Sunday, December 20, 2015

I've got a bottle full of sunshine

To my great surprise I have found myself on the saddle of a mountain bike again after many years. Prior to 2010 mountain biking was a big thing in our lives and I would cycle with the kids 2 or 3 times a week. Then my back seized and that was a closed chapter in our lives.

My youngest son has been mucking around at the local jump track over the last year and was keen to get cycling again but with the devastating fire that burned through most of our mountain in March this year, all cycling tracks on the mountain were closed to allow the ecosystem to rehabilitate.

Avid mountain bikers are now carving out other little tracks around the greenbelts in Constantia, Tokai and surrounds which meant that we could give it a try again. So for the last few weeks Superman, my son and I have been out riding on a Sunday morning, about 13 - 16kms and its been great. The back so far ok :)

The foodie in me cannot help but notice the food around me in the greenbelt as I ride. Having dabbled in foraging in the past I am always interested to see what can be collected around this urban area.

There are lots of dandelions for salads or infusing into honey. Of course the bramble berries are all over the place, although coming to an end now. There are nasturtiums to eat and even a huge cactus with lots of prickly pears to pick.

The squirrels may not share, but there are loads of pinecones for pine nuts - if you are willing to do the hardwork of getting them out of the cone.

And then there is this find...Eldertrees. Lots of elder trees. I have been eyeing them out now for a few weeks waiting for the flowers to be in full bloom so that I can harvest some for cordial. John Seymour recommends harvesting on a hot day - I suppose it makes the flowers scent more pungent??

And today was the day!

So we came home with our treasure today and I followed this recipe for elderflower cordial....Soon my trees will be big enough for me to harvest our own.

Foraged treasure

In a few weeks I will check the trees again on the greenbelt to see if I can harvest some elder berries to infuse into vinegar or syrup.

One of the two bottles of sunshine!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The bee-ginning of our urban bee adventure

We love honey. And without the Cape honey bee we would have a problem in our garden. We have heard scary reports over the years of bees dying in droves due to chemical farming and cell phones! We all know that bees and other pollinators make most of our vegetables.  Without bees there would be a whole lot less variety of fruits and veggies on our plates. So we need bees...and right now bees need us.

Honey on spelt, blueberry and banana breakfast pancakes
More recently there was a news article about honey being imported into South Africa that may not be honey at all actually! Most shop bought honey is ultra filtered and heated which leaves you with none of the pollen and natural healthy honey properties. Asian honey was dumped into the South African market a couple of years back too, and this Chinese honey contained lead, antibiotics and other toxins. There has also been a recent scare just over the mountain of AFB (American Foulbrood) which is extremely contagious and the only cure is destroying the hive and all beekeeping equipment. AFB is also said to be in our country due to imported honey.

Garden fresh berries on this muesli with honey to sweeten
So it has taken some convincing of Superman, but we are getting bees. Urban beekeeping is a growing industry with many folk choosing to keep their own hives in their yards and harvest honey for their families. There are others who keep loads of hives (I know a chap who has 7) and sell their honey to their neighbourhood.

Then there are people like my new friend Lian who is a first generation beekeeper and is building his swarms around Cape Town using people like me to help him. See, I am allergic to bees. Badly. But I garden next to them all the time and am not afraid of these guys as they go about their business. I just don't make them feel threatened at all. But I cannot risk working directly with the hives...and this is where Lian comes in.

He puts two hives in your garden - one is yours and one is his. He will tend them, monitor, feed (if necessary) and collect honey from them for you for an initial set up cost of R1 000.00. When its time to take honey, he gives you honey from your hive and he takes the honey from the other. This honey he sells at the Tokai Forest Market on Saturdays along with his other farm sources.

Last week he came by to see where he could put down some hives and settled on a cool out of the way area behind our garage. I had wanted the hives in the veggie garden but as it is full of people and pet traffic he felt it would be better out of the way. Today he returned with 4 hives.

The alley behind our garage freshly cleaned out

He explained that bees should naturally find their way to the hives he has put out. There are 4 here now, only two will stay in the long term. We have bees visiting the trees around us (Japanese Pepper and Eugenia) already and they love the rocket, coriander and celery flowers in the garden too, so perhaps some little scout bee will come and find these hives and tell his buddies that there is a nice new home waiting for them!?!
Ready and waiting for inhabitants

And because I am running low on honey at the moment I asked Lian to bring me some of his varieties and I was  astounded by the differences in colour between the honeys. Even the viscosity was different. Teaspoons were on the ready to try them all out.

(Left to right) Orange Blossom Honey, West Coast Fynbos, local Fynbos and Eucalyptus honey.

So here we step out into an urban beekeeping adventure...quite exciting actually :)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Back to Eden - is it the answer?

Back in March of this year Superman, a friend and I spent a day at Babylonstoren. I was such an inspirational day for me at the time as I was lagging in motivation and needed some fresh ideas.

After the visit I made this list:

-Under planting every tree or tall vegetable with a herb, indigenous medicinal plant or ground cover that attracts bees.
-Use up spaces and build the structures I need
-Don't be afraid to experiment
-Plant closer together
-Use my walls for fruit or as a food wall
-Plant vegetables that take a long time to yield in pots not in the beds
-Plant crops that turn over well into the beds
-Don't be afraid to use natural pesticides if all else has failed
-Get my bees
-Turn my pavement into a food garden too with fruit trees and medicinal plants.
-Mulch, mulch, mulch, mulch.

There have been a few items on the list that we can say are done and dusted...In particular the way I changed from a traditional bed per plant to a compact veggie gardening system. It worked very well in winter and while there were a few teething problems trying to eat up the winter veg quickly enough to make space for the summer veg we have made a transition quite well to carry on this system for summer.

The decision to add a herb/medicinal garden to our pavement  (see 2nd last point on the above list) has been quite an adventure. The area was so sterile and the sand the traditional Cape Flats sand where the water just lies on top as though the soil is oily and does not get to the roots of the plants. This photo showed what it looked like after barrow loads of compost, manure and bounce back was turned in and a few plants added.

We transplanted two fig trees, a rosemary plant and a tea tree bush. The rest I bought from Bridget Kitley. I bought Echinacea, Elder trees, comfrey, pelargoniums, Aloe, Chamomile, Chervil, lemon verbena, sorrel and honey suckle. I also planted calendula and borage seeds. Later when too many tomatoes sprouted for the garden I added loads of them to the pavement. We also added some Artichokes and Yarrow transplants a few weeks ago.

But watering was a huge problem and the winter rains we had hoped for left us a little concerned, not just for the pavement but for the whole garden. Our borehole also seems to have dried up thus making us dependent on municipal water. With the water restrictions that have now been put in place we simply cannot afford the rates that they have to charge AND ultimately we don't want to take more water than is just to water our vegetables.

So it was back to the drawing board to see what we could do to save water.  I revisited these principles I wrote about when I learned how my mom and dad were handling the drought in the Garden Route some years back. But it isn't enough...

Then I remembered a friend mentioning the Back to Eden film and watched it a few weeks ago and again this week. I think this is the answer - and it won't harm to try. I was on the phone in a hurry to local tree felling companies and asked them to deliver freshly chipped tree limbs with leaves included and contacted Master Organics for 2 cubes of compost.

This arrived on Friday and faithful Sam spent the day adding compost to even veggie bed and to the pavement in a thick layer after we watered deeply. On the pavement he added a thick layer of chipped plant material. This is what it looks like today...the plants have grown a lot since being planted, everything looks healthy and green still but I am hoping that the water is trapped below this blanket of compost and chip.

So while I have been able to cross off a few items on the list, there is still more I need to do. To grow espalier fruit trees I think I will ask the experts...and becoming a bee keeper is in the pipeline (quite close) we keep on keeping on with learning in the urban farm of ours.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

When plans go awry

I can't believe its been over a month since I last posted on this blog! It would be wonderful to report that I have been busy in my garden and that everything is flourishing. And while Instagram does not lie  and there are many little treasures still growing and being eaten I feel the need to share some honesty here...

The following pictures tell a story of when plans are great on paper and then in the practise things go awry....

Spring onions and spinach left over from winter, butternut growing up trellis.

New tomatoes, left over cauliflower

New cucumbers and nothing else!

Left over red onions and new strawberry popcorn

Left over leeks - not visible baby tomatoes growing up trellis

Lots of empty space..dry soil (we have water restrictions), few seedlings waiting to go into beds and one tired gardener.

One of the issues with the transition was we haven't eaten enough of the winter crops. So while my plans for a summer garden were at the ready I couldn't plant as there were other crops in the way.

The other is we had the very joyful occasion of marrying our eldest daughter which took up all my free time.

Another issue was the freaking out about how we are going to keep everything alive over the hottest time of the year with water restrictions.

When I take those situations into account I can see why there has been a loss of momentum. (And also because sometimes I just want to go for a body board with my Superman and son instead of garden :) )

Who wouldn't when the sea looks like this on a Saturday morning!?!

But I think the time for excuses is holidays start in a little over a week...the drought means we will have to pay more for good food - which means I must grow daughter is happy and settled in her own home...I can now surf and garden in a day (talk about having your cake AND eating it!) and I can sow seed directly into the ground now for the remains of summer.

Well, that feels great to confess, and now its only upwards and onwards.

How are your summer gardens coming along?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Am I an "excellent" gardener?

Well spring has sprung...the bees are out in full force amongst the veggies and flowers and herbs gone to seed. The garden is taking off with the increased temperatures and the shadows that fall around our garden have changed.

Coriander going to seed. The bees love it and I get the dry seeds to plant and grind for cooking

The other day someone passed a compliment to me on Facebook that I am an "excellent gardener" which I thoughtfully have considered. As I walk around the garden I do see lots of food ready to eat or in the process of growing. It warms me inside with a funny fuzzy feeling knowing that after all these years I seem to be getting it right now more than wrong.

But as the days have gone on since the compliment, I am wondering if I do indeed have green thumbs or if there is something else that's happened you want to explore this with me?

Strawberries, I love thee

I was raised by a mom who loved gardening. Even though she never allowed it, I do believe she could have been featured in Garden and Home for her incredible skill in creating a beautiful outside space. Our childhood garden was filled with nooks and crannies for us to play all sorts of magical games in. There was a weeping willow that we could hide inside where my mom had put sawn up tree trunks for us to use as a table and chairs and many happy Marie biscuit and Oros days were enjoyed there.

Other spaces had railway sleepers stepping down on a gentle flowing grassy hill with gorgeous flower beds on both sides...another were the tall trees that hid the neighbours walls which we climbed in to get to each others homes for peanut butter sandwiches and milk.

Rocket, tender stem broccoli and spring onions

And in all the time that she was gardening, I was doing what?....being a typical child - self centred and self absorbed and even as a teen, I did not care one iota about all the knowledge she held and had learned, which she would willingly have shared with me. Even though it was always an option to join her, to learn from her, I didn't for a very long time.

Around the back of the house was an area with plum trees and it was here that my mom, once I was already married, set up her first real vegetable garden which was a site to behold. Once I had a new baby some 20 yrs ago was the first time I took notice of real food and what my mom was doing, and it inspired me.

I planted out a veggie patch in our then Pinelands (1995) garden which was eaten by snails before the day was out. The next time I tried we were living in Meadowridge (1997) with the typical Cape Flats "oily" soil. The water lay in pools on the sand and then any compost we added blew away in the wind. In this garden there were 3 well established fruits - a lemon tree, a guava tree and a granadilla vine. I managed to kill the guava tree but the lemons and granadillas survived me.

Thereafter we had a stint in Johannesburg (2000 - 2002) and there we built raised beds on a concrete surface where we grew herbs and salads. This was reasonably successful. From there we came back to Cape Town and well...the rest is documented on this blog of how we started to grow vegetables in 2008.

Bright lights spinach adds beautiful colour to the veggie garden

Every time I failed to grow food I know it was because I didn't follow my mom's advise. She told me to not plant ANYTHING for a long time but use any spare cent to add compost and manure to the ground. It was only in 2008 that I started to believe her after having had all those failures along the way. We have added bags and bags and bags of manure, loads of compost, bags of bounce back, bone meal, volcanic rock dust and even green manures over the years and always for a good few months initially before planting anything in a new bed.  We also let the chickens roam the garden for many years as they dealt with the snails, snail eggs and slug problems.

Simply by following that principle I believe we created the right foundation for the plants to grow and produce food. We are still adding manure once a year and compost between each planting.

The other thing that brings the rewards in the food garden is time. Growing food is a time consuming process. The amount of time you put in is almost directly proportionate to what you will get out. Time on planning, time on sowing, time on nurturing, time on harvesting, time on pest control, time on tending, time on watering....time....time...time.

[However, sometimes things happen - those curve balls - that will affect the year I bought heirloom corn and it never formed ears even though I had given it much love :( ]

In 2010 I really cooked my spasm and if I am not careful I still end up in pain. This put an end to the long Saturdays bending, digging, carrying etc. I was paying out so much money in physio that any savings we made from the vegetables harvested was going straight to the treatments. After slowing down completely we eventually gave the garden an almost rest for the year 2013/4 and then Sam entered out lives.

Sam puts into the garden the love and attention and heavy lifting and digging that I can't. My role is now one of planning, buying, sowing and harvesting. He does all the rest when he comes every Friday.

He is growing in his knowledge of growing food and when he went back to Malawi last year he brought me one treasured ear of corn which he proudly told me he wants a patch to grow this food from his country. This he has done.

He even tells me of remedies for white cabbage moth and how he prepare the leaves of broccoli or squash plants he takes from the garden for his family. Sam is my secret gardening weapon at the moment and because of him I am able to take great joy in my garden again.

So while I would love to be hailed as an excellent garden (thank you VERY much :) ) I know its more than me...and it can be something everyone can do should they be willing. Of course there are times when disaster strikes - mildew in summer, fruit flies, aphids, moles....all these things...but just keep on keeping on...

So here's to all YOU excellent gardeners, and thank you for coming along with me for this adventure in growing your own food.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sage, garlic and cream pasta

Today has been another cool spring day that called for something warm at lunch time. With only a few people to feed and wanting something creamy and carby for a change this happened to end up in our bowls.
Today at 12.30 - cool and drizzly
It was too good not to share with the readers of this blog.

We used small pasta shells, but I suppose you could use any pasta. I like the shells, though, as they make mini cups which hold the sauce nicely not leaving half in the bowl with the eater having a predicament of whether to stick your face in the bowl and lick it out or to let it be washed down the drain - which is a sacrilege with this sauce!

I also grow lots of sage. I use it for soap, pork meals and my daughter for the chicken liver pate that she makes and sells. It has just come into bloom again and has the most lovely rich smelling leaves and flowers at the moment.


500g pasta shells
1 tablespoon butter
250ml cream
4 cloves garlic crushed
Large handful fresh sage sliced
Grated Parmesan
Salt & pepper

Cook your pasta in salted water.

Melt the butter and add the garlic and sage. Fry gently for a few minutes - do not burn the garlic.

Add the cream, a few grinds of black pepper and a good bit of salt.

When your past is cooked, drain it and add it to the sauce. Stir to coat the shells well.

Serve into bowls and top generously with Parmesan cheese.

So delicious!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Structure of a compact bed

After sharing my last post on the success of my new experiment of growing very compact beds with a huge variety of plants, I was asked to share how I planned these beds out.

If you know me you will know that I often "fly by the seat of my pants" although on the outside it looks like I am a huge planner. I am not. And even if I do plan - in the practise it never works out properly.
Peas were growing up the trellis but are now over and squash seeds planted in their place
So the success of this past season's compact gardening was me having a plan, planting it up with about 70% accuracy and then getting happier and happier and more clear on what was happening as I packed in plants, companion herbs, harvesting and adding more over the last few months.

So I have planned again for summer to use the same ideas. There are a few major differences that I need to take into account, however. But these things aside I will still plant intensively and learn as I go.

1. It's going to be way hotter.
2. We more than likely will have water restrictions this summer.
3. Pests are more prolific in summer.
4. A lot of my beds still have vegetables in so this new plan will go in bit by bit.

Some background basics first:

I use Jane's Delicious Garden Planner by Grow Veg which has been great to use over the last few years. But if you don't want to use that then pen and paper and a good veggie book (or the internet) will work well enough.

It also important to know which plants to plant in which season and more or less what grows well together. You can get this info on the planner or in a veggie book.

The important thing to remember is getting good vegetables is a about good soil, water and sunshine. Plants also need growing space at the top and bottom and this system of planting allows for that.

Knowing planting to harvest times is also important, but not critical. But as I planned out the beds I made sure I planted a row of fast growing things down the sides so they would be out of the bed in time for the larger slower growing crops to spread.

So here's how I planned it all.

I have  5 beds called "Kitchen Garden" that are south facing. These beds did extremely well as they are in full sun all year around with the exception of bed No. 1 which is in full shade in winter due to a wall shadow and bed No. 5 which is in dappled shade in summer due to a tree. But by planting lettuce and other plants that bolt in bed No. 5 in summer I can still use the space, however in winter bed No. 1 is fallow.

I have 6 larger beds on the other side of the plot called "Pond Garden". These beds are lying in an East/West aspect and the long green trellises lie on this plane too. The issue with this is the back side of each trellis when covered in foliage is very shady.

Same bed - right shows shady side and left sunny side
So STEP NUMBER 1 for you is to know your sun and aspect in your garden and plan any trellis work accordingly as far as you possible can.

What I am assuming is that you have built up some good soil in your beds. You need compost, manure, green manures if your bed is new, double dug, no dig, mulched - whatever your choice, but just make sure its rich and good. Buy worms if you need to. Our pond garden's soil was dead dead dead when we started with it in 2010.  So STEP NUMBER 2 compost your soil.

STEP NUMBER 3 build yourself some trellises. I did this in 7 ½  of the 11 beds but will be adding one more in summer. We had the wooden poles lying around and I had to buy the green plastic mesh. It was rather pricey but it doesn't rust like chicken mesh so figured it would last me a good while. These trellises work for both summer and winter gardens. You can grow your winter peas, broad beans (although these must be tied to the trellis in one bunch) and your summer squash, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers up them.

This bed has beet, coriander, lettuce and peas on both sides
Now its time STEP NUMBER 4 which is to do the planning with your paper or your Grow Veg planner. Make sure you only plan to grow veg that you and your family will eat. Every year I have grown loads of broad beans but only Superman and I like them. So meal times were not happy ones when these little gems arrived on the plates. This year I only grew 2 batches of broad beans but much more peas as everyone likes peas.

Look at your climbing or tall plants first. For this summer I have 4 trellises given over to tomatoes, 1 to squashes, 2 to cucumbers and 1 ½ to beans. I will also be growing bush beans so didn't need more than this for climbing beans.

On either side of your climbing plants you will want to do one of two things depending on the way the sun falls in your garden. If you have south facing beds like I do in the Kitchen Garden you can plant exactly the same rows on either side of the trellis. If you have beds that face like mine do in the Pond Garden which is East or West then you will want to plant shade tolerant vegetables like lettuce, beets, carrots, coriander, chard, parsley and kale. They should get some sun, especially in the early stages of planting the climbers, but can handle the dappled shade that will develop later.

You also need to alternate your rows between a leaf crop and a root crop. You cannot do potatoes in this fashion, they need a dedicated bed.

Happy broad beans

Beds I planted in winter went as follows:

Center: Peas
On either side: Carrots, chard, onions, coriander (coriander is quick growing and removed by the time the onions need the space)

Centre: Broad Beans
On either side: Cauliflower and broccoli, onions, garlic.

Centre (no trellis): Broccoli
On either side: lettuce, onion, radish

Centre: Peas
On either side: Chard, carrots, spring onions, beets (removed soon before carrots need place to grow)

You get the picture?

For my summer beds I have planned the following: 

Centre: Tomatoes (either cherry or regular)
Sides in Kitchen Garden (full sun): Basil, peppers

Centre: Tomatoes
Sunny side: Basil, radish
Shady side: Lettuce

Centre (partial shade bed): Cucumbers
Sides: Lettuces, radish, chives

Centre: Chard
Sides: Beans growing over teepee trellis granting dappled shade to chard until December heat causes to bolt.

This bed has garlic, cauliflower and broccoli and broad beans

East facing beds in pond garden:

One given to sweetcorn

Centre: Tomatoes
Sides: one to Barbara butternut, other to basil, celery.

Centre of ½ trellis bed: Cucumber
Sides: Lettuce, bush beans, celery.

Centre: Climbing squash
One side: Carrots and aubergine
Other side: Red onions and aubergine

Centre: Tomatoes
One side: Marigold and lettuce
Other side: Courgette, lettuce, celery

Centre: Beans
Side: Leeks, carrots, dill
Other side: Leeks, carrots, bush cucumbers.

Another non trellis bed given to courgette and carrots on the edges.

Other plants growing around the place in pots, irregular beds and the pavement are:

Melons, asparagus, chard, artichokes, berries, kale, cabbage, medicinal herbs, strawberries, loads of herbs and celery. We also have avocado, granadilla, apples, oranges, lemons and figs growing around the place.

Writing this out makes me realise the bounty we have here. Not all things are producing yet, like the apples and avocado trees but should be soon.

And then? Once all your planning is done...get planting.

STEP NUMBER 5 is to start planting. DO NOT plant everything at once. You will end up with gluts of things, wastage or exhaustion as you try to process everything for storage. I prefer to eat fresh over pickled or preserved and I can because of our mild climate.

So this summer season I will plant beds and spaces as they come available because there is so much still growing and producing. I will simply add some worm tea, compost or worm compost to the space and mulch over once planted.

Last season the beds were empty and I planted one bed every two weeks which kept us going (and still is) with a steady inflow of vegetables and herbs. This worked well in that we could eat for e.g. baby peas raw and then by the time we got to the last bed, full grown peas in cooked meals.

I realise this is just one season in and not tested over the long haul by trial and error, so if you are willing to take a [small] gamble, drop me a note here or on Facebook to let me know what you are planning for your garden.

You can see my Grow Veg plans for the two gardens here:

Kitchen Garden

Pond Garden

Look forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Compact veggie gardening - how does my garden grow?

Back in May as I watched our newly planted out winter and spring garden I was ever hopeful that my method would not be madness but would in fact give us greater yields from the space we have. I have worried about shade, water, overcrowding, pests and more as I have never seen anyone do what I did, although I know the basic principals are already out there and I simply adapted that knowledge for my space.

This method was much more compact than I have ever planted before and as everything started to grow I felt quite certain that they would have sufficient space to grow as I alternated root crops with leaf crops.

The peas and broad beans shot up in the centres and started producing their pretty flowers, the roots of the beets swelled and leaves of the spinach grew. around the ends the fast growing radishes and coriander was being used well before the other vegetables. Soon it became quite a jungle and much peeping and peering had to happen to grab the right plant for harvesting.

Broad beans in centre and onions, carrots and coriander on either side.
We have eaten so well from this plan having something on the table or in a recipe for the better part of 3 months now and its been so wonderful to do my weeks meal plan starting with what sides we will have with our meal. The garden has become a true pantry once again after my slump last year when I just was too distracted to get anything going.

Whether it is coriander in a Thai coleslaw or Happy Cow burger...

 Parsley onto our breakfast mushrooms...

Nasturtiums, peas, radish, broccoli sprouts and lettuce into the prettiest salad ever made...

Beetroot simply boiled and peeled and eaten warm...

Spinach and coriander in a homemade chicken neck stock ramen....

A bowl of peas to dip into hummus....

Or leeks and broad beans to add to a raid the larder soup....

All these daily offerings have been delightful.

There is so much still growing and waiting to mature in the soil like the onions and carrots. While they do their growing, I have been able to pull out the climbers in some beds (peas for instance) and have planted the first patty pan seeds which will now climb up the same frame.

Beets, coriander, lettuce and peas all together in one bed and repeated on the other side of climbing mesh

The cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli that need to still develop large heads should be out of the ground in time to plant the summer crops in the same fashion. In fact tonight I am sitting down to plan my spring/summer garden and will use exactly the same model and see how that fares.

I have noticed that this interplanting has resulted in less bugs and white cabbage moth. There have been some aphids on some brassicas which have not been so heavily surrounded by other vegetables.

So here's to a happy urban farmer sharing something that did work this season! How are your gardens doing?