TropicalGardenI live in Panama. Many of my retiree friends have rented or built there homes here, and one thing you should know is this: Panama on the Pacific side vs. Panama on the Caribbean side vs. Panama in the hill country are three different countries.

It’s beautiful here. Last week I visited a tropical jungle homeowner who grows cacao seeds. He makes fabulous chocolate bars and sells them in Bocas Del Toro. As we walked his property, he said, “You know, I tried to grow vegetables here, but there’s no way in the jungle!”

He’s wrong. There IS a way to grow a lush vegetable garden, you just have to work with the weather in Panama. It’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds. Here are some climate and weather in Panama fast facts:

  • Panama’s “summer” is winter in the U.S.
  • The average temperature in Panama is 81 °F.
  • Mountain areas such as Boquete are cooler and windier.
  • Caribbean side is more humid and rainy than the Pacific.
  • The driest part of Panama is the Azuero Peninsula on the south coast.
  • The hottest part of Panama is around David (near Costa Rica‘s southwest border).
  • Daytime lasts about 12 hours because Panama is near the equator.
  • Panama never gets hurricanes.
  • Rainy season is late May to early December.
  • Dry season is from late December to early May.
  • The rainiest areas are in the western mountains on the Caribbean.

You have to understand the feast-and-famine rains. The deluge during the rainy season will make you think more about building an ark instead of a garden. The heat and humidity when there’s not enough water reminds you just how precious rain can be! The weather in Panama may not be what you’re familiar with, but it does have a certain consistency, a reliability that you can work with.

Forest gardening is creating edible fruits and vegetables in a wild environment without cutting down trees or clearing land. In Panama, growing fruit is easy, but edible plants and vegetables offer a challenge: you want to incorporate your plantings into the ecological and biodiversity of the forest without compromising the integrity of the rainforest.

Again, spraying and fighting the forest to protect your garden is fighting a force of nature stronger than you know. Cultivate and learn how to grow with the forest, not against it.

Tomatoes are the fruit we love to call “vegetable.” Tomatoes will thrive on your apartment balcony overlooking the Pacific ocean, in your jungle garden or in your traditional garden in the lush and beautiful Boquete and David highlands.

Tomatoes need more sun than many plantings, and less water. November/December are shaky months for tomato plantings because the number of shady days decrease and the amount of rainfall increases those months. They require good drainage, and in Panama, where it can get quite warm, add some mulch around the base of the plants to keep the moisture in.

Here’s another tip: If your tomatoes don’t seem to be thriving, the PH of your soil may be too low. Spread a small amount of coffee grounds around the plants.

Wherever you live in Panama, talk to the locals about which type of tomato does best in your area. Tomatoes can take as long as 2-3 months to harvest.

I bought cherry tomatoes at my mercado this week; when I told my friends, one said, “Wow! I haven’t seen a cherry tomato here in years!” It turns out cherry, roma, and plum tomatoes thrive in the tropic lowlands of Panama. Our tomatoes are more orange in color because the heat slows the growth of tomatoes’ red pigment. As always, it’s best to pick them green and let them ripen inside.

Beans are Panama’s oldest crop and have grown here since prehistoric times. They need full sun (arguable, since cacao beans grow in shady tropical rainforests), and Panama’s weather and rainfall are perfect for growing this versatile staple. My favorite is a bean about the size and with the flavor of a pinto, but the color of a kidney bean.

Edible greens and mushrooms will thrive in your forest garden. You might also consider Jersualem artichokes, perennials requiring minimal care.

Spinach as we know it is not easily available in Panama. But you can grow varieties of acelga and quail grass in your Panama garden. The difference between acelga and spinach are minimal, but it is, by definition, a chard. Quail grass is not a “grass” at all but a leafy plant high in vitamins A, C, iron and calcium. Some people call it “purple spinach.“ This plant does well all over the country of Panama. It works just as well as spinach in salads and cooking, as tastes just as good. It is recommended that you place the plants about 10” apart; they will grow up to eight feet.

All gardens do much better in the higher elevations of Panama. The areas to investigate for vegetable gardening include El Valle, Boquete, and David.

Near the coast, yucca and ñamé, pumpkin varieties and chayote squash are suitable plantings for your garden. In fact, I haven’t eaten a potato in Panama in years because ñamé is a better potato substitute.

Onions and leeks thrive in Panama gardens and the weather in Panama lends itself to several varieties of cabbages and lettuce. Most people who live here have herb gardens.

Once you understand the weather in Panama, you can put your green thumb to work. Jardinería feliz!

What are your favorite tropical fruits and vegetables?  Post a comment below.