Learning to make organic fertiliser at all-girls boarding school in Morocco

By Pommelien da Silva Cosme, Communications and Field Officer, GDF

On a recent sunny winter morning, I travelled to the Ourika valley to attend my very first permaculture training session with 13 Dar Taliba students, an all-girls boarding house that provides secondary education for Amazigh girls. As part of our High Atlas Cultural Landscapes Programme, these interactive trainings are designed to develop their skills and knowledge of plant conservation, plant uses, permaculture techniques and indigenous practices.

When I arrived at Dar Taliba I was pleased to see that rain of the week before had transformed the school gardens into a beautiful scene of lush greens. Together with Laila and Fabien from RADIANT Design (our project partners), we prepared materials and discussed our topic of the day: soil fertilisation. Not being an expert on the subject, I was excited for the training to begin and to learn alongside the students.

Following their morning classes, we gathered with students in the school gardens. Fabien and Laila began the session by discussing differences between chemical and organic fertilisers. We learned about the growth and widespread use of chemical fertilisers in response to famine following the Second World War. Whilst their use enabled food to be grown quickly, cheaply and on a large scale – providing a short-term solution to food shortages – Fabien explained their harmful environmental effects. These include water contamination, depletion in soil quality and human health impacts. In contrast, organic alternatives are more sustainable in the long-term as they protect our soil, animals and local biodiversity. Fabien concluded the session by asking the group which – in their opinion – was the better option? Everyone agreed unanimously: organic.

Next, it was time for us to get our hands dirty and to learn how to create organic fertilisers. Excited and ready to go, we began to cut and gather plants from the gardens. Among them were lucerne (Medicago sativa) and berseem clover (Trifolium alexandrinum). Both contain a type of bacteria (called rhizobia) within their roots which produces nitrogen. As nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth, these plants make for a great natural fertiliser.

Once our buckets were full, we spread out our harvest on the table and cut the plants into small pieces. Then, as if making a nice herbal tea, we mixed 1 kg of plants with 10 litres of water in a large barrel. The mixture was then left to decompose for 15-30 days, during which the fixed nitrogen is released. And there you have it: organic fertiliser that the students will use to feed the vegetable garden and grow produce for school meals.

This session is an excellent example of our capacity building activities. Teaching students through practice about the negative impacts of chemicals on the soil, such as pollution, has increased their awareness of the importance of sustainable land use practices. Moreover, the training taught these girls first-hand how to create a natural alternative to chemical fertilisers using plants grown in their own gardens. These skills can also provide possible new income opportunities, such as fertilising agricultural land and even producing organic fertilisers to be sold locally.

More importantly, all the girls thoroughly enjoyed being in the garden and learning about the use of different plants together. As most of them were involved in the construction of the garden from the very beginning, it was a pleasure for them to see it all come together.

Found while collecting plants: fresh turnips, ready for couscous!