Chop Shop

We were getting ready to close up shop for the day when Cynthia called me to where she was standing next to the new garden in the back yard. “Close your eyes and listen,” she instructed. I played along and heard some kind of munching. Kind of sounded like someone eating potato chips. Upon opening my eyes, I saw one of our new plants being rapidly decimated by leaf cutter ants. They can strip a plant in a matter of minutes.

I guess the human counterpart is an efficient-but-illegal chop shop that cuts apart stolen cars and sells the parts. I had to rush to get the camera before they finished and moved on to their next conquest! I wonder if ants specialize just as we humans do. I’m sure they do; trailblazers and mappers (Lewis & Clark, National Geographic), cutters (chop shop, florists, loggers), transporters (UPS, truckers), in-nest leaf-piece organizers (Martha Stewart), messengers (bicycle messengers), resource protection (Blackwater). Who did I miss?

Here’s a short video. It’s not as smooth as I would have liked, but as I was taking the video I also had to swat the ants off of me. I almost lost a leg! Armando is working in the background making the little stone wall around the garden. Turn up your speakers so you can hear the munching. Soon after, Armando and I followed the trail of ants through two jungleized, overgrown neighboring house lots and found their Mother Ship at the side of the muddy road that goes around the back of our block. I’d seen an ant hill there a year or two ago and was amazed at how large it had grown. Real urban sprawl.

With the significant amount of wilderness that surrounds us, there is no way that we can eradicate this tropical menace. Greater minds have tried I am sure. The ant colonies are like the Whac-A-Mole arcade game. If we go nuclear on one hill, it is only a matter of days before another colony will pop up somewhere else.

But still, the ant megalopolis that we found was operating a big business in our residential neighborhood. The damage done by this one colony was enormous; ant paths radiated out from the mound to many other yards in the area.

I talked with Tomas, one of our neighbors. He was feeling the effect of the ants big time, as his family grows exotic plants for sale. The ants had cleaned the leaves off of many of his young hibiscus plants. But he has seven children in school and there just isn’t a penny to put toward ant suppression. And many of our other weekend-only neighbors aren’t around much given that we are in the height of the rainy season. It was up to me.

I am aware of the Integrated Pest Management concept of not just using toxic poisons to control pests, but to adjust the environment so that the pests don’t have as much reason to be there. So as much as possible, we will choose plants that the ants don’t like, and cultivate the garden with this in mind. But the ants like just about everything it seems (they wiped out most of the exotics in our new garden, plus the yucca that Armando planted on the other side of our road and our newly transplanted hibiscus).

Cynthia and I are using an Integrated Pest Management security plan at our rental house. We have a good fence, lights at night, security bars, video cameras, steroidal locks, Jabo, and a few other security measures. Thieves see us and the lazy ones move on.

The leaf cutters ants, along with aphids, root eating grubs, and any number of other garden perils is one big reason we have decided to grow hydroponically, and hydroponics will be an important element in our Integrated Pest Management approach. I know there will be hurdles there too, but we are just looking to keep our plant failures to a minimum in a smaller space that we can control. Control. Dream on, Fred.

I decided to go nuclear. Armando said to get about five gallons of gasoline, dump it in the holes, and make it go “Kaboom!” But I don’t have much hair or eyebrows any more and I’d like to keep what I have. So I went to Melo, the farm and garden supply store in town. I explained my problem. Fumigation was the answer. Their specialist sold me a few packages of powder and a pump that would send the powder deep into the tunnels.

Here’s a video of the ant mound. Notice that the ants have stripped the trees bare around the mound, and check the size of the hill and the six-inch-wide superhighways leading to the mound.

We think the humans took this round. We’ll keep you posted. That’s all for now.

Tile On Columns, Plant Pots, And A Garden Upgrade

All the tile on the three front columns and on the two flying buttress columns at the carport are done! It took a lot of time and energy away from working on the habitability of the house, but we love the look and think it was worth the sidetrack. One of my goals in this project has been to not move into our new house when the nonessential exterior details are still an unfinished mess. Now one big item can get checked off the list. It has raised our spirits and the place is feeling a lot more like a home.

Here are a few photos of the carport columns. The first one shows the simple scaffolding I assembled so I could walk all around the column to install the tile and apply the grout. Also note in these photos that the bamboo shoots are planted in the now completely assembled pots that we built:

I like the view in the next photo; its finished elements are a teaser of what is to come for the rest of the house:

Cynthia and I would like a “water feature” somewhere near the front door. While I was hosing the grout film off the tiles, we noticed how pretty the water looked cascading down the tiles. We stored this tidbit away for planning the water feature in the future.

We plan to build a low planter between the columns in the next photo. It will be a great place to plant some mani (yellow flowering ornamental peanut). Mani is a low ground cover that requires very little care, is hardy, and will spill over the wall and add a nice splash of yellow when the plants are in bloom:

Oops. I just spotted a bit more red primer paint that has to be painted gray.

While I’ve been working on the tile, I’ve had Armando building a small stone wall around the garden. This will provide definition, keep the grass from invading the garden, and keep rain runoff water from eroding the garden:

Armando dug a small ditch about a foot wide, laid down a couple of inches of mortar, then placed rocks in the mortar. He lapped more mortar up and over the rocks then cleaned the rock faces with a wet sponge.

We also got a couple yards of black dirt and about ten big sacks of rice hulls. We mixed the rice hulls and the dirt together. This added a three inch layer of real dirt to our clay/sand topsoil. The plants are happier already:

Armando has about three more days of work on the rock border.

One area between container 1 and the garden was particularly low, and the water would wash over the garden taking all our new topsoil down the mountain to the Pacific Ocean. A four-inch tube running under the garden and out a drainage hole in the fence took care of the problem:

Bonus photo: With the sun still shining, a thunder storm rises up the mountainside and over our ridge; the storm was upon us a few minutes later:

That’s all for now.


Pop Up Garden

In this post, we plant a flower garden.

It is a frequent occurrence that neither Cynthia nor I can remember who’s idea it was to do something. There is an organic process that happens between us, a decision is made, and a day later we are oblivious as to how we got from point A to point Z. “Honey, do you remember how we decided to do such and such? Who’s idea was it to get started?” “Um, I dunno.” Well, it just happened again; a huge flower garden just popped up that stretches sixty feet across the the front yard.

Some background: We’ve been living in a nearby rental house for nearly three years. We really wanted to be in this neighborhood and this rental house was the only option at the time. It has a big fenced in yard, big enough for our long-legged, gotta-run dog (I’ve clocked him at 28 mph).

But the house wasn’t love at first site. We saw the outside, figured we could re-assemble our five-man crew from a former project and get the yard cleaned in a week or so. We signed a one-year lease without seeing the inside. When we finally got the keys and opened the front door for the first time, Cynthia cried so hard and so loudly that a neighbor way at the end of our road and up on the hill came down to see if everything was okay.

It wasn’t. The house — how do I say this nicely — had a lot of deferred maintenance “issues.” (Cynthia says this is an understatement.) As I said, the outside was overgrown with weeds and tall grass that we cleared away. Additionally, we spent a couple thousand dollars making vital repairs to the inside of the house to make it habitable. In return we got periods of no-or-reduced rent. Our elderly landlady, who often wears a stylish vintage hat and white gloves, loves us and often says in her broken English, “Oh, you make me new house!”

Here’s a photo of the kitchen as we found it, except we had already removed the termite-ridden upper cabinets. Remember, click a photo to enlarge it, click the back arrow to return here.

Here’s the new kitchen we built:

Some change, huh? Does Cynthia's apron coordinate with the curtains on the cabinets? She's a clever one, I tell you. Oh, and is the chicken coordinated, too? By the way, I made the pendant lamp over the sink, and three others like it, from stainless steel kitchen utensil holders and plumbing supply hoses that we found at a DoIt Center store in the city.

The point I am making here is that this place was a disaster, and relating to this post about our new garden, there were no nice plants in the yard. Here is a photo of part of the yard after the tall grass was cut and a lot of the weeds were hauled away:

And here is exhibit B, a photo of the yard once it was almost cleaned. Note that there were no flowers.

So, for the next few years, Armando would from time to time bring plants from his house, charging us only a small percentage of what we would have paid if we bought the plants “retail.” We ended up with quite a lush yard, and recently with our attention more focused on our new property than on the rental, it was really, really lush. I think I may have said it elsewhere on this blog, but my joke is that you can stick a METAL fence post in the ground here in Panama and a month later you have to come back and prune it. Everything grows so well here in the tropical mountains.

So a few days ago Armando and I dug up a slew of plants and trucked them to our new house. This photo is one of three loads:

Armando and Jabo ready to unload the truck.

With not much to do while all the welding and other infrastructure work has been happening, Cynthia has been chomping at the bit to contribute to the project. So she was on hand and was Project Leader as to the design of the garden and placement of the plants. Nice job, Cynthia! A very productive three days.

Here are some photos. Sorry some are blurry; it was raining fairly hard when I took them.

Overview of the new garden. Later, we will make the stone borders more permanent.

Ornamental ginger, antherium (little boy plant), spider plants, and a blue walking iris make up our new garden.

There is also a tree trunk that we have been debating whether or not to remove. Included in the garden, we think it will look great with orchids and bromeliads covering it. Maybe it will get a bird house on the highest point.

We have these in red, white, and pink. Armando put some rotten tree trunk pieces around each of the antheriums as fertilizer. How does he know this?

All the plants have started out good and healthy. I hope they like their new home.

Not bad for three short (rain by noon) days. We can’t wait to see the garden all filled in a few months from now. I hope that this post has given some enjoyment to those of you heading into winter. The key is under the mat.

To finish the project, Armando and I are getting a few yards of larger rocks and he will construct a more robust border around the garden and the path.

In other progress, when it was raining over the past week or so Armando and I sanded (random orbital sander) the interior container walls and ceiling in the space between 3 and 4 and number 4, and sprayed on a coat of oil red polyurethane primer. Here is the job in progress:

To spray, I am using my Fuji HVLP (High Volume, Low Pressure) spray gun. There is very little paint mist in the air when using an HVLP unit. The gun is powered by the black box which is basically a vacuum cleaner blowing in reverse. HVLP is nothing new — I remember that my parents had one back in the ’50s — it was an attachment to the Electrolux vacuum cleaner that I think they bought from a door-to-door salesman.

Fuji and I met on the world’s largest online tool dating service,, about five years ago. We have been very happy ever since. I quickly clean the gun after every few hours of spraying, and when I am done for the day I clean it within an inch of its life. I recommend this unit if you need to spray a lot of projects.

Bonus photo: Our neighbor cuts the grass early in the morning, kicking up the dew on the grass.

Tomas cutting the grass.

We are getting more and heavier rain of late. Now at mid-September, we are headed toward November, time of the heaviest rain of the year.

That’s all for now.