Many people were involved in the development of the Sustainable Backyard, and Bill Featherstone was one such key player. Bill held office of Manager of Parks & Gardens for City Council during the conceptualization, installation and the first 9 years of the Sustainable Backyard. He was also keenly involved in the development of Hamilton Gardens as a whole.
His name was on my list of people to contact when I ran into him at a kumara (sweet potato) planting in the Te Parapara Garden, the first traditional Maori garden in New Zealand. After the plants were in the ground, we sat down over tea to discuss the origins and challenges of the Sustainable Backyard. Bill, having just entered retirement, had a lot to say.
“Three of us came up with plan for Hamilton Gardens in the 1980s, and that plan did not include the Sustainable Backyard. After the Hamilton Gardens concept got momentum, a number of community groups came forth wanting a garden representing their culture or community group, (e.g. the Dutch community here wanted a garden featuring windmill & tulips). A group came forth wanting a permaculture garden. It really had a hard time for a number of reasons. First, there was no design. And we were very protective of maintaining a high standard. For many people, a permaculture garden looked untidy. If it was going to be provided on a voluntary basis, how did you guarantee that there was going to be continuity, not just on a day-to-day basis but for the long-term as well?
There was reluctance on our part to take it on. They were finally admitted because they didn’t ask for anything other than a piece of land. They didn’t ask for any money – they said they’d do the whole lot themselves. They were here on a year-by-year basis and had no security of tenure.
After a while, the Trust showed that they could work here on a regular basis, and more importantly, they were actually running community education days, and that was important to me. If all we had was a small group growing vegetables and eating them – well this was more than that. People were coming to the gardens to learn how to grow their own food and learn the principles of permaculture.
[The Hamilton Permaculture Trust] also said they wanted some more land, in the suburban areas. Their membership waxed and waned like a lot of community organizations. But [Hamilton Permaculture Trust] did have people who were there through thick and thin – who held the philosophy and kept it going.
I said, “Why don’t you stop looking for land, and use the land that everyone’s got. Why not encourage people to use their own garden. If you have 6 people interested you can trade off meeting at their own gardens. But [the Permaculture Trust] was committed to being on public land. They got to the stage where they didn’t have enough committed volunteers that we’d all agreed was appropriate for Hamilton Gardens, so they asked Hamilton Gardens to take responsibility for the maintenance of the garden. (i.e. get money from council so they could pay someone to look after it.) Council did give a grant, but they didn’t have someone whose only job was looking after the garden, so the commitment level of people looking after the garden was not always there. The Trust came back and asked council to take it over. We agreed to, because the garden had proved itself to be of value to the community, largely because of the education capacity, and the national, and international movement.
Permaculture and sustainable backyard gardening is still not a widespread interest, but I believe that it is a sustainable interest. Over the last 5 years, there’s been a remarkable resurgence in an interest in growing vegetables at home. I know nurserymen and they were caught unawares – kept selling out of vegetable seeds! It’s leveled out, but hasn’t dropped below that initial surge.
There’s a parallel in people wanting to plant fruit trees, and there’s a genuine interest in growing varieties that are common when I was a boy. People my age are saying, “Fruit doesn’t taste like it used to taste.” There is a growing number of heritage varieties going into home gardens. I think, if you’re growing vegetables at home, the reality is people won’t save any money, in fact it might cost money. But that’s not the primary motivation. There’s a genuine concern about the use of chemicals in food production. So, permaculture & sustainable backyard gardening is inextricably mixed in with organic gardening. Many people will say they grow vegetables because they know they’ve been grown without chemicals.
Food in New Zealand supermarkets comes from overseas. In mid winter you can buy a plum from California that tastes like plastic though it looks magnificent. A tin of apricots ten years ago was grown in New Zealand. Today it’s grown in South Africa and imported. Many people are concerned about apparent lack of regulation in some of these producer countries. For example there was an enormous reaction to melamine in baby food imported from China. The mindset is, “You can’t trust the food that comes from China.” It’s absolutely irrational, but that’s the mindset. Even my wife said, “let’s go back to growing our own vegetables.”
I don’t know that very many people use the words sustainable or permaculture when they’re gardening at home, or even when they come to these community days, but “organic” and “safe” and “in control of what I ingest” are the motivators for people growing food at home.
If we take a holistic view of health, it’s got to get better. This is an era where people are talking about cocooning. We have more and more homes where fewer people are talking to each other and feeling love and concern. And we have attrition of volunteerism. Community gardening is one example of benefits that go well beyond a parsnip and an apple.
In 1986, we built the Chinese garden, and put enormous effort into authenticity and integrity of design. We reflected and realized that one day we’ll retire, and all this thought is going to be vulnerable to inadvertent change. We came up with landscape design statements that captured design philosophy of each garden. Not to say they’re immutable, but if you make a change you do it wittingly and you know the impact on initial design.
When the Permaculture Trust said, “we want [City Council] to take [the Sustainable Backyard] over.’ We said, “sit down with us and talk about the sustainability, regime for maintenance and preservation for the garden. How do we insure an acceptable standard? We all negotiated a mutually acceptable preservation standard, which became the landscape design statement. My tip for others is to have a written agreement so at least you know where you are.
I recommended to Council they keep the Sustainable Backyard. Peter (Director of Hamilton Gardens) conducts visitor surveys, and one of the questions was, “which garden do you appreciate the most?” There was a significant group of data to suggest that visitors appreciate the Sustainable Backyard, so it was easy for me to make a recommendation that I believed was the right one. Numerically, the evidence was there that people were enjoying the garden. Some people might not be interested in the whole philosophy of garden, but may enjoy a particular aspect of it.
On one occasion, I visited community education day in the Sustainable Backyard, where there was a person talking about keeping bee hives. I was one of a crowd of people who were there and I suspect that many of the people weren’t interested in chickens or water chestnuts, but they were interested in keeping bees. And the Sustainable Backyard garden was an appropriate place to learn about bees. There are many dimensions to the level of interest individuals have in the Sustainable Backyard. I don’t think today any public garden would have any difficulty including a garden of this nature. However, just because it can be done successfully, don’t relax the rigor. The rigor was an important part of the process, because what it did as a pioneering movement, was it showed political people, decision makers that they could meet the tests. And I think the tests slightly modified the actual garden. There were some things that are non-negotiable if you are going to be on public land.
The most worrying part is the council can weed and feed chickens, but we don’t have an education officer in the gardens or public relations person. In the meantime, we’re dependent on people like Cheryl Noble and the Hamilton Permaculture Trust to run those community education days, and they’ve been doing that successfully. One thing about all voluntary organizations, is they depend on 2-3 key people. The vigor of voluntary organizations is only as strong as those 2 or 3 people they have at any particular time.
I didn’t make it easy for [the Hamilton Permaculture Trust] to get the garden.”
Read my previous blog post, Reflections from Permaculture Trust co-founder Adrienne Grant for the Hamilton Permaculture Trust perspective on the same era.
Read a short interview with Bill Featherstone’s on his retirement in the Waikato Times article, “It’s time for Bill to reap rewards.