Growing Tropical Vegetables

Do you fall into the same rut every summer with your vegetable garden? We can grow many of our favourite vegetables through most of the year but when the summer heat strikes, most of our plants just seem to wilt away.

Lettuces bolt to seed and the tomatoes are wilting when the summer sun beats down upon the garden day after day. No matter how much you water the garden, the results are always less than satisfactory. When the rains do come and quenches the thirsty soil, then the trouble really starts.

Growing tropical vegetables

The brewing heat easily contributes to powdery mildew, fungal problems, slugs and other pests and the result is often weakened plants that finally succumb to a premature death.

No wonder so many people give up their gardens in our hot summers; but it need not be so. Summer in this part of the world is the perfect time for growing tropical vegetables. In our wonderful sub- tropical climate, we can grow vegetables that are easy to care for. These vegetables need very little irrigation and some keep on producing year after year.

People of the Pacific Islands, Papua and New Guinea, and other cultures around the tropical belt are already familiar with these vegetables. They are widely grown by these people and are very nutritious and delicious to eat. I think the knowledge of growing and eating tropical vegetables must be one of the best kept secrets. Most people haven’t yet been introduced to them but I would love to introduce you to a whole new world of growing your food in the summer garden.

Sweet potato is the best known tropical vegetable and they are readily available for us at the green grocer’s, but where can we find some of those more unusual vegetables? Go into an Asian Supermarket and you will find a wide array of unusual fruits and vegetables. It can  be quite bewildering though if you can’t read or speak an Asian language, but just looking at all those interesting fruits and vegetables will tell you there is more than you ever knew about.

We have been growing tropical vegetables for quite a few years now and  really enjoy them. They generally take up quite a bit of space in the garden and they take much longer before they are ready for harvesting, but they give back so much more. Tropical vegetables are already quite well-known in Permaculture gardens and this is how I came to discover them.

It’s been a very interesting journey finding out about these foods as no-one could really tell me too much about them. ‘They’re easy to grow’, was about all that I was told. Then what do you do with them?? No-one could really answer my questions. The planting material was made available through the Permaculture group I was attending, so over time I had quite a selection of these weird and wonderful vegetables but still didn’t quite know what to do with them.

Over the years I found how the best results were obtained mainly by trial and error and by looking up recipes in tropical cook books from the library.  Now I realize just how easy it is how to grow a forest full of food. Edible landscapes can so easily be created with these hardy plants. Full sun does not deter them and watering is hardly an issue as these plants are deeply rooted into the soil.

When planting out the young plants, only a couple of waterings are needed and after that only if it doesn’t rain for quite awhile. Once the plants are established and there are long periods of drought, they just seem to sit there doing nothing much until the rains come again. The heat and the rain then bring on rapid growth and a few weeks later the garden will show quite a dramatic difference.

There is so much satisfaction in growing tropical vegetables because they have such a presence in the landscape. When embarking on a tropical vegetable garden it is best to do some designing before you commence any planting as a lot of these plants will be around for quite awhile.

Other plants are also integrated into the food forest garden and these are the support plants. These plants have specific functions and their main requirements are that they provide mulch, nutrient and shade. This will then create a favourable setting for the planting of the food crops.

So what are some of these vegetables?

Tropical vegetables are basically grouped into three categories.

  • Starchy tubers
  • Leafy greens
  • Beans, gourds and squash

Some of the starchy tubers are cassava, taro, cocoyam and yam, while the leafy greens include aibika, hibiscus manihot, Brazillian spinach, horseradish tree, vine tips of the sweet potato, choko and pumpkins. There is also a selection of beans such as the Madagascar bean and winged bean and a gourd by the name of New Guinea Bean.

Unfortunately these tropical vegetables are not yet made available at nurseries but if you contact your nearest Permaculture group you should be able to access quite a selection. Quite a few schools have Permaculture gardens so planting material could be available from them but otherwise Permaculture Community gardens should have a considerable selection of tropical vegetable plants.

Cooking these unusual vegetables is also very easy. Consider the native Islander preparing a meal for the family. She has only a simple kitchen at best yet manages to turn out delicious and nutritious meals. A lot of tropical dishes have the addition of coconut cream and often it’s a one pot meal.

One example of such a dish is a large cooking pot settled into a fire pit that has the embers spread around the base of the pot. The chopped tubers are placed in first with the addition of some fish or meat. Then the greens are placed over the top with some ginger or a few other spices and then the coconut cream that is made from fresh coconuts is generously poured over the contents in the pot. A covering of banana leaves is placed over the top of the pot and the food is cooked until tender. Can you imagine what that might taste like? Yum!

Other recipes incorporate sweet potatoes with peanut meal and are shaped into patties and then fried until golden brown. These are a very tasty treat and yet so simple to make.

Aibika leaves cooked gently in some coconut cream and served with some lime juice is also a very easy and tasty dish to prepare as well as cooking the vine tips from pumpkins and chokos.

Starchy tubers can take the place of wheat flour in a lot of instances. These tubers can be dehydrated and ground into a starchy flour. If you ever find yourself in an Asian supermarket you should be able to find sweet potato and taro flour so can already try some of the  recipes found in tropical cook books. If you’re lucky you might even find some yam flour.

Cassava and arrowroot powder consists of the starch component only, not the whole tuber; they are available in the regular supermarkets.

Yams offer a wide variety of textures and colours and they are highly regarded by native people around the Pacific. Like potatoes, the yam has a variety of uses such as some being more suitable for baking, boiling  or mashing. Some yams have quite a slimy texture and these are particularly good for baking with. I’ve made yam pie with this variety by cooking and  mashing the yam and then spreading some  into a baking dish and shaping it up onto the sides. Mince meat and boiled eggs or a vegetable filling is placed on top and then the rest of the mashed yam is spread over the pie to make a lid. This pie is then placed in the oven to bake and out comes a golden brown yam pie that holds together beautifully!

The yam takes about ten months to grow to maturity but the wait is worth it. Cassava, taro and cocoyams also take their time but the beauty of these vegetables is that although they take a much longer time to mature, they are virtually maintenance free in the garden. Irrigation is generally not needed with the exception of taro.

Taro is originally a swamp plant and so needs to be planted in a wet area. Cassava is the easiest of all to grow as these can stay in the ground for several years although they can be harvested after about ten months. Cassava never needs watering. I’ve dug up cassava that was planted eight years previously and the quality was quite reasonable. Some parts of the tuber were woody but wherever I could cut through it with a knife then the tuber was suitable for consumption. I’ve heard indigenous people complain when the cassava was considered too mature for eating as it gets a woody inner core but that doesn’t worry me at all. I always grate the peeled and cleaned cassava tuber and then ferment it. Cassava is such a versatile vegetable and can be substituted for wheat flour and potatoes  thus making it an indispensable vegetable for the food forest garden.

Cocoyams are also a favourite. The slightly nutty taste of these starchy tubers and the tight dense texture make it a real pleasure to eat. Boil them until tender, cool and then fry them sliced in some hot ghee until they are golden brown. This is better than fried potato anytime!

Growing tropical vegetables in subtropical and tropical regions around the world can be a very rewarding, even if sometimes a long term project.

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