This should be a no-brainer for sustainable gardening, but it is especially difficult for us temperate climate transplants to remember when we first take on vegetable gardening in the tropics. Ornamentals and spices are no problem, we love the exotic looks and flavors, but when it comes to vegetables we still insist on trying to plant our go-to summer squash and Beefsteak tomatoes. Even I did.
Growing up, we knew these to be the easiest and most prolific start to a veggie patch but in the tropics we struggle to get a crop of one or two fruits, if any. Then we wonder season after season why we never get anywhere. The answer is so simple – these vegetable varieties are not adapted to the environment. It’s like dropping an Alaskan Husky dog in Sri Lanka. It will struggle with the heat and humidity and likely lay around all day looking next to lifeless.
Your best bet for a successful garden in the first few seasons is to start with ultra-local varieties. Seeds are easy to come by (just pick some healthy samples from the market) and plant what you find season by season. If you keep in mind that plants grown for their fruit or roots require more sun and those grown for their leaves can take less sun, you can determine where you should plant each variety. Local neighbors are also a great resource for planting instructions.
Not only will this be an easy way to become acquainted with the differences in tropical growing seasons, you will also quickly acclimate to the local cuisine and enjoy some momentum-building success.
A few varieties to look for:
Winged beans: An Asian bean variety with edible pods and seeds. These are just as delicious as plain pole beans and will happily grow up a trellis. This is a very prolific bean so just a few plants will keep a family in steady supply. Be sure to harvest pods young for tenderness.
Kekiri: An older relative of the cucumber, this variety is well adapted to the dry tropics. the yellow to orange fruits can sprawl or climb, and are tasty either raw or cooked.
Malabar spinach: A great alternative for tender greens, Malabar spinach has edible leaves and stems. The young leaves are nice raw and in salads while the larger leaves can be chopped and stir fried. This variety will also sprawl along the ground or grow as a vine if support is provided. Grows best in partial shade to prevent drying out.
Chayote squash: Another vine, this is a great tropical squash alternative. I have seen it growing in both the wet and dry tropics, but it does take a little more shade than other vegetables. The pale green flesh is crisp and nutty raw, but becomes very tender when sautéed with a little butter and garlic.
Chilies: This covers several varieties, but if you want to add some kick to the garden look for the cheapest chilies at the market. In Sri Lanka these are the fiery birdseye, available as green or red. The reason they are the cheapest is that they are the easiest to grow. Other local varieties include a range of “kochi” similar to a habanero. A wild chili tree is also a great perennial alternative. The fruits are small but pack enough heat to make up for size.
Cow peas and chick peas: If you are looking for peas, the English pea will never cut it in the tropical heat, but other varieties you might like are perfectly suited to the tropics. These two legumes will grow well in poor soil and even light shade, making it a great nitrogen-fixing addition to feed you and help build up the soil.
Sweet potato: The tropical sweet potato is little like our Thanksgiving orange yams, but it is sweet, nutritious, and very easy to grow. The tubers can be huge, providing a very important source of starch and potassium. The bright leaves are also an attractive addition to the garden.
Basil: For a starter herb addition, basil has been the most forgiving. Look for Thai varieties with jagged edged leaves. They still make a delicious pesto but hold up to the heat and humidity better than the European varieties.