Barry’s Gleanings: “Edible Tropical Gardens” by Dr. Kris
Here’s a problem that someone from a hot part of the world might have:
I’ve had a terrible time trying to grow salad greens for the kitchen. The few plants that did survive the onslaught of bugs and pests soon floundered in the heat. I am starting to reconsider if it’s even worth trying or perhaps trying something different, or growing in the wet season? The problem is I don’t know where to start and I am unsure of what to try… any ideas? I would just like to grow some edible plants to supplement my diet as part of a healthy lifestyle that I can eat fresh or cooked. Thanks in advance for any suggestions,” Warren
Dr. Kris, the Garden Doctor, responds:
Growing traditional vegetables suited to a temperate climate in the tropics is more than a challenge – akin to a snow-flakes chance in hell!
During the tropical wet/dry seasons the climate is either too hot, or there’s too much rain and humidity or otherwise there’s not enough. And then if you can somehow successfully navigate the climate there are a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bugs and sap suckers to deal with that love this new exotic food you’ve brought into their environment.
Some plants that we would all like to grow such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, or lettuce for example simply won’t withstand the heat. Even growing these in a temperate summer climate would fail and run to seed on the first hot day, meaning all winter season crops are out of consideration here in the tropics.
So then, what about summer season vegetables? Well the heat certainly won’t be a problem. It is possible to grow many types of what we would consider summer vegetables in temperate climes – but for the most part it is possible only in the dry season. Avoid the wet season as the high humidity causes all sorts of problems usually staring with mildew and ending in fungus. Your options are limited to growing traditional summer crops in the dry season only.
Here are some suggestions.
Tomatoes will grow well during the dry season. Personally, I would opt for cherry/grape tomato varieties only. They seem to be the hardiest, most prolific pest resistant tomatoes that I know of. What’s the point of growing your own if you have to spray fungicide and pesticide poison all over the place.
Eggplants, chillies and pepper/capsicums will all grow well no matter how hot it gets. Snake beans grow well too, the local markets are often overflowing with them. Asian greens such as bok choi, pak choi are possible, as well as Chinese cabbage or wombok but will probably benefit from some protection from the hottest part of the day. Some varieties of kale may struggle due to the heat. Don’t even bother with broccoli or traditional cabbage, and hearting lettuce varieties are out too. If you really must try lettuce grow an open leaf variety such as oak leaf.
Radishes will do well, plant from seed and they will germinate in a matter of days, you could be pulling them up within 3-4 weeks. They love the heat, and they are versatile. Radishes are best picked smaller and sooner rather than larger and later. The larger, the more bland they become – they lose their peppery zing. Yet on the other hand if you let them go you can just keep picking the leaves for use in salads and soups, and just forget about the harvesting the root. The leaves have a peppery flavour much like arugula. After a few months unpicked radishes will flower and run to seed at which point you can harvest the seed pods or ‘radish peas’ as I like to call them. They are green and juicy, eat them raw straight off the plant or add to salads for a peppery crunch – tastes just like root yet the novelty of snacking on juicy bite-sized radish peas never wears off.
Beetroot is another root crop that will also perform well in the dry season and just like the radishes you can pick the leaves and add them to salads. Sprinkle some fluffy dandelion seed around the garden and perhaps grow some nasturtium, both of which which will take care of themselves and you now have a good mix of salad greens including the radish and beetroot. Even better they are all hardy, relatively pest resistant, full of vitamins and minerals and will taste just as good if not better than any traditional leafy vegetable once tossed and dressed. Dandelion and nasturtium are usually considered weeds but they’re the types of plants I want to grow, the ones that grow themselves. If you can change your perspective, you will reap the rewards!
Really, the easiest way to grow your own food in the tropics is by growing tropical fruit and vegetable varieties that are suited to the climate – as they say….when in Rome!
Start with tropical edibles that are at home in the heat and humidity. Lemongrass, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, galangal, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint for starters.
Vegetables will take off once the humidity hits. Sweet potato, bitter melon, kangkong/water spinach, amaranth/mustard greens and rocket/arugula all grow well. Starchy tubers grow well in hot and humid summers, think taro or cassava otherwise known locally as ‘singkong’. I often see cassava thriving on dusty roadsides. The cassava leaf or ‘daun singkong’ is a mainstay of ‘nasi padang’ and other curries, just be careful to cook it properly and never eat it raw as it can be toxic if prepared incorrectly.
Chokos/chayote which grows on a vine is another versatile vegetable that goes down well in a curry, the fresh vine shoots can be added to stir fry’s and curries.
Papaya is a tree that you can grow quickly from seed, potentially bearing fruit within a year of planting. Green papaya is popular as a vegetable in salads, or ‘rujak’. Papaya juice is great, the seeds and leaves have multiple medicinal uses when infused as teas or even cooked and eaten. The seeds can even be dried and used as a pepper substitute.
Edible gardeners in the temperate regions lament the fact that they don’t have the climate for growing exciting exotic edible plants such as ginger, galangal, turmeric, sweet potato or papaya but here in the tropics we have this fantastic opportunity! It really makes tomatoes, cabbages and broccoli seem bland and boring, and that’s without even discussing the possibilities with the plethora of fruits trees and vines available – now that’s a topic for another day!
Whatever you decide on, always plant in a free draining soil for best results, kangkong/water spinach being the only exception. Good Luck.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Kris
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Happy gardening now (or planning your future garden) .
Let’s all work on eating healthy, fresh produce from our local farmers – and growing some of it too. Aloha, R & B