Garden gourmet

07 August 2011 - 05:00 By Tiara Walters
Green Life
Michele Carelse, the restaurant owner, in her garden at Organic at Heart in Plumstead
Michele Carelse, the restaurant owner, in her garden at Organic at Heart in Plumstead

One Cape Town restaurant owner has dug up the parking lot and replaced it with a flourishing veggie garden

WORKING with nature rather than against it, organic food gardening makes a lot of green sense. So why do most organic restaurants still buy their produce from outside suppliers, instead of simply growing their own?

Organic at Heart, an eco-minded eatery in the Cape Town suburb of Plumstead, could well be the first South African restaurant to serve its customers a large variety of vegetables, salads and herbs grown in its own, on-site organic food garden. It's certainly one of the first to go back to the old way of doing things, to a time when restaurant owners served grub straight from the garden.

"I own this property and we used to use it as offices for my other business, which does homeopathic medicine for people and pets. It's a half-acre (0.2 hectares) property with a beautiful building - a registered national monument built in the 1830s - and I've always wanted to do something else with it," says Michele Carelse, a clinical psychologist turned green entrepreneur.

"I'm also passionate about sustainability, so in mid-February I officially launched the restaurant and food garden, which - true to the principles of organic gardening - uses no pesticides or artificial fertilisers," she says.

"I wouldn't say we're the first, though from what I understand, this place, for instance, was a 19th-century weekend getaway for people who lived and worked around the Castle of Good Hope, so it's not unlikely to think that during their out-of-town visits they ate food grown on these premises. The historical buildings all had their own vegetable gardens. It was the normal thing to do."

Today, Carelse's garden accommodates herbs, three fruit trees (lemon, pomegranate and quince), four types of salad greens and 15 varieties of vegetables. And the garden is less than a year old.

"When we began in November, everything was covered in concrete aggregate, so we had to dig all of it up - only to find that the soil underneath it was very poor. So we enriched it with kraal manure and compost," she says.

"By the time we opened shop in May, the garden was fully established and producing abundant food. Just imagine, all of it was concrete - now we grow all sorts of things, like spinach, beetroot, chives, cabbage, radish and spring onions, and of course much more during summer. And, because of the garden, a lot of other life is now attracted to the property: ladybirds, bees, butterflies and all sorts of birds."

The garden's yield makes up between 60% and 80% of the fresh produce served in the restaurant.

"And, what we can't grow in the garden - like out-of-season tomatoes - we buy from local, organic suppliers," she says.

However, Carelse has found that all this is labour-intensive and that growing food is not necessarily cheaper than buying produce from an outside supplier.

Unlike Organic at Heart, The Millstone Farmstall and Restaurant at Cape Town's Oude Molen Eco Village in Pinelands does not own the next-door organic garden that supplies its fresh produce.

For the first year of The Millstone's existence, however, owners Paul and Linda Malone did run the garden as if it were their own - that is, before discovering that the whole exercise was "just too expensive".

"We rented the garden when we opened the restaurant in 2007, paying for the seedlings, irrigation, labour, everything," says Linda. "But labour for that year alone cost more than R60000. Chisel that down to cucumbers and green peppers, and how much do you have to sell to break even? Our income from the sale of the produce was around R5000. It was insanity."

After 12 months the Malones handed the garden back to owner Gary Glass, a well-known local in the eco village, and - rather than managing it - from then on simply bought 30% of their produce from the garden for about R300 a week.

"Now I don't have the hassle. And if the crop fails, or the horses eat it, or the nunus devastate it, or it's stolen, which also happens, it's not my problem, thank goodness," says Linda.

TELLS US: Do you care if organic restaurants grow their own food? E-mail tiara.greenlife@gmail.com

Corner Café, Glenwood, Durban,031 209 0219

The Corner Café is run by a down-to-earth bunch of restaurateurs who are quick to point out that they are no "tie-dye-wearing hippies. We are just ordinary people trying to save the planet one cappuccino at a time". The café presides over a small vegetable garden that is "under development" and yields a limited variety of veg and salad greens. And, yes, the cappuccino is locally sourced.

The Greenside Café, Greenside, Joburg, 011 646 3444

Albert Einstein was a vegetarian towards the end of his life, and famously said nothing would "benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet" - a philosophy shared by Greenside Café owner Dimitri Gutjahr, whose approach won his restaurant the 2010 Leisure Options Readers' Choice Award for best vegetarian menu.

Fresh Earth Food Store, Emmarentia, Joburg, 011 646 4404

A green jack of all trades, this vegetarian restaurant serves a vegan-friendly buffet from 12pm-3pm, Monday to Saturday. It also offers vegetarian cooking classes and vegetarian catering services for homes and businesses. Its online shop stocks a variety of green groceries, supplements and remedies as well as body care, pet care and household cleaning products.

ORGANIC-GARDENING TIPS

Plants have immune systems, just like humans, so make them as strong as possible by constantly feeding your soil with organic matter such as kraal manure or kitchen compost scraps.

Grow as much comfrey - which enriches the soil - in your garden as possible. You can also soak comfrey leaves in water for about 10 days in order to create a fertiliser spray. Worm farms produce nutrient-rich tea that help make plants bug and disease resistant.

Make a natural insecticide by soaking African wormwood, rosemary, yarrow or marigold in water and spraying your plants with the infusion.

Companion planting entails pairing certain crops to create natural insect repellants and boost your plants' nutrient uptake. For instance, marigold is a good companion for any vegetable. Basil works well with tomatoes.

Build a barrier of old wine bottles around your vegetables by shoving the bottles into the earth upside down. The bottles will create an echo for sounds in the earth, which will deter moles. It's also an excellent way of recycling wine bottles. - Source: Organic at Heart