Soil & Salad

I believe the real meaning of our existence is to be found in soil … in its alchemy, in its mystery, in its eros. Terra Illuminata. It’s where life begins and it is where life ends. It’s where death begins and it’s where death ends. It’s the Earth’s skin; the Earth’s exemplary circle.

As Stuart Maddox Masters said in his book, The Seasons Through, published 67 years ago: “Soil . . . scoop up a handful of the magic stuff. Look at it closely. What wonders it holds as it lies there in your palm. Tiny sharp grains of sand, little faggots of wood and leaf fibre, infinitely small round pieces of marble, fragments of shell, specks of black carbon, a section of vertebrae from some minute creature. And mingling with it all the dust of countless generations of plants and flowers, trees, animals and – yes – our own, age-long forgotten forebears, gardeners of long ago. Can this incredible composition be the common soil? …” 

This incredible composition may be thought of as the common soil, but to me it’s a shapeshifting miracle. All those millions of microorganisms interdependent and working as one entity, taking care of themselves, and in turn, taking care of all of us, too. Think of the magnitude of what lies under our feet: “A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the earth’s hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness,” as said by Wallace H. Fuller, an American soil scientist in 1975.

Soil, in my opinion, is not to be sniffed at.

Detritus from the farm being used to enhance the garden's soil.
Detritus from the farm being used to enhance the garden’s soil.
Tobacco scrap is filled with nitrogen, and is used as a mulch on our garden.
Tobacco scrap is filled with nitrogen, and is used as a mulch on our garden.

How to tend the soil is cause for much vigorous debate on this little piece of the Zambezi Valley. Chris, the brainy farmer, sees soil as a science, while Annabel, the Celtic tree-hugger, sees it as a mystery. Our philosophies are reflected in the way we choose to grow things. While Chris reads science journals and relies on solid data, I spend hours reading up on which plants love sharing a bed, and which winged creature best enhances their newly-wedded lives together. While Chris reels off long Latin names of substances that are known to enhance the growth of plants, I refuse to brook what he has to say, or implement any of his suggestions. Leave me with my intuition, my fairy circles, my birds, my bugs, and my companion plants, I say, and take your long words and scientific experiments elsewhere. (Which, by the way, he did: Chris has started his own [science] garden tucked away at the far side of the pineapple plantation!)

Halfway through a compost cycle.
Compost ... before and after.
Compost … before and after.

In spite of my belligerent attachment to creating an unsullied organic garden, it is to Chris I turn when I am at a loss. He is, after all, the farmer who first planted this garden … a garden I have since expanded, and now tend alongside Peter Komanyana and Eugene Maingo. It is to Chris I wail when nematodes turn my carrots into deformed fat Michelin men; when my parsnips transform into the shape of turnips. It is to Chris I turn when the leaves of my tomato plants turn yellow and curly, which they suddenly started doing last weekend. He is my consoler and my agronomist, and it was he who imparted the bad news about how tomato crops were succumbing to the yellow curly leaf virus throughout our valley.

Earlier this year Chris agreed to build me two raised beds, in an attempt to create what we hoped were containers for a “super-soil” in which few nasty nematodes could survive. Nematodes are microorganisms transported by river water that thrive in our sandy soils, so it’s near impossible to get away from them without using chemicals. Still, I wanted to give it a try. We’ve made a guess that using heavier clay soils — transported to the garden from a part of the farm where they are found — enhanced with compost and nematode-destroyers like worm castings tea, there’s a chance we may control them.

It is in the raised beds that I have since planted the delicates like herbs and lettuce; and it’s in the raised beds we are soon to plant our root vegetables, crossing fingers they will grow into shapes that Whole Foods or Marks & Spencers would envy.

Building the raised beds earlier in the year.
Building the raised beds earlier in the year.
A Zambian builder's toolshed.
The builder’s toolshed.
The finished raised beds filled with clay-filled soil, compost, and chicken manure, sold to us by a neighbor.
The finished raised beds filled with clay-rich soils, compost, worm castings, and chicken manure sold to us by a neighbor.
The variety of lettuces, mixed in with herbs, carrots, beets, and onions, have so far been a huge success.
The variety of lettuces we planted in the raised beds have so far been a huge success.

The lettuces, mixed in with basil, carrots, beets and onions as recommended companions, have so far thrived in the raised beds. They are healthy, prolific and a staple in this salad-loving household. Two different friends, one a local farmer and another, an American who lives between Switzerland and the Cotswolds, gave us a variety of lettuce seeds, allowing for an impressive array of textures and flavors to serve each day in our salad bowl.

An array of lettuces with basil, beets, carrots and onions as companions.
Spicy Mix lettuce with basil, beets, carrots and onions as companions.
Little Gem lettuce.
Little Gem lettuce.
Japanese spinach, Komatsuna.
Japanese spinach, Komatsuna.

A favorite dish for Sunday brunch is my Guacamole Salad with Bacon. I chop a small amount of fresh chilli into a smashed avocado, add a dash of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and lots of cracked black pepper. I serve it on my homemade ciabatta bread, sprinkled with crispy bacon bits, atop a bed of salad. I make up the salad according to what is available in our garden, which I bring together with a simple dressing — olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard — so not to overpower the flavor of the avocado and bacon bits.

SavannaBel's Smashed Avocado Salad with Bacon.
SavannaBel’s Guacamole Salad with Bacon.
A yellow cherry tomato that I am certain is native to this area, so prolific and happy it is.
A yellow cherry tomato that I am certain is native to this area, so prolific and happy is it.
Fennel bulb, which I use in so many of my salads.
Fennel bulb, which I use in so many of my salads.
Our avocado tree has suddenly started producing in the last three years, which makes us very happy!
Our avocado tree has suddenly started producing in the last three years, making us very happy!
Sunday brunch for three ...
Sunday brunch for three …

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • The Earth’s ingredients exist in us all – we could say we are this Earth.

    • I so agree with you … how lovely is that?! Thanks for stopping by my blog and all the best to you, Annabel

  • Your blog is just amazing and I enjoy every one – thank you for sharing all your earthy experiences !

    • Thank you so much for your really kind comment, Bridget. It makes my taking the time to write about our tiny little lives here all the more fun! All the best to you, Annabel

  • The guacamole and bacon salad looks absolutely delicious and what a triumph all coming from your garden! Surely monkeys must be having a field day with this Garden of Eden??

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Louise. We haven’t had a single problem with monkeys … YET. The dogs are a good deterrent, and long may this last! I did see a huge baboon the other day, but he was on his own and must have been passing through … probably having been kicked out the troop. Our biggest pests by far are the trumpeter hornbills. They arrive in their squadrons to eat our paw paw!

  • I love the salad recipe. The avo and bacon makes it into a wonderful meal. The raised beds look the way to go. Wow what a magnificent salad deli ! Thanks for sharing all the news.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Hellie … and for your kind comment. The raised beds are very new still, but the produce growing in them is doing well so far. Keeping fingers crossed!

  • Beautiful photographs – loved the ‘grounding’, that delicious looking salad and the magnificent raised beds! Just wondered – have you ever done planting according to the cycles of the moon?

    • Thank you, Georgie … I have never tried planting according to the cycles of the moon. It’s probably a little over my head! Have you? I’d love to know more …

      • – try this link. We met an old farmer in Cornwall who swore by it. I am told the best prosecco is bottled according to the moon! I’ve never tried moon planting but if prosecco is proof there must be something to it … 🙂

        • Thank you, Georgie! This definitely appeals to the Celt in me … but I’m not sure I can correlate the ‘wet phases’ to this environment. It’s as dry as a bone here! (Unless I’m not getting it, and I need to turn on the sprinklers during those periods?) I’m going to keep researching and see what I can learn … Grazie!

  • Wonderful photos, wonderful writing and delicious salad! You make it all sound so alive and your garden is expanding so much too. good to have Chrissie’s broad shoulders to lean on! Keep going! All love, Kate xxx

    • Thank you, lovely Kate! And yes, THANK GOODNESS for those lovely, broad shoulders … I couldn’t do it without them! 😉 So hope you’re well and thriving in the warmth of England’s balmy summer. Lots of love, Annabel xo

  • Lovely post savannabel. You must know about avocado ice cream?

    • I’ve read about it, Trudy, but never made it. Have you? Any tips? Thank you for your kind comment. All the best, Annabel

  • You make me smile , you teach me something , you entertain me ! I love your blog Annabel !

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Shaunagh. What a terrific start to my day! xo

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  • I’m so envious of your garden! Especially with avocadoes! Gorgeous salads.

    • We really are so very lucky, Mimi. Lovely weather for most of the year, and lots of water from the mighty Zambezi River. Thanks for stopping by again … happy weekend to you. Annabel

  • Have you tried growing marigolds and then digging them in as a green crop to suppress nematodes – it really works!

    • Thanks for your useful tip, Adrienne. We grow marigolds throughout the garden, but I have never ‘dug them in’. We have, however, dug in khakibos, which is ubiquitous in these parts, and here’s hoping it helps, too.

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