“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 Walker Rowe 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.
Someone down the hill is playing amplified Rice and Beans music outside their pool. So I pointed my Bose speakers out the window and fired back with the loudest most obnoxious hillbilly country music I could find: George Jones. If I repeat this pattern they will get the message and turn down that raucous noise. Chileans call this “battle of the peace.”
Chileans as a rule do not listen to Rice and Beans salsa, merengue, or narco ballads like more primitive cultures, like Ecuador or Mexico. Instead Chileans listen to top international hits and good rock and roll like Ana Tijoux, who won the Latin Grammys last year. My wife likes Boleros, which is relaxing Spanish music. I like it too.
Last week I got a kitten. Anyone who lives in the country needs a cat. I want this one to kill any Rincon spiders that she finds in the house, because I am terrified of those. But that does not mean she will live inside. I named her Kiwi, because my last cat was called Kiwi.
The girls who gave me Kiwi had neglected her. She was filled with fleas and worms. So I bought Frontline, which killed the fleas in a few hours, and gave her deworming medicine which expelled the worms in 3 days. That is animal abuse. But if you have to choose between Rice and Beans and Frontline, Rice and Beans wins every time.
A couple of days ago some men drove up to my house to invite me to a community meeting. The lots on the other side of the town have completely run out of water. The river that passes through there is not a river at all: it’s just a river bed, as it has dried up. The town delivers 2,000 liters of water by truck each week for free. But that is not much water for a large family and you certainly cannot farm with that.
In Washington, politicians are still arguing whether global warming is genuine science or pseudoscience, while here in Chile we are sitting a top dead plants and dust. Now I am going down to water my garden and Oscar’s marijuana plant. He went to the beach. I am caring for his dog who is best friends with my dog.
My thirsty garden needs water every couple of days too. I planted tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini squash, lettuce, spinach, basil, and beans. I also planted the Chilean version of squash, zapallo. It is like a butternut squash, hard as a dried gourd. I don’t like to eat it much. You would have to beat it into submission to make it soft enough to consume.
Because there is so little water, I have started a cactus garden. These are actually called succulents. A succulent is any plant that has a water filled body inside of leaves. Cactus are the ones with spines.
I have planted aloe vera and agave. I dug agave up from the retirement home down the hill. They do not sprout seeds as there would be no point in the desert. Instead they grow a new plant from its roots. Agave grows for 30 years before it puts out one 10 meter tall flower. Then it dies. In Mexico they make tequila from the agave. Imagine waiting 30 years for the plant to have enough sugar to do that next time you drink tequila.
I have to surround every plant with chicken wire or spread it across the top because of the rabbits. This week rabbits ate one of Sofia’s avocado’s trees right down to the ground. They are vicious. They attacked a peach tree, but the peach tree was too large to cut down.
Here I am planting all those things I could not plant in cold Virginia. I have bougainvillea. I planted one of each color: red, fuchsia, purple, and white with pink mixed in. They are striking in their appearance, especially the fuchsia, which looks like neon. The purple ones grow to tremendous size, up to 15 meters. I am still waiting for George at the garden shop to receive orange bougainvillea so I can have that color too.
I also planted rosettes and different succulents whose name I don’t know yet. Some are red and green, some only green. Some are ground cover. They have lovely flowers of all colors.
Then I planted barrel cactus and a San Pedro cactus that I took as a branch from a hotel in the northern desert of Chile. It should grow to 5 meters or so.
My favorite plants beside the bougainvillea are lavender and rosemary. I planted lots of those and plan to make a hedge. On days when the wind is not blowing, and it usually blows here and strongly, the air should be filled with the aroma of lavender. It’s a three year project to get a lavender to full size. Rosemary of course has a rich aroma too. Here in Chile they grow large, like in California.
Most people here do not have vegetable gardens. It is understandable that weekenders would not do that, as their garden would die without someone to water it. But the people living piled atop one another in the village do not have gardens either. Probably that is because of lack of space and too much shade. Luis the caretaker next door does not have a garden either. He said he already has enough work. Probably Chileans look at the abundance of cheap vegetables at the outdoor fair and say why bother with growing your own. Dixon grows vegetables. He is the caretaker of three plots of land beside me. He built a greenhouse.
I have grown my own garden and it has outgrown the space I set aside for it. I bought chicken wire and built an enclosure 4 meters wide and 5 meters long. I dug a trench and place lumber underground and then connected the chicken wire to that so that rabbits would not bury underneath.
But my garden is bursting at the seams and in fact has filled up all that available space.
The reason I have no space is that I planted zapallo, which is sort of like a squash but bigger although not as big as a pumpkin. Oscar gave me the seeds. Those 5 seeds I planted have swelled into a monster that threatens to crowd out my lettuce, basil, zucchini, tomatoes, and spinach. It is remarkable how huge this zapallo has grown. Every day I snap off leaves because they are shading the other plants. Now the zapallo is pressing against the fence itself, so I lift up the runners and allow them to climb over the fence. Now they are spreading out beyond the confines of the garden itself. The irony of all this is I do not like to eat this much so will end up giving much of it away. It’s all Oscar’s fault.
My tomatoes are going great. There are not growing as tall as what I planted in Virginia. But there are still flowers at the top and the vines grow longer each day. Still they are only about 1.5 meters tall.
The tomatoes are growing vigorously in this soil. When I planted them I broke up the hard ground and incorporated lots of compost and topsoil that I bought at the garden shop. I am making my own compost and Luis gave me lots of rotted leaves from next door.
In the USA I could have bought a whole truckload of topsoil. But here in Chile, where arable land is dear, they sell it by the bag. I also added organic bioyodal fertilizer that Case Romero winery gave me. Bioyodal is mined in Chile. It contains sulfur and 30 or so other minerals.That sulfur will lower the PH over a period of months bringing it into the proper range.
At tomatoes do, these were growing into a tangle into which no light could penetrate. So I snapped off older leaves and popped off suckers. A sucker is a shoot that forms between two other shoots. Winegrowers call these laterals. They take energy from the plant and would produce no tomatoes. So you should remove them. I snapped off all the lowest branches and untangles the vined and ties them to stakes. Those near the fence I let fall into the fence to hold up the fruit. How to stake up tomatoes is always a problem for the tomato grower as they usually do not have enough bamboo or wire cages. Here I used whatever I could find.
My lettuce is growing large. I was picking off leaves and eating those. Doing that encourages more growth. But now I want to see if they grow as large as those heads of lettruce sold in the market. I only grew lettuce in Virginia in the fall and winter as I thought the heat would make them bitter. But apparently not.
Now the tomatoes are green and the basil is starting to grow flowers, which is not good. Farmers say that plants that are flowing “have gone to seed.” That means there are at the end of their life and usually means the plant will grow bitter. Cilantro does this. The cilantro I grew did not do well at all. In about two weeks I should have lots of ripe tomatoes and if the basil can hang on until then I can eat those together.
The nice thing about growing all of this in the desert of Chile is there are so few weeds. In Virginia, which is verdant green, there is a continual battle to hoe back the grass that sprout would choke off a garden quickly. But here there are only a few weeds and no grass. I can pull out the few weeds here with my fingers and do not even need a hoe.
There is no mildew either and not enough time has transpired for viruses to develop. In Virginia my tomatoes got tomato wilt virus. So I had to move them to another location. When you have that you are supposed to wait 7 years before you replant tomatoes there. Instead you plant something else.
There is no powdery mildew here yet and certainly no black rot or downy mildew that plagues places where there is rain. No insects are eating my garden. In Virginia I sprayed soap and insecticides to keep leafhoppers off my plants and natural bacteria to keep worms from eating the corn.
It could be that time is needed for these pests to invade my garden or there are few pests here. But this region is planted wall-to-wall with orchards, vineyards, and vegetables. So whatever diseases and pests that are down in the valley are certain to find their way to my garden. Already something has attacked Sofia’s peaches. I sprayed insecticide. But I think the problem is a fungus. So I will spray fungicide. Nothing has attacked the young avocado trees and the lemon tree is only about a year old. It has no lemons yet.
(2) Readers Comments
March 21, 2017
March 02, 2017
March 02, 2017
February 21, 2017
February 05, 2017
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th
This was an enjoyable read. I could easily picture the venue and und
Thank you so much, Melanie. I appreciate your kind words about my stor