Sunday, 28 October 2012

Gardening in the Solomons

I am lucky enough to have just spent nine days on a tropical island.

This is Uepi Island. It's located in the Marovo Lagoon, the world's largest saltwater lagoon, situated towards the north-eastern end of the Solomon Islands. Getting there is a 3 hour flight from Brisbane to the capital of the Solomons, Honiara. From there (if you are lucky and there's a plane in working order) it's a 1 hour flight to the nearest airstrip at Seghe (in the central part of the lagoon) followed by a 30min boat trip through the lagoon and out to the island.

Of course gardening isn't it exactly what took me there........

rather..... the opportunity to indulge in one of my other (some may say, more extreme) hobbies

Although divers are generally a hardy lot, its kind of a sad state of affairs that you need to travel to some of the world's most remote locations to experience pristine reef systems as they are meant to be.  At the same time however it is an opportunity to provide an income to local people and provide reason for them to do their best to protect their local reef.

Wherever you go in the world it seems there's  one thing that a diving holiday revolves around (apart from diving) and that's eating........

Lunch is served: freshly baked bread rolls, satay chicken, green papaya salad, melon, paw paw and pineapple.

 In the Marovo lagoon, there are few shops,no supermarkets and no commercial supplies of things we would take for granted (a barge does a supply run through the lagoon every week or so bringing with it things that can be found in the capital) so its quite a logistics exercise for the Island's managers, Jill and Grant to keep 20+ guests and 25 staff (50 in total over 2 weekly rotating shifts) fed and happy.

Fresh fish and seafood (mud crab and lobster are a daily feature of the menu) are purchased from local fishermen. Jill has a policy of buying only the more plentiful pelagic (ocean going) fish species to ensure those living locally on the reef are protected.

Chicken, eggs, fruit (paw paw, pineapple, banana, limes, passion fruit and fiberous pink grapefruits, ) as well as vegetables (some apparently grown to order) including beans, teeny tiny capsicums, eggplant, watercress, various versions of potato and pumpkin are all purchased from the local villagers. One of the more interesting additions to the menu was 'pucha' salad made from a type of fern (I have tried this in PNG as well). The fern fronds were blanched in coconut milk.

The island also has a kitchen garden, which Douglas the gardener kindly showed me around. Unlike the larger volcanic islands, where most of the lagoon's population lives (think rich red volcanic soils), Uepi is a coral atoll - so gardening with no soil is quite a challenge. Soil is made from composting kitchen scraps and breaking down coconut fibres. Rainfall is not a problem as the island gets 3 metres a year (mostly falling in the afternoon or at night).

Plants grown in raised planters and containers included:

a small leafed mint
spring onions

snake beans

Kitchen salad leaves are grown hydroponically with coconut husks providing a growing medium. (I am not sure what they leaves are- when I asked Douglas he told me it was 'salada' (?) and that it was an Asian vegetable).

Out the back there is also a garden patch with pineapples and pumpkins.

When preparing a garden bed with compost, a layer of coconut husks is placed over the top.

Apparently this helps stop the abundant population of local monitors from digging up the compost, because the smooth surface of the coconuts makes it harder for them to scratch. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

How hard can it be?

I believe in the potential for growing food in the suburbs- its one of the reasons I started my blog. With the World's population and demand for food growing, it's something that will become more important over time.

Often when walking around my neighbourhood I see run down weatherboards on big old blocks being knocked down to be replaced with paving and crowded townhouses. In a place where there were grapevines and fruit trees there are now black bricks and white stones. While that's not necessarily a bad thing (if it saves precious farmland further out) it seems a waste. I also look at some of the neglected or barren gardens of remaining homes and think that only people with a 'gardening liceense' (the enthusiasm and the willingness) to make the most of their land should be able to own the land that they do.

Constrained by my own limited patch shaded by trees (wildlife habitat) I have been thinking how to start my own suburban garden revolution. Here is the start of my journey.

This is the council owned block on land at the end of my ROW. The land used to be a road that ran through between two streets (where the silver shed is now). For years it has languished as a dumping ground and car park. The land can't be developed (council has tried that) because there are issues with access the ROW and the main sewer line that runs down it.

Lets turn this........

A little over year ago I decided I couldn't keep sitting around while there was a patch of unused gravel with vegetable growing potential. So I created a flyer outlining my vision for our very own neighbourhood community garden.

into this
After letterboxing 100 or so houses in surrounding streets I had just over ten households get in touch and want to get involved. Armed with this information I contacted council. Lucky for me council had just hired a 'community garden coordinator'. I waited a few months for her to start work and to figure out what she was supposed to be doing. Finally I arranged a meeting. The community garden coordinator suggested that in the first instance I would need to form an incorporated association with the neighbours (meaning we would need officer bearers and an AGM) at the same time we would also need to organise public liability insurance, oh and by the way as it was council land we wouldn't be able to fence it, meaning  by the way despite the hard work and financial contributions from a few neighbours the garden would be a free for all for the whole street. I explained as much as people were keen and had expressed an interest in a bit of fundraising and a few working bees to get the garden together that didn't seem like a fair deal.

The coordinator told me that anyway before any further decisions could be made by the council, the first priority was creating a 'Community Garden Policy' and this would most likely go to council in February. February came and went. The council meeting minutes said policy deferred until April. I can't remember what happened in April, but finally I got an invitation to attend a community gardens meeting. Probably the most tedious two hours of my life (will spare you the details) but the outcome being that council has realised people are interested in growing food on their nature strips so they decided to fund a 'planter box trial' for vegies in two suburban streets.There was no info on how the locations would be decided but thanks to a bit of extra persistence from some of the other interested neighbours, council decided that given the block was technically a 'roadside' they considered that a planter trial might be the best option. (this would also avoid the need for the incorporated association)

One more tedious 'community planter box trial' meeting and a rather interesting site meeting with local residents and it looks like council is funding the installation of eight professionally built planter boxes and a water tank to be topped up by council as required. (Individual residents had to fill out a planter box application forms and liability waiver and agree to abide by the planter box regulations- in order to maintain the planter maximum height restrictions no plants over 50cm high!).

I should be excited..... but somehow I feel a little deflated about my grand visions...if we are serious about transforming suburbs back into the food producing areas they once were......should it really take one person one year....and council a few thousand dollars (??) just to get eight planter boxes placed on a vacant block?!

Only time will tell what happens... will the garden grow and flourish, will the rest of the neighbours get involved or complain to council that they can no longer park there cars on the block... will I have a space to expand my vegie garden challenge without people stealing the spoils.... I don't know but I will keep you updated.