Written by Vicki Holder
Photography by John Williams
On its sunny slopes, small vegetable plots mingle in a haphazard, natural way with flowers, herbs, fruit trees, hot houses, a worm farm, bee hives, a chicken coop and a shop. A Welsh pony and livestock graze surrounding paddocks.
Community groups, children, whole classrooms, locals and volunteers come and go. Tucked behind a row of houses in the heart of Ponsonby, it is a charming old-fashioned, back to earth oasis where it’s easy to forget the jangle of the city.
Administered by the Kelmarna Trust, the 4.5 acre city farm and organic community garden in Hukanui Crescent has a sole employee, manager Adrian Roche. With a business degree and post-graduate diploma in environmental management, Adrian first came to the garden as a volunteer in 1996 and became the manager in 2003. Now charged with revitalising the farm as an active sustainable garden at the heart of the community, he says, it is a dream job.
As he leans back in the chair of the rustic little garden shed that is his office, he says, “I’ve done lots of study around sustainability. Sustainable enterprises should be supporting people and they should support the environment too. This project does both. It’s a beautiful combination.”
The role deepens his connection to the environment. “It becomes a richer and richer experience.”
He looks to nature to inform his gardening style with a high commitment to sustainability and diversity of spaces - no poisons or artificial fertilisers.
“Diversity gives the garden strength. Never put all your eggs in one basket. It’s what happens in nature. Nature minimises bare soil, so we try to plant densely using permaculture techniques.”
At Kelmarna Gardens people can see how food is grown and there are workshops on topics such as composting, organic gardening, bee keeping and foraging.
It began as a market garden when Paul Lagerstedt wanted to show how to make a living off a small piece of land using biodynamic principles – a holistic, ecological and ethical approach to farming - developed by Rudolf Steiner. The Council gave him the land. “This plot had been owned by the nuns of the St Vincent Home of Compassion who ran an adoption processing centre for unwed mothers in Hukanui Crescent in the 1970s. “A couple of years later, the Kelmarna Trust was formed and they’ve leased it since then. From the beginning they have promoted organic gardening.
The Trust received funding to run it as a PEP scheme where people on the dole ran a trading programme. But the funding dried up and Massey graduates tried to make a go of it. They stayed for a couple of years before the Council discovered elevated levels of lead in the soil. So they stopped growing food and concentrated on flowers.
As Adrian explains, it turned out all older, inner city suburbs have slightly elevated lead levels due to having been exposed to paint or petrol in cars. But not to the extent they should cause concern. “You are allowed up to 100 parts per million. It’s not ideal but it’s comforting to know, even Michelle Obama discovered lead when she was setting up an organic garden at the White House. We’ve done what we can by adding organic matter and keeping the soil alkaline to reduce the amount the plants take up. It’s important not to eat the soil around the plants on things like dirty carrots. Just be aware.”
In 1991, Unitec and the mental health organisation Framework partnered to give people with mental health issues a non-threatening place to work and feel good about themselves. Framework continued to support the scheme until February last year. Suddenly Kelmarna Trust had to consider how to keep the place going while also supporting the mental health process. Kelmarna Gardens entered a new era of fundraising.
“We’ve been out there doing Facebook and Instagram, trying to get support from the community. We have a membership scheme to become a Friend of Kelmarna Gardens with a monthly donation. We never had the website before. It’s going well, but we need more. We need to get people to come and help, have a picnic on the lawn. It’s a community asset. We’re reaching out to schools and the community.”
There are many benefits, he says. “It’s a beautiful place to be. Gardens are not just about creating food. They’re about creating community. They get you out of the house and provide a chance for interaction. We’re also educating people and supporting the mental health industry. It’s well-documented gardening is good for mental health. It’s a tolerant, more accepting space. And you can always get good gardening advice here.”
For those in other communities keen to establish shared garden spaces, Adrian says it’s easy to find the land. “The difficult part is forming relationships. Gardens challenge you to create community.
“People need to look to each other, hang out and do things together. You have to have some impetus to start off.”
The Council supports such initiatives and there is a process you can go through to get a piece of land. But you will probably find a shared garden in your community already. “Get behind it and support it. They all need help. I’ve never come across a community garden that didn’t.”
Adrian's Gardening Tips:
1. Grow food plants – not random stuff like native trees because you’ll have a strong commitment. A tree just sits there forever.
2. If you starting out, grow salad ingredients. Salad leaves are really easy to grow and you don’t need much space.
3. Buy an old Yates Gardening Guide from your op shop and have a read before you plant to avoid mistakes.
4. Plant courgettes, cucumber and beans first. They’re super-reliable.
5. Don’t try growing capsicum, eggplant or kumara. They’re tricky.
6. Plant onion-y smelling plants around the outside of your garden, like leeks and spring onions. The strong smell is a deterrent to pests.