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New shoots amid cool sunshine

THE short drills in the kitchen garden were moulded neat as sand sculptures. The soil, being soft and sandy, helped, but the designer and shovel-stroker had showed a touch of class -- a 'bit of an artist', to use an old Irish term of praise.

The drills had appeared suddenly before Christmas revealing the enthusiasm of a gardener preparing for another growing season. There were flat beds for peas and beans, a general clearing and tidying and cutting back of rough hedging.

The prepared ground adjoined a small rural café where , no doubt, the organic produce would eventually be served up to some lucky customers.

The neat drills reminded me of an allotment holder in Ireland years ago who took great care with his area and grew vegetables in neatly defined beds like in a painting by Miro.

I passed by the sand-drilled garden after an absence of some weeks and was astonished to see potato sprouts several inches above ground. Nearby, onion tendrils were reaching for the sky and in a wild piece of cover the berries of the strawberry tree or arbutus were bristling in striking scarlet.

In the hazy distance of low mountainside, the berries are harvested commercially to make a potent liquor called medronho, a colourless poitin-like brandy. This area is also a source of spa drinking water and, since Roman times, people have travelled to take the waters and to carry off filled containers. The water is free. The medronho must be paid for.

The arbutus grows also in Ireland, notably in Killarney National Park , but is not cultivated in sufficient quantities to consider starting up a new drinks enterprise. Berries are produced. Could there be a business opportunity? It certainly would be small-scale.

The plant-tree grows wild along the roadside where I walk into a town. I have looked at the smaller saplings with the silly idea of uprooting one or two to send home. I am sure this would be an illegal act and I have banished the thought!

In the thick brush near the strawberry growths I watched tiny birds flitting in and out of cover. I thought at first they were wrens but they had the gypsy scalps of coal tits (parus ater).

They have white cheeks and a white nape patch. Their calls are short and melancholy and their song brisk and thin.

In Dublin, a reader tells of a lone blue tit (p. caeruleus) inhabiting a garden nest box for months which, when moved, revealed a cosy nest which probably reared a family or two.

Seasonal climate puzzles are sent to interest us. Here, bronzed maple leaves are crunched underfoot while wild flowers and growth thrive in greenery. In north Mayo, a friend found a fledgling greenfinch in his farmyard on January 10. Date of hatching, anyone?

In southern Portugal there has been Arctic air to make all shiver in brilliant sunshine. Some hot port, then ... and a drop of medronho?

On one better day there was a cup of tea (cha is the local word; you'll still hear it in Ireland) before me as sparrows visited my table and, voila, for the first time, snatched a morsel from proffered fingers . . .

Joe Kennedy was writing from the Algarve, Portugal

Sunday Independent