Category: Gardens (page 1 of 2)

Garden update: pictures ;-)


Comfrey, peppadew, carrot, oregano


buckwheat, broccoli, cabbage, squash and yucca


Mushrooms. They’re popping up EVERYWHERE. Too bad we don’t know if they’re edible or not. Wish they were though.


Groundcover that grew from a few tufts we threw down, and the trees that shelter part of the abode from the strong south west wind.


A fence weaved two years ago that now provides great shelter to some trees we’re keeping in bags for later planting.


Morning glory self-seeded and loving the fence. Outhouse toilet in background.


Keyhole bed with a lot happening! Marigolds, peppadews, Kale, wild dagga, etc. Yellowood in foreground.


Keyhole again – sweet potatoes on the left. Strawberries pictured. Note mulching.


Paprika peppers and marigolds. The marigolds serve sooooooo many purposes. Medicinal, micro-climate, beneficial to soil for most plants, pest detractor.


Mostly strawberries.


The orchard. Again, a lot happening. Citrus tree in foreground struggling; all citrus have battled here, while the peach trees have done really well.


1000 liter water tank etc.


Full frontal! We don’t do the mowing. Rather use a brushcutter to cut paths where needed. But the land-owners like the grass short.




Cool shadow!


Mostly sweet potatoes, clearly ravaged by a caterpillar or grasshopper or locust. Etc etc etc.


Mainly comfrey, planted into the trench that borders the lower part of the raised bed. Water collects in the trench, and the comfrey loves it. Excellent plant to have in the garden – so many uses.


Circling from front right: Nasturtium (aphid collector! Sacrificial plant. Also medicinal), Lobster claw ground cover, comfrey again, broccolli, squash, old sweet pepper plants, cabbage.


Green feast peas sprouting, and Buckwheat. The twiggy sticks are to help the peas climb.

Early spring garden pictures… and a few comments, of course!

This is a brief visual update on what’s happening with parts of the garden, with the main focus being vegetables (versus, for example, the orchard). Followed by, of course, my 2 cents’ worth 😉

First, a reminder of what this area looked like two years ago:


And the adjacent area one year ago:


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Then after a bit of this ‘n that:

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And quite a few more steps later you get this:

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To some it may seem a bit of a mess, but everything has its place within the greater totality of things  (a totality we try to observe and align ourselves to). For example, the wood piles may not tick boxes for those with orthodox aesthetic views, but the piles are great for wildlife and serve several other purposes – walls and windbreaks, growing area for plants, long-term fertility as the carbon decomposes under the manure that has been thrown on top; etc. And in less than 18 months, the woodpiles have gradually been covered by pioneers – mainly nasturtium in the pictures, but a different creeper also does fantastically on them, and this all makes them more appealing to the orthodox eye. In 2 more years, the woodpiles will be large but smooth mounds of compost hidden by all sorts of plants and vegetables, providing nooks and crannies for wildlife, storing energy by way of nutrients and moisture. No doubt by 5 years the piles will be earth mounds out of which trees and bushes grow, under which vegetables self-seed.

Note the wide variety of plants and vegetables working together as companions. No chemicals have been used (as a rule) nor needed to be used because pests are mainly manageable – they tend to be focused on one or two plants that are usually last season’s annuals and should have been pulled but but were given mercy in a moment of unjustified optimism: annuals should be pulled when they are done fruiting. But once pulled, they go into the compost and re-enter the fertility cycle from whence they came: compost to compost; earth to earth; life to life.

Okay, yes, there have been times when aphids did cause Emma to lose her usual outdoor optimism – she is after all the main gardener – but again these spread because of last season’s anachronistic annuals (as explained above). The past 3 months have been aphid-free; the only pest issue has been, well, whatever has accessed the sweet potatoes from underground, presumably moles. I am sure that this too will be a problem for which we eventually have time to find a solution.

Notably, Damian is having a fruit-fly issue this week: they are hatching in his baby marrows (courgettes). However, the cause seems to me to be the tonne (literally) of fresh horse-manure and wood-chip mix that has been spread throughout his orchard and growing area. Expect pest issues when using fresh organic matter. But as time passes, as the organic matter becomes compost, the pests are no longer attracted to the area. We are seeing this more and more to be the case, which is not to say that we will not add some aged manure in various places shortly before topping with compost; as the garden becomes more of an entity constituted by various cooperating parts working synergistically, fewer will be the ‘pest’ problems, and where there are bugs eating things, it will be an appropriate part of the functioning of the overall natural system. Already, this is how I feel about our past ‘pest’ issues: not a problem! Sure, I say this from the perspective of one who has spent more time making the garden beds and then disappearing into miscellaneous building projects and chores etc. etc., while Emma is the one who has spent more time and energy facilitating the existence of the occasional vegetable that is taken out by ‘pests’. But I knew it intuitively when it occurred more frequently last year – ‘early days; not a problem; part of the process; give it time’. Oh, and let me add: those baby-marrows with a few fruit flies hatching from them – well, the baby flies emerge from one minuscule area that can be cut away, leaving 90% of the marrow completely fine for consumption.

I have focused entirely too much on the ‘pest’ aspect, despite the fact that currently we have no pest issues!!! So let me conclude by saying that the proof is in the pudding: we are eating very fresh, chemical-free vegetables from the gardens daily; our health is excellent; our food bills are manageable, even for part-time employees; and the garden/plot-time is incredibly therapeutic (unless you get a bit OCD about finishing a project by a self-imposed deadline, like I do, but that’s not the case with the gardens). ALL of our organic waste goes into the compost (albeit in a very controlled and systematic manner) so the fertility process here is a loop rather than linear – with the exception of several bags of horse manure that we bring in from 1 km down the road. So all that said, let me end abruptly and go take a refreshing garden-stroll…

Mid winter vegetable garden pics update

A quick visual offering of some of the vegetable gardens in mid winter. Emma has been working hard to keep the beds maintained, the seedlings happy and healthy, and the plant rotation going. I’ve been tinkering with other small projects while doing a lot of academic ‘stuff’ recently, and then keeping basic chores and maintenance going, notably staying ‘on top’ of the compost loo and compost (better than being under them, hey!).

The days are getting noticeably longer again, not by much, but we’re definitely a month past solstice. This means already thinking about planting autumn and summer crops – Em reminded me recently that a new phase of plants will be planted next month already. We’re really lucky to be able to grow all year around here.

Yesterday I spent several hours digging, loading a wheelbarrow with sand, dumping it in selected areas; then loading the barrow with manure and wood-chip and distributing these where necessary. It’s the kind of work that can’t be rushed lest one runs out of energy very quickly, so you have to pace yourself, do it slowly. It turned into something of a meditation session almost, and also definitely constituted my exercise for the day.

I mention the above because with my heavier academic focus lately, combined with a background awareness of a need to begin bigger projects like the small solar panel system, sandbag cold storage area, drying rack, etc., there has been the tendency to avoid doing the wheelbarrow work. But having turned a lot of compost recently, and then doing the aforementioned work yesterday, I am reminded that the ongoing garden ‘building’, expansion and maintenance are among the key activities in this permaculture endeavour.

Just two years ago, exactly, there were only 2 (near-flooded) tents in the area pictured below. Nothing else. Now, well, the pictures speak for themselves. The fertility is amazing. The digging and wheelbarrowing and manure-bag-dragging and compost making and aged-manure-pile-making along the way have been excellent investments of energy – even if not obvious when sweating it out initially. Having experienced the growth of this area that is the outcome of our efforts, and seeing such a process at Damian’s much larger side of the plot (he is the landowner, who happens to be my non-blood brother! He is doing some excellent garden work, which I will document on this blog sometime soon), I would recommend to anyone who wishes to create a more ‘fertile’ future that they should start with making good soil, plant heirloom seeds in it, save the seeds, and keep the process going. Once you get started, the process inevitably becomes easier because it is synergistic. Oops, I see my promised ‘visual offering’ has been delayed with words, so without further adieu…

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In journal entry number 4 I mentioned ‘revitalising raised beds’; the pictures above show part of the process. The whole area was covered in horse manure in July last year (2013); by mid-September, after layers of aged manure, straw and compost had been added to shape individual raised beds, the first seeds and seedlings were planted in this area. After the Summer harvest the beds had dropped in height quite a lot, and the decision was made to ‘top them up’. We did this by first adding a thick layer of aged manure and then by digging up the paths straight onto the raised beds, because the paths consisted of the same manure that originally covered the whole area; the manure has turned into very healthy organic matter. The final layer is our own home-made compost, indeed a key secret ingredient. The beds get mulched immediately in order to prevent the sun from frying the microbes in the soil. The idea is to fill the paths back in with manure so that it can age; then, come Summer, we can simply dig up the manure from the paths and repeat the process.

Note in some of the pictures the water in the trenches around the beds. We dug deep in order to create these mini-moats. Now, when it rains, the water is ‘stored’ instead of running out of the garden area. This is an easy method of storing energy in the garden: the water seeps into the raised beds at a low level and moisture is maintained for far longer after rains than if the trenches were not there. The trenches can be filled with lightly-packed manure and mulched along with the bed to further maximise the amount of time the moisture will stick around.

How’s this for a sweet potato…?

…and an impressive root crop too 😉


Some photographs of the two gardens, one started from scratch in March/April, the other from scratch in July. They have now merged into one big main garden, in which the the following have been planted:

Carrots, spinach, chard, brussel sprouts, garlic, kale, tomatoes, peppers, chilli-peppers, peppadews, bush beans (2 types), pole beans (4 types), potatoes (2 types), squashes, pumpkins, brinjal, onions, leeks, raddish, lettuce, rocket, corn, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, jelly melon, lodas of herbs.

Note the 2 final photos, which show how it all started in this garden area. The ground really was a solid, barren flat lacking fertility. The popular, insane method of farming that dominates globally is to plough the soil and chemical add fertilisers. We have not done this (in fact we speak openly of the dangers of such petro-chem methods) and we are seeing beautiful growth in the garden.

The beds are all layered as follow: fresh manure, dried grass or straw, aged manure, dried grass/straw, aged manure, dried grass/straw, compost. The bed building/layering process is quite labour intensive but, once made, the beds will only ever need compost top-ups. We allowed the beds approximately two months to settle before planting in them.

The dripper system should be evident in one of the pictures. This is a water-mains system; we are lucky enough to have a mains outlet, which we have had to use for irrigation because it’s difficult to spend over two hours watering daily at times. Such a large amount of watering is required only during the hot and dry summer months though. Soon an attempt will be made to integrate a gravity-water system into the mix, which means that our rain water catchment will supplement the watering, and eventually be the sole watering source when we have enough rain water tanks.

The start of (another) veggie garden





Much time has been spent pushing a wheelbarrow around to do what is shown in the photos: make a new veggie patch consisting of raised beds. Hopefully the photos speak for themselves regarding the process of layering materials to make the beds. The reasons for such effort to raise the beds are: 1) it floods in winter, so height saves things; 2) the multiple layers of manure, straw, soil and compost allow for long-term release of nutrients for the veggies.

With regards to point 2 above, yes, there is initially a negative impact as there is competition between the breakdown of manure and straw in the bottom layers, and the uptake of nutrients by plants. This means that some veg will do better than others – squash seem to do excellently in such conditions, while some more fragile crops don’t (these haven’t really been encountered yet, but that’s what the theory says anyway). Consider though that this veggie patch will get better and better with time as the bottom layers of the raise bed decompose into a fertile growing medium.

In fact, that’s how this process is looked at: bottom layers form a less-than-ideal growing medium for deep roots of veg; the upper compost layers (still to be added, come to think of it) provide the better conditions needed – at least by seedling – to get a good start to vegetable maturity.

Updates will be offered as the new garden takes shape.

Bettie’s veggie patch



Bettie is the brave soul who took us on for our first proper paid job, which was to start her veggie patch for her using permaculture methods as far as possible. We went for the client interview at the end of November, and got to work a few days into December.

Trees were trimmed, and the patch was cleared of rocks and accumulated waste material. We brought in a bakkie-load of manure, mixed it in to the original soil, and covered that with a nice layer of good compost. Some shade-cloth was put up on one side of the patch in order to minimise the wind that blows up from the valley behind the house.

A watering dripper-system was rigged up (the biggest cost), though it must be said here that the rate at which the 5000 litre water-tank empties, rendering the watering system obsolete, makes one wonder if the expense of the pump is justified. If it rained consistently, providing a frequently full tank, then the answer would be yes. But with SA’s dry climate, reliance on mains is inevitable, as has been the case in Bettie’s garden. If one were in the UK, however…

A variety of veggies are planted in the garden and all seem to be doing very well. I wondered if the garden would get enough light, considering that it is in between fairly high walls, but this has not been a problem. Wind was also a concern, but it too has not been a problem. The only real issue so far encountered has been furry white aphids, which are being dealt with by… you guessed it, picking them one at a time, squishing them, and wiping the leaves of the plants clean with water.

The first few pictures were taken in the first week of our work there – around about 6 December. The final 2 pictures were taken on January 22nd. This should provide some indication of how quickly things grow here at the height of the summer season.

A note on deviation from permaculture methods: it is preferable not to dig wherever and whenever possible. Ideally, one would simply add layers of organic material and compost to the ground and plant in that, thereby not disturbing the organisms in the original layer of soil. However, sometimes this is not possible if one wants a job done fairly quickly. In situations other than this one, we have gone with both methods – digging and no digging – and we have had good success with both methods. This is not to endorse digging, but rather to remind us that it has its place.

Besides, when we went for the ‘client interview’, the patch had already been dug and tilled, so we didn’t have much of a choice. Had it not been dug up, we would probably have layered cardboard over the ground in the desired shape of the beds, put aged-manure on top of the cardboard, and added a layer of good organic compost.

However, it seems that the area designated for the garden patch had scattered ‘debris’ from previous use for a vegetable patch; the presence of rocks and some litter would probably have forced a thorough digging-over anyway.

Seeing the results, one has to wonder just how much it matters – i.e. to dig or not to dig. By adding the layer of manure, and then the layer of compost, one gradually adds much more fertility to the soil over time than one takes away by digging. If one avoids digging, however, the micro-organisms present in the soil give plants an immediate advantage; these micro-organisms are damaged when the soil is dug up. So ideally, don’t dig; just add. Dig when necessary, but realise that the soil will initially be depleted of micro-organisms, which will return over time.

Finally, what is definitely missing from the final two pictures is a layer of mulch to seal in the moisture, preventing drying out from the direct sunlight. That’s the next step!

The nursery – aka rubber ring of manure!

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The kraal originally housed our tents, but when these came down with the advent of ‘the shack’, we had two areas of cement slabs (previously used as the raised platforms for the tents) that were clearly not the best use of space.  One area became the keyhole bed shown in the previous post.  The other became a nursery.

We had received a delivery of tyres for a windbreak wall in the further-removed mandala area.  There were plenty of tyres left over, and they became the semi-circular lower walls for the nursery.  These were filled with manure in the hope that eventually we could plant different veges therein, making a living wall – a good use of space and an attempt to detract from the harshness of the tyres aesthetically.

The tyres were laid one row at a time.  One layer goes on, and manure is added so that it fills the bulbous part of the tyre too – kind of like filling rammed-earth tyres, but easier.  The next layer of tyres goes on, and the attempt is made to make sure that where manure is falling through gaps, enough compaction occurs to hold the manure in place.  Straw at the bottom of these areas acts as a nice net to keep the manure in place.

A word of warning – we had to use fresh horse manure to fill the tyres, and where there’s horse poo, there are flies… many many fellonous flies, enough to drive one absolutely insane.  This lasted for about two weeks – in hindsight it was was worth it but at the time it was rather challenging to wade through swirling swarms.  If aged manure is available and easy to get into the tyres, use it!  We also found later that covering the exposed parts of the manure-tyres with a layer of compost helped hide the flies’ bounty – should have done this right at the beginning.

The freakin flies did act as something of a blessing in disguise.  They forced us to for some kind of barrier to keep them out the shack.  The answer was hand-me-down net curtaining, (thanks gran!) which was staple-gunned in place; the before-and-after view of this can be seen in the first picture compared to the panoramic shot.  Having done this, pretty much all but one or two flies get into our palace per day, compared to dozens prior to even the manure-tyres being introduced.  Now the windows can be open for a through-draft, considerably cooling the place, and no flies get in to bug us.

We later added a few gum-poles, sourced from the overgrown plots around us.  These poles were pushed through the tyres where possible and dug into the ground.  Cable-ties and rope have been used to secure the cross-poles, over which the shade cloth is positioned; cable-ties are then used to secure the shadecloth in place.  A short irrigation spray-system is connected to the poles.

We were pleased to see that whatever we planted into the top layer of compost grew immediately without any signs of being affected by the nitrogen-rich manure.  Admittedly, we have not planted a huge variety of veges or herbs in the tyres – mostly squash plants.  The squashes definitely prefer it, and their long leafy vines do a good job of hiding the tyres.

Keyhole garden bed

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When we first set up, it was raining… well… harder and for longer than it has in Port Elizabeth for twenty years, an ironic welcoming to South Africa having lived in United Kingdom.  So we had to elevate our tents to prevent them from being constantly flooded – see appropriate pics.

After we had built a shack/hut/wend-house/shed/dwelling/cabin/home… after we had built a structure in which to live, the reclaimed rectangular slabs of cement (used for ‘slot-together’ walls in SA) stayed in place for a while, acting as a flat surface area on which to work.  We eventually had to decide on what was more useful – the working area, or another garden bed.  Considering that at that stage we had the humble abode and an outdoor kitchen (more on this later), we opted for a garden.  Specifically, a garden space in the form of a keyhole bed.

A keyhole bed is handy – it allows you to be able to access all parts of the bed, partly from the ‘outside’ of the bed, and partly from the inside, i.e. from the keyhole.  And it looks pretty cool too!  Ours is planted with carrots, tomatoes, strawberry corn, peppers, chives, cauliflower, beetroot, spinach, purple basil, and thyme.  Eggplant has also been added.

The method of bed preparation was: 1) remove reclaimed cement slabs! 2) Dig swale-holes in order to catch and retain as much water as possible under the bed. 3) Fill swale-holes with wood chip (any carbon matter will do). 4) Add alternating layers of soil and manure. 5) top with compost.

The final picture shows the keyhole bed a month after it was made; it has been planted with seeds for less than a month.  It has just been mulched with dried grass cuttings, which helps retain moisture in the increasingly hot South African summer days.

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