The astronauts who first circled the Earth in their spacecraft likened our planet to a blue pearl in space. The living world, or biosphere, forms a fragile film over the planet, separating the surface from the vacuum of space, and the living soil forms the foundation of the biosphere. It covers about one third of our planet’s land surface and is one of our most precious natural resources. Without the soil and its legions of microbes, there would be no life. How many of us understand its critical role in our health and well-being, and in the very future of life as we know it on Earth?
In Southern Africa our soils are under severe human pressure; soil erosion is one of our most serious environmental problems. Our annual loss of soil is estimated at 300 to 400 million tonnes. Under natural conditions soil is formed at a rate of 0,2 to 0,3 tonnes per hectare per year, or 1 mm of soil per hectare per one hundred to four hundred years.If the vegetation cover is damaged by human activities, agriculture or natural disasters, the rate of soil loss can be accelerated to as much as 30 tonnes per hectare per year.
Soil is a vital support system, since the bulk of all food production depends on it. In South Africa less than 14% of the land surface is suitable for agriculture, and much of this land has been severely degraded by soil erosion. The ever-thinning layers of soil that cover the landmasses are in a sorry state. Alexis Carrel – Nobel Prize winner and author of the classic Man, the Unknown – warned in 1912 of the consequences to our health of growing our food on tired and depleted soils; overworked by poor agricultural practices and the extensive use of artificial fertilisers and poisonous chemicals to boost crop production.
Directly, or indirectly, all food comes from the soil. All of life will be healthy, or unhealthy, according to the fertility of the soil, he said.
In other words, healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people
Many scientific studies, done to disprove the claims of organic farmers that their produce has a higher nutritional value, have proved the worth of eating food grown in healthy soils. Even the guinea pigs at the German Federal Institute for Consumer Health Protection, when given a choice of conventional and organic carrots, would only consume the organic product!
On a spiritual level, it was Rudolf Steiner who said that so long as we feed on food from unhealthy soil, our spirit will lack the stamina to free itself from the prison of the body.
These are sobering thoughts, and, for those who extend their minds a little further, it leaves one feeling somewhat vulnerable having to rely on other people and dwindling soil resources to produce our most basic needs.
For many of us the rising cost of all foods, especially vegetables, makes it difficult to eat something fresh and green every day.
So the best way of cutting costs, and taking responsibility for ones own diet is to spend a few rands on seeds and a spade, and to reap the benefits of a variety of crisp, safe and nutritious produce from your own home garden. Even with a very small piece of land one can grow a variety of vegetables by following the simple, low-cost methods that will be appearing in this column.
You will slowly become aware of the rubbish that your household generates.
Roughly half of it is actually food for the soil, and can be turned into beautiful rich humus which not only helps to conserve soil water, but also holds soil particles together preventing erosion by wind and water, and actively promotes healthy plant growth. Other household waste can be reused by fashioning it into simple garden tools and equipment, or recycled. Landfill sites around our cities are groaning under the massive amounts of urban waste; many are nearing exhaustion. What then?
Set a trend in your area: join the food-growing culture
Instead of a visit to the gym for muscle-toning and aerobic exercise, pick up your spade and a bucket, and head for the garden. An hour or so outdoors gives you plenty of fresh air, sunshine and exercise to boost your immune system and keep you trim.
It takes your mind off all those pressures in life; gardening is a great stress-releaser. Not only this, you will have something to brag about when you grow the biggest ‘cauli’ in the street, and you may even make a whole batch of new and interesting friends. Ooh, don’t forget, you’ll always have something good and tasty to eat, even in the middle of the month.
What you need to start a food garden
The most important things are free…
• Lots of enthusiasm and, in the beginning, some hard work.
• A small piece of ground – from as little as twenty square metres to provide your family with something fresh to eat everyday. If you do not have this space, speak to the people who live around you, find some vacant land and start a community garden. And, if this is not possible, you can try growing vegetables in containers on your balcony, or outside the kitchen door. A little bit of fresh food is better than none at all.
• Plenty of sunshine, water and fresh air.
Some things that you can share or borrow…
• A spade, a garden fork and a rake. If your soil is very hard you may need a pick
Some things just lie around waiting to be used. You can save a lot of money by using rubbish to create what you need in the garden.
• Watering cans made out of jam tins or plastic bottles with small holes punched in the bottom.
• Shadecloth made by cutting open plastic mesh bags (the type that vegetables are sold in) and sewing them together to form protective covers for your vegetable beds
• A wheel-less barrow, made from a drum cut in half lengthwise and nailed to two pieces of wood
• Old kitchen forks and spoons for transplanting seedlings
• Hard plastic bottles used for spray bottles, or cut to make scoops for compost.
• A measuring stick made from a straight piece
of wood – one metre long and about 3cm in width. Make lines across it with spacings of 5cm, 10cm, 20cm, 30cm, 40cm and 50cm.
This stick can be used to measure out the length and width of a bed and to mark out the rows for seeds and seedlings. If you do not have a measuring stick, use your spade, which is about one metre long
• A dibber which is used to transplant seedlings and to plant big seeds. You can make your own from a broken spade or fork handle, or a piece of stick, cut to 30cm and the end shaved to a point
• A garden line is used for marking lines and areas for digging. It is made of two sticks and a length of string.
Other things that are good to have but are not really necessary, and they’re expensive…
• Hose pipe, watering can, wheelbarrow
A little bit of effort and imagination will give you large rewards and loads of fun. Your vegetable garden could be the start of a great new life for you and your family.
You will also need loads of plant food
Feed your soil well, and you will be well fed
Growing plants take food from the soil and the soil becomes poorer. Therefore the plant food must be replaced before growing another crop. All waste that comes from living things should be put into the soil to replace this lost food. This kind of waste is called organic waste.
Where does it come from?
• Your kitchen’s vegetable waste – cabbage leaves, banana skins, orange peels, squash skins. Things like turnip, radish and carrot tops and beetroot leaves should never be thrown away as they make delicious and nutritious additions to the soup and stew pot. Turnip leaves are the richest source of Vitamin A of all the green vegetables.
• Garden waste – dead branches, weeds, remains of harvested plants, fallen leaves, dead flowers
• Feathers, bones, egg shells, egg boxes, cotton and wool rags, cardboard, paper, manure, old leather
Organic waste is free, and can be found easily. Don’t ever throw it away. Nature turns all waste into food. So …
• Start collecting as much organic waste as possible. Ask your neighbours, your family and your friends to save their waste for your garden. They may think you’re crazy, but just wait till they see what comes out of your well-fed soil. They’ll turn green with envy, and want to know how you did it.
• Examine your rubbish with new eyes, and design your own garden equipment.