Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Vegetable lessons

It was my initial intention to concentrate on our energy generation and building renovation this year, but the temptation to get started on growing our own food was irresistible and we dug over part of a couple of terraces in the Spring to create some temporary beds and plant a few vegetables.

The long-term plan is to create raised vegetable beds in a no-dig, minimal-rotation system of cultivation based on well mixed companion planting amongst the (eventual) forest garden, but the thick mat of nettle and bramble roots, mint and dock meant that initially the ground needed to be dug over to remove these very persistent plants and give the vegetables a chance.

The soil we’ve dug so far is good and deep, but needs a lot more organic matter and life in it. Very few worms. We also opted for the conventional rows of vegetables, mainly for speed and convenience at this early stage. At least it would give us the chance to observe what works and what doesn’t.

Vegetable beds on the yurt terrace

Yurt vegetable beds

We planted an initial selection of vegetables outside the yurt before we went back to Scotland in April, but came back to find it had rained a lot while we were away and many of the vegetable seedlings had been squeezed out by the far more vigorous wild flora. Although some of that was edible (nettles, chickweed, fat hen), there were plentiful enough supplies elsewhere on the quinta, so, excepting the onions, radishes, rocket, rainbow chard, perpetual spinach and a handful of Lollo rosso lettuces which survived enough to be rescued, we started again.

Given the much later stage in the season, we opted to buy a lot of seedlings at market, rather than raise our own, but did re-sow carrots, beetroot and various leaf vegetables. The New Zealand spinach has consistently failed to germinate, ditto parsley and coriander, and we had little success with a sowing of lettuce since it was already too hot for lettuce seed germination (more than 18°C), so planted seedlings in a shadier location instead. Here the shade has favoured the slugs and the lettuce has grown much more slowly with less sun … hey ho!

We have experimented with seeding some of the vegetable beds with a ground cover of white clover to provide additional nitrogen, suppress weeds and retain moisture, and surrounding them with onions to deter pests.

Vegetable beds with white clover ground cover and onion borders

Vegetable beds with white clover ground cover and onion borders

The clover seems to have worked well so far, though the ‘weeds’ still make it through. The onions have suffered from acting as the bed ‘borders’: rolling cats, galloping dogs, the odd accident with the hosepipe and the resident mole (which apparently enjoys chewing off the roots and popping them out of the ground) have taken a heavy toll, so we won’t be bordering with them again. The garlic was far too delicate for its location at the edge of a path, so ditto with that.

We now have lots of green beans, but it’s been noticeable the extent to which the beans at the bottom of the slightly sloping bed have done better than the ones at the top, purely as a result of the additional water they get being at the bottom of the slope. The bottom ‘wigwam’ has no blackfly either, while the top two do. This is despite a ‘swale’ at the top of the slope in the form of a drainage channel dug along the base of the terrace wall which, although not containing a lot of water, is never dry. We’ve levelled and banked the soil around the ‘wigwam’s to contain more surface run-off from the daily watering, and will see if this brings on the top beans to a greater extent.

Green bean 'wigwam's

Green bean ‘wigwam’s

Clearing a large quantity of well-rotted manure from the animal house provided an extra boost for the terrace below the building, and we planted courgettes, butternut squash, asparagus, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in this area. The plants here have really thrived, especially in comparison to the yurt area beds, and we’re already harvesting lots of courgettes. We also have about half a dozen cabbages and a couple of squashes on this terrace which appeared all by themselves. No idea yet what the squashes will turn out to be, but it will be fun finding out.

Courgettes and butternut squash

Courgettes and butternut squash

Tomatoes, asparagus, peppers and a stray cabbage

Tomatoes, asparagus, peppers and a stray cabbage

So lots of lessons so far and no doubt many more to come. I’m glad I put the effort in to do this this year, even though the daily maintenance (watering and weeding) is not inconsiderable. It’s a world away from growing vegetables in Scotland, where the problems are mostly the opposite to what they are here: too much water and not enough sun.

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