Hanging gardens

gardens 1THERE is a plan. Moving to Andalucia wasn’t just a random decision. We have a goal other than seeking sunshine and high rocky mountains. That goal is to become self-sufficient – grow our own fruit and vegetables; make our own wine; keep hens; attempt to reduce our carbon footprint . . .

Don’t anyone make any Richard Briers jokes – El Buena Vida and that sort of thing. I’ve been growing fruit and veg on a double allotment plot for the past 17 years. I might not know much in the grand scheme of things, but at least I know my onions. Caulis and cabbages too.

The looming challenge is to transfer a lifetime of horticultural experience gained in the cold, wet north of England to the hot, dry mountainsides of southern Spain. Helping your father and grandfather plant potatoes in black earth beneath a Cumbrian railway embankment is one thing. Cultivating potatoes in parched ground at an altitude of 1,000 metres is another. But it can be done, and I’ve just met a man who does it well.

This morning I’m sitting in a rattly car that’s clawing its way up the side of a gorge above the town of Lanjarón. Somewhere below the offside wheels, the Rio Lanjarón tumbles over rocks and courses through ravines – but the gorge is so sheer I can’t bring myself to look. I’m on a steep learning curve in more ways than one.

The driver is former Royal Navy matelot and allotment gardener Peter Rogers who, along with his wife, Sue, has established a self-sufficiency centre at the 1,000-metre contour in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s like growing your own stuff on the summit of Snowdon, he tells me. Actually, it’s a bit warmer than Snowden and certainly less crowded.

The couple run courses in self-sufficiency, organic gardening, cooking your own produce, making cheese and bread, soap-making, growing and using herbs, natural dying, and pickling and preserving. They have transformed a series of neglected olive terraces into a fully-functional market garden where even the most stubborn – or delicate – of northern European vegetables thrive.

gardens 2 gardens 8 gardens 7 gardens 6 gardens 5 gardens 4 gardens 3

Yarrow has many uses. Here it protects young vegetables from the burning sun
Yarrow has many uses. Here it protects young vegetables from the burning sun

gardens 10 gardens 11

Rubbish has to be burned – but fire is a hazard in the parched environment. This is Pete's low-risk rubbish burner
Rubbish has to be burned – but fire is a hazard in the parched environment. This is Pete’s low-risk rubbish burner
Those old bedsteads have come in handy . . .
Those old bedsteads have come in handy . . .

gardens 14Pete and Sue have tailored a one-day course to suit my requirements. I am taken on a tour of the growing beds, polytunnels, beehives, hen hut, olive grove, and irrigation system. I am tutored in the finer details of cultivating food organically and in a Mediterranean climate. I am plied with cups of tea, beer, delicious beetroot burgers, pasta with peppers, salad, and delicacies too numerous to mention.

And by late afternoon I am no longer an allotment-holder peering from his shed door hoping for a glimpse of an English sun between scurrying rainclouds – I am a tiller of fine soil who harbours hopes for the future.

All I need now is some land of my own. And someone to drive me down this mountain.

gardens 15Going organic
FOR Pete and Sue’s website, click here

 

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35 thoughts on “Hanging gardens

      1. Come on now Alen! When was achieving a goal ever easy? However, we do need some help, so, “may the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rains fall softly upon your fields” & of course “may your God hold you in the palm of his hand”.

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  1. Hi Alen, loads of useful information as usual.

    A new quote we had never heard, but heard this week and I think it is in keeping with the thinking of Richard Briars “Los amigos son como peces que apestan después de tres días”. I mean this is the nicest possible way after just moving into our new house three weeks ago the family/friends holiday bookings up to the end of next year is nearly full already.

    We have an area of terraced ground in our Casa in Carataunas and the previous owner did attempt to grow vegetables. We are a bit apprehensive on what do grow even though we have had some experience of growing vegetables in the north of Scotland, you will understand our apprehension, late September previously it was eight degrees now we are averaging twenty eight degrees mid day. Also, one spring in Scotland, now we have two.

    Pete and Sue are the type of people we need as their courses are so varied, this would allow you soak up all the information required. Experience counts for everything and it would be easy to waste money on the wrong product etc. I will enjoy looking at there web site.

    Are you any further on finding a new home you previously mentioned a place in the village of Pitres? We are very lucky we found a wonderful home with a wee bit of ground to grow our own vegetables and fruit.

    Finally your wonderful photographs give us the inspiration to try and become self sufficient and our neighbour had achieved this but not in the tailored manner of Pete and Sue. There vegetables they so kindly give us taste so different even from the ones you buy from Al Campo etc.

    Wonderful blog as usual.

    Hasta luego.

    John.

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    1. Hi John. That’s a new quote for me and one I will use. Like you, we have been here only a couple of months and are already entertaining our second visitor from England. The calendar is filling up fast.
      The general rule with veg is that anything that can be grown in the UK can be grown here – but in a different manner. Direct sunlight burns things up, so it’s best to grow veg in shade. Pete and Sue’s tunnels are covered in fine netting – the nets the olive and almond pickers use – and this reduces the glare. They use a double thickness in high summer, and single for the rest of the year. They also use other plants for shade – existing fruit trees, bamboo, yarrow. The bamboo is especially useful because it can be cut for canes as well. They are having a garden open day in October, which I think is mentioned on their website. But be warned – the drive up there is extremely hairy, even by Spanish standards.
      The house in Pitres was absolutely beautiful but there was no access for a vehicle. Big shame really because we loved it. We are now looking at a couple of places in the Lanjaron and Orgiva area. We’ll get there eventually.
      All the best, Alen

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  2. How fantastic, Alen, and what a credit to you, in terms of vision and ambition! I have no doubt at all that you will succeed. Pete is an inspiration and it sounds as if he will be a long-lasting ally. Having to protect young plants from the burning sun is not a problem that bothers most British gardeners! How are Agnes and Bessie doing?

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    1. Hi Jo. Agnes and Bessie are fine, thank you. They have taken to their new life like ducks to water.
      Yes, I have no doubt I’ll be back up to Pete and Sue’s for advice one one thing or another. I’ve always fancied keeping bees, and they are expert beekeepers. So I’ll need advice on that.
      All the best, Alen

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  3. There must come a point in a self-sufficient lifestyle when you say ‘I need to nip down the shops…’ and then remember you don’t need to nip down the shops because everything from firewood to a loaf of bread is outside the back door. (Or at the top of that eight thousand foot mountain, depending on where you live.)

    Sitting here in my suburban brick jail cell I feel like doing a Reggie Perrin and chucking it all in. I’ve applied to renew my passport, so in a few weeks time if you still want a driver I’ve only got three points on my license and I know how to reverse.

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    1. Hi Chris. I think there are several grades to self-sufficiency. Some people round here have their own water supplies and generate their own electricity (as indeed they do in parts of Scotland), but being self-sufficient in fruit, veg and eggs will suit me fine. There will be some necessities to buy, such as beer and car parts, but what the hell. Even Richard Briers bought his wheelbarrow. And you’re not telling me Felicity Kendal wove the cloth for her dungarees.
      I could do with a co-driver. I’ve driven the 220km round trip to Malaga Airport three times in the past week, picking up and dropping off visitors.
      Cheers, Alen

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    1. Alastair, they are absolutely beautiful. The secret ingredient is cumin, which adds a heavenly flavour. Other than that, I haven’t a clue what is in them, besides grated beetroot of course. I shall have to Google the recipe.
      Cheers, Alen

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  4. Good stuff Alen. It is a hard but enjoyable life. We did it part time for many years – part time because I had a mortgage ( still have) and young children at the time. We had 3 acres and grew most of our own veg, hens, pigs, sheep, ducks. Given that up to concentrate on my business. However we may well go back to it one day and where you are is a pretty good place to do it! How are the property prices down there? What does a nice little house with a hectare or two land cost? Has it risen much since the price crash in Spain a few years back? Wishing all the best.
    Mark

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    1. Hi Mark. Good to hear from you. Such a satisfying way to live. Goats are a big thing down here, so we might branch off in that direction when we get established.
      Property prices are much cheaper than in the UK. You can pick up a nice cortijo with a hectare of irrigated land for anything between 150,000 euros and 200,000 euros. That’s roughly £100,000-£160,000. Up in the mountains away from the towns and villages it’s even cheaper still. There are places for sale with three of four hectares for the same prices, much of it with olive, almond and sweet chestnut trees.
      Prices are still at rock-bottom after the crash but there are indications they might be rising soon.
      All the best, Alen

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  5. I could do with some hot sun myself! Good idea to go to the experts for such a change in growing conditions – I wouldn’t have a clue in a hot, dry climate – we have to spend all our time trying to keep plants warm and sheltered here!

    I’d have got out and walked up and down that road – no way would I have stopped in the car!
    Carol.

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    1. The road is a nightmare, Carol. How people live up places like that (and there are quite a few) is beyond me. They all say that it’s just a case of getting used to it.
      Cheers, Alen

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        1. There is a ski resort at Prado Llano on the northern side of the mountain range. I do believe it is Europe’s most southerly ski resort, although I am open to correction on this. There was even a small glacier until quite recently. All the irrigation water comes from snow-melt, and the snow-melt feeds the numerous springs in the mountains. Many of the higher villages get deep snow in the winter.
          Ice axes and crampons are essential on the higher peaks in winter. I have not done any winter walking here yet, but I’m sure the time will come.
          Cheers, Alen

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                1. Funnily enough, the first mountain I climbed was Veleta (back in 2009), which is the second highest. I climbed up the south side from just above the village of Capileira, which was a huge mistake because it was all in the blazing sun and about 5,000ft of ascent. I suffered from breathlessness all the way and had to keep resting. Also slight dizziness. That was my introduction to the effects of altitude. Just where the sickness kicks in I have no idea.

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                  1. around 10,000 feet but usually more like 12,000 for most I think. I have known people get sick over 10,000 though… The blazing heat could well have been a contributor to your sickness – in fact, it could have just been that. I sometimes feel exactly like that when we get a rare hot day in our mountains. Generally soaking my buff in a cold stream and sticking it back on my head is an almost instant cure though.

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  6. So you finally made it to sunny “carefree” Spain! Good luck. When you have a spare moment, call in at Frigiliana where my wife and I have been learning all about the simple life for many years. Simple? Ho! Ho! Ho!
    Un abrazo
    David

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    1. Hola, David. Simple? That’s a laugh. We’ve been here only two-and-a-half months and I could write a book on all the ups and downs we’ve had. Our priority at the moment is to buy a house and land. This is not as straightforward as we assumed. Few ups and many downs. Once settled, we will certainly be in touch and call round to see you.
      All the best, Alen

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