Sue Linn visits passionate food grower and garden blogger, Sarah O’Neil, in her impressive vegetable garden.
It’s high summer, the hottest one to hit Auckland in decades. On the first day of February Sarah O’Neil is busy in her kitchen making chutney. “I don’t think slaving over a hot stove was the brightest thing to do today”, she laughs. But for Sarah, this is bliss. The only place she’d rather be is in her large vegetable garden.
Five years ago Sarah, husband Tom and their two children made the lifestyle change many only dream of. “We went from urban metropolis to rural overkill,” Sarah says of their move from cramped suburbia to a quiet lifestyle block surrounded by dairy farms on the outskirts of Pukekohe. Sarah wasted no time in getting her dream garden planted, and that first summer garden was a huge success. It wasn’t till winter that she discovered the harsh realities of gardening on land that was once a swamp.
But Sarah has no interest in being just a fair weather gardener and it was while confronting the diverse challenges of grand scale gardening on a wet and windy site that she discovered her other great passion - writing. Initially sparked by a Yates blogging competition (which she won), her writing has carried her through all the ups and downs. “The more I wrote, the more my garden grew!” Sarah’s humorous real-life stories can be found on line at gardeningkiwi.wordpress.com and also in her new book “The Good Life”, released this month by HarperCollins.
On the day I visit, two lively little boys excitedly usher me to the family pride and joy - an orderly patchwork of timber edged beds bulging with summer crops. From the strawberry patch Joe plucks a red painted stone. “The birds get put off when they peck them!” he explains and then finds a real strawberry for me to try. Delicious.
I’m then shown a greenhouse full of recently harvested onions and garlic – enough surely to feed five families for a year! After a respectable ten minutes the boys race off, leaving their mother and I to enthuse over the tomatoes.
Sarah rattles off the names of a dozen different varieties. To keep the birds away, there’s a row of brightly coloured windmills from the 2 Dollar Shop. Sarah’s tomato crop feeds the family all year round. She freezes them whole in bags and uses them in place of canned tomatoes. “The skins just slip off the frozen tomatoes when you run them under the tap,” she says. We move on to the carrot bed and Sarah gasps with genuine delight as she pulls out a huge, perfectly shaped root. These are her best carrots ever, which she puts down to her carefully prepared, perfectly drained soil.
After that enlightening first winter, Sarah and Tom built raised beds from recycled fence rails. When they needed quality soil to fill their vege beds, they simply dug a hole. Their deep peaty soil, scientifically known as ‘humic organic’, is what Sarah describes as “the sponge of the soil world - as good as it gets for plant growth.”
Each bed is two fence rails high and no more than two metres wide. For crops that require regular picking Sarah prefers long narrow beds, “so I don’t need to tread on the soil.” When direct sowing her seeds, she lays a plank across the bed. Another trick when sowing seeds is her ‘handy dandy trellis’; a sheet of plastic trellis used as a grid guide.
Sarah’s late summer garden brims with sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, carrots, zucchini, salad greens and all kinds of beans – each crop in a bed of its own. “All my beds are monocultures”, she says, explaining that this makes crop rotation easy.
In her potting shed there are meticulous crop rotation charts. No bed has the same crop type planted in it more than once in three years. Crop rotation minimises pest and diseases and enhances soil nutrition, and there are other benefits too. “Peas return nitrogen to the soil so I put them in after heavy feeding crops like tomatoes. Potatoes loosen the soil, good before a crop of carrots.”
“The learning always comes after the ‘she’ll-be-right-didn’t- work’. There isn’t time to waste researching things when its time to get things planted.”
These days she is clearly getting a lot right. Tonight’s dinner is lasagna with ten different vegetables fresh from the garden.
What is it about gardening that you find most rewarding?
Putting food on the table. Being able to serve a meal to my family that, apart from the meat content, everything else came from something I’ve grown.
Who are the gardeners that most inspire you?
Lynda Hallinan has been a solid support for my gardening endeavours - only she doesn’t know it! Another inspiring gardener is actually an English gardener on YouTube. She hosts Claire’s Allotment and has loads of videos that really helped me out while I was new to gardening. Her earlier videos are great for the learner gardener. James Wong is also an awesome gardener – his style is completely outside the ordinary and I can’t wait to get my hands on his new book.
What is your proudest gardening moment?
When the love of gardening combined with the love of writing, and I was able to share my garden with others. And they actually liked what I was doing!
What is your biggest gardening disaster?
My inability to have a greenhouse without it blowing away! The first was a tiny three-shelf thing and it blew over in the night. The second was a tall narrow one that blew over – on top of me! The third was a bigger one with the green thread through
the plastic and all the little squares fell out like confetti. My current greenhouse is a polycarbonate one that blew apart in a storm! I now want a wooden and glass one. Surely that won’t blow away.
What is your best advice for a new gardener?
To be completely honest – there is a bit of hard work in the beginning, but don’t get discouraged because once you have tasted home grown food straight off the plant, you will realise it was all worth it. You don’t even need much space or much money – poke some holes in a bucket, fill it with potting mix and away you go. Easy.
Sarah O'Neil, passionate food grower
Hand made signs help with crop rotation
Kumara growing in a tub