Saxon Hotel’s rooftop organic food garden

Submitted by: Jonathan Ramayia, Wednesday, February 4, 2015

<p>Saxon Hotel's 450 square metre organic rooftop garden is Johannesburg's largest rooftop garden (Image Source: Sought After Seedlings)</p>

Saxon Hotel's 450 square metre organic rooftop garden is Johannesburg's largest rooftop garden (Image Source: Sought After Seedlings)

It sounds like a paradox, but an organic rooftop food garden in the tree-lined suburb of Sandhurst, Johannesburg is an essential ingredient in one of the country’s best fine dining establishments, Five Hundred, located at the multi-award-winning Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa. The 450 square metre rooftop garden that contains produce such as tomatoes, mint, pumpkin, spinach, beans, zucchini, aubergines and a number of other vegetables, flowers and herbs, was developed specifically to feed diners at Five Hundred and was the idea of Executive Chef of the Saxon Hotel, David Higgs.

Establishing the food garden

Preparing the soil for planting. The garden is made up of raised beds and contained by long pieces of log. Pathways cross the garden and divide into six rectangular areas (Image Source:Sought After Seedlings)

The garden, laid out over an undercover parking lot, with four gravel pathways and a soil depth of between 33 cm and 62 cm was established in 2012 when Chef Higgs became Executive Head Chef at the Saxon and sought to find a space where he could grow his own produce, “being on wine estates in the Western Cape for the last 15 years and working on various projects to do with food and beverage – I had never had my own food garden. So it’s pretty weird when you come to a big city and establish a vegetable garden after having been on farms for so long. I think that’s the beauty of Johannesburg, you come here and anything is possible. That’s really what I love about the city.”

Soon after Higgs got to the Saxon he did some scouting around to get a feel of the property which spans ten landscaped acres, and didn’t really see a potential space for his food garden. A few months later Higgs was shown the space above the parking lot, an area of some 450 square metres. At the time the garden had an aubergine plant and a single bay leaf tree. A good start, but not exactly enough to make up a menu for a fine dining restaurant in Johannesburg.

“At the time, we only had the Qunu restaurant and sought to elevate the food and beverage offering at the Saxon and do something special in a smaller space – which was to become Five Hundred. Then it made perfect sense to me – we’ve got the space above the parking lot – so let’s utilise it.”

Higgs approached Sought after Seedlings, a South African company that stocks a large variety of organic and imported seeds, with a concept to design and establish the garden and then maintain it going forward.  The idea for the food garden was inspired by a food garden abroad at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a luxury, two Michelin-starred restaurant near Oxford, England. “The head chef at Le Manoir is Raymond Blanc, one of a number of well-respected chefs internationally who are growing their own vegetables”, says Linda Galvad, Owner of Sought after Seedlings.

Every chef needs an on-site organic vegetable garden

Galvad, an avid foodie, explains that having an on-site vegetable garden gives chefs the opportunity to select and pick the ingredients they need to produce fresh, nutritious, mouth-wateringly creative meals.

Produce grown commercially doesn’t allow plants to build up their own immunity; organisms attacking the plant are killed off artificially by chemical fertilisers and pesticides, limiting the plants’ ability to build up their own, natural immunity. Galvad observes a link between (natural) immunity and goodness in taste, which is to say that if a plant ‘takes control’ of its own immunity the result is a tastier fruit or vegetable.

On getting to pick and experiment with ingredients, the field is wide open for chefs at Five Hundred. To compete with the best, chefs have to keep abreast of the latest, and ‘trendiest’ ingredients being used in fine dining. This is being advanced at the Saxon Hotel’s food garden thanks to the fact that Sought after Seedlings, a licensed dealer with the Department of Environmental Affairs, import various seeds from Italian company Franchi Sementi Seeds, a company with a history of 231 years. The varieties of vegetables and herbs grown on the rooftop are therefore not your average vegetables and are in demand by some of the world’s best chefs.

One of the kitchen staff with a variety of Zucchini (Image Source: Jonathan Ramayia)

“In 2012 or a little before that – it was almost impossible to get exotic vegetables in the country. We couldn’t get the vegetables we wanted, that restaurants were demanding – they virtually did not exist in the domestic market”, says Galvad. She calls it an amazing introduction to the food scene here that has allowed chefs to experiment with various flavours and cater to a public more aware of the food they eat.

The convenience of having a food garden is also a major benefit. The garden has eliminated the need for Five Hundred to deal with orders from a number of different suppliers and has freed up some space in the fridge. Blossoms that are used for decorations were typically ordered in from suppliers and by the time they arrived they were two or three days old and would often wilt almost immediately, says Higgs. The freshness, convenience and taste are factors that Chef Candice Philip, who runs Five Hundred can vouch for, “everything grown here is grown specifically for Five Hundred – it’s very sustainable for us. We pick what we need for the day and it’s good to know that most of what we need is here all the time – and it tastes good! There are no pesticides and what we’re getting is pure flavour.”

Some of the dishes made using ingredients from the garden include: broadbean and coconut soup which makes use of broad beans, rose geranium, herbs and flowers; impala tartare which uses speck boom, nasturtium, watercress and rocket; and berry dessert which uses lemon balm and lemon verbena.

Linda Galvad (owner of Sought After Seedlings) with Chef Candice Philip (Five Hundred Restaurant) (Image Source: Sought After Seedlings)

The organic garden is used in most of Five Hundred’s menu, and the produce is more than enough for its needs. The surplus goes to Qunu restaurant, also located on the property. Produce like potatoes and onions are ingredients the restaurant orders in because, “if you start planning for potatoes e.g., three or four varieties, it will probably take up half the garden, so these kinds of ingredients are not practical for the garden – even one as big as this”, said Chef Higgs.

Gardening techniques: summer vs winter

Something that might surprise many is that Johannesburg’s climate, with its long summer days and high rainfall seems to have the perfect conditions for establishing organic gardens – and even in winter, the Saxon rooftop garden flourishes, with a little bit of effort. Given the relative difference between the summer and winter seasons, the garden does not always grow the same produce and gardening techniques are different between the seasons.

In winter, the garden gets watered once a day and is sheltered by tunnels covered in frost fleece to protect from Johannesburg frosty winters. The fleeces are put on in the late afternoon and removed mid-morning the next day. In spite of the dry winters, the garden is watered only once daily compared with summer days when the garden is watered twice – as evaporation rates are higher in the summer. 

 Frost sensitive plants are clad with frost fleece during winter months (Image Source: Sought After Seedlings)

“The difference in the garden between summer and winter is quite big. In summer the garden is much more abundant and lush. Ultimately, summer temperatures are optimal for a vegetable garden but we have grown up to sixty varieties of winter crop, including a variety of beans, kohlrabie [German turnip], mixed colour cabbage and kale, which flourish in the winter”. Galvad explains that in winter one has to monitor and manage the soil more carefully because of the loss of sunlight hours – the feed has to be different and vegetables take longer to grow. To avoid loss of water during the summer months, the garden makes use of mulch in the form of straw, which keeps the moisture in the soil for longer and also keeps the weeds at bay.

The change in vegetables from season to season or even month to month is something the chefs are accustomed to, “the menu changes, every three weeks or so, usually, one or two dishes at a time”, says Philip. Crop rotation is an important agricultural principle that ensures the health of the soil – so the change in vegetables from summer to winter, from one year to the next is something that strengthens the integrity of the garden, notes Galvad.

Another difference is that the garden attracts many more birds, butterflies and insects in the summer than in the winter. Some of these visitors help themselves to the produce – so scarecrows have had to be put up to deter birds in particular – but for the most part the wildlife is welcome on the premises.

The garden has attracted various species of birds, insects and butterflies (Image Source:Jonathan Ramayia)

In 2014, Five Hundred was voted the second best restaurant in South Africa at the annual Eat Out Restaurant Awards, after Cape Town’s Test Kitchen. In her tenth year at the Saxon Hotel, Chef Philip is hoping 2015 is the year Five Hundred becomes South Africa’s top restaurant and relishes another year of experimenting with ingredients grown only a few metres away from her kitchen.

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Jonathan Ramayia