A lesson in sustainable Mediterranean gardening

By Sue Parker

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.

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.

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.

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% 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% 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 [[email protected]]

For Clube Os Jardineiros de Sotavento contact: John Vellam [[email protected]]

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Sue Parker is a Director of First Nature, Publisher of Algarve Wildlife – the natural year; Wildflowers in the Algarve; and Wild Orchids in the Algarve.