Sarah Thornton talks to a Central Hawke’s Bay couple living the good life.
Cherie and Brendan Vale confess that when they purchased their lifestyle block in Te Aute a decade ago, they had no idea what shape their garden would take.
The couple bought the 1.5 hectare hillside block in 2004, and through an “organic process” of reading, talking to friends and making frequent trips to the local garden centre, the empty paddocks have been transformed into what can only be described as a smorgasbord of plant life; from humble vegetable patches and fruit trees to exotic truffle inoculated oaks and grapevines.
“We really didn’t have a plan to begin with; it evolved as we planted. But what we did realise very early on in the piece was that it was going to be possible for the land to provide for us in our retirement,” says Cherie.
Definitely on the plan however, was the Vale’s dream home, built in 2006 and sitting proudly atop a hill overlooking the gardens, olive grove and vineyard. “When we bought the land both Brendan and I were in our early 50s. So although retirement was ten or so years away, it was in the back of our minds when we were making decisions about building our home or planting the land,” says Cherie.
“Our philosophy is to keep things simple and functional. And with our frost-prone location, everything we do here needs to be able to withstand the elements - our plants, trees and flowers need to be able to take care of themselves to a certain extent.”
To write a list of what plants, flowers, trees and vegetables the Vales have on their property would take pages, lest to say there’s pretty much everything, with every square metre of dirt put to use. Brendan works full time with the Ministry for Primary Industries as a manager, leaving Cherie to look after the property although the pair team up in the weekends to work, particularly in the vegetable gardens.
Supplying the couple with “100 percent” of their summer vegetables, the gardens are rotated, with rocket, coriander and lettuce grown year round. The couple have a ‘no dig’ approach to the gardens, a method that Brendan says started by accident.
“We had a hard clay pan to start our vegetable patch on, as it was part of the site excavated for the house build. We just fenced it, piled in the compost and then put layers of straw, sheep manure, pea hay and more compost until there was a healthy worm population. Between us and the worms, the clay was well broken up.
“With a no-dig technique, you just make a hole where you want to plant your tomatoes, aubergines, broccoli and cabbage. Carrots and parsnips need a bit more of a dig, but it’s easy work and brilliant for those gardeners who are older or who have bad backs!”
For Cherie and Brendan, the same philosophies they apply to their lifestyle block also apply to a suburban garden. “It’s all about nurturing the soil – keeping it healthy with compost, companion planting, crop rotation and a lot of care.”
Cherie says the planting has been “trial and error”. “I always prefer other people’s gardens and am inspired by what I see. It’s where I discover new plants and flowers for our garden – as a result I have several favourites,” she says.
“The General Gallieni rose in summer is divine; dark burgundy with pink accents fading to a pale pinky colour in winter. It flowers for ages and ages – we never spray it and it’s hardy and beautiful. Geums are a wonderful perennial that have lush green foilage with impressive flower spikes, and I also love wallflowers – they come in all colours but I particularly like the lavender and dark burgundy ones. And you can’t beat Scabiosa with its mauve flowers for edging and the giant white variety for picking.”
The Vales have not been scared of experimenting with their planting either. In 2008 they planted 35 evergreen oaks and in 2010, planted a further 15 deciduous oaks, 15 hazelnuts and two pinus pinea (pine nut) – all inoculated with truffle spores. In a few months’ time, a truffle sniffing dog will be put to work to see if their efforts have paid off.
As the land has evolved, Cherie and Brendan have also targeted their plantings to attract native birds and bees into the garden.
Cherie suggests Grevillea ‘Scarlet Sprite’ and ‘Green Cream’ and Kowhai to attract both the birds and the bees, saying they are easy to grow, needing minimal care. “Flaxes, Himalayan strawberry (Cornus capitata) and tree lucerne (tagasaste) are great for the birds, and we now have waxeyes, tuis, bellbirds, grey warblers and two Kereru visiting. For the bees we have also planted rosemary, broome and a huge wall of Gaura (Butterfly Bush), which also makes a great screen outside our house. It’s wonderful to see and hear the garden alive.”
While Cherie is in charge of the growing and maintenance of the flowers, vineyard, olives, truffieres and the bevy of creatures they share the land with. Brendan takes ownership of the honey, olive oil and wine production. The vineyard provides him with enough Bordeaux style grapes to produce a robust red, made at home with advice from a local winemaker.
Last year the couple harvested more than 100kg of honey from one hive alone. Cherie makes her own cleaning products from alcohol that Brendan distils from mead made from left over honey, also using it to make her own tincture from the Hawthorn trees that were in situ when the couple moved in. 250 cypress trees have been planted for future timber and to offset carbon omissions, while chickens, ducks, quails and sheep keep them in eggs and meat.
A lifestyle block is a large project, and one Cherie would find impossible to manage without the help of foreign student workers. For two thirds of the year, ‘HelpX’ workers stay in the Vale’s cottage and are fed in return for helping out on the property. “They are invaluable and take care of the things I don’t’ have time for, like building a new cage for the red legged partridge,” she says.
“Whether you have a small garden in town, or a block like ours, planting is about experimenting, giving things a go and getting inspired. We had the same approach to gardening and the land providing for us when we lived in suburban Hastings, it’s now just on a bigger scale.
“We love what we’re doing and how it’s all coming to fruition. Sitting on the verandah of an evening with a glass of our own red, looking out over the valley, listening and watching the bird life in the flowers and trees is a privilege and immensely satisfying.”
Cherie & Brendan Vale
Home grown firewood and free range hens are two of the essentials in Brendan and Cherie's self-sufficiency plan