Carlos (El Presidente) wanted me to call this blog “Lost between the lines”, which would have been the perfect title during the first few days of our planting prep, when we ended up feeling more or less like I look in the picture below at the end of multiple sweaty afternoons spent blundering through thick tufts of dull-razor-edged pasture grass on uneven terrain, trying to arrive at the best way to create straight parallel rows of evenly spaced 3-meter holes.
Good times! I haven’t used my 7th-grade geometry skills this much in years. I still don’t quite understand why my original design didn’t result in 3m spacing between lines, but I’m sure it has something to do with hypotenuses and acute angles. I dreamt about grass grids for several nights running.
Carlos was even more perplexed by my vision than I was. I thought introducing an old-school compass to the scene would help matters, but soon realized that he is about as comfortable using compass bearings as I am using a machete. We can hack our way through it, but it’s not the most efficient way of doing business.
Finally we got a right angle between two transects of string set up across the parcel area. At that point I decided I just needed to step back and let Carlos roll with whatever system worked best for him. It’s already clear that he and I have different styles of learning, it’s logical that we had different approaches to line-making.
Well, we got the lines done. Then we marked them with stakes, at least the first few rows.
Then we got the holes dug. (And by “we” I mean Carlos, since after I dug 65 holes on the first planting day, my hands began to seize up and I had to submit to the reality that I have carpal tunnel and nerve problems and if I want to continue to subsidize my finca habit with consulting work, I need to be able to type. Hold a phone. Things like that.) Lotsa holes. About 800 or so holes …for now.
Then we planted! This first round of 2017 planting is a mixed plantation dominated by pilón (Hieronyma alchornoides), or zapatero, a native species that grows well in nutrient-poor, acidic, iron-heavy soils like mine and is often recommended for restoring degraded areas. I like pilón as a multipurpose tree – it’s got pretty foliage and its seeds are popular with wildlife, which will draw out the birds and mammals from my neighbor’s forest; it grows relatively quickly for a native hardwood, and its wood is lovely and durable, if slightly tough to work with. I like its market prospects down the line.
I bought the pilón seedlings from a commercial forestry company, BARCA, which has large teak holdings in southern Costa Rica and sells/exports its clones throughout the region. The fact that they’re working with pilón suggests that they also think it’s a promising native timber.
Commercial clones are sold real small, in these things called “jiffys” that are basically little bags of sphagnum moss enclosed in gauze. They retain water like nothing else, and are a fantastic environment for seeds to germinate or – in the case of clones – little stems to regenerate and develop roots. They’re far lighter and easier to handle than bagged seedlings, which makes transport and planting simpler (I brought home all 650 in the back of my little RAV4).
The downside is that they are small! Our little guys only had a few leaves on them. Which means a bit more maintenance in the field, and higher possibility for stochastic events like a grazing armadillo to cause mortality. We shall see how it pans out.
It took us 14 days to get all the pilón in the ground, lost-between-the-lines and all. I learned new contours of the finca as we mowed the grass to lay out the terrain. I used a hell of a lot of sunscreen. My arms and hands are nicked to hell, I have dirt deep under my nails and I haven’t felt this exhausted from physical labor in years. It’s such a good kind of tired.
Next up: teak and dozens of native species from both Dos Brazos and Carlos’s nurseries!