Berengere Vuathier and her boyfriend Ivan Gorobenko wwoofed at Anita's Garden for a week in April. Upon her return to France, Berengere kindly wrote an account of her time in New Zealand and at Anita's Garden for my blog. This is what she has to say.
Wwoofing, a precious human experience
Not long before turning 30, Ivan and I decided to take a year off from our work and daily life in Brussels. We felt the strong desire to travel around a few countries, mainly in Asia, Australia and New Zealand - our longest destination - to create memories and enjoy a slower life, by getting closer to nature and soaking up new cultures. September 2017 was the start of our so long desired journey. After several months traveling across Asia, we were longing for a more quiet, relaxed journey in New Zealand, one where we could meet locals and share moments of their life. This is where we spent our last four months.
New Zealand: A paradise for nature lovers
New Zealand is all about nature and environment. Wherever you go, wherever you drive, you will be quickly surrounded by stunning sceneries and unique wildlife. Take Auckland for example, the biggest city in New Zealand. It only takes a 30-minute ferry drive to land on the predator-free island of Rangitoto where the urban jungle is replaced by lava fields, where fantails will soon joyfully follow your steps. The pristine landscapes and the omnipresent outdoors have been the main drivers of our 4-month journey throughout New Zealand.
As keen hikers, we were eager to get as close as possible to the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps. At the wheel of our freshly acquired custom-built minivan, we drove along the scenic roads in search of the wonders of New Zealand and a real outdoor life.
Waking up facing the quiet waters of Lake Manapouri, climbing one of the Remarkables summits just before gazing at an unexpected sunset over Lake Wakatipu, enjoying the quiet countryside life on Hobbiton-like hills in the Coromandel Peninsula... These are just some of the many memories of the journey we have created for life.
Wwoofing, what’s it all about?
Throughout our adventures across both islands, our aim was not only to discover the country from a tourist's perspective - because when you’re traveling, you still remain a tourist - but also from an insider’s perspective. This is why we turned to the WWOOF organization to look for voluntary work opportunities on organic farms and urban gardens throughout the country.
« Wwoofing » is the common term to designate the 4 to 5 hours of work you do in exchange of accommodation and meals when staying at an organic farm. To us it was obviously more than that. What we were looking for when applying to hosts’ farm or garden projects was the opportunity to get a gardening experience in a sustainable way but also to share our hosts’ daily life and thus have a real cultural exchange.
Budding gardeners in New Zealand
Both Ivan and I have been living in big cities all our life until now - in Ukraine, France and Belgium - but what soon became an obvious topic for us was how we could source our food better. This is why we have been developing a growing interest into environment and health. Always living in flats, we have never had a garden before.
And here we are, at the other bit of the world, putting our hands in the soil. Seeding, removing weeds around feijoa and lemon trees, preparing compost or planting raspberry plants will soon have no secret for us.
One of these experiences was at Anita’s Garden. We chose to contact Anita as we could already feel her enthusiasm for gardening from her profile. We were also very interested to learn about her experience starting Anita’s Garden from scratch after her previous corporate lawyer career. From the very first moment we entered her house, we felt at ease. And Anita’s passion about gardening soon became contagious.
What is wwoofing really about?
What fascinates me about Anita is her very deep knowledge about urban gardening. She acquired it while starting Anita’s garden. Because Anita was much concerned about varying our work activities as much as possible, we were able to learn a great deal about planting transplanting, growing and generally tending to a garden. During the one week we stayed with her, Anita would give us small projects to achieve day after day: sowing easy peasy peas, poppies, carrots in buckets for the winter season to come, planting passion fruit vines… We loved helping her and our efforts in the garden were always rewarded with the delicious meals Anita’s mum, Sue, cooked with the vegetables coming right from the garden. How fascinating was it to witness and take part in her fantastic home garden: It is really impressive to see how much you can grow on a quarter acre around your house.
But what really made our experience with Anita so rich, is that we could engage into deep conversations and reflect it on our own lives. To Anita, working on her suburban section soon became more than just cultivating her own fruits and vegetables. Gardening can be a sort of therapy and help with all sorts of problems. It helps Anita to cope with some health problems and generally to feel better. And I can’t agree more. Working in the garden is soothing and I always feel like I am meditating. Our mind can focus on the present. Wwoofing is really about sharing your own experiences, be it in the garden or in life in general. We enjoyed to talk about her time when she was working in France, comparing our ways of life back home and here in New Zealand.
It was such an enriching experience to exchange with Anita on mind and life topics which go far beyond gardening activities. And this is exactly what wwoofing is about to us. Taking part in the gardening activities while learning and exchanging knowledge with the wwoofing hosts.Our wwoofing experiences have been far beyond our expectations. Not only have we learned a lot about how to grow organic vegetables from A to Z, but this was an incredibly rich human experience, one we are very grateful of.
Last weekend, a large garden centre in Auckland called Kings Plant Barn had their annual stock take sale, discounting all plants by 30%. I couldn’t resist but go to purchase a few plants to replace ones that unfortunately died in the garden. I also wanted to purchase some seedlings as it’s hard to raise plants from seed in the middle of winter. With the winter Solstice behind us, the timing to plant couldn’t be more perfect as the days are gradually getting longer.
I was completely bowled away by the cheerful instant potted colour in store. I decided instantly to make some hanging baskets for our outdoor patio with furniture infront of our house, where we often have afternoon tea. This little sanctuary is surrounded by our mini orchard and feels cosy and private, even though we are merely footsteps from the Great South Road. The store had lots of hanging baskets as examples. They’re incredibly easy to make. All you need is a coconut fibre hanging basket, some black plastic, potting mix and some plants. Line the black plastic inside the basket, making holes so that excess water can drain from the bottom and sides of the basket. Next, fill with potting mix. If you’re making hanging baskets in summer, you might want to add some water storage crystals or a product such as saturaid which help to retain moisture. As it’s winter and has been raining virtually every day, this isn’t necessary at this time of the year. You can place the plants close together so there are no gaps. My hanging baskets are 41 cm in diameter so are quite large, but I do have smaller ones that are 30 cm in diameter. You can also get plastic hanging baskets. I have one that looks like it was made of terracotta. They are fine for growing a range of ornamentals and edibles in. Did you know that hanging baskets don’t necessarily need to hang? They look stunning placed in a line in a patio or along the edge of the garden.
I planted polyanthus and pansies in my hanging baskets for winter, as you can see from the photos. You can also plant edibles in hanging baskets. I have planted lettuce and herbs successfully in my hanging baskets in the past. Last summer, I grew cherry tomatoes in them. I highly recommend the varieties Tumbling Tom Red and Tumbling Tom Yellow from Egmont Seeds. I grew both varieties and they were more productive than our cherry tomatoes in the ground. They can get quite bushy, so we hung them up over the ends of our washing line and the branches and tomatoes spilled over the edges. I highly recommend planting some basil to accompany tomatoes as it really brings out their flavour. Every summer I grow the variety Sweet Genovese, also from Egmont Seeds. There is nothing better than having some tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, cracked black pepper, sea salt and torn basil leaves spread over them.
The weather has been positively balmy lately, making it hard to believe that it is in fact winter. My plants have even been a bit confused. In our “Green Smoothie garden” (a bed where I planted greens such as pak choi, bok choy and kale for our daily green smoothies) I noticed that one of my pak choi went to seed! This normally occurs in September, when temperatures start warming up again so it was surprising to see this happen now. Hopefully it’s a sign of a mild winter and early spring.
Growing some early potatoes
The wonderful warm weather we have been having lately, with rain and no frosts, has made me a bit adventurous. I read in a couple of different places that it is possible to start growing potatoes after the Solstice (shortest day) on 21st June. Normally, I have waited until September to plant potatoes but I’ve decided to give it a go much earlier than that this year. Today, I bought some very early seed potatoes called Swift from Bunnings, which are ready in just 60 days. I planted them in trenches. Apparently you’re not meant to mound them up all the way if you’re planting this early, so I laid them in rows in my trenches and just covered them with a bit of dirt. The idea is to mound them up as they grow. This technique makes it less likely for the seed potatoes to rot in the cold, damp ground during the cooler months of the year.
After foliage develops, if frosts seem likely I will use this fantastic product I discovered called Vaporgard, which is a spray on liquid frost cloth that protects plants from temperatures less than 3 degrees. I have already used some of it on my tamarillo seedlings which never ordinarily survive the winter and will report back on its efficacy in a later blog post.
Another product I look forward to using in conjunction with my potatoes is a special potato dust by Morton Smith-Dawe that I also purchased from Bunnings which inhibits spuds from sprouting once they have been dug and stored. Sprouting potatoes is the cause of much waste in our kitchen. Initially I wasn’t keen on using a chemical on stored veggies but in the end I decided that the pros outweighed the cons and I would give it a go this year.
In other news, I purchased 130 bare rooted strawberry plants from a commercial grower in Katikati. You may have read my earlier post on growing strawberries, in which I stated that my plants from last summer left me with heaps of runners which I replanted in a separate bed with a wwoofer called Felia in April. Unfortunately, most did not survive and out of the four rows I planted, only one row remained alive by June. I’m still not sure why they died as they looked very healthy when I replanted them in the garden.
Anyhow, the plants I ordered filled in the gaps and I am looking forward to having my own mini berry farm at the convenience of our front lawn this summer. The reason that I didn’t seek strawberry plants from a garden centre was because I needed such a large quantity to fill the area. It didn’t make sense to pay $2 per plant, so I made some enquiries about whether I could purchase bare rooted plants from a couple of commercial growers. I was lucky that one was still selling them; the other place is actually just up the road from where I live but lifted plants in May so I will have to be a bit quicker next year.
The garlic that I planted in April and May is looking fantastic. I have been liquid feeding my garlic with Seasol every fortnight to promote strong, lush foliage. I also mulched the areas where I planted garlic with pea straw to reduce weeds and retain moisture.
It has been awfully wet and windy recently, signalling the start of winter. Still, I don’t think we can complain too much. All the rain has been fantastic for the garden. We have also been blessed with some absolutely stunning sunny days too, which rival those in summer. I have been known to sit outside on our outdoor furniture soaking up the rays in shorts and a t-shirt!
I thought that it might be timely to post an update on what has been going on in Anita’s Garden as it has been awhile since my last post. My massive rose order arrived two weeks ago and a wwoofer called David from Germany helped me plant them in the ground. I added the following varieties to the garden:
· Charlotte (Austin)
· Grace (Austin)
· Lady of Shalott (Austin)
· Auswonder (Austin)
· The Alnwick Rose (Austin)
· Gertrude Jekyll (Austin)
· Claude Monet
· Golden Celebration (Austin)
· Kathryn Morley (Austin)
· Abraham Darby (Austin)
David also helped me to get on top of the weeds that were overtaking Anita’s Garden during his stay with us. The garden looks nice and tidy again. We have been picking lots of erlicheer from the garden and putting them in vases inside the house, which look pretty and smell divine.
I also planted some more garlic in the garden. You might recall my post about growing garlic, which you can read here, and a description of the varieties which I’m growing, which you can read here. I have another variety to add to my list. I was shopping at Countdown out in Meadowlands and found some organic garlic. The cloves were nice and big and I see that the garlic, along with all of the other varieties that I planted, has been cropping up with all the rain we have been getting recently.
I was also delighted to discover that some of the miners lettuce (Kings Seeds) which I had sowed in spring has merrily self-seeded in our greens garden. We have been enjoying this delicious lettuce in our wraps with chicken for lunch. If you haven’t grown this variety before, I suggest that you give it a try. My friend Minette introduced me to it and I can’t rave enough about it.
Now that it’s winter, I have also been spraying our roses and fruit trees with lime sulphur, to protect against fungal diseases during the summer. I find that by adopting a good spraying regime in winter, I don’t have to worry too much about spraying during the summer.