New ‘Food Forest’ for Alexandra Primary School

Alexandra Primary School recently completed a new edible garden and ‘food forest’ one of ten winners in this year’s inaugural Keep New Zealand Beautiful Kai Garden Competition.

The competition gives schools and ECEs from across the country the opportunity to create a small kai or rongoā garden to help their students develop a greater understanding of the natural world and to gain hands-on experience gardening for their school.

The full primary (years 1-8) school recently received a grant from the Ministry of Education to refresh aging buildings, and used this as an opportunity to set aside a much larger space for their kai garden, and to include a larger diversity of plants.

“Our Food Forest concept means we have created a super diverse and sustainable garden system,” says Danielle Dunn, the school’s Garden Club coordinator. “It’s an incredibly rich resource which will serve to expand our tamariki’s learning opportunities and bless our community as the forest layers and canopy matures, and the harvest expands in the years to come.”

“We think creating a Food Forest is very relevant for the times we are living through with climate change and economic pressures making food insecurity more commonplace. Our vision is to create a garden using Food Forest permaculture principles to produce a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables to inspire, connect and share with our community,” says Ms. Dunn.

The Food Forest concept relies on including multiple layers of food producing plants within the system, and as such there’s a wide variety of plants that make up the large 200m2 garden including fruit trees (cherry, peach, apple, pear, fig, walnut and fejoa); berries (raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, strawberry); perrenial vegetables such as asparagus; and annual vegetables (pumpkin, beans, spuds, tomato and carrots). These are supplemented with a range of companion plants including herbs, flowers and medicinal plants with different types of root systems to create a living mulch. The Food Forest is designed to be more resilient against the Central Otago elements than a traditional annual vegetable garden.

“By having a diverse range of crops and many long lasting perennial plants, the big root networks below the ground promotes a diversity of soil life and activity which feeds back into the health of the plants,” says Ms. Dunn. “This is a more sustainable and less labour intensive system than a traditional vegetable garden which is made up of primarily annual crops that are generally pulled out each season.”

The materials selected for the garden edging, planter boxes and archway are durable, and include local schist, macrocarpa, composts made by the school and even offcuts of steel hydro dam powerstation pipe.

2022 was the first year of the Keep New Zealand Beautiful Kai Garden Competition, and over 80 design submissions were made. The competition aimed to benefit students through academic achievement, healthy eating concepts, environmental kaitiakitanga, and building a connection with nature and cultural roots. Ten winning schools were selected to each receive $1,000 to put towards building a garden that beautifies and enhances their grounds, with a further $500 on completion to put towards its ongoing care.

“It has been a huge achievement to literally see the fruits of our mahi,” says Ms. Dunn. “We are excited to now have around 200m2 of kai producing forest and eagerly look forward to the many harvests to come.”

About the Kai Garden Competition

The Keep New Zealand Beautiful Kai Garden Competition encourages students to focus on (kai) edible and/or rongoā (traditional Māori medicinal) plants, and to use sustainable or reclaimed materials where possible. The ten winning designs each receive $1,500* towards building and maintaining an edible garden.

The competition has been designed to work in with the New Zealand School Curriculum, but also aims to provide lessons far beyond simply growing a garden such as teaching children about healthy lifestyles, which crops grow best in different environments, seasonal eating, and returning waste to the earth through composting.

Heather Saunderson, CEO of Keep New Zealand Beautiful says, “the Kai Garden Competition is a great opportunity to teach environmental kaitiakitanga, or stewardship, helping make students responsible and proud caretakers of their little patch.”

The Kai Garden Competition is one of many programmes that makes up Keep New Zealand Beautiful’s strategy, all of which aim to address climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. “We’ve become reliant on vegetables trucked in from far-away destinations, and often shipped or even flown in from overseas to satisfy our demands for out-of-season fruits and vegetables, when a small part of the solution is right there in that vacant plot of garden space,” says Ms Saunderson.

“Educating and encouraging our schools and tamariki to get dug in, quite literally, by growing and harvesting their own nutritious food will have flow-on effects that can only benefit them, their communities and even the planet well into the future.”

Ultimately, the Kai Garden Competition also aims to make the process of hands-on learning fun and accessible. “Gardening can be an enjoyable skill that, once acquired, can be a lifelong hobby,” says Ms Saunderson. “Spending time outside, exploring in the soil, watching seeds sprout, and harvesting the bounty can be enjoyable and memorable ways for students to spend their time.”

More info about our Kai Garden Competition can be found here.

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