I went down to Puerto Rico and "worked the land." My wife and I built an enclosure for a vegetable garden. The enclosure was necessary because the land there is almost 100% clay. Actually, a wide variety of colors of clay. Most of it is orange, but we also found big chunks of brilliant turquoise, as well as shades of red and other colors. Veva took some of the clay back with her to Chicago to take a closer look and see if it is something she can actually use in her wonderful ceramist efforts.
This is what the vegetable garden looked like when we arrived.
In other words, an area cleared of what we decided were weeds and, though you can barely make them out, four pineapple plants in the top left corner. They are not doing too well, since it is pretty much solid clay.
To actually be able to grow vegetables there, Veva decided that several things were needed:
* Much better soil - soil that would hold water, soil that contained nutrients and minerals and whatever else tomato and lettuce and other edible plants need to grow.
* A way to keep that soil from washing away in the heavy rains that come almost every afternoon in this tropical part of the world.
* Also, a way to keep the dogs (both those that live at our place, Bunny and Panda, and those that roam Puerto Rico in packs looking for mates, fun and food) and other animals away from our vegetables.
Her decision? To build a wall with fence around this vegetable patch and then load it up with compost and sand. And then mix it all in with the clay to break up the ground and speed the conversion of all of these materials into wonderful growing soil. Do that for several months and, along with lots of sun and rain, it should be ready to start feeding us on a regular basis (or those of us who are living at the old finca).
So...we measured the size of the garden and then went to our favorite ferreteria (hardware store): Mendoza Brothers. Only two miles or so from the finca, it is run by Danny and Joey, two NJ-born guys who moved back to the island when they were kids. Also, Roger the youngest brother works there. Now, "hardware store" doesn't really accurately describe this place. It is more of an open area (fenced in) and full of wood, metal, bricks, etc. with a relatively small building that holds tools, poisons (lots of people use Roundup on the island; we use no chemicals on our land) and so on.
Well, so we ordered 120 cinder blocks, 100 ft of chicken wire, about 120 feet of rebar (steel rods that we would use to hold the chicken wire in place). I could turn this into a really long blog by explaining how much work it took to get those cinder blocks up to our place, since that entails driving a truck down a 1/4 mile access road, over a bridge crossing a creek and then up a really steep hill. Instead, I will summarize: Joey dropped the cinder blocks off just off the main road and we then moved them up to the house 30 at a time. Lots of work.
But then they were there and we laid in the first row of blocks for the wall. You can see that the level to the right is much lower than on the left (up the hill). We were such engineers!
Then we started putting in the second layer of blocks (actually a total of three on the lower end of the hill), along with some of the rebar supports.
After two days of hard, sweaty work (we mostly did this in the morning before the sun hit that area full force), we had our wall completed and even lay down an entry path to the garden area with our signatures. I know what you are thinking: this is pretty crude work. Well, I suppose so. Chris, our son, certainly thought so. In fact, he thinks what we did is incredibly ugly. Maybe so. We were definitely focusing on functionality and getting something done that could be used ASAP.
And we weren't done yet! Next we put up the chicken wire fencing to keep out the animals. Then we sunk two four-by-four posts to which the door to the enclosure would be attached by Chris (we decided he would do a much better job of this than us).
Then I spent hours raking up twelve wheelbarrow loads of dead leaves and other partially decomposed matter and dumping them onto the clay. I also dumped a large volume of sand which was sitting out at the end of our access road, left over from the monumental effort of putting in a new bridge over the creek (3 6o-foot long steel I-beams and who knows how many pounds of hand-mixed cement). Then Veva dug all of this stuff around, mizing it together and there we left it: one enclosed garden, ready for continued composting, turning over, and then finally planting!
We were and are very proud of ourselves. Major accomplishment. Could be growing our own food 3 - 6 months from now.
And while I am at it, here are a few more photos from our trip:
Insane Zuzi, the kitten, tussling with Bunny the very friendly dog. Bunny is very gentle with her, as you can see.
A storm rolling over Mayaguez and heading to Aguadilla. Incredible how you can see the rain when it is falling so heavily from clouds.
Some of the beautiful flowers growing near the house. And this magnificent bird of paradise plant is almost beyond description when blooming (right now, I am just very excited that it is growing so well, since we almost burned it to the ground last New Year's Eve, when we lit an incredible (and some might say incredibly stupid) bonfire that soared 40 feet into the air.
We planted four citrus trees: orange, grapefruit, mandarin orange, lime. These complement the others growing on the property, many of which are too high to easily pick the fruit. Again, we enclosed them in cinder block and chicken wire, so the dogs would not dig them up.
So, yes, that's what I did on my summer vacation this year: work hard, but work in a very different way from the usual work (brain work, fingertip work, eyeball straining work).