The Jungle House in Review 2018

It is always good to reflect. However, it always seems to be that negative events, outway the positive. Like we give them a multiplier blowing them out of proportion.

The garden has definitely had it’s year of challenges. So in thinking about our year in review, I could think about the tortoises destruction of the front garden, or my dog that insists on sleeping in my raised beds.

So rather than focus on the cutworms, that insist on eating my cucumbers let us look at a few of the wins, this year, and hopefully get some inspiration to move into the new year.

My ‘Babeco’ Apricots are some of the first trees that were planted, a gift from dear friends, and thus one of the first to fruit. We have just finished our third season and each one brought some element of failure. First year we had amazing flowers with two fruit set. Learning, hand polinate. Second year saw 36 fruit to term, all full of worms. We managed to salvage two jars of jam. Learning, worms need to be dealt with. So for the third year we hand polinated, got more than 50 fruit set, and bagged them to keep the worms off. We are not pesticide people. We only got 5 delicious fruit, with no worms, serious fruit drop. Learning, well not really sure. Either the bagging forces the fruit to fall off, maybe combined with the wind? Possibly the 10 day, 35 plus degree heatwave? We are going to have to see what happens next year, hopefully the lack of a heat wave, will assist in identifying this year’s problem. Each year of failure, brought valuable learning. Failure brings learning, if you embrace it, and look for the value in the experience.

Purple and Yellow Spider Daylily

This year we ate daylilies from October and will finish up later this month in January. At times there were enough to replace the lettuce for family dinners. It has been three years in the making. Dutifully applying compost, watering through the very hot and dry summer. They have been showing progress, thickening up, producing more plants. This year has given us a window of promise, that in the next year or two, we will actually have more flowers than we can eat. We have also harvested our first plum, and look forward to apples and figs later in the season. All of these, have been years in the making, planning, procuring, planting, pruning, and caring for the plants. Patience yields reward.

One of my first learnings through failure, was the need to really water one’s plants. While a fair number of plants will survive with limited water, they really need excellent watering to truly thrive. In Cape Town, trying to grow in the summer, is like trying to grow in a desert. I do a fair bit of research and so in looking at a means to improve watering, came across hydroponics, which led to an exploration of aquaponics through which I stumbled upon wicking beds. This year we have completed two wicking beds, raised beds with a water reservoir below, with water wicking from beneath, rather than watering above. I have made my own design changes due to observations and the journey I have taken, which will help others in theirs, to grow their own food. Wicking beds have revolutionised my annual gardening practices, and it all started in a search. Exploration begins with journeys.

So as we enter into the new year, start your own journey. Embrace the learning that comes with failure, and look forward to the rewards that comes with patience. However, none of this works, unless you plant something. You have to start on that journey. Happy planting


10 reasons (you might not have thought of) to grow your own food.

We believe that everyone should be growing their own food, if you are not, then you most likely don’t have a good enough reason to start. While some people understand that growing your own food can save you money, people are often surprised with some of the other reasons that we give. Have a read through these 10 reasons to grow your own food, and perhaps there are a few, you have not yet thought through. Oh and why not take up the challenge at the end.

1. Nutrition
We are used to the phrase “you are what you eat”, but that is true for the plants too, “they are what they eat”. If you are looking after your soil, the plants have a wider range of available nutrients to pack into themselves, waiting for you on your plate. Due to this fact, home grown food is usually far more nutrient dense than commercially grown food, due to soil quality. The food going from the garden to the plate, means there is far less nutrient loss with food that has either been harvested early or has had to endure a few days or sometimes weeks of transportation to the store.

2. Varieties
Commercial agriculture has reduced the number of fruit and vegetables and varieties of these, due to their desire to grow food that travels well, is easy to harvest, that is ready to harvest all at once. By growing a wide variety of vegetables, and different varieties we get a far wider nutrient profile in our food, are able to harvest for longer periods and has other knock on effects. We also get access to food that is either very difficult to find, or virtually impossible. Think when did you last see a punnet of mulberries for sale and don’t get me started on the price of half a dozen passion fruit.

3. Colours and Tastes
With a wider variety of fruit and vegetables, also comes a new set of tastes and colours. Just browse the tomato section of a heirloom seed catalogue and you realise what you are missing. The colours and shapes are almost endless. This year we had our first tomatillos out the garden, amazing new flavour I did not know existed. Edible flowers, virtually impossible to find in the shops add great colour to a salad, while the taste of your first tomato, or snap pea is incredible. You also get to choose at what stage you get to harvest, since growing our own snap peas, we  have come to believe that they are far better if left a week or two later than store bought snap peas, for the peas to start developing. Those sweet cannon balls of flavour are worth the weight (pun intended).

4. Seed Diversity
With commercial agriculture chasing profits, they have turned to hybrid seeds, which are patented by big companies. Seed saving is thus illegal, and farmers are forced to buy new seed each year. The result is a loss of varieties as farmers have stopped seed saving and numerous varieties have disappeared. This reduction to limited vegetables and limited varieties would have a huge impact on food security should a problem develop with one of the commercial varieties. By growing heirloom varieties at home you keep these varieties alive, both through your own seed saving initiatives, and by providing a market for the number of brave heirloom seed companies who are keeping our seed heritage alive.

5. Better plant utilisation
When you cut your first brocolli or cauliflower, it strikes you what a waste leaving all those leaves. But why not cut them too, don’t forget the stalks! Great starter for a soup or stirfry, just cook them a bit longer if they are a bit tough. Take the day lily. You get the beauty of the flowers in your garden (or in a vase) eat the flowers each evening, (they are dead tomorrow anyway) or use them as soup or sauce thickener. Every 3 years when you have to divide the plants, the stems and tubers can also make their way to the kitchen. Sweet potatoes can provide both green leaves during the spring and the tubers at the end of the season. Did we mention the banana flower curry we made this year after the bananas had set?

6. Storage
Nature has a way of keeping herself fresh and will often store things way better than we can, despite our modern technology. Loose leaf crops will start to droop within a day or two, but ours just stay nice and crispy until we go and pick them for the evening meal. Root and tuber crops will often store better in the ground, waiting to be harvested. Many fruit trees can keep their crop on the branch way longer than the fridge. All the while keeping the goodness in and continuing to pack in the nutrients as they ripen. Nut harvests will keep much longer in shell, allowing storage until you can crack as many as one needs. Your garden becomes your larder.

7. Safe Food
I know what chemicals or poisons are used on my plants. Absolutely nothing! I choose that! How do we know what has really gone into our food. Soil fumigants, chemical pest applications, broad leaf weed applications, anti-fungal or anti-bacterial sprays to prevent after harvest spoilage, wax sprays to make your fruit shiny, or chemical ripening. No-one tells you what they have done to your food, and nor are they going to. While they are supposed to wait the required times for ‘safety’ after applications, supposed to adhere to all sorts of regulations, the recent and sad listeria outbreak in South Africa points to corporate food not always providing the ‘safe’ food that they are supposed to.

8. Packaging
How much packaging goes into the food you bring home from the store. Staggering! Just taking your fruit and vegetables, close your eyes and imagine the pile of plastic that you generate each day, now each week, each month, for the full year. The damage that plastic does to our planet is not really the discussion here (the opening scenes of WallE are not so crazy), but imagine that annual pile of plastic just not being needed because you were growing your own. You might have just saved our planet.

9. Carbon Sequestration.
Once you start growing plants, usually compost follows in some shape or form, especially if you realise that the secret is to grow your soil and not your plants. Well made compost reduces greenhouse gases due to the avoidance of anerobic decomposition in landfills. Applying the compost to the soil, takes all that carbon and buries it in the soil locking it back in and creating a healthy living soil that grows healthy plants. In 2007 the USA sent 31 million tons of food waste to the landfills.  If this had been composted it would have been the equivalent of removing 8.4 million passenger cars off the road.

10. Pride
It became something of a family tradition, that my father would list off all of the garden produce that went into each evening meal. There was a great sense of pride in this ritual and I get it. There is something so satisfying walking into the kitchen with a large bowl of vegetables for the evening meal. I love watching my kids picking leafy greens and eating them right out the garden. They race across the lawn to choose the biggest daylily flower after school each day, and I have to break up the fights soon after, about whether the cape gooseberries are going to be eaten right now or put into the freezer for jam. Just before bath time I have to go and haul them out the waterberry trees where they have been climbing all afternoon, because they have already eaten the low hanging ones. I understand my father’s pride, and I share in it too.

But. . .
There are no buts. For every reason you want to find to not grow your own food, I am sure I can put it aside. It takes less time than you think, especially with perennials. It takes less work than you think especially with no dig methods. It takes less space than you think, especially with crop diversity. Even if you live in a flat with no balcony and no windows, lentil sprouts are clean and will be ready to harvest in 4 days.

The Challenge . . .

Start small, plant one plant. Bush beans or perhaps a tomato. Mint or Rosemary are virtually indestructible. Just plant something. Today! It will give you the confidence to plant more tomorrow.

 

All images courtesy of FreeImages.com

Little helpers in the garden

You would be excused for thinking that I was talking about my children, and although they can be helpful, they usually engage with the garden under supervision. Let’s be honest, building an animal pen with my tomato stakes, and then chasing the ducks around the garden to test their design skills, is not always helpful.

I am talking about bulbs, but in particular, spring bulbs. In our Mediterranean climate they are perfect for our winter rainfall. They have flowered, stored energy for the following spring, before the summer heat arrives, forcing them to hide themselves deep in the drying ground.

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So why then do I view them as my little helpers. I love it when the Daffodil bulbs start breaking ground. Not only because I can’t wait for those beautiful yellow flowers, but it reminds me that my little helpers are at it again.

At least three months ago when the summer heat subsided and the first rains started falling, their roots started digging through the ground, aerating my soil, stimulating the soil life with their exudates and getting themselves ready for their true awakening. There is that exciting bursting through the ground, and their leaves starting to produce all that energy, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and don’t forget, continue feeding that soil life.

By early summer, the flowers having graced my garden, bedroom, kitchen, dining room table ( ok you get the idea), they have stored energy in their bulbs to last the long hot summer and then kickstart the following spring, and they begin to die back. Most of the roots will die back as do the old bulb scales, leaving organic matter in the soil, tiny channels for aeration, and allowing summer rains to penetrate deeper into the soil. The leaves die off and become a mulch for the soil, further protecting it from the summer heat, adding organic matter to the soil, or for the neat freaks to add more organic matter to your compost heap.

So after having aerated my soil, fed the soil food web, beautified my life,  added compost to the soil, saved the planet from greenhouse gases and then mulched and protected the soil, it has been looking after so well, they go to sleep. Sleep well my little helpers, see you next year.

My journey to growing food

My father had about an acre under vegetables, an orchard that seemed to only produce limes and tunnels for producing cut flowers. We had an ancient giant avocado tree that produced the best avocados I have ever tasted. The earth was black and soft, while his compost production seemed on an industrial scale. He grew food until the day he died and he was always so proud of the food he put on the table. As I watch my kids graze on tomatoes and gooseberries from the garden, I think I understand that better.

While I had a small part of Dad’s garden  in which I grew radishes (which I don’t like), it was while renting a house in London that my own gardening journey truly began. It amazed me how in Spring, after months of ice cold, the peonies in the garden would miraculously appear out of nowhere and offer up some of the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen. In the parks daffodils would appear under all the trees, like they had all agreed to meet there for a reunion. I still love and plant bulbs to this day, and they continue to amaze me when they break soil each spring.

My true passion for plants began when I had the good fortune of living with a botanist, when I moved to Ingwavuma, Maputaland in far northern KwaZulu-Natal. He was searching for a Ceropegia, and I would often accompany him on walks through the bush looking for the elusive plant. It took us months before we found the first one, (later we realised they were fairly common place, go figure) so while searching for months I would hear how fascinating plants can be, learning all the different plant families, what you could eat out of the bush, their crazy, different pollination or survival techniques. This gave birth to my passion for growing things.

However it was when I started researching the Banting diet, I realised how disconnected we have become from our food. How there is a really good chance that someone lied to us, about the kinds of foods that we should, or should not, be eating. For sure the kind of farming we have been doing for the last 70 years is detrimental to our environment and the planet we live on. Ok, let me stop before you class me as a complete lunatic, but read the side of the box of whatever you are eating, somewhere along the line we stopped eating real food.

To bring food to the market, from miles away, big agriculture have found ways, to grow plants that can all be harvested at the same time, often early, artificially ripened, stored for long periods. To ensure they look beautiful and maximise output they have been sprayed with chemicals and covered with waxes. While we bask in our own glory of human achievement, we are blissfully unaware that we have lost so much.

We have lost vegetables that we no longer grow, because they do not grow uniformly. We have lost fruit varieties, because they ripen at different times, can not survive the travel time to market, or bruise too easily. We have lost nutrition, because we pick it so early, the plant has not finished it’s amazing task of packing the fruit, full of all the goodness nature has to offer. We have lost drought tolerant crops because yields are not as good as the water hungry replacements. We have lost skills as we no longer take time to store the food that we used to grow. We have lost so much.

Now when researching diets, it gets pretty confusing, pretty quickly. Everyone has their own ideas, usually passionately defended, and often contradictory to someone else. High carb, low fat. High fat, low carb. Vegan, Fruitarian, Vegetarian. So what I found in common generally, was the following. Firstly added sugar is just plain bad. Secondly the less refined and the closer to the raw food you can get, the better. Finally the nutrition of the food you eat, has so much to do with the soil in which your grow your food.

Who knew that all this time we have gotten it so wrong. We need to learn to grow and feed our soil, the plants will take care of themselves. Ok, that’s not quite true, but I hope you get the idea.

Everything I grow now is either feeding my family or feeding my soil. I grow yellow beans. I eat bananas you can’t buy in a shop, and they are delicious. My apricot jam is like nothing you have ever tasted. My gooseberries, ok I never taste those, the children get them first.

Growing food is actually quite easy, and some would argue, is becoming essential. Just plant something.