At that time my grandmother was growing organic vegetables and fruits in her Seattle back yard – organic by principle or by thrift I never really knew. My mother had a wild, fantastic ornamental garden filling every bit of her tiny city lot. Both were masters of thoughtful design in all aspects of their homes and gardens.
So, although until then I had been more interested in bicycles than gardens, those watermelon seeds landed on fertile ground – in more sense than one.
Inspired by that watermelon and by the heap of rubble, I built my own raised garden beds just inside the barbed wire fence that kept the cows at arm’s length. I threw the construction debris in the bottom and loaded local black earth up to the rim. Rice chaff helped keep the soil loose while we waited for our compost pile to break down.
But how would I learn to produce vegetables in this new place? Heck, I didn’t know how to produce vegetables back in Seattle. I asked a commercial grower friend about getting started, and I took his advice to “cure” the soil of tropical plagues with chemicals. It didn’t take me long to learn that I’d just poisoned my season’s plantings along with all soil life, good, bad or indifferent. First lesson: follow local advice only after critical evaluation. But that would not be much of an obstacle, as few Panamanians keep garden beds. Temperate climate vegetables are produced commercially in a small region of arable highlands near where we live. Seeds and supplies are measured by the kilo rather than the gram. Local advice on backyard vegetable gardening was not plentiful.
In 1994 the internet was not yet a rich source of information, so I gathered up a small pile of standard USA gardening books (mostly from Rodale Press) and set myself to experimenting. I just assumed that I was in a whole different gardening world, and that anything I had learned from my grandmother would be useless. I prepared myself for gardening in a climate similar to the subtropical South. But after sowing okra and peanuts along with broccoli, lettuce and snap peas, I found I had the best success with vegetable seeds that were developed for the high humidity and moderate temperatures of the Maritime Northwest. My grandmother would have been perfectly comfortable gardening in Volcan, Panama!
The little raised beds, one repurposed for a clay oven, are long gone, as is the second generation garden, replaced by my current expanse of in-ground beds divided by paved walkways. I have enough area to dedicate a quarter of it each year to cover crop, velvet bean (Mucuna deeringiana), and still always have the luxury of space to fit in one more plant.
My most successful food crops are broccoli, cabbage, string beans, snap peas, lettuce, Asian greens, and zucchini (until the pickleworms, Diaphania nitidalis, arrive and wipe them out). By trying many varieties of each of the vegetables that are resistant to local pests, I have settled on those that do well in my area and taste great. I have been eating side shoots of the same ‘Belstar’ broccoli plants for six months; little ‘Gonzalez’ cabbage doesn’t keep too well, but it is so juicy that I eat wedges like fruit.
Failures include tomatoes inevitably ravaged by late blight, peppers tend to suffer from a mysterious flower-drop syndrome, eggplant simply doesn’t thrive, and I think okra doesn’t get enough heat. Powdery mildew is a serious but preventable problem on cucurbits and I check under leaves of the cruciferous vegetables for caterpillars once a week, applying Bt only occasionally. I pretty much give up on zucchini once the pickleworms arrive, though I might try the paper-bagging method I learned of as I was writing this.
We enjoy a continuous growing season in the tropical highlands, but in contrast to the subtropics, we never have the high temperatures needed to ripen certain tree fruits, such as mangos. Nor do we get the chill period that parsnips, brussels sprouts or horseradish need to develop their special flavors.