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February 23rd, 2012

Edible Paradise

—by Alex Norelli

alex-A-view-of-Paradise

A view of Paradise

It’s hard to believe that just over ten years ago Paradise was an abandoned avocado grove overgrown with vines. But today, Paradise—the land that has become Paradise Farms that is—is a thriving 5 acres laid out according to sacred geometry, where a profusion of greens, edible flowers and oyster mushrooms are the fruit of the labor.

“Organic is about being open to nature,” says Gabrielle Marewski, who founded the farm in 1999. And what better way to show openness to nature than eating it, right? Well at Paradise Farms, everything is edible, everything. The flowers growing throughout can easily be plucked and eaten raw for a savory experience. Haven’t you always wondered what color tastes like? We have a bit narrow idea of yellow being lemony, blue tasting like blueberries, orange tasting like, well, oranges. But these associations have more to do with companies passing off the myriad of artificial products that have infiltrated out lives as though they were real. Orange soda for example, has no actual juice in it, but a conglomeration of artifices to make us think we are drinking carbonated orange juice.

Nasturtiums blanket many areas of the farm

Nasturtiums blanket many areas of the farm

But at Paradise Farms, things tend to taste different than they look, not by any deception, but merely because you may not be familiar with the broadness of edibleness and fresh flavor. But when you try something like nasturtiums, those exotic looking annuals with flying saucer leaves and flowers like tangerine trumpets, a zesty peppery balanced floral treat is what you get. And when you try borage, don’t let its name confuse you into thinking you are in for something bland. These little blue starflowers taste as fresh as chilled cucumbers.

Bees like Borage too!

Bees like Borage too!

And an amazing thing I learned was that trying the flowers of things you know you don’t like, for instance cilantro (by far is the most polarizing herb around) ultimately pays off. You either love it or hate, but it’s impossible to be indifferent to its taste, which detractors liken to soap. I don’t know what it’s like to like this herb, but when Gabrielle asked if I liked it, I had in mind she was going to offer me its flower. So I said, Sure, knowing that if there was any redeeming quality to this plant for me, it may just be the flower. She then plucked a few of the tiny white petals from a very upright and verdurous cilantro. The miniscule blooms on hair-like stems were as delicate as an alpine flower’s. Biting into it and chewing, I braced for a pungency that never arrived, instead it was only casually there, by all means palatable, and then there was a surprise. Surging from the arch of a flavor’s life, a lemony citrus taste spread across my tongue, stupefying me and winning me over simultaneously.

Gabrielle’s main focuses are quality and presentation. And you get a sense of that simply by seeing how the edible flowers are packaged to be sent to area chefs. ]

Gabrielle’s main focuses are quality and presentation. And you get a sense of that simply by seeing how the edible flowers are packaged to be sent to area chefs.

Towards the end of the tour I asked Gabrielle if five acres ever seems not enough, (of something so living, peaceful, and nurturing…wouldn’t more be better?)…and she batted her eyes and said never. “It’s a question of you running your business or your business running you. It’s not about bigger,” she said. “But better with what we have,” insisting there is a certain point where merely expanding the workable area of the farm means more work at the expense of quality.

I certainly and sincerely could side with her sentiment on a personal level. My first few years of gardening/micro-farming where fast-paced and filled with new plants, buying plants, buying seeds, planting, potting, propagating, expanding. But during this time I built up a garden that I myself struggled to maintain, a collection of plants, all dear to me, that each required a certain amount of attention…and then there are the weeds! At a certain point it was no longer a hobby, but a job I never seemed to have enough time to complete. Her comment underscored a lesson I hoped to bring to my own garden this year, that of doing more with what you have, focusing on quality.

While the farm itself is open by appointment only, there is a series of dinners hosted at the farm throughout the year showcasing the vegetarian lifestyle that Gabrielle lives and believes in passionately. The five course dinners, held in the open-air cabana, are prepared by some of Miami’s top chefs, and each dinner is themed. There are also a series of holiday brunches, the next being St. Partrick’s Day.

You can find out more at Paradisefarms.net


ARtist, poet, Gardener www.AlexNorelliARt.com

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February 17th, 2012

My Paraguayan Garden … So Far

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80by Mario Machado
Summer gardens here in Paraguay face a unique set of challenges. For one, the heat in this country is oppressive and, at times, completely unbearable. People have trouble enough staying hydrated and cool; plants are another business all together. While there are summer garden crops that work well even in this climate, they usually require attentive watering and a half-shade structure (called mediasombra in Spanish) if they are to survive, let alone produce fruit. Far out in the countryside, where life is hard and the days are already packed with work, it is common for farming families to allow their gardens to revert to patches of weeds over the summer.

Mario mounded the soil in his garden into five rectangular raised beds. In the center bed is a Leucaena, a leguminous tree he transplanted to the garden.

Mario mounded the soil in his garden into five rectangular raised beds. In the center bed is a Leucaena, a leguminous tree he transplanted to the garden.

Unfortunately, such practices do not help in promoting household productivity, nutrition, or diversification—my mission as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons are reversed from those in the United States, summer runs from December through February. During those months, family diets are limited to foods they can purchase and not what they can produce. Additionally, allowing a garden to lie fallow for several months requires no labor input, but makes for several strenuous days of work before the garden can be planted again in the fall. Promoting summer gardens, or at least the productive use of garden space in the summer months, can do wonders for helping families in many aspects of their lives. And so, with these things in mind, I have started working on my own garden in the dead-hot days of midsummer in hopes of providing community members here in Guido Almada a few ideas or alternatives.

The beginnings of a compost pile.

The beginnings of a compost pile.

I have begun by starting a compost pile, an easy practice here in the countryside where food scraps, dry organic material, and cow droppings are all too common (sometimes regrettably so—especially in the middle of a soccer field). In the several weeks to months that this little pile of goodness is getting ready for use with my fall vegetables, I have decided to take the garden space and begin a little soil recuperation. Soils here in Paraguay range from very rich and hearty, to very sandy and dry; where I happen to live, it is a little of both. Considering as well that the space I am using has already been used as a garden, I thought that a nice infusion of organic material and nitrogen into the soil were in order.

Along his garden fence, Mario dug a trench to assist with water infiltration.

Along his garden fence, Mario dug a trench to assist with water infiltration.

The raised-bed structures in my garden (called tablones in Spanish) help in retaining water and providing space for root growth. I have double-dug each of the five raised beds, a technique that breaks up dirt a foot or more deep in the soil. In this practice, organic material can be mixed in to buff up the topsoil. I have also dug a trench around the perimeter of the garden to encourage water to soak into the ground instead of running off. The idea behind such a trench is based on the principles of permaculture and the aims of creating a more sustainable and complete gardening system.

Seedlings of kumanda yvyra’i will eventually grow into a living fence several meters tall. As a nitrogen-fixing legume, the plants will nourish the soil while providing a harvest of edible beans.

Seedlings of kumanda yvyra’i will eventually grow into a living fence several meters tall. As a nitrogen-fixing legume, the plants will nourish the soil while providing a harvest of edible beans.

Surrounding the garden, I have planted a living fence of kumanda yvyra’i (literally translating from Guaraní as “little bean tree”), a leguminous tree that will reach a few meters high. These will grow fast, add nitrogen to the soil, provide light shade to future plants, and produce beans that can be consumed by humans and animals alike. Also, I have planted on each tablón a cover crop of Canavalia, another nitrogen-fixing plant in the legume family. Unfortunately, I seem to have received bad seed as none has germinated, but one can never be sure that it’s not simply the heat and sun that are preventing proper growth. For now, things are going as smoothly as one might expect in a developing country. As always, I am keeping my fingers crossed for some rain.

—Mario Machado


Mario Machado is a Peace Corps volunteer serving as an agricultural educator in the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native and 2011 Penn State graduate spent the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Rodale Institute and the Organic Gardening test garden.

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February 13th, 2012

Reflections on a Garden Tour

by Alex Norelli—

Organic Gardening test gardener & fellow OG blogger Andres Mejides shows me his south Florida organic oasis.

When I first stepped foot on the property I noticed the calmness of the air. The wind sweeping across the Redlands that day was diverted above the tops of the trees and on the ground there were warm shadowy pools of placid air. Andres had told me there were five acres of property, but from the density of foliage along the driveway it could have been the edge of the jungle for all I knew. He started off by showing me a specimen of the Chanel No. 5 tree, with its long wild star-bursting petals, where the perfume gets its scent.

alex-Chanel-No5-flower

Chanel No. 5 flower

Andres then took me through the groves, and showed me some one-year old mamey, about the size of golf balls—still a year off from hearty ripeness. When they’re full-grown they look like hefty sweet-potatoes and taste somewhere between pumpkin and papaya.

He then began telling me about the soil in general, and I asked him if the ground here was the same as much of south Florida, an inch of topsoil on a hundred feet of limestone coral, where trees are planted in pitchfork-dug limestone pits. He said it was but that in the last ten years he’s practiced no-input farming, i.e. he hasn’t added compost in that time. He told me too that conventional farmers in the Redlands have to add iron to the soil. “But do you know why they call it the Redlands?” He asked me. “Its because of the iron!” However, because of conventional farming practices, the microorganisms that make the iron usable by plants are no longer there.

Continuing the tour Andres showed me a trove of tropical trees, everything from lychee, longan, white sapote, black sapote, the monolithic and studded jackfruit, mangos, avocados, and plenty of starfruit…including one nearly 75 years old with a vaulting canopy brimming with fruit.

Beneath the arching canopy you couldn’t tell 30 mile an hour gusts were swirling overhead.

Beneath the arching canopy you couldn’t tell 30 mile an hour gusts were swirling overhead.

I told him I’d never seen a starfruit so lush with fruit…but then he told the variety is not that tasty, but it came with the property and he keeps it for the beauty of the tree. It was the appreciation of plants not merely for their production that made this place endearing on so many levels. It was a farm that doubled as a museum, a museum that double as a farm.

Interspersed between the groves were a few raised beds where Andres grew everything from carrots, ginger, turmeric and herbs. Along the way he’d pull a leaf from this and that, crush it in his fingers and tell me to smell it. The most memorable was Jamaican mint, which had a scent more rich and aromatic than any I’d ever smelled. There was also a burgundy leafed hibiscus that had leaves you could eat for a jolt of tasty vitamin C. I can’t remember the names of them all, but I do remember seeing a hearty perennial Rosemary, a bush taller than I was. He said he uses the stems as skewers for shish kebabs so the flavor leaches from the stems and into the meat. It sounded delicious and he gave me a few to take home and try.

Rows of carrots and herbs, and in the upper right corner, a pile of downed tree limbs acting as snake habitat.

Rows of carrots and herbs, and in the upper right corner, a pile of downed tree limbs acting as snake habitat.

A little bit further on he showed me a large jackfruit. I’ve never tasted one of these ginormous hedgehog looking fruit, but I hear they taste like Juicy Fruit gum. He said they can grow to 80lbs., which was about as hard for me to imagine as a white whale.

Andres giving perspective to the jackfruit.

Andres giving perspective to the jackfruit.

Along the way I noticed there were no shortage of orb-weaving spider webs. I walked into a few myself, however instead of my usual feeling of disgust I knew they were a part of a larger plan. Who knows how many pests they sunder, pests that a conventional farmer would “need” to kill using pesticides. Andres told me, that like mantises they eat beneficials and pests alike: “It isn’t up to us to decide for them. They have their own prerogatives, I just edge them into cooperation.”

Well, on his farm these spiders were obviously getting their fill and doing a job, because the farm was jumping with them. I noticed too that there were piles of rotten wood that looked purposefully place along the edges of the property and in the orchards beneath trees.

“Snake habitat,” Andres told me, “We have plenty of coral snakes around here.”

This to me seemed against common sense—why would you encourage the presence of a snake to which the last anti-venom stopped being produced in 2010?

“They’re very hot” Andres told me, giggling a bit at the double-entendre “That’s snake handler’s-talk for ‘venomous’. Really though, they’re the most charming creatures.” And I knew he was serious because I too had heard that of all the poisonous snakes coral snakes were the least confrontational. “They eat rats and snails,” Andres told me, both which harbor some nasty parasites, not to mention feed on greens.

Something about this plant seemed to symbolize Andres’ farm…a central idea with many crisp and insightful tangents branching off, with spaces given for things to happen, allowing plants and organisms to fulfill themselves within his grand scheme.

Something about this plant seemed to symbolize Andres’ farm…a central idea with many crisp and insightful tangents branching off, with spaces given for things to happen, allowing plants and organisms to fulfill themselves within his grand scheme.

Winding up the tour he showed me various fish bowls filled with a trifecta of lotus, fish, and algae. Bringing in many forms of life into a farm make it more than just a farm, I thought. This was not a farm in the strictest sense, nor was it just a garden. It was a unique place where production and peace harmonized in the sun-dappled shadows of the trees. And thanks to Andres, and this stunning example, I will have to re-dream what my ideal farm/garden will be.

You can check out Andres’ Year-Round Almanac for growing in Florida here, on the OG website.


ARtist, poet, Gardener www.AlexNorelliARt.com

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February 10th, 2012

Killing the Cow

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80by Mario Machado
I awoke at the earliest of dawn, the hours of the morning that are still indistinguishable from the night except for the flickering of sunlight over a very distant horizon. I left my house and mounted my bike, clipping along the dirt road with my stiff, unwashed hair folding and flipping in the surprisingly cool morning air. As I reached the home of Don Ramón, the town butcher or carnicero, he appeared at the front his wooden hovel. [Editor’s note: “Don” is a title of respect used with a man’s first name; the equivalent for women is “Doña.”] His feet bare on the dirt floor, he smiled and remarked how happy he was that I decided to come.

This Paraguayan milk cow is about the same age (2 to 3 years) and breed as the one killed.

This Paraguayan milk cow is about the same age (2 to 3 years) and breed as the one killed.

The act of butchering a cow is a process not to be taken lightly or quickly. We began the morning by sipping maté and observing our quarry tied to a tree off in the shadows. He told me about this particular cow and why he decided to purchase it for slaughter. It was a smaller milk cow, about 3 years old, that had not shown any signs of producing milk or young. It had had a nice life wandering the Paraguayan campo, grazing on the thick and abundant vegetation. Now, that which had been fed will feed, and the Don placed his empty cup of maté on the table and disappeared into the house.

Two other men arrived to help us with the process. We approached our prey, Don Ramón standing in the background silently sharpening his knife. One man lassoed a leg, while the other grabbed for the tail. He jerked the tail and spun around the cow’s side, catching the animal off balance and pulling it to the ground. With the cow now on its side, the other man continued to tie up all four legs to the effect that the animal was quickly unable to move. We held the ropes to steady the struggling cow as Don Ramón moved in quickly with a bucket in hand to catch the blood. He was going to cut its throat.

Using a small machete and infinite poise, he leveled the blade to the cow’s neck, located the jugular vein, and plunged through the skin. The cow gave an initial cry of pain and surprise and began to breathe heavily, blowing dust from the front of its nose. It was a lost cause, however, as the blood from the wound flowed freely with a color that I cannot forget in its brilliance of red.

The animal gave one, maybe two other strong efforts of escape before surrendering to the inevitability. Its breathing became more steady as the loss of blood, I am sure, inhibited any more mental function. Its head moved around a bit on the dirt ground, almost as if finding a more comfortable spot upon which to lie. The animal, which moments before was living and breathing, was dead within 3 minutes. The Don made one final cut to the spinal column to rid the animal of any more pain and to ensure its death. The butchering could then begin.

The rest of this process took only an hour or so. As the neighbors began to arrive, the meat was sold as it was cut from the bone. The entire animal was almost gone by 9 a.m. Each and every part of the animal was used (except for the contents of its stomach). The meat was most expensive and sold in small quantities. The intestines and blood were saved for making blood sausage, while the stomach (being the cheapest part of the animal) was used to make mondongo. The head was bought by a family in order to make akágue yvygu’û, a popular Paraguayan dish prepared by wrapping the head in foil and cooking it on coals under a thin layer of dirt. On this day, the entire community, the dogs included (which rarely get a decent meal), got a much-needed dose of protein.

—Mario Machado


Mario Machado is a Peace Corps volunteer serving as an agricultural educator in the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native and 2011 Penn State graduate spent the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Rodale Institute and the Organic Gardening test garden.

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