United gar­dens

In far­away New York City, a New Zealan­der brings Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity to the chal­lenge of grow­ing food in small spa­ces.

NZ Gardener - - Contents - STORY: SI­MON HAMP­TON

Meet the Kiwi grow­ing veges on the roof at the United Na­tions, New York

It was in the hot, arid cli­mate of South Su­dan that Michael Jenk­ins’ gar­den­ing prow­ess first be­came known to the United Na­tions. Sta­tioned in the UN com­pound in the cen­tral African na­tion, the New Zealan­der wasn’t about to let the harsh con­di­tions get in the way of his love of gar­den­ing.

“I had to make the soil be­cause all the soil was dead. So I turned over a piece of soil that was in front of the con­tainer where I lived, raided all the garbage bins to get the stuff to make my own com­post. Then I dug in my com­post and started grow­ing things – mainly green things be­cause that was the most dif­fi­cult thing to get.”

Chilies, Ital­ian let­tuces and bananas be­gan sprout­ing and with any sort of fresh food hard to come by, it wasn’t long be­fore others in the com­pound wanted to learn his se­cret. “It was very well re­ceived. I think I started a trend.”

Not only did his gar­den pro­vide an ex­tra boost to his diet, it pro­vided a needed out­let for down­time in the of­ten dull life inside a com­pound.

His Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity in South Su­dan means it should come as no sur­prise that he is one of the driv­ing forces be­hind a new UN gar­den­ing project at its New York City head­quar­ters. “It’s a pi­lot project to show peo­ple what’s pos­si­ble in a small space.”

There’s no bet­ter place to do that than in New York, ei­ther. With shoe­box apart­ments the norm in busy Man­hat­tan, the UN gar­den is open to all staff to vol­un­teer and get their gar­den­ing fix.

This gar­den faces its own unique chal­lenges. The roughly 10 square me­tre space is just me­tres from the edge of New York’s East River, while just me­tres in the other di­rec­tion stands the 155m UN Sec­re­tar­iat build­ing. “This is a strange mi­cro­cli­mate be­cause of the river and the build­ing,” Michael ex­plains. “So you

get this strange weather ef­fect where you have cool nights, hot days and lots of light.”

For ex­am­ple, the sun­flow­ers planted grew to enor­mous heights as the sun­light beamed down and re­flected off the UN build­ing. Michael says they had orig­i­nally tried to plant the sun­flow­ers un­der some nearby trees but it wasn’t un­til they were shifted into a po­si­tion un­der the di­rect sun­light and di­rect re­flec­tion off the UN build­ing that the plants re­ally took off, even­tu­ally tow­er­ing more than 2m high. “The UN build­ing is like this gi­ant mir­ror, so we get a lot of re­flected light.”

The global, di­verse na­ture of the or­gan­i­sa­tion has also come to be re­flected in this gar­den. Cape goose­ber­ries are flanked by Ja­maican callaloo, while va­ri­eties of chili from In­dia to Tu­nisia pop up ev­ery­where.

Of­ten, vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries from all over the globe do­nate seeds to the gar­den project, re­sult­ing in an ex­tremely eclec­tic se­lec­tion of crops.

Michael, a se­nior nurs­ing of­fi­cer at the UN, has been sta­tioned all over the world but has been work­ing on this gar­den as a hobby for the past three years. “I work on it most days,” he says. “I quite like com­ing down here just after work, espe­cially if it’s been a busy day. Usu­ally, I’ll take some herbs home for din­ner.”

It does re­quire a lot of work. The gar­den is fully nat­u­ral and fully self-suf­fi­cient, in­clud­ing the com­post­ing. A recent 500kg com­post do­na­tion gave them a sig­nif­i­cant boost but for the most part they re­gur­gi­tate all the waste from the gar­den to be reused as com­post down the line.

“That’s re­ally how we deal with fer­til­is­ing at the mo­ment, we’ve not yet had to go to us­ing fish emul­sion or any other or­ganic fer­tilis­ers be­cause we’ve found we’ve got suf­fi­cient com­post, ev­ery­thing is grow­ing well and look­ing good on the soil chem­istry.

“We’ve had soil chem­istry tested by Brook­lyn Col­lege look­ing for heavy me­tals – which you do get in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment. That was mak­ing sure our soil was as free as pos­si­ble from those con­tam­i­nants you get in the air in a city.”

The re­sult is a vi­brant, di­verse gar­den with plants sourced from all over the world that sit in rus­tic iron planter boxes, an in­dus­trial nod to the bustling metropo­lis that sur­rounds the gar­den.

Michael grew up in ru­ral North­land, and has been nur­tur­ing veg­eta­bles and fruit since the age of four. It’s a pas­sion he’s taken around the globe de­spite the of­ten try­ing con­di­tions he has lived in, show­ing that a cre­ative and pos­i­tive at­ti­tude can make the gar­den­ing life­style one that can be achieved in al­most any en­vi­ron­ment.

One of the vege beds.

Sun­flower.

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