When the sun is hot, go to the understory

I really have it made on the got lucky scale. First, I live in Costa Rica, an amazing country, and second, we bought a piece of property that has torleyheader062314everything, open fields, a stream, a river and canopied rain forest.

There are a lot of individual homes and small developments around the lake, most of them built on former pasture land and usually a little lacking in shade. I like shade. Shade is good.  There is the deck, of course, or  you could build a pergola, but real natural shade – well, that’s completely different. Real shade comes from tall trees that are fairly close together. Real shade is moist underfoot and fragrant. It is dark and cool and comfortable. (It is also slippery, but that’s another story.)

If you are fortunate to have such a place on your property, you can easily transform it into the perfect shade garden, a refuge when you want to continue to play in the dirt, but it’s just too hot in the sun.

Too hot in the sun happens a lot, even in the rainy season. That’s when I head to the shade garden. If you want to be precise about it, I am gardening in the understory. Natural understory is that part of the rain forest beneath the canopy made by the tallest trees. It is an area where seedlings of those great trees struggle upward toward the light, but it is also a place for ferns, philodendron, mosses, and tabacón and some of the best habitat for orchids and bromeliads. I have all of them in the shade garden.

Where did they come from? The ferns were easiest. They grow wild just about everywhere and spread easily when transplanted to an appropriate spot. Bromeliads are second on the easy scale because they seem to be on every tree and fallen branch (be careful of ants and things that live in the plant – I say that from painful experience, and I was wearing gloves). Orchids are the most difficult because they can’t be taken from living trees but you can buy them from local producers and fix them to your trees. Or you can be really vigilant and find them on downed trees or even broken limbs.

I say vigilant because the usual wild orchid has a very small bloom and you often have to recognize them from the leaf.  My best hint? An orchid leaf has a central vein and the other veins are all parallel to it. Other plants have similar leaves, so don’t use that as an exclusive in deciding if a plant is an orchid.

Is there more to the understory garden? Of course! Check here next week.

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