PCV Project: Garden in the Casa Materna

Want to improve women’s nutrition or generate money for women’s health?  Consider doing a garden project at a Casa Materna! Read this post for some ideas on how to get started and some tips based off my experience working on a garden project in Rio San Juan.

What is a Casa Materna?

Casa Maternas are places where women from rural areas are brought at the end of their pregnancy, so that they can have a birth attended by a doctor. They usually have limited funding from MINSA or perhaps from NGOs, but the resources at their disposal vary widely around the country.

Why do a garden at a Casa Materna?

My sitemate, Christina Palazzolo (SBD 59), had the idea of making a garden at the Casa Materna. The rationale for the project was that by growing fruits and vegetables, the Casa Materna would be able to provide more nutritious meals for the women staying there, with the possibility of selling extra vegetables and fruits to raise money for the Casa Materna. Additionally, using seed saving techniques, women would be able to bring seeds back to their rural communities and plant vegetables and fruits to diversify their families’ diets. The ‘responsible’ was supportive of the idea and our Casa Materna happened to have a small enclosed plot that was ideal for a small garden.

Because we love veggies!
Because we love veggies!

Getting started:

Despite not having any aggies or environment volunteers in our humble lake side department, we were able to get to an aggie to come down and look at the site to see if it was suitable; agriculture or environment volunteers are a great resource.   If you’ve got connections with local farmers or gardeners, even better! We then borrowed tools from the Alcaldia to clear the monte from the plot. I would never have thought to go there to look for tools, but they turned out to be very well outfitted. It doesn’t hurt to check out if this is the case in your site.

How does one call a spade a spade en español?

I originally told a man from the Alcaldia that we wanted 3 carretillas for the project because I thought that was the word for hoe. He soon caught on the fact that I was faking my way through gardening vocab. Here is a short list for those of us who didn’t learn any agriculture vocab during training.

Tools:

  • la carretilla- one wheeled cart
  • la pala- shovel
  • el acedon- hoe
  • el rastrillo- rake
  • el machete- Our Alcaldia owned terrifyingly gigantic scymitar machetes. They looked fun although we didn’t try them out.

Nouns:

  • el vivero- nursery
  • la semilla- seed
  • la hilera- row
  • el mecate- string
  • la estaca- stake

Verbs:

  • regar- water, irrigate
  • chapear montear- cut weeds or grass with a machete

Bumps along the way…sowing seeds to SquashZilla

The responsable at the Casa Materna requested that we grow onions, peppers and tomatoes because these were the foods they spent the most money buying, but these plants required time in a vivero, which we didn’t have at our disposal and we didn’t have many of these seeds. Due to what we did have, we settled on planting corn, beans, melon, squash, cucumber and radishes (for integrated pest management). We also planted a few jamaica plants so that they could sell the flowers for tea (a relatively expensive commodity) and moringa, the so called “miracle tree”, whose leaves provide a significant amount of protein. These plants were easy to grow because they didn’t require time in a vivero.

From consulting with some locals, we decided it would be ok to plant during the start of rainy season, because it’s always kind of rainy in Rio San Juan anyway. But, conditions vary around the country…never hurts to do a PACA seasonal calendar to find out the customary time to plant and harvest!

Eventually, some of our seeds germinated , and we soon had some Jack and the Beanstalk sized beanstalks on our hands that outgrew their stakes and flopped over. I scoured the town to find sticks that were long enough, leading a lot of people to wonder in amusement why profe was looking for firewood.

Then, a few zuchinni plants invaded the garden, covering all the other plants and migrating up onto the neighbor’s mango tree. The final mishap with the garden occurred when the alcaldia sent some people to chapear monte, and since the garden hadn’t been weeded in a while and didn’t have labels, they accidentally took out the jamaica and moringa trees. In the end, we didn’t have very huge yields, or do the best job maintaining the garden, but we learned a lot. We’re going to make a more concerted effort this year, making a vivero to grow the crops that will be most useful to the Casa Materna, and bringing in more youth volunteers to help with the garden and learn.

Wanna do a Casa Materna Garden?  Think about these questions first..

→ Who can help you learn about agriculture at your site, assuming you don’t have those connections already?

→Where can you get seeds? The Seed Bank at the office, INTA, MAGFOR, or local NGOs are some good starting points

→What is involved in clearing the site and preparing the soil? Are there a lot of rocks, or is the soil quality poor?

→ If you aren’t working in a fenced in area, what can you do to keep animals and bolos out of your garden?

→  If you’re working with a small area, what can you do to maximize space? ie use tires to make planters, etc.

→  Who else is authorized to go into that space (ie machete wielding Alcadia workers)and how can you coordinate with them to protect your garden?

→Who is going to maintain your garden and when? By the time they get to the Casa Materna, panzonas are probably not going to be very interested or able to help with the garden (on top of the fact that there is constant turnover among them) and responsables often have a busy workload. Better options for sustainability could be involving a youth group, an environmental brigade from the high school or middle school, or forming a “Friends of the Casa Materna” group to support the garden.

→ What crops do they mainly use in meals at the Casa Materna? If you’re introducing vegetables less commonly featured in Nica cuisine, can cooking classes be provided?

→  What grows well in your climate? What is easy and fast? What plants require time in a nursery before being planted? How can you provide good soil and pest management without requiring expensive inputs?

Some additional resources:

–Emily Clayton, TEFL 60, Rio San Juan

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