Growing food in a botanic garden

Martin Clement describes adventures with permaculture at the Durban Botanic Gardens. The  Permaculture Training Garden project isn’t the Durban Botanic Gardens’ first connection with food production. Agricultural crops or ‘economics’, were an important focus during the late 19th Century when the Gardens conducted trials of sugar cane for the fledgling sugar industry in KwaZulu-Natal.

The 2008 project has an entirely different focus, in line with the worldwide movement towards growing ones own food organically. Why?  Large scale agriculture with its monoculture crop production has brought devastating environmental problems: the harmful effects of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the threat to food diversity and the rising costs of food. When people give up growing their own food and saving the seed, their unique local ‘food cultures’ and their food security are put at risk.


1 What is Permaculture?
2 Food and Flower Garden in One
3 No Chemical Pesticides
4 Animals are Part of the Process
5 No Digging Needed
6 Eating ‘Local’
7 Using Green Technologies
8 Food Preparation and Cooking – Completing the Cycle
9 Try this Organic Soil Conditioner

What is Permaculture?

Permaculture or ‘permanent agriculture’ as developed by Bill Mollison, is an organic approach that seeks to counter the ways of ‘agribusiness’. It emphasises co-operating with nature, caring for the earth, and caring for people. People are part of biodiversity: many of the local knowledge systems and food cultures we’ve evolved over hundreds of years tend to sustain it.

We can draw on these practices as we develop local solutions for our local food and environmental problems.  In practice, permaculture is permanent high yield agriculture using minimal land to raise sufficient food. It seeks also to allow the remaining land to exist as wilderness; to rehabilitate degraded land; and to preserve biodiversity, both in wild and in cultivated settings. (To find out more about permaculture: read Introduction to Permaculture (revised edition), Bill Mollison, Tagari publications, 1997.)How do these ideas and practices play out in a garden like the Training Garden? Well, here are some ways in which we are challenging accepted ‘expert’ gardening practice as we develop this garden project:

Food and Flower Garden in One

The old-style vegetable garden was often out of sight in a corner of the back yard, filled with regimented rows of carrots, beetroot and spinach. Permaculture turns this view on its head. Our permaculture garden will be a more seamless and tantalising arrangement of vegetables, flowers and herbs: an attractive edible garden. Good companion planting between certain herbs and flowers helps to control pest and disease problems.

No Chemical Pesticides
Chemical control is no longer necessary. A garlic or chili spray is used for insect pests or a baking soda solution is prepared to treat powdery mildew. These are non-toxic ingredients obtainable from the local supermarket.
Animals are Part of the Process

In the permaculture garden, chickens, compost and earthworms are important for supporting plant growth. (Try a Google search on ‘chicken tractor design’ and find options for keeping some chooks even in the suburbs!)

No Digging Needed

You can start a permaculture garden the no dig way and save energy. We’ve used sheet mulching: layers of cardboard or damp newspaper are laid on the ground with garden waste added on top. This soon transforms a weedy, hard baked patch of earth into a moist, weed-free, friable medium teeming with life.No Chemical Fertilisers Nutrition for growing plants comes not only from the mulch/ compost described above: a liquid feed rich in phosphate can also be produced from the liquid that drains out of an earthworm bin or comfrey left to soak in a drum of water.

Eating ‘Local’

We live on a very limited staple diet; yet our rich heritage of indigenous and traditional food plants is often mistakenly perceived as ‘poor people’s food’. A good example is imifino, a perennial herb rich in potassium and certainly more nutritious than cabbage. Let’s become locivores – not just eating healthy organic food but eating food from neighbourhood gardens rather than from a supply chain that requires large fuel costs to get it onto our tables.

Using Green Technologies

Local green energy designer, Richard Pocock, is helping us with a range of green technologies from rain water harvesting to solar powered pumps.  For composting we are hooking into the Gardens waste stream that provides everything from leaves to shredded office paper. The aim is a productive organic garden that anyone can set up at minimal cost. For example: recycled tetra packs (the rectangular foil and cardboard litre juice containers) make great seedling containers. Mark Gillmer in Parks is trialling a range of organic pesticides and fungicides that we plan to demonstrate.

Food Preparation and Cooking – Completing the Cycle

Why grow healthy organic food, then boil all the goodness away in salted water? Perhaps a signature dish from our garden by a local chef might help to win some ‘slow food’ followers. At any rate, we plan to sit down and enjoy the fruit and veggies of our labour, with the earthworms ultimately feasting on the scraps and leftovers.

Try this Organic Soil Conditioner

Another soil conditioner that Gabriel Mngoma, our training garden coordinator has demonstrated is the Effective Microorganism (EM) stock solution. Here’s how to make it: early in the morning collect half a bucket of mixed chopped garden herbs (comfrey, lavender, basil, wormwood etc.) To this simply add 2 kg of brown sugar and leave to stand in a dark warm place for a month. You can dilute the gooey honey-like result with water and spray it onto garden mulch. This will speed up the decomposition process and thus enhance soil life. To find out more about the new and developing Permaculture Training Garden at the Durban Botanic Gardens, contact Gabriel Mngoma 083 619 0892 or Martin Clement, Education Officer, Durban Botanic Gardens. Email

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