By Susan Salas
Community farms and gardens have been a part of the human experience for as long as we’ve planted agriculture. But, as cities emerged and civilizations emigrated, community gardens began to fill a different need. More recently, the value of community gardens is multifaceted and unique, from providing fresh food for neighbors to sustaining the environment.
Here in Santiago, Chile, community gardens have a central focus of restoring native plants, herbs, and bushes. To begin with, Chile’s geography is notably different from other coastal countries. Chile is a long, narrow country with a width of just 110 miles across. But Chile’s length makes up for its limited wingspan: Chile is 2,653 miles long. It would take longer to drive north-to-south within Chile than from New York to California (which, by comparison, is a paltry 2,441 miles). And, due to its latitudinal sprawl, Chile’s terrain varies with such great diversity that it actually has several radically different climates – all within the same, small country.
CHILE’S UNIQUE TERRAIN
Because of Chile’s unique latitudinal expanse, the country is divided into three different zones, one for each of its different climates (although technically Chile has four climates if you include the ice deserts of Antarctica). And, because Chile is situated to the west of the Andes mountains, its towns and cities are nestled at the base of mountainsides or within arid valleys. But the entire terrain of Chile from east to west all heads towards the Pacific Ocean, where, with its soothing ocean breezes, the temperatures are regulated and consistent all year round. However, Chile’s terrain is mostly very rocky and dry due to being located entirely along the Andes mountainside.
In the north of Chile, it is a desert. In fact, the north of Chile is home to the driest desert in the world, San Pedro de Atacama, which receives the grand total of 1.57” of rainfall per year. Yet, there you will also experience the flowering desert (desierto florido) which blooms once per year for about a month around August during Chile’s winter. During the flowering desert, there is a proliferation of the distinct native wildlife of insects, birds, and animals that live there. The north of Chile is home to the cactus of San Pedro, palm trees, aloe vera and other succulents, and herbs such as bay leaf, lavender and rosemary.
The central region of Chile produces its world-famous wines and fruit. Although it is Chile’s most productive zone for food commodities, it is not Chile’s most verdant area. In fact, the central zone is still semi-arid and dry, with a wide disparity between temperatures in the winter and summer. There are forests and fresh lakes with waterfalls in Chile’s central zone, but not nearly as many as in the south of Chile.
In the southern zone, the primary commerces are fishing and summer tourism. The south is a beautiful region with myriad lakes and islands, some which are even difficult to access, which makes for unspoiled terrain and peaceful getaways. The southern region is known for its rampant native forests with Chile’s widest diversity of animals, birds, insects, plants, bushes, and trees. You can find almost any type of plant life there, including herbs, fungi, and leafy greens like nalca, which can serve as a salad green, the basis for a sweet summer drink similar to lemonade, or made into a marmalade. In the south of Chile, this biodiversity is home to many dairy, meat, and wool farms, with sheep, cows, and alpacas.
URBAN GARDENS FOR SUSTAINABILITY IN SANTIAGO
In the central region, where Santiago sits, agriculture is a commodity that is focused on providing food for the rest of the country as well as exporting food to other parts of the world. Here, the community gardens have one very focused goal: sustainable agriculture with native plants. So, the community gardens are not exactly “garden variety.” Instead, they strive for a return to native varieties of produce and herbs. Thus, these gardens provide more than just food to the community; they also provide very specific benefits to the local environment. These benefits, listed below, are both varied and vital.
1. Native plants help preserve the soil and prevent soil erosion.
As mentioned earlier, Santiago basically sits on a bed of dry earth over rocks, with some areas protected as national reserves of native forests and wildlife. So, the community gardens in Santiago also tend to host only native bushes, plants, and herbs. This helps aerate and stabilize the soil and maintain its pH balance, while producing edible forms of agriculture. Zapallo (a Chilean form of pumpkin or calabasa), maqui (a kind of berry that is very high in antioxitents), boldo (a traditional herb that soothes the liver to heal stomach and gastric issues), and aloe vera are often included in community urban gardens where everyone can partake of them.
TIP: Local gardeners understand and utilize the best local methods to plant these gardens so that they will all grow well together. In the U.S., many community gardens have separate beds for squash, keeping them away from other plants. The Chilean zapallo is a native variety of squash whose vines travel along the ground. The local gardeners plant zapallo with other plants in the same bed, but give the zapallo the ground area to crawl along in the direction that follows the sun while the other plants in the bed travel in other directions. The picture below shows a medicinal herb bed with calendula beginning its sprawl along the ground while a grape ivy plant that grows atop a string structured along the perimeter of the same bed. This dual-level method allows many plants to thrive within a small space with no plants losing what they need to grow.
In Santiago, community gardens do not segregate plants into separate crop areas. Instead, they utilize all the space available with a wide variety of plants with complementary growing patterns so none of the plants infringe on the others’ need for space, sun, or water.
2. Community gardens educate the community.
Community gardens in Santiago host workshops and open houses to educate the young and old alike about Chile’s unique native landscape and the best methods to preserve it with traditional gardening practices. And the best part is that we all share the knowledge we’ve accumulated over time, so everyone learns something new, and everyone has a place to share their unique vision and experience. Community garden “Huerta El Maqui” is in a plaza (town square) in an old section of Santiago where there is a deep respect for community and preservation.
3. Native plants preserve water.
In Chile, the preservation of water is a very vital objective throughout the entire country, and this is also true among farmers and gardeners. When major corporations destroyed the native forests in Chile’s central and southern zones in the 1970s, they “reforested” with foreign plants of pine and eucalyptus. The problem with this “reforestation” is that foreign pine and eucalyptus trees are invasive in Chile and they take in about seven times the groundwater as native trees. Furthermore, these species were chosen because they reach full height in about two years, meaning that re-planting with pine and eucalyptus was optimal for fast re-growth and fast profits. Thus, the constant replanting of these foreign trees has depleted the land of its mineral content, its pH balance, and its water mantle, as well as destroyed Chile’s natural habitats for its wildlife, flora and fauna.
Thus, the community gardens utilize native trees and shrubs like maqui, canelo and boldo to provide shady areas for other plants and herbs to grow. Under a maqui tree, you will find herbs like llantén, mint, and aloe vera that grow well in shady spots here in sunny Santiago.
4. Native vegetation provides biodiversity.
Local plants, vegetables, trees and herbs attract native bugs and birds to preserve the biodiversity of the region. In Chile, maqui and canelo provide berries, seeds, and flowers for native birds and bees. Of course, maqui berries provide the highest polyphenol content of all fruit and berries, which has been used in traditional healing in Chile for its calming effects on the gastro-intestinal system and anti-inflammatory effects.
Maqui’s leaves also make a herbal tea. So, planting a maqui tree provides benefits to many creatures and in many different ways.
Chile is also lucky to have its own version of mulberry trees that I was thrilled to find in Huerta El Maqui. The mulberries in Chile are sweeter when eaten in the early summer when they are white, rather than when they are fully ripened to their deep purple color.
5. Medicinal herbs preserve traditional knowledge.
Most community urban gardens in Santiago include medicinal herbs commonly used in traditional healing. Besides the maqui mentioned above, boldo is a very popular medicinal herb to grow. Boldo helps activate stomach acids, detoxify the liver, and aid digestion.
Other medicinal herbs often found in Santiago’s urban gardens are llantén, malva, laurel (bay leaf), peppermint, melissa, nasturtium, calendula, stinging nettle, and sagebrush. In fact, stinging nettle grows wild throughout Chile and is found stinging literally everyone, everywhere, from mid- to late-spring! Even along city sidewalks, a nettle sting is a common sensation that occurs with regularity, just for stepping too close to it. As a U.S. born and bred gringa, I have loved discovering stinging nettle in all its painful pervasiveness! Stinging nettle tea keeps the bladder and kidneys functioning well and helps with arthritis pain and inflammation.
Nasturtium is also a prevalent medicinal herb found in urban gardens in Santiago because its leaves can be macerated and applied directly to bruises and cuts to assist in healing, while its flowers stave off coughs and colds. Its high content of vitamin C and immunity boosting properties make nasturtium leaves and flowers useful as a salad herb as well as a tea.
Calendula is also a bright addition to Santiago’s urban garden beds because it is a pest repellant. Not only does it help keep a bed and garden free of bugs, but when it is macerated into a paste it acts as an antibiotic.
6. Seed-saving and sharing practices, and how we save seeds.
In Chile, natural seeds are an integral part of every independent farm and garden. During the dry season (summer), vegetables are left to flower so gardeners can collect, save, and share the seeds. The two pictures below show dried celery flowers (left) and the celery seeds being extracted from the flowers (right).
As for methods of spreading seeds, Huerta El Maqui creates “seed bombs” with the local children. Made of 3 parts clay, 5 parts dirt or compost, and 2 parts water, the picture below shows freshly made seed bombs that, once completely dried, can be thrown at any parcel of earth that needs some vegetation and beauty. The ideal time to throw the seeds bombs is at the very end of the dry season (summer) or beginning of the rainy season (fall) when the bombs will naturally be watered and take root. This spreads both beauty and food to any part of the city, so everyone can partake of it. And it feels a bit gangster to make and throw these seed bombs of flowers and food at any thirsty parcel that needs a bit of love, vegetation, and beauty. #gangstagardeners
Saving heritage seeds from Chile’s natural vegetation is one way to ensure that particular strains of plants, vegetables, herbs, and fruit are kept vital and useful in Chile’s agricultural future.
7. Late summer planting to prepare for the next year.
While the U.S. often sees late harvests of gourds, apples, and onions, Santiago’s late-year harvest consists of legumes and garlic. Legumes comprise a very large part of the Chilean diet with several traditional dishes, including beans with corn (porotos granados con mazamorra), beans with noodles (porotos con riendas), and lentils (lentejas). The planting of avas, a winter pea, for the autumn harvest also helps prepare the soil for the next year’s planting season by infusing the soil with nitrogen.
While the objectives of community urban gardening are always focused on providing community and environmental support, the ways and means differ from region-to-region and country-to-country. I have been fortunate to find a great community garden with Huerta El Maqui, and to live in Chile where agriculture and traditional practices are still as vibrant as ever, even in 2020!
Please check out other articles written by Susan Salas on her journey into sustainability practices in Chile, as a contributing writer for www.unsustainablemagazine.com!