All posts by xanthipp

The Eternal Food Forest


In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, til thou return unto the ground– Genesis 3:19 KJV
 What was gardening like before the Lord kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden? In this valley things grow that seem to belong in Eden.  There are in fact bean trees, called Guatos; big trees on which hang long, thick green pods. Inside them are beans the size of chestnuts, delicious and rich in minerals.  No hoeing and hilling. Just reach and pluck.  There are papas del aere; climbing perennial vines on which grow strange angular potatoes. No digging or scrubbing.  There are chayotes; perennial squash vines. No stem borers. There are fruit trees that flower and fruit at the same time; any time picking.  Many vegetables turn perennial because of the eternally springlike climate and the unchanging day length. I have seen 4 year old Lacinato Kale. Three different kinds of blackberries grow off and on year round. Strawberries never quit. Bees always have flowers to work. It’s magical permaculture.

Maybe He decided to cut the indigenous folk here some slack.  Last Saurday I was talking to Victor, an Ecuadorian with Saraguro roots, who wears his long, glossy black hair in a thick braid.  He and his wife run an organic vegetable store by the bus station. They have a big farm up on a mountain near Sacapo where it is a lot wetter and cooler than it is in Santorum, so their cabbages are amazing.

“Here we don’t have this tradition of conserving food the way you do. We can just go eat what is growing. My father used to keep some dry beans and corn for the rainy season but that was all we did for conserving.”  He picks up a handful of fresh beans to shell, mottled pink and yellow pods, and continues.

“Before the Spanish came we didn’t really have to plow. We didn’t have wheat, or chickens, or pigs.  Before the Incas we didn’t even have corn.  We ate what was on the trees.” I imagine Victor and his wife as Adam and Eve, Gauguin style, wandering through the pre-Colombian forest, an eternal food forest in the Garden of Eden.

As someone who back in the US kept about three years worth of home canned tomatoes in stock, I am flabbergasted, and a little outdone. No canning? What do you actually DO all summer? Tomatoes without labor? There are actually tree tomatoes here- tomates de arbol. Of course, tree tomatoes are actually not real tomatoes, but are known in the rest of the world as tamarillos. Tomatoes themselves are a little tricky here, although they are perennial, because they are so attractive to pests and pathogens.

I walk through the property with a small pot of maracuya seeds and a short length of rebar. Maracuya is passion fruit, a hollow fruit the size and color of a large lemon, with a delicious, fragrant, sour, seedy pulp inside it that makes an incredible juice, jam, or glaze. If you like sour, you can just slurp it up. If you don’t, try its cousin the granadilla, which is even easier to eat because it cracks open with a push of a finger. These are so easy to plant. I just twist up some wet seeds on the tip of the rebar and grind a hole in the earth at the base of a tree. A few weeks later I come back and thin the weaker seedlings away. The big glossy leaved vines race up the trees and create a perennial canopy of the famously intricate flowers the missionaries used to explain Christ’s wounds and His passion, followed by the delicious fruits.

Today I walked around making holes in the soft ground and dropping in papaya  seedlings. I am told they don’t like being transplanted because they have a taproot, but I felt bad for the seedlings I was thinning. After cutting up a papaya for fruit salad, I scooped the round, peppery seeds, which are a good vermifuge, into a jar and threw it in my market basket. Later I dropped them in a trench in  a garden bed. It is usually better to direct seed these short-lived trees, but I was in a hurry as rain was coming. So we will have to see. Drop some seeds on the ground after you eat the fruit, and in less than a year you have a tree with fruit on it.

A year ago I planted seeds for avocadoes, cherimoyas, guanabanas, and mangoes. A few weeks ago I planted white sapotes, regular orange sapotes, and jackfruit. My friend Liz has guanabanas in her garden she planted from seed five years ago that are bearing fruit.  Mangoes and avocadoes take longer. So if you are in a really big hurry you can graft a bud chip onto the ones you grow from seeds, and then it will be 2 years more. Tops. Last week I admired a tiny guanabana fruit growing on a three month old graft in the garden of Don Vincente, who cuts keys and putters in his garden down by the Chamba river.

Our friend Curtis, who lives on the same mountaintop as Victor, surrounded by giant dahlia trees, and complains about Victor’s cows coming into his garden, taught me how to graft. You just get a seedling about as thick around as your little finger, and cut a twig about the same thickness off the tree that you want to get fruit from. You find a fat bud on the bud stick; not really a bud, but the swelling place on the twig where the leaf attaches and a future twig would sprout, and cut that out in a curving slice about an inch long. You go back to the seedling and cut a T shaped cut into the bark, and, using the corners of the cutr knife tip, lift the bark away from the wood carefully. Then you slide the bud down into the cut, trim off whatever is sticking out the top, and wrap it tightly with grafting tape. Or in Ecuador, a torn off strip of flimsy plastic from a sandwich bag. I am going to check my cherimoyas next week and see if the grafts have taken. They feel plump. If they have taken, I will unwrap them and wait for the bud to break dormancy, watering if it doesn’t rain. After the bud becomes a shoot I will remove the top of the original seedling so all the strength goes to making the grafted shoot the new top. Some plants exhibit what is called apical dominance. I noticed that my avocado shoot wasn’t growing much so I cut off the rest of the original seedling, which was higher than the graft, and it took off.

I await the return of Alan from Japan, as he has the weirdest and most magical  collection of fruit trees in his garden, icluding the incredibly sweet jackfruit tree, the fruit of which weighs 10-12 pounds, which requires the tree to be cabled together, or it will tear apart. It is a brown, spiky monster about the size of a baby, and if one falls on your head, you’re a goner.

However, right now I want to ask him for a piece of budwood from his Pomelo. This is a giant citrus fruit from Thailand that looks like a grapefruit only twice as big. The one he gave us was green inside, like a lime, but had grapefruit flavor, only sweeter than an orange, and has absolutely no seeds. When one of my orange trees lost a graft, I knew just what I would graft on in its place! I am growing out some kumquat seeds he gave me as well.

As for bread, and the sweat of my brow, well, we do have some plantain trees growing, and those make nice tortas, especially with a little cheese mixed in, but I think I will just go buy some wheat flour. And then, if we ever do follow through and get our friend from Tuscany to build us a brick oven outdoors, I will do my face sweating then.

Hope Springs, Patience Wells

My great, great grandmother’s maiden name was Patience Wells.  I grew up sleeping in a spool bed made of Black Walnut from her Texan walnut bottom.  A walnut bottom, which I think was her dowry, is a low, flat place which has enough water to support good growth of walnut trees.  It was worth quite a bit. My great grandfather thought he had probably been born in that bed.  But she died young, and he grew up an orphan, raised by his older sister along with another six brothers and sisters. This wonderful name to me is forever linked to the bed. It is true that if hope springs, patience wells. I have needed a lot of it in the last few years, and the slow, seeping well of patience hasn’t let me down yet. Maybe it comes from Patience. Her name is all I know of her.

Finally we have gotten something to eat from the property. Today my friends Val and Dek helped me bring roof tiles up to the bodega and I was able to offer them a big bag of lettuce.  I am learning how the rainy season affects the garden. Some things, like my looseleaf lettuce, go wild with the unlimited rain in good  sandy soil. I say good, because it drains and is rich in minerals.  Apparently heading vegetables, like Napa cabbage, may rot. And now that we have put irrigation on the beds, the lettuces may continue into the dry season, if the rock edges protect them sufficiently from the winds that will come soon. If they don’t, I can stretch cheap shade cloth across the beds and that may do it. The rain also means that any slopes of recently worked loose soil will gully, so we lay down rows of rocks with small angular pebbles to block openings underneath, and the next rain terraces it. The idea is to slow the flow of water so that it can absorb into the soil more deeply, and not carry off nutrients; big terraces like the one in the picture as well as tiny ones perpendicular to water flow.

In the other beds I have planted kale, dill, basil, mustard, arugula, okra, pretty runner beans, a few Prudence Purple tomato plants donated by a friend, papaya seedlings, artichokes, and Guato, which is a bean tree!  Leafcutter ants ate the okra. I put out a sulfamide bait resembling smoke- smelling mouse turds, which they happily gathered up and carried back to their secret mushroom beds. The sulfamide isn’t toxic to us but it is anti-fungal so it destroys the ant nests that are feeding on my garden.  They aren’t actually eating the baby okra- just cutting it up to feed their fungus farms.  It worked; I planted more okra and they are still standing! There is hope yet.

Walking as Community

One day at breakfast my husband and I were back on the subject of a car, and whether to get one in Ecuador. Or a quad, or a bike.  As the song goes, “… here I am standing with nothing but a rubber heel….’

As Americans, we are used to being a 2-car family. Here having a car at all is a rarity. Partly it is because people are poorer and new cars are taxed heavily as imported goods.  This makes used cars the only real option for the 99%, so they are relatively expensive.  A used car is rarely priced below $6000, and a ten year old SUV can easily cost $14,000. Of course the import tax zero sense since Ecuador doesn’t manufacture cars, and cars, especially trucks, are a way to move things around and maybe even step out of poverty.  But most Ecuadorians have trouble coming up with even that much, and while I don’t really understand credit here, the easy car loan does not exist. Mainly people pay cash or not at all.

Of course that means that if you have a used car and you keep it nice, you can sell it with little depreciation in value.  However the paperwork involved in keeping a car here is massive, driving conditions are not always optimal, and police can be predatory.  Welcome to the rest of the world.

Here in Vilcabamba most people walk , take the bus, or take a cab.  Sometimes a horse or a donkey.  Having a car is a luxury, but might be worth it to us since our property is five miles out of town and it would be lovely to be able to sling the groceries in the back, along with a few hundred pounds of cement, and toodle on home. Actually, I’d love to take a ride around South America with the option to stop, take detours, etc. I’m used to cruising across the USA, AC blasting, radio on, cruise control, nobody bothering me, good roads, stopping for food and bathroom when I need to.

But really there is a lot to be said for the South American way. I am a lot fitter because I walk everywhere. Hills that used to make my legs ache now pass under me like nothing, carrying bags that I used to put down every ten minutes. Buses are a great way to see the country, and you meet the nicest people. But what really struck me this morning is that cars are part of separation consciousness. God gave us legs to walk over to each other. I can’t walk outside for five minutes here without bumping into a friend and sharing the time of day. It takes me five times as long to go anywhere, mainly because I stop to chat with five people.  Amen.

Nibbling at the Edges

Staring at the formless void of the entire job, my husband looked a bit bleak. I had spent hours imagining various landscaping ideas. But as our friend Bill Salomon said of housebuilding, in the end, it builds itself. Form follows function. One day at a time, Poco a poco. Whatever.

We decided on two driveways; one upper one lower. The bottom entrada needed a ramp, so we made one using a bulldozer. That created the need for two retaining walls.  “Huh, that looks messy and if water comes down that gully it will erode the driveway. Bet some rocks would help.”

The first one I built myself, laying one rock on top of the other, puzzling out how they fit together solidly until somehow it became a sitting height wall. Then we backfilled it and started planting.

Francelin looked at it, smiled kindly, or maybe smirked,  and started making more walls where earth might otherwise slide or an edge needed tidying.  Needless to say, his are much finer than mine, especially since he can maneuver rocks weighing  more than he does with the delicacy and precision of a Japanese netsuke master, using only his hands and a large baretta.

I walked in one day and there where there had been only a weeded slope was a tidy little bench terrace. So I filled it with walking iris, succulent flowering sedum, and pineapple plants. Then we put in a massive dry rock wall to hold the driveway, and it seemed logical to terrace and put in a bed to use the earth that had been between the rocks.  The place that is windiest seems a good place for lavender, but further in, I need to start some things to eat, like kale and lettuce, and then there need to be some things to hold the slope, and my friend has some coffee plants that a client is ripping out, that are bigger than mine. A jump start on having our own coffee. So bit by bit the area around the road in is taking shape.

Thanks to photographer Gloria Davis

Semillas and Hijos

Semillas are seeds, but the top of a pineapple is a semilla, because you strip off the bottom inch of leaves and plant it. Some people here say you can only plant the small side shoots that occasionally appear on pineapples, like a pineapple with two or even five little tops on it. I have never seen them in the US, so perhaps they are removed before shipping.

Ok so abandoning the zapallo/pumpkin as cover crop idea at least amongst the bananas. The coffee I seeded last year is ready to be interplanted, and pumpkins would drown them. Plus I am putting in pineapples. I spent the morning planting pineapples from scavenged semillas along the edge of our most dramatic vegetable garden-dizzying cliffside river view. Some say the tops are all you need; others say only the small extra shoots on the tops of the pineapples are any good. My semi controlled experiment is going. I lifted a particularly miserable looking one I planted last week and the roots are just started, so I stuck it back.
My friend Annemiek showed up on her motorcycle and walked around with me looking at the various projects, then whizzed off and returned with a bag of cuttings which we stuck in along the terrace garden behind my rock wall- as opposed to the superior rock walls made by Francelin Tacuri, our man of all work. I love people who love working.
She is pulling out some healthy mature coffee plants for a client and I wondered if they could be transplanted if they are that big. It would give us a jump on the homegrown coffee dream we have.

Pedasos are cuttings, or “pieces.” Here the climate is so perfect that if you stick a piece of a plant in the dirt during the rains, it will grow. It’s magic.

That’s how we grow our living fences, the cercas. Ours is made of the 1-2 inch thick branches that are trimmed off mature fences made of porotillos. Porotillos are leguminous- pea family- and have bright red flowers and scarlet beanlike seeds. They are much favored by hummingbirds.

Everybody in the world probably knows you can stick a coleus in a bottle of water and it will root, and of course succulents are unsurprising that way, but here I just make a hole in the earth with a piece of rebar I keep on hand, and slip in a cutting and keep it watered for a few days. All kinds of marvelous flowers work that way. Golden Glow, Frangipani, crotons, ciruelas, Joshua trees, poinsettia. There are less exceptions than not. I have been told Bougainvillia is impossible, although I did root one in a wine bottle. We will try with Rootone, which is generally unknown here. I am told that a slurry of germinated and fermented lentils will work.

But first you have to make the beds, and we have about the rockiest soil I have ever seen…..

Letters Home

 

Today I picked up rocks and piled them for an hour, then walked around planting cuttings of some kind of pretty sedum and also some croton and a lovely vine that grows huge and has big blue trumpets. Then I went to check on Francelin, who had cleared an area under the faique trees right by the river. He was throwing the rocks off the cliff when I saw that there was a sort of topography that we could line the rocks along and make some irregularly shaped terraces. We had it roughed out in under an hour and it looked magical. It was just about quitting time and we were discussing what to do the next day. I was remembering the enormous spreading avocado tree at the Rendez Vous B and B in Vilcabamba, so I said we should plant a big avocado tree. Francelin thought a mango would be better for shade. I decided we should plant a non-grafted mango, one that will grow to full size. Francelin reminded me that it would be years before we saw fruit, but we have plenty of room to plant grafted trees, and I have a pit-grown sapling ready to go. I said, let’s plant that one, and it can fruit after we are dead. They get as big as an oak. Who would eat the fruit, he asked, your kids? I don’t know, I hope so, but I hope it will someday be an enormous dark green tree covered in sweet rosy mangoes.

 

Terraforming

All I really need is for the river to allow me two trucks and a bulldozer. Maybe three trucks. I need gravel (grava) and coarse sand (arena gruesa) for the foundation of the toolhouse, and fine sand (arena fina) to mix mortar. My bricks will be fired in ten days, says my ladrillero, so no rush on the fine sand, says the maestro. I say rush, as the river may abate on a day that the road is blocked by a landslide, or the bulldozer operator has a toothache, or there is a week-long fiesta. The bulldozer has to carry all of our leftover supplies from building the pumphouse up to the bodega site, and tidy up all the mess at the site.  After that all the bulldozer has to do is flatten a few areas, push a few piles of rocks, and dig out some terraces.

All it has to do, say I, with desperate optimism. Actually I am pretty nervous about the terraforming. The topography of the land is rather lovely, but it doesn’t hold the water long enough, so the objective of the bulldozing is to help with permaculture, but without wanton destruction and burying of topsoil.  There are two driveways; one at the bottom and one at the top. The rock piles from the building of the road present the first dilemma. Either they should be shoved over to the boundary fence, which is made up of live young porotilios, for eventual use on a stone boundary wall, or they should be pulled down to the next level to broaden the top of the hill. The downside of the first option is that I may hurt the porotilios, which were planted last year and will be a live fence, in order to plan for a stone wall that I may never get around to. The downside to the second option is that the breadth I add to the top of the hill may need years to stabilize, and may just be a big mess. I’d like the top of the hill to be a possible home site, because the view is spectacular, and it is convenient to the road so we wouldn’t need to big driveway destroying land.  So that is something I hope will be resolved by facts I don’t have yet.

About 20 meters in from the top entrance, the land drops a little. If I were to flatten the whole area, it would make for a pretty homesite. However if we did less damage, it would make a lovely split level site, which the property really lends itself to. My conclusion on this is that if we do less damage now, we can change our minds later. So all I really need to do is deal with the big row of rocks from the road building that was done years ago, and flatten the area enough to start landscaping the entrance.

1/15/2017

We managed to get one more day in before the rains swelled the river again. All the materials have been carried up from the lower site where we built the pumphouse. All sand. coarse sand, rocks, and bricks have been delivered. We had to break the bricks into half loads in a smaller truck so that we wouldn’t exceed the bridge’s 5 ton limit.

2/1/2017

Bodega built, small argument about a price increase on the roof welding, doors and windows fabricated and installed.

Leaping over Flaming Effigies

For some reason, fireleaping is something that people do all over the world. As I taped a cut slice of aloe leaf over a drunken friend’s leg that had burnt sneaker embedded in it, I thought abut the reasons why. Mainly fireleapers are men, so that would argue for a demonstration of physical courage and agility designed to increase manly standing within the tribe. Then I wondered why women didn’t leap over fires more often. Is it because physical courage and agility are more valued in hunters, who were mainly male in ancient cultures, whereas women were gatherers, which requires a different sort of discernment and caution? The leapers I have seen were mainly teenage boys, older guys trying to prove they hadn’t aged, and drunks, all trying to prove their strength and agility to watching women.  Although to be fair, I did see two girls leap over a fire the other night, laughing, and I do believe they may have been trying to impress the watching young men.

How the town of Vilcabamba has so many fiestas I do not know. This small Ecuadorian town shoots off more fireworks than a good sized city in China. And since the number of saints who demand fireworks  seems to exceed the number of days in the year,  there are explosions all the time. I was thinking, since the transformer across from one of the places we like to eat breakfast keeps up a merry sizzle during the rains, that it was transformers going off, but no, it’s enthusiasm.  And that’s just fireworks. All of a sudden things are closed, men are setting up a huge portable stage in from of the church, unloading giant stacks of amplifiers, young men are checking sound at absolute full volume, musicians are unfolding from vans. And then all night the square is packed with whole families dancing and passing around bottles, children whizzing around, and old ladies selling hot fruit punch. “Con trago?” they whisper- and then they add a healthy shot of punta, the local cane liquor.

The best fiestas include wearable fireworks.

 

Who’ll Stop the Rain

 

In Ecuador seasons are either wet or dry. While occasionally the rainy season here in the sierras can feel hotter because of the humidity, it really isn’t. It is cool and pleasant at night, just right for a light blanket, and sometimes the pattering on the roof is just what I need to fall asleep. The mist rising out of the newly greened mountains in the morning is lovely, and the rivers rush down…..the streets.

Sometimes it rains so hard the locals say it is a lavado. A wash. No time to soak in.  A heavy rain in Vilcabamba rolls golf ball sized rocks down the street. Families without the traditional horse-mounting high sidewalks brush gravel off their porches. Storm drains?  Ha! Somebody had that clever idea who either wasn’t from here or just wanted the work. All storm drains are full to the top with gray sand. From our apartment I can see the street turn into a fast moving river. Of course is it gone in less than an hour, leaving the street sandy but clean.

Out at the property it is a different matter. Our bridge is big and has aletas, wings, so the river won’t get behind it, but the rains bring huge amounts of water down from the Podocarpus National Park. The river becomes wild and muddy, and not until it drops below a certain big square boulder can we bring across it the trucks and heavy machinery that exceed the bridge’s weight limit. You see my problem. Had it not been for Burrocracia, we would have gotten all the construction and terraforming done before the rains.  Now we wait with bated breath for a day and a night without rain. If that happens, we pressure the operators and pray that they won’t blow us off for a bigger client. Not everybody has our particular set of issues, so I am hoping for tomorrow or the next day, -like I always do.

All I really need is for the river to allow me two trucks and a bulldozer. Maybe three trucks. I need gravel (grava) and coarse sand (arena gruesa) for the foundation of the toolhouse, and fine sand (arena fina) to mix mortar. My bricks will be fired in ten days, says my ladrillero, so no rush on the fine sand, says the maestro. I say yes to rush, as the river may abate on a day that the road is blocked by a landslide, or the bulldozer operator has a toothache, or there is a week-long fiesta. The bulldozer has to carry all of our leftover supplies from building the pumphouse up to the bodega site, and tidy up all the mess at the site.  After that all the bulldozer has to do is flatten a few areas, push a few piles of rocks, and dig out some terraces.

All it has to do, say I, with desperate optimism. Actually I am pretty nervous about the terraforming, see post. But days go by, demoras after demoras. Sometimes it is the rain, and sometimes it is a polite lie. Today the sky is as blue as the flag of Bavaria, and the soft fresh breeze barely stirs the branches of the nispero tree in front of my window. I may ask my neighbors if they would like to go get some deadwood for their pizza oven. We are in Ecuador. Poco a poco.

Demoras

Poco a poco. Little by little. Along with “siga no mas,” this seems to be the Ecuadorian knee jerk placatory reaction to most situations. For me, an American, born of a German mother, descended from Prussian generals, it is a source of hair loss. Another thing happens that is un-be-lievable. Poco a poco, says somebody. I smile politely, choking off a rabid scream.

However, I need to be kind. This is not my country; I am a guest here. I will be reasonable and understanding. Poco a poco is actually similar to my mother’s family motto: festina lente. Slowly but well. Festina is a cognate to English fast; not rapid, but secure, as in “hold fast to that which is good.” In general Ecuadorian construction guys work fast, and sometimes well, as in any country.  What really drives me mad is the bureacracy. Burrocracia.

However, I don’t need to be a fool. Need to sign off so I can call my lawyer to see if she followed through on the permit for the bodega which was supposed to be included with the permit for the casita for which I paid the $250 bribe two months ago.