PGG Study Tour of the Algarve – MGAP and Quinta da Figueirinha

This is the first of a series of posts about the time I spent in Portugal earlier this year. The first week was spent in Sintra at the Park and Palace of Monserrate, part of Parques de Sintra. This is a regular work placement which all PGG trainees (Professional Gardeners’ Guild) have the opportunity to participate in at some point during our three years of training.

However I am going to start my posts by explaining what happened in our second week, which was spent in the Algarve. I, along with four other PGG trainees, had the chance to join the Mediterranean Gardening Association Portugal for a weeks’ study tour in the Algarve, of which the PGG is very well connected with. We applied to the Merlin Trust (an organisation which offers travel grants for horticulturists) asking them to fund our trip and all of our applications were successful. We were ecstatic when we found out!

I could barely contain my excitement in the run up for the trip – a whole fortnight of plants, gardens and more plants – heaven! Arriving in the Algarve was like another world, the weather was totally different to Sintra – much hotter and sunnier, none of us were complaining seeing as we had had one day of rain whilst working in Sintra!

Sunset on our first evening in the Algarve

989 Edit

As I’ve mentioned the whole of our study tour was organised by the secretary of MGAP, (Mediterranean Gardening Association Portugal) Rosie Peddle. MGAP is an international branch of the Mediterranean Garden Society, which is a non-profit making organisation that acts as a focus for everyone who has a special interest in the plants and gardens of Mediterranean-climate regions.

MGAP’s specific target is to promote Mediterranean plants and gardens through education, cultivation, conservation and recognition of their communal, environmental and economic importance in people’s everyday lives. For a more detailed description please visit the following links to their website:

Rosie explained a bit about MGAP when she first met us. She said she is a full-time volunteer for MGAP, and is crazy about plants! and sustainable horticulture in particular. The financial crisis in Portugal is pushing water prices up so people are beginning to think more carefully about conserving water and are becoming interested in plants which will naturally thrive in a Mediterranean climate. This is great news for MGAP as more people are joining as members and the organisation is getting more recognition.

Most MGAP members are mainly retired British, Dutch, German and Portuguese nationalities. Some are slightly younger and still employed in horticulture. MGAP is all about sharing experiences with different members and other people, like the presentation on soils and gardening in the Algarve which Rosie shared with us at the start of the week.

The garden fair held in autumn generates MGAP the biggest amount of money. Lots of specialist nurseries attend, some only sell plants of one genus. All plants from the nurseries are propagated themselves, MGAP encourage local growers who grow plants which will work in a Mediterranean climate. This year (2015) is unusual as they are holding the fair in spring instead of autumn. 350 people attended the first spring fair, last year (2014) they had 1,000! Rosie said it’s unbelievable how much MGAP has grown since the early days.

We were incredibly lucky to have met Rosie and other members of MGAP, such as Gerhard, Burford and Marilyn, among others. They were a wonderful, passionate, warm group of people who were more than happy to share their knowledge and experiences with us. I wish them all the best for their future endeavours and hope to reconnect with them again in the future.

Citrus groves at Quinta da Figueirinha



We were based at Quinta da Figueirinha for our week in the Algarve, thanks to the generous hospitality of Dr. Gerhard Zabel (owner of Quinta da Figueirinha and scientific adviser of MGAP).


Quinta da Figueirinha is a 90 acre family-run bio-agricultural farm in near the town of Silves, with views to the Monchique mountains. The land is covered by citrus plantations, thematic gardens and natural vegetation. It is available to self-catering holidaymakers looking for something different, it focuses its attention on rural tourism. Rosie had organised for us to stay in one of the apartments at the Quinta, we were spoilt with a very spacious flat with our own patio and swimming pool!

Quinta da Figueirinha was founded in 1988 by agronomic engineers Dr. Gerhard Zabel and Uta Zabel, who had previously worked abroad for over 12 years at the GIZ, in development projects in arid (Niger) and semi-arid (south Portugal) regions. The Quinta started off with agricultural production, rural tourism and the protection of natural vegetation areas, while providing facilities for community work in the areas of agronomic technology, demonstration plantations and applied research and education in the rural areas.

Nowadays the agricultural production is not a major emphasis anymore. The future core areas for the Quinta are in the rural tourism, the continuous development of thematic gardens, so are continuous environmental protection and education. The Quinta works towards a sustainable development of the rural area through coordinated actions in agriculture and environmental protection.

Our villa





The organic farming covers mainly fruit orchids, with dry cultures – almonds, figs, olives and carob trees and several irrigated cultures such as citrus fruits (orange, clementine, mandarin, lemon and grapefruit) and a variety of exotic fruit trees. At present, around 50 different fruit varieties can be found at Quinta da Figueirinha and direct surroundings. The oldest tree is around 800 years old and have been well protected and integrated in the development of the Quinta.

Gerhard gave us an impressive tour of the main areas of the Quinta, including the exotic garden and citrus grove. I’ve never met someone with such a staggering amount of knowledge before, with a genuine modest nature to go with it. He was particularly passionate about the carobs, below are just some of the notes I made.


Carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) are used to swampy soils. The carob outside our villa is between 500 and 600 years old. It was the first place Gerhard stayed when he moved to the Quinta, he slept underneath it in a hammock!

Carobs are very drought resistant trees, they can store water in their roots well. Seeds are very reluctant to germinate. Fruits are female, 2 sexes in the flower. They can withstand mild frosts, surprisingly!

Carob powder can be found in many food products as E410, known as Carob bean gum. The gum is extracted from the seeds, which is often used in frozen desserts, cultured dairy products and cream cheese. Gums are famously bland, they are generally odourless and tasteless and most have no energy value. They do though have a nutritional function besides their mechanical and cosmetic ones: in digestion they function as fibre, easing bowel function, and some are used as bulk laxatives.

Me with Cistus albidus en mass




Botanical gardens

The Quinta consists of individual parcels with native vegetation. It serves to maintain the ecological connectivity and the typical landscape and flora of the calcareous Barrocal, where native trees and shrub species can develop and recover naturally. Undisturbed geobotanical studies can also be carried out here.

Since the foundation of the Quinta small botanical gardens have been created, based on Gerhard’s interest for experimenting and the passion for biodiversity (worldwide there are more than 40,000 different species of trees!), but also to provide a contribution to the conservation of genetic resources. The semi-arid site in the Algarve is ideal for testing drought-friendly fruit trees such as olive, almond, fig and carob and irrigated crops with different water requirements, such as citrus, apricot and pomegranate. Gerhard is also interested in drought-resistant agro-forestrian plants for grazing, erosion control, and not least for the prevention of forest fire through fire-resistant trees, shrubs and groundcover. The choice of plants requires a lot of care and information: the species, varieties and origins, but also to choose the plants which contribute to the improvement of the soil through the development of an extensive plant root system and through nitrogen fixing plants.

The small botanical theme gardens on the Quinta aim to serve as demonstration gardens for our guests and at the same time as demonstration gardens for students and professionals.

Drought-resistant plantation

This plantation was created in 1989 in cooperation with Prof. José Nascimento (University of Lisbon) through a selection of forage and erosion control plants. It is amazing how in just 18 months a green landscape with a variety of plant species such as Acacia, Atriplex, Caesalpinia, Cassia, Casuarina, Coronilla, Cytisus, Dodone, Dovyalis, Lagunaria, Leucaena, Medicago arborea, Opuntia, Parkinsonia, Prosopis, Tamarix, etc. was created, from a freshly cleared stony ground. The plant cover is thinned regularly and has changed in character over the years. The soil quality has improved significantly through a thick raw humus layer and rich soil life.

View of Silves


Olive trees


Exotic fruit tree garden

The plantation was created in 1993 as part of an ambitious solar irrigation project, which was supported by the German Ministry of Research. The goal was a practical demonstration of a solar-powered floating pump that could easily adapt to different water levels. The Quinta had a free hand in the selection of exotic fruit trees from around the world. This now 20-year-old plantation was constantly supplemented by new arrivals and is today one of the most interesting botanical gardens of Quinta da Figueirinha. The highlight was being able to pick avocados (Persea americana) and eat them fresh – it doesn’t get better than that!

Citrus Plantations

In these plantations you will find a diverse variety of citrus plants such as clementines, mandarin, bitter oranges, pomelo and grapefruit.

The orange trees are about 25 years old, as long as Gerhard has been at the Quinta. The wild boar in the area are pretty ferocious at digging up the soil, we saw several examples of where they had kindly cultivated the ground!

The slopes the groves are situated are perfect for natural watering by the rain, the soil is very acidic so erodes more quickly. A layer of roughly 60-80cm is cultivated soil, the rest is natural. The soil isn’t dug very deeply because it’s too stoney. The soil is mulched with a layer of about 15cm every year.

We had a quick guide to identifying citrus fruits, clementines are more flat in shape with less white pith when peeled. Mandarins have air pockets between the peel and pith, which means they peel very easily and are easier to open. It was heaven walking straight out of the door first thing in the morning and picking citrus for breakfast, straight from the trees!

Ophrys speculum

Ophrys speculum

Ophrys lutea


Cypress plantation

This plantation is part of a project sponsored by the European Union project. It consists of 27 cypress clones, which were planted in 4-fold repetition in May 2007 together with the Portuguese Forestry Service. The cancer-free tree cultures origin from the University of Florence, and have been made available to many nurseries and forest services around the Mediterranean. After experiences from Italy and Spain, cypresses are among the most fire resistant tree species, being of great value in forest fire prevention.

Together with the local forest service, thoughts are being made to add cypresses of Portuguese origin to the plantation, which are expected to adapt better to the local conditions.

Experimental plantation with oak and other tree species

In collaboration with the company Daniel-Weber Biomonitoring, in December 2010 a small experimental plantation was created with several species of oak (Quercus robur, rubra, pubescens, ilex, frainetto, etc.) and other tree species such as the pine tree, Douglas fir and the native and extremely drought-resistant strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo. In future the addition of more trees are planned, such as the cork oak Quercus suber and Quercus pyrenaica.

Please visit the link below for more information:


20 thoughts on “PGG Study Tour of the Algarve – MGAP and Quinta da Figueirinha

  1. Ah, Becka you really got me with the Avocado trees and citrus you can reach out and pick as you choose. I grew up in such an environment. Alas, it is no more. It was all destroyed at the hands of developers. How wonderful to have such dedicated people to learn from and who care about the environment. 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fabulous place and what amazing work they do! Transforming pieces of arid stony ground into green areas full of trees in 18 months and creating solar powered floating pumps. Wonderful! Your photos and the report of your stay are fascinating. Thanks a lot for this great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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