Food for thought . . . Totara Estate visitor guide and cook Annie Baxter (left) and gardener Alison Albiston are enjoying the fruits of their labour from the vegetable garden created at the estate. PHOTOS: KAYLA HODGE

Totara Estate’s vegetable garden has taken off, adding another layer to the estate’s story and creating a stronger connection to Oamaru, writes Kayla Hodge.

As Totara Estate’s garden grows, so too does its connection to its history and to Oamaru.

In September 2020, Alison Albiston started working at the estate, south of Oamaru, tasked with creating a vegetable garden, adding an abundance of colour and a source of nourishment for the estate.

Mrs Albiston, and husband Bruce, previously lived at Burnside Homestead for more than 40 years, and had a long history with the estate. She wanted to loosely base the estate’s new garden on Burnside’s.

What began as a small patch of grass, overlooking the orchard paddock where the original vegetable garden lay when Totara was a working estate, quickly took shape. Mrs Albiston cut the grass into squares, placed them on top of each other, making a turf wall, and then began designing garden plots.

She decided one big garden would not suit the estate, and separate plots and walkways for people to see the produce were needed.

The edging of the plots were made from old Holmes Wharf decking — the start of the garden’s connection to Oamaru.

‘‘We were very blessed. It’s wonderful they let us take what we needed,’’ Mrs Albiston said.

Carpet underlay from the Waitaki Resource Recovery Park was installed, Downer supplied the woodchips for the pathways, and then Mrs Albiston started planting.

Having established seedlings at home, Mrs Albiston got to work, starting with beans, corn, lettuces, and rhubarb. Companion planting was important, and Mrs Albiston placed onion, leaks and spring onions to form a border around carrots helping them come to life and add a ‘‘wow factor’’.

Abundance . . . Totara Estate’s vegetable garden has been steadily growing for the past few years. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

The berries took off, large patches of beetroot and zucchinis were added, and kale and pumpkins too.

Kale was a largely unknown vegetable but in a garden like the estate’s it looked ‘‘spectacular’’. Pumpkins were similar, they were not grown to eat, but added to the garden’s ambience.

‘‘We grow these pumpkins which are very showy, and they grow enormous, they’re just a fun thing,’’ she said.

‘‘I always think a garden should be pleasing for the eye and create interest.’’

Rotating the vegetables in each plot between seasons had become second nature to Mrs Albiston, as the nutrients needed above the ground and under the ground was different for each vegetable.

People questioned why flowers were planted in a vegetable garden but Mrs Albiston said nasturtiums gave the garden colour and paired well with vegetables that needed pollination.

‘‘They attract the bees. Pumpkins really need to be pollinated and if they don’t get pollinated they’re not going to set.’’

Herbs also helped deter insects and added a splash of colour.

Every space was utilised — pineapple sage was growing along the fence to create a hedge, small lettuces were growing in wheelbarrows and parsley was growing from tree trunks.

Onions and corn were plaited, hanging in the estate’s tea room.

Town to Totara . . . Totara Estate gardener Alison Albiston leans on a vege plot, the edging of which is created from old Holmes Wharf decking.

All the garden’s produce was used in meals by Totara Estate visitor guide and cook Annie Baxter for people to enjoy, expanding the garden’s reach further.

The garden’s growth in the first season took Mrs Albiston by surprise and the second season was no different so far.

‘‘I didn’t expect that. I thought it won’t have had a lot of nutrients put in it, it’d only grown grass.

‘‘Some people say a garden takes a while to break it in and I’m still breaking it in — it’s only the second season.’’

Her secret to a flourishing garden was simple — compost. She bought pallets from the Waitaki Resource Recovery Park and made three compost bins to be used during different seasons.

Recently, she collected seaweed from All Day Bay — connecting the estate to Kakanui — and added it to the compost. It was also used in liquid form to promote plant growth.

‘‘The garden has to be fed. It’s like humans — we’d shrivel up if we didn’t have food and water.

‘‘Learning how to compost, for me it’s all part of recycling and learning to manage your own rubbish — there’s no reason why people can’t.’’

All the garden waste was used in the worm farm on site.

At the back of the garden, behind a wash shed, a new garden is also starting to take shape. Heritage potatoes and pumpkins had been planted and there were plans to extend it, including adding fruit trees.

The garden was also a place of knowledge. School groups visited the site, to learn how a garden came to life.

‘‘It’s lovely to encourage them because I feel that generation is probably going to take a lot more interest in gardening than probably their parents have. I feel extremely privileged,’’ Mrs Albiston said.

She felt at home gardening in traditional attire — she wore the same pieces at Burnside — and it gave her a deeper appreciation for her work.

‘‘It makes you think about what life was like for people back then. It would have been a lot harder to work back then they wouldn’t have had the water on hand the way we had,’’

The experience of bringing the garden to life had been magical, she said.

‘‘I thought if I do something like this maybe it can encourage other people and it’s quite satisfying not to be just doing it for yourself and of course I just love being outside.’’

Her focus now was preparing the garden to be put to bed for winter and planting vegetables Ms Baxter would be using in the future.

Growing . . . Every space of the Totara garden has been well utilised. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

Ms Baxter said she loved creating different flavour combinations from the produce — such as chocolate and beetroot cake, and parsnip and orange and rhubarb and ginger cakes.

‘‘I try and use as much as I can for our tea time specials. . . so we’ve got another story happening, another layer,’’ Ms Baxter said.

The garden became the ‘‘end to the story’’ for the estate. It finished people’s walk around the grounds, and brought the estate full circle.

‘‘It’s also going back to what Totara’s all about — workers, feeding, food — and then bringing it a little bit into the modern world as well.’’

The Waitaki Menz Shed was making a garden tool shed, and the garden had attracted several people to visit the estate for the first time, despite living in Waitaki for 70 years, she said.

‘‘It brings in different layers of our community, so it becomes sort of a community garden in a way because the people that have helped here.

‘‘It’s the tiny little links which keep the story ticking over.’’