Meet the Couple Growing Tropical Supergreens in the Costa Rican Jungle
The founders of Finca Tierra went off-grid to sow greens that grow like weeds. Their humble goal: have the smallest carbon footprint possible.
"Costa Rica uses more agrochemicals per hectare of cultivated land than any other country in the world," Costa Rican human rights lawyer Ana Gaspar says. "It's outrageous."
Gaspar is the founder of Finca Tierra, a nine-acre permaculture farm deep into the tropical jungle off of the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica. After years of working as a lawyer in San Jose fighting for indigenous rights and environmental issues, she and her husband, Ian Macaulay, decided to move off the grid and live off the land.
"It was a heavy feeling of promoting something, but not actually doing it," Gaspar says. "It was embarrassing. I didn't want to be an activist for the environment and live in a city and eat transgenic crops. We wanted to have the least footprint on this planet as possible."
With that in mind, Gaspar and Macaulay built a solar-powered home from the bamboo on their property and planted a perennial supergreen food forest with all the protein, vitamins, and amino acids they need. With that—on top of root crops like taro and cassava, and an assortment of fruit trees like jackfruit, citruses, and bananas interlaced throughout the organic farm—they have created a model of off-grid living that is based on abundance, not scarcity.
The farm is located on compacted clay land considered by some as of the worst soil in the country. In fact, the Costa Rican government has deemed it unsuitable for agriculture. Yet Macaulay and Gaspar have managed to maintain an average of 200 cultivated species on the land—most of them edible.
"Once we saw how easy it was, we wanted to teach people and that's how we became part of the solution," Gaspar says.
Part of that solution: hosting courses and internships on permaculture, a holistic design concept centered around regenerative agriculture. Students spend up to six weeks on the farm learning the ins and outs of growing food, natural building techniques, water harvesting, and soil building. Water is harvested from rain, human waste is converted into fertilizer, and soil is created with mulch and enhanced with nitrogen-fixing plants.
"We're creating the reality of a permanent culture," Macaulay says. "Without sustainable agriculture, you can't create it."
One of their greatest achievements is a supergreen garden that grows year-round in a food forest system. Macaulay and Gaspar prioritize greens that grow like weeds or are biennials or perennials. All of them are loaded with nutrition; a kilogram of chaya, for example, contains the same amount of iron equivalent as a kilogram of meat. And unlike more mainstream salad greens like lettuce and kale, these don't require much maintenance, and boast a longer lifespan.
"Tree systems work better because there's no erosion. We're building soil instead of just using soil," Macaulay says.
Soil is built on the farm by dispersing legume trees throughout, which adds nitrogen into the ground.
"This is ultra-sustainable because we're producing soil while producing the most nutrient-dense food that grows well in this area," Macaulay says, noting that there is roughly 60 years' worth of topsoil remaining in the world.
"That's a conservative estimate," he adds. "We're facing serious soil issues today."
By planting perennial supergreens and herbs that grow like weeds, tilling isn't required, which reduces erosion because the roots stay in the earth. Erosion is a huge problem in the tropics, where torrential rain pours are common. The best part about their system is that most of the greens can be propagated and grown without much upkeep. Simply take a stake and plop it in the ground.
"Our mission isn't really to be commercial farmers because the landscape here isn't the most productive. What we really want to do is get people to plant their own home garden and feed themselves," he says. "All of this is really easy. Too easy."
Here's a list of some of nutritionally packed super greens that Macaulay and Gaspar grow. These plants work best in tropical climates and are all easily propagated:
Native to the sub-Himalayan areas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, moringa helps lower blood sugar levels and cholesterol. "It has every amino acid that our body needs," Gaspar says. She puts the raw compound leaves in salads, though they can be sautéed or dried and made into a tea. Moringa is grown from stakes in the ground.
Also known as the sweet leaf bush, katuk is from Borneo. It is often eaten raw and has a distinct peanut taste. It's a fantastic salad additive and the leaves can be cooked like spinach, mixed into eggs or in soups. It's high in protein and grows easily in moist soil under the shade of the jungle canopy.
A tree spinach native to Mexico, chaya is a relative of the stinging nettle. The sap is irritating to the skin, but it's neutralized once cooked. The large leaves take on the texture of collard greens when cooked. At Finca Tierra, they often braise often with a coconut milk-based béchamel, which can be ladled on pasta.
This weedy, herbaceous plant is truly one of the bitterest herbs out there and is often brewed into a powerful tea. "It's anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory," Gaspar says. It's also a potent agent against parasites and is either taken internally as a drink or used topically.
Best eaten raw, Pacific spinach is a fast-growing, insect-resistant plant with a mucilaginous texture akin to okra. It can be made into chips and it's packed with vitamin C. "It has far more vitamin C than oranges," Gaspar says.
The leaves of this plant are ideal for lemonade. "It's loaded with antioxidants," Macaulay says. "And it's high in B vitamins, which gives you vitality." At Finca Tierra they mix it with mead and make it into an elixir. The steeped leaves create a stunning blood-red hue.
Native to the wetlands of Asia, gotu kola is an herb in the parsley family used commonly in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. It's known for helping to improve memory. It can also be tossed in a salad or dried for tea, and has been used by yogis to improve meditation.
Indigenous to the Americas, culantro grows as a weed and tastes exactly like cilantro. It's a biannual, but it goes to seed often and spreads vigorously across the landscape. The plant is rich in calcium, iron, carotene, and riboflavin, and makes a marvelous tea for diabetes or as an herb seasoning.