Will Masai pastoralists adopt gardening in plastic bags, pots or bottles? (A. TONIUTTI / Willem VAN COTTHEM)

That’s the basic question coming to my mind when I was reading Alessandra TONIUTTI’s message :

‘Dear Doctor Van Cotthem,

I read with a lot of interest your various articles on container gardening and cultivation of plants under drought conditions.

I am from Italy. A couple of years ago I made friends with some Tanzanian Masai who live on the Northern coast close to the city of Handeni. I spent a fortnight at their village. The Masai are pastoralists and not at all accustomed to cultivation. They use the little money they have to buy rice, flour, beans, tomato, carrots and other vegetables. They have no idea where to start from in terms of cultivation practices and it is a fact that they live in a very dry area. Getting water from holes miles away is a very toilsome task and every single drop is a value in itself.

I came across your web page and your articles. I am going to visit back there in a month and I would like to help. I think your container gardening might be a very good idea.

I would very much welcome some additional suggestions on what kind of varieties are better suited to that kind of climate.

I would appreciate it if you would give me a few tips based on your experience. I am very grateful in advance.

God bless you


2007 - Bottle and pot gardening experiments with different plant species, even trees, opening the path towards fresh food production in dry regions (Photo WVC)
2007 - Plastic bottles and pots can be used in different ways, but all variants are aiming at saving water (less evaporation, no losses by infiltration in the soil, less water stress for roots in the permanently moistened substrate within the bottle, ...). (Photo WVC).


MY REPLY (Willem)

Dear Alessandra,

Thanks for appreciating my work and ideas.

You are right: container gardening is a very good solution for the drylands. Growing vegetables with a minimum of water in plastic containers (bottles, pots, bags) is possible and efficient.

I suppose it will be difficult for the Masai to get a sufficient number of plastic bottles or pots. Therefore, I suggest to use the classical plastic shopping bags as containers.

Put 2 or 3 of these plastic bags in one another and fill the central one  with soil (mixed with some cow manure to enhance fertility). Now make 2-4 little holes with a iron nail or a knife in the bottom (through the bags) to let the surplus of water run out (otherwise the soil becomes acid).

Hang such a container on two poles or nails on a wall or a fence (to avoid ants or termites to enter the bags) , preferably in the shadow to avoid heating in the sun. This way you get a hanging container with a certain quantity of soil in it.

Seeding can be done directly at the soil surface in the inner bag (carrot, lettuce, onion, garlic, …).

You can also let some seeds germinate in one hanging container and then transplant the seedlings into other ones, e.g. tomatoes (2 tomato seedlings per container), cabbages (1 cabbage seedling per container) or red beetroots (2-3 beetroot seedlings per bag).  One can even plant 1 potato in such a bag container.

I recommend to try all different species or varieties that the Masai prefer. Some will grow better than others, but it would be nice to offer them a also series of “new” vegetables and herbs, not just the classical ones they know (try basil, oregano, thymus, etc.).  Herbs will certainly prosper in containers.

My experience in the Sahara desert tells me that we should not hesitate to “try the impossible”. What turns out right for the Masai is extremely positive for their daily life and health, in particular for the children. What turns out negative is not even a loss.

Every vegetable we let grow in plastic containers in the drylands is a victory, because not only we introduce vitamin rich food for children and adults, but we also take care of the environment by “recycling” otherwise littered plastic.  There will be less plastic bags hanging in the spiny trees.

I wish you a lot of success.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem



‘Thank you SO MUCH for the PRECIOUS tips. Will try them out.

I just feel like saying that I do admire people like you: THEY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THIS WORLD and this is what living is all about, I guess. 🙂

All the best



I will be sleeping well tonight,


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.