Urban agriculture has achieved buzzword status, from the rooftops of Sydney to the tire gardens of Senegal. Every so often I am e-mailed an article on green roof technology or urban community gardens and the ever-expanding innovations people in developed countries are using to grow vegetables in tight spaces. Whether it’s ultralight synthetic soils or aquaponics, people are refining urban gardening to the point of expensive trendiness. I can only respond to these e-mails with detached fascination.
Unlike the newsworthy gardening taking place in America’s major cities, my work in Senegal entails brass tacks practices targeted at a poor population. No complex water harvesting here, just double-digging and re-purposing old rice bags. On the sophistication spectrum, my urban agriculture is so simple it seems to consist of a series of no-brainers. Use what you already own. Practice composting. Plant mutually beneficial vegetables alongside each other. Things like drip irrigation are far too costly for my farmers. We stick to the basics.
It might seems strange that that the urban growers I work with in Senegal—many of whose families come from agricultural backgrounds and know from a rainy season rice paddy—are interested in learning such lo-fi methods from the trainings I run. What we are doing doesn’t seem to fit with the cosmopolitan image we might have of urban gardening nowadays. Yet at the same time, it makes perfect sense: in the pursuit of food security among poor populations, the cheap, easy, and semi-familiar techniques are the ones that will work. Even Senegalese people have heard of microgardening tables, yet because they are expensive I instead prefer promoting the re-use of old tomato cans or oil bottles.
Why do we conceptualize urban agriculture these days as something only done on rooftops, spaces that are already gated communities? After all, access to roofs and the power to manipulate them are often questions of wealth. If urban/community gardening is really about improving nutrition amongst a needy population, why not look to the über-cheap methods being practiced in Africa? Marginal spaces are everywhere, and not just for growing the archetypal basil-and-tomato duo. A surprising amount of vegetables can be grown on balconies, fire escapes, porches, window sills, mini-yards, as well as community lots at ground level.
As a follow-up to my last post, wherein I sloshed around in my procrastination hang-ups, I write now about my gardening training that did in fact take place. It was, in a word, a success. Although, to be fair, there were some bumps along the way. “Lessons learned,” in Peace Corps parlance. Here’s what happened:
A local women’s group approached me with the idea of doing a gardening training. We decided on doing a 3-day event (three evenings in a row), and agreed upon a small fee that each participant would pay to cover the costs of the training, as well as guarantee their interest in the occasion. Holding an event across three evenings, as opposed to having a big one-day event, is more successful since women have free time in the evenings (not in the mornings, when they have housework). In addition, evenings are better because the temperature is cooler, people are well-rested, available, and are not expecting lunch to be served.
The fact of each woman paying a small fee (in this case, about $5 each), was crucial. I did a training in the past where I offered it for free to the participants, yet they showed up to the training thinking that they would be paid! Needless to say, this angered me, for not only was I offering a free service, I felt my participants misunderstood the situation and were seemingly ungrateful. As it turned out, World Vision and some other NGOs in the region have set up a practice (and in my opinion, bad example), wherein they pay participants who attend their seminars to reimburse the costs of traveling there. This practice has led to a phenomenon throughout West Africa of professional seminar-goers who make a habit of attending various seminars while donning business attire, making small talk, and collecting the cash.
My counterpart Mohamadou Seck and I decided on a curriculum of permagardening principles and organic pesticide use. The first day, I encountered my first obstacle: many of the women were wearing fancy attire. I explained that this was a working training, not a chance to see and be seen. After all, garden beds don’t dig themselves. Most women complied and rolled up their skirts.
The first day, we created a compost pile. By the third day, the compost was hot and the women could feel the heat on the compost stick, reinforcing the idea that a compost pile is like a living oven that creates fertilizer—for free. We also dug beds and amended the soil with charcoal, ash, manure, and neem leaves, all of which are local ingredients that can be obtained cheaply or without cost. We taught double-digging, which in reality amounted to something more like 1.5x digging. A true double-dig requires spades, pickaxes, and a great deal of physical strength. My priority was to emphasize that these practices can be done with the tools that women already own, like simple hand-hoes, even if it means still digging twice but perhaps not as deeply. Since this was a lot of work, we continued this into the second day.
The third day, we planted some seedlings and seeds and spoke about the importance of intercropping. Companion planting, the placement of mutually beneficial plants alongside each other, is not widely practiced here, yet is essential if you want a diverse array of vegetables grown in a small space. On the third day we also created organic pesticides using mashed-up onion, pepper, and garlic, which had been left to soak in water for over 24 hours. We then mixed this solution with soap and sprinkled it on plants using a home-made “spray bottle” (a water bottle with holes cut into the top where water can sprinkle out, like a small watering can).
By the end, we had many garden beds dug, and the space was well on its way to being a functional garden to be used by the women’s group. We all drank cold sodas and passed out certificates. While some women had worked harder than others, all felt a collective sense of accomplishment and pride in the new garden space.
Leading a training is a bit like being a teacher: you see who the naturally hard working people are, who the gossips are, who is your ally, and who will make the day more of a headache. Some of these women had not attended school, so were not accustomed to the type of concentration and quiet demanded of an in-depth training. We were able to find a method of balancing instruction and fun. Let’s just say, there was some dance involved.
As a cultural lesson, the ways that the women’s group prepared for the training were very different from the way I did. Months ago, we had a meeting and picked specific dates that worked for all of us. I wrote this down in my calendar and thus considered it permanent. In Senegalese culture, however, which is primarily oral, the way of making something permanent is not by writing it down, but by verbally repeating it. Despite all the preparation I was doing in the weeks leading up to the event, some of the women had forgotten when it would be and even expressed doubts that it was a good time. In the end, almost everyone came, but I could have avoided some of this confusion if I had started reminding people about it earlier and more continuously.
Having a fellow volunteer present, in this case my new site-mate Marcie Todd, was fun and a relief. It’s essential to have a partner in crime to weather through the minor mishaps and stressful moments. Also, they might be the only other person present who knows how to use a digital camera.
The women’s group now has a green space that they collectively implemented, and thus will collectively take care of. The principles we taught could be translated into even smaller spaces if the women want to create garden beds in their homes. Simply creating one deeply dug bio-intensive bed allows for more vegetables to be intercropped more closely together—a perfect home kitchen solution. Another technique that is economically sensitive to women’s lives is the use of home-made organic pesticides. By promoting a cheap prophylactic approach to controlling pests, we can stem the common predicament of gardeners waiting until pests take over their plants, at which point they resort to expensive and toxic chemicals. Since most women cannot actually afford chemical pesticides, yet assume there is no other solution, they often find themselves discouraged and with failed crops.
The most useful point I have learned in urban gardening is to start from a standpoint of having zero dollars at one’s disposal: how can we create rich soil, propagate more plants, etc. without putting a cent into the project? A last-ditch run to Home Depot to buy good soil would never be an option here. Everything has to be done from scratch, and it has to be affordable for the people with whom I work. Composting, seed storage, and anything that can be gotten for free become much more viable in this light.
I think when urban agriculture is achieved at extremely low cost, it aligns more closely with aiding the urban populations that might benefit from it the most.