July 15, 2006

Starting the garden

We didn't actually start planting the garden until January 2005. Our very nice neighbor from a block away, who might have been tired of looking at our construction site for three years, or who maybe just felt sorry for me, came by one day and offered to take us to a friend's citrus grove to dig up some St. Augustine grass sprigs. We jumped at the chance!

Our property was steeply sloped and much of it was basically unusable. We tried to hire someone with a bobcat to terrace the slope, but it was hugely expensive. In this town, anyone who has a special tool or piece of equipment charges an arm and a leg just because he knows he can get whatever price he wants − he has no competition. I worried too that because those things are so noisy, the driver wouldn't hear me screaming, "No! No! Don't dig there! Don't knock down those trees, we want to keep them!" They always think that they know what is best and don't want to listen to a woman.

workers leveling the hill, La Ceiba, HondurasOur architect and our neighbor both recommended that we just hire some men to dig. I couldn't imagine what back-breaking labor that would be and how long it would take, but it actually turned out pretty well. I marked the first areas with lime powder and they would dig into the hill and shovel the dirt down to level the next area. Here's a picture of the workers. That's how we found Carlos. I'll be talking more about him later.

We started composting long before we moved in. Our carpenter was happy to bring us a truckload of wood chips/sawdust every week rather than paying to take it to the dump. A nearby farm brought us a truckload of cow manure about every other week. We also had plant trimmings from the 'wild' area and weeds from the rest of the yard. We had mountains of compost going. The problem is that in this climate, the compost just keeps decomposing until there is hardly anything left.

At one point we had a bumper crop of butternut squash growing in one pile − more than 50. We even had Carlos sell some at the market, just for fun, but please don't tell my neighbors! They would be appalled. Two other piles became the home to several papaya trees, some tomatoes and chiles.

Back to the grass. We hired five workers to dig compost into our orange laterite soil and plant little sprigs of St. Augustine into the areas that I had marked out. It took about a week and since it was the rainy season, about three weeks later we were mowing our full, lush, green lawn. Don't think that I'm obsessed with lawns, but nothing sets off the plants and trees like a healthy green lawn. The heavy rains compact the soil or completely washes it away so it is practical, too.

The beds were planned with big swooping curves, not straight lines as is the fashion here. All the beds are mulched with ascerí­n (wood chips). I did not have my garden design plan ready. I just had a general idea of where I wanted trees. Normally it's preferable to construct the hardscaping, then plant the trees, then shrubs, then smaller plants. I plant what I can find when I can find it. I don't like doing it this way because I'm sure I'm not leaving enough room for the trees and other large plants, but sometimes you just have to do what you can do.

We did do the hardscaping first which is the main reason that we didn't start on the garden sooner. Nothing like four or five guys moving wheelbarrows full of cement to destroy a garden. We have concrete sidewalks, a stairway, a driveway, and stepping stones made of pastel colored concrete with the impressions of leaves embedded in the top. This is a picture of one of the albañiles (bricklayers) fussily placing a leaf on the concrete. The leaves are removed after the concrete dries. I came up with this idea after trying to think of anything that would look better than plain concrete. Yeech!

People used to come from all around to watch us make it, but whenever they would ask for the details, I would say, "Well, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." A joke that didn't quite translate. They also came to gawk at la gringa doing a man's work.

In other areas we have stepping stones and stairs made of small river rocks embedded in concrete and retaining walls made of larger river rocks. Concrete is the major construction material in this climate. All right, I understand that it is necessary − but can it at least look pretty? Luckily, el Jefe agrees with me.

This picture shows some of the beautiful stonework that el Jefe and Carlos did. Just the two of them.

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