When we first bought our little farm, I was disappointed that there were no olive trees on it. Word spread and we were soon offered a three acre patch of land running along a seasonal stream, half a mile out of the village. There were fifty olive trees, a load of wild pine, some amazing wildflowers and rock formations, and a quarter acre walled section known as hortinha, which means 'vegetable garden'. I fell in love with the place, and it soon became my very own in lieu of a wedding present.
The walled section is quite a magical place with a well and an amazing sense of tranquility and permanence. It's one of those places that feels like it is on loan from the people who have lived here before, and is intended to live in harmony with until it can be handed on to another generation. When I step inside, it's like stepping into an ancient sacred grove and seems to demand the same level of respect. I tend to call it the secret garden, and the time has come to share it with the rest of the world.
The secret garden is at the highest end of the land. During heavy rain a seasonal stream forms and runs around the outside of the southernmost wall. It then continues under the track and down the rest of the land, cutting through some amazing rocks as it does so. When my son was younger we would walk down here to sit on those rocks and study The Gaia Atlas of Earthcare. It has some very special memories for us.
And this is the secret garden itself, a walled quarter acre that is the only place we have that the donkeys could run free on.
Apart from the twenty olive trees, the main feature of the garden is the rather impressive well, complete with a little stone wall which is an excellent place to sit and commune with the donkeys. There are also old grape vines growing around the well, complete with the remains of an old trellis.
Here's another shot of the well.
I believe that the walls were originally build to keep the wild boar out so that the area inside could be used to grow vegetables. Over the decades, the wall seems to have acted as a gabion and soil has collected within the walls, especially at the lower end. See how much higher the ground level is where my son is standing compared to the level this side of the wall. It seems to me that the wall was originally level all the way around but has had to be be build up near the gateway in more recent years to allow for a gate to be used to keep the boar out.
This is the view on the inside of that section of wall. See how the top of the wall is of a much lower quality of build than the rest, as though it was added in a hurry or by a less experienced builder. Also, it's obvious that the soil is nearly to the level of the wall on the inside of the garden - a fence has been added at some point, though I'm not certain if that was to keep boar out or domestic animals in.
This is the height of the wall at the lower end of the garden, taken with my son standing on the inside.
This photo was supposed to show how much lower the ground level is on the far side of the wall, but it's been raining and the stream is running and he didn't want to get his feet wet.
If you peep over the wall you get a glimpse of the stream. At some point another wall has been built here, though I really don't know what for, and it appears to have acted as another gabion. The stream now surges both through the wall and over the top in a mini waterfall.
And this is the height of the wall at the top of the garden.
The result of the gabion effect has been that the secret garden has spent decades gradually accumulating soil, instead of degrading and losing soil like virtually every other bit of non-abandoned land in the area. The soil on our main farm is incredibly thin and poor, but here it is much deeper, at least in places. The grass stays greener here much longer than on anywhere else we own as the deeper soil holds more water. Also the olive trees provide a bit of shade.
So last year we decided it was time to experiment and see what it was like to grow vegetables in.
Particularly interesting that the soil has been building up naturally in it. Suggests a strategy for other areas perhaps. Dry stone walling can be so beautiful, but you are right that it is a dying art - you can do courses on it here in the UK but very few people reach the level of skill of the old timers who's livelyhoods depended on the quality of their walls.
This country is littered with semi-defunct walls that could be reinstated with some effort, but modern wire fencing is cheaper and easier.
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Of course, the first problem we hit with the experiment was deciding what to do. My other half tends to want to do things that I'd rather he didn't, and, as my health is iffy and it's him that tends to end up doing all the work, I can only put my foot down so hard and compromises have to be reached.
The first compromise was on clearing the land ready for planting. He wanted to plough the whole lot up to 'clean' it and then plant a patch of veggies to see how they coped compared to the rest of the farm. I didn't want him to plough up any of it, but we eventually compromised so that he could plough up the veggie patch and I would clear all the grass right down to bare earth to keep the neighbours happy and reduce the weeds. Here's my trusty steed having finished the weed clear-up operation and getting ready to haul a bit of timber before being moved back up to the farm. She also left behind a nice supply of manure for putting on the veggie patch.
This was the experimental patch. We tried to choose a nice level place, not too close to the olive trees in case the veggies didn't mix with them, but making use of their shade. We have terrific problems on the rest of our land as there is no shade and no soil worth speaking of and it's exceptionally difficult to keep things alive, let alone growing, during Portugal's crazy hot, dry summers.
My other half soon got busy planting lettuces, cabbages, chard, beetroot...
...and beans. No garden is complete without beans. We agreed not to use any toxic gick of any kind, and I managed to persuade him that mulch was compulsory.
The wells in Portugal are amazing. They are so wide that sunlight gets in and there is generally a good supply of green pond-weed stuff clogging them up and providing food and habitat for critters.
It's also a fairly easy job to throw a hook in and haul some of it out!
There - a nice big bucket full of green mulch. Those cabbage transplants had got a bit pot-bound and are going to need all the help they can get!
If there are such things as mermaids, I'm sure that's what their hair would be like...
Someone's enjoying themselves - he looks like an overgrown cabbage-patch kid. We noticed very early on that although the soil isn't super-fertile, it's certainly a whole load more fertile than any other soil we have. Also, it's deeper and holds water better so that we only had to water once a week, which, in Portugal, is pretty amazing!
Also, as you can see, despite donkey's best efforts at clearing all the grass and 'weeds', they made a determined effort to return. After all, they have been growing here relatively undisturbed for goodness knows how long, and they are surrounded by a patch of very well functioning near-natural ecosystem. It's going to take some determined effort to stop them, and I had no intention of trying. It turned out that I'm very glad we didn't.
They say that if you plant enough variety, then beneficial insects will move in. In this case, they were already here in a vengeance! The moment we picked a leaf, or bruised one, hoverflies and other critters would turn up to take advantage of whatever critters they assumed were causing the damage. My other half has been gardening for decades and although he kind of knew in theory about beneficial insects, he was gobsmacked at the way we would be surrounded by them every time we tried to do anything with 'their' plants. He's now as convinced as I am that using toxins to control 'bugs' is a seriously bad idea.
Here's a few photos I took last autumn.
Some olives, not quite ripe.
A jarrahdale pumpkin.
Galega cabbage and chard.
And a basket of goodies, including a few scrumped quince. Complete with hoverfly.
Overall we were very impressed and decided to gradually turn it into a forest garden, and to keep a veggie patch down there for growing 'pure bred' pumpkins that I don't want to interbreed with the selection we keep on the main farm, and a few beans and cabbages and things to keep the pantry stocked up. And also to keep it as pure and fully functioning as a complete ecosystem as possible.
That's as far as we got last year. This spring we had more experiments to do!
Really wonderful, Burra..."the Secret Garden" was a favorite book growing up...funny all I remember is the sense of peace and mystery of the garden,,,not really the story. That feeling comes across in your pictures beautifully through the stone and water and lushness of the greenery. Thanks for sharing this.
"We're all just walking each other home." -Ram Dass
"Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder."-Rumi
This was the garden in February this year. The wall on the right of the photo is along the south edge, so there is more shade just inside that wall than almost anywhere else on the farm.
We already planted an almond tree a week or two before. See how much moss is on this north-facing side of the wall.
The soil actually has a bit of depth here!
We've tried and failed many times with rhubarb. Maybe this time...
There's pennywort on that wall too. It's edible, but not that exciting. At least, I don't think so, but my other half seems to treat that wall like a snack-bar.
Same with berries. They do great in the spring, give us a delicious sample of berries, them shrivel up and die in the summer sun. Maybe, just maybe, they'll work here. This one is a redcurrant.
More trees, more fruit, more shade. Win, win. You can see a row of favas (broad beans) growing, too. I might pinch the tops off as greens soon. My son prefers me to do that in the hope that there will be fewer favas to eat, but my other half always seems to make sure there are plenty to go round.
Apricots are a bit tougher and cope with drier soil and more sun, so this one's going here. Have a look at that wall and compare it with the wall on the other side of the garden. Note the lack of moss on the sunny side!
Generally when we plant trees at least half of them die due to the poor, thin soil, excessive heat and sun, and poor water supply. We don't like to overwater them as we want to encourage them to send roots as deep and far reaching as possible to find their own water, but it seems that on most of our land it's just not possible for them to survive. It will be interesting to see how they cope here. Everything looks so lush and green at the moment it's difficult to imagine how dry and burned up everything gets in August, and we'd really like to restrict waterings to no more than once a week, even for young trees. I think we've planted enough trees for this year - if they survive we'll put more in either in the autumn or next year. We still have the veggie garden to plant though. More soon!
I am new here, but I have been reading this forum since last year, and I have been a secret admirer of your work. You chose a very funny nickname.
In any case, my fiancee and I are planning to buy some land near Castelo Branco and start our own permaculture, aquaponics project. We have no experience at all but we are keen to learn on the job, provided that we can find people like you who are experts on this subject now. We don't know anyone in the area and we fear we will be pretty much alone. I speak Portuguese fluently but my fiancee is Dutch and doesn't speak Portuguese. I guess he will have to learn and quick.
You seem to know a lot about a lot of things and I would be very happy if you could give us some tips and advice on our projects or on how to make some extra money in these areas.
Diego Footer on Permaculture Based Homesteads - from the Eat Your Dirt Summit