Terra Alta Climate
While Terra Alta is Mediterranean in its climate characteristic, our particular topoclimate of Sintra is a wet place in comparison to other places in Portugal and the general region of the Mediterranean. Our dry season is quite long yet our wet season is defined by nearly a meter of rain in just five months or so. This abundant rainfall total is much closer to the amount of Berlin yet the climates differ dramatically. Consequently this uneven rainfall distribution makes our brittleness scale classification a fairly brittle climate due to the lack of consistent humidity. This means that the land is broken easily and with use of chemicals, over ploughing, and seeing organic material as a burnable or disposable waste, the land was broken when we arrived. However, through varying soil improvement techniques as well as water harvesting earthworks, we have been able to regenerate the land quickly. This all hinges on one thing though- a source!!!!!!
Springwater and its distribution through our tank
Most likely Moorish in its origins, dating back quite some centuries now, a source of water springs horizontally from a well. In modern day we go down vertically to reach sources of water and use mechanical power including pumps to bring this water to the surface. However at Terra Alta the original developers of this source went horizontally an unknown distance into the hillside, alighting the spring and allowing it to flow all year round.
This means we have very little water problems in a region where water is scarce to say the least. This source is then brought to modern day usage through a concrete tank that holds the clean and clear water where it picks up nutrients and warmth (and makes a great swimming pool). From here it is piped into mains and distributed throughout the land via gravity.
This piped water leads to several buildings and shower systems as well as our extensive gardens. It has numerous spickets where the water is distributed even further through hoses. This allows us to regenerate the land more quickly because we can keep photosynthesis happening for a much longer time period in this landscape. This amazing alchemical process pumps sugar and organic material into the soil thus affecting the water cycle positively once more. Also it helps with other systems like composting as the piped water and the hot compost piles allows us to concentrate materials and moisture for breakdown during the dry months. Moreover, our buildings, mainly made of earthen materials, are supported by our water resource as the cob mixes all require water. Its easy to see water everywhere and understand the lesson behind the master designer Da Vinci when he said, “Water is the driving force of nature”.
Earthworks and Water
Like many other Permaculture projects, we have used earthworks to further utilise our water resources on site. In 2010, Pedro and a machine and its driver had a wild time of digging and mounding what we like to call the water garden. In the summer during our PDC’s it is hard to imagine this water landscape, but in the winter when the road becomes a stream and inlets onto the property, it is very easy to experience. The earthworks harvest and circulate the water through a serpent shape with numerous ponds to create edge in 3 dimensions. The water flows through the garden in large rains and provides small waterfalls and a beautiful ambiance. We hope one day that the water will flow year round, that ponds will hold water, and that the place will be even more full of life.
The earthworks themselves are a reflection of the patterns in nature and provide ample growing space. Smaller hand dug earthworks have been implemented over the years to use our water wisely and direct smaller flows into the swales and sunken beds. We have essentially terraced several areas to effectively harness the full potential of the interaction between soil and water. Going with sunken beds also allows us to not use as much irrigation water and more effectively keep our crops hydrated.
Greywater and water cycling to Biomass
Meanwhile, other earthworks have been constructed to cycle water from our buildings as well. Because of our summer drylands conditions, greywater basins are a great resource for generating biomass. This biomass is cycled into compost piles where green material can be difficult to track down during this time of the year.
We use simple greywater systems much like the drawing you see here from Doug Crouch’s design work in Bulgaria for a greywater system. Its just a small basin earthwork with plants around such as comfrey and cana lily with other wild plants abounding on its outskirts. The basin is filled with carbon material and pipes directed towards the basin. Occasional interaction is necessary but it’s a relatively easy system to manage. Furthermore we feed our greenhouse humidity through a greenhouse shower and the associated greywater basin. It helps to create a small tropical section and a lovely space sheltered from the cold winds. We get quite a harvest from our chayote vine that is connected to it and when you compare the growth and production to the other vine on the other side of the greenhouse its quite astonishing the difference from the greywater input!
The site also has a stream that runs through the middle of the property, folding the land from the shaping influences of water. The shape of the streambed is very incised at times while other times it is very surface. The stream also is influenced by a small pond earthwork that traps the water and silts. The water in the stream flows from greywater from the village above as well as water from runoff and groundwater that seeps through. In the winter it can be a torrential pour, while in the summer the earthwork allows all the water to sink into the ground as it is a steady trickle. The pond creates some unique habitat for frogs and insect and we hope as the system matures even more biodiversity will be attracted. We have been restoring natural stream hydrology through doing gabions, rock piles in the stream, which is augmenting the deep incised parts through trapping silts and sand. It’s a wonderful system to follow with the heavy rains and insertion of wetlands plants also brings more edge and cleansing. One of the prime directives of any permaculture sites is to make sure that water that enters your land comes out cleaner and we are for sure doing that through an integrated approach.
Triangle to beaches
Being close to the sea, it is hard to ignore the rejuvenating Atlantic Ocean waters that are never far away. Whether it’s walking out to the cliffs to take in a sunset or going to the beach, we are blessed to be so close. In fact on most nights you can hear the roar of the ocean and a two minute walk up hill from Terra Alta allows you to easily catch the breathtaking sunsets that Portugal has to offer. West coast!!!!!!!
Water is a beautiful magnet for life and we try and clean, sink, spread, and slow as much as possible. We are ever so grateful for the source, one must consider it when drinking just as they say “eating is an agricultural act”. Blessings to the source and thanks for the technologies that are here to help us regenerate the land. We hope to use more techniques to give back to water as we continue to develop an oasis of transformation.