Our Sustainable Lifestyle

There is currently a revival of interest in the values and uses of natural organic substances linked especially to maintaining the body at its optimum state of health.  Research into the properties of plants is extensive worldwide because we are all more aware of the damaging effects of our lifestyles on our bodies and the environment. In recent years, the role of the diet in preventing disease has been a popular and important area of research because it is likely that the preventive effect of diets high in fruits, vegetables and herbs cannot be explained by just one single part of the diet.

 

Comparing the nutrient contents of organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables is ongoing and still very much open to debate, but what it does reveal is a strong trend toward higher levels of nutrients in organic produce. Apart from the vitamins and minerals that plant foods contain, thousands of other compounds, many of which are powerful antioxidants in our diet, help to slow ageing, prevent cancers and more.  Some research shows that these ‘phytonutrients’ are 10-50% higher in organic crops.  We all know the importance of getting our five-a-day, but eating five organic fruit and vegetables a day is even better.

Is organic food safe?  Organic food is as safe to consume as any other kind of food. Just as with any kind of produce, consumers should wash before consuming to ensure maximum cleanliness. It is a common misconception that organic food could be at greater risk of E. coli contamination because of the application raw manure. Organic standards set strict guidelines on manure use in organic farming.

This is not meant to be a “How to go organic farming” manual, for a number of reasons, the prime being that we are still pretty new at it, and would not presume to be able, as yet, to tell anyone what they should do. Our philosophy is intended as an inspiration and support for your family’s health and well being.

The advantage we had when moving onto the farm was that it had been left fallow for a few years. The gardens had been used by the caretaker for his own use so had very few commercial products added to the soil. This supported our decision to “Go Organic”.

So, why did we decide to ‘go organic’? We take great satisfaction in the fact that our entire system means we  “are doing our bit” for the environment and, simply, we firmly believe that organic food is healthier. It contains more of the good stuff we need, and less of the bad stuff that we don't need. That includes the food that we eat and serve here, but also for the produce & preserves that we make and market.

Definitions can be misleading,; what we see on the label can be confusing, terms used may not always be used sincerely and  some people object to the term organic as being no longer meaningful, because it has been co-opted by those who want to make the label commercially available.

 Whatever your opinion, it is clear that sustainable practices for building healthy soil and growing healthy food are beneficial.

  • The word “Organic” itself means, simply   -- of living origin.
  • “Natural” refers to something that is "existing in or formed by nature -- not artificial".                                                                     

As we understand it Organic Farming describes a whole eco system – a dynamic system of forces that work in balance with each other and in harmony with nature’s cycles.  “Going Organic” is not just a question of changing a brand of fertilizer or giving them up altogether, but when applied to farming it means a change of attitude: getting away from the idea that every small creature is a pest, every plant out of place is a weed, and that the solution to every problem is a spray.

Organic farming has a longer history than most people appreciate and is designed to encourage nature to do its best, only intervening when absolutely necessary. It’s about using common sense, and working with nature. It isn’t very different from conventional farming. In fact it incorporates methods which have only relatively recently, in farming terms, been abandoned.

It is not a “return to the good old days” purely for the sake of it, but is very much using some of the ‘traditional’ approaches and backing them up with scientific methods and determining the reasons why some of the old practices were so effective.You still need to plant at the right time, irrigate or control pests and weeds. The difference lies in the approach. It’s how we understand, and value, the interrelationship between all the elements in nature. Then taking these principles, developing them and working in a modern system where one knows why something works not just that it seems to work. 

Those things cover only the effects on the foods, we are also concerned about the environment as a whole, and that indeed is the organic principle - the environment as a whole

OUR SYSTEM: FROM WORMS TO HARVEST

What we would like to do is just give a glimpse of how we grow our herbs and vegetables so that they are good for us and the environment.

 

There is a definite link between herb growing and organic gardening. Both make our world a better, healthier place.

 Herbs are the most extraordinary diverse and useful plants. They come in all shapes, sizes, textures and perfumes, and they can be incorporated into any lifestyle for either their medicinal, culinary or aromatic benefits. Any plant material that focuses on boosting overall health, for example, garlic / onions (bulbs); tomatoes / chilli peppers (fruit); turmeric / cinnamon (natural food seasoning) or rosemary / basil / parsley (leaves) can be called herbs, most of which we grow to use in our products.

The herbs and vegetables we grow require healthy organic soil, but using this system they even grow well in Aloe Ridge’s rocky terrain.

Our ‘system’ really revolves around one principle: looking after the soil. A healthy, fertile soil with good structure and a thriving population of the right living creatures is the basis of all effective organic growing.

The soil on the farm, or at least that part where we are growing crops at present, is derived from underlying ancient granitic rocks. It thus has quite a high sand content, though not too far down the clay component increases. There was little organic content in the soil when we started, and that was very much our first priority. It remains a high priority now, even though the soil has improved.  

The improved soil with sufficient organic matter:-

  • to drain well and retain water to prevent run-off.
  • to provide nutrient levels that support healthy plant growth, earthworms, insect eating birds and predatory insects

 If the soil is of good quality in terms of nutrient and mineral content, texture, moisture and other requirements then the plants can develop optimally and provide us with the top quality foods. When the cells in the organism are given nourishment that they need to function, they will do so optimally -- and healthy plants are always less susceptible to attack.  

At Aloe Ridge we strive to supply all the soil’s essential nutrient for balanced growth, from organic matter to micronutrients for healthy plants.

 

We started our vegetable and herb growing using compost derived from the old method of making compost heaps.

However !!  We now farm with worms.  Once we discovered Vermicomposting our lives changed radically and we enthusiastically embraced what worms could do for us. No more time consuming heap management and hooray for the ease of worm production.

Worm pooh is good!    Our system is simple and best of all - it works.

Worm pooh?  By that we refer to worm castings that are known as Vermicompost

 


 

1st home   New Wormery under shade

Bins Harvesting

Earthworms are one of the most useful little creatures that one can have in the soil. The presence of earthworms in the soil is an indication of good healthy soil which is rich in organic matter. We are all aware that the movement and tunneling by the different species of earthworms with permanent tunnels through the soil: allows oxygen into the soil, prevents compaction, helps to carry water into the subsoil and prevents water logging.

Earthworms can destroy a harmful pathogen by using it for their own food; soil and airborne disease are reduced and eventually disappear by the presence of earthworms etc. As a further example is how they remove any chemical residues - insecticides, herbicides, crude oil pollution: poisonous metals and gases, as were found at Chernobyl in Russia after the nuclear explosion, are being cleared from the soil by the use of earthworms.

However,  no-one knows the full benefit of earthworms to nature as with over 4000 earthworm species worldwide it is no wonder real research has only been done on about 15 species.

 The most common one used for Vermicomposting is

Eisenia foetida                          

or Red Wriggler as it is commonly known.

Eisenia foetida  live above ground in any organic matter. This, together with their ability to breed very fast (double their population every 30 to 60 days) and can maintain a high population density within close confined areas, make  them ideal for earthworm farming. These worms are found suitable for use all over the world because they can stand temperatures from 0 deg. C up to about 36 deg C.

The earthworm castings that are harvested for use in our herb and vegetable gardens:-

  • are highly beneficial to the fertility of the soil as a natural organic fertilizer.                                                                                                                                                     (For example they can contain up to 30% more phosphate and up to 15% more potash than the surrounding soil).
  • can be produced from any organic matter such as animal manure or garden and kitchen waste.
  • can be used on all crops without fear of 'burning' the plant, even seedlings  and because it is slow release, fungal disease and insect damage are minimal.
  • increase and make major plant hormones available to plants. These natural hormones are just what a plant needs for root growth and flower forming.
  • are not water soluble.  Nitrogen that is dissolved in water makes the plant susceptible to disease. This problem does not occur when using Vermicompost.                                                                               
  • go a long way. A very small amount is needed in comparison to ordinary compost .

Organic farmers rely on a diverse population of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests in check.   The earthworm’s positive impact on the population of other organisms like bacteria, and fungus is also an important factor for good healthy soil.  

Most nutrients and especially minerals are made available through chelates to plants; microbes supply the chelates.

The earthworm castings:-

  • are the perfect environment for the formation of fungi and micro-organisms that help with the protection of plants against disease and insects. These microorganisms in the soil control disease by destroying pathogens or by parasitism.  Harmful viruses, pathogens and nematodes are thus reduced by the presence of microorganisms.
  • are formed by the worms that carry beneficial micro-organisms in their digestive duct and can increase the concentration up to 1000 times in the castings.
  • help maintain the balance between the different microbes and prevent any harmful ones from breeding to detrimental levels.       

The latest research shows that most, if not all, plants can obtain enough nitrogen for their own use from the air or organic matter providing the right microorganisms are present at the root areas. With the right microorganisms at the correct concentrations in the soil at the root ball of the plant, enough nutrients and minerals will be available to plants.

We add Effective Microorganisms (EMs) to the system too.  For in depth explanations refer to Alan’s email

Mulching is an important part of our system

Barberton is extremely hot and can be very dry so any water loss is minimised by not allowing the soil around the crop areas to be exposed.

This can be done by merely cutting down weeds, not spraying and killing them or pulling them out, or as we are trying to do, planting a ground cover that is not too invasive. We are using Buffalo grass to reduce the soil temperature around the plant areas and though it dies down in winter, it seems not to require any additional watering. The circles are watered but never the grass.

Microbes live mainly in the top 5 to 10 cm of the soil and very few any deeper. This shallow living is the reason why they are very susceptible to the baring of soil.

 Every turning of the soil destroys organic matter and microbes; the aeration causes loss of carbon and the possibility of damaging roots too is big.

Initially the ground is dug to about 50cm and refilled with sieved soil and Vermicompost.

During the growing season we add new mulch and Vermicompost on the existing layers leaving the soil undisturbed.

When the crop has been harvested the circles get regenerated with layers on top of the soil using Vermicompost and mulch. This has the added benefit of raising the beds and avoids soil compaction.

Any plant cut down is left in the top layer where they are available for the next crop. In this way all the nutrients and the minerals it used to grow are returned to the soil.

Moist organic matter is the food source of microorganisms that feed the microorganisms and that will in turn keep the plant healthy.

We use hay that we cut on the farm’s open grassland or from Vetifer which we grow specifically both for this and as a protection around the crop areas it reduces soil erosion by water and wind. We also use Lemon Grass for this, and it has the benefit of making a really super lemon tea too.

Water too, is vital to our venture and we try to limits its waste in any way possible. Mulch is a major aid for the reduction of water-use in all our crop areas as it keeps temperature down and minimizes water loss by evaporation. 
Our irrigation is designed to water from below using an irrigation system that helps to reduce evaporative loss as much as possible, as well as to present the water at the place it is most required -- at the level of the root system of each plant. Thus the only time we water on surface is for the first few days after seedlings have been planted out or that direct planted seedlings have emerged.

The retention of weeds and ‘natural’ vegetation around arable areas is an important aspect of IPM (Integrated Pest Management). This provides a haven for the predators that will naturally reduce the numbers of insect pests. We also plant herbs as companion plants to attract bees and other nectar feeders in between areas of crops.

We rotate and intercrop our herbs and vegetables and legumes are used to return nitrogen to the soil. 

The ‘hedges’ we plant are an integral part of our pest control. Vetifer, lemon grass and such bushy herbs as sage or basil also encourage the birds and beneficial insects

 

.

We permanently have pairs of Kurrichane and Groundscraper Thrushes, Black Flycatchers and various Robin-Chats in the garden, so very few snails or other common pests survive long. The Weavers (Village and Spectacled mainly) strip the leaves of the lemon grass to make their nests, and we wonder if the citrus smell reduces pests in their homes as it does for us. On the other hand, Speckled Mousebirds can reduce an amazing area of newly sprouted beans or spinach to stalks in very short time. However they do not like going under shade cloth that is within 50cm or so of the ground, whereas the Thrushes have no problem with this and we have frames that we move where required.

We enjoy having the Burchell’s Coucal prowling through the Lemon grass and the Brown-hooded Kingfisher regularly uses the overhanging branches of nearby trees to assist us in pest removal. Very Integrated!

We find the yields under this system are as good as, if not better than that produced by conventional methods. Additionally the vegetables are of good quality, and exhibit long shelf life.

Just a word on our belief about SYNTHETIC COMPOUNDS. i.e. poisons, herbicides, pesticides, etc..

All our herbs, fruit and vegetables are grown as naturally as we can. No chemical products: pesticides, artificial fertilisers, sprays, growth stimulants, or poisonous insecticides are used.

Research into the properties of plants is extensive worldwide because we are all more aware of the damaging effects of our lifestyles on our bodies and the environment.  In recent years, the role of the diet in preventing disease has been a popular and important area of research because it is likely that the preventive effect of diets high in fruits, vegetables and herbs cannot be explained by just one single part of the diet.  Comparing the nutrient contents of organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables reveals a strong trend toward higher levels in organic produce

.A healthy plant will have its own resistance and will seldom be attacked by pests. If plants require regular inputs of artificial fertilizer or pesticides, this implies that they are growing in a situation that does not suit them. Inevitably, nature cannot keep every pest and disease under control but there are many organic techniques for protecting plants.

 Pesticide residues are rarely found on organic food. In contrast, pesticides are found on one in three non-organic foods tested each year, and multiple residues of up to seven different compounds are not uncommon. Pesticide safety is tested for individual compounds, but we know very little about the 'cocktail effect' of multiple residues. Some research suggests that they may be hundreds of times more toxic than the same compounds individually

Just consider -- a non-organic apple can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 different chemicals, many of which cannot simply be washed off.

If sprays were not available, we would not need sprays.

It may sound illogical but that is the truth; so let us explain. With the depletion of the soil, pests, disease and weeds appeared and took over; because spraying was started it soon required stronger poisons and need to spray more herbicides and end up spraying more often.

We seldom have any problems with insect pests, but if we do a quick, though definitely smelly, solution is to steep garlic, tansy and khakibos with pyrethrum, marigolds or chilli (use sparingly) to make an evil smelling fluid which can then be diluted and sprayed onto any heavy infestation. We have only had to use this mixture a couple of times when we were still trying to get the soil balance correct and some of our tomatoes were not too healthy.

A major aid in this balancing process is the crop rotation. We never plant the same crop twice running in the same place. We use beans as an intercrop both because we eat them and because they are leguminous and add to the nitrogen content of the soil.

The end of the 2nd World War was the dawn of the modern farming practices. Firstly the ammunition factories converted to mainly nitrogen fertilizer factories. With both explosives and nitrogen fertilizer using the same basic commodity, nitrogen, and to get a good return on the 9 billion Pound investment in the factories, they all started to produce vast amounts of nitrogen fertilizers. The necessity to provide work and food made this decision a logical one. It was seen and proclaimed as the solution to all farming problems.

So, why did we decide to ‘go organic’?   To repeat our beliefs:

  • The whole environment is important and our system benefits the environment                
  • We firmly believe that organic food is healthier.  It contains more of the good stuff we need, and less of the bad stuff that we don't need. That includes the food that we eat and serve here, but also for the produce & preserves that we make and market.

In summary there are a few do’s and don’ts that we practice:

Do recycle all organic waste in the kitchen and on the farm through compost. The compost will give healthy soil.

Don’t use chemical fertilizers, make our own,  -- excess chemical fertilizers are a major contaminant of ground water & rivers

Do use crop rotation for our vegetables. This makes better use of the soil’s fertility and helps prevent the build-up of pests and disease.

 

 Don’t grow the same vegetables in exactly the same place every rotation. This can lead to a build-up of persistent soil pests and diseases that are difficult to control.

Do use hand weed and hoeing to keep weeds under control.

Do keep soil mulched with organic material to improve the soil structure and keep weeds under control.

Do apply bulky organic materials like compost, hay, leaf mould and manure to the soil to improve its structure. Do feed the earthworms with organic materials and manure so that they in turn can provide plants with a safe and suitable growing medium with a balanced food supply.

Don’t over till the ground, it exposes the micro-organisms and depletes the organic content, just introduce the compost to the top few centimeters and mulch immediately

Do provide suitable feeding areas by growing a mixture of plants, to attract the birds and insects away from sensitive crops. Leaves on the ground that are not causing a nuisance are left to provide useful habitats.

Do grow flowering herbs and plants so that useful creatures have a source of pollen and nectar to supply energy for egg-laying.

Don’t tidy-up every area of the organic area; excessive neatness can drive away garden friends.

Do create habitats for wildlife.

Do get to know the useful pest-controlling creatures. They do a valuable job that is often unrecognized.

There are a number of small ‘microenvironments’ that we use  – bird boxes, the pond, our heaps of wood etc. all to shelter wildlife and  help our pest control.

 Our herb garden is where many insects feed and pollinate our herbs

Don’t assume creatures are pests. They may be harmless or even beneficial

Don’t use snail bait or other edible poisons, it will kill the birds that eat it, Hoopoes are particularly vulnerable. Don’t use rat poison, it will accumulate in the raptors you should attract and eventually poison them. Rather encourage owls by placing owl boxes around the area, and not evicting them if they are nesting.

Our Chickens

Until it is known what the long term impacts on our health that chickens raised in intensive farming practices have, we will raise our chickens the way nature intended. Our way cares for the overall wellbeing of the chicken.

N.B. An intensively farmed chicken lives just 36 days,  They are speed reared to reach this mass growing at an unnatural pace in a world of artificial lighting, growth-promoting antibiotic-laced food and water, with possibly genetically modified feed and by limiting exercise. Fat content can be higher in these birds – something that you’re paying for and probably pouring away.

Our natural system cares for the overall wellbeing of the bird. Whilst not totally organic we raise a healthy broiler. At present only family and friends benefit from the chickens but we intend to include them in our “farmhouse meals” that are on offer to guests.

Our chickens:-

  • are grain fed. We purchase the grain mix (not organic), as mixing of feed is best left to the experts  but plans to grow grain, sunflower, Soya beans or sorghum to add to their feed are in place.
  • have fresh greens added to their diet. The greens are our vegetables and herbs that come from our “organic system” and are grown in a way that avoids the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. 
  • have access to fresh clean borehole water at all times.
  • are free to roam and scratch outdoors during the daylight hours but are brought indoors at night.  At first the day-olds are kept under lights in a large room and then left for 3 weeks indoors to help them to become established. Thereafter they are let out.

(Mass produced chickens can be more susceptible to disease because of the cramped conditions which reduces the hygiene of their environment. Chickens must have daytime access to open air and there is a limit to the number per square meter so that they do have space to move around.)

  • are allowed to grow at a slower, natural rate, living roughly twice as long as intensively farmed chickens. When we harvest them, between 72 and 90 days, they average 1.75kg with very little excessive fat and a naturally better flavour.

To keep the flock healthy we practice good sanitation and precautionary protection in their housing. Every new brood of chicks gets a clean and disinfected room. Thereafter it is cleaned regularly – swept, scrubbed, sprayed with EMs and clean dry plant matter placed on the floor.

Very specific legislation is about to be implemented in South Africa as to what may be termed a free range chicken.

Eggs.

 

 

Our laying hens are real storybook chickens

 – Beautiful, Indigenous and “free scratching”!

The hens are housed separately from the broilers but, their diet and care is similar. When necessary they perform an extra service to help with maintenance in the “circle system” where they are allowed to scratch for grit and glean grubs or insects as an extra food.

 

The eggs have a deep yellow yoke and simply delicious flavour.  We never use bought eggs for any meals provided to our guests.

 

 

Copyright © Aloe Ridge Guest Farm 2012