brambles on a hill

‘Get rid of brambles’ has been on our To Do List ever since I moved to rural central Portugal. That was almost five years ago. After a long, prickly process, I can finally tick this as done. Well, almost.

Here’s how not to deal with brambles, followed by the easy way of getting rid of them

During my first year of living in Moura Morta, our neighbours told us that we needed to do something about the 2-metre-high mass of brambles that was climbing up the hill and almost over our garden wall. Admittedly, they weren’t very attractive to look at but I had more urgent concerns than a bunch of weeds, no matter how big the bunch.

Year 1: Cut and burn

The neighbours insisted and mentioned the words ‘fire hazard’ so we donned thick clothes, heavy boots and ventured out with a pair of garden shears, a rake and some secateurs. Mike did the cutting and I did the raking and burning.

It was a horrible job; sweaty, painful and scary. Scary because the hill is steep and uneven so we were in constant fear of slipping and tumbling into an abyss of ancient barbs, and partly because I’d never been in charge of a bonfire before. From time to time, the neighbours came to watch us from the track above, bemused by our efforts.

Why didn’t we use chemicals? they asked. Good point. Why didn’t we? After several hours of hard labour we had only managed to clear a strip about a metre wide along the length of our garden wall.

We asked around and bought some evil potion from the Agricultural Cooperative which I was too scared to use.

The brambles grew back but not quite as far as our wall.

country house, Portugal
The mass of brambles in the bottom left of the picture were creeping up to engulf our house

Year 2: Dig ’em up

The following spring, we went through the same routine of slashing and burning, wishing we could just set fire to the whole hillside and have done with it. Not a good idea when you’re surrounded by eucalyptus forest. We managed to hack a bit further into the tangle of brambles and uncovered an olive tree and a peach tree. Reluctant to let the brambles return, we dug them up by the roots.

It felt like progress and we even toyed with the idea of clearing the ground for some veggies.

Year 3: Ignore them and hope they’ll go away

The veggies didn’t happen but thanks to our digging efforts the year before, the regrowth was minimal. Neither of us was keen to battle the brambles any further into submission so we did nothing that year except squirt them with Round Up. That made the edge of the bramble cloud turn brown but by the following spring, the patch that we’d cleared was claimed by regrowth and the olive tree had disappeared again.

Year 4: Strim, strim, baby

We talked about getting a strimmer but the steep slope was dangerous enough with the thorny brambles let alone a lethal piece of machinery handled by incompetents.

A friend offered to help and spent a couple of hours strimming as far as he dared before the ground seemed to drop off into nothingness. His hard work uncovered the olive tree again and pushed the brambles a little further into retreat.

Having seen how quickly a strimmer could blast through the brambles, we looked into paying someone to get rid of them. I picked up a leaflet for a local forestry management organisation who clear land for a living. Perfect, I thought, and sent them an email.

No response. (This no longer comes as a surprise – see Q is for Quotes)

We found a card for an expat who does that sort of thing. He gave us a quote. We snorted in disbelief. The brambles stayed.

Having reached the limit of our strimming possibilities, we turned again to chemicals and consulted an expert who reassured me that the stuff I had bought would not kill everything in a 50-mile radius and even bought us the right equipment for squirting it. We made up the solution and Mike bravely set off down the hill to spray.

Trouble is, when the wall of brambles is taller than a man, there’s only so far that the spray will reach.

The result? The first metre of the wall of brambles turned brown and there was very little regrowth on the patches that had been cleared in previous years.

After four years, we had only managed to push back the tide of brambles about 5 metres.

brambles on a hill
We had beaten the brambles back a few metres but they were still lying in wait.

There were a lot of forest fires last year. One night, we stood watching anxiously as flames licked down a hillside a couple of kilometres away and the neighbours once again pointed out that our house was surrounded by highly flammable brambles and bushes.

There was nothing we could do about it in the height of summer but we resolved to sort it out before the following summer.

Year 5: Get the professionals in

This time I rang the Associação de Produtos Florestais de Poiares and after about three weeks of postponements (all well-communicated) we woke up one morning to the sound of strimmers.

Mike and I watched in awe as three men waved their machines at the offending vegetation and reduced it to shreds. In less than a day, they had cleared as much of the land as they could get a foothold on, leaving us with a naked hillside.

Freshly strimmed hillside
Now that the men with strimmers have worked their magic, the hill is naked of brambles.
strimmed hillside and trees
Everything past the low wall was either brambles or small bushes. Now we can get to the cork oak tree. After that, the land drops off sharply toward the river so that’s as good as it gets.

All we need to do now is pick up the old plastic buckets and other rubbish that had been tossed into the brambles. And spray the surrounding brambles to keep them in retreat.

peach tree
This is the first time we’ve seen the trunk of this peach tree. You can see it’s still got strands of brambles in its branches. Behind it, the jungle of brambles is at least 2 metres high.

My advice to anyone with a bramble problem: get the professionals in straight away.

For just over €100 they did more in 4 hours than we managed in 4 years. Worth every cent! Find your local Associação Florestal and if you can’t handle phoning them in Portuguese yourself, find someone to do that for you.

For the Vila Nova de Poiares area, I can recommend the Associação de Produtores Florestais de Poiares: Tel 239 429 000

This post is part of my ongoing Personal A to Z of Portugal.

Have you battled the brambles and won? How did you manage it?

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11 Comments

  1. So glad I found your blog. Very helpful! We moved to the Caldas da Rainha area about 6 months ago – right before the winter rainey season which was rather wet and lingering (confirmed by the locals.) So it was all we could to try to get some minor yard work done.

    We bought a small house but with almost 2 hectares of property mostly existing behind the house. Previous owner had fenced in and reasonably maintained a good sized part which is full of mature and producing fruit trees of all kinds. (Yay!) But the rest of the back area (which we affectionately called “the wilderness”) while beautiful and lush with ferns and corn trees and pines and all manner of greenery was also nearly impassable with equally lush ginormous brables/briars! And also heavily sloping in many parts.

    We’re having it cleared today of all underbrush (sad to see the ferns gone.) But where I’m from even little blackberry briars are hard to kill. Some of the briars they’ve cut through today have vines as thick as a thumb! And I know this just beats them down today. I, like you, hesitate to use chemical measures, but see no other way. Their roots run deep and they are tenacious buggers!!
    Thanks again for your well told tales of your experiences and the pics you included. Obrigada!

    Lisa (and Montie) in Vale do Coto

  2. I used to live in Oregon, home of the ever creeping and insidious blackberry bramble bush!! We tackled it with borrowing some pigmy goats that specialize in eating brambles, it’s their favorite food – they cleared the hillside land land in a matter of days!! It was only about 1/4 acre but before the goats was a tangled mass of brambles!

    1. That sounds like a win-win solution – happy goats and no brambles. Not sure where to get my hands on any pigmy goats around here but worth bearing in mind!

  3. oh blimey we have enough trouble with weeds and the neighbours’ cats – sounds like you had a nightmare with the brambles! It looks so different now though … congrats! and ‘phew’ re the fire hazard too – scary thought! great post as always Julie

    1. Thanks! They’ve been the bane of my existence ever since I moved here – I can’t tell you how happy I am to see the back of them. It should be relatively easy to keep them at bay now but at least I know what to do if they ever get out of hand again.

  4. I didn’t expect to gain anything from an article on brambles…I don’t have brambles at our home in the historic center of Cascais. Yet I’m happy that I read your article, Julie, as there was much to gain. It’s good to find others who struggle to accomplish something yet don’t give up; the humor was fun; and yes, I’m not the only one who can’t get replies to emails, can’t get appointments or quotes, can’t command the power and results that I enjoyed in my life in the US. Thanks for encouraging and entertaining us.

    1. Author

      I’m glad you took the time to read it and comment, Susan, and that you enjoyed it! I’m in despair today trying to get someone to come and fix our washing machine – or at least communicate with me – but that’s another story 😉

  5. I loved your post.
    I found it extremely interesting and I think your experience will teach something to us all.
    Lol

    1. Thanks! I think the main lesson is to not let a lack of language skills get in the way of contracting professionals to do a job quickly and easily 😉

  6. Ya’ know one day I need to sit down and write about my experiences in Portugal. I used to live there in the early eighties while serving in the USAF at the NATO compound in Oeiras. I recently returned in June of 2012 and spent the entire month living in Estoril and touring the country from there. We had a really fantastic visit and hope to return again sometime soon for another. Hopefully more to come…

    1. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of tales to tell, Len! You should definitely write them down. I’m glad that you enjoyed Portugal again after being away for so long. Come back soon 🙂

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