The Farmer in the Dell

One of the goals I have aimed for in El Salvador was to have a piece of property apt for a garden. During my first trip to Nicaragua we worked on a farm/training center teaching groups from small, rural communities about having home gardens for growing table vegetables for the nourishment they provide. While everyone here puts every speck of land into corn and beans, I decided to find foods we can enjoy other than those two staples. Margarita brought some guisquil, known to me from my Mexico days as chayote, down from her old house in Casa Blanca and its vines are snaking up our papaya tree and in among our bushes.

Guisquil o Chayote A popular gourd in soups.

Guisquil o Chayote
A popular gourd in soups.

The local agroservicio, the store for farmers where we buy our chicks, only had a few choices in seeds. I bought a little plastic baggie of radish and one of cucumber. I still can’t find anyone who sells tomato or green pepper plants or any plants at all. My intention was to ask Margarita where would be the best place in the yard to sow these colorful seeds and then get to work. But it’s different here. She went into a lengthy speech using western El Salvador farmer vocabulary that might as well have been in Greek–if the Greek economy were worth a drachma (just like the Salvadoran economy isn’t worth a colon). It included varas de Brasil and other forms of vegetation in order to construct a ramada which I thought was something for the cukes to climb on. Then she mentioned sand and black dirt which was plentiful in Casa Blanca. Casa Blanca is a community with many natural resources but toilets and Internet connections are not among them. She said she’d ask son-in-law Milton if he’d drive all these things down to our house. This happened two days ago. When he pulled up to our back gate I thought he’d brought part of the jungle down from the hills with him. He proceeded to carry these twenty-plus foot green grass trunks into the yard. Eight in all. Then there was one what I’d describe as a fat, hollow bamboo trunk that could be used for a drain pipe. He stacked some fern-like branches on top of the other bamboo. Finally he very gingerly unloaded two plastic grocery bags of wet sand and one of the blackest dirt I’ve ever seen. Remember, Central America is an isthmus on a large seismic fault and part of a chain of volcanoes that over the eons has provided some of the richest volcanic soil in the tropics if not the world.   Sometimes it’s difficult-to-impossible for Margarita to stay on task. Her OCD husband doesn’t stop one task to begin another until the first is satisfactorily completed. So yesterday she taught me how to build a ramada, which is basically a crude shelter made of branches.


Chiquero, Ramada, & Young chicken pen

She cut the large poles with a small hand saw to a height that wasn’t much over my head. In some she used the machete to hack a groove in one end to contain the cross polls. Then she lashed the corners with baling wire and announced the structure was built. I tossed the thin branches with what must be leaves on top and wondered why it was thus. It offered no shade like banana leaves and I couldn’t picture cucumbers climbing up it. But I’m a gringo and what do I know? That’s why I have Margarita–to explain things to me. But once that was done she went in to take a shower and go to church. That left me wondering about the radishes and the cucumbers. I decided to also take a shower and to spend a relaxing afternoon with my precious princess listening tell me corny kid jokes, ask me riddles with double meanings that you’d have to have been brought up here to understand, and ultimately watching a romance and crime movie starring members of a Mexican band that was popular in the eighties.


Ramada from below

So this morning I’m up early and all jazzed to continue the work. Margarita had retied the clothesline we had to loosen to get the ramada built but that was so she could hang the clothes that spent the night in the washer. The hose had been run into the house yesterday to the washer even though the water inside the house was enjoying one of its two workdays per week and the hose could have been connected to the pila a few feet away.

Ramada and Milpa.

Ramada and Milpa.

I was all up for attacking the work at hand from the day before. Margarita retied the clothes line we’d had to take down to build the ramada. I had to wait for her to get home from walking our daughter to school before I could get her to sit and tell me what I was to do with the seeds. Again I had to silence her as she was going to show me what to do in one spot when she wanted it in another spot ten feet away on another wall. I stopped her again asking why she demonstrates in one place in lieu of the other. I told her she confuses me and I come away with nothing from her instructions. Furthermore, if she gives me all the instructions at once I won’t remember them all or the sequence.

I took the nearby bricks and made a rectangular wall. She helped me pour the two bags of sand into the box and I leveled them. Then she took a portion of the black soil and spread that on top of the sand. She told me to sow about four rows. THAT I didn’t need too much help for. Then I moved over to the adjacent piece of land and began to chop it up as it was dry. This would be my cucumber bed. I have a real rake as opposed to the home-made pick axe from Casa Blanca and I raked the soil as fine as possible and removed the stones.

New Radish Bed

New Radish Bed

I Googled ‘how to plant cucumbers’ and got some advice from “The Farmer’s Almanac”, Burpees Seeds, and a couple of videos on YouTube. I decided I had space for three rows in four columns. Good enough for a family of four. I have plenty of both seeds left over. I still want tomatoes.

Cucumber bed with radish bed in background.

Cucumber bed with radish bed in background.

Part of the fun of gardening is the waiting. What will come up and when? Will subterranean monsters feast on the seedlings, stems, leaves, and blossoms before I reap my harvest? Will we ever get a normal rainfall in this part of El Salvador?


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