keyhole garden full of young plants, the basket in the centre is for compost materials to feed the garden.

Working with communities #ForNature

Working with communities #ForNature

Farm Systems Coordinator, Sheila Halder, explains why working with nature is central to Send a Cow’s training and gives some tips you can use at home.

Underlining all of our work at Send a Cow is the principle of starting with what you’ve got, and fundamentally, that is the natural world around you. This can be a huge mind-set change for some, so we help farmers understand what resources are available to them in their communities before we teach them about organic agriculture and the skills they need to create plots that enable their families to thrive.

Techniques such as rainwater harvesting and composting, and learning about the best vegetables to grow in a changing climate can easily be adapted to each family farmer’s situation, and the land available to them.

As farmers start producing enough food to feed their families, and sell the surplus, we see their confidence grow. We also see the local environment begin to flourish

Without the use of expensive artificial fertilisers or genetically modified seed, managed and biodiverse farms naturally support good harvests.

Keeping things diverse
There are many advantages for human health by improving agrobiodiversity (biodiversity in farming). From increasing yields, to removing chemical poisons, to capturing carbon; keeping non-harvested species in a farm system supports the wider environment, and in doing so, the success of food crops.

In Uganda, farmers leave many of the traditional types of shrubs as borders or boundaries- managing existing species is a keystone of the organic farmers movement. Thinking about what is already there and how it fits in is important – rather than pulling it all up for a monoculture, which is also more vulnerable to climate change and pests.

Companion planting also boosts biodiversity, and really help in managing pests in a way that works with nature, often by diverting them, but also through nourishing soil and the human food crops. We’ve really seen the success of this method in our farmers’ push-pull Maize crops. Fodder grass and legumes are harvested for animals in a small ecosystem that isn’t favourable for pests.

From the ground up
Other techniques such as No Dig and Forest Gardening can also support an increase in biodiversity and crop yields, and these methods are likely to become more important with climate change. Rain patterns are changing and becoming more sporadic with longer hot dry spells that leave soil and crops more vulnerable.

No Dig helps the soil through protecting its structure and the microscopic soil-life, as well as leaving the nutritious organic matter at the top of the soil where it can support vegetables and other crops. Key hole gardens, with a central space for compost work in a similar way.

Forest Gardening, which is about copying the many layers of plants in a naturally occurring forest or woodland, can also be really productive. This type of planting ensures shade and soil stability, for younger, more fragile vegetable crops, including plants which also benefit insect and bird life. Breeding habitat is as important as feeding habitat.

While our training will continue to help farmers to make space for nature on their farms – as part of an approach that best supports their families – there are lots of things we can all do in our own back yards to give nature a helping hand.

On home turf
Many people in the UK have recently discovered gardening during the Coronavirus lockdown – and the trials and tribulations of managing hungry pests and dry weather.

With a new insight into the challenges small-scale farmers face, people are thinking about what they can do to protect seedlings while inviting more wildlife into their gardens.

The good news is there are lots of easy to learn techniques, many of which began life as home-grown African solutions:

Keyhole gardens: Easy to access and incorporate a central area for compost to keep nutrients and moisture in the soil
Natural fertilisers: Legumes are particularly good at fixing nitrogen in the soil and their flowers attract pollinating insects
Bag gardens: Great for patios and balconies and keeping moisture sealed in – they can also be moved inside away from frosts
Pest management: Putting a little ash around seedlings keeps ants away in Uganda – it also works well to stop slugs and snails in the UK
Protecting pollinators: Planting borage between vegetables attracts the bees and you can also eat parts of the plant!
Companion planting: Onions grown next to carrots helps to reduce carrot root fly
Seedling nurseries: Laying reeds as a thatch, you water on top of the reed roof, and remove them as the plants get stronger.

We can have a positive impact  for farmers in rural Africa with our own actions, and limit the climate and ecological crisis for future generations by working with nature, copying natural systems and learning from them, too. Ultimately, making ‘time for nature’ – the theme of this year’s World Environment Day - also means we are making time to look after ourselves, and each other.