Gardening in the dry season: Does ‘Going Green’ mean going brown? (part 1 of a 2-part article)

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As communities on the Nicoya peninsula are coming out what is known as the Rainy Season, it’s a bit difficult to imagine that in a few months the landscape will be parched and water will go from being super abundant to scarce! But that is the nature of the seasonal dry (and moist) forest that typifies this region.

In the cooler mountains of Costa Rica, where I live, the dry season actually starts out as what we call the windy-misty season, when the forest and surrounding landscape are bathed in clouds, and often, horizontal rain. But as one travels down the Pacific slope, one passes through the rainshadow forest and on down to moist and eventually, dry forest, where the environment becomes remarkably warmer and drier. When the rains end, the northeast trade winds increase in strength and add on a drying effect. In the lowlands, as the dry season progresses, vegetation gets browner and precipitation is virtually non-existent until mid-May or so.

This ideal beach weather makes the Nicoya peninsula a popular tourist destination. Tourism businesses feel pressured to keep landscaped areas green and lush…”tropical” looking. Time for a reality check…much of the northwestern part of Costa Rica is not naturally green and lush for the months of January through April. Perhaps it is time to accept that fact and figure out how to co-exist with it.

Partly this involves learning about dry season flora and fauna and experimenting with alternatives to typical gardening practices. It could involve a campaign to educate those in the tourism industry as well as visiting tourists. Part of a hotel guest’s experience to ‘save the planet’ could include not only reusing a towel and drinking local fruit drinks, but learning to appreciate a cactus garden, a leafless tree or shrub, or, perhaps, a gray water garden as part of a sustainable and appropriate landscape.

A question that I have begun to explore and would like to pursue with residents of Nosara who want to maintain ornamental gardens is: does ‘Going Green’ mean going brown for part of the year? Whether you own a home or a business, a challenge in upcoming years will be inventing eco-o.k. landscapes on your properties. Using thousands of gallons to irrigate ornamental gardens is not sustainable.

To approach the challenge, we might turn to Mother Nature for some lessons.

Are there ways of creating ornamental, native plant gardens that take advantage of the best aspects that nature has to offer in the wet and dry seasons on the Nicoya peninsula? In the next article, I will begin to explore this idea,

NOTE: Willow Zuchowski is author of Tropical Plants of Costa Rica: A Guide t o Native and Exotic Flora; she lives in Monteverde, where she directs a native plant garden project called ProNativas. This article was published in 2007 by The Voice of Nosara