Recently I hosted my first training, in Permagardening. Permagardening, a derivative of Permaculture, is a technique designed for individual household gardens that integrates water-saving methods, companion planting, and organic soil fertility practices to mimic a a self-sustaining ecosystem within one’s yard. Permagardening is important because many of today’s farmers, even in compact urban settings, practice monocropping, rely on chemical fertilizers/pesticides, and do little to control erosion or save water, all of which deplete the soil and decrease crop yields. The method is especially useful during the rainy season, when heavy rains can wash away nutrient-rich topsoil and garden beds. I held this training in May, in anticipation of the rainy season (which starts in June/July). Among households and schools, Permagardening in Africa has been shown to increase vegetable production and overall food security, all the while using only local tools and ingredients.
My two counterparts and I invited members of women’s groups, individual gardeners, and notables within the agricultural community of Kolda to attend the training. The entire task was daunting because as it stood, I had only implemented a Permagarden once during my training, and neither of my counterparts had even heard of the practice. I did mini-trainings with them and created a small prototype of a Permagarden. In the weeks before the training, my counterparts educated themselves on the rudiments of the technique, while I ran around town printing invitations, buying seeds, writing a grant to have the training funded, and arranging for food to be served at the event.
Luckily my boss Famara Massaly came down from Dakar to the training. His guidance was invaluable to the success of the training. Everyone in the agricultural community of Kolda knows and respects Massaly, and it makes much more sense for a Senegalese person to be training other Senegalese people, than for an American to be doing it. Indeed, that is how I envision my role here: I’m a catalyst for events and trainings, not the expert standing in front of a group of people. It’s my job to do the overall planning and behind-the-scenes work (and exert leadership where necessary) so that Senegalese experts can impart knowledge to Senegalese trainees.
Aside from a general sense of chaos, the training went well and all of the 30 participants were highly motivated. Several of them promised to implement Permagardens in their own homes. We even had time to teach composting, a no-brainer method to enhance soil fertility, but one that is rarely in practice here in Senegal. The day started at 9a.m. and ended at 5p.m., and by the end, the group gathered to de-brief on what they had learned. Most had never practiced double-digging, or used neem leaves, ash, or charcoal as soil amendments. In Pulaar, Wolof, and French, they expressed their gratitude and enthusiasm for being trained in this method. As usual, men dominated the conversation, visibly shusshing the women from speaking (this grates on my nerves). But overall, I feel it was a success. Now that I have hosted my first training, I can better prepare for the next one.
Since you may be wondering, here is a pared-down version of how to implement a Permagarden (disclaimer: Permaculture by definition is a fluid practice based on the realities of the land and climate in any given location, by no means must one implement the type of “packaged” Permagarden I propose here):
To start off, use only local tools that people already own. If rakes, shovels, and pickaxes are available, great, but if not, hands and hand-hoes are just fine.
1. Identify the existing landscape: is there a natural slope to the land, a house nearby where water will spill off? What other natural features can be used to the garden’s advantage?
2. Once a proper area is found, mark off a 6 meter x 6 meter square
3. Clear the space of weeds, debris, and rocks
4. Draw out where you will dig canals, holes, living walls, and permanent beds
5. Dig the canals that form the perimeter of the space. These will serve to direct water more efficiently, rather than allowing a heavy rainstorm wash away precious topsoil.
6. Dig large holes at the corners of the space. These serve to catch and slow water down, which will eventually spill into the canals and feed the plant beds.
7. Create flat walls out of soil on the inside of the perimeter canals, about 50cm tall and 50cm-1m wide. These need to be flat so that they will prevent erosion.
8. Carve out spaces where water can flow from the outer canals into the inner area.
9. Loosen the soil in the middle inner area.
10. Delineate the space for four garden beds in the inner part of the square.
11. Double-dig each of the beds, adding in neem leaves, ash, charcoal powder, and compost/manure.
12. Add the same soil amendments to the perimeter “wall” beds.
13. Plant the wall beds with perennial crops such as sweet potato vine, lemongrass, aloe vera, and mint. These types of crops will hold the walls in place against erosion, and can also be harvested.
14. Plant the inner garden beds with vegetables and other rotating crops: corn, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, okra, or whatever your heart desires. In each bed, plant at least two mutually beneficial crops amongst one another: okra with lettuce, or beans with corn, for example.
15. Plant banana and/or papaya trees at the corners of the garden where the big holes are. The high concentration of water created by the holes will nourish the trees.
16. Water the garden thoroughly (which you probably won’t have to do in the rainy season). Weed regularly. This garden should last for years.