The Organic Gardener

In the past few years, Cayman’s
culinary industry has been swept by an organic revolution. 

This
push towards fresh, locally-grown produce is changing the way consumers think
about food.  

Joel
Walton is the man behind this movement.  

The
avid gardener, who hails from Cayman Brac, was instrumental in helping Cayman
to grasp this new way of thinking through his Bodden Town-based nursery,
Plantation House Organic Gardens. 

But for
Joel, this focus on sustainable and organic practices, also known as the slow
food movement, is not a new concept. It has always been at the forefront of his
gardening ventures. 

“As a young child, I was a vegetarian, so everything I ate,
I grew [in the garden],” Joel says, as he meanders among the myriad crops on
his sprawling property. “I grew up in Cayman Brac, and Brackers are simple
people. They’re very close to the land and close to the sea.” 

Tending
to the land is in Joel’s blood. He comes from a long line of farmers, including
his father, who used traditional farming methods and adhered to the concept of
lunar planting, in which crops are planted based on the position of the moon.  

“My father was a very traditional farmer,” Joel explains.
“He planted crops based on the phases of the moon. He lost most of his crops to
drought, to cattle and to agouti rabbits. Because he lost so much to drought, I
have 50 faucets on my property for irrigation.” 

Joel
does not believe in lunar planting. Instead, he plants his crops according to
the seasons and follows the principles of organic gardening. At Plantation
House, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are eschewed in favour of
natural alternatives. The two-acre property features hundreds of fruits,
vegetables, nuts, herbs and seeds, from traditional Caribbean crops, such as
coffee, pineapples, pumpkins, and sugarcane, to more exotic species, including
dragon fruit, peaches, galangal and bok choy.  

However, Joel’s belief in organic gardening is much more
than simply shunning chemicals and synthetics. It is a way of life. The
philosophy focuses on the importance of creating a garden that is in harmony
with nature. This includes ensuring the health of the soil, using natural pest
and disease control, choosing plants that are appropriate for the climate and
season, and maintaining the overall balance of the ecosystem. Joel admits
organic gardening is not always easy, especially with the poor quality of Cayman’s
soil, but the superior taste and quality is worth the time and hard work.  

“In the
1950s, ’60s and ’70s, commercial growing exploded and that is never going to
change,” Joel says. “That fad is always going to be around because of the
population pressures on the Earth. 

“Nature
is a cycle,” he continues, “Instead of spraying with pesticides, I use natural
methods of pest control. I use herbs to confuse the pests.” He points to a
raised bed, which features a crop of Thai eggplant surrounded by an abundance
of basil plants. “For example, I’ve planted basil with the eggplant. The smell
of basil is so overwhelming that the insects are confused and can’t detect the
eggplant. The insects eventually die off. If you spray chemicals, it has an
effect on the overall life cycle [of the ecosystem].” 

Joel
regularly rotates his crops, which prevents insects from adapting to a certain
species, stops the spread of diseases and ensures the soil is healthy and
nutrient-rich.  

“I use
raised beds [at Plantation House] so I can change and treat the soil when
needed,” Joel explains. “We change the beds every three months. It helps with
specific pests that are attracted to specific crops.” 

Above
all, Joel says it is essential to maintain the ecosystem’s natural balance. He
is quick to point out that organic gardening involves accepting the numerous
obstacles Mother Nature throws his way.  

“We can
have worms eating the pak choi, but you simply lose the crops and start again,”
says Joel. “You have to accept that sometimes you are going to lose crops. It
is all about balance.” 

When it
comes to Cayman’s notoriously poor soil, Joel has proved the hurdles are not
insurmountable. It is simply a matter of understanding the conditions of the
soil and the nature of the seasons. 

“Cayman
has a lot of problems with its soil,” explains Joel. “It is sandy, alkaline,
rocky and there is no organic material. You can make a lot of excuses, but
there are problems with soil in every part of the world. 

“In
Cayman, we have two distinct seasons. One is very hot, humid and wet, the other
is cooler and dry. Traditionally, farmers only followed one cycle, but there
are really two cycles. Because of our latitude, at 20 degrees north [of the
equator], we’re not tropical and we’re not subtropical, so you can grow a mix
of these plants. 

“Once
you understand the conditions of Cayman, you know how to grow.” 

Joel
has joined forces with a number of restaurants on island to encourage the use
of organic, local produce. He believes the slow food movement is on the rise in
Cayman and will have a positive impact on the environment and the way consumers
eat. But it takes dedication. 

“I hope it will help all of us think more about where our food comes from
and how it is grown, and allow more of us to enjoy a meal as an experience
rather than treat it as a mere obligation,” Joel says. “But like everything,
organic gardening requires passion and commitment.”   

  

Organic Gardener

Stephen Clarke