Otago Polytech puts green spaces to work

Lisa Burton in a herb plot at the living campus. Photos: Charmian Smith.
Lisa Burton in a herb plot at the living campus. Photos: Charmian Smith.
Beans flowering in one of the raised beds.
Beans flowering in one of the raised beds.
Fruit trees and seats at the living campus.
Fruit trees and seats at the living campus.

If you walk round the grounds of the Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin you’d be forgiven for thinking they don’t look like normal institutional gardens, writes Charmian Smith.

There are sprawling plants, some going to seed, others dying down, young ones sprouting, vegetables as well as flowers, compost bins as well as fallow plots mulched with pea straw. But trees and bushes may be bearing fruit, and you may come across a little notice among the fruit and vegetables saying "Pick me, I’m ripe". Anyone may pick fruit or vegetables at the polytech’s Living Campus.

The gardens are spread around several of its buildings with the main area, about 500sq m,  at the Forth St campus and another of about 225sq m in Anzac Ave.

As well as showing that it’s possible to grow food in small urban spaces, it’s also about sustainability, the value of green spaces and permaculture, according to Lisa Burton, programme leader for horticulture and arboriculture.

"The campus gardens don’t look like a typical institutional garden — it’s usually clipped hedges and rose bushes or rhododendrons. We’ve got those elements that are beautiful and enjoyed by people as well, but you go out there and you walk past a whole lot of kale, and walk past another bed and there will be broccoli or green beans growing or something like that. I guess it’s a really visible signal there’s something different going on here," she says.

The living campus project started about nine years ago to use the outdoor spaces as a living classroom with gardens that reflected some of the courses the polytech was teaching. For example, occupational therapy would have a garden with therapeutic and aromatic plants like lavender or a raised garden for people with mobility issues. There would be dye plants for the textile artists and food plants for chefs training in hospitality, she explains.

However, the concept had moved on to look at issues of urban green space, food resilience and sustainability.

"The polytech has embraced sustainability — we have water capture and recycling, and windmills and energy components, so it’s not just about gardens with food; it’s really a much bigger thing than that.

"We also have gardens that try to improve the biodiversity so using more natives and bringing birdlife in. We are so close to Lovelock Bush and trying to create a bit more of a green space here that can feed birds and insects."

However, most of the gardens have a food element. Sometimes it’s obvious but sometimes it might not be, such as pansies or calendula petals which can be used for food decoration, or plants that can be used for medicine or herbal teas, or companion plants to attract beneficial insects, she said.

There are also elements of permaculture, using vertical space for espaliered fruit trees, an emphasis on perennial plants, although annuals such as lettuce or beans are grown, and many are allowed to go to seed. Food waste from hospitality and staff areas is recycled through bokashi buckets, worm farms and compost systems.

"One of the challenges when we first got going was this garden looks messy," she said.

For some people that was a shock, so although they try to have some parts looking tidy they also have to be true to permaculture principles such as allowing plants to self-seed so the birds and insects can feed on them, even if it looks floppy and messy, she said.

"We think we are one of the few educational institutions that do this, so there are some challenges."

Staff look after the gardens but they are also an integral part of the horticulture course, allowing students to learn about such things as soil, pruning, landscape design, organics and permaculture. Chefs in training also make use of the produce, she said as she pointed out fennel plants flowering profusely — fennel pollen is a trendy new spice used by innovative chefs.

Part of the ethos of sustainability is the idea of fair share and equity and community, she explains, which is why anyone, whether a student or not, whether they have contributed to the garden or not, can pick produce.

At first they were worried the gardens would be stripped or plants would be pulled out, but that didn’t happen.

"This has been going for a while now and you bump into people at weekends — people bring families and they might be picking strawberries or taking home some lettuce or getting some of the kale or beans or picking chamomile for herbal tea.

"People seem to respect it and know about it. We tell the students when they come. The ones who are into fresh food click into it. I see them coming round with bags and picking things for their flat, and that’s great. Occasionally a chef may have an eye on something but someone gets to it beforehand."

However, there’s also occasional vandalism, and sometimes a few beer cans are left around, but any remaining beer in them is recycled into slug and snail traps, she said with a laugh.

"In terms of what you might think when you make that sort of invitation to the community, they respect it. It’s really good."

Because it is run on permaculture principles, everything is mixed up so it can take some foraging to find things among the companion plants such as calendula and phacelia which attract beneficial insects.

It is not like a market garden with rows of lettuce or beans, and it’s not like a community garden where people can contribute and learn skills and share the produce, she said.But not everyone knows when things are ripe or ready for picking.

"How would you if you’ve never grown it or your family haven’t grown it, and you normally go to the supermarket," she said.

To help, they have "Pick me" signs to indicate things that are ready for picking and eating.

The next step is, if people have picked fresh, non-sprayed, healthy food, do they know how to cook it? she said.

There’s help for that with recipes by Tony Heptinstall, programme manager in the food design institute, on the polytech’s living campus website www.op.ac.nz/about-us/sustainability-at-op/what-we-do/benefitting-commun....

The site also has maps, and other information about the living campus.

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