Food & Trees For Africa

In two cities in South Africa, Johannesberg and Cape Town, we connected with a great organization called Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA). FTFA runs a number of programs that have to do with green things — their programs involve tree planting, food security, carbon offsets, education and more.


Johannesberg: Hug a Tree (Trees for Homes program)

In Johannesberg, we went with FTFA to plant trees in Alexandra, one of the historically poorer townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg. If residents agree to water and care for the trees, FTFA will plant them in their yards at no cost. In the neighborhood we visited, most of the yards are dirt and stones, so the new green trees were a welcome sight.

A street in Alexandra where we planted trees
A street in Alexandra where we planted trees

We learned how to plant the trees properly:

– Dig a nice big hole. Loosening the hard, rocky soil makes it easier for the tree’s roots to grow.

Jason digging a hole
Jason digging a hole

– Give the root ball a “massage” to loosen the roots and the plastic covering (which FTFA reuses).

Jamie massaging the tree roots
Jamie massaging the tree roots

– Throw some compost in the hole for nutrition.

– “Don’t bury the tree, plant it!” In other words, the tree shouldn’t be too deep down in the hole.

– Do the “tree dance” on top of the soil, to stamp it down.

Jamie doing the tree dance
Jamie doing the tree dance

– Surround the tree with a layer of mulch, to keep in moisture.

– And finally, hug and kiss your tree and give it a name.

We shared our trees’ names with the property owners, to help them feel connected to the tree, too. Although FTFA plants the trees, the owners will now be the ones who water and care for them.

The trees planted are all native fruit trees, and the goal is to improve the quality of life of the area and provide some fruit for the family, all while benefiting climate change by reducing carbon dioxide (trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen).

Jamie with the fruit trees to be planted
Jamie with the fruit trees to be planted


Cape Town: Plant a Garden

In Cape Town, we went with Bridget Doyle and Paul Barker to Sentinel Primary School (in Hout Bay) where FTFA was holding a plant workshop. This school, and others, are entering the EduPlant competition, a way to celebrate the work they’ve done in creating a garden.

Paul in garden
Paul Barker checking on Sentinel’s garden

EduPlant is an FTFA program aimed at teaching students and communities about good gardening practices so they can better grow food for themselves.  An estimated 40% of learners in South Africa are undernourished and therefore unable to learn properly.  By learning about how to create “food forests” in places where they didn’t exist before, people simultaneously help themselves eat better and address climate change (remember – plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and carbon dioxide is the biggest cause of climate change).

Bridget explained how the gardens are supported by students. For example, in a school that doesn’t have the resources to water the garden, students each brought in a 2-liter bottle of gray water from home (like dishwater, water from washing hands, or bathwater). Water in Africa is precious, but when 600 students each bring in 2 liters, there’s more than enough to water the garden. Students also learn to support their gardens with compost and worm farms.

At the school we visited, kids, staff and volunteers had done a lot of work. Their garden used to be a “rubbish hill” — trash would collect against the fence at the bottom of the hill. Clearing the trash, putting in a new fence, cutting terraces into the hillside, and planting hundreds of indigenous plants and trees was clearly a big job.

Even after all that work, there’s a lot of maintenance. Terraces are tricky: cutting flat surfaces into the hill gives plants a place to grow, but terraces can (and do) collapse. We learned of a natural support system that can help: vetiver grass, which has a 2-meter (6-foot) taproot. As it grows, this root system will help hold the hillside in place.

Vetiver grass is in small clumps in front of us
Vetiver grass is in small clumps in front of us

All About Plants!

After our tour of the garden, Bridget and Paul gave a workshop on types of plants, and plant propagation (how different plants grow from cuttings or seed).

Bridget Doyle giving part of the plant workshop
Bridget Doyle giving part of the plant workshop

Paul explained that some plants are annuals, which have to be planted every year (like beans, lettuce or tomatoes). Some are biennials, which grow for just two years, like carrots and chard. And others are perennials, which come back year after year (like mint, apples and cherries).

He also explained the two basic plant groups: monocots and dicots. Monocots have parallel leaf veins, and generally grow straight up (like grass, onions or corn). Dicots have more branching growth, and their leaf veins form a network (like tomatoes, apple trees or sweet potato vines).

We also learned about how many of the foods we eat are seeds. Some are obvious, like sunflower seeds. But you might not think of others, like corn (and popcorn), rice, wheat, lentils, and cashews.

And did you ever wonder what corn silk is? The silks stick out of the tops of the corn cobs, and are for pollination. Here’s the interesting part: each silk is attached to a different kernel on the corn cob. That means each kernel is independently pollinated!


Study Guide Questions

1. Why did we surround a tree with mulch?

2. Why does planting a tree help the environment, and especially why does it help climate change?

3. What are the silks of corn used for?

4. In plants, what does annual mean?  What about perennial?

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