Families can make a mint from herb, vege and fruit-growing
Tim Martin carves out savings from homegrown produce, writes Rob Stock.
There can be few small vege gardens as productive as that of Tim Martin from Mount Wellington in Auckland.
A professional ecologist and father of three, Martin has created garden that is productive all year round, contributing a significant volume of produce for the family's table.
And in 2013, he documented all his input costs, weighed and priced the produce he harvested, and found he had made $1300 of vege and fruit "profit" from about 40 square metres of dirt.
Martin's super-productive garden provides a vision of what families can achieve in a small space, and lays to rest the popular conception that vege-gardening just isn't worth it in the supermarket age.
It's an impression that was given popular voice by The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by American author William Alexander.
Martin, who did not include labour (about one hour a week these days) in his calculations, developed his garden for both financial and family reasons.
He'd grown up with chooks, a goat and vege-growing as part of normal family life, and he wanted the same for his children Shepard (4), Elijah (2), and Annabella (7).
Money was tight though, and being able to supplement the family shop was an attractive idea.
Martin set out to do that on a budget.
He didn't splash out for vege planters, instead building up beds using scrap wood, home-made compost (the neighbours chip in with their scraps to help fill the three compost bins) and horse manure from a friendly stables which gives it him for free.
He grows plants from seed, including seed he's harvested from his own plants, and seed he's swapped on online seed-swap forums.
Importantly, he has not allowed himself to be limited by the narrow offering at garden centres, instead seeking out plants that are relatively unknown, but are suited to New Zealand gardens, especially those problematic spots.
He has edible flowers like Borage and Calendula, and plants like Miners' Lettuce, Red Russian Kale and Corn Salad, which offer fresh salad right throughout the winter, growing in shady parts of the garden.
Some plants like silverbeet and lettuce self-propagate, and Martin allows them to do so in cheerful profusion, saying he's happy with a garden that's a litle "higgeldy piggeldy", and not planted for aesthetics.
Some plants are familiar, such as the rhubarb in his splendid patch, but others appear less so as a result of how he grows them.
With space tight, he has espaliered two apple trees (Cox's Orange and Fuji), training them to grow flat against the fence, a trick that can be used when space is tight.
Even when faced with council by-laws that prevented him from keeping chickens he was undaunted, turning to Japanese quail, which, he says, have a very efficient feed to egg production ratio.
"The conversion rate is off the charts," Martin says.
Five quail eggs equal one hen's egg. "I wanted my kids to be able to go out into the garden and pick eggs like I did," he says.
It's not all about replacing spending at the shops.
Some of what he grows is about eating better, like the raspberries, which a family on his tight budget wouldn't have splashed out on regularly, and the variety of heirloom tomatoes and potatoes he grows for taste and adventure.
Urban vege-gardening is so low-profile, it would be possible to think it was dying out.
And, while it is common to find low-maintenance herbs growing in gardens, plants like Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Sage, Mint and Parsley all take care of themselves, and for gardens to have lemon trees, which flourish in Auckland, in particular, fully-blown vege beds like Martin's are no longer a very common feature of urban life.
Space in some towns and cities is at a premium, and lives are busy and garden centres are closing.
But, John Liddle, chief executive of the Nursery and Garden Industry Association, reckons there is one trend that suggests gardeners are increasingly using their dirt for vege-growing.
Over the last five years, there has been a shift in what plants we are buying.
At the start, flowering plants were outselling edibles six plants to four. "That's flipped over," Liddle says.
And interpreting the dwindling number of garden centres as being a symptom of a decrease in gardening interest would be wrong.
Liddle says the big box retailers like Mitre 10 and Bunnings are selling a lot more plants and garden supplies than they were a decade ago.
The recession in 2008 saw a marked increase in vege-plant buying, Liddle says.
Stats NZ noted the uptick, saying spending on plants and garden supplies rose by about 14 percent between June 2007 and June 2010.
As for how many of us do it, figures do not exist, he says, but activity surveys put gardening, whether productive or just decorative, was either the number one or two recreational activity.
Gardens are as old as human habitation in New Zealand, with the first Māori settlers, growing kūmara and other plants brought from Polynesia. There was an explosion of biodiversity with the arrival of Pakeha, and so did the tools needed to tend them.
It was only as the twentieth century progressed and the price of fruit and vege in the shops fell in real terms, that growing fruit and vege ceased to be essential for feeding the family, and gardens increasingly turned into recreational spaces for pools, trampolines and flowers. More recently, urban garden space has been taken by in-fill housing.
Stats NZ says over the past 12 years the price of plants, flowers, and gardening supplies has increased at a lower rate than the CPI.
But that's offset the cost of watering it, as the cost of metered water supply, has increased at a higher rate than the CPI.
Despite the price falls, gardening remains a significant spending item on the household budget.
The 2012/13 Household Expenditure Survey showed households spent about $440 million on plants, flowers, and gardening supplies in the year to June 2013, about $5.10 per household per week.