Monday, 14 July 2014

The Problem is the Solution

Gardening is for old people.

That sounds like an absurd over-simplification, and besides, why should you care? What difference does it make if young people aren't interested in gardens and nature? We live in a hi-tech world, where all the worlds problems will be solved by computers, and where science will be our saviour.

A group of young people preparing a food garden at Summerhill Children's Home in Salt Rock
That's an attractive thought for today's youth, that live in an instant world with its resulting short-term thinking.

So how does digging in the dirt, or mixing manure compete in this internet age, and why should it?

In South Africa, the latest statistics show that 1 in every 4 people are unemployed.
Education stats are even scarier. Out of 100 children that start school, only 28 will pass matric, 4 will enter university and only 1 out of those 4 will graduate.
Of the staff that I have employed over the last 2 decades, I have noticed an alarming trend over the last 5 years, that school leavers seem to have completely unrealistic expectations. The common perception seems to be that it will be fairly easy to find a job, that job will be well paying, with very little effort or commitment involved. The difference between dreams and reality in South Africa are quite stark.

In the words of the wise Gogo "Qho" Mthethwa - young people don't want work they want jobs. As a country, we seem to be content to foster an attitude of dependence rather than an entrepreneurial mindset.

Realistically speaking, looking to technology to solve our problems, may well be fine in the long term, but we need solutions now. We need to feed people now. Science and technology alone can't give us that. So what can?

If you plant a food garden from seed, you can begin eating the food from your garden within a matter of weeks.
Growing food or plants doesn't need a huge injection of cash. Seeds can very often be harvested from existing crops, providing the next seasons crops for free.
Gardeners are almost to a fault, overly generous in offering their time, information or even seed/plants when they see enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
There are several amazing initiatives around the country with the sole aim of passing on the skills to grow food gardens in our particular climate.

I agree with guerilla gardener Ron Finley that as with many problems in life, the solution is inside the challenge.

With our ridiculously high unemployment rates, we have 1 out of every 4 people who have the capacity to tend a garden, which could if properly managed, feed themselves and even provide an income as they feed their community. As solutions go, its not sexy, and it may not have the mirage-like appeal that science and technology offers, but it is immediately attainable and realistic.

So how can YOU go about doing this? Here's some inspiration:

Ifu Lobuntu is an inspiring South African idea that is looking at ways to harness technology to connect small scale food growers directly with customers. By using simple cloud-based apps and economies of scale, they hope to make it possible for subsistence farmers to sell directly to the public. The idea is still in its formation stage, but hopefully it will grow into its full potential.

Ron Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central LA — in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. Why? For fun, for defiance, for beauty and to offer some alternative to fast food in a community where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys." Check out his Ted-Talk.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Plant Pretty Practical

When I was studying landscaping a couple of decades ago, I spent hours in the library, poring over gardening books, and paging through landscape architecture and gardening magazines, admiring the beautiful, mainly US or UK gardens.  I couldn't wait for my chance to create similarly breathtaking gardens.
Aloe cooperi in the morning light. An easy to grow, low maintenance, beautiful plant.
My first attempts at landscaping, (that were fortunately in my mothers garden) failed dismally. The plants that I had used, either died or grew so big that we lost pets inside them. This left me wondering whether I had made the wrong choice in vocation, and I'm sure must have caused my mother to wonder whether she had just wasted a couple of years of tuition on me.

But slowly it dawned on me that the old garden maxim "right plant, right place" were words to live by. Just because something looks amazing elsewhere doesn't necessarily mean that it will suit the situation that I'm working with.

I also began to realise the deception that is inherent in almost all gardening books and magazines. It is the job of publications to sell magazines and books. The best way to do this, is to showcase beautiful gardens in all their splendour. Nobody wants to buy a magazine that shows dry, colourless gardens or gardens that have been pruned back to make way for new growth. These gardens are photographed during the 3-4 week period in an entire year, that they are at their best. In many cases, the planting that you see is entirely temporary, as annuals are planted in their abundance.  Page through any gardening magazine, and you will see the majority of the plants on display are pretty, yet short-lived annuals.  This creates an unrealistic expectation on the part of the casual observer, which when it comes time to garden leaves them frustrated or disappointed.

The garden industry through television and magazines, whilst creating a sense of excitement about the potential for beauty in your back yard, has also created a rod for its own back. I can't tell you how many people I've known through the years, that are keen to get stuck into the garden, but give up after the reality sinks in.

So before you get started with your garden, figure out whether your expectations have been over inflated, by looking around you at the best gardens in your neighbourhood. Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Do they consistently look that way?
  2. What plants have they used?
  3. What kind of soil have they got? Is it the same as mine?
  4. Do they regularly compost and water?
  5. Have they got an irrigation system in place?
  6. What are my realistic time commitments and abilities?
Finally, do some research before you buy your plants from the nursery. Have a plan in mind, and plant for the long term. Go with a list of plants that grow well in your area, don't get suckered in by the pretty things that are flowering at the entrance to the nursery because almost by the time you get home, the flowers will be gone.

Remember, beauty is fleeting so don't just plant pretty. Be pretty practical too.
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