GROW Observatory

I moved into El Parral in the summer of 2016. The south-facing estate of small terraces with fruit trees and pines, dropping down a steep valley to the dry bed of the Xarquer, had been suffering from the regional drought that began in 2012.  The house and land had been up for sale for about ten years and very little had been done to care for the land.

May 2016: olive trees on the plot that would become the main terrace for the donkeys. There are no weeds between the trees: it is a desert.

The fruit trees were dry and many were dead.  An enormous amount of industrial grade weedkiller had been used on the upper terraces around the house.  Evidence for this was found in empty cannisters and spraying equipment in the shed, but can clearly be seen in the photograph above.

The lowest terrace down in the valley has citrus trees. More evidence of heavy weedkiller use: very little vegetation between the trees.

The terrace in the valley this year has become a flourishing meadow of many different varieties of grasses, poppies and herbs.  Possibly the unusually heavy rains of December and January have washed the soil free of chemicals.  In contrast, the upper terraces have more impacted soil and water went into surface runoff rather than penetrating deeper into the soil.

The top terrace contains my kitchen garden. Apart from some mangetout and broad beans, very little has flourished here in my autumn and spring crops.  I believe it is seriously damaged soil: hit by years of drought and also ruined by extensive use of weedkillers.

I had already decided upon a plan of action and constructed my first raised bed in spring 2017: this was largely filled with donkey manure and kept 20 centimetres above the level of the damaged soil.  At present this is planted with tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, courgette and a grape vine, and serves as a control section of the garden: it can then be compared with other parts of the garden on the native soil, sown with the same plants at the same time.

The contrast is already obvious!  Everything planted on the raised bed is flourishing.  Other crops around the garden are either not growing at all or showing minimal signs of growth.

GROW Plants

So, that’s where I had got to when I found out about GROW and started the online course “From soil to sky” on FutureLearn:

Here’s what it’s about, from their introduction:  “Become a citizen scientist and help improve your soil and the environment…”

“Where can you find all sorts of useful and important information about your environment? You might be surprised to know it’s beneath your feet, in the soil. On this course you will discover interesting things about your own soil and become part of the new GROW Citizen Observatory European-wide community. You will collaborate with other growers and scientists to discover the impact global soil practices have on major issues like the environment and food growing.  Now is the time to make a difference, join us, improve your soil and become a citizen scientist.”

And so I begin a new and more scientific approach to my attempts to manage and recover this estate, and grow my own food.  It is great to have outside input into my work on this land.  It is also really useful to have the interaction with other people working in a wide variety of climate and soil types.

From Monday when this course finishes, the project will go live on the following website:  I will be posting my data to that site but I will also keep a copy of all my work here on the blog, with a new drop down menu of GROW pages.


To see the site use the following coordinates in Google maps, centred on my kitchen garden. 38.584508, -0.253866