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Mar 20 2016

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Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: Gardening in the Wind

GardeningWithSteve_smI’d never gardened in a windy place before I came to Costa Rica. Our property is situated in the mountains, on top of a ridge, and from December through March the Trade Winds hit that ridge at a right angle. There were no windbreaks when we got here (and not even any trees) and I figured the wind was going to be a problem. But I told myself, let’s just start the garden and see what happens. The winds flattened everything. Not only was it flattened, plants were yanked out of the ground by their roots. We used to joke that we’d have to run a rope line from the house down to the garden so I could hang on to it to keep from being blown away.

During the last six years I’ve learned to deal with the wind. I had to – it was cope, or quit. By the way, if you live in the southern Pacific side of Costa Rica, or in the Caribbean lowlands, you’re lucky because strong winds are unusual in those areas.

Here is some advice, based on what I’ve learned.

SOLUTION 1 – DON’T GARDEN DURING THE DRY (i.e., windy) SEASON

Here’s the easiest strategy – don’t garden during the windiest months, December through March. There is some logic to this because this is also the dry season, a good time to give your garden a rest. But there are some problems – what about protecting fruit trees and ornamental plants during these months? Sometimes there are strong winds at other times of the year (July 2014, for example, was a very windy month at our place). And, there are some folks (like me) who garden straight through the dry season.

SOLUTION 2 – BUILD A WALL

Building a stone or concrete wall is a quick and effective way to protect your plants. Of course, it’s also the most expensive. You can save time and money by using baldosas – prefab cement slabs, but they are not very attractive. Walls can also provide aesthetic value. If it’s an exterior wall to your property it also provides some security. The first wall we built was for security. Previous to the wall we had a barbed-wire fence. Barbed-wire fences don’t keep out bad people, only good people. Once the wall was finished we discovered it provided an aesthetic backdrop for our flowerbeds. You can do a variety of things with walls, such as paint murals on them or grow ivy to beautify them.

The wall and arbor protecting our pond

The wall and arbor protecting our pond

The second wall we built was to provide some wind protection for our pond. It was very effective. We built an arbor on the leeward side of the wall, and so it also provides shade. One good thing about walls and wind, the wall actually creates a cushion of air on the windward side as the wind goes up and over. Plants growing against the wall on the windward side are actually protected to some degree, not a whole lot, but some. We planted the vines to cover the arbor on the windward side, and they are actually doing just fine.

A bad thing about walls is that because they stop the wind completely, they create a very strong high pressure on the windward side, and a very low pressure on the leeward side. As Isaac Newton said: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We witnessed this on the leeward side of our house, where the wind creates strong eddies that can damage plants almost as much as if they were on the windward side. This leads to the last two methods, fences and hedges.

SOLUTION 3 – BUILD A FENCE

Fences can also be quick and effective, and they are usually much cheaper than walls. One of the cheapest options is to install posts and cover them with corrugated metal. These can be kind of an eyesore, but there are many creative ways to beautify them. You can design a fence so that it allows some of the wind to blow through it. I highly recommend this. Not only will this reduce the huge difference in pressure on either side of the fence, thereby dampening the eddy effect, it will also lesson the chance of the wind blowing your fence down. Yes, not only are fences blown down in our neighborhood, some friends even had a cement-block wall blown down. So build a sturdy foundation for your wall or fence and build diagonal struts to support it on the leeward side.

The fence protecting the vegetable garden

The fence protecting the vegetable garden

This leads to the fence that our handyman, Don Alexis, built for our vegetable garden. After everything was destroyed by the wind we talked over what kind of a fence he could build that would be most effective. Putting my trust in his good judgment, I was well rewarded. Don Alexis welded together a vertical steel frame ten feet tall. He built a solid cement foundation and diagonal struts on the leeward side to strengthen it. To the frame he welded heavy-duty welded wire mesh (it’s called maya electrosoldada in Spanish). Over this he secured shade cloth (sarán en Spanish). He covered the fence with two layers of shade cloth and spent extra effort to fastening it securely to the frame. The wind tugs at the shade cloth 24-7 and it has required maintenance at least twice a year. Six years later it looks pretty ragged, but it’s still there doing its job. One thing about walls and fences, besides stopping the wind, they also create shade, not something you’d normally want in a vegetable garden. So by using shade cloth, Don Alexis lessened the impact of the wind, reduced the eddy effect, and also lessened the shade that a wall or solid fence would have created. After the first fence was such a big success, I had Don Alexis build a second one downwind from the first.

SOLUTION 4 –GROW A HEDGE

Once the emergency was over I began thinking about hedges. Hedges can be very effective windbreaks (and they are considerably cheaper than walls and fences) but you must be patient while they grow, and once they are in place they require maintenance. One excellent feature of hedges, they allow some of the wind through, therefore reducing the eddy effect.

So what kind of tree or shrub should you plant for a hedge? That’s a good question, and the answer depends to a large degree on what part of Costa Rica you live in. We live in the highlands, so I have no experience with hedges in places like, say, Guanacaste.

My first experience was with trueno (Ligustrum lucidum). My neighbors had planted it along the property line about a year before we built our house. I decided to locate the vegetable garden down the hill near that property line. When I planned the garden and looked at the hedge, I thought, that’s a nice little row of shrubs, the garden will be safe from their roots if I keep it ten feet away. WRONG. Trueno can grow to be 25 feet tall, which is not a problem, but it is a heavy feeder and its roots can go out almost 20 feet. After a year I noticed the plants on side of the garden nearest the hedge had become stunted and yellow. I started digging and discovered the soil had become a solid mass of tree roots. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. So although trueno creates a good windbreak, don’t plan on growing anything within 20 feet of it. Also, because of its vigorous growth, it needs to be pruned back heavily twice a year. Trueno does well here at 5,000 feet elevation and it can grow well down to about 3,400 feet.

Cypress hedge

Cypress hedge

Cypress trees are the most common windbreak in our area. The variety that grows here is Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica). I don’t think it will grow well down more then about 4,000 feet elevation. I was warned not to plant cypress because it (like trueno) is a heavy feeder and you can’t really grow anything else near it.  But where we live cypress does create the best windbreak, so I eventually began planting it. I now have one hedge about ten feet tall, have started a second, and am planning a third, which I hope to grow to about twenty feet tall.

Hibiscus hedge on the left, trueno hedge in the background

Hibiscus hedge on the left, trueno hedge in the background

Hibiscus is another option. It grows well here in the highlands and also grows well at middle and low elevations. It is not as effective as trueno or cypress, but is much more attractive and is not as destructive to the soil. There are many different kinds of hibiscus and some make more effective windbreaks than others. I’ve found the variety with the little scarlet nodding closed-flowers is the best. It goes by a variety of names, but our neighbors call it amapolita (scientific name: Malvaviscus pendufloris).

Bamboo hedge

Bamboo hedge

This brings us to the last option, bamboo, something I’ve not tried because, like the cypress, I was warned against it. The problem with most varieties of bamboo is the rampant growth of their rhizomes, which will gradually spread out and eventually take over everything. Years ago in South Carolina I was the gardener at our church. There was a two-lane asphalt highway in front of the church and there were concrete sidewalks on either side. The neighbor across the road planted bamboo. As God is my witness, I tell you the bamboo grew under both sidewalks and the highway and came up in the church garden. When I explained what had happened at the annual membership meeting, one of the parishioners exclaimed, “That bamboo is the work of the devil.” I’ve heard you can control bamboo by creating an underground wall around it, but I have never tried this. Sounds like a lot o work.

Several years ago our neighbor planted a bamboo fence, and it has proved to be an effective windbreak. First he built a fence using cement posts and then ran five or six horizontal strands of wire to support the bamboo. Next he planted a very small variety bamboo (sorry, I don’t know the name) that I see a lot of here in the highlands. It formed a very dense hedge about ten feet high. I’ve noticed each year it gets a little denser and spreads a little to the sides.

For those who have serious wind problems, I hope you find this information useful. Maybe you will discover a better way to stop the wind. Good luck and happy gardening.

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