By Brett Liza Rousseau
2015 was a busy year for building, hosting friends and family, and
familiarizing ourselves with Nicaraguan life and culture – it was also
a busy year of planting. In the past year and a half we have planted
over 150 fruit trees and shrubs, including 40 different species – some
which you know: banana, avocado, lime, coconut, pomegranate, and other exotics like cacao (chocolate pod), ojoche nut, jackfruit, nispero, surinam cherry, star apple, and many more! With our warm-weathered climate, some will begin fruiting within 3-5 years!
In June 2014, I went south to Costa Rica and took a permaculture design course in Costa Rica emphasizing tropical agroforestry systems, which has given me endless inspiration for our work here. Permaculture: Is it a book, a philosophy, a movement? There are many interpretations of the word, but here is my favorite:
Permaculture is the practice of designing sustainable, resilient, and
productive human habitats by following nature’s patterns.
I’ve now spent over a year on the farm and have been acting as ViVerde’s permaculture designer for the plant spaces, sculpting the land for water harvesting and efficiency, building soil, planting fruit trees, developing new garden spaces, learning what does and doesn’t grow, and reviving old fruit trees that had been lost to the jungle. We had inherited a large assortment of citrus and mango trees, coconut, starfruit, and over 100 coffee plants, to name a few.
Before planting the orchards, we needed to get the land ready. In the world of permaculture the three S’s of water management are: slow it, spread it, sink it. Not only is rainwater runoff a lost resource, but it also strips the soil of its most nutritious top layer. By digging a ditch that follows the contour of the landscape, you allow the water more time to penetrate into the soil. Locating swales around fruit trees sinks water where it’s most needed, and encourages deep root growth. Our biggest project was digging 60 meters of swales (1 m deep, 1.5 m wide), and channeling the runoff from the road outside into the property. Considering all was hand-dug, it is a tremendous feat!
Promoting and building healthy soil is another important element of permaculture. Mulch, defined as a “layer of material applied to the surface of an area of soil,” is a technique with multiple functions and benefits. It conserves moisture, improves fertility and health of the soil (by creating habitat for microorganisms), and reduces erosions and weed growth. A variety of materials can be used as mulch: leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, newspaper, plastic, etc. On the farm, fallen leaves abound, and we apply them to our orchard and gardens to imitate nature’s way on the forest floor.
Digging swales in the dry season, prepping berm for planting
Built-in overflow, from one swale to the next
Dressed for success: young fruit tree equipped with swale and leaf litter mulch
Watch Mario and Dulci enjoying the swale after a big rain, video: 25 seconds of fun. You will get an idea of how much water we are now harvesting.
Terraced fruit tree to maximize rainfall, pineapples planted around the rim to maximize space
With its intense wet and dry season, Nicaragua’s climate is tricky
to accommodate. There are times when we need to harvest and
conserve water and other times when we need to shed it – during the peak of
rainy season the ground becomes so saturated with water that the
lower level of the farm becomes a flood plain. Future plans include turning a natural low-point into a seasonal pond.
Rain, rain! A valuable resource that needs to be well-managed
Last year I stubbornly made a go of trying to grow a “North American
garden” and learned my lesson about growing non-climate appropriate
crops. Nothing like learning from your mistakes, right? I also learned
that eggplant and peppers thrive, iguanas eat the green beans, papayas
spring up like weeds , root crops like sweet potato and ginger need little care and perennial greens (such as moringa, katuk, chaya) make a more beautiful and far more nutritious salad than even spinach.
The Mandala garden – repurposing old roof tiles to create bed edges. Gerard and the Juans, making sure all is round and level.
Growing a mixture of perennial greens and vegetables, herbs, and flowering shrubs for the humming birds! Also constructing trellises for beans and grapes.
I have become very interested in edible landscape design, ecological
farming, and inspiring others to explore alternative methods of growing
food, both in Nicaragua and in the States. The opportunity to get
dirty and experiment with landscaping and permaculture techniques,
work with Gerard on gravity-fed irrigation systems, propogate plants with Diane,
and begin my own food forest has been priceless, and already proving
to be delicious!
Our first bunch of bananas, planted 16 months ago. Did you know that bananas are not trees but belong to the grass family? After a bunch is harvested, the stalk is cut down leaving room for its offspring to grow.
Citrus harvest: sweet oranges, sour oranges, grapefruit, and a whole lot of limes.
A healthy bed of root crops: ginger, turmeric, and yuca (cassava).
Leguminous plants, an important element of the forest garden. They fix nitrogen into the soil, create biomass for mulching and are incredibly beautiful! (Arguably my favorite flower.)
Note from Diane: My mom Edna, who was living here with us, passed away on February 5th. She spent the last 2 years, as her health rapidly declined, surrounded by family, amongst growing plants, birds and butterflies, and attended to by wonderful Nicaraguan caregivers. It was her time to go and she is in a much better place. She lived a good life and we were honored to have her with us.