Just as farmers are beginning to collect their harvests in the northern hemisphere, I am just starting my garden in our backyard in Cuba.
A few months back, the summer heat and frequent rainstorms decimated what I’d tried to grow last spring. Since then, the unforgiving Caribbean sun has made it almost impossible to start anything — seedlings would just wilt in the heat. (Our produce in the summer is limited to mostly avocados and mangoes; thankfully we like both!) Still even in October, a garden could be in peril. A hurricane could strike, as one recently just hit eastern Cuba, several hundred miles away from us. But I’m taking my chances, because I am craving kale and arugula like crazy.
I’ve taken my first real stab at gardening since moving to Cuba. Previously, I have lived in apartments and townhouses with almost zero green space in crowded cities. I had no idea what I was missing. I never thought I could adjust to the suburbs, but here I am, in a big house with a backyard. There is something less dismal about the Cuban suburbs (at least mine), as compared to the ones I’ve experienced in the U.S. For one thing, neighbors tend to be out and about, on the sidewalks in front of their homes, chatting with each other on a regular basis. And the new entrepreneurship wave that’s hit Cuba means that many of my neighbors have opened businesses in their garages and living rooms. Next door to my house is a popular pastry shop; just a block away, my barber has created a beauty salon out of her front yard; a new British pub selling pints of Guinness along with ropa vieja operates just down the street.
Our backyard is an oasis from all this activity, even if it’s just about a sixth of an acre. It’s a jungle filled with trees and plants that provide plenty of shade. Two palm trees tower over one side of our yard. My kids are often outside with squirt guns or in our kiddie pool. Often, the neighborhood cats (pets shared amongst families in our community) that our kids have named “China” and “Donkey” stroll through, hoping to score some leftovers of my cooking. A frangipani tree shades our driveway and drops beautiful white and pink flowers on the windshield of my car.
The backyard doesn’t just provide beauty — it also provides us with automatic nourishment. From May to August, mangoes drop from two enormous trees that tower above our two-story house. Avocados also appear around the same time, giving us endless bowls of guacamole. (The only problem is the lack of tortilla chips.) Throughout the year, every couple of months, our backyard bequeaths us with an enormous bunch of bananas, maybe 30 or 40 that ripen at the same time, making batches of banana bread a necessary task. The coconuts present the biggest challenge — they can be deadly, should one fall and hit someone underneath, so friends occasionally shimmy up the trunk to smack them down. We grate the flesh from the coconuts and bake it to add to my granola (recipe to come). Also a certain kind of green grows on vines over one fence of our house. The Cubans call is “espinaca” but it’s not the spinach with which I am familiar. An American friend who hails from the south happened to visit one afternoon and told me that it was malobar spinach. It is thick and a little slimy but delicious when sautéed quickly over high heat for a couple of minutes and makes a good bed of greens to go with my Cuban roast chicken and some mashed potatoes.
Now that the weather is cooler, I am restarting my garden, to supplement the bounty our backyard is already giving us. I’m being ambitious this season. In addition to kale and arugula, we are also planting cauliflower, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloup, basil, and mint. One recent Sunday afternoon, while my husband was kiteboarding and I was home with the kids, we started the seeds in plastic yogurt cups. (As I’ve written in previous posts, I dislike store-bought yogurt, but I buy it occasionally because my kids love it, plus, I can repurpose the containers.) My kids helped for a little while, but soon got bored of shoveling the dirt, and turned their attention to the Little Mermaid in Spanish, which was playing on my computer. No matter; how can I expect them to get into gardening so young, when it took me almost 40 years? Maybe in a few months’ time, when the plants began to bear little red cherry tomatoes and juicy melons, they’ll change their minds. But there’s a lot to do before then; I’m scrambling to find good soil, new containers, and possibly a professional gardener who can help with all that’s hopefully about to come up.