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Nutrition and agriculture

Home garden agriculture in Kerala revisited

M. Abdul Salam, K. Sathees Babu, and N. Mohanakumaran


We studied the characteristics of home gardens in Kerala and compared them with commercial agriculture. Based on this study, home garden agriculture as practiced in the tropics may be defined as a need-oriented, intensive, and integrated multi-species production system around the dwellings in small-holdings (not exceeding 1 ha), aimed to achieve greater resource use efficiency with biological productivity and environmental sustainability.


Crop production in smallholdings adjacent to human settlements is the oldest and most enduring form of cultivation [1]. The mid-1980s witnessed a revival of interest in small-scale food production at the farm and household levels. Even though a shift in the emphasis took place toward an approach that focused on small farms and their socio-economic environment, home garden agriculture did not receive attention until the attractive features of the crop and livestock production system were documented [2].

The literature contains innumerable references to mixed garden horticulture [3], mixed gardens or house gardens [4], farmyard enterprises [5], Javanese home gardens [6], and kitchen gardens [7] as traditional food-production systems at the household level. All of them involve different land use systems around the dwelling units that cater to the subsistence needs of the family. Other land use systems encompass some of the features of these systems, or a combination of them. The Caribbean gardens [8], the African compound gardens [9], the pekarangan of Java [4], the Chagga gardens of Tanzania [10], and the jungle gardens of South Africa [1] are a few examples. These household-level systems exhibit tremendous variability in their structure and function.

The homestead was defined as the home and its adjoining land owned and occupied by the members of the dwelling unit, including the immediate area sure rounding the dwelling unit used for cultivation of trees and vegetables, and unused space, if any [11]. Home gardens were defined as "man-made forest fitted to family needs" [12] Finally, homestead production was considered to be a subsystem of the whole agricultural system that aims at producing items for household consumption that are not obtainable, readily available, or affordable through field agriculture [1]. This definition, however, does not account for the principles and practices involved in the home garden system prevalent in the state of Kerala. While attempting to study the system, the authors identified a need to redefine this term in its totality, encompassing all the features of this special production system.

System description

The home gardens of Kerala evolved in response to the pressure of a shrinking land resource base coupled with a high population density, which necessitated a conscious attempt on the part of farmers to achieve their goals by living within biophysical, ecological, and economic constraints. The average size of an operational holding in Kerala is 0.36 ha, as against the national average of 1.68 ha. Nearly 50% of the holdings belong to the marginal farmers (landholding below 1.00 ha), who have an average operational holding of only 0.18 ha [13]. High-density farming involving several species of seasonal, annual, and perennial crops thus evolved to meet their demands and to achieve highly efficient use of resources.

The selection and inclusion of crop components are influenced by the climate and by household preferences, requirements, and dietary habits. Coconut is the base crop in most of the agroclimatic areas, except in the high ranges. The spaces between coconut plants are used to raise an array of intercrops, resulting in a multi-storey cropping pattern with distinct canopy stratification. Thus, perennial crops such as coconut, arecanut, jack, mango, cashew, tamarind, and forest tree species occupy the upper layer; pepper, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and so on occupy the second layer; banana, cassava, yam, and the like occupy the third layer; and ginger, turmeric, pineapple, vegetables, and guinea grass occupy the ground layer. The resultant canopy architecture often approaches that of a tropical rain forest in its structure and species diversity [14].

The structural diversity of the home garden is a deliberate strategy adopted by farmers to achieve higher efficiency of resource use by efficiently harvesting solar energy and using soil nutrients and moisture. It also helps to exploit the space, both temporally and spatially. The functional diversity of the system helps to meet the many demands of food, fodder, fuel, timber, organic mulch, and medicinal plants. The food requirements are met by crops such as coconut, banana, cassava, yams, taros, ginger, turmeric, pineapple, cashew, jack, mango, and banana. Multi-purpose trees such as jack, mango, and tamarind help to meet fodder, fuel, and timber requirements. Coconut by-products such as dried leaves (fronds), spathes, husks, and shells meet the fuel requirement [15] The leaves are used for thatching houses, and the palm is genuinely versatile. Trees such as teak and boddi help to meet the organic mulch requirements.

Most of the agroforestry components are used as standards on which to train black pepper vines, thereby economizing space for separate standards and resulting in different types of pepper-associated agroforestry systems in the home gardens [16]. In all, 31 species in the study area have been harnessed to train black pepper vines [17]. Including pepper in the system helps to generate additional income to purchase the items that cannot be grown in the home garden. The green manure requirements of the farming system are mostly met from gliricidia, sannhemp, and leucaena. Gliricidia is a very common leguminous green manure crop raised as live fence along the boundaries of the home garden.

The home gardens of Kerala very often combine crops with livestock rearing, where the components interact synergistically to sustain productivity [18]. Cows, buffalos, goats, and poultry are the most common livestock. The animals not only enhance the nutritional status of the household members but also help to augment the farm income by the sale of milk, eggs, and kids. While the crop residues and fodder provide animal feed, the manure and litter of the livestock provide renewable sources of organic matter and plant nutrients. They help reduce dependence on inorganic chemical fertilizers and maintain soil health, resulting in a high degree of organic recycling.

As home garden agriculture is mainly a need-oriented, self-provisioning system, the use of chemicals is minimal, and the emphasis is more on homemade formulations of biological origin, such as tobacco decoction, neem extracts, and so on. This helps to minimize pesticide pollution of the agricultural environment. The system is, by and large, environmentally clean and sustainable.

By integrating the home garden with livestock, the cropping strategy is designed to meet fodder requirements as well. Guinea grass is the most popular fodder crop grown in the interspaces of coconut. It is grown on or along the inner sides of earthen contour bunds to meet the twin objectives of fodder production and soil conservation, exploiting the soil binding property of this grass.

Most of the spices that are grown have several uses. In addition to flavouring food, they are used as home remedies for illnesses [14].

Thus, the system exhibits considerable bioresource diversity, designed to meet the food, fodder, fuel, organic mulch, timber, and medical requirements of the households and to generate cash. Such diversity is deliberate, designed to allow harvesting throughout the year so that products of economic value are always available for household use or cash sale. This is made possible through the strategy of intensifying and integrating multi-storey cropping, agroforestry, and livestock rearing. The system is agronomically productive, economically sustainable and efficient, and environmentally safe.

Based on the biophysical and ecophysical factors, the following practices can be identified:

>> Home gardens involving uplands with crop components alone;
>> Home gardens involving uplands with crops and livestock components;
>> Home gardens involving uplands associated with adjoining lowlands (with crop components alone);
>> Home gardens involving uplands associated with adjoining lowlands (with crops and livestock come portents);
>> Home gardens involving uplands with adjoining backwaters with crops, livestock, and agrobased industries.

As a traditional farming system, home garden agriculture is essentially subsistence-oriented, with need based production and labour provided mostly by the family itself. It differs from commercial agriculture in many ways (table 1).

Transition from subsistence farming to semi-subsistence production would be accomplished by introducing cash crops such as rubber, or income-generating components such as apiculture, sericulture, or mushroom cultivation. They reflect the desire on the part of the homestead farmer to gain purchasing power and participate in the market. Similarly, to supplement the on-farm income from smallholdings, household members are being driven to off-farm employment. When off-farm income provides the main source of subsistence, the high opportunity cost of family labour has led to the development of part time farming also. In such cases, home gardeners hire labour to harvest and perform other farm operations in a timely fashion.

TABLE 1. Salient characteristics that distinguish between home and commercial agriculture

Characteristics Home garden agriculture Commercial agriculture
Holding size Extremely small; maximum size < 1 ha Larger
Major objective Meeting home demand (food, fodder, fuel, timber, organic mulch, medicines) Income generation by sale of produce
Resource use level Intensive Extensive
Labour use Mostly family, supplemented by hired labour Mostly hired
Species diversity High Low
Nature of cropping Polyculture Single crops
Integration of farm enterprises High Low
Organic and nutrient cycling High Low
Dependence on market- purchased inputs Low High
Nutritional security of household members High Low
Environmental sustainability High Low
Market linkages Poor Well developed


Encompassing the characteristics described above, home garden agriculture as practiced may be defined as a need-oriented, intensive and integrated, multi-species production system around the dwellings in smallholdings (not exceeding 1 ha), aimed to achieve greater resource use efficiency with biological productivity and environmental sustainability.


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