Mainland Portugal is around 561k long and 218k wide, and boasts some of the best weather in Europe, offering plenty of summer sunshine and mild to cold winters depending on location, and is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, that runs along its western coast. In the south, it is drier and warmer, but moving north the climate is cooler and wetter.
Most gardening articles in Portugal are aimed at plants for the Algarve and hotter regions and suggest plants for the intense heat. But the cooler, wetter northern regions are suitable for a much broader range of plants, including camellias, hydrangeas, and magnolias – and of course lawns.
The camellia needs coolness and should be protected from the afternoon sun during the summer. It doesn’t hate the shade but will produce more flowers if it receives a little morning/late afternoon sun. Its biggest enemy is direct sun, as bright light always burns the leaves, but conversely, excessive or prolonged cold can cause bud drop in winter-blooming types. Shelter them from strong winds, and as they don’t like salt spray, coastal regions are not ideal for them.
Camellias will need deep watering twice a week, rather than daily shallow watering, as they generally appreciate moist soil as opposed to soggy soil. Giving a deep soak keeps the soil moist for longer.
The hydrangea is one of the more stunning garden shrubs, exhibiting big showy blooms that come in various shades of pink, blue, purple, white and even green. With the proper growing conditions and care, they can be grown in a wide range of regions. Their name is derived from the Greek words ‘hydro,’ which translates to water, and ‘angeion’ which in Greek means vessel or receptacle. It may be that the shape of the seed is similar to an urn, but the word also implies a plant that’s a voracious consumer of water, hence it does better in Northern Portugal. Apparently, you can change the colours of some hydrangea blooms by altering the soil’s pH levels by using fertilizers or organic matter. Add fruit peels, lawn clipping, peat moss, or pine needles to make the soil acidic to turn them blue, but if your colour scheme calls for pink, the pH needs to be on the alkaline side, so try adding dried and pulverized eggshells as an additive which will work due to their high calcium content, or you could add wood ashes, as they contain a high amount of potassium and calcium.
I was led to believe you had to bury a bag of old nails in the ground to turn them blue, and it’s true - adding iron oxide (in the form of rusty nails) acidifies the soil, which enables the absorption of aluminium and iron, and turns the blooms blue (so it wasn’t an old gardener’s tale after all).
There are around 75 species within the hydrangeaceae family, and each has unique characteristics. The best-known are Mophead, Oakleaf, Smooth, Panicle and Climbing.
One in particular is suitable for Northern Portugal – the Star Magnolia. This magnolia is one of the best-known species because it is very cold hardy, widely adaptable and blooms when very small. Star Magnolia is a slow-growing, broad-spreading, small tree or large shrub, ultimately reaching 4.5m tall or more. Leaves may be 10.20cm long and up to 8 cm wide. The dark green leaves drop in the autumn, sometimes turning yellow first.
Flowers are mainly white, although a few cultivars have pinkish flowers, and are in a ‘starburst’ shape, hence the name.
Verdant landscapes are widespread in northern Portugal due to the amount of rainfall, meaning a lawn can be maintained more easily than in the south, where it’s difficult to keep a lawn green and healthy all year round.
Many grass varieties are available, including Zoysia tenuifolia, which has gone through a decade of breeding and is now available in Portugal. This grass combines all properties of an economic turf: a reduction of 50% in water consumption and a slow growth that allows cutting intervals of 4 weeks. Less mowing is surely a good thing!
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.