“Organic farming is not the alternative, it’s the way farming and gardening was always done before,” says Michael Julie, an organic vegetable grower from Zeekoevlei.
Two years ago, Julie shared his knowledge and time with residents of Phumlani informal settlement near Lotus River to help establish five organic veggie gardens in the area. “Together with two friends, we raised the money and volunteered our time to prep the ground and plant the seedlings,” said Julie.
He first tried his hand at organic gardening about four years ago when he planted veggies in his yard but his interest in the benefits of organic vegetables began much earlier than that.
“I had a huge wake up call in 2011 and decided to change my lifestyle to reduce stress. When I researched a healthy diet I discovered that most of our commercial farms use herbicides and pesticides which adversely affect our gut bacteria and, ultimately, our health. Organic vegetables are pricey so I decided to look into growing my own,” he says.
After doing his research – which included reading, watching YouTube videos, visiting and volunteering at Seed in Mitchell’s Plain and connecting with Nazeer Sonday from Vegkop farm in the Phillipi Horticultural Area (PHA) – he felt ready to grow his own.
“I started with 1m² at a time, clearing grass and trees and adding compost, mulch and seedlings. Last year, I started with perennial plants and fruit trees because it doesn’t require as much work and I grow vegetables till the end of its season. I find it liberating not to be conditioned by a financial system that requires me to have between four and six crops per year,” Julie says.
A veggie garden requires constant work but you can make it easier with good preparation and planning. A vegetable garden is a garden whether it’s one vegetable plant or 1 000 vegetable plants.
“I grow vegetables for myself and my family as well as extended family and I sell some to neighbours.”
Until recently Julie also supplied some veggies to a soup kitchen which operated in Phumlani Lotus River.
“I started the soup kitchen with two friends about four years ago after many discussions about what we could do to challenge the system using our limited time and resources. We started making about 70l of soup every second Sunday. This progressed to every Sunday and eventually we could employ someone from the area to make 90l of soup Monday to Friday,” he says.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds, the soup kitchen had to be closed in January. But Julie continues to support two daycare centres. “I supply a daycare in the area (Phumlani) with porridge as well as good second-hand clothes and equipment. The agreement with the woman that runs the daycare is that she can sell the clothing items for a small fee of which half the money must be used for food for the children and the other half she can keep for herself,” Julie says.
He also supplies porridge to Little Paradise Daycare in the Flamingo Heights informal settlement in Flamingo Crescent, Lansdowne.
“I recently made contact with Aziza Ebrahim from Jumpstart Educare in Lansdowne in order to collaborate with her because she is instrumental in reviving the Educare in Flamingo Heights,” he says.
Julie’s love for all things green has its roots in his youth. He grew up in Heathfield.
“For the first seven years of my life every second house had a louquat, quince, fig and lemon tree and grape vine. I couldn’t understand why in places like Strandfontein there was none, although it is located on a section on the Cape Flats aquifer with the best quality of water,” he said.
Having studied electrical engineering at Peninsula Technikon (now known as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology) in Bellville, Julie didn’t think he had green fingers. But it only took a little bit of self study to change that.
“Our health as well as the health of plants, animals, insects and organisms depend on organic farming. I truly believe that the greatest mistake that we as a society could’ve made was to link finance to survival because it forces people to do anything and sacrifice everything necessary in order to survive.”
Julie tries to blog and vlog when he can but he is not contemplating bringing out an organic recipe book. However, people who are interested in starting their own organic gardens can follow his account www.minds.com called “My Urban Homestead” and his Facebook page called Veggie Gardeners Western Cape.
“I hope that with the latter people can help each other with free info relating to our climate here in Cape Town.”
Julie says that all you need to start your own garden is time and resources.
“People with little time can donate resources and those with little resources and more time can give of their time,” he says.
“Anyone interested in organic gardening could find someone with an organic garden and volunteer one to two hours per week to help remove weeds like I did and slowly progress to setting up beds to planting seedlings and soon you will be starting your own garden and giving advice to others.”
He suggest people with small verandas or courtyards to consider container gardening or to convince a neighbour to start a veggie garden in their yard so that both of you can benefit from organic vegetable gardening.
“The Cape Town veggie gardening community could get together once a month to swop seeds as well as ideas,” Julie says.
His advice for anyone wanting to start veggie gardening is to start small.
“Tackle 1m² at a time and before you know it, you will be looking at any open space in your community and the city and thinking, we could grow organic vegetables there,” he says.