The Socialist Gardener – Ben Tsuro

A friendly Zimbabwean man has turned on the ‘grow your own food’ vibe in my neighbourhood. Wherever you find Ben Tsuro he is working. Whether planting parsley at his neighbour’s garden, helping a Makoti mop the stoep or digging a hole, he loves to work. He calls himself a Socialist Farmer.

Ben Tsuro with Mazwi Ngubane and Vusi Danisa
Ben Tsuro with Mazwi Ngubane and Vusi Danisa

A painter by trade, he came to South Africa nine years ago to seek employment and has settled in most major South African cities. Back at home, he managed a farm that produces tobacco, maize, cotton, wheat and barley.
Ben loves growing food so much that he buys seeds and seedlings with money earned from his odd painting jobs and plants them, not only in his garden, but his neighbours’ gardens as well. This last year, he has assisted five families to have productive gardens. Coming from a country where farming is the staple of life it’s no wonder he has a fondness for agriculture. He is always friendly and generous, believing that people should not be short of greens. Ben says “Green equals Life, growing plants for food is a reflection of the life we lead.”

harrismith 124Ben has awakened people from their iCansi (sleeping mat). Mazwi Ngubane’s garden is now sprouting with cabbages, mealies, spinach and pumpkin, when not long ago it was just hard, bare ground shadowed by fruit trees. Ben’s landlord, Vusi Danisa, thinks he is a blessing as he would have liked long ago to have a vegetable garden but because of illness, associated with aging, never had the energy to get it started.

harrismith 127Ben has travelled around the globe, through Southern Africa all the way to Yugoslavia. He says “Every place you land, you must make a home and every person you meet, you must make a friend.” That helps him get through to people and motivate them into doing things for themselves. He hopes to help others establish household gardens and was delighted to hear of the iLima project of the Mpophomeni Conservation Group, where he will be able to volunteer his assistance.

Shine Ben!

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See How Our Garden Grows

“Every home must have a garden” declares Ntombenhle Mtambo passionately. Not content with turning her tiny back yard into a food forest, Ntombenhle has been pestering the uMngeni Municipality for the past 8 years to allow her to use a vacant plot, which residents have been using as a dumping site, for a food garden.  This is a collection of photos taken between August and December 2014 of the progress made on the corner of Mhlongo and Stadium Roads in Mpophomeni.

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Volunteers began by clearing the rubbish from the site

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eish, so much buried plastic!

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Removing rocks

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and levelling

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Once the fence was up, real gardening could start. Thanks Hilton and Howick Rotary for sponsoring the fence.

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“This is so important,” Ntombenhle says, “Everyone should have the ability to afford a healthy lifestyle. In this garden we will share skills and teach people to recycle all the things they think are waste.”

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The first swales is marked and dug

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More beds and swales spread across the site

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Everyone is learning as they work.

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Seedlings are gathered from gardens at home

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and planting the beds begins.

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How wonderful the gardens are already taking shape. Ntombenhle, your enthusiasm is contagious. I shall be sure to remember you next time we are harvesting seedlings from the Khula Shanti gardens. Also, remember to get some sunflowers in – they are such HAPPY plants and grow well alongside mielies. Very proud of you, well done.” Carol Segal Khula Shanti Food Gardens

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“Wonderful work, hope we can work with this remarkable group into 2015. African Conservation Trust will definitely be contacting them! Well done, now to spread the virus of gardening for food!” Francois du Toit African Conservation Trust

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Trees and shrubs for windbreaks and shelter are planted.

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It takes a lot of effort to get them all watered in.r watering trees

“This is fantastic Ntombenhle and team. Well done on your perseverance and hard work. I can’t wait to come and visit your garden and contribute my two cents worth of plants.” Karen Zunckel KZN Sustainability Forum

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Compost and cardboard is collected from around the township and people are encouraged to donate grass clippings to use as mulch.

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Then work starts on the other side of the garden – more clearing, more swales, more beds…

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“Congratulations to everyone who is working so hard to grow food in Mpophomeni! You are all an inspiration. I hope to stop by and see for myself what you have done. A dream becoming reality.” Christeen Grant, Boston

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The herb spiral is marked out

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The nursery is started and before you know it, passers by are stopping to buy seedlings.

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Trees are labelled

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Pedestrians stop to read the signs.

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Everything starts to grow!

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The garden gets greener every week!

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Radishes are the first crop we can eat.

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We can already harvest and sell greens!

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Hope, Maxwell and Skhumbuzo are our garden champions – volunteering every day whatever the weather.

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We need to keep watering in the summer heat. Luckily, the small stream keeps flowing strongly.

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Mulch is essential to help keep the soil cool.

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The sunflowers are reaching for the sky!

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The green beans are climbing the old fence!

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The radishes are so big now, we don’t know what to do with them!

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Ntombenhle concludes “This piece of land is going to bring lots of fun, unity in the community, new skills and challenges. I can see a bright future if the community roll up their sleeves and learn to make money out of waste and gardening.”

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Come and see for yourself what is happening on the corner of Mhlongo and Stadium Roads in Mpophomeni. Or like us on facebook.com/MpopConserve

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Urban Agriculture Forum

“We are getting famous now” laughs Ntombenhle.  MCG are invited regularly to visit other organisations to share their story and their vision for Mpophomeni.

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MCG were invited by MIDI to do a presentation to the Urban Agriculture Forum on their organisation at a meeting held at Dovehouse early in 2014 – it was very well received. Zane Mchunu regional coordinator said “There is nothing like your group anywhere in the district. You are unique and should be recognised by uMgungundlovu District Municipality.”

Each participant receive a box of organic produce. Ntombenhle gave hers to a neighbour who has no income and is not well.

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Now they are constantly invited to travel to other areas in the greater Pietermaritzburg region to assist with garden projects, give advice and inspiration. A couple of months later they visited the garden at the Children’s Home in Pietermaritzburg that was originally created by Paul Duncan of Dovehouse.

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Karen Zunckel commented “It was a great pleasure to meet Ntombenhle at MIDI’s Urban Agriculture workshop and to listen to her passion for permaculture and the cleaning up of Mpophomeni. I particularly liked her philosophy of ‘Ilima’ which, she explained, is when people from the community come together to work in one house – a real sense of community, much like uBuntu. I hope to learn more from Ntombenhle again.”

Zane of MIDI is now a big fan of the Mpophomeni Conservation Group’s  gardening efforts.“I’m blown away by the excellent work. These are the Queens of Permaculture!” They visited the garden at Qhamukile School that Ntombenhle and Tutu have been working on for the past couple of years.

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Tutu and Ntombenhle were invited to attend the Forum meeting held in the Garden of Eden Project in Jika Joe settlement in Pietermaritzburg to share their infectious enthusiasm and knowledge.  The Urban Agriculture Forum is a platform to network, promote trade and marketing of produce, showcase case studies as well as exploring success and challenges in urban agriculture.

visit to Eden Garden Jika Joe

In late winter, Zane brought some colleagues to see the community garden and got stuck in digging holes and watering.

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Ever keen to include others in their dream of everyone having good food and earning money from selling produce, MCG welcomed Kuhle Kudla to a community meeting to learn how they can partner to make their vision a reality. Graham Farley explained the Kuhle Kudla mission.

Graham Farley Kuhle Kudla Mpop Gardens

The have sold some of their produce at the Kuhle Kudla outlet in Howick and regularly order produce from them, including free range eggs and milk and locally made bread when they need to cater for groups.  These relationships are set to flourish.

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Pea Pyramids, Podocarpus and Plenty of Salad

The Mpophomeni Conservation Group arranged a visit for supporters to the Khula Shanti Sanctuary and Food Garden in Boston recently. Thanks to the Global Green Grants Fund and N3TC for sponsoring the inspiring day.

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Carol Segal reports: We were given the most glorious sunshine day to enjoy the splendour of Khula Shanti Sanctuary. A group of 15 beautiful beings arrived at the Pickle Pot Café. We introduced our staff and our dogs.

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We refreshed ourselves with fresh spring water, infused with lavender flowers, mint and orange slices and munched on just baked carrot and banana bread.

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All systems charged, walking shoes on and time to explore the forest. The forest walk was an enlightening success, the feedback at the end of the day revealed that this was a first time experience for many of our visitors.

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We had the opportunity to observe and talk about biodiversity, planting in guilds, forest mulch, eco-systems, habitats and conservation. The abundance of Podacarpus trees in the Khula Shanti Forest sparked discussions on national trees, animals and flowers. The idea of a national tree was new knowledge for some visitors, and many took to spotting all the Podacarpus along the walk.

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Deep in the heart of the forest is a solid, cool rock face – time to touch energy as well as observe example of the use of rocks in nature and how we can integrate them into food garden design. The moss and lichen growing on these rocks provided classic photographic material and also more discussions around habitat and biodiversity. As well as the unanswerable question. “how do trees grow out of rocks?”

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Our precious finds for the day were some fresh samples of duiker droppings, porcupine droppings, as well as a magnificent feather which we are almost certain belonged to an owl.

Ntombenhle shared some valuable insights on bugweed removal and the problems of alien invaders in our natural forests. Carol comments “she bubbles energy and optimism which was contagious for the group.” Tutu loved learning about the importance of rocks in the garden and left inspired to rehabilitate the eMashingeni forest at the top of the Mpophomeni valley.

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We took the walk slowly and allowed individuals to absorb and receive what was required from nature as it was apparent that for many the experience was fresh and new. Moses said “I grew up in Jozi, so today, walking in a forest was a whole new experience for me. I have never done that before. Walk and listen and look at the forest. It was good. This is a new era for me, I am blessed to have met MCG.”

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The forest walk is a fairly steep incline for some, so many were pleased to see the cheerful welcome of the bright and happy floral food forest garden. We spent the first 10 minutes of our time in the garden, walking around silently, observing feeling the Khula Shanti Food Gardens.

r Mpop khula shanti climate Sept 275 - CopyWe then opened discussions around what new knowledge could be taken from the food gardens. The cucumber and pea pyramid, the chicken tractor, rock pathways, circular beds, companion planting, Vermiculture, compost making, comfrey tinctures, mulch and tea trees are only a few of the discussions we shared.

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“It is important to have a place to sit in your garden. To enjoy the work you do, and to watch the work of little things.“ said Ntombenhle

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Skhumbuso dug his hands into the compost heap and filled them with rich moist compost teaming with red wriggler worms. Everyone was pleased to hear that goat and horse manure is fantastic for the compost heap.

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Nqobile was most impressed by the idea of worm wee. “I still don’t believe what I saw. The chicken tractor, the indigenous forest. This is the first time I have seen these things and it is wonderful.” The Khula Shanti Chicken tractors were the source of much curiosity and questioning. “I’m going to try this at home” she said.

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It was encouraging to observe the contagious enthusiasm and tangible inspiration while people were browsing, grazing, sniffing and tasting the sensory explosion of the food garden. Questions around seed saving, seed-plug propagation, succession planting were answered. Gertrude liked the idea of using old cans to grow plants in “Tomorrow I am going to collect all the scrap around my place to use.” she said.

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The day still in full bloom, we sat down and chatted about marketing strategies for food gardens, how and where to sell organic veg. Carol demonstrated her food box scheme and shared ideas, obstacles and visions her experience. Ntombenhle made some notes about Marketing their produce:

  • Tell people what you have to sell
  • They will order what they need
  • Wash the veg and pack nicely in a box
  • Pack different things together
  • Make a name tag for that person, make it pretty
  • Make sure you add R20 so you can make some money
  • Start small
  • Sell to weddings, tuck shops, neighbours, schools

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We divided ourselves into two groups to pack 2 food box orders – went back up to the garden to select, pick, wash and prepare the orders. This was a fun and hands on activity which could be further expanded in the future. For many visitors new learnings were – variety of vegetables and herbs, presentation of vegetables before selling them, pricing and packing, where to sell and who to sell to.

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When discussing the possibilities of starting a food box scheme, Carol shared the obstacles she has faced and also reminded the group of the importance of co-operatives as well as the danger of over-promising and under-delivering. We shared ideas around how to successfully start a business and start small rather than big to ensure a steady supply as well as to be reliable in quality as well as quantity of produce. The food box packing demonstration was well received, everyone participated and much was learnt, including how to pick and eat peas before packing them.

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Finally, time to feast. We shared briefly about nutrition and the importance of eating foods from our gardens and raw food first.

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The idea of salads and salad sandwiches, for lunch was not received with glee by all visitors. Carol did overhear the request “Is there any peanut butter and bread to eat?”

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However, the majority of participants tucked into the lunch with gusto and enjoyed the harvest from the garden. Kwenza commented “That kind of juice food we ate was delicious and healthy. Now we know about organic gardening.” Stembile added “I really enjoyed eating the lunch; my taste-buds are still dancing”

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We closed our day with a feedback session on what new learnings had been received and where people would like to go to from here. Some comments made in the feedback session were:

“I never thought you could plant flowers in a vegetable garden”

“I am so surprised how clean this place is, I have never been to a place like this, where there is no litter”

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Ntombenhle was delighted ”This workshop helped the group to know and understand what we are trying to do on the community garden site. They now have a good picture of what is going on. I am glad that we are not alone anymore.”

Inspiration for All

A group of aspiring gardeners living in Pietermaritzburg visited Mpophomeni Conservation Group recently to see how they go about food gardening in the township. Ntombenhle Mtambo and Tutu Zuma showed them around the Sifisesihle School garden and discussed their work in the outdoor classroom under the tree.Ntombenhle inspires aspiring gardeners at Sifisesihle outdor classroomThe group were interested in who benefits from the gardens and whether there is support from the community for what MCG are trying to teach. Samke said afterwards “You inspired me with the way you teach kids about gardening. I am going to teach others your song “keep the garden gate closed.” Then they visited three home gardens – starting with Mamsy Khumalo – they liked the idea that one should just plant veggies between the flowers as she has done because she has so little space.r mpop mumsy 3

Nelisiwe Khumalo told them her story about losing her job because she had TB, realising she needed good food to get strong and started a new life of growing food. They were amazed at how much food one can produce in such a small area in Ntombenhle’s garden.  Ntombenhle said afterwards “I think Nelisiwe’s story gave them hope for new beginnings. Now we need to show them now how to cook their food so that it is healthy and how they can be vegetarians eating very tasty food.”nelly's harvest

“We had a great visit with a combination of women who haven’t done much gardening and some who know how to garden, but in central African conditions. This was good encouragement for the cassava garden they are starting in Bisley.” concluded Kendelle Fawcett, facilitator for Mennonite Ministries who work with refugees, micro-finance groups, and bring women from different communities together to promote peace.

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To book a garden tour or hire MCG to give advice in your garden call Tutu 083 730 8193 or Ntombenhle 071 916 2550

Food Forest

Tutu Zuma’s Garden in Madala Section is a colourful food forest.

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Tutu says: “It is a great pleasure to invite young and old people to visit my garden. To teach them how to conserve and take care of our environment by doing a small piece of garden.”

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“Sharing old history, reading stories and teaching them new things like saving seed for the future. I think this will really help the young ones not to do the wrong things. With the elders, we keep them active by doing exercises.”

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“I am very proud of my food forest and medicinal plant garden. It keeps me strong and healthy and I have never been hungry – I eat green food throughout winter.”

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“It also works as an exercise strategy and creates income. My neighbours, orphans, old people and those who are sick benefit from my garden – they get fresh food and also learn skills.”

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Neighbour Aunti Nani says “Girl you are a super star around our area. We are proud of you.”

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Tutu’s Garden is always a great spot to hold meetings. Read a related story at: https://plantabundance.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/peach-blossom-peas-in-pops/

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Dreaming on the Dumpsite

For eight years Ntombenhle Mtambo has been asking the Municipality for permission to turn the piece of ground where everyone dumps their rubbish into a food garden.

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“We would like to help the community we live in. We would like to see them learn to understand the importance of nature and caring for the environment where they live in their daily lives, every day. Learning about these things will open their eyes, save money, water, energy and give them opportunities to earn money out of waste and gardening.

We would love to get rid of all the dumping sites because they cause misery for those who live near them, the rubbish blocks the storm water drains, rotting things smell bad and can cause disease. The municipality and other organisations like Friends for Life do clear up the rubbish sometimes but this is not the solution. Burning waste is bad for our health and the environment. We need to teach the community that much of the waste is useful so they stop dumping and causing problems.”

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Watch this short video about Ntombenhle’s dream: https://vimeo.com/92513329

In mid 2014, the Municipality granted her a one year lease for the property on the corner of Mhlongo and Stadium Roads. This was cause for celebration!

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Con Roux of N3TC joined us to drink champagne among the goats.

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Ntombenhle used the opportunity to outline her plans. N3TC are proud to be associated with this fantastic project and to support Ntombenhle’s dream of turning Mpophomeni into a food forest.

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When the champagne was finished we had to roll up our sleeves and get to work!

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Gardens of Mpop

There is food popping up everywhere in Mpophomeni. We took a walk to visit some gardens.

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Ma Zuma’s colourful garden is lovely

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The pigeons Ma Zuma feeds everyday are very happy with their green home.

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Ntombenhle can’t resist giving some advice!

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Nelly’s pumpkin is hiding

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The garden beside the tuck shop

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Baba Gwamande’s Garden. He says “These wonderful ideas work well with us elderly people. We need to eat well and stay healthy. I love to walk around helping others in their gardens, it gives me strength and the reason to face another beautiful day.”

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Ms Magoza is enjoying her garden. “I am 73 years old and am not well. Since this Angel came into my life, things are better. Now I am back where I used to be – growing food using umquba (manure). Ntombenhle told me what to plant and to mix the flowers in – it is so beautiful. I am very proud of who I have become in my old age. I used to think it was all over, I was just waiting to die.”r mpop april 2014 046

a tiny new garden in a backyard

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These ladies are proud of their efforts

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Sthembile Mbanjwa’s garden is looking great!

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Sthembile says “I am so grateful to be one of the people who learn from the best. My father used to plant our garden, but after he died the garden stay still. One day Ntombenhle pass by and ask why we don’t make this garden good. I told her I don’t know how to start. She just arrived on Friday with the tools and said let’s do it. She showed me how and I love it. We harvest a lot and we save some seeds for next year. Hurray!”

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Baba Shelembe: “Our garden is now waterwise. We water only once or twice a week because of this new thing of mulching, saving water and energy. I am old, but I learn. It works wonders.”

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Mamsy Ntombela: “My garden is so small and with a few flowers only. Ntombenhle came one morning with her spade, rake and fork and said let’s start to make a veggie garden. We took some of the flowers out and gave them to our neighbours and in between we planted veggies. Yoooh, we did it, now there is no turning back – lots of spinach, peppers, chillies and Chinese cabbage in a small space – it works!”

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Ntombenhle concludes: “Permaculture gardens can do many things to uplift the community. I am concerned about my community and would like to address the issues they face in a practical and sustainable way. This is also our chance to show them how to recycle, save water, eat healthily, make money, improve the environment and to teach young people about Values. This is an ongoing development programme where skills learnt will be passed to others to uplift everyone in the long term.”

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Zero to Garden Hero

Penz’ amazing garden she created in just a few months. What a Woman!

Penz' Malinga Feb 2014 garden

Back in Winter, her back garden was bare.

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She set to work, digging, planting and mulching and making compost.

Penz compost heap aug 2013

Now the garden is green in every corner!

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she has tree tomatoes and brinjals

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and pumpkins and onions

Trevar inspects the onion crop

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and loads of greens.

Penz first cabbages and Trevar

Penz says “Being in possession of gardening implements meant I had the tools to change the back of our small property (which looked like a desert) into a food garden. Now I never have to venture out of the yard to find a meal. As a Vegetarian I feel really empowered not having to buy fresh produce from the local supermarket as there are usually only commercially farmed versions, not much variety and I keep my money in my pocket. I have been able to exchange seeds with my neighbours, grow seedlings and plant them in low income or impoverished household gardens nearby. I used the waste from the garden to make my first compost heap and the neighbours got inspired not to throw away the grass clippings and instead use them as a blanket (mulch) to cover the soil from the elements.”

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