Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

Your Fruits and Veggies

By Donna Porter

We would all like to think that because we live in this warm tropical paradise, where plant life exudes from even the tiniest crack or crevice, that it is “a piece of cake” to grow beautiful, healthy plants. In some respects that is absolutely correct; plants do grow rapidly and sometimes, it seems, with the greatest of ease. Just cut a limb from a tree or shrub and stick it in the ground (in the rainy season of course) and in weeks it will start to leaf out and grow. But, our tropical paradise is no exception when it comes to the manner at which unblemished fruits and vegetables are produced.

The field of Horticulture Science not only includes the cultivation and use of ornamental plants, but the cultivation of vegetable and fruit crops as well.  These crops that are grown for commercial purposes must be perfectly blemish-free in order to sell at most any market. Not many of us would buy tomatoes that have been partially devoured by voracious tomato hornworms, or broccoli that is teeming with cabbage looper larvae, or lettuce invaded with armies of miniscule aphids. No, most of us humans of this day and age prefer to eat our fruits and veggies, unblemished, and without these additional protein supplements.

A common misconception that I have heard from locals and visitors alike (and that even I gave some thought to myself  during my first visit to Cost Rica) is the belief that the picture –perfect fruits and veggies found in the markets here are pesticide-free, or in other words, organic. “Of course”, we rationalize to ourselves “things are more “natural” here.  They still use oxen and carts to harvest some crops, surely, they must use ground chili pepper, eye-of-the- toad and lime juice to combat insect and disease problems on their fruits and veggies”.  As much as I wanted to believe that they used a more organic system of growing commercial crops here, it just was not so, and of all people, I should have known better.  In fact, it was to the contrary.  Unfortunately, Costa Rica has not quite reached that level of education and understanding in the field of horticulture or agriculture…… yet.

In more-developed countries like the United States, which produces an abundance and a vast array of horticultural crops, the “organic” movement has been alive and growing for over 30 years.  Growing “organically” means cultivation without the use of pesticides, which includes insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, bactericides, miticides, rodenticides, and/or nematicides.  It also means that no chemical fertilizers were applied.  Natural Health Food stores offer an astonishing collection of organic products – all at astonishing prices.  Growing organic produce takes much more TLC – and more tender loving care equals more time, which equals more dollars.  Finding and applying tried and true organic methods and products that are cost and labor effective in combating the common vegetable and fruit pests is not an easy task that I can personally attest to.  It is so much easier to go to your local farm & garden supply store and buy that bottle of conventional, liquid chemical pesticide that you know, for a fact, will quickly kill the problem pest before any cosmetic damage is done.

My experience working with plant pesticides here in Costa Rica has been somewhat alarming.  Too many gardeners I have worked with here don’t “blink an eye” to using highly toxic pesticides, nor do they take any precautionary measures when applying.  My own hypothesis (educated guess) based on my knowledge, along with my experience in growing horticultural crops is that with the lack of pesticide education and regulations in CR that the fruits and veggies here are sprayed (more than we would like to know) and with less cautionary measures being taken for the spray applicators or, us, the consumers.  There are a few crops that can be grown successfully with little use of chemical pesticides. With most of your common fruits and veggies – tomatoes, cukes, peppers, melons, bananas, carrots, onions, potatoes, beans, broccoli, cabbage, etc.- insect and fungal invasions are inevitable, especially in a warm, frost-free climate that is so conducive to their reproduction and growth.

It is no secret, then, that organic gardening (in commercial operations) is not a common practice in Costa Rica.  Organics is certainly not a totally new concept, but it has not reached the level of commercial success as it has in places like the U.S.   The concept is here and “growing”, but as for now…wash (w/soap and warm water), scrub, triple rinse, vinegar-soak and peel those fruits and veggies to remove pesticide residue – that is, if pesticide residue is something that you would rather not consume.  My three years of work at a Horticultural Research Farm in the states during my university days was enough to open my eyes, and widely, to the use of chemicals on vegetable and fruit crops.

I have learned that there are five levels of pesticide toxicity classification in Cost Rica, whereas in the states there are three levels. In Costa Rica, pesticide toxicity levels are designated by a color band on the product label.  Green is least toxic (caution), blue is lightly toxic (warning) and yellow is moderately toxic (danger).  These are followed by two levels of red, which are both categorized as highly toxic with the latter being the highest toxicity.  Let’s hope this one is not used much on crops.

Perhaps in the next decade or so, stricter pesticide regulations, along with an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system and organic growing will become much more prevalent in Costa Rica.   Once again, I see an opportunity for a botanical garden to serve to raise the level of awareness with gardeners and the public.  Until then, I will continue to share and spread information about safe and sensible use of pesticides, as well as the overuse of chemical fertilizers.  Practices such as making and using compost to improve soil and plant nutrient levels, mulching, correct plant spacing and proper watering and pruning techniques, all makes plants healthier and less susceptible to insect and disease attack. This is all part of the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system , which is one of the most practical pest control  methods that I learned nearly thirty years ago and will continue to utilize and pass on to whomever will listen.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 6 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected],  2777-5149