A Tomato Grows in Olmos...well, sort of *
It’s important to know the rules of gardening in the dry forest. Rule #1 in dry forest/desert gardening is Corral Your Garden. Since nothing else is corralled then you need to put up appropriate protective fencing for your veggies. In my experience this means 2 meter high kincha (sticks/small logs) as perimeter #1 and then ½ meter high plastic fencing (cut up fertilizer bags) around the veggies to keep the lizards out. Rule #2 is to Keep Your Plot Small, no bigger than a 2 x 3 meters because water is scarce. Rule #3, especially for the novice gardener, is Avoid High Maintenance Plants such as tomatoes and peppers because they attract pests and become easily stressed and therefore do not produce well. Rule #4 is Plants Should Be Spaced Closely because this will help to retain soil moisture and therefore help you to conserve your scarce water supply. Rule #5 is Grow Leafy Greens. On the coast people rarely eat leafy green veggies, which is sad because they are some of the most nutritious vegetables AND the easiest to grow. Getting people to grow leafy greens and then teaching them how to prepare them is some of the most important nutritional work you can do as a Peace Corps Volunteer. One caveat to this rule is to provide some measure of shade for lettuces during the hottest months.
Knowing how to set up a garden helped in my initial search for families to participate in this project. But in order to convince anyone that growing their own vegetables was even a possibility I had to find and recruit one family to take on the gardening challenge. Finally after 7 months at site, Sra. Lidia said she would be interested in growing some vegetables. We sowed some seeds in an egg carton and then I gave her the task of watering the seeds as a test of her dedication to the project. This was important because if she could water it enough to enable germination and protect the seedlings from critters then she demonstrated enough dedication to grow a small vegetable plot. After a few weeks, the seeds had sprouted and Sra. Lidia passed her first test. In the next week Sra. Lidia and her sons installed the garden fence of kincha and plastic, dug compost into the garden soil and transplanted her future veggie crop. Everything seemed to be going really, really well until I realized there were some things that I neglected to communicate.
If you don’t teach how to water correctly and consistently, especially in the dry forest/desert, plants will be weak and disease-prone. If you don’t make it clear that this is THEIR garden (not yours) then they will wait for you to come and do the garden tending. Perhaps you can tell that the outcome my first garden in the community wasn’t flawless. And why should it have been. Did I have experience gardening in Olmos, Lambayeque? NO!!!!!!! There were good days though. There was much rejoicing the day we harvested the first head of lettuce for lunch. The worst days were when several of her tomato plants began to suffer Blossom End Rot, a disorder that is often caused when rapidly growing, succulent plants are exposed suddenly to a period of drought, i.e. when the grower doesn’t water enough or consistently. It was difficult to convince the family that the problem was not caused by a pest. I now know to stress proper watering techniques and to show how to stick a finger deep into the soil to check for soil moisture. After teaching proper watering techniques to Sra. Lidia and her family, I left them to their own success or failure and went in search other interested families. I have since learned that they are indeed harvesting some tomatoes.
Armed with a bit more local gardening knowledge and experience under my belt, I am able to help other members of the community realize their own gardens. Sra. Alicia now is grows vegetables for her family and Sudan grass and alfalfa for cuyes she hopes to start raising. I taught her recently that raw beet greens are edible AND delicious and can be harvested from the beet while the root is still growing (make sure to leave a leaf or two on the beet though). After a charla on the basic food groups, a group of women from the Comedor Popular decided to try gardening as a way to increase their vegetable consumption. Four of these women now have garden plots that are producing lettuce, cilantro, carrots, Swiss chard, beets and other nutritious vegetables. They were all required to start seedlings in pots and corral a garden plot before receiving seeds. From this group, Sra. Mercedes gave me a nice boost to my work as a PCV when she said “if it wasn’t for you and your help, I would have never known how easy it is to grow vegetables and help improve my family’s nutrition”.
Vegetable gardening in the dry forest will never make for a huge, prestigious project that will be highlighted in the regional or national news. Likewise they will never feed lavishly while water is scarce. Still, it is a small, humble project with implausibly large impact. When planned strategically with adherence to the rules stated above, participants can easily supplement their daily goat and rice with high value leafy greens, additional herbs and colorful beets and carrots. When done properly, small garden projects achieve improvements in the diets of Peruvians, even in the dry forest, and help to fulfill Goal 3 of our Community Health Program.
*I wrote this article for CHEVERE, our health program newsletter.