‘I treat my plants like babies, they need love’

2012-04-18 00:00

MARY Mlambo joined Dovehouse Organic­ Farm in 2002 as a housekeeper and childminder, but her interest in growing things saw her being drawn outside to the garden. She tells how, when she first joined the household, she watched Paul Duncan developing his organic vegetable gardens and teaching others how to grow things using the principles of perma-culture.

Duncan is a permaculture expert who teaches people how to use their land to its optimum potential. One of the principles of permaculture is to work with nature rather than against it, enhancing natural processes for maximum production using organic farming methods.

Mlambo had lived on farms all her life and says she was used to planting vegetables in the family garden, an activity which she enjoyed. When Duncan asked Mlambo to help him in the garden he realised that she was a keen gardener and much preferred to work in the garden than do housework.

“It was a difficult time because I wanted to keep Paul and his wife, Shereen, happy,” says Mlambo. “But I was much happier when I was digging and planting in the garden. So when Paul asked me to help in the garden I was very happy. But Shereen told him not to take me away from the housework. Eventually they got someone else to do the housework because he needed me in the gardens.”

Paul and Shereen say that Mlambo is very dedicated to everything she does.

Originally she was given a trial patch of ground and told if she managed to grow vegetables successfully she could sell them to the farm shop.

“I tried to grow vegetables and it was very hard then for Paul and I the first few years were hard. We were just trying this and then trying that, and every year there was a new challenge,” said Mlambo.

Their system changed when Paul began to get busy, working in other communities teaching permaculture methods­.

Mlambo has been working at the farm for nearly 10 years and she is now the manager of the vegetable gardens around the shop and the homestead.

At times when the harvest is bountiful local labour is hired to help out, and Mlambo has also introduced her son Lucas to the permaculture way and he is enjoying it.

“I have learnt such a lot from Paul. You have to have a lot of patience because you cannot use chemicals. You sometimes have a good crop and sometimes you don’t.”

The farm shop sells organic and health products and offers its vegetables for sale.

The shop also supplies vegetables­ to the greater Pietermaritzburg­ area and on Saturdays, Zoe, Paul’s mother, takes organic stock to the Alexandra Road Farmers’ Market.

“I treat my plants like babies — these vegetables need a lot of love. You can’t just plant them and ignore them,” says Mlambo.

She described how she goes up and down the beds in the morning looking for snails and slugs which she collects in a bucket.

“I pick them off my plants and give them to the chickens, which are very happy to get them.”

The chicken coop in the middle of the vegetable bed is not just for decoration — the chickens also work the soil. Their manure is used to fertilise the soil and their scratching and digging for worms make it perfect for planting. The mobile chicken cage is called a “chicken tractor” and can be moved from bed to bed to prepare the soil for planting.

The vegetable beds are designed around the land — crops that need shade are planted near trees and those that need more sun are planted farther away from the tall trees. The hay that is cut from the fields is used on the beds to keep the soil moist.

Mlambo shows me her pride and joy — her “magic worms” — as she calls them. They wriggle around in the soil and are fed scraps from the kitchen. “When it’s time for new seedlings to be planted, the worms are put onto the beds, with compost, under a layer of mulch.

The new seedlings are fed on the nutritious worm wee, a by-product of the worms.

Mlambo says that growing plants has become second nature to her and she gets a great deal of joy when she picks vegetables from the earth.

“My mother taught me how to plant and look after vegetables when I was young, but now I have learnt such a lot and the taste of these vegetables is so good.”

Mlambo says she has also learnt to respect nature. “I know now that we must not be scared of frogs and birds and snakes because they all have a job to do.

“If you eat organic foods nothing can make you sick. Everything is natural­. But it is also in the hands of God — sometimes they grow and sometimes not. We have to try this and try that and always we give them love.”

• To learn about permaculture or to order organic vegetables from Dovehouse­ Organic Shop, phone 079 368 0832 or 082 868 4517.


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