As we pass the half way mark on Slow Food’s ambitious project, to create 1000 food gardens in Africa (580 and counting!) we look at what it takes to create a successful community or school garden. From the experience and expertise of those working on the ground in Thousand Gardens in Africa project, ten steps for a flourishing good, clean and fair garden that can be put into action anywhere around the world.
1. Create Your Dream Team
The first step in any successful community garden is getting your community involved and drawing on individual’s specific attributes. For example, older people in the community may have valuable knowledge on the traditional food, how to treat pests using natural remedies and so on. In one of the gardens in Guinea Bissau, a local senior alerted the project coordinators to a native plant that protects against termites that none of the younger people or academics were aware of.
Your community is a great reserve of knowledge and skills ready to be tapped. Teachers can develop supporting educational activities; local media can report the story; farmers will know how to cultivate the land and work within the local climate; experts such as agronomists can bring the scientific explanations; and young people have the energy and initiative to make it happen.
2. Look Before You Leap
Do your homework and learn from history and best practices. Visit any nearby school/community gardens to learn from their successes and failures. Collaborate with programs or organizations working on sustainable food projects.
3. Locate Available Land
This needn’t be a huge area. In Senegal, the Mbao High School set up a garden in the unused land around the perimeter of the school, creating a long L-shaped plot. Look at space creatively and see what land around you could be used to cultivate (a roof? a laneway?), or approach councils or community institutions that may make some land available to you.
4. Design Your Garden
Before getting your hands dirty, work on a garden design that establishes areas for garden beds, composting, paths, tool storage, etc. The farmers or agronomist on your team will have input in this stage, knowing where certain crops grow best, and which crops are best suited to be planted together.
5. Choose Your Crops
Favor traditional crops from your area that are the most suited to the local climate and soil, having acclimatized over centuries through human selection. They safeguard biodiversity, are more resistant and require fewer external inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), making them more environmentally and economically sustainable. If you’re not sure how to find local varieties (sometimes even local farmers no longer grow them) try talking to horticultural societies and seed saving groups.
6. Source Your Seeds
There are many places to get a hold of seeds if your local nursery doesn’t stock local or heritage varieties: seed banks, local farmers, or research institutes The overall goal of a self-sufficient garden is to produce seeds year after year to reduce dependence on external inputs. Buiga Sun Rise pre-school in Uganda started to produce seeds a couple of years ago, but always end up with more than they need for the following season. Their solution? Giving their surplus seeds to nearby schools that have none, but who will return the favor the next season in the form of different seeds.
7. Get Equipped
Make a list of essential tools to get started, and items that you’d like to purchase in the future, that way fundraising to equip your garden can be done in stages. Ask for donations from local businesses. Make use of what you have - get your community members to dig deep in their sheds. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, farmers in Kinshasa often bring in rakes, hoes, shovels or watering cans from home when needed and pool their money to buy the rest.
8. Use Sustainable Gardening Methods
Natural substances to improve soil fertility and manage pests and diseases are effective when they are included in an integrated system, which also involves crop rotation (avoiding the cultivation of the same species in the same section of the garden for multiple years e.g. tomatoes followed by tomatoes) and intercropping (plants can provide each other with mutual assistance).
9. Make Your Garden an Outdoor Classroom
Gardens are a great opportunity to teach both adults and children about local plant varieties, how to eat a diverse diet and environmentally friendly cultivation methods. Thanks to its interdisciplinary nature, many subjects can be studied in the school garden, such as history, through gastronomic traditions and crops; geography, through the origin of products; as well as mathematics and geometry in planning the garden and calculating the expected value of its produce. Students from one South African garden in learnt about the butterfly life cycle in the classroom, and then headed to the plot to see its larvae and cocoon. The gardens are also giving children across the continent a chance to learn about subjects such as food traditions and nutrition that might not otherwise be covered in class.
10. Have a Ball!
According to the Slow Food philosophy pleasure must go hand in hand with responsibility, so what would a good, clean and fair garden be without a bit of fun? In Uganda, the Mukono Convivium holds yearly ‘Fruit and Juice Parties’ where local school children prepare fresh juices and eat fruit harvested right from their own school gardens, celebrating with their parents, teachers and local leaders. Gardens can be places to strengthen your community, give a sense of belonging to members and bring together different generations and social groups, creating moments of conviviality, solidarity and friendship.
Now, make like our friends in the project from Tunisia to South Africa, pull up your sleeves and get planting!
To support the Thousand Gardens in Africa project or adopt a garden, visit:
For more detailed guidelines on creating a garden, see the Thousand Gardens in Africa Handbook.
or the Slow Food Education site www.slowfood.com/education.