Maximizing Production in a Constrained Landscape: The Elephants and Bees Permaculture Garden

 Report from International Intern, Morgan Vought

Hello! My name is Morgan and I am an intern from Chicago, Illinois. I have now been at the Elephants and Bees Tsavo East Research Camp for 6 weeks and it’s hard to believe that my time here is winding down! I’ve been getting my hands dirty in all camp activities, in an effort to learn everything I can- usually falling asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. It’s been an phenomenal whirlwind of getting to know an incredible community of farmers and researchers, working on the plethora of projects in progress at the camp, and finding some time for fun activities (my favorites being camp ultimate Frisbee or yoga!).

Victoria, Paul and I in the E&B permaculture garden

Victoria, Paul and I in the E&B permaculture garden

One of my main projects has been working with the educational permaculture garden at Kileva East Primary School, adjacent to the research camp. To give a bit of background, permaculture has been an increasingly popular term used by farmers, scientists, and designers as a way to describe developments, including agricultural systems, which mimic the natural environment. Permaculture is a design-science that takes creativity, perseverance, and a lot of hard work. In terms of agriculture, it is a holistic approach aimed at creating productive, efficient, and sustainable growing systems. At the Kileva East Primary School garden, we apply these principles, including sustainable agricultural techniques such as no-till beds, contouring, and compost application, in order to maximize the production of the plot while nuturing the land.

Signs that hang in our outdoor classroom and showcase some of the permaculture principles of the garden.

Signs that hang in our outdoor classroom and showcase some of the permaculture principles of the garden.

An ideal permaculture garden has 7-9 layers, filling the gardens niches. The canopy layer, often composed of large fruit or nut trees, provides shade to the whole system. The low tree and shrub layers provide additional shade and erosion control. Shorter layers, typically herbs, roots, and vegetables, can flourish as evapotranspiration is minimized with the shade from the taller layers. With Tsavo East’s strong sun and heat, this additional natural shade is important. Included in the system are nitrogen-fixers, such as legumes, that convert nitrogen to a form that can be readily absorbed by non-nitrogen-fixers. Interestingly, acacias trees, which neighbor the plot, also serve as nitrogen-fixers. Our garden includes lemon, tangerine, orange, and papaya trees, though currently still quite small. Chilies and banana trees provide a more shrub like layer, while sukuma wiki, tomatoes, lemon grass, and Spinach are included in the nutritious herbaceous layer. Our garden also includes non food-stuffs, such as bee forage and medicinal plants.

The 7 layers of a permaculture garden. Photo from http://goodlifepermaculture.com.au.

The 7 layers of a permaculture garden. Photo from http://goodlifepermaculture.com.au.

“But Morgan, Your supposed to be helping the elephants, you can garden when you come home”, often says my mother. So how does this permaculture garden have anything to do with elephants you ask? Elephants and Bees has been helping farmers near Tsavo East to construct bee hive fences around their crop fields since 2009. Though these fences serve as both a critical elephant deterrent and a source of income, they also constrain the amount of land available for farmers togrow crops under the protection of the hives. Elephants and Bees hopes to eventually use our permaculture garden as an educational resource for local farmers. Our hopes are to help educate farmers on maximizing production in a constrained space, using permaculture principles. By containing planting to an area protected by the beehive fence, crop raids will be decreased and additional land clearing discouraged.

The Kileva East Primary Garden

The Kileva East Primary Garden

The garden additionally partners with Kileva East Primary school, providing vegetable and fruit supplements for
the students’, aged 3-14, daily lunches. I have had the
 privilege of teaching these students’ weekly 
environmental education classes as well as the duty of 
patching up their almost daily soccer injuries. The 
kids are so passionate about learning, rushing to cluster their desks near the front of the room as soon as we come into teach! During the lessons, we not only explore the importance of elephants to the Tsavo area, but also delve into ecological topics such as keystone species, ecosystem organization, and energy cycles. Thankfully, these kids receive lunch from the school daily. As this may be the only nourishing meal guaranteed for some students, it is important that nutrients critical to development are part of the meal. Particularly during the dry seasons, June-September and January-March, vegetables can be rare in community homes. In addition to being an educational garden, we are therefore also trying to maintain a constant supply of produce to the school.

Student helping to plant chilies

Student helping to plant chilies

I have been lucky to work with some fantastic folks on this project. Exeter intern Victoria and I embarked on a mission to fence the lower half of the garden. This fence was requested by the teachers at the school to help keep kids and animals from eating or trampling the plants, but it will also help to define the plot for educational visits. With the help of Inspire leader Chris, Victoria and I spent countless hours chopping bush branches using pangas (the Swahili word for a machete). Don’t worry- all the branches we chopped were from trees strong enough to survive a trimming! We then weaved these branches into a fence surrounding the garden and lined the bottom with acacia spikes to deter chickens. We also constructed a compost bin in order to covert organic waste back into rich soil. The rest of my time has been spent defining paths, watering, weeding, and other general garden maintenance, often accompanied by my incredible coworker Esther, often engaging in chats on how to make the garden more efficient. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with and getting to know our part-time garden employee and local flora expert Paul.

Victoria, Chris and I after a fence post chopping down session

Victoria, Chris and I after a fence post chopping down session

The students also like to help with the garden. We had a fun time planting seedling with the school’s farming club. The students had previously planted the seeds in cut, biodegradable, milk cartons, and we transplanted the seeds to tire planters. These planters are made from our trusty* Landover’s old tires. Using a hot panga, the tops of the tires are sliced off and holes added to the bottom for water retention.

Tire planter in the permaculture garden

Tire planter in the permaculture garden

Created in 2015, the garden is on its way to becoming a successful edible landscape. There are many challenges; however, one in particular being how water scarcity. As water is already extremely scare, it is difficult for farmers to apply additional water to their fields, especially in the dry season.

another sign that hangs in the outside classroom to generate knowledge and enthusiasm in permaculture

another sign that hangs in the outside classroom to generate knowledge and enthusiasm in permaculture

Encouraging fruit tree planting, however, will help 
ease water woes. Many fruit tree seedlings only need
water for the first year or so of their lives and then can survive primarily from natural rainfall . As previously mentioned, the shade from fruit trees will also decrease evapotranspiration from smaller plants.

another sign

another sign…

Though there are certainly challenges, maximizing, and sustaining, the productiveness of land near Sagalla Hill is critical to increasing food production in beehive- fenced plots and to decreases additional land clearage. Though I am so sad to have to leave this incredible place to continue my education back in the States, my work with the permaculture garden here at Elephants and Bees will be an asset as I continue schooling at Carleton College in Minnesota in hopes of designing productive green spaces in the future.

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