It is our last day in our wee house in Ilam, Ōtautahi Christchurch. We have been here for just over nine years, first renting it when it was mold infested and freezing, then buying it and restoring and renovating it to be home to our family of six. The garden has been my job, and I’ve swung from loving it, to hating it, to loving it again. Mainly loving it after I began no-dig gardening, build it up with compost made from our own garden and scraps, and using pea straw to suppress weeds. It took me about six years to get the hang of gardening here, to shift from seeing the trees and all their fruits and branches as a chore to look after to a source of ingredients for my really simple compost. This blog post isn’t really an ode, but more of an awkward final speech at a leaving do.
My no-dig method
I spend one day a week in the garden in busy times, with regular watering and checking during the week. Our section is 800 square metres, with established fruit trees. From February to May, I start laying the compost down. I have a large wooden bin-like structure made from scrap materials, it’s about 1.8m x 1.5m. I begin with a layer of sticks and branches (not too big). Then add, over a few months:
- Prunings from fruit and other trees (I prune the plum as it is harvested and this is usually first, the other trees get pruned in early June).
- Green waste from the kitchen (no citrus or cooked food, just the waste from preparing vegetables mainly)
- Green waste from the garden (spent vege plants mainly, no weeds or diseased material)
- Grass clippings
- All of the apples from one tree, conveniently positioned above the compost bin
- Any other uneaten fruit or rotten garden items (no diseased material)
- Autumn leaf-fall raked up from the many deciduous trees
- Hedge clippings and other prunings
- Half the worm farm contents (give them some space each year after a summer of breeding).
In May or June I check that it is moist enough (usually is), then cover it all with a black polythene tarp for winter. I also get the gardens ready for winter: I’ve already chopped off the spent plants for the compost. I often the leave the vege garden for the winter, sometimes covering it in polythene, sometimes just letting it run wild with kokihi and whatever kale and silverbeet has popped up. For the flower gardens I pull or cut back any dead annual plants, lay any pea straw if I have it, or buy a load of bark or compost from the landscaping supplies store if I want to tidy up the look, do the edges of the garden. I also plant bulbs: anemone, daffodils, hyacinths, dahlias. I usually keep four large terracotta pots with annuals to add colour, I just move them around the garden to wherever needs some life. This winter, I kept the garden going and planted broadbeans (direct) and silverbeet seedlings. I have three raised corrugated iron 60x60cm beds in the garden, and which had parsley and iceland poppies (the plants, no flowers) in them over winter.
In July or August I usually order my seeds, from King’s seeds.
In September or October, I open up the compost and turn it a few times — but it’s usually ready to go. Then my favourite part: Digging out the wonderful compost into my wheelbarrow and trucking it around the garden to top-up the beds. I also sow all the seeds in my potting shed (it has a window), using a commercial potting mix and that seed-raising sprinkly stuff. I have a guide with north and south island times for seed planting on the wall of my potting shed. I got it from a gardening diary at the supermarket once. I usually sow in seedling trays, then transfer to seedling pots, or just go straight to seedling pots. I lay out the peastraw after the first spring planting, around the time Roimata Food Commons has their pea straw fundraiser. I like to grow LOTS of fresh leafy greens, as I think these just taste better from home: lettuce, spinach, kale.
I keep a rotating compost bin that can make quicker compost, and mix up quick batches in 4-6 weeks. We also have a worm farm for food scraps.
In November the garden really starts looking amazing, and from December to February its about planting and watering summer crops.
Joys and challenges
The biggest challenge is switching from spring crops to summer crops. By planting in rows north to south (maximum sun) I can usually clear a row of something and plant a row as needed. But I often do things too late. The other challenge is keeping things calm enough so they don’t go to seed too early. This year, my cabbages didn’t form very good heads, and my brassicas all seeded early. But I try and take joy from the fact that there are beautiful green (and flowering!) plants in my backyard and if you get organic or non-hybrid seeds, they will self seed! And everything that fails or doesn’t get eaten goes back in the compost and feeds the next year’s.
One thing I have noticed recently is that I get less and less pest problems (e.g. white fly, slugs) and less and less disease problems (e.g. on the roses, mildews and scales in the garden). I think it is because, like us, plants are less susceptible to diseases and pests when they have good nutrition!
I don’t like weeding. I don’t like mowing grass. And I hate convovulus clearing. But by making my time in the garden creative rather than just maintenance and clearing up, I get a lot of joy from how it looks, the outdoor time, thinking and planning and designing and learning. Yes, weeding and maintenance are important, but if these tasks are just tasks to look after a thing of beauty, it’s less of a chore and more an act of love and care. I try and spend half the time creating: composting, and laying out compost or straw on the garden, sowing, planting. Then for the boring stuff, I listen to e-books and get into it. I’ve got through quite a few books I’ve been meaning to read in this way! Also, gardening is just good for you.
I’m going to miss this piece of earth, but I’m grateful for all the memories I have from it. I hope I can look back on this blog post when I’m struggling with my new garden in windy Palmerston North!