PGG Study Tour of the Algarve – Gardening in the Algarve

This is another post about the time I spent in Portugal earlier this year. To read the first post in this series please click here.

A presentation on gardening in the Algarve by Marilyn Medina Ribeiro was presented to us by Rosie, Gerhard and other members of MGAP on our first evening in the Algarve. Here are some of the notes I made during and after the presentation, it was the perfect introduction to ground our knowledge for the rest of the week.

Marilyn’s Story

Marilyn is the plant adviser for MGAP. She had always loved gardening but decided to study Art and Design and become a graphic designer at GCSE level. After a year of living in London she had had enough of city life and left her job. She rediscovered her love of nature and completed a degree in Landscape Management, then spent 4 and a half years working in Lagos, Portugal, for different horticultural organisations.

She now has her own company, designing and creating gardens using plants native to the Mediterranean. She met her now-husband whilst working out here and has recently given birth to her first daughter. It was very kind of her to give up a day of her time later in the week, letting us help with the early stages of planning the new botanical garden at Quinta da Figueirinha. Please check out her website for more information:


There was an earthquake in 1755 in Lisbon, causing the plate of Portugal to tip so the character of the coast was changed. The main volcanic fault lies between Africa and Europe, plenty of seismic activity is recorded in the Algarve so if the ground moves beneath your feet it is nothing to worry about! The town of Monchique is volcanic, very close to the skyline. It has potassium and iron rich soils, it gets plenty of rain as it is so near to the clouds.

There are 200 different types of soil in the Algarve, at Quinta da Figueirinha it is rich clay. The high levels of iron  is what gives most of the soil and landscape in the Algarve that rich, red colour.


The interrelated influences of geology, geomorphology and Iocal climate allow the definition of three broad geographical regions of the Algarve: Iitoral, barrocal, and serra, each with its own characteristic vegetation and flora. The litoral consists of the coastal Iand running along the southern-most strip of the region and up its western coast above the Cape St. Vincent peninsula. It has a mixed geology of sedimentary rocks, alluvia, and sand of relatively recent origin: Quaternary, Tertiary and Cretaceous.

Inland, the barrocal is an area of rolling hills, composed principally of Iimestone (Cretaceous and Jurassic), that increase in altitude upon moving north, where they merge with the mountainous serra. The serra is composed of older rocks, particularly shale and syenite, mainly carboniferous in origin. The high (300 m) serra is predominantly shale with occasional igneous intrusions, most notably the Iarge mass of crystalline syenite at Monchique. The highest peaks of the Algarve, Foia (902 m) and Picota (773 m), are found in this region.

Through its influence on soil, particularly soil pH, the geology of these three geographical regions has a significant effect on the composition of their respective floras. Thus, the Iitoral and barrocal are dominated by plants that thrive on alkaline Iimestone soils, such as various species of rock rose (Cistaceae), with Iime-intolerant and acid-Ioving plants being confined mainly to sandy areas and shale outcrops. By contrast the acid serra is dominated by plants that prefer Iower pH soils, for instance Ericaceous species such as tree heath (Erica arborea) and the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), fruits from which are used to make the Iocal ‘fire water’ spirit medronho.


Knowing the soil and understanding it is crucial to ensure plants establish well. Mulching is incredibly important, it improves drainage and prevents moisture evaporation. October/November is the peak time for planting in Portugal, it is the start of their gardening season.

This winter just passed (2014) was unusually dry, hence the spring flora wasn’t as floriferous as normal. It didn’t matter to us PGG trainees, as it was the first time any of us had been in the Algarve we were still wowed by the fantastic flora.

When planting it is best to aim to establish the roots before the foliage. Overwatering causes rot, which is the biggest cause of plant death. Creating a waterwise garden with drought tolerant plants ensures this doesn’t happen – like Beth Chatto says, choose the right plant for the right place.

The “bowling up” method is used for planting in dry/gravel gardens. Make a dam around the base of the plant and fill it with water, so the roots are trained to go down searching for water.

Garden centres in Portugal rarely have labels on plants – it’s a case of trial and error to see what thrives and what dies. Plants which are ideal for Mediterranean climates have silver foliage to reflect light, and are usually evergreen, bulbs and annual wildflowers.

Mediterranean shrubs are used to being grazed/naturally pruned by animals like goats so are very hardy plants. Most Mediterranean gardens traditionally have paving instead of grass, shadows play very well on this type of hard landscaping.

Lawn substitutes are becoming more common, thanks to Olivier Filippi. Terracing with plants instead of lawn is better in the long run, there are lots of lawn alternatives to choose from.

People in Portugal are starting to become more savvy with water. Different sources of recycling water like municipal water, boreholes, collected rainwater, dams, etc are being used. Gutters on buildings are very unusual in Portugal, but collecting rainwater is starting to become more common now.


The Algarve is just under 100 miles across. The landscape of the Algarve goes from silvers and golds in summer to lush green for winter as the rain arrives. We really needed to be there for a full year to appreciate the change in seasons!

80% of the rainfall received is from October to April. February is almond blossom season and August is when the olives ripen. March/April is when all the wildflowers start to come out, hence our timing being perfect to see the native flora flowering.

Sand dunes are protected as the plants hold the ground together and stop erosion – nothing can go across them.

Silves has traditionally had citrus orchards. Fruit isn’t waxed in the Algarve so it won’t survive long journeys, hence exporting to other countries doesn’t happen. Citrus is very small scale production, tiny juicing factories is as big as it gets. This is why we saw loads of citrus groves laden with fruit not being picked – no excuse not to go scrumping!

Seville oranges – Citrus x aurantium – aren’t eaten in Portugal the same as the UK, they’re just used as rootstocks. Everything is grafted onto it, it’s a good disease resistant rootstock. When Rosie made marmalade out of them and gave some jars to her Portuguese neighbours for the first time they were very confused!


14 thoughts on “PGG Study Tour of the Algarve – Gardening in the Algarve

  1. Another really interesting post. I think I’d find it strange shopping for plants in a Portuguese garden centre if they have no plant labels! I only know of one place that sells unwaxed lemons for their short season and that is Morrisons. The fruit is so much nicer and I feel happier using the peel in cooking.


  2. Having grown up in southern California, I am not unfamiliar with the earth moving nor of the citrus groves that use to cover much of the land. Alas, developers tore out the trees to make way for shopping and housing. They called it progress, I’m not convinced! 🙂 xx


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