Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 42, Fall/Winter 1997
Urban Agriculture in Drylands

Are urban gardens an efficient use of resources?

by David Cleveland

"While the problems of poverty and powerlessness facing the poor in drylands can only be eliminated by addressing their social and economic roots...gardens can provide immediate benefits, and most importantly, can provide those benefits in a way that contributes to the solution of the larger problems."

--Food from dryland gardens,
p. 9


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If you have an eye for them, you can see a multitude of gardens in cities all over the world: peeking through fences and over adobe walls in Oaxaca, Mexico; in long strips along the railroad tracks from a train window as you ride through the outskirts of Rome; crowded along the sides of canals in Minia, Egypt; from the alleys and railroad tracks of Tucson; in the compound courtyards of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Are these gardens inefficient and unproductive remnants of an agrarian past that decrease urban families' food security? Are they anachronistic cultural symbols? Or are they evidence of urban social networks and an important part of household food and economic systems?

Gardens, society and the environment

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An important prerequisite for urbanization has been sufficient labor efficiency in food production to support a significant proportion of people who were doing other things besides growing food. In modern industrial societies most people live in cities and only a small proportion of the population are the farmers, spending most of their time producing food. The "inevitable progress" of modernity seems to be to eliminate the need for self-provisoning. This historical pattern has been interpreted as adaptive economic and social evolution, as for example when governments ban gardens in cities. Given the world's growing population and increasingly limited natural resources, urban gardens are also sometimes considered an inefficient use of resources compared with conventional agriculture, as for example when urban extension agents view vegetable gardening as a costly hobby for well-off households. Many of these opinions appear to be based on the assumption that it is more efficient to buy food at the grocery store--food imported from outside the city, state or country--than to grow it in urban gardens. The persistence of household gardens in urban areas challenges these economic and cultural assumptions, however. Urban gardens may in fact an efficient use of resources in terms of aesthetic, social, culinary, nutritional, economic and environmental criteria, both currently and in the future.

Home garden studies

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While most successful gardeners don't collect data and make calculations on the efficiency (the ratio of output per unit of input) of their gardens, it can be an important way for urban gardeners to become more knowledgeable and aware of garden dynamics and ways to increase efficiency. It can also contribute to the design and improvement of larger projects, and provide input for discussions of government policy.

Tom Orum, Nancy Ferguson, Daniela Soleri, and I were inspired to measure inputs (including water, manure and labor) and outputs (weights and market value of produce) in our Tucson, Arizona, household gardens in the early-1980s, because so many people we talked to in Tucson thought that gardening in the Sonoran Desert was a hobby for people who could afford to pay exorbitant prices for produce in terms of their water bills.

We found that this assumption was not at all accurate. We worked in our gardens only 2-3 hours per week, and did not try to increase the value of produce by growing crops with high market value, yet the value of the produce from these gardens was about eight times the cost of the irrigation water (although the net returns provided a return on labor of only about $1.00 an hour). In addition, the gardens supplied significant proportions of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for 10 nutrients, including over 50% of the RDAs for vitamins A and C for more than 6 months out of the year. Yields over 3 and 2.5 years in these small (77.4 and 58.3 m2) gardens were 1.2-6.5 kg/m2, compared with commercial vegetable production in the United States which averaged about 1.7 kg/m2 at the time of our study. These findings of the nutritional, economic, and agronomic efficiency of gardens are supported by other studies of gardens and small-scale intensive agriculture.

Making gardens more water efficient

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In dryland cities water is often the most expensive input in terms of money, time, and/or equipment to extract or deliver it. A key to improving overall efficiency is, therefore, increased water efficiency, in terms of the amount produced (measured as weight, market value or nutrients) per unit of water used (measured as volume, cost, or cost of labor to obtain and apply it).

Overall water costs can be reduced by adjusting cropping patterns to increase production in seasons when efficiency of output per unit of irrigation water is the highest. For example in one of our Tucson gardens rainfall supplied only 5% of the total water input in the hot, dry spring (April-June), 16% in the hot, wet summer (July-September), and 24% in the cooler, drier fall (October-December), but 53% in the cool, wet winter (January-March). Yet many people first coming to Tucson think only of planting in the spring. Storing food grown in periods of high water use efficiency for consumption during periods of low efficiency can also increase overall efficiency. The amount of water that needs to be imported into the household can be reduced by harvesting rainwater, and gray water can also be recycled.

Evapotranspiration (ET) can be reduced by reducing evaporation from the soil and leaf surfaces, and transpiration from plants in excess of that which occurs when crop requirements for water are fully met. Evaporation from the soil surface can be reduced by flooding diked beds quickly or by trickle irrigation, rather than watering the surface slowly or sprinkling. Applying water only to the root zone by subsurface irrigation, for example by filling buried pots with water, also reduces evaporation. Mulching, shading and windbreaks can reduce ET and materials from the garden, like sunflower stalks, carizo canes, tree branches and palm fronds can be used to construct them. Runoff can be reduced by increasing infiltration with diked beds or sunken beds that hold water in the garden, and by mulching to increase infiltration. In addition to not over-watering, deep percolation can be reduced by increasing soil water-holding capacity. The main way to do this is by adding organic matter, although in very sandy soils more clayey soil can be mixed in.

Composting is the most readily available source of organic matter, and composting is, therefore, a very important part of any urban garden. Making compost in dryland cities does not have to be labor and water-use intensive. Compost piles can be constructed whenever sufficient material has been accumulated, wet down and covered with soil, branches or palm fronds to reduce evaporation, and left until finished. While the outside layer of such a pile won't be broken down, the rest of it will.


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Urban gardens can contribute to household food security, especially for poorer households. In addition to increasing the social and economic sustainability of food production, they can also contribute to environmental sustainability by decreasing inputs and negative environmental effects of food production. Studies of urban gardens at the household and community level are important to understand how such gardens might make more efficient use of resources and contribute more to household food security. Gardens can also contribute to sustainability at larger scales. Composting at home can significantly reduce household contributions to urban landfill; rainwater harvesting and recycling of gray water can reduce load on urban sewer and water processing; and urban garden production can reduce demand on energy intensive food production, processing and resource-intensive long-range distribution systems.


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Cleveland, David A., Thomas V. Orum, and Nancy F. Ferguson. 1985. Economic value of home vegetable gardens in an urban desert environment. HortScience 20(4):694-696.

Cleveland, David A. and Daniela Soleri. 1991. Food from dryland gardens: An ecological, nutritional, and social approach to small-scale household food production. Tucson, Arizona: Center for People, Food and Environment (with support from the United Nations Children's Fund [UNICEF]).

Netting, Robert McC. 1993. Smallholders, householders: Farm families and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Soleri, Daniela, David A. Cleveland, and Anita Wood. 1991. Vitamin A nutrition and gardens bibliography. Report No. IN-1. Arlington, Virginia: Vitamin A Field Support Project, International Science and Technology Institute.

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Author Information

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David A. Cleveland has a Ph.D. in anthropology and an M.S. in genetics from The University of Arizona; is Co-Director of the Center for People, Food and Environment in Tucson, Arizona; and is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and of Environmental Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He has worked with gardeners and farmers in West Africa, in the southwest U.S. (Hopi, Zuni, Tucson) and is currently working with maize farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico. His thanks go to Tom Orum and Daniela Soleri for help with this article. You can reach him as follows:

David A. Cleveland, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology/Environmental Studies Program
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3210
Tel: +1 (805) 893-7502
Fax: +1 (805) 893-8707

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