With micro-gardens, urban poor "grow their own"
Leafy vegetables, tubers and herbs grown in simple containers help low-income families meet their daily needs for fresh, nutritious produce
To boost the overall supply of horticultural produce to the world’s developing cities, FAO promotes the sustainable intensification of commercial market gardening on urban peripheries. In densely populated areas, it has a complementary strategy: to help low-income households improve their food and nutrition security by growing their own vegetables in micro-gardens.
"Micro-gardening" is the intensive cultivation of a wide range of vegetables, roots and tubers, and herbs in small spaces, such as balconies, patios and rooftops. While urban residents have long grown vegetables in backyard plots, modern micro-gardening makes use of containers such as plastic lined wooden crates, custom-built tables and even old car tyres. It integrates horticulture production techniques with environmentally friendly technologies suited to cities, such as rainwater harvesting and household waste management. Micro-gardens allow low-income families to meet their needs for vitamins, minerals and plant protein by providing direct access to fresh, nutritious vegetables every day. They also offer a source of extra income from the sale of small surpluses.
Highly productive, easily managed
Micro-gardens are highly productive and can be easily managed by anyone - women, men, children, the elderly and the disabled. FAO studies show that a micro-garden of one square metre can produce any one of the following:
- around 200 tomatoes (30 kg) a year
- 36 heads of lettuce every 60 days
- 10 cabbages every 90 days
- 100 onions every 120 days
Where no land is available, vegetables can be planted in a container filled with garden soil or a "substrate" made from local materials, such as peanut shells, coconut fibre, rice husks, coarse sand or laterite. If substrates are unavailable, there is another option: growing the vegetables on water enriched with a soluble fertilizer.
A micro-garden can be grown on an area of just one square metre. Water requirements are modest, an important consideration in developing cities, where good quality water is often scarce and expensive. In a year, a one square metre micro-garden consumes about 1 000 litres of water, or less than 3 litres per day. To ensure a regular water supply, micro-gardeners can channel rainwater into storage via a system of gutters and pipes. Rainwater is virtually free (after the investment in harvesting equipment) and usually of good quality. From a roof of 20 sq m, growers can collect 2 000 litres of water for every 100 mm of rainfall, enough for the year-round cultivation of a micro-garden of two square metres. Keeping micro-gardens productive is also fairly simple. They can be fertilized regularly, at no cost, with compost produced from household organic waste. Pests are controlled by non-chemical means, including coloured sticky traps, insect proof nets and intercropping with aromatic herbs that naturally repel insects, such as basil, parsley and mint.
Leafy greens in poor barrios
With FAO support, governments and municipal authorities have successfully launched micro-garden programmes in several Central and South American countries - a programme in Caracas helped 10 000 families in the city’s poor barrios to grow leafy vegetables, cabbages, pumpkin, tomatoes and eggplant in micro-gardens. More recently, urban micro-gardens have been introduced in several African countries, including Gabon, Namibia, Niger, Senegal and Rwanda. FAO says low-income families master micro-garden technology very quickly. Micro-gardens are particularly popular with women, who use income from sales of surplus produce to improve their families’ well-being. Studies in Senegal found that around 35% of produce is kept for home consumption, while the rest is sold. Typical income from a family microgarden of 10 sq m ranges from US$15 to US$30 a month.
To be successful, microgardening programmes should establish, at the outset, a training and demonstration centre, and identify local sources of inputs, such as containers, seeds, substrates and fertilizer. Creation of a local technical "help desk" (for example, in a municipal horticulture office), engagement of private sector suppliers, and partnerships between NGOs and community gardeners’ associations contribute to the sustainability of micro-gardening programmes.