I am an accidental gardener. I neither liked gardening nor did I plan to be gardening. But I slowly and accidentally caught up that fire.
In the old days, I ‘learned’ about the science of agriculture at school. While I was a relatively studious pupil, and managed to get A’s even in that subject, but I hated every minute of that of it. Consequently, I learned extraordinarily little.
At home, my father tried to engage my siblings and I to do a little bit of gardening. He also failed stupendously! It’s not that I didn’t understand the importance of farming rationally, I did – I simply passionately hated the practice of it.
When I look back, I say: ‘what a waste!’ How could something so beautiful be made to appear so tedious? I think the main reason they failed to trigger the passion in me was this – they were not doing it themselves. Gardening is a very practical subject: you really get it when you start to engage in it.
Today, I see inspirations everywhere. I might be going about my business and I see someone tending to a garden – I stop and talk to the person. Then I watch videos – dozens of them so far. The more you see, the more you want to practice. I am trying to catch up – experimenting with different plants and failing often.
There are a couple of things that I have picked up which have made or are making a difference to date:
Improve soil quality. I have notoriously poor soil in my garden. At the beginning I was not paying attention to that, but now I am trying to improve its quality.
A successful garden requires a healthy soil. A healthy soil is alive – it is full of organic matter, drains water well, preserves moisture, has living things in it. This balanced mixture is healthy – it mitigates against the growth of harmful organisms, while generating nutrients for crops.
To improve your soil you must understand that in nature any exposed soil is a dead soil. So, cover your soil with mulch. Secondly, avoid the use of inorganic fertilisers: they artificially change soil composition and destroy natural balance. Thirdly, use household organic waste – put it back into the soil. Fourthly, remove gravel and stones, and try to mix soils of different types. And, finally, if you are up to it, try composting.
Understand watering. A successful garden requires a good supply of water. If you are in Dar the heat here can be quite intense and plants need to be watered regularly. You need to plan for these things, especially if your supply of water is uncertain.
Fast growing plants – such as microgreens and other vegetables – need enough water to flourish. Onions, which need to be soaked in water every now and then, should not be watered every day since they need a reason to produce the bulb. Small and medium sized fruit trees which are producing fruits continuously such as papaya trees, guava trees and custard apple trees need to be watered regularly too. Those fruits mean the plant is working hard, and you want the fruits to keep coming, don’t you? So, help them in any way you can.
You need to understand your plants and their water needs. Choose plants which will not task you beyond your limits. In my case, I avoid anything that will require to be watered more than once per week – unless there is another person who can put in the time.
Manage diseases. My garden is plagued with diseases – especially fungus, aphids, and others which I do not know. One of the challenges is that the area is surrounded with many trees, so it is quite difficult to eliminate any disease effectively. As a result, I am still struggling to get some things to grow up successfully – I may have to cut all needless trees down one day and start over. But I have learnt the need to proactively and consistently apply pesticides and fungicides if I am to get this ground to produce anything for me. I was not doing this right: I was waiting to see symptoms before I acted but, for many crops, when you see symptoms, it is already quite late.
Since I started doing this, I am seeing improvements. Initially my banana trees were producing racks of five or six bunches. I learnt to bring that to ten to twelve. We have seen similar increases with other crops too – especially fruits. I am still working on carrots, onions, tomatoes, etc.
There’s so much to learn, and so much to do. It’s a marvellous ride! Hope you can join it too!
Writer’s name: Grace Shilla Makakala