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8 Tips for Starting your Tropical Homestead

You’ve just purchased your dream property in tropical Costa Rica. You want to grow your own food. You are anxious to get to work now, have bought some plants from a nursery you randomly drove by, and have a shovel in hand, but where to start?

Most of our clients fall on either side of a spectrum of project implementation. Either they experience paralysis by analysis, overthinking every step, their confidence slowly eroding, or they dive in head first without any planning. Either way, they hire our team at Porvenir Design to bring them to the middle. How can we take our time and plan while simultaneously moving forward with the energy and confidence that is required to see a project to completion? The answer revolves around good goal setting and thoughtful design. So as you look to set your goals and follow the permaculture design process, here are a few tips we’ve picked up over the years for starting your tropical homestead.

Consider Access First

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Before you do anything: planting a garden, sitting a fruit tree, digging earthworks; make sure you know how you will access that space afterward. The most common reason for systems to fail is that they are difficult to access. It may be easy to plant those nut trees at the bottom of the steep gully, but walking and slipping and falling down that slope in the middle of the rainy season, year after year, will quickly erode your enthusiasm for those plants’ care.

Paths should be wide, 1.5 meters at least, allow wheelbarrow access if possible, and should only be lined with plants that will not interfere with your movement. Anything that makes walking on a path less desirable means that whatever is at the end of the route will get less care and be less productive. Consider lining paths with Mundo grass for erosion control and delineation. Plant species around the path that you can trim in the rainy season for more sunlight and let grow in the dry season for more shade.

No Bare Soil

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Do not underestimate the power of the tropical sun and rain to erode exposed soil. Any time that you find bare soil on your property, you should instantly be thinking about how you can cover that soil with dead or living mulch. This will lower the soil temperature, increase nutrient cycling, improve water retention and so much more.

A dead mulch is effective and can be anything from grass clippings to pea gravel to chopped banana trunks. A living mulch is even more effective. This is a cover of living plants, also called a ground cover, that perform specific functions. Good tropical ground covers include peanut grass, sweet potato, wandering Jew, Okinawan spinach, and many beautiful ornamentals.

Don’t Overestimate Your Soil Fertility

It is easy to think that with a little compost from the Ag store and some mulch that your garden will be rocking for years to come. Clearly, plants thrive in the soil all around your site; the tropics are a prolific place. But that doesn’t mean your soil is high in nutrients, has a balanced pH, or has a healthy microbial population. Most of us buying land in the tropics are working with degraded hill sides that were formerly cattle pasture. This is not prime farm land. Many of the plants we want to grow will struggle in this soil. Don’t be surprised if your first tomatoes and cucumbers struggle.

Fortunately, soil is the component of our ecosystem that we can change the fastest. By actively promoting microbial health, planting leguminous trees and shrubs, providing fungal biomass, and reducing erosion we can quickly turn a site’s soil productive. Soil fertility requires consistent maintenance.

Tropical Tubers and Perennial Greens

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Speaking of tomatoes and cucumbers, don’t bother growing these outside in your first year. Instead focus on very easy to grow, nutritious local foods adapted to the common soil conditions and heavy rain fall. Our typical western style vegetables can be grown in the tropics but the pest pressure is high here and these crops haven’t been bred with the same defense mechanisms.

Focus on tropical tubers such as yuca, sweet potato, taro, and yam. Plant greens like Chaya, Haitian basket vine, and zorillo. Learn how to prepare them for your kitchen and enjoy!

Never Stop Planting and Observing

Don’t be afraid to put plants in the ground. You will plant stuff in poor locations, but that’s okay on a home scale. It’s better to move forward than not at all. If a year later you don’t like a plant’s location, you can transplant it! Most plants in the tropics transplant well with little shock.

It is only through the act of observing your plants over time that you can learn from them. Through good observation and feedback, your knowledge level will zoom ahead. You will begin to see the pollinators in action, understand the rivulets of water moving your mulch around, and become familiar with the seasonality of your tropical climate. If you consistently put time toward putting new plants in the ground and observing them, you will quickly develop a lush and tropical feel to your site.

Learn to Propagate Your Own Plants

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Related to the previous tip, learning to propagate your own plants will save you time and money. It will accelerate the biological succession of your homestead. A lot of tropical plants propagate vegetatively from cuttings or root divisions. As you travel around the country carry a pair of garden clippers and a sharp trowel, and when you see a new plant you love, ask if you can take a cutting or division.

Set up a nursery right away on your property to accommodate all of these new plants. It should let about 50% of light through, have easy access to water for irrigation, and be protected from the wind. You can start plants in pots, bags, or simply till a bit of soil and mix in good potting mix materials, such as rice hulls, manure, and biochar, and plant directly into this new bed. This is your transplant bed. Once the rains arrive and the plants are large enough move them to their final location. This allows you to gather new plants before you have had the opportunity to site them.

Buy Grafted Fruit Trees

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Don’t plant that seedling avocado or mango! Rather, invest the 10 to 20 USD and purchase a grafted tree. Almost all fruit you buy in the store, temperate or tropical origin is born on a grafted tree and for very good reasons. A seedling avocado can take well over 10 years to produce fruit, while a grafted avocado will produce in year 4 or 5. A grafted tree is a guarantee of a high quality and consistent fruit.

Try to source these trees from nurseries doing the grafting themselves from root stock that is adapted to your soil and climate. Check the graft well before purchasing. Does it look healthy and secure? Don’t purchase trees with fruit on them in the nursery. This can be a sign of stress. But an investment in grafted trees will pay off.

Hire a Consultant

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Consider this an investment. Any land use planner, landscape designer, or permaculture designer should be able to articulate to you how an investment in their services will save you time and money in the long run. What is the expected return on investment?

A simple day consultation should help you gain confidence to implement systems. It should allow you to set your priorities and put unnecessary projects on the back-burner. A larger master planning program should save you money by connecting you with the best experts or local resources, such as tree planting programs, and catch costly mistakes on paper before any shovel hits the ground.

A good designer will help you identify your goals and apply those to the landscape, resulting in a beautiful and productive homestead.

Porvenir Design

Looking for more than tips? Consider bringing in the Porvenir Design team for their expert advice!

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  1. I disagree on the grafted fruit tree advice. In a small property where every tree counts and can get lots of inputs I would agree. But on larger properties with lower inputs seed grown trees can be better. They cost way less money, allowing you to plant more. They establish a more powerful root system if they are established as small as possible. Both of these large seeded trees are quite easy to establish from direct seeding into a little extra fertility. Planting a seed is way faster and easier than digging a hole then having to nurse a soft tree grown too fast in a nursery. Many mango varieties are polyembryonic and produce seedlings identical to their parent. And Hass avocados tend to produce the best quality seedlings. And in the tropics any location that will give good yields once the tree is mature should start fruiting in about 5 years. If you are worried about tree quality it is easy to plant twice as many as you need, then thin out to the early and high quality producers.

    1. Great feedback Shane. I completely agree for larger properties. There is immense value in seedlings, as you laid out with all the different pros, faster, more affordable, stronger roots, and such.

      This was definitely written with smaller plots in mind, and from the experience I have with folks starting seeds from random fruit and expecting the same results as grafted fruit trees. Too often I’ve had clients plant seedlings and then been disappointed with mealy fruit, lack of production, pest problems and such. Properly selected grafted trees can help with these challenges, and for the beginner just starting their homestead, with limited knowledge and in need of successes, little boosts like a tree producing in 3 years instead of 6 years, does go a long way.

      Your points are all a welcome addition! Thanks.

    2. I don’t agree with growing most fruit trees from seed. The cost of trees not producing anything for many years is big enough to go for grafted only but there is a second problem that is a very large percentage of fruit trees grown from seed will not produce the same fruit as the parent plant. Often the fruit will be useless or very poor quality. Obviously cost is a factor but my farm was full of fruit trees grown from seed when we bought it and 80% have been cut down and replaced. I now have top quality fruit produced by on prolific trees, many of which are only two or three years old. I am in the southern Philippines where I can by top quality grafted, fruit trees, coffee, cacao, etc for US$0.30 to US$2 or US$3 each. When purchased outside the cities in tropical countries they can be very cheap to buy so the cost of growing trees from seed that take years longer to produce and then may produce useless fruit is multiple times higher than buying grafted or grafting your own.

  2. I totally agree with Shane, here in the tropics grafted trees are more prone to problems and diseases. Seed grown trees are stronger and will produce for longer time than grafted ones. And even when they production starts dwindling, one can always hard prune and the new shoots will renew the tree and give you many more years of production which cannot be done with a grafted tree.

  3. All great thoughts. I wonder how much this debate is swayed by the availability of affordable and high quality grafted trees.

    I work in Nicaragua a lot and it is much harder to find grafter trees there outside of the most common tropicals. Costa Rica on the other hand is flush with nurseries, rare fruit breeders, and in general trees are quite affordable.

    As well, I think much of this comes down to individual species. Jackfruit for example is considered quite true to seed, but when you are seeking a specific characteristic from a parent tree, such as texture in this case; even a slight variation from that in the seedling form could mean a whole orchard full of great tasting, healthy, but mediocre texture fruits/fruits trees. I’ve seen so many farms with jackfruit trees that are good but not great and the fruit mostly rots or if lucky goes to the pigs.

    Thanks for all the thoughts!

  4. Great post! I live in SE Asia and we have started a small 1.5 acre homestead. We did buy some trees, but the cost here is much less, the most expensive tree was under 10$ and most are around 3-4$. For us, it was worth spending the small amount on trees versus waiting. Many other things can be planted for free.
    My issue is now ground cover, so will try planting some of the things you mentioned as they are also native to here. Great article, thank again.

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