Sonja Slinger: Getting to know a Wonder Woman of gardening
A Taranaki midwife has grown an inspiring garden on a small plot in town. Sonja Slinger is so smitten and inspired that she goes straight to the garden centre after visiting.
Tricia Thompson has a garden full of happiness. Everything growing there is lush and thriving. You can almost see the happiness and life in the plants and flowers, the vegetables and fruit trees, even in the chooks that roam freely in the back section.
It's an organic garden and planned along permaculture guidelines. But unlike most gardens in that vein, which tend to be great producers but, let's be honest, somewhat messy and rambling and lacking in flowers, Thompson's is tidy and ordered and packed full of all things gorgeous – and abundant in produce.
It's a delight to visit. There are beds of vegetables, pots of herbs, fruit trees dripping in blossom, narrow paths meandering through, pergolas for shade and sitting areas for enjoying the mood. And this wonder woman of gardening has created much of it herself. She's a woman strong on independence, has worked on women's issues in academia and professionally for years, including a stint in Asia working with women's empowerment programmes in a bid to extinguish the trade in child brides.
This grandmother has much to tell and a lot to show in a small house on a small section in New Plymouth.
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"I bought this place after living and working in Vietnam and other Asian countries for some years. People asked me did I find it a culture shock to go there but I didn't. I'd been through Asia before, travelling, years ago. It was much more of a culture shock to come back home," she says.
She returned somewhat saddened by the food that's taken control of Kiwis' lives, the processed and packaged stuff which most people buy for convenience without thinking. After eating fresh and seasonally in towns and villages throughout Asia, she had forgotten how far New Zealand had moved away from that, importing produce en-masse and an agricultural industry with a penchant for spraying.
"I live a relatively simple life. Grow much of my own food and eat seasonally. If I do buy food, I make sure it's from New Zealand. I don't do bought gifts, instead I give homemade preserves, chutney, jam or eggs in a woven basket I've made. I like to keep those old traditional arts alive."
She says living in Asia not only taught her more about living simply but how to make good out of a small space.
"This place is just 514 square metres. I get a lot of use out of what I have here. It's a 1950s three bedroom home and a family once lived here yet it seems small compared to many homes today. I think we as a society have changed in our perceptions of what we need. We don't actually need a lot of space or a lot of things. Living in Vietnam showed me that. People live in very small spaces and often three generations all living together but they don't expect to have more, or room for more and more possessions."
Thompson left New Zealand in 2000 after 20 years as a midwife, practising independently in Taranaki for 10 years. It was time for a change and she went to Vietnam through Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA). Based in Qui Nhon, a coastal city in the central region, she was a maternity advisor to the provincial department of health. In four years there, she experienced a radically different health system, saw huge discrepancies between rich and poor and visited homes that would be deemed primitive and poverty stricken by western standards.
"The people I met were the most warm, wonderful people, I loved it and their outlook, as well as the food, the freshness and flavours that you experience every day."
After Vietnam she worked throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia and Laos for a New Zealand NGO with local partners doing village level sustainable agricultural gender empowerment projects. While it was hard going at times, she found the experience enriching and rewarding, particularly with men's groups working to stop child marriage - midwifery from another angle, she says.
"It was this work where I learned heaps of sustainable stuff too, how to really live sustainably from experiencing life in these little villages and seeing what they do there with little resources but strong communities."
Thompson, who has a masters in development studies as well as her midwifery degree, has been back in New Plymouth for five years. Her daughter, son in law and grandson now live here too. She has just retired from teaching midwifery for AUT at its satellite course in Taranaki but is still teaching, sociology and sustainability for Otago Polytech School of Midwifery.
"I've always loved gardening. I'm a Taranaki farm girl, born in Opunake and grew up in Egmont Village on a dairy farm when 100 acres was enough to make a living. I grew up around gardening although it was in the days when people sprayed everything to within an inch of its life. I guess I learned the basics of gardening then. I also did a permaculture course in Australia, probably one of the first that was ever run, 36 years ago when i was pregnant.
"My little garden here is like a homesteader's garden, my backyard is my urban farm. I once dreamt of having 10 acres in the country but I've chosen to live in the city because the reality is that we can't all live in the countryside and anyway, it's more sustainable for being able to bike or walk to get places,"she smiles.
"My small garden here produces too much for me so I plan to set up a stall out on the street selling bits and pieces at some stage."
Out on the street, Thompson has planted dwarf fruit trees – quince, pear, apple and nectarines - just inside her boundary wall and these will be espaliered along a driftwood fence to be constructed. Near the front door, under the eaves of the house, there are strawberries and to the side, pots of fig cuttings.
A berry barrel near the garage has two raspberries and a logan berry then there is a wooden pallet she has recycled into a vertical lettuce bed as well as a bench with an array of plants and cuttings she plans to sell during the Sustainable Backyards Trail, which she is open for next month.
But the real charm is out back. Along a path, we pop out to a view of Mt Taranaki, and a back yard of pretty - and abundance.
"The elderly lady I bought the place from had lots of camellias and roses in here. I've trimmed the camellias right back and left a lot of the roses because I like pretty, but I also need space for food growing. I love flowers and they attract the bees and that's good for pollination.
"It's so nice to sit out here, under the pergola, and watch my grandson roam around the garden, watching bees and butterflies in summer - he called the bumblebees bummers last year, he was only 18 months."
Thompson grows intensively and says the key is feeding – she uses a mix of seaweed and comfrey tea, worm juice, compost from the chook run and occasionally adds compost from Return to Earth.
A circle of stakes in the corner will become a sunflower fort for her grandson come summer. The plants will reach up creating the walls and an archway of spreading sweetpeas will form a scented tunnel entrance.
There's a work in progress under the pergola, too, as Thompson cleans out and drills holes in old guttering to hang off the beams for planting strawberries. The floor of the pergola is laid in concrete tiles, made by guess who? She has bare squares of earth interspersed and in these grow pizza herbs - oregano, rosemary, thyme, chives and parsley – and these give off a rich scent when stepped upon.
"Mixing the concrete in the wheelbarrow just about gave me RSI, it was such hard work but I'm so satisfied that I learned how to do it."
There is so much growing out here – grapes, feijoa, pears, plums, apples, nectarines, peaches, berries of almost every variety, tangelos, paw paw, persimmon and pomegranate, rhubarb and raised beds with a profusion of seasonal vegetables.
Six chooks roam at the rear of the property, four red shavers and two Rhode Island reds.
"I was in Wellington and I wanted a chookhouse that I could take apart when I shifted. I was of the era that girls didn't do woodwork at school but I wanted to know how so I went to night classes to learn and so this is it."
She sections off the chicken run so the girls can only scratch in one portion while seeds of silverbeet 'chook garden mix' and Asian greens take hold on the other side. In 6-8 weeks it will be ready for the chickens to feed on, turn over and plant again.
"I was a bit shy about going in the Sustainable Backyards Trail but people have encouraged me. It just gives people examples of the things you can do on a small section in town."
Does it ever.