• John A

Plants & Permaculture: New connections

Updated: Jun 21, 2018

We have been here in Puerto Rico for a little over a month and it has been an amazing opportunity to connect with new plant allies. On the other hand, seeing plants (herbs, shrubs and trees) that we connected with back in Florida brings us comfort, support, warmth and happiness.

We walk our dog, Baby, every morning around the neighborhood. So of course we take the opportunity to observe and see what plants we can find along the way. One of the first mornings I noticed a plant that, from far away, looked like the Mexican Oregano (Lippia graveolens) plant we grew in Florida. I excitedly ran over to it and rubbed a leaf to smell. I immediately knew that it was not the same plant because the leaves were wrong, but it did have a scent similar to Oregano. Thanks to the help of my friends from Orlando Permaculture, it turned out to be Damiana diffusa var Luisa, which is an amazing herb that is great for the nervous system, especially when dealing with stress, which we all have to work with. It was a lovely encounter for sure. Along these walks we also found plants like Purlsane and Lantana. You can find medicinal plants around you if you look closely!

Damiana diffusa var Luisa

About 1 week after arriving we went to buy groceries and we obviously had to go to the plant section. I was surprised at their collection of plants which ranged from Plantain (Plantago major), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and other herbs to banana's and Eggplants. While looking at the plants an elderly woman came up to me and asked me if I knew what the plants could be used for. That question turned into about an hour conversation about different medicinal plants. She ended up taking a Plantago with her for her mothers gastric ulcer (and my number for future reference.) So many humans here are all about using plants as medicine so I'm excited to expand my herbal practice while I am here.

After settling in and getting most of our things situated, we decided it was time to go to the property where Tierra Nueva will be located. Post-Maria the property was much more open, with many of the taller trees losing a lot of their upper branches/trunks. However Mother Nature was in vigorous growth and the wildlife was thriving and happy. We found a mother Plantago and many other plants including Culantro (Eryngium foetidum), Bitter melon, Annato (Achiote, Brixa orellana), Coffee, Bananas, Breadfruit, Yams, Coconuts, Avocados, Mangoes and so many others. You can read more about our adventure in our "Week 2" blog post, but check out the slideshow below for some of the plant pictures.

That leaf by the plantain (first picture) is from a breadfruit tree.

The following few weeks consisted of acquiring many more plants from different sources. My favorite place by far is the local flea market which is early in the morning every Saturday. There I found new and old plant friends! Familiar plants were Plantain, Rosemary, White Turmeric (Curcuma zedoaria); new plant allies were Poleo (Lippia alba), Salvia (Pluchea carolinensis), and Carribean Spearmint (Mentha x villosa syn nemorosa). Other plants we acquired were Malanga (Colocasia esculenta), Peanut, Feverfew, Confederate jasmine, Oxalis, Lavender, Sweet mint, Sandalo (Mentha x citrata), Lemon grass, Agave, Marjoram, Chives, Sage, Arnica, Miniature roses and Citronella (Pelargonium citrosum). Flip through the following slideshow to see the plants and where we set them up. We even attracted a crab, which my family has never seen here before!

I would like to end this post with some instructional/practical information about how to pot up plants in a way that maximizes their potential so that you can start planting at home. In Permaculture there is a lot of talk about the different principles, and there are many variations. For this post I want to focus on only a few: Catch and store energy, Use and value renewable resources/services and Obtain a yield.

First you need an empty pot of your choice, depending on your situation. Here I had chosen a long pot because I was going to put 2 mini roses together. This pot has a container to hold water attached to the bottom because where we are in Puerto Rico even 2-3 hours of sun will start to wilt the plants, especially when they are going through transplant shock.

As you can see I have a bucket of "mulch"/dried leaves I collected from the Tabebuia chrysantha tree (Roble amarillo) in front of our house. These leaves get put into the pot first, creating a carbon sponge which helps retain water but also encourages macrofauna and earthworms etc to come into your pot (if you place the pot on the ground/soil without the water container). This is where both principles of Catching and storing energy and Using & valuing renewable resources come in. By collecting mulch from the plants around my house I am using what Mother Nature provides me to try and emulate her processes. The mulch layer acts to catch and store water, but also to "catch and store" insects and microbes. Finally, by focusing on plants that are useful to us as humans as well as to the ecology surrounding us we always ensure to obtain a yield, like being able to grow the plants you use for your own medicine. I have been deeply steeped into the lovely art of making tea with fresh plants and it is so fulfilling and healing.

Once this layer of mulch has been placed, I like to put a small layer of soil, compress it, and then put the plant I am trying to pot up. I hold the plant while I add the soil, making sure to compress the soil around the plant and cover the roots. I always like to leave about 1-2 inches from the top of the soil to the rim of the pot so there is not any runoff from watering. The last step is to put a final layer of mulch on top of the soil, not being afraid to pile it on. This layer helps protect the soil from watering and the sun. We do not store our plants on the ground because our soil is caliche, which is similar to limestone and so has very limited soil life. However, most soils are appropriate to put the pots directly onto them, just make sure to water adequately.

P.S. I try to avoid naming companies but I have to mention that if you are going to buy soil be wary of MiracleGro. Half of the plants I potted up with it died. (My parents already had this soil in their shed so I decided to use it). We switched to an organic brand (we are waiting for our compost to be ready) and I have not had any other casualties. Just food for thought.

Thank you for reading and for your support. More posts like this will be coming soon! We are hard at work to bring our projects to fruition and to help communities connect and learn.

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