food

Urban Farming

It's a new dawn for farming in the city. Cape Town blogger and urban farmer Matt Allison has turned his garden into an all-out allotment, producing more than 40 varieties of herbs and vegetables. He chatted to HL's assistant editor Leigh Robertson about his gardening passion... Out in the suburbs the drone of lawnmowers is a common soundtrack to sunny weekends, with pottering around the garden something of a national sport. But while most people might be found doing normal suburban gardening pursuits like, say, pruning roses or trimming hedges, peer over the fence into the backyard of Capetonian Matt Allison and you’ll find things looking decidedly more rural. Matt, a well-known music producer and sound engineer (with a penchant for Mid-Century Modern furniture), has reinvented himself as a serious foodie and eco-advocate – he started his fabulous blog, when he set himself (then a ‘bad’ eater) the challenge of cooking the entire offering of UK chef Jamie Oliver’s 20-minute meals (from an iPhone app), and documenting the whole affair. His journey into healthy, wholesome eating soon blossomed into a love affair with the provenance of produce and, ultimately, Matt producing his own food from his Claremont home. He keeps chickens too! Matt has also developed a small food garden concept called 600x600, where he grows up artisanal gardens for clients in a custom planter of those measurements and then delivers ‘the living/breathing farm-in-a-box to their doorstep’. What does it mean to be an ‘urban farmer’? More than half the world's population now reside in an urban setting, yet we still rely on our food to be brought in from outlying areas. Urban farming addresses that by bringing food production into the city. What prompted you to start growing your own? The birth of my son brought about many changes, one of which was that for the first time I started to wonder where our food came from. How was it grown? Where was it grown? And what was it grown in? I took a step back and saw just how far removed I was from something as primal as food and decided it was time to rekindle that relationship by growing my own. Had you been much of a ‘gardening sort’ before? I was blessed to grow up with a mother who loves being in the garden - she constantly reminds me of how, even in utero, I was bumbling around the yard with her, though it was largely ornamental in nature. It's been through my gentle persuasion that she's now also growing her own food. What sort of research did you have to do – and was there any reading material that was especially helpful? I'm a bit of a bookworm and, while blogs and websites are helpful, I prefer a tactile medium. To that end, one of the most definitive guides on growing food has to be Jane Griffiths's Jane's Delicious Garden, a very practical approach to urban growing that is local and relevant to our planting seasons. Other worthy mentions are Grow to Live by Pat Featherstone and One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein, particularly where/if space is an issue. Turning a substantial portion of your lawn into ‘farmland’ has been something of a labour of love – tell us about some of the challenges? Was there ever a point where you thought, perhaps I should have just left the lawn alone? I think my neighbours probably wish I'd left my lawn alone! Honestly though, there wasn't much of a mental challenge in making the decision as it just felt like the next logical step. Physically digging trench beds takes a lot out of you and I had some help. Planting brings both joy and heartache; the joy being the literal fruits of your labour. Heartaches include watching a cutworm devour a newly planted seedling or a cabbage moth making short work of your brassicas. As they say, 'don't count the harvest until it's on the table'. What are some of the crops you’re growing most successfully? Currently herbs, broad beans, peas, lettuces, Asian greens, spinach, radishes and brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale etc), being winter plants. And you’re also now supplying others with your veggies and herbs? Yes, I share our harvest with family and friends. Recently I also founded a small farmers market with my local eatery, Starling's Cafe. Like me, Trish, the owner, was concerned with food provenance, so we set about hand-selecting local sustainable and ethical suppliers who now provide fresh produce to our neighbourhood on a weekly basis though the market, all grown/raised within the confines of the city at large. What’s the best thing about growing your own? Knowing where my food comes from, how/where it was grown and, of course, the added 'feel good' factor that's introduced when eating your own homegrown produce. Any advice/words of encouragement you’d like to share with HL readers? Start small! Honestly, most failures happen when people start off with zeal and don't follow it up with knowledge. Learning about soil and its qualities is a start, making sure that you get at least six hours of sun a day in your potential gardening space and watering, which is not imperial; it's a feel thing and something you'll learn over time. How are your chickens doing...and when are you expecting to scramble your first home-laid eggs? We are still a way off from eggs. 'The girls', as they are affectionately known, are only around 10 weeks old now, which technically is even a little young to sex them, though they have crowned early, so it's a safe bet they are indeed hens. They'll only start laying at 20+ weeks, but this particular breed, the Koekoek, is fairly prolific with each hen laying 250+ eggs a year. So what’s next for this urban farmer? Honestly I'd love a milk goat, though my wife feels it might be crossing the line and it would require a permit from the local health inspector. I've also been contracting my services to various local eateries and restaurants consulting on growing their own food gardens or helping them source ethical suppliers if they don't have the space to grow/raise their own. Each client’s needs are quite specific and I enjoy the challenge of finding a custom solution that best fits them. Thanks Matt, it’s been great chatting....