Backyard subsistence & growing green thumbs

Nothing makes me quite as excited as something that fuels my motivation to engage in activities that make my existence and everything in it feel lighter and happier. For those who don’t know me personally, I am a sensitive being. I feel things deeply, but don’t often show it. And when the things happening around me make me feel uncomfortable, or upset, or at a loss, I feel a burning need to just sleep all day, or escape the city for a while. Being in nature, marvelling at it, understanding its complexity – these are some of the things that revive me. Again and again, I have to acknowledge the position I’m in (even more so these days). I am in a position of such incredible privilege – not because I never go hungry, or because I am well-funded, or because I have a home and a relatively normal family-life and a fluffy dog, but because of what I’ve learnt during my studies, and because (thanks to the former) I am able to appreciate things to an extent where simple things are so much more enriching and healing.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate it. In 2013, I did a course for my degree called ‘Life on Land: Plants’ (BIO2012S). I mentioned before that I was initially dead set on studying zoology, but I have never appreciated and enjoyed a course more than I did BIO2012S. After completing that course, I went through a phase of feeling the urge to classify and analyse every plant I encountered. I saw floral diagrams everywhere I looked. Many people I’ve spoken to are of the opinion that I’m worse off for knowing these details about plants. They think it’s sad that I can’t look at a flower and just see a beautiful flower. But the amount of beauty I see in things now, because I know more about them, is deeper than what I saw in them before. Even weeds are beautiful to me now. Even the most nondescript karoobossie is beautiful to me. How many people feel the same way?

More to the point of this post, I also had a rather delayed epiphany about my food… It happened while I was cutting a red pepper to add to my stir-fried rice. I saw its seeds, and I acknowledged all of the energy that went into making them. All of that reproductive effort, from producing flowers to actually forming the fruiting body that we so readily consume, and some people just throw those unwanted seeds in the garbage. I was beginning to realise that vegetables were plants like any other plant, and had the same level of complexity as any other plant. I began to appreciate my food on a deeper level than just being thankful that I had food on my table. I was thankful to the plant itself, and all of the role-players in the processes that made it possible for me to have red pepper in my stir-fried rice. Did you know that capsicum plants are self-pollinated?



Since then, I’ve been enlightened and inspired by so many people – notably during my 7-week-long (too short!) internship with an NGO called Greenpop. I joined Greenpop at the end of 2014 one week before the last exam of my undergraduate degree. The exam was for my third year Systematics and Macroevolution course – no biggie. It was only one of the toughest courses I’d done, but the exam was relatively painless and I floated through my first week at Greenpop without too much anxiety. When I really had time to get into it, I was properly introduced to my role. My internship was supervised by Matthew Koehorst, who was the head of sustainability at the time. Working with him, and a fellow intern from Stellenbosch University, I was tasked to summarise several new legislative documents on alien plant management, to create a concept note and supplementary information documents for a satellite planting project that was in progress, and to revise the planting guide that was sent to the schools where Greenpop did some of their urban greening outreach projects and workshops. The work in itself was enjoyable, but my working environment was also incredible. The office life at Greenpop HQ felt like working at home with all of my friends. There were so many beautiful quirks about that place. Monday morning was reserved for a catch-up meeting, asking how everyone’s weekend was. Every noon, when the noon gun went off, we’d “hit the deck” (literally drop the floor, regardless of what you were doing seconds before), and the last one down would have to make tea for whoever wanted any. Friday lunch was my favourite – a meal cooked in the office kitchen (which was quite kitted out) and eaten as a family at the table. Sometimes we’d be lucky and have freshly-harvested vegetables from the Greenpop nursery in Woodstock. There’s something about having a meal prepared from vegetables grown with love and goodwill, with a group of people who have become your work-family. Everybody deserves that kind of working environment.

So my mom and I have very recently been trying to grow some things in our humble backyard. While my mom has been tending to the garden for years, I have never really grown anything for myself before. And lately I’ve been thinking about how I wouldn’t be able to survive if the option of purchasing food (instead of growing your own) were to become unavailable. Besides, I should be a bit skaam about the fact that I, a budding botanist, had not yet attempted to grow a plant from seed. So a few months ago, I demonstrated a practical for the ‘Life on Land: Plants’ course. After the practical, I managed to hustle a few sunflower seedlings and a broad bean plant to grow for myself. Prior to this, I had been planning my first planting project, and had therefore been asking people keep aside the compostable coffee cups (used by the coffee vendors on UCT campus) if they bought any coffee during the week. I had quite a number of them by the time I wanted to start planting. So I planted my little sunflower babies in them and took good care of them.

After seeing how well my sunflowers were doing, I decided to try a few more. I planted nasturtium seeds directly into soil, I germinated a lazy housewife bean (which didn’t survive, alas), and I’m currently germinating some green pepper seeds, which I’ll have to plant very soon. My mom, seeing how excited I was to be gardening, also got into the spring spirit as always, so we planted some spring onions and garlic together, both of which are doing tremendously well. It really helps that they’re quick-growing, because there’s this instant gratification in seeing how much your plants have grown each day; it just makes you want to keep planting and keep trying new things.

Thinking about socio-economic issues like food security (or lack thereof), and how much packaging all of our vegetables and fruits come in these days, and being inspired by organisations like Greenpop (who make it look so darn easy) and considering movements like the Food Is Free movement, all I want to do is just grow my own. There have been so many times in my life when I’ve wished I had little photosynthetic endosymbionts beneath my skin, ready to produce carbs for me every time I sat in the sun (something I really love doing), but I guess growing my own food is the closest I’ll get. You won’t know how difficult or easy it is if you haven’t at least tried. Even though we’ve only just started and we haven’t had anything to harvest or pick yet, it feels so rewarding and so worth it. I have big ideas about combining urban gardening, sustainability, art, and capacity building, but I’ll elaborate on that another time. At the moment I should be focusing on my Masters research and seeing how I can incorporate what I learn from my degree into the small-scale social upliftment goals that I have. Still a long way to go…