In Cuba over 7000 market gardens called organoponicos dot the outskirts of towns and cities. These intensively planted spaces provide most of the country's fresh vegetables. I was lucky enough to visit eight organoponicos in the summer of 2009 and came back filled with ideas on how to incorporate elements of this sustainable agriculture model into my own backyard garden.
The Special Period
Following the Cuban revolution in the sixties until the early 1990s, Cuba grew mainly sugar cane and tobacco as cash crops and imported much of their food. The collapse of the Soviet Union wreaked havoc in Cuba, which had long relied on the Soviets for agricultural, fuel, and food subsidies and trade. Almost overnight the agricultural system in Cuba, which was made up mainly of large, conventional farm collectives that relied on petrochemicals and fossil fuels, was paralyzed. The drop in food production coupled with the loss of food imports and subsidies created a severe food crisis on the island. During this period of time, which the Cubans euphemistically refer to as "the special period", the Cuban government came up with a plan to turn underutilized open areas into organic market gardens called organoponicos. Today this vast network of small gardens provides nearly all of the country's fresh vegetables and is a respected model for sustainable agriculture.
Organoponicos, as the name suggests, are organic gardens, but it is important to remember that in the beginning they were organic not by choice, but by necessity. Since the Cubans suddenly had almost no access to nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, they had to design gardens that produced a lot of food in a small space without conventional inputs. Farm machinery was replaced by manual labor and animals like oxen. Fertilizer was replaced with compost and worm castings. Hybrid seeds were abandoned for open-pollinated varieties that the gardeners could save from year to year. The organoponicos grow food year round and up to 50% of the produce is delivered to homes for the elderly, maternity and child centers. The remainder is sold at very low prices to the community. Some food may also be purchased by vendors who then sell the food in the street, usually from a wheelbarrow or horse drawn wagon. The people who work in the gardens get on-the-job training, a salary, plus a food allowance.
Lessons for the Home Garden
Organoponicos are market gardens and I observed many lessons that could be transferred to community gardens and food programs here in the States, but also several that work in a home or small scale setting as well.
Maximize space. Nearly every organoponico featured long, narrow raised beds with pathways that were just wide enough to accommodate a wheelbarrow. The raised beds were typically about 30 inches wide. This size made it easy for people to reach the middle of the bed from both sides and maximized growing space
Recycle materials. In Cuba, nothing goes to waste. I was amazed at how resourceful and ingenious people can be when faced with scarcity. Raised beds made from recycled concrete, old lumber, and rocks. Barrels and bicycle tires became wheel barrows. Farming implements were cobbled together with scrap metal and straight tree branches.
Succession plan. The organoponicos are amazingly productive. When one crop is harvested, seedlings of another are immediately planted. The gardeners explained to me that they often grow seedlings, rather than direct seed, for a few reasons. First, planting seedlings is more precise and wastes less seed. There is no need to thin out the seedlings because they can plant them at exactly the right distance apart. Seedlings also reduce the lag time between harvests because the plants are ready to go in the beds right after the previous crop is harvested. After visiting the organoponicos, I was inspired to grow more of my own seedlings. Throughout the summer I sow seeds of salad greens and herbs in rows in shallow, wooden trays. When the seedlings have a few leaves, I transplant them into bare spots the garden.
Interplant vegetables. To make the most efficient use of space in each bed taller plants like tomatoes and peppers are often planted down the center and shorter plants like lettuces and radishes are planted on the edges.
Grow perennial edibles. Many organoponicos have fruit trees planted around the perimeter, which provide the most amazing tropical fruit. Even though you can't grow mangoes in most parts of the United States, consider planting dwarf fruit trees, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in your yard. These plants are often attractive ornamentals in their own right and they produce food.
Compost with worms. When you are intensively planting food, it is important to manage the soil. Almost all of the organoponicos I visited had vast worm farming operations. The gardeners recycled all of the vegetative waste from the gardens by feeding it to the worms, which in turn produced nutritious worm castings that were spread over the soil between crops. Worm composting is an awesome option for city dwellers because worm bins take up hardly any space and the worms are great at recycling kitchen and garden waste into fertilizer.
Attract beneficial insects. The Cuban gardeners attracted beneficial insects by growing plants that produce lots of nectar, including corn, marigolds, and daisy-like flowers, at the end of beds and around the perimeter of the gardens.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow Cook Eat: A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening, Including 50 Recipes, Plus Harvesting and Storage Tips will be published in January 2012.
(Images: All images via Willi Galloway)