Public patch peephole on gardens past

Last updated 14:32 06/02/2013
Dennis Travaglia
Victorian kitchen gardener Dennis Travaglia in the section of the Hamilton Gardens where the order and beauty of healthy food cropping asserts its place in public gardening.

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Rosemarie Smith continues to mulch over the challenges to conventional ideas about gardening after a visit to the Hamilton Gardens. 

Flowers out front and the veges out the back with the clothesline, that's the Kiwi home garden convention, no matter how different the style at each property.

And it is not just because passers-by might be tempted to pinch the potatoes or squish the squash that food-growing has not really featured in the decorative gardening aesthetic planted in New Zealand by our ancestors.

It has not made it into our public gardens either despite the educational function in which these were part-rooted. It has been pushed out by notions of beautification.

Possibly at the time our public gardens evolved, there was no need to include edible horticulture - everyone who needed to grow their own food knew how to, or could afford to have others do it for them.

However, at the Hamilton Gardens, an innovative approach has food gardening included alongside the ornamental traditions.

Of the four gardens of the productive collection it's the Victorian kitchen garden that offers the most insight to the food-growing heritage European settlers brought to New Zealand.

But even that draws on 4000 years (at least) of walled kitchen-garden tradition, back even into ancient Egypt, where onions, garlic, leeks and the like came (apparently).

The Romans cultivated tastes they experienced abroad, then took seeds along with their gardening gear to Britain - like 11 types of lettuce, you learn in Hamilton, and 12 kinds of cabbage.

The Brits let their veges go during the Dark Ages, and it took Henry VIII's great appetite for novelty to reintroduce the English to many Roman crops - not just delicacies either, but basics like turnips and parsnips.

By the age represented by Hamilton's kitchen garden, the English elite were once more interested in novelty and abundance, and set out gardens worthy of a scientific age.

The classical layout is raised rectangular beds, planted in rotation in plant families: solanaceae, curcubits, root crops, leaf crops, corn, and one for perennials like asparagus.

This order has an artistry all of its own, especially when punctuated by teepees of bean poles or marshalled ranks of staked tomatoes.

Anyone challenged by the idea of food crops in a public garden should consider the aesthetic splendour of a corn spiral, especially once the mature plants tower over the visitor.

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The walls have a practical role, creating microclimates for tender plants, early or late, especially espalliered vines and fruit trees.

But the sense of enclosure they create also adds to the atmosphere.

Some classic elements are missing here, like the central dunghill, but the garden does have a shed displaying an arsenal of Victorian garden apparatus - scythes, sulphurators, shears and the like.

Nor is the plant palette confined to heritage varieties, as the garden's educational functions include being used for instruction to WINTEC (the Waikato equivalent of SIT) horticulture students, who do some of the work.

This year's potatoes, therefore, include the New Zealand cultivars Desiree, Swift and the anti-oxidant rich Purple Heart.

Garden supervisor, horticultural technician Dennis Travaglia is in fact a WINTEC staff member who reports that many regular garden visitors come through checking what is going on for their own garden calendar.

There is something to see any season of the year, he says.

In winter there are beds of oats and lupins, and broadbeans, while root crops and brassicas love the Waikato cold, and though the lettuce may not be as vigorous, the hearting varieties generally do better.

The most common visitor conversation, however, does not relate to growing hints, but "Where does all the produce go?"

The answer is that some is sold cheaply to students, but most goes to food banks.

Dennis can help himself too, but tends not to, as he has a big vegetable garden at home.

"There's nothing like fresh," he says - as if it's all in the last few steps from plot to pot that count.

But there's also nothing like seeing living garden history to make it memorable, and relevant, with an immediacy that neither books nor film can create.

It may not help you grow better vegetables, but is certainly something to ponder while undertaking the task of the season.

Like the tedium of picking currants. Which, by the by, are descended from wild European plants, cultivated in England for "only" 400 to 500 years.

Story suggestions or feedback on this page are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com

- The Southland Times

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