“Like this: hold them by the leaves, tease apart the roots,” Adrian Roche, manager of Kelmarna Gardens, a city farm and organic community garden in Auckland, tells Sesha Manuguri, who is bent over a clump of basil shoots, each of which have sprouted a pair of leaves the size of sesame seeds.
Manuguri is untangling the plants so he can replant them with more room to grow, and it is fiddly work. He has never done this before. In fact, he’s only been here for five minutes.
“It was her idea,” he laughs, pointing over at his companion, Suma Raj. “She dragged me here.”
Far from being full-time gardeners, the pair are students at the nearby University of Auckland. Both are glad for an escape from the lab.
A hill of assymetric plots
It’s mid-afternoon on a Monday, the sun is peeping out from behind the clouds, and a brisk, warm northerly breeze sweeps across the gardens, redolent with scent.
Raj starts to settle the seedlings into the soil of the planter tray. “You should fit about five across and six down,” says Roche, before disappearing into the nearby greenhouse to look for a watering can.
Around us, the garden spills down the hill in a quilt of asymmetric plots.
Bamboo frames stand tall waiting for runner beans to climb them, cabbages are just beginning to unfurl, the magenta roots of radishes are showing through the soil and big stands of rosemary, borage and Vietnamese mint sway in the wind.
The rhubarb and silverbeet look ready for picking. Flowers in a riot of colors spill over the edges of the plots – alyssum, lobelia and pansies turning their purple faces to the sun.
It’s about two things: education and therapy
People turn up at Kelmarna Gardens for all kinds of reasons. Roche arrived one day two decades ago and never really left – now he’s the one permanent fixture in a shifting array of volunteers that offer their time to help tend to the plots.
Raj, a soil scientist, wants to learn how to grow food organically. After she completes her PhD, she plans to return to her hometown of Bangalore in India, where she’ll start her own garden.
Kelmarna Gardens is tucked away in Herne Bay, a suburb adjacent to Auckland’s central business district. Its entrance, on an ordinary residential street, is marked only by a hand-painted sign advertising produce for sale.
But follow the gravel driveway down the hill, between the weatherboard suburban houses, and the sounds of the city fades.
Slowly, it’s replaced by the rustle of wind through the banana palms, the low hum of bees and the whooping of children racing between the plots.
We wanted to have a place that supported people. There are people in this world that – for whatever reason – need some support, and there are less and less things around for that
“It’s about two things: education and therapy,” Roche says about Kelmarna Gardens’ mission.
“We wanted to have a place that supported people. There are people in this world that – for whatever reason – need some support, and there are less and less things around for that. Gardening’s good for you: it gives you meaning, as well as access to and education around healthy food,” he adds.
Other than stressing that many people turn to gardening as a form of therapy, Roche reveals to me that Japanese culture recognizes the benefits of being in nature, deeming the effect as “forest bathing”. “It’s the same deal here, really,” he says. “It’s vegetable-garden bathing!”
A shortcut to social unity
Roche is far from the only person to recognize the positive, community-building effects that gardening can bring to a city.
Now, activists and city officials have seized on it as a shortcut to social unity.
In a city that is experiencing record migration – 72,000 new Aucklanders have arrived in 2016 alone, making it the fourth-most diverse city in the world – gardening is more than a skillset or a source of food. It’s a way of bringing people together.
Indeed, at a number of “teaching gardens” in south Auckland – which can be found at parks like Centre Park, Middlemore Park, Stadium Reserve, East Tamaki Reserve and Feasegate Park, among others – high school students, new migrants and refugees are paired with skilled gardeners to learn how to grow their own produce.
What’s more, the Auckland Botanic Gardens includes a demonstration edible garden that displays heritage plants and unusual varieties – like a library of plants for prospective gardeners to browse – and holds workshops for the public to get up-close and personal with these plants throughout the year.
An unusual abundance of trees
Meanwhile, on many of the city’s front lawns, garden infrastructure is already in place – locals just need to be shown how to use it.
Auckland has an unusual abundance of fruit trees, which were planted enthusiastically by early settlers to the area.
Depending on the time of year, a wander through the city’s suburban streets reveal trees sagging under the weight of grapefruit, lemons, oranges, plums, pears or feijoas.
Back in the day, everybody had a lemon or grapefruit tree, and because citrus grows so well in Auckland – most of the fruit just produces itself
“Back in the day, everybody had a lemon or grapefruit tree, and because citrus grows so well in Auckland – most of the fruit just produces itself.
We wanted to have a place that supported people. There are people in this world that – for whatever reason – need some support, and there are less and less things around for that says non-profit manager Di Celliers.
Concerned that much of this backyard bounty was going to waste, Celliers started Community Fruit Harvesting.
Under the umbrella of this organization, she mobilizes a small army of volunteers to collect surplus fruit and donate it to people in need via food banks and other charities spread out across the city.
Who’s interested in fruit-picking in this day and age? “Any age group, any gender, any ethnicity, a lot of foreigners who are new to the country, stay-at-home moms, students and young people,” Celliers says. “People who might be a bit lonely, especially those who are new to the area.”
Fruit-tree owners register with Community Fruit Harvesting, and “picks” can range from a single tree to entire orchards on city-fringe properties, many of them planted two or three generations earlier.