One lesson in solutions journalism, or in any journalism for the matter, is to be alert to ideas – you never know when something will come up. I had not planned on writing this story about “vertical gardens” that let villagers grow vegetables even in salt-affected farmland. I came across the idea while working on another article about salt-resistant rice in southern Bangladesh.
An agriculture expert at another NGO mentioned the vertical gardens project and it sounded intriguing. Because World Fish Center had enough clear information about this project on its website, I was interested enough to contact them for more information and determine whether there was a story. I only had a narrow window of two days to see the project at the tail end of my reporting trip. But World Fish was very responsive and arranged a field visit with an expert program officer with very short notice.
At first I didn’t understand how simply collecting soil after the monsoon could work, but I learned that salinity can fluctuate and be flushed out with heavy rainfall. In the hot, dry months that follow, salinity returns. World Fish also had plenty of background material handy that made it easier to understand the project and conceptualize the story.
Without those basic but effective communication tools, which are not to be taken for granted in a developing country, it would have been easy to let the idea go. Instead, I got to write about how the simple idea of vertical gardens can flourish.
In addition, I was reminded of the importance of simple solutions for the developing world. An American agricultural scientist from World Fish Center had described their “vertical gardens” to me over the phone. I had expected some fancy technology that allows poor people to grow vegetables in salt-affected soil.
But when we went to the village and followed a dirt path to the yard of a humble home, I found that vertical gardens was a hifalutin term for growing vegetables out of recycled plastic sacks and containers made of plastic sheets and bamboo. When I first saw the “vertical gardens” my initial reaction was, “Is that it?”
But I shouldn’t have felt disappointed. In fact, simpler, low-tech approaches using local materials are probably more likely to take root and spread than fancy, complicated solutions.
With a couple hours of training from World Fish and NGOs, a small investment in materials and seeds, villagers could grow hundreds of pounds of vegetables to eat and sell each season.
The vertical gardens do need some special preparation, such as filling large containers of soil with columns of brick chips to improve drainage or creating trellises from string and sticks to support tendrils of growing vegetables. Large containers called “vertical towers” are made with sheets of plastic and bamboo strips.
But the technique is straightforward. It is so simple that villagers not in the World Fish program simply copied their neighbors’ designs so they could grow vegetables too. This is a simple indicator of the viability of an adaptation to climate change: when a technique can be replicated by word of mouth.
The gardens may look modest but they are extremely robust. One woman told me her garden in one season produced 450 pounds of vegetables, including pumpkins, a variety of gourds, tomatoes, cauliflower, eggplant and more. The list of vegetables went on. Another woman strolled by and posed with two pumpkins she had just plucked from her garden. The tin roofs of homes in this village were covered with lush vines sprouting pumpkins and fat gourds.
Of course, vertical gardens are not a silver bullet solution to coping with climate change. But growing hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables can make a big difference for families struggling to survive amid the threat of extreme weather, increasing salinity and climate change.