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Category: Growing things

Rewilding

Rewilding

The countryside, very much like our garden, is unkempt. This year many of the hedges and meadows have been left to grow and flourish, wildflowers abound and there is an explosion of colour (deep yellow yarrow, lavender-blue chicory and pale pink mallows galore) and overgrown hedgerows. Our garden too has turned into some kind of wild nature reserve, places are impassable as the flowers battle with the grasses. The reason for this rewilding is not the same for both places. In the countryside the folk have definitely stayed at home; fields that normally would have been cut back by now have been abandoned to nature so that strange new wildflowers we have never seen before have emerged and we have to duck under bushes on our dog walks. This is all simply because the local Portuguese have taken the strict observance of mask wearing and social distancing to heart, and they have been nervous to venture too far from their homes. No surprise really as most of them are on their last legs.

We however, have other reasons. One is that the bother of strimming and ‘keeping on top of it all’ has become increasingly challenging. The second is that we want to have as much wildlife as possible in the garden and leaving areas untouched seems the way forward. The idea is to let nature take care of itself. We are alarmed by the shortage of bugs, and therefore bats and birds, and are doing our bit to help out. We have had a renewed interest in the flora and fauna of Casa Azul and are delighted we have a couple of greenfinches nesting in the plane tree in the courtyard now.

One benefit has been I don’t need to stroll around the neighbouring fields to find the plants I need for dyeing, they are all in our garden now!

It looks charming in a sort of run down cottage garden kind of way. No idea how it will all look over the next few weeks. Meanwhile in the veg patch good and bad news. A real disaster with my Sicilian broccoli and cauliflower which was a bit depressing considering how much time and effort I put into those, the cucumber plugs I bought have turned into water melons (don’t ask) and all the flowers of one set of toms, also bought as plugs, have all simply died. Anyway, on a happier note we have green beans, or rather stripey red beans galore, and the bush toms are well on their way…

plus loads of brightly coloured courgettes:

Richard was pleased that the chicken lady at the local market had returned so we have another batch of ‘roasties’ enjoying the sun. Skittle and co are fine as are the dogs. So all’s well here and hope it is with your and yours. Stay safe.

Sow and sew

Sow and sew

For Christmas I treated myself to a new cookery book: Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli. With over 400 pages it’s a wonderful recipe book as well as a travel guide, full of information about the island, its people and its food. And with only 12 recipes for meat it’s packed full of scrumptious vegetarian and fish dishes. I bought it to remind us of the lovely holiday we had there, but also to renew my enthusiasm for cooking which has waned a touch. There are lots of recipes for broccoli, cauliflower, aubergine and courgettes… but while reading I noticed there was a recurring theme: the broccoli from Sicily was different to what we know, ditto the cauliflower. He reckoned their varieties all tasted nicer.

So a number of hours were spent on the Internet trying to find seeds for these amazingly delicious vegetables. With the help of google translate I tried in vain to find where to buy the seeds. I eventually found a blogger who also enthused about these particular Sicilian vegetables and I wrote to him (he was called Salvo – we are Montalbano fans too!). He put me in touch with someone who sells the seeds and hurrah, a few weeks later I get 2 tiny packets of seeds in the post: sparacello di sicilia and cavolfiore violetto di sicili. The broccoli are in one of the raised beds now (with protective plastic squares to keep the moth away that lays eggs at the base of brassicas) , and the cauliflower, which promises to be a lovely shade of purple, will go in soon. So a renewed interest in both cooking and gardening.

The latter just as well, what with The Crisis I was worried at one time that we would be relying on what we grew ourselves and lamented that it was all happening during what is called The Hungry Gap ie when nothing much was available. Broad beans aside there’s not much to be picked now that the early purple broccoli and asparagus is finished.

Here in Portugal the State of Emergency is coming to an end, two months on, and we’ll be entering the State of Calamity which to me sounds just as bad. We have to admit that for the most part we have been unaffected. With over an acre of land, and the heart of the Portuguese countryside on our doorstep, we have not been in lockdown in any way. In addition we have honed our social distancing skills (friends? What friends?) and have been working from home for the last 10 years. So, to assuage some guilt, I volunteered to make some masks for a local organisation. The old Bernina was dusted off, perhaps 50 years old now, and the kitchen table taken over in the manufacture of PPE.

Other than that we appreciate more than ever the birds and the bees, the flowers and the shrubs, and the sheer pleasure of being outside. We know we have friends and family who are going through a tough time now and we don’t forget them while spotting the orchids or taking the dogs through the meadows. Never more have we looked forward to greeting visitors here at Casa Azul and enjoying a home cooked meal and sharing a bottle of local wine. x

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

Good riddance to January, that’s what we say. A mostly gloomy, soggy, grey, damp month this year with few occasions to gloat about the winter sun being warm enough to have lunch outside. There have been some nice days for bracing walks but otherwise it’s definitely been a time for enjoying the wood burning stove and appreciating whoever invented the electric blanket.

The hens, having been given access to a lovely grassy plot have turned that into a mud bath already. But the laying has picked up (although I don’t think a day has ever gone by without at least one egg in the nest box) and they seem cheerful enough despite all being various shades of brown now.

The wild birds all seem very lively too, the garden is alive with singing and chirping and fighting over the bird seed feeders. A constant tapping noise outside the house intrigued us: a great spotted woodpecker was in the walnut tree. There’s often one in the huge walnut tree at the end of the garden but nice to have one nearer too.

The original veg patch is slowly disappearing. Richard has spent a long time lifting up all the old roof tiles that had been used to edge the beds (and which provided perfect tunnels for the voles to scamper up and down). His reward: a glass of one of his homemade ales.

Last weekend was the first time it was warm enough to get on top of all the January jobs ie pruning. So the plane tree has been pollarded, the vines pruned, some hedges clipped, the gooseberries thinned and the raspberries cut back too. The plane tree branches grew almost 3m in one year but Jussi was not so impressed.

Just the willow needs to be tackled now. Time also was found for mulching many of the beds, plus a load of mulch spread on the bed earmarked for the sweetcorn. The sweetcorn have always done well, the first year I planted them I was a tad disappointed that each plant gave only one or two cobs but they are always delicious. One thing I have never been able to do is stagger crops so everything is ready at the same time but a few weeks of eating sweetcorn most suppers is fine, and actually they freeze well and finding a packet at the bottom of the freezer is a nice surprise.

Which brings me to the coveted Plant of the Year award for 2019. Would it be the sweetcorn? Tempted. But in fact I’ve gone for something more prosaic: the broad bean. Planted in the depth of winter they survive the frosts and wind. This lot were photographed 6 and 31 January. Only two failed to germinate. (The raised beds are a marvel, so much easier to use than the original beds. Can’t believe it was a year ago Richard made them).

They’re ready May, and again stacks of long pods suddenly appear and it’s beans with everything. But we like them a lot, they’re reliable (the hens get the tops with the black fly) and with their lovely, scented flowers are great for the bees too. They’re also great great nitrogen fixers so whatever goes in next, brassicas are best, benefits from that. Well done, the broad beans.

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 🙂

 

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 :-).