Carla BlackA gardening adventure in Panama

A watermelon vine sprawled across the heap of construction rubble. Half a year earlier we had carelessly spit seeds in celebration of our new house and our new beginning. I took it as a sign that I would have to become a gardener.
Volcan Baru from my house

Volcan Baru from my house

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.

With my mom

With my mom

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. 

Our new home was in the middle of a dairy cow pasture in the western highlands of Panama near the Costa Rican border, at 8 degrees north of the equator and 1300 m (4300 ft) elevation. Temperatures rarely go over the high 20s C (low 80s F) or below 10 C (50 F). For the next seven or eight years we divided our time between Panama in the dry season (called verano, or summer), and Washington state in the summer up there.
 
The view of Volcan Baru from my house

The view of Volcan Baru from my house

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. 

My first rubble raised beds back in 1994

My first rubble raised beds back in 1994

Turning the raised beds in 1996

Turning the raised beds in 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

Panama’s principal agricultural activity is lowland cattle ranching. Most of the population lives at sea level, and kitchen gardens consist of bananas, yuca (Manihot esculenta), papaya, a mango tree, self-seeding culantro (Eryngium foetidum) and a few perennial pigeon pea bushes (Cajanus cajan). Ornamental gardening is only slightly more developed, and mostly limited to plants that will grow from cuttings of the neighbor’s plants. 
Grandma, aged 94, shredding for the compost

Grandma, aged 94, shredding for the compost

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 as a clay oven

The little raised beds, one repurposed as a clay oven

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 newer in-ground veggie beds divided by walkways, 2007

My newer in-ground veggie beds divided by walkways, 2007

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. 

The veggie beds today

The veggie beds today

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. 

The veggie beds today

The veggie beds today

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. 

The intense rainfall in September and October still has me scratching my head and wondering what to try next. Seattle is famous for its damp weather, but with an annual precipitation of 36”, it sits high and dry compared to our average of 142” (3,600mm). Now I’m wondering if no-till gardening could ever work here; my well-mulched, well-amended beds are pretty darn solid at the end of rainy season. So I’ll continue to loosen the soil annually with a broad fork until I learn how to layer the beds successfully against tropical deluges.
 
My gardening adventure in Panama is one of experimentation and invention. Though it would have been wonderful to rely on readily available advice and supplies, this sinuous garden path has been fun to follow.

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Carla Black

About Carla Black

I have lived and gardened in Panama in the Western Highlands near Volcán, Chiriquí for 20 years. My favorite plants are Heliconias, especially our native Panamanian species. There's nothing better than heading into the backcountry to see them in habitat. I currently serve as president of the Heliconia Society International.

16 thoughts on “A gardening adventure in Panama

  1. SpicyRedHead on said:

    Carla, what an beautiful insight into your garden in a totally different part of the world, plus photos to make the story even more interesting! Love the shape of your inground veg beds. Everything looks so beautifully green and healthy.
    Having being brought up in UK, I quickly discovered that what grew there, wouldn’t necessarily flourish here in summer temps of over 40C.
    Gardening sure is an ongoing learning experience!

    • I’m glad you liked my tale! So many people move, and so many gardeners have to relearn. My grandmother moved when she was 90 from the coast to across the mountains and had to change her techniques to garden in sand rather than clay, and deal with the wide continental temperature range rather than the mild temps in Seattle. My learning was easy compared to that!

      • dirtgirl on said:

        Carla – your grandmother is gorgeous and looks like she is a bundle of spirited life. I so envy folk who learnt so much from their grandmothers! Sadly I never had a grandmother but am determined that my grandchildren will know everything there is to know about the joys of gardening.

  2. ann on said:

    Carla, great to see how you started. Can’t wait to read more from you. And BTW your Granny rocks!!!
    Ann

    • Hi Ann, thanks for the note! You’ll have to tell us about your gardening adventure one day. Yes, grandma continues to inspire!

  3. Susan Flynn on said:

    Hi Carla, I really enjoyed reading your story about your gardening adventures and challenges in Panama. We live part of the year in Volcancito on the other side of Volcano Baru and are beginning to research growing vegetables and herbs in a raised bed garden there. I know it will be very different from Louisiana where we are from! Thanks for sharing your successes and this website.

  4. Rebecca on said:

    Beautiful garden Carla! Where do you get your seeds? I´m in search of local organic seeds to start some school gardens here in Los Santos and coming up short.

  5. Roy Bloomquist on said:

    My wife and I recently made an offer on a property located 30 minutes from Volcan and we want to grow our own food on the property. We have been given a head start with a crop of banana plants. I am wondering if you know anything about growing bananas. I have been told that once a plant has produced fruit it needs to be cut down and in two years it will produce fruit again. I am not cutting anything until and unless I can be convinced that this is the correct course of action to be taken.

    I also want to grow as many different types of fruits and vegetables as I can. I have over one and a half hectares of land so space is not a problem. The soil is fantastic.

    I am presently located in Alto Boquete and will be going back to the U.S. (hopefully one last time) and I will be returning here alone in January. My wife will rejoin me here in February. I am wondering if you would allow us at some point to visit you and take a look at your progress. We want to copy someone’s success and try to mess up as little as possible as we start trying to grow stuff.

    My past history was a death sentence for the flowers I planted. A week after they were in the ground on our Lake Wales Florida property, the ground flooded and the plants had not yet learned to swim.

  6. Hi Carla!!

    Looking for seeds….found myself here! Great blog and wonderfull pics!! Miss seeing you! My solution for the rainy months and all the time really, in addition to the few things I have mastered, is growing sprouts for my smoothies. Sunflower my fav. So much easier at my lower altitude. Do you still have your Lily ponds?

    Claudia

  7. Carla Black on said:

    Hi Claudia, it’s so good to hear from you! I love it: sprouts gardening, when all else is too complicated! Lentils, from the bean shelf at the grocery store, are my all time favorite.

    My ponds are doing great. I even have a few new species of lilies coming along in my heated indoor seedling aquarium. Talk about fussy… But it’s been ages since I’ve had anything new in the water gardens, so it’s worth it.

    Cheers,
    Carla

  8. Jan on said:

    Hi Carla,
    My husband and I will be moving to Volcan this year or early next year and are avid gardeners. I’d love to eventually meet you and learn from your Panama experiences!
    Best,
    Jan

  9. Hi Jan,

    Welcome (almost) to Volcan! I am pleased to have another gardener in the neighborhood. There is a good-sized group of us who share plants, experiences and garden visits once a month. I can ask to have you put on the email list, and if you do Facebook, look up the group Chiriqui Garden Club.

    See you soon in Volcan!
    Carla

  10. David Prestage on said:

    Any experience with growing avocados down there?

    • David Prestage on said:

      Oh my, I see from reading these posts that there is a group of gardeners down there in the Volcan area. I would absolutely love to be put on the mailing list! My wife and I will be moving to the Volcan area within the next very few months and I am very keen to learn new methods of gardening. I am what is called a Master Gardener here in California but that doesn’t mean that I know very much at all about growing things down in Panama

      • Carla Black on said:

        David, I look forward to having you and your experiences here in Volcan! Gardening here isn’t as different as you might expect, and I’m sure your insights as a Master Gardener will serve you well. There are two groups on FaceBook, plus a gardener’s club emailing list in our area. Write to me via email, and we’ll continue our conversation in a more personal space.

        gardens@volcanbaru.com

        • David Prestage on said:

          Thanks, Carla! I have entered the email address in my address book and look forward to getting to know you and the other gardeners down there. I have a lot to learn about gardening in the Volcan area but I warn you – I’m going to have a ton of questions for all of you! David

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