Urban agriculture Cuban-style
by Tom Moggach
credit: Tom Moggach
For most of us, our interest in organic and edible gardening is a lifestyle choice, a healthy hobby to fill our precious spare time.
In Cuba, however, the opposite is the case. Learning how to grow food along organic principles has been a matter of survival.
The development of a widespread urban gardening movement in Cuba is a fascinating story, which began just over two decades ago.
Progress has been such that the nation now boasts unrivalled expertise in both organic growing techniques and urban agriculture – along with a fascinating landscape of plants to explore.
I’m just back from Cuba, where I visited many gardens and will share some handy tips and ideas collected along the way.
But first, a quick bit of history. Prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Cuba was economically reliant on its communist ally for its oil and other resources.
When the Soviet regime crumbled, this small Caribbean island faced a catastrophic food crisis – its people were starving. Its lifeline had suddenly been shut down.
Facing in addition a trade embargo by the USA, Cuba had to become more self-sufficient – grow more of its own food – without access to heavy machinery and expensive imported chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Here’s some Cuban-style advice for your plots:
1 – Thrifty Community Gardening
Be resourceful. You don’t need to splash cash at the garden centre –be inventive with the resources that are on hand.
Cubans are highly inventive when making recycled containers. See the examples below, which include cunning water bottle and hanging tyre planters.
The government has also led a programme of turning unused plots of urban land into thriving community food gardens, called organoponicos.
You stumble across them everywhere: by police stations; hospitals; in housing estates …. Often, the land itself is of poor quality. The Cuban solution is to build raised beds on the top, using recycled materials, and to fill them with compost, worm casts and whatever other substrates are found nearby.
Might you have a potential plot near you? Scout around your neighbourhood – perhaps there’s a spot that could be developed into a garden with the help of keen locals, once you have sought permission from the owner.
In Cuba, these plots of state-owned land are leased to locals who can then grow food for profit. They have proven to be very successful, especially in the capital Havana where around 70% of the fresh produce is grown in and around the city.
2 – Feed the Soil
You don’t need to resort to chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In Cuba, growers make great use of wormeries. The vermicompost is used as a fertiliser and also in a homemade seed compost mix with sieved garden compost and rice husks. Natural pesticides are also popular, for example in the form of sprays made from the tobacco plant. A garlic and chilli spray also reputedly deters pests.
3 – Fresh Plants to Try
In Cuba, there’s a strong tradition of growing plants for medicinal use. Herbal medicine predominates and many plants are used to make infusions, typically a few leaves steeped in hot water.
“Each [plant] has its own purpose,” explains Havana resident Erahisy Cardoso. “Albahaca (basil) is used for someone who has a very hard headache … manzanilla (chamomile) is good for the stomach, to calm and relax.”
For cooking, try Cuban Oregano – an interesting succulent plant that is used to flavour tomato sauces, beans and pork dishes. It’s available from suppliers such as Lower Severalls Nursery.
Moringa is another intriguing specimen – a plant lauded for its vast range of health benefits and praised by Fidel Castro himself. For more information, see here.
4 – Mix It Up
The Cuban model illustrates the virtue of mixed farming – growing a wide, mixed range of crops rather than monocultures. This has the benefit of maintaining soil fertility and, in the long term, boosting yields. Don’t be afraid to rotate and mix it up on your patch, whatever its size – our predilection for fussy neat lines of a single crop is typically British in character.
By Tom Moggach, author of ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City” (Kyle Books)’