This Week in the Garden: The master gardeners of Cuba

A raised-bed rural garden in Cuba. (Sharon Hull -- Contributed)

If at any point during previous years, you had told me that in December of 2017, I’d be traveling to Cuba with a dozen other U.S. citizens, with the goal of surveying the island’s birds after the damage done to specific habitats by Hurricane Irma, I’d have been astonished, as for years, travel to Cuba was difficult for U.S. citizens. Yet there we were, with binoculars at the ready, led by U.S.-based bird guide Alvaro Jaramillo, and a well-known Cuban expert and author, Arturo Kirkconnell.

What we saw in the area around Cayo Coco, where the damage from Irma was most severe, was disheartening. Two avian species, once abundant in that area, were nowhere to be found — we had not a single sighting of either the Cuban gnatcatcher or the thick-billed vireo. Our group of birders will be waiting anxiously for eventual reports from Kirkconnell and other Cuban birders, hoping that some remnant populations of those birds will return and reproduce, and that numbers will eventually climb back into the healthy and sustainable range.

All was not doom and gloom however, as the bird populations in other areas were robust and exciting. But enough about birds since this is a garden column, right? However, the story of present-day gardening in Cuba can’t be told without touching on the political. In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union meant that suddenly, the Soviet economic support of Cuba came to an abrupt end, and along with it, most food imports ceased. Since much land had been given over to growing sugarcane for trade, and food was largely imported, people were unprepared for the sudden severe shortages. During what is called “the special period” after Soviet support vanished, hunger became widespread. Desperate to feed themselves and their families, some residents in the cities began planting food in vacant lots while in villages and rural areas, home food gardens became common. Many early gardens were unproductive due to inexperience, but the grow-your-own idea took root and garden information was widely shared. Through trial and error, organoponicos were established in urban areas and now they form the distinctive raised bed organic Cuban urban agriculture of today.

What is grown in the organoponicos in the cities and in the home gardens, and what methods are used?

Most Cubans have little access to chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides so they’ve become masters at gardening without those items. Small farms and home gardens are enriched with worm compost and animal manures which are abundant since except in the large cities, many Cubans keep pigs, chickens and other farm animals on their properties and horses and oxen are regularly used as draft animals. Pests are controlled by hand, by intercropping or by employing trap crops. Even on small lots, as in the Esmeralda garden of our driver Joel Acosta’s parents, room is found for squash, cassava, bananas, beans, tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage, all of which are important diet items. Taro is widely grown as well. (Rice is also important but it is usually grown on state-owned or cooperative farms. It is also imported from Brazil and Vietnam.) Citrus and tropical fruits such as guava and coconuts are also commonly seen in home gardens.

The Cuban people we met, like the Acostas, were universally welcoming and kind, and they exuded a joy of living in spite of some hardships. The country has achieved a literacy rate of 97 percent and all health care is free. The people who shared their gardens with me were justifiably proud of what they had accomplished. If a trip to Cuba is in your future, be sure to ask people about their gardens: you’ll see their eyes light up with enthusiasm and you are likely to be invited in for a personal tour.

Garden tips are provided courtesy of horticulturist Sharon Hull of the San Lorenzo Garden Center. Contact her at 831 423-0223.

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