Cultivating new space: The Hope Garden

Our 2-hectare garden is constantly changing. This year, we look back on the days of the heavy rains that created an enchanted forest with pumpkins hanging from trees and maracuyá creeping faster than it could be harvested. But after a couple winters with less rain than expected, Rio Muchacho is a bit thirsty.

That’s not to say, however, that we can’t cultivate crops that can survive without the occasional torrential downpour. Though May through December is blanketed with clouds that give only mist, the weather is still as humid as ever, which allows for a wide range of leguminous crops, such as flowering bean plants with vines that wrap around whatever they can get their tendrils on and tall-standing okra that alone could feed us daily. A big part of cultivating land is learning about what the land prefers. In our unique climate of both wet and dry tropical forest, banana trees, papaya, coffee and other tropical crops thrive with little attention, as do root crops such as yucca, ginger and turmeric.

But where the weeds grow untamed, dropping their seeds when pulled and popping up faster than the carrot sprouts we sow with love, baby tomatoes and lettuce that we love so much won’t survive like strong banana stalks. So, to give our more intensive crops a chance, we are working daily to renovate an area that, until now, we call the “hache” as it corresponds with the easternmost plot of our 2 hectares, the “H” section on our map.

The Hope garden, as it is now called, is Rio Muchacho’s newest garden experiment. There we have been implementing rows of bamboo beds in which we planted tomato, eggplant, pepper, basil, lettuce and other greens. In between we have rows of pineapple, which in less than a year will be producing more fruit than we have mouths to feed.

The most important members of our new garden, however, are seven happy ducks. Our ducks, along with a few chickens, help keep weeds under control and, hopefully, have been working on keeping the snail population at bay. To make sure the ducks don’t accidentally step on baby lettuce or tomato, we fenced the cultivated area with recycled materials so they can walk around a corridor like guards, catching any snail en route to munch on plant leaves and stems.

With the help of our workers, volunteers and interns, the Hope garden is a project to revive the soil with the droppings of our feathered friends, nutrient-rich compost and crop rotation. We visit daily with jugs of water and our best intentions for a healthy earth.

Check back soon for updates about our ongoing projects!

Celine, our sustainability intern, cradles one of our ducks on a cloudy afternoon in the garden. At the time this photo was taken, the garden only had 3 vegetable beds. Today, we have seven beds and are working on adding three more!

Permaculture Experiments: Combining Art with Agriculture

The entrance to our garden has been beautified by an herb spiral.

In our spiral we planted rosemary, aloe vera, basil, jamaica and more.

In our spiral we planted rosemary, aloe vera, basil, jamaica and more.

An herb spiral is not only a great way to pack more plants into less space, but it is also an aesthetically appealing permaculture design. Herb spirals are usually designed with stone and utilized when there is not much space for gardening. However, when a group of volunteers and interns noticed that there was an abundance of mostly hollow bamboo pieces left over from a bamboo construction workshop that Rio Muchacho hosted in early June, they decided to make a permaculture art project.

These pieces were carried up to the garden, where a circular pit of earth was loosened so each of the 100 pieces could be buried about half way to secure them in ascending height into the shape of a spiral. Our design is about 1 meter in diameter with a soil ramp spiraling up the middle.

At the center of the spiral, the highest in elevation, we placed large rocks, then soil, then dry earth, then a mixture of compost and earth. The purpose of the layers is to work with gravity and ensure that water drains freely to all levels of the spiral, which in turn creates different moisture zones: a drier zone at the top, perfect for herbs such as aloe vera, lavender and rosemary and a moist area at the bottom, ideal for moisture-loving plants such as mint and chives. Herbs are to be planted in the spiral according to their needs, with the sun-loving herbs like basil placed to receive the sun at its strongest, and herbs that require more shade placed strategically to receive less sun throughout the day.

The spiral also helps conserve water. Some of the bamboo pieces serve as cups to collect excess water that does not stream down the ramp when watered from the top. In the future, we plan to plant flowers inside some of the bamboo cylinders!

Here at Rio Muchacho, we are always experimenting with nature and permaculture. Follow our blog to learn more, visit to enjoy some of our many tour options, or better yet, be a volunteer!  

The spiral is dedicated to our former gardener and resident, Franklin, who was lost during the earthquake.

Farm Cycles and a Shout Out to Julie

Life on the farm unfolds in a series of interrelated cycles. The morning symphony of hungry farm animals eventually softens, as the lights dim and stars appear, into the smooth sounds of insect improvisation. Our food-scraps find their way from our bowls to the bowels of pigs and eventually back into the soil, where new life sprouts and continues its circuitous journey back to the kitchen, then the table, and finally (much to our delight) our tummies. There are lunar cycles and seasonal cycles, nutrient cycles and water cycles. Many of these cycles are driven by the sheer force of the Earth making its elliptical trek around the sun. A few, however, gain momentum through the push of human hands working in unison to keep the precarious top of life on the farm spinning.

These hands represent another farm cycle, the never-ending flow of people coming and going. Some visitors cycle through for only a short time. Others have the good fortune of staying long enough to put down a few roots and become part of a unique and multi-cultural social circle. Often, there is a longing, among long term volunteers, to be able to bind the hands of time and bring this revolving cycle to a stop for a time or two, if only to sit and chat a bit longer to those who come through our doors. But this is a silly desire, one no more easily fulfilled than that of delaying the start of day or denying a pig its food.

Every once in a while, though, the human cycle spins such that individuals do pop back into our lives from time to time. For us, it’s always nice to be remembered, and to know that something about life on the farm has taken root in one’s heart to such a degree that even the torrent of time can’t remove it.

We’d like to dedicate this post to Julie, who took the time to piece together a lovely care package and send it our way. Thank you. We miss you, but think of you every time we share with newcomers the story of how you always imagined each shovel of stinky manure as the start of a verdant new plant. 

Straight from the Volunteer's Mouth: A Word from Tamás

The following piece was kindly provided by Tamás, one of the farm's long term volunteers. He hails from Hungary and plans to spend the next six months learning the in's and out's of life on Rio Muchacho. 

It's quarter past eight – it's already totally dark. We have finished our dinner with the volunteers in the open-air, bamboo and cane covered dining room. Night insects play their nocturnal symphony all around. None of us has checked e-mail, Facebook, or WhatsApp for at least five days; what is more: we have not even received or made a cellphone call. However we are indeed quite well. ☺ If we have tourists staying, we spend time listening to each other's experiences, adventures or different new ideas of sustainability; if it's just us the longer-term volunteers, then it's a normal, relaxed evening spent chatting about what jobs we had during the day or whose turn it is to wash the dishes. One of us is usually making popcorn, a popular Ecuadorian snack, on the old stove . Maybe it will serve for a movie (also open-air) if one still fits into our evening. In this isolated silence with these several people I feel as if I work at a space station here at Río Muchacho farm. I do have community with my fellows and I do care about real-world things all my days here.