“The Avocado Republic of Chile, because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide. Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. American writer sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet. What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.
7 October 2014.
Yesterday I was thrilled to discover an earthworm. Someone from the city might not understand the importance of that, but it means there is some organic matter in this soil, meaning carbon. So there is hope of growing a garden here in the desert in what otherwise looks like sand.
When Sofía built these two cabins at the bottom of her lot, the construction crew pushed all the bushes into a big pile and left it there. Here in bone-dry Chile, it would have been a simple matter to light a match to it and whooosh it would all go up at once. But I did not want to set the mountains on fire like the hapless tourist from Israel who set a campfire in Patagonia two years ago and burned 100,000 hectares.
This meant I had to burn that enormous pile of debris in a barrel, one load at a time. It took weeks. I raked, burned, raked some more, until flat ground began to emerge and that is where I found the earthworm. So this was the ideal place to plant my garden. It was perfectly flat, any nutrients that had run down the mountain over the centuries would have gathered here. The soil only 10 meters away was pure sand. Here the soil was, not exactly rich, but not exactly poor, except the sand was, just sand.
I was already daydreaming that I could also fill this area with tomatoes and flowers and sell them in the market, like Ugolin in Claude Berri’s Manon de la Source, who sold carnations, until despair over a spurned lover caused him to hang himself. I had no intentions of hanging myself. Beside, there is not anything you would call a tree anywhere close to here anyway, which you would need to do that. But I had fantasized about growing carnations as did Ugolin, because that is something I could never have done in Virginia’s climate, which is where I lived before I came to Chile.
But first I needed to build a rabbit-proof fence. If you saw Manon de la Source, you know that Gerard Depardieu’s character built an elaborate structure to raise rabbits. It was a series of tunnels where they could escape predators. But here in Chile, there are no predators, there are only rabbit, and too many of those. I have never seen a place with so few varieties and number of animals. There is said to be fox, but I have not seen one. In Virginia, I shot one, because it looked sick. Certain regions of Chile are known for their rare wild deer (Patagonia) or Guanaco and Vicuña (Atacama Desert) and there are many more condor in the Andes here than the California condor, which is under threat of extinction there. But those locations are noted for their animals, which is noteworthy in itself. In Virginia and South Carolina, clever raccoon will pry open your sealed trash can and you cannot, for example, do as they do in Chile and let chickens run loose, because something will eat them. Oscar has a chicken, it lives on the neighbors lot’s, safe from his dog Almendra, who killed his other chicken. But dogs are a man-made threat to laying hens and roosters, there is nothing else here to kill them.
In Chile, there are no poisonous snakes and no large snakes, no scorpions, and, compared to what I am used too, not that many different types of birds. The only thing dangerous here for those living in the country is the Rincon spider, whose bites leaves a wound that never heals, which the American Black Widow can do too. There are few flies, no mosquitoes, and only one biting insect called the Zancudo, which has not bit me yet. Coming from Georgetown, South Carolina, where the town used to fumigate the neighborhoods with a mixture of malathion and diesel fuel to kill mosquitoes, and where my grandmother was bitten by a moccasin, Chile is a paradise, free of the risk and discomfort of all those vermin.
This is not to say that there are no problems here regarding agriculture. Wine grapes are attacked by a kind of red spider and aphid that eats the leaves. Without leaves, the fruit cannot ripen. Also, there are no doubt other crop-devouring pests that I am certain to discover once I get my garden underway. Farming, in case you do not know about that, is a type of war, with man at a distinct disadvantage.
As someone who comes from an area where it rains, Chile is an agriculture paradise due to the lack of rain. If that sounds odd, you should know that rain spreads mildew and rot. This is why practically all of America’s cherry’s, pomegranates, grapes for raisins, almonds, olives, and most of its lettuce, strawberries, peaches, and apples are grown in the California desert. In rainy Virginia, I put on my chemical suit and fumigated my vineyard every 10 days against black rot, downy mildew, and powdery mildew.
I had the same problem in my garden there, which is why my best vegetables came from my greenhouse. One day a squash plant would be healthy and on the verge of delivering fresh squash. The next it would have collapsed under the weight of powder or downy mildew. Some places where I grew tomatoes had tomato-induced virus in the soil. That happens around the world. The only cure for that is to rotate in another crop that is not susceptible to that and wait 7 years for the virus to go away, so you can plant tomatoes there again. (You can also cover the ground in plastic and fumigate the soil with methyl bromide, a chemical which has now been banned in the USA.)
In Chile, the only mildew is powdery mildew, which you can control with sulfur. This is why there are some organic vineyards here. You could not plant grapes organically in, say, France, because there are no naturally-occurring fungicides to control botrytis and other rots and mildew. (In the Sauternais region of Bordeaux, they encourage botrytis to develop. That fungus sucks much of the water from the grape thus increasing its relative sugar content. The resulting Sauterne wines are sweet, and expensive. But in Virginia, that would never have worked as that sweet rot would have turned to sour rot, causing the farmer to have to dump the crop. So farmers there make sweet wine the easy way: they freeze and then thaw the grapes. In the Niagara section of Canada, vintners leave grapes on the vines and harvest them when they are frozen solid. Here in, Chile they spray some grapes with water to cause them to rot, then make dessert wine from that.)
So, having raked, burned, and hacked my way through to flat land and moderately fertile soil, I was off to the nursery to buy compost and to the hardware store for chicken wire that I would bury 1 foot below the soil and anchor with 2×4 studs so that the rabbits would not devour my lettuce before powdery mildew was given its chance.
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Great article! I´m excited to see everything when I arrive there tomor
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Anita! I know someone who wants to work in Chile but as electrician. D