Changing spaces: from lawn to our own urban octopus garden

From lawn to food, this is a story of food resilience, regenerative farming methods and CSI combining to create the V&A Waterfront’s first Urban Food Garden. Under development since Mandela Day, its mandate is to support sustainable urban food programmes, such as Ladles of Love and The Homestead, create jobs and overall contribute and improve the aesthetics of the V&A’s open spaces.

Utilising Permaculture principles, the freshly grown and harvested produce will be sent to two beneficiaries, both of which run projects to feed people who are living in poverty. Ladles of Love gives people the opportunity to provide fresh, wholesome meals, with love, to people who have lost their way. The Homestead works with homeless children to assist their personal growth, development and education into a future off the streets.

Photo Credit: Ian Dommisse

The initiation of the project was based on the responses of a survey conducted in the interest of our staff members. The answers received found that the main concerns were around skills development, waste reduction, marine protection and food security which became the three focus areas of our Community Programme. When addressing how to contribute to these major needs, the idea of building our first Urban Food Garden was realised.

“It aligned with The V&A’s shared values ecosystem,” says Programme Manager of Social Inclusion and Space-making at the Waterfront, Henry Mathys, “…in that it supports sustainable urban food programmes, creates jobs, responds to the interests of our staff, and beautifies the open spaces of The V&A Waterfront.”

The landscape’s layout was based on the structure of an octopus as a way of creating awareness around marine protection and plastic pollution. With that in mind, some of the vegetable and herb beds have been built from over 1,076 eco-bricks which were filled with a total of 269 000 plastic packets, which has contributed significantly to reducing unrecyclable plastics. That’s just under half a tonne of plastic waste repurposed into only one garden. The recyclable wall designs were innovated by Felix Holmes from the Maker Station in such a way that the EcoBricks can be reused should the garden be relocated in the future.

The octopus tentacles are entwined by pathways which wind through the plant-beds that have been sized to arms-length to avoid walking on any soil. The plants occupy 260-square meters and have been placed into companion zones with one predominant vegetable type and other produce assisting that species growth or to repel pests. Olla ceramic watering pots have been placed into the beds and to save even more water, and our Head Office building’s greywater is used to irrigate the crops as well. The plants receive additional nutrition from fertiliser created through the worm farms that operate using the building’s food waste.

The Octopus Garden was initially an under utilised lawn before it was made into a functional, sustainable, communal and beneficial growing space. In addition to this, the garden is a recreational area where Merchant House staff can enjoy their lunch breaks in a natural environment. The benches built from eco-bricks are placed in the shaded dome that makes up the octopus’s head and further contribute towards the V&A’s waste reduction efforts.

Photo Credit: Ian Dommisse
Candidates were chosen from SEED, a public benefit organisation based in Mitchell’s Plain that runs permacultural and urban resilience courses, to participate in the Urban Farming Apprenticeship programme that was run by Ian Dommisse, founder of EcoBrick Exchange. “The students that joined us this week have graduated from their SEED course and are receiving much-needed experience and income-generating opportunities.” One of the attendees, Mike Panashe Mberi spoke passionately about his love for Permaculture and growing food. “Food gardening is a part of our culture. I have realised that growing organic, healthy produce is a way to improve peoples living conditions and lifespan. This programme has enabled me to put into action my skills so that people can benefit and I can give back to the community.” The ripple effect of providing these individuals from underprivileged backgrounds with a real-life opportunity to test their knowledge and learn skills is vital in providing an opportunity for future job opportunities.

So, where to now for these future farmers? Ian takes us through the next steps; “The program apprentices will be giving 15-minute tours to all staff and visitors and are graduating on Friday where they will receive a certificate of completion. We are excited to announce that the Oranjezicht City Farm management intends to implement another apprenticeship program, and they’d like to invite our graduates to attend.”

The ceremony was a touching and inspiring affair, well attended by Head Office staff, representatives of Ladles of Love and The Homestead, and public visitors. Henry Mathys, programme manager for the Art in Public Spaces portfolio, spoke eloquently on the mission of the project from unused lawn to prolific food production zone and then handed over to Ian who handled the graduation. Each apprentice was presented with a certificate and a quiet word of encouragement. The occasion was truly representative of our commitment to creating the worlds most inspiring waterfront, and we are so proud of the graduates and everyone involved in bringing this project to life.

Exciting, meaningful and relevant initiatives such as this start with action from a group of committed and forward-thinking stakeholders and we’d like to wholeheartedly thank our partners the Maker Station, Eco-Brick Exchange, and Musgrave Spirits.

The Octopus Food Garden addresses not only globally talked about issues but tends to the needs of the V&A employees themselves. We hope that you take the time to enjoy your new food garden, learn about growing food and building with eco-bricks, and remember: always eat your greens.