No-dig Noel

Don’t fancy digging, or aren’t able to, yet want a vege garden? Noel Peterson, who for many years gardened at the Envirohub at Tauranga’s Historic Village, may have the answer, something he discovered after an injury left him unable to dig his garden for almost three years.

“I thought there must be a way to grow things and on the internet found a video about American woman Ruth Stout [1884-1980] – basically she put mulch down and threw seeds on top,” he says.

“Imagine a giant with a huge shovel turning over the sod. It would throw it into utter chaos and take a long time to establish the natural systems again. What we destroy in a day by digging over takes years to regain its normality.”

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Noel Peterson, pictured in 2014, in the Envirohub garden with a natural hybrid between a long marrow and a squash. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Seeing a trailer of lawn clippings across the street from his Greerton home, Noel asked if he could have them. “I spread them in circles, left them for a couple of weeks, made a hole in the centre of each one, put in a handful of compost and planted a tomato. I had 300kg of fruit off my front lawn that season.”

His “wall-to-wall” tomatoes the following year raised the ire of neighbours, he said, “but who wants mown lawns, concrete, roses and sprayed edges – a desert? And council officers have been very supportive of me.”

He started an organic garden at the Envirohub building in 2010 and 4 years later also had a couple of large vege patches, a composting system, worm farms and a seed bank – named Mahinga Kai (to work in the garden), his patch was designed to be a teaching tool.

The site at the bottom of a bluff was very wet so Noel started putting fresh grass clippings on to both build it up and in an attempt to control the kikuyu grass, a 2-year process.

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Noel’s black gold – compost. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Noel learned how to make compost in the 1970s from Douglas Kaye, then in his 80s, who lived in 17th Ave. “He’d been making compost for more than 50 years and [in 1941] was a founding member of the Soil & Health Association in Auckland with Dove-Myer Robinson.

“He told me to be there at 6’oclock the next morning and to bring my boots. We were going to turn the compost. After a month of working there, he let me sit on the step and have tea with him – he said I was the first person who didn’t want something for nothing.

“I wasn’t being particularly successful using superphosphate and potash and Doug had a fantastic vege garden so I wanted to know more. He told me you’ve got to save every bit of organic matter and put it back in the soil – within a year we get a 75mm layer of compost from 150mm to 200mm of grass clippings.

“By using mulch you’re sequestering carbon and not disturbing that vital topsoil layer where all the biological activity is. Rich soils aren’t made by taking and taking from them.”

Any weeds that come up through the mulch are stamped down and Noel occasionally adds magnesium (Epsom salts), a trace mineral that’s lacking in our volcanic soils, and every 2 or 3 years lime to bolster winter crops and tomatoes.

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Beans still fruiting well in March. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Noel recommends worm farm leachate as a ‘surprisingly good’ fertiliser and uses a ‘tiny amount’ of sulphate of potash when planting out seedlings.

Large-scale composting does, he admits, have its downsides, particularly the flies it attracts in hot weather. “I have heard the dressing it with lime will suppress the flies,” he says. “Rats, mice and hedgehogs will overwinter in the piles, but it’s not particularly a problem – it’s all part of the ecosystem. We all depend on one another, we shouldn’t see ourselves as being above anything else on this planet.”

He noticed that kale tends to attract whitefly so uses it as a sacrificial crop in summer when it’s too bitter to eat. The seed heads also attract goldfinches.

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Parsley seed being saved for next year. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Noel, who stood unsuccessfully for Tauranga’s mayoralty in 2016, was a lifelong resident of the city, living next door to the Greerton house he grew up in, until 2017 when he headed to Bluff.

“My mother was from St Pancras in London and had no gardening knowledge, but she tried hard and encouraged me – I had my first garden as a 3-year-old growing Brompton stocks.”

His love of natural history has lasted throughout his life, sometimes under difficult circumstances. “I used to bike to Mt Maunganui and collect marine specimens almost daily for 2 years, looking through the trawler nets at the wharf.” But because he was continually truant, at the age of 14 Noel was taken to a welfare home – he was later found to have an IQ of 186.

Noel left school at 15, working for Eric Jones at his Longview Orchard, now part of suburban Bethlehem, before moving to Wellington for 7 years and a “dream job” of collecting for the national museum.

Returning to Tauranga with a young family, Noel “stepped back” into horticulture and in the 1970s also taught at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, as well as living for 15 years at what is now Sydenham Botanic Park, working with horticulture cadets and the property’s manager Avon Moorhouse, and finally working for 25 years for the IHC.

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