Our Journey to Self Sustainability

This is an article that I wrote for the second edition of Shared Earth Magazine, if you are looking for a good mag on practical tips and idea’s on how to become self-sus then get yourself a copy of this mag or subscribe. (If you subscribe you’ll get a free sample selection of our heirloom seeds)

Many times we have had people come over for a visit or a braai, and they gush with amazement at how we live our lives, they express wonder at our vegetable gardens, our fruit orchard, free range chickens, pasture finished turkeys, and grass finished lamb. Often we are able to put a meal before our guests that is entirely off our own property. They marvel at the succulent full flavoured meat, the amazing veggies and deserts fresh from the garden. Very often they will assist in picking and preparing the veggies straight out of the garden. They often say that this is the life that they want to have, or dream of having. I can however, honestly say that not one of individual has made the jump from perceived urban security to a rural grow your own lifestyle. Why? I think most are just too scared. They see what we do, but don’t know how to get there. Also they are in a rut, too used to life in the city and only dream of what they would like to achieve. This however, is not an article about bashing poor urbanites, this is an article that hopefully will inspire urbanites to let loose and enjoy life on their own piece of paradise.

Self- Sustainability is a very broad concept and I don’t think that any one person can have a definitive answer as to what it comprises. Some will see it as being able to grow some or all of what you eat on your own ‘patch of heaven’, others will want to include power and maybe fuel requirements, still others will see it as all of the above plus income generation. What I’m trying to get to is that different people have different requirements on what their ideals are for self-sustainability. There is no specific right and wrong, it’s very subjective and based on an individual’s world view and how that is interpreted. I can attest that our families reasons for being self sustainable has been re-invented a number of times over the last few years, taking into account many internal and external factors as well as our own personal belief system.

Our children and two friends (in red) after an afternoons harvest
Our children and two friends (in red) after an afternoons harvest

What a lot of people don’t see is the physical effort and planning that goes into our daily lives. Without trying to scare you, there are a lot of things that need to happen to get to a point of self-sustainability. Not least of all is the need to feed self and family. With our government’s suicidal stance on land redistribution, where productive commercial farms are being systematically destroyed, food is only going to become more and more expensive. For many years South Africa was a net exporter of food, this last year has seen a dramatic reversal of that trend. What better way to get around the hike in food prices than growing your own? It’s not the State’s responsibility to provide for your family, it’s yours and yours alone. Things are going to get more expensive, that’s a reality that you will need to come to terms with.

Our family’s journey to self-sustainability was an accident, we literally stumbled our way to becoming self-sustainable, and we have many tales of failed idea’s and projects. Not that we are near 100% self-sustainable yet, however we are a lot closer than we were 6 years ago. Very quickly we realised that you need to work smart if you would like to eat the proceeds of your labour. Now, before we undertake any new venture we research the pro’s and con’s of each decision and based on the findings for our families needs make the most expedient decision. Normally our decisions are based on a cost verses labour and return. If it has a high cost, a lot a labour and low return more often than not, it gets shelved and something else is done in its place. However, on the flipside, there are instances where low cost, low labour and high returns can also be a problem.

One of our first bad decisions was to plant a massive vegetable garden. Living on a plot and not having a veggie garden is like having a yacht and not sailing, it just goes with the territory. We planted almost every type of vegetable seed that our local hardware stocked, and then some. Three months later we quickly learnt that we needed to process or give away a lot of vegetables very quickly, that year a lot of it went to waste. To our dismay, after the growing season we didn’t have a lot left over for winter. Literally we had a few jars of pickled onions, some beetroot and a few bags of carrots in the freezer. We had planted too much of the wrong kinds and too little of the right. So much for self-sustainability! We have now learnt to sequential plant and stagger our harvests. In addition we have learnt many new canning, freezing and drying techniques that carry our work through the winter for us. This allows us to capitalise on the time invested in summer and use it in winter when we can’t grow certain fruits and veggies. My wife particularly loves the idea of not having to dig all the vegetables out of the garden and wash and prepare them for every meal, as they are already in the house waiting for her to pull them out of the freezer or drawer.

The best place to start is with a veggie garden, for that you don’t need a large piece of ground, anything will do. I know of people that have ripped up their entire lawn to produce food for their family. My advice to new veggie gardeners is simple, start small with a few easy to grow crops and expand every year. Nobody will be able to become 100% self-sustainable in a year, it takes years of practice and lots of trial and error. When we planted our first veggie garden (in suburbia) I can remember getting a few tomatoes, some carrots and radishes and TONS of cucumber. It was not a well balanced veggie patch and everyone that came around got a bag of cucumbers. People soon stopped visiting…. However the point is this; You need to grow into your vegetable garden, trying to go the whole hog at once will only set you up for disappointment and disillusionment.

Now that we live out on the plots, things have changed slightly, after 6 years of plot life we have slowly increased our self-sustainability every year, to a point where we are able to go through months at a time where a good 90% of our food requirements come from our own property or a property within walking distance from us.

When looking at planting your veggie garden, work out a few things first. Like what your meal preferences are. Are you able to freeze or can/bottle your produce? Do you have suitable storage space for root and pumpkin harvests? It’s no use growing tons of a particular type of veggie if only one member of the family enjoys eating it. Can a vegetable be incorporated into another ‘product’? Freezing whole tomatoes is possible if you are going to cook with them, but more efficient space utilization is possible if you turn it into a chutney or ‘sous that can be used in a variety of meals. Rather use the space to grow a crop of storable veggies or one that is loved by all.

Our family eats a lot of pasta and tomato based meals, one way that we get around the problem of buying tomato’s in winter is to freeze a lot of basic tomato and onion base in summer, we have actually been doing this for the last few weeks and have amassed enough ‘sous to keep us going till early December. In tangible terms, it means that we will not need to buy those insipid, flavourless, washed out pale pink things that are offered in place of tomato’s at ridiculous prices in winter. All my wife needs to do is open the freezer and pull out a bag of our own organic ‘sous to use as the starter for a hearty stew or pasta dish.

Looking at other crops, with the exception of brinjals our entire family eats every vegetable grown in our gardens. Sweet corn and mielies are a firm favourite in our family. This year we have only managed 10 kg’s of loose frozen sweet corn, and are still waiting to harvest a trial of traditional open pollinated Lesotho mielies. This will provide the seed stock for a 2 acre planting next summer and a few this year for fresh consumption. The 2 acre planting will mainly be used as animal feed as well as providing our family with our own organically grown mielie pap to go with our ‘sous.

Pumpkins are also a major focus, we generally grow 6 or 7 different types, from the little Gem’s all the way through to Mammoth Gold’s that top about 30 Kg’s each, some are good for storage and others for processing. Each has it’s own niche in our families diet and are treasured for their different flavours and textures. One point to remember with growing pumpkins is that they need space, if grown close to each other they will reduce their fruit set. If you want to keep seed for the following year, learn to hand pollinate pumpkins, and save seed from these hand pollinated pure varieties for the following year. We have 3 vegetable gardens as well as permanent plantings of asparagus and berries, why 3 gardens you might ask? Mainly it’s for labour reasons, as well as being able to ‘tune’ the different gardens with manure and compost.  We have one specifically for Pumpkins and sweet corn, a second close to the house for common items like tomatoes, lettuce, salad greens and green beans, with a few herb plants in between and then we have a large garden further away that produces the larger harvests like dry beans, beans for freezing, processing tomatoes, corn, potatoes, millet, beetroot, carrots, peanuts, bambarra nuts, onions, peas, peppers, melons etc.

Of late there has been much discussion in South Africa about heirloom vegetables and open pollinated varieties, that taste great and have the unique ability of allowing the grower to save seed from year to year. I can attest that many heirloom varieties are of outstanding quality and that the flavour far exceeds what which we are currently used to. The problem that we have in South Africa, is that we cannot legally import heirloom vegetable seed into our country. (Unless you jump through some regulatory hoops) It has taken me about 5 years to build up a modest collection of heirloom and open pollinated vegetables, most of them from trades with older more knowledgeable gardeners that have been saving their own seed from year to year.  Personally, we plant Heirloom and Open Pollinated varieties wherever possible, mainly as we enjoy the romance behind growing and eating a variety that has been lost to most of the world, as well as the ability to save our own seed for the following year. However where we need fast and large production we will consider certain hybrid varieties to fill this need. (A balanced Hybrid, Heirloom and GMO discussion I believe has more than enough meat for an article in its own right –Hint to Ed) Typically, I used to spend hundreds of Rand every year buying new packets of seed, very often I had to buy more than one packet of some seed just to satisfy our families requirements. Now we have learnt to save seed, we eat what we sow and sow what we eat.

Self Sustainability is an individual ideal, the worst thing that can happen is someone becoming prescriptive and telling you how you need to do it. Start small and if you enjoy the fruits of your labour then by all means expand, who knows where you will go and what you will do on your journey. Life is for living and living is for the love of it, do it with all your heart.


What’s in our Garden

At this time of the year we are starting to plan our spring planting. A lot of early things are going into the cold frame so that we can get a head-start on spring, as we have heaps of new heirloom varieties that need to be planted for the online shop. A sincere thanks to all of those that have sent us new seed varieties. Most notably, Mike, Nico and Lisa, Shannon, Eric, Chrissy, Bryne and Sue, not to forget Bill whose generosity, experience and good-will I am very thankful for. Thank you guys, this is the spirit that planting and growing heirlooms creates, and I sincerely appreciate and encourage. If you have seed share it.

We have also expanded our planting beds over this winter so that we will be able to accommodate the new varieties. Right now we are laying the finishing touches to the new Mielie bed that will accommodate 6 new varieties of Heirloom corn, fortunately one of my neighbours will also be planting another 4 or 5 kinds so we should have some very exciting new additions to our corn selection for next year.

The Purple Dragon Carrots and Chioggia beetroot are sitting in the ground patiently awaiting spring so that they can send up their flower spikes, we are praying for a bumper crop of seed this year so that we can supply everyone with seed of these unique heirlooms.

The Tomato planting this year is going to be amazing. A quick check gives about 20 kinds of tomatoes so there will be something for everyone, from the small cherries, the pastes, beefsteaks, black, yellow, orange, pink and green, early and late varieties. Guys, if you are keen on your tomatoes, we will have a fantastic selection for you.

Our orchard has just had its compost dose for the spring season and we are eagerly awaiting the change of the season. Unfortunately we have had two trees this year throwing blossoms early and with the pre-sunrise temperature knocking – 6.7 deg C on some mornings the blossoms have been killed. So I don’t think we will be getting much off those trees this year.

Not the best pic but it gives a good idea as to our winter conditions
Not the best pic but it gives a good idea as to our winter conditions

That’s about it, but we will keep you up-to-date on any new exciting developments.


The Edible Quote

Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labour of man. Man may be civilized in some degree without great progress in manufactures and with little commerce with his distant neighbours. But without the cultivation of the earth, he is, in all countries, a savage. Until he gives up the chase and fixes himself in some place, and seeks a living from the earth, he is a roaming barbarian. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.
– Daniel Webster