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The big freeze

The big freeze

It has been cold. Finger-numbing, shoulder-hunching, teeth-chatteringly cold. Freezing cold. We have woken up (it seems like for weeks) to heavy frosts and winter wonderlands. One night we recorded a minimum of -6.3C, now that is cold!  Many of the garden plants are now wrapped in plastic bags, fleece or bubble wrap. There will be some trepidation when they are unwrapped to see how they have survived.

The first victims have been the prickly pears. Every morning they have drooped lower and lower, and their recovery less noticeable. Alas, some have now snapped although this just means replanting the fallen leaves, and we’ll have a lot more come the summer.

The pond has regularly turned to ice and its plants blackened. We did remember to make sure that it was full before the big freeze came, somehow the leaves of the lilies and water hyacinths suffer more by being exposed to the frost rather than being frozen in the water.

This little, actually rather large, salamander was caught with its mate during a clear up. I do hope they, and the resident frogs, will be okay come the spring.

We have also been making sure there is plenty of extra seed for the garden birds, the usual suspects come and work their way through vast quantities every day.

One bitterly cold morning a little robin was completely still in the courtyard, almost like it had been frozen to the ground. I was able to gently pick it up and place it in a nest we’d kept. The next time I looked it had flown away.

Along with a certain beauty the cold has, there is also the reward of clear blue skies and sunny days. When the wind drops it’s still warm enough to eat outside for lunch, and has meant there is no excuse for not tackling the winter jobs. Pruning continues with the plane tree having its annual pollarding, the vines all being cut back and the willow too being pruned.

Like the summer afternoons, when the temperatures go well over 40, the veg patch has been a sorry sight these winter mornings. At first the broad beans would have collapsed and then bravely ‘pulled themselves together’ come mid-day but now most of them lay on the ground in a sorry state. The smaller ones planted later seem okay but we’ll be lucky to have another bumper crop.

Having said that we, amazingly, have had loads of broccoli and tonight we’re having the first of the cauliflowers. Somehow the leaves have provided enough protection, full marks to them.

We’ve also just had the last of the Jerusalem artichokes, the ones the voles kindly left for us, and there are still some leeks to be had. We’ve just had the first of our beetroots too, so really we can’t complain!

And with a roaring fire every evening the dogs aren’t complaining either. There is also some welcome rain on the horizon too; it seems incredible that we have actually watered some of the plants and smaller shrubs, in January! Let’s see if I can finish knitting that jumper for Richard before it’s no longer needed…



He shot me down, bang, bang.

He shot me down, bang, bang.


One word sums up this winter, our 7th here (that can’t be right, can it?!) and that’s mild. We’ve had the rain, and quite a lot of that, but not the torrential downpours and storms from previous years. We’ve had frosts, but nothing like last year. And we’ve had the sunshine of course, but not the endless days of sunshine (and the resulting drought) as in 2012. This year the low growing narcissus bulbicodium seem to have thrived and meadows are full of their colour, a host of golden daffodils indeed. We’ve also had hailstones:


Brrr, and to think we’ve had winter barbecues some years. No thanks. But spring is around the corner, temperatures are set to go well into double figures and the lush green countryside will soon be sparkling with the jewels of all the wild flowers, can’t wait.

And not only will winter end, but the hunting season too. I would say that, overall, hunting has been less evident this year than previous ones. Betty did get caught in a javali trap (she has learnt to wait patiently as the wire is loosened from around her waist) and one Sunday the sound of shots seemed to come from all directions but we haven’t met the packs of dogs, or too many hunters really this year. We were on a walk one day, however, strolling through the woodland, when we met one guy, camouflaged fromhunting top to bottom with his shotgun slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, also looking out for the birds. Hmmm.

And it’s sad to see the empty cartridges littering the footpaths. The one consolation I get is that there are hunters because there are things to be hunted. We have javali (wild boar), deer, mongoose, foxes, weasels, partridges and millions of rabbits. The hedgerows are alive with birds. This is all because the countryside here is perfect for wildlife, they thrive here. Back in the UK farmers are encouraged to leave land uncultivated so that some of the natural habitat can return and so too the wildlife; the loss of land to development or agriculture is directly linked to the loss of flora and fauna. I also suspect that the birds of prey, the buzzards, red kites, falcons, hawks and owls all eat many more birds than the hunters here shoot.


So hurrah for the Portuguese countryside and its creatures, great and small.


Happy solstice and all that stuff!

Happy solstice and all that stuff!

Screen shot 2015-12-22 at 09.38.37As we are both a bit Bah, humbug! about Christmas we like to celebrate the solstice, especially as here we are so much more aware of the sun and her powers. That the days will slowly lengthen lifts our spirits although a sun filled winter so far means we have been far from gloomy. And once again the 21st was a warm, bright day, a nice one to share with friends.

As always it was a home made affair starting with the fruit infused vodka. We had to have one of our chickens of course as Richard has now killed all 14 of the last lot of roasties (although we had a mini ‘cheeky charlie‘ saga as the last one escaped and spent the night in the bramble bushes) so chicken liver pâté was followed by chicken and leek pies. The tree was also a joint effort, Richard dismantling and cutting up an old pallet and me re assembling it into some kind of arboreal shape. Festooned with flashing lights, knitted trees and tinsel it’s certainly something different!

The main activity in the veg patch has been the endless digging over the beds. I’ve been determined to make them as weed free as possible over the winter and then to mulch them so that, come the spring, I’m not doing it all again. So a variety of organic mulches have been used: straw, grass cuttings, cardboard and newspaper as well as our own compost of course. It’s been quite a tiring task (and my back is suffering as a result) but I’m really hoping they’ll be less weedy (ha!), more enriched and better prepared for the scorching summer ahead. There is one main job to be done and that’s sowing the garlic but that, as they say, is for another day.


So it’s just left for us to wish all our readers a happy festive season and of course a peaceful 2016.


Plant of the year award 2014

Plant of the year award 2014


Mr Jack Frost has been nipping at our noses for long enough. Pretty the mornings may be but the constant sub-zero temperatures are giving many of the plants a hard time. The bougainvillea, flowering not so long ago, has black, shrivelled leaves. The lavender tips are drooping. The cactus plants don’t seem to be the right colour any more. So enough, no more! (I’ve just glanced at the weather forecast, looks like he’ll be around for a tad longer).


The chickens seem nonplussed, giving us 3 or 4 eggs a day. Huddled together in their hut at night their feathers keep them snug, it’s the high temperatures they dislike. Topping up their feed and cracking open their water leaves my fingers numb. The other day I realised I’d left my wellies outside the front door all night, frozen feet in an instant!

There is always a silver lining. Cloudless days have also meant lunch outside, walks on the beach and gardening in the sunshine.


Which has got me thinking about the plant of the year award (I know many of you are waiting with baited breath 🙂 !) The garlic call out to be nominated. This year, or rather last year, I didn’t buy any new bulbs but planted the ones which were beginning to sprout from those pulled up early summer. I’d planted loads, some were hung up to dry and others (I must remember) were frozen. We’ll be having them for some time yet. So 78 of the 80 planted are well up and good candidates they certainly are but I’d already chosen leeks for 2012, (you can find out why here) and I didn’t want another member of the alium family.

redcurrantsThe buttercup squash also wanted the award, we have three left from a good crop, doing well despite the wet weather 2014 threw at us. But as I was pruning the redcurrants, black currants and gooseberries (good with mackerel!) I was reminded of how well they all did over the summer. The raspberries, now either cut down or tied up depending if autumn or summer varieties, also did well. They have spread and given us extra beds for free. The strawberries were large and luscious. We still have bags of most of them in the freezer (I must remember) including blackberries. So the award goes to the soft fruit. You need a little patience but once established it’s only a touch of pruning and mulching to keep them going. And what is nicer than eating raspberries straight from the bush?

sloeginI think the sloes are also included in this category (I know blackthorn is a member of the plum family but it’s a shrub rather than a tree) so will toast the fruit with a glass of our pink sloe gin. Cheers!

The birds, the birds… and foxy

The birds, the birds… and foxy

The birds 1 First up the chooks. Well, we are really pleased that at least one of the new hens we bought back in September is now laying. Not the biggest of eggs but small and perfectly formed. The remaining hens (now called the old hens) are trying to make amends for their past poor performance and recently we’ve had 3 eggs a day from them.


They’re a little miffed at the mo. The new hens have been taken from their original patch and put in a new one, full of luscious green grass. The old ones are left to dig around in the dirt having eaten every blade and scratched up every root.

The birds 2 January is always a good month for bird watching from our living room windows. It’s not uncommon to see 15 different kinds of birds at one time, mostly the various finches on and under the feeder, but also warblers, pipits and wrens. For some reason the tits have turned their beaks up at the fat balls we put out but the great tits are happy with the seed.


A first for us here at Casa Azul was a short-toed tree creeper doing it’s thing around the olive trunks. And we were really surprised to see a hoopoe preening itself in the plum trees, they’re summer visitors and shouldn’t be here until April.

Foxy We treated ourselves recently to a wildlife camera, one of those that takes photos and videos when something walks past. I’d chosen what I thought was a good spot, opposite some kind of underground nest, but nothing. So after a few weeks chose a different spot where it looked like animals had passed. Success! One night the shot of a passing tail and then a short film of a curious fox. Just keep away from the chooks, foxy!


Light at the end of the tunnel?

Light at the end of the tunnel?

I think we were softened up by the winter of 2011/2012 which was a series of warm sunny days followed by clear frosty nights. Last year was rain, rain, rain and this winter has been more of the same. However, I can’t complain too much because this is the opening paragraph from last year’s blog: “I know January is only two thirds over but we’ve had enough already! Although not as bad as the UK, we’ve had rain, rain, rain, culminating in storms this weekend which knocked the power and water out for three days. And there are more thunderstorms to come.” So not quite so bad this year – up till now! However there are plenty more similarities between this year and last:

For instance enjoying a day at the beach under a glorious blue sky.


However, this year Jussi is wearing the big plastic collar – her ears are playing up and she has managed to cut the outside of one by scratching it. Remember this time last year Betty had the big collar to stop her licking a huge wound caused by a wild boar trap! This year she’s decided to take it easy:

Betty sunning herself on the bench
Betty sunning herself on the bench

However she does enjoy “playing” with the local cats.


And the daffs are coming out again, as they did last January. There is no mention of oranges last year, but I’m sure we had plenty. This year there don’t seem to be as many but they are whoppers! Grapefruit size and delicious. One new thing, and something I’ve wanted to do for ages is to get rid of the ivy around a walnut tree. When we arrived (4½ years ago!) I managed to get the ivy off most of the olive trees and what a job that was. Many of the ivy stems were thicker than my leg and tightly wrapped round the trunks. Anyway, this year I finally got round to this walnut. Here it is in all its glorious nakedness.


In one of the last posts of 2013, I mentioned that we had started work on the rockery. Well, it’s pretty much done. Not so much of a rockery now, more a bed, but we will be planting some flowers and a few more herbaceous perennials when the last of the frosts has gone.


Lets hope the similarities continue as we had a great 2013 and here’s to an early spring!



Why the question mark? Well it definitely is winter, with our first frosts and temps going well below freezing. But as you can see from the thermometer in the polytunnel, crazily it has still got into the 30s during the day and we’ve had some cracking sunny days: Lunches al fresco and runarounds on the beach.

polytunnel thermometer
polytunnel thermometer

First thing in the morning, it’s a Christmas scene.



But we still have quite a few flowers. Above are chrysanthemums and below, one of many roses.


The sudden sharp frost that we had yesterday meant that finally the Plane tree in the courtyard has started to lose its leaves.


But the days are still sunny and warm and perfect for a runaround on the beach followed by lunch at one of our favourite beach side restaurants.


jussibeachMeanwhile, back at the house a project which I have wanted to get going for ages has lurched into action. By the threshing square is a pile of rubble, rather grandly termed ‘the rockery’ although all that grows there are a few hardy weeds. Well this winter I intend to get it sorted. At least I’ve made a start…

'the rockery'
‘the rockery’
stage 1 - clear out some of the rubble
stage 1 – clear out some of the rubble

Betty is supervising. In her own way.


As we know this is when she is at her sweetest – when she’s asleep. When she’s awake she gets up to all sorts. One day last week during a walk, she managed to grab a wild bird. It was something like a grouse but as she refused to come anywhere near with it (hence the blurry photo taken from distance), we can only speculate. It is now buried somewhere for future retrieval no doubt!


Winter wild flowers

Winter wild flowers

From giant to lesser to the unnamed, the wild flowers are slowly but surely appearing. Each year I say we should have a photo collection of all the flowers in and around our garden, I started something last summer but am determined to try harder this year. After months of flowerlessness (?!) it’s great to see some colour at last. We’ve already mentioned the chamomile but here are some more plants that have recently appeared.













Two get a special mention: the giant orchid and linaria amethystea. The former you can’t miss, it’s big and brash and is the first of the orchids. The latter is a wee thing that you can easily miss, tiny compared to the daisies, but have a closer look; it’s just beautiful. It doesn’t seem to have a common name so I’m calling it the galega toadflax. And we’re really pleased that we have found this great site for Portuguese flowers. It tells you what you can see in each region, and there’s loads of photos and information about the individual plants.

blackthornThere’s been a competition between the blossom in the garden as well. In the end the blackthorn won and now the spiky bushes are covered white, it almost looks snowlike. Second was our new almond tree but the ornamental cherry and apricot have a few flowers on now too. We made some sloe gin from the blackthorn last year (which slips down a treat in front of the roaring fire) so we’re hoping for a bumper crop this time.

And talking of booze and blossom I have now, at long last, bottled the elderflower wine that has been sitting silently in the pantry – since last May! I was pleased that it had cleared and has the most delicate of colours (Richard: pale pee), and in fact it didn’t taste too bad – it actually tasted of wine! (Which is more than can be said for the quince effort). Really looking forward to sipping that when the warmer weather eventually gets here.

Meanwhile, on with the wellies and waterproofs…

A January to forget

A January to forget

I know January is only two thirds over but we’ve had enough already! Although not as bad as the UK, we’ve had rain, rain, rain, culminating in storms this weekend which knocked the power and water out for three days. And there are more thunderstorms to come. Every cloud has a silver lining and I think we were lucky to escape much of the damage. We had an olive tree fatality and a tile off the roof but the polytunnel and the shed survived (thanks to a high quality build I reckon!) and the well is now full to the brim. And our chest freezers full of pork managed to avoid defrosting.

The local bus stop was not made of sterner stuff however…

ex local bus stop
ex local bus stop

However, our bees have once again absconded. They disappeared this time last year and it is just as perplexing this time around. Last week they were still out and about collecting pollen ( I posted photos here) and there is plenty of pollen and honey in the now empty hives. We think that living in rural Portugal we have ‘got away from it all’ but I guess even here we cannot escape man’s degradation of our natural resources. They are saying that the honey bees abscond because of pesticides and I have to say that the locals seem to use them indiscriminately here. Perhaps that is the cause, we just don’t know.

We also had a bit of a shock with Betty. Previously known as Lucky – as she was saved as a puppy wandering lost in the forest, she was very well named. She certainly has a wild spirit about her as she likes nothing better than to tear off out of the garden chasing after goodness knows what, only to come back three or four hours later covered in goodness knows what! However, she always comes back, eventually. Even if it is three in the morning when she announces her return by howling outside our bedroom window. This time was different. After she had been gone for two days we thought the worst. However, on the third day there was a scratching at the door. She was filthy and half starved but of more concern was a huge gash around her stomach. We think she had been caught in a javeli ( wild boar) trap, which is made of thin wire. We cleaned her up as best we could and took her to the vet. Suffice it to say, after a coarse of antibiotics (intravenously administered by our good selves!) and some tlc, she is already back to her worst.


Despite all the doom and gloom it’s not all bad. After all, during our electric-free nights, I managed to beat Jackie at scrabble and cribbage and we have our first daffodils of the year – in fact they’ve been in flower for over a week, as well as a clutch of pretty crocuses.

Plant of the year award

Plant of the year award

Rain, frost, wind and thick morning mists – the winter is well and truly here. All the leaves have fallen off the plane tree in the courtyard, the less hardy potted plants are in the barn or polytunnel and little is being done in the way of gardening although a number of (rainless) days have been spent weeding and composting the beds. We still can’t get over how green it is compared to last year but the downpours have seen to that. They’ve also brought out the snails and slugs that they slither towards the baby turnips and swedes. One evening spent collecting the little blighters in a bucket was enough to fork out on some horticultural fleece which is certainly doing the trick.

fleeceThe veg patch is actually looking quite good at the moment, with most of the beds full or covered in compost. We’re still eating our own potatoes, the colourful chard is going strong and at last some sprouts have formed. Plus the calabrese and cauliflower are ready now too so there’s more variety on our plates at the mo.

But as I walk down the beds in the winter sunshine there’s one plant that beats them all, yes the humble leek is crowned queen of the veg patch. There’s lots of reasons why: firstly, I’ve been growing them from seed for three years now and they’ve never failed. Every little leeklet grows, some bigger than others, but grow they do. Secondly, they take very little looking after. They need watering and weeding but that’s it – no pests to worry about, no supports, no pruning… Thirdly, they stay in the ground for as long as you need them. No need to worry that they’ll be past their best if not pulled out in time, so no storage problems either. In addition they’ll happily put up with whatever the winter throws at them. Plus they’ll reproduce from their own seed so no need to buy any more seed packets. Next year is the first time I’ll be trying this, I have a couple of dried flower heads from some plants left in the ground over the summer so with luck they’ll germinate in the spring. So all in all a fuss free, hardy, reliable cropper. Oh, and they taste good too of course! Long live the leek!