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Bringing the Horta do Zé estate back to life

It is a cool autumn evening. The campfire glow flickers continuously over the faces of the audience. They tell and listen to stories about the River Sado, this farm and its garden. What would it have been like here 50 years ago, when feudal conditions still prevailed and the farm workers lived on the farmstead with their families? And what might its future hold? The branches of a walnut tree spread out over everyone and create a feeling of security. It’s as if the elves are dancing over the heads of the audience. But wait: who makes a campfire under a tree? Even if it’s as well protected by stones as this one is! “Don’t worry, the fire won’t harm the tree,” says José Arantes, the host. He sways calmly on a cork swing that hangs down from a branch of the walnut tree. “I’ve known the tree since my childhood because my family planted it when I was born. I know what’s good for it and what isn’t.”


José Arantes is an astonishing man. He manages simultaneously to break with traditions and to preserve them. In contrast with all the landowners among his ancestors, he actually lives on his estate and gets his hands dirty. His family owns 3,000 hectares of agricultural land, but he invents and builds gardens for people who have no space – vertical gardens for inside and out. His pine plantations and cork oak forests are productive and organically certified, but he intersperses them with many other species of tree, making them into a mixed forest of growing biological diversity. Yet he devotes most of his time and love to his one-hectare vegetable garden: like the earlier farmhands on the estate, he grows the vegetables himself that he and his family need. But the Horta do Zé serves mainly as a garden for teaching people who wish to be self-sufficient. José Arantes supports people in providing for themselves. And this is why he is gradually restoring the whole Herdade de Porches.


The feeling of belonging

I am south of Alcácer do Sal in the Alentejo. Here, the River Sado meanders gently through bright green rice fields. There are extensive pine plantations on the hills around me, and behind them the montado*. Until the Carnation Revolution of 1974, the wealth of many of the old families from Lisbon and Cascais was derived from rice and cork. They were grown on large estates such as the Herdade de Porches. Nineteen families lived here and generated the surplus value for the landowning family, almost in conditions of servitude. “The workers were miserably poor,” says José, “but no one actually starved here.”
The farm workers themselves produced what they needed for their daily lives on the farm – vegetables, bread, meat, fish, eggs and cheese, craft products, and there was also a bakery, a smithy, a carpentry workshop and a rice processing plant. Almost everything could be produced on the farm. Only metal came from outside, and sometimes wood. There was no waste: everything was recycled and reused. José still remembers it well. In the 1960s, when he came here with his family at the weekends, there was still no road. The only way to get there was by ferry across the Sado and on foot across the rice fields. Everything was carried by horse. ”

The workers and their families went to Alcácer once a year and at the market bought the few things that they needed or wanted for their lives from outside. They carried their shoes with them to protect them and to be well dressed in Alcácer. Despite their poverty, I can also recall their joyfulness. They sang a lot, they were close to each other and felt a sense of togetherness. That’s what is missing for most people today, without the terrible feudal conditions of course,” José Arantes concludes.

Under the 1974 land reforms, the Herdade de Porches was expropriated, then run by a cooperative and taken over again by the family after a few years. The land was then managed by an administrator but the products were no longer processed on the farm. The machines and many of the workers were no longer needed, and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Self-sufficiency as a social necessity

That was hardly of any concern to José as a young man. He went to New York and pursued a career as a dancer. When he and his wife returned to Portugal, their idea was to settle on his family’s estate. “We wanted to set up a kind of ecotourism business, but didn’t have any idea about it.” So it meant learning. First of all, José attended a course in organic farming in Beja and underwent a kind of epiphany: “What I learnt there in the two weeks changed my life. I have never stopped learning in this area. I recognised the absolute need for a profound change in society. Everyone must have the right and the possibility to grow their own food.”

He heard the sentence by Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture: “We’re only truly secure when we can look out our kitchen window and see our food growing.” In other words: a system of regional self-sufficiency is more sustainable, more stable, fairer, and healthier for people and nature than any system of intensive industrial production. It is not this, but lots of gardens and mixed cultivation that produce the foodstuffs that are really good for us. And the care that people bring to the land in order to grow their food protects nature and its diversity most effectively. From then on, that’s what he wanted to devote himself to and they started to make the dilapidated houses habitable again, one by one. They moved in, in 2006. After his wife died, he lived on the farm alone to start with, and then later with his partner, two employees, and occasionally “wwoofers”. **

Vertical gardens

Porches has since been transformed. By no means have all the houses been made habitable, but art, beauty and loving details can be found all over the place. Above all, plants, herbs and flowers thrive everywhere – inside and out; and whole walls of the restored part of the farm appear to be overgrown from top to bottom.

“I love it when everything is green,” says José, “inside the house too.” Friends who he succeeded in inspiring with his passion for gardens and self-sufficiency, but who didn’t have the land to do the same, gave him the impetus to develop the vertical garden. This idea became his passion: inside and in front of the house, on the terrace, in the conservatory and in the parts of the farm that are not yet occupied again, there are myriad receptacles made of stone, wood, clay or reinforced plaster, in which herbs, vegetables and flowers thrive, among and over each other. The automatic irrigation and – where required – lighting is inconspicuously installed.

José: “Clients of my gardening advisory business kept coming to me and showed me a pot of herbs that they had bought in a supermarket. They were trying to keep it alive, but it kept dying. That’s how I started showing people how to look after plants no matter how much space or light they have at home. I myself am always a learner and a teacher at the same time, which is why everything is full of experiments here. The first rule is: no plants like growing alone. Just like us humans. Logically, that is the start of biological diversity, and it is needed even in the smallest of spaces.”

The perfumes of basil, chives, thyme and balm fill the conservatory. One wall is full of leaves and herbs; it consists of a vertical garden made of clay. On the surface, it looks like crates stacked on top of each other, but it is a single container holding soil and an invisible watering system. “Everything is connected so the roots can spread out. It’s also important to plant the herbs that need the most light at the top and those with the biggest leaves at the bottom, so that they all have enough light.”

It’s not only green in the well-lit conservatory. On the ceiling of the rather dark living room, herbs planted in the barks of cork trees hanging from the ceiling give the room a special atmosphere. What you might think was a skylight is in fact a plant light. In his indoor gardens, José has automated the supplies of water and light so that everything runs by itself once the planting has been done.

Heart of the revival

But, from the outset, the heart of his revival of Porches was the garden. “When I laid it out, people shook their heads,” he recalls. “Of course they thought I was mad and exotic: the dancer from New York who takes so much trouble over one single hectare when I have many hundreds at my disposal.” Behind a stone wall close to the main house, there’s a patchwork of small beds with a colourful mixture of vegetables, herbs, shrubs and trees – and lots of flowers. A small stream flowing directly from a spring is used for irrigation. “The garden looks different in each season and it produces different fruit. It feeds me and my family and guests. I have the fruits turned into jams and sold.”

What he would like most would be to supply one or two restaurants – provided that they are prepared to restrict themselves to the produce of each season. “That is something we simply have to learn again for good nutrition: tomatoes and peppers in January are simply not natural. Instead, there are lots of other good things.” José and his partner now advise landowners all over Portugal and create permaculture gardens. Whenever clients want to find out about their options, he takes them through the farm and the garden. There is plenty of inspiration, such as the illuminated washing place for vegetables – a little gem made of wood and ceramic. José: “There are lots of advantages to washing the vegetables straight away in the garden: the kitchen isn’t filled with earth and dirt; and the soil and unusable parts of the vegetables stay in the garden, where they don’t produce waste but are composted again.”

José’s garden is designed for harmony, also with the creatures that we normally call pests. “Of course I have to do something if there are too many snails or other creatures that do damage in the garden. But I don’t see them as enemies; I don’t hunt them down, rather I try to be as friendly as possible towards them and to create another place for them in nature which they can move to. They’ve been here longer than I have. They are homeless now and don’t need our hate, but lots of friendship. I am convinced that we will only have a positive future if we learn to observe the laws of nature. And I am absolutely certain about one law: what we do to nature will rebound on us. And so it’s worth being friendly towards its creatures.”

The evening is well advanced, the wood has almost burned away. But no one wants to turn in before José has told everyone about his big dream: building up a community. “It would be wonderful to bring this land back to life again with people, especially with young families and children. I have already found a piece of land for that, a nice plot near the river where we are already planting indigenous trees. I have lots of friends in Lisbon who would love to move to the country, but the leap from the life that they lead at present is too big. They have to create an existence for themselves in the countryside.
That’s why I suggest a community of weekend farmers as a transitional solution. Every family that wants to join in commits itself to participating on two weekends per month. Together we will then build up all the houses – from mud, wood, with straw – and lay out the gardens. People can then gradually build up their livelihoods and professions until the leap is no longer so big – and they can come here unreservedly. Then Porches will live again.”

*A montado is an agricultural ecosystem based on cork oak forests in the Alentejo.
**(Willing Workers on Organic Farms – volunteers and travellers who earn board and lodging from several hours’ work a day on organic farms – the global network can be found by searching for wwoofer on the internet)

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