Ah, that wonderful Christmas – New Year hiatus. In the days before the Boxing Day sales and indeed before seven day trading, it used to be more of a coma than a hiatus but even now, in this country, we settle in to holiday mode. Why else would we tolerate the truly appalling offerings on television where there is rarely anything worth watching? Clearly we are all meant to be reading the Christmas books or chatting to family and friends instead. And the print and electronic media, yours truly included, sink into a period of reflection, summarising the year past and bravely making predictions for the year just starting. This is at least one step better than recycling earlier offerings under the headings of “ 2009 Highlights” or “Best of…”. So I shall resist the temptation to recycle a piece from earlier this year (though I will admit to being proud of the series I wrote on English summer gardens which is still on this website) and look into my crystal ball.
I believe we will diversify from vegetables. Veg gardening is not fad or fashion but the all consuming obsession is showing signs of dilution. There is a hint that some would like to read about other types of plants and gardens as well as home food production. I recall an Auckland journo wryly commenting on the $70 lettuce. That is the cost for some of producing their first and sometimes only produce after buying planter boxes, the bagged potting mix and compost, the most basic of tools and punnets of small plants from the garden centre.
Serious vegetable gardening will continue for some, but many of those who follow fashion and trends will be realising by now that to be a successful vegetable gardener requires some expertise and skill and quite a bit of time. You can not just plant the seeds or baby plants and then ignore them. Dilettantes will lose heart and move on. The declaration that one will only plant productive trees and shrubs may be a sign of naivety and not the higher moral ground. It could be argued that the doom and gloom of the recession had us all looking to survival mode. Now that the clouds are lifting, increased optimism allows space for aesthetics and beauty in life as well. And I can assure you that while the walnut tree I see outside my window fruits and we enjoy its harvest, it is but a poor aesthetic specimen compared to the magnolia nearby which is lush and opening its summer flowers. We need to nourish more than just the body and to titillate more than the taste buds. In our eyes, the complete garden goes well beyond just fruit and vegetables, although they are an important element.
The upside of the vegetable craze has been the return to some old fashioned values of seasonal eating, taking pride in home produce and super fresh ingredients given a new twist with some rather more sophisticated international flavours. I reviewed a rather large number of cook books last year for the food pages (Second Daughter was fearfully impressed last week with my shelf of recipe books and I only keep the ones I like) and certainly the current focus is very strongly on eating locally sourced foods in season. The delight in being able to transcend seasonal limitations by buying food which has crossed the hemispheres is a thing of the recent past for many of us. We now care whether the garlic and onions come from China, the grapes and nectarines from USA, the kiwifruit from Italy and the pork from Australia. We would rather it came from Te Kuiti or the Rangitikei, thank you, if we are to move outside our local area. So I would expect we will see farmers’ markets go from strength to strength.
The local focus of the farmers’ markets may well extend to wider gardening practices. Here, we raise our eyebrows at the widespread use of mulches, potting mixes and composts shipped across the country when there are local alternatives with much smaller carbon footprints. Pea straw is the classic. It has a great reputation as garden mulch (though it is a myth that it adds nitrogen to the soil because the nitrogen is in the roots of the pea plant and pea straw by definition, is the dried tops only) but have you ever asked yourself where the nearest commercial production of peas takes place? It is being shipped hundreds of kilometres in a large truck in order to cover your garden when there are local alternatives which will do just the same. Try locally produced granulated bark or compost, pine needles, even barley straw from South Taranaki.
The move away from poisons and sprays is a trend we expect to see escalate. Our tolerance level in this country for the use of some extremely heavy duty toxins is very high indeed, often justified as a lesser of two evils. 1080 is the classic: this mass poisoning on a grand scale with a particularly unpleasant toxin which enters the food chain is government sanctioned but we are seeing the tide of public opinion turn. At least 1080 is tightly controlled, whereas the over the counter poisons that are freely and abundantly sold here are arguably worse. Rats, mice, possums and rabbits – you too can bowl into a shop and buy some nasty poisons. The trouble is that many will enter the food chain, some have no antidotes, some are appallingly slow acting and unpleasant and in this country we are all too cavalier in our use of them. Worry whenever you see the term by-kill. It is the unintended death of other life than the target. A cute little dog named Wilfred, in our case, and the poison that killed him did not originate from our property. While we shoot all our possums here, a common possum poison used by others is very slow acting and can enter the food chain. We are having to review our long held practice of feeding the carcases to our animals. The time when we see a sharp reduction in the usage and availability of such toxins can not come soon enough for us, or indeed for the environment of our country.
Organics, we predict, will become more mainstream and increasingly widely practiced. It may not be organics as the purists know it. Indeed it is highly likely to be a heavily diluted form and possibly derided by the dedicated converts. But anything which sees gardening move away from practices and habits which rely more on the use of chemicals than on good gardening strategies has to be an improvement. If we follow the European trends, ever tighter government controls will stop home gardeners having access to a range of sprays and artificial fertilisers which have been used to prop up poor gardening practices, poor plant selection or unsustainable habits.
The wheel is turning. After a decade or more of rampant consumerism, conspicuous wealth and people who are time-poor, gardening is on the up again and for that we have the vegetable craze to thank. It all looks a great deal more wholesome and cheerful than a few years ago. Happy New Year and may 2010 be one of good gardening cheer for readers.