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First encounter with the land

Updated: Feb 23, 2020


Permanurture, El Bencarron, Mairena del Alcor

We are starting a permaculture project in Andalucía. The intention is to restore the land to natural fertility, caring for the soil, growing trees, sequestering carbon dioxide, looking after the complex web of wildlife, and growing crops, mainly trees crops, that will have commercial value in the future. Intrinsic to this is linking with the local community, and already, thanks to Maria especially, we have linked up with a local organic fruit and vegetable cooperative, met people who grow almonds, figs and moringa, obtained free seedling trees for reforestation from the Junta de Andalucia, and have Pablo who works part time for us caring for the land and doing some of the planting, mulching and setting up the vital irrigation system. This is essential as we cannot live on the land, although we will move to the vicinity of it next summer, 2020. We have started reforesting part of the land with algorobo or carob, encina or holm oak (Quercus ilex), Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), and stone and Aleppo pines. All of these produce edible seeds, although acorn and pine nut crops will take a long time to arrive. We also planted a number of other trees, shrubs and herbs, mainly lavender, rosemary, and laurel, and local varieties of rock roses.

Climate change, for many people, has become the first among a considerable list of concerns that call for urgent action. We are lucky to be able to start something, although tiny in the global context. Maria’s family own a 19 hectare finca 20km east of Sevilla, on a limestone escarpment with ancient connections to human habitation. This finca was once full of olive trees, most of them have been cut down probably under the influence of old EEC policies. Subsequently the land has been neglected for 30 plus years. Retama, an autochthonous broom, has spread over some parts of the land, a sign of natural regeneration, as it shelters and nourishes larger trees in their early growth. Another area has wild thyme, which locals come to cut to flavour their home prepared table olives. People also come for the wild asparagus which is widespread. There are many wild flowers mainly in spring. Below the escarpment, there are 2-3 hectares with 70 or so old but healthy olive trees that were spared in the purge. There are a few figs trees mostly rooted into the limestone escarpment, some stone pines at points on the boundaries, and in the middle, beside an old stone well, a small clump of large eucalyptus.

The finca is near Mairena del Alcor. The land is between 80-110 metres above sea level. The limestone escarpment, called the Alcor, ends in Carmona, an attractive town 12 km or so to the north east, where the cliff reaches 50 metres or more high. There is a castle converted into a parador built on the top, with spectacular views. At points on our land there is a 5-6 metre cliff, with one living room sized cave opening into it. We get a view on clear days over the wide Guadalquivir valley, to the sierra in the east. The slope below the escarpment with the old olives is quite steep. Here there are a lot of rabbits. Above the Alcor is a more gently sloped small valley running to the south west, which must have eroded over the millenia. Current rainfall, about 550mm falling autumn to spring, does not result in obvious surface runoff due the soil being very sandy. Nevertheless there is an arroyo or dry stream bed running through the low point of the shallow valley. We have been told there is an underground watercourse running in part of the land, so It is likely any ‘erosion’ is really the slow dissolution of the limestone underground, and the water channel is covered by the sandy soil.

There are Neolithic remains in the area, as well as evidence of Roman habitation. Some old pottery fragments we’ve found make us wonder about their age. It has been suggested the two stone wells are Roman, which seems unlikely, any way they are mostly filled in. We do have a functioning well or pozowith good quality water. This was dug since the family acquired the land in the 1980s. The land was grazed by the neighbour’s sheep for some years, and is undoubtedly quite poor, although in the central valley area the soil is deep and potentially more fertile. It is highly alkaline, demonstrated using the vinegar test: teaspoon of soil, a splash of vinegar à lots of fizz! Like a school science experiment.

The retama, which has scented flowers in the spring, is nitrogen fixing and drought resistant (and I suspect fire resistant, but I am looking for evidence here). As well as this and the tomillo, or thyme, the many wild flowers include crocus, mandrake (which in Medieval myths screams and kills anyone who dares to uproot it!) iris and other wild herbs and small plants. In some areas we have quite a covering of devil weed, or puncture weed, with spiny seeds causing misery if they get into shoes or bicycle tyres! This grows best in disturbed ground, and our current crop has resulted partly from the neighbour who grazed his sheep illicitly ploughing the ‘fertile’ area in the valley floor to grow barley to feed them. Permaculture (along with conservation agriculture) is a no till method, so minimising future soil disturbance (apart from burying irrigation pipes) along with the shade produced by growing trees, will hopefully control this unpleasant ‘weed’.

There are many tarantula or wolf spider burrows, and scorpions or an occasional black widow spider lurk under the many rocks scattered across the land. Interestingly, below the escarpment there are no scorpions, but large centipedes under the rocks instead. Care rather than fear is required. These various biting creatures are relatively rare these days, although not protected species. They all live in the soil, or under small rocks on the soil, so ploughing, and the ubiquitous use of pesticides will sadly put paid to them. The black widow spider is the most dangerous, although the problem is more when people are sensitive or allergic to the venom, and most bites are painful not lethal. Wild bees, including the large and scary looking black carpenter bee, and other insects abound. There is quite a lot of bird life, although hunters, who have free access to people’s land doubtlessly shoot some along with the rabbits. There are foxes, mongooses, and possibly a wild cat was seen once.

Water

The big challenge is water; most local people use well water for irrigation. The oaks, pines and carobs are adapted to the semi-arid climate, which has no rain from May to September, and this year did not rain for 6 months. Amazing take away fact: young oaks and carobs growing from seeds, put up two or perhaps four leaves above ground, below ground their roots will reach 3-4 metres into the soil after the first season of growth, from autumn to spring. This is how they survive the long hot 40 plus degree summer. Planting 2 year old plants from root trainer packs means the plants have not grown their normal seedling roots, so they need to be watered for the first 2-3 years. They have to be watered sparingly, or rather quite a lot at quite separated times, say 3 weeks apart, to put water deep into the soil which the roots will follow as the levels closer to the surface dry out. Keeping the surface moist means the seedlings won’t grow deep roots, and they won’t last the summer without continued irrigation, which we want to avoid in the reforested areas.

Even though the area above the Alcor is quite high above the Guadalquivir valley, which it overlooks, there is groundwater held in the limestone at about 12-13 metres deep, and as mentioned an underground watercourse possibly runs through the land, at least after rain. The well taps into the groundwater, for which we have set up a solar powered pump. We had to upgrade to a more powerful one as the initial one burnt out after a few months. Clearly the groundwater is replenished by rain, the longer term predictions are for reduced rainfall in the area. With the climate emergency all of Andalucía, or the southern part of Spain, is at risk of desertification. Nevertheless the Guadalquivir, “great river” in Arabic, runs not too far away, and it is fed by rains in the Sierra Nevada mountains, some parts of which, near the Sierra de Cadiz at the south western end, have the highest rainfall in Spain.

For water harvesting we first thought berms and swales were the way to go. We marked out the contour lines in lower valley area, and in the first part distributed woody and other mulch along the lines leaving gaps here and there as small fire breaks. In the lower half we asked a neighbour with a tractor to cut single blade lines about 30-40cm deep along the contours. We then filled these with the woody material, but didn’t bury it to make hugelkulture, leaving it as small berms and swales with material that will compost slowly in the swales. However as already said the rain events when we have runoff must be very rare. These mulched contour lines, which can now be seen on the latest google earth image, have given us a pleasing non-linear planting plan for the trees we will plant in this area.

We also thought of a small reservoir, at the lower end of the finca. We attempted to get permission from the local junta, which requires designs and a submission from a qualified engineer. A neighbour has a reservoir, cut into the earth at a point where the Alcor curves around to meet the arroyo at the end of our small valley. I suspect this reservoir partly drains groundwater. We would have used Seb Holtzer’s method, compacting the subsoil to hold the water. We haven’t tried, and it is likely that before reaching the groundwater level there is porous chalky limestone, which we find in places when digging larger planting holes. This may not hold any water at the surface at all. However the junta has denied permission because as I understand it, a dam or embalsa would interfere with the underground water course.

Planting

We planted many seedling trees mainly in the north and western aspects of the finca where the soil is relatively shallow and rocky. We have relied entirely on autochthonous plants as mentioned, mainly carob, stone pine, holm and kermes oak. We have just planted some wind breaks of Mediterranean Cyprus, which also may act as a firebreak, although probably needs to be planted in dense blocks to resist fire, rather than single line hedges. We have planted other shrubs such as laurel, rock roses and wild roses, and small trees like hawthorn as a hedgerow, to discourage people who cut the wire fence to come in for rabbits, tomillo, or wild asparagus, or just to drink beer. The land was effectively open to the public for many years so it has been used for many youth activities; sadly we have to discourage this now.

We have planted some seedlings where possible in the shade of and close to retama plants. It is very clear that these feed plants near them as there is always a circle of higher grasses and herbs around the base of these shrubs, in spite of water competition. I am sure that these plants, with their associated fungal symbiotic network, hold a lot of water in the soil that would otherwise percolate down. Or else there is another symbiotic relationship with deep rooted plants giving water to others in exchange for nutrients, which the scientific investigation of root and fungal networks would suggest. Even so, in the heat of the summer all the annuals and perennials die back, which is to be expected. The retama has scale like leaves on thin branching stems, and has an amazing drought tolerance.

We have not added arbuscular fungi in commercial preparations when we planted. One reason is that although plants do better initially with such preparations, plants without them catch up quite quickly. The main reason however is that relatively little is known about the different species and varieties in different regions, some research I read into mycorrhizal fungi in Andalucía has identified new species, and so there is no guarantee that using commercial preparations will not harm local species. Reassuringly, last autumn many different mushroom and fungal fruiting bodies appeared above the soil all over the land, showing there is a very healthy population of fungal species present. Let them find their own way into symbiosis with our little seedlings, if they survive!

Our next move is to start planting almonds, figs, more carob but commercial varieties and only the female trees, which means grafting onto wild rootstock, and moringa in our ‘cultivated area’ which is the area that had been ploughed. We are setting up a planned irrigation system first, using our new more powerful pump. At some point we will have to cut down the eucalyptus which is shading a portion of this area and no doubt sucking up a lot of water from deep in the earth – when I visited Alice Springs in Australia, in large areas that have rain at most once in 3-4 years, eucalyptus everywhere looked happy and healthy. Many grow in riverbeds that have running water only in these ‘rainfall events’, but retain some ground water deep in the earth. Eucalyptus also ‘poison’ the land around which discourages many other plants, although thistles grow near ours.

We want to build a barn for storage and fruit drying, and we hoped a strawbale house, but it is hard to get permission for houses. We do plan to live here, in the vicinity. Having a barn also requires formal submissions and detailed plans, but if you have an agricultural project a barn is guaranteed. Many houses in the area are built illegally, with swimming pools built on the grounds that they are water storage facilities! There are many more things to say about agriculture in Andalucía, but that is for another time.

It was good to find at our last visit in November 2019 that many of our little trees were alive, and many that we thought had died, especially oaks, had re-sprouted seemingly from the roots. We planted a small number of larger carob and Judas trees to make one or two areas look less barren, the carob have survived, the Judas have not done so well.

Developing community relations is also important as the neighbours mostly are very helpful and friendly. Everyone knows what they are up against with the climate that is anyway very difficult regardless of your mode or way of farming, and many have lived locally and grown crops for years, so know much of what there is to know. They are happy to share their knowledge, and we are happy to listen.

December 2019

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