INFORMATION SHEET 1
DEFINITION AND CONCEPT OF
HOME GARDENS IN AFRICA
A garden is defined as a place where horticultural crops are grown. The term horticulture comes from the Latin word hortus, which means garden. There is no consensus, even among experts, where the line is drawn between horticultural crops and field crops. Gardening generally employs a more intensive form of land use than the cultivation of field crops, and gardens can be highly diversified. Many experts believe that fruits, vegetables, spices and even medicinal plants should be considered horticultural crops.
In many humid and subhumid areas of Africa, a home garden (sometimes referred to as a backyard or kitchen garden) is part of the homestead and is one of several field systems operated by a rural household. In these cases, the home garden forms the hub, with the homestead at its centre, from which paths lead to other field systems and production units devoted to annual crops for the market and for home consumption
In places where land is scarce, such as urban and peri-urban areas, the home garden may be the only cultivated plot. And, in semi-arid regions, where water scarcity is a constraint, horticulture crops may be intercropped with staples on the family farm. In the wet lowlands, vegetable gardening usually becomes a dry-season activity. The extent of these activities is largely influenced by availability of a reliable water source. Population pressure can result in home gardens being located some distance from the village.
In Africa, as in other parts of the world, legumes, roots and tubers and even some oil crops are often cultivated as garden crops. In fact, some of them, particularly roots and tubers, play a major role as food crops in the home garden. Even plantation plants, such as coffee, cocoa, coconut, oil-palm, dates and many others, can be found in limited numbers in home gardens.
A traditional African garden contains a mixture of perennial and annual crops, well adapted to the ecological conditions. The crops are often intercropped, with intercropping patterns varying from area to area. Crop mixtures found in a home garden are often the result of the deliberate selection of a wide variety of plants and tree crops that occupy different layers and play supportive roles. The garden provides the household with a mixture of food and cash crops. Mixed plant and tree cropping systems can greatly extend harvesting periods and thus ensure the continuous availability of some foods. Once established, tree species require only minimal labour and inputs for maintenance, and can provide a continuous food supply without needing to be replanted. Livestock, kept on a small scale (including sheep, goats, poultry and to some extent cattle and pigs), can provide food, income and manure.
The biological diversity and complexity of home gardens decline with the transition from humid to semi-arid and arid areas of the Sahelian countries (where annual rainfall is below 500 mm). Insufficient water is a major constraint to successful gardening in dry areas, yet, even in these areas, crops can be kept growing through effective soil and water management.
Because home gardens cannot always be located within the homestead, it is essential to look at all potentially available land - the land surrounding the homestead as well as land away from home - when assessing the production capacity and potential of a home garden, in the semi-arid zones in particular.
The African family unit is often extended, and at times several family units of close relatives (husband, wife, their married sons and their wives and children or a husband and his several wives and children) live on the same homestead or compound. The term compound has different meanings in different parts of Africa. In this publication, however, it refers to a household unit (often extended family) living within a fenced-in area. Household members undertake farming activities together, and cook and eat meals together.
Often the home garden provides amenities for the household and the surrounding area. The trees in the garden provide shade where people can socialize or undertake household and income-generating activities. In addition, a complete garden can produce some fuelwood, spices and medicinal and ornamental plants.
The compound accommodates living quarters for people and livestock as well as storage space for crops, tools and agricultural implements and inputs, and food preservation and processing facilities.
Producing different crops in a small area
Producing many different crops in a small area allows more intensive production methods and a more effective utilization of scarce resources, water in particular. Home gardens also allow the use of organic farming methods (e.g. the use of green manure, compost and natural pesticides), which reduce food production costs. This means household gardens can be developed with extremely limited economic resources, if water is not completely lacking.
Intercropping and multistorey planting in home gardens result in crop diversity and create variety in the food supply. Perennial crops can provide edible leaves and fruit during dry spells, when annuals cannot be produced. Thus, a well-managed African home garden, together with the subsistence plot where most of the staple crops are produced, provide a continuous supply of vegetables, fruits and other crops that contribute significant quantities of energy, protein, vitamins A and C and iron to the family diet.
Under low-temperature conditions, such as those found in the remote highlands of Ethiopia and Lesotho, fruit and vegetable cultivation present rather different challenges. In such areas, efforts to extend the production of leafy vegetables into the winter season, for example, need to be based on the selection of cold-tolerant cultivars of Brassica crops, such as kale and mustard.