Saturday, July 13, 2024
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Managing to do it all of it

The great thing about gardening is that we can express our differing aspirations in many ways. Some people want to grow the biggest and brightest flowers they can imagine – they head straight for the decorative dahlias, the show chrysanthemums and the largest flowering roses they can find.

Others want to create a place for the collection of special plants – one I read about recently has a collection of box plants which seems a little odd to me, but there you go!

Some don’t care too much about plants –  they want a peaceful environment, preferably without too much work. Some just love propagating plants – they grow cuttings, save seeds, and graft unusual plants.

Others want to sustain themselves by growing vegetables and fruit.

Then there’s Helen Dew, who manages to do all the above.

In a tiny garden in central Carterton, she somehow manages to mix all types of gardening into her 400sqm patch in her ‘Garden for Life’, a title that reflects a philosophy of living as much as it does for gardening.

Helen recently told me her lifelong understanding of how she belonged as a part of the natural world was sparked by an incident when she was four. On holiday in Marlborough, she picked some white camellia flowers, then realised that she had stopped them living by doing so.

Over 80 years later, she still lives and gardens while being aware of her place in the world and the footprint she makes.  A committed environmental activist, in the confines of her small garden, she practices what she preaches, growing most of her own food in a sustainably organic manner.

In a tiny strip alongside the driveway to her house is a climbing bean, with a bonus second crop approaching harvest, while on the other side of the drive is a concentration of a great variety of fruit, vegetables and herbs. One that stood out to me, because I had never seen it before, was an old-fashioned pot herb called lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, but with bright magenta colouring on the new growth. It looks good enough to eat – which is just as well, as it is best grown by taking out the new growth and using it like spinach.

Nearby was another usual plant – the very aromatic white sage, Salvia apiana. This is a low-growing shrub with leaves often described as “dusty”, and that is about as good a description as any.  Its silvery-green leaves are covered with a dusty flour, and have a strong fragrance that reminds me very much of wormwood. This is for a sunny spot in a dry situation and is used in smudge sticks.

Alongside the herbs is a bewildering number of fruit trees.  There is a lovely ‘Conference’ pear, and nearby another tree worked with two different pear varieties. Growing amidst these is a deeply coloured crab apple, one of the Ballerina series called ‘Samba’. It grows in a pillar form and has deeply coloured flowers and leaves. Helen harvests the dark red fruit, as she does the fruit from a nearby vigorous thornless blackberry – when she beats the birds to them.

With so much produce growing in a confined space, the birds seem to think it is a supermarket for them, and much of the fruit must be covered as it ripens. Otherwise, there would only be an avian harvest.

There are many different edible plants in other parts of the garden; as well as traditional vegetables, there were Thai galangal, with its gingery flavour; Okinawa spinach; ‘Eunuku’ Maori potatoes, and New Zealand spinach.

Looking around, a couple of things become evident. Firstly, the plants are all looked after keenly, many of them having their growth confined by being planted in growth bags.

Secondly, there is no grass – any open ground is covered in arborists’ mulch.  I asked her about that, and she said there was a tiny patch of grass, outside on council land. She appreciated it because she mowed it and used it in her compost.

She told me that the three most important things in the garden were “compost, compost and compost,” a reflection of her understanding of the vital role that soil health plays in the garden.

On the outside of her tall boundary fence is a sign – “Garden for Life”, a true description of Helen Dew’s way of life. She had gardened all her life, but she also understands that she is gardening for life in its broader sense.

She grows and harvests plants; she encourages them to go to seed and then saves and shares the seed; she freely shares her knowledge and her philosophy [she will be restarting her gardening workshops soon], and it is most unlikely you will come away from her tiny garden without inspiration, and probably a plant or two and some seed.


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