As the country begins Arbour Week on September 1 and the start of Heritage Month, CASSIEM KHAN reflects on his heritage that led him and his family to undertake the Az Zahra Garden project.
Arbour Week provides us with the opportunity to highlight the importance of trees. One way of understanding trees is to familiarize ourselves with the rapid rate of deforestation and how it contributes towards global warming. Trees provide shelter and food for animals, especially birds; trees purify the air and regulate the temperature within urban environments.
Arbour Week coincides with the start of spring, which is a period of renewal and rejuvenation. Trees instil hope of a brighter future when buds appear, flowers start to bloom and new shoots start to sprout.
Arbour 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 straightforward. If there is soil, plant the seeds and water them.
My Islamic heritage teaches me that if you plant a tree or sow seeds and a bird or person or animal eats from it, this is regarded as a charitable deed.
My South African cultural heritage teaches me of the importance of local 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 ten-year renewable lease of 3000 square metres for gardening.
The most expensive part was not acquiring the land; it was to secure the perimeter of the land leased. 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 realised that a sizeable donation during the COVID-19 pandemic will make a long-term impact on addressing food insecurity. With this donation, the land was secured against the possibility of theft and the garden project formally started on February 1, 2021.
The garden is known as the Az Zahra Garden. This is a family project, collectively designed and each one assumes responsibility for its various sections and overall management
The design of the food garden ensures indigenous plants will thrive alongside herbs, vegetables, berries, fruit and nut trees.
The indigenous plants include aloe, geraniums, wild dagga and wild garlic; some of which are natural deterrents of 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 have shown to improve soil quality. Succulents such as spekboom are well known for improving the air quality.
The garden works with the pestilence of moles and the poor quality of the soil.
The garden is divided into four sections.
The first being a vegetable production area that has 14 raised bed boxes each 11 square metres in area and one metre in height.
A local Muslim charity, which has extensive experience in the urban farming sector, provided the ten tons of soil required for the raised beds, whilst a local social enterprise is providing the fertiliser.
The Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s Food Security Programme supplied 3000 seedlings and installed the shade netting.
Two varieties of lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, red onions, spring onions, rocket, squash, dhania (coriander), gooseberries, leeks and parsley are currently in production.
The second section is the orchard. The Department of Agriculture provided 72 fruit and nut trees and 50 blue berry 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 aluminium structure of 180 square metres. 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 the maintenance, security, access, energy and irrigation.
A gardening project requires an efficient irrigation system. This was made possible by a donation from the National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa (Awqaf SA). This includes the two well points, two storage tanks, misters for the nursery, sprayers for the vegetable-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 bee hives, proteins and education. This will also include a coop for chickens reared for their 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.
- Cassiem Khan is the National Coordinator of the Imam Haron Foundation and spokesperson for the Apartheid-Era Victims Families Group. His career spans 30 years of work for local, national and international relief and development NGOs.