Market Gardening and Food Forests, Permaculture in Spain

by: Sara on 02/20/2017

In today's post we hear from Darrell Frey, owner and manager of Three Sisters Farm, a 5-acre permaculture farm, solar greenhouse and market garden located in Western Pennsylvania.  Darrell is also the author of The Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm and co-author of the soon to be released, The Food Forest Handbook: Design and Manage a Home-Scale Perennial Polyculture Garden.

Darrell shares his experience at the Suryalila Yoga Retreat Center in Southern Spain practicing yoga and leaning about permaculture design in Mediterranean climates.

I came to Suryalila Yoga Retreat Center, in the Cadiz Province of Andalusia (southern) Spain with my partner Jessy for two reasons. One was to further explore our yoga practice with daily classes at a world class yoga teaching center. The other was to learn more about the application of permaculture design in a Mediterranean climate.

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The gardens at Suryalila

The yoga experience here is indeed world class. Yoga classes are usually offered twice daily. Meditation sessions and yoga philosophy lectures are offered weekly. The chefs and kitchen staff prepare deliciously innovative vegetarian meals that include ingredients direct from the gardens on site. The managers and staff are welcoming and dedicated to providing a setting for both relaxation and personal growth for all who come here.

Suryalila is an incredibly beautiful place. The property is an historic olive plantation, with nearly 600 olive trees, pastures and fields. Extended views of neighboring wheat fields, a deep blue lake and distance white washed villages on the Andalusian hills completes the scene. The facilities are exquisitely designed to nurture the spirit as well as the body. ( The current issue of Yoga Journal ranks Suryalila as one of the top 16 yoga destinations in the world.

Our study of the application of permaculture in a Mediterranean climate will be ongoing for the length of our stay at Suryalila. American permaculture designer Doug Crouch, who has extensive experience in the region, has been contracted by Suryalila to provide consultation and guidance for the ongoing development of the facilities, gardens and the surrounding landscape. Jacob Evans, originally from Manchester, England, is the permaculture project manager at Suryalila. Jacob also has a strong background in gardening and permaculture. Jessy and I arrived in early January for a three month stint of volunteering to help implement Doug’s design plans in the gardens and landscape. Volunteers here work in the gardens, on new straw bale cabin construction, or on olive harvest and pruning. Many also offer yoga classes as part of their volunteer time.

The focus of our labor as garden volunteers includes gardening to help supply the kitchen with fresh herbs and produce. We are also helping to implement the permaculture design plan by further developing the gardens, planting windbreaks to moderate the occasional strong winds at this ridge top site, and planting food forest crops. The initial goal set by Suryalila director Vidya Heisel and the chefs is for the gardens to provide seasonal fruit, fresh herbs, edible flowers, salad crops and greens and specialty items not easily purchased locally. Suryalila currently produces its own olive oil and cured olives for use at the Center. Longer range goals include expanding vegetable production and planting a fifteen acres field with diverse tree crops. Contour lines were laid out and the field was chisel plowed along the contours to improve water distribution and retention in preparation for the tree crops.

In addition to gardening and developing the landscape, we make compost from various animal manures, lawn and landscape

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Main buildings at Suryalila

trimmings and straw. Suryalila’s flock of nearly sixty chickens, three donkeys, several alpacas and six boarded horses provide plenty of manure. Each week new compost piles are made by alternating layers of the cut green material, straw and manure. The piles are monitored for proper temperature and turned regularly to ensure thorough composting. Plenty of compost is needed to build soil fertility and add carbonaceous material to the soil and increase the soil’s capacity to hold water.

A Mediterranean climate is characterized by a long cool rainy winters and long hot dry summers. Light frosts are common, but snow is rare. The key strategies to gardening in the climate here include growing crops adapted to the seasonal changes, storing water for irrigation, improving the soil’s water holding capacity and developing strategies to garden in the shade of tree crops.

Southern Spain is renowned for its production of wheat, olives, almonds, citrus and grapes. These are well adapted to producing
crops that flower and fruit in the cool rainy months and mature in the summer and fall. Wheat, for example, is planted in the November and December, germinates in the cool rains of January and February, and ripens in the dry summer. The tree crops are grown on the hills and mountainsides, and wheat in the lower fields. Sheep and goats traditionally are pastured among the olive groves and fallow fields.

At Suryalila, daytime temperatures from November though March average in the 50 to 60 degree Fahrenheit range. Even in January semi hardy plants like nasturtium, borage and aloe vera survive the frequent light frosts. Hardy crops, including kale, chard, arugula and other greens, lettuces and fava beans all grow well in the long cool and wet season.

A major design goal here is to build the soil’s capacity to store water and make the best use of that water in the spring growing season before the weather gets to hot. After that many crops need to be irrigated. Vegetable crops benefit from being shaded to continue to produce as the hot dry summer begins. In the intense heat of summer many crops just do not grow. This is where forest gardening comes into play.

The garden at Suryalila is laid out on contour with a mix of raised beds and sunken beds. The sunken beds are expected to hold irrigation better in the dry season. Most of the beds currently receive full sun, but some are shaded. Existing mature trees in the garden include a large fig, sweet oranges, bitter oranges, and olive trees. Other trees on the garden edge include almond, bay laurel and oleander, as well as several grape vines.

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Showers drain to flower circles

A shaded work space and worm bin / work bench is set beneath the fig tree. The orange and olive trees shade beds of perennial herbs and annual flowers and vegetables. One large olive tree spreads wide over beds of nasturtium, calendula and spearmint. Grey water from the kitchens is directed to a series of deeply mulched basins and swales. These basins are encircled with raised beds planted with newly established perennial crops.

More tree crops are being established in the garden. Madrono, or strawberry tree, is a fruit tree native to the Mediterranean region. Pineapple guava, or feijoa , native to South America are also being added. Feijoa has both edible fruits and edible flowers. The madronos are surrounded with mulched donuts planted with a mix of plants, and variously include thyme, rosemary, lavender, chard and kale. Casuarina trees, a wind resistant evergreen tree native to Australia and south Asia, and Mediterranean cypress are included to break the wind. As the tree crops mature they will provide shade from the summer sun to help extend the growing season into the hotter months.

The next post in this series will look more closely at the details of food forest gardening here in Andalusia.



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