June 2010


I decided about six weeks ago that I have lived for much too long now without a garden of my own, and it was time to put some of the tropical farming knowledge I’ve absorbed in a year and half in Nicaragua together with my years of farming experience from New England and start digging in the dirt.  Six weeks later, and I have…virtually nothing to show for my efforts.  Partly because of the limited time I can devote to it and mostly because it’s a losing battle against Green Iguanas and Leaf Cutter Ants.

First step was buying some basic gardening tools and attacking the back yard.

I decided to do a circular bed pattern, like the Mandala bed we designed for Long Lane Farm at Wesleyan University.  The beds are double excavated and mixed with compost from kitchen scraps I started six months ago.

I collect all the dry leaves from the yard and courtyard inside the house on the left, and then use them to layer the compost pile which I keep covered with a piece of black plastic. The “pile” is actually sunk in the ground to create direct access with microorganisms in the soil which will speed up the process.  It’s divided into halves – I fill the left hand side with kitchen scraps layered with weeds from the garden and dry leaves for a month.  At the end of every month I rotate – the right half onto the garden and into the trash can, the left half to the right, and start over.  The seedlings I started in the courtyard with a mixture of compost with soil and sand came up beautifully but had their struggles…

…which only increased once I planted them in the backyard.  This is damage due to leaf miners, a small insect that burrows through the leaf, destroying individual cells and inhibiting photosynthesis.

And then EVERYTHING I planted disappeared into the belly of one of these lovely green iguanas that inhabit our roof,

or disappeared into the nests of  the leaf cutter ants, zompopos, that live in holes in the backyard and under the courtyard.  They chew the foliage they gather and cultivate a fungus on them that they then eat.  My rival farmers.

I’ve had the best luck so far using urban gardening container planting, like these cilantro, cucumbers, and pinuela in the courtyard…

…and focusing on native plants like this large leaf cilantro, which also has the advantage of having fewer pests because of its strong odor (iguanas, for example, have so far left it alone).  My current strategy is to plant everything stinky and spiny – garlic, onions, pineapple – and experiment with some netting or caging for everything else.

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This week, July 21-27, was designated by the USDA as national pollinator week, and there are events and classes highlighting the important work these insects do for us all around the country.  I’ve been chattering about it to anyone who I think will listen here.  This is a picture of a pollinator I found on the tree saplings we are giving this year in SosteNica’s Reforestation Project in Nagarote, Nicaragua:

It’s a fantastic week here to celebrate.  The rainy season started enough time ago that the caterpillars have had time to eat their fill, metamorphasize, and emerge and pollinators instead of pests.  Wasps have begun building nests on the underside of leaves which have emerged in the last month, and many of the crops that were seeded with the first rains are flowering right now.

Did you know

– The main cocoa pollinator responsible for producing all our chocolate is a midge fly that is smaller than a pinhead.

– There are 200,000 species of pollinators, including insects, bats, hummingbirds, and even small mammals such as mice.

– US farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate of 3,000 acres a day.  When farmland is converted to industry or residencies, the amount of native pollinators available to pollinate the remaining farmland drops and can negatively affect yeilds.

– In the US, managed pollination such as beekeeping results in an estimated benefit of $20 billion annually in the agricultural industry.

Obama’s Oval Office address on the BP Oil Spill was amazing dissapointing.

The phrase, “This is the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States” is buried under weak defenses and excuses for spending millions cleaning up a disaster that doesn’t just reflect a completely corrupt energy policy but also a national crisis in lifestyle.  I’m sorry, but putting a six month moratoriam on deepwater drilling (with the exception, or course, of the unexplained “relief well” that BP is currently drilling to stop the leak) means jack shit to me.  It’s time to talk about what this spill actually means, and how the sheen of oil on the gulf reflects back to each and every one of our lives and daily choices.

Addressing the “failed philosophy” that oil companies can write their own regulations is clearly important (the idea that any industry can be it’s own regulator is a failure to begin with), but how about the “failed philosophy” that US citizens can burn as much oil as they want, whether it’s in their SUVs or heating or plastic food packaging?

Maybe I am just an economic skeptic in general, but I fail to see how ensuring that BP pays for all the cleanup and creating a third-party managed fund will sufficiently reverse the damage of 60,000 barrels of oil a day leaking into our oceans for months.  That is not an economic disaster.  Nor is it an environmental disaster.  It is a LIFE disaster, one that we should be addressing not just economically and environmentally but with changes in our LIVES!!!

Nicaraguans know disasters.  They know catastrophes.  When Hurricane Mitch came through over 800,000 Nicaraguans lost their lives and land, cattle and immeasurable amounts of wildlife were lost, and all told estimated damages total over US$300 million.  I still talk to farmers who have never recuperated their land, who show me rivers that have changed their course completely, and boulders on their land that weren’t there before.  After a hurricane, where is the private company to blame, to force to pay damages?  That is the most shamefull, unspoken truth about this environmental catastrophe.  We have made this disaster.  We have something to blame, but it’s not just an oil company, it’s ourselves.

That’s why in addition to addressing the dire situation of tribal fisherman and endangered pelegrine flocks we should be making widesweeping changes in our daily lives.  If Obama really wants to promote hope and change he should be talking about about movements like the statewide ban on plastic bags and successfull local food movements that greatly reduce food miles and plastic food packaging.  Plastic and oil are not evil – they have their medical, safety, and technology uses that have become indespensiple to our society.  But at the risk of destroying ourselves completely, why can we not make every effort to cut out the waste!

Is it too much to ask that our political and economic leaders can dip into morals and ethics as well?  We DO need to rewire our countries energy system so that it is connected to renewable sources of energy, but we also need to rewire ourselves, so that we think twice before carelessly throwing out over 1,675 lbs of garbage per year per person!  And that doesn’t count the barrels of oil that each of us are responsible for wasting daily.  We do need the commitees to look into the lies and conflicts of interest that led to the BP disaster, but we also need to realize that our current petroleum centered lifestyle is itself a lie and a conflict of interest.

The rains have started here, turning the streets of León into raging currents…

…and all sorts of things to sprout.

We made a little wall to keep the mud from washing up against the house,

while Theo explored new heights hunting the winged ants that hatched with the rain…

…and enjoys snatches of sun in between the rainstorms.

I gave a presentation in Managua about Sustainable Farming here,

and celebrated Nicaraguan mother’s day on May 30th with my friend Yuri, her mom, grandmother, and family.