Ground-Breaking Progress …

Like clockwork, the weeks and the seasons synchronised with each other and the farm continued on with it’s now familiar cycle of life.

Learning from last year’s successes and challenges, we repeated what had worked well for us and tweaked the things which we had found not so good.

We still had some seeds packed away from last year which my sister had bought us as a Christmas gift so we had a head start with our planting. The vegetable plot was weeded and fertilised ready to receive the seedlings and the bamboo that we had harvested and dried from near the water mine was trimmed and cut to size. This came in really useful making a framework for peas, beans and tomatoes.

With the birdsong providing all the background music I could ever need, it’s impossible to have anything but happy thoughts, especially when we can step out and pick our food just feet from our back door. This years onion harvest was a tremendous success and pretty soon we were not only eating our produce but also had plenty to stock up the freezer for using up later on. Mark even got the French onion soup (with home made bread) that he has been hankering after for weeks!

A quick trip into Fundao to buy some potting compost and we were ready to go. I’d hoped to use our own compost that we have been making since we arrived here in Portugal but it didn’t seem to be rotting down as quickly as I thought it would. Every day is a school day and after doing a bit of google research, I realised that I hadn’t given enough thought to the chemistry of composting and had just chucked in whatever waste we had on the farm. So, everything was tipped out and reused with fresh cuttings.

Fortunately our compost bins do not have bottoms so I was able to start the compost off by first laying twigs on the bare earth at the base of the tubs. Then followed layers of the various compost materials alternating with wet and dry. I gathered up some of the grass cuttings to make green manure to provide the bins with a nitrogen source and then popped the lids back on the top. It is important to keep the compost moist so I’ve now got a note on my calendar to add water and more layers each month. With the extremely hot weather we’ve had over the past weeks, it does seem to be accelerating much more quickly, so with a bit of luck we can use it next year.

Most of our plants start their life as a seed although I know some people who prefer to save time and effort by getting plugs from the market or agricultural stores. The seeds were planted in trays and placed in the propagator to wait for them to germinate, although with the hot weather and regular watering, this didn’t take long at all. Within a couple of weeks the seedlings were strong enough to be planted out in the ground and then started our constant challenge of irrigation.

By chance, we happened to bump into a very interesting guy called Nick whilst we were in Castelo Branco waiting for an appointment. After exchanging the usual pleasantries when first meeting someone, our conversation naturally progressed onto what each of us were doing and why Portugal. We talked about farming, about animals, about our little victories and about our challenges. Nick and his wife have created raised vegetable beds made from rotting wood, compost and other materials to help retain moisture. I had heard about this way of growing produce although to be honest hadn’t really looked into it.

We learnt that this method was called Hugelkultur and although being a new concept to us, it was in fact centuries old.

After deciding where the bed is going to be, the first stage involves digging out the good soil and creating a trench which is layered, using rotting wood as its base layer. Pine is a good wood to use which is very handy as we have a lot of pine trees on our land. Then follows several intentionally placed layers of mulch, straw, grass clippings, old compost and manure and finally the soil being placed back on the top.

Hugelkultur is becoming increasingly popular right around the world and for good reasons. It creates a self-fertilising garden using the nutrients in the cuttings and rotting wood, retaining moisture and slowly feeding it back to the vegetables planted. This was music to my ears as during the hottest periods we must spend around 3 hours each day using our well water to irrigate. We’ve decided that next spring, starting small that we are going to build a Hugelkultur raised bed on our veggie plot and see how we get on.

Meanwhile, while I was busy working on the land, Mark was busy working on the house and was turning his focus towards the kitchen. First up was creating an opening into the courtyard which will finally link the longhouse to the barn conversion. Once this had been made it was great to feel the breeze from the cross ventilation and see just how much more light was introduced into the area.

One of our biggest concerns since day one has been the uncertainty of the floor in that area as it has often shown signs of damp and condensation. The only thing to do was to get the floor up and have a look.

The part of the house where we are planning to add the kitchen is actually an extension to the original granite building. It would make perfect sense to build a house next to a water source so we did wonder if we might uncover a well when taking the floor up. We didn’t find a well, but found instead the layers consisted of an inch layer of concrete, a 2 inch layer of pea gravel and then a mix of concrete and granite. No damp course and no vapour barrier. The floor level was not at the same level as the adjoining dining room so it had to come up anyway and we decided to go to town with the insulation of the floor before laying a new one.

Our neighbour Dave came to help Mark remove some of the floor which was a great help, and a few weeks later, Mark’s brother stayed with us whilst doing a road trip around Europe and offered to do the same. Tony had brought his dog along for the ride so we took time out to make sure they saw some of central Portugal while they were here visiting Lourical do Campo, Fundao, Monsanto and a couple of the bars in the village !

Finally the floor was up and it could be levelled off ready for the concrete to be laid.

The temperature outside was on the up so we knew that we had to crack on with getting the concrete down.

When Raphael from Ecositana was visiting us one day, Mark had picked his brains about the new kitchen floor and he very generously gave us some silver insulation to lay under the membrane. This would help combat the issue with damp and I was amazed to hear that it was the equivalent of 5cm of rockwool!

Dave was back to help with getting the floor down and he mixed and barrowed the concrete to the kitchen whilst Mark laid it. A temporary shaded area was created using tarpaulin and fence panels to keep at least some of the sun off Dave as he mixed but it was extremely hot both inside and out. My job was to try and keep them both hydrated, supplying them with water and ice-cold neckerchiefs.

By mid-afternoon, we all agreed that we had made ground-breaking progress. The floor was down and it would appear that we had completed just in time as within the next few days we all tested positive to Covid and felt pretty rubbish, although I would imagine that ours would be classed as mild symptoms.

Although the long house is still only partially complete, we now have a bedroom, bathroom, snug and dining room and felt that we were now in a position to welcome family and friends to see and share what we have been up to. First to visit over Easter was Amy, Adam and Rupert.

We had a fantastic time together with Rupert taking a particular shine to picking the oranges and eating as many of them as he could. We’d brought a chest of toys and books with us when we moved and it was great watching him play with the things his mummy used to love. We also got him some “all terrain” slippers which came in very handy as he trundled around the farm along the terraces, over the bridge and even in the pool. Such a good job that they were washable.

Adam tried his hand at milking a goat and was quite a natural. He even said he could quite take to the farming way of life and to be honest, I can imagine it would suit him very well. I loved spending some quality Mum and daughter time with Amy but all too soon their stay was over. It was quite an emotional time having to wave them off, but we’re already looking forward to the next time and no doubt we will have a couple of trips back to the UK in the meantime.

It wasn’t many weeks before we had our next visitors, this time my sister Jodie, Heidi, Kayden, Melia and Toby. They decided to go for car hire instead of catching the train so we made up a little treasure hunt for them to follow from Alpedrinha, collecting golden fir cones along the way. The last one was hung in a lemon tree on Dave and Julie’s farm and it was lovely to be able to stand just out of sight but still be able to see them and hear the kids squeal when they found it!

The temperature suddenly cranked up to the late 30’s.  The pop up pool we’d bought was a godsend as was the river beach at Castelo Nova.  There is something about messing about in water that creates such a feel good factor.  It doesn’t just inspire lots of loud, splashy fun but it was the perfect solution for calming down hot and uncomfortable kids (and adults).  We spent hours playing in the pool and by the river beach, laughing, eating ice-creams and having the occasional “cerveja”.  Beer is one of the first words we mastered in Portugal!

The goats seem to be a firm favourite with everyone and Melia and Toby were no different.  They loved helping with the milking and took a particular shine to one of the girls called Esta who had been hand reared.  Dave insists he hasn’t got a favourite, but I’m not so sure.

We managed to show them around our new locality taking Wanda for early morning walks along the little tracks near our quinta, visiting Fundao market and buying delicious cakes and bread from the pastelaria in the village.  The nespera’s, cherries and oranges were ready for eating so everyone managed to have their five-a-day and the days felt good.

Whilst we were still feeling the effect of Covid, Marks eldest daughter and her family arrived.  Not wanting to pass anything on to them we kept our distance for the first day until we had both tested negative.  Fortunately I’d made plenty of food for the freezer so it was relatively easy to make sure everyone was well fed.

The pool and river beaches were a firm favourite with numerous visits to Benquerenca praia de fluvial and castelo nova.  We bought Isaac and Neve inflatables for the water which they really enjoyed playing with although they were so large it was difficult to get them in the cars.  With temperatures now in the 40’s we could be excused for sitting in the shade and “chilling” although Helen took herself off for an early morning 5k run.  James was persuaded to go along one morning, but it was just the once!   

With the irrigation now being an essential part of the day, they also helped out watering the flowers.  Earlier in the year we’d planted sunflowers along our perimeter fence.  They were definitely not as tall as we’d hoped but ever bit as beautiful.  As Ukraine’s national flower we’d planted them at the start of the Russian invasion and as the sunflower became a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance, our flowers brought the people of Ukraine into our thoughts every time we saw them.

Dave had recently moved four of the goats into the field opposite our gate and suggested that Isaac and Neve might enjoy looking after them whilst they were here by making sure that they had plenty of water to drink and freshly cut greenery to nibble on. This was their early morning job and they really got stuck in, learning each of the goats by name. They very much enjoyed their stay with us and are planning on a re-visit next year.

With the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus and the lack of comfortable accommodation up until now it was impossible to offer anyone a place to stay. We’ve now turned the corner and it has been great having our family here. It has also meant that we have afforded ourselves some long overdue downtime and as well as a bit of R&R we have finally managed to see something of the area in which we live.

The challenge ahead is now to pick up the mantle and again get stuck into renovating the house and managing the land so that it will be even more comfortable next time they all come. Such a lot yet to do but little victories and fairy footsteps edging us forward bit by bit.

Published by vinhadasalmas

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

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