Iconic Auckland community garden in zoning limbo

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Opinion

Interview: Trevor Crosby, treasurer and coordinator at Sanctuary Mahi Whenua

The Feed’s Sarah Heeringa spoke with retired entomologist Trevor Crosby in the tool shed at the Sanctuary Gardens about saving a hidden bio-diversity jewel at Unitec, in Mt Albert Auckland.

Sarah: Trevor, I understand this land has been gardened since pre-European times. What’s special about that?

Trevor: In 2007, about 12 pre-European gardening implements were found in the gardens. They’re now kept in the Te Noho Kotahitanga Marae. It showed this piece of land has been gardened by early Maori. Here we are in the middle of the city on this isthmus, there is very little of land left that you can garden in any sort of size, as most has been built over. Most of the important areas, which for Maori, were for gardening and for growing kumera have long gone, and there’s only traces left of pits and other things. In this small 0.6 of a hectare space, we can actually grow things as they were hundreds of years ago. Nowhere else on the isthmus, can you actually claim to do this in such an area.

And you know that for a fact, because of those precious archeological tools that you found.

It’s a registered archeological site. It’s part the specialness of this whole area, being able to grow in the ground, because it’s never been built on. In many areas, many co

mmunity gardens are given spaces to grow where the soil has been contaminated.

Often in sites where and old building’s been demolished.

Precisely. It will be in an old car park or old bowling green or something. Here the soil has never been built on.

Right. So it hasn’t been degraded and polluted in the way that city gardens often has been.

It’s good volcanic soil, some of the richest soil in New Zealand, if not the world. We talk nowadays about having to retain good soil for growing food, but with increased housing, intensification land becomes too expensive just to grow food on, so it’s said. Here, what we like is to grow local, eat local, and eat seasonal. Here you can do it, at least have a chance.

 You’ve got this really precious soil and you’ve got 400 different plants and trees. Just tell us a little bit about what the community gardens look like. You’ve got the shelter belt around the outside?

It’s hard for people to imagine that only 22 years ago, this was an area of kikuyu grass. There were no clues as to what lay beneath.

In 1998 Brendan Harare, with students at Unitec, went to design an organic garden as a showpiece of how to garden according to organic principles, as opposed to the conventional horticulture which was being taught at Unitec at the same time. They went in with Richard Main, who’s now with Gardens for Health. They planted the surrounding eco structure – trees to protect the site – using a variety of introduced and native trees for flowers and food for birds and insects all year round. They started the garden area, to demonstrate, on a small scale, how you could actually grow food organically with rotation and look after the soil.

What’s the difference between a food forest and an orchard?

For an orchard, your fruit trees are usually very similar sized, maybe with grass or mulch underneath. For the food forest, as in a natural ecosystem, there are different layers. You’ve got the tall trees, the mid-size range, the ground cover, things that grow up the vines.

In this way the sanctuary was set up as Auckland’s first multilayered food forest. And within it, it was not only just food for humans, it was food for birds and for insects to help maintain the health of the environment. Also, there were trees that could be useful for other purposes, such as for timber, for firewood and other things.

They started off with the coloniser species to get some shelter and add nitrogen to the soil. Poplar trees, for instance, and tagasaste, the tree lucerne. They provided protection for the slower growing trees. The orchard trees were not just the trees they knew would grow here in Auckland at the time. They also looked for other trees that potentially could grow – if the climate warmed. Some worked, some didn’t. The whole idea was this was a place where you tried things out. Not trying to set up a commercial venture at all.

 A teaching garden?

Yes. And it really has for likes of myself having to learn a lot of things about trees, what 10 years ago, I knew nothing about how they are used.

The other purpose is demonstrate to people what you could grow, to challenge people to think about what is food? what can you grow? And also challenging people to see how you actually grow things.

All community gardens operate in slightly different ways. We’ve taken the model of small plots where people can grow, what they want. There are 40-plus families involved with the plots [and a waiting list]. It’s a space which has evolved over time. We also have communal plots where we can try things and come together for working bees perhaps once a month to work together. We wanted a community. So we share produce from the communal garden. We also donate some of that to organisations. For instance, each week we give a crate of spinach and other greens for the Zoo animals. Some of the produce we sell at the Grey Lynn Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings. This gives us operating money to buy tools. This year by even had to buy water and pea straw for mulching.

You don’t have running water or power. How is it that you’re without water and power?

This comes back with to sale of our land, to the Crown, by Unitec. On the Crown-owned land, just on two years ago, the main electrical lead blew, and it was too expensive to repair. And the water was same kind of thing, a major leak going through on the Crown-owned land. It was costing Unitec a lot of money. New power and water infrastructure has to be put in for the new housing developments around here. So everything’s been put on hold until the development happens.

You have experimental plots – you’re growing some kumera at the moment?

We’re growing kumera in a traditional way. We’ve got three gifting mounds in the front, on the northern side. The gateway into the kumera area is on the southern side, so you’re not taking away from the sunlight. Also the entrance is on the eastern side because the wind is from the western direction. This means there is less disease.

Explain about the setup here.

This is a completely open community garden. People can come here at any time, walk through the area as a part of a walkway through to Oakley Creek.  Most people respect and enjoy the surroundings. And anyone can join the gardening sessions.

We run a Facebook and Instagram page with daily postings just to be able to see what’s growing here. We also have the uenuku rainbow. Since we do everything by hand you can have curved beads and a rainbow garden with plants of different colour, textures and heights. You can grow vegetables for food in way that are aesthetically pleasing.

Your area of expertise is insects. How do the insects benefit from being in the community garden?

They benefit by having a whole lot of different flowering plants around and what we’re finding here in many multi and organic gardens, where it is multi floral and you are not doing a monoculture, the incidents of pests and diseases is lower. That’s because of the natural controls, the small wasps, which need the flowers, need the things to survive. They control the main pests.

Most New Zealand insects need a native environment to live in, and with the food forest, some of our New Zealand insects have come back to the area. Most New Zealand natives cannot survive unless you’ve got the right surroundings, with close cover.

A colleague did a big study over in the suburb of Linfield, looking at insects in the native bush and in gardens where the native plants growing. Over time, over a thousand species of beetles, and about 750 native species of beetles in that Lynfield suburb, nearly all were confined to the areas of disturbed or native forest. Even when you had the plants growing in the gardens, 60-200 meters away, you would not get the native insects that you would expect to find on those plants, because the total environment was not right. Even very small areas of native vegetation are important for native insects.

So it doesn’t have to be a big reserve to be beneficial.

Yes ,but you do have to have it. Here in the food forest, where it was basically barren for insects, now after 22 years some are coming back, because the environment is right. We know that the bag moth is surviving. But then, if you look on some big specimen trees around Unitech, which are grown in the open, you don’t get the bag moth. This is becoming an better system than a city park with large trees.

Given the prospect of a lot of the green spaces are being built over, how are you placed in terms of the status of the land, looking at the potential for this multi-story housing development going on around you? How is the land even zoned?

At the moment the zoning of the land is undeveloped residential. So I would hope that in the sales agreement from Unitech to the crown, that our six and a half thousand square meters will be designated as an asset, with a protection put on it that is not residential.

The archeological site is recognised as a place of significance, but the garden itself, the soil, the quality of the soil, doesn’t have any legal recognition?

There’s no recognition for that. There’s recognition amongst people that it is important, but officially, at the moment, this is part of a block of land regarded as undeveloped residential.

In the plains for this area, for the so-called Carrington development, the idea is to retain just under 40% as open space. This is not necessarily green space, but as open space and that’s why they’re going to multi-story buildings for the area. We are waiting to hear for the future, where our boundaries are. But we know that people who are going to be living in this area will want to join in with us, and maybe we can be the main area where they can learn, with smaller gardens close to their resistance. This is one of the things which the Ministry of Housing and Urban development in discussions with mana whenua had put forward, and we’re keen to see that happen.

We’re facing this catastrophic scenario of changing climate and climate destruction. How do community gardens like this contribute to our resilience as a city in the face of climate change?

After the water was cut off this last November it forced us to get more sustainable and showing what you can do when there’s less water available. More mulching made a big difference to how much water you need for growing. Watering has been by watering can and we’re talking about a cultivated area of somewhere about 1700 square meters, so that’s a lot of water to cart around. It makes you appreciate for the resources we have.

This leads back to why perhaps those Maori gardening tools were found here, it was as close to the Wairaki stream. It would have been easy to garden and water when the rainfall was low. There’s a whole lot of things for the future, for climate resilience, such as the things we’ve tried out here to see what we can grow. To show the community, don’t not just grow the things that you get in the supermarket. What else can you grow? What other varieties may be better suited for those periods where it’s either dry or wet. So you aren’t trying to grow plants that require a lot of water when there’s not a lot of water.

 Working with the environment as it changes.

Yes. And that’s what we just have to do – to adapt to the changes over time.

Fantastic, as well as being a source of food in of the breakdown of food supply or shortages

Precisely. In a time of crisis, it’s good to have a source of food around because most of the markets only have food available for two or three days at the most. And they might not be available in an area. If you have people growing their own food, it gives resilience, as well as life skills, enjoyment and connections.

These are many things that we’re really just starting to really appreciate with the value of having green areas. With trees, for the so-called forest bathing – because trees give off chemicals, which we take onboard and give you good feelings. One of the things that you appreciate with a green space is that you don’t need to use it every day, but it’s the knowing that it’s there to use. That’s the important thing. And that’s where the community garden comes through as, as an asset. It’s not that it’s a space where you go and visit every day. It’s knowing that it’s there as knowing that it is a space to enjoy.

Thank you Trevor for your time and for explaining to us about some of the things that are special about this fabulous place. And I hope that many listeners get the opportunity to come and visit the sanctuary gardens and walk through the food forest and get some of those good feelings that the trees are giving off.

This is an edited version of the podcast interview which you can listen to here!

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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