I’m building an agroforest. An orchard of tropical fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, tubers and vines. And this is how it is happening.
This is the final piece on the tropical orchard establishment patterns we use at Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center in Costa Rica. Part 1, found here, looked in depth at our site goals, layout patterns, and water management. Part 2 continued this succession of thought into our soil fertility goals and management techniques. Now we complete the picture by taking a harder look at the particular species we are trialling, caring for, and eating in the day-to-day work of creating our orchards.
Species Selection Criteria
There are important criteria we must use when choosing species for our site. In the tropics there exists such a huge diversity of plant choices that it is easy to become a fruit hunter, a collector, while losing track of the your goals and design aims. This was certainly the case for my first few years on site. Whatever strange tropical fruit crossed my path was purchased, propagated, and planted. This resulted in a lot of mediocre fruits in prime locations, all of which require care and therefore my time. Remember: many underutilized species are underutilized because they aren’t that useful or tasty.
It becomes essential to do your research and set clear selection criteria if you hope your site will be more than an impromptu botanical garden. Today we select species based on the following criteria and questions:
• Does it grow well in our climate? Will it grow well in our future climate?
• Is it a successful part of a traditional food culture in a climate similar to ours (climate analogue)?
• Do we want to eat it? Will the groups that visit our education center eat it?
• Do we have the tools, skills, and labor to process it into an edible form, or preserve it for later?
• Does it replace an expensive, non-local or conventionally grown food product that we currently buy?
These questions get to the root of how a particular species fits within our larger set of goals. By deliberating testing a plant’s characteristics against these criteria we set ourselves up for success.
The above questions focus on crop species, but we also need support species. In the case of support species like Nitrogen Fixing Trees (NFTs), we ask “How does that species change the site for another species’ advantage?” How does it change the micro-climate (nutrients, shade, moisture, pollination, pest protection, and so forth) so that a primary crop species will be able to thrive?
It is rather easy to make a list of plants that work for your site; there are endless resources to this aim already, but it is much harder to find, source, afford, and propagate those plants. Last year I crossed the border to Panama for a client with a new farm outside of Panama City. Even though the climate was nearly identical to Mastatal, Costa Rica, and I knew what would grow well, I struggled to make recommendations based on the fact that I couldn’t guarantee our ability to source plants in country.
Of course there are a few distinct strategies we can use to seek out what we need:
• Neighboring farms: What do your neighbors grow? What local knowledge is available?
• Native crops: Start with what is native to the region. Before we get pulled by the latest super food around the globe, ask what edible species exist in the forest outside our door.
• Indigenous cultures: What were people growing and eating 50, 500, and 5,000 years ago? Are these genetics accessible? Are there elders who still carry this knowledge?
• Climate analogues: Look around the planet and find similar latitudes, climates and cultures. How do these people and places grow, process and consume food? What species do they use in the same botanical families that we currently grow?
• Genetic collections: Check out regional experimental stations, botanical gardens, and nurseries. Many old experimental stations have been abandoned; go fruit hunting! Look for old trees so you can get a feel for their mature size, form, and habit.
The key skills that must accompany the above include:
• People skills: Whatever your neighbors are growing will probably work for you too. Get friendly with the people close to you.
• Botany skills and plant identification: You may need to be able to recognize an obscure nut tree as you wander through a botanical collection.
• Plant propagation: How can a plant be reproduced easily? Do you have the ability to do a successful root division or air layer? Can you successfully scarify seeds?
• Nursery design set up: Do you have a functioning nursery ready to receive plants? Potting mix ingredients, protection from sun and wind, easily accessible water are all essential design elements and criteria.
Tropical Staple Tree Crops
At the Ranch we are actively looking to replace our dependence on high input annual grains like rice and corn with perennial tree crops. Plants that fit into this category receive most of our focus. Fortunately in the tropics there still exists a culture of tree crops, from leafy greens to classic tropical fruits to the occasional starch crop. The below list is primarily looking to replace fats and carbohydrates in our kitchen.
Some of these species are not yet producing on our site. Typically we have between 10 and 60 of each of the below plants. These are all plants that provide or once provided significant calories and/or protein in their native ranges. They are true staple crops.
Breadfruit: Artocarpus altilis
A major staple crop around the globe. Native to New Guinea, but domesticated and spread throughout the Pacific Islands for many thousands of years. There are a wide range of varieties, selected for size and fruit use (baked or fried). We currently work with four varieties: Ma’afala, Ulu’fiti, Puou, and Pila Pila. These are planted at 6 to 10 meter spacing depending on their expected mature size. With a taste and use similar to potatoes, we expect to be eating significant amounts of breadfruit in the years ahead.
Maya Nut: Brosimum alicastrum
Native to Mesoamerica and found growing in our own Zone 5 private wildlife reserve. Known as Maya Nut because this was once a major staple of pre-colombian indigenous groups. Although exceeding rare due to the value of its wood, the tree was the dominant canopy tree for many forests throughout the peninsula. A chocolate/coffee taste, a high percentage of protein, and a low water content that allows for easy storage, makes this one of the most promising staple crops for our community. Thanks to the work of the Maya Nut Institute, there now exists a small but growing network of producers and an international market for this crop.
Jackfruit: Artocarpus heterophyllus
A very important tropical homegarden crop native to Malaysia and India. A beautiful and productive tree that never fails to impress at first sight with it’s record setting fruits. They can get up to 100 lbs, but typically are 20 lbs. Jackfruit handles drought and wind well. The seeds are a tasty starch crop, similar to many of the other edible kernels on this list. The fruit enclosing the seeds is rumored to be the inspiration for Juicy Fruit bubble gum. Needless to say it has a unique taste and texture. It is commonly dehydrated, eaten out-of hand, or eaten green as a vegetable (Jackfruit “pulled pork” can be found in many super markets these days).
Pejibaye: Bactris gasipaes
Still a minor staple crop through its native range of Mesoamerica and the upper Amazon River basin, Pejibaye can be purchased along road sides throughout Costa Rica during the harvest season. An easy -to-grow palm covered in threatening spikes; we use this species as the principle emergent palm in our orchards. Costa Rica has the world’s largest genetic collection and we have accessed this diversity in the hope of extending the harvest season beyond the typical July through September harvest. A tasty starch, similar to a dry sweet potato, Pejibaye contains all of the essential amino acids and is a high quality protein. As well, it is a major global source of heart-of-palm, and can be managed for this crop alone.
Sacha Inchi: Plukenetia volubilis
A fast growing vine (our only non-tree/palm on this list) which produces a delicious and high value nut and oil. Native to the tropical forests of Peru, Ecuador and neighboring countries and known as Incan Peanut or Ecuadorian Vine Nut, this is a crop that is starting to develop a global market. The vine, set up in a vineyard style trellis system, produces within eight to ten months, significantly quicker than any other crop on this list. Although that would appear to make this a perfect temporal species, slowly faded out as the canopy closes, the cost of trellising demands this as a more permanent crop. We currently process the nut by hand but are exploring different processing equipment that might speed up this extraction, especially as we have recently expanded our trellising.
Olive Oil Palm: Oenocarpus bataua
An emergent palm native to the upper Amazonian flood plains that produces an edible oil similar in taste and molecular structure to Olive Oil. Very little is known about this crop, and even fewer are experimenting with it in Costa Rica. We hope to use this crop to replace our reliance on non-local oil sources in the future. It is said to be easy to process and extract the oil, which is uncommon for most oil crops such as African Oil Palm.
Pili Nut: Canarium ovatum
A large overstory tree cultivated commercially in the Philippines for its edible nuts, which have a similar taste to almonds. A true nut, high in oil, which we expect will require hand processing. We are planting Pili Nut at 12 m on center which provides ample space for an emergent palm such as Pejibaye. It is both a drought tolerant and beautiful tree. It has proven very hard to source good genetics in Costa Rica. It also needs male and female trees.
Okari Nut: Terminalia kaernbachii
A very rare, large tree, up to 45m tall, native to Papua New Guinea. Nuts are gathered from the ground, washed and cooked, and considered one of the best tasting tropical nuts. We have planted them at 10 m spacing and learned that the trees in full sun grow significantly quicker than those with shade. The nut is a starchy carbohydrate.
Malabar Chestnut: Pachira aquatica
Native to the tropical estuaries of Central America and a true water lover. The peanut-flavored seed can be eaten raw or roasted, can be ground into a flour, and stores well. This is planted at 8 m centers along with Tahitian Chestnut and Olive Oil Palm in a seasonal flood plain at the bottom of a valley on our site.
Tahitian Chestnut: Inocarpus edulis
A medium sized leguminous tree which grows along the banks of rivers and streams throughout the South Pacific. With a long history of cultivation, it begins producing fruit at eight years of age. The edible kernel must be cooked and has a short shelf life. A starchy crop that we expect to be very versatile in our kitchen whether roasted, boiled, grilled, baked, and so forth.
These “staff of life” species are supported and guilded by many other species. Temporal, short term rotation annuals such as taro, yam, cassava, pineapple, and sweet potato are currently being planted in alleyways to take advantage of the full sun. Leguminous trees and vetiver grass provide ample fertility and water management support. And of course our tropical climate is full of amazing fruits, spices, and perennial vegetables that we work into our systems and kitchen. Although a comprehensive list is needed, we estimate that over 120 edible species are at work on our site.
This high number reflects the normal path of development from experimentation to choosing-what-works that all sites go through. I expect to remove or phase out many of these species over the coming years as they prove difficult to incorporate into our kitchen or don’t match the cultural culinary background of our region. Food plants must be used to be useful.
For the first two artciles in this series please follow the following links;
Orchard Establishment in the Tropics
Through the three parts of this series we have given an example of the patterns, techniques and strategies that work for us here in Mastatal, Costa Rica. Permaculture is context driven. None of what we do will fit your site exactly, but I hope our system may prove to be a useful springboard.
When in doubt, go back to the principles, start small, understand your ecology, do a proper site analysis, learn from your neighbors, and never stop planting!
The Art and Practice of Live Culture Fermentation Workshop
We are hosting our annual Fermentation workshop this May 10th to May 13th 2016. If you are interested in learning how to convert the future abundance of your food forest into nutritionally dense and delicious foods then this is the course for you.
About Rancho Mastatal
Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center is an education center, working permaculture farm, lodge and community rooted in environmental sustainability, meaningful, place-based livelihoods, and caring relationships.
We offer profound, innovative and authentic apprenticeships, residential workshops and guest experiences. We practice, promote and teach about natural building, fermentation, permaculture design, renewable energy, agroforestry and more.
Our campus encompasses more than 300-acres of picture-perfect waterfalls, crystal-clear rivers, idyllic swimming holes, impressive trees, extraordinary wilderness views, and pristine habitat for the area’s rich flora and fauna. Visitors and participants have access to over 14 km of trails, an extensive library, our working permaculture farm, and the tireless team who make the Ranch such a unique place to learn.
We are located in the rural farming town of Mastatal, situated on the edge of the last remaining virgin rainforest of Costa Rica’s beautiful Puriscal County. It is a wonderful place to take in Costa Rica culture, practice your Spanish, visit other permaculture projects, or catch a pickup game of fútbol.