By Jillian Vriend
One of the most pressing issues in our modern age is the need for chemical-free, environmentally sustainable, diverse, preserved, and homegrown food. The majority of food stock in grocery stores is shipped in by eighteen wheelers from hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Anyone who has eaten a banana in December and doesn’t live somewhere tropical has experienced transit-based produce. Most stores hold very little back stock, only about three days worth with no regional supply houses available since the ‘just in time’ delivery system was implemented many years ago. Produce has especially high ‘fuel miles’, the amount of distance that it traveled by truck to reach your location. The produce that does reach the stores has usually been genetically modified (even patented in some cases!), sprayed very liberally with toxic substances, and harvested before it was actually ripe. And it tastes about that good too.
Awareness of the dismal state of modern food brings an increasing need for everyone to grow their own organic produce if possible. We’ve had a strong desire to grow our own food organically following permaculture and ecological design principles. We wanted to create garden spaces that would meld conscious design with respect and understanding of nature’s principles. We also wanted to blend modern practices with indigenous and native ones, creating a mixture between the two that would honor both.
We started our first garden project in January, 2015, just a couple of weeks after arriving to live on the ranch. We were gifted a 30 foot by 30 foot space here with a rock wall already built around it. Rather than fill it with linear and straight rows of crops, we created a main, raised, keyhole bed (a ¾ circle bed with a keyhole shape in the middle for turning around) with another raised circle bed enclosing it and raised beds around the edges.
For compost, we spent many days gathering ‘green’ (kitchen scraps, sheep manure) and ‘brown’ (dried leaves and straw) manure creating a lasagna layering pile system as the organic matter compost to add to our soil. We trucked in silt soil from the banks of the riverside nearby to add to the soil in the garden and the compost. We collected dried bamboo leaves on the ranch to use as our 3 to 6 inch cover mulch (with thicker layers to come as the plants grow taller) to help with water retention and weed suppression. We lined all the paths with river rock to help with erosion and because it looks good. This we call our “Rio Jardin” (River Garden), as it is right next to the river.
We’ve filled the beds of the Rio Garden with three kinds of tomato plants; eight varieties of beans and legumes; three kinds of peppers; greens and cabbages such as kale, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy; yams and potatoes, red/green/white onions, cucumber, jicama, daikon and regular radish, and cilantro. We’ve already enjoyed the radish and some of the greens. We look forward to the next few months of harvesting and learning; adjusting and responding. Eating! This is truly our experimental garden with many lessons happening around seed germination, plant placement, and adjustment to the tropical yet arid climate here during the dry season.
The next garden we started is our “Casa Jardin” (House Garden), a ‘zone one’ garden, meaning one that is close to home and therefore includes plants that are used regularly and need more attention. Once we moved into the house we are staying at here on the ranch, we started trucking in soil from the river again because the top soil around the house had been destroyed during construction. We spent days clearing out debris and pulling weeds (that weren’t edible we hope) to clear spaces to plant. In a cleared space right by our outdoor kitchen, we created an herb spiral- a four by five foot mound of dirt with river rocks moving up from bottom to top to form a spiral shape. An herb spiral takes a 30 foot linear planted bed and reduces it to a much smaller footprint. Plus it looks really neat and mimics a shape regularly found in nature (always a good thing when designing garden beds.) We filled the herb spiral with dill, thyme, oregano, basil, cilantro, cumin, mustard greens, green onions. We included some medicinal herbs such as calendula and Echinacea.
We also created a greens garden bed next to the spiral garden with mizuna, kale, mustard, tropical lettuce, tatsoi, and a native medicinal green called qualite alvaro obregon. Greens are impossible to find here at tiendas (stores), beyond iceberg lettuce, because they don’t store and transport well due to the heat. We have all felt a deep craving for more greens, especially after being used to regular doses of greens in BC, Canada. Radish greens and morenga leaves (a medicinal and edible tree grown here on the ranch) have helped meet this need so far. We filled beds along the path in front of and the sides of the house with sunflowers, artichokes, more mustard greens (good ground cover and green manure crop), and some native flowers. Keeping the four ranch dogs and our own three dogs out of the beds using twine and bamboo fences has been important. How to keep the wandering and hungry ducks from the pond next to the house out of the greens bed is the next dilemma, although we put down bamboo leaf mulch, spray with the pepper-garlic solution, and planted mustard nearby so that will hopefully help. We are still waiting to catch a pato (duck) in action as it tugs on our kale!
And, our grand vision and most recent garden manifestation is a ten minute walk from home called ‘Tranquila.’ A sloped piece of land with large granite rocks, this is the plot of land that we have purchased here at Rancho Amigos. The lot contains a water cistern located over a natural spring so fresh water is no problem. The top soil is dark brown, has some good worms, and the years of cutting down feed grasses for sheep and cows and letting them mulch in place has kept the soil in good shape.
It is the work of hardscaping, double digging out soil and creating paths that leads us to get up at six in the morning to get some of it done before the hot sun comes up. It is foundational work, work that we won’t have to do again. It is hard, but, it is also satisfying…watching raw land become the infrastructure for our garden. We are planting seeds as soon as the soil has been double dug, formed into circular, raised winding beds with plateaued tops, and sprinkled with compost. We’ve been adding the same mulch back to the beds that we raked from the ground before we started tilling. It forms straw nests around our sleeping seeds and a light blanket of cover for our scattered seeds.
We planted more beans since they germinate quickly, seem to grow well in this climate, can be dried, and are great nitrogen fixers. We planted sunflowers, artichokes, and other tall plants for privacy and shade. We started several trees in bags and will plant them as soon as they are ready to add diversity, shade, microclimates, and environments for wildlife. We planted eggplant, squash, and pumpkin (and soon watermelon) where they will have room to sprawl and spread out. Making a mound, we created a ‘sisters’ planting inspired by Native Americans. Corn, pole beans, and squash form the perfect combination of support, both structurally and in the soil. Scattering seeds across the soil, we sowed quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, chia, and, soon, flax. These will form the foundations of our diet, along with the beans for protein. Joining the party are medicinal flowering plants, more peppers, and tomatoes. Our future plans for Tranquila include creating a small pond in the middle of a natural gathering of rocks, a stream leading to the pond, pathways to the large sitting stones and boulders on the lot, tall plants all along the fence line for privacy next to the ranch road, and whatever else our imagination comes up with! We envision a place where design has given form to the food and function to the wild. A place where we and others can come to study the plants, sit on the rocks, meet in a circle under the shade tent, dip our feet in the pond, and wander the paths, foraging as we go.
We’ve held some books like bibles along the way, combing over them time and time again. Two such books are Gaia’s Garden: A Guide To Homescale Permaculture and Rodale’s Organic Gardening. Yet, also, we’ve been learning as we go, responding to the needs of the plants as they arise and feeling what the land and nature wants. It’s important for us to access our soul’s knowledge of cultivating the land for food; its’ experience with growing food which is actually much more familiar to us than the more recent industrialized experience of easy and disconnected non-food grocery shopping excursions. We’ve forgotten our native roots as hunters and gatherers and buried our instincts about plants and how to grow them in a sustainable way.
Our gardens have brought us joy and peace already, even as they’ve required some sweat and effort. Every seed we plant is like a new baby needing attention and focus until its more mature and can stand on its own. We pick off every caterpillar and unidentified Mexican bug with love and care; spray every leaf with a combination of garlic and pepper spray that bugs hate. We support the garbanzo beans with sticks because we didn’t plant them close enough together to let them lean on each other like they like to. Each plant is held with gratitude and given energetic attention. That’s a lot of babies to care for!
Our gardens have already drawn attention here locally. There are very few personal gardens in this area, even though poverty is a common here. The nearest grocery store is 90 minutes away (when the weather and roads are good) and yet the village closest to us doesn’t stock anything more than a few tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and eggs. The locals who work on the ranch have gone from feeling perhaps a bit confused by what we are doing to more and more interested in it. They ask us many questions about what we are growing and give us tips related to cultivating in this climate. We have already started giving away baggies of cilantro and radish greens and received cucumber and cacao seeds in return. Many more are expressing interest in exchanging with us when the real harvest comes in.
Gardens can invite the imagination to come to play. If we allow ourselves to move beyond the linear rows, typical crops, and pest warfare of mainstream gardening, the possibilities are as limitless as nature’s manifestations. In the garden, there is both a strong sense of the present and the future. We are enjoying the process of creating the infrastructure of our garden beds and paths, which will serve us for many years. The first layer of weed suppressing and water retaining mulch that we lay out begins a legacy of layers of decaying organic matter that will serve the soil and our bellies for a long time. The compost piles we create today serve to fertilize the soil for the rest of its (and our) lives.
It is the gardens that have received most of our time here at the ranch so far and, also, every bit of time spent feels worth the rewards, both in the present and for the future. This legacy of growing chemical-free, ecologically friendly, and truly local food is one that we are proud to be creating and to leave for future generations. Or, at the very least, for the immediate future needs of our hearts and bellies.
To come visit our gardens about three hours south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, become a volunteer, or attend one our retreats, please visit soulfullheart.com and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.