Expat Life

So you want to grow the best food ever? (Part 2)

By Rob Gray

In an effort at Gran Roca farm to grow the Best Food Ever, we have set a high bar in committing to the goal of sustainable, year around production of world class food for consumption here in Ecuador. We have taken much of our guidance from the teachings of Permaculture. Part 1 of this series, presented an overview of six fundamental principles I believe necessary to produce world class food. We received very positive responses to that article, and in addition, a few people asked the question:

Land ready for planting and “nerve center” of Gran Roca.

How do you know what to grow where?

This is a very important subject and assuming you are familiar with the Principles outlined in Part 1, we will delve into some of the intricacies of determining what to grow where.

To begin with, you need to do a land survey to determine the growing conditions for each part of your land. Small plots might seem to you to be all the same, but if you look closely, you might find some areas are shadier than others near trees, buildings and walls, and that ponds, fences or other structures may also influence what makes sense to plant where. In addition, some areas of the land may simply not be good candidates for planting anything, as they may be too rocky, too steep, etc. For each part of the land that you find can be planted, your survey should include:

  1. The amount of sun exposure, (full day sun, part day sun, trees providing shade, etc.)
  2. The amount of water that is available. Is the area collecting water, dispersing water, or average? (This will depend on the type of soil, location of water and grading of the land.)
  3. The kind of soil (sandy, silty, clay, peaty, or some combination) Have your soil tested to see what you need to do to make your soil best support what you want to grow.
  4. The location of the area. Is the area near the “nerve center” (where people are, like the main house or building) of the land or is it at an intermediate distance or far distance from the center? Recognize that some crops require more oversight than others. You’ll want to keep those crops that require more inspection and care closer to where people are likely to be. The further away from the nerve center, the less likely it will get regular inspection and care.
Cherry Tomatoes planted as a test. Doing well.

Once you have completed your land survey, use that information along with the regional climate and begin to figure out what makes sense to grow on the land. You may find that wind is also a factor in your planning. For annuals, I recommend a number of small experimental plantings on any part of the land that your survey indicates would be a good place to plant a particular crop. We here at Gran Roca planted many of our annuals including our popular cherry tomatoes in several different areas of the land to learn which areas were best suited for each variety.

Narrow field beds with potatoes planted.

Once you learn what grows where, then it is time to get serious and figure out how to most effectively grow all of your plantings. This is where the concept of a framework becomes useful. I use the word framework to mean a design layout that provides an appropriate growing environment for a chosen set of plants. At Gran Roca we have eight frameworks that can be used with farm machinery to provide our plants with the best growing environment while minimizing labor.

  1. Garden Beds – Narrow beds that are designed for the more delicate plants that require regular inspection and care, and generally benefit from some tree cover providing light to moderate shade (beets, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, peppers)
  2. Field Beds – Narrow beds that are designed for the heartier plants that often spread out and require less observation and care, and are planted in full sun (sweet potatoes, watermelons, beans).

    Strawberries planted with plastic mulch.
  3. Berry Patch – Narrow or wide beds, depending on the plants, which are meant for a large block of a perennial plants usually using plastic mulch (strawberries, blackberries)
  4. Herb Beds – Narrow or wide beds, depending on the plants, which contain a variety of either perennial or annual herbs (rosemary, garlic chives, peppermint, basil, cilantro.
  5. Orchard with row cropping of annuals – Trees planted in rows with annual crops planted in narrow beds between the rows of trees (Citrus with beans or peas planted in between the tree rows).

    Orchard with pasture for animals.
  6. Orchard with pasture for animals – Trees planted in rows with pasture grass planted in between the rows of trees for pasturing animals (Mango and Avocado trees with pasture grass planted between the tree rows for chickens in chicken tractors that are rotationally grazed)
  7. Pasture – Large Paddocks of pasture grass and optional vegetables planted for Pigs, Cattle and other large animals that are rotationally grazed.
  8. Nursery – A plastic roofed structure with plastic and mesh sides that protect special plants from insects and water on their leaves (heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers)
Nursery for protecting plants from insects and water on leaves.

The frameworks above generally accommodate most medium and large permaculture designs. If your needs are different, feel free to create one of your own.

The final steps before the actual planting is to determine how your plants will get their water (sprinkler, drip) and how the plants will be organized within their respective frameworks which can include issues such as spacing (info available online), companion planting (a study unto itself, info also online), and a crop rotation plan (an absolute must).

Protect your plants from pests and disease.

At Gran Roca we are very conscious of using crop rotation. It is probably the most important way to protect your plants from pests and diseases. For that reason, when we plant our Garden Beds, we generally plant three or more rows containing a different plant family in each row that have the same basic needs and time to harvest. When those rows have been harvested, we simply remove the existing plants and replant the same plant families, but now in the next bed over for the new plants to avoid being subject to the pests and diseases from the previous planting.

Nothing compares with farm fresh produce. We hope this article will help anyone interested in growing their own food to plan and plant their dream garden or farm. And, thanks for asking the question.

Also read, Grow your own leafy greens in Cuenca.
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Rob Gray runs the Gran Roca Project, (www.granroca.net), a sustainable commercial permaculture farm on a landmark property in the Yunguilla Valley, southwest of Cuenca. High quality tree fruits, berries, and a large variety of both native and heirloom vegetables and herbs are produced with pastured cattle and chickens also integrated into the mix. Rob has recently started selling his fresh produce on the farm and in Cuenca. He also publishes a weekly newsletter of the goings-on at the farm; you can sign-up on his website.

  • Jim Larkin

    Great information, Rob. Also in your other article. As someone planning to move to the Cuenca area and purchase property for small-scale gardening, one thing I’m especially interested in is what crops I can grow at different elevations. I read that elevations vary from 15,000ft. to 3,000ft. within an hour’s drive of Cuenca, so understanding what grows best and where is very important. Thanks, by the way, for including the link to the article about urban gardening in Cuenca.

    • Thanks, Jim for your comment! We work mostly with meters here. Cuenca is at about 2,600 meters and the coast is mostly at 500 meters or lower. Most cool season vegetables (brassicas, lettuces, etc.) can be grown in Cuenca, but most things requiring warmer weather (sweet potatoes, melons, etc.) grow much better at a lower altitude including most tropical fruits like mangoes, avocados, etc. Our farm is located in the Yunguilla Valley and is at 1,600 meters (similar altitude to Denver) and we find we can grow most of the crops grown in Cuenca and we can grow most of the crops and trees that are usually grown at lower elevations like mangoes, avocados, bananas, etc.

  • lorenzo

    It’s always a pleasure reading your articles, Rob. We have a backyard garden here near Cuenca and also a few farm animals. One practice that we use to grow our garden is to grow flowers amongst our fruits and vegetables. Besides providing an aesthetic value, we feel that the flowers attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.

    • Thank you for your comment! Yes, we planted native flowering trees and plants around the edges of our beds and along our roads and paths as well as put in water sources to encourage beneficial insects, bees and birds to make their home on our property. It is amazing how it changed the balance of nature! It isn’t really necessary to plant the flowers amongst the crops themselves as that practice may make weeding and maintenance a bigger chore especially in a place like Ecuador where the weeds can quickly overwhelm the crops (and the farmer).

  • Jason Faulkner

    I’m loving this series.