Although winter rains are (hopefully) right around the corner, it is important to remember that the lack of water in Cape Town is not a short term problem. In the words of the Department of Water and Sanitation deputy director-general, Trevor Blazer, “South Africa’s dams could take up to five years to recover even if the country experiences normal rainfall following an extreme drought.” In short, we need to adapt to a dryer climate. That means learning to be savvier with our water now and preparing for many dry years to come.
On the bright side, for those living in the city, sustainably reducing water use is actually quite easy! Between installing water saving technologies and making simple changes to our behaviour we can quickly reduce our consumption to far below the recommended 100l per person per day.
But perhaps those most affected by a dryer climate are our gardeners and farmers. Due to the lack of water, farmers have been forced to create innovative, alternative ways to not only maintain production but also to simply keep their gardens or farms alive. To get a first-hand account of some of these challenges and innovations, I spoke to Lisa Conradie, an agroecology farmer at the Oude Molen Eco-Village.
The Oude Molen Eco Village is situated on a site called Valkenberg East, near Pinelands. It is situated in large, park-like gardens bordered by sensitive wetlands lining the Black River. The village is home the Milestone restaurant, Gaia Waldorf school and the 4.5-hectare garden which grows various kinds of vegetables and indigenous wild foods.
When I asked her about the effects of the current drought, Lisa’s answer pointed to multiple concerns: “Many of the centenary trees are starting to die back and there are more pest infestations in general. The old spring which feeds the wetland seems to have dried up. Everywhere, people are sinking boreholes. On the farm, the wetland has dried up and there are hungry animals and insects everywhere. Birds are eating the new shoots off trees which are just recovering after the rains. Cellulose eating insects are more abundant. Pioneer seeds which normally would germinate after clearing the land, are staying dormant.”
So, how is she dealing with these complex and interconnecting problems? She has come up with many innovative solutions which revolve around four key ideas.
1. Know Your Soil
When planting, the soil is surely the main priority that any gardener should take care of. It is the foundation of any seed or plant. In Lisa’s words, “spend time making yourself familiar with the soil you’re working with, before planting.”
I usually compare this “get to know you” period to the stage when one is getting to know their in-laws who don’t approve of them. Just like your in-laws, the soil is sometimes grumpy at you and will take some time to connect with you. But the more time you spend time with it, the more it understands and approves of your ways. So know your soil as if you were getting to know your in-laws.
“Just like your in-laws, the soil is sometimes grumpy at you and will take some time to connect with you. ”
2. Work the soil, not only the plants.
Lisa has expertly implemented a method called Hügelkultur at Oude Mole. This is a composting process employing raised beds constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. This method helped her to not only improve water retention but her also soil fertility and soil warming, thus improving plant growth. In Lisa’s words:
“I really love Hügelkultur because it gives you more versatility while building the soil so you can grow what you like today while capturing carbon and investing in the soil for tomorrow. So I’ve applied Hügelkultur by digging out trenches and filling them with untreated logs, buried, to capture water running through the farm to the wetland while building the soil profile and capturing carbon and having a water reservoir for the plants.”
By adapting and applying the Hügelkultur method, Lisa has not only secured her farm for the drought but she in sustained soil health.
3. Water Wise & Local for the Win!
We all know the types of plants we select for our gardens can not be ignored when it comes to water waste so thinking out of the box is truly needed.
“In my 4.5-hectare garden, I’ve learned to select only plants which do well in a certain environment. Sometimes the so-called water wise plants don’t do well or we get a little tired of seeing the same plant palette; experiment with a few new things and look around to see what grows in the area.”
The more you use your water wisely, the more you are aware of how much water the soil and plants need. In time you will figure out when and how to water.
4. Build A Garden Infrastructure
A safe and solid structure is what every farmer or gardener should work towards. Be patient and make sure that your plots/beds are working for the soil. Protection from the sun should always be considered. Once your infrastructure is on point your garden will flourish and regular maintenance will be a breeze. Lisa has a particularly interesting solution for getting her veggies to thrive.
“Planting perennials in cardboard boxes which are open at the bottom uses less compost, keeps chickens out and protects the plants from the elements while they grow. I also might dig a deep hole, fill it with compost, woodchips and hydrogel and then put a 110mm pipe down to the roots for watering. I am sure that this will take my plants right through to winter of 2018.”
Lessons from the Oude Molen Eco-Village
One might wonder, could Lisa’s way of overcoming the drought work for other farmers or urban gardeners? Of course! Here are 4 lessons that you can implement in your own garden at home.
1. Know your soil – is it sandy, full of clay, lacking in nutrients? Find out and act accordingly.
2. Build your soil profile – use compost, mulch and other organic matter to lock in moisture and reduce water runoff. And grow groundcovers to reduce evaporation.
3. Plant water wise plants – do your research on which plants survive well in dry climates. Use healthy seedlings which have been hardened off properly. And always consider your timing in terms of temperature and season.
4. Build your infrastructure – use what you have at home (shade cloth, boxes, watering pipes) to help your garden be more efficient.
Although maintaining a farm during a drought is difficult, Lisa has surely found a winning formula to which could be used for anyone growing their own food. Grasping some of the insight that she has shared with us will surely be of help to farmers and gardeners in the days to come.
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