The Tropical Food Security Garden

A little manual for tropical garden development that I wrote up a couple of years ago–I’m waiting for illustrations for it.  Meanwhile it might be useful to anyone interested in development.

Possible publishers (any others out there?):  Chelsea Green  PO 428, White River Junction, VT 902501.  www.

New Society Publs.  PO 189, Gabriola Id, BC VOR 1X0.  www.

The Tropical Food Security Garden

E. N. Anderson

Illos under development by Stephanie Paladino,

People all over the world grow gardens.  In the tropics, anyone with any land can grow something all year round.  Most rural tropical families have gardens around their houses.  Such a garden is called a home garden, dooryard garden, household garden, or family garden in English.  Equivalents exist in languages around the world, such as solar or huerta familiar in Spanish, pekarangan in Bahasa Indonesia.

These gardens occupy the land around people’s houses.  Usually, a family has a house with a bit of land—sometimes a few acres, but much more often a small fraction of an acre.  Some families have almost no land.  They can still grow gardens.  I have seen urban gardens producing food from a single square foot of land.  Even families that live on boats, or in houses built over water, have gardens—growing the plants in old buckets and pots.  The limiting case was a tiny hut I saw in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh; the family had no land, but had managed to grow a squash vine over the hut, and it meant the difference between life and death in this Vitamin A-deficient situation.  One vine does a garden make.

Larger gardens may have incredible numbers of species of plants cultivated in them.  I have seen gardens with close to 100 kinds of plants.  The record, to my knowledge, was a garden in northeast Mexico with 168 species.  This total included fruit, flowers, vegetables, medicinal herbs, and more.

Small livestock also flourish in gardens worldwide.  Chickens are the commonest and most reliable, but ducks, turkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and even horses, cows, llamas, and the rice farmers’ necessary water buffaloes live in gardens in some areas.

The purpose of this booklet is to provide basic instructions for growing a garden that can help provide nutritious food for a family.  The goal is to give guidance for beginners and for people with limited time, money, and land, so that they can produce a great deal of nutrition for minimal cost.

Gardens usually do not provide staple foods like wheat, maize, or rice.  The key role of gardens is to provide foods rich in vitamins and minerals.  These supplement the local staple foods, which are usually high in calories—mostly starch—but not very high in vitamin and mineral nutrients.  Therefore, a household garden will ideally produce crops extremely high in these nutrients—that have a high “nutrient density,” to use a technical term.

However, a food security garden can also have staple starch crops, for backup in case the main field crops fail or become unavailable.

It often has some crops that produce cash, too.  Vegetables, flowers, and fruits usually command a ready sale, or can be bartered.  Palm trees, willows, and many other plants produce fronds or shoots that can be made into baskets, mats, and craft items.  Branches pruned from fruit trees, old cornstalks, and other such materials make good fuel.  Large-scale commercial gardening is often hotly competitive, and thus not practical for non-specialists, but small-scale local sale and trade of foods is a great idea even if commercial gardening does not pay.

A home garden cannot be the full answer to food security.  The real problem in food security is usually poverty.  The poor often have little or no land for gardens.  Even if they have land, either natural disasters or human extortion and violence may make them lose everything.  Ultimately, only secure tenure to land, economic opportunities, and social justice can bring real food security.  The aid worker’s main contribution may be carrying this message to officials and to the wider world.

However, given some degree of opportunity and security, a family can vastly improve their food situation with even a small garden.  Even affluent families can get great benefits from gardening, as tens of millions of First World householders know from experience.  In Europe and parts of the United States, tracts of land are provided by local governments so that even apartment-dwellers can have gardens.  These tracts are enthusiastically occupied and cultivated, whether the apartment-dwellers are rich or poor.  Such tracts often produce a great deal of good food.

A less affluent family with access to some land can creatively use old boards for fencing, can trade with neighbors for seeds and cuttings, can use household garbage for compost and thus avoid the need to buy fertilizer, and can easily do without commercial pesticides.  Gardening is cheap.  Moreover, it does not have to take a great deal of time or effort.  Most gardening books and manuals assume that the reader is deeply committed to spending a great deal of time and effort on the garden.  This booklet is written with the opposite idea in mind:  using minimal money and effort to produce maximum food security.  It is written for families who have little time and space, but want to make the best use of what little they have.

In much of the world, gardening is so well established that skilled local gardeners have little to learn (indeed, most of what follows is what I learned from them).  They may have little need for this booklet.  However, every area has special crops and ideas that deserve to be more widely known, even to skilled gardeners.  This booklet, and users of it, can facilitate knowledge transfer.  Also, more and more people, worldwide, live in urban areas and environmentally impacted rural areas, where gardening traditions are lost or are being lost.

I hope this booklet will be useful for everyone living in the tropics.  It was, however, originally written for aid and development personnel working with local rural folk to increase food security.  Thus, here is a word to these aid workers.

The first rule of working on food security gardens, or on anything else in food security, is to work with local people and recognize that they are experts.  They have been managing to find food, usually in very difficult environments, for a long time.  They usually have gardens, and know what to do.

Aid workers usually begin as newcomers to an area, and have to learn its food situation from the ground up—literally!  Local people are the experts and the teachers, and should be treated as such.  Even if you (the aid worker) are used to gardening, and come in as something of an expert on that, you don’t know local conditions:  soil, water availability, favorite foods, medicinal herbs, cultural rules (such as taboos), social issues, and all the rest.  You also don’t know what the local people want in the way of food security.  Maybe they have plenty of food but no way to store it.  Maybe they have great storage but the crops have been hit by a new pest that just invaded.  Maybe the problem is recurrent hurricanes.  Right away, find out what their problems are.  Find out, also, what is their understanding of “food security” (a famously vague phrase).

Most small rural or urban-fringe communities have one or two people who are widely known as the master gardeners.  They may be experts on growing more food from less ground, or on local varieties, or on tree crops.  One man in Peru—just an old farmer, without much school education—collected hundreds of varieties of potatoes from all over Peru, and had world-famous biologists and potato breeders coming hat in hand to his door!  I have worked with local medicine men who could cure conditions that doctors couldn’t handle, beekeepers who could easily manage African bees as well as droughts and hurricanes, and Third World gardeners who could produce incredible quantities of mixed produce from soil that a First World farmer would use only for parking his machinery.  Such people deserve to be sought out.  Usually, they are more than glad to teach others, and they naturally become the best teachers.  The food security worker often becomes largely a facilitator of such local farmer-to-farmer teaching.  Also, many areas have good written materials—local manuals and gardening books, local extension materials, local shows and exhibits.

However, not all areas are so lucky, and not all farmers are so competent.  The real problems with food security are in areas hit by disasters, war, or government oppression, and in urban slums, resettlement areas, shanty towns, and other places where the people have been displaced and have little or no land.  They need all the help they can get, and they are in no position to do the bang-up, state-of-the-art small-scale gardening that other books and manuals often advocate.

Also, you (the aid worker) know some things that rural people need.  First and foremost is modern scientific nutrition.  Rural tropical people usually know a great deal about how to stay alive, but they usually do not know the details about iron (and anemia), folic acid, iodine, saturated fats, and so on.  This matters.  A tropical food security garden should—among other things—produce a lot of nutritionally available iron; people desperately need that in most of the tropics.  Yet, rarely does anyone think about that.

Second are planning skills.  You will know how to organize a widespread community effort.  Local people usually have their own skills in that area, and can help, but they may need help and motivation.

You will probably have other special training—medical, technical, educational.

However, always remember that you are a visitor and a guest, and that the local people deserve full respect.  Always keep asking and learning.  This is a knowledge exchange, and you should find yourself on the receiving end most of the time.  You will probably find out some local tricks that can be used worldwide, to the benefit of all.

On all these matters, a very valuable book is Anthropology of Food (1999) by Johan Pottier, a veteran food security researcher.

A garden begins as a patch of bare ground.  The simplest way to begin is to dig up this soil and plant things in it.  If the soil is light and fertile, that’s enough.  The ground should be dug up at least a foot deep.  Deeper is better, but not always easy or practical.  Take out small rocks and use them for walls.  Work around rocks too big to move.

Most soil benefits from improvement.  This is especially true in the tropics, where soil is often a tough clay that is not very fertile or easy to work.

Burying anything organic is usually the best way to do this.  Bury household garbage deep, so that dogs and rats don’t dig it up.  Bury stalks, leaves, weeds, vines, anything that will rot and improve the soil.  Bury absolutely every bit of organic waste material you can possibly find:  Leaves, kitchen garbage, animal manure, small sticks, vines, anything.  Only two problems:  first, beware of planting seeds, or (worse) roots, of serious weeds that will grow in a garden environment!  Second, be extremely careful about disease transmission.  Things like manure and garbage have to be buried very deep and left a long time (many days or several weeks) before that patch of land is cultivated, and the gardener has to wash up very carefully after working with such material.

In the temperate zone, many gardeners compost this organic material; they pile it in a bin or hole, or just leave it in a pile.  It slowly decomposes into a rich soil-like mulch.  An advantage of this is that composting generates enough heat to kill germs and parasites.  In the tropics, however, composting above ground usually doesn’t work very well.  The material dries up and blows away, or rots too fast, or washes away in the rain (causing pollution problems), or breeds flies and rats.  So it’s better to bury everything.  Work it into the soil.  A deep pit with layers of garbage alternating with layers of soil is ideal.  Stalks and vines too big to bury can just be left on the surface to decay back into the ground.  A hard-working gardener with time and materials to spare can build a composting bin or box with a lid, thus preventing problems and allowing composting to flourish, but burying is a lot easier, and usually more effective.

A technique much used lately in food security programs is “bio-intensive agriculture,” developed by Alan Chadwick and added to by John Jeavons.  It involves digging a great deal of organic material into the soil, anad digging fairly deep—12″ down, then loosening another 12.  Beds are re-dug before planting.  Seedlings are planted quite close together.  Capturing moisture is done by any means possible:  mulch, working in compost, and so on.  One may add that sand or gravel make good mulch, and even laying boards over the land prevents evaporation.  The close-planting method doesn’t work without a lot of water, but, like other bio-intensive techniques, close-planting can be ignored if you do the rest; any approximation to the ideal is good.  With bio-intensive agriculture, one can do away with artificial pest controls and fertilizers.  Bio-intensive gardeners use local varieties and seeds, and choose their crops more or less as described further on in this booklet.

The simplest way to plant a garden is to leave the ground flat.  The problem with this is that most vegetables need a lot of water but also very good drainage—otherwise their roots drown.  Roots, like animals, have to get air.   Also, fungi and other pests live in wet soil and attack the roots.  So planting on the flat doesn’t work unless the drainage is good.  This means that the soil has to be loose and sandy, or the land has to have a little slope to it, or the land has to be a bit uneven.  Clay or other heavy dense soil is poorly drained, and needs organic material and sometimes sand worked into it; it also needs drainage.

So, if the family has enough time and energy, it’s often best to use a raised-bed system for vegetables.  (Trees don’t need it, but they still do need drainage.)  A raised bed system involves making the garden into ridges, or raised blocks of ground, separated by drainage channels.  Usually, the channels are a few inches deep (anywhere from three inches to a foot).  The beds stand up above the level of the surrounding land.  The channels go down below that level.   Long, narrow raised beds can be anywhere from a few inches wide to two feet or more.  Raised blocks are usually a foot to three feet across.

On a slope, unless it is very gentle, you have to terrace.  Usually, a dooryard garden will be pretty flat.  However, if the land is at all sloping, the garden absolutely has to be terraced to prevent water runoff and soil erosion.  Terraces have to be maintained.  Dirt terraces with banks to prevent water runoff are perfectly fine, but terraces take less maintenance if they are strengthened in some way.  This can be done by:

–planting grass (the roots hold the soil—but the grass may become a weed in the garden if it’s an invasive species)

–facing the terrace with rocks (a good idea if there are lots of rocks around)

–building brush and branches into the terrace (good, but they decay fast)

–planting useful, perennial plant with tough roots.  These include, in various parts of the world, agaves (century plants), aloes, berry bushes, thatching grass, and others.  This is the best approach if you have useful perennials that don’t grow too big.

Tender seedlings and small plants need special protection:  fencing or planting in a walled or protected place.  A standard trick to get them out of the way of pigs, chickens, and other animals is to plant them in buckets or pots put up on a wall, or on raised platforms.  A family can easily set up four logs, connect them with planks, and then put down sticks across these to provide a raised platform anywhere from two to four feet high and four to eight feet long.  This can be covered with soil, or used to hold pots.

I have seen many gardens, some very large, that consisted entirely of potted plants.  Fishermen friends of mine that lived on boats or in houses built over the water often had an amazing range of plants growing this way.

There are several special problems that occur with bad sites.

A soil with a reasonable balance of sand, clay, and organic material is known as “loam,” and is ideal for gardening.  It is easy to dig and provides lots of opportunities for roots to grow easily.  However:

–Very often, the soil is hard clay.  This has to have a lot of organic material worked into it before it will grow most plants.  Some plants do all right, but all plants prefer a lighter soil.  Keep working the organic material in.  (It’s hard at first, but becomes easy soon.)  Working in sand, ashes, and pretty much anything else you can find is also good.

–Conversely, extremely sandy soils have to be “fattened up” with more organic material and sometimes some ordinary dirt.

–Soil may be shallow, with solid rock not very far down.  In this case, you have to test to see how deep the soil is, and plant accordingly.  The Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) are experts at this.  The whole peninsula is limestone, with very little soil over the rock.  The Maya usually plant maize (corn), which has very shallow roots.  When they find a deep hole (filled with soil) in the limestone, they plant other things.  They know that beans need a hole at least 3′ deep, squash needs a hole at least 6-7′ deep, and trees need a huge hole.  On the other hand, aloe and mint tolerate tiny, shallow holes where even corn won’t grow.  A Maya garden looks like an unplanned, chaotic collection of plants until you learn that each plant is perfectly fitted into its own right-size soil pocket.

–The same goes for other critical matters.  Some parts of the garden will stay a bit damper than others, so use them for more water-demanding plants.  Some parts will be hotter, others cooler.  Some will have light soil, others heavier soil that is harder to work and harder for plant roots to penetrate.  The good gardener plants according to these tiny local differences (“microenvironments”).

The most important thing for plants is water.  They have to have enough, but not too much.  In areas with heavy rain, you have to put in drainage ditches, and most vegetables will need to be planted on a slope or raised bed or other raised area.  In dry areas, and even in wet areas during the dry season, you will have to water the garden.

The simplest way is hand watering, but that takes a lot of time, since plants need a lot of water.

If you can stop up the drainage channels, you can flood the garden, but this risks drowning the plants.

A hose with a sprinkler head attached to it is a very good, convenient way, but costs money.  A plastic pipe stuck in the local creek is always easy to manage, and supplies households from the poorest and remote rural areas to the affluent suburbs of American cities.

If you are growing vegetables with the raised bed system, the best and most straightforward way is to channel water through the ditches between the raised beds.  If there are small young vegetables in the beds, you have to sprinkle them from a watering can, because their roots aren’t yet big enough to get to the water in the drainage channels.

The Gold Standard of irrigation is the “drip system.”  This involves using a whole cluster of small, thin hoses (sometimes called “spaghetti hoses”) to deliver a very tiny flow for a long time.  This type of system is expensive to install and manage, but if you can afford it, it pays for itself, through increased production and great savings on water.  Where water is scarce and expensive, this system is really the only hope for large-scale growing.

Raising water from a low-lying canal or stream can be done by a shaduf (a bucket on a counterweighted pole), a treadle pump (powered by feet), its close relative the pump well (powered by hand-pumping), a bucket chain (powered by a donkey or anything of the sort), a millwheel, or a siphon.  Any of these save much effort without requiring expensive fuel or spare parts.  Look into these and other creative options.

Using waste water or polluted water is OK as far as the plants are concerned, unless there are herbicides or other poisonous chemicals in the water.  The plants thrive on it, because of the added nutrients.   However, the humans who use the water or eat the vegetables watered with it are at risk!  Polluted water applied to food crops is one of the commonest sources of disease and poisoning in the tropics!  Be extremely careful!

How much water depends, of course, on local conditions.  Find out what local gardeners do!  However, remember that local gardeners often spare water, because it’s scarce, and don’t always give trees enough water to let them reach their full productive potential.

How much water do you use?  This varies by region and season.  Watch for plants wilting.  When they first begin to wilt, they have to be watered—and so a tiny bit less time than the time it took them to wilt gives you your ideal watering schedule.  Obviously, a garden in a desert needs a lot more watering than a garden in a rain forest.

Some general truths:  Young plants dry out fast and have to be kept moist (not wet), so they have to be watered, by gentle sprinkling or drip irrigation, every day (unless it rains).  Older vegetables with shallow roots still need to be watered every day.  Deep-rooted vegetables like tomatoes and squash, however, soon grow to the point where they need no watering, if there is any significant amount of rain.  They need to be watered deeply once a week in a fairly dry climate—more often in a desert or in a very sandy soil.  (The water runs right through sandy soil, as you can see by watching.)

Trees in a hot dry area need to be watered very deeply once a week.  In other dry areas they can get by with watering every two weeks.  In wet tropical areas, trees rarely need watering at all.  Trees have to have a lot of water when they get watered, though.  A big tree will need enough water to cover the ground six or eight inches deep.  In a heavy clay soil, it needs even more than that—but doesn’t need to be watered so often.  You can actually build up a wall six inches high around the base of the tree and fill it from a hose, or you can just assume that a sprinkler or ditch will deliver that much water in an hour or two (or sometimes more).  Drip irrigation will take twelve hours or more to deliver that much.

The roots of a tree extend at least as far out as the branches—often farther—and you have to water accordingly!

Seedling trees still need a lot of water, to get them to put their roots down and to make sure the ground is wet and that salts are leached out.  Water them at least every week, until established.  Young trees need as much water as established ones.  They get their roots down fast, and they need to.

Some trees are very much more drought-resistant than others, and thus are a good choice for dry areas.

Some trees that do well in dry, poor locations:  Tamarind, avocado, moringa, guava, rose apple, apricot

Some trees that need a lot of water, but can go a long time between waterings:  orange, lime, grapefruit, mango

Many of these trees routinely manage in the tropics on water thrown out by the household.  They get enough from that and from rain.  This doesn’t work in a desert, of course.

Some trees, notably eucalyptus, are notorious water hogs, and will compete with everything else for water—drying up the area.  These trees should not be planted where water is a problem.

A serious problem in much of the world is salt brought in by the water.  It builds up in the soil.  Most plants lose vigor when even tiny amounts of salt are present, and die if concentrations build up to visible (whitening-soil) levels.  The only real cure is to flush the salt out with lots more water.  Rain does this in the wet tropics, but dry areas with salty soils or irrigation water are in danger.  One must be sure to drain the garden area thoroughly; buildup of salty water in the soil is the greatest danger.

Fertilizing is not necessary in a well-composted garden.  Digging in more and more household garbage is always desirable, so long as the roots of the plants aren’t damaged.  Fertilizing with some organic or chemical fertilizer increases yields, but too much chemical fertilizer burns the plants and hurts the soil.  Most households can get by with continual application of organic wastes rather than going to the trouble and expense of dealing with fertilizer.  If there are animals in the garden, their manure adds to the mix.  You can feed them on household scraps and on weeds, thus turning waste into meat and fertilizer.  Manure (and, even more, human wastes) should be kept in a pit or carefully covered bin for three months before use, however, so that the heat of composting can kill bacteria and weedseeds.

Putting some sort of mulch around young plants is also desirable.  Leaves, twigs, sawdust, even gravel and pebbles work well.

Finally, tropical gardeners very often grow and mulch with beans, peas, alfalfa, sweetclover, velvetbean, and similar crops.  This is because these crops fix nitrogen from the air, and use it in their tissues or release it into the soil.  Nitrogen is usually the nutrient most conspicuously lacking in tropical soils.  The nitrogen-fixing crops are usually planted in rotation with other crops, or are intercropped with them.  Less common, but still quite widely done, is to grow these and dig them into the ground when they are not quite full grown.  This saves all the nitrogen.  Open fields are often planted with nitrogen-fixing trees such as Leucaena (see below), acacia, casuarina, or alder; the trees are then cut when old enough to make good firewood or construction wood, and the soil is fertilized!  This is not usually practical for home gardens, which are usually cropped all the time, but it is a good idea to know, for use on marginal lands and regrowing fields.

Other nutrients often lacking are phosphorus and potassium.  Compost and manure usually supply enough, but strange and otherwise unexplained yellowing of leaves should be checked out.  It means either plant disease or deficiency of a mineral nutrient.  And if your fruit trees produce all leaves and few fruit, they are probably getting too much nitrogen relative to the phosphorus and potassium.  Hold off on the manure.  (Commercial fertilizers have specially tailored mixes of nutrients.  Lawn fertilizer, mostly nitrogen, will turn your fruit trees into leaf trees for sure.  Get a fruit-tree fertilizer.)

Pest control is more of a problem.  The best strategies are:  1. Find out locally what grows well and doesn’t get pests.  2.  Mix the plantings—plant only one or a few of each kind of tree, and only a row or a few rows of each kind of vegetable.  Common is to practice intercropping:  alternating rows of different kinds of row crops, or simply mixed plantings.  Ideal is to alternate a row of a crop that has a pest problem with one that repels pests.  Pests love a big expanse of one kind of plant—it’s a free lunch counter to them.  A pest that infests maize, for instance, will go crazy in a whole field of maize, but a few rows won’t give it the opportunity to breed that much.  Moreover, pest-eating insects and birds quickly find and patrol a few rows of maize, but can’t live in a huge field—there is nowhere for them to nest.  Always try for mixed plantings and avoid monocrop cultivation in a home garden.

In a small garden, one can simply pick large bugs off the plants, or wash them off with a hose, but they come back.  The trick is to diversify and leave things alone so that natural enemies build up.  It is always amazing to see how fast an outbreak of aphids (plant lice) that seems beyond control is eaten to extinction as soon as the ladybird beetles, lacewings, syrphids (tiny green worms that turn into small flies), and small birds find it.  Syrphids in particular are fascinating to watch—they go through aphids like wolves turned loose in a rabbit hutch.  Life among the insects is savage!

Hopefully, the chickens and ducks will eat the bugs and weeds.  Often, however, weeds simply have to be dug out.  Experienced tropical gardeners know that many weeds are edible, and many more have medicinal value.  So they don’t let the weeds go to waste—they eat them or make them into home remedies.  The Maya Indians of Mexico, for instance, have medical uses for almost all their weeds, and scientific testing has proved that many of these plants do indeed have medicinal value.  Find local experts and ask about using weeds.

Herbicides can kill useful plants along with the weeds, and, anyway, they are dangerous and expensive.  They can endanger the health of children playing or working in the garden.  If herbicides get onto fruits or vegetables, these can be dangerous for humans to eat.  If you can afford relatively safe herbicides, spray them around the edges and open areas to control weeds there.  However, for a home garden, herbicides are generally a bad idea.

Insecticides and fungicides have similar problems.  They are expensive.  Most (but not all) of them are exceedingly dangerous to humans—if they kill small animals, they’ll kill humans too.  All of them contaminate the environment.  Often, they are quite unnecessary; natural predators will come in and eat most of the pests.  Unfortunately, local outbreaks of insects such as whiteflies, locusts, bugs, and caterpillars sometimes get out of control and have to be dealt with by sprays.  Find out what is available locally and READ THE DIRECTIONS ON THE CONTAINER!! Remember these chemicals are made to kill, and careless use will kill people as well as bugs.  Pesticides range from fairly nontoxic to humans (pyrethrins, for instance) to extremely deadly in even small doses.  Many of them, even if they don’t kill, cause permanent damage—such as sterilizing male workers (see very good accounts in Cleveland and Soleri, above, p. 248-249).  Others may not kill humans but are deadly to valuable local animals, from cats to birds (including domestic chickens—which frequently die from eating sprayed insects).  Doses recommended on the container are the largest safe doses.

Bacterial control by Bacillus thuringensis strains and other agents is now common, but expensive and not always effective.  B. thuringensis genes and other pest-defying genes have been engineered into some food crops.  These “genetically modified” plants have met with much resistance, particularly in Europe.  Genetic engineering remains an untested technology (though millions of Americans eat GM foods every day with no ill effects—so far!).  It is irrelevant to the small gardener, since the required seed is expensive and available largely to commercial growers.  Like other hybrid seed, it has to be bought; home gardeners normally find it better to save seed, thus avoiding the high costs of seeds from the market.

It is always much better to encourage natural predators.  Leaving forest, or at least brush, around is a good way to do this; birds and predatory insects and spiders live there, and come into the garden to eat pests.  Moreover, many crops, such as squashes and stone fruits, require pollination by insects.  Pesticides kill the pollinators.  Forest and brush encourage them.

Usually, the more varied and unsprayed habitat you have around the garden, the more pest control, pollination, and other benefits you will have.  Some pests will survive in the woods and eat your tender shoots, but it’s a cost worth paying.  Once again, however, there are situations where pesticides are necessary and simply cannot be avoided.  These range from peach tree borers (destructive insects that have no natural controls in most areas, and destroy many species, not just peaches) up to and including full-scale plagues of locusts.  Use common sense, but assume that use of pesticides is always a last resort.

Some plants repel certain kinds of insects or other pests.  Marigolds and sagebrush (wormwood) are famous for this.  Squash vines and leaves kill weeds and many insects.  Most strong-smelling plants are toxic to at least some insects.  Many species of chrysanthemum work (whole plants or dried and powdered plant material).  Neem (a large tree native to India) is extremely toxic to most pest insects, while being fairly safe for humans.  Ground-up neem leaves work well.  You can, with luck, even find canned and boxed pesticides made of neem, but these tend to be expensive.  Note that all these materials are at least slightly toxic to humans; powder should be washed off any food materials before eating.

More and more people worldwide are using integrated pest control (IPC):  Combining all the above approaches by encouraging predators, using natural plant insecticides, and using chemical pesticides only for specific outbreaks.  Find out locally what IPC systems are used.  Many local farmers around the world have independently invented IPC systems without knowing about the formal term.  They just experiment till they find what works.

So, in short, weedkillers and pesticides are usually (though not always) too expensive and dangerous for the ordinary family garden.  Remember, children play there, animals feed there, and birds live there.  Save the chemicals for large commecial or open-field plantings.

Gardens in the temperate zone are normally in full sun, but tropical gardens usually have a tree cover and a good deal of shade.  Tropical sun is too bright for some crops, and, in the sunny tropics, most crops will produce something even in shade.   Full sun remains the best for most crops, but efficient use of space usually means that the garden has a tree cover, and the smaller plants have to grow around the edges or in other openings where there is a good deal of sun.  However, for serious vegetable gardening, you have to have full sun.

Some vegetables endure shade better than others.  Manioc is particularly tolerant of shade—it doesn’t like it especially, but it will survive.  Chiles, onions, and chives usually manage.  Mint actually prefers shade, at least in the tropics.

Sunny situations allow vertical planting:  lots of vines trained on stakes and wires, lots of tall plants.

The best idea—known throughout the tropics—is to take full advantage of the intense tropical sun by planting in layers.  In some extremely hot areas, you can get away with a full five layers:  a few very tall trees (coconuts are the usual one) emerging above the rest, then a layer of fairly tall trees (such as rambutans, peaches, or oranges), then a layer of small trees (guavas, rose-apples), then a layer of bushes (such as bushy chile peppers), then finally a layer of ground plants.  This works only at the edges of clearings, where sun gets through to everything.  Normally, the most you can do is three layers:  a tall layer, a medium tree or bush layer, and a ground layer.  But pack these in so that they all fit together without too much shade.  Evergreen trees with big leaves, like mangos and avocados, are too shady to allow anything to grow under them.

This way, a house is not a “hole” in the garden.  The air space over it is occupied by tall trees such as coconut palms.

By the same logic, always use hedges and windbreaks, and make them fruit-bearing or otherwise useful. Windbreaks really do reduce wind damage.  Hedges provide not only food and such, but also nesting places for pest-eating birds and other animals.  A small garden will not have a woodlot, but if you do have land to play with, an orchard that also provides wood is the best of ideas.  Even a small garden can manage a bush patch, for fuel, pest-eating animal nesting, and whatever fruit and flowers the bushes produce.

Most fruit trees do not produce much good fruit if grown from seed.  Usually, in the tropics, one can simply take cuttings from existing trees, and plant them.  Easiest and best is to take a small branch or shoot from a tree and plant it, but this does not usually work in the wet tropics.  Soil fungi do in the young shoot before it can sprout.  Many tropical gardeners then resort to air-layering.  You cut a ring of bark from a branch, so the branch is separated from the parent tree.  Then pack this ring in a plastic bag full of moss or some other stuff that holds water and is rich in nutrients, and keep it damp.  Soon the branch will send forth roots into the planting mix (if you’re lucky), and you cut it off and plant it.  (You usually have to do many air-layerings to get one successful one, but it’s easy, so why not?  Tropical orchards are usually full of air-layering projects, ongoing or abandoned.)

For various reasons, this does not work for all species.  Many fruit trees have to be grafted.  Grafting is a technical operation, not easy to perform.  Usually one can find grafted trees for sale, but they cost an appreciable amount, so learning the technique might be considered.  For techniques, see any good gardening book, such as Cleveland and Soleri (above).


Humans need carbohydrates, protein, and fats, which are problem enough, but more critical in much of the tropics are vitamin and mineral nutrients.

The vitamins we need:

Vitamin A.  Necessary for eyes—especially for seeing in dim light.  Necessary for skin and organs.  Most vitamin A is made by the body from carotene, the orange coloring in carrots, chiles, squash, sweet potatoes, canteloupes, and similar plants.  The brighter orange the food, the more carotene it has.  Green leaves also have a lot of carotene.  If you are eating a lot of those plants, you don’t need to worry about vitamin A.  But vitamin A deficiency is still common, and is probably still the biggest cause of blindness.  The Helen Keller Foundation (named after the famous blind scholar) has been taking the lead in encouraging families, especially in the tropics, to grow gardens with carotene-rich plants.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine).  Necessary for the whole body; shortage first shows up in the nervous system.  Common in most crops that are rich in other nutrients; best sources are plants of the cabbage family—broccoli, cauliflower, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, and such.  In fact, it’s common in most green vegetables, as well as most of the vitamin A sources, and even most grains.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin).  Same comments.

Vitamin B3 (niacin).  Same comments, but there is a serious additional problem.  Niacin is a chemically active base.  That means that it combines with acids in ways that make it impossible for you to digest.  Most acids are OK (vinegar is OK) but there are plant acids called phytic acid and oxalic acid that tie up niacin and make it unavailable to you.  Phytic acid is common in maize, soybeans, and many other seeds.  It is removed by processing the maize with lime, the way it is usually done in Mexico, and by processing the soybeans into bean curd or soy sauce.   Yeast destroys it, so yeast-leavened bread and yeast-brewed drinks are good.  But you have to watch out—eat extra vitamin-rich foods if you are eating a lot of whole grains or seeds.  Oxalic acid is found in spinach, sorrel, and some other vegetables.

There are several other B vitamins, two of which are special problems in the tropics:

B12.  B12 is necessary to metabolize iron, so lack of B12 causes anemia.   B12 is found only in animals and yeasts and mushrooms.  No plants have it.  Therefore, getting it is a major problem for people who are vegetarians or who can’t afford meat.  In the tropics, they usually get it from yeast-prepared foods, ranging from soy sauce to homemade beer.  Many tropical areas have locally prepared fermented foods that provide their B12:  idlis in South India, tempeh in Indonesia, and so on.  Yeast-leavened bread has some, but doesn’t have much per slice.

Folic acid:  This is absolutely essential for pregnant women, especially very early in the pregnancy, because the growing baby needs a huge amount of it to start the development of the nervous system and related systems.  Fortunately, folic acid is common in natural foods.  It is especially common in greens (hence its name—think “foliage”), also in chile and bell peppers, tomatoes, and indeed most vegetables.  If people are living largely on processed foods—including white rice, white flour, sugar, and the like—they will need folic acid badly! Pills are best, but expensive, and awfully hard to find in the rural tropics—so get those vegetables growing.

Vitamin C.  This has to be eaten frequently.  Your body can’t store it for many weeks.  It is commonest in greens and in chiles and bell peppers.  It is also common in guavas, oranges, tomatoes, and many other tropical fruits.  Orange juice is a famous, standard source, but greens, chiles, and guavas actually have many times as much vitamin C.  Lack of vitamin C is surprisingly common in the tropics, mostly in seasons when people are living on stored foods.  Vitamin C is destroyed by cooking, drying, and processing—you have to eat foods that are not cooked or have not been cooked more than a few minutes.  Grain and root crops don’t have vitamin C (exception:  white potatoes—they have a fair amount).  So you have to eat fruit and vegetables.

Vitamin D.  Your skin makes this from sunlight, so it isn’t a problem in the tropics except for people shut in the house.  Best is just to get more sun.

Vitamins E and K:  Found in almost all natural foods, and a problem only for people living on highly processed food (“junk food”).

The biggest mineral problem in the tropics is iron.  Iron is necessary for the blood.  It makes the blood red.  (It also carries the oxygen in the blood, which is necessary for survival.)  Anemia—lack of iron in the blood—causes people to be pale, weak, and run-down.  A quick check:  pull down a person’s lower eyelid.  If the inside is bright pink, they’re OK.  If it’s pale pink, they are anemic.  Sometimes even their blood will be pale.  Women in child-bearing years need a lot more iron, because of menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth; a woman having a baby needs three times as much iron as a man the same size!  Yet, in many tropical countries, women get less of the choice foods, which are often the iron-rich ones.  Red meat, especially liver, is the best iron source.  Other animal foods are next best.  This is why it’s very important to have lots of animals running around in the garden. Greens have a lot.  Some grains, notably tef (Ethiopia), have enough for survival.  In many tropical countries, spices are a major source:  chile, turmeric, and several other spices are good sources.  In areas where the diet is largely grain and processed food, and low on meat and spices, pregnant women have to get iron supplements—pills—from a clinic or drug store.  Really watch out for this.  In much of the tropics, most women of childbearing age are anemic, and anemia is common among women even in the United States.  Not only the women, but also their babies, suffer.

A common, but too often unsuspected, source is iron cookware!  Never give up the old cast-iron frying pan and cooking pot!  Replacing iron cookware by aluminum has caused anemia outbreaks in some tropical areas!

Phytic and oxalic acids are problems here too.  They bond with iron and other mineral nutrients.

Many other minerals are necessary to the human body, but in general they are found in the same foods as all the other nutrients, and are not a problem except under special conditions.

Anyone reading the above list will see the same plant names coming up over and over again.  So let us consider the best picks for a food security garden.  These have to be both rich in nutrients and easy to grow.

With all foods in the tropics, and especially with foods and medicines for the sick, remember the dangers of contamination.  Everything not cooked thoroughly has to be washed thoroughly.  At worst, clean water is better than nothing.  A drop of bleach in the water will kill most things, but the bleach must be carefully washed off.  There are effective, but relatively expensive, disinfectants on the market that make even lettuce safe.  (Lettuce is usually a “worst case,” since it is generally eaten raw and since it is somewhat sticky; the germs stick to it and can’t be washed off easily.)  Small water-sterilizing pills containing chlorine or iodine compounds are commonly available in drug stores.

Most rural families can’t afford disinfectants, or in some cases even bleach, so cooking at high heat is common.  One reason for Chinese stir-frying is that it is done at such high heat that even the shortest cooking time is effective.  Boiling takes much longer to do the same job.  At high elevations, the boiling temperature is lower.  In very high areas like the Bolivia-Peru border area and the Tibetan plateau, boiling temperatures may not be high enough to kill some germs no matter how long you boil (though I must admit, I never had any problems eating foods boiled at 13,000′; any boiling is better than none).

The real art of gardening lies in picking the right plants.

One thing to consider is planting such that something is coming in all the time.  Plant young seeds or seedlings between the rows of plants about to be harvested.  Plant vegetables that yield over a long time—sweet potatoes and tomatoes may yield for a year or two under tropical conditions, and manioc even longer.  Stagger plantings of short-lived things like cilantro.

Tropical gardens usually mix many species.  As explained above, this maximizes use of soil pockets and moist spots, allows production over time, reduces pest problems, and maximizes sunlight benefits.  It has other benefits.  Some plants just fit neatly together. The classic Mexican corn-bean-squash association is famous; the beans grow up the cornstalks and fix nitrogen, while the squash covers the ground and kills pests.  Squash plants release a toxin fatal to bugs and weeds; this toxin is not found in the fruits (the squashes) themselves, so they are perfectly safe to eat.  Mexicans also discovered centuries ago that marigolds growing in the fields alleviated most pest problems—the marigolds have a whole array of natural pesticides and bug repellents.  Gardeners have learned, and interplant marigolds with food crops around the world.  Onions and garlic fit neatly between rows of bigger plants, and repel some pests.

“Root” crops (technically, the “roots” are usually tubers and other stem growths, not roots) are very easy to grow, and are grown in most tropical gardens.  They have one huge advantage:  if there is a typhoon (hurricane, “cyclone,” tropical storm), they are the only thing left.  Being underground, they don’t get blown away.  Anyone concerned with food security in hurricane-prone areas should plant root crops.

Starch staples for gardens:

The most productive by far is manioc, also known as cassava, tapioca, and yuca (not yucca—yucca is a totally different plant).  It is grown from cuttings—just take a piece of the stem and stick it in a prepared soil mound, or even just in the ground.  It grows almost anywhere under almost any conditions.  Some manioc has slightly poisonous juice and must be specially prepared; the poison is destroyed by heat, so thorough cooking gets rid of it.  Get local advice.  Manioc tubers are nutritionally valuable only for the starch calories, but the tenderest young leaves—only the top leaves, not yet full size—are a superb vegetable; they taste like spinach and are even more nutritious.  They have to be peeled and cooked thoroughly because of the slight poisoning possibility!  Fully grown leaves are always too tough, and usually too poisonous, to be edible.

Sweet potatoes are another ideal crop.  They not only produce lots of calories; the red or orange ones have enormous vitamin A value.  They can be cooked in many ways, are delicious, and will grow anywhere except in a heavy clay soil.  The tender young leaves are slightly edible, but only in a famine will most people eat them.  Sweet potatoes are also fairly tolerant of shade (at least in very hot, sunny areas) and survive under almost all conditions except drought.

White potatoes may or may not grow, but if they do, they are ideal crops.  A trick is to grow a potato bush till it’s tall, then put an old car tire over it and fill the tire with dirt till only the top of the potato bush is sticking out.  Be sure to leave a lot of leaves sticking out, so the bush can survive.  The potato bush will then fill the tire with more potatoes.  Then pile on another tire, and then another.  Three tires is about all that the bush can handle, but a good vigorous potato bush can fill all three tires with potatoes and still survive.  In this case the leaves are not edible; white potato leaves are poisonous.

Taro is another excellent starch crop.  It requires soaking wet soil, and has to be grown in a marsh or swamp or a water-filled pit.  Its tender young leaves are very good eating, but, again, fully-grown leaves are inedible.  Many other root crops (such as yams, macal, and arrowroot) occur locally in the tropics and are fairly similar to taro nutritionally.  They do not need swamps.

Maize is a common garden starch crop throughout the world. It usually does well, but suffers from diseases.  Also, in dry, sunny areas the sun may kill the pollen (which is necessary for kernel production).  You get what the Maya call “hunger roads”—lines of kernels that don’t fill out.


Top pick:  Dark green leafy vegetables.  Easy to grow, easy to harvest, usually able to survive drought and neglect and pests.  The very best, because they are both super nutritious and super easy to grow, are the greens of the cabbage family:  turnip greens (the absolute top), collards, kale, broccoli, and the various Chinese greens—Chinese mustard greens, Chinese kale, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and so on.  (Some of these do better in the tropics than others; the Chinese ones are often the best pick.)  Cilantro is as nutritious and usually almost as easy to grow—but it’s tender and easily killed when young, and a plant only lives a short time.

There are local greens (see above) that are even better than the Chinese greens.  One plant that the world should know is the Central American bush called chaya (variants:  chay, chayamansa).  It has even more nutrients per leaf than turnip greens, and is so easy to grow that I have seen huge, flourishing bushes growing out of stone walls!  Pretty much all you have to do is break off a branch and stick it in the ground.  It survives drought, flooding, hurricanes, and everything else, and never gets pests.  How perfect can you get?  Why isn’t it everywhere?  (Answer:  because it was identified with “Indians,” and local racist snobbism led to scorning it.  Racism hurts everybody.)

There are some other local supergreens:  amaranth (Mexico, Peru, India, East Asia); Chinese wolfthorn (China, where it is called gou qi zai or similar names); some of the mustards of India; and so on.  Tropical relatives of dandelion greens are often excellent and available.  For instance, a dandelion-like plant known as “Tabasco parsley” or “culantro” (Eryngium foetidum) has spread from its native Caribbean shores to Southeast Asia, where it has become a very important component of small-scale subsistence gardens.

Indeed, most tropical areas have local supergreens like this.  Central Mexico has a whole flock of them, such as verdolagas (purslane, Portulaca oleracea) and romerino, mostly obscure or unknown outside that area.  Some of these are gathered wild.  Indeed, everywhere in the world, people gather wild greens, and these are usually extremely rich in nutrients.

Find out what your local greens are, and find out if they are supergreens.  A few minutes’ research in a good library will usually turn up nutritional and garden information.  Look for books of “Food composition tables” or “Composition of foods.”  The U.S. Government and other governments have issued many books of these, telling the protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamin, and mineral contents of all sorts of foods.  Tropical health care providers and government agents sometimes know, but often are surprisingly ignorant about these valuable plants!  However, in India, Thailand, and central Mexico, among other places, they are often aware.

Second pick:  The clear second-winner is the chile and bell pepper (it’s the same plant—the only difference is in the hotness).  All tropical areas seem to have learned this, and use chiles as “the poor man’s vitamin pill.”  The wide popularity of chiles is clearly related to their nutritional value.  Not only are they very high in all the nutrients; they are so easy to grow that they often grow from seeds dropped accidentally.  They also inhibit bacterial growth; chile powder is preservative.  However, they are tender and delicate in the seedling stage, and must be carefully watered and protected for the first few weeks.  After that they become incredibly tough, and will survive almost anything.  They produce spectacular amounts of nutrient on almost no input.  They are especially valuable because of their high content of the two most chronically short nutrients in the tropics:  Vitamin C and iron.

Following chiles come a range of vegetable crops that are about equal, but each with its own advantage.  Tomatoes and okra have a good balance of valuable traits (but okra is hard to grow in some areas).

Squash is extremely productive, fits well with other crops, and orange squash are one of the richest Vitamin A sources.  (Also, the tender young tips of squash vines are good as greens, and very nutritious.)  Most popular in the tropics seems to be the deep yellow winter squash known technically as Cucurbita moschata; popular names include butternut, nan gua, Oriental squash, calabaza, and so on.  It is particularly productive.  A vine can easily yield 40 or 50 large squashes, rich in vitamin A, and easy to store.

Sweet potatoes and carrots also get high marks for Vitamin A and ease of growing.  In some areas, orange-fleshed melons are up there too.  White potatoes have vitamin C as well as being extremely productive.

Beans and peas deserve special mention.  Dry beans are excellent sources of protein.  Valuable in a different way are green beans and peas:  not green-colored dry beans, but beans picked green and eaten pod and all.  Being fresh, they have a lot of vitamin C.  Most tropical areas have lots of kinds of beans, so—once again—you definitely should explore the local scene.  All these beans have their value, and some work where others don’t.  For example: ordinary peas, in the tropics, go fine in the mountains but not lower down; the tropical winged bean loves the hot, wet, rainy tropics where other beans won’t grow, but hates dry or high areas.

Soybeans are a major crop in subtropical areas, but don’t tolerate full tropical conditions.  They are not a very good food when green; small amounts are OK, but large amounts have too much phytic acid, and other chemicals that mess up digestion of other foods.  However, bean curd, soy sauce, tempeh, and other soy preparations are near-perfect foods, except for lack of vitamin C, and are very valuable to have around.

Onions, garlic, and chives (Allium species) are grown everywhere.  They not only taste good; they are effective antibiotics and anti-inflammatory agents.  Garlic especially has quite strong action against bacteria and fungi—not enough to make it a replacement for drug-store antibiotics, but enough to give it a place in the home garden for minor internal and external uses.  These plants also repel some pests.

Many of the temperate-zone garden favorites, like radish, lettuce, and cucumber, don’t grow very well in most of the tropics and are not very nutritious, so they are not a good bet for the tropical garden.

Medicinal herbs are almost always a part of the garden.  Everyone should have at least one or two home remedies around.  Some worldwide ones that almost everybody knows:

Mint.  One or another mint is in almost every garden in the world—probably the most widely grown plant on earth.  There are many species and varieties of mint; all are extremely effective against minor stomach upsets.  The tea is also soothing to the throat and mouth.  Make tea of the leaves, or just eat them for flavoring with food.  Rue (ruda, Ruta), a related plant, is widely used the same way.

Aloe vera.  This plant is actually several related kinds of aloe—there is no one species called “aloe vera”; Aloe barbadensis is the one you usually see.  The inner leaf tissue is great on burns and scratches.  Just split a leaf and put it on.  The mashed-up inside of the leaf is great for skin and hair in general.  The plant has a number of other, more local uses.

Sagebrush, mugwort, wormwood (Artemisia—there are many species grown).  Universally grown for killing intestinal worms; made into tea.  Note that very large amounts of this tea are poisonous and will kill you along with the worms.  Ask around for safe doses.  Some kinds work against malaria, but home-remedy use probably isn’t very effective—you need the purified chemical (artemisin).

Epazote, wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosioides).  Same use—tea for worms; seeds cause cramps and convulsions in large overdose.

Arnica.  Several related sunflower species.  They make a tea that’s great on bruises and sore joints.  One or another of them is grown in most parts of the world.

Ask locally about other medicinal herbs!  Most traditional local people know hundreds of species, many or most of which are at least slightly effective, and some few of which are as good as or better than drugstore remedies.

One of the most valuable things a food security worker can do is to record local wild food plants and medicinal plants.  You might discover a cure for AIDS or cancer, or at least a good trick for canker sores or skin eruptions.

Tree Crops

Here are the advantages of the major tree crops.  For a guide to all the possibilities, see Permaculture Plants by Jeff Nugent and Julie Boniface (2005).  It lists all the trees that are good for small intensive gardens; most are tropical trees.

Coconut:  Considered to be the world’s most useful tree.  The wood, leaves, fibres, sap (fermented for beer-like toddy), and every other part are useful, but here we consider only the nut.  This is almost a perfect food.  The meat is high in protein and has a good balance of vitamins and minerals.  The coconut water in the young nut is not only a great thirst-quencher, with vitamin and mineral value:  it’s sterile.  No contamination can get into the nut.  So coconut water is ideal for babies and other vulnerable people in areas where the water is polluted.  (That means just about all the tropics.)  In fact, coconut water is perfect for oral rehydration therapy (ORT):  restoring water and nutrients to a person with acute diarrhea.  The classic ORT formula is a cup of water to a spoonful of sugar, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of orange juice.  (Oranges, too, are sterile inside.)  But coconut water is actually better, and safer.  Coconut water has even been used for intravenous rehydration!  Medical personnel, in emergencies, have sometimes simply attached the nut to an IV feed.

A possible down side of coconut is that the flesh of an old mature nut is high in saturated fat.  Eating a lot of saturated fat can lead to heart disease.  However, coconut-eating does not statistically correlate with high heart disease rates.  So there may be some special protective factor here.

A far more serious down side to coconuts is that they are tragically susceptible to disease.  They grow very slowly, so replacing a dead tree takes years.  Recently, many coconut groves around the world have been wiped out, largely by the “lethal yellows” disease.  There are resistant varieties.  What was said above about the dangers of monocropping goes ten times over for coconuts, because they are so susceptible to contagion and grow so slowly.

In short:  every tropical food security project in coconut country should encourage these trees, but should seek varieties that resist local diseases.

There are many other palms, locally grown, that produce fruit, nuts, and/or sweet sugary sap.  All these are useful, and the faster-growing ones find a place in the home garden.  The peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), for instance, is widely used in Latin America.  Its fruit is rich in nutrients, including carotene.  Sugar palms (Arenga spp.) are tapped for their sweet sap in Asia and Indonesia; the sap boils down to a maple-sugar-like product.  Once again:  Ask around.

Avocados:  Possibly the highest-potential tree in the tropical world.  The fruit is high in protein.  It is high in oil, and this time the oil is not saturated, and is in fact extremely healthy.  Avocadoes have a decent amount of vitamins and minerals—not huge amounts, but a good balance.  The leaves of the Mexican varieties have a delightful flavor when used like bay leaves in soup or stew; they also have some medicinal effect on minor stomach ailments.  Add to this the fact that avocados will grow anywhere in the tropics—there are varieties for desert mountains and varieties for sopping wet rainforest coasts.  They stand drought and flood.  They need almost no care.  The only down side is that they take several years to come into full bearing.

Mango:  Another supertree, largely because of extremely high vitamin A and C values and extreme ease of growing.  Again, there are different varieties, adapted to any and all tropical conditions (as long as they get regular watering—but some live in the desert with only one deep watering per month).  A tree produces during a limited season, but different varieties often have different seasons, so you can stretch out the mango season over many months by planting different varieties.  This is one of many places where having a community matters; if everyone has space for only one mango tree, they can get together and plan to have different varieties and then exchange the fruit.

Papaya:  This is another top “tree.”  It is so small and nonwoody that it isn’t much of a tree—which makes it easy to fit into even the smallest garden.  It grows very quickly, and bears huge quantities of enormous fruit that is super rich in vitamin A value and has the other vitamins and minerals.  It is so popular that you can always find a ready sale for the fruit, thus producing good income.  I have seen a papaya orchard in a vacant lot in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh—providing a good income for the desperately poor householder.  Of all trees, this is the one that is most versatile, most flexible, most universally useful in the tropics.  It absolutely should be in every garden, and should be a significant part of every food security plan.

Banana:  Possibly the most widely grown tropical tree.  (Technically, it isn’t a tree, because the trunk isn’t woody.)  Most kinds have sweet fruit, but many (plantains, platanos) have starchy fruit that must be cooked to be edible.  Either way, the main advantage is the carbohydrate, but there is some vitamin C value, and some minerals, notably potassium.  Bananas, being short and not woody, fit well with taller trees.  Coconut-banana intercropping produces as much food per acre as a field of grain.  Unfortunately, disease problems (mostly with the coconut, sometimes with the banana) make this a poor idea for large-scale planting, but it is fine for a home garden.

Citrus:  Citrus trees of many species and varieties are grown everywhere in the tropics.  Once established, they are tough, but they are delicate when young, and they suffer from pests and diseases.  Still, they are good choices for small gardens.  Oranges are famous for their vitamin C content; other citrus doesn’t have much.  Citrus leaves make a tea that soothes the stomach; they are often used with mint for this.  Crushed citrus leaves release a lot of oil, which smells wonderful, and, more to the point, is soothing to the nose and skin.  They can be used for poultices.  Citrus flowers smell sweet and can flavor drinks and perfume water.

A citrus relative, the mangosteen, is common in southeast Asia, and bears wonderful fruit; it is common in gardens in that area in spite of being rather hard to grow.

Guava (lemon guava, guayaba, goyavier):  This South American small tree is so common and successful that it has become a major weed in many places.  It is almost unkillable, grows very easily, and bears fruit with five times as much vitamin C as the orange.  Moreover, the leaves and bark make a tea that is extremely effective against diarrhea.  In fact, it may well be the most widely used anti-diarrhea medicine in the world, since tropical people usually know it and usually can’t afford drug-store remedies.  (Several other tropical trees, such as nance [Byrsonima crassifolia], are good for this too.)  The only problem is that it is hard to find trees selected to bear heavily over a long time.  Most guavas are seedlings that don’t bear terribly well.  Even so, this is an ideal tree for neglected, small, or poor-soil spots.  It has, however, been too successful in some areas, escaping the garden and becoming a weed.  Don’t worry too much (but do check) about this—it’s already a weed in most of the places where that is a risk.

Mamey:  A nice example of a local, little-known fruit is the mamey (actually two closely related species:  Pouteria mammosa and Mammea americana).  These become very large trees that grow under quite harsh conditions and bear heavily.  The fruit is not watery, so is high in calories.  The Pouteria, at least, has extremely high vitamin A value, as well as other vitamins and minerals.  A well-grown Pouteria tree is 50 to 100 feet high, and bears hundreds of fruits, each weighing a couple of pounds—an enormous amount of food.  Moreover, the fruit—if cut up—dries and stores easily, and people have lived on dried mamey fruit for long periods.

Breadfruit:  This widely-grown Southeast Asian tree is unusual in that its fruit is a starch staple, not a sweet fruit.  The huge fruit is baked like bread and tastes like bread.  The seeds too can be baked or boiled and eaten.  The tree grows very tall.

Many other fruit trees are grown locally.  The following have less nutritional value, but are often grown, and are good for local gardens where they occur:  Rambutan, lychee, longan, loquat, rose-apple, soursop, jakfruit, pandanus, cherimoya, pond apple, kaniste, inga.  One could easily list 50 or 100 more tropical fruit trees in fairly common use.  Each has its value.  Some temperate-zone trees survive in mountains or subtropical areas with cool winters:  peach, apricot, etc.  Most temperate-zone trees, however, require cold winters to survive and set fruit.

Spices come from tropical trees, vines, and perennials.  Among the best for the small garden are small non-tree spices.  Especially good are ginger, turmeric, and black pepper, which are somewhat antiseptic and have some iron value.  They are thus usable at home, as well as being very saleable.  Cardamom, vanilla, and other small spice plants grow fast and take up little space (but are hard to start).  Spice trees include nutmeg, cinnamon, cassia, and clove.  They are harder to grow, take a while to produce, and take up space, so they are usually left to professional growers, but they can fit into a big garden.

Here are some more offbeat trees, with uses other than fruit:

Moringa:  This south Asian tree (Moringa oleifera) is too little known outside its homeland.  The leaves and young seeds are edible, and very nutritious (though not very good-tasting).  The wood is useful for fuel and construction.  The roots make a substitute for horseradish.  The plant has medicinal value.  The tree grows in beach sand, in sticky clay, in rocky barren soil, in semideserts, anywhere.  It is almost unkillable.

Leucaena:  This Mexican tree (Leucaena leucocephala and close relatives) has edible young seeds.  The foliage is good cattle and goat food (but not for horses or people).  The wood is useful for fuel, often producing more fuel faster than anything else.  The tree grows anywhere.  This is one to be careful about, though, because it becomes a worse weed than the guava, and it is not everywhere yet.  Don’t introduce it except where you can thoroughly control it.

Neem:  This Indian tree (Azadirachta indica) is useful not because it’s edible but because it’s poisonous.  Oil from the leaves and wood is one of the most effective insecticides and bacteriocides known, but is only very minimally poisonous to humans.  Thus it is used very widely in south Asia and the Indian Ocean region for insecticide and related purposes.  More widespread is the use of neem twigs for toothbrushes.  You chew on the twig to gnaw it into a brush, then clean your teeth with it.  Since neem oil is one of the most deadly chemicals to tooth decay bacteria, this is a very effective procedure!  Indeed, commercial neem-oil toothpaste is now common in the neem-growing areas of the world.

Coffee is easy to grow in most of the tropics, and generally saleable, but the coffee from a home garden isn’t always the finest in quality!  Tea is much harder to grow.  Chocolate usually grows well in wet tropical areas, but may not fruit, or may fruit only a little—not every area has the necessary pollinators.

Fast-growing alien timber trees are usually a bad idea; they compete with more desirable native trees and fruit trees; they are bad wildlife habitat; they too easily become weeds.  Trees turning perniciously invasive include acacias in Madagascar, eucalyptus and the related melaleucas almost everywhere, pines in several southern hemisphere countries, and several more.  Of course, all these trees can be very desirable in their native homes, or in carefully controlled situations elsewhere.

In general, trees planted solely for timber or firewood are a bad idea in a garden; fruit trees provide these benefits and the fruit.  If timber/firewood trees are planted, they  should be local natives.  These are adapted to the landscape, and host native wildlife.


The food security garden may not provide much starch staple food, but it can provide lots of needed protein (and some fat), especially in the form of small livestock.  For protein and iron, and for getting rid of weeds and garbage, animals are a valuable part of the garden world.  They also provide fertilizer.  Almost every traditional village on earth knows the trick of planting crops in the place where the animals were penned last.

All-round best is the chicken:  almost indestructible, easy to raise, and producing lots of eggs as well as meat.  Chickens fatten and thrive on a diet of pests—bugs, worms, and weeds that they eat off the garden.  They sometimes earn their keep even before they provide any food!  Commercial chicken feed and other purchased inputs are rarely necessary.

Ducks are useful in areas where there is water.  They have the same values as the chicken, though they are less easy to raise and lay somewhat fewer eggs.  Typical in the tropics the the muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) and various hybrids of it with the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  The tame muscovy is known by the red warts all over the male’s face.  Good eating, and very well adapted to tropical conditions.

Turkeys are usually a poor bet; they get disease.  In a few places they do well enough, however.  They go by some creative names.  They are”fire chickens” in China.  They are “bird that is not dangerous” (vorontsiloza) in Madagascar, where somebody must have needed reassurance after first seeing these huge, brilliantly-colored creatures.

Pigs are usually the best mammal; they fatten fast on relatively small amounts of feed, and they thrive on garbage and weeds.  In many areas they (like the chickens) are turned loose to eat the weeds and to do village sanitation, thus earning their keep while alive.  Pigs may compete with humans for grain in the developed world, but small gardeners don’t feed them anything that humans can eat.  Pigs, ducks, and fish can be integrated into a system, which is extremely productive, and thus often advocated by aid agencies.  However, it takes special expertise—it’s not for the home gardener.  It’s hard to manage, and mismanaging pollutes the water and air, often leading to epidemic disease of both the animals and the local humans.

In very dry areas, and in the many areas where pigs are taboo, goats are a good bet, but beware of their tendency to eat anything and everything; they have to be kept out of wildlands and out of the vegetable garden, and they have to be supervised so they don’t eat everything in sight.  Goats have the advantage that they can provide milk; milking goats are rare—too rare—in the tropics.

Sheep sometimes work out, but are harder to raise in the tropics and less versatile in feeding habits; they usually need special care.

Cows are not for the small garden, obviously, but do fine in big ones.  Temperate-zone cattle don’t survive well in the tropics.  Milking strains of zebu or zebu/cattle hybrids are necessary, and are now widely available.

Water buffaloes are too big for home gardens, but for small farms the water buffalo is a good bet in rice-growing areas.  Buffaloes have to have a lot of water and mud to wallow and wade in, but they are very well adapted to tropical conditions.  Milking varieties (largely from India) produce enormous quantities of rich milk under conditions where dairy cattle don’t thrive.

Rabbits and other exotic animals are not a good bet.  For some reason, governmental and NGO aid agencies often have a fixation on rabbit raising (cunicultura in Spanish).  Tom Dichter, in his wonderful book Despite Good Intentions (2003), gives a hilarious account of an all too typical rabbit-raising failure in Africa; the rabbits wound up costing the development agency several thousand dollars apiece.  I could match it with stories from my own experience.  Don’t waste your time.

Finally, a cat and a dog ought to be around the place to chase rats and thieves respectively.  Make sure the cat does not catch pest-eating birds.

Once you have a harvest, the food can be cooked or preserved.  Cooking should be long enough to kill germs and parasites, but not long enough to destroy vitamins.  That means about 10-20 minutes at very high heat, or 20 minutes to an hour boiling or steaming.  Tough plants take longer.

Well-designed stoves can save enormously on firewood.  The Chinese, long ago, developed the bucket stove.  It can be made by cutting holes in a bucket and lining it with clay, or just by making it out of ceramic clay from the start.  Either way, it’s the size and shape of a tin bucket.  It has two holes:  one low down for air to suck in, and one directly above for fuel to be put in.  Between them, half way up the stove, is a grate for the fuel.  You put a pot over the top, so it fits closely.  This stove will cook a whole meal on a handful of straw.  (An open fire uses several sizable logs to do the same job.)  Chinese cooks put rice in a pot, rest smaller dishes of meat and vegetables on the rice, cover the whole thing, and steam slowly—thus cooking a multicourse meal in one pot on that straw handful.  This is a neat trick, and saves millions of trees per year.  Bucket stoves are now widely known—they are universal in Madagascar and common in India, for example—but still are rare in Latin America and many other regions where they would be useful.  Fancier devices include biogas digesters and stoves, that run on methane from animal and plant wastes; these are a bit too complex for this booklet, but common in rural India, and not difficult to manage if you get a special manual.

Preserving under less than affluent tropical conditions usually means drying, often above the hearth fire so the smoke can add its preservative effects.  Fruits that are too thick and wet to dry before they rot are often made into paste, and then the paste is spread out in a thin sheet; the sheet dries fast, before rot can set in.  This is most often done with things like peaches and apricots, but is also done with tomatoes, chiles, and even sweet potatoes.  A roof makes a great drying place, usually the best you’ll find in the field.  A south-facing tin roof, in particular, can get very hot and dry.

Pickling with salt or vinegar is possible but requires special knowledge.  Canning is exceedingly difficult in tropical village situations.

Grain and other dry products can be stored without processing.  Common, and effective for small quantities, is to hang them above the kitchen fire to dry in the smoke.  Rats have a hard time getting to them (especially if they are hung on wire) and the smoke preserves them much better than simple drying.  For larger quantities, a granary is needed.  In a village or town setting, this should be lined with some sort of insect-repellent plant material.  Sagebrush is a favorite.  Beware of this contaminating the food, however.  Mixing in a drying and abrasive powder—just crushed limestone will do—is also effective.  In all these cases you have to seive out or wash off the material before using the food.  Insecticides are widely used, but are extremely dangerous if handled with less than the utmost care.  Mixing insecticide powder with food, or putting bomb insecticides under the granary, are obviously the worst possible ideas!

To sum all this up:

Choose the ground and check out spots within it

Dig up

Rake, sift

Work in compost

Choose crops




Deal with the products.

If you can do even a quarter of the things suggested here, you will greatly improve the world!  At first, you may improve only your immediate neighborhood, but if everyone copies you….  After all, Paradise is an old word for “garden.”  John Parkinson, when he published in 1629 what may be the most wondrous garden book ever written, gave it a Latin title:  Paradisi in Sole.  Paradise, yes; and the plain-English translation would be “park in sun.”  Bad puns were in style then.

Good luck!   God bless your work!

Further Reading

Some colleges and universities, notably the Papua-New Guinea University of Technology in Lae, Papua-New Guinea, make a major point of finding, collecting, and publishing materials for local gardeners as well as more advanced materials on food security (e.g. Bourke and Salisbury 2001).  Manuals in local languages often appear; this booklet is based partly on some old Indonesian ones.  Research centers like the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and CSIRO in Australia produce more advanced materials.   Do your research.  Local academic libraries usually have plenty.  Seek also bookstores that carry agricultural books and manuals; the capital city of the country usually will have one somewhere.  I have haunted such bookstores from Madagascar to Spain and from Indonesia to Bolivia, and gotten many wonderful local books.  In addition to informing you, local accessible books will inform your friends and fellow gardeners in the villages; they may not know what is happening in other parts of their home country.

Literally thousands of excellent books on gardening, organic farming, and permaculture (a highly developed, sophisticated form of gardening; Mollison and Slay 1997 is possibly the best introduction) have been written for temperate zones and for more affluent or technically skilled gardeners.  For users of this manual who want more, I particularly recommend Food from Dryland Gardens by David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri (1991), because it covers the same ground and makes the same points as the present booklet, but at full-scale textbook level.  Read it and learn it thoroughly and you’ll be able to do anything.  For temperate-zone gardens, notable is the Sunset Gardening Book series (many books in many editions; see e.g. Sunset 2001; but, again, these books are for affluent gardeners, and so stress expensive or toxic products wholly inappropriate for food security gardens).


Thanks to Barbara Anderson, Carmen Burch, David Dyjack, and Rebecca Vandenhoek for useful input.  Thanks especially to Phil Young for very extensive and helpful comments.


Bourke, R. M.; M. G. Allen; J. G. Salisbury (eds.).  2001.  Food Security for Papua-New Guinea.  (Proceedings of a conference at the Papua-New Guinea University of Technology).  Canberra:  Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Cleveland, David, and Daniela Soleri.  1991.  Food from Dryland Gardens:  An Ecological, Nutritional and Social Approach to Samall-Scale Household Food Production.  Tucson:  Center for People, Food and Environment.

Dichter, Thomas W.  2003.  Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.  Amherst & Boston:  University of Massachusetts Press.

Mollison, Bill, and Reny Mia Slay.  1997.  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.  Tyalgum, NSW, Australia:  Tagari Publishers.

Nugent, Jeff, and Julie Boniface.  2005.  Permaculture Plants.  White River Junction, VT:  Chelsea Green.

Pottier, Johan.  1999.  Anthropology of Food:  The Social Dynamics of Food Security.  Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Sunset.  2001.  The New Sunset Western Garden Book.  Menlo Park, CA:  Sunset Publishers.

Leave a Reply