Week 5 – White Belt Gardener – Volunteering in Invercargill

I’m in a hire car, driving out of Invercargill and up to one of the small towns in the surrounding area. Invercargill is at the very southern point of the South island and for the first time since I have been in New Zealand, I can notice a chill in the air. This is the first time I’ve not been wearing a short sleeve t-shirt in 5 weeks!

The destination this time around is not from a guide book…..instead I’m tapping an address into my sat nav which is written on a scrap of paper in my hand.

As part of this overall journey, we wanted to do try and do some volunteering work in each country we visited.

There are a few reasons why we wanted this to be part of the overall trip; Apart from generally helping out (a person, organisation, or charity), there is also a chance to speak to people who actually live in the area and get a different perspective from the other travellers and backpackers that you generally encounter in the hostels. The other really appealing thing is that you can make your money stretch a bit further: The volunteering that you do is unpaid, but you will usually get somewhere to sleep and possibly a meal a day in return for the work you are doing…..less expenditure means that I’ll be able to stretch out the trip further (and hopefully visit more gyms :-) ).

In order to find projects and people who are looking for volunteers, we signed up to workaway. A website which links up volunteers with people running the projects and offers the ability to give reviews for future volunteers on what to actually expect when you get there.

We arrive, a woman in her mid 50s meets us with a smile at the car and takes off a gardening glove to shake our hand and greet us – our host. She is a German native, a buddist, and has been living in New Zealand for around 10 years.

Her passion is her Garden……but she describes it as a ‘permaculture’. I had wikipedia’d the term before setting off:

Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.

—Bill Mollison

I look around, there are 3 separate massive gardens, and it all looked like complete chaos to me! Overgrown grass and shrubs everywhere, interlaced with the odd bathtub, wheelbarrow, gardening tool, sheep hide or tyre.

“Would you like the tour?”, our host offers and starts leading us through the long grass.

We walk through the gardens, with our host leading the way. “Here are some fresh strawberries” she plucks from a nearby shrub without missing a step, and passes them back to us while we walk. They are tasty!

“Here is some mint”, as her hand seems to reach into a random patch of overgrown grass and come back out with some mint leaves which she gives us for us to smell. Smells good!

“This plant is indigenous to New Zealand. It is very rare”, she beams, proudly. “It means I also get indigeneous birds here, as they like the plants!”

“This area I leave wild, and that area….and that one”, she points to various areas in the gardens which, to me, can’t be distinguished from the rest of the ‘non-wild’ areas!

“I will keep them, they attract the amphibians! It pleases me to have them here, they are also rare for this area!”

We walk past a bathtub, “I keep the cabbages in here”, she points out, “they need a slightly different soil in order to grow correctly”.

We walk past a set of stacked car tyres…..“They are for potatoes” with no further comment as if it was perfectly obvious why car tyres and potatoes are linked in any possible way.

This continues throughout the walk of the gardens, we walk past plants for food, for flavour, for medicinal purposes, plants native, imported, areas which are wild, and areas which (I’m told) are not.

Our host seems to have complete control over the chaos. She seemed to know every inch of her garden; each plant, the history, the method to grow, and the reason to grow.

Suddenly we stop.

I then realise we are back to the start…..and I only realise this because I can see the top of the car again above the long grass.

“Any questions?” our host asks with a smile.

I look back behind me at the garden, and it was a strange feeling, but it did look like a completely different garden. Some of our host’s passion and knowledge seemed to have seeped in during the tour…..and there now seemed to be slightly more method to the madness.

“What would you like me to do first?” :-)

Views in the Middle of Nowhere

Views in the Middle of Nowhere

Stars in the Middle of nowhere

Stars in the Middle of nowhere

Views from the Caravan

Views from the Caravan

As we’d informed our host before arriving, neither me nor Rach had ever done any gardening work – 7 years of living in flats in cities didn’t really prepare us for this. Our host was ok with this, she’d provide the instruction and the tools and we needed to be willing to get involved and give it a go….that was the deal.

Over the week, I got involved in a number of gardening tasks overseen by our host.

Some of the highlights included:

  • Creating/uncovering paths around the garden with the lawn mower.
  • Clearing a compost heap of long grass with a Sythe…….because ‘Sythe’, that’s why.
  • Some mowing.
  • Moving wheelbarrows full of grass cuttings to compost heaps.
  • Empting the lawn mower every 5 minutes after extensive mowing.
  • Filling up the lawn mower with fuel.
  • Some stylish mowing.
  • Cleaning the lawn mower after use.
  • Adjusting the height of the lawn mower depending on the grass level.
  • Checking the oil levels……of the lawn mower.
  • Some mowing.
  • Sexy mowing.
  • Re-mowing. First cut at a high level and then remow a second time at a lower level.
Compost Area Clearing

Compost Area Clearing

The penultimate day, while we were having breakfast I ask our host, “Shall I mow today?”.

“No, today we will do something different”

I don’t think 7 words have ever sounded so sweet :-)

My new task was to clear the grass around the base of the trees and shrubs in the garden.

Now, and apologies to any gardeners out there if I butcher this explanation, but the reason for this is to do with the root system of the grass surrounding the tree. The grass roots create a sort of ‘carpet’ under the surface of the ground around 1 inch thick.

This ‘carpet’ creates a suffocating affect, preventing the tree from recieving nutrients and moisture of the soil and therefore stifling its development.

So, the task of clearing consists of:

  • Cutting a circle around the tree, which is the diameter of the largest width of the plant, with a spade.
  • Cutting lines within the circle, which end up looking like a bicycle wheel. This eases the task of ripping up the turf from the plant.
  • Ripping up the grass roots layer. Once the turf is up you then have to mash it with a hand-held gardening fork to separate the soil (which is to be left near the tree) with the grass root system (which is to be discarded)
  • Then, checking by hand and clearing any remaining ‘loose’ grass roots from the newly exposed soil…otherwise they can take root and grow again.
The 'Carpet'

The ‘Carpet’

One Shrub Done!

One Shrub Done!

I finish one and ask our host to check. She is lovely, but I’d got the impression she found it difficult to let go of control over the garden tasks – I wanted to double check everything with her at first.

“We need to check for more roots”, she state as she starts pawing through the soil with her hands. “The grass grows back every few weeks anyway but will be faster if there are any strands left”.

“See?”, she pulls a single root from the ground. I look down…and brush the soil…..there are a few strands which reveal themselves with every brush of the hand. I start plucking them out but each time it looked done I would brush a bit deeper and find some more.

‘Where’s that lawn mower again?’, I’m thinking.

I finally finish up the plant after extensive soil analysis.

All in all, this one small shrub took around 20-30 minutes to do properly.

“Am I being slow?” I ask.

“No, we need to do it properly. Around 20 minutes is about the correct time for a tree that size”

“How many trees do you have again?”

“Oh, around 150 I think”


I think this is the moment I realised that I’ll never be a gardener!

There is a lot about this which would seem to suit me on paper:

  • I enjoy putting my mind to something
  • I enjoy getting a job done
  • I enjoy learning new things

However, my brain is silently whispering to me….. “Let’s just do some maths on this, ok?”

  • Let’s say clearing trees was your favourite hobby…..you just loved saving trees and shrubs from the deadly grass.
  • You had the ability to dedicate to your hobby, 3 hours per day, 5 days a week. This is a really generous estimate as with work, social life, BJJ, and other commitments, who really has 3 hours per night to dedicate on a hobby?
  • It takes 20 minutes to clear a tree – again generous estimate as this was one of the smallest trees in the garden.
  • 150 trees at 20 minutes per tree is 3000 minutes or 50 hours. At 3 hours per day, Mon-Fri it would take 17 days – 3.5 weeks.
  • At which point, the first tree you cleared will have had the grass grow back again! “Every few weeks” she had said. It’s a never ending cycle!

You can never beat nature!

Even if I increased efficiency or plugged more hours into the equation, you can work forever into controlling a garden and maintaining it, and maybe you can win on the odd day here and there. But eventually you stop, or you move, or you die…..and the garden will be winning again in less time than it takes to empty a lawn mower.

But this was the difference between me and my German, buddist host: I saw this exercise as a task to be completed. She saw it as an enjoyment and a way to pass the time. I suppose gardening really needs to be left to the gardeners! :-)

In summary, I had a good and interesting time over the week. The conversations while doing the work were probably the most enjoyable…..we spoke about Buddism, Atheism, living in New Zealand, Permaculture, relationships, egos, people….and lawn mowers.

And, before I sign off and drop off some pics on the odd days out around the area when our work was done, here was the most random (and scary) conversation I had during the week:

On the final day, she calls me outside.

          “I have to use the chainsaw now, I need your help.”

“Erm…ok, what would you like me to help with?”

          “You can’t use the chainsaw, you are not trained. But I need you here while I use it.”

“……Ok?……What would you like me to do?” 

          “Just watch me…….and if something goes wrong, stop the bleeding!”

And before I could reply, the goggles came down and the chainsaw started up.

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