a simpler life el pocito header the wyldewood

a simpler life el pocito drawing of Phil Rooksby

The garden is the hub, where eventually everything we would otherwise have to buy – food/ medicine/ fuel/ building materials/ and much more – can be found.


Our first ever experience at having a “proper” garden (ie an edible one) came when we moved to Yorkshire in 1986.  We were in our mid-thirties by then and it was the time of the first big pesticides scare.  Everyone was concerned, but for some reason we felt we should be doing something ourselves, like growing our own food.  And as if by serendipity, at exactly the same moment a piece of land next to our house came up for sale, one acre of derelict orchard.  It was obvious a developer would buy it if we didn’t so we doubled the mortgage and started out on our path we are still on today.  Inspired first by the work of Lawrence Hills, founder of the once internationally famous HENRY DOUBLEDAY RESEARCH ASSOCIATION, which sadly lost its way after he died, then other luminaries of the organic movement at hat time, people like Eve Balfour (SOIL ASSOCIATION)/ Rudolf Steiner (BIO-DYNAMIC ASSOCIATION)/ and Robert Hart (proponent of forest gardening).  Who together were responsible for the setting up of an international standard for food safety (the organic & bio-dynamic symbol scheme), creating a huge global movement dedicated to finding even more ways to make the planet greener.

Over the next 14 years we developed our first forest garden on that land, and it came to be so well known that most of the national gardening press wrote about it, and I also began to publish books.  You can read more about that on the page  HOW IT ALL BEGAN.

Then we went to live in the remote mountains of rural Galicia, NW Spain (in 2000).  A region where the isolated small towns and tiny villages were still self-reliant, they had only just got tarmac roads/ electricity/ and telephones.  Everyone growing virtually everything they needed.  That was a wonderful opportunity, to learn from them the skills that elsewhere had long disappeared.  Growing what they intuitively knew what was good for them.  Perhaps a harder physical life, but a lot healthier, they lived a lot longer than people were back in the UK.  Nor did they have a reliance on money, which is what we wanted to achieve.  An amazing 18 months, living at 900 m, in one of the most unspoilt places left on the planet.  Where what they produced was a completely different entity, I have still yet to taste anything as good as the food and drink there.  It really does make me wonder what is wrong with the rest of the world wants to waste their lives earning money in order to only be able to buy crap.  We couldn’t have chosen a better place to start learning how to do this properly.

Galicia is not only one of the least populated areas of Spain (possibly Europe), it has few areas with flat arable land, most of it is steep slopes with solid rock close underneath.  To grow on this challenging landscape the concept of the terrace was invented.  Fashioned over hundreds of years by successive generations of families, they radiate out from each aldea (village), with an extended family owning around 3-4 hectares worth.  Rarely as a single parcel, or farm, as we would expect, but composed instead of many fincas (plots/ allotments), scattered piecemeal, acquired through inheritance and marriage, and varying dramatically in size.  Some as small as 2 m2, most the size of an average urban allotment, and often as far away as the next village.  The area we lived in had been seriously depopulated by the Spanish Civil War and many of these pieces of land were abandoned.  It was on a handful of these we started our apprenticeship.  The first challenge being to clear them of weeds, then decide what and when to plant.  We had arrived in the middle of winter, which despite being a lot further south than North Yorkshire, quickly discovered was just as cold in winter, and considerably wetter.  Especially at an altitude of 900 m, where for most of those first months the days were spent literally inside or above the clouds.  Then just as we got acclimatised to that, along came spring and everything changed again.  The sky appeared for the first time, which was so blue nobody back in the UK believed our photographs were real.  At the same time the temperature began to soar.  This was at the beginning of March.  Overnight everywhere turned a luminous green, from all the fresh growth.  Wild herbs/ grasses/ shrubs/ and trees.  The rise in temperature continued until it felt like we’d missed Spring and gone straight to summer.  But every now and then, right through ‘til June, the cold weather would suddenly return without warning, freezing everything.  Schizophrenic.  Officially, summer always started on the same day, the fortieth of May.  And from then until the end of September the weather was the same, day and night.  Very hot.  Not dropping below 30 C (day or night), and peaking in the mid 40s.

Despite this we did very well in our first garden in a new climate, especially with perennials/ shrubs/ and trees, most of which had been sent by friends as seeds or cuttings, in preparation for when we got our real garden.  They also impressed the neighbours, who hadn’t seen most of them.  However, when it came to growing food we could eat immediately, annual veg, it was a very different story.  To be totally honest, despite having had plenty of experience in Yorkshire I never felt comfortable with the idea of this kind of growing.  In Galicia it turned into a nightmare, especially watching our neighbour’s plots rapidly filling with cornucopias.  Then out early each morning to harvest, literally carrying back huge baskets and wheelbarrows of lovely stuff.  Not just to feed themselves (typically three generations living under one roof), but all their livestock too, often with enough left over to sell at the local market.  Plus it was all so healthy looking too.  What were we doing that was so wrong?

Well they were using all the classic organic methods – irrigating with only the purest mountain spring water.  Using their own saved seed, sowed only when the sun/ moon/ stars were in the right order.  Their soil was manured with the dung from their own animals and nothing else, certainly no chemicals added.  Plus they’d been doing it this way forever.

Then in the autumn something else equally bizarre happened.  Suddenly everyone started sowing for the following year.  Now to me this was just plain crazy.   At least four months too early and with the freezing cold winter just beginning.  Not in heated greenhouses, or polytunnels,, where they at least might have some chance against the worst of the weather, there weren’t any, because they didn’t need them.  But directly into the soil.  They’d make a hastily cleared patch, no more than 2 m x 2 m, onto which all the different seeds were scattered, poured on by the cupful, and far more than would ever be needed or could grow in such a small space.  Then finished off by poking freshly cut withies (willow) around half the outside edge, which were then bent over and poked into the opposite side, creating a rough “bender” framework over them.  On top of which an old sheet of plastic was thrown, weighted down by stones.  A makeshift cloche.  Total cost: nothing.  Labour involved: no more than an hour.  This wasn’t the only version either, others used an even simpler method, a polystyrene fish box or small galvanised bath filled with soil/compost and the seeds covered with no more than a layer of twigs or dried grass.  Just that, taking the plastic off during the days when it got warm enough.  There was absolutely no way it could work, but it does and the results are spectacular.  By the time they were ready to transplant, what should have been a spaghetti of light-starved leggy specimens were bright and healthy, completely hardened-off, and eager to get going.  So much so that within only a few weeks they already looked ready to crop.  While I still hadn’t even got round to thinking about sowing mine yet.

When I did, it wasn’t long though before mine started to catch up.  Or would have, if the water source (a spring) hadn’t then dried up.  Which is when I finally worked out their secret.  An ancient form of hydroponics, or as near as.  First with the abundant spring water in winter, then when that runs out, switching over to an irrigation system which has to be one of the seven wonders of the world.  A massive water storage tank – at least the size of a municipal swimming pool, hand-carved from a single boulder, which fed by a stream higher up delivers water to the fincas throughout the summer.  Via a network of ancient stone channels/ canals.  All done by gravity, with the furthest finca 3 km away.  So well designed that nothing else is required other than a good limpeza (cleaning out) at the beginning of each season.  To use, it is simplicity itself.  You first walk the route you want the water to take, and at each junction (with another canal) a handful of soil is used to block off all the other exits in your favour.  This task is performed in the evening, and for us required a walk of 2 km, taking about an hour.  The tank refills overnight, so just before dawn we’d set off up the mountain to open the sluice.  The first time I did this I had no idea what would happen.  From the force it was leaving it seemed the water would arrive well before me.  But no, at least half an hour later, when it rounded the final corner it had been reduced to a trickle.  Ot that was what it looked like, but the downhill journey had also imbued it with a momentum/ force, unlike any other.  Hitting the finca with the force of a tsunami, sweeping straight through, and taking with it all our plants/ seeds, even topsoil.  Everything in fact we had spent months nurturing and preparing.  One minute they were there, the next all gone.  This only happened to us though.  Our neighbours, old hands at this, were well prepared.  Their plots had been dug with really deep canals.  Their plants were so well established by then the roots alone would hold them fast.  And as soon as the water arrived they were there with their satchos blocking off each trench as it filled.  Not only slowing down the flood but saving every drop, paddy-field style.  Because they knew it would be at least another fortnight before their turn for water came up again.  Meanwhile, having learnt our lesson, we used that time to set about rebuilding and replanting.

The next time we used the community water something else disturbing happened.  For which I blame all religions, in this case the catholic church, that allows people to get away with murder as long as they apologise for it afterwards.  Because even though this was a small isolated community, one that depended totally on everyone pulling together, there still had to be one holier-than-thou priest-like figurehead who felt the rules didn’t apply to them.  Who despite having watched us lose everything still considered our water was theirs.  Who in the dead of night went out and changed all the dams, then opened the sluice, even before I’d set out.  So arrogant that even though there was a clear damp trail leading straight to her plots, she was right.  Who was this sinner?  No less than the president of the water users association herself, she who organised the rota of who got what when.  She whose marriage had acquired more land than anyone else had, sold more surplus at market, and whose husband was the (indispensable) Mr Fix-it (plumber/ electrician/ builder/ you name it).  Making them the most influential/ feared family in town, next best thing to mafia.  Except she hadn’t reckoned on the outsider.  One with a Viking bloodline and an innate sense of fair play.  Leading to an incident which became local legend, along with when our next-door neighbour (the one and only policeman) got so drunk he shot up the local bar.  It happened when virtually everyone was just finishing their early morning shift on the fincas, heading home, pouring down from the land onto the one and only narrow path that leads off to the various aldeas.  It was a scene straight out of HIGH NOON.  There we all were, coming from one direction, when suddenly she appears at the other end.  Made all the more impressive because up ‘til then nobody had heard me speak (for which I have no excuse, I’m a man, we’re rubbish at learning languages).  I still have no idea what got into me.  The total of my spoken spanish was what our inquisitive eight-year-old neighbour Cynthia (daughter of the policeman) had taught us.  But suddenly I became eloquent.  I spoke in tongues.  I dammed her for all eternity and everyone was there as my witness.  After which nobody was in any doubt that this woman had finally been publicly shamed for all her sins.  We also never had any further problems with the water.

Not surprisingly too, we also added one extra caveat in our search for land, never again to be dependent on anyone else for water.


Gardening, whatever the size of your land and wherever it is located, is going to be as much about fighting a war with all the other vested interests, as anything else, particularly if the natural order has been disturbed in any way.  Because what you are doing is basically going against nature, even if it is organic.  Add to that in Spain the much higher temperatures, and the range/ size/ and number of challenges to the gardener rises dramatically.  Not quite the plagues of locusts scenario, but sufficient to keep me awake nights wondering how to deal with the latest nightmare (usually of my own doing).

Colorado beetles were our first new challenge.  I remember these from when I was a child, on WANTED posters outside the local police station as a child.  Wondering even they why an insect, no-one I knew had ever seen, could be considered dangerous, when roaming the streets were gangs like the Krays.  Now I know.  Though it’s not the adults you have to worry about, they’re so brightly coloured and slow it’s really easy to collect.  By the bucket-load it turned out (after which incidentally they can be used to make a really good dye).  No, the real problem is their offspring, which are so small and voracious you won’t see them until it is far too late.

At the other end of the spectrum, size-wise, you’ve got the wild boar and deer.  Both are extremely destructive if you want to grow anything.  The boars dig, and I kid you not are akin to JCBs when it comes to moving mountains of soil, they even move massive boulders.  With the result that on any kind of slope the topsoil is washed away when it rains.  Land with oaks is their favourite territory (they eat the acorns), as is any kind of pond.  To keep them out requires a strong fence with barbed wire at the bottom.  Deer don’t dig but they graze heavily on young trees and will pull down branches of bigger ones.  Nothing less than a 2 metre high fence will keep them out.  Prior to living in Spain I had very strong anti-hunting/ vegan principles.  Not anymore.  Not until the entire garden is fenced off.

After them, for nuisance, comes the badger.  Slightly bigger than a cat, yet can still manage to squeeze through a wire fence, or simply tunnel underneath.  Has a very high level of intelligence/ dexterity/ determination to succeed, plus the strength of a mini boar.  Will turn over plant pots and bite through irrigation pipes to find food and drink.

A lot smaller is the greenfly.  Not strictly a pest, as it is the ants who create the conditions so they can do the damage, but once installed on a plant it is basically doomed.  An experiment with urine was one answer.  Using a small sprayer and fresh pee (oh yes, why waste it?) and dosing them regularly, but a lot of work and got me wondering if perhaps it was us that was the problem.

Another so-called pest, at least according to the government, who deem it a fire risk so has be eradicated, is neither creature or insect, but a plant.  Two in fact: Cistus ladanifer – a member of the rock rose family.  And Gorse. Both were prolific at El Pocito and kept me occupied every day trying to stop it taking over.  But this was a bad law, because they both do an important job protecting the soil from heat and seedlings from deer.  I started off by brush-cutting them, but very quickly realised this was both expensive/ unhealthy/ and very uncomfortable.  Eventually settling on simply using a pair of secateurs, piling them up and when they had dried using them for starting the wood stove in the winter.

Actually, when you look at the big picture, there aren’t any pests or weeds.  Just us pigheadedly trying to bend nature to our own rules.  We need to stop doing that.  Read this, distilled from the wise words of Rudolf Steiner, by Mark Moodie, click here to download the pdf.

Other irritations to the gardener we encountered were wasps, horse-flies, and mosquitoes.  The wasp population seemed to grow year on year, with the full range of types (including hornet and the one that eats bees).  Several times a year they’d make nests close the house then attack without warning.  Thankfully there was a simple remedy to keep them away.  I’d fill a large syringe (hand sprayers clog) with a mixture of water/ eco-clothes washing liquid soap/ chilli powder/ and essential oil, then spray into their nests at night.  Horse-flies (or black-fly) attach themselves to your skin like Velcro, then are totally resistant to slaps/ swatting/ or even crushing (drowning the only sure method).  If not removed their bite will become infected and leave a nasty scar.  Mosquitoes actually aren’t nearly that bad, but can drive you mad.  Contrary to claims, there isn’t a repellent you can use, but you can mitigate their presence, and over time one builds up a tolerance/ resistance.  We made screens for all the windows to keep them out of the house, and got a mosquito net for the bed.

Scorpions I loathed.  Their sting is extremely painful and there was no way to keep them out of the house.  Our neighbours swore they were lethal, but the type found in Spain isn’t.  For the sting you can use LEDUM 30C handy, and we kept boxes of fresh lavender around the house, apparently they don’t like the smell.  Similar, and far more common, is the large centipede, who also sting.  The secret with these is not to walk around barefoot.

Most prolific of all was the tick.  Yes, size isn’t everything and these can be truly nasty.  One summer when were living in Portugal there was a plague of them, the walls of the houses were covered in them.  Our neighbour and her granddaughter got bitten, failed to notice and consequently ended up in hospital.  The worst sufferer though is the dog, who unlike cats don’t have the sense to bite them off.  We got our fair share, but were always vigilant.  Easy to remove, just take care  not to leave any mouth parts attached. Suffocation is the best method, either coat them with vaseline, or squeeze them with two fingers while pulling very gently, until you feel their grip loosen.  Always check afterwards with a magnifying-glass.


a simpler life el pocito tools

One of the real delights of having a garden in another country is to disover how differently they do things.  This includes the tools.  Number one surprise in Spain was the satcho (left in the picture), which is used instead of our spade/ fork/ hoe, an all-in-one tool like the mattock, and swung as with a pick-axe.  Not so easy to adapt to, as they are deceptively heavy (or just very well-made), but you can get the blade part in a range of sizes/ weights, start with the smallest and work up.  I have several now, including one with an axe length handle (second left), like a mattock, which with the pick-axe is what I use most to terrace a hillside, all done kneeling to save my back.  Another favourite is the raedera (third from left). This is a real classic.  Looks like a hoe, but has a much wider/ deeper blade, so can do really hefty pulling/ lifting.  Mostly used for repairing the forestry track, once I developed the necessary muscles to lift it.

a simpler life el pocito tools 04

Secateurs.  Not spanish, or even unusual, but an essential everyday tool nonetheless.  When we lived in the UK I relied on the WOLF brand, they served me well.  However, when the blades on my secateurs got so there was nothing left to sharpen, it was rather annoying to discover they don’t sell replacement parts.  Particularly as this pair, while over 15 years old, were still in perfect condition otherwise.  So I did some research, looking for brands that do supply spares, and came across the FELCO range, plumping for their No2 model.  What a difference!  The blades on these are not only razor-sharp by comparison, but made of an infinitely better material.  What also impressed me was their after-sales service.  Normally when you buy new you wouldn’t expect to need to replace something, but things these days just aren’t made as well/ to last as they used to be.  I also made the mistake of buying with Amazon.  Who it turns out have quite a reputation for selling counterfeit copies as the real thing of many products.  When I started using these they simply didn’t feel right, it was more of a niggle than an obvious fault, but I sent an email to the company anyway.  The next morning at 9:00 a representative from Felco phoned me.  From Switzerland.  Two days later, a replacement pair were dispatched, free of charge.  Even Amazon don’t respond that promptly or with such little hassle.  One very satisfied customer.

a simpler life el pocito tools 02

The other most regularly used items in my garden are a collection of saws and a pair of loppers.  For harvesting firewood and weed removal.  A lot more work than a brush-cutter or chainsaw, but without any of the stress/ pollution/ or cost.  Free of all the protective gear they require I can also see exactly what I am doing, which means a lot more wild/ self-seeded trees get a chance to grow.  The saws shown are both incredibly cheap (typically 5 euros), the loppers more (about 30 euros) but you can replace the blades.  I sharpen them all after each use, which takes only a few minutes, and for this use a very cheap but brilliant flat chainsaw file (3 euros).  This is really easy, but if you can’t work out how send me a message and I will try to explain.

a simpler life el pocito tools 03

This monster (not Plush) is the answer to a chainsaw.  Three foot long, kept sharp, and with enough stamina, a single person can cut through a foot diameter of living wood without effort.  For the less able a handle can be fixed onto the other end for two people to share the work.

Cutting firewood is job that should be done throughout the year, to avoid becoming a chore.  Using a portable saw-horse (to take to the felled tree), will save your back and make cutting a lot easier.


If you want plants to grow and thrive it is imperative to remove all the rocks down to a depth of at least 60cm.  For this job I use a mattock.  Shown here is a terrible De Walt offering which has worn to this sad state in less than a year.  And a 12 mm x 380 mm garden sieve, manufactured by a company called Apollo, retails for about £10, and is almost knackered after only two months.  If you know of anyone making more robust versions please let me know.

The most bizarre tool I have ever encountered has to be the hand plough, which I think originated in France as the only ones we’ve seen belong to neighbours who worked there, though there is a spanish company now who produce a very expensive version (http://www.ecoprac.com).  Fashioned originally from old bicycle frames – the front wheel and forks removed/ handlebars turned right round/ crank & pedals taken off/ then a bracket welded to the bottom of the frame to take those Wolf-type of interchangeable garden implements, or ones from a small hobby tractor.  You grab the handlebars, back wheel leading, and push/ pull.  Makes short work of hoeing between rows or digging the perfect irrigation canal/ planting trench.

Tools were the first thing that attracted us to consider Portugal as a place to live.  Or rather it was the ironmonger shops (oddly called drogarias), which we discovered on an exploratory trip over the border when living in Galicia.  We had gone to see if the small town (Ponte da Barca), only 5 km away, would serve us better than the 120 km round-trip we and everyone else locally had been making to the nearest spanish town (Orense).  I can’t imagine why we hadn’t thought of going there earlier, except we’d seen them in our local bar and on market days and they seemed rather fierce/ wild.  The men especially, who looked like Mexican bandits, small and plump, sporting huge black Zapata moustaches, bad teeth, dressed in very nasty demob suits.  Gangsters.  All that was missing was a couple of bullet belts and a sombrero.  They also liked to drink, starting early (in the morning) and continuing until they fell over.  Actually that region of Portugal (the NW) could be Mexico, especially in the summer, when it gets so hot everything turns to dust.  It’s also very poor.  The infrastructure there have been crumbling away for decades from lack of investment.  The transport system is virtually non-existent.  There are no large shops either, so it really is like stepping back in time, to another era.  Yet despite that the people there were a lot friendlier and far more interesting than those we’d met in Spain.  The bars were a lot better too, not only serve a far superior espresso (at half the price), but cakes too.  In all the years we lived in Spain, apart from one bar in Sevilla, we didn’t encounter a single decent pastry.  Even more amazing though are their veg/ produce markets.  In Pont da Barca, the old town square is packed with stalls, individual producers who’ve all brought a couple of baskets of their current surplus.  All freshly picked that morning (they get up very early and work almost twice as long/ hard as the spanish).  The range was vast too.  Their baked goods blow you away (spanish bread is generally inedible).  But it was their ironmonger shops which finally convinced us, that we’d be a lot better off living there.  Each is family owned, unique in what it sells (no chains of diy outlets here), and a veritable Aladdin’s cave.  Not only stocking everything you’d ever need (for the garden or home), but many oddities we still haven’t a clue what they are for.  Northern Spain had these too, especially where we were living, I still regret not having bought more of their wonderful (and cheap) wooden plates used for eating the prized boiled octopus (pulpo).  But for choice and value Portugal wins hands down.  Much of it made by hand/ to order locally, with impressive craftsmanship/ ingenuity.  Like the galvanised bucket, which has a watering-can rose fitted underneath and you hang it from a tree to serve as a shower.  Watering cans whatever size/ shape you want.  Irrigation pipes fashioned from bamboo, spliced with copper fittings.  Pot-bellied cast-iron wood-stoves.  Our all-time favourite, the carro, which is their version of a wheelbarrow, but with two wheels instead of one, a lot more versatile.  Talking of which reminds me of another major influence, my nan and granddad (Rooksby), whose frugalist lifestyle was such a joyful and profound example to grow up with.  Granddad had a job but he never bought stuff new (except their one and only house).  Instead he visited auctions or made whatever else they needed.  He built several carros, for carrying stuff to and from the allotments.  The portuguese version is the ultimate one though.  Made from steel, can be pulled/ pushed/ or even towed – either by bicycle, or as is more common there behind one of the thousands of ancient/ vintage two-stroke motorcycles/ tricycles that somehow still manage to keep going, perfuming the air with their unique smell of burnt engine oil.  Audible several kilometres away.

Further east in northern Portugal, still on the border, is the spa town of Chaves, where we discovered the Fortnum & Mason of hardware shops, one dedicated solely to the art of wine-making and distilling the wonderful local brandy (aguardiente).  Why can’t the rest of the world (especially anyone involved in promoting ecology) see this is the way to go?  Boycott those soulless chainstore out-of-town hangars that are full of useless chinese crap, and support the return of these.  Establishments staffed by people who know their subject, are dedicated to the art of self-sufficiency, always ready to help you find what you really need.  In the high street, so no need for a car, and when you’ve forgotten something yet again just a few minutes away.  Willing to repair rather than make you buy new.   And prepared to sell exactly what you want in nails/ nuts/ bolts/ screws/ washers/ whatever, instead of packs and boxes.  This is getting back to the true sense of a community.

When Maureen died I sold off all my remaining power tools, to raise the money to live off.  Then I learnt how to do all those tasks by hand.  The transition wasn’t always easy, but it was possible.  It simply took time to develop the relevant patience/ muscles/ rhythm and appreciate the difference it makes to the world.


For footwear I’ve been using HARRIS & VIKING DRY BOOTS for 30 years.  Having tried all the alternatives there really is nothing like them.  A cross between a wellington boot and lace-up walking boot, made entirely of rubber, totally waterproof, great grip on slippery/ steep/ and rocky surfaces, warm in winter, cool in summer (even at 40C here), and totally comfortable (straight from the box).

a simpler life el pocito harris dry boot


a simpler life el pocito google sateliite map

All 2.5 hectares of it (that’s about 6 acres), surrounded by 182,000 hectares of pines/ oak/ sweet chestnut/ apples/ vines, as well as many other kinds of tree.  This whole region is mountainous, and the land at El Pocito was no exception, with at least a 100 metre drop from the top to the bottom, and contoured in a horseshoe shape, resembling an amphitheatre, so wherever you are it is possible to be heard and usually seen too.  The house is tucked away at the top left-hand corner.

This land has had people living on it for a long time.  There are prehistoric remains nearby, dry stone walls and terracing still remain, ancient olives, and in living memory has been used both as a pine plantation then an oak forest to fatten pigs (Jamon being the major local industry).

My first impression was that it had been terribly exploited.  Nothing growing but a few oaks and a lot of dust.  All but for one tiny part, which was quite lush, where there were wild figs/ grape/ rose/ and brambles.  This, and the name (El Pocito translates as little well), giving us the confidence to go ahead with the purchase.  Later we discovered plentiful water, close to the surface, and the main reason why it had looked so awful was the local habit of dehesa, which basically means brush-cutting everything to keep it looking clean.

The house is 600 metres above sea level and the surrounding area (in a NE direction) continues to rise, reaching about 900 m at its highest point.  This has been very useful as it keeps out most of the colder/ stronger winds.  The downside is it delays the appearance of the sun in high summer (especially when we want to use the solar panels).  Either side of the house (SE & NW) the height remains the same, the neighbouring pine plantations offering shelter from wind.  In front of the house (SW) the site drops steeply, with a river just beyond the bottom that flows most of the year.  Wind from this direction is rare, but when it comes, either from the Canaries or N Africa, this usually means trouble.  The view from the house is panoramic, 180 degrees which on a clear day allows you to see as far as the Portuguese border (60 km away), all of which is more or less uninhabited (by people).

The topsoil of the site is a form of sand, which I prefer, as this is really easy to work in the winter (the coolest time), but turning rock hard in the summer (when it is too hot to do much anyway).  Underneath this are a wide variety of substratum, a mixture of crumbly orange rock/ granite/ and clay.  When we arrived the entire surface was also covered with millions of small rocks/ boulders.  A nightmare to walk on, especially on the steepest parts, but has proved invaluable as raw material for building projects and creating swales/ terraces.

Climate here is glibly referred to as Mediterranean, which is both meaningless and misleading.  El Pocito has a completely different micro climate to the nearby town of Almonaster la Real (a couple of hundred metres as the crow flies).  The best description I can think of is Cornwall, but a lot hotter from June to October.  Winter is certainly the same, with rarely any snow or frost, but cold.  Spring is the most beautiful time.  Summer is a sort of winter, nothing grows.  Autumn is a second spring, when everything comes back to life.

Our plan from the very start was to plant/ grow a WYLDEWOOD, the ancient word for natural forest, and when that was established, fill the spaces with as many smaller trees/ shrubs/ perennials/ and wild annuals as possible.  There was no specific design, which was intentional.  By then I had been gardening for more than 30 years, and if I’d learnt anything it was that gardening is the planting of the wrong plants in the wrong place.  If you want it work you have to do it intuitively, let nature tell you what it needs.

Eventually this would provide all our food/ fuel/ medicine/ plus whatever else we had needed to earn money.  This is what Rudolf Steiner called the only sustainable way our species can exist.  Where we take only from nature what it offers to harvest, nothing else should be touched/ exported/ or imported.  At the same time giving the same respect for all other species.

I deliberately choose wyldewood, instead of the better known forest garden, to describe what we do.  Because firstly I do not want to be associated with permaculture, the ism that first coined the phrase, and is not about helping save the planet but a thinly-veiled pyramid scheme for making its followers a lot of money.  Tinkering away in back gardens, allotments, or even large tracts of land (rewilding), while still living conventionally, spending money, is not going to help anyone.  Wyldewood on the other hand simply means living in a way that benefits nature.

I also wanted to get away from what most people today perceive as a forest or forestry, which is in no way sustainable, simply blatant destructiveness.  The difference is easy to spot.  Plantations, where almost everything is planted uniformly, usually with just one or two species, and a scary absence of anything else growing/ living within them, is where the trees are chosen to crop in the shortest possible time and with the least need for inputs.  These “forests” simply exist so the owners can make a quick profit and we can have yet more pointless products from IKEA, equally unnecessary and unwanted packaging, and provide poor quality overpriced fuel for pellet stoves and power stations.  All of which is killing the planet, but permitted because vested interest, those who rule over us and have been making the lives of the majority a misery throughout history, hold all the power.   Hoodwinking the gullible and stupid, with reassuring labels such as renewable resource (which couldn’t be further from the truth) and certified (conservation grade/ organic/ bio-dynamic/ agroforestry/ commercial forest gardening/ or whatever other scam that has since been invented).  Whatever their claims it’s simply about making money, a lot of it, as quickly as possible.  Nothing natural or of benefit to Nature.

Wyldewoods are also a permanent resource.  Not for cutting down/ replanting, but allowed to exist un-managed for eternity, providing a safe habitat for a vast array of other interdependent species.

They are our only hope too, if we want to survive extinction.  Save the eco-system/ biodiversity, the invisible organism that works ceaselessly to create everything, providing us with enough clean air to breathe, healthy food to sustain our bodies, pure water to re-energise with.  Because it is on the verge of imminent collapse.

10,000 years ago there wasn’t a problem.  There were only 300 million of us then, as opposed to the 7 billion now.  A time when we still had a place in the grand scheme of things.  Concepts like poverty had yet to be invented.  The need for any kind of infrastructure/ planning/ or other kind of organisation had not even been considered.  No-one needed to supervise anyone or anything.  There was no dividing up of land, no ownership, no homes/ tools/ language/ gods/ or money.  And no-one even spent a single second of their life in labour, certainly never for someone else.  That is, until someone somewhere came up with the idea of imposing their pinhead logic on everything, no doubt because they wanted to be different, more powerful, and from that moment that idea infected the species and spread, unchecked, exponentially, until what we are left with that matters is a very little .  Life as we know it is about to end, unless we wake up and stop this craziness.

A wyldewood is therefore not about making a garden, but changing everything about the way we live.  From realising how much we actually need to earn and spend, to replanting every bit of the planet to help the ecology function properly again.  Which sounds awfully hard, the responsibility of governments not individuals, but that’s just our egos talking.  Anyone can make all the necessary changes in a blink of the eye, it just takes a commitment and responsibility, a desire to survive.  Even living on a lot less (or no) money is easy, and doesn’t have to change a thing about the quality of your life (check out the page LIVING ON LESS MONEY).  You don’t even have to wait for someone else to start, because that isn’t going to happen, vested interest really doesn’t care about the future, they won’t live to see it, or they have already made their own provision for when the shit hits the fan.  No, you can do this by and for yourself.  There’s nothing to join, no membership to pay, no courses to attend, no textbooks or magazines to buy, read or digest, no certificates to give you the validation, no hierarchy to ascend.  And it isn’t even necessary to have a lot of land.  The only requirement is to grasp and apply the two underlying principles.  Spend as little as possible (or nothing), and plant as much as you can, especially permanent edible plants.  If you still need some inspiration then read THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES by Jean Giono.  To make this even easier, here’s a quick step-by-step guide:

Just think about the place where you want to plant, and imagine it as a three-dimensional world made up of seven different vertical layers.  (1) being the tallest and widest trees, these are spaced so they’ll leave enough room in-between for the next layer.  (2) mid-sized trees and large shrubs.  Between these go (3) ordinary-sized shrubs.  Followed by (4) perennials and self-seeding annuals.  Underneath which are the (5) ground cover plants, and (6) root plants.  The remaining layer (7) is climbing plants.  You can use my (click to download) plant list to help you choose, or get a copy of Ken Fern’s book PLANTS FOR A FUTURE (ISBN 1-85623-011-2).  He’s another luminary of mine, the driving force behind the PLANTS FOR A FUTURE project in Cornwall, and has produced the most comprehensive and easy to understand public access database on the subject yet, available online at http://www.pfaf.org/ for free searches, or even better as a download/ CD to use at home.

Here’s how the garden at El Pocito evolved (2009-2019):

During our first summer very little got done, there were just too many other more pressing things to attend to, the heat was a problem, and the sheer scale of six acres meant we couldn’t even decide where to start.  By winter only having managed to plant about fifty fruit trees, bought at a market in nearby Portugal, all of which promptly got eaten by deer.  My knee-jerk reaction then was to erect a fence.  Luckily we had hardly any money so it could only cover a small area, about one acre.  The most obvious place being to put it around the house.  Not the best land, in fact the very worst, but from previous experience I knew it was important to keep the journeying back and forth down to a minimum, especially on a steeply sloping site.  The one good thing to come out of this was it got us focussed.  Work began in earnest, with me creating terraces (everything is a lot easier on the flat, also helps with soil erosion), and Maureen organised the vegetable plot.

By the next summer (2010) we’d learnt a lot about our new environment.  Like it lacked virtually all the conditions needed for growing any kind of veg.  That trees b(r)ought in, even when fenced, don’t thrive, they cannot adapt to a wild existence.  Which prompted another time and money wasting mistake, installing an irrigation system (described later).  Our plan to grow our food was put on hold, until trees could provide sufficient shade and fertility.  I concentrated on the terracing, all done by hand (using a pick-axe) and growing trees from seeds.

The following spring (2011) we got a hive of bees (also described later).  And by the summer felt finally acclimatised to the heat.  Work began on a pond for grey water treatment.  The previous owner had dug one using a JCB, but with vertical sides and during torrential rain these collapsed, filling it in.  I excavated it again, this time terraced, then planted trees and reeds to hold it all together.  One of the trees there is now 5 m high.

During 2013 Maureen’s cancer took over everything and work on the garden came to a halt.  Then she died, and it was hard enough to barely function, so by the end of 2015, the sixth year, progress had slowed dramatically.  95% of the fenced-in area had been roughly terraced, but then I discovered they needed to slope backwards to retain the rainfall.  That winter more was finished.  By then there were about 500 new trees planted (all from seed), with a 2 metre space between for shrubs to go in later.

Then came the summer of 2016, which was the hottest here ever.  I wasn’t using the irrigation system anymore and a huge number of the trees died.  Or so I thought, for most had shed their leaves very early on.  Some subsequently recovered the following year.  Others were replaced with remaining nursery stock, and the rest with grafts, using the apple/ loquat/ citrus, which weren’t affected, I guess because their roots have found the natural water table.

In 2017 all the terracing work within the internal fenced-off area was finally finished.

The rest, the other five acres, has been worked on too.  In March 2015 a new law came into effect in Spain which meant I was obliged to create a clean fire-break around the entire perimeter of the land, or face a massive fine/ imprisonment.  As I no longer wanted to use any petrol-driven devices on the land this has all been done by hand.  No mean feat, on top of everything else, but with merely a handsaw and long-handled shears to start with, then just secateurs, only an hour a day.  Which in turn created not only a lot of useful brushwood for the stove, but thanks to my ancient copy of ANOTHER KIND OF GARDEN, by Ida & Jean Pain, who had a similar garden (though slightly bigger at 241 hectares, in Provence in the 1970s), compost too.

2017 also marked a huge change in the land.  From what had been such a dead looking place when we first moved in, now all was green and lush.  With no inputs or irrigation.  The areas left to regenerate naturally, outside the fence, seeing the best recovery, with literally thousands of new trees and shrubs reappearing (probably after being dormant for decades), despite the wild boar and deer.  Nature really does know best!

Another discovery was the importance of shade plants, especially getting them established first.  Instead I had concentrated on growing and planting trees, thinking their canopies would do that job, wasting many valuable planting years.  Thinking too that irrigating was the answer, only to realise that unless it was on 24/7 99% simply evaporates.  Mulching proved pointless as well, far too much to cover, a very steep slope, and strong winds.  So it did have to be done by planting, but with what?  That’s when I started to look at what was there already, realise that nature knows best, in this case gorse.  While adding plants that seemed to survive without any help, english lavender and rosemary.  Rosemary being especially easy to propagate infinitely from cuttings.  One autumn I simply trimmed some plants and stuck the tops into a wild patch of ground and 200 new plants were created.

My most startling discovery was the right way to plant trees.  I thought I knew, especially having grown from seed at least 5000 trees just here, and who knows in all the other gardens I’ve worked on.  But only a tiny proportion of those actually survived long-term.  Now I know why.  Not a lack of irrigation or wrong species (I only grew what was there already), but that the roots couldn’t get down to the natural water-table fast enough, penetrate the bedrock that lies close to the sandy surface.  What I should have done therefore (what a wonderful/ irritating thing hindsight is) was drill a one metre hole for each.  Either by auger/ post borer, or if that doesn’t work a cordless SDS drill with 25mm masonry bit.

The summer of 2018 was the mildest in the eighteen years I’d been in Iberia, more like spring never ended, simply went straight to autumn (which is like another spring here), missing out summer.  We had the wettest (and mildest) February to July for decades, with the first real hot day not arriving until the 17th of July.  No-one can remember it being like that, at least not since the 1950s.  And it was seemingly at odds with climate change too.  The region, the Sierra de Aracena, seems to be the only place in Europe not to have increased in temperature.  Very odd, but the plants/ wildlife/ and residents are not complaining.  Everywhere is so lush and green.  And at El Pocito in particular there are now wild herbs and other annuals previously not seen before.  Even the trees I thought were long dead have put up new shoots.  And for the first time the vine plants had tiny fruit.

Christmas 2018.  Autumn that year was the wettest for a long time.  Incredible to see so much green, and plants still growing.  It remained mild too, sufficient to have the door and windows of the house open all day and only light the wood stove later in the evening.  But the most spectacular thing was the mushroom harvest.  Usually this goes on for about a month, this time it was almost three, and there were so many (both types and quantity) that it was only necessary to search within a 20 metre radius of the house for enough to eat.  Sweet chestnuts were plentiful also, and the pine nut harvest was just as good too.


I finally managed to get an auger, albeit the manual kind (no way to power a SDS drill at El Pocito), and started to plant the trees raised from seed.  It was a bit late, which was a worry because I like to get all this kind of work (tree planting/ transplanting) done in November, so the roots have time to grow before the summer, but there were so many waiting it was fairer to take the risk than suffer the stress of another year in pots.  Well an auger is hard work, especially if you hit a stone.  The first hole I made was a cinch, all done in a couple of minutes.  The second hit rock.  Started again a little further away, hit rock again.  Eventually it ended up taking three hours.  The third hit clay, which I hate, nearly giving me a hernia trying to lift the thing out each time.  Got them all in though.  What was interesting, was there was always soil left over.  Then when it rained the plant/ hole dropped by that amount leaving a depression which allowed more rainwater to collect and provided a bit of shade.

What might be a unique event happened in February (2019).  One of the lemon trees, planted in 2010, produced oranges.  Apparently this is impossible, even though the rootstock is probably a wild orange, it has to be either from a shoot below the graft, or the graft has to die, neither of which was the case.  Every year up ‘til then it had been only lemons.  Though good news in one way, because none of the twenty or so orange trees I planted that same year had fruited yet.


March 2019.  All the trees transplanted with the new “auger method” survived and are in leaf.  Same success with the grafting.  But best news of all is the arrival of a new visitor, an otter, seen here in this video just 5m from the house.  Why here, is a complete mystery, there are small rivers nearby but nothing to have sufficient fish, perhaps this one is a vegan, like Woolley our black & white cat, who loves fruit.

Postscript on the “otter” sighting.  Apparently it is a mongoose.  Well, whatever, impresses me.  One more creature living in El Pocito.

a simpler life el pocito trees in pots

Of specific interest at El Pocito are its olives, which are a particularly old/ hardy/ and vigorous variety.  At first I reckoned there were about a hundred (only some of which would fruit in any year), but now its obvious are a lot more, and as well as full-size trees there are literally hundreds coming up as suckers from what I presume were trees cut down in the past.  Trimming just a few of the big ones has already created enough firewood to last us a whole winter (it is the best fuel for a wood-burner, pine being too greedy and oak too slow).  The fruit we are able to collect is more than enough for eating/ preserving, and if we had a small olive press (the next project) we’d be self-sufficient in oil too (1 ltr requires 6 kgs of olives).

a simpler life el pocito olives

a simpler life el pocito olive recipe

I also planted vines (or to be totally accurate, vine cuttings) with the aim of making our own wine, after a very dear friend in Galicia, one of the first organic growers there, sent us some from his finca, to get us started.  Red for wine, and white for eating.  This was in January 2011.  Sadly, even though they were all heeled in immediately they must have dehydrated en-route because most eventually died, so the following December we went in search of replacements.  This time in nearby Portugal, where our neighbour when we lived there, had started planting vines at the ripe old age of 72.  He bought 40 plants from the Douro region and then took cuttings from those.  By the time he was 83 he had 700 plants, taking up about an acre.  His processing plant is a tiny shed, inside which is a large stainless steel, from which he manages to produce around 2000 litres of the most palatable wine I’ve ever tasted.  The cuttings we brought back survived the driest winter on record and now there are about 40 plants..

Another idea we’ve had is making incense/ charcoal/ perfume.  The Moors (when they occupied this area) planted cistus ladanifer for this purpose and El Pocito has plenty.


We should have planted fig trees in front of the house.  I saw them growing in Monchique, Portugal, and they gave the perfect shade in summer, as well as cooled/ moistened the surrounding air, plus gave off the most wonderful fragrance.

Saved all the seeds from the locally sourced fruit we eat.  They germinate and grow much better than bought seed.

Stop trying to make the garden look neat and tidy.  Chaos is how stuff survives in the real world, all plants have a purpose in the diverse sustainable scheme of things.

Install a massive polytunnel frame with shade cover, because trees in pots do not cope well with the heat of summer, and some essentials like comfrey/ nettles/ and mints (+ many important herb annuals) need constant shade/ water all year round.


Directly around the house are beds devoted solely to the herbs we use for making tea, from the fresh (not dried) leaves and flowers. The current list of plants we are using (in the entire garden) is:

agrimony, avocado, blackberry, catnip, chamomile, chrysanthemum, cistus, cleavers, comfrey, echinacea, evening primrose, fennel, giant hyssop, gorse, grape, guava, hawthorn, heather, hemp agrimony, honeysuckle, hyssop, jasmine, lavender, lemon balm, lemon geranium, lemon grass, lemon verbena, lime, liquorice, mallow, marigold, mexican tea, milk thistle, mint(s), mountain grape, nasturtium, nettle, olive, orange, passion fruit, peach, pennyroyal, perilla, pine needles, plantain, portuguese green tea, raspberry, rosa rugosa, rosemary, rue, sage, self-heal, st john’s wort, strawberry tree, spanish tea, stevia, wild carrot, willow, wild strawberry, wormwood, yarrow.


At the beginning we bought about 100 trees and shrubs.  All from semi-local companies.  Of those I reckon 20 survived but none grew any faster than trees we later grew from seed.  Why?  Because commercially-grown stock is raised in a perfect and totally artificial environment.  When you then plonk them into the ground they can’t cope.  Plants raised from seed outdoors, with no inputs, will have far fewer problems adapting.


There have been only two problems with this.  Seed we bought turned out 99% of the time to have been old, with a low germination rate.  I have therefore sought always to forage for local fresh seed rather than buy from a company who really doesn’t care.  The other problem is availability, getting the best varieties.  Having spent many years researching and honing the ultimate plants for a forest garden (click here to download), over a thousand different varieties, only a tiny percentage of these are actually available as seed (suppliers have moved to selling plants instead, far more profitable).  I am sure with the growth of the internet there will be more possibilities in the future, but low germination and survival rates will still be an issue in places like El Pocito until there’s enough shade.

Even saving pips/ seed from fruit and germinating thos is a good way to start, because even though they won’t come true they can still be used as root stock for grafting.

Tip – when sowing pips remove the shell first (if it has one).  Tap gently with a hammer until you hear it crack.  Sow immediately.  Protect from badgers and mice.

Tip – you can sow seeds in pots, but they do better straight in the ground.  Sow in early autumn, when the soil is damp and the ants have all gone.


This has proved another good way to get more plants.  Either taken from our own stock or keeping an eye out for trees in the neighbourhood.  It’s very easy, just cut the fresh growth as soon as the leaves fall in autumn and pot them up.  By the following autumn they are rooted and ready to plant out.  We also encourage readers to send us cuttings from their plants (we’ll refund the postage).  Simply:

1) take an empty plastic drinks bottle (500 ml – 1 ltr).  3/4 of the way up cut round with a knife.

2) insert cutting in the larger part, along with some lightweight material to keep it damp.

3) replace top and re-seal with wide sellotape.

4) wrap in a couple layers of newspaper, securing with sellotape.

a simpler life el pocito drawing cuttings by post


No longer a fan of germinating seeds in trays or growing plants in modules/ pots, sometimes it is necessary.  Which means feeding them as well.  Back when we had our polytunnel in Yorkshire this meant stuffing a large plastic barrel with comfrey leaves (you can use nettles but I prefer to eat or drink them), followed by topping up with rainwater.  This worked fine, but took forever to rot down ready for use.  Now I have discovered a far quicker method.  Simply use a smaller container.  A large yoghurt pot, stirred regularly, will be ready to use in as little as a week.


Apart from a disastrous flirt with leaky hose in our polytunnel in Yorkshire (total waste of money), I didn’t use another automatic watering system again until we moved to El Pocito.  But first we used the grey/ waste water and a watering can.  There weren’t many plants so this was adequate, however with time it took more and more time each day and the effort of carrying it up and down the hillside.  Eventually something better needed to be organised.  What we should of done at that point was harvest and store rainwater, but it didn’t occur to us and we came up with the system of drip-feeding instead.  This cost around 0.75 euros a plant (for all the bits), delivered 260 ml of water per plant each day, and utilised gravity so no pump was required.  Comprising: a main 40mm pipe, which ran from the top of the fenced-in area, following it round the fence to the bottom, a distance of about 100 m.  Off which were spurs at each terrace that ran horizontally, in 16mm pipe.  At approx 2 m intervals an even thinner pipe branched off, attached to a tiny stake, to water each plant.  We ran it just after sunset, for four minutes, giving the plants all night to take the water up.  After three summers I had come to the conclusion it wasn’t natural (the plants weren’t putting down roots to find the natural water table) and decided to stop using it.  That was a scary decision but a good one.


No garden is complete without at least one hive, preferably two, and in spring there isn’t anything more uplifting than the sound of their loud humming as they visit the profusion of wild spanish lavender and st john’s wort that springs up everywhere in this part of Spain.  When we lived in Yorkshire I built three hives and homed several colonies, many from swarms, but never found the confidence to take honey.  In Spain, having given up sugar, it was time to learn.  A hive was purchased from a nearby bee-keeper, involving a hairy drive back with them sitting right behind us.  Then a steep learning curve, as spanish bees are nothing like the english ones, particularly in their sense of territory, stinging anyone who came anywhere close.  A friend from town showed me how to take off honey, and it tasted wonderful.


To become truly sustainable we had to be able to deal with all our waste on-site, nothing leaving to add to municipal landfill.  Over the ten years we were there we got it down to one small carrier bag a fortnight, as virtually everything brought in either had no packaging or could be recycled in-situ.

We had several types of composting.

Weeding and leaves went in one heap, because they mulch down slowly.  Hardwood prunings/ cistus/ and the tops of coppiced trees were not composted, but piled in heaps near where they were cut, and after two years brittle/ dry enough to bring to the house to be used as kindling for starting the wood stove.

All kitchen waste + ash from the wood stove + humanure + wee had a heap of its own, which was then used solely for fertilising the area of herbs around the house.  This has been one our successes, providing usable material in just three months.  The first version was just an area of soil, approx one metre wide at the front and two metres back, located a short distance from the house, with a low dry-stone wall, about a foot or so high, to stop wind blowing stuff away.  That’s all.  No concrete base, no cover, no divisions, nothing else.  Maintenance was simple too.  Everything got dropped in at the front, then when the pile reached the height of the wall (about 3 months), dragged back to the middle to make room at the front to start a fresh pile.  After another 3 months the middle pile was dragged to the back.  Then after a total of nine months the back pile was ready for use.  The only things that didn’t compost well were hair (doesn’t seem to ever break down, very spooky) and large fruit stones.  We located this heap down a very steep and rocky path, lethal in the dark and wet, because we thought it would smell.  After a year of nearly breaking limbs and realising there was very little odour we decided to move it closer.  That also gave us a chance to change the design.  Now it is a circular fence made from concrete reinforcing wire (which comes in 2 metre x 1 metre sheets), about 1.5 metres in diameter.  Around the outside of this I have attached some shading material to make it look unobtrusive and stop material falling out.  The actual composting process varies throughout the year, slow down in winter and incredibly fast in summer.  When it is full the wire is unfastened moved to one side, to start a new heap.

The only disappointment has been the quantity it produces.  Given that several kilos of matter go in each day (including urine) the annual total (for two people) is only enough to cover 10-20 m2.  Nowhere near enough to grow annual crops, vindication for our original idea of wanting a forest garden instead of an allotment.


a simpler life el pocito chris & sue bond devonshire mill comfrey

This is one of the most essential plants in any garden, and you can never have too many plants.  Virtually unheard of in Spain, so we asked our friends Sue & Chris of Devonshire Mill in East Yorkshire to send us some of theirs.  They all survived and each year they are dug up, cut into pieces and replanted to produce more.  In no time a couple of plants can become several hundred.


This was new to us, but turned out to be so easy I wish we’d tried it earlier.  The first plants we attempted were rosemary and lavender.  We did this over successive months between Dec-Feb, simply by cutting the fresh growth (about 3-4 inches) and putting them in pots of leaf compost (you can also just stick them in the ground).  Kept damp they were ready for transplanting the following autumn.  I think probably any woody shrub could be done this way.  We also buried the ends of trailing plants, while still attached to the main plant, and they rooted too over the same period.  Then experimented with fresh leaf cuttings, from softer stock/ perennials – chocolate mint/ sage/ and lavender – but this time in early summer.  The lavender all died, but the other two, in homemade propagators made from 5 ltr water bottles, fared better.  All the mint, and about three-quarters of the sage.  Full shade is essential.


This was new too.  When we lived in Portugal all our neighbours did this as a matter of course, whenever they came across wild rootstock, so as there are many vigorous/ suckering fruit trees at El Pocito it seemed crazy not to have a go.

Trying to discover how to do it was not easy though.  The advice on the internet proved way too complex, put me right off.  Then one day, having mentioned it in town, two local experts turned up to show me.  That was in March 2012, and budding by then had already started.  They picked trees with trunks of about 2-3 inches wide, sawed them to around 3-4 ft high, and removed all the side shoots.  Then across the top of the cut made a slit with a very sharp knife, into which was inserted a temporary wedge (or chisel) to hold it open.  A cutting was then taken (from a similar tree but with edible fruit), trimmed to about 4-6 inches long, the ends sliced to form a wedge (the same depth as the cut) and slotted into place.  One on each side, and so the edges were both flush to the outside of the host.  The wedge was then removed and all the exposed bits were bound in electrical tape to keep them from drying out.  I was very impressed, it looked so easy, sadly none of them took.

The following year I tried the same method again, but this time using using clay to cover all the exposed areas, bound with strips of damp thin fabric.  Out of five, one took, and a year later fruited.

The next year I tried something radically different, all my own idea.  First the timing, starting earlier, in January, doing one graft every week until the buds began to open in the spring.  I chose rootstock and cutting with a similar width.  Slicing each at a 45 degree angle with a sharp (kitchen) knife, then tying them together (see photos).  First with an elastic band, then plumber’s ptfe tape.  This was really quick and felt like the right method, but from ten grafts I only got one that took, an apple (which fruited too), which made me think the getting the species of each to match was probably important too.

The following year I did it differently again.  This time using a scalpel to make a cut into the rootstock, followed by cutting the graft into a vee shape.  Timing was chosen by asking someone in town, later than I had done before, and the budding didn’t occur until May.  Out of ten of those I got eight that took (a couple with fruit too).  The ones that failed were on thick or tall rootstock, so perhaps the younger the better.  That year I also lost the very first successful graft to some kind of fungus inside the branches, it just rotted away, but only on the graft, not the rootstock.  Weird.

a simpler life el pocito grafting 06 a simpler life el pocito grafting 07 a simpler life el pocito grafting 08 a simpler life el pocito grafting 09 a simpler life el pocito grafting 10 a simpler life el pocito grafting 11 a simpler life el pocito grafting 12

A friend in California, with 42 years experience grafting apricots, has published a useful guide.  Download the page from his site by clicking here or go direct and look for the relevant blog.  He has also recommended another site, click here to download a pdf of that as well.


If we really cared about the planet then such nasty/ polluting/ carcinogenic/ and potentially maiming tools would never be allowed.  I foolishly bought one for El Pocito, then found out the hard way how dangerous they can be and sold it.  Replacing it with handsaws.  If you don’t want to follow suit then at least read the following:

1) Before doing anything go on a proper training course (usually 2-3 days).  Your local Agricultural College should be able to tell you where.  It’s not cheap, but like being taught to drive there is no other way to understand all the risks in a controlled environment.  The course also includes maintenance, itself worth the outlay.  Make sure you take plenty of notes and a camera, because you soon forget this stuff.

2) Buy the heaviest/ most powerful model you feel able to carry, as this governs the thickness you’ll be able to cut.  Buy from a local dealer, as you will also be dependent on their help at the beginning, especially with chain-sharpening and servicing.  Choosing a brand is pointless, they are all crap.  In Almonaster la Real they favoured STIHL so I bought one of those.  Rubbish.

3) As well as a chainsaw you will need suitable protection – special chainsaw boots/ chainsaw trousers (don’t get the dungaree version)/ chainsaw jacket/ chainsaw helmet (with metal screen visor – not a plastic one) and ear defenders/ chainsaw gloves (wear latex ones inside those to protect your skin from oil/ petrol).

4) Plus the appropriate file/ tool for sharpening the chain teeth + a 5 ltr metal can (plastic rots) for the fuel.

5) Before starting ALWAYS check the following – that you’ve cleaned and replaced the air filter/ the brake is on/ the chain moves easily on the bar/ and the retaining nut is fully tightened.  Do not leave fuel in the tank if not in use for more than a week or so.

6) My biggest mistakes.  Ignoring smoke and subsequent scorch marks on the bar (due to insufficient oil reaching the chain – solved by drilling a larger hole where it feeds the chain).  Not understanding how to sharpen the chain.  This is actually not simple and even the experts will tell you totally different methods.  The best answer is to buy an attachment that fits on the chain (see photo) and acts as a guide for the file.  It’s not foolproof.  The instructions are almost impossible to understand, and moving the chain along is really fiddly.  Still, this way you can’t go too wrong and you can see what needs to be done.  Make sure you have the right size file.  Note the teeth are arranged alternately, so you have to do half working from one side then change over to do the other.  You are filing them horizontally whilst at the same time at an angle (mine is 30 degrees), yes confusing.  Start off by marking the first one with a bright colour felt pen.  File away from the motor and only in that direction.  No more than one or two passes with the file (the metal they are made of is really cheap/ soft).  Make sure you only file the tooth, not the chain (it has to be a minimum of 1 millimetre higher).  And brace the whole thing in something like a vice (which I haven’t worked out how to do yet) while you are doing it.  You’ll also need really good eyesight.  When you do get the hang of it you should be able to do without the aid, and simply sharpen by balancing the saw on its handle, attacking one side at a time.  Even marking should not be necessary, as you’ll be able to recognise where you’ve been by the shine on each tooth afterwards.  Do this EVERY time you finish using the saw (which for me is after 1-2 tanks of fuel).

7) Other maintenance tips – when filling with petrol ALWAYS top up the chain oil reservoir at the same time.  Wash the air filter after each session (in soapy water).  Change the petrol filter annually.  ALWAYS have someone nearby when you are working, just in case of an accident (I wear a whistle as well).


If you didn’t know already, Shetland is an archipelago of 16 inhabited islands situated in the North Sea/ Atlantic Ocean at the same latitude as Alaska.  Their nearest landmass is Norway.

You’d think then this would be an even more daunting challenge to grow a forest in.  Well perhaps not.  The weather here is surprisingly mild, thanks to the Gulf Stream, so frosts are rare and it never exceeds 21 C.  The biggest problem seems to be the indigenous population, who are adamant that trees won’t grow here.  This of course is not true.  The reason there are hardly any at the moment is because their ancestors cut down everything to build boats and houses and were too idle to replant them.  Then sheep came along and they decided they’d rather have the money they earned from that endeavour than a sustainable ecosystem.  Worsened by ludicrously high subsidies for sheep farming.  Land has therefore become the most valuable asset, and anyone interested in real crofting or planting a forest might as well forget it and move elsewhere, because these folk are never going to sell their golden goose.

We hope that the subsidy situation will change, given that national government only really cares about its own, the mega rich, and will eventually get round to realise they are wasting their money when it could be far better diverted to their chums.  In the meantime experimenting on a small plot.  Updates will follow as they happen.

Finally here are some of our favourite UK plant/ seed suppliers, just in case you’ve not come across them before:


(this is undoubtedly the best for herbs, and the owner Ross is really helpful)

Black Isle, By Dingwall IV7 8LX, Ross & Cromarty, Scotland



(for organic veg & herb seeds)

Stormy Hall Farm, Danby, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO21 2NJ



St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF




Lapwing Meadows, Coach Gap Lane, Langar, Notts NG13 9HP



(fruit bushes & trees)

Moor View, Godshill, Isle of Wight PO38 3HW


Ivy Cottages, Talaton, Exeter, Devon EX5 2SD


a simpler life, el pocito, solar powered

  1. Robert said:

    Have you tried the hugelkultur system (basically burying logs in your raised beds) which according to hearsay is meant to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation? In my limited experience it seems effective.

    Thanks for the resource!


  2. José Luis Cruz said:

    Hello nice to read all this nice information! and to know a bit more from your life. I have a question. Why not the use of animals? as for the compost, plague control, and even food? (even if you dont eat them, they are very helpfull in managing your land safely and in the nice nature methods, and always bring some more company) All the best of luck in your search for a better lifestyle, a big hug from José, Alentejo, Portugal.

  3. Paula said:

    not able to read it all yet , but looks like a fantastic sustainable place , would love to come visit one day maybe stay a little while in exchange for work . Paula Bristol uk

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