Successional Agroforestry Systems with Gabriel Menezes in Can Lliure – Spain

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Can Lliure is a place for mindful human nature relationships and exists to practice, teach and research multi purpose regenerative land management practices that are socially and environmentally flourishing and economically viable”. This farm is based at Alta Garrotxa in a beautiful area of the Spanish Pyrenees, and is also where a pilot successional agroforestry project is taking place in the temperate climate. This approach is a process based agriculture in which one uses natural successional to create the ideal conditions for the regenerative production of food, fibre and timber.

Roman Banjankri is a young regenerative designer and teacher who started the project and is now liaising with people from different countries and professional backgrounds to develop Can Lliure. Amongst other land-based projects and courses, Roman chose to research, practice and promote successional agroforestry and have stated to organise courses in Spain. There were 2 successful courses with Ernst Gotsch since 2016, in another site, and one with Namaste Messershmidt at Can Lliure in 2018.

The systems established at Can Lliure are part of Roman’s mission of promoting successional agroforestry in the temperate climate. Last October (2018) I was at Can Lliure with Gabriel Menezes. Roman was running an internship for Soil Sun and Soul’s alumni students within which I was running a Holistic Decision Making workshop and Gabriel an introductory course on successional agroforestry.

Gabriel pruning an old Olive tree in Can Lliure

What was meant to be an introductory course became a deep and inspiring experience led by Gabriel. One of the co-founders of Simbiose Agroflorestal (link in Portuguese), for the past 10 years Gabriel has been running a small, but very successful and ‘low profile’ system (as he like to put it), alongside with a teaching and consulting business. Can Lliure was established high up at the Spanish Pyrenees and beautiful stonewalled terraces were built centuries ago so that people could farm the land. On these terraces farmers have planted olive trees that are now ancient, and with which Gabriel shared how one should establish a dialog with the trees and their surrounds in order to prune them properly. Gabriel shared details on which living branches should be pruned as well as how to prune the dead ones. In different spots where there were in a clump of trees from different strata, he also shared the dynamics that goes on and how sometimes creating a gap on the strata system might foster the flow of sun light and energy.

In a few different areas Roman began experimenting with different consortiums of trees and vegetables. One of the main challenges is to design the mulch production into these systems as a way to optimise the nutrient cycling, soil restoration and maintenance time. Can Lliure is surrounded by wild a wild Oak forest and there are 3.5 hectares of grassy cleared terraces. The maintenance of these areas creates a source of mulch. The distance between the managed areas, however, makes this option time and energy consuming. Amongst the fruit and nut trees there are: walnuts, feijoa, Chinese date, Japanese persimmon, pears, apricot, plums, figs, pomegranates, cold-hardy lemon and avocado, and different kinds of berries. Amongst the support species planted to provide mulch, fix nitrogen and nurse productive trees are: Black locust, Alder, Paulownia, Poplar, Plane tree, Strawberry tree, Cinamomo, Elder.

While some lines were planted to supporting trees only, tree lines have both fruit/nut and supporting trees. Some of the supporting trees are multipurpose in the sense that can also be used for timber and firewood. A small area was designated for a consortium with different grapes trellised to Willow trees and interplanted with Olives, Plums, Poplar and Plane tree. In the near future these trees should be producing at least some of the mulch needed to cover their own row’s soil as well as the logs that are placed in the paths. Roman shared that the training and recruiting of people became a priority for him as he has been managing many different systems virtually alone.

Instead of preparing an area with rows for the course, Gabriel chose an area in which there were a young Pine tree, a couple of Oak trees (Oak-Quercus Illex) and a clump of Mastic shrubs (Pistacia lentiscus). Gabriel chose this area for a few reasons. First he wanted to share how one can ‘read’ the area to interact with and restore it making the most of plants that are already there without necessarily using rows in a linear system. Second, it was a good example in terms of studying and using trees from different strata and stages of development. Third, this area was close to the kitchen and outdoor pizza oven which made it ideal for a small, but intense system with vegetables. The area and kind of agroforestry chosen, based on needs, zoning and relative location were not the only permaculture principles integrated by Gabriel. He likes to invite people to think where and how agroforestry systems can be beneficial in each of the petals of David Holmgren’s permaculture flower.

The reasons why the area was chosen as well as its preparation and implementation were a perfect example of the principles shared in the classroom. First, undesired ground covers were removed, while others such as wild lavender were just pruned. Second, Gabriel pruned the two Oak trees and Mastic shrubs drastically, grading branches twigs and leaves and putting them aside in piles organised by thickness. At this point Gabriel shared that much in the same way trees exchange information through their root systems, they can also exchange information through their canopy. When tree canopies are touching each other, the forestry organism might ‘understand’ such information as a sign of maturity slowing all plants’ growth around those trees. Third, the soil was loosened with the use of broad fork (without turning it), a thin layer of compost spread over the area, and branches were laid down. Fourth, holes were dug to plant 3 Olive trees in a triangle pattern around the pruned Oak tree. Three blueberry bushes were planted between the Olives following the same pattern. Once this first stage was finished, twigs and leaves were bashed with machetes thinning the biomass that was used to build a thick layer of mulch and a winter consortium of vegetable seedlings planted in.

The drastic pruning given to the Oaks, one roughly in the middle of the area and the other outside it, and to the Mastic bush, will give the already existing young Pine and newly planted Olives and Blueberries a good head start. The managing of the system should allow for all trees to fulfil their strata as soon as possible. Constant pruning and deep mulching keeps the system growing fast, but it also nurtures soil restoration through mineral cycling process, Gabriel explained.

Throughout the course Gabriel introduced, exemplified, repeated and explained the basic tenets of successional agroforestry. In this approach, “when it comes to area, less is more, when it comes to mulching, a lot is not enough”, Gabriel explained. He also invited participants to think about the fact that growing healthy food and restoring soils will not be enough if we do not “plant people” to re-occupy productive lands.

The participants’ feedback about the course was great! Some shared they were already planning how to implement these systems where they could, while others expressed an interest to study and practice more in order to share this approach in underprivileged areas they teach or work. Gabriel is currently touring in Europe and can be reached to run courses, consultancies and internships.

Upcoming Agroforestry Courses

Forestry in Practice – With nearly 30 years of experience and literally thousands of farm plans under his belt, Darren J. Doherty comes to the Northern Rivers (NSW, Australia) to teach the course “Forestry in Practice“. The course equips farmers to holistically integrate trees in their landscapes and enterprises. Darren, who also works closely with livestock producers, has been an adamant promoter of tree integration for all farm enterprises. The course will run on the 9th and 10th of February, 2019, at the Holos Regenerative Design learning site in Brunswick Heads, Northern New South Wales.