Cape Town - Vanita Drew is, at heart, a recycler. She’s been doing it for the past 12 years and admits she’s on the obsessive side of committed. When she moved to Somerset West, she was astonished that businesses were not recycling their waste, and set out to find a way to make a difference.

That quest took her in an unexpected direction, and she now not only grows her own vegetables, but also teaches others to.

It started when her involvement with waste education led her to a course at Soil For Life, an NPO that teaches people to grow food on a small scale. Soil For Life’s low-cost methods are designed to optimise production in small spaces, using no chemicals, to build healthy soil, conserve water and to utilise rubbish in an environmentally responsible way.

“I’ve always done some gardening where I live, maybe a few tomato plants and so on, but having moved around a lot, I’ve never been able to garden in a settled way. I didn’t have the knowledge for vegetable gardening, and I learned that it was easy,” she says.

Although Drew doesn’t own the house she lives in, she’s fairly settled here, and decided to grow vegetables in the flowerbeds. She started in May last year, after the course, and already she appears to be a seasoned gardener. Firstly, she converted a flower bed into a trench bed. This method is a way of preparing a nutritionally rich bed with good drainage on any kind of soil.

“My husband and I dug a bed one metre by two metres, and thought we could do it before breakfast,” she laughs. It took a lot longer than that.

“You have to dig knee deep, keeping the topsoil and sub-soil separate. Then you line it with cardboard and newspaper, followed by sticks, twigs, meat and fish bones, tea bags and rusty tins.” This is followed by layers of soil, dry garden waste and wood ash, green garden or kitchen waste, ending with compost.

“A month later we did another. This time we got help!”

The first crop she had was turnips, “and we made a lot of soup”.

“The whole thing is about the soil. The soil in our country is bad, and so we have to make our own compost and build the soil.”

Drew now has five such beds which means she can keep her vegetable supply going all the time. Her rocket has been prolific and her plants are still producing. The tomatoes went wild – they needed better staking, she realises – and are about to ripen. A huge squash, perhaps a butternut, lies nestled under its big leaves. Two varieties of Chinese cabbages, beautiful broccoli plants, basil, lettuce and spring onions are in various stages of readiness. Her spinach keeps on producing leaves.

Drew has a source of horse manure, which she places in a bag in a bucket of water, and uses as a liquid food for the plants. That may not be easy for everyone to access, but one woman she taught knew someone who kept birds, and used their waste.

For seed boxes she collects polystyrene trays fish is delivered in at a local supermarket.

Snails are the bane of her garden, and she gets up early in the morning to pick them off the beds and feed them to the duck next door.

She feeds her plants once or twice a week, depending on whether or not they’re heavy feeders.

Her course at Soil For Life was sponsored, and in return she is asked to teach as many people as possible in areas where food security is a pressing issue. “We start with a little package, which includes a booklet on composting, and mulch, with vouchers for seeds,” she says.

She has been trained to teach a 15-week gardening course to small groups, covering basics such as digging a trench bed and making compost.

“It works best with people living close together, and each week we move to another person’s house. That way it’s a team effort and you all get involved in each other’s gardens.”

While people may be keen initially, they don’t always follow through. However, there are those who do, such as her Macassar group, creating abundant gardens with their new skills.

She’s also done an environmental educators course with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA, where she chose Food Security as the subject of her final assignment. The sobering facts are that nearly half of all rural people in South Africa and 26 percent of urban dwellers do not get enough to eat.

Setting up a vegetable garden is cheap, she says, taking out her rubbish bag of tools to show me. There’s a ruler for measuring, made from a piece of wood and an orange bag which is perfect for filling with manure and immersing in a bucket of water. Chip packets are great for chasing birds away; eggshells deter snails.

Growing vegetables requires learning easy-to-acquire skills, and effort. “You have to keep going with it, do a little in the morning and evening.”

Drew is still active in educating children about waste, and is determined to reduce what goes on to our waste dumps. “I’m keen to do anything to help the environment, and make a difference,” she says.

DIY garden tools

l Tin with holes for watering can

l Two-litre plastic cold drink bottle with holes for slow watering

l Plastic meat trays and egg boxes for planting seeds in

l Cardboard toilet roll inner to plant seeds in

l Spade/scoop made from milk carton

l CDs and tops of tins to write plant names on

l Rusty tins for bottom of trench bed

l Big tins for plant containers

Useful waste

l Egg shells crumbled up to deter snails

l Wood ash (not coal ash) is excellent for compost

l Used tea bags for trench bed or compost - Cape Argus