Monday, March 15, 2010

Knowing the proper color and consistency of good manure

Hi blog readers! I was excited to hear how many people are reading this blog, so I am posting again.

It’s Sunday and I’m enjoying the breeze from my open door. It’s raining again. I can see neighbor kids run by in their underwear, splashing through puddles. I’m baking cookies for my girls group. We were supposed to paint a mural at a daycare today but it has been cancelled due to rain (i.e. due to mud).

I was working in my garden early this morning, when the rain started. At that point I welcomed the downpour because it forced me to stop (I was already exhausted) and because I could watch the drainage pattern off the roof and perfect my irrigation channels. The soil is compacted and I am digging very deep, so it’s exhausting work. Plus, the only tools I have are a hoe, buckets, and a borrowed wheel barrel.

The garden is an experiment really. I’m trying out a method we learned in training, a combination of permaculture and biointensive gardening. I dug irrigation channels and water holes with berms where I will plant perennials like papaya tree, aloe vera, lemon grass, sweet potato vine. In the center I’m digging two long, narrow beds for annuals. I dig deep so I can plant things close together. In one bed I will have corn, beans and pumpkin. In the other, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and onions. It’s polyculture. And it’s all organic. The only inputs are manure (later I will use compost), coal, ash, seeds/plants, and some hard work.

I’m learning a lot. For example, making a garden is definitely a community activity. It started with digging the ditches. I recruited neighbor kids to help me, seeing as they had nothing else to do. “OK teacher,” they said, “but what is our salary?” We decided that cookies were an appropriate payment. Once word got out that the American was paying in cookies, I had a whole hoard of children chipping away at the rock hard ground with hoes. I baked a lot of cookies the next day.

Next, I had to collect manure (a source of nutrients and helpful microbes). There are cows and bulls wandering around our school so I knew there was manure somewhere, but it proved surprisingly difficult to find. When my students saw me wandering around with a hoe, a bucket and a band of small children, they offered their services. It turns out that you can’t take any old cow poop and stick it in your garden. It has to be properly seasoned. I was instructed in the appropriate color and consistency of good manure and we filled several wheel barrels full.

Wood ash (minerals and pH balance) was also easily found. The students who live in the dorms cook over coals in an outdoor kitchen. Out back was a pile of used ash ripe for the gathering.

The last soil addition was charcoal fines. They hold water and house microbes. Plus, they sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, adding carbonic acid that loosens up soil nutrients for plants. How’s that for an off-set? They’re free too. My friend showed me where ladies sell charcoal in the market. There are always bits leftover that are too small to sell. I explained and then he translated to Xangana. The ladies agreed to let us fill our rice sack on the premise that I will bring them some of my corn so they can see if it really works.

Lastly, I needed seeds and plants. A friend who works for Africa Works, a faith-based NGO in town, offered to help me out. His wife fed us lunch and then we drove around all afternoon in his truck, gathering seeds from various stores and at the end of the day we visited the NGO’s fields. The sun was getting low and people were harvesting corn, cassava leaves, okra and other things to sell at the market in the morning. The fields are split up and managed by families affected by HIV/AIDS. The harvest is split three ways: the families keep some to eat, they must give some to neighbors in need, and the rest is sold to finance the project. A gas-powered pump takes water from the river to irrigate the fields and I could see that this corn was in much better shape than corn on smaller landholdings where people can’t afford irrigation. In the fields we met a beneficiary of the project who promised to get the perennials for my garden free of charge. He also gave me some fresh corn for the road.

In my garden quest I have found so many willing helpers asking for so little in return. It makes me feel like part of the community. They give to me and I will give back, be it in the form of cookies, corn from the garden or sharing the knowledge that I gain in the process.

Ultimately, I want to recruit my students to help me build gardens for people in surrounding communities. There are a lot of people suffering from HIV/AIDS in the area and they are often too sick to walk to their fields, but could easily tend a small plot near their home. There is less weeding and watering to be done because of the way we plant (close together, polyculture, natural fertilizer…) and they get high yields of a variety of foods right outside their front door. Another target group would be families whose children have suffered from malnutrition. A friend of mine works at a hospital that receives a lot of HIV/AIDS and malnutrition cases. We’re hoping to work together and make this happen.

All things take time, of course. First, I need to see if I can make anything grow at my own house! Also, this is one of several side projects on top of my regular teaching load. I’m busy, but it’s a good kind of busy. Things move slowly, so there is always time to stop and chat with neighbors, play with puppies, or watch the sunset.

1 comment:

  1. Love the new photos; helps me visualize you in your amazing surroundings. Being somewhat of a manure expert myself (mostly related to the horse variety!) I thought it appropriate to respond to this particular blog entry! I love that you are growing a garden, and if I know you, it will be both beautiful and bountiful. Keep up the great work, and know how much of a difference you making in the lives of those you are serving.
    Miss & love you,