Sonja Slinger: A sweet life haven in Inglewood
A British couple have created a haven for trees, bees and birds near Inglewood, plus a sweet life for themselves. Sonja Slinger gets a taste of their dream life.
Great uncle Herbert would be jumping for joy if he knew just what his great nephew Mick had done.
Mick Turton and wife Anne Barker, have dug out a wonderful existence living almost entirely off their slice of Taranaki paradise thanks to the teachings of great uncle Herbert.
"When I was a kid growing up in Rotherham, England, my great uncle Herbert taught me all there was to know about growing food," recalls Mick.
"He was my inspiration from about age 7, I just loved spending time with him, and his wife, great aunty Tess, who was a great bottler of all their produce."
It was a wonderful place puddling about in those two allotments in South Yorkshire with great uncle Herbert, the young Mick trailing along, taking in the skills and techniques that brought forth bold cabbages, leafy lettuce, king sized carrots, cauliflower and potatoes to feed a community.
That bounty from the earth plus that time spent in the soil sowed the early yearnings to become a grower himself – although the seeds lay somewhat buried for a time, while the boy turned into a city man and made his way through the rungs of a corporate career before the gardener man emerged – half way around the world on seven acres of land out the back of Inglewood.
He started out teaching but only ever taught intermittently really, never for any length of time. He worked in retail and became a shop manager. Then he took his turn being at home with their two boys while Anne returned to a career with the local authority running a day centre. When the boys went to secondary school Mick took a job at a local council working as a personal carer and secretary for a man who had cerebral palsy and who was employed to provide disability awareness training.
It was a job he enjoyed, part teaching and part caring but after a time, in the early 90s, he began to get itchy feet and became dissatisfied with how things were going in the UK, change was in the wind. The couple had heard about New Zealand and the opportunities there and thought they'd give it a whirl.
That was in 1993 and they've never yearned to go back. It took Mick some time to secure a job and when he did it was as an occupational therapy assistant at Taranaki Base Hospital.
"It was pretty much a health care assistant job. But it led to other jobs within the organisation and I just worked my way up," he says.
Anne was elderly services manager at Hawera Hospital and Mick became unit manager for elderly and allied health for Taranaki District Health Board as it had then become. His experience with the corporate world started to wane though and in 1998 he threw it in. The land was calling him, he just hadn't realised it.
In a way he moved closer to the land with his next role, working for Fonterra at the Eltham cheese factory, supervising the shifts. "It was good fun for a while. Totally different to what I'd been doing, running a production line for cheese. But they hired me to manage people which I had done lots of."
But after a time, he became disillusioned with several aspects which we won't go into, and he moved on. Back to the District Health Board as a contractor reviewing services across various departments within the organisation.
But, as he says, the seeds had already been sown, the land was calling. They'd started building their passive solar home, made from concrete blocks filled with concrete, then covered in a 60mm layer of polystyrene. Over that is wrapped a thin plastic coating then plaster as the final layer. It holds the heat in winter, cool in summer, just what they wanted.
In winter, if they really need it, there is a small panel heater plus two oil heaters which are rarely used. "I say, 'Put a jumper on, that's the first thing to do,' rather than turn a heater on."
Solar panels drive the hot water requirements and there is plenty of it.
"The hot water is fantastic, last August our hot water bill was $1.85 - total. Solar also allows us to give back to the grid but that's not such a great scheme."
Two large water tanks collect rain water from the roof, each holding 33000 litres so they never run out of water. "We thought we might need more water than we do, for irrigation if it got too dry but it hasn't really eventuated," says Mick.
But the garden is the real show stopper. The couple are retired - to the garden, and they haven't slowed down. They are enjoying the land and all its richness, growing every kind of food, including a few sheep. What they don't eat, they bottle, turn into preserves or chutneys, and make various wines. Then there is the marvellous Waitoriki crop swap which they love.
"The crop swap is one of the best things that's happened to this community," says Mick. "People flock there, even from New Plymouth and elsewhere, to swap their goods, it's wonderful. And it's not just about the food, it's about meeting others, sharing ideas and knowledge on all sorts of things. It's wonderful to see a revival in interest around growing your own. "
So, into the garden, there are beds on all sides of the house. A shade house is brimming with berries - strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, black currants and an espaliered cherry tree.
There are also tomatoes of differing variety and herbs including several flowering types which Anne uses to make balms and salves from. Moving outside there are compost heaps and a large potato bed (imagine a small field, almost).
Mick likes to experiment with different types and he has about nine growing. His favourite is a pink fir apple potato. He reckons it's the best eating.
"It originated from Ireland and Scotland, a small pinkish, sausage shaped tuber, great for potato salad." Mick also has a small business selling seed potato, garlic and shallot bulbs. "We are the primary seller of pink fir apple seed in the country. I love the shallots, much nicer than onions, a sweeter milder flavour but still onionee."
"We also grow a lot of Maori potatoes, different ones for different uses, some are good for roasting, mashing, salad and I have this large area so I can spread out and grow 8-9 different types."
"Another potato favourite is Robin Adair, It was popular in New Zealand during the 20s-40s, and was all but lost, really, and I can't remember where I got the seed from but someone gave it to me and they have taken off here. They are big potatoes. Last summer I had 61kg from just 1 row of 5m. They are especially resistant to blight."
The compost is cold, made from layers of different waste, grass, food, chicken and horse manure (the latter is left to decompose for three months to kill any grass or weed seeds).
"The compost takes about six months before it's ready. I don't turn it, there's no need."
Mick also regularly feeds the mounds with comfrey leaf, which he has growing everywhere throughout the property. He digs a small trench right in front of each compost mound to collect the black liquid which seeps out after rain.
"I bottle it up and use it on the garden, it's a great liquid feed."
Mick is not a fan of layering his garden beds. He is a digger, turning the soil and adding compost for nutrients. But when he is creating a new bed, he uses black plastic to cover it, lets it lie for 12 months cooking in the heat and voila, there is a new weed-free patch ready for digging and planting.
There are numerous fruit trees on the property, plums, peach, apple, pear, quince, feijoa, citrus as well as grapes and berries. Varieties are planted for either eating, bottling or wine. An Esther avocado is doing really well, now in its seventh year and producing, and Mick is happy they chose it for its cold toleration.
"I don't believe in fighting nature and if something doesn't want to grow, well just don't grow it and find something that will. We've tried different things here, some just don't want to grow so we don't."
A decent shelter belt to the rear of the property using Japanese cedar, planted when Anne and Mick built in 2001, is now paying dividends. "It's great, gives us air flow with a breeze but it's not too thick nor too tall."
The arrival of bees five years ago have added a big boost to fruit harvest, especially tree fruits. The handful of hives are maintained by Stratford beekeepers.
The couple are interested in corn and beans too, growing several types and again, for different usage. These are also used for seed, many of them sold, particularly unusual types.
With two grown up sons, and grandchildren these days, when the couple aren't on the land, they are either bottling, making jams or wines, or visiting family. "We like to travel, but really we just live a happy life, a contented life.
"We've never been people to want to do Disneyland and touristee things like that, it has no appeal at all, much to the chagrin of our kids when they were young, but it's funny because they are like us now."
Woofers (Workers on organic farms) now help the couple fairly regularly and Mick enjoys passing on his knowledge and passion for their life. "They come from all over the world, although mostly Europeans, and generally young people although we've had one who was 67. It's great to see a revival of interest from young people wanting to learn how to produce their own food. I'm doing what great Uncle Herbert did, passing on my knowledge, and he'd be pleased,' he says with a grin.
Mick and Anne's garden, is named Enthaven after the The Ents who appear in the Lord of the Rings. Ents are the ancient tree shepherds of the forest and allies of the free peoples of Middle-earth. "We wanted to create a haven for trees here and we have, albeit mostly fruit trees," says Mick. Enthaven was open for the Sustainable Backyards festival in October. They plan to open again in 2017. If you are into food and growing, catch up with Mick and Anne, and get hooked on their infectious passion for their lifestyle.