Growing Food Under the Canopy


ECHO's Hill Side Gardening Demonstration Zone

ECHO's Hillside Farming Demonstration Zone

On Tuesday, August 18th, 2009, Worldwatch Senior Researcher, Danielle Nierenberg, and Research Fellow, Molly Theobald took a trip to ECHO Farms in Fort Myers, Florida to see some examples of agricultural innovations and technologies in action. The following post is the third in a four-part series that discusses this trip and some of the things we learned.

ECHO’s Global Farm is divided into six agro-ecological zones—Hillside Farming, Urban Rooftop Gardens, Tropical Monsoon, Rain Forest Clearing, Semi-arid Tropics, and Hot Humid Lowlands—which are maintained by the farm’s eight interns.  Each intern is responsible for one section for the entire one-year internship, allowing for a completely hands on learning experience from planting to harvesting.

ECHO’s philosophy is that a village, a town, or a community is best served by development workers who have both a working knowledge of a particular environment and experience implementing innovations on the ground. During our visit to ECHO we were able to catch up with a couple of interns and get a more in-depth tour of two of the six agro-ecological zones.

We met Terry Lynn as she tramped through the part of ECHO dedicated to learning about how to grow food crops in small plots of land within tropical rainforests. Terry Lynn is near the end of her one year internship. She plans to take what she’s learned at ECHO back home to Saskatchewan where she hopes to work on small farms, expanding her already impressive experience and knowledge before going to work overseas.  As Terry Lynn prepares to graduate from the program she is training David, another intern from Alberta, Canada who grew up on a small farm, growing tomatoes in a greenhouse with his family.

Together, interns Terry Lynn and David introduced us to some creative and practical techniques for getting the most out of an environment that, while providing extremely fertile soil, lacks large areas of sun exposure. In this zone the interns focus on polyculture, combining multiple crops which benefit from growing together.  This system presents an advantage in the rain forest because, while there is plenty of moisture, there is not always enough direct sunlight.

Terry Lynn showed us a trellising system that encourages plants, such as wing beans, that need more sun to grow up, while providing room for plants that can tolerate the shade to grow underneath. Almost every part of a wing bean plant is edible; the pods taste like peas and can be eaten young along with the leaves and even the roots of some varieties. Sharing the trellis with the wing beans was luffa, a vine that produces a cucumber or squash like vegetable that can either be eaten young or allowed to mature to be harvested later and dried, bleached and turned into the luffa sponges we see at bath stores.

David showed us another part of the Rain Forest Clearing designed to replicate the efficient ecosystem of an old growth forest: Leaves fall to the ground, creating mulch and eventually breaking down to provide nutrients to the soil that are reabsorbed by the plants. As a result, the system is completely closed, with no waste. In ECHO’s plot, Glericidia, nitrogen fixing trees that lose their leaves during the dry season (when vegetables need the most sunlight) provide direct light and an excellent source of nitrogen to the crops planted below. David pointed to the Okinawa Spinach cutting that was recently planted at the base of the Glericidia, along with Vanilla Orchid, a shade-loving plant that will climb the trees, leaving room for a vegetable crop at the base to grow as soon as the Glericidia looses its leaves.

Our final ECHO post goes up tomorrow  and will discuss urban agriculture and roof top gardening techniques.

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