Pavement, Black Plastic Bags, and an Inspirational Field of Tomatoes

I volunteer at an urban church which is committed to gardening.  We garden on a re-purposed vacant lot.  We grow trees on a group of city lots that are not suitable for construction.  We garden in aquariums in a 3rd floor classroom.  We garden in a newly constructed greenhouse.  We grow disciples, and we grow food.

One of the hats I wear is a woven straw hat that my god-daughter bought for me on a super sunny day in El Salvador.  One of the figurative hats I wear is Urban Greenhouse Project Coordinator.  I did not go to school to be a gardener or a botanist or a horticulturist.  I learned to raise a vegetable garden from my dad.  I started learning about urban gardening strategies from friends in El Salvador.

One of the challenges which El Salvador faces is high population density and lack of access to affordable, healthy foods in urban and suburban areas. People who live in the countryside with limited economic resources can manage to survive by gathering and growing fruits and vegetables. Mangoes and limes from backyard trees, leaves from a chipilín bush, and corn and beans from a small milpa (garden field) can sustain a family.  This is not so easy for a family with little or no land.  People with small spaces are pretty resourceful and grow tomatoes in old coffee cans, herbs in small plastic containers and fruit trees in any corner of dirt they can find.  Yet the yield from a few plants in containers typically cannot sustain a family.

At the Salvadoran Lutheran University, students are learning to grow high yield crops in very small spaces with and without traditional soil.  One of the most inspirational sites at the university is the tomato field. The field rests on a big slab of old concrete pavement.  "There was no way we could dig up all this old pavement," the director told us, "so we decided to garden on top of it."   The tall, tree-like plants grow in 2-gallon black plastic bags which have been filled with compost.

Students studying organic agronomy have primary responsibility for overseeing the care of the gardens, yet every student at the university, no matter what his or her field of study, has a share in caring for these plants and all of the other food and flower-producing gardens on the campus.  The plants are watered daily, fertilized with a nutrient-rich fermented compost tea, and treated for pests with a spritz of onion and garlic cocktail.  The harvest provides not only enough tomatoes for the university cafeteria, but also surplus produce to sell at the market.  This earns a profit to help support the university and its gardening programs.  The director told us that the tomato plants had been living in the bags and producing tomatoes for 2 years.  The students learn to save seeds and to sprout new crops from the existing crops, so when these plants finally die, new ones will be ready to replace them.

 The university does a lot of work with small plot gardens, in which students experiment with companion crops grown in plastic crates, plastic bags and all kinds of old containers.  The idea is to create gardens on pavement, on porches, and in small corners of space which really produce food without using chemicals or pesticides. Providing the plants with food (compost) and clean water is critical.  One next step will be to figure out how urban families can create their own compost or have access to a community-based composting project.

It is not too difficult to see that the knowledge and practice which is being developed at the Lutheran University in El Salvador is applicable in any urban setting.  Wherever we live in the world, I think we need to be more in touch with what we are eating and where it grown or produced.  Growing our own food, purchasing and sharing locally grown food within our communities, and using non-chemical means to feed and protect our plants are actions which help us to care for God's creation in a responsible way.  Sharing the knowledge of how to grow food in an urban setting is a way in which we can care for one another, to love our neighbor.  And seriously, putting a couple of seeds into a bag of compost, nurturing that plant and seeing it produce real food that you can eat -- that is awesomely fun!


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