A Christchurch family lives the good life on a former sand dune in South Brighton
Sand-trapping marram grass was about the only thing growing when Bec and Pascal Bouffandeau moved into their South Brighton "home on a dune" two years ago.
It might not sound like the stuff of dreams, but with a small cottage positioned at the front of a 530sqm section, Bec and Pascal could see there was room to develop a productive little oasis for their family.
Dealing with the chest-high marram grass was a huge challenge. They borrowed a pony to eat it, only to find the pony didn't like marram grass. In the end, they had no option but to dig it out.
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"We thought our pig, George, could help with the marram grass, but he didn't like the taste of it either," Bec says, smiling. "He's quite large now that he's fully grown – some use the word 'enormous' – but he's such a gentle character. We're vegetarian, so this is quite possibly the safest place around for a pig."
As well as eating their own and neighbours' scraps, George lives off over-growth from the garden and a steady supply of feed pellets. All the pig and chicken manure goes into a worm farm for composting, and seaweed from the beach, along with pea straw, has also been used to improve their land.
"We found an old cast-iron bath on the property that is ideal for a worm farm," Bec says.
A George-proof fence was installed to ensure their vegetable patch is safe from intrusion. There they grow crops such as kale, pumpkin, silverbeet and broccoli. Fruit trees – feijoa, nectarine, apple, peach, pear and fig – have also been established, along with summer berries.
Bec grew up in Christchurch and honed her horticultural skills through an apprenticeship at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. She and French-born Pascal, a teacher, each spent years travelling and working in various countries before they met in Russia and subsequently decided to make their home in New Zealand. In 2008, they settled in South Brighton.
"This is our second house here since we came back and we did much the same thing at our first place: turning a grass rectangle into an incredibly productive garden. We love living in this area; everyone is very accepting of the lifestyle."
In fact, Bec is part of a new venture called The Good Shop, due to open in New Brighton this spring. It will be a space for local small producers to sell their wares, as well as an educational hub where people such as Bec and Pascal can share expertise with others seeking a more self-reliant way of life. Supporting people's mental health and wellbeing through getting closer to nature is also part of the plan.
A passive gardener by inclination, Bec says taking care of their suburban slice of paradise is not hard work. She loves how their children are growing up with an interest in the natural world and with a taste for freshly harvested healthy produce. They are seeing how it is possible to build sustainably, with Bec and Pascal having recently built a garden shed entirely out of recycled and reclaimed materials.
"This kind of lifestyle can be achieved anywhere. You just have to be prepared to let go of your lawn and start thinking about the alternatives."
Best thing we ever did in the garden was build a worm farm. It is high-speed composting and a very clean and well-contained way to process waste that feeds the garden.
We recommend having a pig as a pet because he's a good friend to the children. George is really robust, so doesn't mind if they lie on him or jump on him. He loves all the attention.
The most challenging part of the lifestyle has been starting from scratch on a sand dune. It's hard to get established, but it's worth it. We started out growing compost crops and building up the layers.
Our top tip for keeping chooks is make sure you have a tree for them to roost in. When we first got ours, I made a chicken house but they sort of looked at it, laughed and then jumped up the tree. They sleep there at night and we also have an egg-laying box; it's all you need.