An organic market garden has become a training ground for locals to begin their own gardens
Mahinga Oranga translates as garden of wellbeing. Owner Robert Downing says he went on a search about 18 years ago for a piece of land. He had been living in Auckland but had worked in Northland as a martial arts instructor and felt drawn back to the area to do something on the land that would contribute to others’ well-being.
Rob spent nearly 40 years in martial arts. He’s a 4th degree black belt. He says martial arts prepared him for growing vegetables and reckons life as a grower is much harder than anything he’d ever done. “It was a daily thing, you have to be on it every day, 12 hours a day. You have to be mentally and physically strong.”
Rob had experience of organic/biodynamic agriculture through the Steiner system so was drawn to do something in the “natural” horticulture sector. The section he found at Waimate North was just a paddock with a couple of trees on it. His vision was to start growing vegetables for local markets. He says when he started there were a few organic growers in the North but most of them were small scale. He’s had to learn by experience.
The initial reason why he chose organics was philosophical but as he got into organics he could see that there was a good premium – around 40%. He says growing organically meant he couldn’t get the speed of turnaround that other growing systems offer but the product he grew was extremely popular.
Rob and his partner moved onto the Waimate North property in 2001. The property currently has just over 1.5 acres in production but in earlier times, was up to 4 acres. Rob has only ever grown season vegetable varieties. He started off supplying the Whangarei growers market and the KeriKeri market and says it was a big learning curve learning to grow vegetables on a commercial scale rather than just for himself.
His main crop was mesclun salad mixes, supplying cafes, hotels and markets.
When he first moved onto the land he said the soil had good structure but the nutrient and moisture retention was poor. His strategy was to build organic matter and add fertiliser such as mineral mixes that remain in the soil and stimulate the microbial activity.
Rob says one of the key things in organics is sustainability – making sure that there’s a good nutrient base in the soil. Once he’s harvested a crop from the soil, the first thing he does is plant mustard. He says mustard balances out the fungal to bacteria counts in the soil. The mustard is cut and then he plants lupin and oats. He says the lupins fix nitrogen in the soil and the oats add structure to the soil.
The last part of the system is to grow buckwheat as a cover crop. Rob then covers the soil with a mulch of bana grass and puts a plastic sheet over it. He says it takes as long as a year from harvest until the soil is ready for the next crop.
Comfrey has a very important role in the garden as it soaks up excess moisture. Rob also says comfrey acts as a guard against insects. He says many insects will attack the comfrey first rather than vegetables. A comfrey root will go down as much as 3m, mining the minerals and drawing them back to the surface.
Rob cuts his comfrey and spreads it directly across the soil. During the summer he also uses comfrey as a key ingredient for liquid fertilizer.
Rob says when he first took on the block at Waimate North, he got wiped out with a couple of big weather events. It made him realise how vulnerable he was to heavy rain and strong winds. Bana grass was an ideal crop to offer production to the garden as the grass grows extremely fast and aside from offering shelter is also a great source of mulch for the garden.
The original idea of the garden was supplying local food for local people but as Rob has developed it, the focus has shifted to teaching, coaching and training others to do something similar to what he has done.
Rob’s work as a horticultural instructor at Ngawha Prison has encouraged him to start working with locals to develop a new horticultural initiative which would provide employment and skills for locals. The project is due to start in early June 2016.
He sees Mahinga Oranga as a garden which will be used as a training ground and a learning centre for people – especially as other blocks of land start being brought into production.