Last year I gave a talk at the Country Club Johannesburg. As part of the talk, I said to the audience that a committed organic gardener will always recycle, reuse or reinvent rather than buying something new. For one of the audience members, this was his “Ah ha!” moment.
Nico Czypionka lives on a large property in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s gracious old suburbs. Flying over these suburbs – Birdhaven, Melrose, Hyde Park etc. – you look down on extensive, well- established gardens with huge trees, blue pools and the obligatory tennis court. “One family, one pool and one court” must have been the norm when they were established.
“I have long wondered how many of these pools and tennis courts are ever used today, and how many courts are even in a playable condition.” says Nico. Judging by the number of requests that I have received from northern suburb gardeners who want me to please give them advice on turning their tennis court into a vegetable garden, not many of them are used.
For Nico, his court had been a burden for quite sometime. “I am sure that virtually every tennis court owner has tried hard at times to entice friends to play with him on his court regularly, at least on weekends. Most do not succeed and, as was the case with my court, the surface deteriorates, the fencing rusts, and the tennis net decays. And, after all, as a member of the Country Club Johannesburg, I have the use of superbly maintained courts – with tennis partners freely available.”
Nico had long played with the idea of establishing a large green house for hydroponic gardening on his court but after listening to my talk he finally realised what he wanted to do. “I figured it like this: I had one unused tennis court – a huge flat and smoothly surfaced area that could serve as a weatherproof base: instead of digging vegetable beds in a lawn area, and then having to construct paved pathways and laying paving to deal with mud, I had ready-made paths and surfaces in the form of the tennis court surface – and all we had to do is cut it and dig out beds into this where we wanted and as needed.”
Because his garden has many oaks and other trees, as well as large lawns, he had a treasure trove of at least 20m² of compost lying idle in a corner. Nico also wanted to construct a garden shed and greenhouse on the tennis court and not only were there tennis court fencing poles in abundance; over the years he had accumulated heaps of scrap timber, doors, piping, tables and table legs, pots and whole forests of bamboo. To top it all – he has a workshop that holds every tool imaginable, including an arc welder and a steel cutting saw. And so work on converting the unused tennis court to a productive vegetable garden began.
With the help of his gardener, circles and rectangles were cut for beds and trenches dug for irrigation pipes. Many cubic metres of red clay soil was dug out, down to a depth of 40cm, and replaced with a mixture of black compost and soil. A new composting area was constructed and activated. 1,500 paving bricks were laid to neatly surround the long rectangular and circular vegetable beds. ‘Wigwam’ trellises from bamboo were built and some 300m of underground irrigation piping were laid. Slowly but surely the tennis court started disappearing and a beautiful, productive vegetable garden began to grow.
“My approach to establishing my tennis court vegetable garden will probably differ from the way most people will establish their new garden – i.e. they are likely to start small in a corner and expand over time, but my circumstances dictated a different approach: I had a whole tennis court to fill, I had the materials, I had the tools and manpower, the organisational and technical skills, and I had the financial means to do it in a generous, perfectionist manner.
“The danger of doing things this way (i.e. ‘top down’), instead of progressively building up and expanding one’s garden, is that one can end up with lots of expensive ‘hardware’ (structures, irrigation systems, and beds) but – at least initially – with little ‘software’ (the actual vegetables).” Despite this, towards the end of summer the new vegetable garden was already starting to produce magnificently.
When I gave my talk at the County Club, one of the prizes that I gave away was a 2,500 litre rainwater storage tank, generously donated by JoJo Tanks. A further sign to Nico that he had to get his garden growing, was having the lucky number that won him the JoJo tank. All his vegetable beds are now irrigated, using porous pipe, fed with simple gravity pressure from the rainwater tank. This tank, in turn, is fed from a weir, via a long 40mm pipe laid inside an existing storm water drain. The water comes from the substantial run-off from Nico’s roof and a large brick-paved area in front of the house. And, when it does not rain, they are easily able to replenish the tank from their own borehole.
– 1500 face bricks
– Various pipe and tank fittings and valves
– 100m x 40mm polyethylene pipe & 100m x 20mm polyethylene pipe
– 200m porous pipe for the underground drip irrigation
– 60 m2 heavy duty transparent plastic sheeting for the greenhouse
– 100 running metres corrugated iron sheets for roof and walls of the large garden shed and the storage area (the pipes for the frame of both garden shed and green house came from the old tennis court fence)
– Underground electric cables and various light fittings
– And, of course, seeds from Organic Seeds in Pretoria (cheaper and far better than packet seeds from supermarkets and garden stores.)
Still to come:
– 100m of 50% shade netting to protect the green house and beds against our brutal Highveld hail and blazing summer sun.
– 6 m2 small diameter gravel for the space between and around the beds, in order to hide /soften the old tennis court surface.
Game, set and match to Nico.