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Permaculture in East London:
An interview with Anna Andrews

Anna Andrews has been successfully practicing permaculture in East London, South Africa, for just over a year.

Apart from being my mother, Anna was also my fellow course participant at the very same permaculture course I attended in Stilbaai, my first PDC ever, and available as a blog.

I visited her permaculture garden to see for myself how far she's come since that first PDC.

"Create a self-sustaining environment in any situation, from the farm to the city... by planning your lifestyle to increase resources, conserve energy and reduce or eliminate pollution or waste".

- Bill Mollison

Permaculture in East London: Some background


Anna Andrews in Mandala garden

All images supplied by Anna Andrews

"I grew up outside Mthatha where we had a smallholding. My mother was a farmer. She had about 40 to 50 milking cows which were milked and the milk sold to the townspeople.

From a very young age, I was very unhappy when I saw the labourers pulling the little calves away from their mothers after the milk was 'let down' by the calves sucking, and then the cow was milked while the calves were given watered-down milk in a separate shed.

I was also distressed by the manner in which the labourers treated the animals as if they were without feeling. My mother also kept and killed various animals such as pigeons initially, then hens, then pigs which we ate. I always felt upset by these practices and ate little meat.

However, my mother was also an excellent gardener and we constantly had plenty of fresh vegetables and mealies (sweetcorn), which my mother also made into a delicious mealie bread.

When I grew up, I left home, married and then brought up my children without thinking of gardening except to grow a few flowers. Once my children were all out of the home, I met and lived with my partner who had a home of his own where I started growing spinach.

We constantly had spinach to eat which surprised me. Then we moved to a farm and, only a short year and a half ago, Melissa invited me to attend the permaculture course.

However, it was due to the fact that I saw the detrimental effects the present practices have had on the eco system all around me, and constantly read and heard the dire warnings of what would happen if we allowed our present disregard of nature to continue, that I came to the conclusion that something has to be done.

The PDC course was enlightening, providing me with many answers and inspiring me to start up my own project".

Permaculture in East London: Anna's project

Today, Anna lives on a smallholding between East London and Stutterheim. The Eastern Cape has a sub-tropical climate, which allows for diverse, year-round cultivation, however, the region suffers from variable rainfall, which can result in severe droughts.

Anna, however, suffers from no such shortages with two large tanks to capture rainwater and two large dams. She took me around her garden, demonstrating her impressive achievements over the past year.

Mandala bed

We start off the most essential of soil-building and regeneration methods: composting. Anna has not one, but three compost heaps at alternating stages of readiness. Butternut, never planted, grows naturally from the compost, clearly thriving.

Zoning and relative location

As a permaculture gardener, zoning is, of course, at play. The compost bed is situated around the corner of the house, in close proximity to the nursery (which most often needs fresh compost for germinating seeds) and near to the Mandala beds and chickens.

"I can bring food scraps from the kitchen to the chickens, pick up some chicken manure for the compost, take compost to the nursery, grab seedlings ready for planting as I head back to the Mandala beds, and then grab fresh veggies for my dinner on my way back to the house", says Anna.

Clearly, Anna has understood the permaculture principle of relative location, which means that every element must be put into the right place to work to its full potential (and thus minimise effort).

Anna regularly uses her dark, nutrient-rich compost to enrich her garden beds, revive fruit trees and to grow seedlings.

getting pots and trays ready for planting with rich new compost

Incidentally, Anna is a vegan, which means her compost contains lots of fruit and fresh greens (nitrogen), old tea boxes, the cardboard from toilet rolls or the used paper from her photocopier and post (carbon), and activated with the supercharged dynamic activators such as nasturtium, yarrow and comfrey.

A thick layer of dried grass works as a cover and keeps out insects.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Anna also tries to minimise her waste and energy usage to ensure a sustainable system. Reducing comes first, followed by re-using, and then recycling anything else. Anna takes all her plastic, tins and bottles to recycling depots.

Old cardboard and newspaper is used around trees to create a fertile barrier of one meter for the trees, and also for no dig gardening. "My urine is used as a fertilizer, a liquid manure (one part urine to seven water) and to 'mark my territory' so that animals don't eat my vegetables", she says.

"I have seen that this works by the fact that I have had rabbits in the yard which do not eat my vegetables. There are also buck on the farm, which occasionally come in to eat the guavas on the ground, that don't eat my vegetables either".

The nursery

We head over to the nursery, a small shed built by Anna and her partner. Inside, plant life is flourishing with mulberries, avocados, peaches, pawpaws papaya) and pomengranates representing the fruit, while spinach and basil thrives amongst peppers, dill, lettuce, spring onions and beans in seed trays.

plant and fruit trees ready for planting

Anna prepares a potent mixture of river sand and manure for seeds to begin germinating in, which gives them a good start to life.

"While they're still small shoots, I transplant them into reused plastic containers, which is really just a small plastic bottle cut in half with holes poked in the bottom for air, containing compost.

Plastic containers made from old bottles with holes in bottom ready for tranplanting

hese I fertilise with a little bit of worm casings, before planting them in my garden bed".

Anna is also trying out a different mix, using soil from mole holes mixed with a bit of compost and sieved manure, as she's found that spinach and basil grows extremely well, but other herbs seem to find 'neat' compost too rich.

Worm farming: Vermicomposting

Her worm farm, conveniently located in the nursery for readily-available fertiliser, contains 300 red wrigglers, which are fed with organic matter such as vegetable peels and fruit scraps, and cow or chicken manure, while Anna waters them regularly to ensure the conditions in which they thrive.

These worms continually convert and break down nutrients and, with water-soluble casings, the minerals are immediately available to plants. This worm 'wee' is then used as fertiliser.

No-dig garden bed

We headed over to see Anna's first raised bed, otherwise known as a no-dig or lasagne garden bed. It was started off using layers of cardboard, manure and compost, which, Anna tells me, worked brilliantly.

Anna has recently pulled out all the plants, which were mostly spinach, herbs yarrow, spring onions and rocket, giving the soil time to rest before the next cycle of planting.

A rather forlorn-looking gooseberry bush grows on the edge of this bed, which struggles to reach its full potential in harsh winds. Anna plans to plant a windbreak here of native trees, possibly silver oaks, which are well-adapted to this climate and have non-invasive roots.

Nearby, stretching across the walls of the farmhouse, lies another gooseberry bush, which fares far better, with plenty of shelter from the wind. I'd sampled its wares nearly every day so I can attest to its quality fruit - I enjoyed a daily salad liberally complemented with tasty organic gooseberries.

Using household greywater

Anna takes me to see her greywater filtration system. The kitchen and bathroom pipes carry household greywater to the garden, which sports a natural swale, along which Anna has planted one or two lilies, which have proliferated into many more, and a banana tree.


Banana tree and lillies proliferating in greywater

"Lilies and bananas are excellent natural filtration systems for cleansing greywater", Anna says. She has since planted two pawpaw (papaya) trees which are thriving.

Lemontree and red hot poker thriving in greywater

Mandala Gardens

Next up was the Mandala gardens and chicken tractor. Anna tells me that she first designed her garden beds before doing anything, ensuring she knew where everything would be placed, and why.

At the centre of the Mandala garden is the herb spiral, with six Mandala beds around it, separated by pathways made from sawdust placed on top of cardboard, which kills off grass, holds in moisture, and attracts worms when it starts to rot.

Sawdust pathways placed on top of cardboard between Mandala beds

Anna planted yarrow, comfrey, lemongrass and lavender around the outer circle of the Mandala garden, while fruit trees such as blueberries, avocado, and mulberries surround the garden beds.

Companion planting

Anna plants according to the principles of companion planting, which places certain crops next to each other so that they symbiotically benefit each other, and helps deter pests or attract beneficial insects.

Some of the plants harvested from the Mandala bed include tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, mint, comfrey (known as a nitrogen-fixer for its ability to add nitrogen to the soil), basil, rosemary, dill, celery, nasturtiums, spring onion, peppers, sweet corn and asparagus.

Sunflowers grow naturally amongst the vegetables and herbs, while the earth is home to lots of mushrooms, never planted, and earthworms - both a sign of very fertile soil.

Advice on Kikuyu, an invasive grass

Anna also placed a small ditch around each bed and around the entire garden to deter the kikiyu grass, which is filled with manure and acts like a mini-swale to capture water and feed the soil.

At the first mention of kikiyu, an invasive grass common in South Africa, Anna tells me it's been her greatest problem. "No matter what I tried, I really battled. It's also a struggle to get enough paper and cardboard to make layers thick enough to suffocate the kikiyu, and I can't image how I would have done it without a car".

She advises those unable to access a lot of cardboard or newspaper to first dig out as much grass as possible before doing anything else.

"Then you can enrich the soil with compost, cover it with cardboard, dried grass, straw or thatch reeds, and follow the no-dig or lasagne garden bed method to ensure fertile soil", she says. "There are definitely easier ways than how I'd done it, she adds, "the grass has been a persistent problem over the past year".

Using a chicken tractor

Anna's Mandala garden uses a chicken tractor, which is a round, movable chicken coop without a floor, which fits neatly on the circular Mandala beds.

The chickens eat all the weeds and organic matter, scratching up the soil and fertilising it with manure deposits. Anna also adds a regular bucket of cow manure into the tractor for the chooks to scratch up.

chicken tractor

Once all the vegetation has been eaten and the soil is thoroughly scratched up - generally this takes about two weeks, but in Anna's case it took a month because of the kikuyu - the chickens are moved to another location and a new cycle of planting can begin, making chicken tractors an important part of crop rotation.

The orchard: Planting fruit crops

We then head over the orchard area, which mostly consists of mature fruit trees that had been planted by previous owners. Anna's job here is to enrich and revitalise the trees, many of which were suffering from poor soil fertility and disease such as mildew.

Guava, pear, lemon with lemon grass and comfrey in foreground

Pine trees at back with guava, granadilla and paw paws visible

One of these is a pear tree, which bore many pears, but the fruit was bad and would easily rot. "I've been using manure to fertilise the soil, and putting newspaper and dried grass around all the trees, which works as mulch while adding carbon, and also pruning them", Anna says.

"This tactic has worked for my guava trees - after feeding and mulching them they've born amazing fruit". Other trees include apples, bananas, an orange, granadilla, pomegranate, fig and cherry guava tree, all of which have benefited greatly from her constant care, but still require more pruning and attention to reach their full potential.

Mulberry trees, a paw paw (papaya), avocado, kiwi fruit, banana, loquat and a lemon tree, some grown from seed and still very young, are among the other trees on the outskirts of the Mandala garden.

Banana and kiwi climber


Water harvesting with a swale

Separating the trees from the fence is a swale, dug along a contour and enriched with compost, manure and twigs, which fertilises the soil and captures water. Anna has planted a water oak tree along its edge, which benefits from plenty of water.

Trial and error

Anna shows me another garden bed which was already there when she took over the property. She's fed it from the top with chicken manure and grown carrots, sweet potato, comfrey, lemongrass, and planted pawpaw trees from scattered pips.

Much of permaculture is trial and error, and Anna has found that asparagus doesn't grow as well in this garden bed.

Anna has three Mandala beds around the back of the house, which originated in winter when the winds where howling. These were made specifically to provide her chickens with a rich source of food during winter time, without getting blown away by gale-force winds.

Here Anna grows tomatoes, basil, spinach, rhubarb, mint, spring onions, lettuce, nasturtiums, red pepper, penny royal (which deters flies) and sweetcorn.

We collected a treasure trove of fresh basil there for our evening salad, which seemed to be getting the full benefit of morning sun and the house as a windbreak. "Though I don't have a large garden, there is always something ready to be reaped for a meal", says Anna.

Permaculture in East London: success and goals

"I've been getting a lot more bees as well, and I've never had pests", she continues, which, for a first-time permaculture gardener, testifies to her success.

Anna intends to use permaculture to teach others and inspire them to work the land so that they will have the means to feed and sustain their families.

Anna with chickens

"We need to ensure in every way possible that we look after Mother Earth so that she looks after us. Permaculture opens the doors to all people, from all social classes, and especially the poor", she says.

"It is a sustainable method of living that has the potential to help people care for their families, learn valuable skills and become self-sufficient, without being forced to enter the rat race".

As part of East London's Green Living Group, Anna goes to different sites in the area to see permaculture in practice. One strategy she learnt was to plant comfrey around the Mandala beds to deter kikuyu, while using thatch instead of dried grass as mulch eliminates the problems with grass seeds sprouting anew.

Once Anna has received her Diploma, she plans to visit other permaculture sites in South Africa to learn different techniques. Ultimately, she'd like to buy a piece of ground which could be used to practice permaculture, and is thinking about starting an eco-village where more teachers could be trained to spread the permaculture message.

Unique learnings in permaculture

When I asked Anna if she had a unique learning that she would like to share, she related that working with animals such as cows, chickens or worms, is costly in terms of feed, the need to always be there and the fact that worms require a difficult process to separate them from their casings.

"In an eco-village or community garden, this would be eliminated because you'd have other hands to help, but for myself as a single permaculturist, I feel that the need for live animals is minimal. Manure could be sourced from a local farmer, neighbour or bought. I also have a problem with disposing of eggs as eating or selling eggs is against my principles as a vegan".

Permaculture vision

Though Anna sees a grim future if we carry on as we are, she believes that if permaculture becomes more widespread, we can restore the land while using it to grow food. "It is through permaculture that we will bring back life to the planet through caring for the earth and all its creatures.

I see a very prosperous future for all, with eco-villages springing up, people caring for one another, trading with one another, sharing with one another and developing a community spirit".

"Permaculture has given me a new vision. It's simple, easy to implement and available to all. Permaculture methods work in harmony with nature to ensure soil regeneration, without any chemicals, restoring my faith in our ability to revitalise and renew the planet.

The fact that one can trade ethically, instead of using money or being motivated by greed, also fits in with my vision of a new earth wherein everyone is equal and capable of living a sustainable lifestyle. I truly believe that by healing the earth, we heal ourselves".

Related articles:

Permaculture in Palestine: This article is about permaculture in Palestine as I attend a PDC at the Marda Permaculture Farm in the West Bank

Permaculture in Bathurst: Permaculture in Bathurst is thriving, thanks to the efforts of Rob Gess, who sells natural and organic products made from herbs picked fresh from his ecological garden

Return from Permaculture in East London to Permaculture Gardening

Go to Eco-friendly Africa Travel

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