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