Vegetable gardens are not only good for the stomach, but good for the soul. Suzanne McFadden visits four city gardens aiming to get fresh food back into our neighbourhoods — and not just for the nourishment.
Ta Atatu Peninsula community garden
There's not even a hint of irreverence when Lee Sigley asks the local community constable if he can keep a pig out the back of the police station.
Sigley is wandering around the gnarled fruit trees and new beds of potatoes, tomatoes and miner's lettuce that make up the Te Atatu community garden, planted in the backyard of the police station on the Te Atatu peninsula, when the idea of raising swine crops up.
"Don't think a pig would last here long," is Constable Faga Siaki's answer.
It's turned out to be a smart idea, having a community garden on police property. Very little broccoli is pilfered and young offenders can do a couple of hours of their community service weeding and digging the trench to keep the bamboo at bay.
"We've had people take veges overnight, but it means someone out there is eating veges - and that's a good thing," Sigley says. "Over summer people sneak in to pick the strawberries and passionfruit and we're happy someone is enjoying them."
The community garden project is far removed from Sigley's day job - project managing refits of super-yachts, aircraft and commercial buildings. "The change of hat brings a change of speed and philosophy," he says.
A couple of years ago, Sigley and his wife, Silke, approached Siaki about using some of the 700sq m section that has housed the Te Atatu Police Station for 50 years.
"We wanted to start a community garden on the peninsula, a space where things would grow and be relatively safe," says Sigley, who studied gardening at night school. Fortuitously, the police site also had a rich seam of topsoil.
"To get it up and running, we've had to beg, borrow ... but I wouldn't like to say 'steal' around here."
The Sigleys' original idea was to grow food to distribute to the community through food banks. "But we found that while they were really grateful, food banks couldn't deal with fresh produce," Sigley says.
Now they have an open invitation for visitors to the garden: come on Sundays from 11am to 2pm and, if you want to eat, you can also weed. There's often up to 10 people in the garden.
The main thrust now is to meet people in the neighbourhood and educate others in gardening. Every second Wednesday, the Waitemata District Health Board's Maori mental health team, Moko, brings people along to learn basic gardening skills. A young woman with no backyard has her own plot in the community garden.
The garden's budget is pretty much zero. People donate seeds - a group of older residents grow seedlings and drop around the surplus - while others have donated old tools. The local community house gave a compost bin and in the driveway there's a pile of timber from the ASB to be used for edgings. They will sometimes sell produce at a carboot sale to pay for water pipes.
Passionate about bees, Sigley has built his own beehive. "Not so much for honey but for pollination. But a little extra honey always placates the neighbours."
He wants to compile an urban orchard list, finding out which residents would be happy to share or swap overflowing harvests from fruit trees.
"The dream is to make a place where people come to learn, do and enjoy. We haven't fully realised the dream yet."
Fruit trees for Auckland
Judith Holtebrinck would be overjoyed to catch school kids swiping mandarins off the trees lining Mt Eden's Poronui St. She'd even encourage them to take a few more.
It's Holtebrinck's dream that all Auckland kids can one day grab a peach or pear on their way to and from school from thousands of fruit trees growing in parks or on road verges.
Poronui St, which leads to Auckland Normal Intermediate, is a living example. Holtebrinck and the "fruit tree ladies" of Mt Eden have planted 12 trees in this street as part of their goal to bring fruit back into neighbourhoods. It's already spreading roots.
"We planted this apple tree on the street," Holtebrinck points out, "then the neighbours decided to plant a lime tree out on their verge. I've seen it work in Spain, and New Zealand's soil is so fertile and gets plenty of rain, so it's perfect here."
Since the tree ladies (Holtebrinck, Justine O'Hara-Gregan, Karen Ward and Jo Baikie) - a branch of the Mt Eden Village People environmental group, first approached their local council in 2008, 131 fruit trees have been planted on council land in Mt Eden, Mt Albert and Epsom, for anyone to pick the array of fruit - nectarines, peaches, apples, walnuts, avocados, feijoas, plums, guavas, pears and mandarins.
The four also raised money to plant 100 citrus trees in schools and kindergartens. This year's goal is to plant another 1000 trees.
"We have three main goals with this project - to support families in lowering their grocery bills; to encourage local food production; and to teach children how to plant and care for fruit trees," says Holtebrinck.
"It supports entrepreneurial ideas among the kids too; we tell them to pick the oranges and sell the juice to their teachers.
"We're trying to create a resilient community. With higher fruit and vegetable prices, we can support each other a bit."
People can even request to have a fruit tree planted on their verge or at their kids' schools through a register at fruittrees.org.nz and Holtebrinck is always looking for volunteers to help plant the trees.
The seed of change was planted for German-born Holtebrinck when, as a landscape photographer, she was shocked at the sight of shopping bags strewn around remote places like Rangitoto Island. She set out to make Mt Eden Auckland's first plastic bag-free suburb and now one-third of the shops in the village have adopted her philosophy.
The Mt Eden Village People project expanded to minimising waste - coffee grounds go to local gardeners, food leftovers to pig farmers, old batteries to the local video store for recycling. This year the aim is to introduce recycling of soft plastics.
Some coffee grounds go to the Mt Eden Community Garden, also in Poronui St, behind the tennis club.
Within a year of work, every Sunday between 2pm and 4pm, the raised garden beds have quadrupled in size. Those who work there share the vegetable riches.
Wilton St community garden
A family of skinks, a rambling rose and a fig tree are all that survived the mutiny on Wilton St.
An inner-city jungle of jasmine vines had taken over a carpark behind the Gypsy Tea Room in West Lynn.
"The lessees gave us their blessing to clear it out," says Mandy McMullin, a landscape architect and co-founder of the Wilton St Community Garden. "It took us a year to remove 10 cubic metres of jasmine root."
The makeover is startling. Behind a white picket fence is a thriving cottage garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables.
Banana and lemon trees, rescued from a bulldozer's blade at a nearby section, stand tall. There's a fresh pot of tea on the wooden picnic table in the centre of the garden, ready for the six gardeners at work.
While its blooms and produce are prolific, it is the malodorous, steaming corner of this garden that Wilton St is famous for. The garden's continually replenished organic compost heaps keep other inner-city community gardens growing.
Food scraps pour in daily from as far afield as Parnell and Pt Chevalier; leftovers from home kitchens, cafes and even the Occupy Aotea camp.
Compost is crucial in the Wilton St garden, where there was vitually no soil. Now tomatoes and lettuces grow out of a thick layer of compost laid on top of asphalt. "We're turning waste into this rich treasure," says McMullin.
As with most gardens, Sunday is a day of toil. Whatever is harvested is put on the picnic table and divvied up among the workers - all local residents who don't have room for their own vegetable plots at home.
"It's completely user-friendly; anyone can walk in and get to work. If you're hungry you can eat, but you have to work too. You reap what you sow," McMullin says.
The garden survives on donations, right down to bricks and stones, although McMullin admits to a bit of scrounging to keep the project alive.
Funds from the old council and ARC, and the Grey Lynn 2030 Transition Community movement - promoting neighbourhood spirit and co-operation - helped to buy vital equipment like a water tank, fed from the roof of the Gypsy Tea Room and Wine Vault next door.
A couple in their 80s who sell tomatoes at their gate donated the tomato plants, and the 2011 national champion honey maker Carol Downer lends her bees to the garden, and has given Wilton St its own honey label.
"It's been pretty hard work but we have a beautiful garden to show for it. And it's a very sociable place, with lots of parties. It's a place of celebration," McMullin says.
"It's been a struggle sometimes, especially in the beginning when there was little to show for it. But now you see the fruits of great labour."
Devonport Organic City Farm
A glut of cabbages at the Devonport Organic City Farm this spring meant that for a while, the daily menu in the lunchroom featured a fair bit of Korean kimchi and German sauerkraut.
The lunches are often multicultural, depending on what's in season in the enormous organic garden. One man, who has his own garden plot, asks if he can help cook something Scottish. There are ample potatoes, cabbages and onions to make rumbledethumps, reputedly former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's favourite dish, or neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes).
Even when there are few offerings, in the middle of winter, they can whip up a nasturtium stirfry or sorrel soup.
Lunch is part of the deal for those who toil in the gardens, which sit on a 0.5ha plot on the main road to and from Devonport.
The Devonport farm, and its sister garden, Kelmarna in Grey Lynn, were set up around 30 years ago by a group of parents wanting to offer holistic therapeutic horticulture. The gardens are now run by the Framework Trust, a mental health not-for-profit organisation, with funding from the Ministry of Social Development.
Around 15 people are here on any given week day, learning as they work among the 60-odd garden plots, each with a handpainted sign as to who tends these plants.
"Each person has their own plot and we teach them to garden, to prepare and cook the fruit and vegetables they grow and acquire a taste for healthy food," says Linda Christianson, senior co-ordinator of the farms.
"They're moving around, getting vitamin D, helping to cook and eating a bit of food that makes them feel a little better." Christianson is a strong advocate of eating fresh organic food high in nutrients to promote good mental health. "We give them the knowledge and support, and they can grow organic herbs to sell at markets or start their own gardens at home."
Devonport also functions as a community garden. Five high-rise dwellers with no green space to call their own have plots here and there's a public garden where people can take in-season veges for koha.
"It's quite hard getting people to understand when things are ready in the garden. A lot of people turn up wanting a cabbage, but they have no idea how long it takes for a cabbage to grow," Christianson says.
Both farms are certified organic and run on permaculture principles. Framework has won Sustainable Business Network awards for its city farms and sustainable practices. Seedlings are nurtured in glass houses and there are countless barrels of homemade fertiliser, from comfrey leaves and mullet caught in the Hauraki Gulf. "Higgledy piggledy" planting is encouraged, so tomatoes battle with broadbeans while courgettes intertwine with celery, supporting each other as they grow.
"One thing about global warming is that people are becoming more aware of how their food is affected," Christianson says, "right down to the altering of the seed at the expense of nutrients."