Rosemary McLeod: Human parasites stealing more than hard-earned roots

Khaled Al Jouja's plants strewn across his greenhouse floor.
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Khaled Al Jouja's plants strewn across his greenhouse floor.

OPINION: It's not great to have pessimistic predictions come true, as mine was with the destruction of a Syrian refugee's modest backyard market garden in Lower Hutt. I marked that down as inevitable when he was first photographed in the bleak yard he planned to turn into a productive garden.

Idle people detest nothing more than strivers, and there's few things more idle than people who live in houses with bare back yards they give over to nasty dogs and rubbish. This has been the fate of much public housing, built at a time when it was normal to subsidise your income by growing your own vegetables and maybe fruit trees.

The government even printed pamphlets telling you how to do it, back then, but a savage dog is much more useful when you trust nobody and hate the world.

Syrian refugee Khaled Al Joujam, who was a victim of vandals on his Lower Hutt nursery, with his new plants after a ...
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Syrian refugee Khaled Al Joujam, who was a victim of vandals on his Lower Hutt nursery, with his new plants after a working bee that 500-odd people turned out for.

The productive garden era is long gone, save for surviving gardeners who probably came from a small town, like me, and think growing things is normal.

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In a mythic past it was not unusual for people to pride themselves on what they could achieve with little money, though admittedly with effort. No doubt lazy neighbours stole some of their produce; there are always mean-spirited people; but possibly they swapped their surplus with other neighbours and had an informal economy going.

But I'm dreaming. The Lower Hutt story, and another in Brooklyn, show that gardening has become an art some people treat with contempt.

Khaled Al Jouja came home last Tuesday to find two years' work in his backyard garden had been trashed. A thousand plants he'd nurtured from seeds were uprooted and torn to bits in a senseless act of vandalism, just as they were nearly ready to sell. I put that down to school holidays, possible racism, and unsupervised kids with limited imagination. It's a hell time of year in some suburbs.

Al Jouja, who escaped with his family from the infinitely greater hell of war to a new country and a new language, immediately did what anyone would wish: he put down roots, and dreamed of becoming self-sufficient.

The good part of his story is that 500 volunteers turned up to help him and the charity he's linked to, Common Unity, last weekend. Local businesses also chipped in, and up to $12,500 was reportedly donated to him from as far away as Ireland, the UK and the US, proving the good side of the internet. Hopefully good triumphs over ignorance on a regular basis, but I have my doubts.

While I was checking my roses for aphids and pulling out oxalis in my patch of earth yet another gardener was being targeted. Al Jouja donates produce to people in need through the trust, and Mat Walker grows vegetables on a small plot of council land in Brooklyn where he doesn't mind sharing some of it, but despairs at the greed in the neighbourhood, so much so that he's prepared to throw in the shovel and give up.

What he's talking about is not taking a few vegetables for a single meal, but digging up a whole row of potatoes to take away, leaving nothing for the person who cultivated them patiently. Other vegetables have gone the same way, and thieves even stole the sign he put up asking them to stop stealing.

So many things are going on here, all of them depressing. It takes a sustained effort to grow something to eat, digging over the ground, weeding and watering it, feeding it with compost, keeping slugs and snails at bay – though in this case human parasites moved in. There's judgment involved, when and where to plant, and what will survive in that particular place, bearing in mind the amount of sunlight, and whether there's enough shelter from strong winds.

If you understood the time and effort involved maybe you'd pause before stealing someone else's crop, or maybe offer to help with the work and earn the reward. But gardening is a dwindling art as people move into housing with no room for it. Planting natives is the solution others choose because little effort is involved, but where's the love in flaxes and leathery grasses? Where's the creative thinking, the assessment of the site, the strategic planning of the real thing?

If I were the bosses at Inland Revenue I'd chuck out their insulting psychometric tests, designed to help axe a third of their staff, and concentrate on finding the gardeners among them. I've never met a gardener I didn't like. Or a corporate clone I did.

 - The Dominion Post

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