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Growing Solutions for City Food Gardens

By Melissa Baird

Urban food farming is improving biodiversity corridors in industrialised cities across the world, while also providing abundant seasonal herbs, vegetables and flowers that have no hidden chemicals, a low carbon footprint, and zero packaging waste. 

Industrial agriculture is a major cause of deforestation and the reliance on chemical insecticides and pesticides in mono-cropping is producing food that has less nutritional value, high carbon, water and biodiversity impacts; is laden with chemicals and often travels long distances (out of season) to be packaged in plastic and sold at a supermarket. 

City living should not prevent the ability to grow your own produce and food gardens in concrete jungles are proving to be highly-productive – providing more than enough produce to service staff canteens, inner-city restaurants, feeding schemes and school kitchens. They are also powerful antidotes to the high-stress lifestyle and contribute to increased wellbeing for the people who encounter them while bringing vital pockets of biodiversity (such as birds and insects) back into cities. 

Ben Getz of Urban Harvest, a food garden consultancy and management service that has installed over 360 food gardens for corporate and at-home clients since its inception fourteen years ago, has the first-hand experience of their success. One of the earliest projects he worked on, alongside fellow consultant Caroline Jane Coates, is the food garden set up in 2010 that services the restaurant at the Double Tree by Hilton Upper East Side Hotel, Cape Town. 

The intention was to give the head chef Simon Kemp access to the freshest produce possible. A decade ago, it was starting to become fashionable for chefs to have their own gardens, but Coates pondered how to do this as the hotel is part of a mixed development precinct that does not have its own outside garden. Once identifying the dead space of two unused balconies, they began the garden using just six wooden boxes growing herbs. Today they have over 40 boxes that grow vegetables, a lemon tree, edible flowers, lettuce and herbs.

Design to succeed

When setting up a food garden, Getz recommends that it is imperative to consider required produce and who it will be used by, for example: to service large canteens, restaurants, community projects, or simply for personal use. It is also necessary to assess maintenance requirements and who will be doing that maintenance as there is no such thing as a zero-maintenance food garden.  

All gardens are unique and context-specific. They can range from one pot on a balcony to a 1m x 2m raised outside bed, so costs are variable. Getz suggests to factor in costs of between R500 to R1000 per square metre all-inclusive. Extra fencing and security would be additional considerations.

The more food a city dweller can either grow a garden themselves or have direct access to one via progressive company investment ensures a level of food security and positive impact on urban living that no industrial farm and supermarket can compete with. Urban food systems benefit the whole value chain and offer a great respite from the chair-based culture of corporate work. The reward of growing one’s own food is immeasurable and from a taste and nutrition perspective, there is no better option.

Urban Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic systems make it possible to grow to produce without soil. Aaron Cullis of Urban Organics has years of success proving that you can grow an entire plant using just water and micronutrients. According to Cullis, this method of farming has been in existence for thousands of years and the practice was modernised in the 19th century to evolve to what it is today: an urban growing solution.

DIY hydroponic systems have evolved through years of research and trial and error. Price ranges vary from as little as R250 and reach around R15 000 depending on the specifications and budget. The technology works with a method of hydroculture called Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), which is simply a nutrient solution running over roots with an air pump to provide necessary oxygen. To offer security against load shedding, the Urban Organics system has in place the Kratky Method that enables a plant to be kept nutriated and oxygenated for up to eight hours without water flowing. 

Cullis recommends understanding the water source available first, before choosing which plants to grow. The use of municipal, rain, borehole and even grey water are all options, and suitable crops include a large variety of herbs, salad greens, fruit-bearing crops, select root vegetables, succulents and even most flowers. 

Maintenance on a household system requires approximately 5-10 minutes per day, says Cullis, depending on the size of the structure. This includes adding nutrients (once per week) and regularly checking water tank levels level, acidity, temperature and nutrient content. These maintenance procedures can also be done digitally assistance although this adds to the set-up costs. 

Hydroponic methods are the easiest to begin growing but if you’re up for a challenge then aquaponics is the next step. Aquaponics is a closed system that works with fish and plants so there are reliable sources of fish protein as part of the output. A system of this nature is more complex to set up.

If you’re new to all methods and are looking for the cheapest one to start with, then consider starting with passive growing as this won’t require any mechanical parts but simply nutrient solution and a container or tank.

The pros and cons of hydroponic growing

Water-wise: uses 90-95% less water - 

Compact growing offers high output even in regions with degraded soil

Higher yields mean quicker harvesting times

Pesticides are not necessary but note that the system’s water could be prone to disease and if this is the case it could spread throughout and affect all crops.

Case study: Rehabilitated wetland at Hotel Verde, Cape Town

Lauded as the greenest hotel in Africa, Hotel Verde Cape Town’s outside garden, hanging gardens and eco pool are a star attraction. What was once a degraded wetland in an industrial area has been transformed into an indigenous masterpiece with productive beds to service the restaurant and the production of products.

Under the direction of Alex Duff, James Fisk of Pink Geranium Nursery near Klein Joostenberg, created the framework for the garden. Duff manages the consumer output of the garden and the products created under the Talborne Organics label and trains and manages the garden staff.

“There has been a direct increase in wellbeing, as a result of being in contact with the garden and both guests and staff admire the paradise created in the industry around us.”

The 700m² garden and 500m² wetland bring nature to this industrial part of town near Cape Town International Airport. The outside pathways and gym are surrounded by indigenous perennials, shrubs, succulents and fynbos ericas. The soil is very sandy, so it requires constant mulching and composting. 

The garden has a two-fold purpose: beauty and food production. The produce that includes plant spring onions, greens for garnish, microgreens and edible flowers (pansies and violets) offer in-season plate surprises and the gardens indigenous flowers and shrubs provide a much-needed pocket of biodiversity in a highly industrialised area.

Case Study: The Octopus Garden at the V&A Waterfront

Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront recently established a 260m² urban food garden outside its offices in Dock Road. The beneficiaries of the R70 000 garden are two inner-city NGOs: Ladles of Love and The Homestead.  It is designed in the shape of an octopus with each tentacle creating a pathway, some of which are raised by using eco-bricks. The eco-bricks used in building the paths have just under half a tonne of plastic waste in them, and a recyclable wall technology was invented in conjunction with a ‘Maker Station’ so that, should the garden need to relocate at any point in the future, then all the materials can be reused.

To maximise the yield from the planting area, a series of companion planting zones have been configured. In each of the eight zones, there is a predominant vegetable along with other companion plants and vegetables that support the optimum growing habits of the primary vegetable, as well as deterring likely pests. Since the garden was established, 2.5 tonnes of fresh produce has been harvested and given to the beneficiaries.

Setting up your own 1m x 2m garden – raised bed solution

It is very easy to set up a raised bed that will produce enough vegetables for a family of four continuously. Once you have chosen a well-ventilated and sunny area and identified what plants you would like to grow, you match the companion plant that will reduce pests and diseases in the garden.  

Unused garage items like tyres, old crates and empty pots can also be used effectively if filled with good quality organic soil you can plant seedlings in.

Consider how to harvest rainwater, either via gutters or by installing a rain tank to suit the needs of the garden and if viable direct all bathroom greywater (showers and basins) to the garden but make sure you use environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

There are many video tutorials you can watch and many gardeners available to share their wisdom and tips.

What you need: 

All items are available from a nursery

  • Newspapers to cover an area of 2m²
  • 1 large bail of Lucerne
  • 1 wheelbarrow of compost
  • 2 x 25l bags of manure (chicken/cow combination)
  • 2 handfuls of rock dust
  • 1 small handful of agricultural lime or dolomite
  • 1 bail of straw or sugar cane mulch
  • seedlings of your choice
  • seaweed solution – to feed the soil

Method

Set up the raised bed’s framework using wood or other materials, then layer the paper directly onto the area, this creates a non-toxic way to kill any weeds present and provides a fresh foundation on which to layer the soil and manure and then plant the seedlings to finally cover with mulch. Add water and watch in wonder as your very own urban farm starts to grow.

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