Last updateThu, 17 Jul 2014 6pm

The Earthbox revolution: Banging the drum for container gardening

Robert Patterson worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for more than 30 years, eventually becoming its senior liaison officer in North America, searching for projects to make good, healthy food accessible to the world’s ever increasing population.

In 2002 he worked on ways to make it easy for women and children to grow vegetables at home, and launched a program called The Growing Connection.

“Perhaps the best solution we found was the Earthbox,” he told me in his garden-enclosed “office” in Zapopan’s Colonia Seattle. “The inventor of this system was Blake Whisenant, a tomato farmer in Florida. He faced the problem of hurricanes, which could easily destroy tomato gardens. One day he was distracted in church and came up with the idea of a containerized system which works exactly the same as a traditional garden in the ground but which protects the inputs and, in fact, uses much less water.”

I was then given a chance to see the anatomy of an Earthbox, and I must say, it is wonderfully clever. Each box has a filling tube in a corner into which you pour water. The box has a double bottom and the water goes down to the lower level which has a capacity of ten liters. The upper section holds the “soil,” which is a mixture of coconut fiber from Colima, jal (pumice or rhyolite) from Jalisco and worm castings. “All of these are completely organic and local,” said Patterson. To give the ground extra growing power, an organic fertilizer called Dry Crumbles is added. This consists of ground-up bones, feathers, fishmeal and blood. “More fertile than this you can´t get,” Patterson said with a smile.

A plastic film is stretched over top of the box with three or four holes for the plants to poke through. The dynamics of what happens inside the Earthbox is most interesting. At one bottom corner the soil is in contact with the water chamber. Capillary action brings the water all the way to the top, where it condenses on the plastic cover and drips down onto the soil. “The water is constantly in motion,” said Patterson, “bringing fresh nutrients to the roots. It’s as if you were relaxing in a hammock and somebody was bringing you a beer and a sandwich every two hours.”

What happens inside an Earthbox reminds me of the very successful chinampa farming system used before the Spaniards’ arrival in Mexico. Small squares of land were watered by irrigation ditches which crisscrossed the fields. Water reached the plants from below by capillary action, constantly bringing them new nutrients. In a sense, you could say Patterson is presenting Mexico with a “Chinampa in a box.”

“How did you get from the FAO to this project in Guadalajara?” I asked Patterson.

“It all started with a series of concerts called Groundwork, which I organized in 2001 in Seattle, Washington to combat world hunger,” he said. One of the bands which played at the concert, along with REM, Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette, was Guadalajara’s own Maná. “We liked each other,” Patterson said, “and they liked my work.”

Maná asked Patterson to bring Earthbox to Mexico and helped finance the project by donating one dollar for every ticket they sold on their U.S. tour. Patterson was happy to exchange his FAO job, which mainly involved office work, for a project that would bring him into direct contact with people who needed help.

Patterson began working in Jalisco’s high-altitude Sierra Huichol, where, he said, “there’s no water and no green.” At this elevation, he found that “all the local people had infected eyes and skin – habitually.”

Not surprisingly, once they were eating leafy greens grown in Earthboxes, the infections disappeared within three to four months.

I searched for reviews of Earthboxes on the Internet and found nothing but positive appraisals: “Wow, it really works!” “Outstanding!” “Love it.”

Said one enthusiast: “I have been using earth boxes for ten years and I still get amazed by the quality and quantity of my veggies every year!”

One reviewer, dietician Jennifer Voss, did a comparative study of the same kind of plants grown in her garden and in two Earthboxes. She noted: “For a while, the plants in the Earthbox grew at about the same rate as the plants in the ground. After about a month, the plants in the Earthboxes really took off! They were 5-6 inches taller and definitely fuller than the in-ground plants.” And she added, “The best part was, I didn’t have to do any weeding!”

So, there you have it. Earthboxes can bring fertile soil and healthy food to every corner of the world from slums and favelas to barren mountaintops. It may be disguised as a business, but in my book, it’s a hands-on solution to a major world problem and very much in line with the work of practical-minded organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and the U.S. Peace Corps.

One of the reasons Earthbox is located in western Mexico is because of the area’s extraordinary diversity. “Here we have every kind of climate from desert to jungle and every kind of social level,” said Patterson. “If this can work in Mexico, it can work anywhere.”

A complete Earthbox kit costs 375 pesos and Earthbox Mexico offers training with every product it sells. A free training session is offered every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in Colonia Seattle at Calle 4 #96, near the corner of Avenida C. The phone number is (33) 3165-5361 and their website is Earthbox.mx. They are also represented by the Huerto Cafe, Hidalgo 212, in San Antonio Tlayacapan and by Sofía Ramirez (who speaks English) at Centro Organico Se Verde, Lucerna 123A Col. Versalles, Puerto Vallarta, telephone (322) 2135-8699.