DesignFoodPlantsWhy Permaculture?

A Site Specific Nuts and Bolts of Zone 1 Gardening in Rio Dulce: Tropical Wet/Dry Climate

Recently, I put together an article outlining the (or my) basic theory of Zone 1 gardening, both for a specific NGO project I’m working on as well as in the hopes that it might be helpful for others in similar situations. For it, I wanted to present broad, accessible ideas that could apply across the spectrum of climates and, in the case of charity projects, cultural practices.

Ultimately, though, we need to translate our theories—fun stuff to think about—into tangible gardens, and in order to do that, we have to start considering the specifics of where we are working. What follows is the next step in which I have considered the logistics of our general site location—Rio Dulce, Guatemala—in order to provide a basis from which participants can begin.

Obviously, each site and village microclimate has its own quirks and advantages, but in order to help on a larger scale, information has to address broader elements. I’ve tried to consider common plants to the area (mostly perennial, food-producing), typical homes of villagers (thatch-roof huts), and relevant problems being faced (malnutrition, extreme poverty) to compile a rough notion of what might be done by any reasonably-abled villager or family with the temporary assistance (in acquiring seeds and information) of an NGO.

Sweet Potato, Chaya, Habanero, Okra, Cuban Oregano, and More (Emma Gallagher)
Sweet Potato, Chaya, Habanero, Okra, Cuban Oregano, and More (Emma Gallagher)

Cultivating with the Right Plants

The common diet consists of almost entirely of beans, rice and corn tortillas, with the occasional wing of fried chicken. While this provides a complete protein and fills people’s stomachs with a heap of starch, it can be largely deficient in vitamins and minerals. The kitchen garden, with a plethora of herbs and salad greens, is tailor-made for correcting these missing elements.

Perennial plants are the best choice because they are hardier, require less attention, and provide bigger, more consistent harvests in the long run. Also, we want to cultivate a variety of things, both to vary dietary intake for a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals and to better insure the garden will succeed in producing something to eat. They are not the common fare of the area, so eating them will require not so much a change in diet (we don’t want to challenge decades of habit) but an addition to what’s in a typical meal. Part of the Zone 1 experience will have to be becoming familiar with using the plants as food.

As well, having polycultures (gardens with mixed crops) allows for more productivity as each will take and/or leave different nutrients in the soil, use different levels within the earth for feeding, and fill different levels of the garden for efficient use of limited space.

10 Perennial herbs and spices:

1. Culantro: shade-tolerant, low-lying, deep-tapping root, self-seeding
2. Lemongrass: pest control, erosion preventer, easy to multiply from clumps, use for tea
3. Basil: highly medicinal, pest control, replicate via cuttings, great companion plants
4. Cuban oregano: medicinal, familiar flavor and plant, plentiful production
5. Hierbabuena/mint: shade-tolerant, water-loving, pest control
6. Chile Peppers: varieties of aji and habanero are both locally available, fresh hot sauce!
7. Garlic: highly medicinal, sprouts are edible, great companions for most plants
8. Ginger: highly medicinal, easy to grow, easy to multiple, thrives in shade
9. Turmeric: highly medicinal, easy to grow/multiple, sun-loving, low maintenance
10. Lime: not a spice or herb, but used for seasoning and should be included

Culantro (Emma Gallagher)
Culantro (Emma Gallagher)

10 Perennial greens and vegetables:

1. Malabar spinach: vine fills vertical space, harvesting makes it more vigorous
2. Rosa de Jamaica: flowers are familiar for tea but leaves are also edible
3. Pigeon Pea: nitrogen-fixing and high-yielding legumes for fertilizing and mulch material
4. Sweet Potato: great as a living groundcover, vigorous grower, leaves are edible
5. Okra: great nutrient-rich vegetables (raw or cooked) and edible leaves
6. Moringa: a tad more difficult to find but a superfood tree with serious nutrition
7. Chaya: handles drought (dry season), multiples via cuttings, abundant production
8. Chayote: perennial vine pumpkin, huge yield, great for creating shady pergolas
9. Amaranth: greens are super nutritious, seeds are very healthy, beautiful flowers
10. Katuk: would work well here but, to be honest, I’ve not seen it, but in case…

These plants should produce food year-round and will provide it for years to come, both because they are perennial and easy to replicate. Also, any native plants that locals currently use as food or medicine are great to include. This equates to dietary independence and real nutritional impact. Amongst them, common, locally-used annuals like cherry tomatoes, radishes, peppers, eggplants, mustard greens (great for clay soil), cucumbers and so on can be planted as the season dictates. But, the perennials can provide a consistent supply of vegetables.

Utilizing Free and Local Resources

Unfortunately, the word “basura”, or rubbish, is used equally for plastics and tins as it is for kitchen waste as it is for leaves and cut grass. In reality, the biomass resources available to jungle-dwelling communities like those around Rio Dulce are nearly inexhaustible with regards to home gardens. Of course, industrial agricultural institutions in the area—rubber, palm oil, bananas—are a different story, felling vast swaths of old growth jungle for destructive mono-crops. Our Zone 1 gardens do not function this way.

Instead, we should utilize basura, including the plastic bottles and metal tins, as much as possible to construct our Zone 1 garden beds. The leaves that fall en masse during dry season, the constant grass clippings from wet season, vegetables peelings and fruit skins of the kitchen, even cardboard and paper that litter pathways—these are the things that can and will build quality, dark, rich soil. It’s only a matter of refining common practices a little and recognizing the intrinsic worth of most trash.

The tendency to clean areas around homes, removing every-and-anything atop the bare soil, has both stripped our Zone 1 growing space of topsoil, dried and hardened, and often created erosion problems. In order to rebuild fertility and spaces fit for successful cultivation, all of these compostable materials must instead be harnessed. Of course, the cultural bias towards tidying it all away, into the edges of the surrounding jungle or burning it, will be difficult to combat, so perhaps that energy can be redirected into tidying the basura into designated areas: gardens.

Mulch Beds: New fertile garden beds can be created one at a time by piling (or spreading about 20-30 cm thick) free organic materials from around the house—leaves, cardboard, grass, wood, fire ash, vegetable peelings*, fruit skins*, paper, old thatch roofs, etc.—and allowing them to simply break down in a chosen place. Not only will this create new top soil (quite quickly in these humid jungle conditions), but also it will help to revitalize what’s beneath the surface by keeping it moist, attracting useful worms and burrowing insects, killing and preventing the new growth of weeds and grasses, and raising planting spaces so that they drain well in wet season while, via mulch absorption, retaining moisture during dry season. In essence, this is building a compost pile the lazy way, and in such a manner that it can be utilized before completely breaking down. When planting, cultivators simply clear out a space in the pile and replace that area with good soil (likely available at the bottom of those old piles of basura at the edge of the cleaned property). The pile will feed the plant as it decomposes around it.

*These items should be covered so as not to attract animals, as well as subdue unpleasant odors. Ten or so centimeters of leaves will do the trick.

Borders: In order to keep things looking acceptably aesthetic, borders can be created with branches, logs and sticks from around the living space. In the meantime, sticks of madre de cacao (or other local nitrogen-fixing, regenerating legumes) can be planted to form a living, fertilizing, and mulching border. Keep the trees cut low (they’ll release nitrogen from their roots when coppiced), just above the height of the beds, and use the trimmings as more organic material on the pile. Either way, the borders will keep things tidy, satisfying that understandable urge, while performing a bevy of other function, such as those listed above as well as preventing garden erosion, providing wildlife habitats, and signaling designated no-step zones (never walk on your garden bed, it compacts the soil).

Responsibly Use What's Around and Free (Emma Gallagher)
Responsibly Use What’s Around and Free (Emma Gallagher)

Fences: Often fencing can play a vital role to the survival of plants, especially in villages where domesticated pigs and chickens are roaming free. Fence posts, like borders, can be living, i.e. long-lasting, by using fast-growing cuttings of trees like madre de cacao (in abundance here). Palm fronds can be stretched horizontally between the posts, creating a nearly impenetrable wall, which—unlike chicken wire—is absolutely free and can eventually be used as mulch on the garden beds it is protecting. Other options, though perhaps require more maintenance and less benefit, would be using bamboo or discarded tin sheets. Whatever the case, the idea is to keep the animals out of the garden and off of our food plants.

• Chicken Tractors: For those who do have chickens, a great way to utilize them in the early stages (or resting times) of garden beds is to create a chicken tractor. Basically, this is a movable chicken coop—something that can be built with scrap wood, sticks, discarded tin, palm thatch, and/or a bit of chicken wire—where the chickens roost at night, something that might make their eggs more readily available, and by day, they are released into the fenced and mulched garden area to scratch and manure the soil, working as a natural pesticide, herbicide, tiller, and fertilizer. Let them roam freely, as normal, the rest of the time, providing a bit greenery or kitchen scraps to attract them back to the roost at (about the same time) every evening so that eggs can be readily harvested in the morning.

Dealing with the Circumstances

With the right plants on the go (use that other basura, plastic bottles and cans to start seedlings in) and all the makings of fertile beds, it’s time to consider the other factors that might help or hinder the garden. In this area, this includes the heavy rains of wet season and absolute intense lack of precipitation during dry. Additionally, it’s important to consider things like access to sun, erosion/gradient problems, dietary habits, and cultural concerns. Acknowledging and addressing as many of these issues as possible up front could make a huge difference to the successful implication of Zone 1 permaculture gardens.

Water Harvesting: The ideal means of harvesting rainwater is via rooftop gardens would be guttering* with storage tanks; however, due to cost and remoteness, this may not be applicable in most of these villages, so we must think outside the box. At the moment, most drip (mulch them to prevent erosion) and drainage lines are directed as quickly off the property as possible. This is a mistake. The fast-moving water erodes the landscape as well as robs it, especially during the occasional dry season shower, of water that could be absorbed into layers of mulch for later use. Instead of directing water straight off of the landscape, gardeners should strive to pacify the water, moving shallow “drainage” ditches, or swale paths, along level contour lines so that everything is sufficiently hydrated before the excess rainfall is finally allowed to leave the property in a well-selected, safe location. The raised beds will keep roots safer during the wet season, and the swale paths will keep the land hydrated when rains are less regular.

• Gutters for thatched roofs can be constructed from bamboo, putting them either atop the roof or on stilts along the gutter, and these could possibly be used to direct water to catchment ponds or into swale paths instead of allowing drip lines to form.

Reusing Greywater: Because most village homes do not have indoor plumbing, rather one outdoor spigot or washbasin to meet water needs, with drainage systems that let dirty, chemical-laden water roll onto the landscape without filtering, natural or otherwise, greywater probably won’t play huge role in watering the Zone 1 gardens. Instead, consider making two or three banana, papaya or coconut circles to catch the greywater runoff from pilas.

Young Chayote Vine Reaching Roof Level (Emma Gallagher)
Young Chayote Vine Reaching Roof Level (Emma Gallagher)

Sunshine: By and large, getting enough sunshine isn’t a huge problem, though often, in dry season, too much sunshine can completely parch the plants. Even so, when positioning the gardens, it important to do so with an eye on shadows casts by roofs and surround canopy trees. Ideally, plants get a few hours of sunlight a day, and in the areas where this doesn’t happen, shade-tolerant plants—mint, culantro, ginger, vanilla, Chaya, etc.—should be used. In general, homes are centered on quite large plots that have been cleared of trees. Though clearing more forest isn’t ideal, this initial razing is now to the cultivators’ advantage. Should more sun be needed, first thin out sapling weed trees then consider pruning troublesome branches as opposed to felling more establish trees.

Erosion/Gradient: Many of the erosion issues have already been addressed by the rerouting water, no-till gardens with borders, and mulching; however, another issue to consider with regards to erosion is the gradient of the land. Much of the terrain around Rio Dulce is steep and subject to washing downhill. While homes don’t tend to be built on such slopes, thus Zone 1 gardens wouldn’t be either, if slides are of concern, terraced garden beds are likely the best solution to create fertile and safe growing spaces. As with swales, the top side should be along contour lines and the outer edge slightly higher than the inner, so that water runs backwards and can be absorbed and/or directed towards less destructive, thought-out drainage systems.

Dietary Habits: Overwhelmingly, parents in Rio Dulce are aware of their children’s nutrient deficiency problems, and they are deeply concerned about them and prepared to make changes in order to have healthy families. However, it will be important to provide some education as to why eating from the Zone 1 garden will fill some of these nutritional voids, including which foods are sources of certain vitamins and minerals, as well as some simple means of including these foods into their traditional dishes. Obvious ideas like sprinkling chopped fresh herbs and/or greens onto soup or rice and beans, or folding leaves and vegetables into tortillas, seems unworthy of mention, but with foods that may be unfamiliar or only typically used in one or two ways, these suggestions might make the difference as to whether the garden is used or not. When people understand—an understanding we take for granted—that eating these plants every day will provide what’s missing, they’ll be more likely eat them. As well, not changing their dietary habits in any major way, only adding to their meals, should help in the transition. As for the garden itself, the more it is utilized, the better it will be maintained.

Cultural Concerns: The Zone 1 garden might have a real chance of success here is if it doesn’t interfere too much with established cultural practices. Generally, the area surrounding the home is swept bare, so we’ve sought to use put this resource to good use as opposed to throwing it in the jungle. It’s actually more convenient than carting it off the property. As well, the other basura is typically burned, as there is no other means of disposing of it, but the idea of reusing for planters and seedling falls right in line with the cultural norm of repurposing building materials and the like.

Despite questionable practices, these gardens won’t affect the ubiquitous corn fields, typically on some far off piece of land (though, suggesting companion planting with beans and squashes, an old practice in the area, and using contour lines would be a good idea). As a result, meals won’t be largely changed, as beans, rice, and tortillas remain the staple fare, and no one has to eat a salad (a notion that sometimes causes recoil), rather just sprinkle veggies onto the normal meal, no recipe needed.

Time, or lack thereof, shouldn’t be a factor because, with the garden so nearby, the whole family, including children, will have easy access to it and harvests can be done as needed or quickly recognized from the doorway. It may not be the traditional way (nor is it in the west), but people have little trouble seeing the logic in the design.

Reuse Waste Productively (Emma Gallagher)
Reuse Waste Productively (Emma Gallagher)

It’s important to observe both the gardens and the community. Dream big but stay small in scale with each individual task, establishing one garden or water harvesting system at a time, building up to a larger network. Continually observe the systems in place, adjusting if they don’t work properly—Good advice both for the NGO encouraging these projects and the people implementing them. If a particular plant or species doesn’t take, move on, replacing it with what is successful because, even if only half the things we are attempting to cultivate here take, that’ll be a vast improvement to what’s currently in place. Plus, multiplying successes rather than struggling with failures multiplies the positivity needed for successful project and garden.

Feature Image: Sweet Potato, Chaya, Habanero, Okra, Cuban Oregano, and More, 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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