What else is there besides the amazing pizzas, waffles, dances and beautifully decorated people on Friday night? It may not be visible at nighttime, but every weekday there is plenty of gardening going on in the hills of Tojeiro. A team of greenfingered people is working hard to create better soil for growing nutritious vegetables that can feed residents during the week and also decorate the pizzas of the hungry Friday visitors.
The gardening is partly done along the principles of permaculture. This term was coined by Bill Mollison and derives from the words permanent agriculture. In his book he defines it as ‘the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems’. This basically comes down to that people who are providing their own food, mimick natural conditions as much as possible while doing so. This is quite a challenge in the dry climate of Portugal, but with the right philosophy and action a lot of sustainable change is possible!
Currently, the steep slope up front of the land of Tojeiro is being transformed into an oasis for herbs and vegetables. What is needed to allow vegetables to gain a high nutritious value is organic, rich soil that contains a lot of micro-organisms. In order to achieve this, we have created plant beds that are built with the technique of sheet mulching. Mike, resident of Tojeiro since june 2017, initiated this idea and explains that sheet mulching consists of various layers of organic matter that we find on and around the farm, like animal faeces, compost, grass cuttings, straw, dry leaves and cardboard. By covering the beds in this way, an ideal mix of carbons, nitrogens and other minerals is formed, much like the fertile soil in forests. If you’re keen on learning more about sheet mulching, have a look here.
In order to sustain the natural balance of this particular ecosystem that we live in here, we are exploring ways to make the garden an attractive place for small predator animals like lizards, frogs and snakes. These animals are needed to get rid of the smaller animals that are destroying crops, like bugs and slugs. In this way, a natural balance among the species is maintained and the veggies are kept in tact and can grow to their full potential.
Another issue that is being tackled right now is the watering of the plants. In summer, when temperatures can rise to 36 degrees Celsius and beyond, a lot of hours go in to watering the beds with hoses. It usually takes six to seven people watering the beds twice a day for one hour. In order to reduce the time spent watering, this spring we will experiment with flood irrigation. The idea is to overflow the pond that is up the hill every day. We will be digging swales that will meander down the hill toward the entrance. These will carry the water along all the beds. The water in the pond is used by fish, geese, chickens and plants which means that a lot of valuable nutrients are added. These will also contribute to the creation of better soil.
Sheet mulching beds have the capacity to retain a high humidity. On one side of each bed swales have been dug, which are filled with dead wood and smaller organic matter. This means that the water that soaks into the beds from the swales is kept there by the organic matter. The theory is that the beds stay humid enough like this, so that we only need to flood each swale once a week.
The water comes into the bed from below, which encourages the roots of the vegatebles to grow deeper into the soil. This results in stronger plants and prevents the water that would usually be on the top surface of the bed from evaporating. This significantly reduces the amount of water used as well as is in need of less manpower. With this system we only need to turn on a couple of taps every day instead of walking along all the beds and water them by hand. We can well use those hands for other wonderful projects in the hills. Like for example the wood terraces that are built alongside of the hills in Tojeiro. This prevents the slope from crumbling and provides space for some plants to grow. The next coming up garden project is the building of a bath house with a hot shower fuelled by a hot compost system. This house of fresh- and wellness will be accompanied by several compost toilets. How fresh the Tojeirians will be in the hills!