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Gardening in the Alpujarra

January in the Garden

Although January is seen as the beginning of a new year as the old year ends, in the garden it’s merely a continuation of the never-ending cycle of life that constantly unfolds. However, it is a good time to look back over the previous calendar year and identify our successes and challenges which will help us to plan for the year ahead. January, deepest winter, is of course the time to start planning the summer vegetable garden. At the end of the month tomato, pepper, chilli and aubergine seeds can all be sown undercover in the greenhouse or cold frame. It’s imperative that the tender seedlings are protected from frost.

Now that summer grasses have disappeared, its easy to see your beds again and start preparing them for spring planting. Dig out perennial weeds and grasses by the roots and spread a thick layer of well rotted compost, leaf mulch or manure over the beds to get them ready for the heavy feeding summer crops. January is also the best time to cut bamboo or caña poles to use as supports for tomatoes and beans; the sap is low and the poles will be strong. You can also dig holes and fill them with compost or manure to make them ready for any fruit trees you are planning to plant in February.

Jerusalem artichoke tubers can be planted now; yacón crowns divided and potted up, likewise root cuttings of horseradish and comfrey. There’s still time to plant habas and garlic if you missed them in the autumn, and lettuce plants can go in now too as well as leeks and Asian greens such as pak choi and mizuna. Carrots, beetroot, spinach, rocket, fennel and radish can be direct sown.

2022 was a dry year, with very little rain to speak of. Here in the Alpujarras, we are lucky to benefit from the ancient acequia systems that bring water down from the high mountain and feed our crops and trees throughout the year. This system of ancient, originally stone lined, now often cemented, channels, originally known as al saqiya, literally ‘the water bearer’, were built by the Islamic communities that inhabited Spain from the 8th/9th centuries. An amazing feat of irrigation engineering, they move water to areas that would otherwise be parched.

But when the the rain did come in December, it came hard and fast. The acequias, much as they bring water to us, also take it away - in volumes that can be destructive when uncontrolled. Every acequia is a collaboration between its members, known as a comunidad de regantes. Each member on the route has a gate to allow the water to flow into their land. Equally as important, each property has a desagüe that takes the water away from the land and back into the acequia. In dry times, everyone understands the importance of keeping their acequia clear to allow maximum flow of water to their land. In wet times, its equally important to keep the acequias clear to allow the water to flow away without causing damage to neighbouring properties or roads. If an acequia gate is left open during a major rain storm, a huge quantity of water can find its way through that gate and can cause untold damage. The acequia systems have worked so well for so long because of the people that make up the comunidad. Each person has a responsibility to the rest of the community to do their part to maintain their acequia, to keep their gates closed when its not their time to water and to keep the desagüe clear.

This beautiful low-tech system, when not properly maintained can create havoc in the landscape with collapsed terraces, churned up roads and even landslides. Get to know your acequia, not just on your own property but learn where it comes from and where it goes to next. Get to know your neighbours and your acequia president. Engage with your comunidad de regantes because our acequias rely on us for them to continue to bring us the life-giving water we all depend on, all year round.

Archive of previous articles here.
For more information on seed-saving and SEEeD, the Órgiva-based seed-savers' association, see https://seeed.es.

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