A sad story came out of Christchurch this week. Mrs Wang, an elderly woman aged 80, had a thriving vegetable and herb garden she had been tending for ten years out the back of her home, a charmless block of four social housing units. She came home to find the landlord, a charitable housing trust, had sent in a digger to destroy her garden and level it, to be sown back into grass. ‘Acting on complaints,” they said, from another resident.
Mrs Wang was clearly distressed. She was growing traditional Chinese vegetables and herbs that are not easy to source in New Zealand and they were gone. That is the short version. You can read more here.
The social housing trust went into immediate defensive mode when the story broke, issuing one of those apologies that isn’t really an apology because it is immediately followed by self-justifications and then an attempt to occupy the higher moral ground. We made a mistake in not warning her the digger was coming in, they said, but they would put it right by installing raised vegetable beds for the use of all the residents this very week.
This defused some of the criticism, especially from those who do not garden. After all, who would not be thrilled to get that symbol of the middle classes, a raised vegetable bed?
Where to begin? Did the trust ask all residents if they wanted to have their own raised vegetable plot? Is all that stood between the complaining resident and a thriving vegetable garden of their own the absence of a raised bed?
I have no inside knowledge but it seems likely that Mrs Wang is a first generation Chinese New Zealander. I say that because when her plant list came down social media, she had clearly written it in Chinese and she was growing traditional foods and medicinal herbs from China.
If this is the case, then Mrs Wang was born into a time and place where famine was a massive issue. In the land of relative plenty where we live, ripping out a productive garden seems like vandalism. To somebody for whom the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961 (or 1958 to 1962, depending on which historian you are following) is a part of her living memory and her dual heritage, such wanton destruction must be beyond comprehension.
Back to raised vegetable beds. They have their place, particularly for gardeners with mobility issues or where the ground is somehow unsuitable for cultivation. But commonly, they are an affectation, an attempt to pretty up the productive garden, maybe emulate the potager style made famous by UK gardener, Rosemary Verey. They are not often favoured by diggers, by those for whom cultivating the soil and building up the richness is an integral part of gardening. Mrs Wang spent ten years working that ground. I am betting she is a digger, a cultivator. And diggers don’t have raised beds.
But the Ōtautahi Community Housing Trust is going to give her one and the cynic in me says that is more about them pretending to be contrite and putting things right with one hand while exerting an iron fist of control with the other. See, with a raised bed, they can insist that is the only area she is allowed to use. It defines the space and stops her expanding. Because it is better, in their eyes, to have a bleak area of mown grass with a shared clothesline holding pride of place.
There were so many better – and cheaper – ways to deal with this situation. A mediator could have helped broker a compromise between the unhappy residents (was there even more than one?) and Mrs Wang. It would have saved a lot of distress and distrust, not to mention bad publicity for the social housing trust that is the landlord. And my goodness, if I ever hear judgemental comments about how the poor should be growing vegetables again, I may make a very terse reply. Mrs Wang did until last week.