Archive for November, 2012

Foster Gardening

Can you empathise with your garden?

As a parent of 4 grown humans I still thoroughly enjoy observing my children as they continue to evolve. The eldest, Rachel, is in her late 20’s and ever so gradually is assuming elements of responsibility associated with being the senior sibling. Everyone expects her to be wiser and understanding in all things family, this allows them to continue as members who enjoy the privileges without much responsibility for their actions within the group.

Who knows what mysteries lie in the eyes of a child?

I see my present role, professional gardener, in a similar way. Possibly, because I am physically older and supposedly wiser than Rachel, my role is more garden carer, a Foster Gardener.

Many new gardens that arrive into my care were established without much planning, have been allowed to become delinquent or ignored for many years and need intense nurturing to flourish. Recently some new properties appeared under my wing, I say appeared because I have no clue why the owners contacted me, nor does it matter to me. Suddenly I became responsible for numerous living things, and expected to care for them immediately. As I began to deal with these gardens I saw, for the first time, my role comparable to a foster parent.

On first inspection it excites me to see what is in a new garden. My experience quickly dictates what needs to be done to improve things. It seems too easy to say to the owner, ‘Rip it all up and start again.’ Implying that I have a magical formula, something that can only be nourished by the depth of their pockets. At first I prefer to work instinctively and see the value in what exists, to take the most obvious element (often near the front door) and get down on my hands and knees to see if the structure can be nurtured. It doesn’t take long for the owner to tune into my enthusiasm for their garden.

Structured gardening plans have long since been obliterated from my modus operandi, my instincts tell me when to feed a plant, my experience allows me to understand if a plant is healthy. Pruning to me is rather like cutting the fingernails of a child. The child is unlikely to bother about the length of a fingernail, only noticing if one is broken and becomes a nuisance, so responsible parents notice when the nail needs cutting to avoid potential problems. Plants can’t prune themselves to fit into our ethos of gardening (we attempt to control plants in an un-natural way). All gardens would naturally and quite quickly establish an order whereby unsuitable plants for position would cease to flourish. We act as plant zookeepers for our own edification and pruning allows these captive plants to at least enjoy their life in our care.

A happy garden reminds me of the sensations as you hold a cat and stroke it. The cat vibrates with unfettered delight and so does a garden when you look after it properly.

I now see all of my contract gardens as individuals who have to be cared for, encouraged to grow happily, but within the regime set down by the owner, a mutual regime that I implement and translate with lots of love and care. As an owner becomes familiar with my style they give me more freedom to choose what is best for the garden. When I first began contracting in Australia I needed the owners to guide me, they had to provide me with the ideas and I took their concepts and carried them out. Nowadays I seldom see the owners, they simply enjoy the fruits of my labour, I have become part of their garden and that suits me perfectly. Whenever I am among the plants I feel at home in their home.

It is rewarding to cherish a garden, every plant responds positively, just as humans respond to kindness and understanding. I am content to be a Foster Gardener, when I am in the garden, I am part of the garden, when I leave the garden it flourishes because I was there.


Life in Cairns was incredibly exciting after living on a coral island for 3 months. Being able to walk to a bus stop, get on a bus and travel to the next town felt like a massive injection of freedom. Leonie quickly found a job waitressing at a classy bistro down by the harbour working evenings so I had to forage the area on my own. Things were looking grim, but leaning on my ‘lemons to lemonade’ personality I devised a strategy.

We bought 2 ancient sit-up-and-beg bicycles cheaply at the Sunday market. With the sugar cane ripening the milling season about to get under way I cycled three times a week to the local mills. Eventually I secured a job at Gordonvale mill, Mulgrave, and started work hooking up the empty cane bins or operating the bin tippler which upended the cane bins onto a massive conveyor. Looking like bags on a luggage carousel the cane was transported  into the bowels of the mill to be crushed and processed into sugar.

Of course this introduced me to sugar cane, a sort of monster grass that the region is famous for. Because of the tropical climate things grow at an awesome pace. Folk in the area must need to cut their lawns a couple of times a week. I would wander into the cane fields just to be in the midst of the cane, giant blades of swishing grass. Before modern cutting machinery the cane was cut by hand, one of the toughest jobs in the world, I spoke to people at the mill who could remember cutting cane by hand and it sounded a hideous job for little pay.

The mill had to be productive, which meant constant input of raw cane, slowing of the input meant drastic change for the engineers as they toiled to accommodate the flow. I rotated jobs with a couple of blokes, one hour hooking up bins, one hour off, then one hour operating the tippler. It didn’t take a lot of skill to seamlessly infiltrate the bin into the tippler, press a button and wait as the drum rolled tipping the cane onto the conveyor belt, press another button to return the bin upright and then press another button to shunt the bin out of the tippler. At least it didn’t seem like a lot of skill to me…arrogance of youth..

Night shift was a destroyer. It always felt good to go into work in the cooler evenings, meet up with the lads, have the craic and then take over from the previous shift. Seemless. By  1 or 2 a.m. the eyes began to droop and I hated my hour on the tippler, it was stuffy and uber noisy, cracking din of splintered cane being crushed. I always wanted to sleep then, instant, deep and soul satisfying sleep, sleep beckoned like the addict’s needle.

I did achieve Hall of Fame for Mill Idiots though. One night I was sitting at the console, pressing buttons and getting right into the zone, I was almost overfilling the conveyor in my mind making the bosses ecstaticly wealthy with my talent. Cocky so-and-so I managed to turn a full drum with one empty bin still exiting OMG! The adrenalin rush was overwhelming,, panic and fear surged up into my throat, dried out my tongue and prevented me from shouting ‘STOP THE MILL before the conveyor runs empty.’

I was not a popular bunny that night. The mill did stop for a few hours whilst the bin was disentangled, and I didn’t get any bonuses on pay day!

Picture credit Australian Daily Telegraph

Night shift became a challenge but was immensely rewarding, it allowed me to experience tropical nights with little distraction.

Outside of the building the vast night skies loomed, the Southern Sky spreadeagled to be seen in a profound and uplifting display. New stars and constellations had me thumbing through books and charts, each night I was eager to get in and identify more. As I sat at the console practising meditation I taught myself to become more tolerant and focused entirely on getting through that hour so that I could dash outside and feel the immensity of a pure night sky.

A tropical night is incredibly noisy, the air vibrant with life, swarms of insects and Australia’s great array of nocturnal creatures scurrying about their business. I suppose the noise of Cane Toads will stick with me most intensely. Brought in to control the rodent problems amongst the canefields, the toads themselves proliferated to such an extent that they are now the problem, no doubt the rodents survived and thrived as well.

Frank was the ‘unhooker’. As the cane bins came to the mill his job was to unhook the chains with a kind of boat hook on a pole. That was it, that was what Frank did, all night, every night. On my hour off I would frequently drift down to his station, seated on a stool as he unhooked the bins Frank would tell me tales of his life, how he was injured in a car accident and developed a distinctive limp, how he travelled from Tassie to the Tablelands to Cairns migrating with the seasonal work. Frank wasn’t highly educated but he was intuitive, a natural and his acute appreciation of the night was humbling. One night as he sat there telling me a convoluted tale of a journey from Sydney to Coober Pedy and a year he spent opal mining we both got a jolt. A massive snake was intertwined in the grill of a bin, it’s mouth protruding in strike pose. We both lurched backwards, Frank toppled off his stool, scrabbled on the floor ready to run, when we hit the door to his hut we turned and realised the snake was dead, some joker had fixed it up in the cane fields to give people a fright, it worked.

I sat with Frank and enjoyed a lunar eclipse. My memory doesn’t recall the detail too well, but I remember Frank explaining everything about the event. Cane burns were a regular feature of the night sky, the cane fields were torched in a controlled burn to remove much of the husk before it was cut. I once went with Frank to watch a burn, an unstoppable intensity with associated roar and flurry of escaping insects and wildlife that generated immense fear in me.  Walsh’s Pyramid caught fire too. Walshs Pyramid (Bundadjarruga) (922 m) is an independent peak with a distinct pyramidal appearance, it’s the highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world. We watched the apocalyptic scene unfold for a few nights, as fires flared and smouldered along the steep flanks of the mountain, realising with trepidation that men were up there trying to stop the fires penetrate down to the properties. The thing about Frank was his ability to appreciate the space and magnificence of the world where he lived, I would often see him gazing up into the skies, arms resting on his knees with the unhooker casually cradled in his arms. I wondered often what went on in his mind as he stared into the vastness. Frank was special…Frank was killed in a car accident. I hadn’t felt such a loss before. Never had I expected to hold such powerful emotions for a man.

It’s the people we meet in life who make the experience so special.

Smashed in Rustic Portugal

The last ride had been exhilarating, in fact it had been downright scary, more like living in a clip from Easy Rider.

We were sitting at the edge of a cork oak forest, some of the trees half naked-red where the bark had been removed. We sat with our backs to the trees having just walked gingerly away from the last ride. We were shaken and not sure if we should go back to the last hamlet  and wait for a bus to the Algarve. Carole suggested we pack up and go home, we had been travelling for 3 weeks, hitching down from the North of England, sleeping wherever we found ourselves come evening and just letting the rides take us to any destination.

Out of Lisbon we had been picked up with a really nice guy, who spoke terrific English, treated us to lunch and provided me with an expression that I would use over again. An hour after the lunch stop we were cruising through some hills when the guy pulled off the road and said he was ‘Going to pick some flowers.’ We hashed over why he needed to wander into the forest to collect flowers when he clearly had enough dosh to buy some at a flower shop. Hitching his trousers up as he returned to the car he sighed and said, ‘Feeling much better now.’ We looked at each other with raised eyebrows as he continued the journey, chattering away like a good ‘un. He had to turn off in a rural location so we decided to get out and head more directly south toward the sea.

In no time at all some Hell’s Angels on gut crunching Harleys came down the road and stopped. Now I am not a chicken but a dozen Hell’s Angels looking like agents from Hell were beyond my capacity to defend the fair maiden standing beside me. I was ready to sacrifice her without a fight as long as they left me with at least one arm.

Picture credit

The leader with flowing black curly hair, a white silk bandana, aviator specs and a ZZ Top style beard kicked the bike stand out and pointed to fair maiden and told her to get on the back of his bike. Carole was stammering, ‘NNnnnnNo thanks’ So I picked up her rucksack, smiled at ZZ and walked over to his bike, my mind screaming in panic. Carole, bless her cotton socks, straddled the bike, took her pack and ZZ was off with a great spray of gravel. The other 11 looked at me and my gut sank, none of them spoke. Were they going to shoot me? Rape me? Tie a rope around my ankle and drag me until dead along the rough road?

One of the smaller riders, wearing a helmet with horns on top waived me over. Shizzle, shizzle what is happening. I could barely move but scutched across and an arm indicated I should get on the back…yes yes YES, incredible relief. Almost before my leg was over the back the bike was gunned and we roared away, I was thrown back so far that I thought I was going to land in the road so I did the ‘sissy’ thing and put my arms around the waist of the lunatic rider. Yeeehaar Felicitas was a Nicole Scherzinger look-a-like! So I clung on with increasing delight.

Picture credit

The delight turned to fear and the fear to abject horror as the ride unfolded. Nothing was going to slow these loonies, corners, goats, trucks and my need to go and ‘pick some flowers’ went unheeded. Flippin past like a reel of fractured celluloid, little made sense. I couldn’t see for the wind and muck hitting my face so I buried my head into Felicitas’s hair, she became my Angel from Hell.

Thankfully the ride did end quite quickly, after 45 minutes we slid to a stop because ambulances and traffic cops were dealing with an accident and the road had been temporarily closed. I noticed Carole nervously chumming up to ZZ and wobbled over to receive a great slap on the back. We were stars of the highway! The riders decided they were going back to Lisbon, once the tribe had powered away we were left sitting by the cork oaks and thinking it a good idea to find somewhere to pitch a tent when Pascoal turned up. Obviously the local farmer Pascoal had driven across his land on a curious rudimentary tractor to see what the hold up was. He wore rough work clothes and had a tough looking stubble that seemed to cover most of his face.

It was late in the day and we needed to find somewhere to crash so we asked Pascoal, using sign language, if he had somewhere we could sleep for the night. His pouchy dark eyes showed a disturbing glint, but he nodded and made the universal sign for sleeping and got us to sit in his little trailer. The day was cooling, the earthy smell of the farmland and comfy hay filled trailer imbued us with a cosy feel, we allowed our bodies to bobble around gently as the tractor negotiated the fields, gazing up into the indigo sky.

It was clear that we were pulling into a farmyard so we both sat up to find a courtyard filled with ubiquitous chickens and a couple of grubby farm dogs. Pascoal motioned us to follow him and he went over to the door, crashed a filthy paw onto it and walked in shouting greetings in Portuguese. Members of the family turned up from different areas and we were introduced without understanding a word. With nodding head one of the older women dressed in black crossed to the kitchen and came back with tumblers and a big plastic bottle. She poured great slugs of a clear liquid into the glasses and we all skulled it Salud…POW! This stuff was surely made as bleach for the toilets, not as a drink to salute strangers. (Medronho from Arbutus unedo)

After another glass each we went back outside with Pascoal and got into the trailer again. Giggling, with fire in our bellies, we had no clue where we were going, and didn’t care. Pascoal visited another 2 farms with the same ritual drinking session, at one we were also given slabs of bread, sheeps milk cheese and olives. By now evening was beginning to fall, we were well soaked with the grog and just wanted to crash. Pascoal clearly had the same idea and walked us around the building to a barn, making the universal sleep sign. Our mouths were numb from the drink and our heads felt a little swollen with the buzz, at least we were going to get some sleep.

Through a doorless arch he showed us piles of sweet hay and motioned for us to use this as our bed.  Taking his calloused hands I thanked him for his generosity and we wasted no time in getting out our sleeping bags. Following years of sleeping on the ground I have never found it difficult to fall asleep, we both snuggled down, used our clothes as pillows and I fell into sleep instantly.

With great difficulty I woke up as Carole was whispering that Pascoal had come back with a blanket and was snuggled up behind her and was trying to have a little grope. We discussed it for a while and decided he probably just needed to be told ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Carole had a brief cameo with him and she seemed satisfied things were ok. I dropped off immediately.

Once again Carole woke me up, ‘He is still trying his luck. You have to do something.’


Shaking off my torpor, arms flailing a bit, doing the universal sign for you will get a slap if you don’t stop I told him, ‘Pascoal. Stop messing with Carole. She doesn’t want you to touch her! Not now, not ever. She is my wife and you need to respect that. Gorrit?’

Pascoal appeared to get the message because he flubbered his lips, turned away and settled down without another sound. To make sure he didn’t bother her again I switched places with Carole. From the new position my burning eyes took cooling comfort from a view through the window arch of the starry sky, with the peaceful sounds of sleeping heads and the calm of the world in the countryside, I drifted off once more.

‘Alright Pascoal, that’s it!’ yelling I bounced up and threatened to do battle with the Portuguese pest. Poor guy must have been desperate. I awoke to find him snuggled up behind ME and gently stroking my back and hair. The fire in his belly had clearly moved indiscriminately south.

At this point he did abandon his amorous tilt and left the barn, we slept on without further incident. Early the following morning Pascoal reappeared with hot coffee, bread, olives and figs cheio. As Jimmy Greaves used to say, ‘It’s a fanny owd wewld.’ Pascoal loaded us up again in the trailer and drove us back to the road. Before he left he shook our hands and, with a ridiculous grin, gave me a luscious smacking kiss on my lips!

For info on Medronho preparation read

Medronho or Portuguese Bleach

With its cinnamon-red bark the strawberry tree Arbutus unedo makes an attractive garden bush or small tree, it’s seedlings need considerable protection until they are established. Though able to withstand the sea winds of the Irish coast, the tree quickly succumbs to cold northerly and easterly winds.

Named for the similarity of its fruits to the edible garden variety, the strawberry tree is a native to Ireland. However nowadays it rarely grows wild or produces fruit outside of the warmer Mediterranean regions.

The distribution of the strawberry tree is oddly patchy. In the British Isles it grows naturally in western Ireland. It occurs again in western France, and on the Mediterranean coast; but, whereas in Ireland it grows to tree size, in continental Europe it normally develops only into a shrub. One theory is that the strawberry tree has survived mainly in areas left untouched by glaciers in the Ice Age. Within historical times it certainly grew more widely than it does today, and its disappearance may well be accounted for by the fact that it makes a good charcoal and burns well. Its reddish brown wood is hard and close-grained, though liable to splitting, and is used for inlay and marquetry.

Arbutus unedo is generally a short tree, rarely more than 10m (30 ft) in height and often it is no more than a large shrub. This effect is exaggerated by the fact that the branches of the tree tend to grow from near the base of the trunk, often leaning and twisted, giving it a low sprawling appearance.

As well as its dark, waxy evergreen leaves and unusual winter fruits, the strawberry tree has attractive reddish-brown wood. This dark bark peels off in strips quite regularly to reveal brighter wood beneath. The wood burns well as charcoal and the wholesale felling of the tree for this purpose has contributed to its demise.

However birds readily consume the fruits raw and these are especially welcome as the flowering period is between October and December when there is little else on offer in the way of food. It is also assumed that the erratic behaviour of some birds when feeding on the fruits is due to consuming soft fruit that has gone over, giving the birds a natural shot of medronho. The white flowers take about a year to ripen and so there are often blooms and berries on the tree at the same time. This late flowering time, while helpful to birds, is probably one reason why the tree is so rare in the British Isles now – there simply aren’t enough insects to carry out pollination at this time of year.

Medronho is a strong spirit made from distilled berries from the strawberry tree, the fruit itself is a bit bitter but generally doesn’t taste of much. When turned into alcohol though, it produces a fiery spirit. The drink often known as “Aguardente do Medronho” is the cause of many a zig zagging old man on a motorbike! Aguardente – meaning literally Teeth water.

Traditionally homebrewed it can reach up to 84% but the commercial versions which you will be able to buy in the shop are most likely between 40% and 50%, in some of the smaller bars in the Monchique and Silves region, you will see it being poured from a plastic bottle, this is the real stuff not the weakened commercial stuff!

Aquardente is the actual liqueur much like vodka, and Medronho is the fruit that gives it a special flavour. Similar to the strawberry, the Medronho fruit has its seeds on the outside and a soft flesh on the inside, with a small delicate pit in the center. The fruit is small and round, with an orange and deep red colour, biting into the fruit one feels its graininess, but when bitten through it’s soft and delicate center collapses with a mellow meaty sweetness. When ideally ripened, the bumpy exterior turns an almost black in colour, this is when these little strawberry balls are ideal for harvesting and making of Aguardente de Medornho.

Aguardente is normally served as an after dinner drink and is well known as “Um Chierinho”, if asked at a restaurant this is what the server is referring to, and you have the option of having it on the side or directly in your coffee. Aguardente is also a potent drink and not for the timid, but you only live once so give it a go! It’s also a fantastic sipping drink for dry desserts like chocolate salame and morgado, but for a truly “inside” taste of the Algarve try Aquardente de Medronho with a good “Figo Cheio”, a dried fig stuffed with almonds and spices.

Happy Daze