I did think that I knew what most of the fruits were and that they could be found in the supermarket. But oh, how wrong I was...
A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to an edible botanical garden called ‘Pomar dos Sabores’ (Orchard of Flavours) close to the seaside near Tavira. I was absolutely astonished at what I found. Not only were there an abundance of trees and plants that I had never seen before, but there were also some of the familiar favourites that, on closer inspection, had a very fruity twist.
This experiment has only been going for a year and a half, and yet this fascinating and, indeed, flavourful garden is already fairly well established. The project’s founder, Miguel Cotton, found me at the gate, gazing up in wonder at the colourful and quirky map of the orchard. He greeted me wearing a smile and the large hat (with extra back shade) of someone who has learned how harsh the sun can be working in the garden all day. Miguel is from Belgium and, as far as I could find out, was a lawyer, but also founded a tour operating company, and he now, along with running this place, also teaches agroecology at the University of Brussels (currently via Zoom). He’s always had a huge passion for botany and, after studying permaculture in Ireland, he visited many different projects all over the world - where he saw and fell in love with all kinds of weird and wonderful plants.
So, what made him decide to move to the Algarve, of all places? Well, a few years ago he came to stay with some friends and he told me the story of how he woke up in the morning at their house and looked out to see a banana tree and a guava tree growing happily in the garden. It was then that he had his epiphany and said to himself, “Miguel, this is the most subtropical place in Europe, I wonder what else you could grow here?”.
So, with this in mind, he acquired this one hectare piece of land (with plans to move into the field next door as the orchard expands) and set about sourcing all these curious and irregular plants from specialized nurseries (mostly from France, Spain and the Canaries), as well as from private collectors and friends. He then, with the help of like-minded locals and volunteers (from the international volunteering site wwoof.pt), has been working hard to create this orchard full of all kinds of flavours - where everything is edible (in one way or another).
Most of the plants and trees are subtropical and this is an experiment to see what fruit production could conceivably be relocated to Europe.
It could also serve to inspire people and show them how the environmentally friendly approach could work in their own garden. So far they have planted around 250 different fruit trees, and Miguel plans to plant another 100 by the end of the year.
It really is a very scientific endeavour. Everything is very well organized. Miguel keeps track of all sorts of details, including things like the type of soil, as well as having, in the centre of the garden, what’s called ‘The Brain’ (of the operation). This is a very sophisticated irrigation system that allows him to not just save water, but to control and record exactly how much each plant gets. And all this information is recorded online in his database, for anyone whose interested.
The orchard is also very orderly with beautiful homemade signs announcing the different areas with names based loosely on what Miguel reckons they look a bit like. There’s the ‘Ocean Waves’, for example, or some V-shaped beds called ‘The Wings’, and even the ‘Boomerang’ and the ‘Pickle’. This all limits confusion and helps volunteers to easily find their way around. We started off our tour in the ‘Palm Garden’.
Now, we are all used to seeing palm trees in the Algarve. So, what’s the big deal? Well, the fairly major thing is that when the ones he has planted here grow up, you will actually be able to eat the date-like fruits they produce. How cool is that? Makes me wonder why on earth we would choose to grow the variety that you can’t eat? Plus, Miguel says that those red (evil) weevils that have been destroying the palm trees, don’t eat these ones. So, like almost everything in this edible orchard, it’s certainly food for thought.
Moving on, Miguel showed me how they are using various other permaculture techniques like ‘mulching’, where they cover the area around the base of the trees with straw, cuttings from trees, and even cardboard as this all helps to trap in moisture and stop it evaporating in the heat of the day. They also have lots of flowers carpeting the ground. This doesn’t only look pretty, but also helps keep the soil ‘alive’ and, of course, the place abuzz with local pollinators.
Fascinated by all these new and foreign trees, I paid little attention to what seemed to be ‘the familiar locals’, when actually, they were all slightly different species too. The orchard has, for example, a collection of pomegranate trees, except some of these would have a dark red, or even a purple fruit. And not only that, unlike the deciduous ones that grow here, these trees are evergreen. There were also fig trees that give fruit twice a year (not just the once). Not to mention different species of mulberry and even the famous medronho bushes, as well.
Heading back into more exotic territory, he also has various kinds of lychees, guavas, cherry trees, mangoes and much more. This brings us neatly to what’s known as the ‘Banana Circle’. This is fairly important, as Miguel explains that the bananas that we are so used to eating, are getting pretty used to us as well (and all the pesticides we use to grow them). He thinks it would be smart to think about what other varieties we could cultivate. The Banana Circle is a permaculture trick, where you plant the banana trees (you guessed it) in a circle, but then you dig a big hole in the middle and use this as your compost heap. Bananas love all this decomposing goodness and soak it up, and with a strategically placed windbreak (called ‘The Great Wall’) to conserve heat, they thrive. He grows various kinds of unusual banana’s, including red ones (yep, that’s right) and ones that look like elephant toes.
A few other highlights I saw on my visit were a yellow fruit from Asia, known as Buddha’s hand (that looks like a lemon with lots of fingers), and Miguel crushed a green leaf called ‘kaffir’ and asked me what food the smell reminded me of? It was the unmistakable fresh fragrance of a Thai green curry (mmmm…yum).
To find out more about the project, access the plant database, learn some permaculture tips and tricks, or even, if you are very serious, go and volunteer, then check out the website www.orchardofflavours.com/