Saturday, August 28, 2010

Permagarden Challenge

During our In-Service Training (IST) back in February we learned about a gardening technique that a man working for/with the Peace Corps in Tanzania developed. It is similar to several other techniques/practices/themes, namely permaculture, but has been adapted for tropical areas that receive large amounts of rainfall in short periods of time and then have periods of little/no rainfall. The basic concept is to create a garden that not only captures the rain itself but also captures the runoff from buildings or hills or other structures, that has such good soil (hence the “perma” part of permagarden, which is short for “permanent”) so crops can be continuously planted there and also planted much closer together, and that has a wide range of crops, ranging from vegetables to grains to (small) fruit trees. The water capture aspect of a permagarden involves digging a small moat around and/or through the garden to help the water move through the garden. It also involves the process of double-digging, which is a technique that requires one to dig down about half a meter (if not more), remove the soil, mix a large amount of soil amendments, such as compost, manure, charcoal, ash, and leaves, in the soil down another half meter (or more), and then add more amendments 1 or 2 more times when re-adding the soil. A permagarden also involves a variety of crops that are closely-spaced, often in a hexagonal system to make more efficient use of space. Trees and plants that spread out (ex., watermelon, squash) are strategically placed on the edges of the garden, while plants that grow up or are smaller (ex., tomatoes, lettuce) are placed in the middle beds of the garden. A permagarden also usually involves intercropping (i.e., planting 2 or more different crops together in the same bed) since it tries to make the most of a limited area and intercropping facilitates that. For example, lettuce is planted in-between tomato plants because lettuce likes a little bit of shade, which the tomato plants can provide, their root structures are different so they don’t compete for nutrients in the same depths of the soil, and they don’t attract the same pests, which means (hopefully) fewer pests will be attracted. A permagarden utilizes many relatively well-known concepts (ex., it’s important to trap water and minimize run-off/erosion, adding soil amendments is very important, and intercropping a few different crops together can help maximize space and soil amendments) but to put it all together is a little more challenging, especially when dealing with really hard, dry, compacted, poor soil, which is where I chose to make my first permagarden for our “permagarden challenge”. I guess I need to back up a bit and explain this challenge:

Like I said above, we learned about permagardening back in February during IST. All of us PCVs attending IST split up into groups and made a permagarden to help us learn how to. Then we were told to go make one when we got back to our respective villages/towns. Fast-forward a few weeks, the third-year PCV (who is our boss’s assistant) decided it would be fun to challenge us all to teach at least 10 Senegalese people in how to make a permagarden within 3 months. This information was conveyed to us in the middle of May, so that means that by the middle of August we were all supposed to have taught 10 Senegalese people in how to make a permagarden. I was already ahead of schedule since I had already been talking with a group of guys about making a permagarden in their garden and we had actually already started digging by the time I had heard about the challenge. Long story short we worked our butts off making this garden: most days I would do my best to get to the garden by 7:30 because we had to water the other plans in the garden before we continued digging; most days we wouldn’t leave until 1, when the sun was just too hot to be working under. The hardest part of making the permagarden, as you could probably guess from my comment above, was digging down a half a meter and then adding enough soil amendments to really improve the soil quality. We started digging on Friday, May 28, and finished making our last beds on Sunday, June 13. (After that we still had to dig the outer beds (which don’t involve digging as deep as the inner beds) and adding soil amendments there.) Once we were done with all the digging, we transplanted and planted, watched as things grew, and fought off all the pests. Regardless of how hard it was physically, we made the most of it and still managed to have a lot of fun, as you can tell from the pictures below.

The vegetable nursery that we planted a couple weeks before we started digging the permagarden so that the plants (that can/should be transplanted) would be large enough to transplant when we were done with the permagarden:

Digging the outer moat/trenches of the garden and the holes next to each tree (2 cashew trees, 1 mango, 1 papaya, and 1 banana) that mark the corners of the garden – this moat and the holes are there to capture, store, and move water through/around the garden when the heavy rains come:

Successful completion of the first phase!

Measuring out the inner beds of the permagarden:

Digging…digging…digging… (yeah, that’s some pretty hard, compacted clay…)

The soil profile (a half meter deep):

Mohamet being his usual goofy self:

I was, of course, involved in the digging, though the guys protested a lot against it. I got several nasty blisters the first few days of digging but then I remembered I had brought work gloves so I dug those out of my bags and the blisters were able to heal up just fine.

In typical Senegalese fashion, we drank tea several of the days we were working. Ali’s wife often came to the garden with their youngest child and she would cook the tea for us. The guys loved the shot (literally – well, more like half a shot) of sugar and caffeine the tea gave them (no matter how minute it really was).

All done! (with the hardest part anyway…)

Once all the digging was done, we transplanted the plants: tomato, green pepper, hot pepper, eggplant, and bitter tomato. Then we put straw in the walkways to act as mulch and to prevent us from slipping on the wet soil (which I personally did several times, though gracefully enough to not hurt myself or the new transplants).

And then we put mosquito nets (and scraps from nets) over the transplants because several of them were getting eaten by various pests. This kind of helped, but some of the grasshoppers are determined enough to chew through the net, thereby creating an entrance for caterpillars, too.

Then the marabou gave them money for seeds, which I bought for them in Kaolack, and we planted them, as well as some of the seeds my family had sent me from the States.

Then it was a matter of waiting, watching, and praying.

(That’s rice back behind the pergarden, not grass. I tried to explain to the guys that, in America, many people grow a plant that looks a lot like this young rice around their houses. And these people spend lots of time mowing it and fertilizing it and weeding it and spraying it chemicals so that it looks really nice. They didn’t really get why anyone would do that. I tend to agree. I mean, I certainly see why some people have lawns – I loved playing in my family’s yard growing up – but so many people rarely if ever use their lawns for anything besides a green ground cover, and, in my opinion anyway, they could be growing something much more productive or beautiful with even just half their lawn, such as a vegetable garden or native wildflowers or native trees and bushes. These different uses could take less time to maintain, or more time, depending on the desires on the individual/family, and could easily involve the whole family – kids love playing in the dirt and can make even the most mundane job, such as weeding, into an exciting game.)

The sunflower plants got too tall for me to stand on the southeastern corner of the permagarden like I had in most of the previous pictures, so I moved to the northwestern corner.

As you can see, the watermelon plants are thriving (though, unfortunately, it has been so wet lately that most of the fruit is rotting and/or being eaten by maggots; this is the same fate as most of the American zucchini and yellow squash…at least now I know to plant them later in the rainy season so they start flowering after the rains have ended), as are the marigolds around the banana (and the banana itself), sunflowers, and cucumbers (those that germinated anyway). The hot pepper plants and corn are doing well, too, and the eggplant and bitter tomato are looking decent, but the tomato plants have a virus I think so they probably won’t really produce much at all and the sweet potato (different from American sweet potato) was totally ravaged by pests (grasshoppers and caterpillars mainly) but the few shoots that survived are slowly coming back. The papaya tree died (these pests are relentless), but the mango and 2 cashew trees that were there before we made the permagarden are doing well.

Now that you know how the garden is doing, here’s a quick recap of the random and often exciting things that happened while we were making it:

Gallo and Ali chopped down a big tree to clear space and to sell as firewood. All they had was a big, dull ax, so needless to say it took them a long time and it really tiring, but they’re tough guys so they could not just handle it, but handle it with a smile.

Mohamet and a couple other guys killed a squirrel (or the Senegalese equivalent of a squirrel) out in the bush near the garden, which he promptly cooked and we all ate. It was really tasty.

A million little red bugs were out crawling around the day after our first big rain. Apparently they’re harmless, which surprised me because they’re bright red and such coloring in nature often indicates that the animal is poisonous. They were all gone a couple days later and I haven’t seen them since.

I climbed in the well to get our water jug out, which we always kept there to help the water stay cool-ish. I didn’t think it was all that exciting (by this point, I had seen several of the guys do this several times every day), but they thought it was hilarious and demanded that they take a photo of me in there, so I obliged them. The guys had dug all the wells early in the dry season (there were 3 good ones by this point – one had dried up). Since the garden is close to the valley, the water table is super shallow, hence the reason why I am able to climb down into the well and stand on the wooden structure they had put in there to help keep the walls from caving in (they’re probably all going to cave in by the end of the rainy season, so the guys are looking into different options to be able to buy the cement to line wells and have them be “real” wells). (This was when I had really bad blisters but hadn’t yet remembered I had brought work gloves, so I was wrapping my hand in a strip of cloth – hence the reason my left hand looks a little bizarre…)

Mohamet killed a mouse with his shovel. When Mohamet and I were pounding the dried manure that we had stored in a well that they had started to dig but abandoned, a mouse ran out of the pit and Mohamet chased it down and killed it with his shovel. I’m not exactly sure why he did it, but he did.

The guys killed a snake – and then another snake. The first one slithered out of the compost pile we had made back in March. The second one came out of the same area as where the mouse had run from. There are superstitions surrounding a snake in a garden/field, so the guys cut off the heads of the snakes, buried them in the garden, and then threw the bodies out over the fence of the garden.

I climbed the fence – or tried to. I had jumped the fence a few times, along with several of the taller, more agile guys, but one time, when my friend Tomsir happened to have my camera, just when I thought I was going to make it just fine, I realized I wouldn’t be able to quite get over by myself, and required a little help (or a lot…).

So, while this is the end of this blog post, it’s just the beginning of this permagarden and these guys’ garden. I can wait to see it develop over the next year, and then (Inch’Allah – God willing) come back in 5-10 years and see what it looks like then. Keep checking back for more updates if you, too, are curious. :)

1 comment:

  1. Danielle I love how you take so many photos and show the progression of your permagarden. Liv was building one of these while I was in Tanzania, I actually helped dig a tiny bit. Unfortunately we only had one other guy helping us...

    Anyway this entry almost makes me feel like I am there or at least can imagine and visualize the things that you are doing! You are amazing and i can't wait to seeeeee you!