good-soilAs I look out over our backyard farm, my heart cringes. The sight of scorched plants and dry, sandy patches brings tears to my eyes. We had been blessed with two consecutive abundant seasons where we had enough fresh vegetables for our kitchen needs as well as to make jams, chutneys, pickled cucumbers and zucchinis. Now (summer 2015), the severest drought in twenty-five years is crippling the country. Due to the lack of water combined with extreme hot weather, (the mercury rising to 39 degrees Celsius) even the most of resilient plants struggles to survive. Surrounded by brick walls on all sides, our small yard becomes a heat trap were plants within a matter of an hour would be burned to a crisp. Water supply are running low, stage 2 water restrictions are already in place and we are facing difficulties that goes beyond our small urban farm.

The season started out well. We had been working on improving the soil quality of the garden and we had new beds available for the plant. We also prepared our own seeds for the season and planted zucchinis, butternuts, stem beans, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, three different varieties of tomatoes, celery, peppers, salad greens, spinach, spring onions as well as parsley, coriander and basil. The household produced enough grey water to keep these bed well watered for the interim period before the start of the rainy season. The factors that we could control, we had in place. The most important element, over which we had no control, however remained elusive. Three and a half months into the new season, we barely had any rain.

Looking out over the center of the garden all I can see is the stalks of what use to be Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and red cabbage like dried bones in the midst of a dust bowl. In two of the side beds, a few scraggly tomato plants valiantly put up a fight. Even the hardy marigolds are but a mere shadow of the previous seasons.

To be a gardener is to be an optimist, every seed or seedling planted an act of trusting faith that an abundant harvest will be the outcome of all the hard work and tender care. Nothing can replace the joy, sense of accomplishment and gratitude for a good yield, indescribable the sorrow and grief at the disruption of the delicate balance and partnership between farmer/gardener and earth. After nursing seeds to seedlings and seedlings to fruit bearing mature plants, the loss of these to extreme weather conditions rips out the heart of the committed gardener, the sense of helplessness in the face of elements beyond our control, even to seasoned farmers almost too much to bear.

In a desperate attempt to save our urban farm, we have transplanted the plants that survived the heat, into containers, which we placed in shady areas underneath the trees. It was too late for most of them, but we did manage to save a few tomatoes, peppers, spinach and celery. We started germinating new seeds in the hope of getting a small crop from the containers. We are rethinking our farming practices, seeking water wise options for this specific season as well as adapting our nutrient management to compliment the container planting.

The steady flow of fresh produce to our kitchen, which we are used to, had come to an abrupt halt and we are now dependent on the local supermarket for our kitchen needs. This situation does not sit well with my independent spirit. I am however, reminded that through our life journey we will always have seasons of total independence interlaced with seasons of complete dependence. It is not our dependency or independence that determines the outcome but our attitude. Will our overly independence limit us in our resilience in a time of dependence? Will our dependence become a permanent condition disabling us from living to our fullest potential?

However, I am not one to take things lying down. To me, this is a temporary setback, an opportunity to re-evaluate our self-sustainable lifestyle and to adapt to the changing economy and global climate. I choose to focus not on that which we had lost, but on that which we can gain.

I remind myself that for every season there is a reason and that a dry season, despite the devastation, carries benefits with it. Drought is not something that we need to fight or work against, but to embrace and work together with as part of the natural seasonal cycles. Nature knows what it is doing. We do not need to be involved and force our way into every cycle nor do we need to control it. It is to our advantage to understand the dynamics and benefits of a dry season as well as collaboration with nature.

This season we will be growing the soil, allowing it to rest and to heal itself. As the plants die off because of the drought, we let them lay where they fall. The last couple of months I have been preparing probiotics that I am now adding to the soil. I will also be adding earthworms to the garden later in the month.

Like everything else in life, urban farming cannot be successful unless the foundational principles are in place. We did not take the time to grow the depleted soil when we moved into our cottage two years ago but immediately set about trying to undo some of the damage to the environment by attending to superficial factors. This dry season are now granting us the opportunity to get the foundation of our backyard farm namely healthy, fertile soil, established. This is only the beginning of managing our small piece of land in a different way as we are approaching our farming practices from a new perspective and mindset. I will tell more about this in postings to follow.

Here is to healthy, living and fertile soil.

©Copyright Micelle Coetsee 2015


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