Gardening in Panama is a bit of a challenge, even for experienced, successful gardeners. My attempt this year is going to be mostly edible landscaping, and it involves a modification of the Square Foot Gardening Method.
I wouldn’t have modified it – why reinvent the wheel? – but necessity is my task-master. The planting recipe calls for raised beds lined with weed mat and filled with a mix of one-third each vermiculite, peat moss and compost. Peat moss and vermiculite are not readily available in my part of the world, and neither is packaged compost. Nor is weed mat. So I thought about the purpose of each element, and what is available to me.
Weed mat is to keep already established weeds from simply growing up through your raised bed. This is likely here, as any perennial managing to ‘peren’ either has a looong tap root, or goes dormant during the dry season. Weed mat is available, but not readily, so I just hit the local grocery and snagged a few cardboard boxes. They will eventually break down and become part of my improved soil, so that works.
The vermiculite is to provide drainage and air space, to help prevent the soil mix from packing down. The peat moss is absorbent, and it’s purpose is to hold water in the soil, as well as to provide the roots with some fiber to hold them in place. And finally, the compost is to provide more fiber and a lot of nutrients.
So what we need is aeration, water retention, fiber and nutrition. Hmm.
Locally, I can get some leaf mold from the river. It’s a bit on the chunky side, but a whole lot better than the abused native soil in my yard. We’ll say that will take care of the compost part of the formula.
Rice hulls are sold by the bag at the local viveros (nurseries), so since they take a couple of years to decompose, I can use them instead of vermiculite.
And finally, I can buy big bags of well composted cow manure, so the nutrient angle is covered there too.
But that’s not really ‘finally,’ is it? I don’t have the water retention angle covered very well. But…I heard about using diapers (minus the plastic covers) for water retention. The gel in them absorbs three times its own weight, so I’m hitting the dollar store and hoping this plan works. We won’t be taking the highly ecological but aesthetically unpleasing suggestion that the diapers be “gently used,” however. Go ahead and hallucinate whether it bothers my conscience or not – it’s moot. I’m off the hook on that one, je-je, because I don’t know any families with sufficiently young children. (Plus, I’d have to know them pretty well to ask for their used diapers. I mean, really. Can’t you just see it? Talk about a Crazy Gringa…)
Once this stuff is all mixed together, I’ll check the Ph using the Fizz Test, which is a home grown version of a soil test: Get two jars and put some of your garden soil in each. Try to get just soil – no rocks, no plant material, just soil. Break it up up into smallish bits. Into one jar, pour some vinegar and stir it with a spoon. If it fizzes, your soil is alkaline (it’s reacting with the acid in the vinegar). Into the other jar, pour some plain water. Then dump in some baking soda. If it fizzes, your soil is acid. The baking soda is reacting with the acid.
If you want to see it done and want to know just how careful you should be with your measurements, watch this very entertaining short video made by Shepard School and published on YouTube.
If the soil leans too much one way or the other for what I plan to plant, I’ll amend it. I rather suspect the local stuff tends to alkalinity, because the farmers here burn everything at the end of the dry season, and although the ash is incorporated into the soil, they lose an awful lot of organic material that way. The deforestation and burning are basically why the area is so dry.
What to use for an amendment? Obviously, ash if it’s too acid. And if it’s too alkaline, I’ll just weight the leaf mold part of the recipe a bit more heavily.
I’m planning to harvest rainwater in season to help with the dry time, and I’m looking at various ways I can run a drip system without paying a fortune.
We’ll see how this plays out.