When Piet Witbooi, known throughout the Western Cape town of Swellendam simply as Oom Pietie, retired 12 years ago, he decided to spend his senior years doing what he loved the most: gardening.
A widower who did not have his own house and space to grow vegetables and herbs, he approached the mayor for permission to develop a garden on a vacant lot at the entrance to the suburb where he rented rooms. He recalls the mayor was only too pleased to give him the go-ahead.
His aim was to develop a community garden that would provide not only fresh produce for the neighbourhood but also a space in which they could rest for a while and relax. In addition, he wanted to encourage and assist people in the neighbourhood to develop and nurture their own gardens.
His inspiration, he says, was two “gifts” that have been bestowed on him. One was given by his father who taught him how to grow plants and insisted that everything had to be “perfect”; the other, he says, was a God-given love of the soil. He has learned the finer points of growing vegetables and herbs from gardening magazines.
He wanted everything in the garden to be in perfect harmony with nature, explains the sprightly 72-year-old. Instead of using chemical pesticides, he has planted khakibos, marigolds and coriander around the beds in the garden to repel pests. He pumps water from a near-by stream because municipal water contains chemicals. He makes his own compost based on a 3:2:1 mixture of wood shavings from timber plantations in the area, grass cuttings and pigeon droppings, which are delivered to the garden by a racing pigeon club in the town.
“I don’t use kraal manure because cattle eat weeds in the pastures where they graze,” he explains. “I am fearful that residues of weeds in the manure will promote weed growth. I have never had a problem with weeds.”
Companion planting is another key to success. Peas and broad beans grow among other vegetables to promote nitrogen content in the soil. An insect which visits sunflowers is beneficial for near-by pumpkins. A large variety of vegetables are grown year-round.
Herbs are plentiful in Oom Pietie’s garden. He points to two in particular: wilde als (wormwood) that can be used as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antidepressant; and wynruit (rue) which can be used to treat such ailments as bronchitis, colds and flu. He often shows locals how to dry and process herbs to make remedies, and attributes his own good health to the fact that “I prescribe my own self-medication from my organically grown herbs”.
He sells his produce year-round from a stall alongside the garden and also supplies berries to a lady in town who makes jam. But there’s another stall in the garden with a sign above it proclaiming “Heritage”. This displays artifacts he constantly digs up, ranging from old horseshoes to containers, implements and stones. Tourists, foreign and domestic, often stop by, many of them attracted to the garden by a feature on the Facebook page of a local newspaper.
For Oom Pietie, the garden is “my happy place” and gardening is about “doing what you love and loving what you do”.
There is no fence around the garden, but nothing has ever been stolen from it, and it has never been trashed. “This is because of my attitude,” he explains. “People call this Oom Pietie’s garden but I call it our garden. People respect the garden. Your attitude determines your destiny.”
Thank you to Cathy Hommes Van Eeden for the photographs.
There’s really nothing like the joy of gardening. Connecting to nature, the pride of growing your own plants, flowers, food and of course, the amazing health benefits. It’s also well documented that gardens, no matter how big or small, have the potential to bring people and communities together, which is why on Sunday 21 October the call to action for South Africa’s annual Garden Day is to down tools, invite neighbours, friends and family round to celebrate your garden together.
Now in its third year, Garden Day sprouted as an idea from a group of enthusiastic gardeners who wanted to start a movement to unite South Africans by creating a day where everyone can enjoy and celebrate their gardens together.
Many studies have shown that gardening can also make a significant contribution to our health and well-being, not just as a way to get some physical exercise but also to improve our mental health. GPs in London have already started to prescribe gardening time to assist patients with mental health troubles.
According to Professor Nox Makunga, a plant scientist at the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa has an incredible flora that has been used by people for health purposes for centuries.
“Apart from their aesthetic beauty, gardens have many healing properties linked to psycho-spiritual healing,” says Prof Makunga. “They may provide us with food and medicine and an interconnectedness to nature and the world around us and also to our very self. Benefits are thus psychological, social, emotional and physical. A medicinal garden in some households is a first line of primary health care.”
Gardening is not only beneficial for your mental health but is also the world’s best-kept exercise secret. Whether you spend five minutes or a whole day gardening, all the stretching, pulling and lifting will help you and your garden stay in great shape and increase your physical health by an average of 33% with knock-on benefits for rates of heart disease and diabetes. You may even live longer. “When one works the garden, the physical labour provide good exercise that benefits both the cardio and muscular system; and even, works the brain,” adds Prof Makunga.
Gardening does not only lift up your mood, it is also a great way of connecting with people and reducing loneliness, which is why this Garden Day South Africans are once again encouraged to sow the Spirit of Ubuntu. So if you’ve been admiring your neighbour’s garden from afar, intrigued by their rambling roses or eager to learn more about their striking succulents, Garden Day is the perfect time for you to branch out and cultivate relationships with those around you.
Gardener Alan Hulme likes to “mix it up” at his community garden Urban Organic in Blackpool. Local residents work alongside schoolchildren, as well as visually impaired and socially isolated people. “The garden is the focus,” he says, “but the secret ingredients are tea, cake and bringing people together.
Taking part in Garden Day couldn’t be easier: decide on how you want to celebrate your garden space with family, friends and neighbours then download the free Garden Day digital and printable invitation from the Garden Day website (www.gardenday.co.za) and send out to everyone inviting them to join you on Sunday, 21st of October.
Here are some ideas of what you can do:
Share your Garden Day celebrations on your Instagram and other social media accounts using #gardenday
For more ideas and Garden Day inspiration, visit www.gardenday.co.za and follow us on social media.
Prepared and issued by Marvello and Mill on behalf of Garden Day. For media queries contact Renee or Lisa Pellatt – email@example.com 021 762 1687/084 553 4629.