There is a shopping centre/center (depending on the English you speak) called Constantia Village a few minutes' drive from my parents' house in Cape Town. It's a regular haunt for me when I am in town. After New York-style shopping (hopping between butcher, baker, candlestick maker) I find mall culture exotic. Everything under one roof. There is a tiny biltong shop selling the delectable air-dried meat that South Africans love. There are two big supermarkets purveying irresistible items like affordable (by New York standards) free range South African lamb, piles of passion fruit, and the best raisin bread, ever (except now I have my own recipe). Or custard and malva pudding, if you are the Frenchman (who is in Cape Town, at last). There are banks and clothes shops and a book shop and a jeweler and hairdressers and home stores and a pharmacy and a health shop and a bakery and a camping equipment shop.
And there is a huge parking lot, patrolled by car guards who watch over cars, and help with bags.
At one end of this vast parking lot there is a small vegetable garden planted on a raised island topped by two old stone pine trees. I climb the wooden steps to look at it almost every time I visit. Recently, in this late winter, early spring crossover time in Cape Town, my curiosity got the better of me and back at home after taking these pictures I visited the website advertised on the garden's pole fencing. This led me to Urban Harvest.
Above, perfect fava (broad) beans. Did you know that their flowers are scented?
I emailed Ben Getz, Urban Harvest's founder. Ben said that he immediately saw the potential for turning this previously unused space into an edible garden, when he first noticed it, and approached the center management with a proposal. "They were entirely enthusiastic about the idea of using the space to grow organic food, raise awareness about edible gardens and benefit the community, " he wrote, in an email. The neat fencing and all the wood was donated by The Poleyard, and then Ben and his team installed the garden over three weeks in 2013.
I love wine bottle beds, especially in winemaking country, which this is. These upcycled bottles came from Oasis, a recycling centre "which empowers physically and mentally different beneficiaries," says Ben (all my parents' recycling goes to them, too). And while Urban Harvest has used "tens of thousands of bottles" in various gardens, they do not use them often anymore because, he says, "they are particularly time consuming to layout properly." Still, pretty.
The straw that covers the beds comes from horse farms or is bought in bales and is an effective mulch - not as necessary for moisture-retention now in the rainy season, but useful in hot dry summers.
Mature cool-weather-loving chard tempted me...just a few stalks, who'd miss them? When I asked Ben how the vegetables here are used he said, "We often give vegetables to the car guards, and street people, especially if they show real interest in the garden." The produce has also been used for weekly on-site markets as well as for local delis and restaurants. "But most of the harvests are donated to the local Haven Night Shelter," says Ben. Cape Town has a significant and mostly uncharted homeless population and shelters are few and far between.
Despite its public nature (and perhaps because of the car guard presence, as well as pretty tight video surveillance of the car park itself) he says that neither theft nor vandalism has been a problem in this garden.
Quick-Pickled Beet Recipe:
Peel 3 medium-sized raw beets and slice thinly. Stack the slices and cut into matchsticks. Combine 1/3 cup sherry vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 3 Tablespoons sugar (trust me), 2 teaspoons salt, and mix. Pour over the beetroot slivers in a small bowl (the beets should be covered by the brine). Ready after 15 minutes and will keep for a week in the fridge. Wonderful in salads or on banh mi, and exquisite with creamy burrata.
This organic garden is just one of 300 food gardens that Urban Harvest has established in Cape Town. Of these about 50% are community-based CSI-related gardens, 40% are private home gardens and 10% belong to hotels and restaurants.
With a degree in philosophy, social anthropology, environmental and geographical science, as well as personal interests in yoga, meditation, permaculture and archetypal psychology, Ben said he wanted to make a living doing something that would benefit society and marry his diverse passions. Urban Harvest was a perfect fit. "I find I'm at my happiest when my hands are busy and when I'm working with people less privileged than me," he says.
This particular garden is tended weekly by Urban Harvest Edumaintenance Teams, led by gardeners Tichaona Nyaruviro, Edmore Manomano and Famous Kuseli. Generally, however, Ben says, "We consider it a completion of our service and a success when clients graduate to self-sustainability. Eventually all our clients get there. This could take 3 months or more than 3 years, depending."
I am not sure how many of the thousands of shoppers who frequent Constantia Village ever look more closely at this little garden, but if, like me, they are drawn to its seasonal crops and well tended beds, they might think twice about the tomatoes they are buying in pre-spring, and the provenance of cold season red peppers, both denizens of late summer, and learn to watch a little, and wait, and listen to what the seasons tell them about eating.
To learn more about Urban Harvest and the gardens they create, visit the link to their website.
[Photos courtesy of my Samsung Galaxy S7. I am a fan.]