Back To The Future: Learning From Africa – Send a Cow’s show garden

  • 4 June 2021 4:55 pm


Unlock the eco-gardening secrets of the future by visiting Send a Cow’s garden at Hampton Court Flower Show

It’s 2058. The global climate has changed. And so have the ideal UK home and garden, as Britons have looked to rural Africa for a blueprint for green living…

That’s the concept behind the international development charity Send a Cow’s show garden in the climate zone at the Hampton Court Flower Show, July 8-13 2008. The garden demonstrates how British families might respond to global food shortages and environmental challenges in the future by returning to the land, living in small supportive communities, and learning to treat every natural resource as a precious commodity.

The garden, entitled Back to the Future: Lessons from Africa for the survival of the British garden, will showcase pioneering natural gardening techniques promoted by the agricultural charity in its programmes in sub-Saharan Africa. Such techniques are already enabling thousands of poor rural Africans to tackle environmental problems and feed their families.

Garden designer John Marshall, a longstanding Send a Cow volunteer, said: “Gardens will become even more vital to UK families in years to come, providing food, fuel and fodder as well as space in which to relax and enjoy life. Our Back to the Future garden will be beautiful, inspirational, and thought-provoking.”


Garden designer John Marshall

Send a Cow agricultural expert Helen Kongai, who will offer practical gardening demonstrations at the show, said: “Innovative methods such as keyhole gardens are already enabling African families to grow vegetables throughout the dry season. I look forward to passing on this life-saving knowledge to people in the UK.”

Among the highlights will be:

· A keyhole garden

· Bag gardens

· An eco-home provided by the charity Ecoshelter

· Plant tea and liquid fertiliser

· An African barbecue

· An edible lawn

· A ‘tip-tap’ handwasher

The garden will also demonstrate a creative use of every day plants such as fruit and vegetables, herbs, edible flowers and grasses that also double up as animal fodder. Olive and fig trees will be present to represent the warmer climate facing the 2058 generation.

Visitors inspired to try the techniques in their gardens will be able to pick up free information leaflets from the promotional tent. They can also buy a limited edition gift, which includes a bag garden and seeds to plant at home, as well as a donation to enable an African family to grow their own harvest.

Send a Cow is a Christian charity that provides livestock and sustainable agricultural assistance to poor rural families in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. See for more information.

John Marshall, from Cambridgeshire, founded the ‘Small Gardens’ business 14 years ago after a successful career as a financial adviser. This is his first garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show.

For more information about the gardening techniques described above, please see our Natural Gardening leaflet at

Ecoshelter is a combined social enterprise and global charitable initiative developing and deploying sustainable living solutions for communities in need. See for more information.

Natural gardening
Sustainable techniques from Africa to try in your garden

New life for old soil
About 70% of Africans depend for survival on the food they can produce from their land. Yet average plot sizes are getting smaller, and soil quality is deteriorating.
As well as giving livestock, Send a Cow trains poor rural families in natural farming methods that enable them to grow more food without harming their land. The key principle is to integrate livestock and crops so nothing goes to waste – whether that’s cow dung, vegetable peelings, or washing up water. Simple – and cheap!
The result: crop yields increase – sometimes four or five-fold – so families have more to eat and sell. They can grow new types of fruit and vegetables, and gradually grow their way out of poverty for good.
These tried and tested techniques are based on traditional organic methods that have fallen out of use, as well as modern scientific research. Why not adapt them for your own garden?
“The principles of organic farming are the same in the UK and Africa. It’s just some of the crops that are different.”
Timothy Njakasi, Agricultural Extension Officer, Send a Cow Uganda.
Send a Cow is a Christian charity that enables poor farming families in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to become self-sufficient by providing them with livestock, training and advice. We work with some of the most vulnerable groups in Africa, including children orphaned by war, families affected by HIV/AIDS, and disabled people.
Magic muck
Compost improves the structure and water-holding capacity of the soil, and adds nutrients to it. It recycles household and farmyard by-products – especially manure – and saves impoverished families the expense of commercial fertiliser.
There are many ways to make compost: this method (opposite) is taught in the semi-arid region of eastern Uganda. In the
UK, make sure you keep it well covered to stop it becoming waterlogged.
“Feed the soil and the soil will feed you. Keep livestock and the livestock will keep your crops.”
Patrick Fedrick Wangao, Tanzania.

1. Mark out an area 2m x 0.5m in a shady
2. Hammer 1.5m tall posts firmly into the
ground at each corner.
3. Dig the earth about 8cm down, then till.
4. Layer the following:
• Dry matter: to add carbon and improve soil structure
• Urine or water: to help the heap rot
• Ash: to add potassium and aid breakdown
• Animal droppings (fresh or dry): to add nutrients and improve structure
• Top soil: to introduce insects and worms
• Green plant materials: for nutrients
5. Keep layering until the heap is 1m high – the best height to achieve the perfect composting temperature of 60°C.
6. Insert a long stick (a ‘stickometer’!) diagonally through the heap, so it goes through all layers.
7. Cover the heap so that important gases and nutrients do not escape.
8. After seven days, pull out the stick. If there is any white on the stick, this is fungus. Make a hole in the heap at the corresponding point, and pour in water.
9. After 14 days, turn the heap. You no longer need to keep it in layers.
10. Cover it again, and leave it until it looks like soil. The time needed depends on the material you have used and the climate.

How to make a keyhole garden:
Unlocking the secrets

Mpho Makara with Keyhole Garden

Keyhole (or kitchen) gardens are heaps of soil based around a compost basket that continually feeds the garden as it grows.

They’re a great way to get the most out of kitchen waste. They grow lots of vegetables in a small area, all year round.
1. Find a sunny area near your kitchen.
2. Attach string to a wooden peg, and place the peg where you want the centre of your garden to be.
3. Use the string to mark out two circles: an inner one with a 0.5 metre radius, and an outer one with a 1.5 metre radius.
4. Put posts approx 1.5m high in the ground around the inner circle and secure them with string – this is your compost basket.
5. Mark out the outer circle with large rocks – this is the border of your keyhole garden. Add more layers of rocks to raise the garden (good for older people or those with disabilities).
6. Leave a ‘v’ shaped path approx. 0.5m wide for access to the compost basket.
7. Fill the basket with a 1m high pile of compost.
8. Mix one part compost to two parts top soil, and heap around the basket so it slopes down in a dome shape towards the border.
9. Plant up one section at a time to give yourself a continuous supply of vegetables.
10. Add kitchen waste to the compost basket, and water regularly when dry.
Bag gardens are multi-storey vegetable gardens in a sack, ideal for farmers with a limited supply of water and only a small plot of land. The central column of stones provides drainage and aeration. African families put them near their homes, where they can easily be maintained by children.

How to make a bag garden:

1. Put an empty tin with the two ends removed in the bottom of a sack and fill the tin with stones.
2. Pack a mixture of soil and compost (two parts soil: one part compost) around the tin, then remove it.
3. Move the tin up, and repeat stages one and two until your sack is filled with a central column of stones surrounded by a soil-compost mix.
4. Support your bag with two sturdy sticks either side to prevent it slumping.
5. Cut holes in the sides of the sack.
6. Plant your seeds or seedlings in the holes and on the top.
7. Water your garden regularly from the top, directly onto the column of stones. This filters water throughout the bag garden.
8. Harvest a regular supply of vegetables!
Survival of the fittest
Plant tea makes crops more resistant to disease is easy to make – and it’s free! Natural pesticides mean fewer crops for pests, and more for the family.
How to make plant tea:
1. Chop up a mix of soft, hairy and leguminous leaves (eg docks, comfrey and clover).
2. Put into a bucket until the bucket is three-quarters full.
3. Cover leaves with a mixture of one part animal urine to two parts water (or just water).
4. Add a pinch of ash, and stir.
5. Cover and leave for three days.
6. On Days 4-6, stir once per day.
7. On Day 7, remove the leaves and put on your compost heap.
8. Cover the liquid, and leave in the shade for 14 days.
9. Dilute the tea (one part tea to two parts water), and pour one cup onto plant roots.
How to make natural pesticide:
(Ingredients vary depending on the pest.)
1.Crush up:
• Seven cups of marigold leaves (to kill ants, caterpillars, and nematodes) or
• One cup of chilli (to kill ants, aphids, caterpillars, and beetles) or
• Seven bulbs or onions or garlic (to kill ants, aphids, and caterpillars) or
• Six cups of tomato leaves (to kill caterpillars).
2. Add five litres of water.
3. Add three spoons of baking powder, a few spoons of paraffin (optional), a piece of biodegradeable soap, and wood ash for sucking insects (such as aphids and whitefly).
4. Leave it for four days to soak. If you want it more quickly, boil everything up, and leave it for a day.
Is this natural pesticide ‘organic’?

Views differ about which gardening practices are ‘organic’. We take a pragmatic approach, and encourage farmers in Africa to use locally available resources rather than spend money on commercial pesticides. Many farmers find a small amount of paraffin makes pesticides more effective – but leave it out if you are concerned.

Every drop counts
Top 10 water saving tips
1. Use compost in keyhole gardens, double dug trenches (see over), or just dug into your soil.
2. Use rainwater by creating a vegetable bed directly underneath an overhanging roof (if you don’t have a gutter), or by collecting it in a water butt.
3. Mulch your plants with a layer of dried grasses or leaves to stop the water evaporating.
4. Set up a drip irrigation system by suspending plastic bottles or bags over thirsty plants. Make tiny holes in the bottom so they release water gradually, letting it seep into the soil rather than evaporate.
5. Dig trenches along the contours of sloping land. This traps rainfall to prevent it flowing away and eroding the soil.
6. Use ‘grey’ water, such as washing-up or bath water.
7. Make a bag garden or a mandala garden, which consists of double dug vegetable beds in a ring around a central pit, with a trench to channel in rainwater.
8. Plant crops which need little water – such as carrots and beetroot.
9. Shade your seedlings – by intercropping them with taller plants, or by making a covered seed nursery.
10. Make hollows around larger, perennial plants to trap rainwater.
Skills for life
• Book a speaker for your gardening club, horticultural show or any other group meeting or event by contacting our Ambassadors Secretary at [email protected] or by calling: 01531 821 751.

• Grow a bag garden or keyhole garden with your children or grandchildren – there’s loads more information at:

• Call us to order our Cabbages and Cowpats DVD for use in primary schools.

• Visit for lots more information about our work.

• Make a donation by visiting our website or calling us. Tel: 0845 660 4670

Want to know more?
Here are a few of the other sustainable farming methods that rural families in Africa learn in their Send a Cow training. Some may be familiar.
Raised beds are ideal for elderly or disabled farmers. They improve drainage, and can extend the growing season in highland areas as they warm up quickly.
Double digging involves digging a 30cm deep trench, loosening the soil at the bottom, adding compost, and replacing the topsoil. It aerates the soil and improves its water-holding capacity.
Grafting enables farmers to grow new types of fruits so they are better protected against market trends. For example, farmers in eastern Uganda grow Washington navel oranges by grafting them onto the rootstock of a local bitter lemon tree.
Intercropping, which involves cultivating two or more types of plant together, can maximise land use and benefit all plants. For example, beans fix nitrogen in the soil for maize, while maize provides sturdy stalks that beans can climb up, as well as shade.
Liquid manure is a great fertiliser, and does not burn plants as manure applied directly can do.
Fill a bag with droppings and leave to soak in a container of water for a week to create a tea. Dilute the tea (two parts water: one part tea) before use.
Send a Cow, The Old Estate Yard, Newton St Loe,
Bath BA2 9BR. Registered charity number 299717