Andrew MacFarlane's grow wall © Roice Nel
Andrew MacFarlane's grow wall is an inspiration for the beginner urban farmer © Roice Nel

With the well-established trend of kitchen gardens and increased social consciousness of our farm-to-table carbon footprint, everyone should now be an urban farmer. But how? DECO asked amateur gardening enthusiast Andrew MacFarlane to teach us how total beginners can grow a whole menu of green goodies in even the smallest of spaces.

I’ve always been an ideas man working in advertising and now PR. It’s what I do to put butter on my toast. The inspiration for my hanging garden was a combination of titbits: I had a colleague who used to have his own home-made hydroponic system at the office (he still sells home hydroponic kits and socks online, super hipster). I asked him some questions about how it worked, then… moved on with my life.

A few months later I was with a friend who owns a restaurant in the Cape Quarter Lifestyle Village, Bedouin Café & Deli. She told me that sometimes she struggles to buy mint for her Labneh, a delicious type of cheese. In the dark recesses of my mind a little light went on and without even thinking I blurted out, “I’ll grow you tons of mint! I sort of know how hydroponics works.”

This was the first step in the journey of how I taught myself to become an urban farmer. It hasn’t been a long trip, but it has been a steep learning curve.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 1: Get the idea and just do

Often when an idea pops up we’re hesitant to act on it. In my case I had a rough idea of what it sort of looked like so I visited the local hardware store and came home with 6 metres of piping, a water pump, 9 wall brackets, 4 spray paint cans… and three weekends later it was done.


Andrew Macfarlane © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 2: Be ready to fail

From killing a lot of plants to becoming a frequent, confused visitor in hardware stores, I’ve had to eat a lot of humble pie. Like any new ideas there are bound to be some kinks so you need to keep adapting. I’ve learnt more from my mistakes; for every project I’ve undertaken, only half have actually worked.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 3: Experiment whenever you can

Diversifying the way you grow your plants will allow you to see which way is best. I had two seedling trays growing seeds, one hydroponically and the other a normal seedling tray. I was amazed at the difference, and it was a really fun process.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 4: You’ll need help

My girlfriend, a ceramic artist, is always on hand to give me advice. She also provides 50% of the pots, both ground and hanging, in our backyard. We’re always trying something new there; where I’m the muscle and she’s the brains.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 5: Just keep going

Often when undertaking a massive project, like the hanging hydroponic system, you need to keep the momentum going. If I’d stopped half way through this project it would have never been completed.


Andrew Macfarlane grow wall © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 6: Space, always consider space

I chose to create the hydroponic system, not because it was hard but because with the limited space in our 4x4m backyard. In my system I can grow 35 plants on 2 metres of wall. Another thing to remember with space is the size of plants: vegetables and herbs are great, olive trees are a no.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 7: You need a routine

If you’re the type of person who can’t squeeze an extra 10 minute activity into your day, I’d turn the other way right now. Even though I could switch on a timer for the systems in my backyard, I still need to maintain nutrient levels, watering and pest control. But I love tinkering in the garden so I make time for it.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 8: Start saving seeds from day one

Think about crop rotation. I had beans in the system that eventually died due to bad nutrients. But before they were thrown into the Bokashi composter, I took some of their beans and planted them (now I have more nearly-dead beans, but you get the idea).


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 9: Start sourcing stuff for free

Recently I’ve started driving to large hardware stores and asking for old pallets. Certain pallets are not recollected from distributors and are actually given away for free, you just have to ask. Building your own planting boxes helps cut down the expenses on an expensive hobby.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Self-Taught Tip 10: Do it your way

There’s no reason why I painted the system gold, I just thought it would look cool. Luckily it came out the way it did. I’m pretty sure few people bother to glam-up their hydroponic system. But I tailored it to best suit our aesthetic – otherwise, to be honest, it would have looked like a drunken plumber’s handiwork.


Andrew Macfarlane urban farmer © Roice Nel

Our project is far from complete, as it is a constant work in progress, but that’s the fun of it. If you’re interested in seeing me complete more of my projects in the backyard follow me on Instagram @macfarlane_a.

All images featured were taken by my friend and professional photographer, Roice Nel.

Andrew MacFarlane © Roice Nel

Our DECO guest writer and knowledgeable, self-taught, green-fingered god, Andrew Macfarlane, has spent the last 5 years as an advertising copywriter at a number of Cape Town agencies. Recently he made the jump to PR and works at Irvine Bartlett. Not professionally trained in landscaping, all the skills he applies when building in his backyard in Woodstock are self-taught, or Googled.