Slow Gardening the challenge and delight of the 21st century

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe active gardeners and authors living in Spain in a picturesque coastal valley that has been inhabited for 29,000 years. They have gardened n Spain since the mid 1980’s and have been members of the international Slow Food Association since 2005.

The Slow Food Association was set up in 1986 as an Italian organisation which went international in 1989 and now has members in some hundred and fifty countries. The underlying philosophy of the organisation and it’s various divisions is to:

  1. Sustain the worlds gastronomic heritage.
  2. Sustain the growing, processing, marketing and consumption of traditional tasty gastronomic artisan foods worldwide and stimulate their use by food processors, chefs and the general public on a day to day basis.
  3. Sustain the societies and cultures that stimulated the concepts of such foods, and their cooking and or presentation methods.
  4. Stimulate active interest in the consumption of slow versus fast foods and in particular acquaint the next generations of the possibilities of slow food as a healthier alternative to fast foods.
  5. Stimulate Fair Trade practices from grower to table through the various stages of the distribution chain for both raw ingredients and processed artisan products.

We joined after walking from Sienna to Florence for an unusual walk through the Chianti mountains and villages to enjoy the scenery and countryside and at nights enjoy a gastronomic treat – seven nights of excellent wines and local cuisine – and returning to Spain to discover that friends who run a centuries old farm that produces artisan goat cheeses, organic fruit and vegetables, and incorporates a restaurant and bed and breakfast establishment, had taken part in the 2004 Slow Food Tierra Madre gathering of some 5000 small scale food growers and producers, users and academics.

Since then we have participated in a number of interesting activities of the Valencia local group.

The July edition of the associations quarterly international magazine Slow Food discussed how the underlying concept of Slow Food has been adapted and applied to many other aspects of daily life including Slow Living, Slow Football, Slow Travel , Slow holidays etc.. However no mention was made of the attractiveness and importance of slowgardening which can help families help achieve the objectives of the Slow Food Movement at a local level in an informal manner.

We therefore follow up and expand on our recent article on this web site titled Holistic Gardening in Spain with our personal interpretation of what Slow Gardening means to us in a Mediterranean type climate.

We suggest that the essential characteristics of a Holistic Slow Garden are as follows.

  • A garden designed to purposely enable a relaxed outdoor lifestyle throughout the year.
  • A garden laid out and planted such that the maze of paths and various plantings or series of Moorish style mini gardens – seen par excellence of some of the centuries old gardens of Cordoba and Seville – draw one into the garden to wander round and enjoy leisurely relaxed alfresco eating throughout the year.
  • Stocking the garden generally with young plants and saplings grown from seed , cuttings or grafts and enjoying the changing characteristics of the garden for many years while it matures rather than establishing instant gardens with large plants and trees that need the maintenance of a fully mature garden from day one and don’t change their character from year to year.
  • Having said that relaxing slow days are only possible in Spain if you provide for summer shade and sheltered sunny spots for winter days.
  • So if you have not inherited or already grown some sizeable trees plant some fast growing ones as soon as possible in strategic situations. Ensure some are evergreen to help provide winter protection from for people and plants from cold winter winds.
  • The attraction of wild life to the garden for pleasure, eco-pest controls and preservation of species being decimated by fast insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fast build urbanisations in rural areas
  • The integration of fruit trees, bushes and vines, culinary and medicinal herbs, and seasonal vegetables into the layout of both small and large gardens. This can be achieved by interplanting as in cottage style gardens or with dedicated areas/mini gardens.
  • Slow food implies not only growing by natural, ecological and organic methods but also helping sustain the availability of the traditional gastronomic varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit by searching out heirloom seeds (passed down from generation to generation but never sold commercially) and heritage seeds ( sold commercially in the past but now removed from commercial lists but conserved in seed banks ) and traditional locally naturalised flowering plants and trees rather than imported exotics ill suited to the garden’s microclimate.
  • Growing naturally by feeding the soil prior to sowing or planting and just keeping it damp so as to stimulate the growth of healthy plants rather than over watering and over feeding with nitrogen fertilizers that stimulates unnaturally fast weak growth, unnecessary fungal and insect infestations and a lowering of frost resistance.
  • This also applies to keeping traditional breeds of poultry and rabbits and feeding them on natural feedstuffs – including home made hay and home grown alfalfa. They may not grow as fast or as large as newly genetically cross breeds fed on today’s fast food formulations. Commercially fattened chickens used to be fed for 70 days compared to 45 today before being slaughtered at the same weight. Feelings are that the original backyard chickens that foraged for their food were tastier than both.
  • Slow leisurely relaxed gastronomic cooking implies the use of slow cooking methods that preserve minerals, vitamins, colours, , textures, aromas and most importantly the fresh flavours. If you live in the sun belt – as we do in Spain – mexican ovens, traditional wood fired ovens, solar ovens and grills, and tagines heated by charcoal burners can produce more appetising dishes than the faster processes of microwave ovens and barbecues.
  • Recycling as much as possible from the kitchen and garden to:
    1. make compost
    2. feed animals, poultry and edible snails,
    3. c. provide inexpensive containers for propagating new plants from seeds or cuttings.
  • Stimulate younger generations to take an active interest in gardening. One of the objectives of the Slow FoodAssociation is to stimulate a deeper understanding among children of school and university age. The former through school gardens and cooking lessons and the latter through the University ofGastronomic Sciences established in Italy in 2004. But in reality more progress will be made if parents and grandparents grow vegetables and fruit and encourage children to partake in these activities from an early age. We were both involved in what is now termed organic gardening and the keeping of poultry and rabbits by the age of five.
  • From day one design and develop the garden so that it achieves the above without excessive/ unrealistic maintenance needs in relation to your overall lifestyle, whether working or retired, doing all the gardening or employing a gardener. We are well on the road to being self sufficient and happy to spend many of our working and leisure hours in our garden.
  • Use ergonomic tools where possible to ease the strain and prevent accidents.
  • Recognise that slow gardening is no more than our forefathers did prior to the inexpensive availability of chemical products from the 1940’s onwards.
  • From day one aim for a garden that is a slow pace peaceful and safe haven from today’s fast moving world. In practice the garden will be never finished . We have been developing our garden for 20 years and new ideas come to us annually. We are currently constructing two sundials on the walls of the house to allow us to work slow time and avoid having to wear a watch in the garden.

We hope that this article stimulates a wider dedication to the evolution of more holistic ecological and self sustaining slow gardens among the expatriate population and national population of Spain as well as elsewhere.

Any thoughts , ideas or observations of readers will be welcomed on slowgardening@yahoo.es or slowgardening@hotmail.com.