A "milpa" grows in Santa Clara

The gardening profession in San Miguel suffers from the scourge of low expectations. Most trades bring to mind a set of skills along with the anticipation of a certain finished product. Masons and bricklayers are supposed to know how to mix cement and stack bricks in an orderly manner, so the finished wall is solid and plumb. Carpenters are presumed to know joinery and measurements so the chairs they create don’t wobble, limp or fall apart.

Of gardeners, however, most homeowners don’t expect much. They are thought of instead in terms of “hole diggers,” “weeders,” “waterers,” or some other function scarcely a millimeter above that of a peon, rather than someone with any kind of special expertise, let alone burning interest, in plant life. Only a select few people can practice carpentry. Practically anyone can claim to be, or be designated, a “gardener” in San Miguel.

The low expectations (and minimal pay) have bred a legion of generally low-wattage gardeners with a tendency to water plants into a stupor or prune a bush or a tree, machete in hand, as if it were an intruder rather than a valued part of the garden.

When we first moved to San Miguel we rented a house that included the services of a gardener twice weekly. His name was José, a sluggardly sort who watered plants right on schedule even if it had rained the night before. Later we discovered that José’s true passion was pyrotechnics: We spotted him walking proudly in a religious procession, cradling a large bundle of firecrackers on his left arm, and with his right hand pulling out and setting them off one by one using a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

A garden club of American expats recently launched a series of workshops to teach gardeners about pest controls, organic gardening, pruning and other basic skills. The workshops have been a hit among homeowners, who pay the modest tuition fee, and also among the gardeners. The series could have been titled “Gardening Beyond Watering.”

When we moved to the seven and a half acres of Rancho Santa Clara six months ago I brought a stack of books about desert gardening and a myriad mental doodlings of where plants and trees were supposed to go, along with the vegetable gardens and drip irrigation systems. The fantasies rapidly shriveled under the hot sun, and the need for a gardener became more urgent: Not just any gardener, but one who’d be young, strong and able to wrestle with the rocky, hostile terrain.

Two weeks after our move, we found a young guy waiting by the gate who very forwardly asked me, “Hey, Alfredo , I want to work for you,” using the informal “tú” Spanish construction. I recognized him as one of a half-dozen laborers who had worked on the construction and been laid off at the end. Good timing on his part. I said, “Come over next Monday and we’ll try you out three days a week.”

Other than being hardworking, Félix, 24, met none of the requirements I had in mind. He’s about five-foot-seven and no more than 120 pounds–hardly a Mexican Schwarzenegger. He has a dark cinnamon complexion that many pale-faced gringo women would kill for, along with jet-black hair and mellow eyes. He’s not much for idle chatter though he has an uncanny memory for anything I say, sometimes even after I forgot I said it. As of late, Félix has been showing up at work with his dog “Chupito” who faithfully follows him around the ranch.

Since we hired him six months ago, his interest in gardening has blossomed from the lackadaisical to the nearly obsessive, and turned him into a gusher of ideas and suggestions for projects, from rooting cuttings, planting seeds, and even grafting different types trees, the latter something which I know nothing about. But evidently he got that idea, and several others, from “Making More Plants,” a coffee table book by Kenneth Druse that I lent him. Félix can’t read English, but the lavish, four-color illustrations apparently were enough to sprout all sorts of ideas in his mind. My formerly neat front garden now is filled with dozens of cut-off plastic milk and soda bottles filled with a variety of cuttings.

And questions, questions, questions.

His intellectual curiosity and voracious reading–I keep giving him books and printouts of Internet articles both in English and Spanish–are all the more surprising because he has only a sixth-grade education, and reading and writing take some visible effort on his part. Lately Félix has been matching the pictures and the words on the Burpee Seeds packets, and casually pointing to different spots on the raised beds and mumbling: “radish,” “carrot” or “cucumber.”

A couple of months ago I gave Félix an Internet article about the Native American practice of planting squash, beans and corn together. Known as the Three Sisters, the beans are supposed to climb up the corn stalks and the squash cover the soil as a living mulch. Beans, which are known as “nitrogen fixers,” enrich the soil, while the leafy, spiny squash is supposed to deter weeds and small animals from attacking its two sisters.

Some of the indigenous people in Mexico developed an eerily similar cultivation system known as “milpa,” an Indian word that can also refer to a small food garden or corn patch. In the traditional milpa, Mexicans add lima beans to the mix. How did essentially the same cultivation system develop among indigenous people thousands of miles away?

So after our disastrous attempt to grow sweet corn ended a week ago–ears turned up with few kernels or covered with a cancerous-looking fungus–Félix and I had a strategy meeting. I suggested that we had planted our corn too closely, which had prevented proper pollination and possibly encouraged the growth of the fungus. I gave him an Internet printout in Spanish explaining pollination.

In his mind Félix put together the pollination problem with the articles I had given him weeks ago about the Three Sisters and the milpas and came up with a solution: A four-meter-square milpa at one corner of the land where the corn would have enough space, and we could put squash, cucumbers and beans in the mix. He assures me we still have enough time and that the ongoing rains are a good omen. A backhoe already dug the patch on Friday. This week we’ll start to break up the clods of black soil, so perhaps we can plant the seeds by the end of the week.

The odd thing is that I can’t answer half this guy’s questions so I keep running back to my computer and gardening books. In fact, it’s turning into a two-way learning session, because not only does he force me to get answers but he is also teaching me the names of the local fauna and flora and passing on gardening hints from his family (plus all sorts of gossip about the towns nearby).

Stew is looking for a textbook to teach Félix English but meanwhile some language hurdles remain. When I asked Félix to make labels for some seeds he was planting, he laboriously copied the descriptions on the seed packets, but in some cases not the actual names of the plants.

So some labels now say “A wonderful container plant” or “Ideal for sunny spots” but we don’t know what’s coming up.

One of them looks like thyme.

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