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Oct 06 2015

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Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve – What to Grow in Peak Rainy Season

Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve

People used to ask me why I was moving to Costa Rica. My answer was always: “to garden.” “Well,” someone once said, “you can garden here, and you can garden in a lot of places, why Costa Rica?” I thought about it and answered, “Because in Costa Rica I can garden twelve months out of the year.”

So I came and I gardened. Then the first September arrived. It happened to be a “La Niña” year (2010). It rained and it rained and it rained some more. My umbrella became a permanent extension of my right hand. Most of the news on TV was about houses flooding and bridges washing out. Then October arrived. It got worse. When all was said and done the combined September-October rain total was 36 inches. Maybe it was a fluke, I thought. The following September-October we got 48 inches. Oops!

The rain had swallowed my garden, and I, my pride. Now my official line is: “I moved to Costa Rica so I could garden ten months out of the year.” The safest and easiest approach to gardening in September and October is to just close up shop. Read a book, watch TV, but don’t even think about gardening. It’s kind of like January in the States – that’s when you read seed catalogs and dream about gardening. It’s not just the rain, it’s also the humidity and the lack of sun. Plants can’t take it. If they don’t die, they at least go into a coma.

Maria with our chayote harvest in South Carolina. The collie next to Maria is named (appropriately) Pumpkin. We brought Pumpkin with us to Costa Rica and he watches me garden here.

Maria with our chayote harvest in South Carolina. The collie next to Maria is named (appropriately) Pumpkin. We brought Pumpkin with us to Costa Rica and he watches me garden here.

Staying out of the garden is the advice I give to others, but if truth be known, I simply couldn’t tear myself away from the garden. I was out there with umbrella and galoshes grieving over my sick and dying plants. But more than that, I was experimenting, and (VOILA!) I came up with some solutions.

  1. Raised beds are essential
  2. A greenhouse is even better (or simply, flower pots under a roof)
  3. Fight fire with fire – begin an aquatic garden (i.e., a pond)
  4. Ayotes and chayotes and carrots (oh my). Oh, and celery too.

AYOTES & CHAYOTES

Ayotes (squash) and chayotes can take the rain. They can also grow in just about every climate zone in Costa Rica, from sea level to 5,000 feet elevation, or more. They are native to the Americas. When Christopher Columbus set foot on Costa Rican soil on September 18, 1502, the native Americans had already been growing them here for hundreds if not thousands of years. They are both in the cucurbit or gourd family and grow on vines. You can find both ayotes and chayotes in your local market or feria.

Ayote growing on the vine.

Ayote growing on the vine.

AYOTES

In the case of ayotes, buy a very ripe one and dig out the seeds before cooking the squash. Wash the seeds and allow them to sit in the sun for several days before storing in a dry place. Before planting, prepare the soil by digging a hole about three feet wide by a foot deep. Add rich top soil, wood ashes and a wheelbarrow load of well-rotted horse, cow, or chicken manure. In this mound, plant several seeds about an inch deep. After sprouting, thin them to about two or three plants. After a month or two add another half wheelbarrow of well-rotted manure.

Ayote vines travel along the ground. You might want to plant them away from the rest of the garden because one plant can take over an entire garden. Ayotes have few diseases or pests. Back in the States when I tried growing zucchinis and crook-necked yellow squash I usually had problems with stem borers. The ayote usually doesn’t have this problem because as the vine grows along the ground it sends out new roots every foot or so, so even if the borers cut off the supply of nutrients from the original roots the squash don’t suffer. You can harvest the young tender squash and prepare them like summer squash or you can harvest the mature squash and prepare them the same way you’d prepare butternut squash. Our favorite way to eat mature ayotes is in squash soup or pumpkin bread (yum). Here’s an article about growing ayotes that appeared in the Tico Times:

Chayote on the vine

Chayote on the vine

CHAYOTES

There are three kinds of chayotes, but they all (to me, anyway) taste pretty much the same – white (blanco), pale green (verde), and dark green (negro).

When looking in the market or feria for a chayote to plant try to find one that has already sprouted. Plant it half in and half out of the ground, at about a 45 degree angle, with the fat end down. Both the roots and vines come out of the fat end. Prepare the soil about the same way you’d do for ayotes.

Chayote vines like to climb so you should plant them next to a trellis or some other structure. Ticos frequently plant them along fences or hedges. We grew chayotes at our home in South Carolina and I planted them next to the woodshed, which the vines and leaves covered, completely.

Our woodshed in South Carolina covered with chayote vines.

Our woodshed in South Carolina covered with chayote vines.

Chayote, like ayote, has few pests. Squirrels like to eat the fruit and a bird species called saltators like to eat the young, tender shoots and fruits.

Ticos usually eat chayotes in soup, diced with other vegetables (picadillo), or steamed or boiled. After several years you can also dig up the taproot and boil it (raiz de chayote). It is considered a delicacy, and this is the way I like it. I’m not a big fan of chayote, but they are considered so part of the Costa Rican culture that people say, “Soy mas tico que un chayote.” That’s kind of like saying, “I’m as American as apple pie.” Here are a couple of interesting articles about chayotes:

Carrots from my garden

Carrots from my garden

CARROTS AND CELERY

Carrots and celery, both introduced to Costa Rica by Europeans, grow fairly well during peak rainy season. They like full sun and in Costa Rica will only grow well at moderate and high elevations.

Okay, so now you have four different kinds of vegetables you can grow in peak rainy season. What more could one possibly want out of life?

 

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