september 2010

Can square foot gardening help fight poverty in Cochabamba?

Arnold Brower
Foundation NME Mundial

Arnold Brower tells us about the initiative of square foot gardening; how it workds and the benefits this can bring to families in Cochabamba

Square foot gardening is a fancy way of gardening in boxes of 4 x 4 feet. Mel Bartholomew, a retired engineer from the United States, has made this innovative way of intensive gardening very popular, exposing its ease and practicality.

Mel promotes the use of 1,20m x 1,20m x 30cm gardening boxes divided into 16 squares where you can manage each square separately. In this way a great variety of crops can be cultivated in a small area, varying the quantity of plants according to the size of each crop. Whereas tomatoes need an entire square for just one tomato plant, in the square alongside you can plant 16 radishes. Mel says that the secret of the system is the special potting mix which is being used. A mix made up out of different materials which together make up for a very fertile soil that can absorb great quantities of water.

Square foot gardening makes gardening a lot easier:

  • You save time - by not having to turn vast areas of garden soil in order to plant crops (which when harvested, often result in too much produce for self consumption).
  • You save on water - the high crop intensity means a relatively small surface to irrigate while the potting mix absorbs water so well that it remains moist over a few days.
  • You save time on weeding - you manage a small area, and it’s not very prone to pests attacks because of the variety of crops. It is also easy to maintain a rotating system, you simply plant another type of crop each time you harvest one of the squares.

IIt seems an ideal system to manage for an average family in Cochabamba, especially in the “zona sur” where watering the plants can be a limiting factor in urban gardening with the lack of water in the area.

Thanks to the Dutch Foundation NME Mundial, our sponsors NCDO, Haëlla Foundation, Diaconie Elst, Kootje and others, the project team “Huertos Educativos Cochabamba” has been able to experiment on the square foot gardening concept starting with a few experiments at two of the schools of our program. In the Tudela Tapia School we installed raised square foot gardening beds in order to avoid the accumulation of the huge amount of salts which are naturally found in the area around the school.

(A raised bed on a sort-of table cuts off the salt absorption from the soil). A square foot garden made up out of a potting mix with materials taken from outside the school area resulted in considerable improvement of the soil quality in comparison to the garden. We made two boxes and filled them both with different potting mixes to experiment with the potting mix recipe. For successful square foot gardening you need a potting mix which is high in nutrients and high in organic matter to absorb the irrigation water well.

From the beginning of 2010 we started introducing more square foot gardens in the different child care centers to demonstrate an alternative way of gardening in smaller areas. As the picture on the next page shows even a group of kids from kindergarten can manage a well established square foot garden together with their teacher.

This Bolivian spring we will start our first pilot project working on a square foot gardening experiment together with San Simon University in Cochabamba where we will experiment with 16 different cropsto compare how they grow in soil mixtures with a depth of 15cm and 30cm. Besides that, we will teach families how to set up a square foot garden and we will help them in the process of establishing it. The idea is to use square foot gardens as an instrument of helping the poorest families of the city and other interested families to install small, manageable gardens to give them a relatively easy and time efficientinstrument to grow themselves healthy food at a low cost.

If the experiment at university shows a great number of crops grow fairly well in a mixture with a 15cm soil depth we can greatly reduce the amount of potting mix required to start each square foot garden. If we can install square foot gardens with a 15cm depth then, while a garden is producing the first crops, families can create compost from garden and kitchen waste in order to top up their potting mix to an optimum level of 30cm.

Compost is an important element of square foot gardening. In order to keep the gardening box fertile over time you simply add a few handfuls of compost to each square after harvesting, allowing the new crop to grow in a refreshed, nutrient rich organic matter. We are convinced that this type of gardening can help fight poverty, improve health and reduce waste in households around Cochabamba, while alsoproviding a learning tool and other social benefits.

We are convinced that we can fight poverty, improve health, and reduce waste in households around Cochabamba

Superstitions in South America

The etymology is from the classical Latin "superstition", literally "a standing over", hence: "amazement, wonder, dread, especially of the divine or supernatural".

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