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Grow the Commons

Written By: - Date published: 9:19 am, August 10th, 2016 - 57 comments
Categories: activism, Environment, farming, food, sustainability - Tags: , , , , ,

The following is a Guest Post from Robert Guyton.

Robert is a sustainability pioneer who along with his family grows the oldest food forest in NZ. A long time organic gardener, permaculturist and heritage orchardist, he’s a columnist, a regional councillor for Environment Southland, and an early climate change adaptor. 

Some time ago, I wrote a column describing a nascent movement called Common Ground that sought to link like-minded growers of plants under the umbrella of a shared name and an icon in the form of a Greenman sticker, which I promised to send out on receipt of a self-addressed envelope. The response to that idea was remarkable. My letterbox became, for several weeks, the scene of great activity; the postie’s, in filling it with letters, and mine, carrying those letters to my house for opening and reading. It was a delightful experience all round, replying to the charming messages, slipping the sticker into the return envelope and dropping them, one after the other, into the NZ Post mailbox in the village. I’d hoped there’d be a lot of gardeners out there who found the idea alluring, and there were.

The question then became, what to do as a follow-up to the initial excitement of being a sticker-carrying Common Grounder. Those good folk who now have a little Greenman stuck to their wheelbarrow, bicycle mudguard, or like me, front door, have no doubt kept on doing what they’ve always done – garden, filling their properties with plants of all descriptions and making their little corner of the world a better, more verdant place and for that I admire them as much as ever.

In recent days, I’ve been struck by an idea that I think could qualify for the title “Next Step” or “Phase Two” in the Common Ground story. With the weather being perfect for planting down here in the south of the South, I’ve been doing just that, lifting trees and shrubs that grew from cuttings set out last autumn and shifting them to their permanent homes. Only those final destinations are not inside of my boundary fences, but outside. I’ve been planting the Commons. In various overlooked and under-appreciated strips of neglected council land, I’ve been digging and delving, clearing and planting – apple, peach and plums trees, hazel and chestnut, nectarine, grape and quince.

I’ve chosen scrappy sites that no one wants, broom-covered bony land infested with cocksfoot, cotoneaster and holly, wasteland that can’t be built on or isn’t worth sowing in grass and mowing, no-man’s land, only it’s everybody’s ground, under common ownership thanks to the rates we pay our councils. I’m adding value to the overgrown wastelands by planting fruit trees that anyone and everyone will be able to pick from, once the trees reach fruiting age.

It’s a prickly business, planting in the blackberries and gorse. I’m covered in scratches and am forever digging thorn-tips out of my hands with pins and needles. I’m reminded of when I first began planting my forest garden here in Thames Street. Back then, I made the mistake of clear-felling the broom and gorse that covered the property and in doing so, exposed the site to the wind. Nowadays, I let the shelter trees stand and plant amongst them, hence the scratches. But it’s an investment for my community and we’ll all share in the harvest from those trees in years to come. I’m guessing that locally-grown, foragable food will become important in the years ahead, so I’m getting in early, establishing as many fruiting trees, shrubs and vines as I possibly can.

And here’s where existing Common Grounders and all other readers who like the idea come in – you too could grow the Commons. You know how to grow things and you probably also know where there is waste-ground that’s aching to be made useful and you may also have, as I do, grandchildren, who would love to clamber about in trees picking fruit for their dear grandparents. Naturally, I’ve chosen Grow the Commons as the name for this follow-up to the Common Ground concept, as it captures the intent of the second phase of the movement elegantly.

It’s a benevolent act, planting for the wider community on land that isn’t being utilised productively, though your local council might have some reservations (pun intended) about that. I’ve not bothered them with the trifling issue and suspect your own council will be as busy as mine with keeping the street lights on, the gutters swept and the thousand other important issues local councils have to deal with every day and won’t want to be bothered with the planting of a few pretty trees.

So, Common Grounders, that’s where we’re headed, out onto the Commons to grow for our future. Any anxiousness you might feel is probably justified, but it’s up to you and if you’d like to report in and tell me about your progress, my letter box is swept, its hinges oiled and ready to receive mail. If there are new-to-the-idea readers who would like a Greenman sticker for whatever purpose, send me a stamped, self addressed envelope and I’ll send one your way – 20 Thames Street, Riverton, 9822.

Happy planting.

A version of this article first appeared in the August edition of New Zealand Gardener.

57 comments on “Grow the Commons ”

  1. Thanks, weka, for putting up my story; it’s a bit wordy but I hope, interesting. At our weekend fruit tree sale a number of people bought our grafted heritage apple trees with the intention of planting them outside of their own boundary fences, having read this article in last month’s NZ Gardener. I hope that TS readers might be similarly inspired 🙂

    • Sabine 1.1

      i will go down to my garden in two weeks. I have discovered a Quince, Walnut, Lemon, Apple, Grapefruit tree sofar. A little rickety Green house full of cacti (?) and stuff. it will be exiting to go there and see what grows under the ‘weeds’ infact it will be fun to see what ‘weeds’ grow in my garden.

      While I understand the need for common food sources and the likes i would like to raise the issue of potable water. In Europe -especially old Europe – all the villages have public fountains – often two – one for people and one for animals. However that is one thing that seems to be completly overlooked in NZ. We can not overlook this issue as water born diseases may be a bigger killer then lack of food.

      Also a thing that I would like to see in my future ‘commons’ ( we are several friends that have bought small houses with big gardens in a small rather empty village in the middle of the north Island) is a bread oven. Again, being someone who has lived in very old villages in Europe the community oven often still stands.

      The planting of the gardens and the sharing of the fruit is important, but we need to include water treatment, water storage and common ovens to help us in the long terms.
      I would also like to know more about the maori way of storing food. I believe they had some sort of ‘underground’ storage.

      Thanks again for this beautiful read.

      • weka 1.1.1

        “( we are several friends that have bought small houses with big gardens in a small rather empty village in the middle of the north Island)”

        Nice one!

        The old European Commons oven reminded me of this essay by Dmitry Orlov about Russian villages and their relative immunity to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interesting descriptions of private and communal spaces and resources,

        https://web.archive.org/web/20051225160222/http://www.survivingpeakoil.com/article.php?id=our_village

        Love this bit about communal benches. The sauna one is interesting too.

        The main elements of communal life are visits, barter of food and favors, and use of sauna. Visits are almost universally unplanned and unannounced. Most often, people stop by on the way, sometimes coming into the yards, and sometimes simply talking across the fence.

        The village has many benches scattered throughout, which consist of a length of split log hand-planed smooth, flat side up, which is joined to two round logs, which are buried vertically into the ground. These are found both next to the houses and outside the fences, and are used to sit and chat with neighbors. There are benches where you can warm up on sunny but frosty mornings, and benches to while away hot mid-afternoons in the shade. There was even a bench where I could stretch out on a clear night and watch the myriad of stars, the asteroid showers, and the Mir space station whizzing by periodically. I have built several of them myself, in strategic locations.

        Typical examples of barter involve exchanges of rabbit meat, eggs, vegetables and other perishable items that would otherwise be distributed unevenly and perhaps go to waste. Staples such as potatoes are generally not bartered.

        Sauna use presents one of the more complex examples of social interaction in Soykino. During my stays there, it was my responsibility to fire the sauna at least once a week, but since I enjoyed doing it and had little else to do, I fired it twice a week. It was quite a bit of work, but it made me instantly popular.

        • Robert Guyton 1.1.1.1

          Benches! That’s brilliant and simple. Planning…

          • weka 1.1.1.1.1

            Isn’t it great? And a neat way to bring in the carpenters and woodworkers in an area.

            • Robert Guyton 1.1.1.1.1.1

              Funny that you say that, weka. A young guy has just moved to the village, set up shop and is calling himself “The Funky Joiner”. He specializes in creating furniture from found timbers, recycled building materials etc. I’ll call in and see him soon, with a proposal…I can’t help seeing images from “The Last of the Summer Wine” in my head.

        • Sabine 1.1.1.2

          same go anywhere in France, Italy, Sardenia, Corsica and Germany and you will find benches. A good place to sit for the elders to have a chat and observe the life around them.
          Market places in the middle of the villages. A game of boules, a village fest with music on the day of the Patron Saint, the most favorite fruit (in France and Corisca it is often the edible chestnut) and so on and so on. While quite open to gossip it is also open to trade and barter.

          One thing i miss very much in NZ.

          • miravox 1.1.1.2.1

            “One thing i miss very much in NZ.”

            The benches thing is something that I’ve taken note of while in Austria. Not just in terms of how well they’re used, but also, as with plants, drinking fountains and decorative shop fittings, that no-one thinks they need to be CCTV’d, bolted down or removed to prevent them being damaged or stolen.

            And they’re right… the community garden on the busy Donau Kanal, pretty boozy over the summer, is never vandalised, and the seating never removed.

            That was pretty much the first thing that made me sad for my country.

            Anyway, I’m thinking about what will happen if I try to convert our unused carpark space at our Wellington apartment to a raised garden when we get back…

        • Sabine 1.1.1.3

          i asked the bloke who lives in my house to build me a sauna.
          his expression, priceless.

    • weka 1.2

      Any tips for planting in the Commons Robert? Do you plant as in your food forest, or do anything special? Compost? How big a hole? etc

      • Poking wands into the ground is perhaps the simplest method. Casting seed. Pushing nuts into the soil. Lugging trees in planter bags is the most difficult approach and the one I avoid now. Grapes grow easily from a section of vine pushed into the ground at this time of the year. I go for ease of planting, in my garden and out in the wildlands.

  2. save nz 2

    Nice post.

  3. Good one Robert. Walking the walk as well as talking the talk – the revolution in action.

  4. Hi, Sabine. Your comments about water are valuable in light of what we are developing in our small Southland town where The Council has extinguished interest in independent water storage of rainwater collected from the roof, in favour of a reticulated supply from a dirty river. In response, we installed tanks and collect our own, encouraging all of our friends to do the same, which they have done or are doing. Railing against authorities is one thing, making real what you believe to be right is another. The hill behind our town has numerous springs issuing from it, but very few are used for anything other than watering stock. They are a valuable asset that could be carefully managed to the benefit of our community. A community bread oven is another development waiting in the wings for our wee town. We’ve a semi retired architect planning/hoping to build a brick oven like the ones he has studied from earlier days in New Zealand and as well, we have several specialist bread makers, young people who have moved here for what they see as a great chance to create a community, who are encouraging our architect to make his/our dreams come true. Regarding food storage and especially “Maori” storage methods, I have drawn up plans for a raised pataka based on an old photograph of one that stood where the school sits presently. Not difficult to build and very elegant. There are “European” storage methods that suit just as well, such as the “apple house” my wife is determined to build to store our heritage apple crops. I’m using the “cider” method to store the tangiest apples 🙂

    • Sabine 4.1

      oh the cider method is and excellent storage for pears aswell.

      i am just struck by some of the villages i have lived in France that have recorded history going back to the Templar that as a standard have two at least sometimes three fountains. One for watering people, one for watering animals and one for washing – a safety aspect for the women i would guess.

      I have subscribed to a bread page on fb Universal bakers, and often there are video of community ovens from around the world, very interesting and yes i would like to have one in my village.

      I will install as many water catchment containers as i possibly can, but think that in order to fend of water born disease every community needs to do better then just relay on the individuals effort, especially in regards to purification etc.

      If you have an FB page or email one can contact you that would be awesome.

      • I’m easily reached, Sabine. Here’s my email: [email protected] and my blog: http://www.robertguyton.blogspot.com
        I’ve done pears, perry, over the past couple of years. We are growing a collection of gorgeous heritage pear trees we grafted from old trees we found surviving in farm orchards around the region, tastes like no other, shapes that amaze. I agree that while individual sufficiency is good, shared resources are also vital. Infiltrate (water allusion there) your councils, create your own (easy) and adapt what’s already in place. Some people won’t be able to get busy with these things, so working on their behalf is necessary and rewarding.

  5. Siobhan 5

    Auckland transport Proposed planting guidelines for berms…”Any planting shall not be edible ”
    https://at.govt.nz/about-us/asset-maintenance/footpath-berm-maintenance/

    I’m looking forward to someone planting edible ‘weeds’ and flowers and seeing how that plays out in Court. It is so petty to allow, presumably ‘pretty’ plants, but not edible plants…they do seem to have an issue with fruit trees, as they envisage piles of rotten lemons or feijoas all over the pavement, which I suspect would not be an insurmountable problem, yet I do see olive trees planted around which seems odd.

    • Hi, Siobhan. The guidelines have left a huge loophole for keen planters, in the enormous range of plants that are “pretty” but also edible. Into which category do they shunt hosta, for example being edible in the way asparagus are, or day lilies (edible flowers), evening primrose (edible, tasty too), kawakawa, cardoon and arugula. There are a host of ornamental perennials that would feed an army, if they only knew about them. Don’t mention the edibility and no one will know 🙂
      Next, shrubs with edible small fruits. Did anyone say Chilean guava? Or Chilean wineberry for that matter? Chinese dogwood? Yum. This trees don’t look fruity, nor do they drop their crop in the way the transport authorities would notice.

    • weka 5.2

      “Any planting shall not be edible”

      Good grief, how on earth did they rationalise that? Was it just the rotting fruit on the ground thing?

      • Siobhan 5.2.1

        They include this little gem…”They also have no right of ownership of any flowers or produce grown in the road corridor.”…they possibly envisage angry old folk getting into ‘pavement rage’ with the kids down the road pilfering ‘their’ fruit.
        To be fair, I think Council employees live in dread of enraged pensioners with fax machines contacting them every five minutes.

        • weka 5.2.1.1

          Lol, maybe that’s the way to the revolution!

          Pretty bizarre to see the council claiming ownership of plants produced on their land. It’s very U.S-ian.

          • Sabine 5.2.1.1.1

            especially considering that the council actually expects private citizens to ‘maintain’ council property at their cost.

            • adam 5.2.1.1.1.1

              Not always, they will mow it if you are disabled, if you ask, and can produce evidence of disability.

              I’d like to point out that they did not accept a photo of having no legs as evidence of disability. They demanded a letter from a medical professional.

              Ah New Zealand a land of bureaucrats and pen pushers, each as stupid as the next one. Thanks national, your government has one thing which we can all be dumbly proud of, your ability to make the civil service even more useless and stupid in just 8 years of office. That must qualify for some sort of reward?

  6. Ad 6

    IMHO that Riverton thing is a shining beacon of goodness.

    We’ve visited a couple of times, and the knowledge and generosity of the staff are just terrific. A really positive example for us up here.

  7. Rosemary McDonald 7

    ” I’m reminded of when I first began planting my forest garden here in Thames Street. Back then, I made the mistake of clear-felling the broom and gorse that covered the property and in doing so, exposed the site to the wind. Nowadays, I let the shelter trees stand and plant amongst them, hence the scratches. ”

    Do you think Robert, that perhaps the same method can be used to change the social and political environment for the better?

    Try and get the good and better stuff established before getting rid of the unwanted elements. Using the unwanted elements to shelter the new and better aspects until they grow strong enough to stand alone…as part of an overall more sustaining environment.

    I don’t want to complicate a brilliant post…its just what occurred to me when I read that.

    (We have an acre, and have been self sufficient for water for years. I can’t abide the taste of town supply…Auckland especially…
    Are you in town? Are you vulnerable to neighbours’ agrichemical use? This was the reason the wheels fell off our 11 years of spray free, permaculture (Linda Woodrow, rocks) dream.)

    And may you cow parsley run rampant in your fields!

    • “Do you think Robert, that perhaps the same method can be used to change the social and political environment for the better?”

      Yes x 1000, Rosemary and that’s very astute of you. That’s exactly how I feel (and I hope, act). I need to go and lie down, I’m overcome with a tidal swell of hope 🙂
      When I recover, I’ll finish answering your comment.

    • Herbicides are the bete noir of the commons planter, Rosemary but every good thing needs a threat in order to keep it strong. I make and post signs, “Spray-free zone” or similar, if I’ve planted in the town, but elsewhere I plant in places that don’t attract attention or herbicide. If ever my plantings get sprayed, I shake my fist at the sky, though it’s not his fault, then increase my plantings elsewhere – one tree lost to the ‘cide people means a dozen more going in somewhere else from me. My own neighbours are in the main, spray-averse, but if one does begin to wave a nozzle around, I’ll be engaging in discussion. Talking about chemical trespass though, my forest garden was trespassed upon by a herd of cattle beasts over the two days I was away at the weekend! They tramped over ever square metre of the garden, repeatedly, probably reconnecting with their aurochy past, browsed and broke but I wasn’t concerned. I’ve always said the forest garden is the most resilient system of all, able to withstand fire, flood and drought, and now I know it shrugs off stampede as well. I got photos of the dumb beasts gormlessly stomping my garlic beds and have written about it for the next NZ Gardener, so I’ll profit from the incident. Here’s a clip from that story 🙂
      “It’ll be a while before all signs of their dropping-by are covered, but what their rude visit did do is strengthen my claim that forest gardens are indestructible. Floods may come, hail may fall, wind may blow and fire may rage, I’ve often said, but my forest garden will shrug off all threats. The complex mix of species, plant and creature, that make up my garden is resilient because of it’s variety and overall health and can recover from anything, even, it turns out, the attentions of a herd of cattle beasts. I’m pretty confident, though I don’t wish to bring bad fortune upon myself by invoking fate, that even if every plant in my forest garden was up-rooted by some storm of other cataclismic event, it’d quickly recover; there have to be millions of seeds in the ground beneath all of the plants growing there now, along with stolons and tubers, rhizomes and bulbs, all poised to reclothe the soil, should disaster strike. In any case, my garden cared little about the cows, disregarding them the way they themselves might flick a fly with their tails.”

  8. Macro 8

    Robert – whilst visiting Vancouver a couple of years ago I was struck by the many roadside plantings of fruit and vegetables. Beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and apple, pear and so on. All well maintained. It seems that this is quite a thing in the city with an active community group.
    Here in Thames our Transition Town Team have been pursuing a similar path with a good planting of fruit trees in parks and reserves. There was some doubt about the planting of peach trees in the Hall Arboretum (the oldest in the country) and they have been removed as they were next to the scion trees of the Hall’s Totara. (One has to be mindful of the areas chosen) A community Garden in the nearby reserve is also planned.
    In Perth from where I have recently returned the residential building sites are not much more than 400 sq m (if that) but there is an ample roadside verge and around where I was staying almost all are planted – many are now being planted in native species as continuing drought conditions makes the sustainability of exotics doubtful – but here and there, there are fruit trees appearing – olives, citrus, and banana do particularly well, as do mulberry and apple.

    • Hi, Macro – Vancouver’s great, from what I’ve heard, and Thames too with it’s TT team. Fruit trees are probably the most difficult plants to “install” in any town, village or city, as there are prejudice against free fruit (Biblical, perhaps :-))
      Do you know of the Free Fruit Peddlers? They profess to be planting stones and pits as they cycle the roads of NZ. Go the Peddlers! Peaches, btw, are simple to grow from the stone, in situ. Push them in and forget. May as well do a hundred as do one 🙂

      • Sabine 8.1.1

        can yo use commercial peaches?

        • Robert Guyton 8.1.1.1

          Yes, but it’s more interesting to find a tree that’s been growing in the area since Adam was an orchardist, and collect those stones. I’m growing Morepark apricots, the ‘old’ flavorsome apricots our parents loved, because they have ‘story’ as well as taste. A delightful elderly woman sent me a box of nectarine stones she’d collected from under her special weeping nectarine, a one-off she’d discovered, and those suit this zone perfectly, as the original tree thrived without spraying, ever. There are other stones I’ve collected from similarly unique and long-lasting trees across Southland. I search for them and people who know I’m searching, post stones, pits, pips, cuttings and so on, to me, out of generosity. Crack the pit before you plant outside in wintertime and let nature take her course. They grow readily. Nursery-grown stone fruit seem to harbour leaf curl. Home growns don’t 🙂

          • Rosemary McDonald 8.1.1.1.1

            “Crack the pit before you plant outside in wintertime and let nature take her course. ”

            So why would you ever bother with fiddly grafting?

            • weka 8.1.1.1.1.1

              Some trees don’t necessarily grow true from seed eg apples. Peaches seem to grow true though, every easy.

            • Robert Guyton 8.1.1.1.1.2

              For one thing, Rosemary, apples don’t grow true from the seed. Pip fruit have to be grafted if you want to enjoy the same fruits as the original tree produced. Pears, being pip fruits, are the same. Stone fruits are more likely to grow the same as or close to the original and so are worth trying. You might even improve on the original. Root stock does offer some advantages; many are selected for their size-controlling effect. Others are good at resisting certain diseases or suit wet soil, for example. I’m planting some grafted apple trees out and about on the “waste” spaces but only where I’m sure they’ll not be broken, etc, as grafting takes effort, whereas pits and stones are easy to do en masse so I don’t worry about them being mown or whatever. I like grapes for the ease with which they can be spread – poke a cutting into the ground and step back 🙂 Nuts are very easy too. Hazels in particular make great forage for hungry townspeople. There’s lots you can do with hazelnuts.

            • Robert Guyton 8.1.1.1.1.3

              It just occured to me, Rosemary, that you could plant cuttings of your namesake all over the show, just ’cause 🙂 What a lovely service to the community that would be. Rosemary cuttings strike easily and make attractive and useful foragable plants 🙂

              • Rosemary McDonald

                I’ll remember that…..;-)

                Lavender also, thyme, oregano, sage, clumps of chives,

                But mint….with caution! Tends to invade.

                And…nasturtiums…

  9. One Two 9

    Thanks for posting this information and to all the contributers in the comments section as well. Lots to follow up on and read further into

    This is wonderfully positive, informative and motivational

    • weka 9.1

      I’m into putting up more posts like this (writing them, guests posts), so if there is any thing in particular you’d like to see let me know. It needs a political context too (this one easily fitted into Green activism).

  10. Rosie 10

    One of the most enjoyable and convivial posts I’ve read in a long time. There is a lot of helpful and useful information in the post. Thank you Robert and commenters.

    We started with with other planting volunteers on the reserve over the road a few years ago. I have plans for round two, which will be culinary herbs and the self seeding types of herbs and flowers, but there is too much work to do in establishing and caring for our own garden without getting knackered!

    If you’re in Wellington you can get free native plants from the council to plant up your berm if you want to turn it in to a no mow zone. They don’t do food plants but I’ve not seen them object to people planting fruit and vege crops on their berms – and I have seen them, they look just delightful.

    We have 50 mountian flax/wharariki, 30 libertia’s and some carex on our berm. The flowers have helped attract tui, which we don’t normally see around here.

    It’s all good 🙂

  11. mauī 11

    A few people have made pushes for fruit and nut trees in my area.

    I’ll give you a few snippets from the Council email reply:

    “Fruit trees require intensive maintenance”
    “Residents complain about rotting fruit”
    “The trees create a rat problem”

    So we don’t have fruit/nut trees in our parks, while neighbouring Councils have recently made a big push to have them. This is the problem with conservative Councils.

    But I like the approach you’re going with here Robert, good stuff. It’s giving me some ideas 😉

  12. mauī – they’re practiced at putting up barriers, that’s for sure. It’s a blessing really, by-passing them, for their own piece of mind, and planting in places they don’t pay attention to. In any case, baskets of locally grown nuts and berries make wonderful surprise gifts for local body representatives, delivered to their offices at times when the grind of political life is getting them down 🙂

  13. Sans Cle 13

    This post and comments are inspirational. I’ve planted a few fruit trees on the verges of reserves, where the Council doesn’t mow. Always a bit apprehensive of Council workers’ reaction to them, and neighbours. But so far so good. My little gift to the future. Tit-for-Tat…..as I have received much from past generations.

    • Rosie 13.1

      “My little gift to the future. Tit-for-Tat…..as I have received much from past generations.”

      A lovely way to show thanks to past generations and keep the wheels of kindness and thoughtfulness turning. Kia Ora.

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