Friday, April 1, 2011

Mayan aluminum siding?


During the time of the Romans, architects learned how to build huge domed structures, the Pantheon in Rome probably being the most famous. Then all that technology and skill was lost during the Middle Ages, and Renaissance architects and engineers during the 1400s pretty much had to start from scratch when they set out to put a dome atop Florence's cathedral.

The agricultural technique of using simple clay pots for irrigation is nowhere near as complex but seems to have undergone a similar trajectory in Mexico: It apparently was used by indigenous Mexicans--who faced the same challenge many Mexican farmers face today of trying to grow food crops with a very limited amount of water--and then the practice disappeared. Now some young Mexican organic farmers, a small but growing and enthusiastic group, has rediscovered clay pot irrigation of small agricultural plots.

The practice consists of burying unglazed clay pots about a 18 inches tall and ten inches wide amid the crops needing water. Water gradually seeps through the clay to adjacent soil, which sucks the water as needed. The clay measures out the water and also filters many minerals, particularly if the water is hard. The pots are supposed to work much like an underground drip irrigation system. After a while the pots disintegrate and you need to replace them.

Two years ago a friend of ours discovered clay pot irrigation and was so smitten that she commissioned about a hundred of the little buggers from a pottery about two hours from San Miguel. Such sudden passions often sweep retired gringos off their feet, particularly those addicted to reading gardening books and articles published by hippy-dippy types from California also with too much time on their hands.

Just check my bookshelves and you'll notice that trend, though I promise you'll never find a composting toilet anywhere near our house, no matter how environmentally virtuous those contraptions may be.

So Stew and I made a couple of trips in our pickup to pick up the pots, which came with lids to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the standing water inside. Our friend planted dozens of pots all over her garden and raised beds but even then she had dozens more left which she offered to us.

I took Félix to a local vegetable plot run by an organic-farming group so he could see the clay pots and how they were used. Félix was sold on the idea--he is very smart and a tireless learner who loves new ideas--and he planted about 15 of them three weeks ago in our corn and pumpkin patch on one corner of the property, and in our raised beds closer to the house.

The results, well, I'm not sure. Is there something wrong with our pots? Did some Mayan fast-talker oversell the clay pot idea, like a pre-Hispanic version of an aluminum siding racket? Should we wait another month or two for the pots to get fully saturated and for the osmosis thing going? Should we have planted more pots, closer together? We installed one pot per square meter, which may not be quite enough.

The water definitely leaves the pots, presumably to the soil around them, but it never seems to reach the top six inches of the raised beds where most of the roots of my lettuce plants are located, along with seedlings struggling to get established.

One problem may be that our soil is very loose with compost and other organic matter, and the weather is hot, windy and very dry. Right now our weather station shows 7 percent relative humidity. That may cause the surface moisture to evaporate almost as soon as the water hits it. Indeed we have to sprinkle the beds morning and afternoons to goose along a bunch of seeds trying to germinate.

Then again deeper-rooted vegetables like carrots may take to the clay pot irrigation technique.

Félix says we need to wait and give Mayan irrigation a chance to work, but I'm growing increasingly impatient with this and other organic and environmental gardening brainstorms.

Last week Félix tried an organic way of getting rid of ants. We have several monster anthills, as big as 10 feet wide, that during the midday rush hour look like the Long Island Expressway. The trick, Félix assured me, was to cut up orange peels into little pieces and spread them around the entrances to the anthills. It was supposed to repel the ants and get them move somewhere else.

Yesterday Félix reported this latest organic gardening venture had failed. The ants didn't flee: They must have just paused for a few minutes, scratched their little heads and then systematically carried the offending orange peel pieces away from the entrances to the anthills. The ants are back to business as usual.

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