Monday, May 30, 2011

Royalty, composting and toads

We get our hair cut by Juan, a young, soft-spoken guy with a luxuriant bundle of dreadlocks that hangs down his back, halfway down to his tail bone. Last time we were in for a haircut I brought a newspaper photo of one of Osama bin Laden's sons who looks scarily like Juan. Juan's wife agreed.

While waiting for Juan I usually rifle through the shop's musty collection of celebrity magazines, especially ¡Hola!, a glossy the size of the old Life magazine with an obsessive, voyeuristic interest in European royalty. It excitedly covers the comings and goings of princes, kings and duchesses as if they were significant news events rather than just overdressed rich people loitering in each other's castles and palaces. Occasionally royalty converges on one spot to celebrate a wedding or baptism, like chiropractors convening in Reno, in which case ¡Hola! doubles up on the number of four-color pages and editorial heavy breathing.

On to composting. On my last visit to Juan I also found the May 2010 issue of Phoenix Home & Garden, which had an interesting idea for composting in hot, semi-desert climates. It suggested that finely chopped vegetables and fruits be spread over the ground around vegetables and then covered with six inches or so of straw.

Intuitively it makes sense. The straw keeps the ground and the composting material damp, thus saving water while speeding up the composting process underneath. Any fresh compost goes right into the soil, benefiting the plants more directly. In addition, it should encourage colonies of earthworms, though the article didn't specify whether one had to import them or worms already in the soil just come of the closet at the sight of fresh compost.

I further speculate that diced citrus rinds on the surface could repel pests such as leaf-cutting ants, snails and earwigs, and that would be a blessing. On the other hand, the compost could attract them. An experiment conducted by Félix a while back and involving pieces of orange rind placed by the mouth of one of our huge anthills was inconclusive. The ants were neither attracted nor repelled: They just meticulously moved the offending bits of orange and grapefruit out of the way--and went back to business as usual.

Even if this turns into another organic gardening boondoggle, at least the straw should help keep the soil cool and damp. Stew, an organic gardening agnostic, is always at the ready with the Miracle Gro in case anything needs emergency fertilization.

Now, an apology to the Mayans and the buried clay pots they used to irrigate. After blogging a while back that they seemed useless (the pots, not the Mayans), Félix and I have noted that they work quite well, deep-watering the roots of plants already established. Any seeds or seedlings near the surface, though, still need to be water manually.

Finally, a few toads have appeared and the nightly chorale of toads is gathering new members each day. Wonder where these guys go during the rest of the year.

Friday, May 27, 2011


February in Chicago is cold, damp and most of all dreary. Daylight hours have shrunk; it's dark outside going to work and likely the same when coming home. Wistfully scanning seed catalogs doesn't seem to help. At Starbucks, sales of the Sumatran Vente Molto Loco blend have increased dramatically, which makes people bug-eyed but hardly cheerier.

This is normal, you argue to yourself. It's not climate change, or global warming or cooling. It'll pass. Even if it's climate change, you feel too gray to care. So what if another chunk of the North Pole broke off. Surely there's plenty more left.

In San Miguel the weather is not anywhere near as dismal and I'm not complaining. Even in the dead of winter the sun blasts off from behind the mountains every morning, hovers above lazily for hours and plummets on the opposite horizon in a splash of color. Relative humidity, never high to begin with, decreases inexorably with every passing week since the last time it rained.

That's all perfectly normal San Miguel weather except that after seven months without a drop it starts to nag you and you secretly start to wish for a gray, cloudy day followed by a man-sized downpour--a gully-washer, a thunder-boomer, sis-bam-boom! let's go!--anything to shock the landscape from its gold, arid hue.

Recently this hankering has been exacerbated by the heat. Summer here usually is a two-month formality that comes around March or April and then recedes. This year, though, the heat, in the mid-90s, has stayed with us until now.

Humidity has dropped as low as seven percent, and the smoke and smell of brush fires tinge the late-afternoon air with something resembling smog. This weekend the botanic garden caught fire and left two-thirds of it charred, and the cacti stunned and looking even lonelier than usual. Strong afternoon winds spur any fires and create "dust devils" that look like mini tornadoes kicking dry soil and garbage around.

During the past week we had a couple of teasers. The sky grew dark and cloudy and rumbled as if God were clearing Her throat, but nothing came of it but a couple of anemic drizzles.

Until yesterday, when the skies really opened up and let down an avalanche of fat droplets that clinked against the window panes like hail. As dry as the ground was, puddles formed immediately, as if the water didn't quite know where to go.

Félix ran into the garage but not our dogs Lucy and Gladys, which sat on top of a pile of black dirt, squinting delightedly in all directions. This was the first occasion to get covered with mud, nose-to-tail, and they didn't want to miss it. Desi, our more level-headed Doberman, retired to the basement and waited for the storm to end.

Our rain gauge made its debut, recording three-eighths of an inch, a good show particularly since the rainy season doesn't normally start for another three or four weeks. Maybe it was but a rehearsal of greener, more humid days to come, like a sparklingly sunny and warm February day in Chicago.

I hope it's the real thing. Despite our mixed luck with trees, we have kept on planting, adding an avocado, a guava, two pomegranates, several silver poplars, another fresno, six "paraiso" trees and two different varieties of cherries. They had looked a bit wheezy and droopy from all the heat, despite our watering.

No more. This morning they look greener and more vigorous. I swear.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I've received several e-mails from readers complaining that they are unable to post comments or that their comments are "rejected." In order to post comments you have to sign up as a "Follower", by clicking "Follow" on the upper left-hand corner above the blogs and then selecting whether you want to be identified on the page as a Follower or to remain anonymous. Once you do that, you should be able to enter comments in the box at the end of each blog... I think that's how it works.

Al Lanier

Friday, May 13, 2011

Let there be light emitting diodes

Because we rely on solar panels for our electricity, we're conscious, though less so each day, about appliances, lights and other gadgets that suck up juice, and curious about new ways to conserve energy. So we were glad to find our local hardware store stocking LED lights that seem almost too good an idea. We had looked at LEDs before but at US$25 apiece we just walked away. Now the price has dropped to about US$7.50 and suddenly they make sense.

How LEDs work I don't know. Internet explanations I checked ranged from moronic ("LEDs are devices that produce light when electricity runs through them." Duh.), to technical jargon that was equally useless. Try this:

Most commercial light-emitting diodes (LEDs), both visible and infrared, are fabricated from III–V semiconductors. These compounds contain elements such as gallium, indium, and aluminum from column III (or group 13) of the periodic table, as well as arsenic, phosphorus, and nitrogen from column V (or group 15) of the periodic table. There are also LED products made of II–VI (or group 12–16) semiconductors, for example ZnSe and related compounds. Taken together, these semiconductors possess the proper band-gap energies to produce radiation at all wavelengths of interest.

Whatever. The ones we bought are not just one light but a series of tiny lights bundled together and which remain cool to the touch despite their brightness. They are wired so they can replace two-prong halogen lights which consume up to 15 times more electricity and get very hot. The ones we bought are 3 (three) watts and put out as much light as 50-watt halogens. LEDs also come in one-watters which we haven't tried.

According to the package these LEDs are supposed to last up to 20,000 hours. They are useful for replacing halogens used as spotlights on pictures or other special areas. We put ours in a couple of niches showcasing Mexican handicrafts, and on an outside fountain (in sealed outdoor sockets and not submerged in the water). From what we can tell they provide an amount of light comparable to the halogens but use only a fraction of the electricity, which combined with their longevity should make them cost-effective. The wattage for the three fountain lights went from 150 to 9.

A couple of shortcomings. Unlike halogens or regular incandescents, LEDs cannot be dimmed. Cristian, the helpful local hardware young man who seems to know everything involving electrons, says manufacturers are beginning to offer dimmable LEDs, but they are not yet available in Mexico. At a hardware store in New York we also saw dimmable fluorescent energy-saving bulbs.

So LEDs are not suitable for creating the type of dimly-lit, romantic ambiance that minimizes the wrinkles on people's faces. Don't toss out those candles yet.

In fact, LEDs tend to emit a harsh, intense light you don't want shining directly on your eyes. Originally the only color was a ultra-white, almost bluish light, but now they come in various colors, include the "warm white" we bought. I also read that one manufacturer has repackaged tiny LEDs inside a container that looks like a conventional light bulb that can be screwed into a regular socket.

I don't know what's caused the sharp drop in the price of LEDs, but a note on the package carries a familiar hint: "HECHO EN CHINA." A local installer of solar electricity systems told us that the price of photovoltaic panels also is dropping sharply, as China barges into the market like an 800-pound panda.

So here's a question for all libertarians, free-market economists, open-trade advocates, warmed-over socialists, members of Canada's Green Party and any others who fall sleep at night fondling big thoughts. Is it a good thing for China to be flooding our market with these cheaper green products that help us save energy and lessen our dependence on polluting oil and coal, spooky nuclear plants and other old-energy sources--even if the Chinese walk away with most of the profits?

Or even more profound still: Is there anything left at the hardware store that isn't made in China?

Please feel free to post your answers, theories and pontifications in the comments box at the end of this blog.

The ironic thing for us right now is that with more daylight every day we are actually generating more electricity than we need. Yesterday our system produced a little more than 17KW, so LEDs don't seem as urgent as if it were cloudy and rainy, which we hope happens soon.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mid-spring farm report

Last night we were having dinner and Stew remarked that it felt so good to eat food that had come mostly from our own land. We had beets, which were really good and about the size of tennis balls, a salad and a strip steak, the latter from Costco. We're not about to start our own herd of cattle.

The garden is going through an intermission. The bumper crops of leaf vegetables--various kinds of lettuce, chard, kale and mustard greens--have gradually expired under the heat, while other crops--zucchini, basil, corn, broccoli and beans--are still revving up. Some exceptions are the romaine lettuce, radishes, arugula and a couple of other odd salad plants including mizuna, a type of Asian green with a slightly bitter kick like arugula, that just keep coming up even as the weather warms.

Under the category of "I'll believe it when I eat it" are white onions (our last batch of onions grew up to about one and one-half inches in diameter and not a sixteenth of an inch more); leeks (locally grown, mutant-looking leeks grow to almost the diameter of a baseball bat, ours are barely the width of a pencil) and pickling cucumbers, which if they actually plan to produce certainly are taking their time.

Then there's the fuggedaboutit group of vegetables, most surprisingly the chiles. We planted serranos, jalapeños, habaneros and two other varieties whose name I don't remember and it really doesn't matter since none of them grew. The only thing resembling a chile is one pimento plant that's about eight inches high.

The chile failure is a mystery. We're in Mexico and I figured we'd have enough chiles to loosen our dental fillings and those of our friends. The serranos and habaneros peeked about an inch above the ground and then vanished. The others didn't even make a showing. Félix seemed particularly frustrated, as if his being Mexican made the failure a personal affront.

His patience and affection toward other beings--his two-year-old daughter Alondra, animals and plants--is a wonder to watch. He brings the little girl to work occasionally and carries her across the ranch in the wheelbarrow along with a pile of dirt, with much giggling by the two, or lets her grab the garden hose though she gets more water on herself than the plants.

Félix also seems to have a special connection with animals. When he shows up in the morning with his two dogs, our three run up to the gate to give him a thunderous welcome that turns into a dust cloud moving up the driveway. Stew and I suspect our dogs, including the latest arrival Desi, probably pay more attention to Félix than to us.

His good karma extends to plants. Planting seeds or transplanting seedlings is not a mechanical exercise but a very personal one that has him hunched over the raised beds, his nose a foot away from the ground, almost as if he were whispering to the seeds.

If there's a down side to Félix's intimacy with plants is that he refuses to give up, even when there's no place to put them or they are clearly dead. In the back of the house he's set up what amounts to an intensive care unit of pots with wretched-looking twigs he's trying to revive. Quite often he succeeds, which only encourages him.

That lack of selectivity, on his part and mine, is one problem with our gardening efforts. We planted way too much mustard greens, kale and chard. Stew dug up recipes for all three, frying them in bacon and onions and various other concoctions, some of them good. We even tried serving them to guests most of whom politely pushed them aside with their forks. In the end we had so much of the damn stuff we could have started a soul food restaurant.

Other vegetables we planted simply because someone gave us plantlets or a packet of seeds winked at me while going through the check-out line somewhere.

So we have broccoli coming up. They seem to be very large plants, about three feet across with a head of the edible stuff developing in the middle. No doubt they'll be delicious and laden with vitamins, minerals and other life-enhancing nutrients. But the reality is that we live in a part of Mexico that from the air must look like a wall-to-wall carpet of broccoli. Huge trucks full of broccoli ride up and down the highways, most of them headed for the U.S. We don't need any more broccoli around here.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment so far has been our inability to grow big, fat, luscious American-style tomatoes, the kind that every gardener in the U.S. almost takes for granted. So far we have some cherries and also Mexican yellow tomatoes, which are tasty but not enough. We want beefsteaks and Russian blacks and other heirlooms.

Tomato deprivation is reaching desperation. The only tomatoes available at the grocery stores are Italian plum and a variety the size of softballs, both of them insipid. Chiles we can do without: You can survive on one habanero a week but tomatoes can be eaten three times a day.

Costco, about an hour's drive, has many perfect vegetables and fruits in neat plastic packages but most of them have a nightmarish carbon footprint. Some strawberries, for example, apparently are grown in Mexico and then sent to California to be placed in their pretty plastic containers with English-language labeling and then shipped back to Mexico. Environmentally speaking eating those strawberries is a sin comparable to driving a two-cylinder East German car.

Looking toward the second half of our growing season, there are some skills Félix and I need to hone. One of them is greater appreciation for the laws of supply and demand: Just because you can grow five bushels of broccoli and kale doesn't mean that you should.

Upon hearing that our peach, apricot and cherry trees are doing well a friend suggested we should start an orchard, which sounds good until you consider what are we going to do with a truckload of fruits? Spend countless hours canning, freezing and making jams? I'll mention it to Stew.

The second is to pay more attention to the weather. The season for frisee and bib lettuce is past and now we should concentrate on romaine lettuce, which is growing beautifully and like weeds. One idea is to plant herbs where the bib lettuce used to thrive.

Two final traits I need, and which I had mentioned in previous blogs, are humility and acceptance. Maybe the reasons cantaloupes don't grow here are soil chemistry or the lack of humidity, which are difficult to control. If you hanker for Texas watermelons, or Georgia onions, you are going to have to get on the car--if you don't mind burning all that fuel.

But I will not give up on the tomatoes. Life is too short to live on those tasteless Mexican imitations. Time to send for more seeds from the States.