Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Coffee Pruning, Part 2

I'm not certain if this is just a feature of the tropics or is due to some other factor, but what I've noticed with our citrus trees, particularly with our lime, is that there is no distinct period of bloom with an equally distinct fruiting period, leading to harvest. At least with our lime, flowering and fruiting, while not quite continuous, are over a very broad period of time, which means we get an almost year-round production of limes.

The same seems to be true, in a more limited sense, with coffee plants. The previous post had pictures of what seemed to me, at first glance, like plants in full bloom. Not so. The plants are already fruiting. And have been for some period of time. Fruit of different size exist on the same branch, and will mature at different times.

The coffee bean develops inside the fruit. At maturity, the fruit turns an almost cherry red, and harvesting begins.

Harvesting is done by hand. Because of the difference in maturity dates, thanks to the long period of fruiting, there are basically two harvesting strategies--strip the plants of all the fruits, regardless of maturity or harvest over the two to three month period of time required for all the fruit to mature. Ruiz, like the other better producers, chooses the latter strategy.

I have to say that I'm pleased with this close up image (and I rarely if ever am satisfied with my camera work) if only because I caught (by sheer accident) a single flower among the fruit cluster. Every flower produces a fruit. The plants won't hold all the fruit, which is one reason for pruning--to strengthen the plant in order to reduce fruit drop.

I love the delicacy of the coffee flower.

I asked when the fruit would be ready to harvest, and was told that the largest would be ready in September, the smallest in December. At that point, processing of the beans takes place.

But for now, since pruning is just about over, the next step is clearing away the grasses and other underbrush in preparation for fertilizing the plants.

Which I hope to record soon.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pruning Coffee, Part 1

There I was, heart in mouth, bouncing along in 4 wheel drive up a "road"--read rutted dirt track-- barely wide enough to accommodate the truck, with ditches or dropoffs on either side. Ahead of me, Maria Ruiz, 4th generation of Ruiz women who have been the driving force behind farming this land, in her massive SUV. Beside me, Domitillo, a Cafe Ruiz foreman, calmly chatting away about the farm, which is one in the Cafe Ruiz holdings. I had this feeling that, simply because I was an American who actually spoke Spanish, he had (totally unjustified) confidence in my driving ability under circumstances that would have given a goat pause. I am nothing if not a superb actress.

We finally got to the coffee area itself. I parked the truck, and Domitillo and I followed Maria into the row upon row of blooming coffee plants. What a spectacular sight! As I walked among the plants, I was struck with a jasmine-like (but more delicate) fragrance from the coffee flowers. It was hard to believe that this was a commercial operation whose end result was something as mundane as coffee.

Yet I already knew that the coffee that I reach for almost blindly in the morning is anything but a mundane agricultural product. Few are. Producing coffee is a year-long, complex process. If you visit Boquete, there are several tours of coffee farms and producers that you can take. I can't speak for the others, but I've gone on the Cafe Ruiz tour, and I guarantee you, it is fascinating. They not only raise the coffee, but like some of the other producers, they process the beans and put out the final product--the roasted bean, whether whole or ground, that you use to give yourself that inimitable morning boost.

From the time that we took the tour, I have been fascinated by the whole process; at heart, I'm a farmer. I finally asked Maria Ruiz if I could document the whole cycle, from beginning to end; it would mean a year-long effort that would involve video as well. She graciously gave me permission, which is why, on Friday morning at 7 am, I was walking among the rows of coffee plants, cameras dangling from my neck.

At this point in the yearly cycle, they are finishing up the pruning of the plants. They prune for all the usual reasons, but in addition, pruning helps to eliminate nonproductive or weak growth, which will strengthen the plant to deal with the rainy season. The difference is striking, as the pruned plant to the right shows.

Many of the farm workers are members of the indigenous tribe, the Ngobe Bugle, whose Comarca (semi-autonomous reservation) lies in Chiriquí. Many live in the towns and pueblos; a number hire themselves out as unskilled labor for a season then return to the Comaraca. Pruning is skilled labor, and this young man probably lives in Boquete or nearby.

Pruning is extremely labor intensive. When sold as a commodity, coffee, like other agricultural products, does not earn much. I think the latest figure I saw was that the most expensive Panamanian beans sold for $1.80/lb. That's right--just calculate the difference between that and the coffee you buy, and you figure out who's making the money. Cafe Ruiz sells both bulk coffee and the finished product. As with all such goods, the further along you are to the finished product, the more value that is added on and the more you can charge for the coffee.

Still, like other producers, the majority of Cafe Ruiz's sales is not in finished product. Maria told me that many countries have abandoned selective pruning because it's too expensive. No matter how cheap labor is, given the sheer quantity of plants, it's going to add considerably to your costs. Domitillo informed us that they started pruning at the end of January and were just finishing up that week. Cafe Ruiz continues to do it, because that is the way to maintain high-quality coffee; when you stop, the quality of the coffee goes down after a few years. Having grown fruit trees, I understand the necessity; the principle is the same.

More in another post.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

If You Got It, Flaunt It!

One of my very favorite flowering trees is the poinciana or flamboyant (Eng.) tree--we know it here as flamboyán, in Spanish. I even have a scientific name for it! Delonix regia (Bojer) Rafinesque, thanks to a nifty little book called Tropical Blossoms of the Caribbean by Dorothy and Bob Hargreaves. The flowers appear so soon after the leaves start that at first it seems as if the tree is blooming without foliage. It certainly deserves its common name in both English and Spanish because it's a spectacular tree, really showy. The flowers are more delicate-appearing than those of the African tulip tree, whose blossoms are much bigger and have more red in them, at least to my eye.

The first tree is on the Interamericana in David. The second one is maybe a half kilometer before you enter David on Via Boquete; it stands alongside of the Casa de Artesanias (which is not a bad place to buy painted and decorated tiles). I dearly love this tree--it has such character! Oh yes, free of charge, you also see our white Nissan Frontera truck.

Spectacular, yes, but the tree is has other interesting features. For one thing, the foliage is fern-like. Click on the upper left image, look towards the bottom of the tree and you'll see the frond-like character. I've also included an image of our flamboyán below; it's too young to bloom yet--needs a few years--but the character of the foliage is pretty clear.

In addition, the tree is a member of the legume family. I was astonished when we first moved here and I saw pods hanging from various trees--I'd never seen anything like that before in the temperate zone where we lived. Turns out that such trees are common. We do see several different types here. I hope to get images of them as they come into the pod stage.

One result, other than the visual, is that just like other legumes, the tree enriches the soil around it!

And to sum up, I've included a picture of yet another spectacular flowering tree. I asked that question of a dear friend, a long-time resident: "What's that purple flowering tree called, Jack?" He looked at me seriously and said, "Around here, everyone calls it the purple flowering tree."

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Resurrection Plant

I have no idea what the scientific name of this plant is, but locally it's called "the resurrection plant". Why? Well, we were told, because the flower emerges before the leaves. No doubt there is some religious symbolism here that I've missed, but I have to confess that the answer left me just as mystified as before the question!

The leaves die back in December, at the start of the dry season, and the flowers begin to appear at the start of the rainy season. The leaves follow the flower shortly after blooming. The plant is found everywhere--along roadsides, in abandoned or neglected gardens, everywhere. It naturalizes easily and becomes a huge clump.

Since I originally published this article, Mary has gone slightly crazy taking pictures of the emerging resurrection plants on our property--over 100 of them! tells you who has the more time around here. She's published what she considers the best of them here in a beautiful set. You'll even get scientific names--hows that for an incentive to go over there?

One thing I do know is that it's part of the ginger family. Like below. Which is an example of one of the 80 (I believe) species of ginger, many of which look wildly different from the others. There's still another flowering species (which used to be considered a ginger but now have a family of their own) called costas, which have gently spiraling stems. We have 3 in back of the house, but the plants are too young to flower yet. Maybe next year. None of these gingers are the eating variety, which is only one species.

I really like this brand of flowering ginger. While this one is a red ginger, there's a pink one as well that's far more delicate-looking.

Once established (and the gingers seem to need a year or two after planting to think things over), they're very drought resistant and flower all year round. They make a wonderful border plant for our driveway. They're also very easy to propagate, which is nice for me, since I need a couple dozen more to complete the border to the house.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

La Lluvia

The rains have arrived--not necessarily early but steadily. We've had rain in the afternoon almost every day since the first of April.

Great for the plants! And I'm in full swing as far as setting out new ones are concerned. To date, I've managed to get into the ground 2 nice-sized bougainvillea, 3 papaya trees and one mamon chino.

It also looks like the preliminary work on stopping the roof leaks has been successful. We really had a downpour--an aguacero--a few days ago, and the usual places were either dry or had just a few drops. Now to get the other half of the roof.

Anyone who was here during last year's rainy season I'm sure remembers the problems from the unusually heavy rains we had then. There were floods in parts of Panama that hadn't seen any in a hundred years. October, our wettest month here, was particularly bad last year. The photo on the upper left was taken on October 15, while it was still raining, from just outside our side door. There's a bit of a gully not that far away from the house; there's a culvert over the driveway. The picture shows the veritable little river of water pouring dow through the culvert to spread out and saturate the land on the other side of the driveway--it became a swamp last year. While we always have some outflow, this was particularly impressive.

The 2nd picture was taken on the other side of the house, from just inside the covered area of the dog run, and shows the torrent that was pouring down the other gully we have. Last year was so bad that for the first time we had erosion in that area. I've already taken steps to prevent more; the scoured ditch has been filled with small stones and we've dumped dirt on top. That system works very well.

To my amazement, we had a flash flood in the quebrada that borders the pine woods that we used to walk through with the dogs. Actually, there were probably 2 or 3. They took out the bridge, just washing away the fill and hard pack and exposing the concrete tubos that serve as a culvert. That quebrada is NOT a year-round creek. We don't normally see water in it until September. But on at least two back-to-back days, 15+ feet of water came roaring down that little gully, taking away almost everything except the hundred-lb rocks and the concrete tubos. It did at least leave behind a perfectly useless retaining wall.

We had to wait until January of this year for that bridge to be rebuilt--which it was, in the same exact manner that washed out before. But that's Panamá. They just gamble that the rain won't be as bad this year as it was last year. And who knows--maybe it won't.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bloomin' Trees!

Sitting on the porch this morning, with my third cup of coffee, dreamily looking out at the showy spectacle of the bougainvillea blazing away in bloom (they have no shame), I finally really noticed one of our nance trees, which has been in bloom for a while (as usual, click on the photo to get a larger image). In fact, it's past peak bloom and has started to fruit.

Nance is an edible tropical fruit when it comes from cultivated trees. We have about a half dozen mature "wild" trees. When the fruit ripens, flocks of visiting parrots descend on the trees and stay, eating and chattering away, until the fruit is gone.

The flowers are really pretty, I think. I love the combination of colors, of the yellow and orange. You can just see some tiny fruit that's just formed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stone Fences

One of the most attractive parts of this area, one reason why I fell in love with it, is the existence of beautiful stone fences, constructed from the rocks that lie everywhere here. Some of the most stunning examples are those of Ranch El Encanto, a big cattle operation between Dolega and Potrerillos Abajo. The picture above is of the corner of the property, and shows what is probably a 2 meter high fence.

But Rancho El Encanto also has a corral built of stone that is really a thing of beauty. Every time we drive past them, I admire the workmanship.

Building a tight, "dry" stone fence of such evenness with the material to hand is no mean feat. I know--I've tried it. My fences are ok--they work--but no one is ever going to rave about how beautiful they are!

It is absolutely astonishing how much rock and stone is in the ground. The Rancho El Encanto fences go for quite some distance on both sides of the carretra and you can see where they head off at the boundary line of another property. And STILL there are rocks left over! There are several heaps like this, huge ones, in the different pastures.

For a utilitarian cattle fence, a straight line is the most efficient. But there are other possibilities. This fence is about 3 ft high, and forms the front boundary of the house of a friend, Gladys Haynes; it's about a half mile from where we live. The fence undulates along in graceful waves. Her garden inside is stunning. This picture shows the detail used to finish the fence and also to chink the holes within the fence.

After seeing the Rancho El Encanto fences, we thought that having a stone fence of our own, at least around part of the property, would be really "nice"--decorative, you know. Plus we had to do something with the huge amount of rocks that were littering the area we wanted to eventually turn into an orchard. The north boundary with the ganadera seemed perfect for such a fence, since there was a small, dilapidated section already in place. We decided to extend it to and down along the quebrada. I hired a backhoe to move some of the really massive rocks over to the quebrada where most did form the foundation of the stone fence. Then 2 young men worked for about 10 days digging up the rest of the rocks and building the fence. It's probably in all about 100 feet long and was a relatively standard(for a residential fence) 3 ft high.

Well, decorative was a great idea, and it really does look nice--Joel and Gabriel did a great job. But then we ran into the problem of containing our enthusiastic chocolate Lab, Fred; a 3 ft high fence was just a challenge to jump over the fence, cross the quebrada, and go visit his friends, the Clamps who always have a dog biscuit for him. We heightened that section to about 5 ft. Still didn't work; Fred added a running start to leap onto a foundation rock that provided a few inches of ledge in order to vault over the fence .

We wound up making a small section of double fence--which, at least to this moment, has kept him from using this route. Of course, he did find other ways to go visit his friends, the bulls in the ganadera, and to snag a dog biscuit from his buddies! But we're working on it, we're working on it.