One family’s attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way
|• Basic facilities||• Growing things|
|• Building renovation||• Sanitation|
|• Energy generation||• Water|
truly believe that as long as we have not found peace with the soil, we won't
find peace above the ground. That as long as we justify the exploitation of an
organism, other exploitations will follow and we will remain parasites, consuming
more than participating and spiralling into entropy until we commit mass suicide."
Traditional agricultural knowledge and techniques have already created a productive environment of this quinta. It remains for us to design in the gaps and places where tradition has lapsed into dependence on harmful chemicals or perpetuated long-held beliefs that permaculture has found questionable, aiming for a fertile partnership between permaculture principles and the best of local knowledge. Our most notable deviation will be in practicing "no-till" methods as far as possible, aiming to restore the natural fertility and life in the soil by what we grow in it and spread on top of it, rather than what we dig into it., and following the examples of Masanobu Fukuoka and Sepp Holzer in their natural farming methods.
It will take us time to get to know the land in all its seasons – where the light falls at different times of the year, where the water flows, where the wind blows, what grows where, what thrives, what doesn't, what changes, what stays the same – so we will be taking mostly small steps, with lots of observation and research and even more trial and error.
The terraces are planted with fruit and nut trees and vines throughout. After two years here, we were still being regularly surprised by discoveries of plants we've got growing. Not all trees fruit in any one year and some will need some attention before returning to health and productivity.
Many of the younger fruit trees (and many of them are young) are not particularly vigorous and show signs of stress. Some are suffering from peach leaf curl (Taphrina deformans) and there's a problem with brown rot thanks to a build-up of spore reserves in the fruit left on the trees. The priority to begin with will be a lot of observation, selective pruning, removing spore reserves, keeping the bracken and brambles down and ensuring the trees have sufficient water, supportive companion plants, and a good nutritive mulch to help them recover and grow more strongly. We'll also be sowing a lot of white clover and other leguminous nitrogen-fixers about the place.
As time goes on, we hope to turn most of our growing area into a low maintenance forest garden with smaller areas dedicated exclusively to annual vegetables.
When I bought the quinta there were only 9 widely spaced olive trees which is unlikely to be enough to provide for eating, self-sufficiency in oil, and enough left over to make all our own soap and such, so we'll be interplanting on the olive terraces. There were no figs, so these have been planted, as have nectarines and apricots. I'd also like to try growing avocados, though they'll require some sort of protection if they're to survive winters here.
I had originally envisaged vegetables taking more of a back seat in the first couple of years with the work required elsewhere getting basic facilities sorted, but the urge to get growing was too irresistible and we soon realised that to establish what grows well where, with what and how will also take time, observation and experimentation – an ongoing process that will likely keep us occupied for decades.
Sorting out water supply and irrigation was a priority. The barroco and black plastic drip irrigation system for the vineyard and fruit terraces were overgrown and blocked, and the collecting ponds and terrace levadas (irrigation channels) were also clogged with silt and vegetation, with the stream largely finding its own way through. After 2012's dry summer, this became more urgent than ever and in early 2014 we completed the installation of 2 large storage tanks filled from the stream and a rainwater collection system for the smaller of the two buildings. We also installed stand-pipes everywhere on the quinta such that nowhere is much more than 25m from a water supply.
Winter view of the steps running down beside the main barroco
There are considerable microclimatic variations across the site. The aspect varies from west through north right round to south east, though being situated one third of the way up the eastern slopes of a mountain ridge with a ridge also to the south, most of the quinta is effectively north-facing in winter and only really open to the east. There's also quite a temperature gradient where the stream pulls cold air down the valley and deciduous trees in this area are at least 2 weeks behind those elsewhere on the quinta in coming into leaf.
Aspect, proximity to the stream, irrigation reach, existing/companion planting and whether the plants themselves thrive where we attempt to grow them will determine what we grow where as much as the convenience aspects of the permaculture zoning system. (No herb spirals here! – we'll be using herbs extensively throughout the quinta as companion plants as well as growing them for their culinary and medicinal properties.)
Chickens were first on the list. We used to keep them a few years ago before we moved and we really missed having them. I would love to free-range them, but it seems an impractical propostion. Many local birds are taken by raptors. Foxes are a widespread problem, as are wild cats, genets and pine martens. Mongoose have been spotted not too many miles away. On top of that, there is the ever-present threat of uncontrolled local dogs helping themselves to a free meal. Consequently, our 4 birds live in a compound. Later, we would like to keep ducks and possibly geese and guinea fowl.
When they wrote Permaculture One in 1978, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren already knew, from their experience of Australian bushfires, that nutrient-rich forests of food-producing tree species – one outcome of permaculture design – are inherently much less of a fire hazard than fuel-rich sclerophyllous forests dominated by eucalypts or pines. Not only are they less of a hazard, they are even fire retardant.
What applies to Australia applies equally to the mountains of Central Portugal. There are the same monocultures of pine and eucalyptus – the exact same species, in fact, as are planted widely in Western Australia. Portugal imported the eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) from Australia (the first 35,000 trees were planted in the Mondego valley in 1866) and Australia imported the Maritime or Cluster pine (Pinus pinaster) from Europe (beginning in 1896). And there is the same problem with devastating forest fires.
The consequences of being surrounded by two of the most volatile and flammable species of tree on the planet mean that for us, permaculture principles are a lot more than just a sensible and sustainable way to grow things.
Quinta do Vale's bit of forest, around 1 hectare (2.5 acres), is mostly comprised of Pinus pinaster with only one or two large mature eucalyptus trees amongst them, but stands of eucalyptus are not far away. The massive boles of two ancient sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) shows what used to grow here. One of the first things we intend to get to grips with is increasing the biodiversity, fertility and moisture-retaining capacity of the forest. There are some chestnut and oak saplings amongst the pines and we will be removing the pines surrounding them and encouraging the regeneration of the indigenous understorey to restore fertility to the soil and support the saplings' growth. (I also find the whole idea of forest gardens much more exciting than annual vegetables.)
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster)
There are also many young oaks and sweet chestnuts growing on the terraces and slopes between them and we'll be progressively extending this planting, adding a good mix of other species, and coppicing appropriate varieties once they're of an age to do so. Chestnuts have a preference for north-facing slopes and they grow particularly well here. There's a lot of bracken-covered slope with only sparse tree cover at present which we'll be planting up as soon as practicable, progressively working up into the forest as we thin the pines, using the spindlier trees for constructing things like compost bins and/or rocket stove fuel and the larger specimens for firewood for the woodburning stoves. Pine wilt nematode is active in the area, so our eventual aim will be to remove all but a few of the most vigorous and healthy specimens of Pinus pinaster, planting some Stone pines (Pinus pinea) instead because they're both resistant to pine wilt nematode and the main source of edible pine nuts.
We aim to be self-sufficient in firewood and any timber we need for cultivation, construction, etc. Sweet chestnut will provide structural timber, and for cultivation and firewood we'll be planting some Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia).
Robinia species were once native to Europe in the Eocene and Miocene according to the fossil record, but the genus is now confined to North America. The tree is extensively naturallised across Europe, North India and Nepal, valued for forage and timber, and is the mainstay of commercial honey production in Hungary. It has several great advantages. It grows very rapidly, survives droughts and frosts, tolerates infertile and acidic soils, and produces livestock feed nutritionally equivalent to alfalfa, It's a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family, and like other legumes, has nodules on its roots which host nitrogen-fixing bacteria, helping to restore fertility to soils which have been depleted and impoverished by the pine and eucalyptus. It produces fragrant racemes of flowers attractive to bees who turn its nectar into good quality honey. The heartwood is infused with flavonoids which make the wood highly resistant to rot – perfect fence-post and vine support material. It can endure for over 100 years in the soil. It's a very heavy and hard wood, and makes excellent firewood for wood-burning stoves; it burns slowly, with little visible flame or smoke, and has a heat output comparable to anthracite. Finally, it coppices well and grows even faster after the first cut. (Thanks to Andy Hill at Quinta das Abelhas for introducing me to this tree.)
Other deciduous trees on the list to bring the woodland into a better balance are
As important as the trees themselves is the understorey. Here we're planning to grow edible shrubs like elderberry (Sambucus nigra), mulberry (Morus alba), the local medronheiro (strawberry tree Arbutus unedo), blackcurrant, redcurrant, billberry, raspberries, brambles (yes, brambles!) and goji berry, and shade-tolerant mineral-accumulators, nitrogen-fixers or medicinal plants like Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Oregon tea (Ceanothus sanguineus), Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
Black locust flowers
Male cone of the Wollemi pine
There's one other "pine" I've planted here, though it's not a member of the Pinaceae. This is the self-coppicing Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), one of the world's oldest and rarest trees, thought long-extinct until discovered in a canyon in Australia's Blue Mountains in 1994. There are only 100 or so specimens left in the wild, and the oldest known fossil of the tree has been dated to 200 million years old.
In order to protect them (their exact location is a well-kept secret), the tree has been propagated extensively and made available worldwide with all sales helping to finance its preservation. No two Wollemi pines grow alike. It has no value for firewood, building or food, but it's a tree who's spirit I really like, and it's as important to care for the spirit of the forest as its material existence. I spent 3 months or so in close association with this remarkable tree through a homeopathic pathogenetic trail or 'proving' and got to know it pretty well. Wollemi is an Aboriginal word meaning "look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out" – exactly what we need to do in order to learn how to work with nature, not against it. It's all about survival and renewal; about knowing who you are, believing in your self-worth and taking your place in the world. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is "Lung" function, and the tree (as with other members of the Araucariaceae) is a great atmospheric purifier, as well as having leaves resembling gills and bark that looks like the alveolar surface of a mammalian lung.
And since we're surrounded by trees equally at home in Australia, it seems somehow fitting that a Wollemi pine should be planted here.