JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

July 2, 2017

*****

GROWING CABBAGE IN THE YUCATAN
Anyone from the North wanting to grow a Northern-type garden in the Yucatan would do well to start with the handful of cultivars the Maya already grow -- their local "Indian corn," the red-seeded, Lima-bean-type Ibe bean, the big, knobby, pumpkin-like squash or calabaza grown in Maya cornfields, and the smallish, ribbed kind of bell pepper they call chili dulce. During the dry season radishes grow well, and this year I surprised myself by producing a fine crop of carrots.

But, "surprise" is the order of business when trying to grow Northern garden plants. Northern cultivars in general simply can't survive the diseases, insects and other animals, and extreme heat of the late dry season. My experience this year with pepper plants was typical. I planted five kinds of pepper plants, thinking that if anything would grow here it'd have to be peppers, but four of the five developed nematode root-knot, and then a wilt disease, and produced almost nothing. The one chile that produced well was the Mayas' little chili dulce. Swiss Chard, called Acelga here, does surprisingly well, though insects fill the leaves with holes.

One positive surprise has been that the cabbage turned out OK. You can see a typical cantaloupe-size head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702cb.jpg

The cabbage seeds were sown during the cooler dry season, in February, but the plants did most of their growing during April and May, when many afternoon temperatures surpassed 100°F (38°C). During those months the plants were watered nearly every day. To preserve water in the soil, I'd started out by covering the entire cabbage bed with cardboard, and transplanted the young cabbage plants through holes in the cardboard. Who'd have thought that cabbage could do well under such high temperatures?

Only now that most heads are mature are cabbage worms attacking them. If I had BT, the commercially produced spores of Bacillus thuringiensis commonly used in organic gardens up North, I might have less caterpillar problems, though our frequent afternoon rains would reduce its effectiveness by washing it off.

I'm always astonished when I look at a cabbage plant, noting how strange and pretty they are. There are no "wild cabbages" looking like smaller versions of what's shown in our picture. Head cabbage of the kind I'm growing here is one of a remarkable number of human-developed cultivars based on the single wild species known as Brassica oleracea. From Brassica oleracea ancient people domesticated such diverse important garden plants as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, and various kinds of cabbage. It's thought that cabbage's first cultivars arose somewhere in Europe over 3000 years ago.

One question coming to mind when you look at a head of cabbage is, "How does cabbage reproduce?" In other words, when does it flower, so that seed-producing fruits are formed?

The answer is clear when we know that Brassica oleracea is a biennial plant -- it lives for two years. If the first year's head isn't harvested, in the second year a flowering head emerges from among the previous year's leaves. The whitish-yellow flowers are very typical of the Mustard Family, and from them develop pods with long, conical beaks, the whole capsular-type fruit being about as long as a finger. And when the pods split, cabbage seeds tumble out.

*****

OKRA IN THE YUCATAN
My okra also is doing well, though its leaves similarly are bug-eaten. You can see a waist-high plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702ok.jpg

Okra's flowers are exceptionally large and pretty, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702ol.jpg

In that picture, notice my fingers wrapped around a hairy okra fruit perfect for plucking. The fruit pods grow to a foot long or so, but at that size they're too woody to eat. When picked at the size in the picture they're so tender that they can be munched on raw. Okra tastes good to some people, but not so good to others, plus many can't stand its somewhat slimy texture. I like it in all its permutations, from super slimy go to crisp-fried, and it's good raw, too, a perfect snack while sweating in the garden.

There's a good reason okra's flowers look like hibiscus blossoms: Okra belongs to the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, and in the old days was even placed in the genus Hibiscus, as Hibiscus abelmoschus. Nowadays usually it's listed as ABELMOSCHUS ESCULENTUS.

One of the prime field marks for flowers of the Hibiscus Family is that its stamens join one another at the bases of their filaments, often forming a cylindrical "staminal column" surrounding the pistil's stigma-tipped style. You can see this configuration in the okra's flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702om.jpg

In that picture, the whitish, ±horizontal item is the staminal column. On the column's surface the grainy, yellowish things are the stamens' pollen-producing anthers. The dark item at the far right is the stigma, dusted with yellow grains of pollen. The pollen grains will germinate and send down microscopically thin tubes conducting the male sex germ all the way down the style within the staminal column, to ovules inside the ovary at the flower's bottom.

It's not too surprising that okra would do well here because okra is thought to have originated in hot areas of Africa or southern Asia. Its genetics is fairly kinky. It's an "allopolyploid" whose genes have been gathered from three or more completely different species of parents. No wild okra species are known to exist. The first report of okra pods being eaten are from Egypt in 1216. It was introduced into the Americas by ships carrying slaves from Africa.

In Chiapas we've seen okra grown not for its edible fruits, but for its mature fruiting pods whose seeds, when toasted and ground, mad a fine coffee.

Okra is a perennial plant, though up North it's grown as an annual. I may let our garden's plants keep growing as long as they want, just to see how tall they get. The Wikipedia expert says they grow up to 6.6ft tall (2m) but even in Kentucky I've grown them taller than that.

*****

ADDING CHARCOAL TO COMPOST
At the ranch, animals produce plenty of manure, which is gathered, mixed with compostable refuse and charcoal, and composted. The manure mixes with a fair amount of limestone-derived mineral soil, so that's included, too.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/compost.htm our compost page doesn't mention charcoal being mixed in, and it doesn't occur to most of us to add charcoal. However, here a good bit of brush and small trees get cut when building trails, opening up planting areas, and such, and the owner looked into what could be done with all that dead wood, other than let it decay where it fell, which also was a good idea. After studying the matter on the Internet, she decided to convert the larger woody pieces to charcoal, grind the charcoal into small pieces and black dust, and add it to the compost. In some places, instead of calling what's produced charcoal, it's given the name "biochar."

At http://www.biochar-international.org/compost a page sums up how adding biochar benefits the composting process:

"Based on current findings, the benefits of adding biochar to the composting process may include shorter compost times; reduced rates of GHG {greenhouse gases} emissions (methane, CH4 and nitrous oxide, N2O); reduced ammonia (NH3) losses; the ability to serve as a bulking agent for compost; and reduced odor. For the biochar material itself, undergoing composting helps to charge the biochar with nutrients without breaking down the biochar substance in the process."

Biochar starting out as charcoal isn't the same as wood ashes you might have from a fireplace or grill. The main difference is that a fireplace's ashes result from a nearly complete burning of the wood, while biochar from charcoal has been produced with controlled burning, which blackens the wood and converts some of the cell contents to gases, but leaves much of its woody cellular structure in place.

Also, wood ashes from fireplaces and grills are always a little suspect because they may contain residues of igniting fluids or other chemicals that shouldn't go into compost. You wouldn't use ashes from a demolished sundeck because probably the wood had been treated with chemicals to retard decay.

Otherwise, if you're sure that your wood ashes are chemical free, it may be a good idea to add them to your compost. Ashes contribute potassium, lime and other important trace elements. Also, if your soil is a little acid, ashes tend to increase the pH -- help maintain the neutral condition. But, too much ashes may actually restrict the availability of other important nutrients. Mix it with the compost and soil, but don't apply ashes directly, unless you're trying to de-acidify your soil.

*****

MAKING CHARCOAL FOR COMPOST
Here at the ranch a special metal-drum stove has been constructed for making charcoal. The stove's design was found in a permaculture book. You can see my Maya friend Gener at the beginning of the charcoal producing process at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702cc.jpg

I've wondered if the L-shaped chimney really is appropriate for a stove being used outside, but when such designs are found in books written by experts, you hesitate to fiddle with them. You can see the stove's top, with bottom flanges that fit inside the larger, lower drum, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702cj.jpg

So, the bottom metal drum is stuffed tightly with dry chunks of wood, mostly not thicker than my wrist. A fire is started atop the wood, normally with a little help from some dry cardboard, wood shavings, or whatever is on hand for starting fires. Once the wood's top is burning, the stove's cover section pictured above is added, with air able to enter through the cover's large, triangular hole. That hole apparently allows enough air to enter to keep the fire going, but it's not so large that the wood burns vigorously enough to completely convert the wood powdery ashes. Gradually the fire spreads down through the wood. This descent of the fire is possible because the lower drum's bottom is slit to permit air to enter from below, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702ci.jpg

In the first picture you may have noticed that the whole assembly rests atop rocks, enabling air easily to enter the slits.

As fire spreads downward through the wood, Gener occasionally splashes the drum's sides with water. If fire has reached halfway down, then above the halfway mark the water will hiss and turn to steam. Once splashed water forms steam at the bottom, then it's time to shut off the stove's air, as Gener is doing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702ce.jpg

Note that the drum has been removed from its rocks, soil is banked up against the bottom to form a better seal, and the top lid is being clamped down so that really no air can get to the burning wood. With no air, the fire almost entirely dies, but not quiet. It continues smoldering for a good while, and this very slow smoldering process is what produces charcoal instead of ashes. You can see a bag of charcoal produced in this stove at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702cd.jpg

Before the bagged charcoal is added to the compost, it's stomped, beat with a shovel and otherwise abused until it's converted to small pieces maybe the size of a thumbnail, down to pure dust, and then it's mixed into the compost.

By the way, I always keep pulverized charcoal handy for medicinal uses, especially for tourists who come with diarrhea and upset stomachs. Just mix maybe half a cup of charcoal powder in a glass of water and drink. The charcoal absorbs toxins in the gut while resisting digestion, and eventually passes outside the body, from one end or the other. You can see my grinding operation for producing charcoal dust at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170702ch.jpg

That grinder also makes a fine cornmeal from dried, locally produced corn. Back on the farm in Kentucky sixty years ago we used a similar one for grinding sausage. Such grinders are wonderful.

*****

READING XENOPHON
I've been rereading Xenophon's Hellenica, written some 2400 years ago, and detailing conflicts at that time between Athens and Sparta. You get used to the author offhandedly remarking that this or that city was stormed, all property plundered, the town's women distributed among the soldiers, then everyone either killed or taken into slavery. Both sides did it, neither the "right-wing" militaristic, dictator-loving Spartans nor the "left-wing" democratic Athenians were more guilty than the other. On both sides the wars were fought mainly over business concerns -- who got what access to which markets, which natural resources, which shipping lanes.

On a hot afternoon in the central Yucatan when nearly continuous thunder rolls across the lowlands from a storm passing in the north, and a Clay-colored Thrush sweetly calls his monotonous but very satisfying song from a Gumbo-Limbo tree beside the hut, I put down Xenophon and look around, thinking about the possibility that the general outline of human nature hasn't changed much these last 2400 years. I like to tell myself that humanity has advanced since those times, but nearly every day there's new proof that "civilization" and the peace it enables is a thin, flimsy and possibly temporary veneer barely keeping raw, violent human nature from expressing itself as it always has.

If this is true, and basic human nature is a problem, then what's the solution?

As the storm to the north gradually pulls away leaving only a few silvery splatters of rain on the Gumbo-Limbo's leaves, I'm thinking that maybe Nature will solve the problem the way She always does: If a species misbehaves or proves too unadaptable, then either it goes extinct, or else over time it gives rise to a new species more fit for living on Earth.

Going extinct is pretty clear-cut, so it's more interesting to imagine what that new, more adaptable species might be like. For instance, maybe we're seeing that new species starting to emerge right now, as more and more humans walk around coordinating their thoughts and behavior with information flowing across cyberspace, and more and more people augment their bodies with new hip joints, cosmetic surgery, Google glasses and such, and more and more people become dependent on drugs. Well, you who don't live in an isolated tropical forest see the trends better than I.

So, the new species will consist of computers integrated with various tools and sensors, encrusting a nucleus of what's left of biological Homo sapiens. This new thing will be kept healthy, "happy" and under control with drugs and other biochemical whizbangery. This all sounds perfectly loony but, when you look around, don't general trends point exactly at such an outcome?

And so I pick up Xenophon again, and read more about that long-ago conflict, glad that I'm in a time and place where a passing afternoon storm has left the air feeling and smelling so fresh and agreeable as the Sun begins peacefully to set.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.