Unsustainable Backyards

When it all comes together it’s a dream. Lettuce and basil, artichokes and snow peas, beetroot and figs… well not together in the one dish in each case, but you get the picture: good fresh food that tastes way better than tired shop bought produce. When things work well that’s what it is like, weeds controlled by a thick mat of straw, watering with a hose when the rain refuses to arrive on schedule, rabbits restrained by a chicken wire fence, and possums down the offal pit after a quick humane death in the Timm’s trap.

That’s when things work well… most years though, they don’t. In spring and early summer 2011-12 we were putting the finishing touches to my book on God as mother in the Bible and Christian worship, in 2012-13 we were teaching in Sri Lanka, in 2013-14 it was lectures in the Philippines, in 2014-15 we went to the UK for mum’s funeral, in 2017-18 it was alternating storms and drought… (I can’t remember my excuse for 2016-17, sorry!) Every year something crops up, and my crops either bolt, die of thirst, or get eaten by predators. My backyard is unsustainable, unless I am there in those crucial weeks to sustain it.

Of course there is another sense in which backyards can be unsustainable. The garden centres have shelves full of specialist weedkillers, guaranteed (or at least claimed) to kill only undesirable plants and let your veges/flowers/lawn flourish – but many of which operate “systemically” and kill the bees we need to pollinate the cherries we grow for the possums to steal. More shelves of chemical fertilisers, that promote big healthy veges, but seep away into the streams and also promote invasive algal and plant growth that starves fish and crustaceans of the oxygen they need.

Both kinds of unsustainable need tackling… now, what in my diary for next spring?

Town and country growing

Living in town is like living on another planet! Fruit and vege growing faces different pests and problems. In town the main pests are insects, and poor soil quality is the commonest problem.

Our main pests have four-legs, not six. Rabbits devour seedlings like locusts in Egypt, they also strip the bark from young trees. Possums not only decimate bush (compare the lush forest filled with birdsong at Otanewainuku, with bush where the possums are less well controlled), overnight they can strip our fruit trees of a not-yet ripe crop. And, when sheep, cattle or pigs (yours or your neighbours) get into the garden…

Our friends Jenny and Perry live on a hundred acres in Oropi. They have Red Devon cattle, some sheep from an Ag Research breeding program (our new ram comes from their flock, like our last one who produced ‘too many’ twins), and some cute cross-breed pigs. They are farmers from way back, and well-used to country living. They are diversifying into a variety of animals to feed themselves now. They are also starting a beautiful vege patch. The raised beds are arranged in concentric circles bordered by macrocarpa sleepers milled from trees at their previous place. The day we visited things were less orderly than they’d planned – the piglets got into the vege garden! They have also lost hundreds of seedling natives they planted as a shelter belt. Rabbits have decimated them, they have been bad this year despite everyone’s efforts to control them.

The pests are different in the country, and we deal with them differently, instead of sprays and powders, we use good fences, possum traps and guns… For a hobby I read and animate Beatrix Potter stories, but I never thought I’d become Mr. MacGregor!

Sauerkraut: or grow your own bacteria

We’ve been growing our own bacteria. Not nasty ones from slovenly cleaning, but useful “probiotic” ones, giving a pleasant sour taste to pickles without using vinegar.

I’d assumed making non-vinegar pickles was difficult, needed special equipment and possibly dangerous. Kitchen stores, sprouting as fast as cookery programmes on TV, have fancy, expensive German crocks (with weights to press the cabbage “right”).

A free e-book from CulturesforHealth.com dispelled my excuses. I used big jars, cleverly weighted with small jars fitted inside, water-filled, as weights).

The recipe is simple:

  • 1 tight cabbage (red or green)
  • Salt 2.5%, or 25g per kilo of cabbage

The method is nearly as simple. Put aside outer leaves. Remove the core, slice fairly thinly. Sprinkle with salt and mix, pound it. I used a wooden mallet we hadn’t found a use for since I stopped making Chicken Kiev, but you could use a jam jar or a rolling pin. This softens the cabbage allowing the salt to penetrate. Once it looks damp, pack the cabbage into the big jar, pushed down to exclude air. When it’s fairly full, cover with bits of the outer leaves, forming a “lid” inside the jar. Put your little jar full of water in, to press the “lid” down. Cover with a plastic bag, to keep unwanted bugs out. Soon you’ll have mysterious, bubbling jars on the workbench (on a tray to catch any spills).

After a few days (depending how sour you like your Kraut, and on weather, the precise mix of bacterial flora on your cabbage, and even perhaps phase of the moon) it will be ready: crunchy and sour, the ideal accompaniment to sausages and lentils, or salads with salami and other cured meats. For colour contrast I made both plain and red-cabbage kraut and cauliflower florets coloured yellow with turmeric (which take twice as long to mature.

Stories Food Growers tell


In wintery April weather, we chatted over a prolonged afternoon tea. As well as asking each other’s advice, like Chris wondering about planting chokos, we also shared surplus produce and stories.

Some were proper food-growing tales, like Jenny J’s disaster when two heifers got out of the paddock and into the veggies. Apparently, they walked delicately down the paths, causing minimal damage to the infrastructure, despite their half ton weights, yet in their hunger devastated the veggies all the same. Our White Face who loved to jump never got close to the veggie patch, though several times she visited the neighbour’s steers after achieving a clear round, not even nicking the top bar of the gate.

Talking of clear rounds, the other Jenny is an accomplished equestrian, but it seems riding camels is not the same as riding horses. She took an early tumble on her first camel experience. She hastily remounted, so her host would not see her indignity. How does one hastily mount a camel? They seem such unfriendly creatures, and I thought camel rides required the handler to make the beast sit before inexperienced riders attempted mounting. I guess that’s the difference between a real farmer and an ex-townie, real farmers can make even camels obey!

The White Face heifer I mentioned earlier, Freckles, was not at all obedient the day we tried to load her on the truck. Although our little yards are over 5 feet high, she managed to get her forequarters out in her bid for freedom. We had to stand guard, “persuading” her back, or I am sure she’d somehow have escaped and eaten our veggies.

The prize for the oddest job recounted that afternoon goes to Tim and Joanna, deconstructing their orchid houses. Often harder work than building them in the first place. Their little orchard already produced so many surplus Beurre Bosc pears that after the group took what they wanted there were still more for me to share more widely.

Giving a fig

Fig via Wikimedia
Fig via Wikimedia

Delicate pink, sweetly aromatic and succulent, fresh figs are delightful. In Bible times the good life meant everyone having their own vine and fig tree. We don’t yet have vines, we do have four fig trees, though they’ve yet to produce a crop. Wind tore branches off our best tree, leaving a huge scar and split trunk. What the winds left the birds have eaten. Others in the food growers’ group have fig trees too. The “other Tim” has a row of flourishing trees. The fruit he offered round at April’s meeting was delicious. Naturally the conversation turned to figs.

Did you know that several varieties produce two crops a year? What other fruit tree (except the ubiquitous lemon) can say that? Figs are also remarkably resilient. Our wind battered victim has the makings of a half decent crop, despite its sad state, the birds certainly enjoyed them! One expert even recommends planting in a washing machine drum to restrict the roots and so promote fruiting!

Figs are weird, not fruit at all, but “inverted flowers”! The succulent juicy sweet “flesh” is really the flower – no wonder they have that attractive colour. This strange inside-out flower can’t be pollinated the usual way, but needs a special kind of wasp, which crawls inside the fruit. Wasps were another topic of conversation, everyone saw more than usual last summer. But at our place, the wasps were more interested in devastating our apple crop, than investigating our figs with their inside-out flowers!

The Fence Saga (Part 2)

Our ram, Beau, is a fine looking Arapawa with impressive curly horns. Gentle with humans, loving to be scratched behind the ears or patted. With other animals he’s all aggression. When sheep and cattle are in the same paddock, Beau chases the steers. If they stand still, he goes for a head butt, springing up with all four legs to reach. It’s hilarious, the poor steers don’t know what to make of him, but it’s too likely someone will get hurt. We no longer put steers and sheep together.

Beau when he was very young, he’s twice the size now with fine curly horns – I must get a more recent portrait!

With no steers to intimidate, he takes on fence posts. In his tussle with the new gate post (see last month) he somehow unhooked the stay. The post itself was then easy prey. Battering it into submission, he sprung the latch, the little locking ring is now on the outside. I hadn’t got round to replacing it, but hoped if the steers (who are now there) pushed the latch would just hold firmer.

I forgot that they use tongues to grasp and pull long grass, or given the chance branches from the bush. They’re remarkably dexterous for creatures without fingers. It took a bit of practice, but what else have cattle to do with their time? Bruce unlatched the gate and the steers had free access to two paddocks. So I tied it with baler twine.

One good nudge and his 500Kg could easily snap it, but that would be cheating! He plans to suck his way out. He’s licking the twine and it’s getting thinner. If I don’t get to Farmlands for a new latch they’ll be through again…

Fencing lessons

Even in a very small space there's room for tomatoes, beans, lettuce and more
Behind the chickenproof fence

As an ex-townie it surprised me how many conversations here concern fences. I’m learning about fences though. When I tried to follow potatoes with brassicas for winter, no sooner were my seedlings planted than rabbits (who ignored the poisonous potatoes) ripped them out.

It’s not just rabbits, chooks strip vege patches bare. We thought a “raised” bed would deter them. They had the bed raked clean within hours of my first planting. Two-strand wire didn’t deter them. Now we have chicken wire on stout uniposts, and so far it’s working…

As a townie, I naïvely thought farm fences kept animals in. Deer fencing is tall because deer jump, cattle fences are low but strong because that keeps cattle in… The neighbour’s bull taught us differently. He visited our steers, teaching them to fence-crash. Watching a half-tonne steer clear a gate and charge off into the wild green yonder, you know fences encourage animals to stay home. They cannot make them.

Not the fence I built but a properly rustic one we saw when on holiday down the forgotten world highway
Not the fence I built but a properly rustic one we saw when on holiday down the forgotten world highway

An electric outrigger may stop cattle, but electric doesn’t work with sheep. For a year or so, nine wire with battens seemed enough, our little flock stayed home. Till Harry, our Wiltshire wether, got spooked. We’re not sure how he did it. He jumps well, but he’s a heavy hogget, and he’s pretty big, so could he squeeze between tight wires?

As I’ve learned, I’ve become more ambitious, from touching up fences with electric wires to building my own. A big flat paddock divided in two. Beau, our Arapawa ram, had other ideas. He took a dislike to the gate post. First he dislodged the stay, then the post itself (helped by all that tension on the wires) was easily butted into submission.

Actually it’s no wonder conversations keep turning to fences…

Why Grow Your Own? and Why have a “Food Growers’ Group”?

Even in a very small space there's room for tomatoes, beans, lettuce and more
Even in a very small space there’s room for tomatoes, beans, lettuce and more

Different people grow their own vegetables, or fruit, for different reasons. For some it’s crispness and taste, nothing beats tender garden-fresh salads, “truss tomatoes” from the shop can’t quite capture the vivid fresh smell and taste of ones ripened outside your window. Others like to know they are not eating chemicals, or at least what chemicals they are eating. There’s also the satisfaction of knowing that you are providing for your own basic needs.

Likewise everyone has different ideas of scale. Some start small, a pot or two of lettuces and parsley on the deck, or even window-sill. Others are extremists. A couple of years before “The Good Life”, I dug up the lawns of our small-town quarter-acre, and planted a huge range of veges.

Whatever your reasons, and whatever the scale of your “plot”, sharing ideas, triumphs and failures helps. Back in the 70s, I learned so much and avoided many silly mistakes by listening to the “old guy” across the road who had been growing his own since before the war.

It still helps to chat with others, and since our climate (We reckon it’s 2 degrees cooler than Barkes Corner, where we are. What’s your estimate?) and soil are different from what they have in town, it makes sense to meet others locally. That’s why the “Food Growers Group” that we have been part of for a couple of years now was started. As well as sharing ideas and experience over a cuppa monthly, we get to see other people’s patches, and we often share seedlings as well as failures and successes. It’s a great idea and worth doing elsewhere.