A couple weeks ago I grew tired of protecting baby mango trees from frost and of watching more leaves on my banana plants brown due to cold nights. This has been a persistently chilly and rainy winter for us in Southern California.
At my house, only once did we go a full week between rains in February, and the rainfall total for the month was 10.8 inches. That’s more than we got all last winter. The average temperature for February was about five degrees below normal in most of Southern California.
It turns the mind to warmer places. And it might make you envy those who do their gardening in the tropics.
I flew south and spent the first week of March in Oaxaca, Mexico. My friends and I would wake in the dark, before sunrise, drink coffee and discern the day’s waves in the predawn light from our balcony. This was not a gardening trip but a surfing trip rather.
Nevertheless, the climate and plants around me captured my mind as much as any wave.
Many mornings, we surfed at the mouth of the Colotepec River, after which we walked to Betty’s place, a homestead that also acted as a restaurant. As Betty began cooking whatever we ordered — fish or huevos rancheros or sopes — I wandered her property.
There were cattle and chickens and beautiful fruit trees: 50-foot tall mangos, coconut palms, bananas, papayas, sapodillas, pineapple, citrus, and others I didn’t recognize.
If I lived and gardened here, I thought, this is the kind of Eden I would create.
Can’t grow it all
Later in the week, I began to notice the prices paid for being able to grow mango trees the size of apartment buildings and bananas as easily as weeds.
We visited the market in Puerto Escondido, a roofed conglomeration of stalls where people displayed everything from sides of beef to jewelry to shoes to flowers to fruit. I was eager to sample locally grown items.
We bought some finger-sized bananas, we bought a couple different types of mangos, we bought a sapodilla, and we bought cashews the way they come off the tree: with the reddish fruit and nut husk together.
But after browsing the offerings of a dozen fruit and vegetable stalls, I became aware of the local growers’ limitations.
The oranges on offer were all ugly. Without cold nights, the peels never turn a uniform and brilliant orange like they do in California. They also never build a full flavor like oranges do back home.
There were apples in a couple stalls, but in such a warm climate they only grow a couple varieties. Here I saw Golden Delicious and Red Delicious apples grown somewhere in Mexico. Beside them were Granny Smith apples imported from up in Washington.
I compared this to what we can grow at home in Southern California. No cashews, no sapodillas. Bananas and mangos? Yeah, but not as well, and definitely not as easily. Mango trees grew in abandoned lots, uncared for yet still laden with fruit.
Then again, oranges are easy to grow back home, and they taste better. Apples too. Peaches and plums. Blueberries, grapes. We can also grow some things they can’t near the beach in Oaxaca, or at least they can’t as easily or as well. So maybe the grass isn’t greener here.
Would you like to garden in the tropics?
When we woke for coffee in the early morning and the temperature was 75, that was the coolest hour — not just of the day, but of the entire year. This is how low the thermometer drops just before sunrise in winter. This is the coolest hour of the whole year: 75 degrees.
That’s a perfect temperature for sipping a coffee wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. But what about the rest of the day?
After we’d surfed, we would walk back up the beach around 9 or 10 AM and arrive at Betty’s place with our shirts half-soaked in sweat.
At Betty’s place, I noticed that already at this time of day little work was being done, and what was being done occurred in the shade.
The sun was already intense, and the temperature reached the upper 80s by noon, here in the winter, every day. When would I work in the garden?
When would I sow seeds and pull weeds, water and harvest and prune? It would only be enjoyable during the early mornings and evenings, and this during winter. Summer would be more restricted with hotter days and even higher humidity. This would be a most sweatful gardening life.
We sat under the palapa shade in the tropics being served food and drinks, and it was so pleasant. It was also pleasing to realize that I had it pretty good as a gardener back home in Southern California.
No doubt, my mangos and bananas would never grow as well or as easily as here in Oaxaca, but I could grow things that couldn’t be grown or grown as well or as easily here: apricots, Hass avocados, cauliflower.
I had come down thinking I was jealous of the winter warmth in the tropics, but once there I realized that while it was wonderful to spend leisure time in such a climate, there was a lot to appreciate about doing my gardening back home, where the winter nights are relatively chilly but where it is comfortable to be working in the yard for most hours of the day during most days of the year.
Would I rather garden in the tropics? I think I’d rather vacation in the tropics.
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