I'm a self-confessed travelaholic whose pulse is set racing at the mere hint of a special-deal airfare – and all because of food gardens. My addiction to finding out what fruits and vegetables people grow in their own parts of the world, and how they go about it, has seen me hiking, cycling, hitch hiking and even climbing over forgotten passes to reach some pretty far flung parts of the world. And then there are the more accessible spots! Although I enjoy grand and famous gardens as much as the next tourist (Prince Charles' organic Highgrove was unforgettable) I'm actually much more interested in local and small-scale gardens – quirky allotments and community gardens, each with their own special characteristics. Some of the best have been in Britain but, wherever they are, what makes these establishments so fascinating is that they are inevitably thriving on some forgotten piece of land deemed, by the powers that be, to be so worthless that no one in their right mind would ever have a use for it!
Some stretch along the edges of railway lines still in use, others occupy hillsides too steep to be built on. I've found community gardens in dark, damp little gullies, on the roof a supermarket in a busy London suburb and once, on a traffic island in the middle of Paris! It's almost as if the world has forgotten that gardens are important and that food is what sustains us. New Zealand also has its share of odd-spot community gardens, and if you're a walker or, as I am, a jogger, you're bound to stumble on them as you head along lesser-know trails. I know of at least two in Dunedin. The first has been established at the back of a school on what I suspect would have been a playing field had it not been so poorly drained. With deep ditches dug to draw away the water, and raised beds installed to assist with drainage, it's now a real show-piece. The community garden second hugs a once-polluted and now living stream, planted on each side in thriving native vegetation. Though the vegetable garden occupies a shady spot, well chosen plants and a network of plastic houses mean that it is thoroughly productive. A quick jog through Oamaru a few weeks ago saw me happen upon a community garden terraced into the side of what was once a dry, clay hill. Irrigation, enriching with compost and animal manure, and deep mulching, has completely changed the landscape into a thriving sun-catcher of a vegetable garden.
It's encouraging to know that, as gardeners and producers of fresh food, wherever we find ourselves, it's possible to modify the land we have available so that it suits our needs. The secret is to begin with what we have, and to then make the necessary changes. If your potential garden space is dry and dusty, pile on organic matter – loads of compost, seaweed, grass clippings, straw, baylage, and animal manure. Dig it in and let it all rot down beneath a weed-supressing, moisture-retaining mulch of whatever you have on hand – carpet, pine needles, straw, even cardboard held down with rocks. If you're at the other end of the spectrum and working in a near bog, dry out your site by digging channels around your garden. Throw the spoil on top and add the usual compost and animal manure. In cooler places, use cloches to increase heat. In shady spots, plant delicious but less fussy vegetables such as silver beet, parsley, broad beans, and rhubarb. Add climbing vegetables such as peas and beans that will reach for the sun. Consider planting in mobile containers (such as old wheelbarrows) that can be moved around to take advantage of any sun there is. If your patch is a concrete backyard, don't give up, build up instead, with a no-dig garden.
Gardeners are unstoppable masters of modification. Able to respond to whatever environment or climate throws at them, they are as adaptable as the plants they grow. What makes it so exciting for the traveller, is that all that modification creates a garden with its own fascinating, and often unique characteristics. With a network of community gardens throughout New Zealand, there's no need to wait for a plane ticket before you start sight-seeing!