Tag Archives: why I like Ecuador

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.

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.