You may remember that a few months ago I went ‘Visiting Vinha Velha’ (story still available online), an organic farm located on the west coast close to the idyllic town of Barão de São João. Here I met sisters Clara and Delia and found out about their farm and how their father, Hubert, had founded it in the 1980s and planted over 80.000 trees on this 140-acre piece of land. While I was there I met Matthijs Wansink or Mattie, who had come to stay at the farm last year and fell in love. I was told he was handling the ‘tree planting’ side of things.
Unfortunately, this was too much to write in one go and I was already busy trying to absorb what Delia was telling me about producing her organic seeds. However, I promised Mattie that “one day” I would be back to find out more.
To be honest, I was secretly very pleased to have an excuse to go back to this rather magical place and this time I got to notice stuff I missed on my first visit. As Mattie and I sat down for some ice tea outside the beautiful wooden house he stays in, he told me that as soon as he arrived at the farm it had felt like home. Mattie grew up on a similar farm in Holland, and all the stories of Hubert, who sadly passed away in 2017, reminded him of his dad who was also very idealistic and dedicated to collaborating with nature. He became determined to help continue his legacy and has created The Restore Nature Foundation.
Southern Portugal is one of the driest places in Europe and Mattie sees it as the frontline in the fight against desertification and climate change. The foundation’s mission is to “restore natural ecosystems and empower people to build a hopeful future by making a positive impact on nature”. Maybe the best thing to do now is for you to come along with me as we walk around the farm and Mattie tells me a little about how they plan on doing this.
More than just planting trees
We started the tour with the area around Mattie’s house where it was possible to see, on a smaller scale, examples of some ‘agroforestry’ techniques that he wants to implement. The first thing he showed me was a baby cork oak that was not only surrounded by an abundance of other plants including broccoli and various flowers, but also a little prickly pear cactus. Gosh, what a jungle and you might think that they would compete for resources, but in actual fact, this clever planting tactic means that, just like what tends to happen in the natural world, all these different plants develop what’s called a symbiotic relationship - and actually help each other out.
You see, the prickly pear cactus is a very resilient plant that can grow almost everywhere and has the very special power of absorbing water in the air and bringing it down into the soil. And so, it doesn’t just help the fragile young cork oak stay hydrated, but also, if you plant the cactus in the right place, it can create a wall to shield its more sensitive buddy from both the harsh afternoon sun as well as, in the case of Vinha Velha, the dominant north-westerly wind.
As for the fruits and veggies like broccoli, strawberry, courgette and pumpkin that are also growing around Mattie’s trees, they too help create shade for the soil around the tree and prevent evaporation - and some are even ‘nitrogen fixers’. What about the flowers? Well, they not only create a lovely splash of colour, which let’s face it, helps cheer everybody up, but also keep the place abuzz with local pollinators. So, it’s a win-win-win. You get to eat the vegetables (and even prickly pears) while you wait for the oak tree to grow up and here’s the real clincher - you only have to water in one spot.
Of course, that’s if nobody eats them first. The cows of the farm have been grazing on dry grass in the field right next door to Mattie’s mini-garden and have obviously had nothing else to do all day but gaze longingly at his ever-growing bounty. Much to Mattie’s dismay, recently when there was a short-circuit in the electric fence and they seized the opportunity to go to town and munch up a lot of his hard work. You can’t plan for ‘acts of god’ and Mattie said that at least the cows did leave some fantastic fertilizer in their wake.
Anyway, there’s a lot more to be said about all this, but I think Mattie’s mini-garden captures the essence of what he wants to achieve in the forests. Instead of monocultures of just one species, he wants to plant lots of different native species together, to create huge biodiversity, with everybody doing their bit to help their neighbours to grow big and strong together.
But it’s not just the plants that he wants to work together and support one another. He also wants to get the community together too. Mattie told me a lot about the ‘Fridays for Future’ event they hold where like-minded locals can come along and learn and discuss various different techniques and work together on projects. One of the things Mattie showed me that they have been working on is a bamboo tree nursery, which will mean they will be able to produce a much greater variety of native species for a lot cheaper than having to buy them from elsewhere.
Speaking of the future, they have also started involving the kids, teaching them how to plant trees and involving them in the process. This allows them to develop a connection with nature and when they come back again they see the progression of ‘their tree’.
Restore the water cycle
I was once told that here in Portugal we get the same amount of rain that they do in the south of England. But the crucial difference is that in England it comes down in a monotonous drizzle giving it ample time to soak into the soil. Here, however, how to put this..“It never rains, it pours”, and the torrent of rain tears straight down the hillsides and it barely has time to ‘stop and sink’ before it’s washed back into the sea again. That’s why wherever I seem to go for these Renature stories I’m constantly shown the benefits of ‘swales’.
Swales are basically strategically placed mounds of earth or rocks that are carefully constructed along the hillsides that stop the water from being in such a rush and direct it to a place that gives it time to soak into the soil.
Mattie has the same plan, as well as other plans to develop dams at the lowest point of the land. The main thing though is to find ways to keep the water from escaping and direct it to where it is needed so that it can sink down and bring up the water table.
Find out more
There’s only so much I can say here. However, if I managed to pique your interest you can find out much more about Mattie and the foundation at: