Earmarked

A momentous day! I finally convinced my boys (the not-so-farmy ones) to move the trampoline so I can claim a patch of land to start a veggie garden. Here it is, in all its bare earth glory.

veggie-garden
I’ve inherited a few stragglers that grew under or around the trampoline – a small lemon tree, a pomegranate bush, and a very determined tomato plant. For the rest, its an untouched parcel of land in which I get to realise a long held dream – to plant a fig tree!

I know next to nothing about growing vegetables – the learning curve is going to be steep. First task – remove the bits of rubble and prepare the soil, enriching it with compost. All the while plotting and dreaming about this little tract of land in our little corner of suburbia, where we’ll toil, grow, learn and find nourishment.

Garden as though you will live forever
-William Kent

Much more mulch

My parents taught me many things. Gardening and a love for the outdoors wasn’t one of them. Our gardens were unloved extensions of our houses; we were seldom in them. A love for all things green is something that has, over time, trickled into my consciousness.

Over the years, in between all the moving, I’ve dabbled with growing things. Mostly with succulents and herbs, and usually in pots. But the urge to stick stuff in the ground, watch it grow, yank it out and eat it, is growing stronger.

As I muddle along and experiment, I’m constantly learning and adapting what happens in our tiny patch of suburban land. I have a gardener who helps me a few hours a week and every week for the past few years, he’d diligently stand in the beds and poke holes in the soil, to aerate it and prevent it from becoming compacted. Next he’d rake up all the leaves, bag them up and toss them in the trash – creating a neat, manicured garden where everything was trimmed back and contained.

We’ve wisened up since then and learnt a thing or two – about mulch and about microlife in the soil.

Mulch, the layer of organic material on top of your soil, does wonders for your garden:

  • it regulates the temperature, keeping heat out and moisture in – crucial if you’re gardening in a water scarce place
  • mulching with nutrient-rich compost or leaf mould allows microlife to thrive in the soil. Soil teeming with microlife is naturally aerated (from worms wriggling and burrowing) and unlikely to become compacted. Poking holes in the soil only upsets the delicate balance of the tiny creatures working their magic in the layers of your soil
  • a mulch keeps weeds from popping up
mulch
A mulch of fallen leaves and bark. Time will tell whether the bark is too acidic for that patch of soil.

We don’t turf our fallen leaves anymore, we treasure them. We let them pile up in our beds or we chuck them in our just-acquired leaf mulcher, in the hope of making leaf mould.

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The start of our leaf mould experiment – no doubt one that will be replete with lessons. I’m letting it pile up and will turn and moisten occasionally. I’ve heard coffee grounds help kickstart decomposition so will try that too and see what happens.

The ‘no dig, chop and drop’ approach to gardening is resonating more and more. Less primping and pruning and trying to bend the garden to our will. Our focus is shifting –  we’ll aim to get the basics right – enrich the soil, plan the best position for plants, strengthen them, and then, as much as possible, let nature take over and do what its perfectly designed to do.

Mucking in

Composting, for us, is mostly about diverting waste from our alarmingly full, toxic landfills. Haphazard in our approach, we’re learning as we bumble along and don’t harvest a huge amount of compost – and when we do, it’s an added bonus on our journey of waste reduction.

Yesterday I attended the most inspiring workshop at Urban Farmstead, where I learnt that, just like baking, there’s a composting recipe you can follow. The workshop was facilitated by permaculturalist Saskia Schelling and herbalist Karen Parkin.  Over a period of 6 years, Saskia has toiled tirelessly to transform her suburban garden into a thriving food forest. Passionate about sharing her hard-won knowledge, the workshop was practical, mucky and hands-on. We added layer upon layer of organic material to create the most awesome compost heap. Here’s how it went down and some of what I learnt:

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Base layer – carbon-rich straw. Ideal size for the heap is 1.5 m wide by 1.5 m high – and as long as you like. This facilitates efficient heat build-up.
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Next up – nitrogen-rich horse manure. To generate heat and kick off decomposition, compost heaps need a good mix of carbon and nitrogen (more carbon than nitrogen). Saskia sources her manure from the local stables.
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More straw, then mineral-packed, nitrogen rich seaweed, foraged from our coastline.
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Some fresh cut greens for more of a nitrogen kick. Greens also store nutrients and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous in their leaves which are released during decomposition.
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Kitchen scraps, clay and – a key ingredient – water. The compost heap needs to be moist but not waterlogged. We learnt a nifty trick: squeeze a handful of the compost really tight, if a few drops trickle out, you’ve got the moisture content more or less right.
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More ‘brown’ matter to up the carbon content – newspapers and more straw. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to do it in this order, or with these particular materials, just work with what you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen. And you don’t need to layer either – you can mix it all up before creating the heap.
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Voila! A magnificent heap, ready to start working its magic.
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Within days the heap will start heating up. You’ll need to check the temperature in about 3 weeks – it should be hot (you can use a stick or an iron rod to gauge the temp, which should be hot to the touch). When the heap starts cooling down again, you’ll need to turn it (which sounds like quite a job!). 3 weeks after turning, it should be ready for harvesting.

That’s the very basic recipe, to be tweaked and adjusted to suit your needs and lifestyle. We tend to ‘cold compost’, adding bits of waste to a small bin which decomposes over a long time – months to a year. But if you’re a keen composter in Cape Town, looking to churn out beautiful compost quickly, get yourself to Urban Farmstead, to learn the best way – by doing.

Energy guzzlers

grasses1jpgIt’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.

In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.

In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.

I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?

I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.

It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!

Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.

“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien

Top 10 indigenous beauties

I love a list. And apparently I’m not alone. The web is awash with listicles; the theory goes we lap them up because they’re visually captivating and easy to process. As we flick from screen to screen, hungry for something to satiate us, our eyes usually settle on a list – bite-sized and easily digestible, they help us compartmentalise and distill things down to their essence.

So in celebration of lists in any shape or form, herewith my first gardening-inspired listicle…in no particular order, with pictures to boot (*my botanical knowledge is still limited so I’ve used the colloquial plant names).

  1. Day lilies

    day-lily
    True to their name, they do only last a day, sometimes two, but they make it count. And as they tend to flower en masse, the colour is no less riotous. Edible, they make a striking garnish.
  2. Silver lace

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    This pic didn’t capture the shimmery-ness of this classy, textural silver plant, which looks wonderful when it grows in and amongst more colourful blooms.
  3. Grasses (of every variety)

    grasses
    Love these! We’ve got a shallow flower bed in the middle of a concrete-heavy patio that bakes in the heat. These grasses, which completely soften the space as they bend and sway in the wind, are the only plants that have survived (and thrived).
  4. Plectranthus

    plec
    These have a gorgeous colour –  dark green leaves with rich purple undersides. The flowers seem to bloom endlessly. Shade lovers, ours has been overflowing in an indigo pot, drawing the eye to a forgotten corner of the patio.
  5. Tree Aloe

    aloe
    Nothing beats succulents for hardiness and resilience. These water-wise tree aloes are beautifully sculptural.
  6. African Daisies

    daisies
    These look incredible en masse – they don’t flower too often but it’s well worth the wait when they do. (This pic was taken up the West Coast, in spring, when the daisies burst into colour).
  7. Proteas (Safari Sunset)

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    People moving to the Cape from lusher, wetter regions can take a while to warm to fynbos. Particularly if you’re used to more traditional ‘romantic’ gardens (think roses and lavender), proteas can seem dull and scrubby by contrast. I’ve always loved the rugged look of fynbos and think it’s a myth they’re not colourful. (I’ll have to update this in winter when proteas explode with colour!).
  8. Pelargonium

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    We picked this up at an open garden in Elgin. Two-tone purple and dark pink, the flowers are all kinds of beautiful.
  9. Spekboom

    spekboom
    Edible (sour to taste though!), these succulents grow into the most interesting shapes. Very water-wise too.
  10. Wild Iris

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    You often see these en-masse on pavements and in public green spaces – probably because they’re low maintenance, good spreaders.

That’s my top 10. Any to add?