Lanzarote‘s dry climate is a challenge for any gardener.
Lanzarote37° editor Susanne Bernard explains how to beat drought and Calima to create the garden of your dreams.
When I came to Lanzarote, I was lucky enough to find a small untended garden waiting for me, which I would be able to plant up a little at a time.My imagination began to work overtime. I could already see myself lying in a hammock beneath orange trees, or carrying whole bunches of bananas into the house to be beautifully arranged in my imaginary fruit bowls.
Before the Calima
To start with, I planted out twenty tomato plants with some cucumbers and melons. “They’ll soon be ready,“ I thought. Yet no matter how dutifully I mothered those seedlings the results were feeble. The little cucumber plants struggled to survive through the hot day and refused to grow despite, what I considered to be, the excellent weather. The melons fared no better. Only the tomatoes rewarded me for my efforts and I tied them to their stakes Perhaps a little primaturely I confess – I took my artists brush from the watercolour set and began to pollinate them. It was wonderful to see the first green fruits appear. Then one morning I looked out of the window and saw our neighbour‘s house apparently enveloped in fog. But this was no fog: it was a Calima. For fourteen days the desert wind raged, hot and unrelenting. Afterwards, my garden looked just the way it had when I found it: brown, dry and derelict. Dishevelled tomato plants looked up at me accusingly.
It was anyone’s guess where the cucumbers and melons had been growing.
I made up my mind to go about things more rationally, and began to study and observe. Which way is the prevailing wind? Which plants grow naturally on the island? Which plants do well in the neighbour‘s garden?
As a former enemy of house plants, cacti, and geraniums, I needed to rethink things. On this island the plants that grow really well are all the ones I used to steer clear of in my previous incarnation as a gardener. Geraniums with thick, fleshy leaves can store precious water for weeks; and cacti, to me once a badge of middle class self-satisfaction, produce staggeringly beautiful flowers here. But, my biggest horror – the rubber plants – the nightmare of my childhood! I remember how they overtook the lounge without ever being watered, making us children duck down low to be able to see the TV from the sofa, and they would have a terrible artificial odour about them from mother‘s weekly treatment with the leaf shine spray! On the other hand, at Haría market the “loathsome” rubber trees do provide wonderfully welcome shade. Reaching a height of many metres, they defy all weather conditions and can accommodate whole colonies of brooding and squawking birds. Things are simply just that bit different here on Lanzarote, and the amateur gardener needs a little more than green fingers and the innate confidence that everything will grow.
Speaking of confidence: my dream of having fruit trees in the garden to pluck a snack from as I walked past and my overflowing indoor fruit bowls – that was another bubble burst by my first Calima. Yet, despite the challenges, with a little luck you can create a dream garden on Lanzarote.
For example, I can imagine an orange and a lemon tree on the slope below our house. Yes, it‘s quite windy there, but two or three zocos – the curved stone walls the Canarians use to shield their plants from the constant winds – will give them protection. I also need two mulberry trees (Morus nigra). They‘ll be a good substitute for the northern European raspberries and blackberries I miss. Anyone who has picked mulberries will know that there‘s a special
knack to it, but even the “best“ pickers will finish up with sticky-sweet violet juice all over themselves and appreciate the use of a nearby bathroom or garden hose.
In midsummer we‘ll want to have some figs to go with our ham, so a small fig tree has to go in, along with one or two opuntias (cactus figs or prickly pears). These fruits, which probably come from Mexico originally, make delicious
jam. Eaten fresh with a spoon they are a healthy treat too, as they contain potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous, and are high in vitamin C. Also, the fruits are supposed to lower your cholesterol levels. So it‘s worth the chore of having to remove the spines (see information below for tips on how to do this).
Dreams can come true
To go up the wall of our house I‘d like Queen of the Night, a climbing cactus from the Cactaceae family, which comes from Central America. It‘s fruit is called Dragon fruit, or Pitaya, and has white or blood red flesh with fine poppy like seeds. It‘s highly sought-after by lovers of good food, but rarely available on the market. Even if found it’s sold at criminally high prices. Next time I manage to get hold of one there I‘ll save the seeds for sowing. If you want to have a go yourself, don‘t forget to stop watering the seedlings after they have germinated, otherwise the plants won‘t grow as climbers and produce their aerial roots.
Near the house, in a deep bed, there‘s a spot for a banana plant. This moisture-lover from India isn‘t going to like the wind and dry conditions very much, but being so close to the house it‘ll be treated to the used dishwater every day and get some protection from the wind. Then it‘ll be able to unfurl its giant leaves and provide a canopy over the garden table I plan to put in its shade.
The nispero or Japanese medlar produces loquats – a fruit which is slightly sour. It comes from China and Japan and it too warrants a place in our garden. The taste of loquats is reminiscent of peaches or apricots, and their fragrance is of apples. Not only are the fruits very tasty, they are also effective against rashes and skin discolorations.
We could do with some cape gooseberries (Physalis) too – my husband is particularly fond of them, so I‘ll have to make a big effort not to eat the lot myself. The nightshade plant from Peru, with its golden-yellow berries tucked inside delicate paper-thin lanterns, grows into a herbaceous shrub about a metre high. It needs a fairly rich, well manured soil, and a corner out of the wind. The fruit of these cape gooseberries is rich in vitamins A, B and C and can be made into jam or ice cream, added to the Rum Pot, used as a deicious topping for tarts or even as a table decoration. This too would fit in well.
There are one or two other fruits that will do nicely in my garden, such as the papaya, passion fruit, kumquat, sweet pepino, the carob tree, the pomegranate tree or even pineapple – so there‘s plenty to get on with!
About the weather
> Lanzarote lies at a latitude of 28 degrees north in a climate zone classed as sub-tropical, with precipitation below 200mm per year. The naturally sparse plant cover is classed as desert vegetation or semi-desert vegetation. There are considerable fluctuations in the annual levels of precipitation, the annual average being between 50 and 200 mm, but there can be years with no rain at all.
> Lanzarote‘s climate is classified as arid. This means that the rate of evaporation (= possible evaporation) exceeds the natural amount of precipitation. The total rainfall in a normal wet winter evaporates within 26 days on Lanzarote. After that the island is bone dry again.