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

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.


FINALLY!  Healthy food and healthy soil are recognized as essential to a healthy future.

January 4th, 2016




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For a decade I have been promoting the idea that there are two solutions to climate change: reducing CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel us e and misuse AND using the ‘magic’ of photosynthesis to capture excess carbon in the atmosphere and put the CO2 to productive use in rebuilding depleted soils, wetlands, grasslands and forests.


This new 4-minute video, narrated by Michael Pollan, tells the potential of this climate change solution beautifully:


At the recent climate change negotiations in Paris the French Ministry of Agriculture has taken a clear stand on the issue with its “4 per 1000” initiative, committing to increase soil carbon by 0.4% each year.  This is the first international effort to restore carbon in soils as a way to both feed us in the future and advance the other half of the climate change solution.


If all nations could achieve the 0.4% soil carbon sequestration goal what would that mean?  First, it would reverse a 100+ year trend of industrial agriculture eroding about 50% of soil fertility globally as profligate farming behavior also released billions of tons of soil fertility into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Annually, industrial farming accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gas emission, second only to the energy industry.  


Second, if all nations were to follow the French lead then according to Pollan in the video, 75% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions could be stored in the soil.  Imagine, we would only need to reduce new carbon emissions by 25% with new renewable energy generation and conservation.  Very doable, and we also would be building soil fertility and increased access to healthy food!


So, the good news is we can reduce excess atmospheric greenhouse gas while at the same time improving soil fertility and food quality long-term. Regenerative farming and gardening is the solution, as good soil-building gardeners have known for decades.

5 ‘Green-Thumb’ Innovations Marijuana Gardening Will Unleash

November 3rd, 2015


epa02310452 A worker tends to cannabis plants at a growing facility for the Tikun Olam company near the northern Israeli town of Safed on 31 August 2010. In conjunction with Israel's Health Ministry, the company currently distributes cannabis or Marijuana for medicinal purposes to over 1,800 people to help relieve pain caused by various health conditions.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN ISRAEL OUT


Canada has been leading the legalization of cannabis in North America since it legalized medical marijuana in 2014.  This has triggered new agricultural innovation in Canada.  Now Canada is considering ending prohibition for adult-use cannabis.  But a key issue is protecting youth from substance abuse. Last week Canada’s new Prime Minister was asked, "When can Canadians expect you to legalize pot if you're elected?" Justin Trudeau responded that his government is committed to ending the former Prime Minister’s "failed approach on marijuana that he said makes it easier for young people to get their hands on the drug than beer or cigarettes”.


This is the same issue being debated here in Vermont as our Legislature considers legalizing cannabis for adult-use (it already is legal for medicinal use).  Dr. Harry Chen, the VT Commissioner of Public Health noted: "Our smoking rate in teenagers is probably about 13 percent. Our marijuana rate is about 37 percent. One is regulated, one is illegal. I think there's, if you do it right, there's ample room for improvement."


Four other states plus Washington DC have already legalized cannabis through citizen initiatives and more states will do this in the next year.  VT may be the first to regulate and tax adult-use cannabis through legislative action. Most of the state-level initiatives allow home cultivation of marijuana and a recent article about the Canadian legalization effort noted: “If home cultivation is not allowed, then cannabis is not truly legalized in Canada. Canadians must have at least as much right to grow their own cannabis as they do to brew their own beer and wine.”

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