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.

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Ginger harvest

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Vanilla orchid flower

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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…

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My distracting little helpers

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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.

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

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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.

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Breaking ground! Bamboo stakes mark contour lines

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Using the water level to verify alignment

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

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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.

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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!

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

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Centro courtyard today

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Mark giving the ViVerde team a chainsaw safety briefing

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We started felling and planing our own trees for building

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

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

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

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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.

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A New Perspective

Dear followers of Elephants Anonymous,

My name is Mark Ogren and I have been staying with Gerard, Diane, and Brett at ViVerde since January 10th.  Diane asked me to contribute to the blog, and as my time here is coming to a close I thought I would fill you all in on what we’ve been up to here these last few months. There is a lot to cover, so heat up some tea, fix yourself a sumptuous snack, find a comfortable seat, and enjoy the ride.
First off, Brett and I have known each other since our first week at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA.  We were in a tight group of friends that took the time to visit each other’s families as close as Portland and as far away as Montana, and seven of us had the privilege of living together in a big house off campus for our last two years of school.  Brett and I each took the time to travel far and wide after college, and when our paths crossed we inevitably ended up volunteering together on farms in the states.  Independently, we both became fascinated by the opportunities Permaculture could provide in terms of healing damaged landscapes and offering an outlet for our interests and talents.  As a follower of this blog myself, I was excited to hear about ViVerde’s ambitions as a permaculture education center, and knew that I wanted to come down as early as possible in its development so that I could see it in its first stages and participate in its evolution. I am a wildland firefighter with the US Forest Service in California during the summer months, and when I found out that Brett would be with her parents during the first part of 2017, I decided to dedicate part of my six-month off-season to seeing my friends in Nicaragua and helping them out in any way possible.

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My first week on the farm was mostly getting acquainted with weekly routines and the status of the many projects happening all at once. Brett and I got some practice mapping with Gerard’s 20x20m grid of the property, and placing contour lines on the hillside below the main Centro (see above). Dulci the Rottweiler was heavy with puppies, grapefruits and limes were arriving in the kitchen regularly, and trees continued to lose their leaves as the dry season progressed. I quickly realized that this property has “nothing but potential!”, as we find ourselves saying regularly, and it has been wonderful brainstorming together all sorts of ideas from tree houses to water storage techniques to which plants to propagate next.  

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Thousands of trees planted across ViVerde’s 15 acres by the property’s former owner create an abundant resource of living and dead wood. Here, employee Juan Sanchez bucks up a fallen tree to be carried out of the forest for use elsewhere.

Just as I was getting settled into life in Granada, Gerard and I packed our bags and took a few different buses to get to Rancho Mastatal to spend ten days taking their Timber Framing course.  The instructors, Skip and Liz, have been coming to Mastatal to teach for over 15 years, and their timber framing legacy is visible on many buildings across the ranch.  Our goal for the course was to assemble the frame of a house for two Rancho Mastatal core team members, Nic and Ally.

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Instructors Skip and Liz, and RM Core Member Nic explain vocabulary and concepts in the classroom.

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Skip demonstrates good chiseling technique on a post top tenon. Tenons fit into mortises and are secured with wooden pegs in timber frame joinery.

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Liz demonstrates good mortise drilling technique.

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Gerard hard at work on a post.

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One post can have many joints! How many can you count? This is in one of the many timber framed buildings at Rancho Mastatal.

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Shade cloth was key in making our work area bearable during the hot days in Costa Rica.

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Nic demonstrates impeccable skill in using a chainsaw to freehand mill a timber just a bit too wide.

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Raising day! All materials are ready to take to the building site.

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A cinder block foundation is ready to receive its frame.

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First wall up! Many hands make light work of raising the heavy tropical hardwood frames.

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Second wall up! Notice the temporary bracings used to keep the frames stable until assembly is complete.

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Gerard stands on questionable scaffolding to help place a beam.

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My post! I had a lot of elements to cut, and in the end everything fit together just right.

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Here I am with Nic and Ally’s new view of the beautiful Costa Rican mountains

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Finished! All of the pieces we cut were assembled and raised.

With wood to spare and projects galore, there is no shortage of applications for timber framing at ViVerde in the future.  Now equipped with a chainsaw mill, the sky is the limit for processing a variety of different tree species on site. Though there has not been enough time for Gerard and I to begin chiseling away at the structure for the composting toilet, I’m sure I will have a chance to test out these new skills when I return to Nicaragua in the not-too-distant future.

Once finished with our workshop, Gerard and I met up with Brett to spend a few days relaxing by the beach in Costa Rica’s beautiful Montezuma, visiting other permaculture projects, and celebrating Brett’s 27th birthday. Our main highlight was visiting the property where our friend Sam has designed and installed an impressive permaculture landscape system over a large area that was previously degraded cattle grazing land.

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Gerard and Brett on the ferry to Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula.

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Brett’s birthday began with an early morning swim at a nearby waterfall outside Montezuma, CR.

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Birthday picnic in front of our hostel.

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Brett and our friend Sam overlook the land he has been charged with designing and landscaping within a permaculture framework.

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Many permaculture elements can be seen here. Young fruit trees are planted on contour to help slow soil erosion and collect water. Multiple varieties of the same species are planted closely together to see which ones fare the best. The fruit trees are surrounded by fast growing trees that provide shade and mulch, fix nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil, and produce an edible seed pod.

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We were all impressed with Sam’s water collection system, which can be expanded as needed. And his tank storage area doubles as a great lookout!

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We were blessed with a beautiful sunset as we left the Nicoya peninsula

After visiting multiple permaculture properties in Costa Rica, Brett, Gerard, and I came back to ViVerde bursting with many ideas on how to improve on the measures already taken to store water, build soil, and encourage diversity. However we were quickly distracted by nine new puppies fresh from Mama Dulci! At first they looked and moved more like baby seals, slipping around on the tile floors of the Centro kitchen. It was only a matter of time however before they were up and walking, and they have now grown into miniature dogs – running, chewing, licking, barking, and cuddling. Most have been sold to good homes nearby, and a few still have yet to leave home (Contact Diane or Gerard if you are interested in a healthy Rottweiler puppy!).  Here are some pics of our life with them the last few months.

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My dad, Eric, came to visit us for two weeks. As a professional electrician, he was instrumental in installing lighting fixtures, outlets, and breaker boxes, both where power enters the property and before it splits off to the different buildings on the ViVerde campus.

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An electrician in his element.

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Eric prepares power cable to enter underground conduit so trees will not down the lines.

Once the wiring projects were done in the kitchen, it was time to pour the concrete countertops.  The process had been tested in the formation of two counters for the guest house sinks, and after planning out every step of our procedure, we moved quickly and finished pouring in one afternoon.

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Diane, potion maker extraordinaire, prepares the colorant for the separate batches.

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Gerard surveys our work before the final island is poured.

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Many hands were needed at every step of the way.

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Father and son have a moment together between batches.

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Smiling faces after a very long day.

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Nothing beats a post-work puppy pile.

A few days after my dad left Nicaragua, I set out for southern Belize to take a Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm.  Christopher Nesbitt has been hosting PDCs for twelve years, and growing a food forest for over twenty five years on a riverside property in the heart of an ancient Mayan metropolis.  When I was looking for classes to take during my stay in Central America, I jumped at the chance at visiting a well-established permaculture site.  After a flight through El Salvador to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a few bus rides to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, a water taxi ride to Punta Gorda, Belize, a taxi ride to San Pedro de Colombia, and a dugout canoe ride up the Colombia river, I arrived at the farm and achieved a new personal goal of setting foot in five countries within twelve hours.

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Dugout canoes, or Dories, are the most efficient form of transportation for arriving at MMRF.

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One of the multiple student housing buildings at MMRF, complete with standalone solar system.

A diverse array of student perspectives and a group of thoughtful instructors made for an enjoyable learning experience over the course of two weeks.  There was a lot to absorb, as a PDC introduces a huge swath of different topics, each of which could be worthy of a life’s work worth of research and practice. I came away from the class with many new friends and even more ideas to bring to life at ViVerde.  Among others, some ideas include increased biochar production, successional food forest implementation, and continuing to use holistic management to define short and long term goals and actions. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in tropical food forests and an off grid lifestyle to check in with Chris to hear his story, visit the farm, and take the course if you can.

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Chris gives a lesson on making biochar in the chicken yard.

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Fellow student Esrom teaches us how to patch graft cacao.

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My design group was charged with making a new teacher housing unit for future MMRF expansion.

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MMRF PDC class of 2017!

As I type these very words, the final wax and polish is being applied to the counters, meaning they will be completely ready to use on a daily basis.  The goal was to have mostly moved into the kitchen by last Saturday night, a date set six months ago for a dinner party with local expats. We succeeded in hosting a lovely evening, and the kitchen was full of people talking, eating, and getting to know one another – just what kitchens are for.

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The kitchen is open for business!

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Gerard and Diane can’t contain their excitement at the completion of long-awaited counter tops.

In addition to the counters, I have had the pleasure of assembling cabinet drawers, also of Gerard’s design.  I’m sure by the time I come back the cabinets will be faced with beautiful hardwood, and the pantry will be stocked with spices, jams, and other farm products.

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Brett and I assemble plywood drawers for the kitchen cabinets.

Finally, I also had the pleasure of spending my 27th birthday here on the farm.  Highlights included a church service by the lake, red snapper for lunch, a tour of the Isletas at sunset, and chocolate cake with dulce de leche all made from scratch.  It was on this day that Brett and I also decided to become a couple after being good friends since the first week of college almost nine years ago. We will be together for a few weeks traveling around California during April, after which she will return to New Zealand for an 8-month permaculture design apprenticeship, and I will spend another season with the Forest Service fighting wildfires in Northern California.  We are excited to be back in Nicaragua sometime next year, and I can’t thank Gerard and Diane enough for their hospitality and ability to include me in all aspects of farm life at ViVerde.

Thank you all for being involved with this amazing project, stay tuned for more adventures!

— Mark Ogren —

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Coconut chocolate cake with tamarind filling, dulce de leche drizzle, and spicy sweet walnuts

Greening ViVerde

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.

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Digging swales in the dry season, prepping berm for planting

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Built-in overflow, from one swale to the next

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Mandala garden – repurposing old roof tiles to create bed edges. Gerard and the Juans, making sure all is round and level.

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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!

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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.

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Citrus harvest: sweet oranges, sour oranges, grapefruit, and a whole lot of limes.

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A healthy bed of root crops: ginger, turmeric, and yuca (cassava).

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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.

Settling in at the Farm

By Diane

We moved to our 15 acre farm at the end of August. The month before the move, we were busy procuring what we needed to set up our own housekeeping (the Granada rental was completely furnished). We had fun working with a local metal shop to design and make grillwork for our windows and doors. Granada is full of beautiful ironwork so there were lots of examples to choose from.

Since July we have had two teams rebuilding our fence. The perimeter is .75 miles so it was no small task; this past Saturday was the day they closed the loop. It is a “living fence”, the branches are cut from certain types of trees (on our property) known to grow roots and become living posts. Once established they will not rot. To keep animals out, or in, we are repairing the barbed wire and adding new strands. As soon as the wire on the front side was complete, the neighbors’ pigs stopped coming in. We are also reinforcing a line of pinuelas, a cactus-type “hostile” plant with barbs that you do not want to get hung up on. To achieve the coverage we wanted, we purchased plants from neighboring farms that our guys dug up and had delivered with a horse cart. Once the front line was planted as densely as possible, the neighbors’ chickens stopped coming through (except for one very persistent one that Gerard is having fun chasing off). We also have a clean wide path now all the way around that we can use for walks and runs.

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Notice the green shoots emerging from the new posts.

Pinuelas planted tightly to block animals and people

Pinuelas planted tightly to block animals and people

Local horse cart delivery

Local horse cart delivery

Three weeks ago, we got a female Rottweiler puppy, Dulci. Gerard and I have never had a dog together so it is a new, fun parental experience for us.  Rotties are described as devoted, good natured, alert, obedient, calm, confident, fearless and they make excellent guard dogs and family pets.  She is going to be very big, 100+ lbs and she is growing, literally, before our eyes. I think she has doubled in size since we brought her home.  She is so smart and eager to please, learning new puppy tricks every day. We love her and so does everyone else who works here. I now get what all the fuss is about in having a dog!

Dulci when she was first put into my arms, at about six weeks.

Dulci when she was first put into my arms

With her furry friend

With her furry friend

It is great living here, so much cooler and quieter than Granada. With rainy season finally kicking in, everything has turned green. It rains every two or three days for less than an hour, usually toward the end of the day. Close to the house we have seen toucans, parrots and other colorful birds in our trees, and iguanas and frogs on the grounds. Our guys are clearing brush and we are thrilled to discover numerous fruit trees of many interesting varieties and 100+ coffee plants. We intend to bring these mature trees back to their productive best. We are pruning and using the fallen leaves and sticks from this and all the clearing as mulch (no organic matter goes wasted) and will soon add manure from the farm next door.

Everything is green now

Everything is green now

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Young iguana

Have you ever seen a frog like this one?

Have you ever seen a frog like this one?

Our first three weeks were with very limited wifi but now we have a seventy foot tower that transmits a good signal. Gerard spent mucho time on this, assessing the options and choosing the best one to meet our longterm needs.

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Installation of wifi tower

We are excited to welcome our first volunteers. Brett and Nathan will be back after Thanksgiving, two of their friends in January and my sister in law, Laurie and nephew Adam in February. We are getting ready for them!