Growing Food – a tool to change the world

Ana Topel
Friday, 2nd October 2020

ReFarmers is working with communities in Canada and Africa to establish edible gardens for a wide range of disadvantaged and marginalized people. Here they also share a simple method for creating a tiny garden, anywhere!

ReFarmers believes that access to food is a human right. They aim to combat the staggering rates of hunger and malnutrition in the world by teaching people to grow nutritious food, even when little land is available.

ReFarmers has been working with schools, organizations, and a network of local partners for the past two years to establish gardens that demonstrate regenerative agriculture and urban food growing in both Africa and Canada. ReFarmers also integrates many values into their work: gender equity, honoring indigenous knowledge, transparency, collaboration, education, food security, and healthy relationships that foster kindness and compassion. 

One of the things I found noteworthy is that all of their demonstration sites also serve the local community, such as providing a food program at a school or being a learning center for the community. They teach practical skills that can be applied immediately – growing vegetables, establishing nurseries and holistic livestock systems, harvesting rainwater, and building healthy soil – and empower the community to thrive and become self-reliant. 

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Community learning simple permaculture and gardening skills through our East Africa Permaculture Project in Kakamega, Kenya

In East Africa, where 80% of the population is small-scale subsistence farmers, ReFarmers has implemented permaculture projects that provide long-term regenerative solutions, like food forests and training sites. Their Grandmother’s Kitchen Garden Project in Kitgum, Uganda, a response to COVID-19 and food shortages, has installed 65 gardens – with more on the way – to help feed the elderly and children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Grandmothers there are typically caregivers for 6-12 dependents. With the pandemic, children are not going to school where they would receive a meal, and the pressure to feed many mouths is even more intense. 

Even though this project is relatively low-budget, it has had a big impact on the communities. Each garden has taught 10-20 family members the skills to grow food – so the project’s reach is 650-1,300 people so far! Grandmothers are selling surplus vegetables at the market and empowering girls to garden as well. Young people have jumped in to help dig the gardens while learning how to establish gardens themselves. The waitlist for gardens is growing, as is an abundance of fresh tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and more. Local leaders are hired to run the program and establish the gardens, further strengthening the local economy, which has been suffering due to COVID-19. It’s amazing how far donations to this project go – a donation of $60 will pay for a team of trained locals to install a garden and train the women in permaculture growing practices.

Godfrey Otsembo lives in East Africa and says that working with ReFarmers on permaculture projects “has changed people and changed lives, and in my village everything is different.” He adds that “permaculture has made me be able to speak with people in different regions, and we all speak the same language through permaculture. It is also supporting my life and my family.” For me, these words point to the huge potential of small-scale permaculture projects.

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Community learning simple permaculture and gardening skills through our East Africa Permaculture Project in Kakamega, Kenya

How to Grow Your Own Tiny Garden

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Materials needed:

  • Large burlap sack from a coffee shop or coffee roaster (or a potato or rice bag) 
  • Shovel
  • Exacto knife or scissors
  • Seeds and/or seedlings 
  • Water

Coffee shops often give sacks away, and compost and soil can often be found for free as well. Check online listings, like Craigslist, ask friends if they can spare some from their yard, or contact your local government to see if they have programs that offer free compost or soil. If you can get organic, or at least pesticide-free, all the better. 

Kale, strawberries, lettuce, and kitchen herbs grow well. Talk with a local nursery or check online resources to learn what vegetables and herbs grow well in your climate. Local community gardens and gardening organizations can also be good sources for this information (and maybe for seedlings, too). Since plants will be growing together in a small space, check out ‘companion planting’ guides online. Seedlings are easier to plant than seeds, but you can use seeds as well. Consider the sun and shade requirements of your plants when you’re deciding where to place your tiny garden.

Step 1: Fill your sack with compost and soil
You want to fill the bag ¼ full with compost and ¾ full with soil, mixing the soil and compost together beforehand or as you shovel it in. 

Step 2: Water your soil Water both the top of the soil mixture and around the sides of the sack to make sure all the mixture gets wet. You don’t want it sopping wet or muddy, but you want a few drops of water to come out of the soil when you squeeze a handful of it. The soil mixture will compact when it’s watered, so you will likely need to add a bit more soil afterward, filling the bag almost to the top. Then water the additional soil.

Step 3: Plant your seeds and/or seedlings If you’re planting a combination of seeds and seedlings, it might be easier to plant seeds in the top of the sack and plant seedlings around the sides of the sack. Slice openings in the sides to make holes for planting with scissors or an exacto knife. Stagger the openings and remember to leave enough space between the openings to allow for plants to grow to full size.

Step 4: Water your tiny garden and watch it grow Keep your tiny garden watered enough to keep it from drying out. People in hotter climates will often put a column of rocks or rolled up cardboard down the middle of the bag to help with water dispersal.

Most importantly, have fun making your garden, and enjoy your harvest when it’s ready! 

Ana Toepel is a writer, permaculturist, and beginner regenerative farmer with a background that includes education and sustainability work. She focuses on stories that spotlight positive change. For the past several years she has been exploring regenerative projects around the world and is inspired by their ability to heal ecosystems and mitigate climate change.

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