VIVA, VEGGIES!

The Easy Peasy guide to growing your own greens

By Melanie Farrell 30 April 2020

Xola Keswa, aka The Green Ranger, has invented a self-watering raised bed that uses wicking to deliver water to plants. (Photo: Nikki Brighton)

We are living in very strange times. Drought, fires, load shedding, ice floes, unemployment, coronavirus. The year isn’t looking like a very good one but there are signs of positive growth – urban gardening is trending in the wake of the worldwide Covid-19 lockdown.

I’ve been in lockdown since February 28. This was the day that my husband broke his ankle in a motorbike accident on his morning commute into the CBD. I thought I’d be looking after him as he hobbled around the house, adjusting to life on crutches and working from home.

But, two days after his accident, I woke up feeling so ill that I couldn’t get to the GP and begged him, most piteously, to do a home visit. I was sent to hospital for swabs up the nose and the throat and a test for H1N1 (bird flu) and told I had H. Influenza (also known as Hib and babies and children get vaccinated against it. I can see why.)

So, while the rest of the country went into lockdown on 26 March, we’ve been cooped up since 28 February. Have I already mentioned that?

Sitting in my privileged home office with its bay window looking out onto the indigenous, water-wise garden that draws birds, butterflies and bees, I decided to revive my flagging veggie garden. I need some fresh, packaging-free greens in my life.

Since the drought of 2018, when I gave up watering the lawn and dug up half of it for my badly-timed veggie garden, the “veggie beds” have gradually given way to succulents and geraniums, scavenged from verges and propagated at home.

And I’m taking the easy route when it comes to planting. I’ve ordered a mixed tray of 24 seasonal seedlings from Easy Peasy Seedlings, part of NPO SEED, in Cape Town.

SEED, based in Rocklands, Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town, grows seasonal seed trays, taking all the guesswork out of gardening for me.

The NPO offers training for youths keen to pursue a career in permaculture and it has permission to carry on with the Easy Peasy Seedlings business during lockdown, being an essential food supplier. 

I order two April trays online and get a message to say that I can pick up my seedlings from a private home in Kenilworth for a zero-contact collection. 

When I get to the home on a quiet street near the railway line, we keep our physical distance, mumble through our masks and I transport my seedling babies (trays includes Cos lettuce, cauliflower, kale, alyssum, beetroot, peas and spring onions) home. Find Easy Peasy Seedlings on Instagram for seedling updates @easypeasyseedlings

Seedlings sorted, let’s talk about soil. In our case, sand-soil. The wild and waterwise succulents and geraniums know how to handle poor soil but my seedling babies won’t be happy. Compost to the rescue.

Let’s talk about compost

Compost expert Himkaar Singh, founder of The Compost Kitchen in Johannesburg, is an engineer. (Photo: Supplied)

Himkaar Singh, founder of Jozi’s The Compost Kitchen, is a compost expert with a flourishing kerbside garden. “It’s called a kerbside farm and anybody walking past is free to take what they need,” says Singh, 27, an engineer with three degrees.

He has a BSc Engineering (Civil) from Wits, a Postgraduate Diploma in Engineering from Wits, and an MSc Integrated Water Resource Management (“which I did in Germany, Vietnam and Jordan”). Himkaar knows a lot about compost.

“The Compost Kitchen collects food waste from households on a weekly basis. We then recycle the waste into vermicompost using thousands of earthworms. We give the vermicompost back to the customer for free in a craft paper bag, which they can use in their vegetable garden to grow food again.”

How did an engineer become a compost expert?

“I started The Compost Kitchen in May 2019 after living abroad for two years where I learnt about the seriousness of food waste and what other countries are doing about it,” he says.

“I recognised the importance of organic matter in the soil and how it is affecting the water cycle, so I tried to develop a model to improve this.”

What’s growing at the kerbside now? “I’ve got tomatoes, lemons, avocado, beetroot, spinach, curry leaf, bay leaf, coriander, basil, delicious figs, pomegranate, spring onion, lemon grass, mango (yes mango), granadilla, pumpkin, butternut, potato and many more,” says Singh.

“I don’t really think about what to plant – I just take all the seeds/cuttings from my meal preparation and bury it in the soil daily. What wants to grow, will grow. What doesn’t grow, will feed the soil. Make it as easy as possible. I get about one kilo of tomatoes from the garden per week and I didn’t even plant any of them!

“My favourite homegrown recipe is pesto sauce – with basil and mint leaves from my garden – and pine nuts, blended with olive oil. Fresh pesto has so much more flavour than store-bought products,” says Singh.

During lockdown Singh’s compost business is on hold. “Graciously our customers have offered to continue paying during lockdown even though we won’t be able to collect their food waste. In return for this, we have given them seedlings and vermicompost so that they can grow their own food during lockdown,” he says.

I identify with Himkaar’s approach to growing food and I’ve seen “volunteer” spinach, rocket and cherry tomatoes sprouting in unexpected places in our wild urban garden.

I love being able to walk into the garden and pick sweet basil leaves to eat with tomato and grilled halloumi for lunch. A grind of pepper. Some pink salt and a drizzle of De Rustica balsamic vinegar that we bought in De Rust in November 2019. It feels like another life when we stayed at Numbi Valley Permaculture Farm, near De Rust, in an off-grid cottage and feasted on the fruit and vegetables from their permaculture garden. I look out for owner Kathryn Eybers’ Instagram posts on @numbi_valley, showcasing the abundant daily harvest from her permaculture garden.

Eybers is not the only South African veggie grower that I follow on Instagram for inspiration and gardening tips.

Virtual gardening date

Joy Phala, founder of Organic Kitchen Gardens in Joburg, chats about herbs and edibles every Thursday on Instagram Live. (Photo: Supplied)

Edible landscape designer and organic gardener Joy Phala, who lives in Joburg, and I, have a virtual date every Thursday afternoon at 5pm when we bring our beverage of choice (for Phala it’s a real-deal hot chocolate, for me a carob chai) and catch up for gardening chats. Along with whoever else joins in during tea with Phala on Instagram Live.

It’s chatty and relaxed and Phala, 34, founder of Organic Kitchen Gardens, answers questions and talks about how to grow edibles in pots, and indigenous herbs. 

Before lockdown she was racing to finish a garden designed as a tribute to a client’s mother. 

“I’m currently installing phase one of a memorial garden for Mme Mmule Mpakanyane who was an ANC stalwart and human rights activist,” says Phala. “It’s always going to be an incredible honour to be able to create a living memorial for those that have endured so much pain and suffering so that I can be anything I put my mind to. They crawled so I can fly.

“With lockdown we’re all focused on growing things we can eat,” says Phala. And what if we don’t have a garden, just a balcony and some space for a couple of pots?

“No worries,” says Phala breezily. You know you’re in good hands with the award-winning designer from Gauteng. Phala received the award for Best Young Landscape Designer at the Johannesburg International Flower Show 2019.

Phala, who has also revamped singer and songwriter Lira’s edible landscape, shares her garden with her husband and two sons, aged 5 and 7.

“I grew up in Limpopo, in Jane Furse, in the Sekhukhune region and I come from a generation of South African growers who practised what is now referred to as permaculture,” says Phala.

“I have plenty of childhood memories about gardening and cooking: what stands out the most is how much I hated the work. Life in the village revolved around soil prep, sowing, weeding, harvest, threshing seed, storing food, then rinse and repeat.

“My favourite, though, was when my aunt would make a pudding out of mealie meal and sweet gourd. I guess I hated the work but loved the output.”

Phala studied BComm accounting and Internal Auditing at Wits University and Unisa respectively, before working as a management consultant.”

After the birth of her first child, Phala stopped working. 

“I had always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I had postnatal depression although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I just knew I felt happier and content when I was cooking and when I was in the garden.”

Phala started to share photos of her garden and produce on Instagram and received requests for vegetable garden installations. 

“That’s when I founded Organic Kitchen Gardens. This led me to study full landscape design and construction. As a result, the work I do is a combination of traditional landscape design and sustainable urban food gardening.”

What’s growing in Phala’s garden now?

“It’s a combination of edible and ornamental plants plus indoor plants. My edible garden consists of indigenous and exotic culinary herbs, thyme, Salvia Africana Lutea, Eriocephalus Africanus, Tulbaghia etc. I’m completing winter sowings of peas, parsley, broad beans, kales and spinach.

“You can buy seeds online, they are part of essential services and I get mine from Livingseeds.com.”

Water-wise Green Ranger

Xola Keswa, aka The Green Ranger, has invented a self-watering raised bed that uses wicking to deliver water to plants. (Photo: Nikki Brighton)

Compost and seedlings sorted, what about watering? If I was living in a built-up environment I think I’d buy one of Xola Keswa’s sustainable planting boxes. Keswa, from Cape Town, has created a great self-watering raised bed that relies on wicking so that the plants draw up only the water that they need and none is wasted. “You only need to fill up the water reservoir once a week,” explains Keswa.

Keswa, who lives at erf 81 in Oranjezicht where he is part of the farm community, is passionate about the environment and co-founder of Organic Matters, a startup he established in 2014.

The ecopreneur, who receives funding from the South African Urban Food and Farming Trust, as well as the University of Cape Town Global Risk Governance programme, developed the self-watering planter in conjunction with a German university.

“I want to help the less fortunate to at least grow their own vegetables, made out of recycled material – to help people become resilient during these difficult times,” says Keswa.

“I grew up in Ixopo, KZN on a commercial farm and I learnt about plants from my grandmother,” says Keswa. With his grandmother’s encouragement Keswa and his mother studied agriculture.

So what’s the best way to grow a vegetable garden?

“Square-foot gardening is kicking off, and the idea is to create a mini-forest in a small space,” says Keswa. “So you’ve got your winter crops, brassica family, spinach, lettuce, peas and beans/legumes. Then herbs contribute to the beauty and attract beneficial insects – lavender, rosemary, thyme, sages – plant a variety. You want to create different heights.”

I can see my mini-forest taking shape. Apart from the therapeutic benefits of gardening the best part of tilling the soil is that you get to eat fresh herbs every day. 

Joy Phala shared her favourite vegetable-based recipe, a vegetable lentil stew, with me.

Joy Phala’s Vegetable Lentil Stew

Ingredients

1 large onion

½ cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped carrots

1 clove of garlic

1 tablespoon tomato paste

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 chopped tomato

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs of rosemary

2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup brown lentils

2 cups of spinach

 

Method

Sauté onions in a large pan. Add garlic and sauté till fragrant. Add chopped carrots, celery, bay leaf and rosemary and cayenne let that cook for a minute. Add tomato paste and cook for another minute. Then add lentils and chicken stock. Cook until lentils are done to your liking. Stir in spinach. Season with freshly ground pepper. DM/TGIFood

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