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Discovering Permaculture

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So this month in my spare time, (HA!) I decided to take an Introduction to Permaculture course through Oregon State University.  I managed to get it done in 21 days and received this nifty little badge because I completed all the course requirements.

The final assignment was entitled 10/10/100.  In the next 10 days, devote 10 hours and $100 of my local currency and do something with what I learned.  Then post it here.  So here’s my first section of the assignment, to share with you what I have learned in this course.

What did I learn?

Each week focused on a specific aspect of permaculture.  Week 1 defined the process.  Week 2 concentrated on observing the current landscape.  Week 3 highlighted design methods and the principles behind them.  Week 4 listed specific strategies for applying permaculture.  

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is the ethical creation of sustainable human settlements and food production systems that take into consideration the interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the natural environment.  You don’t see much of this happening these days, especially with the current movement to abolish the EPA.  Mexico is even worse at this sort of environmentally conscious thinking, in part because of NAFTA.  However, I did learn that there are pockets of resistance even here.  Monsanto GMO crops are still officially banned in Mexico.  Las Cañadas co-op in Veracruz is an organization dedicated to the education about and practice of sustainability.  Mexico City has also been making efforts at urban gardens.  Additionally, Mexico City still uses a limited number of chinampas (floating gardens) first developed by the Aztecs when they settled the region. Is it enough to counteract the damage unsustainable practices have caused?  It hardly seems so.

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See that red rectangle? Yep, that’s us.

Where am I in the process of permaculture design?

Not far enough.  I learned an important terminology distinction.  I should not strive to be self-sufficient, but rather self-reliant.  No single aspect of the ecosystem is self-sufficient but rather is part of the interdependent web of life. With that, my homesteading life goals have changed a bit.

As you know, La Yacata has a dry climate, except for the torrential tropical rains from June until September.  As a result, the natural landscape consists of drought resistant plants, cactus, mesquite, and acebuche.  The area had been cleared for cultivation of las tres hermanas (squash, beans, and corn) about 100 years ago.  Most of the area has lain fallow for 20 years or more.  There is no natural water supply despite claims to the contrary.  Sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it?

It gets worse.  It seems like the colonos (community members) are determined to exploit what there is to the point of complete environmental. Before the chicken feather guys constructed his pig/chicken compound, the upper part of La Yacata had wild orchids during the rainy season.  Before the pig guy backed up the sewer system, the rain flowed freely from the hillside into the arroyo bordered by dense vegetation.  (Have I mentioned that these two are in-laws?) We have others who come and cut down the mesquite to make charcoal to sell in town, removing an essential component of the ecosystem.  There is no recognition of interdependence here.

Breaking it down even further, our green area is not as green as I would like.  Currently, we have a lovely cherimoya tree that provides a good section of shade, as well as a blackberry bush gone wild, 2 guayaba trees, a pomegranate tree that finally is producing fruit now that the goats and chickens are contained on the other side and a lemon tree that is a bit stunted after last year’s blight.  

We have a few smaller trees started, nispero, aguacate, papaya, durazno, capulin, and mango but it’s too soon to tell if they will flourish or die. Our new puppy likes to munch the lower branches and every now and then that rogue white hen escapes and eats the leaves.

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The rain water floods the area beside our house in the rainy season. We’ve had to add a run-off path.

Miss Piggy’s former compound is undergoing a transformation from wasted space to raised garden, although it didn’t work out so well last year.  We catch and store our rainwater in the aljibe and tinacos. The rain runoff builds up on the right side of our wall and so we have a drainage path through the back yard.

klip dagga

Klip dagga grows wild in La Yacata and attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

I have big plans for our backyard this year, although it seems all my efforts are sabotaged.  In addition to the animal issues, there are human issues.  One year I transplanted a handful of klip dagga plants from under the mesquite down the road to our yard.  They were doing well, sprouting up all over the place, and my son got annoyed and chopped them all down one afternoon.  Sigh.  I’m determined to make another attempt this year.

What are the permaculture design principles?

There are 12 principles of permaculture as defined in the book “Permaculture Principles and Pathways beyond sustainability” by David Holmgren.

I’ll list them here.  You can do your own research if you wish.

  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain a Yield
  4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback.
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources
  6. Produce No Waste
  7. Design From Patterns to Details.
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate.
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions.
  10. Use and Value Diversity.
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal.
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
Captura de pantalla (75)

Red is our home zone. Yellow is our home orchard. Green is our farming zone. Light blue is the semi-managed zone. We managed with grazing the goats there. Dark blue is the wild where we forage.

How can I apply the techniques to my own situation?

Our goal for solar is right in line with these principles. We catch and store rainwater. We obtain a yield from both cultivated areas and wild foraged areas. We try to keep down our waste generation and apply self-regulation.  We can improve on using the edges and marginal and the integrate rather than segregate principles.

How important is permaculture?  

A number of the podcasters talked about the imminent crash of the ecosystem.  Imminent as in the next 20 years. How did we get to this precipice?  Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael chronicles our historic demise from the birth of agriculture to modern-day unsustainable farming practices.  And yet there have been places where the utter desolation has been transformed into viable habitat in as little as 5 years.  

After seeing these incredible examples of regeneration, it’s easy to agree with Bill Mollison, author of Permaculture Designer’s Manual,  when he says “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”  The solution is simply that more people need to identify themselves as “leavers,” those that live in harmony with nature, rather than “takers,” those that seek to dominate nature, if we are to survive this ecosystem crash as a species.

As for that 10 hours / $100 assignment I mentioned at the beginning–looks like I’m heading to the local tianguis (flea market) this weekend to pick up some more of those home grown, native plants the women in rebozos (shawls) sell.  At $10-15 pesos per coffee can packed vegetation, I’m sure I’ll have the back yard on its way to permaculture in no time.  It’s good for me, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for the little old ladies.

Interested in learning more about permaculture?  Check out these podcasts!

Earth Repair Radio with Andrew Millison

The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann

Diego Footer’s Creative Destruction

Sustainable Living Podcast

Sustainable World Radio  

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Natural Healing–Coriander Cilantro tea

Continuing with my free Herbal Academy Materia Medica Course, I decided to try teas made from the other local herbs I was investigating.  (See Hibiscus Tea, Feverfew Tea)

Coriander, known as cilantro in Mexico, is used in an endless variety of local cuisine.  I love cilantro!  It has such a fresh flavor! I was amazed to discover that not everyone has the same reaction when eating cilantro.  Some people taste soap, metal or dirt instead of freshness.  Apparently, it’s a genetic thing. (See A genetic variant near olfactory receptor genes influences cilantro preference) How unfortunate!

Coriander has quite a number of health benefits.

cilantro-tea

Coriander seeds contain zinc, which helps with digestion, copper, which is used to produce red blood cells, potassium, which helps control blood pressure and heart rate. They contain bioactives that have antimicrobial, antiepileptic, antidepressant, antimutagenic, anti-inflammatory and anxiety inhibitors.

Coriander seeds have been shown to lower blood sugar, ease Irritable Bowel Syndrome, decrease blood pressure, contain an antibacterial compound that fights Salmonella choleraesuis, thus useful in cases of food poisoning,  lower cholesterol, be useful in treating urinary tract infections, and been shown to prevent neurodegenerative disease when included in diets high in turmeric, pepper, clove, ginger, garlic, cinnamon.

Coriander Seed Tea is recommended for cystitis relief. Simply steep one teaspoon of whole coriander seeds for 5 minutes for each cup. Strain and add honey or sugar.

Cilantro (coriander) leaves are also jammed packed with good stuff.  It’s rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber and is a good source of vitamin K, which helps in building bone mass, vitamin C, and vitamin A.  Cilantro has been shown to bind the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, lead, and mercury together which helps the body eliminate them altogether.  Cilantro has also been proven to regulate the body’s oxidative defense systems which in turn protects us from oxidative stress. Cilantro has been shown to be as effective as valium in lowering anxiety and improving the quality of the sleep cycle.  Like the seeds, the leaves also lower blood sugar levels and help protect against cardiovascular disease because of its high potassium level.  Cilantro lowers total cholesterol and triglycerides. It can prevent oxidative damage associated with cardiac damage and prevent myocardial infarctions. Cilantro can help prevent colon cancer.

And that’s just the tip of the benefits iceberg!

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So in line with my herbal classes, I decided to make cilantro tea. The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of fresh leaves per cup.  Steep up to 10 minutes.  Remove leaves.  Add sugar or honey.  I also added a bit of orange peel to the concoction.  

I’ll be honest and say that the taste was ho-hum.  It tasted, well, like cilantro tea.  I think I’ll get all the goodness in solid form like maybe salsa, pico de gallo, on tacos with onion, and so on.  In any form, it’s a tasty part of our Mexican diet and not too difficult to grow.  I’ll post more information once I harvest my first batch this year!

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Natural healing–Hibiscus tea or agua de jamaica

As if I didn’t have enough on my plate already, I decided to enroll in a 6-week online herbal course through Herbal Academy.  As the program’s aims included sustainability, stewardship, and affordability, I knew this was the place for me!

So I jumped right into the Herbal Materia Medica course. The lessons and a number of print-outs were free.  The herbs I would be studying were left up to my discretion.  I decided to learn more about plants that I had readily available here in Mexico.  So I chose cilantro (coriander), jamaica (hibiscus), sabila (aloe vera), feverfew and wandering jew.  It was more than I bargained for, probably because once I started researching herbs, I couldn’t stop.  I kept adding more and more herbs to my list of useful local and medicinal plants.  

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Find more herbal courses here!

I’d like to share some of what I learned about the hibiscus flower today.  

Agua de flor de jamaica is one of my favorite aguas frescas here in Mexico. When this is an option, who would every choose a coke? Its deep red color reminds me of Kool-aid, although the flavor is a bit on the tart side. Making it is nearly as easy as Kool-aid as well.

calyx

The calyx (the sepals of a flower, typically forming a whorl that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud) are added to boiling water until thoroughly wet. Strain the mixture, getting all the juice out, add sugar to taste and stir.

Dried jamaica (hibiscus) calyx are easily obtainable at the market, so I went out and obtained some “for my class project.” I opted to add piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) and canela (cinnamon) to my tea. My son said it tasted more like ponche (fruit punch) but drank an enormous quantity of it. I only used a handful of flower petals, so I have plenty left to perfect my own agua de jamaica.

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Not only is it delicious, but it is good for you too.  Agua de jamaica has citric acid, malic acid (giving it its tart flavoring) used in treating fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome because of its energy increasing properties, tartaric acid which is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound useful in treating inflamed joints, pancreatitis and liver inflammation. Tartaric acid has also been shown to improve glucose tolerance and intestinal absorption of nutrients. The flower also contains polysaccharides which aid in reducing fatigue, regulating healthy blood pressure and blood sugar, encourage a positive mood, soothe irritation, support the immune system, and increase libido.  No wonder this is a drink recommended to reduce menopause symptoms! (See also  A Beautiful Transition In Life: Dealing With Menopause Naturally Without HRT and Health Benefits Of Hibiscus)  It’s been used to reduce pain from menstrual cramps, restore hormonal balance which reduces mood swings and depression.

Furthermore, jamaica has cyanidin and delphinidin, antioxidants found to have anti-carcinogenic properties found to be effective in skin, breast and colon cancer prevention.  

Studies have shown that extract of hibiscus (jamaica) is toxic to cancer cells. Why isn’t everybody drinking this?

As if that isn’t enough, flor de jamaica contains anthocyanins which have long been used to treat high blood pressure, colds and urinary tract infections.  As the drink is a natural diuretic, it’s easy to see how it could be just the thing for these all-too-common ailments.

Jamaica has been used to successfully treat obesity and head lice. Drinking agua de jamaica can reduce anxiety and depression.  This tea is low in calories and caffeine-free and can be enjoyed hot or cold. What more could anyone ask for?

hibicus-tea-life

So how much should you drink?  Superfoods Scientific Research recommends a typical adult should drink one cup of hibiscus tea twice daily.  Take 2 tsp of dried blossoms or 1 tsp of crumbled blossom with 1 cup of boiling water, steep for ten minutes.

There you have it, folks!  I would be lax if I failed to mention that there have been reported side effects from drinking this tea.  As mentioned above, it lowers hormone levels which is great for menopausal women but might not be what someone trying to get pregnant would want. So avoid this drink if you are undergoing fertility treatments or are in the first trimester of pregnancy.  As it lowers blood pressure, if your blood pressure is already low, don’t drink it.  As it reduces anxiety, you may feel utterly relaxed or drowsy after drinking it.  In fact, some people have reported hallucinations, although I have yet to experience that particular side effect myself.

Did you know you can make taquitos out of flor de jamaica too?  Check out this recipe!


Well, I have my packet of organic hibiscus seeds and am going to give it another go this year.  I made an attempt before, but the seeds didn’t sprout (See Failing at Container Gardening.)  Once I get my first batch, I’ll walk you through the drying process.  If you can’t wait until then check out the steps at HIBISCUS: A TASTY ADDITION TO YOUR EDIBLE LANDSCAPE OR GARDEN.

So, as you can see, I learned quite a bit as a result of my free course at Herbal Academy. Totally worth it!  Stay tuned for more informative herbal posts in the future!

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Fruits and Vegetables

Did you know that in addition to corn and chocolate being native to Mexico, avocados, peanuts, squash, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and papaya are all Prehispanic delights?

avocado pictograph

Aztec pictograph indicating “the place where avocados grow.”

Avocado is thought to have originated in the state of Puebla. The oldest evidence of avocado use dates to about 10,000 BC, found in a cave located in the town of Coxcatlan. The word avocado comes from the Spanish aguacate which comes from the Nahuatl word āhuacatl which goes back to the proto-Aztecan word *pa:wa. The Nahuatl word also can be translated as testicle.  Since this fruit was considered an aphrodisiac, perhaps because of its similarity to male reproductive organs, young girls were kept indoors during the annual avocado harvest.

Aguacate maduro, pedo seguro.  Ripe avocados–farts for sure!  

Without the avocado, there would be no Guacamole! The name Guacamole comes from the Nahuatl work āhuacamolli which translates as avocado sauce (see Mole).

The tomato also comes from Mexico. The name comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl which translates as “fat water.” The Aztecs cultivated the tomatl and came up with a new species they called xitomatl which translates as “plump thing with a navel.”

A la mejor cocinera se le va un tomate entero.   A whole tomato can escape the best cook. Meaning everyone makes mistakes.

And what would salsa be without the tomato?

The papaya was also a common domesticated fruit in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. It was called chichihualtzapotl in Nahuatl which meant zapote nodriza (mothering or nursing zapote.) The papaya had medicinal value to the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The Aztecs applied papaya fruit to their skin for relief from insects bites. Asthma was treated with boiled papaya leaves applied to the chest.

cacahuate

Nine flowers of Mexico

The modern day name for the zapote fruit, papaya, comes from the Mayan word páapay-ya which means zapote jaspeado (marbled or spotted zapote).

Peanuts may have been domesticated in Argentina or Bolivia. However, its cultivation in Mexico was well-established before the arrival of the Spanish. Peanuts were called tlalcacahuatl or tlalli auh cacahuatl in Nahuatl which gives us the Mexican Spanish word cacahuate that is used today.

peanut seller

One of our local peanut vendors in Moroleon, GTO

Me vale un reverendo cacahuate.  It’s as important to me as a holy peanut. Meaning it’s not important to me at all.

The oldest pumpkin seed found was in the Guila Naquitz Cave in Oaxaca and dates as far back as 7000 BC.  Squash has been cultivated in the Tehuacan and Oaxaca valleys and in Tamaulipas since 6000-5000 BC. Its cultivation predates the domestication of maize and beans by about 4,000 years. (See Las Tres Hermanas)

Squash was a ritual offering presented in honor of the dead during the month of Miccailhuitontli by the Aztecs and is still considered an appropriate addition to the altar during El Dia de los Muertos celebration in Mexico in the form of calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin).

Sweet potatoes are native plants that are found from the Yucatan on down south to Venezuela. The Maya domesticated the plant at least 5,000 years ago.  In Mexico, sweet potatoes are known as camotes which comes from the Nahuatl word camotli. Camotes enmielados (honeyed sweet potatoes) are yet another specialty food traditionally made and served for El Dia de Los Muertos.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little week-long foray into traditional eats in Mexico as much as I have!  And remember–La vida es un camote agárrese de donde pueda.  Life is a sweet potato.  Hold on to it where you can.

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