South Auckland school Rowandale Primary is one of the latest to boast a Garden to Table programme and thriving living garden in 2017, but it’s been the generosity of one local mum, Alphena Wiperi, that has seen something special take place here. New to gardening herself, she teaches the kids that everyone can learn to grow food.
Article by Philippa Harknett
When I meet Alphena on an overcast Auckland day at Rowandale Primary, I’m immediately struck by her broad smile and instant warmth. Alphena is a parent at the school but she is also the garden specialist for Garden to Table (GTT). She tells me she feels nervous about being interviewed but there’s no sign of it once we start talking about her passion for the garden and the kids.
We walk around the garden and Alphena shows me the overflowing compost bin, the cabbages and kale, the hens and the school pet pig. The Year Four children want me to taste the broccoli flowers, telling me it is the best taste ever!
“When you are proud of something you want it to do well, to be successful, so you give it everything you can,” says Alphena. “I feel this way because I have learnt so much but, even better, I see this in the kids. They are proud of the garden and excited about what they grow from seeds and seedlings.
“I say to the kids ‘Ahakoa iti, he pounamu’; although it is small, it is a treasure. We’ve learnt that to grow seeds into seedlings and then vegetables we need to give the garden a good start and provide the soil with all the nutrients it needs. The children see a tiny seed blossom and grow into something great,” she says.
Rowandale Primary initiated GTT early this year and from the start Alphena wanted to be involved. She has three children at the school and two of them were born with serious health issues while her youngest daughter has global fundamental delay. For many parents the hours these children are at school would be a welcome opportunity to catch up on chores but Alphena says she is lucky because she gets to be with her children at school and at home. “It’s wonderful for me because I’m always there and my children are now thriving.”
Alphena was a reluctant volunteer to the garden at first. She protested that she didn’t know anything about gardening! “I didn’t grow up with a veggie garden, none of my family had any interest in it, and nor did I,” she says. But she agreed anyway and began research into growing veggies.
She spent hours in the library and on the internet teaching herself about basic structures in the garden. She also attended gardening workshops in Hamilton where friends worked “Once you start learning about the garden you want to just run with it straight away but good things take time. There were certainly challenges along the way and there is a lot of trial and error in growing a garden,” she says.
Alphena is incredibly generous with her time and effort, and this extends to her whānau. Establishing the garden took considerable heavy manual labour including digging out existing raised garden beds to allow for new, nutrient rich soil and paths needed to be upgraded. Without hesitation Alphena’s whanau became involved. Her father who works at Firth Concrete arranged for gravel to be delivered, her brothers were there to help with digging and her friends from Hamilton donated plants.
“I think the key to generosity here is remembering that it’s for the children. That’s what motivates me. What better way to pass on this life skill of producing food and understanding the cycle of composting waste and recycling to produce food? I say to anyone helping me that by doing a little bit we have gone a long way to making a difference in these kids’ lives. We have so many children in this school that are disadvantaged and GTT is a wonderful way of giving them something to be proud of,” explains Alphena.
Maddie and Zantara are two Year Four girls working in the garden and they tell me that it’s their favourite class at school. The children were sent home with a seed pack in the holidays and asked to write stories relating to their experience. Since doing GTT, Maddie has started a veggie garden at home. “I think it’s important to produce more food in this country,” she says. “If we could all grow our own potatoes there wouldn’t be any shortages,” she adds.
“The children know now that when a seed sprouts it’s ready to plant and they enjoy being involved in that process and having ownership,” says Alphena. Potatoes were harvested at school after the school holidays. “They started digging and after they found one potato they were so excited. Their hands were filthy but the look on their faces was so rewarding. They couldn’t believe that we had managed to grow several buckets full of potatoes from tiny seed potatoes. They were so happy, ecstatic even.
“And even though harvesting is their favourite activity in the garden, they don’t mind weeding because it’s practical work outside the classroom and they’re learning at the same time. They know that weeds take away precious nutrients and by removing them the veges have more chance of thriving,” she says.
There are more plans to improve production in the garden including installing a watering system which will feed off the water from the tank collecting rainfall. Now that the garden is established and the children are benefiting so much, Alphena says her next step is to get the message out there to the community.
“We have a great community here and I need to put my hand up more to say we need some help,” she says. No doubt with her infectious smile and generosity, she’ll get it.
Words by Philippa Harknett
Photography by Michelle Sokolich
Garden to Table run food education programmes in schools across NZ to teach kids a connection to what they can grow with their own two hands. If you're not already a wonderful 1% supporter of theirs and you're interested in helping them expand to more and more schools in NZ, back them with your 1%!