An absolute riot is one way to describe Chatelaine Cullinan’s micro-farm in suburban Howick. Sunflowers reach for the stars, purple zinnias are a buzz with bees, brown cucumbers (yes, brown) twirl along fences, plump butternuts climb the walls and chickens cluck contentedly.
Riot might conjure up images of disorder, but this is incorrect – Chatelaine knows exactly what she is doing – patterns and colour are what she loves most.
It is a bit of a surprise to find an unkempt meadow lurking behind an ordinary pre-cast wall, where most neighbours have mown lawn. “We need fodder for the chickens, so we naturalised a bit” Chatelaine tells me “why waste time and energy mowing lawn when the butterflies and birds far prefer a meadow?”
When she moved into this garden, not that long ago, it was a green desert. Her partner Dave is a farmer, but more of a monoculturalist. Hooking up with a woman passionate about permaculture who keeps adding new bits of garden must have taken a little getting used too! “I don’t actually do all the work of digging up the lawn,” she says, “the chickens do it for me.” Chicken tractors move about the green desert getting rid of the grass, working and manuring the soil. Then a compost heap is built on the spot and once that is ready to use, the earth underneath is just begging to be planted.
“When I discovered permaculture, I was so pleased because I realised I was already a permaculturalist, not just unusual!” she laughs. “Now I am converting Dave.” Her children grew up in a natural environment and are all committed environmentalists now. “Their school lunchboxes were filled with whole capsicums, peas in the pod and tree tomatoes, so they were never going to be ordinary.” She recalls one mother visiting with her child and pointing out to the astonished youngster how peas actually grow.
Chatelanine has made gardens for big estates, on sand dunes in the Cape and in tiny spaces, so the benign Midlands is really rather easy. She is an avid seed-collector and from her previous gardens she has brought seeds of all sorts of fabulous plants, things one may have never seen before.
The mielies are ten feet tall, there are crystal apple cucumbers, enormous granadilla’s, ugati gati (traditional coloured maize), spring onions as big as leeks, sorghum, jalapenos, lots and lots of kale and of course, the brown cucumbers, native to Malawi.
Making a backyard food garden is not that difficult, she believes. “People don’t always think creatively – there are vertical spaces to use, simple ways to harvest rainwater and really, it is very easy to grow seeds, despite the seed companies making is sound hard.”
Chatelaine is so happy to be back in Howick. “All my life I have looked out for NR cars, and felt homesick. I remember coming into town in my Dad’s Oldsmobile to a lovely shop which had big sacks of beans with the sides rolled down. I used to dip my hands deep into the sacks and spill the beans through my fingers.” She bumped into Dave in the parking lot of a local shopping center, he had his arms full of eggs. “I asked him if I could buy some chicken manure for my garden and literally, that was that! It’s wonderful, we talk about weather and seeds and soil all the time. I wish we had met years ago.”
She has plans now to convert the huge water reservoir in the back yard to aquaculture – introducing water lilies and fish.The geese, Louise and Toyboy, will love the new playground no doubt. This certainly is one back yard to watch.
Chatelaine is a self-appointed Earth Guardian asking who will speak for the trees, if she doesn’t? In 2002 she attended the World Summit on Sustainability where she met Vandana Shiva amongst other marvellous people. She remembers one man saying to her reverently “I believe that you are a gardener?” and feeling so proud that, whereas gardeners used to be on the bottom rung, they are now put on a pedestal. This will become more and more evident as climate change makes food production more challenging.
Chatelaine is delighted to share her knowledge and enthusiasm by holding a basic permaculture course in your own garden. Give her a ring 079 376 1514 and hire her to inspire your own riot.