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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Gardening in Aro Valley

Kermit the frog said it first: It’s just not easy being green. An unlikely oracle, maybe, but perhaps we should credit the amphibian muppet with foreseeing just how difficult it is to be eco-friendly in a consumer-driven society. Well… Maybe.

Charles Barrie, Victoria ecology graduate and organizer of the upcoming Te Aro Community Gardeners’ Solidarity Tour, concedes that there are difficulties in being eco-friendly.

“I think we should do it with the acceptance that we are all humans and that it is hard. And also that people who do begin to make changes don’t put themselves on a pedestal and begin to think that suddenly they’re Captain Planet.” Addressing the role of the individual and ‘Home Ecology’ is one part of the Te Aro Community Gardeners’ Solidarity Tour, along with looking at ‘Deep Ecology’ – an introduction to different environmental concepts, and ‘Community Ecology’.

Barrie admits that the title of the Te Aro Community Gardeners’ Solidarity Tour may be misleading. Not a garden tour as such, the event – staged as a walk through Aro Valley – features only one garden and keeps its focus firmly on eco-education. Along with the three sessions of educational talks, the event also includes complimentary refreshments from Common Sense Organics and music from Wellington Batucada. “I’m hoping there will be something of a festival life atmosphere,” says Barrie. The talks themselves cover everything from an introduction to bio-dynamics to consideration of community gardening in Wellington. “It’s coming from a mindset of realizing that we are, generally, not living very sustainably at the moment and that we are living very isolated lifestyles which is part of the problem.” But, Barrie insists, they are not doomsayers and have no intention on emphasizing a doom and gloom scenario. “[We’re] just showing that there are things we can do right now, and that it’s fun and enjoyable.” Recent years have seen environmental issues become among the more fashionable concerns to weigh on the mind of the conscientious citizen, something no doubt aided by the success of An Inconvenient Truth and, more recently, The 11th Hour. In politics more effort is being invested into courting the green vote, while phrases like ‘carbon footprint’ slip into everyday conversations with growing ease. Being green may currently be fashionable but, Barrie notes, discrepancies still remain – he cites the example of the incongruities between “the amount of consciousness that’s being invested into roading [by the Council] and the amount of consciousness invested into revegetation”. However, he is quick to point out that good work in revegetation is underway throughout the city – from the 500 year plan of Karori Wildlife Sanctuary to the dunes of Island Bay. Barrie acknowledges that, particularly in cities, there is a sense of dislocation between the people and the land. However, he says, “In Wellington we have opportunities so that shouldn’t be such a problem, because there is such a well established green belt, and there are so many revegetation projects we are so close to.”

But is it possible to be sustainable in the city? Sustainable development does, after all, have a rather oxymoronic ring to it. It is possible, says Barrie, provided we change our lifestyles to not consume more than we produce, have a circuitous use of materials, and do our best to eliminate the concept of waste – something an ecosystem is naturally without. Theoretically at least, sustainable development within a city may then be possible. “Even if it isn’t,” he says, “we still have to work for it because there isn’t any other alternative. That’s where the doom and gloom scenario comes in, in a sense, in that we have to do these things because if we don’t we’re fucked.” But Barrie is, as he says several times, an optimist. “These are joyful things to do – it shouldn’t be a chore, it should be a joy.”

Several of the talks are aimed specifically at the role of the individual in developing an eco-friendly way of life. “I think it’s different for everybody depending on their natural propensities,” says Barrie, but says that everyone could benefit from understanding the basic principles of permaculture. Permaculture refers to permanent agriculture and is built on the idea of living sustainably from the land. The idea is to reduce our reliance on industry-based production and returning to locally grown produce – a move that would not only aid dwindling fuel supplies but also reconnect people with the origins of their foods. Practical solutions include recycling, minimizing waste, and increasing understanding of the importance of location and season to plan gardens effectively. “In a sense it’s not really putting the community ahead of yourself,” says Barrie, “it’s more allowing yourself to live out your full potential by acknowledging something bigger than yourself.”

Barrie also believes there are benefits to changing the way we view the landscape. An understanding of basic ecology would allow everyone to see the possibilities within the environment and approach planting with a purpose – not just because it will look pretty. “There’s nothing wrong with that but you might combine functions: ‘Oh, I’ll create shade there and I’ll make a fruit tree’.”

Understanding the environment would also help eliminate pest plants which endanger native species. Some pest plants like the agapanthus are planted for their aesthetic value, but are excessively vigorous in their growth and are unusually adaptable to varying conditions, resulting in a tenacious and persistent expansion that overcompetes with native and endangered plants. While opting to just not plant an agapanthus would be the easiest solution – prevention being easier than cure – weed control is possible but complicated by contentions between differing methods. Chemical weed control remains the norm, used by the council and within the landscape industry, but more people are looking towards organic weed control. However, says Barrie, while the issue appears simple – chemical control versus control without chemicals – this apparent simplicity is misleading.

“A lot of people get sentimental and go: ‘oh my god, chemicals are so bad, how can you do that? I thought you cared about plants so how can you spray chemicals?’ But that’s a really naïve argument. It’s also really naïve to spray them around willy nilly and to not actually understand what it is that you are spraying. It’s a complex issue.”

Sometimes, he says, vocal critics of chemical weed control don’t actually do anything themselves – an action which is potentially far more dangerous to the environment than the use of chemicals. “It’s not a joke: we are losing species and areas that would otherwise be regenerating bush can’t because they are currently being covered.”

At the end of the day, says Barrie, reconnecting with nature is an important step to developing eco-friendly lifestyles. His suggestions for reconnecting with nature are many: go for a walk in the bush; check out the Karori wildlife sanctuary; walk along the coast of Island Bay and look at the dune revegetation that’s going on; look for signs that there is a project going on and find out what they are doing; appreciate the hard work that people are doing; look at the new trees.

“People can regain that sense of connection with the land and regain a sense of wonder as well – the sort of wonder at life – because sometimes I think we can forget that life is this very mysterious and very amazing thing.”

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