by Dick Handscombe who has been growing his own ecological vegetables in Spain for the past twenty years; for most of those years on borrowed land.
Unfortunately the English-style allotment rented from an allotment association or Town Hall is not a well-established tradition in Spain, although a few farsighted villages and towns are starting to set them up.
However, there is an ancient tradition of growing vegetables on small plots ‘huertos’ outside villages and towns that were often first laid out and worked by Moors during their 800 years residency in Spain. Many of these have been deserted in recent years so it possible to negotiate the buying, renting or free use of 400 or 800 square metres of land for your own use or with a group of friends. If you wish to go down this route to improve the availability of daily crops of ecological vegetables on every day of the year there are a few important things to consider:
Are the growing seasons different?
We live on the Mediterranean Coast – 400 metres up and 14 kilometres from the coast. Since we are on a south facing slope, frost is normally not a problem so we can have 60% of the soil fully planted throughout the year taking advantage of the two springs – spring and autumn – to grow two or more crops of things like carrots, potatoes, broccoli, onions, lettuces etc. By the way broad beans and peas are planted in the autumn for January to early May harvests here in Spain. The other 40% is fully used in the summer when we grow expansive squash and melons. Were we on the north facing slope of our valley, the reduced hours of sun and sometimes heavy frosts would reduce significantly what we could grow during the winter; likewise if we were on the high inland plain or in the north of Spain. In the far south, regular temperatures of 40 to even 50 degrees can make it difficult to keep some traditional summer crops growing beyond early July. If we were at sea level we would sow or plant about a month earlier in the spring.
What else is different between Spain and the UK for allotment growers?
Many agricultural areas have red or light grey clay soils. The former can bake rock hard during sunny spells all the year round unless irrigated and worked. The grey soils remain more open and have a greater water holding capacity. This enables crops such as squash and melons to be grown without watering after sowing, even under the Spanish sun.
If one takes over a new allotment the soil will normally require a major initial improvement because the traditional annual manuring to lighten and enrich the soil stopped 10 to 20 years ago when the keeping of working mules and donkeys and oxen ceased and the flocks of sheep and goats declined exponentially. Chemical fertilizers became the norm as villagers became wealthier, but are now becoming overly expensive in relation to the prices they can get if crops are sold.
There are fewer types and varieties of seeds available and very few sparsely available seed catalogues for amateur gardeners exist. Traditionally Spaniards grew few types and only the family/village varieties handed down over the generations. We aim to use organic seeds where we can, so we save our own seeds where practical, tap into a local government seed bank, use anything offered to us by locals and fill gaps with imported seeds.
Sheep and goat manures were the norm, but there are now more horse stables wanting to get rid of manure. Pelleted chicken manure is not generally available, but in our area there are many commercial chicken houses where it is possible to buy a few sacks when they are cleaned out. However, there is now a wide range of eco fertilizers/growth promoters, pesticides and fungicides available to the amateur gardener – possibly wider than in the UK – having been developed/commercialised for the export-oriented organic vegetable growers. For interest look up www.trabe.net as a starter.
The generally benign climate can lead to long growing and harvesting seasons. For instance, leaf crops can be planted out in the autumn and will over-winter without going to seed until the hotter weather of spring. However, one has to watch out for widely yo-yoing daily temperatures and between successive days, especially during the winter and early spring. Winter does not change to spring as gradually as in the UK. Indeed it is possible to experience several winter/spring/winter days between December and April. We may get less rain, but when it comes it can be for days at a time in the spring and autumn and of monsoon proportions. The heaviest day’s rainfall we have experienced is 67cms in a day with 28cms in an hour! Inland tennis ball sized hail stones can be a problem, but the last fell in our village 24 years ago when the cars of the day ended up with badly dented roofs.
If one asks a Spaniard when he is going to sow or plant out X or Y, he will often reply with a saint’s day or in relation to the current cycle of the moon. The elderly men still keeping up allotments were well versed in the rudiments of the lunar calendar.
Just a final word; do grow things that you like, but check that they are in fact the vegetables with the highest concentration of beneficial vitamins and minerals. One of the reasons for writing the book ‘Living Well From Our Garden Mediteranean Style’ was to finally record all the information we had gathered about this. The book is inexpensive from Amazon Books or The Book Depository.
© Dick Handscombe
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