What Food Crops Should I Plant in Nicaragua?
In another forum, I received the following question: My husband and I have inherited a small farm, mostly coffee, and an area of about 3 acres where we plan to grow food. I am in need of advice on WHEN to plant and WHERE is the best place to find viable seeds or starts. My list includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, garlic, onions, sunflowers,corn, beans and maybe even rice, and also fruit trees... anybody had luck with any of these crops?? Our farm is just outside the town of Jinotepe [nicaragua], only 30 miles or so south of Managua. Maybe this topic is already being addressed--if so, please let me know where. Thank you!
So, here are some tips on growing things in Central America - a few things (sources of planting materials) are Nicaragua-specific, but most of it applies anywhere in Central America.
You are lucky to have inherited land with some of the most fertile soils on this planet. However, translating that soil productivity to food on your table will be a challenge more difficult than you probably imagine. I remember when I first visited Nicaragua, I visited the Jubilee House Development Center, an NGO in Managua. They told me that although they had always had gardens, always had guards, always had a large fence around their compound, they had never been able to eat their own crops: everything disappeared shortly before harvest time. Of course, if you have a good enough fence and enough fierce enough dogs (plural) and check your crops daily you may be able to harvest and eat some portion of the crops.
Specific Responses to Your Desired Crops
You should plant the variety "Butte" (They say "Boo-tay"). Usually about 1/4 of the tomato crop sold in the markets are of this variety. If you don't know how to use the seeds from tomatoes you buy in the market, you may be able to buy it from one of the small hardware stores across the street from the bus station, just 50m south of the gas stations heading towards Nandaime. By the way, if you actually intend to eat the tomatoes, you will have trouble doing so unless you eat them green or research and learn to use safely the chemical "cipermetrina" due to the insect pressure on ripening tomatoes in your area. Cipermetrina is a low-toxicity, broad-spectrum pesticide with deterrent effects that can protect your tomatoes against egg-laying insects. It won't protect your crop against aphids, for which a higher toxicity chemical is required that I have never used and do not recommend.
You should plant the variety "tres cantos" available at any hardware store. This variety lives for years in Jinotepe even without irrigation and has the fewest pest problems.
available at any hardware store
you'll have to ask around at the market to find the small, locally-grown garlic for your planting stock. i only tried this garlic once, and I ate it as greens.
available from most hardware stores
you should contact my ex-girlfriend yasmina to get seeds from her for several variety of vining green beans. PM me offline for her number. if you want to plant dry beans, you should plant either black beans from the market (buy softer beans that you can dent with your fingernail) or dark red improved (mejorado) varieties that are more resistant to fungus than the light red "criollo".
You could try rice. I have never run across an upland (dry) variety of rice in Nicaragua, so you would have to source the seeds from the US. You can try to plant some local rice (get the rice with the hulls still on it from the rice mill) but you should be aware that it will most likely fail, and even if you do harvest a few kernels, it will be white rice (a different variety from brown rice). Here in Costa Rica my wife and I actually planted rice this week.
For fruit trees, there is only one source you should even consider as a source for your trees. This is Javier Aleman, who lives in Masatepe. Go directly to his house, which is 1 block downhill from the park. Do not buy your fruit trees from any other source unless you know what you are doing, which it appears you don't yet.
When to Plant:
You can plant any of these things now. If you have good irritation, you could also plant later, but if you don't have irrigation, you must plant promptly now. Although long-term you would be best to learn about and use green manures (terciopelo velvet bean being an excellent choice for you), in the short term you need to buy urea, which is a highly potent nitrogen source (Nitrogen is the nutrient most typically lacking in tropical soils, and your soil is no exception if it is typical for your area). Your soil is already high in potassium and phosphorus; just adding a small amount of urea 8 inches away from your plants when they are 4" tall will help a lot (leave a few plants without the fertilizer to compare later).
Plant What Will Do Best Locally
Rather than recreating an image of a garden with typical things that a gardner in Virginia might try, it's best to start with plants that are most likely to succeed with minimal inputs here in Central America. For instance, I recommend planting pigeon pea (gandul) rather than typical dry beans. This is because it faces less insect and fungal pressure. It takes twice as long waiting until harvest, and tastes different, but it's easier to pick and at least for me tastes just as good. Some NGOs have it, and a few hardware stores and market vendors.
Second, you should plant yucca and camote. Both these crops provide very nutritious greens as well as nutritious tubers. Camote is available in the local market, and you can plant old tubers that are starting to sprout. Yucca has quite a few varieties. Yasmina can sell you what you need to plant. She has a very good-tasting and productive variety growing at her farm.
Third, you should plant moringa. A staple food in the Philippines, this is also the single best plant for fixing nitrogen (pounds of Nitrogen per area planted). Known as "miracle tree", you can harvest pods (containing seeds) from the sample tree outside the old US embassy in Managua, or you can buy seeds at a variety of places in jinotepe. One place, for instance, is just one block further south from hardware store with the Butte tomato seeds, half a block towards the market. It's a NGO specializing in selling tree seeds.
Leafy Greens in Particular
The following leafy greens grow at any altitude in Central America with little attention and are very healthy to eat:
1) katuk (cuttings available from Yasmina) 2) caliste (I'm not sure of spelling) - pronounced kaLEEtay - cuttings available from Yasmina and on many campesino's "solar" 3) camote greens (plant camote from local markets) 4) local espinaca varieties (Yasmina has cuttings as do many campesinos) 5) moringa / miracle tree (Yasmina has cuttings, or get seed from tree seed supply store) 6) You can also eat the leaves of the pepper plant, and the leaves of both red and green amaranth.
If you follow these tips, you're much more likely to have success, than by trying to grow typical tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, watermelons, etc.
If you manage to eat even one pound of even one crop that you plant in your first year, you have done very well and should be proud of your first year.
p.s. You might also take a look at one blog entry concerning varieties and altitude when you plan your plantings of temperate or tropical crops.