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Gardening What Grows: Using Nature’s Choices a Year Later

About a year or more ago, after eighteen months of traveling, my wife Emma and I returned to the closest thing we have to a home: an eco-lodge in Guatemala, in a small village outside the tourist hub of Antigua. Earth Lodge has been the place we go when we run out of steam. It has been a haven and space for personal growth, and it comes with the benefit of lots and lots of avocadoes. We’ve spent half of the last six years here.

When we returned, we did so with a new passion for permaculture, and our friends Drew and Bri, the owner/operators of “the Lodge”, obligingly provided a space amongst the avocado grove to play. The space wasn’t a promising one: The avocado trees nearby had never done particularly well, and the few citrus trees within the area had never put out much fruit. In a word, it was—and Drew didn’t mince words—a challenge for us and our new techniques.

The other challenge at Earth Lodge is its elevation, around 1800 meters, which is high enough to start interfering with plant growth. It’s great for avocadoes, and the farm is next door to a sprawling coffee finca. While some things—kale, basil, lettuce, parsley—grow fantastically in the eternal spring climate, other plants that typically thrive in the region have proven more difficult. Papaya trees grow willingly for a meter or two and then seem to regret it. Even the Lodge’s t-shirts suggest the sage-like advice: Blame it on the altitude.

What We Were Working With

Nasturtium Reemerging (Emma Gallagher)
Nasturtium Reemerging (Emma Gallagher)

The space we were given was part of a series of terraces, maybe four, about two or three meters wide and that drop a meter or less between each level. They get plenty of sun but, starting along a mountain ridge, also an equal amount of wind from multiple directions, something I’d learned well when I developed a short-lived obsession during kite season one year. Nothing had ever done particularly well there, and Drew was curious to see if we could make anything happen.

What we did have to our advantage was a well developed soil building system. There were properly aged compost heaps, mule manure on the ready, leaves to be raked up from pathways, and spoiled mulching hay swept from the mule’s stall. Many of the pathways had little corner piles of eroded topsoil that could be easily scooped, and a site recently excavated for an earthbag structure had produced an abundance of rocks to use as borders.

What We Did to Start

Banana Circle (Emma Gallagher)
Banana Circle (Emma Gallagher)

It took roughly a month of work, but we installed water catchment paths, two hugelkultur beds, a banana circle, and various raised and sheet mulch gardens around the existing trees. Outside the area, we channeled water along the landscape, moving it towards the garden area instead of cascading right off the property. And, using some of the materials, we built a quick leaf compost to help add quality organic material atop the rather depleted soil, noticeably unlike most of the 40 acres.

There were also plenty of plants to begin with on site: assorted chili peppers, culinary herbs, chaya, moringa trees, and sweet potatoes (growing out of the compost). Additionally, a great organic farm, Caoba Farms, was down in town and had some other plants—lulo, nasturtium, blackberries, fig, strawberry guava, edible hibiscus varieties, comfrey, etc.—for experimentation. We planted thickly to see what would take.

What Happened in the Meantime

Citronella with a Basil Backer (Emma Gallagher)
Citronella with a Basil Backer (Emma Gallagher)

When Emma and I once again left the Lodge, the garden had survived an extended dry season without too much bother. The water catchments and mulch had kept things humid and happy, and we’d even harvested a melon or two, flaunted a pumpkin, saw the mandarin tree produce its best harvest yet, and made some soup with the lot of beans we’d planted. But, ultimately, as we do, we left and, in turn, left the garden to its own devices.

2015 proved to be an exceedingly off year for rain in Guatemala, and wet season didn’t really begin until three-plus months after its normal start, which equated to much less water than the plants normally get. Even so, some of the annuals we planted—sweet potato, flax, chia, and assorted beans—did just fine, while other plants like comfrey, moringa, Malabar spinach, and nasturtium, known for being hardy to invasive, kind of wilted away. Somewhere in between were perennials like blueberries, raspberries, lulo, strawberries, gooseberries (which did well then died), and few others.

What Direction We Are Moving In

Lavender (Emma Gallagher)
Lavender (Emma Gallagher)

However, some plants worked very well. Pigeon peas sprouted up to about three meters high and yielded an impressive harvest. Lemongrass went from spindly transplants to thick tufts. Citronella expanded exponentially. Rosa de Jamaica and cranberry hibiscus both needed serious pruning. Herbs, including basil, parsley, oregano, and lavender, thrived atop their hugelkultur, and mint and peppermint did well in other, shadier areas. Chaya had gone from planted sticks to full-on bushes. And, for a short while, sweet potatoes had completely taken over the untended garden, including pathways.

Now, we are back for another month or three at the Lodge. Knowing that the garden will be more or less left to its own devices, save for our visits and the occasional interested Lodge volunteer, we’ve decided to foster the varieties that survived our absence, the assorted berries as well as slow-going strawberry guavas and mulberry trees, while expanding the amount of what worked well on its own. We’ll be refilling the vacant spaces with voracious, self-sufficient growers so that the garden thrives in our absence and can be expanded, both in size and variability, when we are around.

What We Are Doing Now

Recovering Strawberry Plant (Emma Gallagher)
Recovering Strawberry Plant (Emma Gallagher)

This year, here at the beginning of rainy season, with a couple of good showers in the books, we’ve noticed the nasturtiums and comfrey, which had completely disappeared, making an auspicious comeback, and after being pruned, the berry plants (except the completely departed gooseberry) are looking healthy and poised for production. New sweet potatoes are on the rise, and the whole garden has been weeded and mulched anew.

The next big phase of our little project here will be to refill the vacant spots in the garden area and begin planting between the avocado trees nearest the garden. We will be creating small sheet mulch beds with pigeon peas, Chaya, basil, and lemongrass with a few other experiments and site successful perennials, like chard and kale, tossed into the mix, with the main motive of pigeon peas being cultivated as nitrogen-fixing, chop-and-drop mulch for the avocado trees and the secondary effect of havens of food production in the spaces between.

What We Like About It All

Pigeon Pea and Chaya (Emma Gallagher)
Pigeon Pea and Chaya (Emma Gallagher)

Sometimes we find it quite taxing to see the gardens we make fall into states of disrepair. Because we plant mostly perennials and pay attention to the climate we are working in, we know many things will survive without our care (or anyone’s, for that matter), but to see the mulching give way to weeds and little plants we’ve cultivated be consumed by admittedly natural processes is painful. But, to see some thrive…

Earth Lodge has become a great site for us to learn from because we are able to cultivate and experiment in small amounts of time and walk away to see the results some months later, months in which the garden has received no to minimal attention. From this, we can start to play with way we construct beds (sheet mulching really seemed to hold firm for the first year), choose the plants we propagate (only what works, expanding what thrives), and maintain the gardens—from plants to soil to mulch—that we instigate.

Our next phase will likely begin soon and, by the beginning of August, we’ll be off again, hopefully leaving behind a productive new palette to learn from next time we find our way home.

Header Image: Cranberry Hibiscus (Emma Gallagher)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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