My bookcase groans with the weight of green literature. Permaculture for idiots, double digging for novices, you get the picture. You see I am passionate about gardens, food and the planet. My garden should, in theory, be prolific with delicious organic food.
Despite my cerebral imbibing of all knowledge organic, I have never been able to translate that knowledge into a food producing garden. Apart from some herbs and sometimes lettuce I have never found much favour with food gardens.
I decided to investigate my ‘roots’ to understand my relationship with my garden. The uncomfortable question was whether I had evolved in any way or whether I had forgotten some essential principles of food gardening from my forebears. I come from a family of gardeners. My dad had a forest of curry leaves outside our kitchen window. Visitors never left our house without their supply of these famously pungent leaves.
Earth mother grew a food forest
In winter we enjoyed naartjies, lemon, guava and bananas, and in summer there were sweet mangoes and peaches. We were never short of coriander, red and green Indian herbs and chillies. My dad’s garden was impressive even though he did not pursue food gardening with quite the same zeal his mother had.
My grandmother was an earth mother. I have this whimsical notion of her standing in a desert which transforms into green fecundity – vines and trees erupting out of the earth around her. My Ava as I called her, didn’t just have a green finger, her entire being radiated fertility. Her Asherville home had what people now call food forests in the backyard. Every available space sprouted green. Double beans and peas crept up fences, the drumstick tree (Moringa Oleifera)* bent heavily with its slender fruit and there was a surplus of holy basil, sorrel, fenugreek and okra.
I don’t remember Ava ever using nasty pesticides. She poured the dish water into the vegetable garden and when the curry leaves looked a little diseased she splashed them with a turmeric solution. Turmeric is an anti-oxidant, used in cooking, first aid and as a cosmetic. Vegetable and fruit peels were buried in the soil to decompose.
Drum stick tree provided great nutrition
I was more than a little impressed – but not surprised – at the nutritional value of the vegetables we grew and ate. A local environmentalist, Richard Pocock, is full of praise for the Moringa oleifera (the drumstick tree). At Ava’s house drumsticks made their way from the tree to a fabulous dhall curry crammed with goodness. The juices of the drumstick were always sucked out with great gusto. Ava braised the leaves with sautéd onion, garlic and chillie.
She was actually providing her family with the best nutrition possible. According to Richard, the Moringa is a wonder plant that may well be the answer to food security in Africa. The leaves have a very high protein and calcium content; great news for vegetarians like myself. The plant is also rich in Vitamins A, C and potassium. Being a drought resistant plant with nitrogen fixing properties, its virtues seem endless.
Another favourite in the Naidoo household was methi (fenugreek). Incredibly easy to propagate, an enriching mulch, and a very versatile ingredient, fenugreek is rich in Iron and thiamin and has been found to reduce blood sugar levels. We enjoyed methi in potato curry, scrambled eggs and in a savoury lagan (cake).
Although many of the vegetables we ate growing up were indigenous to Africa, most were brought over from India. Seed saving and sharing ensured their continued propagation. These vegetables, once only found in markets such as the famous Bangladesh Market in Chatsworth and Victoria Street Market have now made their way onto the shelves of selected Fruit and Veg Cities.
Bangladesh Market traders were once supplied by informal farmers from Demat, an area adjacent to Chatsworth, which meant that people buying from Bangladesh were getting produce which was literally grown on their doorstep. Anand Pillay, who has researched the farming community in Demat, says that farming methods were more in line with the principles of permaculture and that knowledge of pesticides did not exist. In recent years this farmland has been sold to the municipality for housing. The traders have to now source their produce from commercial farmers further afield.
The lifestyle of the South African Indian community has changed. With wealth, opportunity and the convenience of packaged foods, the need for food gardens has diminished. Most Indian homes still have the ubiquitous curry leaf tree and perhaps a paw paw tree but, sadly, food forests seem to be a thing of the past.
Last night I dreamt my grandmother hugged me generously. Her presence assured me of abundance and seemed to suggest that I go out and DO. So today I combine this ancient wisdom with my precious literature and take action. I invoke the spirit of my Ava and other ancestors and scatter my seeds of promise.
By Pralini Naidoo