Posts Tagged ‘growing food’

A Perfect Food Garden

zanzibar crops-2

I was accompanying my husband on a business trip in Zanzibar, and having nothing to do in my air-conditioned hotel room,decided to engage a driver who could show me how the people of Zanzibar grew their food. I found a guide who spoke English reasonably well and tried to explain what I was after. He looked at me rather blankly……”Oh, you want the spice tour,” he said, and without further ado we set off in his car. I kept on demanding “food gardens” and he kept on insisting “spice tour” until eventually I gave up.

We arrived at a small farmstead, which consisted of a collection of huts surrounded by palm trees next to the potholed road. Here I was introduced to a young man who told me that he would be explaining the value of all the spices to me, adding that he was not officially a guide, but he needed to practice his English. “Where did he learn about the plants?” I asked, thinking that I would prefer to have an official guide. Noting my hesitation the “guide” flatly informed me that in Zanzibar you did not have to “learn about plants”. You just grew up with them, and that was sufficient.

So we set off into a forest of very beautiful trees interspersed with tall palms. First stop……a henna tree. “This is where the leaves have been harvested and you can see the new leaves coming,” our guide explained. “On the other side the tree looks very different: that is where the leave will be harvested from next time.” All around the henna tree were bunches of lemon grass. “The grass is collected and used fresh for making tea, or dried and bundled so that it can be burned and the smoke used as an insect repellent. The stems are collected for cooking, and for making a body lotion.” The guide’s English was excellent and I was becoming more and more interested. He pointed to another clump of plants next to the footpath, and laughingly asked me to guess what they were. Turmeric.  Again the many uses were explained – both culinary and medicinal.

zanzibar. palm tree 2The forest was refreshingly cool. The trees – clove, cinnamon, litchi, nutmeg and many others I did not recognise, cast a dappled shade, and here and there were small clearings with lemon grass, turmeric, ginger, cardamom and cassava. The forest floor was carpeted with leaves, old palm fronds, and coconut husks. Palm trees grew everywhere: some with creepers full of peppercorns waiting to be picked clinging to their trunks, whilst others supported creepers festooned with vanilla pods.

A farmer, together with a party of children arrived. There were greetings of “Jumbo” all round. The farmer asked if I would like something to drink, kicked off his shoes, grabbed a figure-of-eight shaped piece of rope and proceeded to climb up a coconut palm – at least three story’s high. “Hakuna matata – huh.” The farmer’s voice rang out as he climbed rhythmically up the palm’s stem. “Hakuna matata” the guide and the children shouted back, clapping their hands and dancing from side to side as the farmer climbed higher and higher. I would have loved to sing along, but since I didn’t know the words I had to be content with merely clapping to the rhythm. On reaching the top, the farmer pulled a sharp knife from his belt and hacked down some coconuts and a palm frond.

We relaxed in the sun while the coconuts were prepared: the husk is cut back and then the top lopped off with a sharp knife to form a cup containing coconut juice. We gratefully quenched our thirst – the juice was refreshing and delicious and quite unlike the taste of dried coconut that I was expecting. “Very good for cleaning the kidneys” the guide informed me. As each coconut was drained the farmer carved a spoon out of the coconut husk so that we could scoop out and eat the coconut flesh. What a feast!basket

In the meantime one of the children was weaving a most beautiful basket out of the coconut frond. As we finished each cocnut we simply threw the husks back into the forest. Mulch! The next tree was a litchi tree, and a young man obligingly harvested several handfuls which were put in the basket for me to take home.    The children were now fashioning jewelry out of palm fronds, and I gained several necklaces and a bracelet.

We reached an opening in the forest, and the farmer asked us if we would like to join him at his restaurant:  a shady tree furnished with simple benches.     The fare consisted of  lemons, oranges, star-fruit, guava, cocoa, custard apples, star apples, and jackfruit, one delicious mouthful after another, simply cut up with a very sharp knife, and  handed out piece by piece – no cutlery or crockery required.      At the end of this sumptuous meal we were brought a container of water and invited to wash our hands – over a chilli bush growing in the middle of the restaurant.


So, I had got my “food garden” experience after all.    Not only that, I had been thoroughly entertained, heard a beautiful song, and been given a perfect little basket and loads of jewelry.    I had learned a lot about spices, and had been part of a young man’s English lessons.  I had feasted on fruit in a beautiful restaurant, and felt good about the fact that not only did no-one have to clean up after me, but I had watered a chilli-bush whilst there.

Back at the hotel, with no forest to keep me cool, it was so hot that I had to jump into a cold shower and switch on the air conditioner.   Suddenly, my “civilized” world felt rather empty.

Kitchen Gardening for the soul

Kitchen gardens are not just places where you grow food to eat. A true kitchen garden is also about finding food for the soul. Kitchen gardens have traditionally also been healing gardens – full of culinary herbs, medicinal plants, and perfumed pleasures, as well as pretty flowers, all of which combine to create an uplifing sensory experience. The herbal spiral/labyrinth at Doonholm Nursery (which is unfortunately only open for public viewing once a year, for the HOASA Herbal Happening) is a perfect example of one such healing garden.

Herb spiral/labyrinth at Doonholm Nursery

Herb spiral/labyrinth at Doonholm Nursery

Unfortunately, this photograph cannot even begin to do the spiral justice. This masterpiece was designed by Louis van Aswegen of Healthy Living Herbs, The garden may not be open to the public, except on special occasions (such as the Herbal Association of South Africa Herbal Happening) but you can visit the Healthy Living Herbs website any time. Here you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about herbs you can grow in your kitchen garden.

Back to the labyrinth. There are many reasons why walking a carefully designed labyrinth is such a healing experience – and why every individual who walks it will experience it differently. Some labyrinth walkers use the experience to meditate, some experience it as a form of prayer, and many simply think of it as a fun way to spend time. Walking this particular labyrinth gives you the opportunity to play with all your senses as you move through different coloured flowers and foliage, feel the different textures, try to pin down all the elusive perfumes, and steal the odd leaf here and there to taste. Birds and insects flit back and forth, and you are transported to another world.

Even if you don’t have enough space to build a labyrinth of your own, there is no reason why your own kitchen garden cannot become that special place where you not only pick food for the table, but also cultivate a little food for the soul.

(HOASA stands for the Herb Association of South Africa. For more information Visit

For more design ideas visit the following posts:

Trench gardening, double digging and raised beds

Raised bed designs

Cultivating Flavour

The book Cultivating Flavour (published by Lizard’s Leap Press is the result of a ten-year journey which started off with the realisation that despite being a qualified horticulturist I had a huge amount to learn about growing food. It’s the result of many of the lessons learnt through practical experience in my garden at Lizard’s Leap. Many of the examples in the book are illustrated by photographs of the garden, and I use the story of the garden at Lizards Leap to introduce the book.

Cultivating Flavour is much more than a gardening manual. A richly illustrated fusion of cultivation and culinary delight, it deals with garden location and design, soil management, crop options and rotation, sensitive pest and disease management, container planting and plant propagation. Most importantly Cultivating Flavour is about growing a beautiful, productive and environmentally friendly garden – an edible landscape – with the minimum of time and effort. Browse through some of the pages by visiting google books.

You can buy the book directly from the publishers Lizards Leap Press, or from one of the many outlets listed on the Lizards Leap Press website.