Adventures in Mediterranean Permaculture: The Story of an Olive Groves Understory

by: Sara on 05/08/2017

Today's post is from Darrell Frey, author of The Biohselter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm and co-author with Michelle Czolba of the long awaited The Food Forest Handbook: Design and Manage a Home-Scale Perennial Polyculture Garden.

In a previous post Darrell shared his experiences at Suryalila Yoga Retreat Center where he and his partner were learning about permaculture...Mediterranean style. This is Part Two of that journey and today he shares how the centers olive groves produce more than just olives.

My previous post described our journey to Suryalila Yoga Retreat Center in Andalusia Spain. My partner Jessy and I traveled there as volunteers to study permaculture in a Mediterranean climate. As documented in their new website (derived from Sanskrit for “blessed earth”), Suryalila is engaged in a long term process of applying permaculture design to regenerate their fields, olive groves and facilities. My previous post focused on the gardens at Suryalila. These gardens supply the center’s chefs with fresh herbs, edible flowers, greens and other vegetables, as well as oranges, lemons, figs and olives.

4 olive trees

Four olive trees

Since that last post we spent a lot of time working among the ancient olive trees here. In our travels through Andalusia, we were struck by the bare soil exposed on thousands of acres of olive groves. The olive groves at Suryalila were very different. There were many plants growing in and around the olive trees. In January and February the crown daisy and wild mallow, both with edible foliage and flowers, were dominate plants. In mid February, after the olive harvest was complete and the trees pruned, a flock of 600 sheep spent two days grazing in the olive groves, clearing out the winter growth and converting it into nutrient rich manure.  After the sheep left the grove, we continued to prune the trees and applied a ring of composted goat manure and bedding around the trees. In March, as the spring rainy season reached its peak, a wide variety of plants began to emerge.

When promoting a Mediterranean diet as healthful, advocates point

in the olive grove long view

In the olive grove

out that it is plant based, with vegetable and grains forming the base of the diet. A closer look at the traditional Mediterranean diet shows that the most healthy, longest living people in this part of the world included a wide variety of wild edible greens in their daily meals. Our time spent among the ancient olive trees, with their regenerating understory, brought home to us this lesson. Here, we found a great variety of plants, native to this region, growing under and among the olives. Some of these we have been growing for many years for our salad mix at Three Sisters Farm. These include dandelion, chickweed, burnet, chicory, crown daisy, plantain, arugula, Queen Anne’s lace, mallows, mustards, fennel, borage and oxalis.  

Other edible and medicinal plants we observed include wild asparagus species, wild onions, thyme, wild lettuce, blackberry, milk thistle, and meadow mushrooms. All of these were on the traditional Mediterranean menu, providing a wealth of vitamins, minerals and phyto-chemicals. These plants, used as salads and cooked greens by Mediterranean people for thousand of years are a key component of their diet.

On the borders of the olive grove we found a number of useful plants: wild mint, cana, which is similar to bamboo, mastic, which produces a resin that is used as a spice, and broom (a leguminous shrub).  The olive grove also has numerous wild flowers: clovers, wild calendula, periwinkle, grape hyacinth, iris, orchids, knapweed, blue pimpernel, scarlet pimpernel, poppy, white cistus, purple cistus, marguerite, arum, pipe vine, and many others we did not have time to identify. 

red olives 2 (1024x768)

Red Olives

All of these plants play multiple roles. In addition to the edibility and medicinal value of many of these, they also provide pollen and nectar for butterflies, bees, wasps and beneficial insects. They are the base of the ecosystem of Suryalila’s olive grove. Many feed birds with their seeds and help keep micronutrients in cycle in the soil. Just like the ox-eye daisy in North America, the crown daisy flower is a host of  the beneficial insect "predatory thrip", which are an important predator of pests such as thrips, aphids, and spider mites.  We observed a great many types and sizes of bees, wasps and bumblebees foraging among the many wild flowers.

The diversity of life included rabbits, mice, skunks, legless lizards, geckos, snakes, and other lizards. We also observed many types of birds, including the predatory falcons, kites, hawks, eagles and owls at home here. Compared to the bare understory of thousands of acres of olive groves in Andalusia, Surylila’s groves are an oasis of biodiversity.  Already, in a few short years, the ecological management of the olive groves has nurtured a vibrant ecosystem.

One of the permaculture design goals of Suryalila is to increase the olive grove’s soil fertility and water holding capacity to improve the productivity of the understory. In the years to come, Surlaylila’s Danydara project will work to demonstrate organic olive production with multi-species understory. In addition to encouraging the continued regeneration of the edible and useful native understory plants, they are considering other trees and shrubs to interplant. Prickly pear cactus, agave, and fig are all present in the landscape and have high potential for intercropping between the olives. Increased asparagus production would fit well here.  Rows of annuals, such as winter crops of fava beans, or summer crops of garbanzo beans also can be alley cropped on the terraces between the olives. Most likely, the plan will evolve to include a mix of all these, reviving ancient practices of harvesting multiple yields from the groves. 

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