On holiday in Madeira last October we were walking up in the hills surrounding Funchal and saw a small but lovely vegetable garden fenced from the road.

We stopped and were admiring it for a few minutes when its gardener emerged from his potting shed and came to talk with us. He explained that in their climate he could grow anything well. I asked about some of the herbs he has and he gave me a cutting of a soft-leaf plant taller than himself which he said was herva cidreira, for making a tisane. That which we have on the mainland is low-growing with thin leaves like mint; his is clearly a different variety – maybe a completely different plant.

We nurtured the cutting in wet paper towels and mugs of water whilst on holiday and potted it when we returned to the farm.

It lived on the kitchen windowsill for a few weeks until we knew it had rooted and would survive. Janet over-wintered it in the conservatory where it had plenty of sunshine and warmth. In spring I pinched the tip out and potted it on, and by April it had two strong shoots. I planted it in the vegetable garden under irrigation before we went on holiday again. 

It thrived, until the day I was working on the pimiento plants next to it and dropped the rake handle on the fork of the two shoots, splitting the plant almost in two down the middle.

I sellotaped the stem together and staked and tied the two shoots together with string to hold them upright. The plant survived and has grown strong again. Even through the scorching summer this tender-leafed plant has survived and is very healthy.


This morning I fancied a herb tea and decided to have one from this plant. Long story short, it looked delicious and tasted horrible!

So, what is the plant? Why did this chap have the plant in his garden?

I think I’ll stay with lemon verbena from the herbaceous border!

Moving in . . .   May/June 2009

. . . to the apartment.

One takes it for granted that a dwelling will have windows and doors, but when you are having a “new build” they are one of the jobs which have to be arranged. We chose sliding windows and hinged shutters in white aluminium as it is the most resistant to changes in humidity and temperature; we learned that wood is susceptible to contraction and scorching, and uPVC to warping from the heat.

our kitchen assembled at the carpenter's

In the UK, if you want a new kitchen, you go to IKEA or a DiY store. However, ready made kitchen units are a rarity in central Portugal, so we visited two carpenters’ workshops last November whilst we were on the olive harvest runs around the lagars. It turns out that a bespoke kitchen costs little more than an MFI installation.

Granite is used for worktops here rather than laminates because the humidity drops so low that we are told there is a risk of delamination. Both our carpenter and the builders recommended the same stonemason opposite Gonçalo’s tractor shop in Fundão. We went to look at samples and concluded that most granite has black granules in it and looks dark. We wanted a light colour and decided on a rock from India.

two slabs of the worktop

The huge block is imported via Spain where it is cut to a “manageable” 3x2x1 metres hunk, weighing around forty tons. Our man then cuts it into 3cm slabs for making gravestones, tombs and worktops. On his way over to fit our worktops he rang to ask if we have a tape measure – not inspiring confidence after our difficulties with builders making the foundations of the barracão ! Nevertheless when he fitted them they were absolutely right – well done to him!

I constructed pine beds to match the wall-mounted headboard that José made for us, in the same chevron style as the pine panelling on the ceiling. They fit together to make one king-size bed which seems huge in the bedroom. The mattresses were delivered by the salesman from the supermarket; he sells and delivers.

The rural electric supply is of low power, typically only 15amps per house; in England the supply is 45-80 amps. To have a thirty amp supply the standing charge and cost per unit is higher. For any more than a 30Amp supply we would have to have a three-phase supply, like an English farm or factory unit. Because an electric immersion would use about twelve amps, we heat our hot water with an instant gas heater. The gas is delivered in three-foot-high cylinders and are housed in a little lean-to at the back of the barracão. We have a system that detects when a cylinder is empty, and switches to the second cylinder automatically. We just ring the gas man who brings a new one and swaps them over.  We can now cook and eat, take a shower and sleep, all in comfort!

. . . to the farm.

We bought twenty five grafted vines (Toureiga Nacional variety) in early May, which is late to be planting. The guy on the market said that the twelve-inch-long roots needed trimming, so we asked him to do it for us. He cut off all but two inches! Apparently this stimulates them to seng out new roots in abundance. Needless to say, a few days after planting them, they looked pretty dead. Two weeks of hot sun was unhelpful to them and with diligent watering they may survive.  However only thirteen have grown new leaves.

We were in the UK in April (ploughing time) and, as the land was too hard to plough in early May, I only rotavated one field near to the house and scattered maize and sunflower seeds in it, burying them with the scarifier. We hoped for some unseasonal rain to soften the ground, leaving it moist enough for the seeds and a planned green mulch of black-eyed beans to germinate. Surprisingly, in mid May, it rained for three days so I was able to plough a additional half an acre of neglected rocky land. This was the first time I’d really farmed and, trying to sit in the tractor at 20° slope with one wheel in the furrow, it felt as though the tractor would overturn at any moment if it encountered another big rock buried in the way.

Once ploughed, the field had to be rotovated before JJ could demonstrate how to scatter beans as a crop. Well under half a bucket was needed, really only enough for a French family’s Sunday cassoulet. He said the soil was too dry for germination so I should go over the whole area twice with the rotovator to bring up any moisture. This is a very dusty job, with the tractor and its driver embedded in a slow-moving dust cloud, ending with the driver matching the soil, parched and brown. Consequently, taking a shower in the barracão is an absolute pleasure . . . as are several pints of iced shandy! After the planting we have had rain on three consecutive Sundays and all seems to be growing as it should.

. . . to the garden. I rotavated the veg garden (12’x80’) for the second time ready to start planting, having studied drip-tape irrigation on the internet before buying all the components.  It took over twenty hours to choose, buy and assemble the automatic control (27 joints, each needing over a metre of ptfe tape) and distribution system. It took a further twenty hours digging in full sun (30-36°C in the shade) to connect and bury 110 metres of drip tape to water our veg patch.

burying the perforated tubes

Fundão is an agricultural town with very few tourists. It has a huge Monday market where the locals sell their produce and buy seeds and plants. You can buy a walnut tree, a chainsaw, clothes, shoes, a box of live ducklings, a chicken feeder, a beaten copper still (used to make aguardente or moonshine) a mattress, fruit, veg, sheep’s cheese, cooked food,  . . .

In May we intended to buy seedling tomatoes, sweet peppers and aubergines, all of which grow in the open.  In early June we established that the irrigation system worked properly in automatic mode which is important because we leave the quinta for several days whilst we return to the villa and do our emails etc. Then we went crazy buying plantlets on the next three Mondays.

Aubergine flowers with marigolds,  bean and tomato plants,   and lettuces with vines.

We spent many hours putting in: 18 tomato plants, 5 cucumber, 5 courgette, 10 aubergine, over 100 onions, 10 bean, 5 broccoli, 6 Brussels sprouts, 20 sweet peppers, 5 chilli, 5 spinach, lots of lettuce, 2 dozen carrots, 2 dozen beetroots, 2 dozen caulis (rabbits have eaten most of these), 6 white and 12 red cabbages, 12 melon, 5 pumpkin, and 12 oca (an Inca crop, rather like a high-protein potato). The sweet corn, Jerusalem artichokes, peas and bean seeds failed to germinate because we sowed them far too late.

To support the climbers, I cut down some of the jungle bordering the orchard at the villa. Beside the stream which borders our land we have loads of bamboos growing at a rate of about three metres a year. Ours were all between four and six metres high before trimming them to get the straightest canes. Next year they will be younger and straighter (ie more useful).

Looking north along the veg garden, barracão on far right.

Looking to the south.

So now we have a real chance of achieving another goal; becoming more self sufficient in vegetables. The garden looks set to do well !


We returned last Tuesday to the quinta.  It was a hot day, the dry land and heat haze reminiscent of Arizona, or the centre of Spain in summer, which is almost where the land is located so I suppose the strong sun should not be surprising, but in November, it is. We had João an electrician come over and discuss how we could make provision to connect the quinta to the electric mains. Two days later I hired a neighbour, Joachim, and together we built a wall section on our south boundary. A few days later, Robert came over. We walked the land discussing solar photovoltaic panels. On the next day (Thursday) we met with the electrician who possibly would install the boxes needed for connection to the national grid. We considered laying a water pipe and electricity cables up the same deep trench to the house.

We have discovered a man who has a JCB digger, João José. JJ the JCB digger man came on Friday, we discussed the project with him, along with other ideas. He told us that since it has been dry since July, the water level in the well is at its lowest and now would be a good time to clear it. It was now late afternoon when the sun is less fierce, so I set up our pump, and managed to start the motor, which is as cooperative as the mule it replaced. Our tenant shepherdess, Manuela, was passing through that field with her flock. Intrigued and eager for something different she helped, but before long she pulled the 2” diameter suction pipe out of the well. Inspecting the valve on the end, she told me that it would never suck up the water, as a part was missing, certainly taken by the old boy who sold it to us. At 6pm we drove to a local garage and bought a new valve assembly. Next day I fitted it and happily (eventually) started the pump. Four hours later along comes JJ, it should be pumping twice as much water as now. The pump needs repair. His brother runs a garage and can do it, but not until Monday morning, as he doesn’t work on Saturday afternoon or Sunday.

08.50 Monday we search out and arrive at his brother’s garage – there is JJ waving us in. Half an hour later we’re off again and at 10am a few kicks and yanks and off goes the pump –WOW water gushing out! By 11am it’s far too hot to stay out, but as the electric man is back again, we don’t have to. An hour later the distant note of the pumps rises a tone, so I leave Janet to finish our business with the electrician whilst I go to sort it out. The water has stopped, the well is nearly dry. So am I, so shut down the pump, it’s time for lunch. Sit at table and am grilled in the sun, no shade from the vines over the patio because they have lost their leaves. I’m ravenous and scoff my cool salad in ten minutes; just as well because here comes JJ in his big JCB, straight up to the well and digging the sides away! End of lunch, take lots of pictures whilst he and his uncle(!) deal with the well.  There are two huge trees growing in it, probably ten years old or more. Whilst drawing water at the pump Janet met our friend Maria Luisa, whose parents were tenants on this quinta for many years, and she grew up here. Janet suggested she might like to see inside the well. In the mid-afternoon M-L arrived and thoughtfully inspected what was going on.  She said in a matter-of-fact manner that her dad dug this well.

By 5pm he’s dug out all the mud and the cleaning is finished. I ask him to lower me into the well so I can walk on the bottom. The walls are lovely big granite stones, and the source has granite slabs arching over the spring, just a trickle until the weather breaks. What a pity the stonework won’t be seen again for many years.

Pictured below:  Clive and Maria Luisa sitting at the edge of the well on the stonework for the picota, long gone here but which will eventually be replaced. It is an eight-foot post with a forked top, across which is loosely tied a ten-foot pole. One end of this pole has a counterbalancing boulder tied to it and the other has a rope with a bucket dangling into the water. The top pole swivels a little in the fork. In the 1940’s M-L as a girl had the job of ladling hundreds of buckets of water into the irrigation channel which linked to furrows across the adjoining field. The end of each furrow in turn was opened to allow water to run along it to the plants. In full sun and no shade it is a hot and tiring job, but it’s the cheapest way to irrigate a crop. She would have spent countless hours during each summer working at this spot.