High up in the clouds of Madeira.jpg

High up in the clouds of Madeira


[email protected]

Stuart Merelie, owner of QM Crazy Golf, Garden and Leisure Centre, shares his passion for correct and sustainable landscaping in the Algarve and is The Resident’s permanent garden and landscaping correspondent. This week is the fifth in a series of six entitled Stunning gardens without water.

NOWHERE DID it say on the application form that I would be fully dressed in a wafer thin sleeping bag in a flimsy tent, 1,200m up in the clouds, in the rain, with a howling wind at the end of June at two o’clock in the morning, wishing I was back in my bustling metropolis of São Brás de Alportel.

It started with my reading an article in the Sunday Times describing a slow but steadily growing movement of sound minded people and an intriguing word called Permaculture. Several hours on the internet had increased my enthusiasm further and membership of The British Permaculture Society and a year’s subscription to Permaculture magazine were obtained before my daughters forced me off the Mac and into the kitchen.

The arrival of the magazine led to joining a two-week course in good old Madeira led by two English professors. Curiosity was still killing the cat and I

Heliconia psittacorum – the parrot heliconia
Heliconia psittacorum – the parrot heliconia

reckoned two weeks in a classroom after a 30-year absence was as good as taking a holiday while still claiming to staff and clients that I was working.

Permaculture is a term coined by an Australian, Bill Mollison, in 1978 when he wrote a book called Permaculture One. We are rapidly learning that the price of our present high level of consumption is damage to the global environment on a massive scale. Anyone who watches television or reads newspapers will have seen lots of evidence of this presented over the last few years. Be it holes in the ozone layer, pollution, wars over oil or global warming – all threaten our future food supplies.


Bill Mollison introduced the concept of Permaculture based on many years’ observation of natural systems. One of the best examples in a temperate climate is a deciduous forest. In true wilderness, of which we now struggle to find in our lovely developed Europe, a forest is a system of plant cover which is self regenerating and indefinitely sustainable. It operates in many dimensions including the two horizontals, the vertical and the added dimension of time. Its most important dimension is that of relationships. Each of these dimensions maximises spatial use, adding to the productivity of the whole.

Modern day agriculture, mechanised monocultures of large areas of potatoes or wheat (and lawns) etc are very two dimensional and add nothing to the delicate fibres of

Montado dos Aviceiros – home of the brave….
Montado dos Aviceiros – home of the brave….

the universe. Add nutrient destroying elements like chemical fertilisers and pesticides and effectively you end up with a barren landscape.

The forest, however, offers a large range of possibilities from the deepest root to the highest treetop. The tree itself changes through the seasons, so that early spring bulbs flourish before dense leaf cover cuts out the sunlight. Even daily changes offer successions of opportunity for different birds, mammals and insects. The trees roots draw up nutrients, not just by physics but in intimate relationships with all manner of soil life from worms to bacteria. In turn, the tree may not be able to continue its circle of life without the very birds and insects to spread its seeds – and this is just one tree!


By observing natural cycles, people practicing Permaculture have

A forest is self regenerating and indefinitely sustainable
A forest is self regenerating and indefinitely sustainable

developed these principles into strategies that enable you and me to build sustainable systems anywhere on this planet which:

are high yielding, regenerative and sustaining

require minimum effort for maximum output

are ethical, caring for the land and the people

generate surplus for sharing

No tall order then? After my two weeks studying Permaculture design in Madeira, I realise that I have to drastically change my own living methods. To recycle as much of your household waste as possible or to change all your light bulbs to low energy and change your electricity to a renewable source (Yes EDP now do that) should be enforced laws.

As developing countries quite rightly seek the sort of lifestyle most of us were born into, we must lead and show the correct systems and paths to keep this world of ours great.

Off my soap box, my visit to Madeira was the second in 17 years. A new ring road around the island and a diversity of climates and fantastic endemic flora and happy people reminded me of the Algarve 10 years ago. Madeira’s government actively encourage farmers to turn ecological. Water abounds and is well managed. Step away from Funchal and its lines of restaurants and head for the hills. One last word of advice though, spend more than 30 euros on a tent if you intend camping at the same elevation as Ben Nevis.

Stuart is stepping down as managing director of QM Garden Centre at the end of the year to give him time to study for a diploma in Permaculture design. He is currently building a low impact farm and his ambition is to live “off the grid” being self sufficient in water, light and heating systems. He stayed as a guest of Duarte Câmara, owner of Montada das Aviceiros, which has guest cottages to rent for keen hikers, Buddhists or bird watchers (www.aviceiros.no.sapo.pt). The Permaculture Association (Britain) has a good website (www.permaculture.org.uk)