GARDEN THERAPY: Back to “the Andes” – Once a Year Gardening – April 2015

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

If you are an avid reader of my column (as you ought to be!) then you know that for the last two years I have spent a couple of months each winter working in the gardens at Hacienda Cusin in the Andes of Ecuador.  Hacienda Cusin is situated in San Pablo del Lago and very close to Otavalo (one of the major indigenous areas and home to the largest artisanal market in Ecuador). If you get a chance you should definitely visit this magical place.

I love both of my Andes so much that I was not the least surprised to find that one was named after the other (hmmm, I wonder which came first!)  If you don’t know the story, read the “About Andes” section in the newly re-launched Andes Gazette online at:  http://andesgazette.net/about-andes/.

This year, I could not commit to an extended stay, but I still wanted to get A LOT of work done. The solution: Create the “Gardening Dream Team.” I pulled together an amazing group of professionals including: my trusted partner, Agustin (aka Gus) and four landscape designer colleagues who also graduated from the landscape design program at The New York Botanical Garden (side-note, they were all female which surely delighted the waiter Pablo!!) And  so as not to get into trouble, I also brought my lovely wife who worked like “el burro” and was a charming den-leader of the gang. The “dream” came true; we accomplished big things in two weeks and had a total blast!

Working on a garden once a year is very interesting and more than a little strange, especially when that garden has a 24/7/365 growing season. This experiment provides a cut-and-dried laboratory for finding out what works and what doesn’t.

A little background: The full-time gardening staff at the hacienda have LOTS to do…most of which has little to do with horticulture. They are responsible for cutting firewood and preparing the fireplaces for all the rooms; they rake, they edge, they do some weeding; they take down the occasional dead tree… they carry the heavy bags for guests! But that is about it– they certainly don’t water or “baby” the gardens.  Much of actual garden care is left to nature and chance. Thus, the invaluable concept of right plant/right place is heavily underscored in this environment.  We learn a lot by seeing how plants that we introduced in prior years fared.

A huge joy was to see the effect of our work over the past three years.  It reinforced that the good design and gardening practices that we bring to the table are always applicable, even in this odd “once a year” environment.

During our stay we spend a great deal of time pruning, rearranging plants to create masses of the things that are working well, and removing or minimizing things that are not. Therefore, little by little, the overall effect of the garden is constantly improving, with larger areas of successful plants and fewer sad looking specimens struggling along.  Without us there to baby new plantings, their demise happens more quickly and they simply get weeded out of the mix.  We base the structure of the garden on plants that thrive in the environment and that can tolerate both drought and lack of full sun.cala-lily-in-pots-in-water (Medium)

A defining “back bone” of the design that we use all over, in defining clumps or islands, is agapanthus or lily of the Nile, also known as African lily. Nik, the owner of Cusin, believes that all of the (hundreds) of this plant in the garden came from an original source plant that is at least 200 years old. They are amazingly resilient to division and transplanting and always look good with very little recovery time. I wish the Garden Gods would make a zone 4 version of this zone 6 plant. The other largish structural plant we use is a fern that grows about 3’- 4’ tall and does well in most places. But the blue-prize winners in this tropical environment (that never goes below 40 degrees or above 75) are the wide variety of pencas, agaves, aloes, jade plants and succulent-type plants that thrive there. Just cut off a hunk of a source plant and stick it in the ground and watch it go. The next year we are guaranteed a nice looking plant. Really!  We have been using this strategy more and more to great success. It is no surprise that the same thing works here for any zone-hardy succulents like hens & chicks and the amazing variety of sedums that like our Andes climate.

And let me not forget to mention some other winners – calla lilies and cannas (both grow really well in water or pots without drainage), several varieties of geraniums (actually Pelargoniums, treated as annuals here), foxglove (they reseed with abandon), duranta (Google it!) and Shasta daisies.

But the big learning of “once-a-year” gardening is to depend heavily on the adequate variety of tried and true, right plant/right place species to keep a healthy and beautiful garden in a low-maintenance environment. ¿Comprende?~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.