Jane GriffithsFrom tennis court to vegetable garden

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.

The tennis court garden

The tennis court garden

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.

Digging out the red clay soil

Digging out the red clay soil

“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.

Red clay soil dug out (1)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.”

Irrigation trenches being dug

Irrigation trenches being dug

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.”

Digging out the beds

Digging out the beds

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.

Compost enriched soil added

Compost enriched soil added

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.

The Greenhouse and garden shed

The Greenhouse and garden shed

“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 tennis court garden (4)

“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.

Nico Czypionka and Jane Griffiths in front of the JoJo Tank

Nico Czypionka and Jane Griffiths in front of the JoJo Tank

JoJo tank arrivingWhen 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.

The tennis court garden (3)So, bearing in mind the reuse, recycle and reinvent mantra – what did Nico have to spend money on to create his garden?

– 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.)

The tennis court garden

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.

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Jane Griffiths

About Jane Griffiths

Jane Griffiths is a television producer, writer, artist and traveller who has been growing organic vegetables and herbs in her Johannesburg garden for more than fifteen years. Her best-selling book Jane's Delicious Garden led to a vegetable revolution in South Africa, with thousands of home growers following in her green footsteps. This was followed by Jane's Delicious Kitchen, a collection of delicious recipes for cooking and preserving home grown produce. Her newly released Jane's Delicious Herbs provides a wealth of information on growing and using nearly eighty different herbs, whether it is for cooking, healing, cleaning, pet care or simply feeling good. Visit her website at Jane's Delicious Garden and follow her on Twitter @DeliciousJane

6 thoughts on “From tennis court to vegetable garden

  1. Hi Jane, I’ve just forwarded this to our local community garden organisers. We’re in Goulburn, country NSW, Australia and our Uniting church had the old tennis courts behind the church dug up and replaced by many garden beds. The site was opened to the community 3 months ago and the beds are gradually being purchased and worked. I planted my bed just a month ago and the green of my winter veg is just peeping through the frost protecting lucerne mat. I’m so looking forward to eating my broad beans, sugar snap peas, red onions, all-season carrots, garlic, leek, shallots, miniature broccoli and silver beet. There is still much organising of specific areas of the site. Our voluntary organisers have been given some government grants but it actually costs a fortune to set up, so it would be wonderful to have the ready funds that Nico Czypionka has! Good fortune to his venture!

    • Hi Phileppa, please send me an email to: jane at janesdeliciousgarden dot com
      I can put you in touch with Nico – even if it is to share techniques and information.
      Enjoy you new garden!

    • @Phileppa, I too live in NSW. If you keep an eye on gardening company sites on Facebook, they often have giveaways for Community groups, home gardeners etc. I have been lucky enough to win pkts of seeds, gardening equipment, gardening books and even a beautiful rose. Worth looking out for, as every freebie helps those of us with extremely limited funds, as you have a valid point about the costs involved in setting up gardens! Costs $$$$$ and not all of us have that money tree at the end of the garden……..

  2. The previous owner of my place in NSW converted the tennis court to a parterre garden with the entire tennis court netted in to keep the birds out. I couldn’t deal with all the little beds and paths etc so I have kept the plants and trees and turned the whole thing into an aviary with doves, pheasants, peacocks, partridges, exotic pigeons etc. The net keeps my birds in and the wild birds out.

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