Growing food in a suburban garden restores vital connection to nature
An addiction to exotic food spurs a passion for growing vegetables, writes Eugene Yiga
All her life, Jane Griffiths knew that growing her own food made economic and environmental sense.
"My mom grew up on a farm in East Griqualand and I spent plenty of time there when I was young," she says. "The farm was almost completely self-sufficient and I have many wonderful memories of food.
"On a hot summer’s day there was nothing more refreshing than pulling out fresh, crunchy carrots, rinsing them under the garden tap and munching them right there."
Almost everything she ate was grown or reared on her doorstep. As a child, it was her job to pick and shell the bright green peas, many of which went into her mouth before she left the vegetable garden.
She drank milk fresh from cows and to this day prefers it at room temperature. Bacon was sourced from the farm’s pigs, cured with her grandfather’s secret recipe. Their chickens were "plump, free range and delicious", Griffiths says.
"When I first met my husband he did all the cooking. I could throw together a few basics but Keith produced complex curries and delicious pastas. My taste buds were onto a good thing and stayed out of the kitchen," she says.
"In 1991 we spent a couple of months in Thailand and after that, everything changed. I came back hankering after the fresh tastes and fiery combinations I’d been relishing."
Armed with Charmaine Solomon’s South East Asian Cooking, a birthday present from her husband, Griffiths made long lists of unfamiliar ingredients. She made forays to spice dens in Fordsburg in Johannesburg and to Commissioner Street’s Chinese supermarkets. Her addiction to cooking and collecting ingredients had started.
"In the months and years that followed, I travelled to many countries," she says. "My pantry soon overflowed with delicious-smelling spices and pastes. My sketchbooks filled with scribbled techniques and colourful sketches of exotic fare.
"Each month the post box would explode with foodie magazines from all corners of the globe and Charmaine Solomon was joined on the bookshelf by many more authors. And so I fell in love with food."
In the mid-1990s, Griffiths spent a year in the US and fell in love with Mexican food, particularly with the wide variety of chillies — anchos, habaneros, pasillas, serranos — that were essential for Mexican flavour.
At that time the only variety available in SA were "little hot red ones" while jalapeños were hardly on the culinary radar. Griffiths didn’t have her own vegetable garden, but was determined to grow chillies.
"I bought a packet of every variety of chilli seed I could lay my hands on," she says. "Back home I removed a section of lawn, dug in some compost, scattered the seeds and sat back to watch my chillies grow.
"That summer I had about 20 varieties growing in my garden and quickly earned the nickname Chilli Queen."
The chillies grew so fast and were so prolific that she felt obliged not to waste the harvest. Her Hot Diggedy Chilli Jelly soon became a firm favourite among her friends.
Every year, she dug up more lawn to plant herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, eggplant and more.
At last count, her urban orchard included 24 fruit trees and 10 different types of berries and vines.
"My actual vegetable garden is about 60m² and is filled with seasonal vegetables [such as tomatoes, lettuce, beans, eggplant, and squash] and perennials [turmeric, asparagus, rosemary and mint]," Griffiths says.
"I also have many containers filled with edibles. In every sunny flower bed I interplant herbs with flowers and in every available space are fruit trees, including ones in pots and espaliered against sunny walls."
Griffiths visits heirloom seed company websites and chooses according to the season and what will grow well in her relatively small space. She prefers miniature pumpkins or a gem squash that can climb up a trellis or over a vertical tripod, taking up far less space.
She also likes to grow unusual vegetables that can’t be found easily in supermarkets, such as black tomatoes, yellow beans and purple broccoli.
"I love being inspired by what’s in season to create something fresh and interesting," she says. "I love large layered salads filled with interesting and unusual ingredients such as asparagus sprigs or green coriander seeds.
"I’m also constantly bottling, drying and preserving produce to extend the harvest.
"I have a dehydrator that I use for excess summer squash, fruit, tomatoes and many other vegetables," she says. "I make pickles in vinegar and jams and jellies. Plus I freeze a lot of produce," Griffiths says
She’s equally prudent about storing herbs. The ones that don’t have a high moisture content, such as oregano, marjoram, rosemary and thyme, retain their flavour well when dried. But herbs such as basil, parsley, coriander and mint, which have a higher water content, are preserved better by blending with oil or chopping and freezing.
"In our 21st century of absolute convenience and consumerism, we have become disconnected from nature," Griffiths says. "We somehow believe that we can not only live separately from nature but also take as much as we want, without giving anything back.
"That is not how a successful relationship works. We are a part of nature and if we continue to live as if we are a privileged and separate species, we risk losing everything."
She’s learnt from her relationship with her garden that by giving nature the respect she deserves, "by placing her at the centre of things and by observing and learning from her every move", everyone can become a successful gardener.
Despite publishing several books over the past decade, she’s having too much fun to call what she does work.
"When looking at the multitude of problems facing us as human beings, it can be overwhelming and daunting.
"But one thing each of us can do is cultivate a better relationship with the piece of planet on which we live. If I can do it, so can all of us."