’s third appearance.

The pudding is making it’s second appearance. Or rather it was made last year (I made two) and have managed to keep it away from Richard and not make another one this year. Not sure if the maturity or the copious amounts of brandy made it extra delicious. Homemade ice-cream from Jersey Black Butter is the perfect accompaniment.

The washing up still has to get done. Putting up the lights sadly reminded us that Luis and Laurinda used to keep theirs strung up outside the house, along with a giant reindeer, all year. They just turned them on in December.

Along with the festivities and eating and drinking we have found time to work in the garden. Some of you may remember that this time last year we bought 33 saplings. Not surprisingly we lost a few (the wild boar dug up a couple) and decided to replace some and get some more too. So we bought an additional 12 including 6 more strawberry trees and 3 more red oaks.  Most of them are doing very well though and it’s great to see the garden slowly but surely becoming a sort of woodland.  We have also cleaned and put up the two nest boxes Richard made, both were used last year by the blue tits so we’re hoping they’ll return as they do every year.

Meanwhile the garlic, onions and some broad beans are in. The purple sprouting broccoli is fab as always. And there are still some peppers in the veg patch! Ahh but who will win the prestigious Plant of the Year Award? That’s for the next post.

Happy New Year to all our readers, may 2019 bring you peace and happiness and plenty of space on the sofa.

Changing of the seasons

Changing of the seasons

The seasons are traditionally thought of as lasting 3 months each, however we have often noted that Spring and Autumn at Casa Azul, although in many ways our favourites, seem to slide by very fast. October is often warm and sunny, almost summery, but as soon as November begins we get the fire on and prepare for the frosts. This year was slightly different in that we lit the first fire on 28th October but we are yet to have a frost. I think that is the reason for the leaves on all the trees hanging on for longer than usual and providing a great show of colour. This is especially true of the grape vines.

 


Even the small vine at the front of our house has put on a bit of a show.

We’ve also had our first rain of winter and so mushrooms are popping up all over the place. Here is a parasol from the garden…
… and a particularly impressive Omphalotus olearius. There are many of these around here as they like to grow at the base of olive trees. This mushroom is very similar to the Jack o’ Lantern, famous for being bioluminescent.

Talking of olives, we’ve also completed our olive harvest. Very late indeed for us but actually we were amongst the first round here to harvest. In fact the local olive presses are only just opening up for the season and we managed to get ours done very quickly. It was a very good season as the olives have plumped up nicely from the recent rain and they were really good quality or so we thought. We got 200 kgs which is pretty good for us. This didn’t, however, impress the bloke at our local press who only gave us 7 litres per 100kg as opposed to the normal 8 litres. It’s a bit of a complicated story but if you have 300kgs or more you pay to have your olives pressed and then you get your oil. If under (like us) you have to swap your olives for oil at the going rate but don’t pay anything. As it happens our olives went into a batch with someone else and that was the oil we got anyway.
I suppose I’ve saved our biggest news until last. Every year around this time we get nightime visitations from wild boar (javeli as they are called here). We’ve got a thick bramble hedge around our property so they usually only root around the fields outside but this year they managed to find a hole in the hedge and one morning we woke up to find our garden had been ploughed! Fortunately they didn’t dig up any plants.

And they came back night after night despite us frantically trying to block up any holes. Of course, we never see them by day and wonder where on earth they go. We have a night camera and have often caught them on this but we have been a bit lazy this year and not set it up. However here is a video of a big porker from a previous visitation:

And finally another video. Although it’s November, as I said we haven’t had a frost and it’s been very mild. So mild in fact that we still have wasps (and a few bees). Here’s a video I took of a very active nest in the ground. They were very busy but not aggressive at all. (PS I’m not sure what they don’t do!)

Leslie, lichens and little chick

Leslie, lichens and little chick

The clocks have gone back, the wind is cold, some potted plants have been moved to frost free areas and all the outside cushions and paraphernalia have been brought under shelter: autumn is well on its way. This blog post has ‘change’ as its theme.

First up is Leslie. Now, I don’t know about you but there’s something strange about calling a hurricane ‘Leslie’. It just doesn’t sound right. According to Wikipedia, ‘Hurricane Leslie was the strongest cyclone to strike the Iberian Peninsula since 1842. A large, long-lived, and erratic tropical cyclone, Leslie was the twelfth named storm and sixth hurricane of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season.’ Well, funny name or not, we were all waiting for the tempest of a lifetime (remembering the storm of January 2013 when we lost power and water for three days, an olive tree and the local bus stop) but in the end we managed to escape lightly. We were, however, on the fringe as Coimbra district was in fact the worst hit.

One casualty was the pergola on the threshing square. Firmly cemented into rocks and built of sturdy beams it took off, the vines acting as a sail. Luckily the plum tree stopped it from falling out of the square. We think it’s repairable. On the right shows the structure a year ago, on the left is what it look like now:

Our neighbour’s peach tree was blown in half (and we got such lovely peaches from it last year!) and on our various walks in the local countryside there is evidence of some of the strong gusts.

Elsewhere Little Chick is no more. No, not in a pot. She (fingers crossed) is just not little anymore. And sadly, less loved by her step mother. One day Hattie was by her side, making sure she got the best of the raspberries, clucking if she went too far, and sleeping together. Now, Skittle (new name!) is bottom of the pecking order, bullied a little in fact. She must feel quite confused going from fussed over to pecked at. Anyway, she will grow larger than her fellow feathered friends and no doubt will get her own back in time.

Change too refers to the new dye colours I’m seeing as the lichens turn green to dusty pink. I have decided to write about my dyeing experiences separate from this blog (hurrah, says Richard). For those interested just follow the Natural dyeing link on the right under Pages (or if you really interested check out my Etsy shop ).

And our courtyard has a new addition, many thanks to my friend Sue for bringing one of her wonderful ceramics for us on a recent visit:

Otherwise, some things never change.

The sun still has its hat on in October which means continuing to have lunch outside. We’ve been busy with typical October tasks: figs have been made into chutney, made into jam, bottled and stolen by Jussi; walnuts have been gathered (we still have loads from last year!) and stolen by Jussi; the pond has been cleared and the leaves swept up. There are still cherry tomatoes to be had but otherwise the veg patch is a sorry sight. The three hen paddocks have been cleared, the brambles hacked away as much as possible and all the debris burned. We have yet to light our first fire but Richard has been doing things with the wood pile.

So that’s it for another month. Rain and almost freezing temperatures are set for the days ahead. Leccy blanket time.

Harvest festival?

Harvest festival?

As regular readers will know, Jackie is queen of the veg patch while I am to be found foraging for fruits or whatever I can find in the hinterland. Some things like the plum trees are scattered around the garden while others I find on my daily walk with the dogs. This year’s harvest has been a mixed one, as it always is.

It started off with the non appearance of the plums. A few desultory yellow ones as ever but very few from the half dozen or so other varieties we have in the garden. Our huge cherry tree as always, produced a few very small cherries.

That was basically in June and July,  since then things have looked up. We have a few peach trees which were here before us and have never produced much but this year a bountiful harvest! Well a couple of dozen at least.

The almond tree did the usual – half a dozen, which were so paltry, Jackie mistook them for something else and they ended in the compost. A mixed bag from the apples: lots of small but tasty ones from the big tree, one large solitary apple from the small tree. The pears which were fantastic last year, this year: nowt.

Surprisingly, given our hot dry summers, blackberries do really well round here. We don’t need a fence round our garden as over the years we have developed a very large and impregnable hedge of brambles. Of course blackberry and apple crumble is a perennial favourite.

And now as we enter October we are approaching the end. It’s been another good year for the figs. We have a few tiny trees but there are plenty of big bountiful trees on our morning walk and so lately I have been coming back to the house with a plastic bag full of them ready for Jackie to make chutney, jam and also bottling a few.

Also it looks like the prickly pears have done a good job, it just remains to be a bit careful when picking them. Eaten fresh they are delicious and last year we made a very nice syrup.

Although I’ve mentioned a number of fruits, the locals are only really interested in two. The grapes which have been rather disappointing this year and the biggest harvest of them all: the olives which don’t look too bad at the moment, but I don’t think we’ll be bringing ours in until at least mid November.

Meanwhile after the hottest September on record for Portugal and an equally unseasonably hot start to October, as I write this blog it seems we are in for some welcome rain. After a miserable start to the summer we haven’t actually had any since the start of July.

 

Sad September

Sad September

A long, hot September which saw us travel to Galicia and northern Portugal for 10 days of mostly camping. The dogs, chooks and house were all looked after by a marvellous couple and meant a stress free trip. However, there’s rather a shadow at the end of this month as we have just said goodbye to our neighbour and friend Luis. He was taken to hospital on Friday but didn’t make it. The funeral was today. We also learnt that his wife, Laurinda, will not be staying on alone in the house and that it will be sold. It is all incredibly sad news for us.  Nicer neighbours you could not wish for, Luis was always ready to help us, and to see their house lie empty will be heartbreaking. So here, in memory, are a couple of photos of just some of the many times when they were there to give a willing hand:

Our first olive harvest was a great success thanks to Luis. He kindly sold us his machine last year as he was no longer able to pick his olives.

And Laurinda was there to help for our first killing of the roasties. Goodbye, dear friends.

 

August Yo-Yo

August Yo-Yo

Burrs? What Burrs?

We learnt a new word in Portuguese today. The news was talking about the weather and referred to it as ioiô. Yes, yo-yo. Indeed very high and very low. Richard’s weather station, if I remember correctly, measured over 44C, a new record for us. That was at the start of the month, out of nowhere it seemed this scorching heat that kept us indoors, the fan full blast and the duvet kicked to the floor. Either side of that, however, cooler temperatures, misty mornings and a feel of autumn in the air. It’s settled a bit since then: the last few days have been just a normal ‘hot’, but it’s still a bit chilly first thing.

So, says Richard, what on earth happened in August?

Well, it seems we found ourselves collecting elderberries from a friend’s tree; these were turned into liqueur, jam and cordial. We said a tearful goodbye to Spot the dog although Betty was less upset. A play fellow he turned out to be but in the end Betty is The Boss and little Spotty was sometimes getting far too much attention. Somehow, he ended up sleeping on the bed each night…

The house smelled of tomatoes:

Everyday a batch would picked to be roasted. These were then frozen or, if they were Italian plum tomatoes, whizzed in the mouli for passata. And we are having endless salads, the yellow ones making a colourful addition. And many of the cherry toms have been sun dried. The peppers are eventually doing their thing:

Little Chick is over 7 weeks old. Richard is particularly unpleasant about our latest feathered friend. He thinks it’s growing far too slowly and should up its game. I remind him that, although the ducks and ‘roasties’ are ready for the chop at this age that is really not natural. They have been bred to put on so much weight so quickly that anyone foolish enough to keep a roastie alive for too long would realise, with some horror, that it can no longer stand, its weight far too heavy for its legs. Little Chick is growing at a normal speed. We still have no idea yet if it’s destined for the pot or not…

And yes, there has been more time to experiment with the dyeing. Hurrah!

In fact, so much time has been spent on dyeing there is an embarrassing pile of colourful skeins mounting up. Luckily I have hatched a plot with a friend of mine to have a stall at a local market where I’m hoping to sell some (and she her every growing bundle of knitted toys and dolls).

So a strange, unsettling summer in many ways. Despite the huge fire in Monchique we have yet to see one single plume of smoke, quite bizarre after last year’s catastrophe. But a welcome change that’s for sure. For Jussi, autumn can’t come fast enough:

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.