Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Nasturtiums are beneficial as pest control (and salad).
I'll be planting more of them in different parts of the garden. 
 I have always loved growing things. Genetically, this came from my maternal grandpa, who believed roses were the cure for all ills, and my mom, whose beautiful flower beds were the envy of our neighborhood. My mom’s freezer was always stocked with fruits and veggies harvested either from our property or from her many trips to pick-your-own farms. (The one thing she never did – canning – after an exploded green bean jar episode before I was born. She was deathly afraid of botulism.)
When we lived in Delaware I had the advantage of a 30-year-old compost heap which made growing veggies as easy as plopping seeds in the group and watching my tomato plants rise to over six feet, heavy with luscious fruit.
Then we moved to Arizona. About a week after the June 2005 move, I bought some tomato plants from Home Depot. I figured if they were selling them, I should be able to grow them. Despite shade cloth, judicious watering and loving attention, my plants succumbed to a week of 115 degree (plus) temps. 
This was my garden in Phoenix. Very challenging.  
Noel and his pup finishing the garden.
In eight years of desert living, my many attempts produced about five edible tomatoes. When I planted in the fall, a deep winter freeze zapped everything. I was eventually able to harvest kale, eggplant, arugula and some incredibly delicious snow peas, but I never really got the hang of desert gardening.

Noel, Jenny and Nathan taking a break.
I couldn’t wait to start my garden in Costa Rica. Once the rainy season (e.g. winter) started to wind down, we hired Jenny’s gardener Noel to dig up the back yard of the workshop. Five hours after shoveling and hauling about 25 wheelbarrows full of “good dirt” from across the road, Noel had given me a nice 16’ x 20’ plot. The “good dirt” was pretty dense, and Jenny suggested I add graza (rice hulls) to aerate it. A few days later she called and said better than plain graza, she could get organic chicken poop fertilizer mixed with graza. “You’ll love it,” she said. It was 1 mil (about $2.00) a bag. I had purchased bags of some kind of fertilizer from one of the garden centers and they were about a kilo for 1 mil. “How many bags would you like?” she asked.
“How about if I go with 12.” I figured that would be a good start. A few days later I heard the familiar rumblings of Fernando’s (Jenny’s dad) truck pulling up to the workshop. Jenny and Noel were with him. The truck was filled to the brim with huge sacks. I think my eyes popped. They had to be at least 50 kilos (110 lbs.) each. And I was getting a dozen. Jenny saw my face. “Bigger than you thought?” she asked.
My huge bags of fertilizer.
“Uh, a little.” But heck, I’m a committed gardener now, I’m sure I can use them. Noel hauled my dozen bags to the little shed behind the workshop. I paid Jenny the 12 mil colones and set about planning how to use my wealth of fertilizer. I’d divided the plot into eight sections. In addition to the workshop plot, I’d started a small herb garden in the backyard of the house, and, after researching Costa Rica gardening advice online, planted my eggplants and tomatoes in buckets on the patio.
Paul turning in the fertilizer.
Me, watering.

With Paul’s help, I turned a half a sack of fertilizer into each of the eight sections. I then went over to the “good dirt” area across the road and filled pots for my tomatoes and eggplant, adding a few healthy scoops of fertilizer into each pot. My tomato plants were ready to be transplanted, so I shifted most of them to the new pots, leaving several in the original pot without the chicken fertilizer. I didn’t realize it then, but this has become my “control group.” There is an amazing difference between the “chicken pots” and the original pot that didn’t have the benefit of my new fertilizer.

Garden divided into sections and planted.

Lots of squash and cucumber plants.
It’s now the end of January and my gardens are in various stages of happiness and unhappiness. Part of the problems stem from being away just as things started sprouting. We left for the states right after Christmas when I should have been using row covers and nipping problems in the bud. And as soon as we returned, I came down with a nasty stomach virus that kept me flat on my back and out of the garden for nearly two more weeks. So by the time I started focusing on the garden again, the bugs were winning -- big time. I'm posting the good, the bad and the ugly here in the hopes that someone might see this who has some solutions for me.

Spinach and lettuce. So far, so good. 
I’ve just harvested the first of the zucchinis (I have five varieties of squash) and am in an ongoing struggle with cucumber beetles, using two different organic insecticides that seem only mildly effective. 
Cucumber beetles.
The prolific pests seem most interested in the zucchini, but I’m going after them on the cucumbers and cantaloupes as well. The cucumbers and cantaloupes are blossoming despite the pests, 
Cantaloupe blossoms still undefeated by the
cucumber beetles, but not looking very healthy.
carrots are sprouting, and the spinach and lettuce, shaded by a row of sunflowers (although many of their leaves have been munched up by leaf-cutter ants – grrr), are progressing nicely. 
Leaf cutter ants ate all the sunflower leaves.
Organic pesticides -- not working very well. 
Pests have been leaving the lettuce alone.
Some lavender peeking under the eggplant.
Destroyed green beans.
My green beans have been almost completely decimated by a still-to-be-discovered insect (possibly the cucumber beetles, but I haven’t seen evidence of them); I may be able to eventually harvest enough to add to a salad. 

Down in the shadier herb garden, I’m growing snow peas. The only herbs that are showing any progress so far are the basil and a few oregano sprouts. 
The herb garden did not have the benefit of the chicken fertilizer, but herbs don’t really need rich soil. And on the patio, the tomatoes are blossoming (at least the ones planted with chicken fertilizer). I have some lavender plants in among the eggplant to keep pests away, and I am either growing a bucket of marigolds or peppers – I can’t tell yet and I don’t remember what I put in that particular pot. The nearby nasturtiums seem to be doing a nice job repelling pests – I should have planted them in with the squash; I’ll know to do that next time.


I’ve expanded one flower bed that was overgrown. A young mango tree and an azalea were crammed beside several agave. Now they all have their own space, nurtured with chicken fertilizer. In that bed I’ve also planted gladiola bulbs and some mystery flower seeds. I have lots more plans for other areas of the garden and so much more to learn about gardening on our beautiful mountain in Costa Rica. I’d love to hear from others in the Central Valley who’ve had experiences – positive or negative – with their gardens. 

Mango tree and azaleas in new flower bed.