Thursday, 29 July 2010

how green does your school garden grow?

It's Summer vacation for the kindergarten right now and I've taken the opportunity to get in there and do a bit of creative re-evaluation. It's been a lot of fun. The garden is small, about 12 meters by 6 with a 5 by 3 shaded area between the buildings. When we started in February we wanted as much free running and playing space as possible, and we thought we might only have the site through July, so we just cleaned it up, planted a couple of small beds and started a loofah vine up the front of the building.

The loofah took over and though it was pretty against the bright yellow wooden building it started looking really raggy by the windows and covered one bed entirely. I like the shambling cottage look, but it was too much crazy wildness for the children and so it has been cut back to a trim central column climbing to the ridge of the roof then out across the yard on a narrow trellis and onto the front fence. Only now is it beginning to flower, we thought we would have loofahs by October but it looks like it'll be later if the flowers are only now starting. I was hoping we'd get enough to eat (loofahs are very edible when young), but I think we'll get just enough to make Christmas gifts for parents.

We had a couple of pineapples and they fruited, producing several suckers: we now have a fairly respectable pineapple patch with maybe 16 pineapples plus others in beds and lining the path to the bathroom. 

Our sand box surrounds a dear old grapefruit tree. I've fenced the box off on one side with Nadera Negra which are leguminous short trees which give a pretty pink flower, edible when cooked. Madera Negra is grown from a stick, I planted 10 a foot apart and strung twine between them. I've planted Sorosi on the trellis, Sorosi is a very feathery, sweet delicate little vine with cheery yellow flowers and a knubbly yellow orange fruit. It's very bitter and a strong medicinal, all the children here know it and know that their neighbors and grandparents take it to "strengthen the blood".

Beside the door to the kindergarten I've planted Aloe Vera under the eaves where the rain won't reach, it's a tricky plant to grow in this humid climate, but worth it. On the other side I've put a Bandera de Espana, a pretty vine with olive leaves and creamy white flowers with a dark pink center.

Our tomatoes are doing well trellised up a wall with plenty of mid morning sun and protection from the rain. I've put another three papayas in bringing our count to 5 - necessary because one never can tell who'll be a boy! Our largest papaya has just come out as a boy, which we really don't mind as the flowers smell wonderful! But I'd like all the rest to be big strong fertile girls.

Our tea corner now contains Lemongrass, Ginger, a local Licorice and Orozuz (a local relative of Stevia), I'll add some Carpenter's Bush which gives a really nice subtle calming tea  and makes a pretty groundcover.

Our coconut palm is coming along. It was a volunteer when we took over the school site and we kept it, it'll be 5 years before it fruits, who knows what will happen in that time?

In all I've added four more beds with mixes of edibles and ornamentals. I've tried to keep the colors in the purples, pinks and blues to tone down the brilliant yellow of the building and the sheer green of the garden. The beds sculpt the layout of the garden and give it a bit more definition and direction. The next thing I'd like to do is put in a very small, very shallow pond (about the size of our dishwashing bowl) purely to add some water hyacinth, tadpoles, duckweed and dragonflies. The newest ornamental additions all attract butterflies. How lucky these children are!

Let's see, so we have coconut, papaya, pineapple, grapefruit, tomato. I've still to put in a banana. For teas we have ginger, lemongrass and hibiscus sweetened with orozuz. For fresh greens I've planted katuk, camote, two types of wandering jew and culantro which can be prettied up with petals from the hibiscus and impatiens. I've still to add the carpenter's bush (tilo) and some purslane I found growing in a meadow neighboring the school. And there are two types of edible mushroom; oyster and wood ears, which we use in our Thursday soup.

That sounds like a pretty well rounded garden! More edibles than ornamentals and a good handful of medicinals. Plenty of scents, colors, textures and layers to stimulate the children's senses and imagination. And of course foster their love of plants and gardening!

Successful compost delivery!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

snake day

The farmer and I both dreamed of snakes last night, there was nothing snakey about yesterday, but today there certainly was.

On the way back from the farmers' market we paused on the driveway to let a boa cross our path. He was in no hurry and ambled slowly across the road, not so very big, maybe 5 foot, and beautiful. I have a 12 minute video of a boa eating a squirrel, or rather the second half of the squirrel, filmed one morning on the path below the house. The squirrel had been in a cacao tree and both had fallen onto the logs below. All I could do was wait, there was no way around. When she finished she scowled, raised herself up and flicked her tongue at me. I know it was rude to record her, but what else could I do there with a camera? (I was late for a meeting and hence had to show my reason.) We like and encourage boas in this area, great rodent control! And as soon as I work out how to upload the video I'll do it!

Back on the farm we heard that the workers had killed a terciopelo (Bothrops asper), or fer-de-lance in English. One of them had seen it yesterday near the public road that runs through the farm and all three had returned this morning to look for it. The fer-de-lance has a terrible reputation - the "ultimate pit viper", and is responsible for most of the venomous snake bites in Costa Rica. It's large and nervous / aggressive, and is almost always killed on site by the locals. Normally we do not like snakes being killed on the farm, but with this one we allow it. Having the Botanical Garden with its many visitors we can't take the risk. So it had been killed as quickly and as simply as the men could do it: they caught her with a forked stick and broke her skull.

We went over as soon as we could. She was a good size, beautiful and sleek. Her skin was the most scaly skin I've ever seen on a snake, not small close fitting mosaic style scales, but large diamond shaped ones which all seemed to move independently. Her belly looked almost like a shrimps the way the large rectangular scales overlapped each other. They were as smooth as glass and a wonderful creamy white. Terciopelo means velvet in Spanish, and her back did feel somewhat velvety with each scale having what seemed like a soft nap to it, but it was a hard sort of velvet. The skin was loose on her, probably to allow for its elastic nature. Her vertebrae were hard and raised in a ridge that ran the whole length of her body. I have never been so close to a fer de lance before and was surprised by how blunt and snubbed her nose was. The skull was broken so we couldn't save it for cleaning and we didn't open the mouth to look for her fangs - there are too many stories of venom leaving those fangs even after the snake is dead.

The farmer wanted to try the meat and so Evenor and I cleaned and dressed her. We slit the length of her back and removed the skin which came off easily. Very simple to dress, the ribs and meat wrap around the alimentary canal and organs which come away from the flesh easily just with pulling. It is a two person job, but not messy or difficult. It was in cleaning her we confirmed she was female (I had thought so due to her size and aggression): terciopelos give birth to live young and she had about 80 embryonic sacks with 3 inch, still transparent, snakes inside. Sad, always sad to see such beautiful creatures killed, but also lucky for us in that by killing one snake we had avoided the possibility of killing 80 others.

We buried the head and viscera and took the meat and skin home. The dogs sniffed cautiously at the skin and then retreated giving a wide berth - this I was very happy to see! I stretched and tacked the skin to a board, scraped it several times until it was soft and clean and then rubbed ash all over the inside and have left it propped up below the house where the breeze will reach it. The farmer oven roasted about 9 inches with black pepper. It was very tasty, a lot like chicken breast but more tender. The only issue is the bones which are fairly soft but not soft enough to eat. We'll use the rest for soup, I think the meat will come right off the bones. Eating her for me was the best way to respect and value and give gratitude for her life. Her beautiful skin will be used in the botanical garden to show visitors and to educate a little more about the types of snakes and creatures which make this area their home.

I did have a third snake experience today. I was going to the kindergarten to water our newest garden additions and a group of local kids and two youngish men were standing staring at something in the pasture. There was a lot of brandishing with sticks so I asked and they said it was a terciopleo. Having come freshly from the dressing, still with spots of blood on my leg, I wanted to see. Plus it was close to where we had spotted the boa earlier. Sure enough it was a boa, probably the same one. I had a hard time convincing the others it was not venomous, dangerous or anything to be feared. Most people kill all snakes on sight here and many crazy stories are wildly believed such as boas give birth to terciopelos once they reach a certain age, or that they have a venomous bite at night. Total baloney of course, but it's really hard to shake fear out of people. The kids wanted to start throwing stones at it and I had to use my sternest teacher voice to tell them absolutely not. Luckily for the snake and me (I was thinking I'd have to climb through the fence and pick him up to move him somewhere safe, and demonstrate he was in fact harmless), a local amphibian and reptile advocate walked by. He went in, picked up the boa - to the hysterical excitement of the kids - and took it away. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

markets in Mexico

We are back from our trip to Mexico and the States. It was thoroughly enjoyable. It was my first time in Mexico and I loved it! The food, the places, the arts and crafts, the food, the music, the culture, the food, the people, the history, the food, the energy and the atmosphere. The food was great: fresh, simple, tasty and quick, we drove to Veracruz from Mexico City and it seemed that every roadside shack was either a cafe or a mechanics, and sometimes both.

We were in Veracruz visiting vanilla growers around Papantla, a nice little town perched on several hills with lots of trees, a wonderful local historical site, El Tajin, and a local indigenous tradition of dropping off the top of a very high pole suspended on a long rope while a musician dances atop the pole playing beautifully haunting simple pipe and drum tunes. Wonderful.

The markets were busy and bustling with great fresh produce and tons of character. Here are some pictures to whet the whistle: