Example of a Successful Ecological Garden:

Growing Dinner Without Sacrificing the Back Yard

This is the garden of a good friend of ours, C.  He lives in our town, but comes from Jamaica and is a real wizard at food growing, as well as grafting.  When he first moved here, he was very excited to see my garden.  At the time, he just had a few plants going and was looking for more. We began sharing seeds and cuttings, and a couple of times a year he comes over and helps me whip things into shape. 

Though we see him nearly every week, it had been a couple of years since we had seen his garden.  We visited in early May 2011 and here is what we found.  (Please excuse the picture quality – we took some through the back porch screen as the battery in the device was dying.)  This type of garden is known as a homegarden, and they are fairly common throughout tropical and subtropical countries.  These are the gardens people work in when they get home from work, and feed their families from.  C. and his wife eat from this garden all year.  Robert Hart called it a Forest Garden (see Step 3 on this page),  but he did not really invent it.  People have been gardening like this for millennia.

The back yard is probably 75’ across and 25’ or so deep.  Our friend has a dog, so she needs space to run.  In giving her that, he has also preserved a nice expanse of good-looking, neighbor-pleasing lawn.  The dog is well-trained and does not go past the 30” tall fence.  Behind it is the food, grown organically and ecologically, protected from contamination and as lovely as any landscaping you usually see.

The garden is a great example of Ecological Gardening and Permaculture in action.  C. does not use fertilizer or pesticides.  Instead, he follows the principles of feeding the soil and keeping pests at bay by raising healthy plants.  Plants are grown in a polyculture (many different types together) rather than a monoculture (large areas of a single type of plant, which tend to attract pests and cause pest buildup and deficiencies in the soil over time). Many plants serve more than one function, bearing food, covering the ground or providing shade and support for other plants.  He grows each plant in the best spot for it on his property, which makes it easy for him to take care of it and keeps it as healthy as possible.  Healthy plants are mush less likely to be attacked by pests.  He keeps the ground covered at all times by plants and/or mulch, protecting it from erosion and reducing leaching of nutrients.  He works for the park service, so has access to large amounts of fallen leaves, which he brings home and spreads continually throughout the garden.  You can see a white leaf bag to the left of the picture above.  He may add some composted manure here and there.  And he never takes his trimmings out to the road to be collected by the city.  He keeps all that precious organic matter cycling through his garden, where it belongs!

The area behind the fence is about 6’ deep.  Yet in this space, C. manages to grow several fruit trees and many kinds of vegetables.  The photo above is of the north side of the back yard, so that space gets a southern exposure, which means sun all day.  This can be hard on smaller vegetables in the summer, so his solution is to grow these in the filtered shade of the fruit trees.

Let’s take a tour:


Above is the west side, beginning at the house and back gate.  This bed is only about 3’ deep, but it contains Banana trees underplanted with Okra, which grows well here in summer.  The Okra was already beginning to bear, so he must have planted them several weeks ago.  The Bananas are short, making them easy to harvest.  They will fruit, after which those stalks will die, but more will come up in their place.  There are also a few Eggplants and Cucumbers left from earlier in the year.   A cool thing is that some of his Eggplants are from seeds that came from fruits from the Grow Bag Garden I planted for K. two years ago!  We didn’t take pictures, but this mixture of plants extends up the west side of his property into the front garden as well.  Also in the front are Coconut trees, a Barbados Cherry and a Surinam Cherry (both grown from seeds of fruits he was given and ate), Papaya trees, and a Fig tree with lots of tiny fruit on it at the moment.  These are all attractive plants and he plans to slowly convert his front yard into an edible landscape as well.



Closeup of Bananas with Okra underneath.



Above is the northwest corner, which has a very special plant in it, something he calls a Sissoomba.  It is hard to see here, but it is in the very corner.  A closer picture is below.  There are also Pineapples in the sunnier spots and a Pomegranate tree, which he grew from a seed he planted from a fruit I gave him off of my tree about two years ago!  It is the small tree to the right of the bag of leaves.  There are Cocoyams (Elephant Ears with edible corms), and he also grows Chayote vines here on the fence.



This is the Sissoomba tree (with a Pineapple in front and some young Papaya trees behind).   It is actually a Tamarillo or Tree Tomato, S. betaceum.  The fruit is edible, and because it is a Solanum, he is able to graft other plants of that genus to it.  Witness the Eggplant (S. melongena) above, with two fruits just inches over the top step of the ladder!  Also the Tomato (S. lycopersicum) plant grafted near the base (between the ladder and the Sissoomba trunk in the picture).  Wow!  I’m more than impressed.  He is growing one for me now. :)



Moving along to the center, above is the east half.  See the picture at the top of this page for an overall view.  The ornamental palm tree was already there and the orange flowers are from a Royal Poinciana in the yard behind his.  From left (west) to right (east) he has: Tomatoes on cages (around 20-25 plants, still very productive and in the ground, which gives an indication of how deep the organic matter is here.  Root knot nematodes will render Tomato plants useless, but they like sandy soil, and will not tolerate lots of organic matter.  A simple, non-toxic solution to a common pest problem, and cheaper than organic substances you can buy for nematode control),  Pigeon Peas (several plants, each of which should live a few years - they bear pods of edible peas, and being legumes, they help fix nitrogen in the soil, making it more fertile for the other plants in the bed, an example of the Permaculture principle of stacking functions), Sugarcane (from cuttings I gave him), Corn (maybe 20 plants, with ears nearly ready to harvest), Scotch Bonnet Peppers (which are perennial here), 2 Avocado trees, Chaya, more Pineapples, 2 Mango trees (each grafted with a few different varieties - he says all the varieties on each of these trees tend to bear all at once), Cucumbers, Callaloo (Amaranth), Papaya trees (grown from seeds), and Cassava (a.k.a. Manioc, Yuca or Tapioca).



Closeup showing Tomatoes, Sugarcane, and Pigeon Peas.



Corn, Tomatoes, and Avocado.



Closeup of a Cucumber plant under a Mango tree.  The Cucumber had two 10” fruits on it hidden under the vines.  You can just glimpse one above the leaf at the bottom center of the picture.  He has had no problems with downy mildew, a bane of many cucurbits in my garden.  To the left is a Papaya tree.



Callaloo (Amaranth) growing under a Mango tree.



Avocado tree underplanted with Papayas, a Pineapple, a Jamaican Mint Bush (from a cutting I gave him), Scotch Bonnet Peppers, and Cassava on the far right.



The northeast corner, with a Pigeon Pea, Cassavas, and another Tree Tomato, which also has Eggplants grafted to it.  Hiding behind the Cassavas are Malabar Spinach vines (from seeds I gave him) growing up the side fence.



Closeup of the northeast corner.




The nursery, where he grows out seeds and cuttings before planting them in the garden.  When we arrived, he was just watering them with ice water before going to work that afternoon.  This area is on the north side of his house, so it is shaded, which helps the young plants survive our sometimes brutal weather until they are large enough to take it in the garden beds.  The ice water combats the heat, which was already in the 80’s by this time.  C. also grows lots of things for friends.  The garden does not cost a lot of money because he grows most of his plants from seeds he gets from trading with friends and neighbors.  He also plants seeds from fruits he eats, then grafts the seedlings with cuttings of varieties he admires, which are given to him by the same people.  If he sees something special, he will ask for a cutting.  Most gardeners, even strangers, are generous people and happy to oblige, and C. is happy to pay that forward by giving to others as well.  He spends no money on fertilizers or pesticides.  The garden is his pet project and he and his wife spend a lot of time there, gaining much needed relief from the stresses of modern life.


He tells me he was inspired by my garden, and indeed many of the plants he has came from it.  I in turn have been more than inspired by his!  Now I can see my way clearer than ever.  This year will see many more edibles planted to help fill out our own Forest Garden.  Stay tuned.


In the meantime, I noticed he is missing some more plants that I currently have, so I will be bringing him rooted cuttings in a couple of weeks: Okinawa Spinach will make a great groundcover in partial shade, Sweet Potatoes in the sun; Water Leaves will rise a little higher in the sunnier edge spots, and Katuk and Moringa will do well in the light shade against the taller back fence.  He can grow Cowpeas (such as Blackeyes) in the sun.  And maybe when the tomatoes stop bearing on their sunny supports, he can replace them with Luffa gourds (the baby fruits are edible long before the sponges are ready).  I’ve got loads of seeds…


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