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How to start a food garden in your flat - KZN man gives us a step-by-step DIY plan

Published Apr 18, 2022

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Durban - Back in the early 1990s, when South Africans were first permitted to travel in much of the rest of the continent on their “green mamba” passports, I went on a trip by public transport and bicycle that I have not yet come down from.

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Food oozed out of every hole in the ground, roads that were used way more by people walking than by vehicles travelling were chock-a-block with people carrying food to market.

A teacher on beautiful Lake Tanganyika’s northern shore, in Burundi, who I remember only as Freddy, explained the impact of this self-sufficiency when I shared dinner with him at his “shamba” (plot).

He told me his monthly earnings in “franga”, the colloquial word for his tiny country’s currency, the franc. It wasn’t much for the hours he put in at his packed one-roomed school, teaching a morning shift and an afternoon shift. He didn’t seem too put out as we shared another beer that would have cost “frangas” and tucked into a meal of beans and a porridgy staple made from green bananas mixed with healthy veggies.

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A message from a country, a continent, where there has been much turmoil: make the most of the weather and grow your own food!

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Sure, the equatorial parts have way more rain and sunshine than the southern tip of the continent but it’s a lot more agreeable to self-sufficiency than many places in the world.

So, I have spent my life in post-democratic South Africa growing veggies, even in my present abode eight storeys up in a flat without a balcony, overlooking Durban. More for snacks and flavouring than for full meals but it’s also to remind myself that this is how Africa pulls through hard times.

I peeled ginger and threw the skins into the containers as compost, only to have a show of ginger stalks the following year. A small tomato plant transplanted from the Drakensberg has thrived in Durban and the basil from the pot plant next to it adds good flavour.

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Spinach is king, like it was when I lived in Johannesburg. There’s no need for iron deficiencies in this country!

No Durban dish is complete without chillis and my indoor garden provides them.

Once a month I talk about farming with a worker employed by the block of flats to clean the windows. He once brought me a pumpkin from his plot out of town, at Inanda. I plant its seeds and give the seedlings to people as presents.

Sounds mad? I told you I haven't yet come off the trip!

TIPS for growing in an apartment:

1. You need all the sun you can get, so plant at your biggest window. You're likely to get sun only part of the day.

2. Place the containers on a table that has a hole in the middle (like one that would accommodate an umbrella pole) . Have a bucket underneath that to catch overflow from watering.

3. Keep the windows open as often as you can to attract pollinators.

4. Herbs are very suitable plants to grow indoors.

5. Be very careful not to let water spill. In flats it has a habit of going into the units below!

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