Saturday, April 26, 2008

making beds

The soil here is thick clay, it needs to be seriously amended before I can use it. So I don’t use it, I make raised beds instead, trusting that by the time the plant’s roots are long enough to touch clay the plant will be strong and healthy enough to penetrate and draw strength from this heavy stuff. The beds are based on the permaculture / hegelculture / bleedingly obvious method.
- First a loose layer of broken up sticks which help with drainage and provide a nice habitat for beneficial microbes,
- A layer of cardboard and paper to help encourage worms and provide food – also good here as we can’t recycle paper,
- A good thick layer of dead leaves for nutrients and to attract worms,
- A layer of toilet paper (in Costa Rica we don’t flush paper and it’s better here than in a landfill or burned, plus it’s good for composting, and it’s most certainly a renewable resource),
- Another layer of leaves – both dried and green cuttings and prunings,
- A top layer of kitchen compost mixed with new soil from rotting logs.
The whole thing is edged with rotting logs (the best), coconut husks or stones. I’m also playing with planting a pumpkin in each and training the vine around the outside of the bed – giving shade and later mulch, and of course food. Beds are always mulched with a layer of dead leaves (I have lots of dead leaves), but cardboard, paper, sawdust work just as well (pine and softwood sawdust will make your soil acidic). The mulch keeps in the moisture and provides nutrients as it breaks down. Here it also offers some protection from the dreaded leaf cutter ants. I think slugs too maybe. I’d like to add wood ash, but haven’t been able to keep wood dry enough to burn.


I planted I think 6 cloves of garlic and a month later 3 of them have sprouted and are growing. They’re not strong plants, I think there’s too much rain. I’ll try again but this time in a pot which I’ll keep under the eaves. They won’t get as much sun, we’ll see, it’s all experiment.

. . . and food sovereignty

I don’t read the news very often, it’s always the same. But I do read certain things, and read recently that food riots are on the increase. Food is becoming more expensive. Globally small farmers are failing through food hoarding, bad harvests and food ‘aide’. For a much better explanation than I can give read it yourself: . It’s like that concept, you don’t give a man a fish, you give him a boat and clean water and teach him how to raise fish. I think I may have added to the concept there, but you get the idea. Remember when there was that big outcry in the 80s when Nestle was giving powdered milk to mothers in African nations and telling them it was better than breast milk? This seems to me the same thing but on an even larger and more catastrophic scale. My best source of information for growing vegetables in the tropics is a series of pamphlets issued by the Health Department in the south pacific islands. There are actually graphs comparing the nutritive value of a bag of cheetos to a half cup of cooked pumpkin. At some point I would like to work in the field of agricultural education. For now all the gardeners in the world, all of us planting seeds – hopefully organic and even more hopefully seeds we saved ourselves or got from friends, and hopefully heirloom seeds, not to be nostalgic but for diversity and increasing the gene pool rather than shrinking it – we are doing a tiny tiny bit to keep the world sane and green. It would be nice if we were also able to support subsistence and small farms on a global scale. How to do it? I don’t know: boycott the big chemical/seed internationals, the Monsantos and ADMs and Cargills of the world? Share seeds and ideas with other gardeners? Work with local schools on agricultural awareness and earth sensitivity? Look at the labels on your staples – cereals, legumes, coffee and be conscious of where and how these things are grown? Write to MPS and local government? Write to the big charities and ask them what their stance is on agriculture? Support charities like which give aide through donating animals and education to those in need? Think, question, be conscious. All food sovereignty is, is the right and freedom to grow food. It’s so simple.

self sufficiency . . .

I would really love to be self sufficient, and I know it’s possible here: the local indigenous population has survived for centuries without stores. I have and will have enough fruits and vegetables, the problem is starches and protein. I’d love chickens and have raised them in the past, but here I’d have a problem keeping them out of my beds and maybe even keeping them safe from snakes and marauding dogs. I don’t want them in a pen – there are too many insects I’d want them to enjoy. The starches are the bigger issue. Cereals, no I don’t have the space. I do have a lot of yams and yam type things coming, but not until October. The yampi and air potatoes are annuals, although my malanga and mantioc (taro and cassava elsewhere) can be harvested 9 months after they’re planted, year round. I need to find beans that will produce a good amount. The beans I’ve tried here grow very rapidly but not very productively – 6 weeks between sprout and bean, but not many beans and the plants are the favourite food of everything in the garden. One can’t walk into a store and buy seeds here. I can’t buy them on line and have them sent either: postal service is not reliable and I don’t have a credit card anyway. I have my gandul / pigeon peas, and I hope they will be my answer.
The trouble is not really me, it’s the dogs. They don’t eat dog food and have a diet of rice, corn, lentils, beans and greens and meat. If I had a goat and a couple of hens I would be personally self sufficient, I can even make chocolate here, but the dogs need a lot of food that I can’t grow. And their food – basically the staples – is becoming increasingly expensive. I spend more on theirs than mine.


Originally from Africa, sesame is grown commercially in most Central American countries, but not in Costa Rica. It’s a tall slender plant with dark green pointed leaves and foxglove like flowers which sit on the stem. I’m looking forward to seeing it. Foxgloves are one of the plants I miss most from more temperate climes and if I can grow something similar looking which I can also eat, I’ll be quite delighted.

sprouts and seeds

I’m trying out a new sprouting method. The beds I have are full and I don’t have enough soil to make more beds. Moreover the scattering seeds method seems to be wasteful here: insects get to the sprouts and my beds are spotty to say the least. So now I’m soaking seeds and sprouting indoors in tubs and jars or spreading them on a folded dishtowel and covering with another towel, then keeping the towel damp. This last is the most successful method – it keeps the seeds uniformly moist and dark. When I have sprouts with a good inch of growth on them I’m potting them out. Yes it means they essentially go through two transplants, but it gives me time to prepare a space for them and it gives me a good sense of what I’ll have and what I need. And as it’s only me and the dogs I don’t need a whole load of one thing or another; 4 tomato plants are more than enough. Right now I have melon, a type of gherkin, sesame, watermelon and pumpkin (ayote) seeds sprouting. The sesame are doing well. The watermelon seems to be doing nothing, I think my seeds must have molded. I’m growing sesame more from curiosity, though if I get enough seeds for enough a half cup of tahini I’ll be happy.

morning again

The variable seedeaters are right beside me in the hibiscus: a happy little family of four. Their light filled nest was in the pejabayes and I’m so happy to see that they will stay in the garden. The father is completely black but for a white dot on either shoulder, his partner and offspring are brown with speckled brown and fawn chests. I wonder if the plumage for juveniles is this brown or whether he has two female young? There are no seeds in the hibiscus, variable or otherwise, they must eat insects too. They have a pleasant family twitter going on – parents singing in that sweet rising melodious whistle and the little ones in that semi anxious babble of chips and tweets.
I’m sitting in an ugly cloud of mosquitoes. Big black nasty things. The heavy rains of last week resulted in a lot of puddles in forest leaves, old stumps and ditches. There has been rain since, but not enough to wash out the larvae, and just enough to keep the puddles filled. Now we have another 5 or 6 days of heavy mosquito presence. Yuck. I’m sitting with sweats on and a hoodie with the hood up. Fine at 6 in the morning on an overcast day, but in a couple of hours it’ll be hell.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

dig for victory

We Dig For Victory!

waiting for the kettle to boil . . .

I glance out the kitchen window – there’s the lilac blue crab below the orange tree, tottering at an off-road angle part in and out of his burrow. For once he doesn’t bolt when he sees me. Close by a very successful female flycatcher – not sure what type – swoops from her perch scooping up flies who are glad of the sun. Were glad of the sun. A short tailed hermit hummingbird feeds from those red salvia like flowers I can’t find in the books. Below him two red and black butterflies flit between scrubby growth. There’s a movement in the cannonball tree: it’s the lone male howler monkey noisily crossing the little stream on his way to the big river trees. All around is the song of birds and the constant hum, throb, twitter of insects. Kettle’s boiled.


I just finished a book called ‘French Dirt’ about a garden in the south of France. The author was full of enthusiasm and really wanted to express his relationship with his land, yet struggled with his prose. I have the same experience, it is difficult to convey what a garden is, what it does. Yes, of course on the surface things grow and one waters and weeds. But below that how does one say what being in the garden is? I find my fingers typing superlative after superlative, yet it’s not enough and my writing becomes so light and fluffy it’s candy and gives me toothache. I think of the gardeners I know, my grandfathers especially: calm men, patient, still.
Gardening is life, it’s experience and I don’t have the words to describe it. I can say what I did, what worked, what didn’t, how rich and abundant and wonderful it is, what a sense of loss and lack of control I endure when it doesn’t do what I think it should. All this experience which cannot be taken personally. The gardener provides – no; the gardener serves the needs – no; the gardener is there while the garden grows. Because, weather permitting, the garden will grow, what it will grow and how it will grow may be what the gardener wishes or not, but it will grow. We are there to help and direct and be present. Be present.
People say that I am a calm, patient sort. But underneath I’m a raging impatient control freak. I take things personally, I worry. With my garden I can’t do these things. Yes I can worry and I have been known to get up in the middle of the night with the rain lashing the roof to put umbrellas over young plants, or get distracted at school if I remember I didn’t shade the transplants when the sun is beating down. But while I can say I am responsible for the garden, it’s not me who makes it grow. You’d think being a teacher for all these years would have taught me this lesson already. My garden is only 4 months old but it’s a wonderful teacher, and it teaches constantly, subtly and thoroughly.
So what is this gardening thing? It’s a big long lesson. Ach, that still isn’t enough to say what it is. Some poet said, ‘you are closer to god in a garden than anywhere else on earth’, maybe that’s what I’m trying to describe, and perhaps that’s why it’s beyond words.

Gardening is still new for me, this is really the first piece of land I’ve worked, have had time to work. There has always been herbs and salvias and small pickings, but this is the largest garden I’ve had, and the most commitment I’ve been able to give. I’m blessed with a year round growing climate, 12 hours of light a day, rain, sun, humidity – I’m living in a greenhouse. There are still issues – too much rain, too hot a sun, too many insects, fungus, lack of rich topsoil . . . and not much knowledge or available resources.
The other foreign gardeners I know struggle to produce familiar fruit and vegetables, cucumbers, hybrid tomatoes, carrots, onions, even lettuce. They bring the seeds from visits home. I don’t want that kind of garden, I’m enough of an interloper without bringing foreign plant species – which are also far more susceptible to fungus and insect damage. The local gardeners I know are Caribbean and have a diet far more exotic and tasty than the normal rice and beans. The plants in their gardens come from Africa via Jamaica: aki, gandul, mantioc, Jamaican rose, cinnamon. My garden is as much a mix of natives and non natives as this region. It’s all trial and error, all up for grabs. What ties it together is that it’s tropical.
In the whole garden, I have counted 56 different edible and medicinal plants and trees, and the list is growing.


Even though tomatoes are native to Central and South America, they are not the easiest fruit to grow. I think it must be the commercial varieties and hybrids – they are too susceptible here to the fungus that humidity harbours. There is a local gardener who seems to have success with a small variety and he sells his occasional surplus to Moreno (our local shop-master and fountain of all knowledge). I’m using his seeds. The first lot I planted in the garden, I currently have 6 small plants, and by small I mean barely out of their sprout hood, but with true leaves and that incredibly wonderfully tomato plant scent which takes me right back to my grandfathers’ greenhouses. I have seeds drying on my desk waiting for a bit more sun. I’ll plant these in pots first I think. I know they don’t like to be moved, but I’m pretty sure they don’t like to be eaten by beetles and pelted with tropical storms either.
As I’m writing there’s a flock of Montezuma Oropendolas in the big fig. They must be among my favourite birds here, big, 20 inches tall with bright blue cheeks and yellow tails. But what I love about them is the noise they make. It’s too hard to describe – a sort of melodious clicking and tearing and whooping bantar with the males making a sound like branches breaking.

morning rounds

Every morning I do my round of the garden, if it’s rained and I don’t have to water, it doesn’t take very long. I pause to wind new chayote growth around trellis, or redirect a pumpkin vine, check on fruit, carefully inspect the newest members of the family – whether they be inch high tomato plants or the transplanted yuca I took from the roadside. I commiserate with chewed leaves, duck below spider webs and generally return to the deck and my brewing coffee much lighter and more peaceful than when I left.


Chayote is a member of the squash family and grows on a climbing vine. There are several varieties from small white to giant dark green, all are native to Central America. The chayote is an interesting looking fruit, shaped like a large slightly flattened pear with a crumpled smiling indentation at the larger end and a smaller variation of the same at the top. The leaves are quite succulent, a dark green and vary in shape from a horseshoe in the early stages to a delicate heart. Seeds are hard to find – of course chayotes can be bought in any supermarket or vegetable stand, but removing the seed from the plant is time consuming and frustrating: the single edible seed is soft and difficult to remove from the flesh. It’s best to plant whole chayotes. There are two types – in Costa Rica a chayote which grows a single sprout is a macho – a male, one which produces two sprouts is a hembra, a female. Many gardeners here will plant only hembras which produce both male and female flowers. The problem is you can’t tell what it is until it sprouts, it’s a good idea to plant several to be on the safe side.
The first three I tried didn’t take, I was convinced that it was best to remove the seed and then sprout it. Finally I just left the vegetable in a dark corner of my kitchen for a couple of weeks and it sprouted – with two shoots! I built my simple arbor and laid it on a nice rich bed of organic garden compost and decayed wood and left it. It’s not as “crazy rapido” as one local said, but it’s a nice steady grower and there’s a noticeable difference every day. The grasshoppers ate the heart out of one of the shoots and it has taken about two weeks to recover but it’s growing well again. I have three more of a different variety sitting in the same dark corner waiting to send out their thin white roots through that crumpled smile at the big end.
Chayotes are completely edible – fruit, leaf, shoot, root, flower, seed, skin. My kind of vegetable! The fruit doesn’t have a strong flavor but is good in soups, stews, salads, baked – and can even be made into a fake apple pie or crumble. This last is especially important as apples here are ridiculously expensive, rarely organic and come from Chile or the US, that’s a long way for an apple (though given they are one of the most highly sprayed fruit, they arrive perfectly preserved).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

orange spider with her babies

caterpillar on bean leaf

Friday, April 18, 2008

morning gift

Last weekend working in the garden I happened upon a thin nest about 8 feet up in the pejabaye palms. It was a family of variable seedeaters – one of my favourite birds in the garden. These small finches have such a pretty song and are happy to come close. The male is all black except for a white dot on each wing near the shoulder, the females are a greenish brown. There were two babies in the nest, big ones. In fact when I checked the nest later in the day they had left. But today, Friday, I saw the family in a cherry tree, the babies close and still calling their parents for food. They are the colour of the mother. I’m glad the family has decided to stay close.
I thought to go check the hummingbird nest. I disturbed an iguana in the hibiscus as I approached and he slipped into the river and swam below the surface with strong strokes for about 15 yards before raising his head and swimming periscope style further downstream. The water is a milky coffee brown just now after all the rain and has quite a current to it. The sand bank on the beach must have burst. One of the hummers was making a terrible racket and I thought it must be my presence, I couldn’t see any movement in the nest. I was wondering why she was not trying to distract me away from the nest when suddenly my eyes adjusted and I saw a good sized male basilisk sitting on the branch about 2 feet from her babies. She was darting at him and screaming furiously but he was paying no attention, though his crest was raised. I began to throw some pieces of dry stick at him but he ignored those too. Then I made a lucky throw and a piece hit him on the back – it wouldn’t have hurt, but it was enough to make him jump from the branch into the water and swim upstream. The hummer continued to buzz the area where he had been and it took a few moments for her to assure herself the threat was gone. I felt good, superhero style, but he knows where the nest is, I wonder if he’ll come back? She fed her young, a leaf was in the way so I couldn’t see how big they are, but last week they seemed to be a fair size, I hope they make it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

bronze tailed plumeteers - the hummingbird parents with the river nest


watermelon sprout

male pumpkin flower

pumpkin flowers for dinner

cabin garden

The cabin garden too has suffered with the weather. I’m still learning how to garden and that probably doesn’t help. All my learning comes through experience, and as the garden suffers and I unwittingly do things that aren’t right my learning curve steepens. For instance I have beetles that look a little like the Colorado Beetles that terrify UK farmers, they are small, less than a centimeter and pretty with dark brown backs and cream and pink spots. I know they are eating the leaves but I figured there were enough leaves for us all. However they seem to enjoy the katuk and bean leaves the best of all. My little katuk plants which were just beginning to take after a month of sickliness and looking horribly munched, the tios have gone sending the plants into shock. Hopefully they will recover, but I have to start killing the beetles. The katuk and beans are between two rows of pumpkins and beside a patch of yucca and below a huge hibiscus hedge, all of which have plenty of succulent, edible vegetation. But the beetles show no interest. I don’t want to kill them. I’ll try spraying the leaves with soap first.
My pumpkins are slowly recovering from the dry weather, I watered them every day but they are big and thirsty. Older leaves yellowed and died leaving bare earth below which seems shocking to me in their patch of dark green mottled with silver. The pumpkins send up flowers along the length of the stalk and they bloom in steady procession one follows the other day by day. The male flowers that is. The females are much further down the stem and flower out of order, opening when only one other male on her plant is in bloom – cross pollination is thus more or less guaranteed. However with the weather the plants were cutting back, withdrawing water from tips allowing them to die and dropping female buds – conserving energy. Now with the rain there is new growth and I count 3 female flowers ready to open. However there are fewer males – yesterday I picked 14, two weeks ago I was harvesting 25. I had one female open the day of the heavy rain but there were precious few black bees out and she closed unfertilized. I tried my best with a q-tip but there were a lot of little ants in there and I think they ate the pollen I had smeared on her. Whichever, it’s been two days since she opened and her baby pumpkin which sits directly below the flower doesn’t look swollen at all.
Gardening provides such valuable lessons – patience, natural cycles, not taking things personally. My watermelons for instance. Such delicate plants and so susceptible to munching creatures. Except they must smell better than they taste for something chews through tips and the slender stalks of sprouts but doesn’t eat what it breaks off. Needless killing. My mind is trying to take this personally, which of course is insane. But I’m down to two chewed up and spat out watermelons which after 6 weeks growth are down once again to 7 leaves apiece. The beautiful flowers and therefore potential fruit are dead and rotting back to earth. Watermelons in the books like humidity and sun – they should be thriving here. But no. I’ll try again, but this time I’m starting them in pots on the deck. The same for my tomatoes, I’ll start more but up here where they will be more protected from insects and heavy rains.

mama tarantula

lizard king

heliconia madness

Heliconia madness
The east garden is almost purely ornamental, mostly bromeliads and heliconias, a delightful pond with lilies and lotus, two big trees draped with epiphytes, bromeliads and orchids. The weather in the last 10 days has wrecked havoc on the land – a week of hot sun with no rain then a night and day of heavy rain with wind. Half the heliconias are bent over under the weight of flowers and leaves, beaten down with rain. I spent 6 hours working through the beds with my clippers removing leaves, cutting stalks, trying to decide which flowers to leave for the hummingbirds. The flowers last for weeks and weeks gradually turning into mini ecosystems of their own as each flower fills with water and old vegetation and becomes home to mosquito larvae and tadpoles. Further down, or up, the stalk the younger flowers still provide nectar for hummers and bees. I hate to cut a flower which is still active and productive. And yet they were in a sorry state. Each stalk produces a flower, once the flower finishes the stalk dies – when one cuts the flower one should cut the stalk. The flower lies below three or four leaves and oftentimes we cut the leaves above – both to alleviate the weight on the stalk and to see the flower. Usually there is only one leaf below the flower. In my cutting yesterday I removed so many leaves to reduce the weight on the stalks that in some places they no longer look like plants but a storage area for Chinese lanterns. From a distance it’s spectacular, but up close looks shorn and sad. I will have to pay more attention to the beds here. It’s interesting, I enjoy the beauty and the openness of this garden but I haven’t really connected with the plants here. I spend most of my work time raking and weeding and presuming the flowers will take care of themselves, but yesterday showed me otherwise.
I was rewarded in my work with three beautiful encounters. There’s a hummingbird nest in a young guabo tree on a limb which reaches out over the river. One day I’ll have a camera that can take good pictures from a distance. The nest is immaculate, 2/3rds the size of my fist and very round. It’s so well put together it looks like a growth on the tree as though a limb had fallen off and lichen and moss had covered the stump. It’s a patchwork of liverwort and bright moss. So pretty. I watched as a parent (I think a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer) fed two young. The little ones were ½ the size of my thumb and had orange beaks. It’s quite something to maneuver those long beaks in a small nest.
The second experience was with a lizard in the smallest cherry tree. I saw his tail from the corner of my eye and thought it was a snake, so long, perhaps 3 times as long as his body. I’ve never seen his kind before – he had eye sockets like a chameleon, but the eyes were smaller and heavily lidded. He had no back crest or ridge, but a frill between his jaw and chest. He was striped like an iguana, but subtly in lichen and green. He had 5 regular lizard toes, long and thin. When I first saw him his body was long and sleek but when I approached him he seemed to swell up, become shorter and extended his crest. I say he though I have no proof, I could see no sex, just a flap below his tail, but he did have a nice frill, so I think he was male. He moved like a mantis – slowly back and forth mimicking the movement of wind amongst leaves. Oftentimes he did not use his back legs but allowed them to hang there while he pulled himself forwards with the front. I couldn’t see any muscles moving as he went with those two skinny forearms pulling all his weight. His tail was grey unlike the green of his body. Looking in the book later I think he was a canopy lizard, but can’t say for sure, the book isn’t so very thorough.
The third was in the bed behind the pond and I almost cut him in two seeing him just at the last minute before I closed my clippers. He was a tree frog but not the spectacularly coloured varieties of the postcards. He was like a dead leaf, his body so flat yet textured with ridges and crinkles. His feet were camouflaged so well that I could barely tell what was him and what was heliconia stem. He had bumps and points on his head and the most startling eyes, big cream and marbled with dark brown. The slits were vertical. He was fairly broad but very flat, almost rectangular shaped and so still – the only movement was a very rapid and visible heartbeat below his ample jaw. He wasn’t in the book, no matter he was wonderful.


The whole grade school went camping this week, to a finca in the mountains, attending part of a workshop on traditional building. The local indigenous people here are the Bribris and their shaman came to begin the ceremony for the construction of the casa cosmico, a traditional scared space. The shaman and his apprentice are quiet men with an energy like trees standing beside a clearcut. All around them was western hustle and bustle: the people who live on the finca and those attending the workshop are foreigners: Italian, Argentinean, German, Spanish, Canadian. The finca workers are Bribri. The Bribri worked while we went fluttering from one activity to another. It feels awkward to me this life I lead when I see it from this perspective. We have workshops to preserve indigenous culture only because we have destroyed it with our presence. They are a beautiful people, small and compact, strong and serious. They work hard and steadily and with respect for what they do. I worked with them as much as I could, learning the thatching process and spending time with the women in the kitchen. I’m an outsider here no matter who I’m with, with the Bribri I’m so starkly different it isn’t even an issue and there was peace in our working together. They were surprised and amused by my wanting to work.
The shaman had 3 sanyasin women fluttering around him trying to attend to his every need. He had no needs and looked strange amidst these 3 taller thinner women in their flowing white clothes and sanyasin malas . The image disturbed me. Even on a spiritual level we westerners can’t leave it alone. Of course the missionaries did so much harm, but even now these hippy style spiritual seekers on their individual paths were laying their own beliefs on the shaman’s. Perhaps it’s not so important, we are all free in our own beliefs and faiths, and development and evolution will happen one way or another, perhaps this is my own issue, my love affair with a different, older, simpler way of life that causes me to squirm.
The ceremony was brief and simple: a fire, herbs cast into the fire, a quiet song welcoming the spirits of the fire, the place, the plants which would be used in the construction. He left after talking with the Bribri.

After 4 months of sitting on a stool in the kitchen watching the world through my open door and window, this morning I tried stretching my extension cables outside, and lo and behold it works, I can’t believe it! It feels so much better to be sitting outside and writing, without the time pressures of battery. My computer came back better but not fully well: seemingly I need more memory, too much stuff on the mind. Isn’t that the truth?
It’s so difficult to rest from the endless internal babble about nothing, it’s like a box of mixed jigsaw pieces that I flick through – school, garden, future, past, family, friends, lovers, animals, work, worries, memories, plans, ideas . . . once in a great while I see the big picture having somehow managed to put the right pieces together, but no sooner does it come than it breaks apart again and I am full of small thoughts about nothing.
I only know this to be a true phenomenon because I have experienced otherwise. I’ve had moments of stillness devoid of babble and it’s incredibly beautiful, floating in an ocean of eternity where everything is light. Fleeting moments before one sinks again below the waters and finds oneself in the midst of shoals of darting, turning small thoughts.
The most I can do is to stand back and watch what’s happening in my mind, not allow myself to be caught in the current, because I know that in a flash it will change and flow another direction.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

a dish of flowers

15-20 male pumpkin flowers
Oil or butter for frying
Soy sauce
Gather flowers late in the day, this way you can be more certain that all the trapped pollinating bees have chewed their way out of their golden prisons. Pumpkin flowers open before dawn and close by midday but do seem to trap the occasional visitor in their petals.
Rinse flowers in water (save this pollen suffused water for the plants), shake out and chop. You can also chop the long flower stems, just chop these finely, they can be stringy.
Chop the garlic (today I also used some male papaya flowers – aromatic and peppery), heat the oil or butter and throw everything in. cook for about 7 minutes stirring fairly frequently. Serve with soy sauce. The closest taste I can think of is bok choy. The flowers contain vitamin A, C, some calcium, iron and protein. You can steam also but vit A is fat-soluble you can always add fat later.
Another lovely way to prepare pumpkin flowers is to dip whole flower heads in tempura batter and fry. The dogs like them too.

nomadic ants

The red assed ants are on the move again, every week another horde rampage through the garden flushing all the insects and lizards before them arousing the interest of flycatchers, warblers, even hawks. I guard my stairs with a broom ready to fight them off. I’m sure they’re passing through, but just what if they wanted to stay? While I was picking cherries I accidentally stood in their haphazard path. They bite hard. So, I wasn’t paying attention and now the ants are on the deck inspecting the laundry that’s hanging to dry. I watch a spider get excited. He’s out of his hiding place, a pale green gold and he’s made himself look very much like a grasshopper. The ants are nearby but not close enogh. I wonder if he’s preying or prey? Ah, another lapse of attention, gathering supper, both ants and spider have gone.

lizard day

Watering the pumpkins I could hear a rustling noise by the house. No movement in the trees so it wasn’t monkeys, the dogs didn’t come when I called, so it had to be something else, a fair size by the sounds of it too. Took a break and no sooner had I sat down than 2, 4 feet iguanas came thundering towards me. They saw me and took off in two different directions so I was forced to just watch one: a big black iguana with rust red orange sides and an orange and black striped tail. They seem to use their tails for propulsion as they run, swishing them actively behind them. their limbs branch out at right angles as they go and their feet / paws / claws (none are right) turn slightly in giving them a butch bulldog look. And they run fast. It’s a day for lizards: I saw a female basilisk run across the river as I was fetching water, the jesus lizard who’s large hind legs enable them to run – paddlesteamer fashion across water, with their legs seeming to turn a full circle as they go. They make such a great noise a flap flap flap on water. Nearby I saw a big blue tail of someone disappear into the ginger. Behind me a house geckoe barks.

fear and dependency

My computer’s not working. I switched it on and nothing and I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sickening heaviness. Everything is on there – all my music, photos, documentation, blogs, letters, 2 books I’m writing, articles for suite101, lesson plans, notes, research for school, recipes, gardening notes – everything. I took it to the only place in town where someone might be able to help and left it there – without a receipt, a phone number, a name. nothing. Just left it there and felt like I was leaving a sick puppy at a pet shop. I called when I was told to and they hadn’t looked at it. I called again and was told it had issues and a virus and they couldn’t save my data. I felt oddly alone and vulnerable. Losing my computer has been my biggest nightmare. Not having my music or a way to write brings out pangs of isolation. It’s an interesting addiction. Without music I am alone with myself . . . it makes me realize that I provide myself with lots of distractions to avoid this feeling. I look at this sideways, not quite prepared to examine it fully or get to the bottom of it. Clearly I’m afraid of it. I’m going to have to deal with it. Costa Rica is such an incredible place for bringing up one’s shit. Perhaps it’s the lack of distractions which force one to just be. Obviously I’ve found a way around this. I better deal with it before I lose my computer for real.
My computer’s back home and speaking Spanish, they were able to clean it but when they re-installed the programs they installed the Spanish versions. My Spanish sucks, my technical Spanish sucks wad, but I have my computer . . .

buy buy green

Buy buy green
I joined a blog directory and as usual looked around to see who’s company I was in. There were over 1000 listed as “green”. As usual I didn’t have the luxury of surfing for hours (I was paying by the minute), but was surprised to see that the majority of sites I looked at were trying to sell me something. Why are people buying green? I mean, why are people buying at all? There’s trickery here – basically these sites are saying it’s still okay to consume, just consume differently. Somehow this doesn’t seem to fit. Last week I got my hands on an actual hard copy of Mother Jones magazine. Of course I read it cover to cover, literally, and was more struck and amazed at the advertising than the articles: visa cards, investment plans, cell phones – all touting their eco-friendliness, even saying (credit card and cell phone) that using them more would help the environment. How cynical. But it must work, given the number of ‘green’ sell sites I saw. Is it possible we can think this one through?

bye bye banana

Outside my kitchen window is jungle. But behind my cabin is a clearing and in this clearing are some bananas, a bitter orange and some infant papayas. The tallest banana has had fruit on it since I moved here, winter solstice last year. I’ve opened my shutters to those bananas every morning since, watching them grow and the flower shrink. Today I cut them. they’re not ripe, but they’re ready. They’ll ripen on the deck over the next week or so , everything will get covered in bat shit as they come to check on their ripeness. My view is different now, ah, it’ll never be the same. What an odd idea, nature is eternal yet never the same. How marvelous is that?

patangas, the Surinam Cherry

It’s best not to look too closely when eating cherries. Especially at the moment. It seems a colony of ants have taken up residence and they make tiny holes in ripe cherries and do what in there? Last week I was eating around the holes – the surrounding flesh was softer and a deeper red. Then – as must happen – I popped one in forgetting the ants and discovered it was so much sweeter than all the others. Somehow the ants do something to make sugar – or maybe it’s the air and sunlight penetrating the hole? Whichever, the cherries with the ants taste better. So now my cherry picking involves picking, shaking, a cursory glance and then popping. Maybe it’s the ants which taste sugary?

april 1st

It’s a bright, bright sunny day with a good breeze – perfect beach weather. Not so good for the gandul transplants. They’ll make it I’m sure but this sun will set them back. I hung a sarong over them to offer some shade, but I think they’ll lose their leaves.
The watermelons seem to be taking such a long time. I read 80 – 85 days from shoot to harvest, we are over a third of the way through but they only have 7 leaves.
The white spots I thought were mold from all the wet humid weather we had last week turn out to be aphid abodes, white aphids, I’ve been removing them whenever I see them, the grasshoppers are much more dangerous.
It looks like there’s new growth on the wild spinach in the leaf bed. It’s been 12 days since I put them there. That’s great! I’d like to move more. I put some beans on the leaf bed too and they sprouted and sent out growth but the 4 days of strong sun this week has fried them. I’ll wait for more rainy weather and try again. There are enough leaves to rake and add to the bed too. It is now just under ½ of its original size, inside it’s mulching down nicely and we haven’t had much rain.
Yesterday I picked some perennial peanut for transplanting. It’s a pretty groundcover, a legume with a nice yellow pea flower and clover like leaves. It can withstand flooding and droughts and can be mowed. I was thinking of putting it in the low land under the mangos and using it as a nitrogen fixer and longterm soil builder, and of course it will look better than the sparse grass that’s there now.
Coming along the drive last night there was a sound like rain coming from the pejabayes. I thought it was pissing monkeys but why would a monkey sit in a spine covered pejabaye palm? Then in the garden I was collecting guavas and got hit by many small round hard white flowers – like hail. Pejabayes are flowering and drop their flowers at dusk. I wonder if we’ll get the fruit? The pejabayes in the garden are 30 feet tall and impossible to climb, the fruit hangs in clusters at the top. I think the toucans will be lucky. The fruit is very popular here, a starchy nutty vegetable which is steamed and eaten with mayonnaise. All over San Jose street vendors sell them straight out of great steaming cookpots. the pejabaye is also a great source of palmitas – the white heart of palm that’s eaten fresh or in brine. We cut down a young palm, about 12 feet tall and got about 2 feet of palmitas, so good we stood there over the fallen tree, machetes in hand, gorging ourselves.

garden notes

I notice another katuk is sprouting, this one was a stem cutting, not a tip – that blows my theory. Should they all survive it’ll be a good start to a salad. My lentil sprouts are about 4 inches tall and delicious. I’ve tried over and over to sprout things here and they start well and then usually dry out between rinsings or rot if I try to keep them wet. These ones I soaked overnight and then partly planted in a sandy compost mix. They are doing really well, must be time for me to start a bigger batch. These lentils grew in Canada, I’m going to keep a couple of sprouts to grow, see how far they get anyway, I have no idea what a lentil plant looks like.
Been thinking about new beds. Which is better – to produce enough food for me or to grow surplus and store? Subsistence or what – materialism, plenty, abundance . . . what would one call it? I am following the development of humankind: I was happy as a hunter/gatherer/forager and then I became a farmer and now I’m thinking about the next step, growing more than it takes to feed me. It’s an interesting feeling this, where does the desire for more spring from? Is it fear based, natural. I’ll sit with it for a while longer.
I would like to try other plants; sesame which grows commercially in every other Central American country but this one, chickpeas, cucumber . . . I need more bed space to do this. Excuse?
But where? Behind the datura cresent bed is a possibility it gets morning sun. I was picturing the garden differently – the carambola and the soursop in the orchard and all this space for veggies.
There are 13 types of hummingbird in this area, I’ve seen 5 thus far in the garden, the boys say they’ve seen all of them.


I was sitting on the deck having my morning coffee, frowning at the pumpkin patch and wondering why I haven’t seen any white faced capuchins for two weeks, when I heard a commotion in the bamboo. There they were, the same old troupe, my good friends the banana rustlers. And who should be grimacing at me from the mango tree but Scarface himself. Of course I crossed the deck to say hello and was greeted with such a wonderful display of threatening behavior from these tiny gargoyles it made me laugh. Bouncing up and down, baring their teeth and widening their eyes, banging thin branches against the trunk. Oh how I’ve missed these mini rebels. I wonder if they miss this sort of thing in the forest, they do seem to enjoy it. There’s really no need to taunt the dogs or myself, but they come so close deliberately just to send a shower of leaves at us and hurl facial insults. They are so beautiful in their way, such perfectly rounded tails, such glossy black fur – not straggly or uneven in colour like the howlers or spiders. These monkeys are perfect in their black coats and white cowls. Their naked faces look skeletal and oddly human. They have certain expressions which remind me of my grandfather. But with their pointed canines and maori-like poses they look quite scary too (which of course is their point), like a Japanese No mask. They are foresters too, purposefully breaking dead and weak branches as they go. Sometimes I think they are looking for insects, other times I think they must be taking care of their pathways through the trees – who knows when they’ll come through in a hurry and won’t have time to check the strength of a limb. The capuchins are noisy in the trees, not like the others here, they crash through like noisy teenagers, making faces and posing when they see more threatening creatures.
Scarface came closest as usual. It’s not so much a scar he has as a disfigurement, there’s something misshapen to the area between his nose and upper lip. I’ve been told that some previous occupants rescued a young white face and cared for him until old enough to cope for himself, I can’t help but think Scarface is the same monkey.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


There are holes in the banks and the ground, not in the lawns, but below hedges and tucked away in corners. I thought they were crab burrows. The crabs at the beach are very bright with purple brown bodies, yellow legs and red claws with dashes of blue below, there are also brown crabs with red claws. I’ve also seen them around here, but the one who just left his burrow below the orange tree was different. A big round liliac blue creature with white spectacles around his eyes, his claws are fairly small and look more like legs and his body is disk shaped and smooth, not with the bumps and raised portions of the others. He looks like a child’s drawing of a crab. I really would like a camera with a lens.

afternoon show

When I was a kid I never, ever, in my wildest dreams for one moment thought this would be my life. I’m sitting drinking my afternoon coffee, winding down after a day at school. It’s overcast and rained about 2 hours ago. There’s noises everywhere. To my left in the trees by the river a mother sloth hangs from a limb, clinging to her back is her baby. They are watching a small group of howlers in the branches above them, a baby comes down very close to me, about 8 feet away and poops on my laundry line. To my right two hummingbirds chase each other through the hibiscus. A morpho flits below me through the pumpkins. The coffee tastes good. I won’t have to water the garden tonight.


I’ve been eating from the garden for a few weeks now, I’m still buying basics – lentils, garbanzo beans, brown flour, tapa dulce, oil, eggs, milk, cream cheese, chocolate and coffee, and some spices, but everything else is grown here. Tonight I made some curried lentil soup with pumpkin and papaya leaves and my new favourite: pan fried male papaya and pumpkin flowers. I’m eating the male flowers which have completed their task of supplying pollen: the female flowers will become fruit so are not for eating until they too finish their task. The flowers are surprisingly good just sautéed with some salt and pepper. And they keep their color and look so very pretty on the plate. The papaya flowers taste peppery and have a beautiful scent (while raw), they can be eaten raw just as well. I have quite a few edible flowers in the garden: banana, hibiscus, ginger, Madera negra, papaya and pumpkin – pinks, reds, yellows and whites. I could also use the bean flowers and the chayote, but would miss out on the fruits, I don’t know that they have male and female flowers. It would be something to make a whole dish from flowers alone. I’d feel like a big bee. The other day when I took some pumpkin flowers from the fridge to prepare them, I released a black bee, poor thing was quite chilled. The flowers open at dawn and close again by 11am, he must have been sleeping inside and got caught. We have lotus in the pond and I hear the flowers are delicious. Unfortunately the black bees think so too and they ate the last one completely.

muscle rub

It seems that age does take its toll on a body, I awoke the other day sore from working and in need of a good massage. Finding a serious lack of available masseuses in my cabin, I settled on the idea of making a muscle rub. We have plenty of tumeric and ginger in the garden, both are excellent for sprains, bruises, aches, muscle pain, inflammation and just about everything else. I added some lemongrass for scent and its relaxing properties and then ventured out of the garden to find two local plants. Redhead or firebush or zorillo real is a small pretty tree with orange red tubular flowers and reddish leaves, it’s one of those crush and apply to insect bites type of plant and is good for easing aching muscles and relieving tiredness. Hoja de estrella is a small, bat pollinated tree with short upright wands covered in tiny non-descript flowers. The leaves can be rubbed directly on sprains or bruises or stiffness for near instant relief. Both grow right outside my gate. The whole lot got chopped and mashed and added to a jar of sunflower oil (available and inexpensive). It looks like a really good green salsa, and if the last two plants were not for external use only it’d be a great oil for cooking. I have to shake it when I think of it for a week and strain before I can use it. In the meantime I’m still looking for a masseuse. . .

cacao mulch

I tip my bucket onto one of the new beds I’m preparing. It’s a wide mound of paper, sticks, rotting wood, leaves, decomposed kitchen compost, cacao and more leaves. No actual soil as such, my supply is running out so I’m experimenting to see if I can create a bed without. So far it looks good, I don’t know how long I’ll leave it before planting. I think it would be best to plant creepers that will spread over and sink roots down rather than planting directly. Leaf vegetables would probably be better suited. I have another similar bed and I stuck in some wild spinach yesterday. This variety grows on a spongy sick that will resprout very easily, if it takes I’ll be delighted.

into the forest, kinda

It’s an earlyish morning habit at the weekends to collect cacao shells and trim the trees. It has to be at the right time, after the daylight comes but before it gets too hot, around 8ish seems best. The timing has to be right because one doesn’t want to disturb any snakes on their way out or home. And the mosquitoes are worse at dawn and dusk, though in the forest they are a constant. I wear a sweatshirt, hood up and sleeves drawn over my hands, long trousers and my boots, so I need to go before it gets too hot: the smell of sweat draws even more mosquitoes. I go armed with my bucket and machete. It is always disorientating in the forest – getting in is easy, coming out is often a job as one giant tree or cacao is much like another and the light changes quite rapidly. Also walking in the forest is an exercise in consciousness – one has to be aware of where one is stepping and on what one is stepping and I am looking at trees and trimming and chopping or picking up old cacao as I go. And of course my direction changes like a butterfly’s as I see something interesting over there, or want to look at that tree, or inspect the cacao that was flowering last time . . . and so on until I fill my bucket, can’t take any more mosquitoes and head for home. Now what way did I come? It’s a lesson in careful observation while treading with equal care and usually combating a feeling of being lost in the jungle forever. The spiders I collect with the cacao are usually on their way up my arm at this point too, but they are only those stilt-walkers with the rust bobbin body and the long wobbly black legs and are harmless. Often the dogs will come to find me and look at me as if to say, just use your nose, it’s this way.
It’s not the real forest, it’s been transformed and farmed and then abandoned and slowly it’s reverting, there are no pumas, no wild pigs. But when you’re in there, surrounded by green and the wind doesn’t blow through and all you can hear is insect and bird noise and underfoot are ants and millipedes, frogs, spiders and scorpions and overhead are toucans, hawks and monkeys, it feels like the forest.
When I was a kid we would go into the highlands most weekends. We had a place beside one of the last forests, of pine and some birch. I spent many many hours in there enjoying its eery quiet, its darkness and stillness with sudden magical spots of bright sunlight where a tree had fallen. I lived by a redwood forest for several years, spending time with those giants who daunt you with their age and size and bring everything around them to their knees. The forest here is very different, it has none of the somber atmosphere, the mature trees are so high that you can’t tell what they are, looking up one sees only vines and creepers. Below is the shade loving cacao, twisted with age and transformed by the vines into great shaggy heaps with far too many shoots. Below this are the ferns, mosses and wild heliconias and the few saplings from the giants that have survived thus far. And below that the leaf litter which is the source of life in the forest. Layers of green life. I found a little hill and climbing it into the sunlight. On top I found myself in the lower canopy, how different the jungle looks from there, suddenly one is lifted into the active life, noise and bustle and movement.

early morning, easter sunday

The spider monkeys came through this morning as I was making pancakes. They travel in small troupes – the one I see the most often has 3 adults and one baby. They are very agile – almost running through the treetops, swinging and leaping with all limbs. This is very different from the Howlers who move slowly and steadily and seem to prefer to have two limbs connecting to branches, or to the white faced who jump and scurry paying attention to everything as they travel. The spiders have long thin limbs, almost gibbon-like, and a orange-red fur which backlit can look like an orange halo, especially along their torsos. They knocked the fruit from the cannonball tree as they went through and it bounced down the trunk exploding, sending seeds everywhere.


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