I have been working a lot recently with individual families in my community to introduce organic methods into household gardening as a means of creating sustainability, increasing production, and helping household nutrition. So far I have worked with about eight families, doing things from bed preparation to companion planting to homemade, organic insecticides and fertilizers. This week, I had my first great success story that really made me realize how small ideas can sometimes change how people think and work.
Last week, I was showing some families how to double-dig garden beds and add organic matter to the soil in the process to help with soil recuperation and nutrient availability. After working with one family, I proceeded to demonstrate how to make a homemade insecticide using garlic, onions, and leaves from a local tree called paraiso gigante. These ingredients are mixed together, steeped in water for about 2 days, and then applied to the plants. The smelly garlic and onions deter pests; the paraiso leaves have a strong odor as well as other natural insecticidal properties.
A few days later when I revisited the garden, the mother of the family proudly told me of her newest horticultural conquest: As she double-dug a new raised bed in her garden, she found if full of ants. Using leaves from the paraiso gigante tree as her organic matter, she mixed the material into the soil. The next day when she returned to plant the bed, the ants had all left and the soil was ready for planting.
As she told me this story, I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a local mother who not only learned well enough to be able to repeat the whole process on her own, but she was also willing to experiment and try new things. Such willingness is rare for people who usually have little room for error. Without much financial backing, with little capital, and often faced with the problem of providing enough food to survive, impoverished farmers often hesitate to try new things, lest they jeopardize their ability to provide for their families.
Working with farmers in this capacity means that I must be understanding and cautious and always remain cognizant of this fact. It is important to impart knowledge in a way that manages and minimizes risk and optimizes benefit. This is not always perfectly possible and there are always unknown variables, but hopefully (if this situation is any indication) the work I am doing will have a tangible impact both in the gardens and in the thought processes of my Paraguayan neighbors. —Mario Machado
After returning to Paraguay from my trip to Cuba several weeks ago, I had an entirely new perspective on the issues facing my community and the issues that I address as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first thing I came to realize is how absolutely possible it is to produce almost all the food one needs to survive (and thrive) in a home garden. Not only that, it is completely possible to do so organically.
In the past few weeks I have been working with families in their home gardens to introduce, bit by bit (poco a poco, as my neighbors say in Spanish), some organic techniques to improve production and also introduce some different types of veggies that will hopefully contribute to overall household nutrition. I have thrown myself into a school gardening project, which I have been part of for some months now and where we use many of the same growing techniques.
First, I have been helping families to understand the idea behind deep-bed systems for growing vegetables. These methods have been used for centuries, sometimes called “French intensive” or the “Chinese method” or simply “double-digging.” Deep cultivation in raised beds loosens up hard soil for improved root growth, introduces organic matter directly into the soil, and provides for better water infiltration. The method is explained in detail in John Jeavons’ aptly named book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. The idea here is that, with a little more work up front in bed preparation, your plants will grow better, grow healthier, and produce more, and your soil structure will be maintained for years to come.
The next idea I have been introducing to families is plant associations. In other words, instead of planting large sections of one veggie, a gardener can intercrop (but on a small scale). This creates a sort of mosaic of plants that is aesthetically appealing and helpful in reducing the spread of pests and diseases and maximizing nutrient use. Certain plants do very well next to each other and the characteristics of some plants are complementary and/or beneficial to others. Onions, garlic, marigolds, and other smelly plants are good as pest deterrents; certain plants like Swiss chard can act as pest “barriers,” or in the case of squash and cucumber, weed suppressors.
In the past week, I have been working with homemade organic fertilizers with several families. Once again, I should point out that living in a community in the middle of rural Paraguay that already puts an emphasis on organic techniques is quite rare. I am lucky, given my background, but also given the attitude of my neighbors—willing to experiment, try new things, and in general, take my word for some of these seemingly crazy ideas. I really hope they work out (fingers crossed)!
In the end, this is all part of a process—a long and drawn-out process—to hopefully increase nutrition, household productivity, and general livelihood for the members of my community, Guido Almada. I will keep you posted! —Mario Machado