It's easy being green

By Claire McCall

Janet Luke with an urban bee hive. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Janet Luke with an urban bee hive. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

Janet Luke is New Zealand's version of "real food" campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. This Havelock North mother of three, who hand-built an adobe pizza oven while eight months pregnant, is trying to live self-sustainably, not on a rural patch in a riverside cottage, but in suburbia on half an acre.

She shares her ideas through her website, hands-on courses and now a book: Green Urban Living, Simple Steps to Growing Food, Keeping Chickens, Worm Farming, Beekeeping and much more in New Zealand, which she will launch at the Auckland Home Show later this month.

Viva caught up with Luke to see how she lives.

How do your husband, Chris, and your children get involved in the cause of sustainability?

We have three boys, Liam (8), Edwin (6) and Quinn (4). They all have pet chickens and help to feed them and collect eggs. They are used to their mother harping on at them to turn off lights, close doors and limit the bath water.

I like to think it's second nature now to put glass and plastic in the recycling and food scraps in the chicken bucket but, let's face it, we're talking young boys here so nothing is perfect.

With three children, how do you find the time to live more sustainably?

By making small, consistent steps. My children are my driver to be more sustainable. They learn about where healthy food comes from and about being outdoors away from the TV. By having pets such as chooks, they learn about nurturing.

You say it's easy to keep chickens in the city. Aren't there government regulations against it?

Chickens make the best "eco" pets. Most councils allow you to keep between six and 12 hens, but no roosters. Obviously, it's important to get on side with your neighbours so the odd carton of eggs never goes astray. There are certain breeds of chooks I recommend for keeping in urban areas due to their quiet nature. Most complaints are because people fail to keep the coop area clean so I recommend the moveable "chicken tractor" set-up. I have step-by-step instructions in my book on how to make one of these easy-to-move runs. This method prevents a build-up of smells and flies and gives fresh ground to the chooks regularly.

What exactly is sustainable garden design?

Using locally found materials and creating a no-dig garden with only natural fertilisers. The key is to grow crops well-suited to the microclimate on your property and to set up your garden to use water efficiently by creating swales, using mulch, ollas (an ancient terracotta pot watering system) and soaker hoses. Growing heirloom plants and saving some seeds to exchange and replant is important, too.

You advocate farming and eating snails. Yuck! Convince me.

They are low-fat, high in protein, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free - and the French eat them by the truckload. Anything soaked in garlic butter is yummy. You can free range them outside your window. Convinced yet? Okay, final argument - think of all those baby lettuce leaves you'll be saving.

On the Freecycle website you can list items you no longer need to give away. Is there a similar website for vegetable/fruit swapping?

Ooooby is a great local website, also My Garden. Green Urban Living also has a community forum where you can swap seeds, grafting wood, chooks or even small children (just kidding).

You've been called a pioneer of self-sustainable urban design. Where do you get your knowledge from?

I steal ideas shamelessly. I trawl the web for information then I test things out in my garden, adjust for New Zealand conditions and finally re-package it for fellow Kiwis to use. I make these ideas easily accessible through YouTube, my book and website, and courses I run.

Do you own a car and a washing machine?

I own a car (one day I'd love a hybrid) and, yes, I own a washing machine (next one will be a front loader), but I use soap nuts or environmentally friendly washing powder. I eat red meat, have a cafe coffee each day and buy Californian grapes at the supermarket - a girl needs some vices!

So many people live in small places with precious little space to keep bees, chickens, ducks. How do they get involved?

I've started an experiment on my balcony to see how many food groups I can grow in a 4m x 2m space. I have a beehive (sugar), five Japanese quail that produce an egg each a day (protein), snails (protein), multi-grafted fruit trees in pots, hanging grow bags and buckets, mushrooms, microgreens, vertical planters, a home-made hydroponic system, a recycled fridge as a greenhouse and corn, potatoes, quinoa and chia for carbohydrates. People overseas in large cities now grow crops on rooftops, balconies and patios. I am off to New York soon to learn these ideas along with running the New York Marathon for the Save Our Bees Charitable Trust.

You write: "Rabbits are great for a self-supporting family. They can be fed on weeds and make excellent meals." How do you convince the kids to eat them?

Coat them in chocolate sauce and serve with icecream. Seriously, rabbits are a great small-space but highly productive food source for an urban farm. They eat weeds, can keep your lawn short and their droppings are great for the garden. Perhaps if meat was $50/kg I could bring myself to eat Bugs Bunny but for now I'll make do with an omelette donated from the chooks.

Tell us more about the Green Living courses you run.

They're all run from my home in Havelock North. Topics include: backyard organics and beekeeping; keeping urban chickens; how to create an urban orchard and how to make your own pizza oven.

How will you know you've reached self-sustainability nirvana?

My ultimate aim is to have as many Kiwis as possible making a few small changes to how they live, perhaps growing some veges, or keeping chooks in their garden, having a rainwater barrel or a worm farm on their balcony, and embracing the sustainable-living idea - but not taking it too seriously. When I ask my boys what they'd like for Christmas and they don't reply: "a flat-screen TV or a Wii" but perhaps "a wind turbine or a house cow", I'll be there. I don't think my nirvana is coming soon.

10 EASY WAYS TO LIVE MORE SUSTAINABLY

1 Grow some veges (even in pots or on your balcony)
2 Turn off the lights when you leave the room
3 Buy a front-loader washing machine
4 Tune your car
5 Compost
6 Keep a worm farm
7 Buy local, seasonal, organic produce
8 Plant a fruit tree (even on your council verge if you have no room)
9 Keep chooks
10 Shower with a friend

* Janet Luke will launch her new book Green Urban Living ($45, New Holland) and host Green Urban Living seminars daily at the Auckland Home Show 2011, which runs from August 31 to September 4 at the ASB Showgrounds. She'll cover everything from backyard bee keeping to raising free-range snails. Tickets available from www.iticket.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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