‘Keep Calm’ and carry on…gardening
By Norman Bilbrough
Vegetables, and more vegetables…
In September last year, a Wellington newspaper reported a ‘suspicious blaze’ that caused damage to a local community garden. It was the second fire there in recent months, and there was $20,000 worth of damage.
This seemed a particularly vindictive crime, and yet the community group who run the garden are determined to keep it going.
My father always had a big garden. He was a schoolteacher, and I grew up in central North Island towns in the 1940s and 1950s.
Hens, veggies,. and strawberries too!
In two of those towns we had hens, and one house possessed an orchard of greengages – a delicious extension of a garden that, as well as greens, potatoes, swedes, turnips and rhubarb, grew fat strawberries.
That schoolhouse also had paddocks, so we ran two cows, separated the milk and sent the cream to a dairy factory. My mother made butter. Most houses had water tanks. And the children had their own vegetable plots at school.
But my parents used space; they utilised it to the full. They valued it.
Now, living in Wellington as an older man, I am not impressed at how city dwellers value space. I walk through suburbs where the sections are quite large and I notice an enormous dearth of gardens. There are empty yards, lawns, and big parking areas.
The needs of the car have usurped the need for produce.
Children of the depression
Of course my parents grew up through a Depression and a World War.
During the Depression my mother remembers walking along a suburban street darning a sock … She was actually darning darns. So my parents were cautious with money, and used all resources available. They were fortunate that my father was on a secure salary, and my mother taught cookery part-time.
Two years ago I was travelling by bus from Whanganui to Wellington. At Palmerston North a large man sat next to me. He was going to Foxton.
‘You got work there?’
He laughed, cynically. ‘No work in Foxton.’
I had spent time in Foxton, briefly, and been depressed by the number of houses for sale.
The Feltex factory has gone off-shore,’ the man said. ‘And the Longburn freezing works has closed.’ And the big country towns contain an increasing number of shut-up shops.
When I was a child, the family would drive to Marton on a Friday to shop, visit the library – and once eat a hotel dinner. Marton was a thriving town; no boarded-up shops then. Wheat even grew in the countryside.
Of course the farming community that gave economic energy to such a town was thriving in the fifties.
The bus drove on west of Palmerston, past flat green paddocks populated sparsely by sheep and cows. Already I had noted that the fertile-looking hills just south of Whanganui seemed home to an equally sparse population.
Voices of doom
Now, I read the overseas press regularly, mostly the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the Spectator. A recent New Statesman (February 2016) had this headline:
A storm is coming … The world economy is close to breaking point … Can anyone stop another crash?
I am not an economist, but I do have some (small) suggestions.
In England during World War 2, waste land, railway edges, lawns, and sports fields were used for vegetable gardening. Even parts of Hyde Park were cultivated.
These were the Victory gardens, and they existed also in Australia, Canada, USA – and in New Zealand.
So why couldn’t the accessible and green landscape south of Whanganui grow legumes, greens, root crops, and orchards, as well as grazing stock? Gardens and orchards don’t take up much room. And more intensive farming would (hopefully) provide better food for us, and possibly more jobs.
I am not suggesting subverting the dairy and meat industry, and trying to turn the populace into vegetarians.
However, a recent newspaper article by Paula Goodyear entitled ‘Eating to Cool the Planet…’ notes that reducing high meat production is crucial to controlling global warming.
The production of a kilo of beef generates the greenhouse gas equivalent of 330 kilos of carbon dioxide . And it is important to buy produce in season and that is grown close to home.
However a great percentage of people who need gardens have grown up in a fast food and supermarket culture. Food for them is pretty much instant and even overly accessible. They have never learned to grow a carrot let alone thin a row of them.
But the tradition of garden plots has continued in quite a number of schools.
Of course many people cannot afford a garden, so this is where community gardens are needed – plus armies of garden educators (preferably volunteers). New Zealand is, in many parts, an under-populated, fertile paradise.
And being part of a community garden is an ideal way to learn how to thin those carrots. And organic systems can be more productive than systems using chemicals. So organic gardening (and agriculture) could be vital for a growing world population.
It’s difficult not to be a doomsayer (especially after a dosage of international news), but people need houses, jobs, and if possible, good nutrition. And growing their own food could be a rewarding start.
So although it was sad news about the arson at the Wellington garden, it heartens me that community gardens are proliferating … slowly, step by hard-working step.