Jean Marc Pace
The Prickly-Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a ubiquitous sight on the arid Mediterranean Islands of Malta. It is often planted along field margins to mark boundaries between one plot to another. Introduced from Mexico, it was quickly embraced in Malta and the Mediterranean for its hardiness in drought conditions and ease of cultivation. The benefits of planting Opuntia along field margins are several. Under Opuntia hedges, soil physical properties, nitrogen, organic matter, and water-holding capacity considerably improve, while the vast and deep root network stabilizes soils and reduces erosion and runoff. The hardy cactus also withstands severe winds and acts as an effective windbreak, particularly on exposed terraced farms.
At the start of the growing season, mature leaves are harvested from nearby Opuntia hedges and placed in the ground so that crop seedlings are sheltered from the dominant wind direction and shaded from the harsh Mediterranean sun (Photo 1). This way, a favourable microclimate for the crop seedlings is created. Combined with drip irrigation systems, this maximizes water use efficiency and reduces unproductive evaporation. Once the crops are well established, farmers remove the leaves before they take root. The leaves are often discarded along the field margins, where they either take root and strengthen the field boundary or decompose, releasing retained moisture and nutrients in the process.
Are you interested in learning more ways to create favourable microclimates for crop production? Stay tuned as MetaMeta and Practical Action Publishing publish the book ‘Managing the Local Climate’ this fall. This book shows how to positively affect the local climate and agroecological conditions with local interventions.
 Le Houérou, H. N. (1996). “The role of cacti (Opuntia spp.) in erosion control, land reclamation, rehabilitation and agricultural development in the Mediterranean Basin”. Journal of Arid Environments. 33(2): 135–159. https://doi.org/10.1006/jare.1996.0053