Down to earth: Community gardens around the city

By Kirsten Warner

Community gardens are a growing trend in Auckland, a place to learn how to reap what you sow in every sense, writes Kirsten Warner.

Owairaka school is getting a Garden-to-Table project running with help from Hire-a-Hubby. Here, Simon Ikiua and Lannia Peae get stuck in. Photo / The Aucklander
Owairaka school is getting a Garden-to-Table project running with help from Hire-a-Hubby. Here, Simon Ikiua and Lannia Peae get stuck in. Photo / The Aucklander

All over the city and beyond, Aucklanders are digging, sowing and reaping the rewards in gardens tucked alongside churches, marae, community centres, on disused Transit New Zealand and council land.

Community gardens are a growing movement. There are well over 50 in Auckland alone. Some are connected with special interest groups or communities, but many welcome anyone with a desire to get their hands dirty over the weekend.

Having an allotment can be a fun, therapeutic, cheap and social way to grow your own (mostly organic) vegetables and other produce if you don't have room at home.

People who don't start with gardening skills are learning that if you water them, give them food and put them in a sunny place, vegetables will, mostly, grow and just about always taste better than bought.

South Auckland

At the former women's bowling club at Stadium Rd, Papatoetoe, two large greens have been turned into allotments as part of a network of council teaching gardens.

There is no cost to "students" for a 5m x 5m plot for the year plus seeds, use of tools, the combination on the gate and shed plus on-site mentors and workshops.

Gardener Eileen Newsome has only a tiny border at home, and was not a confident gardener. She is now picking coriander, her carrots are ready, she's grown her first cauliflower and cabbages, and provides vegetables for 10 people twice a week. "Let's face it, gardening's far better than cleaning windows. My nanny used to say, if you've got a headache, if you've got a worry, take it to a garden."

Garden mentor Dave Avery, in fluoro jacket, chats to some elderly Sikh gentlemen. When the green was recently ploughed for summer planting, a clump of their fenugreek herb was left to flower.

Mentors are paid for 20 hours a month, but tend to give a lot more time. Dave favours no-dig, permaculture and organics, but there is room for the spectrum of garden philosophy.

In the evenings gardeners chat and eat their dinner under the old bowling canopies. "Hopefully they do a bit better than sitting in front of the TV and - no pun intended - vegging out," says Dave.

There are five large teaching gardens in Mangere, Otara and Papatoetoe, and three more opening this summer in Otara and Manurewa. Each provides 50-100 plots and some communal areas, no one is turned away and any glut goes to the foodbank.

Devonport

Devonport Community Garden is an oasis tucked into a sheltered corner of Mount Cambria Reserve, a hidden gem of park among historic houses. The garden nominally shares the former city council depot but the garden has the glorious run of the place. "It's all very River Cottage," says gardener Charlotte Smith.

Like at other community gardens, there are beehives, worm farms and compost bins. Volcanic stone walls look ancient but are newly laid for communal beds. Two raised beds are hired to local families ($30).

On a peaceful Sunday afternoon, a dozen or so adults and children pass through.

Charlotte (34) is the voluntary coordinator and has become so passionate about the garden she's gone to four days a week in her job to have time for fund-raising and other connections the garden brings. "I think there's a growing interest in growing your own at the moment. It's become a bit trendy."

Garden To Table

A visionary scheme now in eight primary schools is an ideal way for families to get gardening too. Garden To Table is a programme for children to grow, harvest, prepare and share good food as part of their learning.

Allotments for five more inner-city schools are being developed at a public waterfront space.

Tracey Barton was initially interested in a job at Owairaka School's Garden To Table kitchen. But when no one turned up to a garden volunteers meeting, she thought she had better get involved, even though she has her own large garden and her children go to another school.

It's hard to contain the enthusiasm of the children for gardening, she says, and it's not just to get out of the classroom. "They're like little sponges at this age, they're observing and learning so much about soil and bees and vegetables. They get excited when they see the broad beans forming in the pods.

"I've been at the supermarket buying my courgettes and the 16-year-old girl on the checkout has said 'what's this vegetable?'."

Central

The Sanctuary at Unitec in Mt Albert was established 14 years ago as an organic garden, and has just opened to the public, as long as they agree to stay organic. Turn up on a Saturday morning to sign up - 10 sq metre allotments cost $40 a year and $20 for students.

One of the co-ordinators is Unitec student Matt McClymont. He is finishing an ecology degree and welcomed the chance to get hands-on. "This is the first gardening I have done.

"The guys who designed it in the first place are still there ... and you can learn from scratch like I'm doing and that's fantastic."

The Sanctuary is a rich, established garden alongside the beekeepers' club, plant houses, worm tower and groves of experimental trees within the huge, historic campus. "It's a really, really nice place," says Matt. "What it needs is a lot more interest and more people."

West

The heart of Ranui community garden is a striking circular fenced area divided pie-like into allotments. You can hire a 23 sq m ($30) or 28 sq m ($35) plot for the year and if you're clever about it, grow enough vegetables for a small family.

The fence became a necessity to stop theft, but regular gardeners get the combination to the gate and shipping container where tools are stored, and come and go as they please.

Outside the rustic fence are the expanding communal plots where working gardeners are free to pick produce that's ready. The construction of a new propagation house was just celebrated with a communal planting of courgettes, cucumbers, pumpkin, kumikumi and flowers around fruit trees planted a year ago with another small grant.

Ranui started eight years ago on council land around a small playground adjacent to Ranui Primary School as an organic teaching garden to set people up with the skills to go home and grow their own.

Nurse Karen Perri was there at the beginning and now her daughters-in-law and sons also have allotments. Although she has her own huge garden a few streets away with beehives, chickens and fruit trees, Karen keeps an allotment where she will grow tomatoes and capsicums on the open, sunny site.

Summer evenings she's likely to be there watering, having a chat, enjoying being connected to the earth.

"I think humans need some creative outlet to keep sane and gardening is one of them."

Getting started:

* South Auckland Teaching gardens, ph (09) 263 7106

* Unitec Sanctuary Garden, gate 3, Carrington Rd, Mt Albert

* Garden To Table

* Devonport community garden

* Ranui Community Garden

Other community gardens:

* Eco Matters

* Gardens4Health

- NZ Herald

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