Making it happen in your own backyard

By Danielle Wright

A Kiwi summer is about getting out in the backyard. Danielle Wright discovers that can mean a lot more just having than a sausage sizzle.

Jill Mulvaney adjusts the copper still in her garden. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jill Mulvaney adjusts the copper still in her garden. Photo / Doug Sherring

Backyard entertaining is a Kiwi tradition, but before you dust off your barbecue, consider alternative outdoor entertaining - invite your friends to a concert in your backyard, to distil oils and spirits using an ancient method, crochet and chat, or just gloat in the fact you've grown everything on the menu from your own garden. Here are some inspiring Aucklanders making the most of the great outdoors:

Bountiful backyards

At the eastern end of Waiheke Island is an eco-village called Awaawaroa, meaning "long valley", where resident Lori Forsyth entertains and educates people
in her backyard. Lori's plot is is almost self-sustaining.

"We're off the grid and we built our own house, set up our own septic and power systems and have solar panels, as well as some windmills," says Lori, who admits tea, coffee, salt, sugar and grains are all they need to buy.

"In the 12 years we've been here, the area has transformed into an incredibly productive valley and we now produce all our own vegetables, raise our own cows for beef and milk, as well as fruit trees,"

The eco-village has just begun eco-living experience weekends in which visitors can have hands-on experiences such as making ice-cream, lemon curd, bread, butter, marmalade, jams, chutneys, relishes, collecting oysters and shucking them or curing a rabbit skin. There's also the chance to spin wool or learn how to start a compost or prune a fruit tree, lessons on animal husbandry, sustainable farming, alternative power, living in communities and beekeeping.

"It's a wonderful feeling to be able to entertain guests and offer people things we created," says Lori.

"I often consider how much of the food I bought and how much we produced ourselves."

Lori and her family moved to Waiheke from Findhorn in Scotland, another eco-village and spiritual community. She works part-time as a therapist.

"Coming from Scotland, we're still amazed we can grow things 12 months of the year here in Waiheke. The climate is fantastic for producing food," says Lori.

To book an eco-living weekend away or for more information contact Lori at info@ecoliving-waiheke.com.

Backyard crafts

Natalie Reeve of Poppy and Bee holds a crafty evening in her backyard over summer where crafty (and non-crafty) types get together to crochet, eat chocolate, drink wine in the sunshine and generally solve the problems of the world.

"I do a crochet tutorial and there's also a mini-market so other craft businesses can display their goods for sale on a trestle table," says Natalie, whose children, aged five and eight, sometimes make crochet chains and bracelets to sell. "It's a great way to meet people in person, who have become friends on Facebook.

"This summer, a few more people are on board who are into knitwear, so we will be bi-stitchuals. It's very casual and a less intimidating way to learn crochet than in a formal lesson; it's a nice taster," says Natalie.

Anyone can come, but there haven't been any male crocheters yet, so Natalie has just started a men's crochet Facebook page called "Manhookers" for all the men who come up to her at craft markets interested in giving it a go.

"There are some fantastic crochet and knitwear designers who are men," says Natalie, who is a former primary and intermediate school teacher by training, so is patient, even with the slowest crocheters.

"If you're a knitter it's quite tricky to change and it can be challenging. It's time consuming. If you learn it when you're seven or eight, and have the time to practise all day, then no problem, but adults don't spend the time and want to make something in one lesson so there's a bit of work to manage their expectations" says Natalie.

One of the more interesting projects she has seen is a hat crocheted to look like a brain and EMO crochet dolls.

To find out when the next backyard crochet "hookup" will be, keep an eye on poppyandbee.com or facebook.com/poppyandbee, or contact Natalie at poppyandbee@vodafone.co.nz.

Backyard music

When Goodshirt frontman and solo artist Rodney Fisher returned to Auckland from almost six years living in London, he turned his attention to curating Songs from the Backyard, an online music show with interviews and intimate performances hosted in other people's backyards.

"It's a continuation of putting on club nights in London," says Rodney. "Basically, it's what I was wanting for myself, and the effect of a really good live club show is amazing."

As a musician, he is careful to make the backyard recordings as good as possible for the bands he's showcasing. He says backyard concerts are popular in Australia because people are tired of big venues and, instead, want intimate live music options.

"We have recorded literally in backyards but, in New Zealand, everywhere is considered your backyard so we could do it on a mountain or on the side of a lake, depending on the act. The programmes are part documentary and part live music recording," says Rodney.

The first programme featured Chelsea-Jade Metcalf's Watercolours performing their ethereal track Night Swimmers and includes footage of Rodney and the band setting up. There are even some helpful children clearing the garden in the background before the performance.

Watercolours recently won the 2012 Vodafone NZ Music Awards' Critics Choice prize and received a grant from theaudience.co.nz, so there's no doubt Rodney's musical pedigree will act as a great scouting tool for those keen on discovering new talent.

It's not just about the music and people are seen passing around feijoas, cherries and cheese in a cane basket in one show and chopping onions or frying sausages in another. Retro lamps and artwork are placed in strategic places.

The episode featuring Tattletale Saints with their song Complicated Man, showcases the band and discusses the folk music scene and songwriting in general. It is lushly-shot and set around an old swimming pool in a Te Atatu garden, trees draped in pretty fairy lights near an outdoor oven.

If you have an interesting backyard, get in touch with Rodney and invite him and his crew into your home.

For more information visit facebook.com/SongsFromTheBackyard.

Backyard alchemy

Instead of a metal barbecue, Waiheke's Jill Mulvaney sets up her handcrafted alembic copper stills in her backyard and uses a method of distilling that has been handed down through the centuries.

"On a weekend, I will often have the still set up and running while I'm pottering outside or a friend is coming and that for me is just the best," says Jill.

"It often starts with a dream, or I can't stop thinking about a plant that might be coming into flower or is really healthy and vibrant," explains Jill.

"I'll then get my herbal books out and start reading about its folklore, how it's been used over the past 100 years, and look up the latest research.

"Then I'll harvest and distil it, surrounded by its fragrance. The combination of intuition and comprehensive research is a deeply pleasing meditative process. That's just my approach to it."

Her partner Charlie remembered his father distilling alcohol, so he was also interested in the distilling process. They found a supplier in Portugal and came back from holiday with a pallet-load of stills and no idea how to use or introduce them to the market.

"I've always been very drawn to aromas and plants and cooking and culinary herbs. My garden will never be a tidy place because I cultivate so many weeds - plants that have a history and don't always fit into a fashionable model," says Jill.

Each year, a winemaker friend brings Jill and Charlie leftover grape skins and they all make grappa. They also hold an annual celebration to make plum wine from their fruit trees.

"There's coffee and cake and we taste the grappa from the previous year, that's a pretty special thing. We also collect fruit from our two big plum trees and with friends sit around and squash them with rubber gloves and make plum wine in the back yard - there's a celebration with that, always laughter and drinking and eating," says Jill.

"It's a very special day and everyone gets something to take home with them to keep for a year to bring out for the next distillation."

Jill sometimes sets up in other people's backyards for workshops. A lesson with her could create an alternative Christmas tradition for friends and family in your own backyard with fruit or plants from your garden.

Contact Jill on (09) 372 3639, alembics.co.nz.

Find more interesting backyard gardens at Out of Our Own Backyards, a network for food gardeners and micro farmers.

- Herald on Sunday

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