Dry mediterranean garden

Fire, water and drought

As I write, we have official confirmation that most of Portugal is in drought, with 34% in severe drought, and the situation in the Algarve is particularly worrying.

Every day without rain is a threat of abnormal ground water levels and emptying reservoirs. The coming months will be a harsh test for our plants and gardens here in the Algarve. The continuing drought also contributes to the threat of wildfires expanding to every season of the year, so we must remain vigilant.

Choosing plants adapted to long hot summers and mild humid winters and having a garden without irrigation systems inevitably leads to a closer relationship with seasonal changes. The previously more normal pattern of warm wet days in winter can bring growth and renewal as well as the chance to plant out new acquisitions or make long planned changes in our gardens.

If these are done in the cooler part of the year, the plants have the chance to adapt and grow the root systems essential to survive the summer. Cooler winter days at least give a window of opportunity, even if the rainfall is lacking.

There are strategies available to alleviate the drought conditions. Using climate-adapted plants and giving them the best start possible will lay the foundation for a garden without irrigation systems. Water does not belong to any individual but to us all, and so we have a real and serious joint responsibility not to waste water.

Using municipal drinking water, or water drawn from the underground aquifers, on ugly lawns or large numbers of exotic garden plants is anti-social and unacceptable in current conditions. There are lovely and sustainable alternatives.

A recent project by Quelfes Junta da Freguesia will see them totally remove large areas of grass and replace it with native plants, trees and shrubs. Also totally removed will be their troublesome and expensive irrigation systems. MGAP (Mediterranean Gardening Association Portugal) has been helping the Junta with some training for staff and garden visits.

Usually at this time of year, we are all looking forward to the spring wildflower displays, but these will be curtailed by the lack of rain. Native plants and trees have adapted to drought and will curb their growth and flower displays – this ensures their survival for another season. We can learn from this strategy when making plant choices for our own gardens.

As the Algarve is mediterranean, we can choose from the wide range of plants adapted to the same conditions in other mediterranean climate zones. Planning for drought is important for anyone making a garden.

A new development at the MGAP Demonstration Gardens near Silves is the first planting in the Fire-Resistant Garden. This area has been planned to show the combination of trees, plants and succulents which will slow the progress of fires and provide a barrier near to structures and homes. Mediterranean ecosystems are fire-adapted and are subject to wildfires from causes such as dry lightning and powerline failures as well as human sources – both intentional and unintentional.

Landscapes burnt in fires would normally benefit from the winter rain to aid recovery, whether it is the removal of the close and low growing cistus or the washing in of the ashes.

Following fires, there can be areas covered in the small hoop petticoat daffodil (Narcissus bulbocodium) and also the charming golden tulip (Tulipa australis). The tragic consequences of fires cannot be overestimated but, in wild unoccupied areas, without commercial eucalyptus monocultures, a fire-maintained landscape can be more colourful and species-rich than established forests.

Whether these understorey plants and bulbs flower every year, unseen under the undergrowth, or as a reaction to the fires, I am not sure.

In the Algarve, groups of large blue flowers of Scilla peruviana, and Peony broteroi putting up large stems topped with dark pink flowers can be found in fire-damaged areas. The strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) and cork oaks resprout from the base.

If you have a new garden or piece of land here, please, please take the time to closely observe what is growing there at this time of year. The fragile structure of thin soils can be irreversibly damaged by the thoughtless use of large diggers and scrapers. Any springtime, even a very dry one, can reveal unknown treasures and the truly amazing diversity of wildflowers which grow here in the Algarve.

By Rosie Peddle
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Summer grasses
Scilla peruviana flower
Peony broteroi
Dry mediterranean garden
Burnt landscape – wild flowers