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Getting closer to our food

Cape Town - The pride of this garden must be the cauliflowers: they’re perfectly formed, with giant leaves and huge white heads. A small caterpillar crawls on a leaf, a clue to the organic nature of this farm.

It’s a clear wintry day at the Oranjezicht City Farm, with its magnificent setting with Table Mountain in the background and the city below it. It’s sited on a piece of the one of the first farms in Cape Town, and speaks of community gardening and rejuvenation.

It’s open to the public, and I overhear a woman walking through explaining with pride to her visitor about this community garden. A garden club is visiting, children and their caretakers walk around.

The farm is one small piece of a bigger global movement of bringing agriculture back to the cities, of transforming disused spaces into food-producing gardens and bringing food growing closer to people.

This urban vegetable patch is just over 18 months old and was started by volunteers who saw the potential of the unused bowling greens. At 2 500m2, it’s a large area for vegetables, even though only 1 500m2 are used.

It has been laid out in a formal design, clearly seen in a photograph on the website from March last year. Sandy beds are laid out between paved paths, with only a hint of green in a few of them. Today it is lush with myriad different plants. Hedges of herbs such as thyme and lavender are starting to take shape; along one side grow pelargoniums and blousalie; along the other a “num num” (Carissa macrocarpa) hedge.

It’s late June, and the winter crops are thriving. Cauliflowers, broccoli and broad beans are in full swing, with other crops in various phases of growth. The peas are just starting to grow, onions are still wispy and sweet potatoes still small bushes. There is kale of different kinds and sizes.

Jo Fitzmaurice and Sheryl Ozinsky are two of the garden’s many volunteers, who give of their time as they can. They pick the tips off the broad beans (Vicia faba) and give them to us to taste. Who would have thought they were edible, and delicious?

Walking the paths is a pleasure – most beds are labelled, and the variety is interesting. Those beds available for the guided harvest on Wednesdays instruct: “lettuce, pick whole head” or “carrots, pick big stems”. Urbanites divorced from their food need help.

There are two wild beehives in the 300-year-old oak trees. “Without bees none of this would be possible,” says Sheryl.

Metal hoops and mesh create cages over the cauliflowers – to discourage squirrels, wild geese and whatever else seems keen to visit.

This is not a high-yield garden, it’s a showcase garden, with unusual varieties.

As an organic farm, they practise crop rotation, companion planting and composting. They collect seeds from their garden and at this stage pay someone to propagate them. They practise green manuring, planting nitrogen-fixing plants like lupins and alfalfa as a first crop. Local residents are encouraged to bring their kitchen waste for the wormery. On the blog I read when compared with spinach grown traditionally, that grown with vermi-compost (soil that worms have processed) was found to have 15 times more iron.

Fitzmaurice is in charge of all aspects of the garden, from getting her hands into the soil to managing the team. The farm now employs three full-time farm hands, Cecil Rossouw, Japie Moos and Mark Harding, who are chatting to the garden club members when we’re there. Paraguayan volunteer Gustavo Ovelar, an agronomic engineer, is planting pansies – edible, of course.

This piece of land formed part of the original Oranjezicht Farmstead, established in 1709. In 1957 what was left of the farm became a bowling green and park, which fell into disuse until 2009, when the Oranjezicht Higgovale Neighbourhood Watch began to organise clean-ups, cutting weeds, overgrowth, and the grass. New fencing and locking gates were erected in 2011, and in 2012 the conversion from a security risk to a community asset began.

The garden’s main focus is on education, not on addressing issues of hunger or food security. Local residents help when they can, and the weekly market has become the lifeblood of the farm, raising funds for it.

Produce is sold every Saturday at the market on the site. The demand for organic vegetables has grown so much that Ozinsky and Fitzmaurice spend two days on the road sourcing it for the Saturday market.

“Not everything is perfect here,” says Ozinsky. This is just one model of urban agriculture; every area has its own requirements. People have come out from behind their high walls and are talking to each other. The farm is a focal point for the community, bringing people closer to their food.

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