“Sydney’s Seeds” – Permagardens in our Co-ops

4 Using a plan to design the garden_1

Sydney title

Trainer: Thomas Cole, Permagarden Consultant
Coordinator: Justin Bisengimana, Rwanda Program Director
Kayonza District, Eastern Rwanda

Our Work in Rwanda

Celine farming

Before the training: Celine gathering food from her family’s potato garden

With the support of World Dance for Humanity, 9,021 people in 25 Rwandan communities have emerged from survival mode and are creating a viable, sustainable livelihood for their members. Each family owns one or more goats, the community cares for several collectively-owned cows, the young people are in school, health care is covered, the members receive training (in leadership, business, and veterinary care), and each co-op has started its own community-run business. Through our annual visits and regular communication with the communities via our Rwanda program team, we’ve been able to develop a productive, passionate partnership with the people we serve.

For as long as anyone can remember, our Rwandan communities have relied on farming to stay alive. Their main crops include millet, maize, cassava, soy, and bananas. They also grow vegetables – corn, beans, onions, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots – in small “kitchen gardens.” During the rainy season (October to May), they can live off the crops they grow. But summers in Rwanda are bone dry, and food is scarce.

Having established an effective way of working and deep bond of trust with the communities we serve, we knew the time had come to help the communities improve their agricultural practices in order to secure a healthy, productive, year-round food source.

Sydney Baumgartner

Sydney Baumgartner

Sydney’s Seeds

In the summer of 2018, World Dancer Starr Siegele and her husband Larry Feinberg offered to fund a Permagarden Training Project – “Sydney’s Seeds” – to honor their dear friend Sydney Baumgartner, a well-known Santa Barbara Master Landscaper. They enlisted the help of their friend Thomas Cole, an expert in East African Permagarden training. Tom had just published the Permagarden Technical Manual to the US Agency of International Development, which set forth a guideline for training subsistence farmers in this simple but highly effective way of farming.

Tom traveled to Rwanda in October to teach his Permagarden techniques to representatives from five of our cooperatives: Abaharaniramahoro, Icyerecyezo, Twiyubake, Twisungane Imbereheza, and Ruganeheza with the understanding that these farmers will share their new knowledge with our other co-ops. Three members of our Rwanda Team also took part: Justin Bisengimana (Rwanda Program Director), Dany Rukundo (Program Assistant), and Judy Rwibutso (Business Coordinator).

The training was a HUGE success, as you can see in this video, taken one month later:
[If you’re not seeing the captions, click “CC” in bottom right of the screen]

PERMA UPDATE: Photos from our December 2017 Rwanda visit

Tom’s Report from the Fall Training

tom cole

Thomas Cole, Permagarden Trainer

Our Permagarden Training was held October 30th to November 4th in the Abaharaniramahoro Cooperative at the home of Consolée Kayitesi. All lessons and practical exercises were held in her compound, with some resource walks and mapping exercises taking place in the other co-ops.

The curriculum was based on six key concepts of a sustainable home garden found in the USAID Permagarden Manual and Training Guidelines. These are:

  • Utilize local resources
  • Create an efficient garden design
  • Soil health
  • Water management
  • Bio-Intensive planting
  • Plant health and protection

The key focus was helping the farmers understand the importance of soil fertility and water management, and how to build this capacity using only resources freely available around them. This was achieved through a series of discussions, participatory exercises and hands-on garden design, soil building and water management. It was clear that most if not all the farmers had never received training of this sort, and that most had no idea of the importance of soil fertility, nor any ideas on how to achieve it.  Likewise, almost all saw the overflow of rainwater as a negative, and had designed their compounds to send the water away.  This was even as many of them lodged complaints of their crops drying out during the previous growing season.

The goal of the training then became making the linkages between water catchment, building soil fertility through the addition of locally available soil amendments and how to maximize these approaches to grow healthier and greater quantities of crops.

Before the main teaching began there were a series of exercises and discussions to lay the groundwork.  These included introductions of the farmers, setting expectations and voicing fears of the training, the contributions of a permagarden to household food security, the similarity between what is needed for healthy people and healthy plants and what is meant by resilience (and what does it look like in the words of the farmers themselves).

The main takeaway was that healthy crops need adequate amounts of water, nutrients, care, sun, air and protection to produce well.  There was a consensus that most of their crops don’t receive this.

Mapping to discover local resources

Mapping to discover local resources

Utilize Local Resources

These sessions helped to describe the value and usefulness of waste materials and resources found around the home and how we can use them to meet our basic needs.  The main learning was built around a participatory mapping exercise that allowed the participants to gather, list and map out all of the resources they found in the community around the training venue.  This included cows, goats, chickens (and their manures), grasses, various trees, shrubs, people, charcoal dust, wood ash, crop residues, water sources, medicinal plants, local vegetable varieties.  Included in the map were different types of external influences that affect the site, such as prevailing wind direction, slope (for flow of water and nutrients) or path of the sun.

Using a plan to design the garden

Using a plan to design the garden

Creating an Efficient Garden Design

Using the map and the information gained from the previous exercise, the participants identified and mapped out the best possible spot in the home compound for the new permagarden.  This was achieved after assessing and analyzing the challenges, opportunities, available resources and external influences identified for the site. A plan was developed for the location of the growing beds, including various water catchment structures designed to maximize the amount of water available to the garden. The site was then cleared and marked out according to the plan.

Double digging garden planting beds

Soil Health

Before digging the garden beds there was further discussion that the majority of soil amendments and fertilizers that our crops and trees need can be found around the home compound or within the community.  As most are commonly seen as waste they generally don’t cost anything.  The mapping exercise allowed everyone to know exactly where these can be found.  The group was then tasked to go and collect as much of these materials as possible.  This included cow dung, chicken and goat manure, green grasses, green leaves from several different trees, dried grass, crop residue, dregs from brewing, charcoal dust, wood ash and organic material remnants from existing rubbish pits. In some cases farmers had been making compost from the waste of their milk cows.

Most farmers had only practiced putting manure on top of their soil (which can then be washed away with the first rain) to feed their plants, never realizing that the majority of those nutrients never actually benefit their crops.  These sessions introduced the idea of deep soil preparation, and how to add amendments to feed the living soil organisms that then provide nutrients for crops.  This was a major revelation for everyone. Discussions continued around key ideas of soil health: maintaining soil health doesn’t require special skills or tools; deep soil preparation allows the crop roots to go deep to reach water, nutrients and air within the soil; managing soil fertility with local resources is a low-cost way to increase harvests and potential profits.

According to the design made by the farmers, we then dug various beds using both the double-dug and single-dug approaches.

Learning the A-frame as a water management too

Learning the A-frame as a water management too

Water Management

Another profound lesson for me was the disconnect in understanding between rainfall, rainwater management and crop growth. As our host Consolée said, she didn’t realize the importance of managing rainwater, and had always felt that it caused more harm than good.

This module was built around several practical examples to show how proper water management can help protect the soil and provide more water to crops. Likewise, the examples showed how much damage can be caused by not protecting soil with mulch or other water conservation measures.  The farmers were then shown how rainfall and surface water runoff can be controlled and managed through the 3 S’s of water management: Slow, Spread, Sink.  The slowing and spreading of runoff water can prevent soil erosion and increase soil moisture retention to grow stronger plants.  These principles were shown in a practical exercise and then demonstrated as the strategies of swales and berms to be utilized in the garden.  Dead-level contour lines were discovered through the use of an A-frame. These strategies were incorporated into the final design and digging of the demonstration garden.

Planting the garden using Bio-intensive methods

Planting the garden using Bio-intensive methods

Bio-Intensive Planting

Proper deep soil preparation and water management in the garden allows plants to be grown closer together than normally thought.  This practice allows earlier canopy closure, retains more moisture in the soil, eliminates weeds quicker and provides more food for the farmer.  Triangular plant spacing, succession planting, crop rotation and multi-cropping were all strategies shared with the farmers to maximize the growth in their gardens.  Emphasis was placed on strategies to ensure adequate quantities of nutritious food are always available to the household to eat, as well as to sell.  The importance of balancing local seed varieties (more widely grown, often more nutritious) with improved varieties (the onions, peppers and tomatoes often promoted by NGOs for IGAs) was discussed, as well as the importance of having a mix of annual and perennial crop and tree varieties growing in the garden. It is the perennial plants/trees that often give a harvest in the middle of the dry season.

Sowing seeds following their planting plan

Sowing seeds following their planting plan

Plant Health and Protection

Much was said during the training about the fact that the main form of plant health and protection is making sure that your crops have adequate nutrients and water. We also spent some time discussing various ways to make liquid fertilizers and pest remedies from plants and manure.  A widely grown weed in the area (pointed out during the mapping process) was identified as one of East Africa’s key plants to make a highly effective botanical fertilizer. We used one practical exercise to demonstrate how to harvest and prepare this plant (Tithonia). It was recommended to Justin that he translate some of the recipes given to him on pest remedies and botanical fertilizers to be able to share with the farmers as we didn’t have more time to go into practicals.


Consolée in her new permagarden

Consolée in her new permagarden



The time spent with the farmers in Kayonza was very full and packed with participatory and practical exercises.  We closed by offering everyone a chance to say a few words on how they felt coming out of the training. For most everyone this was an eye-opening process, and hopefully can serve as a catalyst to improving their agronomic practices. Circling back to the fears and expectations expressed on the first day it was stated repeatedly that we eliminated all of their fears and more than met their expectations.

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