It’s a sustainable way of life that was followed in Cayman by his father and grandfather before him.
And it’s a method of growing that is in touch with nature and the natural surroundings, involving a deep appreciation for the earth and what it can produce and an inventive spirit that uses ordinary, everyday items for solutions.
Joel’s Plantation Gardens in Pedro, Lower Valley, pays homage to nature’s bounty; two acres of land dedicated to fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts and other plants, all grown organically.
Cayman’s poor soil quality has been a key reason for a lack of growth in farming over the years, Joel says.
“It’s sandy, salty, alkaline, shallow and full of rocks whereas plants generally need slightly acidic conditions that are rich in organic matter to thrive,” he explains.
Getting the right balance within the soil is a key component in successful plant growth.
Using organic matter to enrich the soil, whether it’s animal matter or vegetable waste that has been composted, means using material that would traditionally be dumped at Cayman’s over-burdened landfill.
“Post World War II we have got away from the concept of healthy soil in a bid to mass produce food,” Joel says. “A healthy soil leads to healthy plants, which means less reason to treat plants because they are more resistant to disease. Simply treating the symptoms with sprays and chemicals isn’t the answer.”
Joel explains that as well as healthy soil, plant diversity and crop rotation are also vital for healthy plants.
“If you rotate your crops annually you break the cycle for predators looking for food,” he says.
Plant diversity is also important.
“Insects frequently go by scent, so plants that are heavily scented – such as rosemary planted next to a cabbage – will ward off predators,” says Joel.
Joel says his yard at Plantation Gardens contains a “hodge podge” of containers in which a wide variety of plants are grown.
He suggests making friends with your local hardware shop manager as they usually have a good selection of pallets and containers in which large items such as refrigerators and other appliances are shipped. Plastic pallets are particularly useful as they do not rot. Some come with natural drainage; others require holes to be pierced in the base for this purpose.
“We get big plastic pallets with nine holes about eight inches deep,” he advises. “We fill each hole with soil and grow bok choy in them.”
Live fish for pet stores are also frequently transported in containers suitable for growing plants, which Joel uses for vegetables such as carrots and leeks.
The water companies discard lengths of used piping which can be split lengthways, either with holes drilled for drainage or set at a slight angle. They are then filled with soil and gravel for planting vegetables – lettuce can easily be grown in this way.
Walton also obtains 275 gallon containers in which ingredients for cement are shipped, another excellent container for vegetables.
Easy to grow
So long as you are aware of Cayman’s two main seasons – hot, wet summers and cool, dry winters – and you know what to grow in each season, then there is an assortment of wonderful fruit and vegetables that can easily be grown.
“Whereas farmers in the more temperate climates begin their growth season in spring, ours begins in autumn,” says Joel.
Tomatoes, peppers (sweet, hot and season), eggplants, leeks, radishes, carrots and beets should all be planted in September/October, to be ready for the cooler growing season in December and January.
They will grow successfully until around April/May when the weather starts to heat up and becomes wetter. At this point, once mango season arrives a month or two later, it’s the turn of fruits, such as watermelon, june plum, sweetsop and soursop, key limes, and so on, that will be bearing fruit, along with vegetables such as cucumbers and corn.
Most herbs are happy to grow all year round; however, delicate plants such as cilantro and dill only have a very short life, from around December to February.
“The increase in temperature tricks the plant into thinking it’s going to die so it flowers then goes to seed, and that’s the end of the plant,” Joel says.
Joel cannot state enough how important it is to enrich Cayman’s naturally weak soil with organic matter which will make a marked difference to plant growth.
Ensuring he sticks to his organic gardening methods, he uses compost that has been made from green (vegetable) waste as well as wood chips that he makes himself from dead plants and trees.
Animal dung is a great source of nutrients for plants as long as it’s properly composted and decomposed sufficiently so that it doesn’t contain harmful bacteria. Joel uses bat and chicken dung as well as dung from rabbits he has at Plantation Gardens.
Predators such as whitefly and caterpillars are a natural part of life, Joel points out, particularly for plants such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers (all part of the nightshade family).
“You can use neem oil to spray for whitefly which is quite effective, as is fish oil and even sesame seed oil,” suggests Joel.
“But you have to remember to spray under the leaves where the whitefly live and spray every couple of days as one whitefly can produce up to a million and a half eggs in just a couple of days, so you need to ensure the entire cycle of reproduction is halted with spraying.”
Joel also recommends introducing Bacillus thuringiensis (sold under the brand name Dipel), a biological insecticide that is certified organic to rid plants of caterpillars.
But, at the end of the day you sometimes just have to accept that predators are part of nature.
“I lost all my plants in the first three years of running Plantation Gardens,” Joel confides.
“It’s a matter of getting the balance right, which takes time but the results are so worthwhile if you persevere.”