João Baptista knows all about Non-Conventional Plant Foods (PANCs), vegetables with high nutritional value that many people believe to be weeds. Baptista, who is retired and lives in Chapéu Mangueira, a favela located on the south side of Rio de Janeiro, grows fruits, vegetables, and spices at home. “I have a 6 square meter vegetable garden, it’s not big,” he says. He shows off his crops: basil, coriander, lemongrass, lemon balm, PANCs such as serralha (Sonchus Oleraceus, also known as the sowthistle, is a type of dandelion found in northern Africa, Europe and Asia and South America), capuchinha (Tropaeolum Majusand is a South American edible flowering plant) and maria-sem-vergonha (Impatiens Walleriana is an African flower easily adaptable to the Brazilian soil). “Now,” Baptista interjects, “I’m about to reap a pumpkin.”

Baptista substitutes eggplant for red meat and makes salad with medicinal plants that he picks from the seedbed kept on his concrete rooftop. His close relationship with his small plantation makes the cultivating and harvesting of food seem affordable to anyone. And it is! The secret is to start small, with spices and vegetables, says biologist Danielle Souza.

Souza is an environmental education specialist and has learned much about traditional cultivations from João Baptista. She runs workshops with him for Favela Orgânica, an educational project promoting sustainable and affective cooking in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere.

A man, over 70 years old, with white hair and a mustache. He is wearing black-rimmed spectacles and a blue short-sleeved shirt. He is standing up in the right corner of the image, showing off some spices. There are many potted plants behind him.

João Baptista reaps from his own vegetable garden all the necessary ingredients for his heart-friendly diet (Sandro Carneiro/Believe Earth)

According to Souza, the benefits of having a vegetable garden go beyond eating food that doesn’t poison oneself or the environment. “It’s a way of relieving stress, reducing the consumption of ultra-processed food, reducing the packaging waste that accompanies these products. The garden is also good for the household budget, because you don’t spend money on vegetables,” she says.

Cultivating a home garden also helps reduce food waste. Each year, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This food that does not reach anyone’s table consumes 250 trillion liters of irrigated water and 1.4 billion hectares of land and still generates 4.4 tons of carbon dioxide, according to FAO. Food waste is also, of course, a waste of money, globally about US$900 billion in losses.

The photo shows a wall made of pallets. Several rectangular boxes are attached to it, supporting small home gardens.

Free of pesticides, the home organic garden provides healthy food and benefits the environment (Sandro Carneiro/Believe Earth)

While you can also reduce food waste at the point of purchase, through conscious consumption, and in the food preparation process (by using stalks and peels in your cooking), the vegetable garden can also provide motivation for another vital way of curbing waste: composting inedibles into organic fertilizer.

The size and location of your seedbeds will depend on how much space you have, and what you would like to plant. You can start with some tea or spices in small pots, as Souza teaches.

Ilustration: “Herb Garden – How to have fresh herbs always at your fingertips. These can grow in a planter, windowbox or in small pots”. 1. Parsley: Plant it in cool places, under the sun or in partial shade, in pots and pan (30x30 cm) with soft soil. After planting, do not move the parsley. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Reap ir between 60 to 90 days after planting, when the plant is between 12 to 16 cm in height. Reap the outermost leaves, cutting up to 1/3 of them with their stems. ; 2. Spring Onions: Use seeds or rhizome divisions from adult plants, sowing with fertilized and fluffy soil to plant. Expose to the sun for 4 to 5 hours a day (preferably between 7am and 11am). Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Reap it between 80 to 100 days after planting. They can be harvested several times. ; 3. Rosemary: Use seeds or branches (15 cm) in small pots with fertilized and fluffy soil to plant it. Expose the plant to the sun for 4 to 5 hours a day (preferably between 7am and 11am). Keep the soil moist while the plant is young. 90 days after planting, you can remove up to half of the branches. But, for best results, wait until after the second year of cultivation to harvest. ; 4. Basil: Use seeds, in small pots (10x5 cm) with fetilized and fluffy soil to plant it, in a well-lighted place. Expose the plant to the sun for 4 to 5 hours a day (preferably between 7am and 11am). Keep the soil moist. Reap it between 60 to 90 days after planting. Flowers are also edible.*When to plant depends on where you live. Source: Favela Orgânica. Art: Bruno Gomes de Andrade, Believe.Earth.

Another option is to plant bigger vegetables, such as carrots and collard greens, in buckets, cans or crates, remembering to leave room for the roots to grow. “The most amazing thing about a home garden is always having what you most like at your fingertips,” says Danielle.

Ilustration: “Vegetable Garden – Plant in a yard, community garden or small plot of land. You can also build raised beds”. 1. Pumpkin: Use seedlings or seeds, in deep pits 30 cm and 50 cm in diameter, for small pumpkins, under the sun or in partial shadow. Use fertilized, fluffy and nitrogen-rich soil. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Mature plants can withstand short periods of drought. Reap it between 85 to 100 days after planting, harvest those with the largest leaves with the stem, when they are yellow or brown. You can also eat the leaves, flowers and seeds. ; 2. Potatoes: Separate small potatoes or pieces from the large ones and leave them in an airy, bright place. When sprouts reach 2 cm, plant them in fertilized, fluffy, nitrogen-rich soil, with no stones or debris, under the sun or in partial shadow. Keep the soil moistened, but avoid over-watering, which can make the plant sick. Reap it between 100 to 150 days after planting, when the branches are yellowish and the tubers loosen easily. If you want them to keep longer, stop watering for 2 weeks before reaping. ; 3. Carrots: Use seeds, under the sun or in partial shadow, in deep, fertilized, fluffy soil with no stones or debris to plant it, so the plant doesn’t grow bent. Keep the soil moistened, but avoid over-watering, wich can rot the roots. Reap it between 85 to 110 days after planting, when the old leaves begin to yellow and dry. ; 4, Collard Greens: Use seeds or the lateral sprouts of the mature plant, under the sun or in partial shadow, in soft, fertilized soil, to plant it. Keep the soil moist, but not soaked; over-watering can make the plant sick and rot the roots. Reap it between 80 to 90 days after planting leaving the youngest leaves on the stem. Remove any weeds that appear. *When to plant depends on where you live. Source: Favela Orgânica. Art: Bruno Gomes de Andrade, Believe.Earth.


  • Find out how much water it takes to produce various foods that we consume daily.
  • This guide, created by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), recommends foods that are good for your health and less destructive to the environment.
  • A study conducted in the United States detected the presence of pesticides in many foods consumed by Americans, even after washing and peeling. The complete list of 48 items can be seen here.
  • Food waste is a complex problem with causes that vary according to country. For more information, take a close look at this FAO report here and here on losses incurred by food waste, its impact on nature and how to prevent it.

The Farmers’ Almanac offers extensive information on how to plant a home garden, including, if you live in the U.S. or Canada, an indispensable guide to planting times, which you can find here.