Growing your own revival

With the recession still visible in the rear view mirror, food prices climbing and now GST at 15 per cent, backyard gardening is flourishing. AMANDA MORRALL considers the dollars and sense of growing your own.

In lesser hands the "Devil's Defiance" bean seeds may slip through the fingers but long-time gardener Ron Crowley has them firm in his grasp.

The octogenarian is one of a handful of seed "guardians" entrusted with preserving Canterbury's seed stock from withering at the vine.

Twice a year after meticulously collecting the seeds from the wide range of vegetables grown in his Aranui garden, Crowley freely distributes the excess to members of the Southern Seed Exchange.

The loose co-operative of backyard gardening enthusiasts has tripled in number in the past three years. Two years ago, membership went from 100 to 200 with the recession in full bloom. A year later, another 100 joined the ranks of seed sowing enthusiasts.

By trading the seeds amongst themselves - as well as swapping tried and true methods for growing vegetables the old-fashioned way - they're hoping to keep alive New Zealand's rich home gardening tradition. At the same time, they are working to keep threatened crop varieties from being permanently buried.

For as long as he can remember, Crowley has been growing his own.

While modest, his memory is as bright as his thumb is green.

He recalls a time when this country had 15 types of broccoli. There are now only two or three. And barring the occasional purchase from the supermarket, he seldom pays for vegetables.

"There's no reason to," he says frankly.

While Crowley's garden is plentiful, international crop diversity has suffered a major assault.

"Lots of stuff has died off," says Crowley ruefully.

That would be a generous assessment of the situation by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation's (FAO) account.

In one of their latest reports, the FAO notes that between 1900 and 2000, 75 per cent of the world's crop diversity has been lost due mainly to an intensive industrial focus on a few select and lucrative crops. The FAO predicts that by 2055, 22 per cent of the wild relatives of peanuts, potatoes and beans will be gone, further depleting the diversity of what was once a rich gene pool of edible plant life.

Some 10,000 years ago, 10,000 different plant species were used for human food and fodder. Today, the human population relies on a mere 150 stock crops. Of those, a scant 12 make up 80 per cent of our energy needs.

Grim statistics of this kind are helping to fuel a worldwide movement towards something called "food sovereignty".

Matt Morris, sustainability advocate at Canterbury University, says citizens concerned with the ramifications of declining crop diversity, on top of climate change and geo-political uncertainties, are looking for greater security and control over their food.

He says the escalating cost of food, particularly fruit and vegetables, is also driving more people into the backyard.

Between 2000 and 2010, overall food prices (seasonally unadjusted) have increased by 37.9 per cent, according to Statistics New Zealand. Fruit and vegetables - subject to radical weather-related price swings in recent years - have tracked alongside at a similar rate of 39.5 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, garden suppliers are doing a brisk business.

While recessions and economic downturns have historically been linked to boom times for home gardening, an effect known as "cocooning", Morris believes this time is different.

"We're starting from a base of people not knowing what the hell they are doing in their gardens.

"Up until the end of the last century people knew how to garden."

Wider concerns aside, ignorance in the backyard is a financial liability.

Horticulturist Helen Irvine, a self- sustaining home gardener from Heathcote, says rookies end up costing themselves a small fortune because of avoidable mistakes.

Going over-board on start-up costs is one of the most common blunders Irvine sees.

She says people tend to over-invest in fancy tools, raised beds and seedlings, and underestimate the amount of time that is needed to maintain a garden properly.

"It's a 75/25 equation," says Irvine. "It's 75 per cent labour and 25 per cost."

While the savings of a successful home garden can be significant, the return on the investment is only as good as the effort expended.

Neither Irvine nor Crowley could say how much exactly they'd save over the years short of saying it was substantial.

The non-profit National Gardening Association in the US estimates that the average family can save about $600 a year, less the $70-odd input costs.

One study found that for every $1 spent on green bean seeds, you could expect to receive $75 worth of crop.

Returns on spuds were calculated at $5 worth of potatoes for every $1 in seed.

Thanks to groups like the Southern Seed Exchange and community gardens, Morris reckons astute gardeners can grow their own for "next to nothing".

The key is making use of what's already available to you.

"There's nothing wrong with the kit-sets you can buy but you don't really need them," says Morris.

Irvine concurs. She says a patch of upturned lawn will serve just as well as a raised bed as will an old bathtub, wooden mailbox, or green recycling bins.

Those wanting to maximise their yields need to pay close attention to optimal planting times, stresses Irvine.

Planting prematurely or late into the season is a sure fire way to produce lacklustre results.

In the Garden City, you don't have to look hard for help.

Community gardens are sprouting up in all areas and clubs like the Southern Seed Exchange are a great resource.

The Press