Gardening In Panama 11


Cherry Tomatoes From Local Seed

A Success: Cherry Tomatoes From Local Seed

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.


11 thoughts on “Gardening In Panama

  • Glen

    If someone on the blog has a mailbox etc account, people could get together and order seeds and just pay for whatever it is they want. Or, even share packets of seeds in order to do trials. I have heard of johnnyseeds and apparently they have a good selection of tropical variety veggy seeds. Without a mailbox etc account, I don’t believe there is any other way to get imported seed into Panama. For someone who does not order much thru the mail, an account with them is not economically feasable since you have to sign up for 6 months at a time. Just my thoughts. Another good organization for ordering seed is called Echo. They specialize in tropical seed.

    • JK Mikals Post author

      Point of interest re Mailboxes Etc.: if all you want to receive is packages, you can get an account that will let you get them on a onesy-twosy basis. I get packages there all the time and don’t pay any recurring fee.
      So, yes, if you want to get some seed in bulk, we could ship it in via Mailboxes Etc. I’m not exactly located centrally, but if there are no other volunteers, I’ll be happy to coordinate this. We should probably get some catalogs (online is cheapest) and then meet to place our orders and pay for seed. When it comes in, we can have another meeting to distribute the goodies and each pay for our share of the shipping. What does everyone interested think?

      • Glen

        I checked the Johnnyseed site. I didn’t see many tropical seeds selections but maybe I didn’t take enough time to see all the offerings. What we actually need is a tropically adapted seed source. Other than Echo, I have never seen one. I don’t even know at this point what I would want to order, until I see what would be actually offered, from the source that we use. The only information I have concerning what grows here is as a result of my own experimentation. Almost every imported seed I have tried here has not adapted well. So far, I have found that long beans, bittermelon, calabaza, okra, sweet potato’s, cherry and plum tomato’s and also jalepeno peppers will grow ok here. Everything else would just be another experiment for me. Does anyone know when the fair starts this year in Las Santos? That might be a place to get more info on seed sources and idea’s on what to grow. They usually have a demonstration garden there as well.

        • JK Mikals Post author

          A local person just told me the Los Santos Ferria will be from the 25th of April to the 5th of May, which seems like the same dates as it has been for the past several years. I guess the dates don’t change. I usually buy herb starts there, but most of them don’t make a successful transition from greenhouse to garden, so far. But we can certainly ask about seed. The demonstration gardens are quite inspirational. I also plan to ask the owner of a nearby “vivero” where he buys seed, and if he is willing to sell some.

          • Glen

            I have asked the owner’s of vivero’s where they buy seeds. They sort of shrug their shoulders when asked that question. There doesn’t seem to be any stores that sell seed for the home gardener either. I think people here do it the old fashioned way, by saving seed and sharing seed with neighbors. In our area, you rarely see back yard gardens. Sometimes during the rainy season I will see one. The main draw back to gardening here seems to be lack of water for irrigation during the long dry season. Its a real chore to irrigate here from Dec to Jun and it takes a lot of water to keep the garden going. I plan to attend the fair in Las Santos this year and will make sure and try to ask a lot of questions at the demonstration garden. The last time I visited I noticed that they were using a very nice drip system in the garden to keep it irrigated. The fair is the only place I have seen such a fancy setup here in Panama. Obviously, speaking good spanish would be a great help but I am sure they know where to source seed. Should I learn anything helpful I will pass it on.

  • Glen

    Great article. If you find local seeds for sale somewhere here in small quantity’s that would be a great tip. Seeds are hard to come by and ordering them from the US usually results in problems since we have a totally different climate. Yesterday I bought some Chinese yard long beans and some mustard greens from a man on the side of the road. Great candidates for the garden. Where can we find some seed?

    • JK Mikals Post author

      I’ll do what I can to locate seed for us all. If/when I find a source, I’ll definitely post about it. I know Melo carries locally adapted cucumber, tomato and pepper seeds, but for large quantity sale. We could form a wee co-op, buy a gram or two and share them. That’s a possibility for those three. I don’t know what else they might have. I’ll ask the farmers around here what they might have. The farmer behind my house grows heat and drought resistant small size (bigger than cherry, but smaller than mid-size) tomatoes, obviously well adapted to the area. I can take some seed from them, as I have permission to gather. It’s a start.

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