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My 5 Favorite Intensive Gardening Methods, for VT and Costa Rica

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Sissoo spinach and basil in our Costa Rican courtyard

Sissoo spinach and basil in our Costa Rican courtyard

Lynette and I grow vegetables, fruits and culinary and medicinal plants in Vermont April-Nov and in Costa Rica Dec-March.  What we like to grow most differs in each place, for sure.  Our favorite plants to grow in Vermont include lilies, peonies, black raspberries, hardy kiwi, tomatoes, peppers, spinach plus dozens of types of coleus and plectranthus in pots. 

And in Costa Rica our favorite garden plants are bougainvilleas (in a rainbow of colors), tomatoes (but they are tough with weather and iguana challenges), perennial peppers, coconuts, 6 types of citrus, lemon grass, flor de Jamica (for bright red, tart-flavorful medicinal tea), quelite greens (bush variety) plus basil and Sissoo spinach in pots.

To reduce work, save water and boost soil fertility we have developed various intensive growing methods.  Five of these techniques work well in both Vermont zone 4-5 and tropical Costa Rica, with some climate-specific variations.


Vetiver plants mulched with their own trimmings

 Vetiver plants mulched with their own trimmings

Intensive beds (with mulch)

I began gardening 40 years ago in a ¼ acre plot using a Troy-Bilt rototiller.  I discovered that tilling my garden soil multiple times every year depleted soil health through excessive aeration, plus killed earth worms and reduced water retention capacity of the soil.  I also discovered I could grow the same amount of food in much less space by planting more intensively.  How?  I was guided by Ruth Stouts thinking from 50 years ago: building raised beds and mulching them to the max with all sorts of VT organic matter: spring weeds, summer lawn clipping, fall leaves, and composted vegetable waste all year. By using mulch and organic waste to build soil fertility I am able to plant plants closer together and use much less water (and no fertilizer).

But mulching in the tropics is more challenging.  Organic matter breaks down much more quickly.  So we discovered some tropical solutions.  The best overall solution is to use abundant organic waste produced during the June-Nov rainy season to make compost and add it to growing beds Dec-March. But the best specific innovation we discovered was vetiver grass.  It grows 3 ft tall in the wet season and the roots go 2-3 times deeper than that helping to stop soil erosion and improve soil quality.  Then you can harvest the grass in Dec-Jan and the trimmings make a superb mulch that breaks down slowly during the dry season, retaining moisture and adding organic matter for the growing season.


10 month old white yam weighing 15 pounds

10 month old white yam weighing 15 pounds

Grow Vertical

Training vining vegetables and flowers to grow vertically let’s you increase your yield per square foot because you can fit more plants into the garden.  But saving space and increasing yield is only one reason to make trellises to grow vining tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, pole beans, squash and melons. Other benefits include easier harvesting, less bending and strain, easier weeding and pest control, and growing decorative green “walls”.

Our favorite vining plants in Vermont are cucumbers and perennial hardy kiwis; we provide trellises to hold them.  In Costa Rica we plant a tuber locally called Ñame and also known as White Yam, Winged Yam and botanically Dioscorea alata.  We plant at the base of a tree, the vibe can grow 30 ft high and the tuber can take almost a year to mature, weighing as much as 20-30 pounds.  We eat them like potatoes, but there are other varieties of this vine that are invasive and poisonous (causing problems now in Florida.

Lynette planting coir-filled bags

Lynette adding coir to rice bags on drip irrigation

Pots (self watering!)

The key to growing in pots is to have enough, but not too much, water.  This can be achieved with self-watering features or drip irrigation, as well as using the right kind of water-retaining soil mixes. In temperate climates like the US peat-based soils are used to absorb, retain and release water as plants require it.  But peat is hard to get in Central America.  So, in Costa Rica we use the waste material from the outer husks of coconuts, called “coir”.

We grow market vegetables in Costa Rica (tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage) using recycled rice bags filled with coir and compost and watered with drip irrigation.


Lady finger bananas ready to harvest

Lady finger bananas ready to harvest

Create micro-climates

Our hardy kiwi in Vermont require protection from north winds so we created a micro climate for our perennial fruit and berry garden using our house as the wind break on one side and evergreens on the other.  The garden area then opens to full southern exposure creating a micro-climate offering an advantage of 1-2 growing zones.

In Costa Rica, the strong easterly Papagayo winds in the Guanacaste region knock down banana trees so we plant them on a shielded west slope of our house.  We also use water-catching sunked beds to grow the best mini bananas. You will rarely find in US stores these sweet but tangy US Lady Fingers from India.

Hugelkultur makes sense.

Hugelkultur may be the best organic waste management and soil building technique for perennial gardening you probably never heard of:

PLUS, Gravitropism: possible innovation for intensive gardening?

After evolving from the ocean hundreds of millions of year ago plant stems had to learn to grow up for photosynthesis and down to capture nutrients with their roots.  Gravitropism (also known as geotropism) is plant growth in response to gravity. Upward growth of stems and leaves, against gravity, is called "negative gravitropism", and downward growth of roots is called "positive gravitropism".  NASA and space agencies in other countries are exploring how zero gravity or variable gravity affects growth, and how to use gravitropism to optimize plant performance.  Gardener’s Supply is testing new container gardening systems that boosts plant yields using variable gravity.  Keep your eyes open for our test results.


New poll finds millions would try to ‘grow your own’. Marijuana moves from the closet to the backyard.

Monday, September 28th, 2015

In June 2014 I did this post seeking input about attitudes and opinions about home “marijuana gardening”.  Hundreds of people responded with a surprisingly favorable viewpoint overall. 

The next month the New York Times did a week long series on cannabis that included an editorial that recommended repealing prohibition and legalization marijuana.

Then this month Nature did a series of articles on the science about marijuana botany, horticulture, medicinal use, and the risks and many benefits of the cannabis plant.


The world is changing quickly. My state of Vermont has legalized medicinal marijuana and is considering being the first state to legalize cannabis for adult-use through the Legislature (vs through citizen initiative). Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal use; four states (CO, WA, OR, AK) and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use.


Grow Your Own Green Smoothie, Super Foods Garden This Fall

Monday, August 24th, 2015


Todays breakfast next to our fall green smoothie garden. 


Lynette and I drink our breakfast 4-5 days a week, most of the year.  We do not buy expensive powdered green drink powders.  They are not fresh, plus they can contain additives, sweeteners and preservatives.


Rather, the majority of the ingredients for these super food morning concoctions are made from our garden, local weeds, or from the harvests of the farm CSA we belong to.  Here in Vermont (growing zone 5) you can grow or harvest raw veggies and fruits for super foods green drinks for more of the year than one imagines possible.


Why drink green smoothies?

Thats easy.  Healthy, vitamin and mineral rich nutrition, energy boost, convenient and inexpensive.  Smoothies include the whole vegetable–pulp, skin and seeds.  That gives us dietary fiber, which regulates digestion and blood sugar.  With processed foods everywhere we just have too little fiber in our diets.

The ingredients of green smoothies are not cooked, so their complete nutritional value is readily available.  Cooking foods, especially vegetables, reduces nutrients and natural enzymes.  These enzymes boost energy and help to fight chronic diseases like arthritis and diabetes. Plus meals dominated by high-fiber vegetables have been proven to help you lose weight.


There is no better bang for the bucknutritionally than green smoothies made from ingredients in your garden, yard and from local farms.  And, once you get the hang of the seasonal flow of local vegetables and common yet overlooked weeds these nutrition-packed breakfasts are easy to prepare.

Recipes from the garden

Our green smoothies are mostly raw  (more…)

These Two Easy-to-Grow Garden Plants also Help Control Diabetes

Monday, August 3rd, 2015


I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 10 years ago right after a back operation.  I learned that a propensity for diabetes can be triggered by an assault to the body, like an operation with anesthesia. Fortunately, I have been able to manage diabetes with regular exercise and a better diet.  

My diet was always pretty good, with mostly vegetables and grains.  But I often binged on too much food at one sitting.  Plus, I loved overindulging with carbohydrates, especially from processed foods (cookies and candy, breads and snack foods (Smart Food is almost a vegetable!), pasta and breakfast cereals). Carbohydrates are important for your body as your digestive system converts them into glucose (blood sugar). Your body uses this sugar for energy for your cells, muscles, and organs.  But diabetes reduces the ability of the body to manage this conversion, dumping excess glucose that can’t be processed into your blood rather managing the glucose to power your body.

Now, I eat much less processed foods and more whole and unrefined foods, especially vegetables, nuts, beans, certain grains (quinoa) and tubers (sunchokes), and unrefined fruit. In fact, my vegetable and nut consumption has probably tripled.  We buy the nuts in bulk, but we still grow most of our vegetables in our garden or get them from a CSA I helped to start 25 years ago.  

There are two plants I count on from my garden that are easy to grow and that I have found to be especially beneficial in managing my blood sugar: kale and sunchokes.  (more…)


Monday, June 29th, 2015

Almost everyone experiences stress and spells of anxiety.  Stress can come from any event or thought (a ”stressor”) that makes you feel tense, frustrated, or angry.  Anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor is gone and can be a feeling of fear, unease, and worry. The source of these symptoms is not always known.  The source can be specific and personal, like family, employment or financial worries, or more general like news about the economy, terrorism or weather events.


Stress and anxiety can become a serious issue if they begin interfering with your daily life. The American Psychological Association reports that 40 percent of all adults say they lie awake at night because of stress. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States, or 18% of the population. Only about one-third of sufferers receive treatment but the cost in the US is still almost one-third of the country's $148 billion total mental health bill, according a study reported in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.


There are many ways to manage stress and anxiety, including lifestyle changes like eating a balanced, healthy diet; getting enough sleep and regular exercise; meditating and deep breathing; recognizing the factors that trigger your stress.

These techniques can be used along with medical treatments for anxiety, including psychotherapy and drugs like Valium and antidepressants.


But our gardens can also offer effective treatment for stress and anxiety.  For thousands of years we have prevented and treated everyday ailments with plants anyone can grow. But our power has gradually been surrendered to profit-driven health-care.  Is now the time for each of us with gardens to begin growing our own ‘health revolution’?


The most credible, peer-reviewed laboratory research today continues to prove that the plants people have been using as medicine for generations are very effective cures for common maladies and support robust health. The pharmaceutical industry devotes its resources to synthesizing, engineering, and patenting the components of these plants, so that you can be dependent on its products and your health can be mined as a steady source of revenue. Meanwhile, the science shows that medicinal plants work best in their natural state, minimally processed and with all of their essential oils, vitamins, minerals, and other compounds intact and acting in concert.


We know healthy diets start with whole foods and organically grown vegetables and fruit.  Is this also true for specific medical conditions, including stress and anxiety?  This has been our experience, and the research backs it up.  Here are the top 5 plants we grow and use in our garden when life’s challenges seem to overwhelm.



Cuba: feast to famine to future food system

Monday, June 1st, 2015


Burlington College course visit to Funez agroecology “polyculture” farm

Over a decade ago I visited Cuba to learn more about their "second revolution".

The first revolution was political. The second one was a response to economic pressures, forced on Cuba by the US trade embargo and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. This economic crisis profoundly affected Cuban’s basic needs, especially food. During the early 1990s imports of food from eastern Europe as well as agricultural machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and other needed inputs for Cuba’s industrialized agricultural system stopped abruptly. Cuban agriculture had to change or the people would starve. And change needed to happen fast.

Cuba acted; adopting decentralized farming policies that encouraged individual and cooperative food production. Soviet-model state-run farms were replaced with thousands of new small urban and suburban community gardens (organoponicos), market gardens (parcelas) and patio gardens.  Access to small-scale farming was increased as millions of acres of unused government lands were made available under long term lease to farm workers.

These land use and production changes helped to stabilize Cuban diets even as the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds during this “special period”.  And Cuba’s food system achieved this new balance without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, tractor fuel, and other petroleum inputs because there were none available. Cuba was forced to provide food production inputs from compost, bio-pesticides, animal power and other “old ways” made better.  Economic realities forced Cuba to become a world leader in sustainable agriculture and “agroecology”.


Brilliant! Grow Food, Not Lawns

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

This recent post by one of the contributors at Grow Food Not Lawns demonstrates one of the most sensible and rewarding ways to move away from water-guzzling lawns and towards a more secure, resilient and abundant food system. 


Snakes on a Plane!? Try worms on a plane…

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

A friend of mine works half the year in Vermont as a State Park Ranger and the other half of the year (when VT is coldest) she lives in Cost Rica where she dedicates herself to the rescue and protection of dogs.  She has brought many homeless street dogs back to the US for a better life.

I get involved in animal protection in Costa Rica too, especially sea turtles and Howler monkeys.  We have plenty of snakes here as well but they are not quite so compelling.  In fact. the photo above is of a semi-poisonous (to mice and lizards more than humans) 6 ft Lyre snake that I interrupted while it was eating a two ft iguana that lived on our roof.  The iguana died and I relocated snake.

snake eating iguana compost story will raap in costa rica

The gardeners in the development in Costa Rica that I started and where I also live are compost green season leaves and trimmings from our 220 acres. There now is enough kitchen waste to start a separate food waste comporting operation.  So, I began looking for red wiggler worms as our food waste composting helpers.



Red wigglers are used in Costa Rica coffee processing operations to help digest the pulp (the skin surrounding the coffee bean) and make it into organic fertilizer and soil amendments,  But the coffee growing region is 5-6 hrs from us.  Plus, I knew of some red wigglers in VT that wanted a new home, far away from the most brutal winter temperatures in 100 years.

But how to get my new compost helpers to Costa Rica from VT?

I googled “red worms on a plane” and got some good advice: the TSA does no prohibit them.  So, I loaded the adventurous worms into a plastic container with moist coffee grounds and yesterday’s salad so it could pass as my lunch in case Costa Rica officials got curious.  The container went into my backpack so the worms would not freeze in the luggage compartment.  We took off to Costa Rica.

As we flew over Lake Nicaragua and began descending toward the Liberia airport in Costa Rica I noticed my backpack had turned over and worms had escaped through the air holes.  Some were exploring the floor and others were heading up the wall toward the airplane window.  The unsuspecting tourist next to me was still sleeping but the flight attendants were about to start the last collection of service items

I had minutes to collect the 2-3 dozen worms.  The immigration form was just thin enough and also stiff enough to scoop up and corral the slithering escapees.  Back into yesterday’s salad they went.

Now these ‘extranjero’ compost helpers are happily eating local mangos, bananas, star fruit, and melons, plus coffee grounds, tortillas and old rice and beans.  They will never need to worry about freezing again. 


Our Life or Death Task: Move Several Billion Tons of Excess CO2 Back Underground

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

To reverse global warming, we must first rethink agriculture.

This post is not my own but it illustrates much of my current thinking around effective climate change management in the coming years.

The original post was written by Ronnie Cummins, the international director of the Organic Consumers Association 

If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current levels [398 ppm.] to at most 350 ppm…”— Dr. James Hansen [3]

Reversing Global Warming. Since Dr. James Hansen, a leading climatologist, warned in 2008 that we need to reduce the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts-per-million (ppm) in order to preserve life on Earth, little has been done to get us there.

It’s getting late. If we’re going to preserve a livable Earth, we the global grassroots, must do more than mitigate global warming.

We must reverseit.


Hint number one:not by politely asking out-of-control corporations and politicians to please stop destroying the planet.

Hint number two: notby pinning our hopes for survival and climate stability on hi-tech, unproven and dangerous, “solutions” such as genetic engineering, geoengineering, or carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants.

Hint number three: notby naively believing that soon (or soon enough) ordinary consumers all over the planet will spontaneously abandon their cars, air travel, air conditioning, central heating, and fossil fuel-based diets and lifestyles just in time to prevent atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from moving past the tipping point of 450 ppm or more of CO2 to the catastrophic point of no return.


Food and Urban Gardening in Cuba: Travel course offered with Gardener’s Supply Founder

Monday, September 29th, 2014

A decade ago I went to Cuba to explore their urban farming and “organiponico” movement.  These innovations are part of Cuba’s “second revolution” involving a forced transformation of their food system from an industrial and chemical focus to a local and organic focus, mandated almost overnight by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Below is the article I wrote about that trip in 2014.  In 2015 I plan to return to Cuba offering a course through Burlington College to update the food system experiment in Costa Rica and compare it to food system innovations happening in Vermont that I have been involved with for over 30 years.

Check this out if you or others you may know would like to join this course Feb 27-March 8, 2015 :  Or, contact me at