Emily Freets, Casey Harris (left), Ashley Galagusz and Lea Ravensbergen-Hodgins (right), harvesting some of the crops from their organic garden project at the Bellairs Research Institute in Folkestone, St. James. (A.Skeete/BGIS)

What started off as a simple school project in Barbados has turned out to be a truly memorable and rewarding experience for four students of McGill University in Canada.

The four – Emily Fretts, L??a Ravensbergen-Hodgins, Ashley Galagusz and Casey Harris – called the Bellairs Research Institute at Folkestone, St. James their home for some three months.

Under the mentorship of Agronomist at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management, David Bynoe, the group was part of a project which sought to illustrate ways in which homeowners could grow fresh, organic produce in their backyards and cultivate a garden in a limited space.

The initiative, which was a resounding success, could be a valuable lesson to Barbadians as they seek to trim their food costs and, in turn, help to decrease this country’s high food import bill.

The goal of a limited garden is to grow the maximum amount of produce in the space allotted. This can be done by carefully choosing what crops to plant and the type of structures to house the crops. For example, according to a report from the Bellairs Research Institute, a hanging basket could net up to BDS $175 a year in just 1 square foot.

It is estimated that the set-up costs of a garden could be recouped within a year of the produce grown and, by the second year, the garden could produce over BDS $1000 of vegetables.

Backyard gardening is very affordable, with the basic supplies including materials for structures, soil, fertilisers and compost, pest removal systems, and seeds or seedlings.

In order to save money, homeowners could also use recycled materials to build the garden structures including PVC piping, old tyres, buckets, recycled wood, wire and netting. The majority of the garden structures were built by the students by hand from recycled materials including wood and wiring. In addition, the soil was donated by a local farmer.

The daily routine saw the young women rising quite early to tend the garden – weeding the beds, watering the seeds and plants and spreading fertiliser. At night, they also went snail hunting to ensure that plants were not devoured by the pests.

The group had no previous experience in gardening or agricultural science, however, that did not deter them. They are very proud of their efforts which have now borne fruit after a lot of hard work.

Ms. Fretts, who has a background in microbiology, acknowledged that while the project did present some initial difficulties, she was pleased with the overall experience. "We met some challenges and we had to be very resourceful in terms of where we got our materials from, but it all worked out. I had never gardened before …but it was a great experience.

Emily Fretts showing some of the okras and peppers harvested from the backyard garden project while Ashley Galagusz (centre) and Casey Harris (right) work on the pyramid garden. (A.Skeete/BGIS)??

"We only had the garden for two months but we already have peppers, okras, bok choy and lettuce, things that you can already eat. You can see it is already starting to make back the money that was invested in it," Ms. Fretts pointed out.

Ms. Ravensbergen-Hodgins revealed that her studies in environmental science played some part in the decision to participate in the project. "I had been reading about the carbon imprint and how much of an environmental impact it [importing food] has on the planet. I know Barbados imports a lot of food, which seems kind of funny because you can grow food here easily compared to back in Canada, where we have six-month winters," she said.

She added that there were also a number of health benefits which come with having a garden. "[You] have fresh produce, its organic, the vegetables and fruits are also very good for you. So, I thought it would be interesting to work on this project since it touches those two aspects," she noted.

Ms. Ravensbergen-Hodgins pointed out that after the initial setup, the garden was very low-maintenance and the group utilised recycled food waste for compost and rainwater to assist in its day-to-day care.

"Our goal is to make it really self-sufficient. So the scraps from the food we eat, we put into our composter and when that is ready we fertilise the garden with it. The water comes from the roof and trickles down into our [irrigation] tank and gradually fed to the garden, so all we need to do is open the valve and it waters the garden for you," she explained.

Ms. Galagusz, who is studying civil engineering, said she was quite surprised about how intricate gardening was, as the process was not only about planting but learning to deal with pests and crop maintenance.

She said she was attracted to the project because it was quite different from her field of study and any academic pursuit she had done previously.

"I definitely want to try growing my own garden when I get back because it is really fun and it’s great when you see your first fruit or vegetable appear. You get really excited… I enjoyed it," she declared. ??

She added that the project pushed them to be resourceful, particularly when dealing with pest control. "Six of our lettuce crops were eaten by snails [Giant African Snails] unfortunately, so we had to install a net over the top to protect the plants and it actually worked quite well," Ms. Galagusz pointed out.

Ms. Harris too has developed a ???green thumb’, adding that even though it snowed quite often in her home city of Montreal, the project could still be a worthwhile venture for her during the summer months.

With regard to the garden’s irrigation system, she explained that it was constructed with assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture and used rainwater catchment to wet the crops in the garden beds.

"In the bed there are a series of holes in the tubes and the plants are watered directly at the roots, so it is very efficient and doesn’t use very much water. The entire system was relatively inexpensive to set up; we just had to purchase the tank…," she said.

Managing Director of the Bellairs Research Institute and Academic Supervisor, Susan Mahon, explained that the initiative, which was a joint effort of the Ministry of Agriculture and Bellairs, was more than just a student’s project, rather, it was one of national significance.

"What they are showing is how you can actually garden in a small space and how it can save you money. They have done research, primarily guided by David [Bynoe] and they have done research on their own as well and they incorporated some interesting things into the garden, for example, for pest control and fertilising, that they learnt…The idea is that it should be easily replicable in people’s yards…It is a fantastic project… It will benefit Barbadians to do this kind of thing. It benefits Bellairs because we are moving towards food sovereignty [as well]," she noted.

The Managing Director added that the organic garden was not a ???one off’ project but the long-term goal was to make it sustainable so future students could participate in the programme.

The benefits of organic home gardening are tremendous. Not only can it save homeowners valuable money but the set-up is relatively easy and cost effective.

Further information on the project or home gardening in limited spaces may be obtained by contacting the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management, Graeme Hall, Christ Church, at 434-5000; by visiting its website at http://www.agriculture.gov.bb/; or by calling the Bellairs Research Institute, Folkestone, St. James, at 422-2087.


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