Learn to grow your own

Grow to live by Pat Featherstone (Jacana)

Throughout my childhood, the dusty two-volume Reader’s Digest book of South African gardening sat on the shelf, and I don’t remember anyone consulting it. The line drawings were in black and white and the spines were so stiff you could hardly open them.

Now, with Copenhagen under way, there can be no better time to pick up a copy of Pat Featherstone’s excellent Grow to Live (Jacana). She maintains everybody should grow some of their own food and that doing so is a healthy activity in itself.

Featherstone, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe, has included almost everything the aspiring home agronomist would ever want to know. Setting up a food garden is tackled from the ground up — from selecting a site and laying out the beds to starting and maintaining a compost heap — and there’s even a set of exercises to loosen up your body before you start digging.

There’s a lot of information about soil, with a useful table about what your plants will look like if, say, there’s not enough iron, and how it can be remedied.

I found the chapter on controlling plant pests and diseases with natural ingredients to be particularly helpful. It was news to me that diatomite — a powder made up of shells that are millions of years old — will lacerate the tender bodies of pests in their larval stage.

There are also recipes for garlic soap spray and chilli and onion sprays that will also keep pests at bay. For blackjack spray, boil a cup of ripe seeds for 10 minutes, add a litre of water and a teaspoon of grated “green soap”. This will stop insects from feeding.

War is also declared on snails and slugs, which involves rubbing Vaseline around the rims of pots, creating barriers with mint or garlic or even laying down some electrified copper wire.

As for the birds, hang up some of those old Procol Harum CDs you never listen to anymore — at least they’ll be doing something useful.

Notes on planting food trees include how-to guides on the marula and recipes for jelly and a kind of cordial.

When Featherstone mentions God’s mighty Creation and Mother Nature, I’d rather she’d stick to the nuts and bolts. She also recommends talking to your plants, but surely it’s a step too far to believe “that plants are sensitive even to human thoughts”. But who am I to judge?

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