The Essential Oils project has really taken off over the past few months, with the hard work of our dynamic duo, Felix and Phumzile, and with the leadership and guidance of our project manager, Charles and our Bulungula Board member, Donna.

Expanding the group of farmers

The focus of December’s work has been to accelerate the planting of additional family plots. We had poor results with some of our root material (due to drought, followed by flooding) but were lucky enough to arrange for some additional root material and were ultimately in a position to not only replace the poor root stock, but also plant more than the first three volunteer plots that were originally planned.

We had 14 applications for participation in the initial planting group and took a decision to use the root material we had to plant all 14 volunteer farmers. As well as lemongrass each project farmer was also supplied with a selection of vegetable seeds and fruit trees to ensure that the project meets its twin goals of establishing a cash crop while also improving food security.

Our first group of farmers, with Phumzile and Felix

Piloting Three Sisters

We were very excited, once the seasonal rains had arrived, to plant a 100 square meter trial plot following an ancient Mayan and Native North American planting technique known as the “Three Sisters”. This involves planting corn, beans and squash together on a plot.

We followed their ancient technique as closely as we could research it, which involved planting three corn kernels in a small mound, and then surrounding this with three bean seeds planted in a triangle around the corn mound. Around the mound, also in threes, we planted pumpkins.

This approach has several advantages:

  • In the same space that the villagers would only plant corn, we are now planting three different crops allowing for three times the yield.
  • Not only that but this ancient combination of plants also each takes different nutrients from the soil, each “feeds” the soil differently and each provides the human body with different nutritional benefits.
  • The three crops also allow for a for longer harvest period.
  • So a family would be able to start harvesting fresh beans after as little as 8 weeks, and then in sequence, harvest fresh corn, fresh pumpkin, dried corn and finally dried beans after 16 to 20 weeks.
  • The basic principle of the system is that the corn will grow upright, the beans will use the corn stalks as a trellis to grow up, and the pumpkins will provide ground cover to all their root systems.

This research looks great on paper, and it felt especially rewarding to be planting an ancient farming technique in the context of this very rural village. We will evaluate the success of the pilot plot and if it works it would definitely be an interesting adaptation to introduce to the community.

Our nursery plot

We have now established a nursery site measuring approximately 150 square meters. This site is covered by a shade cloth structure and irrigated using a manual foot pump drip irrigation system. The nursery is used to propagate seeds and to cultivate cuttings from our parent plant stock. Once the cuttings are established they are planted into the project farmers’ plots and fresh cuttings are taken. In this way we are building up a base of parent plants to use as a source of cuttings.

We currently have the following trials growing in the nursery:

  • Rose geranium
  • Oreganum
  • Rosemary
  • Bamboo
  • Tea Tree
  • Thyme
  • Lavender
  • Marjoram
  • Sceletium

In March we will be planting trials of Rose Geranium cuttings into individual nursery bags to run a small trial, with the possibility of selling established cuttings to the rest of the Essential Oils market.

Upgrading the Project Office

After a number of minor setbacks, we have finally established a small permanent Essential Oils office in the village. The bulk of the work on the office was done by the participating farmers, with much enthusiasm and gusto! This office serves as our administrative base, a venue for project meetings and training and a visual representation of the project to the community.

Special thanks to OLD MUTUAL SOUTH AFRICA for their ongoing support of this exciting project and for their commitment to promoting rural development!