Permaculturing in Portugal

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

Water of life

What a difference a fortnight can make. True to the Portuguese saying “Em Abril, águas mil” (lit. in April, a thousand waters), April showers began on April 1st, breaking the long spell of drought we’ve had since a few downpours in early November. Really though, it hasn’t rained ‘properly’ since last May. The amount that’s fallen so far is still small and only the top 8cm or so of the soil is damp, but the difference it’s made to the vegetation on the quinta is remarkable. A month ago, the raised beds looked all but empty bar the few stunted cabbages and remaining mangelwurzels that had managed to hold on through the dry winter and its frosts. None of the usual early vegetables were showing any signs of breaking dormancy and only the fruit trees were blossoming.

Now everything is transformed.

Yurt terrace raised beds in mid March

Yurt terrace raised beds in mid April

The warm March followed by damp April have sent most of the cabbages bolting straight to seed, but we’re enjoying the flower heads as a vegetable – sweet and tender – along with the also-bolting rainbow chard and perpetual spinach, and the first asparagus tips.

The real delight is in seeing so many of the trees and fruit bushes planted this Spring bursting into leaf. I was convinced the drought would have put paid to at least half of them, because very few of them were watered in after planting. All but a couple of the birch saplings we planted in the woods and terraces are coming into leaf and only one blueberry has failed to make it. All the blackcurrant and redcurrant prunings (a gift from Quinta das Abelhas) that were simply stuck into the ground are now producing leaves and I still have at least a dozen in a bucket waiting for me to find a suitable location for them. I’m always saying you can never have too many berries, but they may yet put that to the test …

We’ve made progress with planting this year towards the eventual forest garden that will occupy much of this quinta. The superb job Duncan has been doing in thinning and clearing the woods has opened up space for planting birch (Betula spp.), medronho (the local strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo), Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica) and around 2 dozen blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) which will enjoy the acidic soil beneath the pines, though less so the dry conditions in summer so we’ll see how they do before planting more extensively. This is just a small start. There is much more to do here.

On the terraces I’ve planted …
Shade trees: half a dozen birches (Betula spp.) and a weeping willow (Salix babylonica).
Fruit trees: a mulberry (Morus nigra), 3 pears (Pyrus communis, a selection of old varieties – Comice, Williams and Beurre Hardy – to complement the local Rocha growing here, the Williams and Comice in the yurt terrace raised beds to provide shade), 1 greengage (Prunus domestica ‘Reine Claude Verte’), 1 orange (Citrus × sinensis) and 1 tree tomato or tamarillo (Solanum betaceum).
Fruit bushes: 2 gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa), 2 jostaberries (Ribes × nidigrolaria, a blackcurrant-gooseberry cross), 2 goji berries (Lycium barbarum), around a dozen tayberries (Rubus fruticosus x idaeus), raspberries and yellow raspberries (Rubus idaeus) and about 3 dozen blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) and redcurrants (Ribes rubrum).

Two previously uncultivated terraces have been cleared of perennials like couch grass, brambles and nettles, then mulched and planted: a new fruit terrace and the area around our solar outdoor shower which is now a mixture of fruit and vegetables.

Solar shower terrace planted up with blackcurrants, strawberries, leeks and carrots

Solar shower terrace planted up with blackcurrants, strawberries, leeks and carrots

In the existing beds, the asparagus is now getting into its stride, onions and comfrey are appearing everywhere and the strawberries are in flower and producing lots of new leaves. The lovage is coming back strongly and I’ll be sowing the bed with rocket and coriander to see if the delayed flowering effect we observed last year with the brassicas planted around it can be repeated with these two species that have a tendency to run straight to seed in this climate.

Strawberries and onions

Strawberries and onions



There’s an interesting difference in how well the garlic is doing in one of the Hügelbeets compared to the non-Hügelbeet right next to it.

Hügelbeet (right) and ordinary raised bed (left)

Hügelbeet (right) and ordinary raised bed (left)

Garlic growing in the Hügelbeet. Behind it, a flowering savoy cabbage

Garlic growing in the Hügelbeet. Behind it, a flowering savoy cabbage

Garlic growing in the ordinary raised bed

Garlic growing in the ordinary raised bed

It would be nice to be able to attribute this difference to Hügelkultur, but I suspect it has more to do with a) the kitchen sink drainage channel which runs alongside the Hügelbeet and b) a garlic bulb with poorer than average vigour in the ordinary bed. There could be a Hügelfaktor at work here, but it’s still difficult to be certain.

And here’s a plant that didn’t make it through the cold of winter. Clearly this isn’t the best position for rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) as another bush planted outside the main building is thriving with only minimal frost burn to the leaves. I will find a herb that disappears underground for the winter to take its place.

Rosemary that succumbed to the winter cold

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  1. Luise April 17, 2012

    Hello Wendy!
    Good to hear your garden is banging!
    I’m very curious about the tree tomato you planted: Is it frost hardy? Or did you find it a microclimate spot without frost?
    I agree with never too many berries! We have about 15 currant bushes and 7 gooseberry bushes and even though they’re all pretty big boys, there are still never enough berries for all the preserves I’d like to make after we’ve eaten our fresh share and baked some cakes…. Luckily they propagate so easily by cuttings, so I started a nursery bed with 50 more currant and gooseberry cuttings. I can already see myself loading up a huge truck with all the plants I want to take to Portugal when we move….. :p
    Have a great spring!

  2. Quinta do Vale April 17, 2012

    Hello Luise! The tree tomato is NOT frost hardy. It’s planted in the warmest part of the quinta. It’ll get fleeced in winter and I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but it’s right on the edge of its survival range here so it may not make it. Nothing ventured though …

    Have a great Spring yourself!

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