Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Stick and Grow Garden

Another of my favorite gardening techniques is to stick something in the ground and hope it grows. Maybe I should change the name...it's not much different from the throw and grow concept, except with this method I dig a hole with my mini-shovel and just stick my hope in the ground.

Plumeria (flor de mayo, frangipani) is the easiest.  You can simply break off a branch from a healthy - even flowering tree - and stick it in the ground. This one looks pathetic, but check out the determination of this cutting!  The flowers and new leaves are desperately trying to reach for the sky, while the older blooms don't seem to understand why they had to undergo surgery in the first place.  What's important is....it's growing! And it's the rainy season.

In Hawaii, they bag and sell six inch cuttings to tourists who dream of enjoying the sweet scent of the flower at home in their backyards in Kansas.  Most of those pieces don't survive in colder climates, but snipping a stick from one side of the wall and planting it on the other in the tropics is almost a sure bet.  I'll concede the cutting doesn't appear to be real happy about its relocation. For now.  Give it some adjustment time. We overflow the pool a lot and it'll get watered regularly.

Many succulents are perfect for stick and grow.  Everything in the pot below was just stuck in there.  It may be time to remove the overpowering plant and stick in a few smaller cuttings.  It's growing out of control. I don't know what this plant is, but it could easily overtake your property if you aren't careful. It multiplies faster than bunnies or cockroaches. But check out the stick cactus. It's great stuff.  My friend Mike gave me a sizable cutting last year, and it's been stuck all over the property since.  It's nearly impossible to kill and gives an eclectic look to any succulent arrangement.

This old sink is home base for the stick cactus, I take cuttings from this now misshapen plant to electicize the rest of the garden!  In front of it is another sad example of the plumeria we trimmed from the neighbor's tree. We didn't go out and steal flor de mayo branches, although I have done that after too much wine in Hawaii.... The blooms falling from the abandoned property next door into the pool gave it a Balinese feel, but they'd start to rot by the side of the pool and that ruined the effect. So we cut the bugger back.

Pineapple is always fun. In Hawaii, Maxine grew the absolute best white pineapples and always gave me plenty. I got into the habit of planting every pineapple top.  After a couple of years I had quite the crop of my own.  Here I have had trouble with soil, but the zen garden seems to work for this one. 

For me the miracle of all stick and grow is the poinsettia pictured below.  I dutifully cut back our other poinsettia plants (that Pablo successfully transformed from Christmas containers to beautiful flowering bushes two years ago.)  One of them needed to be evened out, and I cut a few good sized branches.  Below is the result of that cutting and the branch I stuck in the ground in April.
I haven't ever been able to transplant a poinsettia, let alone get one to grow from a stick. I didn't even have Root Tone!  If it flowers it will be the miracle Christmas flower. From the size of it, I'd better wait until next year before I get too excited about blooms.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Throw and Grow Gardener

I’ve never been much of a gardener. My best garden was in Akumal, when I lived on Yalku Lagoon in the early 80’s. The soil was very sandy, so plant choices were limited. I worked 7 days a week, so I hired my first (ever) gardener. He planted cilantro, green onions, little tomatos, and chiles, plants that would grow in the sand. I loved making salsa right out of the garden!

That was the last real garden I had. Once we moved to Hawaii, I became a throw and grow gardener. If I could clear some weeds to expose the beautiful black volcanic dirt, throw some seeds into the ground and watch them grow,  I’d succeeded. I always planted some chile seeds, usually piquín or tepín, typical to Hawaii, and they thrived. Spearmint grew voluntarily as ground cover in the front yard of our coffee shack. Every pineapple top I planted grew and gave us fruit. I once tossed two squash down into the lower level on our hillside and the result could have been horror movie theme. I thought the vines were going to take over the house. I had so many squash I didn't know what to do.  Throw and grow had backfired!  It did so again when I threw and grew some cherry tomatoes. They also thrived in uncontrollable overabundance. 

When I finally tried to make an enclosed garden in Hawaii I had to move giant lava rocks around and build a little wall to accommodate the dirt. Like the Yucatán, when it rains there is pours and washes away the topsoil.  As I was nearly finished stacking the rocks, one fell on my finger and through the suede gloves and all, my fingertip popped open like a grape. That was the official end of gardening for me there.

Here in Mérida, the patio has slowly taken shape with a nice and sometimes colorful array of plants. I have my zen garden, which currently has only decorative plants. The cactus/succulent garden is bizarre and it's fun to watch it take shape.  But the coup de gras is the chile bush in the back yard.

The chiles are similar to what the Mayans call chile maáx, (mah-ahsh)…we brought some with us from Guatemala and applied the throw and grow technique. There are actually two thick stems but the two chile bushes grew up together and are the cheeriest bunch of chiles I’ve ever seen.

There is an habanero plant next to them that enjoys the company and has begun to put out some beautiful chiles also. I'd better mention that the habanero was introduced to our garden as a little plant, it's not a throw and grow. This one takes some extra attention, but it's worth it.

I threw some basil seeds around.

The first basil bush was magnificent – not only for pesto sauce and cooking in general, but the flowering basil wafted aromatic waves past us while we were in the swimming pool. Eventually the plant got too old and I pulled it, threw new seeds in the area and covered them with a little layer of dirt. There are going to be plenty of basil plants this season, as you can see from the photo above.

I have been enjoying working outside in the little gardens around the property. My garden areas are small enough for me to take on in sections...and I'm happy to work with the throw and grow method again - with some success. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An Adventure Tale: Ice and The Coconut Milk Run

In 1990 I sailed from Hawaii to the South Pacific with my husband Jim and two crazier friends:  Eric, owner of The (Mighty) Sea Dragon, and his landlubber brother Mike. Our 40 ft. Brown Trimaran was well-outfitted for fishing and we had Costco-sized provisions.  Nearly $2000 dollars worth.  Eric had a gimballed stove and stovetop Coleman oven..he liked to bake.  People gifted us pineapples, mangos, papaya and other fruits from their gardens and farms. I dehydrated all of the fruits and vegetables I could get my hands on. I jerked tons of beef.  I read up on how to cook at sea.  Then I made it my job to organize the galley so that our stores were safely stowed.  The brothers were, to put it honestly, disorganized slobs.

We had very little electrical equipment on board.  There was no refrigeration except for our three medium sized coolers.  The radio didn't work, there were no GPS or computer gadgets available to the AVERAGE sailor back then.  All we had was a small generator to charge the car battery, a depth sounder, automatic pilot, and EPERB.  Oh, and there was NO toilet.  The guys threw it overboard the first day out because "those things stink". 

All the ice in the coolers melted within five days at sea.  Our beverages soon rose to the ambient temperature of about 100°F as we sailed toward and beyond the equator.  Thanks to seasick Mike's miscalculations on the navigation, the sun and star sights Jim and Eric painstakingly took with the sextant were not telling us our true location and we got lost.

We missed our first planned landfall, Palmyra Island by a large margin.  We were supposed to replenish our fresh water supply there, we only had five 30 gallon jugs.  But it was impossible to beat our way back, so we sailed on southward with the prevailing winds.  We were supposed to be on the Coconut Milk Run, so called because it is all downwind all the way, an 'easy sail' (non-existent) with the tradewinds pushing you forward.  

It was the 14th day when we first spotted land.  Swains Island, claimed by American Samoa and Tokelau, was inhabited by a family of 10 caretakers. We weren't able to restock our water jugs there, but they offered us freshly caught rainwater showers and gifted us a boat load of coconuts for drinking.  We enjoyed three amazing days exploring the island with our guides, enjoying the feasts of blue coconut crab and breadfruit, Spam and cold FrancoAmerican Spaghetti. They didn't speak English and we didn't speak Samoan, other than our hello, thank you, and 1-10....but we had an amazing time at an atoll very few people have ever visited. 

The family caretakers of Swains Island, American Samoa.

On day 18 of our adventure we pulled anchor.  After an easy two day sail we docked at Apia, Western Samoa.  We hadn't consumed a COLD beverage in fifteen days (15) when we fruitlessly tried to speed up the customs and arrival procedures so we could go out for ICE, cold beer and Coca Cola. Once we got through the deratification certification Jim and Eric were OFF on a mission in a taxi... We stayed three weeks in Apia Harbor and ice was the luxury I indulged in daily while in port. 

Anxiously awaiting the officials dressed in skirts(lava lavas), pithe helmets and sandals to let us go for ice....coolers at the ready at Apia Harbor, Western Samoa.

From Western Samoa we sailed to Tonga, where we anchored for weeks in a remote lagoon in the Niua island group of Northernmost Tonga.  Niuatoputapu was paradise.  We caught fish from our anchorage every day, fired up the grill, and ate fresh papio (a type of jack fish) PLUS the lobsters, giant clams, fish and coconuts the locals gifted us.  Every day our tongue-clicking friend Ipeni would row his canoe out to our boat and leave piles of fresh seafood...once he brought a black coral tree....on our deck for us to find. He would come back later to visit and cluck over the fishing lures.  It was a beautiful island, but there was not a cold beverage to be had.  There were no Cokes, no sodas, no beers.  Sailing friends we'd met up with along the way hired a plane to fly in a case of Cokes...the wife was needing a fix. And the plane came with a case of Fanta Orange Soda.  Not the caffeine fix she was hoping for, but they happened to have a refrigerator and she shared a couple cold sodas with me. Wow! I realized how much I missed cold beverages on a hot day.  Every day on our three month sail trip to the South Pacific was a hot day!

We eventually sailed south to the Vava'u Group of Tonga, and spent what might have been a month in Neiafu.  We anchored in the harbor at first, but later won dock rights since Eric and the guys threw a huge BBQ party inviting everyone they'd met.......every day.  Their aunt had wired them money and they spent it all throwing parties. The beer is really tasty in Tonga, and we had a great time. I have a lifetime membership to the Neiafu Club...that should explain how crazy that part of the trip was. 

We did finally make it to Fiji, our planned destination. Once we were on land, it was still a bit of a challenge to have iced cold beverages, but it was possible.  Jim and I jumped ship and landed a job managing a resort on an outlying exclusive resort island called Qamea...several hours and various means of transportation away from the main two islands of Fiji.  It was a job to procure FOOD let alone ICE, and so the ice deprivation went on for another several months.  Our lifetime adventure to the South Pacific lasted a year before Jim was offered a job he'd been waiting for and we returned to Hawaii.

All this rambling just to tell you about my obsession with ICE COLD ICE!  There have been other instances along my life's journey when ice cold beverages would have been MOST appreciated, but the sail trip won out when I reviewed my ice deprivation experiences.  The Lacandón Jungle trip would be a close second...but really, this is already the longest blog ever written.


Over a month ago, I was going to write a short blog about not having a problem keeping enough ice in the freezer.  I had a system of making several trays in the morning, and once again in the evening and that was working.   The original idea was to show these cool ice cube trays (above and below)  I found at the kitchen store on 64th and 65th Streets.  The trays caught my eye because they are so colorful, but the cube size and ease of stackability turn out to be their best features. They're EXCELLENT ice cube trays. They are flexible but stack without mashing the tray below, aren't too long but have a nice sized cube.  I'm not a big fan of plastic, but as you now know, I am obsessed with ice cubes.

This month there are 10 hot and thirsty people in the house, and I last week I failed to have cubes available for myself at noon.  It turns out the five guys were using all the morning trays to take to the worksite, and that meant no ice for me.  Eventually they figured out THEY needed to buy AT LEAST one bag to take to the worksite (¡!) in their cooler.....so we are back in the cubes again on 75th street.  With these new trays sometimes I can get three batches of ice in a day. That means a lot to someone obsessed about having ice around.  In Mérida, on a day like today, a glass of ice cubes has a shelf life of approximately fifteen minutes.  Seems like much ado about nothing, but I am happy each time this dilemma is solved and maintaining enough ice becomes a workable science.

Monday, August 16, 2010

20% Chance of Rain

Yesterday was a beautiful HOT AND HUMID sunny day, bright blue skies, perfect for the pool or beach.  The weather forecast predicted a 20% chance of rain...we haven't had any rain at all lately, so I figured chances were slim.  The plants will tell you how little rain we've had so far this rainy season.

Then the clouds built up out of what seemed like nowhere. It was lightning and thundering and it started to rain.  The way it does during a big clash of cloud systems, causing the rain to beat down sideways from all directions.  We closed the necessary doors, laid down the sand bags (towels) and watched.  The mountain guys were freaked out, asking, "Is this a normal rain storm here?" 

"Pretty much, during rainy season."  What can I say? When it rains here it pours.  Literally. It was indeed the most incredible lightning storm we've had this year.  After the doors and windows were secured, I lay in my hammock watching the sky.  It was fascinating.  A couple of the strikes were VERY close. We lost power briefly. Then we lost water.  How you can lose water in a rainstorm I am not sure, but it was back in an hour or so.  We had not overused our water supply yesterday; in fact, there was less usage than on a normal day.  People were just lying around listless in the blistering heat.

I ran around looking for flashlights and candles.  Damn, I forgot to get D batteries!  But I was ready for the big blackout.  It never happened. I eventually fell asleep to the sound of the rain after the wild electrical phase ended.  I know the pool overflowed, I saw that happen while there was still light, but I forgot about the street flooding.  Below is what I found when I woke up today.  I took these photos at about 10am.  The guys who deliver my water said they thought they were in a hurricane.  There is a lot of flooding around the city.

Looking from the kitchen door toward the front gate and street....the water is still standing and is loaded with black dirt.  Is this the dirt I painstakingly added to my Zen Garden...spending hours pulling weeds and rearranging all the plants one day last week?  Or is this floodwater dirt that seeped in underneath the front gate?  Since there is doubt, it must go.  Although you'd never know it, this area is tiled and is thoroughly cleaned once weekly!

Here is another angle of the state of the carport today.

Then I went out into the street.  The corner is still in nearly a foot of standing water.  It's getting washed away slowly by traffic, but I wouldn't count on the drain system, even after its recent "improvements".

And I walked down to see how the other corner looked....it is still flooded halfway up the block.

I am on slightly higher ground and all I have is flood debris. 
Today's forecast, PARTLY CLOUDY this afternoon with a 30% chance of rain tonight.  I am hustling to wash/dry the sand bags for a new outburst!  And trying to get some clothes washed and dried while there is still a breeze....before the clouds build up. Living in the tropics, it's all in the timing.

Praise the Lord! The Virgin Mary Hath Finally Ascended!

Yesterday, August 15th, was what I hope to be the final day of The Celebration of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary MADNESS that occurs here every year from mid July until mid August.  San Sebastian church, two blocks west, sets up a fair on their grounds and in the street for a month.  The rides look like they were found at the dump and reassembled...they're for little kids but they're too scary for me!  That's just one of the events though, and the least distracting of them all.

In July the people start attending more Masses, and having private BOMBINGS at their own homes...and the Masses and BOTTLE ROCKET madness increase as we near August 15th.  In July when it starts, it gives me the feeling of living in a war zone.  This year, the first day I heard the fireworks (using the term loosely), I was sitting at the dining room table in the house we were caring for, writing.  All of a sudden it sounded like there was a sniper in the neighborhood. The cats looked at me in wonder. I heard what sounded like gunshots roving around the block.  I figured I was safe in the compound, but it took me a while to figure out that the celebration, city wide, had begun. I was only a few blocks from the main square, and they have REALLY BIG bottle rockets at the main Cathedral!

The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Mexico.  They embrace her in all of her forms.  Our Lady of Guadalupe is so important, everyone is expected to have at least a small shrine to her outside their homes......I have seen people turn their garages into chapels for her.  This is serious business around here.

The difference is that these people are Mayan before they are Catholic.  They took on the aspects of Catholicism that work for them, like the sinning during the week and confessing it all on Saturday, ready to look good in Church on Sunday!  But they saved the Mayan customs of blowing off fireworks, home made bottle rockets...and it seems this year they discovered cherry bombs........and for four weeks it sounds like we live in an active war zone. Last week, during the big build up to the finale, they started the fireworks at 5am if I am not mistaken, and blew them proudly every hour until midnight. This happened every day through yesterday..with just a few leftovers this morning.  I've been picking up burnt bottle rockets off the ground and the roof, but so far not off the solar panels.  I'm not worried, there is another important day, Guadalupe day I think, in December that causes this entire month long syndrome to occur again. So there's still time to F up my solar panels...after 16 blogs about parades, I am ready to concede...NOT EVERYONE LOVES A PARADE.

On the bright side, these religious bottle rocket bombs are the only such nuisance we have in Mérida.  We are NOT in the middle of a giant narcotraficante drug war and our streets are safe.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm Still Here

I've been busy lately.  My subsistence here at this point is based upon the rentals of rooms and bodegas on Pablo's and my property outside of town(14), the rooms I've rented at my house(3), and our animal and house sitting jobs.  When it rains it pours.

Recently we had to re-rent several rooms outside of town, and that takes time, energy and an ad in a newspaper.  I wanted to apply for an opening at the American Consulate and had to take a fluency test, complete a 12 page application, update my resume, and put together a beautiful federal package in a short period of time.  (I heard about the job announcement three days before closing deadline.)

We had a cat sitting job requiring us to sleep away from home for three weeks.  It was a very detailed job, caring for an art gallery, and six cats with complicated medical issues and intricate feeding details. With six cats at home, and swimming scheduled at 8am, that made for busy mornings. 

And then, when finances are always the worst, the last week of the month, we received a request for a room to accommodate five guys.  We have worked with this group, a cable company subcontracted by Cablemas to outfit outlying areas with cable, for several months.  They usually send two or three guys from Aguascalientes, who leave for work early and quit early....they are working in the extreme Yucatecan sun and heat. This time, they asked if we could accommodate five guys for one month, then back to three guys after that.  It was the end of the month, finances were looking grim, so we went for it.  Remember, when the going gets weird, the weird get going. 

Whew! See, it was a busy schedule!  We are back at home now, and I am playing housemother.  By accepting the five guys into the house we literally doubled the population, and I admit that this time perhaps I went too far.  Keeping up with ice cubes, and the dishes left behind (they are pretty good about cleaning up), emptying trash, keeping three bathrooms stocked with towels and toilet paper, and shuffling seven sets of sheets around each week is a challenge.  Luckily I have Graciela the housekeeper, who is scheduled twice a week in August so that we can clean everyone's rooms thoroughly. 

With a house full of young, single guys it is impossible to NOT have a bit of chaos.  This is what we used to call on disaster duty organized chaos, but it is chaotic nonetheless and THIS time I feel sort of locked in my room after 4pm, and restricted to pool usage before 4pm.  I have to rearrange my personal schedule because I'm used to writing at the computer in the mornings, doing my chores, and then fixing food and spending time in the pool later.  There are many people who really are "closed in", and this is self-imposed, so I am dealing with it and not asking for any sympathy.  I have rearranged the house so that I have access to any creativity sparking items right here in my own room.   I hesitate to spread out a project like beading, or painting, however, since I don't want to live in clutter if I am confined to one room.  Writing has been tricky.  My mind seems to be spinning and multi-tasking a lot, so if I write half a blog draft, I'm lucky.  Today my goal is to post a few blogs that I have working in my spinning head.  They are nothing earth-shattering.  There isn't time for much more excitement around here.

There's light at the end of the tunnel.  Only three of these guys will stay for September.  And the Spaniard who's been living in the front room since November is returning to Spain. Nacho has been a great tenant but he has a girlfriend who needs to be bitch slapped. The house will feel beautifully empty and spacious in September, and I have to concentrate on that to make it through August. 

Since I turned my house into a ship, here is the bunk space I created for the fifth guy.  The fourth guy would sleep in the hammock in the room pictured instead of on the floor in the green room, but these are mountain people, not hammock dwellers. 

The temporary extra bunk