Ways of being

Ways of being

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 mimic​s​ 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.

Much more mulch

Much more mulch

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
mulch
A mulch of fallen leaves and bark. Time will tell whether the bark is too acidic for that patch of soil.

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.

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The start of our leaf mould experiment – no doubt one that will be replete with lessons. I’m letting it pile up and will turn and moisten occasionally. I’ve heard coffee grounds help kickstart decomposition so will try that too and see what happens.

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.

Mucking in

Mucking in

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:

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Base layer – carbon-rich straw. Ideal size for the heap is 1.5 m wide by 1.5 m high – and as long as you like. This facilitates efficient heat build-up.
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Next up – nitrogen-rich horse manure. To generate heat and kick off decomposition, compost heaps need a good mix of carbon and nitrogen (more carbon than nitrogen). Saskia sources her manure from the local stables.
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More straw, then mineral-packed, nitrogen rich seaweed, foraged from our coastline.
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Some fresh cut greens for more of a nitrogen kick. Greens also store nutrients and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous in their leaves which are released during decomposition.
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Kitchen scraps, clay and – a key ingredient – water. The compost heap needs to be moist but not waterlogged. We learnt a nifty trick: squeeze a handful of the compost really tight, if a few drops trickle out, you’ve got the moisture content more or less right.
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More ‘brown’ matter to up the carbon content – newspapers and more straw. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to do it in this order, or with these particular materials, just work with what you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen. And you don’t need to layer either – you can mix it all up before creating the heap.
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Voila! A magnificent heap, ready to start working its magic.
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Within days the heap will start heating up. You’ll need to check the temperature in about 3 weeks – it should be hot (you can use a stick or an iron rod to gauge the temp, which should be hot to the touch). When the heap starts cooling down again, you’ll need to turn it (which sounds like quite a job!). 3 weeks after turning, it should be ready for harvesting.

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.

My farm boy

My husband grew up on a farm and is much closer to the earth than I am. There’s stuff he just knows – basic agricultural principles about planting and sowing, the scarcity of water, eating seasonally. Being frugal and recycling is ingrained in him; it’s something I had to learn.

With all the technological knowledge we’re gaining, it seems the really basic stuff that we ought to know, like how to feed ourselves, is being lost. I only recently learnt what a pepper plant looks like. Could I tell a garlic plant from an onion? Probably not. Walnut tree from a pecan nut tree? Definitely not. Have I ever pulled a carrot out the ground? Nope.

I’ve gotten so used to plucking highly packaged and processed food off frigid supermarket shelves I can’t recognise plants in their natural habitat. But, determined to learn, we’ve been experimenting with a bit of urban farming. Our patch of garden is little, but it’s big enough to teach us the basics.

Here’s what we’re experimenting with at the moment.

We discovered, fortuitously, that the area underneath our trampoline acts like a greenhouse, as tomato plants kept sprouting up. Since then we’ve had success with celery, kale and peppers (gutted that our trampoline patch was recently decimated by builders who had to dig up some pipes). We’ve got some veggie boxes (mainly spinach, but also carrots and strawberries), wonderfully large potted blueberry plants (which we planted) and wild rosemary bushes (which we inherited). We’ve got a little lemon tree and planted a pomegranate bush, none of which have yielded any fruit yet. The tomato plants continue to sprout up anywhere and everywhere, clinging to to anything it finds.

We’re not quite at the stage where we can forage for supper, but it’s a start.