How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Mari Pintkowski (March 2013)

From our rooftop garden above the parking area at La Selva Mariposa, I heard my husband calling, "Mari, Mari, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" I followed the sound of his voice and went upstairs and saw that he was observing the garden. Lou had also noticed that the seeds I planted in late fall and the ones I replanted in Dec. were not growing as quickly as they had other years and that the tomato plants, now three feet tall, were starting to turn brown.

We were both aware that we had brought organic, reliable seeds from Colorado and planted as we do each year in late Oct. or early Nov. Not a day went by that we didn't water religiously between rain showers. We looked at each other and concurred that it was not just due to a drought for a month or heavy rains the next, but to something that lay deeper in the earth.

I stopped José, our gardener, to get his opinion on what was happening to stunt the growth of our little seedlings. He had noticed the problem as well and, while doing some investigation of the soil, he found that the healthy roots were being eaten by worms, not the good kind that enriches the earth, but the nematode variety that thrives on tender roots.

He had formulated a plan in his mind and we gave him the go-ahead to proceed. The next day he began the project bright and early. He moved all of the surviving plants from the left side of the garden to available spots on the right side. He began loosening the dirt on the infested left side and showed us all the wiggly creatures that had invaded our precious garden. He had brought a huge caldron with him this morning from home and built a fire in a clearing near the compost area where there was access to the hose. Once the fire was raging, he filled the pot with water from the hose and boiled it. When it was ready, he carried bucket by bucket up to the rooftop garden and poured the scalding water into the soil and turned it until he was sure every inch had been affected. Now it was time to let it rest.

The plants that were moved to the right side of the roof top took hold and seemed to be thriving in their new home. When I asked José what the next step was, he told me a friend of his was coming to bring bags of cow manure to mix in with the soil. The next day, a short, stout Mayan showed up and he and José talked and together put the contents of this natural fertilizer into our raised garden beds. A week later José planted seeds and within 10 to 14 days, soft, green sprouts were creeping up out of the ground. Even the spinach was growing and we never had any luck with this vegetable.

We knew we had more to learn. It was at that time that we discovered an article in Yucatan Living on rooftop gardening. In the article Robert Kimsey, an ex-pat living in Mérida, said that: the trick is timing; pay attention to days between planting and harvest; use only seeds that will do well in this region (he discovered from living in Florida that they are in the same growing region); plant in mid-September and October; plant vegetables that you like to eat; consider space available; look for seeds with early maturity; swap seeds with friends; follow directions on seed packets and beware of nematodes that are rampant in the soil here. The article described Robert's waist-height gardening beds about 75 cm wide and 3.2 meters long and about 40 cm deep. The concrete beds are empty on the bottom fourth which allows for the water to flow through when the valves are turned on, the other three-fourths are filled with well-compacted peat moss, and finally the potting soil is layered on top of fiberglass roofing material that has previously been drilled with holes. The photos in the article showed that he was able to grow strong, healthy vegetables all year long.

We had to see this for ourselves, so we planned a trip to Mérida and contacted Robert to see if we could meet and see his rooftop gardens. He agreed to meet us in mid-February. We made arrangements at our B&B, packed up and drove to the big city. We quickly found our hotel in the centro area, checked in, and enjoyed a little lunch before setting out on foot to find the house of Tonia and Robert Kimsey in one of the many urban neighborhoods of the city. Their hospitality made us feel as if we had come to visit old friends. We sat down and shared stories of how we all came to be living in the Yucatán Peninsula. Roberto and Tonia had a long and successful career in Florida and then Jalisco, Mexico, building and decorating custom homes. The warm weather in the state of Yucatán brought them farther south where they continue to pursue their life dreams and passions.

Their excitement for rooftop gardening was very refreshing. After a cold beverage, we took a walk up the outside stairs to the roof where the garden was located. The first landing has curved beds with every imaginable herb, but we did not linger and instead continued to go up a little higher past his art studio and to the open rooftop. Robert pointed out a few of his favorite stars, like Chinese Long Beans, Silver Queen sweet corn, Bella Rosa and Florida 91 tomatoes, as we walked along.

Robert demonstrated how the gardens are constructed so that water flows into the lower quarter region, and since the soil above is very porous (a mixture of purchased peat moss and potting soil) the roots are able to wick down through the loosely compacted soil to the water source. We were beginning to see the big difference in the rooftop gardens we have at La Selva Mariposa.

We were able to also see how he can grow vegetables all year long and we, on the other hand, give ourselves a break during the rainy, hot season of July, Aug, and Sept. because the soil is either too dry from the intense sun overhead, or becomes extremely compacted and overrun with weeds from the seasonal storms. He had no shade cover over the beds, and we have found that our 22 solar panels, installed after we had a thriving garden, do provide a good amount of advantageous shade.

Since we are over 66 years old ourselves and feeling the effects of creeping age, we loved how his beds were waist high as opposed to ours, that are only two feet high. He and Lou discussed how this could be changed easily during our garden's off-season, while a similar irrigation system could be added at that time.

The soil mixture he uses makes his garden almost maintenance free and does not have to be reworked and recomposted every year as ours does. We are wondering if we revamp the beds this year and add more of the water-filtering materials like peat moss to our beloved composted mixture, will we have more viable growing conditions for our vegetables as well? We can live with the weeds. We are committed to maintaining an organic garden, and the Kimseys strive for a fast and tender harvest in low-maintenance beds. They also use commercial fertilizers to enhance the growth.

We start our seeds directly in the garden and Robert has had success by starting them in seed flats and then transplanting them when they are a bit stronger. I can see the advantage of this as well. I always have volunteers sprouting up from the compost, like tomatoes and papaya, along with the vegetable seeds I have planted and sometimes am overwhelmed with deciding which sprouts to weed out and which to leave.

Robert's watering system is ingenious and his plants are truly smiling with the amount of water they receive. We originally had an automatic watering system in the garden, but the sprinkler heads got so clogged with lime and other minerals in the water that we eventually abandoned this idea and now water with a hose. The water does leave a white film on the leaves at times so the herbs are not as pretty as they could be. Mr. Kimsey did say he hand-waters his young plants until their roots get established and are able to benefit from the water that flows into the lower third of the beds.

He showed us how he and Tonia hand-pollinate the sweet corn because Mérida does not have an abundant bee population to do this naturally. We have planted flowers like marigold and coreopsis in our kitchen garden and because Macario Gomez is one of the major honey producing areas in the world, the plants are pollinated naturally.

We left the house of our new friends who are true artists, engineers and inventors at heart. They have not stopped with these amazing gardens, but continue to perfect the system and have a few secrets up their sleeve that we will be reading more about on Yucatan Living in the very near future. And yes, I was anxious to head back home to Macario and "remove the suckers from the tomato plants" as Robert insisted upon.

When we arrived back home to La Selva Mariposa, I remembered that in my latest book, Shifting Gears, A Journey of Reinvention, I had written a chapter that involved plans for our gardens and reflected on my earlier thoughts: Note to Self: "Mix flowers with vegetables in your garden."

This is a natural process for the Maya farmers. José adds marigolds, baby mums, sunflowers and some wildflowers to the vegetable gardens along the drive. He also plants some alongside the vegetables in the rooftop garden. The baby plants are slow to germinate because of the intense heat, but by early November, the long-awaited rains start and there are many downpours which flood our baby sprouts and make it difficult for them to take hold. The strong ones survive; some even love the abundance of water.

I am thrilled to have a rich kitchen garden all winter. I am very proud to announce, with each dish we serve our guests, that it includes homegrown tomatoes, herbs, etc. Lou's famous tours of the property, a highlight for our visitors to La Selva Mariposa, always ends with a visit to the rooftop gardens. We often get tips from guests who are seasoned gardeners such as: Don't get discouraged if something does not grow well; try again next year. Advice taken! This is just what we plan to do. That little piece of advice goes a long way when you are dealing with Mother Nature. As you can see, we are always learning and trying to make things better in our little oasis, La Selva Mariposa, in the Maya jungle.

When I began to put Robert's ideas down on paper, I had more questions on the soil mixture which he kindly clarified for me. Because he is so experienced in this area, I am going to quote my new-found friend:
"We do not use soil as soil won't perk. Organic material is the answer. The first 5 cm is pure peat moss, moistened and packed to wick the water to the potting soil. The potting soil continues to wick the moisture through the rest of the 18 to 20 cm. The soil is moist, not wet, so the roots are able to have the necessary air to breathe. The maximum depth of peat moss and soil is about 22 cm. We use a hose sprinkler to dampen the potting soil from the top to get seeds started."

As I was finishing up the article, Lou walked past me and mentioned that he was going out to check to see if the "silver bells and cockle shells" had sprouted yet in the garden. I smiled broadly and let him know that I so appreciate his sense of humor.

One of the most beautiful things about living in the Yucatán Peninsula is meeting and sharing ideas with such interesting, resourceful people, even if they are not your next door neighbors. Don't hesitate to reach out beyond the Internet and look for answers first hand.

Mari and her husband, Louis, live and operate the #1 B&B in Tulum, La Selva Mariposa. To read more of Mari's articles go to the archives or order her inspiring books on

La Selva Mariposa Rooftop Garden Mari Pintkowski

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