The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

African-American gardens are extensive

Child watering flowers in tire plantersOther common features in African-American gardens in the rural South were probably also linked to poverty.  Although potted plants were common --- presumably a remnant of a transient past --- nearly all gardening was extensive instead of intensive.  Only one gardener of the 47 families studied used raised beds, and hers were really vegetables grow in tire planters.

In most of the gardens Westmacott studied, plants were spaced far apart in rows and were seldom watered except during transplanting.  Although records from earlier African-American gardens showed the ubiquity of rain barrels, current gardeners tended to rely solely on rain and to believe that drought was God's will.

Hoeing a gardenMulching and composting were nearly absent from the gardens.  Instead, weeds were removed by cultivation, often with a hoe but sometimes with a tractor or mules.  One gardener explained that cultivation brought moisture to the surface for the plants (although I can't quite figure out how this makes scientific sense.)

In the end, I'm disappointed that I can't extract any permaculture techniques from the African-American gardens, but they do seem to prove Solomon's point.  People who value yield over beauty, who garden on a shoestring budget to feed their families, do seem to practice extensive gardening.

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This post is part of our African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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"gardeners tended to rely solely on rain"

If you're working on a shoestring budget, and without a water source on higher ground, what choice do you have? Carrying sufficient water to water a sizable field seems an impossible task without serious equipment.

"Mulching and composting were nearly absent from the gardens."

Maybe because they didn't know these would be beneficial? Presumably these people were not well educated (if at all). It seems to me that you'd need a solid background in chemistry and biology and a lot of experience to be able to tell why a certain crop isn't growing right on a certain field. Remember that the green revolution is relatively recent.

"One gardener explained that cultivation brought moisture to the surface for the plants"

Recently tilled soil usually feels moist, doesn't it? That might explain why one would think that it increases available moisture. Technically, I'd say that just the opposite happens. The moisture in the exposed soil will evaporate and loosening the soil should improve the draining away of water rather than it's retention.

Comment by Roland_Smith Fri May 14 14:04:18 2010

"If you're working on a shoestring budget, and without a water source on higher ground, what choice do you have?"

If you're on higher ground, you're right. But in low areas, traditional Central American farmers jumped through all kinds of hoops to hand water their crops. I didn't write down all of the methods, but did a post about subirrigation a long time ago. We've found that adequate water makes a tremendous difference in yield, which makes almost all hoops worthwile.

I like your points about mulching and composting. An absence of data doesn't mean that these techniques wouldn't have been worthwhile in Southern gardens. Although it's interesting, again, that other traditional agriculturalists used mulch and compost. For example, elderberry leaves as mulch in Guatemala. People have come across an awful lot of complicated biological and chemical reactions by accident (like raising bread with yeast or fermenting milk to yogurt.)

I think your explanation for why people thought cultivation increased moisture in the soil is spot on. Too bad it actually tends to break routes of capillary action pulling water to the surface!

Comment by anna Fri May 14 15:43:15 2010

Hydraulic engineering (water management) was already at a very high level in Roman times. The aquaducts that sustained Roman cities all over the empire were an engineering marvel.The roman engineers clearly knew more than what worked. They must have had a rudimentary knowledge of why things worked. Sadly the Roman aquaducts fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman empire because their construction and maintenance was expensive and the knowledge needed to built them not widely spread and lost. There are few surviving texts describing details of the systems. Vitruvius's De Archtitectura is one of the most important surviving sources.

Here in the Netherlands we've been using ditches, channels and (wind)mills to keep our feet dry for hundreds of years. :-) So it is possible to manage your water supply. But unless the circumstances are favorable it tends to need resources, and sometimes lots.

There is a parallel to agriculture here, I think. For a very long time agriculture has been a craft and not a science. It still seems (to me at least) to be that way for a lot of people. And In some times and places people got very good at figuring out how to grow their crops. They knew what worked in their circumstances but not why. And that second bit is crucial if problems crop up or cicrumstances changed, as they sometimes do. Agricultural science only started to develop in the 18th century. In engineering it has been the combination of experience (in the form of craftsmanship) and the scientific method that has fueled rapid development. I suspect the same goes for agriculture and other applied sciences. So while it's always good to learn from other practitioners of your art, it is also important to examine the why and not just the how.

Comment by Roland_Smith Fri May 14 20:00:15 2010

Duh! How could I not mention the Romans?! :-) I probably should do a lunchtime series on that kind of thing, actually.

You're right that water management without electricity tends to take lots of people working very hard. Central American probably had that with the Mayas. African-American gardens in the South probably didn't unless all the neighbors banded together.

Good point that knowing the why is essential! I love learning the whys of farming. :-)

Comment by anna Sat May 15 08:13:52 2010

The beautiful thing about the Roman aquaduct system was that it was purely driven by gravity. Very reliable, gravity. :-)

Of course building the infrastructure was expensive, but they built to last. I'm pretty sure that no structure made from modern materials would still be standing 2000-odd years later when exposed to the elements.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat May 15 13:14:26 2010

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