In the Algarve, we have a “Mediterranean” climate. This means that during a large part of the year we have no rainfall. It is these arid conditions that can really benefit from permaculture practices, especially so when gardening in the winter, an excellent time to plant in all the Mediterranean climate areas.
Here’s the secret: actually, autumn (any time after the first rains) is the start of the gardening year in Mediterranean climate areas. Winters are better for growing many crops because we can garden using the natural rainfall. Preparing ground for planting is best done after the first rains help compacted soils. Raised beds using moisture conserving mulches and home-made composts on the vegetable garden add quality to the soils.
Many of the smaller vegetables and herbs grow well in containers, these are much easier to manage for soil quality and watering. Most of the vitamin and mineral rich leafy vegetables, which go to seed in too-hot summers, grow much better in mild winters. In autumn, the ground is still warm, even as the air starts to get cooler, and it is the best time for planting most trees, shrubs, ground covers, and perennials.
Best autumn plantings are the cool-weather lovers: the leafy vegetables and the root vegetables including almost all the common vegetables of the Brassica (cabbage) family: broccoli and cauliflower, all cabbages (including the wonderful Portuguese varieties), collards, kale, mustards; also lettuces, celery, chicory, Swiss chard, endives, spinach, garden cress (Lepidium sativum — not the same as watercress), chickweed and purslane (Beldroegas). Also, the newly popular “spicey greens”: arugula (Eruca vesicaria), broccoli rabe, as well as rocket. The newly fashionable micro greens are easily raised from seed and very quick growing. Local seed and plant swaps are a good source for local varieties and look out for the good range of small plug plants available at most markets, these will get your edible garden off to a good start.
Root vegetables to plant now include parsnips, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, beets and kohlrabi. Two crops grown for their greens can also be grown for their roots: celeriac and parsley (also for the root). Three more of the cabbage family crops which can also be grown for their greens as well as their roots are radishes, swedes and turnips.
Although potatoes and the sweet potato are traditionally planted in the spring, they can also be planted in autumn in Mediterranean climate areas; the tops will be killed by any frost, but the tubers will be very tasty (you may have to replant by saving your own seed potatoes but be careful of shop bought potatoes as some are sprayed with hormones as growth inhibitors to stop them from sprouting.)
Carrots can also be grown during the winter in Mediterranean climate areas. Get them off to a good start now, while the weather is still warm, and they will get through the winter fine and be harvestable for early spring eating. The best artichokes are those grown in the winter because they grow slowly and put on all that tasty “meat” on their leaves.
Also good to plant now are perennials such as artichoke, chuchu (Sechium edule), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), sorrel, salad burnet, winter savory, and red berry fruits such as red currants; Florence fennel and gooseberries; “weeds” like dock, nettles, sow thistle, dandelions, and shepherd’s purse; fava (“broad”) beans (often planted to enrich the soil as a ground cover but also a great food crop), and snap peas (sugar snap/sugar/ China peas); and members of the Allium genus, including garlic and shallots (neither of which will be ready until summer but which need a long growing season); “bulbing” tree onions, chives and leeks.
Do not be shy about harvesting some vegetables when they are small, they will be tender and tasty, and thinning will leave room for the others to grow bigger. A very wise gardener once told me that the very best time for any task in the garden was “when you are in the mood” – including picking fresh produce from your own garden.
Do not forget your herb garden during the cooler months. Now is a good time to harvest the plump leaves of kitchen staples such as rosemary, thyme and mint to hang in bunches in the shade for drying. If you wish to establish a new herb garden, consider making a raised bed and, above all else, ensure good drainage for these aromatic plants. They hate cold wet feet, just like we do!
By Rosie Peddle
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