Using as few resources as possible to produce good-quality, nutritious vegetables. This – in a nutshell – is the goal of the Living School Garden project run by Ms Thanja Allison, Social Impact coordinator of the Department of Genetics, and supported by the Division for Social Impact at Stellenbosch University.
The project started at the beginning of 2019 when Ms Allison created vegetable gardens at the three campuses of the SEED Trust's Babin pre-primary school in Stellenbosch.
“My own children went to Babin and I see this as a way of paying it forward," says Ms Allison.
“At each campus, we took a piece of property that wasn't utilised as playing space for the children and we turned it into a vegetable garden. The aim is to grow nutritious vegetables to include in the school feeding programme. This means that every child receives at least one cooked, nutritious meal a day.
“At each campus the school provided someone to maintain the garden and the training of this person forms an integral part of the project."
Vegetables that grow easily, like spinach, carrots, potatoes and butternut, were planted, as well as flowers to attract bees.
To supplement the vegetables grown on the school grounds, the project is supported by the Welgevallen Allotment Garden project, which also receives support from the Division for Social Impact and is run by Dr Paul Hills of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology and Indren Govender from the Maths department.
“We plant the same vegetables to supplement the supply – we cannot produce enough on the school grounds," adds Ms Allison.
The school is responsible for the preparation of the vegetables and Ms Allison envisages that students from other departments, such as Food Science, could be requested to teach the staff members at Babin to prepare the vegetables in different ways to make it more appealing to the children.
Currently, the project is studying gardening alternatives because of a lack of soil and sun at some of the school campuses.
“For example, we're experimenting with straw-bale gardening. It is possible to create a garden in straw bale without having any soil. You treat a fresh straw bale with fertiliser and water for 12 days until it becomes like an incubator. You then plant seedlings in holes in the straw. A straw bale can be used for three years before it disintegrates.
“This means anyone – even if they live somewhere without any soil or space – can have a garden."
Ms Allison is also experimenting with hydroponic gardening. She celebrated her 25th year at Stellenbosch University in 2019 and asked for a hydroponics unit as her gift.
She believes the knowledge gained by experimenting with different of ways of gardening to produce nutritious vegetables for communities using as few resources as possible could be a huge asset in South Africa.
She plans to host more formal workshops and training opportunities on the basic principles of gardening, earth-worm composting and gardening in straw bales.
According to Hlumile Malahlekani, who looks after the vegetable garden at Babin Babies, he has learned quite a few new skills and would be able to assist the members of his community in Kayamandi who want to grow their own vegetables.
The project depends heavily on volunteers and most recently international students from EARTH University in Costa Rica became involved in the project.
Sandra Kalua from Malawi, Lisbeth Castro from the Dominican Republic and Grace Aguti from Uganda were no strangers to community work. EARTH is a private, non-profit university that offers an undergraduate degree in Agricultural Sciences and students are required to do one day of community service each week.
They have seen projects like this on a larger scale and believe that the Living School Garden project has great potential.
The project's plans for next year include doing further research on straw-bale and hydroponic gardening, as well as testing different cover crops.
“We started small, but we're dreaming big," says Ms Allison. “The need for these kind of projects is now."