Gardening: Water need never go to waste

Conservation 'wonder woman' shows Meg Liptrot how it's done.

Estella Lee is justifiably proud of the watering system she has set up in her bountiful garden. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Estella Lee is justifiably proud of the watering system she has set up in her bountiful garden. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Estella Lee is a powerhouse, a bundle of energy who hardly has time to sit still. Well-known in Chinese and conservation circles, the travel agent and former radio host has come a long way since migrating to New Zealand from Hong Kong in 1989. Back then, she lived in an apartment and knew nothing about gardening.

Her first house was in Mt Eden, where she was thrilled with the flowers growing at the property, only to discover they were annuals which died the next season, inspiring her to learn more. She moved a few times and her present garden is the first she really got her teeth into.

Water-savvy set-up

At our environment centre we sell second-hand food-grade barrels for rainwater collection and hold DIY rainwater harvesting workshops. Estella is one of our best customers and it seems like every year she buys a couple more barrels. Curiosity got the better of me when she told me she had at least 11 barrels, and I had to see her set-up.

At her house in St Johns I saw the beginnings of a productive garden on an average-sized section. She has two large raised planters, one with kumara, the other with yacon, a crunchy root crop related to the Jerusalem artichoke. Fruit trees include persimmon, loquat, grapefruit, figs, avocados, a Luisa plum, eight feijoas, a flatto peach, a pear, an apple, elderberry, a naval orange, and a rose bush with rosehips that she harvests. In the side garden a planter contains a vege garden almost smothered with a very lush choko vine growing triffid-like on to her deck. Raspberry canes fill the lower bed.

Many of these plants require irrigation for decent fruit production. Estella's property is sloped and she makes use of gravity by siting barrels at convenient locations for easy watering. The largest block of barrels are at the very top of her garden and the house is sited mid-slope.

Estella has a clever solution to get the water up to the top six barrels. At the lowest part of the house where one downpipe is located, her builder fashioned a jointed pipe to divert the water directly to a barrel. In this case, a standard rainwater diverter wouldn't reach the barrels. The rainwater flows directly into this group of four inter-connected barrels. A $500 heavy-duty Areta water pump was the most expensive investment in her set-up. It has enough grunt to get a large volume of water from the lower collector barrels up to the barrels at the top of the slope 30m away. She has provided a hose for overflow from the lower barrels directly to her stormwater grate.

Underneath the house on the opposite side, Estella has secreted another four barrels which water the front garden. Another two barrels in an upper courtyard are specifically for watering her Yacon crop. Estella has a grand total of 15 water barrels, plus one used for rotting troublesome weeds. At 200 litres a barrel she has a 3000-litre rainwater catchment system - a pretty decent supply for a suburban garden. The hose fittings that connect her barrels are available from most hardware shops.

Estella is waste-savvy, too. She feeds her garden with a bokashi system for kitchen scraps, in addition to compost from several black bins. She says the need to buy bokashi "zing" is a hassle, so she has created her own fermented bokashi starter using old peaches, fermenting them almost like a wine or vinegar before introducing the liquid to her food scraps to speed up the pickling process. These scraps are then put into a permanent hole in her lawn and covered with soil. Three fruit trees which encircle the spot get a boost from this enriched soil.

Conservation inspiration

Estella co-founded the Chinese Conservation Education Trust with the Department of Conservation in 2002. She received a QSM for community service in 2004. Several years ago she translated a sustainable living course into Mandarin for the Waitakere City Council and presented booked-out classes at our seminar room, where she was filmed after being nominated for TV One's Good Sorts.

Next month, she heads off to the Yalu Jaing Nature Reserve ("yalu" means duck-green and "jiang" means river) in Dandong, between North Korea and China on the edge of the Yellow Sea, which is an important habitat for migratory coastal birds such as godwits. March is the time to farewell the godwits from New Zealand as they head off on their annual migration to Alaska. New Zealand's Miranda Naturalists Trust has a sister-site partnership with the Yalu Jaing Nature Reserve, which is under pressure from development.

Estella often guides groups to conservation sites such as the Miranda Shorebird Centre. The most recent was a 40-strong contingent with the Chinese consul-general. She also helps to run a slogan competition for the Chinese community campaigning against shark-fin soup, and is involved in shellfish monitoring. Estella says she is so busy she hardly has time for sleep.

Interested in coastal conservation? Seaweek is officially over, but some activities continue throughout March. Go to

- Herald on Sunday

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