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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.

 

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:

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!