Monday, March 30, 2015

Visiting Babylonstoren - motivation for the weary vegetable grower

Yesterday was a day that did this to me....M-O-T-I-V-A-T-I-O-N...with a capital....M

I have been wanting to visit Babylonstoren between Stellenbosch and Paarl for more than two years now but life has simply not allowed me to get there. Now that I have been once I feel I must return to spend a day there every few months and move slowly through each of the garden areas and watch the garden over the seasons. Whether this dream will be realised I cannot say, but there would be value in it.

I have also been needing to order bulk frozen and fresh berries from Hillcrest as my other supplier has dried up and have wanted to get more berry plants into our garden. So having the perfect excuse - a day out with my Superman and long standing friend who was visiting, we headed out at 8.30am to Helshoogte for the berry farm.

This was truly a whistle stop visit to hastily grab the 10kgs of frozen berries and 5 plants which were waiting for me. A quick look out on the patio at this incredible view and a brief glimpse at the menu was all we needed to decide that it would be good to return - but Superman says only on his new motorbike for a breakfast run...okey dokey - will take some time to prepare myself to go up Helshoogte on the back of a bike.

Babylonstoren does daily garden tours at 10am with the remarkable Gundula whose love and passion for gardening, plants, food, natural medicines and animals shines through all she says. A wealth of knowledge and expertise, she took us through the brief history of the farm, what their goals are and how they have structured the space.

Superman feeds the Tilapia - an excellent food source

African blooming water lily
The most remarkable thing is that in this little organic oasis every plant, flower, ground cover, tree, herb and vegetable has something to offer a hungry world for food and medicinal needs and to attract bees, birds and other pollinators to this garden in an farm area that is predominantly farmed using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The knowledge that they have they share freely and as we walked she reiterated that it is a eating tour - to help ourselves to a fruit here and there, to crush and sniff a leaf.

Everything is admirable - whether it is the 70 year old guava trees which were transplanted from a neighbouring farm and which are thriving in this paradise or the olive trees that are dripping with fruits. I am really not a guava fan but seeing them sitting there on the branches promising me something new I had to eat one....we all had to eat one.

Unspotted, unblemished promise of sweetness 

I ate it - and enjoyed it for the first time ever.

Each garden revealed more delights, more inspiration and more knowledge and ideas to me for how I can begin to make very part of my little patch of earth count towards growing food for my family and others...I can grow fruit trees along my green garden walls, I can add Elderflowers to my pavement instead of these horrid Brazilian Peppers we have care of the municipality. 

Their citrus fruits are ripening all over the farm, the naartjies warm and delicious from the hot sun that we found ourselves under. It was about now that 8 of the tour group left the remaining 6 of us perhaps sensing that we were simply going to ask too many questions through the tour and they were not interested in that depth of info. I think it was around about now that the "official" tour speech evaded Gundula and we were directed to the more intimate things of the garden.

While my tomatoes are over, they still have many growing almost as a wind break up this trellis

Quince trees are grown upright here but form an extensive hedge around some of the gardens. I remember my grandma making stuffed baked quince pudding served with custard and of course quince jelly.

It was soon hereafter that Superman started getting really excited as we hit the garden where all the peppers and chillies are grown. Being heirloom plants he was given enthusiastic permission to taste test the chillies and take seeds of ones he would like me to grow. My handbag was not prepared for this and by the end of the day this is what it looked like - and our hands held a few other treasures too.

One of the more impressive garden structures was this huge cage where they have grown all sorts of vine based plants - pumpkins, butternuts and calabash.

A few other highlights amongst the walkways were the cactus garden where they grow a variety of prickly pear that has very few prickles (although Superman didn't believe there were still some and got prickled!) Apparently they need a licence to grow these plants as the seed from them, which would be dropped by birds eating the fruit, will revert back to the prickly variety. There is a wild beauty about these plants that is hard to describe.

I was also intrigued by the number of different variety of Aubergines that they grow. They give over a whole garden to the different varieties. We have about 8 plants at home with their dark purple black fruits waiting to be picked. I think I am going to plan some of these for next season.

Another surprise was the Chamomile carpet planted right towards the end of the tour where we all had to have a sit down, a roll, a scuffle of the feet to enjoy the "calming" effect. Gundula says its a favourite spot for moms to bring unruly or tired kiddos to calm down :)

Heading on to the Greenhouse for lunch we walked through areas where the beds were lying in wait of the next plants, this was quite encouraging to me as I also have about 6 of my 12 beds lying empty waiting for the seedlings to come of age. 

I also love the garden structures and have made some notes of what I can do in our comparatively tiny space here at home.

Lunch at the Greenhouse was a treat, the gorgeous Lemon Verbena iced tea perfect for hot thirsty excited gardeners. There is always a waiting list so you do need to be patient. We luckily only had a 15 minute wait, others 40 minutes to an hour.

A gorgeous lunch with two of my most favourite people was a perfect ending to this day.

Take home value is actually what this day was all about. It's wonderful to stand and look at this vast food garden but I have to apply what I have learned to our small 900 square meter erf. Here are some of my thoughts so far:

-Under planting every tree or tall vegetable with a herb, indigenous medicinal plant or ground cover that attracts bees.
-Use up spaces and build the structures I need
-Don't be afraid to experiment
-Plant closer together
-Use my walls for fruit or as a food wall
-Plant vegetables that take a long time to yield in pots not in the beds
-Plant crops that turn over well into the beds
-Don't be afraid to use natural pesticides if all else has failed
-Get my bees
-Turn my pavement into a food garden too with fruit trees and medicinal plants.
-Mulch, mulch, mulch, mulch.

I do hope you have enjoyed this report, and that you get the chance to go out there sometime and enjoy the tour. Let me know when you are going - perhaps I will join you!?!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Growing rosemary from cuttings

When I had the open day a while back one of the things I spoke about was how to make more plants from what you already have. I mentioned seed saving - although I am not a big seed saver as I find it too fiddly for my time constraints. But one of the easiest ways to propagate new plants is by taking hard wood cuttings.

Being the kind of person I am I don't overthink it too much and follow exact instructions but apply the general principle of hardwood cuttings to gain more herbs like rosemary, lavender and sage. Below follows how to do it using Rosemary as an example.

This is mother rosemary. It is a huge plant that stands under my bathroom window and has been growing for about 7 years in this spot. In summer it has delicate purple-blue flowers that attract the bees. While we use rosemary in cooking a few times a week, and don't really need another plant, I have wanted to have a bank of rosemary buses at the pond garden for bees and beauty so have been making baby plants from this one.

Every time I use rosemary, I simply cut the length I need from the plant and strip off the lower leaves to use in my recipes. The remaining stalk gets added to a glass of water with others and stands on the kitchen windowsill. I refresh the water when needed - a couple times a week, generally.

After a few weeks these new roots begin to appear. I wait until the majority of the stem is covered with them before planting them into a smallish pot containing a rich compost potting soil mixture with some added coco-peat.

This baby rosemary bush was planted in November and has set itself nicely to the job of growing up. I will transplant it, and its siblings, in a few weeks around the pond.

As we often need sage for soap, cooking (it's superb with pork) and for the chicken liver pate that my daughter makes and sells, I have started propagating that delicious herb too. Lavender is also useful for attracting bees, making soap and for the sublime honey and lavender ice-cream I have made before. Lavender is also just for aroma therapy when walking through the garden.

Do you propagate herbs and plants from cuttings? Tell me about it! I love to learn from your comments.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Using what we have - a recipe

As I am looking forward to the next seasons crops, I am planning my meals around what is in my pantry and in the garden. This means that it eases up the grocery budget a bit as well and we are "forced" to eat some things that may be a little unusual in their combinations or not firm old favourites. I think it is quite fun to do this 3 or 4 times a year and for those of you, who like me, have chest freezers, its an opportunity to get them empty and cleaned.

In October last year I had the awesome privilege of taking a 5 day trip with my Superman to a long standing friend's farm. It was such a joy to see how she lives with her animals, garden and community. What she does epitomises what I think farm life should be like.

One of the most delicious meals she made for us was her leek tarts. The leeks she grew, the cream she got from her cow, the eggs from her chickens and the cheese from the milk. I have begged her for the recipe, but being busy with her life I haven't received it yet. But that's ok, she's my buddy and all's forgiven :)

Back on the home front my leeks need to be used and yesterday was the day to use some of them. Not having her recipe I came up with my own, but these were more like mini quiches than her creamy mouthwatering tarts.

Each one who munched these down gave them 10/10 so I thought I would she the recipe with you.

I milled 200g of organic spelt, mixed it with a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of olive oil and enough water to bind it.

I divided it into 12 balls and pushed them each into a muffin tin space after greasing it well. I have two oversized muffin tins, which have 6 to a pan, not 12.

I used about 10 medium leeks which I softened in a blob of butter with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

In a bowl I mixed 6 eggs, 250ml cream, 250ml mixed grated cheese (I had Emmental, Parmesan and Cheddar), then I added the leeks to this.

I had a little ham left from the weekend which I chopped and added to the raw pasty shells then spooned equal amounts of the egg mixture on top.

These I baked for 15 - 20 minutes at 180 degrees

While I waited for them to bake I used our last cherry tomatoes to make a delicious salad.

I quartered the tomatoes, sprinkled with a little dried chilli flakes, some olive oil and basaltic vinegar. I then used about 20 basil leaves sliced into ribbons to give it a delicious fresh tang.

It was truly a lunch to be repeated.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Getting better yields from a vegetable garden

With the change in the morning and evening temperatures signalling autumn, my mind is once again turned to planning for the new season’s crops.

To be totally honest, summer harvests have been disappointing and because of my lack of time I certainly have not made the most of what we did get from the garden.

As I do a mental tally of what we have eaten or stored from the vegetable garden it really is not boast-able.

We had a poor marrow crop this year compared to last, our first two plantings of corn failed, our tomatoes yielded some fresh for salads but most had to be roasted for pasta sauce and that quantity was only about 4x 1 liter bags. Herbs we have had a plenty and chilies too…but a girl & her Superman can only eat so many chilies!

Salad leaves have kept us in good supply while we had hardly any asparagus due to a slight misunderstanding. Not one cucumber showed up for the party, which is simply rude! We had two – yes TWO – butternuts come out to play and no pumpkins.

In my experiment beds all the carrots and turnips came up, but it was too early for turnips so they went to seed. So all in all, I am a bit frustrated and saddened but I can truly lay the blame at my door.

Please see this as a personal therapy post…I need to vent a little. (At myself mostly!)

I am however one of those people who do not beat themselves up for long – just a good tongue lashing in the mirror and then its time to move on. I have therefore been doing some research – which is partly to get my mind in the right mode and partly to increase my knowledge – on how to get the vegetable garden to yield more.

Here follows my decisions….


Yup – the first thing to deal with is my own motivation. Even though we cut back on much superfluous stuff over the last few months, I am still a busy woman. But there are times when I could go out to the veggie garden or make newspaper pots for new seedling, but I don’t. I ignore that and do something else – also good, also worthwhile but not what will feed into the greater goal of growing more vegetables. 

So I need to deal with me. 

I’ll go and do that then...


I have noticed for a while now that my beans and corn have a yellow tinge to them, especially the ones in our newer section of the garden. This means that there is not enough nitrogen for them to stay nice and green. Growing vegetables organically means that I need to continually add manure, worm casing or blood meal. I have struggled to find blood meal in SA and I would only want it from an organic source anyway. So it is horse manure from a friend’s stable and our own worm casings and tea.

I also need to add topsoil as some of my beds have sunk way below the raised bed level. I have sourced topsoil, into which we will add our own compost and horse manure.

Because the winter vegetables, like broccoli, that I will be putting in shortly need a dose of fishmeal too into those beds. Later in the season I will add some Bounce Back pellets to all beds.

The soil is the starting place for all good vegetables. I have learned that you cannot save on compost hoping to get good yields. My compost is a bit slow to turn over at the moment because we haven’t had rain for a while, and I have forgotten to water the heap, but just yesterday we emptied the cages and added it back in layers alternating with leaves, manure and existing compost from the heap. A good watering once a week and covering it should have it ready by the end of March.

As the Stinkwood tree, which dominates our front garden, starts to drop it's leaves I am going to get Sam to make leaf mould. This will be a great mulch for summer days next year.


With the quality of the soil boosted I am going to plant my plants much closer together. I have always tried to follow the given instruction but most of the time those spacing guidelines are for the absolute maximum size of the ready to harvest veg. We tend to eat our vegetables smaller than larger so I am going to halve the spacing requirements when I sow the seed and see how it goes.


In addition to closer spacing I am going to keep experimenting with vertical growing. Unfortunately all the climbing and running veg come to an end in summer, except for peas. The peas will use the cucumber frame that we built last year and I will probably make another one for elsewhere in the garden.

I have a large expanse of wall that I am quiet keen on using as the backdrop to an espalier apple tree. I will be doing some research on this and then seeing what comes of it.


Watering may be a challenge in summer because of adding more plants to the beds than before. Here in winter we have plenty of rain and I generally do not need to water at all.

I really really really (Hey Superman do you get the hint) want to get an irrigation system installed. It doesn’t need to be on a timer, it needs to just have a simple black piping around the edge of the beds with some low sprinkler heads that I can plug the hose from the borehole into instead of dragging the hose and the sprinkler around for two days to water the whole garden.

I think it will also waste less and help with the water pressure issues we have.


We have two apple trees, two avocado trees, a bramble for berries, a prolific fig tree, two lemon trees and two orange trees, two grape vines and loads of Cape Gooseberry plants. Our strawberries are grown in baskets and are now sending out their runners. Despite this we only had enough strawberries this year for one batch of jam and some fresh each day for breakfast. 

We also have a splendid granadilla vine which really comes in this year as our winner producer. It makes me smile every time I walk in from the carport as it trails its way over the gate.

Our figs were used in jam, preserves and ice cream, our apple and orange trees are new, but our lemon trees give is a few lemons each season. Our avocados trees gave us their first few fruits this year after being in the ground for 6 and 4 years.

Companion planting

I dabble with this all the time and what I actually enjoy most is the variety and colors that companion planting gives to the vegetable beds. It is also a way for me to bring flowers into the garden, which the pollinators need. It may not directly increase the yields but companion planting does keep the bugs down (…down – not gone – as this utopia I have not yet found!)


I recently connected again with a friend’s brother who is an urban beekeeper. This movement of homing bees on top of garage roves is taking the world by storm and its hitting South Africa too.

Slight problem…

I am very allergic. Mmmh.

But this beekeeper will install two hives here for me and maintain them, collect the honey and everything for me.

This means that our garden will have more bees, which I have battled to attract for all the years we have grown veggies.

I have tasted his honey too and it’s like toffee…supremely delicious. I guess you can tell which way I am leaning.

All that I am waiting for is to get municipal confirmation that we are indeed able to be part of this movement. 


So there is the big plan. Looks so good and simple on the page, but there is a Rands and Cents as well as time cost to calculate.

I think I had better go and make myself a Red Latte and contemplate the future here on our little patch of Earth and how we can implement all my plans.

Thanks for reading and I do hope you are inspired to increase your garden yields this year too.