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Tuesday, 26 January 2010
How and Why we started Square Foot Gardening

My wife and I have always wanted to grow our own vegetables in our back garden. The problem is that we don't really have much of a garden to boast about. A small portion of paving outside the back door followed by a patch of grass big enough to place a few camping chairs on when we braai and that's about it. Yes, we live in a typical South African urban townhouse complex with a postage stamp sized garden.

Garden Before 1


Over the years we've tried growing a small herb garden in a metal tub and also a few pots with a green pepper or two. We even planted a tomato plant in the corner of the garden nestled in amongst the huge variety of weeds that seemed to flourish there. The weeds continued to do very well and, after a few months, we harvested two small tomatoes for our efforts. Not surprising really considering that our soil consists of about 80% clay and 20% stones and rocks.

 

Garden Before 2


We have been plotting and planning for years, to be able to find and move onto a smallholding with good soil and enough space for substantial veggie gardens, rows of fruit and nut trees, a few chickens and maybe even with a small stream running through it. As per usual however, life always seems to get in the way of our plans.

 

Garden Before 3

Then, a year ago I was surfing the internet when I stumbled onto the Square Foot Gardening method of growing veggies, in raised boxes and in very small spaces. The idea really appealed to me but all the references and information that I found online were about US and European gardeners using this method. It seemed as if nobody was doing it in South Africa at all, or if they were, they were not talking about it online.

 

Garden Before 4

I like a challenge. I like fresh, juicy, tasty, homegrown organic veggies. I also like finding creative ways of making things work and then teaching others how to do the same. So the Square Foot Gardening in South Africa blog was born and over the next few months we managed to turn our small weed patch into an incredibly productive mini vegetable farm.

 

Urban Farming 1

 

How productive? Well so far this season (August '09 - Jan '10), we have managed to harvest over 45kg of vegetables including beans, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, chillies, aubergines (eggplant), strawberries, beetroot, onions, cauliflower, spinach and Swiss chard. This total does not include all the lettuce, chard, Chinese cabbage and a large variety of herbs that we treat as "cut-and-come-again" plants i.e. we cut the leaves as we need them and they go straight into the pot or salad bowl without even being weighed and recorded. It also does not include the many handfuls of beans, strawberries and tomatoes that were lost to the... ummm... "picker's palate"? - Let me just state here for the record, just how difficult it is for one to pick all those delicious goodies without popping a good few samples into one's mouth while you are busy.

 

Urban Farming 2

So, where to from here?

As you will soon see, what started as a small hobby project to simply grow a few vegetables for our own table, soon turned into an all consuming passion and a determination to grow this idea far beyond our own little garden’s boundaries. Our own garden has provided far more than the two of us can eat alone and so we needed to put all the excess produce to good use. My wife has now been on a serious preserving spree for the past few months which has resulted in a cupboard full of pickles, sauces, jams and chutneys as well as a house permanently simmering in delectable aromas.

Urban Farming 3


The neighbours have been curious too, peeping over the fence and then stopping us in the driveway to quiz us about our activities. Word has spread within our little townhouse complex and many of them have offered/asked (some even begged) to buy our fresh organic vegetables. And so another idea was born - An informal CSA Box Scheme (and if you don't know what a Community Sponsored Agriculture Box Scheme is all about then check out the Cape Town version here). Most CSA Box Schemes work on the principle that the customer pays in advance for a growing season’s worth of weekly boxes filled with a variety of fresh organic vegetables and delivered or collected directly from the farmer himself. The customer is guaranteed a weekly selection of fresh organic vegetables and the farmer benefits from the scheme by being able to pay all his input costs upfront and also to plan exactly how much produce would be needed for the season and then plant accordingly.

Urban Farming 4


Our CSA Box Scheme

Since we are severely limited by the amount of growing space that we have available and due to us not being able to accurately predict how much we will be able to harvest, we have decided to make our box scheme a rather informal affair. Our neighbours can join the scheme by paying a nominal fee to cover the cost of a nice little wicker basket. The baskets are stored with us and any produce harvested is divided equally amongst all the baskets which are then delivered to the neighbours within an hour or two. We will also include things such as packets of dried fruits and herbs etc; jars of preserves as well as biscuits and breads that we have dried, preserved and baked ourselves.
 
Urban Farming 5
 
We do not guarantee any quantities of vegetables and nor do we specify the regularity of the basket deliveries - it's more a case of whatever we have growing at the time and whenever it is ready for harvesting. The neighbour is not charged a set price for the basket of vegetables but is rather encouraged to donate whatever they think the basket is worth. Here's the crunch though, they can either donate cash which is ploughed back into the gardens (pun intended) or they can donate some of their time to help us with all the veggie garden activities (and where they can learn from us at the same time) or they can donate a portion of their garden to be used to grow more vegetables for the scheme.

Urban Farming 6
 
Building a sense of community

The whole purpose of this scheme however, is not so much about selling our excess vegetables as it is to bring our neighbors closer together and to get more people involved in the whole veggie gardening process - as well as the preserving, cooking and baking side of things. We are also hoping to get enough people together to hold weekly “preserving nights” where we can all gather around a few snacks and drinks (and maybe a braai or a potjie) for discussions, to swap recipes, to help each other with the preserving, to share information and just generally get everyone together for a bit of socialising. And of course we'll either include the growers and gardeners in these gatherings or, depending on the numbers and individual interests, have a separate get-together for them.

Urban Farming 7

The Future

At present, our scheme is restricted to our own townhouse complex but as soon as we have proven our worth (and created an example for others of course), we can then move on to include all the nearby complexes as well (there are 4 in our urban block alone and at least 15 others in close proximity). As from March 2010 we will also be holding Square Foot Gardening and Container Gardening workshops for those interested in growing veggies in small spaces as well as a few preserving workshops where we will cover the canning, freezing, pickling and drying processes of various fruits and vegetables for the home pantry.
 
Urban Farming 8


Once we have this type of network going it will also be a cinch to approach the local schools with an offer to help them set up and manage a school veggie garden. We can plan and supervise a garden while teaching the kids how to actively manage everything on a daily/weekly basis. Produce can either go to a charity or a proper (paid for) CSA Box Scheme can be set up to bring in some income for the school. Same thing with the churches.
 
Urban Farming 9
 
We believe that our local community newspapers will love the idea and the publicity we could get from them would also help to drive the whole thing along quite nicely. Businesses could be approached to help sponsor seeds, garden tools, etc., and hopefully, sometime in the future, we can get our local municipality to come to the party and make some unused portions of land available to us to set up a gardening allotment scheme for our area (think about all that wasted growing space in your own neighborhoods ;-).

Now I ask you, is this not a "hobby" worthy of a little bit of time and effort? And even if you don't feel the urge to tackle whole neighborhoods like we do, why not simply start a small vegetable garden of your own and experience the delicious pleasure of eating juicy, tasty, sun warmed tomatoes straight from the vine for yourself.

Happy gardening
Mark Roach

For more information on the Square Foot Gardening method and to follow our adventures with our own gardens please visit our Square Foot Gardening in South Africa blog. We also sell Heirloom and Organic seed from our online shop OrganicSeeds.co.za

 

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 January 2010 )
 
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