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Starting From Scratch in Spain
An excerpt from The Mediterranean Garden - No. 10   Autumn 1997

When we moved into our house in Cadiz on the south west coast of Spain, our garden, once part of the pine wood planted in the 18th century to provide much-needed timber for the shipbuilding industry, had been turned into what appeared to be a rubbish dump. Builders must be notorious worldwide for their skills in destruction. We had been left with a handful of stone pines, Pinus pinea, and Cork Oaks, Quercus suber, admist piles of aggregate, with the odd Crocus bravely pushing its way up through the rubble. The scrub of the the former pine woods had survived happily in a shallow layer of leaf mould, protected from the elements it had no need of a deep layer of topsoil. But even this had gone with the builders. All that remained was a hard layer of red clay that turned to rock in the summer. Hence the name of the district - 'La Barrosa' from the Spanish word for clay, Barro.

I was determined to restore the damage and wanted a natural garden with as many autochthonous species as possible, in order to recreate a habitat for the little wildlife that remained. Exposed to the hot summer sun, torrential rain in the autumn, the occasional frost in winter and vicious easterly winds that can blow for days on end, it was not going to be an easy task.

In haste we set about improving the soil by digging in as much organic matter as possible. We make our own compost, which provides a rich dark humus that helps to break up the clay as well as providing valuable nutrients. While waiting for the first load of compost to mature we used goat manure and leaf mould. Plants slowly began to florish, and patches of bare soil were disappearing. Then came the end of th drought and the heavens opened. Lavender, thyme, salvia, cistus rotted in waterlogged soils, topsoils were washed away and plants vanished down gaping holes as subsidence occured. Back to square one, but after a lesson well learned: a little more patience, observation and study beforehand could have saved much time and effort later. We made deep gravel drainage ditches, dug in heaps more compost to improve soil structure and replanted the more vulnerable species in areas we now knew to be safe from flodding. Mulches of pine needles, bark or gravel were spread to protect against erosion and leaching, as well as to conserve water in the drier months.

The wet weather provided the answer to one puzzle however - where were the worms? In all the digging we came across not a single worm. Did earthworms not live in Andalucia? We consulted a local worm expert who explained that Spanish worms were solitary creatures and therefore difficult to find - we weren't convinced. We considered importing worms from another area of Spain but this seemed to go against our idea of a natural garden. At the end of the first year there was great excitement - a big fat juicy worm. It was carefully placed in a shady area with lots of detritus and needless to say disappeared forever. And so we continued for the next two years when the drought ended. After 40 days of non-stop torrential rain and heavy flooding we finally solved the mystery. In the hot dry summers the worms burrow deep down into the clay and only after the rains do they surface in order to avoid drowing in the waterlogged soil. Worms now abound, even breeding in the doormats in the really wet weather.

With nurseries here offering little in the way of native shrubs, we salvaged many plants from the building sites, a method which proved quite successful provided the plants were transplanted after the first rains in autumn. Cistus palhinhae (a sticky species with magnificent large white tissue paper flowers and glossy leaves) grows in nothing along the cliff-tops and moved happily to our hard clay in full sun but objects strongly to being watered; Cistus salvifolius (A low growing species with wrinkly leaves and white flowers) provides good ground cover; Halimium halimifolium (the silvery leaves being almost as attractive as the yellow flowers), Myrtus communis, Rosemarinus officinalis, Lavandula stoechas, Teucrium fruticans were all successfully transfered to a lighter soil with some shade. Cistus ladanifer, struck from a cutting, grew into a handsome 3 meter shrub in as many years, flowering continually from February to June. Perennials such as Anagallis monellii (with brilliant blue flowers), Sweet Alison (Lobularia maritima - sweet scented white flowers) and Storksbill (Erodium primulaceum - pink flowers) provide colour in the spring.

Judith Barclay.
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