Two years ago I moved to the Far North Queensland to begin a lecturing position in Development Studies. Over the past two years I also started a family, bought a family home and… became a gardener!
Gardening in the tropics is a joy. There are plenty of creatures in the far north that can kill you, but if you put this minor detail out of your mind, time spent in the garden is truly soul-soothing. Below I offer 14 lessons that an amateur tropical gardener can provide for development practice.
1. Learn before you leap. Your garden is a complex ecosystem that you will never fully understand. Do your homework, and keep up to date with new ideas and ways of thinking.
2. Ask the locals. They know the lay of the land much better than you do. They can tell you what not to do (or plant), based on the lessons of the past.
3. Respect place. Don’t assume what worked in your last garden will also work in your new garden. Get to know the place where you are. Find out where the sunny and shady spots are, and where the run-off flows.
4. Learn the seasons. You do not know a place until you have lived through its seasons. In the Wet Season everything in your garden will grow at hyper-speed. Don’t make the 'dry-season bias' mistake of thinking that you know your garden if you have only cultivated it in the dry season.
5. Knowledge exchange with experts. Go to your local nursery and ask questions. Take time to listen to those with more experience than you.
6. But… also be creative. Don’t believe everything that you are told. If you have done your research, try things out that others have told you won’t work, or that have not been tried before.
7. Climate changes everything. Climate change is real. The seasons are becoming more unstable and less predictable. Drought happens in the tropics, and it is getting hotter. You and your plants will need to be resilient.
8. Protect yourself. In 2015 there were 212 million malaria cases worldwide. You are in the topics, so watch out for mosquitoes that might be carrying dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, Ross River fever, Zika, etc. And watch out for heatstroke while you are at it...
9. Water is precious. Access to clean drinking water – which your sprinklers are showering on your lawn daily – is a right that is deprived of millions of people around the world. 3 in 10 people still lack access to clean drinking water.
10. Consume responsibly. Many of us in high-income countries are consuming well beyond our fair share of the earth’s resources. We are also often consuming single-use packages that have been shipped halfway around the world. Your garden is an opportunity to reduce your waste and consumption - use it to compost and grow edibles. In our family garden we grow tomatoes, guava, avocadoes, lemons, limes, oranges, starfruit, jackfruit, rollinia, chillies, turmeric, mulberries, lemongrass, bananas, passionfruit, kaffir lime, peppercorn, dragonfruit, and jaboticaba.
11. Acknowledge your achievements. Working in the tropical heat can be demanding, and you will need to work hard to be successful. At the end of the day, sit back and be appreciative of the big and small seeds of change that you have planted.
12. Know your enemies. You have enemies in your garden. There are nasty critters waiting to attack you and your plants. These self-interested creatures will try to destroy what you and others have worked to achieve. They do share the same values as you, and they do not play fair.
13. Be wary of technocratic fixes. There are costs and benefits to the decisions that you make. Pesticides may kill weeds more quickly, but they may also harm your healthy plants. In fact, they may even harm you, native animals, and your friends and family. Fertilizers might help your plants grown more quickly, but the run-off from your garden may pollute local marine systems. Don’t be afraid of low-cost traditional methods that have proven effective for generations.
14. Persevere. Your garden will never be finished. New weeds will emerge where old weeds have been pulled out. The job of the gardener is a lifelong commitment. You will experience wins and losses, and if your garden is to continue improving you will need someone to continue caring for it once your time has come.
Dr. Kearrin Sims is a lecturer in Development Studies at James Cook University (JCU). He is the program convenor of JCU’s Master of Global Development, and a critical development scholar with a particular interest in the politics of knowledge, and transnational connectivity in the Asia-Pacific.
Disclosure Statement: Almost all of the edible plants described above were already in Kearrin’s garden when he purchased it. He merely water’s them. One chilli plant has not survived his frequent absence for conferences and fieldwork.