Plant health

Soil health and plant management are foundational to plant health and nutrient- rich foods. Regular weeding, the removal of weeds from the garden, and pruning, the removal of unnecessary parts of the plant to promote growth, are two key management practices to keep plants healthy. At times, however, the plants in the garden need extra protection or a boost of food to help them grow and stay safe. This section outlines plant fertilizers, pest control methods, and protection practices. All of these remedies are designed to be made using only local resources.

Plant fertilizers

Plant fertilizers are natural teas and recipes that can be applied after the plant starts growing in order to provide the macro- and micro-nutrients a plant needs to be healthy.

Botanical and manure teas

Liquid fertilizers can be made from manures, vegetable waste, and plant leaves. Inputs used in botanical and manure teas are cheaper and more ecologically sustainable than chemical fertilizers and are often made from materials that are locally abundant.

Botanical and manure teas can be applied at the soil level to feed the roots or they can be used to foliar-feed crops through the leaves. There are a variety of different botanical and manure tea recipes. Below are a few that use ingredients from common resources found throughout many project areas. Vegetables in the permagarden can be fed with some form of botanical or manure tea every 2–3 weeks to help healthy plant growth, to improve yields, and to resist pests.


Tithonia (Tithonia diversifolia) is a shrub often found in abundance throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Since the plant accumulates large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil, its green biomass is one of the best natural sources of fertilizer for a permagarden. In fact, it is one of the best sources of phosphorous available from any plant. It can be used as a green manure and dug into the

soil several weeks prior to planting, used as a primary component of compost, or made into a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer. The best time to use tithonia in all of these cases is when the leaves are dark green and the plant is about 1 m high.

Recipe to make liquid fertilizer with tithonia
  1. Chop 5 kg (about one large basin) of dark-green leaves.
  2. Soak chopped leaves in 10 L of water for 2 weeks, stirring every 3–5 days.
  • After 2 weeks, most of the nutrients will have dissolved in the water and the mixture should be dark green.
  • Dilute with 2–3 parts water to one part tithonia tea.
  • Apply as a fertilizer to the leaves or drench the roots of vegetables, young trees, and grain crops.

Moringa oleifera is a multipurpose Indian tree that has been planted widely throughout the world. Apart from its widespread use as a food source, moringa leaf extract contains a plant growth hormone that can be used to fertilize crops and help increase yields.

Recipe to make liquid fertilizer with Moringa oleifera

  1. Grind young moringa shoots (not more than 40 days old) and mix with water, following the ratio of 1 L of water to 10 kg of fresh shoots. Make enough for only one application, as the compounds in the tea break down within 5 hours of extraction.
  2. Strain the solid out of the solution. This can be done by placing the solution in a cloth and wringing out the liquid. The solid matter, which will contain 12–14% protein, can be used as livestock feed.
  3. Dilute the extracted liquid with water at a 1:32 ratio.
  4. Spray directly onto plants immediately after extraction. Follow an application rate of 25 ml per plant. The spray should be applied to the leaves 10 days after the first shoots emerge from the soil, again about 30 days before plants begin to flower, again when seed appears, and finally once more during the maturation phase.
Manure tea

Liquid fertilizers are the easiest form of food for plants to absorb, especially as they move quickly into the root zone and are taken up immediately by plants when applied to plant leaves as a fertilizer. Animal manure is full of organic matter, beneficial organisms, bacteria, and enzymes that help plants grow.

Making manure tea helps dissolve and ferment these materials into a form that is readily available for the plants to use.

Recipe to make manure tea
  1. Gather as much chicken or cow manure as possible and place it in a breathable burlap sack.
  2. Place the closed burlap sack holding the manure in some type of bucket or modified jerry can. Use a rock or heavy object to hold the sack in place.
  • Add water to the bucket. Follow a mixture ratio of 8 L of water for every 1 kg of manure. For instance, 2.5 kg of manure will yield 20 L of manure tea. Submerge the sack in the water.
  • Soak for 3 weeks, making sure that the sack is aerated and stirred (as one would steep a normal tea bag) every 4 or 5 days.
  • At the end of 3 weeks, pull out the sack. The manure that remains can be added to your compost pile or used to fertilize fruit trees around the courtyard.
  • Dilute the manure tea until what is left looks like weak coffee. This is now ready to be applied to plants. A watering can is recommended for use on transplanted vegetables. The manure can be poured directly into crop holes.
Compost tea

How to make a vegetable-waste compost bucket

Kitchen waste can also be used to make a daily liquid compost tea that is full of beneficial nutrients for plants in the garden. This tea can be added to other liquid fertilizers or can be used on its own.

  1. Poke a small hole in bottom of a bucket.
  2. Add 10 cm of dry brown leaves.
  3. Add a handful of fresh manure.
  4. Each evening, add saved vegetable waste cut into small pieces (no meat).
  5. Add a 4 cm layer of dry crushed leaves.
  6. Add half a liter of water and cover the bucket.
  7. Place a basin below the bucket to capture the nutrient-rich tea for morning watering. Before using in the garden, dilute with water using a 3:1 ratio.
  8. If there are two buckets available, use the first bucket until it is full; then start the second bucket.
  9. When the second bucket is full, use compost from the first bucket.
  10. Continue using the first bucket while the contents of the second bucket decompose.

Other plant fertilizer recipes

Local ferment fertilizer recipe

A local ferment fertilizer recipe uses ingredients found in many communities and may be a good fertilizer for urban areas which may have less access to other ingredients.

  1. Gather the following items:

30 mm flat beer or local ferment 30 mm honey

30 mm raw milk

4 liters of water (no chemicals in water)

  • Mix all ingredients together in a bucket or other container.
  • Let sit for eight hours.
  • Splash around planting areas to feed soil microbes before planting and then around the plants during the growing season.
Urine fertilizer

Urine is mainly comprised of water, but also contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. When used in the proper ratio it can be beneficial for the garden. The trainer should be sensitive to the local culture if promoting this fertilizer.

Mix 1 part urine with 20 parts water.

Pest control

Organic pest and disease control

The term ‘organic’ does not refer simply to what we do not use, e.g., synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; rather, ‘organic measures’ refer more to what we do use and what actions we take in terms of soil health and water control, planting timing, rotation, and care during the various growth stages. The key word here is ‘control’. Gardeners should not try to kill every insect, good or bad. The job is to manage pests with practical interventions based on preventing problems before they appear in the garden. Only when a problem exceeds the capacity of the control measures should a gardener consider options that target specific pests and diseases.

Creating a good environment to prevent pest and disease problems includes: Healthy, fertile soil.

Disease-resistant seeds adapted to the local context. Timely seed sowing and transplanting.

Vigorous seedlings. Good garden hygiene. Crop rotation.

Companion planting and multicropping.

Use of landscape plantings on berms and in swales to create habitats for beneficial insects.

Incorporating all of these steps into a permagarden can help reduce or eliminate most of the pest and disease problems that commonly afflict gardeners. They are part of what is called ‘integrated pest management’ (IPM), an approach

that is based on prevention, proper insect or disease identification, and cultural, physical, and/or botanical interventions for pest control.

Cultural interventions

Sound agricultural practices give a plant a healthy root system and steady growth. A healthy plant is better able to outgrow an insect invasion, as most insects are attracted to weak, over-fertilized, water-stressed plants. Cultural interventions include:

Soil that is well-amended with local soil amendments to create a healthy, biologically active environment.

Compost and biochar to build microbial life.

Crop rotation to break disease and insect life cycles while promoting balanced nutrient needs.

Compost and manure teas to provide plants and the soil with active beneficial microorganisms.

Mulch application to help minimize soil-borne diseases by preventing soil splash during rain or irrigation.

Physical interventions

This component of IPM is based on the physical exclusion of problem insects and the careful removal of existing problems, including:

Timed applications of nets or baskets over garden beds to keep away flying insects and birds.

Pruning of any dead, diseased, or damaged limbs or leaves as soon as possible when problems are observed; burning or burying the diseased sections.

Traps, such as yellow sticky boards, shallow cups of beer, or circles of char and ash around the stems to deflect insects.

Barriers, such as burned rice hulls, placed on the soil to help stop crawling insects from reaching the crops.

Mulch application to help minimize soil-borne diseases by preventing soil splash during rain or irrigation.

Biological and botanical interventions

This component helps maintain pest and disease populations at a minimum level through living organisms. Basically, it is the use of various biological allies to control garden pests. These measures can be applied or developed naturally by maintaining habitats for beneficial organisms both above and below the soil surface (Appendix 6). Techniques include:

Compost tea used as a leaf spray to ward off fungus and certain insects that are discouraged by the aroma.

Perennial flowering borders and living fences to serve as housing for beneficial predatory insects.

Botanical sprays, such as tephrosia, melia, tithonia, oil, and soap, to prevent invading aphids and other pests from amassing in large numbers.

Neem seed oil, which acts as a potent insecticide and fungicide

dried crushed leaves of certain plants to help protect grain from weevil infestations.

Milk to help prevent the tomato mosaic virus.

Pesticide recipes

Organic pesticides can be made from different local resources. These recipes offer cheap, locally available solutions that are environmentally friendly and cost very little to prepare.

Making a botanical pesticide to protect plants.

Photograph Thomas Cole

Household ingredient insect deterrent teas

Garlic and chili peppers recipe #1

  1. Gather the following ingredients: 1 bulb of garlic

1 small onion

3 hot chilis

50 g soap

  • Crush one garlic bulb together with one small onion.
  • Add three crushed chili peppers and mix with 1 L of water.
  • Let soak for 1 hour and then filter.
  • Dissolve 50 g of soap in a small amount of warm water and then add to filtered garlic and pepper solution. Mix thoroughly.
  • Spray the entire plant, including the undersides of the leaves.

Garlic and chili peppers recipe #2

  1. Gather the following ingredients: 2 hot chilis and their seeds 2 large onions

1 bulb of garlic

1 liter of glycerin soap

  • Mix all ingredients together in a bucket or other container.
    • Cover with warm water and allow to steep for 24–36 hours.
    • Strain the mixture to remove large pieces of ingredients.
    • Dilute 1 part mixture to 1 part water.
    • Spray or splash on infected areas (will wash off in rain).

Oil pesticide recipe #1

  1. Gather the following ingredients:

1 cup cooking oil (i.e., canola or vegetable) 1 tablespoon liquid dishwashing soap

  • Mix all ingredients together in a bucket or other container.
  • Dilute 2 1/2 teaspoons of this mixture in 1 cup of water.
  • Sprinkle on effected leaves with a grass brush or bundled twigs. Can be used weekly.

Oil pesticide recipe #2

  1. Gather the following ingredients:

25 ml of baking soda (in a lot of areas this is available or listed as bicarbonate of soda)

15 ml cooking oil 15 ml vinegar

25 ml liquid soap or 15 ml glycerin soap

1.2 liters warm water

  • Thoroughly mix all ingredients together with warm water.
  • Sprinkle on effected leaves with a grass brush or bundled twigs. Can be used weekly.

Tephrosia, neem, and melia leaves

Tephrosia (Tephrosia vogelii), neem (Azadirachta indica), and melia (Melia azadirachta) all have several insecticidal properties that are of great use to the farmer, both in the field and in post-harvest storage. Extracts and powders of the leaves of these plants can help protect crops from pests like aphids in the field and protect harvested grain against weevil infestations.

Instructions for crop protection

  1. Crush 2 kg green leaves of tephrosia, neem, or melia.
  2. Mix crushed leaves in 5 L of water. Soak for 24 hours.
  3. Filter the solution.
  4. Spray on plants affected by aphids and other sucking/chewing insects.

Instructions for post-harvest protection

  1. Dry tephrosia, neem, or melia leaves in the shade.
  2. Once leaves are dry, grind them into a powder.
  3. Mix powder with harvested grain, using a mixture ratio of 2 kg of leaves for every 20 kg of seed.

Neem or melia oil

  1. Collect, de-pulp, and wash clean the ripe seed of neem or melia.
  2. Dry the seed in the shade for 3–7 days. Any bad seeds should be thrown out.
  3. Crush seeds in a mortar or other vessel. Mortars used for edible crops should not be used.
  4. Mix crushed seed with water, using a mixture ratio of 50 g of seed per 1 L of water. Let mixture sit overnight.
  5. Filter the liquid through a cloth and put in container for use. Liquid can be used directly. If a concentration greater than 50 g seed to 1 L water is used, the mixture should be diluted before application. Using a sprayer or brush, experiment with different levels of concentrations in field trials.
  6. Use no more than once a week; every 10–15 days is the optimal interval. Neem/melia oil is effective against most chewing and sucking insects on crops. Neem does not kill pests outright; it merely disrupts their feeding mechanisms so they eventually die. Neem is also good at controlling fungal outbreaks (such as early and late blight) on tomatoes, as well as controlling powdery mildew on squash and other cucurbits.

A strong fence protects the garden.

Photograph: Thomas Cole


Place various plants within the margins of the garden or property to assist in pest control, such as:

Aromatic plants to discourage pests from entering garden: lemongrass, mint, marigold.

Flowering plants and shrubs to attract beneficial insects that can eat or destroy pests: marigold, flowering vines.

Companion plants that assist each other by discouraging pests.

Trap crops that draw pests away from higher-value crops for hand control (sorghum planted on the margins of a maize field, for example).

Wood ash from the fire sprinkled on the soil to detract ants, leaf miners, stem borers, and termites.


The importance of strong fencing to protect a permagarden cannot be overstated.

Without this simple structure, damage from wildlife, livestock, wind, and people is inevitable. It is important to identify where within the community materials to build a fence can be located and gathered. Local materials, such as wood, bamboo, thatch, and thorny branches, are useful.

Besides providing protection from livestock, wind, and people, a fence can serve other functions. The introduction of certain trees, shrubs, and grasses, grown along the fence, can be used to create a barrier while providing useful products for the kitchen and the garden. In this way, the fence can serve multiple functions: providing physical protection, food from vines, fodder from the cuttings off the living fence posts, shade, wind protection, nitrogen fixation,

and a trellis on which to grow other climbing plants. This ‘live fencing’ is a good long-term strategy, but it takes as much as a year or more to fully establish itself. As this lengthy period cannot be avoided, a strong fence of locally available materials should be built when the garden is created. Whenever possible, choose multipurpose trees and shrubs.

The list below highlights some possible plants to incorporate into a living fence.

Glyricidia sepiumLegume, green manure, fodder, firewood, poles
Lantana sp.Shrub, green manure, pest control, thorns
Leucaena leucocephalaLegume, green manure, fodder, firewood, poles
Sesbania grandifloraLegume, green manure, fodder, firewood, poles
Sisal, Acacia speciesFiber, thorns
Tephrosia vogeliiLegume, green manure, pest control, firewood
Vetiver, Elephant, NapierGrasses, fodder, medicine, compost

Planting a living fence

A living fence uses trees and shrubs as part of the fence. This provides additional resources to the gardener while taking advantage of space that is generally not used. To get started, a gardener should plant mature seedlings or cuttings of

any of the trees listed above 1 m apart, at least half a meter outside the garden swales. In the space in between the trees, shrubs such as lantana or a spiky sisal plant can be planted. In a line outside of the trees and shrubs, Vetiver grass can be planted. This gives a multidimensional barrier to wind and animals once it is fully established. Given that these plants take time to establish, it is a good idea to use other materials, such as thorny branches or strips of bamboo, to help close off the garden. This is critical to protect the garden from chickens and/or goats just after it has been planted.

Pruning the fence

It is important to regularly manage the fence just like the other parts of the garden. Allow the trees to grow to a height of 2 m to establish a strong root system. Then cut the trees at 1 m, using the branches and leaves as kindling or in making biochar and the leaves as green manure for amending the soil directly, as green material for compost, or as fodder for animals. Where the tree was cut becomes the new top of the tree. As trees grow from the top, many new stems

and branches emerge in the process known as ‘coppicing’. This thickens the trunk, now a fence post, while providing large amounts of nitrogen-rich leaves. Prune the side branches as time moves on to make the fence more dense and secure.

Meanwhile, prune and shape the grasses and shrubs as they mature more slowly.