07 Sep Veges on the Verge
Di Celliers runs a charity group that gathers excess and windfall fruit, and distributes it to food banks and schools. The resident of Auckland’s Browns Bay – who was a finalist in NZ Gardener’s 2011 Gardener of the Year competition for her fantastic work sharing surplus crops – gathers fruit from lots of gardens including her own. It occurred to her that there was space on the public land outside her home to plant a couple more trees so she planted a lemon tree there. Someone mentioned she might need a consent to do that, so Di inquired at the council how she’d go about getting one.
Di was told that there would be a $1000 nonrefundable deposit for Auckland Transport to consider her application and, what’s more, it would probably be declined. Several reasons why planting fruit trees on roadside berms was discouraged were given, including issues with debris and fruit drop plus vermin being attracted to the windfall. Haphazardly planted street trees could interfere with lines of sight, Di was told, and there might be safety issues if people stopped to gather fruit.
“So I asked what would happen if some community-minded person had already planted a tree,” Di says. “And I was told there would be a $1000 fine plus an extra $50 for every day the tree was in the ground. “I understand you can’t randomly dig where there might be pipes and cables,” she says. “But I think this was a case of bureaucracy gone mad. No one seemed prepared to actually stop and think.”
The strip of land beside the road – the berm, as it seems to be called in Auckland, and the verge, as it seems to be called everywhere else – has been the subject of much debate recently. While it is technically public space, there are different restrictions governing its use in different regions. In Auckland, in particular, berms became a hot topic last year when the council announced that from July it would stop mowing the grass on berms, leaving it to residents to keep the area tidy.
Plenty of people in the City of Sails took the next logical step: if they had to look after the space, then it was theirs to plant what they liked. But it’s not just an Auckland thing. Hilary Johnson has grown veges and bee-friendly flowers in Johnsonville, Wellington for three years and thinks berm-planting is a brilliant idea. “It’s just land sitting there going to waste otherwise,” she says. Margi Mitcalfe in Palmerston North (a runnerup in NZ Gardener’s 2013 Gardener of the Year) worked with her neighbours to establish 37 raised gardens on her street.
There are real reasons why some councils are concerned at this roadside revolution. Utility companies require access to pipes and wiring under the grass on berms, and obviously the position of pipes and wiring needs to be considered before setting to with a shovel. And then there’s the concern that people might plant things that grow too tall, and obscure stop signs or block a driver’s view of the road.
Taranaki gardener Abbie Jury wrote a thoughtful newspaper piece about this issue recently, saying it had a lot to recommend it… in theory. In practise, such gardens might be vandalised and would be used as litterboxes by cats and dogs. Plus they could get unsightly if the instigator lost interest or sold up and crops probably would be snaffled.
But advocates don’t plan on giving up their berm gardens anytime soon. “We haven’t noticed anyone stealing the crops,” says Auckland landscaper Tash Geelen, who’s helped build a garden outside her offices in Ellerslie. “But we don’t mind if they do. We grew them to be stolen! We’re happy to share.”