The end of the dry season nears, and with the approaching rains comes planting season. I spent the last two years having the arrogance knocked out of my outer gardener, and this year I’m going to do it right.
For most expats, gardening in Panama is a bit different from their previous experience. To start with, the soil is neither lovely, crumbly loam, nor loose sandy stuff (unless you live near the beach), nor tight clay. Instead it seems hard and tight as clay, with very little organic matter, but drains like a sieve.
The next thing to notice is that the days are the same length in the tropics, summer and winter. That means plants requiring long periods of sunlight aren’t going to be happy here, no matter how I amend the soil. Many varieties of onions won’t bulb, large tomato varieties will have a rough time, etc. And although the days may be short, they are HOT. Really hot.
Which is to say, really, really hot. The sun just beats down and burns. So anything that can’t take some serious heat is not going to be happy growing here.
We also have to factor in the rains – when it rains, as it is said, it pours. We are not talking about a gentle, steady, nourishing drizzle here, but the equivalent of a sky-sized dump truck unloading all at once, inundating and crushing everything in its path, especially everything in your garden.
Of course, the sun comes out again right away, and focuses those really hot rays through the water droplets still on the poor, little leaves struggling to lift themselves from the earth after their beating, heating them, burning them, raising the humidity further, and encouraging all sorts of fungus and mold.
Speaking of fungus and mold and microbes in general, there’s a different crowd living down here than those more northerly based expats are used to having help them make compost. Compost is not the simple process here that we’re used to, and again, different methods are called for.
The only efforts with which I have been slightly successful that remotely resemble my previous composting experience have been burying my kitchen garbage directly into the garden and using the weed cuttings from having my lawn shaved as a soil amendment. If you try to build a compost pile as such, for one thing you may find yourself having animated conversations with the neighbors, who will be worried (with good reason) about visiting snakes and rodents carrying hanta virus moving into to it.
And, of course, pretty much whatever I have buried has sprouted. But didn’t like being transplanted.
So this year, I’m burying the waste veggie-bits in the same general area I’d like whatever-it-was-before-I-ate-some-of-it to grow.
And I’m buying soil amendments. Last year I went to a presentation by the Azuero Ecological Center in Pedasi, and learned how to make some, but it’s quite the complex process and involves a LOT of shoveling, which I’m just not up for. If your reaction to that is “Pfffff… why are you keeping secrets?” you can read about that presentation and see all the pretty pictures I took of the shovelers making compost. It’s in the blog post I put up last year and turned into a page for permanence, Tropical Composting. And yes, I’m also going to hire some local muscle to dig for me. What doth it profit an old lady to exhaust herself DIY-ing when getting help is so reasonable here?
Another thing I’m buying is some shade cloth. That should help with both the sunburn and the downpour issues. I’m also using local seed, for the most part. After all, local plants are better adapted to the conditions here, and that will help with the shorter days problem. But I do want to try some heat-resistant Swiss chard, and some of the more Mediterranean herbs (heat and drought resistant) which I will attempt to order online.
I’m going to find a local smoker and have him/her save his/her butts so I can make some nasty nicotine-based insecticide. And I will stir a bit of diatomaceous earth into the planting holes for anything that wants to eat my seedlings’ roots.
I’ll let you know what happens.
I have a gardening friend who is trying hydroponics this year, and another who has experimented growing varieties of heat-adapted veggies that are hard to find locally. Reports to follow.