Real gardeners go with the flow

news: Real gardeners go with the flow


GIVEN THE likely shortage of water this summer, I take no pleasure in repeating what I have said for years now; that we should not be planting gardens that need large amounts of water.

It comes down to this: those who have resisted exotic plants, trees and lawns, will be guaranteed to have living gardens by summer’s end; those who have succumbed to these temptations will be looking either at considerable losses or at high water expenses (if water is still available), or both.

So, who is responsible? One could blame God, I suppose, but then he has brought drought upon this region for aeons, so that is no surprise. What is a surprise is that people who know better have been pretending that we are in the Tropics by planting exotic flora requiring much water.

It is a fact that, in the Lagoa (Algarve) area 30 years ago, water was found five metres underground. Today, it is 85 metres down, which illustrates the impact of development. Given this, is it not obvious that responsible landscaping should be highly water sensitive? Instead, we get vast lawns, endless exotics and thirsty foreign trees.

Right now, tragically – and ironically – drought resistant native trees, such as the olive, are being destroyed in their thousands, while thirsty foreign ones, such as Jacaranda, Pepper and Palm, are being planted in their thousands. Where is the logic in that?

Do I practise what I preach? In my professional life, I argue, passionately, for ‘Mediterranean’ gardens. This is not easy! For years too, I have also written and published extensively on the need for the Mediterranean approach.

In my personal life, I have planted my own garden of 15,000 square metres exclusively with Mediterranean flora. I also use water sparingly – just one cubic metre per day now – but, in peak summer, I will cut this completely, knowing that all my plants and trees will survive. Had I planted ‘exotics’, with lawn, palm trees etc., I would need 20 cubic metres of water per day! If you don’t believe me, come and visit my home!

I am criticised for the apparent insufficiency of my irrigation systems, the premise being that ‘green is good’ and ‘brown is bad’. So gardens must be deluged to ensure they remain green year round! What rubbish! In the Algarve, brown is as natural as green. Cistus, for example, is now brown but is loved in spring, when in flower.

It goes without saying – yet, despairingly, I have to say – that the quality of irrigation depends, not on the sheer volume of water, the number of sprays and the size of the pipes, but on the right amount of water, at the right time, in the right place! Plants die just as readily from over-watering as from thirst. Why does a client need a gardener if all he does is deluge the place? A real gardener knows exactly what is needed, because he knows his plants and their cycles.

A real gardener will also select plants for the worst ‘what if’ scenario. What if your borehole dries up or turns salty, or you have no access to municipal water, or you cannot afford it? Are my fellow professionals listening? Will they blush when gardens die from drought or salt infiltration? Or will they be too busy counting their money?

There is really only one garden question to ask in the Algarve – no other comes close: How can it be done well, with little or no water available other than rainfall? Everything flows from this.

Is it not urgent then to abandon the ‘green is good’ fixation and recognise the beauty, complexity and allure of the Mediterranean plant kingdom? It offers a wide and striking array of natural colours and shapes that can be incorporated into any garden, to provide a harmonious, ordered, yet complex and subtle look – at one with nature in the raw, and at ease with a land beset by drought. Think hard then, about how to conserve water this summer: give up that lawn; banish the palm; rescue an olive tree; plant a cistus.

Photos by Jean Claude Defrance