So I’ve shifted from a hot, dry climate to a cooler, wet one. And it’s a radically different ball game. Slugs replace aphids. Mould occludes drought issues. I’m once again swatted by the importance of climate-specific information. But where to find it?
As you’ve probably worked out by now, I take most advice with a shedload of salt. If you can’t show me hard evidence of success, take cover. But, when it comes to a burgeoning garden in a wet climate, I know a woman who knows. Let me hand over to the eloquent Kristen Krash of Sueño de Vida in Ecuador for her hard-won tips.
I Imagined Endless Crops - I Was Wrong
When I first landed at my new home on seven acres of sub-tropical cloud forest, I was ecstatic. It was dry August and the sun shone in the bright blue sky, innocent of the ferocity to come. I blithely surveyed the lush verdant grasses, giant ferns, and vining leaves with satisfaction. I was an avid and accomplished gardener back in North America, with its short as and snowy winters. Now, here, in this Jurassic Park of eternal summer, I imagined the undulating green land heaving forth endless crops of fruits and vegetables.
Ah, what did I know? Not much.
Two months later I was despondent. It had started raining. A lot. Daily. Sub-tropical cloud forest rain, with drops big enough to fill a teacup, hammered the ground. My tender (wimpy) little salad crops that has sprouted up so eagerly, were battered to total ruin in a matter of days. The heavy soil, which I had laboriously scratched out the matted grass and dug and turned in the way that worked back in my good old wintry climes, turned a slippery, clay-ey sludge, more suitable to plastering the earthbag walls of the house we were building. Even worse, the fifty or so fruit trees we had planted under sunny summer skies now looked awful. Their roots waterlogged, rust spots pocked the leaves and monstrous slugs and snails descended on what was left.
I felt like, and was, a complete failure. But nature abhors a vacuum, right? And what I had was not a "bad" climate, but a vacuum of knowledge of how to deal with it.
Fast forward two years and those struggling trees are not only alive, but flowering and
fruiting and communing. I'm harvesting fifteen-pound pumpkin squash from my garden, slicing and dicing mountains of cassava and plantain, hauling in bunches of a hundred or more bananas, roasting my own cacao beans, making teas and tinctures with herbs I've grown and getting my greens from from the Malabar spinach plants sprawling pretty much everywhere.
So obviously I learned to thrive in, and love, my wet wonderful home.
6 Steps to Succeeding in a Wet Climate
Wet climates pose special challenges to the gardener/grower: fungus, mildew, tight heavy soils leached of nutrients by heavy rains, and enough creeping, crawling, voracious critters to eat up your crops in a single sitting. But there are methods that work and don't involve mixing chemicals. My experience rising to these challenges is limited to the subtropical region of Ecuador, but I think much of what I learned here could be helpful in a temperate zone as well.
1. Give your plants time. Everything you plant out will at first look like it's dying. It might be, but probably not. Plants take awhile to "take hold" in wet soils. I think the roots get a little waterlogged and crushed and then some leaves might turn black or yellow or get rust spots and the plant will look generally awful. Give it time. It will either die or get stronger and healthy.
2. Don't get attached. Plant a LOT of small plants or seeds. They won't all make it, but that's okay. The weaker ones will serve as "bait" food for the slugs, snails, and other critters who attack the weaker plants first, giving the stronger ones more of a chance. You can even transplant some soft-leaf "weeds" close to your cultivars to "feed" the slugs so they leave your garden plants alone, or at least don't kill them entirely.
3. Be gentle. Don't turn the soil a whole lot trying to aerate it. I did that in the beginning and it's a waste of time and energy, and actually counterproductive. Wet soils have usually more clay and a fairly shallow topsoil (rain leaches it off). By turning it you're just pretty much making plaster. Good for houses, not so much for plants.
The key is piling up organic matter on top of gently opened soil and planting in the looser pile, not digging down. You can use compost or cut grass or chopped up leaves and soft branches from weeds, trees you've pruned. It's less work to pile up organic material than digging heavy soil and it works better.
4. Use Compost! Rust and mildew thrive in wet, tight soil. Create drainage by opening the soil around the tree gently with a pitchfork and put the compost on top. Don't disturb the root system of the tree digging around too much. The compost will attract worms and burrowing insects to come up to the surface and eat the compost. This creates channels in the soil, improves drainage, and aerates it naturally. The bugs also poop, which is good fertiliser.
5. Don't be a clean freak. Look, I think Martha Stewart is the bees knees, but in a wet climate garden, you gotta live and let live. Leaving weeds around is fine for your plants, as long as they aren't choking them. The weeds also provide food for all the fungi and mildews in wet soil so that all those organisms have other targets than your plants.
6. Adapt. Grow what thrives in your climate. Don't kill yourself trying nursing a cactus garden under plastic in the rain forest. I have a nursery where I keep some temperate clime herbs in containers, but it's not my mainstay. Let go of perceived attachments to foods you think you need (because it's all you know) and learn to grow new ones. Nature adapts; you are part of nature. So you will too.
Kristen Krash is the co-creator of Sueño de Vida, a nature conservation centre, permaculture farm, and natural building experiment in the cloud forest of Ecuador. To learn more about the mission, courses offered, work exchange opportunities, and land for sale at Sueño de Vida, see their website at http://www.suenodevida.org/our-dream/
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