Growing Food – a tool to change the world

Ana Topel
Friday, 2nd October 2020

ReFarmers is working with communities in Canada and Africa to establish edible gardens for a wide range of disadvantaged and marginalized people. Here they also share a simple method for creating a tiny garden, anywhere!

ReFarmers believes that access to food is a human right. They aim to combat the staggering rates of hunger and malnutrition in the world by teaching people to grow nutritious food, even when little land is available.

ReFarmers has been working with schools, organizations, and a network of local partners for the past two years to establish gardens that demonstrate regenerative agriculture and urban food growing in both Africa and Canada. ReFarmers also integrates many values into their work: gender equity, honoring indigenous knowledge, transparency, collaboration, education, food security, and healthy relationships that foster kindness and compassion. 

One of the things I found noteworthy is that all of their demonstration sites also serve the local community, such as providing a food program at a school or being a learning center for the community. They teach practical skills that can be applied immediately – growing vegetables, establishing nurseries and holistic livestock systems, harvesting rainwater, and building healthy soil – and empower the community to thrive and become self-reliant. 

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Community learning simple permaculture and gardening skills through our East Africa Permaculture Project in Kakamega, Kenya

In East Africa, where 80% of the population is small-scale subsistence farmers, ReFarmers has implemented permaculture projects that provide long-term regenerative solutions, like food forests and training sites. Their Grandmother’s Kitchen Garden Project in Kitgum, Uganda, a response to COVID-19 and food shortages, has installed 65 gardens – with more on the way – to help feed the elderly and children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Grandmothers there are typically caregivers for 6-12 dependents. With the pandemic, children are not going to school where they would receive a meal, and the pressure to feed many mouths is even more intense. 

Even though this project is relatively low-budget, it has had a big impact on the communities. Each garden has taught 10-20 family members the skills to grow food – so the project’s reach is 650-1,300 people so far! Grandmothers are selling surplus vegetables at the market and empowering girls to garden as well. Young people have jumped in to help dig the gardens while learning how to establish gardens themselves. The waitlist for gardens is growing, as is an abundance of fresh tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and more. Local leaders are hired to run the program and establish the gardens, further strengthening the local economy, which has been suffering due to COVID-19. It’s amazing how far donations to this project go – a donation of $60 will pay for a team of trained locals to install a garden and train the women in permaculture growing practices.

Godfrey Otsembo lives in East Africa and says that working with ReFarmers on permaculture projects “has changed people and changed lives, and in my village everything is different.” He adds that “permaculture has made me be able to speak with people in different regions, and we all speak the same language through permaculture. It is also supporting my life and my family.” For me, these words point to the huge potential of small-scale permaculture projects.

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Community learning simple permaculture and gardening skills through our East Africa Permaculture Project in Kakamega, Kenya

Food Justice in Canada

In Vancouver, Canada, ReFarmers is planting the seed for gardens to sprout up all over the community with its urban ‘foodscaping’ initiatives. They host demonstration gardens, workshops, and a seed library, and are currently developing plans for a food forest in a city park to help increase food justice in urban areas and build the capacity of communities to strengthen social cohesion. 

In contrast with traditional community garden models that have individual allotments, this will be a collective gardening project, where anyone with a sharing and collaborative mindset can participate, and decisions will be made as a group. The project, which will launch in 2021, will prioritize diversity and inclusivity, indigenous knowledge, and multi-sector partnerships that bring participants from frontline communities that tend to be left out of greening initiatives. It will involve community members in implementing the food forest and will include seed saving, programming, tours, and other services the community chooses. 

Marie-Pierre further explains the motivation behind the project: “We want to use city land to grow more food and take bold climate action, reduce alienation, bypass food shortages, reduce food miles, and build resilient local food systems. Even a small garden can help sequester carbon and allow people to reconnect with Nature. We want less non-native grass monocultures and more food grown communally, in public spaces, which fosters social cohesion and creates ripple effects of positive social and environmental change deep within a community.”

Replicating a practice from Uganda and Kenya where food is grown in plastic rice sacks, ReFarmers also teaches people to plant Tiny Gardens, gardens in burlap sacks. They hope to generate a movement by supporting people to start Tiny Gardens in their own cities, targeting areas that have food deserts and food justice issues. Marie-Pierre says, “It’s something anyone can do.” She feels this is the perfect time for a movement like this. “During this pandemic more and more people have been thinking about food and nutrition security and self-reliance. They are interested in growing food in the city not only as a hobby, but as a means for survival.” 

The Tiny Gardens Initiative is taking off in Victoria, Canada, where Ariel Reyes Antuan and Jessica Barton have taken the idea and run with it, calling the sack gardens Palenke Greens. “We saw how systemic racism impacts the food system, our relationship to food, and our relationship to land. We need to recognize that our ancestors were farmers, and we need to bring back that ancestral knowledge. Africans have used the burlap sack as a vertical gardening tool for a long period of time.” For Ariel and Jessica, the gardens are a way of “supporting and holding a space for people of African descent facing food insecurity and people feeling motivated to go back to land-based practices.” They are funding and installing the gardens and hope to expand to provide people with three sacks: one each for potatoes, greens, and medicinal herbs. They also plan to train youth and get schools involved, ultimately contributing to a food revolution in the city.

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Burlap sack garden/Tiny Garden with broccoli, swiss chard, bok choi, cabbage, nasturtiums, onions, collards, parsley and lettuce growing

ReFarmers is partnering with the U.S. based non-profit Abundant Earth Foundation, which raises money to support grassroots permaculture and regenerative agriculture projects throughout the world. Hannah Apricot Eckberg, Abundant Earth’s co-founder, says, “We see Tiny Gardens as an antidote to food and nutrition insecurity and inequity – and as a way to empower people to grow their own affordable, organic food almost anywhere.” 

Tiny Gardens are a great project for students learning at home due to COVID-19. They can be made with a few simple steps and few materials for very little to no money. They are a great introduction to gardening and perfect for an urban setting or for renters who can’t do a permanent garden. They can be a way to connect to Nature, even in the city, and to experience that unique pleasure that comes only from eating food you’ve grown. When viewed as a means of fighting climate change, offering food security created in poor neighborhoods by systemic racism, empowering youth, the elderly, disabled or displaced people, planting a Tiny Garden can even be a revolutionary act.

Visit https://refarmers.org to learn more about how growing food can make positive change in the world. If you’re in the U.S., donations to ReFarmers are now tax deductible through the partnership with Abundant Earth Foundation. 

How to Grow Your Own Tiny Garden

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Materials needed:

Large burlap sack from a coffee shop or coffee roaster (or a potato or rice bag) 

Compost and soil 

Shovel

Exacto knife or scissors

Seeds and/or seedlings 

Water

Coffee shops often give sacks away, and compost and soil can often be found for free as well. Check online listings, like Craigslist, ask friends if they can spare some from their yard, or contact your local government to see if they have programs that offer free compost or soil. If you can get organic, or at least pesticide-free, all the better. 

Kale, strawberries, lettuce, and kitchen herbs grow well. Talk with a local nursery or check online resources to learn what vegetables and herbs grow well in your climate. Local community gardens and gardening organizations can also be good sources for this information (and maybe for seedlings, too). Since plants will be growing together in a small space, check out ‘companion planting’ guides online. Seedlings are easier to plant than seeds, but you can use seeds as well. Consider the sun and shade requirements of your plants when you’re deciding where to place your tiny garden.

Step 1: Fill your sack with compost and soil 

You want to fill the bag ¼ full with compost and ¾ full with soil, mixing the soil and compost together beforehand or as you shovel it in. 

Step 2: Water your soil 

Water both the top of the soil mixture and around the sides of the sack to make sure all the mixture gets wet. You don’t want it sopping wet or muddy, but you want a few drops of water to come out of the soil when you squeeze a handful of it. The soil mixture will compact when it’s watered, so you will likely need to add a bit more soil afterward, filling the bag almost to the top. Then water the additional soil.

Step 3: Plant your seeds and/or seedlings

If you’re planting a combination of seeds and seedlings, it might be easier to plant seeds in the top of the sack and plant seedlings around the sides of the sack. Slice openings in the sides to make holes for planting with scissors or an exacto knife. Stagger the openings and remember to leave enough space between the openings to allow for plants to grow to full size.

Step 4: Water your tiny garden and watch it grow

Keep your tiny garden watered enough to keep it from drying out. People in hotter climates will often put a column of rocks or rolled up cardboard down the middle of the bag to help with water dispersal. 

Most importantly, have fun making your garden, and enjoy your harvest when it’s ready! 

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Ana Toepel is a writer, permaculturist, and beginner regenerative farmer with a background that includes education and sustainability work. She focuses on stories that spotlight positive change. For the past several years she has been exploring regenerative projects around the world and is inspired by their ability to heal ecosystems and mitigate climate change.

Useful links

Rewilding and restoring a small garden

Letting go of control - the wildlife garden

Urban permaculture growing with Juliet Kemp

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