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Benefits of viable home gardens for family health and sustainable livelihoods

A number of benefits from home gardens and the influence of gardening from ancient to recent times have been described in the preceding sections. This section focuses on how home gardens fit into the livelihood system of smallholders today. Viable home gardens improve the ability of smallholders and their communities to meet interrelated concerns of food security, nutrition, health and economic security.

Potential benefits and beneficiaries include:

Gardens reduce food losses

The location of the garden close to the home reduces the risk of food losses from foraging wild animals and from theft. In the household farming system, most staple foods are usually supplied by one or more fields of a crop. Such fields are typically at a distance from the home, and a family member may have to stay there overnight in a makeshift hut in order to protect it at harvest times.

Crops are usually cultivated as a monocrop - a single species all planted at the same time - in order to maximize growth and labour efficiency. This low species diversity increases the risk of loss from disease and pests, which easily multiply and spread under such conditions. Planting the crop at a single time exposes it to loss by drought and bad weather. In contrast to this, a home garden's high species diversity and staggered planting times increase the likelihood that some crops survive. In the Philippines and the Pacific Islands, patches of taro (Colocasia and other related species) grown in gardens ensure that a family has food after a typhoon or tropical cyclone has wiped out other crops. Plants such as the onion family (Allium sp.) and neem tree (Melia azadirach) are planted in gardens to repel pests. Shade and shelter for the home also protect the home garden crops, which is not the case in open fields. The home garden also provides a secure place to process and store crops.

FIGURE 6 Bundles of soybeans are dried in the work area of a home garden in northern Lao People's Democratic Republic. Under the watch of a family member, the soybeans can be quickly stacked under the pole house in the event of a monsoon cloudburst. Most will be sold for cash income, but some will be stored in large terracotta urns as part of the winter food larder. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

More - and better - food available at all times

Gardens can make an important contribution to food security as an additional food source or by supplying off-season production. In all but the coldest and driest climates, vegetables can be planted and harvested for most of the year.

Trees often bear fruit or nuts at different times of the year compared to staple food crops. In tropical climates, papaya (Carica papaya) and banana (Musa paradisiaca L.) may be harvested almost year round. In subtropical areas, fruits from South America, such as feijoa (Feijoa sellowiana) and avocado (Persea americana), and from Asia, such as mandarins (Citrus sinensis) and jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) are harvested from late summer into winter, when few other fruits are available. In dry and temperate areas, relatively non-perishable nuts such as walnut (Juglans regia) and cashew (Anarcardium occidentale) provide useful food and trade items that can be stored at home or sold in markets.

Livestock and aquaculture are integral parts of many home garden systems, whether the climate is humid or dry. In a home garden, terrestrial and aquatic animal production can generate high levels of output and income and improve family nutrition while contributing to waste management and water and nutrient recycling. In many countries, animals are a low-cost source of high-value food containing protein, fats and micronutrients. In Latin America, guinea pigs - known locally as cuyes -are fed on kitchen food scraps supplemented with fresh fodder; in Asia, snails are a protein source that feed on fish pond weeds and kitchen scraps.

FIGURE 7 Harvesting prickly pears for market in northern Chile. Food if you want it. Farmers and gardeners have always had good seasons and bad ones. Drought, disease and low prices for non-food crops can push a farm family into food shortage and poverty. One way to balance these risks is to maintain some perennial crops that can be harvested only if necessary, thereby avoiding large labour investments for meagre returns. Astute home gardeners the world over have planted hardy, low-value crops on marginal land. Jujube (Zizisyphus juju-ba) and tamarind (Tamarindus indicus) grow wild and in home gardens in seasonally dry areas from Africa to China and the Pacific Islands. Fruit can be eaten fresh or dried over a long period. Cashew nuts are very tolerant of drought and require minimal post-planting care, but historically fluctuating international market prices do not provide sure returns. In Southeast Asia, this stops the big investors from planting cashew, but in a bad season for food crops cashew can provide many poor home gardeners with a small but much needed source of cash. In dry parts of Latin America the prickly pear or tuna (Opuntia sp.) is planted as a fence to keep livestock out of home gardens. Harvesting the fruit is uncomfortable and difficult, but the plant requires no other work or inputs. If people are short of food or cash, the prickly pear is harvested and marketed; in good cropping seasons the fruit is ignored. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Labour and time efficiency

Travel to and from crop fields can be arduous and time-consuming. Working in a home garden can give equally high returns from labour without the need to be far from home. Work in a home garden is generally not as physically demanding as field preparation and crop weeding, because the area is smaller and working conditions are better.

Reduced work effort, particularly for women and girls, helps to balance the household workload, most of which is usually done by women. Studies of daily household routine have shown that although men and women may appear to work an equal number of hours each day, chores such as preparing meals, childcare, cleaning, livestock care and fetching water and firewood are often not fully considered. These tasks most often fall to women and are centred on the home. This publication does not aim to promote home gardening as women's work only; it makes the point that work in the home garden is readily integrated into the daily household chores and can help women to earn an income while doing so.

FIGURE 8 Adequate care and nourishment in a kitchen garden in Bhutan. Mother and baby thrive with only light work around the home and garden. Green vegetables are a good source of dietary iron to prevent the fatiguing condition of iron anemia common in expectant and nursing mothers. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

One of the most important roles of women is caring for small children. During advanced pregnancy, a woman should not do heavy manual field work or endure long days with insufficient regular food, in order not to risk her own or the baby's health. Infants need regular breast-feeding and attention; and after six months, breast milk becomes inadequate and complementary foods need to be provided. Being at home during these months is the best solution: home gardens help to provide profitable but light work, and a mother can look after her own and her child's health and nutrition. Nutritious food is available from the home garden every day; it can be prepared freshly and safely at home. Feeding an infant will also be easier at home.

Other labour efficiencies can be gained from the home garden. Nursery beds can provide advanced seedlings, which when planted in fields require less weeding and take more rapidly than when seeded directly as field crops. Winnowing, drying, milling and other post-harvest processing may be more efficiently done in the home garden. Working in the garden near drying crops ensures that they can be brought in from rain; a gardener can also keep watch for browsing domestic animals. Waste from crops processed in or near the home garden provides feed for livestock and compost for garden fertilization.

Environment: improved working and living conditions

The ecological association between people and plants in a home garden is an ancient one. People and plants thrive in places that have adequate shade, shelter, light, water and nutrition. This makes for better working conditions for:

Home gardens can provide environmentally sound opportunities for waste disposal. Composting is commonly used for household wastes including kitchen waste, paper and other materials.

In flood-prone areas such as the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, home gardens can literally anchor the family home. Plants like taro, coconut and thatching palms hold the soil together while inundated. In response to regular devastating floods in the Mekong delta, Vietnamese people have built pontoon-like houses that float during floods. Home garden trees adapted to the irregular floods and rich soils, for example palms and durian, continue to provide protection around the floating house.

FIGURE 9 Properly composted, human waste is a valuable resource in parts of Asia. Oasis or sewage pond? Safe treatment of effluent is a major concern in poor communities and rapidly growing towns and cities. Some treatments may worsen health risks, but treatment through aquaculture ponds in north-east Thailand has considerably increased farm incomes. Ponds are a source of irrigation water; farm wastes feed fish such as carp or catfish and blue-green algae. The algae and pond mud can be used as fertilizer. Planners need to be aware of how problems can be turned into opportunities. In dry areas such as Yemen and in remote communities in central Australia, effluent ponds have nurtured date and banana gardens for generations. In many parts of Asia, properly processed human waste is a valuable garden resource. In some Chinese cities, signs outside public toilets encourage passers-by to stop and make a deposit, which is processed and purchased by local gardeners. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Enhanced social standing

In all countries, certain groups are vulnerable to food insecurity, poverty and poor social standing. Gardening is often used to reduce a family's vulnerability. In urban areas across the world, food crops are grown on rooftops and balconies, in backyards and community gardens, alongside roads and in vacant lots. They provide fresh, marketable food that supplements family diets and boosts family incomes. Urban and peri-urban agriculture can fill critical food-supply gaps for poor city dwellers, particularly where rural infrastructures and farm-to-market distribution systems are poor.

Disabled and elderly people are often considered non-productive dependents in a household. Limited care of a home garden and other household activities provide them with safe and feasible opportunities to contribute to household food and income.

Home garden systems are readily accessible to the poor. While gardening for subsistence is common and valuable to the household, gardens offer a way to generate a small income rapidly. A small investment in seeds and a small amount of labour can provide a return from the sale of vegetables within six to eight weeks. Limited access to land is often a characteristic of poor families, but need not be a major constraint - a home garden can be established on a small area.

FIGURE 10 Drying beans: an elderly Cambodian woman contributes to household food production. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Gender inequities increase the vulnerability of women to poverty and malnutrition, make it difficult for them to earn a livelihood - especially single mothers - and reduce their social standing. Marketing garden produce can be an important source of independent income for women, particularly in households headed by women or where men migrate for long periods, or in cultures where women traditionally feed the family through their own work. In parts of Africa severely affected by HIV/AIDS, home gardens provide food for single-parent or no-parent households. Traditional divisions of labour and responsibility often mean that men sell major cash crops or staple food crops and control the resulting income. Income from gardens controlled by women allows them to purchase items that are important to improving their social status in families and communities where men have a dominant social position.

FIGURE 11 A widow from Bosnia and Herzegovina gardens in a plot supplied free by the municipality. In countries emerging from war, markets are often not functioning well and many households will have lost access to farm land. In a long conflict, former combatants may have little experience of farming. In 1981, just after the civil war in Uganda, UNICEF found that urban agriculture was effectively feeding the cities with non-cereal foods. In the 1990s in Baghdad and Sarajevo, residents turned to home gardening to provide nutrition and trade needs. In Cambodia, an FAO Special Programme for Food Security included home gardening to rebuild diverse food supplies; through an Asian Development Bank loan, demobilized soldiers were resettled into rural communities, with support to establish home gardens to help them learn how to be farmers again. (Source: FAO/19932)


FIGURE 12 Schoolchildren in a garden in Myanmar (issue is school gardens).

Better skills training

Acquisition of skills is facilitated by home gardens, because they are close to homes in the community, relatively small in scale, potentially viable with small investment and suitable for a wide range of people. Typical village social interaction means that crop and animal technologies and business management skills and concepts can be readily exchanged. Seeds, cuttings, poultry hatchlings and fish fingerlings are readily and cheaply traded; novices can learn integrated cultivation and husbandry practices from what is achieved in established home gardens. Compared to conventional training, farmer participation offers greater opportunity for social learning, which contributes greatly to generating innovation. Farmer field schools, for example, give farmers the confidence to work together on low-cost sustainable farming practices. Better skills transfer and acquisition rapidly increases the variety of livelihood improvement options available to small farming families.

FIGURE 13 Students in Honduras learn to make compost. Social learning opportunities help to foster innovation and shared awareness of low-cost sustainable farming practices. (Source: FAO/18907/G.Bizzarri)

Group credit schemes using revolving funds have become a popular and fairly successful poverty-reduction tool in rural development. Groups typically consist of four to six women, who in turn use the US$30-US$50 credit fund loan for small enterprises in home gardens. The necessary business management training is made relevant by using real-life information from group members' home gardens and household budgets. In Asia, about 60 percent choose to raise animals, so an animal-husbandry training session provided in support can easily and effectively reach a number of people.

Increased options from better skills

Improving small- scale farmers' skills in:

Lead to better opportunities

Production technologies

More efficient and sustainable use of resources.
Increased livelihood diversity, for example from beekeeping to candle making, or from growing fresh herbs to marketing dried medicinal preparations and essential oils.

Processing and storage

Profit from surplus.
Reduced losses after harvest and during transport to market.
Added product value.
Increased marketing options.


Regular and loyal buyers.
Higher prices through better supply timing and quality.
Integration of production and marketing enterprises.

Money management

Access to and profitable use of credit and remittances.
Better household budgeting.

Urban-rural linkage

Understanding of sophisticated markets and distribution chains.
Access to technical information and production inputs.
Exposure to town-based technologies such as bread-making, fast foods and kitchen-scale manufacturing. Identifying and supplying niche markets such as for cut flowers.

Organization, leadership and communication

Collective marketing to retain profits, increase bargaining position, access larger markets and increase transport efficiency.
Social empowerment - better access to services and participation in government.
Enhancement of social status of disadvantaged groups.

Added value to livelihoods and trade

Viable home gardens create opportunities for input suppliers, processors, small manufacturing, traders and other service providers, as well as generating income, much of which is spent in the community. Adding value to crops and livestock through processing, storage and small manufacturing increases the livelihood options for rural households. Milk, feathers and fibre from poultry and livestock are commonly worked into saleable items by home-scale processes. Processing perishable products extends shelf life, reduces losses in transport and can enable a regular supply to be maintained to markets. Development of small businesses can multiply the employment and livelihood opportunities for rural communities. Many microenterprises grow into thriving businesses, often so specialized that their home garden origins may no longer be recognizable.

Many small-scale street vendors and food-stall holders can make a living for themselves and their families by processing or selling food. In Malaysia, for example, preparation and sale of street food employs more than 100 000 people and generates more than US$2.2 billion in sales annually. If product quality can be assured, street food provides adequate and inexpensive nourishment for many urban inhabitants.

Examples of how home gardeners add value

Value-adding at home

Home garden products plus additional resources

Marketing strategy to add value and profit



Sell in shortage period.

Kitchen-scale drying and preserving.

Cooking utensils, preservatives- sugar and salt; containers - bottles and jars; drying equipment - baskets, trays and polythene film; a heat source.

Maintain regular supply.
Use fresh surplus.

Oil extraction, cheese making and other processing.

Small press, cooking utensils.

Maintain regular supply.
Sell to distant market.

Grading, sorting and packaging.

Packaging materials and sorting area.

Sell direct to retail markets.

Ecological production method.

Certifying agency, recognizable brand and sometimes facilitating legislation.

Sell at a premium as certified organically grown product to discerning markets.

Capitalize on agro- ethnic uniqueness or other interest factors.

Link into tourist industry.

Charge fees to tour operators.
Provide village guides.
Sell home produce and local souvenirs.
Provide food and accommodation.


FIGURE 14 Adding value in Sumatra, Indonesia: baking cassava cakes and street foods. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Supply of agricultural inputs is often controlled by large state or private corporations, which may offer only a narrow range of high-volume items such as fertilizer and main crop seeds such as rice and maize. In contrast, viable home gardens require a wide range of high-quality vegetable and herb seeds, grafted fruit trees, young livestock for fattening, materials for pest exclusion and environment modification, and services such as paraveteri-nary services. This diverse demand provides additional trade opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

Schools, training centres, research institutions and extension services can also benefit from this demand for inputs, services and products. When research and development is applied to the innovations being made in home gardens, viable commercial applications often result. Many of the improved varieties of fruit and vegetables popular in markets today were originally selected by observant and skilled home gardeners.

FIGURE 15 Adding value in Yunnan, China: making fuel bricks in a home garden from soft coal. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

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