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Saving the ancient olive trees

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THE PIONEER of Algarve Mediterranean gardens explains his passion for the olive tree…

Jean Claude Defrance, the founder of Natura Garden Centres and Garden Design, was the first to introduce Mediterranean garden techniques in the Algarve, and for the last 20 years has written many articles highlighting the ecological advantages of such a garden.  His concern for water consumption and protection of indigenous species made him different from any other garden creator in the Algarve.

As a result of his dedication, and the success of his Natura Garden Centres, he was able to take the decision in 2004 to invest the benefits of his company into a new venture that would make him the first to actively protect the olive trees of the Alentejo.

These olives were, and still are, under threat of destruction – often used only for firewood! Each tree’s individual characteristics and form, developing during hundreds of years of growth, would be lost forever. European directives for some years now have financially encouraged Portuguese farmers to re-grow their olive fields. Old trees are replaced with young olive specimens organised in spacious rows, in order to allow new harvesting machines to more quickly and easily collect their fruits. Indeed, the risk also exists that the traditional olive oil produced by the fruits of older trees will be lost to these new farming methods.

Jean Claude Defrance remains constant in his objectives: “I took it upon myself to make a stand against the powers that could not see the value of the ancient olive tree,” he explains. “My company, Viva Olea, was the first to invest in heavy machinery such as lorries and cranes that would work in the fields to help move the threatened trees to safe havens in our Alentejo nurseries. We now employ 12 skilled staff full time who have been trained professionally in the uprooting, trimming and care of olive trees. We must be doing a good job, as others have followed our example and there are now a number of enterprises that employ professional methods.”

Respect the trees

In the past, the olive has perhaps suffered from a tainted reputation caused by too many amateurs seeking an opportunity to exploit the demand for the trees. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs lacking in professionalism ignored how the olive should be prepared for transplant, and cropped them recklessly with no thought for how they would grow in the future.

To combat this perception, and to ensure that the trees were treated with respect, Jean Claude Defrance travelled extensively over the past few years, taking his carefully tendered olive trees to international trade exhibitions. He was pioneering in proving that it was possible to keep the original form of the tree and to find a way to protect the roots to allow for replanting one or two years after they have first left their original home.

As the owner of Natura Garden Centres and a thriving business in garden design and construction, Jean Claude insists on using at least 80 per cent of local plants in his projects, which are also widely used in Mediterranean gardens. The remaining 20 per cent of planting includes exotic specimens that create colour and contrast but, most importantly, are varieties that work well with the natural environment.

The Mediterranean countryside equates to only five per cent of this planet’s biomasses, and Jean Claude is a serious advocate of this rarity that he believes should be cherished and cultivated for our future generations.  “As you will read in my publicity, I quote a famous saying by St. Exupery – ‘We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children’ – and this is something I continually remind myself, making sure my family is my priority, and not my business!”

Jean Claude Defrance is an artist, and he draws the line at doing business for business’ sake. “I have been criticised often for disagreeing with the way people want to make their gardens, and while I respect that the customer is always right, I sometimes have to draw the line, especially when my experience and learning tell me that they are making an enormous error for the environment, as well as for their garden.

Regrettably, this is the pain of an artist who has to run a business – the two do not always mix!”

Save water

Jean Claude designs his gardens in the same way as a painter expresses himself on canvas, and considers each project as a living masterpiece! “So many look at gardens in the same way as ‘fast food’, that is to say that people follow trends without thinking about what they are really consuming.” He explains: “The average ‘ready-made’ garden of grass lawns and palm trees uses far too much water, and if ever water is scarce, these gardens are in peril of dying completely!”

The creation of a Mediterranean garden demands much more imagination and professionalism than a lawn and a few flowerbeds. Each zone in the landscape must be considered for its use of water and the planting should be organised accordingly. “The olive plays a great part in my work because of its resistant properties and its versatility as an object of beauty and sculpture.”

While he is always working on new gardens and landscaping projects from his Almancil base, his priority is to develop awareness of Portuguese olive trees throughout Europe, while promoting the pleasure that can be found in being part of his rescue team! It may even soon be possible to ‘sponsor’ your own handpicked olive tree, to even give it a name, and to ensure its longevity by passing it down as a gift from generation to generation!

Anyone interested in supporting Jean Claude, Natura and his European wide operation, Viva Olea, should call him today on +351 918 701 999 or write to [email protected]. For more information see or or [email protected]