Low-Impact, Natural Landscaping

Kakariki Streeters live by the beach and we’ve all got gardens. And with gardens and landscaping in mind, fortunately there is an abundance of useful natural materials to be found both on our beach and in the neighborhood.

The issues we face: It’s a real challenge to keep the ground moist and fertile here with some gardens having near 100% sandy soil. Most of us are trying to grow our own edible gardens, so quality soil, mulch and water retention are all incredibly important issues. Wind can also be harsh this close to the coast, both for it’s drying capacity and saltiness.

Buckets of seaweed ready to for the garden and a driftwood edged terraced garden

Landscaping is a relatively big industry in New Zealand with beautiful and exotic materials for sale from all sorts of places. Some of the stuff for sale is mere soil (or degrees of it) and from there up the sky’s the limit for what gets sold to build and decorate your garden oasis.

There are so many products from the highest quality to the low and down right cheap ‘n’ nasty… There are natural logs, stones, huge rocks sold by the kilogram, treated ‘durable’ timber products, and ready made trellis panels, kitset macrocarpa raised bed boxes, metal sculptural objects, and all sorts of contraptions to get plants to climb over. I won’t even start on the garden gnome and astroturf section!

From the most natural to the artificial extreme, every one of these items was made, harvested, mined, manufactured, imported or hauled (in some cases all of the above). It was stored in a yard or warehouse, packaged and redistributed to the outlet you got it from and then, more often than not, driven home by you. Your average garden & landscape store is located in a semi-industrial area far from public transport, not that you’d really be lugging that gorgeous ‘architectural’ boulder home on a bus! So these materials all come with an embodied energy footprint that pretty near always far exceeds anything we care to imagine.

Driftwood fence and driftwood edging -free no-impact landscaping that eventually goes right back into the earth again

Moreover, some items are from untraceable and often illegal sources. Who’d have thought that going down to the garden centre shopping for a nice quality piece of garden furniture (it was even advertised on TV), could wind you up participating in an illegal trade!!??? Next time you’re at any big name outlet I challenge you to ask for real proof of where the product you are about to purchase originates from. I did this once about some wooden deck furniture and was assured by the floor staff that it was all certified timber… the wood in question was kwila.

According to Greenpeace New Zealand: “Virtually all of NZ’s imported kwila is illegal from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, but NZ customs codes and statistics don’t record it separately”.

I asked if they could please convince me of the timber’s legitimate origin with more than a verbal assurance. Did the furniture in question have any type of sustainably harvested certification for example? On this particular day I was dressed nicely and had my polite manners on. I was also genuinely interested in purchasing a table and chairs set, yet I was abruptly asked to leave the store. It came as such a shock after having such a nice and genuine conversation with the staff about buying the furniture. Suddenly they got a bit mean and the store manager (via phone from upstairs) actually asked me to leave! There had been no debate, no raised voices, not even a hint of tension until that moment. However, the question about the kwila, it would appear, was a tad too challenging. I have always wondered since, what did Mr Manager have to hide?

So there’s my little ranting tangent… That was just one product and you could say that at least being made of wood, it will rot and eventually become part of the earth again. This is much less the case for treated timber or plastics.

Parquet garden path... using wood off cuts to great effect.

Time for solutions. Here is a list of locally found things my neighbors and I make great use of… none of these items have the huge embodied energy of their equivalents at landscaping stores, and many of them are waste products. Carting home a log from the beach (even if you’re using an SUV) has a very low footprint compared to anything you can find at the landscape suppliers.

  • Driftwood for making just about anything out of… fences, garden edging, seats, tomato stakes, chicken coop roosting branches, climbing frames for beans… the list is endless really.
  • Seaweed for the most amazing mulch (straight on the garden or buried) and liquid fertilizer (soaked in a bucket of water) more nutritious for plants than pretty much anything you can buy.

    Paekakariki Gold -excellent mulch full of good stuff and it keeps the moisture in the ground

  • Sea wrack, locally known as ‘Paekakariki Gold’. This is a very fine organic debris that washes up on our beach in great piles at certain times of the year. It consists of mainly wood and seaweed and is a really great mulch full of nutrients for the garden. When it arrives, those in the know all hurry down to fill buckets and wheelbarrows with the ‘gold’. It’s a pretty funny sight all those gardeners scurrying back and forth on the beach.
  • Horse manure. One of the local horse owners is more than happy to let us collect as much horse manure from his paddocks as we can wheel barrow home and he’ll even show you where he’s been piling it up and under which bushes to find the most well rotted stuff.
  • Our local arborist gladly delivers truckloads of wood chips from his huge chipper free of charge. This is doubly good if you also get the lawn mowing guy to deliver his grass clippings and mix the two together for making a wicked hot compost.
  • One of the local boys will deliver big bags of sheep poo for $5 each which he gets from under his grandfather’s wool shed just across the main road.

Shells galore, a wonderful no-impact material... many a path in Paekakariki has been made using them.

  • Another really popular offering from the beach is shells. After certain tides, there are great piles of them left exposed and they can be collected almost sand free and used for creating shell paths. I have made a path along the side of our house which is very dark at night. The gleaming white shells make it easy to see your way even when there’s no light on and it keeps the weeds at bay.
  • Coffee grounds from the local cafes. We have made washable cloth ‘rubbish’ bags that fit in the bins that the barristers tap out used coffee into. We collect these bags regularly and add to our gardens as really great composting material. The cafes love it because they save loads on rubbish bags and can feel good about it too.

Rebecca, local deli owner standing next to the coffee waste bin. We collect all the contents for spreading directly on our gardens. It's really high in nitrogen I'm told

  • I also take home the wood ash from our local wood-fired pizzaria to add to my compost.
  • Old carpet can be collected from behind a certain carpet store up in Paraparaumu. They put out stuff they’ve removed from houses for gardeners and tree planters to make use of. It can be used like biodegradable weed mat (you should give it a careful singe test first with a lighter to make sure it’s not the synthetic kind). You can use it to smother weeds and grass and pile compost on top to make raised garden beds relatively dig free… The carpet will eventually rot away and hopefully the weeds will be so long dead and gone by then that they won’t return. I’ve seen carpet laid down in preparation for shell paths too. I personally like to use it for killing off tough grass before I dig the ground for a new garden bed.
  • If you’re lucky you may even have access to fish scraps. We go longline fishing and one of our neighbors also sometimes gives us bags of fish guts from his boat trips. Pretty much any vegetable planted over buried fish scraps will grow incredibly well in my experience -especially corn.
  • Flax leaves: hard to compost and costly to dump, but dried bundles of leaves make excellent fire starters as do cabbage tree leaves. I have been using thin strips of flax leaves for tying my tomatoes up this season and they work a treat. Apparently a single harakeke fiber is many times stronger than an equivalent piece of steel wire. You can also learn how to make really strong thread and rope out of the muka (stripped flax fiber). It’s a bit of a challenge at first, but easy when you get the hang of it and the results are quite beautiful and very versatile.

Kirsty and her woodshed made of recycled pallets. Pallets are free to a good home if you know where to look for them

So there you have it. Next time you are about to build a fence, make a path, mulch your garden, fertilize it, or drive to the hardware/landscaping store for anything, ask yourself first if there’s a better solution right on your doorstep? Betcha there is!

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