Maribou Latour is a permaculturist who is also an aquaponics expert and the founder of Visionary Aquaponics Podcast and a founding member of the New Mexico Aquaponics Association. For the last 11 years Maribou has been asking the question: How do we grow food in the desert? That started her on a path into permaculture, organic gardening, agri-forestry, and aquaponics.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Originally from Miami, FL, which is a very water abundant place and about 11 years ago I moved to Sante Fe, NM. I became interested in the water because the SW has been in a drought. And has had some serious water issues. So for the last 11 years I have been asking the question:
How do we grow food in the desert?
That started me on a path into permaculture, organic gardening, agri-forestry, and aquaponics. Currently I am the founder of the Visionary Aquaponics Podcast, which has the mission to inspire a global aquaponics movement.
Aquaponics is a which is a super efficient way of using less water using only about 5-10% of water you would normally use in conventional agriculture
Aquaponics is a method of combining aquaculture is fish farming or any kind of aquatic species and hydroponics is growing plants in a soilless nutrient solution – takes the best of both worlds and combines them.
Fish farming a lot of times has some pollution, with high density fish farming need filtration, fish produce ammonia so that water becomes toxic to the fish, eventually you have to dump the water out, on a consistent basis or you have to filter the water with a lot of filtration.
Not a aquaponics expert nor a hydroponics expert.
In hydroponics you basically take nutrients or make them organically and put them in water and the plants are growing in water. In hydroponics the nutrients tend to have a lot of salt in them so you have to dump the water out eventually and refresh it. In an aquaponics system, by combining these two systems, the water filled with fish poop and ammonia flowing to the grow beds that carry the plants, the plants can be in rafts, or media beds or growing vertically in pvc pipes. There are lots of different ways to grow.
Called deep water culture when you grow in rafts, NFT is the nutrient film technique – which is a small water flow going through pipes with holes and plants sit in the water.
The idea is that there is a connection and symbiosis between the fish and the plants, that as that nutrient filled water goes from the fish to the plants, bacteria convert what would otherwise be a pollutant, ammonia into plant fertilizer, like nitrate and nitrite. Convert a pollutant to a fertilizer and plants love it! They tend to grow twice as fast, they don’t need any water cause they are constantly in water, and the water is cycling back to the fish clean because the plants are taking up all those nutrients and solids etc. So they are acting as a bio-filter for the fish.
It’s extremely efficient for growing a lot of different plants like basil, lettuce, tomatoes, a variety of different vegetables, strawberries, there are so many things you can grow in aquaponics.
“Media beds tend to like things that are more deep rooted.” “Raft beds are for floating light things”, like greens, lighter weight things, watercress, not just food for humans, and food for animals like fodder, and medicinal plants.
It’s a beautiful way to garden in the desert or if you live place that doesn’t have space for a garden, like in an apartment or a rooftop it’s a great way to create a manmade ecosystem that pumps out food for you and fish.
Food Deserts – defined by the USDA : “as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”
Aquaponics is tool to save water while we are growing food, and also a great way to remediate soils, because that water is so alive and full of nutrients, and plant fertilizers. I have stories of people who have used it accidentally as an overflow for trees in really terrible rocky landscapes that became incredibly gorgeous soil, black soil, filled with micro-organisms and worms, and was totally alive.
Constant filtration between plants and the fish is creating this miraculous fertilizer soil remediating agent. You could have one set up in a parking lot or even off an apartment balcony. And have the overflow someplace that needs it, and start building soil, or take a little bit of the water and start inoculating parts of your garden with it, or even your compost.
Tell us about your first gardening experience?
My first gardening experience actually happened in my 20s here in Sante Fe, NM. I really wanted to grow tomatoes because tomatoes are expensive and I LOVE SALSA! I grew up eating salsa, lots of salsa, homemade salsa which doesn’t compare to anything you get at the store. I wanted to grow tomatoes, I was also studying gardening in the desert, learning how to build soil.
I had a drip irrigation system set up, my landlady had one set up. She encouraged me to have my own little space in the garden. I built a little trellis, I placed it near a sunny wall, and started growing those tomatoes and some basil as well and some jalapeño peppers. I was maybe 21,22, I think when I had my first garden. I was also gardening in multiple places, experimenting in the place called Ecoversity at the time that is not in existence
Caliche – clay pan, a very thick pan of solidified dirt underneath the soil, that gets really difficult to garden because of it, and our soils are very alkaline and not many nutrients in the soil. Trying to see if the no till or the double dig method was better. Had a blast experimenting with that.
Gathered some Seeds of Change heirloom seeds at a seed exchange – planting all different things. Just put mulch and they just came out amazing, drip irrigation system, twice a day gave them just a little bit of water, and just had a surplus of amazing tomatoes I could eat fresh. Can eat them without salt, just bite into them like any other fruit.
Trees were mostly the things people would garden where I grew up – avocado & coconuts, but they are usually 10 years old already, so nothing you do but harvest, an appreciation for fruit trees.
What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?
Organic gardening is a way of gardening and designing with nature. Gardening in a way that is non-toxic, no pesticides, learning how relationships work among the bugs and the plants, companion planting,and how to build soil and how to mulch in order to build more soil. It’s a non-intrusive way of growing food, and it’s an incredibly healthy and nutritious way to grow our food as well as habitat and spaces for micro-organisms and bugs and birds and bees and all the critters that we need.
Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?
I don’t think it was anyone in particular and the question of food and food deserts especially when I started realizing there was GMO food versus organic food. I think I was in high school in chemistry class when I realized there was such a thing as organic, I had thought everything was organic. I started looking at global issues and water security… and that got me questioning about how people grow food and how people grow food in the desert. And I instantly wanted to start learning how because I wanted to be a producer and not a consumer and I wanted to have control over the kind of food that I was eating.
How did you learn how to garden organically?
Studying it and putting it into action, I learned a lot about soil science and sustainable water systems and rainwater harvesting, and the importance of mulch in order to retain and create organic matter and protect the soil from wind erosion and the sun baking the microorganisms, and water washing it away. Learned the importance of organic matter and mulch, especially in the desert, we need to protect this top layer of soil with organic matter or mulch. One of the biggest issues is people pulling weeds and uncovering the soil and it bakes in the sun.
Experimenting, reading, took a permaculture design course in 2009 and that shaped a lot of how I think about gardening and food and I continued on with that. I lived in Costa Rica for a year and started an agri-forestry is a way of gardening, list the forest, but growing trees that are useful to humans in a design system. and started planting all kinds of medicinal plants and fruit trees, and
In Nicaragua spent a year in an agricultural project…
creating habitat in a fruit system, nut trees, fiber, trees for fuel …
in a pattern
grew all kinds of trees …
how to grow and design them into your landscape and how to use your rain water techniques to capture water in the soil, where you need it to feed your plants or your trees.
Tell us about something that grew well last season.
Grew about 10 different heirloom tomatoes because they are one of my favorite things to grow because they are one of my favorite things to eat. My backyard is actually north facing, I put my tomatoes along a sunny wall, on the sunny side. I had friends who started weeks before, started watering them every day and I gave them lots of mulch, and lots of love, water, sunlight and mulch, they grew pretty quickly.
Had de-weeded the entire backyard, was just soil baking in the sun, so I bought a few bales of straw, wanted to protect the soil and covered it
I have restored soils this way, just laying straw over it. Within a few months I got a layer of straw. I store leaves from the fall, next to my compost. Straw is very great it’s airy. Gives protection for micro-organisms, gives insulation.
Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?
This year I’m going to set up more aquaponics systems, I’m going to grow wheat grass in my aquaponics, experiment using wheat grass as a biofilter, and also water cress and micro greens and also Tomatillos – love Salsa Verde, green salsa.
Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.
Experimenting with potatoes, but I just didn’t really check them, I mounded them, I didn’t really have a place to put them, some people put them in tires, or barrels, or trenches and have a mound. I just did it a really low tech way, had a flat area, and put them in a mound, and every time it rained the mound would fall apart. Place that has at least 3 sides, or has a way for it to stay mounded. Other ways of growing root vegetables as an overflow, from an aquaponics system and could put it in a potato patch in the ground and it would fertilize it etc.
Some people start squash plants in the aquaponics system and the let it grow the plant on the ground.
Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.
Tomatoes are to me easy to grow. Tomatoes and basil. As long as you give them lots of sun and mulch. They are water loving, but with mulch it reduces the need for water.
By growing tomatoes against a wall it creates a micro climate.
Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate.
I like challenges. Elevation in Sante Fe, NM is @ 7000’ x 8000’ feet.
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
I’m pretty low tech about stuff. I think water is pretty important, I don’t like to have to water. Sometimes you plan on watering 2 times a day you end up only watering once a day but as long as you give them enough water. … generally only weed right around the plants and they still work as mulch…
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
Just love to see how everything’s growing, how big things are getting, checking on the fish. Transplanting seedlings into the aquaponics. Any kind of fish. If you’re in a warm climate. Can grow fish you eat or ornamental fish. Tilapia
Tell us about the best crop you ever grew.
Started flower nurseries, tree nurseries, have planted all kinds of things. One of my favorite things are all kinds of trees. I haven’t been doing that this year, when I was in Nicaragua I was growing coconuts, and moringa, and all sorts of nitrogen fixing trees as a soil …. crops
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
I think the best advice comes from the garden itself, from observing what’s around you, the sun and that water and the shade and where things like to grow naturally.
A basic skill to have, especially in permaculture, its all about observation and observing the feedback that the plants and soil are giving you.
Part of permaculture design is a basic part, you don’t just walk onto a property and decide where things go, you have to observe, spend some time, a season or a year on the landscape and start to notice the patterns, because the patterns will tell you everything about what will grow well where, where the best sun-bathing spot will be, where the best drainage will be… and just reading the weeds themselves and the native species that wanna grow in your backyard. Learning about the plants that grow naturally in your backyard will tell you about the soil and what grows well where.
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
A shovel, just for making it easier on digging holes, to get roots in the ground. A good hose sprinkler head.
Do you have any secrets for preserving food-making it last?
Don’t can salsa cause it doesn’t taste the same, I just eat it fresh, I get so much of it, I do have to can it and I have tomato sauce. I like to make jam. Especially strawberry jam.
Do you have any special techniques for cooking weird or unusual foods?
We were growing a lot of moringa is an incredible tree, comes from Africa, the seeds purify water, the leaves are incredibly nutritious. You can put the leaves in salad. Full of vitamin c, Also a considered a super food. Fix nitrogen in the soil and help build the soil for other plants. Seeds you can put them in water, they clean water of all kinds of bad stuff. It’s like a miracle tree.
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
Salsa, any kind of tomato, I love all different colors, a little bit of jalepeno, salt, pepper, cumin, onion, garlic, cilantro, apple cider vinegar, sometimes I put some cayenne, chipotle instead of jalepeno. And a little bit of olive oil.
A favorite internet resource?
Take my experience from permaculture
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can
Final question- if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
2 things – we really need our trees – deforestation is happening on an incredibly rapid pace, it’s so sad, the forests are the lungs of the earth because they breathe carbon dioxide, and they produce oxygen. We depend on trees and we depend on our forests, and they are getting wiped out for damns, and agriculture. We need to garden like the forest. We need to grow more trees, and protect our trees. They protect our watersheds, produce oxygen. It’s incredible what they do, and so many medicinal plants and species that have never even been discovered yet.
like 3 football fields a minute an incredible music video –
Dear Future Generations Sorry – by Prince EA, who visits Africa on a trip and is a witness to all this deforestation that’s happening,
the organization is called Stand for Trees – basically you can buy a certificate so you can buy a certain amount
Mulch in the desert! We need as much mulch as possible, need to stop weeding as
need to protect our soils, our soils depend on our waters, the better our watersheds are the less problem we’re gonna have with water. The more trees we have the better our watersheds will be in the long run… before I moved here there were tons of trees but they have been cut down. The rivers have been controlled and managed, there’s no more flooding because of that and the lack of trees and all this man control over the environment now there’s no more floods but now we’re looking at drought.
Green Belt Movement by Wangari Maathai
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
Growing something, anything, a tree a plant, a flower, is such a great way to know yourself. Just learning, if you’ve never done anything like it before, it’s really life changing and you start to realize how much power you have over your environment you learn about how much you can create! We’re meant to be creators not destroyers.
When you see a little plant become to grow and you start to see the roots you start to future it and how it can be less dependent on you to let it grow, how you can give it the best bedding possible and how it can grow without you, it’s such a satisfying thing …
Really see it as a way to grow yourself and grow your own spirit and your connection to the earth, your own roots inside you! A reflection of your own process and your own creativity.
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