It's just before midday Wednesday when we visit the Welcome Bay community garden. A half-dozen children stand around a raised planter bed, listening to Andrea Green's instructions: "We're going to put some compost around the plants." Andrea tells the children they're spreading worm poo. One boy says he's bored and walks away. Ella McLeod, 13, lifts a flower-painted trowel and digs. "I think I'll start gardening more after this," she says. "It's kind of fun."
Andrea, a mum of four who works for Good Neighbour Trust co-ordinating Tauranga's community gardens, teaches parents and children about growing food. She says gardening helps people and our planet.
Soil health and organic produce and being conscious of what we're putting into our bodies is really important. For me, the main thing with organics is coming away from industrial farming methods of using pesticides.
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The Welcome Bay garden started last November. Today, Andrea shows up to 150 school children each week how to sow seeds, spread fertiliser and pull weeds. She says most of the garden's 28 plots, measuring 4.5x1.5 metres, are rented by families for $12.50 a month. "It's a huge savings in terms of money, and we're also helping with sustainability and food security." Her husband David looks around the beehive of busy children saying, "It's not just about growing plants, it's about growing community."
About a dozen community gardens are spread throughout Western Bay of Plenty, allowing novices and keen gardeners alike to learn tips, share seeds, compost and crops.
Anne Gourley, who manages the Bethlehem community garden, is credited with starting Tauranga's original community garden in Otumoetai in 2010 and until recently held Andrea's position. She says generations of New Zealanders have lost gardening skills, and many of us are starting from the ground up.
Community gardens, she says, attract not only retirees keen to pass along knowledge, but less-established residents, too. "There's growing interest from younger people who tend to be renting. We literally have people who live in their cars.
Their living arrangements are such they couldn't grow stuff where they live." Anne says gardens also allow people to be more in control of the food they're eating and get organic produce at reasonable prices.
Waiariki Bay of Plenty Polytechnic horticulture tutor Steve Webb says some Bay gardeners may not be able to sow summer crops until mid-October. He favours courgettes, tomatoes, chillies, capsicums, pumpkin and beans, calling them easy plants with minimal upkeep.
There's growing interest from younger people who tend to be renting. We literally have people who live in their cars.
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Andrea Green lists "pick up come again" lettuces as simple to grow (even in buckets), plus spinach, rhubarb and peas, for partially shaded spots. "It's just about looking at the space you've got and working out how best to use it." She says people with minimal land can train plants to climb vertically, using inverted plastic bottles to drip-water crops.
There's an initial investment for gardeners: seeds and seedlings can cost several dollars each. Tools and fertiliser add up, too. Steve says some crops, like leeks, are easy to grow, and good value. "At $2 each or more to buy ... it is like having a row of $2 coins."
However, Steve says broccoli seedlings end up costing about $3 per plant, which then take time to grow. "But what are you comparing? I have grown organic, nutrient-dense food. We all know it tastes so much better when it is home-grown and fresh. What is that worth to a family?"
Horticulture student and retiree Don Butler and his wife Johanna estimate their garden is worth around $30 per week in produce. "We're vegetarian. We don't buy anything in the way of greens. We live off what we grow," says Don. While many older people downsize, 75-year-old Don and 83-year-old Johanna sold their house and small section in town a year ago to buy a home on a hectare of land in Oropi.
A couple of generations ago everyone had gardens, which is happening less these days. Welcome Bay and Selwyn Ridge Primary have garden plots here, too.
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"We'll plant potatoes shortly and we've got leeks growing, broad beans, broccoli, cauliflower ... we'll plant spinach and more broccoli when the weather gets a little bit warmer." The Butlers also plan to sow more lettuce, silverbeet and spinach. Don says he spread compost containing pumpkin seeds around his fruit trees, resulting in a crop of 28 accidental pumpkins, which the couple has been eating all winter.
Johanna says her husband does the heavy work when he's not studying horticulture. "He prepares the ground with fertiliser or digging and I buy the plants and put them in. What I enjoy is the quiet and the green."
Rotorua garden educator Denise La Grouw says cultivating your own food has potential to save a "huge amount of money", unless you buy everything from soil to seedlings to raised beds, which makes the return on investment relatively low.
"However, if you learn to garden, to use nature's resources so you don't need to purchase all these things, [if] you save, share seeds, and save, share and trade garden produce, then the returns are huge."
Back at the Welcome Bay garden, 13-year-old Sophie Turner pulls up a handful of compost with wriggling worms. "Why are you playing with worm poo?" asks a young boy.
Andrea Green says children need to experience sights, smells and sounds of the garden, and to bring those lessons home. "It's important to have our own food security and the produce we grow is of a heritage variety.
We can harvest the seeds back from them and don't have to rely on having to buy hybrid variety seeds." She says a couple of generations ago everyone had gardens, which is happening less these days. Welcome Bay and Selwyn Ridge Primary have garden plots here, too.
David Green hands me a leaf. "Here, try this." It tastes like tangy lettuce. It tastes more-ish. "Lemon sorrel," he says. Thirteen-year-old Ella chews a piece, asking her mum, "Can we get some of this at home?"
Andrea says springtime in the garden is busy, and she likes it that way. "Going out into the garden and pulling out a handful of carrots, they're so much better, so full of flavour. We live in a wonderful area in the Bay; we can grow just about anything here."