Having already spent three months establishing organic gardens for our mission of growing food for a March gathering, we embarked on an eight-week course/ internship that took us into new territory once again at Estancia Ranquilco in the Northern drylands of Patagonia. The six students that joined us in living in community at Ranquilco was an eclectic group that we had a lot of fun and learning with. The program was set up that the first half of their time there we had a strong focus on the material that is covered in the designer’s manual and the two week traditional PDC. However, we also mixed in our daily work and normal hands-on of PDC’s such as the upkeep of the garden and also hot composting.
One of the advantages of the eight-week course was to see whole cycles like with the hot compost or seeding beds with lettuce and mustard greens and then eating them. Students got to collect the materials one day, put it together the next, then monitor it using a compost thermometer over the next weeks. From time to time it would hit that 160 degrees Fahrenheit mark and since it did it with such speed we decided to add brown material. We also got use two different previous compost piles from our extended time at Ranquilco to help boost the fertility of these difficult desert soils. We were also able to learn from the site itself such as the canal walk where we saw this very old earthwork which brought water from a small mountainous stream across the landscape. This kilometer or so of canal helped to green many stretches and served as the irrigation water for the garden itself.
Observation over a long period of time will lead any person to greater insights and I do believe that was one of the keys of this format for students learning. We saw our Milpa (three sisters patch) go from 4 feet tall to over ten by time we left. They may not realize it completely but our several feeds of organic matter that we gave it really did give it that extra energy it needed to fulfill its cycle. Other project highlights including the following:
Final design project
The second half of the course focused on more hands-on and daily garden maintenance as well as the final design project. Students were given the task of redesigning their living space of the volunteer house and the grounds around it with the context that a permaculture family would set up shop there to help drive Ranquilco’s sustainability mission. It produced some unique ideas and provocative site development in areas that I hadn’t seen the total possibilities. In that sense the design project fulfilled the important mission of reinforcing the material presented all the while spurring creativity. Following intuition while designing
is just as important as knowing the myriad of uses of trees such as black locust. Finally we ended in a very tranquilo style, allowing students time to explore the beautiful property and reflect on their time. We got a chance to eat asados with the gauchos and feed ourselves beautifully from the garden bounty.
Another backdrop of this course was living in community in a place that has very little distractions and in the middle of nowhere. Fishing gaucho-style with a coffee can, some fishing string, and a lure was one of the things that kept us entertained and fed as the Trocoman River was kind enough to bless us with large and delicious rainbow trout from time to time. The place is of surreal beauty at times and just getting out and reconnecting to nature and ones self really was a main theme. Living in community is never easy especially when you are fresh into it and not having a telephone to pick up and call home or email to rely on, it really brought a lot to the surface of us all as we all were in transformation mode. Overall it was a good learning experience though in human emotion and communal responsibility. When you have to cut firewood for showers (great little wood burning califant there), people realize a lot about energy and resource accrual and distribution. Energy is a huge glaring topic of our planet right now and we all got a peak into life with and without fossil fuels at ranquilco. Also energy can be thought of as human emotion which Ranquilco seemed to spur on lots of it and not always positive. Surf the waves, swim the lulls, I suppose but remember Permaculture is just as much about people as anything else. This will be one of the major hurdles they face in developing a new paradigm there as entrenched social structure, which dates to the colonial era and has been passed through traditional agriculture reigns supreme. Thus a major overhaul of the system is well overdue and before Permaculture really take off this hierarchy must fall. Abundance overcomes oppression always.
Towards the end of the course we began to see a lot of abundance from the summer crops, as farming at 3600 feet with a chance of frost at any moment delayed the ripening. But tomato and cucumber fresh in salads as well as onion and zucchini in stir fries were quite the pleasure. Overall the March gardening mission had provided some real challenges with the poor soil but we made great strides in soil fertility. It was the beginning of a couple year process where the beds were set up this year with digging and fertilizing heavily with manures. However in the future the beds should be converted to no dig and maintained with composted manure and chicken tractor rotation. Thanks to all the students and volunteers who helped make these gardens flourish!