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Fruit and veg gardening - why buy when you can grow?

Written by  Nikki van Coller
| in Tuin
| February 3, 2016

With the weak rand and South Africa in the middle of a devastating drought, food prices are set to increase by significant margins in the coming months. Now, more than ever, it makes sense to grow your own.

With the weak rand and South Africa in the middle of a devastating drought, food prices are set to increase by significant margins in the coming months. Now, more than ever, it makes sense to grow your own.

 Home vegetable gardens have become increasingly popular in the last decade, with many South Africans - from shack dwellers to suburban home owners - growing their own fruit and vegetables. Urban and community food gardens are also springing up everywhere, including the Masikhanye Food Garden in Khayelitsha, and the Central Methodist Community Garden, where vegetables are grown along the church’s fence, with a sign that says: ‘Free Food, please take only what you need’.

This points to the fact that people are starting to realise not only the need for becoming more self-reliant, but also just how easy it can be.

Whether you’re a farmer with a large tract of land, or a homeowner with a small garden, you can benefit enormously from growing your own fruit and vegetables.

tuin feb 2016 3Save on groceries

While there will be an initial outlay to pay for your seeds or seedlings, compost, and possibly the building of raised beds, or a tunnel greenhouse, you will save money in the long run. Not only can you grow (and therefore avoid buying) seasonal fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, you can also use your fresh produce to make your own preserves, sauces, dried fruit, pickled vegetables and so on.
Staff gardens

For those who have several live-in staff members, a communal vegetable garden can ensure your staff are adding fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables to their diets. Not only does this save on grocery bills, it also makes for healthier workers, which in turn increases productivity. The preparing, planting and upkeep of the vegetable garden can also increase the team spirit and a sense of community among your staff.

The healthy alternative

Store-bought fruit and veg are often treated with chemicals - everything from pesticides to preservatives to keep them fresher for longer. Growing your own food - and using natural methods of pest control - ensures the very best quality organic fruit and vegetables. This obviously works out a lot cheaper than purchasing your fresh produce from an organic store, which can be extremely expensive.

Feel-good factor

There is undoubtedly something very rewarding about growing your own food. Not only do you know you are saving money and eating the freshest, healthiest food possible, you are also gaining therapeutic value from the physical act. ‘Horticultural therapy’ is being used by some psychologists and mental health workers as a way to help their patients stay positive and calm, while a recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other relaxing leisure activities. A similar study conducted in Norway, had people diagnosed with depression, persistent low mood, or bipolar II disorder spend six hours a week growing flowers and vegetables.
After three months, half of the participants had experienced a measurable improvement in their depression symptoms.

The next generation

Food security is unlikely to improve in coming decades, and with the trend towards self-sufficiency, it’s vital that the kids of today are taught how to grow their own food. Having your own vegetable garden can be a fun and informative family activity. Not only are you spending quality time together outdoors, you are also equipping your children with important skills that might help them to lead sustainable lifestyles in the future.

Home industry

Growing produce can also be an additional source of income. You may for instance make your own tomato jam or chilli relish, and sell these via a farm stall or co-op. Many people supplement their incomes with side-line food products such as flavoured oils, herb extracts, preserves and more.


If you are considering starting your own vegetable garden - whether a small box with a few favourites, or a sizeable garden to feed your family and/or staff, don’t delay. The sooner you plant, the sooner you can enjoy your first harvest. But what can be planted in February/March in your area?

In the Western Cape and along the West Coast
•  Artichokes  •  Lettuce  •  Cabbage
•  Marrow and gem squash  •  Celery
•  Kale  •  Beetroot  •  Broad beans
•  Cauliflower  •  Turnips  •  Rhubarb

In the Northern Cape
•  Turnips  •  Onion  •  Lettuce  •  Cabbage
•  Cauliflower  •  Beetroot  •  Broad beans
•  Kale  •  Leeks


If you have yet to start your vegetable garden, the first thing to do is plan thoroughly. Ask yourself a few questions: What will you be using the produce for and how many people do you want your garden to feed? How much space do you have available? How much time and money are you willing to invest to start your vegetable garden?

It’s important to plant the vegetables you are most likely to eat; those that you already purchase and cook with on a regular basis. If you are not a kale eater, don’t expect that you will suddenly enjoy it - stick with what you know.

Once you know what you want to plant and how much of it, it’s time to plan the site. Research which vegetables need full sun and which prefer to be sheltered from the heat and/or wind. Also look at which are climbers, creepers and sprawlers - and design your vegetable garden accordingly.

You will need to allocate a specific space (or spaces) to your crops, and then plan, design and build the beds. Ideally, avoid an exposed, windy site, and avoid a site with many trees, as their roots will seek the rich, moist soil in your vegetable beds.

Talking of soil, this is obviously of the utmost importance, and you might want to have your soil tested to gain a very clear idea of which nutrients are missing, so that you can start with the best possible soil for growing the healthiest possible food.

You might also want to consider companion planting, which essentially means growing plants together that are of benefit to one another.

tuin feb 2016 1


Tunnels are an increasingly popular way to grow produce, particularly if you have a large area available. Tunnels are also called tunnel greenhouses, high tunnels or polytunnels and are often confused with greenhouses. The key differences are that tunnels are a semi-circular shape (thus the name tunnel) and are not heated – and therefore less expensive.

This method of farming might seem new, but has actually been around in South Africa since the 1970s, when it was found that vegetables could be grown successfully without soil. Sound impossible? Not at all!

Some tunnel vegetable growers grow their vegetables ‘hydroponically’, using nutrient-based solutions. Plants are grown in plastic bags or containers filled with various mediums, including pine sawdust mixed with shavings. Others simply use the tunnel structure over soil beds, while some use a combination, depending on the produce.

What are the advantages?

Tunnel farming has many advantages.  Firstly, you will be using far less water all year round, which in these drought-stricken times is of vital importance.  Secondly, your crops will be better protected from pests and disease.  

Using a tunnel also allows you much more control over the growing environment, and goes a long way to protecting your crops from the elements - be it the harsh sun, or torrential rains. A polytunnel is much cheaper to erect than a greenhouse, and also a lot more mobile, should you need to relocate it.
This method of vegetable gardening extends your growing season enormously and increases the number of different varieties of vegetable crops you can grow.

tuin feb 2016 2Growing vegetables in a tunnel, the hydroponic way, has many advantages:

- No soil is required.
- Plants are irrigated automatically, minimising the need for labour.
- You save huge amounts of water.
- Nutrients are available to the plants at all times.
- Ability to produce larger yields of vegetables within a small area.
- Soil borne diseases are not an issue.

Build your own polytunnel from scrap

If you would rather not spend too much money, consider building your own polytunnel. All you need is a bit of time, the perfect site, some DIY skills and basic scrap materials. Here’s how:

1. Build the end frames

Pick up some PVC plumbing pipe and measure it into separate sections of your desired length to create the arches of your tunnel. Around 2.1m is a good height for the tunnel – too low and it could collapse.  Fit two of the pipes to two 3.3m long pieces of scrap wood with screws – these will make the arches for the doorframes. A 1m to 1.5m wide door will work, and you can fix this frame together with wood glue. Use nails and a hand saw to trim any extra pieces. Next, measure and wrap some good quality plastic sheeting around each of your end frames, cut with a sharp utility knife and fix with a staple gun.

2. Prepare for your piping

Level the ground that your polytunnel will cover. Measure where your door frames will be placed and drive four steel fence posts (two on each side) into the ground for reinforcement against strong winds. You can tie the end frames onto these with wire, wire ties, or rope. Then measure and fit metal stakes into the ground where you want your pipe arches to be placed.

3. Create the skeleton

Fit the PVC pipes onto the stakes to create the arched ribs for your polytunnel skeleton. For added infrastructure, add four PVC pipes to the edges and top of the frame as this prevents water build-up.

4. Fit the plastic

Finally, measure the plastic sheeting to cover the whole of the frame and staple the ends to two pieces of scrap wood. Roll the sheeting over the top of the polytunnel and then nail the wooden pieces to plywood battens laid firmly in the ground soil.

(Based on an email submitted by Anglia Tool Centre  www.sprig.co.za.)

Hydroponic vs. Organic

It’s important to note that hydroponic production is not organic. This is because artificial nutrients are used and plants are normally not grown in soil.