domingo, 31 de mayo de 2009

natural born killer?

Organic Farming is a concept that, for me, has always conjured up associations like healthy, natural, ecologically-friendly, for the most part peaceful images. Well, I'm only a few months into this, but i'm learning fast: organic gardening is BRUTAL. by brutal i mean bloody. If you want plants to grow, other things have to DIE, it's cut-throat, people!
This is coming from a gal who consciously avoids ants on the sidewalk; who painstakingly removes spiders from inside the house in a jar in order to release them outdoors; a firm believer in karma!

Everything changed when i met Enemy #1
Anasa tristis

Enter the aptly if not creatively named Squash Bug: a pest who lives to suck the juices out of poor innocent squash, cucumber, and melon plants, reducing them to shriveled yellow shells of their former selves. In larger more-developed plants, the squash bug may only cause minor damage. However smaller, weaker plants are lambs to the slaughter, which i fear is the case with my yellow saffron summer squash, pictured here:
At first hesitant to blame the colorful cheery little buggers, internet research left no doubt: my squash was under attack. And the squash bugs were not acting alone. oh no.
Enter Enemy #2:Acalymma vittatum

Besting any of James Bond's femme fatales, Striped Cucumber Beetles dazzle and distract with their showy good looks all the while eating to death beloved yellow squash and zucchinis.

According to online garden advice, both of these pests are formidable enemies. Though i advanced with chemical warfare (my homemade garlic/chile spray) it was apparent that hand-to-hand combat was in order.


HA! with rapid response time and spot-on hand-eye coordination, a squash bug meets its demise
A once-timid bodhisattva, i am transformed into a bloodthirsty killing machine.

From what I understand, organic pest control is not hugely successful with either of these pests. In the squash foto above, see the wooden boards i set out as traps--if i get to the farm early enough in the morning, the squash bugs that were lured into my trap are an easy kill. Otherwise, i really am spraying a yummy garlic/chile mixture that is washed off every night in heavy rains :(

Anyone have advice? Is there any more i can do? In a climate where the season never really "ends," i'm nervous that the pest populations may continue ad nauseam....

jueves, 28 de mayo de 2009

friends in low places

Weeds have such a bad name. as in, bad reputation. There is an entire industry bent on killing, removing, destroying, eradicating weeds, the unwelcome guests at every garden party. And i admit, i was amongst the ranks of such weed-haters not so long ago. Encroaching on my precious cultivated beds, pesky, sometimes spikey persistent invadors! i diligently plucked every eager weed that dare to sprout in my garden plot.
proof: me and my bare soil garden last fall

However, thanks to the kind advice of more experienced farmers than I, my eyes have been opened.
A weed by any other name, is MULCH:

Allowing weeds to sprout up around your crops creates a groundcover that holds in moisture (note: this applies to weeds of shorter stature than your desired crops) even if it does tend to look a little messy.
and when it is necessary to pull tall weeds, use them as regular MULCH, like i did here around mis melones:
All decomposing plant matter contains nutrients, so why not recycle unwanted plants?

And most impressively, weeds can act as CROP TRAPPINGS, as with my papaya sapling:
There are plants out there that are intended to bait pests, thus protecting the farmer's prized crops. in this case, a volunteer crop trapper showed up near my papaya--what a trooper! Not sure what plant it is, but i believe it's the same valiant fall guy pictured here with a baby tomato plant, again taking all the hits so that my cultivated baby can survive:
i guess it's tasty? The tiny round bites suggest an insect pest, though i have also found large jagged nibbles of the rabbit-mouth variety.
Keep up the good work, mis amigos!

martes, 26 de mayo de 2009

Las Tres Hermanas

As a gal with two brothers, perhaps i was especially drawn to the idyllic notion of a Three Sisters Garden. Or maybe it's remnant passion from my anthropology undergrad days--i was completely riveted for an entire semester of Native American "Indians," and to be honest i still maintain a fascination with any indigenous culture. OR just maybe, as i initiate myself into the cult of gardening, it is a right of passage to attempt this historical romantic and much-hyped traditional technique.
i did my research. many tout the awesome triad of responsibility that corn, squash, and beans share amongst each other in the garden:
the eldest sister, she provides strength and support,

with her wide-spreading vines and large leaves, squash acts as a living mulch, shading out potential weeds and holding in moisture for herself and her sisters,

and finally BEANS
the littlest sister winds her way up the corn stalk, and as a legume fixes nitrogen in the soil to feed her sisters.

SOUNDS groovy. however, lots of serious gardeners consider the three sisters gig to be an impractical, unproductive waste of space; they commonly argue these three (non-sisterly) points:
1) Corn is not always the sturdiest stake, and pole beans are an impressively aggressive climber. true story.
2) Scientific naysayers claim that the beans are technically not able to provide nitrogen to their sisters, as the nutritional benefit to the soil is reaped after the fact.
3) Lastly, the everyday farmer notes that tripping through tangled squash vines to harvest corn and beans is ANNOYING and UNNECESSARY.

Holding fast to my sister-less native-people-obsessed gullible-gardener persona, i embarked on the 3 sisters garden project regardless. the above fotos are MINE! after barely one month of transplanting the corn (golden bantam) and squash (saffron yellow), VOILA!
Different native american tribes reportedly grew the three sisters together, though in different patterns. I crafted my garden with interspersed mounds: corn and pole beans in one, squash in the other. i have also seen layouts with squash surrounding each corn/bean mound as well as a huge block of corn with beans and squash planted around the perimeter.
i unwittingly chose a non-spready squash variety, reducing treacherous foot trapping. the sweet corn got blown to heck in its early days, but gosh darnit if the lovely ladies aren't supporting pole beans AND sporting EARS already!!! mira:Without even having tasted the full bounty of el projecto de las tres hermanas, i am already hugely satisfied, pleased, and proud. Like all healthy sibling relationships, las tres no son perfectas...(the squash are bitter and full of seeds; the corn is way short; beans cannot grow to full height, etc) but that's family for ya. Does is it seem like somewhat of a pain in the ass? Yes. Do i LOVE the three sisters anyway? totally!
p.s. my rain dances are starting to pay off:

lunes, 11 de mayo de 2009

yerbas & spices

Through a process i like to call taste and error, i have come to learn and identify many old favorite flavors amongst a sea of new and unusual looking plants. This process is an integral part of my cultural immersion as plants have become something of a medium in my communication. i love cooking, i love el mercado, i love gardens, and i love plant nurseries. For these loves, i frequently plunge myself into awkward partially-intelligible conversations in which i'm sure i come across as a gringa loca; HOWEVER, i usually emerge with new and valuable knowledge of the aforementioned heart throbs.
Case in point numero uno: my quest for CILANTRO
A favorite of mine, i came into Nicaragua confident that cilantro was as spanishy as a word can get, an herb requisite in mexican cuisine, certainly an EASY FIND throughout all Latin America! Imagine my dismay when i scoured the market, inquiring constantly cilantro? Hay cilantro? Busco cilantro? and the ladies kept showing me this plant:
obviously NOT cilantro, to which i shook my head and kept searching, oblivious to the identical cilantro scent of Eryngium foetidum, commonly known as culantro (with a hard c, like a k) or Puerto Rican coriander. the above plant grows abundantly in our backyard and has become essential in all my soups, sauces, and salads.

Happily, I made the connection between mentha and mint on my own. despite the lack of any apparent physical similarity, the nose knows While i'm content using mentha in my mojitos, we all know this woody plant with rounded leaves is not a member of the authentic square-stem Mint Family. so what is it?

They handed me this one on a plate: Oregano
Plectranthus amboinicus

Also known as Cuban Oregano, Mexican Mint, and Spanish Thyme. Call it what you will, these guys propagate beautifully from cuttings and do wonders for a spaghetti sauce.

My garden boasts two basil varieties--again, smelling is believing.
The purplish leaves are tiny but pungent, and somehow i got the idea that this one is of Thai basil descent, but i haven't made an official identification yet. It does provide a fantastic flavor in combination with coconut milk, garlic, hot chiles, and one final herbal wonder in mi jardin:

Zacate Limón
Andropogon citratum

Nothing beats the zing of lemongrass in a Thai coconut soup! Not to mention its presence as a grassy bed end plant. Stalks are always available and will propagate readily.