San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Go Green in Your Garden This Dry Season

As the global economic situation continues to deteriorate, gardens, more than ever, can play an important role in helping families ease the budget by producing an abundance of food right in the backyard. We are fortunate here in Costa Rica to have a tropical climate that allows us to garden throughout the year; however, I d like to share a few secrets with you to help keep your garden productive during el verano, the dry season.

Each year, Costa Rica faces several months of dry, hot weather, practically without rainfall, from January through April. A blazing tropical sun can overheat exposed soils, endangering the biotic life in the topsoil.

Plants become dehydrated quickly in these dry conditions and wilt rapidly without heavy irrigation.

First, cut your gardening activities back so you don t overstretch yourself or your water supply. Use a few beds with plenty of diversity. Closer spacing between plants will shade the soil below to slow evaporation and lower soil temperatures.

Instead of burning those grass clippings and dried leaves from around the home which contributes to global warming try mulching your garden with these valuable organic materials. Mulching is one of the best water-conserving tricks a gardener can use. Your soil will stay moist and cool, permitting better root growth and greater worm activity in the bioactive zone.

Use 15 centimeters or more of fresh mulch on beds and walkways. In a short time, this will compact to a five- to seven-centimeter protective covering, giving your garden an attractive carpeted effect. Mulch is also a great cover for dormant planting beds. It keeps the ground moist and weed-free, while worms stay busy aerating the soil. As the rains return, this mulch can be incorporated into the soil to increase its fertility.

Water your garden in the late afternoon or evening. This prevents loss of water to evaporation by the sun. Watering in the evening helps more dew to condense on the garden during the night.

Hand-watering with a garden hose equipped with a showerhead is the simplest and most efficient method. Try to water the soil around the roots of the plants, instead of watering the foliage; more moisture will then be trapped in the soil under the mulch.

Finally, if you really want to become a home garden ecologist, you can retrofit your plumbing so the water from your showers and sinks can be collected for watering. Of course, you ll also need to switch over to biodegradable soaps to keep the gray water safe for plants. This is a practice that really reduces your water bill and puts your home on the green list.

As mentioned in previous articles, try to design your home garden and landscaping with xeriscaping in mind (TT, Jan. 19, 2007).

The term stems from the Greek word xeros, meaning dry, and was coined in the U.S. state of Colorado s Denver Water Department during the early 1980s, before quickly spreading to the Southwestern states, California and Florida.

A xeriscape design consists of three important zones. The oasis zone is located nearest to the house and should contain showy plants and the vegetable garden, which require frequent irrigation. The drought-tolerant zone, where plants need an occasional watering during dry times, may consist of fruit trees and drought-resistant ornamental plants. Finally, the natural zone, which ideally needs no watering during the dry season, is usually away from the home, with little traffic and visibility, and should consist of totally native plants that weather the dry season without water. For example, the hardy local lawn grass called jenjibrillo may turn brown during the dry season but never needs watering, and greens up as the rains return. Showy lawns use more water and require more maintenance than any other part of the home landscape.

Shade cloth, or saran, as it is known commercially, is another valuable addition to your summer garden. It helps tremendously to keep your garden cooler and lower evaporation rates. A 50 percent shade mesh is best for garden vegetables. Some gardeners opt for a bamboo frame constructed over the garden and topped with palm fronds, which can substitute the costlier shade cloth.

The selection of plants you grow in the dry season is also important. Tomatoes flourish during these dry months, as do onions, chives, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, radishes, mustard and chili peppers. Lettuce, carrots, peas, cabbage, beans and cucumbers, however, grow poorly during the dry season.

By following these suggestions and with a little practice, you too can harvest fresh produce from your home garden in the dry season.

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