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!

 

Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups March 13, 2014

Its that time of year that if you haven’t already started your seeds, and you live in say,  a zone 5 or 6 climate, you really need to start thinking about starting them!  This blog post will talk about what I’ve learned about starting seeds from the last few years–it can be tricky with some plants, but its well worth the experience.

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Why start seeds rather than buy plants?

There are a lot of reasons to start your own seeds, both practically and more energetically.  Let’s start by examining the problems with purchasing plants from a nursery.

 

First, nurseries have different tricks to get plants to appear healthy, and to make them look good to purchase, but in reality, a lot of the plants sold commercially are in a weakened, stressed state.  If you pick up a nursery plant, and you see it already flowering, that’s a really bad sign.  Why?  A flowering plant means that it has already entered its reproductive cycle, rather than staying in its growth cycle for being planted in the earth. Another way that plants get stressed is when they are root bound in their containers (e.g. the roots are up against the sides of the container, even coming out of the bottom).  They are already stunted, and transplanting them is further shock and stress.  Furthermore,  you also have no idea what chemicals and fertilizers were used to grow that plant–but chances are, they are damaging, and may even be fatal to bees and other pollinators. A stressed out nursery plant is going to have a harder time growing into a healthy, productive plant; that same plant may also going to potentially kill bees and other life in your yard (especially in purchased from big box stores). Finally, moving plants spreads disease and can cause you to have a lot more problems during the growing season.  I had this happen last year–a friend was gardening with me, and he was running late on his garden, and purchased nursery plants (including tomatoes). I never had problems with blight before, but last year, all my tomatoes blighted badly. I know partly there were energetic reasons for this blight (as my linked blog post explores) but there were also practical ones.

 

The benefits to starting your own plants from seed are incredible!  First, it is much more cost effective to start your plants yourself (even with the initial investment of grow lights or another setup depending on what light you have available). The variety of seeds that you are able to start is far superior to what you will find in a nursery–you can grow any seeds you like, and can also grow seeds that you saved from year to year.  I save many seeds, and also purchase new open-pollinated/heirloom varieties to try.  The ones that do well, I keep and over the years, these varieties become well adapted to my garden and climate.  There is also the importance of establishing a relationship with your plants early and maintaining that relationship throughout the growing season.  By starting seed, I am tending that plant through every phase of its life, and there is no greater reward than biting into that first ripe tomato after you’ve started the plant from seed.  Seed starting is a magical, alchemical process that deeply benefits the grower.

 

What do I need to get started?

Seeds. So now that I’ve convinced you to start some seeds this year, what will you need?  You’ll need some seeds–you can get these from a number of reputable seed companies (my favorites are Seed Saver’s Exchange, Victory Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, and Horizon Herbs) and/or ask friends who garden if they have extra seeds (trust me, they do).  You do NOT want to just go and buy seeds off a rack at your local big box store–these seeds are not open pollenated (meaning you can’t save them) and most of the companies that produce the seeds are owned by Monsanto.

 

Growing medium. You will need some growing medium–its best to start your seeds in some kind of seed starting mix.  You can produce your own, or you can buy some locally.  We have a small greenhouse near here who does a nice sphagnum moss/soil potting mix, and I usually use that.

 

Growing flats. You’ll also need some growing flats.  Since the big box stores want you buying their plants, you usually can’t find growing flats at the store.  I usually get mine by the side of the road during “spring clean up” days, where people throw out their trash in giant heaps.  I’ve found most of the tools for my garden and all of the flats I need this way.  If you can’t find them, you can purchase them online or through local farmers in your area.

 

Light and heat. You will need some way for your plants to stay fairly warm (most seeds like to germinate at a temperature between 60-70 degrees). You’ll also need to make sure they are getting adequate light (12-16 hours a day, direct light).  Some seeds require light germination (like many herbs) but once they germinate, all require light.  If you have a nice southern-facing window, you can put your seeds there (just check that they don’t get too cold at night).  If you are like me and have practically no southern windows, you might need a grow light setup (see next area).

 

Seeds in small cups from my sister's growing setup!

Seeds in small cups from my sister’s growing setup!

Water.  Your seeds will also need water, so keep this in mind when you are setting up your seed starting area.  Seed flats can be doubled with a solid flat on the bottom to avoid having water spill onto the floor.

If you had, say, a spare greenhouse in your yard, this would all be a lot easier.  Since most of us don’t have such a thing, we make do with what we have!

Two Sample Seed Starting Setups

Since I’ve been starting seeds for several years, each year I have worked to expand my seed starting operation a bit.  I’m pretty happy with what I have now, and I think this is enough for my needs for the foreseeable future (until I get a greenhouse someday!)  The seed starting setup I have now has six LED light panels (purchased online, they only give plants the blue and red spectrum and are highly energy efficient), two T5 lights (which use up a lot more energy) attached and housed to a metal rack.  I also have two heat mats (my den is cold in the winter and I have trouble with germination without the mats). I have all of the seeds on a wire metal rack inside doubled flats so the water doesn’t drip out.  This setup cost several hundred dollars, but I justify it because I use it every year and when I’m not growing seeds in the late fall and winter months, I’m growing microgreens and sprouts using the LEDs!  So this setup gets about 8 months of use a year–hence the investment in the LED lights.  I wish I had a sunny window in which to grow these kinds of things, but with the way my house is setup, that simply isn’t the case.

My seed growing rack - colorful!

My seed growing rack – colorful!

LED lights with onions growing

LED lights with onions growing

Timer keeps my plants happy

Timer keeps my plants happy and well lit.

A second setup is something I helped my sister and brother-in-law with.  They live in the city, and have limited space for growing things and limited light.  This was their first year starting seeds. They had an eastern window, so what we did was plant seeds in small styrofoam cups cut short with holes poked in them (they picked the cups up in the garbage, new).  We labeled the cups and placed them on a metal tray with some foil to protect it.  Then, to protect from cats and to further trap sunlight, we put  box around the cups in the window.  We put a small thermometer in the soil, and monitor the soil temperature. If it dips below 35 at night, the window will radiate cold, so they put the plants on a nearby radiator (radiating low amounts of heat).  The Styrofoam does provide a good deal of insulation, however.  I like this setup a lot because it uses existing energy flows in the house and repurposed existing materials.

Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out

Seed starting setup with box to trap heat and keep cats out

Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)

Setup without box (note the weights in the corners to hold the tray on the windowsill)

Researching Seeds & Determining Plant Times

One of the things that can be challenging about starting seeds is figuring out when to start them, how many to start, and what care is needed.  Seed packets often contain very general information, and I would recommend researching each plant that you are starting (sub-varieties don’t need to be researched; i.e. all tomatoes are started the same).  Knowing something about plant families helps too–for example, I start most alliums (leeks, onions, chives) in late January to get a jump on their long growing time (garlic, of course, is started in the fall).

 

I’m not going to lie–this process can get overwhelming.  I’ve met quite a few novice gardeners (and remember my own experience years ago) with trying to figure out what to plant and when to plant.  However, to aid in this process, I have a few suggestions.  First, there are seed planting guides out there on the web that can talk you through the basics.  In my opinon, however, the web is no substittue for an experienced farmer/gardener–so seek out advice from experts (or really, anyone who has done any growing–we all have knowledge to share).  A friend this year gave me her whole biodyamic planting guide (see below), and that was super helpful.

Second, it helps to take the seed research process in stages.  Don’t start researching seeds in March when you need to get seeds going–research them in December, by the fire. I love to do this close to the holidays–its the perfect time of year to think about new growth. Then, by January, any new varieties I have researched are done and I have a planting plan moving forward.

The other thing you can do is create note files and spreadsheets. When I helped my sister with her herb garden, we looked up each seed she had and created a word file with information found on the packet and online.  Here’s a screenshot of that file.  Notice at the very top of that file, we also have a list of her last frost dates.  This is critically important to know when to plant (because it tells you when you can set plants out).  You count backwards from the average last frost date, and that tells you when to plant seeds.

Sample plant info file

Sample plant info file

After we had this file (which turned out to be 10 pages for 15 different herbs, still a bit overwhelming because we also compiled growing and harvest info) we broke it down into a more simple spreadsheet with growing and planting instructions.  Here’s a screenshot of the spreadsheet.  Once the seeds were started, we highlighted them in green.  Some of them had to be started a little later or cold stratified (e.g. set in the refrigerator for some time) so they didn’t get started on that day.

Spreadsheet

Spreadsheet

Planting by the Signs or Planting by the Moon: Biodynamic and Biointensive Seed Starting

If you are a gardener interested in the more esoteric side of things, you might also want to consider how the movement of the celestial bodies impacts plant growth. There are two approaches that I am aware of to this–biointensive and biodynamic. The biointensive growing approach advocates seed starting on the full moons or the new moons.  The biodynamic approach advocates examining the relationships of the planets (using astrology) to determine planting times (among other things).  Since the astroweather changes from moment to moment, you need to find a biodynamic calendar (unless you know enough about astrology to calculate it yourself!)  I have experimented with both of these approaches, and both have merit, IMHO.

Nurturing Seeds

After I plant my seeds, I spend time with them each day monitoring their progress and watching them grow.  I find it pleasant to meditate near them, and they also respond well to music that I play from my panflute.  Enjoy these early days with your seeds–soon they will be healthy vegetable and herb plants in your garden!

I hope that the ideas presented to you in this blog post can help you make the most of your garden this year!  Happy growing!