A while ago I interviewed Federico Mena Quintero, who I met at an open source conference back in 2012. Federico’s ideas about open crop data planted the initial seed of what would eventually become Growstuff. He posted yesterday about Growstuff’s current crowdfunding campaign: Growstuff’s Crowdfunding Campaign for an API for Open Food Data.
I used to think that in order to have a collaboratively-developed project, one had to start with at least a basic skeleton, or a working prototype — Growstuff proved me wrong. By having a friendly, mentoring environment with a well-defined process, you can start from zero-lines-of-code and get excellent results quickly. [...] I encourage you to give money to Growstuff’s campaign. These are good people.
In that post, Federico also talks about the problems he has with vegetable growing advice from temperate climates like the UK — problems that led him to ask me the questions that led to Growstuff’s creation.
However, their recommendations on garden layouts or crop rotations are biased towards the author’s location. John Seymour’s books are beautifully illustrated, but are about the United Kingdom, where apples and rhubarb may do well, but would be scorched where I live in Mexico. Jeavons’s book is biased towards California, which is somewhat closer climate-wise to where I live, but some of the species/varieties he mentions are practically impossible to get here — and, of course, species which are everyday fare here are completely missing in his book. Pity the people outside the tropics, for whom mangoes are a legend from faraway lands.
Federico, who lives in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, has designed his food garden based on permaculture principles. He blogs about open source (in English) and hand wood-working (in Spanish), and can be found on Growstuff as FedericoMenaQuintero.
Can you tell us a bit about your garden, and maybe show us some pics?
The ornamental garden is in front of our house; it’s a tiny thing, maybe 2.5 by 3.5 meters. We’ve also been guerrilla-gardening the derelict sidewalk across the street.
The “edibles” garden is behind our house, right outside the woodworking shop. We explicitly put the garden in the South part of the lot, to get the most sunlight, since we live in the Northern hemisphere. Strictly speaking the garden is L-shaped, because it goes around the woodshop.
This is the plan of the garden:
There is a swale between the woodshop and the planting beds. Over a couple of years I filled it with wood shavings and vegetable residue, and once it got deep enough, I filled the rest with soil and some cow manure to help decomposition of the wood shavings. That swale gets a lot of water from the woodshop’s roof – there is a rain pipe with a downward hanging chain that feeds the swale. We built a little bridge, more ornamental than really practical, that lets you walk across the swale.
Since soil in the swale is always moist, it has the culinary herbs (chives, basil, epazote, mint, something that smells like Vicks Vapo-rub), coriander, and water-hungry things like lemongrass, papyrus, and thin and thick bamboo which are just starting up. There is an underground pipe that also carries grey water from the wash basin that is above in the house.
Next to the swale there are two delimited circles for two trees, lime and fig. They stay always moist because they are next to the swale. The fig tree yields like crazy, and the lime tree just seems to grow leaves but no fruit. Next to our Western wall there are small trees planted among the grass: lychee, peach, and allspice.
On the North side, next to the woodshop, there is the other rectangle of grass, which also now has a two-person swing for us to be lazy, or for our daughter to be crazy. And on the very back of that area, by a retaining wall, there is an overhead water tank that holds rainwater from all the other roofs in the house. I’ve written a detailed description of how this works.
The main planting beds – the keyhole and the L-shaped one – have held different things. Right now they are a bit unkempt and empty, because we were traveling for some time. But they have a chayote plant that yields quite well; it’s a climbing plant, and that’s why there are tensioned wires for it to spread all above the garden. There is a passionfruit plant next to the chayote which should yield really soon, as it is just starting to flower. There is some out-of-control oregano, some civilized thyme, a monster rosemary bush that wants to take over the world, strawberries, a few leftover carrots, ginger, Thai basil, and the remnants of daikon radish, beans, and sunflowers.
One of our jewels is a chaya plant we brought as a small cutting from Mérida in the state of Yucatán. This is a slightly poisonous leafy plant – will itch and numb you if you touch it – that you can cook to make it safe, or you can blend it with limeade for a deliciously fresh drink. This chaya lives in the L-shaped bed, next to a nopal (edible cactus), which we should really transplant to a sunnier place than where it is.
There is a raised compost heap next to the neighbor’s wall, by the swale. It is raised, and it has a little downspout, so we can put a bucket under it, to collect compost tea which I then dilute and spread about the garden.
There is a really small grape vine behind the compost heap, which I just transplanted last week; hopefully it will grow tall and long and I’ll be able to trellis it over the swing. The garden has also had our local variety of large pumpkins, cucumbers, some roma tomatoes, arugula, tatsoi, corn, beans.
Is permaculture big in Mexico? Do you have a community of like-minded gardeners nearby?
There are very lively pockets of permaculture in Mexico – in Coatepec and Huatusco, Veracruz (not far from where I live), in Erongarícuaro in Michoacán, in a few places in Chiapas, and very probably others which I don’t know about. These people are very active:
I have bought organic seeds from them and they were amazing – those are what started our garden.
In my town we have some friends that do permaculture on a small scale – mostly rooftop/container gardens. We get together from time to time; one guy does ceramics, another guy makes soap and electronics, and I make wooden molds for the soap.
I’d say that permaculture in Mexico is not very well known yet, but the places that do it well just emanate so much life that it all seems very active!
When you travel, sometimes you tweet about “Mexican” food in the places you visit. What do you grow and eat, in Mexico, that’s different from the “Mexican” food you find elsewhere?
There are various cuisines within Mexico, all quite good, but overseas “Mexican” food seems to be a broken-telephone game of Tex-Mex.
Food from Veracruz, the state where I live: lots of seafood and interesting fritters. “Arroz a la tumbada” is about my favorite dish from here; think of red rice, watery, baked with different kinds of seafood, epazote, and a little chile – the distant cousin to paella. “Fish in Veracruz style” is white fish, in tomato sauce with sliced/sauteed onions, capers, olives, and bay leaves. “Fish in acuyo” – with a sauce made from the acuyo plant, and sauteed onions. Picadas are a fried tortilla with various toppings – beans, spicy sauces, crumbly cheese. “Picadas” means “pinched ones”; the edge of the tortilla gets pinched up before frying so the sauces don’t spill. Gorditas are “fat ones” – generally any kind of stuffed, fried tortilla.
Traditional drinks are varied. Tepache is pineapple juice, fermented a bit – it is sweet and mildly alcoholic. Limeade with chaya is delicious and refreshing. A sweetened hibiscus infusion is very popular. There is also limeade with chia seeds.
The precolumbian diet in Mexico consisted of corn-based things, legumes, chiles, and a little meat or fish. The “three sisters” planting guild is precisely corn, beans, and squash. You can basically grow anything in Mexico; it’s a large country that spans various climate zones.
Diana Kennedy’s books on Mexican cuisine seem to be the gold standard, if you are interested.
I know you’re also a woodwork enthusiast, and love to make things with traditional tools. On top of that, you’re also an open source software developer. What do you think gardening, woodwork, and coding have in common?
I actually spoke a bit about that during a talk I gave in GUADEC 2012. What they have in common is that they are about building things by oneself, or within a small community, and primarily for consumption within that community. With software it is easy to distribute the fruits of your labor to the whole world, but software development is still very much a craft.
They are skills that you can learn; each takes years and years of practice to become a master in only a small portion of the whole craft. They all have their tools, their jargon, and their lore. And just like small-scale farmers or gardeners can grow better veggies than Big Commercial Agriculture, small-scale woodworkers can make furniture that is better made and looks better than Big Commercial Furniture, and free software developers can write software that is more functional than Big Proprietary Software.
It’s not just about quality; it’s also about producing things that you or your close peers will find useful, instead of depending on Big Manufacturing And Commerce for everything.
When we first met, we talked about free/open sources of planting information. Why’s that important to you?
I’m a lazy gardener. I want a service to which I can ask, “when should I plant this?” “Any companion plants I should know about?” “Are there people close to me who have planted this?” “Help, pests!”.
Internalizing all that knowledge takes years, and a service that is aware of what/where/when you have planted could be a big help. If it could tell me, “careful if you plant your brassicas there, it hasn’t been two planting seasons since the last time you planted them in that spot” or something like that. If it could help me organize plant rotations, or figure out useful guilds, it would make the garden a lot easier to run.
Books are great, but not everyone can obtain them, or afford them, or read them if they are in another language.
When first discussing Growstuff, I think we also talked about aggregating planting data over the years so that you could extract knowledge from there. These and these varieties of some vegetable seem to grow better in these and these zones; that kind of thing. Data mining for gardening info would be very useful worldwide. I’m using my mother’s old gardening books, by John Seymour, and while they are excellent, European climate and crops are not really the same as what you can do in my region.
Thanks, Federico, for your time and the photos of your beautiful garden.
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