Local food on the lawn

Photo: Damian Foster
Photo: Damian Foster
With just a little bit of work, you too can be producing local food on tha lawn, writes Ben Elms (aka Dr Compost). 

When we think of local food scenarios in Otago, that might mean being a little inebriated for 12 months of the year on local wine and craft beer, or dabbling in a fruitarian diet for the autumn months, topped up by a winter of meat and potatoes. What more does one need in Utopia?

Trying to find a definition of local food isn't as easy as you might think. Rather than rehash and plagiarise those who've written regularly and well on this subject in these pages, let's accept that food that grows in your back garden is as local as you can get. That's not to say you can't buy ``local food'' at your farmers market, you just can't beat growing your own magnificent cucumbers and cauliflowers.

There are so many benefits from growing your own local food; mental and physical wellbeing, tuning in with nature's cycles, healthy chemical-free food, closing nutrient loops by recycling your food scraps into fertilisers, turning lawns into productive food growing land, increased insect, reptile, bird and plant diversity in our gardens, more spondies in the back pocket; the list goes on.

With spring fever rising in their creaky bones, many people ask me at this time of year what the best approach is to start a new vege garden. There is no simple answer, just different options. An easy option is to start with one or two beds then add more as you need them, and have the time, energy and resources. The vege beds at Dr Compost HQ started with two, then doubled to four the next year, then six, and so the garden evolved organically.

Here are four proven ways to convert a patch of lawn into a nutrient-rich garden bed (your choice may depend on the quality of the soil you start with):

1. No-dig garden

An oldie but a goodie, which essentially involves making a compost pile where you want the vege bed to be. You can build a raised bed structure (using macrocarpa or other untreated planks) and build the compost pile inside. Or, you can keep it free-standing or perhaps you could just use some bricks to edge it.

Place some cardboard down first, to smother all visible grass. Gather a heap of materials to build your compost pile with; more variety means a better product. Alternate layers between nitrogen-rich ingredients (food scraps, fresh grass clippings, non-seedy weeds, manure) and carbon-rich ingredients (leaves, straw, dried grass clippings, wood chips, ash). Make sure each layer is damp, and finish with a straw layer at the top.

If you don't have room at home, look around for a community garden, like this one in Roxburgh....
If you don't have room at home, look around for a community garden, like this one in Roxburgh. Photo: Yvonne O'Hara
Go as high as you can until the materials run out or the pile is in danger of toppling over. Water well, then put a cover over the top and leave for two to six weeks (depending on how much of a hurry you're in). Plant seedlings directly into the compost heap (which will have dropped in height by nearly half) with a handful or two of potting mix, soil or compost in each seedling hole. Every autumn, add a few more layers to the bed or some of your home-made compost ready for spring planting.

2. Instant garden bed

Start your new garden bed with a bang. Place a raised-bed frame made out of untreated timber on some cardboard to smother the grass. The height of your raised bed can be from as little as 100mm, up to waist high. Fill the bed with a mix of 50% good quality topsoil and 50% good quality compost. Mushroom compost is an excellent option, all gardeners who use mushroom compost rave about their results. With this technique you've created a quality growing medium from the start, and these ratios take into account that quality topsoil is rarely available. Give the bed a water, let it settle for a day and plant away.

3. Straw bale bed

Source some small straw bales: barley, wheat, pea straw, lucerne are all suitable options. Spread cardboard on the grass to avoid grass growing up through the bales. Place the bales tightly together on the cardboard. For the next three days, water them for a couple of hours each day with a sprinkler or soak them individually in a bath (get help pulling them out of the bath, they will be heavy). Then sprinkle the bale tops generously with a high-nitrogen product. Options include blood and bone, chicken, pig or rabbit manure and your urine. Water once a day for a week, adding more of your nitrogen-rich product if there's no sign of it.

Make a series of holes in the bales, chuck in a couple of handfuls of potting mix or compost in each hole and plant your seedlings. The bales will decay over the season providing a bevy of nutrients for your plants. Add a handful of tiger (compost) worms into the bales, this will speed up decomposition and food availability for your plants. Next season you will have a raised bed with heaps of rich organic matter ready to go. Add a sprinkle of compost in the autumn and every time you plant a new crop.

4. Dig it up

We've left the hardest for last. Cut out the grass turf with a spade and put it aside somewhere, stacking the turf on itself grass side down. Cover with an old tarp and leave for 12 months. This will be a great source of rich soil to use at a latter date. Give the exposed soil a light fork over. Traditionally, in the first year, you should plant potatoes to loosen up the soil. Adding some compost and mulch to the growing potatoes will increase yield and the biological activity of your soil.

Why not try a few different methods in different beds and observe the different processes and results? If you don't have a yard or feel insecure in the longevity of your rental home, see if you can find a community allotment garden and get yourself a plot. There are a few starting to spring up around the region, or consider starting one if there isn't one in your area. The advent of social media has seen local wannabe gardeners put messages on Facebook community forums to see if anybody has garden space to share on their land, with great success.

To go with the fresh veges from our thriving backyards, you can't beat the awesome growing wave of market gardeners, cheese makers, bakers, patisserie cakes and food producers in the region. Get along to a farmers market to support all those people dedicating their lives to sharing fantastic locally grown produce.

Local food workshops


Sustainable Queenstown is organising Queenstown Local Food Week from September 14-22. Nearly all the workshops are booked out, but there are still spaces at:


The Longwoods Project, focusing on building resilience and food security, with Robyn Guyton. Saturday September 15, 6-8pm at Sherwood Queenstown. Register by emailing sustainable.queenstown@gmail.com.


Grow your own veges with Dr Compost, Wednesday September 19, 7-9pm at St Margaret's Presbyterian Church, Frankton. Free workshop funded by QLDC.


Heritage apple tree grafting with Ben Elms, Saturday September 15, 10am-1pm at the Hawea Food Forest. Cost $50, fundraiser for Hawea Food Forest, take home your own grafted apple tree. Just turn up on the day or text Ben on 0210786-747.

Free Edible Paradise documentary screening at Wanaka library, Thursday September 10 at 5.30pm with Ben Elms hosting a discussion afterwards.

Biochar workshop hosted by Ben Elms with Dennis Enright (NZ Biochar). Saturday September 29, 10am-1pm at 730 Kane Rd, Hawea Flat. Cost $50, fundraiser for Hawea Food Forest. Just turn up on the day or text Ben on 0210786-747.

The Dr Compost project is funded by Queenstown Lakes District Council and delivered by Wanaka Wastebusters to reduce organic waste going into landfills.


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