This past week we hired one of our current interns to take over my position managing the commercial garden. It was a bittersweet moment for me, as I have thoroughly enjoyed the excuse it gave me to wander around outside with our gardeners and develop my new found green thumb. However I am excited for the time it will free up for me to dedicate to our project and organizational development. Plus, living on the farm, I can always find some excuse or other to get myself in the garden!
In honor of my last few weeks managing the commercial garden, this blog post will focus on its development over the past 11 months and its current trajectory.
When I first arrived in Malawi, work in the garden focused largely on increasing and stabilizing our production. Working with the gardeners, we began implementing a steady rotation of planting, both in the nursery and in the main beds, compost making, pest management, and plant care. It took us about six months to get our garden production consistent and our systems working (relatively) smoothly.
Around that time Kusamala took on a host of new employees and interns. One day I was discussing the garden with Marie and Biswick (two such new staff members). They began questioning me on the commercial garden’s roll at the centre as a permaculture demonstration. My immediate reaction was defensive – we use compost and natural pest management, not chemicals, and we rotate our crops through the beds to alternate heavy, light feeders, and nitrogen fixers – of course it’s a demonstration of permaculture!
However the more I thought about their questions the more I realized the validity of their doubts. Permaculture is about creating designs that mimic nature and build healthy ecosystems that incorporate a variety of plants, insects, and animals. Our commercial garden, while definitely organic, was still largely based on a mono-cropping system of only one crop per bed that still relied heavily on outside inputs for nutrient management and pest control.
But how do you create a vegetable production system that can meet the quality and consistency demands of commercial production while still incorporating permaculture principles? This is a question that we have been playing with over the past five months and, while we have made some interesting steps in the right direction, we have yet to find a complete answer.
Our first thought was to look at each bed and see how we could change our planting strategies to create multiple benefits. The natural extension of this was taking crops that had been having pest problems and intercropping them with insect-repelling crops. In this way, our thinking went, we’d be increasing the productivity of the beds while also chasing away some of the critters.
So our green bean beds now became home to onions, leeks, marigolds, and nasturtiums. Our tomatoes were intercropped with beans, and our brassicas with alliums. The effect on our pest populations has been indeterminate – I really don’t keep as good of records as I ought to – but the added color of the flowers, attracting pollinators, and the increased production is reason enough to make this first experiment permanent.
We have also planted tall, fast-growing, fruit trees at the ends of some of the beds to integrate trees into our system. We choose trees, such as papaya and tree tomatoes, which produce little vegetation in order to minimize shade to the surrounding crops while increasing the diversity and production of the system as a whole.
These first few steps are but the beginning, and I am excited to see how the commercial garden changes over the next year – even if I won’t be the driving force behind it. Our system is now at a point were production is consistent enough that, instead of worrying about having enough to sell to cover our costs, we can experiment and grow; finding ways to be more sustainable and more permaculture-aly minded.