September 30, 2006

La Gringa's gardening background

Not much to tell here. I don't come from a family of gardeners. My first experience with gardening was in my father's vegetable garden. It was located at the 100-year-old abandoned family homestead of my great-grandparents in Michigan − without electricity or running water − which we visited only sporadically on weekends and holidays.

I remember eating raw green beans right in the garden once and thinking how wonderful they tasted. But mostly I just wanted to go swimming so I didn't learn much here.

One time when I was about 5 years old, my father let me plant the radish seeds, telling me to plant them an inch apart. I was a very serious child, trying always to do everything exactly right so as to not disappoint anyone. Many years later my father told me, "When those radishes came up, by God each one sat exactly one inch apart, no more, no less."

To this day, I can't imagine how my father gardened there. We lived several hours away so the garden was neglected for weeks at a time. The way we micro-manage our gardens today, analyzing every yellow leaf tip and fretting over every insect makes it hard to believe a garden could just grow! Maybe insects weren't such a problem before we started blasting everything with chemicals, ruining the balance of nature, and building up the insects' tolerance for stronger and stronger chemicals.

I didn't do any more gardening until many years later when I bought my first house. It had two small trees in front, a little bermuda grass, and nothing but dirt in back. So, I began to learn about gardening out of necessity. I made a lot of mistakes but over a 10-year period, it turned into an oasis of shade and color, complete with a little vegetable garden, grape vines, and a peach tree. I regret that I used gallons and gallons of chemicals during this period but that was the advice I received at the time.

My next project was a 50-year-old badly neglected Texas Ranch-style home that needed complete remodeling as did the yard. I could see the potential as there were very large 50-year-old Red Oaks, two Redbuds, and a Dogwood, but there were also several dead or dying trees, tree stumps, and some horribly overgrown and misshapen Japanese privets and English ivy. It was easily the ugliest property on the block, maybe the entire neighborhood! I became very popular with my neighbors when the improvements began.

Two seemingly insurmountable problems led to my investigation of organics. The first was that although the lawn was coming along nicely after a year or two, each spring it would be overrun with sprouting weeds. I would spread the 'cides to kill the weeds like all my neighbors but still ended up on my knees for days pulling out weeds.

When I realized that this wasn't working, I started listening to the Saturday afternoon gardening radio shows and began to learn about organics from Howard Garrett, the Dirt Doctor. I decided to try it and what do you know?! After a year, I had the best looking front yard on the block and didn't have to spray or pull weeds either. This is a picture of the front yard.

The second problem was a very large Red Oak tree whose canopy shaded the terrace and driveway in back. Every year it would be invaded by aphids or some other insect whose sticky goo would drop to the terrace floor and cover the cars. It was so bad that my shoes would literally stick to the ceramic tiles on the terrace and the car windows would have to be cleaned anytime the car was parked in the driveway overnight.

When I quit spraying, we never had that problem again, either the tree became healthier or the beneficial insects began doing the job that the sprays just couldn't do or both. I was convinced that organic gardening was the way to go. This is a picture of my greenhouse. I really miss it.

Of course, there are many more and certainly loftier reasons to be an organic gardener but I have to admit that these insignificant problems were my first impetus. For 10 years I maintained a strictly organic garden to the amazement of my neighbors. When I sold the house to move to Honduras, it was only on the market for one weekend before a bidding war upped the offer to more than my asking price. The buyers said that the garden was what sold them on the property.

I've learned about organic gardening from books, the internet, and various gardening discussion groups on the internet. That's the same way I'm learning about tropical gardening. I'm not an expert in either by any means.

Here in La Ceiba, time and time again people have told me that it is impossible to have an organic garden or to grow organic vegetables in the tropics. Whenever I mention any gardening problem, the answer I receive always includes some miracle 'cide in a bottle that will solve all of my problems.

Obviously, it isn't impossible because we do have an organic garden and we do raise vegetables organically, despite the lack of packaged organic fertilizers. It isn't perfect but neither are the chemical gardens. I can't change the customs here but practicing organic gardening makes me feel good to know that at least we are not damaging the environment and that we, our pets, and the wildlife around us are safer for it.

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