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Baby Steps in Costa Rica (seeking advice)

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Hello Permies!

My name is John, I live in California in the Central Valley. I work on a small organic farm, one of very few in this area, and we raise chickens, goats, and beautiful vegetables.

I've been lurking these forums for a couple months, because I am very interested in permaculture. I try to take a lot of what I learn into practice, and in my current urban setting I grow about a hundred pounds of food a year in a space you could walk through in less than a minute. I compost, re-use cleaning water, harvest the rain and conserve resources when I can. I've recently decided that I want to use my knowledge to help my mom establish her property in Costa Rica as something of a food forest. I intend to spend an experimental 6-12 months on this property making it habitable for someone in a very frugal lifestyle, but also to ease the transition for my mom when she finally does decide to retire the states. I don't intend to use very much heavy machinery in the months that I stay there, most of the actual building will take place in a couple of years once the finances are established (I would love to get a goFundme going). At the moment, i'm mostly interested to see what I can do by myself with maybe a thousand dollars and a lot of time investment. I don't intend for this to return me anything financially. I've only spent a day on the property and it is recommended to spend an entire year.

Although I know it is likely that I will not make these timelines, it is nice to organize it in this month-to month format to see what it is that I want to prioritize for the month in order for the rest to follow suit. Many things in the initial months are key to completing tasks in the later months. I could use all the advice I can get. This is all permie brain-storming.

Month 1: Shade and Water

Working on this plot, I will need lots of shade and water. The first thing I would like to do is create a simple water catchment system. Some gutters, and a water drum at the top of the property propped up with cinder block and equipped with hosing down to my zones 1-3. I'd like some advice on this subject, would it be more enduring to create a concrete structure with a metal frame?

Once a pressured water hose is established, it would be good to spend a whole day starting seed flats, or soil blocks to start what will thrive in the future hugul kultur beds. Winged Beans, Peppers, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Squashes, Tomatoes, Zucchini. Getting some radishes, chard, radishes and zucchini started now would be super ideal because it could begin to feed me within a month or two.

In my "living area" I'd like to create a simple shade structure, perhaps a tin roof on movable poles underneath one of the existing citrus trees on the property. Under this shade structure, during the hot parts of the day, I could begin the on-going process of cobbing and slowly begin what will become a tiny sustainable home. There will also be napping, eating, and reading so it would be good to try to make this a critter-free place to be.

If the month allows, a small man-made pond to be the first of a collection of small ponds throughout different elevations of the property. I could use the soil from the hole to begin seedlings, and if it is primarily clay, it can be amended and used for cobbing. Perhaps I could dig a rudimentary shovel-deep canal (for now) into the pond and the rain fall would work ease the heavy work and also begin to seal the pond. More, larger, swales on the sides of the property leading into this pond will help to fortify the water table, manage the rain fall and to begin to establish a fertile zone 4/5 planting area on the perimeter of the property.

Month 2: Pathways and A Food Source

Instead of fighting the currently existing landscape I picture Lasagna Gardening inspired pathways, lined with local cardboard, mulch with whatever is laying around, planted with heavy feeding perennials (cassava, peppers, moringa, banano cuadrado) or something easy to grow like sweet potatoes, corn and pineapples.

Each cross road planted with herbs and near the pond, I would create some large Key-hole Hugul Kultur beds to plant in those babies I started the first month. Many of these plants could be left to reseed or you know, be perennials. Ideally, the mulch and heavy feeding plants will allow little to grow in the walking spaces, and if I were to put a hiatus on the project, I could hope to come back to some of the plants indicating where the paths had been. All of the pathways could be zone 1-3.

Month 3: Swaling, Terracing, Food Sources

By now I've eaten so many pine apples I can hope to build a couple terraces to plant them. I'll have a better idea of how water moves on the property, and I'll know where I should continue digging. It would be good to keep staggering lettuces, and radishes and plants of the sort, but I also want to be getting into establishing my zone 4. I could ideally plant some of my fruit trees in my key hole garden beds, and some alongside the pathways, but there will be a section of the property that I intend to use primarily for trees and the swaling and terracing of this month has the purpose of ensuring the irrigation of all the trees to be planted.

Month 4: Legumes, Fruit Trees, Extending Growing Areas
The UCR Expo is selling out native fruit trees for roughly 2$ a pop.

I'd love to go next year and stock up on what I need. I know many of my cousins and family in the home country are gardeners and will have plants for me to throw in my own garden, and many trees can be cloned with just a cutting! I'll need to spend some time researching which trees and how. From my own experience, a nursery in the area will sell me an orange tree for $10.

Month 5: Watering & Cobbing

Month 6: Unallocated Space
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John, seeing that we are doing the same thing in a similar type climate, a few comments from me. Things generally go much slower than planned. I see your first activities very much dependent on success in the 2nd month and following activities. What happens if you are not able to do it as fast as you think? So, first from me, is slow way down (grins).

One thing we did right, was to first set up a very basic greenhouse with sunshade that could keep the initial plantings without a pressure to get them into the ground and also easy to protect from bugs and critters. Some bits and pieces are even fruiting in the greenhouse, as we did not get our planting spaces ready in time.

Water management is of course the first priority and I see you have that as a first. I would suggest get that done, design the complete water plan, and then decide on what the next steps are to be. We thought we would do the water management in the leap, so to speak, but then found we had to fight for washing water because we did not think that through well enough. Keep the plan and permaculture design, but keep it loose, and keep it up to date.

Also, it may be a better idea to focus on local veg for a start. The ants and critters are hungry in this part of the world, and if they see a tomato, they eat it bush and all. So, perhaps design your first plantings with local veg, like taro and those types. So design your subsequent plantings around local veg. You will not feed yourself very quickly that's for sure, unless you have that small greenhouse which gives you time to prepare for real planting. I would suggest eat out of the greenhouse, and perhaps consider planting the longer term trees and so on first, perhaps get your water structuring right, and then bring in bees and at least chickens to help you to prepare for larger plantings. Also, when your water plan is done, you can make compost immediately. This tropical part of the world uses large amounts of good compost materials. Chop and drop works but only after your area is somewhat prepared. Get your quick fruit trees in quickly, like papaya. The can be put basically anywhere as they are quick to grow and you can always change them out later if you decide.

One more comment, rather than a tin roof, consider a palm frond roof. Much much more pleasant in the shade department. Tuck your living area right in underneath the trees.

Anyway, just a different way to look at it.
Posts: 51
Location: Costa Rica
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Hi John,

Thanks for the great post.

A couple of quick thoughts:
-What part of the country are you in? CR is so diverse, highlands, wet-dry forest, monsoon rainforest, true rainforest, etcetc. Once we know that, then there are lots of recs on where to visit, what species, nurseries, etc!
-I agree whole heartedly with Amarynth, unless you are in the highlands of the central valley, minimize your hopes for tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers etc. There are a lot easier to grow, more nutritious crops, that will be low hanging fruit. Think Katuk, Chaya, Taro, Camote, etc
-Try and visit the more mature sites in your region.
-Your phasing may need to be adjusted depending on seasonality.

Hope this helps!
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