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Organic gardens in South America

The sun is climbing the north sky as I thin carrots in the upside-down January summer of northern Argentina. I pluck unfamiliar weeds and watch a bright green gemstone of a beetle crawl out of the rich soil.

My husband and I are on the trip of a lifetime, touring some of the properties purchased and protected by conservationists Doug and Kris Tompkins, through their foundations, the Conservation Land Trust and Conservacion Patagonica. Our tour has begun at Estancia Rincon del Socorro, an eco-tourist lodge on the edge of a vast, wetland wildlife preserve, the Esteros del Ibera. By boat, on foot and on horseback, we are getting to know its creatures, from caimans (alligator-like reptiles) to capybaras (120-pound rodents). Graceful ostrichlike birds called rheas stroll with us across the lawns.

But right now we are thinking about lunch. North Americans often eat South American produce during the winter, but not fresh from the garden! So we are volunteering in the beautiful organic garden that supplies this lodge, eyeing vegetables hungrily, and turning over lines from the odes of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. “When you touch hot oil, crystal slivers become curled feathers of gold,” he wrote, lauding the onion.

You can get a pretty clear picture of Chilean and Argentine food by reading Neruda, and we have become addicted to asados (barbecues of beef and lamb) accompanied by platter upon platter of vegetables, in salads, in relishes and grilled. It is the way we like to eat at home, but with a Latin accent.

An interesting thing happens when a gardener travels: Your garden is rooted in place but you are not, and it is fascinating to see the same crops you grow at home in a new context. Here, for example, at the same latitude as Washington (though in another hemisphere), lettuce is thriving in 100 degree heat, thanks to a canopy of 20 percent shade cloth, held aloft on sturdy wooden posts. The aerial screen makes our weeding more pleasant as well.

We go on to visit two successful ecosystem restorations in the Chilean part of Patagonia. Parque Pumalin, with its dramatic mountains, fiords and towering forests, has been completed and is a popular destination. Farther to the south lies Estancia Valle Chacabuco, soon to be the center of a new national park. Already its old livestock fences have come down, and guanacos and pumas are free to roam. Native plant species are returning, too.

In a wonderful turnabout, the very ecosystems the Tompkinses have saved from bad agriculture — chiefly overgrazing by sheep or cattle and the resulting desertification — now contain small-scale but productive gardens that are beautifully designed, sustainable and a source of jobs and food. A good lesson for us all.

This determined couple has set a table at which all can sit: the human and the non-human, the wild and the tamed, the practical and the beautiful, the nourishing and the delicious. They make you want to join their party. As Neruda put it, “parsley hoists bannerettes, potatoes boil in a fury, a roast knocks aromatically at the door. It’s time! Let’s go.”

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

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