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A garden that’s a way of life

Cape Town - The Schellings’ Tokai garden is not your run-of-the-mill suburban garden. In just two years Saskia and Rex have converted what was a neatly-laid out, mostly indigenous garden with a neat lawn into a food-growing space.

The dramatic conversion was sparked when Saskia began learning about permaculture, a philosophy of life (and gardening).

Saskia Schelling photographed in her permaculture garden.  Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersBrussel sprouts thrive in the garden. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersSaskia Schelling's garden. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersPeppadew. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersChillies are among the exotic edible plants that feature in the garden. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersGooseberries in Saskia Schellings permaculture garden in Tokai. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersVegetables, herbs  and a cat  feature in the garden. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent NewspapersAmaranth is one of the more unusual plants to flourish in Saskia Schellings garden. Picture: Tracey Adams, Independent Newspapers

She looked with new eyes on the generous space surrounding her Tokai home, and saw an opportunity for producing food.

“The way we’ve been used to is neat, leaf-free gardens, where you can see the paving, edges are sharp and there’s bare soil. But nature is wild and beautiful, and there are many layers of inter-relationships,” says Saskia. Here a plant needs to earn its place – every element should have three uses, or it’s tossed out.

Permaculture is a way of gardening but also a philosophy of living. It asks that we observe and mimic what happens in nature and design our systems in a way that moves us from dependent consumers to responsible producers of goods. Because each location or project has its own requirements and solutions, it is a process in which the approach is holistic but methods differ.

The Schellings moved here eight years ago. At first, Saskia, who has always loved gardening, converted the bare earth into an indigenous and waterwise garden. Then a student of hers introduced her to permaculture, and it captivated her, and has held her focus ever since. She learnt all she could, and after working through the theory, her garden was the obvious choice when it came to the practical aspect.

“I looked at the whole garden, studied the path of the sun, plotted and measured, drew it, put tracing paper on top and fiddled with what would be best where.

“Fruit and nut trees went on the south – they need sun, but you don’t want them to block sun. In fact, you want to maximise sun, which meant some eugenias on the north side had to go. Each element needs to be looked at, and everything which doesn’t serve the greater picture must go. That meant a huge palm tree was removed.”

And you have to go with the flow when you hit hurdles such as the solid concrete they discovered when digging holes for fruit trees. A part of the garden had been a huge reinforced concrete swimming pool, filled in with rubble, concrete and bricks – and a few socks.

“It was a nightmare. We jackhammered the concrete, had it removed, and reused the steel bits around the garden. We hauled rubble away from the property – that was not in the plan or the shoestring budget.”

Notwithstanding the hurdles, and after many trips to Noordhoek to fetch horse manure, the holes were prepared, and the trees planted.

“We used the ‘cut-and-drop’ method, used a lot of comfrey around the trees, and now the soil has worms in it – a healthy sign.”

It’s only been just over two years, which is not long in the life of a garden. It appears abundant, with interesting plants planted in guilds.

“I feel things are starting to come right. I’d like to bring in even more indigenous plants. And every year brings different pests and you deal with them.”

The idea is to start with gentler methods to manage pests, and upscale your efforts when that doesn’t work. At one stage there were chickens and ducks, which took care of the snails.

Saskia has begun to collect and plant seeds from her vegetables, and her seedling area has outgrown its limits. She has potted comfrey, the lettuce seedlings are thriving and the row upon row of seedling trays are filling fast.

“Children who visited became interested, asked questions, and I ran a few workshops, teaching basics, and they loved it. Then their parents came, and each family took away a planter box. Rex makes planters out of recycled pallets – we use what we have and don’t support large conglomerates; we try to inspire community effort.”

You can start small, you can go as big as you want to.

Saskia has plunged in heart and soul, and the garden takes a great deal of her time. “It has to be a family thing. Don’t underestimate how much time it takes.”

The pond wetland area was a project that required lots of work.

“But now we have frogs.”

Along the south wall is a dense vine of granadillas, which took ages to start, and then took off, she says.

A permaculture principle is to work from the whole design to the specific, from patterns to details. “We look at the edges. In nature, streams and banks are the most diverse places – the edge is the most abundant.”

This guides how she plants. Each element needs to be of advantage to others. Each guild, as she calls a small bed, must have a maximum number of elements, maximum function, act individually and as a whole.

An example Saskia shows me is a small bed with a 1.2m diameter. At the centre is a chicken-wire container into which kitchen waste, worm compost and manure are thrown – a compost bin in process. The wire also acts as a trellis. In the soil just around it are planted the heavier feeders – broccoli, cabbage and spinach. Around that are lettuce.

“In a 1.2m diameter I have a complete ecosystem. All the guilds in turn together form a bigger eco-system. We copy nature, work with the principles of nature, not against them.”

Observation is key: The strawberries near the borage did well, there were lots of bees around. In another area they didn’t do so well.

“You observe and incorporate into your design. Design is basic, and from there you bring in creativity and observation and create your own guilds. You can look at the fungi, how they operate, the relationships they form. I’m still learning so much.”

Nothing is taken off the property – kitchen waste is turned to compost, prunings get chipped and used as mulch.

Saskia has some unusual plants among the better known ones: tamarillos, which grew quickly and produced a profusion of fruit; yellow-fingered brinjals, black pearl chillies, the hardy spinach-like tsunga from Zimbabwe, ears of amaranth heavy with grain, and a useful vetiver grass which purifies water, cherry guavas and southernwood, which repels bugs.

The Schellings have many plans for their garden: a deep hole has been dug which will be used for a banana circle. The idea is that taro, a root vegetable, will grow in the centre, which will be filled with straw and mulch and cardboard to act as a sponge, with the banana plants around them. Water tanks for rainwater collection are in the plan, as is a solar geyser.

The garden is a natural extension of Saskia’s love of the earth and memories of eating carrots and peas fresh from her mothers’ veggie patch.

“Permaculture works with basics, engaging the earth, being in touch with natural cycles. It makes us happy to be part of that.”

“It’s a family thing,” says Rex. “Permaculture, even in business, lends itself to a new ways of thinking and doing, and it has a social and environmental impact.”

Keep an ear out for the open day Saskia plans, where she’ll share her experience – and bounty – with a wider audience. Visit her website at www.gardencoach.co.za

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