The latest take on living sustainably

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

Ah, the romance of picture book chookies in your back yard

Ah, the romance of picture book chookies in your back yard

The Good Life has come to Havelock North, but it has been renamed Green Urban Living and it is all absolutely simple and easy to manage, requiring very little time. That is according to author, Janet Luke, who has written a book of encyclopaedic spread (but not encyclopaedic detail) based on her own personal experience. The book is backed up by 32 You Tube clips and many website references.

Topics covered include setting up a green urban garden, compost, sustainable water use, growing vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers (an eclectic mix ranging from paeonies to sunflowers to globe thistles), keeping chickens, beekeeping, worm farms, gardening with kids – all peppered with Top Tips, recipes, and hints. Plus photos – all in 172 pages. It is a very busy book.

On the positive side, the author is passionate about her topic and comes to it from practical and personal experience. If you are into the new age, trendy urban living which wants to be green but is not too purist, then you may well find the enthusiasm and simplified advice in this book is a wonderful motivator. I looked at some of the You Tube clips and there is an engaging naivety and brevity about them. Janet Luke has worked extremely hard to put together a comprehensive but user-friendly package.

If you are a crusty, hardened old cynic who has been through all this (going green is hardly a new concept – many of us chose that way back in the mists of the post Woodstock era of the 1970s), then the newfound zeal, sweeping statements and sometimes very woolly thinking of the latest converts can seem a little like reinventing the wheel.

Green? Hmm. I don’t see buying grow bags filled with potting mix as being green. Nor do I think wheeling your barrow around your neighbourhood as soon as you hear a lawnmower start up is particularly green. For starters, you have no idea what chemicals your neighbours may have used on their lawns (some lawn clippings are too toxic to use in a compost heap). Added to that, you are taking away their organic material to your site – which hardly follows permaculture principles.

Do we really believe that cabbage whites have large enough brains to be duped?

Do we really believe that cabbage whites have large enough brains to be duped?

We are deeply suspicious of the claim that white butterflies are territorial. The current received wisdom is that you can deter incoming cabbage whites by putting half eggshells on sticks amongst your brassicas, fooling them into thinking that another cabbage white is already in residence. This is not the first time I have seen this claim so I did a quick Google search to see if I could find a credible source to confirm it. The key word here is credible. I failed. We are storing our eggshells and when the first cabbage whites of the season show up here, Mark will be out testing this theory. Having observed clouds of cabbage whites on crops such as swedes, we lean to the view that this piece of advice is more wishful thinking than actual fact.

But it is not doubt that we feel regarding the claims that commercial corn is mostly genetically modified and controlled by the terminator gene so it makes sense to keep to heirloom varieties. The author clearly has not got to grips with the differences between F1 hybrids, line breeding, selection, genetic modification and the terminator gene. And seed companies in NZ like Kings and Yates might be a little annoyed to see the suggestion that their product is GM. Internationally, many commercial crops of maize have undergone genetic modification (in which case, it can equally be argued that the dreaded terminator gene is a good thing because it will stop the escape of some GM material into the wider environment), but what is sold in this country, certainly for home gardeners, is not GM. It is either the result of controlled crosses (which is an F1 hybrid) or of line breeding (selecting out the best performing cobs and continuing with them). That is what has brought us the new generation, sweet and tender corn that we all expect now. By all means go back to the heirloom varieties if you wish. Just don’t expect to be eating the tender and super sweet product because those old varieties are tougher and starchier and more akin to maize. Sweetcorn has improved in taste and texture in recent times, which cannot be said of all vegetables.

The retired beekeeper we had staying last week was critical of the chapter on beekeeping. He was surprised to find that top-bar hives, as promoted by the author with near religious zeal, are even legal in this country and he pointed out numerous reasons why they are inferior to the Langstroth hive. Of course Langstroths don’t look cute. He also felt that, given the author’s brief experience of beekeeping, she has been very lucky so far and she makes it look too easy altogether. I just thought that the advice that you could have your beehive on an apartment balcony or the shed roof came more from the Do As I Say school of advice, rather than the Do As I Do school. How on earth are you going to monitor and look after your hive if it is on a shed roof? That said, it is interspersed with some sound advice with regard to legal requirements and she recommends you join a local beekeeping club. I could not understand, either, why apartment dwellers would want to have a worm farm on their balcony. Move to ground level, I say.

It is great to see interest in topics related to sustainability, reducing one’s carbon footprint and organics. I would just prefer to see a little more rigour along with the joyous fervour.

Green Urban Living by Janet Luke. (New Holland; ISBN:978 1 86966 322 3).

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10 thoughts on “The latest take on living sustainably

  1. Keith

    I agree with your retired beekeeper friend. As a one time commercial beekeeper and latter day greenie, I fail to see anything more sustainable about top-bar combs than those in Langstroth frames. I’ve also wondered about the legality of the former in NZ, although the legal rationale is based on removability for inspection, I suppose, rather than on how many sides a comb is supported by a timber frame. There seems to be an urban myth that the conventional hive is somehow a departure from what nature intended, when in fact farming bees for honey production in Langstroth hives is probably more natural than any other form of farming, and the end product is 100% natural.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you for endorsing what our friend Colin said to us. Even Mark, who has not kept bees himself, could see that there were issues with stopping wasps from robbing the hive and in keeping the brood and queen separate from the honey to be collected. Mind you, I had questions over the claim that local honey is somehow more natural and higher quality than other honey (silly me thought all honey was a natural product) and that it could innoculate you against allergies, especially hay fever. Homeopathically, perhaps?

  2. Pixie

    I really enjoy your book reviews and the rigour you apply! You’ve saved me some money. Do you have a recommendation for a book that does give good advice to us back yard vege growers out here? I am addicted to the 20+ year old Yates guide I have, but am attracted to the idea of something more recent.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes, I think the old Yates guides are better than the more recent ones we have seen. I think Mark figured his one from the early 1970s is still very good but not up to date with more recent introductions. Best veg book that has come my way in recent times is Andrew Steens “Grow It Yourself Vegetables” (published by Batemans). It is not the sharpest looking book but the author is thorough, keen and experienced. The double page spread each fortnight from four growers around the country in the Weekend Gardener is also good – based on practical experience.

  3. Janet

    As Author of the book Green Urban Living I would like the opportunity to reply to some of Abbie Jury’s comments in her recent review of my book. Thank you Abby, for taking the time to read and review my book. Yes I am passionate about this topic but I don’t consider myself naïve. I have a Bachelor in Landscape Architecture and a Masters, with Honours, in Environmental and Resource Planning. I have been teaching permaculture based gardening courses from my home gardening for nearly four years. I know you describe yourself as a crusty old cynic who spent too much time at Woodstock but what I am trying to show in my book is you don’t have to be a “home spun jersey wearer hippie” to life greener in the city. It is about making small changes to the way you live while still being able to enjoy an urban lifestyle. Yes this may involve growing veges in grow bags or having a worm farm on your balcony. For many urban people these may be the only options available for growing veges and recycling kitchen waste.

    I enjoy taking my wheelbarrow around my neighbourhood and asking my neighbours for their lawn mower clippings. Permaculture is about community building and this is a great way to do it. If you are at all worried about recent chemicals applied to neighbours lawns you can always ask them. I myself have always used grass clippings in my compost and enjoy rich fertile soil as a result.

    I do suggest in my book to try going some of the older heirloom types of seeds as then you can save the seeds for planting next year whilst helping to preserve these old fashioned types. I buy most of my seeds from Kings Seeds, Ecoseeds or Koanga and those contacts are in the book.

    Many of the top tips throughout the book have been shared by the many interesting and experienced gardeners I have meet over the years. This is one of the most wonderful things about gardening, the generosity of hints and ideas from fellow gardeners. Of course the effectiveness of most have not been formally researched but many of these ‘old gardeners tales’ bring the fun back into gardening and do no harm to the environment.

    Many commercial beekeepers may feel a Top Bar hive is inferior to a Langstroth hive and indeed it is if you are farming honey. If you are an urban hobbyist beekeeper who wants to keep bees to aid pollination of your edibles and help boost numbers of a dwindling bee population they are a viable, low cost, sustainable and manageable option in an urban area. Urban beekeeping is about practical and safe hive placement. I do keep a hive on my balcony, two storeys up, with great success and a friend keeps his Top Bar hive on his flat carport roof. If you are ever in the Hawkes Bay you are most welcome to visit and view them. In a few weeks I am off to New York to learn from urban beekeepers who are successfully keeping beehives on apartment roofs and balconies in the middle of Manhattan. The wonderful Hamilton Botanical gardens have several Langstroth hives within their permaculture garden on top of a pergola. You should visit them next time you are in Hamilton. You could even attend one of the regular natural beekeeping courses which a fellow Top Bar enthusiast Marica Meehan conducts in the Hamilton area.

    I had the pleasure of visiting your beautiful garden several years ago. It is definitely a must see for any kiwi gardener. May I extend the invitation to you that if you are ever in Hawkes Bay please come and visit mine. It is of course not officially open to the public and is only a ramshackle permaculture based productive garden in an urban setting but it would be an honour to meet you and show you around.

    Kind Regards,Janet Luke

  4. Harriet Penhey

    Sorry, Janet, having degrees and teaching for four years doesn’t stop you being naive and your dependence on your qualifications doesn’t make you an authority. Enthusiasm is great and having more people know about growing their own food and being more green and eco-friendly is a first class aim, but crusty old cynics who have been in the business of growing food (not to mention being one of New Zealand’s foremost plant breeder couples) for more than four decades have a lot to offer to you.

  5. Cally Brown

    “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” I find that life is a state of constant change, and that if you want your life / garden / philosophy / dancing / golf / whatever, to develop and improve, it’s best to try things out if they sound hopeful. Don’t discard a new idea just because someone did it another way for 40 years and ‘it worked all right for me’ – there might be a better way still, if you want to go better than ok. Don’t discard a new idea just because you tried it 30 years ago and it didn’t work then – it may work now with different place / environment / equipment / people / whatever. I’m not saying Janet has all the answers, but perhaps she has ideas that may be worth a try – one or many as suits each person. ‘Crusty old cynics’ have much wisdom and knowledge to offer younger people, but, speaking as a 60yo crusty old cynic, I also find that younger people often ask questions I have never thought to ask, and the answers (sometimes provided by them, some times by me, and sometimes unresolved) often provide new directions which enrich my living.

    For example, bees all over the world have been kept more or less the same way for over a hundred years – and bees are dying. Why is it assumed that if we cling to the same old ways, they will magically be okay? The environment in which our bees live has changed: therefore the way we keep them will need to change. At this point in time we need lots of people to experiment with different regimes, until we have reversed the dying of these amazing creatures. Old ways are no longer working.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh for goodness sake. Please don’t try and patronise me. In fact it is well known why bees are in major decline – the widespread use of neonicotinoids has been proven to be a major problem. Add to that the varroa mite and the decline in many traditional food sources. There is no evidence whatever that it has anything to do with Langstroth hives as opposed to top bar hives. I prefer clarity of thinking, rigour and thoughtful questioning to woolly sentimentality.

      1. Cally Brown

        It is well known that neonicotinoids are contributory factor. But claiming one thing is ‘the’ answer is naive and simplistic.

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