Lessons Learnt

As the excitement of our first olive harvest took its place in our ever growing list of Portuguese memories, we quickly found ourselves settling back into our daily lives, sometime predictable but never boring.

I was lucky enough to manage a quick trip back to the UK to spend time with family. Unfortunately, the coronavirus had produced a new variant, Omicron, days before my trip so I was unable to venture very far. On the plus side, I did manage to spend a lot of time with my grandson, Rupert which was an absolute delight and reminded me so much of when his Mum was a baby.

The rains came whilst I was away and Mark was determined not to experience the leaky lifeboat situation we had last year when we constantly had buckets dotted around the annexe to catch the drips. He invested in a rather large raincoat (aka tarpaulin) and fastened this completely over the annexe roof and around the chimney. Not a pretty sight but certainly effective. Another reason why we are looking forward to the day when we move into the longhouse and enjoy a few home comforts including a brand new lovely and dry roof.

Christmas came un-heralded and went again just as quickly. We enjoyed our traditional wreath making, cutting pine and olive branches from around the Quinta, adding fir cones and sliced oranges as decorations and just a little ribbon to finish them off.

We hung ours on the gate and made a couple of extras to give to friends and family.

Christmas day was spent catching up with family and friends on video calls along with a hearty dinner and a walk with Wanda to wake us up. We gave ourselves a day off on Boxing Day and then it was back to business.

Our mornings start around 7am with an obligatory coffee to wake us up closely followed by the now familiar procession of orange buckets being carried from the boiler in the longhouse down to the bathroom outside the annexe.

Wanda has always loved her morning walks around the plot – even more so these days as she has decided that she is partial to a bit of orange. We carry a couple of empty buckets down to the orange grove while Wanda trots along beside us enjoying a bit of ball throwing as we go. When we get to the orange trees, we put the buckets down on the ground and start collecting the windfalls. One bucket for spoilt fruit and one for the oranges to be juiced. After the amount of wasted fruit last year we are keen to use as much as possible and now have a freezer full of frozen juice stockpiled for the summer months that we will be able to share with friends and family when the trees are bare. Seeing us put the buckets underneath the trees is Wanda’s signal to spit out her balls and wait for her breakfast.

At this early hour, it is so peaceful standing and listening to the countryside around us as it starts to wake up. The morning birdsong, the sheep bleating in the field opposite as the farmer arrives to feed them and the church bells in the nearby villages chiming out every half hour. I’m not sure if it is because we are in the valley, or if it is because the church steeples are so tall but the sound of the bells can be heard for miles around. We can actually hear three different bells on our little Quinta so you would be excused for thinking that we have no reason for always being late!!

By 7.30am the sun already has some warmth in its rays. We stand beside the little brook with our buckets at our feet, peeling our breakfast and sharing it out between the three of us.

I can’t think of a better way to get our daily supplement of vitamin C.

Mark is still busy with the long house renovations and the bathroom in particular seems to be causing him some problems. He calls it his Nemesis!

The bathroom was originally done as a fake bathroom to obtain the habitation documentation. It was all set up but needed to be taken out and re-configured so that it could be functional. The waste pipes needed some careful consideration regarding siting as we wanted to save the grey water and re-purpose it for irrigation. There is a large well near to the bathroom so Mark created a channel from the outside wall to the well and installed the pipe. The number of roots growing across the driveway were a problem and took some digging out but eventually we got there.

Moving in to the bathroom itself and tiling the floor, walls and sides of the bath was in Mark’s words a nightmare as none of the walls were straight or level. In fact, the level of adhesive needed ranged from very minimal to extremely significant. The shower and bath were sited ok, but as the boiler is quite some distance away it takes some time to get the hot water through to that end of the building. The plan is to relocate the gas boiler to speed this up. On the plus side, once the hot water has come through, we can have a lovely piping hot bath with not a bucket in sight.

Despite the challenges the bathroom was eventually signed off and we now have completed 5 areas of the long house.

Unpacking our furniture and memories from out of storage was like being re-united with a long-lost friends. It was great being able to experiment where we wanted things to be and well worth the wait.

We still need the log burner installing in the snug so for now, as the nights are chilly, we are still living in the annexe, but our rooms are ready and waiting for us.

My days generally start out the same way – cleaning the annexe and the bathroom, setting the fire ready for the evening, prepping the evening meal and often making bread. I love baking, usually making old-fashioned cakes and pastries. The smell of freshly made bread reminds me of my childhood growing up in the butchers shop. We had a bakery attached to the shop which had coal fired ovens and huge mixers sporting enormous dough hooks. I loved helping out and can clearly remember amongst others the long lines of apples pies, Bakewell tarts, meat pies and sausage rolls cooling on the worktops.

Learning to bake with my Mum was a great experience and I still use the techniques and recipes that I learnt way back then. She was well known for her take on the humble pork pie, adding toppings such as cranberries, apples and caramelised onion, my only regret being that I never wrote her recipes down.

Once I’ve finished with the indoor stuff, I can turn my attention to outdoors, to the land and in particular at the moment, the vegetable garden.

It was so lovely last year to be able to pick our own food, so I’m keen to crack on with choosing which seeds to sow and taking the first step this year in growing our own fruit and vegetables. We always said that the first year was going to be one of learning, and I have been given lots of lessons over the course of the past 12 months courtesy of Mother Nature, Matthew Pottage (RHS Wisley), Mark’s Dad and good old Google.

In fact, Mark’s Dad has been my biggest source of encouragement. I always appreciated beautiful gardens and the work that went into growing vegetables, but it was Ray who inspired me to have a go myself …. and now here I am growing our own food.

We’ve had some amazing results with harvests lasting over many months. There was a seemingly endless supply of aubergines, courgettes, salads, beans, onions, peas, and chillies to name a few and I was so surprised when we were still picking tomatoes into January. Nothing is packed as full of nutrients and vitamins, or tastes better, than being able to walk outside and pick fruit and fresh vegetables straight from the land. Growing our own food was not only extremely rewarding but also cost effective.

One of the most important things we have learnt related to the quality of our soil. The soil on our quinta is very sandy which doesn’t hold the moisture very well, so we were spending a lot of time watering, often twice a day. Not wanting to use chemicals in the soil, I started reading up on other options and found that one of the most beneficial ways to improve the quality of soil is horse manure.

It is safer than cow, sheep and chicken manure as these can burn plants due to their high heat levels and nitrogen rich elements. Although horse manure does contain nitrogen, it is safe to use as it is mixed in with undigested plant material. This gives the soil the nutrients it needs for healthy plants.

Fortunately, our neighbours, Dave and Julie keep horses and we were over the moon when we were given a ton of horse manure. That’s quite a sizeable amount and we could only just fit it all on the back of our truck. I was surprised at how dry it was and how little it smelt and found out later that it had been left to compost for around 6 months before being mechanically processed to prevent the weeds and seeds from growing in it.

I decided that before doing any planting I would dig the manure into the veggie plot and then leave it for a few weeks to do its job.

There were a couple of areas that still had plants producing fruits so I saved some manure and covered it over with a tarpaulin to use later. After only two months the difference between the soil which has been left untreated and that which has the manure added is so noticeable. The manure has helped bind the other soil particles together and will help support the roots of the plants and hold the moisture during the hotter months. Hopefully, with a bit of thought on where different crops are planted, we should have another successful year.

Although we had plenty of success stories in 2021, there were also some valuable lessons to be learnt.

I discovered just how much sweetcorn loves to be in the direct sunshine realising that half of the crop last year spent the afternoons in the shade. As a result the plants grew in increments, so much so that they didn’t look dis-similar to the Von Trap family. My plan for 2022 is to find a spot where they can grow in full sun and keep them well irrigated.

Another valuable lesson is the need to plant sweetcorn in squares of at least a dozen, instead of long lines so that the pollination is as effective as possible. The male flowers are at the top of the plant and these need to shed their pollen onto the female tassels below. If this isn’t achieved, the results will be a poor crop.

As well as eating plenty of beans and peas last year, we managed to freeze quite a lot to eat in the winter and will try and do the same with the sweetcorn this year.

There’s still so much to try our hand at but for me the thing I have loved the most so far is the pride and satisfaction that we get growing our own food. When we walk in to the veggie plot and pick our fruit and vegetables, when we can feed ourselves with the produce we have grown and still have some to give to friends. It feels good.

The saying goes: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. It’s safe to say, the same goes for growing our own food.

Published by vinhadasalmas

a couple of fifty somethings who want to start a new life in rural Portugal

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