INFORMATION SHEET 11
There are many different farming methods suitable for the home garden. In each method, the home garden manager oversees the different parts of the system (i.e. soil, water, weeds and crops) to ensure that the garden can produce as much of a given crop as possible, now and in the future. This means that the home garden manager must take into account the home garden's future production. Information Sheets 6, 9 and 10 describe some of the common home garden problems and ways to avoid them. This Information Sheet discusses the main factors to consider when deciding how to grow crops in a home garden. For more details, read the relevant Home Garden Technology Leaflets or local agricultural extension materials.
IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF CROP MANAGEMENT
Crop management depends on proper soil and water management, which creates the ideal conditions for crop development. Crop management starts with preparation of the land followed by planting or sowing of the planting material or seeds. Some crops, such as cowpea, pumpkin and maize, grow well if the seeds are sown directly in the garden. Others, such as tomato, onion and kale, are grown effectively by being raised first as seedlings in a nursery and transplanted later, while crops such as sweet potato and cassava are planted from vegetative material.
Before seeds are sown, or seedlings or cuttings planted, the land has to be prepared. The soil must be loosened to a depth of at least 20 cm. Tools suitable for this operation exist in most farming communities and are often made by the local blacksmith. Improved tools that reduce labour through the use of draught power or other forms of power besides human also exist but are often not accessible to the majority of African home garden managers.
The soil is formed into beds, ridges, mounds or other configurations suitable for the level of rainfall, soil type and its water-holding capacity, and the type of crop to be planted. When a plant is transferred from the seed bed to the permanent site, its root system should be disturbed as little as possible. Plants are dug up with a ball of earth attached or, if bare rooted, dipped in a slurry of mud. The best time for transplanting is late afternoon, to avoid direct sunlight which can damage the roots. Temporary shade can be made to reduce the sun's damage, especially in hot climates. After sowing or transplanting, water should be applied.
After sowing or transplanting, a plant needs care. Some plants need to be supported with stakes. Weeds must be removed, but roots and other plant parts must be protected from damage during weeding. The soil must be cultivated and its structure kept open, in order for air and water to penetrate. Unwanted plants should be thinned out, together with the weeds. Plant nutrients must be provided and pests controlled. Plant development must be carefully observed and progress monitored.
Depending on the part of the crop to be utilized, the point of crop maturity varies. Green leaves and shoots are harvested when still small and tender, while fruits and seeds need full development. Since crops do not always mature evenly, consecutive harvesting might be necessary. It is important to note that some plants do not develop new flowers or fruits if their mature fruits are not picked. This is because of the presence of growth inhibitors which are typical in some crops, such as pepper and avocado.
Post-harvest handling is extremely important, but is often the most neglected part of crop management. Poor post-harvest handling results in crop loss, which often can be reduced or avoided. When crops mature they should be consumed, processed or sold. After harvesting, a number of home garden crops need special treatment, such as curing. Curing reduces storage loss. The majority of crops needing curing are roots, tubers and bulbs (e.g. onion, sweet potato, Irish potato, cassava, taro and yam). Households may also cure pumpkin.
Household members must harvest crops carefully to avoid cutting or bruising them. For curing, the harvest should be spread on a flat, dry surface under warm (around 30° to 32°C) and humid (80 to 90 percent humidity) conditions and dried for four to seven days. The outer skin of the bulb or tuber will dry and harden, and any cuts and bruises will heal. Although the curing process is faster in full sunlight, it is better to shade tubers with big leaves. Cured onions or cassava need to be stored in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place. It is advisable to check the condition of the stored crops regularly and immediately remove any that show signs of decay. (See also Home Garden Technology Leaflet 18, "Processing, preservation and storage".)
FARMING REQUIRES SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE
Successful home gardening is not a simple task. Plants, animals and insects behave differently in different seasons, and sometimes cause problems when the home garden manager least expects it. A home garden manager needs to understand the climate and conditions of an area before being confident about developing a successful home garden there. A person who has never managed a home garden or farm must make training a high priority.
The first skill needed is observation. The home garden manager should make daily walks around the home garden, examining each plant and any insects that are found. Changes in plant growth, such as the appearance of new seedlings, flowers or fruit, often require the home garden manager to take action in order to protect plants from pests, weeds or too much sunlight or rain. The home garden manager learns by observation and experience what happens to a plant as it grows and when changes occur. One of the best ways to learn is to watch how experienced home garden managers work and develop their home gardens.
The second skill needed is planning, using the knowledge gained from observing plants in the home garden. All food plants need time to grow to the right size or stage before they are ready to be harvested. A good home garden manager knows from observation and experience the length of a plant's growing time and exactly what a plant or fruit looks like when it is ready to be harvested. He or she can then plan in advance what needs to be done after that crop is harvested and determine which crop should be planted next. In this way, the home garden manager makes sure that the land and the household's resources are always employed in the production of food.
Some farming methods, or cropping systems, are easier than others to use successfully. Some cropping systems are more popular with people from certain cultural backgrounds than with people from others. Some cropping systems are more suited to a particular climate or situation than others. For example, microbasins should be used for tree planting in dry areas (see Information Sheet 9, "Water management"). Details of some of the methods of farming suitable for the home garden can be found in Home Garden Technology Leaflets 12, "Multiple cropping", 13, "Multilayer cropping", and 15, "Intensive vegetable plots".