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At One with Nature - Sue Parker considers the potential benefits of environmentally-sensitive gardening in the Algarve

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, May 2013. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve.
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On 9th May this year a milestone was passed: scientists at Mauna Loa in Hawaii recorded atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in excess of 400 parts per million. That compares with just over 300ppm when records began in 1958. The last time the 400ppm figure was passed was about three million years ago… but then it was on the way down, and sea levels were at least 10 metres higher than today. (Lisbon and London would have been sea-bed sites.)  

The amount of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is always highest in May, and it falls slightly in summer when plants in the northern hemisphere (where most of the planet’s land mass is) photosynthesise and absorb CO2. The rate of rise is 3ppm per year and increasing. What can we do?

 Most of us try to reduce waste, and we recycle where possible. Fitting low-energy light bulbs, avoiding non-essential car journeys, buying more locally-produced food - what more can we do?

Wildflowers spring up on disturbed roadside soil

Wildflowers spring up on disturbed roadside soil – Mother Nature often outclasses gardeners best efforts in the Algarve.

Gardeners don’t have to swap flowerbeds for fir trees in order to contribute to climate change mitigation. By tackling some of the Algarve’s gardening challenges in different ways we can increase the amount of carbon that is stored in a non-polluting form. Let’s consider some of those challenges:

The amazing landscape, wildlife and wildflowers are just three reasons for wanting to live here in the Algarve, but surely top of the list must be ‘the weather’. Not only does warm sunshine make us feel good but it also means we can sit outside enjoying lovely cold Vinho Verde and alfresco meals with our friends. Algarvians can plan trips to the countryside or the beach without taking both Arctic and tropical clothing, and  with a confidence that would seem foolhardy in northern Europe where, in recent years, a life raft is fast becoming an essential summer accessory.

And then there’s gardening… Northern Europeans can only dream of being able to garden all year round, never having to worry about frost killing the plants, rain washing the seedlings out, monthly gales flattening the beanpoles, and giant slugs waiting to gorge on anything green.

Cistus is drought-resistant

Cistus plants are not only drought-tolerant but they also flower prolifically for many weeks and, unlike thirsty succulents, their woody stems store carbon throughout the year.

In sun-starved climates, electric propagators and heated greenhouses kick start seedlings before synthetic sunshine substitutes are heaped on to help plants through the short growing season. Not so in the Algarve, where gardeners can indulge in their hobby at less financial and environmental cost, provided they make good use of local knowledge.

Old habits die hard, and for many incomers to the Algarve our first attempts fall short of expectations because we fail to appreciate that, for the plants we are used to growing, heat and drought can be just as devastating as a late frost.  In the past we dealt the frost problem by delaying planting or by draping dense layers of horticultural fleece over plants whenever frost was forecast. Frost is not such a big problem here; other things are...

Coping with up to four months with virtually no rain is not just difficult for the plants in our gardens; it’s a problem for us, too. Having to water every day can put a damper on many of our plans. Going away for just a few days can mean returning to plants damaged beyond recovery.  (Employing a gardener is not an option that everyone can afford.) Of course, you could set up automatic irrigation, but that is expensive economically and environmentally, and it’s infuriating if you return to find that a freak storm has more than taken care of the watering while you were away. 

Cytinus hypocystis grows on the roots of Cistus

Two for the price of one – Cytinus hypocystis  is a colourful and interesting plant that grows on the roots of Cistus.

Pots can play a key role in gardening success in the Algarve. They are less expensive here than in other countries because they are sold right where they are created.  Pots are environment friendly, because, unlike with more wasteful irrigation systems, the water goes right where it is needed and nowhere else. When managed properly, plants in pots can live for many years, flowering again and again.

Portugal is an intensely flowery place, and it seems to me that the Portuguese have the same love for flowers in their gardens as, for example, the British do. Having travelled extensively throughout many European countries where gardens are neat and tidy rather than being filled with flowers, the gardens of Portugal have a deep resonance for me. Without spending a fortune on planting or irrigation, the Portuguese achieve a colourful succession of flowers throughout the year.  They allow Mother Nature to encroach so that drought-tolerant cultivars and wildflowers jostle for supremacy in a riot of glorious colour. 

Our future depends on more that getting to grips with global warming.

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Wild Orchids of the AlgarveAlgarve Wildlife, the natural year, Second EditionWildflowers in the Algarve