Finca Milagros info & learnings

A view from the ridge on a misty morning in 2022

I decided to make a page with info about plants, processes, thinking, resources, and more for Finca Milagros. It’s mostly as a record and reference for us here, but some of it may be of help to others.

Although I have been learning about these things since my teens, I am far from an expert. This page is very much a project in progress and all info is provisional. I will organize it differently as it grows, and I may eventually make a Spanish version.

I am starting a reference list for mostly native plants. (Small and incomplete so far.)

See also posts on this site tagged finca milagros, regeneration, and rewilding.

Note: I wrote the initial page in March 2023 and made a few updates in February 2024.

INDEX

Overview & Background: Land & Location | Aim | Learning & Strategies | My Background

Community: Freely Share Information & Resources | Town Square | The Future of Barichara | Water | Cultural Differences | Local & Regional Coordination | Climate Change

Human Settlement: Priorities 2023 | Buildings | Solar | Toilet | Rainwater | Plants Near the House

Ecology: Soil & Plant Health | Layers & Diversity | Erosion Control & Water Flow | Water Absorption | Dry River

Regeneration: Reforestation | Food Forest

Planting: Planting | Watering | Pruning

Flora: Native Plants

Fauna: Ants | The Animals on Finca Milagros

General: Learning through Play | Specific Approaches

Overview & Background

LAND & LOCATION

Finca Milagros is 15 hectares (37 acres) in the Andes mountains, overlooking the Chicamocha Canyon and Serranía De Los Yariguíes National Natural Park, and between Barichara and Guane.

We are close to the equator (6 degrees north) and in a tropical zone, roughly 1000 meters above sea level. (The town of Barichara is at 1300 moh.) The dry season – which the locals call summer – is roughly December through March, and also June/July. (This varies from year to year, and will likely change with a changing climate.)

This land has been used for grazing and small-scale food growing for generations, although is not as degraded as it could be. It’s been in the same family for generations (Duran Duran!), and the ones we talked with seemed to genuinely love and care for the land. In pre-colonization times, the indigenous Guane likely lived here. The land is a mix of dense forests of mid-size trees, arid areas mainly on the ridges, a lush pond area, and some areas invaded by unwanted grass. (The grass tends to outcompete other plants and make it difficult for the ecosystem to recover on its own.) It has one relatively large pond and four smaller ponds.

AIM

Our plan is to use roughly one hectare for buildings and food production (the area closest to the entrance and the road) and support the rest to rewild.

We wish to help the land become as diverse and thriving as possible and be a good habitat for as many beings as possible. And we wish the ecosystem to be as close to a healthy native ecosystem as possible.

These are directional guidelines, there is no way to do it “perfectly”, and there is obviously no finishing line. Our time frame is decades and even centuries. We may set up a legal status for the land so it will remain a refuge after we are gone. We are connecting with neighbors and others in the area working on similar projects to learn, create informal networks, and share as much information as we can when we have learned more.

LEARNING AND STRATEGIES

We wish to support this land in becoming as healthy and vibrant as possible. It’s a partnership between the land and the life that’s already here and us, where we play a small role.

My preference is to go slow and receive as much help and guidance from people more experienced than us as possible.

It makes sense to learn from many sources and use whatever approach makes the most sense to us based on the land, what it needs, and what we have of resources and current limitations.

In general, I like to take a pragmatic approach. Whatever works and makes sense is good, and how that looks will change over time.

We will make mistakes, and that’s part of the process and an important part of learning.

MY BACKGROUND

I have been passionate about nature since early childhood. And I have been passionate about deep ecology, the universe story, permaculture, natural building techniques, vernacular architecture, sustainability, systems views, integral approaches, and so on, since my teens. I have also worked and put in a large number of volunteer hours in several of these areas. I am trained in architecture. I have taken workshops in all of these areas over three decades.

More importantly, I have participated in several community groups and networks where all this information – about native plants, food growing, natural building, and so on – is made freely available to anyone interested. (Mainly in Madison, Wisconsin, and Eugene, Oregon.) When I came here, I was surprised that this information was more monetized than I am used to, and I have not found these kinds of networks here. So I am making anything we learn freely available, and hope to start up these types of networks in time.

Community

COMMUNITY I: FREELY SHARE INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

A local seed library for children at Casa Común. Maybe the start of a larger seed library and exchange?

Make it freely available. I wish to learn as much as possible about native plants, the local ecosystems, and rewilding. And in the process make the information freely available to others. This information is too precious to keep a secret or even to charge money for it. It’s information that helps us all. We all learn more by sharing freely with each other.

Seed exchange. I also wish to participate in or create (if one doesn’t exist) a local network for seed and seedling exchange.

Native nursery. Nurseries around here don’t have many native plants. There is a wide open space for a native nursery. I doubt I will be the one doing it, but I will certainly encourage and support it in any way I can.

Experts will always have work. Experts who charge for design and practical work will always have work. Information or hands-on experience from one or several workshops is not all. A big part of it is specialized knowledge that only comes from doing it over years and decades, and that cannot be shared through information or workshops. Many will want and need to hire an expert no matter how much information is available.

COMMUNITY II: TOWN SQUARE

We live close to Barichara, a charming old colonial town. The central square has a park with beautiful large trees, but otherwise, it’s just eight sections of grass and some garbage that people have thrown away.

What if the town paid a few local people who specialize in native plants and the local ecosystem to design, plant, and maintain a miniature ecosystem of native plants and flowers?

It seems that it’s a win-win-win situation.

It will make the park look, smell, and sound amazing – full of flowers, insects, and birds.

It will be something people visiting here will remember, and it can be part of marketing the town to visitors.

It may inspire people to plant native plants on their own land, whether they live here or are just visiting.

It’s educational. We can have signs and flyers with information about the native plants and the local ecosystem.

It will provide work for local experts. And it’s a good advertisement for them and can lead to other projects.

It can be an amazing volunteer opportunity for the locals, including school children and students.

A park full of native flowers and plants would provide food and habitat for insects and birds, even if it’s small scale. And the ripple effects may help the local wildlife even more.

COMMUNITY III: THE FUTURE OF BARICHARA

This area is already very popular with tourists and travelers, and it has a growing international community. None of that is, in itself, a problem.

But it can bring problems if not handled well by the existing community.

Here are some concerns:

On the outskirts of town, houses are built that don’t fit the traditional style.

The town is full of cars during the holidays. It would be better if they were parked outside of town and people used feet, bikes, or tuc-tucs to get around within town. (Update: They actually did this for Easter 2023 and it seems to have been successful.)

A chain store (D1) now has an outlet in town. It’s impersonal. It doesn’t fit the local characteristics. And it may outcompete some of the locally owned stores. I know that several towns in the US have successfully fought off chains, and I hope that will happen here too. It’s a matter of mobilizing the locals. (And likely electing a new mayor.)

The local government approved a big hotel outside of Barichara. This is a major problem, not the least because they plan to use groundwater which will impact the whole neighborhood and the ecosystem here. (The approval process was also less-than-transparent.)

As it is now, the night sky is dark and full of stars. I am concerned about increasing light pollution as more people build here, especially since there seems to be very little awareness of it and how damaging it is. (It obscures the stars which is not good for tourism and our psychology, and it disorients and harms insects, birds, and wildlife in general.)

COMMUNITY IV: WATER

There is no lack of water here. It rains quite a lot throughout the year, most years.

What is a problem is how water is handled. It may not be collected properly, and it may not be distributed properly. The water quality is also unnecessarily bad. I don’t know enough to say a lot about it, but I know that there are likely good solutions to improve the situation. (For instance, from what I hear, an expert with decades of experience lives in town and knows how to improve the situation, but his expertise is consistently ignored by the local government.)

Hopefully, with a new mayor (fall 2023), better solutions can be implemented.

Update February 2024: The new mayor seems to take the water situation seriously. He is listening to the community and experts and is taking action. We’ll see how it unfolds.

It also seems that there is little to no regulation of groundwater use. Globally, overuse and pollution of the groundwater is a huge problem. The people here may be naive about it because they haven’t seen the problems yet, but they will come. It’s hugely important to protect the quality of the groundwater and regulate and minimize its use.

COMMUNITY V: CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

This is a relatively universal lesson: If you have people work for you, and you want to do something slightly different from how they are used to doing it, make sure they understand exactly what you want, and if possible be there to guide them as they do the work.

For instance, last year, we asked our maestro (builder) to clear a path through an area of the land, just wide enough for one person to walk. What happened was that two people spent two days clearing the land of everything, which was a disaster in several ways. (They cut down a lot of very valuable plants, and it allowed invasive grass to take over the whole area.) This could have been prevented if we had asked the maestro to repeat back to us what we asked for, so we knew he understood. And if we had been there to take a look at what they were doing. (We lived in a different location and trusted that the instructions were clear.)

Similarly, when they improved the road (put down stones), we told them that it’s very important that they don’t damage the sides of the road in any way. What they did was remove large amounts of precious soil from the hillside to use as road fill, which amplified the erosion problem.

We have someone helping us with the land now, and we had similar experiences with him in the beginning. Now, after a few weeks, he understands our approach a little more, and we are including him in any meetings where we learn about the plants and the land from local experts. (Update February 2024: It turns out he wasn’t as motivated to learn as we had hoped, so we now have a new person helping us. He seems far more receptive and motivated, so far, which is a blessing.)

The locals have a very different mindset than we do, which I completely understand. This is not about what’s right or wrong, or even being educated or not, this is about a difference in aim and priorities.

Their approach is conventional food production, which means cutting down anything in the way of monoculture plantings and grazing. (They typically call thorny pioneer species “malezas”, bad plants.) They love the non-native invasive grass since it spreads easily and is food for cows and goats.

Our priority is the land and the local ecosystem, which is very different. (For us, the pioneer species are precious and to be protected, and we want to remove the grass.) So we need patience, time to educate the people helping us, and a bit of vigilance!

COMMUNITY VI: LOCAL & REGIONAL COORDINATION

This land depends on the health of larger ecosystems, and it is part of the health of the larger ecosystems. We are already connecting with neighbors to learn from them and share information and resources. And we’ll also need to coordinate our efforts with those of the neighbors.

Unsurprisingly, it’s those moving in here from other places who are most interested in regeneration. And the locals who have lived here for generations don’t quite see the need for it. They have, quite understandably, other priorities.

So how do we get the locals on board? The short answer is to focus on their priorities and needs. How can we tie these kinds of projects into what they are already interested in? How can we approach it so they get what they see as important? (Which may be increased food production, healthier animals, more milk, and so on.) How can we provide resources for these changes so it’s as easy and effortless as possible for them? How can we ensure some kind of follow-up and continuity?

COMMUNITY VI: CLIMATE CHANGE

How will Barichara be impacted by climate change? Another word for climate change is climate weirding, and the short answer is that we don’t know. What we do know is that the climate will get more extreme – more drought, more rain, stronger storms, and so on. But we don’t know how that will look in any one particular place or how it will change over time.

My guess for Barichara is that we’ll get more frequent and longer periods of drought, and perhaps also periods with unusually strong rain. It may also get hotter.

So what does that mean for our plans and design? Water collection is obviously hugely important, along with allowing the water to get absorbed into the soil and recharge the groundwater. (Slowing the water down with swales and ponds, helping the soil become more porous with microbial life, ants, and the roots of plants.)

We need to plan for large amounts of water coming in short periods of time, which fortunately has many of the same solutions as slowing down the water and allowing it to absorb.

We are designing the buildings to stay as cool as possible, and the general regeneration project will help cool the area.

We will also plan for wildfires and do what we can to keep the buildings safe: Remove any dry flammable material around the buildings. (Grass is something we don’t want for several reasons.) Plant green and lush vegetation near the buildings. (Which we would do anyway.) Ideally, construct ponds with water that can flood the area around the buildings if needed, and also provide water to wet down the buildings.

Human Settlement

FINCA MILAGROS: PRIORITIES FOR THE FIRST YEAR

Here are some of our priorities for the first year (2023):

Build a small house for ourselves. (Done, we moved in on winter solstice 2022.) Build a better road so we can drive up the steep hill to where the buildings are and will be. (Finished in March.) Get a good water system. (A tank to store the intermittent water from the municipality, a cleaning system, and a good rain collection system.) And explore options for electricity. (I wish for solar, if not now then in the next few years.)

Plant flowers and food plants close to the house. Most of the flowers will be native, and all will provide food for insects and birds. We’ll emphasize perennials, with some annuals mixed in. The food plants are nearly all perennial, mostly different kinds of fruit trees so far.

Prevent erosion in and around the road and in other areas on the land. (Using agave and other native plants, as much as possible, and also minimal landscaping using rocks.)

Plant some trees. We will plant some trees in some areas, mainly on the edges between where existing trees and open and more naked (heavily grazed) areas. We will mainly use cuttings and seeds from the trees already here, and we also recently received about 70 native saplings from the town.

Support the main pond. Plant more around it to give it more shade. (There are already many trees around it.) And clean it up using plants. (The plants will grow and absorb excess nutrients, and we will then remove the plants and use them for mulch. The excess nutrients are from fertilizers and cow and goat poo.)

BUILDINGS

The tiny house

Our first building was a tiny house where we can stay while learning and getting to know the land. It’s important to take it slowly and get to know the place before making larger interventions.

The house is built in a mostly local and traditional style and with local and traditional materials and methods. The walls are tapia pisada (rammed earth) which keeps the house cool during the warmest time of day. The wood beams are reused. The tiles are locally made. And the stones are local.

In general, we plan to use one or two hectare closest to the entrance of the plot for buildings and food production and leave the rest wild.

SOLAR ENERGY

Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to install a full solar energy system. (I am not the only one here and I am not making the decisions alone.)

To me, solar is the only thing that makes sense here. We have plenty of sunshine and it’s close to the equator. The solar and battery technology is rapidly improving. Installing it supports the solar industry, which is good for everyone.

It also makes sense from the perspective of our day-to-day life. The electricity situation here is already tenous with not infrequent outages. And with what’s going to happen in the world over the next one or two decades, it makes sense to be self-reliant with energy.

Update February 2024: It looks like we will install a full-scale solar energy system. We are currently looking at options and prices.

GREY WATER & TOILET

We collect water for washing dishes, and we use biodegradable soap. I rotate which plants I water with this water, mainly because I suspect too much soap is not good for plants and especially newly planted and more sensitive ones.

My strong preference is for a dry toilet. There are many good options available, including incinerator toilets. Unfortunately, in the time we had available, we couldn’t find any good local sources. And an old-fashioned composting toilet, which would be fine for me, wasn’t quite an option since I am not the only one here. Hopefully, in the future, we can find a good source for a more modern dry toilet.

Update February 2024: For my wife’s father’s house, which is currently being built, we hope to use a vermicomposting toilet. It’s inexpensive, low maintenance (after an initial effort to design it well), doesn’t smell, and seems to work well. See this video from of some neighbors of ours. I plan to remove the water toilet and septic system (which I never wanted) from my own tiny house and use a composting toilet. I am already using the shower water for plants.

RAINWATER

I have installed gutters on the initial tiny house (February 2024) and we are currently installing tubes to channel the water into a pond. Within some months, we’ll likely have a large underground storage tank for the rainwater. For my wife’s father’s house, we are doing the same. The tanks may be a few tens of thousands of liters in capacity.

We’ll use this water for watering the plants and possibly also shower and sinks. We will install a large several-step water purification system. If we run it through that, we can also use it as drinking water. (Or if we just run it through a regular on-the-counter water filter.)

PLANTS NEAR THE HOUSE

Around the house, we are planting mostly native flowers and flowering trees and bushes that provide food for insects and birds.

We are also planting food plants of different types. It’s important to plant the food plants close to the house since we can more easily keep an eye on them, support them if needed, and we’ll more easily see when things are ripe. We planted herbs just outside the kitchen for the same reason, and we have some yucca just down from the house.

We use a lot of mulch, compost, and a little goat manure to help improve the soil health. The health of the soil determines the health of the plants and the ecosystem and is a primary focus.

Apart from this, we will plant in erosion and arid areas, primarily native plants that hold the soil in place and provide shade.

Update February 2024: The planting around the house is progressing although a little more slowly than I had envisioned. It’s mostly because we were gone for most of 2023. (We were in Norway to get my parents’ house ready for sale.) We are planting as much native as we can, in addition to food plants and some flowers and flowering bushes that feed insects and birds. We are also using a lot of mulch to help the soil.

Ecology

SOIL & PLANT HEALTH

An important factor in regeneration is soil health.

DAMAGED SOIL

In several areas, the soil has been damaged by pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers destroy the microbial life in the soil, which in turn compacts the soil and makes it less nourishing for plants. (They are no longer active or present in the soil, but the effects are still here.)

We will obviously avoid pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

MULCH AND FERTILIZER

We will mulch around new plants, using leaves, pieces of branches, grass without seeds, and anything else available. (When removing grass, make sure to shake out the good soil in the roots, and put the roots in the sun so they dry out. Also, make sure to use grass free of seeds.) The fresher the better. And it’s good to use a lot of mulch.

And we will use organic goat manure from a neighbor. It’s important that it’s organic, otherwise, the manure may contain antibiotics which will impact the soil biome. We’ll try to mimic how it would be if animals walk around pooing, which means spreading the manure around and not putting too much on any one plant. (I assume that may not be good.)

MICROBES

Several people in the area recommend using Korean microbes to help the soil. A neighbor is cultivating them, so they are readily available. I am skeptical of this for several reasons. The main one is that introducing anything non-native to an ecosystem typically has unforeseen consequences. (1)

To me, it makes more sense to support the native microbes in the soil through compost, mulch, manure, vegetation, and allow the water to better soak into the soil.

In the longer term, we may cultivate native microbes and give them back to the land. This too seems a bit over the top to me. If we do, we will gather microbes from several different locations on the land, cultivate them in tanks, and return them to the soil. It’s important to start with a diversity of microbes, and the ones best suited to each location will survive.

Since we have 15 hectares, that will take some time, and we will start around the house and where we are planting food plants, and a few other special areas.

RECIPE FOR GROWING (MORE OF) THE KOREAN MICROBES

Here is a recipe for how to grow more of the Korean microbes after receiving the EM liquid:

It’s 1 part EM liquid, 1 part molasses, 18 parts water. Or 5% EM, 5% molasses, and 90% non-treated water. Mix well and cover with a fitted lid in an opaque plastic container. Store out of the sun and let gases out daily. It should be ready to use in about a week – you will be able to tell it’s pretty active and has that microorganism smell (JL)

When applying the microbes, spray them just before the rain so they soak into the ground. (Or water well.)

(1) I am skeptical about introducing Korean microbes. It may seem a good idea right now, and many are jumping on that particular bandwagon. My concern is that we will discover – in some years or decades – that it comes with inherent problems. It may, for instance, displace native microbes. Everything I have learned from ecology and history tells me that supporting what’s native is a better and more safe approach.

LAYERS & DIVERSITY

From the main pond

A healthy ecosystem has layers. It has tall trees, smaller trees, bushes, flowers, and vibrant microbial life in the soil.

Around the main pond, we find these layers. The vegetation in the rest of the land is less layered. Many areas have medium-size trees of similar size, which shows that there was a time – some years ago – when they were allowed to grow, likely because the area was not used for crops and/or grazing.

Our aim is to plant around the house with layers in mind, and also help the rest of the land to create these layers for itself. It will, of course, take time – decades – for the trees to grow to their full size.

EROSION CONTROL & WATER FLOW

We have erosion problems in a few different areas due to past overgrazing.

There are two (?) general ways to prevent erosion.

PLANTS

Plants have roots that hold the soil in place.

On bare soil, any plants are welcome. With the rain, a lot of plants are coming up in these areas. It’s interesting to notice which ones come up first, and that many of them come up close to existing vegetation or sheltered by rocks.

We are also planting mostly native plants with good roots in these areas. These include fique, aloe vera, native thorny plants, cactus, and hardy trees (e.g. yarumo / cecropia peltata, guanábanos / soursop, carate, mata ratón). We are mostly using plants that are already here.

LANDSCAPING

We grow vegetables on a slope and have made use of natural terraces with rock edges to prevent the soil from being washed down the hillside. (The terraces may be from previous plantings.)

Naked soil is often compacted and sheds rainwater, so it’s important to reduce the water flow.

One way is to build mini-dams out of rocks, with a slight (half-moon) curvature. The dams are especially important at the edge of natural terraces in the terrain. Organic material will build up on the upside of the dams further slowing the water flow. On steeper slopes, use larger stones, and on more level ground, smaller stones may be sufficient. Don’t use rocks that are already serving a function by holding soil in place. Visit these areas after rain to see how they are doing and if changes are needed.

Several paths go straight down a hillside, which allows the soil to easily be washed down. It’s better to have more meandering paths on hillsides. And to use mini-dams to keep the soil in place.

In water channels, use several methods to slow the flow of water. Rocks will slow the flow while allowing it to pass through. Holes (50-70cm deep) with some spacing (2-3 meters) will also slow the flow, and you can plant trees between these holes.

WATER ABSORPTION

There is no lack of water in this area. It rains more than enough throughout the year.

But there is also room for improvement.

This land has lost vegetation from grazing and small-scale food production, it has lost topsoil through erosion, and it has lost much of the natural microbiome in the soil. All of that allows much of the water to run off and down the hillside instead of being absorbed by the soil.

We plan to use a mix of strategies to help the soil absorb more water. (And we are still learning more about how to do it.)

Slow the water flow. When the water stays longer on the land, more of it will be absorbed. We can do this through landscaping, including mini-dams in some areas. We can encourage plants to grow where the soil was naked, and help this along by planting plants that grow well in depleted soil (fique, aloe, mata ratón). We can increase the amount of organic matter on and in the soil, partly by adding it ourselves (closer to the house) and allowing it to build up naturally everywhere else. (We can also use more specific techniques like contour swales.) We may also create a few more ponds which allow the water to stay and be absorbed.

Support the soil’s ability to absorb water. Vegetation helps the water to be absorbed better, and we are using a combination of planting (mostly in the area near the house) and allowing the plants to return and fill in open spaces. We plan to use cultivated microorganisms to improve the soil, first around the house and then in other areas, preferably with local microbes we cultivate ourselves. Increasing the organic matter in the soil also allows it to absorb water better.

We have water channels on the sides of the road(s). These collect quite a lot of water during rain, so we channeled some of this water into an existing pond. We have also placed rocks in the water channels to slow the flow, and we plan to dig deepish holes in these channels to further slow the flow. (About 50-70cm deep with a couple of meters distance, and trees in between to make extra use of the water absorbed by the ground.)

DRY RIVER

Two branches of a dry river go through and meet on this land.

Why is it dry? The simple answer is probably centuries of land (mis)use in the area. It may be a mix of culture, traditions, short-term solutions, lack of understanding of ecology, different priorities, and so on. The people there, and especially along the river including the neighbors upstream from us, removed or didn’t allow important vegetation to grow. They prioritized grass and grazing. They used chemical fertilizers and pesticides which damage the soil.

What can we do about it? It’s difficult to say. We can definitely help the land absorb more water along the dry river and see what happens. We can use swales, encourage more diverse native vegetation, and so on. And we may also explore further up along the river to see what’s happening there and talk with the neighbors to see what the solution may be. All of that is a longer-term project for the years and decades ahead.

Regeneration

REFORESTATION

We have joined a regional reforestation project (fall 2023). Fundación Guayacanal will plant a thousand native trees in some of the most dry and damaged zones in March or April 2024, as soon as the rain returns. There is grass in some of these areas, and that grass will eventually go away in the shade of the new forest. (Right now, the grass is OK since it prevents erosion.)

This is the beginning of a hopefully many year project where we will reforest the land. The next phase is to create more diversity in areas that already have trees. We are immensely grateful for their help.

I love their approach in general. One of them said they are using the natural greed and envy of people to their advantage. Someone joins their program. Their land becomes lush and vibrant and produces more food (food forests) and/or provides more food for grazing animals (silvopasture), the neighbors become envious, and they’ll hopefully want to join the project. That makes a lot more sense to me than the more idealistic approach of some folks.

We don’t pay for this support. It’s financed through a carbon credit program.

FOOD FOREST

We are starting a food forest around the initial small house. Our main idea is to plant as much variety as possible to get experience with the different plants and see what does well and doesn’t do so well. We’ll do the same around the two new houses that will be built this year (2024).

As part of the larger regeneration and reforestation project, we wish to create a food forest out of parts of the native forest. This will mostly be in the areas closest to the houses and the road so it’s easily accessible. We still need to learn more about what plants do well here and what microclimates they like.

We’ll make sure to include native food plants, but just about anything that’ll grow is welcome. This will provide food for all of us – non-humans and humans.

Planting

PLANTING

PLANTING TREES

When planting trees in hard soil, where the topsoil is gone, make sure to use a big hole for most types of trees. (70cm deep x 40cm wide.) Fill with good soil. This will allow the tree to do better during dry periods.

When planting trees in general: Place wood logs or a collection of sticks (20cm diameter) on either side, buried 1/2 into the ground. (To retain moisture.) This is a kind of mini-version of hügelkultur.

PLANTING ANYTHING

And when planting anything: Use a generous amount of mulch from leaves, grass (free of seeds), and any other available organic material. This helps retain moisture. And if the mulch is fresh, nutrients will leach into the ground. Also apply microbes, ideally local ones.

It’s also good to put in a mix of seeds in with what you are planting. See what comes up and what does well. It will sort itself out, and it’s what nature does anyway. (And you can always prune if necessary.) This will, of course, create a more wild and unpredictable collection of plants, which is exactly what we want.

HYDROGEL BALLS

Fundación Guayacanal is using hydrogel balls in the soil around the newly planted trees. I don’t know if they are the brand as the link, but they are similar. These balls absorb water and gradually release water to the roots in dry periods. That’s important in this climate where we have one or two dry periods each year, where the longest may be up to four or five months long.

We are planning to get some (February 2024) and use them in any new plantings. It’s important to use just a few for each plant since they expand a lot when they fill with water. (They can push the plant up if there are too many of them.)

WATERING

It’s best to water early morning, or even better in the evening as the sun sets and the soil cools down. This reduces evaporation. Watering when it’s sunny can also cause sunburns on the leaves, especially here so close to the equator.

A generous layer of organic matter (mulch) helps keep the moisture in the soil.

It’s good to plant for layers. Trees provide shade for smaller plants which also helps prevent evaporation. (Of course, some plants love and need more sun.)

We are already collecting rainwater in several ponds. We will collect municipality water in a large tank, and add a purification system. And we plan to collect rainwater from the roof and use it for watering and more. It’s surprising how much water you can get from a roof.

There is no lack of water here, but we do have dry seasons (roughly December-March and June/July) so it’s important to collect water.

PRUNING

The conventional wisdom is that pruning is necessary for trees to stay healthy. There are times when pruning makes sense, but in general, I suspect many overdo the pruning piece of the puzzle. I suspect it’s tempting to prune since it’s fast and you can see the result immediately.

Personally, I would prune only if there is a strong reason. For instance, if two branches rub up against each other. Possibly for the shape of fruit trees so it’s easier to pick the fruits. And occasionally for view, although tying up the branches with a string is often sufficient.

Flora

WHY NATIVE PLANTS?

We will use native plants, apart from a few non-native and non-invasive food plants and flowers that work well with the native ecosystem.

Why? There are many reasons.

They belong here. They have evolved to fit this climate and this soil. The plants have evolved together and with the native insects, birds, and animals. That means that they create a balanced and diverse ecosystem together. And they provide a much better habitat for native insects, birds, and animals. (Some are fully dependent on native plants.)

For example, some common non-native flowering plants look nice but don’t provide much food for insects. Native flowers do.

The locals tend to have a lot of knowledge about native plants, including medicinal use. If we have native plants, we can benefit from this knowledge. (Some of which is likely accurate, and some is likely not so accurate.)

And we already have a variety of native plants on the land, so it’s convenient to propagate these. (We also plan on collecting seeds in the area, with some guidance. We are getting some plants from people we know. And we’ll find some at local nurseries, although they typically don’t focus on native plants.)

I am working on a reference page for plants native to this area.

Fauna

ANTS

This is the land of ants.

Ants are very important for soil health and the ecosystem. They clean the land, go after weak and non-native plants, and bring nutrients from the surface down into the soil. And they were obviously here long before us. We are on their land, not the other way around.

We have mainly had encounters with leaf-cutter ants so far. They love new plants and plants that are not native. And since this is the dry season, they are working hard to gather as much food to get them through the rainy season. (At least, that’s what we have been told.)

We are using, and plan to use, a combination of methods to deal with the ants:

  • Push & pull strategy. Create unpleasant experiences for them in the areas where we have flowers and food plants, and attractive areas for them in other places.
  • Mulch and nourish the plants. Use goat manure and microbes to nourish the soil and the plants.
  • Put wood ash in the mulch around plants.
  • Use a type of white bean that brings fungus into their nest so they will move. (Not ideal, and an imperfect solution).
  • Use the white fungus from citrus peels in a similar way to the beans.
  • Put food for them in other locations. For instance, rice.

I have used diatomaceous earth before, in the US, so that may be an option here too. Perhaps especially since the main ant problem seems to be in the dry season. (So it will last longer on the ground.)

Factsheet on diatomaceous earth – from Oregon State University
Diatomaceous Earth: Effective Natural Pest Control – from Gardener’s Path

THE ANIMALS ON FINCA MILAGROS

There is likely a wide variety of animals on this land.

What we have seen for ourselves: Iguanas by the big pond. Foxes captured by our wildlife camera by the big pond. Tarantulas. Possums captured by the security cameras by the house. A variety of lizards. A “fake” coral snake. Skunks (smell at night sometimes). Two types of vultures. (And visiting domestic dogs and cats from the neighborhood.)

What we suspect or have heard from others: Jaguarundi (seen in the neighborhood). Porcupine (seen by the house). Monkeys traveling in groups around the area.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PLANTS & ANIMALS HERE

Tarantulas are typically seen as dangerous by the locals. That’s not true. Their bite is at most like that of a bee.

General

LEARNING THROUGH PLAY

Even if this is a new project (as of early 2023), I keep noticing how learnings from earlier in life are useful.

For instance, we need to create mini-dams in erosion areas to prevent the soil from running off. Building mini-dams and channeling water is something I did a lot as a kid, playing with water, mud, and rocks. So a part of me already has experience with this and has a gut feeling about how to do it.

SPECIFIC APPROACHES

As mentioned above, I prefer a pragmatic and multi-faceted approach to all of this. Mainly, I trust ecologists and scientists. And I have experience with and affection for permaculture.

Around here, the syntropic approach is very much in fashion. I will learn about it, but there are also sides to it that may not fit so well here. From what I understand, they use fast-growing non-native species that need to be controlled. And they seem to have a strong focus on getting quick results. I suspect I’ll end up using some syntropic principles in some situations, but with mostly native and non-invasive plants.

Personally, I am not so interested in approaches that are work-intensive and where you need to stay on top of it. (I will be away for months at a time, so am unable to do it anyway. And I wouldn’t be interested even if I was here all the time.)

I prefer slow and steady, using native plants, and using approaches that mostly allow nature to take care of itself.

On an even more personal note: I have noticed some weird things in the syntrophic community. For instance, I messaged the local workshop contact about joining a syntropic course coming up. I mentioned that the central syntropic person said I was more than welcome to join. Her response was: He is not the one deciding, I am the one deciding, and you cannot join since it’s not for people in your neighborhood. I thought that was an odd response. And it seems even more inexplicable knowing that the course is actually open to anyone.

About this page: Started February 2023. Last partial update February 2024.