A Garden of Eden in suburban Christchurch grows an amazing range of vegetables
We could be far out in the country, with chooks quietly pecking in an orchard beyond a vegetable garden overflowing with organic produce. Yet, suburban Beckenham is just over the fence from John and Meg Christie's backyard paradise.
Summer might be a distant memory, but the Christies are still living well off home-harvested produce, including broccoli, red cabbage, cauliflower, silverbeet, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, parsnips, celery, white carrots, potatoes, yams and pumpkin. A herb garden supplies fresh herbs year round.
Their pantry is stocked with jars of dried beans and preserves, including tomatoes and beetroot, while the freezer is full of frozen corn. Ears of blue corn, hung up to dry, will be used to make cornmeal. Meg and John even have their own sugar source in the form of sugar beet.
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"We really grow too much for our own consumption," Meg says, with John adding they occasionally buy a few extras, such as onions, but it's more for variety than out of necessity.
The couple have been busy seed saving in recent weeks, setting aside egg-sized, blemish-free potatoes and healthy bean seeds for future cultivation. Prize heirloom-grade seeds are carefully dried before being packed away in labelled envelopes.
John, whose love of growing vegetables goes back to his childhood, was irresistibly drawn to this 2023sqm property in 1982. Former owners had a glasshouse down the back and once sold fruit and vegetables at the gate.
"By the time I bought it, the garden had become disused and overgrown, though some of the vegetables that were growing there then are still here," John says. "There were enough silverbeet seeds in the ground that it just kept on growing. The asparagus bed that was here is still in the same place, though we have made it bigger."
Descendants of potatoes that were in the garden back then still grow there, 35 years later.
Every season, the garden evolves a little. It now has 37 types of vegetables.
"Things keep on changing and every year I plant something new, something different," John says.
Meg, who joined John in Beckenham in 1996, spent a couple of summers removing wild fig trees in order to create her own 40sqm garden patch. Tending the fruit trees is her real forte though, and there is a great diversity here: feijoa, apple, pear, peach, nectarine, plum, apricot, fig, quince and citrus (lemonade, orange, lemon and kumquat). This cornucopia is supplemented by grapes, rhubarb, berries, currants, young hazelnuts and a walnut tree (the latter not yet producing).
For John, a scientist, and Meg, a health promoter, gardening is not a chore but a favoured
pastime. It helps that they are both super fit. Meg is a keen runner and John, a cyclist. Meg is completing a marathon in Cork, Ireland, this month.
Neither she nor John worry too much if the weeds grow tall while she's away.
"I've come to the realisation that bare ground is unhealthy ground and that weeds are good if they're not competing with anything else," John says.
As I turn to leave, a bag of fresh figs in hand, it is comforting to reflect that a less-is-more-approach is sometimes the best choice, letting nature lead the way.
For novice seed savers, what are some top tips? Start with the easiest: peas and beans. Leave some pods to dry on the vine then pick, pod and remember to label what they are.
How do you control diseases/pests in the garden? By establishing as complex an ecosystem as possible; we have very little trouble with aphids and green caterpillars. We feed any slugs or snails we find to the chooks. Also, don't aim for supermarket-style unblemished fruit and vegetables. There's nothing wrong with a few blemishes.
What positive steps can we take in winter to help ensure good summer crops? Coming into spring, what you want is a healthy ecosystem, so the soil has to be functioning over winter with slow composting going on and plants still growing.