Nurses from the Miskito villages along the Rio Coco in northwestern Nicaragua choose seeds to plant.
Local children are curious about the garden. I hope they will care for it, too.
During Vermont’s winter months, our stores (where I work) get pretty quiet, so it’s a good time to get away. This year I traveled to Nicaragua with Dr. Karen Burke from Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. Three Spanish-speaking college students accompanied us.
Our destination was the town of Wespan in northeastern Nicaragua, which is on the Rio Coco, near the country’s border with Honduras. We visited the Miskito villages surrounding the town and brought them medicine and medical supplies, sheets, towels, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, books as well as seeds from Gardener’s Supply. We lead workshops in the different villages, where we discussed nutrition, hygiene, composting and planting. We gave seeds to the lead nurse in each village so he or she could distribute them. The seeds and the headache medicine were the biggest hits.
Our home base was a medical clinic on the grounds of a hospital that was burned by the Sandinistas in 1981. Some lovely browalia still grow and bloom among the concrete ruins of hospital’s foundations. Dr. Burke asked me to plant a garden with Rudi, the clinic’s groundskeeper.
We chose an open cement box that was 10 ft. x 5 ft. and 4 ft. tall. It had been the water filter for the hospital’s cistern, but was now filled with weeds and sand. Growing in a contained, elevated planter would give the plants some protection from being trampled or munched by the cows, horses, pigs, goats and chickens that roam free. The garden would also be within sight of the clinic, so it might get some ongoing attention. We removed the weeds from the planter and topped it with 3-4″ of compost from the pile Burke created on her visit a year ago.
Rudi and the clinic’s cook, Vilma, looked over the seeds we’d brought down, and decided what they would like to plant. They chose plants they knew would grow well in their climate: tomatoes, melons, green beans, peppers and carrots. We also planted sunflowers, Swiss chard and marigolds. The Swiss chard was to add some greens to their diet, which is mainly rice and beans. The marigolds were to repel bugs and the sunflowers were for the birds. To make planting easy and keep things organized, we divided the surface of the garden into a grid of 12″ squares, just as we recommend in our Kitchen Garden Planner. Wespan gets at least a little bit of rain every day. As soon as it stops raining, the sun beams down. No wonder the seeds were already sprouting just four days after planting.
We also planted lots of flower seeds in front of the clinic. I am not as hopeful about this garden because it is within the drip line of the roof and doesn’t get much rain. Maybe the nurses will remember to water it. The “weeds” Rudi removed to clear the area contained some pretty pink-tinged caladiums.
The area is part of a pine savannah, and most of the soil is sandy and acidic. Pine trees and palm trees provide some shade around people’s living areas. A few people make compost, “tierra negra,” but most of the animal manure is left where it’s deposited. Children run through when playing — we saw a child’s bare footprint in one of the cow plops.
I had a wonderful experience in Nicaragua and was happy to share the seeds and some of my gardening experience. But who were we to tell these folks how to plant a garden? They have been planting beans and rice since their ancestors the Mayans were living there. As a gardener, I’m always eager to discover new gardening techniques. My hope is that maybe I left behind a few new ideas for them to experiment with.