Learning lessons from backyard garden production Part 1 Trees for Life

Many parts of the tropical world continue to suffer the consequences of rural migration.   Millions of people continue to leave the land to seek employment in manufacturing and service industries in towns and cities. In an ideal world expanding industrialization and urbanization would be accompanied by increased agricultural mechanization and food production to cater for bigger and increasingly sophisticated and concentrated consumer communities with more disposable income.

However, many affected countries have actually recorded a decrease in local food production that has to be made up with food imports or food aid. Neither is of long term benefit especially when staples and basics such as rice, maize, milk, sugar and poultry meat are involved. Urbanization has in many cases brought the worst of both worlds.

People leave rural communities to escape poverty but leave behind the self-sufficiency provided by the backyard and garden where they grew staples, fruits and vegetables, kept bee hives, raised poultry and rabbits and kept pigs, goats and sheep and even cows. 

Backyard production on its own will never solve tightening food supplies in modern world economies which all countries naturally aspire to be. But to lose backyard production which is the pillar of family stability and community cohesion, before industry can employ the people and agricultural mechanization is able to feed them, is clearly a recipe for disaster.

The backyard garden is the family production unit providing food security and a secure place in which to produce food. The backyard is an extension of the home, a place for learning and leisure education and training especially for the young. It is a living environmental forum where skills and knowledge are passed down the generations and is a medium of exchange for ideas and commodities with family, friends and neighbours. With a backyard you always have something to eat and perhaps a little extra to sell, barter with and exchange or give to a less fortunate neighbour.

Householders will recognize several distinct components of the back yard garden – trees, staples, fruits and vegetables and livestock – but the well organized and operated backyard garden is an integrated unit in which the components interact naturally or by design to the benefit overall production.

Trees not only produce fruit but support and shade vegetable vines and poultry houses. Grass is nominally a weed but can be cut and fed to goats and cattle. Free range poultry provide meat and eggs but also clean up the yard by scratching and pecking, and thereby disposing of rotten wood and other debris that harbors harmful insects like termites, cockroaches and scorpions. 

True trees

Trees are the very structure, support and foundation of the backyard garden. They offer stability, continuity and permanence. Even in the tropics with faster growth and maturation rates, and more pest and disease pressures, true trees invariably outlive the people who plant them.

Trees provide shade, water holding capacity and generate fertility for garden soil.  Whether they are deciduous, semi-deciduous or evergreen trees, the leaves will eventually age, detach and fall to the ground along with dead flowers, ripe fruit and seed, dead twigs and branches. This collective debris from trees provides vital sources of organic matter incorporated into the soil by earthworms and broken down by soil microbes into humus from which nutrients are released and re-cycled for use by other plants in the garden. Leguminous trees add an extra dimension to soil fertility through conversion of nitrogen from the air into nitrate fertilizer by the nitrogen fixing bacteria that live in the nodules on the root system. 

Any tree will play a beneficial role in the backyard ecosystem but it makes sense to choose trees that bear edible fruits or nuts in addition to providing shade. Choice of tree size will ultimately depend on several factors including amount of three-dimensional space available and whether or not shade for the dwelling house is required. Thus a tall evergreen tree may be preferred but if shade is only required for the poultry house or other animal houses then shorter trees should be selected. Remember that you may want shade the house but not surrounding plants like corn, legumes, tomato and other light demanding crops. But some vine crops such as vanilla, bitter gourd and yam may welcome some shade from leafy branches and relish the support of tree trunks for climbing.

Another factor dictating choice of tree size is ease of picking fruit like mangoes, avocadoes and oranges. Older standard varieties tend to be tall with citrus and avocado regularly attaining 25-30 feet and mango a massive 50 feet or more. The house-holder   traditionally overcomes this harvesting hurdle with all sorts of ingenious picking devices, like the long pole with a nail at the end to break the fruit stalk and a small bag also attached at the end to catch the fruit.

Other communities simply wait until fruit falls but with mango in particular the fruit is soft when ripe and will bruise or burst on impact with the ground. And the longer mature fruit are on the tree the more bird damage is incurred, while fruit that falls during the night may be gone or eaten by rats and other rodents by morning. And why go to all this trouble when there is innumerable grafted fruit trees now available growing into small or dwarf trees. Fruit are easily picked from such trees which have been designed to produce bumper crops of superior fruit like string-less mangoes, and ‘Pollock’ avocadoes weighing in at an incredible 1.5 kg per fruit.

Trees should also be planted for aesthetic beauty and pleasure offering an attractive background for leisure and reflection. The tropicvs is well blessed with flowering trees and what better to use than leguminous trees such Gliricidia, pink and yellow Cassias and the bright red Poncianas providing beauty, soil fertility and perhaps animal fodder at the same time.

Pseudo trees

‘Trees’ are not always what they seem. Banana, coconut and papaya are all regarded as trees but are not really true trees at all. They have the size and structure of trees but are not true botanical trees like cashew and citrus. On nutritional grounds alone bananas and coconuts are two plants that should always be part of the backyard garden.

Whichever way you look at banana there is confusion. In western countries the word banana conjures up a picture of the long, fat and curved desert fruit like ‘Gros Michel’, whereas the genus Musa is actually a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of highly nutritious and attractive fruits including vegetable (staple) and desert type bananas. In some tropical countries vegetable bananas  (plantain and ‘Moko’) are the main staple foods and grown alongside a wide range of desert bananas much smaller but much sweeter and tastier than the bland fruit peeled every day in their millions across Europe. And you don’t have to wait until the banana is full and ripe before harvesting and eating. Young green bananas are a rich source of potassium and iron as well as starch when used in soups and stews together with root vegetables like yam, cocoyam and cooked with fish and chicken.

Banana is one of the fastest growing, highest yielding and undemanding staple food crops of the tropics. You just plant them and the stems shoot up in succession and bear tiered hands of fruit in big bunches providing you cut down the biggest and oldest one after you have harvested the fruit bunch. But what you see are not stems at all, the true stem stays underground and the tall lush shoots with huge unfurling leaves are called ‘Pseudostems’ (false stems). Up they come, always three ‘Pseuodstems’ appearing together but at different stages of growth, the ‘peeper’, the ‘grower’ and the ‘bearer’.

The large, strong and broad banana leaves with a robustness of plastic, smoothness and cleanness of porcelain and the waterproofing quality of rubber are used as roof thatch, mats for the table and to cover pots of cooked food to protect against flies. Before use as plates banana leaves are warmed over a fire to prevent the leaf tissue from splitting. Banana leaves are well known for adding flavour to baked foods like flat bread and cakes. The bakes are placed in a pot over a fire, covered with semi-mature banana leaves and then hot coals to complete cooking.

Like banana coconut is another ‘Tree of Life’ though not really a tree at all, just a giant ‘tree fern’. Young fresh nuts are full of turbid (cloudy) but refreshing water which is as near as possible to ‘complete food’ in all of nature. Older nuts progressively provide nutritious jelly and flesh and the copra is pressed for coconut oil. The leaves are used for thatch and making brooms to sweep the yard. The husk offers excellent fibre for mattresses and mats and the remnants can be recycled in the garden to make humus for the soil. The beauty of coconuts palms in a small backyard is that they grow straight up to thirty feet or more to producing an attractive crown of fern-like leaves and big bunches of nuts without taking up valuable space and casting undue shade as do ‘proper’ trees.

Papaya (paw-paw) is another ‘pseudo-tree’ tailor-made for the backyard. Reaching the same height as small trees this essentially herbaceous plant does so without laying down any real wood for support in its sheer vertical stems. Papaya produces fruit in steady sequence up the stem but some trees produce flowers and never a fruit. There is nothing wrong with these plants which are neither diseased nor cursed. Papaya produces male and female flowers on different plants and the one which never produces papaya is called the ‘man-plant’ and only produces male flowers.

Papaya is not only one of the most delicious fruits when eaten ripe but the flesh is also used to make sweetmeats and condiments, and especially as a base for hot pepper sauce. Flesh from the green fruit contains powerful enzymes and can be used for a variety of purposes including meat tenderizing and cleaning body wounds. 

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