Gardening and Permaculture practices at the Ranch

by Diana Dagash

2019 Apprentice

our front gardens

our front gardens

Here at the Ranch the year long apprentices have various roles and functions that support the Ranch community. By taking on responsibilities and managing certain areas we the chance to learn and experience those areas on a deeper level . Part of the educational model created by the ranch team is a monthly rotation of these so called life skills. Each apprentice transitions their life skill to the next apprentice, passing on all of the relevant information to their colleague in order to complete the various tasks associated with each life skill.

One of the life skills is currently called the Garden Gnome. I would like to share some of my experience and reflections from doing this task every morning for a month. The garden gnome is in charge of maintaining the front gardens. This is referred to as our zone 1 garden using permaculture lingo. It is the area that is in closest in proximity to the most frequently used space- the main house. In the Zone 1 gardens we grow herbs, annual and perennial crops such as mustard greens, katuk, Haitian basket vine, hibiscus, cucumbers, squash, yard long beans,wing beans, radishes, sweet potato, moringa, basil, oregano, mint, parsley and curry leaf and other amazing tropical goodies which we use in our kitchen everyday. Having these crops growing in close proximity to where we spend most of our time allows us to easily provide the daily maintenance of this space such as watering, harvesting and weeding.

In Rancho Mastatal we approach gardening through a permaculture lens. By mimicking the patterns in nature we are able to create micro climates in which our crops thrive. We create systems that have many functions and support other systems in their functions, allowing them to thrive in harmony with nature. We apply a range of those practices at the ranch and we continue learning and experimenting with new possibilities.

Given that we live in the tropics we have two opposite seasons, about half the year its is dry and the other half rainy. Although the dry season has its own challenges I can only speak from my own experience taking care of the garden in the rainy season, for instance i believe that in the rainy season there is a lot of weeding whereas in the dry season there is a lot of watering!

As the rains increase in volume and frequency it is a time when everything begins to grow rapidly. The jungle fills up with even more green vegetation, popping out of every space available. It rains consistently every afternoon , sometimes all day and night. The soil is saturated . It is a happy time for ALL living things to thrive, including some of the more challenging species like mold, fungus and insects. Some of our crops were over taken by fungus or eaten by insects, others became over saturated with water as they were lacking sun and/or air flow. As with every challenge, i found an opportunity to research and experiment with natural recipes for pest and fungus control.

with the onset of the rains, mushrooms started popping up everywhere

with the onset of the rains, mushrooms started popping up everywhere

My days started early in the mornings with a walk through the garden, observing the plants and checking the soil moisture levels. As I walked I noticed plants that seem to be struggling and tried to identify what might be affecting them. This is then communicated with the garden manager so we could discuss further ideas and solutions. We researched potential natural insecticides and fungicides that could help solve these issues.

Here is some of what we have learned and the practices we apply here at the ranch.

We are surrounded by amazing medicinal plants growing all around us, thriving under the jungle canopy or occupying disturbed pockets. These plants contain medicinal properties that can benefit humans as well as plants.


For example turmeric contains  anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties beneficial to humans and when planted among the roots of a tree, benefits the tree with those same properties This is referred to as companion planting. By planting diverse species next to each other they are able to support, protect and ultimately benefit one another. This can be as simple as providing shade or wind protection. Not only can companion planting by a useful tool in our belt to fight against disease and pest pressure but we can also use the properties of some local herbs. Here are some examples of what we have been doing.

  1. Jackass bitter - the most bitter herb known, contains antifungal and antiparasitic properties. Spraying this tea onto diseased plants can repel insects and prevent fungal issues.

  2. Inter cropping aromatic herbs like oregano, lemon grass and basil with certain food crops can confuse and  repel insects with their scent and prevent disease with their antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

  3. Using the shade of the cucumber trellis to help shade and shelter more delicate herbs underneath them.

  4. Using peanut grass as a living mulch to crowd out weeds and provide nitrogen to the soil underneath some of our taller perennial crops such as Katuk and Cranberry hibiscus.

  5. Planting Marigolds everywhere to reduce nematode populations, there is controversy about the effectiveness of this though.

Working in the front gardens has also made me reflect on the ideas of closed loop systems. As i am partially responsible for management of the kitchen compost. I really like the idea that there is no such thing as waste. Everything can be transformed into something useful. All of our food scraps are composted creating a finished compost that can then be added back to the soil to enrich it, closing the loop. 


Another big part of the practices we apply when it comes to the food forests is observation of the environment and meeting the land's needs by mimicking patterns in nature.  Thanks to all the researches and life long practices in the agro forestry and gardening world, a network of knowledge has been created for us to share our experience and knowledge. We are continuously learning and working towards improvement of our systems.

 With each piece of land we carry the responsibility  for the history, present and future of it.  It is up to us to create a relationship with our land, to observe it's  needs and potentials.To be stewards of the land and assist it to become a healthy ecosystem in which we can humbly live and feed ourselves.

This experience, of being an apprentice at Rancho Mastatal, has opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities, inspiring ideas, regenerative solutions, discovering new ways  to live lighter on the planet and in harmony with nature .

sunlight through trees

 I am inspired by the movement towards an ecological , sustainable lifestyle and feel grateful to be a part of a project that focuses on sustainability, permanent culture and agriculture.

 I invite you to share your experience and discoveries with growing food in the lowland tropics.

What interesting practices have you learn about recently?

 Which annual crops did well for you in the tropical rainy season of Costa  Rica?  

 What kind of companion planting worked well for you?

 Would love to hear from you!


Diana D.

For more information about being an apprentice please go to the apprentice page. Here you will find in depth descriptions of what life is like in Mastatal.