Monday, June 22, 2009


So far, I have had no luck raising tomatoes in San Marcos Guatemala. We are at about 5000ft above sea level and thus, the weather is slightly cooler than tomatoes prefer. There are several local varieties of tomatoes, all of which grow relatively well here, but give little yield and offer very little variety in terms of types of tomatoes.

Here I have some heirloom varieties from Johnny’s Select Seeds. Because they re not localized to here and are likely adapted to the climate of Maine, which offer a shorter summer and warmer days and nights during the summer, to which tomatoes respond favorably.

Another problem with growing organic tomatoes here in the mountains is the white fly. This little insect damages the leaves of tomatoes and weakens the plant to such a point that it can no longer yield fruit.

Here is my solution. I grew my tomatoes in a 5-gallon bucket filled with topsoil and some rich compost. On top of that, I put a layer of mulch about 4 inches thick. This is to maintain even moisture and to provide slow-release organic fertilizer. On top of that, I laid a layer of plastic bags. These black bags serve to warm the soil throughout the day so the plants stay warmer at night. Also, tomatoes like evenly distributed moisture and do not like the daily soakings that accompany the rainy season. Thus, the black bags prevent the majority of water from entering and the mulch helps retain moisture and spread it evenly over all the soil.

Lastly, I fed these tomatoes with sea salt dissolved in water. Not sure of the concentration, but I used about 1 cup on this whole bucket, dissolved in a good amount of water. Sea salt contains all 92-trace minerals that are needed by both plants and humans. There is a lot to be said about sea salt. As it is more a nutrition topic (always eat sea salt and rarely or never use refined table salt), I will go into more detail about this topic in another post.

Needless to say, while there is a bit of white fly on these plants, their defenses are working perfectly and the plants are still growing beautifully and seemingly resisting the damage caused by the white fly. The control tomatoes which are planted in a basic vegetable bed are suffering from major white fly damage and are not likely going to survive for much longer.

It just goes to show that healthy plants are the best pesticide and when all trace minerals are available to the plant, the plant is strong and versatile, able to cope with stresses more easily. Furthermore, the resulting harvest of vegetables grown in mineral rich soil is also rich in highly important trace minerals, making them more nutritious to us. There are theories suggesting that the lack of minerals in our diet, caused largely by the take over of industrial chemical agriculture, is a major cause of all civilized world diseases including cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative disorders.

Lastly, I have begun mulching the tomatoes with their own clippings. Tomatoes should be pruned in order to allow them to invest more energy in fruit production, and I have been using the clippings to mulch the plants in the bucket. According to Rudolf Steiner, a master of agriculture and pioneer of biodynamic farming methods, “Tomatoes feel mot at home when they are given manure or compost that is as close as possible to the form in which it comes from the animal or other source. They prefer raw compost that hasn’t had much chance to be transformed through natural processes. … And if you were to use compost made from tomatoes plants, that is, if you were to let the tomatoes grow in their own compost, they would grow even better.”

We will see how the harvest looks.

Sowing Medicinal Herbs

Last year, I got really into medicinal herbs and also into the challenge of starting perennial herbs from seed. Most of these perennial herbs are more easily propagated by cuttings or plant/root division, but starting from seed allows you a greater variety of plants to choose from and also more control from an earlier stage in the plants life. So basically, I bought about 40 different herb seed packets from Johnny’s and began working on growing them in San Marcos.

I started many of the plants in the La Cambalacha herb gardens from seed in wooden flats. Another group of more obscure herbs needed to be stratified, which means pre-chilled, before germinating. These herbs, I placed in two airtight plastic bags and stored them in the fridge for several months. I kind of forgot about them until Colleen noticed them this past week when cleaning the fridge. Thus, I decided to sow them in a wooden flat and see if my fridge stratification was successful.

Wooden flats are the best and most cost and labor effective seed-starting tray. These flats can be made with scrap wood and once made, last for many years. Compared to plastic trays, they have longer life and are often cheaper. Recycled materials such as egg cartons are good, but again, only last one season and often are limited in space for plant roots to expand. Basically make the flat about 4-6 inches tall, 12-18 inches wide, and 25-30 inches long. When choosing a size, keep in mind flats will be a lot heavier with moist soil in them. The bottom of the flat should have many holes for drainage and the best design is to just use a number of 2-5 inch wide, ½-2 inch thick pieces of scrap wood spaced about 1 inch apart.

The soil mix used to sow these seeds is one part topsoil, one part screened compost, one part course white sand. The sand is good for seed flats, as it allows good drainage and good water retention.

The following herbs were sowed (Sowed from the ‘A’ marking): Angelica, Echinacea, Joe Pie Weed, Skullcap, St Johnswort, and Pleurisy root. All of these seeds are very small and also require a bit of light to germinate. Thus, I merely made small divots 1/8 inch deep in the soil, about 1 inch apart, and placed 1 seed in each space. I planted in short rows, 2 to 4 rows of each plant.

To keep tract of what is where, I marked an ‘A’ on the flat and use my knife to mark off number sections corresponding to each plant species, which is also numbered. These sorts of seeds can often take several weeks to germinate, so it is a slow process, which enables more things to go wrong in the meantime. It will be interesting to see what actually comes up and does well in this area.

I also direct seeded a few of the seeds into the garden bed pictured here behind come flower cuttings.

New Herb Bed at La Cambalacha

Here are some pictures from us building our 3rd herb bed. As you can see, the plot is initially filled with various weeds as well as incredibly rocking soil. The first job is to cut all the plant growth back and then remove the roots and rocks with a pickaxe and a hoe.

This next picture is of a two volunteers using the level and some fishing line to create a straight line that will be used to build the stone wall. The basic idea is that w want the wall to be even along the top so that all soil is retained within the wall and there are no leakage or drainage points, which remove soil fertility from runoff and leeching.

This is a picture of myself and Jorge standing over th pile of rocks we pulled from the soil. Ridiculous. We are now selecting rocks to be used in the retaining wall that will be built next.

We note that not as much effort went towards soil improvement as did in the vegetable bed. Due to the location of the herb beds, making charcoal is not possible and double digging is not really necessary. We do plan to add charcoal, but as for now, we only added compost and a heavy layer of mulch.

This is the end result. Note the retaining wall and the stone path in the middle of the bed. This path is so that the soil is never compacted by people feet. From this path, all points of the bed can be reached easily for cleaning, harvesting and other jobs.

Herb Gardens at La Cambalacha

Here are just a few pictures of the herbs gardens that we have built while I have been working at La Cambalacha.

This is our nursery. There I basically 3ft of topsoil below these plants and it is mulched heavily, about 6 inches below the ground, with newspaper and leaves. This helps the soil to stay very moist, even during the 6-month dry season. We used this to store out cuttings, propagations, and other special plants until the rains came, when we could then plant them out into their new homes in the formal garden beds. Now the nursery is relatively sparse, as we have been transplanting many species to their new homes since the beginning of the rainy season.

This is the first herb bed that I made at La Cambalacha. Species in this bed include Thyme, Rosemary, Pennyroyal (the lovely groundcover all throughout), 3 types of basil, Tropical Oregano, Mint Marigold, several types of mint and spearmint, Earl Grey, Cilantro, Lemon-scented Germanium, Feverfew, and wild thistle.

This is a more recent one that has just been planted in the last two weeks. Plants here include Lavender, Lemon Grass, Onions, Orseuss, Sage, Comfrey, and several other herbs.

This is a Noni Tree surrounded by Aloe Vera that was planted about 2 months ago. Noni is a ridiculously magical fruit that also smells like old cheese, dirty feet, and vinegar all rolled into one. From Sally Fallon in Noursihing Traditions, “Juice of the Tahitian Noni fruit is revered by the Polynesians for its curative powers, possibly due to the presence of an alkaloid precursor called Proxeronine, which contributes to the effectiveness of proteins on the cellular level. Noni juice has been used successfully to treat diabetes, injuries and pain, digestive disorders, depression and many other aliments. It should be taken on an empty stomach.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Delayed Posting

So, for the past week, i have been trying to upload a number of posts with pictures but as usual, the internet in San Marcos is ridiculously slow and I was not once successful. Now I am in Belize and will be deep in the jungle on our friends' Farm, so again, i will not be able to post for a few days.

When I get back into the San Ignacio, I will be posting at least 6 very nice, informative posts. I should note that in general, I will be posting every Friday and Saturday, unless circumstances prevent me from doing so, such as what happened this past week. I apologize for the delay and will be posting shortly. We love Fermentation.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Passion Fruit Cuttings

Speaking of plant propagation, here is an example of another type, known as taking cuttings. Many plants can be propagated very easily by taking cuttings of mature plants, often much more easily than saving seeds, and not to mention faster. Most trees and bushes, many vines, and other perennial plants are good choices for propagation by cutting.

Here we have a Passion Fruit growing amongst some raspberry bushes. (Note that raspberries prefer plant division for propagation) Passion Fruit is a vine that is native to South American rain forests. The plan gives many small, oval-shaped fruit, of which the flesh and seed is edible. It tastes like a mix between grapes, apples, and pear all mixed together. As with most vines, it is good to prune off pieces that will not give fruit. These clipping are perfect to use for cutting propagation.

The general rule for taking a cutting holds true for almost all plants that propagate well by this method. Select a branch from the mother or mature plant that is between ¼ and 2 inches thick. Cut the branch off with a very sharp knife or pair of shears. Make the cut directly below a node (place where new branch and/or leaf comes off the main branch), as this is where the highest concentration of stem cells is located. We want stem cells, as they are capable of turning to root cells very quickly. Make the cut at a 45-degree angle as this also encourages root cell development.

Generally, the length of the cutting should be 4 to 8 inches, but can be larger or smaller, depending on the plant. The idea is to plant 2/3 of the cutting underground and the last 1/3 above ground. You thus need to remove all the leaves on the 1st two-thirds of the cutting, as well as all of the leaves that are on the lower half of the piece of the cutting that is above ground. Basically, you only want about 3-5 leaves on the cutting and only on the top 1/5 of the cutting.

Note that you may be pruning a tree that you wish to take cutting from and you select a branch that is 2 feet long. You can make four 6” cuttings from this one piece. Just always cut at a 45-degree angle and right below a new node on the branch.

Here you can see two new Passion fruit cutting planted in old plastic water bottle halves. Make sure to put holes in the bottom of your containers and to try to use a soil mix that is more towards the sandy side. Also, try to keep the humidity high around your cuttings. It is useful to devote one little shaded area in your garden to be a nursery, which can be kept moist and cool all day long. Some cuttings can be left in water first for several days and then transferred to a soil mix, but it is not necessary.

A word on rooting hormone: Many places offer rooting hormone, which is applied to the tip that is being planted in the soil. While these hormones are probably helpful and effective, they are not needed. In case you have not figured out yet, I believe that gardening should be a free activity and no special equipment should be needed. I also believe that there is a natural alternative to all commercial products. This instance is no different.

Willow trees, which grow near lakes and rivers and are the natural source of aspirin, offer a substitute. All you need to do is mash up a handful of willow leaves and apply this poultice to the tips of your cuttings and success will be greatly improved. Again, there is no need for this. The best part is, taking cuttings from mature plants is free; all you need is time. So take a bunch of cuttings and wait. If they all die, try again.

Keep the soil around your cutting wet and the air kind of moist and in 1 month or so, they should be ready to plant out.

Saving Lettuce Seed

Saving seed is an activity that has been performed by hundreds of generations, basically since the beginning of food production. The ability to save seed is an enormously powerful technique that lays at the very foundation of self-sufficiency.

So much can be said about saving seeds, which is actually one of four to five more common types of plant propagation. The others include root division, plant separation, cuttings, and layering. Depending on the type of plant, one or more of these propagation techniques can be employed to obtain more plants of the same species.

Saving seed preserves genetic diversity. A seed can actually be thought of as a little piece of infinity, with all possibilities capable of being expressed from within. When germination occurs, the seed actually express one of these possibilities. Some plants will yield seed that gives more plants identical to the previous generation (seed said to hold true), while other plants yield seed that can bare very little resemblance to its parent. For example, lettuce holds true while apple and orange seeds do not. The benefit of saving a cultivating seeds from plants that do not hold true are many and include the preservation of genetic diversity, increased pollination of the desired varieties, and most importantly, the possibility of discovering a new breed with more desired characteristics.

I also want to note here a problem with hybrid seeds and more importantly, with genetically modified seeds. Companies like Monsanto are actively altering the genes and expressions of common crops such as corn and potatoes. Often times, genes are tweaked to achieve herbicide resistance, drought resistance, or the exaggerated expression of a desirable trait such as size, color, or the ability to keep for long periods of time. The problem with this is that the offspring seed of these modified plants are often sterile and/or very different from the parent plant. Thus, farmers are being robbed of their naturally endowed ability to save seeds from nature and preserve, propagate, and multiply this bounty according to their liking.

Here are some pictures of me saving lettuce seed. In November, I bought an organic lettuce variety mix from Johnny´s Selected Seeds. There were about 7 types of lettuce in this mix and we sowed and planted them in December. While we did harvest numerous outer leaves as the lettuce matured, we never harvested whole heads. We instead let the heads of lettuce bolt, which means they send up a stalk from the middle, which bears flowers and then seed. Once the plant dies off and the stalk turns brown, the flowers should be gone and the seedpods should be well formed and filled with developed seeds. Do not worry about whether the seeds are still wet, but dry days re preferable for collecting seed.

I cut the plant and then I use newspaper and a fine mesh screen. I basically crumble all the seedpods over the newspaper and then run them through the screen several times. This is known as threshing, in which you are removing the covering from the actual lettuce seed. Please note that the screening process should be relatively light, as the seeds will break if they are handled too roughly.

Once they have been screened several times, I leave the on newspaper in a dry and airy spot for several days to dry. Each day I move them around to help them dry more quickly. After a few days of drying, they can be stored in glass jars for at least one year and often up to 3 or 4 years.

So basically, I bought the lettuce mix, which gave me several varieties of lettuce. Now, with my seed saving activity, I never again have to buy lettuce seed for as long as I live. I could even pass this same seed down to future generations and for years, the same organic lettuce can be preserved and grown in the garden, without ever having to purchase new seed.

Sourdough Bread: Unicorn Style

This is a picture of the first-ever Unicorn Sourdough Bread Loaf, made with real, live Unicorn Yeast.

For those readers that do not know, sourdough bread is made using a naturally occurring yeast that is captured from the air via a flour-water mixture that is left out to sour. Sourdough bread has a number of nutritional benefits over that of regular whole-wheat bread, which is made with aggressive, commercial, prepackaged yeasts. These benefits lie in the fact that natural yeast provides a more complete fermentation process, which actually predigests the flour making the resulting loaf more digestible and less taxing on the body’s enzyme and various organ systems. Furthermore, sourdough bread made the traditional way is actually gluten free, which is good for those diagnosed wit Celiac’s Disease.

“The history of bread making is a good example of the industrialization and standardization of a technique that was formerly empiric. … It was simpler to replace natural leven with brewers yeast. There are numerous practical advantages: the fermentation is more regular, more rapid and the bread rises better. But the fermentation becomes mainly an alcoholic fermentation and the acidification is greatly lessened. The bread is less digestible, less tasty and spoils more easily.” Claude Aubert Les Aliments Fermentes Traditionnels

Traditional sourdough is always made with a ‘starter’, which is a mixture of flour and water, made to mud consistency, which attracts natural yeast from the air when left out with only a cloth cover. Making a starter takes about 3 days and while you can buy or obtain a starter from a dealer or a friend, making your own starter in your own house ensures that you are attracting and using naturally occurring yeast from your own highly localized area.

Note: People may be familiar with San Francisco Sourdough Bread, which basically refers to the fact that this bread is made using yeast that is naturally occurring in the San Francisco Bay area. Hence our Unicorn Sourdough Bread from Hotel Unicornio.

To make your sourdough starter, you need a glass jar (preferably quart-size, but can be a bit smaller), a cloth to cover the jar, a small wooden spoon, water, and whole-wheat flour. Note that our sourdough starter is in a plastic bowl and we use a metal fork to stir. While this is frowned upon, with glass and wood being more favorable, it is not a necessity.

In the glass jar, mix about a cup of flour with water to the consistency of thick mud. Make sure you stir well to dissolve all the flour making a relatively smooth mud-like mixture. Cover with cloth and set in outside, but covered spot. A porch works perfect for this. Each day, stir the mixture and add a bit more flour (as little as a tablespoon) and water to keep the same consistency. In three days or so, the mixture should start to smell sour and there should be bubbles forming in the mud, rising to the top of the mix slowly. This is when it is ready.

Sourdough starters only need to be made once and can then be saved for many years, as long as it is fed and cared for properly. Each time you use the starter to make a new loaf, save at least a ½ cup of starter in the bottom of your glass jar. Immediately feed it a few tablespoons of wheat-flour and add water to desired consistency. Do this each day or at least once every 2 days. If the jar gets too full you can give or throw away a bit of your starter, but it is important to feed it regularly. If not, it will go bad and not be good anymore.

The basic sourdough recipe is as follows:
• 1 quart whole-wheat sourdough starter
• 6-7 cups whole-wheat flour
• 2 tablespoons sea salt
• 1 ½ cups cold water

Mix the starter together with sea salt and 1 cup of water. Begin to add flour slowly, stirring a while. When necessary add the remaining water and stir in al remaining flour. At some point, it becomes easier to mix with your hands. Once it is basically mixed together, do NOT knead it. Merely make sure that all the flour is mixed in well to the dough. Cut the dough and place in well-buttered baking pans. Let rise in warm place for 4 to 12 hours. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.