Bonaire Gardening

Kunuku Di Mamai Rosa

“A lot of families used to come here to the kunuku at Punta Blanku.  My grandmother was very generous.”

If you turn right by Fatima Snack on Lagun road you’ll find Onnie’s hydroponic farm.  In order to get there you will have to stop by a group of children playing in a corn field, get them to get their parents, talk to their parents and if they’re kind enough they will drive out in front of you and lead you there over dusty tracks.  Onnie Emerenciana received this land from his father who received it from Onnie’s grandmother Mamai Rosa after whom the kunuku is named.  The kunuku is alive with memories as Onnie fondly recollects the Oliba tree he would climb and all the families that would come from town to farm on their plots.  His father said everyone could cultivate some land to grow food.


Onnie doesn’t live on his kunuku but he tries to be there every weekend.  Lately he’s had a slight glitch in his farming – he is currently president of Tene Boneiru Limpi (the organization responsible for the cleaning campaigns in different barrios or neighbourhoods.)  I asked if that was a job and he replied it was just volunteering.  This seemed odd at first since the majority of people are in the sea or in a ditch on the weekend but after hearing his resume of jobs and volunteering positions it made more sense.  I can’t really do it justice without stepping on Greta’s “on the island since” articles!  All I can say is he is an extraordinary person, back on Bonaire since 2000 and currently a School Attendant Officer who makes sure children stay in attendance until the age of 18 as well as a promoter of agriculture.

Outside of the house built (by Onnie) over the original wooden house are a small maze of greenhouses.   Onnie is very composed and relaxed but he gets things done.  “I built everything alone.  You have to invest something to get something.  You see those beams?  I had to use oil drums and lift them step by step.”  It is quite some weekend hobby – while some come out of their garage with a toy truck, Onnie comes out with a network of greenhouses, wind breaks, borders and irrigation.   He confesses that his main job is keeping everything clean now.  In his seedling station he has wooden trays and herbs like mint, parsley and chives growing.  In his potting station he has an army of Beefy Tomato and Warmoes (chard).  “I grow almost everything,” he says.


Under an open area is his pièce de résistance.  His Bonairean hanging garden of Babylon.  A hydroponic system which are a series of stacked units that fit 16 plants in one column.  He can water at the top and it drips down slowly to the bottom levels.  Here he has gone for a little show with ornamental plants mixed with edibles.  In the eye candy corner you have ferns, dracaena, wandering jew, curazon, lilies and in the savoury corner you will find broccoli, onion, oregano and dill.  The story of how he procured these is somewhat amusing, “a Dutch man donated these to Kriabon.  No one knew what they were and no one wanted them so I came in and took them all!”   He laughs.  “You have to be in the right place at the right time.” 

Next to the hydroponic area is an extremely lush, long length of un-irrigated beds.  This is quite some production of local cucumber (the small spiny ones you can stew), various chili’s, peppers and Malabar spinach.  This is quite an amazing amount of production considering it’s still a weekend hobby.  Due to his obligations though he missed seeding a huge irrigated area where he normally plants watermelon before the rain starts.  Just when you think you’re finished there is one long irrigated tunnel where he has two types of okra (the regular pointy and a rounder variety), eggplant and beans (bonchi kunuku).  “Everyone loves bonchi kunuku!”  As for his planting technique in his un-irrigated beds he mixes either chicken or goat manure into the soil and places leaves or shredded plant materials on top to hold in the moisture.  In permaculture this is called mulching but Onnie has figured this out through his own experience.

Onnie actually had a vision to become a farmer for a long time – to make his hobby his work long ago.  He would buy things in Curacao when he was on trips during his days in the senate of the Bonairean government.  He could get cheaper materials over there.  Over the years he has collected a range of toys – again “you have to be in the right place at the right time.”  He has a diesel generator which lights up all his shade houses (although his children don’t like it when he stays in the evening!), a wood chipper which he uses to break down corn stalks for mulching and a motorized tiller.  He also has a rainwater collection as well as a gigantic dam.  They are utilized with a submersible pump.

Afterwards, we toured some ruins of traditional houses nearby Washikemba.  As we walked through paths maintained by Onnie he talks about the hidden caves his father would take him to after fishing to show their Arawak heritage.  One day he would also like to make tours of this historical area as well as his kunuku.  Whatever happens the spirit of Mamai Rosa is definitely alive.

By Clark Heijbroek

The Godfather

“You gotta be a little crazy to work with plants on a desert island!”

If you are a green finger it’s unlikely that you haven’t graced the establishment that is GreenLabel, the largest and only like it on Bonaire.  Here the team is employed in every aspect of gardening, from making cuttings, growing plants and selling gardening equipment to installing gardens and maintaining them.  It’s a full-scale operation as Ap Van Eldik states, “Not one business in Holland offers that range.  But here you have no choice.”

Ap is the director and driving force behind GreenLabel.  You could say he is the Godfather of the gardening business on Bonaire.  A Godfather in the sense that he is widely known on the island, pioneered a business with no predecessor and rose from rags to riches.  To be clear though, if he gives you an offer you can’t refuse it’ll be a quote for a lush garden and not two blocks of concrete attached to your feet!


Ap arrived on Bonaire from Curacao with his partner Agnes to manage the gardens at Plaza Resort where he quickly enjoyed success.  He came from a well known nursery family in Holland and in his words has always been, “a plant man.  I was raised in green”.  His plan was to travel South America with Agnes and then return to Holland to work in the family business.  But on Bonaire came, “the surprise of the year” – little Ruben, his first child.  So Ap decided he better grow up a little and thought, “this place must be like heaven to raise a child.  It is.  It surely is.”

After showcasing his knowledge at Plaza people started to approach Ap for gardens.  He soon saw a demand and was convinced he would be successful.  Ap started with different business partners but eventually ended up going solo and had a shop (opposite the Napa store) and grew plants from his nursery at home.  He has always been focused on the landscaping aspect of the business and to manage the shop was landscape designer and gardener Johan Van Blerk who worked at GreenLabel for 9 years.  Ap is proud of the exploration and creativity they used in discovering how to grow on Bonaire. They started with 100 plant varieties and now have well over 400.  As the business grew it moved from the shop to a warehouse next to Lucky Imports and then GreenLabel bought a plot behind there and built their own warehouse where they are currently located.  As well as this they now have a flashy new fleet of vehicles (why not rent your own on Bonaire?), a Bobcat and a digger.

After living on Curacao and seeing Aruba and the States Ap had an idea of what he wanted.  He didn’t want to create another Florida; he wanted to include as much drought tolerant, semi-local and local plants that belonged to Bonaire as possible.  Some he thinks are overrated like the Qui but some he thinks are very useful like Wayaka, Watakeli, Oleifi, Oliba, Saddlewood, Karawara and Green Buttonwood.  Although he works with what is in fashion he also likes to promote the use of fruit trees (which he actually wrote articles about in the past for the Reporter).  For local he recommends Shimaruku, Hoba and Kenepa and his other favourites are Suriname Cherry and Sugar Apple.  His number one flowering plant?  Icy Pink Oleander.  It doesn’t need much water, grows compact for an Oleander, has dark green leaves which don’t get eaten and has very light pink flowers all year round.   His number one palm?  Thrinax radiata.  It has no diseases, is drought resistant and has no problem with heavy soil.  He also loves the Green Malayan Coconut and has worked many years to find the best strains.


Nowadays he is at 65-70% of where he’d like to be in terms of growing and propagation results, watersaving and trying out new plants for propagation.  He works closely with GreenLabel’s trained grower Andres Bermudez to get the best results.  Andres is very proud of what he calls his ‘babies’!   Ap brings him cuttings which he then neatly processes into either water or into trays with special American potting soil.  Depending on the plant they get dipped in rooting hormone powder.  The plants eventually get potted up into a mix of 50% local diabaas soil, 50% coco mix (shredded coconut byproduct which Ap actually buys from a company his brother works for based in Sri Lanka) and depending on the plant, additions of potting soil,  goat manure or osmocote fertilizer.  He says, “In Holland every plant has a different kind of soil.  Here there is very little variation.  We need them to be strong on Bonaire.  98% survive after being planted.”

As some may know, sadly, Ap, Agnes and their children Ruben, Nils and Lianne are moving back to Holland.  He comments, “after 15 years it’s time for another adventure.”  Ruben is old enough to study in Holland and Nils will shortly follow so the story feels full circle.  Ap is trying to sell GreenLabel but he would like to keep something on Bonaire.  Possibly grow vegetables with a business partner using all his expertise.  He really values all the efforts from growers on the island and would love to have a few acres near the sewage plant of LVV.  “Imagine what you could do with all that water!” he exclaims.

I ask about the fact that despite all this he still maintains a small nursery at his home to which he laughs and replies “it’s my hobby.  It’s the only thing I know!  Luckily this Sinterklaas they gave me a headlamp so now I never have to go back inside!”  It’s quite a story but I think you could summarize ‘the Godfather’ by the motto hanging on his office wall: “There are 2 types of people, the one who talks about it and the one who does it.”

By Clark Heijbroek

The Plant Rescuer

"It is very easy to grow a garden - my yard was covered with rocks and boulders so my friends used to joke that it must be cabritus living here as only they could maneuver through those rocks. Gardening is not an expensive hobby but you have to dedicate yourself and put in the required work. It’s a great way for you to exercise and a good form of relaxation. It also gives self satisfaction but most importantly it is the joy of sharing its produce."

When I met Norma Cole somehow we started talking about a fruit tree called 'June Plum' or locally 'Oba'. I asked if she could bring me one, and weeks later out of the blue she remembered!  I said to her, "don't worry I'll bring you a plant" and she replied, "no need, whenever I give seedlings or fruits I get more crop from my trees. The more I give, the more I get."  I found that really struck me - sharing nature’s abundance.


Norma is a wonderful character, vibrant, humorous, classy and down to earth.  She has been on Bonaire for 23 years but grew up in Saint Mary, Jamaica on a farm with a river running through the property where they exported bananas, coffee, cacao and created their fence with pineapple trees. There she learnt the way of the land - they were encouraged as children to replace whatever was taken from the land so they were always re-planting the heads of pineapple, sugarcane, yam, etc. "You take but you give back " she said.  They would watch these plants grow with such excitement and curiosity as children.  We laughed as Norma acted out the playful curiosity they had - checking every hour to see if the plant had grown.

So with this Norma was always connected with nature.  It's visible in her garden.  On entrance it's a beautifully well maintained lawn (Buffalo grass) with rocks and pockets of colour (Bougainvillea, Tuturutu, Plumeria).  She has a fantastic variety of plants which she hasn't paid a cent for!  She was honest with this " I beg, take cuttings, seedlings and steal if need be!"  But she also rescues them and earned the title 'the plant rescuer'.  People bring her plants they want to throw away or that are sick.  So she nurtures them back to health and beyond.  For example she saved some ferns that now reside on her porch and look like they might keep on growing to Rincon.

That may be because she really looks after her plants.  She tends them but also talks to them.  "Hey what's wrong with you?" or when she's frustrated "YOU'RE A BIG WASTE OF SPACE!" and praises them when they are looking fantastic.


Then she has many fruits trees hidden in the shelter of her house: sugar cane, ackee, bananas, papaya, sweetsop, soursop, guava, mispel, june plum, mango, etc.  She is constantly giving away fruits and plants.  I asked her what her favourite is and she pragmatically replied "Ackee because I can get a meal from it and it’s absolutely delicious".  Not everyone may be familiar with Ackee but it's the national fruit of Jamaica and the traditional dish is "Ackee and Saltfish".  It is a very underrated tree on Bonaire because it grows well here and provides much food as well as attracting bees.  But beware as it is poisonous if picked at the wrong time, the fruits need to open naturally on the tree! Following closely for her is pomegranate because "it is suited to this climate, easy to grow and rich in vitamins and antioxidants".  She even threw out seeds for the birds and they grew in the garden by themselves!

So enjoy and don't forget to share.

By Clark Heijbroek

Ackee &  Saltfish Recipe


1 dozen ackees 

1/2 lb salt-fish (salted cod/bacaloa)

3 table spoon vegetable oil

1 medium tomato, chopped

½ cup sweet pepper (bell pepper) chopped (red, green & yellow mix)

1 small onion, chopped or in rings

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 hot scotch bonnet pepper - diced or jerk seasoning (optional) or black pepper

1 tablespoon butter
1/4 tsp ground pimento (allspice) or a few whole pimento grains
Chopped fresh basil


Soak salt-fish (bacaloa) in cold water preferably overnight to remove as much salt as possible.  
Place in a pot with enough cold water to cover salt-fish and boil to remove remaining salt. Save some of the salted water for cooking the ackee. If fish is still too salty, wash it again.
Flake cooked saltfish.
Remove ackees from the pods.  Remove the seeds and pink interior, wash and place cleaned ackees in a pan of boiling salted water.
Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes or until tender, do not overcook. Drain and set aside.  
Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté tomato, sweet pepper, onion, hot pepper, garlic and pimento over medium heat.
Add cooked, flaked salt-fish, butter, chopped basil and sauté for an additional minute.
Add cooked, drained ackee to the sautéed ingredients, and stir lightly.  
Cover the pan and simmer for 5 minutes.
It’s normally served with roasted breadfruit (unavailable here), boiled green bananas, Johnny cakes, yucca as a breakfast item but can accompany any of your favourite starches including yam and potatoes as any meal of the day.
Variation: Add crispy bite sized pieces of bacon in addition to salt-fish.

KOOL KAT (June plum drink)

This is a very refreshing summer drink. Some people like to peel off the skin, but I leave the skin on for added nutrients. 
1 dozen green June Plums, washed and diced, discard seeds
2 Cups of water
Fresh ginger, washed and grated
Sugar or honey according to your taste
Sprig of mint


Place June plums, water and ginger in a blender and blend until smooth. Strain and mix in sugar to sweeten. Serve over crushed ice and garnish with mint.

Recipes by Norma Cole

Guardian Of Nature

“I was always fantasizing about having a piece of land myself which I would protect. There I would leave nature alone and try to live off the land, preferably somewhere in a lush bush with waterfalls and mountains. Somehow I ended up on Bonaire, an island with a semi desert climate…!”

Living on a barren kunuku with no electricity, no fridge, no running water with some oil lamps for company it wasn’t always an easy ride for Hans Voerman.  He said, “I was almost camping” and with no toilet either, he really was!   This was the humble start of Auriga Ecolodge Bonaire.

He came to Bonaire in 1990 to visit his dive sergeant from the Engineering Corps where he was previously enlisted.  He was travelling after being unsure of what to do next.  After arriving on Curacao and spending 30 minutes there he left swiftly to Bonaire where, “Well the usual story you hear…I fell in love.  It used to be very quiet and relaxed. “  There were, “Few Dutch!” he laughs.  “And the Dutch that were there had interesting stories to tell!”  He began as a Dive Instructor and moved to and from Bonaire until 10 years ago when upon returning started Outdoor Bonaire ( With Outdoor Bonaire, he could do everything he did as a hobby: mangrove kayaking, cave tours, climbing, rapelling, hiking, island/park tours.



A few years later he had the opportunity to buy the land he lived on at the time.  He had a hard time visualizing this barren plot being anything like his dream of waterfalls and virgin land but he got working on the fence to keep out the grazing four legged kliko’s (the green bins provided on Bonaire by Selibon).  It was quite an undertaking with a property of 13,500m2.

The existing fences provided a framework for 3 distinct areas.  Half would be left undisturbed and rarely walked on.  A quarter would be replanted with local trees for birds and people.  Examples such as Tamarind or Taki serve both.  The Taki fruit birds love, humans can cook and the tree is evergreen with no thorns.  The other local trees: Watakeli, Kirbrahacha, Palu Di Sia, Oliba, Kalbas, Apeldam, Stoki (which flowers at night and attracts bats), Wayaka, Dividivi, Palu Di Santu and more.

It is quite remarkable to see the effect of fencing and conservation on Bonaire.  In this Serengeti type landscape you can start to imagine what Bonaire may have looked like.  Sometimes I expected a Giraffe to pass me by!

The last quarter around the cluster of structures is more for human use and not necessarily local (but of course the birds are welcome): Oba, Moringa, Kenepa, Soursop, Pomegranite, Guava, Banana and self seeding trees like the Shimaruku which grow where they like.  In this area he has also built a chicken pen and a greenhouse.  He has been experimenting there and noticing the local/suriname vegetables work best: local spinach, tajerblad (taro), sweet potatoes and kouseband (type of long bean).  He says, “It’s hard to make it worthwhile but I keep trying.”  Also in there is his Sabal Palm project where he is growing seedlings.  

In a new bed is also the result of a 6 month debate we had previously: who had the real Senna alata (also known as Balor Di Yonkuman or Candlebush).  This wild shrub has showy flowers that protrude like yellow candles above its pinnate leaves that occur rapidly after rainfall.   The crushed leaves were used against all sorts of skin diseases including ringworm.  We were both growing what we thought was Senna alata at the same time but unfortunately they looked completely different. Hans wanted to know who was right and planted both next to each other.  As it turned out, my seedling was the true Senna alata, and I received a Duvel beer (obviously it all got heated towards the end and we shook on a beer as wager).  He also threw in 3 delicious fresh eggs!


Hans is now looking into food sources for his animals such as Almond Trees, Moringa and Negrita di Malpais  (Acacia glauca which is not for pigs however).   On a side note the Negrita di Malpais is a nitrogen fixer (benefits soil by fixing nitrogen into its roots), quick growing and provides shade.   He is also looking at the possibilities of staple crops such as corn.

Also within this quarter of land is Hans’ labour of love: the ecolodge (  A beautifully renovated horse stable, running on solar energy, gravity fed water and as much recycling as possible.  For every booking he plants a local tree in his replanting sector.  Usually a large, established tree from GreenLabel or one from Edsel Martha (near LVV).

As you sit on the star gazing tower you feel a sense of peace, watching parrots fly eyelevel and it’s apparent that maybe he didn’t find his waterfall, but he did guard nature and it made him a paradise in return.  And this is only just the beginning…

By Clark Heijbroek