Jemima chose to leave her city life in Bristol, UK, to live sustainably, off-grid in the foothills of the Estrela Mountains of central Portugal. It has been a steep learning curve, surrounded by chickens and pigs, getting water from the spring, and generating power with solar cells. Jemima will be blogging regularly from the Beira region of Portugal about… well, her new life.

Winter in central Portugal is short but cold. Getting cozy by the wood burning stove is tempting when the mornings are frosty and spring seems far away, but summer’s heat will arrive quickly and then it’ll be a race to get plants established before the sun becomes too strong. I’m building a large polly tunnel at the moment, which in a few weeks will be full of seed trays and the destiny of this year’s vegetable garden!

This place has a feeling of hibernation about it, but first impressions can be deceiving. Nature’s creatures are busy! When the ground is frozen animals work much harder to find food. The wild boar in the forest around us get bolder and venture into vegetable gardens at night. Foxes, birds of prey and other predators become very active in trying to pick off our free range chickens. When I left the city to move to this remote 2 hectare “Quinta” I imagined the quiet countryside would feel strange compared to the urban din, but instead I had a whole new world of strange noises to get used to.

January is the time for pruning grape vines, in hope of a good crop next year. This month is also the point at which willow is cut and used to make baskets or tie those grape vines to the frames that will support them if they are as laden as we hope!

Most vegetables are grown on small family owned Quinta’s here – in fact most rural households have some degree of self-sufficiency. Use of chemicals is not prevalent, but they are becoming more fashionable. It’s common courtesy to tie bright red rags in your trees if you have sprayed your crops, to warn local goat herders to give the land a wide berth.

It is normal in Portugal to pay close attention to the moon and stars when choosing when to perform different tasks in the garden. Some families are still pruning their olive trees, which is always done at the correct point in the lunar cycle (when the sap is lowest in the trees) but the actual harvest of ripe olives was back in October – to my surprise a full month earlier than the year before. A generation ago the olives were never picked until after Christmas. The climate of Portugal is certainly changing so as the year gets going I’m wondering what 2012 will bring.

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