Growing food in the suburbs: OZCF, 18 months on

My dear Lauren – I promised that if you write, I’ll write. I’ve decided not to be too deep about this, otherwise I’ll never get anything written. So while you’re gallavanting about in the coffee plantations of Burundi, here are my thoughts about the things that people in Cape Town are growing.

Ryan and I finally had the chance to go visit Oranjezicht City Farm again today. We were there on Heritage Day in 2012 when they launched the farm. There was nothing growing there, they just had a nice fresh goods market, and happy European student volunteers selling t-shirts and showing you the layout plans for the garden. Did I mention that I had gotten all the details about the market day from their website, which was already set up.

The guys are doing something great there. I have always been intimdated at the sheer organisational feat that that garden has been from the beginning – it had a logo and a plan and “history of the farm” and the aforementioned happy European student volunteers before they had even planted something. Their message was clear, their marketing was thorough, their market day launch was a huge success. It’s clear that a lot of the people involved in the garden are involved in business and there was some good business leadership that went into this thing from the start.

At Ariston things are a bit more chilled than that. What that means is that among other things we don’t have running water, and very few people know about us. Also our markets have never worked very well because we simply didn’t have the manpower and capital to set up a big thing – so there were no toilets, no large shaded areas, and not a lot of stalls or customers. And did I mention, no running water. In a way, we at Ariston don’t get to spread the joy around as much as the OZCF guys do. On the other hand, I find it very special having my own little plot in a largely unknown city farm. I get to listen to the school kids walking along Imam Haron road from Livingstone High School to the train station, shouting and laughing, mostly oblivious to me pottering about in the ramshackle garden not 20 meters from them. I get to sit on the mound next to the water hole and look at the gorgeous mountain and just drink in the solitude. God meets me there. OZCF is making excellent use of their farmland, and spaces are far more neatly delineated. At Ariston, both the plants and I get to ramble about.

There’s a third little farm that I have to compare here. That’s Namaste Organic farm, or what I generally just refer to as Eric’s farm. Eric Swarts, my “farmer friend” in Stellenbosch, grows organic vegetables and for about 6 months, I participated with Lauren and some others in something we called iGrow, which was basically Eric making allotments available on his plot. That was another meeting place between suburban folk and organic food, albeit slightly out of town. It was an immensely special time. I am always surprised when I realise how short lived it was because it had a tremendous impact on me. We could go to our allotments whenever we liked, and on Saturday mornings, Eric would be there for an hour or two. We could ask him for advice, and he was happy to share. One day, Ryan and I helped him sow seeds in seed trays, using his own worm compost. Methodically scraping the compost, watering just enough, placing one seed in each hole, tapping the tray so that the moist soil settles, then another layer of compost and water. I still grow mine exactly the way I learned from Eric that day. I will never forget early evenings, alone on my plot, sitting on the soil, dead tired and eating a carrot (which does absolutely nothing to still a ravenous post-gardening hunger by the way). The farm is behind Spier, so there are mountains all around you. Little birds would fly past, chattering and catching insects in the dusk. Other times I would take a friend and we’d share the rush of the workout and the expectation of the things that would grow. And we’d go down to the organic market down the road for breakfast and coffee. At Eric’s farm there was a real sense of community. And the lightness of the fields. There was also an awareness of history – Eric as a black farmer, raised in the Boland, taking on labourers from Khayelitsa, how different a picture from his forefathers and my forefathers, and how will things be for the children of his labourers?

The OZCF reminded me that I’m not big into neat rows of anything. It looks so pretty, their symmetrical diamond shaped layout, and I think just like the whole vibe with the market and the banners, the neat way the garden is laid out is pleasing to people who live in Oranjezicht, who like things to be ordered and professional and well done. Surely the veggies grow happily. But in the words of Pink, pretty just ain’t me. I was reminded of how Jane Griffiths describes her (lack of) planting strategy: Jane’s jungle style. Sure, there’s a place for planning, and it’s nice to put the companion plants together, and the whole permaculture thing with the frequently used crops closer to the back door etc. But hey, if a pumpkin seed from your compost accidentally sprouts among the beans, let it. It’s chosen its place in the jungle, let’s see what happens. (I’m paraphrasing, Jane, hope you don’t mind!)

It’s been a tough summer at Ariston, trying to keep things alive without running water. I performed an emergency evacuation of the strawberry plants; they’re now recuperating each in a separate pot here at my little home where I can water them more easily. Most of them seem likely to live; one is a bit touch and go. Esther, my fellow farmer at Ariston, and I decided to be strategic and just focus our watering efforts on three of the six veggie beds. The green and red peppers are actually making it. I have some faith for the potatoes too. The spinach, well, they suffer on like spinach is willing to do, for better or for worse. The tomatoes have been unreasonable, I must say, and I’m ready to uproot them. There was a lone spring onion left over from happier days; I tasted it and in its wrung out bitter oniony taste its story of hardship was almost audible. I killed that one then, euthanised rather. All the plants are under heaps of straw mulch. We recently had some imifino accidentally sprout and, following Jane’s jungle style, we’re letting them share the soil and the water with the guys we actually planted. But that’s a story for another day.


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