Saturday, November 10, 2007

Learning to Garden in a Semi-Tropical Climate

As a gardener craving information about how to garden in Chacala Mexico, I was interested to read a Post on one of the gardening blogs about annoying and useless beginner gardening books. My garden in located just off the main road in Chacala,
It's the thick white line in the upper center of this photo.

It's about a block, uphill, from the beach
Well, I have had the opposite experience learning to garden in the semi-tropical area, right on the Pacific ocean. I had gardened for almost 40 years in Zone 5, which eventually was re-named a Zone 6 area, in honor of global warming, I guess.

Chacala is at Latitude 22N, and the temperature highs are generally mid-90's and the lows have not been below 62F degree since I arrived here four years ago. That's a big change from -20's and +104. Different insects, plant diseases, soils, and plants. Here the idea is to protect many plants from the sun. It's just too intense for many plants. And the three/four month rainy season means nightly rainfalls, often drenching downpours for three or four hours.

Learning about how to garden here was mostly via word of mouth. Most of the local women garden in buckets and other containers. I think that's mostly because until the past year, it was difficult to get extra water for ornamental plants. And it's easier to keep the soil in container damp.

Very few plants are deliberately grown from seed here. Almost everything can be grown from a cuttings or via self-seeding. You know you at not in Washington anymore when fence posts sprout into trees in three or four months. And some plants grow a foot or more a day.

I started looking for information about when the growing season starts, and the names of plants, and how to propagate them, almost as soon as I arrived here in Mexico. I moved to Mexico with two suitcases and a backpack, so space was at a premium. I brought my favorite trowel and small pruners, and some flower seeds. That was it. Aside from two gardening books (out of three hundred) with me. The books were "Tropical Gardening" from David Bar-Zvi at the Fairchild Tropical Garden, in Miami, and the oddly named book "Cacti and Succulents" by Hans Hecht.

After I had been here for a couple of years a non-gardener produced a book of popular plants in the Puerto Vallarta area (two hours south of here, same climate). The photos were a big help, with English and Latin names of shrubs, plants, and trees. But the author omitted the Spanish names. Which made it difficult to talk with my neighbors and nursery staff about plants.

But I did learn the names of many of the local plants, in all three languages. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out when to start planting things (like in April in zone 5, harvesting in September or earlier usually). I finally figured out most farming begins at the end of the rainy season. But not necessarily. With a year-around growing climate, there can be multiple planting of some crops. Not during the heavy rain times though: mainly August and September.
I often looked (and still look) on the internet for information about gardening here. But most of the Spanish language books and magazines here are actually from Spain. Not for Mexico or Central America. And I found a few blogger friends who are serious about gardening in tropical climates. Mainly in Southern Florida, the Caribbeans, Panama, and Honduras.

I would have loved to find a basic primer on gardening here, and haven't found one yet. I look on Amazon and gardening literature websites, but haven't found anything useful. I would love to find something like the Rodale organic gardening books. I studied them religiously in the early 60's. Those two volumes were like my bibles. Particularly the sections on building healthy soils.

I learned so much from those books. Having grown up in Los Angeles I didn't recognize many of the plants in my new Eastern Washington home. And those books, and the Organic Gardening magazine, where treasures to me. Like garden gold. The more I can speak adequate Spanish, and can understand what people tell me, the more I am learning about gardening here. I have friends at the two closest plant nurseries, who give me lots of advice. Benjamin in particular. He grows lots of tropicals from cuttings and seeds for sale to big landscaping pros. So I can hang around and watch how his workers take care of the plants, and how they water, and what plants get how much sun.

I guess I am learning a lot about gardening here, but not in the ways I am used to learning. Not from books, but from talking to other people who grow plants. And from internet forums, and other gardeners blogs. It's a slow process though. And I lose plants all the time. Most from too much sun or too much rain. Or the machete of my landlady's aberrant husband. But I would love to have a "Basics of Tropical Gardening" book, even if it had some nonsense like double-digging in it. Especially if it had details about plant propagation in this climate. Most of my old Zone 5 techniques work here. It's very humid and lots of plants will grow not matter what you do to them.

I just re-read this post. I want to clarify that I learned a lot from my gardening friends in Zone 5. Especially from neighbors, gardening club friends, and classes. But it's different learning from neighbors in a different language, and without appropriate gardening books to read.And it's hard to ask questions sometimes. Because local women here can't imagine a five or six month growing season. Or snow on the ground for months. Or where you want more sun, not less. Actually some of the local men have worked in California and Oregon. Some as garden work es or in nurseries. But most they learned to butcher-prune plants and how to spray poison chemicals on plants without gloves or masks. So those guys are usually not much help.

Mostly I have to work hard to think of how to ask the right question. And listen hard to understand the answer.


Mary said...

This is a really neat post, and you're right on about learning to garden in the tropics. Maybe you should be the one to write the book!

Andee said...

Hi Mary,

I don't know enough to write anything except for whining about not knowing anything. And taking photos.

I am going to make another search for a primer, but I am not hopeful.

Thanks for writing. Andee