Having had the good fortune of being contracted out to create a Permaculture landscape at Herdade de Lage, a 130 HA (325 acre) ranch in Alentejo near Odmeria, Portugal, a small group of permies banded together to meet the clients needs and the landscapes wishes. Our first task there at the ranch was to establish zone 1 gardens out in front of the taipa ruin that is being renovated. Work started in the late winter that seemed to drag on this year in Portugal with cold temperatures and near constant rains.
Upon arrival and examination of the space we saw a previously terraced space that was near level but still gently sloping to the south-south east. The space is an irregular shape being nearly triangular but more of a rhombus shape. The eastern border has an old square water tank while the northern edge contains a ruin “shed” that has several rooms including the regions largest bread oven. This space became known a “the pizza hut” and quite multifunctional and huge asset as most zone 1 gardens dictate some building infrastructure. On the southern edge on the western half, a dense thicket of canas ( a local bamboo like grass) is mixed with fig to form a nice hedgerow and with lower sun angles a shadier and more moist region in the garden. . Two smallish plum trees on the southern half of the western edge also give some shade and wind break but only after leaf out. Access was served on several sides after some clearing of blackberry, which was starting to creep along fence lines and edges including the Plum tree space which was mangling their growth. Water to the area was non existent for ag purposes other than a barrel filled for house construction purposes on the northern side of the pizza hut. The soils felt compacted as previous land use had been a space for cows to rest in summer months along their rotations. The vegetation indicated levels of compaction with tussock grasses, rhizominous grasses and other short growing, flattened herbaceous plants. Meanwhile understanding the space within the whole of the farm was examined as we saw how a zone 2 spill over garden would take place as well as the broad acre approach to the whole farm including water management.
With three of us adding input to the design it flowed pretty quickly and well. My main role was to listen to each persons observations and design ideas while collating that into a design. I broadened my thinking beyond just agriculture seeing it as a truly multifunctional space. A tool that helped that process was making a list of all the functions and matching elements into that so that the principle of multiple elements and multiple functions could be reinforced. We also used mind mapping and designs were utilized on paper and computer. The main elements that were decided upon were keyhole garden beds, “fish” shaped beds emulating the wave pattern, pit gardens, and edible hedgerows.
Working with local Portuguese people on the building crew allowed us to tap into the greater community of resources in the area. Needing to create disturbance in the field to turn it from grasses to open ground dictates using a plough to do so quite often especially in the modern-day time constructs. While detrimental to soil life, it is somewhat inevitable
when dealing with compacted soils and grasses and does open things up for improvement. Fossil fuel driven implements are wonderful tools of disturbance when used once to set up permanent systems rather than their constant treadmill, which is even the norm in most organic farms. Thus we dug out the tussock grasses, which are a perennial clumping grass, before the tractor ever arrived for later reuse. The driver used a moldboard plough to open the soil initially. We had to wait till the soils dried out so we got started on other projects including better setting up a zone 0 space. Meanwhile we created a seed mix and began sowing cool season crops in trays such as lettuce, brassica’s of all sorts, and chard. To aid in the germination process I also created a cold frame mostly of material lying around and purchased greenhouse plastic. It is a simple structure made of five pallets that were recycled from the building project that was progressing right along side of us. With another few pieces of wood lying around, some nails and screws, I put the mini greenhouse together up against an exterior wall of the pizza hut. I was hoping this would serve as a thermal mass source since the wall was earthen as well. Another project we took on from the beginning was making hot compost.
After noting where carbon and green material could be sourced from, we assembled the classic slightly bigger than one cubic meter or yard hot compost pile. We of course did the monitoring it dictates and turning. These initial piles are always difficult on a new site and we learned not to add too much finely cut green material that we got from strimming the space of the herb layer with a machine. It just gives too much green edge and causes too much green material to be added thus too much nitrogen. To further aid in our soil building process we also began a worm bin and started slowly adding material to it to keep the worms happy, full and multiplying as we started with a small starter kit. Attention should always be paid to soil building efforts in first steps as it takes months to yield compost, hot or cold. Watch the banter below with fellow project mate Karsten Hinrichs on us turning compost.
After some time off from the project to work up at Terra Alta in Sintra, our host site for summer PDC’s in Portugal, we came together again as a group for the next phase of implementation. After debate on leveling the whole terrace with a bull dozer we decided that it would be better for reducing compaction to just use a tractor again for disking to create the next level of disturbance needed for creating growing space. We did hand leveling of the space afterwards creating several small terraces within the space to create a stair stepped effect in the landscape but on a more minuet scale. This allowed us to begin to implement the design with access and water being the main framework. This created central pathways and a central watering hole for a spot to dip watering cans in for hand watering. The main pathways divided the garden in different spaces. From there we planted the hedgerows which were meant to give the garden more protection especially from the dryings winds of Alentejo. On the northern rim of the garden we densely planted feijoa (10 feet or 3 m) spacing as the main anchor plant. This hardy, evegreen subtropical gives delectable winter fruits and is drought hardy and wind resistant making it a perfect multifunctional plant for our needs. Although common in New Zealand where I first encountered and this plant being a climate analog to this project, they are only now emerging as a tree crop in Portugal. On the southern rim, to compliment the plums, we planted Asian persimmon ( Diospyrus kaki) which is deciduous but holds its leaves for much of the year. We planted guilds with each one of these trees as well with the feijoas, which also included other bigger windbreak support species, Casuarina and Elaeagnus. Both fix nitrogen, use of biological resources, and give other yields but their main aim besides wind protection is chop and drop rough mulch for the fiejoa’s thus accelerating succession and evolution. Herbs like comfrey, pineapple sage, wormwood, and rosemary were added to the guilds and to help stack in space and time. While these perennials are filling out, we planted excess Brassica’s, which were more than happy to come out of their trays and into this space. Planting annuals in is a great way to get early yields and with their more needy water thirst it is a way to ensure your perennials get their water needs met adequately in the first few weeks of their lives.
We also began to create the shapes of the keyholes and fish beds as we leveled and terraced thus creating edge. As we did this, we removed perennial weeds by their roots and embarked on the unenviable task of pulling rhizominous grasses. The soil revealed that it wasn’t so bad after all with its loamy texture and rich in organic mater in numerous places. This was a
blessing and the farms fame for growing vegetables well was being pronounced a lot at the local café where we ate lunch daily. These lunch time meals also allowed us to integrate further into the local community as suspicion always runs high when foreigners ( a Dutch couple owns the place) by large tracts of land in Portugal. As we leveled and shaped we also began planting with brassicas going mainly in the shady areas as we know the intense heat and dry air that the Alentejo summer affords. Other vegetable starts created by ourselves and some purchased at markets were also dropped in along with seeds again stacking in space and time. Lettuce in between kale, radish in between tomatoes and even some perennials were established in the shadiest and wettest zone of the southern border next to the tank with raspberries and strawberries. The pit gardens were also planted with one becoming a blueberry circle, one a tamarillo circle, and one a banana circle. Deep mulch was thrown in these 2 plus meter wide pits and the plants responded well to getting out of their pots from the nursery.
As our daily digging and planting kept on, we also turned to the task of irrigation as the prolonged periods of dry were coming on as we got into spring. Having discussed many options, the farm owners, Ferry and Francine, decided that supplemental hand watering would occur but mainly this space would be fully irrigated. Thus we designed this system of course along with the help of the irrigation shopkeepers recommendations. Most of the space was set up with micro emitter irrigation and some with drip irrigation. We have a plentiful spring with a tank to draw water by gravity from higher in the property. We didn’t install the whole system at once just the main lines and the spaces that had been planted already. They responded well to this abundant water source as we needed to turn our attention back to planting, digging, mulching and weeding. With a rotating crew we were all working hard to keep the place going with new seeds and the watering task. We also tried again at the hot compost in an area of the garden in the middle designated for composting. This time we added less green material which seemed to create a more balanced pile but it did kick off and require every other day turning for the majority of its hot phase. Addition of water was also needed as the drying winds had really started to pick up.
This is where I ended as my attention turned to a large-scale zone 2 planting amongst small garden tasks to keep everything thriving including going deeper with seeds, transplants, and watering. Next blog will be on the zone 2 terraces that radically altered the landscape. I look forward to working with this project further this summer. Thanks to all who contributed!