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Developing home gardens

Making choices and factors influencing choices

Who makes decisions?

Choosing what to produce for a family and for sale needs to involve all family members. A home garden employs and feeds almost all family members, therefore women, men and the elderly should be involved together in decisions about a home garden. More produce is consumed by women and children, especially young children, from gardens controlled by women. Choices are best made considering the whole farming system, since garden products tend to complement other farm production.

To eat or sell?

Selection of what to produce for the family should take into account nutritional needs and family cultural and traditional preferences. Nutritious food may not be consumed if people do not like to eat it. Traditional mixed subsistence gardens can supply diverse nutritional needs and provide many of a family's favourite herbs, spices and flavours. Producing additional food crops spreads risk and may provide a surplus for sale. In all but the most remote areas, there are market opportunities for selected cash crops. Poultry and livestock can provide good cash income, either from fattening for meat or from regular sales of eggs, milk or fibre.

When to replace traditional products?

Caution should be exercised in promoting or replacing traditional and indigenous crops. They may serve a historic need that has been superseded by more economically efficient alternatives, such as corrugated roofing steel replacing demand for thatching palms. Local use of traditional plants may not be immediately obvious to an outsider, but it will remain important to household preferences. Tourism potential should not be overlooked. Tourist visits to rural communities are popular; tourists like to observe traditional village industries, handicrafts and specializations such as cultivation of spices, medicinal plants, flowers and ornamental plants.

Market choices

Market choices are important; marketing is examined in more detail later. Production for market is of two kinds: sale of produce surplus to family needs, and produce grown specifically for markets. Neighbours in a village and local community are markets that are often ignored, although they are easy to reach. With a more complex marketing chain using transport and other resources, a home gardener may aim to supply larger markets in nearby and more distant population centres. These markets require a more specialized garden system or a collective approach to provide sufficient quality, volume and shipment frequency.

Finding resources

Extra resources increase the options for improving production, but gardeners must assess what they have access to and what suits their situation. Time-consuming operations can be completed faster and more easily with machinery, which makes it possible to extend a garden into a smallholding. To mechanize operations, choices need to be made about power sources whether hand, pedal or engine power, and how to obtain access to them. Available sources of energy need to be considered, such as solar energy for drying home-processed foods, or biogas captured from manure compost in a home garden to be used for cooking. Wind and water can be harnessed to power mills, water pumps and generators. Mechanization options depend on access to equipment, operator training services, spare parts and maintenance services. Access to financial resources such as savings, informal credit or bank loans and technical and commercial information increase potential options to develop home gardens.

Potential constraints

Government policies can constrain home garden potential. Land-use restrictions at the rural-urban interface or as part of state-owned land lease conditions can limit certain production systems or choices of crops. Health policies can restrict gardeners' access to higher-priced markets, Some countries require vegetables to be washed with a chlorine solution, for example, the waste from which is environmentally damaging and inappropriate for disposal in a home garden. Use of manures and compost manufacture can cause clashes with planning authorities and neighbours.

Increased gardening can have negative social implications, from environmental changes brought about by the increased intensity of home gardening to changes in the household. Control of home gardens is an important incentive, especially control of income from sale of garden produce. In some areas of Africa, men have taken over management and marketing choices as gardens managed by women have become more profitable, which not only decreases cash incentives for women but may also decrease the nutritional value of a garden.

Establishing a home garden requires labour and resources, sometimes including capital. In the rural environment of developing countries, many household needs compete for cash and other resources. Home garden systems should be developed that minimize risks. It is essential to ensure that gardens are sustainable. Home gardens that rely on externally-supplied inputs such as seeds or greenhouse polythene may fail if gardeners are not trained to save their own seeds, or if external support for access to input supply markets is withdrawn.

How to do it: transforming low home-garden production


Success is more likely with a people-centred, interdisciplinary approach that develops and improves existing technologies. Indigenous production systems should not be disrupted by "introduction of new and more efficient methods". Gardens, like smallholder farming, are part of social systems. It is best to develop home gardens that meet family needs and resources rather than the ideals of specialists in agriculture, health or land-use planning.


Once a good understanding of current gardening is established, households and promoters can design improvements to make the garden supply family nutrition or production requirements. Improvements may take the form of introducing a wider diversity of plants, animals and fish, more effective management practices or opening up a new space for a special type of enterprise such as animal rearing or fish farming. It is essential at this stage to build on indigenous knowledge, especially with regard to native and wild plants - forests and other non-farm areas may seasonally supply greens, spices and mushrooms - pest and disease management and mixed-cropping systems.


Improving traditional garden space usually involves one or more of the following: replacing plants, increasing planting density, introducing new components such as livestock or increasing external inputs, especially water and nutrients. Multiple cropping and multi-layer systems utilize existing light and space; examples are beans or pumpkins together with maize or sorghum, climbing vines on canopy trees or root crops beneath fruit trees. Replacement is possible where traditional gardens contain crops that have outlived demand. In areas where steel roofing has taken over from thatched roofs, for example, it makes sense to replace old thatching palm grown as a cash crop for higher-value crops.

Model: Multilayer systems - forest gardens and fish ponds

In Central America, Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, gardeners maximize their use of limited space. Food, materials and cash crops are produced from plants occupying the full range of ecological niches in this type of garden, sometimes called a forest garden. The multilayered structure uses all the available sunlight for plant growth, thus minimizing weeds and keeping the soil healthy. Because there is a diversity of species, produce of one kind or another can be available for most of the year. Canopy trees such as Sesbania, tamarind, durian and coconut can provide fruit, nuts and forage and eventually valuable wood. Lower layers produce fruit and cash crops directly, host climbers like vanilla and pepper provide cooling shade for plants such as coffee and tender vegetables. Root crops such as taro and yams compete for space underground.

Additional garden space is often already available: in Figure 16 an Indonesian woman uses the roof of her cattle stall for pumpkin, where it has abundant fertilizer and is protected from browsing.

Multilayer aquaculture systems have been developed to take full advantage of existing vertical space, light, temperature and nutrient gradients in fish ponds. The three-dimensional aspect of a pond habitat offers a variety of ecological niches that can support a variety of organisms. In China, a well managed pond is stocked with more than eight different species of fish and various aquatic plants, all of which grow well because they occupy different parts of the pond water and exploit the different nutritional niches.


Improving the layout involves integrating garden features so that efficient and sustainable use is made of structures, land forms, water and other materials. One of the first concerns is security, especially against wandering poultry and livestock. Many successful gardens make maximum use of local materials and resources. Living fences strengthen garden fencing; many, such as the multipurpose tree Gliricida sepium, also yield leaves for animal fodder or compost and sticks for firewood. The location of kitchen gardens next to a house provides some fencing needs and improves the efficiency of labour and resources (see Model: Kitchen garden box).

FIGURE 16 Multilayer systems: an Indonesian woman uses her cattle stall to support pumpkins. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


FIGURE 17 Multilayer systems: a Vietnamese man grows gourds and beans that climb above vegetables, herbs and root crops. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


Model: Kitchen garden

Kitchen gardens, which are common in Nepal, Chile and many other parts of the world, have several advantages. Located near the family kitchen, they can easily be watered and fertilized with household wastes. Nutritious greens, herbs and spices can be picked within a few steps from the house to add to meals. Typically occupying only a small area, a kitchen garden can be easily established with little or no financial cost. Domestic animals are kept out by fences, which can be living or made of local or purchased materials. Fast-growing vegetables, beans and other plants are cropped intensively; new planting replenishes harvested beds. Rotation of the plant families between different beds reduces diseases and improves yields. Root crops such as carrot, for example, do well after leafy crops such as cabbage; leafy crops grow well after legume crops such as peas or beans.


FIGURE 18 A kitchen garden in Bhutan provides nutritious foods daily. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


FIGURE 19 Small-scale land forming: the surjan system in low-lying areas of Sumatra provides dry, raised beds for crops and wet areas for fish, rice and livestock fodder. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


Improved gardens typically make the best use of locally available resources. Layout generates synergy between social and biological elements. Livestock, when controlled or selectively excluded from plant production areas, provide manure for fertilizer; goats will clear areas for planting and poultry will eat weed seedlings and insects among tolerant crops. Flowers and other plants may enhance the social functions of a home garden and play a role as biofilters in reducing pests - marigolds are an example -or act as a living food store - canna, Canna edulis, is an example. Low-lying areas and steeply sloping land may be unsuitable for field agriculture, but may be developed into a sustainable garden using small-scale land-forming techniques such as raised beds, terraces and hedgerows. Wastes are a valued resource in many home gardens. Household and post-harvest waste can be minimized by recycling water and nutrients. This is a fundamental concept of permaculture gardens such as the vegetable, aquaculture and animal cooperative (VAC) garden system in Viet Nam.

Tools and equipment

The vast majority of home gardeners worldwide use only hand tools. Typical home gardeners have tools such as hoes or spades for soil preparation, rakes, forks, baskets and barrows for handling materials and sometimes dibbling sticks for planting seed. A range of equipment, depending on resources available, is used in developing countries to assist production and processing operations carried out in home gardens. Examples of more advanced equipment are listed below.

FIGURE 20 Permaculture: the VAC garden system in Viet Nam is designed to recycle resources. The VAC system was started in the 1970s to reflect the concept of sustainable, permanent agriculture; many gardens in developing countries are traditional examples of this design. Ecological relationships between different components of garden and household are manipulated in favour of human needs through integrated design and operation. In the Vietnamese VAC system, waste and by-products are eliminated through effective nutrient and energy recycling among subsystems. Residues from crop processing are used as animal feed. Animal and human wastes are recycled into manure for garden fertilization. Floating aquatic plants are grown for pig feed. Pond water is used to irrigate the garden. Vegetation residues are used for animal and fish feed, and pond mud is used as a soil dressing. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


FIGURE 21 Permaculture: sloping agriculture land techniques (SALT) sustain high levels of production in the Philippines. Many homes have access only to steeply sloping areas for gardening, where there is a high risk of soil erosion and failure. Sloping agriculture land techniques (SALT) collected from traditional agriculture and modern agronomic research are gaining popularity in hilly areas worldwide. The techniques, which aim to conserve precious topsoil and retain fertility, include terracing and planting across slopes and along contour lines of the same elevation. In Sumatra, Indonesia and Peru, dense hedges of nitrogen-fixing shrubs separate vegetable beds and fruit trees and capture mobile soil when it rains. Hedges are cut back regularly to reduce competition for light; their leafy branches mulch crop beds, conserving moisture and providing nutrients. Small cross-slope trenches capture and direct surface run-off or fill with crop residues, which provide compost on-site. Rocks provide warmth, pineapples give fruit and leguminous creepers covering terrace walls provide soil fertility. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Supporting resources for home gardening

Inputs, outputs and by-products

All farming systems that produce output for sale need some physical inputs such as initial seeds and regular nutrients to replace those exported. These inputs must be bought and paid for in one way or another. Home gardeners employ a range of sustainable strategies to avoid having to pay, including saving what they have and recycling wastes. To provide vegetable seed for later crops, some plants are left to flower and seed. Such "land race" seed may not provide the vigour or the market benefits of commercial hybrid seed, but the gardener does not have to spend cash or rely on market access. Good gardeners select plants with the best production and market characteristics to be nurtured into strong seed, for which there may be a good local market if any surplus seed is produced.

The largest and most costly inputs in intensive agriculture are often fertilizers and feeds. Nitrogen-fixing plants such as beans and multipurpose trees are effective on-site resources of nutrients as a green manure, or as a component of animal feed. Utilizing unwanted resources was described earlier as an important design feature in the layout of improved gardens. Kitchen gardens can survive on waste water and organic household and farm wastes, which ideally are composted to provide nutrients for the garden and often for field crops. Animal manure is a valuable resource in developed and developing countries. Environmental impact increases as garden enterprise levels become more intense. Waste management is an important concern in densely populated areas. Where local environmental laws and government practices allow, gardeners can make a positive contribution through composting, recycling and animal feeding, providing an end use for wastes.

FIGURE 22 Making compost in Viet Nam from crop residues, pond mud, pond weeds and manures. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


The range and intensity of income-generating activities possible for individuals or groups of home garden enterprises are dependent on energy, as well as nutrients and other inputs. Resources may already be available in communities, such as biomass from crop production or processing residues, or firewood grown on-site in a living garden fence. Renewable energy technologies allow garden enterprises a degree of independence; they are often the most appropriate technologies for smallholders. Water pumps, for example, can be powered by gravity using a hydraulic ram or by wind, people, livestock or petroleum fuels.


Access to appropriate transport is a critical resource for viable home garden enterprises for receiving inputs and taking produce to be sold in distant markets. Where roads or tracks are rough or for foot traffic only, it may not be possible to sell fresh produce in distant markets; non-perishable items or local processing is favoured by successful entrepreneurs. Where roads are reasonable, baskets of produce can be taken to market by local bus, in hand carts or horse carts, on motorcycles or by local taxi. Alternatively, gardeners take advantage of visiting traders coming to buy or sell field crops or cash crops. Once a village is known for its good home garden produce, traders often follow.

FIGURE 23 Man bringing goods to market in Uganda (issue is transport)

Support programmes and networks

People with useful expertise and experience are to be found in most communities. They can often be utilized to meet training and skills requirements and other resources, either as individuals or as members of institutions such as farmer groups, women's groups or local government. Experience of home-garden development projects shows that selection and training of "master gardeners" as community garden promoters is the best way to ensure viable gardens and retain indigenous knowledge in planning home garden improvements.

In some countries, there is public-sector support for small or medium enterprise development, which covers processing activities, trading and services. This kind of support facilitates commercialization by providing entrepreneurs with training in business planning, assistance in establishing group trading or processing contracts and support for accessing financial credit. Formal training opportunities for improved home gardening are typically limited by tight public sector budgets, but experienced local people, especially retired people, are important informal training resources. Technical information is available from agriculture departments and gardeners' groups. In ethnically diverse countries, pictures and graphics are used in technical posters and leaflets to overcome literacy constraints. There is good potential for taking advantage of this by establishing groups of home gardeners, cooperatives and similar organizations to exploit resources of information, technology and markets. Many countries already have specialized support networks such as gardeners' clubs or associations, fruit growers' or farmers' federations or unions that can provide training, supplies and access to model gardens. Community-development organizations and groups sponsored by communities or local governments, such as women's groups and social forestry groups, often provide facilitation.

FIGURE 24 Ahome garden promoter trained by FAO in Viet Nam. An FAO-trained home garden promoter in Viet Nam acts as mentor to the poorest families in his village. He visits them weekly to advise on garden activities and review enterprise development. He sometimes teams up with the community health worker to improve nutrition knowledge among growers and mothers, sometimes with the district agriculture extension officer. He supports families'appli-cations for credit by helping in small-enterprise business planning. In return, he is paid two dollars a month from a government poverty-reduction fund, enough to meet his needs for external seed, fertilizer and animal health products. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


FIGURE 25 A rural youth group in Viet Nam provide able support to construct a canal to irrigate a community garden and fish pond. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


Home gardens for food security: lessons learned by aid agencies

The most successful home gardening efforts in terms of food security and sustainability are those that have involved the health and nutrition and agriculture sectors in an integrated approach. These sectors all too often work separately and even competitively. Participation by NGOs and community organizations is equally important. To enable small gardening projects to develop into effective regional efforts, governments should provide basic policy and other support services, for example, through research and extension, schools, health clinics and supportive land-use regulations.

The basic concept of home gardening as a strategy for resolving the food crisis is the opposite of a relief food grant approach. It requires participation in the sense that people work for themselves - which they can do, provided they are not denied access to certain productive resources and advice or hampered by policy, for example, being forbidden to trellis beans from the balconies of state housing-project homes.

External support agencies need to:

  • involve households and communities in design and planning of home garden activities;

  • promote technologies and species appropriate for local needs and resources, which include cost, risk, labour requirements, cultural preferences, markets and compatibility with other farming-system components;

  • avoid narrow or imposed objectives such as improving vitamin A or other human micro-nutrition needs when families need gardens to supplement sources of energy, protein and income. Build on what is there already - existing production resources, support services and networks.


Marketing decisions

It is a household decision whether to consume garden produce in the home or sell it into the community - but it is always the market that decides what to buy, when to buy it and how much it will pay for it. Produce grown for family subsistence may not be in demand by other families in a time of plenty. On the other hand, well stored products sold during a shortage period may earn good prices. A buyer might decide that what is offered for sale is of better quality than anything else in the market and buy, even at prices higher than those for lower-quality produce. Markets thus determine choices of crop or livestock that can be produced for sale.

In choosing what market to supply, gardeners have to decide if they can meet market needs. Apart from the type of product and its quality, they need to consider how to get their product into the market and when to supply it; appropriate transport and supply processes are essential. More buyers may choose a product that is promoted so that they are familiar with it.

FIGURE 26 Social marketing: a cooking competition in a village in Bhutan promotes new crops in a tasty and entertaining way. Social marketing of home garden products helps to deal with traditional food taboos and misunderstandings. Some cultures have long-held ideas that limit markets, such as "fruit is only for children" or "vegetables should not be cooked in oil". In remote areas, people are often used to a very limited variety of food and need to get used to new foods and flavours before they will buy them or make a home garden themselves. Getting local cooks to prepare delicious meals that show how to use the new produce and demonstrate its flavour is a successful method of promotion. Cooking competitions such as the one photographed in Bhutan are fun and involve the whole community through devising tasty recipes and enjoying them. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Market information

Decisions on crop and animal types, production schedules, produce quality and organization of distribution are improved with better information. Market information is a significant factor in improving home garden enterprises. Gardeners use four main kinds of information to help them fine tune production and post-harvest handling practices.

FIGURE 27 Malaysia: buying and selling in the local fruit and vegetable market. (Source: FAO/[PH9818-e/T. Janssen)

Finding out market information helps to identify opportunities for sales of fresh produce and outlets for sales of value-added or finished products. Cash crops such as coffee or vanilla sell for better prices if they are properly processed and dried, which may be done by individual households or done on contract by a villager who has the appropriate equipment. Home gardeners learn how to exploit small-scale markets in their communities. Once farmers are familiar with these and generating some income, their gardens may evolve into smallholder enterprises supplying larger and more distant markets.

FIGURE 28 Ghana small community markets provide opportunity for income. (Source: FAO/PH9817-e/P. Cenini)

Serving customers

One of the most significant aspects of successful marketing is the importance of the client. Successful small-scale enterprises meet market needs. In some countries, especially those in transition from a command economy to a free market, the successful people are those who find out what their customers want. Marketing new kinds of produce may require adaptation and promotion to expand local preferences; some customers may want to ensure that they can get a regular supply. Generally, the higher the incomes of the buyers, the higher their demand for quality. To gain a share of more sophisticated markets, gardeners must supply better-quality produce, which will often come from high-quality varieties and improved livestock breeds.

Maintaining supply

To maintain supplies of produce that suits the customers, home garden enterprises need experience and knowledge of the chain of events from production and processing to distribution and sales. Vegetable growers ensure they can provide a regular supply by leaving a week or more between plantings. Processing markets for cash crops have specific requirements: some, such as fruit processors, need to spread supply over long periods to maintain factory throughput. High-quality coffee processors need to have coffee cherries delivered to them on the day the cherries are harvested. Packaging and means of transport differ according to how, when and where the produce is wanted. Nurseries produce plants either as bare-root plants or in pots or tubes. Bare-root plants are generally trees and shrubs for local planting in the cool season. Bare-root plants may be cheaper and more appropriate in certain situations such as farm woodlots, but potted plants are easier to transport and may arrive in better condition. This is especially important for nursery gardens serving intensive field agriculture, where farmers want bulk crop seedlings of uniform standard to give them a seasonal head start.

Successful small-scale entrepreneurs need to take care that their input supply system is reliable and efficient. Animal breeders need to ensure access to feed, veterinary services and products. Seed and other propagation material may be available through traders, shops or by seasonal collection from other farmers. Mushroom growers, for example, need stable supplies of straw, sawdust or other growth substrates.

FIGURE 29 An Indonesian woman specializes in culinary herbs for an urban market, To keep the herbs clean, unblemished and of high quality, she grows them on a raised bamboo bench. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


Model: Market gardens

Market gardens are common in areas with good transport to markets and specialize in identified market opportunities. To meet demand on a regular basis, especially in the case of highly perishable salad vegetables or cut flowers, requires gardeners to stagger planting dates to ensure daily or weekly harvests, sometimes all year round. Labour requirements may be higher than other garden models, but opportunities for employment are increased in post-production and off-farm tasks such as cleaning and packing produce and deliveries to market.

Some market gardens focus on seasonal opportunities. For the festive period of the lunar New Year, East Asian gardeners lop off blossom-laden branches of specially-pruned peach and cherry trees and sell orange fruited kumquat citrus trees in pots. Initial capital is required, but labour inputs are limited mainly to the pre-harvest and harvest period.

Market gardeners may specialize in seasonal crops such as high-value fruit or flowers. These tend to be for higher-income urban markets, so quality and distribution systems must be well organized.


Market risk is part of the overall risk in any kind of agriculture. It is inherent in the choices made and may be reflected in high or seasonally fluctuating prices. Successful entrepreneurs find out seasonal and cyclical price trends to get an idea of the price profile of their product. Enterprises may fail because of production risks such as crop losses and from changes in market conditions. Lower-than-expected prices can result from increased competition, exposure to lower-priced imports and changes in the cost of garden inputs. Competition may come from other producers and from similar products that can replace what a gardener is trying to sell. Successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to market information and respond early to threats. They budget inputs carefully to ensure profitability over a price range that reflects good and bad marketing conditions. The likelihood of damage and reduced product quality, either from ecological conditions such as bad weather, pests and diseases, or from failures in the harvesting and distribution chain such as roads being washed away and equipment breaking down has to be weighed up and mitigating measures taken in advance.

FIGURE 30 A nursery in Lao People's Democratic Republic uses banana-leaf containers which rot away after planting. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)


Model: Nursery garden

Nursery gardens provide inputs such as trees or agricultural crop seedlings for other farming or community activities. These specialized gardens may serve off-farm markets or integrate overall farm operations. In temperate areas where winters are mild, such as parts of China, Argentina and western Europe, farmers can grow a range of winter vegetables in some of their grain fields. Cool temperatures slow the growth of these vegetables when they are young, making them vulnerable to loss from rodents or frost. To profit from seasonal needs, specialist home garden nurseries produce seedlings in pots, trays or as bare-root transplants.

Forestry needs, either for individual woodlots or for community forests, are often best supplied by home garden nurseries. Selected tree seedlings may require treatment to help them germinate - hot water for acacias, for example, and then a shady, moist and well-protected site for growing on, such as a corner of a well fenced home garden. Seedlings often grow better in potting mixtures containing home garden compost. Potting or packaging material such as banana or palm leaves is often grown in the garden.

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