People's Stories
My family's food garden journey
Meet Sue from Dunedin, New Zealand  
When I was young, I liked to ask my grandfather how they lived during the wars in Germany. He told me that as a teenager in the first world war, he starved - gleaning potatoes from the fields after harvests was usual. In the second world war, he kept a backyard garden with vegetable beds, berry bushes and fruit trees for his young family. He had beehives for honey, rabbits for meat, chickens for eggs, and beavers for the fat and pelts – all of which he could use to barter with. My mother did not go hungry as a child. After the war, she went to work on an organic farm in neighboring Switzerland. There she met my father who was training at an agricultural institute. Both eventually migrated to New Zealand, worked on farms and orchards and established gardens wherever they lived. I remember being immersed in sunbathed high vegetation as a small child and napping under trees. My parents learnt the hard way that they could not grow much with little water and had to dig a well at one point.  

Moving back to Switzerland, we lived on a hillside with a terraced garden. My parents turned it from lawns to food production - vegetables, fruit, herbs and lots of berries. The banks were lined with bramble trellises. My mother produced rows of blackberry, currant and plum preserves. We gleaned apples. Dad took on a neighboring allotment to grow more potatoes for which he collected rain water off the roof. We collected blueberries in the mountains in Summer. In the school holidays I sometimes worked on mixed small holdings, each with some cows, sheep, pigs, a home orchard, woods and fields of grains or potatoes. It was common to eat potato rosti with a bowl of milk coffee for breakfast after doing the first chores in the morning.

Fast forward: Living in Dunedin in an area of old sand dunes on a north-facing urban section, we inherited sloping lawns with ornamental shrubs and also two old fruit trees. We expanded the food production gradually, planted native trees and bushes, grasses and perennial flowers until now there is only a tiny lawn area left. We learnt what grows best on sandy loam soil and are regularly producing lots of compost to feed it. We do not dig the soil, and we make mulch and collect seaweed from the nearby beach to put on the gardens. The soil has become healthier and the garden wilder over the years which is more attractive to insects and birds.

We can grow so much of our food here in temperate Dunedin. We are succeeding in having a year-round supply of fresh produce at our back and front door steps. We plant little of most things so as not to have a glut and a great variety. It is fun to go outside and always find something to snack on or cook into delicious seasonal meals. Otago used to be known to produce the best vegetables in the South for all its inhabitants. This can and should become the norm again if we look after our soils.

The secret is to hot or cold compost all organic matter from your patch, pile it onto grassy or vacant areas and turn all these into thriving food gardens: lawns, berms, edges of parks and sports grounds, inner city roof tops and plantings, even planter boxes on concrete driveways. For food resilience, we need to go back to what our forbears did by growing locally what is suitable and swap plants, seed and produce with neighbours. Join a local community garden or garden club for expertise.