Saturday, July 16, 2011

The accidental gardener, or live and learn

I have been meaning to plant stuff in the small piece of land in front of my house. Really and truly. I brought back some seed packets on my last trip to the U.S. (which I shared with my friend Don Gorgonio). I bought some plastic planters and bases. I had plans to go with my friend Caterino to get some good soil to add to what is in the yard. But I've just never gotten around to it. There are roses growing wildly -- and I mean wildly. There are four very sturdy rosebushes that were here already, and a new one has sprung up. I cut the roses back when I remember to although I don't really know much about roses and the science or art of pruning.  When there are nice-looking blooms I cut them and bring them inside; a few weeks back I splurged on a red glass vase for the dining room table (Q50, about $6).  I have been fairly dutifully composting (not very scientifically; just putting my organic garbage in two spots in the "yard"). 

But still no systematic planting. A few weeks ago I noticed that among the weeds was a small pepper plant. What kind of peppers, I didn't know. But the white blossoms were unmistakably capsicum of some sort. They grew into 4 longish green peppers. A week ago, I was outside doing something and two women stopped on the sidewalk in front of the property and called down to me (my house is about 5 feet below the street level, and there is a plaster wall topped by chain-link fencing).  They wanted to know if I could sell them a ramita (branch) of my roses and also a tree that has a profusion of white flowers. They said it was called clavel. I told them that I could not sell them anything because it wouldn't be right for me to take money for something that was not mine but that belonged to the madre tierra (and was planted by the previous owners, not me), but that I would be happy to give them a cutting. I invited them to come down so they could pick what they wanted and we found a couple of branches that they thought were satisfactory and we managed to take them off (I don't have a machete or a clipper; I just use a pair of scissors so I had to break and then cut one of the branches they wanted, as they wanted one that was older and more established). They asked again what they could pay me. I said that they could bring me something that they had growing and we could do an exchange. Maybe they'll come by tomorrow as it is market day. But if they don't, no big deal. 

They took a look at the pepper plant and said I should let it grow more and turn red, but the plant is very low to the ground and the peppers are relatively heavy so they are sitting on the ground and when I looked today, one had already started to turn brown and soft at the bottom. So I took the remaining three and put one into a sofrito for the beans I was cooking, roasted another on top of the wood-burning stove to put into a salsa, and refrigerated the third for another day.

Then today I had a burst of energy and started to clean up the yard a bit. It's been raining a lot and there are vines growing around the rose-bushes and weeds and small flowers and all sorts of things I didn't recognize growing all around. There was one plant that seemed particularly profuse and difficult to uproot (I was doing this all just with my bare hands; no gardening gloves or tools).  It had thick stems, and several stems emanating from a single clustered room, and a somewhat pungent smell when I crushed some of the leaves as I grabbed the plants. I gave up after a while and went back to writing and cooking. 

In the early evening there was a knock at the door. I don't get a lot of visitors but the town is pretty chill so I just opened up and saw my landlord's wife standing outside with a small child in tow. She asked if she could have some epazote. I said I didn't have any (I thought she was asking for something she thought I'd have inside the house: I know epazote is an herb but I didn't have any, or so I thought). She said, "No, you have it growing all around outside." "Really?" I said. "Show me."  So she stooped and picked some leaves: they were from the  the very plants that I had been unsuccessfully attacking that afternoon. I had managed to uproot a bunch, but now I was thankful that I hadn't been more persistent. She said it was good for stomach ailments, and I realized I could cook with it as well, so I pulled off a few leaves, washed them, quickly shredded them with my fingers and popped them into a pot of beans that had been simmering on the stove.  

Being a good citizen of the 21st century I immediately posted my discovering on Facebook, and it seems that I know people who know a lot more about epazote than I do.  I have hear about it, come across it in cookbooks, and have seen bunches of the leaves occasionally at the farmers' markets or at greengrocers in my neighborhood (but a slightly different variety and I'd never seen the whole plant which was why I didn't recognize it). Since then I've gotten some suggestions from friends via Facebook about various uses -- find huitlacoches and use it to season them; add to beans for flavoring or to counteract the gas-producing properties; use it for a spiritual cleansing or my home or to treat intestinal parasites. All of which sound promises (not sure about where to find huitlacoches and I hope that I do not have reason to test out its anti-parasitical qualities (knock wood). Nonetheless, I'll have to figure out a strategy for where I will cultivate it in the yard and where I will try to uproot, so that it doesn't become unmanageable.

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