I ♥️ ViVerde

By Brett Liza Rousseau

I have now returned to ViVerde three times and it’s no surprise that the more time I spend there, the more connected and in love I am with the land, the tropical lifestyle, our project, and its community. Most of the trees we planted in the beginning have now at least doubled in size, and when in season, limes, grapefruit, papaya, starfruit, sour oranges, jocote (a plum-like fruit), mangoes, and bananas come rolling in the door. We have grown ourselves a buffet of “all-you-care-to-eat” ginger; Mom and I firmly believe in the ginger-every-day diet and our immune systems thank us. We still battle the birds and squirrels for the sweeter things, but our aim is to one day grow enough for everyone. I make a mean chili-lemongrass-ginger mojito, ingredients harvested from the gardens surrounding our kitchen. We had our first vanilla orchid bloom (yes, vanilla is an orchid!) and YouTube educated ourselves on how to hand pollinate with a toothpick. Our living spaces are coming together beautifully; art begins to coat the walls, quite literally.


Ginger harvest


Vanilla orchid flower


Homemade wines with fruit from the farm: starfruit, tamarind, Jamaica, and nancite

My mother, Diane, has always cultivated and nurtured my inner artist, so it is no surprise that when we’re together, we create art. Our media of choice this time: mosaics. I last mosaicked when I was eight, making a cracked tile pig stepping stone. I suppose in hindsight, this time I should have started with something small, but that has never been the Laughter-Rousseau way. So I tackled a 27 square foot wall, behind a hand-wash sink underneath the staircase of the Centro. Mosaics are fun in that they shift and shape depending on what you have to work with – it’s a puzzle, really, the only difference being that, as the artist, you get to say what it will look like when it is put together. I had just come back from eight months in New Zealand with shells in my pockets and ocean coastline on my mind. Also, being the opportunistic “collectors” we are, we ended up with bags and bags of broken tiles from friends who had redone their pool. These became my pelican feathers. A variety of turquoise tiles were easily sourced locally. This became my water and sky. And then it started to take shape…


My distracting little helpers


All it needs now is the hand washing sink

Simultaneously Diane was working on a series of jungle-themed mosaics to line the walls of our new guesthouse outdoor showers. We have always loved the French painter Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes (no family relation, though in artistic spirit we are of the same tribe.) It too was large and ambitious and, after popping over occasionally to help her, I was soon sucked in. Loving the flexible work hours and the spaciousness of our new shop, we often worked past sunset, sipping on fruity farm wines and willing dinner to cook itself.

Not only will our future visitors get to shower under the stars, with plant tendrils cascading from high up on the wall, but it will feel as though you’ve stepped into a magical jungle world, where monkeys run off with oranges and lions casually avert their eyes.

When you mix art with dirt you get earthen building. Our cob bench has been a process, slowly coming to life as we have had visitors and volunteers come and work with us. It was by chance traveling in Guatemala that I met Liz Johndrow, a natural building expert with a project in Nicaragua that empowers women to build (http://earthenendeavors.com).  She has since visited ViVerde a number of times and helped us not only with our bench, but with the earthen floors in our new guesthouse. We made a few structural adjustments to the bench and strengthened the overhanging lip with “corbels”, the cob building equivalent of rebar. It still awaits the final finish.

cobbing with D, B, Liz, Fabi

Liz and Fabi taught us how to strengthen the overhang with corbels

IMG_3571.Palapa side

Now with its own thatch roof, ready for the rains

During this stay at ViVerde, I tackled the landscaping of the prominent hillside stretching down from the Centro. It is not only our main view, but also gets the most sun on the property. Because of its proximity to the primary building, the design needed to accommodate and maximize the inputs of gray water from the kitchen and large amounts of roof runoff in big rains. With Mark’s help, I began staking and mapping, using the natural contours of the land to inform my design. I consulted with my dad, Gerard, to make retaining walls structurally sound, worked with the Juans to dig, check levels, set cut stones. I left my mom, Diane, with a planting plan for when the rains arrive.


Breaking ground! Bamboo stakes mark contour lines


Using the water level to verify alignment


IMG_3420.Centro hillside projectJPG

Rotting logs mounded under soil to decompose and build rich soil, a version of “hugelkultur”


Swale (ditch on contour) for catching and sinking rainwater; lower berm staked for planting

The top of the hill is high and dry and therefore lent itself well to growing herbs, chilies, and pineapples. Half way down the slope we carved a large swale to hold the water from large rains as long as possible, maximizing infiltration, before overflowing through the coconut grove. We planted kumquats, pomegranates, oranges, mandarins, and figs as well as adjacent support species to fix nitrogen, provide shade and biomass for mulching.


In classic Laughter-Rousseau fashion I was sweaty and dirty and working up to the very last minute, putting plants in the ground as I watched the ViVerde sunset. It is always so hard to leave! I sat on the back steps with Diane and Gerard, Mario, Dulci and a few remaining puppies and we reminisced on all we had accomplished in five months, the friends and family we had hosted, and the potential and progress to look forward to. Time and again I feel so lucky and blessed to be working on this project with my family, letting our strengths and weaknesses balance each other, and making ViVerde a reality – not so long ago it was just a brainstorm on the whiteboard!


Memory lane:  Centro courtyard when we arrived 3 years ago and planted our first bananas


Centro courtyard today


Mark giving the ViVerde team a chainsaw safety briefing

IMG_3373.felling and planing cedros

We started felling and planing our own trees for building


Juan L,  Juan S and Jose looking snazzy in their matching ViVerde shirts


This chapter will be fondly remembered for Dulci’s 9 puppies and the fun we had with them


My birthday present to myself was learning to drive the family tuk tuk. Freedom!


Mark and I, enjoying the ridge view of the Laguna Apoyo

My body had to acclimatize quickly as I am now in New Zealand, delving into its winter. I will be here until the end of December working with a man I met when I came through last year, Jason Ross of Habitate (http://www.habitate.co.nz).  He has his own heritage fruit tree nursery and landscaping business, specializing in home orchard and berry gardens. As I build my knowledge and expertise in landscape design and perennial food systems, I am thriving.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kathryn Moseler
    Aug 07, 2017 @ 08:50:30

    Thanks Brett! I enjoy your writing and pics. They show off so well the work you all are doing. I’m elated by the vision, industry, persistence, creativity, true Grit of the work you all accomplish.
    Keep up the good work! Love, Kathryn


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