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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Connecting the Gardening Dots in Abaco

It was my first trip to the Bahamas, not all that far from my Florida home. Traveling with Mark Buhlig – Missouri pastor, church gardener and frequent Bahamas visitor – we would be meeting with representatives of local Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations to discuss disaster preparation as well as their church gardening experiences.

I encountered several of the Abaco church gardeners almost two years prior when they were sponsored by CBF Florida and Evan Rees, a member of Christ Journey Church in Miami, to attend gardening classes at ECHO in North Ft. Myers. While in Florida, the Abaco CBFers shared about their vegetable production challenges, including thin soil as well as the expense and scarcity of fertilizers and seeds.

As our plane descended into Marsh Harbour, I observed a familiar landscape of pines towering over an understory of palmettos (Florida silver palms). However, underneath such abundant, native vegetation, the geology of Abaco and other Bahamian islands is quite different from that of Southwest Florida.

The Florida garden plots I interact with are located on a deep, natural layer of sand classified by experts as the Immokalee soil series. Often poorly drained with scant organic matter, Immokalee soil presents its share of gardening challenges. However, with raised beds, consistent application of organic matter, adequate watering and appropriate crop selection – along with attention to the nutritional needs of crops - Florida gardens can be very productive.

Bahamian gardeners might wish it were so easy. In his Gardening with Jack column (The Abaconian, March 16, 2017), Jack Hardy explains that as many locations in the islands are just too rocky to raise much of a crop, local gardeners basically have three options: import soil from the US, use hydroponic culture or engage in organic gardening.

In Abaco Mark and I were not only going to see these gardening challenges firsthand; we would also take home a few lessons relevant to community gardeners in Florida and elsewhere.

The CBF Florida Church Gardens

Food is expensive in the Bahamas. So why don’t we try to grow more of our own?

That’s the question that many members of CBF Bahamas churches were asking. And that’s what led to the 2017 training at ECHO. Afterward, the Abaco church members collaborated with Evan Rees to kick off joint gardening efforts. After having soil, vegetable seeds, fertilizer and other materials delivered from the US, Evan led an intensive, hands-on workshop at St. Thomas Baptist Church in Wood Cay to get seeds planted and garden beds established. Participants then returned to their own churches and communities to begin their own gardening efforts.

Having seen reports of a resulting abundance of vegetables, I finally had the chance to visit the garden at St. Thomas Baptist Church. There was just enough evening light for a quick garden tour led by Pastor Elon McIntosh. In addition to his pastoral duties, it is obvious that tending the soil is a passion that propels him to be the driving force in the local church gardening effort.

Vegetables, such as cabbage, squash, tomato, eggplant and beans, were growing in raised beds full of soil mix speckled with pearlite and vermiculite. After being established in late 2017, the garden beds have continued to produce vegetables for the church community with more to spare. Jars of church-grown tomato sauce are also being sold in local farmer’s markets.

During the Friday night gardening meeting, many of the

participants from across Abaco, and other islands, shared their gardening experiences and dreams. Despite soil challenges, frequent storms and pests - including racoons introduced from the US - those in attendance appeared committed to gardening for the benefit of their households and church communities.

These determined Baptist gardeners appreciate collaboration

Glenn Koepp’s Garden

In preparation for my trip to Abaco, an internet search led to the aforementioned Gardening with Jack article that featured the efforts of Glenn Koepp to supply his family and others with homegrown vegetables.

Central to Glenn’s approach is the capture of seaweed with which to build soil and maintain garden productivity. Appreciated by Bahamians and other coastal gardeners around the world, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, the marine vegetation can be dug into the soil as a manure (soil improver). Seaweed is also a good source of plant nutrients including nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium.

Reaching out to Glenn, he graciously invited Mark and I to visit. His Marsh Harbour home is located on a seaside bluff with a wonderful view. Below the house, next to a small boat dock, is a spot where waves push a continuous supply of seaweed towards the shore.

Whenever Glenn needs a batch of seaweed, he rakes the vegetation onto dry ground, leaving it in a pile. After rinsing out the sea salt, or allowing rainfall to do the job, he leaves the harvested seaweed to break down over several months. The finished product is odor free.

Walking up from the dock, Glenn showed us two ways that he utilizes the semi-composted seaweed. One is to mulch directly around perennial crops such as banana. Able to smother weeds and maintain soil moisture, as the seaweed continues to decompose, it supplements the soil with organic matter and plant nutrients.

However, his main use of seaweed is direct application to fallowed garden beds (he rotates between two main garden plots) along with shredded paper mulch. Over time, both materials break down, adding a significant amount of organic matter to the garden soil while building soil depth.

With a few Bahamian parrots squawking above in the fruit trees, Glenn leads us to see planted beds that have been enriched with decomposed seaweed and paper for years. The plots host healthy stands of sweet peppers, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes and carrots. Walking away from the vegetable beds, he hands us bananas pulled from a mature bunch ripening in a seaweed-mulched clump.

Glenn is not only industrious and generous but successfully demonstrates how local resources can be leveraged for sustained food production.

A Glimpse of a Haitian Garden

According to Minority Rights Group International, approximately 20,000 to 70,000 migrant Haitian workers live in the Bahamas as construction laborers, farmers and garden workers or domestic workers. Many reside in squatter camps such as one we briefly visited north of Marsh Harbour.

Among a large cluster of shacks, we observed that much of the vacant land was under cultivation. Hills of cassava had been planted into an earthen bank that separated the settlement from an adjacent business. Patches of pigeon pea were established near homes and closer to the highway, a sizeable patch of plantain was towering over an understory of beans.

These are Haitian farm staples; the same crops I’ve seen growing on mountain homesteads near the border of the Dominican Republic as well as in tiny urban patches throughout Port-Au-Prince. Able to tolerate poor soil and scarce rainfall, these crops provide much needed carbohydrates, vitamins and protein.

The Haitian migrant gardens demonstrate resilience.

That evening, after seeing Glenn Koepp’s techniques and visiting the vegetable plots at St. Thomas Baptist Church, we met with the Bahamian Baptists to discuss their church gardening efforts. We asked whether they had ever considered assisting the Haitians with small-scale food production. One of the participants replied that it’s the Haitians who are better gardeners and that the Bahamians might benefit most from their expertise. Many others nodded in agreement.

A Synergistic Effect?

Even though we were on Abaco for only 48 hours, we observed three compelling examples of small-scale food production in a challenging location. One exemplified collaboration, another demonstrated the wise use of local resources and the third modeled resilience. The unifier was that each of the three gardening efforts reflected local food preference.

It would be wonderful to see some sort of collaboration among gardeners such as these. Should this happen, the resulting synergistic effect would be significant, not only benefiting the gardeners and consumers of Abaco, but serving to inspire others throughout the Bahamas and beyond.

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