A page for garden and food articles I have written for other publications.
* * * * *
Aline of the trees
(First published in OrganicNZ, Vol. 66, No. 5,
Christine Dann visits a friend in Golden Bay, and finds an organic Eden.
Home-grown organic bananas anyone? It's a treat one might reasonably expect at the top of the North Island, but not at the top of the South Island. Yet there was the young banana palm growing strongly on the 'sub-tropical slope' at Aline D'Aoust's Golden Bay farm, and below it was one of its 'babies'. Aline told me that it had already had one bunch of bananas, but that they did not ripen.
|Aline's banana palm, and its baby.|
This may happen as the tree gets bigger – or as the climate gets warmer. Aline will be encouraging the former with good organic fertilisers, but the whole of her 93 hectare property, and everything she does on it, is designed not to encourage the latter. Fifty-one hectares of virgin and regenerating forest on the hilly property, an area which Aline has named 'The Commons', has been covenanted with the Queen Elizabeth II Trust so it will stay in native bush forever. Lots of indigenous vegetation is the best form of carbon sink any country could have, as well as the best form of biodiversity protection and recreational amenity, and although Aline herself was not born and grown here (she came from Quebec via Arizona) her commitment to preserving native plants and animals in perpetuity should be an example to us all.
Running through The Commons is the crystal-clear creek from which Aline gets water for the homestead, and to run her micro-hydro scheme. In a box barely one cubic metre big a flat wheel spins and generates all the power Aline needs to run her lights, fridge, freezer, washing machine, an electric lawn mower, a table saw - and still have some to spare. Also minimising her carbon emissions and providing a back-up system when the hydro system needs maintenance are the eight photovoltaic solar collectors on the north side of her barn.
For cooking Aline has a dearly-loved (and almost totally rebuilt) woodstove which she brought from the US. Aha! carbon emissions – but the trees which will replace any wood burned and then some are already growing. Aline began planting the other 42 ha of the property with trees before she was able to live there, and some of them are now well over five metres tall. So far she hasn't cut a single tree just for burning. All her firewood comes from wind fell or thinning to plant or release other trees. She has been keeping records of the types of trees planted, but the numbers have got away on her. Thousands and thousands, is all she can say. All the trees she plants have a use – for timber, firewood, and food for humans, birds and bees. Her nut trees include hazels, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, macadamias, pecans, three varieties of pine nut (Pinus pinea, torreyana and armandii), and less common ones like the hickory nut and butternut.
On the sub-tropical slope, as well as the banana palms, there are tamarillo, cherimoya, babaco, papaya, fig, date, pomegranate, carob, rose apple, red guava, tea, casana, vanilla and citrus trees. The trees are protected from frost and cold winds and given a warm micro-climate in three ways. The slope faces north, they are planted among young manuka trees, and at the bottom of the orchard, cutting horizontally across the slope, is a rill of clear running water which is part of the hydro system. It goes to the pond, and from there back to the creek to complete the cycle. It also helps keep any moisture in the air from freezing – and it is the perfect spot for growing wasabi.
Around the house and on the sunny open slope below it are the hardier fruit trees. The young persimmon tree cropped so heavily this year that the leader branch broke off, and Aline is pondering how to prevent further breakages next year. The apples, pears, nashi, apricots, plums and cherries are proving stronger. The cherries are grown in an arbour just below the house, which is about 20 metres long by 10 metres wide, and 3 metres high. On three stepped levels it also houses shad bushes (Amelanchier canadensis – a small sweet black berry ripens in December), twelve varieties of blueberry, several varieties of grapes (including one especially for raisins), red and black currants, gooseberries, raspberries, cranberries (the true one and the Chilean one), boysenberries, thornless blackberry, dewberries, orange berries, strawberries and pepinos.
Further down the slope, around the small pond, are fruits which are definitely a second choice for humans, yet quite nutritious if they are needed. Meanwhile the birds can enjoy them. They include the Irish strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), bird cherries, rowans (Sorbus aucuparia), Chinese hawthorn (Cratageus pinnitifida), the European hackberry(Celtis australis), crab apples, the Japanese raisin tree (Hovina dulcis), Holm's oak (Quercus ilex) and the Himalayan strawberry (Cornus capitata). For a different kind of sweetness from trees Aline has also planted some forty sugar maple trees, which need to grow on for another three or four years yet before they can be tapped. (But she has her tapping spouts ready!)
The trees grown for their fibre rather than their fruit are an equally varied collection, with many different uses. In addition to quick growing conifers and eucalyptus for timber and firewood there are also redwoods, oaks and other quality timber trees, ground-durable eucalyptus for posts and piles, cork oaks, and basket willows. New Zealand's native flax, Phormium tenax, is not a tree, but Aline grows it for its fibre as well, for weaving purposes.
With this love of trees – and sustainability – it is not surprising that Aline's homestead buildings are made from durable and attractive woods. The first to go up was the barn, with a cosy loft above (where Aline lived before her house was built). These days it makes fine accommodation for WWOOFERS. Aline was lucky to have the building services of two highly experienced and talented woodworkers, who share her love of working with wood and making clever and beautiful use of recycled materials of all kinds. In the workshop in the barn there is a whole set of kitchen cabinets devoted solely to neatly-stored nails, screws, hinges, bolts, handles and every other possible kind of formed metal needed by a builder. Aline calls them her 'natural resource' collection. All of them are secondhand, and most of them she got for free or very cheaply from the tip or other discards. She laughs about the time she was spotted driving her little ute loaded with second-hand planks, window frames, and so on, and was asked if she was going to the tip. 'No', she replied – 'I've just been there!'
My tour of the house has her pointing out all the reused and recycled features, which add character and beauty to the place. They include the great circular windows in the bathrooms and bedrooms which are made to fit huge wagon wheels – which are still awaiting re-use as it was decided not to obscure the great views with their spokes. The turned wood stair rail came from a house being demolished, the nineteenth century sash windows have been carefully restored, and the interior glass doors with sandblasted designs of native birds and trees were a great local find. The wood has all been oiled, not painted, and this gives a lovely woodsy scent to the house. Dozens of old cooking tools make a decorative feature in the kitchen, neatly ranged on the ceiling beams. A restored claw-foot bath is sited in the centre of the bathroom, perfectly placed for enjoying the view to the east through the circular window, along with a good soak. The bath mat is no cheap cotton or synthetic import, but wool from Aline's own sheep, which she has spun (on a second-hand wheel), dyed (with natural home-made dyes), and woven herself. Its deep pile is as pleasant to bare feet as its soft colours and curvy shape are to the eye.
Several of the seven mixed-breed sheep that gave the wool have been raised as bottle-fed lambs by Aline, and come up for a pat when you visit the paddock which they share with three Saanen milking goats. They all have names, of which Teddy Bear, Woolly Ball and Shitface are the most memorable. Their home includes a shelter shed with layers of straw on the dirt floor. When this is cleaned out it becomes good fertiliser for three large vegetable plots, enclosed to keep out hungry birds and beasts, where Aline grows all the standard veges and herbs plus some unusual ones too. The roomy chicken enclosure is another source of garden and tree fertiliser, and also huge eggs from the Red Shavers. Aline is a fervent animal lover and advocate of humane treatment of animals, which means she is a vegetarian, and allows her hens to live out their natural lives after they cease laying. Her three cats have made themselves useful keeping down the mice and rats that infested the place when Aline first arrived, but mostly their value is as beloved companions.
She's keen to have more human company as well, though, and is interested in hearing from people with experience in horticulture and/or farming who are equally committed to living organically, sustainably and humanely, who might want to live on the farm and help carry on the work. The place has the potential to be a great education centre for sustainable rural living, with the teaching by example backed up by books on all aspects of environmental and agricultural sustainability from Aline's 3,000 book library. It's housed in a customised container at present, and includes books on health and politics as well as good growing. The latest issues of New Internationalist and the Green magazine Te Awa stacked there show that Aline cares as much about sustainability and justice internationally and nationally as finding peace in her own little slice of heaven, and it's fascinating to hear her stories about her encounters with indigenous people on her extensive travels in Asia and South America. But her travelling days are now over, and she's focussing on being a good settler.
I've known Aline ever since her first visit to New Zealand some fifteen years ago, and my only regret since she moved here is that it took me so long to get up to Golden Bay and see the wonders she has achieved so far. Hopefully other kindred spirits who now know what she is doing will not leave it so long.