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Arbor Week: Az-Zahra Garden takes root

Cassiem Khan

Trees provide shelter and food for animals, especially birds. Trees purify the air and regulate the temperature within urban environments. Arbor week coincides with the start of spring, which is a period of renewal and rejuvenation. Trees install hope of a brighter future when buds appear, flowers start to bloom and new shoots start to sprout.

Arbor Week in South Africa also corresponds with Heritage month.

My personal heritage reflects my relationship with gardening, trees, and planting vegetables. The best education parents provide is through their example. Planting vegetables and feeding the poor who come to your door was what I learnt from my mother. This education was not formal or structured. It was simple and it was straightforward.

If there is soil, plant seeds and water them. My Islamic heritage teaches me that if you plant a tree or sow seeds and then a bird or person or animal eats from them, it is regarded as a charitable deed.

My South African cultural heritage teaches me of the importance of indigenous plants. I am fortunate to live in the Fynbos Biome which is home to one of the world’s richest floras.  Two-thirds of these species are endemic to the region, meaning that they occur nowhere else on earth. My political heritage teaches me the value of land and using it productively to address pervasive problems of poverty, hunger, and food insecurity.

In 2017, I applied to the City of Cape Town to lease vacant land. In 2020, I was awarded a 10-year renewable lease of 3 000sqm for gardening. The most expensive part was not acquiring the land but was securing the perimeter of the land. Food gardens that are meant to serve the poor, sadly, are challenged by theft and vandalism.

I was fortunate that an institutional donor with foresight realized that a sizeable donation during the COVID 19 pandemic would make a long-term impact on addressing food insecurity. With this donation, the land was secured against theft and the garden project formally started on 1 February 2021. The garden is known as the Az-Zahra Garden. This is a family project. We collectively designed the garden and assumed responsibility for its overall management

The design of the food garden ensures indigenous plants will thrive alongside herbs, vegetables, berries, fruit and nut trees. The garden works, despite moles and the poor quality of the soil.

The indigenous plants include aloe, geraniums, wild dagga, and wild garlic, some of which are natural deterrents to pests. Our view of weeds is to learn and understand their value, especially their influence on soil quality. The garden has an abundance of stinging nettle and cloverleaf plants that improve soil quality. Succulents such as Spekboom are well known for improving the air quality.

The garden is divided into four sections. The first is a vegetable production area that has 14 raised bed boxes, every 11 square metres in size and 1 metre in height. A local Muslim charity, which has extensive experience in the urban farming sector, provided the 10 tons of soil required for the raised beds, whilst a local social enterprise provided the fertilizer. 

The Western Cape Department of Agriculture Food Security Program supplied 3 000 seedlings and installed shade netting. Two varieties of lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, red onions, spring onions, rocket, squash, Danya, gooseberries, leeks, and parsley are currently in production.

The second section is the orchard. The Department provided 72 fruit and nut trees and 50 blueberry bushes. The garden has an additional 30 granadilla trees that will be grown against a wire mesh fence that will also serve as a windbreaker.

The third section serves as a nursery and is a solid aluminum structure of 180sqm in size. The structure was acquired with funds from the institutional donor, whilst the shade netting, seeds, and seedling trays were funded by the Department of Agriculture. The nursery will now allow for the planting of 10 000 seedlings.

The fourth section deals with the support services, such as maintenance, security, access, energy, and irrigation. A gardening project requires an efficient irrigation system. This was made possible by a donation from the Awqaf Foundation of South Africa. This includes the two well points, two storage tanks, misters for the nursery, sprayers for the vegetable raised bed boxes, and the drip irrigation of the 102 trees, all of which is fully automated.

In the next phase of the Az-Zahra garden, emphasis will be on beehives, proteins, and education. A chicken coop for eggs, a pond for tilapia and hives to increase the bee population and honey production, and for pollination.

The advantage of having worked in community development for 25 years, with considerable experience in developing training materials and post-graduate studies in food security, will allow for knowledge sharing with other community food initiatives and school eco-clubs. The writing of the food security educational materials has already begun.  

The Az Zahra garden is our sanctuary, allowing my family a place for bonding, planting, learning, reflection, and spiritual growth.