The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!

 

Garden/Homestead Updates – June 2013 June 12, 2013

I wanted to spend a bit of time on my garden updates–its been a while since I showed progress.  So here’s what’s happening at the Druid’s Garden (zone 6a, South-East Michigan, USA). Photos were taken about 4 days ago.

Chickens

I’ve had some setbacks in the realm of chickens–two (my two smallest ones, bantams, were killed by hawks while free ranging, and this happened while people were home and around).  When my family kept chickens in PA when I was growing up, we did not have such large amounts of hawks.  My land is also missing tree cover where they usually roamed, so I can see how this happened. So, because of this, and because they were tearing up my mulch and perennial beds, I decided to pen them up.  Two of my friends helped me build this outdoor coop area, attached to the original chicken tractor.  What I like best about the coop is that, aside from the netting, nails, and staples that we used to put it together, all the other materials came from the property–they are mostly cedar posts that we pulled out of the back of the property from the pile that had been cut (discussed in my post here).

New Chook Pen - all repurposed materials

New Chook Pen – all repurposed materials

I was also gifted two wonderful new peeps to make up for my lost ones.  Here they are (pics from about a week ago–they grow so fast)!

Peeper in the hand!

Peeper in the hand!

New Peeps!

New Peeps!

Perennials

This year, I’ve been working to expand my perennials, both in number and kind.  I am finding that this work is as important as seed saving, especially as I move to more perennials in my yard, but also because, from an economic standpoint, perennials are much more expensive, and lots of people want to start gardens using permaculture techniques but don’t have the money for all of them.   A good friend of mine gave me some gooseberry and currant bushes, I also have more raspberries (golden), fennel and other plants from our permaculture meetup’s plant exchange, an expanded strawberry patch, and more.  I’ve been working to develop guilds around each of my fruit trees also!

Strawberry Spiral with Fresh Mulch!

Strawberry Spiral with Fresh Mulch!

Ripening Strawberry!

Ripening Strawberry!

Apparently my rhubarb plant is the largest one most people have seen.  I’m thinking that part of it is because I placed it next to a gutter and also because it has shelter and lots of light from being next to my porch.  And composted horse manure.  Anyways, I’ll be canning some rhubarb preserves quite soon!

Monster-rhubarb

Monster-rhubarb

The comfrey patch is doing really well.  I should post on what comfrey does soon–its an amazing plant for gardens and medicine alike!  In the meantime, here’s the comfrey patch–I’ve given a ton of this away, and it keeps on going!

Comfrey patch with extra tomato seedlings

Comfrey patch with extra tomato seedlings

Annual Garden Beds

With the help of friends and family, I created two new large garden beds this spring.  I am also helping another family garden behind my main garden–they are doing so well!

Amaranth sprouts in one of the new beds!

Amaranth sprouts in one of the new beds!

Unfortunately, we’ve had a really cold spring.  With snow in late April and a storm that tore open my small hoop houses and knocked over my small greenhouse to a May 30th frost, it has not been an easy season.  My main garden was planted around May 20th.  Then we had a near-frost around the 30th (and had I looked forward in the biodynamic calendar I’m now using, I should have known that…)  Most of the plants lived, however, save some basil which I had extras of.

I’m taking more of a vertical gardening approach this year, which I think will serve me well.  I’ve been building trellises of all sorts, and finding interesting materials to use as trellises (more on that in an upcoming post)–all repurposed and found!

Here are some shots of the garden.

Potatoes, Garlic, and Kale.

Potatoes, Garlic, and Kale.

Lots of veggies in the garden!

Lots of veggies in the garden!

Working on new mulched pathways to keep out unwanted plants.

Working on new mulched pathways to keep out unwanted plants.

Mulch!

I have been in desperate need of mulch for some time.  My good friend knew this, and saw a tree service in the area at my neighbor’s house last week.  He asked them to bring the mulch over, which they did, and now I have a mulch mountain.  I’m mulching all of my perennial beds as well as the paths in my annual garden.  I am going to see how much is left, and if I have enough, I’m going to move forward with my plan to build a labyrinth this summer :).

Mulch Mountain!

Mulch Mountain!

I think that’s the end of the garden/homestead updates for now.  We have a number of exciting projects planned for this summer, including the outdoor kitchen and possible labyrinth.  Stay tuned!