In the City
Gardening in Jozi's urban landscape
Urban permaculture was the theme of our time in Gauteng. And what better place to see urban gardening in action than Jozi, home to the world’s largest manmade forest and the economic hub of Africa?
Though Midrand, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is designated an Agricultural Holding (AH), it’s more of a suburban area by anyone’s standards. Still, you can see occasional horse stables and a rudimentary food garden here and there, but it’s by no means a place where substantial food production occurs. Or so we thought.
Ukuvuna Urban Farming
Ukuvuna Urban Farming is run by John Nzira, a long-time permaculturist and sustainable organic farmer from Zimbabwe, who now calls Midrand home.
Despite being shot and burgled last year, John has no intention of leaving his property, which is located next to Tembisa Township. In fact, he realises that he’s needed here more than ever.
The thriving permaculture centre he’s established stands testament to his dedication.
Indigenous maize grows with a vast array of medicinal herbs, apple trees flourish next to lavender and reed beds cleanse the irrigation water, with the help of some African bullfrogs.
Apart from intensive vegetable and fruit production, Ukuvuna showcases a worm farm (the ‘worm wee’ irrigates crops and helps deter pests), fishery, beekeeping, water harvesting, animal husbandry, medicinal plants and herbs and even seed banking – all on just one hectare of land.
And if the number of people attending his ‘Intro to Permaculture course’ were any indication, John is set to transform urban areas across Johannesburg.
John has studied with co-founder and father of permaculture Bill Mollison, and I learnt more than I would have thought at an Intro Course. Just goes to show that there’s no limit to knowledge and you should never stop learning.
One of Joburg’s typical thunderstorms broke while in our tin-roofed classroom, drowning out John’s voice in its onslaught, but fortunately, once it had emptied out its ire, passed quickly.
Riding in the sludge that remained of the gravel road was another matter. Our recently-cleaned scooters were covered with mud within seconds and, as we skirted large puddles and especially slick areas, a rude blonde in a 4x4 practically gave me the finger for momentarily impeding her superior progress.
Heading for Hampton Road Permaculture Farm
Luckily, we were headed for what would be our haven during our time in Joburg – the Hampton Road Permaculture Farm, where owners Sharon and Warwick Metcalf are establishing a beautiful self-sustaining project on their smallholding.
They’ve got four happy dogs, and plan on bringing in chickens, ducks, fungi, heritage seed saving, a training project and NGO called Guild (Gauteng Urban Institute of Localised Development) and a whole lot more exciting stuff.
The Greenhouse Project
Our next stop was deep in Johannesburg’s city centre.
Situated on the edge of the notorious Hillbrow (a township well known for its crime), the Greenhouse Project takes over a corner of Joubert Park, one of the city’s oldest green public spaces.
With a vision to green Johannesburg, the GHP demonstrates green building techniques with a two-story earth building, built from mostly recycled materials (and showcasing cob, adobe and straw-bale building techniques).
It all started when the project inherited the old Parks Agency maintenance depot, which included an old potting shed and various other brick and prefab buildings.
Demonstrating what can be done with limited space, vertical gardens, trench beds and container gardens supply the local community with fresh produce and medicinal herbs.
A thick layer of straw over the ground helps the soil retain water, which comes from a borehole. Two rooftop gardens were also established at the heart of the metropolis to ensure urban gardening skills are transferred to local communities.
We visited the pilot project (started in 2011) at the African Diamond Rooftop Vegetable Garden which was established when the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) committed a small grant to the Affordable Housing Company (AFHCO).
Everything was planted using sustainable, organic methods, and the garden beds, made from recycled tyres, produce a host of fresh vegetables including cabbage, spinach, carrots, CM Kale (African spinach) and even olives, which grow in containers.
Produce is sold to the building’s residents and additional income comes from the preparation and sale of traditional medicines. Peering over the edge of the building, we were struck by its polar opposite – a ‘rooftop garden’ of plastic thrown from the windows of the neighbouring apartment complex.
With over 60% of South African’s living in cities, which consume 75% of the earth’s resources, it’s clear that rooftop gardens, balcony gardens, herb gardens and urban farms are becoming increasingly necessary.
Apart from fighting poverty and hunger and contributing to greater environmental and public health, urban agriculture can even result in reduced crime. After all, as the saying goes: the best security is a well-fed neighbour.
In Joburg, 42 percent of households are food insecure, according to a study carried out by the African Food Security Urban Network. Johannesburg is especially vulnerable to price rises because much of the food sold is imported from other provinces, meaning transport and fuel costs raise food prices.
According to the Afsun study, Johannesburg imports 90 percent of its cereal and a high percentage of its fruit and vegetables. This, in turn, hampers access to quality affordable and nutritious food. It’s clear that having fresh, healthy produce readily available in cities is important for food security.
If we are in charge of our food supply, we are no longer dependent on industrialised agriculture – responsible for chemical-laden food, massive carbon emissions through transportation and bad farming practices, and to a large degree, also genetically-modified (GM) crops.
No! No, no GMO!
GM crops (or GMOs) refer to plants with an altered genetic make-up, usually to achieve a trait not normally held by an organism, such as longer shelf life, pest and disease resistance or different colours or even flavours.
We joined the Hampton Road Permaculture Farm team and formed a small but vocal team of eight outside Monstanto, a multinational biotechnology corporation, as well as AgriSA, one of the main propagators of GMO in South Africa.
Talking to bystanders, we were surprised at how few people knew what GMO’s are, even though most of South Africa’s soy and maize is genetically modified (whether labelled or otherwise) and, scarily, many of its infant formulas and cereals.
A controversial study recently conducted by a team of French scientists showed that rats fed genetically modified maize were at greater risk of developing tumours, suffering organ damage or dying prematurely.
It proved a chilling reminder that the long-term health consequences of eating GM foods are largely unknown. We’re the guinea pigs of the largest untested study on humans ever conducted.
Farmers who buy GM must buy new (patented) seeds every year, instead of harvesting seeds from the previous year’s crop. Despite massive campaigns claiming that GMOs are the answer to world hunger, it’s been shown that they produce no increase in yield or reduction in pesticide use.
Waving our picket signs and singing protest songs, we represented the SA consumer’s right to choose whether they want GMO’s or not – with the need for mandatory labelling and greater consumer awareness.
Desk workers at both offices peered at us confusedly from their windows, even taking photos of us. I wondered how many of them, if any, have really looked into the dangers of GMO. Hopefully our protest caused them to look a bit deeper.
Lurking at Leafy Greens
Leafy Greens in Johannesburg’s West Rand, is an on-the-ground example of small-scale urban agriculture that’s been happily GMO free and organic since Peter de Luca started his garden.
The restaurant, owned by Peter’s daughter Antonia, a talented raw food chef, provides healthy, sustainably produced food directly from farm to plate; fresh, in season and naturally delicious.
Getting there was a fun ride past The Cradle of Mankind, where we rode around in circles trying to find the entrance.
Sadly, we never did find out where to go or what to do there, running late as always, but we did find our way to Leafy Greens eventually where we ate a hearty lunch of raw, freshly-picked food.
Green juices, raw cheesecakes and chocolate, raw pizza – definitely worth the trip.
We also went to check out the garden – an impressive ode to permaculture and organic farming that makes use of massive worm farms, composting, greywater systems and extensive mulching, while hoping to go off-the-grid in time.
AB Phokompe School
Next up was a trip to Randfontein to visit AB Phokompe, a Food & Trees for Africa school sponsored by Shell, which started when the Deputy Principal, Mrs Thola Masibi saw that the orphans were going home hungry.
Starting off with one small garden that saw them winning Eduplant competitions - they've now expanded with a bigger garden in the back and involved community members and parents.
Together with the trainees from Hampton Road Permaculture Farm (Bongani and George) we advised them on how to make better use of their mulch and on strategies for interplanting. It was heartening to see their enthusiasm. Said Mrs Thola: I want to do gardening full-time - the permaculture way. I love it, I love it, I love it!"
Siyakhana Permaculture Food Garden
We also visited Siyakhana Permaculture Food Garden, which transformed an urban dump in 2005 into the green oasis it is today – making it one of Johannesburg’s longest-running model food gardens.
Mattias Kroll (incidentally Chris’ cousin) is the epitome of the unconventional genius. He’s been helping Siyakhana (which translated from Zulu means building one another) with some of their projects – including building a solar water-heating system built almost entirely of recycled 2-litre plastic bottles and black plastic piping.
Two hectares of rocky, clay-filled and infertile ground at Bezuidenhout Valley Park is now home to compost toilets, the new and extensive fungi production facility, an orchard of fruit and nut trees and an incredible permaculture garden and seed bank.
The project demonstrates integrated urban food production and supports over 400 vulnerable inner city children, the elderly and infirm and those suffering from HIV/Aids.
Naturally, they’re showcasing natural building and passive solar design (the field office and ablutions are built out of timber and infill panels made from a mix of highly-insulating grasses and soils harvested on site, while north-facing with opaque windows to maximise solar energy and natural lighting.
They also offer courses in urban permaculture food gardening – teaching people about herbs, organic gardening and even healthy cooking methods (powered by solar of course).
Riding back to the city to take our bikes in for a service at Cava Motorcycles, we cruised along Johannesburg’s highways, impressed with how courteous most drivers were. Perhaps that’s due to the presence of Johannesburg’s very own Vespa club – the Vesperados.
We scorned the road and ramped the pavement, riding a thin and decrepit dirt path littered with broken bottles up to the train tracks for some great pics.
Lining up our old-school scooters, including a Lambretta and an ancient yet beautifully restored Vespa, we were finally shoo'd off by an irate security guard - who'd probably never encountered a scooter gang before!
Riding in convoy with them to the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge, a fitting tribute to an incredible time in the city of gold, we were finally ready to depart on the next phase of our trip – the road to St Lucia and beyond.
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