A New Vetiver Nursery for Finca Cristina

A Coffee Farm in Costa Rica

by Linda Moyher, Paraíso - Costa Rica

There is a new vetiver nursery in full production in Paraíso, Costa Rica. Over the past six months we have been distributing small quantities of planting material among the local farmers, but we now have sufficient quantities available to distribute with no rationing. Our operation is not for profit but for promoting soil conservation among small and medium-sized farmers of Paraíso. The price we ask for plants is minimal, just enough to cover the cost of the transplants and maintenance.

At Cristina Farm (Finca Cristina) we have always been aware of the need to protect the soil which is the resource that permits us to earn a living. (Finca Cristina is an organic coffee grower and roaster owned and operated by Linda Moyher and her husband Ernesto.) On many occasions we have seen the force and the fury of the water that washes mercilessly over the denuded fields and the unprotected riverbanks. Here in Paraíso the rains have fallen for more than twenty-two months without any summer or dry season; our neighbors' losses are evident in the chocolate colored streams and rivers. Cabbage and potatoes can be replanted, but each time the soil has less to give and its productivity is more limited.

In November 1997 we obtained our first vetiver plants from Dr. Briscoe which we planted along the principal drainage ditch along with a few plants behind the house. Later we requested another sackful in order to do some trials according to the instructions published in the Vetiver Newsletter #18. We tried leaving some plantlets to soak for several days in water and another batch to soak in manure tea. We planted different batches-- some straight up (vertically) and others at a 45o angle. The results were good, they all sprouted and those that had soaked in the manure tea and were planted at 45o grew best.

Impressed with what we had learned and motivated by Peace Corps volunteer Dominic "The Vetiver Kid" Ackermann, we wanted to do more. We requested assistance from the Red Latinoamericana de Vetiver (LAVN) and Jim Smyle and Joan Miller paid us a visit. They inspected the area we had chosen to plant the nursery and they showed us various techniques for planting and advised us about the project.

We had chosen the particular spot, not only because it is flat and treeless, but also it is located between the coffee fields and the river. For many years we had tried planting it with vegetables and beans, and as a coffee nursery without good results. We did not know why, but we decided to try vetiver since all the literature reports that it would thrive in poor soils. This turned out to be an excellent decision because the vetiver has turned an empty lot into a productive area filled with wildlife. Then we realized that it was a drainage problem and the high water table that made the site unproductive until now. This the vetiver did not mind at all, and in fact it is well adapted and has thrived in the wetness. Because of the abundant rainfall the site resembles a swamp which has become a rich habitat for different species. There are many insects and spiders that provide good feeding for the many birds that have been spotted there such as migrant warblers, wrens and the beautiful indigo bunting.

In June 1998 we received generous monetary assistance from the Red Latinoamericana de Vetiver, and we set to work immediately. From a nearby farm we dug up sufficient material to plant in one day. The nursery site had been already cleared and we used the existing seed beds from the previous year's coffee nursery. Three workers separated the material and planted 2,500 individual tillers at 40 centimeters between plants in three rows. This represents a total area of 350 square meters.

The tillers showed no great enthusiasm for sprouting since the mother plants had been sprayed with herbicide shortly before we dug them up. Since it was the only planting material available in the area, we had no other option than to use it or postpone the project for a year due to the pressures of time and work on the farm. This represented a significant delay due to slow sprouting and growth, but finally the plantlets recouped their strength and survived. Today there is no evidence of ill effects from the pesticide in the nursery although the vetiver has all died out on the farm from which we originally got the planting material.

We have not applied any fertilizer. The weeds grew rapidly during the first six months, but we only did two weedings. At nine months the plants closed in completely and no more weed control was necessary. But ever cautious because of the poor luck we had with other crops on the same site, we did not care to risk all the nursery plants there. Also, for reasons of curiosity and scientific interest we planted some in other areas of the farm where the soil and conditions varied. Furthermore since vetiver is not very well known in Paraíso, we wanted to plant some plots to demonstrate the multiple applications of vetiver for our many visitors.

The demonstration plots are:

  1. bank stabilization around the sedimentation tank
  2. coffee field drainage ditches
  3. contour planting for terracing on an eroded hillside
  4. reclamation of impoverished soils
  5. boundaries and windbreaks for vegetable plots
  6. test plot for poor sandy soil
  7. use of the leaves as mulch in various places

One year after planting we harvested the first 75 clumps that upon dividing yielded 1,350 tillers for the first sale. The largest clump yielded 62 plantlets while the average was only 18. We sold 1,000 and enlarged the nursery area with 350 new plants. As of today the nursery is double its original area, allowing for a secure supply of planting material.

To date we have sold 4,600 plants and the demand is growing. With an average of twenty-five tillers the clumps are now more vigorous than before. Planting material from our nursery is now prospering in the following areas of Costa Rica:

  1. Lankester Botanical Garden of the University of Costa Rica;
  2. Coffee mill in Orosi for bank stabilization of the oxidation ponds;
  3. Coffee mill in San Marcos for bank stabilization of the oxidation ponds;
  4. Organic coffee farms in Pejivalle, Santa Maria de Dota, and Paraíso;
  5. Internal roads on a coffee farm in Orosi;
  6. Public road in Quepos;
  7. Rural development project in Paraíso;
  8. Restoration of a creek bed after a flood in Cachi;
  9. Erosion control on fruit farm in Orotina; and
  10. Small quantities among neighbors;

We have observed that the vetiver roots form a thick strong network to a depth of approximately 20 centimeters, even though the literature reports greater penetration. This we attribute to a combination of hard clay soil and a high water table. Another limiting factor for vetiver growth is the lack of sunlight, which suggests that the ditches in the shady coffee fields will require a different treatment.

From this experience we have learned the following lessons.

  1. For a robust nursery you should use only the best quality planting material. If there are small tillers they should be planted with two or three together to assure survival and vigurous growth.
  2. Periodic pruning stimulates growth and lets in sunlight.

We are not trying to make a profit from our nursery operation. Nevertheless, it should be self-sufficient. The tasks are done after regular working hours so as not to interfere with normal farm labors. This provides an additional income for the workers who have learned to appreciate the vetiver and have even taken plants for their friends to plant. The principle purpose of the vetiver nursery has always been for the use and benefit of the small farmer and this is being fulfilled.