San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Dry-Season Gardening Tips

EACH yearthe Pacific slopeand Central Valleyof Costa Rica facefour months ofdry, hot weather,practically withoutrainfall. A blazingtropical sun canoverheat exposedsoils, endangeringthe biotic life inthe topsoil. Earthworms,for example,retreat to thedepths of the soil and remain there until therains return. Plants become dehydratedquickly in these dry conditions, and wiltrapidly without constant irrigation. Manyfolks just give up gardening this time ofyear; but even though these are difficultmonths, there are several things you can doto keep your garden green and productive.First, cut your gardening activities backso you don’t overstretch yourself – or yourwater supply. Use a few beds with plenty ofdiversity. Closer spacing between plantswill shade the soil below to slow evaporationand lower soil temperatures.Mulching with grass clippings or driedleaves is one of the best water-conservingtricks a gardener can use. Your soil willstay moist and cool, permitting better rootgrowth and greater worm activity in thebioactive zone. Use 15 centimeters or moreof fresh mulch on beds and walkways. In ashort time, this will compact to a 5-7 cmprotective covering, giving your garden anattractive carpeted effect. Mulch is also agreat cover for dormant planting beds; itkeeps the ground moist and weed free,while worms stay busy aerating the soil. Asthe rains return, this mulch can be incorporatedinto the soil to increase soil fertility.Water your garden in the late afternoonor evening. This prevents excessive loss ofwater from evaporation by the sun.Watering in the evening helps more dew tocondense on the garden during the night.Try to water the soil instead of plantfoliage; more moisture will then be trappedin the soil under the mulch. Hand-wateringwith a garden hose equipped with a showerheadis the simplest and most efficientmethod.If you really want to become a homegarden ecologist, you can retrofit yourplumbing so the water from the showersand sinks can be collected for watering. Ofcourse, you’ll need to switch over tobiodegradable soaps, so the gray water issafe for plants, but this is a practice thatreally reduces your water bill and puts yourhome on the green list.As I mentioned in a previous article(TT, Feb. 6, 2004), try to design your homegarden and landscaping with xeriscaping inmind. The term derives from the Greekword, xeros, which means dry, and wascoined in Denver, Colorado’s water departmentduring the early ‘80s, quickly spreadingto the southwest states, California andFlorida.A xeriscape design consists of threeimportant zones. The oasis zone is nearestto the house and should contain showyplants and the vegetable garden, whichrequires frequent irrigation. The secondzone is the drought-tolerant zone, whereplants need an occasional watering duringdry times. This area may consist of fruittrees and other ornamental plants that aredrought resistant.Next is the natural zone, which ideallyneeds no watering during the dry season.This area is usually away from the homewith little traffic and visibility, and shouldconsist of totally native plants that weatherthe dry season without water. For example,the hardy local lawn grass called jenjibrillomay turn brown during the dryseason but never needs watering, andgreens up as the rains return. Experts sayshowy lawns use more water and requiremore maintenance than any other part ofthe home landscape.Shade cloth, or saran, as it’s knowncommercially, is another valuable additionto your summer garden. This helps tremendouslyto keep your garden cooler andlower evaporation rates. A50% shade meshis the best for garden vegetables. However,a bamboo frame constructed over the gardenand topped with palm fronds can substitutethe costlier shade cloth.You can find more on tropical gardening,plus books and seeds, at We’ll also try to answeryour gardening questions if you e-mailthem to

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