By Alice Bulmer
On a sunny February afternoon, as strains of festive jazz music drifted across the Hamilton Gardens, a big black hearse pulled up alongside the Sustainable Backyard. A crowd of people watched as men in dark suits carefully unloaded three coffins.
But this wasn’t a mass funeral – it was the grand finale of the Dig Day Out, an event organised by the Hamilton Permaculture Trust as part of the annual Hamilton Gardens Festival. The setting was the Sustainable Backyard, a showcase working permaculture home garden founded by the Hamilton Permaculture Trust. Now in its twelfth year, it’s one of the best-loved features of Hamilton Gardens, with its chickens, bees, worm bins, pond, flourishing garden beds and fruit trees capturing the attention of visitors of all ages. The Sustainable Backyard is unique internationally as a permaculture garden within a public gardens setting, according to researcher Erin Marteal of Cornell University, who spent time in Hamilton last year as part of an international study project.
The theme of this year’s Sustainable Backyard event was “A day in the life of a garden”. It started first thing in the morning, with a hands-on workshop to create new garden beds using double-dig and no-dig methods, led by Cheryl Noble, manager of the Permaculture Trust and Wintec horticulture tutors Beatriz Hardy and Dennis Travaglia. Next up, Dennis was joined by Chris Fairley of the Permaculture Trust (one of the garden’s original founders), for a session on how to look after garden tools. By noon the adobe pizza oven was ready to go and crowds feasted on wood-fired pizza, washed down with herb tea. The smoke from the pizza oven drifted up to the beehive on
top of the pergola, and drowsy bees swirled around the garden as beekeeper Marcia Meehan talked about her favourite creatures and why caring for them is so important. Veteran horticulturalist and organics teacher Peter Downard also focused on caring for insects as well as soil life in his discussion on keeping a garden healthy. When you see insects in your garden, they’re telling you something, he said. A garden is a living, breathing system. “The more we treat our soils as living systems, and the more we learn to listen to what our plants and insects are telling us, the better we do.”
And then it was time for eco-funerals director Philip Woolerton, who arrived complete with hearse and coffins. He told us that most New Zealand funeral businesses are owned by international corporations – so from a permaculture point of view, make sure your undertaker is at least locally owned. Also, according to Philip, New Zealand has a far higher rate of the toxic practice of embalming (90%) than the rest of the world (a mere 3.7%). His three eco-friendly caskets were made of (respectively) recycled cardboard, New Zealand willow, and felted wool – but that one was imported from the UK! “I’ve got my own, would you accept that?” asked an 80-something sitting in the front row. “Not a problem,” replied the unflappable funeral director.