Sunday, May 9, 2010

Letter from Mallorca

The author of this letter - who wishes to remain anonymous - is a recently-transplanted South African gardener who moved to the island of Mallorca from Cape Town, and the missive is addressed to her former garden club members. It chronicles all that is new, and is a breath of scented Mediterranean air to this Brooklynite.

I hope that she considers starting a weblog. It would be a good one.

It's Easter and raining and I am frankly delighted. Apart from the snow we had early in March, there have been lots of promising-looking grey skies but only a bit of a drizzle three weeks ago and the soil had begun to set rock-hard, of which more below...We've been here for six weeks now and it's time to share some first impressions.

Spring is turning out to be surprisingly interesting here. The almond blossom season ( a tourist attraction) was just coming to an end when we arrived and in the garden a pear tree is now covered in fluffy white. The fig, Pomegranate and Persimmon trees, as well as an as yet unidentified fruit tree, are slowly coming alive. Oh, and we have a Loquat tree with ripening fruit (yeah!).

My first reaction was to whip it out immediately as it occupies a very central spot, but here this tree, considered an almost invasive weed by me before, is almost revered and I'm told every garden should have one...oops.

Oh, OK, while you are sniggering, I may as well admit that there is a luxuriant Prickly Pear in the cactus garden (yes,the cacti were also about to be turfed until I saw what they were being sold for at the nursery. I did a few sums in my head and now they are definitely staying!). Oleander features prominently, and there are swathes of Lavender and Rosemary. It has taken me a while to accept that they belong here and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them. They are water-wise, fragrant and keep the weeds down. Yes, I do like them here. The fence in the driveway is covered by a mass of climbing roses which should be a sight in early summer. There are a few citrus trees: the oranges, grapefruit, lemons and naartjies are delicious! However they have been neglected and I have to investigate how to properly prune and nurse them back to health.

There are Olive trees, some of them ancient with huge gnarled trunks, mainly of the wild variety, but some apparently carry beautiful big fruit which will no doubt demand to be preserved in November. A big Carob Tree is the central feature of our covered stoep, the most important "room" of the house, but it is rotting and will need to be pruned extremely hard. They are real survivors, though, and you see many old specimens where dead- looking trunks have coppiced. Carobs, Olive trees and the now fairly rare Holm Oak grow wild in the pine forest behind our house, along with attractive shrubs, eg Rhamnus alaternus and Pistacia lentiscus, both of which can be used for hedges and topiary, as well as two Cistus species and Erica multiflora.

In the wild bit leading up to the forest behind the house (the owner of the forest is unknown!) there have been some surprises. I have discovered a number of beautiful wildflowers including 4 species of orchid and a shocking-pink Gladiolus.

Asparagus , Honeysuckle and two species of Clematis grow wild. Asphodels* (a tall bulbous plant with white star-shaped flowers and a smell reminiscent of a blend of sweaty socks and cats' urine) are in flower everywhere. As is a nasty South African immigrant, the ubiquitous Oxalis pes-caprae which appears to cover every single vacant square metre of the island. It is a terrible pest.

I have in fact never seen weeds as robust and tenacious as grow in our garden here. They seem cemented into the soil and, unless it has recently rained, are impossible to remove with roots. Which is why the custom ist to use a rotavator every so often. To my mind all that does is to disperse the weed seeds and bulbils even further.

Much of the soil in this garden was imported as there is very little natural topsoil in the higher-lying areas of the island (when the Holm Oak forests - Quercus ilex: when young it really does look like Holly, hence the name - were cut down and burnt for charcoal, much of the topsoil washed into the sea and all that was left was calcareous rock on which a fynbos-like vegetation called macchia developed. Pines, mainly Pinus halepensis, also took the gap and colonized the mountains and are now the dominant tree. This being my as yet rudimentary understanding - don't quote! [Ed. sorry!]).

This garden has never seen any compost or mulch, and this imported soil is a red clay full of rocks and stones, begging for some organic substance. When wet it is like sticky glue which swallows Wellington boots and dries rock-hard. This has been a huge source of frustration (and pain!) to me, which is why it is taking a whole paragraph to describe. It is totally impossible to dig a planting hole without a pick axe and removing a weed is a major project. Bring on the rotavator!

The sounds in the valley are strange and varied - nights are punctuated by the constant sonic call of an owlet and its mate, the roosters across the valley get going at about 4am and lots of bird calls announce the dawn. Then the peacocks and the donkey belonging to a neighbour start. Throughout the day and night there is the tinkling of bells worn by grazing sheep. Oh yes, and yapping dogs across the valley....

I am trying to make the most of Spring. Soon it will be too hot for planting (Good,my body is being abused and needs a break!). We collect rainwater but when the cistern is empty water has to be delivered by truck. Even though it is actually cheaper than piped water one is so much more aware of it being a precious resource here. Incidentally, it partly comes from a desalination plant. So, I will have to put my theoretical ideas on water-wise gardening to the test (which weren't always applicable to our often water-logged Cape garden).

I have found a superb new book on the subject by Olivier Filippi, who runs a nursery dedicated to water-wise plants in France, called The Dry Gardening Handbook. I also have to remind myself to keep things really simple and low-maintenance...

I will keep you posted.

I hope you do! Thank you, Transplanted Gardener...

*Backstory about the asphodels:'s actually really interesting. When I first came to Mallorca on holiday I asked a neighbour what that distinctive smell was and she said it was the Asphodel. I accepted that but also vaguely remember actually smelling it on the plant itself then. The funny thing is, although it's definitely in the air now, my very sensitive nose picked up only a sweet smell from the flowers and nothing from the leaves when I went to check yesterday. So is it only some plants, only non-flowering plants, does it vary with temperature or time of day?? None of my books on Mediterranean flora mention of it, nor the scientific sites on the internet that I checked.Then I came across one query from someone in Mallorca "who knows what this plant is called, it smells of cats's pee?" with a picture of - you guessed it- the Asphodelus aestivus! And this morning I asked another neighbour, who without hesitation pointed to the Asphodel!

And the compost heap is up and steaming, too.
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