Real gar­den­ers

Sarah Thorn­ton talks to a Cen­tral Hawke’s Bay cou­ple liv­ing the good life.

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Hawke’s Bay

Liv­ing the good life in

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. 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 fo­liage 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 to ex­per­i­ment 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 Gre­vil­leas ‘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, tui, bell­birds, grey war­blers and two Kereru vis­it­ing. For the bees we have also planted rose­mary, broom 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 a 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.”

Left: Scabiosa ‘Crim­son Clouds’

Above left: Gre­vil­lea ‘Green Cream’

Above right: Geum


Below and right: Fresh, free-range eggs and home­grown fire­wood are

two of the es­sen­tials in Bren­dan and Cherie’s self-suf­fi­ciency plan.

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