Jan 30 2016

Retire for Less in Costa Rica – January 30, 2016

Welcome to our Retire For Less In Costa Rica Newsletter

Paul and Gloria

In This Special Gardening Issue:



Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve – Gardening for Wildlife

When we began gardening many years ago, we also started feeding wild birds at about the same time. It wasn’t long before we realized the two activities were interconnected. We observed the birds’ habits, learned what things were beneficial for them and began modifying our garden accordingly. Later we became attuned to other types of wildlife, including butterflies, bees, squirrels, raccoons, snakes, bats, and many other creatures. GardeningWithSteve_smThis opened up a whole new world to us. It was educational, entertaining, and made us feel part of the natural world around us. We eventually realized that many people were going through this life change at the same time we were. For example, for many years the staff at the South Carolina Botanical Garden, which was just a mile from our home, had offered a series of courses to teach people to become Master Gardeners. About a year before we left they began a second set of courses to teach people to become Master Naturalists.

Gardening for wildlife is much more than just putting out food for birds. The next logical step is to grow plants that provide food (such as nuts, fruit and seeds) for birds and all types of animals and insects. After you take this second step you will eventually come to realize that the key is to create a habitat that is wildlife friendly in as many ways as possible.

They all go together. To illustrate, when we put up our bird feeder in Costa Rica our yard was bare of trees and shrubs. Not many birds came to the feeder. After a few years when trees and shrubs had grown up we got a lot more birds. What we noticed was that birds approach the feeder very cautiously because they are worried about predators. They will sit and hide in the trees and shrubs first while they check out the area. If they are unable to do this, many birds will not come to the feeder.

In South Carolina we put out mostly seeds and nuts, plus suet in winter. These attracted many different kinds of birds. Here in Costa Rica we put out fruit (mainly semi-ripe or ripe plantains and papaya). There are many birds here that are fruit and nectar eaters. In fact, we’ve counted 25 different species that come to our feeder. You can also put out cracked corn and cooked rice, which will attract rufous-collared sparrows (comemaiz), pigeons and doves and a few other kinds of birds.

In South Carolina we had a nectar feeder for the ruby-throated hummingbirds. When we moved here we did the same thing because we had no flowers. We noticed the feeders attracted rufous-tailed hummingbirds. They are very territorial and drove off all the other kinds of hummers. After three years we had lots of flowers and so took down the feeders. The return of the other hummers has been a very slow process. My advice is to plant lots of hummingbird-friendly flowers and to not put up feeders.

When we arrived in Costa Rica in 2009 we set out immediately to garden for wildlife. We had a lot to learn because so many plants and animals are different here, and we are still learning (and, of course, we will never stop learning). But we were surprised to find some of the same plants here, and some of the same or similar animals that naturally went with them.

Here is a list of plants (and the insects or birds they attract) we’ve grown both in the US and Costa Rica. The first four on the list you can find at local viveros.

  • Lantana (cinco negritos) – attracts butterflies (especially skippers) and bees


  • Fennel (hinojo) – attracts black swallowtail butterflies
Black swallowtail caterpillar

Black swallowtail caterpillar

  • Passion flower (pasiflora) – in South Carolina we had a purple variety (Passiflora incarnata) that attracted gulf frittilary butterflies. There are many kinds of passion flowers in Costa Rica, but the one that hosts the gulf frittilary is the red variety (Passiflora racemosa).
Red Passiflora with stingless bees

Red Passiflora with stingless bees

Gulf fritillaries hatching

Gulf fritillaries hatching

  • Moonflower – attracts hawk moths
  • Pokeweed – attracts many kinds of fruit-eating birds. It grows wild and if there are some growing in your neighborhood you can pick the berries and plant them. The variety here looks a little different, but you can identify it by its red stems and purple berries.


  • Angel’s trumpet (reina de la noche or trompeta; scientific name is Brugmansia) – attracts honeybees, stingless bees and bats
  • Morning glory (churistate, campanita) – attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds
  • Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) – attracts butterflies


We have two types of water features in our yard: glass birdbaths and a large pond with a waterfall. Each type seems to attract different kinds of wildlife. The birdbaths sit on metal legs near the bird feeder. They are visited daily by clay-colored thrushes who both drink and bathe in the water. They are sometimes used by white-eared ground sparrows, great kiskadees, rufous-collared sparrows, and grayish saltators. By the way, if you have a birdbath it should be either glazed or painted ceramic, glass, or metal – they have smooth surfaces and are easy to clean (they should be emptied, cleaned, and refilled daily). We once had a concrete birdbath and it was almost impossible to clean.

The pond attracts mainly great kiskadees and tropical kingbirds, but sometimes doves, warblers, rufous-collared sparrows, tanagers, great egrets and kingfishers.

Yellow warbler bathing in pond

Yellow warbler bathing in pond

The kiskadees perch on nearby structures or branches and dive into the water to catch small fish (you will need fish to prevent mosquitoes from breeding). Tropical kingbirds skim across the surface and appear to take sips of water. Egrets and kingfishers eat the larger fish. The other birds bathe around the edges of the pond.

Great egret swallowing one of our koi

Great egret swallowing one of our koi



The pond also attracts dragonflies, damselflies, and cane toads (Rhinella marina (formerly Bufos marinus)).



We have a problem with the toads. Although they’re beneficial in that they eat flying insects, such as mosquitoes and houseflies, they also eat frogs (which we like), are toxic to dogs, and are very noisy. One toad croaking isn’t too bad, but when you get 50 of them out there, all croaking at once, you can’t hear yourself think. Many people think of these toads as an invasive species (they certainly are in Australia where they were introduced and have created havoc with the environment there), however they are native to Central America. When they become a nuisance I relocated them several miles away from our property.

We have two types of frogs: vaillant’s frogs (Rana vaillanti) and yellow-eyed leaf frogs (Agalychnis annae).

Vaillants frog

Vaillants frog

Both are native and both were obtained from eggs laid in water-filled ditches near our property. The former live in and around the pond and the latter live in damp leafy areas of the yard, but return to the pond each rainy season to lay their eggs. We love the soft croaking of these frogs and they are not noisy or a nuisance like the cane toads.

Frog- and fish-filled ponds tend to attract snakes, which we like. However, if you live below 4,000 feet elevation, where there are fer-de-lance snakes (terciopelos) you might want to take this into consideration before you create your own pond.


We have many kinds of bees in our garden, including honeybees, little black stingless bees (congas in Spanish), and several kinds of bumblebees. We also have a type of solitary bee called chiquisá (not sure if it is a bumblebee or not). To the best of my knowledge all honeybees in Costa Rica are Africanized, meaning they are very aggressive and can, therefore, be dangerous. The accounts I’ve read of them attacking humans or animals have always been when someone unwittingly comes near their nest. We have lots of honeybees around the clover in our lawn and at or angel’s trumpet. I’ve run over them with the lawnmower and even stepped on them with my bare feet and in six years I have not once been stung by one. So in my experience they’re not aggressive, or even defensive, when collecting nectar.

Clover with honeybee

Clover with honeybee

As for bumblebees, I have always liked them and was disappointed when I didn’t find any in Costa Rica. However, after close and continual observation I’ve discovered several different varieties. I’ve seen them on various types of flowers in the pea family and also on our purple and green passion flower (granadilla; scientific name – Passiflora ligularis).


I cannot say enough about how beneficial trees are to your garden. They bring up nutrients from the relatively sterile subsoil and deposit them on your topsoil in the form of fallen leaves and branches, which, if left alone, will turn into rich, organic humus. When the tree eventually dies the decaying trunk provides a bonanza of nutrients for plants, insects, and animals. Insects are near the bottom of the food chain and their reproduction will create a long-term overall benefit to your garden and its wildlife. Would you like to have some of those large woodpeckers (in Costa Rica they’re either lineated or pale-billed woodpeckers) in your garden?

Lineated woodpecker on crecopia tree

Lineated woodpecker on crecopia tree

The only way to attract them is to have decaying trees and tree limbs. Trees also help prevent soil erosion, help in water conservation, create wind barriers, and provide important habitat for a great variety of plants (such as bromeliads and orchids) and animals, especially birds. If you’re a stickler for a neat garden, thereby cleaning up debris from trees, you will end up with a wildlife-poor garden. Think about it.

Here is a short list of trees we have in our garden, and their benefits. By the way, try to stick with native trees as much as possible because native trees, insects, and animals have co-evolved over the eons and have a way of going together naturally. All of the trees on this list are native species, with the exception of the cypress and callistemen. The birds mentioned here are the ones we have seen in our yard. These trees could attract other bird species in different parts of the country.

  • Cypress – good nesting sites for many kinds of birds.
Red poro_Gardening7

Red poro

  • Erythrina lanceolata (Poró rojo in Spanish) – There are many other kinds of poró trees in Costa Rica, but they are mostly not native and do not attract as many kinds of birds as the poró rojo does. When our tree is blooming in the dry season it is covered with hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, blue-gray tanagers, flame-colored tanagers, great kiskadees, and Tennessee warblers.
Blue-gray tanager

Blue-gray tanager

Flame-colored tanager

Flame-colored tanager

  • Weeping bottlebrush tree (Callistemen viminalis: isopo in Spanish) – attracts hummingbirds and stingless bees.

Callistemen with stingless bees

  • Mimosas – mimosa trees attract hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, tanagers, Tennessee and other kinds of warblers, and stingless bees. The angel hair mimosa (Calliandra calathyrsus (cabello de angel in Spanish)) is especially good.
Baltimore oriole

Baltimore oriole

  • Aguacatillo – This is a kind of wild avocado, with very small fruit. There are many different varieties. Resplendent quetzals love to eat the fruit. We have planted one, but since there are no longer quetzals in our area we don’t expect it to attract any (but, never say never).
  • Cecropia (guarumo in Spanish) – stingless bees, sloths, and many kinds of birds
  • Jocote – Birds and squirrels love to eat the flesh around the outside of its nuts.
  • Guijarro or huevo de caballo (Stemmadenia littoralis) – its seeds attract many kinds of birds
  • Tree tobacco (Acnistus arborescens; Güitite in Spanish) – attracts clay-colored thrushes and many kinds of fruit-eating birds. The bark is soft and spongy and is a great place to attach orchids.
  • Colpachí (also called corpachí, and copalchí) (Croton niveus) – squirrels and crimson-fronted parakeets.
Crimson-fronted parakeet in Colpachi

Crimson-fronted parakeet in Colpachi

  • Chayote – grayish saltators eat the tendrils and young tender fruit. Squirrels eat the young fruit.
  • Dama (Citharexylum donnell-smithii, the locals where we live call it huelenoche) – produces long strings of orange berries that are popular with many kinds of birds.


  • Tucuico (Ardisia revolute) – produces clusters of berries that are popular with many kinds of birds.
  • Targuá (Croton draco) – a fast-growing pioneer species in the highlands which attracts crimson-fronted parakeets.


Special mention needs to be made of porterweed (Stachytarpheta (rabo de gato, rabo de rata and many other common names in Spanish). I know of no other plant that attracts as many hummingbirds and butterflies as this one.  It’s easy to grow and if watered during the dry season, blooms all year.

Scintillent hummingbird on porterweed

Scintillent hummingbird on porterweed

Fosforillo (Hamelia patens; also called coralillo in Spanish) is another excellent flower for hummingbirds, other kinds of birds and butterflies. It is a large bush or small tree that seems to come up spontaneously all over our property. We suspect the seeds are transported by birds that have eaten its small fruit.



Aloe vera (sábila), originally from North Africa, blooms profusely, attracts hummingbirds and also has medicinal values.



Penta (another one from Africa) attracts butterflies. Fuchsia triphylla, also known as honeysuckle fuchsia and firecracker fuchsia, is a prolific bloomer and attracts hummingbirds.

Fuchsia triphylla


Many of the large heliconia species attract hummingbirds, tree frogs, and leaf frogs.

Hummingbird with heliconia


Last but not least is our climbing vine called Thunbergia mysorensis, which always seems to be covered with hummingbirds and Tennessee warblers.

Here are a couple of good web sites on gardening for wildlife:

If you do not take native plants and animals into your gardening strategy you will always have an uphill battle. If you garden with nature you can live more in harmony with the planet. It is more than just attracting birds, it is a different outlook on life.


Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve – Q & A


Good morning, I wanted to ask you a question regarding gardening in Costa Rica. We plan on moving to CR very soon and I have been looking at all of the expat blogs and any other information we can get our hands on, but keep coming across the fact that there are limited varieties of seeds available and that if you do get some that they do not grow very well in CR. I wonder if you are aware of this and have some thoughts on issues either with limited variety or with the environment. Thank you. Cheers,
Mike and Beth


A-graphicHi Mike and Beth,
I write the gardening column for Retire for Less. There is a big variety of seeds here in Costa Rica. You can grow many things here that you cannot grow in the US. Due to the different climate, gardening is different here. To succeed, you will have to adapt. For example, one of my favorite crops in Connecticut and South Carolina was Silver Queen corn. It is very difficult to grow in Costa Rica because it was developed to grow in a summer with 14-15 hours of sunlight each day. Due to Costa Rica’s proximity to the Equator, each day of the year has little variation from 12 hours of daylight, no less, no more. Silver Queen needs more hours of sunlight.seedpackets
What part of Costa Rica will you be living in? If it’s along the coast, you will not be able to grow cool weather crops. If you let me know what kind of things you are interested in growing I can probably give you some advice. Costa Rica is rich in microclimates — many things our friends grow 3-4 miles from us we cannot grow at our house due to temperature, rain, and wind differences.
If I want to order some seeds from a seed company in the US I have them shipped to one of my sons and they bring them when they visit each year. It is technically illegal to bring seeds in your luggage, but they’ve been doing it for six years and have never been stopped. The worst case scenario is that the seeds could be confiscated.
Happy gardening!
Steve Johnson


Featured Property: San Ramón-New, Affordable, Comfortable Home with Beautiful Views-$89K Reduced!

197-housesideProperty ID: 197

Sell:$89,000 USD (Reduced from $144K)

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5 year old home with laminate flooring, tiled kitchen counter-tops, upgraded kitchen cabinets and bathroom, concrete driveway, front porch, reserve water tank. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the mountains with incredible views. The land is planted with many different types of fruit trees. A smaller home which requires very little maintenance, perfect for a couple or a single person. Five minutes away from downtown San Ramon but in a quiet area away from noise and pollution.


Click here for more photos and information and to contact the realtor for this property.

Though we recommend you rent, rent, rent when you move to Costa Rica, we realize that some folks will still choose to buy, either early on or after they’ve been here for a while. We recommend purchasing properties under $150,000 because they are both easier to buy and easier to sell. Though we are not realtors, we work with trusted realtors who have many other properties in this price range available. The homes we feature are just a sample of the properties the realtors we work with have, both above and below $150,000.

Click here to check out our other properties under $150,000 and read about what to do before you buy.


Our Ultimate Healthcare Tour of Costa Rica

Our newest tour is the Ultimate Healthcare Tour of Costa Rica. When asked what he liked best about our healthcare tour, one of our guests wrote, “the wide variety of places we saw, the experts that Paul HCTOUR_030arranged for us to meet and talk with, and an emphasis on all aspects of health, not just doctors and hospitals. Mental health is just as important as physical, if not more so.”HCTOUR_008

We’ve lived in Costa Rica for over six and a half years and have used the Caja, Costa Rica’s public healthcare system extensively, as well as the private system, when needed. We’ve learned the system and have been referred up the ladder to see specialists in the maze that is the Caja system. Gloria’s even had surgery here.

Our blend of personal insights and on-the-ground experience combines to answer your questions about whether or not Costa Rica’s healthcare system could meet your individual needs.


But, while it is focused on healthcare, you will learn a lot more about living and retiring in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Most of the second day of the tour takes place in the town of San Ramón where we live and use the services. And you will come to our home for lunch that day to listen to two of our featured speakers.

Our tour is designed to save you both time and money, packing a lot of information into a short period of time. Our goal is to show you the possibilities and to try to demystify Costa Rica’s healthcare system. Our tour lasts two days and 1 night and includes lodging, transportation, meals and non-alcoholic beverages.

Sample Itinerary

You’ll visit:

  • At least two private hospitals in San Jose area
  • Hospital Mexico, the largest and best public hospital (they even do open heart surgeries there)HospitalMexico
  • An insurance broker for a presentation on the various supplemental health insurance options, including public, private, and international plans
  • A senior living retirement community
  • CPI language school for a presentation about how learning Spanish increases your options for healthcare and some basic medical Spanish.
  • Our local hospital here in San Ramón
  • A local EBAIS (community clinic)
  • A local private medical and dental clinic
  • A local Seguro Social office where you would sign up for the Caja (national healthcare coverage)
  • A pharmacy
  • A health food store (macrobiotica), and more!


You’ll learn:

  • If the Costa Rican healthcare system could meet your needs and put your mind to rest, once and for all, about this sensitive subject.
  • About the public system and how it works, about the private healthcare system, and how you can use a combination of both to your advantage.
  • About the EBAIS – where healthcare starts in Costa Rica.
  • Approximately how much you would pay for Caja.
  • About medical tourism in Costa Rica.
  • About home health care in Costa Rica.

Introductory prices: $550 for a couple, $450 for a single.
Please contact us if you are interested in booking this tour. Space is limited.

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