I took my Permaculture Design Course in Costa Rica in 2013, at that time I was working a piece of land that my wife and I had access to but didn’t own. We began by trying out theories, strategies that we had heard about, ideas that we had and even things we saw on youtube. We found seeds and cuttings from all over the place and brought them together, we sprouted rare and valuable lumber trees from seed, we even had a garden where we grew carrots and cabbage.
In Christmas of 2013, we bought our own piece of land, called Buena Vista. Here, I thought at the time, we would not be limited by anything – we would be able to implement whatever and however we wanted, the way we wanted (even if we were still figuring that out).
As we got started, many people said – or we heard that people were saying – “Wow they are really letting that farm go”, “What a waste of time”, and other such things. The farm that we bought was ‘clean’ of native plants and trees, and full of coffee, with some plantains and yucca too. Nowadays we have over 150 species of plants, and when people visit our farm they almost always say some version of “WOW – this is beautiful!”.
Yesterday an electrician we had hired to do some work asked me to visit his farm and give a consult. He and his wife are just getting started on a piece of land, and after seeing our farm, he wants me to give him advice. It makes my heart happy to see how far we have come in less than 10 years. This is not the first person to ask me, and I do have some advice ready; today I would like to formalize it the best I can, first in English, then in Spanish.
Welcome the Natives
The first and best advice, and maybe this would apply anywhere and not just in the Andes, is get to know your native plants. “The Natives” are almost all considered ‘weeds’, most people have forgotten their names, and some of them are considered enemies of profitable cropping systems. But since we are using ‘agroforestry’, many of these are going to become our great allies.
The first category to pay attention to are Pioneer Trees. These are trees that appear in disturbed and exposed soils with in the first month. Their job is – and they are specially designed to – engage in natural restoration and get a forest started again. They are our allies because we want this too! My favorite is Yarumo (Cecropia Peltata), but also consider cordoncillo, chilco, niquito and others that let themselves be known.
My strategy to get to meet these natives was to use a machete, instead of chopping down everything that came up with a weed-wacker, I carefully chopped and dropped grasses and herbs, while keeping my eye out for woody plants that indicated that they would be trees or bushes. Over time, by letting them grow, I “got to know” a number of pioneer species and their characteristics. They are helpers to be used to accelerate the process of building a forest.
This lesson, I think is one of the most important, but it is one that took me awhile to get my head around. Trees go up, vertically. How high? Well, many people I ask say trees go ‘as high as they want’, and they are quite right! It is not the case that trees go ‘as high as it says on wikipedia’ or that every tree of the same type goes to the same height. They grow to a certain height based on the conditions around them, and the condition that controls this is what I call ‘verticality’.
Certain trees, and we can use the Yarumo as a perfect example, will penetrate the canopy to be the tallest tree, and then branch out and widen. If the canopy is a bunch of grass, it will grow about 10 feet tall, then branch out an widen. If the canopy is a bunch of 10 foot tall trees, it will grow 16 feet and then branch out an widen. If the canopy is a bunch of 16 foot tall trees….. I hope you can catch the pattern.
The higher you system grows, the taller the next generation of trees will be. High quality lumber trees are like this as well, often people cultivating them put them together with each other so they compete amongst themselves, but this is not the only way. One quick and effective way that I have to increasing verticality is by cropping a small number of Yarumos to compete against each other. You don’t need to let them fill up your farm, a few Yarumos will ‘set the pace’ and the next few will beat them, you can then chop down the originals and enjoy their quality firewood.
The right place to put your hardwood lumber trees is, you guessed it, near a really tall Yarumo tree, so they can attempt to beat it and give you that high quality wood all the way up.
Contours and Fish Scales
You can check out some of my videos on this topic on youtube, I am uploading a new one as we speak, contouring is conceptually very similar to terracing, and I have developed some really good techniques with cuttings to speed up the process and make the plants do most of the work.
When slopes get even steeper, neither contours nor terraces work really well anymore, for this we need to take advantage of “Fish Scaling”. Trees and bushes on steep slopes naturally accumulate biomass, creating scales and ‘micro-vagones’ that help control erosion and break up the inertia of flowing water, allowing it more time to seep into the soil.
Contouring is GeoEngineering, but using some simple techniques we can implement powerful geoengineering into our land with ease. And just knowing about this technique and its effects helps tremendously in analysis of land with a topographical mindset. Watch my videos for more of my ideas about this important aspect – (and subscribe to my channel!)
Nitrogen Fixing Friends
Learn about nitrogen fixing plants. This is a natural process, and its something that we need to link back into – a forgotten treasure of soil fertility! The soil in a forest gets more rich, more fertile over time. I imagine this is through many processes that are still mysterious to me, but one of the ones I know about is Nitrogen Fixing. Certain plants, and especially those in the Leguminous family, make a symbiotic relationship with a soil bacteria, who is able to absorb nitrogen from the air. It gives it to the plant in exchange for sugar, and when that plant loses a leaf, or gets a branch pruned, or even gets chopped down – its biomass will decompose into the soil like normal. But when it does, the nitrogen will be ‘free nitrogen’, it never came from the soil, so it will be in addition to the soil nitrogen.
For those of you who know something about agriculture, the NPK fertilizers address what 20th century science considered the most important nutrients for plant growth. The N in NPK is Nitrogen, the first and most important element for plant growth – every plant. Fixing nitrogen in your soil is one of the most important (and best understood) ways to increase soil fertility over time.
Planting is easy, Protecting is the challenge
When we got started we planted all sorts of trees, everywhere. Planting was easy, heck even sprouting trees and plants from seed was easy. The hard part came later.
Here in the tropics, even in the mountains, the native plants grow quickly to cover up any exposed ground. You can really feel like they don’t like having soil exposed to the sun; the greater the effort a farmer expends to keep his crops ‘clean’, the greater the force of the native plants to sprout and cover that soil. What a hilarious joke!
The power-tool of choice around here is the weed-wacker, because it is a lot faster than a machete. It is as indiscriminate as its wielder, and can just as easily be used to chop down useful and wanted plants as rugged and hated weeds. In the beginning, we lost huge numbers of things that we planted to weed-wacker. The weeds would grow up and over the plants, making it quite impossible for the operator to see, often until it was too late.
The best strategy we have developed is a mix of machete and weed-wacker, the machete goes first, clearing a one foot or slightly larger circle around the tree, crop or plant in question. Later, the weed-wacker can carefully make their way through the area, with all the plants that need to be avoided carefully marked in advance.
Not everything needs direct Sun
I can tell a neat anecdote here about implementing Cabo de Hacha, a promising species that I am looking to implement into my agroforestry systems. When I planted 50 of these in direct sunlight, they never grew again any higher! They required deep shade to incentivize them to reach up and pentrate the canopy, growing straight and tall as the examples I observed when I selected them.
Just like we talk about pioneer species earlier in the article, secondary and teritary species only start growing into a forest once tree cover is established, relishing the protection from direct sunlight and slowly (or quickly!) making their way up to the canopy.
Certain shrubs, herbs and vines are like this as well – they don’t grow as well or at all in the direct sunlight, they prefer or require the partial or complete shade of forest systems that have already started.
Some types of plants grow just as well either way, such is the case of the pineapple. I had always seen pineapple being grown in direct sunlight, so I planted mine there as well. But, as I do, I planted many things, and some of those things began to shade out the pineapple. To my surprise, the pineapple kept growing and even kept giving fruit, from within a medium to deep shade. Pineapple is in the bromelia family, and doesn’t need as much sunlight as people think!
These six lessons are the starting point. As I tell everyone, take them, and start ahead of where I was 10 years ago. Take them and learn something new – so you can teach me something I haven’t learned yet!