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St. Vincent Update 4

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St Vincent Update 4

Garden and Food Production

 

            In this issue I am going to talk about the garden and food production. At the school we have many different areas for food production. We have an organic garden, fruit garden, forest garden, animal area, and an area for the production of fruit for sale. Throughout the time here there have been many changes to the gardening system.

 

Organic Garden

 

A garden bed using the intensive gardening technique.

            All of the students maintain the organic garden twice a week, however, I am one of the people in charge of organizing the organic garden. This issue will largely be about that area. It takes a lot of work to keep the garden running, and there have been many changes since I arrived. When I first arrived we started a new system of companion planting and crop rotation, and now we have switched to incorporate more permaculture techniques. We redesigned which crops go where, we began rebuilding the garden beds, and we have switched two greenhouses to a mesh covering.

In the organic garden there are four greenhouses: one has no covering, one has a clear plastic sheet covering it, and two have the black mesh. The black netting allows some rain through, but not all. This is important because some plants can’t handle all of the rain we get here, and it frees us from having to do most of the irrigation. It also keeps the greenhouses cooler because the sun is not radiated through the plastic and air flows better.

            Along with the greenhouses we have two more outdoor areas. One is in front of the greenhouses, and the beds are on the ground. The other area is a new area that was overgrown with weeds. There were some concrete planters there. We cleaned the boxes out and arranged them nicely. Once this area was made we realized that there was room for more beds; so we decided to use recycled material to make more beds. We have old wheelbarrows and tires that now have plants in them. We are calling the area Berry’s garden, after one of the students on my team (as long as she takes care of it). It is not only for production of food, but for relaxation also. We have a bench, and it overlooks the ocean.

            The previous teams would plant any vegetables that were ready anywhere in the garden. They had no real coordination. Initially we decided to grow our plants in a more systematic way, using crop rotation and companion planting to make our vegetables more productive. Rotating the spots where specific crops are planted allows the soil to be replenished in these spots. Different crops give and take different nutrients from the soil. It also helps prevent pests. Bugs that specialize in eating one plant will die after that plant is removed, and a different one planted. Companion planting is when you plant different varieties of plants together in a way that they help each other out. For instance, one plant may add nitrogen to the soil, another may prevent pests, and still another may give shade to the other two.

            In the covered greenhouses we plant primarily vegetables that are not native to the area. This way we can control how much water they get. Our initial system rotated through three groups of plants. One group had tomatoes, peppers, and beans or peas. Another group had cucumber, okra, and a different variety of beans or peas. The final group had spinach and eggplant. All of the vegetables are grouped with other vegetables that they grow well with, or are helpful to. The okra helps shade the beans and cucumber; the beans add nitrogen to the soil; and bugs don’t like the smell of pepper.

            However we have now changed the system to incorporate more permaculture techniques. The idea of permaculture is to have a garden that is nearly self-sustaining. The soil is kept in good shape so that we will rarely have to add compost. No outside fertilizer or compost is brought into the garden; pesticides come from plants that are grown in the garden. All the seeds that we plant will be organic so that when the plant is grown we can save the seeds for the next cycle.

 

The Recycled Garden

One technique we are using is called intensive gardening in the greenhouses. The system we have in the garden plants all different types of vegetables in a close distance to each other. We want them to have enough space for growth and roots, but no more. When one vegetable is finished we then replace it with a different type, so we put lettuce where there was a tomato. We are growing a larger variety and amount of vegetables in the greenhouses now, including root and leafy crops. This system requires more care to be taken by the students so that we don’t plant the same vegetable twice, and it requires more work for me seeding the vegetables to make sure that we have to right variety and proper amount. I’m sure the students we have now will do well with this system; my fear is that future teams will not care, and the system will return to how it was with the last group. I am hopeful that we can use some permaculture techniques in the garden at Gaia.

            Near the nursery is Berry’s garden, where we grow various lettuces, and cabbages, and root vegetables like carrot, and radish. The root vegetables prevent pests on the leafy vegetables. Radish will actually attract leaf eaters away from the lettuce, and onto the radish. The damage done to the radish leaf will not hamper the growth of the root. We grow the leafy vegetables in planters because when we grow them in the ground pests would fiercely attack them. We still have pest problems, but it is much more manageable.

            The uncovered greenhouse and outside ground beds are used for sweet potato, pumpkin, and squash. These are all plants that grow well in this climate, and are fairly hardy. We also plant herbs; like basil, coriander, and mint; throughout the garden. The smell keeps some pests away.

            The garden maintenance system has gone through many changes as well. The current system has students assigned to specific greenhouses or areas in the garden. These students are completely responsible for the maintenance in their areas, including: planting, weeding, pruning, plant care, and spraying pesticides. They come to me in the nursery to get seedlings, and it is up to them to ensure that the plants are not planted in the same place twice.

 

 

 

 

Composting Garden Beds

            One of the larger projects we have undertaken is to rebuild the beds using proper technique. This is also an important part of making our garden into permaculture. The beds are rebuilt with bio-char, compost, and future compost built into the soil. This system will keep nutrients in the soil, and prevent pests. We want to make healthy soil that does not have to be tilled or have large amounts of fertilizer to it. We only want to apply maintenance to the top layer of soil in the bed. We currently have about half of the beds rebuilt, and they are thriving. The following is how we have made the beds.

 

We start by opening the bed, and making a trough that is slightly deeper than ground level. Then we add water.

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next we add dead leaves and palm fronds. These will add nutrients over a long period of time.

On top of the leaves we put a healthy coating of compost and bio-char. These will give nutrients through the next few growing cycles. We also add water

 

Then we fill in the trough, and plant the vegetables. We don’t need to add compost when we plant, only water.

   

After we plant we add dead grass mulch. This helps prevent weeds, and keeps the soil moist.

            Once the beds are sealed up they are not open or tilled again. If the soil gets compacted we lightly loosen it with a pitchfork. We leave the weeds we pull out on top of the garden beds to breakdown into compost for the vegetables. The bottom layer of leaves will decompose over time giving nutrients to the plants at the roots. It also has the benefit of providing a protective pest barrier below ground. Because it is harder to get through the dead leaves they may go and attack plants that are outside of the greenhouse. We add water throughout the process in order to get it into the ground where the roots need it. Much of the water that is added to the soil surface runs off or evaporates into the air.

           

Bio-char

            Bio-char is an interesting concept. Humans have used charcoal for cooking for thousands of years. And it has many health and cleaning uses. It can act as filter to purify water; you can use it to brush your teeth; or you can mix it with water and drink it to clean out your body.

            A use that was surprising to me was that it could be used to improve the health of soil. The charcoal adds phosphorus and nitrogen to the soil. It also can absorb 100 times its weight in water, releasing it at drought times. It also can act as a filter to reduce soil contamination and reduces soil acidity.

 

Our First Batch of Bio-Char

We add it to the garden as nutrition for the plants, but it also has environmental impacts beyond the garden. To make bio-char we bake wood sealed in a container in a wood fired oven. The lack of oxygen is important, otherwise it would become ash. To make environmentally friendly charcoal we use wood that we find on the ground, we do not cut any trees. The wood that is lying on the ground would release carbon into the atmosphere as it decomposes. During the baking process carbon is released from the fire, and a little is released as the wood becomes charcoal, but most stays in the charcoal. When we bury the bio-char the carbon remains in the ground. So, to make bio-char, we release some carbon, but most is saved, and stored in the ground. It is important not to till the soil again, because that would release carbon into the air. So we have to maintain a healthy soil, and add compost only to the top, or in the holes we dig for the plants. This is where permaculture really helps.

 

Irrigation

            Recently we have changed two greenhouses from plastic sheeting to black mesh netting. This will help reduce the amount of irrigation that is needed. Currently we have a system to collect rainwater from the gutters. The water comes from the roofs of the buildings, runs through pipes underground, and is collected in four 1000 L drums next to the garden. The water is used in the garden, and also in the bathrooms or some buildings. We often run out of rainwater and have to use water bought from the government. Of course this is expensive, but it also creates pollution to clean the water. So it is good when we can find ways to use less water, like the black net.

            The plants in the greenhouses are watered using special drip irrigation hoses. These hoses put the water right on the soil by the roots. This way there is less evaporation, and the plants get more water where they need it. One challenge with this system is that the irrigation hoses have special valves to release water drip by drip. The problem occurs when the holes get clogged. Trying to unclog the holes can damage the valves and cause the water to spray. To solve this problem we have started using a technique from the “40 Green World Actions” book. This technique involves poking a small hole in the hose and then fixing a small length of hose, which has been split down one length, on top of the hole. This provides the same type of drip valve without having to install a new hose.

 

Pest Control

            Another issue we have is with pests. We want to get rid of the pests without using harsh chemicals. Along with the dead leaves in the beds and the herbs we make a liquid pesticide. To make the pesticide we put leaves from nettle and neem trees, and garlic cloves into water. We let the mixture brew for a few days and then spray it on the leaves and stems of the vegetables, and on the ground around the plants. The smell is horrible, and it stays on your skin for a long time, but it does its job. Alessia, a student in the Fighting With the Poor program, makes the pesticide and ensures that there is enough for the garden.

 

            It is very hard to make sure the garden produces well; all of the students and teachers work hard to maintain it. We have been split into teams, and each team is responsible for maintaining a greenhouse or other area in the garden. The teams are responsible for planting, plant maintenance, and keeping pests away. If there is large project to do, like rebuilding a bed we work together. The whole school has worked hard to make the garden more sustainable and productive.

 

Fruit Production

 

A young Soursop

            We have three main areas for growing fruit, but there are fruit trees throughout the school grounds. At the top of the hill next to the school we have a papaya field; partway down the hill, near the animal area, we have a small fruit garden; and at the bottom of the hill we have large banana and passion fruit fields. Then we also have a few smaller areas also. All of these areas are taken care of by the workers, and are not organic areas.

            We get a lot of papaya, the largest concentration is in the papaya field, but the trees are all over the place, including the organic garden. Papaya is easy to grow and you get fruit after only two or three years. The trees die within ten years though, so we have to keep planting. The trees fruit throughout the year so we constantly have papaya. It isn’t a favorite though so we always have too much. However, in the field we grow vegetables too; mainly roots like sweet potato, dasheen, and carrots; and we have a few soursop trees also.

            The fruit garden is a very nice place, it is well maintained and the trees are nicely pruned. We mainly have guava and star fruit. But we also have Barbados cherries, soursop, plum rose, pomegranate, papaya, lime, sugar apple, and a few mango trees. Most of the fruit here is too sweet for me, but there are some I like. My favorite that we grow is plum rose. It is red, the shape and size of a small pear, and tastes like a Granny Smith apple (but not as tart). The problem is that they only bear fruit for about a week every three months or so. Barbados cherries taste very sour, but are high in vitamin C. Even though I don’t eat many of the fruits it is nice to stop off after a walk or swim and pick up a fresh mango.

Animal Area

            The animal area blends into the fruit grove. Currently we have chickens, pigs, and goats. Half of the chickens are for eggs, and the other half we buy as chicks and raise them for slaughter. Recently we bought three piglets. When I arrived we had two large pigs, but they were too fat; no one knew how to slaughter the large animals, and they were too fat to breed. Eventually we will sell them to someone who knows how to slaughter them. The pigs eat a lot of our food waste, but we still need to learn how to take care of them. We just got the goats. The idea is to get milk and cheese from them, but the operation has not started yet. Animals are an area that we are still trying to learn to manage, and make productive.

            We also have horses, dogs, and cats; but they don’t really count.

 

Forest Garden

 

The Forest Garden.

The idea of a forest garden is to create a space where vegetables grow with nature rather than fighting nature. It is an idea from permaculture. Our forest garden is on land that has been cleared, but the forest is right next to it. It does not go the full way into the permaculture technique, but uses a few tips from it. Because the forest borders the garden we get help from friendly bugs and birds to control pests. We also get the benefit of some shade and fertilization from the trees that border the garden.

            The garden is a mix of the traditional and untraditional. We grow the same things we grow in the organic garden: tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, okra, etc. It is basically a traditional garden that is in the middle of the forest. We have mono-cropping; and use outside fertilizers and pesticides. However, it is a good example of how we can incorporate different techniques for the benefit of the garden.

 

Fruit For Sale

            A large portion of the land here is taken up by fruit that will be eventually sold. Three-quarters of this land is used to grow passion fruit for juice. The fruit grows on vines like grapes. The fruit itself tastes tart, but when they make it into juice it becomes very sweet. Or so I am told; Jesper is very tight about his juice; I have had to settle for stealing some fruit from the vine.

            The rest of the area is used to grow bananas. When the school was first started in the 70’s most of the area was banana, but eventually they took out all but one grove. We are all very tired of eating bananas, however, when we don’t have any we miss them very much; we use banana to supplement our diet.

            All of the fruit areas use traditional farming techniques. Hopefully when we learn more organic techniques they can be applied to the fruit for sale.

 

 

Dragon fruit look good, but are pretty bland

            We also have other bonus areas where we grow fruit, however we don’t rely on for food or income. Although, the fruit does get eaten.

            We have a lime field. However the plants have a disease in the roots, so are slowly dying. The disease is affecting citrus on the whole island. The trees still produce limes, but mostly the field is used to keep the horses sometimes.

            Also, there is a small stand of dragon fruit. The plants are small trees, but rather than branches they have long prickly tendrils, which look a little like a cactus. It only blooms at night once a year, with big beautiful flowers; the fruit is an odd looking prickly mix of purple and green; too bad the taste is a bland slightly grape flavor.

            Additionally we have other fruit trees growing wild on the property mango, soursop, and papaya.

 

            The food production at the school is an excellent bonus. It will take many years to develop a system that is self-sustainable. It will also require the use of what we have, using eddoe instead of white potatoes for example. And it is too bad we don’t have favorite fruits on the property. Avocado is a popular fruit at school because it can be a fat supplement like banana. It grows in the wild near the school, but it would be nice if we could harvest it here. Personally I would like it if we had some plum trees here. These are small plums with large pits; some are sweet and some are sour, but all are delicious. So I have had to settle for the other delicious fruits and vegetables.

 

General Information

 The Gaia Movement USA, is a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. We started in 1999 in Illinois and we are currently also active in Indiana, Kentucky, and Oregon.
Our mission is to create awareness about the plight of the environment, to educate the public about caring for our planet, humanity and the environment, to run recycling operations and to support environmental projects and programs locally and globally.