If produce prices prod you to grow your own food, now's the time to start. Longer spring days and warmer weather equal planting season. 48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken spoke with locals who say they're saving money while sowing seeds of sustainability.

It's Tuesday evening when we reach Bernie Hornfeck on his home phone. He's recently back from Apumoana Marae, where he has helped plant and tend crops such as corn and sweet potatoes at the mara kai, or food garden. "I like having my own vegetables out of the garden. I like the exercise. I like trying different methods of growing things and trying to improve the range of vegetables and plants."

The 87-year-old says he's been gardening more than 60 years and has a 225 sq m plot with fruit trees at home. A child of the Great Depression, his reverence for soil started in his native England and continued after he bought a section in Lynmore in 1950. "I think we've lost a couple of generations of gardeners since people moved to the cities and both Mum and Dad had a job, there wasn't time for gardening. It was more convenient to go to the supermarket. So I think a lot of kids these days have lost the art."

Bob Te Aonui, who co-ordinates the Apumoana marae garden, says he relies on Bernie and resident kaumatua to teach younger people about gardening. "They're some of our best gardeners. They've been doing it since they were little children. It's getting them to teach us better ways of getting good gardens. Whatever food they grow, they can help themselves to subsidise their income and their retirement, as well."


Denise La Grouw is another local teaching the art of gardening. She runs workshops at schools and for Aratika Cancer Trust. She says frost can hit the Rotorua area as late as November, but it's time to start seedlings and prepare garden beds. "Use food scraps and straw to get the garden revitalised and ready for planting."

La Grouw says anyone can garden with minimal costs using environmentally friendly methods. And if you plan well, she says you could spend as little as 15 minutes each week in the dirt after establishing a garden.

"Think about where you put particular foods - lettuce and cherry tomatoes, put a lot closer to where you're walking. Pumpkins, you harvest once a year, put where you don't go often. It's easier to look after an organic garden than one that's not." Denise says the no-dig method is easy for beginners because it tends to mulch itself and suppresses weeds. She encourages planting crops that go well together such as tomatoes and basil, and to look for easy-care plants. "Garlic grows exceptionally well in Rotorua. It's a half-hour planting and a half-hour harvesting, and you don't do much in-between."

Andrea Green, a mum of four who works for Good Neighbour Trust co-ordinating Tauranga's community gardens, says gardening helps people and our planet. "Soil health and organic produce and being conscious of what we're putting into our bodies is really important. For me, the main thing with organics is coming away from industrial farming methods of using pesticides."

The Welcome Bay garden started last November. Today, Andrea teaches up to 150 school children a week how to sow seeds, spread fertiliser and pull weeds. Husband David, looks around at the beehive of busy children, saying, "It's not just about growing plants, it's about growing community."

Dozens of community gardens are spread throughout the Bay of Plenty, allowing novices and keen gardeners alike to learn tips, share seeds, compost and crops. La Grouw says the children who need gardening knowledge most come from families who can't afford supplies. "You don't have to spend anything. You can build a garden from what's around you. I have seeds saved, they're free - it's a matter of connecting with people in the community. If any child in this town wants to put in a garden, I'm happy to help them."

La Grouw encourages people to plant foods they enjoy eating. She suggests trying kamo kamo ("It tastes like zucchini"), courgette, cherry tomatoes, peas, beans, corn, strawberries and lettuces. "I like having things you can pick and pluck and chuck in a salad - a mesclun mix, with red lettuce, green lettuce, and in-between, plant spring onions." She says you can constantly pick spinach and beetroot leaves as well as raspberries. "You have significant savings, because you're picking and plucking, you're not wasting anything."

Waiariki Bay of Plenty Polytechnic horticulture tutor Steve Webb says his favourite summer crops are courgettes, tomatoes, chillies, capsicums, pumpkin and beans. He calls them easy crops with minimal upkeep. Steve says there may be an initial investment for gardeners, as seeds and seedlings can cost several dollars each, plus additional spend for tools and possibly fertiliser if you're not generating your own compost. Steve says some crops, like leeks, are easy to grow and good value. "At $2 each or more to buy...it is like having a row of $2 coins." However, Steve says broccoli seedlings ends up costing about $3 per plant, which then take time to grow. "But what are you comparing? I have grown organic, nutrient-dense food. We all know it tastes so much better when it is home-grown and fresh. What is that worth to a family?"

Horticulture student and retiree Don Butler and his wife, Johanna, estimate their garden is worth around $30 a week in produce. "We're vegetarian. We don't buy anything in the way of greens. We live off what we grow," says Don. "We'll plant potatoes shortly and we've got leeks growing, broad beans, broccoli, cauliflower. We'll plant spinach and more broccoli when the weather gets a little bit warmer."

La Grouw says cultivating your own food has potential to save a "huge amount of money", unless you buy everything from soil to seedlings to raised beds, which makes the return on investment relatively low. "However, if you learn to garden, to use nature's resources so you don't need to purchase all these things, [if] you save, share seeds, and save, share and trade garden produce, then the returns are huge."

Back at the Welcome Bay community garden, David Green hands me a leaf. "Here, try this." It tastes like tangy lettuce. It tastes more-ish. "Lemon sorrel," he says. Ella, 13, chews a piece, asking her mum, "Can we get some of this at home?"

How-to and Produce Swaps
Grow, Share, Sell

Community Gardens

Nutrient Dense Foodhttp://www.koanga.org.nz/knowledgebase/grow-nutrient-dense-food/the-path-to-nutrient-dense-food/​

New Zealand food prices posted their biggest monthly increase in at least three years in August as produce and grocery items got more expensive.
Food prices increased a seasonally adjusted 1.2 percent in August, snapping three months of cheaper goods, and led higher by a 1.7 percent rise in fruit and vegetable prices, Statistics New Zealand said. The monthly spike in produce prices was driven by seasonally higher prices for tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage, while banana prices climbed 22 percent to a record high. - Source: NBR