No one ever told me how much admin making food would be. I miss the years of meals just manifesting before me three times a day. Now it’s up to ME to find fresh produce and limit my hot chip intake.
Fortunately, hunting and gathering for yourself three times a day isn’t nail-pullingly tedious or expensive if you know what you’re doing. Specifically, if you know where to look. You would be surprised to know how many community gardens exist close to campus. You might also be surprised to know that there are a bunch of plants that are easier to plant at your flat than Pinterest would have you believe.
On any given day, in the Otago Polytech hub, you may find a few people with their knees in the dirt, tending to a collection of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuces and more. A combination of horticulture students and dedicated volunteers keep the community garden alive. I spoke with Tangihaere Gardiner (they/them), a Polytech Horticulture student and community garden volunteer, about food sovereignty, and how community gardens deserve way more credit than they get.
Food sovereignty is the right people have to locally grown food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. Tangihaere reckons that Covid-19 has made people more interested in producing their own kai. The lockdown period was a real wakeup call for New Zealanders, who quickly realised that “the only place we can get food from is the supermarkets”. It was a “direct example of the lack of food sovereignty that a lot of us have as a nation” they said.
The possibility of running out of food if we have to go back to a Level 4 lockdown has become a threatening reality and is changing the way people think about their food. “It’s really interesting to see that after [lockdown], the first thing people want to talk about is how to get food without leaving your house, without having to go to the supermarket,” Tangihaere said. “It’s good we can open up these conversations about smaller gardens and going to community gardens to learn how to start your own.”
Even just thinking about making a garden from scratch is overwhelming. Most people struggle with a $10 houseplant from the Warehouse. Tangihaere said that getting over the hump that plants aren’t people, and forgiving yourself if you accidentally kill one, is one of the “hardest things to explain to people … they give up.”
Not knowing that plants have a cycle and they die sometimes can be demoralising, Tangihaere said. “Humans are different from plants, we can’t treat them the same and we can’t moralize them. [Not moralizing them] makes it easier to bring in your house and makes it easier to work on gardens.” You’re not a “bad plant parent” because your plant dies. It happens, it’s okay.
There also seems to be the expectation that growing your own food means having a victory garden with perfectly positioned plants right off the bat. Tangihaere laughed when I suggested this, and said that it’s okay to start small. “Microgreens,” they said, with a big grin. “Put some tiny seeds on a plate, spritz it with some water, leave it for a week, and boom, food. Then you can try something a little bigger, like potatoes.”
It’s a lot easier than it seems, and there are plenty of ways to grow your own food without needing a perfect garden plot outside your flat. If it’s something you’re interested in, make a flat project of it. If you’re not quite comfortable diving headfirst into the world of home gardening, community gardens are a good starting point and are an overflowing source of information.
There are a few community gardens sprinkled around Dunedin, the closest to campus being the Polytech hub, the Albany Street garden, and the Peace Gardens. They’re run entirely by volunteers and have fresh seasonal produce year-round. Although you can just go and pick a lettuce and move on with your day, there’s a lot more to be gained from community gardens than a one-off forage for dinner.
One of Tangihaere’s favourite parts about the garden is the deeper level of respect and commitment required to be a part of it. When I asked them what they loved most about working on the garden, they said, “it’s really satisfying, working with nature. There’s a different layer of what’s expected of you. It’s not just about making it look nice, it’s making it healthy. Making sure it can thrive for much longer than you may be in the job. It’s a lineage, you put something in the ground that’s going to be there long after you’re gone.”
Community gardens are also valuable education and community hubs. Learning from experienced gardeners, especially if you have some plant parent anxiety, can be really valuable. Tangihaere recommended the volunteers at the North East Valley community gardens, saying “literally just message the page, or show up and ask them anything. They’re so excited to talk about it and you’ll basically get a grandmother and plant knowledge.”
The number of volunteers varies through the seasons, but the amount of food the garden produces is, to quote Tangihaere, “ridiculous”. “They have buckets and buckets of carrots, yams, potatoes, and spring onions.” Sometimes, however, it can be a little much. Last year the volunteers got stuck with “multiple buckets of beans” to eat through.
Critic ran through some FAQs for community gardens
Q: Do you need to bring any tools with you to the gardens?
A: Community gardens often have their own tool shed of simple tools, but it is always helpful to have your own pair of gloves and some small weeders, just because it is nicer to have your own.
Q: What can I take from the garden?
A: Just be reasonable. If someone is there, ask what you can take. Otherwise use your common sense - don’t be selfish, don’t strip the garden of absolutely everything for yourself.
Q: How do I know what veggie/fruit I’m looking at and when they are ready to take?
A: If you don’t know how to pick a lettuce, for example, maybe don’t pick that lettuce. Ask someone to show you when and how to take the produce. If you just go hundies you could harm the plant.
Q: How can I help the garden? Do I have to do anything hardcore or can I just do little stuff here and there?
A: The larger jobs are done by working bees instead of individuals. Most individuals just help with the weeding and picking up leaves, which is a huge help.