Ghastly weather isn't something a gardener usually welcomes, but it does afford time for reading and, back in June when Wellington was brought to its knees by that Wahine-like storm, I was curled up on my sofa with a brilliant garden-read called "Sons of the Soil" by Lily Lee and Ruth Lam. A rather voluminous tome, it details the history of Chinese market gardening in New Zealand and, boy, does it ever inspire me to test out new (or, in this case, ancient, methods of vegetable-growing).
The early Chinese, marginalised through racial discrimination so that they were prevented from owning land, either leased fields or simply cultivated the tiny plots immediately around their homes. Either way, they didn't have land to spare so they gardened intensively and with nous.
What struck me most from my reading was that plants were simply crammed in and their land was never without a leafy green crop. As soon as one vegetable was harvested, another was planted in its place. Even in the cold off-season, the Chinese were always opportunistically planting something. If a sudden, warm spell arrived unexpectedly, and their vegetables grew, they would have out-of-season produce to sell at premium prices. If the cold lingered, the crops still produced a few leaves which they could use themselves before quickly replacing the plants with others.
Unable to fallow land, they fertilized intensively, constantly replenishing the soil's nutrients with compost and manure (especially, liquid manure which they regularly applied to growing plants). Watering was hugely important and land was never permitted to dry out. While European gardeners might be happy to wait for the next shower of rain, the Chinese were carting water to their gardens from dawn to dusk.
Of course, what I'm interested in most, is what this all means for me, as a gardener who is constantly experimenting with new ways to achieve the highest productivity. And what I take from my reading is that we can produce a great deal of food from a very small space of land (something that is good news for those of us who are pressed for time as well as space).
Starting as of now, I'm going to simply cram my garden beds with goodness – seaweed, compost, animal manure, and blood and bone. I'm not just going to dig it into the garden, I'm going to stockpile it beside the garden, ready to apply it as soon as required. As one individual leafy green is harvested, I'll be topping up the nutrients in that very same spot, and planting another (which also means I'll have to have seedlings waiting in the wings). My liquid fertilizer tank will also be filled to the brim and constantly replenished with animal manure and sea weed, and a good helping of comfrey leaves. I'll be dishing it onto growing plants every few days rather than fortnightly as I usually do. Even is the depths of a South Otago Winter, I'm going to plant out some hardy silver beet and cabbage plants, cover them in plastic, and cross my fingers. After all, what have I got to lose? And a gamble is so exciting (especially when it doesn't involve money!).
In terms of gardening, New Zealand has a diverse cultural heritage. Whether we're following the early Maori by warming our kumara beds with sun-heated stone, or imitating the intensive gardening methods of the early Chinese, there's much we can learn from our rich horticultural history.
Sons of the Soil
Chinese Market Gardeners in New Zealand
By Lily Lee and Ruth Lam
Published 2012 by the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers Inc