Tithonia can improve soil fertility on the farm

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One of the major problems facing crop production in Kenya is declining soil fertility. According to Ms. Mary Gathara, a research scientist at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) Soil Chemistry Department, many Kenyan soils are deficient in nitrogen and phosphorous.

Nitrogen is an important part of all proteins, and is one of the main chemical elements needed for plant growth and photosynthesis. Lack of Nitrogen hinders plant growth. Crops absorb nitrogen by absorbing either ammonium or nitrate through the root system. The plants then use nitrogen as a building block to produce protein in form of enzymes. 

Phosphorus is another element that is necessary for growth of strong plants. Insufficient phosphorus in the soil causes stunted growth in crops. It also causes wilting, small fruits and flowers. The right amount of phosphorus helps crops yield more fruits and form healthier stocks and roots. Such crops may also mature much quicker than plants without phosphorus.

Ms. Grace Wambui, a farmer who practices agro forestry at her Farm in Laikipia County has realized the benefits of planting tithonia in her farm. This has increased her maize yields, which are healthy and have attracted many buyers in the market. She says: “Tithonia produces large quantities of biomass, which when well used as green manure provide the much needed nitrogen and phosphorous to depleted soils.”

What is tithonia?

 Tithonia diversifolia or the wild sunflower is a non-leguminous shrub that grows wild in many parts of Africa. It grows to a height of 1-3 metres. It can also be used as fodder for cattle, goats and sheep. In Kenya it can be found growing in Western, Central and coastal regions and in parts of the Rift Valley.

The local names of tithonia are maua amalulu (Luhya), mauamakech (Luo), amaua amaroro (Kisii) and maruru (Kikuyu).

Nutritional value of tithonia

 According to Ms. Mary Gathara, the quantity of nutrients found in tithonia is significantly higher than those found in synthetic fertilizers. The moisture content of tithonia leaves is estimated to be 84%. Before the plant flowers, tithonia leaves (dry matter) on average contain the following nutrients:

Nitrogen (N) 3.17%

Phosphorus (P) 0.3%

Potassium (K) 3.22%

Calcium (Ca) 2.0%

Magnesium (Mg) 0.3%

How communities use tithonia

Many communities living in Kenya use tithonia for fencing around homesteads. Increasingly, many communities are now adopting the use of tithonia for composting and as fodder for cattle, goats and sheep.

How to propagate

Farmers can easily propagate tithonia by direct seeding. The best method, however, is to make a furrow for the seeds and cover them lightly with sandy soil. Then apply mulch to prevent the seeds from being washed away and to retain the soil moisture.

Tithonia can also be established from cuttings. The cuttings should be 20-30 cm long and cut from mature wood. They can be planted in the soil as you plant sugarcane cutting or Napier stalks. Plant the cuttings with 1 or 2 nodes below ground level and 2 or more nodes above. Place the cuttings in the ground slanting at an angle of 45-60 degrees.

How to apply the green manure

To apply the green manure, cut leaves and soft twigs of tithonia, chop them into small pieces, and either place them in each planting hole or spread them evenly over the surface and then incorporate them into the soil. You can continue applying this green manure throughout the active growing period of the crop either by placing it along the rows of plants or by incorporating it into the soil.

After you apply the leaves, they must be mixed well with the soil or left to decompose for at least 1 week before you plant. The maize and other seeds may not germinate well if they are planted immediately.

Tithonia diversifolia can be applied as green manure to maize, sorghum, cowpeas, kale, tomatoes and beans as well as to high value crops such as French beans and pineapples. The booklet, ‘Using the wild sunflower,tithonia, in Kenya for soil fertility and crop yield improvement’, provides additional information about the use of Tithonia diversifolia as a green manure, including traditional uses, how to plant the seeds or grow from cuttings, and the benefits for crops.

You can contact the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) for more information on how to get the book on tel: 020 722 4000 email: icraf@cgiar.org

>>Tell us how useful this information is to your farming enterprise. Share your experience by email to admin@theorganicfarmer.org, leave a comment below this article or SMS 0715 916 136.

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