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Most problems can be resolved with the aid of a good book, and in this case a good gardening book, a soil test kit, a lot of patience and a bit of common sense

I had an interesting email from Joyce, a newly arrived expat, this week. Although I am often asked about issues relating to living and working in Spain and the Canary Islands, this question was unusual in that it asked me about gardening.

Joyce and her partner have just moved to the Canary Islands and were wondering what she could grow in the small, but much appreciated, garden at the front of her new home. Joyce was a keen gardener in the UK, yet was now concerned, because she didn’t just want to grow cactus, which she thought were the only plants that would grow in the desert-like conditions of the south of Gran Canaria.

I am no gardening expert, other than I know what I like and what I don’t like. As with most things, I am a firm believer that most problems can be resolved with the aid of a good book, and in this case a good gardening book, a soil test kit, a lot of patience and a bit of common sense should do the trick.

The more I thought about the question, the more I realised that I have learned quite a lot about gardening and plants whilst living on this lovely island. Admittedly, I have made many mistakes, with the most common being trying to grow plants that I liked when I lived in the UK.

Of course, the plants did not share the same point of view and would have none of it, and quickly shrivelled and died. A combination of soil type, lively winds, dusty dry heat and lack of water were the reasons for many of my failures, and so I began to look for plants that I could see growing in other gardens, which would also be suitable for our own.

Gardening is not as popular a pastime in Spain and the Canary Islands as it is in the UK; I often hear that gardening and the love of plants is a Brit thing. I have also noticed that when Spanish and Canarians move into a new home with a space for a garden, their first reaction is to tile over any remaining ground.

Admittedly, it is easier to keep clean, and ornate pots filled with plants can make all the difference. However, as a Brit, I like to see plants growing in the soil, albeit with the aid of a watering system beneath the surface of the soil, with the water supply controlled by a programmable timer to ensure that the plants don’t dry out during the very hot, dry days.

Our watering system switches on for two minutes, twice a day, during the winter months and for five minutes, twice a day, during the hot, summer months. The periods of hot winds are the worst time for plants, and this is why the choice of plants is so important for any garden.

I avoid prickly cactus, not that I don’t like them; I do, and many have beautiful, impressive flowers. However, our dog, Bella, tends to run into them when she is over exited or chasing a ball, and a dog with prickly cactus needles in her bottom is not a good idea.

Instead, I aim for lush succulents, and cactus without prickles. They are usually good value to buy and provide an interesting variety of shape and colour. Interestingly, roses also survive beautifully in our garden and they flower throughout the year. Unlike in the UK, I never have to spray them for black spot or any other disease that affects roses in many parts of the UK.

I cut them back heavily in January each year and give them a granular feed, and they reward us with a beautiful display of blooms throughout the year. Finding good quality roses to buy is not always easy on the island, but the garden centre that I use imports good stock from time to time, and I try to buy the scented varieties.

I have also found that lavender is a wonderful asset for a Canarian garden. They grow and flower vigorously, require little attention other than cutting back from time to time, and their heady perfume is enough to send flies, mosquitoes and other nasty insects heading in another direction.

My message to Joyce is to enjoy her Canarian garden, but to work with the soil, the plants and local growing conditions. There are plenty of plants that can be grown very successfully, but I would focus upon succulents, roses and lavender.

Also, don’t forget to plant Aloe Vera, which is often regarded as a weed and ignored. It is commonly known as the ‘First Aid Plant’, and for good reason. If you should scratch yourself whilst pruning the roses, breaking a piece off this wonderful plant and rubbing it over the wound, provides a soothing remedy that has been known and used by Canarians for generations.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: www.barriemahoney.com and www.thecanaryislander.com or read his book, ‘Expat Voice’ (ISBN: 9780992767174). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle, iBooks and Google Play editions.

iPhone/iPad and Android Apps: ExpatInfo, CanaryIsle and CanaryGay now available.

© Barrie Mahoney

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