Arriving at the gates of our smallholding in Portugal felt wonderful. The realisation of our own space; another step on the journey we have slowly and quietly been on in recent years in our quest for an increasingly self-reliant life. For us, having our own patch of land to grow food, source our own energy and be still (in mind), is perhaps one of the most important steps.
However, it was also a shock! Having last been here in January when the land was lush green, yet low and fairly tame, we were amazed to find that in just four months and with the onset of spring and summer, the gardens around our cottage had become completely overgrown.
As travellers we remain steadfastly reluctant to be completely tied to our property, so felt overwhelmed to be met with such an overgrown garden. However, we feel that two acres is more than enough - more than enough for personal use, more than enough to maintain, and (we hope) just enough to do so from a distance when the road calls.
We set out with the idea of focussing on the land rather than the cottage: clearing, discovering, planting more trees and herbs that require minimal input. However, despite arriving with our caravan - which comfortably provides sleeping, washing and cooking facilities - we are already realising the limitations of this scenario at this time of year. It is HOT! and thoughts of further baking in a tin home as temperatures increase - despite being under the shade of a cork oak - fill us with dread, so our initial plan of focusing wholly on the land has been scrapped and ‘project cottage’ has instead taken priority.
Luckily our cottage is basically sound, dry and despite not much else, has a tiled floor running throughout so a few days of intense scrubbing and it is already in a state where we have been able to receive some old furniture from our neighbours and experience some level of homeliness. Now the hottest parts of the day can be spent in the cool, which has been a godsend, and our attentions can now turn a little to the outside.
Our plot comprises of a small cottage set in roughly ¾ acre of fenced land. Behind the cottage is an already-established fruit and nut orchard – albeit in need of a little love and attention – and there is also plenty of space where we can grow perennials and herbs. We then have about an acre of olive grove in front of the cottage, which is currently doing its own thing and seems in a state of happy wild-ness, alive with grasses and flowers, so that is how it shall stay for the foreseeable.
Projects for this month…
Herbs & Flowers
I am trying to collect and dry some of the herbs we have so far found around our property: Lavender, St John’s Wort, Common Mallow, Rock Rose, Olive Leaves. I have a passion for the use of herbs, particularly in health, and plan to both encourage copious amounts of them to grow wild around the place as well as create an abundant collection of dried herbs to dip into when required. Again, please do feel free to share with me (and other readers) any good uses for the above as well as any herbs you simply couldn’t live without.
Fruit and Nut orchard
So far we have discovered: Apricot, Cherry, Loquat, Orange (or tangerine), Bay, Almond, Pomegranate and several other trees as yet unidentified that we think are nuts. We are slowly clearing back the ivy and brambles that appear to be strangling the bottoms of these trees so as to let the light in. We are tentatively pruning a little, but we are new to this and are relying entirely on gut instinct and what we have read.
No Dig/Mulch bed
We have a small patch of earth that looks very dry and sparse so we have decided to make this our first mulch experiment. So far we have collected all the dead fallen leaves from around our property, as well as any scythed dried grass, and we are adding it all to this patch. I think soon we will scatter some green manures such as alfalfa/clover, despite having limited water resources, just to see if anything grows and to see if we can start adding some goodness back into this area.
We are sanding back all the window frames and making them as good as we can, in particular tightening up gaps that seem to be letting in all manner of bugs, geckos and even a snake! The goal is to make the cottage secure and free of unwanted guests before we head off for a coastal camping trip during the hottest month of July.
As I have mentioned, it is already very hot here so having trimmed our Palm we plan to use the fronds to create some kind of basic – possibly moveable – shade structure. Creating numerous places for shade seems like a good idea because in the hottest parts of the day it is literally impossible to do much else but be still.
Of course, perhaps this enforcement of being still is how it should be because for us, spending time here is not just about a tick-list of what we should or could be achieving, it is also about just being. Simple lunches under the shade of an olive tree, bird-watching in the mornings, star-gazing in the evenings; reading, writing, playing – just being part of nature, these all carry huge value for us. I find myself mesmerised daily by the sunrise as it appears in bright golden glory over the tree-tops, catching the red of our abundant pomegranate flowers. Standing at the top of the garden each evening to watch it sink in an orangey glow behind the stretched out velvety hills, is fast becoming my favourite part of the day. There are so many things about this modern world that bring wonder and opportunity, yet there are so many things that distance us from nature – from the very core of the human spirit – and being here connects me further with my deep desire to be just a little closer to the wild.
Time here is measured, not by clocks, but instead by the arrival of the bread van, morning walks to savour coolness, simple coffees at the local bar, hot afternoons spent reading in the shade, the promise of a weekly market. Somehow it feels a much more natural measuring of time and for that I am glad, because with this comes the opportunity to stand still and ponder this greater step towards self-reliance and dream about where it might take us in our future.
Next time I’ll be talking water and power plans…
Alice Griffin is a writer who has spent the past seven years wandering both Europe and England by campervan and narrowboat in search of a piece of earth to call her own. Finally a tiny white-washed cottage set in almost 2 acres of olive grove and nestled in the Sao Mamede Natural Park, Portugal, has captured her heart and here – along with her husband, their daughter and two dogs – she plans to create a natural garden for the future.
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