Keeping gardens healthy

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

2003_1106_050249AAOf all the questions I am asked on the subject of home food gardens the majority are about the health of the plants and how to prevent predators. In this column I will focus on health and leave the subject of unwanted visitors to another.

The philosophy behind organic gardening is based on systems theory. Our definition of a system is a set of interacting components in which the behaviour of the whole set is determined by the sum of the interactions between its components.

A garden is an ecosystem of which we, the gardeners are one of the components. Our gardens are of course subsets of a larger ecosystem – the suburb or countryside. There are other ecosystems that are within our garden such as the soil ecosystem. The health of the plants in the garden are dependent on the balanced interactions between all the components of the garden ecosystem.

The most important component in terms of health is the soil ecosystem. This system has co-evolved with plants to store, distribute and dispense nutrients to them. As in humans and animals, good nutrition is the key to health. It makes sense then in seeking to improve the health of our plants that we focus on the soil.

An old mantra of the organic movement is “feed the soil not the plants”. The soil is rich in life and is probably the most complex ecosystem on Earth. However not all soils are created equal. The basic mineral substrate of the soil can vary according to geographic locality in both its mineral content and in its basic consistency. This is where the organic gardener can exercise her role as an ecosystem component to assess and amend the soil to suit the plant types she wishes to grow.

This may be in the form of rock dusts such as dolomitic lime which can increase the calcium content of our ancient, depleted KwaZulu-Natal soils. These rock dusts will do nothing unless they are acted on by the rich microbial life in the soil.

The soil biota need their own nutrients and this is where the cornerstone of organic farming, composting, comes into its own. Composting is the recycling of nutrients back to the soil – a natural process.

A well made compost is rich in nutrients and is mainly composed of a living community of microbes to further enrich the soil ecosystem. The soil will feed the plants and well-fed plants will have effective immune systems that are more likely to ensure optimum plant health.

There are many other factors that will ensure a healthy garden but this column is too short to include them. What I have described is in contrast with our current industrial mode of thinking. This methodology involves feeding the plants directly and treating the soil as merely a medium to hold them. It ignores the soil ecology and in fact poisons it by the application of chemical salts as fertilisers. When plants with weakened immune systems are attacked by pests and disease we further destroy the ecosystem by applying the pesticides and fungicides. This is not the organic way and although it may at first seem productive, in the long run it is destructive.

Organic gardening may take a little longer, but it will achieve sustained health.

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Entertaining banter about Banting

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

Recently I was honoured to be invited to pianist Christopher Duigan’s annual pop-up dinner event, the Table. Christopher hosted the event at his warm and colourful Mexican styled home in Pietermaritzburg. The guest list included well known chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers and food writers.

By Jonathan Burton

By Jonathan Burton

The Banting diet, as promoted by Prof Tim Noakes, has been very topical lately and in this light Christopher decided that the menu for the evening be based on this controversial diet. Continue reading

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The Ethics Of… Censorship

Originally posted on The Ethics Of:

TEO censorship

It is the dark spectre that looms over any debate. The shadow that follows every philosopher, every scientist, every politician, indeed every person who has a strong opinion about anything. It is the awful power that haunts us and beckons us to the dark side of ideology, tempting us with promises of clarity, simplicity and control.

Yet we must resist it, for we know all too well that down that path lays only ruin and despair.

It is the great and terrible phrase:

“Shut up”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve wanted to drop that simple, beautiful phrase, I would never have to work again. To just turn around to the many ignorant, hateful, uneducated Neanderthals I’ve debated over the years (and since I work in the environment field, this has included some truly exceptional idiots), and tell them to shut their mouths… oh the…

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Low-carb, high-fat a low blow

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

I have been at a number of functions lately where talk has drifted to diet,  most particularly to the low carb / high fat (LCHF) diet , also known as the “Tim Noakes” diet. Most on this diet are claiming impressive weight loss and are defending its merits most vociferously. This diet depends heavily on eating meat and particularly animal fat.

It is interesting to look at this diet in the context of sustainable food production and ethical treatment of farm animals. I am not going to go into the human health aspect as that is not my area of expertise. I do however have one observation here. Most people espousing this diet claim rapid weight loss as a justification for its efficacy. I contend that most diets have this characteristic. I lost considerable weight on the “low fat diet”, the opposite of the LCHF diet. Anecdotal observation is a poor source of evidence. Continue reading

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Humane + healthy = sustainable


By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears on “Verdant Life.”

Since a child, one of my favourite dishes has been Chicken peri-peri. Chicken is the main ingredient in most of our favourite meals and their eggs are an essential ingredient in our cuisine. Chicken is ubiquitous in the supermarkets – available in pieces or whole dressed birds, all temptingly wrapped.

Eggs are packaged and labelled with a bewildering range of options. Free range, grain fed, and omega 3 enriched. The labelling evokes images of country life, family farms, sunshine and happiness. This is just a sham. The truth behind chicken farming is disturbing.

The chicken is an omnivore and if allowed to run free is an opportunistic feeder. As anyone who has kept free chickens will know chickens will eat anything from seeds and vegetables to insects. They will even eat snakes, as one of my fowls did the other day. Chickens have always filled a recycling role on the traditional mixed farm. They will keep a farmyard clean, dispose of household waste and keep the insect population in check. They will return this bounteously in the form of meat and eggs. Continue reading

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Can organic feed the world?

By Rob Symons

This is my 41st article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


Whenever I attend a workshop or seminar on food security I always come across this question, “can organic farming feed the world?”. Invariably the question is posed in a mocking tone as if the negative is blindingly obvious. We have become acculturated to the notion that industrial technology will deliver the goods, while the ecological alternative is nothing but a bourgeois feel good affectation. Continue reading

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The seeds of freedom…

By Rob Symons

This is my 40th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


KwaZulu Natal and the the Eastern Cape are characterised by deep-cut river valleys that flow down to the sea from the mountains. Each valley tends to have its own regional climate and soil conditions. Each valley also has its own unique variety of maize grown by the community who live there.

These varieties are have adapted to the specific conditions found in their valley. They have been selectively bred by the farmers who live there and the seeds have been passed down through generations. These are heirloom seeds and sadly their existence is threatened. Continue reading

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Ecofeminism: Women’s Special Relationship with Nature

Originally posted on Verdant Life:

written by Alleyn DieselFebruary 2014

[First published in the Witness 10.3.14 – titled “The Quest to Save Mother Earth”]

woman-treeEcofeminism merges ecology – studying the relationship of living organisms to their environment – with feminism – the movement advocating sex-equality in all human relations, as well as women’s spirituality. The term was coined in 1971 by Francoise d’Eaubonne to describe women’s potential to transform the environment.

It maintains that the domination and exploitation of women and nature are intimately connected to patriarchal structures based on sexism, racism, class exploitation and ecological desecration. Patriarchal oppression of women is closely connected to male abuse and exploitation of natural resources; the rape of the earth is inextricably linked to the rape of women. The campaign to heal the planet must be linked with equality and justice for women.

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Growing together

By Rob Symons

This is my 39th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life

Organic farming in KwaZulu-Natal and indeed in South Africa has been fragmented for a long time. There have been attempts to organise the sector but all seem to have imploded. When I first started out as a organic farmer I felt very alone as there seemed to be no network to plug into. Fortunately the organisation I had approached to do my organic certification, the BDOCA, were very helpful and full of advice. The inspection process, in addition to the audit, was very helpful and informative.


Deep digging with a ripper

Unfortunately this organisation is no more and although there are other alternatives, the cost of third party certification has become prohibitive for smaller farms. Given that most local organic farms are on the smaller side this has resulted in many being uncertified and limiting their marketing options.

In an earlier column I discussed the concept of a PGS or participatory guarantee system. This is an internationally recognized certification system that uses both peer review and public and consumer participation in the inspection process. The certification costs are significantly lowered, thus enabling the smaller organic farmers to obtain organic certification for their operations.

I am pleased to announce the formation of the Midlands Organic Association which will incorporate the Midlands PGS. This is the result of a collaboration between four Midlands farmers and the intention is to extend the membership to all interested farmers and distributors in the Midlands and the coast.The association will be able to represent the interests of the organic sector in this area and also encourage the free flow of information between members.

There is also the intention to initiate a joint marketing scheme between members which will pool logistics and marketing functions. Cost of transport and access to markets are major headaches for a small or emerging organic farmer. For instance the KZN North coast is a major growth area for organic produce, but due to distance is out of reach to say an emerging grower in the Midlands. The association could facilitate the sharing of transport amongst its members to solve this problem. The opportunity to obtain organic certification will also open up markets with major retailers.

The vision of the organisation is a growing organic farming sector in Kzn with high quality certified produce available in markets and shops.
The core values of the Midlands Organic Association are articulated in the four principles of organic farming: health, ecology, fairness and care. It is hoped that this initiative will result in more farmers being drawn into the organic fold and that this in turn will give the consumer a healthier, more ethical choice in food, and also result in healthier soils and farms.

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Paucity of Choice

By Rob Symons

This is my 38th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


I cannot help noticing whenever I go shopping or eat out, the steadily diminishing variety and diversity of food. Everything has become generic, homogenised, standardised and franchised.

I still have a memory from my school days of being taken by my parents to the old Roma restaurant. The menu was of biblical proportions compared to today’s average. I still remember all the various national restaurants with their wide range of cuisines and ingredients.

Seafood featured strongly on all menus and I remember the seafood grills on Durban beachfront. There was a wonderful diversity of fish to choose from. Now you are lucky to get Norwegian farmed salmon as your fish of the day.

I am also seeing decreasing diversity in the stores. Vegetables are being reduced in variety to a few generic potatoes, tomatoes and cabbages. The desired characteristics in a vegetable are no longer those of taste and nutrition, but rather those that suite the distribution chain, such as tough skins and resistance to bruising. This has resulted in an increase of tasteless conformity on the shelves.

As a farmer I see another threat to the diversity of our food choices. The availability of seed is now being threatened. Lettuce is a case in point. Not so long ago there was a healthy variety of seed to choose from, but now our choices are limited. Many varieties have simply been discontinued while most lettuce seed is now processed into a pelleted form that is unsuitable for organic farming.

The rationale for this homogenisation and simplification is one of efficiency. Under the present industrial paradigm this makes sense, but it leaves us poorer and results in a more vulnerable food system. Bananas these days are mostly a single variety and this lack of genetic diversity is starting to be problematic. Viral diseases and pests are starting to have significant impacts on banana farmers worldwide. Costa Rica has declared a national emergency as its bananas are devastated by disease.

Organic farmers are now responding to the lack of seed varieties by starting their own seed saving schemes. The older crop varieties are open pollinated and therefore viable for seed saving. Newer varieties are increasingly being protected under intellectual property rights and cannot be resown by farmers.

If we can protect the diversity of our seed stocks we will be able ensure a richer and more varied harvest. Hopefully this will result in more interesting and diverse shop shelves and restaurant menus.

While there is hope in fresh produce production there is sadly not much hope with seafood. A combination of environmental mismanagement and overfishing has resulted in our fish stocks being depleted. Conventional farming has been one of the main culprits in polluting our rivers and and affecting fish breeding in our estuaries.

Opting for more sustainable farming and food production could turn this bleak situation around. Diverse shelves and menus will be an indicator of a healthier environment.

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