A combination of harsh climate, tradition, and government restrictions prevented most Mongolians from gardening until their peaceful revolution of the mid-90s. Since independence, imported produce has been scarce, as remote Mongolia has had difficulty finding reliable trade partners. In addition, recent years have brought Mongolia exceptionally severe winters, known as dzuds, resulting in extensive loss of livestock, their traditional agricultural mainstay.
In response, small-scale horticultural projects have been encouraged to provide a more adequate and balanced diet. This careful and intensive management of small plots maximizes the use of Mongolia’s limited arable land (less than 1% of the country’s total area). The gardens cost little – neither the heavy machinery nor the massive fertilization required by the mechanized farms of the Soviet era, which were both expensive to operate and unpopular.
In contrast, these communal gardens become quite self-sufficient following an educational initiative. Surplus produce provides significant economic incentive and gardens provide employment and empowerment to many who have been marginalized by recent hardships. These varied benefits, which go well beyond providing the only fresh produce many communities see all year, have gained these programs widespread grassroots popularity.
As Mongolian horticultural traditions are quite limited, a diversity of new approaches are being tried by a number of individuals and a variety of organizations. Many gardens are stripped down to the bare essentials, the crops that are popular in Mongolian diets: potatoes, cabbage, onions and carrots. Other gardeners are growing ‘super foods’ such as sea buckthorn, which have a wide appeal in the global market. Government programs have strived to produce a new strain of potato suited for Mongolia’s harsh climate while some NGOs have brought in unique heirloom varietals from far away to try to find new crops that thrive in the challenging climate of Mongolia. Some religious groups have made gardening a central project to their missions in Mongolia.
Mongolians bring an insight from their nomadic lifestyles, with a broad understanding of the landscape, into the intimate spaces of the gardens. The extremely difficult climatic challenges have led to intimate care of the vegetables, where precious seedlings are covered in felt blankets during the springtime and watering must be done with care during the hot dry summers. The tender stewardship required to grow a garden in this vast and unforgiving land scape provides stark visual contrasts.