Forces of Nature

Millet - L'Angelus

Millet – L’Angelus, 1860 (praying for a better crop, originally painted as praying over their son who died in famine)

When one is working with the earth, sometimes the earth chooses to remind them who is in charge.

I grew up with a few people working in organic agriculture. My uncle has a farm of his own. My mom worked for years as a grant writer for non-profits, as well as writing articles about climate, environment, and food sustainability. I have seen a few times how quickly a crop can find itself in trouble. All it takes is the wrong bug, a little too much water, not enough water, too much frost. All it takes is a small change to ruin everything.

This week is the first week I found myself confronted by nature’s obstacles for the first time. Now, the primary and founding belief of permaculture is that the problem is the solution. It’s easy to say that, but implementing it is a real puzzle.

My first obstacle was Bismark’s twenty-some chickens. The planting beds I made last week will be eternally in danger of being rooted up by the girls and their main man. Chickens can potentially be great for a garden. They eat pest insects and their feces are high in nitrogen, making them an excellent fertilizer. But how to allow them close enough to the plants without allowing them to dig them up is a puzzle.

There is also the issue of the price of chicken wire and whether or not it will be effective. As with all things manufactured and imported, it runs more than it should, about $25 for 30m. An old friend donated some cash to the cause, but I had not yet found out the price of the wire, and so it will either cover seeds, or wire, but not both. There is also the problem that the young chickens will be able to jump it unless it’s so tall as to make access to the garden difficult. So, out of my intrinsic inclination toward frugality and a desire to find a solution that farmers here can implement on their own, I did an awful lot of research.

I’ve decided to try a bunch of rocks. Apparently chickens don’t like the feel under their feet. It just requires a little maintenance in the way of moving them out from the sprout as it grows.

The next obstacle has been ants. Nicaragua has the meanest ants on the face of the planet. I don’t think I’ve ever known such an aggressive insect in all my life. They’re in our yard and at least once a day one manages to bite me and leave an itchy welt. They need no provocation. They eat the plant’s produce and, to make ants even worse and even more fascinating, they cultivate aphids in their nests, which of course spread to the plants.

ant aphid cultivation

To my dismay, I uncovered a huge ant nest where I was making one of the beds. Right about this time I was watching a chicken chow down on a series of chilies. Either they’re real tough or they can’t feel spiciness. I waited and hoped that she’d do me the favor of getting in and rustling up some ants, but after one try she left them alone. They’re mean I tell you.

ant hill

what looks unassuming on the surface is seething underneath

I’m not sure what the best solution to the ants will be. Boiling water with chili might be necessary, but that seems like it would also kill good things in the soil. Still looking into other solutions.

The rainy season is also hard on us, and my biopores, while helping, are not nearly enough.

So nature’s final blow has been a round of fever. Maybe a bit of heat exhaustion, it was hot last Wednesday when I was riding out to Mozonte, I’m not sure. Anyway, I won’t complain, these things happen.

And that’s the moral of the story – set backs happen, especially when working with the earth in all it’s grandness and power. It serves well to be reminded from time to time that I must work within the earth’s rules and guidelines; that I can’t push against her but must find ways to work with her. One can’t grow anything without a little luck and a little favor on the part of the land that grows it.


Biopore Flood Prevention

It’s fall up in those temperate climates nowadays. So if you have a yard and or garden, as you sweep up those leaves, and especially if you live in an area with drainage problems, think about this post.

Flooding is a big problem in this region during the rainy season. I’ve seen a few heavy rains that sent water tearing through the streets and Claudia scoffed at their insubstantiality. Really though, it doesn’t take much for the water to stay above ground level.

The earth in Ocotal is made from clay, rich in nutrients, but rife with drainage issues. Once upon a time there were great pine forests here (in fact, the name “Ocotal” is from the indigenous word for a pine tree). The trees’ roots penetrated the clay and allowed for the water to drain and enter into the groundwater. When the forests were cleared the earth compacted.

Claudia’s stories of previous winters evoked Gabriela Garcia Marquez’ tellings of cooking the crabs that crawled along the floors in the Colombian rainy season, except, there’s less crabs here and so it sounded less fun. A little nervous about a couple months of wet feet, I started doing research into flood prevention and ground water reparation. There is a lot out there about permaculture landscaping with retention ponds and recreating pond habitat, but, sadly, there will be no ponds or streams in this yard, if not for the threat of dengue then for the lack of space.

Then I came across this technique they’re implementing in Jakarta to deal with monsoons. To summarize, it’s basically a deep narrow hole in the ground filled with organic waste. The composting organic material attracts things like worms and insects that aerate the soil and make the earth more absorbent.

breaking ground bar

breaking the earth with the barra

I dug two about a month ago (about 1m deep X 18cm) wide and filled them with the leaves from pruning our mango trees. The last time it rained I was pleasantly surprised (honestly, I had my doubts) to see that in about a 7 foot radius of the holes there wasn’t any standing water after the storm.

I don’t understand why the original design implements cement, it seems unnecessary from what I’ve done so far, but maybe it’s because Indonesian ground is looser? It seems like the compost itself does a fine job of sustaining the walls. Anyway, I have modified their design by getting rid of the concrete and making the hole ever so slightly wider thanks to lack of a post-hole digger.

pouring plant in a hole

pouring a chopped up banana tree in the hole

The idea seems sound to me. The holes both improve rain water penetration and provide for an extremely low maintenance compost pit that re-integrates the nutrients form organic waste into the soil that grew them.

Last weekend I added another hole, and there will be another this week. All it takes is a little digging. I find I can do one in about 3 hours, and it would be faster if the ground weren’t so tough. It’s just a matter of alternating between using the barra and a shovel and scooping.

finished biopore

Finished biopore. Hm, it looks like I just spent 3 hours doing nothing.

Then I throw in whatever I can get my hands on. This recent hole had a chopped up banana tree, some rotting fruta de pan, and a bunch of mango leaves.

To add to the rewards, around here at about a meter’s depth one finds real clay, though not the high quality red stuff they have in Mozonte. This last time I showed Claudia’s daughter Nicolle how to get the grit out by soaking it in water.

home-made clay

Nicolle made a cake

home made clay head

I made a head. In your face Nicolle.

It was the mango leaves that made me think that this is something that might be useful back in the temperate Northern lands too. Right now everyone with a yard has a pile of leaves that will probably be hauled away in Yard Waste trucks. It’s easy to forget that when they haul away those leaves, they’re hauling away topsoil and all the good nutrients in the earth that it took to grow them that could be going into the growth of food. Why would anyone just give that away?

Interesting note: Its actually not an entirely new concept. To my surprise, I came across a passage the other night in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, set at the beginning of the 20th century, talking about a plot of land on hard clayey earth. One character said something to the effect of, “if we could just dig enough holes into it, maybe some water would get in there.”

Crop Diversity with Earlham College

Last week work started with two students from Earlham College, Sadie and Eliza, who will be working on developing crop diversity at Noemy and Bismark’s farm. This type of work is a large part of the focus of our project, and it is so incredibly important in the region of Nueva Segovia.

As I see it, this work with these girls at Earlham is the beginning. By creating small scale multi-culture on a single farm we will begin to establish the availability of diverse seeds and provoke community interest.

With the girls from Earlham we’re starting slow. The family’s time for taking care of new crops is limited, and so we need plants which are easy to take care of. Even the best permaculture designs still require maintenance. We’re beginning with plants which are native or grow rapidly and easily in the climate here.

So, we decided to begin with a maracuya (yellow passionfruit) trellis out in the rocky, arid, unused plot behind the house. Maracuya is fast growing and healthy. Even better, it is well loved by people here, especially as a juice, and so it’s sure to get some use.


agriculture volunteer build passionfruit trellis

Stomping on dirt (the work here is always glamorous)



The first step was to go out into the timber stands and chop down a couple trees (at some point I’d like to see these vines climbing in stands or on bushes themselves, but due to tree-height and nasty ground cover it makes pest and illness management problematic for the time being). I could never be a butcher. I felt a little guilty just felling a tree, something which made me aware of just how disassociated from the sources of well, everything, we are in the States. It’s one thing to pick a tomato and say you feel connected to the source of your food. Those trees were probably at least 10 or 20 years old and it took a lot of energy for them to grow. It made me really feel how much energy goes into the wood for a house.


Sadie waters some sticks


When the trees were cut up into some Y branches and runners to go on top, the girls and I got to digging into the rocky soil. It was a hot afternoon of work breaking the soil and getting the holes deep enough.


Now Eliza’s watering sticks too


Once the sticks were in place we poured water on the dirt around them to set it better. We put some other sticks in the Ys and tied them on.


agriculture volunteers build passionfruit trellis

One day of work done! (it looks easier without any photos of the digging)


The next day Sadie and I went up to put string on the trellis. Claudia pointed out to me that it will need another support stick in the middle to support the fruit’s weight, so I suppose we’ll have to throw another branch in the next time we go up. We also dug another hole for planting and mixed the rocky sandy soil with some nearby clay and some chicken feces from the coop.


agriculture volunteer builds passionfruit trellis

Sadie puts string up for the vines to climb.


I can’t express how good it feels to work outside. I spend a lot of time on the computer doing translations for our tours and different promotional work for the project, but I love working in the field.  It’s nice to have a finished product that you can touch.


agriculture volunteers build passionfruit trellis

That’s a lot of chicken poop.


In the coming weeks, Eliza will be making a garden behind the house and Sadie will be working in increasing the crop diversity through transplants and the construction of a seed bank. I’m excited to have them on board.


agriculture volunteers build passionfruit trellis



Claudia’s been finding all sorts of seedlings in our compost pit. I’ve been taking tally and making some observations about what would make an easy and well used transplant.

Hopefully, when people in the community see their neighbor with a bunch of passionfruit, taro, chaya, dragonfruit, and whatever else we can manage to plant they’ll want a little for themselves.