It’s autumn in Cape Town and you want to spend every possible minute outside, basking in the glowing light and the crisp sunny air. Most thanksgiving festivals all over the world take place in the autumn, the season to give thanks to the earth for the harvest. It is the perfect time of year to visit some of the historical green spaces within the city that have been returned to their roots as market gardens and small urban farms.
The Company’s Garden is the site of Cape Town’s very foundation, originally planted with vegetables and fruit in the 1600s to supply food to the ships sailing round the Cape. In recent years the VOC Vegetable Garden project has seen the meticulous restoration of a small part of the original, based on etchings and paintings of the time. The garden, with its charming patchwork of vegetable plots, supplies the Company’s Garden restaurant nearby with garnishes, herbs and salad greens (The magnificent gardens of Babylonstoren near Franschoek are also inspired by the historic records of the Company’s Garden.)
While you are there, you might want to wander into the South African National Gallery’s new exhibition on portraiture, At Face Value. It features work from their extensive collection, spanning centuries from historic paintings to contemporary photography.
A short walk away from the Gardens is the historic house museum, Rust en Vreugd with a lawned garden designed according to its original plan of 1786. At that time the house was built on the outer limits between town and the market garden farms (hence the name Buitenkant Street — the outer edge). The William Fehr collection of art on paper (watercolours, prints and drawings) is housed here, and a selection of these is always on exhibition. Currently, the exhibition Land/ scapes is showing works in the collection which carry a “wealth of visual information on the shaping of the colonial landscape”.
Another urban farm on the margins of the central city is Erf 81, an utterly unique place on the slopes of Signal Hill between Tamboerskloof and the Bo-Kaap that is the site of a long-defunct military base. The small community that lives there is faced with the threat of eviction after a long court battle with the Public Works department. There is a small animal farm near the entrance and on the upper slopes an NGO called Tyisa Nabanye, which grows vegetables and herbs using sustainable permaculture farming methods. The public is welcome on Sunday mornings when they hold an organic market where some of the produce is sold - hopefully for a long time to come.
Soil For Life is another amazing NGO which supports a great network of food gardens including in places where there is little more than a patch of sand (“Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can” is their motto). Their Autumn Open Garden on 6 May is out in Constantia, but city gardeners may want to know of this once-a-year chance to learn from organic farming experts www.soilforlife.co.za