Growing your own

2008-08-27 00:00

Tucked away in a neat courtyard, under the washing line, adjacent to the rabbit hutch and bordered with daisies is Sam and Bruce Dixon’s vegetable garden with its clusters of broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and herbs. “It’s awesome to be able to produce your own veggies, and our children eat everything. From a mother’s point of view that is fantastic,” says Dixon.

“There is definitely a drive towards growing your own vegetables,” says Thys de Beer of Celtiskloof Nursery, who has noticed an increase in sales of vegetable seeds and seedlings over the years. “In 1994 seedling tables in nurseries were inundated with flowers. In late 1998 about 45 square metres was dedicated to flowers and we wondered if we should put in 10 square metres of veggies. Now, 60% is flowers and 40% vegetables.”

Ken Leisegang, owner of Sunshine Seedlings says, “Macdonalds [nursery] is buying a lot more vegetables in six and 12 packs than they used to. I think it’s becoming a trend because of the high price of vegetables in the shops.”

According to De Beer, the motivation to grow one’s own vegetables is multifaceted. “There is definitely a drive from an economic point of view to grow your own”, but people are also “motivated by a raised consciousness about the environment and health, for example, awareness of hormones and pesticides, coupled with a sense of achievement”.

Sam Dixon says: “We’re trying to do this from a holistic, green point of view but on a manageable scale at home. We feel that what we’re doing, anyone can do. It’s not hectically labour intensive and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.”

According to Dixon, growing vegetables at home saves money. “If from a tray of 12 lettuces, six of them get eaten because of natural elements, it still costs me less to buy the tray — it still saves me money and I’m still getting better quality vegetables. I’m letting nature take its course — the bugs are happy, my rabbits are happy, my compost heap is happy and we are all happy at the end of the day.

“People think that having a veggie garden is a lot of work because they think of big areas. In your home you do not need a lot of vegetables to make a huge economic saving or for it to have a huge impact on your everyday life. You need a small patch of garden. You need to prepare that soil by clearing it. Make sure that it’s in a good sunny spot, maybe give the first 10 cm or 15 cm a light forking, give it a good water, plant your seedlings and put on a lot of mulch.” The Dixons also use vermiculture, or harvested “worm tea” to nourish their soil.

“Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?” De Beer asks. “It focuses on orientation of quality, where price is no longer the major issue. Because of health awareness, many people prefer to grow their own [vegetables], knowing what goes in. The quality of home-grown veggies is profoundly superior to anything in a shop.”

“There is a phenomenal awareness of nature — the going green thing. People are aware of their carbon footprints. Ten years ago if you asked someone about carbon footprints they would have said: ‘What?’ Now they will tell you that they have already planted four trees to minimise the damage caused by petroleum usage during their business flights. It is a lifestyle orientation — people are growing their own [vegetables], and are growing them organically.”

Vivianne Quin, the director of operations of the Seedling Growers Association, who also works for East Coast Intensive Horticulture, says: “I think the consumer needs to become more aware of what is being sprayed on crops. I don’t think that the big chain stores are being cautious enough about who they are buying from. I think that there needs to be more control. If there are open shelves in the supermarket they will buy from whoever they can buy from, whether they are certified or not. When [farmers] get certified, their chemical applications get studied because not all chemicals are okay for us.”

“I’ve started growing my own veggies with my children,” says Quin. “I think it’s very rewarding for the children — they each have their own veggie patch. It was very rewarding to see it come to fruition; it taught them also, to wait. There is no immediate gratification. It is good to regain that love of being out there and getting your hands dirty.”

De Beer is concerned that the “grow-your-own” phenomenon is not reaching the country’s poor, but Ken Leisegang, owner of Sunshine Seedlings, has a positive story to tell. “There’s been quite a large increase in seedling sales to small customers,” says Leisegang. “We have a number of hawkers from Pietermaritzburg who come out to the nursery almost daily or they phone us and place small orders. They are hawking [seedlings] from little stores on street corners, so it enables a much bigger population to be able to get the correct varieties of seedlings.”

“And secondly,” says Leisegang, “There are quite a few people who come directly to the nursery who are buying seedlings for their community gardens.” Leisegang feels that community gardens are on the increase. “The KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture Department extension officers come and collect seedlings from us on behalf of community gardens and then deliver to the outlying areas.”

The most popular vegetables are “cabbage, spinach, beetroot [thanks to our minister of health], carrots, tomatoes and onions,” says Leisegang.

In light of the food crisis, the government is encouraging people to grow their own vegetables. The Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs Lulama Xingwana is quoted on a government website as saying: “Each family should have a vegetable garden. Let us help one another to grow our own food. In areas where the land lies fallow, let us mobilise communities to produce food for themselves” (

The Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs gives out starter packs that include garden tools, seeds and organic manure “to beneficiaries in dire need who have access to land and water to enable them to cultivate vegetables and fruits in their backyards” (

It sounds like a positive programme, but Hilda Pheto, executive director of the Food Gardens Foundation* has this to say on the matter: “My one cry is that I wish the government could really engage. I don’t know who they’re talking to about it but they don’t talk to a collective of NGOs. They could talk to us and say: ‘Guys, how best can we get mileage out of these starter packs?’ People say: ‘They give us tools, they give us seeds and we don’t know what to do with them’.”

In closing, Pheto says: “People are buying vegetable seeds more than ever — so it is happening — maybe people will shift paradigms because we have a mind-set problem in South Africa. People don’t realise they have the power to take their lives into their own hands rather than being dependent on others. We need to encourage our nation to rise up and do things for themselves.”

* The Food Gardens Foundation has over three decades of experience to draw on. They can be approached for information on trench-bed gardening, container gardening, school gardens, community gardens, planting in season, etc. For more information, visit

Read how to grow your own vegetables with the trench-bed method here.

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