Words and pictures by Tammy O’Reilly
As resident permaculturist of the Siyakhana Garden on the outskirts of the inner city in Johannesburg, Mandla Tshabalala literally eats, breathes and sleeps the place.
So passionate and confident is he in his management of the garden that he lives permanently in a small tent that serves as a kitchen, laboratory and study – and his daily food and drink all come from the plants and herbs that flourish on this hectare of land.
“I am all about the simple way of living that makes human life a blessing and the environment liveable,” he says. “People may not understand this lifestyle, but it’s my job to make others aware that this is the way to go if we want to lead long healthy lives that work in harmony with our environment.”
The Siyakhana Food Garden is the result of dynamic partnerships between the University of the Witwatersrand, City Parks, which is responsible for greening Johannesburg, and interested members of Bezuidenhout Valley and surrounding communities. Situated within a park on a piece of land that was once used as a dumping site, the garden has flourished into one that many people have come to depend on.
An objective of the project is to provide people from all walks of life with a practical example of the nutritional, environmental and financial benefits of creating one’s own garden using what is available, but the primary aim is to supply fresh produce for those who need it most.
It began in 2005 with the intention of supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to non-profit organisations in the nearby inner city and has become so successful that the managers are looking at commercial possibilities.
“We currently supply fruit and vegetables on a weekly basis to nine organisations that deal with early childhood development and people living with HIV/Aids. They each help out about 45 people and they have so many challenges that we want to help out where we can,” says Tshabalala.
A variety of fruit and vegetables grow here, among them pumpkins, butternut, potatoes, tomatoes, maize, plums and watermelons. The abundance of herbs growing in the inner ring of the garden are often used to treat ailments such as diarrhoea, fractured bones, and work as energy boosters and refrigerants for the workers who have to bear the hot African sun.
“We have a permaculture approach to this garden, and that means we get all our inspiration from nature,” says Tshabalala.
“Everything you see here is good for the environment and all our solutions are sustainable and non-polluting. We make use of whatever the land gives us and absolutely nothing goes to waste. For example, we don’t even use any fertiliser; instead we employ simple tactics like biodegradable cardboard to feed the soil and keep it warm.”
The garden is managed in a manner that ensures the land yields vegetables all year round. Careful attention is paid to irrigation, the flow and collection of rain water and management of the soil.
To keep the garden independent on donations, pips and seeds from the vegetables supplied to the beneficiaries are collected weekly, a seed bank is kept and vegetative propagation is done regularly.
“I don’t think people realise how many things need to be done daily to ensure the garden gives us what we need. There’s weeding to be done, soil management to prevent erosion and to maintain the quality of the soil – harvesting and daily checking on the progress of the vegetables and herbs,” he says.
“Gardens don’t succeed because of different dynamics,” says Tshabalala. “I think our secret to success has got to do with the advice and dialogue between participants and because we are a dedicated team who are not afraid to use simple inexpensive means to get the best out of this garden while being good to the environment.”