Getting back to our roots

2009-12-22 00:00

“IT’S like baking a cake,” said my friend Sue as we spread arm loads of bright green carrot tops on the neat prism of matter that was growing in front of us. A group of us was constructing a compost heap at a permaculture workshop under the watchful eye of Paul Duncan of Dovehouse Organic Farm, and the project had a definite­ feeling of cooking about it.

Symmetrical and orderly, the pile was composed of deliberate layers of manure, leaves, straw and carrot tops. Each layer was sprayed with water­ or sprinkled with worm wee and sagging corners were quickly corrected. Done properly, we were told, this pile of rubbish would decompose swiftly and efficiently into rich, growth-enhancing compost.

It struck me then how much wisdom has been lost from common knowledge, knowledge that’s fairly crucial to our survival. Earlier generations­ relinquished it gladly as they shed tiresome chores but their descendants are finding that convenience­ has a price. They’re also finding that an important aspect of some of those chores was the connection — with plants, animals, the Earth and ultimately ourselves — and some people­ want that back.

We live in worrying times when the world’s governments are haggling over how to save the planet from being burnt to a crisp and our financial system has been shown up to be a house of cards. If a new crop of gardening books is anything to go by, publishers have picked up that people are seeking reassurance in know-ledge and basic survival skills our grandparents took for granted, such as being able to grow their own good food.

Grow to Live by Pat Featherstone is an excellent gardening guide for the 21st-century beginner, a slim package of elegant design and sage advice. Featherstone is the ideal nonthreatening advocate for a greener, more organic way of life, being the director of Soil for Life, a nonprofit organisation that promotes food gardens in Cape Town, and the mother of grown-up children. Her approach to gardening is low-tech and low-impact, emphasising the benefits of proper soil preparation and harnessing natural forces in the inevitable battle against garden pests. Whether writing about harvesting a worm bin or growing your own baby greens (no more expensive bags from Woolies), her delivery is chatty, concise and down-to-Earth. It’s a bit like getting a gardening lesson from your clued up neighbour.

A Farm in My Heart by Emilia Le Roux and Francois Smuts, and Forever­ Green by Dave Pepler are similarly reassuring in tone and content. Both are aimed at a perceived desire for nostalgia in contemporary readers, and they hark back to a time when Ouma picked her own fruit and made her own preserves.

Le Roux grew up on a farm and this book, written with her husband, is part memoir, part farming-manual-cum-cookbook for city slickers. Along with the story of her childhood there’s also plenty of homespun information on all aspects of producing your own food, from choosing trees for an orchard to smoking vegetables and slaughtering chickens. Some of the recipes, like the one for sheep’s brains in burnt butter, may not be to every suburbanite’s taste, but most will give you solid fare that would find favour in most homes.

Pepler’s book, lavishly illustrated with pictures by photographer Lien Botha that have a cartoon-like beauty, is a praise song for South African plants. Its raison d’être is pure enjoyment, being neither an instruction manual nor a recipe book, although it does provide some information on how to care for the different varieties of plants that are featured.

Pepler’s commentary is part memoir, part botanical voyage of discovery. Peppered with anecdotes, facts and the unique views of a passionate plant lover, this little slice of indulgence also packs a sneaky punch for the green brigade, coming as it does at a time when the world is viewing the carbon-chomping qualities of the world’s flora with new respect.

• Grow to Live: a Simple Guide to Growing Your Own Good, Clean Food by Pat Featherstone, is published by Jacana.

• A Farm in My Heart; From the Yard to the Pantry and the Table by Emilia le Roux and Francois Smuts is published by Tafelberg.

• Forever Green: Plants in the dream time by Dave Pepler is published by Human and Rousseau.

To find out more about permaculture workshops run by Paul Duncan at Dovehouse Organic Farm e-mail


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