Mary Contrary’s Garden Grows


Clockwise from Center Front: Lettuce, Burnet, Cole, Jicama

Clockwise from Center Front: Lettuce, Burnet, Cole, Jicama

So many of us who come to Panama have aspirations to garden.  And so many of us find it a lot more difficult than we expected it to be.  Glen Hamner of okra producing fame has one of the few gardens I know of that seems to be lushly productive.  I attribute his success not only to his green thumb, but to his sound choice of things to grow.  He selects only veggies that produce well in hot, dry conditions, and don’t need long days to mature.

Would that I had listened to him a bit more closely.  On the other hand, I’m actually not terribly fond of okra, though I do love it pickled.

Another source of gardening advice for hot, drought conditions is an excellent article I found in Mother Earth News .  I was particularly taken by the author’s observational skills, as he noted the difference between the drought resistant, the drought tolerant and his new category: drought avoidant plants.  The article is worth a read.

I put all this info together with a modified-to-meet-local-conditions version of Square Foot Gardening and began my own garden.

In early May, right before the rains started, on the advice of my landlady I enlisted help and went to the local rio to dig up some good soil for my garden-to-be (my substitute for the compost part of the Square Foot Gardening recipe).  I then bought three giant bags of processed cow poop, and hit the local mill for rice hulls.  I also deprived some unspecified Panamanian babies of a few packages of disposable diapers to help hold the water in my soil.  A fond dream of enriching the soil with Epsom salts was thwarted when none could be found.

A blue tarp and a small shovel helped mix all these items together.  Then they went into nine white buckets, repurposed with drainage holes and ‘artistically arranged’  on a corner of my front porch.  The quite significant quantity of leftovers went to fill a long strip of ground below my porch and under the kitchen window, and a couple of 4′ x 4′ concrete block squares where I intended to try ‘Square Foot Gardening.’

Lettuce Under Wraps in my garden

Lettuce under Wraps

I am a truly skilled procrastinator, but I did get the buckets planted — several times — before I finally finished planting the squares and the area under the windows.  The buckets were planted several times because the bugs found them totally delicious.  For some reason, the plants in the 4 x 4’s and the strip in front of the porch are not interesting to them.  That’s a good thing, because I used up all my spare netting making covers for the buckets.  Now, I don’t have a bug problem in the buckets, but I only have six producing buckets left.

One of these days I will replant the others.

Long Bean in my garden

Loooong Bean

Meanwhile the long beans, which like heat, are doing well and making lovely, long red beans, even though I planted them in the shade as an experiment.  I’ve actually had a few meals off them.  My pot of basil, which everyone says is tough to grow here, is going gangbusters, and so are the cuttings I took from it which are now planted in the long strip by the porch.  Again, the area is shaded part of the day.

But it is the 4 x 4 squares that hold the plants which amaze me.  They, too, are shaded a good part of the day by, in turn, the house and a mango tree, everything is up, happy, healthy and will soon be ready to eat.  I have tomatoes, peppers, New Zealand spinach, more long beans, jicama, squash, cilantro, lettuce, salad burnet and some kind of cole – I forget which one I put there, but I think maybe it might be cauliflower.

BabyWatermelonThere are some volunteer melons growing out front too, which is good, because the original ‘crop’ of rice (from the rice hulls, don’t you know) had to be pulled as weeds so I could plant my intended crops.  Which didn’t sprout.  Or if they were started indoors and transplanted, didn’t thrive.  But the melons are flowing across the bare spots, and flowering. I even have a couple of fruits.

The local chickens initially found my garden areas marvelous spots for dust baths, so I invested in some chicken wire, and now I have no issues with the chickens, but the vines have entwined themselves with the chicken wire, which makes it difficult to weed.  I expect the birds’ grooming activities were actually beneficial – I found a number of cutworm-looking beasties in the river soil.

My landlady had warned me several times that putting plants directly into the ground would garner much better results than using pots.  Now I know she was right.  I just have to figure out why.  Possibly it has something to do with the temperature of the roots – it might be hotter in the pots than below the soil surface.