An Interview with Alix De Fermor, the Dzamling Gar garden engineer
Dzamling Gar Thursday March 12, 2015
The Mirror: When I arrived at Dzamling Gar this year, I was amazed to see what an incredibly vibrant and colourful garden has suddenly sprung up from what was a very desolate place last year.
Alix De Fermor: Everything grows very quickly here because the soil is volcanic and very good for plants. We have also found a way to keep the humidity in the soil [the south of Tenerife is an extremely hot and dry climate ed.] by covering it in straw and then putting a layer of volcanic pebbles on top. It is also a way to use water very sparingly. Only the new plants need a little more water because they have been spoiled in the garden centre. This system works well because we don’t use too much water and the plants are really growing well.
The Mirror: Are there any particular plants that you have chosen for the Dzamling Gar gardens?
Alix: Of course we have chosen plants that are suitable for a dry climate because it is very dry here. You look in wild places to see what kind of plants there are. Here in Tenerife, for example, there are a lot of big daisies growing so we have planted many varieties of the daisy family. We’ve also planted a lot of aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, coriander, parsley, ruta, basil, the curry plant (from the helichrysum family) and artemisia used for moxa, etc. In fact they grow so well here that they become like little trees!
The Mirror: Many of the gardens here are ornamental but are combined with different trees. What variety of trees are growing here?
Alix: In one of the gardens we have a couple of trees that were planted years before we acquired Dzamling Gar and were the only plants to survive here after being abandoned for eight years. This species is very resistant and is called Bauhinia and can be found abundantly in tropical South America. It has a beautiful flower and a wonderful perfume.
Then we have papaya, pomegranate and guava in the same garden. I have mixed the fruit trees with ornamental plants because I like beauty. Then we have a dragon tree, which is endemic and the emblem of Tenerife. It shades the statue of the Buddha just outside the tent and takes the place of the traditional bodhi tree.
Another of the techniques we use here is to introduce plants that cover the soil in order to keep in the humidity for the taller plants and the trees. I have found a plant called osteospermum or African daisy and it is not only beautiful but flowers without interruption all year round. It also becomes very big and covers a lot of soil. As well as keeping the moisture in the soil, these plants also create a lot of organic material. There is also another plant that we use for covering the soil with bright pink and orange flowers from the mesembryanthemum family – although it is a bit invasive and we have to keep cutting it back – then aptenia with its brilliant green leaves and little fuchsia flowers as well as the lotus plant, endemic to Tenerife which can cover over 25 square meters in a year!
The Mirror: I can see that in most of the gardens there is a system of water tubes in place for watering the plants.
Alix: Last year when we started working on the gardens, we bought small plants and in order for them to survive the dry climate, we created a watering system in most of the gardens. We are using a ‘drop’ system in which we buy watering tubes perforated with holes every 20 or 30 cm and so the water arrives in drops to the plants. This way we use very little water. Watering with a hosepipe wastes a lot of time and a lot of water. We use this drop system at night once a week for different areas.
The Mirror: Behind the Gonpa tent, there is quite a steep hill going up that you have worked on recently. What is going on there?
Alix: The front part along the path is mostly ornamental with flowers and a few fruit trees because it is the entrance to the Gar. The slope was originally very steep. We cut it horizontally at different levels, creating narrow paths following the contour lines on different levels to prevent erosion when there is one of these occasional heavy rainfalls. On these different levels I have planted a lot of date trees that we grew from seeds last year. There are also figs, tamarinds, moringa oleifera, lemons, almonds, peach for the fruit part and Bauhinia, jacaranda, butea monosperma (a highly medicinal tree but also gorgeous with its big red orange flowers, flamboyant, Melia azderach, acacias for the ornamental part and I am now adding specimens from the ficus family for making strong and extensive shade. We also have a drop system here around the plants.
Then there are earth covering plants such as lotus, an endemic species from Tenerife with its silvery green foliage and orange blossoms like little flames which covers over 25 square meters in a year and aptenia. They get the water from the irrigation system for the trees and will progressively cover the ground and, I hope, keep in the moisture.
This is quite a tough area for plants because there is a lot of sun and wind here but at some point this area will all be green – the aluminum fence will not be visible any more, we will have plenty of fruit to eat and the beauty of the ornamental part will satisfy your soul!
The Mirror: I hope we will be around long enough to enjoy it!
Alix: Well, you would be surprised. Rinpoche has been eating a papaya from the garden every few days since he arrived here at the end of December. The guava trees have given a lot of fruit, the first big bunch of bananas will be ready in a couple of weeks.
The Mirror: I understand that there is also a vegetable garden here at the Gar.
Alix: I’ve made a vegetable garden along a wall in a place that is not too much in view since vegetables are not as beautiful as flowers to see. I found this spot at the centre of the gar behind the Gakyil house. It is exposed to the southwest and is quite protected from the wind.
There are enormous tomatoes growing up the back wall alternating with passion fruit or maracuja that I grew from seed from Costa Rica. This is a climber and when the tomatoes are finished, the maracuja should gradually cover the wall.
We know which kinds of vegetables Rinpoche likes so I brought quite a few seeds with me from Italy.
This area is a mixture of vegetables and fruit trees, including apple, papaya, plums, apricots, pomegranates, mango, star fruit, pitanga, guanabana, cherimoya, guava and guavafresa. Then vegetables such as rapini, green beets, zucchini, rocket, peppers, radishes, salad, beets, chicory, onions, eggplant, daikon, broccoli, carrots, celery, spinach, cress and a variety of herbs etc.
Here in Tenerife, when it rains, it really pours, so what is interesting in this vegetable garden, is that we have banked the earth in a way that the water can snake down in a single channel to irrigate the entire garden. And it really works. We also have the ‘drop’ system here and straw to keep in the humidity.
The Mirror: There is also a beautiful piece of garden around Rinpoche’s house.
Alix: Yes, I am quite proud of this garden because there are a lot of blooming plants in a combination of colors very nice to the eye but also a lot of fruit trees (some very small grown from seeds given by Rinpoche such as lucuma and lychee) some bigger such as mandarin, orange, and lemon, papaya, fig, banana, cherimoya, guava, pomegranate, mango, avocado, and physalis.
Then there is the ‘Mandarava garden’ because I did most of it during the Mandarava retreat. This is the garden just before Rinpoche’s house created by Will that I transformed making it much more ornamental with amongst other flowers lots of roses but also adding to the previously existent pomegranate, papaya, banana, Japanese nispero and big cherimoya, four mandarin trees. I also made it more accessible for fruit picking by creating paths.
I’ve put some ornamental plants, mostly bougainvillea, along one of the walls approaching the house because it takes a lot of heat and is not very nice to look at.
The garden at the back of Rinpoche’s house gets shade in the afternoon so it isn’t bad for fruit. Other places get too much sun and I’m curious to see what they do. We’ve had a lot of guava from the trees here. There are also some vegetables here and plenty of herbs. You can find the famous lotus covering plant here, with a small orange flower like a little flame, which spreads very quickly and looks like a carpet.
The steep hill going down from Rinpoche’s house towards the swimming pool was a challenge for us because the heavy rainfall of last year became a river and eroded the hill. The slope practically disappeared and there was just a deep gully (barranco) made by the rainwater. To combat this possibility of erosion in the future I’ve created swales – that is there are slightly raised beds and then a bit of a hollow in front of them so that the water tends to remain there rather than running down the hill and is absorbed. The swales are perpendicular to the slope and when the upper one is full the water will run to the second one to be absorbed and so on. This is according to the principle of permaculture.
The Mirror: You aren’t here all the year round. What happens to the gardens when you aren’t here?
Alix: Last summer we had some people to help. I mostly trained them how to water because I wasn’t so worried about the plants growing but about dying. However, when I wasn’t here some of the gardens got too much water and we started to have this problem with white fly which is very common in Tenerife. The white fly make eggs and progressively eat the plants. Many of the leaves on the fruit trees were covered with them. Fortunately we were able to find a recipe for a natural product made with tobacco, chili, garlic, Marseille soap and vegetable oil and prepared it and sprayed the whole Gar with it. It worked like magic and we were able to get rid of the white fly.
You see we are not using any chemicals or fertilizers in the gardens here. When I put in new plants I use a little peat. The soil here has a lot of minerals because it is volcanic but it lacks organic matter because it is desert. When the plants grow, they make their own organic material.
The Mirror: You have a very big nursery of plants here on one of the terraces.
Alix: Everything here is planted from seeds. We have mango, guava, cherimoya, dates, avocado, then some ornamental trees grown from seeds of the trees that were already here. We have a bodhi tree but I’m not sure where to put it since it is from the ficus family and I don’t want to upset the system here.
Then there are plants growing from seeds that I brought from Costa Rica. There is a species of palm that you don’t find here, then some fruit trees called Jocotes and Jobo and Rambutan, which is a type of lychee.
The Mirror: The gardens here seem like an enormous project and would need 4 or 5 people to care for them. How do you manage?
Alix: Well, I have Alicia who works three hours a day, five days a week and then a few karma yogis who help when they can but I would like to have another person doing the same hours as me who I could train. I think that somehow we have to repay all these teachings that Rinpoche is giving us, and so we should create a paradise quickly at Dzamling Gar. The garden has become a very nice place and people want to live nearby.
I think that gardens are powerful, not only because there are a lot of fruit trees but also because of the power of the flowers whose colors, smells, alternance of shade and light make people enjoy and relax.
I work a lot but it is not only me but also the power of the volcano. The soil here is very powerful – I can feel it and I take a lot of energy from the garden. I’m working a lot but I feel very well.
The Mirror: Thank you Alix.