Horticulture Graduate Works to Build Gardening Capacity in South Africa

There are 8,330.5 miles between Athens, Georgia, and Vaalwater, South Africa, but the tenets of gardening remain the same.

JoHannah Biang (BSA – Horticulture, ’09; MS – Horticulture, ’12), UGArden farm manager and low-input gardener extraordinaire, has traveled twice from her home in Athens to Vaalwater to help maintain and support gardens and children’s homes at the Welgevonden Game Reserve.

Gardening in South Africa is challenging, but these gardens aid in providing the bulk of the vegetables and starch for the children and staff at these institutions. It’s crucial that they’re successful.

With experience in large-scale gardening and the successful team management of large gardens, Biang helped to create irrigation and cultivation systems that maximize the gardens’ limited water and nutrient resources.

She is working to create a worm composting system that will transform the food waste from the lodges at the game reserve into fertilizer for the gardens and constructed a self-watering container garden system to reduce wasted irrigation water.

“When you’re working there, you have to do things in a different way,” she said. “You can’t just go to the store and buy whatever you want … You have to think about the things you’ve got on site and recycle things in ways that will work for a garden. You learn to do things outside of your own box and work on the fly.”

Biang found connecting garden managers at far-flung gardens across the region very rewarding and believes these connections will have a long-term impact in the region. Cell service and internet connections are not reliable around Vaalwater, so it can be difficult for gardeners to connect and share information. By introducing the gardeners to one another, she hopes that they’ll be able to share information when they see each other in town or start to make more formal plans to gather and share notes.

Biang went to Vaalwater with Athens-based Son Safaris in 2016 and spring 2017, and she plans to return in November 2017.

“I did it because I love to serve, and I think it’s awesome to take some time away from what you normally do and take your skills somewhere else,” Biang said. “When you come home, you appreciate things more. You look at things differently, and it makes you feel good.“

By Merritt Melancon