Kath Irvine’s home and business is a colourful advertisement for her permacultural passion
The directions to Kath Irvine’s idyllic Ohau river valley property include the words “look for the tree house in the pohutukawa’’. After a meander down a quiet Horowhenua country road and over a one-lane bridge, we find her in her gumboots, working in the garden.
Tucked into the foothills of the Tararua Ranges, just south of Levin, Kath’s home and business, Edible Backyard, is the perfect advertisement for her passion – permaculture design. Her potager vegetable garden, bounded by low stone walls, is full of cottage flowers and humming with bees.
Above: Cosmos is planted in the vegetable patch to attract beneficial insects.
Borage, camomile and echinacea, with its cartoon-like deep pink flowers, flourish among the New Zealand spinach, leeks, herbs and salad greens. Most of the flowers are here to attract beneficial insects to the garden. But there are others, such as chocolate cosmos and heliotrope, with its vanilla fragrance, that Kath has planted just because she adores the scent.
“Sitting out here with a cup of tea in the morning is like soul food to me,’’ she says. The view – a long, verdant sweep down the valley with a bush reserve to the left and the Tararuas to the right – is hard to beat.
Kath, her partner Matt and their four children have been on their half-hectare property for only three years but Kath is not someone to sit still for long. Beyond the potager is the two-year-old orchard, already supporting pears, plums, apples, apricots and peaches.
There are rectangular vegetable beds designed to house a “chook tractor”, or mobile chicken run, and in the most sheltered sunny spot she’s developing a subtropical garden. So far, Abyssinian banana palms are flourishing alongside avocados and pepinos.
Kath’s courses in permaculture attract people from as far away as Wellington and Edible Backyard serves as a demonstration garden for the business. It also feeds her family.
“When I got pregnant with my first daughter, Cara, 14 years ago, I built my first proper vege garden. I have always been passionate about food, organics and natural healing, so when she had her first foods I wanted them to be out of my garden.’’
Above: Cosmos is planted in the vegetable patch to attract beneficial insects. Below: Chillies flourish in the heat from the garden’s stone walls.
Kath is also making her mark right along the Kapiti Coast. Many local councils offer gardening tips, but the Kapiti Coast District Council goes one step further, employing Kath as a “green gardener” to provide personalised, hands-on advice, encouraging the development of gardens that are edible and water-wise in the community.
More than 13 local kindergartens and schools now have their own flourishing fruit and vegetable patches, designed by Kath and mostly built using donated and recycled materials and employing the labour of “generous and passionate parents and teachers’’.
“I love connecting kids with nature,” says Kath. “There is such a lot of power in developing respect for life on Earth. I love the way it gives kids who are perhaps non-academic a place to shine as well – everybody has their strengths.’’
Kath has developed a two-year programme for teachers so they can maintain and develop these sustainable school gardens themselves. She also runs workshops on everything from compost-making to natural pest management.
Permaculture is all about creating gardens with the diversity and resilience of nature. “It appeals to accountants, hippies, young and old. It strikes a chord because it is just about what works.’’
Kath’s top tip for those planning a new garden: don’t do anything for the first year except observe and plan. “Really get to know and understand your environment before you rush in and make all those $10,000 mistakes.”
She admits to a horrified fascination with TV garden makeover programmes. “The fact that a landscaper can walk into a new place and by that afternoon they have spat out a design for it… I wish they would go back a year later and see what it looks like. I equate it to going to the hairdresser and getting a style that looks fantastic but you cannot do it yourself.’’
The way she works is the opposite of quick-fix, instant gardens. Or, as she puts it, “rush in, oh that was a bad idea, take it out, redo it, that’s not working, chop it all off’’ gardens. “When I say, ‘It’s not a good idea putting that 30m totara tree on the north side of your house’, so many people say to me, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be here when it gets that big’.’’
Kath shakes her head as the bees continue to hum and the heat seems to radiate out of the stony soil in her Ohau patch of paradise.
“Isn’t it nice to think that you’ll be leaving the place wisely set up for your children or grandchildren, so they don’t have to rip it out and start again?’’
Above: Kath turns her compost made from comfrey, pig manure, garden trimmings and hay.
Story: Rebecca Lancashire
Photographs: Paul McCredie