Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

You guessed it Toto! We are not in “Kansas” anymore. Somehow during the onslaught of the megastorms in New York I mangaged to get blown all the way from Andes, NY to Andes in northern Ecuador (where it never goes below 40 or above 75, degrees that is). Actually, I love the winter! Nature speaks up and says, ‘”Do something else for a while, take a break.” This year that “something else” means working as a gardener at a hacienda in San Pablo del Lago.

So off I am in an amazing garden in an amazing place, beating my head against the wall everyday while trying to learn Spanish.

You might wonder, “How did he get this gig?” Let me quickly set the stage. Peggy and I were planning a South American vacation during the holidays of 2011. Being a total garden junkie, I wanted to go someplace with a similar climate to our zone 4 neighborhood in the Catskills to observe the plant life.

We looked at Argentina and Chile as both were about equidistant from the equator as home. However, we quickly realized how far it is, how expensive it is and how much travel time is required. Thus a very sensible Peggy suggested Ecuador. You can get there in about 10 hours (with a layover), it is in the same time zone and it is still a great bargain.

Peg’s cousin had traveled in Ecuador several times and told us to check out Hacienda Cusin in San Pablo del Lago. Thus our adventure began.

Veranda View

View from the veranda outside our room

We were blown away by Hacienda Cusin and frankly didn’t want to leave! It is a magical place. Enchanted by the gardens, I barraged the owner, a Brit from NYC, with questions. He too is a garden geek and loved talking with someone knowledgeable and interested. Before we knew it, he invited us to come back to “design” and work in the gardens in exchange for room and board.

We jumped at the chance, and last year Peggy and I stayed there for two months, worked in the gardens, explored the area and had a blast. It was true garden therapy, both for us and for the garden. And now, a year later, here I am again, in this little paradise.

Gardening is VERY different in this “Andes”. Some of the reasons are cultural and some are environmental. Because it never freezes here, the life cycles of the plants are very subtle or seemingly non-existent. Plants just seem to be in perpetual summer and bloom all the time or whenever they feel like it. For instance, impatiens, our little annual shade plants, can get to be 7 or 8 feet tall here. They bloom year round and can get woody stems worthy of the fireplace. We spend a lot of time pruning them to keep them from taking over and to make them full and bushy. Unpruned they quickly become tall celery-like sticks with a few scrawny leaves and flowers on the top. When managed properly they are quite a wonderful landscape plant and can be used in the way we use rhododendrons. The ones in this picture look pretty good despite blocking the view from the veranda. I guess we have work to do!



There are many perennials that we grow in our “Andes” that thrive here as well and they just keep on blooming. I was amazed to find Lucifer (Crocosmia) and Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber) putting on a show. Many of our biennials grow here and behave like true annuals: they grow, bloom, go to seed and then die making many babies from the seeds. These include foxglove (Digitalis), rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and lupine (Lupinus). There are also amazing African lilies (Agapanthus africanus) and bear’s breeches (Acanthus) that deserve a mention. Too bad we can’t grow them because they are so beautiful. There are also huge agapanthus all over the property rumored to be a couple of hundred years old.

Gardening is not an esteemed profession here. Culturally it is considered a very lowly job. So you can imagine that the Ecuadorians were taken aback when seeing two gringos getting down and dirty in the gardens last year. We were quite the spectacle (and I think dismissed as eccentric crazies) until they saw the results of our labor. The gardeners all attended a class that I taught last year on basic garden maintenance methods and the results have been great. It was very rewarding and we formed many nice relationships.

Now I am counting days till Peggy arrives. I miss her and it turns out that everyone here misses her as well! They ask about her all the time and are excited for her to arrive.

But they are certainly enjoying Augustin. Augustin is a compatriot at Zone4 Landscapes and a Mexican immigrant. They love to chat with him but they seem to laugh whenever I open my mouth. Hmmmmm. Anyway, Agustin is doing a great job of navigating the situation and enjoying every minute. Indeed, it is very helpful to have a Spanish-speaking person to take the mystery out of my fumbled attempts at communication!

If you are interested in hearing more about our adventures from last year we blogged fairly extensively and the blog is still accessible at Stay tuned for more of my adventure in next month’s Gazette. We will talk more about the gardening and maybe the therapy!

Hasta luego. ~