Words by Matt Allison
Photography from Jane’s Delicious Garden
You’re described as ‘a writer, television producer, artist and traveller’ who has been growing your own organic herbs and vegetables for more than a decade. How did you get started?
In 1994 I visited a friend in California whose garden was bursting with chillies. It was the first time I had seen red, yellow, purple, brown and orange chillies—and in such a huge variety of shapes, colours and sizes. At that time in South Africa, all you could find were the little, hot red ones. Jalapeños were hardly on the culinary radar yet. Although I didn’t have my own vegetable garden, I was so inspired by this rainbow vision that I bought a packet of every variety of chilli seed I could lay my hands on. Back home I removed a section of lawn, dug in some compost, scattered the seeds, and sat back to watch my chillies grow. That summer I had about twenty varieties of chilli growing in my garden and quickly earned the nickname ‘Chilli Queen’. This was the beginning of a passion which has never abated.
‘Organic’ seems to be a phrase shrouded in mystery. In your own words, what is ‘organic gardening’?
Marketers are very quick to jump on a bandwagon. I saw a label the other day that read: “100% virgin acrylic”. Organic gardening is nothing new. In fact it is a very old way of gardening. It is the way all farming and gardening was done before the advent of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Many people think gardening organically just means replacing synthetic pesticides or fertilisers with organic ones. There is much more to it than that. Organic gardening is a natural, holistic and commonsense approach to gardening. It is more of a philosophy than a style. Organic gardeners see gardens as part of a natural cycle, starting with the soil and including the water supply, people, wildlife and insects. Our aim is to work in harmony with natural systems and to minimise and replenish the resources the garden consumes.
Had you been a gardener before you decided to start growing your own food?
No. I had never grown anything before those chillies.
What resources—books, websites or other media—were you able to call on, or proved to be especially helpful?
I started my gardening journey long before Google. I subscribed to some US magazines such as Mother Earth News and Kitchen Garden, which gave useful information. But I had to adapt them to South African conditions. I also bought as many books as I could find. There were very few South African ones. Margaret Roberts’s books on companion planting and herbs were helpful, but there was nothing on organic vegetables written by a South African for South Africans. So I wrote that book myself.
Are home-grown vegetables actually cost effective? Store-bought alternatives are easily accessible—why grow your own?
Firstly, because you know they haven’t been sprayed with toxins and are grown in healthy soil. Secondly, the pleasure of growing and harvesting your own food far outweighs anything that is store bought.
In your opinion, what is the best thing about growing your own vegetables and herbs?
The large homestead, with a wisteria-covered wrap-around veranda and a huge vegetable and herb garden out at the back, now there’s a dream. The reality is, I am an urbanite who likes living in a city. And if I did live out in the sticks, I would probably miss the vibe, energy and activity of the city. So I garden as well as I can, right where I am, despite the disadvantages of trying to create a farm in the city. We all make do with what we have, and nowhere is this truism more real than in our vegetable patch. It is at times completely disheartening, but the successes more than make up for the failures. Once the cultivating bug bites, it will keep growing. No matter where you live, gardening stretches your body and expands your soul.
Are there particular crops which you find easier to grow or with which you’ve had particular success?
For someone starting out, I’d suggest growing vegetables such as lettuce, various greens, beans, cherry tomatoes, and a selection of summer squash. These are all easy, and provide good harvests.
Now that spring has officially sprung, what should we be planting?
Beans, lettuces, greens, herbs, tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, potatoes and squash. And don’t forget a few companion plants such as Californian poppy, nasturtium, tansy and feverfew.
In what ways are you using ecological solutions in your garden?
We have recently installed JoJo tanks to harvest our rainwater as well as some of our grey water. I specifically wanted to use the water on my vegetables, but you need to be careful using grey water on edibles. So, before it leaves the tank, the grey water is cleaned with ozone and then fed into my vegetable garden with soaker hoses. These drip the water directly into the soil so that the micro-organisms can clean it further.
What about adding livestock to your gardening enterprise? I’ve heard chickens are a good start.
We have just finished building a portable chicken run, known as a chicken tractor because you move it around. The chickens cultivate, weed and fertilise the area they are on. We built the chicken run ourselves from recycled material and the only things we will have to buy now are the chickens.
Any final words of advice or encouragement for aspirant gardeners?
Don’t expect it to be perfect, and don’t expect it ever to be ‘finished’. Just get out there and start planting. Remember, when I started, I knew nothing. If I can do it, so can you.
Jane’s Delicious Garden is a practical and inspiring guide to preparing, planting and growing vegetables and herbs organically in any space. Go to www.janesdeliciousgarden.com for more information.