Urban harvesting – Moneybags' guide to growing your dinner

There’s a new trend that’s rapidly spreading in urban communities across the globe: ‘urban farming’ or ‘urban harvesting’ is a process whereby city dwellers grow their own food. Experts claim you need very little time or space to grow enough food to feed yourself and your family. Some claim you don’t even need a garden. The question is: why would we grow our own food when we could simply pop to the supermarket? Moneybags investigates.

What are the benefits of urban farming?

The reasons for urban farming are plentiful. People are becoming more concerned about supermarket foods –pesticides, genetic modification, preservatives – all of which can lead to pesky allergies, skin conditions, poor concentration and perhaps more serious problems later on in life. Knowing where your food comes from means you know your food is safe. “You get the freshest possible produce available with the least possible effort. It’s chemical-free, packaging-free and travel mile free,” says local permaculturist, Ben Getz.

“Furthermore, it’s a lot more fun to step onto your beautiful, fragrant and productive balcony to harvest – rather than driving to the shop, paying for parking, finding often sub-standard food and standing in queues to pay for it. This way, you’ll save significantly on time and effort and gain hugely on health, lifestyle and environmental ethics,” says Ben.

How do you set up? And what does it cost?

There are two main options:

OPTION 1: Do it yourself

Step 1: Get some recycled containers

Some nurseries offer recycled pots, or you could use old cans and poke or drill holes in them for drainage. “We use old tires, which are plentiful around the city,” says Jo Hunter Adams, local eco-warrior and blogger at The Concrete Gardener .

Step 2: Pot the soil

Potting soil costs between R15 – R20 for 20dm3. “It’s a once off cost because you can reuse the soil and even recycle it through your worm bin,” advises Jo.

Setting up a worm farm is a great way to compost your food scraps and use your waste to keep your soil healthy. For a step by step guide to vermicomposting, click here.

Step 3: Plant your seeds

Try Living Seeds (www.livingseeds.co.za), or start simple with seedlings.

Total cost

For an initial investment of less than R100 (R40 for potting soil and R60 for seedlings), you could get some good plants growing and probably get back your money in the first round of crops.


OPTION  2: Call a food gardening service

If you’ve got little time on your hands and want some help getting set up with minimal effort and maximum efficiency, contact a company like Urban Harvest to install an ‘Instant Kitchen Garden’ (Tel: 072 475 2977). Urban Harvest will install planters with all the necessary healthy soils, conditioners and plants required to begin harvesting within a few weeks.

I don’t have a garden – how much space do I need?

Container gardens are easier to maintain and far more productive than ‘ground-based’ gardens per square meter. As such, a rooftop or balcony garden in harvesting containers can go a long way to feeding yourself.

“However, you would realistically need about 20 square meters of container garden to provide nearly 100% of all your food needs,” says Ben.


Which vegetables and herbs grow easily and require minimal maintenance? 

The best way to begin is gradually – small successes will motivate you. The experts recommend:

Lettuces and leaf crops such as spinach and Swiss chard are fast growing and tend to be less susceptible to pests.

Herbs like thyme, marjoram, coriander, dill, rosemary and basil

Peppers – particularly hot peppers

Onions/ chives



Grape vines (you don’t need as much space as you think – they can grow in two tires)

Lemon trees (again, they don’t need much space to bear fruit)


Will you save money by growing your own food?

Although the initial costs of setting up with a food gardening service may set you back, there are certainly long-term savings to be had. This includes not only the petrol and parking costs at the supermarket, but also the cost of all that unnecessary packaging on fruits and vegetables (think of that R15 pack of basil you have to rush off to buy at the last minute, or that half-eaten pack of tomatoes that gets forgotten in the fridge.)

“A client of mine harvests all her herb and salad needs from just three small containers. The installation cost them R3750 and they have been harvesting consistently for over 12 months. The structure is there – when they finally need to replant it will only cost them a bag of compost (unless they are producing their own) and seedlings / seeds, which are really inexpensive,” says Ben.

“I spend about R1500 for a family of four on groceries per month, and we eat extraordinarily well – tons of fruit and vegetables,” say Jo.

Of course, there are the hidden savings, too – especially those impulse buys that supermarkets invariably tempt us into making. You can also save on the watering costs by using your bathwater to water your plants. Furthermore, the health benefits of growing your own food can’t be scoffed at. “We’ve been doing this for a while and we don’t have any medical costs to speak of,” says Jo. “My husband had high blood pressure and the prospect of being on medication for the rest of his life. Since we started eating from scratch, he hasn’t needed medication and his blood pressure is normal.”

“Realistically, it may not be cheaper to grow your own food initially (although there are exceptions), but over time you will certainly save on your food bill,” says Ben.

Top tip from the expert

“It is important to set up properly from the beginning to avoid problems later on,” says Ben. “Add to this a good dose of soil conditioners and regular watering, and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is!”

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*All prices and information correct at time of publication and subject to change thereafter.

BIO: Ben Getz is founder & managing director of Urban Harvest Edible Gardens – South Africa’s Longest Standing Urban Food Gardening Service. He holds a degree in Environmental & Geographical Science, Philosophy and Social Anthropology and is a certified permaculturist. He has established over 200 food gardens in a huge variety of contexts spanning 4 continents and runs intensive permaculture & natural farming workshops around South Africa.