Over the past few years, five council-run gardens have cropped up around Counties Manukau and are instilling a fresh sense of community among residents eager to save a buck or two.
The first garden sites were established in 2008 by the former Manukau City Council and are designed to teach people skills they can take away to create their own edible Eden.
Since then, people across the region have been slowly but surely rediscovering the benefits of having an English-style allotment plot.
Land, water, seeds and tools are provided at the gardens by Auckland Council, which has taken over the Growing for Health project. Plots measuring five metres by five metres are given to people over 18 to grow fresh produce in for a season, and a mentor is at the site at least twice a week to teach basic gardening skills, including weed identification and planting.
The scheme has attracted a wide range of community groups including churches, primary schools, local organisations and cultural groups. “All the cultures are coming together,” says Varsha Belwalkar, who heads the council project. “We also have people with physical and mental disabilities.”
Horticultural techniques are learned in the teaching garden and then put into action in people’s own backyards. “You don’t need a big section, and even if it’s a rented place all you need is time,” says Varsha. “You can put a lot of things in pots.”
Citrus fruit trees, a couple of beehives and an enormous compost heap line the popular East Tamaki community garden, which was converted from a bowling green and ladies’ clubhouse.
One of the garden’s many benefactors is Samoan-born Joe Iosefo, who secured a plot for his church when the site was first set up. The 62-year-old volunteered to stay on as a mentor to new plot holders after seeing the benefits enjoyed by the whole community.
“I’m a volunteer worker for the community, so when I first heard about it I brought my own group here and we got planting,” says Joe, who is in the garden most days of the week.
At times the land is practically heaving with fruit and veggies, which are surplus to the requirements of even the hungriest family or community group.
In these cases Joe collects the spare produce in a supermarket trolley and wheels it around the neighbourhood. “We have a lot of stuff to give away,” he says. “When you know people need it, you give it. It benefits all as far as I’m concerned, and I take my hat off to the council for doing it.”
Joe likes gardening on the weekends most of all, because that’s when the plots are at their busiest. “It’s nice to stand here and look,” he says. “It’s good to see everyone working away on their own garden. I see the results and see people change.”
He’s seen a variety of gardeners come and go, from little children and school students, to a woman in her 80s. “We had an 85-year-old lady who was here when we first started. She was a keen gardener and was here two or three times a week. Some people when they first come here stand with a spade and don’t know what to do, but there is no judgement.
“The mentors like people trying their best. Ask questions and they will show you what to do.”
Joe was recently named a Kiwibank Local Heroes medal recipient for Manukau, and was a regional winner for a 2010 gardener of the year competition.
“I believe that whatever work you do for the community you get rewarded,” he says. “Some people don’t see that. They would prefer to get paid.”
Street kids and people on drug rehabilitation programmes have come under the kindly grandfather’s wing in the teaching garden. “You find out the whole story about them,” he says. “You see those types of people bringing their families. They are proud of what they’ve done and you can see the look on their faces.”
Cynthia Landels has come a long way since the days of being her dad’s “right-hand girl” in the family’s garden patch.
The green-fingered grandmother was the Auckland regional winner in a gardener of the year competition in 2009. “My gardening skills are very basic,” she says. “I’m not an expert, but I know a little.”
The award was an unexpected acknowledgement for the years the Girl Guide leader has put into a church garden in Epsom. About 100 girls have wielded tools in St Andrew’s Church veggie patch since the early 1990s, with all of the produce harvested and taken to Auckland City Mission in the CBD.
“Pretty much every week of the year we give them something,” says Cynthia. “Food banks are needed more than ever with the recession.”
Mobilising an enthusiastic bunch of pre-teens, many of who had never lifted a spade in their lives, has had its challenges, but has been always rewarding.
“This is more fun than Meals on Wheels – you get dirty,” says Cynthia, with a laugh. “We were the roots of the [community gardens] movement that is now spreading.”
Pesticides are avoided, with traditional methods and elbow grease proving more useful than fancy equipment. “We don’t spray anything – if we can’t squash it, it has free reign. We try to be organic.”
Girl Guides are given the responsibility of working on the land twice each school term. “They learn an awful lot by working on the garden and a lot of them go home to start their own gardens,” says Cynthia. “They’re learning skills with us and taking them out.”