The Gardens of Southern Mexico – Part 2

What would you plant if you lived in a flat area with very poor drainage? Where the landscape is shaped by limestone or dolomite bedrock? Where the shallow soil is filled with carbonate rock?  Where there is limited surface water and no above-ground rivers?  Where lakes and swamps are present, the water is marshy and not palatable for drinking? Where you have two seasons-  6 months of rain and 6 months dry.  Oh yeah, did I mention you get 100" of rain during the wet season?

Last week I talked about the gardens and plantings I encountered in the mountain areas of Chiapas in southern Mexico. I’m now in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula in eastern Mexico where extensive underground rivers collect in thousands of deep, cave pools called cenotes. More than 3000 sinkholes of  mineral-rich, clear, turquoise water dot the landscape. The held the cenotes sacred, believing them to be entrances to the underworld.

Short and tall tropical jungles are the predominant natural vegetation although the forests are suffering from extensive deforestation. Orchards of papaya, maize, bananas, sweet and sour oranges, mandarins and limes are planted in cleared areas of the jungle.The soil is rocky and requires a lot of preparation before an orchard can be planted.  It is interesting to note that oranges were originally brought to the area from Spain in the 1700’s.

Over half of Mexico’s resources are found in the Yucatan peninsula. Oil, plastics , bananas, mango, sisal are just a few of the exports of this area. In the 1600’s Captain Morgan repeatedly attacked ships off Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico. The ships,heading back to Spain, contained not gold and silver from Mexico but cocoa, corn, citrus and coconuts that were unknown in Europe.

Perhaps the mild, tropical weather contributes to a lifestyle where people decorate the area around the house more here than in the mountain regions.  Bare dirt is swept clean of fallen leaves and debris. In the mountains, the residents planted more edible crops rather than ornamental plants. Here in the Yucatan, flowers and container plants are common.

Many dwellings are made of gypsum plaster and stucco as they have been since ancient times.  Merida is even called ‘the white city" due to the color of this common building material. In the villages, small branches are imbedded in the plaster for strength and thatched roofing is most often used as it has been for centuries. This is an effective way to build weatherproof roofing with materials at hand. As experts in this type of roofing they know the best reeds are harvested during the winter as standing dead material, ensuring that another reed plant will grow in it’s place the following year for maintaining the roof.

Loquat trees and coconut palms shade houses from the sun and spiky sisal agave plants are planted as effective barriers around the perimeter of the yard. Sugar cane and corn crops are typical. Front yards are small but back yards are very large filled with tables, chairs, hammocks and a clothes line.

Many small houses had rusted gallon cans planted with flowering vines and hung from the roof.  I saw larger cans planted with ficus trees and bright, reddish-orange zinnias, a favorite nectar source for local butterflies. Fried pig skins are very popular and some side yards were used for a 50 gallon drum of hot oil to produce this treat. I have to confess, I passed after seeing the product before the cooking process.

People of the Yucatan peninsula from Merida to Celestun on the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of the Caribbean enjoy their gardens whether they live in small homes in rural areas or in more traditional residences in the city. My trip was amazing and I’ll never forget the gardens of the Maya people.

The Gardens of Southern Mexico-Part 1

I’m half way through my trip in Mexico. I started in Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas, last week and will stop today in Campeche in Yucatan on the Gulf of Mexico. How different are the people, the soils, the climate, the weather and the landscapes of each locale. It’s as diverse as going from Bonny Doon to Pasitiempo to Scotts Valley and then to San Lorenzo valley.

Well, maybe we don’t have alligators and monkeys in our gardens as the people of Canon de Sumidero might have to deal with. But with 50" of rainfall each year they grow bougainvillea, bananas, dates, native succulents and a tall cactus. The residents of the town of Chiapa de Corzo had "sustainable" gardens. At this higher elevation, most people grow what they could eat. Maize, citrus and fava beans are in nearly every small garden plot.

The people of San Cristobal de las Casas, a large city at 7000 ft., grow a little bit of everything. Some plants are cultivated like angel trumpet, impatient oliveri, marigolds and some are native like sunflowers and santivalia. The residents who live in the center of the city have their gardens in courtyards behind large walls which is traditional in Latin countries. Boungainvilleas are common despite the cold weather. It must not actually freeze in the in winter as they were happily growing everywhere.

Nearby, a village called San Juan Chumala had dozens of greenhouses all growing marigolds. The Indian people use lots of these flowers as traditional decorations in religious ceremonies. They are also used extensively on the Day of the Dead which follows Halloween. Every small house grows marigolds as well as maize, squash, fava beans and other edible greens. Long haired black sheep are also common and their wool used in a type of pancho worn by many of the men and in women’s skirts. I also saw fuchsias, tree dahlias and cosmos growing outside houses and small restaurants. Pine tree forests are plentiful at this altitude.

Further up in the mountains in Los Altos de Chiapas, as the area is called, apples grow.  The elevation is 9000 ft. Red clay soil supports pointsettias that are blooming at this time of year.Canna lilies and celosia are commonly grown and the pine trees sported tillandsias and bromeliads in the nooks of the branches. Every garden contained coffee bushes instead of maize here. Asclepias, or butterly weed, grow here but I didn’t see any monarachs.

Passing the continental divide and descending down to sea level on the peninsula, the weather turned more tropical, although still mild at this time of year. The ceiba tree, the source of kapoc for stuffing pillows, is native to this region. Bromeliads, tillandsias, lilies, elephant ears, bougainvillea, coffee, coleus, impatiens and marigolds are typically grown around the house. Scarlet runner beans, morning glories, ficus trees, banana, pineapple, avocado, papaya and gum trees are also common. Red clay soil is typical here, too.

Past the tropical rain forest of Palenque, the Maya ruins, we enter the flat cattle grazing lands in the east part of the state of Tabasco and continue on to the state of Campeche. Cattle egrets by the hundreds gather in the fields. Banana, mango and sugar cane surround small ranch houses. If you live by one of the large rivers, apparently you need to beware of the alligators, especially after a rain. Small, bluish palms are grown to mark the long driveways leading up to the house and horse corrals. Coconut palms, mango, citrus and orchards of "custard apples" grow beside the road. One house was surrounded with potted plants although this is not usual. Blooming water lilies cover some of the numerous ponds. Rainfall here is 70" per year.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my travels in Mexico as I travel in the Yucatan peninsula from Campeche to the ruins of Uxmal, the city of Merida, the fishing village of Celestun and finally Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean.

What Works in your Garden?

I’m vacationing next week in southern Mexico traveling east from the state of Chiapas to the Yucatan peninsula.  In addition to exploring ruins, waterfalls, cenotes and flamingo breeding grounds  I’ll be especially interested in the local plants which vary from  hardwood forests of mahogany and cedar to tropical.  I always study how people landscape around their own homes whenever I travel.  You can get some great ideas this way.  I’ll be sharing all that I discover in next week’s column. 

Around here this is a good time to pull plants that have been struggling now that we’ve had some rain to soften the soil a bit. Pay careful attention to and which aren’t. Be realistic about plants that don’t suit the conditions you have to offer. Replace them with plants that have proven themselves adaptable and well suited to your own garden. Thoughtful editing and repetition are the key to a successful garden.  Such self-sufficient plants require far less work, water, fertilizer and pruning.

Your own personal palette of good plants for your yard are the ones that look most at home planted right where they are. They do best in the soil, sun, wind and weather your garden offers and the maintenance is a snap. These plants don’t have to be the kind of dull and monotonous shrubs that you see around some freeway ramps. They might be the shade-loving native Western swordfern for year round interest.  Planted in masses these ferns aren’t water hogs and look like nature planted them.  Or how about the easy-peasy bergenia cordifolia which will be blooming soon planted as groundcover under the trees? Large, heart shaped leaves grow to 12 across and turn beautiful bronze color in the fall. Pink to rose-red flowers on red stalks appear in late winter.

Camellia sasanqua, with glossy evergeen leaves and showy flowers in fall and winter, can be grown as a shrub or espaliered against a wall. Camellias are easy to grow and an established shrub requires only a deep watering every 10 days or so in the growing season.

Elfin thyme is the perfect groundcover between cracks in pavers paths or other areas that get light foot traffic. And if you want any planting to look better, just pop in a black mondo grass and you’ll have instant sophistication.  Not all "go-to" plants are quite so glamorous, though. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ears are high on my list because they grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ grows only 12" tall, blooms with purple flowers and spreads to make a beautiful edging or low border

The key to preserving both our backs and the earth’s resources is to choose the right plant for the right place. Keep the plants that are thriving and replace the unhappy plants with a smaller palette of plants that have proven themselves successful in your own garden. Whether these are California natives or plants from other regions that perform well, you’ll be happy you got rid of the malingerers.