Updated: Feb 23, 2020


Plants and Planting

"Humans are grass" from Gregory Bateson

When we were deciding what to do with the land at Mairena, we knew little about the wild plants of the area. The stone pine we knew well from other places, in the UK you can see it in Kew Gardens, it surprised me to learn how hardy it is.

A segment of the land was covered in retama, a broom with white scented flowers that is effectively a pioneer plant in the early sucession of natural reforestation. That there was so much was an indicator of how long the land was neglected, apart from sheep grazing. Sheep seem to leave older retama alone, although a lot of small seedlings have appeared in many places since the sheep went.

As said elsewhere we are using retama as a nurse plant to protect and perhaps nurture some of our seedling trees, as young trees often grow in partial shade, and will in a natural forest connect up with mycorrhizal fungi which are already linked to other plants in the vicinity.

A few of the retama have a gall disease, which looks the same as a gall on some old olive trees. A badly affected retama looks sick, whereas the olives don’t seem to suffer so much. We don’t know if the gall disease will spread.

Other plants already on the land include some old fig varieties, delicious when they have a crop, which seems at most every second year, with some new trees clearly recently started from seed in a bit of the land where the soil stays moist. There is turpentine tree (Pistacia terebinthus), wild olive, and dwarf fan palm (Chamaerops humilis). There are many wild flowers, ranging from giant thistles, giant fennel, to tiny almost invisible plants, my favorite being Filago pygmaea. There is Mandrake, (Mandragora autumnalis) famous in medieval times as a plant that would scream if pulled up by the roots, the scream killing the uprooter, its power has been revived by Harry Potter. There are many bulbs, from autumn iris in several places to Drimia maritima scattered around the escarpment, and asphodels are quite common. Arisarum simorrhinum, related to the Friar’s Cowl arum, grows in shaded and slightly moister areas below the escarpment.

There are two famous plants, a wild thyme that covers two hectares of the land and is spreading, and wild asparagus. Famous, because local people come to the land through any gap in the fence they find or make, and harvest them, the thyme mostly to flavour table olives, and the asparagus for a healthy meal.

Reforestation This was our first major planting, as we had to prepare more carefully for the trees we wanted for their potential commercial value. We first got 400 trees, in autumn 2018, from the Junta de Andalucia for free, due to them supporting any reforestation project in the region. We got a second 400 later in the same planting season. This included evergreen Holm oak or encina, Kermes oak (Quercus ilex and Q coccifera), stone and Aleppo pines (Pinus pinea and P halepensis), carobs (Ceratonia siliqua), Cercis australis, Cratageus monogyna (Espinosa blanca), laurel, varieties of Cistus, and lavender. A number of autochthonous plants have proved difficult to find, although there is a Spanish forestry commission website selling seeds of wild plants. Germinating these is a challenge. We planted Rosa canina in the hedge, but could not find varieties more specific to Andalucia such as R pouzinii and R sempervirens (which are closely related).

We also bought more or less another 1000 plants, many the same, but more smaller shrubs and bushes we wanted to intersperse amongst the other plantings, such as Terebintha, Berberis comunis, Cotoneaster, wild olive and rosemary. Fifty were Acacia from South Africa which we used in the hedge before we could get the other plants. We planted them in the lower part of the land along the fence where people were cutting it to get in. Our reason was that they were fast growing, and probably preferable to the prickly pear cactus which is widely used as hedges, which is invasive (Acacia may be too) and which is now dying from an insect infestation in a horrible and ugly way. Most of the Acacia have died in the first summer, because our first irrigation system worked poorly in this area. Many of the smaller shrubs also died, often because our ad hoc first irrigation system did not get to them.

It’s fair to say although we did some planning we did not do as well as we might have. We had specific areas for reforestation, but got a little carried away, planting in more areas than we first intended. We did not always stick to the need to plant each seedling in a little basin, so that water could be delivered accurately and efficiently. Also we planted according to an idea of more random dispersal, so it would not look too artificial. We put in a temporary irrigation system, using 1000 L deposits filled from the well, at high points in the land, with gravity fed drip irrigation lines run across the slopes, in as logical a way as possible given it was after the fact of the planting. Pablo did most of the installation, often pulling his hair out at the stupidity of the planters. Many, perhaps 70% of the plants survived a longer dry period than usual, 6 months with no rain, so arguably we didn’t do so badly. We will water these plants for one or two more summers, then stop. The plan at the moment is to leave the deposits in place filled over the summer, in case of fire.

One small observation. We planted 12-15 Pinus pinea near the escarpment where there are a few mature trees. None of them were watered through the six month summer. All but one died, it was amazing to see one small tree still green and growing last autumn; possibly the survivor will be the parent to an even more drought resistant variety for the future climate. A tiny hope.

A number of encina and Kermes oak that appeared to have died, even with watering, in summer 2019, sprouted from the base quite strongly in the autumn when it finally rained. That too is heartening.

Although the reforestation is mixed we have tended to plant in areas, which we planned to do, although our reasoning was limited, we wanted areas where different trees would predominate. So in one area we planted mostly carob, in another oaks, then stone pines around a stand of the same species. In an area we thought might be polluted by runoff from a badly run olive processing factory, where some Nicotiana glauca (tree tobacco) also considered invasive, is growing, we planted the Aleppo pines, which have thrived, with some irrigation. We have planted carob, including some larger trees that were pot grown, in other areas. They seem to do well, and we have been told that that area is known for carob and wild olive as the predominant wild plants.

We will replace the dead plants, perhaps using Growboxx planters in some areas, which means irrigation lines are not needed, but the Growboxx does need to be refilled in the summer at least once.

Cultivation We want to produce commercial crops from the land, to show it can be done, and with the aim of providing a living for someone in the future. At the moment those involved have alternative sources of income, and it will clearly take some years before newly planted tree crops produce much.

An exception may be moringa, which grows fast once established. In some places like India moringa is grown as an annual. A permaculture approach tends to avoid annual plants, and if growing moringa for leaves, pruning each year means fresh growth for harvest is maintained. Moringa can be grown very close if harvesting leaves for powder, for seed pods or seeds the spacing needs to be wider. We are trying both, but have yet to se whether moringa will do well where we are.

Before planting these trees we planned a permanent irrigation system, using larger pipes fed by a stronger solar pump, and smaller pipes for drip irrigation in place along the planting lines. We had to use Paco with his tractor to dig trenches for the larger pipes so they don’t heat in the sun, and Pablo did the rest of the installation.

We have planted almonds, figs, and more carob in our cultivation area, where we first laid mulch lines on the contours nearly two years ago. The soil then was bare having been recently ploughed by the neighbour so all the normal wild flowers and other creatures were sadly destroyed. Many smaller plants have returned since. However, taking advantage of the disruption devil weed, aka puncture weed, has run riot. It doesn’t seem to affect the growth of other plants, just takes advantage of any gaps. Part of our preparation in 2019, with the happy help of 80 students on a school visit for outdoor activity, was planting leguminous seeds in swathes following the mulch lines. We had to shallow cultivate the soil in these lines, but the peas and beans came up well after the autumn rains, and will provide a cover crop and then mulch in the late spring.

We planted lines of each type of tree, alternating almonds, figs, and carob, leaving every fourth line empty for moringa. The moringa lines have received extra mulching of straw just where they will be planted. The almonds were in four varieties, mainly Marcona for the main crop, then two cross pollinating varieties Balona and Ramillete, and a fourth, Soleta, we only had five trees for the profuse flowers. They do produce almonds too, but not such sought after ones. The planted trees were just coming into leaf in January.

The almonds were bare rooted, the others pot grown, and two years old. We also were given the prunings of some other fig varieties by Caesario, our organic farming neighbour. These we trimmed into many cuttings, some planted directly into the soil, others in pots kept indoors until they establish.

All our tree crops are adapted to the Mediterranean climate, and traditionally are dry land crops, meaning they do not need irrigation. The moringa is native to even more arid countries than southern Spain. However all these trees will need irrigation to establish, and beyond that they will be more productive with some irrigation. The area the first productive trees have been planted is in the bottom of the valley where potentially there is water closer to the surface. We will monitor closely how they grow, and can compare them with others to be planted further up the slope next year. All permaculture on a new site crucially includes observation, exploration and investigation, this we will continue.

We planted some fruit trees mostly for our own consumption along the hügelkultur lines near the front of the land. We included two pear, two plum and two hazel on one, on the other so far two kaki, two date plums or jujube, and a white mulberry, Morus alba. We have also planted a number of Mediterranean buckthorn, some using Growboxx (, others in places where there was a drip line already. This will make an interesting comparison.

We planted some more ornamental brooms in a semicircle near the first hügelkultur, and in front of the line of Soleta. As well as being productive we want the land to invite people in, to demonstrate active polyculture, and to show we can grow crops without leaving the soil bare.

Miles Clapham

February 2020

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