Sunday, June 25, 2006

New Gardener in Chacala

Semi-abandoned banana orchard up the hill from Playa Chacala
I love my life here in Mexico. However, it's been hard having to learn a whole new climate. It almost feels like I am starting all over again as a gardener. I lived, gardened and farmed, in Zone 5 for many years, and Chacala couldn't be more different.

It's a mixed blessing. I can garden outside every day of the year here. I wake up every morning with sunshine coming unto my bed. I wear shorts and flipflops and eat breakfast outside. And sometimes breakfast includes a mango, straight from the tree.

It is so different here. But actually it's a lot like Los Angeles, where I grew up. A lot of the same plants. Poinsetta (Buenanoche), oleander, jasmine, bouganvilla, hibiscus, lantana, desert rose, and a bunch of others where I only know the Mexican name.

There's also a lot of vinca, (at least it looks like vinca), which flowers year round and never seems to fade away. Then there are different kinds of palm trees, and beautiful large trees similar to Madrone (maybe they are Madrone) and lots of flowering trees. And flowering vines. And all kinds of fruit trees, although they are mostly cultivated at someone's house or in an orchard. There are mangos and papayas, guayabas, and lemons and other fruits I don't know the name of. And melons (cantalupe) , pinas (pineapple), and sandia (watermelon) year round.

This area could be a great place to have a modified Survivor show, for lazy people. Fruit trees all over, and pinas, and fish, and shrimp and lobsters. In the evening the local guys just snorkel down off the beach to pick up the lobsters. Of course, there may be lobster seasons, natural and legal. I don't know. But restaurants seem to serve lobsters and shrimp year round.

Anyway, here in Chacala, I don't have much of a clue about the plants . Even if I recognize a jasmine, a hibiscus, or a bouganvilla, or whatever, I don't know the name in Spanish. And the nurseries generally don't label plants so there's a lot of guess work involved in choosing plants. Last spring we bought four bouganvillas that were all supposed to be magenta vine-types and we ended with 2 red and 2 magenta, and 3 vine and one bush. Oh well. For about $2.30 USD for a good sized plant, that's not too bad.

There is a lot of plant sharing here. And I have learned more about starting plants from cuttings. It seems to be easier here because it's so humid and the cuttings don't dry out all fast. In fact, often when someone builds a fence with wooden fence posts, the posts sprout and turn into trees. The fences looks nice because after a couple of years there is a line of trees along the fence line.

I think very few local people have ever bought a plant from a nursery, or even visited one. About two months ago one of the vendors that sometimes sells plants at the local Friday market came down to Chacala to deliver some plants to me. I couldn't carry everything and the plant guy was curious about my house. I don't think he had never been in Chacala before. It's about five miles from the town where he sells plants. Anyway, everybody who saw the truck at my house came over to check out what was going on, and now the guy comes down most Saturdays. It's a little more expensive that at the market, but it's handy. And it's fun to see the new plants at people's houses.

Neighbor's house, banana stash
I am still not up-to-speed about the climate here. This is my third summer here, and I am finally getting used to the humidity and the bugs. Nobody much tries to grow tomatoes or melons at home, except for chilies, because of the bugs. Plus they are really, really cheap to buy. In the summer it's in the mid 80's to mid 90's and higher and very, very humid, from about 7am to midnight, with low's in the high seventies for a couple hours in the early am. In the winter it is more low/mid eighties in the day and mid sixties/low seventies at night. Very nice.

But it is fun learning all this stuff. This year it didn't rain at all between early October and late June And we still, June 23, have not had more than one or two very light sprinkles. It's wonderful in Chacala when the rainy season really takes off. There are tremendous rain/thunder/lightning storms, mostly at night, during the four or five months of the rainy season (June/July thru October). The sunsets are gorgeous every night because the clouds are building up to storm.

One of the problems with gardening here is there the lack of rain for so many months. And many vegetable plants seem to kind of shut down when it hits about 84 degrees. Things get very dry and a lot of the trees and shrubs and vines seem to be deciduous. I didn't realize that until the first June I was here and all these (what I thought were) dead trees and shrubs burst into bloom.

The house I live in (I housesit here here for six months for the past three summers) is the highest house in the town water system, meaning there almost always is not enough pressure for town water to reach this house. Last year I had town water twice, a trickle for about a half an hour each time. Until mid-June of this year, whatever what came thru the town water lines came froma small creek. And, especially during the rain season, the water was full of dirt. Brown and muddy. But now Chacala has a well about four miles away, with a pipe to Chacala, and most houses get water almost every day for a couple of hours. This is really different frm the past few years, when an hour or two twice a week was the general rule.

Everyone in house (almost) has at least a plastic water storage container, a tinacho, which is filled by the town system. Many people also have a hebe, an underground water storage vault made from bricks/cement blocks and cement plaster. The town water flows into thehebe and then is pumped to the tinacho on the roof so there is some water pressure in the house. Most people have toilets now, mostly flushed with a bucket of water. There are a number of houses without real roofs, and sometimes the owners just build a cement block stand about 10 ten high for the tinacho to sit on. Water is pretty precious here and is never taken for granted. Everyone is alert to the sound of running water, and keep they eyes open for the water running from the town lines.

Water from the town system is never drinkable any time of year, so everyone seems to buy drinking water in five gallon blue plastic jugs for about one dollar (10 pesos). Several different water trucks come around everyday, so that's no problem if you have some money.

During the rainy season I catch water that runs off the roof to water the plants.

Until this last month, I bought household water (toilet, shower, clothes washing, plant watering, etc) from the water truck. It's a large tanker truck that delivers water mostly to restaurants (which need more water than the system delivers), and to the four swimming pools in town (three at small hotels and one at an American's house). A tanker truck full cost about 40 dollars but I could only take a half tank at a time so I coordinated with a neighbor that also buys water and we split a load. I used a 2500 liter tank (tinacho) of water a month, more of less.

I have hibiscus and jasmine and lots of other stuff at the house where I am housesitting. Oleander. Bouganvilla. But I have so much to learn. The local ladies help me alot. I think that they can't comprehend how totally different gardening is here. The idea of two or three feet of snow gets them laughing. I think they think I am kidding. anyway.... I like this life alot. Very simple and uncomplicated. It least its simple and uncomplicated for me, since I am not earning a living and I don't understand enough Spanish to get into trouble. At least not so far.

One terrace at this house is at the front of the house, and is almost all shady. I have jasmine, camellia, and some palms and some shade leafy plants, and a flowering vinca and several pots of coleus. I grow the coleus from seed, and they are very popular with people around town. People come up to take cuttings (pinches) all the time.

I think the front terrace looks great. Very lush and things smell good. Plus the bouganvillas are growing up past the terrace wall, come up from the ground in front of the terrace. There are some chairs and a table out there and it's handy for visiting with people that I don't want to invite in or who don't want to come inside. Nobody seems to have much wooden furniture here, I think because the termites and other bugs eat the wood. I use oilcloth on the table because I like the bright colors.

The other patio is called the veranda, and it's pretty big, maybe 20 by 30 feet and is half covered. It looks to the west, out over the ocean and I spend a lot of time in the hammock out there. I have a bunch of sun lover's out there, including hibiscus and desert rose and a shrubs with little blue flowers that bloom constantly, year round. And a bunch of other stuff. I am mostly experimenting with what will grow and how to start plants from cuttings and seeds. I have done a lot of experimenting with morning glories, sunflowers and nasturiums, with mixed results.

An except for the bouganvillas, all the plants are in pots. So I am always needing dirt/potting soil. Next week I am going to get some at the nursery in La Penita, a town about a half an hour away. I will catch the collectivo here in Chacala, and then from Las Varas take the Pacifico bus to La Penita. Since I can't carry five bags of dirt ($2USD per gunny sack full) I made arrangements with my favorite taxi driver to met me with his van in La Penita, after I have been there a couple of hours, and drive me back to Chacala. I am bringing a tarp so the van don't get too dirty. I am going to buy some plants too. I can't wait. He is charging about $14USD which is pretty good, considering it will be about an hour of his time. He named the price. And I will probably tip him. His wife is about to have their first baby and I have been trying to think of a nice present, but maybe a good tip is the best present. I don't know.

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