Evergreen shrubs and trees

Starting from scratch in the Algarve

Coming to live in a new part of the world can be a daunting prospect. You finally found your dream home and the builders have done their bit. One morning, you open the curtains and realise the outside space also needs attention. Hopefully, you have something to work with, but what do you want from your new garden?

Those from the north of Europe will have been used to a cooler, wetter climate with few opportunities to ‘live’ outdoors. The opposite is true here in the Algarve. The garden and outside areas around the house can provide comfort, shade and promote a flow of air while allowing the pleasure of close contact with the abundant and diverse nature of the region. Shady terraces can also extend the variety of plants it is possible to grow in containers, adding scent and colour at close quarters throughout the year.

No one really starts from scratch because there should be some trees and shrubs on any piece of land for a garden. Any mature tree and shrub cover is the treasure around which you can start your planning. Remember that most woody plants here are evergreen. Many native trees and shrubs have naturally graceful shapes, and they provide ground cover and shade for birds and wildlife. Look carefully at what existing tree cover you have. What trees are there which you might wish to use in planning your garden views?

Drainage will become a major factor during the wet months of the year. Check for water run off, soil erosion and potential soggy areas which will rot most mediterranean plants. Consider mound planting or the addition of grit or gravel in any wet ground.

So, do you have a vision of your new garden? Try to think about long-term issues. Irrigation systems and access for maintenance to the house, drainage, pathways etc. What elements need to be included? Outdoor eating/cooking areas? Where is the best view of the sunset? Will you need to get large machinery in? Also think about future access to electricity and water, running a tube under new paths or steps provides this.

If you wish to have a low-maintenance garden then please avoid the temptation of having any lawn, or palms such as Phoenix canariensis. The lawn will be a millstone round your neck and the palm will inevitably get infested with the palm weevil. Using climate-appropriate and native plants will give a wonderful diversity and be very cost effective in the long term, massively reducing overall water and chemical consumption.

Autumn is the best time to think about planting. Finally, you get the chance to fill spaces created around and between existing trees, pathways and viewpoints. Go for the more appropriate and drought-resistant plants which will sit well in the landscape.

By all means choose from the many Mediterranean zone plants around the world which will grow in the Algarve but remember to put plants with similar water needs together. Zone your irrigation so that you can water less frequently or not at all in those areas that are further from the house or which will have a more natural aspect.

Timing for planting can be critical and the recommended planting season is the start of the Mediterranean gardening year in November. As soon as the first serious rains of the winter have soaked the ground, that is the ideal time to plant. This gives a good chance for acclimatisation and good root development before the next dry summer months come along. Leave a shallow bowl around new plants to catch rainwater. Deep and occasional hand watering also gives the chance to observe your plants and spot any problems early on.

Mulching will help establish plants and encourage good growth. Use gravel or organic mulches to improve soil conditions. Pine bark mulch is not always appropriate as it tends to retain moisture around stems and promote rotting. Chicken, sheep and cow manure are all good sources of food for the plants.

Pruning is important for the long-term health of many local trees such as carobs and olives. These are agricultural trees and require careful maintenance. Take out dead or dry branches and suckers forming at the base of such trees. Do not let carobs develop very long overhanging branches as these will split at the main trunk and damage the tree. Keep branches shorter for young healthy growth. Take out crowded central stems to let in light and air and consider raising the crown to about 1.5m to allow underplanting using the shade of the tree. This is also a good fire prevention measure.

Another great resource are local garden clubs where you can meet others willing to share their gardens, and sometimes their plants, with you. There are advice leaflets available on Mediterranean gardening via the website link below. A great way to acquire appropriate plants is to visit the spring and autumn garden fairs where 20 or so specialist plant nurseries come together. The next Autumn Fair will be on October 26 and 27 in Silves.

Take time to observe your garden and land at different seasons and get to know the different conditions in each part. Spring wildflowers can be spectacular and very rewarding as they require no maintenance, or irrigation. You will find wild orchids and native bulbs coming up in what appeared to be bare ground. Enjoy the seasonal changes on display and the close contact with nature and the local wildlife which your new garden in the Algarve can provide.
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View from the kitchen door
Natural Algarve meadow
Gravel Garden
Evergreen shrubs and trees