Friday, April 21, 2017

Food forest gardening

Slowly over the years trees get bigger and the garden becomes transformed. I find photos of when I had a lush lawn, when I first planted the olive trees and when the back garden was a herb garden. Now because the trees got so big, the lawn wouldn't grow and because I had more shade, the choices of what I could grow became restricted. At the same time I find that with the increased intensity of the sun these days, many plants seem happier in dappled shade.

I recently heard about food forest planting and realised my garden is now naturally ready for that - it has evolved. So with some judicious pruning I am hoping to have more plants under my trees that enjoy dappled shade and give me something to eat. I planted an almond in the veggie patch to give me dappled shade for lettuce. Although lettuce grows in the hot sun on vegetable farms, I feel the wind and sufficient water help them survive there better than in the more enclosed area I have, where due to the wall around it, the heat is intensified. We also have severe water restrictions so growing food becomes very challenging.

Part of my plan involves leaving plants in the ground even when they have died. My maize plants are dry and dead but I am hoping they will provide support for broad beans. I planted brinjals around dead bean plants and they are thriving. Leaving the roots in the ground keeps the ground healthy as the microrrhiza are not disturbed. I noticed after years of planting how the soil became powdery and am trying to get it vibrant and healthy again.
My Jerusalem artichokes can be left standing to provide support for peas. Also my Golden rod will support peas - in this way the summer plants will support the winter plants. The fruit trees, being deciduous will allow for winter planting of veg that needs full sun so potatoes will go in there. Also blue berries should do well.

I encourage you to google Food forest planting to be inspired for your own garden. So many people still have lawn and a couple of shrubs, where they could have a thriving food producing garden.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The universe within us - a story of microbial life inside each one of us.

The universe within us  – a look at the gut microbiome and our health


Similar to a swarm of bees, where different bees have a specific job and are ineffective on their own, and where the swarm is the organism, the microbiome in the gut is a giant organism – the universe inside us. This microbiome has ancient roots and is part of the wonder of our evolution. We are in fact a combination of human and microbial cells having evolved together since humans started their time on Earth.

Over the past 50 years or so we have seen dramatic increases in many diseases, notably autoimmune diseases, allergies, behaviour and learning problems, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Much of the decline in human health can be attributed to changes in the microbiome, which has served humans well for as long as we have existed, but is now under great threat for a variety of reasons.

Up to 90% of one's stool consists of micro organisms.

Diversity of the microbiome is important, similar to biodiversity in nature. The microbiota work together by communication and depend upon one another to maintain a healthy system. If one or more are removed from the system, it has a domino effect on the others as a link is missing in communication and cooperation.

The microbiome helps develop the gastrointestinal system after birth. The mucosal layer of the gut is densely inhabited by microbiota, which serve to protect and thicken the lining of the gut and help to make it impermeable (preventing ‘leaky gut’).

Gut microbiota can cause or prevent disease, depending on diet, medication and other influences. Microbiota thrive on certain foods, and a poor diet can negatively affect them, making them less diverse and predisposing their human host to disease. The microbiome of the average westernised child is not as diverse as that of the average non-westernised child.

The microbiome is important for the homeostasis of other tissues, even bone. Fibre is a vitally important food for the microbiota. The microbiota detoxify many environmental toxins and digest many foods that human enzymes cannot digest. A healthy microbiome promotes gastrointestinal tract mobility, keeps pathogens in check and plays an important role in creating a strong immune system.

The microbiome has many important metabolic roles in the human body and can protect against allergies, obesity and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. A diverse and healthy microbiome may increase the bioavailability of phytonutrients in the diet. The microbiota also synthesise various vitamins for us.

We are only as healthy as our microbiome.


It is the birth process that inoculates the gut of the newborn, although some experts say that the foetus and the placenta have some microbial life. A normal vaginal birth ensures the newborn’s exposure to a wide variety of bacteria that seed the gut and start the process of establishing the microbiome. Babies born via caesarean section don’t have this benefit and only have exposure to bacteria via the skin, subsequently taking longer to develop their immune system. These days mothers of caesarean babies are advised to "seed" their baby's microbiome by breastfeeding, not sterilising any baby utensils and by not washing hands or nipples. One can also get vaginal swabs to "seed" the baby.

Generations of changes to the gut microbiome are transmitted from mother to infant, (generation after generation) resulting in gradual genetic changes and poor colonisation of the gut microbiome caused by:

  • an increase in the number of caesarean sections

  • a reduction in breastfeeding
  • the sterilisation of baby utensils and the overuse of antibacterials
  • changes in diet
  • antibiotics in farmed animals
  • medication, especially antibiotics.

Although the gut microbiome is similar in most people, it is also specific to each person in that it develops according to the family history of that person and various inputs that can affect it. Each indiviual's microbiome is a bit like a "fingerprint" or "poo print".

People from other cultures, who have not had access to the western diet, have a far richer diversity of microorganisms in their gut than people who are eating a typical western diet. They also have microorganisms that are specific to their diet, such as the Japanese who have microorganisms thought to originate from the seaweed they consume.

In a healthy and balanced microbiome, the microbiota live in perfect harmony with the human host and with each other. The relationship is symbiotic in every way. The different species depend on and interact with one another. The loss of one species can have a cascade effect on the others and disrupt important processes, while leaving the system vulnerable to damage from adverse events.

Adverse events can include inflammatory western diets (high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, fats and proteins), chronic stress, over sanitation (using mouthwash and antibacterial soap), change of pH (the use of antacids, changing to a low carbohydrate diet), infections and prescription drugs (especially antibiotics).


We need to pay more attention to the health of our microbiome. Our microbiome eats what we eat, and the waste products (metabolites) can enter our blood stream. A junk food diet not only creates nutrient deficiencies, but also causes metabolite ‘junk’ to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain, which can result in depression, anxiety and behavioural changes.

The quality of the stool and degree of flatulence are good indicators of microbiome health. The stool consistancy should be well-formed with minimal odour and minimal‘winds’. A persistent vile smell indicates an imbalance in the microbiome and may be an early warning of developing disease.

The microbes in our gut love vegetables, wholegrains and fruits – especially apples and other fruits rich in pectin such as quince, citrus fruits, pears, and apricots. Organically grown foods have a greater nutrient density than commercially grown foods and provide the microbiome and us with a greater diversity of phytonutrients.

Herbal medicine can contribute to a healthy gut by providing many phytonutrients and phytochemicals that create a favourable environment.

Herbs rich in tannins (such as hawthorn, raspberry leaf, Lady’s mantle), mucilaginous herbs (such as marshmallow root, aloe ferox gel, linseed), and bitter herbs (such as artichoke leaf, dandelion leaf and Artemisia species), are the most important for microbiome integrity, prebiotic support and pH balance. A phytotherapist will be able to help restore a damaged microbiome by using the appropriate herbs required for the case at hand.

It has been shown that people who have a diverse and healthy microbiome have fewer allergies, less chronic disease and better cognitive function. Babies with a healthy microbiome have fewer neonatal infections and also seem to tolerate vaccinations better.


  • Eat a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits – preferably organically grown.
  • Avoid antibiotics and check that the meats you eat are not reared using antibiotics (this includes farmed fish and seafoods). Antibiotics not only cause loss of gut microbial diversity but also genetic changes. The effects of one course of antibiotics can be felt for up to 2 years.
  • Herbal medicine provides good alternatives to many pharmaceuticals and can treat many infections effectively without disrupting the microbiome.
  • Avoid sanitising your home and your body. Simple hygiene with soap and water is enough.
  • Avoid routine deworming. We have natural immunity against worms and helminths are part of the microbiome.
  • Eat more fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut, naturally fermented cider vinegar and kefir.
  • Include plenty of foods with prebiotics in your diet: apples, onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potato, oats, barley, bananas and all fibrous vegetables. Berries and red wine, with their high polyphenol content, also have beneficial effects on gut microbiota.
  • Avoid processed, refined foods and food with chemical additives.
  • Watch out for people who diagnose ‘parasites’ and candida overgrowth without clinical confirmation. Often the harsh treatment can be bad for your microbiota.


Scientists are discovering more and more about the microbiome every day.

Speakers at the first International Conference of the Microbiome in Autism were unanimous that children with autism had reduced gut microbial diversity, in some cases remarkably different from the guts of healthy children. From only 1 child in 2 500 having autism in 1985, the figure has risen to 1 in 68 in 2015. This coincides with the massive shift observed since the 1950s in the way our food is grown and the way we medicate ourselves.

It’s time to stop and think about what we are doing, as modern medicine and modern diets are affecting the future health of our children and their children.

Further reading

1.       Sommer F, Bäckhed F. The gut microbiota – masters of host development and physiology. Nat Rev Microbiol 2013;11(4):227-238

2.       Microbiome in ASD conference. (accessed 2015)

3.       David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature 2014;505(7484):559-563

  1. Queipo-Ortuño MI, Boto-Ordóñez M, Murri M, et al. Influence of red wine polyphenols and ethanol on the gut microbiota ecology and biochemical biomarkers. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;95(6):1323-1334
  2. Blaser MJ. Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues. New York: Henry Holt; 2014


Tuesday, February 2, 2016


It is interesting how fruit trees seem to have a good year and then a not so good year. The olive harvest may be excellent one year and mediocre the next; other fruit can range from none to one or many! This season has been a bumper season for me. That doesn't mean that I have tons of fruit but certainly a nice supply to eat and share with family.
The birds also have their fair share. It's a pity they eat the unripe fruit! Anyway, I cover parts of the trees with netting and don't really worry too much about the birds because I appreciate the diverse bird life in my garden.
So this year I've had prunes, apples, figs and lemons galore. There were a couple of bunches of grapes, but they disappeared before they were ripe I also harvested a couple of kilograms of luscious youngberries.

The Olive trees are looking promising after years of not bearing any olives. They are Manzanilla and probably not the best variety to have. I also have one mission olive which usually produces a reasonable crop of olives.

My lemon tree has been groaning under the weight of lemons. I keep banging my head against them! 52 lemons on a smallish tree. Some of them are as big as grapefruit. This lemon tree didn't have a single lemon for many years but now it's making up for that! In a storm a few months ago, it blew over (partly due to the weight of the lemons) and my garden helper and I pulled it upright and staked it firmly. It hardly noticed that it had been uprooted.

I have another lemon tree in the bee garden that started out as a kumquat tree. Then it had fruits that didn't know whether they were lemons or oranges. Now it has settled down to plain lemons.

Soon it will be guava season.....

The apples have their fair share of blemishes and coddling moth damage. They will be used for juicing and making cider vinegar. Maybe also an apple pie. Like the lemon tree that started out as a kumquat, the apple tree started out as a crab apple tree. Obviously the original stem somehow took over and now it is a huge and beautiful apple tree producing a good number of granny smith type apples.

So all round there has been abundance and I haven't even talked about the honey. I'm wondering if the lovely fruit this year has anything to do with the many extra bees in the garden these days.

Monday, July 13, 2015

My hypothesis on helping the bees - natural antibiotics

A bee enjoying the flower of the ribbon bush - Hypoestes aristata
I was watching the clip about AFB disease in the Western Cape on the TV program Carte Blanche, when I had a thought that is probably not original, but may well be an idea that farmers and beekeepers could bear in mind. Many beekeepers in the world believe the answer to diseases in the hive is to strengthen the bees naturally. They have a "survival of the fittest" approach. It is quite widely believed that there are many factors that have weakened bees, for example, the use of antibiotics, insecticides, feeding bees sugar, the use of chemicals in hives, monocultures, stress etc. When the one beekeeper who was interviewed  said that the only way to get rid of American foulbrood disease is to use antibiotics, I realised that in natural, wild areas the bees get all the antibiotics they need from plants and these plants are missing in the urban and agricultural environment.
Because I am a phytotherapist (medical herbalist) I have a garden full of medicinal plants. Many of these plants have excellent antibacterial properties as well as antifungal and antiviral properties. I use these all the time for my patients instead of life destroying antibiotics. (Antibiotics are rarely used to save a life these days, they are more commonly used as routine panaceas to a gullible and ignorant public. If people understood the effects of antibiotics on their microflora, they wouldn't be so quick to demand them. Doctors in South Africa shouldn't be dishing them out like sweeties either.)Antibiotics, whether used on man or insects, cause genetic changes which result in resistance. In humans this resistance can last for two years or longer from one course of antibiotics. It stands to reason that people who are continually taking antibiotics will have stronger resistance genes and weakened immune systems than those who rarely take them. The same applies to insects.
So my theory is that by improving  biodiversity for bees on farms and at apiaries, using medicinal herbs with antibiotic properties, bees would be getting a dose of medicine quite regularly throughout the seasons. Even those that are used to pollinate orchards, when removed from the orchard they could have a spell in a medicinal herb garden area, designed to keep them healthy.
I am sure that some beekeepers will have already made the connection between bee health and the bees' environment. For instance are bees that feed on Eucalyptus healthier than those that feed on apple blossom? Are bees that feed on fynbos generally healthier? I can't answer these questions but I think beekeepers should be enquiring as to whether all bees irrespective of where they are, are prone to American foulbrood, or are some less affected?
Here in SA we have stripped the countryside of it's natural biodiversity by removing nearly all the natural flora and replacing it with monoculture crops( like canola). We don't have fields full of yarrow as one sees in Europe, or thyme in the grass and Echinacea in the parks. In fact most of our suburban parks and gardens have only shrubs, grass and trees. There are very few wild areas left so the aromatic fynbos herbs are limited, compared to how it was before agriculture ruined the land. We also don't have the same flora as in Europe, which has survived because it is native or naturalised to the region and grown everywhere, on sidewalks and fields and gardens. Imagine my surprise to see Echinacea growing in a dry looking flowerbed at a petrol station in the Czech republic! (Echinacea by the way is native to North America).
It is no coincidence that aromatic herbs have antimicrobial properties, due to the essential oils in the leaves and flowers. Bees also love these plants eg rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender. These plants are not native to South Africa, but should be grown a lot more to supplement medicinal benefits for the bees. In the case of rosemary and lavender, they are hardy and drought tolerant. In European botanical gardens one often sees the most stunning thyme beds literally swarming with bees. Thyme has antifungal and antimicrobial properties. Echinacea, once established is very hardy and reasonably drought tolerant. It is the mainstay of any antibiotic treatment in herbal medicine and bees love it. They wriggle their way between the spiky flower heads, (which seems to be quite a struggle), in order to get the pollen they want.

My opinion is, that we need to enhance the bees' immunity by planting flowers with antibiotic, antifungal and immune enhancing properties. Some indigenous plants might well do this, but in urban and agricultural areas there is not enough fynbos to do this. So we must embrace the herbs that we know have the phytochemicals they need for enhanced immunity. Some of these are:

Sage; Rosemary; Thyme; Echinacea; Tulbachia (wild garlic); Garlic; Lavender; Buchu; Marjoram; Thuja; Myrtle; Olive; Eucalyptus, Garlic chives, Coriander; Aniseed; Fennel; Caraway; Rue; Yarrow; Artemisia spp; Juniper; Plectranthus neochilus; Hyssop. Strongly aromatic plants and plants with resin are the types of plants to look out for. Some aloes might have antimicrobial properties, but I don't know which ones, apart from Aloe vera. Aloes are important winter flowers for bees, as well as Cotyledon orbiculata (plakkie) flowers

Plant in big clumps, not dotted all over the place. Bees prefer to forage in an area where plants are in masses. Spread the word among your friends and neighbours. It's not enough to be bee-friendly, we need to get the right plants in place for their medicinal requirements.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bee Killer or Killer Bee?

Mention the word bee to most people and they shudder.  Not in the same way that people shudder over a spider or snake, but in a way that indicates a certain painful sting if one should be in their vicinity.  A common statement made is that they are allergic to bee stings. Funnily enough many people who say that they are allergic to bee stings don’t carry a bee sting kit or wear a Medic Alert bracelet! If you are truly allergic to bee stings, you could die without immediate treatment.

Most people who have been stung by a bee will experience pain and swelling in the area. This may last an hour or two or a few days. This is not an allergy, but merely a reaction. This can be treated with  Echinacea applied to the area that was stung, and taken internally. Vinegar is also useful to apply to the stung area. I once received 30 or more stings to my face and head and was fully recovered after two days. I have developed a sting gel which works very well indeed. I was the guinea pig, and the stung area was better in two hours (better = hardly noticeable).

It is an extremely rare event for a swarm of bees to attack an animal or human. It does happen, but usually because the swarm in its home was disturbed in some way. Sometimes they make a home in a compost heap or an old box or tree trunk, and they are stumbled upon by accident by a dog or human on a walk. They still won't attack unless seriously disturbed. If they do it is a very serious situation and apparently jumping into water doesn’t really help because the bees wait for you to come up for air. Bees might also attack someone who has strong perfume on or who smells bad to them – but this would be a few bees, generally not a whole swarm. Bees are very sensitive to smells and noises.

Making propolis
Bees who are happily gathering pollen on a shrub on a warm and sunny day, are not going to stop what they are doing to give you a sting! They are too busy to be bothered. Likewise bees that are swarming won’t sting you as they have their minds on finding a new home and protecting their queen. You can handle a swarm of bees which has clustered on a branch, with your bare hands. Do not be afraid of a swarm which flies over your garden or even lands in your garden. Just leave them alone and they will move away in a day or so.

And this brings me to the bee killers….. People who grab a can of insecticide the minute they see a bee. And even worse, people who kill an entire swarm that has landed in their garden or moved into a corner of their shed or into a cavity wall.

By now everyone knows that bees are endangered and that without bees 75% of the fruit, nuts and vegetables we eat will not get pollinated, so we won’t have enough food anymore. This is a world-wide problem. In some parts of China where there has been an appalling over use of agricultural chemicals, all the fruit trees have to be hand pollinated.

Bees are endangered for a combination of reasons: They have become weakened by Commercial Bee keeping practices such as repeatedly moving hundreds of hives great distances – this stresses them; feeding them sugar; using chemical agents in the hives; Agricultural practices such as monocropping, aerial spraying of poisons onto the crops; loss of habitat; Gardeners using insecticides, fungicides and other poisons (even organic poisons)in their gardens; spraying fruit trees when they are in flower; spraying flowers; Diseases spreading throughout the world – various bacterial, viral and parasitical diseases have spread across continents severely affecting bee numbers. And then there’s you – the bee killer who sprays or burns a whole innocent swarm, just looking for a home.

Create a bee garden
Bee killers far outnumber killer bees. Bees are peace-loving hard working insects who like to be left alone to do their thing. Love them and leave them and they’ll make you honey. Plant them a nice wild flower garden, or leave part of your garden to go “wild”. Place a shallow dish of water up high somewhere for them. They are very thirsty in the dry hot summer months. And stop buying insecticides. Leave the poisons on the shelf in the garden centre and supermarket – you’ll be sending the big companies like Bayer a strong message.
Bees deserve our respect. They do an enormous job for us, apart from making honey. Let's all help save the bees. Every little helps

Monday, January 19, 2015

Planning and harvesting.

It's that time of year when there's quite a lot of harvesting to be done. It's very frustrating when the fruit is ripening, or there's a glut of spinach waiting to be picked, but you are just too busy to get there!! I had quite a few plums on my tree, but they were eaten by birds and, believe it or not my dogs, because I was unable to harvest them. I caught Rocco on his back legs trying to reach higher into the plum tree, and realised where all the low down plums had gone to!

I have lemons ripening all the time and there's nothing more frustrating than picking them, and they get mouldy in a bowl. So now my method is to pick them, peel them and squeeze them. The peels go into alcohol for maceration for a constant supply of limoncello. The juice gets frozen in ice cube trays for drinks or other use. However if  I plan properly, I'll make hummus on the day that I've picked a couple of lemons, and use some of the juice straight away for this delectable food.

Spinach can be overwhelming in its abundance. What to do with it all? My solution is to check the leaves for dirt and insects, bung them whole into a plastic bag, and freeze them. Once they are frozen, they can be bashed into spinach crumbs, the stalks are easily removed now, they take up very little space and can be used in soups, stews and egg dishes as one needs it. I do the same with other greens like Chenopodium (goosefoot), Amaranthus (pigweed), Urtica (stinging nettle) and Portulaca (purslane).
Another good way to use greens is by drying them. A dehydrator is nice to have, but greens dry quickly in the shade on a hot sunny day. Once dried they can be crumbled up and a whole mountain of greens will fit in a large jar. In this way you can skip the vitamin pills or those supplements with phytonutrients that cost the earth, because you have your very own concentrated chlorophyll and minerals.
Dried spinach

I have an apple tree that I love for it's foliage, but a harvest from it is not guaranteed. Mostly the fruit has codling moth or some other scabby problem, so it's not really edible. But the fruit is organically grown, and quite a bit of each apple is unblemished and perfect for juice. If I had enough I'd like to try cider making or even cider vinegar, but the number of apples hasn't got big enough yet.

I have never tried salting green beans, but many years ago an aunt and uncle of mine used to do this with their green bean harvests. They would wash the beans and dry them and cut them up as if ready to cook them. Then they would put a layer of salt (non-iodised, sea salt) into a jar, a layer of beans, a layer of salt etc until all the beans were packed into jars. They said that when it came to cooking the beans, they tasted like they had just been picked. To me this sounds better than frozen beans.

These are just a few ideas for dealing with harvests. I have more for another day. Enjoy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My complete letter to the weekend Argus regarding the Banting diet (Tim Noakes)

Prof Tim Noakes was thinking in a unidirectional way when he wrote his book. Unfortunately the body has more than one system and to only look at the endocrine system is in my view, a mistake. Diabetes is on the increase throughout the Western world because of the shocking western diet - high in processed foods, salt, sugar and fat, and low in fibre, fruits and vegetables. Prof Noakes claims it is genetic. 

In South Africa we have many people blindly and slavishly following the Banting diet without any knowledge of their own physiology. I have patients whose cholesterol levels have soared on the diet, with an increase in LDL and a lowering of HDL, including raised triglycerides. Not a good scenario, any cardiologist would agree. 

Many people on the Banting diet will love the permission to eat more meat (usually from feedlot farms) and fat and not worry too much about vegetables. By doing so they will increase the amounts of veterinary drug residues, like deworming drugs, antibiotics, hormones etc and  other toxins that are stored in animal fat, Omega 6 which occurs in feedlot raised animals and causes increased inflammation, and nitrates from processed meat which predispose one to cancer. At the same time there is a reduction in valuable fibre from grains and root vegetables, a consequent reduction in short chain fatty acids made by gut flora(which act as anti-inflammatories);  a change in gut flora to bacteroides which can predispose one to colon cancer. High fat diets leading to increased amounts of bile acid predispose one to colon cancer, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel disease to mention a few problems. Healthy gut flora play an important role in protecting us against disease; a diet high in fat and low in fibre could do the opposite. 

The Banting diet actually recommends that people cut out refined carbohydrates. This is a good idea. Whole grains and fibrous vegetables like beetroot (which Prof Noakes doesn’t allow) are important dietary elements.  We need plenty of fibre and the micronutrients and phytochemicals from a vast array of colourful (preferably organically grown) grains, fruits and vegetables to have a healthy microbiome which will keep us healthy.