The living greenhouse farming technology

Photo credit : Inspiration Green – Sanfte Strukturen.jpg

A willow “palace”

Poor farmers can’t afford a plastic greenhouse

by Willem Van Cotthem (University of Ghent, Belgium)

I have read with great attention the article on “Greenhouse farming takes root in Kisumu” (
The greenhouse project in Kisumu (Kenya) –

It goes without saying that greenhouse farming technology is so dramatically expensive that individual poor farmers, who should be the first beneficiaries, can never afford it, unless they find some wealthy donors.  About this Kenyan project one reads:

Ngar is a member of a 19-member group which owns two greenhouses, water harvesting facility and afforestation project. He says the group started farming in 2014 and invested Sh1 million for the greenhouses measuring 18 by 30 metres with seven lines of tomatoes. The money was given to them by the Lake Victoria Environmental Project. They are also expecting further funding for the construction of water pans in readiness of farming diversification. The group bought two greenhouses at Sh155,000 each and another Sh100,000 was used for setting up an irrigation system. “We spent Sh50,000 on seeds and Sh150,000 on fertiliser and other farm inputs alongside land preparation,” Ngar said “.

A teepee made with will;ow cuttings - * Willow - Photo Nicola Stocken - wpid2482-Living-Willow-Structures-GWLL002-nicola-stocken-300x400.jpg
A teepee from willow cuttings – Photo Nicola Stocken – wpid2482-Living-Willow-Structures-GWLL002-nicola-stocken-300×400.jpg

According to the article, the greenhouse farming technology “has changed the lives of more than 100 farmers in the sub-county since inception of the project.  Residents and students have been trained on greenhouse technology, growing tree seedlings, dairy farming, biogas production, poultry farming, beekeeping and fish farming. The aim is to equip the community with skills that will help them create wealth and make them food secure”.

A willow dome - * Willow - Photo Les Urbainculteurs - 1546431_638625656194311_767877958_n.jpg
A willow dome – Photo Les Urbainculteurs – 1546431_638625656194311_767877958_n.jpg

I must confess that it is not very clear to me how the plastic greenhouse farming technology is related to the training of residents and students in “dairy farming, biogas production, poultry farming, beekeeping and fish farming.”.

A willow tunnel - * Willow - tunnel - Photo Avantgarden - 29629_830307400316356_4093777_n.jpg
A willow tunnel, the start of a shady space –  Photo Avantgarden – 29629_830307400316356_4093777_n.jpg

On the contrary, I agree fully with Kisumu’s governor when he said “Our farmers should not only farm hard but farm smart; some farmers lose their land after taking loans due to poor farming methods.  They should adopt the latest farming techniques”.

A willow hut - Photo Avantgardens - 1011887_657028324310932_418781999_n.jpg
A willow hut – Photo Avantgardens – 1011887_657028324310932_418781999_n.jpg

Well, if it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find sufficient financing to offer all the poor farmers the described greenhouse farming technology (with plastic greenhouses and irrigation systems), there is maybe a remarkably low-cost solution: I call it the “LIVING GREENHOUSE FARMING TECHNOLOGY”.

casetas de sauce vivo arquitectura de sauce salix.jpg
casetas de sauce vivo arquitectura de sauce salix.jpg

This technology consists of growing “living tunnels” with quickly growing tree or bamboo species.

It is quite well known that living structures (teepees, domes, tunnels, …) can be grown from cuttings of certain tree and bamboo species (see photos).  Generally, these are only ornamental structures or “playgrounds” for children.  But this is only one step away of concluding that similar structures can easily be adapted to an almost permanent use as greenhouses.

All kinds of willow structures are feasible - Photo Avantgardens - 6943_657037390976692_1869369885_n.jpg
All kinds of willow structures are feasible – Photo Avantgardens – 6943_657037390976692_1869369885_n.jpg

Planting two rows of rooted cuttings at a distance of e.g. 3-5 meter over a length of e.g. 25 meter, letting these cuttings grow to a height of e.g. 5-7 meter, then bending the young trees (or bamboos) over and binding them into the “roof”, would create an almost indestructible “living tunnel”.

Inside such a tunnel there will be shadow from the tree leaves and air humidity because of tree transpiration.  It will be a fantastic space to work in.

Farming in a living greenhouse can be made affordable for every individual poor farmer.  It suffices to provide the necessary rooted cuttings for a first “living tunnel”, after which the farmer himself can grow his own second series of rooted cuttings by pruning now and then the trees of his first greenhouse.  Etc.

It isn’t just a nice idea: let’s go for it!

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

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