NZ Gardener Magazine article - March 2009

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Les and Beverley Blackwell

Les Blackwell's heirloom tomatoes are sheltered by a thick hedge of sugar cane.  The wind break was grown from three canes.  "Just lay them flat on the ground and they grow up from the joints," he says.

Should you ever find yourself within shouting distance of Kaitoke Beach on Great Barrier Island, look out for Les and Bev Blackwell. I suggest courting favour with this engaging couple. You'll likely go home with a bag of produce.

Bev grows all manner of herbsFrom the roadside, though, you'd never guess there was a garden at all. But beyond the bush front, a magical arrangement of compartments ("they're here, there and everywhere"), make up this three-quarter acre (0.3ha) garden. And there's no end to the list of crops Bev and Les grow: apples, pears, apricots, feijoas, plums, kiwifruit, citrus, guavas, peaches, persimmons, passionfruit, quinces, avocados, onions (there are 900 plants!), macadamias, heirloom tomatoes, numerous pumpkins and squash, corn, kumara and NZ spinach. Les also grows the sweet-flavoured 'Cupla' squash, which his great uncle Adam Blackwell brought to New Zealand in the late 1800s. "We've had it in our family ever since. It grows into a circle, a three-quarter circle," says Les. "And it has a flavour of its own," adds Bev. "When it's truly ripe it's an orangey colour. You cut it into rings and cook it. We either fry ours or roast them."Tools bequeathed by Les' parents and uncle are used daily

Pumpkins are trained up supportsLes and Bev's family tree makes up part of the history of Great Barrier Island. Bev's great-great-grandparents, the Sandersons, arrived on the Barrier in 1863, whereas the Blackwells (Les' great-grandparents) arrived in 1867. Beekeeping was first started by George Blackwell (Les's great-grandfather), and by the 1890s the island had over 1000 hives. In 1892, silver was discovered at Okupu by the Sandersons.

Wander around the Blackwells' property today and you're treated to delightful anecdotes of family history. Their plants, too, aren't merely productive; each tells a story of the couple's incredibly rich and adventurous life.

A 'Red Haven' peach has its own legend. "A branch fell off my mother's tree," says Les, "and took root. I dug it up and planted it here. I didn't feed it. I didn't do anything with it because peaches love sandy soil." But it grew, and it grew well. 

 

TASTY TUBERS

* Les Blackwell grows several different varieties of Maori potato, most sourced from Koanga Gardens. Pictured above (clockwise from top left) are: 'Paraketia', 'Urenika', 'Pawhero', unknown variety, 'Whataroa' (Old Pink), a Maori lavender variety, 'Karoro' (aka 'Old Yellow') and 'Kowiniwini' (aka 'Old Zebra').

 
* In winter, Les banks the area down with newspaper and cardboard and covers it with a mulch of lawn clippings and sugar cane. By planting time, the worms have munched it all down and what's left is a beautiful soil. 

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