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Our Organic Garden

Peace Corps calls it Food Security Training, which is the point of our collective endeavor, but we call it Our Organic Garden. Peace Corps Volunteers with their Cambodian counterparts met for four days training in Kampot, a breezy river town famous for Kampot pepper, prized for its intense, fresh flavor. My host father Thy, who is a rice farmer, came with me. After a day of classroom instruction from our knowledgeable teacher Chhon, we were ready to take the workshop into the field. Around twenty of us trooped off to PCV Nolan’s family plot near the provincial town to build a trial garden. The land for the intended garden was ideally situated near a pond in a sunny spot, yet had shade around the perimeter.

First, we made carbon for the compost by toasting seven bags of rice bran. While the bran turned to charcoal, we wrapped green net around wooden supports to create a fence. Hoodlum mango-eating cows sulked outside this new barrier. Direct sun in the tropics is too overwhelming for tender seedlings (and tender humans) so we created a more congenial environment over the entire plot with a sunshade canopy, which promises to filter 50% of the sun’s harsh UVs. Nursery shelves, built from found wood and split bamboo, were also wrapped in the protective net.

Much of Cambodian soil is chalky and powders to dust when held in your hand. Composting in essential not only for nutrients, but also to create soil texture and water retention. A handsome compost cage was made lickety-split by four teams each squaring branches a meter in length with bamboo supports, weaving and tying it together with bright-colored plastic string. Into the compost bin we layered fresh water hyacinth, dry leaves, the charcoal, and aged cow manure. The best part was squishing it down by foot. We learned how to make three kinds of compost, including what looked like a delicious concoction from tropical fruit and palm sugar. This liquid compost will stew in its own juice for five days until it’s ready to be diluted 10-parts-to-one to be used as a fortifying tea for the growing plants.

Volunteers seeded amaranth and morning glory directly, and transplanted cucumber seedlings near a long line of nylon trellis in anticipation of their upward mobility. After watering well, we mulched the beds with rice stalk, which will help the plants to retain moisture. Our final project was to make botanical insecticide from soap and spicy plant deterrents—because we know if you plant the bugs will come.

Each PCV and counterpart returned to their village with a plan to build their own organic garden. Some have ideas for large school gardens and will sell surplus produce to support extracurricular school activities. Others will build community-share gardens at their health clinics and view their gardens as dispensaries of good nutrition. My host father Thach and I decided to build a small family garden at our aunt’s Homestay up the road. We are going to grow vegetables we like to eat and grow enough in the nursery to give away starts so interested neighbors can grow their own organic gardens, too. This is our plan for sustainability—to seed it forward.

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