Urban rooting and fruiting

Xolani Hlongwa, of the Green Village and Green Gallery projects, admires the tomatoes and beetroot planted in the ruins of a building in Durban’s Umbilo Road.

Xolani Hlongwa, of the Green Village and Green Gallery projects, admires the tomatoes and beetroot planted in the ruins of a building in Durban’s Umbilo Road.

Published Aug 29, 2020


Durban - The city’’s urban agriculture scene is emerging from winter and lockdown.

In Durban’s Umbilo Road, a healthy row of tomatoes and beetroot planted during level 3 are on their way towards rooting and fruiting in the dilapidated ruins of a building where former ballet artist Xolani Hlongwa started a food garden and art centre at his Green Camp project.

“It’s to show that you can farm anywhere,” he said.

Much of the agricultural activity, however, now happens at his

associated Green Village project in Monteseel, near Drummond, where a Harvest Festival will take place tomorrow, featuring organic food growing and art.

In Durban North, seedlings have sprouted in compost bags as Fin McLean prepares to spread the idea to inner-city balconies, complete with guides on how to grow food in South African languages, French and Swahili.

His initiative, Ubuntu Farms, was born out of his wanting to make a lockdown feeding scheme in the Point area more sustainable.

“It will empower people to take control of their food production. We’re trying to create the idea that they can grow anything,” said McLean, 20, who has been back home from Stellenbosch University since the beginning of lockdown where he is studying sustainable urban development.

Spring has, meanwhile, seen herbs flourish in off-the-grid guru Graham Robjant’s garden thanks to the worm tea he produces on-site. Vegetable seedlings are responding to the new season by growing rapidly in his nursery section.

He’s sorting out his ant problem by applying black pepper, a bit of salt – not too much because it can change the pH of the soil – and vinegar, instead of commercial products that are harmful to the insects.

“These things don’t harm the ants. They just don’t like them.”

Robjant never wants another incident of a “creature of nature” suffering because of gardening chemicals, like the hadeda that choked to death in his hands after eating toxic slug pellets. He values the birds for doing a great job, turning the earth while foraging.

A far better way to deal with slugs and snails is to break up eggshells, or place copper coins in the garden.

“They don’t like them because it damages their sensitive membranes, and the coins cause electric shocks.”

Sunflowers, which will attract birds and bees, are expected to pop up in a week’s time.

He battled to find seed and ended up buying rabbit mix that contained them from his local supermarket.

Grasses thrive underneath his bird feeder and in other patches of his garden, courtesy of bird droppings.

One is sorghum.

Permaculture boffin Vanessa Meintjes recommends the grain as a way people can practise the “three sisters” version of North American planting, using indigenous food plants, with sorghum providing the structure to wild peas that are climbers and indigenous watermelons that spread out below them.

She also encourages the idea of cultivating food plants alongside indigenous growth to increase biodiversity.

Monkeys, which forced people to get creative to safeguard their food

gardens, are in abundance in Glenwood, says Robjant.

“During lockdown there was very little vehicle traffic. They became a lot more brave in the territory we took away from them.”

His alert young German Shepherd keeps them at bay.

Robjant’s home is powered by solar panels, and people constantly ask him for advice about going off the grid.

He stresses that the important appliance to keep going is the fridge, where food is stored, not the television set. He also recommends alternatives to power-drawing air conditioning, such as whirly birds that suck out warm air through a device that sticks out of a roof, or a wet towel placed over a low-powered fan.

“The problem is that people want to go off the grid, but they don’t want to change their lifestyle.”

His panels, though, power gadgets suitable to his own lifestyle: devices that trigger bangs to go off if a fence hopper clears his walls, others that detect when the soil needs water and automatically pumps it from his rainwater tanks when necessary, and his Facebook-based live-stream radio station.

His current favourite topic is about the reason people approach him, desperately wanting to go off the grid – government corruption.

He uses it to encourage listeners to join Jarette Petzer of #imstaying’s One Million Movement to march against corruption on September 5.

“I’m trying to instil through the broadcasts what to do. We have a crap government and it’s not going to get better. Go on this march!”

His live stream is available at the site test.greenenergy.world followed by clicking on “DeeVee8”.

Tomorrow’s Harvest Festival will be held from 10am to 5pm at 48 Magdalene Avenue, Monteseel.

The Independent on Saturday