Sunday, 26 July 2009

covered raised bed

new greens for salad bowl

In an effort to increase our salad greens we've built two experimental covered raised beds. They're rather fancy. They have a clear plastic roof which is sloped to allow more direst sun in and to allow us to harvest rainwater. The roof is high - again to allow more direct sun to hit the plants, and stands about 8.5 foot at the higher end, about 7.5 foot at the lower end. We plan to make use of this space by using baskets or trellis for vertical growth.

The beds are built on a very slight slope and run across the slope to give the most exposure to sun. We have a lot of big trees on the farm and finding an area which has full sun is no longer a simple matter, hence we plant with the direction the sun takes, in both summer and winter months, in mind.

The roof allows us to control how much water the plants receive: meaning we can try to grow varieties which typically won't stand our rainfall.

The frames are constructed of kasha wood from a tree that fell on the upper farm. It's a beautiful hard wood from a beautiful leguminous forest tree. We put down a thick layer of coconut fiber for drainage. Coconut fiber takes a long time to break down and will help create a decent environment for worms and beneficial microbes. For the lower bed we mixed coarse sand, compost and new earth dug up from beneath a rotting tree trunk. For the upper bed we used a mix of coarse sand and soil made by mixing coconut fiber, compost and aged chicken manure. (This soil came from a local company who also make coconut oil and noni juice, they buy their chicken manure from a friend of ours who raises organic chickens, the compost is made from restaurant food scraps.)We put a fine layer of coarse sand on top and then treated the beds with EM, leaving them to settle in for 5 days or so.

I've been pulling weeds from the lower bed for the last 8 days, it looks like seeds from our own composting: tomato, chili, squash. I've saved some of these seedlings and the others I've composted. The upper bed has been weed free, making us wonder if the soil was sterilized.

We sowed eggplant, broccoli, bok choy and radish. We also have a few tomato starts, some rooted cuttings of mint and purple basil, some purslane, chilis we brought back from Cuba and some cranberry hibiscus sticks.

At the far end of the beds we have a large basin with water hyacinth. This is our mulch material, we currently have some drying out under the roof almost ready to add to the soil. Water hyacinth makes excellent mulch, composts rapidly and is a prolific grower. This one tub will provide us with as much mulch as we'll need for this project. Beside it is a tub with watercress, rooted from cuttings. Actually rooted from some watercress we bought at the farmers' market (the mint and basil also came from stalks we bought at the ferria).

The seeds came up in 5 days and are looking good. I thinned them, transplanting some and harvesting the rest for salad mixes. The tomatoes and chilis look fine, and the mint and basil seem to be rooting out given their colour and vigour. The tomatoes and chilis I expect to do well, they grow here without special attention. The brassicas, well we'll see. The eggplant - would be wonderful, it's my favourite vegetable. I think the mint and basil will make it with a roof, especially if we are careful with not letting them get leggy. We'll continue to use EM to keep molds and fungus at bay. I'm excited. It seems funny having to water in the midst of all this rain, but it's easy enough to do. And it would be so worth it to add to our salad options.

Friday, 24 July 2009

jungle living

You know you're living in a jungle house when:
~ a 4 inch rhinoceros beetle crashes into your plate during dinner
~ a rat runs up the wall from behind the fridge, across a rafter and disappears into a crevice above the bathroom, watched by 4 lazy dogs
~ you find a scorpion under your laptop
~ there's an orange-kneed tarantula living behind the extra toothpaste in the medicine cabinet
~ each morning you step over bat poop on the way to the bathroom
~ an anole jumps on your leg to catch a mosquito
~ the hummingbirds take a short cut through the kitchen

It's wonderful.

views of the upper farm

tour of the farm, part one: the upper farm

Our farm sits about 300 meters from the ocean, as the crow flies, by road it's about 400 meters. The lower farm is level and rises back into the hills which dip and rise to create perfect pockets of rich soil and mulch filled runoff for the upper farm. The name Island Farm is the original name and was given because the land is bordered by creeks. The borders have been extended beyond those creeks in some places, but the name, Finca la Isla, remains.

Much of the upper farm is forest. When this land was first settled the workable land was cleared and converted to pasture or cacao plantation. The parts which are steeper or difficult to access are primary rainforest. The pasture was abandoned many years ago and is reverting beautifully to secondary forest. You can tell it's going well by the quality of the upper canopy trees. The cacao was abandoned when the blight came about 30 years ago. Cacao is an understory tree and so the big forest trees were never cut: hence it's a fairly simple process for the forest to return. On first sight it all looks like jungle: hanging vines as thick as my arm, roots running rampant in some places as high as my thigh, animals, insects, birds and reptiles everywhere should one be still enough to see and hear them. But to someone more familiar it is possible to tell what was original forest, what was pasture and what was plantation by the types and forms of the trees present.

Within the upper farm lies growing areas for salak, greens, vanilla and fruit orchard. Another slope is dotted with black pepper. The farm plants are interspersed with forest which makes for a very beautiful farm. The forest trees act as windbreak, create micro-climate, help with pest control by supplying habitat and diversion for beneficial insects and animals as well as pests. Their falling leaves, fruits and branches become compost and mulch, and when a big tree falls it creates more space and light for possible new farm plants, or forest trees. Our farm plants are mixed together though we do tend to group species, hence the vanilla is separated from the salak by edible ferns, katuk, passion fruit, curry tree and several citrus, and separating two salak areas are more fruit trees, yampi and several great mushrooming stumps. Only the vanilla is in rows, everything else is planted at will.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


I'm giving workshops to students interested in sustainable food production. For me that means taking what grows on the farm and making the very most out of it, preserving abundance and appreciating just how much beauty and joy and taste and energy a (fruit) tree creates.

For the student it means spending a day on the farm, in the kitchen and orchards watching, experiencing and learning how to do the things I learned from my grandmothers and from my own trials and errors. The students are all North American or European college students or freshly graduated who are down in Costa Rica to learn more about sustainable development or environmental issues or organic farming. They are fun to work with, armed with notebooks and pens, bright eyed and eager, and surprised and grateful at discovering how easy things can actually be.

We start with harvesting whatever is available in the orchards, it might be charichuelo, carambola, araza, cas, nutmeg - depends. While we gather I talk about the farm, cacao production, what happened when the cacao blight hit, monocultures, big plantations. We walk through rainforest back to the kitchen: perfect opportunity to talk about biodiversity, permaculture and tropical farming. We stop to look for edible mushrooms or pick some edible leaves.

Back in the kitchen we make sourdough bread and talk about making the culture. I have them take care of any sprouts that might be growing: both are such easy excellent ways to begin bringing consciousness into one's eating and living, as well as slowing down one's pace by engaging with one's food. I start soybeans for tempeh while they prepare the fruit we harvested.

It's good to see processes through in their entirety so after the fruit is washed and trimmed we make fruit leather and jam, or blend it to make frozen yogurt, or use it in cookies. Or usually all of the above. It helps when students can see different ways to use the fruit and sample the simplicity of each, basically it's just variation on the theme of banana for example, or pineapple. What I want them to experience is that there is absolutely enough and that with a little imagination and creativity, life can be very simple.

We drink kombucha and talk about cultures, ferments and microbes. So many North Americans are raised being afraid of 'dirt' that they don't know just how good it can be! I talk them around my microbe wall, electromicroscope images of lactobacillus, aspergillus, mycelium, rhizopus - all incredibly beautiful and bursting with energy.

Lunch is our sourdough bread with homemade hummus, tempeh or Miguel's cheese, served with whatever we found on our walk, and fruit. After lunch the tempeh is ready to incubate and there's jam to be bottled, dried fruit to be packaged, and sprouts to be watered again. And cookies to look forward to.

The students have an experience of every part of production, from harvest through preparation, drying, baking or preserving, to packaging and labeling. This is a working farm and we sell what we produce. Sustainable means taking heed of livelihood as well as the environment, and I believe it is important to show that one can live well by living simply with one's environment and making the best of what one can find.

Usually by the time afternoon coffee and cookies rolls around the students are so immersed in jams and jars, molds and yeasts, that I'm the only one eating. My small library of books is well thumbed and recipes and addresses are scribbled down on floury pages, while the talk is all about sustainable agriculture and the future of food.

Tomorrow I have two young women coming, one from France working on her masters in Sustainable Development and the other from the States who's thesis is on Food Security. We'll be making bread, tempeh, carambola chutney, lovi-lovi and carambola jam, cas fruit leather, dried bananas and candied ginger. Oh and cookies.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

salad bowl

The area of our farm where most of the edible greens are gathered is called the salad bowl: it sits at the bottom of two gentle slopes with a wall of cycads to one side and a passion flower arbor to the other. The slopes are covered with black pepper plants and fruit trees, pejabaye palms line the edge and form borders throughout as we harvested the heart of palm the same time we planted the salad bowl. The fallen palm trunks have gradually rotted down and are in various states of decay depending on their age when harvested. They have provided us with great mulch and help form mini microclimates, especially at the beginning when we covered the ground with chopped palm fronds and bark. At the moment they are brightly decorated with several mushroom species: pycnoporus sanguineus (good for teas), schizophyllum commune (the world's most common mushroom), and even a fine though small oyster strain, pleurotus ostreatus, and home to numerous colonies of ants and beetles.

We decided to plant the salad bowl in the most natural, least invasive of styles, simply clearing a small patch of mulch, digging a small hole and planting on top of a mix of compost and bat guano harvested from a nearby tree. We then mulched heavily and watered, and on to the next. The plants are not in rows but rather spaced in groups which we think would allow them the most sunlight. We ran tomatoes by an old bean trellis and planted leguminous living stakes (madera negra) by everything we added to the area.

What we have discovered thus far is that Malabar and Okinawa spinach do better in the shade, cranberry hibiscus does not like a lot of rain, cherry tomatoes (local strain) do not like to reseed themselves and everyone enjoys eating camote (sweet potato) leaves.

The salad bowl is an interesting experiment. It's a small area and in total there are probably less than 30 plants, enough to harvest salad greens for ourselves and to sell a few bags at the farmers market, but not nearly enough for any real commercial venture. Our intention was to see what worked and then expand into something we could harvest and sell to local restaurants each week.

We are at the point where we are ready to expand.

edible landscape, looking for help!

When I was little I always wanted a garden where everything was edible, perhaps inspired by that glorious garden in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', I wanted to be able to eat outside without having to use a knife and fork. We're working on that here.

Our edible landscape includes plants suitable for this climate, and we are constantly researching to find local plants which can be used for food. It's a slow task: the local indigenous culture is in that unfortunate stage of shedding all past knowledge, embarrassed that they ate from the jungle when they "were poor". It's hard to get information from a culture increasingly dependent on canned tuna and white bread. The local afro-carribeans brought much of their foodstuffs with them rather than spend years figuring out what they could eat here. So while the rainforest must be full of good greens it's still a mystery really which to eat. Rather we are using greens from other places: katuk from Indonesia, spinach from Malabar and Brazil, false roselle from Africa, plus several common to Central America: camote, pumpkin, chaya, chili, tomato.

Ours is a humid and hot climate with two wet seasons and two dryer seasons, so finding what grows well is a game of trial and error. The false roselle for example prefers a dryer climate than the one we can offer, so it grows really well during the dryer months and suffers in the wet seasons. Being an organic farm we also have our fair share of bugs and some of our greens are really prone to insect damage.

Our last challenge is finding plants, whether it's seeds or starts, to experiment with. Costa Rica is a country of diverse ecosystems and the stores which sell seeds tend to sell varieties that will grow in the highlands, not down here. It's amazing to me that even in the stores in this immediate area one will find carrot and onion seeds, asparagus and beetroot - none of which will grow at all. The seeds are typically imported, mostly from Holland. Who buys these? So while we can discover plants online - yacon for example, or water spinach that might grow here, we don't have access to them. Importing seeds is difficult and in most cases illegal without a permit, and getting a permit is awkward and unpredictable.

So. We grow what we can and experiment and save seeds from what we eat and try to find others who are also trying.

We are most interested in salad greens and edible leaves and flowers. Right now we have:

katuk (Sauropus androgynous)
false roselle / cranberry hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella)
Malabar spinach (Basella alba)
Brazilian spinach (Alternanthera sissoo)
camote (Ipomoea batatas)
pumpkin (Cucurbita sp.)
purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
culantro (Eryngium foetidum)
basil (Ocimum basilicum)
impatiens (Impatiens sp.)
wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis)

We add various ginger flowers to our salads too.

If anyone can suggest other possibilities I would love to listen!

Monday, 6 July 2009

life is a bowl of lovi-lovi

The lovi-lovi (aka rukam, batoka plum, koorkup, lori-lori or Flacourtia inermis to give its 'proper name'), is a smallish tree native to tropical Asia. It has attractive leaves and the cherry sized fruit grow from short stalks along the branches. It flowers and fruits for most of the year, though with marked seasons. The fruits bear an uncanny resemblance to cherries and follow the colour pattern from a yellow green to deep damson. They have a double layer of small grape sized seeds in a 5 pointed star pattern. The lovi-lovi is rather acidic but adds a wonderful colour and tartness. I've used it with Cas and with Carambola, and who knows what else will enjoy its company.

Jam on

Well wasn't I just complaining that the araza season was over and the carambolas were at least a month away? Wrong, wrong, wrong. I was out picking cas and lovi-lovi yesterday and saw several carambolas lying on the ground - on the ground no less! Clearly those at the top of the tree are ripening faster than those I can see on the lower branches. I had only moments before been lamenting the fact that I really needed a few early carambolas to try out recipes before the main harvest began. And once again I got exactly what I asked for.

Carambolas are rather beautiful and strange. Native to Sri Lanka and the Moluccas they have spread all over Asia and now all tropical and subtropical regions. Starfruit in English because the fruit has 5 raised ridges running along its length (rarely 4 or 6 ridges), and when sliced the ridges and the seeds make a nice double 5 pointed star. The fruit tends to be sour, with a fairly detectable oxalic acid content. Sweet carambola do exist, but they're not really so sweet. The fruit is pale to rich yellow when ripe, has a crisp texture and gives a good amount of juice. People tend to use the fruit as a decoration, or juice it, it doesn't have much of a strong character by itself. But it makes a great salsa and can be used for relish and jam.

It's tricky getting carambola jam to set up. There is little if any natural pectin in the fruit and so it must be mixed with something else, hence my need to try out different ideas. I've made two types today, both very different and I think both good, though one certainly wins in presentation.

The jar on the left is a Carambola Butter with Lime and Black Pepper, the one on the right is a Carambola Lovi-Lovi Marmalade.

The butter was made by pureeing the fruit first then cooking up with sugar and the juice and flesh of a couple of limes (I boiled the rinds until tender then added to the cooking butter), I added a good teaspoon of our freshly ground black pepper as it was simmering. The butter has the fresh smell of carambola and the lime comes through strongly in the flavour; the pepper gives it a nice warm glow and spicy aftertaste.

4 cups pureed carambola (I compost the hardest part of the raised ridges and the ends, everything else goes into the blender)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
juice, flesh and rind of 2 limes
big teaspoon ground black pepper

Prepare the rind of the limes by chopping finely and boiling in water for a good 10 minutes. Meanwhile combine other ingredients, bring to quick boil and simmer. Add in rinds and continue simmering for another 10 minutes or so until it thickens and a teaspoon of mix gels (see araza pictures, the butter won't set as well having a different consistency). Can in hot water bath.

The marmalade was much simpler, just a combination of chopped carambola and lovi-lovi in about a 3:1 ratio cooked with sugar, and a little squeeze of lime to bring out the flavours. It has a sweet tangy flavour and the texture and presentation are great.

1 1/2 lbs chopped carambola
1/2 lb lovi-lovi
between 1/2 and 3/4 lb brown sugar to taste
juice of 1/2 lime

mix ingredients, bring to boil and simmer until juice thickens. Test on spoon. This one takes a little longer to set up. Can appropriately!


I'm puzzling over the complexities of compost. It's such a simple idea. Plants grow, they die, they rot, the creatures and microbes that eat them die and they rot, the rotting matter is in turn eaten and digested and becomes food for new growth. It happens everywhere where it is naturally allowed to happen. We humans seem to want to stop it by covering the earth with concrete, sweeping leaves into piles and burning, burying our dead in rot proof containers, filling landfills with organic material. Yet compost still happens.

In the forest it happens with grace and ease - things that were once living die and fall to the ground where other things slowly digest them into smaller and smaller particles and simple nutrients which can then be used by new living things. No one measures the right nitrogen carbon ratios, adds supplements, layers with straw or wood ash, mixes with a fork or turns the whole thing over. Yet in gardening sites everywhere I hear about the importance of turning compost, of the worry that it will stagnate and become anaerobic. It must be that the way we compost is unnatural: we pile everything in one large heap rather than spreading it around. We want compost quickly and thus go to great lengths to speed up the process - we want to control it. And that's okay, we control our gardens, we manage our land.

I read about a system of composting that's used in Nairobi. It must be the simplest 'bin' technique I've heard. Dig a hole slightly smaller in radius, and just as deep as a bottomless basket or bucket. Place the bucket or basket on top. Fill the hole and then the bucket or basket with compost and plant around it. Another version is simpler yet: in a raised bed dig a trench in the middle running the length of the bed. Fill with food scraps. This seems a great idea to me. I have a sample of the bucket technique going and it seems fine, it doesn't smell bad and the scraps - almost exclusively fruit peelings and coffee grounds - are breaking down quite nicely. But I'm not turning it over, is it anaerobic? It's a shallow hole, only 12 inches deep, so maybe the air can penetrate down that far. There are worms and grubs in and around it. The theory of course is that the roots of the plants will reach into the rich seepage of compost tea weeping through the soil. I'm waiting to see how it develops. I'm far more excited by the prospect of having a garden centered around several round oasis of bottomless buckets than having a big compost bin off to one side and orderly rows of vegetables.

Fukuoka and his Natural method of farming let everything be as close to the natural state as possible: no tilling, no weeding, no pruning. In his fields the straw was left to mulch down for the next season's crops. He at one time brought in chicken manure to add to his fields, but after some time stopped and instead introduced ducks to his land. I believe this was the only addition to what happened naturally in his rice and rye/barley fields. The people living with him must have created kitchen scraps and waste, I don't recall how he managed that. I'll need to re-read.

How do you compost?