Living well from your garden – especially when gardening under Mediterranean Skies

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe self sufficient gardeners and gardening authors and broadcasters living in Spain for almost twenty five years

A live time practice

Since Dick grew up in wartime west London with a personal ecological vegetable plot from the age of six and the surrounding parents garden producing sufficient vegetables, fruit , chickens, rabbits and pigeons to feed a growing family well during times of rationing it was only natural that we would do the same when the availability of good local produce ceased to be available in the valley where we live in Spain.

Twenty two years ago the valley was chosen as a quiet retreat from a hectic international consulting life and as at the time it was a totally self sufficient and exporting community a good place to settle when Dick retired early after cancer operations. The surgeon had suggested that the risk of eating the Mediterranean diet and less stress would be less risky than having post operation radio or chemical therapy. Having originally been a chemical engineer and understanding the dangers of chemicals Dick took no time to make the decision to avoid chemical at all costs.

With bountiful supplies of locally produced food gardening initially concentrated on turning a rocky hillside into a natural garden full of local herbs with just a small raised bed for speciality vegetables that the Spaniards did not grow.

But within ten years agriculture was ceasing at a fast rate as crop growing and the rearing of sheep goats chickens and rabbits was replaced by the more profitable sale of land and ‘growing’ of houses. That was the trigger for us to obtain more land and drive for our own self sufficiency and write about what we were doing in newspapers and magazines and six books to date to help others do the same – click ‘our books’ to know more.

What you can do in your garden from today

The first thing is to recognise is that it is possible to eat many herbs and flowers as well as grow a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and that much of the waste from the herb vegetable and fruit garden can be fed to edible snails, poultry and rabbits.

We now do all for tasty healthy harvests when at there best 365 days a year. As we discuss monthly in our ‘Health from your garden’ blog on the www.wddty.com (What the Doctors Don’t Tell You) site each month many herbs flowers vegetables and fruits have health as well as gastronomic benefits.

Secondly to not only aim at just eating five to nine portions a day – the health authority recommendations vary from one Mediterranean climate country to another Spain being five and Australia being nine for instance – but to aim at more to ensure gastronomic eating 365 days a year and achieve the Slow Food aim of eating ‘quality locally produced ecological food with a fair income for the producer’. If you grow your own the fair return for your efforts is genuinely fresh healthy produce produced ecologically at a lower cost than buying commercially grown organic or standard produce. And what is more because you can chose what varieties you grow you can search out the tastiest old varieties that are no longer grown and sold commercially.

Thirdly realise that under Mediterranean Skies it is possible to grow things such as broad beans and peas during the winter that would not be sown until the Spring in many northern European and other temperate locations and that outdoor growing seasons are longer. On the Mediterranean coastal plain fruit vegetable crops such as tomatoes peppers and squash have been planted for a couple of months while in inland valleys they are only being planted this weekend the 3 to 5 May being excellent fruit days on the lunar calendar. Our book ‘Growing Healthy Vegetables in Spain’ includes practical advice for growing some hundred different vegetables and the best seasons for sowing, planting plantlets and harvesting etc.. And since the summer sun is guaranteed and hot you will eat fully ripe delicious vegetables and of course fruits and realise what you have missed for years for much commercially produced produce has to be harvested before being fully ripe in order to transport pack and display in stores without bruising . Our book ‘Growing Healthy Fruit in Spain’ gives advice on the growing of some seventy fruits. By the way Spain could just as easily have been Mediterranean as the advice is applicable to all Mediterranean climate locations and to a large extent to the warmer edge of temperate climate locations such as the south west of England and Ireland.

Fourthly recognise that living healthily from your garden does not require a large garden. Many things can be grown in containers on apartment terraces on the roof tops of village houses and in small patio gardens. Both ‘Growing Healthy Vegetables in Spain’ and ‘Growing Healthy Fruit in Spain’ include chapters on what and how herbs fruit and vegetables can be grown in areas as small as one square metre. The things to grow are long harvesting season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cut-and-come again leaf crops strawberries herbs etc., quickly maturing crops such as sprouting seeds and radishes and things that can be densely sown/planted and the thinings eaten in salads and omelettes for instance. The latter include carrots onions and garlic.

Recent living proof

In the past few days we have been excited by vivid examples of friends following the advice in our books.

  • Elderly friends who employ a gardener as they have been unable to garden themselves for years who are now delighted to harvest a good assortment of leaf vegetables from a two metre diameter raised bed in a cool courtyard which previously was planted with spring bulbs.
  • A professional couple in the thirties with a city apartment terrace covered with a wide assortment of containers planted with herbs, vegetables , fruit trees and edible flowers such as nasturtiums.
  • A local builders yard with spare lengths of concrete tubing planted up with vertically growing summer crops such as tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and cucumbers and also trailing plants such as courgettes , melons and squashes.
  • The back yard of the 92 year old who has cultivated the land next to our vegetable and soft fruit plot since the age of five. He was thrilled to show us his thousand litres of 2008 wine and his containers of over wintered broad beans and recently planted squash raised from seeds he had asked for from us a few weeks previously. He had seen the photographs on container growing in our books and realised that a few things growing on his large terrace would supplement his large plot and prevent him having to walk half a kilometre on wet days to get something to eat.
  • A friends new raised bed for vegetables fitted into what is a wonderful flower garden.
  • Another friends narrow but productive vegetable beds on a steeply sloping terraced bank. Only a year ago it was metre high weeds and brambles.
  • An unused sand pit converted to a child’s garden with a scare crow to be entered in a competition we are judging later in the month during the Parcent village flower festival.
  • The purchase of a snail cage by our insurance broker to collect snails for eating as we do as the best way of reducing snail populations and eating a spicy herby dish good for over sixties men.

This started out as a short article not the first edition of our next book so it’s time for breakfast in the garden from the garden. A healthy salad – lettuce, spinach, broccoli, nasturtium leaves and flowers, rocket, parsley, dandelion, young garlic and chives – and an omelette from our laying hens stuffed with early morning harvested asparagus. No tea or coffee but a healthy mint infusion made from fresh mint – a tradition left behind by the moors when banished back to north Africa in 1609.

Then there is the job of preparing a home reared rabbit and chicken for a home grown paella before going off to the village to bag up some old manure from the sheep shed of our local butcher who has just started to again raise his own sheep and then take the manure to fertilize the recently pruned olive trees in what was until last autumn an abandoned olive grove that we are now recuperating to produce our own extra virgin olive oil and move us even closer to healthy self sufficiency. Being a fiesta we will walk the surrounding mountains this afternoon.

Work yes. But it’s healthy enjoyable fun and the recycled manures and compost means that our holistic garden is as colourful and perfumed as it productive.

Our book ‘Your Garden in Spain – From planning to planting and maintenance’ covers the overall design and flower issues. It includes descriptions and Photographs of the 400 most sensible plants for both coastal and inland gardens.

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe May 2009