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Permagardens In Practice: Resilience in Action (Uganda, Africa)

PDCs are tricky. For two weeks we tumble into this community of unfamiliarly familiar, curious strangers. The constant whirlwind of habits, obligations, and distractions that composes our lives momentarily dissipates and we are thrust into this world where our main responsibility is to be open-minded, observe, think, learn, and connect. Yet, at the end of the day, we are singular beings and we all have our lives that we will return to. As PDC participants, we are exposed to this new paradigm together, share bemusement at fractal patterns and individual inspirations, and then suddenly depart the entropy we fell into and hopefully go off with the intent to use permaculture as a framework for making society and the environment more resilient.

However, after I was formally introduced to permaculture, as a nomadic recent college graduate, I was not sure how permaculture could be a tangible part of my life. The fulfillment from a sense of belonging and purpose I experienced during the PDC instilled within me a restless need to contribute to a project and/or community. So, I found myself asking, “Now what?”.

I started seeking communities that could significantly benefit from permaculture in an immediate, tangible way. This has led me on a byzantine path and to permagarden trainings in Northern Uganda, where I am interning for an NGO, called CAFWA (Community Action Fund for Women in Africa). Founded by Linda and Thomas Cole, CAFWA works to empower women and men in post-conflict areas through skill building. CAFWA focuses on activities that locals are already active in, or seeking to improve on: agriculture, natural resource management, adult literacy, and microfinance.

To intern with CAFWA is an honor because it offers an alternative to international ‘aid’ that is all too often muddled with so many unsustainable contradictions. CAFWA’s work is effective due to Linda Cole’s dedication to site observation. In preparation, Linda spent a year in Northern Uganda, meeting with women’s groups, community leaders, elders, and government officials, in order to learn as much as possible about the situation and needs of women and girls. With the second highest birthrate in the world, there are obvious needs in Northern Uganda, especially for improving soil fertility and crop yields.

The Permagarden training was led by Tom Cole, former director of Save The Children in Uganda, international philanthropy consultant, and coauthor, with Peter Jensen, of a Permagarden Manual for building biointensive gardens for Peace Corps volunteers. The goal of the training was to introduce low capital methods to increase household food production and income generation. The training of 20 CAFWA community mobilizers and functional adult literacy instructors took place over three days. After the training, CAFWA staff continued the permagarden trainings in their respective villages. Tom and I thereafter observed two following permagarden trainings that were facilitated by CAFWA members.

Permagardens, Before & After:

Training, Day One

The training began with establishing a context for why learning about biointensive gardening was relevant. With the aid of Peter, our translator, Tom first asked the participants, “Why are you here?” to provide insight as to how we can improve their lives with the free, resources around us.

We discussed and drew assets that give a home value and the resources necessary for security. Tom provoked engaged questioning and involvement by all of the participants to express the benefits of having the initiative to take control of our lives in simple ways, such as with water. We considered how environmental shocks, such as flood and drought, could be responded to effectively.


Tom focused on how water flow can be controlled in order to prevent erosion and fertility loss. To transition to the A-frame and swale activity, Tom introduced the swale and its ability to stop, slow, sink, and spread water. We divided into groups and constructed and calibrated A-frames and made swales on sloped land.

Resource Mapping

Afterwards, the groups went on a resource walk to observe and gather free, underutilized, or wasted resources within the household compound, markets, and surrounding vegetation. Lastly, each group presented a map of the resources they found. Noted were: charcoal, wood ash, piles of discarded cassava leaves leftover from alcohol brewing (a commonly consumed drink that Acholi women make and Acholi men drink), and greywater in the household compound, ad hoc vegetable scrap heaps at the market, bloodmeal, manure, and burnt animal bones at the butcher, neem and moringa trees, and nitrogen and carbon sources for compost and soil amendments.

Training, Day Two

Before we started the day’s activities, of compost making and double dug garden beds, Tom asked the participants, “What do humans and plants need to survive?” Comparing these needs brought clarity to soil fertility. By understanding our mutual needs of air, water, protection/shelter, heat, nutrients, sunlight, and care, the participants were able to approach making a compost pile with a sense of familiarity. Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people.

Compost Making

Tom introduced compost as an efficient method that participants could adopt to improve soil fertility without the expense of travelling to the city to purchase costly fertilizers. We considered how compost improves soil structure, reduces erosion, provides essential soil nutrients, and promotes crop resilience.

To make the compost pile, the participants gathered (and cut into small pieces) a diversity of brown and green materials, goat and cow manure, water, and soil amendments of wood ash, charcoal dust, bone dust, and blood meal. As a green material, Tom added tithonia, a local shrub (that grows along the roadsides like a weed) high in nitrogen and phosphorus, to promote nutrient accumulation within the compost. We started by adding a bottom layer of thick maize stalks and twigs to allow air flow and good drainage throughout the compost pile. We then added a brown layer, then water, then green layer, then water, and then manure and soil amendments. We then repeated this process until we had a 1m x 1m compost pile. We topped the compost with brown material and added a stick in the middle of the compost to serve as a thermometer and increase aeration. We made the compost under a tree to provide shade and moisture. Tom explained the importance of flipping the compost pile after two weeks and then flipping the pile and adding water to ensure the pile is damp at least once a week. Participants asked questions about the amount and technique of applying compost to double dug garden beds, and why it is a good sign of soil fertility if worms are found in the compost pile. We discussed how the compost pile would shrink in size and the final product would be dark brown and crumbly. In addition, Tom pointed to how plastics, human feces, meat, and batteries should not be added to the compost pile. Lastly, Tom stressed the importance of having multiple compost piles at various stages of decomposition, to serve as a readily available fertilizer for transplanting seedlings or adding to double dug garden beds.

Establishing Permagardens

We first located an appropriate site where the permagarden would be established. Before we started to prepare the site, Tom explained the benefits and need for the initial intensive labor input for the permagarden beds. Permagarden beds address the importance of managing water and soil fertility. Permagardens target: garden bed design (surrounding protective berms), soil nutrient and moisture content (double digging, compost and soil amendments, and mulching beds), and crop yields (triangular plant spacing, seasonal crop rotation between beds).

Ideally, crop rotation can maximize nutrient levels available to plants and how plants respond to certain nutrients. Crops should be rotated by planting crops in decreasing order of their nitrogen needs. For instance, leafy greens should be planted first and then followed by fruiting plants, rooting plants, and legumes. This rotation order is designed to provide greens with nitrogen (which is needed for leaf development) and to prevent rooting plants from diverting their growing energy from root development into unnecessary leaf growth.

Soil amendments included free resources found within the community: aged manure, wood ash, blood meal, bone meal, and charcoal dust. These were added to encourage active microbial life, maintain pH balance, increase plant nutrient levels of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphate, and hold and filter water within the soil.

Garden Design

We used hoes and rakes to clear the soil of weeds and grasses and string to measure and visualize the garden perimeter. Because the site had a slight slope, we dug swales with berms across the upper part of the slope of the garden perimeter to capture water flow and protect the beds from erosion. The swales were about 30 cm deep x 30 cm wide. Soil for the berm was placed down slope to serve as a perennial planting bed. Between the berms and the garden bed was placed a water-capturing foot pathway. This swale pathway served two functions. It could retain water and make the water available for the crops during minimal rainfall, or divert excess water from flooding the beds in case of heavy rainfall.

At each end of the swale-pathway between the berm and the bed, a pit was dug. The berm went around the exterior pit edge. Each pit was about 50cm wide and deep. These pits were placed to catch excess runoff water in the event of heavy rainfall, and were planted with banana suckers. The soil amendments were added to the banana pits, and each banana was lathered with a wood ash and water mixture.

Double Digging

In comparison to conventional soil preparation, double digging increases the air, water, and nutrient content of both the topsoil and subsoil layers. Tom emphasized how the double dug beds could serve as “permanent beds” if they were continuously cared for by adding compost, watering, and mulching. We discussed the need to protect the garden beds from being walked on or trampled by animals. Tom stressed the success he and Peter have observed with double digging and how it is being adopted because it is a free alternative to applying expensive fertilizers. In Tanzania, Peter Jensen has been teaching double digging as an effective method for bio intensive permagardens, to Peace Corps Volunteers for years. From observation and experience, Peter suggests double digging can significantly improve yearlong food security, reduce weed growth and water loss by 80%, and decrease overall labor requirements in the long-term.

By breaking through the compacted subsoil layer and amending it, plant roots can grow down further, instead of growing out to the sides. When plant roots grow out to the sides, they compete with one another for the available nutrients in the topsoil layer. Consequently, plants are spaced farther apart. This compromises plant yields and increases the surface area of soil exposed to the sun (if beds are not mulched). When plant roots can grow down and deep into the subsoil layer, plants can be placed closer together, and yields can increase.

Each bed length and width was measured with string. The beds were dug along the contour of the land. The beds were 1m wide x 5m long, and the pathways between the beds were 0.5m wide. To build the bed, we divided the bed up into about 1m manageable segments. In the first meter section, the first 20cm of topsoil was loosened.

When the compacted, subsoil layer was reached, the soil was removed and placed in a pile outside the bed. Then about 40cm of the subsoil layer was dug and broken up.

About six large handfuls of manure and three large handfuls of each soil amendment were added to the loosened subsoil. Then the topsoil from the next meter section was loosened and added to newly amended subsoil layer.

This process was repeated until the bed was complete.

The topsoil initially put aside from the digging of the first meter of the bed was then placed over the subsoil of the last meter section of bed. The beds were raked and the topsoil of the beds and berms were additionally amended with manure that was gently hand mixed into the soil and then raked again to create a flat surface and defined bed edge with maximized surface area for planting and to prevent erosion.

Training, Day Three

On the last day of training, we planted seeds and mulched the permagarden beds. Tom additionally suggested how liquid fertilizers and natural insecticides could be applied throughout the growing season to maintain crop resilience.

Planting Seeds and Seedlings

The following seeds were planted in the beds: local greens (malakwang, boo, akeyo, lala), onion, carrot, maize, cabbage, eggplant, pepper, beans, and amaranth. Although in rough condition, tomato, shallot, and malakwang seedlings were also planted. To clarify where the bean seeds were to be planted, string was placed along the bed. Carrot and amaranth seeds were mixed with sand to prevent planting too many seeds per bed. Individual seeds were then watered.

Tom explained how strategic plant spacing can improve crop yields and introduced the method of triangular plant spacing. In the first row 3 seeds are planted, in the next row 2 seeds are planted, and start their own longitudinal row in the spaces between where the first seeds are planted. In the following row 3 seeds are planted to share a longitudinal row where the seeds in the first row are planted. Sticks of various sizes were used to mark where the seeds were planted.

To create a trellis for the tomatoes and seedling nursery cassava stalks were used. The nursery was built to protect vulnerable eggplant and pepper seedlings before transplanting from intense sun and rain. A thatch structure supported by cassava stalks was built. Tom explained how once the seedlings are stronger and develop leaves, that they can be transplanted and planted deeply into the soil.

The berms were planted with lemongrass, pigeon pea, marigold, and chili to stabilize the soil and deter pests. In addition, when participants expressed concern about mites and the rotting of tomatoes, Tom demonstrated how neem, can serve as a natural pesticide. Locally, a tree that looks similar to the neem and shares its properties grows in abundance. By pressing neem seeds and extracting the oil, the oil can be diluted in water and applied to plants to prevent foliar diseases or pests.


To demonstrate the importance of mulch, Tom compared the difference between a plant with and without mulch during a rainstorm. Tom poured water over the plants and amended the soil around the plant. The water ran off from the plant without mulch, taking the amended soil with it. The water was stopped by the mulch and was able to slow down, sink, and spread into the soil. The next day the plant with mulch still had moist soil.

The beds and berms were mulched with green and brown materials and watered.

Liquid Fertilizers

Lastly, Tom introduced how liquid fertilizers of tithonia, moringa, and manure could be prepared and applied. Tom showed the participants how tea could be applied by burying a punctured water bottle up to the opening, placing it near a plant, and filling the bottle with the liquid mixture. We then listed the benefits each fertilizer provided.

Tithonia is an excellent fertilizer because it is a dynamic accumulator of nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil. Although tithonia is originally from Central America, it can be found throughout Uganda (and in Eastern and Southern regions of Africa). Although the participants recognized tithonia, they were unfamiliar with its uses. Tithonia is easily identifiable due to its yellow daisy-like flowers; it is a tall, bushy herb with several stems from the base to the crown, and can grow up to 4 meters tall in fertile soil. It can either be planted from seeds, or from cuttings. Before tithonia flowers, it can be added into a compost pile, directly to the soil as mulch, or made into liquid fertilizer (manure tea) because its leaves are soft and rot quickly, especially when cut into smaller pieces.

When making the tithonia tea, we used the entire plant. We cut the tithonia into pieces and put the pieces into a sack. We added a rock to the sac (to weigh it down) and tied the neck of the bag with rope, and attached the bag to a pole. We then filled a large container with water and hung the bag in the water, with the pole placed, which we placed across the top of the container. Lastly, we discussed the importance of dipping the bag in and out of the water and of stirring the mixture several times a week, until the liquid turned dark, after about 2-3 weeks.

Moringa, a tree found throughout the tropics, can serve as a fertilizer for soil, nutrient dense food or tea for humans, and animal fodder. Many of the participants had moringa growing in their compound, but were only using it as a medicinal tea for humans.

Manure tea adds nitrogen to soil and increases soil fertility. Chicken manure, cow manure, or aged compost can be used. If using cow manure, a slurry of urine and cow dung can be used.

Fertilizer Tea Recipe

  1. For plants, cut the leaves (tithonia, moringa) into pieces. For manure, collect either fresh or aged manure.
  2. Put the plant pieces or manure into a bag or sack of a size that will fit into the container you will use. Tie the neck of the bag with rope.
  3. Fill an oil drum or a large pot three-quarters full with water.
  4. Hang the bag in the water, attaching it to a pole placed across the top of the container.
  5. Cover the container.
  6. Stir the mixture every 3-5 days by partially lifting the bag in and out of the water several times.
  7. After 2-3 weeks the liquid will have turned dark and most of the nutrients will be dissolved in it. It is then ready to use.
  8. Remove the bag.

Dilute the tea with water until it becomes lighter in color. With the exception of manure tea, water any crop with yellowing leaves or disease with the tea mixture. Apply the liquid on the leaves and soil two or three times a week for three or four weeks.

One week later

When I returned to visit the gardens, the main concern was the destruction of the gardens by animals, lack of mulch on the beds, and lack of heat and decomposition of the compost pile. In an effort to deter chickens and goats from trampling the garden, mulch was removed from the garden beds. Consequently, some of the seedlings were dying due to being scored by the sun and the lack of moisture in the soil. To protect the garden I suggested constructing a live fence around the garden and planting moringa around the garden to serve as live fence and windbreak in the long-term.

I will be visiting the gardens every week to observe if the gardens are being maintained and document growth, yields, and challenges. Considering the enthusiasm and untiring work ethic of the participants, I believe these gardens will be a catalyst for them to improve their lives and livelihoods. Furthermore, if the gardens demonstrate higher yields, I am confident that participants will share these skills and that permagardens can spread as a model that post-conflict communities in Northern Uganda can adopt to strengthen resiliency and reduce dependence on external aid.

Ugandan ululations of gratitude to the committed efforts of Linda and Tom Cole and Peter Jensen for devoting their time and hearts to this effort.


  1. I’m curious to know more about the methods you will use to assess the gardens in the coming weeks. Will the yields be measured in relation to conventional gardens nearby? And what else, besides yields directly from the garden beds, could be observed (and possibly measured) in this process of determining the ways in which this approach to gardening improves the lives and livelihoods of the participants?

    I would also like to hear more about the reception of these ideas in this setting. What did the participants see as being significant about permaculture (or, probably in this case it would be limited to the concept of permabeds)? And what did the participants bring to the exchange of ideas?

    Thank you for the detailed article!

  2. After visiting the gardens, I also found that since Gulu is entering the dry season, each pathway should be dug into a swale to without water. In addition, swales and berms should be dug around the perimeter of the garden. An additional problem being faced is destruction of stored beans, maize, and other grains being eaten the weevil.

    Available methods that do not require contaminating chemicals to prevent weevil & fats in grain storage include:

    Add to stored grains:
    • Neem leaves
    • Eucalyptus leaves
    • Tobacco leaves
    • Dried chili
    • Wood ash
    • diatomaceous earth

    • Sanitation and cleaning of equipment, storage bins and other areas where grain might have spilled to prevent weevils from moving from older stored or spilled grain to the following year’s grain
    • Aeration
    • removing and burning infested residues
    • Harvesting the crop as soon as possible after it has reached maturity will reduce the chances of attack by granary weevil and other storage pests
    • Controlled atmosphere, seal to prevent oxygen
    • Freezing (for several days) and drying for 24 hours in sun
    • construction of improved raised silos out of grass and mud: raised one meter above ground

  3. Great article. Nice to see it from the very beginning. One thing I have noticed in these circumstances is that the farmers themselves seem to lack “ownership” and seem to feel that someone else will keep the project going – i.e. the white person who helped install it.
    I have returned to a number of projects and found them in total disrepair which is disheartening and makes it look like the method doesn’t work, which, of course given time, will manage itself, but needs human input to get it established. I would like ideas on how to ensure the owners feel that ownership of the new projects, as it is key to the success of the work.
    Another good thing to keep weevils out of corn is to dry the ever present “Mexican Marigold” and powder it and spread it around in the storage area.

  4. I want to know more on permaculture and how to conduct trainings to communities and make them practice proper permaculture in their homes

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