Lessons from the Garden

(Disclaimer: this post may be a bit boring to those of you not interested in gardening, though I suppose if you read metaphorically you could find some life lessons as well – take it as you will!)

Up until recently when I’ve started taking on other responsibilities, working with the commercial garden was my main focus at the permaculture centre. The garden has 100 beds, which are divided into 4 sections of 25 beds. Every 4 weeks we plant a new section, giving the beds approximately 16 weeks to mature and produce before we replant. Outside of our primary 100-bed rotation we also have beds for herbs and vegetables that take longer than 16 weeks to mature.

The four sections are divided into groups of five beds through which we rotate planting a fruiting vegetable, a leaf vegetable, a root crop, a cucurbit or brassica, and a legume. The point of the rotation is for soil management – mixing up heavy and light feeders, integrating nitrogen-fixers – and pest management – keep them on their toes so that they don’t get too comfy in one bed. The vegetables currently included in the rotation changes slightly from planting to planting, depending on the season and lessons learnt (see below!).

At this point I’ve been in Malawi for almost four months, which has given me the chance to be a part of a full planting cycle. It’s pretty clear when comparing the section planted after I’d been here 2 weeks with the two most recent plantings that the garden team and I have learned a lot over the past four plantings. Below I’ve made a list of the top ten lessons I’ve learned from the commercial garden since coming to Malawi.

The first 50 beds we planted…

… the most recent 50, lots more green!

Top Ten Lessons from the Commercial Garden

10. Favorite task: staking tomatoes – I don’t know why but there’s just something I love about tying tomatoes to a stick. Another fun fact I’ve learned about tomatoes, they’re related to tobacco. So all you smokers out there wash your hands before touching a tomato plant! That and excessive rains are two great ways to spread diseases to your tomatoes.

Looks like a good time, no?

9. Least favorite task: shoveling shit – Now this one may be pretty obvious, but loading up a truck bed full of cow manure at the nearby dairy then unloading it at the garden is no fun. I just have to keep thinking about all the lovely compost it’s going to make to get over the fact that I’m standing on a pile of shit, flinging it into the truck with a shovel. There’s got to be some good life metaphor in there, I’ll let you figure it out on your own.

8. Scarecrows work… really! – I was skeptical at first but seeing the difference in germination rates pre- and post-scarecrow have made me a believer. Ours is named Alberto after the Spaniard that donated his clothes to the cause. 

7. Legumes need love too – even though nitrogen fixing, beans still need well-prepped beds just like any other plant. While they may not need all the nitrogen teas and attention once they get going, just like everyone else they need a little love and compost as seedlings.

6. Gotta dig deep – Preparing beds for planting can be a fairly labor intensive process, but spreading a layer of compost on the top of your bed just isn’t enough no matter how much you hate hoeing in the scorching sun. That compost needs to be mixed in at least a hoe’s length deep to provide the plants with nutrients where they need it most: their roots. And really, once your done that sun burn on your shoulders and the calluses on your hands do make you feel very hardcore.

Alberto, standing guard over the arugula

5. Preparation is key – now this can refer to bed preparation (see lesson 6) or just plain planning ahead. While it may seem a bit obvious that you need to have all your seeds and seedlings ready to go on planting day, this gets a bit more complicated when you start considering the different growing times of plants in your nursery. If one month the tomatoes are ready to transplant after 4 weeks, while everything else takes six you have to consider that in the timing of your nursery planting. Garden planning is not so easy as it might initially seem!

4. Sometimes you just have to roll with it – As an addendum to lesson five, you can’t plan for everything. Sometimes a cold snap comes through and your nursery hasn’t yet been closed up yet from the hot season, setting everything back a week or two and really f*ing up your planting day. You just have to shrug and say, “I guess we’re planting the peppers next week… Also we’d better get that nursery fixed…”

3. And sometimes it’s better to adapt than fight – if the rainy season taught me anything it’s that I hate cucurbits and tomatoes. No, no… sorry… that’s just my frustration with all the dead tomato plants and diseased squash talking. If a plant just does not grow well in torrential rains then perhaps it’s better to grow something else that does, no matter how much your customers really want yellow cherry tomatoes and butternut squash. Permaculture teaches us to work with nature, not against it, and that’s something important to consider in all aspects of planning, including crop selection.

Enoch posing with the broccoli

2. There’s nothing like a good co-pilot – for the past two months, Enoch, an amazingly hard working, dedicated person, has been acting head gardener and my go to guy. In those months I’ve been amazed to see the increase in work output and the decrease in the amount of time I need to dedicate to the garden. While I still enjoy going out and working with the gardeners, being able to completely rely on Enoch has not only given me time to do other things but has improved the garden’s productivity. And really, in the end, my ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job so that one day the garden will be run solely by Malawians. Having found a good co-captain is one big step towards reaching that goal!

1. Just remember SOIL and WATER – if I learned anything from our first two mediocre to disastrous plantings it’s that healthy, nutrient-filled soil and sufficient water are the most basic, crucial elements to a successful garden. This hearkens back to the importance of copious amounts of rich, well-composted soil, tilled deeply into the beds and kept well watered. If anything, working with the soil has taught me the importance of balance. You want enough nutrients in the soil, but the nitrogen should not be so concentrated that it burns the plant. You want nice damp soil, but not so waterlogged that the roots and stems begin to rot (damn you rainy season!). It’s all about finding a healthy balance.

Bonus Lesson:

The term pecking order comes from chickens! – as I write I can hear the squawking of the littlest chicken in one of our tractors getting pecked at by the bigger chickens, apparently it’s how they establish the hierarchy within the flock. That was a big “Ah hah!” moment when I figured that one out. Of course we have to make sure the little ones don’t get picked on too much. On that note I should probably go see what is going in that chicken tractor…

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4 Responses to Lessons from the Garden

  1. ana says:

    BEST lunchtime reading ever! Also, you would be so proud of me – I planted a lettuce garden in gutters yesterday and hung them on our balcony 🙂 Nothing compared to 100 beds, but I’ll get there! Love & miss you.

  2. ccarlton says:

    Thanks Ana! Gutter planter boxes sound awesome. What type of lettuce did you plant? My new favorite home garden plants are thyme, oregano, and parsley. Having fresh herbs to cook with is amazing!

  3. Land Wilson says:

    Great post! It’s not boring to me…:) Lv Ld

  4. Lyndsie says:

    Your job sounds so so much like mine! …except I’m in Oregon! Funny how the world works sometimes.

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