It's early summer in Armenia, the southern most country of the Caucasus which separates Europe from the Middle East. Having left behind the deserts of Iran, mouth watering dates and baskets of grapes and stone fruits, I am now travelling, slow pace, on battered local buses through this land of gushing rivers and green oak forests. In the mountainous parts, wild flowers dot the landscape, bringing to the fields of grain blushes of cream and purple. Swathes of red poppies, banks of bright blue borage, yellow verbascum, pink mellows and lemon hollyhocks cascade down steep craggy banks to form giant natural rock gardens while in every backyard, vegetable growing is underway on a massive scale.
A poor country with a national average income of just $5,500, backyard food growing is a serious business in Armenia, and creating a lawn when the same ground could be producing food, is unheard of. Potatoes thrive in this temperate climate so it no wonder that almost every household with available land devotes around fifty percent of it to this vegetable. Climbing beans, onions, tomatoes, okra and the famous 'yard long' Armenian cucumber account for much of the rest of the space and are often grown beneath fruit and nut trees.
No doubt it is through necessity, but the simplicity of the infrastructure in Armenian gardens is a lesson to us all. Dozens of bamboo canes and stout poles fashioned from tree branches are rammed into the ground to support vigorously climbing beans and tomatoes. Builder's reinforcing mesh carries the weight of tangled grape vines and any available form of grill, be it an old oven rack or mesh bed wire, is skilfully positioned to keep the small flocks of goats and sheep from invading the garden as they wend their way home at night under the guidance of their shepherd. Wandering cows are kept at bay with dry mud walls topped with stacks of thin branches that will later be used for kindling while random pieces of scrap metal block up any gaps. Potted plants bloom brightly in old tin cans or boxes given a lick of paint.
If you are picturing a chaotic scene of ugliness, nothing could be further from the truth. As metal objects rust, wood silvers in the weather, and bright wild flowers and pretty vines creep through the arrangement encircling the vegetable plots, a delightfully natural scene is created which is much more appealing that the cyclone fencing that keeps many New Zealand gardens safe from grazing animals.
The drive in New Zealand to purchase for our gardens plastic stakes and trellises, powder-coated frameworks, pre-cut raised beds, glazed terracotta pots and elaborate hanging baskets is largely commercially driven and although, from time to time, it is a novelty to try out these often expensive garden accessories, we can all take a leaf from the Armenian gardening manual and recycle everyday objects to help our gardens succeed. I, for one, will be curbing my obsessive desire for garden neatness when I return to New Zealand and am determined to be more willing to adopt a relaxed attitude to using recycled materials for plant supports, edging and protection. If the result is half as attractive as the village gardens I see around me as I travel through Armenia, I expect to receive compliments galore!