At One With Nature - Sustainable Mediterranean Gardening

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, June 26th 2013. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. For more information about Algarve Resident...

Writing this in Wales in mid May, I felt despair as hail and howling winds battered my garden. With so far only four spring days in the UK when gardening had been feasible, but far from comfortable, I thought of friends back in sunny Portugal. They too have their gardening grumbles, mainly about how to survive with next to no rain for the next four or five months.

Chris and Tamsin's garden
A house and garden in perfect harmony

Planning and managing a garden in warm sunny climes has its own challenges, especially if you do so in an environmentally-sensitive way. Knowledge and experience gleaned from decades of gardening in northern Europe - coping with rain, hail, snow and frost (and even worse weather in the winter!)  - was of little help to me when faced with relentless heat and drought from a searing sun.  What did help, however, were the brigades of Algarve gardeners who, via their various clubs, meet to exchange tips (and plants), to talk about tools and techniques, and listen to speakers on specialist topics. As invited speakers on the subjects of fungi and wildflowers (wild orchids in particular), my husband and I are part of their ‘winter programmes’, but it is very much a two-way exchange of information: we have become friends with some very knowledgeable and helpful  gardeners.

For newcomers to the region, seeing how other people cope with Algarve conditions speeds that climb up the learning curve to gardening  success. That is why some club members host visits to their own gardens.  One such visit this spring was to the home of Tamsin Varley  and her husband Chris, who have created a garden that looks beautiful all year round and is cost effective to run.  It is also an environment- and wildlife-friendly garden, a high priority in the light of declining biodiversity and the alarming collapse of pollinating insect populations that are so essential for global food crops and hence human survival.

Like many people who buy homes in the Algarve, Chris and Tamsin inherited a garden comprising lawns and palm trees. The impracticality of keeping the grass green and the trees alive soon sank in.  Attempts to brighten up green areas with thirsty annuals in flowerbeds - a favourite technique in British gardens - failed as soon as the rains did. Today Tamsin has just a few ‘naughty’ plants in a small raised flowerbed in a shady corner; everywhere else is planned and planted for Algarve conditions.

Tamsin Varley and Chris
Chris Wink and Tamsin Varley in their lovely garden

Installing a large-scale irrigation system was economically and environmentally unacceptable to Chris and Tamsin. They saw what worked in the natural environment, and so while Chris planned the construction work necessary to realise their dream, Tamsin, a trained botanist,  boned up on drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants.

The garden is designed to work very well in the Algarve’s hot and dry climate. There are three stone-built raised beds where any necessary watering can be targeted to particular areas or individual plants. Elsewhere extensive gravelled areas planted with flowering shrubs are criss-crossed by terracotta tiled paths. Beneath the gravel a porous weed-suppressing mat also helps to retain moisture from a watering system that runs beneath the mat and is mainly used to help young plants get established.  Chris expects that once the plants are established it should not be necessary to run the watering systems more often than once every four to six weeks in the summer.

There is no doubt that native plants work, but gardeners are no different from anyone else in that familiarity breeds contempt. Cistus shrubs so adored by gardeners in northern Europe (where they are difficult to grow) seem to hold little attraction as garden plants where you can see them in the wild everywhere you go!  Well, as Tamsin has proved, there is no need to drown in a sea of cistus.

A beautiful drift of plants
A superb natural-looking drift of plants

For those who want their gardens to look different, it is worth remembering that ‘Mediterranean region’ doesn’t simply mean the area around the Mediterranean Sea. There are also Mediterranean regions in North America, South America, South Africa and Australia.  Together these five small areas account for 20 percent of the world’s plant species. If your budget will stretch to it, specialist nurseries can supply exotics from other Mediterranean regions as well as our own.

Gardening is always hard work but, as Chris and Tamsin have shown, working with the climate rather than trying to combat its impact on unsuitable plants certainly pays off. Their garden is a mini League of Nations of plants adapted to thrive in the harsh Algarve Mediterranean climate, with 40 percent of the plants from other Mediterranean regions complementing those native to the Algarve. With reduced maintenance and minimal watering, their garden is a beautiful tribute to the Algarve’s Mediterranean climate.

If you would like to join Clube do Bons Jardims contact:  Tamsin Varley [algarvetam@hotmail.com]

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