“Can you believe that five years ago I didn’t know how to plant anything?” Andrew Bruce wondered aloud as we walked on a seven-acre farm in Stony Hill, Jamaica. That is hard to believe as I looked around the property teeming with fruit trees and loopy vegetable plots covered in sundried mulch.
Bruce started Plant Jamaica in 2014 after volunteering for the Paint Jamaica mural project in Parade Gardens, downtown Kingston. He volunteered at Life Yard, an urban guerilla-style farm in the inner city, and set up their food gardens. The crops from Life Yard went to supply the primary school next door. Since then, Plant Jamaica has set up vegetable gardens in several schools and community neighborhoods across Jamaica. Setting up Life Yard was a prodigious time for Bruce, he realized he could hack the system of food poverty in Jamaica while helping the larger global fight for sustainability.
“We’re living in a time where nobody knows how to plant food. They weren’t any institutions that I could call for help, much less funding.” Bruce said.
He started studying permaculture seriously. Permaculture began in Australia in the 1970s and is now a worldwide phenomenon. The practice focuses on designing sustainable living communities that teach people how to live, harvest crops and reduce waste. Human culture is weaved into nature’s patterns and not the other way around. Permaculture is deeply rooted in a particular place and takes into consideration geography, climate, ecology, culture and the needs of the nearby resident human community.
Bruce now spends his time designing sustainable systems and services that address humans thriving with nature. “I feel most grounded in nature. I am trying to create a social enterprise where it’s good for the world and for profit. I’m not trying to be a big hippie. I am trying to find balance,” he says.
When I arrived at the farm, there was a cloud cover and I was most grateful for the shelter from the harsh 1’o clock sun. Looking around I saw a row of Bombay mango trees close to the entrance, an avocado tree that had more avocados than leaves, Pomelo grapefruit trees, massive lychee trees, a towering Otaheite apple tree, and a majestic ackee tree spread out in the middle of it all with orange pods hanging closed. I noticed brown mulch at the bottom of some of the fruit trees and covering the rows of vegetable plots.
Bruce explained that he uses cut grass from the property to cover the soil to help it retain moisture and keep cool. We passed a little hump covered under a sea of brown mulch and revealed a foot-long watermelon that felt like it just came out of the refrigerator.
“It’s at least 20 degrees cooler under there,” Bruce said bending down to brush off the remaining grass from the watermelon. There are similar mulch patches throughout the farm made from newspaper and cardboard.
I watched as he darted intently from plant to plant, picking the leaves and eating them, his eyebrows shot up each time and he exclaimed “Hmmm!” at the taste.
He cautioned me to watch where I stepped as I followed him because there “are living organisms in their own ecosystems beneath our feet.” Bruce’s care and passion couldn’t be more evident.
He shows me red okra and I told him I wasn’t a fan of the vegetable. He admitted he didn’t use to be either because of the slime. “I’m gonna let you taste a fresh one,” he says whipping out his pocket knife. He returned with baby okra between his thumb and index finger. I bit in gingerly, “See? Delicious!” he determined for me. I don’t know about delicious, but there was no slime and I liked the crunch the fruit gave.
Other crops on the farm include fennel, heirloom tomatoes, yard-long beans, Chinese broccoli, kale, red and green callaloo, dwarfed Italian eggplants and a variety of lettuce. Bruce is keen on creating a habitat for the bugs that like to eat his plants. Ladybugs, black parasitic wasps, dragonflies, and bees can all go to certain weeds and flowers that he planted. These insects are attracted to scents and colors, so providing plants that they are attracted to mitigates them feeding off the crops meant for human consumption.
Bruce’s vision for Jamaica extends beyond creating edible landscapes. He has a chicken coop filled with chickens along with a pair of ducks and Guinea hens. This ain’t your mama’s chicken coop though. Lined with an electric solar power fence and moveable chicken tractor made from an old bus shelter, this coop is mobile and depending on the farm’s needs, Bruce can move the birds to any patch of land that needs fertilizing with the animals’ feces. He says having the three varieties of birds bring different enriching nutrients to the soil.
There are oil drums full of animal manure, compost heaps and a rainwater pool with tilapia and freshwater lobster cohabitating. The temperature in the compost heap can get as high as 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Running a copper pipe under that could supply hot water to a house and Bruce contends that he can have that product ready in about three weeks. He makes premium activated charcoal that crumbles into a baby powder-fine texture.
“Right now, there is drought and we shouldn’t be watering, but I am able to do so because we harvest rainwater on the property,” he said watering a nearby patch of vegetables.
Bruce has hacked traditional greenhouses, “We don’t need to heat things up here in Jamaica and we can’t hide plants that need sunlight. Greenhouses are all the rage now, but they don’t work as they are.” His greenhouse is made of a light-colored reflective material that lets in lots of light and has a cooling effect on seedlings and it’s beneath the shadow of the towering Otaheite apple tree.
He invites me back in a few weeks to see the mulch patches transformed into Gungo peas and corn. I could almost see them sprout up in his eyes as he talks about his vision.
It’s mango season in Jamaica and it’s my favorite time of the year. Sometimes the streets are lined with mangoes fallen from the trees framing them. I spotted a plump yellow Bombay mango. There wasn’t a line stick to help drag the mango down into my eager hands. Bruce and I lobbed several small pebbles and fallen green mangoes at it. We looked like two kids intent on getting their after-school snacks.
“I am failing at this!” he laughed at his last attempt. And just like that, as if the ancestors heard us, another mango fell right at my feet in the soft grass.
“The Earth always provides,” he smiled.