Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Stopping for breath

With daily attention inevitably circling around all that still needs to be done to convert this land into a fully productive, self-sufficient and sustainable source of food and shelter, sometimes it’s good to stop for a breath or two. Stop and glance backwards to see how far we’ve come. Preferably at breakfast time, when there’s fresh strawberries and redcurrants to savour …

Strawberries and redcurrants

This time last year we were just back after our final move from Scotland to find the exuberant growth that accompanies the Spring rains had completely overwhelmed our embryonic vegetable patch and forced us to pretty much start over again. Not so this year. The exuberant growth is there, but this time the vegetables are part of it.

We are just harvesting our first courgettes of the season, a good 6 weeks earlier than last year, along with all manner of lettuces and herbs, Japanese giant mustard greens (which hardly grew last year but are now coming up everywhere), rocket, radishes, perpetual spinach, rainbow chard, strawberries and redcurrants. The asparagus is finished now and has been left to develop leaves.

Courgettes with Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia)

Ripening courgettes with Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia)

The birds beat us to the cherries last week and stripped the two sweet cherry trees before the fruit got to ripen, but it was never going to be the bumper crop of last year anyway. The sour cherries are just coming up to ripe now. So are the peas and mangetout. The potatoes can’t be long away from flowering.

On the hotter house terrace, the amaranth, tomatoes and aubergines are well away, though the melons, peppers and basil have been chlorosed and struggling, victims of too early a planting. Ditto for the cucumbers and the Indian mile-long beans on the yurt terrace, both of which are now starting to recover as average temperatures rise.

The germination rate for the sweetcorn in the three sisters bed was very disappointing. Only 4 plants came up from about 30 seeds sown. I suspect the seed was probably too old. I picked it up at a seed swap event. Wonderful though these occasions are, you never know quite what you’re getting … The sunflowers are doing well though and will stand in (literally) for the sweetcorn to provide support for the climbing beans.

Lettuce and chamomile

Lettuces and chamomile

The hay and straw mulch so far has been a great success. Even though the soil took longer to warm up and the slugs love to hide under it in the heat of the day, it’s already made a big difference to watering frequency, and its growth suppression properties are excellent, meaning that the beds mostly all have just the plants I want growing there growing there. Maintenance work compared to the beds with a green mulch of white clover is much less and a nightly slug patrol is keeping slug damage to an acceptable level.

An added bonus is that the straw contained a lot of wild chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) seeds, so we now have chamomile pathways between all the beds. Chamomile has a reputation as a traditional ‘plant doctor’, reviving and revitalising plants growing near it, and increasing essential oil production in nearby herbs. It also attracts hoverflies and predatory wasps which feed on insect pests. Medicinally, it has antiseptic, antibiotic, disinfectant, bactericidal and vermifugal properties, as well as the anxiolytic effects it’s widely known for. As a perennial, it’s now here to stay. I would never have thought of chamomile pathways between the beds. I love how they’ve just created themselves. It heightens the sense of working with nature as a team, rather than the more conventional sense of a constant battle for control over ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’.

In the hügelbeets, some cana (Arundo donax) started to make an appearance. Lesson: don’t use old cana stalks in your hügelbeets.

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  1. sophie May 28, 2011

    Could be you lost your sweetcorn seeds to voles/mice. Plant them in the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to germinate, then plant the whole thing (tube n all) out when the seedlings are big enough and the seed won’t be so attractive to them (plus it will be in a cardboard tube) :)

  2. Quinta do Vale May 29, 2011

    Except I didn’t want to risk the voles/mice eating the seeds, so I planted them in pots … I think it was old seed!

  3. sophie May 29, 2011

    Yep, sounds like old seed!

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