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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 🙂

 

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.

 

 

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!

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 :-).

Some September stuff

Some September stuff

Where to start? Well, we took the first 2 weeks of September off, another camping trip to the French Pyrenees plus some super stopovers in Spain. Faithful hounds, house and hens were all looked after by a fabulous couple which gave us a real break.

Now of course it doesn’t feel as if we have been away at all.  Our first task on return was Operation Pergola. We put up this wooden structure in 2010, before we’d even moved in.

The idea was to grow vines over it for a lovely shady spot to eat under in the summer. The first year went to plan, three vines grew quickly up and over. The second year was okay but come the third the vines just didn’t seem to be doing very well, and then alas they seem to have died. Such a disappointment. I blamed it on the location: too high up, windy and exposed. But then Richard built another structure, even more exposed, on the threshing square. The vines grew and flourished and soon became exactly what we wanted:

The vines, or rather the dead woody branches, were cut down and onto plan B: kiwis. They grow so well around here and the fruit would be an added bonus. Again, they started well but it soon became apparent that these were a failure too. Digging them out, with a heavy heart, we found the problem, or rather the culprits: voles. There were enormous holes under each plant and the roots had all been eaten away.

So plan C was activated on our return. This was to lower the top, it was always proportionately too high, and cover it with bamboo sheets. Somehow we ended up buying the reed version but it has been covered. Then we’re going to plant climbers in large pots around the structure, it will look nice one day… but look how the plants around it have grown!

Meanwhile the veg patch has sort of been abandoned. The heat has just been too much for most things, although we have had tomatoes, cucumbers, some celeriac and courgettes on our return.

The real survivors though are the peppers, both sweet and hot. The forecast is for temperatures to remain high so perhaps the aubergine flowers will bear fruit.

Another victim of the heat has been the polytunnel. Such a great idea but in reality, with these Portuguese long and oh so hot summers, not very practical. There were days when it rained (I vaguely remember what that means…) or overcast when the polytunnel was great. However, seedlings, if left in there even on a sunny March day, would soon shrivel up. I tried to grow tomatoes in a small bed but these too suffered in the heat.  Rocket bolted and lettuce shrivelled. I was forever taking trays in and out, and then I lost a couple of sweet potatoes over the winter as it didn’t even keep the frost away. So, all the plastic has been pulled off and I’m considering just covering the top half so that it can still be some sort of shelter and storage area.

One success story has been the prickly pears, loads this year, and we seem to have a bumper harvest of walnuts too.

Finally, Richard has asked me to put up this photo of his cider factory. (Faithful followers will remember the last post when we picked barrel loads of apples). We’re hoping it’s going to be ready for Christmas:

That’s it! The chicken story will have to wait, as will the saga of the dual carriageway being built though the village…

 

The heat is on (still)

The heat is on (still)

We’re now into July and the heat is still relentless. In the aftermath of the fires, the controversy regarding the growing of eucalyptus has intensified. In fact a number of villages have decided to not wait for government (in)action and are taking matters into their own hands and have decided to chop all the eucalypts down within a certain radius of the village.  Lets hope it makes a difference. After the fires we actually had some rain. Well not much more than a shower but it was enough to coat the truck in ash. Although we’ve had it for a few years I had to give it a wash for the first time!

In garden news, I forgot to mention previously that for the first time we had a decent harvest of loquats. We did what we do with all the fruits – made jam and crumble.

We’ve also had the yellow and red plums and are currently waiting for the huge amounts of greengages to ripen. Despite the heat and little rain, the apples have done really well as have the pears which should be next up. Jackie will be reporting on the veg patch later this month (hopefully it hasn’t completely frazzled by then), but I wanted to say that the corn on the cobs were as delicious as ever. They are probably my favourite product of the veg patch.

 

In June we also had Jackie’s dad over so we’ve been doing that most Portuguese of traditions – throwing sardines on the barbie!

another barbie
The heat and the dust

The heat and the dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but thankful for the cool of the outdoor ponds.

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

Busy bees

Busy bees

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

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

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

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

Cooling off time for the dogs, two happy hounds:

Four seasons in one month

Four seasons in one month

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

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

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

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

We are eating the asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli:

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

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