# 14: Gardening a New Terrain, part 2

Back in October Lázaro Solís, the gardener at Tami and Karen’s house that we had rented for two winters, agreed to give us one day a week at the Casa DaviLinda, and for nearly three months he did. We planted flowers both behind and in front of the casita. We trimmed dead wood and put in the row of coffee plants.


We sited and he dug the compost pits for kitchen organic waste and garden detritus. We began talking about the big, bare, front slope. And then he got a stomachache, and it got worse, and by Christmas he was getting ready for an operation that it turned out for medical reasons could not be done until late March. With a projected 4-month recovery. The surgery went well, and the recovery too, and in late June he began to resume light duty with the town of Santa Cruz. In December Lázaro had been named first alcalde, one of the village’s top officials, the man in charge of all of the deslindes that are crucial for buying, selling, and resolving disputes over real property.

            We told Lázaro that we were planning on 2 days per week over the long term, that he could have them if he wanted, or he could split with someone else (as he does at Tami and Karen’s) and would he recommend someone in the interim between now and when he could start. He designated Laurentino Jiménez, the teniente alcalde, a gentle man in his early fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a sweet smile, who lives up the road above the Santa Cruz agencia building. Lauro’s cargo with the town, like all such, is not remunerated, and he was delighted to have the work, so much so that when we suggested full time for a couple of weeks, his smile got wider. The two weeks turned into four, the smile into a broad grin.

             Linda is Lead-Shovel on the garden projects, and she has run with the office like you wouldn’t believe! Trips, plural, to every vivero (nursery) that can be reached on a single tanks of gas: San Lorenzo; Santa Cruz; the stretch of road to el Tule; Chantal’s place (a French lady who lives a couple of lomas over). Books on southwest desert plants (only Latin names; of negligible use in the nurseries in Oaxaca). Back to the nurseries anyway, to try to match small pots to the books’ glossy photos.

            Lauro has been our Mr. Greenjeans. He knows a lot about local plants and lot of their names, though terminology in the Etla hills does not match either the Latin names in the books or the vivero names in the valley. Lauro knows which plant’s roots go deep, which go broad, which are always thirsty, and which—like chicory up north—thrive on neglect in the compacted stony edges of the access roads. For some of the flowering plants a little sun is essential, and a lot of sun is fatal. To shade the ones that happen to have rooted in sunny spots, he has built little awnings out of carrizo canes and fronds. He has also constructed little cages for over the pots where we are growing seedlings; at night we cover them with canes and fronds. Then if we happen to get a driving rain at night or—even worse—a hailstorm, they will be protected.




            Lauro does the heavy work. Constructing the stairs. Digging the hole to plant a new tree (like the hole the dumb lizzards fell into). Laying rocks in the ríos secos. Carrying the bags of fertilizer (@ 25 kilos) from the car to the garden bodega. He also always seems to go the extra kilometer. Though his workday is from 8:30 to 5:00, he always works until a little past five, and only then begins to gather up the garden tools for night storage in the bodega,



  The last couple of weeks we’ve been plagued by arrieras (the leaf-cutter ants we hunted a couple of nights) that have attacked several of our fruit saplings (who still dream of becoming trees) and our showiest hill flowers.  So Lauro has come back in the evening, around 9:00, on his own time.

            “No, please don’t bother; Linda and I can do it.”

            “Well, maybe I won’t come. You know what to look for.”

But then, at 9:00, there he is to hunt with us by flashlight. Together we scope out the parades, determine in which direction the porter ants are carrying their leaf bits, and follow them back to the nests. Arrieras are tricky little gangsters: they hide their holes during the daytime and only open them up at night; and though sometimes they’ll pile up their tunnel dirt to make an anthill on a road or on a clear patch of field, they really like to construct their entrances in the thickest clumps of weeds. Preferably ones with thorns. And they scatter their tunnel dirt so as to leave no obvious clues to what they are doing. We have a cousin, P’nina, whose earliest memory is doing that in a British concentration camp on Cyprus in 1946, every morning hiding the dirt from the escape tunnels that the men were digging at night, all of them waiting for clearance to go to Palestine.


            But the ants are not refugees. Linda carries a yoghurt carton of folidol power and a throwaway plastic spoon. When we find a hole, we douse it with the insecticide and pound a stake into the ground next to it. The next day we come back to the stakes with a shovel and dig up the center of the hole. More folidol powder. Yesterday one of the holes surprised us with a clutch of four lizard eggs, buried near the surface so that the heat of the day would warm them. They must have been nearly ready, for as Lauro got them up on his shovel, one of them split open and revealed a lizard fetus. It and the other three eggs we reburied.




                        So, where are we? The casita is surrounded by fruit trees, herbs, coffee plants, wandering Jew and citronella.




Along the east fence the cactus garden appears to be well settled and is beginning to show a little growth. The trees along the west fence are leafing out. The fruit trees down by the portón chico  (little gate) are wimpy but beginning to make a recovery from the last attack of arrieras. The terrace of flowering plants at the top of the hill, in front of the porch of the casa are thriving. The area where the construction workers used to take their afternoon break with watermelon and cantaloupe, amusing themselves with contests to see who could ptooey the seeds furthest, has developed into a nice melon patch. An assortment of terracotta pots are hosting flowers on the porches and window ledges.




            We’ve survived one major storm. A black cloud came in over the mountains from the southeast. Thunder crackled, lightning flashed all around, the wind wailed across the chimney, bent many of the bushes double, and blew our brooms from the back porch across almost to the bodega. From one moment to the next the temperature dropped eight or ten degrees centigrade. A few harbinger raindrops pummeled the porch tile, bouncing and splashing like water balloons, and then the sluice gates opened. The rain came down so hard that we could not see more than four or five meters. It drove nearly horizontal from the southeast, and sent rivulets under the dining room doors. The rain chains Niagara’ed the flow from the tile roof into the catchment basins. The ríos secos ran like whitewater brooks. Then the drumming tattoo of rain plunking on our tile roof and the tin roof of the bodega turned to the rattle of battle drums. Hail! White, thumb-nail size pellets, bouncing on the grass, piling up on the mulch mound at the end of the terrace, cracking and splintering on the tile patio.

And in ten minutes it was over. The wind died. The cloud went west. The sun came out. The ice melted. And a mop took care of the dining room floor.

             We’ve made a start. We’ve reached a fragile plateau where all it will take is constant work to keep the arrieras at bay, to make sure that the dirt stays here and the water goes there, that the trees are kept free of parasitic interlopers, and to keep abreast of which weed-like plants are vigorously invasive nutrient thieves, and which—if left alone for a couple of weeks—will reward our clemency by putting out beautiful flowers. If the pace of maintenance permits some moments for innovations, we will replace the failures, add new things to the sparse patches, and keep trying to insure that the array of trees and bushes, and flowers are timed to attract birds and butterflies 52-weeks a year.


            But for now, as I write this, I am happy just to sit on the porch of the casa, with my coffee cup on the table next to the computer, gazing out over the gardens, over the pasture across the Calle Independencia where an ox is grazing placidly—today must not be a plowing day—and at Atzompa and Monte Albán across the valley. It will do.