Mar 29 2015

Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: The Challenges

by Steve Johnson

GardeningWithSteve_smThe number one reason I retired to Costa Rica was to garden. Being an avid gardener, my thinking was: (1) with the tropical weather I could garden year round, (2) we bought a lot on the side of a volcano and volcanic soil, I understood, was very fertile, (3) I could grow lots of tropical plants that I couldn’t back in the States, and (4) although I was aware that Costa Rica had by far the highest rate of pesticide usage in the world (which was of great concern), I could grow much of our own pesticide-free food.

As I mentioned in the first article, when we moved to Costa Rica things kind of blew up in our faces. Much of this had to do with the garden. I’m not a quitter. As issues confronted us one by one, we said to ourselves, well, we can cash in our chips now, or we can stay in the game. If all of these issues had hit us at the same time, we might have quit. But that’s not how it happened. And as we responded to each issue, the stakes got higher, so more motivation to stay in the game.


I did some research and discovered that San Jose got 70 inches of rain a year. GardenRainWe were going to live seven miles due north of San Jose — FANTASTIC. About the time we arrived I discovered weather data for Barva (only three miles away, as the Yigüirro flies): 90 inches a year – still okay, maybe even better. Our first year here it rained 125 inches!!! Oops. As it turned out, that was an unusually wet year. It averages about 110 inches, still more than I’d anticipated. I solved this problem mainly by planting the vegetable garden in raised beds and incorporating sand and organic matter into the soil to improve drainage. It is so rainy in September and October, though, I pretty much stay out of the garden those months. So much for gardening year round, but hey, ten months isn’t bad.

My wife, Maria, grew up in San Rafael de Heredia. We opted to live in Concepcion (a district of San Rafael) because it was more rural and higher up, and, therefore, cooler. (I know many of you moved here to escape the cold winters of the far north, or the gloomy winters of the Pacific Northwest (where I grew up}), but before moving to Costa Rica we’d lived for almost 30 years in the Deep South, and we came here, in part, to escape the heat). During my visits over 40 some years, I knew what the temperatures were like and knew to expect wind during the dry months. The folks in San Rafael warned us: oh, it’s so cold up in Concepcion, you’ll freeze to death. We’d lived in Connecticut for seven years, so we just laughed that off. What we didn’t know was how much windier it was in Concepcion (only two and a half miles from downtown San Rafael), how much wetter it was (we get blow-over from the Caribbean side), and that there was a cultural communication problem. When the locals said “cold” they meant “wind.” The firstWind-Cartoon year the wind blew the gutters off one of our neighbor’s house and blew another neighbor’s wall down. At least once a week we lost our power due to branches falling on the power lines. Everything in the garden was flattened. Many of the things I planted were literally ripped out of the ground. No kidding. The wind grabbed my beets and as far as I know they landed somewhere in the next canton. One day I finally lost my temper with a neighbor during a windstorm. He was going on and on about how cold it was and I said it wasn’t cold, it was windy (he was holding onto a post to keep from being blown away) and he corrected me, “No, cold,” he said. You can’t argue with these people. For him it will forever be cold, and for me it will forever be windy.

And the high winds explained something — I’d noticed on Google Earth that beginning right about where we purchased our lot, and from there going on up the volcanic range the landscape consisted of light green patches boxed in by dark green rectangles. What I discovered was that the light green patches were pastures and the dark green rectangles were hedgerows created by planting cypress trees. To block the wind up here you need hedges at least 100 feet tall. NOW I understand!

So what I did first was to hire a handyman to build windbreaks made of a metal frame and covered with shade-cloth. The neighbors, I’m sure, thought this was extravagant on my part, but I’m getting old and I can’t afford to wait 20 years for those cypress trees to get 100 feet tall.

GardenDirtTHE SOIL

The soil was our single biggest problem. Our property is surrounded by vegetable farms. The soil up here is black gold. Except on OUR property. The previous owner had abused the land – planted the same crops over and over until (he told us AFTER we purchased the property) he couldn’t get anything to grow on it. And the builder — he and his workers buried literally tons of concrete and other debris on the property and covered it up with clay so we wouldn’t know the difference. Our beautiful topsoil was under ten inches of hardpan and rubble. The first dry season my shovel just bounced of the clay and the first wet season the clay sucked my boots right off my feet. It was impossible stuff. We could have cut it into rectangles and sold it as adobe bricks. The concrete changed the pH of the soil from 6.5 (slightly acid, and close to ideal) to 7.5 (too alkaline). Everything I planted the first year either died or was blown away.


African star grass

African star grass

The third thing was the African star grass. After the builder buried the rubble and covered it up with clay, the star grass moved in at the speed of summer lightning. In a couple of months the entire lot was covered with the stuff. It’s a type of Bermuda grass — I call it Bermuda grass on steroids. It’s roots and rhizomes from below wrapped themselves around everything we planted and the grass leaves smothered the plants from above. The locals told me the only way to get rid of it was to apply three applications of Roundup over a three month period. The only problem with that solution was that Roundup is bad for the environment and so I refused to use it.  Another solution was to dig it up and pull it out by the roots, a tedious and backbreaking task. I couldn’t do it myself so I began hiring workers to do it for me. They dug and chopped at it, but did a very ho-hum job of getting rid of the roots. I patiently explained that the whole point was to get rid of the roots. They were going to have to sift the soil to completely extirpate the star grass. If one single piece were left, in a year I’d be right back where I started. The workers hemmed and hawed, I offered to pay them extra, but they continued to do the same miserable job. I thanked them and told them not to come back.

The vegetable garden in 2010 with rudimentary windbreaks and black plastic to kill the star grass.

The vegetable garden in 2010 with rudimentary windbreaks and black plastic to kill the star grass.

After racking my brain I finally came up with a solution, and it worked – black plastic. I covered vast areas of dirt with two layers of thick black plastic, and weighted it down with stones. After six months I lifted up the plastic and there wasn’t a trace of star grass. Tah-dah!

So after a year I was getting a handle on two of my three problems. I was totally exhausted, but I still had to do something about the clay and rubble. As I mentioned early in the article, I am not a quitter. I was going to have my garden even if it killed me, which it pretty near did. After five years I am happy to report that I have a wonderful vegetable garden, the ornamental plants are looking good, and I actually have some small trees. More on the clay and rubble in the next segment.

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