Guest Post (Part two): The incredible efficiency of African watering techniques (and a few words about palm trees)

by Steve McNutt

[Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of Steve’s post about African watering techniques, which he promises to address today. Really. If you missed Part One, please read it here.]

Mama Janine’s House

Anyway. In addition to palm wine, oil palms generate palm oil (shocking, I know) and a variety of other stuff derived from the palm’s nuts (I’m resisting a rude joke here perhaps with a squeezing reference). Butter. Lotions. And a very, very tasty sauce that’s quite good and has this reddish-orange tint to it and is basically a lot of oil and rather terrible for you from Richard Simmons’ perspective, but I hate Richard Simmons, so I don’t care.

Mama Janine at workWhen I returned to Gabon, I visited Mama Janine, whose photographs are gracing this report. She was in the process of making a lotion from palm oil, which involved a lot of boiling the nuts (I really had fun typing the phrase “boiling the nuts”), draining and letting it separate from the water. She’s a sweet lady with a big laugh and a small restaurant in the town where I was posted during my service. She also wears Air Jordan sandals.

We’ll get to the watering technique soon. Promise. The Inadvertent Gardener wanted this Guest Column and by gum, I’m going to deliver a guest column for the ages.

(Incidentally, you, fair reader, may think The Inadvertent Gardener’s all butterflies and sugar beets, but she can stick the trowel in and twist it when needed. “Remember,” she said. ” You volunteered to do this. AND you’re the one who went to sleep while I was cleaning up the garden for the winter.” This last part was true. I passed out. My bed was a warm, loving place. And sticking my hand into half-frozen soil to root around in earthworm icicles did not inspire my mojo. Nope. I admit it. So I ask her what she wants out of this guest column, and she says she wants me to talk about Gabon and garden watering techniques. And maybe Global Warming — because I’m such an expert — and the massive, obscene, unconscionable amount of natural resource usage by Americans — or so I inferred — all of which is cool with me, but then I ask if I can say something snarky about Rick Santorum losing and she says, no, as nice as that is, we need to stay on message. So I asked her, “What are we going for message-wise?” And she said, “What I find interesting about this is Americans spend a lot of time watering [profane word] but this method seems different and might result in lower water usage. Or maybe it might cause you to drown the root. I don’t know. But it will allow me to link back to posts about water.”)

Gabon has screwy soil. Okay, that’s inexact. To be more exact: what most people don’t realize about equatorial (particularly rain forest-ish environments) is the top soil layer is surprisingly thin. Gabon is not Iowa.

Shocking, I realize, but it’s not. In some places, the Iowa top soil can be measured in feet, but in equatorial Africa it’s measured in inches. (I’m generalizing wildly, but this is pretty much accurate.) The leaves in the jungle fall, rot quickly, are reabsorbed into the root system and so on. Very tenuous, rain forests. Fiddle with them a little bit and that luscious earth turns to barren land quickly. But you already know this because everyone knows this and it’s freaking tragic but when you’re hungry it’s hard to be altruistic.

OKAY, OKAY, I WILL SAY SOMETHING ABOUT WATERING.

Gabon gardenWhen I was a volunteer, I took a few weeks off and traveled to Morocco, where I noticed how Moroccans have a technique reversing our American “mounding” technique. We bury plants in soil, then mound it up so excess water drains away from the root system. In Morocco, where excess precipitation is, umm, not a problem, they dig troughs in the earth (or sand) so that any and all extra water gathers and is directed toward the plants. I had never seen this in Gabon until I returned and was staying with a friend of mine. Outside his apartment, a neighbor had planted a garden, and she was also using the hole technique. Gabon gets massive rains during the rainy season, but this was during the dry season, which may have been why she chose to do it that way.

So, yeah. Holes. Think about that. You could probably toss compost down in them.

I probably could have said that more concisely, I realize.

Photo credit: Steve McNutt

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6 Responses to “Guest Post (Part two): The incredible efficiency of African watering techniques (and a few words about palm trees)”


  1. 1 Kathy November 22, 2006 at 7:14 am

    The Native Americans of the Southwest use this same technique. I read an article about it in Fine Gardening many years ago. Best watering practices have to be tailored to the local environment. As you said, Gabon is not Iowa or central NY, and the same techniques can’t be expected to work in all places. But it’s good to learn about them because it helps you brainstorm the best solution for your own garden. Do you guys have a rain barrel?

  2. 2 Angela November 22, 2006 at 9:37 am

    He’s a delightful writer! Where have you been hiding him?

  3. 3 Sugar Creek Farm November 22, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Ha ha, he said “boiling the nuts”, ha ha. (Said in my best Beavis & Butthead voice.)

  4. 4 inadvertentgardener November 23, 2006 at 9:12 am

    Kathy, that’s a good point — I was thinking this past summer that we really, really needed to get a rain barrel, and I think I’m going to put that on top of the list for next spring.

    Angela, he’s a hilarious writer. He hasn’t been hidden, he just doesn’t have his own blog! Hence the guest appearance from time to time. He also occasionally helps answer reader mail.

    Kelli, excellent impression!


  1. 1 Guest Post: The incredible efficiency of African watering techniques (and a few words about palm trees) « The Inadvertent Gardener Trackback on June 13, 2007 at 9:43 pm
  2. 2 Growing in the dark « The Inadvertent Gardener Trackback on June 13, 2007 at 9:53 pm

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