Browsed by
Author: Jackie

Marching on

Marching on

The nicest thing about March is that it’s the month with the biggest difference in terms of moving on from winter. There’ll be some cold weather ahead, the cloudless days still give us mild frosts, but there’s a real change in the air. Although much of the blossom in the garden has gone the new leaves and greenness are more than welcome. The plane tree in the courtyard has begun to sprout and the garden is alive with noisy birds, emptying the feeder every day and building their nests. The sun has been really warm so lunch outside has been the norm.

The constant sunshine has also meant we’ve been able to get on top of lots of outside jobs. Some of these have not been planned. The dozen ‘roasties’ were happily enjoying the spring and so far no sighting of the sparrowhawk:

Until Foxy came along and dug a hole under their hut (the old pig pen) in the middle of the night and then there were nine.

So we’ve had to have an emergency plan until there’s time for Richard to rebuild that shed. A layer of chicken wire has been placed flat around the edges and held in place with heavy breeze blocks. We’ve caught it on our night camera having a good sniff around a few times since but so far this set up has worked as it hasn’t been able to dig again. A new shed is a bit more of a priority now, not just because the fox can dig under it, but because the wood is completely rotten and termite infested, one good shove and it’ll collapse.

Meanwhile Richard is getting on with building the Pallet Palace. At the moment we have two chicken coops and these too, along with the pig pen, are past it really. So a single, bigger one is in the making, one that I can walk into. Up until recently Skittle was in his coop and Hattie and Rocky in theirs, and he was allowed to ‘play’ with them in the afternoon. We always knew that if we kept Skittle he’d need a few more hens and if we had more hens we’d need another coop.

So Skittle was put in with Hattie and Rocky and then we got Cagney and Lacey!

These are a cross between a Brahma (like Skittle) and Wyandotte hens, and beautiful they are too. They were given to us by friends, and we’re delighted with them.

They stayed a few days in their own coop and field until they felt it was home, and then we let all the chooks get together. Hattie is sometimes a bit pecky (she is the top of the pecking order after all) but in fact we think they are so pleased that Skittle is sharing his amorous advances they are actually quite relieved. We’ll get two more and so in the end Skittle will have six ladies. What we’ll do with all the eggs is another matter…

As the name suggests the new coop is made of pallets mainly, Richard can add more about this in the next post. It’s already been painted front and back and the door added. Then he’s going to add a caged area, again tall enough to walk into, and this will all be covered. You can just see Hattie and Rocky giving their advice.

Otherwise it’s been seed sowing season for me. I’m always trying different techniques. This year I decided to avoid the seed tray / pricking out stage.  The tomato seeds were all from last year, I’d chosen the seeds from some nice fruit, cleaned and then dried them on kitchen paper. Then I simply cut out the paper with seeds on and put them straight into paper pots with a thin layer of soil on top. I did these on the 19 March:

Here’s what they looked like on 25, less than a week later:

Each paper pot was then plonked in a bigger pot and all but the strongest seedling cut, leaving a single one to grow. It was so much easier and quicker than pricking out individual seedlings and transplanting them. Alongside the toms there are now pots of gherkins, various types of squash, broccoli, sweetcorn and goodness knows what else. There is only one slight problem: I have no idea where these will all go as the raised beds are already filling up and the original beds are still abandoned.

March has not only seen changes in the garden but the village too but these again (some more sad news unfortunately, along with the latest on the roadworks) will be for another post. I’ll leave you with yet another video of the javali who, we hope, we have managed to keep out of the garden at long last. Here is one enjoying a good scratch in the field next door. I love their wagging tails!

Raising the beds

Raising the beds

A fairly quiet month at Casa Azul. Slowly but surely the raised beds are taking shape, although it has been quite a procedure. Getting the wood and Richard knocking it all together seems to have been the easiest part.

First up was to line the bases with empty paper bags of chicken feed. Then each of the interior sides were stapled with plastic. The former is to keep the weeds down, the latter to prevent the beds from drying up too much in the sweltering summer heat.

Then, as Richard had strimmed the grass, two wheelbarrow fulls were raked up (one of my least favourite jobs) and used as the next layer for each of the three beds (there are four but we’re only filling up three to begin with).

Then the beds were filled with soil. I got this from the field next door. The javali (wild boar) had very kindly dug over a lot of the ground to leave large patches of loose, and weedless, earth. Each bed got two wheelbarrow loads.

Then each got two wheelbarrow loads of chicken straw compost. And then these layers of soil and compost were repeated. (Are you counting how many times I have filled and tipped the wheelbarrow into the beds?!) It did seem a bit ironic that one of the reasons for doing this was because my back starts to complain bitterly after bending over and weeding and having the beds raised quite high was to limit this.

I am embarrassed to admit that this bed here below, on the left, is what most of the original beds look like. The right half has been cleared to put the garlic in, and there are onions and leeks elsewhere, but the rest is slowly being overgrown. It has just become too tiring so really hoping the boards will stop the weeds taking over.

So taller beds, filled with wonderful weedless soil, and with vegetables planted closer together is the plan. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile we are delighted with our new wood burning stove, finally installed. And tonight, along with the purple sprouting broccoli, we had the first of the asparagus harvest.

The fruit trees are all in blossom, the blackthorn at the end of the garden looks simply splendid. I think a small glass of sloe gin is needed to celebrate 🙂

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.