When 2 Worlds Meet – The Ecotones of Bringing Together Local and Global Knowledge

As I said in previous posts, I spent a little time on Ometepe in Nicaragua. This post is about my time spent with the local gardeners.

The hostel I was working at, Little Morgan’s Hostel is run by a guy called Morgan (the father of Little Morgan). Morgan is the kind of man that continuously makes you raise your eyebrows in heartfelt surprise at the many tricks of knowledge he has up his sleeve. On the face of it, his hostel appears as a drinking haunt for half-arsed backpackers trawling the same trail as all the other fish in the sea. But when you look slightly closer at the inner sense of community within his circles, you see a glorious mix of locals and internationals intermingling to get all the jobs done and Morgan flitting between them all with equal understanding, appreciation, and eagerness for each.

When I first suggested to him that I come down and build a garden for his restaurant, I was aware that his whole site was a menagerie of tropical trees and flowers planted himself. However, when I first visited a year ago, I wasn’t looking through permaculture lenses so in reality the true depth of the intricacies of his plantings had never occurred to me. No doubt it doesn’t occur at all to the backpackers who travel through there, distracted by the excitement of their short breaks from regular life, juiced up on alcohol and adrenaline from all the wonderful places they’ve swooped through. It’s not fair to say people don’t notice the beauty, but they don’t necessarily notice the multifunctionality of the beautiful site; me included.

DSC04030.JPGHowever, this time around I was entering with a new perspective and a different purpose. This enabled me to pop on my observation googles to notice what was hiding among the jungle chaos of the place. I was headed to build a garden on a spot which had previously been used for growing, but had become overgrown. Before I even got to the garden, I noticed that the bar itself is surrounded by a plethora of fruit trees and various other edibles. Mangoes, pineapples, squashes, coconuts, bananas, and plantains are casually hanging around dripping with goodies, and that’s just from a quick glance. And you can’t miss the animals mingling in and churning that soil while grabbing belly rubs from the patrons.

DSC04642.JPGThe thing is that the intricate density of all the green that splurges across this climate and landscape is difficult to comprehend. You need to have a helping hand. Often in permaculture we can be a little…let’s say…know-it-all. The principles set out by Bill Mollison and David Holgrem have served as a fantastic manual for working; the issue is that often we butt heads with local people when we come in with our white people club of new age farmers and tell them how they should be doing it. I’m not doubting the validity and excellence of permaculture and regenerative agricultural methods, but nobody knows the land better than the people who have had their hands in it every day of their lives.

I’ll be honest, when Morgan introduced me to the garden guys, I was intimidated. These guys have done this every day in the blistering heat, wearing jeans and knocking back whisky while they get the job done. Not only that, they built the myriad of phenomenal structures from the very garden they grew.

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Source:volanthevistI couldn’t see them really taking my ideas, physical self, or vision seriously. While we want to think that our brand of feminism is the way forward, there’s no escaping the fact that traditionally, women do not work in the fields here. I was prepared for them to reject my capabilities. I was wrong.

They welcomed me into their team with open arms and spent a great deal of their precious time working with me to teach me some of the intricacies of the land and some of their knacks. But it didn’t stop there.

To begin with, it was a very macho experience; them trying to take the hard labour out of my hands, somehow humouring me with my little gardening fancies. But before long and as my Spanish developed, it became an exchange of friends and it ignited an interest in all of us.

It first started with the oldest guy in the crew, Chefan. Chefan tried to put an insect repellant on the soil and I nearly exploded with desperation. I didn’t want to insult him but I wanted to grow organically and I wanted to test the methods I’d be taught. I politely and in the most restrained way I could, asked him not to. I will never forget the look he gave me. The pause of a man who had lived many lives while never having left that island. The pause of a man who’d seen a million faces shit all over his culture and suddenly see one who wanted more than cheap plastic and throwaway touism. He cracked this smile so wide that I could have fit a boat in his mouth. He gestured for me to come with him and pointed to a neem tree, handing me the longest machete I’d ever seen and signalling that he’d give me a boost. When an indigenous Ometepian pulls you into their fold and tells you to climb that tree, guess what you’re doing. Up the tree I went and retrieved some neem. He put the neem, some garlic, and some of the local brain-blowing chilies in a bucket and we left it over night. We sprayed this all over the ground and plants and I had no bugs (for a while, this is the tropics, not Never Never Land!). He later laughed about how his Grandfather taught him this but he’d never used it and was amazed it had worked.

It only escalated from there. Chefan came to one night with the head builder, Luiz, and they said to me: ‘I see the fire in your eyes’. And we talked. Over whisky and tears we spilled our hearts. Luiz explained to me about how Chefan and himself bring young boys to come and work at the hostel to teach them about empowerment. No doubt you have seen the raucous of politics happening in Nicaragua right now; this was at the backbone of everything they were teaching. They taught these young boys to plant the seeds, grow the trees, design the building, choose the right branch, and build from it. They taught them to utilise what nature gives them, not to control it or break it or bend it to one’s will, but to work with it and create from it. They taught them to be empowered by the land, not to try and take power over it. They taught them that they didn’t need an oppressive regime if they could take care of everything themselves and until they could, they had no business fighting that regime (that’s a story for another time).

From here on in, these two older men had the younger men work with me. They explained that of they taught me the hands on sneaky tricks, I would teach them the science. I taught them to rebuild the terraces along contour to preserve water.

DSC04608 (1).JPGThey taught me to grow yard beans along the fences to keep weeds out, I taught them to stake yucca as the fence. They taught me to pierce pigs noses to stop them rooting, I taught them to use the pigs to root the pesky bindweed first. They cut down the overgrowth while I made them hot sauce from the local chilies. They taught me to plant my nursery in a bed of ashes, I taught them to create guilds to protect the tomatoes from fungus. They taught me the native plants and I taught them the names in English.

DSC04615.JPGOne day, when I was suffering from conjunctivitis and everyone was throwing back antibiotic drops, they made me an eye wash from witchhazel.

I taught them to look for the signs of pests and adjust the carbon to nitrogen. They taught me that the jungle will do what it will, and to eat what grew and enjoy it.

I spent many a night discussing philosophy and corporations with them. I will never forget the tears in Larry’s eyes when he was sure he was crazy, trying desperately to explain his own personal observations of how pesticides seem to affect the land and how nobody seemed to believe him. He’d never left the island, he doesn’t have the internet, he knows nothing about the worldwide anger raging about the use of these products; he just knew what he saw and drew his own conclusions. The wholehearted embrace that he gave me when I explained about Monsanto was like I’d put his mind at peace.

It wasn’t just knowledge they gave me. They gave me their hearts, their community. They had their wives teach me Spanish and how to cook. They shared stories and introduced me to their families.

Between us we grew a garden that managed to create some of the most delicious recipes I’d ever tasted, making that restaurant a bit more sustainable. Between us we managed to teach and learn and create. I thank them so deeply for those lessons and to me it’s proof that social diversity creates resilience, it creates strength. Because alone neither of us had the answers, but together, we killed it.

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5 Observations from my Tropical Garden

OK, so I have been working on this garden in Nicaragua for about a month now. It’s rainy season so it’s been a bit of a busy kafuffle trying to get everything ready before the big rains come. Due to this, there have been a great many changes to the garden very quickly. Here are a few things I’ve observed from working.

  1. Tropical rain is hard to deal with

When it comes to rainwater harvesting, the tropics have their own set of complications. While half the year it’s throwing rain out of the sky like a clown with a bucket, the other half is dry as a bone. While obviously we want harvest as much rainwater as we can in order to keep the plants satisfied in dry season, when that rain comes down in rainy season, it comes so thick and fast that the beds become saturated.

As some work had been done in one area before I came, I can actually compare the different methods used. The guys here had already transplanted tomato plants into terraces when I arrived, without preparing the soil. This means that when it rains, while the terraces help to halt the water, once the bed becomes full, it overflows and the soil starts the erode down the beds. However, I used sheet mulching with rice husks and weeds on the new beds I built. This not only suppresses the weeds, but it holds the water, absorbing it into the rice husks.

I have noticed a few things with this method. The soil isn’t eroding and the weeds are suppressed which means the seedlings seem to be sprouting up at record rate. With the tomatoes, you can see that some areas are more eroded than others, and in those eroded areas, the tomatoes are not growing so well or dying off; especially at the top of the bed.

I’m trying to combat this by laying rice husks down. It’s not impossible but it’s tedious to weave in and out of the plants. Rather than laying green mulch, I’m planting edible cover crops in between; some give nitrogen to the soil, some shade, some are simply weed suppressants, but all of them help to hold and harvest the water.

  1. The insects love anything non-native

When I first arrived here, I was fortunate enough to bump into Scott, one of the teachers at Rancho Mastatal. It was my first day here and his advice was invaluable. He told me that it’s hard to grow food here because the insects are ferocious. I was a little confused at first, because everyone has to eat, but then I realised he was referring to the kinds of vegetables we can easily grow in the UK.

I observed the garden to work out where the insects like to flock to and where they stay away. It became apparent very quickly that native plants were far more hardy to the attacks of the insects. I started to chat to the local guys to find out more about edible weeds and indigenous plants. They pointed me toward a wild bean, certain squashes, indian lettuce, wandering jew, cucaracha, katuk, chaya, and other such plants. I’ve been planting these in the garden and so far, they seem to be much more hardy. While the insects are slowly mauling the tomatoes, they tend to steer clear from these more native species.

The shows that part of permaculture is to think about how to adapt to your surroundings. While it’s great to have an iceberg lettuce for a solid BLT, using native edible leaves as lettuce is going to have a much higher success rate.

  1. The jungle will always try to take the land back

I’ve noticed that I need creative ways to keep the jungle back. Whether that’s using thick mulch or cover crops, it is important to suppress the weeds in order to intensively grow enough food. While I have of course worked in other gardens with weeds growing, the jungle is a different ballgame. If I weed a bed, leave the soil bare, and come back that evening, there will be weeds again.

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Right now I’m experimenting with all different ways. I’ve been planting lemongrass at the edges to use their dense root system to keep back weeds. I’ve also been planting squashes all around the patches, as their large leaves help to keep the weeds back using shade. Varying cover crops a will help me to work out which plants work best with with vegetables to keep the weeds back without affecting the growth of the veggies; the variety also increases the biodiversity.

  1. A decent plant nursery is essential

When I first got here, the garden guys were using plastic crates filled with soil as a plant nursery. There are a few issues with this that prevents seedling sprouting.

Firstly, the rain is so heavy that it leads to the box saturating and becoming swampy. There’s no places for it to drain. Equally, they used the same soil from the ground, without mixing in sand, making it difficult for things to root easily. Secondly, the boxes aren’t shaded and the blistering tropical sunshine leads to seedlings withering; they need some kind of shade.

This week I would like to try to create a plant nursery to start planting lettuce seedlings and peppers. I’m thinking of using plastic bottles as a means to harvest water and build it from bamboo, ensuring drainage, while also giving shade.

  1. Terracing creates a series of microenvironments

I’ve never worked so closely with terraces before and seeing them every day enables me to understand their power. With all gardens, different areas should be treated differently due to their ranging features; some areas have more shade, water, wind, light.

However, interestingly, by creating terraces, we have created several different areas to work with. The top of the terracing tends to get more flooded than the bottom, which doesn’t appear to make logical sense, but it does. This means that plants that like wet feet, tend to be doing better up there; such as lemongrass. With this observation, I planted yucca at the bottom (north). Planting it here was a conscious decision as its northern location means it won’t shade out the garden, but it is also quite drought hardy, so it would be fine with less water.

I have planted varying crops all over the place. As they grow or don’t, I will be able to see what does well together where and replicate this in similar areas. This planting and revision enables me to learn from what I’m dong and to re-evaluate the system to increase its productivity through pattern recognition. It’s frightfully interesting!