Monday, 31 August 2009

In the office

I've spent much of this weekend sitting at the computer writing and researching and generally thinking. We have a lot going on just now: creating a website for the Farm and Botanical Garden, making our first newsletter for distribution at the market and garden, putting together a series of workshops for January and February. A lot of head work about physical work.

And in the near distance I can hear howler monkeys while beside me in the Akee tree, Montezuma Oropendulas are chattering, clacking and making that odd sound like branches breaking.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Friday, 28 August 2009

The 'Alliance for Community Trees' looks like a great place to get involved with urban forestry. This is what they say about themselves:

"The Alliance for Community Trees (ACT) is dedicated to improving the environment where 83% of Americans live - cities, towns and metropolitan areas. Together, local ACT member organizations have planted 7.8 million trees with help from 450,000 volunteers nationwide.

Mission Statement

To support grassroots, citizen-based nonprofit organizations dedicated to urban and community tree planting, care, conservation, and education."

Go guerrillas!!! (see post below).

Guerrilla mulching and composting campaign !!!!!!!

Let's launch a new challenge, or campaign, or call it what you will, to give something back to our urban trees!

The trees which decorate and beautify our urban landscape, whether they be in parking lots, along pavements, in tubs in malls or growing wild through cracks and in abandoned lots deserve care and attention. These trees provide local shade, mitigate the heat generated by acres of concrete, enhance and mediate urban water systems, create micro-environments and give habitat to other plant, insect, bird and mammal species. They bring life to otherwise drab scenes: who hasn't sought some solace or protection below a tree in the city?

It's time for action! All you composters, gardeners, wild harvesters, green-eco-sustainable-vegetarian-homesteader-permaculture-biodynamic-organic types - carry compost with you. Or failing that, carry mulch with you.

Challenge yourself to compost and/or mulch an urban tree each time you go to that parking lot, or railway station or mall or library, or wherever you may go. Where there's a tree, there's an opportunity to give!

Compost may be kitchen scraps, grass cuttings, tree trimmings, pulled weeds . . .
Mulch may be dried leaves/plant matter, newsprint, cardboard, the sawdust from your child's rabbit / hamster cage, the lint from the dryer, straw . . .

Go guerrillas!


A nearby construction and hardware store has a large parking lot and in this parking lot stands a lone tree. The farmer and I have had conversations about this tree. I don't remember offhand what type of tree she is, she doesn't drop noticeable fruits or seeds, but she's a good size, maybe 12 metres tall with a fairly broad canopy. A handsome tree with nice spreading branches. She's slightly raised above ground level and there's a low wall around her to hold in her dirt. Her trunk is maybe 60 cm in diameter.

I wonder about this tree. She stands alone without interaction from other trees, her roots are bound somewhat under concrete which must reflect a lot of heat back on her underside leaves and branches. The rain that falls around her is taken off to drains and doesn't penetrate the soil around her. Vibration from passing cars and exhaust fumes must stress her.

But the farmer wonders differently. He sees that she has no competition from other trees, that she's free to grow as she likes, without the stress of reaching for light or dropping lower branches to conserve strength. Her roots are protected by the concrete and always cool. The rain that falls will get to her through drains but she'll never be waterlogged.

The tree looks good, she seems to be doing well. She makes a resting place, a point of shade for birds and insects in an otherwise barren area. She brings beauty to drabness.

We use trees for shade, decoration, camouflage in our urban and not so urban areas. They grace us with micro-environments of shade, protection, focal points of beauty and peace. Their green offers a resting place for our eyes in fields of gray; if we stop to listen we might hear the wind in their leaves or a bird or insect or squirrel in their branches. They offer habitat for smaller species of plants and animals. They show us what nature is. Next time you are driving along a freeway, or pulling into a parking lot for a big store or mall look for the trees there, and thank them.

Let's start a guerrilla composting campaign. Each time you see a tree in a parking lot drop some compost or vegetable scraps or leaf cuttings by it. Feed the trees!!!!

In looking for the photo I came across a couple of interesting sites on trees in parking lots. This one discusses the best trees to use (albeit for the southwestern US, but interesting nevertheless). This one discusses how best to maintain tree health in urban environments. And this one talks about the importance of trees for urban water systems. Happy browsing!

Today in the kitchen

It's Friday which means baking for the market. I have some araza (yes, it's back again!), some ginger and some very strong lime marmalade which needs to be transformed. This will probably mean that the oven will be busy with ginger araza cookies and a marmalade cake. The ginger araza cookies are a favourite at the market and very easy to make.

The brilliant thing with all these self concocted recipes is that they are infinitely adaptable. I use the same basic recipe for all sorts of different fruits and spices. However the araza / ginger combo is the most popular. I think it's because of the acidity of the araza, the gentle heat of the ginger and the sweetness of the cookie. With no araza I would substitute something like rhubarb, sour plum or cherry.

Araza Ginger Cookies

1/2 cup oil
1 egg
1 cup ginger sugar (the sugar and ginger pieces left over after making crystallized ginger (recipe on this blog). Substitute plain brown sugar, white sugar, sugar spiced by adding dried ginger, cinnamon, vanilla pods, orange peel . . . imagine)
2 cups wholewheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 to 1 cup fruit (with araza (acidic fruits) I cook first with sugar as though I were making jam, just enough to soften, with non acidic fruits, like apples, I cook a little to soften)

Beat oil, egg and sugar. Add dry ingredients, mix in fruit. Bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes. Enjoy.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Planting trees again

We're back at the reforestation project. This will probably be the last planting time this year - next month begins the real rainy season on the pacific coast and it will be too much for the small trees we're planting. So we're finishing up this phase with three days planting around two natural springs.

Today we worked with a mix of forest and fruit trees. The fruit trees are planted along paths down to the main spring and close by the access road. It's really a beautiful piece of land, a hillside looking back towards mountains or out over the Gulf of Nicoya with the Pacific beyond. We're working with a good crew of Nicaraguans, all from the northern zone of Nicaragua. Nicas work in Costa Rica like Mexicans work in California - they do the work the nationals don't want to do. Working here they earn 3 - 5 times as much as they do at home, so they come for the jobs and send money home. I enjoy working with them, they are bright and motivated and easy going at the same time. I expect they like working with us too, we're not so 'normal' for gringos around here, but work just as much as they do, in other words we get our hands dirty and we clearly enjoy it. So the atmosphere is good with whistling or singing and laughing, and the trees get planted and they're happier for being placed by happy workers in beautiful spots.

We're planting for birds and animals too so our trees are chosen for their fruits or habitat potential. The land is hilly with gullies and we're trying to create a good mix of native trees, though there are some non natives thrown in for special reasons: mango, ylang-ylang, neem.

Today we planted Cenizaro, Cipres, Ron-ron, Cedro Amargo, Espavel, Guachipelin, Guanacaste, Aceituna, Carao. For fruit we planted Cas, Caimito, Carambola, Biriba, Agua de Manzana, Calamondin and Mango. It was fun.

There's something special about planting a tree, and something even more delightful about planting a forest. Standing at the edge of a slope looking down with a bag of 10 to 14 trees (the forest trees are small when we plant them) and a clear expanse of sky above and green below, one has to imagine how the land will look in 5, 10, 15, 30 years time. Where to put the smaller cipres, or the fine leafy ron ron or the huge and majestic guanacaste. How will the monkeys come from the forests on the mountain to this part by the spring, what trees will make the best canopy for their path? How will the macaws pass from this already towering espavel to a new cluster of almendros? It's all interesting and joyful work.

the majestic Guanacaste

The process is simple: we lay out each tree, mark it, plant it, stake it and mulch it. Simple, repetitive, logical work. Beautiful. We checked the trees we planted in June and they look great and happy. I would be too planted here: sun, cool mists, nice showers, peace and quiet and fine company (and a great view - d'you think this makes a difference to a tree?).

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Camellones - Chinampas in Bolivia, from the BBC

Bolivians look to ancient farming

The project may help to cut down on the need to clear forests

By James Painter
BBC News, Trinidad, Bolivia

Poor farmers in the heart of Bolivia's Amazon are being encouraged to embrace the annual floods - by using a centuries-old irrigation system for their crops.

They are experimenting with a sustainable way of growing food crops that their ancestors used. It could provide them with better protection against the extremes of climate change, reduce deforestation, improve food security and even promise a better diet.

These are the bold aims of a two-year-old project being carried out by a non-governmental organisation near Trinidad, the capital of the department of Beni.

The system is based on building "camellones" - raised earth platforms of anything up to 2m high, surrounded by canals. Constructed above the height of flood waters, the camellones can protect seeds and crops from being washed away. The water in the canals provide irrigation and nutrients during the dry season.

Pre-Columbian cultures in Beni from about 1000BC to AD1400 used a similar system.

"One of the many extraordinary aspects of our camellones project is that poor communities living in the Beni today are using a similar technology to that developed by indigenous pre-Columbian cultures in the same region to solve a similar range of problems," says Oscar Saavedra, the director of the Kenneth Lee foundation.

He experimented for six years in his own garden to develop the complex system of hydrology.

Ancient and modern communities face the same problems - regular flooding followed by drought.

"The floods were the basis for development and the flourishing of a great civilisation," says Mr Saavedra.

There were bad floods in 2006 and 2007, but last year the region saw the worst flooding in at least 50 years. The floods affected some 120,000 people - a quarter of Beni's population - and caused more than $200m (£119m) of damage.

That experience prompted many local women to enlist in the camellones project.

"I had planted rice, maize, bananas and onions on my plot of land. But the water left nothing," explains Dunia Rivero Mayaco, a 44-year-old mother of three from Puerto Almacen near Trinidad.

"I lost my house too. We had to live three months in temporary accommodation on the main road. The children got ill there. So that's why I am working here on the camellones. I didn't want to lose everything again."

The canals remain full after the floods recede

About 400 families are now enrolled in the project in five locations, growing mainly maize, cassava and rice.

Many of the sites are still in an experimental phase, but the early signs are promising. Productivity appears to be on the increase.

"These camellones will help us when the floods come," says Maira Salas from the village of Copacabana, a 20-minute boat ride down the river Ibare.

"Crops like bananas that die easily have a better chance of survival. We are only just now learning how our ancestors lived and survived. They did not have tractors to build the camellones, and they survived for years. It's incredible."

Villagers are encouraged to embrace the floods and see them as a blessing, not a curse.

During the rainy season, large expanses of land in Beni are under water for several months - except for the raised areas. When the water recedes into the tributaries that run into the Amazon, it takes nutrients with it leaving a sandy brown soil in which it is difficult to grow crops.

But in the camellones project, the water left by the floods is harnessed to bring fertility to the soil and irrigation during times of drought.

In short, from being victims of the floods, poor people could become masters by turning the excess water to their advantage.

International charity Oxfam is supporting the project in part because it offers poor people the possibility of adapting to climate change.

If, as predicted by many experts, the cycles of El Nino/La Nina are going to increase in intensity and frequency, then the project has the capacity to help poor families cope better with the extreme weather events and unpredictable rainfall that are to come.

"It should not matter when the rains come as the water can still be managed at whatever time of the year," says Mr Saavedra.

Other potential advantages of the scheme include:

* The system uses natural fertilizers, and in particular an aquatic plant in the canals called tarope which both purifies the water and acts as a fertilizer when spread over the soil
* The canals can also provide fish stock, animal fodder and nutrients for the soil
* The camellones can act as a natural seed bank which can survive flooding
* The system can reduce the need to cut down the forested areas around the communities. This is because the soil on traditional plots of land is often exhausted after two to three years. This forces the farmers to clear more land for planting by cutting down the forest.

All this seems too good to be true.

Some of the women say the real test will come when there is a bad year of flooding or a severe drought. So far, 2009 has not been one of the worst.

There are other huge challenges ahead. One is to try to provide the families with an income from tomatoes or garden produce. Another is to overcome the scepticism from some local people about the time and physical effort invested in the camellones compared to other sources of local employment.

Mr Saavedra is convinced the camellones project can be expanded, even to other countries.

"This process could be repeated in various parts of the world with similar conditions to the Beni like parts of Bangladesh, India and China.

"It could help to reduce world hunger and combat climate change," he says.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Mabolo wowzolo

Well I dried the mabolo and the taste is quite nice, the fruit is a little chewy though, I'll save it for my fruit lovers mix. I also made a butter with it which is delicious, I think: the farmer is not keen. It has a strong floral taste, somewhat like rose (bear in mind I haven't been close to a rose for 3 years), very nice would make a lovely meringue filling, or perhaps whipped up into a fool or syllabub. However the drawback is the texture. It's grainy. I think this is because I scrubbed the fine hairs off and left the beautiful red pink peel on. I was hoping the colour would bleed into the butter, it did a little but not enough to make up for adding the graininess. Tomorrow I'll make it again without the peel. Here's the recipe just in case:

Velvet Apple Butter
3 cups chopped, peeled mabolo
1 lime halved
1/2 cup sugar

Simmer chopped fruit and halved lime in enough water to cover until fruit is soft. Remove from heat, take out lime halves and blend with sugar. Return to pot (add limes again if you wish) and simmer until thickens, it took me about another 15 minutes. Can appropriately (I put the lime halves in two of the jars). Enjoy on warm crumpets or with plain yogurt.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

wowolo! Mabolo!

The harvests are coming in thick and fast. Today the Mabolos started to drop. The Mabolo or Velvet Apple is one of my favourites.

I gathered a 5 gallon bucket of the fruit below the tree and all down the little hill which the tree tops. The fruit are easy to find, a low russet red among the brown leaves. So pretty. They look like a firm white peach - a russet pink skin with a downy pinkish green fuzz topped by a simple 4 lobed green crown which hugs the fruit and turns red-black with age. Inside the skin the fruit is pink tinged but changes rapidly to a white cream. It's hard like an unripe peach, but not crunchy, the texture is dry and a tiny bit grainy. There's no real bite to the fruit but it's firm and pleasant. The taste is subtly floral, and I know there's something it reminds me of, just can't remember what. Inside there are between 4 and 7 seeds each about the size of a brazil nut: I don't think they're edible.

The fruit is ready when it falls, sometimes it bruises a little in the drop and if bruised, or if left for a day or two it will start to become mushy and soft. Not a long shelf life. Best to eat when found.

Tonight I put some in the dehydrator to see if they'll work in the dried fruit mix. I hope they do, the floral taste will be a nice addition, and because they are so dry to start they should dry quickly. I've put them in at a lower temperature, we'll see in the morning . . . I also cooked a little in some lime juice and sugar to see how they might hold up as a preserve: not sure yet, need to test more tomorrow, but first impressions are quite good - close to pear in both texture and taste, so might make a good butter with a little added vanilla, or a great pie or crumble.

I first tasted Mabolo last year and am very excited and happy to be able to use it this season. The seeds i planted from last years fruits look about ready to graft too. Oh it's such a nice busy happy time.

Just read that the skin is supposed to smell like rotten cheese, ours seem not to, just smell fruity.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Durians are here!

Our durian harvest has begun. We have two trees, an older one of about 15 years which is roughly 18 meters tall, and a 5 year old which is maybe 6 meters in height. The young tree has her first fruiting this year, last year she gave flowers but they all dropped. I'm happy she's fruiting.

Durians are beautiful trees large yet somehow delicate with smaller leaves which are a mossy green above and a subtle golden bronze below. The flowers are fist sized and shaped rather like a bell with a ping pong ball stuck in the opening. They grow straight from the branches, and we had hundreds, if not thousands this year. If the flower is pollinated it drops the petals and looks a little like a bean pod sticking out from a tiny ball, this takes 3 months or so to grow into the most incredible geometrical wonder, full of sharp green spikes in a pattern that must correspond to the Fibonacci sequence, it seems so perfect. As the fruit grows and swells we worried about fruit set, sure enough many of the young fruits dropped and we had to cull several more for fear of branches breaking with the weight.

It's been 3 months now and the fruit are ripe. They have to fall by themselves and will lie on the ground for a day or so before they open. One can tell from some distance when the fruit splits along its 5 seams: the smell is intense and unmistakable. One can smell it from a good distance, maybe 25 yards. It's an unusual smell, heady, rich, strong, perhaps unpleasant. I've been interested in this fruit since I was a child watching David Attenburgh on the BBC wincing and retching as he sat beside a large open durian in the rainforests of Burma. It took a long time before I was able to smell what all the fuss was about.

Inside there are pockets of fruit, sometimes more than 5 segments with fruit hidden away in secret chambers which one has to find cautiously as the spikes are very sharp: one has to feel through the thick ridges within to see if there is hidden treasure. The fruit is white or yellow and dense and is shaped, to me, (and this may well sound strange), like the embryo of a manatee. The fruit is soft and tastes - well it's a matter of opinion. Some say it's divine, others that it's like rotten fish in condensed milk, others say carmelised garlic and onions in custard. It's a very personal thing. I love it.

The seeds are simple and carmel coloured and can be roasted and eaten or cooked in asian style dishes. Some say it's wise not to eat too many at one time, but with the average durian size being about a kilo and a half, there's not so many seeds to share around.

Recipes for durian include cakes, ice-cream, candies and savoury dishes with unripe fruits. Here it never gets as far as the kitchen, we scoop it right out of its beautiful shell. The dogs love it too. Today we took 3 to market and for those in the know it was the first durian of the season. The three were gone within 5 minutes. Last year I dried some fruit and added it to a connoissuer's mix. It was rather good mixed with jackfruit, champadeck and bananas.

Durians can be found in most Asian markets either fresh, dried, frozen or in cans. I'd recommend a sampling . . .

Friday, 14 August 2009

getting business like

My sister is a business woman and while she was here took my "marketing strategy" in hand. I had no marketing strategy, but now I have a wonderful new label and logo. Having made our old labels on appleworks and being quite pleased with them, this new label making thing was a whole new process and one I really enjoyed. After discussing what my market startegy was, who my "target market" were and what our "vision, goals and values" are, we went outside and took a lot of photos which were then sent to the designer. Euan Gallacher, the very talented, then took us through a series of steps to create the finished design. It was a bit like going to the hairdressers - you enter having no idea what you want, look at some magazines, come up with some idea that has no resemblance to your hair / face / lifestyle, and then slowly the professional leads you through to something that looks great and makes you feel good about yourself. Lots of communication and processing, but with Euan it was all very mellow and comfortable. We wanted an image related to the salak fruit and Euan chose a single flower from the composite male flower to work with. This was a stroke of genius as it also looks like an opened ripe fruit. He tried out several designs and we chose the one we liked and the process of refining began. I really liked the process and I love the label. We haven't finished yet, and there are a couple of tweaks needed here and there, but I want to show it off here, and thank Euan for all his greatness! And my sister for being a mastermind.

Oops, my technical knowhow has failed me, but you can see the logo on Euan's site. I'll work it out . . .


We lost our biggest breadfruit tree last week. I think it was a good thing, the fruits were too high for us to harvest and with it gone it allows a lot more light to fall on two smaller breadfruits. We have decided to toppar these trees. It goes against our no pruning belief, but by removing their tops and selective pruning we can keep the trees small enough to manage the fruit.

I love breadfruit. Firstly the tree is beautiful, graceful with large palmate leaves in a dark glossy green. The fruit hangs from the branches, heavy, dense and round. It's a lighter shade of green and covered with small hexagonal shaped - not scales - but markings, that, as the fruit ripens, become stretched and full promising abundance within. Cutting it it bleeds thick white latex that sticks fingers and lips together. The breadfruit can be roasted, boiled, baked or, my favourite, fried in thick slices. It's delicious. It's cooked with the thin skin attached and can be eaten as is, no need to peel. The flesh is solid and seedless, though it must have had seeds at some point as there is a denser core which is surrounded by a beautiful lacy star pattern of holes about a millimeter in length and elliptical. It's a very filling carbohydrate with more nutritional value than potatoes, it makes excellent chips, here it is roasted or boiled in stews.

The tree propagates itself through root shoots and is quite difficult to manage, the ones we have in the nursery and on the farm appeared by themselves, sometimes quite far from the mother plant. When I lived by the river breadfruit trees could be found at some distance from each other along the banks, I think pieces of root must have broken off and were carried to new resting places.

The Breadfruit is native to Polynesia. In the 1800s the British decided it would be the perfect food for slaves on their plantations in South America and the Caribbean. They sent Captain Bligh to Tahiti to gather hundreds of seedlings. It took Bligh and his team of botanists 6 months to establish trees strong enough to make the journey. When the returning ship got caught in the Doldrums and Bligh began giving the crews' water rations to the plants the men started their infamous mutiny. Bligh survived and was sent once again to Tahiti - the second time he succeeded. I'm glad he did.

. . . and I'm back

Been offline for a bit with family visiting. Out of the kitchen, off the farm and into the big world of children on vacation. Phew, my respect to all mothers. This Sunday is Mothers' Day in Costa Rica and I wish all of you who have taken on the enormous task a happy, peaceful and sane day.

But now it's back to the farm, my beloved kitchen and all those lovely things I get to do with my days. Araza and Ginger cookies are in the oven, some Carambola sweet and sour sauce is setting up and I'm waiting for the limes to arrive. The weather has been very wet for the last two weeks (sorry visiting family members) and it's taken its toll on the forest. We have lost several large trees, and the farmer has been busy planting new ones. Amongst the forest trees he has planted a new curry tree, a champudeck and a jackfruit - yippee!!! There's something wonderfully settling about planting fruit trees, a soft anticipation of future wealth and abundance, a reminder that all good things come with time, a nod to the seasons and cycles of time. Storing up for the future means there is trust and faith that there will be a future, a time to come. And that that time will be full of fruit. Love it.

Back in the present our latest tree casualty is one of our key limes. A large branch sheared to the ground, laden with fruit. What to do? I can think of a couple of things . . .

I've been looking at lime marmalade recipes and have discovered several lovely blogs in the process:

Feeding Maybelle
Pastry Heaven
Through my Kitchen Window

I'm off to make a cup of tea and check on the cookies.