It doesn’t take much time living in Accra to learn that you need to be diligent about washing your fresh veg. or fruit if you’d like to avoid a grim case of gastro. But, watching my salad ingredients bobbing about in their salt and vinegar rinse one day, I pondered, “Why is this the case? What makes veggies so dirty here in Accra compared to elsewhere?” Then, I read an article in a local newspaper recounting the results of a scientific study that had tested vegetable samples from a number of major vegetable markets in Ghana (the markets that typically supply your local roadside veggie stand). Nearly 80% of the samples were “fecally contaminated and carried fecal coliform populations.” Yuck! To add to that, another study had found that, “vegetables consumed in Accra had more than a dozen chemicals, all above tolerable percentages, and these have serious health consequences for consumers.” With that information and the rising prices of imported veg combined, I didn’t need much more convincing… it was time to start growing our own!
But, where to start? Well, as Angeli Olorunsogo of Fat & Flourishing Botanic Organic Farmacy explains, “No space is too small. You can plant in the ground or in containers, in your yard or on your balcony, horizontally or vertically… the options are endless!” Driven by her passion for healthy living, author and raw food and vegan lifestyle advocate, Angeli teaches beginner and experienced gardeners alike how to grow their own organic (clean, toxic-free) fruits, veggies and herbs in an urban setting. I joined in on one of her organic gardening workshops at the Elle Lokko Experimental Garden Site in Osu recently, and here are some of the things I learned.
Why grow organic?
Fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown from organic seeds, and grown using organic methods, tend to produce the most nutritious food. They are also helpful (rather than harmful) to water, soil, wildlife, and people. Most commercial produce, on the other hand, is grown from genetically engineered (GE) or hybrid seed, and usually requires more water, as well as the use of expensive synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides to flourish more quickly and maintain a longer shelf life. Not only are GE and hybrid plants detrimental to the ecosystem, but some of the most commonly used non-organic chemicals have been linked to numerous health problems, including chronic illnesses and terminal diseases, such as cancer. As Angeli puts it, “Anything with a long shelf life will shorten your lifespan. In the long run, eating organic is cheaper than eating conventionally grown foods, because you will be healthier and therefore, spend less on medicine.”
Maximizing garden space
You don’t need an enormous plot of land or big back yard to grow your own veggies, fruit and herbs. Thousands of people worldwide are growing very successful edible gardens in small city spaces, e.g. on windowsills, on rooftops, down walls, and even on top of and inside a taxi! Maximizing your garden space just takes a bit of planning and a little creativity. What’s most important is that the position you choose for your plants has some exposure to sunlight, and that they can be watered easily.
Using containers, such as boxes, baskets, or barrels, is a great way to capitalize on a small gardening space. They don’t take up much room and can be arranged in a variety of ways to make the best use of a small footprint. Growing in containers also allows you to easily control your plants’ environment, watering and soil conditions.
When considering the type of container to use, it’s important to take a couple of things into account:
- Safety: Make sure that your container is clean, and that it won’t leach any harmful chemicals into the soil that could later be absorbed by your plants.
- Drainage: Your container should allow enough water to escape from it so that the roots of your plants don’t rot, but not so much that valuable soil, nutrients and moisture are lost.
- Depth: The container shouldn’t be too small or too shallow as it needs to allow for the average depth and spread that the roots of the edibles you’re planning to plant usually grow to. You can find more information on that here.
As you know, Accra has a tropical climate. This is favorable to most plant species, but can be challenging for fruit and vegetable varieties usually only grown in cold climates. Also, the standard advice for growing fruits, vegetables and herbs according to season (i.e. the advice on the back of most seed packets) won’t necessarily apply to Accra’s generally consistent high temperature and humidity levels. So, when selecting what you’d like to plant Angeli suggests that you do your research, but also experiment. You have nothing to lose! If the plant grows, great – you have produced your own yummy favourite for your cooking pot. If not, well, you’ve lost nothing, and can try something else next time. You’ll need to decide on the number of seeds or seedlings to plant according to the number of people you’d like your edible garden to feed. You can find more information on that here.
Sourcing seeds and seedlings
Genetically modified, or engineered, seeds are accustomed to being grown with chemicals, and therefore, often don’t function well without them. Angeli advises that the best seeds and seedlings to get are those that are genuinely organic. These will usually be labeled “non-GMO”, “non-hybrid”, “untreated”, “organic”, “heirloom”, etc. Organic seeds, unlike GM varieties, will also usually be open-pollinated. This means that plants grown from this seed will in turn produce their own active seeds, which can be saved and used to replant and produce successive crops.
Soil and compost
You should ideally use a ratio of one bag of compost to two bags of soil. For seedlings, use only compost if you can. Also, in terms of enhancing your soil, manure should never be put directly on a plant, but rather mixed with soil and other organic components and left to decompose for at least one month before adding it to your plants.
In Accra’s steamy heat most plants require daily watering. Municipal water often contains trace chemical and mineral deposits than can be bad for our health, as well as the plant’s health. So, if possible, collect rainwater and water your veggies with that instead of tap water.
Mulching prevents loss of moisture from the soil, and also helps to control weeds and other pests. You can use a variety of different things as mulch, for example: dry leaves, straw, sugarcane, coconut husk, coconut peat, grass cuttings, or untreated wood chips or wood shavings. Lay your mulch a minimum of one inch thick above the soil surrounding your plants. Add a thicker layer in hotter weather.
As with most things, pest prevention is better than cure. Don’t wait for a crisis to do something about the insects or weeds attacking your precious plants. Being diligent and consistent about protecting your veggies, fruits and herbs will result in beautiful, healthy pest-free harvests. Natural products like neem oil and neem cake are easily available in Ghana, and are an easy-to-use means of preventing pests from eating your plants before you do.
Learn while you grow
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different plant varieties and growing methods. Having witnessed plants she’d thought had failed suddenly spring back to life numerous times, Angeli believes that if something doesn’t work you shouldn’t give up on it straight away. Basically, in growing an edible garden patience and persistent pay off.
Also, do your research. There’s a wealth of information available online. You can also always get hands on and dirty at a Fat & Flourishing Botanic Organics Farmacy workshop where you’ll learn more of Angeli’s tips and tricks to “have your own garden and eat it too”. For more information visit fatandflourishing.blogspot.com.
Gardening is a therapeutic experience, and there is nothing more satisfying than serving friends or family a meal made from the healthy fresh produce you’ve grown in your very own garden. Teaching children that veggies don’t come from shops and that they can grow their own is also a fun and empowering lesson to pass on to future generations. So, rather than getting caught up in the technicalities of gardening, remember to take the time to enjoy and share your experience of growing your own groceries right here in Accra!