Home­grown heroes

Am­ber Rose spent her child­hood in the gar­den of her mother Kay Bax­ter, the co-founder of Koanga In­sti­tute who has spent decades work­ing to save our her­itage food plants. And her mum, Am­ber says, helped shape her, as both a cook and a gar­dener.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

Am­ber Rose on how her mum, Koanga In­sti­tute co-founder Kay Bax­ter, shaped her as a gar­dener and cook.

My mother grew veg­eta­bles all year round. As chil­dren, we would help her and learn as we went… some­times it felt like hard work, but mostly it was fun.

my mother’s gar­den is the be­gin­ning of ev­ery­thing for me. She had a vi­sion and a dream – 40 years ahead of her time – to col­lect and save her­itage seeds. It started as a small idea, then snow­balled into a mas­sive life­time com­mit­ment. She now has the largest or­ganic her­itage seed col­lec­tion in the South­ern Hemi­sphere, with over 800 va­ri­eties, and in 2017 was awarded a New Year Hon­our by the Queen, for her ser­vices to con­ser­va­tion and sus­tain­able food pro­duc­tion.

My sib­lings and I grew up im­mersed in this dream. I re­mem­ber skip­ping from the house to the gar­den with a bas­ket on my hip to gather in­gre­di­ents for the fam­ily sup­per. I loved to pe­ruse the vegetable beds for af­ter­noon snacks, es­pe­cially in the sum­mer time when the sweet, juicy to­ma­toes were in sea­son. I would pick one of my favourite lit­tle yel­low cherry to­ma­toes, wrap it in a basil leaf plucked from a nearby plant and pop it into my mouth. That ex­pe­ri­ence will never leave me – warm, sun-ripened, so in­cred­i­bly fra­grant, ver­dant and burst­ing with life – the juice, the scent, the de­li­cious­ness.

My mother grew about 15 dif­fer­ent types of tomato, sav­ing the seed from all. There were those yel­low cherry to­ma­toes, red cherry to­ma­toes, beef­steak to­ma­toes al­most big enough to cover a din­ner plate, green stripy to­ma­toes for stuff­ing, black to­ma­toes, or­ange to­ma­toes, to­ma­toes for mak­ing sauce, to­ma­toes for sun-dry­ing and to­ma­toes for sal­ads. To stop dif­fer­ent types of seeds cross-pol­li­nat­ing, Mum would throw gi­ant nets over each va­ri­ety just as it was flow­er­ing, to stop any in­sects get­ting in. We then had to go in with lit­tle del­i­cate paint­brushes to do the job of the bees, very care­fully brush­ing pollen onto the sta­mens. I loved that job; it was such a won­der­ful way to spend an af­ter­noon.

I also loved the abun­dance of cour­gettes in the sum­mer time – cour­gettes are the vegetable equiv­a­lent of rapidly re­pro­duc­ing bun­nies. You pick them one day, then wake the next morn­ing to find a whole new army of lit­tle green ba­tons. It seemed like magic the way they grew so quickly.

As the sum­mer drew to an end, I be­gan to look for­ward to the pump­kins. My favourite was the green ch­est­nut, with its soft green skin and beau­ti­ful or­ange flesh that was nutty and dry, mak­ing it the per­fect ve­hi­cle for ridicu­lous amounts of but­ter. ‘Del­i­cata’ squash was an­other of my favourites; I loved them halved length­ways, scat­tered with fresh herbs and a lit­tle but­ter, salt and pep­per, and roasted in the oven for half an hour. Heaven.

My mother’s greens and herbs were also amaz­ing. I loved ev­ery­thing, from the lemony sor­rel, to the sweet

Cour­gettes are the vege equiv­a­lent of rapidly re­pro­duc­ing bun­nies. You pick them one day, then wake the next to a whole army of lit­tle green ba­tons.

lit­tle crunchy gem let­tuces, the zesty rocket, the frilly pur­ple open let­tuces, the dark green kale and curly kale and the tree let­tuces.

Mum made sim­ple but beau­ti­ful sal­ads straight from the gar­den, with a base of her home­grown greens, finely sliced red onion, hand­fuls of freshly chopped herbs, a scat­ter­ing of home­made soft cheese, chunks of sun-ripened tomato and crispy slices of ap­ple cu­cum­ber, with a del­i­cate French dress­ing. So sim­ple, but so amaz­ingly good. I loved the way Mum grew flow­ers among the veg­eta­bles to de­ter pests: beau­ti­ful cos­mos, chamomile, zin­nias and vi­o­las. Ad­ding flow­ers to my sal­ads is some­thing I’ve been do­ing for as long as I can re­mem­ber.

My mother grew veg­eta­bles all year round. As chil­dren we would help her and learn as we went – how to pile a com­post heap, how to weed a bed, how to pick veg­eta­bles with­out hurt­ing or dam­ag­ing the plant, how to save seeds, how to bot­tle, pickle, fer­ment and pre­serve. Some­times it felt like hard work, but most of the time it was fun – mag­i­cal even, like get­ting lost in the jun­gle of nas­tur­tiums af­ter rain when the sur­face of the nas­tur­tium leaves would make the rain­drops look all sil­very.

When I started writ­ing my book Wild De­li­cious I had just moved home af­ter liv­ing in the UK for 12 years, and had the space to start my own vegetable gar­den.

I dou­ble-dug the beds with my three-month-old baby asleep on my back, planned things out and planted seeds. For the whole of this year, I have barely had to buy a vegetable. It’s been one of the most amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences – putting into prac­tice all the things I learnt as a child, and be­ing able to pick all the veg­eta­bles, herbs and flow­ers from my own gar­den.

My lit­tle girl, Frankie, has been with me every step of the way, learn­ing to take her first steps over the car­rot beds and pop to­ma­toes into her mouth just as I did when I was lit­tle. Al­though she is barely one year old now, she al­ready knows which to­ma­toes she likes best!

In this day and age where food can be so in­cred­i­bly costly (both in money terms and for the en­vi­ron­ment), grow­ing veg­eta­bles has al­most be­come a po­lit­i­cal act – one of in­de­pen­dence, em­pow­er­ment, beauty, sat­is­fac­tion and growth. It is a com­mit­ment that is so worth the ef­fort. Nour­ish­ing your­self and your tribe with the food you grow, and nour­ish­ing the earth at the same time, is in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing. Start small, em­brace the learn­ing curve, and see where it takes you.

Farm­ers’ mar­kets are also a won­der­ful place to source or­ganic, lo­cal, sea­sonal pro­duce. Em­brace them, sup­port them and get to know the stall-hold­ers – they will love you for it and so will the lo­cal econ­omy. Eat with the sea­sons as much as you can, as the fruits and veg­eta­bles will be cheaper and will taste bet­ter.

Which­ever way you find your veg­eta­bles for your daily cook­ing, take time and de­light in choos­ing the best ap­ple in the bas­ket or on the tree, the tasti­est­look­ing broc­coli, the most de­li­cious-look­ing cu­cum­ber and the most hand­some cele­riac.

En­joy­ing all the dif­fer­ent pro­cesses brings added lay­ers of joy to your daily rou­tines. I hope that you find in­spi­ra­tion… as I did grow­ing up in my mother’s gar­den.

Mum’s gar­den beds at the end of sum­mer when lots of veges have been pulled and new seedlings have just gone in, though the ends of­ten have per­ma­nent space for herbs.

Dahlias and her­itage ap­ples.

Frankie and I had a pic­nic un­der the shade of the po­plar trees. Pack­ing pic­nics and head­ing out into the wild with her is one of my favourite things to do.

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