Mushroom Cultivation

Wild MushroomsI love mushrooms. I also really enjoy foraging for wild mushrooms both on the farm and in surrounding woodlands. I have quite a few different edible species around the farm and they are great. I would always like to have more though. I have a friend in the village who grows his own shitake mushrooms in his basement. It is quite a science to get right. He has experimented with different wood on which to grow them. The place where they live is cool and dark and they seem to thrive. I don’t have a basement though. So I formulated a plan. A couple of weeks ago I cut down a small oak tree and used the logs to surround a new hugelkultuur bed. As the wood is freshly cut I don’t believe it would have been infected by any other fungi. So when I found a bunch of delicious oyster mushrooms growing on a tree the other day I thought this would be a great time to try and grow my own. I ate the oyster mushrooms but kept a little of the stem and gill areas.

chopped up oyster mushroomsI chopped these up very finely in a hand blender. Then I drilled holes in the logs about every 30cm and stuffed in as much of the blended fungus as would fit. The I sealed the holes with melted wax. The wax will help to keep any other fungi out. I hope to report back in the future with the success of this rough and ready mushroom cultivation…..

Stuff the mushrooms in the log

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Compost Toilet Update


Urine toiletAfter three seasons of successful composting of the toilet waste of my guests, this year I decided to improve on the basic system I have been using since the beginning. One small problem has always been that in the basic barrel system there was no urine diverter. This meant that all the urine stayed in the barrel which is not ideal. Firstly old urine smells quite strong. Also, it made the contents wet. I have always countered the excess water by adding lots of newspaper. This has also been quite successful in reducing the smell (the extra carbon in the paper helps to balance the nitrogen from the urine). However, when there has been a lot of female guests the toilets occasionally became a little wiffy. This is not such a bad problem as all I had to do was change out the barrel for a fresh one.

The full barrels were stored for a few months which allowed some of the moisture to evaporate. Then the barrels were emptied and left to mature for a year before use. Occasionally on turning out a barrel I observed an anoxic (smelly, oxygen free) layer at the bottom of the barrel which was not composted. It was not such a problem as it would compost in the pile over winter. However, it was not nice to deal with.

The other aspect of the lack of urine diversion is that I was unable to utilise this amazing nitrogen rich resource. So this spring I decided to build a separate toilet just for pee. It is a simple design (my favourite) with a large funnel to take the pee through a pipe and into a trench filled with wood chips. The trench is planted with comfrey which is capable of handling undiluted urine. The comfrey should grow well and I can then harvest the leaves for use on the garden as a green mulch.

The result has been great. The ‘normal’ general purpose toilet has been a lot less smelly and I have had to change the barrels a lot less frequently. In fact, about half, which had saved me a lot of work.

There are plenty of other ways to deal with this problem. Urine diverter toilet seats for example are a great idea. I didn’t go for this option because to get the barrels to the storage area I roll them. This helps to mix everything up and as the storage area is down hill it means that I save a lot of work. If I was to use some kind of diverter seat then there would have to be a hole in the side of the barrels and I wouldn’t be able to roll them without leaks. Not a pleasant thought. So although there are other options which may be easier for people to get to grips with I think this is the best for my situation.

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The new wood frame kitchen



Back in 2012 when we arrived on the land in January with nothing but a tent and a wood stove we were desperate for some kind of shelter. The four of us spend many evenings huddled round the stove under clear skies freezing! The first job we undertook was to construct the kitchen. I had a simple plan of a wooden structure with a tin roof. The tools we had were basic, a bow saw a tape measure, a spirit level, a hammer, drill and a bill hook. We didn’t really use the spirit level! The structure was very basic and as it was the first attempt at anything like this the learning curve was steep. We built the side frames flat on the ground and then ‘raised’ it and nailed it all together. This was not the best idea. Actually it proved very difficult, slightly dangerous and resulted in a pretty flimsy structure. But you live and learn, and flimsy though it may have been it lasted for three years and served very well. I think it would have lasted a fair bit longer if is hadn’t been invaded last summer by a bunch of little bees who bored holes everywhere. Each morning last summer I was greeted by little piles of sawdust all over the kitchen, and in the afternoon when the sun was coming in the front of the kitchen I could watch as puffs of sawdust were ejected from all those little holes. So a decision was made. Build a new kitchen!

This is the 5th wooden structure I have built now and I am getting better each time. The learning curve is levelling out and I have learnt many lessons. The biggest lesson so far is STRIP! If you leave the bark on you are asking for trouble. It provides great cover for all those little buggers who want to eat your structure. Upon dismantling the old kitchen and cutting it up for fire wood the posts which were not stripped were a lot more infested than those which were.   IMG_1253

You can see in this photo how many tunnels there are and each is about half the thickness of my little finger. There is a lot of wood missing!

By far though the biggest difference in building the first kitchen and the new one is tools. Now I have lots of tools. Good quality sharp tools. While it is certainly possible to do things with the bare minimum, which we proved when building the first kitchen, if you have good tools the end result will be better. It also saves a lot of time and energy which shouldn’t be underestimated. Frustration is often the leading cause of cock-ups in my experience.

So, how did I go about building the new one? Well, first I enlisted the help of Jeppe. A good friend who has the sniff of a perfectionist about him. A good thing to have about. Possibly the best tool in the box, but I’m not sure how readily available they are….



To begin I cut the trees which would become the upright posts. They are sweet chestnut which were cut in winter and stripped immediately. If you strip them straight after felling them you will find it so much easier. Chestnut is a helpful tree. Whether you want it to become logs, or posts or spoons or whatever, it always seems willing to oblige. Getting the bark off a chestnut log is very calming. Anyway, the stripped logs will shrink as they dry but I didn’t have a pile of them laying around seasoning for a year. The posts were treated liberally with a couple of coats of fence and shed preservative.



We dug holes about 60cm deep where each upright would be. The trick when working with irregular posts is to get the top where you want it, the bottom is less important. So we made braces to hold the posts in position and working from one corner which was decided to be out datum, we measured and levelled the top of each post so it would be in the correct position. Then we filled the holes with concrete.


Next we used milled 5cm by 10cm timber (pine) to make a rail running around the top of the posts. We cut notches in the posts so the rail would be firmly supported. The two tall posts in the centre at each end will eventually support the ridge of the roof. Where the rail ran past these posts we also notched these posts. The rail was then glued and screwed into place. You can see in the photo above that the rail had to be made by joining two lengths of timber. In order to do this we cut a simple scarf joint and used threaded bar and glue to secure it. This joint turned out to be incredibly strong even though it is a very simple joint to cut.


Next we cut braces for each post. These were notched to fit the rail and to fit the post. It is quite tricky to match the curves of the posts but we managed to get them quite close. Then they were either bolted through with threaded bar, or screwed with the biggest coach screws possible. This created a very stiff structure. Until this point we left all of the braces in place since adding the concrete. At this point though some of those could be removed in order to make moving around easier.


Next we installed the ridge beam which was made from two pieces of 5cm by 10cm pine joined in the same way as the rail was. Then the rafters were measured and notched to sit on the rail. They also had notches cut in them for the battens to sit in later. Where they met the ridge the angle was measured so they butt up against the beam. They were the screwed with big screws at the ridge and the rail. Then a cross beam was bolted to them about half way along their length. This stops the roof from spreading. Weight from the roof actually pushes the rafter into the ridge beam.


The final part of the roof structure is to add the battens which are used to fasten the roofing sheets to. These were made from 5cm by 5cm pine. Then the zinc sheets were screwed to them. We also included two clear fibre glass sheets on the back side of the roof. This side faces north so it doesn’t let direct sunlight in but it does mean that the finished kitchen feels really airy.


In the end I decided to extend the roof off the back of the kitchen to give me some covered space where the solar batteries can live along with the washing machine, gas bottles etc. The walls were clad with thin pine.

So there you have it. The new kitchen…. nearly finished….IMG_1262

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A truly useful tool

Crosscut saw horse

I have just purchased a very useful tool that I thought I should write something about.

Anyone who cuts their own firewood will no doubt know that the most annoying part is cutting lengths of tree into logs. In the past I have done this either by hand with a bow saw, which in itself is a great way to keep warm, and is also exhausting! Or with a chainsaw, which requires a helper to hold the branch or length of wood. This always scares the hell out of me. I am respectfully nervous whenever I use the chainsaw. It is the one machine I use which I am certain I will never have a small accident with. If I do have an accident it will probably be a big one! So having a helper hold a piece of wood while I wield the saw has always freaked me out a little.

The solution is here! I have seen these on the internet and finally came across one in my local hardware shop. It is a cross cut saw bench. Various companies make them including Stihl who would have made a sale to me however, for some reason they don’t sell these in Portugal. The one I just bought is made by Mader Garden who call it a ‘frame cutting log’ in one of those great Chinese to English translations! It seems pretty good quality and despite terrible instructions and an unreadable diagram it only took me about 1/2 an hour to figure out how to build it. But anyway, I have used it a fare bit now and I can say that for me, it is proving invaluable. It has a good guard around the chain bar, and it pivots easily. You hold the log with one hand and operate the saw with the other. There is no effort involved in having to support the saw and it also means that I don’t have to risk chopping anyone else with the chainsaw.

So, if you cut your own firewood, get one of these, it’s brilliant! It was about €60 which is about £6.80 right now eh?

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Solar Thermal – free hot water!

Heating water can account for 30% or more of your energy bill. Since starting this project in 2012 we have been using the sun to heat our hot water. There are many ways of doing this and we have now explored quite a few from the simplest to the more complicated. I thought it would be an idea to talk you through some of the options available.

Bin Bag and Bottle


When we started back in the winter of 2012 we had very little of anything on the site. In fact for the first 6 months we didn’t even have running water. This was a valuable experience and taught me a lot about how much water we use for various tasks. The fact that it all had to be moved in bottles by the wheelbarrow from the local communal tap meant that we soon learned to be frugal with our usage. That didn’t stop us from having a nice hot wash everyday after work though. A 5l drinking water bottle of water wrapped in a bin bag and left in the sun for a few hours each afternoon provided more than enough for a shower of sorts. Now that really is free hot water!

Black Water Pipe

Once the water was installed the showers for the campsite could be constructed. I angled the roof of the toilet to the south in order to support a coil of black plastic pipe which would heat the water for the showers next-door. A very simple solution for creating hot water, essentially a wooden frame supporting two coils of common black PVC water pipe.

This solution worked fantastically although there were some problems. Firstly, it worked best when the sun was out, obviously. However, this is not typically the time when you want a really hot shower. Even with an insulated backing and a clear plastic cover to reduce conducted and convected losses the water in the pipe would only stay hot for a couple of hours or so. So if people wanted to shower in the morning or later in the evening they would find it a little fresh to say the least.

One of the main problems I found though was that the pipe would become overheated and burst. The mains pressure water exacerbated this problem so I fitted a pressure reducer. This worked….. for a while. However as the pipe expanded the pressure would equalise and in the end it would burst. I tried further solutions such as an expansion tank made from large diameter pipe stuffed with a partially inflated bike inner tube. This worked well too, although on really hot days the expansion proved too much. I also fitted a pressure release valve which worked very well. In fact this system with the release valve was the final  incarnation of this design. It worked very well for two years. However, at the start of last summer it started blowing up again. I think that the pipe became damaged by the UV and became weak. Which leads to the next method…..

Passive Collector and Accumulator Tank


This is the simplest and for my money the best of the commercially available systems for solar thermal. It consists of a large flat collector panel mounted under an insulated water tank. The panel has a network of tubes which lead up to surround the inside of the water tank. These tubes are filled with a solution of antifreeze. It is called a passive system because it doesn’t require any pumps in order to function. The heating of the liquid in the panel sets up a thermal syphon which circulates this hot fluid up to the tank where it transfers its heat to the water in the tank. Once cooled it flows down to the bottom of the panel starting the cycle again. This is the perfect off grid solution. The only connections are a cold water feed and a hot water output. No power is needed. There is the option to connect an electric heater for boosting the temperature when the sun isn’t shinning. This summer though our 160l tank was providing water for up to 10 people with no trouble, even after a day or two of grey skies.

Collector and Remote Accumulator Tank


This is the system I chose to install in the house. The only reason I didn’t go with the passive system is that I wanted the flexibility to install a wood fired range at a later date in order to boost the water in the winter. The components of the system are the same as the passive system with the addition of a pump which circulates the solution through the panel to the water tank which is located away from the panel. As the water tank is located below the panel the thermal syphon will not circulate it. This means that you have to have an electronic system to regulate the pump. Obviously if the panel temperature is lower than the accumulator temperature for example, at night, you don’t want to be circulating the fluid. This would have the effect of heating the panel with the stored heat from the water. As this system requires these extra components it is more expensive than the passive system. But it works well, and can be linked with other heat sources like a heat pump or wood fired furnace. Currently I boost the heat in the winter using the existing gas boiler. As the water in the accumulator is already about 30 degrees most days the gas only has to bump it up to about 45 for a hot shower, rather than heat from about 10 degrees. This saves a surprising amount of gas.

Whichever method suits your needs installing a thermal solar system is a clever idea. It may take time to recoup your initial investment if you go for a commercial system. But once bought then you will never have to pay for your hot shower again!

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Update 2014

Well I must admit to being rather slack when it comes to blog posts so far this year. I have not been slack when it comes to working here in Portugal though. I have been busy as a bee improving old projects and starting new ones so here is a quick update on what’s been going on.


When we got here nearly two and a half years ago we had a little help from some friends in the way of pruning a couple of our orange trees. Last year was not such a good year for fruit around here. However the orange trees did have lots of new fruit. These are now ripe and the blossom has just been and gone for this year. If you haven’t smelt orange blossom then you are missing out on one of the natural wonders of the world. It is the most amazing scent you will ever smell. Anyway, now our trees are covered in fruit and it is all down to the pruning. The trees that have not so far been pruned have very few fruit in comparison. One of these days I will write a proper post about the correct technique, after I have perfected it that is….

Oranges and blossom



I was lucky enough to get some much needed help a couple of weeks ago from a fine young chap called Sulok. Apart from incredible Indian cookery he also helped me to build a new flight of steps to join a couple of terraces. It is a simple step building strategy of pegging logs into place with long wooden stakes and then backfilling them with soil in order to form the next step up. This terrace wall was pretty steep however so we had to spend quite some time shifting a lot of soil. This was put to good use in building a new tent platform though. So thanks to Sulok we can get around much easier.

Sulok and Lima



Back in the late winter I along with Jeppe my artistic buddy from Amsterdam (check out his website for some amazing paintings) drove down from Amsterdam with a brilliant new caravan type thing. However, we couldn’t get it onto the land as it was too wide to fit though the gate on the driveway. So for a couple of months it was stored with a friend. Now it is in its final place after some amazing tractor driving by our neighbour Miguel. He actually towed it down a terrace wall 2m high! Then weaved his way through trees and bushes without causing any damage whatsoever. He did all of this with such ease. Anyway, now it is in a great position with an incredible view. We just have to convert it from a builders lunch room to a cozy place to sleep. Oh, and give is a coat of paint…..

Amazing driving



I think our toilet/shower must be one of the longest builds in history. I am glad to report that it is finally complete. The last piece to be done was the drain for the sink. Originally this drained into a plastic barrel which we could then empty onto a bush or tree. This was a bit of a chore though and didn’t really look to good either. So after the amazing success of the shower drain which feeds into a bed of rhubarb I decided to copy this with the sink. So I dug a hugel bed (for more info see the hugelkultur posts) and plumbed in the drain. Now the sink is watering a tree tomato plant and some jasmine. More plants will go in over time.

Sink draining into hugel bed



Bamboo is incredible! We are lucky to have a huge thicket of it here in the village. I contacted the owner to ask if I could take some. “Take it all!” was his reply. Well, I didn’t take it all but I took a lot. It is huge, 5 or 6 metres tall. So far I have used some to make the central poles of the tents. I plan to build an extension to the kitchen amongst other things. It is brilliant stuff. I also helped myself to a couple of shoots for my dinner which was great. I told you it is incredible!

Incredible bamboo



Besides all this I have been busy in the garden mulching, and planting. Most is doing well although it has been really hot lately. This makes it difficult to plant out seedlings. Mature plants get all the moisture they need from the hugel beds but seedlings really struggle until they can get their roots down. I have been helping them along with the use of shade cloth and regular watering. This week we are forecast some well needed rain so I will be emptying the greenhouse at last.

The gardens

So that’s about it for now. I will be doing an update on the solar shower soon, and also the kitchen sink filter bed. Until then….

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Winter holiday


We have packed up in Portugal for another season. All the tents are down and everything is wrapped up against the rain. Blog posts might be a bit thin on the ground for the next few months while we hunker down for the winter months. The big project we are looking forward to next year is to start work on re-building the ruins. Brace yourselves!

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Chestnut Glut!

It is that time of year again when the soundtrack of my days is the crashing and thump of chestnuts falling from the trees. In fact I have had a few near misses as the spiky buggers zip past my head on their way to earth. But what to do with them all? Last year I tried saving a load for Christmas. However, when we got to peeling them about half had a little worm inside who had eaten most of the nut and didn’t make the remaining bit so appetising. So this year I am going to turn them all into Creme de Marron, or lets be honest, chestnut spread.

Before I tell you how to do it a word about peeling chestnuts. This is a most tedious job. There is no easy or quick way about it but there are better and worse ways. The hardest task is to peel them whole if you need it that way. Then you have to cut a cross in the shells and stick them in boiling water. After a few minutes get them out and while they are still hot try and get the shells off. If they get cool the shells and inner skin get tough again and you have to re-heat them. So it is best to do a few at a time. Good luck! Fortunately for chestnut spread you don’t need them whole, you are going to smash them up anyway. So there is an easy way to peel them. Using either a knife or better still a pair of secateurs (too many French words today) chop them all in half from round end to pointy. Then a few at a time pop them in a pan of boiling water. After a few minutes scoop them out and squeeze the closed side of the shell with a pair of pliers. Out they pop leaving behind the inner skin and the shell. This takes a fraction of the time.

The recipe:

It is so simple. Boil up the peeled chestnuts in enough water to cover them. When they are tender, after about half an hour, you drain them. Then in a pan combine an equal quantity of peeled chestnuts and sugar. Add about 100ml of water for every kilo of nuts and a bit of vanilla extract. Smash them up using a potato masher until it is smooth. Heat it up over a medium heat and then let it simmer gently until it is not quite as thick as mashed potato. You need to make sure you stir it or it will burn. Then pour it into washed sterilised jars whilst still hot. Put the lids on and then turn them upside down for a few minutes. It should keep for ages like that. Once opened though you need to keep it in the fridge. This stuff tastes amazing on toast.


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Experimental Gardening Update

Well, this is long overdue. After a very busy summer I have finally got some time to write some blog posts again. Last autumn I began a couple of gardening experiments to try and improve our vegetable yields this year, after a pretty dismal harvest last year.

As I had stated last year, one of our main problems in growing anything here is lack of water in the summer months. Over the winter this part of Portugal receives plenty of rain. In fact last winter was a bit of a record breaker in that respect. The problem is keeping some of that water in the ground for the dryer months. This summer was very dry indeed. In fact we had only one day of slight drizzle between June and the end of September. Wild fires have been rampant in this area for the last couple of months and something over 100,000 hectares have burnt here this summer. So it was a good year to test whether these methods were going to work.

Hugelkulture (original post here)

Hugelkulture bed with a layer of broom on top to stop the chickens digging up the seedlings

Last autumn Luke and I excavated a couple of areas about 3 square metres each. We dug down about 40 cm and filled the hole up to ground level with a mixture of old rotten wood, freshly cut green wood and leaves and trimmings from some of the trees we were felling. On top of this we added a thin layer of horse manure followed by the soil we had excavated mixed with a little manure and a good amount of home made compost. Into these beds we planted a mixture of bean seeds and lupins to act as a green manure, along with three or four spinach plants which we transplanted from elsewhere in the garden. When I returned three months later I was amazed by the amount of growth.

Hugelkulture after 3 months

This was after three months of near constant rain. However, during the summer the hugelkulture beds really proved themselves. We grew many different things in the them such as tomatoes, lettuce, courgettes and chillies. We also grew these things in more traditional veg beds. When it came to watering, the more traditional beds had to be watered about every two or three days, or in the case of courgettes and squashes, every day. Even with this amount of watering many plants were wilted by mid morning and didn’t recover until the evening. The hugelkulture beds in contrast, were watered about once every two weeks and the plants showed virtually no sign of wilting. The level of growth in these beds was much higher, and the level of work involved was much lower.

Experimental Gardens (original post here)

This was a bit of a flop. I had high hopes for my experiments involving sawdust and also corn cobs. However, in the end, all of them did rather poorly. No better in fact than the rest of the garden. The winner by far was the bed with only compost added, which was a bit of a surprise. This one yielded more onions than all the others combined.

The Future

After the amazing results we have seen this year we have decided to go crazy this winter and turn all our veg beds into Hugelkulture beds. We have also developed a great new technique for planting trees and shrubs. I purchased a post hole digger which digs a hole about 20cm across. I dig it as deep as I can go and then fill it up with bits of wood and compost and manure until the new tree or shrub sits at the right level. Then I stick a piece of 25mm water pipe (of which we found about 50m which a guy was trying to get rid of by burning!) with a bunch of holes drilled in it. Top it off with soil and a thick mulch of compost and or leaf mould. Then when you water the tree you use the pipe. This gets the water down to the roots and the wood below, encouraging the plant to get down deep to where the water is in the wood. So far the trees we have planted like this are going crazy, despite infrequent watering and a scorching summer.

So, bury wood!

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Yoga week 2013

Yoga week 2013

This year’s yoga week, or should I say the Second Annual Quinta do Figo Verde Yoga Week was a total success. We had four yogis here for a week of yoga, massage, good veggie food and extras like horse riding, wild swimming and of course they managed to squeeze in a wine tour.

This years yoga week was so good in fact, that we have decided to set the dates for next years already. We will be hosting the 3rd annual Quinta do Figo Verde Yoga week from 7th June 2014. Details are to follow but it should be roughly the same as the first two, with Arjanne and Roos teaching yoga twice a day and us cooking delicious veggie cuisine for a week. So if you fancy getting flexible in a beautifully relaxing environment and meeting some like minded people the get in touch with us.

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