I became an “ama’plotter” last year when I started a small kitchen garden near the house, mainly for salad stuff and herbs, as well as a larger vegetable garden under hail guard, which we call the allotment. Both the plots were prepared from scratch using earthworm compost to get the soil ready for planting.When Peter did some consulting work for the Department of Agriculture a few years ago, he met a farmer in Dundee (northern KZN) who farms earthworm compost.We went to visit him one weekend and he gave up quite a bit of his time to advise me on how to get started. What a wonderful man, passionate about farming and completely committed to improving the soil. He was so encouraging, without being at all patronising of my ignorance. He has huge vats of earthworms which he feeds cattle dung. They then convert the manure into the most fantastic compost. I bought sacks full of the stuff and the results have been great. Apparently I have to do this every year for about four years to get the soil right, which is fine by me.
Kho, our farm worker, planted about 120 seed potatoes in the allotment. The deal I have with him is that we share everything in the allotment equally. So far we have planted beans, beetroot, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, garlic, leeks, mealies, spinach, squash, as well as the potatoes. At first we were plagued with cutworms, which seem to be attracted mainly to the mealies and beans. So we interplanted the mealies with mustard which is supposed to deter them and I cut up toilet rolls to put over the bean seedlings to protect them. I also planted a border of Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) the leaves of which I used to concoct a spray for the cutworms. You prepare a concentrate by pouring 2 litres of boiling water over 300 g fresh wormwood, steep it and strain. You then use a 1:5 diluted mixture to spay on and around the seedlings (from “Gardening with Keith Kirsten”). It seemed to do the trick because we had a bumper crop of beans and our mealie plants are flourishing.
However, you can never take anything for granted. Enter the porcupine.
Porcupines eat roots, tubers and bulbs and they love potatoes. One managed to get into the allotment and made serious inroads into our potato crop. Kho and I used everything we could lay our hands on to try to make a porcupine-proof fence (talk about ‘n boer maak ‘n plan) but the little bugger always seemed to find a gap.
One evening at about 10:00 o’clock, after a few glasses of vino, I decided to venture out into the night to see if I could spot the pesky porcupine that was wreaking havoc in the allotment. I also wanted to try out my Christmas present from Peter, a state of the art headlamp (don’t ask). I walked up the driveway and if truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to see anything. The next minute Layla started barking and the dogs charged up to the gate. On the other side of the gate I could see two eyes flashing back at me in the light of my headlamp. After a mild heart attack, I managed to get the dogs back inside the house, grabbed my stick and ran back to the gate to get a better look at what was on the other side, hoping that whatever it was, it was harmless. To my amazement I saw the porcupine, spines up, looking back at me. As it began to walk away from me, I saw what looked like a long tail but it was, in fact, a baby porcupine, also with its quills up. Omigod, it was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It followed the adult like a shadow, staying close behind it as they walked off in the direction of the bush. I followed them for a while until they disappeared into the tall grass. I was so excited and furious with myself for not having my camera with me. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen here and I instantly forgave them for all the destruction, until the next day when I discovered what new damage they had done.
This story does not have a happy ending. A few weeks later, after the total annihilation of our potato crop, Kho told me that our neighbour, a farmer, had trapped and killed the porcupine. I don’t know what became of the baby, hopefully it survived. I’m afraid I don’t think like a farmer. Once a townie, always a townie because in my opinion you can always buy potatoes but you can’t buy the experience of seeing a mother and baby porcupine in your backyard.