I am just about to head off up to my allotment with a tub of leek seedlings, compost , Ben and my fingers crossed . This little bit of Spanish land that I try to cultivate has been yet another learning experience in my adventure in a foreign land! Those readers who worked with me at Ross High might remember my crazy garden project in much neglected quad surrounded by classrooms and seagulls’ nests? Despite the kamikaze seagulls, the project worked and not only got pupils off their phones and in to the fresh air,it also produced some wonderful potatoes (tatties) which we sold in the staff room to buy more seeds. I think the project continues although unlike here, it will only now be warming up enough to begin this year’s planting. Here there are two growing seasons which means year round gardening ! No winter break! Lesson number one ! Just look at the fruit laden lemon trees …..they are also in blossom ! It’s crazy!
I love gardening and gardens but have always been a bit hectic in my approach to them and have never managed to maintain the manicured variety…more a slightly wild (natural?) space. I am a complete amateur and while I have read up on ‘how to ‘ and watched gardening programmes, most of my learning has been achieved through trial, error ,success and disaster.
Gardens mean different things to different people and like life choices , every one is entitled to take their own approach to their garden . It might be easy maintenance, slabs , chips and grass and a spot to sit and enjoy a glass of something ( too boring and tidy for me) , expensively landscaped and maintained by a professional ( still too boring!) , or a perfect mix of trim borders, manicured lawns and Mr McGregor’s vegetable plot ( jealousy creeping in here). The only gardens that I don’t understand are the ‘why not just have a flat ,your garden is totally neglected ? variety. I can be a little judgemental here! For me, a garden is essential. I am happiest outside . Always have been. It’s my excuse for not being able to play the piano and my very mediocre academic achievements. While there was light in the sky and pals in the street, practising my scales or learning the periodic table did not have a chance!
Therefore it was not very long before our tiny garden in Calle Jacaranda , while perfect for that aperitif and eating al fresco, was not quite enough of a challenge. In the early months of our new life, we cycled along the Rio Segura cycle path in to the city and I was fascinated by the huertos or allotments. Most, much bigger than an average Scottish allotment and mainly cultivating oranges and lemons. Many also have little shacks and patio areas for weekend barbecues and one or two have chickens ! It looked like a warm, sunny version of ‘The Good Life’. I did a bit of on line research but for the most part, these parcels of land seemed to run in families. There are the odd ‘ for sale’ signs but all I was looking for was a small plot to rent, not half an acre to buy!
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR ! …… It is amazing how things suddenly come about when you want them badly enough. Just before our first christmas here, a poster went up at the security box and entry to our urbanisation. Marta the administrator for the urbanisation , was organising a meeting to discuss the possibility of starting huertos on a large , empty piece of land bang smack in the middle of the houses! An organic land scaping company would prepare the plots, organise the watering systems, look after the land around each plot and hold workshops in organic vegetable gardening. I went along to the meeting and while I struggled to understand much of it, I got the gist , signed up, made a new English friend and began my huerto journey in February last year. We pay the landscape company a monthly fee and are free then to garden , enjoy the picnic areas and meet our neighbours. As Benny gets older and finds the energy of our crazy pup too much, I take him up to the huerto and he loves to wander round, eat herbs and lie in the sun while I work. Benny knows, like St Thomas Aquinas, that your are never nearer to God than in a garden. I am not religious in the conventional sense but a couple of hours in the evening as the sun goes down, pottering in my little plot is calming and magical.
There have been many lessons learned on this particular project and some moments of serious doubt, is this too much like hard work? Will I have to garden in the dark in August when temperatures never go below 29 degrees C even in the middle of the night? Is it worth it when I can buy the same vegetables in the market for a few cents? The lessons learned are not all botanical, meeting Spanish neighbours has meant that a morning at the huerto can also become a language lesson. For example, in Scotland I called my school project ‘gardening’. In Spain ‘ to garden’ means growing flowers and lawns not vegetables. We are cultivating not gardening! Two completely different verbs. It is why most ‘garden centres’ that you find on the costas only sell decorative gardening plants , although most will have fruit and olive trees. You have to find a specialist centres that sell seeds and seedlings. There are exceptions but our nearest that sold both was 40 minutes away until my friend Anne and recently found a shed like shop at the side of a main road in a nearby town with lovely seedlings – six onions sets, two aubergine seedlings, four chard plants – one euro! I’ll be back!
Other lessons learned have mainly been about what grows well in our hot, dry climate and what does not. So far I have had a glut of tomatoes, which lasted in the freezer over winter and made great gazpacho, tomato soups and sauces. Lettuce grows all year round and I already have some lovely little oak leaves coming along nicely. Habas or broad beans do very well, and most of the year round, I have red and green chillies in the freezer and new seeds in trays for this years’ plants. Swiss chard is hard to kill and also lasted all over the winter. Some less successful attempts were my own fault, lack of research and pig headedness. My artichokes pictured above were an early lesson in curbing impatience. Root vegetables , carrots, potatoes etc, only grow here in winter and even then it’s a challenge as the climate is so dry. Likewise peas, which I planted in April last year, the results were tasty but short lived and probably less than half a kilo of peas! the plants were killed off as temperatures climbed into the 20s. I foolishly put carrot seeds in, hundreds of fluffy green seedings soon appeared after April showers and May sunshine. They needed painstaking thinning out and then did little or nothing over the next few dry months. Again less than half a kilo! Not worth the effort! My tallest disaster has to have been my sweetcorn, which grew from seed and produced lovely tall plants and about five cobs that were so tough, they were really only for animal feed! The other big lesson was not to be greedy. Stop growing in autumn and turn the whole plot over then feed. I bashed on planting winter brassicas but between knackered soil and very cold nights , I only harvested two tennis ball sized cauliflowers and four heads of tasty but tiny broccoli! Lesson learned, I was lucky to have Rafa, the professional who helps us with the space , he tractored the whole allotment. Lots of new compost and feed in the soil and we are ready to go again! Watch this space.