Grow veggies with Joy Phala and Xola Keswa: Green Route

In part one of the story that I wrote for Daily Maverick The Easy Peasy guide to growing your own greens I looked at setting up the soil with compost and finding Easy Peasy Seedlings. In part two Joy Phala from Organic Kitchen Gardens shares her edible gardening knowledge and Xola Keswa talks about his sustainable self-watering veggie boxes.

Get 10% off when you use the discount code: GRZA to shop online with Cape Town-based Cosmic Bazaar.

Joy Phala from Organic Kitchen Gardens in Joburg. Photo: Supplied

Edible landscape designer and organic gardenerJoy Phala, who lives in Joburg, and I, have a virtual date every Thursday afternoon at 5pm when we bring our beverage of choice (for Phala it’s a real-deal hot chocolate, for me a carob chai) and catch up for gardening chats. Along with whoever else joins in during tea with Phala on Instagram Live.

It’s chatty and relaxed and Phala, 34, founder of Organic Kitchen Gardens, answers questions and talks about how to grow edibles in pots, and indigenous herbs. 

Before lockdown she was racing to finish a garden designed as a tribute to a client’s mother. 

“I’m currently installing phase one of a memorial garden for Mme Mmule Mpakanyane who was an ANC stalwart and human rights activist. It’s always going to be an incredible honour to be able to create a living memorial for those that have endured so much pain and suffering so that I can be anything I put my mind to. They crawled so I can fly.

“With lockdown we’re all focused on growing things we can eat,” says Phala. And what if we don’t have a garden, just a balcony and some space for a couple of pots?

“No worries,” says Phala breezily. You know you’re in good hands with the award-winning designer from Gauteng. Phala received the award for Best Young Landscape Designer at the Johannesburg International Flower Show 2019.

Phala, who has also revamped singer and songwriter Lira’s edible landscape, shares her garden with her husband and two sons, aged 5 and 7.

“I grew up in Limpopo, in Jane Furse, in the Sekhukhune region and I come from a generation of South African growers who practised what is now referred to as permaculture,” says Phala.

“I have plenty of childhood memories about gardening and cooking: what stands out the most is how much I hated the work. Life in the village revolved around soil prep, sowing, weeding, harvest, threshing seed, storing food, then rinse and repeat.

“My favourite, though, was when my aunt would make a pudding out of mealie meal and sweet gourd. I guess I hated the work but loved the output.”

Phala studied BComm accounting and Internal Auditing at Wits University and Unisa respectively, before working as a management consultant.”

After the birth of her first child, Phala stopped working. 

“I had always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I had postnatal depression although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I just knew I felt happier and content when I was cooking and when I was in the garden,” she says.

Phala started to share photos of her garden and produce on Instagram and received requests for vegetable garden installations. 

“That’s when I founded Organic Kitchen Gardens. This led me to study full landscape design and construction. As a result, the work I do is a combination of traditional landscape design and sustainable urban food gardening,” says Phala.

What’s growing in Phala’s garden now?

“It’s a combination of edible and ornamental plants plus indoor plants. My edible garden consists of indigenous and exotic culinary herbs, thyme, Salvia Africana Lutea, Eriocephalus Africanus, Tulbaghia etc. I’m completing winter sowings of peas, parsley, broad beans, kales and spinach,” says Phala.

“You can buy seeds online, they are part of essential services and I get mine from”

Water-wise Green Ranger

Compost and seedlings sorted, what about watering? If I was living in a built-up environment I think I’d buy one of Xola Keswa’s sustainable planting boxes. Keswa, from Cape Town, has created a great self-watering raised bed that relies on wicking so that the plants draw up only the water that they need and none is wasted. “You only need to fill up the water reservoir once a week,” explains Keswa.

It sounds ideal for nervous, first-time gardeners who stress about over- or under-watering. Keswa, who lives at erf 81 in Oranjezicht where he is part of the farm community, is passionate about the environment and co-founder of Organic Matters, a startup he established in 2014. The eco-preneur, who receives funding from the South African Urban Food and Farming Trust, as well as the University of Cape Town Global Risk Governance programme, developed the self-watering planter in conjunction with a German university.

“I want to help the less fortunate to at least grow their own vegetables – to help people become resilient during these difficult times,” says Keswa. “I grew up in Ixopo, KZN on a commercial farm and I learnt about plants from my grandmother,” says Keswa. With his grandmother’s encouragement Keswa and his mother studied agriculture.

So what’s the best way to grow a vegetable garden?

“Square-foot gardening is kicking off, and the idea is to create a mini-forest in a small space,” says Keswa. “So you’ve got your winter crops, brassica family, spinach, lettuce, peas and beans/legumes. Then herbs contribute to the beauty and attract beneficial insects – lavender, rosemary, thyme, sages – plant a variety. You want to create different heights.”

I can see my mini-forest taking shape. Apart from the therapeutic benefits of gardening the best part of tilling the soil is that you get to eat home-grown food every day. Phala shares her favourite vegetable-based recipe, a vegetable lentil stew.

Joy Phala’s Vegetable Lentil Stew


1 large onion

½ cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped carrots

1 clove of garlic

1 tablespoon tomato paste

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 chopped tomato

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs of rosemary

2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup brown lentils

2 cups of spinach


Sauté onions in a large pan. Add garlic and sauté till fragrant. Add chopped carrots, celery, bay leaf and rosemary and cayenne let that cook for a minute. Add tomato paste and cook for another minute. Then add lentils and chicken stock. Cook until lentils are done to your liking. Stir in spinach. Season with freshly ground pepper. DM/TGIFood

This is an extract from a feature that I wrote for Daily Maverick: The Easy Peasy guide to growing your own greens

Get 10% off when you use the discount code: GRZA to shop online with Cape Town-based Cosmic Bazaar.

To buy any Cosmic Bazaar products, including Canna Oil CBD oil that I’m taking and CBD for animals (Waffles the Wonderdog is taking this one), visit Cosmic Bazaar’s online store here. Enter the code: GRZA to get 10% off your purchase.

Published by Melanie Farrell

Founder of Green Route ZA - the path to eco-conscious living. I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

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