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You’ve got to dig your city

What’s the difference between kale and spinach? Stumped? Well, you’re probably not the only one in the dark about these leafy greens and, for that matter, a whole range of other fruits and vegetables too.

Growing food is not high on the agenda for the modern person. It means city folk eat mostly what they find washed and pre-packaged in supermarkets. And if kale, amaranth, heirloom tomatoes and cassava are not on the supermarket shelves (and they aren’t), then they’re off the menu and off people’s radars. It’s little wonder there’s a deepening mystery and indifference about how food grows and how it ends up on our plates.

Tlhalefo Ntamane, 11, Thabo Molefe, 12, and Don Nwabasi, 10, work at the urban farm in the rundown Joburg suburb of Bertrams, where the Bambanani co-operative grows vegetables, herbs and fruit. Picture: Dumisani SibekoAn indigenous roof garden installed on top of the Happy Hippo Backpackers in Mahatma Gandhi (Point) Road in Durban. Picture: FoodscapeA cheap, outdoor Clothpot vertical garden installed by Foodscape in Glenwood, Durban. Picture: FoodscapeAmon Maluleke at the Bertrams Inner City Farm in Joburg. Picture: Dumisani SibekoRefiloe Molefe with some kale at  Bertrams Inner City Farm in Johannesburg. Picture: Dumisani SibekoRefiloe Molefe picks kale at the Bertrams Inner City Farm in Johannesburg. Picture: Dumisani SibekoRefiloe Molefe and Amon Maluleka at Bertrams Inner City Farm in Johannesburg. Picture: Dumisani SibekoBertrams Inner City Farm, Johannesburg. 
Picture: Dumisani SibekoA Clothpot food garden at a home in Umbilo in Kwazulu-Natal. Picture: FoodscapeA vertical garden installed in Umhlanga contains indigenous groundcovers and some herbs and salad vegetables. Picture: FoodscapeA vertical garden installed in Umhlanga contains indigenous groundcovers and some herbs and salad vegetables. Picture: Foodscape

But a growing band of city slickers have made it their mission to narrow the distance between people and the origin of our food.

They’re also fed up that open urban space is being allowed to become illegal dumpsites and overgrown weed hells. Slowly, these individuals and groups, which organise themselves through Meetup groups, through Facebook and Tweetups, are winning back the land by coaxing small spaces in the concrete jungle back into being just good ol’ soil and dirt that gives life and lets food and flowers flourish.

Community gardens, allotment gardens and “panhandle” gardening have in recent years sprouted with abandon everywhere around the world. It’s an obvious strategy to surviving in an era of rapid densification and urbanisation. More people are forced to live in high-rise buildings with little or no garden space and more people are swopping rural lives for the city where subsistence farming comes with too many constraints.

It’s meant the wisdom of working the land has had to take on fresh incarnations, adapting by becoming radically downsized but cleverly productive, more communal and a lot more creative.

The pay-off of community-supported urban food gardens are that they make cities more self-reliant for their food sources. Cities don’t need to rely so heavily on outlying peri-urban agricultural belts, whose food automatically comes with transportation and storage costs.

Local gardens help people access more easily food that improves their nutritional intake while helping them save rands as food prices soar.

Urban gardening could not be more of a natural thing for Amon Maluleke. He and four other Joburg East residents make up the engine behind the Bertrams Inner City Farm – Bambanani herb and vegetable co-operative. The farm, which belongs to the City of Joburg, is a converted bowling green. In seven years the bowling lawns have been transformed into a food Eden. It’s an award-winning project and a big hurrah for the movement towards growing your own grub in the shadow of a concrete skyline.

“I grew up in Limpopo and growing up there you are used to farming and to working with the land. When you live in the city with car fumes and buildings all around you, it dooms your mind and you forget that the soil is living and that it is what gives us life and food. If we take care of it, it will take care of us,” says Maluleke, who has gone on to complete numerous horticulture, permaculture and farm management courses.

The Bambanani initiative has achieved certified organic farm status. It’s strictly GMO-free and Maluleke says they give up a share to the birds and the insects, respecting the living ecosystem.

The farm produces everything from aubergines, beetroots and peppers to comfrey (for traditional medicinal uses) and amaranth. It sells to a local supermarket, the restaurants in nearby trendy Maboneng precinct and to other organic markets in the city. It also sells to inner-city passersby and donates the surplus to local charities and soup kitchens.

“We are working on a lot of partnerships like planting seeds for veggies that go into different cultural cuisines and we invite people to come here to work with us,” says Maluleke.

One of the other Bambanani members Refiloe Molefe tries to get local children involved with weeding, planting and, most importantly, understanding the value of plants, ecosystems and the harvests that come from hard work.

“People need knowledge; we have forgotten what we know about the plants that we can use for herbs, plants for medicines and plants for eating. That’s why I like to get the children to come and help when they aren’t at school,” says Molefe.

Passing on knowledge through growing food is almost spiritual for Joe Dawson, one half of Foodscape, a Durban-based permaculture design company.

Says Dawson: “Growing food fulfils something deep within each one of us. People are tired of processed foods and tired of being so divorced from our food sources.”

He and business partner Gavin Stockden, who both have backgrounds in permaculture, make their living by turning impossible spaces in cities into food gardens. Among their projects are rooftop and pavement gardens and vertical herb gardens for restaurants.

Key to many of their projects are their Clothpots, which they developed and make. Clothpots are made of so-called geotextile fabrics, which are made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate bottles. They are cheap, lightweight and can be adapted to fit any space. They’re also ideal for plant health because, unlike conventional pots, the fabric allows for better aeration, drainage and air pruning, as the roots don’t stop growing when they reach the sides of a Clothpot.

The duo have paying clients, but they also support the guerilla gardening movement that encourages people to change their urban landscape through plants and gardens without waiting to jump through bureaucratic hoops. One of their projects has been planting a circle of banana trees in a local park. It’s all about greening the city and as the pair put it “bringing food back into the city”.

“With projects like that, you do have to try to plant plants that will survive best in their climates and it’s best if you have buy-in from a local community so they will become the custodians of those plants and guardians,” says Dawson.

He says the global urban gardening and guerilla gardening movement is gaining ground because people want to push back against big corporates that have monopolised decisions over food. These are decisions that determine what limited crop varieties will be grown commercially, decisions around the use of chemicals and pesticides in growing food and even controlling the harvesting of seeds for next-generation crops.

Guerilla gardener Captain Sanjeev is the Port Elizabeth local behind Secret Sowers. He says people do want to be actively involved and are increasingly aware of what they stand to lose if they do nothing. Secret Sowers started as a group of people who got together under the cover of darkness to plant in bits of cracked pavements and neglected lots in the city. The captain says they were a secret group because they wanted to avoid getting too much attention, but they have found the response to their projects overwhelmingly positive.

He says: “Cities can be bleak environments sometimes. Planting in neglected areas brings some life and colour into the space. In a city like Port Elizabeth we have incredible biodiversity, but urban sprawl threatens that. So we plant indigenous gardens to try to preserve that.”

He says guerilla gardeners are a force of their own, helping to chalk one up for nature, even as they are forced to live in cities. He adds: “I’ve always been fascinated with how nature reclaims abandoned spaces. One way or another, those neglected spaces, if left that way, will eventually be reclaimed by nature. Going in there myself, or with a team of people, I suppose we just speed up the process, being ourselves a force of nature.”

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