The Kiwi good life

Last updated 08:41 22/02/2013
tdn gard stand
Franziska von Hunerbein has changed her bare 500 square meter lawn into a garden paradise.

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Franziska von Hunerbein has a dream.

The mother of four children would like to see orchards, community gardens, food forests and backyard fruit and vegetable patches all over Taranaki.

"When I came to Taranaki, I was expecting to see fruit trees everywhere because I knew it was a very fertile ground," she says.

"I was disappointed to see just dairy and I wish we had a huge variety of things in Taranaki because it has so much potential."

But Franziska is more than a dreamer.

Like all good change-makers, she's starting her quietly spoken but passionate campaign in her own backyard. And front yard and down the sides of the house.

Franziska, her husband, Jens Stein and, their children came to New Zealand in 2008, seeking a life closer to the earth.

Before that, the German family had been living in Shanghai, China, for three years.

When they moved into their two-storey home in Merrilands, New Plymouth, their small, 500-square-metre property was nearly bare. There was a big tree in the middle of the front lawn, some shrubs and lawn. The backyard was just concrete pavers.

"From an ecological point of view, it was quite a dead garden," she says.

Inspired by and amazed at seeing friends growing fruit and vegetables, even through winter, Franziska began to potter and plot.

"First we made a little garden with a few lettuces because we couldn't see the potential of the garden. Then for a while I thought I would give up because [I thought] there's just not enough space to do anything."

Her deflation turned to excitement in 2010, when Franziska enrolled in a year-long Certificate in Organic Horticulture (level 3) class one night a week with permaculture tutor Dee Turner.

"After every Tuesday night I could not sleep properly because I was so excited about planning all these things," she says.

She learned how to set up her garden and keep it healthy and lush without using any chemicals, but with the aid of chickens and worms.

"I learned how to build a system that's as sustainable as it can be."

The students also learned how to make compost, prune trees, propagate seeds and grow cuttings.

Now Franziska's town garden is brimming with life and edibles.

One of the principles of permaculture is to have the most useful things close to the house.

That doesn't matter so much on this small property, where everything is just a few strides away, but a clean and dry example of this is the woodpile.

At the back door, a narrow strip between shed and house was a wasted space, where nothing could grow. So the husband and wife decided to cover it and use it to stack logs for the woodburner.

"Now we don't get wet when we get our wood," she says.

The other principle she extols - constantly - is about using land for not just one purpose, but many.

"That made so much sense to me because having such a limited space, I had to use it wisely."

The idea is to put things together that complement each other.

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An example of this is the chicken run, which is home to 10 chooks, four fruit trees and also the compost, mulch-making space.

"I throw all my food scraps and garden waste in there," she says, talking of the "win-win- win" situation.

"I'm happy if I get enough eggs, the chickens are happy because they eat what I give them and they love to scratch and process things, the trees are happy because they get a lot of fertiliser and I will get fruit."

To protect the roots from being scratched by the vigorous birds, Franziska has placed stones around the base of the apricot, quince and two plum trees.

Happy co-existence extends beyond the boundaries of this house and garden.

"My neighbour has a beautiful lawn but too many lawn clippings. She keeps some for her compost and I have the rest. She doesn't have to take it to the dump and I'm always looking for mulch."

They also talk and swap things over the fence.

But Franziska has another dream - to expand this type of relationship.

Walking past properties and seeing lemons rotting on the ground has prompted an idea.

"Something I would like to establish in the future is a swapping market in the neighbourhood. I would love to support that."

In her own plot, she has planted a young food forest with fruit trees, berry bushes, strawberries slowly expanding to become ground cover, and straw, provided by a friend, to keep down weeds.

Once again this is a multipurpose plot. The idea is to have the fruit trees as shelter against the westerly winds and feed the family.

"It looks a bit wild because two pumpkin plants have taken over but I don't want to rip them out because I want the pumpkins."

In the centre of the garden is a just-built pizza oven, a feature of the garden's entertaining area.

It is here that Jans steps into the picture. He builds structures for the garden.

"I'm really grateful for that," Franziska says. "He's really good and patient and does everything I ask him for. He's not a gardener."

However, he does nurture a kaffir lime tree and a tub of lemon grass planted to feed his passion for Thai cuisine. He also cares for his collection of mint plants.

At the back of the house, he's built raised beds his wife has filled with vegetables of every description, interspersed with flowers to attract bees.

The beds help Franziska keep the garden organised.

"I'm not a very orderly person, but it helps me to be tidy if I have edges," she says.

"I don't know yet how I will cope with this food forest area because it's a little bit wild for me."

When she studied at Witt, Franziska learned to look at vertical spaces in her garden. Against the house and walls, she has espaliered fruit trees, planted climbing beans, towering sunflowers and opted for layers. Beneath an apple tree with arms outstretched, she has "strawberry stairs" and below the beans are healthy tomato plants weighed down with red fruit.

As well as the raised beds and food forest, she has also placed old Trade Me-bought laundry tubs (11 in all), painted brick red, on a deck that runs along the side of the house and out back. These are filled with tomatoes, lavenders, herbs and more vegetables.

One of the tubs is Elena's garden.

The 3-year-old, dressed in a pink leotard and taking today's garden tour on her mum's back, has learnt all about growing, picking and eating fresh fruit and vegetables.

"Elena is knowledgeable and she could tell you the name of every single plant in the backyard. She loves harvesting."

Which is a good thing - most of the time. Yes, she can head out by herself to pick basil for meals, but she's also a grazer.

"We have a little forager here on my back and so we didn't see a lot of the strawberries because she gets them first."

The children all love to pick and eat the vinegary leaves of sorrel and also enjoy their mum's cooking.

But the older ones do give their mother a hard time, with humour.

"They sometimes make jokes about what I do, but I can see they like me being passionate about it."

On that note, filled with permaculture tips and arms of freshly cut rhubarb (Franziska's favourite), it's time to go.

"Thank you for coming," she says. "I just love to talk about my garden."

Franziska Hunerbein will be running a felting course during the National Permaculture Hui at Taranaki Anniversary Weekend.

- Taranaki Daily News

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