Earlier this year I received an invitation to Francistown, Botswana, to give a talk to their Garden Club. The Okavango Delta has been on our list of places to visit for many years and we thought it would be a good idea to combine the two. We had been keeping August free for a trip somewhere so I promptly organised bookings though &Beyond who have some of the best lodges in the Delta. Only to find that the Garden Club of Francistown could only host me for a talk in September – so I landed up doing two trips to Botswana back to back.
Our August trip began with a couple of nights at Khama Rhino Sanctuary – despite having been told not to drive on Botswana roads after dark, we landed up lost, late and driving after dark. It was only the next day when we saw how many donkeys, cows, ostriches and horses were roaming the roads, that we realised we had been lucky.
The starlings – the bullies of the camp site – chased the squirrels away from any leftover morsel. We didn’t realise how bold they were until a week later when we discovered a sticky patch under one of the crates. After investigating, we found the source: a fruit juice carton with bird beak punctures neatly pierced into it. The long life milk cartons also had holes in them and had gone sour. Plus a bag of mixed nuts had been broken into. The starlings had only had one morning to forage through the kombi – we had gone to bed on our first night and had left the boot open, but it was enough for them to create quite a bit of havoc.
We set up our tent on the bank of the river at Drifters Camp, just in time to see the sun set and full moon rise. It was a comfy campsite and the only one in our whole trip that had grass underfoot.
This delightfully named shop near Maun says it all . . .
We arrived at the &Beyond office in Maun the next morning just in time to catch our bush hopper plane into the Delta.
As we flew further from Maun, the Delta spread out below us, circles of dry land ringed with water and endless patterns of animal pathways, both across the dry islands and through the water.
Just on the short flight in I spotted a couple of elephants and a few giraffe.
A game viewing vehicle met us at the Pom Pom landing strip – Pom Pom meaning mosquito in the local language. Within minutes of leaving the airstrip we spotted an elephant, head butting a palm tree to get the sweet fruit to fall at his feet.
Our lunch on the way to Nxabega camp.
A baobab that a hungry elephant had a go at.
It took a few hours to get to camp – across water, salt pans and deep sand that even the 4×4 became stuck in.
Nxabega camp is built around a huge jackalberry tree – so named because the fruit is said to be so sweet that even the die hard carnivore jackals will give up their meat eating ways to munch on it. This elephant thought the fruit was pretty good and he rumbled past every day to hoover up the berries.
These are jackalberries
I preferred the brownies!
The plan was to go for an afternoon mokoro paddle and end with sundowners on the river. But as we drove towards the river, we saw this:
We followed him as he climbed up and down three trees before finally settling on one where he felt comfortable. The guide said this was because he was watching something – so we went to find what had piqued the leopard’s interest and it was this:
And so we watched this pride, with seven youngsters, as the moon rose behind them.
The next morning was time for the postponed mokoro excursion. An Italian honeymoon couple joined us. They had decided not to come on the game drive the afternoon before, choosing to have massages instead. En route to the river I heard the bride asking the guide if “we could please go past the leopard and lions on the way . . .” The ranger could not pull that rabbit from his hat, but he did find this sweet pair:
Into a mokoro and onto the river. I asked the ranger what the stick in the front was for. He said it was his GPS . . .
I knew rangers are multi talented but I didn’t know speaking stick was one of the required skills!
Turns out the stick was to clear spider webs away before we paddled through them.
Over the next few days we explored the delta by boat, game vehicle and helicopter:
The water was freeeezing so the soaked rangers quickly rubbed some sticks together and made a fire. I want these guys on my team on Survivor!!
We stayed in the most incredibly beautiful lodges: Nxabega, Xudum and Xaranna. Attention to detail and creating art from recycled objects all added to the &Beyond ethos of treading lightly on the land.
Our private chalet tucked into the forest next to the delta.
Xaranna Lodge took its design inspiration from the ubiquitous delta water lilies.
Now that is what I call a holiday . . . !
I have just completed the manuscript for the next book – “Jane’s Delicious Herbs. Healing plants for home, health and happiness.” And now the photography starts. I have gone through my bottle collection and fished out every interesting one I have ever tucked away. It really helps being a hoarder when you start styling photographs.
I think this is why I enjoy writing and producing books – I get to do such a variety of things: Writing and researching, developing recipes, hunting down and photographing herb gardens, styling and shooting recipes, spending time in my garden shooting beautiful photographs of herbs . . .
I first heard about a chicken tractor from one of my American magazines about ten years ago. It was a review of a book a homesteader had written about using chickens to till and fertilise the land. I wanted one. And now (finally!!) I have a chicken tractor with four happy hens installed in my garden.
It is all thanks to Keith who hammered and sawed the thing together (with a tiny bit of ‘hold this’ and ‘pull that’ help from me) We decided to make it using as much recycled material as possible.
After looking at plenty of designs we decided on a A Frame with the shelter on one side at the top of the A. This would maximise the amount of ground space the chooks would have.
Securing the top . . .
It was cold when we were working on it and we’d read that chickens don’t like being cold so Keith pulled out some polystyrene boards that had been used on some film shoot and used them as insulation. Lucky chooks!
“I am the special ingredient!” is the quote on the back of the chef’s T shirt in the open plan kitchen at Xudum camp in the Okavango Delta. And does he live up to it. I have just arrived back from six days in the Delta – travelling via bumpy little planes, even bumpier landies, fast speed boats and slow makoros, I have had the most magical and wondrous time.
Watch this space for more! As soon as I get home I will be adding photos and delicious details . . .
Not that long ago, people who grew their own vegetables or used grey water for irrigation were considered fringe tree huggers. Just four years ago I only had one friend that I knew of who grew her own vegetables. And look at us now. These days I get stopped in the queue at supermarkets by people wanting to show me photographs of their vegetables on their phones! And many more people are becoming aware that organic gardening is all about working and living in harmony with natural systems and minimising and replenishing the resources that we consume. And one of the most important resources in our climate is water.
In the past, wars were fought over salt and graphite. Currently, wars are being fought over oil. In the very near future, wars will be fought over water. It is time to start thinking about our water supply and how we can save, harvest and recycle as much as we can. I have recently had JoJo tanks installed to harvest rainwater from my roof: 1mm of rain falling on one square meter of roof will supply 1 litre of water. I have a large roof and all those litres currently wash away down the storm water drain – but I am really looking forward to the next rains when instead they will be saved into my tanks. I will let you know how it all goes when the spring rains come . . .
Here are the rainwater tanks being installed:
Pipes etc being connected
Having a double storey house covered with very thick creeper caused a few hitches. We had to hire an extra length ladder and the pipes had to be carefully adjusted as there was no way they were allowed to cut creeper branches that are probably 30 years old!
Here they are nearly done, the last few pipes on the right still has to be connected (and the plastic packaging recycled!)
I have also installed a grey water system. I have learnt quite a bit about this in the last few weeks. Grey water comes from showers, baths, hand basins in the bathrooms and water from your washing machine. (It does NOT include water from the toilets, kitchen/ scullery sinks or dishwasher. This water is classified as black water.) Firstly – if you are going to use grey water on vegetables you have two options: You must either use the water within 24 hours of it entering the tank or you must have a cleansing system in place. If grey water sits for longer than 24 hours, bacteria begin to get to work and it quickly becomes fetid and stinky. Not what you want on edible plants! So, I decided to install a slightly more complicated system from Free Rain (such a lekker name!!). This includes a pump to circulate ozone into the water and an oxygenator in the tank. All of this keeps the water clear of any bacteria. As another precaution, the grey water is then fed from the tank, using a pressure boosted pump, into a drip irrigation system in the vegetable garden. The irrigations system uses soaker hoses that fill up with water and then slowly release it. This ensures that very little of the water is sprayed onto the leaves of my edibles, it all soaks directly into the soil – which of course being healthy soil full of organisms, acts as the final filter.
Here is the before pic – this is a bougainvillea that never flowered and wasn’t in the right place as it alwys had to be kept cut back.
First step is to lay an even platform
Installing the pump
And the end result. It is going to look even better in summer when the green creeper grows back around it.
And, as a final touch, the JoJo tanks actually look attractive – they are the Slimline tanks that aren’t obtrusive and they are a lovely speckledy sandstone colour. Practical and pretty – right up my alley! It is something we should all be putting at the top of our “to do” lists.
I have very bizeee! Again. Spring is just around the corner so it has been time to sow seeds and get my garden ready for the warmth that is just around the corner. Keith has been handymanning. I have been wanting a chicken tractor for ages and it is becoming a reality. A double storey A frame it is being built using all recycled material. The only thing we will have to buy is the chickens – maybe I can barter for them!
The other mission I have been on is finalising Jane’s Delicious Garden Planner. This is an amazing piece of software developed by Grow Veg in the UK. I have been busy adapting it for South Africa. This planner let’s you draw up an exact plan of your garden, with very user friendly tools. Then simply drag and drop your vegetables and herbs into the beds. Add to that a personalised garden plan based on your garden, plus loads of info on all the vegetables, the planner is a valuable addition to your garden basket. Test it out for free here p
The Cat Who Ate Everything
The knee high wave swirled around me, tugging at my calves. I could feel the sand disintegrating under my feet and I wriggled my toes deeper. Southbroom. Summer. Holidays. I looked down into the clear sea and there was a black and white cat swimming under water. “That’s not right,” I thought. “It’s not going to be able to breathe for long under there.” Keith was standing a little way behind me and as she swept past me I called out to him to catch her. But he missed. As the wave turned and began to pull back, the little black and white body was just in my reach and I grabbed. She was surprisingly warm and dry as I cuddled her and she began to purr.
I woke to the sound of the golden oriel, its liquid call coming from the massive milkwood outside my window. I was at the cottage in Southbroom for summer holidays. Reading the Mercury over my morning coffee and rusk, an article jumped out. A cat rescue home near Durban had kittens looking for good homes. A number. A phone call. And two days later I met Sprocket. (Well, they called her Cowpatch because of her black and white markings, but that name didn’t stick.) She and her tabby sister had been rescued from a building site. At six weeks old they were so thin I could touch my fingers together above their stomachs. The Kit Kat sisters were never going hungry again.
I knew there was something unusual about Sprocket within a few weeks. I am allergic to cats and have to be careful about not touching my eyes or face after stroking them. Sprocket was different. She even smelled different. I could put my face into her soft tummy and she didn’t make me itch. With a blindfold on I could tell which sister was which. Then Keith read an article in National Geographic, about white cats not having the same allergic effect as other cats. And Sprocket was 90% white with a few black patches. How ironic in the new South Africa. “Well, I am allergic to black cats but not white ones . . .” But that’s the way it was and because of it I grew to love Sprocket even more.
But she wasn’t special just because of that. It did set her apart from the other cats. She was able to sleep in our bed, which somehow the rest accepted and even with the windows open, they would never come in – only Sprocket did. She was different in the way she let herself be loved. She was so trusting. I could pick her up and put her into a basket and carry her around slung over my shoulder, her head sticking out the top, her eyes asking, “Where are we going?” If I was busy in the garden, she’d come and join me. After a cat nip nibble, I’d pop her onto the wheel barrow, where she’d sit up front, looking over the edge, happily being driven wherever I wanted to go.
Under the loquat tree there is a macramé pot holder. One morning I was readjusting things in the garden and had taken the pot out. Looking at it hanging there I had an idea. It looked like a perfect cat hammock. I popped Sprocket in and, after a Hmmm moment, she precariously steadied herself in the swaying pot holder. Turning until she found a comfy balance, she settled into a cat circle and hung from there for hours. It became a regular spot for her – although I’d always have to help her in. She liked hanging things. Whenever I climbed into the hammock for a lazy Saturday afternoon read, she would appear and ask to join me. She would comfortably settle down, softly and perfectly fitting herself into a nook. She had the oddest way of sleeping. Most cats curl into a ball or lie with their heads on or next to their front paws. Sprocket would lie on a mat or chair with her front legs folded backwards and her head stuck forward, chin flat on the ground or hanging over the edge of the chair.
Tilu loved Sprocket. Their morning ritual involved Tilu lying still while Sprocket swirled back and fore, bashing and rubbing herself against Tilu’s big white dog head, purring loudly and wrapping her tail into Tilu’s face. Tilu knew this boisterous behaviour could evolve into claws popping out, so she would keep very still and wary until Sprocket had calmed down. Then it was Tilu’s turn to lick, clean ears and thoroughly deflea Sprocket (even if there were no fleas – it was the massaging ritual that counted).
When something started eating my tomatoes it took me a while to work out what it was. All the green tomatoes had slash marks in them and the red ones were being eaten until just a bit of skin remained. One morning I saw Sprocket stealing a tomato from a bowl on the kitchen counter. She grabbed it and hauled it to the floor where she hunkered down and ate the whole thing. I had found my tomato pest. And I understood what was going on in my garden. Cats are colour blind. To work out whether a tomato was perfectly ripe, she had developed a claw test. If they resisted when she clawed them, they were too green. If her nails dug in and pulled the tomato off the bush, it was perfectly ripe and edible.
Leaf mould is another way of enriching our soils.
Leaf mould is just what it sounds like – fully decomposed leaves. Often we have more leaves than we can use in our compost, particularly in autumn. Dry leaves can take a lot longer to decompose than other compost ingredients. It is better to compost them separately, especially when there are deciduous trees in the garden providing us with so many at once. Leaf mould is an excellent mulch, a nutrient-rich soil conditioner and good addition to seedling mixes.
Simply pile your leaves in a sheltered, inconspicuous part of the garden and leave them for about two years. Or pack them in black bin bags, make a couple of holes in the sides for aeration and tuck them away until rotted. Or put them into a container where they can be turned every month. Even not fully decomposed, I dip into my leaf mould regularly to mulch a new seedling bed or cover up an area which is looking a little bare.
And that brings us to mulching, Adding organic matter to the surface of the beds is known as mulching. It is one of the simplest things to do yet it makes a world of difference to your garden.
A mulched surface:
· Regulates the temperature of the soil, keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter
· Reduces weeds, as long as the mulch is weed free and deep enough to prevent weed germination or smother existing weeds
· Prevents the surface of the soil from cracking or eroding
· Prevents rain water from running off the soil and uselessly disappearing into a storm water drain
· Prevents water from splashing up onto plants, helping slow the spread of soil-borne diseases
· Retains moisture
· Prevents the soil from crusting or compacting
· Increases and strengthens root growth
· Creates a natural forest floor environment
· Provides food for earthworms which in turn improve the health of the soil
· Improves and adds nutrients to the soil.
When you look at this list of benefits – how can you possibly not mulch!
A variety of materials can be used as mulch – some people even use newspaper. I prefer using organic mulches such as compost, leaf mould, grass clippings, leaves from the autumn creepers and clippings from my shrubs – especially artemisia, sage and lavender, which constantly need trimming. Artemisia has the added benefit of repelling bugs, which hate its smell. Other organic mulches include hay, shredded bark and nutshells. Inorganic mulches such as plastic or gravel can be used; however, the advantage of organic mulches is they improve the soil as they break down.
Mulch should be applied when seedlings are about 3–5 cm high. Depending on the material, mulch can be anything from 5 -15 cm thick. Fresh grass clippings should only be about 3–5 cm thick, otherwise they become dense and slimy, preventing water and air from reaching the soil. If you want a thicker layer, mix the clippings with dried leaves first. Mulch piled against stems can cause them to rot, so keep a circle of about 3–5 cm clear around stems. For larger plants with woody stems, leave a mulch-free zone of about 10–15 cm to prevent the bark decaying. Always weed and water the beds well before applying mulch.
From next week, I will start talking about sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings into your vegetable garden.
You will know you are becoming hooked on gardening when you find compost a fascinating subject! I am a compost addict. I love the smell of compost. I love the feel of compost. When I dig my hands deep into a crumbly bag of compost, its energy makes my spirit soar. If you are serious about organic gardening, making your own compost is an essential part of the process.
So what is compost and why is it so important?
Compost is a crumbly mixture consisting mostly of decayed organic matter. It is one of the best ways to fertilise and condition the soil. It provides nutrients for plants, helps the soil to retain moisture, provides food for earthworms and other beneficial insects, reduces erosion and maintains soil temperature. There is something magical about taking a pile of kitchen and garden refuse and turning it into black gold – because this is what composting does: it transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost. I have found it to be one of the most rewarding cycles in my garden. Taking every scrap and shred of organic waste and recycling it into food for my plants makes me feel like Mother Nature herself!
Almost any organic material is suitable for a compost pile, but be aware of the balance required to make it decompose most effectively. Your compost pile requires a proper ratio of carbon-rich material (brown)and nitrogen-rich material (green). Examples of browns are dried leaves, bark, twigs, straw and sawdust. Greens are grass clippings, fresh garden clippings and kitchen scraps. Aim for about two-thirds brown to one-third green mix in your pile. Keep your compost pile moist but not waterlogged – about as wet as a wrung out sponge.
Turn it regularly until it is well rotted.
It is better not to add cooked food, meat, fish, dairy products, or pet waste to your compost. But everything else goes in: all your organic kitchen waste including coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, oyster shells – even used paper towels.
Every year I receive a massive birthday bag of manure from a friend of mine who brings it from his sister’s organic farm. I think it is the only birthday present that can be left outside my gate in Johannesburg without being stolen!
Livestock manure is a nutritious addition to the organic garden. However, be careful how you use it: in its raw state it may carry pathogens and other unwanted elements.
If applied to the soil fresh it can create an imbalance. This is especially true with chicken manure, which is high in nitrogen. Raw manure may also contain weed seeds, which you don’t want to add to your soil. So, make sure it is well composted first. Do this by either mixing it into your compost pile or composting it in a separate pile. Manure is most often mixed with the animal’s bedding: straw, wood shavings etc.
This increases the carbon content of the pile. Check the manure before adding it and if necessary combine it with fresh grass clippings and other nitrogenous sources to even out the mix. Even if you buy commercial ‘kraal manure’ make sure it is well composted before adding it to your soil. (It should be crumbly and smell earthy, not like ammonia.)
Green manure sounds odd but it is simply a fast-growing crop, which is then chopped down and incorporated into the top layer of soil to add nutrients.
Think of a green manure as growing your own fertiliser. Green manure not only retains and adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil; it also protects it from drying out, compacting or washing away. Once the green manure crop has grown to the point when it is lush and leafy, it is pulled out, chopped up and mixed into the top layer of the soil, or just strewn on top of the soil.
If the weather is very wet, I prefer to just scatter it on top. But if it is dry, I dig half of it into the top layer of soil and then chop up the rest over the top. A variety of crops are used as green manure – mustard, fenugreek, clover, alfalfa, lupins, soya beans and buckwheat.
Don’t let a green manure become too woody before chopping it in. It is also worth cutting up a cover crop quite finely and then letting it wilt for a few days before incorporating it into the soil. Most green manures should be cut before they start flowering, as the nitrogen is lost to the flower and resulting seed head.
Next week I will discuss leaf mould and mulch.
In a natural environment, a carrot would grow, become fat, then die and rot back into the soil, giving the nutrients it had absorbed back to the soil.
However, we come along and pull it out. To maintain fertile, healthy soil we need to continually replace the nutrients we remove when we harvest our vegetables and herbs. Using the no dig method of gardening, this is simply done by regularly adding fresh organic matter to the surface of the beds. Nature is designed to incorporate material that falls on the surface, down into the bottom layers. By organic matter I mean compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch to the surface. (I will discuss each of these in detail in later columns.)
As soon as you have added a layer of organic matter, the natural decomposition process begins: earthworms come up at night and pull it down into the soil, rain breaks it down and micro organisms get to work. In no time it will be converted into humus for your plants’ roots.
Although most of a plant’s requirements come from oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, up to 60 different elements have been identified in plants. Sixteen of these are essential for plants to grow vigorously and productively. A deficiency of any of these nutrient elements may limit plant growth and productivity and make them vulnerable to disease. For plants to function properly, it is up to us as gardeners to make sure all the raw material is available to them and to keep the soil in the best condition possible. Firstly we need to ensure that our vegetables are planted in nutrient rich soil. Secondly, the soil needs to have just the right balance of air pockets as well as moisture. This is a lot easier than it sounds: As I said earlier all we need do is to continually add compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch to our gardens.
Despite never planning to be a gardener, the green fingers of my mother, and her mother before her, were inevitably passed down to me. I remind myself of my mother so often – especially when I’m gathering slips from someone else’s garden to bring home to mine. When I recognise the name of a plant or instinctively know how to do something, I realise how much I must have absorbed as a child. My mother, now in her eighties, is still actively gardening her large Pietermaritzburg slice of heaven.
But you don’t need ancestral green fingers to learn how to grow a delicious garden. The more attuned you become to your environment, the easier it will be. Organic gardening is about creating a biologically balanced ecosystem. My vegetable garden has been in the same place for fifteen years.
By continually growing green manures and cover crops, and adding organic matter, I now have soil that is more fertile than when I started. In addition to improved soil, I have fewer pest and disease problems than in the beginning, when I didn’t have as much variety growing in my garden. By eliminating chemicals and poisons, the earth regenerates, natural cycles develop, food chains become established and we can harvest vegetables and herbs that taste the way nature intended.
Next week I will talk about compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch in more detail.