Bones, Compost, Ash, Ants, and Sustainable Vegetable Gardens
This is the second post in a series from Tom Lynch, Founder of Worthwhile Wine Company. Tom and his daughter are currently traveling through South Africa and working with some of the most amazing sustainable farmers in the world, rich and poor, as they explore how sustainable farming is creating a more sustainable society.
Inzinga, South Africa – We’ve spent the last four days meeting with people from Cedara College of Agriculture (located about an hour away from the very rural village where we are staying) and various non-profits and experts at sustainable food gardens. We’ve heard very knowledgeable people very passionately tell us about why one approach, usually as defined in their particular book of choice, is absolutely the best way to succeed: permaculture, organic, biodynamic, commercial, etc.
During this time we’ve also been meeting with the teachers and gardeners who are implementing the community vegetable gardens we initiated here last year. Like most of us who garden a bit at home, they need to make their gardens healthier and more productive, and they want to learn more about how to do that. As a catalyst for successful gardens here, we are responsible for bringing in the local and regional partners to work with the iNzinga gardeners on an ongoing basis to help ensure success. But which technique is right, as we can’t try to teach them all?
Using Multiple Approaches
Having one expert tell them they need to do it one way, and another expert tell them something else a week later has not seemed to be a reasonable approach.
I often feel the same sort of confusion when trying to find a better way to deal with the aphids on my tomato plants, or bed preparation, etc. Even at the most basic question of more natural vs. commercial, the decisions are tough. I compost and use cow manure in my garden because I love the taste of the tomatoes with that combination. But I also water my tomatoes with Miracle Grow liquid for just a couple of weeks at the right time because I love the production that results.
So, with all of this in my head, today I finally got to meet one of the oldest men in the village.
He lives at the top of the hill, and is the most successful gardener in the village, mostly because until last year he was the only serious vegetable gardener in the village. But he keeps to himself, so I only got to talk with him today. As he was telling me (through our site manager, Nonjabulo, because he only speaks Zulu), all of the things he does to be successful (crop rotation, mulching, etc.), I kept asking who taught him these things, as the institutional knowledge has not been found anywhere else within the village.
He said he just knows it from over the years. That he listened to a lot of people when he was younger, tried a lot of things, and came to what works for him.
For instance, when he talks of compost, he really just dumps every piece of organic matter into a pit in the ground, then between plantings he burns it and spreads the remaining ash on the plots. He said he found it worked better because often it is too dry to compost “the other way” and water too expensive. For pest control, he found that using soap sprays takes care of some things, but for the worst, he will put bones near the plants because they attract ants, and caterpillars and grasshoppers will not come where there are ants.
Getting Great Gardens
The bottom line is that, just like me with my combination of manure, mulch, and Miracle Grow, these gardeners will find their own ways and their methods. The options and training we provide will be “sustainable” because nothing else here will work; they are too isolated and poor to go get a bag of fertilizer or bug spray every time there is a planting or a problem.
I’m much more comfortable with the idea of multiple approaches being introduced, as it gives them ideas and options and the chance to experiment to find out which combination of approaches best fit the way they most like to garden while delivering the best results for them. All of these farming/gardening dogmas are great. But getting great gardens any way that is healthy is our new dogma in iNzinga.
Tom Lynch is the founder of Atlanta’s Worthwhile Wine Company, LLC, a Fair Trade Certified ™ importer that focuses on great sustainably made South African wines.