This evening’s salad was made of purple and green orach (Atriplex hortensis), Chinese cabbage (brassica rapa), silverbeet, sage and basil tips. It was decorated with healthy portions of flower petals: a pink rose, brilliant red nasturtium, purple sage, orange calendula and lots of brilliant blue borage. With a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar splashed in, what could be better? This existence is anodyne.
It is also unique. I was visited some days after having shifted in (even before the cat had arrived) by some very long-term friends who hailed the place as "the best flat in Christchurch". They were only really looking at a) location (with the stunning Spanish Nurses Hostel on the eastern side, the Heritage Rose Garden running along our northern fence and the Botanic Gardens spilling out beyond our back gate it’s certainly quite hard not to gush), b) size (the property covers more than one acre), c) food crops (apart from vegetables and salad crops — of which there are many — the section boasts loquat, quince, nashi, fig, kumquat, uglifruit, mandarin, orange, lemonade, grapefruit, hazelnut, persimmon, Chinese quince, apricot, almond, pears, apples, olives, raspberries, blackberries, red- and blackcurrants, blueberries, gooseberries and feijoas). I can hardly blame my friends, and nor would I wish to, after all, these were the same qualities that first lured and enchanted me into taking on the lease with David.
Inner City Harmony
But aside from these endorsements, Number Four Riccarton Ave is a phenomenon in its own right for the simple reason that it encapsulates, it embodies a dream.
As with all dreams it’s difficult to know where to begin or end. This dream has something to do with proving that status quo is all really a bit silly. Here we are, right in the middle of the city, with enough garden space to be virtually self-sufficient, and to have excess for trade or gifts. We live where we work, our food is next to free.
It’s a busy garden space, as well, and this is another of the appeals. City Care turns up now and then with their surplus bedding plants — they stick them in a conspicuous place (unfortunate if, like me, you can’t stand annuals in formal beds) and take them out again to fill up gaps left by weekend vandals (a.k.a. bored youths). The Botanic gardeners come in, weeding their plots, doing trials for the Consumer’s Institute, and even mowing the lawns. Then there’s the occasional artist, borrowing the double garage for studio space for the price of the odd bag of onions or what have you. At other times, groups of students are ushered through: we encourage a diversity of groups to take advantage of this inner-urban wilderness. A few theology students saunter through and link it all with their convention on social change and NGOs. Some little kiddies sit under the great spreading apricot tree (magnificently pruned by David) amongst the soft long grasses (still brilliant green after the inordinately wet spring) pondering that strangest of thoughts that the apricot fruit was built out of the tree, that the tree was built out of the soil, that the soil was built out of all manner of things and, most incredibly, so were we. I’m not sure if they really get ‘deep ecology’, but you never know with kids.
Mind you, it’s not just children that grapple with concepts of interconnectedness. One ‘contemporary ecologist’ remarked continuously in the following vein: "The idea that communities of plants form a superorganism with properties greater than the sum of their parts, or that groups of organisms somehow interact with a common, higher purpose, is treated by most contemporary ecologists as quaint at best, mumbo jumbo at worst."
I, on the other hand, have always gravitated towards people like Darwin, who in 1859 bade scientists to remember "how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life." If you are wary of being seduced by Victorians (as indeed all sensible people should be), it may be of interest to note, as an aside, that recent studies have shown that soils "harbour a complex and largely unknown microflora" hinting towards "many unknown ecological and biochemical processes." Or we could just go back to that doyen of organic horticulture, Masanobu Fukuoka who said of his fields, "This is a balanced rice field ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this area, leaving the crops in these fields unaffected." Well, it’s all just a matter of perspective.
Or we could look to our own local doyen, Bob Crowder (former Lincoln University senior lecturer in horticulture and founder of the university's organic Biological Husbandry Unit), who once said to me of Fukuoka, "I based all my ideas on his work." When speaking about his garden, Crowder said "… here, hedgehogs erupt out of the leaf litter, ichneumons erupt out of the branches piled up under the trees, out of the organic matter, out of the heads of artichokes which are still lying around, and the corn tassels which are still on the corn.
"It’s not normal for things to be sickly and falling apart and pest-ridden and the rest of it. It’s normal for everything to be healthy like this with the birds singing, the insects, everything in balance."
Having lived with Bob Crowder for four years I can assure anyone interested that the vitality, the colours, the visiting native birds and the myriad insect life in his garden should prove, even to the doubting Thomas’s of ‘contemporary ecology’, that the interconnectedness of species are incredible indeed and that, with the right touches, a feedback loop starts buzzing where life just seems to get more and more… lively.
This brings me back to the dream that my own new Paradise encapsulates. For anyone who has ever found life in the city a little stultifying, places like this might just hold the key.
I was considering this today as I pulled out three enormous stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) from our would-be salad garden. I was thinking about the quality of the nettles — they indicated a rich soil and were going to contribute many valuable nutrients back via the compost, or perhaps a liquid tea. I was quite excited, and then suddenly I realised what an enormous cultural leap I had taken. I was thinking in terms of harvesting the nettles, not just weeding them out. I was attributing value, quite rightly, to something generally regarded as being ugly, in the way, to be Blitzkreiged out of existence. The same cultural leap holds promise of a time when diversity in human society, as well as in the garden, is celebrated. There’s the garden for the sake of the garden, and then there’s the garden for the sake of the soul.
These were my contemplations as I pulled out those nettles, ready for the compost heap. Then, staring blankly at the soil for a moment I noticed something rather large move and lept back with an involuntary "Oh my God!" Continuing to stare I was suddenly overjoyed to find that this was a native earthworm, about 30cm in length, trying to burrow back into the soil I had just displaced. Nettles are supposed to be excellent for encouraging earthworms, but I hadn’t been expecting this! (I had, however, been noticing an absence of earthworm activity in the soil, which has been let go a bit. It’s possible that this native that I found is a carnivore, and has been eating its smaller compatriots. I’ll be looking into this in the coming month.)
Further investigations in that spot revealed more life. The black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) which we had left (David has it in mind to make jam out of the ripe berries) was covered in parasitised aphids, which I found particularly interesting. Whether we make jam or not (NB: Make sure you are eating the non poisonous variety), the nightshades will certainly stay as no other plants in the immediate area had any aphids whatsoever. The soil there is very heavy, and will need a lot of conditioning. However, the "blue hopi" corn (much more vigorous than the red "strawberry popcorn") is doing well there, even if the tomatoes ("money-maker") are finding it a bit tough.
We have started sorting out the compost, and the lower Spiral Garden has benefited from it greatly. Even the "strawberry popcorn" there is growing reasonably well, nestled amongst a very vigourous bank of mustard and flanked by Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes. The Chinese cabbage, starved of water just after planting (not by design), has gone up to seed, but the luscious leaves are still very edible, as are the little yellow flowers. It has suffered very little from pest attack, unlike the purple sprouting broccoli right next to it. The aphids on these are swelling, however, with parasites.
We’re finding that the walking stick cabbages are particularly vulnerable to caterpillars, and to grey aphids, but that for the latter, at least, we have ichneumon wasps. For the former — well, the birds aren’t doing much, so it’s really just up to us to pick off what we can. I am hoping we will attract a parasite to attack the caterpillars, but for now it’s just up to us.
The hope is that people can see an organic garden like this, learn in it, take that away with them and start experimenting with their own spaces. That is the dream, I suppose: that the dynamic energy here spirals out into the rest of the city. "Best flat in Christchurch?" In terms of its outstanding potential for demonstrating a different way of living, absolutely.