Gardening: Follow the food crowd

By Meg Liptrot

Emily Harris says you can grow food for the community in all sorts of unlikely places. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Emily Harris says you can grow food for the community in all sorts of unlikely places. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Even the best laid plans can go awry, particularly when it comes to gardening. I had visions of bounteous crops in my head when I met Emily Harris at the Wynyard Quarter on Auckland's waterfront to check out the garden beds she helped plant as part of the Crowd Grown Feast.

The zucchini, leeks and herbs growing in the large planter boxes should have been looking lush, but they were stunted and wilting in the heat because the only available water source was 100m away and Auckland has been really dry this summer.

Before this the planters were near the Garden to Table Trust and easy to water as part of the trust's garden. Unfortunately, the row of planters had to be relocated for use as a carpark barrier, as two cars had driven off the knee-height carpark platform to the road below. The telltale gouges in the concrete were plain to see.

That's life when it comes to urban gardening in public spaces. Emily says that despite this setback Waterfront Auckland has been very supportive and enthusiastic.

The morning I was there a quick watering rescue attempt was made, dashing back and forth with child-sized watering cans borrowed from the trust, and the parched plants soon came back to life. Luckily Emily, Chloe and Ben aren't relying on these crops for the event and have the help of 70 locals who are growing the necessary ingredients for the Crowd Grown Feast menu.

The big idea

The concept for Crowd Grown Feast is for 100 participants to grow or produce veges and fruit earmarked for a seasonally inspired eight-course menu, to be shared in one night of feasting decadence.

For a small fee participants can sign up and choose their ingredient from a catalogue which has information on ideal growing conditions for the plant, plus the skill level required of the grower. Seed is sent out, or a pick-up of seedlings arranged, then gardeners get growing. The team set up a group on the social gardening network website Ooooby to provide support.

Chef Ben Barton, from PopDining, has developed a flexible menu depending on the availability of seasonal produce. The shared feast, thought to be a world first, will be held in one of Auckland's coolest locations - Wynyard Quarter's Silos. Featuring delectable delights such as "Too Many Zucchini - crostini, candy, cannoli, ravioli and cake", "eggplant meatballs", and "Autumn pudding with black pepper sponge, autumn fruit, cream and balsamic", this is sure to be a memorable dining experience. But what will really make the feast fire-up will be the novel congeniality of sharing a meal grown by fellow diners. This is an immediate and intimate connection between the people and food which is often missing in our daily lives.

Stirring the pot

Emily's passion for urban food growing started when she was living in an apartment on High St in central Auckland in 2010, having moved from Invercargill. Emily, who has a degree in law and genetic science, had no experience in community engagement or growing food. She attended the Social Entrepreneur School run in 2012 by the Centre for Social Innovations and there she met fellow Feast co-ordinator and designer Chloe Waretini, of Enspiral.

Emily felt there was a lack of connection in town and thought that growing food would be a great way to be more engaged. She founded Urban Pantry, where she designs gardens for locations such as apartment roofs, balconies or vacant spaces outside offices, so staff can pick their own fresh veges for salads at lunch. She is also a keen guerrilla gardener.

Emily first met Ben Barton when she was based at co-working space The Kitchen. Ben and fellow chef Andreas Eggmann put on a "crowd-sourced lunch" for the collective. They had both worked as chefs on super yachts. Emily said that through his experiences, Ben saw issues and inequalities in the global food system. When he came back to live in New Zealand he decided he wanted to use his food skills to engage the public with these issues. The Freegan Feast was one such activity - making use of perfectly good food rescued from supermarket skip bins.

Ben's corn-growing efforts received some publicity in December after he planted a long strip of corn along the berm outside his home in Pt Chevalier. The corn was intended for the feast, but didn't grow as well as hoped, so they're giving it another go in a new location.

The Crowd Grown Feast may turn out to be cathartic and healing - and just plain fun. I think it has real community-building potential of the old-school kind, rekindled by these social media-savvy new kids on the block. Feel free to get in touch with the team if you're keen to do something similar.

Join in

Interested in taking part? Got a goat or keeping cooks? There's still room and time to be part of this year's action. Places are available for 10 mystery bonus ingredients, six fruit-growing opportunities, plus eggs and goat's milk. Go to crowdgrownfeast.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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