Saving Ecosystems and Solving Nutrient Deficiencies with Wild Gardens
This post was written by Dr. Ricky Bates, Penn State University and Dr. Dave Ader, The University of Tennessee.
Cambodian household diets are among the least diversified in Southeast Asia, characterized by an overreliance on rice. There is a pressing need in Cambodia to increase the diversification of farming systems to improve human nutrition and farm profitability, and this must be achieved in a sustainable manner. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification (SIIL) is tackling this issue through the introduction of wild gardens — strategic collections of wild or semi-domesticated varieties of trees, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers adapted to local environments. The Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN) project, funded through SIIL, demonstrates how wild gardens can be a unique and effective tool in the improvement of temporal-spatial and functional diversity of smallholder systems in Cambodia.
Since Cambodian diets tend to rely on rice, this single-crop diet leads to the neglect of necessary nutrients. Wild gardens target this issue directly by enhancing nutrition where it is most needed using diet diversity of nutrient-dense plants. The wild food plants used in wild gardens are often micronutrient-dense, have an important documented presence in local produce markets and can possess important medicinal properties. Thus, they are a powerful tool in the battle against “hidden hunger.” They also contribute substantially to food security and income generation via increased market access, especially by women.
Along with providing a diverse mix of perennial plants at the homestead for Cambodian smallholder farmers, which contributes to the nutritional diversity necessary for families to live a healthier lifestyle, wild gardens can also remain productive during the difficult wet- and dry-season food gaps. These perennial species require little maintenance and can grow on marginal land common to most villages and homesteads. Incorporating these wild food plants into existing land — fencerows, weedy patches and open areas — maximizes the land's use, which is extremely important because many families have limited space.
Attraction of wild pollinators
Wild gardens also provide various environmental benefits, namely, they have the potential to attract pollinators — important contributors to food security and nutrition.
Pollinators are vital to producing and maintaining healthy ecosystems and are essential for plant reproduction and promoting diversity in the plants they pollinate. By producing diverse, pollinator-friendly gardens and plants, farmers in Cambodia, and across the globe, can attract and support wild pollinators that contribute to food security and are an important aspect of the ecosystem change that not only benefits nature, but also people.
Establishing wild gardens that contain diverse plants is key to helping attract diverse pollinators such as bees, butterflies and numerous others. In other words, having gardens full of multiple kinds of plants promotes the increase of likely pollinators throughout Cambodia.
Research from the WAgN project proved that food security can be improved with the addition of diversity in the perennial wild food plants used in wild gardens, which helps increase the attraction of wild pollinators throughout the entire year rather than only one season. Pollinators are critical to the growth and maintenance of successful gardens. In turn, these gardens aid in promoting food security and dietary diversity among thousands of Cambodians.