My bookcase groans with the weight of green literature. Permaculture for idiots, double digging for novices, you get the picture. You see I am passionate about gardens, food and the planet. My garden should, in theory, be prolific with delicious organic food. Despite my cerebral imbibing of all knowledge organic, I have never been able to translate that knowledge into a food producing garden. Apart from some herbs and lettuce, I have never had a burgeoning food garden.
I decided to investigate my ‘roots’, as it were, to try to understand my relationship with my garden. The uncomfortable question was whether I had evolved in any way or whether I had forgotten some essential principles of food gardening from my forebears. I come from a family of gardeners. My dad had a forest of curry leaves outside our kitchen window. Visitors never left our house without their supply of these famously pungent leaves. In fact, that forest had flourished from a single plant which my grandfather had taken out of his curry tree forest. Years later, when I moved into my own house, my dad gifted me a curry plant from his garden and someday, I hope that my children are able to inherit some that tree’s many offspring. Our own version of a family tree!
We had so much more in my father’s garden. In winter we enjoyed nartjies, lemon, guava and bananas, and in summer there were sweet mangoes and peaches. We were also never short of coriander, red and green amaranth and chillies. Yet, as impressive as dad’s garden was, he did not pursue food gardening with quite the same zeal his mother had.
My grandmother was an earthmother. I have this whimsical notion of her standing in a desert which transforms into green fecundity – vines and trees erupting out of the earth around her. My Ava, as I called her, didn’t just have a green finger, her entire being radiated fertility. The backyard of her Asherville home was, what people would now call, a food forest. Every available space sprouted green. Double beans and peas crept up fences, the drumstick tree bent heavily with its slender fruit and there was always a surplus of holy basil, sorrel, fenugreek and okra.
I don’t remember Ava ever using nasty pesticides. She poured the dishwashing water into the vegetable garden and when the curry leaves looked a little diseased she splashed them with a turmeric solution. Turmeric is mainly used in cooking, but its antioxidant properties make turmeric’s function, medicinal and cosmetic as well.
I was more than a little impressed – but not surprised – when I discovered the nutritional value of some of the vegetables we grew and ate. A local environmentalist, Richard Pocock, was full of praise for the Moringa oleifera (the drumstick tree which gets it botanic name from the tamil name – Murungai). At Ava’s house drumsticks made their way from the tree to a fabulous dhall curry crammed with goodness. The juices of the drumstick were always sucked out with great gusto. Ava also braised the leaves with onion, garlic and chilli.
She was actually providing her family with the best nutrition possible. According to Richard, the Moringa tree is a wonder plant that may well be the answer to food security in Africa. The leaves have a very high protein and calcium content – great news for vegetarians like me. The plant is also rich in Vitamins A, C and potassium. Being a drought resistant plant with nitrogen fixing properties, its virtues seem endless.
Another favourite in the Naidoo household was methi (fenugreek). Incredibly easy to propagate, an enriching mulch, and a very versatile ingredient, fenugreek is rich in Iron and thiamin and has been found to reduce blood sugar levels. We enjoyed methi in potato curry, scrambled eggs and in a savoury lagan (cake).
Although many of the vegetables we grew up eating are grown in Africa, most were brought over from India. Informal seed saving, and sharing amongst the indentured community, ensured their continued propagation. These vegetables, once only found in markets such as the famous Bangladesh Market in Chatsworth and Victoria Street Market in Durban central, have, in recent years, made their way onto the shelves of selected chainstores. Bangladesh Market traders were once supplied by informal farmers from Demat, an area adjacent to Chatsworth, which meant that people who were buying from Bangladesh were getting produce which was literally grown on their doorstep. Anand Pillay, who has researched the farming community in Demat, says that farming methods were more in line with the principles of permaculture and that knowledge of pesticides did not exist. In recent years this farmland has been sold to the municipality for housing. The traders have to now source their produce from commercial farmers further afield.
The lifestyle of the South African Indian community has changed. With wealth, opportunity and the convenience of packaged foods, the need for food gardens has diminished. Many Indian homes still have the ubiquitous curry tree and perhaps a paw paw tree but, sadly, food forests seem to be a thing of the past.
Last night I dreamt my grandmother hugged me generously. Her presence assured me of abundance and seemed to suggest that I go out and DO. So today I combine this ancient wisdom with my precious literature and take action. I invoke the spirit of my Ava and other ancestors and scatter my seeds of promise.
Originally published in the Green Times E-Zine
By Pralini Naidoo
Pralini is a PhD Student based in Durban, ZA.