The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 18, 2009


Gardening in Kisoro, Uganda – a little different from Foss Farm


The author, Roger Goulet, lays out beans for drying. For three or four days, the beans will be loaded into sacks in the evening and carried into the house only to be hauled out again in the morning to dry in the sun. If the beans aren’t fully dried, they will rot in the middle. (Courtesy photo)

Like most Mosquito readers, I enjoy reading about trips our townspeople have taken to exotic places around the world. Many of these travel pieces are just that – descriptions of journeys from point to point which recount necessarily fleeting impressions of places and people along the way. For this article I thought I would take a different approach, a more down-to-earth one, literally. Many people in Carlisle enjoy gardening, on their own land or at Foss Farm, so what follows is a brief description of gardening practices in the East African highlands of Uganda.

As all gardeners know, good soil is the basis of everything. My wife Florence owns a house in Kisoro in the far southwestern corner of the country. To get there you drive through the rolling savannah of central Uganda and cross some low but steep foothills. The 25-mile drive takes two hours; the first third is wonderful but the remainder of the road is not for the faint of heart.

Black volcanic soil

The town of Kisoro lies in a small valley between these hills and the much higher Virunga Mountains, a chain of extinct volcanoes that stretches along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. At 13,450 feet, Mount Muhabura towers majestically behind Florence’s house. Countless eruptions over the ages have given Kisoro a deep layer of black volcanic soil that is amazingly fertile. The same crops have been raised on the same land for hundreds of years without a thought for organic or chemical fertilizer. I deduced that the soil is slightly acidic, since the hydrangeas produce blue flowers.

Next in importance to soil is climate. Lying almost exactly on the equator, temperatures vary little from month to month. June and July along with December and January are the dry months, with rain more frequent during the rest of the year, but Uganda is free of the drought/monsoon syndrome that makes agriculture so difficult in other countries. Average annual rainfall is 50-60 inches, compared with 44 inches in Massachusetts. However, there is no drizzly, English-style mist; when it rains, it rains. Because of this, gardeners prepare the soil very differently from the way we do here. It is scooped up into mounds 18 inches tall, where the seeds are planted.When there is a two-hour torrential downpour the excess water runs off and the seeds aren’t washed away.

What saves Kisoro from the steamy, “Heart of Darkness” atmosphere that people associate with equatorial Africa is its altitude – over 4,500 feet. Here daytime highs rarely exceed 85 degrees Farenheit, and temperatures at night can drop into the 50s. Even during a heavy rain it never feels clammy.

Florence Goulet’s home in Kisoro with a view of Mt. Muhabura in the distance. (Courtesy photo)

A variety of vegetables

So what do gardeners grow in Kisoro, and how do they grow it? The answers are, just about everything, and very easily.

Florence’s sister Agatha, who manages the house, has a kitchen garden about the size of four Foss Farm plots. In it are some 200 potato plants, 50 corn stalks, five banana plants, a few sugar cane stalks and the rest in pole beans. When we were there, she dug up two potato plants which yielded enough spuds for six people for two days. They plant potatoes three times a year.

The beans are similar to the Coco-Rubico variety we have here, and are harvested in two ways: while the pods are still soft, and after they have dried. In the latter case the beans are threshed and sold, mostly to schools. One afternoon Florence and I picked about a quarter-bushel of soft-shell bean pods from the seven-foot tall vines in about 15 minutes. They produced about eight quarts of beans, again enough for two days. (It should be noted that vegetables there are not an adjunct to the meal the way they are here; most days they are the meal.) There are two crops of beans per year.

Here and there around the house are small beds of spinach-like greens as well as mesclun from U.S. seeds. The mesclun does especially well, seeding itself and making a kind of ground cover. A rosemary bush in the corner of the garden provides a savory flavor for cooking. Some carrots were just coming up in early June. Agatha has grown them successfully in the past to about 1½ inches in diameter and 10–12 inches long. She did not grow peas, but one evening a neighbor brought over a ten-pound sack from her garden. People like peas because they are virtually care-free – plant them and forget about them until time to harvest.

Lest the reader think that everything thrives all the time, heat- and sun-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers grow best during the dry seasons. You can raise them during the wet months, but they do less well.

One big difference between Carlisle and Kisoro home gardeners is their corn. Sweet corn is unknown there. The corn in Agatha’s garden is “cow” (field) corn. Commercially raised corn is ground into meal, while people at home pick it while the ears are relatively soft and roast it over charcoal for a chewy snack.

Few pests

I asked about garden pests, but there don’t seem to be many. Agatha said that sometimes a tiny mite attacks tomato leaves, but there is a spray for that. A worm similar to our corn-borer infests corn, but people take it in stride. Thus their food is almost entirely pesticide-free.

Limited fruit

In Uganda as in the U.S., it’s hard to grow a steady supply of fruits at home. Florence has an avocado tree and two passion fruit vines, but the fruits are green now. Two three-year-old pawpaw (papaya) trees have yet to produce anything. Actually, avocados are about the only fruit that does well in Kisoro. Ugandans grow wonderful mangoes, pineapples and papayas, as well as jackfruit the size of a fourth-grader’s backpack, but only at lower altitudes. The pineapples are particularly sweet. Florence’s first U.S. pineapple was her last, and I can see why.

We think of bananas as a fruit, and sweet bananas are consumed in Uganda, but the vast majority grown are cooking bananas, which are steamed and mashed to make the national dish, matooke. Bland, starchy and filling, it is part of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each banana plant produces three or four stalks, and each stalk usually yields a single cluster of 50-100 bananas each year. When you cut off the bananas, you trim back the stalk, and it starts growing again.

Agatha doesn’t have a lot of time to tend flowers, so it’s lucky that they are low-maintenance like the vegetables. The beds in front of and alongside the house hold flowers familiar to every Carlisle gardener: red and white dahlias, daisies, marigolds, hydrangea, calla lilies, roses and purple iris. There is also an aloe vera plant which people use for itchy scalp and apply to minor burns. These are all of local origin; the only imported flower is a morning glory. (I confess I was a little surprised by this. I guess part of me expected torrid, savage blooms like something out of W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, not dahlias and daisies, for crying out loud!)

A little envious

When Florence read this article, she asked, “Did you write this to make people here feel envious?”

“What ever makes you say that?” I replied indignantly. “And anyway, to quote Alexander Pope: ‘Envy will merit as its shade pursue, but like a shadow prove the substance true.’”

I suppose envy is the dark side of pity, and when I described New England’s gardening parameters to people in Kisoro – weeding, watering, hoeing, spraying and sweating to produce one crop during a short growing season, followed by six months of frozen death – I could swear I read pity in their eyes. ∆

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