We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Letter from Johannesburg

South Africa
Illustration by Sarah John

Johannesburg gets a bad rap for being kilometre upon kilometre of concrete. However, with some five million planted trees it is actually one of the most wooded cities in the world.

I live in the north of the city, on the third floor of a block of flats. My tiny balcony is the closest thing I have to a garden and I treasure it. I frequent the garden shop on the corner of Main and Witkoppen, not the one with the tall trees promising unbeatable discounts (I’d buy one if I thought it wouldn’t collapse my balcony and upset the neighbours), but the one across with more modest plant life, the kind my apartment can accommodate.

I enjoy pretending to be a wild person, gardening on my cemented balcony and occasionally waving at said neighbours as they look on bemused. Of the 15 or so plants in my apartment I have bought a few and begged a few others, a couple were gifts and others just turned up.

The bought ones were from the garden shop, where a man stepped forward and offered to help. I described my situation and he pointed me to the kinds of plants that might either survive on my north-east facing balcony – lashings of beautiful Jo’burg sun – or the ones that would be partial to indoor conditions. He also seemed to believe that I needed to buy wood chips.

‘What for?’

‘To protect the soil.’

I was dumbfounded. But he looked knowledgeable enough, clearly knew more than I did.

‘Are you sure? What am I protecting it from?’

‘The sun. This is just for the outdoor plants. ’Cause of the hot sun.’

I thought the sun was welcome? Not wanting to expose myself any further, though, I asked no more questions and allowed him to haul a sack of wood chips into my boot. Loyally I scattered them over the soil of the pot plants on the balcony. I probably needed a quarter of the amount I bought; years later the still-full sack takes up precious space in my cupboard. I see it and think of the man at the garden shop.

One of the plants I begged for comes from my sister-in-law, another from this sprawling garden in Jo’burg South I had the good fortune of accessing as the facilitator of a workshop being held on the premises. I would arrive early before the sessions started to sit in the garden in wonder; the instant peace reminded me of why I’d started buying plants. I bought my first only days after I’d been attacked in my home. And then pot plant after pot plant I’d sought a deep connection to something primal, however compromised by urbanity, something old and comforting.

I let the caretaker of those gardens know that I absolutely had to take some cuttings home with me and he said I should feel free. I had nowhere near a garden the size of theirs but felt if only I could take a little piece it would be enough. I walked away with two off-cuts from a Delicious Monster – one died quickly, the other took a little longer.

On a visit to Cape Town a friend gave me something known colloquially as Chicken and Egg, a plant with long slender green and white blades that replicates itself endlessly. I carried it in my lap on the plane. For years mine refused to reproduce until one day without warning there it was – hanging off a long stem, a neat miniature replica of itself.

Plant by plant I fill up my home, each time somehow restored despite the inevitable traumas of life.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop