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Second spring?

Second spring?


It’s been a surprisingly busy month, this October. Where to start? Well, with mostly sunny days we’ve been able to do lots of gardening, walking and harvesting. So into the veg patch first and, hurrah, things are definitely looking up. The cauliflowers and broccoli which I’d said had failed have in fact done very well. After cutting off the rather pathetic broccoli heads there have been loads of side shoots which will keep coming over the weeks ahead. And the cauliflower has, after months and months, decided it will grow after all.


So at the moment we have those two crops, plus squash, sprouts and the last of the runner beans. We will start on the leeks now and we’re looking forward to trying the jerusalem artichokes, a first for us in the veg patch. Slightly worried about their side effects and their nickname fartichokes… The horseradish which I’d said had gone rotten has also completely come back to life so that’ll be dug up soon too.

Meanwhile the chooks have kept us busy. We moved the hens from one patch to another, where we have a spare coop, as they’d scratched up all the grass. They are still giving us 3 or so eggs a day. And we bought some more ‘roasties’. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any more ducklings. The man in the market didn’t have any and as far as I could understand he wasn’t going to get any more because there wasn’t the demand. Hoping I’m wrong about that but if not will have to look elsewhere, the duck we had for Christmas last year was great. Instead of ducklings we got 6 white chicks which I’m not a big fan of, they grow much fatter more quickly than the brown ones (we got 8 of those) but become quite pathetic as they put on weight and struggle to walk. They seem to be enjoying the green grass in the meantime.


We are lucky to have a quince tree in the garden, for some reason there are no others in the village. It was a good harvest for them and we have made loads of quince jelly, quince cordial, quince crumble (made with star anise this has become Richard’s fave dessert) and frozen some batches as well. The chillies too have been made into jam, oil or just dried.


The springlike weather has also been great for the wild flowers. We discovered this tiny little orchid on a walk and then were delighted to find it growing near the house. The common name is autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) so that’ll have to go on our orchids page. We also have autumn crocuses in the garden too.


The hedgerows have been fooled by the temperatures. The blackthorn, where we get our sloes from, is in flower and in the veg patch the autumn raspberries are half a metre tall when they should be dormant.


However, the big task of the month has been the olive harvest so it’s been lovely having the springlike sunshine for that. The garden seems to be full of robins who sing while we work. The dogs too always join us and are happy to supervise, although after a while slink off to the sofa or in search of walnuts.


Last year’s spring deluge meant we had no olives at all in 2014 but this year’s bumper harvest meant it was fairly easy to get enough for the year ahead. After a few days we’d collected 188kg of olives and we got 15 litres of oil for that (the going rate is 8 litres per 100kg). We could have got a lot more. Our neighbour spends weeks collecting his olives, he loves it, but we are rather lazy! He has built this amazing structure which sits on the shovel part of his tractor so that he can be raised up and reach the topmost parts of the trees, it’s a frightening sight as he’s well into his 70s! (While driving to the olive oil factory we lost count of the number of people in their olive trees brandishing loppers or saws.)


He very generously lends us his cleaning machine every year. It separates the leaves and twigs from the olives and despite making a racket does the job quickly and efficiently:

So that was October, I haven’t even mentioned all the strimming Richard’s had to do (and will need to do again soon), the baking, breadmaking etc etc. What have you done this month?


Duck weather…

Duck weather…

…but the ducks are no longer with us to enjoy it.


Yes, Richard has been brandishing his sharp knife and, making the most of a sunny morning, did the deed. D-day for the ducks. One we have had already, friends from Paris popped by last weekend and we enjoyed roast duck and some of our buttercup squash. The other two are in the freezer and one will be on the table for Christmas. Richard has also dispatched two of the fat ‘roasties’, one which we had last night. Seven to go and then that’ll be it until next year. The duck experiment was definitely a success and we will get more now.

Meanwhile the rain, most days, is with us. Faithful readers may well remember that this time of the year we talk about the olive harvest. Well, if there’s one sure thing about living here it’s that there is no such thing as a sure thing. Our olive trees have no olives, nada. Either they fell off during the summer storms or, if they survived that, they rotted on their branches. Not just us of course, most of our neighbours have the same problem so the familiar sound of olive branches being bashed, the familiar sight of those large green nets on the ground and precarious ladders, and the familiar smell from the oil factories is not with us this year. We still have a little oil left over from last year but, for the first time since we arrived here 5 years ago, we’re going to have to buy some oil. Unthinkable! The vineyards roundabout have suffered the same fate so no vino for the locals to drown their sorrows either.


But, talking of roundabouts, there are swings too. The rain has come with mild temperatures which has fooled, yet again, nature. The bulbs are up and the wild iris have flowered. Our buddleia is looking lovelier than it ever has, and the bottle brush is blooming. There is blossom on some of the fruit trees. There is green, green grass.


Our new hens are no longer allowed on the patch of land where their hut is to allow the grass to grow. Richard has set up a tunnel system whereby they go into the next door field. That’s worked well. One has been moulting quite badly and lost its tail, it got very offended when we laughed at it.

chicksWe end on a slightly sad note though. This photo was taken exactly 4 years ago, our very first hens. Our new hens have no names but the first lot soon became known as Nervy, Pecky, Blind Betty and Brownie. They have all gone now, the last two this week. So the new hens are now just the hens. Long live the hens.

It’s the weather, stupid

It’s the weather, stupid

We are often asked, What’s the summer / winter like? Our answer is always, It varies from one year to the next. We have just passed our five year mark and it remains true: the seasons have been different every year. However, there has been one constant: September. A few off days maybe but in general hot and sunny, perfect for the seaside or river beach. But now even September has let us down. We drove off at the start of the month in rain (a short sojourn in Spain) and for the 5 days we’ve been back it’s rained and rained. Sometimes a downpour is followed by blue skies, other times there’s relentless greyness and drizzle. Ho hum. The grass is green, there are field mushrooms galore and the fat hairy one is enjoying the puddles again. There’s a distinct smell of autumn in the air, and we’ve not seen one plume of smoke from forest fires over the whole of the summer, a first for us.

And the veg patch? Well, September is pepper month for us. This year I planted 5 different types, safe in the knowledge they’ll do well come late summer. We did have, before the hols, some large green, and even red, bell peppers which were wonderful. They were large enough to stuff (the red ones with cubes of potatoes and feta in pesto sauce, mmm). We also had a couple of dishes of some new types. Visitors to Spain may well be familiar with a popular dish: pimientos de Padn. They’re smallish green peppers which taste wonderful fried in smoking olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. However, their fame rests on the fact that occasionally one is fiery hot – and you can never tell which one is going to explode in your mouth! I was really chuffed with those.


The others, alas, are suffering from the rain. There’s another variety of sweet red peppers, some hungarian wax peppers and some fiery red hot chillies. I’m hoping as I type this, and listen to the heavy raindrops on the vine leaves outside the study window, the weather forecast holds true and there are some sunny days ahead. That means we’ll have some more peppers and I can make some roasted chilli oil.


Meanwhile, the Cheeky Charlie saga still continues! We came back from (sunnier) Spain to discover the nice Kiwi couple who looked after our house and animals had caught him (her) and put him with the 4 new hens. Unfortunately, we got to see first hand how horrid chooks are to newcomers. Poor old Charlie was stood on and his neck, always featherless, was bled from being pecked. (It’s dog eat dog in the chicken world, as Richard would say). So I put him back in the old pig pen and made a fine hideaway in the field to encourage him to stay and not jump out and into the brambles. This did not work. He wasn’t interested in the brambles anymore, he wanted to be out and about.

charlieSo right now he’s in the third, spare hen field, next to both sets of hens for company but protected from them. He still jumps out at night into the 4 hens patch (while, they’re tucked away) but he seems ‘happy’ in his new field which has plenty of brambles growing through and plants for coverage. I have no idea why I spend so much time fretting about him when he should have been killed and with his old mates in the freezer. There’s something about his audaciousness and pluck (ha ha) which was lacking in the other ‘roasties’. I’m sure we’ll have Cheeky Charlie chicken casserole one day…

Bits and bobs

Bits and bobs


All our visitors have now come and gone, along with the sun. It was on with waterproof hat, coat, trousers and boots for the dogs’ morning walk and a muttering of “it’s good for the garden”. Apparently it’s a mast year in the UK which means that the forest trees are producing a lot more fruits and nuts than usual. Well, I don’t know if it’s the same here but I have noticed an abundance of acorns and berries. The wild boar are here again snuffling for roots and fallen nuts, they’ll be happy.


The olives are plump and plentiful too, a far cry for the pathetic crop last year. Somehow it’s got a lot greener quicker this autumn and (foolishly, I know) I found myself looking for signs of the first orchids only to remember it’s autumn not spring! The mild weather has added to the springlike quality I suppose, and the sheep and goats are back in the meadows.

Meanwhile there’s been (and still are) a hundred and one things to keep us busy here (and my father, too!) Jobs include mending, mulching, harvesting, drying, preserving, pruning and transplanting. Not to mention weeding. One task was preparing the fields and coops for new chooks. We feel more farmlike now with two more sets. Our original three hens (four until the mongoose saga) laid very few eggs over the summer as usual (they really hate the heat) but are now very slow to get back on track. We’ve had them three years now and so decided it was time to get reinforcements. Four new weeny cheepy bundles of fluff and feathers have arrived (and yes you three you have a right to look nervous!) along with 12 ‘roasties’ who are plumping up nicely already, thank you.


Sadly the slugs are in abundance too. Never have I seen so many at night (it’s impossible not to stand on them) and the little beggers are still around during the day. Monty Don writes “In one experiment 27,500 slugs were taken from one small garden without a noticeable difference to slug activity. Densities of 200 slugs per square metre are moderate”.  The lettuces are now protected by plastic bottles (although some weren’t rescued in time) but I see they have headed towards the later planting of leeks… Twelve strawberry plants were taken from runners in the summer and planted in new beds. They looked great but now look very sorry for themselves. I thought it was just the transplanting but fear now they have verticillium  wilt which means I now have to dig them all up 🙁


One success story has been the kale. A bed was put aside for them outside the watering system just to see “how they got on”. They did look rather sorry for themselves in the summer swelter so were given a watering can or two. But yes, now the rain is here they have picked up and huge leaves have grown seemingly overnight and they are flourishing. Good news for the chickens and perhaps some caldo verde for us for lunch.


The fine weather is set to return. No more barbecues methinks but walks in the autumn woods and puddles is something to look forward to. Fingers crossed.

Olive disaster!

Olive disaster!

There are no two ways about it – this year’s olive harvest has been by far our worst since we’ve been here. I think the main problem is the rain that we have had. It must have knocked most of the olives off. Also, although many of our neighbours are still harvesting now, I can’t help but think that we have been too late and should have picked them weeks ago. Alas, this wasn’t possible as I was in the UK.

Anyway, earlier this week, we took advantage of some dry weather and picked what we had. It took us just as long as usual, as we did the same amount of trees – they just had fewer olives on them. After three days we only had just over three barrels (about 80kgs) to show for our hard work. This was about half of what we got last year which in itself wasn’t a great year. More bad news was to come when I went to the lagar (cooperative olive press). If you have a ‘normal’ amount you can see your olives through the press and out the other side as oil. However for small amounts it is not worth their while to do it separately, so they just weigh what you’ve got and give you an equivalent amount of their own oil. So, I knew I would have to swap it but when the bloke only offered me six litres, it was disappointing to say the least. I bought another four litres from them and as we still have plenty from last year, that should see us through the year.

One harvest which should be better is the oranges. There are plenty of them and they are already turning orange. No shortage of marmalade then.

Meanwhile with all the rain and a bit of sun, the grass has shot up – yes, it’s time to fire up the strimmer again. Because of last year’s drought, I think I only cut the grass once last Autumn. With more rain this year I think I am going to be very busy. Betty was disappearing in the long grass but now it’s done it looks great. Just as well I did it today as there is more rain forecast this weekend.

There has also been better news with the big hairy one. She was really ill just a week or so ago and even had to stay overnight at the vets attached to a drip. However, she has made an amazing recovery and here she is to prove it.

Of course Betty is still up to her usual tricks – she often disappears for hours on her own but also likes nothing better than her regular walk on the lead!

among the vines

… and the hens are also fine. We have now put them in the pig field and they are enjoying the fresh grass.

Blind Betty and Brownie
Invasion of the bee-eating hornets!

Invasion of the bee-eating hornets!

OK, not quite an invasion, but the other day while I was inspecting the hives, I noticed a large wasp and while I was watching, it swooped down and snatched one of my little ladies from outside the hive! I later found out that it was a large European hornet which is carnivorous and eats many insects including bees. I’ve only seen one so far and it is hardly decimating the colony (apparently up to 1000 bees can die per day at some times of the year!) and I’m hoping that it will disappear for winter. I didn’t get a photo of the snatch but here he is waiting for an opportunity and here are some bees returning home. You can see one of them with her little suitcases full of orange pollen. So they are still building up stores.

European hornet and honey bees

In better news when I opened up the hives, the ‘weedy’ bees seem finally to have made a fair amount of honey and the hard-working bees which produced all of this year’s honey crop have almost refilled all their frames! I could therefore take some more honey but as we’ve got enough and I want to make sure they have enough for winter, I’ll let them bee.

With the bees still collecting pollen you might suspect that it is still warm and sunny here (like October last year). Not at all. We’ve had a fair amount of rain and it’s been cold enough at night to have the wood buring stove on. And it has led to a reappearance of mushrooms after the absence of last year.

We have plenty of poisonous Jack O’lanterns around the base of the olive trees but also we’ve managed to pick quite a few field mushrooms. Together with our free range eggs, and home produced bacon (Yes!), we can have winter fry-ups – just the job!

Jack O’lanterns
edible mushrooms and walnuts

One harvest which hasn’t been so good is the walnuts. However, it has to be said, there are more than enough for the two hairy ones, who love them and have no problem cracking the nuts with their teeth.

Now autumn has arrived with a bang a few typical seasonal photos:

return of grass!
November newsround

November newsround

A mild, if not rather wet, autumn so far. Everything’s getter greener and taller, a bit like spring really without the flowers. Some evenings there has been a beautiful light and pink or yellowy grey clouds depending if it’s going to be sunny or rainy the next day. Richard’s away in the Isle of Man so I’m here defending the fort, or rather the farm, alone. Meanwhile, here’s a round up of casa azul news.

Veg etc
I have to admit to being a rather fairweather gardener, although I don’t mind digging in the frost on a cold but sunny day I really don’t like working in the wet – who does? So I’ve only just pulled up and cleared the last of the tom beds, this included removing the nasturtiums which we’re growing well but I’ve now got masses of enormous nasturtium buds which will be turned into poor man’s capers. The asparagus have turned a beautiful bronzey yellow, these are soon to be cut back and mulched along with the raspberries.

In the polytunnel there are lots of wild flowers coming up (from seed collected throughout the year) plus yet more edibles – mainly brassicas. These will go in soon, and tomorrow more onions are being planted and, at long last, I’ve got the garlic.

I’ve also got plenty of rocket growing, this has just never worked in the heat so it’s fingers crossed for a winter attempt. Lettuce seems to thrive in the cold, and isn’t affected by the frost, so I’m hoping rocket will too.

Elsewhere in the garden mushrooms are supplementing our diet. I don’t know if you read the account of Nicholas Evans and his mushroom fiasco in the guardian but it makes fascinating and sobering reading.

The ones on the left have opened and are now huge, tempting grub but am definitely sticking to the field mushrooms.

I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck but last year the sprouts grew without any bother, I hardly did anything with them. This year, alas, they’ve been plagued with grey aphids and some of the heads didn’t open properly, and a few of the stalks are massive with enormous leaves but few sprouts. I also spotted the other day that one of the stalks was completely inundated with caterpillars – how come I never saw them before? I counted at least 30 chomping caterpillars, and the one on the left was found the french tarragon.

So what to do with a box of bugs? The hens love snails and giant slugs so decided it would be an early Christmas present…

The chickens
The hens aren’t quite up to their full laying capacity, 2 or 3 a day but that’s fine. They’re slightly sulking now because our plan to keep them off the growing grass, well weeds, is working well and their plot (which looks like something from the WW1)  is surrounded by green. Once the roasties are dispatched the hens will go over there, and their mud bath of a plot can have a chance to regrow.

Along with the fact they they realise that the grass is greener on the other side one of them is moulting and looks very funny without a tail.

So I was hoping that my gift of grubs would cheer them up. I tossed the caterpillars on the ground, the hens came dashing forward and then stopped in their tracks and squawked loudly. They eyed the crawling mass with trepidation and then, with beaks in the air, walked off. They weren’t interested at all! I covered the caterpillars with corn but the hens simply ate the corn and left the caterpillars. As these were all now gallivanting off in different directions I ended up having to stand on them all. So much for good intentions. At least the lettuce and purple sprouting broccoli leaves keeps them happy.

Meanwhile the roasties have been let out and are enjoying the grass and opportunity to stretch their wings. They are the biggest, fattest birds I have ever seen and Richard’s number one task on returning is to sharpen the knife. I swear when they walk the earth trembles.

The wild boar
One of the nice things about being in the countryside of course is that we are surrounded by nature. In this part of Portugal that includes the javali – wild boar. Up until recently I have enjoyed the fact that they come to the neighbours’ fields but now the beggars have trotted into our garden. Before Richard left we were given loads of prickly pears and agaves to plant in our garden and I wasn’t best pleased to see that most of these had either been knocked over, dug up (some dragged into bushes), and, it seems, eaten. After the second visit I’ve had to block the entrances to our garden with cut down olive branches, a temporary measure. Richard’s number two task on returning is to get the saw and hammer out.

Before and after replanting, can you see the teeth marks?!

So that’s it for now. The bees are still buzzing, I think they were disappointed that the nasturtiums were cut down. And, of course, I’m not really alone. The hairy one continues to prove she’s Portuguese, having eaten many of the olives she delights in munching walnuts and looks longingly at the roasting chestnuts on the fire. Which reminds me, time to get the wood burning stove going and have a glass of something. Cheers!

It ain’t half hot, mum!

It ain’t half hot, mum!

It’s 31 in the shade. The wind turbines are at a standstill, helicopters on the look out for fires drone overhead and this morning’s start on the olive harvest has come to a stop. The grass, what there is of it, has blanched white and turned to dust; the red soil is rock hard.

Meanwhile the roasties are never too far away from their water. They are surprisingly perky in the morning, battering down the hatch in the morning to dive into the food. But come the heat of the afternoon they collapse in a white, feathered heap. The hens are suffering too and are on strike: we’ve hardly had any eggs recently. I’ve been giving them a ‘shower’ these last few days (from the watering can!) but still they’re not laying .

Meanwhile Gordy Gordo is still getting plenty of exercise. We went to a river beach the other day though for her to have a swim – and there wasn’t enough water! Which means that still, every evening, we have to water the veg patch, fruit shrubs and trees. The irrigation system that Richard set up is wonderful but the shrubs and trees we do by hand.

The plants in the veg patch seem to be surviving despite the heat though and we continue to get tomatoes, courgettes and peppers. We’re also eating sprouts, leeks and chard. The seedling cabbage, cauliflower and calabrese are holding up, the turnips and swede are going strong as are the peas and broad beans (flowering!) but the carrots and parsnips sown in September are just not showing – nothing at all.  I’m pleased that the soil in the beds is good, the manure / compost regularly applied has meant that it retains moisture well and is a far cry for the stuff we started with two years ago. So here’s to cooler climes ahead and a bumper winter harvest.