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Some basic facts about home gardens

History, definition and purposes

Gardens have been established next to homes since prehistoric times. The most important characteristics of home gardens are their location adjacent to homes, close association with family activities and a wide diversity of crop and livestock species to meet family needs. They have played a central role in household security for food, fuel, fibre, materials and even land ownership, as people changed from an exclusively hunting and gathering lifestyle and settled in small communities.

Small-scale farming worldwide typically combines production of different crops, vegetables and livestock. Diversity in size, form and function make it difficult to define home gardens, but their place in the farming systems of the rural landscape is readily recognized. Cropping and grazing areas surround a settlement; there may be large-scale monocultures such as wheat or sugar cane; further away there may be forest or other common land used periodically for grazing, hunting and gathering firewood, materials and seasonal forest foods. In the village, the small area surrounding a house provides good conditions for a garden. The village is usually close to a source of water and is usually better protected from floods and foraging animals than other farmland. There is good access by path or road, and it is the family's central living area. A home garden can be defined as a farming system that combines physical, social and economic functions on the area of land around the family home. The area is used as a place of work and for storage and processing of farm produce; it is also a place where people live and dispose of wastes. While the focus of this book is on the home garden's economic functions - production of crops, livestock and other items - the other functions of a home garden are often equally important.

FIGURE 1 Homes and gardens: an ancient association. The Semang, a primarily hunting and gathering people in the forests of Malaysia, would deliberately and accidentally disperse around their camp sites the seeds of highly valued fruit trees found in the forest. The seedlings benefited from the environmental disruption, enrichment and other ecological conditions peculiar to periodic camp sites and human activities, and became the personal property of tribes, families and individuals who protected them. These gardens stabilized food supplies, denoted ownership of an area fallowed in a shifting cultivation cycle and often led to permanent settlement at the site. (Photo source: C. Landon-Lane)

The diversity of household needs is reflected in home gardens which can include staple foods, fruits, vegetables, materials, condiments, stimulants and medicines. Home gardens are developed for some or all of the following purposes.

Systems, resources and choices

Home gardens worldwide are integrated into family life. They may be divided broadly into traditional gardens, resulting from a long history of adaptation of plants to local needs and conditions, and model gardens, often developed with external support, ideas and imported technologies. In urban areas and isolated rural areas, a traditional kitchen garden may be inexpensively established - a small plot from which vegetables and garnishes are taken each day to improve meals. It can be watered with the wastewater from dishwashing and bathing. Depending on local environmental sensitivity and available recycling technologies such as composting and biogas production, nutrients can be utilized from kitchen and human wastes. Requiring a little more space and capital invested, traditional mixed gardens integrating poultry, other livestock and fish ponds provide productive opportunities for waste transformation and nutrient recycling. Agroforestry gardens maximize use of scarce land by cultivating crops in multiple layers -trees, vines, understorey and root crops.

Living space, boundaries and materials are integrated into gardens. Trees provide shade and shelter under their canopy and their roots stabilize soil around the home. Multipurpose plants, such as sea buckthorn in cold areas, Leucaena glauca in tropical areas and even cassava, are planted as living fences to provide crop protection, privacy, firewood, materials, food and animal fodder. In parts of Asia, parents traditionally plant a neem tree (Melia azadirach) in their home garden for every child born in their family, so that when they are adults there is timber for them to build their own house. Oil from leaves and seeds of the neem is a natural pesticide and is now planted in African home gardens. Made from what it grows, the traditional rugo in central Africa is a cluster of round thatched huts fenced by grasses, wood and crop terraces in concentric circles to control erosion and afford protection from wild animals. It is a home for the extended family and there are huts for livestock, food stores and even compost.

FIGURE 2 A woman in Niger inspects her neem tree. (Source: FAO/16807/W.Ciesla)

Most communities have enough people to allow viable specialization. Market gardens are specialized to meet market opportunities such as daily fresh vegetables or seasonal fruits. Dairy products, eggs and other livestock products have a fairly stable market demand even in small communities. Nurseries propagate and sell trees for gardens, plantations and woodlots, or vegetable seedlings to meet local demand for seasonal field cropping. Floriculture, potted plants and ornamental plants are another specialized market-oriented garden system, particularly in peri-urban areas. A household makes choices on the size and nature of the home garden system and its purposes, depending on their needs, resources and market opportunities.

FIGURE 3 A living fence of cassava provides a boundary to keep out wandering livestock, but also holds a food reserve in its starchy roots ready for an unexpected food shortage. (Source: C. Landon-Lane)

Gardens are places for innovation

Like all forms of agriculture, home gardening today involves environmental modification, ranging from intensive systems such as greenhouses, where all aspects of plant life cycle are managed, to extensive systems such as fruit orchards, which may receive little care after planting. Home gardens are places where innovation is nurtured; technical and market developments have benefited home gardens. Innovation and trade have led to many products being adapted in home gardens, some subsequently for cropping in larger fields.

Breeders of plants and livestock have for centuries selected lines for small-scale production; access to this diversity of genetic resources improves productivity and choices. Technology such as inexpensive poly-thene film can be used to improve growing conditions. Products and practices can be selected to suit changes in household needs and market opportunities. Agrochemicals have a place in agriculture, but organic production practices are favoured by the proximity of gardens to homes, community environmental concerns and opportunities to have fresh food available daily. Recent increases in market demand for organically-grown foods have led to innovations in production technology suitable for home consumption and small entrepreneurs.


Climate, local food preferences and trade influence regional differences in home gardens. The naturally high biodiversity of certain tropical regions, combined with long exposure to trade routes, has led to high diversity of plants and animals and the existence of fish ponds in many gardens. In Java, Indonesia and Kandy, Sri Lanka, traditional gardens - loosely managed, multilayer agro-forestry gardens- use 10 or more different species to produce food from below ground upwards: root crops, leaf vegetables, climbing vines, low trees and emerging canopy trees. These agroforestry gardens are common where competition for land is high. Such diversity of fresh food disappears when changes in economic policy, employment patterns and increasing population affect traditional land use.

In parts of China, the pressures of high population and limited availability of land and nutrient resources have forced innovation and intensity in closely managed gardening systems. In some cases, ten crops can be harvested from a garden bed in one year. Despite this intensity, gardeners have used organic practices so effectively that fields near Chengdu cultivated during the Han dynasty are still fertile after 20 centuries of continuous use.

Traditional gardens in different regions

Observation and study of traditional gardens in various cultures and climates highlight some regional characteristics. Gardens are conservation sites of indigenous plant species - domesticated and semi-wild edible and useful plants - and reflect cultural preferences. It is interesting to note that in the current economic climate, home gardens tend to be most important for the poor and people vulnerable to food insecurity.

Asian gardens provide households with a number of benefits:

  • preservation of aesthetic and cultural values;

  • production for family nutrition, where energy yield in kCal/ha can be higher than the yield from rice paddy;

  • the largest single source of household income in many cases;

  • income peaks in non-harvest seasons, when the garden serves as an income and food reserve.

In Indonesia, gardens are managed more intensely by poor farmers than by rich ones, contributing about 25 percent of their household income. They have high species diversity and typically function as a primary source of non-staple foods, a reserve supply of staple food and a source of income. Goats in stalls and hens provide protein and manure. In Nepal and Bhutan, spices and medicinal plants are important and wild vegetables reularly supplement home consumption. In Viet Nam and parts of China, the vegetable-animal-fishpond garden relies on recycling residues; animal and human wastes manure the garden and pond, pond weed provides animal feed, plant residues feed fish, pond water is used for irrigation and pond mud is used for soil dressing. Pigs, ducks and other poultry are common livestock.

African gardens are multi-storied and diverse in humid areas, becoming less complex and diverse where rainfall declines and is less predictable. In very densely populated settlements, gardens are simpler and smaller - a few fruit trees and vegetables such as amaranth and okra. Increasing emphasis on cash crops in field agriculture has given the home garden a greater subsistence role; more staple foods such as sorghum, cassava, yams, groundnuts and oil crops are grown in African gardens than in Asia or Latin America. Compound livestock and tree gardens are especially important in the Sahel region where the rainfall is irregular; studies have shown that their returns are less risky than field agriculture. Gardens are a strategic insurance against total crop failure from drought or disease. In eastern Africa, an ancient association with tree gardens means they propagate themselves and require little or no care, giving rise to the term nonculture - an opposite concept to risky monoculture.

Latin American gardens evolved from a range of ethnic influences from pre-Colombian times and are still important for subsistence and income generation. The Mayans developed mixed perennial gardens in semi-dry areas, kitchen gardens among the indigenous peoples and floating gardens in swamplands. Gardening influences were brought to the Caribbean from Africa by slaves; gardens were an essential source of food during slavery. Gardens typically contain root crops, spices, herbs, fruit, vegetables and ceremonial or ornamental plants. Studies on many islands suggest that gardens are increasingly used by poor people as a strategy against food inflation resulting from heavy reliance on imported food. In the Andes, where animals are the principal form of savings, women tend gardens and animals. Gardens are planted with crops such as potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, chard, beans and maize for year-round consumption and sale. Guinea pigs and rabbits are efficient producers of protein in kitchen gardens. Gardens provide food during lean pre-harvest periods and supply seed for potatoes and grains.

Urban gardens have evolved rapidly with increasing urbanization. By 1996, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that about one-third of urban families worldwide produce almost one-third of the vegetables, eggs and meat consumed in cities. Urban gardens are found wherever the minimum gardening requirements are satisfied: near houses, on highrise apartment balconies, along drains and roads and in temporarily vacant lots. The poorest sectors of society are often the gardeners: recent refugees, migrants, elderly people and unemployed people. The proximity of buyers provides a good incentive and can stabilize livelihoods.

In other areas, these pressures, coupled with changing market demands and the advent of agro-chemicals without adequate advice and training, have led many farmers to use methods that are not part of their familiar local knowledge. This has resulted in cases of poisoning from pesticide residues, toxic nitrate levels in groundwater and the erosion of soil fertility that has made gardening impossible, particularly in peri-urban areas. Producing a livelihood from the soil - sustainably -employs a sometimes fragile ecological balance.

Travel, trade and garden diversity

A study in Java, Indonesia, recorded 127 different plant species currently cultivated in home gardens. Indonesia is one of the planet's most biodiverse regions. Archaeological excavations of caves in East Timor, which date from 2 000 to 14 000 years ago, provide clues as to how some species found their way into home gardens. In the earliest period, most food species were plants from local forests including candle nut (Aleurites moluccana), betel nut (Arecha catechu) and pepper. About 5 000 years ago, other plants were introduced in trade with continental Asia, such as bamboo, foxtail millet (Setaria sp.) and bottle gourd (Langenaria siceraria), which originated in Africa. About 2 000 years ago trade brought several American food plants, including peanuts, sugar apples (Annona squamosa) and maize. In the last 400 years, increased trade has brought greater diversity including chillies, potatoes, coffee and vanilla.

Future directions

How can home gardens contribute to food supplies, rural employment and incomes in the future? Among other factors, the growing population in many parts of the world has led to increasing poverty and insecure food supplies. It is predicted that by 2010 the world's population will have reached 7.3 billion, over 90 percent of whom will be living in developing countries. Creation of urban employment to keep pace with population increases will be difficult if not impossible; maintaining viable rural employment is therefore vital to prevent an explosion of urban poverty. In The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2001, FAO estimates there are about 815 million undernourished people, 95 percent of whom are in developing countries; over 20 percent are children. Poverty in rural populations, combined with undeveloped transport and food production systems, restricts them largely to locally grown products.

The role and contribution of home gardens in addressing these problems have been recognized by development organizations since the 1970s, largely as a result of research into farming systems that resulted in greater understanding of farmers and their households in agriculture and rural development organizations. In order to improve rural and peri-urban livelihoods in developing countries, development organizations have promoted home gardening with one or more of the following objectives:

FIGURE 4 A girl in China looks at the way ahead. Her garden's pumpkins will sell for a good price in the market now or can be put into the winter food store. Women have a predominant role in food processing and are commonly responsible for marketing. To improve food production for the household, greater priority has to be given to increasing women's participation in market production and other income-generating ventures. Women's purchasing power may be used to pay for inputs used in food production. (Source: FAO\16138/P. Johnson)

Some specialist research institutions, such as the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Centre, have developed advanced home-garden systems for specific purposes, for example, to provide cost-effective daily Vitamin A requirements. Others, such as FAO, have helped communities worldwide to adapt home garden technologies for a wide range of purposes, including nutrition improvement, school gardens, women's incomes and rural livelihood diversification. These efforts and investments have generally been successful when people have had access to enough resources and services to enable them to make their own choices. A home garden as small as a few square metres can provide enough Vitamin A, Vitamin C and other nutrients to meet a growing child's needs. It can provide women with a cash income and increase the resilience of families to withstand shocks to their supplies of food, their income and their health, and so avoid a further slide into poverty.

There is still great potential for home gardening to improve the livelihoods of people in developing countries, especially in Africa, Latin America and the dry regions of Asia. Successful approaches need only to be spread by local adaptation and limited external support. Small-scale technologies to protect growing and stored crops from cold have increased the potential for gardening in cool temperate and high-altitude ecological zones in northern and central Asia. The close link between gardens and homes means that home gardening is an important tool for communities to use in keeping pace with socio-economic development; it can be effective as a stand-alone initiative or as a component of a large area-based rural development project.

FIGURE 5 Discovering new livelihood potential in Mauritania. Women rewarded with success in their attempts to grow vegetables in the middle of the desert. Achievements like this give a welcome variety to family meals and promote awareness of how to make a positive long-term impact on the environment. (Source: FAO/11667/J. Van Acker)

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