Gardening in Portugal – Planning your Waterways

The sun has finally come out and the terrible East wind has stopped wuthering around the house. Spring “em cheio” is just around the corner. We are out, racing against time, to get jobs done before the soil sets like concrete and we can’t do anything, except sit and look at it all.


                                            The sun has got his hat on!

It is always the case that you have to garden to the weather, but even more so here .It’s  critical to get seeds sown when the temperature is just right, to transplant seedlings whilst there is still moisture in the soil and above all, to realise that once it gets above 30 degrees, everything simply stops growing.


                                                     Dry cracked clay soil

We are in a country where water is at a premium, so using it wisely is very important. Apart from not being great for the environment, water is expensive here. It is metered and once you use more than a certain amount, can be quite costly.

We live in the heart of rural Algarve. Many houses don’t have mains water, even now. People use deep bore holes which tap into underground water sources, or collect winter rainwater  into tanks or cisternas which they use sparingly in the long dry summer months. In our small village there is a deep well, which was probably used in Roman times. The water is sweet and can be drunk, but right next to it is a drinking fountain from the mains! The farmer opposite has found Roman pottery and coins in his fields and uses the water to grow enormous lettuces, probably much as the Romans did also.

Our house is newly built, but we asked for a cisterna to be added. It is really just a giant water butt, and collects rainwater from the roof in the winter, which I am hoping to use on my vegetables through the Spring and Summer. It is full to the brim, the only downside to its use being that my vegetable garden is at the back of the house and we have to use an electric pump to get the water up there from the cisterna. I suppose I should get some sort of bicycle contraption rigged to it, so I could get fitter and power it at the same time, although I need most of my energy at the moment to keep up with all the work in the garden.


                                              The cisterna for our house

The lack of water dictates the gardening and agricultural practices hereabouts. You can grow crops which come to fruition without extra watering, but it’s a tricky business. Broad beans (favas) and peas (ervilhas) are sown in the Autumn at first rains, and even potatoes. The beans and peas are eaten both fresh and dried and form a staple crop during the year. However, it’s  often touch and go.  Sometimes the rains fail, sometimes fields are flooded by weeks of torrential rain, rotting the beans in the ground, sometimes the high winds destroy the peas just as they are ready to set seed. Which is perhaps why the Portugese  farmers love their trees  so much. The trees have roots extending deeply into the clay soil and can survive several years of drought.  Olives, almonds, cork, plums, peaches, apples, pears, pomegranates, nespera (loquat), apricot, walnut, even avocado and sometimes mangoes, all these produce fruit by the bucketload at different times during the year.

Preserving water means you need to think carefully about where and how you plant and indeed, what you plant.   I first got interested in Waterwise hardening after listening to a talk by Marilyn Medina Ribeiro, who runs this company in the Algarve. There lots of water wise tips on her website. She points out that there are lots of plants, such as Salvia Candelabrum, that you could never grow if you watered them all the time and that to overwater will kill them as surely as weedkiller. I was aslo encouraged by reading the book, “The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate” by Olivier Filippi. It gives you the tools to think about a new way of gardening  where you can have  lovely garden  without expensive automatic watering systems, with an understanding of how to garden in a dry climate, at the deepest level. There are lots of practical tips for a new gardener like me, but an established gardener coming new to a hot climate would learn much, I think. There is a very useful list of plants which will thrive, even in a long summer of high temperatures and drought. It’s a bit expensive, but well worth every penny in the dead plants you will have to bury if you don’t follow its practices!


                    My “vegetable garden” at the end of the Summer

The lack of water has affected attitudes to gardening amongst the Portugese neighbours in my village, where with such scarce water and in times of hardship, such as the present crisis, food takes priority. Flowers seem to be seen as  the indulgence of the woman of the house often, and planted at the front, where the odd bucket of washing up water is thrown upon them. That isn’t to say they are not loved and cherished. Most of my neighbours try to outdo each other, with all kinds of exotic species that shouldn’t really be growing on the Algarve, the brighter and prettier the better. I bought some of these one Autumn in the market , spending quite a bit of money, and failed miserably at making them grow. The harsh wind and cold weather cut them down and they refused to wake up in the Spring.

The lavenders, cistus, salvias and rosemary are growing in abundance all over the serra, however, with nary a drop of water. These are my plants of choice now and I have dedicated a large area in my garden to them and also ornamental grasses, which I will write about in more detail in a future blog.


                  A field of wild lavender in the valley below my house

Although we have little water or none in the summer, sometimes we have far too much. I have known in rain in stair rods for a month on end in the winter. That is almost a worse problem, as root rot is also the end of many plants.

So no pressure then!  So much to learn.  I hope I live long enough to learn how to work with this beautiful piece of the earth I have  custody of for a short time. Whatever I do though, I am hoping to do it with as little water as possible. Please give me any tips or ideas for saving water if you have them. I need to learn a lot, quickly!

Please talk to me. I am struggling here!

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