I made some rookie errors when I planted our veggie patch last summer. I jumped in too quickly, without observing the patch – where the light falls, what the wind does – etcetera. The site is, it turns out, dank, with very little winter sunshine. But – never mind – I cut everything back, let it hibernate and ready itself for spring, and took a little break from urban gardening.
I also planted during a drought, which may have been a little unwise, but our well-point is up and running. The water tank and the patch are on opposite corners of the house (there were some space restrictions and it was the only way we could configure it). No worries – we’ve rigged up a very long hosepipe and fashioned a tap – and, with some effort, we’re able to feed the groundwater to our veggies. Minor obstacles.
It’s September and look at these gorgeous blooms that are springing to life!
The anthropologist in me is always fascinated by alternate ways of seeing and doing. A writing assignment on waste management a few years ago was something of a turning point for me, as it brought home just how destructive our lifestyle of excess and waste is. It kickstarted a desire to tread a little lighter; to learn how to do things a bit differently.Since then, I’ve stumbled upon minimalism, the zero waste movement, urban farming, permaculture – whole new worlds are being opened up. These schools of thought all feed into each other, offering alternatives to our consumer-mad society, and I’m dabbling in them all as I figure out what resonates, what sticks, and what’ll get us closer to living just a bit greener and wilder in our sliver of suburbia.
In her food forest in the heart of the suburbs, Saskia Schelling of Urban Farmstead grows an abundance of fruit and veggies; it’s a thriving model of permaculture. Here she sheds some light on what permaculture is:
What is permaculture?
“For me that’s like asking ‘What is Life?’ The term Permaculture – Permanent Agriculture or Permanent Culture – was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, then later taken on by Geoff Lawton and others.
Permaculture is a highly effective way to design for a future of abundance, not just of food, but in every sense of the word. It’s often defined as ‘the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems and human living environments, which have the diversity, stability, and the strength of natural eco-systems.’
What this means is that permaculture design mimics nature in every sense – the natural laws, the organising principles and the patterns and interconnections that naturally occur in ecosystems.
Permaculture isn’t just about growing great organic veggies – although of course it does encompass these things. Neither is it a ‘plug and paste’ solution (ie one solution fits all environments).
The power of observation The permaculture principles, one of which is Observation, need to be applied to each and every site. You need to observe the soil ph, the natural biomes, the plants, azimuths, contours, people, land uses, natural vegetation, and insects.
Part of the beauty is that the actual design and solutions appear out of the process. If you follow all the design steps systematically, the design seems to present itself miraculously. The layers and layers of ‘data’ gathered through observation are overlaid and this, together with the visions and wishes of the stakeholders, informs the mainframe design.
For example, after mapping and observation, it’ll become obvious that a soggy, marshy part of a property is not the best place to erect a house – instead, it may be the perfect place to build a dam perhaps, or plant water-loving plants.
Nothing in isolation
Permaculture also takes into account the economic, social and environmental aspects of a habitat. It’s principles can be used to shift stale or stagnant working environments into healthy, vibrant, flowing, productive ones. It serves as a basis from which to make holistic, viable decisions, whether in corporate or private arenas.
The are three permaculture ethics which are key to healthy interactions with the earth and with each other. They are Care for the land; Care for the people; and Share the Surplus.”
To read about Saskia’s super inspiring story and find out about upcoming workshops, see here. And to learn more about Permaculture in South Africa, have a look at Love Green Permaculture.
Can I still call myself an aspiring minimalist if I have a very long list of books I’m coveting? If I fantasise about piles of books, stacks of magazines and a coffee table overflowing with tomes? Admit that I’ll never get round to reading them all, but just want them?
Currently lusting after these evocatively titled books, taunting me with their aesthetically pleasing covers.
Arriving at Saskia’s house in the suburbs, there’s nothing to prepare you for the abundant food forest contained within its walls. Over a period of 5 or so years, Saskia has toiled, tirelessly, to transform her conventional suburban garden into a thriving model of permaculture.
Her passion is contagious. Below is just some of what Saskia had to say about her journey. I’ll be sharing more of her wisdom and insights in further instalments of this post. But for now….
What motivated you to start growing your own food?
“I’ve always had a passion for growing edibles and for gardening. This stems, I suspect, from many hours spent watching my mothers’ veggie gardens thrive; the taste and smell of just-pulled carrots still hanging onto some good earth; freshly plucked strawberries and sweet sweet figs; oooh and those apricots!
I also have memories of myself in my toddler years, pre-teens and teens on my grandparents small holding in Pretoria, conversing with the chickens, sheep, peacock and tadpoles and observing the fascinating processes of my grandfather’s honey collecting, biltong-making; and planting and harvesting of maize and other earthly goodnesses.
It was however, not until Kent Tahir Cooper walked into my yoga classes some 7 years ago, that my passion for permaculture was truly ignited and fuelled. I ‘interned’ myself under the watchful and mindful guidance of Tahir, by intensely converting our run-of-the-mill urban garden into a zone of permaculture abundance.
It took many hours of sweat, perseverance, many challenges, and extremely late nights watching movie upon movie: from Bill Mollison to Geoff Lawton and everything in between. I stopped at nothing – to my family’s frustration. I measured and walked and observed every corner of the property and implemented the permaculture principles without holding back.”
Some of the benefits?
“The compounding benefits I observed whilst working with nature thrilled me, not only in respect of my own personal health, but also in the health of this patch of urban space. The more intensely I worked and connected with the earth, following the permaculture principles and techniques, the more I observed positive shifts and the unquestionable regeneration of this ecosystem within ecosystems that I call our home. My family then followed as they began to experience the shifts too, and to taste the fruits of our labour – literally.
We also began to notice the cost-saving in terms of veggies and fruits and herbs; and the petrol saved from driving to the shops and back; and the health benefits of eating home-grown fresh produce. Our friends and family noticed too and started asking for help to implement the same at their homes; then came our children’s friends asking questions, and so the children’s workshops came into being; and then came the demand for planter boxes to house the veggies, so we started to make those. The garden and system continued to develop until we had surplus knowledge and plants and produce to share, and now we love to share!
The journey continues to unfold as every day brings new challenges, new ideas, new solutions waiting to be revealed.”
Top tips for someone wanting to start a veggie garden?
Observe, observe and observe your site.
Involve all of the stakeholders right from the beginning whether you are working with your own home, an NGO, a corporate or private individuals. Obtain EVERYONE’S input, ideas and vision.
If you possibly can, attend a good internationally accredited PDC (Permaculture Design Course) that has a reputable reputation and is facilitated by experienced permaculture practitioners; or obtain advice and guidance from an experienced trained permaculture practitioner.
Design a sound viable Mainframe Plan. Without this, you set yourself up for possible disappointment down the line.
Plant what you eat, and not what you don’t.
Have fun and enjoy the journey!
Your favourite things to grow? And things you’d love to grow in the future?
Too many to name but here are a few: tamarillos (tree tomatoes); Italian tree tomatoes (actually tomatoes – huge ones); asparagus; bananas; granadillas; tulsi; ashwaganda (the bull-bulls love them!); watercress; pear-melons; grapes; zucchini; beans; peas; figs; brussels sprouts; sweet potatoes (edible, pretty, groundcovers – why on earth would anyone BUY them. They LOVE growing in sandy soil and are so abundant!); lemons; apricots; celery; kale; chard.
I’d love to grow a large abundant sage bush – for some reason sage just doesn’t grow well in our soil. I’d love to grow kiwi fruit, and coffee, and litchis and coconuts, but our micro-climate is not quite ready for those additions as yet. And we LOVE to collect our own eggs! We also LOVE to grow our heirloom veggie and herb seedlings; indigenous plants and pioneer plants for ourselves, our friends and family and the greater community.
*Stay tuned for more from Saskia. And to read more about Urban Farmstead’s workshops, check out their site here.
Our veggie patch is at the back of our house; you need to walk out and around to get to it. It’s a trip I’m starting to love, I can feel the anticipation build as I round the corner. I get excited to suss out what’s happened overnight, and, if I’m lucky enough to have a cup of tea in hand, to sit, groggy and unwashed, and enjoy a few stolen moments of complete solitude before the days starts. A momentary vacation from my thoughts, and from my kids (turns out its a great place to hide from them).
It’s been two months since we started growing and one of the best parts are the firsts. First granadilla flower (I think I yelped out loud when I spotted it), first green pepper bud (imperfect as it was), first homegrown salad. My pride and joy, I almost can’t bear to eat these little babies.
The first time I visited Babylonstoren, two years ago, I was blown away. Having just gone back, with a newfound passion for growing food — oh.my.word. My husband said he could hear my ovaries singing.
All those beautiful strong plants, that soil teeming with microlife, the nooks and crannies amongst the giant sunflowers, prickly pear forests and quince trees. And the blue and white tiled decor. Maybe that’s where its magic lies. It stirs both the grower and the aesthete in you.
We’re forging ahead with our veggie garden despite the relentless heat. In retrospect, planting during a drought may have been unwise – but the seasons are turning; the days are crisper and there are traces of dew in the mornings. And, most crucially, our well point is up and running.
We’ve started small, sticking to veggies that were already in the patch or that we’ve had luck with before. Though today, on a whim, I snuck past the nursery and couldn’t resist picking up borage and echinacea.
Borage, much-loved by experienced gardeners, is said to have all kinds of benefits – it adds trace minerals to the soil, self seeds, is edible (one has to wonder how edible with those prickly leaves), and is a magnet for bees and other pollinators. So I’m giving it a whirl. Echinacea – who can resist those gorgeous flowers?
Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.
– Thomas Berry
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.